When the final bell rang at Bruce Elementary School on a warm May afternoon, Jane Aaron’s best friend, Nicole—a teacher, like Jane—helped her carry her things to the car. “Wow,” Nicole said, as she wedged a box into Jane’s trunk. “This is kind of like the end of an era, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” Jane said unconvincingly. She shut the trunk. “It’s just a break, Nic. I’ll be back next fall.” She wrapped her arms around Nicole and gave her a hug. “Okay. Here I go, off to tell them.”
Nicole smiled and tucked a curl behind Jane’s ear. “Hang in there.”
Hang in there, as if Jane had been dangling from the end of a rope, twisting in the wind. Which, when she thought about it, wasn’t too far off the mark. “I’ll call you later and tell you how it went.”
“You better!” Nicole warned her. She looked at her car, parked next to Jane’s. “Don’t you dare leave without talking to me, Janey,” she added, and glanced sidelong at her friend.
“Nic, it’s just one summer,” Jane assured her. “I’ll be talking to you a million times. I’ll call you in a little while, okay?”
Nicole smiled again. She had a great smile, a Colgate smile, and with her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, and her little Bruce Elementary Rocks badge on her shirt, she looked like the poster child for wholesome second-grade teachers everywhere. “Okay. Good luck with the fam,” she said, and with a cheery little wave, she walked to her car.
Jane got in her car, too, and made it halfway down the street before she pulled over, put the car in park, and covered her face with her hands. “What am I doing?” she whispered. “Seriously—what
am I doing?”Finding yourself
, she answered silently and groaned. That sounded so clichéd, such new age crap. But in her case, it was true. She was literally, truly, finding herself—or rather, the woman who’d given her away.
When Jane pulled into the back parking area outside The Garden restaurant that her family had owned and operated for years, she couldn’t make herself get out of the car.
They were in there, her family, getting ready for the evening rush. Just imagining them working together, laughing, and playing that stupid game with the creamers gave Jane butterflies of anticipation and dread. She was going to walk into that happy little scene and tell them that after much thought, she’d decided to go and search for her birth family.
She’d actually practiced her speech last night in front of the bathroom mirror. “My decision did not come lightly
,” she’d said gravely to her mirror, as if she’d been some politician removing herself from office. But it was true: the decision had not been easy to make. Naturally, Jane had wondered who she really was for a long time, but she hadn’t realized just how much she’d wondered, how deeply that question had sunk into her marrow, until Jonathan, her boyfriend, had asked her to marry him.
Jonathan’s proposal had not been unexpected. It had been the natural progression of their relationship. Jane had figured it was coming, and she’d figured she’d say yes. But the moment Jonathan had asked her, Jane had been stunned to discover that she hadn’t been ready to say yes. She hadn’t known why her epiphany had occurred at that inopportune moment; she’d just known that something had felt wrong and even a little raw and she’d not been able to commit fully to Jonathan. Not yet.
Jane would be the first to admit that she could be a little obtuse about her feelings. She wasn’t very good at self-examination and preferred to go through life happy and cheerful and looking forward, always forward. But her reluctance to say yes to Jonathan had dredged up a whole lot of emotions she’d realized she’d been feeling for a while. Such as . . . was he really the one? And how could she know who was really the one when she didn’t really know who she
The more she came to understand that knowing the who and why of herself had been questions in her for a long time, the emptier and more uncertain she began to feel. About everything. About marriage, and kids, and family. About her thesis, the one thing she needed to finish in order to get her graduate degree. She couldn’t move on with her life, not without answering a very basic and fundamental question about herself: Who was
Of course Jonathan didn’t understand her sudden change of heart, but he was at least trying to. Neither did the people inside this restaurant—they loved Jonathan, and they didn’t get Jane’s sudden reluctance to make it permanent. It really wasn’t like her. She had a great family, a loving family, and she’d never felt anything but completely and totally loved.
Yet she’d never felt like she was one hundred percent one of them, either.
The need to know who she was had, in the last couple of years, begun to gnaw on her, eating away from the inside out, especially after she’d signed up for the national registry and no one had come looking for her. Why hadn’t her biological parents kept her? She felt alone, like she was straddling two realities. She felt a little unlovable.After much thought, I have decided to move to Cedar Springs
Cedar Springs was a small town west of Austin. She’d been born there, and that was all she knew about her beginnings. And now Jane was going to go into The Garden’s kitchen and tell the family who loved her beyond measure that she was moving to Cedar Springs to look for the family who didn’t love her quite as much.Wish me luck!
She’d tried that in her mirror, too, a cheerful and carefree end to her little speech, but it hadn’t worked. Jane didn’t expect her family to like her decision, but she did expect them to accept it.
God, she was nervous! Why was she so nervous? She checked her reflection in the mirror of the visor, running a hand over the top of her head. “At least one thing is going right,” she muttered. Her dark, unruly hair was still in the braid she’d managed this morning. Jane took a breath, closed the visor, and opened the car door.
There was a faux brass monkey and coconut-shaped basket attached to the wall in the kitchen of The Garden, hanging right next to the time clock, where it collected receipts and bills of lading. It reminded Jane of home . . . perhaps because there was an identical monkey and coconut in the kitchen there, as well. When her mom found a bargain, she took advantage.
The rest of the Aarons agreed with Jane: those baskets were hideous.
“I refuse to touch that,” Jane’s cousin Vicki had vowed when Jane’s mother, Terri, had hammered it securely to the wall right next to the time card machine.
Terri, swishing by in her rectangular glasses and colorful apron dotted with artichokes, gave Vicki a friendly little pat on her derriere. “That’s a little dramatic, isn’t it, sweetie?”
While it was true that Vicki could be dramatic and a little too pointed in her comments at times, she’d had a point. But the Aarons had managed to adapt to the monstrosity by making it the centerpiece of a popular family game. Before the lunch and dinner rushes, before the staff started to trickle in, they liked to toss creamers at the thing from established two-point and three-point lines. Uncle Barry held the record for the most points ever earned in a single game, an astounding eighteen points.
Terri always issued her standard warning when a game began: “If you break that, you better pack your bags for China, because that’s where you’re going to have to go to replace it!”
Yes, the kitchen at The Garden was just like being at home. As several of the Aarons earned their living there, and one of them was always working, they tended to gather there more than they did anywhere else. This kitchen was a professional one, what with its large ovens, walk-in coolers and freezers, and spotless, stainless prep areas. But it also had the touches of family. The walls were livened up with pictures of the Aarons and some loyal staff through the years. There was a string of Christmas lights scattered through the overhead dome heating lights, which someone had hung one year and never removed.
There was a small desk in the prep area that was stacked with bills and food orders and travel brochures addressed to Uncle Barry and Aunt Mona, both chefs at The Garden. They seemed always to be planning a trip they could never quite seem to make. Taped to the door of the walk-in freezer were the required Health Department certificates and a pair of crayon drawings that were really pretty good. Barry and Mona’s daughter, Vicki, had made them years ago, when the kids had had to troop to the restaurant after school and sit at the bar and do their homework under Uncle Greg’s watchful eye.
Uncle Greg had since moved to Dallas, and Vicki was a sous-chef now, having left her art behind for the security of a job that actually paid the rent, but the crayon drawings reminded Jane of pleasant afternoons spent in front of the liquor bottles.
Years ago, Jane’s parents, Terri and Jim Aaron, now the majority owners in the restaurant, had knocked out a wall that had separated their small office from the kitchen and turned the area into a general gathering place. Terri, the head chef and bargain hunter, had found a pair of gold couches with big red oak leaves at a garage sale. Suffice it to say that Terri’s talent for cooking was vastly superior to her talent for shoppi...
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