Only With Thine Eyes

Caro mio ben, credimi almen…

Caro mio ben, credimi almen…

Caro mio ben, credimi almen…

Goddammit! I can’t believe I couldn’t remember this fucking line, Dion Paul thought as he waited for the 22 bus on Via Nicola Tagliaferri to take him to the Piazza del Duomo, about 7 blocks away the Arno River. He was thinking about how he froze on stage the night before in front of all his classmates, professors and an unfortunate audience who had paid up to €50 to hear singing that never came out of his mouth. That damned song was the reason he had spent the last two weeks in Florence. The goal was to become a better singer, not worse.

“Excuse me, sir. Where is this bus going?” a young woman asked him. She looked Latina, from South America. She had a supplicant, vulnerable look Dion had grown accustomed to, not only in Italy, but back home in Los Angeles. He was 6’2, broad-shouldered, and black. Black-black. Dark as night, as his caramel-complexioned mother used to say. Based on the innumerable occasions people recommended the idea, Dion could’ve been any type of athlete he wanted. Football— American and European— basketball or baseball. He was built like a Roman Centurion.

“Uh, yeah,” Dion answered, unaware of what the petite woman had asked in the first place, having been lost in self-loathing reverie. “I’m sorry, what was your question?”

“Oh, it’s okay,” she smiled. Her boyfriend approached them when he noticed that the reconnaissance mission he had sent her on had come across some difficulties. “I just asked where this bus went.” Feeling like a moron, Dion smiled morosely. He usually had an athlete’s smile, full of teeth and confidence. The chompers of a champion. The smile you’d expect to see on a Wheaties cereal box.

“This bus goes to Santa Maria del Fiore, next to Il Duomo and the Baptistery of San Giovanni.”

The young woman laughed in relief. This reaction produced yet another advancement by her boyfriend toward his girl; one not merely triggered by jealousy, but by the thought eating at him: I didn’t know you were into black guys.

“Thanks. Man,” her boyfriend said. The “man” could’ve been replaced by a three-fingered stab-shove, aimed precisely at the cavity formed under the clavicle, outer pectoral muscles, and inner shoulder. Dion was taken aback because before the jealousy came out of his lips, he thought the girl’s boyfriend was actually kind of cute— nice legs, strong jaw, and bad-boy facial hair. A one-night stand, easily, he thought. I wouldn’t even have to be drunk. However, now he wouldn’t get hard even if he agreed to buy him dinner, take him to a movie, and bottom for him.

“No problem, dude,” Dion said, giving him an up and down stare that knocked the boyfriend back a few steps, pulling his girlfriend back with him. Her eyes were once again dressed with a distressed glint, as if saying: I’m sorry for his behavior. It’s not your fault. He gets that way sometimes, but he really is a good guy. Dion nodded acknowledging her sentiment.

Caro mio ben, credimi almen…

The bus blew a dust cloud from the unswept dirt-laced streets. It was 10:23 a.m., still early for most Italians on a Sunday. Dion boarded the bus and paid €1,50 for a 2-hour pass.

“Grazie,” he said. Dion relished every opportunity he had to put in practice the three semesters of Italian he took at the California State University, in Northridge, the same one that was sponsoring his first visit to Europe via a scholarship for minorities. After he took the boarding pass from his hand, the driver’s empty stare— filled with innocuous indifference— sobered the tourist excitement in Dion like a shot of espresso after a night of too much good wine.

“Prego,” the driver said, turning his eyes back to the road with just enough gusto to demonstrate signs of life.

Dion moved down the bus shaft, it was nearly empty as it lazily worked its way through the narrow Florentine streets. With each stop, more and more people boarded. Caro mio ben, credimi almen… Dion couldn’t get that fucking song out of his head. The only thing that managed to distract him was looking at the people surrounding him, staring him down. Damn, am I the first black person you’ve seen? Shit! he mused.

He looked around aimlessly, gazing at everyone trying not to look at anyone in particular. His meandering eyes were drawn and nailed in place when they came across those of a young man. When did this cutie get on? Dion wondered. Was it on Via di Sant’ Jacopino? The guy wasn’t short, but wasn’t tall either. He had shaggy chestnut hair that waved silky as the bus rode over potholes. He had a slender face, high cheekbones and cheeks punctuated by pronounced dimples. His smile reminded Dion of a guy that sat next to him in Latin 101 during freshman year. Aside from helping him with the grammar of Virgil, the guy also took his virginity and swung the door to his closet wide open, leaving Dion broken and alone inside.

The stranger’s smile allowed Dion’s flesh to relive the symptoms of this love-pain, the first time he let a man in deep within him. He suddenly lost his ability to swallow. His breath shortened. His partner’s naked buttocks were all he could think of. How they tightened to a rock-like strength right before he came. The sound of his moaning replaced the civilian ruckus enveloping the entirety of the bus. Looking at the young man once again gave Dion sexual ammunition. His body could have been a well-structured sentence written by Virgil, with just enough meat on it to tell you what it was that it wanted to convey. As a whole, he was grammatically sound. His smile was a poem, lyric and song, all in one.

As more people boarded the bus, the standing room moshed into a narrower and tighter space. Dion and the young man got closer and closer as if destiny’s reigns were wielded by his desire. He found himself face to face, nearly towering over the young man. He smiled at Dion. He in turn softly mouthed Buongiorno as if saying Can you believe how crowded this bus is? The young man released a gust of laughter that smelled of old cigarette and rotten eggs. Dion blushed. Luckily, the young man was none the wiser because according to his uncle Terrance, black folk don’t blush.

The ripeness emanating from the crown of the young man’s head was pungent and intoxicating. It smelled like a freshly-opened box of crayons. The scent released reminded him of lying in bed and inhaling the smell of the aftersex. The more Dion looked at the guy under him, the more he wanted to lick the sweat dripping down the guy’s neck. He could envision his broad nose xylophoning up the side of the man’s protruding ribcage— visible through the wide sleeves of his mustard-colored jersey tank— tickled momentarily by his coarse, auburn armpit hair, stealing a kiss from his neck, right before he made it all the way to his stubble-lined lips.

The thought of his raspy stubble sand-papering his soft, clean-shaved body sent shivers down his spine. Dion wanted the young man to do so all over his muscular back, chest and stomach. To enjoy the rawness wrought by his rabid Tuscan desire hours after it was over.

“Prossima fermata,” the bus’s voice announced. “Santa Maria del Fiore.” The young man burrowed his way through Dion and the other people, and exited the bus. Fuck, Dion thought. Where did he go?

Dion looked around frantically, but nothing. As the bus continued its course, he noticed the young man walking down the street toward Il Duomo. He spied his every move. The way he ungracefully pulled his weathered, holey cargo shorts flashing the small of his slender back, exposing his well-traveled back dimples. Dion bit his bottom lip.

And then he vanished into a sea of art seekers.

****

Dion got off on a bridge that ran parallel to Ponte Vecchio. He could behold the mercantile madness unfolding and instead headed to a café that was more like a park than a garden. It was shaded by a canopy of tall trees, whose thick trunks were wrapped by slender fingers of ivy slithering down to meet a dirt path upholstered by plushy green grass. Dion ordered a glass of Chianti because the espresso machine looked as though it had been brewing shit rather than coffee. He found a seat outside, opened the 24 Italian Songs & Arias book and began to review the words for “Caro mio ben.” Yes, he would have to go back to the U.S. the next day and probably wouldn’t sing that song in a while, but if he didn’t do this mind-fucking exercise, the thought of not knowing the song would continue to torture him.

He took a pack of cigarettes out of his satchel and lit up. He wasn’t supposed to smoke, because it was bad for your lungs as a singer, but being a baritone, Dion felt that smoking gave his voice a rich, sultry tone.

“Hey, can I have cigarette?” Dion heard someone ask him. Before looking up he already knew that he would say “no.” Not because he only had three cigarettes left, no money to purchase the overpriced ones sold by the dirty old man at the cafe, and no Bar Tabacchi in sight to buy cheaper ones. Ultimately, he would say “no” because he hated smokers who bummed cigarettes. Mostly because he himself never did so. Besides, he subscribed to Uncle Terrance’s Golden Rule of Smoking: Do you remember who taught you how to smoke cigarettes? Then go ask them to also teach you how to buy them.

As Dion looked up with the scathing response cocked and loaded on the tip of his tongue, he was awestruck by the expectant smile greeting him. It was the hot guy from the bus. The realization yelled and echoed in the caverns of his mind.

“So, can I have one?” the young man asked.

“Caro mio— ” Dion blurted. The young man laughed. Dion joined in on the laughter. “I mean, yes. You can have one.” You can have me too, se lo desidera, he thought.

“Grazie, bello.”

“Prego.” Dion’s mind was impregnated with something he had never felt before. Fear mixed with calm. He was admiring the unceremonious way that the young man held his cigarette, between the tips of his thumb, index and middle fingers. Like holding a blunt or a Cuban.

“I’m Carlo,” he said. “But you can call me ‘Charlot.’ I’m part French.” He sucked in a firm drag, and blew a sharp blade of smoke downward through the narrow opening in his lips.

“Piacere, Charlot,” Dion replied.

“Your name Dion?” Charlot asked after he read it off the music book Dion was studying. He pronounced it as one would in French, dropping the last N and nasalizing the O. Dion smiled. It sent a tickle down his spine and danced like a butterfly underneath his testicles. It was the first time he ever thought his name sounded sexy. Fucking hot, he thought.

They walked to the edge of the café facing the Arno, and smoked their cigarettes. Charlot flipped violently through the pages of music, smirking as if he were reading a dirty magazine.

“This music is like Shakespeare,” Charlot joked. “Nobody speak that way anymore.”

“It’s beautiful,” Dion said, never releasing his eyes from Charlot’s ocular embrace. “It’s romantic. Passionate.”

“That’s old music. Most Italians don’t listen to it,” Charlot said. “Maybe, mia nonna.” Charlot’s mannerisms were terse and imposing. It made Dion feel uneasy in a sexual way. He imagined Charlot being that way during sex. “Fuck, even Italians don’t speak Italian anymore.”

As their cigarettes reached their filtered end, Dion realized that their conversation, and its continuation, hinged on him having more of them. He knew that Charlot had no money for cigarettes, based on the way he was gently moaning after each drag, holding the smoke in his scruffy, olive-toned cheeks, and exhaling large puffs of  it with yet another moan. He took a final drag and flicked the butt into the Arno’s shitty-smelling breeze, and onto the body of water that inspired Michelangelo.

“Can I drink some wine?” Charlot asked.

“Yeah, sure.” Charlot had drunk more than was polite when bumming a swig of wine before Dion had finished his response. But he didn’t care. Maybe if I can get him a little buzzed, he’ll lean over and kiss me, he fantasized.

“Thanks, bro.” He wiped the burgundy mustache of his lips with a single swipe of his thin forearm.

Dion only had one cigarette rattling inside the crushed, bright orange Pall Mall cigarette box. The young man grabbed his hand with force, and pried the flattened, shrink-wrapped contained out of it. At first, Dion was appalled by Charlot’s aggressiveness. He took out the lone cigarette, place the camel-colored filter on his fleshy lips, struck the spin-wheel on the lighter, and began to puff the cigarette alight.

Dion wanted to say, What the fuck is your problem man? Is this how you repay someone you bum a fucking cigarette from? However, he was afraid. Not of Charlot’s wiry, yet muscular physique, or his wry gesture. He was afraid that if he said anything to upset him, he would stop looking at him that way.

Charlot released a long, cloud of white smoke as if a gun had gone off in his mouth, and in one seamless motion, like a magician twirling a wand, pointed the filter toward Dion.

“Your turn. No?” he said. Dion was eager to taste his lips, if only by proxy. Even just half a kiss would’ve sufficed. Dion felt touched. All of his feelings of negativity fizzled into the breeze as the genie of smoke that Charlot released. He took the nicotine conduit from the young man’s fingers, his touch felt hotter than the ash avalanching from the cigarette’s summit onto the top of his hand.

“Guh-grazie,” Dion mumbled, nearly fumbling the last cigarette into the depths of the Arno, to sink to the bottom along with his heart.

As he placed the butt between his lips, he never once stopped looking at Charlot. The tip of his tongue made contact with the filter’s cottony center. The taste of wine laced in it swirled sharply on the corners of his mandible. Of the smell that first grazed his nose when their masculine bodies where shoved together in the bus that hot summer day. He released a low hum. He closed his eyes, and took a deep, prolonged drag that filled the entirety of his mouth. He wanted to release the smoke, but was afraid that if he did so, this moment would eventually end and Charlot would disappear. Right when he was about to exhale, he felt Charlot’s hand on his head. Dion knew it was his hand because he had already imagined what it would be like to be touched by it. How his long fingers would look like cleaving onto his scalp.

“I like your hair. It’s weird.” Dion knew what he meant. He knew that it was offensive and a little racist. But based on how good it felt to have Charlot’s hand get lost in the curled lock-forest as he ran his long, rugged fingers through it, he didn’t care. He hoped Charlot got lost in his hair the same way he got lost in his eyes. “I never touched black hair before. It’s nice.” He was gentle in his unscrupulous and intrepid exploration.

Just as Dion began to let himself go, Charlot yanked his hand out of his hair as if out of his head, leaving a hole in him.

“Okay,” Charlot said. “Thank so much for the cigarette. Vi auguro una buona giornata. Ciao bello.” Dion choked on the smoke in his mouth and partially swallowed its yellowish-gray empty taste. As he inhaled the river breeze, he saw the young man walking briskly toward a beautiful young woman. In America, she could’ve been a model or some old guy’s expensive sugar baby. They embraced and kissed for what felt like an eternity. Charlot looked back at Dion and waved one last time. He waved back. The lovely couple walked away, and got smaller and smaller as they disappeared into a busy Sunday crowd. The cigarette in his fingers had a single drag left. Charlot’s drag. The knot in his throat and the convulsion he almost had made the rest of the cigarette less appetizing, so he flicked the rest of it into the Arno.

Charlot may have been straight, but based on the amount of joy with which he smiled, the magnetism with which he glanced, the willingness with which he tasted his saliva, and the sensuousness with which he massaged his hair told Dion otherwise. Back home in Crenshaw, he thought, you don’t do that to other dudes unless you want to hook up or get your ass kicked. Either way, you’re giving up that ass.

Dion closed his eyes and instantly saw Charlot’s smile. The one that haunted him upon first sight. He licked his chapped lips.

They tasted of the Arno breeze. They tasted of him.

 

Through His Bars Of Rage

I am the hunter.

He is the hunted.

He runs away from me with all his might. I chase after him with all of mine, but it’s never quite enough to reach his speed. My short, stubby legs are no match for his long, veiny ones.

He distracts me with false promises and steals the prey we agreed to share. He does so with a spirit of play, not malice. His essence is pungent and alluring to me as blood is to a predator. The scent trickles away from his face as the wind that crashes against his body disperses around him. His sweat drizzles on my nose, the sound of his laughter chatters in my ears. The faster I run behind him, the farther away he seems.

The adrenaline coursing through my drained child-body is the only energy source keeping my feet moving. I’m tired of chasing him, of feeling that he doesn’t want anything to do with me. I’m tired of knowing that this is what fuels his unapproachable speed.

Is he getting faster, or is it a combination of my reluctance to pursue him and his objection to being pursued? He runs away laughing.

And that’s how the dream ends.

*          *          *          *

I dug my face out of the pillow, and gave the nightstand a half-open, one-eyed look. My phone buzzed violently, nagging me to get up, so I tapped the “snooze” button and relieved it of the futile endeavor. I looked around the gray-lit bedroom. The fan I should’ve replaced years ago was still circulating tepid, dusty air into my wife’s asthmatic lungs, heaving gently under the covers. My one-year-old son was cooing a gurgled song in his crib. My dog Nala was deeply focused on giving herself a full-body tongue bath in the sun’s warmth slivering through the blinds.

It was 7:05 a.m. on a Saturday, and the sun itself had barely awoken. Getting dressed in my yellow Club America jersey— a team from Mexico’s capital— was a big step for me toward playing a sport that I’ve loved since infancy, but one that conjured the worst bouts of anxiety. The angst I felt was due to the mix of two bloods coursing through me—Izaguirre from my dad and Marion from my mom—and the bad blood between them. In this malpracticed alchemy, born of the love once felt by a teenage boy and girl, each side seemed to be trying to eliminate the other as if it were a bloodborne virus. It would have taken the synchronous work of a hematologist and psychiatrist to accurately diagnose the damage wrought inside of me.

I closed my eyes, and took a deep, slow, calming breath.

*          *          *          *

When my dad first landed in prison, my mom used to take us to visit him. It was her way of rescuing a shred of normalcy from the wretched situation she found herself at 22-years-old. She called it normalcy, I called it love. Hate. Acceptance, and revulsion.

My mom woke us up at 4 a.m., showered each one of us, dolled herself up, and took a Mexican bus from La Sánchez Taboada— a borough of Tijuana— to the Mexico-U.S. Border. After dealing with Customs, we then took the San Diego Trolley from Chula Vista, to Downtown and then walked three city blocks. My mom wouldn’t allow us to break the illusion of a cohesive family by talking or complaining.

“You’re not hungry,” my mom would say, licking her thumb and brashly gouging out an eye booger lodged in the inner corner of my eye. My siblings and I weren’t even allowed to rest our eyes, because we weren’t tired either.

At the prison, the surly, underpaid guards patted us down. We weren’t allowed to breathe audibly in there, let alone talk. Waiting on a long name list to finally dwindle down to our proud Izaguirre name, tribes of people stalled in a packed waiting room filled with horny women and insufferable children. Once in, my dad was ecstatic, he was the only one, hugging and kissing us all.

At the age of 8, I found it puzzling as to why my mom was always so pissed off at my dad. No hug. No kiss. When they did hug, it looked as though my dad was hugging a complete stranger, a broom, and not a woman he had been inside of, one who had carried his children on three separate occasions. She would give him a look of writhing disgust, of How could you have done this to us? This was her way of finding a catharsis from the misery, the curse of the Izaguirre men. Fighting with her husband was her way of finding normalcy. To us, she only wanted to see him to show him her anger and to let him feel her grief. That’s why she went through all that trouble. And he was perfectly fine with it. She did it out of spite, and he took it in spite of it.

“Don’t believe his bullshit,” she would pre-screen us. If she was really peeved, she wouldn’t even let us get close to him.

“How are you, mijo?” my dad would ask. He was surprised that I didn’t want to be near him. As I approached him, my mom would step in.

“Leave him alone,” she’d say, placing her arm across my chest, pulling me aside. “He doesn’t want to be with you. He’s embarrassed of having to come here, and being seen with you.”

This was the only normal thing about this minimum security display of visiting hours affection. Everything else was premeditated and staged. It didn’t feel real. It felt like going to church. We went because my mom threatened us, not because we loved Our Father.

That never felt normal. It would’ve been normal for my mom to divorce my dad and remarry. It would’ve been normal for her to stay single and live the asexual life of a brooding, abandoned wife. But she wasn’t seeking normal. She was seeking love. A love driven by hatred. She wanted to show my dad that we were still his. She wanted to provide normalcy for only one person, Him, only to shatter it right before his eyes as she used to break the porcelain china whenever they fought. Izaguirre men knew how to seduce a woman, how to get her in bed and how to please her once in it. They also knew how to place a baby deep in their wombs and a deep sense of comfort in their hearts. More than anything, they were experts at letting women down. Any woman. Girlfriends, wives, lovers and mistresses. All women, except their mothers.

*          *          *          *

Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles simply known as “the Valley,” my dad often expressed that he felt like a stressed out teenager, not wanting to find employment or being capable of holding down a job, and leaving my mom alone to fend for herself and tend to their kids. These feelings facilitated his drug usage not only to escape this undesirable reality, but to spite my mom for trying to change him into a man he didn’t want to be. This led to the erratic and violent behavior that eventually landed him in prison.

In Uncle Ramiro’s eyes, mom’s older brother, not only did I bear my dad’s first and last name, I also bore the gene, the cancerous putrefaction, that made Izaguirre men so loathsome. So unmanly. I bore the mark of the beast. A bullseye of derision. He figured that a fatherless boy could use disciplinary guidance, but his ulterior plan was to ridicule the Izaguirre out of me, one flagellating insult at a time.

Soccer was a sport that required a high level of skill, one that required the support of your family. My mom was always busy working 18-hour shifts due to my dad’s absence. Uncle Ramiro was the only person who cared enough to take me to play. Through his rants, I learned that soccer was a man’s game and that you had to be a real man to truly excel as a player. Under that simple yet discriminating rule, I would never be good at it. I wasn’t a man because my dad wasn’t one either. My dad’s early filial departure technically made me the man of the house, but at that time I was only 9, with not enough hair on my balls, according to Uncle Ramiro, to make even the finest of paint brushes.

His cruelty wasn’t his fault. He was merely attempting to reverse the psychological damage my dad had inflicted upon my chances of becoming a real man. Based on Uncle Ramiro’s upbringing, it was customary to knock people’s confidence when they thought that they were better than what they should be, when they demonstrated any sign of promise. Any conversation between us consisted of him telling me what to do and how to do it. But as are all the people who give some of the best advice, my uncle never gave me the best examples to follow.

“It’s your damn job to put it all together,” Uncle Ramiro said. “Figure it out, cabrón.”

*          *          *          *

The conflicting messages from either side of my family always discouraged me from playing soccer. Even as an adult, I refused to play it, making up excuses such as I really don’t like soccer or it’s an okay sport, I prefer baseball. But I didn’t prefer baseball. I simply didn’t feel man enough to play the sport. A desire to u-turn away from the park, and a hyperventilating impulse overtook my hands and lungs the closer I drove to the field. It was a childhood reaction I adopted as a defense mechanism against Uncle Ramiro. Every time I set foot on a field, I could hear his name-calling, and immediately feel the air punched out of my gut. When he was watching me play years before, but especially now that he wasn’t.

*          *          *          *

“Run, you bow-legged cabrón,” Uncle Ramiro roared any time I touched the ball. He was hard on all of his nephews, but especially on me. It was as though he was holding a grudge against me for my dad’s treason— his breach of the friend’s code, particularly the clause prohibiting one from dating the other’s sister— and for my mom’s perjury— her running away from home and telling my dad that she would be sent back to Mexico if they didn’t get married within a week. I suppose he felt guilty for having inadvertently introduced them to one another in the first place. He was applying Deuteronomic law on me, Old Testament stuff, in which the kids paid for their parents’ sins, and bore those wounds for the rest of their lives. Even after my mom, dad, and Uncle Ramiro himself stopped speaking and caring about one another, when all of it became a distant memory to them, it remained a constant reality to me. “Run right, cabrón.”

In his severity, I knew that he did it out of responsibility and filial care, but it didn’t feel like love. He came from a culture where toughness bred toughness. One where you beat your kids so that they wouldn’t end up dead in the streets or rotting away in a prison.

*          *          *          *

Even as I bolted down the field, inebriated by a toxic cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins, testosterone, and lactic acids; feeling bulletproof, intimidating my opponent to a scowling cower, I still thought about my dad and Uncle Ramiro. How one didn’t want to play soccer with me and how the other did, but only under his stringent rules. When he was still around, my dad encouraged me, calling me his number 9— the team’s star-player— his Center-forward— the top-scoring player. However, he was never there to protect me or his claims. On the other hand, my uncle did nothing but talk down to me, never once giving me a compliment; however, he was there for every one of my graduations, elementary through college. I constantly heard their feuding voices rattling in my head, and in those of my teammates. In their Aw, come on, Jules or That’s it, that was a good play. During my brief stint in high school athletics, my coach angrily reminded me that I was a great athlete, but a bad player.

“Son, you’re too much in your head,” Coach Bonilla said. “What in God’s name are you thinking about so much?”

I thought about a lot of things. About how my mom lied to cover for my dad’s absence from family gatherings. How she used to send us to Tijuana to stay with my grandma for months at a time during vacations. Not to give us a taste of where she grew up, but because her low, single-earner salary wasn’t enough to afford a babysitter or a fancy sleepaway camp. But mainly, I thought about how I used to play soccer as a kid in the streets of barrio La Sánchez. Playing on those dirt-paved streets, we never cared about the rules of the game because we played for fun. All the kids emerged from their dilapidated, lopsided houses, sandwiching the people between the problems that came as a result of living in squalor. No score was ever kept. The ultimate goal was to shed who you were and be who you were meant to be. That version of yourself that you dreamt of being as you watched your heroes on TV battle each other every weekend to defend their team’s colors, and attain the glory of victory.

Sure, I wasn’t really a street kid. I had a mom who made enough to clothe and feed me, and I was a U.S. citizen with access to Medicaid and Welfare. But one thing I did share with those boys— who were constantly trying to sucker me out of money, not because they were bad kids, but because they were poor— was that most of them were fatherless like me. Bastards of fathers who never loved them. Children of men who were never taught the roles and duties of a man. Boys raised to be men by women overwhelmed with too much responsibility.

But all of that didn’t matter when we played fútbol. United as part of a big family, we felt unstoppable and became immortal as the ball rolled between our feet. Individually, we were defenseless, runty kids, but together, we had no need for fathers. We were a giant. We accepted nothing and rebelled against it all. All we needed was a ball that rolled, like a tennis ball or even a golf ball. Hell, those kids would’ve played soccer with a ping pong ball. These games were played endlessly, chasing the sun into the night, when the bright sphericality of a full moon would’ve given us enough light to play until our limbs gave out. We ran as if chased by a nightmare, or a pack of ravenous, rabic stray dogs. Faster than our lungs could oxygenate our depleted bodies, relying not on book-smarts, but animal wit and instinct.

These games blurred the lines: between play and ridicule, becoming astute to render your opponent asinine; and violence and aggression, getting our fill of fighting, and making up over chilled bottles of cane-sugared Coca-Cola. We went to bed tired, but unable to sleep. Our feet wiggly under the warm, knitted blankets, tossing and turning. On those long nights, my heart pumped like a drummer pounding a mallet against my ribcage ready for morning to rise again, so that we could start a new game.

My Tijuana friends were poor, but they were free to run and laugh until their ribs hurt so much that they didn’t feel hunger for the food that they couldn’t afford. And because they were free, so was I.

That was how we played the game.

That was who we were.

*          *          *          *

As a gangly 34-year-old playing at Clover Park in Santa Monica, I used the skills I learned in La Sánchez to coyly seduce my opponents, and lured them to lunge forward toward the ball. I shook my hips, crossed my feet over the ball, teased and entranced the opposing players, just as I did when I was a kid. During games, these solitary spurts of fun were the only times when I could despoil myself of my posttraumatic stress and feel good about being in my own skin. It was a dance meant to lull my opponent into believing that they could outstretch their foot and take the ball from me, but also one that helped me relax. This feeling was the reason I went through it all in my head. Vivid now as it was when Uncle Ramiro’s voice was exploding my eardrums. To feel fun doing something that I couldn’t stop loving, regardless of how he and my dad tried. The unbearable chemical burn consuming every muscle fiber in my legs— pain bathing my thighs, buckling my knees, splinting my shins—allowed my mind to cease its meandering, and tranquilize it numb.

As we chased the fleeting ghosts of youth, one of my friends yelled out Last goal as we all ran like a drove of wild horses after the spherical prey. Tiredness, a temporary itch as a child, was a chronic ailment on my grown-up joints. Love the game, and love the pain, I thought to myself as the game slowly ended. It was a loving that couldn’t be tamed.

We all began to walk off the field, leaving strewn on it our full strength and vigor. Everything that could be shed by the body and reaped of the soul. Nothing that the mind could comprehend or that could be taught. Not even by my dad or Uncle Ramiro. Something born within ourselves. A higher power.

*          *          *          *

Sunday was the Lord’s Day. Well, at least from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Not a minute over. After they came home from church, my family’s true religion commenced. They gathered around the cubical god whose warm, bulbous light and thundering voice filled the room and rocked the souls of the faithful. My uncles yelled angry mantras at the antenated oracle, hoping for a better outcome this week. The glow of the television broadcasted into our hearts the heroes we immortalized. Those that made us dream in our sleep and waking hours alike.

“Why do they spell it F-U-T-B-O-L, tío Ramiro?” I once asked while watching El Clásico, the biggest game of the Mexican League between Las Chivas del Guadalajara and their mortal enemies, Las Águilas del América from Mexico City. “Shouldn’t it be spelled: F-O-O-T-B-A-L-L?” I knew the spelling was wrong because it wasn’t spelled that way under the National Football League’s logo.

“It’s because we’re Mexican,” Uncle Ramiro replied. “It may be spelled that way in English, but in Spanish, it’s called ‘fútbol’, mijo.” He patted me gently on the head, never detaching his eyeballs from the screen. “Now shut up and watch what real fútbol looks like.” He took his hand off my head. “If your sorry-ass ever becomes a pro player, you’ll fit right in with the other sorry-asses that make up the U.S. men’s team.”

*          *          *          *

I walked to my car and waved at a few of my friends before getting in. The sour smell of my soiled jersey, soaked in pride and perspiration, filled my rejuvenated lungs. I reached across the passenger seat and pulled my phone out of the glove compartment. An impatient push alert from Facebook buzzed notifying me that my cousin had died. The banner appeared as casual as when someone posted a picture of what they had for dinner last night or a passive-aggressive comment meant to be helpful. Thumbing it led me to a GoFundMe page that was raising money for his funeral costs.

The dirt-laced sweat rolled down my forehead, past my brow, and burned salty in my tear-duct before it dripped of the tip of my nose and trickled into a small ripple on my screen. It wasn’t a tear. The pain felt distant. I pitied the fact that this young man’s life was trivialized, and the manner by which he was being disposed of. Not just by the State, but by the Izaguirres. How can I mourn someone I never knew? I thought. What was this feeling spasmodically beating in my neck? Was it the engrained reaction to feel pain for the misfortunes that befell family?

The picture’s graininess, and the boy’s careless and youthful way of holding and kissing the baby in his arms told me that neither the boy nor his family were prepared for his death. He was my Uncle Carlos’s son, my dad’s older brother, the segment of my DNA that carried the criminal Y chromosome, one that had more imprisonments than my mother’s X.

As I burrowed my bearer of bad news in my bosom pocket, I felt its sharp, intermittent vibrations stab at my chest’s nerve endings. It wasn’t a text or email. It was a call. An unknown number. Could it be a creditor, or a dialing machine? I answered. It was my dad.

“This is a collect call from Kern County Correctional Facility,” a robotic voice said, calibrated to sound like a woman because studies have shown that most people are less likely to hang up on a woman. “Do you accept a call from…” the voice paused, leaving an awkward gap for a poor wretch to speak his name.

“…Julian Izaguirre, hm,” my father’s defeated voice said. It was the voice of one tired of showering, shitting, and shaving in front of others.

“…an inmate at the Kern Valley State Prison?” the effeminate cyborg’s voice continued.
“Yes,” I replied, wiping the perspiration beading anew on my forehead. It was no longer sweat from all the fútbol, but rather a cold one. I was losing my high and slowly sinking into my abyssal headspace.

*          *          *          *

On one occasion, Uncle Carlos asked me to drive him to visit my dad at the Kern Valley State Prison. We were accompanied by my grandma, two aunts, and a cousin. Each person, including me, had a person to go visit at the prison. Uncle Carlos wanted to visit his brother, my grandma her son and son-in-law who was married to one of my aunts. My other aunt was visiting a prisoner she had taken as a lover, and my cousin was there simply to watch how the older women in her family visited their men. Something she herself would probably have to do in the future.

As we exchanged pleasantries, my dad told me that he was happy that the family was back together. The Izaguirres saw prison as unjust and as a temporary holding place for good people gone slightly astray. It was also a good way to reconnect with family.

“Come here, mijo,” my dad said. “This is my cousin Pancho.” It was a cousin who was also incarcerated. They would’ve never known that they were related had they not landed in the same prison. “He’s fast. Faster than you even.” I faked my laughter because Cousin Pancho kept staring at me. I found it funnier that when he was living at home, he never wanted to run with me, and now he was bonding with people whose existence he was unaware of. “Izaguirres are fast runners, huh, mijo?” Yes they are, I thought. They were great at running, especially away from responsibility, from blame. That’s why Izaguirre women liked prison, because it kept their rambling, wayward men in one place.

As beautiful as that family prison portrait was, this symptom masked the real problem, the root of the cancer befalling every Izaguirre man, the fact that Izaguirre men didn’t know or cared about raising good, responsible men. Izaguirre men were selfish, they thought only of themselves, of feeding their pleasure and stoking the fire by allowing their pleasures to feed on them, and their family’s hopes and dreams. They made the choice of allowing their vices to take precedence over the livelihood of their own blood. If they didn’t acknowledge the problems, they didn’t exist, and eventually they didn’t matter, and everyone forgot about them. However, they never disappeared. The people that caused these problems were imprisoned, but the problems never went away.

It was at that moment that my mother’s Don’t believe his bullshit started to make sense. The pressure to choose weighed heavy on me once again. I began to cry, tears that my dad confused with nostalgia.

“It’s okay, mijo,” my dad said, hugging me as if he had learned to do so from the security staff. “Daddy’s here. You’re here with you dad who loves you.” The truth was that he wasn’t really there; not when I was a kid, not at that very instant in the strange warmth of his emaciated arms, or ever. He had vested interest in me, I was his son after all, but it wasn’t love.

For the first time, I realized that he had never grown to love me, and that I’d grown up never loving him.

*          *          *          *

“Hola, mijo,” my dad said. “What are you up to? Is this a good time to talk?” His questions made me uncomfortable due to their obliviousness. Had he forgotten that we hadn’t spoken in over four years? He sounded like someone who wasn’t in prison, but merely calling me to chat.

“No, it’s okay. I just finished playing soccer with some of my friends.”

“Really? I play a lot of soccer over here where I’m at. I’m really good at keeping the ball close to me, but the rival away.” The way he was describing the process of ball possession, resembled the type of relationship we had. The love I had for soccer had always been linked to the love my dad never had for me. The memories of me spending time with my father were very few, but the ones spent playing, watching or talking about soccer were as sparse as the stars in the light-polluted L.A. night sky. “Do you play in a team?”

“No. I just joined a Meetup group with my friends.”

“Oh, that’s good. Do you guys wear uniforms?”

“Not really, just my fluorescent-yellow Adidas cleats and my yellow Club América jersey.” My dad scoffed at my reply.

“I hate that fucking team,” he said, followed by a moment of realization. “I didn’t mean to offend you, mijo. It’s just that I like Las Chivas.” Kids are normally supposed to root for whatever team their fathers root for, however terrible the team may be. This was news to me. I realized that I never had gotten to know my own father. “Didn’t Ramiro tell you that I liked them?” According to his question, it was everybody’s responsibility, but his, to tell me about my own father.

Uncle Ramiro did like that team, but like me, he knew neither the fact nor the man to whom the fact belonged. My dad and Uncle Ramiro were once very close friends, but the former was never around. He never allowed anyone to get close to him or get to know him. As far as my family was concerned, my dad was invisible. Solitary confinement and being forgotten began way before my dad landed in prison. Incarceration was merely the manifestation of the disease. Like a cancer, it consumed every aspect of the person and destroyed every aspect of who they were.

“No,” I replied. “He never talks about you.”

“Ha! That rat bastard has always been jealous of me.” My dad huffed and sighed, sucking air through his teeth. “He owes me big. I got him his first job in LA back in the ‘80s.” My dad’s voice carried the drama of one who had been betrayed, like Caesar prior to his stabbing or Jesus before the kiss. He expected his old buddy Ramiro to not only look after his family but to also put in a good word for him to keep his memory alive. Mexicans never allowed you to forget a favor that they did for you, no matter how minute the gesture or how remote the time it had been since it happened. “He’s stupid. Whatever. Anyway, I’m calling you because I just wanted to tell you that they killed your cousin.”

“They killed him?” I asked myself out loud. Who was this faceless they? It was the pronoun that allowed the Izaguirres to point the finger at a higher evil, one that took the burden of responsibility out of their hands, and handed it over to something they could lay the blame on and divert it from themselves. “Who killed him?”

“I don’t know. They’re still investigating.” They versus they. They investigating they. Nobody wanted to confess to the role they played in his death, not even his family. The shortcomings they had played in his poor upbringing were genetic and they spread onto the next generation. The boy was in prison as his dad had been before him, as well as his grandfather had in his youth. “He was murdered.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said after I ran out of things to say. “What was he in prison for?”

“I don’t know,” my dad replied. It struck me as strange that my dad had no idea why his family members were in prison.

“What was his name? I couldn’t find it on the site where I donated some money for his funeral. Which one of tío Carlos’s sons was he?” I had a faint memory of us playing soccer as kids, perhaps a fake one. Something created by my mind in order to focus all of the raw grief I felt knotting midway between my throat and lungs. I felt embarrassed that I knew more about the guy who collected cans at Clover Park than someone in my family.

“You did that?” my dad asked surprised. “That’s good, mijo. That’s really good. I’m not sure what his name was. I’m going to ask Carlos’s ex-wife.”

“Why don’t you ask tío Carlos himself?” Were they not on speaking terms?

“I can’t because they put him in solitary confinement after the murder. They were in the same prison block when it happened.” Most of my dad’s brother’s had landed in prison at least once, and a majority of them were in prison still. The family had accepted it as another one of life’s intricacies. “How did you find out?” My dad knew the gossip, but not the news.

“Facebook,” I replied. Family was thicker than blood, but Facebook gossip was stickier than blood.

*          *          *          *

After I hung up the phone, I made my way home. It was 10:23 a.m., so I was certain that all of my roommates would be awake on the other side of my apartment door. My wife, my son, and my 5-year-old golden retriever Nala would be expecting me to walk in through the door. My blondes, as I liked to refer to them.

“Oh! Daddy’s home,” my wife’s muffled voice yelped as the keys jingled into the keyhole. “Here comes daddy!”

Opening the door, I was greeted by a furry rush of panting and tail-wagging. Nala was so excited that I nearly tripped over her.

“Look who’s been waiting for you all morning,” my wife Marie said pointing her eyes at the playpen in the living room. I walked over, and knelt down. Luca was outstretching his little hands through the nursery-white bars.

“Come here, mijo,” I said, taking him into my arms. As I looked deep into his innocent eyes, he took a deep breath and sneezed on my nose, giggling a toothless smile. The way that he was looking at me told me that someday I would have to explain to him why his eyes were blue and mine brown; his hair light, mine dark. Why the U.S. had one of the worst soccer teams in the world despite being the best at literally every other sport, and why his penis was circumcised and mine wasn’t.

However, the hardest conversation of all the ones we would have— including the one about sex— would be the one where I explained why there were so few Izaguirre men and why the rest of them would never be part of his life. Not only because they were bad men, but because I chose not to be like them.

This beautiful baby boy would carry the last name, but no longer the stigma that accompanied it for generations. I wanted him to be different, to be loved. I was here to put an end to the criminality created by paternal absence.

Luca wrapped his tiny hand around my gritty, dirt-spangled thumb, and tried to put it in his mouth. As I pulled it away, I thought about the game that allowed me to express emotions forbidden anywhere outside of the field. Emotions of appreciation, admiration, and love. A love for the game, love for myself, love for the feelings it made me feel, the longing it filled, and the sense of belonging that only its mechanics allowed me to witness. A game that I would pass on to my son, and encourage him to play. Always for fun.

With him in my arms, nothing would hurt him.

With him in my love, nothing could stop him.

Marie came over and kissed our son on the cheek. I looked at her and she smiled.

Then, I kissed her lips.

 

Artwork

Oseguera, Jose L. (2017). El Clásico [Painting]. Acrylic on colored pencil, Los Angeles, CA.

Anima

You glance at beauty.

It’s a silent exhilaration, a rendezvous unbeknownst to all.

You dress the four corners of your eyes with her red rose,

Releasing yourself within her smile.

The requited glimpse you elicit refracts the heat that you interred

In her tender earth, where the ear and the neck become one.

It sweltered budding petals on her back and blossomed velvety on her feverous flesh.

You perspire at her sudden control of the rein,

Your recompense for restraining your admiration to ocular amusement.

You simper.

You stare, insisting on the proposition she abandoned at a lash’s bat.

The infinity of this second, her unwithering beauty—

One that knows not of age—

Lingers in a gust of overindulged perfume, coquettish lace, metronomic stilettos, tremulous cleavage.

A sea of flowery tresses forever drowns the nameless vision,

As faceless now as when she was unseen.

You blink away the temptation.

You look again, haunted by the loss of what you never had.

The ghost of what you could have been.

 

Artwork

1939 Tournament of Roses queen [Graphic]. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Accessed on 11/30/2017

The Depths Of You

It is a fervor unfettered by the flesh.
A spirit departing through the fingertips, entering the fibers of our shared pulse,
Diffusing a balmy exhalation that preludes their embrace;
Respiring the sweet scent of its anticipation.

It is a dialogue in the veins that emanates from our innermost being,
A sensation that fills the profundity of my joints.
A magnetism triggered in our bones
Whose melody resounds in their cobwebbed cavities.

The silent weeping of yearning tendons outstretching,
Wailing as one without a mother for a home that in the hand of a friend I have found.
Mortal hands that for an instance transgress the rotating tyranny of the clock’s,
Denuding the muscles of their strength, clothing them in warm blood nectar.

Our wistful thinking to fill a space within by closing the one between us
Traverses all the layers of being, and transcends all the planes of existence.
This gripping impulse excavates a new vessel for me within yourself.
A place in which to berth our friendship.

A blend of our palms, their interlocking asymmetry,
Rekindles the cherished imperfections of first love,
And stokes the light conducing us on a shared path.
Embracing the soul of a friend.

 

Dedicated to R.S. Noel for reminding me that writing has the restorative power to transport us into a better world, even in the darkest of hours.

Thank you for the shout-out. Let’s continue to foster this positive writers’ community, the Writers’ Tribe, in which we can all feel free to share with others what is in our hearts.

Artwork

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). Fate Is In The Hands [Layered Image]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles.

 

If I Swallow Anything Evil

     Julian knew Ai Liu very well, in fact, he had been friends with her and her younger sister Suyin for a couple of semesters, and if there was one thing he learned from interacting with them, it was that Ai hated Suyin. She hated being compared to her or when people found out that they were related. Ai despised standing next to her or even being in the same room as her. She was anything but her sister’s keeper. Having the reputation of loving life and men, Ai disagreed with Suyin’s celibate sweetness and doe-eyed naïveté. Ironically, these were the qualities that Julian found endearing in her. He had been flirtatious with Suyin since they first met, so it came as no surprise to Julian when Ai invited him and his friend Tito out to drinks at the end of their theater class. She even offered to pay. She probably wants to know the dirty details between me and her sister, Julian thought.

“Come on guys,” Ai implored. “You have no other choice than to come along.” She licked the elongated grin on her lips as if licking off something delicious. Both Julian and Tito were well aware, through word of mouth, that Ai was great at delivering toe-curling fellatio. While Julian and Tito wanted to drink with her, she wanted to drink them. “I’ll drive us there,” she said pointing to her car in the lot. As they approached her car, Tito yelled shotgun before Julian could even think of saying the word. Fuck, Julian thought.

When they arrived at the bar, Julian ordered a pint of Oktoberfest, Tito did the same. Julian and Tito were unofficially in constant competition. Anything that one did, the other tried to match or outdo. Especially when it came to anything that could be measured or quantified in terms of size or length: Who could write the longest term paper; who could get the highest grade; who had the longest penis (Julian, by a mere quarter of an inch); and who could drink the other under the table. Ai ordered a lemon Margarita in a tall, blue, salt-rimmed cocktail glass, accompanied by a half-filled cocktail shaker containing the remainder of the Margarita mix.

While the boys were busy taking precipitated gulps of their amber-colored märzen, Ai sat crossed-legged on her high chair, sipping her Margarita, dipping her tongue into it, biting the long, black cocktail straw halfway down its length, leaving behind teeth marks that curled it. The black candy cane floating in her glass was a preview of her oral skills. Foreplay. Tito kicked Julian’s shin under the table, and nodded over to Ai as he took another deep gulp. When Julian turned to look at her, the straw was dancing on the rim of her lips on the tampered end and on the rim of the glass on the straight end. Her lips were fleshy, as if in a perpetual state of puckering in anticipation of a kiss. They were framed by a heart-shaped face, small brown eyes— her dad’s eyes— and perfectly trimmed, plucked, and penciled eyebrows. As their eyes locked, Ai kept running her hands through her hair, grouping the long, straight black strands into two thick, silky tresses. She pulled each one around her neck, resting them on her large, round breasts. They’re big for an Asian girl, he remembered her saying. Julian was entranced by Ai’s love-dance, so much so that his friend Tito could have been dying of alcohol poisoning or spontaneously combusting, and it would have been all the same to him. One thing was clear, Ai wanted Julian, and Julian wanted to know where this flirtation was coming from.

From time to time, thoughts of Suyin kept popping into Julian’s head, like a tug of war between the sisters, one yanking on his brainstem while the other the bulb of his brain. Suyin was tall, thin, and had a full mane of beautifully straight, black hair that bounced gracefully as she strutted up and down the hallways. She had rich honey-chestnut eyes that were shy, yet bright, shaped by feathery lashes and nicely trimmed, thick eyebrows. The combination of her high cheekbones, pouty lips, and slightly crooked teeth gave her an angelically contagious smile. The same one she probably had since she was 8.

While Ai’s small fingers stroked Julian’s hand, he felt nothing. No sudden rush of blood to his face or penis. All Julian could think about now was Suyin and the night they spent together a few weeks ago. How they walked side by side, without losing a step as if dancing, almost flying off the paved, cigarette-lined sidewalks. How she laughed at everything he said, and how he found every point she made to be the most brilliant ever spoken. As the night progressed, how he had wondered whether or not Suyin wanted to be kissed at the end of their date. They had been playing games the whole night, playing the license plate game while driving to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Downtown LA, jinx buy me a Coke while they ate a light dinner. Kissing was just another one of these games. He smiled and laughed, and acted like a love lunatic trying to figure out ways of making that night with Suyin last forever. That intravenous feeling of fluttering, raising goosebumps up and down the arm attached to the hand she was holding. The image of her adorably scrunched up face as he blew an eyelash off her nose, wishing that her wincing smile would never escape his memory. Finally, Julian thought about how all of that may have been lost as Suyin was rumored dating another guy.

“Are you thinking of Suyin?” Ai asked. “What do you even see in her? What does anyone?” Ai hated the attention that her sister received, especially when it came from men she herself liked. The feeling of being looked over in favor of Suyin drove Ai crazy. It happened with strange men, and it happened at home. “She’s my dad’s favorite, and now she seems to be yours.”

Julian and Tito bulged their eyes at each other in mild disgust, getting the feeling that Ai was angry at something that preceded this particular instance. Something deep, something dark.

“Yeah, you know I like Suyin,” Julian said. “But what does that have to do anything with your dad?”

“Well, when I was a teenager, my dad caught me giving head to one of my boyfriends on our front porch,” Ai said, mixing the watery ice into the Margarita with her straw. She expected her dad to blow up, yell at her, tell her mom, and ground her for the rest of her life. She also wanted him to just beat the hell out of the guy with the hard-on in his daughter’s virginal mouth. “But he didn’t. He just turned around and closed the door on me.” At first, Ai thought her dad hadn’t seen a thing. That she had gotten away with it. She felt good as when you get an A on a test you didn’t crack a single book open for. But after she shooed away her secret boyfriend, she snuck into the house, went upstairs, and approached her parents’ room, whose door was left slightly ajar. “I saw my dad on his hands and knees, sobbing inconsolably, asking God, Why, oh why, my God, my Father, is my beautiful daughter this way? What did I do to deserve this?’ Can you believe him? That stupid fuck.” She resented him for not caring. She hated him for not acknowledging her.

Confounded, Mr. Liu asked God the question on most devotees minds, one whose answer is never enough, regardless of how biblical or beautifully philosophical it may be. One that seems unfair and out of place in His divine plans: Why do bad things happen to good people? Rather than asking God for strength to help alleviate his daughter’s suffering, Mr. Liu was seeking help to cope with his own heartbreak and humiliation.

“What’s so wrong with being like Suyin?” Tito asked, drinking beer that was doing very little to heighten his fully drunken state.

“Fuck you, asshole,” Ai snarled.

“Alright, you two,” Julian said. “Take it easy. Finish your drink, you asshole.” They all started to laugh.

“He just kept sniffling in his room until Suyin and my mom got home,” Ai added. Mr. Liu lit a couple of incense sticks and placed them next to portraits of his deceased parents. Looking upon these washed out pictures that looked hundreds of years old, his mourning resumed. Ai was dead to him and she knew it. She began to feel more and more like a ghost in her own home.

With the first round of beers beginning to course through Julian and Tito’s systems, and as Ai crunched on the tequila-laced ice from her Margarita, she waved over the server and took the liberty of ordering two more pints of Oktoberfest for her male companions, a lemon Margarita for herself, and a round of tequila shots for the group.

“Are you trying to get me drunk?” Julian asked, slurring his words.

“Isn’t it obvious,” Ai answered with a grin and her leg sliding on Julian’s shin, raising his pant leg to his calf and lowering his sock to his ankle.

“Well, I have class in an hour.”

“Just skip it, and have another beer,” Tito said, nudging Julian’s full pint glass with his, spilling foam on the table. Tito knew that if Julian went to class he would have no reason to hang out with Ai, whom he barely knew.

“Yeah, don’t go,” Ai said, rubbing Julian’s bicep. “We’re going to hang out afterward.” Julian began to realize Ai’s true reason for wanting to hang out with him. I know why she wants to get me drunk, Julian thought, but why does she want to have sex with me? Julian was intrigued by Ai’s flirtatious behavior, by her wielding of sex magic. He remembered that Ai had a jealous boyfriend, one who followed her to class. One whose jealousy became unfettered when he caught her having anal sex in the backseat of her car. A car that he performed regular maintenance on. He’d check the car’s engine oil, and others would use their dipstick to check his girlfriend’s. Ai’s boyfriend was violent, had a short temper and stature, and a receding hairline.

“Bald guys have the biggest dicks,” Ai used to say. In spite of his size, he was abusive to her. On multiple occasions, Suyin implored her to leave him, but Ai would refuse saying, He’s less crazy than my ex. Compared to him, this bald loser is so vanilla. A pussy. Her father could care less, so long as Suyin, in his mind his only daughter, was dating a decent man. That reaction, in particular, made Ai crave the attention and restrictions of an authoritative male figure. Suyin, in Ai’s mind, was a little girl who only wanted to date clean-cut guys with side parts and straight A’s. In other words, guys like her dad or like Julian. “At least my guy is a man. A loser and a moron, but a real man.”

But as they worked on their second round of drinks, all of that didn’t seem to matter. Ai looked ready for love, and Julian’s fears of getting caught had been swallowed along with his first pint. He thought of Suyin and what she would think of him if she found out that he was having sex with her sister. Ai’s love was a guarantee, Suyin’s was unrequited.

“Okay, I’ll have another beer, and one shot, but that’s it,” Julian said, not wanting Tito to beat him at a drinking game he felt he himself was inevitably going to lose.

“So, I’ve heard that you blew Jelani,” Tito asked with a smirk. Jelani Emeka was a 6’7”, foreign exchange student from Burkina Faso. His famed “fucklist” was said to be longer than his list of transferable credits.

“Yeah,” Ai replied proudly. “I do it all the time. Well, any time my stupid boyfriend isn’t around.” Ai’s boyfriend worked nights, so he had plenty of time during the day to pay her random visits to campus. He would first check her car, and then go into the classroom and sit next her, as if she were a problem child.

“Is Jelani really 9 inches long. Is that true?” Julian asked.

“Actually, he’s bigger,” Ai said. “And thick. I can barely fit him in my mouth.” Ai started to giggle. Julian and Tito gulped whatever liquid was in their mouths, beer or saliva, not wanting to imagine what that would be like. “I sucked his big, black dick yesterday.” Ai spoke freely, not slurring a single word. A great feat after having put away four Margaritas. “Jelani warned me that he was going to make it last a long time, but he always comes for me like in 4 minutes. I really hope you guys can make it last longer than that.” Julian and Tito looked at one another, partially offended and partially nervous that they would even be able to last a minute. Could she really be that good? their eyes seemed to communicate to one another. “At least 8 minutes between the two of you.”

Holding the chilled shot glasses filled with cold, clear tequila, Julian and Tito locked eyes again, clinking their glasses along with Ai, accepting her challenge of outlasting Jelani’s mythicized virility and each other’s. The sharp scent of tequila blanco tickled Julian’s nose, and in taking the single gulp of fire water, every passage in his nasal cavity bloomed wide open, allowing air to be absorbed in, and his last breath of sobriety to be expelled out.

After the three drank their shots, they left the bar and headed to Ai’s car. Julian called out shotgun, beating Tito at his own game.

“Fuck you, bitch,” Tito said, as he crashed his body’s full weight onto Julian.

“Aw, don’t worry about riding in the back, Tito,” Ai said. “That’s actually where I blew Jelani.” Both Julian and Tito looked at each other in shock. Their eyes seemed to telepathically communicate, Woaw, is this it? Are we really going through with this?

Ai’s driving was erratic, even for a drunk, swerving in and out of lanes, and almost running over a pedestrian and rear-ending several cars.

“My dad’s a fucking pussy,” Ai said. “I tell him about how I fuck Suyin’s boyfriends whenever we’re alone.” Ai disengaged the wheel to wipe the tears off her eyes. Julian and Tito dug their fingernails into any surface they could get their flailing hands on. “He just sits there looking. Saying nothing.” Driving straight through a stop sign, she told her inebriated hostages that she had been purposefully doing things that garnered a reaction out of her father. Partially to hurt him by hurting his beloved, younger daughter, his pride and joy. But mostly, to get him to care about her again. To recover at least an ounce of her daddy’s love.

“Hey, watch it,” Julian yelled, bracing himself for impact with another car.

“There was nobody there.”

“Just because there’s nobody on the other three sides of the road, doesn’t mean you don’t have to stop.” Ai let out a slow, agitated sigh.

“Fuck,” Ai said. “You sound just like him.” Julian noticed a clear discharge rolling down one of Ai’s round cheeks. “He doesn’t say a fucking thing. I know that what I do hurts him. I just wish he would tell me. But no! He just cries like a little bitch.”

For the first time since they left the bar, the car had been swallowed by an empty silence. Nobody spoke. Nobody breathed. The air conditioning’s damaged airways whistled a pitch that carried the awkward tone that preludes any sexual act. Ai parked her car in the campus parking lot and looked straight ahead. The squeaks of her tired brakes were violins in the overture of her sensual performance, Ai’s concerto for two horns.

“So, tell me about the opera you and Suyin went to a while back.” Ai said, wiping off the last of her tears, smearing her thick eyeliner and mascara.

“It was good,” Julian answered, not wanting to give away his true feelings or the full details of what had transpired on that magical night. He had feelings for Suyin, feelings of love, feelings of wanting to wait for her, and playing the thrilling game of seduction. The sweet limbo, the wondrous pain of not knowing for sure what the other person thought or felt for you, but you desperately hoped that they felt the same way you did. Even if she was currently dating someone else, Julian could envision himself dating Suyin someday. However, he couldn’t fantasize what it would be like making love to her, he wouldn’t allow himself to, which usually meant that he really wanted to. Seeing Ai’s eyes, beckoning him like two glistening candied apples, on the other hand, he could picture her lips around his penis almost without trying. This thought didn’t just arouse him, but also made him a little sad.

“She told me about how much fun she had with you,” Ai said, doing so in a mocking, almost accusatory fashion. This elicited schoolyard jeers and eked gibbers from Tito, who was caged behind the two front seats, followed by laughter coming from Ai.

“Yeah, we had a great time,” Julian replied, raising the volume of his voice to drown out their derision. I actually wanted to kiss her goodnight, he thought, but I wasn’t sure if she wanted it.

“She mentioned that you guys almost kissed,” Ai added, tapering her laughter. “She told me that she wished you had.” Her laughter returned, louder than before. To Ai, sex was just a game, and crashing the party on the guys her sister was crushing on was just girl’s play. Julian felt a sense of dread for Suyin and the horrendous game she was unwittingly playing with her sister. But Ai did deserve some sympathy. Even as she was deliberately sabotaging her sister’s relationships. She was a wounded animal hurting itself in an effort to find healing. It was her way of trying to take back from Suyin that which she felt belonged to her. That which she felt she had lost. Ai was enamoring her sister’s men, but only because she wanted to enamor one man. Her father.

“I’ve fucked every guy she’s ever dated,” Ai said.

“What about the one she just started dating a few days ago?” Julian asked, dreading the reply, hoping that she would say, Oh yeah, that won’t last.

“Yep,” Ai said with unflinching confidence. “I fucked him years ago, back when she only had a crush on him and he was with someone else.”

“So, you fucked him just because you knew she liked him?” Tito asked.

“Yep.” Ai let out an elven laugh associated with demon-possessed dolls that came to life at the foot of the bed, in the middle of the night.

Julian sat back on his seat and felt a wave of regret wash over him. Maybe he missed his chance of being with Suyin by being a little too coy with his intentions. Julian took the game too far. Maybe Suyin wanted someone a little more mature. I should’ve fucking manned-up, and kissed her, he cursed himself. That could’ve been me dating her.

“Don’t feel bad,” Ai said, reading the emotion on Julian’s face. “Suyin’s stupid. She always picks the wrong guys. Well, at least ones that are willing to cheat on her, which ends up being good for me.” She giggled and placed her left hand on his left knee, twisting her torso, squeezing her large, retrained breasts into a glossy cleavage. Ai began to move her hand. Julian was afraid that the more Ai traversed up his thigh in a trajectory toward his genitals, the harder he’d be and the more difficult it would be for him to speak, hence allowing her to have her way with him.

“Wait. Stop,” Julian said, squeezing Ai’s hand on its tracks. She moaned in surprise.

His concentration was broken by a pair of hands creeping slowly from the backseat toward the driver’s side. They belonged to Tito, the creep sitting behind Ai.

“Tito, I never pictured you as being so rough,” Ai yelled as Tito fondled her brazier-hindered breasts. “Wait.” Ai unhooked her bra, burdening her back with the full weight of her large bosoms, knowing that Tito would aid in carrying the load.

Julian just sat there, immovably, watching as Tito squeezed and shook her breasts like the bartender had her lemon Margarita, which was currently helping to loosen her body and inhibitions.

“You’re fucking gay, Julian,” Tito said, working up a sweat as he had one of Ai’s breasts in a chokehold, flicking and pinching her nipple, making her squeal with excitement. “If I were you, I would’ve made Suyin deep throat my tongue.” Ai laughed as she moaned. “I bet you 50 bucks that I can kiss her before you can.” Part of Julian wanted to beat Tito, but another, a larger side of him didn’t want to wager with his feelings for Suyin. To Julian, Suyin was a potential long-term relationship, wife material, but to Tito, she was another game waiting to be played.

Still pondering Tito’s proposition, Ai grabbed Julian’s hand and placed it on her other breast. As soon as his hand made contact with the thin cotton blouse separating her round, plump breast from his sweaty, shaky grip, Julian’s pants began to shrink and Ai’s moans became louder, and her movements more agitated.

“You two are getting me so wet,” Ai said. Julian looked to the backseat, toward Tito’s crotch to verify whether his pants too were experiencing the same phenomenon his were. To his surprise, Tito’s pants had beaten his in the form of a round, nickel-sized wet spot on the fabric shrink-wrapping his bulge. Between Ai’s heaving and Tito’s pulling at his crotch’s fabric, Julian lost track of time. He had to be in class in 10 minutes, but he didn’t want to lose out on getting a little something.

“Alright, girlfriend,” Tito said, breaking up her moaning. “Let’s do this.” Ai pulled her bra completely off through one of her sleeves. She gave Julian a look that communicated, Check this out, and exited through the driver’s side door.

By the time she arrived at the other side of the car and entered through the passenger side rear door, Tito had already pulled down his precome stained jeans and pulled his semi-erect penis through his boxer fly.

As soon as Ai entered the rear of the car, Tito’s penis entered the rear of her mouth. Based on the ability she had to deep-throat more than Tito’s 6 and a half inches, Ai made his penis disappear.

“I’m no Jelani, but at least I can last longer than he can,” Tito said confidently. His cockiness became bigger and more boastful as his cock got harder. “In fact, I don’t think you can make me come at all.”

“Alright,” Ai said, accepting Tito’s challenge, never allowing a penis to go wanting. “Move your seat forward.” Julian felt a nudge on his lower back, punctuating Ai’s request. He followed orders, not because it was her car, or the fact that she had spent over $70 on drinks, but simply because he wanted to see whether or not she could indeed use her big mouth to shut Tito’s. “I need to get comfortable,” she added. Ai burrowed herself in the tight nook between the edge of the backseat bench and the back of the passenger seat. Julian’s knees were practically by his ears. He turned his neck— the only limb he could move in his squished state— to see the oral brawl between Ai and Tito. He continued to mock and laugh at Ai.

Her lips were quicksand, her tongue a whirlpool, and her teeth smoothened stones on a creek bed. The moist skin lining her inner-cheeks were warm cascades, gently parting with the mere touch of a fingertip. The enthusiasm with which she suckled on Tito’s throbbing penis carried the determination of riptide. Her desire to please a man’s body carried the explosiveness of an ancient geyser that had been dormant. Tito’s penis was foaming up with saliva and precome. Ai’s eyes were burning with ferocity, looking up to Julian, asking him, Don’t you wish it was your dick I was sucking on? The vein underneath Tito’s engorged penis looked like a cucumber growing out of another.

All the windows were fogged up, the smell of lemon Margarita and old cigarettes wafted the entirety of the car, as she exhaled hard on Tito’s slobbered, sloppy penis. Julian had always felt sorry for people who manifested pain out in the open, for those who cried. He had been taught by his parents to feel pity for people like Suyin and her father, but not for ones who hid their pain. Those who suffered in silence. Seeing the exhausting manner by which Ai gagged on the penis of a man she felt nothing for, showed Julian just how much pain she was truly in.

“You wouldn’t be able to make me come even if you sucked all night,” Tito said, as if his penis were a three-card game in which Ai had to guess the right card, the right way to suck. “Only one girl has been able to make me come from blowing me, and you ain’t her, girlfriend.” This spurted Ai to bob her head more enthusiastically as if bobbing for apples. She needed to please every man because she would never please her dad. “Keep trying, you won’t be abl—”

Tito released a long, high-pitched moan before he even knew what was going on inside of him, let alone finish the last word of his disapproving statement. At first listen, Julian thought that the effeminate sound had emanated from Ai’s penis-filled mouth. However, he had been looking at Tito’s face at the exact moment that it winced in pleasure, baring his teeth, and clutching his eyes closed. The sound lasted for a few seconds, and it was a combination of a cow’s mooing, a wolf’s howling, and a bird’s cooing.

“That’s better,” Ai said, as she came up for a second, out of breath, pleased in the way she was finally pleasuring an indomitable Tito.

“I have to go,” Julian said as he looked at the clock. “I’m already late.” Ai pulled Tito’s penis out of her mouth and Tito opened his eyes, ceasing his moaning.

“Wait, but you’re next,” Ai said, almost offended, as if saying, I didn’t fill your guts with liquor so that you could just run out on me. “Here.” Ai sat up next to Tito— never once releasing her death grip on his penis— palming the empty seat to her right. “I’ll suck you both off at the same time. I haven’t done that in a while.”

As much as he found the idea intriguing, it came as a relief for Julian to exit Ai’s car with the intention of not entering the backseat. Besides, Ai only wanted Julian because Suyin had a crush on him, and she was using Tito to make him jealous. Tito also wanted Suyin only because Julian had shown interest in her. In Ai’s opinion, nobody wanted her, not even her sister, and that was what really drove Ai to do what she did that night.

Julian walked to class looking back to Ai’s car from time to time, seeing or imagining it rocking from side to side. As he sat in his class, Julian’s phone kept buzzing with texts from both Ai and Tito. They’re together, why can’t they just send one text? Julian thought.

“I went home 20 minutes after you left,” Tito texted.

“Why?” Julian replied.

“She couldn’t make me come.” Tito followed his statement with a sad face emoji.

“LOL, I knew it.” A speech bubble with a grayed out ellipsis popped up for about five minutes.

“Well… she actually stopped trying after you left. She really wanted to suck you off.”

“Was she pissed?” Julian asked.

“Yeah.”

“Fuck—”

A text buzzed in just as Julian was about to finish thumbing his reply. Julian tapped on the banner floating at the top of the screen.

“You fucking nerd. Why did you leave me with Tito?” Ai texted, in two swift texts.

“Because I told you I had class.”

“Bullshit. You’re just a pussy. You don’t have the balls to take me on.”

That’s bullshit.”

“You’re choosing Suyin over me. Didn’t I tell you that I hate it when people do that to me? WTF???”

Ai was right, Julian didn’t have the balls to play her game or the one he had started with her sister Suyin.

“I’m still in the parking lot if you change your mind,” Ai added. Julian didn’t reply. He even turned off his phone just so that no part of him could get turned on.

Although Ai Liu was hypersexual, a nymphomaniac in most of her classmates’ opinions— one in which she had sucked twice the amount of penises that she actually had— she knew very little about sex, or what made it great. Of course, she was capable of making love— vaginal, anal, oral, and sometimes all three at once— however, she didn’t seem capable of making a sexual relationship into a loving, meaningful one. Ai used sex as a drug, mainly to numb the feelings of rejection, the lack of love emanating from her father’s heart. She’d rather eat someone out than have those feelings eat at her. She used it as a weapon to hurt her father, herself, her boyfriends, and especially her younger sister Suyin. She wanted to hurt her dad for not loving her, for being ashamed of her. By repressing his dissent and hiding his emotions, and not seeking to repair the damage that had already been done, he piled on the shame, which in turn, piled on the pain for Ai.

A few months later, Julian saw Ai being escorted by her boyfriend from one class to the next. She waved at him and as soon as Julian waved back, her boyfriend pulled her aside, demanding to know who he was and the type of relationship she had with him. Well, at least that bald, moron prefers her over Suyin, Julian thought. As Julian walked away from the theater building into the parking lot, he wondered how long he would have lasted in a relationship with Suyin, had they kept playing their game. It would have definitely been longer than what I would’ve lasted in Ai’s mouth, he thought.

Julian wondered whether Ai was preying on her sister’s newest boyfriend— one who Suyin started dating after she found about her old boyfriend’s infidelity with Ai— and whether her father was finally praying to God for Ai rather than about her. Julian looked back one last time before Ai and her boyfriend were completely out of sight. They were kissing and laughing.

They seemed happy.

 

Photo Credit: Allan G. Smorra © 2017

Never to Return

Traveling from San Diego to Los Angeles in the dry heat can be difficult. Doing so after your horse and provisions have been stolen, can be worse.

All that Joaquin Fernandez de Castro had left after the denuding incident were his guitar, his 3-year-old brown dog, Whisky, and the clothes on his back. To make matters worser, the theft had occurred only a few hours outside of the San Diego de Alcalá Mission. Sure, Joaquin could have simply returned to the Mission from where he departed earlier that day, and requested a new horse and provisions, but he decided against it because he was notorious for these kinds of situations. Hence, he decided to just keep trekking, and somehow find his way up to Pueblo de Los Angeles all on his own.

“Joaquincito, you’d leave your head behind if Our Holy Father hadn’t attached it to that thick neck of yours,” Padre Florencio would tease him every time Joaquin did something stupid.

Joaquin hated being treated as the village idiot. That was the main reason why he left the comfort and affluence of his parents’ home in Madrid, Spain. He was the youngest of six, the runt, as his mother used to refer to him, in tender motherese, but just as insulting, nonetheless.

Joaquin would rather be found dead somewhere between San Diego and Los Angeles than to have to explain to the Padre what really happened, and in turn, have the Padre write a letter to his parents about his imbecility. An imbecility he had planned to shed by becoming a priest and helping those that were in worse shape than he, and start a new life where nobody knew of him or of his ineptitude. An ineptitude that had somehow made its way into his luggage, snugly packed with his socks and underwear, and onto the boat he took from Portugal to Cuba. His flaws had somehow swum behind like a horde of evil mermaids, bobbing up and down in the waves that had made him so nauseous during the whole trip. It was as if God Himself didn’t want him to forget who he was. You’re worthless, Joaquin, he often told himself, and you probably should have been born a woman. However, those words weren’t of his own creation even though they were rattling inside his achy head. They were his mother’s. Joaquin wanted to put an ocean between his life as a failure, as a disappointment as his father used to refer to him after a binge of imported whisky, and his life as a benevolent priest.

As Joaquin walked on the side of the Camino Real, he soon began to create a new reputation, that of a wandering vagabond. Most travelers ignored him, something that hurt him more than anything his family or the friars in San Diego ever did to him. Rejection, in his mind, was the worst sin of all. Christ Himself was rejected by his own people. Joaquin couldn’t help but to sob at this rejection from his own Catholic brethren. It was a sin he should’ve brought upon himself when he encountered the injured man by the side of the road, the one who stole his horse and his sense of trust. His first case of charity. He should’ve just non carpe diem, as he had become known for in his circle of friends, and recently in the mission. As a person that never seized the day. His horse got stolen by a man pretending to be stranded. Joaquin lay the man on his stomach, draping his limp body over the saddle. The clip-clop, the horse’s soothing gait, placed Joaquin in a serene trance. He went for a drink and before he knew it, the man was seated upright and in full gallop toward the sunset. Joaquin yelled out at the hijacker that he was a priest and that God would punish him for having stolen from Him, but he kept on riding without remorse. So much for being a Good Samaritan, he thought.

Whisky, the dog, named after his owner’s addiction— one that had started as a game with his father and brothers to see who could outdrink who— helped to garner some sympathy from a few travelers, often receiving scraps of food and smiles that communicated, “Oh, you poor man.” Good, full-teethed, Catholic smiles. Smiles that communicated empathy, but expressed indifference. Whisky, the spirit, could be seen when the wealthy travelers opened their lavishly upholstered carriages to dump out their trash or charity of water and various foodstuffs at Joaquin and his dog. Joaquin wanted to be filled with the spirit, his black mistress and dark past, his drink of choice. What he wouldn’t give to have just a single drop of it spill off one of the gentlemen’s glasses, warmly permeating into the cracked earth that was his tongue.

“People scare easy,” Joaquin said to his dog. “Unlike you, they find it hard to trust other people.” Up to this point, that was all Joaquin had been doing, trying to garner people’s trust by doing what they expected of him. The only reason that he allowed the stranger to ride his horse was that the church expected him to do so. To be selfless. The reason why he was, presently, in the middle of nowhere was that his parents expected him to leave their house. To be a real man. “Jesus was a selfless, real, flesh and bone man and look where he ended up.” Whisky cocked its little head at Joaquin, furrowing its brow and releasing an ascending grunt. “Maybe this is where I belong. Nowhere. A place with no people to tell me what to do or guilt me into doing their bidding.” He turned over to Whisky for some sort of confirmation, but all he got was its breathy panting.

As he looked for a place to settle down for the night, a desert rose tree caught his attention. He walked over, lay down his belongings, and plucked a flower off of it. He brought it to his face, dipped his nose deep in its bell, and took a long deep breath. It had been one of the few moments of relaxation he’d experienced in years. He closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, the daylight had suddenly turned into a single-candled dusk. He pulled out a three-page letter from his coat’s breast pocket, unfolded it, and placed in it the freshly-cut rose, still wet at the base. Folding up the letter at the creases, he placed it back in his pocket. If something so small and delicate can survive in this climate, then so can I, he reassured himself.

Joaquin began to feel the accumulation of the stress of traveling and getting nowhere fast. That of not having slept on a warm bed and eaten a warm meal. He began to wonder if he’d ever feel the warm embrace of a woman or the warmness of other people again, even in the impersonal way they addressed one another as they passed by each other on the street. He pulled out his bible, opened it to Luke 10:25, and read the story of the man on the side of the road, and thought about how human kindness seemed to leave humans as soon as they left civilization. They despoiled themselves of civility and kindness and hung it like a dirty rag on a rack when they reached the town’s end. They behaved like naked savages outside of it, and before they returned home, they threw it back on, and acted as if they never took it off. He closed the bible and sighed at their hypocrisy.

“Out in the range,” he said to Whisky as he began to lay his body on the dusty, dirty ground, “we’re all just animals.” He called the dog towards him, and it burrowed its little warm, furry body in the nook formed between his chest and thighs. “What if I had married Dalila Gamero?” Joaquin whispered to himself. “What if I hadn’t folded like a bad hand of cards, and kept up the bluff like Gregorio did? Gregorio, the one I thought was my best friend, my true brother. Why did I give her to him? Why do I always do that?” But as he looked around at his surroundings and at the heavens above for an answer, all he got in response was darkness and silence.

Suddenly, Joaquin saw a beam of light emanating from the moon down onto what looked like a finely crafted couch off in the distance. He got up from the blanket-lined dirt floor and walked towards it. The couch was light blue fabric upholstered on dark cherry wood, decorated with golden buttons and matching tassels. It was an exact replica of the one found in his parents’ bedroom. Joaquin began to hear voices that sounded familiar, but not so much that he was able to instantly associate them with anyone he knew. The closer he walked, the louder the voices, their moaning and groaning, became. His sight was blurry, and he began to rub his eyes furiously, but the more he rubbed, they became blurrier still. As he approached the couch, he recognized a scar on what appeared to be a man’s back. It was Gregorio, his best friend. It was from the wound he sustained as a child after he climbed and fell off a big apple tree in Joaquin’s backyard.

Gregorio was thrusting his bare hips into what looked like a woman’s pelvis. Joaquin looked incessantly, circling the small couch, trying to see if he could find any physical characteristics that he could use to identify the woman. He couldn’t. He had a premonition of who it might be, but he didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t until the woman white-knuckled onto Gregorio’s heaving buttocks that he realized that the woman that was screaming in ecstatic pain was Dalila herself. Her right hand, milky white from having always worn gloves, had three beauty spots, one on each knuckle of the index, middle, and ring fingers. Those delicate hands, the same ones Joaquin used to kiss right before they parted ways for the night, back when he was courting her, were now treacherously wringing sweat out of his childhood buddy’s flesh. How foolish he had been, referring to them as angel kisses when all she really wanted was sex. That goddamned whore, he thought.

“This one is for the Father,” Joaquin remembered saying after the first kiss. “This one is for the Son. And this one, for the Holy Ghost.” Each statement, each person of God, was punctuated by a long, warm kiss on each beauty spot.

Seeing the two people that had meant so much to him aiding one another reach orgasm showed him how cruel Dalila had really been and how she had ruined his life. Joaquin realized that she was the reason why he had left behind a life of comfort and wealth. That he would rather die as a nobody in the Californian wilderness than as somebody without Dalila as his woman. As his own.

“Do you like that?” Gregorio’s blurred face asked with a distorted voice.

“What?” Joaquin asked, shocked that these blurry phantoms of his past were acknowledging his presence.

“He asked if you liked what he’s doing to me?” Dalila asked, never once stopping her rhythmic lovemaking.

Joaquin fell on his ass, thrashing backwards, kicking up small clouds of dust.

“Do you like that?” Gregorio and Dalila continued to ask. The more Joaquin moved away, the closer he seemed to be to their passionate act of love. It was as if Satan himself was pulling his legs back towards the hell he was beholding. He wanted to yell, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even breathe.

“Do you like that?… Do you like that?… Do you like that?”

“Do you like that?” a gruff voice asked Joaquin as a foot kicked him in the buttocks.

“What?” Joaquin asked looking up at the man, his face shielding Joaquin’s eyes from the blaring sunlight, casting a momentary shadow over his face. Although it was difficult to see what the man looked like, Joaquin could tell that he didn’t have the most enchanting face, based on the smell of his rotten-egg breath.

“Who the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing here?” the man yelled at him as the hammer on his long revolver clicked, long and silvery white in the late morning’s piercing sun. Whisky barked loudly as if rabid.

Joaquin looked around in a panic to make sure that he was no longer dreaming. He was still in the desert. He scooted back violently, and breathed a sigh of relief. When Joaquin’s eyes finally came into focus, he saw just how big and fat the man really was. His big fat body was furnished with a big fat hat and a big fat mustache. Everything on his body was big and fat.

“My name is Severo,” the man said, clearing out his nostrils, and spitting out a hearty hawker the colors of the Mexican flag. “Severo Macario, at your service, and this is my daughter Rosalinda.”

Severo threw him a leather canteen full of a mystery liquid. Joaquin popped the lid, and spilled a little on the dirt. It was clear. Joaquin then brought the lip up to his nose, and smelled it suspiciously.

“Don’t be a wuss, and just drink it,” Severo insisted. Joaquin took a swig. He allowed the warm liquid to reside in his mouth for longer than he should have, and upon tasting the gravity of its otherworldly bitterness, he decided to swallow it hard rather than spray it all over the kind stranger. The wince that invaded his face after doing so drove Severo into a playful cackle. “Yep, that shit’s strong, ain’t it? Just how I like it.” Severo reached down to reclaim the rancid concoction and drank deeply from it.

“Where are you two headed?” Joaquin asked, wiping the last bit of liquid off his lips, noticing that Rosalinda hadn’t reacted to any of her father’s commotion.

“We’re travelling north to Pueblo de Los Angeles for work,” Severo said. “Where are you headed, amigo?”

“It’s Joaquin, and I’m also headed that way.” He continued to look over at the girl. Her stillness filled him with unrest.

“These are dangerous roads, you know. You got to watch out for friendly people as well as strangers.”

Joaquin was dying to tell Severo about what happened to him a few days ago in said “dangerous roads,” but he couldn’t bring himself to admitting that he needed help. Not anymore. Not after having seen the worst side of humanity. Maybe the old Joaquin would have cried at Severo’s feet, thanking him for providing him with asylum, but not the new one. Not the one who was reborn in this harsh environment.

“I usually don’t like to help strangers, at least, not ones off the trail,” Severo said. “You could say that I help them by not helping them.” He laughed heartily and coughed up a cloud of dust residing on the surface of his brown coat. “Trust me, they don’t want my help, right? Mi Rosa mas linda?” Rosalinda didn’t even seem to be breathing. She was a statue sitting on a horse, veiled in white lace, like a figure of the Virgin parading down the crowded streets during Semana Santa. “Don’t mind her. She’s a damned mute.” Joaquin laughed out of respect, but like Rosalinda, he wished he was mute, as well, that way he wouldn’t be obligated to reply to Severo’s inane comments. “I was about to send you to your Maker, but you seemed like a good guy.” Severo explained to Joaquin that he encountered a bum who tried to hijack him and his daughter, but he shot him dead after he saw fresh horse prints going around a bush. A bush that seemed to be neighing like a horse. Joaquin noticed that the horse Rosalinda was riding was the very one that he had lost a few days ago. He wanted to tell Severo that it was his stuff that he had stolen from the bum, but it became clear to him that Severo’s brand of helping was rooted in helping himself.

“Here,” Severo said as he threw a small pistol at Joaquin. The latter fumbled the gun a few times as a virgin’s hands fumble a penis the first time she encounters one. “What? Don’t tell me you’ve never used a gun before?”

“I have,” Joaquin replied, almost indignantly, fully disingenuously. “It’s just that I’m not used to people being so careless with things that can blow my head off.” Severo huffed, brushing off his brashness, and mounted his big, fat horse.

“As a man that lives outside the law, I live by very few rules,” Severo said, turning his horse around. “If you’re going to join us, I ask that you follow just one, ‘Don’t fuck my daughter.’” Joaquin was taken aback by the simple, yet crass request. “If you do, I’ll cut your dick off and feed it to your fucking mutt while you watch, and then I’ll put a bullet between your eyes.” Joaquin wasn’t disgusted at the act of violence proposed to him, but at the fact that this man would speak that way in front of a woman, especially one as young as Rosalinda. “So, what do you say?”

Joaquin thought about Severo’s proposition. Riding with a man like him would guarantee him protection and a safe passage to Pueblo de Los Angeles. But could he really trust a man like Severo? How can a man this vile and disgusting be smarter and have sounder judgement than me? Joaquin thought. After all, Severo was able to snuff out a dangerous man he himself couldn’t. There was something dangerous and unstable about him. Something that told Joaquin to stay on high alert if he decided not to join him, but especially if he did.

“Wait, how do you know I’m not a dangerous killer?” Joaquin asked, feeling a little insulted.

“Because of the clothes you’re wearing,” Severo replied with a smirk.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re dressed in all black. I thought, ‘he’s either a priest or a moron.’ Who the hell would wear black in this heat?” Joaquin fell speechless. He didn’t want Severo to know that he was indeed a priest, because outside of a church, men like Severo considered men of God as weak and unmanly. According to them, priests didn’t have sex, children, or dominion over a woman. Therefore, they weren’t real men. Besides, his title as a Vicar of Christ hadn’t dissuaded others, like the horse hijacker, from treating him like dirt. In his travels, he found out that people only cared about religion when it was convenient to them. When the Word helped them to perpetuate the stolid state they were currently in. Not when it came to having a change of heart, and truly acting as Christ would.

“Well, I’m neither.”

“Very well, Mr. Neither,” Severo said. “Get on the girl’s donkey and join us on our trip to Pueblo de Los Angeles.” Joaquin couldn’t help but feel humiliated at Severo’s kind gesture. Everything coming out of his mouth sounded like an insult, even his benevolence. Joaquin tapped on his lap and Whisky jumped up. This was the first time he and his dog were able to travel off their feet.

After an excursion that felt like a week, a sleep-deprived Joaquin was startled awake by Severo’s rough mannerisms.

“Alright, big boy, it’s time to get up and set up camp,” Severo said. “I’d do it myself, tuck you into bed, and kiss you good night, but then I’d have to kill you.” Joaquin didn’t find the words coming out of Severo’s mouth particularly whimsical, but he appreciated the humor, mainly because he hadn’t heard a human voice refer to him personally in the past few days. He looked over at Rosalinda and a wave of pity washed upon his face.

“Don’t worry about her,” Severo roared. “She hasn’t said a word since her mamma died. And if she was able to speak,” Severo flashed his daughter a smile, “she would only speak when I spoke to her.” He walked over as he blew kisses at her, a gesture Rosalinda retreated from. He grabbed her arm, and yanked her toward him before she could get away. He gripped her neck, pulling her face toward his chapped lips. Joaquin could see blue-green veins arising beneath Rosalinda’s soft, delicate brown neck, her lips scrounging up, baring her teeth, and her eyes bulging out of their sockets, both from asphyxiation and disgust. Severo planted a big, wet kiss on her cheek.

“Can you believe this, Joaquin? She won’t even give her old man a kiss,” Severo said, slightly out of breath. “After all I’ve done for this ungrateful, little bitch.” Severo pushed her thin, neck violently against a rock, as if the neck of an empty beer bottle. This display of affection stirred something uneasy inside of Joaquin, something he tried to silence with all his might. He had just met them, and didn’t feel compelled to stand up for the girl just yet. Maybe Severo was right, the girl could have really been a spoiled little brat. He was right about the horse hijacker, Joaquin hated to admit.

As the men prepared the fire, Rosalinda’s sobbing could be heard emanating from her father’s tent. Joaquin kept looking over to the tent, but quickly stopped after his eyes crossed paths with Severo’s. They were lacking the glint of friendliness he had shone to him when he was calling him a moron earlier that day. So that’s what he looks like when he’s mad, Joaquin noted. After a few seconds of eye-tearing tension, Severo broke the ocular deadlock by pulling back his coat flap, revealing to Joaquin his .44 caliber Colt Revolver.

“Where did you buy your gun?” Joaquin said, attempting to defuse Severo’s hot head and swallowing what felt like the full contents of his neck.

Severo released the flap, concealing the gun he no longer planned to murder Joaquin with. He went back to building the fire.

“I didn’t buy it,” Severo said in a low voice, never once looking over at Joaquin. “I was in the Army back in 1860. It was issued to me.”

“The Civil War, huh? It must have been a hell of a battle.”

“It was hell alright,” Severo said. “It took my brother, and part of my hearing.” Severo removed a lock of his long, greasy hair away from his ear. The ear cartilage and the flesh around it looked as though they had been incinerated. “I’m deaf in this ear. Cannon blast.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Joaquin said, and immediately cringed, half expecting the cold, chrome barrel of the revolver land on his pulsating temple. He didn’t want Severo to think that he was trying to make pun a off of his misfortune. Severo remained unfazed.

“Now, I’m a damned bounty hunter,” Severo said. The fire began to consume the brush, twigs and branches and warmed a red glow on their faces. “I’ve only been good at two things.” He took a long swig from his canteen, settling back against a rock. “Putting booze in my belly and putting men in the ground.” Severo passed the canteen to Joaquin, a peacemaking gesture, but Joaquin only shook it, making a slushing noise, pretending to drink from it. He passed it back. “I’m on the hunt for a man heading north. At first, I thought it was you.” Joaquin looked over in arrogant puzzlement. “But after I realized how pathetic you looked, I knew he wasn’t you.” Joaquin looked down, past his shriveled balls, at the dirt between his knees.

Joaquin glanced over at his guitar case, and pulled it over towards him. He unbuckled the case open and pulled out the distuned instrument. Music always seemed to temper even the wildest of tempers.

“I was wondering when you were going to whip it out,” Severo said, laughing at his own crudeness. “Rosalinda, mi amor, come out. Joaquin is going to play his guitar.” The girl emerged from the tent slowly like the head of a desert tortoise emerging from hibernation. She walked over and took a seat next to her father just as Whisky had taken a seat next to Joaquin.

“Joaquincito, you play the guitar so fucking well,” Severo cheered, beginning to slur his words. “So well that you’re making it talk. Hell, you’re making it cry.” Severo laughed hysterically, halfway towards blacking out. Seeing Joaquin’s hard-hands delicately pluck and stroke the silver strings, partially oxidized by the day’s heat into a red rust, Rosalinda wondered how something so hollow and wooden could speak and cry, and sing so beautifully and why she could do neither. She felt like tumbleweed. Moving on and on, punished by life’s currents, following the blows of a man she hated. She felt empty inside.

Rosalinda wondered if Joaquin’s wonderful hands could heal her muteness. She remembered hearing in church about how Jesus’ hands had healed a man of his blindness. She wondered if he could heal the blindness in her voice. Maybe Joaquin’s angelic music could conjure the Spirit of God and heal me from this misery, she thought. Her misery’s name wasn’t muteness. It was named Severo Macario. The thought of a life without Severo brought a brief verticality to the permanent horizontality that were Rosalinda’s lips. It wasn’t quite a smile, but the closest gesture to one she had experienced in years.

Joaquin, having gulped a distasteful swig of Severo’s wrath earlier that night, didn’t dare look directly at Rosalinda. Instead, he was pretending to look at his hands as he played, even though he had no need to do so. From time to time, he would sneak in a look at Rosalinda, less to admire her fleshy lips and long lashes, but more out of morbid curiosity, as when you’re told not to think of something. Why does this man covet his daughter so zealously? he thought. Joaquin felt an uneasiness every time Severo interacted with her. He continued to play, Severo continued to drink and to sing out of tune, and Rosalinda continued to get lost in the moment, in the fantasy of a life without Severo, draping her eyes with her feathery lashes.

“Alright, mi Rosa tan linda, it’s time for bed,” Severo said. “Daddy’s sleepy. Real sleepy, if you know what I mean.” Severo laughed, patting Joaquin on the back, and knocking the guitar out of his hands. The shrill noise of the strings hitting the hard dirt, rubbing up against stones and twigs, playing cacophonous chords caused Whisky to bark at Severo. “Shut up, you fucking mutt.”

Joaquin called the dog over, and placed him in his bosom. As he kissed the dog’s musty head, he looked over at Rosalinda, whose eyes were red with welled-up tears. How horrible it must be for a young woman to have to live with an animal like that, Joaquin wondered. Severo went in first, and after a few seconds yelled at Rosalinda to get her ass in the tent. Although the tent obstructed what was occurring inside, it did nothing to conceal the sound. Joaquin found it difficult to sleep, allowing his mind to imagine the most deplorable things, his mind filling up with sounds of lips smacking, suckling, and shushing.”

“Shut up, and stay down,” Severo whispered heavily. “Stop moving.” Between Severo’s whispers, Rosalinda’s sobbing, and Joaquin’s morbid, incestuous fantasies, it was certain that nobody would sleep well that night.

When he opened his eyes, Joaquin heard a woman crying across from him.  He felt as though he had slept for a minute, but he had indeed slept for a large portion of the night. He palmed the blanket, invaded by red dirt, trying to feel where Whisky was lying. Rosalinda had been crying as she prepared Severo’s breakfast. The sun hadn’t yet risen, so the air was still chilly. Joaquin walked over to her and noticed that Whisky had been panting next to her this whole time.

“What’s wrong?” Joaquin asked in a low whisper. Rosalinda stopped crying and just sat there. He knew that she was mute, but he felt that maybe by asking her questions she could somehow signal to him the reason for her being sad. Her sadness, in Joaquin’s mind, emanated from something that happened the night before. “Did your father do something to you?” Without looking or flinching, a small voice came out of her, one coming from a distance, not in terms of longitude, but one that seemed to be buried deep in a hole.

“He’s not my father,” Rosalinda said. That was all she said. Joaquin was stunned by what he considered a miracle by the Holy Spirit. Before he could ask her another question, Severo came out of the tent more jovial than he had ever seen him. Soon after he let out a boisterous yawn that resonated in the surrounding range, Severo realized that Joaquin had been alone with Rosalinda.

“Rosita, go fetch me some firewood, please,” Severo said, as he gave her a peck on the crown of the head, and a spank on her buttocks. “Take the dog with you.” Rosalinda looked up at Severo and then at Joaquin, asking with her eyes what she couldn’t with her mouth. “I’m sure Joaquin wouldn’t mind.” She looked down at her fidgeting hands, awaiting for Joaquin’s permission.

“Yeah, go ahead and take Whisky with you. She loves to go on walks,” Joaquin said half smiling, half suspicious as to why Severo was so eager to be alone with him. Rosalinda motioned the dog over to her and the two of them walked away into the early morning light.

“Don’t go too far,” Severo yelled. As soon as the girl was far enough, he turned to face Joaquin. “Did she tell you anything?”

“Anything about what?” Joaquin asked, unsure of whether to lie to him or not. Severo took a seat near the dying embers and pulled out his revolver.

“I’m not Rosalinda’s biological father,” Severo said, pulling out a stained cloth, and polishing his gun. “I raised her from about the age of 5 after I married her momma.” That was 10 years ago. “I gotta tell you, she’s looking more and more like her. The face and the body of the woman I fell for.” The hairs on the back Joaquin’s neck became stiff like those on the back of a scared cat. “I wanted to wait to dip my dick into that sweet pussy until she was old enough, but I just couldn’t. I did it behind her momma’s back, of course. You know, out of respect.” Joaquin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I haven’t been completely honest with you, amigo.” Joaquin felt reviled by the notion of sharing a friendship with this man. “I’m not looking for a man to kill. I’m looking for a man to marry me to Rosalinda.” Joaquin wasn’t sure if it was the warm morning light or a monstrous shiver bathing his back from the neck down, but suddenly he felt a sense of relief. He was certain that had he told Severo that he was a priest, he would have forced him marry them at gunpoint.

“Why didn’t you marry her in San Diego?” Joaquin asked.

“The empty sack Padre, Florencio I think his name is, refused to marry us,” Severo said, pointing the gun toward the horizon. “He said it was ungodly. That fucker.”

Joaquin didn’t know how to react to all of the new information Severo had just dumped on him. Right as he was about to ask Severo why he would want to marry a girl that he raised as his own daughter, he heard Whisky barking nearby.

“There she is,” Severo yelled, waving down Rosalinda. Joaquin stood up to help Rosalinda with the firewood, but was flanked by a rushing Severo. Joaquin figured that Severo was such a jealous wreck that he didn’t want him to interact with his bride to be in any single way. Severo took the wood out Rosalinda’s hands and threw it carelessly onto an unsuspecting Joaquin. The sharp, dry branches scratched Joaquin’s face making him yelp in pain. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re delicate,” Severo laughed to himself and immediately grimaced.

As they ate breakfast, Severo kept going on and on about how when he found that sonofabitch robber he was looking for, that he was going to shoot him right between the eyes. As he mimed how he was going to shoot the fugitive, he kept pointing the gun at a flinching Joaquin and at an unflinching Rosalinda. I guess she’s too used to his erratic behavior, Joaquin thought.

The three of them finished packing and loading all of their belongings onto the horses and the donkey. According to Severo, it would be another four days of travel before reaching the pueblo. Because he didn’t want to listen to Severo’s singing or partake in his unappetizing topics of conversation, Joaquin kept pretending to doze off or be sun sick. Even so, Severo kept waking him up by yelling his name, and laughing as if it were a punchline to one of his cruel jokes, or asking him the same question over and over, until Joaquin acknowledged him and gave him a satisfactory answer.

By the time they settled down for the night, Joaquin was even more exhausted dealing with Severo than dealing with the severity of travelling on foot. Back then, he was carrying more weight on his back, but now, knowing what he knew and not having the ability to remedy the situation, he felt a greater burden on his shoulders. He had never known of a couple that were so wrong for each other as Severo and Rosalinda. Even the thought of Gregorio making love to his once beloved Dalila didn’t turn his stomach as much as picturing his two companions kissing on the lips.

The arid wind earlier that day had made Severo drink much more of his stinking elixir than usual. By the time they had finished setting up camp, he had passed out. He hadn’t even touched his dinner. Joaquin looked over at Rosalinda, who was quietly eating from her plate, chewing because she had to not because she was truly enjoying the meal swishing around in her mouth and swallowing into her belly.

“So, he’s not your fath—” Joaquin said as he leaned over.

“Shut up,” Rosalinda whispered. “He may be passed out and half-deaf, but he can still hear.” She took a bite of bread. “And the details that he can’t hear, he’ll make them up himself.” Rosalinda placed her plate down. “Bring out your guitar, and play as we speak.”

“Sh-sure,” Joaquin said, stunned at the girl’s ingenuity. He began to play random chords, fingerpicked in a random pattern. Severo suddenly began to slur an indistinct melody and unintelligible words. Joaquin looked in shock, thinking that this big, fat beast may wake up.

“Don’t worry,” Rosalinda said. “He’s gone.” Rosalinda began to tell Joaquin not to believe anything Severo told him. “He doesn’t want to marry me. He wants to sell me off to a whorehouse once we arrive at the pueblo.”

“Why would he do that to his own daught—,” Joaquin stopped himself before finishing. “Well, to his bride-to-be?”

“Because I had a miscarriage a few days before we found you on the road,” Rosalinda said, biting and sucking on her bottom lip. “He already treats me like one.” She took a drink of water and cupped her hands on top of each other.
“Like a wife?”

“No. Like a whore.” She looked down at her hands, fidgeting and picking scabs off of her hands. “I made her a promise.”

“Made who a promise?”

“My mamma,” Rosalinda said, sobbing as soon as the maternal word crossed the threshold of her lips. “I did it because I loved her so much. On her deathbed, she made me promise her to marry and bear children for Severo.” She let out a loud yell which made Joaquin fumble the fingering from one chord to the next. “He was raping me, and she knew it.” Rosalinda sniffled, ending the deluge of tears, and changing the tone of her voice from sorrowful to vindictive. “She knew what he was doing to me, but she just wasn’t strong enough to stop it. No one would help because she had been a prostitute. Not even the priest.” Rosalinda had become his concubine, at first behind her mamma’s watchful and soon after, directly under it. Her mamma had induced her first miscarriage when she was 12, just to keep up appearances.

Joaquin wanted to go over and comfort her, but he wasn’t sure how she was going to react. If he were to be completely honest with himself, he was actually afraid of Severo waking up and finding him embracing his woman, and having to see his own dog eat his penis. So, Joaquin simply kept playing and listening intently, something, he imagined, nobody had done for Rosalinda in years. Maybe ever.

“My mamma left home when she was 13, and was married off to a man who didn’t want her. She was recruited by a brothel because her papa didn’t want her back,” Rosalinda said, never once making eye contact with Joaquin. She was pregnant with Rosalinda when she sought the priest for shelter, but he too rejected her, and pushed her out into the streets. From there, her life spiraled out of control. Rosalinda’s mamma worked at a brothel on the Mexican side of the U.S. border where Severo and his friends solicited her services. After they were done having their fill with her, Severo took pity on her, given that she was the only woman who wasn’t reviled by his appearance and mannerisms. He never married her because she was “unclean,” but he just couldn’t deny her beauty and thrall attentiveness. Severo became a father to her bastard child. Her mother explained to Rosalinda that in spite of him being so mean to them and physically abusive, it was better than being alone, being without a man in a man’s world. “‘You take care of his needs, in the kitchen and in the bedroom. You hear? If you do, he’ll take care of you,’ she told me right before she died. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time.”
Joaquin noticed how Rosalinda spoke without moving or showing any emotion. She was like a rose, beautiful and still. He felt a fire inside of her. A fire that had been suffocated, but not extinguished. Someone this beautiful, he thought, cannot be dead. I can’t allow it to die.

“He wants to sell me to a whorehouse because he says that I am not a woman, that I am a whore. A whore that is possessed by barren demon,” Rosalinda said with no emotion in her voice, as if she had cried herself dry. “He says that I am a whore like my mamma.”
For the first time, Joaquin realized that in the love triangle that he, Gregorio, and Dalila found themselves in, Dalila was the real victim. This whole time he thought he and his best friend had been but mere players in Dalila’s cruel love-game. How she pitted two friends, two brothers against one another, and how it was all in his head. It was, in fact, her family pitting her up against what they, the church and society wanted. He saw in Rosalinda’s dark, sulking eyes Dalila’s true feelings. They reminded him of the almost forced reactions he’d elicit from her after he kissed her hand. Did Dalila see me like Rosalinda sees Severo? he wondered with the taste of bile in his mouth. Even if Dalila’s parents wanted her to end up with the best match, in Joaquin’s mind, it was only a few steps shy from auctioning her off like a prized thoroughbred. Giving her away to the highest bidder. Selling her off like a whore.

“What are you thinking about?” Rosalinda whispered. Joaquin didn’t know. Something inside him may have wanted to do something, but he knew Rosalinda needed him to do something. It was time for him to finally seize the day, to stop thinking about what others wanted him to do, and start doing what he wanted to do. At the moment, he wanted to save this girl from the fate that was awaiting her in Pueblo de Los Angeles. A fate that she was living, and that was slowly killing her. One that Joaquin himself was an accessory to, by having done nothing, aiding and abetting it by lying awake motionlessly. He knew that Severo had been raping her these past couple of days, he could hear everything, but tried to drown it out with tears and nightmares. “Say something,” she insisted.

“We need to run away,” Joaquin said, part of him unsure that this level of tenacity had emanated from him. He had been called weak and delicate all of his life that he believed it without question.

“No. No, he’ll hunt us down,” Rosalinda said. “That’s what he does, and he’s good at it. No, that won’t work.” Joaquin knew that it wouldn’t work, he knew it the second the suggestion rattled around in his head, before he even suggested it.
“You’re right. We need t—”

“We need to kill him,” Rosalinda exclaimed. It was the loudest, most affirmative statement he had ever heard coming from her voice. Joaquin closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and snatched the canteen from a snoring Severo. He took a swig, not caring about the smell of rotten eggs mixed with vomit on the mouth of the canteen. He swallowed the liquid.

“Very well.” Joaquin set his guitar back in its case, and began to pace back and forth, away from the fire’s glow into the darkness and back into the light, scratching his head trying to devise a plan.

“You need to do it before he wakes up, but not tonight,” she said. “We don’t want to attract any unwanted wildlife.” Rosalinda proposed that she wake him up early and that he kill Severo with the gun he was given. Joaquin agreed. Rosalinda then walked over to Joaquin and gave him a big hug, wrapping her short arms around his, resting her head on his chest. He felt trapped, not by her embrace, but by the bind she had put him in. This is what Judas must have felt right before he betrayed our Lord Jesus, Joaquin thought as he regretted making his promise of delivering Severo’s head to Rosalinda.
“Alright, go to your tent, and don’t forget to wake me up before he does,” Joaquin said. He already knew that he probably wouldn’t be able to even blink that whole night, let alone shut his eyes to sleep. He saw Rosalinda go into the tent as he lay across a blacked out Severo. Joaquin placed the gun Severo had thrown at him under his bundled up coat, which he was using as a pillow. He wanted to be ready in case Severo woke up from his slumber. Part of him fantasized about what life would be like with Rosalinda after they killed Severo. Would she want to be his companion? His wife even? Would he be able to look past her history as an abused woman and see her for who she truly was?

Joaquin saw a candle light up inside of Rosalinda’s tent. He immediately grabbed the gun under his coat, rose to a standing position, and walked over to the tent. As he approached it, Joaquin noticed the silhouette of woman bent over, taking a man in from behind. At first sight, he thought the man was Severo, but when he rushed into the tent, he saw that the man had a svelte body, not a big and fat one like Severo’s. The woman turned around to look at Joaquin. It was Rosalinda. However, the face changed from Rosalinda’s to Dalila’s and from Dalila’s to his own mother’s. When he heard his mother moaning as he had never heard her, he ran toward the man pulling him off of her. Joaquin knocked the assailant down and turned him on his back to see who he was. It was Joaquin himself. He was the man fucking them all. All the women he cared about. He never wanted to become a priest or to live a life of chastity, but if there was ever a time when this lifestyle seemed alluring, it was now. Upon seeing his own face, the tent began to fill with smoke, then with hell fire, erupting around him. He looked around for his mother, but she was gone. He then looked for an exit, but he was surrounded by a burning ring of fire. His clothes began to catch on fire as his double began to laugh at him. The flames started to consume his flesh, but he couldn’t seem to put them out. The laughter got louder, gruffer, and phlegmy. It wasn’t his double laughing at him, it was Severo.

“How do you like that, motherfucker?” Severo yelled at Joaquin. “That’s what you get for trying to fuck my woman.” Joaquin jumped out of the burning tent only to be greeted by a rain of bullets shot at him by Severo. One of them hit his hamstring and another one his lower back. Joaquin rolled on the ground, from the pain and to put out the flames enveloping him. The gun shots stopped, and so did Joaquin’s rolling. “Stay down, you piece of shit.”

Severo reloaded his gun, keeping his eye on Joaquin’s charred body. Joaquin, on the other hand, felt like his skin was melting, sliding off his bones.
“She told me all about your little plan to kill me,” Severo said as he spun the gun’s cylinder, taking his time, sliding in each bullet into the chambers. “I may be deaf, but I’m not a fucking idiot.” Joaquin looked up at Rosalinda, her face looking away, a bruise forming around her left eye and blood dripping down her nose. “Disappointed?” Severo asked. Joaquin looked at him appalled and enraged. “Yeah, what did I tell you? She’s a first rate little bitch of a whore. She’s a fucking gossip this little mute. She really is.”
In spite of the rage he felt, toward Severo and a little bit toward Rosalinda, he understood why she had betrayed him and didn’t hold it against her. She had been trained, brainwashed to follow this man’s commands, however sick and twisted they may have been, like a dog who would chase a ball off a cliff only to please its master, or a woman who learns to become an obedient wife and love her husband in spite of his imperfections.

“I’m a decent man, Joaquincillo,” Severo said. “I married her whore mamma with the understanding that I’d be able to make her daughter my wife.” As much as it pained him, Joaquin believed what he was hearing. These past few days, he had grown to see Severo as a compulsive liar, but his words bore the gut-wrenching, cold, dead feeling that accompanies an awful truth. He lied about almost everything. But this wasn’t a lie. “I bet this little bitch didn’t tell you about that, now did she? Hell, she probably didn’t even know.” Joaquin almost forgot about his physical agony trying to reel from all of this psychological pain. “She miscarriages and that’s no good for me.”
Rosalinda’s small, huddled body became tight and shaky, like a fist that’s squeezed so hard that it’s too difficult for the muscles and bones to bear. The blood that ran out of her nose, down her upper lip, and around her lips soon diluted from a dark scarlet into a red rose when it came into contact with her freshly shed tears. She was crying so profusely that even her nose wept.

“Oh, just shut up, you fucking whore,” Severo yelled as he placed his revolver in its holster, and picked up Joaquin’s bundled up coat. He shook it open, releasing a mist of dust and the small gun Joaquin had stashed in it. “Ah, here it is.” Severo picked up the gun and stuck it in the back of his pants, between his belt and his sweaty ass cheeks. “Let’s see what else we can find.” He plunged his hand into every one of the garment’s crevasses, pulling out its innards and tossing its contents on the ground. When Severo pulled out the letter in Joaquin’s breast pocket, he flicked it open. “So, you are a priest, I fucking knew it. You fucking lia—”

Joaquin rushed Severo and tackled his thin knobby knees. Severo collapsed hard like a large boulder falling in a landslide. He hit the ground and Joaquin mounted him, landing random blows all over his body. A surprised Severo attempted to swat the pest off of him, but Joaquin had gone completely mad. He was finally able to slide a concealed knife out of one of his boots and slid it deep into Joaquin’s emaciated side, between his protruding ribs. Joaquin stopped his punching frenzy and twitched spastically as if suffering from epilepsy. He stabbed a petrified Joaquin a few more times, just to make sure he’s nice and dead, Severo thought. After the martyred priest flopped lifelessly on his chest, Severo shoved him off of him with disgust. It wasn’t that he didn’t like blood, in fact, the mere sight of it made him giddy, hard even, but he abhorred the warm feeling of another man’s blood on him. It made him feel dirty, like a murderer. In Severo’s mind, he killed bad people, which made him good. He was merely carrying out God’s will.

As he rocked from side to side, laboring to roll his big body over onto his big belly, Severo made his way to all fours and began to palm his holster, trying get a hold of his revolver. A rush of fear took over him, and he erected his torso, still on his knees. Before he could even turn his head to verify his worst fear, he heard the sound of the hammer click. A sound that he had enjoyed creating and listening to. One that he found to be so reassuring and sweet, almost melodic. Now, it was the sound of death clicking the door knocker, awaiting to escort him to his grave.

“Mi rosa ma—”

“Shut the fuck up,” Rosalinda said. The sound of her voice wasn’t menacing or emotional. Just loud enough to let him know that she was serious about blowing his fucking brains out if he uttered another word. “Don’t fucking move.”

“I…I…” Severo wanted to say the right thing to walk Rosalinda off the ledge, but he couldn’t even think. He looked over at Joaquin’s motionless body. It lay contorted and crusty like a bloodied shaving rag in the heat, flies already buzzing over him like angels.

“I’m going to shoot if you don’t shut your fucking mouth.”

“Buh-but why are you duh-doing this?” All at once, Rosalinda knew and didn’t know why she was holding a gun to the head of the man that was her father and husband. A man who had raised her and protected her all this time. Maybe it was the hate she felt toward him for having treated her mamma so poorly, or because he never gave the chance to another man of choosing her fate. The hate that she felt toward her mamma had migrated onto the person of Severo. He always seemed to bring out the worst in her. All that she felt for her mamma’s memory was love. But now, as she held the sweaty wooden handle and silvery trigger, Rosalinda knew it was her mamma’s fault as much as it was Severo’s.

Having seen Joaquin’s bravery to help her, something snapped inside of her. How could a complete stranger feel pity for her, and risk his life to save hers? Joaquin did for her what she herself would have done for her mamma. He did it out of love for her. Tears of joy rolled down her face as she laughed deliriously, wheezing and choking on her mucus. The percussive coughing soon morphed into sobbing. Sobbing for a lost love. One that was never meant to be in this world, but in the hereafter. Whisky began to howl next to her.

Rosalinda recognized the way Severo was on his hands and knees, begging with tears rolling down his hairy cheeks, clearing streaks of red earth and purple blood caked on his face. She recognized the way he begged desperately for his life as one begs a saint for a miracle, staring down the barrel of his own gun. It was the same position of penance that he manifested during the few times her mamma threatened to leave him, one hand on her belongings and one hand on Rosalinda. Those tears that would appear from nowhere, flowing interminably from his grey eyes. Like an oasis, they would always beckon her mamma to stay and as soon as he convinced her, the tears would dry up and disappear like a mirage and the harshness of a man with a heart of stone, his arid brand of love, would whack her upside the head back into reality.

     My mamma always fell for his false promises, she thought, men’s promises as her mamma would refer to them. She fell for them even as she understood that they weren’t worth a damn. In many ways, Rosalinda was like her mamma, they were both beautiful and they were both loyal to a fault. But one thing that they disagreed on was their affection towards Severo. Unlike her mamma, she would not fall for a man whom she hated. She wouldn’t willingly fool herself into trusting a man’s promise. If it was up to her, she wouldn’t let Severo lay another hand on her, and it just so happened that it was up to her. The butt of the revolver was nestled securely in her hands, so tight that she could feel the sweat reservoir and cascade between her breasts. The trigger was erect ready for her sweaty right index finger to release it, and release her from the animal before her. The one that had devoured most her life.

Her left hand was a little shaky, but steady enough to aim for the head— as Severo had taught her to do. Her head was swimming with memories, mostly ones too painful to think about, like the memory of her mamma’s bloodied teeth and nose. Rosalinda focused this pain on her hands, which were now motionless and ready. It was the last impetus for her to end Severo’s life and his pathetic begging and moaning. She pulled the trigger without batting a lash. She needed to see him dead on the ground, his brain matter spilling on the dirt, before she could ever close her eyes again.

Like dominoes stacked side by side, Rosalinda collapsed to her knees, then to her face after Severo’s big, fat body thudded a large puff of red dirt, landing face first. The adrenaline that had evacuated her body as the bullet had left the gun, left her body weak and feeling heavier than Severo’s. Whisky ran over to her licking and pawing her face, nosing and whimpering her hands to get up. When she finally did, she followed the dog toward an agonizing Joaquin. She carefully lifted his battered body, his clothes completely soaked in muddied blood, and placed his head on her lap.

“Are you alright?” Joaquin said in a breathy, small voice, gargling blood.

“Shhh…don’t speak, just le—”

“I want you to take—” Joaquin coughed out a spray of blood as he tried to swallow too much of it. “Take the letter in my bag and—” His eyes grew grayer and grayer, cloudy like the sky he was looking up toward. His voice slurred out of intelligibility and his thoughts out of coherence. The pool of blood in his mouth grew shallower, rippling with Rosalinda’s heavy tears. Joaquin was ready to go Home.

He died in her arms, and for the first time in years, she was able to cry to her pain’s content. Fully satiating the heartache that had been wringing her guts ever since her mamma said ‘yes’ to a life under Severo’s feet. Something she hadn’t been able to do even in her mother’s bosom. Don’t you dare shed a tear in front of a man, her mother would reprimand her, it makes them feel good when they make us cry. Don’t cry, my dear. Don’t cry. It was a strange feeling of guilt, the guilt that comes from having gotten away with something. It felt nice. The only memory that she could remember that even came close to this feeling was when she used to run downhill in the tall grass as a little girl. She ran and ran, without an end in sight, running faster and faster, feeling as though she would never stop. She would roll the rest of the way down after her legs gave out. Laying on her back, her heart pounding out of her rib cage, she felt eternal. Now, as she closed Joaquin’s sweet, dead eyes, she felt eternal again. Free.

Whisky came over and lay beside them, licking Joaquin’s bloodied hand, trying to slobber him back to life. Rosalinda gently slid Joaquin’s head onto the dirt and crawled over to the letter Severo had been twirling around before he killed Joaquin. She opened it and read it. It was from Padre Florencio Abello de Holguín, the very priest that had refused to marry her to Severo. It instructed the Padre Ignacio Salazar from the San Fernando Rey de España Mission to please receive Joaquin Fernandez de Castro as an addition to their effort to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to God’s people. Rosalinda knew that this letter was Joaquin’s last gift. Even in death, he was watching over her.

She flipped through the last two pages and noticed that something fell out of the last page. It was a flat, dried up desert rose flower. It had survived everything that Joaquin had gone through since he plucked it from its home. Rosalinda picked it up and smelled its sweet fragrance. If something as fragile as this flower can survive in the world of men, then so can I, she said to herself. She walked over to Joaquin’s body, placed the rose on his chest, and crossed his hands over it.

 

Artwork by Cory Bilicko

Bilicko, C. (2017). Sentered [Painting]. Oil and acrylic on canvas, Long Beach, CA.

Panis Angelicus

Panis Angelicus will be published in the upcoming issue of:

Meat for Tea: The Valley Review – Volume 11, Issue 4: Kid

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