For you. TO ALL THE HOPELESS ROMANTICS, BIG DREAMERS, adventurers. To those who are different, shy, weird — and especially to whoever who is still looking for, discovering, and understanding what you really are: a human being.
Saturday, April 11, 1987
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APRIL 11TH FALLS ON A SATURDAY — A DAY WITH A discouraging feeling about it as clouds partially block the dim afternoon light from Guayaquil, Ecuador. The year on the newspaper reads “1987”, as Tomás Díaz picks it up from the kitchen table.
This young man is shy and distant from his parents — a personality and behavior that he recently developed to avoid spending much time with them. As usual, Tomás comes down to make his own lunch and returns to his bedroom where he likes to eat alone.
A thunderstorm threatens to form outside while Tomás is sitting on the bed, turning the pages of the national newspaper. He sees an event that occurred two days ago but has only recently become known. It’s a story about a young man, Christian Arroyo, also eighteen years old, who committed suicide with a gun that his father kept in the closet for emergencies. The Arroyo family doesn’t live far away. Tomás recognizes the street name and writes down the address so that he can find out a little more. It struck him that the boy’s father had announced to the press that his son was a homosexual, a “sexual deviant”, which is exactly how Tomás has identified himself since childhood. He recalls that his own father, a very religious man, read from an Old Testament passage three months ago, when Tomás came out of the figurative closet. The verse was “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Feeling that his sexuality was a sin had traumatized Tomás; he felt rejected by his parents and especially by God. Since that day, he has isolated himself from his family, not wanting to subject himself to the hatred and aversion that they so often expressed for people like him. “Doesn’t God teach us to love each other no matter how different we are?” the young man would think to himself. His mother does not support him. In fact, he knows that she is considering taking him to a religious clinic to treat his “illness” and force him to change. The center is called “Grow And Live Normally” and is far away in the cold capital, Quito. But his parents don’t care - they are willing to pick up everything and move just to see him “healed”. Tomás asked for the chance to change on his own, but since he is unable to do so, all he can do now is keep silent in order to stay in his house as long as possible, although it doesn’t feel like home; he doesn’t belong there anymore.
“Tomás, I have to go,” calls his mother, who knocks and tries to open the locked bedroom door.
“Ok,” he replies, without looking up from the newspaper.
“Your father is out of town because he has a meeting with some coworkers. Please don’t go out and be careful. I love you very much.”
His mother is concerned because Tomás is very distant from her now. He’s not the same boy who used to talk nonstop and share everything with her. Everything has changed: his activities and grades in high school, the popular girl he wanted to be his girlfriend, and his desires to go to college to become a lawyer. Everything changed the day he told her about his sexuality.
She wants the best for her only son, but she cannot agree with his lifestyle. Not only because the Bible tells her so, but also because homosexual relationships are illegal in Ecuador, punishable by four to eight years in jail. She has heard whispers of others teenagers in the neighborhood being sent out of the country to protect their family’s reputation. Some are signed up for a life of celibacy and groomed to become religious leaders. Others are forced into arranged marriages. Finally, she heard about Grow And Live Normally, which she thinks is the best option for her own son. Without wasting any more time, she goes downstairs quickly, turns on the car, and leaves. Tomás cuts out the article, pasting it onto the first page of a new blue notebook.
Tomás finishes his lunch and hurries outside. He gets on his bicycle and makes his way to the house of the young man who killed himself. He wants to know if he did it simply because he was different or if there was something else that led him to make such a drastic decision — one so...so final. Tomás’ mother asked him not to go out, but he can’t stay there, alone and bored all day, locked in his room, locked in his loneliness. He knows that it only leads to depression.
He arrives at the address and leaves his bicycle between the bushes of a house that looks empty. Crossing the street, he reaches the front yard from where a beautiful but sad garden can be seen. He looks at the garage and assumes that the boy’s parents are not home because there are no cars inside. He walks around the block to see if there is another entrance through the back, always being careful that nobody sees him. He climbs the small steps to the back door and, as expected, it’s locked. He sees a rug under his shoes, crouches, lifts it up, and finds what he was looking for: a key. He opens the door and enters the kitchen gently and quietly.
Surprisingly, the house is not silent. Or maybe it’s just the voices inside Tomás’ head, scenes that his imagination creates about the suicide of the young man named Christian. As he exits the kitchen, he sees a big photograph hanging on the wall next to the front door. In the photo, the young man and his parents are embracing each other happily. In the living room, he sees all three sitting there, chatting amicably, or at least in appearance. Tomás notes that something is hiding behind those smiles, something like nervousness, or being forced to fake a smile with someone who one doesn’t like. That, hypocrisy is the word, that’s what he feels there, within that family, which somehow doesn’t seem to be aware of Tomás’ presence. Then, in a split second, almost like a lightning bolt, Christian pulls something out from behind his back. His parents open their eyes wide. Their mouths are paralyzed in a grin that, in another context, perhaps would have seemed funny. It sounds almost like a round of applause, but only a single clap, as if all attendees in a large theater bring their hands together in unison, once. The shot - a clatter, a light, a stream of blood that invades everything.
Tomás awakes from his daydream and realizes that he is shaking. It was all in his imagination. No one else is there. No... Yes, there it is — the bloodstain, all that’s left of Christian. Without hesitating, Tomás approaches the chair and passes his finger over the dry blood. A shiver courses up his spine. He sees a flight of stairs to his left and, although his feet feel like two sacks of cement, he decides to go up to search the bedrooms. On his way, he sees more photographs of the family, together and sharing. What could have happened to change that? Christian’s homosexuality? Or rather, would it have been the revelation that Christian was gay?
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This is the only conclusion that he can reach. Like windows that connect to another world, Christian’s heart-shaped face stares out from the photographs with dark black eyes. Tomás likes the way he looked - short, dark brown hair styled slightly upward and a pleasant, wheat-toned complexion. Tomás guesses that Christian was quite a bit taller like him and Tomás can tell that he had a strong body. He was handsome and looks like he was a nice boy; who knows, maybe in another life, in other circumstances, they would have been able to become great friends, maybe even a couple.
Tomás finishes climbing the stairs and reaches a hallway where he sees several doors. Stickers are plastered on one of the doors, one of which reads “Chris”. Tomás slowly opens the door. The bed is made and all of the boy’s belongings, including his blue belt and martial arts trophies, are in their proper places as if nothing had happened, like death hadn’t arrived. Tomás feels a calm lonely breeze waft in through the window. He can’t take it anymore and shuts the window. His eyes roam over everything. Nothing indicates that this young man had been “abnormal”. Nothing indicates that he was suicidal.
Tomás sits on the bed and a small trashcan in the corner catches his eye. His curiosity gets the best of him so he approaches it and sees that there is an envelope among all of the discarded papers. He picks it up gingerly between two fingers, as if with fear, almost not wanting to touch it at all. It’s a letter, still sealed, for someone named Sebastián. He thinks once, twice, three times until he makes the decision to open it. He lies on the bed and begins to read:
Wednesday, April 8, 1987
My dearest Sebas:
I hope the postman picks up this letter before my mother has the chance to hide it or throw it away.
Right now I feel very lonely. Solitude has entered and taken over my space. I can’t sleep. It’s midnight and I’m still thinking about you as I write this letter. I feel very ashamed and I hope that you understand and don’t hate me...
Our relationship is the best and most valuable thing in my life. You changed it and made it better. For three years, since that day I saw you at the bus stop, I could not take my eyes off you. You brighten me with your blue eyes, your smile under the freckles on your rosy cheeks... Since then, my world changed. Before I met you, I never thought that, in this incomprehensible world, there would ever be someone like you — someone so cute, affectionate, and amazing. Above all, I never thought that I would fall in love like this — to love you unconditionally as one man loves another. It was a miracle. You are a miracle.
Today, I changed the way I see things about my life. I had a horrible argument with my parents. They found a photo in my closet in which we are hugging. It was one of the photos we took while watching the sunset on the beach in Salinas. Do you remember? It was when I told you that I love you for the first time. I had never seen you so flushed and happy. You told me that I had left you breathless. I whispered you that you’re mine and you answered me, “Yes, I am and you’re mine, too.”
We were unique, deeply, and madly in love. My parents practically disowned me. My father told me that I was no longer his son, just another faggot, a deviant in this world — that I should leave. My mother told me that I would burn in Hell if I didn’t repent or change my sexuality. And worst of all, she forbade me to see you.
I’ve never seen them like this before. They were not the parents I’ve always known. I was forced to accept their help and they’re going to put me in a mental health clinic. If I don’t go, they say they’re going to throw me out of the house. I don’t know where to go. I don’t want to lose you. Now that you’re with your father at the ranch in Quevedo, I don’t think I can hold on for the two weeks until you come back. Forgive me... I feel like I’m drowning in the humiliation of not being able to defend myself against my parents and mostly I’m disappointed because they are not able to see my true self. They don’t understand me, they don’t accept me, and do not love me as I am, with my differences. I don’t know what else to do...
Tomorrow morning, I will be forced to go to the clinic in the capital. I have no choice. Sebastián, I’m afraid...for the first time in my life, I feel terrified. I am weak and emotionally distraught and I am in a depression that gets stronger and deeper. Just the thought that they are going to change me, and that I will never love you like I do now, makes me not want to go on living. I swear, if that is the life that I will be forced to live, then I prefer death. I want to see you so badly, to kiss you, hug you, and tell you how much I love you, again and again. I could escape right now, but where would I go? I need you to understand - I’m screwed and stuck here.
I feel that nobody sees or knows what I’m going through. I wish that you were next to me right now to stop my thoughts. I’m desperate to be in a safe place...with you. I dream of that one day when we can be together, without prejudice, without discrimination, accepted and respected by the world, but it seems that there is nothing like you and I. Our love is incomprehensible to the rest. We are like Romeo and Romeo...
I want to erase the suffering that my parents caused me with their contempt and rejection. It has affected me so much; it’s the worst feeling that has risen in me and I believe that I can make a small difference in awakening the world. What would you rather have: a homosexual son or a dead son?
I am not strong. Right now I’m lost. I don’t know how I will survive in the clinic, away from you, unable to see you or talk to you, and if they change me... I can’t...I can’t go through that. I cannot risk having that life. It’s like the end of the world. I would rather stop breathing.
My decision has nothing to do with you, Sebastián, I LOVE YOU. Always remember it, please: I LOVE YOU.
I hope that my decision, as terrible as it is, may help my parents and the world understand and accept us all. That they will open their eyes and see that there is nothing wrong inside of us, there is only love and hope. It’s just the hatred and discrimination of the world. It’s the ignorance that hurts us and doesn’t let us live fully, loving who we must love. In my case, that’s you.
I LOVE YOU.
Sebastián, you are the love of my life. You’re the world to me. Without you, nothing makes sense.
Perhaps you don’t understand me at all and think that I’ve lost my sanity...
Maybe you may see me as selfish and vindictive with my parents, but I feel that I don’t deserve you. I’m not strong enough and confident enough to get through this with the rejection of my parents. I don’t want to go to that clinic and be away from you. Do you remember what I told you about soul mates? Sometimes the world doesn’t work the way you want it to. Perhaps I am not your soul mate, after all. He is out there, waiting for you, although it hurts me to tell you that. But, you are indeed my soul mate, which is why I will die complete and in peace.
Don’t give up, and be stronger than me. I’m sure, out there, there’s someone who will wait for you for a second chance at love. It hurts me in my heart having to leave you, but I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s too painful right now.
Tomás is speechless, deeply affected. He begins to understand Christian. He doesn’t share his mindset, but now he understands the true intention of this young man who felt so trapped, alone, and weak. The decision he made to commit suicide was not due to his boyfriend Sebastián, nor to his sexual orientation. Rather, it was because of the rejection of his parents, society, and the world as a whole. Christian had surrendered because he didn’t have a helping hand that would lift him up and open his eyes to accept himself without the need of others’ acceptance.
Tomás has a revelation. He feels a strong desire, a force inside, the need to provide real help to those who, as Christian, need someone to show them the way to self-acceptance. He feels inspired and full of confidence. At that very moment, Tomás begins to love and accept himself just as he is. He accepts that there’s nothing wrong with him, that he is not a sinner, a sick person, or a monster. He is different, as any human being has their differences and peculiarities, but being different does not mean “disease”, it means bravery. As if by magic, the mental weight he has about the argument with his parents begins to fade. He is proud of himself. Unexpectedly, the letter from Christian made him open his eyes and made him stronger. Now he wants to fight for his basic rights to live and love without prejudice and rejections intruding into his heart.
Tomás places the letter back into the envelope, where the address of the recipient is written and, assuming that this is where he will find the boyfriend, he gets up and leaves the room hastily. He goes back downstairs, bypassing the eerie living room and leaves the house, again taking care that nobody sees him. He picks up his bicycle and heads to Sebastián’s house.
He reaches the destination and hides his bicycle next to the only big tree in the yard. A gentle wind that Tomás can only describe as dark and cold blows leaves from the tree. Being careful not to wrinkle it, he puts the envelope in his pocket and climbs up the tree until he reaches the level of the window that, he is certain, belongs to Sebastián. The window is open. He sees that there is no one around and carefully creeps along a branch, jumps, and enters the bedroom.
Everything is in disarray, but what stands out, what somehow gives harmony to that disorder, are the paintings. Works of art hang on the walls, all with a signature on the bottom that reads “Sebastián Fineli”. On a nightstand, there is a photo from of Sebastián, the sweet face stares at him. Tomás picks it up to see it more closely and to appreciate his physical details: his luminous blue eyes, his simple smile, freckles, and rosy cheeks. Tomás finds him just as he had imagined from the description in the letter. He puts the photo frame back in its place and notices that one of the drawers of the dresser is partially open. There is a photo album and, without thinking, Tomás picks it up and sees that on the cover it is titled Chris and Sebas.
He flips through the pages, looking at photo after photo. In one, he sees the two boys embracing at the beach and assumes that it is the same place that Christian mentioned in his letter, where he had told him, “I love you,” for the first time.
Although he knows it’s wrong, Tomás cannot resist himself and he takes the picture from the album and saves it, trying not to damage it. He needs it as a keepsake - or rather as proof or evidence that this tragic story is real, that this story with such a sad ending can occur and, in fact, that it is repeating itself over and over again all over the world.
A car! It can’t be! Tomás frantically runs around the room, panicking as he realizes he has nowhere to hide. Slowly approaching the window, he peeks out a corner and sees that a car has been parked in the driveway. Its occupants get out gloomily — the owners of the house. Between the parents and brother, he easily recognizes Sebastián. He is the only one dressed in black, looking crestfallen with a tear-stained face. But didn’t the letter say that Sebastián was on vacation for two weeks at his father’s ranch? In any case, that won’t help Tomás save himself. They are already here. He assumes that they are returning from the funeral, which means that it’s the worst possible time for them to find a stranger snooping through their possessions and stealing a photo.
For a moment, Tomás is lost in his thoughts. He lingers with his blank mind, looking at the sky that still threatens to rain. The sound of the front door closing startles him and, taking advantage of the fact that everyone is now inside, Tomás grabs the branch that had earlier served as a bridge and leaps out the window. He crawls very carefully. If he falls and breaks a leg, then he won’t be able to explain what he was doing on that tree, when the house was empty.
Tomás hears Sebastián enter his room and close the door. He remains clutching the trunk of the tree, motionless, to avoid making any sound that would catch the attention of the homeowners. From there, he sees Sebastián sit on his bed, crying inconsolably. Tomás sees him turn around and stare at the nightstand, mesmerized. He sees the envelope, Tomás realizes. If Tomás doesn’t hurry down, Sebastián will see him, as well, but he can’t go any faster. He has always been afraid of heights and to get up, of course, he did not have to look at the ground, but coming back down is a different story and panic paralyzes him.
Sebastián picks up the letter and recognizes the handwriting. His face is a mixture of despair and horror, of disbelief, as if saying, “It's impossible that this is here.” He begins to read its contents, phrase-by-phrase, character-by-character. His tears are so big and heavy that he can’t finish reading.
“Hey! What was that?” Something made a sound outside. Something made a sound in the tree! Sebastián becomes frightened, taking his asthma inhaler and breathing in twice. He walks towards the window.
Tomás squeezes his fingers around the branch and closes his eyes. He has no other choice but to let go. The sound of his feet crashing against the ground reveals his presence.
“Hello? Who are you?”
Tomás is terrified. He stays still.
“Christian? Christian,” Sebastián yells from the window in such a way that he is afraid of his own voice. “Christian!”
Tomás waits for some miracle to happen as he attempts to hide in the shadow of the tree trunk.
Sebastián remains in his place at the window without knowing if he had a hallucination or if he just experienced an encounter with the afterlife. The sky is getting darker.
“Christian?” he asks again, without realizing that his voice is now only a whisper.
And nothing. It must have been in his mind. The first raindrops begin to fall.
Sebastián’s tears falls like the rain. He lies down on the bed and covers his face, biting his own hand so that his parents and older brother don’t hear his sobs. He doesn’t know which is worse: the death of Christian or having to eventually get over it. He is devastated and his head hurts from so many negative thoughts. He will never love someone like Christian. He will never be able to hug him or spoon with him again. He will not have his shoulder to lean on or his hand to grasp strongly. Lightning illuminates the sky. Christian was unique, a miraculous human being, someone who understood Sebastián in this world full of social prejudices. The thunder makes the tree next to his window shiver. He misses Christian’s smile, his kisses, his compliments, and the love he felt when he was with him.
As the lightning lights up the sky, it breaks the shadows and Tomás feels exposed. He can’t waste any more time; his parents are going to return home and he’s not going to be in his room. The thunder rumbles. He takes his bicycle and pedals hastily under the drops of rain. He doesn’t know what occupies his mind the most at the moment: the fear of nearly getting discovered or the concern over the death of “Chris” and the emotional state of “Sebas”.
He returns home, puts away his bicycle, and runs up to his bedroom. He’s all wet and does not want his mother to realize that he went out so he takes a shower. Now, more relaxed, he takes out the picture he stole (although he doesn’t like to use that word) from the album of the two lovers. He stares at it in detail and he can tell how in love they were. It is evident, by the form and intensity of their embrace and smiles.
Tomás pulls out the blue notebook that he started in the morning, where he kept the newspaper clipping. He pastes the picture and writes under it “True and real love”.
He smiles, but just for a moment because the idea of the death of Christian tumbles into his heart and kills any spark of joy. He closes the notebook, putting it aside. He lies on his bed without closing his eyes and listens to the rain with a blank mind.
A thought eventually visits him. He remembers the trauma he felt when his father showed him the Bible verse. In fact, he gave Tomás a Bible. There it was, in his night table, the book, which contains the famous Holy Scriptures.
“Does God...love me?” Tomás wonders. “Has God accepted Christian into his realm? If God made man in His image and likeness, why did He create people like Christian or me?”
These questions run through his head. He decides to look thoroughly into those pages for everything related to homosexuality. He wants to find out everything there is about this matter. He wants his questions to have answers.
"Grow And Live Normally" is a clinic in Ecuador that was opened to treat general addictions before moving to what the religious families viewed as the ultimate sin - homosexuality. The center boasts that they alone are able to cure families of this hidden secret inflicting their children. The unfortunate youths are misunderstood in a time when homosexuality was not just frowned upon, but also illegal. They are sent to the clinic by their families where they are held against their will in the sexual reorientation wing. They find themselves subjected to physical and emotional trauma that tests their strength to survive and their courage to fight for their identities.
Inspired by true events, 'A Safe Place With You' follows a young man named Tomás Díaz and his group of new found friends as they try to find themselves during an era of heightened ignorance and hatred.
Will they be able to survive the closed doors of Grow and Live Normally?