I HANG the last photograph on the wall, then take a step back, looking nervously at the whole set. When I arrived, the gallery owner, a woman named Janet who is quite possibly the most glamorous woman I’ve ever met, gave me an entire wall to work with.
Laura, who came early to help me set everything up, looks at me. “What do you think?”
“I think it looks okay.” I wipe my sweaty palms on my dress. I’m wearing a little black dress with sheer tights, despite the bitter February weather outside, but I’ve been so anxious the whole time that I’m not even feeling chilly. “I mean, I guess?”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” she says, pulling me into a sideways hug. “This looks amazing.”
“Great use of white space,” Janet says as she floats by, her shawl fluttering slightly.
Laura bites back a giggle. “See? Great use of white space. Fabulous.”
I release a shaky breath. “Well, it’s how I want it.”
“Good.” She takes a few steps back and whips her phone out. “Smile, let me take your picture.”
I flush, looking around the gallery. The other contest finalists are working on their own displays, and it’s clear that most of them know each other, because they keep socializing, walking over to each other’s spaces to offer feedback and compliments. They’ve been ignoring me, which is fine, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a little self-conscious.
The semester is in full swing again, which means wrapping up my major requirements, enjoying one more semester of living with Laura, spending time with James, who wasn’t suspended for the fight once the school heard my report about Darryl, and scaling back my shifts at The Purple Kettle so I can photograph some of the McKee hockey games.
This gallery show, the opportunity to work more on my sports photography—it’s bumping up against the diner in uncomfortable ways, and despite telling James I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure what to do. Before this year, even the thought of leaving my mother alone to deal with the diner was impossible. I promised her I wouldn’t, and I always intended to stick to my word. Now? I come closer to wanting to leave every day, but I don’t know if I can trust her with the business. She’s been more involved lately, but I’m still there most days of the week, putting out (metaphorical) fires and making sure things run smoothly. I wouldn’t be able to do that from San Francisco, which is where James will end up, if the latest rumors coming out of the NFL are to be believed.
“You look so pretty,” Laura gushes. She shows me the photograph. Honestly, I think I look super stressed, but maybe that’s just because it’s how I feel. In less than an hour, a whole bunch of people are going to be looking at my photography while I’m standing right next to the display. I’m going to hear their opinions. And with a little luck, I’ll win five thousand dollars, although the painter across the room from me is seriously talented, so if I had to give the prize to someone, I would choose them.
“I guess so,” I say.
“James is coming, right?”
“Yep. And probably his brothers, too.”
Laura sighs. “Cooper is so hot.”
I make a face. “You like the beard?”
“Definitely. Not that James isn’t cute with his whole clean-cut serious quarterback vibe, but Coop’s the one I’d tap.”
“Good to know,” I say dryly. “Considering James is mine.”
“He is cute,” someone agrees.
I turn, my eyes widening as I take in the fact my mother is standing in front of me, a bouquet of flowers in her arms. She kisses my cheek. “I know I’m early,” she says. “But I had something I wanted to talk to you about.”
I glance back at the display, wondering if maybe I should do some more rearranging, but my gut tells me no, it’s perfect. “I guess I’m done. I have a couple minutes before the gallery opens.”
She cradles the bouquet in the crook of her arm, holding out her hand. “There’s a little cafe next door, Nicole got us a table.”
“We can’t be long,” I warn.
“We won’t be,” she promises. “We’ll see you in a few minutes, Laura.”
I grab my coat and throw it on as I follow her out of the gallery. It’s weird enough to be in New York City, but seeing my mother here? I can’t remember the last time she left town, much less did something like this. Fortunately, the cafe is quite literally next door; I see Aunt Nicole in the window, sitting with a mug of tea in front of her.
“Bex!” she says, standing to hug me when we meet her at the table. “I can’t wait to see your photographs!”
“Thanks,” I say, sitting down across from her with my coat in my lap. My mom chooses to sit next to Aunt Nicole instead of me, which is a little weird. I’m irrationally worried I’m about to get a lecture, but there’s no reason for that. I tap my ankle boot against the floor. “What’s up?”
They look at each other for a long moment. My mother takes a deep breath. I dig my fingernails into my palms.
“Is something wrong?”
“No,” she says. “Not at all, honey, this is a good thing. I want to sell the diner.”
I just stare at her. “What?”
“Nicole and I talked about it, and she helped me realize what we need to do. I should have sold it way back when, but I didn’t let myself move on.” She blinks; when she continues talking, her voice is thick. “I’ve held you back for too long. It wasn’t fair of me to try and tie you to it. I kept thinking maybe your father would come back to it, but he hasn’t. It’s time.”
As she talks, my heart starts sprinting in my chest, and by the time she finishes, I’m a little worried it’s about to explode. I realize with a start that I’m shaking. “Mom?” I manage to croak out.
“I listened in, the day James came to talk to you,” she adds, blush coloring her cheeks. “He’s right, you deserve more. You deserve to pursue your passion. You deserve to go be with him, no matter where he’s drafted.” She laughs a little, shaking her head. “Did I use that word right?”
“I think so,” Aunt Nicole says, leaning in with a little nod. “Right, Bex?”
“Right,” I say weakly. My mind is spinning so fast that I’m not even upset with my mother for eavesdropping on me.
“When your father and I bought the diner, we thought it would be something we could share, something we could build a life around. I didn’t want to give up that dream, even when it was gone. I need to move on, and I need to let you go.”
“Mom,” I say again, my voice strangled, half a sob. “What are you going to do?”
“We’ll sell it,” she says firmly. “The whole building. You can use some of the money to help with your student loans, and I’ll work on finding a place. There’s an apartment near Nicole that I might rent. And I’m thinking…”
She trails off, blinking back tears. Aunt Nicole pats her hand.
“She’s going to put herself in a program,” Aunt Nicole says.
Mom nods. “I need therapy. I need to get my head right. I never coped with your father’s leaving, with everything that happened after, and if I’m going to be a good mother to you moving forward, I need to find a way to make that happen.”
“I can’t believe it,” I whisper.
“I know,” she says. “But I’m going to prove it to you, honey. I want to be there for you, and I want you to have the chance to do whatever makes you happy. Truly happy.”
I practically launch myself across the table in my rush to hug her. She laughs against my shoulder, hugging tightly as she rubs my back. “I love you,” she whispers. “And I’m sorry.”
“I love you too.” I breathe in the smell of her perfume. A million memories rush through my mind; a movie of my childhood, the good parts. I’m not naive, I know if she’s serious about this, she has a lot of work ahead of her, but the fact she’s doing it at all is enough to rock my world. “Thank you.”
THE GALLERY HOURS have just begun when I see James walk through the door… along with his entire family, Izzy included. Sandra I was expecting, but Richard? With a bouquet of flowers in his arms? He gives me a nod, and I nod back.
I refocus on Donald Marks, the head of the visual arts department, who came over right away to congratulate me in person, but the urge to run over and tell James the news is almost overwhelming. I want to tackle him and kiss him right against the wall, but I’m sure that wouldn’t be considered appropriate fancy art gallery behavior.
“He’s an excellent contact to have,” he continues, gesturing across the room. “I’ll introduce you two later so you can talk more in depth about this. Are you considering a future in sports photography specifically?”
“Maybe,” I say, and the best part is, I’m not lying at all. I could do that—or I could do anything in the world. For the first time since I was a little kid, the whole world is open to me; I don’t have promises to worry about breaking. I’m free. “I really love the atmosphere of sporting events.”
“That’s important.” He smiles, breaking eye contact to look over my photography again. “Truly excellent work. I’m sorry that we didn’t have you in our department.”
“I’m starting to realize what I really want.”
He nods. “I’m glad, Ms. Wood. Do stay in touch.”
The moment he wanders away, Izzy darts over to me, James on her heels. She has a cup of wine in her hand, which James deftly takes away before she can gulp it down.
“Hey,” she protests, crossing her arms over her lilac velvet dress. “No fair.”
He hands the wine to me instead. “After the stunt you pulled at that party last weekend? You’re lucky Mom and Dad let you out of the house.”
I take a sip, but I don’t taste it. I’m practically vibrating with excitement. “Hey.”
He kisses me quickly. “How’s it going so far?”
“It’s actually kind of amazing.” I reach out and take his hand. “I have to talk to you.”
Izzy looks between us, raising one dark eyebrow. “That sounds ominous.”
“Why don’t you go bother Coop,” James says dryly. “It looks like he’s trying to chat up that poor girl over there.”
Izzy looks over her shoulder. Cooper is leaning right next to a beautiful watercolor, gesturing with his wine cup as he talks to a young woman. She doesn’t seem that interested anyway, but I have a feeling Cooper is about to strike out thanks to Hurricane Izzy.
“I’ll bet I can make her think he has an STD,” she declares.
“Wait,” says James, but she’s already striding across the room. He sighs, turning to me. “You look beautiful, by the way. Who are the flowers from?”
“That’s sweet. My parents have a bouquet for you too.”
“She’s over there… talking to your mom,” I say as I realize what I’m seeing. “Oh God. She works fast.”
James glances over. “I think that was my mom, actually,” he says. “She’s been dying to meet her. But what’s up?”
“My mom talked to me before the show started. She’s selling the diner.”
He pulls me into a hug so quickly I nearly spill the wine on the floor. “No fucking way!”
“Yes!” I hug him back, unable to keep myself from laughing. We probably look ridiculous, but right now, I don’t care. The whole gallery could stare, and I wouldn’t give a shit. All that matters right now is him. “Yes. She’s selling it.”
His grip on me tightens. “Princess. Please tell me that means what I think it means.”
I pull back far enough to kiss him. Even in heels, I’m up on my toes, cupping his neck with my hand. I look into his ocean eyes, and I see a million possibilities. A future we can share. I see love and desire and everything I thought I couldn’t have, in between shades of blue.
“Yes,” I murmur against his mouth. I grin, feeling him smile in turn. “Wherever you go, I’m following.”
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