In which my new book of fiction launches amid the reunion of a young family separated by the pandemic, a marriage ceremony, and a first birthday.
We’re supposed to drive, but the fires up and down the West Coast mean unexpected closures of the interstate in some areas and lanes clogged with evacuees in others. My daughter Ana and I mask up, arm ourselves with sanitizer and wipes, and take the one and a half hour, half-empty flight from Seattle to Sacramento where she will start her new job as a planner in disaster mitigation management. Her ten-month-old son Ilio blithely trades laps between us. We coo at and indulge him because that is the right and natural response to a baby. All the while, we stay alert to fend off invisible menacing molecules looking for ingress to living cells – COVID-bearing particles intent on provoking disaster as if they know there is neither mitigation nor management on the part of the science-denying, empathy-deficient bunglers in the White House.
I do my virtual book launch from an Airbnb. Amid the loose and tangled ends of the moment, I am pulled together by the lovely onscreen faces that have joined me for this cybernetic celebration of Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. (Please buy it.)
I do my second event in the same Airbnb on the day that Ana drives to the San Francisco airport, the port of entry for Daniel’s flight from Ecuador after six agonizing. pandemic-induced months apart. She imagines him being interrogated by CBP. She imagines the worst because the unimaginable doesn’t exist. Anything that can be imagined can happen. This is something that not just fiction writers know. I am keeping my fingers crossed as I hold Ilio in my lap, prepared to do the event with him as my scene-stealing sidekick.
But they arrive just before the start of the event. Finally, he is here. Finally, they are together – but not together. I leave my laptop for a moment to snap a picture of their untogether togetherness.
Daniel quarantines in one of the bedrooms. We leave food and water at his door as if for a prisoner. Outside during his fresh-air time in the yard, he gazes at his infant son through the living room window.
With Daniel in quarantine and Ana having begun her new job working remotely from one of the upstairs bedrooms, I hold Ilio as I am interviewed via Zoom by a Seattle journalist. Ilio is not amused. The interviewer preserves the moment in a screenshot. A COVID book tour memento.
With Daniel’s two consecutive negative COVID tests, we move to the apartment where he, Ana, and Ilio will begin their lives in Sacramento together. I am no longer a primary caregiver but am happy to be a spare. And to be a witness to a father and son rediscovering each other.
I accompany Daniel and Ilio on their morning walks along the canal. “Awa,” says Ilio. We quack at the patos. Once we watch a heron swallow a fish. Se lo tragó. It’s my time to practice my Spanish. I ask Daniel questions with my halting conjugations, but mostly I listen.
At the playground, I learn the word for swing. Columpio. I watch Daniel guide Ilio down the slide. I watch him point out a squirrel to Ilio. Ardilla. I watch them both track the flight of a bird in the sky.
He plays music for Ilio. Often it’s Inti-Illimani’s rendition of “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” the popular rallying song of the working class. Ilio raises his arms and adds his la la’s. Other times it’s Mercedes Sosa. Gracias a la vida. Other times it’s the Beatles. All you need is love.
The day Ana and Daniel go to the Sacramento County Clerk office to obtain their marriage license, I accompany them so I can be sworn in as a Deputy Commissioner of Civil Marriage, an appointment good for one day for one ceremony, namely that of Ana and Daniel’s. An ephemeral vestment of title and power to officialize a forever commitment. I take the oath, receive my certificate, and ask for the Spanish-language version of the nuptials script.
A few days later, it’s a busy Saturday morning in the WPA Rock Garden, but we snag the pergola for 15 unpermitted minutes. Ana flips the switch on her phone to start the playlist she has selected: Two songs by the Seattle duo Correo Aereo: River Song and De Mis Memorias; Cantares by Joan Manuel Serrat; and to close it out Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love.”
I begin the ceremony by asking Daniel to read the poem Da Me La Mano by Gabriela Mistral (Thanks for the suggestion, Claudia Castro Luna!) I read some of the nuptials script. I invite Ana and Daniel to recite the vows they have written and my heart puddles in my chest. I read more of the nuptials script as they exchange rings. I pronounce them casados. My tenure as deputy commissioner of civil marriages expires. We dance to Elvis Presley as he sings “you light my morning sky with burning love.”
Two days later, Ilio turns one. We fete him with a homemade banana cake and a shiny balloon with a llama imprint in homage to his Ecuadorian birthplace. We take pictures of him and each other. Birthdays are an end and a beginning. A hello and goodbye. Which is why I choose that night to leave.
Late that night, I’m on the 20-hour trip on the Coast Starlight train from Sacramento to Seattle. I’m in a roomette, feeling thankful I have the means to purchase the privacy during these COVID times. It also means I get a bed, though I don’t sleep well. I don’t fault the thin mattress. I just never sleep well. But there is something soothing about lying awake in the dark as the train moves beneath me and the whistle sounding almost continuously. At one point, I feel my ears pop from an altitude shift and look out the window. At first, I think we are passing through a long tunnel, but eventually I discern the shapes of tall trees and know we are gliding through hushed forest. And I think of ogres and goblins, wicked witches, and Sasquatches and I delight in their existence as the train moves me through their realm away from a dreamy and fraught six weeks and back to my regular life.
I’ve known for a long time that life is all about goodbyes. That change is inevitable. That with change comes loss. That sadness will always reside in a little pocket of your chest. Right next to happiness. That, as Joan Manuel Serrat sings in Cantares: Todo pasa y todo queda.