Sometimes the strangest occurrences aren’t really so strange. We just make them out to be because we’re frightened by things that happen so perfectly. Randomness is more comforting. If we believe things are random and therefore out of our control, we don’t have to be disappointed if our hopes never come to fruition, because they were too “perfect” for the universe to have made them actually happen. But sometimes, perfect things do happen. And I believe they are all part of a grander plan.
When I look back at the names of people who have come into my life, the lyrics of the songs that play alongside my memories as the soundtrack, it all makes sense. And since you already know that I believe events are not as arbitrary as we make them out to be, I know that if I have the patience to piece it all together, I’ll soon be able to interpret the meanings behind my past stories and better understand what may lie ahead for me. All I need to do is decipher the map’s legend, figure out what it all means, and I am sure I won’t go through the rest of my days feeling so lost.
If I can just learn to read the map.
This all leads up to the decision I made last year, when Grandma Ida passed away and left me a chunk of money. I decided to ignore other people’s better judgment and instead listen to my heart, which is how I ended up here in Seville, Spain, in the spring of 1992 as the World Exposition turns this town upside down with the kind of energy you wish you could bottle and sell. New bridges have been erected, new boardwalks have been paved, and a new train station has even been built to properly receive the new high-speed train that will bring the tourists from Madrid to Seville in less than three hours’ time (a great improvement over the eight-hour bus ride I’ve heard others bemoan).
As a result of this phenomenal event and the money that Seville has put in to bettering this already fantastic city, people from all over the world have come to work in the Expo, which is why I am now sitting on a barstool across from a Swedish bartender named Benny. As soon as the Expo is over in October, he will return to Stockholm to continue his studies in psychology.
In the meantime, it is after hours, which in Seville means that the crowds have thinned out because they’re hungry…for breakfast. The sun will rise within the hour, but Benny and I don’t care. We sit around and talk as if we haven’t been out partying for the past six hours, as if we have all the energy left to discuss the world’s problems and possibly even offer up solutions.
Benny and I have spent many hours sitting here at Pecata Mundi’s bar. He sees through my attempts to be a mystifying woman of few words and always manages to draw me into endless conversations about my childhood, though he often mocks what he calls my overly dramatic statements.
Regarding musical tastes, I know about Benny’s love of the Irish band U2 and the Australian group INXS, and he knows about my obsession with his country’s most internationally well-known pop music group.
Still, Benny likes me, despite the fact that he says I am the oddest woman he has ever met. And because he doesn’t make me feel foolish when I talk about ABBA, I am about to tell him how I ended up in Seville.
“My best friend disappeared and broke my heart when I was thirteen years old.”
Benny slaps a damp rag onto the bar’s counter and shakes his head in dismay. “Enough melodrama already.”
He smiles and winks simultaneously, reminding me that he is my friend.
“Okay,” I give in. “When I became an orphan at nine years old...”
Benny turns his back on me, apparently having had enough, and he pretends to organize the glasses.
“This is true, Benny. I swear it. My parents were killed in a car accident that my little brother and I survived. I wouldn’t make up stuff like this.”
Turning around, Benny says, “Really? Well, that would explain a lot. You learned about drama at a young age, I see.”
I smile, but I am sad. And Benny seems to understand this.
“Go on,” he says.
“When I became an orphan at nine years old, two significant people came into my life: Ida Roth and Bettina Sevilla.”
“Bettina Sevilla?” Benny is skeptical. “Sevilla?”
I nod as if to say, Can you believe it? Of all the places for me to end up. As if it is pure coincidence, which, of course, I know it is not.
Grandma Ida was the fifty-something-year-old widow who took custody of my five-year-old brother and me. I didn’t know her very well, and I didn’t like the bright, floral skirts she wore all the time. When she walked, there was so much movement around her like her clothes didn’t want to follow her body. If Grandma bent down to pick something up, her full skirts bloomed up around her hips. When she walked up or down stairs, her skirt hems got confused and bunched in all the wrong places. And all those flowers just drove me crazy.
Mommy used to say that since Florida didn’t have different seasons like Georgia does, it always felt like summer there. She said that was why people in Florida liked to wear clothing with so many flowers, which is why I always thought about Florida as being a place for old people.
I eventually learned how common my perception was among the American populace, but not until I moved there did I discover that children actually grew up in Florida too…children like Betty, the girl who lived across the street from Grandma.
I will never forget that day in the late summer of 1976. Our country had just celebrated the bicentennial of its Independence, and most houses in Grandma’s Miami neighborhood still had their American flags mounted proudly over garage doors even though it was already August. Noah and I had just arrived in Miami for the first time in our memory, since Grandma had preferred visiting us in Atlanta.
“Better one person travels than four of you,” she would tell my mom, who would sigh with a smile of gratitude as she greeted Grandma on our Colonial-style porch.
So here I am on a sticky August day, standing on Grandma’s freshly-mowed lawn as she and the man from next door unload boxes and luggage from the trunk of her car.
“You kids sure have a lot of stuff,” the neighbor remarks.
But he has no idea of how much was left behind.
Then Grandma shouts, “Keep an eye on Noah, will you, Jennifer? I’m going to get everyone snacks.”
I watch the last piece of her long skirt disappear through the front door with its semi-circular glass panel, and my brother chases lizards around the perfectly-manicured hedges of Grandma’s house, which is not made of brick or covered in clapboard.
It’s strange for me to see peach-painted stucco walls and arched windows, and I think the entire neighborhood is the ugliest place I’ve ever seen. I glance up the road, suspiciously eyeing all the stucco-covered houses and wondering what people in Miami have against brick and wood.
At the end of the road, I can see the elementary school that I’ll be attending in a week when I enter the fifth grade. I don’t like the look of the school either. Pure concrete painted in sea foam green with peach trim. Coming from Georgia, I tend to associate the peach with positive feelings of community and a strong sense of belonging. But suddenly I hate everything about peaches.
That’s when Grandma reappears on the front lawn holding two pieces of fruit in her hand.
“A peach for each of my sweet peaches.” She playfully holds the fruit out to me as she giggles nervously and motions for Noah to come retrieve his snack.
I stare at her freshly-painted, old-lady fingernails and feel sick to my stomach, but I dutifully accept the peach and even take a small conciliatory bite.
I know this isn’t easy for Grandma, having to take Noah and me into her life when she hardly knows us. That nervous laughter of hers accompanied us on our long drive from Atlanta to Miami, and even at nine years old, I have the where-with-all to appreciate the fear brewing in Grandma’s gut. I also know she is sad, particularly since I caught sight of her crying in the rearview mirror when she thought I was sleeping during the ride.
As for me, I was too scared to feel sad. It was as if fear and uncertainty trumped melancholy. And since I’m the older one, Grandma entrusted me with the role of Noah’s “little mommy” during the long journey across two states.
“Little mommies don’t cry,” she told me. “They leave that to the little ones who’ve got to get it out of their systems.”
She nodded inconspicuously toward my brother, who spent most of the ride curled up against the car door and sucking his thumb, a habit he’d been trying to give up until our summer vacation turned tragic.
As I stand fixed in the grass, letting peach juice drip down my chin, Noah sits cross-legged next to me. His curly dark hair is matted with perspiration, and his bare knee rubs against my calf as he bounces his legs nervously and eats his peach ravenously. It irritates me, but when I take one step sideways, Noah reaches out with a sticky, sweaty hand and hooks his arm around my leg.
“You’re a pig,” I mutter down to him, but he ignores my rebuff and holds on tightly.
“All brothers are pigs,” a voice responds.
I look up to see a pretty, dark-blond-haired girl standing before me, sucking on a blue ice pop. I smile awkwardly and she smiles back.
“My brother’s fifteen, but he’s still a pig. They never outgrow it,” she says matter-of-factly.
For an uncomfortably long moment, we both stand there – she with her ice pop the color of the sky, and I with my peach-stained chin.
As I finally become self-conscious enough to wipe myself dry with the back of my free hand, the girl swallows the last bite of her ice pop and speaks. “I’m Betty. I live across the street.” She motions to the brown and white house that mirrors my grandma’s, except for the color, and then she cocks her head and smiles strangely. “If you tell me your name, I’ll be your friend.”