The city was a haven for culture and entertainment, but it didn’t mean that Juliana was necessarily happy about the moving here. Another upheaval in the name of her father who she wasn’t particularly eager to find. But she bit her tongue about it all, held back when their landlady expected ridiculous standards to be met, and actively caught herself before she said ‘I told you so’ whenever her mother complained about the move. Having little money and no connections, the two existed week to week, putting the cash they earnt into a jar by the door and taking what they needed from it each day.
Juliana had gotten a job selling lottery tickets each day, being sent them from the post office at the corner of their street and then standing in streams of traffic trying to sell as many as she could. It wasn’t a glamourous job but allowed her to explore the city while still working.
She walked across the city and back each day, looking into the shop windows and at all the expensive houses. Imagining one day she’d be living in of these houses, with the expendable cash to venture into one of any of these stores and buy whatever she liked the look of without having to check the price tag and count coins first.
But it all felt like a pipedream too far away to find even imaginarily tangible yet. Plus, the looming knowledge that even this might not be the last place she is moved to for the sake of her father hung over her head. There was always the possibility of another move, another new beginning, and another attempt to rebuild and restart. As a child, though it had been hard somehow it was easier to make friends when all it entailed was walking up to someone of the same age as yourself and announcing your pending friendship. As she got older, working through middle school, then high school, the moves only caused Juliana to become more and more isolated. Seeking solace in the one place that would never be disrupted; literature.
Though the worlds inside them changed, they never left her. They never compromised or made Juliana do the same. She could confidently say that she’d spent her time in the last place with her nose inside whatever form of text she could. Usually in the free local newspaper that came out each day and that she’d had a part-time job delivering. She picked up the smutty books that were available at the hairdresser’s her mother worked at and borrowed the books from her school’s library. She’d read both so much, and yet still she felt as though she’d read barely anything. Unable to keep up with other people’s conversations on literature considering she’d never read the kinds of books everyone else seemed to. While they all wanted to talk about works by long Russian names or English men that she hadn’t heard of, Juliana wanted to talk about articles and works everyone else scoffed at.
There hadn’t been room to take any books with her when they’d moved. Her books had been too heavy to take with her, and so she’d left them in the caravan. She itched to find something new to read, something to make her feel less completely alone within the new city she didn’t understand.
She walked past a store, the front window filled with books both hardback and paperback with their names in bold fonts and bright coloured glossy covers. They were all new releases that the shop was trying to promote, and Juliana saw in her minds eye the price that came with new things. New clothes, new shoes, new homes, new books. They were all always more money. But she preferred things that were preloved. Being able to buy the items past as well as it’s content.
Looking down she saw that she only had one strip of lottery tickets left and could easily have been sold after a brief look through one shop. Perhaps, she thought ‘La Librería del Carvajal’ they’d have a second towards the back where they stocked the pre-owned books. The ones that no one else wanted anymore.
Putting the tickets in her back pocket she pushed the door open. The smell of printed paper filled her sense, exciting her. She let herself glance at the books that sat on the front table, promoting local writers. Juliana didn’t recognise any of them, or any of the rest of the names that appeared on the spines of the books within the new releases. She felt out of her depth suddenly, as though she’d been trespassing all this time within a hobby that she didn’t belong to.
Literature wasn’t to be casually consumed by people like her. It was meant to be analysed, collected and put on display it seemed. And these were all things that Juliana didn’t have the money or time for.
Her breath quickened, and she felt the lottery tickets in her back pocket like a weight. A sign post of her real place. She turned to walk out, bumping into a girl who had been stood there and organising shelf behind her.
The pile of books in the girl’s arms fell to the ground with a clatter and fell open, creasing the pages inside.
‘Oh my god! I’m so sorry!’ Juliana shouts, trying to imagine just how much it will cost to buy all the books she had damaged. More than she and her mother to spend. More than a week’s food allowance. Juliana dropped to the ground herself to pick all the books up again, to save them, and thus her own pocket. But, as she bent down to retrieve the books, her head smacked against the hard surface of the other girl’s head.
Both of them clutched their foreheads in pain and cringed. Juliana found it difficult to look up at the girl, too embarrassed by both of her faux pas. Instead, she used the girl’s moment of distraction to reach forward and pick the books up from their dishevelled state and stack them in a neat pile.
She stood to meet the other girl who was grinning widely, and then handed the books back to her with blushing cheeks, ‘I’m so sorry!’ Juliana repeated looking away again.
‘Don’t apologise! It was my fault.’ The other girl chuckled as she took the books from Juliana and seemed to check their titles, ‘You were rushing out pretty quickly. Did you find what you were looking for?’
The question would have been easier if Juliana had known exactly what she was looking for, or even why what the shop had didn’t fit exactly. She’d been looking for books, which the store had in abundance, but she was looking for easy books. Where there wasn’t so much of a choice as to what to read. Where things were found and scavenged. This was completely different. This was every book she could have ever read at her fingertips with bright new covers and expensive pages. The smell of everything she sought but knowing she couldn’t have it.
She summed this up by a simple shake of the head, ‘no. I’m sorry. These are… not my kind of books.’ She cringed at her own words, realising once she’d said them how foolish it made her sound.
The girl looked to the shelves behind her in confusion, ‘what are your kind of books?’
Juliana shrugged pitifully, unsure of how to answer.
‘Well, what was the last thing you read?’
Juliana held the title on her tongue but knew the reaction she would have gotten. She knew how Bedded by the Billionaire sounded to an audience of people who read actual literature. She’d seen the expression on the face of her classmates when trying to enter their discussion. Because that kind of book was not worthy of discussion, she’d been told.
Yet, the girl was waiting for a title and Juliana had spent too long trying to think.
‘No worries. Sorry, I guess I’m over eager.’
‘I read a book about… colours?’ She thought of the most impressive book she had enjoyed, ‘I can’t remember the title though.’
‘That’s fine. So, you like non-fiction? There’s a whole floor for non-fiction upstairs.’ The girl put down the books in her arms which appeared to be getting heavier as she’d been holding them. ‘I can show you? We have a book called The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair I recommend about the history of different fabrics?’ She paused, waiting for some feedback from Juliana.
Only a stunned expression replied.
‘Or… is it specifically colours?’ Her question was delicate enough that Juliana realised she’d been staring.
‘No,’ she said, ‘It’s not just colours.’ The girl waited patiently. Too patiently, Juliana thought who was used to people growing bored of waiting for her answers. ‘Or non-fiction. I read… whatever. But not like proper literature.’
The girl laughed too loudly for their setting which seemed to be a gentle hum of noise. That volume that book shops and libraries naturally enforce, as though speaking too loudly will wake up the sleeping words inside their covers. ‘Proper literature?’ she repeated, ‘there’s no such thing.’
Juliana bites at her thumb nail to give herself a reason not to reply.
‘Sorry,’ the girl said, ‘what I mean is; all literature is ‘proper literature’. Whatever you enjoy reading is proper literature. The ‘classics’’ she air quotes ‘are just an elitist title to promote sales.’
Juliana smiles to herself sceptically, still hiding behind the action of biting at her thumb.
‘So, what would you like to read?’
Juliana thought for a moment, about the books she’d heard other people reading, and about what she herself had read and enjoyed before. ‘Something dramatic.’
The girl hummed in thought and then looked at the shelf for inspiration. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, ‘follow me.’
She took Juliana by the hand and gently pulled her in tow deeper into the store. They passed more shelves, from floor to ceiling of books with promotional titles and genres. There were genres that Juliana didn’t even understand, and hundreds of thousands of names that Juliana didn’t know.
They walked past posters that advertised events such as signings and talks and new releases. It was a world that Juliana felt she was looking at through fogged glass.
They stopped at a general fiction shelf as the girl let got of Juliana’s hand in order to let it hover in the air tracing the shelf, quickly scanned the ‘F’s. Juliana watched, pretending to follow what the girl could be looking for, but she found herself merely just following the direction the girl’s hand pointed in.
Eventually, she found it, pulling out a book and handing it to Juliana. The Great Gatsby. Juliana racked her brain trying to place it in conversations she had heard. She remembered many discussions and heated debates. But the content escapes her.
‘Have you read it before?’ The girl asked.
Juliana shook her head, turning the book over in her hand to read the back.
‘It’s very dramatic. Very good and feels very fast paced.’
Her interest is spiked were it not for the looming reminder that the price lay at the bottom of the back page. Sitting above the barcode the numbers taunted her cruelly.
‘It’s $149. It’s too expensive.’ Juliana said, her sadness permeating her tone.
‘I’ll give you a discount. How’s $100?’
It seemed almost unbelievable that the girl would be willing to knock off a third of the price, simply because Juliana didn’t have the money to pay the full amount. ‘No, you don’t need to do that.’
‘I know. I want you to read it.’
The book felt hot on her fingertips suddenly, as though she needed to drop it immediately lest it burn her more. Even with the reduction, it was still money that Juliana didn’t have to spend on the book. Not money she could justify.
She shook her head, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t afford that right now.’
‘What could you afford?’
Juliana laughed to herself, ‘like thirty pesos?’
She stopped laughing, swallowing her breath. The world stopped at the suggestion. Thirty pesos. The number ran around her head, thinking that she must have said it wrong, heard it wrong. But the number was right, and the girl seemed not to have misheard it. ‘You’re not serious.’
‘I am. Thirty pesos is what you have, I’ll take that. As long as you come back when you’ve finished it to tell me what you thought?’
Juliana looked down at the cover in her hands, eyes on a blue background that stared up at her with judgement. She couldn’t accept the deal. It felt immoral somehow, even though the girl who worked here was offering her the option. A girl who was either terrible at her job, or incredibly good at it.
‘Okay, deal,’ Juliana felt the words leave her mouth before she was ready to commit to them.
Her agreement prompted a wide grin on the girl’s face, who clapped her hands excitably at her own loss and then lead the way to the counter. There stood another staff member and customer being served. Listening in, Juliana heard their total and almost threw up when she then heard her own being told to her.
‘So, thirty pesos, please.’
Juliana handed over the cash with a shaking hand, unable to believe the situation. ‘The book must be amazing for you to be so eager for me to read it.’
‘I’m just eager to prove you wrong.’ The girl answered, counting out the money and putting it in the till.
‘Prove me wrong?’ Juliana asked, staring at the girl in confusion.
The girl took the book and put it in a paper bag, handing it back to Juliana and then meeting her gaze with a sly smirk. ‘Yeah. To prove that we do stock your kind of books.’ There was a pause while neither knew how to follow the comment directly. The girl with an overconfident smile, that Juliana found herself speechless under. ‘I’m Valentina by the way. When you’ve finished Gatsby, just ask for me at the desk. I’m usually around.’
Juliana nodded, trying to maintain her confidence. ‘Thank you. I shall be back. I pinky promise.’
And though she’d said it on a whim, as an offhand joke, Valentina extended her little finger for Juliana follow through on her oath. She did, linking their little fingers and both chuckling as how ridiculous the whole thing felt.
With the book in her hand, Juliana left the shop and walked confidently for a block before stopping herself and taking a deep breath. She looked down at her hand to remind herself that it had really happened.
She sold the last strip of lottery tickets within the hour and then raced home in order to get home to begin the book before her mother found out what she’d done. Though it had been at a severely reduced rate, she expected her mother would have still found the book an extravagance that they couldn’t afford.
She unlocked their front door, dropping her keys by the front door, and the money into the jar before then rushing to her room to rip open the paper bag and hold the book once again I her hands.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, she read, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
Juliana smiled to herself, the distant friend of reading greeting her again.
She poured over the book with every moment she could spare between her mother coming home, then between dinner, and then before bed. The characters filled her vision, and as she settled down to sleep, she couldn’t let go of the anger towards Tom that she felt and the pity towards Daisy. Her mind raced with the hot feeling on the room that permeated the pages, and the heart racing panic she felt as the car sped through the streets.
She finished it within only three days’ worth of stolen minutes, hidden away in her room, staying up late. She hid the book away between the mattress and the frame for there was little she had ever been able to hide from her mother, and she didn’t want this to be taken from her.
Though she tried, the books state quickly becomes damaged. With folded pages and a spine cracked in multiple places. From rummaging through it, flicking back and forth between the pages and then quickly pushing it under her mattress.
When she closed the last page, her fingers itched for more, but she knew better than to march back to the bookshop straight away.
She waited, remembering that she also had a role within the real world to fulfil. Going out each day to sell lottery tickets that hardly ever won. She ate dinner with her mother, speaking about the people her mother worked with while being able to offer very little of what she spent her time doing on account of the days not providing great amounts of anecdotes.
Instead, she listened with great interest, watching her mother’s expression change each day a little brighter and brighter. Happiness that didn’t revolve around her father. This was theirs and theirs alone. And Juliana tried to cling to the sight of it because she wasn’t sure how long it would last.
Juliana read The Great Gatsby through again, before visiting the bookshop again, exactly a week later from before.
Juliana read The Great Gatsby through again, before visiting the bookshop again, exactly a week later from before. Knowing, that the same girl would be working there.
She kept the book tucked into the waistband of her trousers as she left the house, not wanting to be held up with her mother’s interrogation over the acquisition of the book. It sat against her skin rather uncomfortably, and Juliana realised that soon enough she was going to need to buy a bag of some sort from somewhere. But when she had the money, then the cost would go unnoticed. Or when she could play it off with the excuse of needing it for the job.
It took longer to sell the lottery tickets that week. Perhaps the direct luck of fate. She tried to hover around the block that La Librería del Carvajal sat on, peering into the window each time she passed, trying not to get too distracted.
When she finished, her last ticket for the day gone, she quickly paced to the book shop and felt the air rush into her lungs as she pushed the door open. Gazing at the titles by the front that had changed somewhat but not too drastically since the week before. A few new glossy covers sit smiling at her, mocking her with their unattainability. She opened the front cover of one, seeing that it is a signed edition and then briskly, like the page had burnt her fingers, dropped the cover closed again.
‘Hello, again,’ Valentina’s greeted behind her. Juliana turned quickly. Too quickly, as Valentina took a step back, one arm around the books she held in order to balance them again. ‘Need to remember to put what I’m holding down before I greet you, huh?’
Juliana smiled sheepishly, ‘I’m sorry.’ She looked down at her feet, surprised that the girl had remembered her. Sure, Juliana had remembered her, but Juliana’s social crowd over the past week had consisted of only a handful of named people. She doubted the girl’s had also been so limited. And yet, she remembered her so well enough to greet her upon arrival. The feeling of a blossoming familiarity planted itself in Juliana’s chest. But Juliana knew better than to care for the seed because she knew that as soon as she settled, her mother would announce their leaving.
‘No, it was a joke.’ Valentina noted Juliana’s downcast expression, and cleared her throat awkwardly before then smiling again to change the tone, ‘Did you finish the book?’
Juliana smiled like a child at show-and-tell and took it from her waistband where it had stuck slightly to her skin. She held it out in front of her to demonstrate her achievement. ‘I loved it! All of the characters were awful. Even the person who writes it; Nick. Like he just excuses everything Gatsby does. Well, no, not Gatsby cause, of course, that’s not his real name. And Daisy! God, Daisy is terrible!’ She caught herself rambling a quickly stopped herself explain a book that she knew the girl had already read before.
Valentina beamed in excitement. She put the books in her hands down and took the book from Juliana to inspect its condition with enthusiasm. ‘Estupendo!’ She exclaimed, ‘This,’ she paces her finger on the folded pages and the cracked spines to demonstrate, ‘is the sign of a much-loved book. And…’ she paused with a wicked grin on her lips, ‘a sign that I was right. We do stock your kind of books.’
With a small reluctance, Juliana nodded, knowing that one book did not prove the girl right. One book did not mark Juliana as a great literature-tarian. But she let the girl have it, not wanting to reduce the girl’s efforts.
‘What do you want to read next?’ Valentina asked, handing the book back to Juliana like it were a treasured item. Though it was to Juliana, her first bought book, even if at a greatly discounted rate. Juliana took it back and pushed it back into her trousers’ waistband. Valentina watched with a curious smile but didn’t question the other girl’s actions.
‘Next?’ Juliana asked, the word pulsing in her brain.
She didn’t know how to answer. She wanted to read everything and anything the girl suggested, but she doubted that the girl would give her the discount again without expecting a check to cover the difference eventually. ‘This was great, but I can’t afford the prices here.’
‘I’ll sell you whatever books you want for thirty pesos and the promise you’ll come back to tell me what you thought of them.’
‘I can’t do that. You’ll get fired!’ Juliana exclaimed a little too loudly as Valentina laughed with her whole body.
‘It’s fine. I’m…’ she thought, ‘close with the owner.’
Close enough to run them into bankruptcy?’ Juliana thought. But she knew better than to say it. She considered it, knowing that it would be more difficult to hide more books from her mother, and even hard to explain what was really going on when she hardly believed her own luck as truth. Things like this didn’t happen to the Valdez family. They struggled with every task, for every penny. Juliana waited for this too to fall through. But, until that moment she tried to play along, ‘something set in Mexico.’
Valentina bit her lip and nodded, ‘okay. Errr,’ she thought and quickly Juliana wanted to take it back and give the girl a broader area to think within. But the girl seemed excited about the idea. ‘I know!’ she said and then waited a moment to think about it fully. ‘But I can’t remember who wrote it. Come with me,’ and without Juliana being able to refuse or accept, the girl has taken her hand again and pulled her towards the counter.
Stood there, a man with a clean beard and hair cut smiled to both his colleague and then to Juliana who stood next to Valentina, still holding hands.
Valentina waiting until the man had finished serving his current customer and then steps forward, dropping Juliana’s hand and leant over the counter. ‘Guille, who wrote Like Water for Chocolate?’ Valentina asked happily.
Guille laughed and pushed Valentina back off the counter playfully, ‘Laura Esquivel. Is this lady looking for it?’ He nodded towards Juliana who forced a smile to her lips out of politeness.
Valentina looked to Juliana with a wide smile, almost pridefully, and nodded, ‘Yeah. She wanted something set in Mexico.’
‘And you didn’t say Pedro Paramo?’ Guille said, obviously wounded.
‘No, because I knew you would have.’
They laughed together, and Juliana tried to join in, feeling disjointed to her surroundings. One step forward, and then ten backwards. She felt the copy of The Great Gatsby against her skin. Burning. Clinging.
‘And I think she’ll prefer Like Water for Chocolate.’ Valentina said, brushing Juliana’s side.
It struck Juliana that Valentina would even know what she liked. When she’d only recommended one book. Granted she had enjoyed it, but the first should always be generic. One that everyone enjoys. How was she to know which book she would prefer? And yet, Juliana trusted her. Trusted that the girl did know what book she would prefer.
Guille smiled at Juliana, who now looked up to meet his gaze. ‘Claro. It’s over there,’ he pointed over to a similar area that Gatsby had been in.
Valentina nodded and took Juliana’s hand again to go and get the book.
With it in her hands, the faces of two people on the front staring at one another, Juliana can’t help but stare at the front cover. To open it just to the first page and take a peak. But it wasn’t a narrative on the first page, it was a list of ingredients.
Valentina watched Juliana’s confused expression, ‘it’s not all a recipe book. But each chapter begins with a Mexican recipe.’
Juliana flicked through a few more pages and then nodded when she saw that the rest of the book was written in prose except the occasional recipe that punctuated the novel.
‘Yeah?’ Valentina asked, Juliana now closing the book and looking back at the girl.
‘Yes,’ she said rather forcefully, then, ‘thank you,’ so as not to seem too flippant about their arrangement. ‘And then when I’m finished, I’ll be back to give you my review.’
Valentina grinned, looking over Juliana’s shoulder in order to break the eye contact that she was clearly suffering to keep. ‘You better. Otherwise, I’ll have to chase you down for it.’
Juliana’s expression turned serious as she crossed her chest with her index as a promise.
At the counter, Guille eyed Juliana and Valentina with a scrutinising curiosity as Valentina clearly undersold the book and yet did it all with a knowing smile. ‘Thirty pesos, please.’
Juliana handed over the cash and accepted the book in exchange. ‘I’ll see you next week.’
After Juliana had left, Valentina was left with Guille clearly waiting for his moment to share his comment and tease his sister. She could feel his gaze on her as she closed the cash register and then turned away from him to walk away and continue with the job she had abandoned when Juliana had first come into the store.
‘Wait a second. Don’t run off!’ Guille called after her.
‘Yeah?’ Valentina cast back, flippantly.
‘Who was that? And why the hell did you sell her a book for thirty pesos?’
‘I’m…,’ she couldn’t find the words, ‘showing her that books aren’t just for elitists.’
‘I’m sure there are other ways of proving that that almost giving away our stock.’
‘I’m not giving it away. I’m putting the difference in the register.’
Guille opened his mouth in disbelief. Then shook his head, unsure of what to say next and was quickly distracted by the next customer who came to the counter. Valentina took her escape from the conversation, disappearing out of sight in order to arrange the front shelves.
Juliana pushed the Gatsby under her mattress before then pouring over the new book for the next four hours she had the house alone.
When her mother came home is had hardly felt like an hour until she looked at many pages she had read and then tore part of the paper bag the book had come in and placed it between the pages to mark her place. She pushed the book with the other one, ashamed of their secrecy. Wanting to stack them on her windowsill, the only shelf in her room, with pride. She wanted to build up a library of her own, like the ones she’d seen before in town or at school or on the tv.
It then dawned on her how long she expected this to go on for. In only two weeks she’d set up a pattern. A routine she now looked forward to with great excitement. In her mind’s eye, she saw the windowsill filled with books recommended to her by the girl at the store. She saw hours spent hiding away in her room reading, and then she saw how she’d eventually have to give them all away. And leave.
Shaking her head, she actively ignored it. Let the happiness permeate through her and ignore the almost constant reminder that everything was temporary.
‘What about you, mija? What have you been up to?’ Her mother asked during the pause in their dinnertime discussion of Lupe’s job.
‘Me? I er… she thought desperately for an excuse, ‘I just went to the park.’
She nodded enthusiastically, shoving more food in her mouth to avoid further explanation.
‘Lovely. It’s a lovely city.’
Juliana nodded, trying to think of any place separate from her books and the book store. But nothing came to mind. She’d been mostly absent during her walks across the city, counting down the moments to visiting the bookstore again.
Like Water for Chocolate took four days to read. Finishing it with a broken heart over her beloved characters. She finished it crouching next to the window in her room to not arouse suspicion as to why she’d stayed up so long, and then ached to tell someone about it once she had finished.
But there was no one, so she sat cross-legged on her bed for a moment flicking back and forth through the book to reread the parts she enjoyed casting away the loneliness that came from closing the last page and saying goodbye to the world.
Visiting the bookstore came before she sold the lottery tickets the next week. She had walked with her mother to work and went to pick up the lottery tickets she knew she needed to sell that day, but then pushed them into her back pocket and walked straight to the store. Closed until ten, she circled the block selling very few tickets before she then entered the shop.
Inside was the gentle morning hum of people preparing for the great influx of customers. Juliana walked, with purpose through the store, pretending she knew exactly who each of the authors she glanced at were, and as though she had the money to purchase them all. She looked around the different sections and then ventured upstairs briefly to find another wealth of books on every subject she could immediately think of.
Spying Valentina by the counter, she considered walking over straight away to speak to her but then thinks otherwise, not wanting to seem as needy as she was. It was one thing to want to talk to the girl endlessly, it was another to act upon it. Instead, she stood by the second on Spirituality and Philosophy and pulled out random books to flick through and pass the time.
While looking through a book on Descartes Philosophy, a call of ‘Senorita!’ called from behind her. She turned, the book hanging limply by her side.
‘Hey,’ she replied with fake casualness.
‘I realise, I don’t actually know your name?’ Valentina asked, and though just a small question Juliana catastrophised it. A name was personal, it tied her to a moment.
‘Juliana,’ she said, giving her anonymity up.
‘Juliana.’ A smile. And then, ‘what’s that you have?’
Juliana held it up, showing to Valentina, ‘I was just looking around.’
‘At Cartesian theory?’
Juliana opened and closed her mouth like a fish breathing, not knowing whether to nod or shake her head.
Valentina laughed. But it wasn’t the sort of laughter Juliana was used to when she found herself unable to answer a question. It was warm and inviting. That offered her to laugh with the girl rather than just stand being laughed at. Juliana knew it was no secret that she wasn’t as clever as most people seemed to be, but she felt it matter less in front of Valentina There was still the feeling that she had a lot of catching up to do, that Valentina still saw her as simply a fool. Literate but not well read.
‘Are you busy right now?’
Other than the lottery tickets that burned in her back pocket? ‘No,’ she lied.
‘You fancy grabbing a coffee?’
Coffee, Juliana thought, more money. But she nodded anyway and followed Valentina to the small café that sat at the end of the first floor. They sat to a table as Valentina went up first to get a coffee for herself but coming back with one for Juliana too without asking.
Juliana opened her mouth to protest then Valentina swatted the air to stop her, ‘Don’t worry about it. I guessed and got you a cappuccino. That okay?’ Valentina waited for Juliana’s answer before she sipped her own, having gotten herself a latte in case Juliana had preferred that instead. She doesn’t say this though, sitting with the cup held in her hands.
More than okay. Juliana thought, nodding and sipping the drink that was too hot for her, yet wanting to show her appreciation. The drink tasted expensive, with the pattern of a leaf in the top that she was almost sad to disrupt.
‘So, what did you think of the book?’
Juliana felt the room shift as she thought of her answer. She felt that somehow her answer had to meet a criteria that had been set out by an unspeakable power. By the action of the coffee Valentina had bought. ‘It was…,’ she thought. Long and hard, ‘… I liked it.’ She then, waiting for Valentina to jump in. But she didn’t, she sat patiently and allowed Juliana to find her words. ‘I thought it was very clever, with the use of recipes in order to structure a plot. Which I guess is kind of like how we structure stories from our own lives; with facts and events.’ She watched for a response from the other girl. Patiently and sceptically. Thinking of all the ways that it wouldn’t live up to the girl’s expectation.
But she smiled. Widely. Almost with her whole body. ‘Yes!'
Juliana smiled into her coffee.
‘And what did you think of the love story between Tita and Pedro?’
‘So exaggerated! It was like reading one of the telenovelas my abuela used to watch.' She laughed, then swallowed deeply and added, 'I guess it was romantic? But I don’t know, Pedro was kinda a possessive dick towards the end?’
Valentina clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth with a smile on her face. Juliana mirrored the other girls smile unconsciously, biting her thumbnail again in order to hide her smile.
Valentina found herself reaching out for a second, about to knock the girl’s hand out of the way in order to uncover the smile she was obviously trying to hide. But she caught her hand rising, realising her forwardness and then dropped it again. To her own cup.
‘So, before you said that the last book you read was about colour? Well, what’s your favourite book you’ve ever read?’
Juliana thought about it but couldn’t find any title in her mind that satisfied her own sense of pride. So, instead, she shrugged and shook her head, trying to bypass the question completely.
‘I’m serious.’ Valentina persisted.
‘I guess, this book I read a few years ago about this island where language changed depending on the letters that sat in a plaque on the town hall.’ Juliana tried to remember it, but no names came. She had never been good with names, but she felt the memory of the book in the chest. Without words to go with it, without fully remembering even the front cover she just remembered the feeling whilst reading it. ‘But I don’t remember the name of it.’
‘It sounds good,’ Valentina replied, the smile on her face encouraging Juliana to go on.
‘What’s yours?’ Juliana asked, trying to move the focus from herself.
Valentina thought for a long time until she answered with, ‘I have no idea.’
Juliana laughed, unable to stop herself. ‘You don’t know?’
‘No, there’s too many to choose from.’ Valentina replied with a knowing smile on her lips, ‘I really like Gabriel Garcia Marquez though.’
‘Who wrote that?’ Juliana asked, only to be met with a small chuckled from Valentina.
‘No, he’s the writer. He wrote a lot of books; One Hundred Years of Solitude, Of Love and Other Demons,’ she thought, ‘Love in a Time of Cholera.’ But when she found no recognition Juliana’s face she finished. ‘I don’t know if he’s my favourite, but I like his work.’
‘Is there one of his books here?’
‘Of course!’ and then, like a whispered secret between friends, ‘I made sure we have his whole bibliography.’
Juliana smiled to herself, feeling like perhaps she should not have known this information. That perhaps she was the only one to Valentina’s secret. Though she knew actively this was not the case, she let herself believe it for a moment longer. Imagining this was what it was like to have someone close to you. A friend and companion who knew things like the other’s favourite book or their coffee order.
But Valentina was just a professional, trying to make sure Juliana returned each week to buy another book. She knew the thirty pesos would go up eventually, and by then she’d always be too deep within this routine to back out.
The thing was, knowing this, Juliana was already willing.
‘I think Of Love and Other Demons, is a good start. It’s about a girl who gets bitten by a rabid dog.’ Valentina sat back in her chair.
Juliana’s brow creased in confused amusement, ‘that sounds fun?’
‘Fun? Not really for any of the characters. But it’s interesting.’
‘You have a lot of trust in my recommendations.’ Valentina pointed out.
Juliana shrugged, ‘so far you haven’t been wrong.’
‘Okay. But… if you don’t like something I recommend then you’d say, right?’
Juliana nodded even though she wasn’t sure. She hoped that by the time it came to the point of having to, she’d know how. Or at least that Valentina wouldn’t pick up when she lied.
‘Good, because I don’t want to force you to endure something you don’t want to.’
Juliana was silent. Somehow more so than her usual silence. This was wide and deep and from the shock that came with Valentina’s earnest words. It held the promise of conversations about more than books, and Juliana was both worried and excited about it.
‘Sorry. Intense.’ Valentina backtracked quickly.
‘No. I…’ Juliana paused and thought, trying not to say something instinctive, ‘Thank you,’ she settled on.
‘De nada.’ A pause, a deep breath and then, ‘so tell me. Because you don’t sound like you’re from around here, what brought you to Mexico City?’
There’s an opportunity with this stranger to strong together an elaborate story involving all of the things that Juliana had wished for as a kid. But not with this stranger. With this girl, she felt somehow like the lies would catch up with her. Perhaps it was just the hopeful thought that she’d be around long enough for the truths to come out.
‘My mum and I just moved here, we—she’s hoping to find my dad here.’
‘Your dad?’ Valentina asked with a confused and concerned expression.
Juliana nodded, not liking the pressure of Valentina’s gaze, ‘Yeah. He’s not very reliable. He got into some trouble with work and left. My mum is hoping we can find him here.’
‘Would he not just return back to your old home when his business with work was cleared?’
The optimism in Valentina’s voice is like too sweet sugar. Dripping with a hope that Juliana doesn’t even know how to empathise with. It's unattainable to imagine. But it’s inspiring. So she politely shakes her head, ‘we’re not that kind of family,’ she replied because it’s too easy to play the blame in his court. Because even without him here, she can still feel disjointed between the way she’d read family dynamics and the one she understood. Even without the threat of her father, she was here, feeling like each step she threatened to break eggshells of the earth.
Valentina reached out her hand and lay it on top of Juliana’s delicately. The touch so light and soft, that without watching it happen Juliana wondered if she would have realised that it had happened.
Their fingers are motionless, their mouths speechless for a second that seemed to drag out with uncertainty.
‘I’m sorry,’ Valentina then said as softly as her touch had been. Sorry for what? Juliana thought for a moment, no one even empathised with her in this way before.
‘Well, what about you? What are your family like?’
Valentina smiled at the quick shift but didn’t saying directly about it. ‘It’s… It changes daily. So, if you’d asked me that question a week ago, I would have said awful, but it passes. And then if you’d have asked me that a month ago, I would have said we were the happiest family ever, but… it passes.’ She smiled sadly as her own answer.
‘And asking you today?’
Valentina smiled, ‘comfortable.’
Juliana drank her coffee, and then when there was none left, she looked to the large clock on the wall. Valentina followed her gaze to the clock and then looked back to Juliana who was not looking pensive.
‘I have to go soon. I have to go to work.’
Valentina nodded firmly and rose from her seat to prompt their leave, ‘of course!’
They walked side by side, through the top floor, down the stairs and then through the downstairs as well even though in places it would have been easier to walk single file, until they stand next to one another in front of the ‘M’s. A shelf full of Gabriel Garcia Marquez curtesy of Valentina who smiled so brightly with price her face could hardly contain it. She knew, without even looking where the one she wanted was and then pulled it out to hand to Juliana. A girl with a long red braid on the cover.
‘I like the covers on the front,’ Juliana noted the red fabric in draped in the background, and the sea blue paint smear on top of which the title read Of Love and Other Demons.
‘His books do have beautiful covers,’ Valentina pulled out a few others that all seemed to follow the same theme. Bright title background and bright backdrops.
‘They’re all gorgeous!’ Juliana exclaimed, her magpie-like attraction to bright colours overcoming her. Without even knowing the books’ contents she can feel the settling that the books were set. She knew the age old saying of never judging a book by its cover, but there was a presentation on the covers of these books which she fell in love with upon instant of seeing them.
When she reminded herself, she was in the company of another, she looked up sheepishly and smiled. Valentina seemed not to have minded and mirrored her smile, ‘that was the best reaction.’
As they walked to the counter, Juliana felt excited about the prospect that if she enjoyed this one, then there was a collection all held in high esteem at her fingertips.
‘Where do you work?’ Valentina said as they stood on opposite sides of the counter now.
‘Err.’ Juliana hummed.
‘Sorry, too invasive?’
‘No,’ for some reason it wasn’t, ‘I just kinda don’t work anywhere specific. I see lottery tickets on the street.’ She gestured at the door as if to indicate where she was speaking about.
Valentina looked and smiled, ‘How much are they?’
‘Twenty-five pesos each.’ She said absently, as she watched Valentina put the book in the paper bag and tape it closed. She then took out the appropriate money and handed it Valentina who stood with her hands by her side, making no move to take the money.
‘I’d like a lottery ticket, please.’
Juliana pursed her lips, ‘Really?’
So, Juliana tore one off the strip she had in her pocket and then handed it to Valentina who took it and held it like it was made of thin gold.
‘It better be a winner,’ she remarked making Juliana laugh. I hope not, he voice said in Juliana’s head because she knew that would be the end to these bookshop trips.
‘Okay, but the lottery ticket was twenty-five, and the book was…’ she paused, how could she argue this when the money was already wrong.
‘No, I’ll buy the lottery ticket for thirty.’
‘You’re awful at bartering.’
‘Thirty and the promise I’ll buy another next week.’
Juliana beamed, unable to quite put her finger over where the money came and went in that situation. But she knew it meant that each week they promised to one another to exchange a book for a lottery ticket. And it all felt like a feeble excuse to keep up this routine. Pleased about it, Juliana nodded and took her parcel.
Standing only outside the store, Juliana was already desperate for next week.
She began spending the time that she told her mother she was, at the park. Finding it the opportune place to read her new purchases. She sat on one of the wooden benches during her free hours until either she got uncomfortable or it got too dark, whichever came first.
‘What do you do at the park all day?’ her mother asked, ‘are you meeting someone there?’
Provided for her, without even seeking it was the perfect excuse. She nodded, ‘yeah. I met someone while selling lottery tickets.’
‘Who are they?’ Her mother’s voice bit somewhat, a bitterness that Juliana pretended wasn’t there.
‘Her name’s Valentina. She’s nice.’ Her words felt shallow.
‘Okay. I’m glad you have a friend, but don’t get distracted. We’re here to find your dad, remember?’
Juliana nodded, and looked down, away from her mother’s gaze. Though she knew it would upset her mother, she knew that she wished they never found her father. Here or elsewhere. Even if it caused a life of month to month rent and never truly settling, it felt better than imaging to leave her first chance at happiness because of a deadbeat.
The week later, Valentina counted down the minutes to her shift starting. Guille noticed it in the way she hung around the front window of the store, creating small jobs to amuse herself, and the way that her eyes looked up at every ring of the door only to then look down with a disappointed smile.
‘Are you waiting for something?’ Guille asked, standing next to her behind the counter, her going through the log books for their stock order, and her sorting through the online orders.
‘No,’ she said quickly, ‘are you?’
‘Me? I’m not looking at the door every five minutes.’
She refused to look at him, biting on the inside of her lip in irritation. ‘It’s not every five minutes.’
Guille hummed as the door’s bell rang and Valentina’s head flicked up quickly to follow the sound. Only to be met with the sight of an elderly woman walk in. Valentina looked to Guille who scoffed loudly and then laughed. ‘Is this about that girl who came in last week?’
When she didn’t reply Guille opened his mouth wide with shock, ‘it is!’ He cooed. ‘Who is she? From uni?’
‘No. She’s new to the city. She just came into the store and we got talking.’
‘Huh,’ Guille hummed, ‘so now you’re watching the door every day to see if she comes back?’
‘No, not every day. We have a deal. She comes every Friday.’ Though it had only been three weeks of this deal, already Valentina felt like she relied upon it. Like it was something that she now accepted would be happening until they’d finished going through all the books that they stocked.
Guille nodded, ‘cool. I like it, you’re branching out, meeting new people. It’s good for you.’
Valentina narrowed her eyes to him, ‘are you just saying this because you don’t like Lucho and Sergio?’
Guille scoffed, ‘not just.’
Valentina swatted him with the back of her hand. Exaggerating his wound, he clutched his chest feigning being shot. As they laughed together, the door went again and both of them this time looked towards the door to see Juliana walk in. Guille looked to his sister who faces seemed to have been captured by the sight of the sun and then to Juliana who shared the same look if not somewhat more bashful.
‘Buenos dias,’ Valentina said as Juliana reached the counter.
Juliana smiled widely at the greeting, ‘buenos dias.’ And then she turned to face Guille and awkwardly said the same to him.
‘Do you want to go for coffee?’
Juliana nodded, ‘absolutely.’
And, leaving Guille behind even though he was definitely intrigued as to this new girl his sister had befriended, Valentina led the way up to the first floor of the store and to the café. When they got there, Juliana manoeuvred herself, so she was first in the queue. And then she turned, ‘same as last week?’
‘Sure?’ Valentina questioned slowly as Juliana then took the money out of her own pocket and placed the order. ‘No,’ she said suddenly and lay her hand on Juliana’s arm in protest.
‘You paid last time,’ Juliana challenged.
‘Yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay this time.’
Juliana handed the money over happily and then smiled to Valentina, ‘I know. But I want to. Just say thank you.’
Valentina pursed her lips, trying but unable to stop the smile forming and then said, ‘thank you.’
They took their drinks to the same seat that they had occupied the week before and settling into it Juliana allowed herself to not feel so much like a stranger to the atmosphere. Though she knew that this was Valentina’s workplace, and somewhere that she knew well, she felt like even if she forced it, she’d try to get rid of the alien feeling that was instinctive to her.
‘How’s your week been?’ Valentina asked, sipping her coffee.
‘Stressful. Working a lot.’ Juliana answered, ‘you?’
Valentina shrugged, ‘good. My thesis for university got accepted, which is good news.’
‘Fantastic news!’ Juliana cried too loudly for everyone else in the café. She caught herself speaking so loudly and then looked around embarrassed. She gritted her teeth together and looked to Valentina nervously.
Valentina laughed with slight disbelief over the other girl’s excitement over something that she’d never mentioned before. She was hit by the knowledge that actually their shared knowledge of literature was about all they knew about one another, and how much they didn’t know. But getting to know it all excited Valentina. She wanted to know everything, no matter how banal.
‘How about you, are you at uni?’
‘No,’ Juliana said like it took up three syllables. ‘We couldn’t afford university. And with my dad, and the moving about…’ she trailed off but then seeing the sad expression on Valentina’s face waved her hand, ‘no. It’s fine. School was never my thing anyway. And I wouldn’t have time now to do a degree with work.’
‘You work that much?’
Juliana nodded, ‘to help my mum with the rent.’
The table that separated them both seemed longer, wider and more symbolic suddenly. And Valentina’s first instinct was to rise from it and join Juliana on her side. Or to pull her onto her own side of the table. But she sat, and took her cup of coffee, staring down into the brown liquid, rocking the cup back and forth to create ripples at the edges.
‘I’m sorry if you or your mum need help with money—’
‘No no no,’ Juliana interrupted ‘absolutely not.’
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ Valentina offered, ‘really.’
‘You sell me books at a ridiculously cheap rate and last week you bought a lottery ticket. That’s more than enough help already. And besides, this routine is helping too, and the books. They get me through.’ Juliana’s cheeks flushed with her honesty. ‘Thank you for that.’
Valentina nodded knowing that no more offers of help would be accepted but knowing that she still wanted to offer more. How suddenly she had become enraptured with this girl who, having to count every penny had bought Valentina a fifty pesos coffee. Who, knowing she still had tickets to sell, sat with Valentina to discuss their lives.
‘Speaking of which,’ Juliana then said, ‘what am I reading this week?’
‘Oh course! Your book! How did you enjoy Of Love and Other Demons?’
Juliana leant back in her chair and smiled to herself.
‘No, you hated it?!’ Valentina gasped.
‘No, I didn’t hate it. But, the romance in it…’
Valentina nodded, ‘yeah. Not good.’
Juliana shook her head, ‘very problematic. But I liked it other than that. It really put into question the whole idea of religious bias. The belief that one religion is ‘right’, but really it’s deeply flawed.’
‘Spoken like a true literature critic.’
Juliana gritted her teeth, trying to conceal the smile, ‘could say I have a good teacher. This week I want to read something with an inspiring main character.’
‘Of course,’ Valentina hummed. ‘How about inspiring main characters? Plural.’
Juliana nodded with excitement, ‘perfect.’
The book in question had been The Freedom Writer’s Diary by a teacher and her class. A non-fiction diary that Valentina assured Juliana would bring her to tears as well as leave her with a sense of warmth for the characters and their story. Juliana needed no convincing other than the book being placed in her hands by Valentina to want to read it.
At the counter, under the watch of Guille, they exchanged the book for a lottery ticket and then pinky swore with one another that they would do the same the week after. A week that seemed too long.
Valentina read The Freedom Writers Diary over the next week, to feel Juliana look over the same words as her. To feel her enjoy the book at the same pace that Juliana did so. And which each passage she paused, expecting to turn to her new friend and be able to ask her opinion on it. To see the smile or the tears or the fury or the confusion that the book prompted and know that they shared these expressions. To feel the sense of pride that bloomed within Valentina’s chest whenever Juliana told her back about the books that she had recommended. Because the feeling was unparalleled.
But each time she looked up from her seat on the living room couch, there was no one there. That perhaps they weren’t reading the exact same parts of the book at that time, and that other than a first name and a profession, Valentina had no way of being able to find the other girl.
The idea of being able to see her new friend more regularly than their once a week meetings excited Valentina, the idea of being able to hold a contact that didn’t rely upon loosely scheduled promises.
The next week when Juliana walked into the store, the first thing that Valentina thought was that she needed to have some other form of communication with the girl. As her mother had told her, do more of the thing that fills your chest with happy butterflies.
‘Coffee?’ Juliana asked with a wide grin upon introduction.
Without needing to reply, Valentina left her post and followed the girl up the stairs to their table in the café. Valentina won the fight to pay this week, ordering a slice of cake for them both as well and placing it between them, handing Juliana a second fork. Though she ate some, Valentina let Juliana eat most.
‘You seem incredibly happy this morning.’ Valentina remarked, the other’s girl’s gait giving off inspiring confidence.
‘It’s Friday.’ Juliana answered, the unspoken meaning to that sitting in the air above the plate in front of them. Friday meant their routine, it meant seeing one another and spending time together. It meant that feeling of happiness that they both had longed for, and the feeling of staring into a night sky to see stars for the first time. It was all a moment that could be summed by It’s Friday.
‘It is. How’ve you been?’
‘Long. I read the book really quickly so reread it once and then reread Gatsby again too.’
‘You know you could have come back in the week, you didn’t have to wait till today.’
Juliana looked down with a smile on her lips. Sheepish by her own excitement at the offer. ‘I didn’t want to upset our routine.’
Valentina scoffed loudly and shook her head, ‘the routine was to make sure you came back each week.’ She looked down at her hands, ‘coming back more than once a week would just be a bonus.’
‘Then I’ll come back twice a week.’
‘Three times!’ Valentina laughed.
‘Every day!’ Juliana explained, both of them now shouting louder than they should have been doing in a café early in the morning. But their regard for their surroundings had dissipated. Become lost within the backdrop that stood outside their own table and one another.
‘Nah, you’d get bored of seeing me every day.’ Valentina then added, when their laughter had died down again to soft smiles.
‘I don’t think I would.’
Valentina felt the challenge on the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed it with a mouthful of coffee as a distraction. What a promise in only a handful of meetings. Of book recommendations, and in excitedly looking to front doors waiting for her to arrive.
‘And anyway, you don’t work every day.’ Juliana pointed out. Her way of asking how often she truly would be going to the bookshop.
‘No. I only work three days a week. Fridays, Saturdays and Tuesdays.’
Tomorrow. Juliana instantly thought. She could be back tomorrow. And then again during the following week. And that first thought weighed on Juliana because never had she been so eager to see someone so soon after departing. Even her own mother she felt the occasional need for days separated from.
She would not be back tomorrow. She couldn’t. It would be too soon. But Tuesday offered a shortening to their separation from the bookshop and Valentina.
‘Though,’ Valentina began, and Juliana let her plan drop instantly. Realising how still she’d been to think she could monopolise so much of Valentina’s time without consequence. She had her own life and friends to meet. ‘my family are having a get together this weekend on Sunday if you're free?’
Upon Juliana’s shocked expression Valentina quickly backpaddled, ‘but not if that’s,’ she laughed nervously, ‘too much?’
‘I’m free on Sunday.’ Juliana answered without a second’s consideration to the fact that on Sunday she had to sell tickets.
Juliana nodded, ignoring the fact that she was going to have to tell her mother about her sudden plans.
‘I’ll send a car to pick you up,’ Valentina said, and then took her phone out of her pocket. ‘Where do you live?’
A car. An address. A plan. It felt real to Juliana, tangible. And yet so far away. She knew when someone offered to pick you up in a car it meant they had money. And a lot of it. Especially when compared to the nothing that Juliana had. How had she just assumed that Valentina would be like her when she treated money with so much flippancy. The books and lottery tickets. All for thirty pesos because for Valentina that was nothing. Because the difference between paying that and the full price for a book didn’t mean the weight of a meal as it did to Juliana.
‘I can just meet you here?’ Juliana offered instead, feeling embarrassed by the knowledge that her apartment would have cowered in comparison to Valentina’s.
Valentina’s smile showed no sign of acknowledgement over Juliana’s obvious hesitance to Valentina’s plan, but she noticed it. Her nod didn’t show her question as to where Juliana could possibly live that would cause her such embarrassment, but it lingered in the absence. ‘If that’s easier for you,’ Valentina agreed.
Thankfully, Juliana nodded in response.
No book was bought that week, yet Valentina still insisted on buying a lottery ticket from Juliana when the time came that Juliana had to pull herself away from the café table. Instead, she parted with the promise to see Valentina a few days later at the bookshop while it was closed at midday to be taken to Valentina’s house.
She brought it up over dinner with her mother, after luring her into happiness created from a meal that Juliana had cooked and spoke over her day at work which had thankfully been relatively enjoyable.
‘I got invited to a friends house on Sunday.’ Juliana dropped in, serving herself seconds and then eating it with her eyes down on her plate.
‘Sunday? This Sunday?’ Her mother asked when it was clear that Juliana on her own was not going to provide any more description.
‘Yes.’ Juliana said matter-of-factly.
‘You friend from the park?’
It took a moment before Juliana realised the lie she’d already told her mother and nodded with a smile. Now making eye contact with her mother. There was a smile on her mother’s lips that Juliana was surprised to see.
‘Wonderful. How long will you be out?’
Juliana opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it and shrugged, ‘it’s a family get together. I don’t know how long they go on for.’
This had evidently not been the answer her mother had hoped for, but regardless she accepted it. ‘Well, you just keep in touch. Let me know if I need to make dinner.’
Juliana nodded anticipating that she’d be home before dinner would be served, but not wanting to answer so on the possibility that she’d be staying longer. Longer meant at least seven hours and considering that Juliana had only spent less time than that in total, she wasn’t sure how they would find enough to talk about. The upcoming event now filled her with a sense of worry. What if, without the backdrop of the store, or the excuse of books they had nothing to talk about? What if the difference between Juliana and Valentina’s life were too gigantic for either to be able to communicate through.
She let these anxieties manifest in the action of choosing an outfit.
Where was nothing so burdening as trying to subtly impress someone while also taking into consideration the occasion of wearing them and the clothes that are available? She picked up combinations and test them together, deciding against them for various reasons, some that she could not explain.
After finally settling on one, she changed her mind the following day. And then on Sunday morning, the whole process restarted.
But these worries flowed out of her and into the ground when, standing nervously against the bookshop window, she caught sight of Valentina’s smile. Smiling at her with the same amount of excitement as Juliana felt, though Valentina’s she was sure was towards her family’s gathering.
‘You look nice.’ Valentina said once they were now close enough to speak.
‘Thank you,’ Juliana said, looking down to remind herself on which outfit she had actually picked, then up again to Valentina who looked far better in her opinion, ‘you too.’
‘Oh, thank you,’ Valentina replied, shocked somehow at Juliana’s compliment. ‘You ready to go?’
Juliana looked to the black car that sat in the road by the store and gave a small nod.
It all felt too much for her, too large and extravagant as she stepped into the car and sat in the back with Valentina smiling beside her. Like an alien in her own skin.
‘Thank you, Alirio back home again.’
Though it was nice to see Valentina speak to the driver in such a friendly manner, Juliana couldn’t help feeling that she herself belonged alongside Alirio while Valentina took her back seat. That she was invading a space that she didn’t belong in.
Valentina picked up on her nerves and reached across to lay her hand on Juliana’s. ‘You okay?’ she asked in so quiet a whisper that Juliana had to crane closer to hear it.
She nodded, sitting up straight and trying to compartmentalise her unease until she was back home. She tried to let herself exist within the feeling that Valentina prompted in her. That warm glow in her chest that flowed through her veins and almost ignited at her fingertips that were now touching Valentina’s.
Their hands remained connected until they pulled up to the large security gates that bordered an estate. Juliana pulled her hand back to chew on the thumbnail nervously. There was existing with comfortable money, and then there was the estate that now sat ahead of them. She looked towards Valentina who was obviously used to the sight of her own house and so greeted it without so much of a smile.
They waited patiently until Alirio opened their doors for them as they stepped out and then stood amidst the palace. Gardeners and security bumbling around in their daily routines while Juliana felt like the world had been knocked slightly. Not completely off its axis but enough to change the comfortable equilibrium.
‘This way,’ Valentina said giddily, grabbing Juliana’s hand then pulling her behind into the house. A large foyer doing nothing to settle Juliana’s feeling.
They walked through the empty house and straight to the back garden where a series of people all turned their gaze upon Valentina and Juliana as they joined them all. Guille stood amongst them providing a familiar smile in the crowd of strangers. Of Juliana’s family.
‘Good, she’s back. Can we eat now?’ A woman asked, breaking the tension while keeping her eyes trained on Juliana. All eyes trained on Juliana with a mix of curiosity and judgement. She felt it all, no matter how they tried to hide their gazes.
‘Wait for a second, Eva,’ the man to her side said with a toothy grin, ‘let Valentina introduce her friend first.’
‘This is Juliana,’ Valentina said warmly and with pride.
The second of their judgement stretched out across the length of the garden and back again until Guille then stepped forward and gave Juliana a hug.
‘Lovely to see you, Juliana,’ he said and then smiled to Valentina. His action prompted the break-in Juliana’s exhibition as small conversations began between family members again, only occasionally turning to look to Valentina’s new friend.
One by one, each member came over to greet the two girls, offering a warm hello to them both and then engaging in small talk with Valentina that Juliana occasionally joined in with. Only small occasional comments relating to things which she only understood slightly. But got easier to understand. She learned, through listening to these conversations a great deal about Valentina that she had not known before. Small and large things such as that Valentina had lived in Canada two years before, who her siblings were and who was obviously her favourite, that she loved her father completely, that her mother had passed away when she was a child and that her new step-mother, Lucia loved Valentina and her siblings with an earnest and honest love. That her favourite food was ropa vieja as the chef made, and that she gave physical signs of affection to everyone. And yet, no matter how much Juliana picked up on, she still yearned to know more. Still felt as though there was never enough, she could know, or enough meetings at the bookshop.
‘So, how did you two know each other?’ Valentina’s dad asked as they stood within a circle of Valentina’s family. A greying man with a smile that was unavoidably contagious and genuine.
‘At the book store where Valentina and Guille work,’ Juliana explained proudly.
‘At my bookstore?’ He laughed, ‘Amazing!’
Juliana paused for a moment and then looked around at her surroundings once again, remembering the sheer wealth that the place showed. There was a reason why Valentina worked alongside her degree, and it wasn’t because she was short of cash; they had more than enough to pay her tuition in full. It was because the family owned it. The Carvajal family. Valentina was close to the owner because he was her father. But then the deal struck in Juliana’s head. She had been taking directly from Valentina’s family’s pocket. The guilt filled her chest for a second, but then as Valentina grabbed her hand it left her again. The power of a single touch.
‘Yeah. She comes in every week for a new book to read,’ Guille remarked knowingly as he smiled over the top of his glass of champagne.
‘How romantic,’ Valentina’s other sibling then said with an empty sarcasm in her tone. Obviously bored with a conversation where she couldn’t have an active role in.
‘Shush, Eva,’ her husband said with a roll of his eyes.
‘Well, I’m happy. Mi hija seems very happy recently. I’ve never seen her so excited to go to work.’
Valentina blushed scarlet red at the tops of her ears and swatted at her father to get him to stop embarrassing her, ‘papa,’ she groaned, but this did nothing but provoke a laugh from her family members.
Juliana’s chest bloomed with what felt like a meadow of flowers.
‘Food’s ready!’ Their housemaid called from the doorway prompting the quick movement of people towards the large picnic table that had been laid out with full cutlery and crockery. Everyone went for what seemed like their prearranged seats while Juliana waited patiently for Valentina to tell her where to sit.
They ended up next to Guille and his girlfriend with Valentina’s parents sitting opposite. A family friend sat to their other side, engaging in conversation on her opposite side. Dinner was Valentina’s favourite, as her father had requested, and drinks came in the form of bottles of wine lining the centre of the table with jugs of juice dotted around.
Valentina offered wine to Juliana who shook her head and then poured herself a glass of orange juice.
‘I don’t really like alcohol.’ She said politely, the horror of her father’s drinking problem causing fleeting memories in her head. It was easier to say she didn’t like the taste than to admit that the fear of its effect terrified her. She then watched as Valentina filled her own glass.
‘What’s your story, Juliana,’ Lucia asked causing their immediate company to turn to look at her with what felt to Juliana like interrogative glazes.
‘My story?’ She smiled, took a sip of her drink to prepare herself and then spoke, ‘I grew up all over. In Mexico, and America. Erm, I live with my mum.’ She trailed off, not knowing what to say. ‘There’s nothing really special to tell. My mum works at a café in the city.’
‘Are you an only child?’ Lucia asked, sensing Juliana’s need for distraction.
She nodded. After she had been born her father had immediately denounced his role and claimed that Juliana couldn’t have been his. It was clear from very early on that children had never been part of El Chino’s plan, and even when he’d had one, he refused the fact. Juliana had foolishly wished for a sibling when she was younger, someone else to share that glance with when her parents made those foolish mistakes, someone who knew in a way that no one else seemed to. But she didn’t wish for this hardship to be given to anyone else. Didn’t want to weight of someone else on her shoulders as well as her own.
‘Lucky!’ Guille laughed poking Valentina in the side playfully. A roll of Leon’s eyes is then shared with Juliana.
‘They couldn’t survive without one another really.’ Leon said. ‘Have you lived in Mexico City long?’
‘No, me and my mum moved here about two months ago.’ Juliana answered, praying that he wouldn’t ask why they’d moved.’
‘Two months? You and Valentina had become very fast friends.’ Lucia exclaimed.
Juliana could do nothing but nod appreciatively, ‘she sort of took me under her wing.’
The meal was quickly finished, and the sun soon set and then before Juliana realised it had become the evening and guests started departing. Juliana was bid farewell from everyone with a smile upon their faces and an earnest hug goodbye. Even to those that she still had not been introduced to. She followed Valentina’s example by how friendly to be to each of them, and then when the last car pulled up for Juliana she politely said goodbye to Valentina’s parents and then turned to expect to say goodbye to Valentina as well.
‘No, I’ll come with you.’
‘You don’t have to do that,’ Juliana said as Valentina ignored her and climbed into the car before her.
The car ride back was filled with Valentina’s soft apologies for her family’s interrogations and with Juliana’s soft chuckles as she said on repeat that it was okay. That it was nice.
‘You’re very brave for facing them all,’ Valentina laughed, ‘and they all loved you.’
‘Of course, they did. I’m amazing,’ Juliana retorted causing them both to clutch their sides in fits of laughter.
‘Where do you live? It’s too dark to walk home,’ Valentina said, and then as Juliana was about to say that she wanted to be dropped off at the bookstore, Valentina gave her a knowing glance and said, ‘I won’t take no for an answer.’
And so, Juliana pointed stubbornly down the road towards her small apartment. She watched the expression on Valentina’s face, waiting for the acknowledgement. For the pity that she was sure would come. But when they pulled up, per Juliana’s request, there was nothing on Valentina’s face that even felt like pity. It was a face that looked up to the apartment with a smile and then to Juliana with a frown as she said, ‘Friday suddenly feels very far away.’
Juliana nodded, looking down at he hands, not wanting her own sadness to be caught.
Valentina brought her finger to Juliana’s chin to raise her head, ‘but you promise you’ll come in on Friday?’
Juliana smiled softly and nodded, ‘pinky promise.’
Their pinkies hooked together like a tether between Juliana’s world and Valentina’s.
Then then, like cutting her own hand off, Juliana let go of Valentina’s finger and left the car. She waved off the car and felt the shallow feeling in her chest when it disappeared around the corner and out of sight.
‘How was it?’ Lupe said, sitting by the dim lamp, obviously waiting up for Juliana to come home. Juliana’s guilt rose, even though she knew her mother would never actively say that she’d stayed up.
‘It was really good,’ Juliana said lamely. There weren’t words to explain the feeling of disjointed comfort she felt from the world that existed at Valentina’s house by her side. While it felt like a forbidden territory for her, Valentina’s side felt perfectly natural.
Without a new book to pour over, the week that followed took years. By the Tuesday Juliana walked up the bookshop’s street repetitively, willing herself to go inside and buy a book. But she took too long to decide and eventually she found herself passing when the closed sign hung in the front window.
‘Juliana!’ Valentina shouted that Friday when Juliana had barely stepped inside the store.
Arms seized her for a hug, and she could do nothing but stand and hug the girl back. ‘You’re happy to see me.’ Juliana smiled.
‘Always,’ Valentina replied, ‘A week is definitely too long.’
Juliana tried not to let the comment go to her head, but it was too late.
‘Shall we go for coffee?’
Juliana nodded and then took the first step towards the stairs before Valentina then grabbed her hand to stop her. Turning back, she looked down to their hands and then to Valentina.
‘I thought we could go somewhere else? I know this really good burger place down the street.’
‘Sounds amazing!’ Juliana then said, allowing herself to be pulled from the store and three blocks away to a small place out of Juliana’s price range. She looked to Valentina to convey this fact, but it was lost as they were guided to a table and handed menus.
‘You didn’t buy a book last week.’ Valentina remarked as she eyed her own menu.
‘No.’ Juliana said, staring at her own menu. Trying to scan quickly for the cheapest thing that was listed but they all seemed too much. Too frivolous. ‘I’ll have to read two this week to make it up.’
Valentina laughed, ‘what kind of book are you looking for?’
Juliana thought, ‘romance.’
The menu in front of Valentina was dropped as she breathed deeply. ‘That’s going to take a while to think about. Have you decided what you want to eat?’
Juliana shook her head, ‘it’s all very…’ she tried to find the synonym to expensive and settled on ‘posh.’
Valentina laughed, and when the waiter came over told him that they both would have the barbeque burger. She made eye contact with Juliana when she ordered as if to offer the change for Juliana to change her mind. But she didn’t.
‘Romance,’ Valentina breathed watching Juliana intently. It was a gaze that exposed the two of them, that crawled underneath their skins and wove them together. There was such a longing within Valentina’s expression that Juliana tried to ignore but succumbed to. They held it without saying anything for too long until a jug of water was served to them to drink and broke their eyeline.
‘Thank you,’ they both hurried.
‘What do you want to do when you’re older?’ Valentina asked suddenly after the waiter left.
‘What makes you think I don’t want to sell lottery tickets forever?’
They laughed before Juliana then answered with a straight face.
‘I never really thought about it. I guess I just want to do whatever will put a roof over my head and still give me time to read and draw.’
‘You’re an artist!?’ Valentina asked excitably.
‘Kinda. Not really. I just like to do it when I have the time.’
‘Could you draw something for me?’
Juliana nodded sheepishly, ‘sure.’ She then grabbed a napkin to hand and a pen from her pocket and began drawing a rough picture of the girl on the other side of the table. The napkin frayed and tore, and the pen’s ink was inconsistent across the surface, but when she then slid it across the table to Valentina, Valentina felt the tears come to her eyes.
‘It’s beautiful. You’re amazing.’ Valentina said about more than just the artwork.
‘No, it’s… you’re a good model.’ Juliana quickly deflected the compliment.
Valentina lay her hand on Juliana’s, ‘It’s amazing,’ she repeated.
‘Thank you.’ Juliana said, about more than just the compliment.
They ate their meals slowly, knowing it would prolong the time that they spent together, and then sipped at their drinks until they couldn’t avoid their departure any longer. The bill was placed on the table between the two of them and Valentina immediately reached out for it, hiding it from Juliana’s eyes. Without a thought, she then put her card down on the table to pay.
‘How much is mine?’ Juliana asked, taking the screwed-up bills she had from her pocket.
‘Free.’ Valentina said as though it was a surprise to her.
‘Val, no.’ Juliana then said.
Valentina held up the napkin with the drawing on, ‘it’s a fraction of what this will one day be worth. So, if I get to keep this then I technically get the better deal.’
Juliana scoffed, ‘you’re ridiculous.’
Valentina shrugged, ‘it’s true.’
Juliana never found out how much their meal came to, she was too distracted by the way that Valentina held the drawing like it was a Van Gogh or a Kahlo rather than a Valdez on a dirty napkin.
‘I’m going to have it framed,’ Valentina said when Juliana asked why she didn’t just throw it away on their way back to the store.
‘I’ll do you another one. A nicer one.’ Juliana promised, ‘You don’t need to keep that.’
‘You could draw a thousand drawing for me and I couldn’t part with a single one.’
‘Why are you so nice to me?’ Juliana asked as they rounded the corner to the bookstore’s street.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, I’m nobody. I have no money, I’m not particularly smart or interesting--.’
Valentina interrupted her loudly and with purpose. She stopped in her tracks and turned to face Juliana straight on, ‘stop.’
Juliana did obediently.
‘You’re very smart. And so interesting. Two things that money can’t buy. You’re tough, Juliana. Very tough, and you’ve been putting on this brave face for your entire life. But you care. So deeply. I just think you need to let someone else care for you instead.’
Juliana fought against the tears that rose in her throat. She stood silently, unable to do anything or say anything or feel anything but beautiful warmth. Valentina’s warmth. ‘Thank you,’ she managed but she didn’t feel it was nearly enough.
‘Good. Now, I think I’ve finally thought of what books you should read this week.’
Juliana left the bookshop with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo which she devoured within two days and ached deeply because of unable to get the fate of Evelyn and her great love out of her head, and Radio Silence which Valentina had said was one of the best platonic romances she has ever read. This, Juliana, read more slowly, yet still with as much ferocity. Both books filled Juliana’s senses like wildfire. She also left with Valentina’s phone number which she practically abused over the next week.
An ongoing conversation between the two of them as they eagerly tried to learn everything, they possibly could about one another. By the time they met the week later, they rejoiced to see the face of the other but without the same longing having spoken the very morning before.
Their timeline seemed to speed up quickly, as though their friendship deepened more quickly over a shorter period of time.
The next week, Valentina already knew which books she was going to recommend because of their conversation relating to Juliana’s love of stories relating to people moving suddenly to other countries to restart. A copy of Driving Over Lemons sat on the desk waiting for her the next day.
It wasn’t until Juliana had gotten home that evening when she’d opened it up to find that sitting on the opposite page to the first was the words ‘To Juli, one day you’ll find your own Alpujarras and it will be beautiful. I hope I can visit, Val x
Juliana ran her hand over the words wanting to treasure them. It felt unjust to store them underneath the mattress of her bed. But there is had to sit with the rest of her books, for now, the collection was truly a sign of extravagance. A mark of just how much time she had spent lying to her mother.
By Tuesday Juliana was back again and a copy of The Book Thief was waiting. That Friday it was Salt. Though it always came back to books somehow, they spoke about everything and anything never worrying that they tire of words to say. Each book that came to Juliana was gifted with her own message inside the cover that Juliana held close to her for a moment as soon as she would get home.
When she went in the Tuesday later, Valentina was busy with another customer as Juliana waited by the counter with Guille. He spent the time sorting through the orders that the store had gotten from their online store while speaking with his sister’s new friend.
‘I assume Val has told you about the guest speaker this weekend?’ He said, gesturing towards the leaflets that sat in a pile at the end of the counter. The author’s name Dr Camilo Guerra in bold on the front along with a picture of his latest book; Death is Only a Portal. A boring front cover really, but an intriguing title.
‘No?’ Juliana said picking up a flyer and then reading through the plot.
‘You should come. He’s a friend of our dad’s. Really nice if a little… on his own planet sometimes.’
‘Who’s on another planet?’ Valentina asked as she came to join her friend and her brother, automatically placing an arm over Juliana’s shoulder and reading the leaflet in her hand.
‘Camilo. You didn’t tell Juliana about his talk this weekend.’ Guille scoffed.
‘I completely forgot.’ She said, then turned awkwardly still with her arm around Juliana to address her, ‘do you want to come? It’ll be great fun.’
Juliana nodded, but then looked at the ticket price.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Valentina said, noting Juliana’s eyeline, ‘staff discount.’
Guille laughed, ‘do you know what staff discount is, Val?’
‘Of course, it’s the discount that staff give.’ She laughed to herself and then let go of Juliana in order to look at her fully, ‘up for it?’
Juliana nodded and slipped the leaflet into her pocket.
That day she left with Camilo’s book to prepare her for this talk. The nerves of meeting an author in real life were unbelievably heavy. In her head, she had this assumption built up that all authors were people of the past. People who never saw their work rise to fame, or if they did remain out of the public eye.
She asked her mother without remembering the lie she had built up. Trying to think up a way to tell her where she would be going, without truly telling her. She painted the image of a film night at Valentina’s that her mother seemed pleased with her attending. ‘Will there be boys there?’ Her mother asked, but the thought hadn’t even crossed Juliana’s mind.
She scoffed and shook her head with a laugh, ‘no.’
The bookshop filled with people early as Valentina had been tasked with manning the wine and canapes table. She didn’t mind so much, as it gave her the perfect stance to watch the front door for Juliana.
‘She said she’d come, Valentina. You don’t have to watch the door.’ Guille said as he took a glass of water for himself. His job was checking tickets. Conveniently, because they both knew that if anyone else had been given the job then Juliana wouldn’t have been allowed in.
‘I know.’ Valentina groaned, ‘go and fanboy over Guerra.’
Guille stuck his tongue out as he then walked off with a chuckle.
Juliana immediately walked to the greet Valentina when she arrived, her palms sweating.
‘You okay, Juls? You look like you’re about to shit yourself.’
Valentina handed a glass of orange juice to Juliana. The one carton she’d made her dad buy specifically with Juliana in mind.
‘Yeah, it’s just. He’s a real author. You know?’
Valentina laughed, ‘yeah. He’s also obsessed with Star Trek and can’t boil an egg. He’s a real person too.’
‘He can’t boil an egg?’ Juliana repeated with a laugh.
‘I’ve seen him try. It’s painful.’
During his talk, Camilo read the opening chapter to his book, spoke about what had gotten him to the point of writing it and then took questions for the audience; which Juliana was too nervous to ask.
‘Do you want me to introduce you?’ Valentina asked while everyone clapped to mark the end of the event.
‘Could you?’ Juliana then said with disbelief.
Valentina laughed, ‘yes. He’s a friend.’
Valentina held Juliana’s hand for support as they walked up to Camilo after everyone else had left, ‘Camilo. This is my friend Juliana. She’s very excited to meet you.’
‘Thank you for the talk, Senor. I really enjoyed your book.’
Camilo smiled, ‘it’s my pleasure. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.’
‘I’m just going to go over here,’ Valentina said as she dropped Juliana’s hand and took a step to the side. The small crease in Juliana’s brow showed the subtle sign of worry, ‘You’ll be okay. I just need to pack up the food.’
Juliana turned back to Camilo and Valentina watched for a second, enraptured as Juliana’s defences broke slightly as she discussed with Camilo his book. Something that even Valentina struggled with sometimes.
‘She’s special.’ Guille remarked over Valentina’s shoulder as he paused for a moment carrying the box of Camilo’s books that had been signed.
‘Yeah,’ Valentina hummed.
‘Any guy would be lucky to marry her.’
And then a bolt fell loose inside Valentina as she tried to imagine Juliana stood at the aisle with anyone. The pit in the bottom of her stomach shook at the thought of her marrying someone. Why? She chastised herself. Juliana was a grown up. She was allowed to marry whomever she wished, whenever she wished and it wouldn’t cause any shift to her friendship to Valentina.
She paused at the idea of their lives as adults, the idea of still meeting up for their Fridays and now their Tuesdays at the bookshop. At the endless books for thirty pesos and the weeks fuelled on coffee. She knew it would come to an end eventually. When they moved away and got real jobs and families. But there was something in Valentina that knew she would mourn it. That would cling to it for as long as she could until her fingers bled from the weight.
She packed up the canapes and drinks, decanting the wine down into as few bottles as she could and then began moving the chairs aside.
Lost in her own head she didn’t notice Juliana helping her until they both reached for the same chair and grazed hands. Valentina hesitated, keeping her hand resting against Juliana’s on top of the chair back.
‘Hey, Val!’ Guille called over to them prompting her to pull back. To face him fully with a longing in her chest.
‘Camilo’s gonna give you a life home, that okay?’ Guille’s keys were in his hand, ready to lock up and go home. The clock now at ten and eager to get home because he had to open again the following day.
She nodded, and then looked to Juliana who was stood by the stack of chairs waiting for the opportune moment to leave herself.
‘Camilo, can we drop off Juliana before we go?’
‘No, it’s the other way. I’ll just walk.’ Juliana said quickly.
‘It’s late, you’re not walking home,’ Valentina said, waiting for the reply from Camilo.
‘No, seriously. It’s out of the way.’
Camilo opened his mouth to interrupt them both. To answer, but the girls seemed to hold their own disagreement with him in the middle.
‘Why doesn’t Juliana just stay at dad’s tonight?’ Guille said with a sigh, desperate to just go home.
Valentina looked to Juliana with a questioning expression. Her brows raised with a smile on her lips. ‘You can if you want to.’
‘I don’t have any pyjamas,’ Juliana said.
‘You can borrow mine.’ Valentina replied without a second’s thought. ‘And then tomorrow we’ll get a driver to take you home.’
‘Okay.’ Juliana said, taking out her phone to text her mother. Telling her that she would be staying over with Valentina and not to worry. She doesn’t wait for the reply before she follows Valentina out of the store and into Camilo’s car. Guille locked up and then walked to his own.
Giddiness filled the backseat of the car as Juliana tried to continue her conversation with Camilo relating to his book and his theories. Valentina paying little attention to the conversation topic and taking Juliana’s hand in her own. Softly squeezing it to tether her to the car while her mind travelled beyond it.
‘It was a delight meeting you,’ Camilo said as they left, ‘if you want to ask anything else Valentina has my contact information.’
‘Thank you so much, Sir.’ Juliana rushed out, the walls of informality still not broken down.
‘Thanks Camilo,’ Valentina said making her way out of the car pulling Juliana behind her.
They crept through the silent house to Valentina’s room where lights unveiled the room to Juliana for the first time. To Valentina’s space. That she had designed and decorated and made herself within. She wanted time to stand and take it all in, but quickly Valentina went over to the draws and took out a pair of pyjamas and handed them to Juliana.
‘There’s a bathroom there if you want to change,’ Valentina said, used to her own room already and not taking the time to appreciate its newness to Juliana.
The bathroom was filled with signs of Valentina. With the smell of Valentina’s soap, and her hair products around the sink. Juliana changed quickly and then brushed her teeth with her finger.
When she left, Valentina had changed herself, sitting on the side of her bed scrolling through Facebook on her phone. Upon the sound of the door opening, she looked up. The sight of Juliana in her pyjamas like a warm drink made to perfection by a loved one. An unpaired feeling of comfort.
‘Where should I put my clothes?’ Juliana asked looking around.
‘Oh, I’ll put them out for Silvina to clean for tomorrow.’ Valentina said, taking the neatly folded clothes from the other girl and lingering slightly as her hands touched Juliana’s.
‘You don’t need to do that.’
It took them barely any time to get settled into bed. Wiggling their legs to warm up the cold sheets, and then lie staring at the ceiling, enjoying the other’s company.
‘Thank you for tonight.’ Juliana whispered into the darkness after the lights had been flicked out.
‘Thank you for coming.’ Valentina replied and moved her hand under the duvet to meet Juliana’s. Their pinkies touching one another so lightly that it tickled.
Wordlessly, Juliana pulled her hand to Valentina’s. The agreement between them as they then wove their fingers together and held tightly. A gentle first move toward something else they couldn’t explain.
They fell asleep still holding hands. As Juliana pulled their clutched hands up beneath her chin to hold there. Valentina looked upon the other girl's face and smile to herself. Hidden in the darkened room. A confession she couldn’t make.
By the time she woke up the next morning, Juliana was already sitting up patiently, reading Beloved, a copy of which Valentina had left on her nightstand the previous day. Valentina watched her. Watched her eyes gaze over the page, enthralled by what she saw. Watched unnoticed as Juliana existed without any recognition of another presence.
And then Valentina realised she wanted to wake up every day to the same sight. That the reason she felt that unhinged sadness at the idea of her and Juliana’s book meetings ending, was because she ached for this feeling. Of silent ease that Juliana have her by the power of her very presence.
Valentina turned onto her side, disturbing Juliana’s attention.
‘I’m sorry.’ Juliana said, closing the book quickly and then putting it back on the nightstand, ‘I woke up early and I—’
Valentina laughed softly, Juliana sinking back down to lie next to Valentina. ‘Don’t apologise. As far as my books are concerned, you can read anything you like.’
Juliana’s gaze softened still with the remnants of sleep in her eyes, ‘mi casa, su casa, ey?’ Juliana joked for a moment until she caught that Valentina was not laughing with her. Instead, she was nodding, slowly and surely at the remark.
‘Mi casa es su casa.’ She repeated. Taking Juliana’s hands within her own and holding them. Slowly bringing them close to her and promising them that she would never let go.
‘Ditto.’ Juliana replied, unsure of how to let herself be in the moment of softness. So used to her perpetual tall walls of quick retorts and jokes.
‘Miss Valentina, those clothes have been washed and are outside the door for you,’ Silvina called through the door, pulling the girls out of their reverie.
‘Thank you, Silvina!’ Valentina called back wishing to turn back and find Juliana still lying in the same position, but instead finding that she had moved as was not sitting up straight. Preparing herself for the day. For her departure, Valentina thought.
They drove back to the bookshop together, unsure of how to address the morning’s moment of softness and so a strange limbo of comfort and discomfort over it. They found themselves automatically reaching across the space between them to take hold of one another’s hand, but unable to look one another in the eye once they had. Instead, choosing to stare out of their respective windows at the passing streets of Mexico City.
They pulled up silently, as Juliana let go of Valentina’s hand and stepped out of the car. Valentina followed her, standing opposite her, unsure of what to do or what to say.
‘I’ll see you on Tuesday?’ Juliana asked.
Valentina nodded with a smile and then pulled Juliana for a parting hug, whispering softly into her ear, ‘Te quiero mucho,’ and not wanting to see the look on Juliana’s face when she did. The hug hid her face and the expression upon it. She places a kiss on Juliana’s cheek and then pulled back.
As they both stepped back from one another, they stared intently into the eyes of the other before Valentina quickly got back into the car and drove off. Leaving Juliana to consider what had just been said.
Walking home in a daze, she rounded the corner of her street and walked into her apartment building with a smile on her face that was quickly ruined when, stood in the hallway, waiting by the apartment door was a Panchito, Lupe’s friend.
‘Juliana,’ Panchito said, ‘I’m sorry, I have some bad news.’
On the ride to the hospital, Panchito tried to change the subject. To ask her about her friends and her plans, but Juliana couldn’t focus on the questions never mind the answers. Politely she nodded and shook her head where appropriate and hummed agreement when she didn’t want to speak. She knew that Panchito meant well, but she also knew that where her response was to remain silent, his was to fill the silence.
They waiting six hours sitting on uncomfortable hospital chairs, drinking weak coffee and eating cereal bars from the vending machine. Until finally they got word that the surgery had been successful, but that it did not mean she was in the clear.
One at a time Juliana and Panchito saw Lupe in the hospital bed, with a drip attached to her arm and a heart monitor beeping, letting them know that though her eyes were closed there was still life behind her eyelids.
Juliana held onto her mother’s hand tightly, scared to make any more contact given the bruised that littered the rest of her body.
Though they didn’t know much, Juliana saw upon her mother’s body where the car had hit her.
‘Miss Valdez,’ a voice came from behind her. She turned to see a man stood there, ‘I’m inspector Montilla. Can I have a word with you about the accident.’
With little contact over the few days, Valentina clung to their agreed Tuesday meeting with the assurance that she would see the other girl that week. She opened the store with a bright expression as Guille saw, an expression that slowly left her as time went on. A hopeful look up every time the door opened and closed again, but it was never Juliana who entered. Midday came and went with agonising pace as Valentina refused to go on her lunch break on the off chance that Juliana would choose to pop by. And as closing time neared, the seconds teased her as they passed.
‘Val, it’s time to close.’ Guille told her as he cashed out on the tills.
‘I know.’ Valentina replied, a quivering in her voice as she hated to admit that she and Juliana’s arrangement had been missed. That Juliana had dropped off the face of the earth for the past few days, and that Valentina was feeling a need for the other girl with embarrassing ferocity.
They turned off the lights and locked the front door, bidding the other members of staff goodbye before they then walked to Guille’s car together for him to give her a lift home.
‘Maybe she was just busy with work today?’ Guille tried, sensing the need to say something about the situation.
Valentina nodded, ignoring the shallow feeling inside her stomach. She shouldn’t need the other girl this much. But is wanted just Juliana, it was any news about her. It was the fact that the absence had coincided with Valentina’s clear advancement in feelings. Though she didn’t want to, Valentina’s mind flicked towards the possibility that this absence was Juliana’s departure from her life. The refusal of reciprocated feelings. What a fool, Valentina thought. For trying it. For expressing her shamed want over the other girl.
‘She’ll be in on Friday, I’m sure of it.’
Lupe’s condition remained critical for the next few days. As Juliana balanced time spent either in the hospital by her mother’s side waiting for any development and covering her mother’s shifts at the restaurant. It wasn’t much per hour, but when there was now just one mouth to feed, it covered it.
Split between feelings of grief and happiness that her mother had survived, Juliana tried to remain impartial towards the investigation and by association to Inspector Montilla. A man who evidently cared more about the money and the status than the job itself, but also the only one willing to work the case; Juliana was the rose with the thorns still on the stem. Only manageably friendly.
There was nothing she knew about the guy that had hit her, nothing about the car that felt familiar to Juliana, and there was no motive that Juliana could think of that would cause a stranger to drive their car at fifty miles per hour in a twenty-mile zone. That wouldn’t have seen her mother crossing the road, and that wouldn’t have at least called an ambulance. But if Juliana’s upbringing had provided her with any perspective, it was that people’s actions sometimes couldn’t be explained. That some people did shitty things because they could, and fate didn’t necessarily punish them for it.
All she wanted from the ordeal was a name. Was an insurance to be paid for. And to have her mother back home with her again; conscious and present. Not this body that lay in a bed giving feedback through waves and beeping.
It struck her while waiting for a cup of coffee and staring at the bookshelf that sat opposite that all the time she’d spent waiting, could have been spent reading. She knelt on the floor in front of the shelf and leafed through the well-worn copies of Mills and Boon and crime novels that she had been raised with. That these where the books she knew. And she realises now how much she’d grown since then. That she found herself searching the blurbs for something new. For deep plot and characterisation.
She picks up a copy of Maurice that was sat there and opened the front page. The dedication sat in the top left corner. A message addressed to a Berto that read, One day my love we will know freedom, Jose 1982. She let her eyes take in the words, again and again, running her hand over the dried ink in order to understand it better. But the words were all there was, no matter how many times she reread it, there was a lost ending in the front page of a book that had ended up in a hospital. She thought to her own books, the ones which the handwritten messages in the opening pages and felt sick with the thought of them ending up on a bookshelf where the story behind their words was lost.
It was a narrative that only she and Valentina understood, even then maybe not fully. She panicked suddenly, taking her phone from her pocket. Letting it go dead though mindlessness, she could only stare at her reflection in the black screen.
‘Panchito,’ she asked softly, ‘do you have a phone charger?’
He fetched one immediately, any excuse for a job at a time when they both felt so hopeless, and Juliana sat hurdled over the plug socket reading through the first few pages of Maurice. Trying her phone after every paragraph for life until eventually, it buzzed in her hand, the brand symbol coming on screen to show life.
Immediately, a stream of messages came through from Valentina. Simple conversation starters and mindless snippets of information. All left unanswered. The last two had been on Tuesday evening and that Friday night. The same message both times. Just the word okay? that, like the others, had been left without an answer.
She looked to the time, now seven in the evening and quickly hit call.
Valentina picked up on the third ring, an unsure shake in her greeting, ‘Juls?’
Juliana melted into the softness of Valentina’s voice, ‘yes. I’m so sorry. I’ve been an awful friend.’
‘Are you okay?’
Juliana felt the tear roll down her cheek and watched it fall into her lap. She considered lying, considered maintaining those walls that she had gotten so comfortable behind. But not with Valentina. Something about the girl made her incapable of lying. ‘No,’ she said, letting the tears stream, ‘My mum’s sick Val.’
‘Where are you?’ Valentina said without hesitation. Juliana heard the shuffling in the background, as Valentina evidently gathered her things and moved from the room she was in.
‘You don’t need t—’
‘Where are you?’ Valentina interrupted. Shutting a door behind her.
‘The hospital. Third floor.’
Within the hour, Valentina rushed down the hallway of the hospital, scanning quickly inside the rooms until she found Juliana sitting on a green chair in the hallway. Leaning forward over a book, that she wasn’t paying attention to. Easily distracted by whoever’s feet walked past. When it was Valentina’s feet that walked towards her, Juliana leapt to her feet and collapsed into Valentina’s embrace. Held so tightly as though being held together, Juliana let the tears fall once again.
‘Mi chiquita,’ Valentina cooed into Juliana’s ear as she sat them both down onto the hospital chairs again, not letting go of the crying girl. ‘What happened?’
Juliana shook her head, ‘someone hit her with their car and drove off.’
Valentina clutched onto the girl harder, letting her own tears well up in her eyes, ‘that’s terrible. I’m so sorry, Juls.’
‘They did surgery. They said it was successful, but now we just have to wait for her to wake up.’
Valentina nodded, knowing that this was Juliana’s chance to say what she’d been holding onto.
‘I feel so helpless. I’ve just been waiting and working mum’s shifts at the restaurant.’
Valentina nodded again, ‘you need to rest, Juls. You’ll burn yourself out.’
‘I can’t. I can’t… be at home without her there.’
‘Then come to mine.’ Valentina said, ‘and in the morning we’ll drive straight here.’
Juliana began shaking her head, fixated at a spot on the floor that was easier to speak to. ‘I need t—’
‘Sleep,’ Valentina interrupted causing Juliana to look at her with sorrowful eyes. ‘You need sleep, Juliana.’
Juliana nodded slowly, letting Valentina take her hand and then pull her to her feet. ‘I need to tell Panchito, and give the charger back, and give my number to the inspector and—’
‘I’ll do that. You just wait here and I’ll do all of that, just point out Panchito to me.’
Juliana pointed to Panchito who was sat in a chair down the hallway cradling a coffee and staring at his phone. Juliana couldn’t hear it, but she saw as Valentina easily introduced herself and explained what would be happening. Panchito looked down to Juliana and smiled widely with a nod. He stood to hug Valentina as though they knew something that Juliana didn’t, and then Valentina came back to gather Juliana. She grabbed Juliana’s bag and the copy of Maurice which had fallen to the floor.
‘Do you want to go see your mum before we leave?’
Juliana nodded, taking Valentina’s hand and guiding her into the room where Lupe lay. The image brought back memories of Valentina’s own mother lying in a similar way when she had lost her. She kept this to herself, trying to push to associate out of her mind as though even thinking the fact would tempt fate.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow, mami.’ Juliana said as she placed a kiss onto her mother’s temple and then sighed deeply.
Juliana fell to sleep on Valentina’s shoulder on the ride home. Her head resting there delicately, as Valentina then rested her own head against Juliana’s. Fitting together comfortably as they drove through the now dark streets, illuminated by only the street lights.
At the house, Valentina pulled Juliana through the house. Past Lucia and Leon who sat on the sofa, and past Eva who was obviously ready for an argument that Valentina wasn’t prepared to partake in.
Alone in Valentina’s room, Juliana stood lifelessly, waiting to be guided. Valentina placed aside the book and bag and pushed the hair that was in Juliana’s face behind her ears. ‘You’re okay here,’ she whispered, leaning forward to place her forehead against Juliana’s. Their faces separated by a single breath.
‘I’m scared.’ Juliana told her, closing her eyes and only wanting to feel the proximity to the other girl.
‘I know,’ Valentina whispered.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t get in touch,’ Juliana tried, but Valentina wouldn’t let the apology land.
She shook her head slightly and hushed the other girl’s words. ‘You don’t need to apologise to me, ever.’
The sounds of the universe silenced for them both, holding its breath in order to give them the space between breaths to exist. That liminal time that dragged out and out as they stood opposite one another connected by the forehead and by souls.
When the hoods of their eyes grew heavy, Juliana sat on the edge of Valentina’s bed and allowed herself to be stripped of her jacket and shoes. She then peeled off her jeans and crawled into the bed. By the time Valentina had gotten changed herself, Juliana was already asleep. Valentina lay beside the curled-up girl and pressed her forehead softly against the girl’s back as a sign of reassurance.
Juliana’s arm reached behind her, seeking out Valentina’s. When she found it, she pulled it around her and held onto it tightly. Pressing her back into Valentina’s chest as though trying to take up as little space as possible.
Valentina refused to leave Juliana’s side the following day, abandoning her morning shift at work in favour of hospital coffee and terrible hospital food.
‘You don’t have to stay, Val,’ Juliana said as she accepted the coffee and the brownie that Valentina handed to her.
‘I know I don’t have to. But I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else while I know you’re here alone and upset.’ Sinking down into the chair by Juliana’s side, she curled into Juliana’s side. She felt Juliana breathe deeply, her heart rate beating, and it tethered her to the world. Removed her from the place they were in because it didn’t matter where she was sat next to Juliana, just that she was.
‘Val…’ Juliana said after a moment of intense thought.
Valentina looked up to Juliana, her eyes trained on the other girls with such intensity that Juliana felt like she might combust from the contact.
Valentina nodded and resumed her position, nuzzled into the girl’s neck. ‘Tell me about what you’re reading at the moment,’ Valentina then requested into Juliana’s skin.
Juliana held that same book that she’d only managed a few pages of and opened it at the opening page again, Jose and Berto’s story sitting there. Valentina not seeing it still, Juliana considers showing it to the girl. But she doesn’t know what the effect would be.
‘I haven’t really read much of it,’ Juliana said.
‘Read it to me then,’ Valentina suggested.
Juliana did, clearing her throat and then beginning from the first page, ‘One. Once a term the whole school went for a walk’.
She made it through the chapter before they got uncomfortable and both of their attention spans waded. Juliana shuffled and stood up Valentina watched her still sat. And they watched then as nurses rushed into her mother’s room with frantic urgency.
Juliana felt her blood pressure rise, hearing only the contracting of her veins in her ears. Her skin burnt, and she lost sense of the ground for a second, until she felt arms hold her together again, and let Valentina route her.
‘She’s awake!’ a nurse shouted into the hallway as Juliana then rushed forward, into the room where her mother with dazed expression smiled towards the doorway.
‘Hola, mi hija.’ Lupe smiled to her daughter who could no longer keep back the sob of joy.
Without care, Juliana rushed to embrace her mother tightly.
Valentina watched from the doorway as Juliana shared this moment of euphoria with her mother and then when she moved out of the way for Panchito, she took the moment as a sign of leaving. She managed to make it for the last three hours of her shift at the bookstore, sending a message to Juliana to let her know where she had gone and that she was pleased about her mother’s condition.
Lupe was released the day later after all the appropriate tests could have been carried out and she was seen to be in stable enough condition to recover in the comfort of her own home. That was not to say that the recovery process was near finished as Juliana and Panchito took on the caretaker roles, waiting on her at all times and taking it in shifts to watch over her.
‘I’m not a fragile baby bird, chicos.’ Lupe said as Panchito stood over the cooker readying her meal and Juliana poured the juice for her. ‘I can pour my own drink.’
Juliana looked to Panchito and nodded, ‘we know. We just—’
‘I know. You just care. And I appreciate it. But you don’t need to wait on me. Go out, spend some time in the sun for me.’ Her mother took her face in her hand and smiled deeply, ‘Panchito said that your friend came to the hospital to sit with you?’
‘Then go thank her from me.’
Valentina wasn’t working on Monday, so Juliana took the three busses to Valentina’s house and then rapped on the door. When Silvina answered with a confused expression on her face, Juliana considered turning around and returning home. It was only the passing of Valentina by the front door that persuaded her against it as Valentina politely dismissed Silvina and hugged Juliana.
‘You okay? Is your mum okay?’ she asked panicking.
‘Yes, yes. She’s fine. She came home yesterday.’
Juliana nodded, ‘I wanted to come and see you. Are you busy?’
Valentina shook her head, ‘what do you want to do?
‘Just…,’ she thought, ‘talk.’
‘I know exactly where to go.’ Valentina said with a smile, ‘wait here while I go get my purse.’
They sat next to one another on a park bench, each enjoying an ice cream that Juliana had bought despite the many attempts by Valentina to push her hand out of the way when the money was offered.
‘I missed you when you didn’t come to the shop,’ Valentina said suddenly when their conversation about Fitzgerald reached a lull.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t call.’ Juliana replied, sinking down within herself slightly. The slump of her shoulders, and the crease in her brow.
‘No, I…’ Valentina her word selection hang in front of her, not sure how to string them all together into an order that told Juliana how she felt but also didn’t scare off the other girl, ‘it made me realise how much you mean to me.’
Juliana looked to Valentina, pausing with her mouth open, a somewhat sad expression on her face, ‘Val… don’t.’ She said. ‘You know eventually I’ll leave.’
‘What?’ Valentina’s word shattered into the same tiny pieces as she felt her chest do too.
Juliana nodded, ‘when we find my dad… we’ll move on.’
Move on. They both felt the word cut deep into their veins and let the blood drip to the floor. Pooling together and sitting there.
‘But that day isn’t here yet.’ Valentina tried, clinging to whatever she could.
Juliana nodded, ‘it will come though.’
‘And when it does…’ she shook her head. And then to get rid of the tension in her expression she smiled and sighed in a chipper tone, ‘when it does I’ll hide you in my house.’
Juliana laughed, ‘it is a big house. I could easily get lost.’
Though the weight hung over them, they smiled despite it. Though the sun shone down hot over them, they huddled together for comfort. And though they knew that isn’t wasn’t in their best interest, they couldn’t help but fall in madly in love with the other.
Holding hands with one hand, and eating their ice creams with the other, they enjoyed the sun and one another’s company. Noting the people who passed by and creating stories for them all with a single glace.
‘She’s a spy from Russia,’ Valentina said, pointing to a woman stood by the entrance.
Juliana nodded then pointed to a man stapling leaflets to a wooden board, ‘he can play six instruments.’
Valentina laughed, ‘piano, trumpet, cornet, flute, and sax.’
They then saw at the guy tripped up on the pavement side, dropping his stapler with a bang and the multiple stacks of paper with a somewhat rhythmic pattern. ‘Drums,’ both girls said at the same time in a fit of laughter. The man looked over to identify the sound and frowned when he saw Juliana and Valentina laughing about more than just his clumsiness.
Quickly they rushed from the scene and walked from the park through the streets with no real destination in mind.
‘They’re going to propose tonight,’ Valentina pointed to a man stood by the bus stop.
‘And she’ll say yes.’ Juliana added.
As the bus then pulled up by them, they caught sight of their reflection in the windows’ glass. Valentina nodded towards their reflection, ‘they’re going to survive any separation that life throws at them.’
Juliana nodded, ‘and that one on the right,’ she spoke of herself, ‘got really lucky when she walked into this bookshop.’
Valentina smiled, ‘well the one on the left was even luckier when you walked in.’
They felt the declaration underneath their feet, and had they not been walking down the public street and had Juliana’s inevitable departure not be so fresh in their minds, they both felt that the outcome of the statement would have been more than the smile and embrace that they gave one another.
They made it back to the bookshop, where Eva was working behind the counter in no mood to be civil with her sister or sister’s friend. They wandered the shelves as Valentina pointed out favourite after favourite and Juliana listened with rapt attention. Cursing herself that she could not retain all the information that was being given to her. All the titles that Valentina so adored. But it didn’t seem to matter. She knew eventually she would get to them. Eventually, she’d know it all too.
And then she saw it sitting there on the shelf titled ‘D’. Ella Minow Pea. She pulled it out and handed it to Valentina.
‘This was my favourite book,’ she said with certainty. ‘This time I’m recommending a book to you.’
Valentina held it like a treasure. Her eyes gleaming with excitement as she turned it over and read the blurb on the back. ‘The first of many recommendations I’ll take from you,’ Valentina said as she tucked it under her arm.
They could feel their words repeat, their steps getting slower. And then Eva finally told them that they were closing and so they’d better leave, Valentina clung to Juliana’s fingertips until the last minute. Until they were stood where their roads parted on the corner of the street.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow?’ Valentina asked, looking down at their hands.
‘I look forward to it.’ Juliana said unable to tear her own eyes away from Valentina’s.
They let their hands drop and then walked in opposite directions, looking back at the same moment only to meet the other’s gaze and burst out laughing. ‘Bye!’ they both shouted and continued walking.
By the time Juliana got home, she already had three messages from Valentina on her phone.
The following day, Valentina gave Juliana Women Hollering Creek to read. A series of short stories that she herself had enjoyed. And they discussed the power of books and Valentina’s thesis over coffee in the café. It felt strange for them to return to that table and sit across one another after the previous week. The promises they had made to one another in their own heads playing over and over like a mantra yet sit in front of one another and not say a word about it.
‘Can I read the thesis when you’ve finished it?’ Juliana asked.
Valentina smiled, ‘sure. Can I buy one of your art pieces?’
Juliana paused, ‘I haven’t got any.’
‘Exactly. When you have, I wanna be your first buyer.’
Juliana tilted her head and considered it, ‘what do you want me to draw?’
Valentina breathed deeply, ‘whatever you want. Whatever you like looking at.’
Juliana nodded, ‘Okay. When do you want to model for it then?’
A bite of her lip to suppress the smile and Valentina blushed deep red. She covered her smile with her hand, unsure of what to say. Until she caught sight of Juliana’s knowing expression and refused to let her win. ‘Tomorrow. I have class in the morning but then I’m free in the afternoon.’
‘I’ll see you in the afternoon then.’
She waited outside the university gates for Valentina the next day. Contemplating the art supplied in her bag that hung at her waist. She contemplated the very act of waiting for Valentina outside those gates and why it meant. For them and for her. Was she this person now? The one who waited by gates, filled with the excitement of the knowledge that within the hour she’d be able to lay her eyes upon the person who made her heart skip two beats.
And sure enough, there the feeling was. When she saw the girl walk from the building and the greeting that their eyes shared was more than Juliana could have expected. Her face lifted, a smile filling her entire being as Valentina jogged over to her and hugged her. It was a greeting that she knew she would never get used to. That would always feel like the first time had ever hugged her. Had held her. But gradually she got used to letting herself melt into it.
‘Are you ready, mi Frida?’ Valentina said, leaving her arm around the other girl’s shoulder as they walked together to the car that waited for Valentina at the end of the road.
Climbing in, they were giddy for excitement over their plans for the afternoon.
With quick partings, they rushed inside Valentina’s house and up to her room, Juliana now more confident in her surrounds. A development that excited Valentina to see.
Once inside her room, with a door closed they quickly settled into position; Juliana taking her supplies from her bag and sitting with them poised on her lap; Valentina taking off her jacket and sitting on the corner of the bed with a playful smile on her lips as she waited.
The moment of preparation drew out. Knowing that this was a moment to prove to one another. But prove what they didn’t quite know.
Juliana began drawing. She began with the frame of the face, outlining where everything within existed. A light sketch of the eyes, the nose the mouth. She drew lightly where the ears began and how the hair tucked behind them. And then she added the detail. She began with the eyes. Because when she looked at the girl that was where her focus was drawn. It seemed a sacrilege that she drew in only grey graphite. That the blue would be lost. She moved onto the mouth, how it smiled to her and lit up the face. That one smile that could make armies of men pause and turn on their own sword. And yet, this one was just for Juliana. Feature by feature she drew out the corners and curves of Valentina’s profile, falling in love with each part for moments at a time until she moved on to the next and fell in love with that part too.
When it was complete, she kept the pencil in her hand. Allowing herself another moment to stare at the girl whose attention was just on her. Selfishly, she drew out the moment of attention, until she signed her name at the bottom of the drawing. A small scrawl that marked her time here. Her prideful mark. That she had had the chance to capture Valentina’s beauty in print.
‘Can I see yet?’ Valentina asked, pulling Juliana out of her dazed reverie.
‘Err,’ she paused for a moment and looked to the picture, ‘yes.’ She turned it for Valentina. Exposed her admiration for the girl. ‘It’s…’ but before she could finish her disclaimer Valentina interrupted.
‘Beautiful.’ She murmured tears on her eyelashes.
‘Well, that’s good because you are.’
A thick fog settled between them that Valentina slowly waded through. Pushing her way against what better judgement they had. That told them that what they wanted to happen really shouldn’t.
Juliana remained in her seat, unable to do more than that. She let things happen to her, as she always had. But with a deep yearning inside her chest that screamed so loudly, she swore Valentina could hear it too.
Valentina leant against Juliana’s knees, rocking forward and taking the sketchpad from Juliana’s hand. She stared at it for a long time, her eyes taking in every detail, unable to attach the image to her own profile. There was more within the picture than just her own image, there was Juliana’s view in it too. As clear as the lines that marked out Valentina’s eyes were the person they looked at. Was the light that they saw, the admiration they held.
She looked from it to its artist. Feeling the same artist’s gaze even when there was no medium to capture it.
Slowly, Valentina lowered her face towards Juliana’s, waiting for the pullback. Waiting for the moment of refusal. And yet none came. She carried on, watching Juliana close her eyes slowly until their lips met.
Slow movements of hesitation as they both tested one another’s intention again and again. Until something tipped. Until the moment came when there wasn’t the need to question the other’s feelings any more because it was all already written out. In pencil drawings and in discounted books. In the sleepless nights waiting for mothers to recover and in days braving family meetings. There was nothing to question any longer because the big question had been answered. And the answer was; yes. I do love you.
Their speed quickened, their intensity deepened and eventually kissing with one standing and one sitting on a chair did not suffice.
They moved to the bed, frantically pushing and pulling one another until they were desperately searching for one another’s exposed skin.
‘Valentina?’ they heard Leon call from the hallway, as he rapped upon the door.
They broke apart. Watching one another with intense curiosity. Both searching for regret that did not surface.
‘You okay, mi amor?’ he then asked.
‘Yeah, papi.’ Valentina called back but staring still at the girl who sat opposite her, her hand still on the other girl’s arm.
‘Is Juliana staying for dinner?’
‘Yes,’ Valentina said, watching Juliana’s expression.
An expression that turned soft.
When they heard his shuffle away, they separated with deep breaths. Unable to talk about what had just happened. Unable to commit it to truth.
‘It’s paella for dinner,’ Valentina said softly.
‘I like paella.’ Juliana replied. Her vow. Her promise.
Valentina nodded, smiling. Understanding what Juliana meant.
Dinner was shrouded in the hidden messages of what they had just done. Though they sat on opposite sides of the table and did not speak about one another or what they had done, no conversation could escape it somehow.
‘How is your mother, Juliana? Valentina mentioned that she’d been in an accident.’ Lucia asked.
‘She’s doing better,’ she answered and then looked to Valentina, ‘much better.’
She left the picture in Valentina’s room, laying it upon the bed when she left. Smiling at its place there, in the place where they existed in happiness.
And when Valentina came back to it that evening, after wishing Juliana goodbye, she clung to it. Imagined it on each wall, framed in all its glory and felt that no wall did it justice. That no frame would ever fit it.
Overwhelmed by what had happened, the girls waited until Valentina met Juliana at the park the following day. Unsure of how to act around one another they let their fingers brush as they walked and sat with Valentina’s head in the crook of Juliana’s neck as they ate lunch at a local café.
‘We won’t be able to stop this, even when the time comes that I have to leave.’ Juliana remarked, letting Valentina examine her hands with her fingertips. To gently she ran her fingers along Juliana’s palm and fingers.
‘Do you want to stop?’ Valentina asked quietly.
‘No.’ Juliana answered with certainty. Through all the things that she didn’t know about; when she would leave, where she would go, what she would do. The one that knew with clear certainty was that she didn’t want to stop what she currently had with Valentina. This ease of expression that she’d been longing for without realising it. That which she had always assumed only came from words on a page. The feelings that she’d only ever read about. All concentrated within a girl who was now sat within her arms.
Their kisses over the new week were stolen in secret with one another, quick and heavy as though always expecting to be interrupted by either a person or by fate. The knowledge that any could be their last laced every kiss, every declaration, and every touch that they shared. Though they tried to ignore it, it lingered over them always.
Until the moment when Juliana arrived home to find a box packed in the hallway and then the reality hit her hard on the head, like the sky shattered into a million pieces by the impact of just her head. The word kitchen written in fresh pen on the side of the box. Instinctively, she opened it to find her and her mother’s new plates and glasses inside.
She closed the box again and pushed it to the side, and then went to her room to retrieve a book and a pen before leaving the house again.
The book had been Maurice in which she wrote underneath Jose’s message to Berto her own message to her own love. An apology as much as it was a love letter. All that in which she couldn’t say face to face.
She wrapped the book in a free newspaper page she picked up and wrote Valentina’s name across the front. She then posted the book through the bookshop door and walked back home.
She knew the nature of the messages that would flood her phone the moment that Valentina would find it, but she also knew there was no way that she could possibly break the news to Valentina in person. There wasn’t anything inside her that would have been able to watch Valentina’s expression when she told her, and not break even more than she already had.
Her walk back to the apartment was filled with deep sorrow that felt as though she saw the pathway for the first and last time. She took in every detail that she could, trying to retain it all, thinking that it would be crucial to her when she could no longer see it so easily. But it wasn’t the places she would miss, it was the memories that attached themselves to each of the places.
Expecting to find her mother still at work, Juliana allowed herself the walk home to grieve openly without worrying about having to explain the tear stains on her cheeks when she would walk through the front door.
She let herself cry shamelessly that night, holding herself and refusing to acknowledge her phone when she heard it chime. A message from Valentina she couldn’t bring herself to lie a reply to.
She left early the next morning to avoid her mother for as long as she could before she could face the conversation and the explanation as to where they would be going to next. Where she’d found Chino living after all this time.
And yet, when she pushed the apartment door open, she stepped into another conversation that needed to be had. Sitting upon the coffee table in the centre of the lounge were all her books stacked in one poorly balanced pile. Her eleven points of her and Valentina’s timeline. The way that Juliana had wished to display them but had never been able to. They’re in the wrong order, Juliana thought and fought the urge to reorganize them.
She looked to her mother who watched her as she entered the lounge and took her own seat next to Lupe’s.
‘Mami, I can explain,’ Juliana began, shamed by her secret having been revealed.
‘I found them stuffed under your mattress.’ Lupe remarked with a creased eyebrow.
Juliana nodded at her books, able to hold this conversation with them rather than her own mother who she’d lied to for so long. ‘I’m sorry. I—’
‘Mija,’ Lupe said softly, ‘why are you sorry?’
Juliana looked up, trying to find the right words but unable.
‘Where are they from?’
‘The bookstore on the street opposite the park. ‘La Librería del Carvajal’.’ Juliana explained, ‘I’ve been going every week.’
Lupe nodded, smiling, ‘not the park.’
Juliana shrugged, ‘I sometimes went there too.’
They laughed to remove the tension until the laughter died, and Lupe spoke again, ‘why did you lie?’
‘I didn’t want you to know I was spending the money. We were meant to be saving to go find Chino.’
‘No, mija.’ Lupe moved from her seat to join Juliana in hers. Together on the chair meant for one, ‘That doesn’t mean you have to give up everything that makes you happy. It just… meant that we had to be mindful.’
Juliana smiled with the tears in her eyes, ‘thank you.’
‘And I have a confession, I
‘It was at the bookshop you met your friend, wasn’t it?’
‘Well, I feel like it’s a bit past due that I meet this friend of yours.’
‘But…’ Juliana looked around her, at the numerous boxes that had accumulated, ‘when? If we’re leaving?’
Lupe followed Juliana gaze with confusion, ‘leaving?’ And then the answer settled, ‘no.’ She paused, ‘So, time for my own confession.’
‘Que?’ Juliana asked.
‘Since my accident, Panchito has been spending a lot of here.’
Juliana nodded, having noticed man about the apartment more.
‘He asked me to move in with him. He has a place a few streets over, a lot nicer, and
‘He asked me to move in with him. He has a place a few streets over.’ Her mother said the words slowly, perhaps for the first time speaking them out loud.
‘But Chino?’ Juliana asked, praying for a specific answer.
An answer that came in the soft chuckle her mother then gave, ‘I think I’ve been using your father as an excuse for my unhappiness long enough. Chasing him from city to city with just hope that he’d change.’ Tears in her mother’s eyes fell slowly down her cheeks, ‘I don’t feel that with Panchito. Because it’s easy. I don’t need to hope for anything because he’s already enough.’
‘So, Chino is… done?’
Her mother laughed, ‘yes. Chino is done. And so is our constant moving. I’m sorry for putting you through it.’
Juliana choked on the laughter and tears that rose in her. Wanting to express her euphoria in any way she could but found that all she was able to do was hug her mother tightly. Clinging to her clothes like a lifeline, afraid if she let go, she’d wake up from the dream.
‘So, I take it you don’t mind staying in Mexico City?’
Juliana shook her head firmly, ‘I don’t mind.’
‘Good, because I’m going to need help lugging it all over to the new place. And then I think we’ll go get a bookshelf for you?’
Juliana’s lip quivered with the feeling of happiness she didn’t know what to do with. She wanted to share it with Valentina. Wanted to share for the first time an unburdened moment with her. She considered the books for a moment realising the missing one. Realising her rash behaviour of goodbye the previous day, and then looked to the clock to realise that the shop would have opened by now.
‘I have to go,’ Juliana said suddenly, ‘I have to go rectify something.’
‘Okay,’ Lupe answered, ‘I’ll see you afterwards.’
Juliana nodded, looking around and left the apartment realising that the feeling of leaving it didn’t bother her. It had never been the apartment she would miss. In fact, the apartment itself was shitty. But where it was everything. It was home.
The shop was open, and the parcel was gone when Juliana got there. Guille was stood at the counter serving a customer when he saw Juliana and quickly abandoned his position to share a look with Juliana. One of anger that Juliana understood and accepted. The evidence that Valentina had found the book.
‘Where is she?’ Juliana asked.
‘I think you need to give her some space, Juliana.’ Guille told her firmly, saving face in front of the customer.
‘I got it wrong. I need to explain to her that I got it wrong. I’m not leaving.’
Guille paused and watched her intently, ‘you’re not?’
She shook her head, ‘we’re moving. But just to a few streets away.’
‘And when you do leave?’
Guille tried to suppress the smile that threatened his lips, ‘you promise?’
‘Because if you break my little sister’s heart, I’ll seek you out.’
Juliana smiled and nodded.
‘I’m serious,’ he said, but his laugh gave him away. ‘She’s in back, pricing up.’
Valentina sat on the floor surrounded by piles of books with a spreadsheet in front of her. Typing in the price to her label gun and then printing them into the back of each book. The copy of Maurice, Juliana noticed, within arm’s reach to Valentina’s left. Sitting alone, yet being the cause of this.
Juliana walked over softly until she was stood over Valentina.
‘Guille, I told you I’m fine,’ Valentina snapped, angrily printing another label.
Juliana moved to in front of Valentina and crouched down so that she was now in Valentina’s direct line of sight.
The sight of one another let everything wash over them in a giant wave of emotion. Everything that they thought they would lose to distance.
‘Juliana, I can’t.’ Valentina said softly, cheeks red from pre-shed tears.
‘I was wrong.’
‘Wrong?’ Valentina asked.
‘We’re not leaving. Ever. I got home to find a packed box and I panicked, but we’re just moving to another part in the city. I’m sorry, I didn’t know what to do. I was a coward and I didn’t want to f—’
She’s cut off by Valentina’s mouth on hers. Having quickly leapt from her sitting position over the piles of books and towards Juliana. Smiling into a kiss that was wet from tears and desperate from the change to expectation.
‘I need to explain myself, I had a full thing planned,’ Juliana said quickly, but Valentina smiled and shook her head. Holding Juliana’s face in her hands.
‘You’re here now. And that’s enough,’ Valentina said, ‘you don’t need to say anything more than that you’ll stay.’
Their kiss was slow and patient. Now able to be with the promise of the rest of their lives. Still aware of their place in the bookshop back room, they separated before they let it get further. A bookmark in place for when they could be alone together. Not worrying about when that would necessarily be but knowing that it would be without time restriction.
Juliana helped Valentina price up the books, sharing many a knowing glance and many a quick kiss while completing the job. The way that they wished to complete all their jobs from then on.