The first time I saw my mother was the night she died. The second time was at a party in Santa Fe.
Once in history class I made a time line. It was a thick, straight black line, intersected by crosshatches representing dates and events. The teacher claimed that you could tell by studying it how events were related to each other, the causes and effects.
The problem is, time isn’t a straight line. I think of it more as a huge arc, curving gently into space, keeping not only the future just out of sight, but the past as well. You never really know what might have caused something to happen, and the effects ripple outward in ever widening circles.
Like losing my contact lens, for instance. I was supposed to be off this whole weekend, my last free weekend before the season gets crazy. And then Juana calls on Thursday to tell me Patrice stepped off a curb and broke her ankle and they need me to work a party Friday night.
“Pinnacle Gallery on Canyon Road,” she says. “Lots of people. Big tips.”
Friday morning she calls me again. “Hey, chica. Party is changed to DeGraf’s house—”
“The what house?”
“DeGraf. Mister DeGraf. You know San Tomás?”
As it happens, I do. It’s one of those narrow, unpaved roads that winds south off Canyon Road. I’ve wandered past it lots of Sunday mornings, clutching my coffee from Downtown Subscription and peering in the gallery windows. One time I turned at the corner and walked a little ways, hoping for a glimpse of one of the huge homes behind adobe walls. I got chased by a Doberman for my curiosity, while the owner hollered, “Stand still, miss! He won’t bite you.”
I didn’t trust him or his dog, so I ran like a jackrabbit back out to Canyon, fully expecting to feel the hot breath, the sharp teeth sinking into my leg at any minute. But when I looked around the dog was gone.
It’s late April in Santa Fe, but at 7000 feet, spring is slow to take hold. In the daytime, fierce winds blow out of the west, and the inside of your nose feels like it’s lined with Cap’n Crunch. At night the air is sharp and cold, still laced with piñon smoke from hundreds of kiva fireplaces.
Tonight I’m racing the clock, and my breath makes little puffs of steam as I half walk, half jog down the narrow sidewalk. My white shirt’s already damp under the arms, I know my tie is crooked, and my hair is about come loose from its knot.
Worst of all, I’m late. Again. While we were getting ready, Rita knocked a bottle of perfume off the shelf and she tried to catch it before it hit the tile counter, but she just ended up knocking my contact lens off my finger into oblivion, and the bottle smashed all over anyway and then we started yelling at each other and here I am. It’s not my fault, but I don’t imagine Dale will give a shit about that.
Then as I round a curve, I see lights. Farolitos, those little brown paper bags with candles inside that people in this town love so much, line the top of a wall. Except these are probably the new version, electrolitos. Plus lots of little twinkle lights twined in the tree branches. This is it.
The address—505 San Tomás—is spelled out in Mexican tiles over a massive blue door, set into a wall the color of chocolate ice cream. A couple of guys with clipboards and walkie-talkies lounge against the wall smoking and looking bored. I give them my name. Apparently Kirk has neglected to change Patrice’s name to mine on his list, so they have to ring up Dale on his cell phone to be sure I’m not an international jewel thief before they let me in.
“Kitchen door’s around to the left past the pool,” the older one says. “And stay on the path. Mr. DeGraf don’t like people cutting through the garden.” He flicks his cigarette away.
“Mr. DeGraf probably don’t like cigarette butts all over his yard either.” I smile at him as I step through the gate.
The house is a pueblo-style adobe, fashioned with the rounded corners and soft silhouettes of the Pueblo Indian dwellings, not the more boxy, territorial adobes like the Anglos built later on. It’s a lighter shade of chocolate than the wall, with the traditional blue doors and windows that are supposed to keep out brujas or witches. I follow the stone walkway past a huge old lilac bush, its branches drooping under the weight of fragrant purple clusters about to explode into bloom, and cut across the patio. A swimming pool sparkles aquamarine in its underwater lights.
The kitchen is in the usual pre-party state of controlled chaos. It’s small but elegant, with granite countertops and the kind of appliances favored by people who can afford to hire kitchen designers. When the screen door bangs behind me, Dale makes a big show of looking at his Rolex.
“Avery. So glad you could join us.” His dark eyes give me a once-over. “Polished and pulled together as usual, I see.” The guy standing beside him rustles a wrinkled yellow invoice. “Thanks, Tom. Put the wine over there. Under that table.”
I try to secure my hair. “They didn’t have my name on the-”
“Jesus Christ, you reek. What did you do, take a bath in Opium?”
“Eternity. I’m sorry. Rita broke the bottle and it went everywhere, and I didn’t have time to—”
He gives me The Look. “Never mind. Fix your tie and run out to the-shit! Where’s your eyes?”
“My eyes are in my head, Dale. I lost my contact.”
I notice the muscle in his jaw twitching. “Well, try not to look at anybody.”
“Right. In fact, why don’t I just walk around with my eyes closed.”
“Don’t you have some sunglasses?”
“Sure. You can say I’m blind.” My arm sinks up to the elbow in the big, brown backpack and I pull out my Men-In-Black shades.
“The guesthouse…” Dale shuts his eyes briefly, as if praying for strength. “…is just the other side of the pool. Get six trays of baby rellenos out of the fridge, okay? And try not to make any stops along the way.”
Juana is arranging vegetables into a sunburst of color around a bowl of chile aioli. She rolls her eyes at me as I slip out the door, squeezing against the wall to let two guys with giant arrangements of weird-looking flowers pass by. Rita’s right, I need to get another job. The problem is, Dale and Kirk have one of the best catering companies in Santa Fe, and it would be hard to make as much money with anybody else. That’s even assuming I could get hired on.
I take a big gulp of fresh air. I can get through this. I’ll just have to be on full battle alert all night. And I can’t see a thing with these damn glasses. I take them off, fold them up and hook them on the second buttonhole of my shirt.
Steam lifts into the air from the pool’s glassy surface, and I find myself wondering how warm they keep it. What it would feel like to glide through the water with crisp strokes, then climb out into the cold air, disappear inside a huge soft towel, and sit in the garden drinking good red wine and listening to the crickets. It’s a pretty stupid fantasy for someone who can’t even swim. My steps crunch in the gravel.
The guesthouse is private, screened from the big house by coyote fencing and a cluster of aspens. When I open the arched door, I hear voices coming from another room, but I ignore them, poking my head into a bathroom and a coat closet before I find the tiny kitchen. In the refrigerator, I pull out six stacked trays of mini chiles rellenos and start back out. Now the voices are closer.
“…get rid of some of this stuff. It’s like a fucking shrine. Or you could set up a collection box and some candles and—”
A man’s laugh. “Come on, admit it. It’s one of his best.”
She sniffs. “If you like that sort of thing. It’s too goopey. Blatantly sentimental.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were still jealous.”
They stand side by side in the hall, a man and a woman, oblivious to my presence, absorbed in the outsized oil painting on the wall. I didn’t notice it on my way in and I probably would’ve walked right past it again, but the energy of their focus draws my attention.
It’s a portrait of a woman. Wearing some kind of exotic costume. My gaze climbs from her sandaled brown feet to the long white dress hemmed with a wide geometric border design in black and turquoise. The loose sleeves drape softly just to the elbows, and a black sleeveless tunic clings to the outline of her hip.
Then I get to her face.
I’ve heard the phrase “shock of recognition, ” but I never understood what it meant till now. It’s not the simple recognition of a person you might know or place that looks familiar. It’s the recognition of a truth that shines in your eyes like a bright light, whiting out everything else. It’s that recognition that makes your knees shake and your mouth go dry. The recognition that empties you of yourself.
I take two steps straight backward to stand and stare while my heart bangs against my ribs.
Long dark hair, pulled austerely away from her face, tumbles loose down her back. The mouth—full lower lip and narrow upper lip. The long, straight nose. Eyes—one dark brown, one amber. Her face is a mirror image of my own.