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Take Me Back to the Start

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1984

Luisa is seven years old when the new neighbors move in next door. At first, she's excited, standing up on her tiptoes in a vain attempt to peek over the white picket fence that separates their lawn from the neighbors', over which her parents are having a boring conversation with said new neighbors, the Ruvelles. Mia holds newborn Rafael against her shoulder as he snuffles. But, Luisa, being seven, she quickly loses interest in peeking through the slats in the fence to watch the movers carry furniture from a truck into the house for what seems like forever.

It isn't until she trudges up to her room that a flash of red catches her attention. She lives in the type of cookie-cutter suburban cul-de-sac where all the houses have the same floor plan, so her bedroom window happens to face its mirror image of the neighbor's house. And in the Ruvelle's window is another little girl.

Luisa pushes her window up (or as far as it'll go. Her parents are responsible), and calls out. "Hey, hey!" She waves frantically until she gets the girl's attention and mimes opening the window until the girl does so. Luisa kneels so she can stick her mouth through the window's opening. "Hi!"

"Hi!" the girl says. "I just moved in."

"I know!" Luisa says. "My parents are talking to your parents."

"My name is Clara but everyone calls me by my middle name, Rose."

"I'm Luisa!"

"Do you wanna go play cops and robbers?"

"Yeah!"

As they dash across their lawns, Elena idly calls out, "Be careful, Rose!"

"Yes, Mother!" she sing-songs back before she squeals, jumping back to avoid Luisa's clumsy jab.

And in that simple, easy way children have, they're best friends after that day.

 

They're not in the same first grade class, but they do nearly everything else together. They ride the bus together, telling each other terrible jokes as the rest of kids scream and bounce around on the way to and back from school. At Luisa's urging, Rose's parents sign her up for the same dance classes Luisa attends.

Outside school and dance class, it's rare that a day goes by that Luisa doesn't run out the door with a cursory, "I'm going to play with Rose!" Or to have Rose show up at their doorstep, asking, "Can Luisa play?" When Luisa looks back at this time in her childhood, she doesn't really remember what they did. But between the fuzziness of her memories, she remembers moments: how wild Rose's hair looked like from behind as she chased her all over their neighborhood, making potions of mud and flowers and ground up chokecherries, building forts on Rose’s swing set, rolling down freshly mown hillsides and squeezing her eyes shut against the spell of dizziness, loose grass tickling her nose as Rose groans next to her.


Years pass. The ease of elementary school shifts into middle school. Things change. Rose shoots up. She quits dance lessons, feeling awkward and gangly with her newfound height combined with her braces. Luisa is upset with how much weight she gains, even though Mia tells her the Alver women have always had a little more in the back.

They’re all a bunch of hormonal preteens trying to make sense of the world in a microcosm. Cliques form and Rose and Luisa, although still good friends, start to drift apart. Rose starts straightening her hair. She discovers an aggressive streak that makes her a star forward in soccer. Through her new team members, she finds she has a good mind for politics that’s well suited to navigating the drama of being one of the popular girls.

A few months after Rose gets her braces removed, one of the popular guys asks her out. Some of her newfound friends squeal and swoon, while some cross their arms and simmer with jealousy at the news. A good third of the seventh grade girls have a crush on him. For her part, Rose is a little bemused. She’s never paid him very much mind before, but she supposes he’s attractive enough. She says yes because that’s what she’s supposed to do.

“Dating” consists of holding hands in the hallways and being dropped off by their parents to watch a movie. Once, in the woods behind the school, he kisses her, his breath hot and sticky with fruit punch. She pushes him away before she can think about it. A week later, they break up and he starts dating one of her friends. She thinks it’s odd that the strongest feeling she has about that is indifference. Another friend tells her that’s her way of coping with the loss.

Meanwhile, Luisa is fast-tracked to all honors classes, and becomes friends with the sort of kids who dream of grad school. But Luisa is also the type of girl who has friends everywhere she goes. It’s not odd for her to have a friend in mind for whatever situation she finds herself in. She and Rose still spend a time outside school together, whether it’s summer camp or teaming up for volunteer hours, but they also have different friend groups now.

It’s a good thing, Rose reasons. Not to be permanently attached at the hip. Their parents certainly aren’t worried about them. But there’s something in her that twinges at the thought that maybe they’re not each other’s best friends anymore.


Rose goes to the local high school. Luisa’s parents send her to an Ivy League prep school in the city. With all their extracurriculars, they see each other less and less often until they don’t see each other at all.

High school is a lot more boring than all the shows and movies make it out to be, Luisa remembers thinking on her first day as a freshman. Granted, there aren’t any vampires or werewolves (that she knows of), but it’s an easier transition from middle school to high school than elementary school to middle school, socially at least.

Rose continues to date the hottest guys, most of whom are on the lacrosse team. Luisa dates one boy, a friend of a friend, that she feels like she should for months and months until they break up at the end of freshman year over nothing at all. And yet, she feels nothing but relief.

 

That summer, Luisa becomes a counselor at the camp she and Rose used to attend. One night, after the campers have gone to bed, she and her fellow counselor, Susanna, sneak down to the docks to go skinny-dipping. Luisa is just noticing how the unnaturally bright crescent moon glints off the water droplets on Susanna’s shoulders when Susanna leans forward and kisses her. And suddenly, all the YA romance novels Luisa’s read make sense.

“Okay,” Luisa says when they part. “I like girls now.”

Susanna laughs.

 

At school, Luisa finds herself falling in with the stoner nerds, the kind of kids that have the beginnings of addiction rooted in their behaviors, but also do so well in school that no one’s really worried. After a Mathletes meeting one day, her teammates invite her to a party. It’s not as exciting as a high school party would be on a CW show, but there is a lot of cheap alcohol.

She realizes she doesn’t like the taste of beer at all. She thinks maybe she won’t drink until 21 if it all tastes like that when she pawns her bottle of beer off to some guy. But then one of her friends hands her a Solo cup full of Coke and vodka and oh. Oh. This she could get used to.

It isn’t long until she’s drinking every month, then every weekend, then a few times a week.

She still makes the A Honor Roll every semester, even with her transcript stuffed with Honors, AP, and PSEO.

It’s easy, until it’s not.

 

One day, she’s practicing her driving with her dad when they get the call. Rafael unexpectedly dropped off at the babysitter, a note on the kitchen table, shoes found on a bridge over the bay. They rush home, but of course, there’s nothing to be found. The police investigate for a few days before they declare it a suicide. No body is ever found.

The funeral is small and intimate, like a wedding. Mia had no siblings, and her grandparents died before Luisa was born, so it’s just Emilio and some family friends. It’s a sun-scorched Miami day when the priest reads the last rites over an empty casket and it’s lowered into the grave. Luisa squeezes Rafael’s hand so hard he yelps when the pallbearers begin to pile dirt onto the coffin. So that’s it, she thinks. What’s left of her mother is gone.

Except that’s not true. Mia’s ghost haunts the house. Luisa spends a lot of time shut up in her room, staring at the wall. Emilio wants to purge, perhaps hoping that ridding the house of Mia’s things will diminish her presence, but Raf starts crying loudly every time he tries and will inevitably fish out whatever it is that was thrown away out of the trash when Emilio isn’t looking.

Weeks later, Emilio announces that they’re moving. Rafael screams and cries but at the end of the day, he’s only eight years old and has no control over where they live.


Luisa’s in the process of packing all her worldly possessions into cardboard boxes when a tapping makes her look up. It happens again before she realizes it’s coming from her window. Across the way, Rose grins and waves at her. Luisa pushes up her own window.

“I thought I’d have to run downstairs for another handful of pebbles,” Rose says, resting her forearms on her windowsill. “What’s going on?”

“We’re moving tomorrow.”

“So soon?”

“Yeah.” Luisa sighs. “Dad doesn’t want to stay here any longer than he has to. There’s too much and not enough of Mom left in this house.”

Rose pauses for a long moment before she says, “Come out back.”

It’s the first time she’s said this to Luisa in years.

In fact, Luisa’s sure she’s misheard her. “What?”

“Come out back.”

“Why? We’re not—” She cuts herself off, but Rose knows she was going to say, “We’re not friends anymore.”

Rose shrugs. “I don’t know what we are anymore, but you were my first friend when I moved in. It’ll be closure. For both of us.” She smiles, one corner of her mouth lifting higher than the other.

Rose has always been pretty. Luisa has known this ever since she first saw her wild hair and gap-toothed smile, but it’s been years since Luisa’s actually looked right at her. Rose’s face is half-shadowed in the dark, her hair starting to poof in the late-night humidity. Luisa can just make out the glint of her teeth in her smile. Oh no, Luisa thinks, feeling her heart doing traitorous backflips. She should not be noticing how striking her childhood friend is the night before she’s about to move away.

“Come on,” Rose says softly.

And Luisa’s resolve shatters. “Okay,” she says.

Well, she never had very much self-control to begin with, and really, how much trouble can she get up to in one night? Actually, better not think about that too hard.

She creeps down the stairs, jumping the creaky one, and slips out the backdoor. Across the yard, through the loose slat in the fence (it’s a tighter fit than she remembers, but she makes it through without too much trouble), and over to the half-rotted swing set in the Ruvelle’s yard, where Rose is already sitting on one of the swings.

“Is that safe?” Luisa asks as she takes the other swing, making the structure groan. “Will this whole thing collapse on top of us?”

Rose shrugs. “We’re teenagers. Practically indestructible. We don’t really need insurance until our twenties, at least.”

Luisa huffs a laugh. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.”

Rose smiles slightly and drags her bare feet through the powdery dirt under the swing. There’s a pause before she says, “I wasn’t sure you would remember what I meant.”

“By ‘come out back’?”

“Mmhmm.”

Luisa furrows her eyebrows. “Seriously? Have some faith in me. How could I ever forget that this was our place?”

Rose frowns. “It’s been so long since we saw each other more than in passing. What happened?”

“You know, the usual. We changed, we grew up, we went to different schools. So much has happened since first grade.”

There’s a long moment of silence as they both think of everything that’s changed.

Finally, Rose says quietly, “I’m sorry about your mom.”

Luisa takes in a shuddering breath. “Yeah.”

“Are you doing okay?”

“No, not really.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

Luisa gives a watery chuckle. “No, we’re already drowning in casseroles.”

“But anything else? You know I can’t cook to save my life.”

“I didn’t, actually,” Luisa says quietly.

They lapse into silence again. How odd it is, to once know someone so well and not at all anymore.

“Do you still dance?” Rose asks. “Are you still planning on going to New York for ballet?”

Luisa shakes her head. “No, I think I wanna go to med school. I still dance because I love it, but I don’t think it’s what I want to do it as a career.”

Rose does a low whistle. “Med school, huh? That’s ambitious. But you’d be a great doctor. You’re definitely smart enough, and you really care about people.”

“Thanks. Do you know what you’re gonna do?”

“Nope.” She pushes off so she swings over to bump hips with Luisa. “I’m not really good at anything besides talking to people. Maybe I’ll go into business. Sell people shit they don’t need.”

“I think you’d be good at that,” Luisa says.

Rose laughs. “Thanks.”

“I’m serious. Not just the selling people things. Yeah, you’re good at talking to people, but you’re also single-minded in your determination and you have a good mind for budgeting.”

Rose stares at her. “How do you know that?”

“I found something I’d written when I was in kindergarten that said, ‘When I grow up, I want to eat pasta every day,’ and that’s still true. There are some things that don’t change. Do you remember when we set up that lemonade stand at the end of the cul-de-sac?”

A half-forgotten memory swims to the surface of Rose’s mind. “I forgot about that.”

“And when we made it to $20, I wanted to cut and run because I’d never held so much money in my life. But you split $5 between the two of us and then figured out how many lemons and sugar we’d been using for the past few hours and used that to calculate how many lemons, sugar, and cups we’d need. What kind of second grader does that?”

“Huh,” Rose says. “Maybe it’s not as random as I thought it was.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” Luisa says. “We have time. Besides, you’ll be great at whatever you decide to do.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Rose says half-heartedly. She perks up. “Hey, remember that one time we locked Ms. Berry out of the studio?”

Luisa laughs. They trade stories back and forth of their adventures until the ache in Luisa’s chest lessens a bit. They seem less like strangers once they get past small talk and into their shared history.

Rose doubles over after one story, laughing so hard she snorts, which makes Luisa laugh harder. She loses her balance and slips backward off the swing, sprawling out in the dirt and hardy crabgrass. Rose’s laugh becomes more snorting than laughing, and Luisa can’t do much more than lay there, gazing up at the loveliest sight she’s ever seen.

When Rose’s laughter becomes manageable, Luisa reaches up and tugs at her hand. Rose allows herself to be pulled out of the swing and onto the grass beside her. They lay on their backs, side by side.

“Look.” Rose points. “There’s the Little Dipper.”

It’s a muggy night in suburban Florida and the streetlamps give off too much light for a prime view, but it’s clear and cloudless enough to see speckles in the sky.

Luisa squints. “You know I can’t see anything without those pictures in the Star Lab.”

“Ugh, it always smelled like feet. No, but look, there’s the rectangle right there, and the tail that ends in Polaris. Do you see it?”

Luisa looks over at Rose, her eyes wide as she traces the constellation with a finger, and feels her heart skip a beat. “No.”

Rose sighs. “I guess you’ll just have to find me if you ever get lost. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to lead anywhere but north but we’re bound to run into civilization sooner rather than later, right?”

“Right.”

Luisa is combing the sky for a shooting star, when Rose says, “Sorry about the grass. My dad hasn’t mown in forever.” She picks at it.

Luisa blows a raspberry. “Do you think I care about the state of your grass? It’s just nice being here, with you.”

Rose sighs. It’s happy, content, but tinged with regret. “Yeah. I missed you.”

Luisa fights down the swarm of butterflies rising in her stomach. “Me too.” She licks her lips, debating on whether to voice her thoughts for half a second before she bites the bullet. “Teaching me how to find the North Star is a lost cause, but maybe we’ll keep finding each other even if we lose contact again.”

“You’re such a sap.” Rose laughs, pushing her.

“You’re not denying it!” Luisa pushes back.

“No, I hope you’re right. I don’t want to lose you again.”

And because Luisa is giddy with joy, it’s so easy to read too much into Rose’s words and let herself revel in forgetting about her mother for a bit after weeks and weeks of grief. She makes a mistake. She leans forward to push Rose again, but Rose leans forward as well, and Luisa, her lips parted mid-laugh, finds her mouth pressed against the corner of Rose’s lips.

Luisa sinks into it for two full seconds before she realizes Rose has gone stalk-still. She’s misread all Rose’s signs, who was just looking to reconnect and comfort a friend who was hurting. Luisa has taken advantage of her kindness, her pity. She’s forced herself on her very heterosexual friend. Well, probably former friend at this point. They were doing so well, and she had to go and ruin it because she couldn’t stand to keep her feelings in check for one night. She scuttles back, a hand to her mouth.

They stare at each other, six feet apart, for what seems like eons before Rose says, “Luisa…”

It’s like a gunshot. Luisa bolts across the yard, through the loose slat in the fence, and is nearly at the back door, when she hears Rose calling after her. “Luisa. Luisa, wait!”

She hurries upstairs silently and locks herself in the bathroom. She sits on the edge of the bathtub with her head between her knees. The topic of sexuality never came up, but now, not only has she ruined whatever understanding Rose might’ve had for her, she’s probably turned her into a homophobe.

Once this neighbor I had tried to make out with me because she couldn’t keep it in her pants.

Luisa groans. Well, it’s probably good that they’re moving tomorrow and she never has to see Rose ever again. When she returns to her room, she crawls into bed.

She hears pebbles against her window again, but she doesn’t get up.

 

In the morning, they pack up the rest of their things in the car just as the sun as rising.

“Ready?” Emilio asks as he buckles his seatbelt.

Luisa nods. Rafael doesn’t say anything from the backseat.

Emilio turns the keys in the ignition and pulls out of the driveway. Luisa doesn’t turn around, but in the passenger side mirror, she can see a red-haired figure burst out of the Ruvelle’s house to stare after them. The figure has poofy bedhead and is wearing Loony Tunes pajamas. Luisa has a pretty good idea of who it is.


The years go on.

Rose gets her license. She takes a summer immersion course in Spain. She tries her best to shove down the confusing feelings Luisa has awakened in her and goes to prom with the easily forgettable boy she’s currently dating. She graduates high school, has a graduation party, heads off to some college out west no one’s ever heard of. Later, when Luisa innocently inquires after her through mutual friends, they’ll say they think she went to law school afterwards but no one’s sure. Rose seems to have simply vanished.

 

The Solanos move into a house much closer to their school. When Luisa turns eighteen, it takes her a split-second of hesitation before she changes her last name from Solano to Alver for her mother when she registers to vote. She graduates high school as salutatorian, but can barely remember the ceremony because she’s so drunk. She remembers lots of photos and smiling dazedly. She’s even the student speaker and it must go well, because no one’s the wiser. Although she does accidentally come out to her family afterwards during a celebratory dinner.

Emilio had made some sort of joke about a son-in-law and Luisa had blurted out, “Dad, I’m gay,” which isn’t terrible, but she would’ve liked to ease them into it. Raf had barely stopped chewing his steak, just shrugged and said, “Lu, you’re not exactly subtle.”

It was hard to meet her father’s eyes, but he’d awkwardly reached out and patted her hand and said, “This is unexpected, but I hope you know I love you no matter what.”

She hadn’t expected coming out to feel so mundane. It’s a little disappointing, but also feels like a huge weight’s been lifted off her shoulders.

 

In the fall, she moves to New York to attend Columbia, just like everyone expected her to. At school, she volunteers at a hospital, joins a sorority, and after a few semesters of dawdling, majors in biophysics. She dates casually, courtesy of New York’s bustling gay scene. She also shows up to class drunk more often than not. It’s safe to say she gets a very well-rounded college experience.

After she graduates college (magna cum laude, thank you very much), she takes a gap year off to do some voluntourism. She starts in India, stays in China for a few weeks, before she takes a train up to Russia. She spends some time in Kenya, Morocco, and South Africa. She wanders across Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico. She meets the most interesting people, tries foods she never could’ve imagined, sees things she can’t articulate into words.

When she returns to the States, she applies for med school. Her MCAT scores are pretty good, her resume is interesting, and she has a way of making people feel at ease. It was pretty much a given that she’d be accepted to the University of Boca Raton’s Medical School.

Everything is going her way, which is of course why life decides to throw her a curveball.

 

Medical school turns out to be a lot more difficult than she’d thought. This is puzzling to Luisa, considering she didn’t even really try during undergrad. She thought med school would be a breeze, especially since there’s no GPA and all her classes are pass/fail. Her classmates are in a similar state of shock. None of them have ever not been the smartest kid in class.

One of them offers her cocaine, which she says will help her stay up and focus on studying. Luisa gives it a try. It doesn't really affect her.

She tries, for the first time. She tries her hardest. It’s not enough. She’s stressed all the time and drinking more and more to cope. She doesn’t know how to study. It’s always made sense before. So she drinks, in the hopes that things will go back to the way they were before. It doesn’t work. She stops going to class. What’s the point if she won’t understand the material anyway?

When her father calls to check in on her, she does a pretty good job of reassuring him that everything’s fine, but the second she hangs up, she lays in bed and cries. She stops leaving her apartment. She stops eating. Everything takes a momentous amount of effort, except hating herself. That she does whenever she’s awake. Everything has been set up perfectly for her to succeed, so why can’t she do it? Why can’t she try harder? Why has she made it this far just to fail? So she sleeps all the time, if only to escape from herself.

So she’s disappointed, but not surprised when the dean tells her she’s on academic probation for her dismal performance.

What’s the point of it all? she wonders. What’s the point if no matter how hard she tries, she can’t meet a very reasonable goal?

She knows, vaguely, that there’s something wrong with her. That this isn’t normal, but nothing seems real anymore. She can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. Sometimes she has a roommate named Carla and sometimes she doesn’t see her for days on end. When she tells her father about Carla, he has no idea who she’s talking about.

“Luisa, there’s no one else on the lease. I would know if there was someone else on the lease. Do you have any paperwork on your living arrangement you could send me?”

So Luisa tries to take a photo of Carla so she can at least prove she’s not making her up, but…nothing shows up.

 

One day, she gets a burst of energy and decides to take a walk. She drags herself out of her apartment in stained sweatshirt that she’s worn for several weeks. It’s disappointing the harsh sunlight doesn’t immediately fix her, but she figures it’s pretty par for the course now.

At one point, she finds herself standing on the bridge on campus. Is this real? she wonders as she climbs over the railing. Am I dreaming? She looks down at the churning bay several stories beneath her. Will it hurt? And then, is this what Mom felt like?

Suddenly, hands are grasping at her, pulling her roughly back and over the railing. She blinks sleepily up at faces that are looming over her, shouting things she can’t make out. She’s so tired. She must fall asleep right there on the bridge because when she wakes up, she’s in the hospital.

It’s a fucking mess, honestly, but is it worse than dying? As she lays there, having people wheel her around and take her blood whenever they want, she’s not really sure. Emilio tries to burst into the ward, banging so frantically on the remotely locked door that the people inside the psychiatric ward stare at him and wonder if he’s okay. Rafael, trying so hard to look older than his sixteen years, cries silently beside him.

She spends two weeks total in the psychiatric ward. Her father and Raf visit every day. They don’t talk about mental health, they never have really, and Mia’s ghost seems to be more present in the room with them than she has been for years.

But Emilio, bless his heart, tries. “Whatever you need, I’ll get it for you. If you don’t want to go to school anymore, that’s fine. If you want to move back home, I can do that. If you want to be a hermit in Tahiti, I can do that too. Whatever you need.”

Luisa kinda wants to say that’s sweet but the problem is her, that she hates herself, and no matter what she does she’ll never outrun that. But her father’s already lost his wife to mental illness and saying that she wants to kill herself would just be rubbing it in, so she just smiles and nods.

Rafael doesn’t say anything, until one day when visiting hours are almost over. He hugs her and whispers, “I just want you to be happy and safe.”

Luisa cries for hours after they leave because she doesn’t know if that’s possible.

 

But when she gets out of the hospital, she reevaluates her priorities. She’s not sure med school is for her anymore. She doesn’t know what she wants. She takes a year off to make sure she has the right medications at the right dosages and go to super intensive therapy. One therapist suggests meditation, which she finds really works for her. Being present and acknowledging that she’s suffering but letting it pass through her like water makes her feel powerful.

She ends up going on a group trip to Ecuador to a spiritual retreat where she meditates for twelve hours a day for a week. It’s easily the hardest thing she’s ever done but she’s nothing if not stubborn and she sticks it out even as the some of the other group members around her give up. At the end of the retreat, she’s approached by one of the coordinators and given a recommendation to visit a shaman in the highlands to further her spiritual studies.

If she thought sitting in one place in silence for hours at a time was hard, it’s nothing on trying to find a reputable guide and buying last minute equipment in Quito. But when Pilar deems her ready, they do eventually set off. Luisa’s never been much of a hiker, and altitude sickness is anything but fun, but she really can’t argue with the how proud seeing the view and knowing she covered all that distance with her own two feet (and the occasional llama) makes her feel.

She literally crawls to the small hut at the base of a mountain and knocks on the door. The shaman takes one look at her on his doorstop, exchanges a look with Pilar, who shrugs, before he drags her into the hut. It’s hard for Luisa to explain what happens next. She’s still dizzy from altitude sickness and the roaring fire inside doesn’t help her clear her thoughts.

Over the next few days, in fits and spurts, she explains her life story. Pilar sits outside and smokes, unless the shaman asks her to help him with something. The shaman’s face swims in and out of focus as he feeds her stew and piles on more blankets.

On the third day, he asks, “I see much heartbreak in your future.”

“Aw fuck. More?”

“Yes, but you must not give into despair.”

“How?”

“You must approach life with all the zeal and fervor of someone who’s not afraid of failure. Sometimes what you want is not what you need, and failure will open a door to an opportunity that was not present before.”

“I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what to do.”

He pats her hand. “I cannot tell you what to do. You must find this out for yourself. But keep your eyes and ears open in the next upcoming days, and the answer will come to you.” At her unhappy expression, he adds, “The only hint I will give you is to consider what makes you truly happy.”

And he shows her out.

As she and Pilar descend into civilization again, Luisa fluctuates between thinking about what a phenomenal waste of time this was and trying her best to puzzle out what the fuck the shaman meant. When they reach Quito and Luisa pays Pilar the other half of her fee, Pilar says gruffly around a cigarette, “I hope you find what you’re looking for. And if you ever come back to Quito, I’ll be here.”

 

And then it happens. Luisa’s having a café con leche and trying to figure out which flight to take back to Miami when a man bursts into the café. “Is anyone here a doctor? My wife’s giving birth and we need help!”

Luisa looks around to see if anyone else has any idea what’s going on but is only met with blank stares. She stands up. “I dropped out my first year of medical school,” she warns him.

“That’s more experience than my wife and me combined. Come on!”

“Did you call an ambulance?” she asks as they rush through the street.

“Of course! They’re stuck in traffic. They won’t be here in time.”

He pulls her through a labyrinth of tunnels until they burst into a home with a red-faced woman.

“There you are! Did you find a doctor?” she screams.

“Sort of?” Luisa says.

“That’s good enough!”

“Okay, okay, uh…” She rattles off a list of things she needs to the husband, who runs around the house and flinging them at her like a frantic scavenger hunt.

Luisa only has a vague idea of what she’s doing, but as long as she keeps her hands clean and the baby comes out headfirst, how hard could it be, right? Women have been giving birth for centuries (although most of them had midwives that knew what was going on, her brain helpfully supplies.)

Luckily for everyone involved, it’s an uncomplicated birth. Ten hours later, involving a shower, a lot of swearing, and the new father passing out, Luisa hands a squalling baby to the mother.

“It’s a girl,” she whispers reverently.

The father starts to come around now, holding onto a table for support as he stands up on shaky legs. “She’s beautiful.”

Luisa thinks that’s an understatement. Seeing the whole family, exhausted but so happy together because of what she did means more than she can say. “What will you name her?”

The mother smiles down at her wrinkled, purple baby. “Considering ‘get out, fucker’ is no longer a viable option, our first choice for a girl was Isabel.”

“Isabel,” Luisa repeats. “It’s perfect.”

The man wrings her hand. “I can’t thank you enough for delivering our baby. How can we ever repay you? Do you want the deed to the house? We can give you the deed to our house.”

“Gaspar, we absolutely cannot give her the house now that we have a newborn,” the woman says. “But he’s right. We would be happy to give you anything else.”

“Oh, I don’t need anything,” Luisa says, waving her hands in front of herself. “I didn’t know what I was doing anyway. And you should definitely get to a hospital as soon as possible so the doctors can patch you up because I don’t know how to do that. But I was looking for a purpose and I think you gave me one.”

They smile at her, even the baby, although her gassy smile turns into a sneeze. “Well, thank you again…what was your name?” asks the mom.

It’s outlandish that they’ve shared something as intimate as a birthing experience and still don’t know each other’s names.

“Luisa,” muses Helena, the woman, when they introduce themselves. “I quite like that name. Gaspar, how do you feel about Isabel Luisa Ferrero?”

He kisses her forehead. “Welcome home, Isabel Luisa Ferrero.”

Gaspar insists on hailing a taxi for Luisa and paying the fare all the way to the airport, going so far as to threaten to fight her in the middle of the street. He also writes their contact info on a piece of paper and tells her to come visit anytime she likes. Luisa reminds him that Helena still needs professional medical attention and lots of vitamins.

 

When Rafael picks her up from the airport, he asks her how her trip was.

“Amazing,” she says, clutching the scrap of paper in her fist. “I know what I want to do.”

He glances at her in the passenger seat. “You figured everything out?”

“Yeah. I helped this woman give birth—”

“You what?”

“—and I realized what the shaman was talking about.”

“What shaman? I thought you went on a meditation retreat!”

“This was after the meditation retreat, Raf. Keep up. Anyway, the shaman said I needed to find my true purpose and that it would appear in the next few days and after delivering a baby with barely any medical training, I realize that what I want to do is help people. And the best way for me to do that is by becoming an OBGYN.”

He shakes his head. “You lost me at the shaman.” But then he smiles at her. “But hey, if finding a shaman and delivering a baby—holy shit—is what it takes for you to figure things out, I can respect that.”

She grins back at him. “Thanks, Raf.”

 

Things are really put in perspective when she goes back to med school. After being in the psychiatric ward and dropping out of school for a year and meditating for a week and then climbing a mountain to meet a shaman, descending that mountain, only to be pulled into delivering a baby with no experience makes not knowing how to study seem pretty insignificant.

Before all this, she didn’t want to ask for help because she was ashamed of needing it. She’d spent her entire life always knowing the answers to the questions people asked her and suddenly being thrust in a situation where things didn’t work the way they always had, made her feel like she was stupid. And obviously instead of asking for help, the answer was to work harder, but that’s a bit hard if you don’t know where to begin.

So this time around, she arranges a study group. She tries to swallow her fear of being seen as stupid and frequents her professors’ office hours. She enrolls in a time management and basic study skills course through the university and tries to find a method that works for her. It sucks, it sucks so much not just being able to roll out of bed and show up with last night’s eyeliner on and ace the exam anyway, but she has ironclad motivation this time.

She passes her classes, does well on her board exams, finishes her rotations. Before she knows it, she’s graduated. She does her residency in obstetrics and gynecology and loves it. The University of Miami Hospital offers her a position a few months after she finishes her residency and she accepts.

Professionally, she’s doing great. On a more personal level, it’s…okay. Rafael has since graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in business, even though he spent nearly all his time partying. Emilio is unhappy because Rafael has continued his carefree lifestyle despite being out of school for two years. Technically, he works with Emilio at the Marbella, but that’s more a formality than anything. Rafael spends most of his time chatting up people at the bar, which he calls “synergy” and Emilio calls “a sad excuse to drink during work.” He makes sure Raf knows how disappointed he is most of the time.

Luisa is tired of casual dating, but no one’s been serious enough to meet her family, which is surprising considering the stereotype. But her life is pretty good, all things considered.

And then life remembers that she has a drinking problem and decides she needs to reevaluate that.

She’s always kinda known she’s had a problem, like her mental illness. It’s been hovering on the edges of her mind, but she figures if it doesn’t interfere with her life, no harm no foul. And then she gets a DUI.

She didn’t hit anything or hurt anyone, but it’s enough to scare her into going to rehab. The shame of having her license suspended, a $2000 fee, and 50 hours of mandatory community service helps her realize that it’s not normal to need a drink most days just to function.

 

So she’s sitting at a girl bar, trying her newfound sobriety, when a figure sits next to her. And when she looks up, it’s Rose. Older, more sophisticated, but undeniably Rose.

“Hey stranger,” Rose says, grinning at her. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“Thanks, but no thanks.” Luisa holds up her drink. “Thirty-four days sober.”

“Gotcha. So what are you doing in a bar?”

Luisa shrugs. “I was feeling lonely. It’s hard to meet other LGBTQ people without alcohol and today was the first day I felt brave enough to go to a bar.” There’s a pause until she realizes who she’s talking to. “Wait, what are you doing here?”

Rose laughs and oh no, Luisa can feel her heart doing its somersaults like that night was yesterday. “Some things have changed in the last decade or so since you left without saying goodbye.”

She winces. “That was kind of a dick move, huh?”

“That was very much a dick move, but I’m in a forgiving mood. What do you say? Feel like catching up again?”

“I’ve collected some interesting stories since last time.”

Rose smiles. “So have I.”

They move to a more secluded booth. And as it always seems with the two of them, it doesn’t take long before they’re swapping stories and laughing about each other’s mishaps. Luisa is older now too, and more cautious. She’s had a lot more experience keeping her expectations low when it comes to finding connections in the community, but she doesn’t know if Rose is just looking for a friend or not. At least until Rose says one certain thing.

It’s nearing midnight when Rose says, “Do you remember what I said the first time we met?”

Luisa casts her mind to that day, all those years ago. “You said…you said, ‘Hi, I just moved in.’”

Rose rolls her eyes good-naturedly. “After that.”

“Your name is Clara but everyone calls you Rose?”

“Close. After that.”

“Wanna play cops and robbers?”

Rose grins. “Well, if you insist.”

Her jaw drops. “Rose, are you propositioning me?

"Only if you're saying yes."

"Well, I mean, o-okay, I guess," Luisa stutters.

Rose raises an eyebrow.

"Yes," Luisa amends.

Rose gives her a smirk that makes her knees weak. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I know a place.”