Authors: Jenny Ruden
Once there, a few spectators gathered around the fallout, coughing into their hands and assessing the damage of nearby cars. Everything smelled burnt.
,” Gabe muttered. He was sitting on a concrete parking block, head in his hands. “
“Barbecue,” Liliana remarked, still panting. She stepped closer and looked directly into the black pit of
. “I've been telling you this whole time that the truck is done. There goes that plan. Do you think Mom willâ”
“Shut up, Liliana.”
Careful to avoid looking at it, I walked past the truck as if it were a campfire and sat down next to Gabe. He held out a cylindrical rocket. “Here, Bethany,” he said. “It survived the fire.”
“What is it?” I asked, coughing a little into my dress.
“It's my final project.”
I studied the nose cone and fins and his name,
, penned along the body tube. “What's it do?”
Gabe laughed and covered his mouth. “When launched very high into the air, it flies. Like most model rockets.”
“Thanks,” I said, both flattered and confused. I gestured behind me. “I'm sorry about your truck.”
Gabe leaned into me. “I guess you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out this was bound to happen.” He removed a black bandana from his pocket and tied it around his head. His face was smeared with grease. “Too bad it happened today.”
“Hey,” screamed Liliana. “I know your truck is ablaze,
, but did you see Bethany's dress?”
“I did,” he deadpanned. “It's something.”
Cambridge, who'd been inspecting the fallout, laughed. “I'd bet it's flame retardant too.”
Gabe whispered so Liliana wouldn't hear. “You do realize that dress is a little unusual. Or is that a secret?”
“It's a secret,” I replied.
Gabe rubbed his eyes. “Scientifically speaking, you are the only woman on Earth who could wear such a dress and still look hot.” I felt my face flush. Together we watched his charcoaled truck pollute the otherwise lovely afternoon. “I had it all planned,
” he started. “I was going to tell you that I wanted to see you again. And FaceTime with you. And text you and have like a long-distance relationship. Then Liliana told me to launch the rocket right at sunset and confess how madly I don't love you.” Smoke gripped him for a second and he coughed. When he looked up his eyes were tearing. “Which is to say that I do love you, Bethany. I'm sorry your happy ending went up in flames.”
So maybe to Newton and other untrained eyes, the situation looked pretty hopeless. His dying truck dead. The unlaunched model rocket. The endless miles between Maryland and New Mexico. But I couldn't help thinking about Michael Osbourne and The Forgiveness Diet e-mail I'd read a thousand times. Beauty didn't live in what was perfect. It lived in what wasn't. It settled in the flaws. Gabe's crooked smile. His black pirate do- rag. The worn hem of his shorts. The way our teeth scraped when we kissed. Beauty was in the long journey to find it too, like my journey: complete with miles of silence, gum-caked forgivelets, pissed-off siblings, black eyes, and toasted truck engines.
“I love you too,” I said.
“Really?” He tilted his head. “Even though my plan backfired and my truck died and, andâ” I pressed my finger to his lips. “But your ending, Bethany?”
Esto es esto,
” I said, breathing the words into his mouth. “This is it. Here's my happy ending.”
Even though our walk back to MontClaire Hall took a long time, my father did not look annoyed. In fact, he barely looked up from the book he was reading on the lawn. When he saw us arrive, he inserted a blade of grass to mark his page, closed the book, and said, “Must've been some explosion.” He stood up and brushed the grass off his behind. “You ready to go now, Bethany?”
My dad walked closer. “Traffic might be bad. We need to think about getting on the road, Bee.”
I wasn't in a hurry. I would have plowed through another eight weeks of fat camp just to have Gabe, Liliana, and Cambridge a little bit longer. “My friends need a ride. I can't just leave them here.”
My father suddenly stopped. “What?”
“They need a lift. Gabe's truck died.”
He touched his rainbow belt. “A ride to where, Bethany?”
“New Mexico,” said Gabe and Liliana in unison.
My dad's lips twitched. “That's funny, guys.”
“Technically,” reasoned Cambridge, “it's on your way.”
My father checked his watch and lifted an index finger. “I have a better idea. How about I drive you to the airport? That seems like a compromise. Surely there will be a flight for you.”
Gabe, Cambridge, and Liliana stared at their feet. Obviously this was not the ending any of us had predicted, but what other choice did we have? Sensing our disappointment, my dad looked at the minivan and crossed his arms. “Goodbyes are never easy. I understand that. But you guys have the e-mail and the texting and the Skype. Never mind actual letter writing.” He directed this to Gabe: “Bethany can write one hell of a letter, you know. You guys will all keep in touch. In the meantime, we really need to hit the road. I'll take you to the airport.”
No one moved. Liliana put her arm around me and then Gabe. “
, this is an emergency. We need to get back to Albuquerque, and I've never been on a plane in my life.” Cambridge sighed. “Are you sure you won't reconsider?” she asked. “I have a few bucks for gas.”
My father did not look remotely conflicted by his decision. “The airport, Tabitha. That's my final offer.
Relentless Cambridge. “It's really a beautiful drive across country, you know. I can point out all the historical landmarks. Just think how guilty you'd feel if all of our flights crashed too. Driving us is the much safer choice.”
Out came Richard Goodman's librarian voice. Equitable. Agreeable. Diplomatic. “It's a nice idea,” my dad started, “but I can't take responsibility for all of you. It's just impossible. You guys are kids. What if something happens? What if ....”
I didn't know what else he said because I walked away. I walked toward the minivan, Jackie's keychain a weight in my hand. “What if ...,” I said, and I could feel their eyes behind me. “What if I ...” Then, before I lost my nerve, I unlocked the door. “What if
drove, Dad?” After flinging open the door, I climbed into the driver's seat like I'd done it a million times before. Like a pro. “What if I drove the minivan,” I said again, and pointed at my father, “and you, you sat in the back? You could help if I needed it. Shut up if I didn't. Like a guardian.”
Stationed in the driver's seat, key still in my hand, I saw them all on the lawn, four faces drawn in disbelief. “I need sixty hours for my permit. Who says I can't blow them out in one week?”
Of course they knew how I felt about drivingâI could see it in their shocked expressions. But now was not the time for questions. Now was the time for action. I slid the key into the ignition, and the minivan roared to life.
Cambridge was the first to move. She picked up her luggage and stepped closer. Then Gabe and Liliana followed.
“We'll stop along the way,” I told them, rolling down my window. “Sightseeing. That kind of thing.”
Gabe opened the passenger side door and laid his model rocket and backpack on the floor. Then he climbed in. Liliana and Cambridge piled in the middle seat. My dad, however, still stood on the lawn, waiting. He shook his head.
Inside the van, every single one of us was quiet, watching him. He passed his book from one hand to the other, scratched his chin. Of course we were all waiting for the stubborn
to eject from his mouth. Waiting for his tantrumâor mine. I was waiting for the outright refusal. After all, I was afraid to drive, terrified of it; they all knew it. My dad knew it. Only to my surprise, he took one step closer. Then another. “I'll fill up the tank,” he said. “Check the air pressure in the tires. I have audio books too. Kerouac. MÃ¡rquez. Toni.” A few seconds later, he was outside my window. “You can give your friends a lift, but you'll need to do the bulk of the driving,” he said. “
of the driving in fact.” His face was framed by the square of the window. “I can't let you do this alone. I'm sorry.”
It's not easy to be a father, I decided. But it was a job and my dad met all the requirements. It wasn't easy to marry a woman like my mom either, a woman so talented you couldn't possibly forget. Of course if you did, she'd be there to remind you. It must all-out suck to be smart enough to get into optometry school only to discover the eye was about as interesting as the dust balls collecting in your library. How classically FUBARed to learn your two daughters were worse for the wear when you walked out. And how fundamentally catastrophic to realize that you were headed home to ADHD twins and a wife who would never be the same now that your two other children had crashed their way back into your world. So I guess that was why I tapped the button on my armrest, and the van's back door eased open.
“This bus is departing,” I told him. “Come on in.” He looked mystified at first, incredulous. But then came the smile. He didn't hesitate.
“To the airport, Cambridge?” I asked.
“Not a chance, Captain,” she replied, pulling her hair back into a ponytail.
“How about you, Dad?”
“I believe I'd prefer a more scenic route,” he explained and cracked his window from the back bench.
“Gabe? Liliana? You want in on the next flight to Albuquerque.”
“I thought this was the next flight to Albuquerque,” Gabe observed.
Meanwhile, my dad and Liliana were already chattering about mountain passes, prairies, and desert skies. All the things they'd never seen but wanted to. Gabe tapped me with his elbow. “You got this,” he said, and pointed east. “Just head thatta way.”
I yielded to the traffic in the circle, but the other drivers encouraged me with a wave. I shifted into drive just as Cambridge opened a navigator app on her phone. I eased off the brake, and we moved forward. Forward. A little more gas and we accelerated around the circular drive. We rocketed past the mermaid fountain spitting her trickle of water. I thought of my dad's coins corralled in the bottom and how watching him that day, weeks ago, up in my dorm, I'd assumed he'd wished for something noble, like the return of all overdue library books, or universal literacy, or that his kids, Cullen and Caleb, would quit the violin. Now, however, I was pretty sure he wished for me. His daughter. How did I know?
With Utopia shrinking behind us, the road unrolling ahead, I felt my throat swell, amplify like something was stuck in thereâa new song or the tight fist of a flower. Whatever it was, it was ready to climb out. And that was what my dad had been talking about. What he knew all along. It was a story. My story.
And this is how it begins.
First and foremost, thank you to Josh, Judy and Jill Ruden for providing me with space when I needed it and plenty of distraction when I didn't. Living with a writer is pure hell. I can hardly stand myself. How you put up with me is nothing short of a miracle. I love you all. I promise not to write another book. Oh, and thanks for knowing when I'm lying.
Thanks also to my family (especially Marlene, Tim, Wendy, Esther, Paul, Cami, Tom & Elizabeth) who generously provided both fodder and encouragement. I also would like to acknowledge Albert, Judy, Carolyn and Lenora who died before seeing this book, but would not have been surprised by its publication either. Thanks also to Josh's family who not only encouraged me, but sometimes financed me.
Because I could never write during nap time, thank you to the long list of childcare providers who took wonderful care of my children while I wrote. Thank you to The Children's House and Juliet Romero and to Dr. G, who told me it was ok to listen to the voices in my head.
I am eternally grateful to Ellen Dworksky's writing group and for my friendships with writerly friends. We are of the same tribe and I could not imagine life without you-- and hopefully will never have to. Thank you also to Whitney, Dylan, Priscilla, and Rebecca.
Thank you to early readers like Chris Eboch, Suzanne Morgan Williams, KL Going, Miriam Gershow, Mike Mullen, Donna Cooner, and Alisa Valdes and to industry professionals like Wendy Sherman, Kim Perel and Kenneth Wright.
Finally, thanks to Joe Coccaro for being the grumpy old editor that every book needs. I could not have asked for better. Thank you to John Koehler for calling me personally, “I'd like to sign up for fat camp.” You not only are a fighter, Koehler Books, you are a champion. Finally, a big mwah to my agent, Antonella Iannarino, a rock star who's even brighter than the moon moon moon.