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

Imagine you are just waking up from a deep sleep. Just before you open your eyes, your olfactory sense is beckoned by the sweet and caressing smell of freshly kneaded dough, and your ears are tickled by the simmering and crackling sounds of the dough touching the hot, sweaty skillet. Part of you thinks it is a dream because you haven’t even opened your eyes yet. The loud rhythmic and percussive sound of the roller makes your eyes finally open. Then, as if somnambulated, you go to the kitchen, rubbing the sleep out of your eyes and you see a high-stack of flour tortillas and another inflating on the skillet like a balloon and then deflating and releasing its delicious aroma. Once it comes off the skillet, you put it on the palm of your hand and feel its soft, sultry texture and spread a spoonful of warm refried beans and crumble some fresh moist cheese on it. You wrap it up, take one last whiff, and take a bite. You then allow all of those ingredients to float around in your mouth, piquing every surface of it, like a fine wine.

With each bite, you savor not only the delicious ingredients, but the memories of when you were a child running and playing in a small poor town where time didn’t matter and worries didn’t exist. You then remember your grandma calling you in for lunch and eating the tortillas she made; the same ones that she fed to your mother when she was a child. Instinctively, you know that there is no better food anywhere in the world than these tortillas and, innately, that they were made by the most caring hands and loving heart.

Growing up, my mother would send my siblings and me to Tijuana, Mexico to stay with my grandparents over the summer. Before the rooster would give its first crow, my grandparents would get up and get the materials ready to prepare a large batch of tortillas for the whole family. Like an experienced sculptor, my grandma would bury her hands elbow-deep into a bowl full of dry white flour and scalding hot water and began kneading the mixture into soft, malleable dough. As beads of sweat ran down her forehead, she would add water, salt, and pork lard on to the mix without the aid of any measuring spoons or cups, with surgical precision. My grandma was a master chef. She knew the recipe, she knew the ingredients, and she knew the size of her hands and fingers; the only measuring tools she needed. Finally, she would add the ingredient only she possessed; one that has no measurement, love.

The recipe was ingrained in her mind and she performed it with ease, like a virtuosic pianist performing a Beethoven sonata. As she would cook, she would say “One has to cook everything with love or else one shouldn’t cook at all.” The prior was manifested everyday of her adult life. She would make a fresh batch of flour tortillas every other day, each one tasting as delicious as the last. I can safely say that in her lifetime, she cooked over one million tortillas; each one of them made with love.

Food is often synonymous with family and tradition and in my family; this has always been the case. My grandma always promoted the feeling of family unity through food. Although she is no longer with us, she left behind a rich tradition of recipes and anecdotes. Every one of her children and grandchildren that ate her tortillas will tell you a different story about her and give you a different description of they how tasted to them. However, one thing we can all agree on and come to a clear consensus is that when my grandma’s tortillas are made they create a vinculum that brings us all together not only as a family, but as witnesses of something special, of something that only each of us can feel in our own skin, of a moment that my grandma shared with each of us and no one else. When we eat them, we remember her. We remember ourselves with her and that makes us love her and the traditions she left behind even more.

Cooking, along with music, painting, writing, and oral tradition, is an art form that preserves ideas and traditions that can be recreated and reinterpreted according to its time and surroundings. The only difference is that cooking arouses all of the human senses, including the intangible human soul. It connects the world of the living to the hereafter. It recreates moments that are so specific that they cannot be described at all. To my family, tortillas are synonymous with tradition and unity. Everyone in my family, from the oldest uncle to the youngest niece, knows what flour tortillas mean to the family, even if they were never able to meet my grandma. When they are made, the members of the family wait in anticipation to eat them and reminisce about my grandma’s original recipe. Then, they thank the person who made them, but the true honor and biggest compliment they can bestow upon the person interpreting the recipe is when they are told that they taste just like the tortillas my grandma used to make.

Letter To An Unknown Writer

     You are a writer, a bearer of truth, and your pen carries the responsibility of creation, of placing down on paper the fleeting ghosts of your imagination. As such, you possess something that cannot be learned or taught, bought or acquired. It is a craft that comes only through suffering. Through the painstaking process of selecting the right words to express a feeling or situation, like singling out individual droplets of water in the depths of the ocean. During the creation process, your thoughts reach out their arms like lost souls from the River Lethe, trying to grip at your curiosity, at the feeling in your mind that compels your hand to write down moments of inspiration. Immerse yourself in these thoughts, those that are submerged deep in your soul, haunted by visions, voices and virtue.

However, there will be times when you’ll feel like your mind has become as dry of inspiration as your pen of ink. During these moments of drought, the estuaries from whence ideas usually emanate feed a stream of fears, doubts on whether another idea will flounder its way into your brain once more, or whether the last piece that you wrote was your last. In this darkest of hours, swim against the current and drown out these insecurities, as the profundity of your creativity is only as deep as you will it to be. It is from your mind that universes are created and destroyed, perfected and dissected, used and reused until they are refined into a distilled line of poesy that casts a spell upon the eyes of whomever reads it. Your talent is a truth that cannot be quieted, one that will not quit, and will acquit you amidst the scrutiny of time and taste. Suffer for your writing because unless you do, no one will suffer it.

Don’t mind the likes and dislikes of an inattentive and fickle online community that, like crashing waves, seems to follow an indeterminate pattern that crushes anything it its way. Write so that you are satisfied with your work, so that you can go to sleep knowing that what you have committed from your mind onto paper can only be improved upon the next time you open your eyes. Ultimately, people don’t want to read what you write, they don’t want to read what you think. They want to read you. They want your blood, your bones, your flesh on a page. Therefore, be generous with your skill, but not indulgent. Share what you know, but only enough that the reader may be satisfied, and even want more. Conjure images that are better imagined than seen, and sensations that only the pen can describe and the heart feel. Don’t allow the greed of your desk drawer to deprive the world of your unique perspective.

An onslaught of rejections will make you question why you’re even bothering in perfecting a craft that nobody will ever appreciate, and producing work that no one will ever read. Well, it is not your job to fit into anything. Your creativity should know no bounds. You’ve already limited yourself to the confines of the language and its grammar, and the prepackaging elements of a word, sentence, paragraph, and page. In spite of it all, write. Shut out the critics that belittle your work, especially the critic that resides comfortably inside your head, the cruelest of them all. The one that will cripple you from within, freeze your hand and thoughts from populating the white screen before you, with its blinking cursor steadily taunting you. Even in the torrential agony of rejection, keep writing. You’ll often find that your mode of expression is “not quite right” for most people or publications, but just try to remember why you’re writing in the first place. Is it like breathing to prove that you can breathe or is it breathing because you’d die if you didn’t?

Write because you need to, not because you have to. Write because there is nothing else in this world that will quell the restlessness that effervesces within your innermost being every time you see something that everybody else sees, but goes unappreciated. Give a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves and provide the rest of us with ears to listen. Allow the mediums by which your work is disseminated to come and go— from spoken word to solid stone, to papyrus and animal hide, paper to cursor— but never allow the creativity that you inhabit them with to stray away from who you truly are or the message you are trying to convey. Write even if nobody is reading. Write especially because nobody is reading.

Be a force that transforms harsh realities into something palliative, like a river’s waters whose gentle surface conceals the violent currents that smooth jagged stones on the riverbed, softening them silken to the touch.

It is your duty as a writer to write what is in you, as it is a mother’s to nurse her newborn and a prophet’s to profess the truth.

A truth that can be rejected, criticized, and buried for hundreds of years— by rubble or online babble— but one that can never be silenced or denied.

An endless truth that will continue to flow through generations, uncertain and unbiased of what influence its course will have upon the landscape of human history.

So, just write.

 

Artwork

Relief fragment [Photograph]. (ca. 1917 b.c.). Egyptian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Here We (Are) We Here?

Oswaldo was staring intently at his muscular chest before draping his soccer jersey over it. He was analyzing a reddish-purple bruise that was developing above his right brown nipple. Ozzy, as most of his teammates referred to him, played full back in the summer installment of the West Hollywood Varsity Gay League. Although it was sponsored by the Gay community, it was open to all. The league featured teams named after double entendres, such as Stranger Queens, Gayvengers, and Man Chest Hair United. Ozzy was part of the Messi Bottoms.

As a defensive player, Ozzy saw a large portion of the game’s action and aggression, often coming home with bruised ribs or foot insteps. It was safe to say that he had bruised most surfaces of his body, and unlike his masculine mother, Maria Rosario, once told him not to worry, because gay men played like sissies, the gay men he played against were anything but.

“Osito,” Mrs. Sampedro said, still calling her son Ozzy by his childhood nickname, meaning “bear cub.” “Those faggies you play with wouldn’t be able to make a monkey come by spanking it.”

“Ozzy, hurry the hell up, man,” Nestor said. “Damn, kid. You take longer than a fucking chick to get ready.” Nestor Bonavita was the team captain, 22-years-old and acted as an older brother to Ozzy. “We’re all waiting for you to start.”

“Sorry, man,” Ozzy replied. “I was just checking out this gnarly bruise I got in the last game.”

Ozzy lifted his shirt to show Nestor the wound he was referring to. Nestor looked at it with squinted eyes, hummed a few times in various affirmative pitches, and began to poke the discoloration. At first with his index and middle fingers, then with all five of them, and finally rubbing it with the whole warmth of his hand. Nestor had big, strong yet gentle hands. The kind of strength that could make the bruise worse or better. Ozzy’s flexed pectoral muscle fit perfectly under Nestor’s healing hand.

“How does that feel, man?” Nestor asked as he rubbed his palm in a circular motion, at times, accidentally rubbing Ozzy’s petrified nipple.

“Hmmm,” Ozzy cleared his throat, not expecting to speak in the middle of this soothing process, having allowed himself to enjoy the therapeutic procedure his friend, brother and captain was using to make him feel better. “Sorry, I meant to say that it felt good. I mean, better.” They locked eyes. “Yeah, it feels better.” Nestor continued to rub deeply. Ozzy didn’t want Nestor to think that the first sound that came out of him was a moan or that he was deriving the wrong kind of pleasure from it.

This whole experience reminded Ozzy of the time when he was 6-years-old, playing at his dad’s friend Heriberto’s swimming pool. Of how much joy he derived from the way Heriberto threw him up in the air and caught him in his big, burly hands, and how Ozzy himself would grab onto his hairy, corpulent shoulder, wet and slick from the chlorinated water. He felt a warmth unlike the times his own dad played the same game with him a few moments later. There was something about Heriberto’s eyes and smile that made Ozzy feel good, a goodness that he felt he couldn’t share with anybody. A goodness that felt wrong to feel, but at the same time, felt so right.

A goodness Nestor’s touch was pressuring his chest to feel.

“Man, your heart is pumping really fast,” Nestor said, his eyes bulged in amazement. “You must be fucking pumped for the game.” Ozzy smiled nervously. Nestor placed Ozzy’s flaccid hand on his own chest. “Look.” Nestor’s heart was beating like raucous Brazilian drums amidst a capoeira bout. Ozzy not only felt the pumping of blood in Nestor’s warm chest, he felt just how firm and developed his pecs were. Ozzy had always admired them, but had resigned himself to never be able to touch them. “I’m fucking psyched too, huh?” Ozzy swallowed saliva in order to buy himself time and not to moan again by accident.

“Yeah, you’re really ready,” Ozzy said, punctuating his fake statement with a false laugh in order to diffuse the awkwardness he had created in his own head.

“Alright, kid,” Nestor said, tearing off his hand from Ozzy’s chest and readjusting his crotch. “Let’s go.”

Nestor ran ahead of Ozzy who was lowering his jersey, continuing to rub his right pec, not out of hurt, but because it felt so good to retrace the rub work his friend had given him, running his hands through it as you would through wet, salty sand.

On the field, Nestor wasn’t only captain, he was the coach. He yelled throughout the game, alerting his teammates of incoming danger and possible goal scoring opportunities. Nestor breathed and lived soccer. Having been born to an Italian father and a Brazilian mother, Nestor’s veins coursed with soccer. His cerulean irises would light up like two Olympic torches whenever an attacker approached him, placing his goalkeeper in scoring danger. Nestor was fearless. He was strong. He was a bully to the opponent. He was a fucking nightmare.

“Man up,” Nestor yelled at his defensive line as three attackers approached his team’s goal. Nestor’s statement had a double meaning; it meant, mark your man as well as be as manly as you can be, because shit’s about to hit the fan if you didn’t. Nestor hated getting scored on. He used to say that it felt like being bent over and taking it up the ass from a guy who didn’t buy you dinner first. He would have a maniacal fit if Ozzy or one of the other defenders allowed or contributed to allowing a goal to go through.

Nestor led by example, taking balls to the face, stomach and to his own balls.

“I’ve got balls of fucking steel,” Nestor would yell whenever the ball landed between his legs, doubling over most guys, but not Nestor. He was rock solid.

“Go, take it all the way,” Nestor said as he recovered the ball and passed it to Ozzy, who was the fastest runner in the team. Ozzy was part of the track and field team during the school year, running mainly the 100 and 200 meters. His chest may have been lean, but from the waist down, Ozzy could have competed for Mr. Olympia. His quadriceps muscles were robust and well-defined, streaked with thick blue veins and shrink-wrapped with his tanned, deep brown skin. His calves were wide, like Hermes’s wings, and allowed him to fly up and down the field, past defenders, with ease.

“Good run, kid,” Nestor said. As the captain, it was Nestor’s responsibility to also be the team’s cheerleader and often displayed his affection toward his teammates by spanking their butts, picking them up as he hugged them— from the front and from behind— but Ozzy noticed that Nestor really liked the way he ran, in particular, and the musculature on his legs. “You’ve got an exceptional pair of legs, kid.”

After most games, the guys would hit the community showers. Since they could only accommodate one team, the winners also won the right to post battle cleanliness. Ozzy never took advantage of this perk due to the fact that he was only 17-years-old and the rest of the guys were at least five years older. He preferred to jog home and take a shower then.

“Hey man, don’t be a pussy and take a damned shower with your boys,” Nestor said after he saw Ozzy exiting the gym. He soon realized that Ozzy had never taken a shower with the team. “Come on man, even the gay dudes think you’re fucking weird.” Nestor wrapped his muscular arm around Ozzy’s neck and that’s all it took to convince him to stay. “Don’t think of it as fourteen naked dudes taking a shower.” Ozzy echoed Nestor’s boisterous laugh. “Think of it as a legion of Roman soldiers washing off the mud and enemy blood after coming out of battle victorious.” The thought brought a genuine smile to Ozzy’s face.

“Okay, cool,” Ozzy said.

As both boys walked into the showers, the other twelve immediately stopped their loud cacophonous conversations, cavernous laughter and distuned singing. It was as if an outsider had walked in, blinding them with the piercing, cold light of a camera, trying to document with an intent to display their privacy. Ozzy was stunned by the starkness in the room, having never seen that many men naked at once. The variety in body types, skin tones, sizes, and hairiness mixed together reminded him of abstract expressionism and the way their limbs interlaced as the men washed their soiled bodies, like cubism. Ozzy was taking it all in at once, not focusing on the two-bead flesh rosaries dangling freely between their legs.

“Hey fellas, stop staring and get back to washing your stinking asses already,” Nestor yelled, half kidding, half commanding.

The group of men picked up their conversation as well as their soap right where they had left them before Ozzy’s presence had disturbed their mirth and merriment.

“They’re a bunch of fags, even the ones that aren’t gay,” Nestor joked. “Go on, take off your towel.” Even outside of the field, Ozzy heeded Nestor’s instructions. Doing so made him feel pleasantly safe.

Ozzy hesitated for a moment, looking left, then right, the left again. He took a quick peek down at his towel, then at the men, then at his towel again. When he looked at the twelve again, he noticed a thirteenth body, Nestor’s, had joined the Last Supper of asses and cocks.

“Come on, kid,” Nestor yelled, gargling and huffing shower water cascading on his face. He waved Ozzy over to an empty shower next to his. “The water’s real nice.” Nestor’s shivering smile was warm an inviting like that of his younger brother back when their mom used to bathe them together when they were 3 and 4. It was also like that of Heriberto, the warm teddy-bear-man that made him feel so happy.

Ozzy undid the terrycloth knot that was keeping his towel up, one flap at a time. As the first flap moved away from his goosebump-covered torso, the gay constituency of the thirteen transfixed their fiery eyes on the denuding as if it were the unveiling of a new night club.

The second towel wing seemed to take a decade to flap itself to full-frontal freedom, but when it finally ended, Ozzy’s penis placed another wave of muteness over Nestor’s twelve Apostles.

“Damn, this dude is hung,” an haggard voice with a forced effeminate twinge broke the silence of water dropping and draining. Everything in Ozzy’s head was playing in slow motion. The ‘u’ in “hung” seemed to be ringing like a nail bouncing on the hard tile, whose rate of clinging accelerated faster and faster. Ozzy’s heartbeat mirrored this bouncing as twenty four individual eyeballs analyzed and fantasized with every inch of him.

“It looks like a fucking elephant trunk,” a huskier, raspy voice yelled, starting a wave of laughter that drowned the whole room. Ozzy felt the tiled walls closing in on him, the steam boiling his blood, and the humidity sweating him into a piece of wrinkled jerky.

As he was about to bolt out of the room, he felt a strong grip take hold of his forearm. It was Nestor.

“Guys, just shut up, and let the kid take a damned shower,” Nestor said. “God knows he’s a damned good player, and the size of his dick shouldn’t matter.”

Nestor led Ozzy to the shower next to his, weaving and wading through a sea of nudity and whispered bickering, silent snickering and a little bit of dickering.

“Most of y’all look like you have clits between your legs, that sometimes I wonder,” Nestor said as he and Ozzy arrived at the showers. ” Don’t listen to them. Fuck, I wish I had a dick as big as yours, kid. You’re lucky. What are you packing down there? 8? 9 inches?”

Ozzy’s face flushed red, maybe due to the steam, but most likely to Nestor’s compliment.

“I don’t know,” Ozzy replied in a small voice that didn’t even sound like his own. “I’ve never measured it before.” He lied. The truth was that he was too embarrassed to tell Nestor that his penis was, in fact, about 10 inches long the last time he measured it, which was earlier that day.

Nestor’s smiled at Ozzy’s disingenuous ingenue. Ozzy giggled and smiled back.

“Besides, they’re just teasing you, Nestor added. “Check this out: Hey everybody.” Nestor grabbed his penis, hunched over, and began to scratch the top of his head with the other hand, the way a monkey would. The other guys broke out into a fit of laughter, holding their stomachs and pointing at Nestor’s primate gestures, his gibbers and grunts, and the manner by which he was swinging and choke-holding his flaccid jungle vine of a penis.

“See? It doesn’t matter,” Nestor said laughing, slightly out of breath. “We’re all just dudes.”

Seeing Nestor’s simian-samba sent an invisible jolt through Ozzy’s body, especially when Nestor began gyrating his torso left and right, over and over, and the tip of his penis grazed Ozzy’s upper thigh. In the midst of the hooting and hollering, he didn’t think much of it, other than a mere accident. A happy accident, according to the smile plastered on his face.

After getting dressed with the same clothes he wore during the game, not having planned for this impromptu shower, Ozzy exited the gym and began to walk home. It was nearing 10:45 p.m. and as he momentarily thought that it was perhaps a bad idea to walk home alone, Nestor steered his black Nissan Sentra by Ozzy, driving on the opposite side of the road.

“Hey,” Nestor said, “Wanna ride?”

“Nah, I’m good,” Ozzy said, immediately regretting having rejected his offer. “Thanks, though.”

A car blared its deafening horn, flashing its lights at Nestor’s illegally, idling car.

“You know that I don’t like to take no for an answer,” Nestor said, accompanied by The Beatles’ “Come Together” playing in the background, smiling that charming smile of his. “Besides, I’m breaking the law for yo–”

Another car horn cut off the last part of Nestor’s plea. Both boys closing their eyes during the duration of the painful loud sound.

“So, what do you say?” Nestor asked.

“Sure,” Ozzy gave in, annoyed by Nestor’s unwavering cockiness, but pleased by his interest in him.

“So, where am I dropping you off?” Nestor asked as Ozzy closed the passanger side door. The smell in the car was a combination of wet Old Spice, pine car scent and Nestor’s chocolate protein shake breath. The delicate guitars of “Hotel California” by The Eagles began to play softly in the background.

“I guess on the corner of Fountain and Martel,” Ozzy said, still unable to believe that Nestor was giving him a ride home. Nestor merged onto the correct lane and sung out, “But you can never leave,” right before the song went into the passionate guitar solo.

“You’re Mexican, right?” Nestor asked. The question struck Ozzy as strange, but it also showed a level of interest.

“Yeah, my dad is Mexican and my mom is Filipino,” Ozzy replied.

“Cool, that’s a nice mix.” Ozzy could feel Nestor’s fiery eyes looking him up and down. “As you already know, I’m half Italiano and half Brasileiro.” The Italian and Portuguese accents used to pronounce the respective nationalities send a warm shiver up and down Ozzy’s back. It allowed him to relax into the back of his seat.

“So, do you speak Italian or Portuguese?”

“Nah. My dad bailed on my mom and me, and remarried another lady.” Ozzy noticed that the joviality in Nestor’s voice had vacated as soon as he began to speak about his dad. “My mom speaks very little Portuguese and she never really taught it to me.” Ozzy kept looking over to Nestor’s animated hand gestures, often lifting both hands off the steering wheel. It was a feeling of thrill, to see Nestor so excited and that at any second they could both swerve off into another car and die. “I did learn a few things from my grandparents back in Brazil, though. That’s where I spent most of my summers growing up.”

Nestor told Ozzy all about how these trips had awoken in him his deep love for soccer. A love that he pursued in high school and college. A love that came to a bone-crushing and heart-breaking end when he went for a soft tackle and the player he was running against went for a hard one. Nestor was carried off the field on a gurney, never to play again, professionally or at all.

“The doctors told me that I’d be lucky if I could walk again,” Nestor said.

“Wait. How are you able to play now?” Ozzy asked, amazed at how good of a player Nestor was.

“It’s all heart and soul, man. I refused to let that be my future. My reality.”

Ozzy thought about his own disability, his inability to cope with the things that he often felt within his own body. To cope with his crippling shame.

“That’s the only way to be truly happy, kid,” Nestor said. “You just gotta grab life by the balls, and just take it and do what you want with it.”

Nestor’s words boggled around in Ozzy’s head, and rang true in his heart, resonating deep in his soul. If there was anybody in the world that he could trust with his truth, it was Nestor. Ozzy closed his eyes. The car suddenly stopped. He took a deep breath. The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” stopped playing, allowing the silence of the streetlight lit night to fill the car.

When Ozzy opened his eyes, he turned his head to face Nestor, who was already looking at him with his azure eyes, as blue as Italy’s national soccer team jersey. Ozzy saw Nestor’s hand traverse the distant canyon between the driver and passenger seats, from Nestor’s right thigh to Ozzy’s left. Although his eyes told him that Nestor’s hand was in the wrong, his inner most being told him it was right. It was the rightest thing he had felt. Ozzy began to feel lightheaded, the blood rushing to the lower half of his body. Nestor’s hand gripped his thy hard, borderlining an unbearable pain that soon morphed into an unbearable pleasure.

Nestor reached his left hand toward Ozzy’s face, twisting his lean torso and leaning his face closer to Ozzy’s. Nestor’s touch filled Ozzy with a warmness he had never felt before. At first, Ozzy pulled back, inching away from Nestor’s approaching pillowy lips. But Nestor’s forceful hand pulled him back in for a warm, wet, hard kiss. There was a tenderness to Nestor’s roughness. In the context of this intimate moment, his assertiveness made the moment unpredictable, as if anything could happen. As their lips met, Nestor let out a moan that Ozzy had associated with feral beasts. It was low and deep. This was Ozzy’s first real kiss, having given up on the cause after a number of girls had rejected him throughout high school.

Ozzy opened his eyes to see what Nestor’s busy hands were up to and noticed that the bulge in Nestor’s tight shorts, the same one that he had seen bouncing up and down as Nestor hustled up and down the soccer pitch, was now bigger and sharper, concealing a third knee.

As the temperature rose in the car, Nestor’s kissing became more animalistic, with the introduction of soft nibbling of the chin and neck, licking of lips and tongues, and hard biting of Ozzy’s lower lip and shoulders. Ozzy wanted Nestor to consume every bit of him. Nestor hand slid up Ozzy’s muscled thigh, slowly, steadily.

“What are you doing?” Ozzy exclaimed, more out of reflex than concern.

“Shhh…shut up,” Nestor breathed warmly onto Ozzy’s lips. “Let me take care of you, kid.”

His words made Ozzy feel comfortable, safe. Nestor was, after all, looking after him, on and off the field. Before they had even locked lips, Ozzy was going to confide in him that he thought he may be gay. However, Nestor had read his mind, his body language. As their lips magnetized themselves together again, the ascent of Nestor’s hand up his thigh resumed. It ate away at Ozzy’s fear and inhibitions. Never in his short life had something felt so right.

When Nestor reached his ever engorging penis, Ozzy’s buttocks jumped off his seat for a moment, as nobody had ever touched it in such a firm yet delicate way. It reminded Ozzy of the time Nestor was rubbing his chest, of how he did so out of concern for his friend. He wanted to heal him. Now, Nestor wanted to heal a different organ, an organ that needed the most healing, one that needed more than healing, it needed deliverance. Nestor began to stroke the shaft more lovingly than he himself had ever. When it came to masturbation, Ozzy would beat off to beat the clock. To beat his parents from finding out, he would do so without making a sound, or releasing a drop of semen, regardless of how hard he was. The pleasure he had derived from his deprived experiences had only been a fraction of what Nestor was making him feel now.

Ozzy felt conflicted, feeling good and bad, innocent to respond to the pleasures of his body and guilty to enjoy them all at once. Just as Ozzy began to get even harder, Nestor stopped. Why did you stop? Ozzy thought. Ozzy started to look outside making sure nobody he knew or didn’t know was walking by the car. But they were alone. Nothing but blacked out apartment windows and the stars above. Before he knew it, Nestor began to pull Ozzy’s shorts down, releasing faint notes of bittersweet sweat, the head of his penis getting partially stuck to the waistband.

“Damn, kid,” Nestor said, “you are big.” Nestor began to stroke up and down in a slow, rhythmic spiral. “I didn’t realize you were uncut.”

After Nestor licked his lips, he descended towards Ozzy’s ticking time bomb erection and wrapped them snugly around it. The moist sensation of Nestor’s mouth enveloping his virginal organ was foreign and intoxicating to Ozzy and flinched upon contact, like emerging into a warm pool of water, scalding at first but so comforting that even as the temperature falls, is so difficult to vacate.

“Relax, man,” Nestor coached. “Just relax. I’ve got you.”

Ozzy was afraid of what may happen if he did relax, if he truly allowed himself to feel good about what he had been taught to repress and feel bad about. Ashamed. The deeper Nestor plunged, the stiffer Ozzy’s body became and harder Nestor stroked in order to make him release.

“Let go, motherfucker,” Nestor yelled, as he did when he wanted Ozzy to run as fast as he could, down the field, leaving everything behind, including the belief that he couldn’t defeat his opponent. “I know you’re ready to come.”

Ozzy let out an ear-piercing cry that made way for a warm wave of pleasure, consuming him from within, like the fires of hell his mother would surely say he would fry in for doing this with Nestor and feeling this way. Ozzy felt his heart pounding loud as audible clouds of steam were releasing from his and Nestor’s mouths. The stiffness that had inhabited his body had left. All Ozzy could feel was a radiating heartbeat, pulsating from his legs to the crown of his head.

“That’s it, man,” Nestor said, “Give it to me. Just let it flow.”

Ozzy felt his inhibitions flow violently through and out of him like rivers of living water, one spurt at a time. His closed eyes suddenly flipped open when he felt a hot moisture wrapping around his still erect penis. A feeling that he had experienced before when he almost drowned as a child. Ozzy looked down at his lap and saw the back of Nestor’s light brown hair bobbing earnestly up and down, consuming his penis little by little, deeper and deeper like a river, a torrential Amazon that devours everything in its wake.

“I can’t believe you’re still hard, kid,” Nestor exclaimed in laughing astonishment. “After I come, I’m done.” Nestor kept jerking. “I need at least 5 minutes.”

Ozzy was feeling good, a happiness interlaced with guilt and a feeling of “what-will-they-think,” looking out all of the car windows to see if anybody was out there. Anybody who could identify him. Out of nowhere a heavenly blindness overtook his eyes, so unbearably pleasurable that all he could do was close his eyes and lean his head back onto the headrest. He felt the entirety of his penis inside of Nestor’s Italo-Portuguese mouth, the tongue that had spoken a snippet of both languages so seductively was now doing to his penis what it had done to those words, twirling in circular motions around it, like pressing an orange onto a citrus juicer, wringing out the savory nectar.

He felt the exquisite pain of a second coming in the pit of his stomach, and felt an undeniable need to release the contents of his body. To give up the ghost. As he did, he heard a choking, gurgling noise coming from Nestor and then a silent swallowing that Ozzy was only aware of because of the sensation on the tip of his penis.

As Nestor emerged from below, he began to inhale and exhale in the same way he did after having chased down ferociously after a fast attacker. It’s the hard plays that make you better, Nestor used to say. Ozzy felt he had just become a better person. A complete human being. Maybe not by having done something great for someone, but for the contrary. For allowing himself to be done something to and for having placed himself in this difficult situation with Nestor. A situation he had entombed, preventing it from happening or ever coming out in any way.

“Man, kid, you’re fucking wide,” Nestor said, choking and chuckling. “That was a huge load, by the way. Good job.”

Ozzy looked down to Nestor, who was now resting his sweaty head on his chest. He pulled his chin up and kissed him long and tenderly. It was Ozzy’s way of thanking him for helping him reach this new place in life, that of becoming a true man. He held his redeemer close and tight, enjoying him forever in that instant. Their interlaced bodies, Ozzy’s dark skin wrapped around Nestor’s light tone, were like swirls of milk and coffee dancing in an infinite spiral, slowly becoming one. Neither of them knew what would happen after that night. Things would go back to the normal that people used to hide a little bit of themselves. Sometimes a lot of themselves. Ozzy had dropped a load off his shoulders that night, but even in the midst of sexual and spiritual paradise, somewhere in his head was looming the load he would have to carry in the future. The battles he would have to fight against his loved ones and against ones who would never love him. People that would hate him for choosing to love another man.

At that moment, as Nestor’s agitated breathing became gentler and gentler, he realized why this fearless leader and ravenous lover had never told him that he was indeed gay. All of that machoness that Nestor displayed was his defense mechanism against a queer world that wants all boys to be the same, to feel the same, and grow up to be manly men.

The sweat oozing from every one of their naked pores was tied to their secret, their shared truth, a truth that set them free. Ozzy and Nestor exuded confidence in the sexual act they had performed before no one, before the stars, before God Himself; not caring about sin, original or otherwise. Ozzy was reborn, resurrected, expelling guilt’s poison, and the toxins that had welled up deep inside of him. Nestor helped him purify his soul.

But for that moment, Ozzy only wanted to focus on love. All of him was full of love. He simply wanted to love the man who had loved him. The one who had shown him how wonderful love could be.

 

Photo Credit

“Fighting for the ball.” Www.lapl.org, Los Angeles Public Library, Los Angeles, 1943, jpg2.lapl.org/pics34/00051698.jpg .

Waltzing in Gethsemane

     As Julian Izaguirre Jr. lay in his child-sized hospital bed, in complete darkness, halfway reclined between the seated and lying positions, he asked himself, Am I going to die?

     Dying to Juliancito, as his family would refer to him mainly to distinguish him from his own father, meant going to Heaven. It meant seeing God, the same one who nobody could see, but were deathly afraid of angering. Dying meant moving into God’s house and living in His warm presence.

     How can God be doing this to me? Juliancito asked himself. I thought Him and I were buddies. He had played baby Jesus in a play as a newborn to some critical acclaim. Having been born to church-going parents, he had been praising His name even before he could speak. His mom used to tell him that, as an infant, Juliancito used to ball his eyes out when the hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” would be sung. Susana, Juliancito’s mom, being the wonderful pessimist that she was, would ask the pastor if there was something wrong with him, almost as if she half-wished that he was indeed demon-possessed. The pastor reassured her by saying that sometimes small children and animals felt the spirit of God differently than did adults or older children. That they expressed their fervor by crying or tossing and turning.

     A couple of days before he lay dehydrated in a hospital bed, Juliancito tossed and turned in writhing pain, definitely feeling the spirit of God inhabiting his body, ripping him from the inside out. He had just served himself a bowl of his favorite cereal, Cocoa Pebbles, drowning the brown, crispy flakes with an eighth of a gallon of milk. After having taken only two spoonfuls, the pain began to set in. He doubled over while still in his seat, but the pain was too overwhelming that he felt like lying down. Juliancito pushed his chair back and whacked the table top, seeking support. In doing so, he flipped the cereal bowl, and all of its chocolaty milk contents tidal-waved onto the edge of the table and onto the cold, dirty blue linoleum. He collapsed on the floor, feeling the cold drip of milk rolling off the table, drop by drop, trickling on the back of his neck. This heavenly fervor was making him cry and curling him into a fetal position. And, in his writhing, he thought he saw the face of Jesus, smiling a transfigured smile, his luminous, orthodontic-perfect white teeth surrounded by a perfectly trimmed strawberry-blonde beard.

     The absence of light made it possible for the moon to shine, in slivers, through the window blinds, stretching across the room like gigantic Corinthian columns. It was a grave sight for Julian Senior to behold his 4-year-old son teetering between the world of the living and the dead, at Hades’ gate. Julian was gripping tight a gold medallion, the ferryman’s fair, cast with his Lord Jesus Christ’s battered, cross-ridden body, praying for a miracle. He weld his fingers shut around it, mainly to delay payment hence delaying his son’s fate.

     Juliancito had just emerged from the operating room after another successful gastro-intestinal procedure. He had what is known as abdominal adhesion, a condition which constricts or pulls the intestines, completely blocking anything from going through. Juliancito, later in life, came to think of it as God’s finger sucker-punching him in the gut. For a total of 8 hours and 34 minutes, Juliancito had gone from being the youngest kid in his entire family, one who used to chase after cockroaches, running furiously after them, and who had never received a grade lower than a happy face on his homework, to a piece of inert flesh that could’ve just as easily been rolled into the elevator with a downward trajectory to the morgue as it later was into the elevator with an ascending one to his recovery room.

     The young Izaguirre boy was barely conscious and aware of where he was and had yet to be enlightened by the knowledge of good and evil to know that he was trudging deep in the valley of the shadow of death. He had yet to understand these two states of being, the cold binary of biology. Of the two, it was death that was imminent, as death didn’t give any warnings. It didn’t care if you were a child living life by the handfuls or an old person waiting for the sweet release of death, rich or poor, man or woman. It didn’t give a shit. Death just took you.

     Life, on the other hand, left you dangling on the edge, halfway reclined, between the healthy and dying positions. It would ask the types of questions asked by a horrible boss: Can you come in and do whatever it is that you do? If you meet one or both of the conditions posed by the aforesaid inquiry, then Life would callously say, You’re good, wearing a big smile, holding up an even bigger thumb, which in the agony of trying to dig your detaching fingernails into survival’s edge, looks more like a middle finger.

     Death is rest.

     Life is unrest. It is struggle. Autonomous, anatomical atomic anarchy against oneself.

     Juliancito’s eyes opened slowly as tears and eye boogers had sewn them shut, he emerged from his 21-hour slumber not knowing where he was. It was dark, quiet, save the green, red and blue lights flickering from the multi-parameter patient monitor he was hooked up to. The noises emanating from them resembled those colorful ones spoken by an angry R2-D2. The pneumatic tube work protruding from his nose and upper hand, transporting fluids in and out of his depleted body, would have made any 1940s office worker proud. All of these eerie cues told him that the bed he was lying on wasn’t his own. He looked at his hands– they looked like his hands, but they didn’t feel like his hands.

     Still under the drowsy effects of Midazolam, Juliancito didn’t know why he felt the way he felt. Why the world didn’t seem as it used to seem. Why he couldn’t quite get a grip on what was real and what was a dream. He felt trapped. The tubes keeping him alive, to him, were tethering him to this strange reality. He saw his dad sitting next to him, sleeping with his eyes half-closed and mouth fully open, so he began to scream at him, but nothing came out. Juliancito wasn’t physically able to, an aftereffect of having been entombed in his dreams for an extended period of time.

     The chains holding him down needed to be expelled from his body and the sooner the better. Using his right hand, the only appendage that didn’t seem to have anything coming out of it, he began to remove things at random, pulling the straps Velcroed to his left hand against a flat piece of wood, which appeared to be a piece of rogue plywood. The ripping of the fibers sounded like the loudest sound in the world, he looked over at his dad. His dad didn’t even flinch. Juliancito then moved on to remove the needle lodged impossibly deep inside his upper hand, between his index and middle finger. Just to make sure it hadn’t impaled his hand à la Christ, he quickly flipped it over. To his relief, his palm was needle-free.

     The needle and the deep purple-red tube to which it was connected were taped down to his forearm. Removing each strip, from end to sticky end, sounded louder than the Velcro. With each strip removed, Juliancito could feel follicles of hair being plucked hard out of his skin. The tube, heavy with blood, began to tug away at the buried needle like someone who is pinching you while walking away, not planning on letting go. By the time he removed the last strip, the needle itself was begging to be dislodged from within him like Excalibur to Arthur.

     Juliancito took the deepest breath he could muster this side of reality, held it in, his face growing increasingly warm, eyes bulging out. He kept it in for what felt like hours, thoughts of blood rivers swimming in his head. He bit his bottom lip with just the right amount of pressure as to not puncture it with his baby teeth. He tugged at the blood-warm cord, and the anchored needle began to recede from his frigid knuckles. Juliancito finally exhaled.

     He watched the needle come out slowly, feeling every centimeter of it exiting his body. As he pulled, red discharge began to pool between his knuckles, dripping delicately, like espresso onto his virginal-white bed covers, blossoming on contact all about, as miniature roses do in the infancy of spring.

     The more Juliancito pulled, the more blood gushed out. As all three inches of the needle lay weeping crimson tears, Juliancito moved on to the tube coming out of his nose.

     As was the case with the needle in his hand, the nasogastric tube needled in his nose was taped to his right nostril, as he discovered on his first attempt at yanking it out. Based on his previous success, Juliancito simply ripped off the tape in one swift move. Pulling this tube out of my nose will be a breeze, he thought, as he assumed that his nose’s depth was as far as his little finger could reach. He knew this from having mined his nose for boogers so many times before. Just a quick pull, and the tube would be out. In his limited knowledge of human anatomy, he soon discovered, as he kept pulling and pulling with no apparent end in sight, that the tube only entered through his nose, but it actually ended up all the way down in his stomach.

     Since Juliancito’s small intestine had recently undergone work, the doctors didn’t want to cumber it with waste just yet. The tube that had been protruding out of his hand, which had now sprung a leak, was feeding him nutritious saline solution and medicine. The tube he was now playing tug of war with was evacuating the waste accumulating in his stomach.

     The more Juliancito pulled, the longer the tube felt. He could feel it traversing through his chest, throat and nose. The tube was being treated to a cross-country tour of his insides. This scenic route finally ended and triggered his gag reflex all over his hospital gown and blood-soaked bed sheets.

     He was finally free.

     But wait.

     Something was terribly wrong. That which he had wrought didn’t make him feel free. Juliancito felt worse. Worser and worst.

     He let out a loud cry that woke up the whole hospital, including his dad.

     “What the fuck did you do?” Julian asked upon seeing what his little boy had done, his eyes not completely open yet. He opened the room door and a wave of piercing light drowned his son’s retinas.

     Julian yelled out for a nurse, and two of them quickly ran in. Juliancito was crying, not due to the pain of two exit wounds, but due to the amount of commotion and hecticness coming from the three adults in the room.

     “What did you do, sweetie?” one of the nurses asked in a motherly tone. Juliancito’s small ribcage, one big enough to hold only a tiny bird, was heaving spastically. “Just relax, my dear.”

     The motherly nurse was walking him from a cardiac ledge, distracting him while the other nurse was diligently preparing all of the materials for intravenous reinsertion. First came the hand needle. The resourceful nurses used the same fresh hole between Juliancito’s knuckles, open still as not enough tine had transpired in order for it to heal itself closed. The needle being inserted was sterilized and looked thicker and longer than the one he had just pulled out of himself moments ago. More like a soft drink straw than a straw of hay.

     “No, no, no,” Juliancito spat out. His dad held him down as the nurses tag-teamed him, one holding down his floundering hand, the other doing the final lunge.

     “Don’t pull this one out, my dear baby,” the motherly nurse said, wiping the sweat off his tiny forehead, which fit perfectly inside her palm.

     “Yep, you better listen to her,” the other nurse said crudely. “Every time you take it out, we’re going to come in here and stick it back in.” She seemed to derive some form of twisted pleasure in torturing children, especially in the way in which she said, “Stick it back in.” In his young mind, it sounded more like, “Nail it back in.”

     The worst was over. Juliancito took a deep breath, a sigh of relief. He leaned his head back and laid it on his pillow, the only white surface on the bed undefiled by blood, and allowed the warm hint of morphine to course through his veins.

     “Okay, now let’s stick in your nose tube,” the crude nurse said, almost jokingly. “All the way down.” What proceeded can be best depicted by images of Egyptians performing the mummification rite of brain removal.

     “Everything’s going to be okay,” said the motherly nurse. But everything wasn’t. The plastic tube jammed up his nose scratched and poked every surface inside his head and throat, bringing about the feeling of sneezing, which was highly discouraged by both nurses.

     Juliancito gulped a torrential amount of saliva and tube. Had he known the words and meaning of “Fuck you, bitch,” that would have been exactly what he would have yelled instead of the unpitched, crying drone. He actually only knew one curse word, “bitch,” and only because both his parents used it with such liberty. Mainly, to refer to their sisters, female coworkers, strange women driving poorly, their mothers, sometimes, and, on one occasion, his brother for refusing to date a girl. Juliancito had only uttered the derogatory term once as he came out into a crowded living room, full of his aunts and uncles who were all saying it. In spite of the positive reaction from his relatives in the form of side-splitting laughter, his mom’s feedback was a hard smack on the lips, sealing them from ever saying it again.

     After the nurses left and his dad went back to sleep, Juliancito felt as though he was invisible, stuck inside a prison, incarcerating and eviscerating him from the inside. He slept in what felt like intervals of a minute, closing his eyes and immediately opening them again. His eyelids felt heavy, his eyeballs dry, he wanted to sleep but didn’t know why. He woke up to children’s laughter, then night’s complete darkness, then daylight again. It seemed as though he hadn’t seen a real person in days.

     It was becoming more difficult for Juliancito to distinguish between dreams, hallucinations and reality. At times, he would see his mom sitting at the foot of the bed just looking at him; other times he would see her holding him in her arms, like Mary holding Jesus’ flagellated body. Juliancito’s face looked gaunt, elongated like that of an old man, the whites of his eyes yellowed and without pupils. Susana was taking care of him as she had every cursed day of his four years on Earth. Both of them in a certain kind of state, different from what they were each used to. Her meditative, Juliancito vegetative.

     Juliancito opened his eyes to a man dressed in gray robes, his face concealed by a hood. He was standing tall, between two trees. Juliancito knew that it was a man because his hands were vascular and worn from too much work. His mom would often tell him that that was what real-man hands looked like. The tree to the man’s right was leaf-less, barren, white as dry bone. A river of milk ran from it. The tree to the man’s left was green, greener than any tree he had ever seen. It was robust with fruit of all kinds, such as pomegranates, apples and tangerines. His parents were bathing in the pristine, blue water running out of it, touching each other as they had when he walked into the bathroom late one night because he couldn’t hold it in and was afraid to wet the bed. They were feeding tangerine wedges to one another, making sounds that he had never heard them make. Sounds that made him not want to be able to hear, ones that made him feel ill.

     The two rivers, the white one and the blue one, met at the feet of the cloaked man, and at their point of conjecture, the two liquids spontaneously combusted into a warm mist, tender and silky to the touch. The cloaked man rolled his hood back over his head with both hands. Juliancito saw the face of the man; it was the face of God. His mind became burdened with questions, but so did his vocal folds with muteness. God’s face was like the Sun, and his hands were as gray as his robes, withered from having created everything he knew of, including every person that had existed, existed now, and would have ever existed.

     God was silent. Juliancito remembered that whenever God spoke, something got created. Maybe God isn’t in a creative mood, he thought.

     As God’s hands descended, they pointed out to the two trees. The tree to His left, the one with his parents, was shaking. Juliancito’s parents were nowhere to be seen, but the sounds they were making were now coming out of the tree, dropping fruit onto the grassy knoll, spilling their seeds all about.

     The white, withered tree had morphed into a crucifix and the river of milk into blood. However, the miserable person hanging from it wasn’t Jesus, it was Juliancito. God began to chant in an echoing boom: I-N-R-I… I-N-R-I… I-N-R-I… Juliancito didn’t know what “INRI” stood for, but he had seen these letters countless times, at church and at his grandma’s house, written on a tiny piece of wrinkled paper, nailed above Jesus’ wounded head. He had always wanted to ask his parents what that meant. In his mind, maybe it explained why Jesus looked so miserable up on that cross. But when it came to God or anything church-related, it was a mortal sin to ask for an explanation.

     Suddenly, Juliancito was no longer looking up at his own crucified body, but rather down from the cross, down at his naked parents. Their genitals, the ones his mom and dad had hidden from him any time he walked into their room as they were changing and had been told to hide his own, were covered with green flames. They were standing still and quiet as his body was being nailed to a cross by three 8-inch nails. The pounding of the hammer against his limbs was loud like thunder, and the pain of the nails perforating his hands and feet radiated throughout his body. The pressure on his forehead and temples from the deadly diadem wedged on his head, the crown of thorns, shrunk smaller and tighter, digging deep, cracking into the bone.

     “Mom. Dad,” Juliancito yelled.

     It was dark outside. God was gone. His parents were fully clothed, his dad sleeping in a chair across the hospital room and his mom in one by his bed.

     “What happened?” Julian said, jumping out of his seat.

     “Are you okay, baby?” Susana asked, finding a seat on his bed.

     Juliancito, his head beaded with sweat, was sitting up on his bed with a new sense of vigor, something he hadn’t felt for the past five weeks and three days that he spent bedridden in the hospital after his surgery. A resurrection. A thick crown of heavy thorns had been removed from his head. He immediately jumped over to his mom and laid his head on her lap. Susana wiped the sweat off his forehead, bearing the weight of her only begotten son’s illness on the very womb from which she brought him into existence. That which had felt like an eternity to Juliancito had been merely part of a nightmare. Part of God’s plan for him.

     “Why does God hate me?” Juliancito asked, tears rolling down his cheeks and onto his mom’s worn-out blue jeans.

     “Son, He doesn’t hate you,” Julian rebutted.

     “Yeah, He does. He really does. I can feel it.”

     “Now listen,” Susana said, propping Juliancito up so that their eyes met. She always did this for serious matters, so that he could see that she wasn’t kidding. “I know that you’re upset, but you don’t talk about God that way. You hear me?”

     Juliancito was using the name of God in vain, and he knew it. He held this and all of the other 9 commandments to heart, including ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,’ although he didn’t really know what that was referring to. Susana wiped the tears away from his eyes.

     “Well, if He doesn’t hate me, then why did He make me this way?” Juliancito asked. “Why did He make me broken?”

     His parents looked at each other and took a collective deep breath, the kind you take before telling a big lie.

     “God works in mysterious ways, son,” Julian said. “We shouldn’t question His ways.”

     “Your father is right,” Susana weighed in. “We just need to learn to live with what God gives us. There’s nothing else we can do.”

     After his parents each kissed him on his fevered forehead, they turned off the lights and snuggled up in their respective chairs. They instantly went back to sleep, but Juliancito couldn’t. His head was still heavy with burdensome questions. Looking up to the ceiling, he noticed the reflection cast by the tiny sequins embroidered into the outside of his mom’s green leather bag. The refracted light glimmered like stars. Although they weren’t the Sun, he began to talk to them as if they were, as if they were God Himself.

     “God, I hate You,” Juliancito said. “I don’t know if You love me or hate me, but I do know that I hate You.” He spoke the harsh words cautiously, not wanting to wake his parents up. His voice lowered down just below a whisper, and mouthed, “I really hate You.” This time, he didn’t even want God to hear him.

     Deep in his heart, Juliancito didn’t really hate God or His only begotten son, Jesus. Especially not Jesus, as he himself had felt the cold fingers of crucifixion impaling his hands and feet.

     However, Juliancito did hate God’s wicked sense of humor, His fucked-up punchlines. One that had placed a pleasure button on his intestine, to detonate at His random, inscrutable will, bringing him down to the existence of a dirt clump. I wonder why He plays this cruel game with me, Juliancito thought. It was the same one that he played in his school’s playground, capriciously mutilating insects, peeling away the exoskeleton, ripping away leg after gooey leg. Juliancito realized that he would never be able to break away from God’s will, no matter how hard he tried. He had to learn to accept God’s cruelty, His warped sense of compassion, that “undying clinging to life” He bestowed upon every living thing.

     As sleep finally draped over his eyes, Juliancito accepted that he was a sinner, even though he couldn’t think of a reason why he was one. In his opinion, he was afraid of the right things, never did any of the bad ones and only lied when it wasn’t hurting anybody. He accepted that all that befell him was his own fault, not God’s, as his parents and the Bible had told him so. Propping himself up to a seated position, the euphoric feeling of health that had overtaken him a few moments ago was slowly fading. He would never be a normal boy, and the crown of illness that had been removed from his head had left a thorn lodged within him, one that would continue to bleed and perhaps, one day, finish the job that the whole crown had begun, that of ending his life.

     In the darkness of the room, the tears spilling from his head onto his white bedspread looked like the bloodstains that had once sprung from his hand. Juliancito continued to mourn his lot in life, alone, silently, not due to the physical pain it caused him, but due to the pain that resulted from loving someone that didn’t love you back, and trusting blindly in something that didn’t have your best interest. He swallowed the bitter nectar from the cup that he wished would have passed by him, that neither man nor god, medicine or prayer could heal his corrupted body or soul.

     Juliancito closed his eyes and gulped deeply, drinking from the chalice set before him, one that overran with uncertainty, unquestioning its purpose, in remembrance of him.

 

Artwork by Cory Bilicko

Bilicko, C. (2017). What Remains [Painting]. Acrylic on wood, Long Beach, CA.

 

Remember The Last One

     Vibration on your leg. It’s a text from a number you don’t recognize. It reads: Are you here yet? It must be a wrong number, you say to yourself. After thumbing in your passcode, you open the messenger app to reply, “Wrong number,” but before you even start to write, a greyed out speech bubble with an animated ellipsis pops up on your screen. Vibration in your hand. It’s a picture of a blonde girl smiling, in her early 20s, maybe late teens, you hope. You erase the message you began and as you do so, she writes in all caps: ARE YOU HERE YET?!!.

     You fumble your phone and drop it face down on the gritty asphalt. Damn it. As you reach down to pick it up you notice a red Ferrari parked across the street. A young, blonde woman steps out of the driver’s side. That’s her. It’s the girl from the text. She removes her dark sunglasses, bites the earpiece, and hangs it gently on her bottom lip, clad in a red-rose lipstick. She waves you over and you point to yourself, surprised, and mouth: Who? Me? “Yeah, you,” she says. “Get in,” and she opens the passenger side door. Before you cross the street, you look both ways and make your way across. As you step into the car, the blonde, wearing a red trench coat and black Louie Vuitton stilettos with the red sole, gets in on the other side, slams the door shut, starts the ignition and steps on the gas.

     “No, wait,” Ray said. “You’re getting it all wrong. I told you, I don’t like the color red. It makes me gassy.”

     “Oh, I see that now, Mr. Dodds,” Olivier said, scrolling down Ray Dodds’s online profile. “I’m sorry about that.” Under the category “Things I dislike,” it read: “The color red reminds me of spicy food.”

     “Listen, I gotta go,” Ray said. “Fix it and get this done by tomorrow.”

     “Okay, will do, Mr. Dodds,” Olivier replied to a dial tone.

Olivier worked at a Los Angeles-based Augmented Reality company called LifeVision, which created immersive adventures featuring real human actors fulfilling the fantasies of their customers. Olivier and his coworkers were tasked with gathering information from customers looking for “Extraordinary experiences for people of all ages”— LifeVision’s official motto. First, the customer needed to fill out a 34-question online survey inquiring about the customer’s likes, dislikes, fears, turn-ons and turn-offs, age, medical conditions, and other vital information.

     Second, the customer partook in a video conference call with a VisionCoach, in this case Olivier, who took notes on the type of adventure the customer wanted to place themselves in—     the “You Choose Your Illusion” plan— as well as any patterns in the customer’s mannerisms, way of speaking and any bit of information that the webcam captured. A survey conducted by LifeVision demonstrated that 89% of its customers preferred stories that incorporated an element of their subconscious behavior. At this point, Olivier also suggested possible scenarios or outcomes to the stories, most of which were rejected.

     Many of the other AR companies created stories by having their customers fill out a form, similar to the ones you’d fill out to get a free coffee gift card. Just a name, last name and email. That’s it. That’s all they needed to generate a rudimentary and often pleasant experience.

     “It’ll get your rocks off, but it won’t take you out to dinner and cook you breakfast in the morning,” Olivier’s boss, Roger, would say.

     Once the script was completed by Olivier, and revised and approved by Roger, it was then delivered to the production team who would shoot the scenes with the actors and then send the product to the IT department who would convert the footage into an “Augmented” experience, viewable anywhere the customer wanted. If you were in your bedroom, CIA agents would break into it or board a public transit bus if you were on your way to work.

     Olivier created stories mostly for people who were too lazy or too rich to raise their kids and relied heavily on the use of smart devices. iParents, as Olivier referred to them. What he hated more than working in the only department that made use of prescribed templates and writer-castrating censors was writing stories for people too lazy to interact with the living, breathing humans around them or, at least, ones with fake online profiles. People like Ray Dodds. Those were his best types of customers: parents and perverts.

     Olivier’s typical day at work began with clocking into a computer on the ground floor that kept track of every minute he was at work. As he rode the elevator up to the 21st floor, his stomach turned due to the unnatural vertical displacement of his body and the grumbling from a hungry stomach, craving the caffeine fix that came from his morning coffee— a blonde roast, blonde with too much milk— blonde on blonde. Olivier could taste its sweet, beige maltiness lightly scalding the nooks and crannies of his mouth.

      “Oh, hey Olivier,” Autumn said.

     “Hey, Autumn,” Olivier said, burning his esophagus. Autumn was one of his coworkers. She actually worked in the cubicle right across from his, visible to him by a thin sheet of glass above the low gray partition. She technically worked for the Production department, the people in charge of filming and producing scripts like the one Olivier’s department created. Their cubicles were about 13 steps from each other. Whenever Olivier wanted to look at her, which he did at least 55 times every hour, all he needed to do was look up and turn 8 degrees to the left. He liked the gut-churning instability that he contracted every time his eyes met hers. There was a dangerous glint in her eyes. Olivier was never quite sure about what she was thinking.

     “I see you’ve got your morning coffee,” Autumn said, staring straight ahead at the elevator’s stainless steel double doors.

     “You know I need my cup of Joe,” Olivier said, turning his neck slightly to look at Autumn’s curly brown hair. “If you ever want to get out of the office for a second, I’d love to get some coffee with you.” Olivier turned his head slyly to see that Autumn was already looking at him. She pushed the retina-burning red “Emergency Stop” button on the elevator’s control panel. Although no alarms went off because of it, as Olivier feared, the tumbling of the shaft and in his chest produced a small ringing in his ear.

     “Yeah, I’d love to,” she said with a soft giggle. “Only under one condition.” Olivier’s coffee hand seemed to be on fire, not from the scalding liquid, but rather, from his heart trying to escape his body through his fingertips. He switched the coffee cup over to his other hand and took a small sip, an excuse to gulp down his nerves.

     “Sure. What is it?” Olivier found the exuberant energy emitting from Autumn both seductive and menacing, wanting to evacuate the metallic enclosure through the emergency hatch above them and at the same time, stay trapped in there forever with her.

     “Surprise me,” Autumn said, laughing at the confused look on Olivier’s face. “In other words, don’t just ask me awkwardly when we bump into each other in the elevator.” She released the button, the door dinged open and Autumn rushed out before Olivier could even finish processing the volatile sincerity of her request. “I’ll see you around,” her voice echoed in the hallway.

     When Olivier arrived at his desk he had a missed call. It was from Ray. Before calling him back, Olivier played back the message. It was loud and panicked, most likely due to him speaking into a hands-free device, hands busy doing something else. Although Ray liked the direction in which the story was headed, he felt that there was something missing.

     “I think it needs something with a punch,” Ray said. “I’ve got two letters for you: S&M.”

     Olivier plucked a pen from his steel mesh pencil holder and penned Ray’s requests, which included the use of patent leather, whips and for the blonde in the blue Ferrari to beat the “living fuck out of me,” as he so poignantly described it.

     “I want this thing to have some real conviction to it,” Ray said, laughing under the weight of his own ingenuity. His breathing became heavy, the type that comes as a result of an accelerating heart rate. “You know what I mean, right? I mean, I want to wake up in a fucking dumpster somewhere after this bitch is done. Oops, pardon my French. After this lady–” he smirked, “is done with me. I don’t know, that’s just my opinion. You guys are the experts.”

     Olivier returned Ray’s call, but the secretary at the law firm where he worked told him that Mr. Dodds was currently out of the office. Just as he finished recording his message, Olivier saw that Autumn had returned to her desk. Although he had just seen her a few minutes ago in the elevator, Olivier thought, what better time than now to ask her out to coffee? It would be a real surprise as she probably wouldn’t expect his request so soon.

     Olivier walked over to Autumn’s section of the office and stood flush with the cubicle’s partition. She didn’t look up.

     “Uh, hey Autumn,” Olivier said, clearing his throat. The gesture wasn’t necessarily to dislodge something stuck in his throat as it was to unstuck himself from having to walk back to his desk pathetically, unseen in plain sight. “I wanted to see if you wanted to go get some coffee.” She looked at him flustered, with the look of a high school girl caught smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. Before Olivier could get another word out, two women came out of the office next to Autumn’s cubicle and began pillaging through her papers, like secret service agents trying to find out information on Nixon and what happened at Watergate in the early 1970s. Autumn looked at Olivier with tears in her eyes, communicating that she couldn’t go.

     “Let’s go get a cup of warm coffee, yeah?”  Olivier said, raising his voice hoping to lighten the mood. “There’s nothing like a warm cup of coffee to lift your spirits.” Olivier thought he was being adventurous, charming and a little bit of a jerk. Just the right amount to make him seem like a bad boy, but not too much that it would make him seem like an asshole.

     “I lost the credit card,” Autumn said, dropping her head on her forearms.

     “Oh, don’t worry,” Olivier said. “I’ve got you covered.” Autumn’s boss, one of the women in the room rummaging through her papers told him, “What she means to say, Olivier, is that she can’t go with you.” She walked past him, nudging him slightly. The other woman, Irina, laughed forcefully and added, “What she’s trying to say is that Autumn is not allowed to go. She lost the department’s credit card.”

     “Hm, thank you ladies,” Olivier said adding a nervous chuckle. He walked back to his desk, afraid of even taking a glance to check up on Autumn. Olivier was so disturbed by the exchange that he didn’t even look up and to the left to look at his dream girl, for the remainder of the day.

     Olivier heard footsteps amidst the flood of sound gushing out of his headphones, encasing his outer ears and bashing the eardrums. He felt the warmth of someone’s presence staring down at him, but he was too timid to even glance.

     “Hey,” Autumn said. The placement of her delicate hand falling onto his shoulder startled him for a second. He removed his headphones and gave her a sleepy smile. “I just wanted to apologize for my boss’s behavior earlier today.”

     “Oh, don’t worry,” he said looking up at her. “I know that she can be a real ornery person sometimes.” Olivier wanted to say the words “bitch” and “all the time,” but refrained because aside from being a bitch, Autumn’s boss was also an eavesdropper.

     “God, I want to get the fuck out of here. Want to get a drink after work?”

     “Yeah, sure. I’d love that.” Olivier was raring to spend time with Autumn outside of the confides of the office. He felt that their flirtation needed to reach the next stage in the timeless art of seduction: Drunken flirtation.

     Autumn removed her hand from Olivier’s shoulder, which was now warm and balmy, perfumed by her scent, one that was chiseled into his nasal passages.

     “Okay, great,” she said. “Let me just finish some stuff over here and then I’ll wave you down so we can go.”

     He felt comfortable with the ocular exchange they shared, but the fact that she was aware of how easy it was for him to spy on her made him feel like a pervert. His whole body went cold, including the sultry hand print left behind by Autumn.

     The phone rang. It was Ray Dodds.

     “Hey, Olivier,” Ray said. Ray used to enjoy the fact that the words “hey” and “Olivier’ rhymed. He was so proud of himself for having come to that realization all on his own. “What do you have for me? Hopefully something that’ll make me come.” Ray broke into a cackle. “I’m just kidding. Only, I’m not.” The cackle returned, more devastating than the first.

     “Hi Ray,” Olivier said, trying his hardest not to give Ray anything to riff off of. “I liked your suggestions and I think we can definitely use them to create a great experience for you.”

     “Can we have that ready by the end of the week? I need this bad.” Ray’s breathing became haggard and drawn out.

     “Yes, I believe that’s feasi—”

     “Feces,” Ray yelled and broke into a fit of laughter. “God, I love that word.” Olivier heard gentle sniffles and pictured Ray wiping tears from his eyes. “Alright sir, I’ll let you finish working on my stuff. I almost said shit,” he said, not withholding any laughter. “Okay, okay. Bye.”

     “Bye,” Olivier replied under his breath.

     The bar that Olivier and Autumn decided to go to was a block away from work. It was posh and inhabited mainly by men in business suits and women in tight skirts and too much makeup on their faces. The place was packed. Olivier motioned Autumn towards a spot on the bar that had just been uninhabited, the vinyl upholstery of the stools still warm with ass sweat. He waited until she sat comfortably on the high bar stool, a manifestation of his gentlemanliness. When he finally hopped up onto the stool, he added a couple of humorous bounces. Autumn smiled.

     “Sorry for taking so long to leave the office,” Olivier said. “I just needed to finish a call with this guy named Ray Dodds.”

     “Oh, is that the guy who always requests those weird fetish experiences?” Autumn said, resting her right cheek on her right fist, elbow resting on the glossy mahogany bar. Olivier noticed how easily distracted Autumn was. Something needed to happen in order for her to be interested.

     “Yeah, that’s him,” Olivier laughed, hoping that his boisterousness infected an ailing Autumn. He immediately stopped as he finally was able to make eye contact with the manic bartender. Knowing that he probably wouldn’t be able to get the bartender’s attention for another hour or so, Olivier asked Autumn to name two drinks that she would like. She ordered a Cosmopolitan and a vodka martini. Olivier also ordered a vodka martini and an Old Fashioned. He hated the taste of the latter, but wanted to seem like he knew his liquor in front of Autumn.

     “I hate this fucking job,” she said. “I feel like a glorified and dignified phone sex operator.” Autumn took a long swig of the sweaty, ice-cold water. “I have a fucking Master of Fine Arts, for Christ’s sake.” Upon hearing this, Olivier took a drink of water, not really swallowing, but merely buying himself some time, thinking of something witty while at the same time encouraging to say.

     “Well, at least you get to write for a living,” Olivier said. “It could be worse. You could be an actual phone sex operator.”

     “This shit isn’t writing,” Autumn said, pecking down on the mahogany with her index finger, so harshly that it started to bend backwards. “It’s like skipping the joys of cooking and eating a meal, and simply shitting it out. This is shit.”

     The bartender jack-and-the-boxed between them breaking up the tension, beginning to sediment on the date Olivier wanted to believe that he was on. The tight-shirted man placed the four drinks in front of them and vanished, appearing again at the other end of the bar like a ninja.

      “You want to try some of my Old Fashioned?” Olivier said, expecting Autumn to be as intimidated by its foreignness as he was.

      “Nah, I hate the way those taste,” Autumn said. “It reminds me of nail polish remover.”

     Olivier needed to change the subject quick, at least if he wanted the kiss he yearned for at the end of the night.

      “So, what are some of the things you truly like to write about?” Olivier asked. “What really gets your heart pumping?” He noticed a glimmer of interest amidst the gloom in her eyes.

      “Well, I mostly write literary nonfiction,” Autumn said, twirling the thin, yellow lemon twist, agitating the red sea of Cosmopolitan. “But it’s based on my life experiences.” She took a sip. “Nobody’s going to want to read about how my mom was a cold and conniving witch.” She chugged the rest of the deep pink libation. The grimace on her face made Olivier uncomfortable.

      “I think that as long as you’re writing from a place that’s real, then people will find a way to relate to your writing and even grow to love it.”

      “Ugh.” Olivier didn’t know if that reaction was to the bitterness of the cocktail or to the mushiness of his saccharine comment. The ambiguity was killing him.

      “It’s because everything is driven by people voting thumbs up or down,” Olivier said, trying to sound self-righteous, and not like one sitting around with his thumb up his ass. “It’s all about likes.” He leaned forward. “It doesn’t matter if nobody actually reads your work or even gets your message because as long as you get that vibration in your pocket, that sensation of acknowledgement, you could care less.”

     Olivier’s motivational speech seemed to have an adverse effect on Autumn, who was looking down, her merlot tresses curling over her face. The doubt in her eyes crept down to her hand, pivoting at the wrist, off the bar’s edge. Olivier gently slid her soft hand into his. She looked up, half surprised, half pleased.

      “See? I knew you liked me,” Autumn said, buzzed from her one and a half drunk cocktails. “I like you too. You’re easy—” She lifted her glass to her lips and finished the remainder of her vodka martini. “I can tell exactly what you’re thinking about just by looking at your face.”

     Her response to his advances took Olivier aback. He didn’t know what to say.

      “You’ve got the softest hands,” he finally said as he rubbed her porcelain-soft hands in the soothing manner of a manicurist.

      “Well, you’ve got the sweetest eyes,” she said with a crooked smile. “I like the way you look at me from your desk.” Autumn leaned forward and whispered to him that sometimes she looks at Olivier’s glass partition just to see if he looks up to meet her eyes. Upon hearing this, Olivier extended his hand towards her face, placed her pointy chin in his palm and lifted gently. She smiled at him with her big, tipsy blue eyes. Olivier peered forward and closed his eyes, a second after she closed hers. The tips of their noses caressed past one another and the warm embrace of their four individual lips created the hot-blooded contraction of a fist ready to punch with an intent to kill. Autumn’s lips tasted of tart lemon and piercing vodka. Olivier’s acetone breath didn’t seem to bother Autumn, I guess she doesn’t mind my old fashioned approach, after all, thought Olivier.

     Their lips were inseparable. The bartender kept coming up to them to ask about another round, but after the second time of being ignored, he disappeared completely leaving behind the bill, his calling card.

      “Let’s go to my place,” Autumn suggested, the inebriating ambrosia coursing freely in her bloodstream. Olivier agreed. He fantasized constantly about this very moment, when he was introduced to Autumn, three months ago, during his onboarding at LifeVision. Besides, it was late and he had to take the bus home, which became weirder and more violent as the night grew older.

     As soon as they arrived at Autumn’s apartment, there was an air that they were going to have sex. It was a product of the unspoken passion they had danced around for the past few months, and the way she was rubbing his thigh on the way over, creeping a few inches short of his crotch. It was only a matter of when and how. Her apartment was organized in a disorganized sort of way. Autumn was under the spell of her own clutter, the way that people who don’t wear deodorant think that they don’t smell.

      “I like your place,” Olivier said. “It’s so you.”

      “Really? You think?” Autumn laughed nervously.

      “Yeah, it totally channels an eclectic vibe. It’s homey. I feel like I could live here.”

     As the last words were coming out of his mouth, Olivier began to look around the apartment associating certain places, pieces of furniture and appliances with different events that would happen before and after the sex. A playbook, one might say. That’s the bathroom where I’ll go psyche myself up before I go into her bedroom, and pee after I’m done making love to her, Olivier thought. That’s the refrigerator where I’ll pull out a cold water bottle to drink and hold up against my forehead— wondering whether she drank Pellegrino at home as she did at work— and that’s the couch where I’ll sit completely naked, thinking about what had just taken place in the bedroom and reflecting on what the conversation should be in the morning. Maybe he would have to come back to the couch in the early hours of the morning to polish off his post-coital speech while she still slept.

     Autumn’s kiss on the cheek woke Olivier from his reverie.

      “Would you like some water?” Autumn asked, opening the refrigerator and looking back at Olivier. “I’ve got sparkling and still.” Olivier took a second to admire Autumn’s curvaceous, yet delicate silhouette, created by the artificial sunlight beaming out of the refrigerator.

     “I’ll take some still water, please” Olivier said, his hands clasped politely behind his back.

     They took a seat on her frazzled, yellow couch and placed their cold glasses on her coffee table, chipped from moving from apartment to apartment. As soon as they placed them down, Autumn placed her cold palms on Olivier’s fevered face. She leaned in for a kiss and he placed his hands on her thighs. Every time he opened his eyes in between kisses, he was greeted by a wall of smile. It was the first time he had seen her this happy and this interested in him.

     “You’re probably going to think I’m weird,” Autumn said, combing her lower lip with her upper teeth, and scratching the skin under her nose with the tip of her index finger. “But do you want to hang out in my room? My roommate is probably going to be out for the night, so you can sleep over if you like.”

     “Yeah, sure,” Olivier said, excited, then immediately regretting how excitedly he had reacted to the proposition.

     They picked up their glasses and made their way to Autumn’s bedroom. Before they got to the room’s doorway, Olivier asked Autumn to carry his drink into the room for him.

     “I’ll catch up with you,” Olivier said. “Let me just use the restroom.”

     “Oh, sure,” Autumn said. “It’s right over there.” She kissed his lips— drawing it out with a tremulous hum— turned around with a glass of water in each hand and walked into the room.

     Olivier took his time in the bathroom, peeing for a few seconds, shaking his penis to get out every last drop, and looking down reassuring himself that the thing that was dangling in his grip was going to be big enough for the task at hand. He washed his hands and splashed water a few times on his face. The purple towel hanging on the loose rack next to the sink was frayed, like everything else in the apartment, so he slowly lifted it and dried his face. It smelled of Autumn. Olivier gave himself a final look, raking his fingers laxly through his hair, from one side of his head to the other. He smiled.

     When Olivier entered the room he took a panoramic look at the place. He then started to focus on individual items, such as the window, wedged open from too many thick layers of paint. The room was surrounded by color-coded piles of clothing, heaps of worn out books, and rows of shoes for every occasion, from brown suede hiking boots to silky black stilettos. Every piece of furniture looked like it had been inherited at least twice, from family or a thrift store. All were decorated by at least one or two withered candles. When Olivier turned to look at the moon-lit bed, he noticed Autumn lying on her back, fully nude, her arms and legs slightly splayed as if she were a knife thrower’s assistant latched onto a wheel of death.

     “Oh, I didn’t know you’d be— “ Olivier said. Autumn immediately lay on her side, reacting to Olivier’s surprised look.

     “I told you I’m weird,” Autumn laughed, lying completely on her stomach, placing her chin down on her joined hands, windshield-wiping her lower legs side to side, causing the fleshy mounds of her buttocks to tremble like ripples in a still pool of water.

      “No. You’re not,” Olivier said. He walked towards the bed, hemorrhaging clothing as he approached it, struggling to kick off his shoes and unbutton his shirt simultaneously. “I’ve thought about this moment for a long time.” By the time Olivier arrived at the foot of the bed, he had stripped down to his striped boxer briefs. He crawled onto the bed and towards Autumn’s pale body. He kissed her and lay on his back and flung off his boxers. She straddled him.

      “There’s something else,” Autumn said, looking down, not making eye contact. “Guys, don’t last very long inside of me.” Olivier took this as a challenge and thrusted up with a passion. The bedsprings sprung as Autumn fell on his chest. She was making love as if she was trying to make a point. A statement. Olivier was trying to contribute to the cause, but was mainly trying to keep up with her demonic heaving and arrhythmic limb jerks. After a while, he simply hung on to her spastic hips and lay back for the tumultuous ride. All the way until she came down her peak.

     Olivier held Autumn in his arms, her leg draped over both of his. The cold night air felt nice on their sweaty, sultry bodies. Their exhalations formed clouds of steam, similar to those that follow a long cigarette drag.

      “Oh shit,” Autumn yelled, as the sound of a key lodging inside a lock, a deadbolt retracting and a door knob twisting the creaky door open filled the frumpy apartment. “You need to hide.”

     “Wait, it’s just your roommate,” Olivier said, continuing to take his time inhaling and exhaling.

      “My boyfriend is my roommate,” Autumn yelled in hush tones. She pushed Olivier off the bed, grabbed him by the hand and looked frantically for an Olivier-sized hole she could stick him in. He went from feeling like a French lover to an extra can of French onion soup that didn’t fit in the cupboard. “Here,” Autumn said, pushing Olivier down, “hide under the bed.”

     Olivier didn’t even know that Autumn had a boyfriend. She’d never mention him during their flirtations. Not even by accident-not-by-accident, such as when girls want to let an interested gentleman that they are taken: “What did you do this weekend?” the guy asks, “My boyfriend and I went to a movie,” the girl replies. Man down. Erection averted. Move on to the next girl. Autumn broke the rules.

     Under the bed, Olivier soon realized that the reason why Autumn’s room was marginally in order was because she swept much of her clutter under the bed, himself included. Suddenly, his clothes and shoes smacked the side of his face, tossed haphazardly under the bed by Autumn. A Judas kiss. Olivier, constricted by the limited amount of space under Autumn’s bed, morphed his body into a human jigsaw puzzle piece. He heard a man’s voice— flinty, almost childish in manner— and four footsteps getting louder and louder as they approached the bedroom. Olivier saw Autumn’s bare feet walk by, the same ones he had in his mouth, wearing the toe ring that she used to tickle his testicles earlier that night, and her boyfriend’s, who were dressed in jeans and retro Adidas shoes. He seems like a nice guy, Olivier thought. If anybody can turn a nice guy like this into a fool, it’s definitely her.

     After Autumn and her boyfriend turned off the lights and got through the small talk of how their day went, Olivier began to plot ways of escaping. After a long period of silence, he dozed off losing track of time. Five hours could’ve flown by, for all he knew.

      “Hey,” Autumn whispered. “Come out, slowly.”

     Olivier palmed his way out of the sliver he was in and tiptoed his way out of the bedroom door, not looking back to see the cuckold’s face. He wanted to continue to think of him as a good guy. Autumn led him to the door, placing her bangs behind her ear, avoiding eye contact.

     “I’ll see you tomorrow?” Olivier whispered, the hiss in his voice sounded like yelling in the flat silence of the empty hallway. She nodded in the affirmative.

      “Now get the fuck out,” she whispered as she pushed him out and closed the door silently.

     Olivier walked out in his boxers, his clothes bunched up in one hand and his shoes in the other. Riding the 2:34 a.m. bus home, he fit right in.

     When Olivier woke up the next morning, he was surprised to find that nobody was on the other side of his bed, as he swung his arm over, not even the heat of the sun. He was expecting it to land on the soft nook between a woman’s rib cage and her hips. It read 8:55 a.m. on his clock, he started work at 9:00 a.m. Fuck. He sprung out of bed and mad dashed to the bathroom. He cleansed his body in the manner by which he’d heard courtesans of old did after an unscrupulous night of gallivanting. It matched his current emotional state, that of being a total slut. A homewrecker.

     As he clocked in, he remembered that he had yet to complete Ray’s story. He had taken it home to work on after the thing he had planned with Autumn. Olivier knew that he only had two hours to complete the script and submit it to his boss for approval. Leaving Autumn’s apartment was the only thing he could think of, so he used the script format to journal and digest the emotions that were eating at him the same way Autumn had eaten his penis the night before. He was breaking the first rule of Write Club, his boss Roger’s spoof on “Fight Club”— the movie, not the book— one of his many failed attempts to be an asshole who could also be your friend. The first rule about Write Club was that you don’t write about yourself. The second rule of Write Club was that you don’t right about yourself because this isn’t your goddamned diary or memoir.

      “Stick to the data, people,” Roger would say. “We don’t want a lawsuit in our hands.”

     When he finished, Olivier looked up and Autumn shot him a smile. He smiled back. She mouthed to him: “I’m sorry” and protruded her lower lip in a frown. They both laughed. Having tested the waters, Autumn walked over to Olivier’s desk and leaned on his cubicle wall.

      “Hey,” she said in a low voice. “Are we okay?” Olivier pretended to type something on his keyboard, partly to fight his fidgetiness.

     “Yeah, we’re good,” he said.

      “I’ve decided to submit some stories to a couple of literary journals,” Autumn said. This brought a smile to Olivier’s face. Maybe last night did mean something more than sex, he thought. “If I get published, I won’t have to worry about somebody masturbating to my work anymore.”

     “Well, I’ve heard that there are a number of perverts in the literary journal reading community,” Olivier rebutted. They broke into laughter. Autumn’s boss popped her head out of her office and shushed them.

      “Okay, I should probably go back,” Autumn said. She turned around midway to her desk. “We should get coffee sometime.”

      “Sure,” he said. “But you’ve got to ask me by surprise, not awkwardly.”

      “Okay,” she said and laughed. When she got back to her seat, Autumn looked over at Olivier and winked at him. Just as he was about to return the gesture, the phone rang. Incoming call from Ray Dodds.

      “Oh my fucking God, Olivier,” Ray yelled, his voice crackling in the receiver. “This thing you wrote right here is real good. It’s better than the low-budget porno I pitched to you yesterday. Speaking of pitching, I’m pitching quite the fort—”

      “Ray—” Olivier interrupted. “Ray, I’m so glad you liked it.”

      “Yeah, it just feels so real and fresh. Like something that could’ve happened to you. It’s very personal. Good job, kid. Hey listen, I’ll talk to you later. Bye.” Olivier hung up the phone. He was relieved that the story worked out, but was nervous that Autumn would eventually find out about it. He opened up an email window and began to type in Autumn’s address, when Irina, Autumn’s office friend approached Olivier from behind.

      “Hi Olivier,” Irina said softly. Olivier stood up to see if Autumn was at her seat, but she was gone. “She’s in a meeting,” she added. Olivier, as well as the whole of LifeVision, knew that Irina was engaged. What would she want with me? Olivier thought. Engaged women are the lepers of the dating world, more so than married women. They still hold true to the illusion of a happily-ever-after life. Irina kept mentioning to Olivier about how her boyfriend stood her up to go to a stupid baseball game in San Francisco.

      “I’m going to be all alone this weekend,” Irina said, twisting her finger on a lock of hair.

     Olivier sympathized with her, having just gone through an emotional tempest himself, but continued wondering why she was telling him this. He wanted to swat her away, because aside from having the reputation of an engaged woman, she was also known for being a snoozer and a bit of a snitch. Irina deflated her puffed cheeks, letting out a long, resonant sigh.

      “Yep. I’ll probably just get into my lace night gown and drink a ton of wine,” Irina said, eyeing Olivier. Her breasts were bouncing as she rocked back and forth, heel and toe, on her kitten heels, felinely teasing him, the words meowing out of her Cheshire smile.

      “Well, that’ll be nice,” Olivier said, worrying that Autumn had told Irina about the night before.

      “I wish my fiancé was like Autumn’s.” This sent a lightning bolt down Olivier’s back, similar to those that prelude the first rains of fall. “She told me that he came back early from his business trip last night and proposed to her over breakfast. That’s so romantic.” Fuck, Olivier thought. Here he thought that maybe he could take Autumn away from her boyfriend, every single man’s delusion when they fall for a taken woman.

      “She’s engaged?” Olivier asked himself out loud.

      “Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are,” Irina answered. “They weren’t even having sex anymore. I seriously thought she was going to dump him.” Olivier began to realize that Autumn just needed to blow off some steam, and that he was the release valve. “She told me that last night was the first time she had sex in a while,” Irina added.

      “With who?”

      “With you.” Olivier reached over to his office chair, which swiveled out of control, trying to prevent himself from collapsing. “With her boyfriend, silly,” Irina said, slapping his forearm.

     Olivier realized that he loved Autumn and that his heart would continue to shatter, shard by shard. He gave himself into Autumn as gradually as autumn gives itself into winter. He hated Autumn only because she would never love him. Not because she didn’t want to, but because she was incapable of doing so. The only consolation he had was that he wasn’t going to sleep alone on that cold autumn night.

      “Hey, Irina,” Olivier said. “You want to go out for a drink after work?” He knew that he wouldn’t be able to get over Autumn on alcohol alone, that he would need the warmth of a woman’s body, even one he would regret avenging his honor with at a later time. Irina agreed. Her acceptance comforted him.

     That and the fact that it was going to be another good story to sell to Ray someday.

 

Photo Credit

Rubbing elbows with phones leads to job [Photograph found in Valley Times Collection , U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, Los Angeles]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://jpg1.lapl.org/00133/00133556.jpg (Originally photographed 1949)