Lai [A Short Story]

January 12, 2011
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There was a cool breeze coming off of the ocean as the sun started to set, shooting off color variations of red and yellow into the wide, open sky. The line of boutiques and restaurants facing the Pacific were beginning to turn on their lights. Surfers began to paddle in, their hair wet and sticking to their faces, as another day came to a close.

The waves rolled in, engulfing my toes and feet. I watched as the families around me began to round up their toddlers who were screeching with delight as they stood in the sand near the water slithering up to them, and back, a never-ending cycle. Their babies were fast asleep in the safety of their father’s arms, their mouths making a perfect “o”. There was one group of teenagers, huddled around an empty fire pit and fast food without a care in the world as another late night of summer began.
As the water crawled up to my ankles, I decided to leave, not wanting to get my clothes wet. Picking up my flip flops, I looked over at the boardwalk and was amazed at what I saw. Despite the number of times I had stayed on this beach until night darkened it, the lights and movements of the fair on the boardwalk never ceased to amaze me. They always made me stop and stare. From the sea, the bright colors of the city glittered against the water, lighting up the whole sky. The screams of the riders on the roller coaster, children giggling, and the music of the merry-go-round could all be heard up and down the beach and blocks away.

Then I turned, and started my trek home.

When I woke up the next morning, the sunlight was streaming through the large, open windows in my room. My head felt as though someone had taken it at some point of the night and played soccer with it.

Just as I was about to fall asleep again, there was a hard, fast knock on my bedroom door. I looked over at my clock – 9:08 – and slowly got up to open it. Halfway there, the door opened and a familiar face stuck its head in the room.


He swung open the door, careful to avoid my hitting it as I ran over to him, and embraced me.

“You’re so big!”

“Dad, it’s only been two weeks!”

We pulled back and he gave me that smile of his. The smile I had seen countless times over the last 18 years. Even when everything else changed, his smile was consistent. It was the smile I had gotten after all my performances and ceremonies; the ones he missed and the ones he was in the front row for. I knew he would always be there for me, with a hug and a smile, waiting.

“How was Italy?!” I asked, dying to know about the country I dreamed of living in one day.

He told me all about his trip as we walked downstairs and onto the west terrace to eat breakfast. He motioned vividly to the ocean that we looked out at, pretending it was the Mediterranean Sea.

As he began to describe the ruins of Pompeii, his phone rang. His hand involuntarily moved to his coat pocket, and he glanced at me sympathetically, giving me his smile. As he walked away, phone already to his ear, I could hear him greet whoever was on the other line in the tone that he used only for work.

I sat back in the wire seat, pushing forward my half full plate, and setting my hands in my lap. Just then, Rozella, my stepmother as of two weeks, came out from the house and into the midmorning light, a white robe tied around her. She sat down in the chair next to mine and we both smiled.
Luckily, my father didn’t marry someone who could be a friend of mine. Instead, he married someone his own age. When I had told my friends about my father dating Rozella six months ago, they automatically thought she was a couple years older than us and just hanging around my father for his money. But she wasn’t.

Rozella is sweeter than my own mother, caring for me in the last six months more than my mother did in my first years. She had grown up in a rough part of Chicago, after her mother left when she was four. So she understood how it was to be close to her father. She went on to be a model in New York City, but walked away after 15 years, considering it the worst industry there is. She took the money she had been saving up for an apartment, with a view to die for, in New York City and bought herself a plane ticket to California and a beat-up house in the countryside. That’s when she met my father, an owner of a successful home remodeling business. They dated for two months and were married four months after that. They then spent the last two weeks exploring Italy together.

I call it a fairy tale. They call it fate. Either way, the last six months have been wonderful for my father and me. We now have a nearly complete home in the country, in addition to the house my father and I have lived in for the last eight years that backs up to the water.

As my father came back out, he smiled at Roze and I.

“Ah, my two favorite girls.” We both looked at him and smiled as he came around to hug us both. After giving us each a kiss on our foreheads, he went back to his seat. When I caught a glimpse of him and Roze glancing at each other lovingly, it made me realize just how blessed I was.

That night, the three of us went out to dinner in honor of their return home. The restaurant was one that my father and I had been going to for years for celebrations, birthdays, and every weekend in between. Everyone there knew us by name, and some even attended the wedding.

“The Ashley family! How was the honeymoon?” Charles had always been our favorite, always making sure that everyone knew just how happy a guy he was. Even though we had seen him in that same spot, in that same outfit, countless times, he always greeted us with the same enthusiasm.

“It was wonderful, Charles, we wish you could’ve been there.”

“I do too, Tim. Next vacation, all right?”
Charles somehow managed to talk, keeping eye contact with each of us, while weaving his way through the crowded place. He took us to our regular seats with a view of the ocean on the roof patio.
Throughout the night, waiters who had tables on the bottom floor came up to us – squatting down by the table and dodging trays of food and drinks – to hear how the honeymoon went. They laughed at the same parts each time, their eyes lighting up. Our dessert had just been served when I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around, no one was there. I heard a laugh from the other side, and turned to see Leo leaning over, laughing, and trying to avoid my seeing him. As I jumped up from my chair to hug him, it clattered to the ground, causing everyone nearby to look.
“Leo!” I knew I was being loud, but I couldn’t focus on my volume at that point.
“Lucy!” I could hear the smile in his voice as he said my name, laughing at my enthusiasm.
As I pulled back, I looked at him, not really believing it was him. In the flesh. His wasn’t just one I was looking at in a picture, it was a foot away from me on a crowded patio covered in beautiful lights, three stories above the California soil. I hugged him again, breathing in the scent of him. A scent that I would always keep with me, locked away in a crevice of my brain for the days when he wasn’t around. We sat down, with a grin on my face that would not fade.
“Why are you here? I mean, aren’t you supposed to be in Florida? What happened?”
He laughed at my reaction and replied,
“I am supposed to be in Florida. But a hurricane was heading that way, so they canceled the shows we had there. Instead, they flew us back here for a short break.”
“So how long are you here?”
“I have to fly back out Thursday afternoon.” This meant I only had two and a half days with him until he’d be back on the road. I was bummed to think he’d be gone in just three days, but excited to think of all the things we could do before then. He had made sure to be here for my dad’s wedding two weeks ago, but I still missed him. Having a musician for a boyfriend was more difficult than people thought. He held my hand, bringing my eyes back to his, causing me to smile as I always seemed to do when around him.
“It will all be over in just three more weeks. Then we can go off to college and not have to worry about any of this.” I smiled at his words of encouragement, so glad that he always knew just what to say to make my pessimistic side fade away.

That night, I went to bed a lot happier than I was when I had first awakened that morning. Not only were my dad and new stepmother back home from their European honeymoon, but my boyfriend was just a couple of houses away, instead of over 2,700 miles, while on a short break from his tour as a rising musician.

I slept so well that night, that I even missed a phone call from my mother. When I woke up, I listened to the voicemail she left:
“Hello, Lucille, just thought I would let you know that I’m going to be in town today, and I need to meet up with you to discuss some things about your . . boyfriend and future. Dave and the boys will be with me, so don’t bring your father. See you at the boardwalk at 2pm.”
My mother was so typical. She was the only person I knew that was capable of causing my mood to fluctuate in such a short amount of time. Of course she would want me to drop everything I had planned to do with Leo just to meet with her. And knowing my mother, she would probably be telling me things such as “your boyfriend has no future,” or “he’s a musician, he’ll cheat on you the second you get married,” or “he’s not going to be financially stable.” What did she know about Leo and his future? She had never seen him, besides the interviews she saw on TV. And of course she would brag to all her friends Leo was her daughter’s boyfriend. Yet she doesn’t even think we will last. What did she know about our relationship and what Leo would and wouldn’t do? Only she would care about the financial aspect of it all.
Sickened at the thought of seeing her, I was fuming as I put on a tank top and shorts – the typical California garb. I walked out of the house, and onto the beach, heading in the direction of Leo’s house. Living just down the beach from Leo was nice when wanting to see him, but crucial at a moment like this.
I had known the Ingram family ever since we had moved here eight years ago. The couple adopted Leo two years after that when he was 12. It has always been obvious how much they love their son. They have always been there for my dad and I when he would need someone to come over and watch me and cook me a meal or something, because that’s just the kind of family they are. And over the years, it was just kind of known that Leo and I would be together.
On that cool, California morning, the Ingrams were out back eating breakfast when I collapsed into the cold sand just a hundred years from the steps that led to their back porch. I could hear the pounding of Leo’s feet rushing towards me, his years in track during high school paying off.
When he lifted my head onto his shoulder and all I could say was something about my “evil mother.” He understood and let me sob into his fresh shirt.

Leo and I sat on a wooden bench just outside the boardwalk fair at 1:55, the sticky ice cream running down our hands as we quickly tried to finish them with the sun beating down on us.
“I wonder what she wants,” I said, glancing over at him.
“I dunno, maybe she wants to tell you she’s sorry.”
“For what? Leaving my father and I with nothing 14 years ago? For remarrying a man without telling us? For having four sons, all of which she doesn’t care at all about? If so, then why now? Why right after my dad finally marries the love of his life? Why during this week that you have off? Why would she even want to say sorry? She obviously doesn’t care about me.”
“Does it really matter to you how she feels about you? This shouldn’t take long. Don’t let it ruin this week.” I looked over at him, doubtful. “How about this, you keep your cool with your mom and stepfather and brothers, and then we can do whatever you want for the rest of eternity. Does that sound good?”
I knew he was right. I really shouldn’t let this meeting put a damper on our days together. Leo looked over at me and smiled, sliding his arm around my shoulders. As I leaned my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes, I sighed deeply, perfectly content with the cold cream that was causing my whole hand to be sticky, the warm arm that I nestled my neck against, and the feeling of Leo doodling meaninglessly on my shoulder.

The next two days were the best of my life. Leo and I hung out at the fair way longer than one should, and he won me many large, overstuffed animals from the overpriced games. We experienced many fan encounters, all around 12 years old and claiming to be his biggest fan. The ice cream shop loved us after we bought one ice cream after another. We spent countless hours surfing in the mid-July sun, falling and getting back up again, then going to get more ice cream. It wasn’t surprising when our hands became pruny after hours in the water, paddling away.
The meeting with my mother on that hot afternoon went horribly. Dave and their four sons all looked nearly identical, a result of being puppets for my mother and her games. She didn’t refrain herself from saying that Leo and I would never last. I so badly wanted to yell back at her – tell her that she was wrong. Leo and I would be together forever. Luckily Leo was strong, and despite my many self-defense classes, he kept me right by his side as we took a long walk on the beach, stopping me from hunting down my mother and ripping her apart with my words. Later, he let me cry into his shirt again, then joked that I was going to need to buy him some more shirts if I kept it up.
That Thursday night, after crying as Leo boarded the plane to finish his tour, my dad, Roze, and I went out to stay at our house in the countryside for the weekend. I loved this house with its large, open family room. The wooden beams and large chandeliers caused every word spoken in the room to be repeated a hundred times as it bounced all about.
I even had my own room here, up the stairs in the foyer and to the right, which is where I was, eating a bowl of cotton candy ice cream and watching one of my favorite movies with Roze when my phone rang. A picture of Mrs. Ingram during a dinner out months ago came up on the screen, her name above it, letting me know that she was calling me. I figured she wanted to make dinner plans or tell me I had left something at their house during one of my many short visits there this week, but her jagged breath and stuttering alarmed me. She told me the plane had crashed. Everyone had survived – besides Leo. He died when he didn’t get his oxygen mask on in time because he was helping a little girl next to him with hers. The very thing you’re instructed not to do when oxygen masks are deployed; yet Leo did, because he was always trying to save everyone before himself.
Roze drove me back that night, and I stayed curled up in his bed, my whole body numb from the shock that he was gone. I only got up for the funeral, where hundreds of people showed to support the Ingrams at the loss of the son they only knew for six years.
Along with his body, the airport shipped his salvaged belongings from the crash site to the Ingrams, which included his diary. His mother insisted that I read it – something she thought he would want me to do. As I read it, I realized that he had been orchestrating a plan to propose during a surprise show on the boardwalk before we left for college.
I didn’t go to college that fall, but instead stayed behind a year, wearing the ring that he had already bought and tucked away in the depths of his closet on my left hand, where it should have been to begin with. In the inner band of the ring, he had engraved “L.A.I. & L.I.A. forever”.
A year after that horrible Thursday night, Roze had a beautiful baby girl. In honor of Leo, she named her Lai. Lai was the most beautiful baby ever. And oddly enough, her eyes were the same, soft blue color that Leo had.

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