Many years had passed since I’d visited the town where I grew up. News of my father’s illness had caused enough panic for me to book a flight to New Mexico. Last minute plans over a holiday weekend meant changing hotels mid-trip. The first was a casita at a tiny inn called Casas de Suenos.
I couldn’t recall the last time I saw my dad and stepmother. It might have been at the hospital after he flipped his car about a half dozen years ago. There hadn’t been any other reason to come back. After white-knuckling it to seventeen when I left to college, I wasn’t motivated to keep in close touch.
The airplane touched down in Albuquerque and I got a text from my stepmother.
“Are you here?”
“Haven’t gotten off the plane yet.”
“Still? We’ll just keep circling.”
I stopped at the bathroom to wash up. My fifty-one year old face didn’t match the age I felt. People-pleasing, anxious, and insecure. Like I did when I was twelve.
Once outside the terminal, I spotted the two of them inside a battered white Volvo, Dad’s latest used car, stopped in the intersection. I strode into the street and pulled open the door to the back. A hair-covered dog blanket covered the seat with all manner of detritus occupying the space where one might otherwise place her feet.
“Can you pop the trunk?”
“Just toss your stuff in the backseat.”
No matter how many years had passed, their way of receiving me caused my chest to sink. But they had offered me a ride and that was good. Dad got out of the passenger seat and reached out to me. He’d lost weight. Weariness weighed down his features and his eyes held a sorrow that was almost too much to bear.
“You look good, Dad.” For what he’d been through, it was true. Half his appendix had been removed and he’d been sleeping most of the day for weeks. Too much, maybe. In the last couple days he’d been able to walk the dogs and have real conversations.
“Did you make the whole thing up?” I joked. Humor was the one thing our family pulled from the fire of our most difficult years together.
“It got you out here, didn’t it?” And there it was. A tiny glowing ember of proof that he actually wanted me here.
My stepmother drove us through the semi-deserted streets to their home, the blue range of the Sandia mountains etched on the edge of town. When she unlocked the front door, two Rhodesian Ridgebacks shoved their noses into my crotch, the new one snapping at my hand. I yanked my purse away from her bared teeth. In the living room, the dog nudged me off the sofa. My hosts seemed to notice none of this.
I sat in a stiff chair opposite Dad and caught up for a few minutes about my other siblings. My stepmother disappeared into to her office. Sounds of a child’s voice warbled from a phone speaker. With the cel in her hand, she moved through the house engaged in casual conversation.
Walking past the living room, she mouthed, “it’s my granddaughter.” An hour later, she returned.
“You’re still talking about your son?” she asked.
“I was just telling dad how my older boy is really into the stock market. He’s got some pretty conservative views which, of course, we are hoping he outgrows.”
“We felt the same way when you became a cheerleader,” she said.
“I was never a cheerleader. I danced. Maybe it’s the pom pons that threw you off.” She looked confused.
My squads had been my pretend family in both middle and high school. It hurt that she didn’t know this about me. Her son had played soccer. I imagined she remembered every play of every game. I think they might have come to one of mine but I couldn’t be sure.
She said she’d put some salmon on and asked if I would I like any.
“That’s okay. I had a big breakfast burrito in Dallas during my delay. But I can make a salad.”
She removed the entire vegetable shelf from the refrigerator and plunked it down on the counter. I picked through wilted yellow peppers and floppy parsley to find a bag with the remnants of romaine hearts and some cellophane wrapped cucumbers. I took a ceramic bowl down from the kitchen shelf and threw in the salvaged vegetables, added canned chickpeas, and an avocado then tossed it with a squeeze of lemon and olive oil. I looked around for plates and set the table.
I served my dad some salad. “I’ll need to get to the hotel soon,” I said.
“You’re not staying here?” he looked at me, incredulous.
“I told you she wasn’t,” said my stepmother.
“It’s close by. I need my own space. You can relate to that, I’m sure,” I said. In the numerous rentals we’d inhabited after the divorce and move away from Albuquerque, he spent most of the time at home in his room with the door closed. Sometimes he emerged. On many of those occasions, he yelled. I don’t remember what for.
As an adult, my bedroom with the door closed is also my refuge. I’ve yelled at my kids too.
Since Dad hadn’t been driving, he lent me his car that he’d kindly filled with a tank of gas. I felt the warmth of that gesture spread in my chest.
Seated behind the wheel, I plugged the hotel into the traffic app and breathed a sigh of relief. The couple of hours back in the space I had occupied as one of five kids, took a toll. Each of us must have faded into the next, all but the youngest: our stepbrother. He’d had the undivided attention of his mother. The entire gleaming inventory of Toys ‘R Us seemed to be crammed into his side of the room. It must have been hell on my little brother on the other side.
Casas de Suenos faced the green hills of the Albuquerque Country Club in one of the more upscale parts of town, the very neighborhood my mother moved to when she first left our family forty years ago. I had visited that perfect little home only once after they split. As a kid, it felt like visiting a new dimension where I had never existed. The memory of polished wood floors and pristine white tile countertops is as vivid as if I’d seen it this morning.
I had taken care to arrive before dark to check in, not wanting to navigate a now strange town in the dark. I couldn’t wait to get some sleep.
Tammy, the front desk clerk, lead me across the cobblestone courtyard to the casita I had reserved.
She pushed on the antique french door and a blast of hot, humid air hit my face.
“Does it have a/c?” I asked. Tammy placed a hand under the ceiling vent and peered into the digital display on the wall, it’s high tech look out of place among the old Spanish architecture. Dark wood beams lined the ceiling and a heavy wrought iron chandelier hung in the center of the living room.
“Yes, but this unit is tricky. When people put the air down too low, it freezes up and stops working.”
“Can you call someone? There’s no way I’ll be able to sleep in this.” She held a finger up for me to wait and went back to the reception area.
I opened the two doors to the outside for a cross-breeze and took out my computer.
After my dad’s I was not in any shape to be turned away. If this place was too inept to provide habitable conditions, I couldn’t be held responsible for my behavior.
I connected to the WIFI and googled a/c repair, curious of the offerings in town. “Top Ten HVAC repair services.” So many they have a top ten.
Tammy returned. “The owner has offered to refund your weekend. Hotel Albuquerque is up the street.”
The old Sheraton. I could not stay in some sterile corporate hotel. I needed a place that felt like a home with people I could pay to take care of me.
“It’s 9:00 pm and pitch black. That’s not at all what I feel comfortable doing.”
“That’s the solution she offered for your comfort. The owners figure you are not going to be happy otherwise.”
“Leaving will not make me comfortable whatsoever. I have had a crazy long day of travel. I am here to visit my sick father, not get shuffled around town because your owner doesn’t want to do the responsible thing and fix what is broken.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” she bit her lip.
“Have these people not heard of Yelp or Tripadvisor? I will destroy this place. How about this? I am a lawyer. I will call a repair service myself and sue her for the charge.”
“Please don’t do that.” Tammy started to cry.
“Just have her call me,” I said.
“Please don’t tell her what I said about this unit having problems.”
“You’re fine,” I said. She wiped at her eyes and left the room.
A few minutes later, my cel phone rang.
“I understand you are not interested in moving to another hotel,” she said. It’s fourth of July weekend and we wont be able to get our guy out here until Monday.”
“There are plenty of other companies.”
“We don’t want some stranger stomping all over our property. We have someone we trust and that’s who will be fixing it. On Monday.”
This lady cared nothing about me. A mix of rage and shame churned inside me.
“When something breaks in my home, I know my family is counting on me to fix it. I am your guest. I was very intentional about selecting somewhere I felt safe and comfortable. The responsible, hospitable thing to do is repair it. If your regular person isn’t available, get a recommendation from someone you trust. Major repairs follow Murphy’s Law. Our well broke on Thanksgiving and we had no water. We fixed it because that is what you do.”
“We aren’t going to do that,” she said.
“Well I don’t feel safe leaving, so what’s the next option?” I said.
“We can get you a fan and comp the night.”
We ended the conversation. A tearful Tammy lugged a cylindrical black contraption of her same height into the front door.
By 3:00 a.m., the high desert temperature had cooled down the adobe walls enough for me to finally sleep.
I woke up, regretting the bad vibes. I went for a run and explored the neighborhood. The homes all had the look of a place someone had loved.
I replayed the conversations of the night before. I wasn’t proud of how I acted. I had taken out my unmet need to feel cared for on these unsuspecting strangers. Moving to a high rise would announce too loudly that no one here considered me dear enough to make up a special room, not even if I paid them. To place a little plant on the bedside, or scented soaps in the shower like I had done for guests at my own home. I knew my expectations were out of line with reality but I couldn’t stomach there being no special place for me here.
When I returned back to the casita, I told the morning front desk clerk that the room was hot but all was well. I would not be leaving.
I dropped Dad’s car at the Sparkle on the corner and ordered a full detail, wax and carpet shampoo.
Oddly, this act of kindness for him made me feel better. I’d be driving this car so it was also for myself. And my brother who’d be coming after I left. I’d spread a little love around to everyone.
Over the next few days, I cleaned up my energy before heading over for a visit. Frequently, I noticed myself mining the conversation for evidence of my lack of worth. In this dynamic with these exact people, I had trained myself to do that. I had been given the perfect opportunity to unlearn the pattern.
With each conversation, I realized that how they related to me was not about me. They had formed patterns of relating in their own families of origin. I learned that the plan for the rest of our childhood had gone awry. Dad and Mom had agreed that she would finish her education, find gainful employment and take us all back. She never did that. His limited role in our lives before the divorce did not prepare him for any of what came next. He had done the best he could. He didn’t say that, but I assumed he had.
I began to have conversations without narrating my own story in my head. It brought ease and lightness. We joked more.
Each day, I spent as much time at their home as made me comfortable. Luckily, my need to care for myself coincided with Dad’s need for rest. When I left, I used the time to restore. I enjoyed long conversations over meals with old friends and friends who felt like family. I poked around the shops in Old Town. I soaked up every ounce of beauty this part of the country offered in its vast blue skies, rugged mountains and fragrant juniper and sage brush that sprung up everywhere.
The next inn I had booked sat in the middle of a lavender field. The place delivered exactly what I was looking for. Fragrant soaps, bike trails, wild flowers by my bedside. And best of all, kind hospitality.
When you understand what you need and take care of yourself, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: What patterns do you see in yourself that were established way back when?
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