Giselle and Coco enjoyed a quiet dinner at the Olive Garden that felt, momentarily, normal. They played tic-tac-toe with straws and sugar packets. Giselle thought about how Roy would get annoyed that they were making such a mess, especially when one of the sugar packets might open. She wondered, ridiculously, whether that might be why he left. But then she caught herself. That was exactly the kind of thinking that was keeping her stagnant.
After dinner, she steered the rental car into a curbside parking space after circling the beach city blocks at least four times to find one. She pulled up on the brake, wiped away a tear that sometimes appeared when she was in silence and darkness, and glanced into the rearview mirror: Coco’s blond bangs had fallen across her forehead as her head lulled to one side, resting on Ninja Kitty.
Giselle sighed. When Coco used to fall asleep in the car as a toddler, Roy would carry her. Now that her little girl wasn’t so little anymore, putting her on her hip was like carrying an octopus. But she hoisted Coco, tucked Ninja Kitty between them, and trudged back the two blocks to the apartment, tucking her daughter’s gangly legs around her waist.
As she got nearer the apartment, the smoke of a charcoal grill coiled through the salty air. She managed the last few pebbled-concrete steps and dragged herself to the crest of the railing.
“Hey,” shouted one of the boys, “it’s Donna.” He snapped his bangs to the side and pushed up from the wall to help her unhinge the gate.
She didn’t bother to correct him. He probably didn’t remember her name because he didn’t care. She did welcome his help with the gate, however—it felt like Coco weighed two hundred pounds all of a sudden.
“Big day for the little dudette.” He thrust his chin toward Coco.
Giselle smiled tiredly and shifted Coco’s legs.
As a riotous cheer erupted over her shoulder, several hypercharged bodies spilled out Rabbit’s front door—all shoving onto the patio. Another of the boys, who looked Hawaiian, stood guard over the smoking grill. “Easy.” He pressed them back with his elbows.
As Giselle turned from the scent of grilled sausage to fumble for her front-door key, Rabbit appeared.
“Shhhhhh,” he told the louder boys, pressing his palms toward the ground. He strode across the patio and took the key from Giselle to unlock her door. While she shuffled into the dark living room, Rabbit leaned in the doorway.Coco’s braids flopped across her neck as Giselle laid her on the couch with Ninja Kitty.
“Join us,” Rabbit said, tilting his curls toward the patio.
“I can’t,” Giselle whispered.
“She’ll be fine. You can sit in front of the door—we’ll leave it open.”
“Just one beer.”
She took the key from him and smiled apologetically. “Thanks anyway.”
I’m too old, was what she was thinking. And someone’s mother. And I need to make the rest of the cookies.
He nodded and looked at her soulfully. For a young guy, Rabbit looked like he had a lot of years in him.
“Where does your name come from?” She took off her jacket. She could make a little conversation. She sort of welcomed the company tonight.
“It’s a nickname I had since I was a kid.” His syllables fell into a long drawl. “When I was first learning to surf, I used to do my pop-ups really fast, and I guess I looked like a rabbit.”
Giselle tried to picture a tinier mop-topped version of him and smiled. “What’s your real name?”
“Henry.” He laughed abruptly, as if he hadn’t heard it spoken aloud in a long time.
“Does a person ‘pop up’ fast when he’s scared?” she teased.
Rabbit’s head jerked back. “Scared? No. I was just small and skinny.” He slumped into the doorway and then seemed to realize she was razzing him. He grinned and inspected the beer bottle in his hand. “I like your sister,” he announced.
“It’s hard not to like Lia.”
“She told me to watch out for you, but you seem to be doing okay for yourself.”
She adjusted her jacket on the barstool and sighed. The idea of Lia asking someone to “watch out for her” embarrassed her. They all worried about her now—her mom, her sisters—they all acted as if she were going to fly apart any minute. Sometimes, actually, she did—there were moments after Roy’s sudden disappearance when she thought she was looking down at herself from above, watching a complete stranger. But it bothered her that they all knew. As the oldest child, she’d always been the levelheaded one, the responsible one, the one who had it all together. But now they knew she’d lost her footing. It made her feel revealed and vulnerable, like a rabbit herself—exposed out of its den.
Giselle cleared her throat. “Yes, I’m sure I am.” She began organizing her belongings along the countertop.
“Lia said she set you up with Dan the Man.”
Dan. That was his name. . . . “Yeah, I guess so. Thursday night.” She was dreading it, but one date wouldn’t kill her. Lia said she had to start somewhere. “What’s he like?”
“He’s okay. He’s a real estate guy here. Lotsa money.”
Giselle nodded. Sounded like Lia’s type, actually. But he obviously didn’t impress Rabbit here much.
“Fin was asking about you, though,” Rabbit said.
Giselle’s heart skipped, right there, as she stalled with her key ring halfway into her purse.
She went back to fussing with the place mats on the breakfast bar. There must be some mistake. Surfer boys with rock-shaped shoulders did not ask about PTA moms from Indiana.
“I didn’t know how much you might want to be bothered during your weeks here, though,” Rabbit continued, shifting in the doorway, “so I didn’t know what to tell him.”
She brushed a few breakfast crumbs off the countertop so she wouldn’t have to meet Rabbit’s eyes. She didn’t want to know whether he thought it was weird for a friend of his to be asking about an older, divorced mom from suburbia. Fin must have been asking about her regarding work, or the photographs. Maybe he had wanted a cookie.
“What did he want to know?” she asked.
“If you were married.”
Giselle knocked over a saltshaker. Surely, this must be a mistake. Rabbit must have misunderstood. Perhaps Fin needed someone to sew a button on his swimsuit or something.
“Rabbit, how old are you guys?” She rearranged the salt and pepper shakers. She needed to restore a little balance to her universe. “Some of those boys looked like they were barely out of high school—are they old enough to drink?”
“I’m twenty-three—old enough to drink.” He winked. “Most of us are twenty-two or twenty-three.”
Giselle took her time before asking the next question. “And Fin?”
“Ah, Fin’s an old man. He’s not one of us.”
Giselle wasn’t sure which of those two statements interested her more. She cleared her throat while she assembled her next question, but Coco stirred on the couch and wriggled into a sitting position.
“Mommy.” Coco shoved her bangs back with her palm. “Can I have water?”
“Sure, baby.” Giselle hustled into the kitchen, relieved to be back in her own world.
As she rounded the kitchen corner, her cell phone rang, pulling her even further back into normalcy—it was a tinkling piano sound, Beethoven’s Fifth, which her ex-husband had programmed nearly a year and a half ago.
“I’ll go.” Rabbit ducked his head and waved. “Anything you need, Giselle, just ask.”
The door clicked behind him as Giselle rummaged through her purse for the jangling phone. She wished Rabbit hadn’t left. Despite how young he seemed, he felt kind, and comfortable, and Giselle had the urge to sit on the floor with him and ask a million questions, as if he held the key to a new world she might want to hear about right now—something foreign and fascinating that could dangle a little magic before her eyes. She knew she couldn’t stay in that world, but hearing about it would do her well, like a child who wants a bedtime story about princesses to ward off any monsters that might show up instead.
Beethoven’s Fifth pealed again, and she looked at her phone with resignation. “Hello?”
“Giselle,” came the voice on the other line. His flat intonation registered right away, even though she hadn’t heard much of it in months. Four, to be exact. Four months, two weeks, and two days. She was amazed he could still make her hand shake.
“Yes?” She tried to keep her voice steady, uninterested. She wanted him to think she didn’t know who this was. She wanted him to think she had men calling her cell phone all the time, at eight or nine o’clock, and she couldn’t differentiate between all their voices.
“He’s dead,” he said.
Giselle breathed in, let another breath out.
“The funeral is Tuesday. I’m flying out tonight. I know you left a message saying you and Coco would be in Sandy Cove all week, so I’d like you to be there. It’s only about thirty miles from where you’re staying. It would mean a lot to Mom. And Ray-Lynn.”
Giselle’s world kept closing in, the voices and names from the past, trying to edge into the new world she was trying to create. She had the foreboding sense that the voices and names wanted to fill her new space, push her out. She imagined herself falling over a cliff.
“Roy, why aren’t you returning my calls? I’ve been calling—”
“This isn’t the time, Giselle. My father just died. Are you going to be there?”
She gripped the counter to steady herself. She didn’t know what to respond to first: his typical reprimand, the fact that he was forming real sentences to her on the phone for the first time in four months, the fact that Joe had finally passed from cancer, or the uneasy awareness she was going to have to come face-to-face with Roy again, right here in California, just as she was just starting to get her life back together.
“I’ll be there,” she said.
He gave her the details; then she put the phone down and went to get Coco her glass of water. She sat on the couch and stroked her little girl’s hair until she fell asleep. Giselle’s tears these days had a few different wellsprings, but the main one, right now, was the fact that Roy hadn’t even asked about Coco.
The squawk of seagulls woke her.
Giselle lay in bed and watched Coco’s profile, listening to the gulls’ cries and thinking about how different morning sounds were in different parts of the country.
She didn’t know how she was going to face Roy. She hadn’t seen him once since that humble day when she’d found the note underneath the cantaloupe next to the bowl of breakfast bars: “I’ve met someone else, G. I’m so very sorry.”
Since then—since the floor had fallen out from underneath her—she had never managed to put all the pieces back together. He had run away. Their accounts had closed. He hadn’t explained. He never returned her calls, only texted her from time to time so they could set up a visit with Coco, which they handled by switching pickups after school. She was served divorce papers in front of the grocery store about four weeks later.
Giselle turned her head on the pillow and studied Coco. She was so bold, so carefree. Giselle wanted, more than anything, for Coco to regain her life. She had been such a trouper with all the Roy hoopla: Her little life was turning upside down, and she rarely cried or complained. She asked for her dad from time to time, but when Giselle said he wouldn’t be returning for a while,Coco simply shrugged. She’d been without him enough evenings in her five years to not have it make much difference. In the meantime, Giselle tried to do normal things as often as possible—serve fish sticks on Fridays, get ice cream after kindergarten on the last day of every month, and play at the park on Saturday mornings.
And this getaway, by token of being a getaway, was Giselle’s chance to welcome new traditions. It was time to start their new life together, just them.
But now—with this funeral invite—Roy was going to send her two steps back again.
Coco’s eyes fluttered open, and her lips curled into a sleepy smile. “Hi, Mommy.”
“Why are you looking at me?”
“I’m looking at how wonderful you are.”
“You can see that?”
“Mommies can always see that.”
Coco unfurled her body into a long cat’s stretch. She kicked off the covers and stretched as far as she could, then snapped back into a coil on her side and faced Giselle over her pillow.
“What’s a fish with no eyes?”
Giselle frowned. “Is this a joke, or do you mean seriously?”
“It’s a joke.”
“Hmmm . . . a fish with no eyes . . . I give up.”
“A fsh.”Coco laughed and threw her legs over the side of the bed. “Can we go down to the water this morning?”
Giselle smiled. “Let’s eat breakfast first.”
They ate plain Eggo waffles from Lia’s freezer while Giselle made a list of groceries they’d need, with a little help from Coco, who quietly suggested hot dogs and fruit roll-ups. Giselle crinkled her nose. But then, at Coco’s hopeful eyes, she stopped. A new life. New traditions. She wrote “fruit roll-ups” next to the apples and grapes, and Coco touched her lips and giggled.
They wandered through the corner beach market in sun hats and flip-flops, dropping obnoxiously colored prepackaged items in the basket along with Giselle’s fresh fruit. As Giselle stood in front of a display of apples, she thought about how similar and different the experience was at the same time: This was Lia’s market, next to the ocean, so different from hers, and yet the Lean Cuisines were still next to the Smart Ones; the Jiffy still next to the Skippy. Same. But different. It brought her an odd comfort.
“You girls visiting?” asked the elderly lady at the checkout line. She smiled at Coco, whose white-blond waves were barely contained in the narrow braids that bobbed just below her shoulders. Giselle had plaited them while Coco sat in the middle of the surfboard this morning.
Giselle nodded as a rack across the aisle caught her eye.
Hair color. Every color imaginable. She darted across the line and grabbed the first that called to her. Although she’d always been a blonde, the color she held was an intriguing reddish tone. Strawberry, it said.
The woman added it to the bag. “You girls have a wonderful time,” she said, throwing the color into a bag. “Do you need help to your car?”
“No, thanks,” said Giselle.
They were, she decided, fine on their own.
The surf grew louder as Giselle and Coco trekked the few blocks to the ocean. She’d left half the groceries on the kitchen counter—she wanted to mimic Coco’s spontaneity, rushing back through the door with only a clear mind and a beach towel—but now she couldn’t stop making a mental list of what had been left on the countertop. She didn’t leave the frozen strawberries out, did she?
“Mommy, look!” Coco pointed to a caged iguana on a tortilla-colored patio. The home had a Spanish-tile red roof. Hot-pink bougainvillea exploded along one side.
Giselle stepped closer to the waist-high wrought-iron gate and peered over it with Coco, smiling at the funny pet. They decided his name should be Iggy.
Giselle had walked these same sidewalks in Sandy Cove about six years ago, visiting when Lia had first moved in. They had strolled next to these same stucco homes—each a paler shade of sand than the last, with low-walled patios lined with potted succulents. Iron lounge chairs, padded with striped-green cushions fading from the sun and salt, still lay in wait for their owners. Giselle had been about eight months pregnant with Coco then. Rabbit and the boys were probably still living with their parents. Roy was still kind. And the world seemed like it was a flower waiting to unfurl.
She took a deep breath and fought back the heavy pang in her chest. Her sisters had been right about Roy. It was terrible that she’d let him isolate her. Roy had never “approved” of them, and she’d let herself become more and more pulled away, wanting to please this man she’d so admired. He rolled his eyes when Giselle mentioned Lia—saying her independent ways were never going to win her a husband—and spoke with disdain whenever Noelle’s name came up—a “girl with her head in the clouds.” Then he’d grab Giselle and tell her that he would never be able to stand the idea of “those girls” rubbing off on her. Soon, Giselle began to see the pattern of conversations about her sisters being followed by Roy being particularly paranoid, then demanding, in bed—ordering her clothes off, with a resentful, irritated bark, and throwing a certain aggression into sex that made Giselle’s teeth grind. Over the years, she found it simply easier not to talk about them. And certainly not to visit them. It was just one more thing she’d grown to resent.
Coco sank her bare toes in the sand, and they weaved their way past a quilt of colorful beach towels to find a spot near the water. Giselle tilted her head back to the late-day sun, letting it warm her until it reached all the way down to a calming spot in her chest. She sprayed sunblock all over Coco, plus on the few patches of skin she herself revealed—her wrists and ankles—then let Coco make elaborate sand castles near the water.
“You know who lives here?” Coco asked Giselle, pointing at her largest castle. She had just trudged back up from the water’s edge for the millionth time with another pail full of sandy, murky water. The sun was sitting low on the horizon.
“Who?” said Giselle.
“Me.” She readied her pail with both hands to pour into the moat she’d created around the sand mansion. “And you. And Iggy. And a prince.”
She nodded solemnly. “For you.”
Coco poured the water into the moat and sat back on her haunches, the sand granules sticking to her legs in circular patterns, while the water swirled briefly, then disappeared into the sand.
“Oh.” The wind swept the tendrils of yellow hair around her ears while she put together what just happened. “I guess we need soldiers.” She scrambled to her feet and ran back to the foamy surf to look for pebbles and shells, which she collected the rest of the afternoon. She spent the good part of the next few hours making sure they all had a specific place to stand guard.
A knock sounded on the front door as Giselle lined the fish sticks along the cookie sheet. The sun cast a golden glow through the curtains.
She padded across the floor in her bare feet, pulling her cover-up tighter, and flung open the door.
“Heeeeey,” Rabbit drawled.
Giselle smiled. She liked Rabbit.
Coco ran up from behind and peeked her head around the door.
“I came to ask you two about a party tonight,” he said.
“Oh, no, thanks, Rabbit.”
“It’ll be fun.”
“You have something against having fun?”
“Of course not. It’s just . . . not my thing. . . .”
He smirked. “Fun is not your thing?”
“Parties are not my thing.”
A flash of honesty went through her mind, though, of the multitude of charity balls and hospital events she’d attended over the years for Roy, and she felt a pang of guilt for lying. She’d been attending parties for Roy’s medical colleagues for years, signing up for committees, standing around in floor-length gowns, doing him proud. “Beach parties are not my thing,” she amended.
“You have a lot of beach parties in Indiana?” Rabbit said, smiling.
“I just don’t—” She began to explain, but then stopped. She was tired of defending herself. She motioned toward the kitchen. “I’m putting fish sticks on.”
“Weeeell . . .” Rabbit followed her into the kitchen and glanced over her shoulder at her baking tray. “I’m pretty sure there’ll be something better than fish sticks there.”
“I have Coco.”
“There’ll be lots of kids.” He took a frozen fish stick off the tray and tried to bite into it.
She glanced at Coco. Rabbit had already found her weak spot.
Lia, too, had mentioned in her phone message earlier that Giselle should go out and have fun. Giselle had been so happy to hear from her—when she’d called back and gotten voice mail, she’d almost asked about Fin—Have you seen this guy? Do you know who he is?—but then she chickened out, embarrassed to ask such a thing of her younger sister, who was trying to set her up with a stable real estate investor. Instead, she left a message about Rabbit and how nice he’d been.
Rabbit waved a fish stick. “This is terrible. C’mon.”
Giselle felt something inside her give up. Maybe this was the reason Roy left her—maybe she was too cautious, too closed off. Maybe she was going to end up being some old lady, with just Coco and Iggy and some cats. Until Coco left her, too. And then it would just be Giselle. And the iguana. The crazy lady on the hill.
She turned off the oven and put the fish sticks back in the freezer like some sort of wild woman.