Chapter 1:

June 26, 2015, 10:00 AM

Let's Make Love Bloom

The biggest problem in my life, the one that has cause me the most heartache, is that I can’t be the person the most powerful people in my life want me to be. I hated myself for it, for a while. Hated that who I was could be nothing but a disappointment, neigh, a shame to them, if they ever found out. I’ve moved past that hate, thankfully. I love who I am in those fleeting few moments when I’m allowed to be her. But I’m still afraid. Afraid of what will happen not if, but when they meet her.

My parents are Catholic, and I hardly feel like I need to say more than that. I cannot remember the last time I was able to sleep in on a Sunday morning. The church never instilled in me a fear of God. In fact, that whole “God-fearing” thing never quite made sense to me—isn’t God supposed to love everyone? Never mind, though, that’s incidental. I never feared God, only the two people in my life who were as powerful as gods: my parents. The only reason I continued to attend church was because I was afraid of what they’d do if I said I didn’t want to go. And so I suffered through sermon after sermon throughout my childhood, learning more about the Bible than I ever wanted to know. Granted, a lot of it is compelling stuff. In particular, I’m a big fan of bears eating children. It’s possible I would’ve come to like the good book in my own time had it not been shoved down my throat, and indeed I suspect that years down the line, once I’ve finally attained my freedom, it’ll be nice to crack it open and peruse it in my own time, in my own space. But for now, that’s just not happening. For now, I must wallow in my discontent. Because I’ve known for a long time that the good book—at least, the way our local pastor teaches it—just isn’t for me.

I think I was in middle school during that fateful sermon, just before the Sanadas moved next door and I met my best friend. It was just another Sunday. Mamá had, like always, dressed me in what she called my “Sunday best.” It was a light green dress with white frills around the sleeves and hem (Masashi would later remark that the frills reminded him of lotus flowers). I thoroughly hated the dress, but at the time, for the life of me I could not explain why. The few times I’d tried to protest had earned me scoldings that would scar me into adulthood, so I soon learned to stop fighting and just do what my parents wanted. The pastor was droning on, as always; and then, almost out of nowhere, he went on a tangent that even my eleven-year-old self knew was wrong.

“And so God gave them over to their shameful lusts,” the pastor said, paraphrasing from Romans. “Men did lay with men and women with women, and in their shameful acts were punished. And not only do such individuals deserve death, but so too, do those who support them. Let it be known, then, that any who commit or tolerate such sin will face His judgement.”

Being not quite sure, young as I was, what he meant by someone “laying” with someone else, I of course asked my parents. I was actually quite scared, because when I was younger, I had crawled into my parents’ bed many times after having a nightmare and therefore literally “laid down” with a woman, and that was all I thought it could have meant. My parents, being as conservative as they were and not wanting to ruin their daughter’s “purity” or whatever, naturally danced around the issue of sex and instead fed me something wishy-washy. I think they just chalked it up to marriage, like “oh, he means that boys can’t date and marry boys, and girls can’t date and marry girls. Love is between a man and a woman.” And by that point I knew better than to press them on any Biblical issue that didn’t make sense to me (spankings had been the result the last time I tried that), but still, I knew that seemed off. I knew some of the eighth-graders in my school were starting to date (and it being middle school, gossip flew fast), and the most famous couple in the school was two girls, June and Nina. I didn’t know them personally, but they’d seemed nice enough from a distance. They’d looked cute together. Curious, I floated their names to my mother, still somehow trusting in her.

“I know two girls in my school who are going out,” I told Mamá. “June and Nina. They’re really nice. Are they doing something bad?” When I told her this, Mamá’s eyes went wide, and she nearly dropped the plate she’d been cleaning.

“Yes, little Sara,” she said, getting on one knee and placing a hand on my shoulder. “And you must pray for them, that they might abandon their sinful ways.”

“Why is it sinful?” I asked.

“Hush now, little one.” And she gave me a kiss on the cheek. “You should be asleep. Off to bed now.” So I obeyed her; what else was I going to do? But I wasn’t able to get to sleep easy. I knew better than to question Mamá, and with how disturbed she looked when I asked, clearly it must have been serious. But still. They just loved each other. What was wrong about that?

The next day, my heart sank when I heard the principal’s voice come over the intercom, summoning June and Nina to the office. I don’t know exactly what happened in there, but I do know the result: they were forced to stop seeing each other. A rumor circulated that the principal had received an angry call from a concerned parent about the couple. And I could guess quite easily who that concerned parent had been. Feeling guilty, I tried to seek the two out and offer my apologies. I did manage to find June, who put on a brave smile and thanked me for telling the truth, but I could tell that she was holding back tears. And that just made me feel even worse. And as for Nina, well, I never got to talk to her. She was moved to another school soon after, and my guilt for not being able to talk to her, for being the reason that the two were forced to break up, never went away. Just for how hurt June looked, I was convinced: she hadn’t done anything wrong. I had. And that will stay with me forever.

Thank God Masashi came along to distract me from my guilt.

Masashi and his family moved right next door to my family all the way from Japan about halfway through sixth grade. I don’t think I even knew Japan existed before the Sanadas moved in. My whole world was Florida, where we lived; the nebulous rest of the United States; the even more nebulous Central and South America; Cuba, where Abuela had been born; and some distant place called You’re Up. Weird name for a place, that. Anyhow, his dad and mine both worked at the same company, and our families frequently got together over the weekend for barbeques and football and the like. And Masashi quickly became my best friend.

We were hardly able to talk to each other at first. His English was rough, and my Japanese was non-existent. We had to use Google Translate to have any semblance of a conversation. For most people, that would be too much effort just to talk, but we didn’t really have much choice. Just because of our parents’ acquaintance, I became by default his Florida tour guide. Padre all but ordered me to help Masashi settle in at school, and Masashi’s parents didn’t even bother asking. They just jumped straight to “Thank you for taking care of our son.” And how was I supposed to say no to that?

Not that I had reason to object, mind you. As a matter of fact, I was elated to have a new friend just about all to myself. It’s just the principle of the thing, you know? Having an unexpected task forced on you without your permission is almost never going to go down well. It was sheer luck that Masashi ended up being so cool.

I realize saying I had him “all to myself” sounds a bit possessive, and moreover it’s not one hundred percent true, but for just a little bit it felt like it, and that made be happy. I wasn’t what you’d call a loner, but I didn’t exactly have a sprawling social circle, either. There were just a couple of kids I casually got along with. It wasn’t for any particular reason, I was just an awkward preteen. It happens. That’d get ironed out later, but at the time, Masashi was a godsend. He was an actual loner, except his loneliness was forced upon him. He would soon enough tell me about all the friends he’d left behind in Osaka, and lament his inability to make friends here at his new school with me. At first it was just the language barrier holding him back, and it took him a good half a year to break that barrier. By the time seventh grade started up, he was fluent. The only problem then was being the only Japanese kid who had an established reputation as a loner who only hung out with that other loner. None of the kids were outwardly hostile toward us, but then, none were rushing to make friends with us, either. So, we stuck together. As Masashi learned English, I tried to learn some Japanese myself just to make him feel more comfortable. I never got beyond the basic phrases, a fact which embarrasses me to this day, but my efforts at least seemed to cheer him up. We’d be eating lunch together at school, and I’d botch some easy sentence like “watashi ga namae wa Sara desu,” and he’d burst out laughing and say “no, no, it’s watashi no.” And as embarrassed as I would feel, his big smile would cheer me right back up. Sure, I messed up, but we were having fun together. That’s what mattered.

Those were good times. But they were just the highlights of darker days. I hated how controlling my parents were. Are. Even now, as an grown-ass woman studying in college, they still exert undue influence over my life. Would you believe, they only consented to let me attend college because it was within driving distance of the family home? And with the promise that I’d “search for a husband?” In this damn day and age, that’s what they want from me. I am dangling on the edge, so close to slipping and falling into the abyss of insanity that for all I know, I might have already done so a long time ago. So often I’ve yearned to run away and break free, and so often some deep-rooted fear that even I don’t understand keeps me locked in place. Much as I want to go, I can’t help but stay.

And it’s only Masashi that keeps me sane. He’s the bright light that illuminates that abyss, that shows me that my feet are still planted firmly on solid ground. He’s the only one that keeps me smiling. We stuck together all throughout middle and high school, and even now we’re attending the same local college. I couldn’t even begin to recount all the good times we’ve had together—all the movies we’ve watched and MST3K’d, all the studying we’ve done and groaned over, all the school projects, all the family dinners and private moments, all the games and the screaming and the cheering. Looking back on it all, I can’t help but think that if Masashi had never shown up, I would have been truly miserable.

It’s a damn shame, then, that our parents, all four of them, started reading too much into our relationship.


Padre and I climbed into the family car, a beat-up old station wagon that had been his father’s car back in the day. The outer beige vinyl layer of the passenger seat had been ripped along the bottom, so my legs were rubbing against the exposed mustard-colored stuffing. The window next to the seat behind me had shattered in the last hurricane, and in its place a big sheet of cardboard had been duct-taped over. The dashboard had tears in it. The horn didn’t work anymore. It took some jimmying of the keys and some false starts just to get the engine started. And the cherry on top was that the A/C was broken. Just a reminder, we live in Florida. You can imagine how miserable longer car rides get. Yes, I have asked Padre about dropping the old bucket off at an auto repair shop. You’ll never guess how he shot me down.

“And how do you expect us to keep paying for your school,” he’d told me, “if we have to keep splurging to patch every little leak that springs, huh? You know how expensive those places are? We can handle getting a little wet.” That was not the first time my father had passive-aggressively tried to guilt trip me about how expensive my education was, and it would not be the last. I’d often wondered why he was even letting me go to begin with, given how seemingly against it he was, but I also figured that if I pressed him too hard he just might threaten to pull me out, so, you know, better safe than sorry. With how much of a jokester he can be when he’s in a good mood with friends, the optimist in me wants to believe that he thinks he’s just teasing and doesn’t realizing how hurtful he’s being. The cynic in me doesn’t buy it.

It was the morning of June 26, and Padre was driving me to my summer classes. My college usually operated on an A/B day schedule, where one set of classes met Monday and Wednesday while the other met Tuesday and Thursday. Today, however, was a Friday, during which special electives or other odd scheduling hiccups took place. Masashi and I had both signed up for the same elective not related to either of our majors, a film class, and on the docket today was some old 4:3 black-and-white classic that I would probably love and he would fall asleep halfway through.

“What are you doing after class?” Padre asked during the drive.

“Masashi and I were going to go get lunch, do some studying, you know how it is.”

“Right, right. So he can get you home?”

“Yes,” I said right away, mostly by instinct, but that wasn’t what I wanted to say. I wanted to say “I’m more than capable of getting myself home,” but I had long since learned not to risk saying anything that might come across to him as argumentative. Padre was always in control, especially when he was driving.

“Good, good,” he said. “You know, you two hang out so much, I don’t understand why you don’t tie the knot already. You’re perfect for each other. He can take good care of you.” As he said all of this, he was smiling. His tone was nothing but gentle.

“Yeah…” I said, and nothing else. This was a conversation we’d had so many times already. No matter how many times I insisted to him that Masashi and I were just friends, he’d just roll his eyes and say “Sure you are,” like my denials were confirmation that I meant the opposite of what I said. What sort of twisted logic was that?

And then, just before we pulled into school, the world changed over the radio. Padre had it tuned to NPR. Why, I’ll never understand. He’s a living contradiction: the conservative Catholic whose favorite radio station is NPR. Hey, they exist. Regardless, the news that came over the radio was more welcome than a winning lottery ticket:

“The United States Supreme Court has ruled this morning in a 5-4 decision that same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide.”

I could not tell you how my father reacted in that moment (though I’m sure we can all imagine that it was nothing pleasant), because as soon as the announcement was made, I turned my head away and was lost in myself. It felt like a burden had been lifted. I couldn’t undo the past, but finally it felt like we lived in a country where all the Junes and Ninas wouldn’t have to be forced apart—or at least, we were much farther along the way toward making that country. June and Nina were out of reach, but now, I hoped that others like them wouldn’t have to go through what they did. I felt like crying. Masashi and I had (secretly, of course) signed petitions and campaigned online in favor of Obergefell, and while my real sin could never be fixed, at least, finally, I had done something right by the two I had wronged. And now, with things as they were, maybe…

“We’re here,” Padre said, and I roused myself from my thoughts and found that we had indeed arrived. The college campus was as wide as a small town, and he had pulled into the mostly-empty parking lot of the small brick building which housed my class. A familiar face was waiting by the door.

“Thank you for the ride,” I said as I pulled my bag over my shoulder and hopped out of the car.

“I love you, Sara,” Padre said as I closed the car door, the warmth in his voice bouncing right off me.

“Love you too,” I said as I resisted so much as making eye contact. Spinning around on my heel, I strode toward class. As Padre pulled away behind me, the sputtering of the engine fading off in the distance, I greeted Masashi with a smile and a hug.

Masashi was looking gorgeous as always—since we’d entered college, he’d really started to come into his own. His dark eyes were accentuated by a dash of eyeshadow; his straight, jet-black hair cascaded down past his shoulders, obscuring the collar of his frilly white button-up. The buttons, as always, remained unbuttoned, revealing the soft, pastel pink undershirt which still somehow worked with the black slacks. Between the two of us, he was to all onlookers the more feminine, a fact which he had lately started to not just feel comfortable with but take pride in.

“Yo, guess what?” Masashi said as we pulled apart, looking up at me with a grin. (I had a few inches on him, and he was the one with boots with soles that added an inch.) “I’ve got a code straight.”

“Dude, same,” I said, breaking out into a matching grin. That was our code phrase for whenever one of our parents brought up the subject of us getting married. As uncomfortable as it made us when it happened, at least we were able to take pleasure in laughing about it with each other after. “Seriously, it has to be some kind of divine miracle that they haven’t caught on yet.”

“No kidding.” We kept giggling at our damn silly lives as we made our way inside and sat ourselves down inside the classroom. It was a surprisingly small room for a class that screened movies: low ceiling, crammed desks. The film itself would be projected onto the whiteboard at the front, covering all ten feet of its height. I wasn’t sure whether the film department was strapped for cash or just didn’t exist altogether; in either case, this was sad.

Masashi and I were the first to arrive, but even as others started to trickle in, our excited conversation didn’t slow. At least here, we were safe from judgement.

“Did you hear the news?” I asked as soon as we sat down. “About Obergefell?” Masashi covered his now-agape mouth with both hands as his eyes went wide.

“No, I didn’t! What happened” he said—and then he squeezed his eyes shut. “No, wait, don’t tell me, I’m not ready!”

“Relax,” I said, laughing as I gently pulled his hands from his face. “We won.”

“We won?!” He gasped, and then he broke into the biggest goofy grin I ever did see as he swept me into another hug. “We won!”

“We won!”

We both laughed and cried as we found comfort in each other’s embrace and the long-needed victory.

We do love each other, that’s true enough. We wouldn’t be melting into a sobbing pile of goo together if we weren’t. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are the most important people in the other’s lives. But the love we share just isn’t romantic.

My name is Sara Caballero, my best friend is Masashi Sanada, and the romance that both our families want for us will never happen.

Because we’re both hella gay.