Shit. I knew my father enough to know that it was useless to go against anything he said. Ever since he caught me dating Johnny, he wanted to find someone for me as soon as possible to end the gossip in our street concerning me and the bad boy.
'Oh my God. This is terrible. Who is this guy?' I asked my friend, shocked.
'I dunno, I just saw him and came to tell you.'
'Well, What does this guy looks like Shaundi?'
'Hm, he is a little short, but apart from that... Yum! He is cute as everything. You lucky bitch.' She smiled and poked me with her elbow.
'Jesus Christ, how can you think of it? Let's take a look.' I whispered.
We left the room on the tips of our toes and sat quietly next to the stairs. It had a clear view and great acoustics to the living room.
We could see my father from above, with the balding back of his head turned to us while he talked to a young man that seemed quite familiar.
'Wait, isn't that guy from last night?!' Shaundi said, recognizing him.
'You mean Carlos, Josh's friend? Yeah, that's him alright.'
'Shush, they're saying something...!'
We bent our ears towards the first floor to catch their conversation.
'Understand senor that I know your daughter is a good girl. My intentions with her are serious.'
'Very well young man. I knew your folks and they were very honest people, so I think you are speaking the truth. But that isn't enough. Do you have the meanings to support Valentina?'
Carlos casted his eyes shyly on the ground:
'I am not going to lie, I am not a wealthy man, who could give her the life she really deserves. All I have is the house I inherited from my parents, and my job at the factory. But I ain't afraid of working hard to take care of her.'
'Hmmm.' I saw my father consider. I anxiously waited for what he would say next.
'Valentina!' He yelled towards the second floor. 'Come downstairs.'
I knew what this meant. Pure panic took control of my body. Despite everything that happened, I still loved Johnny. Shaundi also understood what was about to come, she simply pressed hard on my hand and found nothing to say.
'I'll refuse it!' I told her, cold sweat running on my limbs.
'No, don't! He will want to know why!' She whispered urgently. 'Pretend you're ok with it, gain some time and we'll think of something!'
She wasn't even finished with her phrase and my name was being called again, in a harsher, more impatient tone.
Without thinking I went down the stairs, feeling trapped like cattle on its way to the slaughterhouse.
'Valentina, this young man is the son of Genaro Mendoza, an old friend of our family. He asked me permission to get to know you, and if things go well, I believe he would be a good suitor for you.' My father started, staring at me dead in the eye. I knew that look on his face (and that usually a slap used to follow after that).
I understood why he was so eager to marry me. He feared that his order to never see Johnny again wouldn't be enough. But Johnny was gone and I couldn't run away with him anymore... Now I was on my own.
By instinct, I nodded vaguely, thinking about what Shaundi said.
I just stood there next to Carlos, unable to articulate a word.
When I finally had the guts to stare at him, saw that behind the respect and reserve the same look of fire from the other night lit his eyes.
But this time, I stared back long enough to see tenderness in them, and it made me feel safer.
I know it's strange but with just one look I got that he would never do anything to hurt me.
That was a huge relief, because if I didn't come up with a plan quickly... I would have to tell him all the truth.
'I am going to pretend I am ok with this to buy some time, but then I will run away before this wedding take place!' I thought, trying to look calm in front of them.
I saw that my father let out a satisfied sigh and that his rash expression softened at once. He opened his wallet and put some money in my hand.
‘Very well then. It's hot, why don't you both go across the street to that ice cream place you keep talking about, huh?’
I chuckled bitterly on the inside: Yes, we were poor, but never before my father was so generous with his money.
Carlos thanked him and nodded humbly, probably thinking my father was just concerned and making sure he treated me like the ‘family girl’ I was.
From my side, when we left the house, I was feeling both humiliated and cornered.
The walk towards the ice cream parlor was painfully silent.
Every now and then Carlos asked me something to put me at ease and get some conversation going, but I mostly replied by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Too much anger and despair burned inside me, words died strangled at my throat.
After we made our flavor choice he took some bills from his wallet and gave me back my father’s money:
‘He doesn't need to know I payed right?’ He winked at me.
Poor Carlos. He was a nice guy, it was certainly, impossible to hate him! But he didn't have a clue on what he was getting himself into. I wished it wasn't like this, that he was the simple jerk most of the dudes his age were. But deceiving someone so kind only added more guilt and shame to my overall state.
We sat on the worn out bench of the square across the ice cream shop, and without any care in the world he started to babble on and tell me all about his life, asking me curiously about mine as well.
Like this, I got to know that his parents died when he was 16. Ever since then, he supported himself by working hard at a nearby factory. It didn't leave him a lot of free time but the few he had, he spent mostly drawing landscapes and people. He opened up about how he felt more understood by his creations, rather than by people themselves. He loved to be with others, but maybe by this reason, didn't have a lot of close friends. The only exception being Josh Birk, that he considered as his own brother, and just like himself, worked the full shift at the car factory.
‘Still been weird, huh?’ He teased with a grin, watching me fall back to quiet.
‘I told you I was.’ I shrugged.
‘That's what I like about you. You're not like everyone else.’
‘Likewise.’ I had to admit.
‘Tell you what, since we’re both weirdos and I feel so at ease with you, I am going to tell you something about myself that I never told anyone.
Do you know Santo, the wrestler?’
‘Yeah.’ I nodded, intrigued. You couldn't really call yourself a Mexican if you didn't know who Santo, the wrestler, was. His masked face was on the cover of comics and movie ads, he was a hero in our childhood. But what he had to do with anything going on that day was beyond me.
'I have a Santo mask on my drawer, ever since I was a kid. And up to this day whenever I feel bad or anxious I just put his mask and walk around the house with it. It cheers me up.' He confided.
I couldn't help but chuckle, imagining the scene.
'Well, you know a big secret about your fiancé already. Wanna tell me one of yours?' He replied, clearly glad to see that he managed to break the ice and I was smiling for a change.
Well, there was only ONE big secret that came to my mind, but I couldn't tell it like this.
Without realizing I suddenly felt this will to share something so ridiculous that I only told Shaundi about:
‘I have an irrational fear of creatures from outer space.’
'Saucer men?' He laughed. 'At least it's an unlikely threat.'
As we spoke, I realized we were quite alike, in many ways. That warm vibe I got from him the first day kept growing up as we chatted.
I was feeling unexpectedly well at his side, calm and reassured when, surprised, we noticed that hours went by and that night fell.
Not wishing to anger my family, he took me straight back home.
As I got up to sleep, Shaundi was waiting for me in my room.
‘You guys took forever, I was worried. How did it go?’ She asked, concerned, as I slid to bed.
I sighed, between confused and worried, sinking my head on the covers for a moment:
‘He is a good boy, Shaundi… I didn't wish to break his heart, you know.’
She sat in front of me and stared inside my eyes, as if she was analyzing me, or suddenly saw something I didn't. Her mouth immediately folded maliciously:
‘Oh! Shut up!’ I tossed my pillow grumpily at her.
In a sort of limbo, I tried to make plans of escaping, none of them definitive. Several times me and Shaundi got up all night discussing it.
Every afternoon Carlos came to visit after work. He would have a cup of coffee with me and my family or take me out for a walk.
Something weird was happening to me.
The shadow of what I had with Johnny, too strong to be forgotten, haunted me frequently. Part of me wanted to remain faithful to him, secretly wishing that he would indeed come back and we would both run away.
But this other part of myself started to slowly be subjected to a growing affection towards the man my family had chosen for me.
Two dear images now walked side by side, and fought for dominance inside me.
Carlos’ sweetness, that sweetness that was, my freaking God, so rare in a male figure, his ways caught me in a web, against my will. The more I struggled to break free, reminding myself that it went against my plans, the more it made me grow attached to him.
I repeated, in vain, that what moved me in reality was remorse, but at some point it became obvious (and boy did Shaundi teased me about it!) : I had feelings for Carlos.
One afternoon it must've been clear despite all my reserve, even to him. We were sitting at the porch of my house. Like every night, we had lost the track of hours talking together. Without noticing, I betrayed myself by leaning my head on his shoulders. It felt so natural that I only realized it when it was too late.
Terrified at what I just did, I immediately rose to my feet. My intention was to mumble a goodnight and go inside.
But in one leap Carlos got up as well and put his hand on my waist, his body very close to mine. In his eyes was that strong flame again, his body language switching from the usual shy reserve to intensity and longing.
In the silence of the night, his lips touched mine.
I opened my mouth to speak, taken by surprise. It allowed him to deepen the kiss, kind and passionate.
I froze at first, but it felt only right.
My soul was searching for his, I hugged him closer, passing my arms around his neck.
I felt that his grip grew tighter on my waist, he muttered my name on my mouth.
Until it all got interrupted by a sudden noise close by and a light switching on inside my home.
With a jump, we let go of each other, fearing my father was up. We saw his silhouette appear behind the curtains of the kitchen and Carlos looked like he was coming up with a good explanation to be kissing me like this outside and late at night.
But it was a false alarm. We heard him open the fridge to have some milk. Relieved, he hugged me again and stole another quick kiss as I let the tension go by laughing on his shoulder.
‘Valentina, it’s late! Come inside!’ We heard father groan, his voice fucked up by sleep.
After that night, I almost didn't think about Johnny anymore. And when I did, it was with remorse.
The love I had for him still slept somewhere, of course, but that feeling was changing into something else.
Sometimes I reflected that the life I would have with Gat would be a thousand times more at my taste and free than the one that awaited me as a typical housewife. But, so much changed, so much happened… Someone else crossed my path, uninvited, and shook everything to its very core.
The kiss Carlos gave still burning on my lips, I went to my room. But instead of going straight to bed I opened the window and gazed at the starry sky until morning, unable to sleep a blink.
It was only when the first rays of sun colored the cracks of my ceiling in pale gold, that tiredness got the best against this inebriating feeling I was still high on, and that I understood nothing about…