The first time River Valentina Hernandez watched The Wizard of Oz, she didn’t understand Dorothy’s desperate desire to return to Kansas. The madness of a land over the rainbow had to be better than the sepia existence of the farm. This came to mind as River walked out of the downstairs bathroom with her head held high, displaying her newly bleached hair. At the beauty supply store, she had trouble deciding between black and platinum blond, but ultimately chose bleach blond as it was the color most likely to aggravate her mother. It was distinctly not natural and would appeal the least to a new age hippy. Upon entering the living room, her mother looked up from her seat on the couch. Mom had covered the coffee table with newspaper and was attempting to mend a chipped vase with glue and intense determination. River’s father won the vase at a boardwalk carnival game and gave it to her mother ages before he abandoned them for a massage therapist named Frieda. The vase was shaped like a mermaid and had always been dear to her mother. It fit right into their hippy home. At the sight of River, her mother narrowed her eyes and said, “River, again? Your natural color is so beautiful.”
This was the response River expected, feeling a mix of irritation and satisfaction. Her mother, Claire Hernandez, who had not changed her last name after the divorce, held the belief that the only way to truly live was to subscribe to a life of holistic remedies and natural substances. River, who made it her mission to become the exact opposite of her mother, wore only the latest fashions and followed the most popular style and makeup blogs on YouTube in an effort to show her mother how ridiculous it was to shun everything but tofu and hemp.
“Everyone’s doing it, Mom,” River replied, “besides you’ll only have to look at it for a week.”
“Are you sure you still want to visit your Aunt and Uncle? I don’t think you’re going to enjoy yourself as much as you think. Los Angeles isn’t anything like Santa Cruz.”
“And that’s why I’m going,” River said, walking to her room to repack the suitcase she had already repacked multiple times that week.
River had not seen her Aunt Rosa, her father’s sister, since her father left, and the only distinct memories she had of her were finely manicured French-tipped nails and highly-perfumed hugs that lasted longer than necessary. Spending the summer with her Aunt Rosa and Uncle Luis in Los Angeles would be a welcome escape from the commune-like environment in which her mother forced her to live. Claire had a bad habit of picking up stray people and allowing them to live in the house, something River had been protesting for years. In Los Angeles, River could tour the universities to which she had applied and immerse herself in a life of glamor and freedom. Her land over the rainbow was just 350 miles and a plane ride away.
River found herself unable to sleep the night before her flight. She spent the drive to the airport ignoring her mother, and the hour-long flight listening to music in order to distract herself from her nervousness. As River walked down the stairs to the airport baggage claim, she saw her Aunt and Uncle standing side-by-side waving at her.
“Mija!” her Aunt exclaimed, “It’s been too long since we’ve seen you.” Her Aunt commenced to hug her for a period approaching a full minute, smothering River against her bosom while rocking her from side to side. Her Uncle, who stood off to the side, briefly wrapped one arm around her, told her she had grown into a beautiful young woman, and then disengaged.
They did not live in Los Angeles proper as River had thought. In the long car ride to their house in a suburban town called Whittier—which was most famous for housing a college of the same name—her Uncle Luis explained the rules of the house. These included no staying up past 10 PM, church on Sunday morning, dinner at 6:30 PM everyday with no exceptions, and no back-talking any adult visitors. River, who had never lived in a house with such strict rules, thought them ridiculous, but promised she would follow them to the best of her abilities.
Their house was a beige cookie-cutter two-story affair with a typical walkway leading to the front door. It blended in with all the other houses in the neighborhood and was nothing like her mother’s forest green old Victorian. River’s Uncle walked her to the beige room in which she would be staying; it was spartanly furnished with only a bed, desk, and a small dresser. Then, he told her to put her things away and get ready for dinner. In the room, River began to unpack and think about her plans for the month she would be there. First, she would go to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the one that had the hand and footprints of all the stars imprinted in concrete. Then, she would walk down Rodeo Drive, exploring all the shops that sold items she couldn’t afford yet, wearing her most expensive clothes and movie-star sun glasses in an effort to blend in. She also had plans to sunbathe on Venice Beach and take a picture next to the Hollywood sign, all with the sole intention of making her friends jealous.
However, within two weeks, River concluded that she would not be seeing any of the tourist sites she planned on visiting. The only places she toured were a local church and the University of California in Los Angeles. Her Aunt planned to take her to the University of Southern California the following Saturday. When River asked if they could at least drive down Hollywood Boulevard at some point, her Aunt replied that they didn’t have time for that sort of thing but perhaps they could squeeze it in later in the week.
Living with her Aunt and Uncle proved to be nothing like she expected. Her Aunt, who took over two hours to get ready each morning, seemed to naturally accept that hair, clothes, and makeup were meant to consume vast chunks of one’s day (and everyone’s else’s for that matter) while her Uncle, who never smiled, watched hours of Fox News every night after dinner, as religiously as they attended Sunday mass. When River mentioned that her best friend was gay, they gave her a two-hour lecture on hating the sin but not the sinner and not associating oneself with such unscrupulous people. This was not the only lecture River received. On the Monday of her third week living there, her Aunt told her to change her shirt because it was indecent to have her bra straps showing. On Tuesday, they sat her down and asked why she hadn’t brushed her hair, as it was already lunchtime. On Thursday, her Uncle took forty-five minutes to explain why she couldn’t wear slippers outside the house to get the mail because someone might see her, and what would they think of them as a family? By Friday, River officially had had enough and she began to count down the days until her return home.
Sunday, before church, Aunt Rosa asked River to go in the garage and help her retrieve a vase from a topmost shelf. Aunt Rosa explained that Great Aunt Anita was going to be visiting after church, and she had bought Aunt Rosa the vase for Christmas last year. It needed to be put on the side table in the foyer before Aunt Anita arrived.
“I hate it,” Aunt Rosa said, “It doesn’t match the house. Who buys someone a vase that doesn’t match the house?”
“Then why are you displaying it?” asked River.
Aunt Rosa looked at River in disbelief, “Because she needs to think I like it. What will she think of me if she knows it is hidden away in the garage?”
River stood on a stool and reached for the vase and as she turned to give it to her Aunt, the vase fell from River’s grasp and crashed to the floor. Aunt Rosa screamed and dropped to her knees, attempting to pick up the pieces.
“What have you done?” Aunt Rosa yelled, “You’re so careless!”
“I’m so sorry,” River said, “but at least you don’t have to display it anymore.”
“No!” yelled Aunt Rosa, “We have to go to the mall to replace it. I think she got it at Macy’s.”
“That’s ridiculous!” River said, “It was an accident, she’ll understand.”
“No, we need to go now. I’ll tell Anita we couldn’t make it to church because you’re sick,” Aunt Rosa said, as she pulled River to the front door.
As River sat in the car staring out the window at the passing scenery, she contemplated her current situation. Instead of driving down Rodeo Drive, here she sat in the passenger seat of her Aunt’s Jeep Cherokee on the way to the mall to watch her Aunt buy a vase she didn’t even want. It didn’t make any sense to River why her Aunt cared so much about what another person thought. The entire trip wasn’t necessary; Aunt Anita probably wouldn’t even remember the vase.
At the mall, Aunt Rosa was pleased to discover that the vase was marked down for clearance in Macy’s Home Decor department for only $200, apparently $100 less than what Great Aunt Anita paid. The vase stood 15 inches tall with zebras and arrows garishly accented in 24K gold, all of which was set on a black Italian glass surface. In the dark of the garage River had not fully seen the vase. Standing in Macy’s, looking at the ugly prancing zebra’s, River contemplated destroying this one too. All she had to do was lean over the table and lightly brush the vase with her hand and it would crash to the floor.
“Aunt Rosa, you can’t buy this,” River pleaded. “It’s even more hideous in broad daylight. Why are you going to spend money on something you don’t even like?”
Aunt Rosa clucked her tongue at River, “Don’t you care what Great Aunt Anita thinks of you?” Then she exhaled a large breath and headed to the cash register.
“No I don’t!” River said as she grabbed her Aunt, “You’re being stupid. Nobody cares!”
“I care and you should too,” Aunt Rose huffed, “This entire week you’ve done nothing but embarrass me and your uncle and I’m ashamed at your behavior.”
A heavy weight descended into the pit of River’s stomach as she watched her Aunt walk to the register. Slowly, River followed her.
After paying for the vase, Aunt Rosa walked to the car, clutching the vase to her chest as if it were an ailing infant.
“When we get home,” Aunt Rosa told River, “I want you to sit down and not touch anything until Aunt Anita arrives. You’ve done enough damage.”
River watched television until she heard the doorbell ring. Her Aunt opened the door for Great Aunt Anita who immediately looked at the foyer table.
“Ah, it’s beautiful. I knew you would love it,” Aunt Anita said.
“Of course!” Rosa replied as she walked with Anita to the couch, “It’s perfect.”
“Unbelievable,” River mumbled.
Great Aunt Anita raked River with her hawk-like gaze, turned toward Aunt Rosa and said, “Charming,” before sitting herself carefully on the couch.
River watched as the two women began to discuss, with great disapproval, the strapless dress that cousin Benita Gonzalez’s daughter, Lupe, had worn to church that morning. River retreated to her room, took out her cellphone and called her mother who picked up on the first ring.
“River, honey, how’s everything going?” Her mother asked.
“I’m ready to come home.”
“Already? You sure?”
There were several seconds of silence. “Yes,” River finally replied, “Los Angeles is great, and I’ve visited both universities, but there’s just no point to staying any longer. Mom, I really want to come home”
“Okay, I’ll book your flight right away, honey,” Claire responded, “See you in a couple of days.”
“Thanks mom,” River hung up and hastily packed a day bag. Then, she looked up the directions to downtown Los Angeles on her cell phone, jotted down a few notes, grabbed a jacket and her bag, and headed for the front door. As River passed Aunt Rosa and Great Aunt Anita, who were still seated on the sofa but now complaining about another family member, she paused and executed an old fashioned curtsy.
“Mother trusts me, I trust me, and I trust the bus and light rail system of your fine metropolis.”
Aunt Rosa managed a “What?” while Great Aunt Anita simply looked confused.
River continued, “I appreciate everything you have done for me. I won’t be back until after dinner. I’ll give your regards to Hollywood.”
With that she strode out the door. She expected to catch hell when she got back. She thought she had better call her Mom soon and explain to her what she had just done. Later she might even check in with Aunt Rosa. But at that moment, she had a bus to catch and a city to explore. In a few days she’d be back at her mother’s home. And for the first time in years that idea was okay with her. Her mother’s home wasn’t here and it wasn’t forever. She shook her full head of bleached blond hair in the bright Southern California sunlight and laughed a loud and welcoming laugh at whatever lay ahead.
— Sophia Zepeda, BFR Editorial Staff
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer