Time in Willow Creek: 2 years, 3 months, 2 weeks
Kevin and Juliana hadn’t even celebrated their one year anniversary yet, and he already began drafting his speech for the boyfriend of the year awards. Oh yes. He felt like the big man on campus when he revealed the “big plans” a few weeks ago. She reacted exactly how he thought she would: lots of tears, shock, and speechlessness. The idea first came to him on the way back from the lighthouse, and he could have kicked himself for not considering it sooner. Her eyes gazed at the ocean somewhat longingly, and when he asked if she ever thought about going home, her answer moved him. Juliana had been in the country a little more than two years, and thanks to Harriett, he ended up with a well-adjusted friend. If it weren’t for her accent and brown skin, it would be easy to forget about her faraway home. She had needs neither he nor her fake family could satisfy, and sadly, he often neglected to see them. In her moments of frustration and impatience, he made snap judgments, assuming she had a problem with him. Although he often frustrated her, he couldn’t be blamed for everything. She always lived inside her head which often made her difficult to figure out. In recent months, something about her eyes told him he was innocent and her problem lurked deep inside; her eyes always gave her away. He had to know what plagued her but how could he ask without accusing her of acting weird? But, that day at the lighthouse, the picture became clearer. Corresponding with her mother had been precious, but the letters were such evil teases. She needed a taste of home. Ever since arriving in Willow Creek, her life had been challenge after challenge. Whenever she found space to breathe, something else zoomed around the corner aiming to knock her down. She was homesick and needed a break, and some time at home was just the medicine she needed to cure everything that ailed her. Dr. Kevin was so glad to prescribe this trip for her.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. She hired three people as planned, trained them, and they had been working together for almost three months. Community Library ran smoother than it ever had in Juliana’s tenure. The staff worked well together and operated autonomously just the way she wanted them to. Her birthday was just around the corner, and she decided to take some time off.
Naturally, the big surprise perked up her attitude immediately. She wrote a letter home and hoped it would make it before they arrived. The situation would have been so much easier if the Sepulveda family had a phone. Well, they did, but Juliana never wanted to call so they wouldn’t have to pay international charges. Maybe if her neighborhood had good cell reception, he would speak with her about adding them to his phone plan after they returned home.
Watching her prepare for this trip was like watching a different person–in a good way. Her nerves got the best of her. On one hand, she had never flown before. He couldn’t imagine his first flying experience being a 12-hour trip. She peppered him with questions about flying, planes and what options would be available to occupy her time. On the other hand, she fussed over what to bring. He told her to bring whatever she wanted. Extra bags were only $75 a piece, and if bringing a ton of stuff to shower her family with love brought her joy, he would gladly pay whatever it took. But, Juliana being Juliana didn’t want to bring too much because she didn’t want to attract attention. Returning to her neighborhood with luggage and a white American man would already get the gossip train rolling, and she didn’t want to upset the apple cart more than she already would. When they arrived in her town, she had the taxi driver stop at her street instead of in front of the house. She said the car would draw too much attention and didn’t want her family to be targeted by anyone looking for trouble. He respected the way she aimed to protect her family. She was so fierce. He’d never seen that side of her before and was quite attracted to her.
Her street was quite long, but it was a great day for walking. The cool breeze pushed the warm air around making the temperature quite comfortable. The fresh, country air was welcomed change from the smog he breathed daily downtown. Kevin had been to Monte Vista many times but never the poorer areas. Remembering Juliana’s horror stories, he half expected a narrow street lined with tiny, run-down shacks with no electricity or running water. He imagined them having to wade through throngs of dirty people dressed in rags. One of them would want trouble, but he’d flex his muscles and give him a death stare. The troublemaker would attempt to stare him down but would back off eventually. None of that happened, and the neighborhood was absolutely beautiful. The lush countryside extended as far as he could see, and the houses were stunning. He always imagined they grew up similarly although she had it worse. His childhood home looked like a shack compared to those middle-class looking houses. It puzzled him a great deal. Juliana wouldn’t lie or exaggerate, but something didn’t add up. Maybe they had a higher cost of living. Or, maybe “poor” was more a social construct than financial status. Finances certainly had a hand in it as he how they struggled. But, walking past the beautiful architecture and manicured land, he wondered what Juliana’s house would look like and what these families had to do to maintain such beautiful homes. A few people were out and about, but no one started trouble and they all dressed well. Despite Juliana’s concern, no one seemed to notice or care about them.
Finally, they turned into a driveway. The house was a bit plainer than the others, but it had character. Excitement arose in him as it did her. Up until that moment, he focused on bringing Juliana home for a time of rest and renewal. He always had Juliana in mind and would have been perfectly content being a passive participant in her vacation. But, walking toward the house and seeing little faces pop in and out of the window panes, he realized the trip had meaning for him too. This was the “meet the parents” trip. He couldn’t be a passive participant because he had to make a good impression. They wouldn’t be able to understand each other, but the family would be watching him. He always thought of himself as a good man and never doubted his ability to make his women feel loved and cared for, but for the first time ever, he was nervous and hoped they would approve of him. The odds stacked against him long before he arrived because of her mother’s disapproval of their friendship. Surely this trip would score him some points. Maybe she would expunge his record and start fresh, but that was wishful thinking.
The driveway wasn’t that long, but it felt like they would never reach the house. His nerves were almost as bad as hers, probably. He couldn’t think about himself though. Despite his role in the trip, the current moment belonged to Juliana, and she brimmed with excitement. He wanted to squeeze her hand and say something encouraging but didn’t want to take her out of the moment.
Cecilia stepped outside and stood on the porch with the widest grin. He swallowed a lump in his throat at the sight of her. She looked even more matronly and regal than she did in pictures.
Juliana bolted toward her at full speed. “Mamá!” She didn’t stop running until she was in her mother’s arms. He thought for sure she would run her over. Hollywood couldn’t create a better reunion scene.
“¡Ay, mi hija! ¡Te eh extrañado mucho! ¡No puedo creer que estas aquí! ¡Ay, te quiero!”
Kevin stood back and watched the tenderness unfold and hoped he remembered what Juliana taught him to say. He regretted not making more of an effort to learn her language. There were so many things he wanted to say to Cecilia, but he simply couldn’t–at least not without Juliana knowing.
She turned toward him with tears in her eyes. “Mamá, el es Kevin.”
That was his cue, and he extended his hand. Don’t choke, Kev. “Hola. Encantado de conocerle.”
Cecilia looked surprised and cupped his hand with hers. “Gracias por traerme a mi hija.”
Juliana grinned. “She said, thanks for bringing me my daughter.”
He smiled. “Of course. I’m glad to!”
She relayed the message.
Her mother couldn’t stop smiling and looked her over as if to inspect a package that just arrived. “¡Habér dejamé mirarte!” She grabbed her daughter by the waist and squeezed her. “¡Uy, estas gordita!” She grabbed her cheeks. “¡Te ves muy bien, mija!”
She must have been commenting on Juliana’s weight. It was such a mom thing to do. He looked away to stifle laughter. After Cecilia ensured her “package” had arrived safely, they went inside where the other children were bursting at the seams to greet their long-lost sister.
Words evaded her again. Kevin wouldn’t describe himself as a talker like he would Marq, but he always had words. Nothing in his life compared to what she felt in that moment. He had no siblings or parents to return home to. Nothing monumental ever happened. Perhaps in the future, something wonderful would happen and make him speechless.
The children gathered around, probably attempting not to attack her all at once. Seeing them in person was so refreshing. They had grown so much and were even more radiant in the flesh. He gazed at their faces, trying to remember their names.
At last, the youngest one–Mara–broke toward her sister. “Juliana, Juliana!”
She bent down to meet her in a tight embrace. “¡Hola mi ratoncita!”
The other children giggled. One by one, they finally greeted her.
“Juliana,” Vittoria yelled. “¡Gané el concurso de deletreo!”
“¡Si lo se! La ultima véz que mamá me escribio ella lo menciono.”
“Quieres saber cual fue la palabra con la que gané?”
“¡Claró! Quiero ver que buena eres.”
She was so loving with her siblings. This wasn’t news to him as she always spoke so kindly and lovingly about them. But, to see the gleam in her eyes and the focus and attention she gave them all, it was beautiful…and charming. She never spoke of a favorite sibling, and watching her interact with them, he couldn’t tell if she had one. She seemed to love them all equally.
In addition to all the observations he made, she looked so relaxed. Experiencing the ease in which she communicated was more rewarding than bringing her home. She wasn’t encumbered by language, and she spoke so fast and fluid. He had no idea what she said but still enjoyed listening and watching her be 100% Juliana.
“La palabra era aspiradora.”
“Y cóme se escribe?”
Juliana and her siblings laughed. “¡Que chistosita!” She turned toward Kevin. “She said she won a spelling contest, and the word was vacuum. I asked her to spell it for me and she spelled Hoover!”
He laughed. “Oh that’s a good one.”
Cecilia ushered everyone into the living room. The house smelled as if she had been in the kitchen all morning. The hot air seconded that notion. The worn walls of the tiny living room displayed a few paintings and portraits of the deceased, he presumed. A tattered rug cover the weathered hardwood floor. The house had certainly seen better days, but the spirit inside told a different story. Despite all the tragedy that occurred there over the years, love displaced the gloominess.
Kevin let Juliana and her siblings sit together on the sofas while he took a seat behind them. He listened to them converse and had no idea what they were saying, but they all sounded so eager to hear about her fabulous new life in America. The joy in her voice was undeniable; his heart swelled.
The smell of chocolate filled the air, and Kevin’s mouth watered at the first whiff. Juliana’s birthday was the next day, so why make a cake today? Would they be so lucky to get homemade cake two days in a row? He crossed his proverbial fingers in hopes of finding the cake waiting for him in the kitchen. Eating cake for lunch at his girlfriend’s mother’s house for the first time was probably bad form, but he couldn’t turn down homemade chocolate cake. If the move ended up being bad for him, he’d make it up some way another time.
Within an hour or so, Cecilia called them back to the kitchen for lunch. The children popped up, and Juliana motioned for him to go in. “You first. You are a guest.”
He smiled. “Oh…no, it’s ok. You guys go and enjoy. I’ll sit in here.”
“No. You eat with us. Mara will stay here. She likes eating on the sofa.”
There weren’t enough seats at the table for all of them, and he wanted the family to be together but he wouldn’t win this one. He was on her turf and didn’t know the rules and customs of the house. “Ok. If you insist.”
She never commanded him to do anything before. Her assertiveness was not foreign to him despite her shyness, but that was the first time she ever told him what to do. Being the oldest, her siblings brought out bossy Juliana. He liked her a lot.
The children waited for him, so he went into the kitchen, hoping to see the cake waiting for him on the counter. He closed his eyes as he rounded the corner and could have leaped for joy when he saw that brown beauty sitting there. For a moment, he hesitated. Did he really need to have the cake right then? What would her family think? He could wait until the party, but if Cecilia didn’t intend for the cake to be for lunch, why leave the knife next to it? It was such a beautiful cake too. The icing was so even and smooth, he could have sworn she was a professional. The sweetness assaulted his nostrils, making it impossible for him to make a rational decision. He had to have it and cut a slice. Someone’s eyes burned a hole in the back of his head. Hopefully they weren’t judging. He couldn’t help himself because homemade chocolate cake!
To his surprise, Andres got cake too. Maybe it was his way of letting him know they needed to stick together as the lone boys in the house. Ever since he saw his picture for the first time, Kevin liked him. They were definitely going to be buds…some kind of way.
Cecilia prepared such a wonderful feast, and Kevin planned to try everything. The main dish looked like a seafood stew–probably cioppino. There were also homemade dinner rolls. She definitely outdid herself. The lunch alone probably cost a pretty penny. Who knows what else she had planned for the remainder of their trip. Knowing Juliana, however, her sacrifice would be returned a hundredfold.
Juliana was one of the most consistent people he knew. She treated everyone the same everywhere she went. Most people he knew had different personas they put on and took off whenever it was convenient. But not Juliana. She was real. Her mother would be proud to know that.
When Kevin finished his cake, he got up to wash his plate. Andres finished as well and took it from him.
“No te preocupés. Yo lo hago.”
What an awesome kid. He was so tall and built like a man already at 13 years old. With that gentlemanly attitude and handsome face, Cecilia better be prepared for the girls for they would surely come in droves.
Being with Juliana’s family was a real treat. These people had always known what a gem she was; they made her. Though he couldn’t communicate with them, he wanted to find a way to let them know he saw her for the gem she was and promise to always cherish her in the way they all wanted her to be cherished. Juliana was a fount of mysterious goodness, and he wanted to discover all there was to know about her. The next nine days would be the perfect opportunity to do just that. Perhaps not directly as he didn’t want to interfere with her much-needed family time. Through quiet observation, the bits and pieces of a story she hadn’t told yet would come together. He could already sense himself reaching a deeper level of respect for his Juliana and looked forward to loving in a more meaningful way.