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Authors: Jodi Lynn Anderson

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BOOK: Love and Peaches
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A
s usual, Birdie Darlington had her nose in a book.

Since coming to Mexico City to study at the National Autonomous University of Mexico for the year, Birdie had gotten hooked on travel books. Not for any practical purpose. She didn't plan to go to any of the places she was reading about. Flipping through pictures of strange lands was like a game to her, like flipping through catalogs and imagining what clothes she would buy if she had loads of money.

Growing up with the myth-loving, crystal-wearing Poopie Pedraza as her family's cook and surrogate second mom, Birdie saw magic in many things. Despite what she knew logically and factually, she imagined other countries much as people living a couple of hundred years ago might have—as an old map with lots left undiscovered.
Here, there be dragons.
It was because she had grown up on stories. She had grown up painting far-off lands in her own colors. And only Mexico City had been her litmus test. Indeed, it seemed to belong on a different planet. It felt like another kind of sun hung above her in Mexico. Birdie had never been more excited or enchanted, more stimulated or
challenged, than she had this year while studying abroad. It was something she could take home with her.

Birdie planned to continue school at Florida State. She and Enrico Fiol, whom she'd followed here, would spend the summer together, stretching out their time as long as possible. Then she'd head back to the States, and real life, to get a degree in agriculture like she'd always planned. She and Enrico would make it work long-distance. And after school, Birdie would move home to take up her rightful place running her family's peach orchard. She planned one day to keep an old-fashioned collection of World Book Encyclopedias lined up on her shelf in the living room at home and to decorate her family's practically ancient farmhouse with colorful posters from Tahiti and China and Mozambique. Just because she would probably never go to the countries didn't mean she couldn't remind herself that they existed.

Her only regret was that she would have to say good-bye to Enrico at the end of the summer. And that she would miss a precious summer at home.

Bock bock bock.

A chicken, fat and white, its feathers a little disheveled from sleep, pecked at her shoelaces, distracting her.

“What do you want?” she asked, picking up Pollito and giving her a kiss on her head. Twice, Birdie had had to get lip medication from the doctor for a fungus she'd gotten from kissing her chicken. Over the phone, her mom had been furious. But Birdie couldn't help but kiss her chicken.

It had been easy to smuggle Pollito, (pronounced
Poyeeto
), whom she'd acquired on her first visit to Mexico City when
Enrico had rescued her from a chef, into her off-campus studio apartment. The place, perched on the top floor of a five-story building, was quiet and private, though it had barely enough space for Birdie and a chicken. It contained a small bedroom “area,” a kitchenette that could be closed off with a folding door like a closet, a white tile floor, and a big gray suede chair.

It didn't help that Birdie's bedroom was full of clutter, albeit clutter that Birdie loved. A collection of wooden
santo
s lined the windowsill, over the heads of which she could see the Avenida de los Insurgentes and the rooftops of Mexico City beyond it. Photos of her butterfly-eared papillon dogs, Majestic and Honey Babe, standing side by side in argyle sweaters, and then a photo of Majestic alone, wearing a leg cast after Honey Babe had died, covered the wall. Masks and crazy little dolls she'd bought at the floating market; scarves so colorful they made your mouth water; matchbooks from her favorite restaurants; and photos of her, Leeda, and Murphy at the orchard lay strewn everywhere.

Birdie had set Pollito down and turned back to her book when there was a knock at the door. She placed the book on the arm of her chair and stood up, shuffling over in her slippers and pulling the door open carelessly, disheveled though she was, auburn hair flopping every which way, and wearing a sweatshirt she'd slept in and baggy khaki overalls. Enrico stood in the foyer.

“I brought pastries,” he said, holding up a white paper bag, “and coffee with milk.”

“Café con leche,”
Birdie said. They had a long-running argument over whether they should speak Spanish or English when they were together. Both wanted to practice.

Birdie sipped the coffee, thick with sweet condensed milk.
“Look at all the
café con leche
you keep bringing me,” Birdie said, pinching a roll of fat on her stomach for Enrico to see.

Enrico smiled, pulled her in to kiss her on the cheek, and walked to the wall, looking at a new sketch Birdie had drawn. She was taking her first art class as an elective, and she loved it. It was a sketch, from memory, of Murphy's garden behind Birdie's house. A nectarine tree sloped over a gaggle of azaleas and a tangled patch of herbs.

“My parents want us over for dinner on Sunday,” Enrico said. “Can you?”

Birdie shrugged. “Sure.”

She loved going to Enrico's parents' house, about an hour out of the city. They planned to spend the summer there, which Murphy said was the weirdest thing she'd ever heard. But the Fiols treated Birdie like family. They even called her their daughter-in-law and cooked her favorite dishes. Their house had become her home away from home. For an often-homesick small-town girl, that was a big deal.

“Hey Pollito,” Enrico said, bending over, lifting the chicken, and kissing her on the head. Enrico had gotten the chicken-kissing disease too. Birdie grinned, watching the two of them together, like they were all a little family.

“She's such a ham,” Birdie said, referring to how Pollito had been acting ornery all morning, demanding attention. She had decided, soon into her relationship with her pet, that chickens had bigger personalities than anyone gave them credit for. Pollito, for instance, was gregarious, a little moody at times, and playful. Enrico, always sensitive and thoughtful, had decided to become a vegetarian almost as soon as they'd adopted her.
Because of her deep love for hamburgers, Birdie had taken a bit longer, but eventually she had converted too, especially after reading a book Enrico had given her about factory farming. Neither of them had told Poopie, who would certainly disapprove, despite all her new age sensibilities.

Enrico plopped down at the kitchen table, grabbed a book out of his backpack, and situated himself. He loved to read. He was a far more dedicated student than Birdie was, probably because he was far more cerebral. Right now, for instance, he was reading a book by Jorge Luis Borges that Birdie could hardly stand, even when she'd switched to the English translation. It was all brain games and too ethereal. Birdie was tactile. She was interested in things she could see and touch, or at least interested in reading about them.

Still, she plopped down too, reluctantly putting her travel book aside and, with a face full of angst—which made Enrico laugh—pulling out the book of South American political history she was supposed to be reading earlier.

“Do you have a highlighter?” she asked after a few moments, procrastinating. Enrico shook his head. She tried to focus again. “What about stickies?” She reached across the bed to where Enrico had left his backpack and unzipped the front pocket.

Enrico seemed lost in his book for a moment longer as she stuffed her hand into the pocket and her fingers brushed something small and square. But then he seemed to come to himself and jerked out of his chair. “Don't…” He moved toward her, but not before she had retrieved the object and pulled it out in front of her.

It was a little box. Small and blue and covered in felt. Birdie
looked at it and then looked at him. She knew what it looked like. But she couldn't place it in the context of being in Enrico's bag or understand why he would have it.

“What is it?” she warbled.

His face flushed deeply.

“Is it for me?” Birdie whispered, feeling her stomach churn hotly.

Enrico didn't say anything. Even Pollito had gone deadly quiet.

Birdie turned it in her hands. It couldn't be. It was crazy to think it. But the weird silence made it feel possible.

Finally, Enrico reached out for the box. He sat beside her on the bed, bit his lip, looked at her, and then popped it open.

Birdie gasped.

There sat the tiniest, most delicate diamond ring. The three infinitesimal diamonds, descending diagonally like cherries, were like dots in a sea of tarnished silver backing. It looked old.

“Poopie gave it to me,” he said. “She says it's been with the orchard since before they ever moved in. They found it sitting in the safe.”

Birdie, ludicrously, felt like she could still pretend the ring wasn't what it was. “What's it for?” she asked.

“Birdie,” Enrico said very earnestly, “I want to marry you.”

Pollito let out a long series of
bock
s.

Birdie moved her hands so that she was sitting on top of them, just in case Enrico tried to slip the ring onto her finger.

“Um,” she said. She saw the pastry bag sitting beside her on the bed. She reached for it and made a show of opening it casually, even though her hands were trembling. If she started
eating, it would look like this wasn't a big deal, wouldn't it? It would look like Birdie got proposed to all the time or something. Or like she knew what she was doing. “Why?” she murmured through a mouthful of pastry. She asked it in a curious tone of voice, as if they were talking about why certain cavemen had been preserved so well over millions of years, or why the dollar was doing so poorly against the euro.

Enrico looked confused. Clearly it wasn't the reaction he had been hoping for.

“Um,” he said. He sidled up next to her on the bed, turning the ring in his fingers. “Okay, um, well. I love you”—he flashed her a nervous smile that quickly disappeared as his face became very grave—“very much. And, you know, it's not so strange to get married young here, like it is in the U.S. And I want a promise to each other?” His voice rose uncertainly. “I think maybe it will make it easier when we are apart. Not…” He put his hand holding the box against her leg. Birdie jerked as if she were a vampire and the ring was a crucifix. “Not that I want to take away your freedom. But I thought…if you are happy with me, and I am happy with you…”

Birdie watched Enrico stumble along, her heart warming at his awkward little ways, the graveness of his face, and how clearly difficult this was for him.

Birdie was beginning to relax, and she was able to think. Her mom had run off with her dog Toonsis. Her dad had fallen in love with their cook. Birdie already came from a colorful family. Why on earth would they mind adding a teenage bride to the list?

She could think of a thousand reasons why they would mind. But the truth was, she couldn't imagine her future without
Enrico. She couldn't imagine someone who made her feel safer, or who made her laugh more, or who she was more comfortable with. All the times in Mexico City that she would have felt scared or out of place, Enrico had been there and had made everything feel familiar.

But most of all, Birdie felt like the answer was bigger than her, like it had to be the way it was, like it had already been decided somehow.

“I do,” she said uncertainly. And then she remembered that was what you were supposed to say at the actual altar. “I mean, yes.”

And finally she slid her hand toward him. She let Enrico take it and slip the ring onto her finger.

They both looked at her beringed hand as if it were an octopus or a sea monster. Some exotic, dangerous creature they had pulled from the deep.

 

In 1937, a young and beautiful Eugenie Cawley-Smith was seen sitting by the side of Orchard Road in her nightgown, crying. The three people who drove by her that morning—the trash collector; Mary Ann Gleason of Gleason Trim & Tailors; and Gertie Hinkle, who was unemployed—noticed that she was holding a piece of paper in her hands. They all thought it was odd, because she didn't like the orchard, she was recently—and by all accounts happily—married, and she never let anyone see her in her nightie.

A
s the Greyhound bus idled in the cavernous depths of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Murphy watched Leeda and her boyfriend hugging each other as if their ship were going down. Eric had his lips buried in Leeda's wavy blond hair and was saying something to her that Murphy couldn't hear. Murphy wanted to barf.

She plopped down on top of her upright suitcase and blinked at the ceiling, chewing on her pinky cuticle and tapping her feet. Finally the two pulled away from each other and shuffled toward her, holding hands and looking poetically melancholy.

“Oh, come on, she's not going off to World War I,” Murphy said, standing up and wrapping her hand around her suitcase handle.

Eric smiled at her and patted the top of her curly head. “I'll miss you, Murphy.”

Murphy rolled her eyes. Eric was one of Leeda's few friends who actually liked Murphy. Murphy didn't know why. She seemed to be the only person on earth who didn't like him back. Birdie said it was because Leeda gave him more attention than she gave Murphy. But Murphy didn't think so. It was something about how he was always going out of his way to make sure
Leeda didn't get her hair wet by carrying an umbrella over her, or how he always made sure Leeda didn't have to hail her own cabs. It was annoying.

“Can we get on the bus?” she asked in a fake-whiny voice.

“Hey, did you bring any snacks?” Leeda asked. “I'm hungry.”

Murphy sighed theatrically and knelt down on the dirty concrete sidewalk, upending her suitcase and opening it to pull out a bag of soggy cheese fries she'd been saving for later. She handed them to Leeda, who studied the contents of the bag with a wrinkled, frightened look.

“You put a bag of cheese fries in your suitcase?” she asked, looking over at the suitcase's other contents. Murphy's clothes were bulging out in a messy heap.

“They're in a bag,” Murphy said.

Leeda was simply shaking her head when her BlackBerry rang, distracting her. Murphy breathed a sigh of relief. Leeda probably would have tried to fold her clothes.

Leeda put her ear to the phone and smiled at Murphy to let her know it was Birdie on the phone. “Uh-huh…uh-huh…uh-huh.” She nodded. “Well, Bird, if that's what you want it to be…Yeah…yeah, sure…”

Birdie had called five times since yesterday. First with the shocking news that she was engaged. Then, before either of them could really process the information or even accept that it was real, she'd called with several ideas about how many kids she wanted and would Enrico want the same number, and then with a long treatise about how she hoped her antique ring wasn't a blood diamond and should she take it somewhere to have it analyzed about that, and if it did turn out to be one should she cash
it in and send money to Africa, and if so how would she decide which country to donate the money to?

Eric looked at Murphy as if he wanted to make conversation, but Murphy turned and pretended to study a piece of gum on the ground. She was in an agitated mood, more agitated than usual. She had spent the morning cleaning out her in-box on her Yahoo! account—moving things to folders, trying to get ready for a clean start come next year. She wouldn't have much access to a computer this summer while living at her mom's lavish estate at Anthill Acres Trailer Park.

There had been e-mails in there she hadn't opened and didn't know what to do with. She had shoved them into a folder she'd labeled
Blah Blah Blah
and had decided to forget about them. But she hadn't forgotten.

It really wasn't like Murphy. She wasn't a nostalgic person or a pack rat. Her mom, Jodee, had sent her to Bible school once for a whole summer. There, Murphy had learned the story of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. A guy named Lot and his wife weren't so sinful as the rest. They were told to flee and never to look back. But on the way out, Lot's wife hadn't been able to resist a little peek, and she was turned into a pillar of salt. The only impression the story had made on Murphy was that Lot's wife was a chump. Looking back was the last thing she would ever be tempted to do.

Leeda crisply stuck her BlackBerry back in her pocket. Standing there with her Burberry luggage, her Stella McCartney jacket, and her perfect hair, she looked like the kind of person who owned New York. If Murphy hadn't known her, she would have disliked her on sight.

“Oh.” Leeda looked like she'd forgotten something. “Sorry, Murphy, she didn't ask to talk to you.”

“That's okay. I think my ear will fall off if I hear the words
Sierra Leone
one more time.”

They stood in silence for a moment, watching the bus fill up. Then Leeda fidgeted, brushing Murphy's unruly, curly hair off where it had landed on her back. “Your hair is like a spider.”

“I can't help it. It's vibrant.”

Finally, after the passengers had trickled on board, they were the only people left on the platform. Murphy pulled her suitcase forward and Leeda, hanging back to say a final good-bye to Eric, followed. They plopped into two seats in the middle of the bus. A moment later they lurched into motion. Leeda waved out the window and then they turned the corner and joined the Manhattan traffic. Murphy watched the buildings, shops, and sidewalks go by.

“How did Birdie sound?”

“Far away.”

“Like she was in Mexico?”

Leeda smiled. “Yeah.”

As they approached Thirty-fourth Street, Murphy looked at Leeda. Leeda could afford to fly home. But instead she'd opted to sit with Murphy through a fourteen-hour bus ride. Murphy felt badly that she hadn't thanked her yet.

“I hope you and that guy don't get married,” she said instead, because she wasn't great at thank-yous. “It would set evolution too far forward. Your baby would be better looking than that Brad Pitt kid, Moses or Shiloh or whatever. Hard on the rest of us tadpoles.”

Leeda rolled her eyes. “Yeah, and your babies would be total slouches.” When the two were out together, it was Murphy who had the freakish ability to make random guys approach her out of nowhere. Once she had been hit on by a Hare Krishna while they were eating ice cream in the East Village. She could bend spoons with the sheer force of her curves. “Do you ever want a boyfriend again?” Leeda mused.

“I have boyfriends.”

“You have boys. Not boyfriends. Heartbreaker.”

Murphy shrugged, lifting her hands and staring at her nails jokingly. “One seems boring.”

Leeda nodded, taking it in. She was quiet for a moment. She looked like she wanted to ask something but didn't want to look like it was a big deal. “Does Rex know when you're coming home?”

Murphy let out a breath and shook her head.

Of all the guys Murphy had kissed—and there were a lot—Rex was her only ex. Murphy had always liked to play with boys, as if they didn't go any deeper than their tattoos or the music they liked or their haircuts. Rex had been different. He had loved her, was the thing. She had loved him.

Murphy whipped out her MP3 player and plugged in her earphones, giving Leeda one of the buds even though Leeda hated her music. They watched New York disappear as the Lincoln Tunnel engulfed them.

 

Murphy only liked to sleep when there was nothing going on that couldn't be missed. She stored up sleep time for rainy days. So when she slept, she slept hard.

As soon as they hit New Jersey, she drifted off, and she didn't wake up again until a bathroom break in Maryland. The next time she woke, it was getting dark and they were in North Carolina, on a featureless stretch of flat, tree-lined road, unidentifiable except for the signs announcing upcoming towns. She and Leeda played hearts for a couple of hours, stared out the window for a while, and then went back to sleep. When Murphy woke for good, they were just passing the sign for the town of Dobney, National Home of Cheese Grits.

“Birdie loves those cheese grits,” Leeda said wistfully. “It'll be so weird being home without her.”

Murphy's stomach began a slow jelly roll into a tight knot. She hadn't thought about what would happen once they got off the bus—as if the bus were a tiny country and they were going to live in it forever. Now that they'd reached the home of cheese grits, the town of Bridgewater felt imminent, robbing her of that feeling of insulation.

Murphy sat forward, agitated. “What time is it?” she asked, staring into the dark night.

“It's about one-thirty,” Leeda said.

Murphy's feet began to tingle restlessly. She chewed at her thumbnail. Her stomach lurched with a strange excitement as the bus slowed down and turned off the exit toward town. The driver opened the door to let in some air now that the bus had slowed. The springy night air came rushing in, full of the smell of trees, white dirt, and warm tar. The soft wind blew back the passengers' hair.

Everything went from featureless to familiar. Places Murphy had seen countless times—what seemed like a million years
ago—drifted by. Bob's Big Boy, the windows dark. A Dollar Star she had stolen underwear from. The KFC she used to wing water balloons at from the woods when one of the guys she was dating worked there.

The annoying thing was, Murphy had lived in Bridgewater for eighteen years. She had only known Rex for one of them, and still, layered on top of all the other memories were thoughts of Rex and her riding bikes, Rex and her eating lunch in this parking lot or sitting on that bench in front of Wendy's. It caught her by surprise.

She thought of the e-mails in the
Blah Blah Blah
folder with a sick thud. There were over thirty of them, all from Rex. And she hadn't read a single one. From the moment she'd left home she had ignored him completely, cut him off, left him out.

It hadn't really occurred to her, until just now, that when she saw him she wouldn't know how to explain herself. And he would probably find that hard to forgive. Maybe impossible.

BOOK: Love and Peaches
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