Later, when the men were awake and the table had been set, the entire family sat down to eat. Mr. Acosta said a long grace entirely in Spanish while Mark leaned over and spoke in Dylan’s ear, translating. At the end of his prayer, Mr. Acosta opened his eyes and surveyed the table, and with a look of great satisfaction on his face, nodded to indicate that they were free to eat. Watching everyone dig in, enjoying a meal she’d helped prepare filled Dylan with an emotion she couldn’t recall having had before. It was a familial love that she didn’t think she had experienced growing up; and for a moment, she was filled with sadness for her younger self.
Without a doubt, Mark and his siblings had probably had a lot less materially than she had. Mrs. Acosta had never worked and Mr. Acosta had been a city bus driver up to the time of his recent retirement. It could not have been easy for them raising four kids. And yet, Dylan would have bet anything that Mark and his siblings had never felt as disadvantaged as she had. As Ava had.
Her sudden thought about her friend was followed by an uncontrollable urge to call her. Dylan quietly excused herself and went to the bedroom, pulling out her cell and dialing Ava’s number. Getting no answer, she almost hung up but decided instead to leave a message.
“Hey,” she said. “I was having breakfast . . . Christmas Eve breakfast is kind of a big deal here . . . and thought about you. And about how we used to sneak out on Christmas Eve, remember that? When we’d take the train to 34th Street and go see what we called ‘real Christmas’?
“Remember how we used to go to Macy’s and look at the window displays, and at the families shopping? Anyway, I miss you. And I wanted to let you know that I was thinking about that, and about you. ‘Bye.”
She ended the call and sat there for a moment, sending Ava positive thoughts, hoping she was okay. Then on a whim she dialed her mother’s number in Arizona. She had no idea what time it was there, probably very early. But if she didn’t call when she had an impulse, she might not do it at all. Their calls were always so brief, so distant, that it was tough to muster up the enthusiasm to go through with it.
As she’d expected, her mother was sleeping, or just waking, and sounded muffled. In the background, she could hear Stuart asking if everything was okay.
“Sorry I woke you, Mom. Just checking in.”
“Is everything okay?” she asked, her voice anxious.
“Yes. Wonderful. Perfect in fact. I just wanted to, I don’t know, just to say hi I guess.”
Her mother yawned. “How’s the weather there?” she asked.
Dylan laughed softly. “Beautiful. Surprisingly cool this morning. But beautiful.”
That was the kind of thing they talked about—the weather. At that moment Mark stuck his head in. Dylan smiled at him reassuringly and mouthed the word ‘Mom’.
“Well you make sure you enjoy yourself,” her mother said. “After taking the LSATs and all that, you deserve to unwind a little.”
“I will,” Dylan said, eager to be gone now that Mark was listening. “And I’ll try to call you tomorrow. Christmas Day and all. So . . .”
But before she could say anything further, Mark had taken the phone from her.
“Mrs. Sanger,” he said. “Good morning. This is Mark, Dylan’s boyfriend.”
Dylan stiffened. She couldn’t hear what her mother was saying, but she could only imagine how surprised she had to be to suddenly be in conversation with someone she only knew about in the abstract. She doubted that her mother had even committed Mark’s name to memory.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t join us,” Mark continued. “My family would have loved to have you.”
Mark’s back was to her as he held the phone, so Dylan couldn’t tell anything without his facial expression as a barometer. Too nervous to stick around, she went into the bathroom and washed her face and hands, even though she didn’t need to. Then she waited another couple of minutes and went back to the bedroom. Mark was saying nothing, but was nodding.
“Yes,” he said finally. “I would like that. And don’t worry, I’ll look after her.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too. Do you want Dylan back? Sure. You take care.” Mark handed her the phone and ran the back of his hand against her cheek before heading back to eat breakfast. “See you out there in a minute.”
“Mom?” Dylan said warily.
“He’s very charming,” her mother said.
“And he tells me he has two brothers and a sister. Must be a full house over there.”
“Yes. But it’s fun. You would have liked it, I think.”
Leslie Sanger laughed. “Oh I’m sure it would have been a barrel of laughs.”
“Are you being sarcastic?” Dylan asked, annoyed.
“Well you know I like my peace and quiet,” her mother said, chastened. “That’s all I meant.”
“Well you could have walked on the beach every morning to meditate,” Dylan said, her voice tight. “If someone didn’t enjoy spending time with the Acostas it only be because they weren’t making anything approaching an effort.”
“I can see I’ve offended you,” her mother said, her voice quieter. “Mark seemed to believe you’d invited me to come along.”
“I never told him that,” Dylan said quickly.
“But I’m quite sure you implied it,” her mother said.
Dylan said nothing.
“Well. I told him that Stuart and I would love to have you both if he ever had a mind to come out west.”
Dylan closed her eyes. Like she would let that happen.
“Okay. Well, sorry again to have woken you. I’d better get back to the breakfast table.”
“Dylan,” her mother stopped her.
“He sounds like a wonderful person, honey. I hope you have a great time.”
“Thanks. Say hey to Stuart.” She hung up and sat on the bed for a moment, trying to recapture her good mood before going out to rejoin the family.
The rest of the day was like the food Olympics. Once all of Mr. and Mrs. Acosta’s extended family showed up, Dylan, Xiomara and Miri were relieved from kitchen duty as the older women took over. The whole pig had been roasted at someone’s house and was brought in as the centerpiece of the table, and from noon onwards, food came out in waves—fish, rice and beans fried plantains, pasteles en hojas, pan talera, and assorted other seasonal favorites. And if you weren’t in the kitchen the only thing you were expected to do was eat.
Dylan spent much of the afternoon sitting on Mark’s lap, his arms wrapped tightly about her waist while he laughed and talked with his family, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish and sometimes a mixture of the two. Later she sat in the grass just beyond the pool with Xiomara and played with Pedrito watching Mark’s younger cousins running and playing, squealing and jumping on the lawn about them. When Xiomara took the baby in to change him, Miri came over and collapsed next to her, resting her head unselfconsciously on Dylan’s lap.
“Ugh,” she said. “I think I already gained five pounds since we’ve been here. Reynaldo is going to throw up when he sees me naked.”
Dylan looked down at her.
“I’m eighteen,” Miri said, responding to the question Dylan hadn’t asked. “I know my brothers probably think I’m as pure as the Blessed Virgin but . . .”
“I didn’t say anything,” Dylan laughed.
“I can feel what you’re thinking,” Miri said. “You’re wondering what Mark would say.”
She had been wondering what Mark would say.
“You’re not going to tell him, are you?” Miri sat up suddenly.
Dylan shook her head. “I won’t volunteer any information.”
Miri seemed to be processing this. “But if he asks . . .”
“Well, why would he ask?” Dylan pointed out.
Miri took a deep breath, clearly relieved. “You’re right.”
“But since you brought this up,” Dylan said carefully. “Are you . . . being careful?”
“Condoms,” Miri said. “Every time.”
“Good,” Dylan said, feeling like a hypocrite.
She and Mark didn’t use condoms and never had. The first time they’d been reckless and after that, they’d both gone to get tested to make sure they had a clean bill of health and Dylan was on the pill.
“When do you hear about your LSAT scores?” Miri asked, pointedly changing the subject.
“They should be there waiting for me when I get back,” Dylan said.
“Would you go out of state? To law school I mean.”
“I want to go to NYU, but I guess I would. If it’s a good school, I’d have to go.”
“I want to go to UVa.,” Miri said, as though confessing a deep, dark secret.
“That’s a great school,” Dylan said, nodding.
“You don’t understand,” Miri said, lowering her voice. “I’m not sure how my family would react. It’s so far away . . .”
“Oh Miri, I’m sure they would handle it okay. Lots of people move away for college.”
Miri smiled, looking over and into the house where her mother and father were at the table, fussing over the large helping of food on his plate.
“You don’t know how they are about me,” she said. “They want to keep me a little girl forever. And one way to do that is to keep me close to home.”
Dylan smiled. “I guess that could be difficult,” she said, but what she was really thinking was that there were worse problems to have.
“It is,” Miri said. “Sometimes they just . . . suffocate me.”
“Maybe we should go take a look at it. I mean, go see UVa.,” Dylan suggested. “Before Mark has spring training. And maybe if he sees it and that it’s a good place, you could get his support in preparing your parents if you get in.”
Miri grinned at her. “Would you ask him? To take me down there one weekend?”
Dylan nodded. “Of course.”
Miri looked cautious as though not sure she could be prematurely happy about this development. “And you’ll make sure he knows that it’s your idea, right?”
Dylan shrugged. “Sure. If it’s important . . .”
Miri hugged her, her arms tight about Dylan’s neck. “Thank you!”
Dylan stiffened for a moment then put her arms briefly, awkwardly about her as well. Over Miri’s shoulder, she saw Mark glance over at them and a small smile fleetingly cross his lips before he turned his attention back to his conversation. Dylan couldn’t remember ever having been touched and hugged as much as she had been over the course of this trip. It took some getting used to, but she liked it.
Near midnight, there was a brief verbal skirmish as the older folks tried to get everyone to go to Mass but eventually, the effort exhausted them and they piled into two cars and left the younger folks behind to their domino games, drinking and late night swims. By then all the kids were asleep, laid out in the great room with blankets and pillows as makeshift cots. Dylan went in to watch them sleep, unexpectedly moved by the sight of all those tiny feet sticking out from the end of the sheets and the little curly-haired heads and the sounds of their even, innocent breaths.