Authors: Kristen Ethridge
She leaned in to Rigo, the solid wall of his chest giving her a strong place to land. She breathed in the faint scent of the cologne he’d put on this evening, the same notes of sandalwood and fir he’d worn since he’d started wearing cologne. It all felt and smelled and tasted so familiar.
She wasn’t in this alone.
And she didn’t want to be without him, without this strength, ever again.
hat is that?”
Rigo stepped through the half-open back door of the house on Travis Place the following afternoon and a toxic wave singed the inside of his sinus cavities.
Gloria was a sight for sore eyes. He’d been arguing with tourists who thought it would be fun to come see someone else’s heartache. Disaster tourism just for kicks. The very thought disgusted him and he’d been pretty pointed in his dialogue with the tourists. But seeing Gloria set his emotions to right.
“It smells like a bomb went off, Glo.”
“Well, yeah, kinda.” The angry tang of ammonia hung heavy in the house and Gloria pointed at the door that led to the garage. “Water got into the cabinet where I keep all my lawn and garden stuff. It melted the bag of fertilizer I had stored in there. When I opened it up, it all poured out. I thought it was going to burn my eyes out.”
“I’m glad it didn’t. Do you need some help getting it cleaned up?” Rigo looked toward the back of the house.
“No, I turned on the hose...after I found a mask to put over my nose. But even though the water’s back on, there’s not enough pressure to wash away this mess. I’ll be glad when all this cleanup is over.” She waved her hand in a dismissive acknowledgment of the disheveled contents of the garage. “It’s as much of a mess in here as it feels like my life is right now.”
“There are some good things going on, though.” He reached out a hand and when she laid her palm in his, Rigo tugged Gloria close.
He couldn’t help himself. Now that the smoke of years of misunderstanding was clearing, all he wanted to do was keep her close and hold her.
Well, in the spirit of honesty, that wasn’t all he wanted to do. Right now, he wanted to kiss her. For a long time. And then do it all over again. And again. And again. Until they had enough new memories to wash the old ones out with the tide.
Rigo ran his free hand up Gloria’s spine and settled his palm at the base of her skull, cupping it gently. She didn’t pull away as he pressed the curve of bone with his fingertips, coaxing her head closer to his own and finding just the right angle.
There were memories to be made.
He leaned down and lowered his mouth to Gloria’s. Her lips slid softly against his. No liquid in any bottle had ever made him feel as wild as this sharp sword of adrenaline that slashed through him, fueling his emotions.
Rigo scolded the eighteen-year-old he’d once been for ever thinking he could have done better than this, for ever thinking he didn’t need this above almost all else in his life, except his relationship with God. It was impossible to tell where his breath ended and hers began.
He let the tension flow out of his shoulders as he reminded himself she was here, now, in his arms where she belonged. And he would never let her get away again.
Gloria slid her hand up Rigo’s chest and rested her forearm in the curve between his neck and shoulder, like two pieces of a puzzle coming together.
It just fit. Like Gloria’s presence back in his life.
He pulled back slightly and Gloria took a half step back. The moment was over. But the lesson forged in the embrace would not be forgotten.
“Never again,” Rigo said. His words came out crisply and sounded low—he’d used his police officer’s voice by instinct.
Gloria began to move her arm from its spot on his shoulder. Rigo placed his hand on hers, gently but in a way that left no room for misunderstanding. Gloria stayed still.
“What do you mean?”
The humid September heat pressed heavy in the room and Rigo wiped a bead of sweat out of Gloria’s hairline.
“I promise you, Gloria Garcia Rodriguez, that never again will I exchange the truth of what we have together for the lie of something that comes in a bottle. Never again will I give you a reason to shed another tear or find love in someone else’s arms.” He knew he should have hesitated. He knew he should have held back. He knew he shouldn’t chance overwhelming Gloria with the force of what he was feeling. But he had to. He had to be honest with her. She had to know. “I love you, Gloria. I always have. I never stopped. Not for a minute—even when my actions said anything but that. I don’t know what’s ahead for this island or for us as we rebuild. But I want to be the one you come home to, wherever that is, whatever that is.”
Gloria’s first reply was a small sound, like a strangled sob. She leaned her head into his chest, and Rigo wasn’t sure if the wetness that immediately pressed through his shirt was sweat or tears. It didn’t matter—she was where she belonged, next to him, in his arms. With time, they could sort everything else out together.
He only hoped she saw things the same way, and he battled to keep his adrenaline in check as he waited for her answer.
Rigo felt her head shift up and down, nodding against his shirt.
Mi casa es su casa
My house is your house
He let out his breath as he closed his eyes and thanked God for letting her see things the same way.
“Well, not this house, because it won’t be mine for long.” Gloria pulled away and looked slowly at the stained walls and the last roll of carpet and pad in the corner that was ready to be dragged to the curb for eventual pickup. “But wherever there’s love, there’s home, right?”
Rigo thanked God silently again. He couldn’t believe his dream was coming true. After everything he’d messed up, he was getting a second chance. Maybe he was becoming worthy of her, after all.
“So you feel the same way?” A mosquito buzzed somewhere in the room, the tiny hum breaking the silence as he waited for her answer.
Someday, Rigo hoped to hear her say those words in the sanctuary at La Iglesia de la Luz del Mundo as they stood before their family and friends and finally took the vows he’d asked Carlos’s permission to take a decade ago.
But for now, just knowing they were moving forward together instead of looking back would have to do.
Hopefully, though, not for long.
* * *
Another hour passed as they moved the soaked contents of Gloria’s garage out to the curb.
The city had announced yesterday afternoon that they were working with a FEMA contractor to begin collecting the mountains of garbage residents were pulling out of their homes. As the day grew longer, Gloria’s pile grew, too.
A drowned lawn mower that would never run again. Disintegrating cardboard boxes that had once stored Christmas decorations, now devoid of their holiday cheer. A framed print of a sunset, the watercolor now waterlogged and warped, mold beginning to creep in a polka-dotted pattern across the faded brushstrokes. They were all there, standing in silent testament to the changes that had befallen Port Provident and all her residents.
Gloria made a few trips back and forth from the front door to the curb, throwing armloads of textbooks on the pile.
“Look at these. Can you believe it? All these huge, expensive nursing textbooks.” She heaved four thick books toward the ground. “The covers look like they need to be ironed and the pages are all stuck together and smell like mold. Ugh. There’s no saving them. I guess when I start medical school, I’ll be starting from scratch in the reference-book arena.”
“So you’re really going to do it?” Rigo couldn’t keep the grin off his face. This sounded like the Gloria he’d fallen in love with so many years ago, a woman not afraid to take chances. A possessive pride took hold of his heart, seeing
Gloria, eclipse the shadow of the angry Gloria who’d been shackled by the past.
“Yes. I have some friends in the admissions office at the med school connected to Provident Medical Center. Once they get back up and running, I’m going to call Paula and see if she can guide me through the process.”
“And you feel good about that?” She sounded confident, but Rigo wanted to confirm Gloria was truly onboard with this change of events in her life.
She said it again, and Rigo’s heart skipped a quick beat. He’d once hoped to hear those words from her in a church, a lifetime ago. It was driving him crazy not to just reach out and pull her close for another kiss. But he knew he couldn’t. They were making progress—slow progress, but still progress—and he didn’t want to risk that fragile bridge they’d built.
Still, it was hard to feel the way he felt about her and hold that back.
“I know you already told me last night at dinner that you were going to do this, but I feel like we should mark the occasion. Meet me on Inez’s rooftop later?” He grinned at her, unable to conceal a small bit of mischievous undertone in his words.
She smiled, a tinge of nervousness tucked into the corners of her lips. Rigo thought her shy smile was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen.
“I can’t tonight. I promised Mamí and Papí I would meet them for dinner at Gracie’s. She didn’t have any flooding damage. They’re still living in Jake’s old apartment in the carriage house over the garage at the Peoples estate until the renovations on the main house are finished—I guess
will be taking a little longer now. I’d love to take you up on your offer, but I don’t think the rest of the Garcias will feel very celebratory if you’re around.”
Rigo kicked at some of the trash in the pile with his shoe in order to stop it from moving down in a slow slide, then he laughed. “No, I’m pretty sure the next time Carlos sees me with you will be the last time. He’ll lock you in a tower like Rapunzel.”
“No, he won’t.” Gloria threw Rigo a sarcastic scowl. “Well, not that he wouldn’t want to. I’m just not the kind to go into a tower willingly.”
“No, you’re not, and thank God for that.”
For the first time since he’d showed up on Travis Place, Gloria looked uncomfortable. “Why did you say that?”
“Say what? That you’re not the type to go without a fight?”
“No. The other part. The ‘and thank God for that’ part.”
Rigo thought about it for a second before replying. He wanted to get this right. No more misunderstandings. It wasn’t just a figure of speech. “I honestly meant it, Glo. I thank God for you and who you are and how He made you to be. You’re one of a kind.”
She subtly shifted from her right foot to her left, then back again, but Rigo didn’t miss the motion.
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you. I mean, come on, I know I’m headstrong and all, but...”
“You don’t know why I said I meant that I thanked God for you literally, instead of just meaning it as some common turn of phrase?”
She turned her head and looked down the street. “Pretty much.”
“Because it’s true. Because it’s something I had to realize about myself.” Rigo sat on the sole foot-long space of the curb that remained free of trash. “I told you I spent a long time running. From you. From myself. From God. While I was in rehab, my dad sent Pastor Ruiz to visit me. And the conversation we had that day helped me change how I viewed myself. Whatever my strengths or weaknesses were, they were there because God put them there. They’re part of me—the good and the bad—because God has a purpose for me. And part of that is to use my strengths to fulfill what I’m supposed to do with my life, and to use my weaknesses to trust Him to help me grow. It’s the same way for you. I thank God for everything about you because you are who He made you to be.”
“I haven’t trusted God for much in a long time, much less to grow or anything like that. I’ve just gone through the motions to try and get through the day-by-day and not let anyone—not my family, not my patients, not my friends—see how I really feel inside.”
“I know.” Rigo stood up and walked over to Gloria. He wrapped his arms around her, trying to be both strong and gentle at the same time. He wanted to support her, not push her. “But it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. If I can do it, you can, too, you know.”
“I wish I could. That would be nice.” Her words floated out on a sigh.
He recognized that point of resignation, of reaching deep and knowing you’d been running from the truth, the inevitable.
Rigo shifted his arms a bit and turned Gloria so they were facing each other. He unwrapped the embrace and took her hands in his own. They were strong enough to bring new life into the world, but fragile enough that they trembled slightly as he brushed his thumb across the smooth skin that covered the back of Gloria’s hands.
“Then let’s make it happen.” Rigo bowed his head about forty-five degrees and closed his eyes. He didn’t pray much in public. It made him nervous enough sometimes to share these thoughts with God, let alone another person. But if he couldn’t share with Gloria, pray with Gloria—pray
Gloria—then he realized he had no business praying to God to be worthy of Gloria.
A breeze stirred, blowing the heavy smell of mold from their immediate area. “Heavenly Father, give Gloria the grace to accept the changes in her life and to use them to fulfill the purpose You’ve given her. Help her to feel Your presence when those changes and the memories they bring back are hard to bear. And mostly, help Gloria to see her as I see her and as You see her. Help her to see the beauty inside and outside and to know Your promise, that beauty comes from ashes. Amen.”
Gloria’s eyes had opened before Rigo opened his, and they were filled with equal parts twinkle and tears. “That’s truly how you see me, Rigo? Beautiful?”
“Inside and out.” He nodded with the full weight of his heart and soul. “And more importantly, it’s how God sees you, too. You’re a firecracker. You’re one of a kind, Gloriana Maria Claudia Garcia de Piedra.”
Her face softened as the guard she’d worn like a suit of armor for years fell to the ground. “You remembered my whole name.”
“Of course I did. It’s written on my heart.”