by Cris Ascunce
Architect Gene López-Pérez has everything she’s ever wanted: her daughter Susana, a flourishing career, and Isa—the love of her life and Susana’s biological mother. But when Gene is denied entry to a hospital emergency room because Susana is not biologically hers, the harsh reality of her situation begins to sink in.
Meanwhile, Isa, a trailblazing biomedical engineer, juggles her hidden family life and a career threatened by homophobia in a male-dominated field. She doesn’t dare risk losing the funding for the important medical research that she’s doing.
When Spain legalizes same-sex marriage, Gene proposes a bold solution—move to Spain, marry, and secure the parental rights she’s never known. But Isa’s refusal sparks a rift, pushing Gene to a daring decision for her family’s future.
As Gene contemplates a groundbreaking legal battle for parental rights in Florida, and Isa’s career teeters on the edge, their love faces the ultimate test. Can they bridge the divide between them, or will their dreams and duties force them apart?
|March 14, 2024
“Pampa pampa pampa!” Tito Horacio yells incoherently in my ear. He tries to sing—poorly, but God love him, enthusiastically—over the phone. In the background, Kool & The Gang belts out a cacophonous rumble of the cheesy song from the last millennium as people sing along and glasses clink. My uncle’s explosive laughter rolls through the phone, and I hold my BlackBerry away from my ear a few seconds until it dies down. Delightful as it is to hear, I wonder if he’s drunk-dialing from a party.
“¿Qué está pasando, Tito?” I yell through the phone, hoping he can hear me. Glancing at the digital clock on my computer screen, it’s after midnight in Barcelona and he’s carrying on like a college student during spring break.
“Gene. You haven’t heard? Parliament passed same-sex marriage this morning.” His voice cracks. “Can you believe it?”
“Today?” I say. “No way, not today. I knew it was coming, but I had no idea it’d be today.”
While Tito’s party guests seem to distract him, I open a tab in Safari and type Spain, same-sex marriage in the Google search box. A moment and about a thousand results later, I click on the first link. It’s a New York Times article by Renwick McLean, and right there, the bold headline with an image of the rainbow flag reads, “Spain Legalizes Gay Marriage; Law Is Among the Most Liberal.”
I flip my desk calendar to today’s date. Thursday, June 30, 2005. Well, damn. Who’da thought Spain would beat the US at legalizing same-sex marriage? Spain—the country of my parents’ birth—a Catholic country, no less.
But it’s not until I skim through the article that a few words in the second paragraph catch my eye and momentarily stop my heart from beating. “The bill, passed 187 to 147, says couples will have the same rights, including the freedom to marry and to adopt children, regardless of gender.”
“Can you believe it?” Tito’s voice seems muddled and far away, or it may be that I’m just stunned as my eyes linger on the words and to adopt children. “We can finally get married!”
“What are you going to do?” My stomach twists into an excited knot. I’m half expecting the obvious answer that he’s marrying Edu, his partner of more than ten years.
“Me?” he asks with a short sniffle. “I’m going to wait for the three of you to come to Barcelona, so I can officiate your marriage. That’s what I’m going to do. When are you coming? We should have a double wedding. Edu would love it!” His jubilation is infectious, and I can’t help a smile from creeping on my face as I glance at the photo sitting on my desk of Isa holding baby Susana. If only. I don’t want to trample on his celebratory mood by talking about my problems at home.
“Es un poco complicado aquí, Tito,” I lie. It’s not complicated at all. The Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, gives states carte blanche over recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states, effectively unrecognizing them all at the federal level. And whether it’s only a matter of time until the courts get involved is inconsequential to me. I want to marry Isa. I always have, ever since I was thirteen and saw her across a crowded and stifling school bus. But we live in Florida, and the legislature has banned both same-sex marriages and adoptions by gay people.
I hang up with Tito and begin daydreaming, of course, because that’s what I do. If Isa and I got married in Spain, I could petition the courts there to legally adopt Susana as her second parent, and we can finally be a family. Legally! Being a Spanish citizen has its privileges: I can sponsor my wife and daughter, so they can become Spanish citizens, too. If we do all that now, by the time it’s legal in the United States, our marriage and my parental rights would be legal everywhere else, including Florida. But how much longer until that happens? It’d be easier if we did it in Spain, now. Then, I wouldn’t constantly feel marginalized when it comes to raising my five-year-old daughter. Big dreams, Gene.
As I scrub the romantic notion of Isa and I exchanging wedding bands from my mind, I do my best to concentrate on my blueprints. A potential client wants to tear down the house he just bought and build a McMansion on the tiny plot of land, and he wants to see the designs in two weeks. But the newsreels out of Spain are still playing in my head, and I can’t change the channel. Ever since Spain’s parliament took up the gauntlet to legalize same-sex marriage, the thought has been lingering at the back of my mind.
Because of DOMA and Florida’s laws, it doesn’t matter where in the world we get married. If we live and work in Florida, it’s a no, period. So, you see my dilemma? We’d have to leave the country if we want to get married and live as a legally recognized family. We—as if.
Peering around my bottom-floor office suite, the sun casts its fading rays through the west-side windows, washing the room in a somnolent yellow tinge. Papá designed and built this building in our backyard when we were kids, and he used the bottom floor as his office, as I’m using it now. It’s an open-concept floor plan that he designed with a kitchenette and bathroom just off the work area. Off to the right of my desk is a conference room table with eight chairs that has been here since this space belonged to him. Wood flooring runs throughout the suite, and the windows are big enough that I can see our backyard, the patio, and all the way to the back of the house. The upstairs is a one-bedroom apartment that we use when my family visits from Spain. When my parents were alive, Papá used the upstairs as a soccer cave. He and my brother, Lui, spent hours watching all things fútbol—that’s soccer in America.
Mamá liked a quiet house. Apart from being a university Spanish literature professor, she was a published Spanish-language novelist. With no TVs in the house, she concentrated on more than a dozen published works. But that seems like a million years ago. Now, we’ve got a huge TV in the family room that rarely plays anything that doesn’t have a singalong rhyme. My family life then, when I was a kid, and the one I lead now, are miles apart. But I’ve spent some of the best years in this house, both as a kid and as an adult.
The more I think of marriage as the traditional next step for couples wanting to enrich their lives and start a family, the more I think of my own precarious situation in Susana’s life, who’s my daughter in name only because we have no biological connection. Love is the only thing binding us.
In less than a month, Susana will be five years old. She’ll start kindergarten in the fall, but I shuttle her back and forth to a pre-K program now. With a notarized signature, Isa authorized me to drop Susana off and pick her up from that school. Martha, Isa’s mom, has the same privilege, sans the notarized authorization. And since I’m mostly the one who takes her to see her pediatrician, Isa signed consent forms there, too. It’s ridiculous. A puñetero authorization form is needed everywhere I go where Susana is concerned.
Celebratory music is stuck in my head as I imagine gay and lesbian couples dancing atop tables and singing along to Sister Sledge’s gleeful song about being a family. Oh, how I wish I could celebrate with Tito and Edu, and their eventual nuptials. I’m kind of jealous of them.
With all the focus on marriage, the end to my workday has arrived. I shut down my AutoCAD, sign out of my company’s network, lock the door to my suite, and walk the twenty paces it takes to get to my house for dinner.
Marriage, marriage, marriage. The idea slams in my head like a speeding volleyball from one of Isa’s kills. When I slide open the glass door and walk into the kitchen, it’s what I see before me that really sets me off. Isa is bent over the open oven, two juicy chicken breasts (one of them pierced with a thermometer) are laid out in a deep-dish oven pan, sitting on the center rack, and she’s poking at the birds, testing their doneness, I suppose. Meanwhile, Susana sits happily in her booster seat, hands, mouth, and dimpled chin covered in chicken juice, kicking her legs to and fro as she chomps down on a drumstick.
“Hey, G,” Isa says, peeking up at me, and I’m suddenly pulled out of this Norman Rockwell-ian portrait that’s labeled M A R R I A G E. The only thing Isa is missing is a white apron with a ruffled edge. “I made rice, and the chicken just needs to rest for a couple more minutes. You hungry? I was just about to call you.” The words flitter through my brain as I’m sucked back into her reality. Isa meticulously places the two breasts on a slab of butcher block, kicks the oven door closed, then saunters to the sink to fill the pan with soapy water. Routine. It’s the only thing in our lives that doesn’t change. She lives for it, and I cling to it like a dying Catholic to his rosary because it’s what I have left.
“Yeah, that sounds great,” I say, but it doesn’t. Nothing sounds better than Tito’s mirthful voice over the phone right now. The excitement and pride in his tone at what they’ve accomplished was palpable, meanwhile I stand in my kitchen, paralyzed. I turn my attention to Susana, who finished her dinner as evidenced by the two stripped drumstick bones left on her plate and juicy residue where Isa spooned sauce over the rice. “Susanita, why don’t you go upstairs and start washing up. I’ll be up to help you in a minute.”
Without a word, Susana hops off her booster, walks over to me, gives me the greasiest hug, and smudges a kiss on both my cheeks. I wait until she’s safely out of earshot and make a mental note to wipe down the banister, railing, and walls when I go back upstairs.
“Did you hear that Spain passed same-sex marriage today?” I ask, standing a few feet behind Isa. Even over the scent of baked chicken in the air, I can still smell her scent. The ubiquitous aroma of vanilla bean that, by now, seems to be as much a part of her skin as her own pH.
“Yes, I got a news alert on my BlackBerry earlier,” she says. Of course she did. Isa turns to face me, leans her backside against the sink, and dries her hands with a kitchen towel. Biting down on her lips, no sign of chin dimples. Her chocolate-brown stare drills into me—waiting. She tucks an errant, dark tress behind her ear. This conversation is an old chestnut. For us, at least. I’d like to be one of those couples who talk about one day getting married if the law allows it. That’s the opposite of us. We planned our studies, our life together, and yes, our daughter. But marriage was always one step too far for Isa.
“You know,” I say as I walk over to the sink and wash my hands. “Since I’m a Spanish citizen, we could, for the sake of argument, get married in Jerez, or if that’s too provincial, we can do it in Sevilla.” I pause to wipe the grime off my cheeks with a damp paper towel. “We can live on the vineyard in Jerez with Don Rigoberto while we establish my parental rights over Susana.” I rush my words, so I can get them all out and duck when she hits me back with a sharp, NO. A heated exchange is coming, and sweat bubbles are already dotting the small of my back. What I’m thinking of doing might seem far-fetched to her, but it’s an excellent plan, if only she’d listen. “By the time same-sex marriage is legal in the States, we could either move back here or stay there, in case Florida is the last state in the union to recognize same-sex marriages and adoptions by gay people.” This might be the Sunshine State, but it’s been putting a damper on my life since I was born.
Isa fixes her eyes on me but remains silent as my hopes seem to evaporate.
“That sounds like a great plan—your best plan, even.” She pauses. “But if it wouldn’t be legal here, in Florida, where we live and work, why would we get married in Spain in the first place?” she asks, slowly folding her arms over her chest.
“Um…No. I meant that we would live in Spain. Um…If we get married there, the law will protect us. We’d have all the rights afforded to all other married couples in Spain, including adoption. And I would be somebody in your life and in our daughter’s life over there. I’d be her recognized parent if something were to happen to you. And if something happens to me, you’d both inherit my stake in the vineyard.”
My maternal grandfather, Don Rigoberto, is the last living owner of the vineyard, Villa Guadalcacín, and Lui and I will inherit fifty percent of it when he dies. Abuela Alba died shortly after my parents were killed in a car accident. The tragedy of losing her only daughter was too much for her weak heart to bear. Although I’m sure he’ll live many more years, Don Rigoberto is a strong man, always has been, but he’s in his eighties and suffers from vertigo.
He has a vast spread of land in Jerez, a city in the Andalusian region of Spain. There, he grows Palomino Fino and muscat grapes and sells his crop to area bodegas. They make the region’s famed brandy, manzanilla, and sherry wines. His finca is only an hour’s drive from the capital city, Seville. It’s also where Lui and I have our residential address in Spain, giving us the right to vote there.
“G, my work is here. You know I’m in the middle of important research at the hospital, growing human tissue to replace mechanical heart valves. We’re building real heart valves with human tissue…in a lab! It takes time.” She folds up the towel and places it on the counter, seemingly putting an end to my daydreaming. “I won’t leave my research now. Besides I can’t. I still have another two years to fulfill my obligation. Remember, they paid my student debt. And anyway, you’re a successful architect. Your career is booming. Why would we move from here?” she asks, dramatically raising her hands in the air as she turns in a circle. “And, if something does happen to me here, I signed palimony papers making you Susana’s guardian, or have you forgotten? So, for all practical purposes, you’ll be her parent.”
I hang my head, inching toward the edge. If I fall off, would I survive the drop? I push forward, albeit with some trepidation.
“Yes but ‘for all practical purposes’ isn’t enough for me anymore. You’re forgetting that a judge for Children and Family Services has to rule in my favor for me to be her guardian. And that’s if something happens to you, but what about now? I want it to be known that I’m her mother, too.” My voice cracks. I clasp my hands together behind my back to hide their trembling.
“And,” I say calmer, centered. “If something does happen to you and I wanted to adopt her, I would have to lie about my sexual orientation.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?” she asks. “Wouldn’t you do that for your daughter’s sake?”
“Isa,” I reply, tamping down the sudden tension headache. The pressure between my eyebrows is digging into my brain. My hands aloft, I grasp my index finger. “First of all, it’s illegal to lie on official documents, and you’d better believe that officials for the state of Florida will investigate, but regardless, I don’t think I should have to lie to adopt the daughter I helped bring into this world. That’s if something happens to you.”
I grasp my middle finger. “Second, you are required to be present to give consent for medical care. Remember what happened the first time we rushed Susana to the emergency room?”
I take a breath, trying to wipe the memory away and grasp my ring finger. “Third, I can’t sign any kind of legal document for her because I’m not her legal parent.”
Pulling at my pinky, sending pins and needles up my arm, I continue, “And fourth, I pay a tax on the benefit I receive from the firm to have both of you on my health insurance. You know, it’s a real shame my company is more liberal than this country.”
With my chest heaving, head throbbing, and stomach spinning, I give her my final point. “Isa, marriage is about more than just the bond between you and me. There are laws in place that protect the family unit. Why is that so hard for you to understand?”
“Gene, we can’t move to another country to get married,” she says with cutting finality.
“Isa, we’ve been together for fifteen years! Living together since college, officially, like most straight married couples. We’ve created a family. You won’t move to Spain so that I may feel secure in my role as one of Susana’s mothers?” I keep my voice low, so Susana doesn’t hear us argue. A bit clearer than a whisper, but my throat might as well be bleeding from forcing my words through my esophagus without involving any vocal cords.
“We had the opportunity to move anywhere, but you wanted to move back here. And now, because of that, I’ve already established my research in Miami and must see it through,” she says, tapping her index finger on the countertop of the kitchen peninsula, her words biting.
“That’s not fair,” I say, astonished that she’d even bring it up. “I had no choice. I wouldn’t sell this house. This is my house.” I pound my chest with my fist. “I lived here with my family. I grew up here, I couldn’t let anyone else have this house.”
I’ve got to somehow summon every bit of courage to get through this. But just as boiling water starts to evaporate, so too are my hopes of ever marrying Isa and adopting Susana.
“Gene, we’ve been living together for the last ten years. Where is the urgency? Why can’t you wait until Florida follows suit and legalizes adoptions for gays and lesbians?” she asks.
“Because I know what it’s like to lose both my parents and to be unprepared to live without them!” I bellow with a sob. This time, a little louder than before, and the words seem to gush out of me just as the tears sting at my eyes. “But the difference is the state knew who both my parents were. If I die right now, there’s no record of whom I loved or by whom I’m survived. Don’t you see? I have a birth certificate that says who my parents were. It doesn’t say ‘unknown’ under the word father.”
“So, you want your name on Susana’s birth certificate under the word father?” she asks, brows furrowed. “I don’t understand how that’s going to change anything.”
“Because you have no idea what it means to have a child you love, who loves you just as hard, and have zero legal connection to her. You gave birth to Susana, that is undeniable. Your name is on her birth certificate. Mother: Isabel Susana Acosta,” I say, making gestures in the air as if Isa’s name and title were top billing on a theater marquee.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I hear myself say, the words leaving my mouth in slow motion and in a deep wistful tone. I drop my arms to my sides and lower my gaze to my Reeboks. The back of my neck is stiff as tears swell in my eyes. “I’ve given this everything I have, and if you can’t at least understand where I’m coming from, then you and I have no business being together at all. I gotta go.” I turn and walk out through the kitchen archway, shoulders slouched, feeling as though I’m Yeats’s falconer, lost in “The Second Coming” because things are really falling apart. My stomach lurches, and all I want to do is get out of this house before my own center cannot hold anymore.
“Wait, what?” She rounds the peninsula and steps right behind me. She puts her hand on my shoulder, and I turn to face her, shrugging it off in the process. “You’re leaving? Leaving us?”
“No, Isa.” I point a trembling finger at her. My voice is quivering. “I’m leaving you.” Never in a million years did I think I would ever utter those words to Isa. “I will still be in Susana’s life, provide for her, and co-parent her with you, the way it states in our palimony papers. I just…I can’t live here with you anymore.” Shaking my head, I turn back around and make my way to the stairs. Isa calls out to me.
I turn to face her.
“Be reasonable,” she says. Stomach acid churns, melting my insides. “You won’t stay here with me if I don’t move to another country where we can get married?”
I shove my fists in the pockets of my Bermuda shorts. My head thrashing as if I’ve just come back from a Mötley Crüe concert. This isn’t an impossible task. My own parents moved to the States when the future of their family became untenable in Franco’s fascist Spain in 1969. Both sets of Isa’s grandparents did the same when they fled Castro’s communist Cuba in the early sixties. “Isa,” I say to her, after a few deep breaths. “We both knew this day was coming, let’s be honest with ourselves. I’ve loved you since I was thirteen years old, but while you’ve been playing make-believe, I’ve been building a family, a home, and a life with you.” I pound my chest again, and it’s as if my heart has stopped beating. “We’ve been lovers from the get-go, sharing a house, the chores, the expenses, and a bed. For all practical purposes, as you say, you’re my wife.”
“But, G, we’ve been best friends,” she insists, and she’s being serious, which is what’s most astonishing.
“¿Qué?” As my blood blisters, my eyes strain under the sudden pressure, I’m befuddled by her words. “No. Don’t you dare say that!” Spittle springs off my bottom lip. “Don’t you dare call me your best friend. We are a couple! Best friends don’t plan the life we’ve planned for fifteen years, they don’t sleep together, and they certainly don’t have children together. Friends don’t miss each other so much they practically starve themselves, waiting to be reunited with the other in college! You and I have never been friends, and because you only think of me as such reassures me that I am nothing to you.” I stop to give my rapid pulse a chance to ease.
“I wanted more from this relationship,” I continue. “From the life we diligently pieced together. The life you planned for us doesn’t fit me anymore! But you still don’t realize that aside from all the papers we signed, Susana is legally only your daughter. Do you get that? I can write it a hundred times in the air, and it’ll still be air and not a legal document.” I stop speaking abruptly, turn, and climb the stairs. I need to leave for my own sanity and figure out how I’m going to adopt my daughter.
“Wait. Fuck, Gene, you know I would never take her away from you, if that’s what you’re worried about!” She’s right behind me.
I wait until we’re inside our bedroom to turn around. “Really? You won’t even marry me; how can I expect you to think of me as her other parent?” As I blurt out those last words, I know I’ve gone too far and immediately regret them. But I carry on because an apology won’t help matters. “Is it really because you don’t want to move to Spain that you won’t marry me, or is it because I’m a woman?”
“I don’t see you like that,” she says. “You’re just Gene to me.”
“Well,” I say. “Gene has a pair of tits and a vagina.” I grab my breasts and then cup my crotch.
“Gene!” Isa says in a hard whisper. “Don’t say that.”
“Don’t you get it? Susana came out of your body, she shares your DNA. She looks exactly like you.” I point out our door toward her bedroom. “I need it to say somewhere that she’s my daughter, too.” My volume has increased to a raspy whisper, and I mentally throw up my hands as I capitulate.
I turn and walk away, quietly making my way across the hall, leaving Isa to wonder what just happened. Drying my tears on the hem of my shirt, I knock on Susana’s bathroom door and walk in to help her wash up.
“Te quiero, Bebé, you know that right?” I hold her pajama top as she pops her head through the collar and then juts her arms through the sleeves. I lead her to her bed, kiss her forehead, and tuck her in.
“Mami is coming in a minute, cariño,” I say with barely an inch of voice as I pull the blanket over her. “I love you very much,” I repeat. “See you in the morning.”
“Te quiero, Mamá.”
While I do my best to quell them when I hug Susana good night, I can’t stop my hot tears from escaping as soon as I close her bedroom door. Isa is waiting just outside her door. Ignoring her, I cross the second-floor foyer back to our bedroom, Isa’s footfalls behind me. Ambling into the dressing room, I grab my suitcase from my side of the closet and open it over the ottoman that sits in the center of the room. I can’t stay here one more minute.
“You’re leaving now?” Isa asks, closing the door gently behind her.
“I can’t stay here with you.” Drying my face with my hands, I continue, “I don’t want you to worry about anything. I’m temporarily moving into the first-floor apartment down the street and then see what I do for the long term. You and Susana stay here, this is her home.” I renovated the vacant apartment in the building I inherited from my parents when the tenants left last year. After the renovations, I’d intended to find another renter, but I guess it’ll be me.
“What about the family?” she asks, her eyes two wide brown disks. I stop packing for a second and glare at her.
“We will always be a family, Isa,” I assure her.
“I mean, what will you tell the family?” she asks, and it’s clear to me she meant the Spanish family. My cousin, Flor, and her mother, Tita Carmen—her confidants. She watches as I continue gathering my stuff from the closet to my suitcase and back again. Of course. Keeping up appearances is all she cares about, even to my family.
“Tell them the truth.” I shrug. “I’ll be back tomorrow to pick Susana up for school. I don’t want to change her routine. I’ll take the rest of my stuff while you’re at work. On Saturday we can hash out a permanent plan. We’ll keep the shared calendar on our BlackBerrys for Susana’s events. We’ll figure it out.”
As I process her comment about the family, it dawns on me that she will always be preoccupied with what others think. Isa worries that if knowledge of our relationship goes public, funding for her research will dry up—she isn’t out at work. I know I’m doing the right thing.
Isa stops me on my way back to get more clothes from the closet, puts her hands on my forearms, and pins her eyes to mine. Her fingers on my skin burn as her dark broody eyes press into me. I can’t hold her stare for long, but I wait to hear what she has to say.
“Are you sure about this?” she asks, sliding her hands up my arms. I shudder, and her eyes gleam from the natural light in the room.
“No,” I say, my own tears deserting me. “But I need to find my own way now.” Gazing at her, it’s as if no time has passed since I first saw her on the school bus in junior high. Tall but doesn’t tower over me anymore; wavy hair the color of molasses with a pair of rich, chocolate eyes to match; her sharp chin with two defined dimples on either side. She’s as beautiful today as she was all those years ago. Her grip on me stings. I stare down at her hands, and it’s as though she realizes she’s lost. Mouth agog, she lets go. I turn around and continue packing.