Beth Marks stood in her immaculately clean and organized kitchen, using cookie cutters to cut stars out of watermelon. She’d already carved the rind into a basket that she was in the process of filling with berries and all of Marcus’s favorite fruits.
“Annie, would you mind checking the lasagna to see if it’s done?”
Annie reached over to steal a piece of fruit before sliding off the stool and making her way to the oven. “You are putting in an awful lot of hard work for something he probably won’t even notice. He’s a teenager. They don’t pay attention to these kind of things.”
Beth agreed that her sister was probably right, Marcus probably wouldn’t care, but it was his birthday and she wanted things to look nice for him. In all honesty, she’d wanted to throw him a bigger party and invite all his friends. This was scaled down from her original plans, because Marcus had insisted on just a dinner and presents with family before he went to the movies with his friends.
The back door opened and Ruby and her four-year-old daughter, Sarah, walked in carrying their gifts for Marcus. Ruby looked harried as Sarah squirmed next to her.
“Mommy, can I go play?” She asked.
Ruby nodded. “Yes, yes. Go. Have fun.”
“Sadie’s in the playroom,” Annie called as the little girl trotted off.
Ruby sighed as she set the presents with the others on the counter. “That kid wears me out. Stan got called in to work so he won’t be able to make it tonight. He said to tell you he was sorry.”
“Aww, well I’ll make sure to send some leftovers with you.”
Ruby eyed the intricate fruit basket Beth was still putting together. “You can’t just buy a fruit tray from the grocery store like the rest of us, can you?”
“It’s his birthday. It needs to be special.”
“Where is birthday boy by the way?” Ruby asked as she took a stack of plates out of the cabinet.
“Still at the DMV with Rio.”
“That place is the worst,” Annie said. “Hopefully, he doesn’t get Shirley. She was so awful. I gave the car behind me a little love tap when I was backing out and she was all like ‘you don’t get a license.’ Their standards are impossible. It took me like three tries before I got mine.”
“Sure, Annie, it’s not that you’re a terrible driver. It’s that Shirley was out to get you,” Ruby said, looking knowingly at Beth who rolled her eyes and grinned.
“I just want Marcus to be a safe and responsible driver,” Beth said as she saran wrapped the fruit basket.
“I think you don’t want him to pass at all,” Annie noted.
Beth bit her lip. Her sister wasn’t wrong. She was very nervous about her son driving. He was a good kid - an honor roll student and a forward on the soccer team - with a pretty good head on his shoulders. But he was still a teenager and not completely immune to making dumb decisions especially when it came to girls. Much like his father, he had an inner charisma that made girls flock to him. It didn’t hurt that he was tall, dark, and handsome too. The girls seemed to go ga-ga over his tan skin and baby blue eyes.
Even though he’d gone on dates and had a couple of steady girlfriends, Beth could never quite get used to the fact that her baby was growing up. Her heart ached every time she thought about him going away to college in a few years. His heart was set on Notre Dame. She just wanted him to stay her chubby, happy, smiling boy forever.
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t be too sad if he didn’t get his license today,” Beth admitted.
“So…how are things with you and Gregg?” Ruby asked tentatively as she set the silverware next to the plates on the table.
Beth shook her head. The only relationship that was almost as messed up as hers and Rio’s was Annie and Gregg’s. She didn’t doubt their love for one another but they couldn’t seem to live together for more than a couple of months without wanting to kill each other.
“You know we talked through some things and I think we’re in a good place right now.”
Ruby nodded. “That’s good. Was he able to make it tonight?”
“Yeah, he’s with the kids playing video games.” Annie clapped her hands suddenly. “Oh, so our Beth has some news. Have she told you yet, Ruby?”
Shaking her head, Ruby replied, “No, what’s up?”
Beth shot a warning glance at her sister. This really wasn’t the right time or place to discuss the matter.
“One of Beth’s work friends set her up on a date. They’re going out next weekend.”
Ruby’s mouthed opened wide in shock. “What?!? You haven’t been on a date…”
“In over fifteen years? Yeah, I know.” And even though she didn’t really want to go on the date she was forcing herself to. She’d realized just how pathetic her life or lack of one had become. She was more than just a mom. She was a woman.
“In between school and work, being a mom, taking care of my own mom,” Helping my sister raise her own kid, she thought to herself but didn’t say it out loud. “I really haven’t had the time, but I’m gonna start making time for myself.”
“Good for you,” Ruby said. “You want me to set out drinks for everyone?”
Beth shook her head. “We’ll let everyone get their own.”
“So what’s he like?” Ruby asked. “Have you met him before?”
“No, he was a former patient of Mandy’s. She was his physical therapist after he was in a bad car wreck. Apparently, he’s a few years older, but our kids are around the same age. He’s also recently divorced. I’ll give it a try,” Beth shrugged. “Hopefully we’ll have fun.”
“Hopefully, you’ll get laid,” Annie said. “Someone who spends hours sculpting fruit for fun is in serious need of a good boning.”
Ruby snorted, but quickly looked ashamed for having laughed. “It’s true though. It’s been a minute for you. And you have been spending a lot of time crafting and baking lately. It’s not really a substitute for getting some.”
No it was not, Beth admitted, but there hadn’t been much she could do about it. Her job and her family kept her insanely busy.
“How long has it been?” Annie asked. “Like a year?”
“A little over two years.”
Ruby tutted and shook her head.
“You and Rio really haven’t…?” Annie prodded.
A lump formed in Beth’s throat. “No, not since…” her voice trailed off unable to finish. Even two years later, it was still hard to talk about. She’d forgiven Rio for a lot of things over the years, but not this.
“We better change the subject,” Ruby said, walking over to Beth and handing her a Kleenex. “This is a happy day. We’ll talk about happy things.”
Beth nodded wordlessly. “I’m just going to go to the bathroom for a moment and freshen up my makeup,” she managed to croak out.
Fifteen minutes later, Beth returned to the kitchen to find the back door opening again. This time it was Marcus and Rio who entered. Marcus walked in with his head down and shoulders slumped.
“Oh, honey, what happened?” Beth asked, sensing she knew where this was going.
“Did you not pass?” Annie asked. “Did you have Shirley?”
Marcus sniffed and shook his head, still looking at the floor.
“There’s always next time.”
“That’s too bad.”
Marcus looked up and grinned widely. “Just playing. I passed,” he said, taking his license out and showing it off.
Beth smiled and shook her head not having fallen for his act for a second. Marcus loved playing tricks and pranks on others. He was a delightful goofball that got along well with everyone. He had tons of friends, way more than she had ever had in school, and teachers constantly raved about him. She wasn’t quite sure how they’d done it, but she and Rio had raised a pretty amazing kiddo.
“And it gets even better, mom. Dad said if I passed the test I could have his car. So guess who’s not only got a license but a car? This guy.”
Beth chewed on her bottom lip in hopes of quelling her inner frustration. What had possessed Rio to give their teenage son a brand new car? And what had possessed him to do so without even talking to her first?
“That’s great, sweetie. I’m glad you passed. Dinner’ll be ready in about fifteen minutes. Gregg, Sadie, and Sarah are in the playroom if you want to say hi. Rio, can we talk for a second outside?”
Rio knew Beth wouldn’t like the fact he’d given their son a car without talking to her first. Half of him knew he’d done it just to rile her. Immature as it was, getting a rise out of her was still one of his favorite things to do. It wasn’t like it was easy to have a conversation with her lately. They hardly talked anymore. When they did, it was short and to the point. She could barely stand to look at him and she flinched any time he tried to touch her. He was desperate for some kind of interaction with her whether it was good or bad.
Once outside, Beth stared at the black Honda parked next to the curb and shook her head. “Why would you give him a car without talking to me first?”
Rio shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s a good kid. Thought he deserved it.”
“That doesn’t make it OK. There are a lot of factors to consider when making this kind of decision. On top of that, he doesn’t need a brand new car. If you had come to me and talked about it, we could have split the cost of a used car.”
Shrugging again, he said, “What’s done is done.”
“Well, you’re going to have to undo it. He can’t keep the car.”
The corners of his mouth tilted upwards upon seeing the fire in her eyes again. He liked it when she went toe to toe with him. It was far better than her cold disinterest.
“That be a pretty crappy thing to do on his birthday, wouldn’t it, ma? I got you a car. Just kidding I’m taking it back.”
“That’s your problem, Rio. You could always go with the truth. That you didn’t OK it with me first and that’s why he can’t have it.”
“Other than the car came from me….what problem do you have with him having a car? You don’t think he can handle the responsibility? That kid still gets up early every day to walk that dumb dog we got for his eighth birthday. Don’t punish him because you’re trying to get back at me, sweetheart.”
“That’s not what this is about…”
The back door swung open and they were quickly met with the sounds of a shrieking child. “I will never share! I WILL NEVER SHARE!”
“Hey, mom, dad,” Marcus said as he approached with the wiggling child. “We’ve got a bit of a problem here."
Marcus set the four-year-old down on the ground in front of his parents. “He wasn’t being very nice to Sarah.”
Rio crouched low and got eye to eye with his younger son. Although strikingly similar in appearance, his sons’ personalities were as different as night and day. Marcus was pleasant and easy-going and then there was Felix.
“Aiight, El Diablo, why you mad?”
“She always…she always take my stuff. But it’s mine,” he whined.
“She came over to play with you so you gotta let her play with your toys. That’s the nice thing to do.”
Felix crossed his little arms over his chest and said, “I don’t give a f—“
“Felix!” Beth said sharply. “What did I say about using that word?”
Rio inwardly winced, knowing his son had learned that phrase from him. Felix had overheard him talking to an associate over the phone and it had quickly become one of his favorite phrases. Just another thing to add to the long list of reasons why Elizabeth hated him.
“It’s not fair,” he lisped. “It’s not fair. I don’t want her to play with my stuff.”
“It is fair,” Rio replied. “When you go to her house, she lets you play with her stuff, doesn’t she?”
“Who cares? I don’t want to play with her stupid girl toys.”
“I’m sorry, pop, but that’s just the way it is. If someone comes over to play, you share your toys or if you don’t share you can have a time out while they play. Is that what you want?”
Felix shook his head vehemently.
Beth crouched next to them. “What are you going to say to Sarah?”
“I’m gonna say sorry.”
“Are you going to share?” Rio asked.
“Yes,” Felix replied miserably.
“Make sure you do. Marcus, can you take him back inside? Your dad and I are almost done talking. We’ll be inside in just a minute.”
She waited for the door to close before she started speaking. “He can keep the car, but if he wrecks it then we’re not getting him another one.”
Rio nodded. “Sure.”
“Oh, and we got a postcard in the mail about an open house night for Felix’s school. He’ll get to meet his pre-k teacher. It’s in a couple of weeks.”
“I’ll call Father Julio and see if he has time to perform an exorcism before school starts back up.”
Beth sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about him. Marcus was so much easier.”
A wisp of strawberry-blond hair fell across Beth’s forehead. Involuntarily, Rio reached out to smooth it away from her brow. At first, neither of them thought anything of the action, but a second later a look of pain flashed across Beth’s face and she stepped back. “We better head back inside.”