The boy, of course, hadn’t done anything.
She knew what it was, didn’t she, to be stuck in the middle? To be caught between people you loved and
forced to sever ties without any choice of your own? To be shunned because of where you came from?
The boy didn’t love her. She hadn’t deluded herself into believing such disappointing ideas. More often than
not, he didn’t even know who she was.
She still knew who he was, even if she didn’t love him either. No one would know if she walked, no one but her.
She huffed and made a sharp detour away from the door.
I hadn’t expected to see him, she comforted as she went to the rug on the center of the cold tiled floor,
toeing off her shoes at the edge of it. This just caught me off guard.
She couldn’t know how regal she looked, sinking onto the floor beside him, but her voice was warm when
she spoke. “Hi, sweetie. Remember me?” When he didn’t answer, his brow scrunching with the effort it took to
remember her with his deep brown eyes narrowing on her face, her smile didn’t dim. “It’s Alina didi. Remember?”
His pale skin smoothed as he nodded. His face had gotten longer since the last time she’d seen him, lost
some of the baby fat. “Yeah.”
“How are you doing? Are you okay?”
She frowned in disapproval at the half bagel he held, the butter and jelly squeezing out from between the
slices. It was no snack for a young boy. But the budget was low, and the attendance high. She knew the flaws of
the society as well as she knew the perks. It was the price of being so incredibly involved with everything.
Just, she had to admit, as she knew the kids would appreciate this much more than anything even remotely
healthy or culturally enlightening.
Why was she sitting here? She didn’t understand kids.
“Is it any good?”
He nodded, taking a small bite as his eyes never left hers. “Cold, but yeah.”
“Well, you’ll have a nice hot dinner with me tonight. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Okay.” He gave her a brief, one-armed hug, and her hand was light when she ruffled his hair before getting
back to her feet.
“Have fun!” Knowing the encounter had made her an additional several minutes late, she hurried out of the
furnished basement up the stairs after slipping her shoes back on, her long flowing skirt billowing around her legs
“Don’t you make a picture?”
Alina brushed her dark, tumbling hair away from her face as she looked up at Adrian. “Oh, hi. Did you find a
“Right out front. Figured I’d step in and see what was keeping you. You look great.”
“Hm? Oh, thanks.” She stopped, compartmentalizing, before studying his dark suit, dark blue shirt. Her
fingers thoughtlessly went to straighten his silver and blue striped tie. They had ended up unintentionally matching.
Because he knew her, and knew her well, his fingers caught her chin so he could study her face. Her clear
hazel eyes were shadowed. “What is it?”
“Most of us are,” she said lightly, moving out of his grip.
“Us? You mean beautiful women? I’m aware. Hey, Alina, no one will penalize us for being a little late.”
“You know I like being punctual.” He knew much more, she thought with a quiet sigh. And she knew just
how pushy he could be.
“Sure I do. And you know I hate seeing you upset.”
Her lips curved. “Where did I find you?”
Adrian thoughtlessly reached out to play with a strand of her hair. “Manhattan. Are you done avoiding the
“No. Yes.” She sighed. “I thought I could avoid it, since I don’t teach Sunday school anymore. But they
needed me and—can we walk and talk, please?”
He simply took her hand and began walking outside with her. “You were saying?”
“Can I drive?”
He just barely held back a wince, handing her the keys with the briefest hesitation.
“I won’t crash her, you know.”
“I know, but…” He shook his head, holding the door open for her.
She slid in, closing her eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath. Then he was getting in the car, and she
knew it was time to begin again. “They needed me, just for an hour, so I came. They knew I’d have to leave early.”
“Did they complain about it anyway?”
“What? Oh, no. Not at all. Uhm, I saw Zach as I was leaving.”
“Ah.” He placed his hand on her knee, rubbed lightly. “You okay?”
“Sure. I spoke to him before leaving.”
“Then why do you still look sad?”
“Because for a moment there, I didn’t want to.”
“Uh-huh… Ali, where are you going? We need to go east,” Adrian said as she got onto the LIE. He could see
the mall out of his window as they started towards Long Island.
“Yeah, well, we’re just going to go the long the way to the city.”
He didn’t bother pointing out how inadequate the excuse was as there was no way into the city in this
direction. Instead, he pushed his seat back several inches so he could stretch his legs and got comfortable. She’d
continue when she was ready to.
She was stewing. Adrian was of the brooding sort, silent and pensive and thoughtful. She wasn’t half as
productive when upset. She often turned to anger as comfort, and not the simple kind either. She’d let it stew and
simmer until it built to a steady rage, then she’d lash out at whatever she could.
Since Adrian knew it, and he was the helpful type, his voice was cheery when he spoke. “I don’t think your
yoga classes are working.”
“Really. Aren’t they supposed to calm—”
“I didn’t hear you complaining about my damn yoga classes last night,” she snapped, pleased when she saw
the numbers on the speedometer rise. She was pushing sixty, a rarity even on the freeway in New York. And
Adrian’s car was a beaut. Sleek, silver, and a convertible, it practically asked for a ticket.
The air whistled out from between his teeth. “No, no you didn’t. You shouldn’t ever stop going to those
Dammit, was she supposed to stay upset when he kept making her smile? “I’m sorry, Adrian. Do you think
we’ll make the reservation?”
“We’ll go somewhere else if we don’t.”
She slanted a look towards him. “I’m really lucky you’re not more like me.”
He knew why, but couldn’t help but prod at her anyway. “Why’s that?”
“Third date,” she said sentimentally. “I kept freaking out about how we couldn’t just not show up for the
“You were pretty annoying, especially when I was only trying to get you to your favorite restaurant.”
She laughed now, and the remaining tension eased from between her shoulder blades. “I still stand by it.”
“I’m sure you do, even though it’s absurd.” Since he could tell she was relaxing, he touched her shoulder,
massaged the muscles there. “Are you going to slow down?”
“I’m only going at fifty,” she muttered, glancing into the rear view mirror before getting onto the exit lane.
He sighed quietly as he recognized the surroundings. Should’ve figured.
She pulled up in front of the corner house, peering at the dark bricks, the large casement windows. “I need
He caught her hand before she could slip out of the car. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“You still gonna go through with it?”
“Can I talk you out of it?”
“No.” She hesitated. “But you can come with me.”
He knew what it took her to even offer, so instead of bothering with the words he knew would get him
nothing, he followed her up the path to the front door.
There had been a time when she could have strolled in without any prior notice, let herself in with the key
that she still had dangling on her keychain. Those days were gone, she knew, and for a single moment, the
sentiment squeezed around her heart. But she shook her head, brushing it off, and rang the doorbell.
The door opened to show a woman in her late thirties with the same dark hazel eyes as Alina, the same
shape with the same long lashes framing them. The eyebrows had the same arch, the skin the same olive tone.
“Hi, Farah chachi.”
“Alina, what are you doing here? You could’ve just used your key.” They both knew there was no truth to the
words. “Come in. Who’s this?”
“This is… well, this is my fiancé. Adrian, my aunt, Farah,” she introduced simply, sitting on the sofa beside
He felt her tremble beside him and took a deep breath. Dragging her out of there, he knew, would earn him
nothing but an earful.
“Oh, I hadn’t—” Farah cut herself off. Of course she hadn’t heard. There had been a divide between them for
months. “Congratulations. I see you’ve taken after me.”
“Because I’m marrying a white boy?”
Adrian knew better than to laugh. Laughter at such a moment would be disastrous.
“I just meant—do you want anything? We actually went to Jackson Heights earlier and picked up some
“Do they have peas?”
Farah relaxed, laughing. “Still hate peas.”
“I’m 26. Too late for me to change now.”
“And you still sound like me, too. You were right, by the way. The place was full of hipsters. When’s the
“Early September,” Adrian answered, taking Alina’s stiff hand.
“I have to say, I didn’t see you getting married.”
“I was coerced into in,” Alina said dryly, rolling her eyes when Adrian nudged her. “You can elbow me all you
want—I was very vocal about my opinion on marriage until you came along.”
“You weren’t against it,” Farah said casually, crossing her legs in a manner that mirrored her niece’s. “You
just didn’t know if it was for you.”
She hid her surprise with ease. She’d never expected Farah to remember. “We’re taking it a day at a time
and seeing how it goes. I saw Zach.”
Ah, Farah thought. That explained her sudden visit. “Oh?”
“What did they have for snack? I hope not chicken nuggets again.”
“You must’ve loved that. You still go for that whole breakfast-at-every-meal thing?”
“Sure, but we all know I prefer the freshly baked ones.” Her hand subconsciously tightened around Adrian’s.
“He didn’t remember me.”
Farah wondered how to phrase it delicately. “He hasn’t really seen you often enough. He’s only five.”
“I know, but—” She sighed, shook her head. “I just wanted to see if you were coming to dinner tonight.”
“Of course I am. It is your birthday.” And therefore Farah’s only excuse to see her. She wasn’t sure if she
wanted to see Alina otherwise, wasn’t sure if she would be welcomed otherwise.
“Yes, it is,” Alina murmured quietly, looking down at her and Adrian’s hand.
And still she hadn’t been wished, Adrian thought, soothingly rubbing her knuckles with his thumb.
She shook her head and continued. “Okay. Okay, uhm, good. That’s… great. Yeah, I mentioned it to Zach
so… I’ll see you then.”
She nodded stiffly, forced her voice to be light. “All right. You sure you don’t want anything? I can make you
a cup of coffee.”
“I’ve already had two today. Any more and I’ll get jittery,” she said simply, getting to her feet and smoothing
down her skirt.
“Next time, then,” she said easily, knowing there wouldn’t be a next time.
“And Alina? Happy birthday.”
She was much too gracious to point out it was about damn time. “Thank you.”
Adrian placed a hand on the small of her back as much to calm her as to keep her from bolting. “It was a
“Absolutely. Congrats, again.”
“Thank you. I look forward to seeing you and the family tonight.”
“Likewise.” Farah walked them to the door, waved at them from the threshold. When they drove away, she
only stood there for a moment, leaning against the doorjamb, before stepping back inside.
In the car, Alina ran a tense hand through her hair, sighing. The instinctive burst of emotion that had driven
her here had died away, leaving her merely tired and nothing else. She could’ve asked Adrian to go home, told him
she wasn’t up for lunch. But she knew he’d put effort into it, knew he’d only bothered for her. So she sucked it up,
made her lips curve into a somewhat forced smile. “Where are we going?”
He looked away from the road for a second, just so he could glance at the woman beside him. “Don’t worry
about it. It was a bit more interesting this time, since I was allowed to go in.”
She laughed, placing her hand on his thigh. “You weren’t… not allowed inside the last time.”
“You made me wait in the car,” he reminded her, his own lips twitching.
“We were only dating then. I didn’t want to suck you into family drama until I’d completely reeled you in.”
“Reeled me in?” he repeated, unable to keep the laughter out of his voice.
“Sure. It was all just an elaborate ploy.”
“Well, aren’t you just a genius?” He hesitated, wondering where to start. “Farah said you weren’t—aren’t—
“I thought you didn’t believe in the institution of it.”
“Sure I do. Just never believed it was for me.” She maneuvered around until she could cross her legs. “I’m a
selfish creature by habit, Adrian. Marriage requires compromise.”
“Damn. Wish I’d known it before I’d bought the rock.”
The sound of their joined laughter relaxed Alina, shoved the oncoming headache away. “And a fine rock it is.
Why don’t you ask me what you want to, Adrian? You’ve never dawdled before.”
“It’s your birthday. I don’t want to ruin the mood.”
“You can’t. If the day were going to suck, it would’ve started when I dragged us to Long Island. Or—hold on.
Hi, mom,” she greeted when she answered the phone.
“Hey, I just bought your birthday present. You’ll love it!”
“I’m sure I will,” she said simply, trusting her taste. When Adrian waved, she added, “Adrian says hi.”
“I say hi, back. I heard you were at Farah’s.”
She rolled her eyes. “How? We barely just left!”
“Women’s network. Brown habits. Psychic. Take your pick. What was that about?”
“Wait, but how? You don’t even talk to Farah!”
“Yeah, but she told Anita chachi,” she said, even though she was Alina’s chichi therefore her sister, “who
told somebody who told somebody else who told me. Now tell me what happened!”
Alina rolled her eyes. “I saw Zack. He didn’t recognize me.” The words didn’t seem to stick in her throat this
time. “But he recognized my name.”
“Why do you do this to yourself, kid?” she sighed. “It always upsets you.”
“I can’t right now, ma. I can’t get into it and… I don’t want to. What happens will happen. What was meant
She hesitated for a moment. “Do you regret it?”
Alina’s voice was fierce when she answered. “Mom, don’t be ridiculous. And you know I never regret taking
“You shouldn’t have had—you were—no. It’s your birthday and we’re going to respect that and shut up now.”
“Hell of an idea.”
“Damn right. And when we go for dinner, we’ll order way too much and pig out.”
“Gluttony is genetic in this family.”
“Hah, hah. Very funny. See you tonight!”
“Wait! What’s the present?”
“Like you ever spill when I ask. Bye!”
Because she’d been laughing when she hung up, Alina let it go, only shaking her head. “She said hi.”
“Cool. What’s this I hear about sides?”
“The reason I don’t really speak to Farah chachi anymore. Anyone can see I’m close to my mom—you make
me pick, and I won’t pick you. While she didn’t make me pick, she… she was never there. You know some of this,
but you’re too sweet to pry, since you know it upsets me. However, since I dragged you with me, you ought to
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. She’d never been there, she remembered. Worse than that had
been the way Alina, and her mom, had been brushed off with the annoyance you’d regard a fly with when Farah
wasn’t diplomatically being a bitch. Still, even that hadn’t compared to when she’d overhead Farah talking to her
best friend, trashing both her and her mom.
It had always been something. Some reason why she’d been angry with Farah. Was it any wonder that
eventually she’d simply stopped speaking to her?
“We’re not, uhm, very close. All of us, I mean. My… family. We never have been. I just don’t get why Zach
has to suffer. But I suppose that’s the way it’s supposed to be, generation after generation.”
He tried to keep up. “The previous generation being you?”
“It wasn’t like they hadn’t cut me off when I was a child because of their adult pettiness. I don’t think they’re
stupid enough to think I’d expect them to stick around this time. So when the family fell apart, I didn’t care.
“Every family isn’t like yours, Adrian. Not every family is resigned to the fact that they love each other, that
they have to because they simply can’t not love each other. Some people fight that, and win. Now they’re trying to
cut Zach off from me. They’ll probably win.”
“Why do this, if it upsets you so much? And I can see that it does.”
“Part of it is selfish. I don’t want to be like them, Adrian. Not in any way, but especially in this. The other
part is… I know what it’s like to grow up and wonder why your family doesn’t want anything to do with you. I
remember how it feels. I don’t want to do that to Zach. I don’t want to do that to anyone, and that’s why I’ve made
sure to maintain a good relationship with all the kids in the family, despite however I may feel about their parents.”
Her voice hardened. “Even if Zach grows up to hate me, I don’t want to do that to him. I won’t. Besides, he
remembered my name if nothing else. And that’s enough reason for me to keep trying.”
“Adrian, come on. You are not going to need your work phone at dinner!”
“I don’t remember my email—it’s already set up on that phone and I’m supposed to receive something
urgent. It’ll only take a second.” He pulled into a spot by the walk leading up to their three-story walk up.
She scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Fine, whatever.”
“Don’t.” With an indignant sniff, she turned away.
“Come on, we’ve got some time before dinner. Come up with me.”
“Why the hell would I do that?”
“Because we’ve got enough time for a quickie and that’ll get you un-mad pretty fast. Come on,” he urged,
hopping out of the car and rushing to get her door.
She took his hand, laughing as he tugged her along the walk. “Adrian! I’ve got four miles of skirt here!”
“You’re an expert at rushed girl. Come on.” Adrian only allowed himself to grin once he’d turned away,
shoving his key into the lock and pulling the door open before rearranging his expression and stepping to the side.
Alina threw her head up and swept past him. “Don’t think for a second I’m taking you up on your charming
offer. I’m simply coming with you to shut you up.”
“Yeah, yeah.” On the second floor, he rushed ahead of her, opening the door just as she stepped beside him.
When she stepped in, flipping the lights on, she jumped as everyone popped out from behind the furniture, the
corners, yelling out “Surprise!”
“Christ,” she breathed, hand on her heart as she gaped at all the people, friends and family alike. “You
scared the sh—”
“Children here,” Alina’s mom reminded, rushing to her and throwing her arms around her. “Happy birthday.”
“How the hell did you pull this off? You can’t ever keep a secret from me!”
“That’s probably why Adrian wouldn’t let me do anything,” she conceded, grinning. Letting go, she leaned up
to brush a motherly kiss on Adrian’s cheek. “Good job getting her here.”
“She huffed and puffed all right, you were right about that, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“Bite me,” she said, and she knew she was glowing.
“Maybe when the family isn’t around.”
“Oh, shut up.” She glanced around, taking a quick assessment.
“Wait, wait,” Amanda, Adrian’s youngest sister, said as she came out of the kitchen. “Couldn’t you wait
another second, Adrian? We can’t find candles and I forgot to bring them.”
Adrian shook his head exasperatedly. “They’re in the drawer beside the stove with the lighter, Amanda.
Sorry, Alina, I tried.”
“No,” she all but cooed, leaning up to press her lips to his. “It’s just perfect. I’ve always wanted a surprise
“I know,” he said simply, brushing his lips against her brow.
When she turned again, she studied the faces more closely, searching, searching. Farah was nowhere to be
found, but she saw Zach with her other cousins. “A minute,” she whispered simply to Adrian, stepping to the circle
of kids hanging out at the far end of the living room and kneeling beside Zach. “Don’t you all look wonderful.”
“Thanks, didi,” Aariz, a boy of seven, said as he launched himself at her.
He grinned, letting go of everything but her hand.
She looked at Zach. “Having fun?”
She nodded slowly, and the hesitation allowed the nervousness to tickle the back of her neck. Then she put
an arm around him as she would have any of her other cousins and held him to her side. He stiffened, if for no
other reason than the knowledge that—despite it never being discussed in front of him—there was tension between
his parents and Alina. She felt him go taunt, and wondered who’d said the secrets of the parents were hidden from
Then, inch by inch, he relaxed against her.
The boy, she reminded herself, hadn’t done anything. She’d spend a minute during every encounter with him
reminding herself of the fact, but she could live with that.
So, when the cake came out and he began to shy away, she kept a firm grip on him and made him a part of