Finally she stood, saying, “If you’d be happier with it,” before leading me out. We fell silent as our suitcases rolled dully behind us, wheels rhythmically tripping over the seams in the sections of thick carpet.
“I just want your vacation to be perfect,” she said over her shoulder.
“I know, Nana. I want yours to be perfect too.”
She hiked her JCPenney purse higher on her shoulder, and I felt a pang of protectiveness. “It’s our first trip to London,” she said, “and—”
“It’s going to be amazing, don’t worry.” The café did well for a café in a small town, but it was all relative; we’d never been rolling in cash. I couldn’t even fathom how long it took her to save for all this. I mean, I’d seen her itinerary and it was packed: museums, Harrods, shows, dinners out. We were going to spend more in two weeks than Nana probably spent in a year.
“I’m already so excited to be here,” I said.
Sam and Luther emerged from their room: Luther was rolling a bag behind him, and Sam had a duffel slung over his shoulder. Once again I experienced a weird physical leap inside at the sight of him. He seemed to completely fill the hallway. He’d pulled a worn blue plaid shirt over the T-shirt he wore earlier, but at some point he’d taken off his green Converse, and now padded his way down the hall only in socks. It was oddly scandalous.
Sam lifted his chin in greeting when he saw me, and smiled. I don’t know if it was the smile or the socks—the hint of being undressed—but a shiver worked its way down my spine.
I’m here for museums and history.
I’m here for the adventure and experience.
I’m not here for boys.
Sam was right there, four, three, two feet away. He blocked out the ambient light coming in from a row of narrow windows—I barely came up to his shoulder. Was this what it felt like to be a moon orbiting a much larger planet?
“Thanks again,” I mumbled.
“Are you kidding?” His eyes followed me as we passed. “Anything to make you smile.”
The new room was exactly the same as our old one, except for one important detail: the view. Nana unpacked, hanging her clothes in the narrow closet, lining her makeup and lotions on the wide granite counter. Against the swirling black and cream, her drugstore blush and eye shadow palettes looked dusty and faded.
Within only a few minutes she was in bed, beginning her ritual of foot cream, alarm setting, and reading. But despite the time difference and long flight, I was still buzzing. We were in London. Not just down the freeway in Santa Rosa or San Francisco—we were actually across an entire ocean. I was exhausted, but it was in that speedy, jittery way where I didn’t want to sleep. In fact, I didn’t think I ever wanted to sleep again. I knew if I got into bed now my legs would wrestle with the sheets anyway: hot, cold, hot, cold.
Anything to make you smile.
I hated to admit it, but Nana was right: the view was spectacular. It made me itch to slip out like a shadow into the night and explore. Right there, just outside the window was the Thames and Big Ben, and just below was a manicured garden. The grounds were dark, spotted with tiny lights and fluttering shadow; it looked like a maze of lawn and trees.
“Think I’ll sit outside and read for a bit,” I said, grabbing a book and trying to hide how jittery I felt. “Just in the garden.”
Nana studied me over the top of her reading glasses, practiced hands rhythmically rubbing in hand cream. “By yourself?” I nodded, and she hesitated before adding, “Don’t leave the hotel. And don’t talk to anybody.”
I kept my tone even. “I won’t.”
The real directive remained unspoken in her eyes: Don’t talk about your parents.
My own answered in kind: When have I ever?
I could legally drink in England, and part of me really wanted to sneak into the hotel bar, order a beer, and imagine the day when I’d be here on my own, untethered from Mom and Nana and the weight of their pasts and the burden of their expectations. I wondered if I might look like I belonged . . . or more like a rebellious teenager trying on adulthood for size. Looking down at my tight jeans, my baggy cardigan, my battered Vans, I suspected I already knew the answer.
So, with my book in hand, I bypassed the bar and headed out the wide set of doors on the ground floor. The garden was irresistible: it had that tidy, manicured look that makes every shrub look like it needs to be brought in at night, too precious for the elements. Yellowed lights sat at even intervals, each lighting a cone of brilliant green grass. The city was just beyond the shrubbery and wrought iron walls, but the air smelled of damp ground and moss.
I’d been waiting my entire life to go on a trip like this, to be away from home and the secrets we kept there, but so far, this eerie, empty garden was the highlight of my day.
“The best view is down here.”
I jumped, ducking like there’d been gunfire, and looked toward the voice. Sam was there, stretched across the manicured lawn with his hands tucked behind his head and his feet crossed at the ankle.
His green shoes were back on. For the first time, I noticed a tiny rip in the knee of his jeans with just a patch of skin peeking through. A slip of his stomach was visible where his shirt rode up.
I placed a hand over my chest; the organ beneath seemed to be thrashing to get out. “What are you doing on the ground?”