My grandmother was gone
by the time I came downstairs on Friday morning. Analemma was sprawled on the rug in front of the cold woodstove in the living room, and her tail thumped against the floor as I bent down to pet her. In the kitchen, Grandma had left a check for Steph on the table, weighted down with the saltshaker.
I poured myself coffee, made toast, and took it all out to the deck, where I sat in the morning sunlight and gazed at the hills. It was going to be a hot day; I could feel the promise of it in the way the sun sank into my hair. In the distance, I heard the gate opening and closing. That metal latch dropping into place.
I couldn’t see Steph from here, but there was something delicious about knowing that she was coming up the hill, and if I went around the house to look for her, I could see her. From my vantage point, it seemed as if I was alone, but I wasn’t. Steph was close enough that if I called her name, she would probably hear me.
I sat on the deck for a while, listening. The gardening tools were kept in a shed just below the studio, and I heard the bolt on the shed door thrown open, and then the low creak of the hinges. I heard the clanging of tools against each other, and the rumble of the wheelbarrow as it was pushed out into the yard. Thump, thump, clang. The door creaking again, closing. Footsteps and the wheelbarrow, trundling away.
Another few minutes passed, and then I went back into the kitchen. My grandmother always had a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge, and there was a bowl of lemons on the counter. It was getting hot already, and Steph would probably be thirsty. I took out the lemon squeezer and some glasses and set them on the counter along with the iced tea, long spoons, and a tray of ice from the freezer. I didn’t let myself think about what I was doing; I just did it.
Analemma ran ahead of me out the front door, and I followed more slowly with the two glasses of iced tea. The hill that the cottage was built into was terraced, and the brick path wound back and forth down the hill like a Z. I heard Steph greeting Ana before I saw her, and when I rounded the bend and Steph came into view, she looked exactly as I expected—baseball cap, shorts, sleeveless tee—but it still startled me: my imagination made real.
She looked up as she rubbed Analemma’s back and smiled. “Hey.”
“I thought you might want some iced tea,” I said, and offered her a glass.
She was wearing work gloves, and she took one off to accept it. Our fingertips brushed together. “Thanks.” She took a sip and then set the glass down on the stone bench nearby.
“My grandmother gave me this to give to you, too.” I took the check out of my pocket and held it out to her.
“Great.” She took it without touching me, and I was a little disappointed.
“She also asked me to invite you over for lunch sometime.”
“That’s nice of her,” Steph said as she folded the check and put it in her pocket.
“She said any day would do, as long as it was after noon.”
“I’ll check my schedule at work and get back to her. Is she out? Her car’s gone.”
“Yeah, she went to Berkeley.”
Steph went to sit on the bench, taking another drink of her iced tea, and gestured for me to join her. “Did you have a good time last Saturday?” she asked. Analemma nosed around the flower bed where she had been weeding.
I sat down beside her. “Yeah, I had a great time. Thanks for inviting me.”
“Anytime.” She glanced sideways at me, a mischievous expression on her face, and asked, “Did Mel try to make a move on you after we left?”
“That’s private,” I said with hint of a grin.
“She did, didn’t she?” Steph seemed to think this was hilarious. “I hope she didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
“Oh, no. Mel is great.”
“Good.” Steph drank more of the iced tea; it was almost gone already. “You doing anything this weekend?”
“No. I’m helping my grandmother go through my grandpa’s old papers, but that’s more of an ongoing thing.”
“She never says much about your grandpa. I only know he was a professor at Berkeley.”
“Yeah, he taught astronomy. I’m sorting his research papers because she’s using them in her art.”
“I don’t know. She won’t tell me.”
“What did he research?”
“Protostars. I can show you if you like.” As soon as I said it, I wanted to take it back. Why would Steph want to see Grandpa’s research notes?
But she said, “Sure, I’d love to see it. But I have to finish up here first.”
“Oh, of course. Sorry. I’m distracting you.”
“Happy to be distracted.”
Did I imagine that look in her eyes? A hint of pleasure. I didn’t imagine the buzz I felt in my body.
“But I do have to get back to work,” she added, and then she set down the now-empty glass and pulled the work glove back on, going back to the flower bed she’d been weeding.
I wondered if I should leave, but I didn’t want to. Analemma had stretched out on the moss-covered brick path and was panting slightly in the growing heat.
“When did you start working for my grandmother?” I asked.
“About a year ago. She used to come to the Greenbrae Garden Center, where I work, and I’d help her there. Then she asked if I did gardening gigs outside my job.”
“Were you here last summer?” My dad and I had visited last July, but Steph hadn’t been around then.
“Yeah, I started in August.”
She threw the weeds she had pulled into a yard waste bag. A dark bloom of sweat dampened the back of Steph’s shirt, and the short strands of hair along the nape of her neck were damp too. I watched the way the muscles in her arms flexed as she worked, and then I realized I was staring and looked down guiltily. The glass in my hand was slick, and a droplet of condensation plummeted to the ground, leaving a splotch of water on the bricks.
“So—” she said.
“So—” I said.
She looked over her shoulder at me and grinned. “You go first.”
“I was going to ask if you decided whether you’re doing that concert in August with Roxy.”
She straightened up to get the bag of fertilizer from the wheelbarrow. When she lifted it up, I tried not to look at her. The way her koi tattoos moved.
“I haven’t decided yet. If I get involved again, it could be—” She shook her head. “It’s just a lot.”
“What do you mean? Is there drama or something?”
“No. The band gets along fine. I’m just not sure if I have time to do the band and work, and I was thinking about finishing my music degree.”
“You were getting a music degree?”
“An associate in fine arts at the community college. I have one semester to go, but I don’t know when I can do it.” She finished pouring out the fertilizer and returned the bag to the wheelbarrow.
“What’s stopping you?”
She gave a short laugh. “Money. What else?”
“Aren’t there scholarships?”
“Not for community college.” She knelt down and began to spread the fertilizer around the plants. “At least not as far as I know. Anyway, I don’t even know if it makes sense to finish the degree. I feel like life might be a better teacher.”
“My mom has a music degree. She’s an opera singer. She’d say it was worth it.”
Steph looked up. “Your mom’s an opera singer? Like professionally?”
“Yeah.” Sometimes, when people found out about my mom’s job, they thought I was making it up, but that didn’t seem to be what Steph was implying. She seemed impressed, which made me uncomfortable.
“Where does she perform?” she asked.
“All over,” I said vaguely. “She’s in Europe this summer.”
Steph sat back on her heels. “Touring?”
“No, she’s with an opera company. Sometimes she tours, but—I mean, the point is, she couldn’t have done that without her degree. Maybe it’s a good idea for you to finish yours.”
Steph looked at me for a second, and then returned to spreading the fertilizer around the plants. “Yeah, maybe. Or maybe it would be more useful if I get an accounting degree.” She sounded a little bitter.
“I can’t imagine you as an accountant.”
“I can’t either, but it might have helped with the rent.”
I felt like I had screwed up our conversation somehow. “Well, you should do whatever makes sense for you,” I said, trying to fix it. “Whether that means you finish your degree or get back together with the band. I just feel like if you have that talent, you should go for it. Otherwise you’re suppressing who you really are, and that just seems wrong.”
She smiled slightly, first down at the dirt, and then over her shoulder at me. “Thanks for the words of wisdom,” she said.
I flushed. “Sorry. I mean, I didn’t mean to be condescending.”
“You weren’t. I appreciate it. It’s nice when someone believes in you.”
I felt that warm flush spread down my neck as we looked at each other—as she looked at me. Her eyes bright, focused. Did I imagine the slight color on her cheeks too?
“Enough about me,” she said, turning back to the flower bed. “Tell me about you. You’re going to college in the fall? What are you going to major in?”
“Yeah, probably either physics or planetary science.”
“Really?” She sounded surprised.
“Why, you don’t think girls can do science?” I teased her.
She laughed. “I never said that.”
“It’s just that people have assumptions, you know? Most boys take one look at me and think there’s no way I could do math, even though I’m Asian. It’s like their two stereotypes get crossed and they don’t know how to deal with me.”
“I’m not a boy,” she said. She sounded amused.
Copyright © 2022 by Malinda Lo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.