The first memory I have of my daughter’s best friend, Victoria, is their third grade talent show. They weren’t friends yet. We’d recently moved to Ann Arbor from a smaller town an hour north. I’d gotten divorced two years earlier and couldn’t move out of state but I wanted my daughter to grow up in a larger, more diverse city. I’d grown up in a blue-collar small town in Ohio. Ann Arbor was supposed to be the most educated city in the country. I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree but I was determined my daughter would go to college.
Viki was wearing a red skirt and a red top and dancing barefoot, and by herself. (The only solo dancer, which is why I remembered her so clearly. I was impressed by her courage and self-confidence.) For her talent, my daughter, Andie, strummed a guitar and sang a song she’d written for my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Aaron, titled, “Why Did You Lie to Me?” which amazingly resembled the “Smelly Cat” song from Friends , a show she’d never seen.
Later, Andie and Viki joked they were “frenemies,” both with a crush on the same short white boy. It wasn’t until seventh grade that they started to become really close. I would see Viki and her father around town, at Panera Bread or the mall. No matter where or when we saw them, Viki’s father was always smiling.
“Does your friend Victoria have a mom?” I would ask Andie.
“I don’t know,” Andie would say. “I think so.”
Andie and Viki started spending the night at each other’s houses.
“Viki definitely has a mom,” Andie reported back to me after her first sleepover at Viki’s house. “Martha. I think she works a lot.”
You gather information about someone slowly and over time. I learned that Viki’s father, Victor, born in Argentina, a soccer player and a war soldier, came over to the United States in his early twenties. Viki’s mother, Martha, was born in Mexico where she had Viki’s brother, Miguel, whom she briefly left with her mother to come to America to find work and a better life for herself and her son. Pregnant with Viki, Martha went back to Mexico for her twelve-year-old son. She paid a “coyote” and crossed a desert, carried her son on her back through bodies of water, to get back into the United States. Viki’s parents spoke Spanish at home, as did the parents of Viki and Andie’s other best friend, Anabel, whose parents had moved to Michigan from Puerto Rico shortly before she was born. Viki and Andie’s other close friends were Manasseh,who was African-American; Destiny, whose mother was white and whose father was of mixed race (African-American, Native American, and Latino); and Sheimah, Muslim-American, whose parents had emigrated from Lebanon.
Growing up in Ohio, we had had one black family—a brother and sister—who attended our school, and a couple of children of Indian doctors. That was it for diversity.
My mother had a framed photograph from Big Ten magazine—obtained when she was a student at Northwestern in 1967—of a white child and a black child embracing on a playground that was captioned, “The Blind Are Also Colorblind.” It was one of the only items we moved from rented house to rented apartment to rented house during my childhood. It hung on the wall of all our living rooms. It was the reason I studied and revered Dr. King as a child, despite a step-grandfather—a small town physician—who referred to black men on the news as “the n-word” and made me watch The Jeffersons , my favorite show, in the guest bedroom.
During the summer between Andie’s seventh and eighth grades, Aaron and I broke up and he moved to another state for graduate school. Again a single mom, I spent a lot of my free time with Andie and her friends and got to know them in a way I might not have had I been married or had a job that required me to leave the house. It was around this time that both Andie and Viki thought they might want to study film some day. The three of us began watching a different classic film every Sunday: My Man Godfrey , On the Waterfront , Elephant , Gummo , The Elephant Man , Do the Right Thing , Frances , All About Eve , Manhattan , The Misfits , Pulp Fiction , The Last Picture Show , Requiem for a Dream .
That same year, I took Andie, Viki, and Manasseh on a road trip to Memphis for their mid-winter break, the four of us squeezed into my VW Beetle. We were driving through Indiana when we saw a sign for Fairmount that said “Home of James Dean.” It was only a few miles off the freeway, so we took the exit. It was February, snowy and cold. I hadn’t yet shown the girls a James Dean film. We stopped at an old house outside of which was a sign that read “James Dean Gallery” and talked to the manager, who said he’d moved from Brooklyn years ago out of love for Jimmy. He showed the girls photographs and told them stories and by the time we left, postcards and T-shirts in hand, I think we all had a little crush on Jimmy Dean. We followed the map the man had given us to James’s old high school, which has since been torn down, and out to the farmhouse he’d lived in with his aunt and uncle, out past the motorcycle shop where he’d once worked, and finally to the graveyard where he was buried.
In Memphis, we went to Graceland and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Sun Records and the National Civil Rights Museum. On the drive home, we again stopped in Fairmount, again went to the grave of Jimmy Dean. We would go a total of five times, Viki and Andie and me—three times with Manasseh, once with Aaron, and once with my friend Chelsea—over the next six years.
From that moment on, Viki was obsessed with film and old movie stars, even as Andie became less enthused. One night, while Andie and the rest of their friends watched a movie in the basement ( Notorious or 8 Mile ), Viki and I watched a documentary about Montgomery Clift—who we both thought was even dreamier than James Dean—in my bedroom. Another night we watched A Place in the Sun together. Viki was always borrowing movies from me and texting me about them later when she watched them. We also traded trivia about movies and movie stars, new and old, constantly, through texts and in person.
Sometimes Andie pretended to be annoyed. Other times maybe she actually was.
But it was inevitable I would bond with Viki over film. As a shy, withdrawn teenager in a new state—my mother and I moved briefly to Mesa, Arizona when I was fifteen—I’d spent my Saturdays riding my bike to the local library and making copies of articles in old Hollywood gossip magazines, reading biographies of Marilyn and Ava and Clark Gable.
As middle school turned into high school, Andie and Viki also grew closer, were brought home by the cops together (for being out after curfew), went to prom together, came out as queer together, and were, by the time they graduated in 2014, self-described “soul mates.”
By this time, Andie no longer wanted to study film, and enrolled in a university an hour away and majored in integrative biology. Viki stayed in Ann Arbor, working two or more jobs at a time in order to save money to move to New York City. She wanted to model and act. She wanted to be involved in any way with film. The girls saw one another whenever they could: Viki sometimes driving to Andie’s university; Andie coming home one weekend a month.
In the summer of 2016, Viki finally got her chance. A modeling agency in New York had seen her photographs on Instagram, wanted to move her to the city. Andie was away doing research in South America when Viki’s family had a going away party. Over the years our two families had gone out to dinner together and been to each other’s houses for various parties and get-togethers and to watch soccer on TV. Her brother Miguel had just purchased his first home so the party would be a shared celebration in his new backyard.
It was a warm July day and Aaron and I sat in folding chairs with Viki’s father, Victor, drinking a beer and lemonade while Viki’s mother, Martha, encouraged us to get food from a series of tables lining the back of the house. Martha was usually flitting around, getting people food or still cooking, but Victor would usually come and sit or stand with us, talk to us.
He sat with us the entire afternoon. Viki came and sat with us also, dressed in a new dress, her jet-black hair down to her hips, tall and beautiful and mature. Victor must’ve felt anxious to let her go so far from home. He had two older daughters; Viki was his baby. He asked me how it’d been when Andie went to college and I told him it’d been hard; how I’d cried a lot, felt lonely, missed her. “But you get used to it,” I offered, smiling. Outwardly he was smiling too, but I knew how he felt on the inside. No one prepares you for your child moving out, becoming an adult. No one talks about how it’s the hardest transition of your life.
One of Viki’s aunts brought around pieces of paper and pencils and balloons for each one of us. We were to write one message to Viki and one to Miguel and tie each message to a balloon. We all gathered into a large circle in the middle of the backyard. Viki and Miguel stood in the center. I stood between my husband and Victor, missing my daughter, wishing she could be there too to share this moment with Viki. One by one I watched Viki’s family members approach her, hug her, say something to her, hand her a balloon.
Victor leaned over to me, smiling. “Can you understand any Spanish?” he asked.
I had taken two years of Spanish in high school but I didn’t remember much. There were thirty or forty of us. Aaron and I may have been two of three people who didn’t know Spanish.
“A little bit,” I said, and smiled back.
I was beginning to feel more and more emotional as more people went up to hug Miguel and Viki. Aaron and I were the last two people before Victor and Martha to enter the circle.
I hugged Miguel first, handing him our balloon with well wishes for his new home, which was a block from Victor and Martha’s. I hugged Viki next. I started to tell her she was like a second daughter to me but I started crying. I had to take a breath to tell her I loved her and was so proud of her and how I knew she’d do well in New York City and how I wished Andie were here, too.
I went back to the circle and wiped my eyes and looked at all of Martha’s sisters and brothers who’d come over from Mexico, Miguel who was born there, his sister, Victoria, born here in the United States, her father in Argentina.
Miguel wasn’t yet a US citizen. The family worried every time he went back to Mexico that he wouldn’t be allowed back into the States. Martha had only gotten her US citizenship five years before. I thought about what would have happened if Martha had been stopped from coming over again with Miguel when she was pregnant with Viki. How we wouldn’t all be standing here. How I wouldn’t have a second daughter, how my daughter wouldn’t have a soul mate. How I never would have met Victor, one of two of the nicest men I have ever known, tied only with my own childhood best friend’s father, a tool and die factory worker who was a father figure to me growing up back in Ohio with a single mom.
I was happy we’d all of us found our way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, even though we all had other places we also called home, other cities and countries and people who weren’t present that we loved.
I watched Martha and Victor, tears streaming down their faces, hugging their daughter.
And then, on the count of three, Miguel and Viki let the balloons go.