“A new bookshelf. That old one of yours has got to go, and I knew if you bought yourself one you’d just make me put it together anyway, so I figured I’d do it on my own schedule.”
“You bought me a bookshelf?” She opened the door for him. The smell of garlic wafted toward him. “And you’re putting it together for me tonight? What did I do to deserve this?”
He set the box down on her living room floor and pulled it open.
“Probably very little. Where’s that toolbox I bought you?”
She went to her hall closet and took the toolbox off of a shelf there. When he opened it, he was thrilled to see that things were all in the wrong places. She must have actually used it since the last time he was here.
“Do you want a beer? I have wine, but you always get all fussy about my wine, so I’m not even going to offer it to you this time.”
He definitely couldn’t have rosé around his sister.
“Yes, please.” He slid all of the shelves out of the box and glanced at the instruction manual. This shouldn’t take too long.
“Here.” She handed him a beer and looked over the pile of wood and wood-like materials on her living room floor. “This looks like it’ll be bigger and less flimsy than the one I had. Thanks, Carlos.”
“No problem.” He opened the little bag of screws and reached for a screwdriver. He should have bought Angie an electric screwdriver along with this tool kit. Oh well, now he knew what he’d get her for Christmas. “Are you still in the middle of cooking, or can you hang out and talk to me while I do this?”
She sat down on her easy chair and set a glass of wine on the table next to her.
“I put a roast chicken in the oven like thirty minutes ago, so I have plenty of time. If you want dinner to reward you after you’re done, I’ll have plenty of food once it’s done cooking.”
He screwed the side of the bookshelf to the bottom and grinned at her.
“Oooh, are you making those crispy potatoes to go along with it? I love those things. I could eat a million of them.”
She shook her head and sighed. “Unfortunately, I am. I guess I won’t have any potatoes left over for lunch tomorrow.”
He picked up the other side and fitted a screw into the bottom of the bookcase.
“You definitely won’t. You’ll barely have enough for yourself.”
She took a sip of her wine and watched him for a few minutes.
“Come on, you can tell me about your new girlfriend. I know you have one; I can sense it. I promise I won’t tell Mama if you tell me!”
Of course. He should have known that as soon as she got him alone she would quiz him about that.
“God, no. Don’t worry, if there’s ever anything to tell you about in that category—which there won’t be for a long time—I’ll tell you first.”
She moved to join him on the floor and picked up the bag of screws.
“You’ve just seemed much more relaxed over the past few weeks. It’s nice.”
“Mmmhmmm.” He had been more relaxed over the past few weeks, come to think about it. But that was just because he’d been settling in at work.
He reached his palm out for another screw, and she handed it to him.
“You don’t have any snacks or anything? I’m getting hungry, smelling that chicken cooking and knowing we won’t get to eat for, like, thirty more minutes.”
She shook her head and closed her eyes.
“You storm into my house without warning, take over my living room, claim all of my potatoes, and now you’re demanding a snack?” She stood up. “Next time I’m not answering my phone when you call.”
The emptiest of empty threats. He kept screwing the back of the bookshelf in while she rummaged around the kitchen.
“I was wondering,” he said, his eyes focused on the bookshelf pieces. “What did you do with the money from Dad’s life insurance?”
From the corner of his eye, he saw her walk back into the room, but he didn’t look up.
“That trip,” she said after a long pause. She sat down on the couch in front of him. “Remember that trip I took with Jessie to Italy a year later? That’s what I spent it on.”
He stopped pretending he was still occupied with the bookshelf and looked up at her, but she was looking down at her lap.
“I felt like I should spend it on my student loans or a down payment or something, but after you bought that car, I kind of felt free to do what I really wanted to do with it.”
He hadn’t told anyone in his family that was how he’d bought his car.
“Wait,” he said. “How did you know that I used mine to buy the car?”
She rolled her eyes at him.
“Carlos. I’m not an idiot. And I know you better than anyone. Do you think I thought you got a sudden raise or something?”
She had a good point.
“Anyway, your trip,” he said.
“I’d always wanted to go to Italy, ever since he bought me A Room with a View when I was a kid. Dad always made fun of me for how obsessed I was with that book and with the idea of going to Italy someday. ‘Mexico isn’t good enough for you?’ he would say. But he took me to see the movie when there was a showing of it on the big screen at the ArcLight that time and out to Italian food afterward. And at Christmas he would always slip me little things about Italy, like cookbooks or Italian language books, stuff like that.”
Her voice caught, and she stopped for a second.
“Anyway, I did use some of the money to pay off my credit card debt. But the rest paid for tickets for me and Jessie to fly to Rome and train tickets to Florence and Venice.” She laughed. “Jessie got so mad at me for insisting on paying for her, but I told her that Dad would flip out if I went alone, and he would want her to go with me—all of which she knew was totally true.”
He shook his head.
“I thought you guys went because Jessie got that promotion.”
She looked at the framed picture on the wall of her and Jessie on a balcony with Italy in the background.
“That’s what we told Mama and Tia Eva. We knew I would get lectures from them if we told them the truth. Jessie did get that promotion. But it came well after I’d already booked our tickets. Our excuse before it happened was going to be that one of us had had a terrible breakup, but we hadn’t decided who yet.”
He shook his head.
“I’m not sure if that would have worked as well with them.”
She leaned back against the couch and laughed.
“It definitely wouldn’t have.”
He reached for the bookshelf pieces again.
“So um,” he said as he lined up the little wooden dowels. “About Friday.”
She slowly straightened up.
“What about Friday?” Her voice was soft, gentle. It made him concentrate hard on inserting the dowels into the sides of the bookshelf, so he wouldn’t have to look at her as he talked.
“I don’t know if you have any plans. But I thought it might be nice if we could do something together that day. And maybe . . .” For some terrible reason, his voice caught. “Maybe talk about Dad.”
She sat down next to him and put both arms around him. He abandoned the bookshelf and hugged his little sister close.
“I would love that,” she said. “I would love that a lot.”
He wiped his eyes and hoped she didn’t notice.
“So would I.”
* * *
• • •
Nik got a text from Carlos on her way into Natalie’s Gym on Thursday night.
What’re you up to on Saturday? Want to help me make enchiladas? I’m making a huge batch so Jessie can have some for her freezer, but I promise we’ll get to eat some of our labor.
She had no idea how to make enchiladas, but she had no doubt Carlos would tell her exactly what to do. And she knew the result would be delicious, if he was in charge.
What time and what should I bring?
She asked the person at the front desk where she could find Natalie, and was directed to an office in the back.
4ish. Bring some beer, no offense to rosé.
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