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Illustration by Sariel Friedman

The bus I transfer to at the Martinez train station winds through a swampy wildlife preserve filled with marshes that reflect the cloudless blue skies above. The woman seated next to me is passed out, her hot pink T-shirt bunched into the fat rolls of her stomach, and two inches of visible cellulite wobble above her acid-wash jeans. Her kids, seated behind us, watch Finding Nemo with the volume turned on high.

Forty minutes late, the bus pulls up to its Santa Rosa stop, and I disembark in front of a library. As the bus pulls away, I can see my father’s light-blue hatchback, missing both rims on the right side, parked across the lot. My phone died an hour into my train ride, so I walk up to the car and squint to see into the tinted windows, fighting against the glare of the late August sun.

Bicycle spandex and a deflated tire lie across the passenger seat. The cupholder, lined with sugar crumbs and dust, holds a Starbucks cup of melted ice and coffee dregs.

I push through heavy double doors labeled with 1950s post-office print, which reads “Santa Rosa Public Library,” and pass the circulation desk to find him sitting at a back table. Strewn across the table are a slim, spiral-bound textbook, the kind professors self-publish, and a few pages of sloppy, handwritten notes.

He looks up at me, and a smile breaks across his face, half closing his clear green eyes, forcing wrinkles, which enclose his mouth in the parenthetical.

“How are you?” he says. His voice echoes through the building, too loud, and the surrounding library patrons look up in irritation.

“Good, fine, I am reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I shift my duffel bag from my right arm to my left arm and back again.

“I think your mother likes that one.” He starts packing up, shoving papers directly into his messenger bag.

“No, she hasn’t read it.”

--

In the car, he plays Jane’s Addiction. “Do you remember this?”

“Yes,” I say, “but not really.”

He turns on to a main street. “I want to stop by the university and drop off a change of clothes so that I can bike to school tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I say, and he pulls into a shaded parking lot.

He points to a collection of sand-colored buildings, and we walk up to them along a cement pathway, cracked from sun and crab grass. Immediately outside of the back entrance, a scraggly twentysomething dressed like a stoned David Attenborough sifts through raised sandboxes filled with what appears to be more of the dirt covering the buildings and surrounding ground. “Chuck,” he says with a chin tilt.

“Hey, dude,” says my father with a mirrored tilt, “this is my daughter.”

“Nah, dude, how old are you? I thought you were, like, twenty,” says the scraggly twentysomething, adjusting his standard-issue, anthropology-grad-student hat with both hands.

“Nah, I’m, like, super old. I am, like, married and shit, but not to her mom.”

“Cool, cool.” And scraggly twentysomething goes back to staring at dirt.

My father leads me through the hive that is Santa Rosa’s graduate anthropology department, gesturing vaguely and rambling about the people who normally inhabit the windowless, bone-and-book crowded cubicle.

--

When we pull up to his new house half an hour later, my stepmom is sitting on the porch, cross-legged in black leggings and a neon purple tank top, her raven curls clipped on top of her head. The house, alone on a hill, shines dirty white and misshapen in the aggressive brilliance of the two o’clock sun. My stepmom hugs me like some odd, forgotten thing.

“I hate this house,” she says. “It is completely dirty. I found it on Craigslist. When the boys and I first moved in here, it didn’t even feel like a safe level of clean, you know? I seen dead rats under the kitchen sink. We are going to move soon.”

I nod and focus on shifting my duffel bag back and forth again, on pushing an errant curl behind my ear, and on preparing myself to make eye contact.

I spend the next few hours trying to find a way to stand, to sit, to move about the space that doesn’t feel stilted.

The bookshelves are empty. The fake-velvet, 1970s furniture looks incongruous against the white-walled space. I try to make tea and give up when I realize that I will have to ask for a sugar spoon and am not willing to draw more attention to my blatant displacement.

--

We take my stepmom’s minivan to pick up my half-brothers at their elementary school. During the drive, I watch flashes of light press through the arched trees overhead and think about the barren New York from which I am taking only a week of leave.

Their school is flat and composed of temporary buildings.

“It was built for kids from the Navy families,” my stepmom says. We walk up to the front office so that she can explain the intricacies of my brothers’ picky eating to the staff. “They all bike home together. I don’t know where the trail they take goes.”

My little brothers, standing in line with their classmates along the walls outside their classrooms, waiting for their teacher to dismiss them, are creatures of high cheekbones and dark, heavy curls. Rail-thin and tired-eyed, Paris smiles and rams against me, arms squeezing my waist, pressing the air out of my lungs. Sol ignores me and chooses instead to sort pencils in the front pocket of his backpack.

“He really does like you,” my stepmom nods towards him. “This is how he shows people he likes them.”

Pulling out of the parking lot, seated in the far back row of the minivan, I watch as the Navy children leave together on their bicycles, moving in great waves of helmets and backpacks along the ridged spine of trail behind the back fence.

step-parents homecoming journeys
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