Chapter 6:

September 21, 2015, 5:30 PM

Let's Make Love Bloom

“Spelunking” was our code word for when we wanted to go buy some smut.Bookmark here

Here’s the thing about your ability to consume porn in a restrictive Catholic household with only one old computer in an open space: you don’t have any. Not unless you’re very careful and can make do with printed materials, that is.Bookmark here

This odd habit of ours started back in high school: we were in the closet, sexually frustrated, and Masashi had just gotten a job. (Guess who was very heavily discouraged from getting one!) Driving around one day after work, reveling in the new freedom granted by his driver’s license, he happened across a local bookstore frequented by hip young college students. It had good coffee, bookshelves filled with everything from old English literature to modern comic books, outdated textbooks, DVDs and CDs, and, most excitingly, a back room cordoned off by a beaded curtain filled with the good stuff. Luckily for us, the store was run by a sympathetic manager who understood the plight of closeted queer teens almost without needing to be told; until we actually turned eighteen a couple years later, they were totally willing to say they checked our ID and we were for sure of age, yep, it’s definitely okay for us to be browsing the adult corner. Like, I’m fairly certain that’s very extremely illegal, but hell, I’d sooner eat lead than snitch.Bookmark here

The lucky discovery of this bookstore helped us to explore ourselves more thoroughly than we might otherwise have been able or brave enough to, and it’s just one of many things I’d forever be grateful to Masashi for. Ever since he discovered the shop, we made sure to visit together at least once every couple of months. It was there that I was able to procure some of my favorite erotic literature, both graphic and non, without which many of my nights would have been much lonelier. I saved up my meager allowance when I could for these excursions but it often wasn’t enough, and whenever that occurred Masashi was always more than willing to spot me. I’ve kept track, and as of right now I owe him one-hundred and sixty-three dollars. Him, though? He never bothered keeping track, and whenever I try to raise the subject of paying him back, he just shrugs and tells me not to worry about it. I swear, this guy’s too good for me.Bookmark here

Thing was, though, we hadn’t been back in a while. Things had gotten a lot busier for the both of us since college started up, so our visits became much less frequent. I think, over the last year, we’d gone maybe three times total. And it didn’t bother me too much—thirsty as I was, I had built up a sizeable enough collection over our visits until then that I could satiate myself by revisiting old classics, which I always kept close by. Old-fashioned though it may sound, I had my stash hidden away under a loose floorboard which was usually lodged in place under the legs of my bed. That meant that though my smut was always within reach, it did require some effort on my part to retrieve, but hey, at least is wasn’t in much danger of being discovered. Still, new items these days were a rarity, so I was more than agreeable to a return trip. Only question was, why now?Bookmark here

“What’s the occasion?” I asked when we met up after school. He had parked in the library’s parking lot, and as we piled in and he started to pack out, it became apparent that we would have plenty of time to chat. The library’s parking lot was always the first to fill, and at that time everyone was trying to leave at the same time, meaning the road out was clogged.Bookmark here

“Well,” he said as he pulled into traffic. “I got my latest paycheck, for one. For another, the second date yesterday went splendidly, thanks for asking. And third and most importantly, given how good things are going with Oscar, I’m feeling really bad that I haven’t been able to set you up with anyone, so I figure this’ll be a good holdover in the meantime.”Bookmark here

“You figured correctly.”Bookmark here

“I know I did.”Bookmark here

“So this is your way of thanking me, then? Taking me to buy porn?”Bookmark here

“Can you think of any sweeter present?”Bookmark here

“That I cannot.” We were both grinning like idiots by this point.Bookmark here

“So here’s the deal: as my thanks, for today only, anything catches your eye, it’s on me.”Bookmark here

“Really?”Bookmark here

“Like I said, I’ve got to pay you back somehow.”Bookmark here

“Pretty sure I’m the one who owes you money.”Bookmark here

Again, Masashi just shrugged. “You know I don’t care.”Bookmark here

“Honestly, I kind of wish you did.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, well…” The conversation trailed off there. We both knew where it would head if it kept going: given that I had been held back from getting a job and that I hadn’t been able to get my license yet, I was just about literally unable to do this myself. Without Masashi I’d be out of luck, and yet he didn’t see it as doing me a favor or me owing him or anything. He was just helping his friend out because he wanted to see her happy.Bookmark here

God damn.Bookmark here

We finally got out of campus a couple of minutes later and out intro regular traffic, and though the bookstore was a greater distance away than the little bit we had traveled getting out of school, without the excessive traffic the drive was already halfway over. On the way, I felt the need to tease him with one last question.Bookmark here

“Go on, then,” I said, putting on a grin so that he would know I wasn’t being totally serious. (But I was having fun.) “How awesome was this date of yours that you felt the need to immediately drive me out here?”Bookmark here

“Come on,” Masashi said as he rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to tell you every little detail about every single date we go on.” But he, too, was smiling.Bookmark here

“Fair enough.”’Bookmark here

“That said, though…” he turned to face me as we came to a red stoplight, and his grin grew wider. “It was pretty awesome.”Bookmark here

“Hell yeah, brother,” I said, and we exchanged a fist bump.Bookmark here

#Bookmark here

Now, the tricky thing about buying physical smut is making sure no one knows you did it, especially not the people who would have a heart attack and probably be hospitalized if they realized you did. And I am not kidding—that was how we’d lost Abuela, and Padre was on regular medication to try to stave off the possibility. Of course, I wasn’t worried about the store clerks knowing—by this point, we were known friendly faces, and the clerk who always rings us up more than understands the need for discretion. No, the primary point of contention is bringing this stuff home without the folks realizing it.Bookmark here

But baby, we’ve been at this for years. We don’t just have a plan, we have a routine.Bookmark here

Step one: buy normal things as camouflage. As today was apparently about me, Masashi didn’t end up buying anything for himself, though we did browse together and I did catch his eye lingering on a few choice titles. Something told me he’d be back on his own in the near future. Anyway, my own selections, after some careful consideration, were a handful of continuations of previous works I’d enjoyed, three volumes in total, and once we had those rung up and bagged up behind the beads, we browsed the regular aisles for normal, non-horny books to stack on top of and around the provocative purchases. We kept those selections cheap, but being the English major that he was, Masashi couldn’t help but recommend a few new favorites of his. And if I’m being completely honest I’m pretty sure I don’t have the time to read any of it, but I guess they couldn’t hurt to have around for a rainy day.Bookmark here

Step two: act natural, don’t lie. The best lies are always caked in the truth. And so, the best way to hide a lie is to simply not tell it in the first place and only relay related truths. When Masashi drove me home afterward, I didn’t even need to invite him inside; he knew what to do. When we walked in, my parents were delighted at his arrival, Mamá especially.Bookmark here

“Oh, Masashi!” she said as soon as she walked in, wholly unable to contain her excitement. “It’s so good to see you again! It’s been far too long. You really ought to come by more often.” If she weren’t already busy in the kitchen cooking up dinner, she would’ve come over to the door to greet him up-close. I had of course called her beforehand to let her know he was coming over, and she always aimed to impress him. I wouldn’t exactly say home-cooked meals were a rarity in this household, but it wasn’t for just anyone that Mamá would bust out Abuela’s arroz con pollo recipe. Today, there was an even rarer scent in the air—did she have flan in the oven? Wow, Mamá. Really going all-out, huh?Bookmark here

I have to admit, it did smell really darn good. Of the many things I’ve been able to hide from Mamá over the years my stomach has not been one of them, and honestly that’s just fine by me because damn does she know how to fill it.Bookmark here

“Thank you, ma’am,” Masashi said, giving her a wave. Just inside from the front door to our left was the living room. Padre was reclined on the couch, his work shirt unbuttoned, kicking back a beer as a football game blared over the small square TV.Bookmark here

“Good to see you,” Padre said, tipping his bottle in greeting. “Now what have you two youngsters been up to this fine evening?” And there it is: time to tell the truth.Bookmark here

“We went to the bookstore after class,” I said. Reaching into the plastic bag I was carrying, I pulled out the book on top of the pile. “Masashi’s been on an Austen kick lately and thought I should check some out, so I got these.”Bookmark here

“Oh yeah,” Padre said, nodding. “Yeah, that’s some good stuff there.” Good. He bought it. Of course he did. What reason did he have to doubt me? None, no reason.Bookmark here

“So he tells me!” I said with a smile. Inching our way toward the hall, I said, “We’ll just be a few. Call when dinner’s ready?”Bookmark here

“No need to worry,” Mamá said. “I will make sure you know.” The way she said it made it sound like a playful threat.Bookmark here

“Thanks!”Bookmark here

And finally, step three: scramble. My room was a small one just at the end of the hall, across from my parents’ room and next to the one and only bathroom. I had Masashi wait outside in the hall, standing guard in front of the door. This was his usual role: in case either of the other two occupants wandered this way, he would tell them I was changing. Under normal circumstances that might not deter at least Mamá from entering, but with him standing there it was a guaranteed method to ensure privacy for at least a few minutes. To sell the lie, I would actually get changed. But, first thing’s first: hide the evidence. After hurrying to stuff the non-smut onto a small bookshelf up against the wall, I pushed aside my bed, pulled open the loose floorboard, and stashed my new acquisitions with the old in the space beneath. I took just a moment to admire them: I was going to have fun tonight. Satisfied, I hurried to replace everything exactly as it had been: floorboard firmly locked in, bed back over it, and finally myself collapsed on top of it. I wasn’t physically exhausted, mind you, but this part was always stressful. Not to mention, the damn Florida heat. All the sweat now on my person? Heat and nervousness. Nothing more. We could really do with some A/C right about now, but that was a luxury the folks were careful about employing. And to be fair, I couldn’t exactly blame them for that. I’d happened upon the bill once, and yeah, that number was quite startling. With all that work done and the heat starting to get to me, I changed into something lighter and simpler: a white blouse with khaki shorts.Bookmark here

“You can come in!” I called to the door, and a moment later it opened and Masashi walked in. He made a point of leaving the door wide open so as to not arouse any suspicion (or hope) on the part of the folks before sitting down on the bed beside me.Bookmark here

“Mission accomplished,” I said with a wink.Bookmark here

“Hell yeah, sister,” he said, and we did another fist bump.Bookmark here

#Bookmark here

All that was left, then, was the matter of dinner. This was the easy part, nothing to be worried about. Masashi and his whole family have been over for dinner plenty of times before for purely innocent reasons. For us Caballeros, getting together for a meal with friends and family was a perfectly normal and happy occasion. So really, instead of anything to be worried about, dinner was mostly just pleasant. Of course, neither of us were enthusiastic about the all-too-likely prospect of another code straight coming up, but hey. We’ve dealt with plenty of those over the years, what’s one more?Bookmark here

Gathering around the table, all four of us joined hands—me out of obligation, Masashi just to be polite. We closed our eyes, lowered our heads, and Padre offered a prayer.Bookmark here

“Amen,” we all said once he was done, and we sat down to eat. Mamá’s cooking was, as always, incredible. Not being much of a chef myself, I couldn’t even begin to describe the mixture of spices and flavors that accompany each bite, but I can say for sure that they are very pleasing.Bookmark here

“Ma’am, this is delicious,” Masashi said after just one bite of the chicken. Mamá smiled at that.Bookmark here

“Why, thank you, dear,” she said.Bookmark here

“Mm,” was all I could say in agreement through a mouthful of food, nodding to get the point across.Bookmark here

“You know, Sara,” Mamá said. “Since you all seem to love it so much, I could teach you how to make it yourself.” Uh-oh. Very clear implications there: in case you ever wanted to make it for him.Bookmark here

“No thanks, Mamá,” I said after managing to swallow my food. “You know I’m a complete disaster in the kitchen.”Bookmark here

“That’s very true,” Padre said, chuckling as he directed his attention toward Masashi. “Did we ever tell you about the time she set the kitchen on fire?”Bookmark here

“No, what?!” Masashi’s face lit up as he leaned in, eager to hear this new story.Bookmark here

“Padre, please!” I said, cutting him off before he could delve into that tale. That was something I had tried to forget about. Long story short, about a year before I met Masashi, I was trying really hard to be the perfect little daughter and thought I could surprise my parents by making dinner myself. The fire department showed up an hour later. I stopped Padre from saying anything not because I didn’t want to share with Masashi this embarrassing anecdote of mine—in fact, if he asked in private later, I’d be glad to share. Rather, I stopped him out of principle: it wasn’t his place to share that stuff, and I didn’t want either of them to know how comfortable I actually was sharing stuff like that with him.Bookmark here

“Sorry, sorry,” Padre said, holding up his open palms in a gesture of surrender, though for someone who was sorry he sounded a bit too amused. “I just can’t help myself sometimes.”Bookmark here

“Be that as it may,” Mamá spoke up, commanding everyone’s attention. Once there was quiet, she smiled and turned to me. “I understand your reluctance, Sara. But you know, it could come in handy.”Bookmark here

“I’ll… I’ll think about it,” I said.Bookmark here

“Sure, okay! And don’t worry, no pressure, it’s a standing offer. If you ever want to give it a go, just let me know.”Bookmark here

“I’ll keep that in mind.” After that, the topics of conversation turned more normal. Padre ranted about yet another awful day at work, about some people being late with shipments and some new hires spilling paint everywhere and a bunch of other stuff that sounded very not-fun to deal with. Masashi and I were asked about how school was going and Masashi, bless him, was able to steal the show for a while, talking in detail about some of the writing projects he and his classmates were working on while somehow managing to avoid rubbing up against any Catholic sensibilities. But on the flip side, by doing all that, he was also inadvertently setting me up. See, now I couldn’t just get away with a simple response like “yeah, class is going well.” No, now I’ve got to tell them stories of my own.Bookmark here

“So what about you, Sara?” Mamá asked once Masashi was done. “What have you been up to?”Bookmark here

“Well,” I said, hardly able to believe that I had already committed to what I was about to do. Or maybe I was just morbidly curious about what their reaction would be—though I already had some idea. Let it not be said that I don’t follow my own rules. They want a story? I’ll give them a story, and I’ll tell it true. “A couple weeks back, a guy in my class asked me out, and I turned him down.”Bookmark here

Oh, that was bad timing on my part. I hadn’t realized Mamá was still drinking wine from her glass. She let out a string of curses as she flew from the table to grab a hand towel with which to clean up the mess; meanwhile, Padre had some goofy expression stuck to his face, a sort of wide-eyed half grin like he had just seen a streaker jump across the table. Masashi just raised an eyebrow at me, asking with just a glance if I was sure I wanted to do this. And yes, I was quite sure.Bookmark here

“Well, don’t leave us hanging!” Padre said, coming out of his seconds-long coma to press me. “Out with it, then! I want to know everything!” And so, for what I believe was the third time in two days, I recounted everything that went down with Stephen, though for Mamá and Padre in particular, I did leave out a few extra details. I didn’t tell them the real reason I said no, obviously, but I also told them that we had just met up to work on a class project, and not a personal one. Somehow, I got the sense that they wouldn’t exactly approve of that use of my downtime. Admittedly, there’s a chance I’m wrong on that, but it didn’t seem like the time to test that theory. Regardless, once I finished talking, the two seemed to have enough to digest as it was.Bookmark here

“Good Lord,” Mamá said. “How many does that make now?” And as soon as she said that, Padre burst out laughing. Yeah, those reactions track. Like I said, Stephen wasn’t the first guy I’d rejected, and what’s more, the both of them knew. I’d tried not to make a habit of telling them every time it happened, but one way or another they usually ended up finding out anyway, and experience told me that the best way to rip off that bandage was to do it myself.Bookmark here

“That’s my girl!” Padre said, clasping my shoulder and giving me a rough shake, and for once, the smile I flashed back to him was genuine. Concerned as they were about my getting hitched, Padre at least always seemed to be amused whenever I brought home a story like this. Of equal importance to him, I figure, is getting married to the right man; and so, if his precious little girl turned a guy down, clearly he was the wrong one for her. “That discerning eye of yours at work, eh? No need to feel bad about that, I tell you! I trust you’ll know the right one when you see him.”Bookmark here

“Honestly, Sara,” Mamá said, always with the differing opinion. “I don’t see why you have to be so picky about this. I mean, you won’t know if you can love them until you give them a go, right? Why not chance it once in a while? Love’s something you gotta work for and earn, you can’t hope to just stumble into it. Why, your father asked me out five times before I agreed, and look where we are now. He was persistent, and that’s why you’re here now.”Bookmark here

“Earn?” I said. That wasn’t the first time Mamá had regurgitated some such sentiment, and while usually I kept my mouth shut, with how lively and friendly the atmosphere was at the table that night, I for once felt emboldened to press her. “I don’t know, Mamá, I don’t think that’s quite right.”Bookmark here

“What do you mean?” The way Mamá looked up at me with her squinted eyes and slumped shoulders, she looked genuinely confused and maybe even a little surprised. I couldn’t blame her—until then, I had very deliberately made a habit of not questioning her.Bookmark here

“What I mean is, well…” How best to approach this? I could just jump straight to the point, but perhaps the example staring her in the face would be easier to understand. “What about me? What did I do to earn your love?”Bookmark here

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, you’re my daughter.”Bookmark here

“Exactly. I haven’t done anything for you, I’m just your kid. All I do is live and exist under your roof. What part of that is ‘earning love?’”Bookmark here

“Well…” Mamá shook her head, clearly not getting it. “What’s your point?”Bookmark here

“I guess it’s that I’ve done nothing to earn your love, you just do love me, and that’s okay and normal, right? Love isn’t something you should have to work for, it’s something that’s given and received without a second thought.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know,” Mamá said, shrugging. “That just sounds naïve and idealistic. Like from a fairy tale.”Bookmark here

“Well, you know what?” Padre interjected. “Maybe there’s some truth in what Sara’s saying.” I could hardly believe my ears, and apparently neither could Mamá, because both of us simultaneously raised our eyebrows at him in such an alike manner that it would be impossible to argue that we weren’t blood related. Padre’s attention, however, was planted firmly on Mamá. “Because when I first met you, my dear, I knew right away that that woman right there, that’s the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. And people told me I was crazy, but I’m sure you know better than anyone that didn’t stop me.” Padre reached over and took Mamá’s hand in his; she was tearing up and could hardly bear to look him in the eye. After giving her a smile, he turned his attention back to me. “Granted, I had to work my ass off to get her to see things my way, but I got there in the end. But who knows? Maybe you won’t have to do the same. Maybe you will find a man you can freely give your love to and he’ll give it freely back to you in turn.” And then, he leaned in close to whisper something in my ear:Bookmark here

“And maybe that man is sitting right next to you, eh?”Bookmark here

I didn’t let my annoyance show as he leaned back into his seat and I gave him a smile. That had been so sweet, right up until that very last moment. No Padre, no matter how much you wish it, Masashi and I will never marry.Bookmark here

But I have to admit, his unusual show of support was otherwise touching.Bookmark here

Once dinner was over and Masashi had said his goodbyes, I retreated into my room and spent the last few hours of the day working through assignments on paper and through my own thoughts in my head. Dinner had been a bittersweet reminder that yes, Mamá and Padre do indeed love me. Not that I’ve ever completely forgotten, but sometimes, through the fear, it’s hard to remember. And to be honest, Mamá’s remarks just might have stoked my fears further. If love if something you work for, then I couldn’t be sure she would love me. Because just who is it that she loves? Supposedly she loves Sara Caballero, her daughter, but the Sara Caballero she knows doesn’t really exist. That Sara Caballero is just a mask, a front I put on to prevent her from discovering the truth. And what if she does find out that truth? What if she gets to know her daughter for who she truly is? If love is something she cannot freely give, will she love me when she learns I’m a “sinner?”Bookmark here

These questions I know must one day be answered, and some part of me felt that day was fast approaching. And I feared that day coming, because I felt it all too likely that the answer to that last question would be “no.”Bookmark here

I want them to love me, I do. How could I not? I love them, conscious as I am of the possibility that their love is conditional. I could make do with their current love, conflicted as it makes me feel, and as angry as they sometimes otherwise make me. Because at the end of the day, it’s clear that they want the best for me, even if their idea of what’s best for me is horribly outdated and wrong. But I can’t hold back the truth, not forever. Their love will be tested when I show them mine, and I can only hope that they show theirs to be true.Bookmark here

#Bookmark here

Oh, and as for my bookstore purchases? Suffice to say, after I head two distinct sets of snores echoing from the other side of the hallway, I had a very good time that night indeed.
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