Diva, maybe feeling like her namesake for all the people I respected that actually acted that way, stood up the moment we drove onto the Vegas strip, the lights seeming to beckon her the way seeing me had. She stood on her tiny legs, barking, looking over her shoulder at me to see my reaction to her reactions.
It was like having an intelligent, attention craving toddler on the seat next to me.
I hadn't spent a lot of time around children, as an adult. My sister had a daughter, but she was the only one I knew personally. And except for when she'd been born and hadn't done much but sleep and stare at the ceiling, she and I had never interacted much. She was cute, though. But I couldn't imagine her being any more fun than my new dog. I had a feeling Jade wouldn't agree with me.
Once I'd located my hotel, Diva and I went shopping. And if I thought I'd look weird walking a dog with a jeweled collar, that was nothing compared to the other dog lovers I passed. Dogs in purses and dogs in strollers, of course. The one I really admired was the man who had a puppy strapped to his chest, like a baby, making it easier for him to run across lanes instead of waiting at the crosswalk like a patient human being.
"Why is everything here so expensive?" I asked Diva, after I spent thirty dollars on an alcoholic drink that came in a large container with an even larger straw.
I'd never realized that about Vegas. The last time I had been there was when I'd turned twenty-one. Jade, Hazel, and I celebrated together, and they had refused to let me pay for anything. I'd have to thank them for that. I'd spent so much of that weekend in a drunken haze, the last thing I'd thought of was the expense.
"Hello! Can I help you?"
I rotated toward the voice, Diva now on her leash, as we walked deeper into the store. It was a little overwhelming for me. I was genuinely more comfortable shopping on my computer, from the safety of my apartment. Salespeople pushing things made me nervous. And when I felt that way, I got sweaty. Yes, I might get a phone. But I'd need a shower right afterwards.
"Hi," I squeaked. "I lost my phone and wanted to get a new one."
I held Diva closer, making eye contact with the woman, who was delighted.
The bad news for her was, Jalen had apparently signed me up for a warranty. So I got a substantial discount. When I thought about him sitting on the couch, having just bought me a phone for the first time on our shared plan, my heart gave a little tug. And to my embarrassment, I found myself getting teary eyed while some teenager assured me all my numbers and photographs were intact.
Five days since I'd left him, and I was replacing things left and right, things he'd have nothing to do with. I couldn't read a text and reminisce over how carefully he'd put on my screen protector. Or about the day we'd accidentally switched phones and he had to carry my sparkly, purple case that he teased made him want to get his nails done to match.
I got distracted as my phone, once on, started beeping, green bubbles popping up. I examined the screen and confirmed they were texts, mostly from a group one that included my sisters, our brother Gray, and Cyrus, our cousin.
The boys didn't participate much. But they were offended when we took them off and just talked amongst ourselves. So we had to include them again, and now, they were much happier.
When I saw one from Jalen, I resisted temptation, put my phone in my pocket, and paid my bill. Then I practically ran out of there. If I was going to break down, I'd do it in the privacy of my hotel room. With only my dog as a witness.
I didn't cry. Jalen's text was more of a tirade, sent hours after I'd first left. He and I were pretty childish when we fought. At least, lately we had been. When we'd first started dating, we didn't fight. What was there to argue about? We'd been happy. Life had been easy for us. We didn't agonize about money or about what we wanted to do with our lives. We never had to struggle over our feelings. We'd seen each other and almost immediately, we'd fallen in love.
I'd been warned it wouldn't last. Mostly by Jade.
It wasn't that she rooted for us to fail. It was that she was the most practical of the three of us. She didn't believe anyone had a perfect journey in life.
But for those initial years with Jalen, mine had been close.
Where the hell are you? That was the first text, followed by a couple of swears and demands for me to answer. After that had been a bunch of phone calls.
I honestly didn't understand why he was so concerned about my whereabouts. It felt like he was having a tantrum, wanting a toy he'd long ago put down that had suddenly disappeared, making him realize how much he'd liked playing with it. Maybe he was just worried someone else would see the value in what he had abandoned. But I wasn't a toy, and I'd had enough. And the last thing I needed was someone else to disappoint me.
I erased his texts quickly. Sure, most of them mentioned how ridiculous I was for leaving. And I was reinforcing that immaturity by taking such satisfaction in pressing delete. But it was the effort that counted. I had no desire to look at them again and obsess when I couldn't sleep. Diva licked my hand, so at least someone else approved my decision.
My sisters, though. Their texts I laughed at, feeling excitement, knowing I was only three hundred miles away and they had no clue. I couldn't keep a secret from them. And I was terrible at surprises. In my mind, it was too much fun getting everyone's reactions and making them happy. I never made it long, and everyone knew not to tell me something if they wanted to hide it from the rest of the family.
But now, now was my time to win.
Reading back through the messages, I realized they'd been wanting me to settle a debate about what movie we'd seen the night before Jade's wedding, but as the hours passed and I hadn't replied, they'd started to panic.
I couldn't stop my smile as I followed the progression of their conversation, as they'd argued back and forth. Then the tone had turned to distress as they speculated about my schedule, whether they should call Jalen's number, or if they should get Marie and Dad involved.
Even Cyrus and Gray had removed their heads from whatever cloud in which they'd been stuck to voice concern. In between suggestions of trying to solve Hazel and Jade's disagreement, they asked that someone let them know when I was found.
It was satisfying to know that if I'd died tragically on the side of the road, someone might notice.
I'd always been loved and shielded by Hazel and Jade. Ever since meeting me they welcomed me into their group. Years later, Marie told me all about how they'd argued over which one of them got to share a room with me, but I hadn't known that at the time. To me, they'd just shown up, all ready to be my friends, no questions asked.
When Melanie heard I had not one but two stepsisters she, and most people, made commiserating faces. I had to assure them that mine were different. Though it couldn't be helped that they'd be closer. That I'd always be a little bit like an outsider. I never blamed them for that. It was only natural.
And that was before I even added in Teresa, constantly coming in to remind me that yes, no matter how much I wished it, Marie was not my mother.
Once I'd emailed Jade, days ago, using my computer to let her know I'd lost my phone, the texts had stopped after a few smiley faces of recognition.
Now that I was safely in my room, the dog sleeping beside me on the bed, I pushed Hazel's name on my new phone's display. Sometimes there was a decision to be made about which sister to call, but this time, it was easy.
She'd once been a night owl, but ever since her baby Chloe was born, Jade said she often dropped off at eight and didn't wake up until the next morning. She used to fall asleep on the couch with the baby until her husband coaxed them into a bed. She'd since learned to get on more of an actual schedule.
"Finally," Hazel screeched through the phone. "We were starting to imagine your funeral. It was going to be a great party."
I laughed, glad I'd called. My sisters were the perfect distraction from heartache. "I know," I said. "I haven't had my phone for days. It's been torture."
"What happened to it?"
Without mentioning the dog, I told her about losing it in the store, dodging her questions, lying really, about why I hadn't just gone back. "It was gone when I checked, but they said at the phone place it would be wiped. Not that I have anything interesting in there if someone looked."
Hazel agreed too fast when she said, "Very true."
"So what have you been doing? How's Jade?"
"I'm good. She's good. Though that girl is always napping."
"I know. And I never get to talk to her between that and the time difference," I said, realizing now we'd get to talk more often. Maybe even see each other more than once a year, as she lived near the mini mansion most of our family called home.
That's what you got when your aunt was a famous actress that loved spending money and annoying her sister.
"Chloe really is cute," Hazel gushed. "Though Jade barely lets me hold her. But she saw me the other day and began clapping her hands. I could get used to that kind of reception."
We talked for over an hour. And if you asked me later what we'd gone on about, I would have struggled to explain. When we said a final goodbye, we'd tried to get off a few times but had gotten distracted, Hazel's last words were, "I'll call you this weekend."
I just agreed, exhilarated. Knowing I'd see her soon.
After Marie and my dad got married, when I was nine, we'd all been planning to move into his parent's house, which was right across the street from Vivian's, Marie's mother. That was how they fell in love Marie always said. Her dream man was sexy. (That's when all of us including Gray made disgusted faces). And he was local. Since Dad was her neighbor, she couldn't run from him. What was she supposed to do but fall in love?
Though they'd all been planning to squeeze into our home, Auntie Sadie had handed over an envelope after the wedding ceremony. It contained the deed to a house in Scottsdale, the one the family still lived in. The fight, the tears, and eventually the laughter resulting from that was still one of the funniest, clearest memories I had.
But Sadie won, as Marie said she always did, and once she and Dad had gotten back from their honeymoon, they spent the next few weeks moving. After a few years, Vivian came too, despite Marie often mumbling rude things under her breath about her mother. Once our brother was walking, even Marie had to admit she could use the help. And Vivian was more than eager to volunteer.
So we all lived there, through high school, our rooms remaining untouched through college visits. The house was big enough that when Sadie and Uncle Michael, her on and off again relationship companion (her label), and their son Cyrus were in town, they were able to stay there, too.
Jade had moved out permanently first. Because in her words, "I need to get away from the crazy for a while," but everyone knew that meant her husband, Marcel, or Marc, still hadn't gotten used to the noise.
The house, like many in southern Arizona, was brown, with actual turrets and front doors protected by gates. Twenty minutes from the highway, up in the mountains, I turned down street after street, finally arriving at Estrella Estates, where the house was located.
The day we'd moved in, I felt like the luckiest little kid in the world. The house alone was worth the feeling. Over eight thousand square feet in size, we'd all gotten lost that first week. We'd head left for the kitchen and end up in a bathroom. But like most things, we quickly got used to the luxury, though I never tried to take it for granted. I had chores, just like everyone else. Vivian, she insisted on doing all the cooking. And the cleaning up. And most of the time, she'd ironed our clothes for school. While looking like a retired supermodel.
As Jade once said, "She's our very own Stepford grandmother." But she'd said it with pride, like Vivian was the kind of person she wanted to grow into. After having the pleasure of devouring Vivian's food during the latter part of my childhood, I could see the appeal in turning out like that. I wasn't off to a good start. Though I could theoretically cook, I didn't enjoy it and only got through the steps if I blasted music as a distraction.
When we passed a neighbor walking their dogs, Diva barked her approval. And when I reached the gate, I put in the code. Once it opened, Diva, anticipating freedom, lifted her head to stare out the window. I put my hand around her waist to steady her. (I'd learned to do that when I'd braked in Vegas and she fell). As I pulled up into the long driveway and stopped the car, she strained to get away, scratching at the door.
Vivian came out of the house to see who'd arrived. The driveway faced the kitchen, and she was usually in there. Diva, maybe sensing a fellow complicated spirit, lost her mind.
Vivian was one of my favorite people in my extended family. I'd never met my mother's parents, and my dad's were nice, but they traveled a lot. I hadn't seen them in years. My Aunt Mae also gallivanted all over and lived in Chicago, so I mostly heard about her from my dad. And his other sister was a mystery. I loved them all, but I honestly didn't know them well.
But Vivian. She called and texted with the ease of a tween who'd just gotten her first phone. I was one of the lucky people she kept on her contact list.
"What is this?" Vivian called. "Kacie? Is that you?"
"It's me," I confirmed, hurrying to get one of her perfumed hugs.
Had she always been so frail? Though Vivian had worked to be slim, I swore I could feel the bones in her back. And had her face always been that thin? But her grip was strong and her steps steady as she'd sped toward me.
Eyes narrowed behind my sunglasses, I was about to launch into questions when we got distracted by Diva's loud, for a little dog, barking.
"Is that racket coming from your car?"
I grinned. "I got a puppy."
"Is she house broken? I just mopped."
"I don't know. I doubt it. But she's adorable."
Vivian nodded. "That is very important. I can't be walking an ugly dog."
And that was why I loved her. Only she could offer to help me while also insulting my taste. As she edged closer, the dog, seeing a new person to love and adore, went full out wild with elation. I opened the door and removed the wiggling puppy.
She practically jumped from my hands into Vivian's. "My goodness. What is this?" she cooed, allowing the licking and the sniffing and the invasion of her personal space.
Once Diva had gotten that out of her system, she stretched out for me again. I had distinct memories of my niece making the exact same request. Before I knew it, I'd have a baby bag with all of Diva's things inside it too.
When I glanced up again, Vivian was giving me a look. "Where did you come from? You're a mess."
"You don't like my traveling clothes?"
"Is that what they are?" She smirked, peering into the backseat of my car. "How much stuff did you bring? How long are the two of you staying?"
"Forever," I said, grinning, realizing that for the first time. "I'm moving back." I might not have known that exactly when I initially got into my car, but the happiness I felt driving up to the house couldn't be denied. And the sunshine. Had it always been so bright? Had the skies always been so blue? There was no way I was returning to the cloudy, humid city I'd just left.
"And where is that adorable boyfriend?" She scrutinized the car more closely, as if Jalen was hiding under the bags.
Off the reflection from the car window, she must have seen my face fall at that question. "Uh oh." She swiveled around, which was impressive for an old lady, and seized my arm. "Let's go inside. I just made cookies."
"Chocolate chip?" I asked, eager to move off the subject of missing boyfriends. Drowning my sorrows in sugar was much more appealing.
"Eh. Not my first choice. I'll still have some, though," I reassured her.
"Don't worry. I'll make your favorite tomorrow."
Which was ginger. And I knew Vivian would go to the grocery store and get all the ingredients, even if I protested. Most likely she'd drag me along, but that was half the fun.
I never thought I'd miss someone going to so much trouble for me, but right then, it was exactly what I needed.
It was good to be home.