Of the many punishments Mrs. Castello had creatively conjured to cure her insolence, sorting through the family’s attic was the one Clara disliked the least. It was laden with family memories and artifacts from the last fifty-six years, from old journals to photo albums: secrets and stories waiting to be discovered in every pen swish and pose.
However, her newest attic discovery was about to become the most fascinating one yet.
This particular box was of her beloved grandmother Sophia’s old belongings: rusted jewellery, family postcards, dry nail polish bottles, and, most importantly, polaroids. As her fingers scraped the dusty bottom of the box, they came upon the waxy paper. With care, and the usual spark of mischief in her eyes, Clara tugged the photograph out of the box and placed it on the floorboards in front of her.
As she shifted to cross her legs and lean down to get a closer look, she was startled. This wasn’t uncommon when sorting through her grandmother’s old pictures. Family members constantly remarked on how much Clara and Sophia looked alike, and in this picture, at what must be nearly the same age as Clara was now, with a braid down her back and glitter on her face, the resemblance was uncanny.
Clara sighed to herself, amused and exasperated that she always reacted in the same way to these photos. Of course it wasn’t her.
The truth, however, wasn’t much less absurd. Teenaged Sophia was kissing a blonde and scruffy-looking boy that was certainly not Clara’s grandfather. They were surrounded by glitter and deflating balloons. A birthday party.
Every Castello knew by heart the love story that defined their family’s culture: how Sophia Radford and Fred Castello fell madly in love at seventeen and married less than a year later on Sophia’s eighteenth birthday. Fred spent the last of his inheritance from his rich father on the very house in which Clara resided now, and they were married for forty-six years, till Fred’s death did they part.
And yet, history be damned, the back of the polaroid read, “Dear my lady Sophia, having you as my partner in crime is the greatest joy of my life. Happy 17th, darling. Love, Peter.”
Clara’s grandmother was all but her best friend, and yet she had never said a word about any boy before her husband. She had assumed there was never opportunity for one. So what did this mean?
There was only one thing to do.
Clara tiptoed down the stairs she knew all too well, careful to avoid the steps that creaked. Though her grandmother was meant to be an authority figure in her life, Clara did not worry that she would tell Mrs. Castello that her daughter was running amok. Her grandmother was all bark and no bite.
Luckily, she peered into the sitting room to find Sophia alone, leisurely reading in front of the fireplace. Once she was sure the coast was clear, she beelined for the spot next to Sophia and dropped the polaroid onto her book.
Sophia smiled upon seeing it, an old recognition taking over her face.
“I almost forgot about this...” she muttered, barely audible, in dismay. Hazel eyes never leaving her old self, she placed her book, pages down, on the coffee table between them. Without an awareness of why, muscle memory led her to twirl over the photograph in her slim fingers and read the back. Sophia sighed in a way that sounded like a chuckle, lost in memory. She handled the polaroid as if it were a century-old artifact that could crumble any second.
“Who is it?” Clara asked, curiously monitoring her grandmother’s reaction.
Sophia looked up into her granddaughter’s eyes and smiled, just for her. It was a scandalous, quiet little look. Unbeknownst to her, Clara may have just brought Sophia exactly the story her granddaughter needed.
“Up the street on our old block in the city lived a boy named Peter Mason.” Clara got comfortable and readied herself for the story, expectant and hopeful. “He was a rebellious child, impatient and clever and flirtatious, like me.”
Sophia trained her eyes on her granddaughter’s cherry hair and curious peanut eyes, once her own. She placed a teasing thumb on Clara’s chin and lifted her eyebrows. “Like you.”
Clara chuckled. Like Ace, she thought, but quickly pushed the thought away. Of course, she already knew this story wouldn’t end well, but it tasted sweet to pretend.
“We grew up the best of friends, chasing each other around the block and stealing from my father’s store of beer. We never drank it, we just liked to see him riled up. Sure enough, in the eleventh grade… I fell in love with him. Or at least, I thought I did. He had the prettiest face and the most wild green eyes. I was obsessed.
“One day, my father found the stolen pile of beer bottles. As our parents debated our punishment, which we expected to be certain death, they left us in my room. You see, I thought we’d never see each other again, so I told him how I felt, and he kissed me, right there. Soon enough, I told everyone I met that he was my boyfriend and we spent all of our spare moments mischievously behind the school bleachers.”
The whole story sounded familiar, and as neither said, but both knew, Clara and Sophia were proving to be even more eerily alike than they thought. As much as Clara tried to deny that it all sounded like her and her boyfriend, Ace, she couldn’t. Growing up together, Sophia falling in love, sneaking around behind their parents’ backs - it was all too close to home. Clara’s hope of getting an answer to her own unacknowledged predicament through this story was becoming more likely, but it was far from the answer she was hoping for. And however it ended, she wasn’t sure she was ready to find out. But that didn’t matter.
As always, Sophia could see the struggle in her granddaughter’s eyes, and continued her story in the hopes of bringing it to light, just as her own struggle had been fifty-seven years ago.
“Peter and I spent about six months together, including my seventeenth birthday, when we took this.” Her eyes landed back on the polaroid. “He told me he loved me, and all I could do for months on end was imagine our life together. I thought it would last forever.” Sophia chuckled warmly at the thought, amused by her young self. “What a world, to be a teenager.
“But I developed this feeling, right here in my stomach, when I wondered how Peter felt. I tried to ignore it, I didn’t want to believe it, but we women, we know these things. It seems harder for everyone when we listen to our guts, but we must. We must.”
Clara gulped and looked down at her knotting fingers, letting the words wash over her. She felt very delicate, like a house of cards. A knot built in her throat, just as it always did when Clara remembered Ace’s words.
You know how I feel about you, Clara. But I can’t tell you I love you. You understand, right? But she was more tired of understanding than she would ever admit, and she despised herself for it in the few moments she allowed her emotions to fester. There was nothing to do. But there was something for Grandma to do, all those years ago.
This was much more than she bargained for when she found that polaroid, and she wasn’t sure she liked it.
“Peter never paid excessive attention to me and he was never very excited to see me. Not like I was. The last straw was a weekend away at my parents’ cottage. He backed out at the last moment ‘to do homework.’ I had never been more disappointed in my life. I built up a lot of courage and faith in myself on that weekend away, alone. When I got back, I told him it was over. He didn’t get it, of course, boys never do, but it didn’t matter.”
A tear spilled from Clara’s eye as cold fear clutched at her. It was all catching up to her.
“Oh, baby girl,” Sophia whispered, wiping her granddaughter’s cheek.
“How did you do it?” Clara asked, sniffling. It was not like her to act like this. To feel like it, maybe, but never on the surface.
“It took me a while but I figured out that I was more worthy than I ever expected. I didn’t know the power I had in my pinky finger, let alone my mind. I took responsibility for myself and began to think of myself as a pile of actions and thoughts and opinions and traits... and not all of those things were bad. The ones that I thought were bad, well, I decided I was worth a change of mindset, and the proper treatment from the person who mattered most in my life.”
Sophia touched her thumb to her granddaughter’s chin again. “You know who that was?” Clara looked up into her eyes, welling up again. “Not Peter. It was me. How could I expect to be taken care of by someone else if I didn’t take care of myself first?”
Clara sighed and shuddered ever so slightly, crying freely now. Sophia patted the spot next to her on her couch and was joined there. She felt wet tears on her arm around Clara.
“I bought some records and I used a lot of tissue boxes. Years later I put together a mixtape of all of the music that got me through it. You’ll find that in the same box as this photograph. You may also find the mixtape I made for when I met your grandfather just a few months later. That one’s much happier… but you know that story, don’t you?” Clara nodded silently. “I have a feeling you’re about to know that one a whole lot better as well.”
Sophia smiled and held her granddaughter while she cried. She wished, sometimes, that she wasn’t so much like her. It may save her some of this pain. But it would make her stronger, and Sophia couldn’t have been more proud.
“Do you ever regret it? Leaving Peter?” Clara asked.
Sophia answered honestly. “No. That decision wasn’t about him. It was about me, and it changed my life. I wouldn’t have ended up with your grandfather, someone who made me the happiest woman alive and treated me the way I learned to treat myself. I wouldn’t have you or your mother,” she sighed. “Pain and boys are temporary, young lady, but you, my dear, are forever.”
After what could’ve been minutes or hours, Clara wiped away the last of her tears and stood. “I gotta go do something.”
“It’s clean the attic, right?” Sophia winked.
Clara laughed, a ragged, scratchy sound the world didn’t hear enough of. “Oh, yeah,” she winked back. She kissed her grandmother’s cheek and went to ascend the stairs again.
“April seventh, honey,” Sophia called with a smile. It was something they said a lot, a mutual inside joke that could be the funniest or most infuriating thing in the world. It was their shared birthday, signifying fate’s sense of humour at their ridiculous number of commonalities.
Clara turned around and smiled in a small way. “April seventh.”
The Heartbreak Mixtape, as it became known to the Castello girls, became a staple in Clara’s life from that night on, as fate weaved her life into an imperfect but beautiful portrait of herself; it tugged people in and out, but Clara, my dear, was forever. Not long later, she picked up the Falling in Love Mixtape and sang herself to sleep for all the Castello house to hear. Sometimes, when she focused enough, she could pretend that lonely Ace heard her songs of joy from across town, just the way she knew he heard the sad ones before.
In a flawed way, the Castello girls lived happily ever after.