Three years before…
The Cortez household was in a bit of a kafuffle. It was a Friday night in April, it was Chelsea’s 11th birthday and their 3-storey house was about to be filled with twenty 6th graders. It had taken a lot of persuading on Chelsea’s part for Robin to agree to a sleepover; thank goodness not all of them could stay.
Every time Marius looked at Chelsea, he couldn’t help but beam with pride. She had grown up a lot this year, taking her first tap dance class despite her insecurity regarding that sort of thing. In the past 2 years, she had gone through a “chubby” phase; in reality it hadn’t been severe at all (Marius had experienced the same thing at that age) but elementary school children have never stopped making mountains out of molehills.
No, indeed, she was growing taller and the extra 10 pounds was distributing itself just fine. Marius was looking forward to seeing her dance recital in June; in fact, he didn’t care if she fell flat on her face or got all the beats wrong – the fact that she was displaying a bravery he knew didn’t come from him made him proud simply to know her and call her his. God had indeed blessed him with such a daughter and none of that would have been possible without such a wife, he knew.
It was days like these when Marius really appreciated everything Robin was able to accomplish. The time was 2:30; in one hour, the children would be here and she already had the house decorated, the exact amount of chairs set up, the ginger-ale chilling and the cake ready to be picked up. His only job tonight was to stick around for crowd control and operate the barbecue, which he was more than happy to do.
Eleven years old…his baby was turning eleven years old. Do not cry at this party, Cortez. It’s not considered cool.
Collecting his thoughts, he returned to his office to finish a few last minute touches on his sermon for Sunday.
Chelsea Cortez could hardly contain her excitement. This day had been one of the best ever: it was a Friday, so school was over for 2 days, and it was her birthday on top of that. Even the kids who were usually kind of mean had left her alone since yesterday and she wasn’t quite sure why. But she certainly wasn’t complaining.
Her mom had promised a really fun party but she wouldn’t know anything about it until she got home. It was like a surprise but not a surprise at the same – her mom had used a big word for it. Paradox? Something like that.
The final bell had rung, and Chelsea was collecting her things out of her locker as fast as she could. Her mom had said that Dad would be there to pick her up at three o’clock on the dot and she did not want to be late.
She turned away from her locker and nearly dropped everything to the floor.
Alex Fairley, the cutest, most popular boy in school, was standing there.
And he had spoken to her.
Seriously, what was going on today?
“H-hey. I’m Chelsea.” You idiot! He just called you by your name!
He smiled, the kind of smile that was confident and butterfly-inducing. “I know who you are. I heard today is your birthday. Is that true?”
Chelsea still struggled to speak, to wrap her mind around the fact that this was her first year in middle school and she was having a conversation with a boy that had been here for a year already. Was he even allowed to notice her?
“Um, yeah. I’m 11 now. I’m having a party later.” But realizing that might not seem cool anymore, quickly said: “But whatever. My mom wanted to do it. It’s her kind of thing.”
“That’s cool.” Alex replied smoothly. “Did you like my present?”
Her heart started sending rapid-fire shots of confusion through her brain. “What present? You got me a present?” Chelsea started fumbling through her backpack, as though he could have smuggled it in there when she wasn’t looking.
He just wouldn’t stop smiling. “Yeah, I talked to some of my friends and we went and talked to some of their friends who’ve been picking on you since you started here. I thought you’d had enough, so I told them to lay off. Have they listened?”
So that explains it. It took another second to really register. Oh my gosh, he did that for me? Ooooh, I can’t look at him, I’m going to go red in the face! Think of something else…
She smiled for the first time. “Yes, they have, so far. It’s been a great day. Thank you for doing that…you didn’t have to…”
He leaned against the lockers. “Sure I did. You’re one of us now.”
Suddenly, Chelsea remembered her dad and looked at her watch. 3:05. Uh-oh.
“Hey, I’ve got to run, my dad’s waiting for me but…do you want to come to my birthday later?” She started sputtering. “I mean, it’ll probably be just a bunch of kids my age eating a barbecue and playing games, but it could be fun.”
Alex looked surprised. “Oh, you know that sounds great, but I actually have soccer practice tonight. Maybe we could hang out next weekend?”
Feeling the urge to go quickly but not wanting to leave this unbelievable opportunity, she started walking backwards, still talking. “Sure! My number’s in the directory. Or, or we could just see each other at school Monday, whatever.” You are so lame!
“For sure. Have a good birthday. And hey, don’t walk into that garbage can.”
Chelsea turned and fled so he wouldn’t see her burning face.
Robin was finally ready. It was almost 3:30; Marius should be home with Chelsea any minute and then the zoo would arrive. She was ready, wasn’t she? Long over were the days when you could get away with having 2 hours worth of cake, games, present-opening and then sending the kids home to their parents hyped on your sugar.
The cleaning lady had come today and Robin had decided to go ahead and book her for tomorrow as well. The sleepover was ending at 10am and by that time, Robin would be more than ready for a new recruit.
She walked through the spacious living room one last time just to make sure when she thought she heard activity in Marius’ office down the hallway. That’s strange. She quietly padded down the hall and cracked open the door. She could clearly see Marius sitting at his computer, typing away madly. She swung the door open.
“Marius! It’s almost 3:30! Why haven’t you gone and picked up Chelsea?”
He swiveled around in surprise and shock. “What? You never said anything about picking up Chelsea! I thought that’s what you were doing. I was just finishing up some sermon notes…”
Robin shook her head in frustration. “I don’t want to hear it right now, Marius. The kids are showing up at any minute and the birthday girl is not here! She’s probably freaking out right now. I’ll call the school and tell them you’re on your way.”
Marius frowned. “But you didn’t even ask me. You can’t act like this is my fault, like I was negligent somehow. You told me that my only job at this party was to be another adult and fire up the barbecue later; I distinctly remember that.”
“Okay, well forget what I did or didn’t say right now! The most important thing is just getting Chelsea here, now please go!” She left the office without another word. She was so flustered, she did not remember to call the school.
Marius was certain he was about to explode. Of all the days…Robin was pissed at him for “forgetting” nothing, it was a Friday so traffic was horrible, and his daughter had been waiting for him for 20 minutes already. His princess wasn’t going to get to her own party for another hour, at least. He hoped she would forgive him.
Chelsea looked at her watch for what seemed like the thousandth time. Her parents had been a few minutes late before, but now it was closing in on a half hour and a tiny little fear was beginning to knock at the back of her mind.
She didn’t know what was worse: being forgotten or hearing that there had been an accident. Of course, in the big picture of life, being threatened with orphan-hood was much worse, but with the increased amount of fighting that hadn’t been very well hidden from Chelsea lately, she was already starting to feel a little bit forgotten anyway. At least with an accident, she’d know that they’d loved her enough to recall her existence and had been taken away not by choice.
She shook her head, as though the physical action would shake the dark thoughts out of her brain through her ears.
He’s just late. It’s a Friday, the traffic is always bad. You know this.
Please, God, let it be true. This has been such a good day.
As though to answer her prayer, the forest green mustang convertible she knew so well rounded the corner. Her father’s face looked stressed, but as soon as he saw her, it melted away into a smile. He didn’t even drive all the way up to where she was standing; he got out and opened his arms wide, and she knew everything was okay.
“Dad!” She ran awkwardly with her backpack bouncing back and forth and nearly knocked him over in the exuberance of her embrace. “Where were you?”
“I’m sorry, baby, traffic was really awful today. But why are we standing around here, birthday girl? I’m pretty sure there’s a party happening at your house right now and your chariot a-waits!” He gestured grandly at the mustang.
Trying not to squeal with excitement because she was 11 now, Chelsea scrambled into the passenger side, throwing her educational burdens into the backseat. It could wait until Sunday night. In fact, as excited as she was, everything right now could wait. The sun was shining, the top was down, the radio was on and she was the centre of her father’s world.
There was no place she’d rather be.
Peace. For however brief a moment, Robin chose to grab it, sitting down in the closest recliner. The girls had all arrived safe and sound; Chelsea included, and they were now downstairs getting out the Twister board. She had roughly 30 minutes before she would need Marius to get the barbecue started.
Her eyes were just about to close when the doorbell unexpectedly cut the silence. Who could that be? As she walked to the door, she was mentally trying to count the girls versus the invitations that had been sent.
Opening the door, she fought to keep the surprise from her face. It was Tamara Willis, one of the church members, but Robin had never seen her look so upset in her life. Her face was red and puffy from obviously many tears, and as soon as the door opened, she all but collapsed in the entryway. Her body was shaking with sobs as Robin caught and held her.
“Oh my goodness, Tamara! What’s happened? Is Dan all right—are the kids all right?” Her brain raced through every emergency possible, but none of them answered the question of why she would come here. By herself and barely herself.
“K-k-kids are fine. I just…Oh, God, Robin…I have to talk to you and Marius. It’s…it’s Dan, he…he…” Her face crumpled again and Robin, while compassionate, could see why some men thought women, even pretty ones, were ugly when they cried.
“He’s just in his office, Tamara. Come on, I’m sure he’d be more than willing to talk with you.” She took Tamara by the arm, wanting to be a good friend but knowing she shouldn’t leave her daughter’s birthday unattended for too long.
She knew Marius didn’t like being bothered during his sermon-writing, but at the moment she didn’t care. She wanted to get Tamara taken care of and on her way as soon as possible. It was probably just a minor fight between Dan and his wife – Tamara tended to over-react about these things.
How wrong she was; nothing could have prepared her for the story that would spill from Tamara’s gut.
Marius always made sure his office was well-stocked with tissues for just such occasions as these. His job as one of the pastors of a large church meant that not only was this a place for study, it was a sanctuary, a secret-keeper. A hiding place.
He sat Tamara, her sobbing only broken by the occasional hiccup, down on the leather couch and Robin joined her, one arm wrapped around Tamara’s back and the other hand clasping Tamara’s own. Marius smiled a little on the inside; her compassionate care was one of the reasons why he had married her.
But what Tamara had to say would wipe every smile from Marius, inner or outer. It was hard to understand some of her words through her tears, but he was able to gather that Dan had confessed that he was in love with another woman he’d been secretly seeing for a year now, and he would be leaving Tamara and their 3 children by Monday.
Marius’ heart felt like it was being clenched into a fist that would love to connect with Dan’s face. How could he do this to Tamara, to the kids? The church had had their fair share of dealing with situations like these, but it was never pleasant and there were rarely good results. Oh God. His heart cried. Give me words for this breaking woman. How is it we never see how our choices will hurt someone until after we’ve made them?
Robin stayed in the office for 15 minutes as a support to her husband and Tamara, but after that, she used the birthday party as an excuse to get away from the rock of discomfort that had been sitting in the pit of her stomach ever since she opened the front door. Unfortunately, nothing could bring her focus back to the special day. All she could hear were snippets of Tamara’s bewildered questions.
Why wasn’t I good enough?
I know I gained some weight with our last baby, but he said I was still beautiful…
How can he do this? What am I going to tell the children?
What am I going to do?
It was like Robin was no longer a wife, a mother, at the age of 35.
It was like she was 15 again, and Tamara’s words were her own mother’s.
Damn you, Dad. And damn you, Dan Willis. This world would be a much better place without men like you in it.