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love me (for what might or might not be)

Chapter Text

 

Prologue

 

 

 

 

I loved and guessed at you, you construed me

And loved me for what might or might not be –

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It was curious, when you thought about it, how Juliana and Valentina hadn't talked about how old they were until well into their friendship.

They'd talked about everything under the sun, from their favorite designers to their favorite foods, the fact that neither of them liked Futból and how they both wanted to travel to India at some point, and ride an elephant. Juliana knew Valentina had been scared of the dark until she was 11 years old, and Valentina knew Juliana had always preferred the dark, the quiet of the night. They'd realized they were as similar in some things as they were diametrically opposed in others.

And that they fit. 

Juliana was comfortable silences when Valentina didn't feel like talking, comforting quiet while she vented about her friends and boyfriend and let herself finally talk about her father without being judged for it. Valentina felt jittery inside a good part of the time, filled to the brim with feeling and about to explode, and Juliana was stability. Juliana was sweet in her own way, and looked at her in a way nobody had before. Not her family, who saw her like a child still, or her friends, who thought she was vapid and her brain was empty. Juliana saw beyond all that.

As steady as the night, with eyes just as lovely and dark. 

Interestingly enough, for Juliana, Valentina was like the sun. She was warmth, kisses on the cheek after an hour of knowing her, a hand on her lower back or an arm hooked with hers as they walked through the park. Juliana had never had girlfriends -apart from her mother, few people had made a habit of hugging her.Valentina had within a day of meeting her. And Juliana craved Valentina's touch, which felt like sunlight on her skin. Being with her felt like parting rainclouds, like a weight was being lifted off her shoulders as she was finally able and willing to laugh, to giggle like a child, without the fear of her father hearing her and raging. 

Valentina's eyes were the color of the sky, and Juliana thought that was fitting, since being with her felt like flying. 

Those feelings grew quickly in both of their hearts, wrapping like vines around both of their ribcages without the other girl being aware of it. It was the purest of friendships; love, beginning to bloom. And they'd never mentioned their ages, or their birthdays. Life was odd like that.  (Valentina, for example, knew she was falling for Juliana long before she knew the other girl's middle name -or lack thereof. Juliana lost her virginity to Valentina before she knew the other girl's middle name-which was Leonor. But that came later.)

In fact, the first time they learned that basic detail-how long they'd been on this earth- they'd already spent two weeks hanging out, growing closer with each passing day. 

They were in Valentina's room, when the woman in question mentioned it casually.

"We've been on and off since I was twenty," Valentina said, talking about her relationship with Lucho. "It's been so long now I don't know if we're together by habit or if there's something there."

But it wasn't the comment about the boyfriend that Valentina seemed to love rather little that made Juliana stop, her hand halfway to her mouth, a few fries held in her fingers. 

"Twenty? And how old are you now?" she asked. 

"Twenty-three," Valentina answered.

"Twenty three?!"

Valentina laughed.

"Wait, how old are you?" she asked in turn. 

"Eighteen," Juliana answered. 

Valentina peeled her eyes.

"No way," she said. 

"Yes, way. How old did you think I was?!" Juliana asked.

"I don't know," Valentina said, laughing. "My age more or less!"

"Well, I thought the exact same thing," Juliana said, and then they both laughed.

And that's where the subject ended. Because, what did it matter if Valentina was 5 years older than Juliana? They got along very well, and they laughed a lot together, and besides, there was no proper age to make friends. Valentina was her only friend in that new city, in that new country, so similar and yet different to the United States, to her native Texas. 

Of course,what they had didn't stay a friendship for long. 

Before they knew it, they fell in love. They kissed in a pool, surrounded by floating rose petals. They kissed in other places.They had sex. (Juliana's first time having sex, in fact. And Valentina's first time making love.) They broke up. They made mistakes.They got back together, eventually. They realized that their parents had transmigrated. They saw Valentina's sister taken to jail. They saw Valentina's brother swept away on a long vacation. 

So many things happened that their age was never discussed, except in the first dinner they had with Guille and his girlfriend Renata, the night before he was to leave on his round-the-world trip.

"And are you in college, Juliana?" Guille asked, making polite conversation. Juliana could tell he'd been trained to do so, the same way Valentina couldn't leave an elevator without wishing everybody in it a nice day. 

"Or do you work?" Renata helpfully added. Juliana had noticed the woman was more on her level, so to speak, than on Guille's and Valentina's, and it was comfortable, talking to her. But they were both wrong.

"No. Well, I worked as a waitress for a while there, but now I'm finishing my senior year."

"Of high school?" Guille asked.

"Hey," Renata chided him. "Everyone does things in their own time." She directed a smile at Juliana, and though she was thankful for the support, Renata had it wrong. Juliana shook her head. This was her time.

"I'm eighteen."

Guille raised his eyebrows, the surprise evident in his face. It lasted a minute before he turned to look at Valentina.

"My little sister, the craddle robber," he said, and the table exploded in laughter.

Juliana had felt a bit uncomfortable, but she hadn't said anything. After all, it was a joke. Valentina was laughing, and she didn't want her to stop. So she kept quiet. 

It didn't matter. She wasn't some innocent child, and Valentina had never taken advantage of her. Even Juliana's own mother hadn't objected to their relationship after finding out how old Val was. (She had already accepted that her daughter was gay, what did it matter if she was dating a 23-year-old woman?) Nobody had said anything, and Juliana hadn't given it more than a passing thought, either, and then, it hadn't been an obstacle. It comforted her, in a way. She'd always been thankful when Valentina took charge of things, when she could trust her to be the one who knew what she was doing. Juliana had been the responsible one for so long, having to be strong for her mom and strong enough not to fall apart under her father's steel grip, that it was a relief.

In Valentina's case, she'd actually never thought about Juliana's age at all. In so many ways, Juliana was more mature than her. She'd been forced to see the ugliness of the world firsthand, had felt it in her own skin in the form of being doused in gasoline, as she later told Valentina El Alacrán and his men had done to her. She'd had to work, where Valentina never had to worry about such things. She'd even lived on her own, although briefly. Age meant nothing to her. Lucho was her age, and that hardly mattered when he behaved like a spoiled child. Juliana held her together when she broke apart, stoic and strong, it hardly seemed like she was a high school student. So she simply didn't think about it, and when her brother made a joke, she laughed. 

The difference was nothing.

In the grand scheme of things, 5 years didn't even matter. 

In fact, they didn't even mention it again until years later. 3 years later, to be exact, in the middle of one of the worst discussions they'd ever had.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

"I'm almost thirty years old!" Valentina exclaimed. 

"You're twenty-six" Juliana retorted, following her through the apartment. When Valentina was angry, she liked to pace, and Juliana was struggling to keep up with her girlfriend, who was all legs. 

"Exactly! Almost thirty!"

Juliana rolled her eyes, but she refrained from calling Val exaggerated. That wouldn't end well for her. It already wasn't going well, as Valentina's yells echoed inside the apartment. Juliana was thankful they had a loft. At least they wouldn't have to apologize to neighbors upset about the scandal.

"Well, I'm twenty-one!" Juliana exclaimed. "Back in Texas I would just be allowed to drink for the first time, and you want me to have children!"

"I didn't say that, but it's something we have to sit down and talk about."

And again with that.

Valentina had always liked babies, Juliana knew that. There was no child who looked at her that she wouldn't stick her tongue out for to make them laugh. But since Lucía and León's babygirl had been born, Valentina hadn't stopped talking about it. Of the future, their future. Val wanted to be a mom, that was pretty clear to Juliana. And Juliana did nothing but avoid the subject every time it came up.

It felt like a hand grabbing her neck and squeezing hard every time Val tried to talk about it.

"We've been together for three years," Valentina said, with a tired, exhausted tone that Juliana had seldom heard. 

"And during the first few months people kidnapped us both, after our parents transmigrated to other bodies," Juliana said. It never sounded less insane, no matter how many times she said it. "Your dad lives in my dad's body, Val, how crazy is that?"

Valentina snorted.

"That is no excuse for-"

"Why can't we take things slowly?" Juliana insisted.

"How much slower do you want them? Every time I bring up the subject, you say it's too soon. I don't want to have children tomorrow, but I want to know it's a possibility"

"What if it isn't ?!" Juliana exclaimed. Valentina stopped short, the tips of her ears red, the way they always got when she was mad. Juliana had always found it funny, and it had ended more than one fight the fact that she needed to touch them. It made Val laugh.

Now, it seems like nothing could make her smile again. 

"What do you mean?" she asked quietly, and Juliana swallowed. It's what she'd never allowed herself to say, what she'd been putting off and locking up deep inside herself so she wouldn't have to deal with it. 

"What if I don't want to have children?" she asked finally. Valentina's eyes watered.

"Juls..."

"I have no idea how to be a good mother, and I won't have children to ruin their lives like El Chino ruined mine."

Valentina stares at her, blinking. Juliana feels her hands itch with the desire to touch her, to apologize for herself in the only way she knows how -a kiss, a caress. It's easier to talk now, but she still doesn't entirely like it. And that is just more proof of how messed up her childhood was. She couldn't play outside very often, because her mother worried about her. She couldn't play inside, because it bothered El Chino, especially if he'd been drinking. She wasn't supposed to talk back, and she seldom told her mother the way she felt. She had nobody else to talk to. It wasn't easy, to talk.

At first, she couldn't even tell Valentina 'I love you' back through the phone. It felt like peeling her skin away, leaving her vulnerable and open. How could she take care of something equally as vulnerable?

"Is that why you've been avoiding the subject?" Valentina said softly, taking a step closer. Her tone changed, the understanding that she felt she didn't deserve appearing bright and clear. "Juls...we're going to be different."

But it wasn't because of that. At least, not completely. She simply did not imagine herself as a mother, responsible for another life. She didn't imagine herself married. Couldn't. Many things had changedin her life since her dad died and transmigrated, but not that.

"I don't want to have a family, I've never wanted it," she told Valentina, hoping her words wouldn't hurt. Val put a hand to her chest, and approached her little by little.

"Am I not your family?" She asked in a thin voice, tremolous like a river.

"You're my girlfriend, that's different."

"I won't be your girlfriend forever," Val told her. "Or do not you want to get married?"

Juliana's silence spoke for her.

Valentina ran her fingers through her hair. If possible, Juliana felt the air even more tense than before.

"We're fine the way we are," she said quietly. She didn't want Valentina to explode. Even worse, she didn't want her to burst into tears. That would break her, and they wouldn't get anywhere. I don't understand why you want to change things."

Val snorted, the rough and hard sound breaking the air in front of her. 

"Change things...? I'm telling you that when I see you, I see my future wife, the mother of my children ... and you say that I want to change things," she sounded so disbelieving Juliana regretted her choice of words. "That 'we're fine as we are!" Val bit her lip. "Amazing," she whispered. "Just great."

In the blink of an eyes she put on her sneakers, and took her car keys from their spot, next to Juliana's.

"Where are you going?" Juliana asked. Valentina walked by in front of her and didn't spare her a look.

"Why do you care?"

"Valentina..."

"I'm going to my dad's," Valentina said. "To have lunch with him and Lucía and to seee the baby." Valentina turned around. Her blue eyes were alight, like the dancing flame of a match when it has just been lit. "Is that enough or do you want a run down of my schedule? I could ask Chivis for the menu too and text it to you."

Juliana rolled her eyes.

"I can't talk to you when you get like this," she said. She understood the importance of what Valentina wanted to talk about, but it wasn't the right time. What was the point of talking about things that were light years away?

Valentina stared at her, incredulous.

"When I get like this?" Val repeated her words. She huffed. "Go to hell, Juls."

The sound of the door slamming closed made Juliana cringe.

She debated between following Val and letting her go. She knew they weren't going to get anywhere talking now, in the middle of words hurled like plates, in anger. But she didn't want Valentina driving in that state. She decided to call her, although she doubted she would answer the phone.

But her cell phone rang inside the apartment.

Juliana grabbed it, and decided to follow Val and return it. Regardless of how angry they were, they lived together. They always told each other where they were going to be or if they were going to be home late, or if they weren't sleeping at home that night -even if it was with nothing but a text, like when they were angry. Juliana pulled on her ankle boots, only to realize they were Valentina's, actually. They were close enough in size that they shared shoes, too, on top of clothes. Juliana smiled faintly, even as her heart squeezed inside her chest. 

She wanted this part to be over. She hated fighting with Valentina.

She grabbed her car keys, willing to drive over to the Carvajal mansion if Val had left already. 

She was in the middle of closing the door, when Val's phone vibrated, a text message coming in. The screen lit up, and she read it. It was only human, only natural that she'd look. It was from Guille, and it said: "Have you talked to Juliana?"

Juliana frowned. She hated being that way, but she always doubted people's intentions. Valentina had been the only person to get inside her walls, and so far, she was the only one burrowed that deep inside, apart from her own mother. She couldn't help it. She lived the first 18 years of her life under the same roof with a murderer, and she had no idea. She was hardwired to be suspicious of everyone now. 

So distrust hit her like a punch upon reading Guille's words.

They were friends, or something like it. He would always greet her with a short hug and a kiss to her cheek, a "mi cuñada favorita" leaving his lips. "I'm the only one you have," Juliana would say. Guille was Val's favorite sibling, and they were close in a way that made Juliana wish she had a sister or a brother, even knowing how downright impossible that would have been growing up, when they could barely afford to keep themselves fed and keep her in school. So she didn't know what the text was about, and it was most likely nothing, but she couldn't help but doubt

She knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't help but unlock the cell phone and enter the chat that Val had with her older brother.

And what she saw left her breathless.

Chapter Text

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Juliana leaned against the wall, her hands slightly shaking as she read the messages over and over again.

Valentina...was going to propose to her?

Her first reaction was elation. All of a sudden, her chest lit up like a christmas tree, the only thought occupying her brain being that Valentina wanted to marry her .  

And then reality set in.

Valentina was planning on proposing to her. She wanted to get married. Juliana’s heart sank as fear descended on her.

She was 21 years old. She couldn’t get married. Her mother had gotten married at 18, and only because she had gotten pregnant with her. Juliana had always known that, growing up. That she was the reason her mother was trapped in a marriage with a man who shoved her around when it pleased him, who slapped Juliana when she misbehaved, and who seemed to care very little about either one of them. But who they were stuck with, because he was her mother’s husband. (And truthfully, she saw him more as Lupe’s husband than as her father. He certainly never treated her like daughter. She was more like a pet -or a pest, actually. A nuisance.)

In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. Her mom had stood by her word. In sickness -that was El Chino’s alcoholism, wasn’t it? And for poorer, they’d definitely done the ‘for poorer’ bit. Lupe had gotten stuck because she’d signed a paper and promised to spend her life by his side. And all because she’d gotten pregnant with her.

Juliana used to wonder, when she was little, if her mom would have been better off getting an abortion. She knew Lupe was too catholic for it, but it would have given her a chance to start over, to find a better man to marry. And back then, Juliana didn’t care whether she existed or not.

She did now, because her life was filled with too many wonderful things she never thought she would ever have. Juliana was nothing like her mother. She had just finished college, when her mom hadn’t finished high school -again, because she’d gotten pregnant with her. But Juliana had finished high-school, at Valentina’s insistence, instead of finding a college that would take her without it.

And then she’d gone to college, and finished it, without flunking a single subject. She finished a 4-year course in 3, and she had a degree under her arm at age 21. Her graduation ceremony had been a scant month ago, and she was still riding that high. She had just started to work under a fantastic Mexican designer to learn the craft before trying to start her own brand. She’d gotten a taste of it a year ago, after winning a national competition. She’d even had Val as one of her models, and she wanted more.

Everything...everything was going incredible. Didn’t Valentina think so? They were just getting used to her new schedule, while Valentina had just gotten out of a desk job at Grupo Carvajal, and she was finally following up on stories in person. They were happy with each other, with their jobs, with their apartment.

Juliana didn’t understand why Val wanted to complicate things.

She was going to ask her to marry her.

The information was difficult to process. But what she did understand now was her girlfriend's insistence on talking about their future, about having children, about moving to a bigger apartment or even a house.

She was planning something that Juliana was not aware of at all.

Tendrils of anger tried to circle her stomach, like they always did when she was confused, when she felt lost or out of control. She hated feeling that way. Like the world had already decided what her role to play would be, and she was just a puppet, helpless to stop it. She’d never felt that way because of Valentina.

Juliana couldn’t imagine married life. Even the name made her panic. She had literally just finished college, a month ago . She’d been working for a week . A single week! It was true that she’d gone through a lot of things for her age- they both had, truth be told -but she didn’t feel ready to be anyone's wife, not even Valentina's.

They asked for pizza at least 3 times a week, and both of them were so bad at doing laundry that from time to time Chivis would come by the apartment to give them hand. How could they get married?

To be honest, Juliana still didn’t feel like an adult.

Or actually, she’d felt and acted like an adult for most of her childhood and teenage years, and then she didn’t have to anymore. After El Chino died and transmigrated, she finally found out what it was like to be a teenager, and she still felt in that stage.

She finished high school through remote learning, and got her degree through the mail, but Valentina made sure to throw her a prom dance so she’d know what it felt like. Juliana even let her spike the punch.

And then she started college, and at last she knew what it was like to have friends, to bring people over to her house, to go to parties. She did everything she couldn’t do before, when she was too concerned with keeping her head down at school, and pretending to be invisible at home. She’d even developed a taste for rum and coke, and she’d gotten drunk a few times, after which Valentina had held her hair while she vomited, whispering " Ya, chiquita, ya."

It had been liberating to be able to have fun without worrying about her mother, or El Chino, or what animal could do something to her if she let her guard down for a second. Valentina didn’t drink if she did, to take care of her. That stage of wanting to go dancing often passed rather quickly -she was built for quiet nights indoors- but she liked the fact that she could do it if she wanted to.

Val had been by her side for everything. Juliana had felt the pleasure of saying "this is my girlfriend" or asking, "can my girlfriend come with us?" Besides, with the amount of gay men studying fashion with her, their relationship didn’t stand out.

They’d moved in together just after she turned 20, and her mom had been worried that she was too young to live with her girlfriend. She hadn’t cared.

Now she wonders if perhaps her mom had been onto something. Because Valentina had been yelling that she was almost 30 years old -which is worth noting, is not true at all- when Juliana didn’t even know what she’d be doing at that age. It was so far away it was hard to even think about.

Suddenly she thought of Valentina's 26 years, and how her college friends-those who had gotten their act together after Lucho's death, at least -were married or engaged. They’d gone to Nayeli's wedding a couple of months ago.

Meanwhile Juliana's friends couldn’t believe that she had a stable, 3 year relationship. They acted like her and Val were an oddity. They were different worlds, and she’d never thought about it. 5 years were nothing. But now she wasn’t so sure.

What if the day her nightmares whispered about had come at last? That day when she was no longer enough for Valentina?

She pressed the power button on Val’s cellphone, wishing she’d never checked it at all. She didn’t know what to do, but she knew she needed to talk to her girlfriend.

She decided to use the stairs to climb down the 5 floors to the parking lot, it would be faster than waiting for the elevator, and moving had always made her feel better. She’d taken up running as a hobby, and even Valentina had understood that it was something she did alone, and she’d never offered to go with her.

Today, it barely made a dent in everything she was feeling.

She hurried, wishing Valentina hadn’t left yet at the same time she hoped she was long gone.

As soon as Juliana entered the parking lot, she saw Valentina's car. She approached it, and what she saw inside broke her heart, and deflated her chest.

Val had her forehead pressed to the wheel of the car, and by the movement of her shoulders Juliana could see that she was bitterly crying.

Juliana tapped lightly on the window, and Valentina jumped. She could indeed see that thick rivulets of tears ran mirror paths down her cheeks. Val had her windows up, so she couldn't hear it, but she saw that her lips formed two words.

"Go away."

 

Juliana didn't move from her place.

Over the years, she had learned that most of the time, when Valentina asked for space, she really wanted the opposite. She wanted her to stay and fight for her. Juliana pointed to the car's latch. Valentina looked at her, sighed, and opened it. Juliana entered the car on the opposite side, and sat in the passenger seat.

Valentina was all red nose and ocean-colored eyes. The image hurt Juliana. Watching Valentina with tears in her eyes was always her undoing. And this time she had caused it.

“I’m sorry,” was the first thing she said. “I’m sorry, Val, forgive me.” She wasn’t quite sure what she was apologizing for, but she felt she needed to, especially when Val’s eyes were so red.

"There's nothing to forgive," Val said in a thin voice. “Not wanting to get married or have children isn’t a bad thing. It’s what you feel. You don’t have to apologize for what you feel.”

Juliana’s heart beat faster.

Valentina's messages with Guille passed behind her eyes. ‘I want a little girl just like her’ Valentina had said. Juliana wondered how she knew she’d read the messages, and then remembered they’d been fighting about the same thing before Valentina had barged out. That fight they’d been having had been pushed so far into the back of her mind she’d almost forgotten about it.

There’s nothing to forgive, Val had said, but she’d been wrong. Juliana's bottom lip trembled, and she forced herself to stay under control. That was her morrita . Infinitely understanding, so good that Juliana knew she didn’t deserve it.

“Val…” She didn’t know what to say first. How could she tell her she knew about the ring?

“I’m only gonna ask you to give me some time to get used to the idea, okay?” Valentina asked softly. “I’d imagined so many things for us and...and nothing. I just have to change my hard drive.”

Juliana frowned. It sounded like Valentina was willing to put aside her wedding plans and her desire for babies, and she didn’t even know that Juliana knew she’d already bought an engagement ring.

“I don’t understand.”

Valentina looked at her.

“We’re a team. If you don’t want those things, what am I gonna do?” Valentina shrugged, as though it was obvious, and Juliana felt lost. It wasn't that simple, it couldn't be. Valentina had her brother keeping a ring she'd bought to propose to her. Valentina wanted to have children with her. How could she give it all up in a split second because she didn't want those things? It didn't make sense. So Juliana said out loud the most obvious second option.

“You could leave me.”

Valentina's eyes grew even brighter, if that was possible.

“Of course not! How could you say something like that?” Val looked genuinely hurt, and it made Juliana’s heart clench inside her chest. She wasn’t worth it.

“You could fall in love with another woman who wants to-”

“You don’t understand, do you? I only want those things because of you!” Val's voice bounced off the windows of the car. She took a deep breath, and wiped her face with her hands. “Lucho... he and I were together almost 2 years and it never crossed my mind to marry him. I never thought about marrying anyone. I never thought about having kids with him, or anyone.” Valentina looked her in the eyes, the piercing blue making her throat close up. “It's you, Juliana. It’s because of you .” Valentina twisted around in her seat, and held Juliana’s face between her hands. “I love you more than anything.”

Juliana felt as if someone was opening her chest with a rusty knife, and digging around her gut. It hurt so badly she couldn’t breathe. Valentina was amazing, and all she did was screw things up. All she did was hurt her.

She needed tell her the truth, what she’d found out, and then abide by the consequences.

But she couldn’t do it.

She held Valentina’s hands against her skin.

“I love you too,” she told her. “More than anything.” Val nodded, pressing her forehead against her. Juliana closed her eyes. She felt so safe here, she always did, from their first kiss in that pool to now. How protected Val made her feel hadn’t changed. She was terrified of ruining that. She shouldn’t have gone digging around on her phone, she shouldn’t have found out what she did, and she doesn’t know what to do now. She shouldn't be so screwed up that she can't give Val what she wants. “I didn’t mean to make you cry,” Juliana whispered. Val was so close her breath bounced off her lips. “I hate fighting with you.”

Valentina was her safe place, her port in a storm. When they fought, and fought hard, she couldn’t help feeling lost. It was as though for those few moments they yelled at each other, she lost her north. Thankfully, they didn’t fight very often. But this disagreement she didn't know how to fix.

“Me too,” Val admitted. “So let’s stop?” she asked softly, and Juliana smiled a little despite herself. That was how Valentina ended fights. She just decided they were done fighting, even if they were both still angry, even if they needed to take a breather afterward. And without fault, she would come to her later, and kiss her. It didn’t matter if Juliana had started it, or if she wasn’t in the wrong, Valentina would declare their quarrel was over, and after they’d calm down she’d sit by her side and kiss her, and tell her she loved her.

She kissed her now.

Valentina’s lips were wet and salty from tears, and it only made the knot in the back of Juliana’s throat grow bigger. She’d hurt her. She’d as good as said she didn’t want to get married before knowing Valentina had already bought a ring. She’d yelled she didn’t want to have children when Valentina had already been talking to her brother about the future daughter she imagined.

Te amo,” Val repeated, and Juliana nodded. Valentina never said it without purpose, and it never got old. It was an affirmation, every time. But this time, she felt she didn’t deserve it.  “Juliana, listen to me.” Juliana opened her eyes. Valentina seemed to brace herself. “We need to have a long talk-”

“I know,” she said, interrupting her. She’d thought she could put off the subject indefinitely, but they couldn’t, not with what she knew. “You were right. We need to talk about everything you said.”

Juliana swallowed, hard. It was nothing to admit to that, but another thing entirely knowing how she’d get through it. She wasn’t sure about anything apart from the cold fear she felt at the thought of marriage and children. She’d never wanted a family, never even considered it as an option. She wasn’t ready for Val to want that so vehemently.

“Okay,” Val said, clearly surprised. “Okay, amor.” Val rubbed her thumb soothingly over Juliana’s cheek, and Juliana melted into it. Valentina pressed one last kiss to her lips before pulling back. “My dad, huh, my dad got worried when I called him to let him know I was coming over, because I was crying,” Val told her, a sheepish smile on her face. Juliana’s chest just hurt. “So, let's go? We can have dinner with them and we can talk tonight,” Val offered. “Don’t worry, I'm not going to force you to hold Mia.”

Juliana smiled slightly. Of course Valentina knew that she didn’t feel comfortable carrying the baby, regardless of how many times she’d said it was fine. Her girlfriend knew her better than anyone.

“Alright, let’s go,” she conceded. She raised her hands to Valentina’s cheeks, and wiped away the traces of tears and makeup there. Val smiled, thankful, and pressed a quick kiss to the palm of her hand.

Juliana pressed her hands against her own legs while Valentina started the car. They were shaking.

Juliana couldn't even hold Mia, Val's little sister, barely 2 months old. It made her panic. Meanwhile, Valentina was madly in love with the baby. She kept buying her clothes and toys that she couldn’t play with yet, spoiling her and asking Lucia to let her take her for a whole weekend. She was the perfect older sister, although with the age difference she was more like a cool aunt.

Juliana didn’t know how to be an aunt, she definitely wasn’t ready to be a mother. She wasn’t ready to get married, and the weight of the secret she was keeping was cracking her skull open with a headache. When was Val planning on proposing? Could she keep quiet until she did and then what? Keep the secret that she already knew for the rest of their lives? She’d never lied to Valentina. And what would she even answer? She'd never say 'no', not to Val. But what would happen if she said yes?

She wasn't sure how she was supposed to talk about it, especially when she already knew what she felt. She’d never wanted to have a family of her own. She’d never wanted to be a mom, and she’d never wanted to be married. Her entire life she'd seen those things as holes you sink in, traps you fall into like a wounded animal.

She wasn't sure if any of that could change, and she didn’t want to break Val’s heart.

“I hope there's no traffic,” Val mumbled, pulling out of the parking space.

The car sped out of the parking lot, and while they left behind their apartment building, Juliana couldn't do the same with all the thoughts circling her mind.

Chapter Text

 

León looked straight at her hand when they entered the house.

Juliana felt jittery inside, she’d felt that way the entire drive over, and it wasn’t waning. Did he know about Valentina’s plans to propose too? Had she told her entire family?

“Papi!” Valentina exclaimed, throwing her arms around León.

Juliana smiled. It had seemed silly at first, the diminutive that sometimes escaped Valentina when she called out to her dad. Niña fresa , she’d gently tease her. It was actually kind of sweet. She was almost a bit jealous, sometimes. She would have never dreamed of calling El Chino “daddy”, not even when she was in pre-school. Valentina trusted her father blindly, like a little girl, and loved him more than Juliana had ever loved her own father.

If El Chino had to die and transmigrate so that León Carvajal could give a better use to his body, that was just fine for Juliana.

“Juliana,” León greeted her, with a short hug and a kiss to her cheek. It was still strange to her that her father's body greeted her without anger or resentment, that she could hug him and he would smile at her, but it had been 3 years now. She had gotten used to seeing him as León, Val’s dad, and not hers. (The fact that they both, on some level, saw the same man as a father, still made her head spin.)

“Hello León,” she said.

“Lucía is upstairs with the baby, if you want to go say hello,” he told her. “I want to talk to my daughter in the office.”

“Sure,” Juliana said.

“I’ll catch up in a minute, mi amor,” Valentina told her, softening León’s obvious request to leave them alone. Juliana nodded, and couldn’t help but smile.

Valentina called her 'mi amor', 'mi vida' and 'mi cielo' in front of everyone, without any embarrassment or shame, and Juliana loved it. Val not only didn’t hide their love, she boasted of it, presumed of Juliana herself as if she were something very valuable. Her love, her life, her heaven. Little by little, Valentina had gotten her to believe it.

Juliana climbed the steps to the room belonging to Valentina's baby sister.

She heard Lucías voice from the hallway.

The truth is that Lucía Borges, the so-called widow of Mexico (although unbeknownst to almost everyone, she wasn’t a widow anymore) was an imposing woman, and Juliana hadn’t expected to get along with her at all. She expected her to be like Eva, to have trouble accepting their relationship, and her social class. But she was nothing like that. They had gotten along quite well since Valentina officially introduced her as his girlfriend. She, Lucía and Renata had even had lunch on some occasions, just the three of them, and had had fun talking about the exquisite tastes of the Carvajal clan.

They were all in love with a member of said family, but they had more in common than that. Renata had been a secretary, and Lucía -which she hadn’t known- had been a receptionist before her relationship with León. The 3 of them were from the same social class, had gone to the same public schools, and knew what it was like to have only one pair of good shoes growing up. They’d talked about it, bonded over it. It was something that the Carvajals wouldn’t understand.

She wasn’t not sure if she would call Lucía and Renata her friends, but they were definitely something. (A voice, deep inside her head that sounded a lot like Valentina, whispered that they were family .)

Lucia was very kind, to her and to everyone that she’d seen, but most importantly, to Valentina. Valentina had often told her how much she missed her mom, and though Lucía was a bit too young and Val was a bit too old for them to have that dynamic, she loved her step-mother. When Val was still living here, Lucía wouldn’t blink an eye if Juliana stayed over, or if she found them talking in the kitchen at 3am. In fact, she’d often made them all tea.

Juliana liked the woman, and she didn’t like people that easily.

The door was open, and Lucía was leaning over the crib, a smile on her face. Juliana softly knocked on the wall to make her presence known.

“Hey, Juls,” Lucía said, using the nickname Val had come up with. “León said Val was coming, I didn’t know you were coming too. Come in, come in.”

She stepped inside the room, and understood why Valentina liked the so called “baby smell” so much. It smelled like powder and roses in there, and it immediately relaxed her a little. The stuffed animals and the pink walls coupled with white furniture gave everything an atmosphere conducive to peace.

“Mia is awake,” Lucía said, waving her over. Juliana stepped closer to the crib.

Valentina’s sister was adorable.

She hadn’t thought so, the first time she’d seen her. She’d been more or less weirded out by something so small and so red, and so very, very loud. She looked alien back then, roughly 2 months ago. Now, she looked like a porcelain doll.

Mia Borges was all pink, chubby cheeks, tiny fingers, and long eyelashes that framed a pair of bright blue eyes. Those were Valentina’s eyes. The baby wasn’t actually biologically related to Valentina, so it was impossible she’d look like her, but Juliana thought she did.

That, and she didn’t want to give much thought to the fact that those were El Chino’s eyes, actually.

Those were the eyes she had spent so long during her childhood wishing she had inherited from her dad, instead of her temper when things got hard, and that desire to keep to herself when something hurt. Val and her had talked about it a lot after Lucía announced she was expecting.

"It’s your dad’s soul, but my dad’s body,” Juliana had said. “So is it your sister or my sister? Like, biologically speaking.”

“Don’t think too hard about it.” Val laughed. “If El Chino had another kid in Beltrán’s body, wouldn’t that be your brother?”

Juliana shrugged.  “I guess so. I don’t know. Beltrán’s kid asked if I was his sister and I told him no.”

"Well, that’s different. Beltrán had that kid before your dad transmigrated into him. You are kind of step siblings though, aren’t you? Like, your dad is now with this lady so it’s like Lupe and Panchito with his kids, right? Lupe is their step-mother so you’re the step-sister.”

“Wouldn’t that make us step-siblings?”

"No! Because my dad is in your dad’s body, but he’s not your dad.”

“My head positively hurts, Valentina,” she said. Valentina smiled, her tongue caught between her teeth. Juliana only called her by her full name when she was faux-annoyed.

“What if my little sister looks like you?” Valentina mused.

“I don’t look like my dad,” Juliana said. “Hell, I’m not entirely sure if he’s actually my dad, you know my mom cheated on him before she knew she was pregnant.”

“See? Don’t think too hard about it,” Valentina said. “Although, we’re together Juls. Biology or not, she was always  going to be your sister. Sister-in-law or whatever, but you know what I mean.”

Juliana changed the subject, Val’s words verging too close to marriage and things that she’d rather not think about.

“This oddly feels like we’re related,” she joked.

“If we were related would I do this?” Valentina teased, and then her hand slid down Juliana’s stomach.

That had been the end of that conversation.

Mia had been born with black hair and blue eyes, and she hadn’t looked like anyone but herself. Lucía had told everyone, afterwards, still a bit high on pain meds, that now everyone would know she dyed her hair blonde. They’d all laughed. Mia certainly didn’t feel like her sister, while Valentina had fully embraced that role, and that answered all the questions anyone might have. Even if there was a weird biologic thing going on, the baby was Valentina’s sister, not hers.

“Do you want to hold her?” Lucía asked, and Juliana immediately shook her head.

“No, I don’t- I don’t know how.”

“Come on, I’ll show you,” Lucía insisted. Juliana didn’t know a non-rude way of saying ‘ I just don’t want to hold your baby’ so she acquiesced. She held out her arms, feeling dumb.

“Su cabecita va en tu brazo,” she said, taking the baby out of the crib. “She’s starting to hold her head up herself, but we’re not there yet.”

The baby couldn’t even hold her own head up. That though made Juliana panic a little.

“Here you go,” Lucía said, finally laying the baby in the crook of her left arm. Juliana secured her with her other hand, making sure she wouldn’t drop her.

It wasn’t so bad.

The baby looked up at her with her eyes wide open, the most awake Juliana had seen her.

“Que bonita,” she said.

“She is, isn’t she?” Lucía said. “You know, León keep saying she looks like Eva when she was a baby, what with the dark hair and the eyes. Which is just my luck .”

Juliana laughed. The three of them, she, Lucía and Renata? They’d also bonded over how much Eva disliked them all.

Something happened after her laughter died down. Juliana noticed Mia was smiling too.

“Ahora sonríes?” she asked Mía evenly. She felt weird using the high, baby voice Val used whenever she talked to the baby, so she stopped trying. It seemed to come naturally to everyone but her -another sign perhaps, that she wouldn’t be any good at this.

“She does,” Lucía answered for her daughter. “I’m still waiting to hear her laugh.” The baby smacked her gums, the gummy smile disappearing as she formed out senseless sounds, while reaching for the lapel of Juliana's jacket. Juliana grabbed her tiny hand in hers. Mia wrapped her fingers around one of hers. Her hand was so tiny.

“So, are you and Val planning on bringing any Carvajalitos to the family?”

Juliana froze.

“I’m- I’m sorry,” Lucía apologized, shaking her head. “You’re still so young, and it’s rude to ask those type of things. Motherhood has robbed me of my manners. Yo, vieja chismosa .”

Juliana smiled at the tone Lucía used. She sounded a lot like her mother.

“I don’t know,” she said. She knew very well what Valentina wanted, but after today’s argument and her words in the car, she wasn’t sure where they stood. She wasn’t sure of anything, not even what possessed her to utter her following words. “The truth is… I’ve never dreamed about being a mom.”

“Me neither,” Lucía said simply. Juliana frowned. She was holding her daughter . Lucía smiled, almost as though she heard her thoughts. “Don’t worry, she’s too young to understand what I’m saying.” Lucía brushed back a few wisps of dark hair off Mia’s forehead. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s the most beautiful thing that has happened to me. The best thing I’ve done.” Her voice took on a wistful tone. “But at first it didn’t feel that way. I didn’t know what to expect, and she was definitely a surprise. See, I think that human beings learn by example, you know?”

Juliana nodded. Lucía Borges was as intelligent as she was beautiful, and Juliana found that the things that came out of her mouth made sense all of the time.

“And my mom, well...I don’t know how much Valentina has told you.”

Valentina had told her everything. Lucía had apparently told the truth -her truth- to León, and after they decided to fix things and stay together, she sat down with Valentina and Guille and told them the same, so their entire family knew. Juliana respected the other woman even more after learning of her past.

“She told me some things,” she said carefully. It was a difficult topic, and she didn’t want to darken Lucía’s mood. Maybe Val shouldn't have told her, although Lucía had seemed to guess she had, as though it was a given that what she said to Val would make its way to Juliana. It was actually what they did. They didn't keep secrets from each other, not even when those secrets involved other people. When Guille planned to propose to Renata, Juliana was in the know, even though Val had been sworn to secrecy. It was how they worked -or how she thought they did.

Valentina had obviously been keeping a pretty big secret. Juliana briefly wondered if Renata and Guille worked like they did, if Renata knew Val was planning to propose because Guille knew. 

“Right," Lucía said, shaking her out of her thoughts. "I spent a lot of time being ashamed of so many things that weren’t my fault. So when I decided to stay here I thought it was only fair that my family knew me, everything about me.” She nodded. “So maybe you know that I didn’t have the best mother growing up,” Lucía said. After the tale of forced prostitution she’d heard, Juliana thought that was an understatement. “So what scared me the most was to be like her. A bad mom. God knows I’d already been a horrible wife.”

Lucía looked down at her daughter, who was still squeezing Juliana’s finger in her fist.

“And...I don’t know. I think I’ve learned we are not our parents.”

 

🌸💀🌸

 

 

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Valentina said. “I knew she wasn’t that into the idea of having kids, but i didn’t know she didn’t want to get married either. That kind of took me by surprise.”

She played with her glass, watching the caramel colored liquid it contained slosh around.

She hadn’t wanted to taste the liquor her father had poured for the both of them yet. Rum always hit her hard, settled in the middle of her chest as it warmed her up, and made it easier to start crying. She didn’t want to cry, she was tired of it. Her head still hurt from sobbing in the car half an hour ago.

She put the glass down on her dad’s desk.

It was almost funny how mezcal affected her differently than rum, and how they both differed from something sweeter, like irish cream. She knew her alcohol, and she knew herself. It was a tool, like any other, but she knew Juliana didn’t like it when she used it. Maybe that was one of the reasons why she didn’t want to get married, or have kids. Maybe she thought Val drank too much still.

She couldn’t help but break her head trying to understand where she’d gone wrong. Had she not been attentive enough? Not supportive enough?

“I want what you have with Lucía, papá,” she said. Her throat burned. Maybe she was going to start crying after all, even without the rum. “What you had with my mom. I want to get married, and travel the world with her, and have kids, and then take those kids on vacation to Disney World.”

“That sounds nice, hija. But if there is something that this life -these lives- have taught me, is that marriage is nothing without communication.”

Valentina shook her head.

“I’ve tried to speak to Juliana.” It was all she’d tried to do for the past few weeks. But Juliana always had a friend that needed her on the phone, or a new design to put down on paper before she lost inspiration, and the last week, she was too tired from her new job. Valentina had tried everything, and she’d pretended not to realize that she got rejected every time, but this afternoon she couldn’t pretend anymore.

She confronted Juliana about it, and it hadn’t ended well.

Juliana had yelled maybe she didn’t want kids, and she hadn’t said anything when she’d brought up marriage. It had broken her heart. Valentina could it inside her chest, sluggishly oozing blood, trying to work even as she denied it everything it wanted. A life with Juls, a full, happy, brilliant life.

“She already told you what she feels, didn’t she? Speaking doesn’t mean talking until she agrees with what you want, but listening to her to know what she wants, and making sure she knows what you want, and why.”

Valentina smiled faintly. She’d missed his advice, that time she thought he was really gone for good -at least physically.

“Sounds like you’re really smart, aren’t you, papá?”

He shrugged. “As I see it, you have two options here. You stay with Juliana, or you end this relationship over-”

“That's not gonna happen.” The mere thought was unconscionable. She’d give up on everything she’d always dreamed of before giving up on Juliana, because she was what she’d never expected, the one dream that she’d given up on when she was still a teenager and that by a miracle came true when she least expected it: love, true love.

She was so in love with her that it hurt.

She’d never been in love before her, and she’d never loved anyone like she loves her. Her friends had told her that the feeling would abate after a while, even her dad had said that at some point that flame would become a comfortable fire instead of a burning inferno, but it hadn’t happened. She doubted it ever would, because she was still as in love as the first time she helped Juls float in her pool, as intrigued by everything that went on in her head as she was the first time she heard her talk about something she found interesting. And Juls loved her back -that was a miracle in and of itself.

Valentina would rather give up on her dreams of getting married or being a mom, than lose Juliana. It was that simple.

“Juls told me the same thing, you know? That I could leave her and find someone else, or I don’t know what kind of nonsense.”

Valentina grabbed the glass again, and this time she took a sip. She needed it. She kept thinking about Juls’ words, as if she thought it was that simple. That their love was replaceable. It terrified her to think that maybe Juliana felt that way. (The devil on her shoulder whispered that she did, that the reason Juliana didn’t want to commit to her and get married was because her love had faded, and she didn’t think they’d be together forever.)

Valentina squashed that voice with another sip or rum.

“Do you know who that reminds me of?” her dad asked.

“Who?”

“Lucía,” he answered. Valentina frowned.

“What do you mean?”

“After Johnny, and everything that happened...she wanted to leave.” Valentina remembers still, finding the woman she had come to love lying in a pool of her own blood, bleeding out from her stomach. She remembers keenly the shock of finding out that Jhonny, the man who she’d seen as a fun uncle for so long, was downright insane, evil, even. And the hard days that followed, knowing her dad was in another body and trying her best to see him in it, Lucía in the hospital, the start of a proper relationship with Juls. It was a lot.

“She was getting ready to leave the hospital,” her dad said. “And since she wasn’t going to jail, she was ready to take a plane and just...disappear.”

“But she loves you.”

It was that simple for Valentina. Eva had often told her she lived in a made up world full of fantasy - el mundo de yupi , she’d dubbed it, and even Guille had said once or twice that she was adorable and flicked her forehead after she’d said something romantic. But she believed it, every time. Ever since she met Juliana, she did.

She hadn’t believed in falling in love, and she’d told her as much, not realizing that she was halfway gone already.

She’d forgotten most of her parent’s interactions -she’d been barely 7 when her mom had passed away- but she remembered the ones that mattered. Her parents had been in love, love like her dad had found again in Lucía, love like Guille had for Renata. She’d known that feeling with Juls, and she was a firm believer that it could conquer everything, and that it mattered more than anything. Love was the most precious thing you could find in this life, and no amount of money or power or fame could compete against it. She didn’t understand how anyone could abandon it.

“Sí, mi vida,” her dad said. “But there are times when love is not enough, or so we think.” He got up from his seat, and walked around his desk to take a sit on it, in front of her. Their knees knocked together. “She was going to leave, and then I proposed to her again. She had a hard time accepting. And even after the wedding, she kept walking on eggshells, waiting for the world to collapse on top of her. She kept saying the same things.”

“She’s always seemed so... sure.” She knew Lucía far better now than she ever did back then, but apart from the day she told her and her brother the truth about where she came from, she’d never seen her broken.

“Juliana too,” her dad said. “Ever since I met her, just after transmigrating. I met her before you did, now that I think about it.” Valentina nodded. It was another evidence that she and Juls were meant to be, or at least she took it that way. It was too much of a coincidence. “I remember telling Camilo that this body had a wife and a daughter who was just a girl, but I only said it because of her looks, because the way she acted seemed...far too serious to me. I suppose anyone would be given the circumstances but...I don’t know.” His eyes took on a faraway look.

“Eva at 18 was something else." He smiled sadly, as he always did when he mentioned her sister who was currently behind bars. “And you...well, you were worse.” Valentina bit her lip. At 18 she’d just returned from Canada after graduating high school, and she’d decided to take a ‘sabbatical year’. Life was one huge party. “Juliana, though...it was if she were hidden behind a wall,” he said. “I couldn’t see anything. All I knew was she was scared of me, or of this body, at least. And I thought, I couldn’t bear it if any of my children looked at me that way. What had this man done? Who had he been, for this girl to look at me like this?”

Valentina’s heart squeezed in her chest. She could see the difference, between the Juliana she’d first met at the park that day over 3 years ago, and the woman who welcomed her home every day now. She had grown up in a lot of ways, and Valentina had had the privilege of seeing it. She’d matured too. She could hardly remember the Valentina who fixed everything with mezcal and almost drowned after falling drunk into her pool.

“And now I realize that the same thing happened with Lucía. Before, she only let me see a small part of who she was.” Her dad clasped his hands. “Mi mujer…she grew up in a world I can’t even imagine.” He pointed a finger at Valentina. “Y tu mujer igual.”

Valentina smiled at the title her dad used. Juliana no era su mujer, not yet, that was the whole problem. She was her girlfriend, and apparently not even that title was enough for Juliana to consider her family.

“Think about what we had to live through after I died and transmigrate, the narcos and the violence, and imagine that uncertainty every day without rest.”

Valentina swallowed.

“It gives me chills to think that Juls grew up with the murdered this body used to be.”

“Lucia's mother doesn’t fall behind. I don’t know who’s worse, truth be told.”

El Chino was an abuser, a violent alcoholic, a murderer...but Juliana had told her that he had rarely hit her mom, at least that she saw, and he’d never done more than slap her around. To Valentina that had seemed horrible, because her father would have cut off his hand before raising it to her mom, or hitting her or her siblings. But considering that El Chino killed without mercy, in comparison it wasn’t so bad, or so Juls insisted.

Lucía had told them that her mother had forced her into prostitution since she was a teenager, and Valentina still felt nauseous when she thought about that.

“They’re with us now,” she said fiercely.

“Exactly. We have to take care of the people we love, Valentina.”

“I know, you taught me that.” Not with so many words, but he had.

Ever since she was little, she’d seen him press bills into their worker’s hands so they could buy their kids some sweets, or a new toy, even though he paid them all well. He would buy her mom flowers every monday, and he took up the same tradition with Lucía, except he’d get her a different kind every friday instead. When she was a kid, he would take her and Guille to Chapultepec to feed the squirrels, and he always ended up buying bags of peanuts for the kids hanging around the stall, so they could feed them too.

Valentina learned to treat everyone the same from him, and she’s thankful for that lesson, because she knows far too many people who don’t do it. She used to call them friends.

“What I didn’t tell you is that taking care of someone isn’t just making sure they have everything they need. I learned that through this.” He pointed to his body, the new body he inhabited. “I didn’t listen, back when I was in my own body. Not always. I didn't pay attention, to your or Guille, I didn’t see how unhappy Eva was-”

“Dad, no-”

“It’s the truth. I didn’t listen like I should have, and that’s the end of that. I don’t want you to copy that. But one thing I can say I was good at is being honest. There’s no better presentation card than wearing your heart on your sleeve, Vale,” he said. Valentina smiled. She’d always tried to live life that way, with her heart wide open. “That means talking, sometimes. Have you told Juliana why you want to get married? Why you want to have children with her?”

His words brought her back to their original conversation, the reason why she could feel a pulsing headache behind her eyes from crying too hard.

She didn’t know what to answer. She hadn’t actually told Juliana why, they’d never gotten that far in conversation, but wasn’t it obvious?

“I mean...she must know. I want us to be a family. We already are, but I want a big family, like the one I had. I want us to be each other’s wives ,” she said, adamant. It hurt all over again, as she said the words to her dad. He’d gotten her her mom’s engagement ring out of the family vault, he’d been the first person she told she was planning to propose, her brother being the second. She assumed Lucía and Renata knew, solely because they were married to the men in her life, and didn’t that mean they told each other everything? Wasn’t that what marriage was?

Why didn’t Juliana want that, if it wasn’t any different from what they already had?

“But why?” her dad insister, taking the last swig of his drink. Valentina frowned.

“Because...that’s the next step, isn’t it? I mean, marriage...it means something. It means commitment, a promise that we’ll always be together, ‘til death do us apart. Of course she knows that.” Her dad gave her a look. “How can she not know that?”

“Try telling her,” her dad said. “See what her reasons are for not wanting those things, let her know why you do want them.” He touched her chin. “Maybe you’ll learn something.”  

She didn’t know how, but he always managed to make her feel just a little more at peace.

“You always know what to say,” she told him. He leaned over her, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. His beard tickled her skin, and his cologne filled her nostrils. It was the same cologne he’d always worn, and it moments like this, she could almost forget everything that had happened.

“I thank God -and death- every day that I got a second chance at life.”

Valentina smiled. She did too.

“And at being a dad,” she added. “Not just for us.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder, in the direction of the rest of the house. Mia was upstairs with Lucía and Val. “I’m not your little girl anymore.”

“You’ll always be my little girl,” her dad. “You and Mia can share that spot, how about that?”

Valentina smiled.

“Mia can have it,” she conceded. “I want a little girl of my own some day, I think it’s about time I grew up.”

Her dad looked at her wistfully, the same look she saw on his face when he stood as best man in Guille’s wedding to Renata.

“Well, then you have a big conversation with your girlfriend ahead of you,” he said. “Good luck.”

She stood up and stepped into his embrace, and he hugged her back tight, one of the ‘bear hugs’ she had loved ever since she was a little girl. Her dad was here after she thought she’d lost him, her brother was happily married and though her sister was in jail, she had a lovely little daughter. She had a stepmother who loved her and a little sister had just been welcomed into her family. She had Juliana, the love of her life. And they were all happy and healthy. Her life was perfect. Wanting more almost felt like being too greedy.

“Speaking off the women in our lives, should we go look for them?” her dad asked. “Mateo is coming over with Daniela.”

“My niece is coming?!” She jumped in her spot, stepping away from her dad. Dani was possibly her favorite person in the planet. She was talking more and more everyday, and she was so bright, and everyone swore that she looked like her favorite aunt. Valentina loved her like crazy.

“Yes, I called Mateo. I thought seeing her might cheer you up,” he told her. Valentina threw her arms around her dad again.

“You’re the best,” she told her dad. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and together they walked out of his studio.

Valentina was surprised by the sight that greeted her when they entered the baby’s room.

Lucía was fussing with some blanket, and Juls...she was holding Mia.

Valentina didn’t expect the strong pang of pure longing she felt at the imagine of Juliana with the baby in her arms. It wasn’t something she wanted right now, but she did now it was something she wanted some day. She’d been thinking about it more and more for the past year. Watching Guille getting married flipped a switch in her, and she started thinking more seriously about the future, instead of living week by week or day by day. She knew she wanted to marry Juliana one day, so why not propose now? They’d lived together for a year, and been together for 3. She wasn’t rushing. It had just made sense to her.

She felt her throat close up at the thought that Juliana didn’t feel the same way.

Valentina respected her too much to make her feel bad about it, or to try and make her change her mind -but she was hoping she would. She’d told her in the car that she would be okay not getting married or having kids if she didn’t want those things, and that was still true, but it hurt. She hadn’t felt how much it hurt until now.

They may very well never walk down the aisle to each other, or paint a baby room together, or sing their daughter to sleep. Maybe nobody would ever call her ‘mommy’ and trust her implicitly. Perhaps she’d never see Juliana rock their baby to sleep the way she was doing with her little sister. And she wanted those things so badly .

“Con su permiso,” her dad said, a teasing note in his voice. “Vale and I talked a lot about you two.”

“And what did you talk about?” Lucía asked, putting down Mia’s blanket.

“We talked about how much we love you…”

“Yeah?”

“Yes,” her dad answers, wrapping his arms around Lucía’s waist. “And about how life wouldn’t be the same without you, the women in our lives.”

Valentina knew that technically she and Juliana were included in those statements, but it was quite clear they’d probably forgotten they were in the room amongst their flirting. Valentina smiled. They were adorable, and she loved seeing her dad so happy.

She let them do their thing when they kissed, and walked over to Juliana.

“You’re holding her,” she said, a bit surprised, a bit in awe. She knew Juliana didn’t particularly care for babies, and that she was probably scared to hold her still.

“She hasn’t cried,” Juliana shared with her, her voice almost a whisper.

“Of course not,” Valentina told her. “She knows that you're the best aunt on the planet. I mean, I know that she is your sister in-law technically, but that is super weird.”

Juliana chuckled, and Mia opened her eyes at once at the sound.

“Hello Princess,” Valentina greeted. “Your favorite sister is here,” she cooed. Mia’s blue eyes followed her, and Valentina smiled. “Let me have her?” she asked Juliana, and her girlfriend nodded all too readily.

Valentina carefully took the baby from Juls’ arms and settled her on her own shoulder. Mia’s head rested against her neck, and Valentina breathed in the peace her little sister brought her along with the sweet baby smell she liked so much.

“Everything went okay with your dad?” Juliana asked quietly, a doubtful expression on her face. Valentina saw behind it. She knew Juliana wanted to ask what they’d talked about, if she’d told him about their fight. She looked unsure, as if she thought that now, 3 years after they got together, her dad would simply decide he didn’t like Juliana because Valentina cried after they fought.  

“Yeah, everything’s fine.”

Juliana nodded.

“Mateo is outside,” her dad announced. “Should we head down?”

“Let me put Mia to sleep,” Lucía said.

“I got it,” Valentina interjected. Lucía smiled.

“You sure?”

“Yes, yes. I got her. You guys go ahead.” She turned to Juliana. “Go ahead babe, I’ll catch up.”

Juliana nodded, a look in her eyes Valentina didn’t quite recognize, and then she followed her dad and Lucía out of the room.

Valentina settled Mia in the crook of her arm, and walked around the room, hoping the movement would lull the baby to sleep. It worked. She couldn’t think of any soft songs to sing at the moment, so she decided to talk.

“When you’re old enough, I’m going to teach you to ride horses like my mom taught me,” she told Mia. It seemed as though she was listening, looking at her through half-lidded eyes. “I always wanted a baby sister, you know? And it seems like I got the absolute best one, lucky me.” She ran her finger down Mia’s chubby cheek. She was perfect. It was probably cheesy, but Valentina saw in her something like hope. How could the world be a bad place when things as pure and innocent as this existed?

Mia yawned, her lips forming a little ‘o’ as her eyes became heavier. Valentina saw it as her opportunity to lay her down on her crib. She didn’t complain.

Valentina’s thumb rubbed Mia’s little belly.

“Te quiero, chiquita,” she said softly.

She waited until Mia’s eyes fell closed before joining the rest of her family downstairs.

 

🌸💀🌸

 

Dinner was a loud affair.

Loud for the Carvajals was a different loud than what Juliana was used to, back in Texas.

Mateo and León were talking about something having to do with the business, while Lucía and Valentina dotted over Daniela, Eva and Mateo’s daughter. The toddler's laughter would ring out every once in a while, as they tried -and failed- to convince her to eat some of the lasagna Silvina had prepared. It was as loud as things got around there, and it reminded her of home -the home she hadn’t thought about in so long, back in the states.

Sometime, everyone at the trailer park would get together and plan a potluck, and if El Chino wasn’t home -or if he wasn’t in a terrible mood- they’d go. Her mom would make tacos de tripa for everybody, and they’d get to eat what everyone else had brought. It was loud, children screaming, men laughing boisterously over sports, women serving food and talking about making said food, and about the children that were running around.

Juliana always felt a little out of place, she was always a little too quiet, but she liked those nights. Getting out of the house felt good, and it felt even better to be a part of something.

She felt a part of something, right now.

“Say, ‘tía Juls, pass me the cheese’,” Valentina told Dani.

“Juls, cheese!” Dani yelled. Juliana smiled, and she moved the small bowl of grated parmesan cheese in front of Daniela’s full plate.

“If I put a little more cheese on will you take another bite?” Valentina tried to negotiate with the toddler. Juliana already knew it wouldn’t work, but she liked watching Valentina try. She used her kid’s voice, and it was adorable.

“So Juliana, how’s your new job?” Lucía asked, taking her attention away from the battle of wills going on beside her. “Val said you started this week?”

“Yes, on monday.” It was saturday now, and she felt exhausted, but the good type of exhausted. She was finally getting to see in action all the theory she’d learned about in school. “It’s good, I haven’t actually met Stella yet, but my boss is her right hand and he’s incredible.” Juliana talked a bit about the designer she was working for, Stella Luna, and found that Lucía knew her designs. Valentina piped in whenever Dani was busy chewing, and even Mateo took the time to congratulate her.

They moved to the living room afterwards, and Silvina served them coffee and cookies. Daniela gleefully munched on those without anyone’s prompting. Mateo left first, since Dani had to go to bed early. Juliana smiled sympathetically. She couldn’t help but think about what that could be like, having a bedtime all over again. She and Val went to bed at all hours of the night. If they had a baby- Juliana stopped that train of thought.

Dani went around the room, saying goodbye to everyone.

She pressed a kiss full of crumbs to Juliana’s cheek, and she wondered if it would be too rude to wipe it off before doing it anyway. Valentina received hers with a huge smile, and took the half eaten cookie that Dani offered her too. She put it down on a plate when Mateo picked Dani up, and the kid wasn’t looking.

“Not gonna eat it?” Juliana teased, pinching Valentina’s side.

“I love her, but no,” she said. They laughed.

They left soon after. She was aware of why, because they usually stuck around way longer, even stayed over in Val’s old room sometimes. They had a conversation pending, and they both knew it. They said their goodbyes, and she was surprised when León pulled her aside, while Val spoke to Lucía.

“I just wanted to say congratulations on your new job,” León said, before enveloping her in a hug. He gave her enough time to step away, and Juliana was thankful for it, but she accepted it. He wasn’t her dad, she knew that, but there was still something nice about El Chino’s body being gentle to her, his eyes looking at her with kindness.

“Thank you, León.”

She stepped away, right into Valentina’s arms. Her girlfriend was smiling, and Juliana knew she’d seen the exchange.

“The two of you need to visit more often, alright?” León said.

“We’re here every sunday, dad,” Valentina told him.

“You could be here every morning, is what I’m saying,” he said. “Silvina...she misses cooking for you.”

“Of course,” Val said smiling, before pressing a kiss to her dad’s cheek.

They left the Carvajal mansion hand in hand. It was close to 9, and Juliana felt in high spirits from the good food and the conversation. Even Dani and her little quirks had made her laugh.

The feeling faded little by little, the closer they got to their apartment.  

Her outburst and their fight felt very far away, like their arguments always did, but that didn’t make them any less real. They’d spent an afternoon away without having to think about any of it, but now that they were alone again the weight of unspoken things began to seep into the atmosphere. The text messages she read were at the forefront of her mind when Val opened their apartment door.

“Try not to look like you’re facing the firing squad,” Valentina said gently. “We’re just gonna talk”

Juliana swallowed, and her throat felt tight. It wasn’t that simple. They were going to talk, but the topic made it hard to breathe, and made the fear of not being good enough resurface. Val had been amazing with her baby sister and her niece, and Juliana wasn’t sure if she could ever be comfortable in that caretaker role like her girlfriend already was.

She wasn’t sure if she wanted a piece of paper to tell them they had to be together, instead of letting love be the thing that did it.

She didn’t want Val to ever feel trapped.

Valentina was in the bathroom, probably washing off her makeup. Juliana could hear the faucet running. Marriage, children. They were gonna talk, and she couldn’t imagine talking without Valentina knowing the full truth.

Val walked out of the bathroom, still in her jeans but bare faced. Juliana wanted to kiss her pink cheeks and even pinker lips. She wanted to hold her hands and ask for forgiveness -for not being enough, for making her unhappy, for snooping around on her cellphone that afternoon.

“Juls, you’re scaring me,” Valentina said carefully. “Is something wrong?”

And Juliana answered with the one thing that was, because she'd made it so.

"I read your texts with Guille."

 

Chapter Text

Valentina’s earliest memory was a bad one, more or less.

She’d been 4, and it had been her first horse riding lesson.

She’d gotten brand new boots, shiny and black, and a small helmet that her mom had gotten engraved with her initials: VLCP. It had been a Saturday morning. Her dad and Eva were off doing something together, and her mom had taken Valentina to the equestrian club she preferred -just her. Guille had preferred to stay at home playing futból with the other insufferable 5th graders Valentina would stick out her tongue at, and he didn’t like horses anyways.

She vaguely remembered that first lesson. With time, every day that she spent at that ranch, between the stables and the fences kind of blended together. But she remembered the ending of that first lesson clearly.

Valentina had always been an energetic little thing. Her first 11 or so years of life she burned through riding lessons, ballet lessons, gymnastics, and two different swimming teams -on top of being a decent student.

Valentina at 4 couldn’t wait until her mom and her instructor were done talking. She’d been promised she’d get to brush the horse afterwards, and she wanted to get on with her day and do that, so she pulled her feet out of the stirrups, and scooted backwards, trying to figure out how to get off.

She accidentally kicked the horse, and then she was falling.

The horse’s front legs left the ground, and without her feet in the stirrups she simply slided down his back and towards the floor.

Her mom caught her before she hit the ground.

The instructor got the horse under control while Valentina sobbed into her mom’s neck. She’d been as easy to tears as she was easy to make laugh, and in that moment, she’d been terrified. It had all happened so fast she couldn’t process it, but it was like scraping her knee and waiting until she found her mom to cry. The danger was over, that horrible, overpowering feeling of falling had passed.

And in her mom’s arms, she knew she was safe.

It’s why she kept it horse riding for years after her mom died, because it made her feel close to her. By the time she was 12 she lost passion for it -she loved the horses but like most things, riding and showjumping just didn’t excite her anymore. She missed her mom, and her dad, and her life felt painfully empty of everything. Only 3 years later she’d get sent to Canada to study high school, and would quickly try to fill that gaping hole in her chest with booze, pills, and boys. But for a while, riding gave her something to hold on to, and that memory was a part of it.

Her memories weren’t especially bright -but that earliest one is.

Valentina remembered the terrifying drop in her stomach when the horse tried to shake her off, and that horrible instant when she felt herself falling backward from a great height.

She felt suspended in it now, as she processed Juliana’s words. The feeling was the same.

I read your texts with Guille, Juliana had said.

Valentina was frozen, replaying the words over and over.

Back then, her mother’s arms had caught her before she hit the ground. Now, there was no one to keep her from shattering as she hit the slick mosaic floor beneath her feet.

She didn’t need to guess what Juliana had found out. The guilt in Juliana’s face was enough to let her know. Juliana could be like a brick wall sometimes, unreadable, but Valentina had learned with time. And now, she saw guilt there, guilt, regret, and fear. The pain starting to flare up in Valentina’s chest became more evident.

“I’m sorry,” Juliana was quick to say. “I’m sorry, Val. Perdóname.”

Valentina shook her head. She needed to be sure. “What messages?” she asked carefully. “Did you read about...about-”

“The ring,” Juliana answered, and Valentina’s stomach dropped with the confirmation.

It wasn't just the shock of Juliana knowing that she wanted to propose -although that, too, hurt.  She’d planned on how to do it, maybe bring her breakfast in bed and leave the box on the tray for her to find. Leave a trail of rose petals from the door to their bedroom, and leave the ring in the middle of the bed. Take her to the bench where they had first met and propose to her there, where their story had started. She’d been so excited about it-until today, until Juliana manifested she wasn’t sure she wanted to get married at all.

And now, all the dreams she’d had about how and when to do it had just gone down the drain with Juliana’s answer, but that certainly wasn’t as bad as the other thing.

The fact that Juliana knew, all this time, and she hated the idea, made her feel nauseous. She remembered every time Juliana tried to change the subject, and basically ran away when she mentioned them buying a house together, or adopting a dog, or kids.  

She needed to breathe.

She took a step towards the door, needing to be out of their bedroom, but a hand wrapped around her bicep before she could leave.

“Val, wait-”

“How could you?!” Valentina exploded, whipping around. “It's my cell phone, mine! You can’t just go through my stuff!” That wasn’t what was bothering her, she genuinely didn't care. She kept no secrets from Juliana. They knew each other’s passwords and yet they never went through each other’s phones. It wasn’t how they worked -or so she thought. She felt betrayed, yes. But even more so because Juliana didn’t tell her what was on her mind. She never said she didn’t like Valentina’s ideas, the world she was painting for the both of them.  

“It wasn’t on purpose!” Juliana argued. “Val, I-”

“Why didn’t you say so, huh?” Once she got started she couldn’t stop herself, it was like a dam had been opened. “Couldn’t you just tell me you didn’t want me to propose instead of keeping me running after you all these weeks, trying to talk-”

“No, Val, no. I found out today. This afternoon, when you left. You left your phone behind and I was gonna catch up to you and return it but you got a text from your brother. And he was talking about me, and I...I don’t know why I read it, okay? I’m sorry.”

Valentina looked everywhere but at Juliana, while she raked her fingers through her hair. It wasn’t as bad as she thought, but it still didn’t change the fact that Juliana had completely frozen when Valentina asked her if she wanted to get married at all.

“So what do you think?” she finally asked. “Because I asked you earlier today, if you wanted to get married at all, and you didn’t say anything.”

Juliana’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “I don’t -I don’t know, Val.”

“It’s a yes or no question,” Valentina told her, her throat tight. “It’s literally a yes or no question.”

“Are you proposing-”

“No, of course not! Because I saw your face, you looked like a deer about to get run over by a truck. Like you do now.”

“I’ve never thought about getting married, Val. I just -I can’t.”

It hurt like a blow to the chest. She felt her ribs crack, her heart split straight down the middle, a spiderweb of fractures extending over every inch of the muscle.

“I love you!” she exclaimed, the desperate cry leaving her throat like the last breath of a drowning person. “More than anything, Juliana. More than anyone.”

“It’s not about that,” Juliana insisted, tears flooding her eyes. Valentina held her breath, fighting for composure.

“Then what could it be about?” she asked, breathless.

Juliana didn’t answer. She just stood there, her mouth open and gaping like a fish out of water.

“I'm going to return it," Valentina  said. “I'm going to return the ring, and we don’t have to talk about this anymore.”

Valentina grabbed her pillow from the bed. She retired to the couch, and this time, Juliana didn’t stop her.

She threw herself down on the couch, the pillow doing but little to soften it. Her brother had joked around she should get a comfortable couch for when she was forced to sleep in it, and Valentina had stuck out her tongue at him. She and Juls weren’t like that.

Valentina huffed out a breath, and it came out stuttered, like a half formed sob. She tried to control her breathing, even as a few tears broke free. She could cry as much as she needed to. She was safe out here, and alone. Juliana wouldn’t come after her.

Valentina always ended their fights.

She couldn’t bear fighting with Juls. Before they lived together, she would ask her for space, and then go look for her the next day. They’d fight, and 10 minutes later she’d be at her side, kissing her cheek and saying sorry, even if it wasn’t her fault.

She couldn’t do that this time. She didn’t have it in her.

She was hurt, and for once in her life she wanted to revel in it. She wanted to stare at the metaphorical wound oozing blood, and feel the sting. She used to drink to escape her pain, but now she knew she was strong enough to feel it.

Back when they’d first started this, she’d told Juliana that she’d give up anything to be with her, that she didn’t care who she had to fight -her family, her friends. She didn’t care. And that was still true. If she had to give up her dream of getting married and having babies, she’d do it. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t killing her. She understood that having children was a big responsibility, that it wasn’t for everyone, but she couldn’t wrap her head around Juliana’s reticence to consider marriage . They were basically married already. They lived together, they shared the bills, they hosted dinner parties for their families. They couldn’t be any more married.

Valentina looked towards the open bedroom door. She fought the desire to go get Juliana, and ask her why . They wouldn’t get anywhere in this state. And she at least knew Juliana wouldn’t come after her.

She’d always respected her space, always took seriously whatever pendejadas Valentina said. Except it wasn’t a pendejada this time. She was angry, and she didn’t know if she was angry at Juliana or at the situation. And she was so hurt it ached to even breathe.

She pressed her face against the pillow, wishing she could disappear, just for a moment. Or go back in time to a better place.

Juliana’s graduation -that had been an amazing night. They’d gone out to dinner with their families, and then danced all night with their friends. They’d gotten home so late and so tired they fell asleep still in their cocktail dresses, and when they woke up, they made love all morning. How could they go from that to this?

“You said we would talk.”

Valentina sat up, only to meet Juliana’s eyes. Her girlfriend had her hands clasped together, her entire countenance exuding uncertainty.

“That was before,” Valentina told her. What was the point of talking? Her dad had told her to do just that, but she already knew what the outcome would be.

“I don’t want to bother you, but I really need to tell you something,” Juliana said. Valentina hesitated. Juliana seldom volunteered how she felt, or started the hard conversations. But she couldn’t.

“Pues esta cabrón, cause I don't want to hear it.”

Valentina .”

“Juliana, go to bed.”

Juliana turned around finally, and Valentina sighed. 

But then her footsteps stop.

“When I think about marriage, only my parents' comes to mind, you know?” Juliana said, and Valentina looked up. Juliana stood between their bedroom and the living room, her face set in determination. “Since I was little I never wanted to be anyone's wife. Getting married was like signing a contract that makes you property of someone else,” Juliana explained. “Nunca quise ser la mujer de nadie.”

Ni siquiera la mía ? Valentina wanted to ask, but the words are stuck to her throat. She wouldn't treat Juliana like property, they’d never be like that. How could she believe that?

She didn’t say anything, but Juliana took her silence as an invitation to step closer. She took a seat on the other side of the couch, and Valentina closed her eyes. Even with how mad and hurt she was, it made her feel better. It was the damnedest thing. Juliana went through her phone and found out she was planning on proposing, Juliana didn’t want to marry her, Juliana didn’t want to have babies with her, and yet... Juliana sat down close to her and something in Valentina settled down.

“El chino used to act like we were his property,” Juliana told her. “And my mom, she started acting like it was true. She knew what he did, and she stayed with him because she was his wife. Even after he ran away from Texas, or well, his body did -she chased after him because she was his wife . Even after she fell in love with Panchito again, she didn’t know how to let go of him.” Frustration colored Juliana’s voice. “Val…”

Valentina refused to look at Juliana. She understood that Juliana hadn’t had the best childhood, but she didn’t know what that had to do with them .

“He used to abuse her!” Juliana exclaimed, the force behind the words making Valentina look up. “And she never saw it as that because she was his wife and that was her duty! He’d get home drunk and grope her in front of me and then they’d go to their room and I knew what they were doing.” Juliana angrily wiped at a tear that had stained her cheek. Valentina bit her lip. Juliana had never said it so clearly, so full of anger. She’d never spelled out what she lived through growing up. It made her nauseous.

“He hit her,” Juliana said. “He hit me! And she never thought about leaving him because she was his wife .” Juliana spit out the word like a curse, and it reignited the embers in her chest.

“I would never treat you like that. Ever. Don’t you know that?” she asked desperately.

“Val-”

“I would never start demanding things from you because we’re married, I’d never expect sex from you because you’re my wife! I’d never lay a finger on you! We’ve been together for three years , is that what you really think of me?”

“It’s not about you-”

“It is! Because you’d be marrying me !” She faced Juliana on the couch, at a loss on how to make her understand something that was so obvious to her. “We wouldn’t start acting differently just because we’re married. It would still be us!” Valentina knew Juliana could be as stubborn as a mule, but did she have to be like that right now?

Juliana stood up, and started pacing.

“We’re happy now, aren’t we? Why add...legalities to it? Why sign papers? Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to get married anyways because we’re two women. What’s the point ?”

Her words were like blows to Valentina's chest, and she couldn't help it when tears flooded her eyes again. God, she was so tired of crying. 

“When my mom was alive, my dad used to say that his wife was the most precious thing he had in the world," she told Juliana. "And that his children were the greatest gifts." She still remembered the dinners she attended as a little girl, the pink frilly dresses she loved and the shiny black shoes. The attention she basked in. And most of all, the way her dad used to carry her on his arm, and hold her mother with his other one, and introduce them to people. 'This woman right here is the light of my life, but you may call her Elena De Carvajal, my incredible wife. And this little princess is our youngest, Valentina. Say hi, mi cielo. '

Valentina stood up, and stepped closer to Juliana. She raised her hands to hold her face, and though Juliana looked away, she didn't shake her off. 

"Mírame," she pleaded, and Juliana did. "Yo u are the most precious thing in my life, Juls. You are the light of my life. That's why I want to marry you. That’s the point ." She rubbed her thumbs over Juliana's cheeks, hoping she'd understand. "It has nothing to do with signing a paper, or legalities. It's not about ownership, it's not about obedience. I want to be able to call you my wife the same way Guille calls Renata his wife, to introduce you to people that way." She even imagined what the magazines would say, when Juliana set up her own brand of designs. Juliana Valdes' wife, Valentina Carvajal. That would be a title she'd wear with pride. But it wasn't about that, at least not mainly.

Her biggest, most secret desires were a lot more mundane. Celebrating wedding anniversaries, and buying silly cards that said 'for the best wife in the world'. Wearing a ring on her finger that not only told the rest of the world she was taken, but was tangible evidence that their lives were interlocked forever. 

Going to the supermarket, late at night when Juliana got cramps, and telling the cashier: 'my wife wanted some ice-cream.' It was as simple as that. 

She ran her thumb down Juliana's cheek and over her lip. The woman she loved more than anyone in the world stared back at her, a frown marring her features. In that moment, she didn't care about anything -not how hurt she felt, or how they were fighting, or even that Juls had read her messages with her brother. She just wanted -no, needed- her to see what she saw. Valentina dropped her voice down to a whisper.  

"I just want to say at work that my wife is waiting for me at home," she told her simply, baring her soul to her. "Don't you understand?"

Juliana took a step back, dropping Valentina's hands from her face. 

"No."

Valentina thought briefly that maybe getting shot when the cartel's men took her hostage, would have hurt less than that single world. Juliana took another step back, before turning around, retiring to the balcony. Leaving Valentina with empty hands and a hole in her heart. 

Valentina tried to keep it together at least until she entered their bathroom.

She locked the door after herself, and opened the faucet. It did very little to muffle the sound of her laboured breathing as she fought to keep the sobs inside. She sat down on the closed toilet lid. She wasn't like Juliana, she wasn't a quiet crier. And she wasn't good at keeping things inside.

In that moment, she almost wanted Juliana to hear her -and then she hated herself for that thought. Hurting her was the last thing she wanted. She remembered what Juliana had told her Sergio had said of her. That she was manipulative. Maybe he was right. Because yes, a part of her wanted Juliana to hear how she'd made her feel, and a part of her had known using the right voice and calling Lucho "amorcito" could get him to do anything she wanted, and widening her eyes and batting her eyelashes would get her dad to agree to any idea she had. Maybe she was manipulative, and a bitch, and she deserved this. 

For the one thing she really wanted to be out of her hands completely.

She sighed, and wiped her cheeks. She got up, and stepped up to the sink to splash water on her face. The day had felt endless. She changed out of her clothes and into a pair of sweatpants, and a soft grey t-shirt whose original owner she didn't know. Their pajamas were interchangeable at this point, even the middle of their closet had become a 'pro mundi beneficio' zone. On either side were their clothes, their particular styles, and in the middle, the clothes that they both wore and they both liked. 

She opened her underwear drawer, and reached toward the back. Past the lingerie for special ocasions, and beside the box holding their sex toys -there was a wooden box she kept there. Ornate, and vintage, her dad had given it to her as a gift when they first moved into her apartment. It had been a jewelry box, originally, and it had belonged to her grandmother -her father's late mother. Valentina treasured it, but she loved even more what it held inside. 

She sat down in her bed, and scooped out the photographs she kept there. 

It was her little ritual, whenever they fought, although those times came few and far between. She’d look at pictures of them and it would make her want to get back to that place, suspended in happiness. She used her cellphone, usually, but she needed more time to calm down this time. And there was something nice about it, about letting her fingertips rove over the intrincate design carved on the wood, and carefully opening the latch to get her photos out. 

 stack-of-photos

The first one, she took just a few weeks after they met, the first time she invited Juliana over. She'd convinced her to get in the pool, and had started teaching her how to float. They hadnt even kissed, yet, she still hadnt been able to put a name to what she felt when she looked at her. But she remembered how being near her felt like laying in the sun after spending so much time in the dark. 

The next one, she didn't remember exactly when she took, just that it was one of those afternoons they spent in el Bosque de Chapultepec. The sun was falling over the lake, and she stopped the little boat they were pedaling to take a photo, the sun making Juliana's eyes look like molten lava. There was a photo Guille took of them the day of Lucía and her dad's second wedding. They'd both been invited to Lucía's bachelorette party the day before, and though they'd only spent the day at a spa -they had a room to themselves at the hotel that night, and they went to bed at half past 3 because they were too busy having sex. She still lived in her father's house back then, and they were always careful to be quiet. It was a treat that they didn't have to be. They showed up to the wedding with matching undereye bags, barely covered by makeup. And Valentina started searching for her own apartment that same day. 

They looked so young in those photos, so carefree and happy. They still were. The thought of proposing only made her happier. But clearly the idea of getting married and building a life together didnt have the same effect on Juliana.

The next photo was of Juliana alone, taken the morning after they moved in together. She was adorable in it, her hair toussled with sleep, bleary brown eyes squinting at the camera. Era tan tierna. Below, she had photos with her brother and sister, with her niece and Mateo, with Lucía and Renata at the bachelorette party, and the most recent one, a polaroid she'd taken of her little sister, a couple of days after her birth. Below it, she kept a photo of herself with her dad, in his old body. And at the bottom of the box, a blonde woman with dark eyes stared back at her. Her mom. Valentina still missed her, 20 years after losing her, but it no longer hurt.

Valentina got back to the first photo, realizing she'd already gone through the whole stack. 

Her pulse had gone down. The tears on her cheeks had dried.

She put the photos back in the box, and put it back in its rightful place. She didn't feel any less hurt, but she had a clear head now. She remembered her dad’s words. Juliana had told her her reasons, even if Valentina couldn't see how they applied to them. And she thought it was time she told her hers, even though she felt they were obvious. She'd already said she didn't understand, and Valentina was going to take that to mean she just hadn't explained properly. 

She walked to the kitchen, intent on making hot chocolate, and saw Juliana through the crystal sliding door that let out to their little balcony. She was sitting on one of the chairs outside, hunched over, hugging her knees to her chest. She didn't know if their next conversation would end happily, or if it would destroy her further, but she knew they needed to have it, and she was ready for it.

Maybe it was naive -but Valentina really believed love could conquer all. 

Chapter Text

Juliana stared at the twinkling lights of Mexico City.

San Antonio was pretty when it wanted to be, but Juliana preferred Mexico any day of the week, and not just because of who she found here. The air itself felt different. She took a deep breath as she gazed out, and tried to see if she could pinpoint where Chapultepec was.

She felt like she could see all of Mexico City from their balcony. Juliana loved the space, and the sliding wooden door in the second bedroom that doubled as her studio/ Valentina’s work space/their second closet. But the balcony had sold her on it.

It had been Val’s apartment originally, but she had wanted Juliana’s input, had asked for her opinion on every place she’d seen. Juliana had liked this one more than the others -it was close to everything, for starters, in a colonia preciosa, but not too stuck up. It was perfect, and she’d said as much.

Valentina had bought it the next day.

When she’d asked her to move in, some time after that, Juliana had felt slightly uncomfortable. It was Valentina’s apartment, not theirs , but after a fight or two, Val made her understand it would be theirs. She had more money than she could spend in a lifetime, she’d said -it meant nothing to her.

Juliana agreed to move in, as long as she helped with the bills. She’d wanted to get a part time job while she finished college, but Valentina had put her foot down on that as well. Juliana hadn’t wanted to feel like a mantenida -a kept woman, a gold digger like Val’s sister had accused her off. Valentina had asked her to let herself be taken care of, for once. To let herself be loved. They finally agreed she’d pay half of the expenses when she started working, and since her last semester had been a paid internship, she’d done just that. Val didn’t fight her on it anymore. They each had their own personal bank accounts -Valentina’s was bottomless, and Juliana’s consisted of what was left after putting enough in their joint account to pay for utilities and their grocery shopping. She liked keeping things separate that way.

Money didn’t mean anything to Valentina, but it meant a lot to Juliana, after a lifetime of not having enough of it. Sometimes she still felt overwhelmed by the amount of money Val had, though she never said it out loud. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. If they got married like Val wanted -wouldn’t half of everything be hers? She hadn’t even thought about that, but the prospect was even more terrifying.

Her throat hurt from trying to hold back tears.

They never cried when they fought. They yelled at each other and they got mad, but they always fixed it in minutes, and they never cried. This was different. This was serious.

She felt like an actress in her own life, and as though someone had forgotten to give her the script. She just kept saying the wrong things, feeling the wrong things, and hurting Val in the process.

She swallowed, hard, trying to push down the stupid tears that kept trying to bubble up. She hated crying. She was angry, and she didn’t know why, and that just made her more upset. Valentina should have been angrier at her for going through her phone, and instead she’d held her face in her hands and told her she was the light of her life .

Movement behind her shook her out of her thoughts, and she turned around to find Valentina standing there, in her pajamas, a cup of something in her hands.

“Can we talk on the couch?” she asked softly. “It’s cold out here. I made chocolate,” she offered, blowing on the mug’s contents before extending it to her, like a peace offering. Something about the action, about watching her cool the drink before handing it to her, made Juliana’s throat close up. She grabbed the mug.

“Okay,” she said roughly, getting up from the chair and following Valentina inside.

Immediately she noticed how cold it truly was out there. Especially since their apartment was always toasty and comfortably warm. Valentina made sure of it after living her whole life in an immense house she deemed ‘too cold’.

She sat down on the couch, and for Val to retrieve her own mug from the kitchen.
Juliana focused on the heat of the ceramic between her hands. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to explain just how uncomfortable she felt.

Val came out of the kitchen, and finally sat down on the couch with her. Her mug read ‘ World’s greatest aunt ’ and she knew it had been a gift from Mateo, in Dani’s name. Val had said ‘We need to get Juls one, too ’ and Mateo had said ‘Of course ’. Juliana hadn’t known how to explain she didn’t want one. She wasn’t Daniela’s aunt -she was just Valentina’s girlfriend.

Valentina looked at her, her sky blue eyes shining with gentle determination. Only Val could pull off a contradiction like that.  

“What you said about your dad...I’m sorry you had to see those things,” Valentina told her softly. “I’m sorry he hurt you and your mom.”

She shrugged. Talking about her past made her extremities itch, and she regretted having exploded like that earlier.

“Well, it’s all okay now, isn’t it? He’s in Beltrán’s body and he has a son and a wife, and my mom is with Panchito.” Juliana bit her lip. Everyone was fine now, they all had new families and were happy with them. Even her mom was acting like a stand up step-mother to Panchito’s kids. Everyone had just moved on.

“That doesn’t mean you can just forget,” Val said. She pushed her tongue against her cheek, in a move so Valentina she almost smiled, despite the conversation topic. “I don’t forgive him,” Valentina stated. “For everything he put you through. I don’t even want to see his face.”

“Everyone forgave him,” Juliana said. “I think even I did.” It was hard to think about, and even more complicated to feel. Her dad being in Beltrán’s body made it easier for her to separate the man he’d been from the man he was now, which left Juliana in a weird limbo.

It almost didn’t feel like he’d done the things he did because all her horrible memories had El Chino’s body in them. Now Val’s dad. He’d threatened Valentina in his new body, he’d tried to take advantage of her mom. But he’d also saved her. He’d been kind. How could she move on with her life and still hate him?

“Well, then I’ll be mad for both of us,” Valentina said simply, and Juliana actually smiled this time. Her morrita . Always fixing everything. “Do you want to talk about that?” Valentina gently prodded. “You said some things before that you’ve never told me.”

Juliana looked away. She’d said it in the heat of the moment. The truth was, she much preferred burying things than talking about them. Valentina once told her that she felt you needed to talk about things to get over them, but Juliana wasn’t like Val. If she didn’t talk about things she could just push them to the deepest parts of her mind and leave them there, locked inside a box.

Besides, it wasn’t hers to tell, was it? It felt like she was exposing Lupe, and her mom had always told her that you don’t do that with family. Lo que pasa en casa no se lo cuentas a nadie.

But this was Valentina.

“The last time was after he transmigrated. En la casa del valle. He got drunk and he was trying to force my mom to...I broke a bottle on his head.” She remembered the noise it had made, and the trail of blood on the floor still. “I’d never actually hurt him before, you know. When I was a kid I couldn’t do anything at all.”

She must have been 9 or 10, and El Chino got home drunk off his ass.

Those times, Juliana barely breathed, and she did her best to stay out of his way.

He could just drop like a stone on the couch, in which case Juliana got to sleep in the bed with her mom. (Those were her favorite days.) Or he could be a volcano, ready to explode in a sea of violence and screams. (That was the usual.) Or he could be all cariñoso with her mom, and she particularly hated those times. That night, he was like that.

He got home stinking of beer and sweat, and he dived for her mom’s neck the minute he was inside the trailer.

“Déjame, estoy limpiando,” her mom had said, pushing him away and working twice as hard to wipe down the counters. She’d told him dinner was in the microwave, and that she’d bought his favorite beer. But that wasn’t what he was after. He stepped behind her, and squeezed her breasts over her shirt. Juliana looked away.

“Chino, cálmate.”

“¿Que me calme de que? Eres mi esposa.

Juliana hated him. And she hated the power he had over her mom. He tried to kiss her, and her mom twisted away. He grabbed her face, his fingers sinking into her cheeks. Juliana met her mom’s eyes over her dad’s shoulder. There were tears in her eyes.

And for the first time in a long time, she moved.

“¡Deja a mi mama!” she yelled, getting up from her place on the couch and pulling on his shirt. “¡Leave her alone!”

He turned around, his unfocused eyes managing to zero in on her. Juliana noticed her slip a minute too late. She’d had to learn english because everyone else spoke it at school, and her mom was proud of her for it. She’d been born here, her mom said, she was american. And yet she never spoke english at home. El Chino hated his patrones gringos, and when people made him feel lesser than them.

“A mi me hablas en español, mocosa,” he said, grabbing her by the collar of her shirt. “¿O te crees gringa ahora? ¿Te crees mejor que yo?”

“No, papá.”

“No me digas papá.”

She didn’t understand it back then, why he told her not to call him dad. She didn’t understand a lot of things, and the biggest one -his actual job- took her 18 years to find out.

“Deja a la niña,” her mom had said, her hands on his shoulders, on his cheeks, until he let go of her. ‘Leave Juliana alone, come here. She’s just a little girl. She knows she shouldn’t talk back to you. I’m sorry. Come here. I’ll do what you like.’ The litany of sentences would fall from her mom’s lips as she appeased her dad, enticed him to follow her to the bedroom and saved her from a beating.

She hated that word growing up: esposa, wife .

The pressure it carried, the responsibilities that hung from it, that seemed an awful lot like a noose around a woman’s neck.

Foolishly, Juliana thought it couldn’t apply to her anymore. Maybe she was stupid, but the whole husband and wife thing in her head was strictly for heterosexual people. Once she fell in love with Val, and with time became comfortable with the idea of being gay -she didn’t like labels, neither of them did, but Juliana felt she could never be with a man like this and Val had already tried twice before her and said she felt the same- so she thought that was it.

She didn’t have to worry about marriage anymore. About any of it.

Her mom had told her, back when she didn’t accept their relationship, that she didn’t want Juliana with Val because she wanted her to have a normal life, to get married and have children. That she would be giving up on that if she was with her. Her answer had been simple. With the family, she’d had, she didn’t want a marriage and children anyways.

Neither her nor her mom stopped to think that two women could also have those things, could get married and have kids with each other.

“I understand your mom and dad affected the way you see marriage,” Valentina said. Her words sounded measured, controlled. Like she’d practiced them. Valentina would trip over her words sometimes, so painfully open and eager she would just say what was on her mind at any given point. But not now.

“Val…” Ahora mismo no , she wanted to say. Not right now. But if not now -then when would they talk about it?

“I get it, because my parents did the same for me, the opposite way,” Valentina told her. “I don’t want to talk about you finding the ring, I want to tell you why I got it in the first place.” Val put down her mug without taking a single sip from her hot chocolate. “Do you remember when i called you late at night once, and asked you to tell me a story?” she asked. Juliana nodded. “Can I tell you one?

She nodded again. Valentina gave her a small smile.

“Growing up, well, I always thought I’d marry some guy.” Her nose scrunched up, and Juliana felt her mouth twitch. They’d changed everything for each other. She didn’t believe love like this could be possible, and yet here was Valentina. “But the guy itself wasn’t as important as the event, you know? I used to dream about my wedding day. I have pictures of little 6 year old me with toilet paper on my head, like it was my veil. My mom and I used to talk about it when I was a little girl.”

A sad smile painted Valentina’s features, like it always did when she talked about her late mother.

“You know she was a lawyer,” Val said. Juliana nodded. They’d talked about the late Elena De Carvajal a few times. “Well, she used to do a lot of pro-bono cases because she didn’t need to actually work. After my siblings and I were born she stayed home most of the time, apart from when she worked on her charities. I remember me and we would sit together at the dinner table and make crafts with magazine cutouts of quinceañera dresses and wedding dresses, and we would talk about how I’d dress on those occasions...I never had a Quinceañera party, you know?”

“Me neither.”

“I was in Canada, and my dad just removed the cap on my credit card and bought a tour through Europe for me and some of my friends,” Valentina said. “I would’ve preferred the party, truth be told. What did you do?”

Juliana was never a huge fan of celebrating her birthday, but that one had been special.

“My mom bought me a cake from a nice store in town,” she told Valentina. “An actual bakery, not Walmart. And my dad wasn’t home that entire week.” The atmosphere was different, when he wasn’t around. Lighter. Like that moment when you drop a heavy backpack off your shoulders.

“My mom and I ate too much cake, and she painted my nails for the first time. I used to bite them way more than I do now so I barely had any,” she mentioned, and Valentina smiled. Val had the habit of taking her fingers out of her mouth when Juliana was about to start chewing on her nails again. Ever since her mom had been kidnapped, it hadn’t happened often. She hadn’t been that anxious again. “It was black nail polish. I liked it. And then we stayed on the couch the whole night watching movies, and I got to sleep in the bedroom with her.”

Valentina knew she hadn’t had a room of her own, or a bed, for the first 18 years of her life. Their trailer’s couch had been her bed, and that made Juliana treasure every night she got to go to sleep in Valentina’s arms, in their big comfortable bed, burrowed in soft sheets smelling of lavender and Valentina.

“Did you miss your mom a lot?” Juliana asked, done with her story. It was enough. “On your birthday?”

“Yes, in a way,” Val answered her. “But I think with enough time you get used to it. The ache fades.” Val shrugged. “She died when I was 7, by the time I turned 15 she’d been dead half of my life already. But it was the date, you know? We planned my quinceañera when I was a little girl, and my wedding, and she wouldn’t be there for either of those days.”

Juliana -for once in her life- decided to be brave.

“You planned your whole wedding?”

Valentina smiled. It was careful, like she knew they were threading on thin ice.

“Oh, yes. I remember I flip-flopped between wanting to get married on the beach, or in the snow. And then my parents took me skiing and I realized snow was cold.”

Juliana smiled, wide and unbridled, and Valentina smiled in return. Then it turned tentative, unsure. They were fighting, they had spent the day in the middle of an argument. But neither of them could help the joy that bubbled up whenever they were close to each other.  

When they met both their lives had been going through difficult times, and bad things had kept happening, but they were a bright spot in each other’s lives. Valentina credited her with being the only reason she wasn’t dead from alcohol poisoning, and she’d never laughed as much as she did with Valentina. They still did that for each other.

But then, the mood went back to its previous somber atmosphere.

“I know your childhood was different than mine,” Valentina told her. “I understand what you said about your parent’s marriage. And I know I don’t fully...get it, what that was like.” Juliana looked away. She didn’t like this, didn’t like feeling like she was damaged, or traumatized. She wasn’t. Valentina searched for her eyes, and Juliana met them. “Because my parents loved each other so much. When mom got sick...my dad tried to be strong for us, but I caught him crying at night, when he thought we were all in bed. He only started working too much after she died, you know?”

Valentina’s voice took on that airy quality it didn’t when she got emotional, and Juliana had to clasp her hands to avoid reaching out to her.

“Things kind of went to shit after what happened to my mom, truth be told. My dad used to say she was the glue that kept our family together.”

Not for the first time, Juliana wished Elena De Carvajal was alive. Valentina deserved to have her mother by her side -and she was curious, too. What kind of woman she had to have been, to have a daughter like Valentina.

“Every friday, we’d all go to the movies and the arcade,” Valentina kept talking. “We’d have breakfast together every single morning before we went to school and dad went to work. I missed that more than anything, when I was in Canada, you know? You know I left right before I turned 15 and I came back with my high school diploma and like, half a foot taller.”

Juliana smiled at the thought. Not for the first time, she wished they could have met sooner, even if at that age Val could have been babysitting her. She was so in love with her she wanted to know every part of her, everything she’d lived before she came along. With time, Valentina had told her pretty much everything about her time in high-school in Canada, and it had always sounded lonely. Valentina confirmed it had felt that way. She’d told her how she felt alone in a room full of people, because they weren’t her people.

She can’t imagine growing up away from her family, from Lupe, at least. Her mom had been her best friend for the first 18 years of her life.

“I missed all those breakfasts,” Val said. “Some days, that was the only time we got to see dad, after mom died. And before...Don’t get me wrong, Eva was a nightmare before her coffee, even as a teenager, and Guille was always half asleep, but my dad? He’d sit at the head of the table, and my mom would sit on his right side, and I’d sit on his left.” Val smiled. “Porque yo era la más chiquita.”

“La princesa de la casa,” Juliana said. It was a nickname she’d read Eva still used with Valentina, in the occasional letters she’d send from prison. Princess . Juliana was never told fairytales, but she’s sure if she had, she would have pictured someone just like Valentina.

“Yes,” Val admitted, slightly blushing. “And my mom would say: ‘we don’t talk about work during breakfast’, and my dad would shut up so fast about the company. And he’d ask Eva about school, and Guille about sports, and me about my horses. Mom would tell him I was getting better every day. He’d promise to go to my practices. He managed to, most of the time.”

Juliana could picture it, even if it sounded so idyllic it seemed more fitting for a Hollywood movie than someone’s life. It sounded lovely, and rather than being jealous- she was glad. Valentina deserved that, even if she only had it for a little while. And it also made sense. Her girlfriend was nothing but love, and it made sense considering how she’d been raised. Everyone had loved Val since the moment she was born, they’d nurtured her and protected her, and the amazing woman that she was had been the result.

Juliana only wished she could match her sweetness, that she could love her the way she deserved to be loved.

Her biggest fear was that Val would get cut on her jagged edges. That El Chino’s violence and her mother’s impassiveness had affected her just like Val’s parents affected her, but obviously for the worst

“And, this was my favorite part,” Valentina kept talking, oblivious to the dark thoughts swimming through her head like black ink on a fishtank. “They’d hold hands. That’s what I remember the most. My mom was left handed, so they were always holding hands even when they were doing other stuff. It was hilarious to watch.”

Valentina’s voice caught, even as she smiled, and Juliana said to hell with their fight. She hated this distance. When they first got together, she found it difficult, to start contact between them, but now it was as natural as breathing. The only unnatural thing was to not be touching each other.

Juliana extended her arm over the back of the couch, her palm up. Valentina took the invitation, and held her hand. It was immediate, the comfort it brought. She hoped valentina could feel it too.

“I always wanted that, Juls,” Val said, squeezing her hand. “I wanted my own house, with my own dining room, and my own huge table that’s too big for all of us. When I thought about a wedding I planned the cake, and the dress, and the guests -I honestly thought about sitting plans for all my stuffed animals. And when I was a little older I thought about the after part, you know? Maybe I was too young for it, but I’d remember mom and dad, and I’d see the couples in Eva’s telenovelas that I wasn’t allowed to watch, and I’d want that. It was romantic.”

She can picture it, Valentina at 11 or 12 years old, already with a heart too big for her chest, dreaming about love.

“And then I actually grew up and started dating and realized how naive I’d been,” Valentina said. “But after I met you, everything came back. The faceless guy I saw sitting at the head of the table when I was a kid turned into you. Maybe with some notebooks full of designs you haven't finished. With a pencil in your ear. Me telling you to put it away because ‘we don't talk about work during breakfast’ .”

Juliana’s breath caught in her chest as she pictured what Valentina was saying.

She’d never given it any real thought, and she swore Val hadn’t either, but not she realized she’d been wrong. And the world that Val painted with her words was beautiful-perhaps too beautiful be realistic. But Val had definitely thought about it, she’d put it together in her head. A word where she sat at the head of some imaginary table, and got chastised for bringing work home. Where she was her wife .

“That’s what marriage means to me,” Valentina said. “Something solid, unbreakable. Something only death can end, and looking at my dad and Lucía, well, not even that. It’s like...two people turning the love they share into something tangible, you know? Like…” Val let go of her hand, and put them together like she was holding a box. “This is my marriage. This is the thing I’m choosing to build with you for the rest of our lives.” Valentina looked up at Juliana, and she swallowed through the knot in her throat.

She couldn’t name the feelings bubbling up in her chest.

She wanted nothing more than to believe her, to accept her words as truth, to grasp her explanation of marriage and replace the one in her mind with it. Valentina’s words were precious, and earnest, and she hated herself for not believing them. It was too good to be true. Life couldn’t be that simple, not for her.

Valentina held her hands again. They fit perfectly together.

“It’s not just promising to take care of each other, and listen to each other, and love each other but doing it. Working hard at it,” she said vehemently. “Making it strong enough to bring chi-” Val stopped herself, and shook her head. But Juliana heard it anyways. Children . Her blood ran cold. “And I know we don’t have to be married for any of that to happen. We pretty much do all of it already. But, I don’t know...I just wanted you to know what I was thinking when I got that ring off my family’s vault.”

It was that one detail, that stopped her in her tracks.

“You didn’t buy it?” she asked Val. She’d given very little thought to the actual ring Val was talking about with Guille in her texts, but she’d simply assumed she’d bought it, gone to some jewelry shop that would still make her incredibly uncomfortable from how expensive it was, and picked a ring. But she hadn’t, apparently.

“No,” Valentina confirmed. “It belonged to my mother. Guille didn’t dare ask for it, but I did. My dad gave it to me.”  

And that was what finally broke her.

She looked away as a tear slipped down her cheek, and her face crumpled. Valentina had loved her mother dearly, she still remembered her with the veneration due a saint, and she’d wanted Juliana to have her engagement ring. Something about that made her chest hurt.

“Don’t cry, chiquita,” Valentina pleaded. “ Mi amor .”

“I’m sorry,” she said roughly, angry at herself.

“No, Juls…”

Valentina used the leverage she had, and pulled on her hands, so Juliana ended up kneeling between her legs on the couch, against her chest. Valentina hugged her tight. She closed her eyes, feeling the hot, senseless tears fall against her eyelashes. She didn’t know why she was crying, and she still hated it. And Valentina’s arms around her, careful yet strong, loving yet firm, only made her feel more like she was made of water, and liable to wash away if Val let her go.

After a few minutes, Juliana pulled away.

“I...I-”

“You don’t have to say anything right now,” Val told her, wiping Juliana’s tears the way she did, putting her hands to her face like Juliana was something of hers, some precious thing under her protection. She wiped her own cheeks next, and Juliana’s stomach squeezed at seeing her teary eyes again.

“Would you come to bed?” she asked, thankful Val had given her an out, given her permission to not mention anything she’d just said. She didn’t know what to say about any of that. She still hadn’t fully processed it, or how she felt about it. So asking her to come to bed was her next best option. “Please?” she insisted. “I know I don’t deserve it, but I can’t bear for you to be out here by yourself. At least let me take the couch.”

Valentina shook her head. She looked like she was going to protest her choice of words, but she didn’t. She simply grabbed Juliana’s hand again.

“Las dos nos vamos a la cama.”

They’d never managed to spend a night apart after they’d moved in together, and tonight would be no different.

Still, it felt different, as she changed and they climbed into bed.

She was used to having Valentina’s arms around her, and they weren’t. She was turned on her side, checking her phone like she often did before bed. Juliana wished the bed was smaller, like the one she and her mom had shared when they first came to Mexico, so they’d be forced to touch. Her back felt cold without Valentina’s warm weight against her.

She felt lonely even with her on the bed, because it seemed as though there was a chasm separating them.

She couldn't ask her to hold her, she didn't deserve that. But she’d ask her one thing she needed to know -the one thought that ate her alive as she stepped out of her jeans and T-shirt and pulled on a soft, worn sweater that was originally Valentina’s.

“Don’t you see it as being trapped?” she asked.

“What?” Val asked, turning around as she put her phone down.

“What if you stop loving me one day,” she said clearly. “Won’t marriage mean you're trapped?”

Valentina looked a mix between hurt and shocked.

“That is never going to happen,” Val said, but Juliana shook her head.

“We’re together now, and I love you, and you love me.” By some miracle, she did. Valentina loved her in every way, her actions, her words, her kisses. Juliana didn’t doubt that. But she was afraid, she was full of doubts. “But what if one day you stop, and you stay... tied to me, because there’s a paper that says you should. And you’re not happy.”

She knew Valentina loved her because she didn’t need to do this, not any of this. Juliana had learned that love was conditioned, and conditional. Her mom had to love her because she was her daughter. El Chino hadn’t even loved her because of that. Val had no reason to. They’d just fallen in love, and fallen together, and found out they fit like pieces of a puzzle.

It was the most natural, perfect thing she’d felt. She was sure of their love.

Valentina didn’t need to give her a back massage after she spent hours hunched over her desk, going over designs. Nobody asked her to spend entire days as Chivis’ shadow, so she could learn how to cook for her. There was no reason for her to wake up early on saturdays to make her breakfast, or to call her and let her know where she was so she wouldn’t worry, or to kiss her, or to make love to her, or to listen to her crap, or to forgive her for it. But she did it all anyways, because she loved her.

Marriage would ruin that. She wouldn’t know if Valentina made her breakfast because that’s what she wanted, or because she thought she needed to because she was her wife. It was as simple as that. Adding children to it would only make the situation worse, not to mention it brought up another entirely different slew of problems. She could try to be a good wife, but she’d be a terrible mother.

“Juliana,” Val said seriously, sitting up in bed. Juliana mimicked her positions. ”That is never going to happen,” she repeated. “Never. But even if it did, divorce exists. If for some insane reason, in some parallel universe, after aliens attacked, we decided we didn't want to be married anymore...then we could get a divorce. And then go see pigs fly. But we wouldn’t be trapped.” She grabbed Juliana’s hand over the comforter. “No es como si nos pudiéramos casar por la iglesia,” she said offhandedly. “Is this about your mom and El Chino?”

Juliana shrugged. It was how she felt about marriage in general.

“Bebecita, I love you. And I always will,” Val said, caressing the back of her hand with her thumb. “But if one day you realize you don’t love me anymore-”

“Val, no-”

“You could leave me. You could divorce me. I would never hate you for that. You wouldn’t be trapped. I never want you to be anything but free.”

“It’s not about me,” Juliana argued. “When I think about my mom and dad and us, I always see you as Lupe. What if im my father’s daughter? I know I don’t talk about my feelings as much as you’d like me to, and when something bothers me I’d rather keep it inside, and sometimes I get so mad…”

“Juliana, listen to me,” Val said, cupping her cheek.”You’re nothing like your father. He was an asshole, and you’re the sweetest person-”

Juliana turned away, making Valentina let go of her face. She didn’t deserve Val saying those things about her when she’d gone snooping through her phone and found out what she found out. She’d ruined something, why wasn’t Val more angry at her?

“Babe. All the things you went through….they made you strong, stronger than you had to be, but they didn’t make you hard. You're not hard to love,” Valentina said softly. “You’ve never been hard on me. Apart from that time, lo de las pastillitas.”

Juliana looked up at Valentina’s sheepish expression. She’d told Val to stop taking those drugs, and her girlfriend had acquiesced without a second thought.

“And that’s what I needed at the time, you were just looking out for me. And all I ever want to do is look out for you, take care of you.” Val ran her fingers through her head, clearly thinking. Juliana stared at her, hardly able to look away. “I think I see marriage as this wings to help us fly higher, because we’re stronger together, but you see it as shackles.” Juliana blinked. She didn’t know if Val’s assessment was correct, but her girlfriend didn’t give her time to say anything. “And I don’t hold that against you. But can I ask you something?”

Juliana nodded.

“I want you to really think about this, because we’re not your parents,” she said. “Hell, we’re not my parents either. We should just...stop thinking about our parents and think about us . Do you think we could try that?” she asked. “And then just...keep talking. No pressure. We can decide together. Forget about the ring.”

“But about kids-”

“One thing at a time, don’t you think?”

Juliana nodded. Valentina was looking at her with hurt in her eyes, she could see it there, but most of all she love and a tenderness that made her ache inside, even after 3 years.

“Perdóname por lo del teléfono,” she said again.

“It’s fine.” Valentina frowned. “That's not how I wanted you to find out was going to propose to you.”

Juliana bit her lip. “I’m sorry for ruining your proposal.”

Valentina huffed. “It's okay. It would’ve been worse if I asked and you said no.”

“I don't know if I would have said no.” She knew in that moment, that if Valentina had knelt and asked her to marry her, her answer would have been yes, regardless of her doubts or her fears.

“That would have been even worse,” Val said. “I don’t want you to be unhappy, I don’t want you to do something that you don’t feel just to please me.”

“I know. It’s just -I could never be unhappy by your side," Juliana replied. Still, after these 3 years, she was surprised by the intensity of the love she had for the woman in front of her. She knew that it would never change.

It was more likely that the sun would go out than she would stop loving Valentina.

And still, the thought of marriage was so strange, so foreign, that she couldn't get over her doubts so easily. She wanted to, God, how she wanted to. She just wanted to make Val happy. And that was the crux of it. How could she make her happy with something that in her experience brought nothing but pain and heartache?

I don’t want you to be unhappy , she wanted to say, but didn’t, so she told Valentina the next best thing -which was also true.

“I just don’t want to taint what we have.”

Valentina sighed.

Juliana took the face of her girlfriend between her hands, and stared at her. Seldom was she as verbally expressive as Valentina -it cost her a lot after a lifetime trying to be invisible. But when it was important she managed to get what she needed to say out there.

"I love you more than anything in the world, and that will never change," she told Valentina. “That's all I know right now.”

Valentina pressed a small kiss on her lips.

"That’s enough for me," she said. “Ahora y siempre.” And then she pulled Juliana in by the neck and pulled her closer, to give her a longer kiss. Val's lips tasted salty because of her tears, their tears. She didn’t want to be the cause for Val’s tears, and she was tired of crying herself.

Juliana loved all their kisses, but she hated this kind, and she’d felt it twice already today.

“Can you hold me?” Valentina asked when she pulled away. Juliana nodded. Valentina turned on her side, put her phone on her nightstand, and turned her lamp off, plunging the room into darkness.

Juliana sneaked one arm below Val’s neck, and her other over her side. She scooted closer, until there was no space between them, her chest pressed to Valentina’s back. She felt so fragile yet solid between her arms. Juliana knew in that moment she’d die if there ever came a day where she didn’t have this.

“Hold me tight,” Valentina said softly. “Don’t let me go.”

“I won’t,” she told her, tightening her arms around her. Val sighed.

“Te amo, chiquita,” Valentina whispered.

Juliana kissed her cheek, and drifted off to sleep. Her dreams that night were a warzone.

Chapter Text

 Valentina wasn’t there when Juliana woke up.

 She stretched with her eyes closed, hoping to bump into the warmth of her body and curl up for a few more minutes of sleep, but the bed was empty, the sheets cool. Juliana opened her eyes against the morning light, only to find a post it on the bedside lamp, explaining the lack of Valentina.

post-it

 

Juliana couldn’t help the immediate feeling in her chest, like a balloon deflating. 

Every once in a while Val would make time to spend with her brother, and a couple weeks ago they’d actually gone away for the weekend together, but she’d always let her know beforehand. She didn’t begrudge Val her time with her brother -they were close, she knew that- but Juliana didn’t like being caught off guard. 

She was not a fan of surprises either. She still hesitated sometimes whenever Val asked her to close her eyes to give her something she’d bought her, or make her taste something she’d brought home. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her -she did, with her life. But the helplessness of those few seconds her eyes were closed would never agree with her. Surprise parties would never be her thing.

Where Val went where the wind took her, and often made split second decisions at a moment’s notice, Juliana liked stability. She needed it, needed to know what to expect to feel comfortable.

She sighed, and rubbed her eyes as she got out of bed. It wasn’t just not knowing -she simply missed Valentina when she was gone, every time.

Juliana padded to the kitchen, wondering what Val could have made before she left. She burned pancakes, every single time. Breakfast was strictly Juliana’s territory.

 It was her favorite meal of the day, for a variety of reasons.

Back in Texas, when she woke up, El Chino was already gone for the day, and her mom would make her a quick breakfast before she left to clean whatever house she was cleaning that day, and before Juliana went to school. If they woke up early enough, they could even have breakfast together. Most weekends, she was left to her own devices, and she could make herself molletes, or huevos rancheros, and be as loud as she pleased.

And although Valentina made a strong case for dinner-either those romantic dinners at the dining room table with mirror glasses of red wine, or those relaxed chinese takeout dinners around their coffee table, both of them in sweatpants- nowadays, breakfast was still her favorite meal of the day. 

During the week, they’d wake up at 6, which gave them enough time to roll around in bed for a bit, shower, and eat a quick breakfast together. Orange juice, coffee, toast, scrambled eggs. Valentina would get a pot of coffee going while Juliana showered, and she’d get the rest done while Valentina got ready. 

On weekends, they could take their time. Valentina would chop up fruit for a fruit salad, and feed her little pieces of it in between getting it ready. She had a sweet tooth and would drizzle it with condensed milk every time. Juliana would make frijoles, and scrambled eggs, and if she wanted to get fancy, chilaquiles con huevos estrellados y salsa verde. Valentina swore she’d gained weight ever since they started living together. Juliana, who was very much acquainted with Valentina’s slim thighs from having them wrapped around her head, knew that was a lie.

 If the weather was fresh, they’d have their banquet of a breakfast on the little table they had outside, on the balcony, and they’d eat together overlooking the city. Her favorite mornings were Sundays, when it had just rained, and she could smell it on the air along with the smell of the food. 

Remembering all that only made her feel slightly disappointed when she opened the fridge and found a take out bag from I-hop. Of course.

She heated up her pancakes in the microwave, all the time wishing Val was there.

It wasn’t just her abrupt absence that bothered her, but what it could mean.

Was she mad, after yesterday? She hadn’t seemed so, they’d gone to bed pressed together and Val had told her she loved her-but maybe their conversations had been like a bruise, had developed overnight and hurt worse in the morning. 

Juliana bit her lip. 

She wasn’t ready to think about everything yesterday had been, she didn’t think she could do that on an empty stomach. But she got her cellphone out, intent on sending Val a text. She was always the first person she spoke with when the day started, and the last person she talked to before falling asleep. Anything else felt wrong. 

Juliana saw her girlfriend had already sent her a couple messages earlier in the morning. 

Buenos días bb!!! 

Juliana smiled. She could hear Val saying it. 

I’m with Guille in case you didn’t see my note. There’s pancakes in the fridge. 

Juliana texted her back, hoping she wasn’t still driving. 

I saw them and your note. Thanks. Have fun with your brother.

 She hesitated before typing the last part of her message. She always felt a little bit on uneven ground after a fight, unsure on when to show affection again and how. But she typed it anyways. 

Te quiero. <3 

She put her phone down, and took her plastic tray filled with pancakes, eggs and bacon outside. The food reminded her a bit of Texas, a wholesome American breakfast. She wasn’t a fan, truth be told. 

She sat outside, curling her legs beneath herself, and munched on the food while she overlooked the city. 

It looked better than yesterday. Back in San Antonio she’d thought that cities always looked better in the dark, the stars and lamp posts offering very little light and keeping the ugly parts of the town unseen. But Mexico isn’t like that. In the dark she can’t see the colors of the houses in her colonia, or the elote stands doting the corners. 

Maybe her mood has changed too. Back in San Antonio, she was intent on being invisible, and she was angry at the world. Now, she’s in the spotlight sometimes -because of her relationship with Val and her own success as a young designer- and she’s only angry at herself. 

Why was she like this? Why couldn’t she give Valentina what she wanted? Deep down, when she took a look at things, she knew she was being illogical. If what she felt was right, then nobody would want to get married, but it was still on 99% of people's to-do lists. And yet she couldn't stop feeling that way.

She tried to do what Val said, and think about them as a married couple. 

She started with the basics. 

Juliana had grown up in a trailer park. For her first 2 or 3 years she’d shared a room with her parents, a bassinet squeezed between their bed and the wall, and when she was old enough to not roll off, the couch had become her bed. Not a proper room, and so out in the open that she always curled into a ball growing up, scared of the shadows formed by the pots and pans and their small dining room table. The storage space beneath the couch was the only space she had to herself, to keep her sketchbooks and pencils, and the small amount of clothes she had. 

The gorgeous apartment where she and Val lived now was definitely more than she ever hoped for.

If they got married, Juliana assumed that Valentina would follow the family tradition and they would move to a nice, gigantic house, with a garden and a pool. Guille and Renata had done it. Even their cat had his own room, although Guille swore it’d be a nursery when they had children and Tlacoyo’s reign would end. 

Valentina would probably want that -a big house. Not big enough to feel cold, but large. She was used to it. Their apartment was inmense to Juliana, but she knew it was a matchbox compared to what Val had grown up with. Maybe she’d hire a housekeeper or two, and a gardener as well. There would probably be people calling her “señora” and cleaning her house for her. Cooking for her. The idea was foreign.

She loved how she and Val were responsible for this little corner of the world.

Even cleaning was fun with her. They’d made post-laundry makeouts on top of the washing machine almost a tradition by now. She was used to doing things by herself -she’d had to look after herself since she was a child. She’d get home from school by herself when she was 8 or 9, and would make herself cup noodles for lunch in their small microwave. Her mom would get home hours later, after work, and hurry to make dinner for her dad, who would always arrive last.

 She hated that, the hurrying. She remembered her mother placing a plate of food down, fork and knife by the side of it, a cold beer freshly opened just to the right, and then the waiting while he got home. It was her duty as his wife, after all.

 Juliana groaned. She was trying to imagine good things, but her brain wasn’t listening to her. She tried to think of something else, and she landed on something she hadn’t thought about in the least.

She wondered who would take who’s surname. Juliana had El Chino’s last name, that was true, but she had taken it and made it her own. But her designs bore the name "Juliana" only. Was there a difference if Valdés or Carvajal came next? And would it work the other way around? Would Valentina want to stain her name with the name of a murderer? If they got married, maybe they could do what Renata did, and hyphenate. Juliana Carvajal-Valdés. Valentina Carvajal-Valdés. It was strange, but at least it didn’t sound bad.

Their last name was really the least of her concerns, however. She swallowed the last piece of bacon, and covered the rest of the pancakes with the plastic lid. She wasn’t hungry anymore.

She couldn’t sit around thinking all day either. She had to work. 

She had some emails to answer regarding fabric orders, and 2 pencil designs -made by someone else- to make digital. There were a lot more menial tasks to fulfill than she expected working with this fashion designer, but it had been her first week. She was sure everything would come in time, and she was determined on proving her worth and paving her own way. 

She didn’t know any other way to live. The world was difficult, and harsh, and youhad to learn to live in it as well as you could. At least in the fashion sphere she only had to deal with catty designers and people’s over-inflated egos. But she’d seen much more, she knew the ugly underbelly of society keenly.

 Her brain wandered to Valentina’s desire to have children without her control. Beyond herself and her failings if she ever became a mother, the world was a horrible place.

It was full of murderers and rapists. Her own father had been a hired gun. How could Lucia, and Eva, and anyone, just bring children into the world, innocent children that couldn’t defend themselves? How could her own mother? Lupe had said she’d lied her whole life about her dad’s job to protect her, but Juliana still believed that if she’d known she would have been prepared. Was that what having kids was about? Lying to them, speaking in baby voices, pretending the world was soft and sweet as cotton candy, and then letting them crash into the full reality of it when they turned 18?

Neither that, nor marriage, made any sense to her. But Val had asked her to try thinking about them, and so she did.

 

🌸💀🌸

 

Valentina drove through the quaint streets close to Guille and Renata’s house.

It was just on the outskirts of the city, close enough that she could easily drive there and visit him, but far enough that it was ‘peaceful’ according to her brother. Valentina scrunched up her nose just thinking about it. She’d always liked the city. It had been a treat to ride with Alirio to school each morning, watching the buses and the people go by outside her window. And back in Canada, her boarding school had been an hour from Toronto. Valentina had gone there every single weekend of her senior year, when she was finally old enough to check herself out of the school.

Mexico City was different, and yet the same. She liked the clubs, the nightlife, the shopping malls. The ease that being close to everything made her feel. She didn’t think she could live in a house like Guille’s, or her dad’s house, where you couldn’t listen to cars driving past outside.

She’d wanted to talk to Juliana about that, too. Where they wanted to live long term had been one of the topics she’d planned on talking about before she proposed. And then Juliana had found she’d been planning to propose, and her reaction had been….Everything had gone up in flames.

It’s part of why she needed to get out of the apartment. She’d spent weeks trying to delicately bring up all those topics with Juliana, and now she wasn’t ready for another round of talking. Last night had been emotionally draining, and this morning she still felt exhausted. She also saw things from a different perspective, looking at them through Juliana’s eyes. 

They weren’t just on different pages about marriage, they were on completely different books.

She’d texted Guille that morning, and when he’d asked if she needed some brother/sister time, she'd said yes. Guille told her Renata would be visiting a friend for most of the day, and so she found herself ordering I-hop with UberEats, and then getting dressed without bothering to shower.

She left Juliana the food in the fridge, feeling a pang of regret that she would miss their usual Sunday breakfasts. But she needed to see her brother, to get out of the apartment for a little while.

She didn’t want to wake Juliana, but she ran her thumb over her cheek and pressed a kiss to her forehead before leaving. She looked so peaceful when she slept, and Valentina wanted nothing more than for her to always look like that, at peace, without a care in the world. She’d looked anything but last night, and it still hurt.

Valentina shook her head, trying to rid it of dark thoughts as the gates opened and she pulled into her brother’s driveway. She parked her car, and Guille walked out as soon as she stepped out.

“¡Hermanito!” she exclaimed, before running up to him and crushing him in a hug. She’d seen him last week, but she still missed living under the same roof with him and having him available to pester 24/7.

“Enana,” he said, affection coloring his voice. He squeezed her tight, and Valentina sighed. It was exactly what she needed. She didn’t let go even when he did.

“¿Pasa algo?” he asked gently, squeezing her shoulders. Valentina took a deep breath.

“Juliana knows,” she said.

“She knows….what?”

“She knows I was going to propose,” she clarified, finally stepping away from Guille.

“Wait, so you didn’t propose?”

“No! She found out. She saw our texts but before that we were fighting...it’s a long story.” Her voice broke. It wasn’t so long as it was sad, and confusing, and she still hadn’t fully made sense of it. Guille seemed to understand. Her brother threw his arm around her shoulders and kissed her forehead.

“Let’s go inside,” he said. Valentina walked with him.

Flor, Guille’s housekeeper, greeted her at the door. The girl was a niece of Silvina’s, and she'd needed a place to work and live while she went to college at night, and Guille had hired her. The fact that they were helping her with short hours and giving her a place to live in the city as much as she would be helping them with cooking and cleaning, was pretty much the only reason Renata agreed to have a maid in the first place.

She’d been there while Juliana and Renata talked about it, and Valentina felt very out of place. She’d grown up with maids, some who lived at the property, and with Silvina, who didn’t only run the house but took the place of her nanny as well. Housekeepers, gardeners, drivers. It was normal for her. But Juliana and Renata were clearly uncomfortable with the idea.

That was another thing they should have talked about. Would they hire help if they got married and moved to a bigger place? It simply made sense to get someone to help with the cleaning, at least, if Juliana didn’t want someone to cook for them. But they never got around to talking about that either.

“So?” Guille asked, sitting down on the couch. He patted the cushion next to him, and Valentina plopped down there. “¿Que pasó?”

And so Valentina told him what happened.

From the moment they fought yesterday morning, to having dinner at her dad’s and seeing Juliana holding her baby sister, to their conversations yesterday at night. It felt like removing a weight from her shoulders, finally saying it all out loud.

“And she started saying all these things about how her dad had been horrible to them but her mom had stayed with him bc they were married and-”

“See? That’s it,” Guille interjected. “That’s what marriage is to her. Something horrible to trap people.”

“I know. But how can she think we’d be like that? Us? We’re...we’re us .” Juliana y Valentina. Valentina y Juliana. They were a team, a combo meal, there couldn’t be one without the other. Getting married would only solidify what was already there.  

“I don’t think it’s about you two,” Guille told her. “Maybe she’s against, I don’t know, the thing itself. Like that time an old lady threw her tea on you at church and you refused to go for the next 3 months. I’m pretty sure that woman died in the meantime and you still wouldn't go.”

Valentina frowned, trying to remember that. They hadn’t gone to church together in ages. When they were children, her dad was more of a Christmas mass, ‘una vez al año no hace daño’ type of guy. By the time she was 14, she and Guille were sneaking out in the middle of mass to sip eggnog and rum with his friends by the side of the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María.

“You were like 6,” Guille clarified. “It was before mom passed away.”

Oh . She remembered now.

She actually liked going to church as a little girl. They didn’t go to the huge cathedral they attended when she was older, but rather the little community church nearest to their house that her mom favored. It was the only time during the week that she could stand to sit still for an hour. Her brother and sister hated it, but she liked sitting between her mom and dad, dressing up in frilly dresses and shiny black shoes, singing the hymns, and running around with the kids afterward. And then an old woman, a friend of her mom’s, had leaned over her and thrown her hot tea on her chest. The fact that her dress had been ruined hurt worse than the heat, and she felt horribly embarrassed walking around in stained clothes in front of everybody. And then Eva, who’d gotten her first bra the previous week and knew Valentina was jealous, told her the hot tea on her chest made it so now she’d never have boobs, which made her cry. (And damned Eva, it ended up being true.)

She threw a tantrum every time her mom wanted to take her to church after that, and she didn’t go for months, staying home with Silvina instead. And then she got over it and started going again. By then, she didn’t know it, but her mom was in the last stages of cancer.

The last time she went to church with her entire family was for her funeral.

“So Juliana’s parents had a shitty marriage and now she hates marriage altogether?” she said, scoffing. And then she realized what she'd just said.

It was true that one bad experience at church had turned her off the entire thing for a while. Had growing up watching her parents’ marriage turned Juliana off the whole thing? That...that made an awful lot of sense when she put it that way. She understood -and she felt like shit for not arriving here yesterday. Sure, she knew that her parents had affected Juls, she’d said so as much, but she hadn’t truly understood until Guille had put it in such simple terms.

She’d been personally offended when Juliana painted marriage in a bad light, she realized that now, because while her girlfriend talked about it as a concept, separate from them, she’d taken it as an attack on what they’d be if they got married. It wasn’t.

She’d thought she needed to make Juliana understand that just because her parents had a bad marriage didn't mean the two of them would have bad marriage. She hadn't realized she should have been trying to make her see that just because her parents had a bad marriage, that did not mean marriage itself was bad.

Juliana’s reticence went deeper than she’d realized.

Valentina started to feel guilty, for not knowing her girlfriend enough, for not being in tune with the woman she loved enough to know that this is how she would feel.

Maybe it was stupid to beat herself up for not guessing Juliana’s thoughts, but she couldn’t help it.

“Exactly,” Guille said. “What you’re saying...it’s almost like she loves you too much to marry you. Which does sound crazy. But I mean, if in her head it’s this awful thing, then why would she want that for you two?”

It made some type of sense, Valentina recognized that. And she also recognized that you couldn’t be logical when you’d been through hard things. She still remembered the awful days after she and Lucía were held hostage, when she thought every sound were the cartel’s men coming to finish the job, where every time she closed her eyes she swore she felt the breath of Armenta on her skin, with no Lucía around to take her place when he threatened to rape her. The way she acted wasn’t logical, trauma seldom was.

“I don’t need to get married,” she told Guille. “I honestly don’t, if she decides she really doesn’t want that for us.” If Juliana associated marriage with too many negative things to ever be comfortable with it, then she could deal with that. They didn’t have to get married. “But it’s not just marriage, Guille. I tried talking about kids and...I don’t need to get married, but...”

“You need to be a mom,” he finished for her.

Valentina looked up at him, feeling the way her eyes watered. She bit her lip. She was more thankful than ever for the type of brother she had. He’d never excluded when they were little, always played with her when she asked, even if it meant having to sit down and have tea with her and her dolls. He’d looked after her after their mom had died. They’d go on vacations together, his friends, her. They were close, almost as if there was no age difference between them. They’d always told each other everything. They were each other’s priorities growing up -and even when that changed, when Renata and Juliana came along, he was still a pillar for her to lean on.

It meant more than she could say to be able to talk to him about this.

She nodded, and Guille squeezed her shoulder.

“I want that so badly one day. I’ve never even thought about not having children of my own. And I can tell she hates the idea.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“There’s nothing I can do. I hope she changes her mind, but if she doesn’t, I’ll just have to deal with it.”

“Val…” he trailed of. She knew what he was thinking, the same thing her dad and even Juliana herself had thought, and she wouldn’t stand for it.

“Don’t even say it. Juliana is it for me.”

“I know,” Guille said. “Y yo quiero mucho a cuñada, y tu lo sabes.” He scratched his beard, not meeting her eyes. “But Vale...she’s the first woman you’ve been with.” She shook her head, but he pushed through. “Hear me out. Maybe you didn’t love someone like this before because you’d been looking in the wrong places. Maybe you can feel this way about some other woman-”

“Could you divorce Renata and fall in love again?”

“That’s different-”

“Why? Because you’re a man and a woman?”

“What? Val, no. you know I’ve never had a problem with that.”

“I know. Im sorry. I…” She was just too overwhelmed, too full of every feeling under the sun, and it was all threatening to burst out of her.

“I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just, you’re my sister. I don’t want you to give up on the things you want in life. You have to be sure-”

“I am sure. She’s the only thing I’m sure of right now.” Her chest felt tight, everything they’d said to each other yesterday coming back, all the hopes and dreams she had crashing to the ground.

“Come here,” Guille said, opening his arms and pulling her in. “Just let it out.”

And before she knew it she was crying.

 

🌸💀🌸

 

Juliana put away her graphic tablet around 1pm.

Time always flew by when she was working, and she finished the designs quicker than she expected. E-mails answered and inbox empty, she had nothing to do. Valentina had texted back saying she’d have lunch at Guille's, and that left Juliana to her own devices.

She decided to call her mom.   

They spent less time together since they stopped living under the same roof, but even before that, her mom had married Panchito, and she’d spent more time out of their apartment anyways to give them time to themselves. But now, at least, they told each other everything, like they did when she was growing up.

Actually, it was better. Because her mom wasn’t lying about her dad anymore, and she wasn’t keeping Valentina a secret.

And Juliana really, really needed to get out of the apartment. She’d done her thinking, and nothing had changed, and now she just felt like she’d go insane if she spent another second in here alone.

Her mom answered on the second ring.

“Juli!” she exclaimed, and Juliana smiled. “¿Que te dio por llamarme?”

“I always call you,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “What are you doing? Have you had lunch yet?”

“No, haven’t had time.  Panchito’s mom is coming over for dinner and I’m cooking. Do you want to come over?” her mom was quick to ask. “We could set another plate. Or are you having dinner with Valentina? The both of you could come.”

“Yeah, yes. We’re probably going somewhere later,” she lied. Truth be told, she didn’t know if Val would be around for dinner. But she did know now that her mom was very busy by the sounds of it, and not in a position to have lunch with her anyways. “I was just wondering if you wanted to have lunch but it sounds like you’re busy.”

“I’m sorry,” her mom said. “But you can come over for dinner. It’ll be good to have someone else here apart from Panchito and me.”

“Somehow I don’t think so.” Panchito was amazing, but not thanks to his family. Juliana actually had no idea how he came to be as liberal as he was, since he was the odd man out on a very conservative family. Panchito’s mom hadn’t been happy with his divorce, and his aunt Milagros was even worse. If divorce was a sin, she had no idea how much worse they’d consider homosexuality. “Pero tú buena suerte ganándote a la suegra.”

“I’ve been trying to win her over for years, Juli,” her mom said. Juliana chuckled.

“Let me know how it goes. You should come over for dinner soon. Panchito and Valentina probably have something new to talk about.” Oddly enough, Panchito and Valentina got along great. Last time they'd hosted a dinner party, they'd even found common ground in their recent obsession with drinking natural, organic infusions for different ailments. Juliana wasn’t about to trust ginger and lemon tea to cure a common cold when there was medication for that, but she wasn’t going to argue with her girlfriend or her mom’s husband. (She couldn’t even think of him as a step-father. It was too weird.)

“I’ll take you up on that,” Lupe said.

“Deal. Bye mom,” Juliana told her. “Te quiero.”

“Y yo a ti, hija.”

Juliana closed the call.  

She hesitated for a second, and then did something she seldom did, and texted her favorite friend from college. She always went out with him when he asked, but she wasn’t usually the one making plans. A lot of things had changed, but that hadn’t. She always felt more comfortable waiting for invitations rather than making plans and asking everyone else to come. She was comfortable with Rafa though. They’d hit it off during her first week of classes, and he’d become one of her closest friends. (And even that was strange, that she had enough friends now that she could classify them at all.)

She texted him.

Hey, como estás?

What are you doing for lunch?

Immediately, a blue checkmark appeared, and he started typing. Juliana wasn’t surprised. Rafa was always glued to his phone.

Sounds like I’m going out with you. Where to?

Juliana smiled. She typed the name of a restaurant in Reforma that Val had taken her to once, and she’d been wanting to visit again. She added it was her treat, since she knew that Rafa hadn’t found a job yet after graduation.

Sounds good. Do you mind walking to Zona Rosa after? I wanna go to Helado Obscuro. You ever been?

Yes, Val loves it, she texted back. It was Ice cream with liquor, of course her girlfriend would be a fan.

Perfect , Rafa texted. I’ll see you in 20.

20 minutes ended up being 15, since the streets were pretty empty. There was usually a lot of traffic, another reason why Juliana preferred not to drive -she’d taken the exam and gotten her license, but had driven on her own exactly 0 times- plus, she was used to taking public transportation. She knew the Mexico City subway system like the palm of her hand, and she could get anywhere on a bus. Although these days Valentina drove her, and if she wasn’t around, her girlfriend insisted she call Alirio or an Uber. (Valentina had taken public transportation before she met Juliana, exactly 0 times.)

Rafa had greeted her with two kisses, and then they’d flagged down one of the Flamingo pink taxis and rode to Paseo de la Reforma.

They took their time with lunch, catching up on what they’d been up since Juliana’s graduation party a few weeks ago. Rafa wanted to move to New York, but the paperwork was insane, and his next option was Italy. Juliana told him she was pretty happy with Mexico. She was american, she’d grown up on the other side of the Río Grande, and it wasn’t all that. And New York City was pretty (Valentina had taken her for a week some months ago) but she wouldn’t want to live there, freezing for half the year.

Rafa had stopped seeing the guy he’d been seeing, but he didn’t seem too down about that, and told her he’d downloaded Grindr again. Juliana laughed. It was always funny to hear her friends’ romantic woes, because when she looked at it -she’d had it easy. All right, so falling in love with Val and realizing things about herself, and then dealing with her mother, and Eva, and the media -that hadn’t been easy. But she’d met Valentina and felt an instant connection, and she’d fallen in love with her and known that was it. She was sure of it, and she never had to look anywhere else, or get told that there were more fish in the sea, or get her heart broken to find them. True love had just fallen into her lap in comparison to her college friends.

Or, more accurately, she'd stumbled upon it sitting in a park bench.

They left the restaurant after around an hour, and decided to walk to Zona Rosa, since it was close by. Rafa rambled about the future while the mid-afternoon sun beat down on them.

“Well, good luck with that,” Juliana told him, in reference to the master’s degree application for a university in Italy he’d just told her he’d sent.

“Eh, lo que será será, no?” He shrugged. “Everything okay at home? You seem...off.”

She looked up at him. She wasn’t used to anyone but Valentina and her mom being able to notice when she was in a mood, but she guessed he had known her for 3 years.

“I’m fine.”

“You fought with your girl?” he asked.

“No,” she was quick to say. It never got old when someone referred to Valentina as her girl, but now it only made her remember their recent differences. “We’ve just been talking about some stuff. I mean we had a little fight yesterday but-”

“There it is.”

“We already made up,” she told him.

“I don’t know how you two do that,” Rafa said. “¿Quien como ustedes?”

Juliana smiled, though it was mostly for show. She didn’t feel like they were this perfect relationship at the moment. She bit her lip, as she followed Rafa down the street were Zona Rosa more or less started. They walked past the currency exchange places and the colorful sex shops in companionable silence. Juliana took the lull in conversation as an opportunity to send a text to Valentina.

Are you coming home in time for dinner or are you eating with your brother?

They got to the ice cream shop soon enough, and entered the dimly lit establishment. Black walls and dark wooden chairs and tables gave the place an atmosphere fit more for a bar than an ice cream parlour, but considering the type of ice cream they sold, it was fitting.

Rafa ordered a Monja Borracha, solely so he could upload an instagram story saying he was eating a drunk nun, and Juliana got a Grito Mudo. She’d had the almond ice cream, ginevra infused concoction before, but oddly enough now its name also fit her very well. A silent scream.

They sat down at one of the little tables, and Juliana took another spoonful of her ice cream before finally asking what she’d been meaning to.

“Hey, um, what do you think about marriage?” she asked Rafael.

“Hmm. Is that what you and la señorita Carvajal were fighting about?” He asked. Juliana didn’t say anything. “I see. Well, I mean, sure, I’ll get married someday. Right now I’m too busy, you know?” He chuckled. “Soy un picaflor, de flor en flor,” he sing-songed. “O sea, estoy gozando mi vida, Juliana. But sure, I mean. When I’m old... like, 35, I’ll probably settle down and marry some rich guy and retire to the Bahamas.” He met her eyes. “Do you want a serious answer?”

“Yes, please.”

Rafa ran his fingers through his wavy, coifed hair. For how aloof he acted sometimes, she'd seen him cry once or twice in the past few years. She'd come to care a lot about him, and she'd been slightly afraid that they'd stop talking altogether when they graduated, when they didn't have to be in the same classes every day. She was glad that hadn't happened, although they'd only been out of school for a month. Sometimes she couldn't believed she'd missed out on having friends like this her whole life. 

“I’ve never fallen in love and stayed in love, you know?" Rafa said. "Like what you have with Valentina. I’ve liked men, plenty of them, and I got to love a couple, but after a while things just...faded. And maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but I do believe in soulmates, and I do hope I’ll find mine one day and that feeling won’t fade.”

Juliana knew the feeling he was talking about.

3 years later, and her heart beat just as fast when she saw Valentina after an entire day of not seeing her, as it did when she saw her waiting for her in the kitchen of Milagro’s house oh so long ago, a pie in her hands, so out of place in that neighborhood, inside that crappy house, so close to the tiny room she rented and the single bed she shared with her mom. She knew that feeling would never fade. She’d love Valentina for the rest of her life.

“And when I do find him,” Rafa continued. “Hell yeah I’ll tie the knot. Maybe even adopt a couple kids, if I have enough money for that. If not, then some dogs. Who knows?”

For a second, she thought he sounded just like Valentina talking about her parents' love. Like it was that simple, like the world wasn't what it was. 

“That easy?”

“I mean. True love should be that easy, don’t you think?”

Juliana shrugged. In her experience, it wasn't. Being with Valentina -talking to her, kissing her, loving her- that was easy. Always had been. But they'd had a rough start; neither of their families supported them, and then they learned of their dads transmigrating, and even when all of that calmed down, the media started harassing them.

It was easy now. Without all those complications marriage would mean.

“True love,” she repeated. “You need to get married for it to be that?”

“I mean, no,” Rafa answered. “But I think if you marry someone that’s the biggest proof of love you could give them. Apart from getting a tattoo in their honor. Its harder to remove a tattoo than to get a divorce. But, you know what I mean?”

“Not really,” Juliana told him. “If you get married, wouldn’t you start questioning everything? Like, how do you know he’ll still love you and won’t just stay with you just because you’re married? How can anyone promise anyone that they’ll still love them in 20 years? 40? Aren’t you forcing them to commit to you and make you a promise that you’ll force them to break? Are you just getting married so you can say you belong to each other? Or to make your relationship official in everyone else’s eyes? But if you really love each other then what does it matter what everyone else thinks?”

Rafa stared at her, unblinking.

“Damn, girl. Who hurt you?” he asked finally, taking his hand to his chest. Juliana felt her cheeks heat up. She took another spoon full of ice cream, hoping it would freeze her brain and stop her from saying more stupid things. “I mean, you’re right,” Rafa conceded. “You’re right in all those points. But people keep getting hitched anyways, because...I don’t know. It’s what you do. And deep down we’re all romantic fools. And fuck, if straight people can get married, then I’m sure as hell getting married too. At least I’ll make somebody mad.”

Juliana laughed out loud, the sound exiting her like birds from a cage, her mood changing in an instant. Rafa joined her, and the heaviness of the conversation dissipated as they laughed. 

This was what she needed.

The moment was cut short when her phone vibrated suddenly, the screen flashing with a message from Valentina. Juliana picked up her phone, and opened Whatsapp.

Of course I’m coming! I’ll buy dinner. Does pizza sound good? Or do you want to go out?

She typed back a quick text.

Pizza is good.

And then the little icon showed Valentina recording a voice note. Juliana received it and pressed play, the shop empty enough that nobody would overhear.

Te veo en la tarde amor. Guille te manda saludos .”

Juliana couldn’t help but smile. It never failed to squeeze her heart when Valentina called her amor.

“See?” Rafa said. “You should put a ring on that.”

Juliana swallowed.

"What if we get married some day and things change, huh?"

"Who says it's gonna be for the worst?" Rafa retorded, before tipping the carton cup back and drinking the last of his ice cream. Juliana frowned. 

She was afraid things would change. She could admit that to herself.

She'd been afraid of moving in with Valentina. She'd spent most of her life sleeping on a trailer couch, and then she'd moved to a tiny room in a tiny house, and she'd had to share a twin bed with her mom. She was used to not taking space, to making herself as small as possible. It was an adjustment, moving in with Val, getting half the closet space, half the drawers. Occupying half the bed without feeling like she was an invader. But she got used to it. 

She was scared now, but her fear couldn't be enough of a reason to make Valentina miserable.

If getting married was what she wanted, what right did she have to take that from her? Valentina had done so much for her, from the moment they met 'til now -every lottery ticket she bought, the house she got her to live in while her mom got better, every pie, cake, or postre that she brought her with no reason, the scholarship she helped her get, every time she held back her hair when she puked and took care of her when she got sick...Valentina stopped drinking so much because she asked her to, and learned to cook so she could cook for her. She gave her so much of herself, put so much effort into making her happy. Juliana felt like she could never return everything Val had done. And she wanted this one thing in return. Juliana could no longer justify saying 'no'. 

She still felt too young, too much like getting married now would mean somehow she was just like her mom back in Mexico. But she could get married, down the line. She'd get used to it. She'd be hypervigilant of their interactions, she'd make sure Val was happy, she wouldn't let marriage change them into something they weren't. The thought of actually going through with it made her hair stand on end, but she wanted Valentina to be happy. She loved her too much to allow for anything else. 

It felt somehow peaceful, to accept that course of action. It was a road that terrified her, but she'd been scared before, in worst situations, and made it through the other side. This would be no different. She'd seen first hand the fights married people got into, the screams, the responsibilities that choked couples until all the love had left -the trailer park she grew up in had no shortage of those. And her parents...they'd been the biggest example of what a toxic thing it was to tie yourself to a person with legalities when you were young. And yet, Valentina.

Her biggest fear was to lose her

And she begun to realize that she may lose her now, despite her best efforts. Val deserved her white wedding, and her babies, and everything she wanted, and if she couldn't give her that...Valentina said she'd never leave, but she couldn't promise that. And Juliana couldn't force her to, because she deserved those things. So she could lose her now. Or she could get married, and probably lose her later -because she would never let Valentina keep herself tied to her out of duty because they'd signed a piece of paper.

Rafa got up to toss his cup in the trash, unaware of the war that Juliana waged in her own mind- and that she felt she'd won. The answer had been in front of her the whole time. 

"You okay there?" Rafa asked when he got back.  

Before Juliana could answer him, a notification chirped on her phone. She cheked her homescreen, and saw that another voice note had come in. When she opened it, Valentina’s voice was sweeter than the delicate almond flavor still dotting her tongue. 

Te amo, bonita.”

 

🌸💀🌸

 

“Te amo bonita,” Valentina said, and then let go of the mic button and sent the voice note to Juliana.

“Things can’t be that bad if you’re sending her that,” Guille said, bringing two glasses and a bottle of wine outside. “Cuando Renata se enoja conmigo, no me quiere ver ni en pintura. Ni oír, ni nada.”

“Juliana isn’t mad at me,” Valentina told him, grabbing one of the glasses in the biggest show of help her brother was going to get. They’d had lunch after her little crying session, and they’d gone outside to the pool area afterward. It was gorgeous out there, and she’d had the idea of sharing a bottle of wine. “And things aren’t bad,” she clarified. “Just weird.”

Guille poured the wine, and Val took a sip while she put her ideas in order.  

“If I can say something-”

“You never ask for permission,” Valentina told him.

“I think maybe you don’t have to give up on the whole kid thing now. I mean, Juliana is 21, Val. She’s really young. What were you doing at 21? I think you’d barely started college after all your sabbaticals, and Juliana has already finished it. She’s just started a new job.” Guille shrugged, and took a sip of wine. “Maybe that ‘no’ you’re hearing is a ‘not right now’.”

She remembered Juliana’s words, her distress.

“No, I’m pretty sure it was a ‘no’,” she told Guille. “But...you’re right. She said yesterday that back in Texas she’d just be allowed to drink and I want her to have kids. But I mean, I don’t want that right now. Just some day.”

“So? There you go. Maybe you just need to hold your horses for a couple of years. She’ll change her mind when she’s older.”

Valentina frowned. “I somehow seriously doubt Juliana or any woman who doesn’t want kids would appreciate that sentence.”

“Okay, fair enough. But in my opinion, women-”

“Oh, that sentence can’t end well.”

“Women who don’t want kids, don’t want them for a reason, right? Like they don’t like kids, or it’s too expensive, or they’re too young, or whatever. Right? And that’s fine. But what you said about Juliana’s parents, maybe this whole thing with kids and marriage is about her childhood. Like, that could be her reason. Not that she doesn’t like those things, but that you know, she’s…” Guille didn’t say anything, and Valentina thought that was wise of him. “I mean, has she gone to therapy?”

Guille.”

What? We went to therapy after mom died. And that was cancer. I’m sure being raised by a psychopath is a couple steps worse than that. Aren't you still going to therapy?”

“No, there’s not a therapist alive who could help me with transmigration,” she said. She hadn’t gone in years, not since right after Lucía had gotten shot by Jhonny, a man she considered her uncle. Who had actually had her dad killed. Getting held hostage in her own home, Juliana getting kidnapped, Lucho's death, and then that happening...she needed to talk to somebody. Especially when Juliana asked her to stop drinking every time she needed to deal with something. “I mean, I went a couple times when Lucía was still in the hospital, right after everything happened. Just to work through everything. But everything with dad…”

“Camilo is there. I’ve talked to him about dad and everything. He helped me understand, those first few weeks after we found out.”

“I mean, I know. But Camilo is like our uncle, I don’t want to talk about my personal stuff with him. Like, relationship stuff. It’d be like telling you about my sex life.”

“Don’t say those words,” he asked, jokingly. Valentina smiled.

“Besides, things are different now.”

She was so much more at peace than she was 3 years ago. Back then, she’d reached for mezcal every time she needed to calm down, or her feelings threatened to get the best of her. It dulled her senses when she needed it to. And when she wanted to feel happy and pliant, pills were there. It was an unhealthy, horrible pit that she found herself into, and that she’d climbed out of on her own, thanks to Juliana. But it wasn’t until she talked to a therapist that she realized just how much of a hole it really was.  

“I don’t need it like before,” she told her brother.

“Maybe Juliana does,” Guille offered. “Haven’t you told her to go?”

His wording felt wrong. She never told Juliana to do anything. Even after they'd moved in together, there was nothing she could say or ask. Juliana helped her with the dishes without her saying anything, she took out the trash because she didn't like Valentina going outside the apartment late at night. And she had always picked up after herself when working on school projects. Not that Valentina would have said anything, anyways, because she wasn't as tidy as her. Silvina helping her clean up her room for the first 23 years of her life had deeply damaged something inside her, to the point where she didn't mind leaving a mess in her wake, her subconcious assuming that someone else would pick it up. But Juliana did mind, and she was the one who kept their domestic life in order. 

Valentina had tried to get her out of her comfort zone, but that didn't feel the same as telling her to do things. She pleaded with her to open up a bit more, to talk about how she felt and share her feelings with her, and Juliana had. Little by little she'd grown from "I didn't want to bother you" and "It's not a big deal", to "You won't believe what my asshole of a professor told me today" and "I hate feeling like I'm lesser than them for not coming from money, and I hate that sometimes I feel like I'm not good enough for you for the same reason".

Juliana used her words now, most of the time. The hard things still took effort, but she tried, and the other things -los te amos, los te adoros, los me encantas- came so easy.

Juliana told her she was beautiful all the time, told her how much she loved her, how she couldn't wait to see her. She didn't let a call close before telling her how much she cared. It was a far cry from the Juliana who closed a call with "bye" after she'd said how she couldn't wait to see her, or who didn't say anything at all when Valentina told her she loved her. 

She'd gently coaxed out that side of her, like she'd done other facets of Juliana. 

Almost a year into their relationship, she'd suggested they try new things in the bedroom and brought home a strap-on, and that had taken a small amount of convincing as well. Juliana was scared of hurting her, and talking about it she'd also found Juliana was simply scared of Valentina feeling like she wasn't enough anymore, and she was missing her boyfriends. They'd talked things through, and the choice had been Juliana's at the end, even if Val would be the one in a more vulnerable position. The sex had been amazing. And a few weeks later, Valentina offered to retuen the favor, and that took a whole lot of more talking, even if Juliana herself wondered out loud what it would be like to be on the receiving end. 

Juliana was her own person, Valentina never tried to command her to do things. She would never make the same mistake she did all that time ago, when they'd first met. She'd grabbed Juliana's hand and dragged her with her, asked her out and not taken no for an answer, had wanted to hang out with her 24/7 without taking into account that her new friend had a life apart from her own.

They were equals, both their feelings as important as the other's.

“I put the idea out there," Valentina told Guile. "I offered to make her an appointment with my therapist after everything with our dads went down, and she said no. She got kind of mad at me actually. I tried explaining that it wasn't about being crazy, but she didn't like any part of it.”

Just like she’d done at the park, when Valentina brought up fashion school, Juliana had blown up, that time accusing her of thinking she was broken, and she’d left. They’d made up later, and Juliana had apologized, but she hadn’t taken her up on the offer, nor wanted to talk about it again.

“But see, I don't want to feel like I’m fixing her. There’s nothing wrong with her. I can't just hope a therapist will suddenly make her want all the things I want. And I don't want to act like there’s something wrong with not wanting those things, you know? It’s the 21st century, women don’t have to have babies to be happy.”

“But you do,” her brother added. Valentina paused.

“Maybe I don’t. I don’t know. I’ve never....thought about it, but I love Dani, and I’m getting to see her grow up, and I’ll get to do the same with our baby sister, and your kids, whenever you get started on that.”

Guille smiled.

“Renata and I have talked about it. She wants to secure a promotion at work and we want to travel a bit more before going for it, but yes. We have plans. We want a boy and a girl.”

Valentina felt a fist squeeze her heart. Her brother would be an amazing dad. He’d been a dad, a brother, a best friend, a confidant to her, whenever it was needed. She could only imagine how great he’d be with his own kids.

“See? I’ll be tía Val and your kids will love me more than they love you. Maybe that can be enough. I could...make my peace with that.”

It felt like her chest was caving in with the thought, but she’d do it for Juls. Juliana was the one thing she needed in life, everything else was optional, the cherry on the cake. She could live without cherries.

“Are you sure? What if you wake up 20 years down the line and regret that choice?”

“I wouldn’t. But maybe then we could adopt a teenager. Hell, maybe we could just adopt a grown child in a few years.” When she thought about motherhood, she thought about being pregnant, holding her baby in her arms, about breastfeeding and teaching them how to walk. But she could make some changes to those dreams, some allowances. “Truth is, we haven’t talked about it at all. I don’t know if children bother her, or just babies. I don’t know her reasons, like you said. I don’t know if she doesn't like kids, if they’re too annoying for her, if they’ll take too much time away from her work, if she doesn’t like the idea of being pregnant, or anything else. We haven’t really discussed it at all.”

“Well, it sounds like you need to do that.”

“She’s not sure about marriage, I don’t want to bring kids into it too. Not just because it’s not something I want right now." She'd wanted to propose desperately, to show off an engagement ring, to get married with all her family attending, and then travel for weeks in an extended honeymoon. There was so much of the world she wanted to show Juliana, so many places she'd seen as a little girl with her mom, and now wanted to see again with adult eyes and the love of her life beside her. But children were another beast entirely. "It's because I already tried and I’m pretty sure I scared her.”

“With good reason too,” Guille said.

“Excuse me?" she asked. She couldn't help but feel slightly defensive. What was scary about discussing a future?

“What would have happened if you’d gotten pregnant at 21?” Guille asked. Valentina’s eyebrows nearly touched her hairline in surprise.

“Te pasas de lanza, hermanito.”

“Humor me.  Who were you even dating back then? Was it Lucho?”

“Yeah,” she said, still not knowing where he was going. “I’d just gotten together with Lucho.”

“So...what would have happened?”

Valentina frowned. 

“I would have probably panicked and gone to dad crying? I don’t know.” She toyed with the ends of her hair while she thought. She had no idea what Guille was going on about, but she tried to give him an honest answer. “Lucho, que en paz descanse, wouldn’t have reacted well, I don’t think. God, I wouldn’t have reacted well. I would’ve probably gotten an abortion.”

Nayeli’s friend Alma had gotten an abortion their second year of college. And Valentina knew a girl back in Canada who had had one as well. Her upbringing, although her family was catholic and she considered herself the same, had been far from religious. Not to mention no respectable woman in her community would let her daughter be a teen mom, no matter how religious and pro-life they were in public. It was how things worked. Abortions weren't uncommon in their community, even before they were legal in Mexico City. There was nothing money couldn't buy. 

But she’d always been careful, always. And when Lucho started insisting on doing it without protection, she’d done her research and gone on the pill. But what if she hadn’t?

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a mom back then," she confessed. She'd never given it any serious thought, apart from assuming that she'd eventually get married and would have a couple kids, because that's what you did. It had never been a true desire of hers, just something that she thought was a given. She didn't fantasize about wedding like she did when she was a little girl. She'd never actually thought about babies or picking out names. And then she'd met Juliana, and everything fell into place. "And with Lucho..." She felt bad, but she almost shuddered thinking what would have been her life if she'd gotten pregnant. There were nights when she was too drunk and careles to insist he use protection, and several mornings where she'd had to hurry to find Plan B pills because she'd messed up the night before. And yet she'd been lucky, and nothing had happened. But if it had... "I would’ve been tra-”

“Trapped," Guille finished for her. "Isn’t that what Juliana said?” Valentina looked up at her brother.

"I would've been trapped because we didn't work together. I didn't love him like he loved me." It still ached, dull, like a bruise that's already healed but you can still remember was there o you tiptoe around it. It had been over 3 years since his death. 

"And you were a kid," Guille added, oh so helpfully. 

"I know. I don't want Juliana to have kids with me right now, I know she’s too young. I’m too young," she said. She was 26, but she still felt like lost sometimes, like an adolescent still going through growing pains. She'd more or less accepted she would never wake up one day and have it all figured out, but she had a clarity now regarding what she wanted, that she didn't have years ago. "We still have too many things to do."

"My point is, you weren't even thinking about white dresses and babies back then, and Juliana probably isn't thinking about that right now," Guille told her. "It's easy to talk about it for you because you're already sure you want those things, but Juliana probably hadn't even started wondering about kids when you brought it up."

Valentina frowned. 

They loved each other, that was the one true north she had, and she'd thought that precluded everything. Why would it be hard to talk about marriage, or kids, or a bigger house, when they were sure of each other? They'd be together forever. What was the difference between talking about having children now, or in 5 years? And then she realized, that the difference would be of course, their age. Juliana was younger than her. She'd been surprised when she learned of that fact, because Juliana didn't act like any 18 year old girl she knew. Back then, her age had been a moot point, and they'd become closer and closer friends without even thinking about it. But she thought of what Guille was saying, and noticed the mortal flaw in her logic.

It was easy for her to bring up all those things, because she was ready for them. She wanted to get engaged, to get married. She wasn't ready to be a mom yet, but she was ready to talk about it. Juliana probably wasn't even ready for that yet. And she hadn't realized that.

"Where was this energy when I said I was going to propose?" she asked her brother. 

Guille shrugged, slumping his shoulders slightly.

"You were so excited, and you were sure she was going to say yes, who was I to meddle in your relationship?" he asked.

"You're doing it now," she pointed out. 

"Because you asked," he interjected. "I'm just saying, you two are like...What? 5 or 6 years apart?"

"Five," Valentina answered.

"Well, there. Maybe you're ready for stuff that she isn't ready for, yet. Give it time. Talk to her."

She took a deep breath. Somehow, Guille's words made it feel like the world wasn't ending.

She'd gone haywire, after yesterday. She'd mourned the fact that her proposal was ruined, and that Juliana aparently didn't want to marry her or build a family with her at all...but they were a family already. She'd been blind to that. They were a team already, marriage or no marriage, and she should have asked about Juliana's feelings on marriage and weddings before ever asking her dad to take that ring out of her family's vault. 

When things had gone wrong, it had hurt like a type of death, like a loss of something -and now she realized it was something she'd never had at all. She hadn't lost anything. She had Juliana, and she was the love of her life. She had everything. And the world wasn't going to end if her girlfriend wasn't ready to take the next step, or talk about it, or if she wanted to skip it at all. God, of course she wanted to marry Juliana. But she realized just wanting something didn't make it so. If she had to wait until Juliana was 26 to talk about it, she'd wait. Their choices didn't have to revolve around her, and she couldn't believe she'd been selfish enough not to see that. 

"That’s what we’re trying to do," she told Guille. "We talked a lot last night. I just needed to get out of the house for a bit, everything felt so...heavy, when I woke up this morning." She looked up at her brother and met his eyes,  dark like their mother's. "That’s gone now."

Guille touched her cheek. "I'm always here, hermanita."

Valentina smiled. 

"Te quiero. Tonto."

Guille sat on her lawn chair, and pulled her into a hug. She smiled against his shoulder.

"Talk to your girlfriend," he said. "She's young, that’s already one thing, but find out if there’s anything else. She’s crazy about you. You two will figure it out."

"Thanks," she said, pulling away. Guille's eyes twinkled with mirth when she did. "What?" she asked.

"You know, when I was in college, dad warned me to never date a teenager. And you turned out to be the one that did it."

Valentina gasped. "She was 18! And I'm not some creepy dude, okay?"

"And I was? I'm just saying-"

"Guille!" she exclaimed, outraged. "How are things with Renata? Tell me how does she stand to be with you while you’re at it."

"Things are fine, thank you," he said, laughing. And then he kept his eyes trained on her. 

 

"What?" she asked. "¿Tengo algo en la cara o que?"

"Nothing. Just...this is nice," he said softly. "Te extraño, fea."

Valentina smiled, and hugged him again. 

They finished their glasses of wine and went back inside, and before she knew it she was back on the road, heading home to Juliana. Just the thought of it made something settle in her chest. She picked up their pizza, and got the breadsticks with garlic butter that Juliana liked so much. 

But then, the closer she got to their apartment, the more her guilt grew. How could she not think of Juliana?

Juliana had worked so hard in all her clases, and she’d graduated one of the first of her class. That had been a mere month ago. She’d only been at her job for one week. College classes and homework were a distant memory to Valentina, as she graduated almost 3 years ago. She was settled into the routine of working at the newspaper, and she’d already climbed the ranks, by herself. She made a name for herself, and she was actually in the streets now, chasing the news, pitching her own interviews. She modeled every once in a while, when Juliana asked her to and when charities called her. She was passionate about both things, and she wasn't sure yet which one to devote herself to. Journalism made her feel like she was making a difference, while modeling made her happy.

Meanwhile, Juliana hadn't even gotten the chance to get used to having a serious job. And she was already planning to propose, and shake her world once again.She knew how much Juliana liked stability. Of course she'd freaked her out.

Valentina bit her lip.

It wasn't just her age, that was actually the least important part. Juliana simply had a completely different experience with marriage than she did. 'I don't wan't to taint what we have', Juliana had said last night before bed. She thought marriage would taint their relationship! That didn’t make sense to her, not in the least.She believed getting married would be them solidifying their relationship, formalizing things. But Juliana didn't feel the same, and she'd been an idiot. 

She’d been blind. Careless with Juls' feelings. She should’ve thought harder about where she was in life, instead of being so focused on what she wanted. She thought she knew what would be best for both of them. She didn't stop to think that what she wanted might not make Juliana as happy as it made her.

She was sorry Juliana had found out about the ring, but where yesterday night she'd mourned her proposal, now it was only because she wished she could take it back. If she’d seen a month ago what she saw now, she never would have asked her dad to get the ring out of their family’s vault. Now, she'd opened that can of worms. She’d fucked up.

She’d been so naive, and stupid. Maybe Eva was right, and she lived in 'el mundo de yupi' sometimes.

Things werent as easy as she thought, and this was just proof of that. As she turned on their street, and saw their apartment building in the distance, she only hoped she hadn't done damage to their relationship that she couldn't repair.