Chapter 33: Disneyland Daddy

Dear Tadi,

I know that I have not written in a very long time. Deep down, I’ve always known that you have not received my letters. Still, I write to you, perhaps out of some crazy hope that someday you will.

The last time I wrote, I was heartbroken. My so-called wife, Lindsay, was not really my wife after all. She was still married to Jason McDougal.

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“We got married straight out of high school,” Lindsay explained. “We were babies. Way too young to know what we were doing. Less than six months after the wedding, we parted ways. Jason ran off to Texas with some other girl, and I moved back in with my parents. We didn’t bother to get a divorce. Years later, you came along, and, well, we got married on a whim.”

I was seething. “And it never occurred to you to tell me that our marriage was a sham? You just let me think that you were single! How could you?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking away. “It wouldn’t have been a big deal, you know, not being legally married. But I didn’t expect Jason to track me down.” Apparently, the two of them had reconnected while I was out repairing appliances. Not only were they still married, they realized, but they were still in love, too. “I’m moving to Los Angeles with Jason,” said Leslie. “We’ve decided to give our marriage another try.”

“And the boys?” I asked.

She hesitated. “I’m taking them with us,” she said, her voice firm.

So there was only one thing for me to do. I hugged my tia and tio goodbye. Then I moved across the country to L.A.

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In movies, L.A. always seems like a glamorous city, filled with Hollywood stars with bleached teeth and hair, who live in fancy mansions overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The reality couldn’t be more different. I never saw a single real celebrity – only struggling wanna-be celebrities who rented cheap apartments and desperate little bungalows in the cruddy, high-crime neighborhood where I now lived. The only good thing about it was that I was only a few blocks away from Leilani and Jason, so I could come by and visit my sons often.

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In time, I found a great job selling cars – not at a used car lot full of lemons, but one filled with shiny new cars with high price tags, which meant higher commissions for me.

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I saved my money and bought a home on a nice, quiet cul-de-sac in Orange County. Every Friday after work, I drove across town to pick up Mikey and Dylan. Then the three of us would spend the weekend together. I took them to parks, to Disneyland, and to the beach. We hung out at my house, playing video games and making monster-sized ice cream sundaes.

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As the years passed, I was there for my boys. I attended all of their school events, and was there to hear about Mikey’s first girlfriend (and his second, third, and fourth), and Dylan’s first real job, waving a big sign in front of Weiner World. And when they both graduated high school and headed out into the world, I was in the stands, applauding louder than anyone else.

After that, life came to a strange standstill. Everything I had done had been for Mikey and Dylan. My home, my job, all my hard work had been to raise my kids. But now what? I could feel it creeping over me again, that unsettling feeling of emptiness.

And then one day, out of the blue, my phone rang.

“So tell me, Leon,” said a familiar voice on the other end. “Did you ever manage to suck the marrow out of life?”

I couldn’t believe it. It was D.J.

I grinned into the phone receiver. “Hey old friend,” I said.

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(Still) your friend,

Leon

 

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Chapter 32: Journey to Senalat

Dear Leon,

Guess where I am right at this moment? Africa!

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I can still hardly believe it. It took me a week before I managed to make a decision. “Yes,” I told Reginald. “I’ll go with you to Ethiopia.”

“Wonderful!” He pulled me into his arms, a wide grin plastered on his face. “I can’t wait to see your homeland.” I couldn’t wait either.

The next few weeks were a blur of preparation for the big trip. Passports, check. Immunizations, check. Packing, check. Then came the sad day when I hung up my bakery apron for the last time. This was followed by the even sadder day of saying goodbye to Belinda and Chris, and my sweet little nephew.

“Will I ever see you again, Auntie Tadi?” he asked, his wings drooping.

I stooped down to kiss his cheek. “Of course you will,” I said.

And then, Reginald and I were on an airplane, flying far away from Pirate Bay. Although we would only be gone for four weeks, an unexpected lump rose in my throat.

It was nighttime when we arrived in Senalat, a small village many miles from Zewedu. The inky black sky was brilliant with stars. And the warm breeze blowing in from the savanna smelled like my childhood adventures, like my mother and father, like you and me and one hundred summer days. Flooded with emotions, I dropped to my knees on the dusty road and wept.

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Soon, Reginald and I were settled into our home for the next four months – a humble bungalow with cool dirt floors and mud walls. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, not even a place to prepare meals indoors. After so many years of American luxury, I had nearly forgotten. But it didn’t take me long to adjust. Reginald, however, was another story.

“This is like living in the middle ages,” he said as he lugged in a pail of water from the well, sweat pouring down his face. “Or in the middle of an oven. I can’t decide which.”

On our third day in Senalat, Reginald began his volunteer dentistry work, and I fell in love with four orphaned children. There was Naomi, whose gentle smile and doll-like eyes reminded me of Megan. Then there was Emanuel, who was always telling jokes to make everyone laugh. Adia had a sharp wit like Belinda, and sweet little Elias reminded me so much of my baby brother, Fisha.

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As the days passed, Reginald grew crabbier, filled with complaints about the oppressive heat, the enormous insects, the lack of modern conveniences, the Oromo language that the people spoke, though many of them spoke English as well. I, on the other hand, became more settled into Ethiopian life, shopping at the village markets with the other women, wearing local dress, and cooking the familiar meals I’d grown up with over an open fire. I spent most of my time with the children, helping them with their schoolwork, telling them stories, watching them play the games that we once played long ago.

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One day, Adia ran to me and wrapped her thin arms around my neck. “Miss Tadi, I am so happy that you came to be our mother,” she said, her face beaming. My heart soared. The children looked to me like a mother, and they were beginning to feel like my very own children.

Too soon, our four weeks came to an end. “Are you looking forward to returning home?” Reginald asked. I did not have to ask him the same question. The relief was apparent in his worn-out face.

“I’m not returning with you to the States,” I said.

“What?” Reginald’s voice was shocked. “But I thought that…after we go home, you and me…”

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I pressed my lips together. I could picture it. Reginald and I could fly back to Pirate Bay. Get married. Have a couple of kids and live the American Dream together. But a huge part of my spirit would always be missing. It would be many miles away, in a land where lions roam wild and the sun hangs heavy in the sky like a copper coin. “This is my home,” I said. “With Emanuel, Adia, Naomi, and Elias. I belong with them now.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want?”

I nodded, then stood on my tiptoes to kiss Reginald goodbye. Two days later, he boarded a big plane and went back to the land of luxury. And I stayed behind with my little family in my new village, where I am not an outsider, or a freak, or a ghost. I am just Tadi.

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Always,

Tadi

 

Chapter 31: Stomping Grounds

Dear Tadi,

It was like time had stood still while I was away. Almost everything in Detroit seemed the same. Tia Karina and Tio Jaime’s house had barely changed, though they had aged, of course. My old neighborhood was as run-down as I remembered it – same scene of boarded-up shops and fenced-in lots strewn with empty brown bottles.

The crime rate, too, was unchanged.

“This place is kind of depressing,” said Lindsay, who tended to walk around the city with her nose wrinkled, as though the air were too dirty to breathe. I don’t know, maybe it is.

Even my old stomping grounds, the basketball court, was still there. I couldn’t resist jumping in to shoot some hoops. I found out pretty quickly that I was rusty.

Very rusty.

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I even ran into a couple of guys I’d gone to high school with. “Well, well, if it isn’t The Mexican,” said one dude, as we pounded fists. “Speak some African at me, brother.” I laughed, and said a few things in Oromo. (I didn’t bother to remind them that my dad was from Colombia, not Mexico).

Lindsay was unhappy. “Your uncle smells like mothballs,” she complained one day. “Your aunt keeps trying to teach me how to cook, but I don’t like her kind of food,” she said the next, almost in tears.

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She kept asking when we were going to move out and get a place of our own. “When one of us has a job,” I said.

“Then get a job,” she said through clenched teeth.

It’s not like I wasn’t trying. But no one was hiring. Even the guys I played basketball with were mostly out of work. Tio Jaime stepped in to help by telling everyone he knew what a great handyman I was. Soon, the calls began trickling in, and I began making house calls, my box of tools in hand. Even though I was trained at fixing cars, I learned quickly how to repair everything from washing machines to toasters to television sets. It didn’t make much money, but it was better than nothing at all.

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I had hoped that we could at last start setting aside money toward getting our own place, but next thing we knew, Lindsay was pregnant. Months later, little Mikey was born.

Know what? Babies are expensive. No matter how much I worked, it seemed that all our money was drained away by diapers and clothes and a zillion other things Lindsay insisted we needed for a baby.

Less than two years after Mikey was born, Baby Dylan joined the family, too.

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Don’t take me wrong – I was overjoyed to become a dad. The boys were like sunlight and laughter in a household that had been strained and tense for too long. But I wished I was able to provide for them better.

Then one day, our lives were shaken up in a very unexpected way. “There’s someone you have to meet,” said Lindsay, bundling Dylan into a stroller. “Come on. He said he’d meet us at the park.”

“Who is it?” I asked. But Lindsay was already headed out the door. I scooped up Mikey, loaded him into a stroller, and followed Lindsay to the “park,” which was still nothing more than a large cemented-over lot in the middle of our neighborhood. It annoyed me more than ever, now that I had kids of my own, that the city hadn’t even managed to build a simple sandbox.

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But I forgot all about that after Lindsay introduced me to some guy I’d never seen before. He had carrot-colored hair and a beard that needed to be taken down a notch or two. “Hi, I’m Leon,” I told him, extending a free hand to shake. He looked at me through narrowed eyes and did not take my hand.

“Um…Leon,” said Lindsay, “I would like for you to meet Jason McDougal. My husband.”

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Yes, Tadi. My wife was married to another man.

Your incensed friend,

Leon

Chapter 30:The Fairy Nephew

Dear Leon,

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I am officially the proud auntie to a young fairy. I’m afraid it’s true. Clara’s “gift” turned out to be a pair of glowing, gossamer wings for little Ethan.

“Oh no.” Belinda let out a groan when the tiny wings first appeared. “What was Clara thinking? This isn’t Asteria! People here will never accept a fairy among them. Ethan will be a freak!”

Ethan’s fluttering wings tickled my arm as I held him close. “So he doesn’t look like all the other kids,” I said, stroking his soft curls. “Some will tease him, yes. Some will treat him like he is invisible. But others will grow to love him just as he is.” This I knew well.

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As time passed, Ethan grew into a very happy, and healthy boy. Other than the fact that he could fly, perform magic, and transform into a glowing ball of light, he was exactly like any other little boy. And Belinda was happy, too, with a perfect little family to call her own.

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As for me? Well, I stayed busy. I baked a lot. I managed the bakery now, and that came with a lot of responsibility. Many days, I opened the shop at six in the morning, and did not return home until ten o’clock that night.

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“You work too much,” said Belinda, noticing how I practically lived in the bakery kitchen, breathing in flour dust. “It isn’t healthy. You should get out there, try new things, go on some dates.”

At her urging, I finally accepted Khaled’s invitation to go out one night. Things went okay at first. But I quickly discovered that Khaled had a tasteless sense of humor, accompanied by language that would make a pirate blush. At first, I tried to ignore it, but after an hour or so, I couldn’t put up with it any longer. “I’m sorry,” I told him as I slipped on my coat. “This is not going to work out.”

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I would have slipped back into my workaholic habits had it not been for Reginald. Like Khaled, I met Reginald at church. Unlike Khaled, Reginald was a gentleman, with tasteful humor and a classy wit that I found quite attractive. He listened with awe of my tales of life in Ethiopia, then I listened, enraptured, to his tales of life as an affluent city kid. Our lives had been so different, and yet, we clicked so well.

Then one day, after we’d been dating for nearly two years, he made an unexpected proposal. No, it wasn’t a marriage proposal. “I’ve been offered a chance to go to Ethiopia on a mission with a group of dentists,” he said. “It is only for a few months, to provide dental care to a small village.”

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I clapped my hands together. “What a wonderful opportunity!” I said. I was genuinely happy for him, though inside, I was heartbroken. How could I live for four months without seeing him?

Reginald took my hand in his. “Come with me, Tadi,” he said. His eyes pleaded with me. “I did some research, and there is an orphanage in the village which needs a woman like you to be a caretaker. And…I need you, too,” he added.

He wasn’t saying I love you. He was not asking me to be his wife. But he needed me.

I have been pacing around for the past week, trying to decide what to do. I would love to visit my childhood home again, after all these years. But leaving will mean giving up my job, and leaving behind Belinda, and Chris, and little Ethan. On the other hand, staying could mean losing Reginald. What am I to do, Leon? If only I could know whether you are still there in Ethiopia, waiting for me in Zewedu. Then I would not even hesitate to leave behind this life I’ve made here.

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Always,

Tadi

Chapter 29: Dream Chasing

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Dear Tadi,

D.J. has left. After two years of community college, he decided it was time for him to grow up, and to chase his dreams.

“I go to seek a Great Perhaps!” he said with his usual dramatic flair, as he lugged his suitcase down the driveway. Then he paused and turned back toward me, his eyes full of emotion. “I’ll miss you brother.”

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“Yeah,” I said. “Ditto. Hey, remember me when you’re rich and successful.”

He grinned and gave me a two-finger salute. “Will do.”

Then he was gone.

Over the next several months, he sent me electronic letters, called emails, and called a couple of times. He was loving life at his new university. His dormmates were cool. His classes were cool. He was making new friends and learning important new skills, like hacky-sack, and how to take exams when you haven’t slept in twenty-four hours. But soon, his busy new life overwhelmed him, I guess, because he wrote less and less.

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And me? I was stuck in Palmas Muertas, where I continued selling junky used cars. That is, until the car lot where I worked went belly-up all of a sudden. Turns out that Honest Bob hadn’t been so honest with paying his taxes.

I found a job at another car lot, but it didn’t pay as much. Bills began to pile up, and all I began to charge everything to my credit card – food, gasoline, even the electric bill. Then came the day they came to repossess Purple Rain.

“This is the worst day of my life,” I groaned, sinking into the sofa and burying my face in my hands.

Lindsay caressed my shoulders. “Then you’ve had a pretty good life,” she said. “Hey, know what I think we should do?”

“What?” I asked, even though all I felt like doing was crawling into bed for a few days and feeling sorry for myself.

“Go get so drunk, we can’t even remember our names.” Her grin was so infectious, I couldn’t help but let her drive us to a casino, where we proceeded to down drink after drink, until I had forgotten all about things like bills, and jobs, and cars, and best friends who are too busy chasing their dreams to drop you a line. Who cared? Not me. I had a good life, filled with vodka, and rum, and beer, and…and Lindsay.

“Know what we should do now?” I asked Lindsay, my words slurring. “We should – you should marry me.”

Lindsay burst into giggles. “Okay.” We stumbled together to the nearest wedding chapel. I don’t remember much – just that the minister sang all the words instead of speaking, and that Lindsay and I kept laughing through the whole thing.

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Then the minister made us sign a piece of paper, which turned out to be a marriage certificate. A real, honest-to-God marriage certificate, on which I had scrawled my name in letters that might as well be Amharic.

Lindsay and I were husband and wife.

None of it was happening the way I thought it would. I was supposed to be more successful by now. I was supposed to know which direction I was headed in life. I was supposed to marry Lindsay the right way, when we were ready, and sober, and surrounded by friends and family. But everything was wrong. Instead of living deliberately, I was floating along, letting life happen to me, letting my best friend dictate every step. Now, D.J. was out there chasing his own dreams, but me? I wasn’t sure I even had a dream.

“What do we do now?” asked Lindsay the next day, as we sat together in shocked silence, staring at the marriage certificate.

I placed my hand over hers, and took a deep breath. It was time for me to make a decision. “Now we return home,” I said.

And that is what we did.

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Your (somewhat happily married) friend,

Leon

 

 

Chapter 28: Mysterious Ways

Dear Leon,

God works in mysterious ways.

So do genies, I guess.

Clara disappeared before we could ask any more about the special wedding gift she’d bestowed on Belinda and Chris.

“Maybe she gave us super powers,” said Chris. “Ooh, I hope I get the power of invisibility.” From the tone of his voice, I could tell  that he was skeptical about genie magic.

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“Maybe she’s granted us a baby!” Belinda clapped her hands together. “Or twins!”

“Or super powers!” Chris repeated.

I couldn’t think of what Clara’s gift could be, but I was a little nervous. Sometimes Clara could be a little…unpredictable. Months passed, however, and neither Chris nor Belinda developed super powers, nor psychic abilities, nor did they morph into giant animals of any kind. More disappointing (well, maybe not to Chris), Belinda did not become pregnant right away. That happened about two years later, in a very normal, non-genie-induced kind of way. Belinda and Chris were thrilled. So was I. I was going to be an auntie! Okay, in a way.

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Another good thing happened during those two years. I found a new church. I hadn’t attended church since I was a little girl in Zewedu, listening to your papa preach to the village. Well, unless you count the home church we held on Rainbow Acres, learning how to worship The Teacher like a god. Pirate Bay Community Life Center isn’t like any of those.

“It’s a charismatic church,” said Khaled Zayat, the man who had come into the bakery one day and invited me to church. He had seen me surrounded by a group of children who had begun to come to the bakery after school each day for free cookies and stories about Ethiopia. “We could really use another Sunday School teacher.”

Seasidde Wedding (139)Seasidde Wedding (144)I didn’t know what Sunday School meant, but I was curious to see what it was like to attend a church where the people were full of charisma. Turns out that charismatic means that the people are very passionate when they pray, waving their hands in the air and speaking in languages I’d never heard before. I lifted my hands, too, and prayed in Oromo, and seemed to fit in just fine.

Sunday School was interesting, too. Did you know that churches here hold separate services just for children? Every Sunday, I gather in the basement with a group of kids and teach them Bible stories.

“Bible stories are bo-oring,” said one of the kids, rolling his eyes. Other children nodded in agreement. So now, instead of following the teacher plan, I tell the children stories about Zewedu. Once their eyes are wide with excitement, I find a way to tie it together with one of the bible stories. Now it is not so boring to them, I think.

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Khaled says that I am a very good teacher. He also says that I have beautiful eyes, and that he would like to take me out on a date. I told him no, but he is very persistent!

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By the way, Chris and Belinda had their baby – a beautiful, seven-pound boy, whom they named Ethan.

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He appeared to be perfectly healthy and normal in every way.

At first.

But I will fill you in more next time.

 

Always,

Tadi.