A Fatal Passion

updated 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

AMONG THE EIGHTH GRADERS AT Ruben Dario Middle School in Sweetwater, Fla., Maryling Flores, 13, and Christian Davila, 14, were known as a couple who couldn't get enough of each other. "If you wanted to talk to him, you always had to wait for them to finish making out," says Angelica Urdaneta, 13, who was in Christian's science class. "Sometimes it could take a long time." In June, Maryling's parents, Marlon and Xiomara Flores, found an inscribed school picture of Christian in her room, their first indication she had a boyfriend. Marlon, 38, a cable-TV installer who brought his family from Nicaragua in 1988, told his daughter she was too young for dating. "You're still just a baby," he said. "What you have to do now is study."

Such warnings had no effect. In fact what seemed like ordinary parental concern at the time may have planted the seeds of a tragedy that would shatter two families and leave a community in shock. On Saturday night, Nov. 4—just after Maryling's mother again forbade her to see Christian—the two teenagers secretly met at a nearby church fair, accompanied by one of her girlfriends and her brother Marlito, 10. Maryling was home by 10 p.m., Marlon Flores told Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel, and later that night she was lying on the living room couch watching TV. When Marlon awakened at 5:20 a.m. she had gone, leaving half a dozen handwritten notes on the kitchen counter. "Mom and Dad," one said. "You'll never be able to understand the love between me and Christian.... You don't let me see him in this world, so we're going to another place."

Flores alerted police, who got a call within minutes from Christian's parents, Carlos and Graciela Davila, Mexican immigrants who live nearby. They too had found a note. "I've lost Maryling," Christian wrote in a letter left in his room. "That's something that hurts me very deep inside of my heart.... I'm taking my life because without Maryling, I have no life."

For more than 48 hours, the frantic families and local police combed the mostly Hispanic neighborhood to no avail. But early Tuesday morning police found the couple's bodies a few hundred yards apart in the murky waters of the nearby Tamiami Canal. The coroner determined that the teenagers—neither of whom could swim—had drowned after leaping into the 15-foot-deep canal early Sunday morning. "No one will ever know 100 percent what happened," says Metro-Dade Police Det. Juan Del Castillo, "but it has been ruled a suicide."

The poignant deaths and heart-wrenching notes moved the media and even some police officers to draw comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. But a classmate who knew the pair disagrees. "For smart kids, it was a really stupid thing to do," says Andres Centano, 14. And a Miami Beach psychologist who specializes in suicide prevention views the deaths more starkly. "Two teenagers jumping into a canal is not a romantic situation," says Nancy Bacher. "It's a tragic situation."

If anyone needed a reminder of the pain teen suicides leave behind, it was to be found at the funeral at Our Lady of the Divine Providence Catholic Church, where a white cloth covered two matching gray caskets that were later buried in a single grave. "It's a lie! Tell me it's a lie! This can't be!" Xiomara Flores cried in Spanish at the start of the mass, attended by more than 100 friends and relatives. " 'Why, why, why?' you are asking yourselves," said the Rev. Oscar Brantome, also in Spanish. "It's no time for that now. Only God knows the answer. It's in His hands."

Still, the community struggled for answers. "These were smart kids," says Arthur Arnau Jr., a police officer who investigated the case. "They were straight-A kids, never missed a day of school." Both were from tight-knit families, and neither had a history of delinquency or drug use, though police and friends speculated that Maryling might have feared she was pregnant. (Coroner's tests determined she was not.) "There were no outward signs, no cause and effect with these kids," says Arnau. "I am totally puzzled."

Often, says psychologist Alan Berman, a suicide expert, youths contemplating suicide provide signals: Sleep patterns change, their schoolwork declines, they make comments indicating despair. If Maryling or Christian displayed any such turmoil, it went unnoticed, and a schoolmate says their deaths point up the complex inner lives of adolescents. "Adults don't understand," says Carolina Ruiz, 15. "Something they think is a little problem is a huge problem to us."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
CINDY DAMPIER, DON SIDER, MARISA SALCINES and GREG AUNAPU in Miami

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