“I like going to the supermarket.” Lauren joyfully announces.
Even though big crowds still seem to disturb her slightly, she enjoys the sight of the diversity of people. The more versatile they appear, the more she likes them. I take her out every now and then, since I’m the only person she fully trusts to show her these new things. It’s a safety thing – when occasional anxiety takes over, I’m the one to hold on to. Literally. Her family isn’t too happy about it, since they prefer to keep her close and safe inside the house, but every now and then, I convince them with my sincere intentions. It’s better for Lauren to discover the world right now. She must learn, before she gets asocial and estranged from a world she has no part in.
We don’t get recognized a lot. We’ve gained pounds, cut our hair – cleaned up nicely since we re-entered the civilization. Besides, yesterday’s newspapers are history. People don’t remember a front page from a month ago. Sometimes, we’ll find some staring at us with compassion, or pointing fingers. We’re used to it. I’m glad finally someone notices us, to be honest. I haven’t had that for two years.
She’s holding on to my hands, like it’s a normal thing, and pulls me along through the countless aisles of this massive stores. I ask her if she’s okay and she nods.
“What would you like?” I want to know. “Skittles? Pringles? Chocolate chip cookies?”
The thought of it simple excites me. Divine candy is divine. Shit. Now I want it.
“I just need some bread and some cheese. I really like cheese.”
Her silly smile warms my heart. We never had cheese at John’s. He was allergic. She crawls up against me and puts her head on my shoulder.
“I know you do.” I sigh contently like a complete love fool. “Let’s get you some cheese.”
An hour later, we arrive back at her temporary place. I’m the mule carrying all the bags, while she’s enjoying some cheese crackers. In a few weeks, we’ll be allowed to go back home. We don’t talk about it. It’s too complicated to think about it yet. Lauren doesn’t exactly have a home. Her parents live far away from here. She hasn’t asked what the plan is. I bet she’s scared to know the answer. Honestly? So am I.
I put the bags on the kitchen counter and puff over their weight. Damn. Just some bread and some cheese, my ass! She nearly bought everything she saw.
“I like going out for groceries.” she states – yet again.
I frown and disagree: “Yeah, trust me: you won’t anymore after a while. It becomes a habit and people don’t like habits.”
Lauren swallows down the last of the cracker and innocently shrugs: “Well, I like it anyway. John never took me out for groceries.”
My eyes flare up to her and just like it happens every day anew, I realize she has zero life experience. She doesn’t have a clue about normal day routines or boring stuff that will annoy you after a while in this world. She’s fresh meat. She’s so ready to absorb it all. I can’t imagine never having walked into a mall or a restaurant. Those actions seem so unimportant that they don’t even show up in my memories anymore.
“So, did you have fun last night?” she curiously asks, busy unpacking.
I went to a bar, with two of my oldest friends. I only stayed for an hour. Lauren didn’t join me. She’s not comfortable around town at night. I get that, so I’m not going to force her.
“No, not really.” I admit.
Lauren stops unpacking and licks her lower lip: “What happened?”
I shrug: “Nothing happened, that’s the point. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t even interesting. Those people …”
She’s patiently waiting for the next part of the explanation.
“I don’t like my friends anymore.” I conclude after a hesitant moment.
She nearly laughs at me, but quickly discovers it’s not a joke. Sadly, I can’t phrase it better than I just have.
“I don’t like my friends.” I shrug.
She walks around the counter to stand face to face with me.
“How can you not like them? They’ve always been your friends. You talked about them all the time.”
I nod. I guess they have. But it doesn’t feel that way anymore.
“It’s just … I don’t like ‘em anymore. It’s like they’ve changed, although the actual truth is: I’ve changed. Anyway … they don’t look good on me anymore. We don’t talk, we don’t laugh about silly things. We just sit there an have shallow conversations. I scare them, because I have this tremendous experience they feel we can’t talk about. They have college and Jane’s engaged for God’s sake. They have entirely different lives.”
Lauren nods quietly: “You’ve grown apart.”
I shake my head: “No, we were ripped apart. Now, they’ve moved on. And I can’t blame them.”
She bends over to peck me on the cheek for comfort, just as her mother walks in. Lauren doesn’t think much of it when she’s clingy around me – simply because it’s always been this way. But her mother doesn’t know we’re sleeping with each other. For some reason, we refrain from telling her. Something about the old fashioned woman stops us from even trying. Nothing about her screams gay-friendly. Nothing even whispers gay-tolerant. So I asked Lauren to keep quiet for just a little while, because she deserve a fresh start with her family. Our relationship can’t be the breaking point in that.
But she’s figuring it out slowly, though. Lately, Lauren’s family is doing their best to keep me on a safe distance. At first, I thought it was to allow their daughter to stroll her own path, but now there’s this weird vibration about it that they’re learning the truth – and really don’t like it. Telling you: homophobes.
Lauren looks like an older version of that little Mia in the pictures, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s is a stranger to them. I guess Callie had painted a picture of her through the lost years. A beautiful blonde daughter, with long hair and a radiant smile. Except, she’s not gay in her ideals. She’ll meet a guy soon and marry him. I’m in the way.
“Did you find something good?” the older woman nervously asks.
She’s still extremely careful when it comes to Lauren – still getting to know her. The response is excited and positive. My girl’s found a way to dive into the family thing quite fast. She loves being surrounded by people who care. And though she had no memories of them, all those years, they feel familiar. I’m glad they do. She deserves that.
“Candies. And cookies. If it’s okay by you, I’d like to cook some food for Mariana and me. We haven’t eaten anything yet.”
She unconsciously rubs my hand. So very polite, in desperate search for confirmation and acceptance. Her mother immediately nods.
“You haven’t stopped eating since we arrived at the supermarket.” I object in a snarky way.
Her tongue comes out to insult me. We have a little, playful moment, but it’s quickly disturbed.
“You can do whatever you want, Mia.” her mother says.
The loving, enchanted stare at her daughter gets interrupted the second she remembers her new name.
“I’m sorry, I mean Lauren.” Callie corrects herself.
Lauren shrugs. It doesn’t really matter a lot to her how people call her. As long as they are nice and sweet. She’s still new to this world.
“Great, I am making pasta.”
And I add with a smile: “With sausages.”
She grins contently and pushes her shoulder teasingly against my upper body. I see Callie’s flaring eyes directed at our movements.
“So, Mom.” she hesitantly starts, clearly getting more used to the M-word every day. “Can Mariana stay the night? I want to do a movie marathon.”
She loves movies. There are a lot for her to discover. But the next time we’re alone, I’m going to introduce her to Castle. She has to see that show.
Her mom isn’t crazy about the idea, I immediately learn. There’s hesitation, but also fear to disappoint her newfound daughter. Callie finds it hard to forbid her anything.
“Your father and I thought we could have a family night later. Just – us and your sister. There’s still a lot we need to learn about each other. You can see Mariana tomorrow.”
One brief second later, she continues: “Or the day after that.”
Her eyes flare at me, very self confident about herself. The way she’s implying to delay my return makes me smile sarcastically. I am not welcome here, that much is sure. I feel it in every word that comes out of her big mouth. Lauren doesn’t pick up on it, though. Her lack of social contact makes her believe in the best of people. But there are people out there who aren’t so very different from John. They are just more subtle and less physically violent. And they are called bitches.
My Abuela is at home, chatting with my mother in the kitchen area. They are passionate about whatever it is they’re talking about, because they are communicating in loud voices and typical Spanish babbling. It reminds me of some distant memories, that instantly slap me in the face. I walk in after my unpleasant and brief stay at the King’s residence and announce my arrival. My mother nearly bursts into tears every single time I remind her I’m back again, for good this time. It’s so comforting to see her every single day, you know? It’s a dream – it really is. But the old lady, my dressed in black Abuela, isn’t as thrilled to see me as the first couple of weeks anymore. I pick up on it bit by bit. She acts distant and disapproving. If only she’d tell me why that is. Because I can’t remember saying anything or doing anything that could’ve pissed her off enough to stop being happy to see me again.
“How was Lauren?” my mother asks very interested.
I am happy she’s okay with it all. My father told her, while I stood next to him with my eyes pointed at the ground in anxiety. She didn’t react shocked or hysterical. She told me she knew. She had known from the first minute in the police station. And she was happy I told her. Happy that I still managed to find happiness after all I’ve been through.
I grab a glass out of the cabinet in front of me and fill it with water from the tab.
“She’s good. Her mom’s being a bitch, though.” I sigh all annoyed. “She doesn’t like me around. I don’t get it: I’m an awesome candidate. Fucking homophobe.”
My mom bites her lower lip with frustration, even though I’m trying to make her laugh. She hates that I feel this way. She feels that everything in my life should be perfect right now, after all I’ve been through. But it isn’t. Life’s never easy.
The kitchen counter presents me the freshly baked cake I smelled from the second I walked in. The scent is overwhelmingly delicious. Just as I’m about to poke my finger into the chocolate frosting, my mother gets up and carefully slaps me on the hand. I must admit: for a second, a glimpse of John’s scare resurfaced in my mind. I ignore it and play along with the mother/daughter moment, because she doesn’t get how it’s like. I put the glass of water down and open my eyes intensely in wonder, totally offended and all.
“That’s for later! Don’t.” she states.
I put both hands up while laughing and apologize: “I’m sorry. I won’t touch it.”
Mamá, clearly believing nada of what I just said, frowns doubtingly.
“I promise!” I tell her.
That’s when I bend over to kiss her on the cheek. Our relationship has gotten so much more open and warm since my return. I like it that way. We’ve both discovered how short and important life is. You should treasure every single moment. But Abuela just sits at the kitchen table and stares at her fingers, uninterested in this whole playful situation. The thing is, I used to not care about things like that. If someone was mad at me, I’d ignore it until that said person found the courage to come and talk to me. But I’ve been through a lot of things, and I feel like it’s my primal right to be comfortable in my own home.
“So, why are you acting so strange around me?” I drop the bomb.
My grandmother immediately knows I’m addressing her. Her surprised eyes find me.
“I am not acting strange around you.” she tells me.
But it’s bullshit, because everyone can tell. Even my mother doesn’t react too astonished – which indicates that there is in fact something going on.
“Look, Abuela, I get it: it’s strange to have me around. I mean, I’ve been gone for a while, but I’m really, really trying to be a part of it all. To fit in again.”
My mother sighs anxiously and walks away to sit down across my grandmother. I can’t actually see her face, but her attitude tells me she’s begging her mother to shut up.
“I know. I’m just … I searched for you for months, Mariana.” the older lady finally speaks up with a voice that’s more fragile than I’ve ever heard.
I can’t handle old people being emotional. Ice might be breaking right now and not a person in the room would hear it crack. My grandmother’s afraid to look at me in the eye.
My memories have fooled me a lot the passed couple of years. My brain reprogrammed a lot of them into happily, blissful parts of my past, just like John was wonderful at turning a lot of them into a nightmare. But as soon as I was united with them again, I knew – I just knew – the difference between reality and fiction again. I remembered the contrast of my mind’s distant, detailed remembrance of my family and the picture – stigma – John planted inside of my head for months. And that tells me my grandmother was never like this. She was caring and loving and she would’ve done anything for her granddaughter. She would be happy to see me walk in here. But the wrinkles around her eyes make her seem exhausted and disappointed about life. She sighs as she puts some fingers to her forehead to rake up some old memories.
“I swear, I went down every road in this state. I stapled your picture to every single tree I passed, I went on every single television show that wanted me because I really believed it would help getting you back. Because – that’s what’s a grandma is supposed to do, right?”
I believe her as she says it. It brings tears to my eyes. She’s pointing her eyes at her fingers, who are nervously playing around with each other. I don’t know if I should console her – touch her – hug her. I just know that I’m here again, and unlike my expectations, reality tends to hit me in the face. The thing is, Detective Webb told me it probably was my grandmother’s great, public search for me that prevented John from selling me to some sex industry mobsters. She had my face on billboards and milk boxes. My picture got shown on massive television programs. There was a huge reward for the person that could lead to my discovery. It simply was too dangerous for John to use me as a way to get some money, Detective Webb informed me. So he did Lauren a favor and kept me around instead of selling me. It saved me.
“One day, I found your dad crying while going through some of your childhood photo albums and he told me that it might not be such a crazy idea to come to terms with the idea that you were gone. And I was furious at him. I was so, so very mad because he even dared to think about you that way. I knew you were alive somewhere. Deep down in my heart I just knew. But months passed and the police found nothing. You disappeared off the face of the earth, according to them, and after waking up one day, I suddenly realized your dad might be right. So more weeks passed and that feeling settled in, despite all the hope I kept deep inside my heart. Every night, before going to bed, I prayed for you to show up the day after. You didn’t. I started my life without a granddaughter, but every single stranger’s face I saw, I wished for it to be yours.”
My heart’s about to break out of my chest as I hear her say the words. All that time, John did his best to convince me that nobody was searching for me. And after a couple of months, I started to believe his lies, because my rescue never came. But now my Abuela’s here, nearly crying in front of me. I don’t know how I can describe it. I can only acknowledge that my eyes are growing wide open and my breathing’s getting heavier by the minute. She missed me. She really fucking missed me. And I forgot.
My mom’s not moving a muscle. She knows exactly what it feels like, hearing my grandmother say all those things. But my grandmother suddenly sighs.
“And then, that one day you did show up. The police found you and you were brought here and the body I feared to never, ever feel alive again, pressed up against me for a hug. And instead of being relieved and happy, I felt scared and weirded out. Because I have nothing to say to you that will make you feel better. The things those man did to you, they …”
Abuela starts to cry softly. Mamá puts a hand on hers, across the tablet.
“I’m sorry, Abuela. It’s okay now.” I sigh comfortingly, swallowing down some tears.
That’s when I approach her to wipe the expression of emotion away with my finger, but she backs away surprisingly.
“It’s not.” she states promptly, seemingly mad.
I frown. How is it not? Her soft, caring and loving eyes turn into sad and angry ones. It scares me enough to step back.
“I wished for my girl back, every single night that you were gone. I just wanted the little, young, careless Mariana I helped raise. And then I started to accept that you might have been killed.”
She sighs enraged and I don’t know why.
“You were dead in my mind and now, like a miracle has happened, you’re back. And I should be over the moon about it. But you don’t feel like my girl anymore.”
She’s cutting through me like a knife. All I can do is listen, since I’m simply too surprised to utter words. I am still her girl, she must realize that somewhere deep inside. My mom puts her hands in front of her eyes. They’ve clearly discussed this before, without me being around. As I’m ready to stutter some words, desperately trying to express some sort of emotion, it becomes clear that my Abuela hasn’t finished talking.
“The things they did to you, the person you’ve transformed into, the feelings you’ve developed. You feel like a stranger to me. I don’t know you anymore. I am not comfortable around you … It might have been easier if that man killed you instead.”
I have never been hit harder than right now. Even John’s fists never felt as hurtful as these words. My mom gets up on her feet and ragingly commands her mother to shut up. She can’t believe my Abuela just said that. Neither can I.
“How dare you?” she yells. “How dare you say such things to my daughter? Get the hell out of my house!”
She’s enraged out of her mind. But I hold her back, as my mind is putting one and one together. It are pieces of a puzzle – Abuela’s reaction, her statements, her rejection. A cynical smile takes over my face as I walk over to her, bend forward to face her and shake my head.
“You think whatever happened to me turned me gay, don’t you?”
I knew she knew. I just had no idea it was such a problem to her. Sure, she’s religious, sure it’s somehow a bit unconventional in a hispanic family, but I never, ever though that this was the worst thing I could do to her.
“I never raised you to be a lesbian, Mariana.” Abuela clarifies. “I raised you to be religious and proud and normal. That guy John, he destroyed you. And Lauren as well.”
I burst into laughter, because I can’t believe what I’m hearing. My mother slams her fist at the table.
“Mamá, shut up.” she repeats, before pointing a finger at her own chest. “I raised my daughter. I raised her to be honest and true to herself and proud. And she is. And after all she’s been through, she still manages to live up to those standards. So, I think that is extraordinary. My little girl is extraordinary. Now get out. Please.”
She’s trying to prevent this situation from getting even worse. Won’t happen. Can’t happen. Abuela sighs deeply and eventually gets up on her old feet. That’s when she walks out of the house and leaves us both in absolute shock. Well, this has been one homophobic day!