She was eleven years old. Her name was Mariposa. She liked to think that her parents named her after a butterfly (mariposa means "butterfly"), but as it turned out, her parents saw the name on a road sign on the way to the hospital and thought it was pretty. They didn't even know what it meant after Mariposa herself looked it up.
Mariposa hugged her teenaged sisters good-bye as they boarded their bus to get across the country to their new home. Her parents decided that an 11-year-old was too young to take a bus 2,000+ miles to their new home. So, for three days, it was just herself, her father, Harold, and her new step-mother, Elaine.
Mariposa wasn't happy about moving away from California. It was the state she grew up in. It was all she really knew - the only place she had ever called home, long-term. But her new step-mother was from the Midwest, and longed to be closer to her family. Harold seemed to think that this was an acceptable reason to uproot his daughters and drive cross-country. Elaine had the aura of someone who had won a huge victory. Mariposa herself didn't want to go, but didn't dare voice that to her parents. She couldn't imagine living anywhere far from the coast.
Mari (as her family called her), watched as the landscape of the desert flew past the car window. She was happy and transfixed as each mesa and long stretch of sand, dotted with cacti, and wondered what life was like outside of sand and concrete. Her heart already ached for the feeling of sand under her feet. Maybe, just maybe, the Midwest would be just as wonderful.
Other, more urgent issues arose before then. At a truck stop in Arizona, Harold bought a cassette tape about road trips. The first track was Willy Nelson's "On the Road Again." Out in the desert, it was difficult to find a radio station within range, so while Harold happily drove along to the tape, Mari and Elaine found their first thing in common: their hatred of that tape.
At the next pit stop, while Harold was taking longer in the restroom and Mari was looking around in the sand for unusual rocks, Elaine approached her. They were not friends. Despite being her new mother, by law, they shared mutual tension that would never go away. But that day, they had a common enemy.
"Hey, princess. Mari," Elaine said through gritted teeth, "I hate that tape."
Mari stood-up straight and faced Elaine, "Me too," she confessed. Elaine and Mari hatched a plan. When it came time to turn the tape from side A to side B, Elaine would pretend to fumble the tape below her seat. During the "fumble", Elaine would then kick the tape towards Mari, who would take and then dispose of the tape.
"I don't care what you do to the tape, or how you do it," Elaine said to the twelve-year-old Mari, "But just that you get rid of that damn tape."
For the only time in their lives, they shared a knowing look and nodded in tandem understanding before Harold emerged from the rest stop. They piled back into the car, and thankfully, while they were in New Mexico, approaching Texas, it was time to turn over the tape.
Elaine faked her fumble. The tape fell by her feet and she kicked it behind herself under her seat, where Mari deftly picked it up while Elaine pretended to look for the tape. Harold, frustrated by the situation, focused on the drive. Mari's window was partially open, so she carefully kept her eyes on her father's head while she threw the tape outside of the window as they sped along the interstate.
Mari caught Elaine's reflection in the passenger side window. Mari nodded. Elaine smiled ever so slightly. Harold accepted that Elaine couldn't find the tape, and then Elaine got to pick from her selection of music to listen to while they continued to drive towards the heart of the Midwest.
That was the one and only time Elaine and Mari had an understanding. They never spoke of the tape disposal to Harold. Mari spent the rest of her trip horrified as she saw more cornfields than she'd ever seen in her life. She didn't think there was anything wrong with cornfields, but she was baffled at how many they passed as they came closer to their destination.
What came after they reached their destination and reunited with her sisters, was years of suffering under Elaine's strict yet passive-aggressive battering, and Harold's feckless handling of his own children's suffering. The older two sisters left the house the moment they were old enough to leave the house, but Mari, being far younger, was stuck in a depressing house with Elaine's constant derision and Harold's constant antipathy.
Mari had trouble making friends in her grade. One, she was already a year younger than everyone else in her class. Two, there really did seem to be a large enough cultural difference between the West Coast and the Midwest that she had difficulty navigating that landscape. Yet again, instead of spending the time between lunch hour and her next class, she found herself spending that time with the school counselor.
The counselor, Mrs. Parker, tried to get Mari to talk. Mari was done with talking to adults or anyone with authority. Due to Harold's behavior when she would voice concerns about Elaine, she would just shake her head when Mrs. Parker asked her about how things were at home. Finally, over a month into the semester, Mrs. Parker asked Mari what she missed about California.
"The sand," Mari started, "The palm trees. The eucalyptus, the marigolds, the chrysanthemums, bugs being a reasonable size," she said. Mrs. Parker silently listened as Mari listed the flora and minimal fauna that existed in Mari's old home. After two years, it was time to leave middle school and go to high school.
Mari slowly started to make friends, despite being a year younger than her cohort. She still longed for the Pacific ocean and the much less humid landscape, but she tried to throw herself into her schoolwork and theatre productions, which were all valid excuses to not be home, trapped with her passive-aggressive stepmother and anhedonic father.
One day, in her sophomore year of high school, it was that time of year around homecoming where students could buy carnations as "telegrams" to other students. As she sat in history class, taking notes, one of the senior students who were passing out carnations came to Mari's desk. Mari found this odd. The senior, who also seemed a little confused, placed a bundle, hand-tied by a ribbon, of marigolds on her desk.
Mari, surprised and confused, read the note attached to the bunch of marigolds.
"To Mari - I know you miss home. Here is a piece of it to get you through until the next time you can go back."
The note was unsigned, but Mari had a hunch of who it was from. She held it together, but clutched the bunch of marigolds close to her chest as she made her way to her next class. She put the marigolds into her locker for safe-keeping, and after dropping off her books on her desk in her next class, she saw that, according to the clocks in the hall, she had two minutes before the bell went off for third period.
She rushed to the bathroom, got into an empty stall, and quietly cried into her shirt. She exited the stall, splashed cold water on her face, and sat down just in time for Trigonometry.
Mari had a faint smile on her face for the rest of her day at school. Even though it wasn't her step-mother, her father, or her own sisters who had understandably flown the coop, she knew that someone in the Midwest, someone who was likely Mrs. Parker, thought about her long enough to send her a memento about home. Mari and her marigolds had one good day. And it was enough to get her through other tough times.