Let's Make Love Bloom
This was way too early for any sane human to be awake.
The text I had received from June in response to my confirmation was: “gr8! pik u up @ 7?” And my dumb ass had responded “sure” before thinking about it. It was only immediately after sending that text that I realized: oh God, I’m going to have to get up really early to get ready, and it’s going to suck.
Let me tell you something about me. Some of the best parts of my life? Sleeping in ‘til noon on Saturdays. Between all the schoolwork keeping me busy throughout the week and being forced to get up early on Sundays to go to church, Saturday was my only respite. And I’d just agreed to throw that peaceful Saturday morning away in favor of a long car ride. Oh, woe was me.
But it was fine, I told myself, absolutely fine. The sacrifice was in service of a just cause. I could live with that just fine.
I’d set my alarm for six on the dot to give myself plenty of time to get ready—shower, breakfast, all that jazz. And then I heard that damn alarm go off and slammed that snooze button by pure instinct. By the time I looked up again, half an hour had already passed.
“Crap,” I muttered to myself as I scrambled to get ready. Luckily, last night I had been more present and forward-thinking. I’d already packed my bag with the bare essentials: a change of clothes and some toiletries. With that taken care of, I took the fastest shower I’d ever taken in my life—I timed it, six minutes and forty-two seconds—threw on some light casual clothes, grabbed my bag, and hurried out to the living room, fully intent on slapping together the easiest breakfast I could before heading out.
And there was Mamá in the kitchen, having already assembled for me a full breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, sliced fruit, and a glass of milk.
“Oh, wow,” I said as I sat down at the kitchen counter to eat. “Thank you, Mamá.”
“Don’t eat too fast and choke,” she said dryly as she prepared a smaller plate for herself.
“I didn’t even know you were awake.” My words may or may not have been muffled from a mouthful of food.
“What can I say? I’m good at my job.” That job? Being a mom. Can’t say I disagree. She might be getting higher marks on her next performance assessment. “And how about you? You sure you’re awake?”
“Mostly there.” She knew I wasn’t a morning person, but give me some credit: I had something to look forward to that got me moving and active.
“Well… good.” She turned away and right then I could tell: she was holding herself back, keeping something bottled up. She wanted to protest, wanted me to stay, but knew she had already lost that battle. And being able to revel in the knowledge that I had won? I’m not going to lie, it felt good. I wasn’t about to press her on it for fear of escalating things, but still. This was what it felt like to be free, to be me. I could get used to this feeling.
And then I looked at her again and saw anew that worry, that fear in her eyes. Why was it that she didn’t want to let go? Was she just as paranoid as I could be? Was it not having control that bothered her, or did she genuinely fear for my safety? Maybe she really was convinced that I would get hurt if she wasn’t always around to protect me. Isn’t that a parent’s job, after all? Maybe she really was just trying to be good at her job. Maybe I’m the one being selfish here. Maybe—
No. No, Mamá. You are not going to guilt trip me out of this. No way in hell.
“I’m going to be fine, Mamá,” I said, and that was honestly the best I could offer her. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
“You know I can’t help it,” she said, not turning around to face me.
And there was nothing else to say. I continued to eat breakfast in silence until my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a text from June; she had arrived and was keeping the car warm outside.
“She’s here,” I said, scooping up my bag as I got to my feet. “Gotta go. Love you.”
“Take care,” Mamá said, though my back was already to her as I made my way out the front door. I felt the smallest of pangs reverberate in my heart as the door closed behind me, but I didn’t let myself linger on that feeling as I made my way out toward the street.
A car far newer than any I had ever set foot in was waiting on the curb: sleek, jet black paint, and a curvy design that suddenly made me understand why dudes insist on referring to their vehicles with female pronouns. I knew jack about cars, so for all I knew this could’ve been a top of the line sports car or the average modern model. Still, it was leagues above everything I’d ever known.
And then there was the interior.
As I approached, the passenger door opened; June had leaned over from the driver’s seat to push it open, and even before I got a good look at her, I almost started salivating over the car’s insides. Cushy seats with a leather finish, a dashboard with not just a radio but a tablet programmed with digital music stations; if I didn’t know any better, I’d think this girl was rich. She was certainly better off than my family, that’s for sure.
“Nice ride,” I said as I lowered myself into the passenger seat; it was soft like a cloud.
“Thanks,” June said. “Been saving since I was sixteen and could get a job. Took stock of my financials last month and realized I could finally afford the monthly loan payments and got this. Yep, she’s a beaut.”
Having gotten over my bedazzlement at the car, I was finally able to focus on the driver. Today, June had a much more outdoors-adventure vibe going on: her hair was pulled back in a braid, and she was wearing white slacks and a light tank top under a striped purple plaid shirt. In short, she looked nice. She smiled at me as we made eye contact, and then her gaze darted over my shoulder and narrowed.
“So that’s her, huh?” I turned to follow June’s gaze. Mamá was standing in the doorway, waving. I waved back, conscious that I was displaying courtesy toward the woman for whom my date likely harbored some animosity. “Still living with her?”
“Haven’t had much ability to move out.”
“Huh.” Probably realizing she shouldn’t stick around lest Mamá decide to come over and introduce herself, June put the car in drive and started pulling out into the street. A good thing, too: while I was fairly sure Mamá had no idea what June from eighth grade had looked like, I couldn’t be one hundred percent certain that she hadn’t found out somehow and would see the resemblance in present-day Juniper. Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past her.
“Put it this way,” I said. “If I’d been able to work since sixteen like you, I would’ve been out of here by now.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Yep.” I glanced back at Mamá one last time as we rounded a corner and turned off the street. She was still waving.
As excited as I was about the trip, I was also apprehensive. Because we weren’t just heading to any old Orlando amusement park at any old time of the year, no. We were heading to Universal Studios on Halloween, which meant that the parks had season appropriate attractions set up. In other words, that meant scary times. Which was fine by me; I’ve gotten more than my share of thrills from horror movies, and the chance to go to an event where stuff like that plays out right in front of you sounded cool. You could call it an odd choice for a girls’ night out, but the theme really didn’t bother me. The only real concern I had, still, was the money.
“Question: did you buy the passes?” I asked as she drove. We were on the interstate by this point and well on our way to Orlando. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to come along, but, like, aren’t they really expensive? I just feel kind of bad about you spending all this money on me.” At that, June laughed and shook her head.
“Going to be one hundred percent honest with you,” she said. “I did buy them, but I’d already bought them before we met. Well, met again. I’ve had these for like, months in advance. Originally I thought it was going to be me and Olivia, but then, well, you know. We’ve done this event before and it’s more my thing then hers, but, point is, I already had these tickets because I was planning to go anyway and I love going.
“And as for why I thought to bring you along? One dating philosophy of mine is… well, aside from Nina and that one creep I haven’t actually dated all that much, so I guess it’s more a theory? Anyway, the idea I’ve got stuck in my head is that when you start dating, you should try to get all the weird stuff about yourself out of the way first, that way there’s no surprises later down the line, and if your partner isn’t put off by the weird stuff, then you’re off to a solid start. So this is my weird thing: I’m really into horror.”
“That’s what you think is weird about yourself? That would put someone off from liking you?”
“You haven’t seen my DVD collection. What I’m saying is, stick around me long enough and you’re going to see human bodies torn apart in ways more gruesome than you can imagine.”
“That sounds like a challenge to me.”
“Think you can handle it?”
“I think I’m willing to find out.” In truth, that did have me apprehensive. I wasn’t squeamish about horror in general, but I had been known to get nauseous from excessive gore from time to time. Still, I didn’t think it anything to be weirded out by, and it certainly didn’t make me think less of June to know that she was into that stuff.
“Great, I’m glad to hear it,” June said, nodding. “Alright, your turn. What’s weird about you?”
“I mean, you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but, you know, it’d only be fair.”
“Hm.” I paused to think. She did have a point, and I did want to be more open with her than I had been in my life in general, but…
“Look, if that makes you uncomfortable, I get it,” June said, interrupting my thought process. As she spoke, she pulled into the left lane and sped over the speed limit to pass some slow poke that had been obstructing our progress. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m just trying to get to know you better, is all.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said. The road ahead was open, and June was free to press the pedal to the floor. Though it might have under other circumstances, the speed did not bother me. “I’m just trying to think… what’s weird about me that I could share? Like, you already know the biggest secret in my life that I can’t be open about with my family, that I could only share with a handful of friends. After that, any other thing that you could call a secret is pretty tame in comparison.”
“Oh.” June returned to the middle lane and let the excess speed taper off. “But you do have other things you could call a ‘secret,’ right?”
“I guess, yeah.”
“Well then, tell me about those.”
“Alright,” I said, shrugging. I thought about the other secrets I could share, and I could only come up with two big ones: my bookstore excursions with Masashi and my game. And given that we were nowhere near the point in our relationship where I would be comfortable talking to her about the smut I buy or anything remotely in that territory, that really only left one option.
The next several minutes of the drive were spent with me telling June all about the game I’d been working on—all the time I’d spent coding, the collaborating with Stephen and Romana, the testing, and by the end of my little ramble I had worked myself up enough that, for how excitable I came off as, I might’ve been a kid excited about her first trip to a theme park. And in a very real sense I was, though that fact had slipped my mind the deeper I got into my talk.
“So yeah,” I said once I was done. That’s probably the biggest, dorkiest thing in my life right now. Definitely a little weird, right?”
“No, not…” June started, then trailed off. “Well yeah, a little. I never got much into games myself so I’d be lying if I said I get it, but it’s cool to see you all excited about it.”
“Hey, now I’m curious. What made you want to do that in the first place?”
“Oh, right.” That was a question I’d thought a lot about myself, and while I’d never quite put it into words before, talking to June made my feelings easier to articulate. “It’s the one thing in my life I have any real control over. Even the people who I get to help make stuff for it, it’s only with my say so. Every other part of my life feels so controlled, restricted. This is the one thing that gets to be wholly mine.” Even I noticed that by the time I finished speaking then, my tone had mellowed out, though I couldn’t say why. When I finished speaking, June whistled.
“Damn. I guess everyone needs their creative outlets.”
“You could say that, yeah.”
“Say, Sara?” June’s usually light tone faded; her slow enunciation reflected a real concern. “Is… is everything okay at home?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry if I’m overstepping, but… it doesn’t sound like you’re happy there.”
“I’m not, no.” That was obvious enough, and I didn’t see what the big deal was about saying it out loud.
“Then, why stay?”
Why indeed? “I’ve just never been able to leave.”
“Is that it? Are you sure?”
“…I don’t know.” That wasn’t it, was it? They’d held me back from doing things for so long, but the very fact that I was here in this car with June meant that they couldn’t do that anymore. I could go get my license if I wanted, go get a job, go move out, and they couldn’t stop me. I’m a woman grown, and I can do whatever the hell I want.
So why don’t I? Why do I still feel trapped at home?
…No. Why do I still trap myself?
Deep down I knew the answer, and for a long time I’ve been avoiding thinking about it, but right then it couldn’t help but come to the surface. Intentionally or not, June had dragged it out of me. And now I couldn’t help but drown in the truth.
“Because I don’t want them to hate me.”
“Oh, shit!” June turned into the curb and stopped the car before turning to face me. “Sara, what’s wrong?!” She threw open the glove compartment, pulled out some tissues, and offered them to me, and it was only then that I realized I was crying.
No, I wasn’t just crying. I was sobbing.
“I want them to love me and I’m afraid,” I said after I blew my nose; I’m not sure she understood a word I said, garbled as my speech was. “I’m just so afraid. They’re my parents and I love them, I can’t help it, but just being around them is like driving a knife through my heart because I know the second I let my mask slip and they see the real me they’ll reject me, call me a sinner and throw me out and I don’t want that! I don’t want that! I try to be good, and I avoid them when lying feels too hard, but then I feel like I’m pushing them away when I want to pull them in, but if I pull them too close then… then…” And I couldn’t speak anymore. I just melted into a pile of sobbing goo, the only thing assuring me that I was still whole was the warm arm falling over my shoulders.
I don’t remember much of the rest of the car trip over. Maybe that’s because there wasn’t that much distance left to cover anyway, but regardless, the next thing I knew, we had arrived at a parking garage just outside the park. June was talking—I think she was saying something but checking in at the hotel later that evening, but I hardly heard her. My eyes wandered outside, glazing over the concrete walls and ceiling as droves of tourists walked past, already out of their cars and on their way to have the time of their lives. Me, meanwhile? I couldn’t seem to drag myself out of my head, much less a car.
“I’m sorry,” I said, the first coherent sentence I’d been able to form since I’d broken down a while back.
“What for?” June asked.
“For being such a mess. We were supposed to have a fun weekend, and here I am dumping all my emotional garbage on you. I’ve ruined everything.”
“No you haven’t,” June said, reassuring me with a smile. “Come on, just look at the time.” I glanced over at the dashboard—10:00 AM. “You see? Far as I’m concerned, our weekend hasn’t even started. You haven’t ruined anything. Come on, let’s go have some fun.” With that, June hopped out of the car. Not wanting to make things worse than I already had, after taking a deep breath, I followed her lead. With the car locked behind us, June took my hand and led me forward as we followed the crowds of tourists into the parks proper, taking escalators out of the garage and moving walkways across bridges. On one such walkway, June’s grip on my hand tightened.
“So listen,” she said, and from the noise of all the people bustling around us and my own anxiety listening was no easy task, but I strained myself to hang onto every word. “I’m sorry you’re having to go through all of that. Believe me, I know how hard it is. And I’m not going to lie and tell you that it’s all going to be okay, because I just don’t know that. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t know what to do about it. But I do know this: this is your chance to forget about it, just for a little bit. Put it all out of your mind and for once in your life, let yourself live stress-free, guilt-free. Let’s just have fun today, okay? Let’s just focus on that.”
I looked over at her, and though she was the shorter one of us, I felt as though I was looking up at her. Her hand, gripping mine, was impossibly warm; with her there, I felt like I could press on.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”
And I didn’t just try—I succeeded.
That day ended up being, with no exaggeration, the single best Saturday of my life. We ended up doing so much that if I were to try to go through it all, it would take hours. But man, did we enjoy ourselves. We rode as many of the regular attractions as were still open for the season during the day, only stopping for lunch around midafternoon. We both had a good laugh when June’s braid came undone on one of the coasters, some of her hair flying right into my mouth. Over lunch, I ended up giving myself one of those milkshake moustaches by complete accident, and soda ended up going right up June’s nostrils when she saw it and snorted while laughing.
And then nighttime rolled around, and the haunted houses opened.
With how much I screamed, more so from excitement and adrenaline than actual terror, it’s a damn miracle I didn’t lose my voice that night. Between all the artificial ambient fog, costumed employees jumping out from behind corners, and the various animatronic frights in all the houses, our hearts were constantly beating like we were running a marathon, and at some point we started clutching and clinging to each other and didn’t let go. At some point, the line between thrills and excitement and genuine fear blurred to the point of being indistinguishable, but by the time it blurred I had ceased to care. Because facing all of those fears was, somehow, exhilarating and cathartic. It allowed me to forget my own and indulge in the sensation of “surviving” nightmarish scenarios far beyond my imagination, things that made any fears in everyday life seem petty in comparison. Of course, at the end of the day it was all very fake, but experiencing it in the moment, the artificiality never bothered me. I just lived those fears and came out the other end okay, and maybe, just maybe, that sort of experience was exactly what I needed.
We finally ended up checking in to the hotel at one in the morning. I was surprised the staff let us in that late—or early? But then, they must get a lot of our types, given the town. After walking around all day we were completely exhausted, myself especially. I’d never spent a whole day on my feet like that, and my legs felt ready to detach from my body. As soon as we were in the room, I collapsed right onto one of the twin beds, and the last thing I remember before drifting off to sleep was a warm whisper in my ear:
“Sweet dreams, Sara.”
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