Julio would have preferred being anywhere else but at his parents’ house having dinner. Usually, he was the life of the party with his wild stories about city celebrities who frequented his restaurant, Cuban Soul.
But not today.
“You alright, Julio?” Alonzo asked as he passed a ceramic plate with plantains while balancing his one-year-old daughter, Catalina, on his lap.
Julio accepted the food. His voice was flat when he answered.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
Alonzo, the eldest of the Castro siblings was a retired professional baseball player and Julio’s business partner. Beside him sat his wife, Jeanette. A true sweetheart.
Julio loved her as much as he loved his baby sister, Teresa.
“Big brother, you don’t sound good,” Teresa commented.
Julio ignored her on-point assessment as his mind continued to churn with discontentment.
Once a month on Sunday evening the Castro clan gathered for dinner at the home of Javier and Marta Castro.
Julio enjoyed the company of his loved ones. But, this minute, he was edgy because he simply didn’t want to be there. While everyone chattered at the enormous dining room table, passing plates laden with Cuban cuisine, his dark eyes scrutinized his family.
Everyone was paired up. His father, Javier, sat at one end of the table. And his lovely mother,Marta, sat at the opposite end. After thirty-seven years of marriage, their love affair had gone through ups and down, yet they remained in love and committed. If Julio ever had any doubts about love, the adoration shining in his father’s eyes as he gazed at his mother wiped them away.
Teresa’s phone rang, and she got to her feet. “I have to take this call. It’s about the fabric order from Paris.”
She plopped her six-month-old son, Mace, on her husband’s lap and pulled her cell phone out of her back pants pocket.
“Hurry back and turn that phone off before you sit at the table.” Marta gently scolded in Spanish.
“Yes, Mamá,” Teresa answered as she rushed out of the room.
Though Julio was in a funky mood, it didn’t stop him from chuckling at the matriarch of their family.
“Mamá, you should know by now when you have your own business you work twenty-four-seven,” Julio pointed out in his sister’s defense.
After all, Javier owned a body shop. In the early years when he was the only mechanic, Javier didn’t arrive home some nights until after midnight.
“Julio, everyone needs a break from work. Right Javier?”Marta demurely smiled at her husband.
A man of few words, Javier held his glass of wine up in agreement.
Marta Castro was a formidable force to deal with because of her intense personality. Though strong, she learned when to fall back for the sake of her family. There was a time when his parents’—especially his mother’s—old ways and beliefs threatened his siblings’ happiness. Alonzo and Teresa defied their parents’ desire for them to marry someone Cuban. Julio admired his siblings for following their hearts. Why hadn’t he done the same? He wondered as he peered at his family and then let his gaze drift to the crystal vase of fresh flowers on the mantel above the fireplace.
A sad smile curved his lips.
Catalina leaned forward and grabbed a plantain off Alonzo’s plate. His eyes shifted to Mace, twisting and fussing on Pierce’s lap. No amount of gently bouncing the baby calmed him. The infant settled down when Teresa returned, and discreetly opened her blouse to nurse him.
“How’d the call go?” Marta queried before taking a sip of wine.
Teresa smiled. “Great. The fabric will be shipped tomorrow.”
Jeanette laughed when Teresa rolled her eyes. “Talk about a Bridezilla. I’m sorry I took that woman on as a client.”
Julio despised the green-eyed monster snaking its way under his skin. At thirty-three-years old, he accomplished his dream of owning a restaurant. Cuban Soul was thriving in one of the hottest Center City neighborhoods in Philly. Reservations were made weeks in advance for a table. Profits were good and his staff were well paid. With business booming, he and Alonzo were ready to launch another location uptown in Chestnut Hill. In a recent call, the owner of a popular casino and investors in Vegas approached him about opening a West Coast location; and possibly shooting a pilot for a show on the Cooking Network.
Though the world was at his fingertips, for now, Julio couldn’t shake the deep-seated emptiness despite the happiness around him. He didn’t begrudge his loved ones their lives and the joy that was painfully evident as they ate, laughed, talked, and played with babies. Because, for once, he wanted the same.
After forcing down several bites of shredded beef, he gave up. None of the flavorful spices tantalized his taste buds. Appetite gone, Julio stood and dropped the cloth napkin on his plate.
“Excuse me,” he murmured before he silently left the room.
Julio stood in the den, staring through the large picture window at the well-manicured grass. In a few short months, the landscape would be brittle and lifeless.
He let out a resigned sigh as he thought about his life, in comparison to what nature would soon make of the greenery outside. The laughter and muffled conversation of his lively family was almost too much for him to stand. If he left now, he wouldn’t make it out of the driveway before Marta rang his phone.
Now that a new generation of Castros was born, his parents insisted that the family come together once a month for dinner. They required Julio, his siblings, and in-laws to be in attendance. No exceptions allowed. Using work as an excuse to make an escape wasn’t tolerated by his parents. Once dessert was served, he’d say his goodbyes and be on his way to a plush, eighteen-hundred-square-foot, high-rise apartment in Center City. Where no one would be waiting for him.
“My son. What is troubling you?”
Marta’s gentle touch on his wide back was comforting.
“Nothing is troubling me,Mamá,” he answered in Spanish, pasting a half-smile on his face.
Marta’s eyes shone with concern as she asked, “Why do you lie to your Mamá?”
The tender tone of his mother’s voice lightened his mood. Julio bent and kissed his mother’s soft cheek.
“Mamá, you know me too well.”
“I should. I carried you inside of me for nine months. Come sit with me.”
Reluctantly, Julio followed Marta to the oversized, brown leather sofa. When they sat, Marta patted her lap.
Obediently, Julio positioned himself so his head rested on her legs, as he had done many times when he was a young boy. He closed his eyes as Marta’s fingertips massaged his temples. The face of the woman he carelessly tossed out of his life appeared in vivid color behind his lids.
“Mamá, I did a foolish thing four years ago.”
Julio rested his hand on his chest. As his memories stirred, his chest ached as if the vital organ inside was going to leap out of his body.
“What is this thing you have done, my Julio?”
“Turned my back on love.”