On a Saturday afternoon, driving to the beach, we talked about being on our own. We had moved to the convent just over a month, and each of us found something to complain about.
Pilar had hinted that living with her aunt in Mexico before transferring to Los Angeles had been a real struggle; Michelle with her brother and his wife in the hills of Hollywood had to escape too much music and excitement. Tony was game for anything, she said, as long as it was away from her parents.
“Oh, what does that mean? You don't get along with them?” I said.
"Yeah. Things always look simple and easy. Living with relatives is so complicated." Pilar said. Tony said that she just wanted to be independent.
I couldn't tell about my uncle, but I thought of a childhood friend, Gianna, the first girl I knew who didn’t live at home with her mom and dad. Telling about her was as close as I came to confessing my guilt and dilemma.
When Gianna appeared in the middle of the year, in the third grade and the teacher sat her by me in the first row, and she told me that she lived in The Castle, in a hidden complex that included elaborate gardens and underground chambers I couldn't believe her story.
“Are you an orphan?” I had asked her.
“No. I have a mother and father. Auntie and Uncle give me everything I want, my own room, lots of toys, all new clothes, everything. I'm treated like a princess."
I became envious of her good luck. When our teacher assigned a book to read, Gianna told me that she had a copy of the same book at home, more books than anybody, she bragged.
I wrangled an invitation to her house, convinced that she was exaggerating. When I told my mother that I was walking to The Castle to visit a new friend, she was skeptical. She had never seen anyone living there. It’s just a warehouse, a kind of museum, she had said. But, she didn’t dissuade me.
At the door, a young lady who introduced herself as the maid made me sit down, unlace my shoes and slip into flip flops. She pointed out that the main residence was on the second storey. Everything downstairs were service rooms. Gianna met me upstairs, also wearing funny slippers, and proceeded to show me her room and other parts of the house. The book room was the biggest room in the house. To touch some books, we needed to wear special gloves.
In the garden, flowers and trees had come from all parts of the world. An entire room, bigger than my house, was dedicated to plant propagation and plant care. A full time gardener lived on the premises, somewhere in the service area of the first floor which was not shown me.
Gianna’s chores and activities were written down on a chalk board in the kitchen, with notes for the maid, for the gardener, notes about notes, piano lessons, art lessons. Every activity was blocked in.
“When can you play outside with us?”
“ It’s not scheduled. Outside time is tennis with Auntie, and boccie with Uncle.”
“Do you ride a bicycle?”
“On Saturday, we have bicycle rides to the Pineta, and a picnic afterwards.”
“When do you play?”
She looked confused.
“When do you hang out with friends?”
“I can invite friends for an hour on Friday after school. Like today!”
"So, you have never met and played on the streets, different games with different people, riding bikes everywhere, play pretend.”
“I have lots of studying to do, not just school work. My uncle is tutoring me for the Liceo Scientifico in Rome, my future studies. I’ll enter university and become a doctor. ”
“How do you know what future God has destined for you?”
She laughed. “Oh, that’s not how it works. I must obey my Aunt's and Uncle's decisions. Mother would not have it any other way."
Gianna never complained. I didn’t find out how much she missed her own mother and father until she entered a poem contest. She won. Her poem told her agony, her imprisonment, her sense of guilt for feeling so lonely and homesick.
What she wanted most of all, was to go back to her own family.
Michelle then asked me outright, “Rosey, what about you? You’re going back home because you’re homesick, right?”
“Yeah! I have not seen my family for over four years.”
Pilar joined in, “I felt the same way. I went back to Spain after the first year. Then, I got tired of the same old life. I had changed; they hadn’t. They wanted me to be the same little girl I was when I left. I couldn’t adapt. So, I packed my bags, and here I am. See? You don’t know how it will be when you get back home.”
“It’s time to return.” I said, warmed by the thought of returning to my loved ones.
“We all have to leave home someday!” Michelle smiled and I smiled back. We had stories to tell each other, all right. I was guessing the girls and I were going to be great friends.