“I will suck Professor Alves’s pinga if you go talk to that boy right now.”
“Yeah Crazy, I promise.”
“Get the chapstick ready” you told Yalma, and walked straight towards Ivan’s direction, turning the corner at a very last minute.
“You Stupid,” she yelled, and you both started to laugh, the sound trailing down the direction that you should have kept going.
Ivan was one of the few boys in your life who made you feel open and ready for anything: cliff diving, cross country road trips, tacky matching tattoos. If he suggested it, you’d be down for it, though you were the type to say No to almost everything. The problem was he never asked you. You couldn’t be in front of him for more than 2 seconds without losing your cool.
“Why do you look disgusted like that? Like you want to break down and tear him into pieces?”
“Because, Yalma, I do.” In ways that were and weren’t so nice. Because someone else, with such little effort, had the power to make you completely powerless.
It happened that you had almost every class with him, that you’d arrive to each room 15 minutes early to pick the spot where you could hide, where it would be hard to make eye contact with him. Yet, once class started, you could think about nothing else but his face and those long arms and thick veins that made you want to inject yourself inside them. “You lift?” one of the girls once asked him, and he raised a sleeve, flexed a muscle for her, watched her grab it. She pretended to squeal while tossing back her hair, clung on harder while you dug your 6 foot hole in the ground and buried yourself.
It happened that you made yourself sick over a stranger. Felt your worth diminish with each passing day he didn’t acknowledge you. “But you have to say something,” Yalma pleaded. “Or finally let it go.” As if it were that easy. As if you hadn’t tried.
The weeks between semesters were never long enough. You dropped 20 pounds and started smoking, dating men. Grown men. Men who were nothing like him. Your softness and shy smile dissolved into long lines and indifference. You thought it was nice spending time with people you weren’t crazy about, who could have disappeared forever and it would have been completely okay. And you were proud of the person you had become until Ivan walked into your view again, took an unintentional seat close to yours. And there you were memorizing the colors of his clothes, the texture of his skin, calculating how much distance you would have to get rid of to…get…him…to…touch…you…right…. “THERE you go again,” Yalma, interrupted, noticing you noticing him.
“I tell you he ain’t worth it.”
In your junior year you started seriously seeing a loser after Ivan started dating a tall girl with dimples and long wavy hair, ass bigger than all the hills in Connecticut. “He’s moving to California anyway,” Yalma told you. “Kiss that guapo goodbye.”
During the last class of the last semester that year it poured cats and perros. Professor Alves, with whom Yalma had started sleeping with without need of negotiation, put on Springer from the projector, said the last thing to remember Students, was to not be like those people. “Fools,” he followed-up.
You stepped outside for a smoke. Out there it was like a little oasis. Green and yellow everywhere. Water quickly forming into ponds from which fresh drops sprung new ones that jumped from the ground like frogs. It rained so hard the drops looked white against the dark grey sky, slicing through thick trees that enclosed the tiny campus. For a minute, in the middle of May, you thought maybe it had begun to snow. And you smiled. Not feeling foolish, but feeling innocent, believing a little bit of magic was still possible.
When your cigarette became a soggy mess, you just stood there, listening, really listening to the world outside yourself. It was loud and immediate and you liked that. Out of nowhere, Ivan was unintentionally standing next to you, trying to light a cigarette, squinting and feeling all that rain soak through his clothes, through his hair. It was warm and the rain kept coming down in white slices like static, the both of you silent and transfixed like characters from an old movie, possibly even another time.
“Aye, maybe somebody should have played the violin for you guys,” Yalma would say years later when you told her.
Feeling like yourself for once, you almost asked Ivan about California, wanted to reverse and start from the beginning, say, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you. I think I’ve wanted you my whole life.” But he would be leaving soon and you were going to have to be completely okay with that. The two of you stood side by side for long time, sharing a space together, staring into the dark sky from which magic continued to fall.
You were the best rock thrower I ever met. The best reader of The Catcher in the Rye. The best maker of Nutella and raspberry jam pancakes. The best dreamer.
Those summer afternoons in Cedar Point shiver like a mirage outside the windshield on my drive home. Sometimes I step on the brakes, fearful of driving towards those youthful days, terrified of saying goodbye all over again as the moments travel along then behind me, streaming farther and farther away.
Pictures of us working behind the counter at Morrison’s Parlour, walking home near swamps with weeds taller than the both of us combined, come to me so vividly at times I swear I could turn the corner, tag your shoulder, and hear you shout “NOT IT” as your arm reaches for my waist, pulling us both into the cold, still water. Other times, you feel so far away, made up. Like an angel that may or may not have been human once. Who could have been a figment of my imagination, or something sent straight from God.
After knowing you, I didn’t mind that my parents were divorced, that my father’s long distance move to Georgia meant I’d only see him for 2 months out of the year. I spent the entire school year waiting for summer. I rehearsed the first thing I would say to you, what I would wear, what we would do. Our houses were twins that stood shoulder to shoulder and at night, I’d open the window to hear frogs and the low buzz of slow music from your radio. Some mornings I’d wake to find you in our kitchen, making breakfast with an elated half smile that melted those long seasons which gave me so many reasons to miss you.
You called me Matches because of my long skinny legs. Other times you called me Spider. You said you imagined me crawling through the brush in the forest, vertically descending the walls of your room. It wasn’t until much later when you admitted to thinking of me in other places…curled under your bedsheets, between the open buttons of your shirt, wrapped around your waist like a lasso.
The last week was always the worst. We said little but tried to pack in so much. We rode the ferris wheel every day at sunset. Enjoyed the wild breeze that felt like all those summer days coming back, departing. When we stopped dead center at the highest point your nervous fingers always inched towards mine but you were too afraid to do anything, saying instead, to kill the silence, “I bet you don’t have sights like this back home.” I looked dead center into the dreamy blacks of your eyes and told you, “This is home,” and inched closer, waiting for the thing that never happened.
Those summers were hotter than hell and we spent most days near naked doing next to nothing. There were no deadlines, unlike now, no hurries. Just the gift of time to kill. And we did, together, in every place we left behind. On our last night we stripped down to our underwear, jumped into the Crescent River, and swam towards shallow spots where the stars shone on the surface. You cupped your hands and slowly poured water over my neck and hair, brushed it away from my eyes, said “There, there” noticing saltwater tears dropping into the black around us. You took my hands and put them on your shoulders, pulled me in, told me if I ever thought of you to close my eyes real tight and, as all space between us disappeared, just float.
Junior Santiago squashes weeds underneath his sandals. His sweet potatoes and lillies are being invaded by ugly green. “Don’t do that,” Magda yells from the kitchen window, “it’s like shaving. They’ll just grow back thicker!” Junior squints, his big eyes becoming slits, his tanned body camouflaged by the brown mountains and brown earth all around him. He tries to see Magda’s face under the glare, finds her features, stares back, and stomps another one. “Pendejos, I tell you. They’re like roaches. If you don’t get them now, they’ll come back later with friends.”
Magda laughs and though Junior can’t hear her, he knows in this moment she is happy.
Junior Santiago understands nature. He could grow anything and everything he needed was in that square space where he lived: fruit, flowers, lush grass, the mountains. Gifted with his hands, he grew an enormous garden that sprouted every color, cooked delectable aromatic meals, played tranquil, angelic music. What he loves the most though is making difficult women, like his mother, laugh.
Junior Santiago was born Jacques Junior Santiago. It should have been Jaques Guerin Jr but he was born with a flame of thick red hair and eyes the color of cocoa beans. “I’ll be damned if that’s my son!” said Jaques Guerin Sr, looking at little Junior in his mothers arms. “All the Guerin men have green eyes and the dark wavy hair of a saint. I don’t know this boy.”
In order to prove paternity, Junior’s mother Magda named him after his father, her first and only lover. Every Wednesday and Sunday evening for the first two years of her son’s life she walked the dirt Caribbean road to Jacques Sr’s tiny house, peered at him through windows, watched him sip chartreuse, strum a guitar, or drowse in a hammock in the backyard. Sometimes a woman was in there, hearing rehearsed lines fed with an indifferent delivery, feigned through a sleepy smile. The naive ones always wanted to be with him forever but Magda would wait until 11, always 11, because Jacques would never start and finish the day with the same woman. Not again. “It’s bad luck,” he once told her, “any more than a few hours together and you might as well be married.”
Like clockwork she’d come over, knock, make a seat for herself on his front steps, hum, knit baby clothes, write unrequited love letters. Before leaving, she’d pick a leaf from his flamboyan tree, mark it with the age of their son, and slip it under the door. But after 2 years she gave up, left a string of rocks along every window. A memorial service for the love that, by then, had left them both. She explained that children start forming memories around her son’s age and she’d be damned if Jacques Junior’s first one was going to be of his mother’s long walks of foolishness or his father’s refusal.
In the beginning Jacques Guerin was different with her. Calm. Unaffected. He was known for being a high-strung womanizer, moving fast, devouring quickly. Never looking back. With his looks he could and did have every woman he wanted. There was something to him though that made his gallivanting seem insincere, as if his pursuits were to prove something of his worth, instead of for the pleasure of being with them. Magda was the only one who sensed it and, recklessly, forgave it.
She once worked at a small food shack where the scent of cafe and pernil ribboned through the avenues and houses. He started coming in every day near closing, sat at the counter facing outside, ordered tea, pretended to read a book which had a mirror pressed between the pages so he could watch her without her knowing.
Seeing no possibility of being with someone like that, she let her guard down, let him inside. He’d talk to her between customers, hang around after closing. He’d walk her home, bring her gifts, describe Paris and Marseille, and all those famous cities that were just spots on a map he couldn’t place any more.
He’d speak to her in French, his native language, said he was going to take her back with him.
“Why are you here,” she asked, and in his mind swam thoughts of his own father who had fallen in love with a Latin woman and followed her back to her old life, leaving behind everything of his own in France. He was 4 at the time and the first and last thing he could remember about the old man was his advice on how not to grow up, not to have kids, and how pointless it would be to miss him.
“Why not be here,” he told her, “When who I want is holding my hand at this moment, not roaming around somewhere in Europe.”
A year passed that way, then 9 months. The closer they became, the more he withdrew. As her belly grew, he became a different person, pretended not to know her, told her how pointless it was. Sometimes he wanted to break her open and take back all his secrets. Eventually, he said just to forget him. “You couldn’t think I was serious, Magda? I’m a Guerin for god’s sakes!”
When Junior Santiago was 20 his mother received a thick package in the mail regarding the man she had tried so hard to forget. It was impossible to get rid of him, of course, when he was right there, learning how to walk, saying his first words, learning how to read, falling in love, killing weeds in her backyard. The red flaming hair tamed into a mop of thick dark waves. The dark brown eyes grew lighter and were green in the center. She told him it was as if mother earth had painted them herself.
Magda said, come take a walk with me, and they strolled side by side down a dirt road. Junior had grown so tall, had his lean frame,his soft poetic smile. There Jacques was all over again in the face he never looked into. It was late in the evening and they stopped at a little house where rocks lined all the windows. She told him about the French man, the shack, the years waiting on those very steps. As she said this, a hammock rocked empty in the backyard. A tiny note from a lonely guitar was plucked by invisible hands. “Go ahead, this is now your house. His first and last gift to you. I am sorry you never got to see him while he still lived here.” And finally, “While he was still living.”
Junior opened the door and smelled sorrel and dandelions and despair. There was an unused high chair in the corner. A sketch of a young boy with red hair. On the surface of everything was a crimson pain, those familiar flamboyan leaves covered in the only words Jacques could leave for his son
Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé,
Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé
Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé,
Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé, Je suis désolé
Je suis désolé
Serge tells you he is going to learn how to build things. Picture it, a house in the suburbs, a wrap-around porch, a deck. A friend has promised him a job in construction. He will start off small, learning how to use hammers and nails, put up walls, then doors, then roofs. Then he will make things to fill every room: cabinets, furniture. Eventually there will be an entire house built by his own two hands. It will embody everything that has and will exist between the two of you, the good times, the strength, the tenderness, the misery even, the mistakes. But what will overcome the errs of both your humanness, he writes, what will hold that house up high, is love. “And I have so much of it to build with, moya lyubov, it will hold us both forever.”
It is 75 degrees and you are seated in the sunlight at a little table at the corner cafe. You sip black coffee slowly. Add some sugar. Drink cream straight from a separate cup, lick your lips, remember. You fold his letter, bring one of the corners up to your mouth, finger the edges of the paper foreboding of steel against your skin. You take another look at his photograph still in the envelope, take it out. He is looking better than before, smiling even, seated in the prison courtyard. You pretend not to notice how strong and solid his arms are or how tightly his shirt hugs his shoulders, drapes over his lean, narrow waist. You pretend the flush on your face isn’t from wanting to be the first fruit he tastes after all those years locked away.
You could have visited, could have given him that touch he said would have made all the difference. But you won’t. Instead, every time you miss him, you call his brother or his best friend. You invite them over to your place to talk about him, recite some of your favorite stories, speaking only in past tense, as if he no longer existed, as if there were no chance of him getting out.
Weekday evenings are the worst. You feel every minute of every day. It never gets easier. When it is most unbearable you count the seconds and sometimes the moments between each second. When you can no longer stand it, you call one of them over, beg them to come by though it takes little convincing. You spray Serge’s favorite perfume on your bed sheets, put up your hair, wear tops that show off your neck and shoulders, revealing the invisible spots where he last left his mark on you, silently beg the others to erase them with fresh mistakes.
The doorbell rings and you take one step forward and an infinite number back into the memory of Serge’s frame within that doorway, his long legs and lashes taking you in, saying hello, saying letting go was not something he was going to allow. But he did didn’t he, standing before the judge, following a future that didn’t have room for you, that you weren’t going to wait for.
7 years going on 8 but you wake up and it’s like day one. If one of them spent the night, you’ll make him breakfast then send him on his way. Then you get in a few good tears before work. Coming home, you pull out a picture from the box you keep in that narrow closet, full of the things you care little for but aren’t quite ready to throw out. While Serge lies in his 6x8, you stare into that 4”x6,” arrested with his memory. You sit with his old picture at the dining table, tape it to the mirror as you get ready for bed, place it on the pillow next to yours. You reminisce about all his promises when there was still life and hope in them. Now you have the toxic taste of his broken potential. The reminders of how he never listened to you. How he said a man has to stand by his own convictions, even as the jury was ready to put him away, he, taking a bullet and a prison sentence for someone else who walked free.
You sit at the cafe, waiting for the sun to go down, wait for one of the boys to show up. It never matters which. You like it better when it’s black outside. It’s easier to remember Serge’s face, feel his hard, hungry touch when the world can’t be seen and the only sound is a shared longing sitting next to you, bringing you back to him.
You are standing by the window in your bra and panties and he is late.
Mia yells at you through the cordless phone, beeping, the battery about to die. She tells you to put some clothes on.
“Don’t make it easy for him!”, but you don’t care.
You stayed up late last night watching a documentary about monkeys, the animals most similar to human beings. Researchers spent months observing them, watching through lenses, taking notes, getting within range to see their bellies fill as they inhaled but never got near enough to be noticed.
“Just like you, Dummy, off chasing some ape who scratches himself, then runs when you try to get close.”
You look at the flashing red light on the phone, wait for it to go black.
“I have to charge the phone, Mia”
“Alright. But you’re better off letting it die. Better the phone die than you, waiting for him.”
An hour passes, then another. You go to the window, watch the sunset. You wanted to do that with him. He told you he never saw an actual sun set before, never noticed the sky turn pink before. Never noticed the landscape turn into a silhouette before. Never made a wish on a new moon before. So you asked him to walk with you along the river, the one between the two famous bridges, the one that overlooked those old factories whose lights blinked like stars over the projects at night.
Another hour passes and you light the candles you had reserved for another occasion. You open the bottle of wine, the first you would start and finish all by yourself. The river ripples have gone from brown to black, blotched with reflections from the industrial florescence. At 10 you put the meal you made away, clear off the counter, wash all the dishes. You put on the pair of small shorts you study and sleep in, turned off the sin vergüenza AC, open a window, let the river breeze tease the curtains, fluttering like your long hair. You put on a Dallas Cowboys tshirt, that gift from an uncle who said you were too pretty for tears in a letter he wrote you from jail.
Then you try to sleep. Still awake at midnight, you hear the phone ring. It’s him, who coyly asks how’s it going. What have you been up to?
And you want to scream, but you are too tired. Want to tell him off, but you are too hurt.
“Nothing much,” you say instead, and press your ear closer to the phone, hoping to hear him breathe.
I’ve loved you for a long time, in one way or another. Once upon a time I crossed my fingers and held my breath. I avoided ladders, cracks in sidewalks, and those black ominous alley cats. I collected all the dandelions I could find to make the same unreasonable wish. For years I lived on nothing but a memory of your face and a farfetched hope to be near you. I wanted our souls to meet one another, to speak in that language only the inconsolable understand…the language that’s full of so many goodbyes and where each spoken sentence begins and ends in an equal measure of mourning and love.
Inside me is the better half that watches the foolishness unfold. A jester, one who knows that the desire for you will end badly and so it waits. Someone who is tired of the unanswered anticipation, tired of pretending to be some other person to blend in with the rest of the world. Someone who knows that the true shape of a heart is a fist which will hit back just as hard.
I always looked for you over the years, even when you forgot me. I’d wait days or months to hear from you, not knowing where you went or what you were up to. I imagined sneaking into all your hiding places. To comfort you. Be with you, cradled together in that darkness and that sorrow, doing my best to make you feel better, to feel light.
You’d eventually emerge without an answer and I didn’t ask questions, afraid you’d disappear at the request for just a little bit of truth. Certain that the next time might just be for good. Those absences had the taste of gunpowder and felt just as dangerous. Forgoing all fear, I clung on to the desperate hope that maybe we could live as normal people, maybe we could be friends. Fate wasn’t interested in giving me anything else. There are people you love for how they make you feel and others you love for whom they are. I could not say I fit into either of these for you. And that was okay, as long as you let me inside, even a little bit, just enough to feed on the fantasy of being in your life one day, for a moment’s time. It made the pangs of waiting all worth it.
I can say a thousand times this will be the last. No more. But, like a true junkie, I crave just a fraction of your time, a modicum of interest. When you are gone, and I can’t see your face anymore, I sit in the empty court where the ruins of your fantasy still lingers, crossing my fingers, spreading seeds of hope, making a million wishes.
“Piensa en mí “
I called James over, Platonic James, Brilliant James, James who lives inside his journals and hides behind vintage glasses. James who projects a smile as big as the Atlantic and is just as far and blue. James the M.D. who refers to himself as the everyman, the rough-cut guy with flaws, who, he self-proclaims, got anywhere because of a lot of sacrifice and a little bit of good luck. But James was a good guy with an exterior that reminded me of metal and mountains. His fingers were like sticks of charcoal which I took to the canvas of my mind many times until it burned with all his angles and shapes. James, who with bull-like determination to become successful, got there, but still doubted himself every step of the way. James, who gave up youth and fantasy to fit into the vision his family had for him, was coming over at his usual time, to sit in his usual spot on my sofa, to start up the usual conversation while simultaneously taking his usual closeness and usual distance beside me.
Fresh off a 40 hour shift, James arrives just after midnight in his PJs, holding a vase sized cup of coffee. He shuffles over to kiss my cheek lightly and the cold smoothness of his own makes me both shiver and flush. He walks into my bedroom where a bright blue robe hangs behind the door. In the pockets are small packets of lavender I place for him since James says the smell reminds him of soft women and those suburban afternoons in his uncle’s home that once had a garden with more colors than the biggest box of crayons, brighter than the magnetic lights across Times Square.
All of the men in James’s family were doctors, except for his father, Rafi. Rafi owned a flower shop and married a woman out of choice, rather than arrangement, and died before James could remember him. Somewhere buried in the darkest corner of his memory lives the phantom of his father who started a beautiful life for his little boy but could not finish it. Always unsure of the future he should have had, James decided to become a doctor, like the rest of them, influenced by the men in his life who lived their own taking care of patients perhaps more than the people closest to them.
In medical school James expected a bit of miraculousness and magic to help answer the answerable, but, as he eventually learned, medicine is a lifestyle and it would be the closest partner, and the most trying, he would ever have. He would routinely fall in and out love with his profession, his patients, and just when he thought he had mastered the art of understanding, he would find himself sucked in by uncertainty. At night, under the canopy of confusion that held him closer than any lover, he picked up his guitar and found the only medicine in the world that would make him feel better. At 1 am at 2 am at 3 am at 4 am, light strumming reverberated through the walls of his bedroom. The pitch of a lonely man who never slept permeated the place. The hum of a heart that could not help from sinking could be heard all night and only quieted very little when he left.
I turned on the tv and served James leftovers. He, thankful, not for the taste, but for the courtesy. “All of my meals are served from trays and boxes. Things you heat up in 60 seconds. Things you eat in 60 seconds. I haven’t had something that came from a kitchen, instead of a cafeteria, in a long time.” As he ate he flipped through thick piles of papers and mentioned topics I couldn’t relate to, digested words from books as thick as stairs that made no sense to me. He made a tall stack from too many textbooks and paperwork and sunk into the sofa. We watched tv and laughed at different parts of the same show. When it was time, we brushed our teeth separately but slid into the same bed, taking different sides and finally, when he took his glasses off, I examined his face, tried to figure out the thoughts behind his dark eyes. I hadn’t seen him in 4 days but it felt longer. His eyes looked older, farther away. Sometimes he’d pout and it was like my own window into his past. In the feint light of my bedroom he had the face of a boy whose disappointment had grown into pain and it was only during these times when I wanted to kiss him, to turn that pain into something else. He rested on one elbow to reach for the lamp above me and I looked between the few open buttons of his night shirt, his chest expanding and sinking with each heavy breath. Maybe loving was like that rhythm. The way a chest opens to let in air, the bodies of two people, the cadence of their loving, opens to let the other one in, to find the thing it needs to survive.
I made that move I had seen many times before, ran my fingers across his forehead until my palm was caressing the side of his face. “Goodnight James,” “Night Hun,” we exchanged like a married couple who were past passion and receded into that final stage where going to bed meant comfort, not play. We spent many nights this way over the years, in my bed, sometimes his, me on my stomach facing him, he on his side, looking in my direction with his left arm extended, resting a restless hand on my shoulder, an invitation to take it. And I did, always. I’d get one last look at those sad eyes and tired lips and finally fall asleep, dreaming of lost little boys looking for their daddies.