Maria's deep brown eyes gave her a blurred view of the noisy meal taking place in the dining hall in the room next to her as the smell of Aubrey's famous chili swept through her freckled nose, automatically derailing her train of thought. Though there was no growling present in the room, Maria's stomach silently begged her for food, and her dry lips nearly healed as the taste of last night's chicken piccata regenerated itself onto her taste buds.
"Hey, boss," a familiar warm voice greeted her. Maria abruptly straightened her posture, and the taste of chicken piccata disappeared from her tongue.
She looked to the left to see Aubrey, elbows and forehead splattered with ingredients from the chili she'd just made. Maria was surprised that even after years of working in a professional kitchen, Aubrey still couldn't keep herself clean while cooking. "Hi, Aubrey. How are you?" she asked, gently sweeping the hair from her forehead away in a shallow effort to regain her composure.
The older plump woman smiled maternally. If one didn't know better, they would think that Maria were Aubrey's daughter, not her boss. "I think I should be asking you that," Aubrey replied. "You look like you just stepped out of a daze." Maria only shrugged, giving Aubrey the opportunity to continue. She leaned her crossed wrists on top of the counter that Maria stood behind, her lips flattening into a concerned expression. "Maria, you've seemed to be in a daze all the time recently. What's going on?"
She was right, as much as Maria didn't want to admit it. If people were skies, she would be overcast every day. "Sophia applied to Yale and she's supposed to be hearing back soon." Aubrey's lips widened to form an 'o', causing Maria to nod in agreement. "I'm just so worried for her. I want her to have the very best of the best, and she's believes that Yale meets those requirements. She's been dreaming about going there since she was a little girl. I don't want her to have her dreams crushed if she isn't accepted." The antsy feeling that had crawled over her bones so frequently in the recent weeks returned. "I feel like there's something I should be doing to help."
Aubrey nodded sympathetically. "I know you're worried about her reaction, but you have to know that it's out of your hands now. You gave her the best education, you pushed her to study hard and get good grades, and you helped her with her college application. You've done all that you can do. Now all there's left to do is wait, and try to help her through whatever decision Yale comes to." She patted Maria's hand affectionately.
"Thanks, Aubrey." Even though Maria's mind wasn't completely clear, her smile was sincere.
"Well, I'd better start on a second batch. Our guests eat that chili like they're drinking water in the desert." Aubrey smiled again and ambled back to the kitchen through the dining hall. Just as Aubrey's feet passed into the dining hall, the specialized ringtone that Sophia had set on Maria's phone for when Sophia called her filled the room.
Maria pulled the buzzing and ringing phone out from under the stack of paper on the counter, sliding her thumb along the bottom of the screen to answer the call.
She could hear sniffling even before the phone was fully placed against her ear. Maria's motherly instinct to protect her child was automatically triggered. "What is it?" Maria asked quickly, dreading the words that she knew would tumble through the speaker of her phone and into her ear.
"I—" Sophia took a huge breath to supply herself with oxygen so that she could continue sobbing, and then cried, "I didn't get in!" Her pain radiated through the telephone connection and it felt like an arrow was being stabbed into Maria's heart over and over again. All she wanted to do was make her daughter's pain stop.
"Oh, honey," replied Maria, the hand not holding the phone already gathering her things. "I will be right there." The sound of sobbing filled the pause. "Hang on tight. I love you and I'll see you very very soon."
"Okay," Sophia wheezed, sounding more like a 5-year old kid who found out that she'd eaten all the animal crackers than an 18-year old nearly grown woman.
Maria hung up the phone and threw it, along with a folder filled with important forms, into her purse. She ran back to kitchen, her high heels on the hardwood floor sounding like a hammer banging on the wall. "Go," Aubrey told her before she could say anything, seemingly understanding the situation. And so Maria was gone.
It took only 15 minutes of speedy driving for Maria to pull into the driveway of her home. She'd kicked off her heels to drive, and didn't bother putting them back on to sprint into the house. The tiles of the walkway to the front door were cold on Maria's stockinged feet, but she didn't feel anything. All she could think about was her baby inside.
The second Maria opened to front door, the sound of weeping was clear. She followed the noise into the living room, where her red-eyed daughter sat on the couch surrounded by white tissues. Although now the maternal urge to protect her child was the strongest here, Maria froze in place.
Maria had coaxed her daughter out of many temper tantrums, unrequited love-fueled tear sessions, and stress-induced panic attacks, but this breakdown was different. Sophia had worked for this goal throughout her entire life, devoting countless hours of studying to it, missing an infinite amount of group plans for it, and writing and rewriting her college application until her heart was set on attending Yale University the following fall. For Sophia, not going to Yale wasn't an option. Attending Yale was a phase in the life plan she'd drawn up when she began junior high, and Sophia never diverged from one of her plans.
"Mommy?" Sophia cried, breaking the spell. If this were any other time, Maria would poke fun at her daughter for calling her Mommy, a name that hadn't been used since she were a toddler. But now she didn't have the heart to.
Maria dropped her purse and walked into the living room, moving the tissues to the coffee table and settling in next to her daughter when she reached the couch. "I'm here, sweetie." Sophia nestled her head into her mother's chest as Maria hugged her side. "Everything's going to be okay," she assured her.
"I didn't get in," she cried, and then repeated the words over and over again until they had fallen to a whisper. "I can't believe it," she moaned, "I worked so hard! I did everything right!" Maria hugged her daughter's head closer. "What did I do wrong?" she said, much quieter.
Maria was suddenly filled with so much anger. This stupid university had reduced her bright-eyed, bubbly, beautiful daughter into someone small and unsure of herself. "You didn't do anything wrong, Soph. I promise you that. You did everything right, it's just that so many other people did everything right too." The sound of sobbing didn't fill the silence. It seemed that Sophia had run out of tears. "I know it feels like the world is over, but I promise there is more out there. There are so many incredible schools that you can easily get into and be happy at."
"But I wanted Yale," Sophia mumbled.
Maria kissed the top of her head. "I know, honey. I know."
They sat in silence for a few moments. "Can I tell the story of how I ended up at my college?" Maria asked, and if Maria hadn't been looking at Sophia, she wouldn't have noticed her imperceptible nod.
Maria took a deep breath. "Ever since I was little, I wanted to go to Stanford."
Maria sat in her desk chair staring at her computer like it held all the secrets in the world. She was, yet again, poring over Stanford University's webpage. She clicked over to the photos section of the website and stared at them until she had them memorized. Then, she closed her eyes and imagined herself there. Walking the campus, laying on the beautifully green quad on clear spring days, and sipping lemonade at the dining hall. It all felt so real, and she couldn't wait until it was.
She opened her eyes and looked up to her bulletin board above her desk. It was practically a Stanford gift shop, covered in cardinal red. At the very center was an old photo, faded from the sun, of her father in his college years wearing a Stanford sweatshirt. He was holding two textbooks, whose titles were too blurry to read, and he had the biggest grin plastered on his face. Maria's heart ached. She had been too young to understand his death at the time he left the world but she knew that he loved his alma mater the same amount that he loved her.
"Maria! Dinner's ready!" her mother called from downstairs, pulling her out of her trance. She pushed her chair out from her desk and gave her father's photo one last glance before bounding downstairs. It was always a surprise to her mother when Maria didn't slip while running down the hardwood stairs in socks, but Maria had mastered the art of running to dinner.
Maria ducked her head into the dining room where her mother was setting the table. "I'll be right back, I just want to get the mail." Her mom pursed her lips but nodded, prompting Maria to grab her coat from by the door and shrug it over her shoulders. She put on the nearest pair of shoes, her mother's rain boots, and swung open the front door, inviting in the frosty air. She stepped through and closed in behind her.
She had to blink a few times before the cold air didn't hurt her eyes, and then slowly she walked down the icy driveway toward the mailbox. College decisions were supposed to come out any time now, so opening the mailbox was like opening up Pandora's box.
Her bare fingers grasped the handle of the mailbox and pulled down, revealing a stack of envelopes. Maria pulled out the stack and closed the mailbox, and turned to walk back to the house, going through the envelopes as she trekked through the packed snow.
Bills, pleas for donations, a Lands End catalog... When Maria reached the last envelope in the stack, her breath was stolen from her. The Stanford logo in the left corner of the envelope burned her eyes. Standing in front of the steps up to her house and staring at the small, thin envelope, Maria felt like the cold was much colder.
She didn't need to open the small envelope to know what was inside. Small, thin envelopes meant rejection, and big, thick envelopes meant success.
"Wait, you didn't get in?" Sophia interrupted, wrapped up in the story. "But you had a legacy!"
Maria gave her daughter a small, almost regretful smile. "That's what I thought too. I was heartbroken and in the same position that you are in right now. I thought my life was over, and I was trying to figure out where'd I'd gone wrong.
"It took me a while to feel better again, to regain my confidence back, but I was able to. I ended up going to Boston University and I worked to get my Bachelor's Degree in pre-law." The look on Sophia's face was one of surprise. "I wanted to be a criminal prosecutor," Maria began to explain, "because I thought I could make a lot of money working at a private firm, and everyone in my life told me I was good at debating with people.
"I wanted to do it for the wrong reasons, and while I was at BU I discovered that it wasn't what I actually felt passionate about. You see, there is a lot of homelessness in Boston. I hadn't really been exposed to homelessness before I went to college, and I was surprised and upset by the amount of homeless people in the city. I wanted to do something about it.
"And that's how I came to run the homeless shelter here." Maria kissed the top of her daughter's head. "Honey, you have to think about it like this: not getting into Yale may be one of the best things that has ever happened to you. Stanford University is in a sheltered area, and I never would have discovered my passion for helping the homeless. Plus, it was at BU where I met your mother, and discovered that I actually didn't like boys." Sophia giggled, trying to imagine Maria with a boyfriend. Her two moms fit together so well that it was impossible to imagine them without each other.
"Thanks, Mom," Sophia said. She tucked her honey colored hair behind her ear and looked up at her mother. "I love you."
Maria squeezed her daughter tightly. "I love you, too."