Border Ctrl+Esc: Chapter One
Chapter 1: In Which Internet Friends Become In-Person Friends
This is going to be AWESOME. Less than a day!! 🥳🎉🎊
I’m looking at the plane ticket now and still can’t believe it!
[sent an attachment]
What’s with the Post-it?
So I don’t lose it lol. You would do the same thing. Don’t judge me.
Nah, I’d attach them to a cool keychain or something. Like an adult.
I need to finish packing.
Wait, what time is it there?
Try to get a little sleep before your flight, okay?
Sweet dreams, Santi.
Mariana Mitogo scanned the faces filtering through both the escalator and the stairs into the Arrivals area of the airport, hoping Santiago de los Reyes Martínez hadn’t changed his appearance since his last selfie. She had assumed he wore his glasses all the time like she did, but did he? Maybe they were only for the aesthetic. What if he didn’t have them on, or he cut his hair, and she didn’t recognize him? What if his plane had come in somewhere else and this wasn’t even the right flight?
Announcements squawked over the speakers; conversations murmured around her as a fresh wave of people came from the gates. The crowds swirled, heading to the luggage conveyors and the restaurants and the exit. She sidestepped travelers on their phones. She almost passed over the man who stepped off the escalator next—and then she couldn’t look away.
Thick, mussed black hair curled over the edges of his ears and down the nape of his neck, too long to look professional. His naturally tawny complexion had darkened with exposure to the sun, and she could see those big, dark eyes from here, even with his oversized hipster glasses. The edges of him were soft, not harsh with muscle, but something about the angle of his shoulders and the way he filled out his simple T-shirt and jeans scrambled her insides.
Please don’t be him, she prayed, ready to barter her health and wealth against her need to not have to deal with a cute guy friend. She hadn’t been interested in anyone since she was sixteen—she didn’t want to start now. Life was simpler that way.
As she stood there, appalled at her potential bad luck, he turned to meet her gaze, and he pulled back. No wave, not even a smile. He just pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, shoulders tense, lips pressed together.
Her throat prickled. Of course I look different. Cheeks hot, she smoothed her palms over the front of her yellow dress. I guess I didn’t expect to…to disappoint him.
He hadn’t even waved yet. She swallowed her embarrassment and, with a smile, did jazz hands.
A grin split his face, and it clicked.
She’d seen that grin in enough goofy selfies.
Santiago raced to her, dropped his suitcase, and swept her into a bear hug. For a split second she froze, not having expected outright affection—but then she relaxed and hugged him back, and her concern about attraction faded.
This is him, her heart and mind seemed to sigh, this time in relief. This is Santi. They already knew each other inside and out. Having him here in person, at long last, fit a piece into place she hadn’t realized was missing.
When he finally let go, she tapped him on the chest. “I’m not sure I know how to talk to you face-to-face. Let’s go sit somewhere so we can text.”
He snorted with laughter, as she’d hoped. “Maybe we can turn around and pretend to talk to our phones.” The lilt of his native language softened his English, prettier than her own slight Virginian drawl. Poor guy, having to practice his second language with a Southerner. He was going to end up with two different accents blended into one. Not to mention a propensity for the word y’all.
“How was your flight?” It seemed like the appropriate first question to ask.
He shrugged and rubbed his butt. “It was fine. Long.”
This response, though, made his forehead crinkle. “I said that right, didn’t I? Sorry about my accent.”
“Yeah, you said it fine.” She bounced on the balls of her feet. “Do you want any coffee or anything before we start the drive home? It’s gonna be another two hours until we get there.”
Santi glanced around the waiting area, probably looking for a coffee shop.
“Not here. There’s a Starbucks a couple miles down the highway.”
He half grimaced at the word miles. “And that’s…?”
“Oh.” She struggled to remember the correct ratio of miles to kilometers. Two to one? One to two? Ugh, math. She gave up. “About five minutes.”
They both stared at each other, looking a little blank, until they shared a self-deprecating laugh, and he picked up his suitcase. “Yes, let’s get some coffee. I’ll still be able to sleep when we get home.”
All the signs were in English units, not metric, as they blew down the highway in the evening sunset. This threw him off more than the Spanish-to-English switch itself. What’s a half mile? This is supposed to mean something to me? Americans always have to be special. The rest of the world uses the metric system, like sensible people.
No, Santiago liked America, at least so far. It had its cultural quirks and problems, but it wasn’t all bad. And everyone was so friendly. Anytime you look at someone, they smile and nod at you. Even strangers. It was weird. Nice, but weird.
They stopped at the Starbucks. Energy. Caffeine and sugar. He ordered a coffee and a brownie, but before he could fish his wallet out of his backpack, Mariana handed the cashier her credit card. “I’ll have a triple-shot medium mocha, and that’ll be it for us, thanks.”
After the cashier left to make the drinks, Santiago nudged Mariana. “I can pay you back for that.”
She shook her head. “I got you. You’re fine.”
Neither of them was fine with money, but he was here and they were together for the first time and he was interviewing for a job that might keep his mom alive. He thanked her and dropped it.
He picked up their order from the counter, and she pulled out her phone, a frown tugging at her full lips. He glanced at the screen as he passed her cup to her.
A banking app. Two credit cards maxed out. Three big loans. His own cup of coffee burned his hand before he could set it down.
“Anyway—” Mariana slid her phone into her purse and gestured toward the door. “We should head out. But tell me about the flight! Were there any screaming babies?”
They chatted with enthusiasm for the first half of the drive, but after that, jet lag hit him hard, and he drifted off almost midsentence. He woke when she parked outside her apartment complex, and he stayed sentient long enough to drag himself and his suitcase inside and collapse on the blankets she’d spread over the couch. He wasn’t sure if he’d closed the door behind him.
She must have closed the curtains for him while he slept; the sun never broke through his dreams. Stirring naturally, he tried to register the foreign surroundings. His hostess’s one-bedroom apartment framed an eclectic mishmash of the old and the new—an armchair topped with a lace doily, a framed print of the American Declaration of Independence hanging beside a floor-to-ceiling mirror. He wasn’t much for interior decorating, but it captivated him. It fit her. So many years into their friendship, and he finally had a chance to learn details like this.
He liked it.
Shrugging off the giant quilt she’d draped over him, he pushed himself to his feet, slipped on his glasses, and dragged himself into the bathroom. His entire body creaked from the long flight followed by the long nap. What time is it? The analog clock on the wall read 7:45, but the hour and minute hands weren’t moving. The second hand twitched occasionally, like a death rattle. Broken, then. Not helpful. Unable to summon the energy to care, he turned on the sink water, then puddled some in his hands and splashed it onto his face. The shock of cold startled him into full consciousness.
Wiping away the wet with a yellow hand towel, he smacked his lips and grimaced at the sour taste of morning breath in his mouth. Where did I stick my toothbrush? He wandered back into the living room to rummage through his suitcase and found it in a weird bottom pocket. Why did I put it there? He went back to the bathroom and had just started scrubbing with foamy toothpaste when the other door to the bathroom opened. In the mirror, Mariana’s sleep-glazed eyes widened.
“I’m sho—” He almost sprayed foam on the sink.
She held up her hands as he quickly finished and spat. “No, it’s fine! You’re the guest.”
He swiped a hand over his mouth. “No, it’s your home.”
“I can wait.”
“I’m already done anyways.” To prove the point, he set his toothbrush on the counter. Then he picked it back up, in case leaving it was presumptuous. “I can do my hair in the living room.”
She let out a long breath and relented. “Okay. If you need anything, come on in. I shouldn’t be long.”
He had no intention of initiating another awkward you-first-no-you-first bathroom encounter. He’d stay on the couch until she was done. “Okay, thank you.” Taking his toothbrush with him, he retreated to his suitcase to attempt to tame his tangled mess of hair. To pass the time before food, he pulled out his phone and checked the Internet for nearby barbers.
Yikes. The closest one was half an hour away. His city life had had its advantages.
Mariana emerged from the bedroom in a pastel-blue off-the-shoulder blouse and white short-shorts that showed off her dark skin and thick thighs. Her close-cropped curls gleamed, and a touch of pink glossed her full lips. Her soft, round cheeks had been cute for as long as he’d known her, but in person, she was all curves, full and rounded and way too tempting.
More than cute. Sexy as hell. That hadn’t come through on social media, and Santiago hadn’t been prepared for it. That first look in the airport had almost killed him.
He forced himself to look away. “I need a haircut before my interview.”
Her gaze darted to his unkempt hair long enough for him to feel a flicker of the embarrassment that thirteen hours with the lip-curling white guy in 12C had failed to elicit.
Averting his gaze from her casual perfection, he held up his phone. “Is there really nothing around here?”
She shrugged. “Nah. I warned you that I’m out’n’mil’nowhere.”
He leaned in and squinted, as if that would help him hear better. “You’re what?”
It registered in her face how quickly she’d run through the phrase. “Sorry. Out in the middle of nowhere.” This time, she slowed down and enunciated more clearly, and he was able to pick out the individual words. He knew the phrase itself; he’d just never heard it so blurred before. “We can take a trip up into town before your interview. You wanna go today or tomorrow?”
He scratched his ear where a tuft of hair tickled sensitive skin. “Today, if we can do that.”
She cracked that familiar grin. “Yeah, I think we can manage that. I can’t believe you let your hair get that long to begin with.” Ruffling his hair, she sat beside him on the couch.
He snuggled up against her, but she stiffened. Oh, right. Americans. So weird about touch. He straightened up and tilted his phone toward her again. “Do you know any of these places? Where should we go?”
She took it and scrolled through the options. “Ummm…This one.”
“Okay. I trust your judgment.”
“Well, you shouldn’t. This is the place that helped me dye my hair pink in college.”
“I thought the pink was cute!”
“It was adorable, but that’s not the point. I could totally be tricking you into messing up your hair right before your interview.”
“You wouldn’t do that to me.”
“Oh, wouldn’t I?” Mariana winked and stood. “When can they take you today? I can make some eggies for breakfast if you want.”
“That sounds good, thanks. Scrambled?”
“Can do.” She draped an apron over her head and tied the red ribbons behind her back. The pattern looked like…a bunch of old white men striking silly poses in historical costume.
He followed her into the kitchen and tugged at the fabric. “What’s on that?”
“This thing?” She laughed. “It’s some of the presidents. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln…uh, Madison…” She pointed to each one as she named them. “I got it for my birthday a few years back from my mom. I think she hoped that appealing to my actual interests would make cooking more fun. It did, but not enough for me to become a cook.” She pulled a dozen eggs out of the fridge, cracked them into a cup, and added salt and pepper to the mix.
Basically twiddling his thumbs, Santiago sank into a seat at the small, round kitchen table. It was weird to let someone else do the cooking, even if he was only visiting. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
He didn’t expect her to say yes, but she jerked her thumb toward the refrigerator. “If you want, you can peek through there and see what fruit you like. I have a few different kinds of berries, and bananas and apples are on the counter by the pantry.”
“Berries are always good.” He especially liked them with oatmeal, although he wouldn’t say so at the risk of making it sound like he was ungrateful for the scrambled eggs, which he also liked. He opened the fridge and pulled out a container of strawberries, which he rinsed off in the sink. “Is it okay if I cut them up?”
“Go for it.” She pulled a knife out of the block and passed it to him handle-first. “The cutting board’s right there on the counter.”
He set about slicing the berries into quarters, happy to have something to do with his hands to help.
Mariana drizzled some oil in the skillet as it heated on the stove. “What are you most excited to do while you’re here? Besides getting hired for a job that would make bank, of course.”
“Don’t jinx it! I haven’t even interviewed yet.”
“Yeah, but you’re the best. You deserve the position.”
“Thanks—ai!” He nicked his fingertip on the knife blade when his hand slipped. The cut stung. Blood welled up, and he stuck the wound in his mouth.
She froze. “Oh, shit! Are you okay?”
He shrugged, not pulling his finger away.
“Let me grab you a bandage.” She set aside the egg mixture and rummaged through a drawer on her other side. Triumphantly, she pulled out a white box with a red cross on the front. “I knew I had it in here.”
He lowered his hand and showed her the cut. Not deep, but it stung in the air conditioning.
Mariana pulled a Band-Aid out of the first aid kit, peeled away the backing, then wrapped the bandage gently around his fingertip. It was nice to feel taken care of, he had to admit. Her hands were warm and soft as she fixed him up, her touch gentle. It was almost worth cutting himself like an idiot.
“Sana, sana, culito de rana,” he said under his breath without thinking. Heal, heal, little frog bum. Some habits died hard; he’d lost track of how many scraped knees he’d cleaned up as a kids’ soccer coach.
She processed the translation and came up with “What?”
“Si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.” He finished the rhyme as if that would answer the question. If you don’t heal today, you’ll heal tomorrow.
She stared at him. Shook her head.
Right. If she didn’t know the shorthand, the long version wouldn’t make any sense either. “Uh…I don’t know. It’s what we say to kids when they hurt themselves.”
“Aw, you’re saying you’ve got a boo-boo,” she teased. “Pobrecito.”
He nudged her playfully. “You called the toilet ‘a potty’ last week. Don’t talk to me about baby talk.”
“I was being ironic!”
“You were not. You said potty because it’s fun to say. Don’t lie to yourself.”
She huffed. “Rude. I don’t think I like you in person after all.” A smile tugged at her lips though.
“Aww, that hurts my feelings.” He wrapped one arm around her shoulders. To his surprise, she was almost as tall as he was, not as short as she looked in pictures. “Come on. You love me.”
Her arm went around his waist in return, a display of affection he hadn’t expected but was delighted by. “Yeah, okay. Maybe so.” She stretched her free hand toward the stove to pour the eggs into the skillet. “Are you okay to finish cutting up the strawberries, Mr. Frog Butt?”
He stuck out his tongue and released her so she could finish cooking. “I’m injured, and you’re bullying me.”
As the eggs firmed up in the heat, she layered a handful of shredded cheddar cheese on top and stirred. “So is that a no?”
“It’s a ‘yes but just so you know, I’m wounded.’” He sliced the last of the strawberries, with more caution than before his slipup.
She stirred, stirred, stirred. “You’re pitiful. Do I need to scoop you up some ice cream to soothe you?”
Santiago brightened. “Ice cream would definitely help me feel better.”
Mariana patted him on the cheek. “You’re precious. Never change.” Once the cheesy scrambled eggs were done cooking, she spooned them onto two plates and passed him the one with a bigger portion. “Here. They’re eggs-cellent.”
He laughed despite himself. “No. That’s horrible.”
She grinned, and he loved it. “I’ve done better, but it wasn’t half bad. Don’t eggs-aggerate.”
“Stoooppp.” He added some strawberries to his plate as well and then dug in. He didn’t really mind the puns, but she got a bigger kick out of them when someone hated them. He was happy to oblige because her smile was the sun. He’d thought he knew that when they were only internet friends, but now that he’d seen it in person, he was worried about what he’d do to bring that smile out.
Meeting Mariana had messed with his head. At least he’d only be here for a few days. Once he got back to Spain, the distance would sort him out again.
At least he’d have to hope so.
Border Ctrl+Esc is a lighthearted contemporary marriage of convenience between LGBTQ+ Internet friends (a demisexual woman and a bisexual man). It's coming out August 9 with NineStar Press!