Home > More Than Words(8)

More Than Words(8)
Author: Jill Santopolo

“I’m sorry you won’t be able to make it to the Lancers’ event,” he said as their food arrived. “How’s your dad doing?”

Nina shrugged. “He’s mostly okay,” she said. “But I keep noticing things. Small things. And I know there are going to be more and more of them. That it’ll snowball until . . .” Her throat felt full. She wouldn’t cry in front of him again. Especially not in the middle of a diner.

Rafael had picked up his sandwich, but put it back on his plate, uneaten.

“Do you read poetry?” he asked her.

Nina swallowed the lump in her throat. “Not much,” she said. “But a little. When I was a kid, I memorized Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky,’ for my dad.”

“He took his vorpal sword in hand; Long time the manxome foe he sought—” Rafael quoted.

“So rested he by the Tumtum tree and stood awhile in thought,” Nina finished.

Rafael laughed. “You’re full of surprises,” he said.

You too, Nina wanted to say. But instead she just smiled. “Why did you bring up poetry?”

“Well,” Rafael answered, stretching out the word. “I took a couple of poetry classes in college, and I’ve come to think of life like poetry. It’s my own theory, but it makes me feel better about things.”

“What do you mean?” Nina asked, hoping that whatever he was about to say would be comforting.

“I think of people like poems,” he said. “Maybe someone’s a haiku, or a villanelle, or a cinquain, a sonnet—our length and form are predestined, but our content isn’t. And each form has its own challenges, its own difficulties, and its own beauty. Your father’s poem is coming to an end, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful or worthwhile or important.”

Nina felt her eyes brim with tears and blinked hard. Instead of letting them out, she picked up her grilled cheese and took a bite, focusing on its flavor, how it felt on her tongue.

“Did you pick poems for people at the office?” Nina asked, after she’d swallowed, her tears gone.

“Hm, not really,” Rafael said, taking a bite of his own sandwich. “But I think Jane is probably a limerick. A bit of rigidity, but also funny and irreverent and predictably unpredictable.”

Nina laughed. “What about Mac?”

“Lineated prose poem,” Rafael said. “Intense and compact, but freer than most poetry. Kind of outside the box.”

“I like this,” she said, though she might have come up with something else for Mac, something that captured his arrogance and impatience. “Does it work for everyone?”

“If you think long enough, you could probably make a case for everyone being some kind of poem,” he said.

“Even me?” she asked, the words slipping out before she realized that they could be dangerous.

“Even you,” he answered, looking directly at her, his dark eyes sparkling. This man is dangerously charming, Nina warned herself. “I think you’re a sestina.”

“I’m afraid to ask why,” she said, continuing the conversation against her better judgment.

He laughed. “It’s nothing bad. Sestinas are complex and intricate. You are, too. Or at least that’s how you come across.”

She took another bite and chewed slowly. “What about you?” she asked.

“I think it’s hard to poetry-analyze yourself,” Rafael said, “but I might be a ghazal. I like the idea of the couplets being emotionally autonomous. Not everything I feel in one part of my life permeates all of it.”

“So you’re a poem that compartmentalizes?” Nina asked. The description actually felt true to her.

Rafael laughed. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

Nina realized then she wanted to know what his other compartments were like.


July Fourth weekend, which was also Nina’s birthday weekend, arrived before she knew it. Overriding Mac’s objections, Jane gave the okay for Nina to take the long weekend off. “Rafael said it was fine,” she told Nina as she left headquarters with her weekend bag. “He said to tell you he hopes you enjoy your birthday with your father. Oh, and he told me to give you this.” Jane handed Nina a book of poetry: The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

Nina took it and smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “And tell him thanks, too. I really appreciate the gift. And the time off. I hate asking for special treatment, but—”

“Stop it,” Jane said. “Go. Take a swim in the ocean for me. Read your poetry. I didn’t know you were into poetry.”

Nina looked down at the book in her hands. She remembered him telling her she was intricate and complex. “I think it’s Rafael who’s into poetry,” she said.

“Well, enjoy,” Jane said, shooing Nina out of the room.

* * *

• • •

    Tim and his parents were heading out to the beach, too, and they picked Nina up so they could all go out together.

“Do you think your dad’s going to let us sleep in the same room?” Tim whispered to Nina once she was settled in the car. They were in a black SUV with two rows of seats behind the driver, TJ and Caro in the first row, Nina and Tim behind.

“No chance,” Nina whispered back.

“Even though he loves me?” Tim asked.

“Even though he loves you,” Nina said. “I’m still his little girl.” Though the truth was, she hadn’t asked. She wouldn’t, not after what happened when she’d brought her college boyfriend, Max, to the house, and, drunk on love and her desire to be an adult, put his bag in her room. Her father had pulled her into the study and told her, in no uncertain terms, which room Max would be sleeping in that weekend. It was the biggest fight they’d ever had. And marked the beginning of the end of her relationship with Max. And changed her relationship with her father, too. She started to weigh her words before sharing them, to leave out the details he might not like.

Tim wrapped his arm around Nina, and she leaned into him. “Then we’ll have to sneak out,” he said quietly, right into her ear. “Expect a knock on your door tonight. Or maybe I’ll throw seashells at your window.”

Nina laughed.

TJ turned around. “What’s so funny back there?” He and Caro had been answering work e-mails for most of the ride.

Nina and Tim exchanged a look. “Oh,” Nina said, grasping for an answer, “Tim was—”

“Checking to make sure she’s still ticklish,” he finished.

“Right,” Nina said. “Apparently I am.”

TJ looked at Nina and Tim and then at his wife. “Oh, really,” he said, leaning toward Caro.

“Don’t you dare,” she said, a hint of playfulness in her no-nonsense voice. Then she laughed as TJ lunged toward her. “They’re both crazy,” she said to Nina.

“Completely nuts,” Nina agreed.

They all were laughing now, but as much as Nina felt like part of it, she also didn’t. She looked at Tim and TJ and Caro and felt a flash of jealousy that their family was there, whole and intact, while hers was nearly gone.


When they arrived at the house, the backyard grill was already going, and Nina’s dad was sitting next to it, giving instructions to Carlos, the nurse he’d brought with him to the beach after his doctors balked at him being out there alone. Nina grabbed Tim’s hand when she saw that. Usually it would’ve been Joseph himself grilling the steaks, holding a drink.

As it got dark, Joseph suggested a nighttime ride on the boat, the Mimsy, which her father had named after the first line in “Jabberwocky.” “I heard someone’s setting off fireworks tonight over the ocean,” he said. “For your birthday, Sweetheart—though I prefer when they do it on the actual day.” It was their old joke that the July Fourth fireworks were for her. Since the Fourth was a Tuesday this year, she knew they’d be going off all weekend.

Nina remembered the fireworks displays when she was little, when she, her dad, and her mom would all take the boat out together after dinner, and Nina would pretend that the loud booms didn’t scare her, because she didn’t want to miss the light show. But her father had known, somehow, and every time a blast went off, he’d tickle her or try to make her laugh. He knew to chase away her fear without her having to tell him about it.

“You captain us tonight,” he said to Nina, tossing her his captain’s hat—the one she’d bought him a dozen or more Father’s Days ago. She put it on her head. It was slightly too big, but once she stuffed her ponytail inside, it fit just fine.

“Lookin’ good, Captain,” Tim had said, quickly kissing Nina when their parents weren’t looking.

* * *

• • •

The boat ride was short-lived because Joseph started shivering. Even with a blanket around him, he was cold.

“Sorry, Sweetheart,” he said to Nina, when they were back on the beach. “I know how much you like your birthday fireworks out on the water.”

“It’s okay, Dad,” she said, leaning against him. “We can see them just as well from here.”

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