A soft sigh escaped Carolina Flores’ lips as she reread her acceptance letter. Even though she’d looked at it enough times to remember the sentences word for word, it never failed to make her heart swell with pride as a grin spread from ear to ear. In just a little over a week, she’d be starting university and taking another step toward the career of her dreams.
She stood up from the couch and tossed her phone aside at the sound of pans clanging together in the kitchen. As she searched for her mother, she grabbed the thin violet liga from her wrist to tie her hair back and shook her hand with a huff when it snapped. “Ay güey.”
“What was that?” Caro stiffened when Sonya Flores’ chiding tone rang through her ears. She hadn’t expected her mother to be in earshot.
“Nothing! I was, uh, just looking for you.” Caro moved some strands of hair out of her face, chocolate eyes taking in the disorganization in the kitchen, the assortment of spices, scattered groceries, and piling dishes. “¿Qué haces?”
Thankfully, her mother seemed amused as she sucked on her teeth and stirred a pot of boiling beans on the stove. “Did you forget already?” her voice bounced off the walls as she reminded her daughter of the celebration dinner she had planned and the people she’d invited.
“Ama I told you, you didn’t have to-”
“Ay no, don’t start with that.” She grabbed another pot with a rushed wave of her hand. As she opened her mouth to speak up against, they turned at the sound of the front door opening. Caro couldn’t hold back her laughter at the way her father’s voice boomed as he called out to his family and asked what smelled so good.
“¡Papi!” The heavy footsteps of her younger twin siblings could be heard as they ran down the hall to tackle him. “I missed you,” Rosita exclaimed.
“Yo más, chiquita.” Sergio Flores picked her up and peppered kisses all over her cheeks, causing her to scream in delight. Once he set her back on the ground, he crouched down to kiss Gabriel on the cheek and ruffle his hair.
“You bought flowers? Are they for me?” Rosita looked up at him with big eyes as she followed him into the kitchen. He couldn’t hold back his roaring laughter at the pout she made when he told her they were for her sister. “Didn’t Caro graduate, like, a long time ago?”
Although she’d never admit it, she agreed with the seven-year-old. However, both of her parents had insisted on celebrating the start of this new chapter, so she simply smirked and stuck her tongue out at her sister. “You’re just jealous.” It was then that she noticed the pink orchid in her father’s hands. “Oh my gosh, Apa! You didn’t have to!” Regardless of her weak objection, she took the potted plant into her hands before she even finished her sentence.
He caught his wife’s gaze and sent her an amused grin in return as she chopped bunches of cilantro. “How could I not? You’re the first one in our family to go to school.”
This wasn’t true. She had other primos who were still attending the same community college she had just graduated from. She brought this point up to her parents as she set the orchid down as a centerpiece for their round wooden table, but they shrugged her off with a simple eye roll.
Sighing, Caro went back to cleaning the dining room and setting out silverware. Not having even completed secondary school, they didn’t know the difference between the varying levels of degrees. To them, an associate degree was no different than a Masters or Ph. D..
After helping her mom a bit more in the kitchen, she was practically chased out and told to get ready. Confused by her mother’s strong reaction, she looked down at her sweatshirt, which was colored with splotches of flour, batter, and something unknown. As she searched through her closet, her fingers lingered on a loose floral summer dress, to which she paired with a white cardigan.
As she waltzed into the sala, she found Gabriel and Rosita greeting their abuelos with hugs and a kiss on the cheek. Her plump lips stretched into a wide grin as she went to greet and lead them over to the table, where cilantro, limes, onions, and radish were chopped in a big serving plate beside the orchid. She turned slightly when she felt a frail hand on her shoulder and nodded when her nana told her that she’d be in the kitchen with her mom.
As if on cue, the doorbell rang as soon as her Nana was out of sight. “But Daniel,” Rosita’s whine rang through the living room. “She doesn’t like those! Shouldn’t you know that?”
Confused, Caro walked up to them with a frown; ready to scold her, but Daniel waved a dismissive hand before she could. He smiled and leaned down to peck her lips. “I was going to surprise you, but…” His dark eyes narrowed slightly as he watched the seven-year-old leave to find her brother. Caro’s eyes found the bouquet of white roses held at his side and shook her head with a short huff. “Ay, don’t pay attention to her.” Her arms wrapped around his torso to embrace him tightly as whispered her thanks before she noticed her two best friends talking at a distance; to give them privacy, no doubt.
She waved her arms in a gesture for them to come in and laughed softly when Valentina perked up. “Oh thank God! I could smell the pozole from out here.” She sighed as she wrapped her arms around Caro.
Elena smirked once she did the same. “I could hear your stomach growl from here too.”
“Really?” She gaped at the taller girl once she pulled away. “I thought it was quiet.”
Immediately upon entering the house, the rich scent of the soup hit their noses as they continued to tease one another. After greeting her family and sitting down at the table, Daniel excused himself to go to the restroom and Caro walked into the kitchen to grab a vase for her flowers. She came to a sudden stop, however, when she overheard a hushed conversation between her mom and Nana.
“Hija, I’m very excited for Carolina.”
She could hear Sonya serving the pozole. “She’s been so excited to start school. After orientation, she hasn’t stopped talking about showing us the campus.”
“Si, pero, I meant more about her and Daniel. Do you think this could be the year she gets married?”
Caro bit her lower lip as she leaned her back against the wall. Although these types of conversations were nothing new, they never failed to send chills down her spine. She wished they’d be proud of her accomplishments, but all her family seemed to value was her relationship.
“I don’t know. She’s starting school and you know how important that is to her.”
“You never know,” Having grown tired of the topic, Caro walked inside in time to see her abuela shrug. “It’s already been two ye-Ay, Caro! ¡Me asustastes!”
“Disculpame.” She kept her eyes on the floor as she made a beeline to the steaming bowls on the counter, the flower vase long forgotten.
She sucked in a breath when her mother cleared her throat and told her to spend time with her guests, but she was already out the door with bowls in hand by the time she finished speaking. Having been lost in thought, an audible gasp left her lips when she almost ran into Daniel. “Ah, I’m sorry. How long have you been standing there?” Had he overheard everything too?
“Not long. Are you okay?” He was grabbing one of the bowls to help her, to which she returned with a nod and grateful smile.
They served her papá and abuelo before taking their seats. She glanced to her right when she heard Vale let out a loud sigh moments later. “I can’t believe you’re going to a new school. I’ll never see you anymore.”
Elena rolled her eyes when Vale continued to pout. “It’s literally twenty minutes away,” She grumbled and thanked Sonya when a bowl of pozole and a plate of refried beans was placed in front of her. “Plus, you and Caro were at the same community college and she still made time to hang out with me.” She then turned to face Caro with a lopsided smile as she spoke of all the things they’d do together on campus.
“Are you trying to get romantic with me?” Caro gushed when Elena nodded quickly before she ate a spoonful of the soup, missing the entertained looks on her family’s faces.
As they ate, they took turns teasing Vale about changing majors for the third time and mentioning the classes they would be taking next week. Then, they all pitched in and helped clear the table and, wanting to give them their privacy, Sonya’s parents said their goodbyes as the group of college students set up a movie.
They had to pause the movie halfway through when Vale stood up and complained of a stomach ache. Offering her room to rest, Caro’s eyes narrowed when Vale shook her head and continued to beg Elena to take her home. “But the movie’s starting to get good! Why can’t your brother take you?”
Daniel nodded and immediately began to stand, which caused his sister’s eyes to double in size. “No! Stay with Caro.” She waved her hands around in a frenzy. “I’m sure Elena doesn’t mind.”
Throwing her head back with a groan, Elena’s shoulders slumped and Caro chuckled when she heard her curse under her breath. “Fine, let’s go then.” She waved to the couple before grabbing her things and marching out.
Once she heard Elena drive off, she giggled and looked at him. “She’ll get over it. It’s not like she doesn’t practically live here.” Gesturing to the plate on the table, she offered him dessert. Surprisingly, her papá left them a good amount of chocoflan.
Happily accepting, he gave her a bemused look when she unpaused the movie without serving herself. “Are you not eating some?” She shook her head and leaned against his chest when she saw him put the plate back down. “At least it gives me an excuse to take you out.”
She frowned when he took the remote from her and turned off the movie. I guess I’ll get to finish it with Elena after all. “Out? ¿Adónde?” She eyed him as he stood to grab his keys from a round coffee table they had in the sala and grinned when he told her that it was a surprise
After telling her parents that she was leaving, she got in the passenger's seat of his car. She found herself rambling on about all the things UW had on campus: the numerous coffee shops, the beautiful library, and the Psychology building where most of her classes would be held. She felt a fire in her chest as she spoke, until he told her that he would be picking her up from her first day. “Oh, really? But, I thought you worked.” She hadn’t expected to feel the strain in her voice as she spoke.
“I had the day off at the restaurant, so I requested the day from the mechanic. My classes don’t start for another week.”
She should be elated about spending more time with him, but she felt like a deflated balloon. She wasn’t sure where these feelings came from, but she had no time for self reflection now as he watched her face for a reaction. “Maybe we can get lost around campus together.” She smiled and gasped when he parked in front of an ice cream parlor they’d often go to.
As they entered, a peppy employee waved at them from behind the counter and took their order. Grinning, she pointed to the pink tub of ice cream. “I’ll have the stra-”
“We’ll have two vanilla cones please.” He handed them cash, not catching the way she frowned at him.
He told her to grab a table while he waited for the cones. This, however, gave her the alone time she hadn’t been expecting to crave. Playing with the skirt of her dress, she realized that she’d felt this negative feeling before. The conversation between her mother and grandmother began replaying in her head as she watched him walk to her, two vanilla cones in hand. I hate vanilla.
“I know you like sprinkles, so I asked for them once you left as a surprise.”
Thanking him, she took it and gave him a tight smile that made her lips thin out. I hate sprinkles.