Of all people, Mercy Amado (nació Fuerte) should know that happiness is a decision. You simply cast aside that which you are tired of looking at, weary of battling, unable to accept, and focus on that which remains. She had to have learned something during the span of her lifetime, with its marital therapy, grief counseling, past life-regression, born-again Christianity, flirtation with Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism and atheism. Sixty years. When did you figure it all out? When did you understand the world? When did God take you by the hand and explain it all to you, elaborating that you were indeed His child—special, gifted, divine—and apologize for the mess along the way?
Mercy dabbed the concealer over her age spots. She streaked the crease of her eyelid with gray, rimmed the edges with black. She placed her iridescent violet contact lenses on before she stretched her lashes with mascara. She used a plum lip liner, and a slightly lighter lipstick. She covered that with a shimmering lip gloss. She ran her fingers through her hair, fluffing the layers for fullness. She wasn’t sure she liked its recent coloring, it seemed too dark and strident for the frosted tips she had requested. Well, at least the gray was gone. A quick peek in the full-length mirror, to ensure that the waist of her purple sheath cinched neatly, that the hem hit exactly where it should, five inches above the knee. Yes, very nice. She would slip on the silver heels when Nataly arrived to drive her to the party. The occasion? Her birthday and an afternoon with her three daughters. She decided to be happy.
She always told her students—encouraged, implored, cajoled them—to do their best. Had she done her best? Had she given her daughters what they had needed? Mercy set her silver heels at the screen door of her modest apartment. Either she hadn’t or she had, and it still wasn’t good enough.
“You look fabulous,” Nataly said, entering the apartment, the screen door slapping shut behind her. “Are we ready to go?” Nataly did a mock rhumba as she danced her way to her mother and squeezed her tight. “Happy birthday, Mama.”
Mercy knew it wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair—for years she had tamped it down as best as she could—but the sight of her baby always gave her unalloyed pleasure. Thirty-two years old, Nataly was still her puppy, young, playful, endearing and joyful. (Her favorite! There, she confessed! But no one else had to know, right?) Mercy noticed the embroidering on the hem and seam of the jeans, and knew it to be Nataly’s own. The sheer black blouse she wore, with a black bustier underneath, were both gifts from Mercy. “Stay young forever,” she always wanted to tell her, to hold her tight. Don’t give it up, don’t give it away, don’t squander it. Hold on to it.
Which is what Mercy would have done, if only she’d known how.
Nataly leaned over the end table and said. “Why do you still have this picture of me out? I hate it. I look so—stupid.”
Mercy said, “I like it.”
Nataly shook her head and sat down heavily. It had recently struck her as odd and unfair, even, that she lived in a better apartment than her mother. How had that happened? Well, of course she knew the answer to that. But still. She hated her mother’s exuberant lifestyle squeezed into a one-bedroom, one-bath in a still-acceptable corner of Santa Ana. Sixty years old! Would this be her own story? Nataly batted the thought swiftly away.
“Do you want your gift now or at the restaurant?”
Mercy made a face. “Why don’t you give it to me now, and I can open it again at the restaurant.”
Her mother’s own logic. Nataly dangled a gift bag in her mother’s direction. “No card?” her mother demanded.
“The appropriate response is ‘thank you’ and you know I’m terrible at cards. I’m good at other things though.” Nataly heard a slightly disapproving snort.
Mercy reached into the gift bag and pulled out a wad of pink tissue paper.
“Careful!” Nataly said.
Mercy unwrapped the tissue paper, revealing a photograph of her and her three daughters. The frame was Nataly’s artwork, found objects. Among the fabric, tatting and embroidery, Mercy recognized markers of her daughters’ and her own life there—coins for Celeste, braided thread for Nataly, chalk for her, plastic brown babies for Sylvia. Within the frame Mercy, (God, how beautiful I had been once, how old I’ve gotten, take me out and shoot me) smiling proudly into the camera, her infant Nataly in her lap, Sylvia and Celeste clutching her side, smiling wildly as if the new baby were their very own.
Those three little girls were now all gone.
Nataly wouldn’t have any understanding of that. By thirty-two Mercy had been married for twelve years and her daughters were already growing up. Especially Celeste. Mercy stood abruptly and went to the bathroom, to see what she could salvage of her eye makeup.
On the brief flight from San Jose to John Wayne Airport, Celeste Amado entertained herself with a Bloody Mary. Tomato juice to make her feel virtuous, lime and spices to prick her tongue, vodka to make the flight as smooth as possible. She limited herself to one drink per flight.
On the plastic tray bobbing slightly in front of her, Celeste sifted once more through the statements Sylvia had sent her. Columns and columns of figures: automatic deposits, transfers, withdrawals. The statements were all very clear to Celeste. Part of the reason she was so successful was that she had no emotional attachment to money. What she cared about was how people spread the muck around, as Francis Bacon said. Celeste knew she was right about what she had found. What she didn’t know was whether Sylvia would hold that information against her.
Sylvia checked the clock on her dash: she was running late to the airport. She was always running late. She had always thought of herself as a punctual person, punctuality being the courtesy of kings and all that, but found herself always late—to the parent teacher conferences, to school registration, mailing off payments. In general, late to the party. She groaned at the traffic on the 5 Freeway heading south (why had she followed Jack’s directions? She knew since childhood, the 5 was dense with congestion and fumes. And thick with billboards—corporate graffiti, she liked to call them). Sylvia cheered herself with the thought that Celeste’s flight would run late—and realized as she drove past the Matterhorn in Anaheim that she’d been listening to Radio Disney all the way down from Pasadena.
Nataly admired the tilt of her mother’s heels and the shimmer in her tights before closing the passenger door of her car.
“The Ritz or bust, Ma,” she said. She headed towards Laguna Beach, skirting Santa Ana’s Main Place, rejecting Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, heedless of the lure of Newport Beach’s Fashion Island. Nataly despised Orange County’s shrines of ostentation and their label fixation. That shit was all Celeste.
“Have you heard from your father?” her mother said.
Nataly glared in her mother’s direction and swerved to miss a small truck changing lanes. “No. Not recently. Should I have?”
Her mother shrugged, in that way she had that implied so much was going on she wouldn’t know where to start or stop. Nataly ignored the challenge and lobbed back with, “Is Sylvia bringing the girls?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe not. She’s stopping to pick up Celeste. Are you two going to be okay?”
There. Lay it right out on the cutting table, pin it down repeatedly, pick up the sheers and rip through the fabric. Nataly felt it was hotter than it had a right to be, this early February afternoon. Up ahead it was blindingly blue, a shimmer of shore appearing sporadically through the marine layer.
“Are we going to be okay?” Nataly echoed.
“It would mean so much if you two could just, you know, be kind to each other. Is that asking so much?”
The traffic stalled. Nataly’s Altima shook. She thought of Celeste—Celeste under the tree, blossoms falling around her. Celeste and Michael at their wedding. Skye . By the time of Celeste’s graduation from Humboldt State, Nataly felt she had abandoned them, her most of all. Celeste, all brains and money and contempt.
“I am always kind,” Nataly said, shifting gears and exiting the crammed freeway, sure of an alternate route.
Sylvia passed the statue of John Wayne twice before spotting the spiky short hair of her sister Celeste, head tilted downwards, tapping on her PDA, a deceptively simple beige coat over her arm (Sylvia knew it was cashmere) the ever-present black Longchamps bag hanging on a shoulder. Sylvia rolled down the car window and called, “Hey, lady, you want a ride!” Celeste looked up, the hint of a wry smile starting.
“I meant to meet you at the gate, I’m so sorry,” she said, as Celeste threw a bag in the trunk.
Celeste peering in the back seat. “Where’s the rest of you?”
“Honestly, it just seemed like an endurance event. Jack’s busy, of course, but my friend
Tamara said to leave it to her and not to worry.”
Another sigh from Sylvia, “Yeah, long story, Jack says it’s cheaper in the long run.”
Celeste left that unchallenged. Jack certainly had an idiosyncratic approach to money. It
was too soon to bring all that up. Celeste just wanted some time with Sylvia. She didn’t want to talk about the money, about what she’d found, about what she was worried about.
Sylvia frowned. “I’m so happy to see you it hurts. Why do you live so damn far away?” Sylvia shook her head and squeezed her sister’s hand. Here was sanity, here was composure. “You up for today?”
“I really feel bad that you made this detour for me. I could’ve gotten a taxi, a shuttle, something.”
“I couldn’t let you do that. I would feel like a terrible sister. Really, I’m doing this for me. You staying the night?”
“In that case I’m not going to be able to drive you back here. How you doin’? You gonna be all right? With Nataly, I mean?”
Celeste looked at the clock on the dash. “We’ve got plenty of time. But whenever we get there, I’m stopping at the bar for a drink first.”
Sylvia nodded. “Oui, mon capitaine—.” Sylvia signaled and looked over her shoulder. Their new van had terrible rear visibility, but Jack liked the size of it, its statement.
“Tea at the Ritz was Nataly’s idea?” Celeste said, fussing with the seat belt, flipping down the visor to check her eye makeup, glancing left at Sylvia, wondering if Sylvia would bring up the money, or if she would have to. Why was it that whenever she came home, she wanted immediately to be somewhere—anywhere—else?
“Oh you know, we get to talking with Mom, she says one thing to me, one thing to Nataly, it gets confused mid-translation and here we are, at the far edges of nowhere, convenient to no one. But with a beautiful view. Provided the sun pops out.”
During the forty-minute drive, the two women spoke of Sylvia’s children, Celeste’s business, books, movies, their mother. Neither sister brought up the pages of accounting that Sylvia had faxed Celeste two weeks earlier.
Celeste went directly to the bar.
“Ketel One martini, dry, with a twist.”
She watched Sylvia in the wide mirror. Sylvia stood in the lobby, unable to decide whether to wait there for Nataly and their mother or to go with Celeste into the bar.
The bartender shook the ice and alcohol, lips together in concentration. Celeste enjoyed this moment, the anticipation of the drink, the adroit curl of the lemon twist onto the rim of her cocktail glass. She felt the frozen stem between her fingers and tasted a little bit of icy heaven. Not too much vermouth, the vodka softened, not watered down, by the shaking.
Celeste loved the grandeur of luxury hotels, the elaborate flower arrangements, plush furniture, ornate fixtures. It all fostered an illusion of benevolent, impersonal wealth. A challenging pose to maintain.
Sylvia tugged at her shoulder bag. “They’re here.”
And so they were. They came into the bar to greet her—her mother in lilac and silver. Nataly in black with embroidery up the seam of her pants, bursts of range red and yellow, a sheer black top. Stunning. Gorgeous. Did Nataly know how beautiful she was?
Why had Celeste worried? It was all right. It was fine. They could try again.
“Are you two sisters?” Celeste said, repeating the line that had given her mother so much pleasure since they were tiny girls.
Her mother giggled in response. “Today, maybe we are,” she said,
Natayl scowled at Celeste. “You had to order a drink before we got here?” she asked in that familiar tone of judgment, as if she were in any position to judge anyone. All the love Celeste felt an instant earlier curdled and evaporated.
Celeste picked up her martini from the bar, took a sip, and smiled at Nataly. I could ask you how waiting tables is going or mention the failed exhibition you recently had, she thought. Instead, she turned to her mother and hugged her close, feeling the breastbone against her chest. “I’ve missed you,” she said.
“Ay, sweetheart, but not enough to move back home.”
Celeste stiffened, disentangled herself, picked up her martini and walked with it to the table set for a tea service of four.
Nataly inspected the chintz teapot, the silver tea strainer, the black lapsang souchong that the server poured. The server did a deft job of it too, not a drip or a trickle down the teacup or teapot to disturb or distract from the floral pattern. Nataly dissolved a misshapen lump of brownish sugar into her cup with a heavy silver plate teaspoon, and sipped. The table, the settings, the people around her, her sisters, her mother, dissolved into amber. Even Celeste. The tea was warm, smoky, and sweet. She inhaled the amber and felt herself about to dissolve as well until she heard Celeste talking to their mother about another bill she had gotten in their father’s name. “Just send it to me, I’ll take care of it.” Celeste said.
And she would too. She did everything she said she’d do. People like that, like Celeste, were fierce and frightening. But not to Nataly. She knew Celeste had constructed and surrounded herself in a plaster artifice. It was difficult to look at this Celeste. She wasn’t real.
Nataly watched her mother unwrap Celeste’s gift: a necklace with a glass pendant. The glass glowed with a light Nataly had not seen before. It swirled green and blue, streaked with gold. It was luminous. Nataly’s frame was crude and artless in comparison.
“I saw it in Venice and thought of you,” Celeste said.
Nataly set her teacup down noisily. They turned towards her. “Really? Oh, come off it.” Celeste looked at Nataly as if not understanding the language. Then she turned back to
their mother. Nataly stabbed a scone with a small butter knife, spread the clotted cream thickly over it, added raspberry jam, swallowed without tasting and choked on her mouthful. It was Sylvia who patted her back, pressed a glass of ice water on her, and ultimately walked her
towards the ladies’ lounge where Nataly could clean her sheer blouse of the spray of half eaten food.
“So you’re against me too,” Nataly said, wiping her shirt with a wash cloth. The wet cloth left white fibers and an unattractive smear of water behind.
“For a baby sister you sure got the baby role down. Look, nobody’s against you. Be a big girl and put on a pretty face. While you can,” Sylvia winked at her.
“Don’t you see what Celeste’s doing?” If Sylvia asked Nataly what she thought Celeste was doing, Nataly wouldn’t know how to explain it. It was just a humiliating feeling that Celeste was, was—what? Winning. Celeste was winning and Nataly had lost. But lost what?
“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you this,” Sylvia said. “I am Switzerland. I’m not going to say a bad thing about Celeste to you, and I’m not going to say a bad thing about you to Celeste.”
“I’ll bet that news will go over well with her.”
Sylvia held Nataly’s hands and said. “Nataly, I already have two children. You need to grow up.”
“What about Celeste? She needs to grow up.”
“I’m talking to you.”
Mercy looked around the table at her daughters: Celeste with her spiky brown hair and serious eyes. Sylvia, the curvy mama who had given her grandchildren, Nataly, the artist, the minx. Their windowside table was filled with a view of the terrace. The marine layer obscured the beach and the sea beyond. It didn’t matter to Mercy. Where your heart lies, there lies your treasure also. Her treasure was seated at her table.
“Where would I be without you three? You are my life.”
Later, after Nataly escorted their mother home, Sylvia accompanied Celeste to the bar. “A neat trick,” Sylvia said, “that both of you could spend an entire hour talking without addressing a kind remark to one another. Remind me to not do that on my 60th.”
Celeste turned on her bar stool to face Sylvia. “Your daughters will always talk to each other.” She leaned forward, hugging her sister.
“Listen to me,” Celeste said into Sylvia’s ear, more forcefully than she had intended. “You have to promise me, whatever I say—whatever I say—you won’t stop talking to me. You won’t shut me out of your life. Promise me.”
Sylvia pulled back. “It’s that bad?”
“I want to know I can tell you the truth, and you won’t punish me for it.”
“Oh my God, Celeste, what did you find?”
“I don’t know where the money is. I don’t know what your husband did with it. And that’s not good.”
DESIREE ZAMORANO‘s novel The Amado Women is about four women linked by birth, separated by secrets. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, in the Los Angeles Times, Huizache magazine, Publishers Weekly and The Toast. She loves living in the Pasadena area.