Authors: Laura Resau
For Bran and Ian,
the loves of my life
Writing a book is a huge group effort! I am eternally grateful to my editor, Stephanie Lane Elliott, for her brilliance; to my agent, Erin Murphy, for her amazing energy; and to the people at Delacorte Press for their behind-the-scenes magic. You are all phenomenal at what you do.
Old Town Writers’ Group—Laura Katers, Leslie Patterson, Sarah Ryan, Lauren Sabel, and Carrie Visintainer—continues to be my lifeboat in the tumultuous sea of writing. Thank you for your friendship and fabulous critiques. My mother, Chris, is a genius for knowing where a manuscript-in-progress needs to go. She loves the characters so much that she will stop at nothing to defend their story (no matter how many revisions it takes me!). Thanks, Mom.
I couldn’t have written this book without inspiration, research assistance, and hospitality from my close friends María Virginia and Laurentino. I also thank their relatives for giving me a warm welcome into indigenous communities near Otavalo. Thanks also to Alecssandra and her generous family for sharing their home with me on my Ecuador trips. Conversations with the fairy godmother librarian of my childhood, Selma Levi, her son, Adam Klein, and Tim Baird enabled me to deepen the emotional resonance of this story.
My brother, Mike, has helped me understand feelings about adoption throughout our lives—an experience that I
drew on in writing this book. Thanks to my father, Jim, for always believing in me, and for mailing me odd little newspaper clippings and trinkets to spark my creativity. My son, Bran, and husband, Ian, have let me leave their world for hours every day and disappear into the world inside my little trailer (with only a little bit of screaming and crying and moaning,
. Ian, thank you for giving me the support that lets me dream and fly—I suspect that’s why my books tend to involve true love and happy endings.
t’s always the same, no matter where in the world we happen to be. Just when I get used to noodle soup for breakfast in Laos, or endless glasses of supersweet mint tea in Morocco, or crazy little
taxis in Thailand, Layla gets that look in her eyes, that faraway, wistful look, as though she’s squinting at a movie in the distance, and on the screen is a place more exotic, more dazzling, more spiritual than wherever we are.
On rainy hills, she dreams of parched desert drum rituals. On windswept islands, she yearns for ancient jungle secrets. On palm-treed beaches, she imagines sacred mountain water falls. When her mind starts drifting off, our bodies and suitcases soon follow.
And here we are, Layla and me, on the last leg of a journey from Southeast Asia, our plane swimming in clouds above the Andes, hovering, once again, between homes.
The plane lurches like a spooked elephant. My hands clench my notebook, and my eyes flick back to the flight attendants to see if they’re in emergency mode. No, they’re stuffing sugar packets into a metal container, their faces calm under thick masks of makeup. In the window seat beside me, Layla sits cross-legged, flirting with the middle-aged guy in the aisle seat, both of them leaning across me.
Turbulence doesn’t faze Layla. She loves it, like a roller-coaster ride thrown in for free, that flutter in the stomach, that rush of adrenaline pulling her into the moment.
I click my seat belt shut and elbow her. “Hey, Layla, the seat belt light’s on.”
She shrugs. “Don’t worry so much, Zeeta, love.”
I reach across and fasten her seat belt. She kisses my temple and leans toward the flight attendant, her blond hair hanging like a curtain over my lap. “Red wine, please.”
Of course, the man insists on paying for her wine, pulling a few bills from a silver money clip with manicured fingers. He’s wearing khaki pants, a neatly tucked-in white cotton shirt, the sleeves carefully rolled up to reveal muscular forearms, and a silver watch. He looks like he stepped out of a magazine ad for something domestic. He’s the quintessential Handsome Magazine Dad, metallic blue eyes and a touch of distinguished gray at his temples. He’d be posed in a shiny
stainless-steel kitchen, casually flipping a pancake while his younger wife and daughter smile at the table, as if they’ve been caught midjoke.
I wonder what he thinks of Layla: a cute, disheveled hippie chick in a slightly see-through cotton wraparound skirt tucked over her knees, with her bare toes peeking out. She’s almost thirty-five but looks twenty-five. She always smells of sweet sweat and essential oils, whatever scent addresses her chakra deficiency that day. Today she’s chosen a citrusy smell, something bright and tart.
I used to wish for a Handsome Magazine Dad, but I’ve pretty much given up by this point. Every year in a different country. Fifteen years, fifteen countries, well over fifteen boyfriends for Layla. Fifteen
maybe, one for each month. It’s way too late now for a normal home, normal family, normal childhood.
I open my latest notebook, indigo-colored, and ask the man, “What’s your full name?”
I jot that down and then write,
Efficiency Consultant for Financial Institutions
, which is apparently his job, whatever that is. “Jeff, if you had one wish, what would it be?”
Usually people ask why I’m asking, and usually I say, “So I can remember you,” which is true, and flatters them. But the real reason I’ve filled all these notebooks—a different color in every country—is deeper, buried inside me. It has something to do with wanting to figure out this thing called life, hoping that by sifting through other people’s wishes and
memories and dreams, I can find the pieces I need to understand it.
“One wish?” he says, looking amused. His voice is warm and gravelly. “Honestly? To settle down.” He sips his wine, maybe deciding how much more to tell. “My girls are grown. My wife left me three years ago.” He lets out a breath. “I’m tired of the online dating scene in Virginia. I just want my life back to normal.”
I jot down his answer, feeling wistful.
To settle down. Normal
Before I can move on to more questions, he shrugs off the sadness that’s crept into his voice. “So”—he grins at Layla—“you lovely ladies on vacation?”
“Our life is a vacation!” Layla’s extra-giddy since we’re between places. “Phuket last year. Off the coast of Thailand. Now I’ll be teaching English in Otavalo.” She clicks her plastic cup against his and sips. “Cheers!”
Just hearing her mention Phuket makes me ache. In Thailand, I’d woven myself into life in our beach town. I savored my routines—walking through the noisy market, riding my bike down a jungly dirt road, taking morning swims with friends, eating coconut sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.
I glance across the aisle, out the window, where there’s nothing but pure white mist. And a boy staring into it. He looks about my age, maybe a year or two older. Sixteen? Seven teen? His skin is just a shade darker than mine, tea without any milk swirled in, and his hair the same as mine, long and black and pulled into a braid. He could be an Otavaleño
Indian, a descendent of the Inca. I’ve seen them on street corners all over the world in ponchos, playing pan flutes.
The flight attendant leans toward him, a mauve, lip-lined smile pasted on her face.
“¿Señor, algo para tomar?”
He knits his eyebrows. Finally, he speaks, stumbling over his words.
he says with a heavy accent and an edge of desperation.
Strange. Maybe he only speaks Quichua.
“Orange juice, please,” he finishes in American English. Reaching for the juice, he catches my eye and blushes.
Layla, meanwhile, is on a roll with her captive audience. “This whole region is overflowing with sacred waters. There’s a waterfall that grants your wishes….” She has that look in her eyes now, the mouthwatery look that some people get over chocolate cake.
Jeff nods, looking enraptured. When Layla pauses, he jumps in. “You know, you’re refreshing. Different.” He pulls out a business card from another silver clip. “Let me take you out to dinner. I’m based at banks in Quito for a month, but I’ll be making some visits to a branch in Otavalo.”
Without glancing at the card, Layla tucks it into the waist of her skirt, showing a peek of hips tanned caramel on Phi Phi Island, a short boat ride from our home in Phuket. “Thanks.”
She’ll never call him, and not just because she’s against phones. He’s just someone to charm for a few hours. For a sustained effort of a few weeks or even days, the guy has to be young, unshaven, shaggy-haired, and extremely
irresponsible—like her most recent ex-boyfriend, a wandering, dreadlocked artist clown who sold shell jewelry on the beach.
Jeff flashes me his model smile, his teeth unearthly white, probably from a fresh tooth-bleaching strip. “You could come along too. Are you two traveling buddies?”
I smile, trying to swallow the jaded been-there-done-that feeling. “I’m Layla’s daughter.”
“Oh.” He blinks, rearranging his assumptions.
Layla grins. “She’s always called me Layla.”
“Oh,” he says again. “And she’s yours?” he blurts out. “You look so young. And you two don’t look alike. I mean, you’re both really pretty—” He’s wishing he could take his foot out of his mouth.
I don’t hold it against him. I press my lips together and stare at a point beyond his head, to the boy across the aisle. Now the boy’s holding up something to the window’s white light—an ice cube? A clear stone?
Layla strokes my arm. “I know. Isn’t her skin magnificent? I’d kill for that color. Never burns.”
Soon the conversation will take a turn to how “mixed-race” kids always turn out beautiful—in the same way that mutts are tougher than purebreds—and then he’ll ask,
Where is her father from, anyway?
“She gets her color from her father,” Layla says.
I give her a look.
She twitches her nose, a silent apology.
I put on the headphones without bothering to change the
channel from Muzak. Anything to block her out. Across the aisle, white light oozes through the plastic window. No contours of a landscape, no glimpse of what’s ahead. Again, I watch the boy, his forehead pressed against the window, peering into the mist like he’s looking for something.
And then he turns and stares right at me. The corner of his mouth lifts in a half-smile. A smile that for some reason gives me a tiny speck of hope. Maybe this time will be different.
ormally, Layla and I take rickety, cheap, old third-class buses wherever we go, but at the baggage claim, Jeff insists on paying for our cab with his company’s expense account. “It’s too late at night,” he says firmly. “Dangerous for two young women on their own.”
Layla accepts with a shrug and a smile, even though this is a tea party compared to the truly dangerous late-night situations we’ve found ourselves in. Before heading to his rental-car agency, Jeff makes sure we’re safely in our authorized taxi, and says, “Call me, Layla, all right?” Through the rolled-down window, she shakes his hand absently, thanking him and jumping into a conversation with the taxi driver. Already moving on.
“Bye, Zeeta,” Jeff says as the taxi pulls away.
I wave goodbye, a little sorry for him, wondering if one day Layla might ever choose a responsible, stable man like him. On the ride to Otavalo, she rambles on to the driver about Pachamama, the Andean version of Mother Earth, as I expertly tune her out, slipping into my magazine fantasy family. In my favorite ad, which I cut out and taped into a notebook a couple of years ago, the Handsome Magazine Dad and younger mom and daughter are lounging on bright white sofas, barefoot, in matching cotton pajamas, reading the newspaper and smiling. And you know that later they’ll do Normal Family things together, like riding bikes to the park or hopping into their new SUV to go to the mall, where they’ll run into neighbors they’ve known all their lives.
An hour and a half later, around midnight, I snap out of my fantasy when we reach downtown Otavalo, mostly deserted at this hour. The streets are narrow, made of interlocking gray stones, and the buildings just a few stories high, a mix of Colonial and new. Streetlamps cast pools of light on the sidewalks, onto shadowy squares filled with neat little gardens and trees, their trunks painted white. We pass a few people, some staggering, maybe walking home from bars.