It Just Had To Be You
Note from the Author
Please take note that this book contains many triggers that may be offensive. In particular, there are many racial slurs. As a woman of color myself, I fully understand how hurtful these words can be. I am no stranger to it either. However, I did not want to tiptoe around this issue or sugar coat the severity of it. I wanted to highlight how damaging such slurs (or any kind of name-calling for that matter) can be to the person on the receiving end.
I can only hope that I handled this with the care it deserves without making it the sole focus of this book. With that being said, I hope you enjoy this book. While all my characters are important, I completely fell in love with Scott and Catalina and I hope you do too.
(Other triggers: Bullying, suicide, bad language, sexual content)
This is me, here, hands open, heart out. I want all of you and then some. I want your 3am lows and all of your brokenness. I want to know what terrifies you most so I can tear it to pieces. I want to spend the rest of my life exploring your blazing hot, cosmos of a heart. I want to show you the imperfections, the flaws, that separate you from the gods are the very things I’ll always fall for the hardest.
Beau Taplin// An admission
* * * * *
I wake up before my alarm goes off but I’m not ready to get out of bed yet. I don’t want to face the world. Not again. I live this struggle every day, dragging my feet from point A to point B and yet there is never a destination. Because it doesn’t end. Tomorrow I’ll have to do it all over again.
Latin pop and reggaeton used to fill every room in this house. Music for us youngsters, but he was young at heart. I would wake up to it every morning and now the silence is a heavy weight on my chest. So heavy. It crushes me. Stops me from breathing. It feels like an eternity since I last heard CNCO or Sofia Reyes, but it’s only been ten months. Ten months of crying. Ten months of loneliness. Ten months of sheer anger because the pain we’re all feeling was completely avoidable. He didn’t have to do it. He didn’t have to leave us the way he did. Now we’re just left with the silent emptiness, the space he once filled with so much laughter and silliness.
I groan when I hear the rhythmic beeping of my alarm. Another Groundhog Day has officially begun. It’s the same thing. Every. Single. Day. And the monotony is slowly killing me. I lazily toss my legs off the side of my bed and sit up. I take one more deep breath before I push myself off the edge and walk to the bathroom. I’m not sure what I do in there for twenty minutes. I’m on autopilot. All I know is that I don’t come out looking much different from when I went in.
My hair is still a mess, my dark curls scooped up in an untidy bun. Instead of raggedy old pajamas, I’m wearing raggedy old sweatpants. They don’t fit me like they used to. They were once snug on my waist and a little tighter over my ass, but not anymore. I’ve lost some weight and the few curves I have seem to be disappearing. Every day it feels like I tug the drawstrings a little tighter. I pull on a white tank top then a light orange T-shirt to disguise my ill-fitting pants. Ninety percent of my tops are loose-fitting with a wide neck and it falls off one shoulder as I put it on. I don’t spare myself another glance in the mirror. I don’t care about the dark rings starting to form below my eyes. I don’t care that my skin has lost its bronzed glow and now looks pasty and so very pale. I don’t care about a damn thing anymore.
I grab my school bag and head down the corridor. I pass my mother’s bedroom and she’s sitting on the floor again. The cupboard doors are open in front of her and her eyes scan the contents with longing. She so desperately wants to see him in those clothes again, but she can’t, so she sits there and sniffs his shirts as tears roll down her cheeks. I see this sight so often I should be numb to it, but it fucks me up every time. She doesn’t deserve it. She wanted to grow old with him and he robbed her of that dream. I turn away and head down the stairs.
My younger sister, Isabella, sits at the dining table, staring at the empty seat in front of her. She does this every morning and even though her face is completely blank, I can see the memories dancing in her eyes. He was a morning person. I never understood how he had so much energy at 6 a.m., but he would talk non-stop while we ate our breakfast. Sometimes he would sing. Sometimes he would tease us about boys. There was comfort in the noise and now it’s just…quiet. We don’t laugh anymore. We don’t offer words of comfort. We just carry our heavy hearts from one silent moment to the next.
I open the overhead cupboard even though I know it’s empty. Maybe a part of me secretly wishes that magical fairies came and filled it up while we were sleeping, but nope. It’s as bare as it was the night before. He left us with nothing. He was the breadwinner. My mom is a nurse and no matter how many shifts she works; it’s never enough. Isabella and I had to take on jobs after school and on weekends. I work as a waitress at a small diner a few blocks away, and Isa is a sales assistant at a hardware store.
But even our combined wages aren’t enough. After paying the mortgage, utilities and the instalments on outstanding loans, there isn’t much left for food. Somewhere in the middle of each month, we get to the point where we have to rely on school lunches and food stamps. Sometimes I get lucky and my manager gives me the keys to lock up after my shift. Instead of throwing the excess food away, I take it home.
So, correction: My father didn’t leave us with nothing. He left us with debt and a lifestyle we can’t possibly afford. That’s worse than nothing.
Isa and I are at a private school. Our dad insisted that we go to Loughlin Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in Pasadena. It’s probably one of the best schools in the whole of California. He wanted us to have the best education. We are daughters of Mexican immigrants and he wanted to do all he could to give us more opportunities in life. As an architect, he earned a decent living, but Loughlin Academy had the ability to drain him of every penny.
Our parents were always playing catch up, always behind on some bill or another. We hadn’t lived lavishly even before he so selfishly left us. We always had to budget, watch our spending, but we’ve never known hardships like what we’re enduring now. The only sacrifices we had to make before was skipping out on going to the movies or not buying a cute new outfit like the other girls. That was nothing compared to this. Thankfully, though, the company my dad used to work for agreed to pay our fees for this year to ease the burden on my mom. It’s my senior year, Isa still has one more year to go. We’ll have to figure out something for her before the end of the school year.
“Isa gets paid on Friday,” my mom says, pulling me out of thoughts. “I promise we’ll get some cornflakes on Saturday.”
She doesn’t look me in the eye when she says this. She’s too ashamed. She feels like a failure because she can’t provide for us the way she would like to. But it’s not her fault. It’s his fault. He did this to us. He did it intentionally, without a second thought. He was a coward, too afraid to own up to his mistakes. Instead of trying to find a solution to all the debt he put us in, he decided the easier alternative was to end his own life. But what he failed to realize is that it didn’t end for us. We still have to live through this shitstorm he created every fucking day. And I hate him for it. I hate him so much. I hate him with the same magnitude and depth that I love him. It’s boundless, bottomless. But he didn’t love us the same way, otherwise he would have stayed.
“It’s okay, ma,” I say, closing the cupboard door. “I’m not really hungry anyway.” It’s a lie. I’m starving. My stomach is growling, begging for even the smallest morsel of food.
She gives a weak smile and pretends like she believes me. “Okay, Mija.” She swiftly moves across the kitchen and kisses my forehead. “I’m working the late shift today, so I’ll be home by eight. Love you.” She walks around the island stove and into the dining room to kiss the top of Isabella’s head. “Love you, Isa. Don’t get into any fights today.”
Isabella rolls her eyes and does not confirm or deny that there will be a fight today. She has always had a fiery temper but ever since my dad’s death, she has been on an extremely short fuse. She gets into fights all the time. She’s trying to rebel against all the values my father taught us. A tongue piercing is just the beginning, one of the milder things. Her face is always covered in thick makeup, and she adorns herself with heavy jewelry. Thick chains and bracelets and bangles, you can hear the subtle ching when she walks into the room. She thinks those things will hide her true self from the world, disguise the broken person she really is. She started drinking, sneaking off with boys.
I don’t usually pay much attention to the rumor mill, but when every other person is calling her a slut, a whore and a homewrecker, I’ve started to think that there may be some truth to the gossip stories floating around school. I haven’t asked her about it. We used to be so close but now she won’t even speak to me. She wants to deal with the grief alone and she’s doing a terrible job. Out of all her coping mechanisms, fighting is probably the least dangerous – but I can’t tell my mom that. She has too much on her plate right now.
A few minutes later, a car pulls up outside our house. It’s a different boy and a different car from the one I saw just two days ago. Isa grabs her bag and bolts out the door without saying goodbye. I sigh as I lock up and begin my forty-minute trek to school. The car my dad bought for us got repossessed four months ago so my only mode of transportation are my two feet. I must admit, I do enjoy the walk each morning and afternoon. It gives me a chance to clear my head and re-center myself before and after my daily encounters with the rich, entitled assholes at my school. It’s early September. The birds are chirping, the sky is blue. It’s a beautiful day yet I’m still filled with dread.
By the time I get to school, I’m already feeling weak and lightheaded. I need to get some food in me before I faint. This feeling is not new to me. I manage to push past it and soldier on. As soon as I enter the school gates, my body tenses up. The tall cream buildings, neatly trimmed hedges and lush palm trees at the entrance give the illusion that this is a safe environment, a little slice of academic paradise. God knows, it looks nothing like the schools in my neighborhood. But this place holds nothing but painful and humiliating memories for me.
It’s only my third day back, my third day of senior year, and I’m already into the familiar routine of keeping my mouth shut and my head down. My only goal is to fade into the background, to not be seen. My attempt to be invisible works well for the first three periods. There is only one person I’m trying to avoid. We have all the same classes, which makes it incredibly difficult. I tactfully managed to steer clear of him this morning, but it’s when I go to my locker to get my books for math that I hear him. Scott Carter. And he’s with his idiot friends. The sound of his deep, menacing voice sends shivers down my spine and I feel the hairs at the back of my neck stand on end. Every day I try to evade him but at some point, we end up crossing paths. No, wait. Crossing paths sounds serendipitous. It’s not. He purposefully seeks me out. I take a deep breath and stiffen my spine as I close my locker. I turn in the opposite direction of his voice to avoid any kind of interaction with him. I only take three steps before I hear him again.
“Hey, Peter, do you smell…a cat?”
I hear Peter inhaling dramatically behind me and it startles me when he unexpectedly jumps in front of me.
“Not a cat, Scott.” Peter smirks at me. “A filthy rat…named Cat. And she fucking reeks.”
Everyone in the hallway starts laughing like they haven’t heard this joke before. They have. Many times. Scott has been calling me Cat the Rat since I started at this school. That joke is so old it’s decomposing. Peter laughs like it’s the funniest thing in the world. I’m convinced he’s the result of inbreeding because he is so easily amused by stupid shit. I’d love to tell him that, but that would just be asking for trouble.
Scott comes to stand in front of me while his asshole friends, Sean and Kyle, stand behind me, circling me like vultures ready to eat me alive. I keep my head down, avoiding eye contact at all costs. If they see any kind of weakness, they’ll devour me. Scott wants a reaction. He wants tears, whether it’s tears of anger or hurt, he doesn’t care. All he wants to do is break me down and I refuse to give him the satisfaction. He hates that he can no longer get to me because I just don’t give a shit about him or anyone else anymore.
It used to be so easy for him. Despite my best efforts to be strong, he could turn me into a blubbering mess with just a few words. I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent crying in the girl’s bathroom, but now the hurt I feel is so deep and constant, his words don’t affect me at all. I try to squeeze past them, but Scott and Peter move closer together and block my path. They’re both huge and I know I can’t fight my way through, so I have to endure this until they decide they’re done with me.
I don’t get why girls swoon over these two, especially Scott. Okay, I take it back. Maybe I do get why. He is an exceptionally good-looking guy. Tall, clean, chiseled…all that shit girls go nuts for. But he’s insufferable, mean, and his piercing blue eyes, dark brown hair and strong jawline don’t make up for it. Rumor has it that he has a sexy smile, too. I wouldn’t know. He’s never smiled at me. I get arrogant smirks and that’s about it, so I just don’t see the appeal. Likewise, most girls find his broad chest and sculpted arms sexy. They drool all over him. The janitor might as well just follow him around with a mop. But his muscled torso is what I find most intimidating. He’s much bigger than me, so tall it would strain my neck to look up at him – if I ever made eye contact, that is.
I’m afraid to say anything to him. I’m afraid to make him mad. And it’s not just his size that scares me. It’s his wealth. His parents are obscenely rich and have incredible influence over this school. I don’t doubt for a second that they could have me thrown out if I step one toe out of line. That’s why I never stand up for myself. I just stand there and take whatever abuse he flings at me, feeling weak and pathetic and hating myself for it every second.
The smell of his expensive cologne makes me acutely aware of how close he is to me and I just want to get away from him. I make another attempt to walk away but Scott blocks my path again.
“Leaving so soon?” he asks with a mocking tone. “Where are you going?”
He knows exactly where I’m going because he’s going there too. We have all the same classes together except for art class. I don’t answer and continue staring down, focusing on his white and blue Nike Air sneakers, which probably cost more than our combined wages for the month. He has a very impressive sneaker collection, every style, every color, every brand, which is always impeccably matched to whatever T-shirt he’s wearing. He tends to favor Nike and Givenchy, sometimes Versace. I know this because his shoes and my eyes are very well-acquainted.
“Don’t ignore me, Rat.”
I muster up enough courage to look up at him and an arrogant smirk of satisfaction curves on his lips.
“Where are you going?” he asks again.
“To math.” It comes out as an indignant whisper.
“To math.” He shakes his head and scoffs at me. “You say it like this is your school, like you actually belong here. You don’t belong here. You’re filth. You belong in the gutter with the other rats. Why are you still here? I was hoping that after your dad died you would leave. Everyone knows that you can’t afford to be at this school so how is it that you’re still here?”
My hands involuntarily ball into fists at his callous mention of my dad. I swallow the hard lump in my throat and look down again. Everyone is looking at me, judging me. It happens every time he highlights the fact that I’m not one of them. I’m the outcast and he never misses the opportunity to remind me that I don’t belong among them. I don’t know why he hates me so much. Is it because I’m middle class? Well, statistically, we’re poor now. Is that what irks him? Is it because of my Mexican heritage, because my parents are immigrants? I don’t know why, but he singled me out on the first day I got here, and he hasn’t let up since.
“I paid my fees just like everyone else,” I mumble softly. “I have the same right as anyone else to be here.”
As soft as it was, he takes note of the fact that I’ve defended myself and it angers him because I hear a slight change in his breathing.
“Did you really pay your fees?” he asks sardonically. “Or did your sister suck off the principal to settle your account? I hear she’s getting pretty good at that lately.”
My blood boils under my skin and it takes every ounce of self-control to not slap him.
“I hear she gives head like a pro,” Kyle adds from behind me.
“Porn star level,” Peter insists. His eyes move over my body, lingering on my exposed shoulder and I want to cover myself up. “You know, maybe we’d like you more if you were as…friendly as your sister.”
His hand moves up toward my face but Scott smacks it away before his fingers get near me.
“Don’t touch it,” Scott says, eyeing me with disgust and it doesn’t escape me that he referred to me as it. “You might catch the hantavirus or some other disease. Who knows what the fuck it carries?”
“C’mon, guys. That’s enough. Let’s get to class.”
I’m grateful to finally hear that soothing voice. This one – Dylan, I think is his name – is the only decent person on the football team. He transferred to Loughlin last year and maybe it’s because he doesn’t fully understand the dynamics at play at this school, but he’s nothing like the rest of them. Status and reputation don’t seem to mean anything to him because he’s friendly to everyone. They mock and tease him sometimes for being a nice guy, but he just lets it bounce off his incredibly thick skin. He doesn’t speak to me directly and he doesn’t outright defend me, but if he’s around during these occurrences, he always calmly deters them away from me.
“Fuck, Dyl.” Scott looks at him like he’s ruined their playtime. “Mother Teresa called. She asked for her panties back.”
“Don’t say that.” Dylan says, looking a little dejected. “I don’t want to give them back. They’re my favorite pair because they fit so snug.”
I almost smile. They laugh, finally walking away, and Dylan gives me a slight nod as he passes by. I slowly exhale the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding and drag my feet to math class.
But this encounter is just the beginning. My Groundhog Day continues with them taunting me in the cafeteria. I ignore the racial slurs and degradation as I carry my tray to an empty table in the corner of the cafeteria. Gourmet lunches are included in the exorbitant fees, and while most of the other students don’t take advantage of the free meals, I discreetly go for seconds every chance I get.
The first taste of my beef casserole sends my body into overdrive and I literally want to shove the whole bowl into my mouth. I can’t eat fast enough to satiate my screaming belly, but I slow down and pace myself because I can feel eyes on me. I slowly take another spoonful as I scan the cafeteria, silently hoping that no one saw me shovel those first few spoons into my face. At first it seems like everyone is just going about their business. They don’t seem to care about me, the social scum sitting alone in the corner. But then my eyes meet the penetrating stare of Scott Carter. He glowers at me; smirking and I don’t know why. He’s probably thinking of another way to embarrass me. I keep looking away, but his eyes are demanding my attention and I can’t seem to shift my gaze for more than a few seconds. It’s so unnerving. The way he’s watching me. His lips curl with disgust, hatred. If I’m so repulsive to him, why won’t he stop staring?
His girlfriend, Bethany, straddles her legs over his. Bethany is perfect, the envy of every girl in the school. Student by day, Instagram influencer by night. She apparently has over two hundred thousand followers and it’s easy to see why. Golden locks, emerald green eyes, and a body to die for. Just like Scott, her parents are also filthy rich, which means she has the best of everything. She has the figure to pull off pretty much any outfit from elegant and sophisticated to sexy chic. I look down at my faded grey sweatpants and part of me wishes we were at one of those private schools where uniforms were mandatory. However, Loughlin Academy wants us to celebrate our individuality and because of this, the stark economic differences between my lifestyle and Bethany’s is on full display for everyone to see.
I am definitely one of the girls who envy her. I’ve had fantasies about what it would be like to be her for a day. What would it be like to have people admire and respect me, have them listen to me, hang on my every word? She has that. She has guys staring at her for all the right reasons, while I have Scott glowering at me like I’m dog shit that he’s desperately trying to get off his shoe.
Bethany is dressed in a tight pair of dark blue Gucci jeans and a white crop top that shows off her belly ring. Her nails are manicured, her hair is expertly curled, and her makeup is subtle and striking at the same time. You would think that when a girl as hot as that sits on his lap, she would have his full attention, but no. His eyes stay focused on me even as his hands slide up her thighs to grip her ass. She runs her tongue seductively over his lip. I try to look away again, but his eyes stay on me, begging me to watch and I can’t help but do what he silently demands. He wants me to see this, see all the things I can’t have. He wants to prove to me that even though I’m right there, this life is so far beyond my reach. It’s another subtle way of him showing me that I don’t belong in his world. He takes some kind of sick pleasure in that because he smirks at me again. It’s only when her tongue enters his mouth that he decides I’m not worth his time anymore and gives her his full attention.
I hate how he makes me feel. Worthless. Pathetic. Alone. I’m completely ostracized at this school. Anyone who speaks to me is ridiculed or berated. The same taunts used to follow my sister, but she seems to have gained popularity over the last few months, so she doesn’t even sit with me anymore. I’m glad for her, though. Her friends are a bad influence and completely fake, but I rather her have fake acceptance than be tormented like this every day. I’m a slave to this agony. Unlike my sister, I can’t escape it.
The loneliness makes me miss my dad even more. He knew Scott bullied me incessantly, but he quickly learnt his place in the social hierarchy. Our previous principal heard all our complaints but didn’t do a damn thing about it. Scott’s parents and their money were obviously more important than my turmoil. Scott got off without even so much as a warning. By the time Mr. Jenkins took over as principal, we had stopped trying. My dad knew he couldn’t do much, so he did the only thing he could. He gave me advice.
Every time I came home crying or upset (which was often), he would hold me for a few minutes then take me to the calendar he’d stuck up on the wall in the dining room. We were counting down the days. It was supposed to remind me that it would end soon. He’d always say: See, Catalina? Not long left to go and then you don’t have to see him again. Just be strong for a little while longer. Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy character. You may not have the cars and the jewelry they have, but likewise, they don’t have the heart that you have, Mija. You are more than what they are and what they can buy, so don’t let them tear you down.
But now my dad is gone, and I have to suffer through these days with no hug at the end of them. My heart squeezes and for a second, I can’t seem to breathe. Someone up there must really hate me because it’s at this vulnerable moment that Peter, the fucking inbred, zooms by and smacks my tray of food right off the table. I watch what’s left of my casserole fall to the floor. My double cream yogurt, which I was saving for last to treat myself, splatters everywhere. I feel some of it land on my hair and shoulder, but I’m frozen still, staring at the food I’ve been waiting for all day. I’m so torn at this second. My stomach is begging me to pick my food straight up off the floor and eat it, but my pride won’t allow it. I’d rather starve to death than let Scott or Peter or any other entitled prick at this school see me like that. I clench my jaw to keep the tears at bay as I slowly stand up and exit the cafeteria with all of them laughing behind me.
I get through the rest of the day on autopilot. I go to the diner after school and manage to earn enough tips to buy a small meal for my mom, Isa and me. I’m exhausted and my legs feel heavy as I walk home. Isa is still cleaning the kitchen when I lock the door. Trying to keep up with household chores with all our busy work schedules is damn near impossible and I just want a break from life. I want to be able to live like a normal teenager without all these responsibilities. School and work are hard enough but then to come home at ten at night and still clean…fuck, it’s arduous. But we have to do it. My mother already feels like a failure and every time this house falls into a messy disarray, it highlights the fact that she’s not coping, and she just can’t get it together. Keeping it clean keeps her sane and Isa and I break our backs trying to juggle everything. Sometimes I just want to press the pause button and catch my breath. I’m so tired of adulting.
I want my old life back. I want to wake up with no worries and no burdens. I want to sculpt again. My dad and I used to do that all the time. We were working on a collection of the Avengers – all made from clay. We were almost done. Captain America and Thanos were the last two. And now I can’t look at it without bursting into tears.
After placing the food in the fridge for breakfast tomorrow, I start sweeping the dining room. My sister is only a few feet away and yet she seems unreachable. I move with the broom into the open-plan kitchen and sweep around her as she wipes down the counters. We work in silence, not one word said. The only sound is the soft ching of her bangles as she moves her hand. We used to laugh while doing the dishes together and now we don’t even speak to each other. The day my dad killed himself, he killed a piece of all of us.
I haven’t gone to church since he died. I guess a part of me blamed God for letting this happen to my family, but it’s not God’s fault. The blame must be laid solely at the feet of my father. Sometimes I feel like doing the same thing, just ending it all to make the pain stop, but I can’t be that selfish. My mom and Isa would never recover and that is the only thing that stops me from going down the same road as my dad.
My eyes are heavy as I walk up the stairs. I clean the bathroom then immediately override my own work by having a shower. I pass my mom’s room and she’s on the floor in front of his cupboards again, sinking her nose into his shirts and inhaling deeply. I hear the bass of hard rock music coming from Isa’s room. She does that to hide the sound of her sniffles. All of us are in this house together, yet all of us are so inconsolably alone. I walk into my room, light the candle on my dressing table, and take out the rosary that I tossed into the drawer a few months ago. I had lost all faith but I’m willing to give it another try. I kneel and start reciting Hail Marys, counting the beads as I go. I say the rosary based on the sorrowful mysteries tonight because I want the Lord to feel my pain, I want Him to know my sorrow so He can send an angel to help me. Today I lived another Groundhog Day. Tomorrow will be the same. And tonight, just like every other Groundhog night, I cry myself to sleep.