So, here I am with a spanking new notebook in front of me that I’ve decided to call “J.” (There’s no way I’m calling it a diary!) I don’t know how to begin or how this is going to go so just stick with me, okay?
For starters, I’m staring at this glaringly white page, thinking nothing is going to get written at all. Although I think Aunt Keniesha is smarter than the average person, this might be a really stupid idea. I figure I’ll find out pretty quickly.
I have a lot of ground to cover, so I guess I should start with my arrival at the Mango residence. To my relief, Aunt Keniesha was the only one home when I got there. I was kind of glad about that because the last thing I wanted to do was talk to everyone and answer a million questions. My cousins are great, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that they’re so… chatty. You might’ve guessed that I wasn’t exactly in a cheerful mood.
Okay, I was the opposite of cheerful. I think I threw my first tantrum right after I got here.
Aunt Keniesha stood there with absolutely no expression on her face until I finally shut up. Then, she pointed her finger right at me!
“Are you finished?” she asked. Though she still seemed pretty impassive, I could tell she wouldn’t really like an answer to her question.
“Now, listen closely,” she told me, “I know you’ve had a really rough time. You can feel however you want to feel and you can pout if that’s how you choose to express yourself. But you’re going to learn pretty soon that any pity parties you might have for yourself are going to be largely ignored and looked down upon. We don’t do that depressive, feel sorry for yourself stuff here. You’re part Noble and that means you hold yourself upright and comport yourself with dignity. How does pizza sound for dinner?”
After dinner, she showed me to my room and I began to realize just how well Uncle Mango did in sports! I might get lost here, the place is so huge. My room is downright spacious with a kitchenette and bathroom. Maybe I’ll never have to leave it! If it was up to me, I’d crawl under the covers in that cushy looking bed and never get up again. Everyone would be so disappointed to hear that, I’m sure. I’m just so tired. Sometimes it’s all I can do to make myself get out of bed and get ready for the day.
Oh yeah, back to business… Much to my annoyance, the first thing Aunt Keniesha did was sit me down with this notebook… uh, you, J.
“When you feel an outburst coming on, you write in here instead,” she instructed. Her voice was all no nonsense so I nodded in agreement.
She went on to tell me that when my mom was my age, she gave her the idea to journal, too. She said that’s what my mom’s been writing all these years and that she thought it helped her sort some things out. And, to my embarrassment, she added that my mom wasn’t prone to tantrums. I wanted to say, Until the funeral. But I wisely kept my mouth shut. What good would it do to say that? I really didn’t want another lecture so soon from my aunt.
As I continued to stare at the blank page, I decided I was of the opinion I didn’t need things sorted out. I knew exactly how I felt. How would writing it down help?
(I know I keep skipping around, J. Please be patient with me.)
Okay, I already started telling you about my experience when I first arrived. I guess I could write down what I remember about staying at the Mangos’.
At the beginning, it felt really awkward. To occupy my troubled mind, I played my guitar. Music was everything to me; my whole world. Right now, it felt like music was the only thing keeping me going.
Aunt Keniesha didn’t get what it’s like to be a guitarist. She seemed worried when she saw me rubbing my fingertips with an emery board and then rubbing alcohol. I needed thicker callouses because I wanted to play for longer periods of time, so I had to do these things. I was playing a steel stringed acoustic guitar because I knew that would build up the callouses pretty quickly. I just wanted – no… I needed it to be faster. This was serious business to me.
Sometimes my fingers bled and I hid that from my aunt because I couldn’t stand her questions. Honestly, I was really grateful for the distraction from the pain that sat in my chest twenty-four/seven. Sore fingertips were nothing compared to the misery in my soul. Nothing could hurt worse than that. Then it occurred to me. Maybe I needed to build up some callouses around my heart, too. More than ever, I was determined that nothing would hurt me like that again.
I’ve gotta take a break…
My cousins were supposed to be home from university for the weekend and I was hoping it wouldn’t be too weird since I hadn’t seen them since the funeral. Until then, I did my best to be alone so I could practice the songs I was writing, but somehow, Aunt Keniesha always found me. She didn’t outright interrupt me or anything, it was just the fact she was listening that bothered me the most.
I started going to the high school on this side of town the day after I moved in. Most of the other students didn’t really seem to care to talk to me. It was like they already had their friends, so why did they need me? I was grateful, though, that no one knew what happened to me and that was more important right now than having friends. I noticed a lot of people stared at the scar on my face. I bet they wondered where I got that! I had the feeling they were curious but no one dared approach and ask. Being standoffish was something I quickly learned to do in order to protect myself. It was like they had decided as soon as I got there that they didn’t want to know me. So, I decided I didn’t want to know them either. I buried myself in my music and pretended it didn’t bother me when no one sat with me at lunch or on the bus.
The week went really fast and before I knew it, Tia and Grace were home, smothering me with hugs like they hadn’t seen me in years.
Tia got a hold of me first. Her hug was nice and loose and she smelled really strongly like some kind of flowers. It tickled my nose really badly and I resisted the overwhelming urge to scratch it.
When Grace hugged me, I couldn’t breathe! Her arms were like vise grips!
“I’m so glad you’re staying with us,” she cooed, patting my back.
I was raised to be polite, so I tried to thank her but it came out muffled, like, “Fnnffff ffffwwww.”
I barely got a deep breath in before Aunt Keniesha hugged me and kissed my cheek. “I didn’t get to hug you when you got here because of that show you put on.”
Grace squealed with what I can only assume was excitement. “Oh, Leo! Did you bring your guitar? If you played a show for mom, you have to play one for us! You can’t tell us no!”
I thought for sure Aunt Keniesha would correct her and tell her it wasn’t that kind of show, but she didn’t. Instead, she winked at me and said, “Leo’s been playing guitar all week. I can’t wait for you girls to hear him!” She turned to me, “Go on, play something for us.”
“Oh, uh, that’s okay,” I stammered. I’m sure my face was turning bright red because I could feel the heat in my cheeks. I hated when that happened. Whenever I wanted to look cool, my stupid face had to go all crimson, giving me away as a total nerd. My hair was already bright red and when my face did that, I just looked red all over.
“Well, why not?”
“I know you can play, don’t even pretend you can’t. Now pick up that guitar and wow us.”
Defeated, I sighed. Holding my guitar, I stood still for a minute. I wasn’t sure if I was really ready for an audience.
“Leo,” Aunt Keniesha prompted.
Slowly, I played a few chords, strumming lightly.
I don’t know why this happened to me, but it always did… Before I knew it, I was lost in my song as if my aunt and cousins weren’t even there. As if time was standing still just so I could get lost in and relish that moment.
It wasn’t long before I forgot they were there at all. My voice became a little stronger with each phrase I sang.
“The moon is bright
In the sky tonight
It shines on what is unseen
I’m all alone
In this little home
It could be I’m the king”
I sang another verse and a bridge before I topped it off with the chorus.
“How could you leave me
How could you leave me
To vanish, to disappear
No one to hold me
No one to hold me
Like I’m not even there”
When my song was finished, they clapped pretty enthusiastically. I couldn’t really tell if they honestly liked it or if they were just being polite. But it felt nice and my dumb face went all red again.
Finally, I asked what I’d been dying to find out all week. “Aunt Keniesha? May I play your piano? I’ve never played a grand piano before.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “Of course! It’s just sitting there otherwise!”
I sat on the piano bench and ran my fingers over the keys, barely touching them. This instrument was so beautiful, I could cry. Finally, I began to play, gently caressing a song out of it. The tone was amazing and rich, the key touch was the best I’d ever felt. This piano was begging me to play it.
My aunt and cousins hovered around as I played a different song I’d written. It was a haunting melody, perfect for this piano.
Afterwards, Aunt Keniesha excused herself to go to bed. I sat down with my cousins. It felt kind of awkward for me but I could tell they had a lot to say.
“That music was beautiful,” Tia said. “Are you…” Her voice trailed off.
“What?” I asked. She may as well spit it out.
“Are you okay? I mean, I don’t know how to say this, but I’m worried about you, Cuz. I mean, you have really dark circles under your eyes.. and you’re so thin.”
I looked over at Grace, thinking she’d speak up and tell her sister not to be so rude. Instead, she just sat there, nodding. Nodding!
Sighing inwardly, I had to admit that my appetite had been super crappy lately. I didn’t stare at myself that much in the mirror, but I knew I didn’t look so hot.
I shrugged and said, “I’m fine. Sheesh.”
“You can’t blame us for worrying, Leo,” Grace said.
I shrugged again. “I guess not,” I mumbled.
“Look, we know you’re beyond sad and we totally understand why. While you’re here, we want you to think of us as friends, not just your cousins.”
“Okay,” I said.
Whenever they came home for the weekends, we would swim in their pool. These guys live really well, that’s all I have to say about that.
One time, I told them about Chrissy. I was bothered because my parents had called and told me she was pregnant. I’d had to admit to them that I could be the baby’s father. It hurt me because even though it was over the phone, I could picture my mom’s sad face when I told her. I could hear the disappointment in my dad’s voice. It was then that I realized how much they loved me and that I had done something that would affect everyone.
My parents had told me sometime later in a different phone call that Chrissy had run off with another guy and they couldn’t find her. They didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl and they had no way to do a paternity test, obviously.
“How do you feel about that?” Grace asked during one of our lazy Saturdays in the pool.
Treading water, I hesitated to answer. How did I feel about that?
“I mean, do you love her?” Tia asked.
“Not exactly,” I said. I’d been angry that Chrissy had just found another guy so easily. So what if I’d left? So what if she couldn’t get a hold of me for a little while? My eyes burned when I thought of how little she must have cared for me. I wouldn’t cry, though; I’d made that promise to myself. I had to put this in perspective. Did this hurt as bad as losing Jilly? Not even close. I wouldn’t let it. Chrissy could go to hell, I decided.
“Does she love you?” Tia asked.
“I don’t think she’s capable.” How could she have? She’d been there for me in a way no one else could have been at the time. That’s all it was for either of us, I was beginning to see.
While we floated around some more, we talked about all kinds of things. They could probably tell I didn’t want to focus on Chrissy anymore. So, Tia talked about training to be a star athlete like her dad and Grace wanted to be a teacher and then a principal someday. We chatted about Uncle Mango and how they’d felt when he disappeared. Surprisingly, they expressed a lot of the same things I’d thought since losing my twin. I hoped someday they’d find their dad and I tried not to feel bitter that they could at least hold onto some kind of belief they’d see him again. For me, Jilly was gone forever.
In other conversations, they wanted to know what I wanted to be. My dreams seemed so infantile next to theirs. After some badgering, though, I finally told them I wanted to be a musician. Life just wouldn’t be worth living if I couldn’t work in the music industry in some capacity.
To my surprise, they didn’t laugh or tell me that would never happen. They said they thought I really had what it took talent-wise and that what I really needed was the right connection, the look and maybe a band.
I told them how someday, I want to go to Bridgeport and pursue my music. They thought that was great.
Over the next several months, I only did the bare minimum to get through school. Instead, I buried myself in studying music theory, rewriting a lot of my lyrics and playing my songs whenever and wherever I could. Sometimes people even gathered around and danced.
As always when I performed, I lost myself in the moment and forgot anyone was even there. After a set, my ever growing crowd would even congratulate me and ask me where I was playing next.
One day, Aunt Keniesha brought me downtown to a huge building.
“You have such a gift, Leo,” she said as we paused outside. “I’ve never seen anything like it and I think you really have what it takes to go far.”
“Thanks,” I said, only half believing her. “Why are we here?”
“Why are we here? Didn’t you read the sign? This is a branch of Sound Pollution Records.”
My eyes became two times their size and my jaw dropped. I already knew that Sound Pollution Records were the biggest company in Bridgeport, but I didn’t know they had an office in Storybrook.
“Now, we’re going to go in there and meet with Desmond Smiley.”
Trying to wrap my confused brain around all of this, I asked, “Who – Why?”
She rolled her eyes as if I’d fallen way behind, which, I guess I had. “Leo, stay with me. Your Uncle Mango had a lot of friends. Remember I said the other day that I was going to call his old friend Desmond Smiley?”
I was caught. Aunt Keniesha had such a tendency sometimes to go on and on about something, that often, I only pretended to be listening. It was so easy to zone out when I had a constant stream of lyric possibilities going through my head. I tried really hard not to look so blank, but I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about.
Her eyes narrowed and she started waving her arms all around while she talked. “Leo!” she admonished. “Honestly!” She took a deep, visible breath. “Pay attention this time. Desmond Smiley is very important in the music industry. I called him and told him about you. He’s doing me a favor by meeting with us today. This could be big for you!”
I snapped to reality and swallowed hard as butterflies invaded my quivering stomach. “I’m meeting with him? Now?”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you for two days,” she said, rolling her eyes again. “Now, we’re going to go in there and you’re going to play some songs – only the ones you’ve written. If he’s interested in you, he’ll ask you some questions, so pay attention!”
I didn’t really have time to ask her anything about this because she took my arm and dragged me inside. We waited forever in the waiting room and I thought my heart might explode. This could mean everything. It could make me or break me and I’d only have one chance to impress this guy. Suddenly, I could barely remember my songs. What was the first line of my song “Disfigured?” What was the first word? What key was it in? The longer we waited, the more I forgot and I began to wish I was getting a tooth filled at the dentist office instead! Anything was better than this!
My hands began to shake when the secretary finally told us that Mr. Smiley was ready to see us.
He wasn’t at all what I expected. He was wearing jeans, a casual shirt and a ball cap backwards on his head. Shaking my hand, he said, “Hey, Leo, I’ve heard a lot about you. Your Uncle Mango talked about you some and your aunt here really speaks highly of you.” He must have seen how terrified I was because he laughed a little and said, “Relax, man. I’m an old family friend and if you’re half as good as Keniesha says, I might just be the luckiest guy on the planet. We’ve been needing some new blood for years.”
This helped me only slightly. I still felt like my life was on the line. It was the longest half hour of my life, but somehow, I made it through. I played my songs “Disfigured” and “Charred Morality.” Mr. Smiley said he’d be in touch. Whatever that means.
While I waited for what felt like forever for a call from Desmond Smiley, my cousins graduated from college. I’d gotten really close to them and felt so proud of them, too. I knew they were going to do really important things with their lives. And seeing this in them made me want to accomplish things, too.
I’d gotten especially close to Grace, who, on a dare from me, wore her favorite hat for graduation instead of the cap she was supposed to wear. I never thought in a million years she’d actually wear it. Did she just do it to cheer me up? Maybe. You know, though, I still laugh when I think about it. I laugh even harder when I remember Aunt Keniesha’s face the moment she saw Grace walking up on the stage to get her diploma in that hat! What’s more surprising is that Aunt Keniesha didn’t stop the entire ceremony to go up there and make her take it off while pointing her finger and lecturing.
The end of the school year was finally here. I was graduating in just a couple days which I couldn’t believe because I’d only managed to pull off a D average. I thought back about my time with the Mangos’. Coming here had been the right decision. I missed my parents and sisters like crazy and I know they missed me, too. Soon, I would see them again.
Even though Mr. Smiley hadn’t called yet, Keniesha told me not to worry about it. She said if I didn’t hear anything soon, she’d look him up.
So, I wasn’t sure what the future held for me yet. I’d done something that was really stupid with Chrissy and I might have a kid now.
I was brought out of my thoughts by the ruckus everyone was making on account of my birthday. Like an idiot, I’d been standing there for ages instead of blowing out my candles.
That night I made a wish. I’d never been so earnest in wanting something.
I didn’t tell anyone what it was, but I suppose I can tell you, J. I wished that if I’m a dad, I’d be a good one like my dad has been to me. And maybe you could call it a double wish because I also aspired to make a career in music. Realistically, my prospects weren’t great. I could definitely see my future as a dish dog at Hogan’s Deep Fried Diner because I would probably have a kid to support.
Perhaps I wanted too much. Only the future would tell.
I stepped back and smiled in spite of everything.
Although I didn’t really feel or look that different, I was a young adult now.
“I’m so proud of you, Leo!” Aunt Keniesha beamed. “You’ve made strides and you’re such a wonderful young man! I know your future is going to be awesome!”
“Thanks, Aunt Keniesha. I don’t really feel any different, though.”
Before she could comment on this, my phone began to ring.
Instead, she said, “I have a very special gift for you. Not right now, though. Those are probably your parents calling; you’d better answer it.”
As always, she was right. “Hey, dad,” I said. He started by wishing me a happy birthday. There was a funny catch in his voice, though, so I could tell there was something really wrong. “What’s going on?” I asked, point blank.
“Listen, kid…” Then there was a long pause. I was about to ask him again what was going on when he continued. “I found Chrissy and was able to get her and the baby home to Storybrook.”
I knew I should ask how she was and if the baby was okay, but I couldn’t will myself to form the words. I’d hardened my heart toward her too much.
So I waited while there was another uneasy pause. “The baby is a little girl named Blue. She’s really adorable. But… umm… Chrissy has decided to leave the baby here with us. Permanently.”
Anger began to bubble in my stomach and I could taste the bile rising in my throat as I thought of the poor kid just being left alone with strangers like that by the only parent she knew. Had Chrissy done this to her own kid so she would be free to run around with more guys? I could feel the contempt I had toward Chrissy cementing my heart closed all the more.
“Are you there, kid?”
Confusion engulfed me. “Uh, yeah.” If my heart was so calloused, why did I suddenly have the overpowering urge to come home right away and take Blue in my arms? As if in response, my mind flashed to the moment in the hospital when I’d first felt that Jilly was gone. It was the most baffling sensation I’d ever had. After the initial shock dissipated, the staggering, soul crushing pain had set in. I couldn’t shake it no matter what I did. It squeezed the life out of me and trampled me down into nothing when I realized Jilly had abandoned me. Now, Chrissy had done something similar to Blue and all I wanted to do was protect her. I wanted that in the worst way.
“Leo, are you still there?”
It took me a minute to comprehend that my dad was still talking to me on the phone. “Uh, yeah,” I said, clearing my throat.
Dad explained to me that they’d be taking Blue to the doctor in the morning to make sure she was okay. He also said they’d have a paternity test done when I got home but that the results would take a while.
“But do you…. do you think she’s mine?”
“There’s no way to know one hundred percent without the paternity test but there’s no question in my mind that she’s a Capra.”
“I’m coming home – I’m leaving right now.”
“No, listen, kid. I know your instinct is telling you to rush here right away. We’d love nothing more than to have you home. I just think it would be better if you spent the night there. It will give you a little time to process this and you’ll be calmer when you meet her.”
When I meet her. I was going to meet my daughter. My little girl. I ran those foreign words through my mind again before coming to the conclusion he was right. I was too angry and upset at the moment and I didn’t want that rubbing off on her. She probably already felt abandoned and scared; she didn’t need my bad vibe on top of it all.
Dad kept asking me if I was okay and I kept promising him that I was. I told him I’d leave for home in the morning.
After we hung up, I promised myself that when I got there, I’d scoop Blue up in my arms and never let her go. She no longer had a mother and because of what I’d been through, I could anticipate some of what she’d feel. I was determined she would never suffer.
When I finally put my phone away, Aunt Keniesha wanted to talk about Blue. I told her everything I knew and she gave me some kind of talk about how she had faith in me.
I didn’t really perk up, though, until she said that she didn’t see why having a daughter should keep me from my career in music. She suggested I talk to my parents about it and that she thought they’d feel the same way. I didn’t see how, though, since I hadn’t heard from the only music business connection I knew. She told me again not to worry about Desmond Smiley, that it would all work out. It calmed me down a little bit to hear her say that.
“So, how about that birthday present?”
“Tonight?” It was getting late and I wanted to leave early in the morning.
“You’re an adult now and a big rock star in the making! This isn’t your bedtime anymore.”
Sometimes I couldn’t tell if she was a good influence or a bad one. We piled into the car, with me still refusing to drive, and headed for the heart of the city. Was she taking me to a club? I’d already made a promise to myself that I would never touch the juice again but the thought of going to a club for the first time sounded kind of exciting. Why hadn’t she asked Tia and Grace to join us?
After a few minutes, she parked our car in front of the spa, and announced, “We’re here!”
“The spa?” First she’d wanted me to keep a diary, now she was taking me to a spa! This was the furthest thing from cool I could think of.
“Yes!” she said triumphantly, her eyes sparkling. “You don’t feel any different, Leo, but you are. You’ve really gotten so much better and I know you’re going to continue down a good path. You’re smart and part Noble, so I believe this wholeheartedly.”
“I don’t understand, though. Why are we here?” If it was a massage, okay, sign me up twice. But knowing my aunt, she’d try to get me to do mud masks and body wraps and that just was not going to happen!
She grinned from ear to ear. “You are getting a makeover! They’re going to turn you into a rock star!”
I gulped. “I’m not a rock star.”
She laughed. “I know some rock stars and believe me when I tell you that you have to look the part. Now, go! Get in there!”
“Okay,” I mumbled. I still wasn’t too sure about this. Would looking the part make me more confident? Would I feel the part, too?
I guess it couldn’t hurt to find out.
Back at the Mango house, I stared at my new self in the mirror. I didn’t much look like a dad but if what I saw looking back at me wasn’t the image of a rock star, I didn’t know what was.