Identity Crisis

Thanks to Mike for the first sentence and to Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds for the writing prompt. Here’s my homework, turned in early:

Juan Carlos Torquemada y Torremolino bore an unbearable name.

He slouched, shoulders rounded, burdened not only by the hopes and expectations of parents and grandparents, but countless forebears before them. Juan Carlos imagined them standing in a line snaking back through time, like his reflection as he stood between the two mirrors hanging opposite each other in the entrance hall of Aunt Sarah’s house.

He stuffed his hands in the front pockets of his too-short jeans and stared at the toes of his scuffed and dirty running shoes, which stood in stark contrast to the richly colored Persian rug beneath them.

“Juan Carlos! I believe you’re even taller today than you were yesterday!”

His aunt bustled into the room, her white hair piled high on her head. She was an energetic woman, always moving, talking, cleaning, straightening. She’d been widowed young, and had raised four children alone in a world that wasn’t particularly friendly to women, especially women who spoke their minds. But that had never stopped Sarah.

“My goodness! Your jeans are two sizes too small! And your shoes! A disgrace! What is your mother thinking?”

Sarah kept up a running critique of Juan Carlos’ appearance as she handed him the basket of food she’d prepared for his and his mother’s dinner. It was a daily ritual. They both knew Juan Carlos’ mother, Maria, wasn’t thinking anything. Or anything about Juan Carlos and his clothes, anyway. Juan Carlos wasn’t sure what she thought about, since she rarely spoke these days.

After his father’s death, his mother had sunk into a deep depression, leaving Juan Carlos carrying the burden of running the household, as well as the weight of his father’s name and the expectations of all of those ancestors, on his too-thin 17-year-old shoulders. Juan Carlos wondered if that’s what had finally broken his mother – her inability to stand up to her father’s constant criticism once her husband was no longer there to give her strength.

Maria’s father owned the town’s only bank, and never let anyone forget that his many-greats-ago-grandfather had sailed from Spain with Christopher Columbus, one of the first people to set foot in the New World. He pretended he didn’t know his great-etc.-grandfather had been an indentured servant, released from a Madrid debtor’s prison by Queen Isabella when Columbus needed a cook at the last hour. The bitterness at the trick Fate had played on him by making his only child female tainted every interaction he had with Maria.

Juan Carlos sometimes wondered at the difference between his aunt and his mother. Why did life break some people, but make others stronger?

Sarah was his father’s older sister. She lived a block away from Juan Carlos and his mother, and she made dinner for them each day. Juan Carlos got up each morning, made breakfast for himself and his mother, and went to school. Sarah looked in on Maria at midday. In the afternoons, Juan Carlos worked at his family’s hardware store. On his walk home, he stopped by Sarah’s house to pick up dinner.

Their family had once been large. But now Sarah and Juan Carlos were the last two members of his father’s line living in the town his great-great-grandfather had founded.

Sarah’s four children had left the dust of Rosewood behind years ago. Sarah Jean had moved to New York, dropped the Jean, and gone to work as an editor at a glossy fashion magazine. Mary Catherine had moved to Chicago, changed her name to Cate, and worked at an advertising agency. Juan and Carlos, twins who were Sarah’s pride and joy, had moved to Los Angeles, changed their names to John and Carl, and become actors working as waiters.

Juan Carlos envied his cousins’ glamorous lives. On visits, they talked of fashion models and movie moguls, famous names mentioned casually like Juan Carlos might mention Lila Beth, the annoying girl who lived across the street and insisted on walking to school with him every morning.

They’d known each other since birth, and her recent metamorphosis into someone who looked like she belonged on the pages of Sarah Jean’s magazine had been disconcerting to Juan Carlos. But when she opened her mouth, she was still the girl who had cut chunks out of his hair when they were three; pushed him out of a pecan tree, breaking his arm, when they were ten; and punched him in the nose when he tried to kiss her on her thirteenth birthday. He’d spent the money his dad gave him for her present on candy, which he’d eaten, and thought a kiss would work as a substitute. She’d disagreed.

She’d recently taken to calling herself Libba – “See, Juan Carlos? It’s Lila and Beth put together!” she’d explained. Libba didn’t sound much like either Lila or Beth to Juan Carlos, but he’d listened without commenting. She refused to answer when people called her Lila Beth, which had caused Libba’s mother to take her in for a hearing check, but had been effective in getting people to switch.

Juan Carlos wished he had the courage to change his name, become someone new. But which part of himself would he cut away, to be hidden in a locked box at the back of a closet and pulled out years from now and examined like an artifact from another life?

The part of himself that liked living in a small town, the part that was comforted by his father’s name above the door of the hardware store, and his grandfather’s name across the double glass doors of the bank? The part that wanted to stay here in Rosewood, where his life was charted out, as predictable as the bank’s opening and closing times, from birth to death?

Or the part that longed for freedom, that wanted to live in a big city where he would be just another face in the crowd, where no one knew or cared that his grandfather had sailed from Spain with Columbus, where he would be free of the burden of expectations placed on him by an unwieldy, computer-confounding name that never fit into the little boxes on a standardized test?

He wondered which choice he would regret more – staying or going? Would the guilt he felt at the thought of leaving his mother, apparently permanently broken by his father’s death, outweigh the freedom that would come with shedding the expectations of the past? Would he end up miserable, unable to enjoy his new life, constantly looking backward toward Rosewood?

He trudged toward home, the weight of the basket rounding his shoulders even more than usual. He pulled the mail from the mailbox, stuffing it in the basket as he climbed the back steps.

Juan Carlos put the basket on the kitchen counter and pulled out the mail: a copy of Sarah Jean’s magazine, the electric bill, and … a fat envelope from the University of Chicago. He tore it open, his eyes searching … and there it was, “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the University of Chicago’s Creative Writing Program.”

Juan Carlos took a deep breath and stood up straight as a huge weight he hadn’t even been aware of carrying lifted, leaving his chest free to move in and out again. It turns out he’d known the answer all along. He could be Juan Carlos Torquemada y Torremolino, because author’s names could be as long as they wanted them to be. He could be himself, all of himself. And he would be.

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4 Responses to Identity Crisis

  1. Helen says:

    Betsy,I sure enjoyed reading about Juan Carlos.


  2. varussell says:

    Enjoyed it, but I’m already worried about his mother.


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