Kelly Long leaned casually on the counter of Sophie’s Cove in an attempt to hide his desperation. Yeah, like that was going to work.
“I’m getting desperate here, Sophia.”
“I can see that, Kell," Sophia replied, "but Emma is a young woman now. She’d probably not welcome me sticking my nose into her business. And I strongly suggest you entertain the idea that she’s none too happy about having her father hover over her all the time either.”
Kelly stiffened at the rebuke and straightened to his full six and a half feet but left one hand on the edge of the counter. “Well, you’re right about the hovering dad part. She’s made that abundantly clear a few million times. But you’re wrong about how she feels about you, Auntie Sophia. She still calls you that, you know, although we’re no blood relation. Frankly, I think that’s why she decided to come up here to get her masters instead of going to one of the California schools. Or, better yet, one of the Ivy’s like her father.”
“Setting aside your still obvious academic snobbery for now, I doubt I have anything to do with it. She hasn’t been to see me. I didn’t even know she’d enrolled in the Masters program at PNCA.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. We didn’t know any of that either, until she announced it at our celebratory graduation dinner. Heck, the ink wasn’t even dry on her UCLA diploma before she was off to Portland. She’s always been so quiet, so pensive and ready to just go off and do her own thing.”
“Kelly,” Sophia said, “we wanted to make it to her graduation but this whole distancing thing because of the pandemic has screwed up so much. Maybe we’ve been out of her life a little too long but I’m sure Emma is doing what she needs to do to find herself. She’ll be fine.”
“No, Sophia. You’re wrong. Yesterday, I found her on that one they call The Broadway Bridge in Portland. She was all alone just staring down at the river. The day before that, she was seen on The Steel Bridge staring as if transfixed at the train tracks. The person who saw her thought she might actually jump in front of the train."
“Wait. Kelly, you have someone watching her?”
“Well, yeah. Why else would I be here? I didn’t just fly up from LA on a whim. As much as we miss you, Sophia, I have a thriving practice, you know? I followed her myself yesterday and what I saw terrified me.”
“How ironic. You have a thriving practice in what is it again?”
“You know darn well it’s family counseling. Sneer all you want . . . “
“I’m not sneering. That is the last thing I’d be doing. Okay, Kelly, I’ll drive up to town . . . “
“No need. She came with me from Portland in the Lyft I hired.”
“Now wait just a minute! You did what?”
“Oh, now Sophia. Let’s not get overly dramatic here.”
“Me? You’re accusing me of being dramatic!”
“Oh, so you’re not going to be dramatic. Good. That means you’ll see her. Good. That’s very good.”
“Yes, Kelly, I will. But not for her mental well being, for yours. You’re the one who’s lost his marbles. Honestly, how do I get myself into these things? I’m not the licensed counselor, you are.”
“You have the gift, Sophia.”
“You know, the gift; the touch for people. It’s why our investment group keeps trying to get you back. You always get a read on the people behind every startup looking for money. You’ve never steered us wrong. But, right now, I’m glad you’re here instead of back in LA because I think my daughter needs you more than I need another million. She needs something and I have no idea what it is. I’ll get down on my knees and beg you, Sophia. I’ll do whatever it takes. Let me go get her.”
“No. We’ll both go. Geez, Kell, sometimes you are such a pain.”
Sophia had barely exited through the front door of Sophia’s Cove when a lithe, beautiful young woman sprang from the back seat of a car in the parking lot and ran toward her.
Sophia felt the same chill run up her spine she had always felt since first watching baby Emma nurse in the hospital. “Honey, I’m so sorry! Your father only now mentioned that he had left you sitting in the car.”
Emma allowed herself to be enveloped in Sophia’s arms. She nestled there a moment, then said, “Father said he needed to talk to your first, Auntie Sophia. I suppose he’s filled you in on everything. About how his daughter is suicidal because she likes to go for long walks in Portland, even in the rain, and stare at the water and the skyline and wonder what she wants to do with her life? And, you know, how all that is a sure sign that she’s about to off herself.”
Sophia pulled her head back to stare down at Emma as the young woman gave her father a disapproving side eye. Sophia noticed the worry lines beginning to show in the tightness around Emma's eyes. As she smoothed the lines with a delicate touch of her fingertips, Sophia felt a trembling fear make its way into her heart.
“I think, for once honey, your crazy father might be of some use to us. I’ve been missing you. It’s been far too long. You haven’t even seen our little shop. We have tea and a few antiques, you know?”
“A few? Auntie Sophia, this place is huge! It takes up most of the block. And the heavenly aromas of all the different teas are filling the parking lot. This place is amazing.”
“Well, c’mon in and wait till you hear. It’s all very systematic, dear. Since opening, I’ve decided I’m going to try every tea there is. Well, all the legal ones at least. I’m working through them alphabetically. I’m up to Earl Grey.”
“Good, Auntie. Everyone assumes I like things a certain way because I’m half Asian. They forget I’m half Brit thanks to my crazy father. A good Earl Grey would be just grand.”
Emma’s long hair tangled with the moist Pacific salt air and Sophia smoothed it back into place. “Let me touch base with Chris for a moment so we can get the men out of our hair, so to speak. Then, I’ll show you around the store before we go upstairs and have a proper cuppa, as your father likes to put it whenever he’s feeling nostalgic.”
Emma squirmed on the chair at the kitchen table in the apartment above Sophie’s Cove. To Sophia, it was as if the young woman was drilling down to permanently anchor herself in place. A comfortable feeling enveloped Sophia at the thought.
“I’m glad you told Father it was going to be just us, Auntie.” Sophia noticed the softness of youth returning to the skin of the young woman’s face even as her eyes grew more thoughtful. “I don’t know what to do with him honestly. I need space and I try to tell him that but it’s like he’s decided my words don’t mean anything. It’s frustrating.”
“He’s scared, Em. Terrified.”
“But why? I keep telling him I’m fine. I just need some time to myself. Some time to think. That’s all. Just time to myself to think. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
“Please don’t do that, Emma.”
“Ask such an innocent sounding question expecting to receive some platitude in return. It’s only meant to deflect the conversation away from the real issue. It's your Auntie Sophia now. Show me some respect.”
Emma sighed and her eyes flashed and hardened. “You always think you can just jump right into the middle of something, Sophia.”
“What’s troubling you, Emma?”
“See? You’re doing it.”
“Tell you what?”
“Stop it! Right now. I love you, Emma. I’ve loved you since you were suckling on your mama’s breast. I’ve changed your diapers. I went to the recitals. I’ve been there for you every step of the way. Okay. I admit I became a tad selfish and neglected you because we moved from SoCal up here for the sake of our own sanity but, honey . . . “ Tears filled Sophia’s eyes and overflowed down her cheeks. “Please, Emma. Tell me. You know that no matter what it is, I’ll never judge, never ask more of you than you feel you can give me but for this, I need you to be honest with me.”
Emma squirmed in her chair as if the comfort she’d thought she’d found there before had suddenly evaporated beneath her. “How do you do that, Sophia? I watched you do that as I grew up, you know?. No one noticed me while we were all in the kitchen. But I’ll bet you did, didn’t you, Sophia? You never miss anything.
"I'd watch you dig into someone’s psyche at this little informal get together with people you might be backing with the group’s angel investment money and while everyone sipped their wine and thought nothing of it, you were drilling into management’s brains and seeing things in them they themselves didn’t know were there. No one noticed. No one. No one but the quiet little girl, me. It amazed and terrified me because I knew that if that intellect ever turned its forces upon me some day, it would bore into me down to the barest, driest bones of my soul.”
“And, yet,” Sophia said, “you moved up here.”
Emma laughed. “Of course I did. I need you and yet I’m terrified of you. I’m dark, Sophia. Something in me is so very dark. Please don’t tell me it’s a phase. My father says it’s a phase.”
“You prefer another label?” Sophia asked. “Fine, what do I care what we call it? Phase or death wish. Passing fancy. Pain over a lost love. Trying to find yourself. Pick something. But, Emma, we are here together right now because I take the time to look and listen, honey. And, right now, right this instant, we are in a particular time of your life and you’re fighting me. Stop that. You say your dark but there's more to it. Let it out, Emma, all of it. If you don’t it will probably be your father that jumps off a bridge. Or he’ll drive me crazy enough to do it.
“Look, your father has his faults but the love he feels for you is not one of them. I’ve had many people talk to me, Em. Many of them would have given their right arm to have even one parent that loved them half as much as your father loves you. And what of Linda? I’ll bet your mother is half mad with worry too.”
“Worse, Auntie Sophia. I can feel it when we talk on the phone and I see it when we Facetime. But she keeps trying to give me room to work things out. But Dad, he’s never been one to do that. He’s one of those take charge, in your face, reality type of counselors. People love it and pay him tons of money to tell them what they already know but don’t have the guts to tell themselves so he does it for them. It might work for his patients but not for his daughter.”
“No,” Sophia agreed, “it wouldn’t.”
“What do I do, Sophia? He’s my father and I love him but I can’t stand him right now.”
Sophia paused and took several sips of her tea while she studied the young woman. “Perhaps you’re right. It’s been too long since we had a heart to heart for me to just barge right in. Let’s start again. Tell me about your art. Why Portland? Why Pacific Northwest College of Art?”
“PNCA? Simple. It’s a good school. One of our alums just got picked as a Guggenheim fellow for this year. It’s so close to nature up here too. It’s so easy to go on a hike and immerse yourself in nature in its rawest form. And it’s not LA.”
“And it’s not near your father.”
“True. But it is the jet age so if I complain of a toothache after brushing my teeth in the morning he will be knocking on my door by noon with a list of the best dentists in the region categorized by specialty and academic credentials. Don’t get me wrong. I love my hometown and I adore my father. This is all just an exploration of something new.” She shrugged. “It’s nothing more than that.”
Sophia studied Emma intently for a moment before a faint smile touched her lips. “Before you lie to me again, you need to take a nap.”
Emma had taken a sip of tea and nearly choked mid swallow. Holding the back of her hand to her mouth, she managed to get the tea down before saying, “Only you would throw such a statement into the middle of a conversation about education and family drama, Auntie Sophia. And you so calmly called me a liar.”
“Am I wrong?”
Returning Sophia’s level look for several seconds, Emma’s expression sagged around her features. “Maybe not.”
“Go into the living room, dear,” Sophia said. “Put your feet up. Take all the time you need. Don’t worry about your father. Chris will keep him busy. They’re going to go to this great little restaurant in an old train station to have some crab encrusted halibut and sample the local craft beers. They’ll be busy for hours.”
Emma turned to the living room situated in a corner of the apartment. The large windows on two sides let in as much light as a gray coastal day could manage. The sofa was large enough that Emma had no problem seeing why Sophia and Chris had chosen it. Their afternoon naps together were a well known ritual for the two. The couch was plush, warm and inviting. She felt the bands of a welcoming sleep gathering around her before her head hit the pillow with the initials C and S woven together on it’s cover.
Hours later, when she opened her eyes to a darkening afternoon sky, Emma sat up, her eyes wide. “What time is it? Where’s Father? He’ll be worried.”
“He’s gone, honey,” Sophia replied. “By the time Chris had your father full of fish and craft beer, it was easy to convince him that he was leaving you in good hands with us. A Lyft ride took him to the airport in Eugene and he’ll be in the air by now. When are you due back at school?”
Emma shook her head. “Dad left without saying goodbye?”
“Oh, he came up to say goodbye but when he saw how sound asleep you were, he only brushed your hair back, kissed you on the cheek and said how beautiful you are. He’d appreciate it if you text him when you get a chance.”
“He adores you, you know?”
“Yes. I know.”
Sophia set a mug on the coffee table. The aroma of Earl Grey made Emma’s mouth water and she snatched the tea up and took a deep whiff before a careful sip.
“So,” Sophia said, “tell me about the train tracks, how long you watched the trains going by before you decided it would be too messy. Then tell me why staring down at the waters of the Willamette River almost convinced you that would be a better alternative.”
“What makes you think . . . “
“Please, dear,” Sophia said. “I love you but we’re past that now. You’ve had your nap, it’s just you and I. No more lies. Some of it was your artistic soul, right? The mixing of your sense of balance and wonder at your surroundings with the rawness of nature. It would be so easy to just ease yourself into the ebb and flow of the waters and slip away. Something like that. But let’s get past that into what’s really bugging you deep down.”
Emma tried to take a bigger swallow of tea but nearly scalded her tongue. Filling the familiar sting in the corner of her eyes, she looked out the window at the darkening afternoon. “Do you know what it’s like to have someone try to blame you for a pandemic.”
“Ah, yes, that” Sophia said. “It’s idiotic, honey, I know. Truly stupid. But you can’t fix stupid. For you especially, this runs even deeper than that, doesn’t it? You’ve always been caught in the middle. I knew you would be when we first found out your mother was pregnant. Chinese mother, British father, born in the United States. Who can possibly understand what that is like? Not many. Then, of course, ignorant prejudice. Blind and stupid words. You’re caught in a stew of boiling insanity.
“Consider, honey. People of my skin tone arrived hundreds of years ago and took what we wanted with violence and disease. Now we complain about people who come here peacefully, trying to feed their families and willing to do what we are not. It’s us against them again. And now this disease that is killing people and, again, we are insanely striking out. We deny it’s a problem one minute and then the next we want to say it’s a horrible problem caused by anyone whose eyes are shaped differently from ours. Why shouldn’t you feel depressed and hopeless in the face of such stupidity?”
“Where do I belong, Auntie Sophia? Am I not Asian enough for Asians to accept? Am I not white enough for white people to accept? Am I not American enough for American’s to accept? I have no place where I belong.”
“You have more than most, honey. Those that hate you for who you are are the ones who are lost. You have far more than they. Your parents, both of them, will always make a place for you. And right now, you are in exactly the perfect place for you to be. You are here, with me and Chris and Alexandra and her family. I can’t wait for you to meet them. They’re amazing and will be glad to have you as part of our little clan. You can come and go as you please whenever the mood strikes you. We’ll be here for you if you need us and leave you alone when you need that. We have guest accommodations with a private entrance if you want it.
“And you'll have this great raw land to get lost in. It will challenge you. There will be endless grey days that will suddenly relent right when you need the brightest of blue skies and deepest of blue oceans you have ever seen to lift you up beyond any pain of spirit. It offers mountains meant to boggle your mind and other oceans too. Great seas of green to lose yourself in where the forest is as hushed as any sacred place.
“I only ask one thing of you, honey. When you want to join your artistic soul to nature, do it safely. Go to the sea or surround yourself in the dark green forest and sit quietly, letting all the power of nature seep into your pores. Wade into the cold waters of the Northern Pacific and let it wash away the insanity of the millions who have lost all control of themselves. Go skinny dipping so that there is nothing between you and the raw, frigid splendor of it all.”
Emma laughed and Sophia raised an eyebrow as a playful smile touched her eyes. “Don’t knock it. Chris and I sneak out often to go skinny dipping together. Usually at night. Sometimes it’s a clear moonlit night. Other times in a rain so torrential there seems to be no separation between the waters above and the waters below you. It’s very therapeutic in so many ways.” Sophia cleared her throat and took a quick sip of tea. “And that’s enough said about that!”
Emma laughed again and, holding the mug of tea in one hand, stroked the surface of the sofa with the other. “You know, Auntie Sophia, you’ve always managed to put things in perspective. It’s really just that simple, isn’t it? Maybe not out there but in here it is. It's simply love and that's all we need isn't it? There will be plenty of time for complications later when we have to go forth into all that craziness.
"I think the guest room can wait. If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to come visit this couch whenever I need to get away from school or the city or whatever. I’m pretty sure it would make my parents, especially my insanely protective father, feel a lot better knowing that I’ll always have a sanctuary close by when I need to shut down for a while.”
“Oh, I’m sure of that, hon,” said Sophia. “We’ll call this evening after your father gets home and have a little chat with both your parents. Never hurts to let them know you’ve made a decision. Right now, I think you and I deserve some of that crab encrusted halibut. Do you like craft beer, hon? There’s a local brewery that does a cream ale that’s to die for. You have to watch it, though. It’s murder on the waste line.”
“On top of all this Earl Grey?”
“Emma, darling, what is life without a little adventure?”