Jade

Heisler Park, Heisler Park Laguna Beach, Sea Glass, Elaina Avalos, Elaina M. Avalos

Heisler Park – Laguna Beach

Here’s an excerpt from the novel I’m starting to work on this month (Sea Glass Hearts)
and hope to finish in the next eight weeks!

On Saturday afternoon, my Realtor and/or fan girl, Tally, sent me a text message to remind me about the concert at Joe’s. I knew I needed to go. But I spent hours after, convinced it was one of my dumbest ideas yet. I’ve had so many. It’s getting harder and harder to track them. The thing about me is that I know myself well. I knew that if I replied and told her I’d be there, I would – even if I tortured myself all day, filling my day with anxiety and worry. So I replied, five minutes after I read it. “I’ll be there,” I said.

When I was a little girl, I moved from foster home to foster home – never staying anywhere very long. My story isn’t all the unique. There’s almost a half a million just like me, all over this vast country. My belongings were stuffed into a black trash bag each time I moved. I carried it from house to house – until I was five that is. I got my own luggage then, when one foster mom, who had to disrupt the placement because she got cancer, bought me a duffel bag set. I guess she felt bad. I don’t know. I lived with her for nine months. I liked her. I called her mom. She was the first one I called mom. I never called anyone mom, ever again. Not even the woman who adopted me at 16. Most of what I came into foster care with had disappeared over time – except two things. When I entered care, I had a necklace on – it was a little too much for my three-year-old self. I also had a letter, if you can call it that, that my mom had stuffed into my purse. I didn’t know about the letter until I was much older. But I wore the necklace the day my Mom told me to sit on a bench in Heisler Park, near a cliff over looking the Pacific. She said she wanted to buy us ice cream. She never came back. I barely remember her face. She walked away – her hair, blond and wavy, reached her waist. When I was older, I saw a photo of Stevie Nicks circa 1977, in a scrapbook, in one of my foster parent’s homes. I asked, “Who is this lady?”

“That,” my foster mom said, “is the great Stevie Nicks. She’s a singer. One of the best to ever live,” she said.

I replied, barely audible, “Oh. Maybe she’s my mom.” As far as I could tell, she was as close a person had ever come to looking like her. The day she left me in the park, she wore a long flowing white dress, with a lace duster. Most of the time even still, even though I know now what she looks like, I still picture her blond, tangly curls and her white flowy clothes, as she left, instead of her face. Since that’s the last thing I saw, I guess the trauma of it all has kept that memory burned into my consciousness.

When my mom told me we were going to the park, I could not have been more excited. As always, I lived for the adventures we went on, especially after we were homeless. I mean, I didn’t know we were homeless. I just loved camping. We slept in the canyons and near the beach, moving when necessary. I loved sleeping in the campgrounds in Orange County – with their oak trees and sycamores. Their branches created cool shapes in the soft orange glow of the campground lights. When we had to leave a campground, we would sleep near the rich people beaches and then find our way back to another campsite. The day I bought my house in the hills above Laguna, just blocks from the park bench where she abandoned me, I thought I’d finally arrived. Maybe I did? The problem was, I didn’t have any real sense of victory though I’d hoped and prayed it would feel that way.

When we left Trabuco Canyon, we were in Dwayne’s car. He was her boyfriend. At least one that had been around for a little longer than the others. There were lots of them. I’d never forgotten his first name – though my trauma prevented me from even remembering my mom’s full name. Dwayne drove us down the winding canyon roads to Laguna, with the windows down and classic rock blaring. When we sat down on the bench, I had a small bag with me. I called it my purse. She said, as she got up, “You hold that purse tight and don’t let go, okay?” That wouldn’t be a problem because I carried it with me everywhere I went. I was eventually picked up by the police and taken to the social services agency in the city of Orange, I didn’t know what they’d found in there. They kept it with my file until I was old enough to really talk with my caseworkers. What they’d found didn’t help me understand. It didn’t help me grasp why she’d left me there. I didn’t know my story. I didn’t know from her scribbled and cryptic words, why. I didn’t know who she was or where she came from. What I knew for sure? She may not have ever been in her right mind. Her words were jumbled nonsense. I know her first name, Willow. But beyond that and her tangled mess of curls and flowing dress, I don’t know her story – or mine.

In the letter, she wrote, in one long run-on sentence, the sea is carrying me away i tried to stay above the surface for her but the current is carrying me away she needs you more than she needs me. And then, here she is my mermaid child I have to return now. Who knows what in the actual hell she meant. She scribbled numbers on the back of the note. I always dreamed as a pre-teen, once they’d handed over her letter to me – as if it wasn’t mine in the first place, that maybe I’d find some meaning in the numbers. But all these years later, based on everything else I’ve uncovered in the intervening years, there’s no meaning to them. There is one other thing she wrote on the back of the note, I’m still certain it is a piece of the puzzle that will make sense someday. She wrote one word, and then underlined it many times, creating creases in the paper. The creases made reading her note on the front side, harder. The word? Jade. Now that I’m here, in the place that birthed both of us, I hope to understand.

As for the other thing I was left with – my necklace – it’s a small piece of turquoise sea glass – with a small mother of pearl dangling alongside it. I’ve lived in some rough places over the years. But I hung on to that necklace like it was a part of my own body – like one of my arms or legs. When I was 12, I got kicked out of a foster home for beating up my foster sister. She’d tried to take the necklace from me. It didn’t matter to my foster parents. They didn’t care that it was all I had of her. They sent me back to social services like I was a shirt you’d return because it doesn’t fit. I don’t wear the necklace much anymore. But it’s always with me. It will never not be with me.

As I got dressed for Joe’s, I thought long and hard about the necklace. I stared at myself in my full length mirror. My brown hair is piled on my head with curly wisps of unruly locks falling all around my face, emboldened to be wilder than usual, in the humidity of a Carolina summer. The easy choice would be to slip it into my purse, where I usually kept it – when it didn’t fit the moment. But today felt dangerous, in an entirely enticing way. I have an entire family in this beach side town. And not a damn one of them tried to find me. Chew on that for a minute. The scrappy twelve year old in me, that beat up the sweet church kid when she tried to steal her necklace, is the one that raised an eyebrow, grabbed that necklace off the dresser, and put it on. I knew, in that moment, there’d be no turning back.

#

Joe’s was quite the scene. Situated at the end of the boardwalk, it sat in a mostly residential part of the town which explains, in part, why it may not have been frequented by the tourists – who probably stuck to the section of town that was easy walking distance from the handful of hotels and Bed and Breakfasts that lined the strip along the boardwalk – all leading to the fishing pier. The pier, as I’d discovered on my first very long walk, jutted out into the Atlantic in, what I am certain is a taunting and enticing way, for the hurricane season. Yet, it still stands – defying Mother Nature in a way I can respect.

When I was two houses down from Joe’s, I stopped. The Beach Music floated up above the crashing waves. When I did my research about Seaside – which as an author is way more fun than writing – I learned a lot about the Beach Music culture of the Carolinas. When you grow up in the coarse sand of Newport and Huntington Beach, in the 80s and 90s, beach music is U2, Jesus Jones, and Depeche Mode. Or basically anything that’s playing on “The World Famous KROQ.” When I finally traced my origins back to the strip of barrier island off the coast of North Carolina, I learned everything I could, including how drastically different beach culture here can be from the only home I’d ever known. Beach music, as I’d soon learn, was deeply rooted in R&B. This blew my mind. As the music wafted up into the air, along with the intoxicating scent of what I imagine is mouth watering local seafood, I needed a second to gather myself.

Before I open my eyes, Tally’s voice reaches me. In spite of her loud appearance, her voice and deep Carolina drawl are about as soothing as a voice can be – as if she speaks in songs and poetry. I adore it – but promise myself not to let her know she’s my new best friend. “There you are! I started to worry you’d changed your mind,” she said, as she rushes to my side, looping her arm through mine. Like the day I’d met her in person for the first time, she is wearing bright, almost fluorescent colors and jewelry that might as well have been bigger than her head. She is a tiny little thing. Which I suppose makes her presence, bright clothing, and huge jewelry, particularly charming. Or jarring. One of those. “You look divine,” she says. “You could charm the dew right off the honeysuckle.” I stifle my laugh until she says, “Don’t try to pretend you didn’t just mentally write that in your little author notebook. I know that’ll show up someday in a novel. I’m downright full of this bullshit. I’ll warn you before I throw one out that I really want you to remember though,” she says, as she steers me to Joe’s, as if I have no say in the matter.

She pulls me along until we reach what might as well be her throne high atop the Tally Court – a rickety outdoor couch – surrounded by a group of her courtiers. She introduces me, as she motions for me to have a seat with a sway of her arm, “This – this my friends – is a true celebrity right here. This is Allison Whiting! Can you believe it? In Seaside!” I don’t even bother stifling a laugh this time. Tally pats my hand, like I’m a pet. “Just ignore her, she doesn’t quite understand who she is,” she says. Truer words have never been uttered about me.

A chorus of welcomes and nice to meet yous, meet me as I smile my best fake smile. It’s the one I use when I sign books for hours on end and when the talk shows act interested in my latest book – even though they really don’t care a wit about a single thing I write. “Thank you for the warm welcome. So what should I order? Tell me all the things about the food and drinks,” I say, hoping to quickly distract from the embarrassing introduction.

“Easy,” a man, with a bushy grey beard and the reddest cheeks I’ve ever seen, says, “Shrimp burger. Get the shrimp burger. It’s an Eastern Carolina tradition,” he says, to the agreement of the rest of the crew.

“Well shrimp burger it is,” I say.

Tally whispers in my ear, “They don’t come to us. You have to go to the bar to order. They don’t take cards, by the way. Cash only.”

“Well that’s quaint,” I say.

“I’ll try not to be insulted by that,” Tally says, winking. “Go get you some food and an adult beverage and come on back. By the way, as soon as I find your neighbors, I’ll make the intro.”

“Thanks,” I say, with a thumbs up, as the heat rises in my face. If there were more lights on around here, I’d probably be red as a beet. Honestly, I might as well be on fire, as the anxiety takes over. I walk across the bar, packed with people, keeping an eye out for my grandparents as I go. I’m certain I’ll know them when I see them. The first photo I’d found of them on the Internet, from a local charity event, is old – twenty years, at least. But I have another, from the Seaside fishing tournament, maybe ten years after that. That one gets me a little closer to what they probably look like now. I’ve studied both photos for hours upon hours, hoping to find myself in them and preparing for the day I show up on their doorstep.

When I finally get through the wait at the bar, I sit at a newly opened barstool and wait for the bartender to maker her way to me. I take in the place, watching everyone. If there was a job description for writers – people-watching would be a requirement. I’m instantly overwhelmed at the thought that people in this room could be related to me.

When I turned 16, my last set of foster parents, adopted me. The Russell family will always have my deepest gratitude. I love them dearly. Mama Russell – what I still call her to do this day – never tried for one second to convince me to give up my dreams of finding my family. Nor did she make me try to fit into theirs – as if I’d somehow forget I likely had an entire family out there somewhere. She seemed to understand this need in me. She never pressured me. I will always love her, even though I’ve never been able to call her, “Mom,” as I’m sure she’s always wished. I expect, if I should ever get free from the trauma that is my childhood and marry – it will be Bo Russell that walks me down the aisle – with Mama Russell there in the front row. They were good to me. They are the best kind of people God makes, if God exists, that is.

Perhaps unfortunately, blood and the ties that bind us, are stronger. My foster care agency used to say that family is more than blood. It is. It truly is. But maybe only those who are left alone in the world, without clear ties to their past, understand how desperately we long for connection to those who share our DNA. In the midst of my introspection, in this noisy bar, someone taps me on the shoulder. I look to my right, in the direction of the tap. The guy next to me is pointing toward the bartender – who I now realize is standing in front of me, staring at me like I’ve got two heads.

Who knows how long she’s stood there. Her hair is bright purple and her arms are covered with tattoos. She’s wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen and her shirt is cut way too low. She’s not subtle. I notice in a flash, as I size her up, that she has a scar on her wrist and what looks like a burn mark just above it. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“Well what do you want?” she asks, apparently annoyed.

“I’ll take a shrimp burger and bourbon on the rocks,” I say.

“What side, hon?”

“Oh. I don’t know. What do you have?” I ask, what I think is a seemingly innocent question.

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No, dude,” I say. “What was your first guess?” I ask, my famous attitude making its first appearance, since I arrived in North Carolina.

She raises her right eyebrow. From the looks of her, I’d guess her and I could go a couple of rounds out back. She’s probably fought off some meth heads and abusive boyfriends in her day. In other words, she’s just like me – but you can’t see my tats or scars. “I like you,” she says. “We’ve got slaw, fries, or our world famous mac and cheese. We’ve got a partial menu at night in the summer. Makes things easier on Joe. What can I get you?”

“I’ll take the mac and cheese,” I say.

“Good call. Can I get your name for your order?”

“Sure. It’s Ellison. Ellison Whiting.”

She stops mid-reach, before taking the twenty-dollar bill I’ve handed her. “Ellison, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Interesting. We have a bunch of Ellisons down here. They’re everywhere. Kind of like sand fleas. Sadly, my mama is an Ellison.”

“I’m from Orange County, California,” I say. She raises that eyebrow at me again. She’s skeptical. I like her.

“Well wherever the hell you’re from, welcome. I’ll have your drink in a minute and someone will bring your food to your table. I saw you come in with Tally.”

“Thanks,” I say. I fully notice as I do, the gentlemen next to me, though he’s picking at the label on his beer bottle, he’s been watching me the whole time. From my peripheral vision, he smiles. He’s been following my every move. I turn to face him. “Appreciate the tap,” I say. I was just remembering all of the things I need at the grocery store,” I say – hand out stretched. He takes my hand.

“Ryan,” he says, extending his hand out to meet mine. “California, eh? What are you doing out here?”

I don’t detect even the slightest of accents – which I’ve so far heard from most everyone I’ve met the last few days. “Nice to meet you, Ryan. And, yep -California. Most recently Napa. But I spent most of my life in Southern California.”

“I lived there for big chunks of my life. San Diego. Great town.”

“It is. Friendly city – compared to the rest of SoCal anyway. What were you doing out there?”

“Marine Corps and Navy. Navy parents – Marines for me. Spent my enlistment at Pendleton.”

“Gotcha. Are you originally from Seaside? Or close by?” I ask, taking a second to study his weathered face. His trucker’s ball cap sits over a mess of unruly blond hair. It’s long enough that you’d never guess he’s ex-military. I bet you one thousand actual bucks that he surfs and has a half-pipe in his backyard.

“I’m from a little of everywhere,” he says, looking back to his bottle and peeling at it a little more. “Like I said. I was a military brat. We lived all over. But my most formative years were California and Hawaii. Hawaii will probably always be home.”

“Nice. Not a bad place to be from,” I say.

“True story. I’ve called Seaside my permanent home for the last ten years or so, though.”

“Do you like it here?”

“I do. I own a little place up the boardwalk. Plus, I can surf, hike the mountains within a five-hour drive, fish, or backpack in the middle of nowhere here on the coastal plain. It’s an outdoor man’s paradise, if you ask me. Plus, they don’t care if you put up a – gone fishing or surfing sign – on your door.”

“Sounds like my kind of place.”

“What brings you to our little perfect slice of the Southern Outer Banks?” He turns to face me. He smiles for the first time – deep dimples instantly make him endearing. His eyes are deep brown. I’m suddenly reminded of how much I love a man with brown eyes.

“Research,” I say, trying to sound mysterious, but realizing after I say it, I just sound lame.

“What kind of research?” he asks.

“Book research,” pleasantly surprised that he’s the second person tonight that doesn’t know who I am.

“You’re a writer?”

“I am. I write fiction. I have a book to write – so here I am.”

“If there’s anything I can help you with, let me know. I own the inn on the opposite end of the strip. I’m right on the water. You can’t miss us. I run a small diner from the ground floor. It’s a good place to write – with views of the shoals and the wild horses. Stop by sometime. I’ll save you a table. When you write the great American novel, I’ll put a placard with your name on it,” he says. I find the fact that he has no idea who I am, endearing. He continues, “Like I said, let me know if I can help with anything,” he says, as the bartender slides my drink down the bar – from the opposite end. She’s a cheeky thing. I reach out and catch it before it collides with the Old Fashioned my bar-neighbor is nursing.

“Good catch, babe,” she says.

“Well thanks. What was your name by the way?”

“Jade,” she says. “Jade Willis.” I choke as a I take a sip.

 “You alright?” she asks.

“Yep. I’m just terribly awkward. Beautiful drink,” I say to her. Though just a bourbon on the rocks, she’s twisted a candied orange peel and if my nose doesn’t betray me, I’m guessing she rimmed the glass with orange, too.

“Thanks. Enjoy. We’ll have the shrimp burger out to you in just a bit,” she says, quickly turning her attention to another customer.

“Well, Ryan – I should probably return to Tally and her buddies or I will never live it down. Thank you for the offer about writing at your place. I just might do that – especially if you have some good local atmosphere for me to soak in.”

“Oh that we do. It was nice to meet you, Ellison.” he says as I stand to my feet. I stumble a little – as if I had more than a few drinks. It’s not the first sip of my drink. It’s the realization that I’ve just met a woman named Jade, in a little bar, in my hometown – a place I’ve never known or seen before. Ryan reaches out to steady me.

“You okay?” he asks.

“I’m good. Thanks. I just got up too fast,” I say. “Thanks again,” I say, as I quickly make my way out of the packed bar, toward Tally. I’ve opened the door now. I can’t turn back. Either I’m leaving this place with answers or I’ll die trying.

Purchase print, here.

A Thousand Years

a thousand years, elaina avalos, elaina m. avalos

Last summer, bits and pieces of a novel started floating around in my head. That’s often how it starts. A song, a flash of an image, a smell, a memory of the ocean, or camping in the Redwoods – whatever. Sometimes it’s a phrase that comes to me and then before I know it, a story forms.

It can (and often has) taken years for some of these to form. I have a file folder on my laptop with several different novels. I’ve mentioned this before. Because I can’t write them all at once, I write as much as I can – when an idea comes to me. I store it up, so to speak – for a time when I can finish writing the thing.

I’m a “seat of the pants” writer and don’t care much for outlining every little bit of a book. It’s in my head. But as a writer who writes character-driven novels, the plot is secondary to the development of the characters themselves. And so I find that the overall outline in my head is enough.

But I digress. In October I started writing A Thousand Years. And then in November, I wrote the bulk of the 50,000 word novel. It was complete – but not. As I began to edit it, I found some pretty serious issues. But far more importantly, the book just wasn’t coming together in the way that I expected it to. Something was missing.

I’ve had a really hard time letting go of it, however. Though I did consider throwing the baby out with the bath water. I started working on another novel to see if it would catch fire and I could set this novel aside. It just did not. A Thousand Years was still it. This novel is one that’s truly on my heart to write. I’ve prayed some quick, but desperate prayers to God – show me how to make this work – I asked over and over. Well, I think He has. And I am grateful.

I’ve yet to write a summary about this novel – but I’ve shared bits and pieces here, including some of the poetry or short fiction that’s found here. Any post with a tag of “A Thousand Years” fits somewhere into this novel on my heart. While many of the scenes I’ve shared here in the past, are now being altered to fit my re-write – the heart of the novel is the same.

And what’s the heart of the novel? It’s about the messy and complicated way our lives don’t follow a linear trajectory. In the midst of the mess – finding love, family, and healing is possible. One of my favorite gemstones is an opal. Opals are beautiful because of the cracks and fissures in their surface. The messy & complicated in life could certainly mar our lives if we allow it to. Or it could actually be what makes us the best version of ourselves.

I am excited to finish this draft and see what comes next for A Thousand Years.



Ready to Find Out – More from A Thousand Years

winery, wine, Jim Harris Photography

Here’s a little diddy from A Thousand Years. . .

I didn’t ask the hot football player out. And he didn’t ask me out either. I was a little confused. But then again, I’m not exactly batting a thousand in the dating department, so I chalked it up to harmless flirtation. And then, a few weeks after our opening, on another Saturday we were open to the public, Nolan returned. I was about to give a tour of the winery when he showed up, looking hot as hot as he had the day of the opening. As sometimes happens, in the chaos that is a family run business and being a single parent, Jackson ended up with me in spite of the fact that I was working. Nolan jogged over to my tour, after my Granddad pointed him in my direction. I smiled, because I couldn’t help myself. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I blushed too. He is quite the sight. All 6’4 of him. He is so very different than Gray. Gray is lean and average in height. He is fair-skinned, with the prettiest blue eyes I have ever seen. Nolan has dark brown hair and the deeply brown, warm eyes. He’s also got a pretty magnificent beard. And though I couldn’t tell the night we met, today – his white collared, long sleeved shirt sleeves are rolled up, exposing an arm full of tattoos on both arms.

“You got room for one more?” he asked.

“If you’re willing to babysit,” I say, mostly joking.

“Sure thing,” he says, making his way toward me from the edge of the crowd. He puts his hands out to Jackson and without hesitation, Jackson goes to Nolan excitedly. I’m a little jealous actually.
Throughout the tour, Nolan and Jackson stay close. I’m not going to lie – watching my son with a man – someone other than family or the men on the ranch – who I’ve known my whole life – is an experience I didn’t know I’d need to prepare myself for. I’m oddly emotional. I stuff the feelings and we finish the tour in the tasting room where I ask one of our tasting room staff to take over.

“Do you want to join the tasting?” I ask Nolan.

“No. I came to see you. I wandered off the night we met and lost you in the crowd somewhere around the time the fireworks started. I had every intention of asking you out to dinner. I’ve had some work obligations the last couple of weeks so this is the first I could get back.”

“Well thanks for hanging out with the kid again. I was totally kidding when I said that, by the way.”

“No you weren’t.”

“I wasn’t?” I ask.

“No. I think you were testing me.”

“Is that right? Why would I be testing you?”

“To see if I’m an asshole athlete or if I’m as nice of a guy as you want to believe. And the answer is yes to both. I also know you want to have dinner with me. So, how about it? Will you have dinner with me? This Saturday?”

“I will. If I can find a babysitter.”

Nolan laughs. He’s a cocky one that’s for sure. “You have babysitters crawling this place. And a nanny. So shall I pick you up at 6?”

“That sounds like a plan,” I say, smiling. “I can’t be out too late, you know? I hope you don’t take it personally if I turn into a pumpkin, early.”

“I understand. I mean, not exactly. I don’t have any kids. But I get the gist. I’ll have you home at a reasonable hour, I promise. How does Deetjen’s sound?”

“Perfect,” I say. “Thank you for coming by and babysitting for a few minutes.” I put my hands out to Jackson – who never turns down an opportunity to be held by his mama. Except he turns away, by turning into Nolan, putting his arms around his neck. But then, as if it’s a joke, he giggles. “Jackson Ford, you brat. It’s time for a nap, Bubba. Come on.” Jackson giggles again and then Nolan tickles him. Pretty soon, Jackson is in fits of laughter as Nolan teases him and pretends over and over that he’s dropping him.

Becky, Jackson’s nanny, breaks the spell. She’s just arrived for the day and as I’ve asked her to do, she takes charge without asking for direction. “Hey kiddo. It’s time for your nap!” Becky, one of Jackson’s favorite people in all of the world, is enough to break up the laugh fest.

“Looks like the boss is here, Bud. You have a good nap, okay?” he says to Jackson.
Becky reaches for Jackson and whispers, “Say bye-bye.”
Jackson, my sweet boy, who babbles a lot, but rarely speaks clearly, says, “Bye-bye!” It’s as clear as day.

“Always full of surprises,” I say, kissing him on his cheek. “Bye, bye baby,” I say.

“Bye-Bye, ma-ma!” he says waving. The tears well up in my eyes and spill down my cheeks. This kid. I blow him a kiss as they walk off toward Becky’s car. Sometimes the littlest things take my breath away. I can’t believe he’s mine.

Before I can wipe my tears or figure out what to say, Nolan reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief. Such an old-fashioned gesture, from such a tough looking guy.

“Here,” he says. He doesn’t take his eyes off me. He reaches out and puts his huge hand on my arm. He squeezes my arm a little. “I’ll see you Saturday evening.”

“See you, Saturday,” I say, smiling. I clearly don’t know where this is going, but for the first time since Gray walked out on the life we were building, I’m ready to find out.

Now I’m Intrigued – A Scene from A Thousand Years

There’s been a great deal going on these days. My writing has been fairly non-existent (which actually infuriates me). But I hope in the next couple of weeks, I can get back to where I was. Here is “Now I’m Intrigued” a scene from my novel A Thousand Years. You can read other excerpts, here.

***

2004

The funny thing about life is that you usually can’t imagine that healing is ahead when you’re in the thick of the pain. In the grief – in the anger and hurt of lost love and unplanned single parenthood – you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how good things might be someday. But you do wake up one day and life looks different – different, better. It has been a slow burn – truth be told. I’m happy now. I am content with life as it is. That’s something that may even be better than happiness. Today is our grand opening at Tierra de Dios. I woke with the sun – I’m sure we all did. I’ve been in the barn ever since, prepping tables with center pieces and making sure everything looks exactly like I planned. In the year we’ve prepped and planned for this, I found some purpose and meaning beyond being a mom. It’s not that it’s not okay to find purpose and meaning as a mom – I just needed something more to keep my mind busy. And opening Tierra de Dios has been what I needed. My grandparents caught my vision – between my research, sketches, and the time I’d invested in a business plan – they haven’t once questioned my choices here. They’ve given me this project to run with. They gave me a budget. They gave me some constraints. But for the most part, this has been my baby. They’ve followed me wholeheartedly. It is a good feeling. Racing through final finishing touches, I check the time again – I’ve got an hour to drive back to the house and get ready. Dammit. Why am I like this? I can’t be on time to save my life. I should have been getting ready an hour ago. Though the winery is on my grandparent’s ranch, it takes about twenty minutes to get back to the house – which means I have twenty minutes to look like I’m opening a world-class winery and event venue. Note to self – use the bridal room bathroom to get ready on event days. I have been late all of my life. Being late is how I met Gray Ford. I sometimes still don’t know how to be thankful for that day, without the hurt that follows. I’m thankful because it gave me Jackson Ford Langston. If only all that other stuff had never happened.

The thing about being the only Mexican owned winery on the privileged central coast of California, is that it gets you a lot of attention. The kind that has folks waiting in line for your gates to open, reporters from all over the state swarming, and handfuls of celebrities and athletes – waiting on your grand opening day. Our friends in the community are here too. This is the place to be today. Our opening has been the talk of the coast. The acreage that we own here is some of the prettiest along this rugged Big Sur coastline.

Our barn, on a hill overlooking the Pacific, is in a sweet meadow that gives unobstructed views of the ocean. This land, with its freshwater streams, creeks, and ponds is an emerald green shining beauty. Along the south side of the barn, redwoods and Monterey cypress reach and bend toward the coast. On the north side of the barn, a huge California live oak provides shade and a perfect ceremony spot for outdoor weddings. Stretching further to the north are yucca, sagebrush, native wildflowers, shrubs, and even some cacti. It’s all of California’s beauty in one sweet spot. If you follow a short trail behind the barn, some of our newly planted vineyards stretch up over the hill toward the rest of ours vines, that have been growing on this land since the 70s.

This is a stunning piece of land. And I am beyond joyful that we get to share it now. Driving around back access roads, normally used when we’re moving cattle from one pasture to another, I skirt around the waiting line of cars and park in our staff parking area, out of sight from the barn. My mom has given me crap for so long about my tardiness. I do wish I could change it – but even when I have the best of intentions, I still end up running at the last minute. Which is what I do – I run toward the barn where the rest of the family, and my boy are waiting.

***

Vineyard, winery, elaina avamlos

I pride myself on my ability to create a beautiful party. It sounds so trivial when there are so many other things in the world that cry for our attention. As an artist, I feel deeply. I feel other’s pain. There’s injustice all around us. Sometimes I think I can’t make a dent in the world by throwing parties and creating this place of tranquility and beauty in the midst the chaos of the world. But like art, sometimes it’s the beauty that becomes the foundation for lasting change. There’s an overwhelming amount of ugly in our world. Creating time and space for the small joys of good food, good wine, sweet memories with friends, and family – is no small thing. And that’s what we’ve started here. I have shaken more hands, hugged more people than seems normal, and have loved every second of this wild and crazy day so far. The music, the breeze blowing off the water, and the wine and food, are creating this sweet spot of joy in my heart I didn’t know I needed.

It has been hours since our gates opened and between the music, food, and wine – the party is still going strong. My sweet new nanny has patiently hung out – chasing my boy all over – for hours. But I know it’s time for her to take him home. The last time I looked, she’d found a table and contained him long enough to feed him. His busybody ways are nearly impossible to control when people are around. I look back at the table and realize they’ve moved on. I search around through the crowd to see if I can find them. I don’t see them in any of the usual spots. I turn – my eyes searching everywhere. A brief moment of unexplained panic rises up – as if he’s in danger here on land he already knows so well.

When I finally find him, he’s having an in depth conversation with a man I don’t know. Becky, our nanny, is standing with them. Jackson is standing on the stranger’s lap, talking a mile a minute, as if he knows how to talk, and is best friends with a man I can barely see. This kid. I head their way quickly to relieve the patient stranger. “Jackson Langston Ford, you silly boy,” I say, mid-babble, Jackson turns to face me. His smile widens, as if that’s possible. Joy personified this kid. “It’s time for you to take a nap and let this nice dude here, enjoy his Saturday.”

I take a step closer and realize the man he’s suddenly become best friends with is Nolan Carter – a San Francisco 49ers Linebacker. I only know this because someone pointed him out to me a couple of hours ago, as if I’d know who he is. I don’t know sports. At all. Not even a little. So when he looked up at me from his chair, my kid as comfortable as if he’s known him all his days, I didn’t expect the smile or the genuine reaction. This burly professional football player, is clearly enjoying my kid. And people who like my kid are number 1, top of the heap – perfect, in my book.

“Oh he’s fine. I mean, a nap is a nap and I’d never want to interrupt that, but he’s not disturbing me at all. He walked right over here a few minutes ago and told me what was what. I have no idea what we’re discussing, but it is very important just the same, I will have you know.”

“I’m sure it is,” I say, smiling at this charming and very attractive man, playing with me kid. “He’s not known for discussing trivial matters with perfect strangers. Nonetheless, my little hooligan here needs a nap, or tonight and tomorrow will not be pleasant for me or the members of our household. Thank you for entertaining my boy, Mr. Carter,” I say, extending my hand to shake his, after I’ve taken my boy back – where he’s propped on my hip.

“You’re very welcome – Carolina, right?”

“Yes. Thank you for coming today. And again, thank you for being sweet to my kid.”

“It’s my pleasure,” he says, smiling. My stomach lurches. He is one fine looking man. I walk off with Becky and Jackson – giving her a few instructions for the rest of the evening. She has been sweet enough to agree to stay overnight as I expect a very late night. Though I’d initially been reticent about hiring someone to take care of Jackson, I know it’s the right call. She is the perfect person to understand our lifestyle and that we don’t always need her to be off somewhere with him. She is prepared to be part of the action with my boy, as often as possible. I love her already. When I return to the party, after sending them back to the house, I smile as the mariachis start playing. I decided on a unique take – I’ve hired an all-girl mariachi band from Southern California. The lead singer’s voice floats above the crowd, after the band plays its gentle guitar and trumpet based instrumental, opening. Everyone stops what they’re doing to listen to her beautiful voice. As a little girl, my Grandma would play these songs for me, long before I understood their words. The velvety voice of the lead singer, comforts me in an unexpected way, as the music floats up into the night sky. “Great party.” I instantly recognize Nolan Carter’s voice. I turn in his direction, still not 100% certain I’ve heard him correctly.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“I said, great party,” he says.

“Thank you. It has been a labor of love to get to this point. Thanks again for being sweet to my kid. He’s never met a stranger, that one.”

“I could tell. Cute kid.”

“He is, isn’t he? He doesn’t look a thing like me.”

“Your husband is fair-skinned with blue eyes?”

“No.”

“NO?”

“I mean, yes. I mean, no.” Nolan laughs. He has a deep, belly shaking kind of laugh. He’s a bear of a man. I guess that’s why he’s a linebacker. I feel ridiculous standing next to him – all 5’4 of me next to his 6’4-ish.

“Whatever, lady,” he says, winking at me.

“Ah. Got it. You didn’t have to answer, by the way.”

“Oh, it’s okay. I am so used to everyone around here knowing, that I’m rarely asked questions like that.”

“I was really just trying to figure out if you were single or not. I didn’t see a ring but you never know.”

I laugh, because I can’t help myself. I’m not sure how it’s possible that this terribly good looking man in front of me is flirting with me. I’m a single mother – with a toddler at that. “Yes, I’m single,” I say rolling my eyes. “Single parenthood is not usually high on the list of qualities most men are looking for, you know?”

“I’m not going to lie, I’ve been watching you for a while.”

“What does that mean?” I ask, suddenly a little weirded out.

“You’ve been making some waves in the city – with the winery and hiring Chef Silva.”

“Have I now?”

“Yeah. You pissed a lot of people off picking off the Chef from one of the hottest restaurants in town. I kept hearing your name come up and then a friend pointed you out to me at Mulligan’s a few months ago. I’ve been determined to meet you ever since.”

I laugh nervously. How is this even happening right now? “So you’re apparently into the food scene? Wine, too?”

“You could say that. I am hoping to end my football career soon and open a restaurant. I have an Associates from the CIA in St. Helena. They’ve been very patient with my weird lifestyle. I’m also a sommelier. My original degree was in Business Administration. I have big plans for rocking the boat when I retire. So yeah – anyone who shows up on the food and wine scene that rocks the boat, attracts my attention. Mostly because you came out of nowhere.”

“I do like to rock the boat. That is for certain.”

“I can tell. Today has been fantastic. And the food is incredible. You’ve got something really incredible here. The thing is, I think you’ve got way more in you than this. This is the start of a hospitality empire,” he says. Now I’m not certain if he’s attracted to me or he wants to go into business with me.

Either way, I’m intrigued.