The heist was all planned out. We knew what we needed to do and what we needed to take. My brother and I were own our way to Sacramento, California with one thing on our minds. Our mission was to take as many toys as we could carry. It was the strategy that we had devised while sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to my Uncle Venus’ house. My cousin Jose and his brothers had troves of action figures— more toys than any eight-year-old could ever want. All of the ones that my brother and I drooled over while perusing the toy aisles at department stores. All of the ones that would elicit a firm ear-pull from our mom after begging her for them unsuccessfully.
We had already stolen some smaller items, like weapons and Happy-Meal-sized toys, but this was the big sting. The one that, if caught, could get us a leather-belt-on-bare-butt-cheeks spanking. This operation required pockets larger than those equipped on a pair of standard jeans. We needed to bring in the big guns. Taking a full-sized action figure would require a garment with additional cargo room. That was why we decided to bring our bulky winter jackets. These would aid our effort of concealing and carrying the contraband.
My cousins were very generous with their toys, which gave my brother and me a perfect in. As we played in their room, my brother and I would take turns slipping a toy into one of our many pockets. At first, my cousins were none the wiser to our slimy scheme. But soon my cousin Jose noticed that I was sliding something into my jacket. He was a smart kid and soon let out a loud yelp that brought our parents into the room. He told my uncle that I was stealing his toys. Our dads looked at each other and started to laugh. Some sort of brotherly inside joke. My uncle yelled at Jose to stop crying, that there was no harm done. I was pulled aside by my dad and told that he was going to kick my ass when we got home. I could already hear the sound of finely-crafted Mexican leather making contact with tightly squeezed flesh. That night, my brother and I came away with pockets full of threats. Enough to keep our kleptomania at bay. Well, until it was time for my cousin Jose and his brothers to visit us down in LA.
* * * *
When you come from a culture where the scrotums are potent and the wombs fertile, you don’t simply get one person named ‘Little Bastard Jr.’ or ‘the III,’ you get a swath of ‘Little Bastards’ named after the grand master bastard— the grandfather that can never remember who you are. It defeats the whole purpose of even having a name. “Hey, you!” becomes a more comprehensive way of distinguishing you from the rest of your similarly named cousins. Any certified arborist would take one look at our family tree and deem its long branches ripe for firewood and demand that the rest of it be chopped down and interned in an insane asylum.
* * * *
His hair was long and silky, dark and lustrous. It draped down between his shoulder blades to his mid-lower back even as he wore it in a ponytail. The light mustache and goatee on his upper lip and chin, along with the sharp cheek bones still bore vestiges of his boyish face. Since I last saw him— ten years ago— it had blossomed into that of a handsome young man. I remembered the times when he used to curse out my other cousins and their mothers with anger in his eyes. Now those eyes, interlocking with mine, were deep and soulful. He had a timid smile and quiet grace. As soon as he became aware of my presence, he instantly remembered me. I didn’t really know how to approach him without looking weak or coming off as slightly gay. I wanted to mirror his calm and collected energy. I had to repress my feelings of admiration and longing for a cousin who, for all I knew, could have been dead this whole time. I was mourning my inability to express my true emotions in words. I wanted to tell him that I missed him and find out about what he had been up to.
The occasion for our meeting was the wedding of our youngest aunt in Tijuana, Mexico. My cousin and I were 22 and 21-years-old. She was two years younger. He was wearing a form-fitting suit that added to the elegance in his demeanor. Since we last saw each other, my dad had been imprisoned and we had moved a couple of times. His dad remarried and had a couple of kids with his new wife; Uncle Venus used to pick us up from school from time to time, maybe because he felt he owed it to my dad to take care of us while he was locked up. I think my siblings and I saw my uncle more often than Jose did. I didn’t want to make the same mistake of going years without hearing from my cousin, so I gave him my address. I figured that we could open up an avenue of communication by writing to one another. After a few letters back and forth, the silence between us began to set in once again.
* * * *
The tradition of genealogical nomenclature is meant to bring the family closer together. By having various reminders of the patriarch peppered in each of the extended family units, the children of the elder attempt to create an immortal bond. A man is not his song and his name should end when he does. It should be remembered only if he himself did something worth remembering; summoned by memory when his presence is craved for and not thrusted upon his descendants by means of filial guilt.
* * * *
Jose invited me to a local pastrami place in Seattle. It had been yet another long serendipitous 10 years since I had last seen him. As I was making my way there, I didn’t know what to expect. Was he the indomitable, incorrigible kid who used to nosh on bright red radishes as we fought and lusted over a young Sofia Vergara— bouncing around on the beach— kissing the warm, bulbous television screen? Or, was he the elegantly poised young man with whom I had a brief, dreamlike conversation about nothing in particular?
The closer I got to the pastrami shop, I kept looking around to see if I could spot him. Did he even wear his hair in a ponytail anymore? Nervousness began to set in. The thoughts in my head were barraging me with an infinity of questions. They were reeling a movie in which I once again was playing a character too cowardly to express his true emotions. Part of me wanted to turn around and run away from the situation. Maybe it was better that we didn’t meet. There was a reason why we hadn’t in the past decade. And out of nowhere, there he was, standing right in front of me. My cousin Jose. I could see in him the boy and the young man I met on two separate occasions, two lifetimes ago. He waved me down from the entrance of the place as I crossed the street. We instinctively embraced as if not a single day had passed since the time we saw each other last. As if we were no longer 32 and 31-years-old, but 9 and 8 again.
As we were ordering our meal and even as we sat side by side, few words were exchanged. I asked him about his dad, and he said that he hadn’t really heard from him in years. I told him that I was in the same situation with mine. The silence could be cut thicker than the sliced meat on our paper plates. It was the loss of words that came from the meeting of two lost souls. It wasn’t our fault that this deep and wide valley had developed between us. We were like two falling leaves, helpless in the air, ripped and flung by the torrential winds of our parents’ shortcomings.
My eyes were full of curiosity, but I kept filling my mouth with cured meat and bread. Sitting there with him, listening to him tell me about his wife and three children, I made the decision of breaking with family tradition. The age-old stipulation that our fathers needed to be around in order for us to have a relationship, as family or friends. I wanted to eschew all of that firstborn-namesake bullshit and reach out my hand to my cousin and be a family. I wanted to welcome my cousin back into my life. Our relationship— as children and teenagers— suffered, but that didn’t mean that we had to continue suffering. Before we departed from another brief encounter, I invited him to visit me in LA sometime. I felt that it was time to take charge of my relationship with my cousin.
My brother Jose.
Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). The Sweet Scent of Garmonbozia [Painting]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.