Her Smile In That Picture
Ally Russell was not a girl who smiled. She had pretty, dark brown eyes and jet black hair that was straight and reflected light like Darth Vader’s helmet. This was an analogy made by an ex-boyfriend, a low level drug dealer Ally’s dad had beaten into the hospital one night and whom she had never seen again. But despite his brevity in her story, he said more about her with that comparison than even she knew. Her face and presence was so alluring and radiant that it made up for the fact that she never parted her lips in joy.
From a very young age, Ally had a chip on her shoulder, something rotten housed in her past that tainted her entire perception of life. Or maybe it was less than that, Ally would often hope. She figured some people were wired for fun and that she wasn’t, and she had to tell herself that was okay more than she would ever admit. Her friends knew that she was happy when she covered her face. And then she would start to cry. And, before it got bad, she’d hug whoever was closest really hard.
She had always known she was adopted. She had golden brown skin, which tanned to a dark oak in the summer. She had thick black hair and eyebrows she was embarrassed of until 4th grade, at which point her relationship with them became completely antagonistic. She was developing a much different figure from her adoptive mother, shorter and bustier. She wanted to be tall and slender.
Her mom was a teacher in her school, constantly embarrassing her, never letting her get away with even the littlest thing. She made Ally respect accountability. They forged a very close relationship as Ally hit puberty, her mom holding her hand every step of the way and being a source of comfort where her friends mom’s would refer to a book or a guidance counselor. Brian, her dad, was less than helpful, but, unlike most of her friends’ dads, around.
He was a career desk sergeant in the Tempe Police Department. He worked 6 AM till 6 PM and Ally could tell he was settling for less than he craved. He was quite tall, barrel-chested and white as a Klansman’s laundry. He had brown hair with a red-ish beard.
He was supportive — drove her to school, told her she was beautiful. He loved her in a very plain way. She knew he loved her mom, and was faithful to her, even if it was obvious that he didn’t want to be. She knew he was once a great cop, because that’s all her mom would say about him as a young man. And all she could tell about his work now is that it drove him to the bottom of a bottle.
She had been very aware of her adoption for quite a while before her parents told her. They were both very secretive people. But they had always been so caring and selfless, she felt like asking was being ungrateful.
“Who cares where you came from? I took care of you,” is what Ally imagined she would say to a hypothetical adopted daughter. She sounded like her dad when she imagined herself as a parent.
Ally, barely a year old, smiling with all of her teeth and maybe even a few she’d borrowed. Holding the young girl was a matronly Hispanic woman with gorgeous black hair, cut short above her shoulders. She had tired eyes, and luscious red lips. She wore a floral print housedress, and looked like a Hispanic movie star from the 50s. Next to them stood her mom, Tina, looking young, beautiful, and distant. Behind them, the New York skyline, Twin Towers and all.
It’s the kind of picture you find once every few years, in a different junk drawer each time, hidden amongst the pieces of detritus that fill out the borders of your life. She only asked about it three times:
She was in elementary school. Ally was putting a collage of pictures together for a project and came upon it. She found the picture and asked her mom who was holding her. She wanted to know when they went to New York (a surprise to her) on vacation. In the millisecond between Ally asking and Tina snatching the picture out of her hands, she wondered what that look was on her mom’s face.
As she grew up, Ally would make that face too. It came with the gradual acceptance that her life would always contain something unspoken, unknown.
When she was in high school, one of her less scrupulous boyfriends said he found the picture lying on the floor in their upstairs hallway, but he was surely rooting around her mother’s dresser for jewelry. Ally hadn’t seen it since that time her mom had snatched it away in grade school.
Since its first appearance, she had found out she was born in NYC, and that her parents had moved out to Arizona when she was not even a year old because it was a better place for her to grow up.
When that picture showed up again, it put a heavy knot in Ally’s stomach, and she took it out on the much deserving boy. She let loose a wave of rage and profanity that people say took that ladron’s eyebrows off. A murder of thrown plates chased him out of the house. Her father’s daughter, through and through.
Ally tended to date bad boys because of her cop dad. They were your garden variety screw-heads: fighters, grifters, dealers, car thieves, etc. Generally a shady caste of person found themselves in Ally’s bed, and she liked it that way. Having your mom up your ass throughout elementary school and a cop for a dad, she’d never gotten away with so much as a white lie growing up. But her body was hers, and she was going to make up for lost time.
When she told her mom what happened — that a boy she brought home went through her jewelry, not about the picture — Tina made Ally promise that she would never tell her father. For the boy’s safety, she said. If even an infinitesimal piece of her cared for him, it was better to never mention it.
A few days later, it was Christmas. She and her parents had flown to New York to spend the day with her dad’s brothers and the cousins she barely knew, even less felt related to. Ally had the picture with her the whole time, planning to ask her mom in front of people so she’d be less inclined to lie.
But she couldn’t go through with it. Something about the memory of her mom’s face when she brought it up the first time. That night, after everyone went to bed, Ally and her mom were alone in one of the spare rooms. She and her mother were wrapped around each other and she produced the picture from her clutch. Her mother closed her eyes and hugged Ally so tightly that she put the picture away without saying a word. If you asked her today what she remembered about that trip to New York (her first), she would only mention that hug.
In college, a group of friends had asked permission of her mom to go through her things and find pictures for a memory board. Her friends found the picture in a shoebox under her bed, and didn’t think twice about including it — it was the only picture on the board with her smiling.
She received the collage from her sorority sisters when she graduated. She was moved to tears and her friends thought they had done a great job. They didn’t know that she had forgotten about that picture. She saw it again and knew that it held the key to her mystery, the vacancy that had always held her true nature at bay.
Her father had just died and Ally and her mother were planning to move back East. Arizona had been a fine place to grow up, but Ally was sick of these ASU douchebags and wanted something new. Something to connect with her father who she felt like she never truly knew because for the duration of their relationship, he was out of his element. He was a New Yorker. And she knew — somehow — that was in her blood, too.
Ally had gotten into med school in Manhattan. She would go half on a scholarship and the other half on the insurance money that came to them after her father’s fatal car accident.
On the night before they were to fly to LaGuardia, Ally and her mother had come back from seeing her father’s grave and were having tea quietly on her mom’s bed, watching Netflix on the laptop. Ally turned to her mother and asked, for the third and final time:
“Mom, who is that in the picture, you know the one? The one with you and me?”
Tina, her adoptive mother — a woman to whom children were once a laughable folly, a massive mistake to be prevented or disposed of one way or another — took her daughter’s hand and held it tightly. She looked into her eyes, knowing that she was leaving soon to begin her own life and make her own adventures and choices. She had advice to give her daughter, not just love. But the cost of giving advice is owning up to the mistakes you’ve made, and bearing witness to their collateral damage. And for some people it’s just too much.
Tina and Brian
It was the 80s, and it was Brooklyn. New York was a bad old place, and there was no trust on the street. There was just chance. She’d been mugged, her home broken into. Her dad worked in shipping on the docks, an Italian stevedore who loved three things: his wife, his daughter, and his vodka. He worked too much and drank too much to be a dad of any merit, and her mom was always busy seeing to his selfish needs. Her parents hadn’t imbued in her any self-confidence, and made her feel like a perpetual victim.
When she met Brian, she knew he wasn’t a good man. He came from a mick Catholic family of cops on Staten Island. His dad beat his mom in front of the kids on numerous occasions, and even once or twice in front of Tina. Brian knew that his parents’ relationship was rife with tragedy, but felt deep within his being that an even greater tragedy would be to dissolve the union that had created he and his brothers and sisters.
Brian and his brothers were all headed for the badge, just like their old man had done 20 years before. It meant they could support themselves and, if they worked hard enough, a family. And, more importantly, for a group of young, disillusioned head banger Irishmen, it was a way to be included in a family greater than their own. A family where the father wasn’t a drunken lout, as quick with words of discouragement as he was with his belt.
Brian and Tina met in a movie theater. They were both there on a Friday afternoon, cutting class to see Return of the Jedi. Tina smoked weed before she went into the movies, and Brian had snuck in a 6-pack under his jacket. In a nearly empty theater (the movie had been out for almost three months), Brian caught a whiff of Tina’s aroma, saw a head of beautiful blonde hair tied back into a ponytail, and found his way into her row. He offered her a beer and she laughed, opening the pop-top with one hand and in that moment stealing the heart of a beast.
They dated for almost five years, senior year of high school into four years of college: Brian at community college and then law school, she getting a teacher’s certificate. When they graduated, they married, and both began their careers.
From the start, Brian was a prodigy. He was a man of force and intimidation, and worked his beat like a natural, getting to know the men and women who populated his 5-square block province of Harlem. The people in his neighborhood knew him, and if they didn’t personally, his reputation preceded him: a cold dude, one not to be trifled with.
Tina taught high school, and had a hell of a time. She was beautiful, and as a result caught the eye of at least three students in each one of her classes. She faced constant catcalling bordering on assault every day. She kept it to herself because she had a feeling that Brian’s take on the situation would result in bloodshed. One night, after too many drinks and a student taking his jokes just a bit too far, Tina dropped a name.
Two weeks later, when he finally came back to school, he had a lisp. Tina learned that broken jaws rarely ever heal correctly.
Toward the end of the decade, Brian felt that it was time to have a kid. He had been promoted to Captain, meaning he was in charge of an entire precinct by the time he was 30 (a record he was happy to remind people of in years to come). His brothers and sisters all had their own litters, and thanks to an ugly competitive streak, he was ready to bear fruit. Tina felt quite differently.
During her time teaching, she got used to the idea that babies were perfect, but she wanted nothing to do with a child from the age of 1 to 18. It was an ugly time, filled with lots of emotions and confusion, and she had enough of that of her own to deal with at work.
But Brian was insistent. They would fuck furiously, Brian’s awkward rhythm-less thrusts tiring Tina more than anything else. She would let him finish inside of her, but after he went to work she would take her birth control in secret.
When it became obvious to Brian that their coupling was not going to result in a child, rather than see a doctor and accept the fact that he might be physically inadequate, he took the necessary steps to secure an adopted child. Being a successful member of the NYPD, a Captain with designs of being a Major before he was 35 (also a record), and married to a public school teacher, he was able to swiftly move through the process. He didn’t care about race or gender, he just wanted a child as proof of manhood. Also, in his mind, his career would be accompanied nicely by the good will of the public stemming from an adopted child.
Tina was aware it was happening, and had done everything she could to passively de-rail his plans and enthusiasm. She wouldn’t talk about it, she would change the subject. She would develop headaches, and withhold sex even though she desperately wanted his touch. She said nothing, hoping that was saying something.
She hoped it told him that she thought he would be a bad father. He’d never hit her, but she knew when they had a fight he would leave and be back two hours later with bloody knuckles. Sometimes the blood was his, sometimes it wasn’t.
Her inability to confront the man she married was personified by the screams of a beautiful baby girl, Camilla Diaz, born to a 16-year-old Dominican illegal. It was November. She had given birth and fled the country in the same night, dropping a little weight before escaping to Canada with her boyfriend (definitely not the actual father who was in prison in DR for something akin to treason). They named her Ally, Tina’s only contribution to the proceedings, after Ally Sheedy, an actress in Tina’s favorite movie.
She was told, by Brian, to quit her job and be the mom he knew she was capable of being. A good mom, who would raise his daughter to be just as strong and beautiful as she was.
Tina hired a nanny as quickly as was legal. She raided the classifieds and scoured the bulletin boards at local supermarkets and houses of worship. She made many calls, and met with many people. But they all either reminded her of her own mom, or of herself. It was January and Ally was two months old. It was by chance that Tina was in the bodega around the corner from her apartment when she saw a young woman with a stroller hanging up a sign in both English and Spanish offering childcare services.
Her name was Lita, short for Carmelita. Tina liked the way she dressed when they first met for coffee. She wore acid jeans over worn out leather boots, a flannel shirt accentuating her ample bosom, and sunglasses with red rims. She had style, wit, and most importantly, a family of her own. Tina, though she hated the thought of having a child of her own, knew that the best thing for the kid would be to have someone in her life who knew how to be a mom.
Though Tina would have preferred it, Lita wouldn’t move in because she had her own children, and told Tina privately that her neighborhood in the Bronx wasn’t the best. She wanted to ensure her influence, especially on her older son. Tina was in awe of this woman’s selflessness. Coming from a typical Italian family in Brooklyn, Tina was attracted to Lita’s warmth and belief in family above all.
Within a month of hiring Lita, their routine had begun to develop charm and was a comfort for Tina. They had an apartment on the upper West Side, 68th and Broadway, across from the Christian Science Church. Brian would leave the apartment every morning at 5:30, and on his way out he would turn on the pot of coffee, and typically see Lita arriving, saying hello to her in the lobby of the building. She would let herself in with her keys and pour a cup of coffee, waiting to soothe Ally’s morning cries. After seeing to the baby, Tina would emerge from her room, pretending to have just woken up.
Lita knew that Tina would be wide awake at the baby’s first sound, but was afraid of something and stayed in her room until she knew the baby was quiet. She didn’t care what her problem was. She needed the money, and in her mind as long as this family was good about paying on time, she wasn’t going to judge anyone.
Tina would have to be at the school by 7:30 so she was out the door at 7:00. Lita would watch Ally eat her breakfast while she picked up after the family. She wasn’t asked to do this, or paid for it, but she felt compelled. She saw something of her own children in Tina and despite her better judgment, gave of herself wholly.
Lita and Ally would walk around the neighborhood, running errands. Lita would do her laundry and sing songs in Spanish from her childhood to the baby who she knew to be adopted, but never asked. She liked that this white family would take in a brown baby — it showed, to her, a progressive nature that she hoped would be a beacon of unity in an increasingly segregated New York.
Tina would get out of work around 3 PM and would meet Lita for coffee. They would cook dinner together and Tina would always ask Lita to stay. She would decline, respectfully, but would be unable to leave without a Tupperware of food. Italian women, she thought.
One day, Lita showed up but Tina was already awake, holding the baby. Tina had taken the day off from school and forgotten to tell Lita not to come. Together they went to Jersey City for a walk in Liberty State Park. They brought a camera. They asked a passerby to take a picture.
Why They Left
It was a few weeks later when Brian began to make a habit out of coming home drunk. He was under investigation from internal affairs. “Coercing a confession” being the crime. Apparently a series of suspects whose guilt was in question would leave the precinct with massive head trauma, courtesy of 10 minutes with the Major. It was a running joke within the ranks, but IA wasn’t laughing.
A spat of sexual assaults in Lita’s neighborhood coincided with this investigation. She had begun to leave earlier and earlier, putting more pressure on Tina. Brian would come home and Tina didn’t have her mother’s patience. Her passive aggressive ways wore him down to a throbbing knob.
After one particularly bad bender, he came home loud and angry. He woke the baby and Tina kicked him out. She said he wasn’t fit to be around a child, and that she would be calling Lita and asking her to come back for the night. He left, fuming, and went out to do what he did best: find trouble.
The details of the night are hazy depending on who you ask, but the facts were obvious: a drunk cop showed up in a neighborhood whose reputation was flailing. He was going to pick a fight with anyone he could find. A group of 16-year-old boys saw him roaming and confronted him. One of them pulled a knife. He pulled his gun. Words were exchanged and a shot was fired.
A photog from the Post was in the right place at the right time and caught the most horrific image in the history of the publication. One so tragic that even THEY wrote no headline, and eventually burned or lost the negative.
Brian, clean shaven (as he would never be again in his life), wearing his Major’s uniform, choking the life out of a 17-and-a-half-year-old Puerto Rican boy, putting him out of his misery like a hunter with a deer after shooting him in the chest. The image froze the city.
The next day, Lita arrived at the house at her normal time. She did not say good morning to Brian because he had not come home that night. She came up to the apartment and saw Tina, wide awake staring at Ally in her hi-chair. Lita walked over to Ally, picked her up, and left.
Brian had no idea who he shot. Tina didn’t either, but part of her knew exactly what had happened when she saw Lita’s face that morning. When she saw her pick up the child and leave, she knew.
Lita woke up that day to the unfamiliar sound of quiet in her apartment. Usually around 3 AM, her sons would wake up, restless and unable to sleep soundly on their third-hand twin beds with the busted springs. The sound of their playing Sega with the volume just above zero was like music to her ears. She might not have been able to keep her boys in the best clothes or the best home, but she could at least keep them home.
She had two sons, Junior and Gabriel. The boys were both fathered by the same man, Allejandro Guttierez. He was a truck driver and would leave for months at a time on routes. Lita suspected that he had another woman and maybe even kids somewhere in the southwest. She was right, but would never find out. After the boys started elementary school Allejandro’s presence dissipated. He started staying away for longer and longer each trip. After a while, Lita changed the locks. He only came back to their apartment once after that, found that his keys didn’t work, left $1300 and was never heard from again.
Lita was never attached to him and always knew he would be gone one day. Her father had done something similar to her mother. Allejandro was a demon in the sack, and though she would say publicly “good riddance,” she secretly longed to spend just one more night in his embrace.
When Junior first got into high school Lita had caught him sneaking out of the apartment at midnight. She knew enough about the culture of her community to know this was a bad thing. She made it clear to him that he was not to be carousing at night with his friends. After the scream fest, which all children of Hispanic mothers know and fear, Junior was a wilted shell of a boy. He hadn’t been into sports or any other after school activity, and Lita noticed him becoming despondent.
Gabriel looked up to his older brother and when he too started exhibiting signs of depression she took the advice of another mother in the building and bought her boys a gaming system. It was a way to feel a part of a larger experience without ever having to leave their home.
It was a shortsighted fix, she knew, and she also knew Junior would still go out with his friends once every few months without telling her. He was still a boy, and she felt he was entitled to a little trouble now and then — that’s what made boys men.
She had a job working in the ladies department at Century 21, which gave her access to all the coolest clothing and kept her hours human. She tried to be home by 6 every night.
Her boys shared a cookbook by a chef who grew up in their neighborhood. They had seen him around before he opened his restaurant in Manhattan, she thought he was sexy and the boys looked up to him as a surrogate father figure. She’d bought the book both because she wanted them to have a positive role model… and it was a way of making sure when she got home, there was an edible meal waiting for her. Gabriel and Junior already liked to cook, but neither of them had any formal training. They took to the recipes like fish to water, and even began to improvise. Lita would always be sure to compliment them on the nuances of their food, letting them know that she noticed the little things.
She felt that she was becoming coarse with her boys from working retail all day. Shitty customers with shitty attitudes she desperately tried to leave at the store, but never could. She decided she wanted to be around children again, and a few days after leaving century 21 she met Tina.
The night before he died Junior and Gabriel made grilled chicken with a coconut sauce. Junior had made a mango salsa and Gabriel had used a curry spice with the chicken. Lita would never forget this meal. It would be a meal she and Gabriel had once every year after she was released from prison.
When she woke up the next morning to go to work, Gabriel was sound asleep and Junior’s bed was empty. She immediately called his cellphone and got no answer. She paced around the apartment looking at a sink full of dirty dishes from the night before. Junior had always cleaned up after they cooked, because it was something that, he said, “centered him.” She didn’t know when he could have possibly left, but she figured it had something to do with a new girl he was seeing. Or maybe he just wanted a night out with his friends.
She wasn’t going to make a mountain out of a molehill, she thought, and wanted to just get to work. She would hear from him later in the day. When she walked out of her apartment her building was silent. She made her way down the elevator and through the lobby. As she walked to the subway she was escorted by the denizens of 4:30 in the morning: garbage men, nurses, maids and porters, and deliverymen.
She stopped at her favorite bodega, the A Plus Deli, for a coffee — sweet with cream. As she left, stirring an extra packet of sugar in, a bundle of newspapers almost clobbered her in the face. The deliveryman was immensely apologetic and offered to buy her coffee or breakfast or anything, he just was so sorry he didn’t see her. She was spooked, but laughed it off, saying “All you would have done is give me character.” She started to walk away until she saw the front page of the day’s edition.
Lita walked Ally out of the apartment and was on the subway back to the Bronx before she realized what she was doing. She felt a depth of anger she was unable to comprehend. How could this happen? How could she have trusted those people? Tina was beautiful, but weak. And she let her idiot husband out of the house like that? She let him go even though she knew he was drunk? And dangerous? And never said one thing to him!?
She fantasized about choking Brian to death, strangling him until he kicked a hole in the drywall. She wanted to make him suffer and have Tina find out about it the same way she had found out about her son — plastered on the front page of over a million newspapers in the biggest city in the world. She wanted to know why she couldn’t just do that. She was full of rage at a man protected by the biggest gang in the city. And she wanted to burn all five boroughs to ash.
She was in her room with Ally the next time she was aware of her surroundings. Gabriel was at school. Her son’s name hadn’t been in the paper, and she hoped that Gabriel would find out from a teacher and be tended to by their counseling. She was never going to be able to help him with this, she knew. She held Ally tight and found a modicum of peace.
She had always felt at ease with Ally because she was Hispanic. She didn’t love that she was Dominican, but she ignored her own prejudices because she was the luckiest nanny in the city: no one knew she was a nanny. All the other caregivers were a different color than their charges. They all were. And people could tell from a mile away that they didn’t belong together, that at home there was some rich fat mom who didn’t give two shits about the kid. And how could those nanny’s enable that terrible mother. Tsk tsk.
But she looked like she could be Ally’s mom, or at least her grandma. She never had a problem walking around with her because she knew she was fooling everyone. And Ally loved her, she knew. Ally smiled every time Lita picked her up. She was young yet, and hadn’t gotten the hang of expressing her happiness with ease, but Lita’s presence brought out something within Ally. Something deep and true, and something she hoped she would share with the people in her life that she loved.
But not her parents. She didn’t want them to have any of it. They didn’t deserve it. They were pigs and heartless and weak. And she wanted them to pay so dearly.
She locked her apartment door after a while. She pulled the phone cord out of the wall and locked the windows. She turned the lights off and laid the baby down on the bed, wrapping her in Junior’s childhood blanket, which was actually an old flannel shirt she used to wear. She stood away from the bed and cracked the window, smoking a cigarette.
Word got out in the afternoon about who the kid was, and who the cop was, and it didn’t take long for Brian to find out that Tina was inconsolable at home and the baby was gone. Detectives came to Lita’s first, and getting no answer called in the big guns, a swat team and hostage negotiator.
It was a circus. SWAT vans, black and white police cruisers, ambulances, fire trucks, news crews, and a throng of protesters and supporters gathered outside of her building on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Lita’s neighbors blocked the stairwells with furniture. They were all too familiar with the NYPD covering their fuckups with the blood of more innocents. They would protect the kind woman who did nothing but keep her boys safe.
The NYPD crafted a story for the News organizations: “Nanny Kidnaps Police Major’s Child.” They made it seem like it was a protest to the killing. There was no mention of a connection between the victim and the kidnapper, and one wouldn’t be established for days because Lita had a different last name. The story became about how the Major was taking to the streets in response to the recent sex crimes. How he was following up on a lead and was confronted by a gang. How he defended himself against young, ruthless thugs. How the picture was just part of the liberal bias and smear campaign against Ray Kelly’s NYPD, and that this was just a good cop doing his job. It became about what kind of monster could kidnap a child. She was adopted, for chrissakes!
Gabriel had been told about his brother in school. The counselors had spoken to him and consoled him until the end of the school day, and then they told him to go home. On his way he saw the situation at his mom’s on the news. He got to his building and couldn’t get past the police tape, no one hearing his cries about Lita being his mom and if he could just talk to her. He caught the business end of a cop’s nightstick and had to go to the emergency room for stitches. It would be almost a year until he saw his mother again.
The protesters had dwindled and the press were blocked from the building. The police waited until nightfall to break down her door. When they entered, Lita was sitting on her bed, looking through a photo album and drinking a glass of red wine, the baby sound asleep next to her. She was arrested violently, her head bashed into the door jam by a female SWAT team member, a blood blister burst in her eye. There was one picture taken of her by an independent journalist, and her eye was prominently featured. When she appealed her case for early release, and won, it was this picture that made her entire case.
When the police brought her down, Lita was taken immediately to central booking, arraigned, and sent to Nassau County Women’s lockup in Queens. The baby was brought directly to police headquarters and given to Brian who was waiting there with Tina. They were in a huge, Victorian chamber with Chief Kelly, the mayor, and the mayor’s girlfriend. The baby came in crying, as she had been since the SWAT members jostled her awake almost an hour prior. She would cry for close to 24 hours, no one able to console her.
Brian tried first, and after five minutes of her heartbreaking wail, he passed Ally off to Tina and couldn’t look at her. It would be a long time before he held her again. Tina caressed the child’s cheeks and tried to soothe her back to sleep, imitating the way Lita used to hum lullabies. That seemed to make it worse. Ally’s cries seemed to be the same as a when an adult cries uncontrollably, heartbreaking to hear because they are trying to stifle it. Ally seemed to want to stop, but was unable to do so.
Tina wanted to tell Ally all of this as she held her hand in that bed in Arizona, two thousand miles and almost 25 years since the ordeal. She wanted to tell Ally that she wouldn’t testify for Lita, and let her go to prison for an entire year. She wanted to say that Lita got out and tried to contact her, and apologize, and she ignored all of her calls. She wanted to say that she stopped loving Brian that day. That when he told her they would have to leave New York because Lita’s case was being overturned and he would either leave now in secret or get fired very publicly, that she had said he should go. She wanted to tell her that he got physical with her and she feared for her life, and that she was weak and went with him for no reason other than fear.
She wanted to say that she never felt like as good of a mother to Ally as Lita was in only a few months. She wanted to say that her husband was a bad man and anything that he ever told her she should forget. She wanted to say that he only wanted a kid for public leverage in his quest to climb the ladder, and though he said he loved her, he never really meant it. She wanted to say that she spent the last 25 years encouraging him to go out at night with his friends and co-workers, telling him to have as many drinks as he wanted, hoping night after night that she would get the call that he had driven his car off of an overpass. She wanted to tell her how happy she was when he finally did crash, and how she felt free for the first time in her life.
She wanted to tell her that all she wanted her daughter to have found out about all of this on her own. That she wanted to tell her everything, every night of her entire life, but was too afraid of what she might say. She wanted to say that part of her was disappointed in Ally for having not figured it out, and for having never confronted her about it. She was disappointed that Ally never used her immense anger on her, never made her feel guilty or pay for uprooting her from the city life she deserved to have. She wanted to apologize for taking away her smile.
She never said these things.
She hugged Ally and in the morning brought her to the airport. When they reached the gate, Tina revealed she would not be joining her daughter in New York.
“Not for a while,” she said. “I’m not ready to go back there just yet. You should try it by yourself, at first. You’re staying in the dorm, and you’ll find work quickly. And if you have any questions, here.”
She handed her the picture, with a phone number written on the back.
“Ask for Carmelita. And please tell her I said hi.”
A | A | A
If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”