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.

 

Baby, We Can Be Stars

     Garlic and onions, simmering and crackling in a shallow pool of bubbling hot oil inside a flat sauce pan, are the base of most dishes. The size by which these should be cut depends on what dish you’re cooking. For example, if you’re making a smooth marinara sauce, you want to chop and dice each as finely as possible because you want them to disappear into the sauce, but not dominate the flavor. On the other hand, if you’re making mashed potatoes, you want to dice half an onion into big chunks, keeping the root intact. The root is what carries the sourness that makes you cry. Given that everything will be boiling in milk and salted butter, the cloves of garlic can be thrown in whole and will soften along with the diced unpeeled potatoes into a fluffy cream.

     “Why don’t we call a bundle of garlic cloves a ‘scrotum of garlic’?” Seneca asked, his eyes transfixed on his father’s hands chopping the vegetables. “I mean, we call a whole lettuce a ‘head’ and a certain type of bean ‘kidney’ because they look like those things.” Seneca’s father didn’t say a word. Not even an affirming grunt. “Even a piece of corn is called an ‘ear’ and it doesn’t even look like one.” Listening to his teenage son’s legume logic pulled a smile out of Fausto, as if the corners of his lips were slowly being widened by hooks. “Even an onion looks more like a breast than an artichoke like a heart.” Seneca’s impassioned speech was replied to by the silence accompanying the soothing rhythm of his father’s knife cutting through the vegetables and into the butcher block like a horse’s gentle gallop on hard cobblestone roads. Fausto could peel, chop, mince, and carved any vegetable into any shape he willed while wielding a knife. All he needed was an excuse.

     “According to your reasoning, should those long, green squashes over there be referred to as ‘zucchini peckers’?” Fausto asked. Their necks twisted cautiously, facing one another. As soon as their eyes met, they burst out into a fit of laughter, like two sisters on bikes, Fausto’s chuckle booming like a bass drum and Seneca’s like a floor tom. Based on this interchange of mirth, it was clear that Seneca was going to inherit his father’s deep voice. “Alright, stop being a jerk and get me a rib rack from the meat cooler, I need to head out to work soon.”

     Fausto always made an effort to eat at least one meal with Seneca. After Seneca’s mother died a few years back, his son had been keeping to himself a little more than usual. Fausto had never considered himself “Father of the Year” when his wife was still with them, leaving most of the rearing to her and focusing more on putting food on the table. Being a hunter, he wasn’t home very often and the times he was, he spent them cleaning the day’s kill and relaxing. But now that his wife was gone, Fausto saw it as an opportunity to reset his relationship with his son and rekindle that which had been missing in their lives for many years.

     Seneca wobbled playfully down to the basement to fetch the ribs his father had asked for. The cooler was to the left of the stairwell and was always stocked with sausages and various cuts of meat including sirloin, tenderloin, round and Seneca’s favorite, ribs. Across from the cooler was a fully functional bathroom equipped with a sink, toilet, and a full shower and tub. It was built by his dad at his mom’s behest to protect her clean floors and nice carpet from the muddy, blood-drenched boots her husband drudged home in on the daily. Across the stairwell was his dad’s workroom. It was always locked. Fausto kept in there all of the things that he wanted to protect his son from. Guns, knives of all shapes, sizes and sharpness, chemicals, all of the good liquor and his priceless record collection. He’d only been inside of it once, right after his mother died, but was immediately evicted and excluded from ever entering when he dropped a knife on his foot, the blade cutting clean through the canvas shoe, between his big toe and the one next to it. Not a single scratch befell his foot that day, but his dad was livid and made sure that an incident like that never happened again. Every time Seneca went down to fetch something from the meat cooler, he always looked lustfully at the forbidden door, analyzing the orange-red glow emanating like a halo through the sliver between the door frame and the solid oak door.

     “Seneca, what’s taking you so long?” Fausto yelled. “The oil’s getting hot and impatient, and so am I.”

     “I’m coming, dad,” Seneca replied. The door always remained locked, even when his father was in there working on something. From time to time, Seneca would sneak downstairs to listen to his father work. The percussive sounds of a cleaver and buzzing of the band saw grinding through animal bone, moved forwards and backwards by his father’s strong arms brought Seneca a sense of comfort. His father loved Frank Sinatra’s music and would often play it while he worked. It was during this time, and only within the confines of his solitude, that Seneca would hear his father’s deep and boisterous baritone voice.

     Come fly with me, we’ll fly, we’ll fly away, Seneca would hear his father singing in full voice as he rested his head against the cooler. Sometimes, Seneca would fall asleep against the meat cooler listening to his father work, and would wake up in his bed. His father only yelled at him to leave if he was awake and putting his ear against the door. Fausto didn’t want his son snooping around in his business. He was a very private man.

     “You’re too young,” Fausto said. “I’m going to let you in that room when I think that you’re ready.”

     “But I’m sixteen-years-old, dad,” Seneca said. “You were much younger than me when you started to learn how to do these things.”

     “It’s not just about how old you are. It’s also about maturity. You’re not mature enough to deal with the things I have to do in there.”

     “But I know how to kill stuff. Remember how I nailed that squirrel right between the eyes? Besides, I’m not going to drop anything on my foot this time. I promise.”

     “You think that hunting is just about killing. Hunting is much more than that. Hunting is a way of life. It takes patience, skill, intelligence, empathy and a cold heart of stone, to do what needs to be done. Killing is murder, a massacre. Hunting is elegant. It takes class.

     “I didn’t train you to be a killer. I trained you to use a blade so that you can know when it is the right time to take a life. Animal or human.”

     If there was something that Seneca hated more in the world was to hear his dad say, “Enjoy being a kid. Trust me, you don’t want to deal with adult problems before your mature enough to even begin to understand them. Once you become an adult, at whatever age life decides to turn you into one, there’s no turning back.”

     As Seneca walked up the basement steps, he could hear his father humming “Fly Me To The Moon.”

     “In other words…Seneca, come here, my boy,” Fausto said, not looking back at his son approaching. “Let me show you how to make the perfect tomatillo sauce to go with these short ribs.”

     The spiciness you want to give the sauce depends on what type of pepper you want to include. You can go with a jalapeño to add a small kick or with a tree chili if you want to burn everything that the sauce comes into contact with. Fausto preferred a pepper with a more infernal profile. He enjoyed the way its hotness made his blood boil as it reminded him of the feeling of rage. It’s only when you are truly angry that you are truly honest, Fausto used to say. After you’ve chosen your poison, remove the paper-like husk from the green tomatoes and place them on the hot skillet along with your choice of pepper, whole cloves of garlic, a whole onion and whole pepper corns. Roast them until they turn a dark brown, but it’s perfectly fine if you burn them slightly. The burnt smell of pepper will indicate how spicy the sauce will be as it will suffocate you and drive you helplessly into a coughing fit. Fausto shoveled the scorched contents into a glass bowl and added a handful of salt and a splash of olive oil. He handed the bowl and a masher to Seneca.

      “Why don’t you use the blender,” Seneca asked as he mashed the steaming contents in the bowl, releasing scents that both tickled and caressed his nose.

      “Because if you want things done right,” Fausto said, rinsing the cast iron skillet he used to roast the sauce ingredients, releasing a hissing, white smoke cloud, “you need to get your hands dirty.”

     Fausto bought very few things from the supermarket or restaurants. If I can make it myself, why would I pay someone else to do it worse than me? he often said. He had a big vegetable garden in which he grew lettuces of all colors, corn, wheat, tomatoes and squashes. Fausto had robust fruit trees that provided delicious fruit and plenty of shade for his two cows, which he milked every day and whose milk he would use to make all types of dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. The eggs he used to prepare Seneca’s breakfast every morning or dinner, whenever they had breakfast for dinner, came from the dozens of chickens roaming and clucking around their property. Fausto’s burgeoning garden benefited from his profession as a hunter as he would use the discarded bones, blood and waste products to make bone and blood meal, which he would then use to fertilize it. Fausto hated waste and clutter of any kind and always kept his house and work area spotless, like a meticulous Levite of old.

      “Waste comes from negligence and negligent people are the ones that always seem to find themselves in trouble,” Fausto used to say to Seneca. “Always make sure to take care of all the loose ends whenever you decide to do anything. However insignificant they may seem at first.”

     Seneca always thought of his dad as the smartest guy in the world. Not because he knew the answer to everything. In fact, his dad often made his ignorance known. But what he did know, he knew it well. Fausto was full of knowledge, knowledge that, if heeded, could keep you alive. He didn’t say much, but when he did, Seneca found it the most appropriate and insightful words ever spoken on the matter.

      “You have to be certain that when you do something, you’re doing it because you’re ready to live with the aftermath of it,” Fausto said, cleaning the blade of his favorite hunting knife. “When I killed your granddaddy.” Fausto rarely spoke about his father, but when he did, he would refer to him as Seneca’s granddad, especially when he talked about his death. “I had to make a choice.” Fausto sat quietly in his favorite chair, looking out the window and at his reflection on the knife’s cold sheen. “The choice whether to live with a man that was hurting my mother and me or live with him in my mind, hurting me from within my own blood and bones. When you kill something, you can’t unkill it. No matter how much you wish you could.”

     Fausto’s father was a hunter as well as a heavy drinker and expected perfection from his wife and son. Perfection, in his inebriated mind, was the opposite of whatever these two had prepared for him. If the house was messy, he’d complain about how filthy it was and if it was clean, without a speck of dust, he’d complain about how the house looked like a “goddamned, abandoned ghost house.” When he was home, Fausto’s father would call him over and punish him for any reason. His favorite mode of punishment was to draw X’s on Fausto’s back with his hunting knife. Got anything lower than a B in school, X on his back. Got into a fight at school, two X’s on his back. Fausto would often overhear his mother’s pleas for her husband to stop hitting her and, as he was leaving to head back to the pub, her wishes for him to just leave Fausto and her alone and never return. He could bear his father’s twisted form of discipline, but any form of abuse on the woman he loved most, was simply unbearable for Fausto.

     While his father was passed out from a binge of too much moonshine, Fausto unsheathed his father’s hunting knife and drew an ear to ear, bright red happy face on his throat. He cleaned up all traces of the act, so detailed that it looked as though it had never happened. When Fausto revealed what he had done to his mother, she wanted to shun him for having done that. He wasn’t hurting anybody, she would yell at Fausto, banging her weak fists on his chest as he would try to hug her. The sound of her wounded sobbing and the way she dug her fingernails deep into his shirt and the skin of his chest communicated to him that he had done the right thing.

      “Killing is a disease,” Fausto said as he stood up sheathing his knife onto his belt. “That’s why it’s so hard to do, because you’re not supposed to do it. Once you’ve killed, you yourself need to be killed or you’ll continue to kill because you’ve figured out how easy it is to do so. Then you start using it as a means to solve your problems and there, in that thought that you can kill anyone in the world, lies the danger.”

     Seneca handed the cold ribs to Fausto and he motioned his son over with his elbow to join him near the cutting board.

      “A knife lets you take matters into your own hands,” Fausto said, sliding the sharp knife through the frigid meat as if through butter. “You can grab life by the knife-handle and carve any situation that life throws at you.” The beads of sweat cascaded onto his brow and dripped onto the cutting board like raindrops in spring, diluting the puddled blood on it. “Sometimes, it’ll be a chicken. Others, it’ll be something which neither water nor soap will be able to wash away.” Fausto wiped his brow with the bicep on his knife-wielding arm. “Something that will live with you forever.” Fausto continued to cut in silence.

      “Besides,” Fausto smirked, “You definitely don’t want to be like those stupid people that overpay for prepackaged, precut chicken breasts, or vegetables. They live prepackaged lives, consuming and digesting whatever the safe bounds of convenience allows them to.” Upon dropping the blood-soaked ribs into the rumbling oil, a stadium-filled cheer sprinkled a mist of scalding oil onto Fausto and Seneca’s forearms. The white marbling of the meat emitted a heavenly sacrificial scent. “Soon, they too will be prepackaged corpses being dragged out of their prepackaged homes into their prepackaged coffins.” Fausto threw a handful of salt onto the browning meat, effervescing on contact, like Merlin into a bath-sized black cauldron.

     When Fausto was in his late twenties, he was living in New York and was dating a girl that was going to college there. His girlfriend Sherry shared an apartment with a girl who hit it off with Fausto. Her name was Marie. Fausto’s infatuation for Sherry’s roommate got to a point that he looked forward to visiting his girlfriend only because he wanted to see more of Marie.

     Fausto was aware that Marie had a boyfriend named Mike. In fact, he had met him twice, both times disappointed by the encounters. The first time because Fausto expected Marie’s boyfriend to be taller and more impressive than himself. The second time because he heard him go on and on about drugs and every which way to get high.

     On one occasion, Sherry wasn’t home, but had instructed Fausto to wait for her at her apartment. Upon arriving, Fausto noticed that the front door was unlocked and wide open. It hadn’t just been left open, it was pried forcefully, against the door’s will. Fausto walked in cautiously and looked around the common area. Nothing.

      “Is anybody there?” he called out as he would, were he exploring an abandoned house on Mars’s surface. “Hello. Marie?”

     A hallway door cawed and a shuffling of rummage startled Fausto and he turned around to see what it was.

      “Shhhush,” Marie commanded with a finger across her lips. She came out of her room, closing the door behind her so fast and quietly that it almost appeared as though she had incorporeally permeated her body through it. Her sullen face and the hall’s bad lighting didn’t allow Fausto to appreciate the condition her face was in. The bruise work her boyfriend had apportioned her that day was concealed by the shadows.

     As Fausto reached over to support Marie’s deflated and flagellated body, their eyes locked. At that moment, Fausto didn’t need to know that she had three broken ribs, internal bleeding and a dislocated shoulder. All he knew was that she needed help and that he needed her in his life.

     Fausto escorted her in his arms to the crisp light of the sun-filled living room, which revealed to him that whatever Marie was going through needed to stop and that he was the one to make sure that it did. Fausto wanted to call 9-1-1 and get Marie to the hospital, but she begged him not to.

      “He’s got two strikes on his record,” she cried. “One more and he’s done. I don’t want to get him in trouble.”

     Fausto couldn’t conceive of how someone so beautiful and delicate, intelligent and independent, could want with a piece of human excrement like Mike.

      “I’m so stupid,” she said, banging her fists on her lap, which explained the extensive bruising on her thighs and knees. At least, some of it. “I should have listened to his ex. His ex was right.”

      “Who’s ex?” Fausto asked, confused.

      “Mike’s ex-girlfriend. She put a restraining order on him and called me several times, warning me to do the same.”

     She ignored her, not wanting to see, and continued to believe that she was capable of changing Mike. The other girl was probably really trashy, Marie thought, and didn’t respect herself. Her mother had always told her that men preyed on weak women. That a man treated a woman the way she let herself be treated, the way she herself wanted to be treated. Marie thought of herself as strong, which made this whole situation the more humiliating for her.

      “Who the fuck’s there?” A man’s voice roared from Marie’s room. Both Fausto and Marie’s heads turned simultaneously. “Marie, where the hell are you?”

      “Oh, crap. He’s awake,” Marie said. “I better go.”

     As Marie groaned herself up and began to stumble away, Fausto grabbed her hand and she stopped almost by choice. He took a deep breath.

      “Do you want to get out of this?” Fausto asked.

      “What?” she replied.

      “Do you want all this to end? Do you want him gone and out of your life?”

     Marie stood there, in silence, amidst Fausto’s patient anticipation and Mike’s vociferous tantrums, contemplating the proposition and the weight that the repercussions would bring to her life. She knew she was dead if she stayed with Mike. It was only a matter of time.

      “Yes,” she said in a soft, low voice in almost imagined tones. There was no emotion in her voice, no sign of love behind her tears. She knew exactly what he was asking her and what she was asking him to do.

     Fausto pulled her down to the couch gently, laid her on it and covered her with a warm blanket. He gave her a kiss on the forehead. She closed her eyes. At first, out of the exhaustion that comes from sleeping with one eye open next to the one person who could end you, because he keeps reminding you of the fact. She kept them closed due to the screams and shouts coming from her room: one from a man whimpering and begging for his life, the others from a man grunting and moaning, taking it away. There was crying, and gagging. Then, nothing.

     Fausto later told the cops that it was in self-defense, but they still took him in. It didn’t upset Fausto that he was arrested, or that Sherry went to see Marie at the hospital before checking up on him at the precinct. It didn’t bother him that Sherry allowed the carnage befalling Marie to go on for as long as it did. What bothered Fausto was that Sherry never told him about it. In Fausto’s mind, even a minute of abuse was too long for anyone to suffer through. He loved Marie and this wouldn’t be the first or last time that Fausto would kill for those he loved.

     On that very visit, Fausto broke up with Sherry. Later that week, after Marie testified against her deceased boyfriend, Fausto was acquitted and he nursed Marie back to health. Two weeks after that, they started dating and three years later, they were married with Seneca on the way.

     Fausto and Seneca were sitting at the table having a nice meal, enjoying the last rays of sunlight daggering through the blinds.

      “I was thinking about your mom earlier today,” Fausto said, chewing a mouthful of rib meat, dipped in buttery mashed potatoes. “About how proud of you she’d be to see the responsible man you’re turning into.”

     Seneca looked down, spooning his food aimlessly about his plate.

      “I know that I’ve been kind of hard on you about what I do, but I want to make sure that you don’t end up.” Fausto swallowed hard, harder than what the contents in his mouth required. “That you don’t end up fucked up like me.”

     Seneca placed his utensils down. He had never seen his father get emotional like that. Fausto palmed away tears from his eyes.

      “I just want to make sure that I am the type of man that can protect you from the world out there and the wilderness within every man,” Fausto said. “The one that makes us do stupid, crazy shit.”

     Seneca walked over to his dad who by now was sobbing quietly, cornering his face into his hands. He placed his hand on his dad’s shoulder and felt the gentle tremors of his dad’s shallow breathing.

      “Dad, you are a good man,” Seneca said. “You’ve done your best to teach me how to be like you.”

     Fausto emerged from his hands, eyes bloodshot.

      “That’s the thing, I don’t want you to be like me. I want you to be better.”

     Suddenly, Fausto’s phone rang. He answered. He nodded and hummed affirmatively.

     “Listen, son,” Fausto said. “I’ve got to go. Finish what’s on your plate and make sure that you clean up the table and do the dishes. You got that?” Seneca nodded. Fausto sniffles as he exited were silenced by his door slam.

     After taking care of his chores, Seneca went to his room and began to think about why his dad didn’t trust him. Am I that different from him? he asked himself. There’s got to be a way to get into that goddamned room. Seneca went downstairs to the basement and began to study the door handle. He wrapped his warped fingers around it and wrung it furiously, jerking the knob in all the cardinal directions.

     Seneca heard his dad’s truck arrive and he immediately jumped inside the cooler, leaving a crack open to let air in and the stench of the meat out. He noticed that Fausto was carrying a large, black sack into his workroom. The clings and clops of sweeping aside metal tools made way for a heavy thud that comes as a result of dropping a soulless carcass onto a stainless steel surface. Fausto came out of the workroom carrying a half-drunk bottle of Macallan 18 Year Sherry Oak scotch in one hand, a towel in the other, and an indistinct tune in his whistling.

     Seneca noticed that his dad had left his workroom’s door ajar. Tiptoeing past the bathroom door, Seneca sneaked in and began to analyze the sack. He picked up his dad’s hunting knife— shrink-wrapped in a pink film— pulling it out of its leathery vestiture, and neared its razor tip towards the cadaver, trying to prod it. As the knife touched the bag, Seneca heard his dad’s shower singing get closer and more melodic. With knife in hand, Seneca ran to hide in any crevasse he could find.

     His dad came into the workroom, completely naked, toweling his head. Seneca grabbed tightly onto his shins, the back of his shoes digging into his buttocks. He had a clear view of his dad and a partial one of the bag on the table. With the towel still resting on Fausto’s shoulders, he turned to his turntable, made of a reddish-brown cherry heartwood, its fine, straight grain with narrow brown pith flecks and small gum pockets were brought out by the single source of light swinging about, gently above the motionless sack. As Fausto looked meditatively for the perfect record, he slid his fingers on the smooth lacquered texture, closing his eyes from time to time, humming an undistinctive melody. It sounded like a jazz standard.

     As Fausto was humming a jazz lullaby, Seneca was thinking of an alibi in case his father were to find him, hiding there. However, what was preoccupying him more than the harsh lecture his father would give him on how he wasn’t supposed to be in there and how the fact that he sneaked in wasn’t the reason why he was so upset, but the fact that he lied, was how he would manage to get out without his dad being the wiser. You should never lie to your father, Fausto would often say.

     “Ah,” Fausto exclaimed as he found what he was looking for and slid an LP record out of the stack. Seneca couldn’t see what record his dad had pulled out. The swoosh of the protective plastic sliding against the cardboard sleeve and that of the record sliding out of the paper cover made Seneca nervous with anticipation. He knew that it would be Frank Sinatra singing, but not the song.

     The click releasing the tone-arm gave way to the head-shell dropping down, the needle making a crackling sound as the record began to play on its continuous loop. All the while the muscles on Fausto’s back were rippling like clowns running around manically under a fallen circus tent, decorated with big scar-tissue X’s. The sight of it reminded Seneca of the times in which his dad would pretend to be a strongman, a Mr. Olympia contestant, flexing his strong back for Seneca and his mother as they snuggled in bed, laughing at his dad’s silhouette, which towered over him like a menacing giant.

     As the squeal of the strings began, Fausto turned around with a goofy smile on his face, his eyes closed, and began to waltz with himself as he once had with his wife Marie. Seneca had always heard that his dad had been such a good dancer, but it wasn’t until this very instant, that he had seen him with his own eyes. As Fausto twirled, the towel on his head waved about like long terrycloth tresses. The orchestration filled the workroom and Fausto gracefully removed the towel from his head and wrapped it around his svelte waist and muscular buttocks, never once losing his footing on the beat.

     And now the purple dusk of twilight time, Sinatra began to sing.

     “Steals across the meadows of my heart,” Fausto joined Frank with his lyrical yet slightly distuned voice, words slurred from the intoxicating bath he had just vacated in the room adjacent.

     High up in the sky the little stars climb…

     As Fausto unzipped the sack, the animal within became reanimated and started to move. The unzipping became more violent as the creature convulsed vigorously, making Seneca feel each zipper tooth becoming unfastened, drilling chalkboard scratches into his ears. The gaping incision bloomed a bouquet of flesh-colored, blood-drenched tentacles, creeping spastically, gripping desperately for a way out, limb by crippled limb.

     It was a person. Fausto turned and scrambled to grab a tool with which to bludgeon it, but Seneca jumped out of his nook, yelling louder than the thing that emerged from the bag.

      “What the hell are you doing, dad?” Seneca yelled. The nearly unconscious man rolled off the table and snaked himself behind Seneca, leaving a badly mopped streak of blood and fluids in his wake. “Dad. I asked, what the hell is going on?”

     Still under the effects of the scotch, Fausto leaned back on his work bench and looked at his son with the eyes of a man who had lost his purpose in life.

      “What are you doing with my knife?” Fausto asked, words slurring. “Well, I guess you were going to find out about this someday.”

      “Find out about what?” Seneca asked, not really wanting to know the answer to his own question.

      “That we’re cannibals.” Seneca momentarily lost his footing as if the whole Earth was flexing its gravitational force on and off.

      “Please don’t hurt me,” the bloodied man cried. “I’ve got a son just like you. Let me go home to him, I won’t tell anybody. I promise.”

      “Shut up,” yelled Seneca. “Dad.” Seneca’s stomach began to churn, wanting to purge itself of all the tainted meat he had consumed. The meat that he had enjoyed so much. The one that his own dad had prepared so lovingly. “Why are you killing people? I’ve seen you kill up to three deer in one outing. Why are you doing this?” Fausto cleared his throat, then chuckled.

      “At first, killing was easy because I was killing bad people, people that deserved to die,” Fausto said as he belched, ending it with an abrupt hiccup. “But after a while, I realized that killing was all the same; whether I was killing guilty or innocents.”

     “But why the fuck were you eating them and feeding them to me?” Seneca failed to find the humor that had so enveloped his father, whose eyes were starry with red meteorites.

     “Meat is meat. It’s all about how you cook it.” Fausto’s laughter crescendoed and reached a forte before it was punctuated by a woozy, silent stare. “How many times have I told you not to be wasteful?”

      “Duh-did you kill mom?”

      “Don’t be stupid. I loved your mom more than I ever loved anyone. Even you.” Seneca clutched the knife-handle. “However,” Fausto smiled, “I did kill the doctor that gave her the cancer diagnosis.” Fausto chuckled. “You know, I found that all of his braininess made him kind of stringy.”

     Seneca looked at his dad, in a way he never thought that he would.

      “Please son, I trust that you know what needs to be done. This way of life has kept us alive this whole time,” Fausto said, his smile morphing seamlessly into sobbing. “I need your help, my dear boy.”

     With the knife soldered to his hand, Seneca began to walk towards the man that could’ve been his father. The man he didn’t know and wouldn’t care to kill. He squeezed the wooden handle and threw it directly towards the man’s chest, lancing it deep into his sternum. Deep into the chest of the man who gave him life and this wretched way of living.

     The man on the floor began to sob uncontrollably. He would see his son again, the one that was Seneca’s age, but he would never be the same loving father he was before Fausto kidnapped him and attempted to flay and fillet him.

     Fausto staggered to breathe, attempting to wedge out the knife out of his chest, cutting his fingers and gushing out even more blood. The same knife Fausto used to murder his own father was now plunged deep in his heart by his own son’s hand. Fausto waltzed randomly about the workroom, out of rhythm and out of breath. He crashed chest-first into the liquor cabinet, the knife burrowing itself deeper into his being, releasing a melodic chime of glass shards on the cold cement floors. By the time he collapsed, Fausto palmed the record player as a last chance to find stability. He staggered to breathe for the last time, bleeding Maraschino red all over the cherry heartwood record player. Sinatra’s bittersweet voice would forever sing in Seneca’s mind the loop that the record was stuck on…

     The melody haunts my reverie…The melody haunts my reverie…The melody haunts my reverie…

     Seneca called the police and they swarmed his house, the faint scent of garlic and onions still wafting in the air. They had been looking for the person responsible for all those disappearances. The workroom his dad had tried so hard to keep private went from being completely unknown to one of the most popular news stories for two whole days.  The police took Seneca in for questioning, but he was mute. Dumb like a sheep before her shearer. Not because he wanted to preserve his dad’s good name, but because he really had no idea about what had been going on in his own home. Part of Seneca wished that he had never gone into that room, that he had never discovered his dad’s sadistic tendencies, and that he had never ended his life. Even a messed up life with his dad would have been better than no life. Better than the living, breathing death he was currently experiencing in his flesh and bone prison.

     In his mind, Seneca remembered the happy times when he went on strolls with his mom, the summers when the three of them would go on long road trips to various parts of the United States, and the recipes of how to cook various dishes.

     The recipes. Those beloved recipes, now they were all tainted with human blood. He wanted to forget them all, including that of how to be a killer. Seneca wanted to forget who he was and where he came from. However, he would never truly forget the lessons his dad taught him, the ones that had been preparing him for that final showdown in the workroom. The mental minefield that would to detonate continuously and without warning as he got older and tried to move on with his life. The haunting memories.

     The memory of love’s refrain.

 

Artwork Credit

“Marble statue of a member of the imperial family.” Met Museum, New York, 27AD, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/257641.

Going Home

     When Julian looked into his little brother’s big brown eyes, his became glassy and itchy with tears. Thiago wanted to come along with Julian and his friends, but Julian didn’t want him to slow them down. Julian was embarrassed of Thiago, who was 2 years his junior, because he had short stubby legs and winced at the first sign of trouble. If something dangerous were to happen, Julian could imagine his brother getting hurt or even killed.  He would rather put Thiago out of his misery by leaving him behind rather than to see him get his body or feelings hurt by his friends’ rough play. Besides, their cousin Manny couldn’t stand him.

     “He acts like a little fag,” Manny told Julian once. “I just want to beat the shit out of him every time I see him.” It enraged Julian to hear Manny refer to his brother in that way, partly because he agreed with him.

     The tears rolling down Julian’s face were of impotence– that he wasn’t brave enough to abandon his brother or adequately strong to defend him against his older cousin, if Thiago came along. Julian knew what it felt like to be left out of things. On his last day of elementary school, all of the boys in his class were nowhere to be found. He was a leftover of a 5th grade apocalyptic rapture. As Julian exited his last class of the year, his ass numb from inactivity, he bumped into his other classmates who were all laughs and smiles. When Julian asked where they had all been, one of them boasted that they had been watching jungle porn at his house. They had all conspired a day before to do so and didn’t even think of inviting Julian. They had made a pact and drunk the poisoned punch. A mass deflowering. It didn’t bother Julian that they thought that he was a loser. It didn’t bother him that he didn’t get the chance to enjoy the exquisiteness of jungle porn. What bothered Julian was that they had thought that he was too young to understand.

     “Just stay the hell back,” Julian yelled at little Thiago as he descended the hill upon which his grandmother’s house was located. Julian hated excluding his brother, but he wanted Thiago to see him as his strong older brother and the other kids to see him as one of their own. From a distance, Julian waved to his brother, as a way of saying goodbye and telling him to go into the house. But Thiago remained, looking at his brother drifting farther and farther away from him, his sputtered whimpers drifting into the loud howl of an abandoned puppy. “Just shut up,” said Julian, looking at his brother’s distant silhouette. “Don’t make me go up there again.”

     The other boys were waiting at the bottom of the hill, impatiently for Julian to hurry up. Although he wasn’t the youngest in the group, Julian felt less wily than the rest. He hung out with them because they were tough and Julian wanted to toughen up. A menace by association. These street kids could rough you up and rob you blind without a moment’s notice. Julian liked that about them.

     Julian’s hiking party included his cousin Manny, who, unlike Julian– in Tijuana solely for summer vacation– was living in Mexico due to his parents’ finances. They grew up together, and being only a year apart, this meant that they were in constant competition for their family’s approval. Success in this gauntlet meant more to Manny than to Julian due to the former’s lack of parental affection. Manny’s parents had too many kids to care for and too little time to care about them individually.

     The youngest kid in the group was nicknamed Rabbit, but he also went by “El Sex” because his mother was one of the town’s prostitutes. Rabbit was never home, and nobody ever visited his house or even knew where it was located. He was always at other people’s houses, and the only time you could assume that he was home was when all of a sudden you couldn’t find him at anybody else’s house. For all they knew, Rabbit didn’t even have a hole to call home.

     The last kid’s name was Coco. He wasn’t really a kid though, he was way older than any of the other kids and looked more like a man than a kid. He was charming and had a smile that made Julian’s face fill with warmth until his temples began to perspire. That smile was the same he placed on Julian’s eyes with the grace of a dove as Pastor Emmanuel invoked the name of the Holy Spirit, dunking Coco into the local church’s baptismal waters. When he emerged from the small pool, Coco blew water out of his nose and took suffocating breaths. Once he found his composure, he stuck out his tongue as though he had just helter-skeltered down and out of a water park slide.

     “Guess who I caught fingering herself?” Coco asked as he hopped excitedly around his three companions.

     “Who? Who did you see?” Rabbit asked, wearing a big grin, its malice augmented by the length of his buck teeth. “Was it your mom?”

     “Ugh. No, stupid. I saw Dora. Dora was the one. I caught her dipping her fingers into her hole when I went to visit her brother.”

     “Was she all naked and shit?” Manny asked.

     “Yeah, pretty much,” Coco said with a chuckle.

     “So, you saw her big tits?” Julian asked.

     “How do you know she has big tits?” Coco asked.

     “Yeah, how do you know?” Manny asked.

     “Yeah, how do you know?” Rabbit echoed.

     It came as a surprise that Julian would have that form of sexual reconnaissance, given that he had such neatly trimmed and combed hair and a fresh, round face. The face of a cherub. He was deemed too cute to know of such things. To them, Julian was a larger version of his younger brother.

     “Well, you can see how big they are when she wears tight shirts,” Julian said.

     “Yeah, that’s true,” Coco confirmed with a smile.

     Coco told the others that when he saw Dora pleasuring herself, he froze. It looked as though Dora was trying to wedge her whole hand into her vagina.

     “Ugh, I don’t think I can shake her hand ever again,” said Rabbit, wiping his lips with his shirt sleeve, then spitting. Rabbit always punctuated all of his remarks with spit. Sometimes loogies, but even when he didn’t have any saliva to spit with, the mere puff of precipitated air expelling through his puckered lips was enough to satisfy his oral fixation.

     “That was like a month ago and she’s probably washed her hand a million times since then,” Coco assured him. “Plus, you shake a person’s whole hand, not just one finger, stupid.” Coco enjoyed calling everyone “stupid,” especially kids younger than he was, right to their faces, and to adults behind their back and under his breath.

     “So, what happened? Did you bang her?” Julian asked, allowing the sparseness of the town’s edge to loosen his tongue and start talking like an adult.

     “No,” Coco said, looking down sullenly. “I had the chance, but I was too chickenshit to take it.” As he led the way towards the surrounding hills, Coco told the story of a similar thing that happened to him years ago, when he used to accompany his mother to clean rich people’s houses.

     “Well, she wasn’t my babysitter,” Coco said. “She was babysitting the son of my mom’s bosses.” On one occasion, the babysitter was under the impression that Coco’s mom wasn’t coming to clean the house, so she decided to take a shower and walk around the house naked. “When she saw my mom and me in the kitchen, she freaked the fuck out.”  The sitter tried to unwind the knot on the towel wrapped around her head, but it was wound so tight that she had to reach for a small dish rag. “She had some big ol’ titties,” Coco said, jumping up and down. “They were just bouncing and bouncing. Boom, boom, boom.”

     “Did you get to see her pussy?” Manny asked. Manny was obsessed with vaginas. A few years back, Manny, Julian and their older cousin Stan, who had just turned 18, rented a couple of porno videos. Up to that point, Julian had only heard of porno movies but had never actually seen one. He was very excited, but he also needed to pee and he didn’t want to miss all of the loving, so he held it in. The nudity took longer to reveal itself than he expected and by the time the first woman revealed her silicone-enhanced body, Julian was about ready to burst.

     “Why don’t they show the girl’s pussy? They just keep showing her tits. Man, I wish she would turn around so I could look at it,” Manny said.

     “Just shut up and look at the girl,” Stan replied.

     “Um, I’ll be back,” Julian said as he jumped off the couch. “I gotta use the bathroom.” Julian ran past Manny and Stan, hunched over with a double-handed grip on his crotch. While the other two boys were under the laughing assumption that Julian’s testicles had spontaneously combusted, Julian was unloading his bladder, hosing the toilet as quickly as possible, trying not to miss the scene’s penetrating content.

     Coco said that he got a little glimpse of the sitter’s pubic region, but that she kept covering it.

     “Then what happened?” asked Rabbit.

     “My stupid mom started yelling at her, which woke her the fuck up, and the fine-ass babysitter ran with her big ol’ booty into the bathroom,” Coco said, licking his lips. “Man, if only my mom hadn’t been there. What I wouldn’t have done.”

     “What would’ve you done?” Julian asked.

     “Well, I would’ve jumped on her and fucked her, stupid,” Coco said, incredulous in the face of Julian’s naiveté.

     “Yeah, stupid,” said Manny.

     “Yeah, stupid,” echoed Rabbit immediately after, both acting as if they themselves knew what Coco was alluding to and would have taken a similar course of action.

     My cousin Manny and Rabbit had become inseparable ever since the former took a beating in lieu of the latter. Rabbit had the mouth to start fights and Manny the body to finish them. These two were so close that they used to masturbate in each other’s presence, covered in blankets, to Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, “The Doors.” The scene from which they drew the most inspiration was one depicting Nico, from the Velvet Underground, performing fellatio on Jim Morrison. When Julian met up with them after one of their “blanket sessions,” as they used to refer to them, they were practically holding hands. Even when it came to coming, Manny would come first and Rabbit would echo right after.

     Julian felt left out, as he had on multiple occasions. He loathed his baby face because of it. To make it up to him, Manny decided to treat his younger cousin to an all-American, fun-loving pornfest. Upon Manny’s pushing play, the video flashed a splash of illumination onto the dark wood paneling, consuming the room with light. The image of a brunette woman lying on her back, legs splayed open, and a man with the biggest penis Julian had ever seen, took over the screen. This thing protruding out of the man’s torso was inserted slowly into the woman, who was as surprised as Julian and Manny, to see how it kept fitting inside of her. She made it disappear completely. “But how?” Julian wondered. It was an act of magic, for all he knew. A miracle.

     “Where did it go, and how did it get there?” Julian asked. Manny and Rabbit snickered quietly.

     “It’s because chicks have three holes,” Coco said, stopping the expedition and turning around to face Julian. At an incline, Coco looked bigger and wiser than usual. “One of the holes is for shitting, the other for pissing and the last one’s for fucking.”

     “Oh, that’s where they stick the semens, right?” Rabbit said. “That’s what they call artificial cocks. Right, Coco? Semens?”

     “No, stupid. Semen is the shit that shoots out of your cock when the tip starts hurting so much that it makes you want to pee. Semen is pee that comes from your balls.”

     “So what’s the name for artificial cocks?”

     “Those are called dildos, stupid,” Coco said as he turned around and continued the walk.

     The hike brought the boys closer and closer to the hill’s summit. As they traversed its steady incline, they came across different types of desert creatures, such as lizards, butterflies, big cockroaches and rats, suicidal squirrels and intrepid gophers, all of which served as target practice for the boys.

     “Holy shit,” Rabbit screamed. “Did you see how I almost clocked that gopher on his stupid, pointy teeth?”

     “You almost did, gopher teeth,” Coco said, as he, Manny and Julian broke into laughter. “I actually dated a girl with big, fucked-up teeth. She was the first girl I did it with.”

     “Did what?” asked Julian.

     “Sex, you idiot,” Coco quipped.

     “Why do you always talk about sex, man?” Julian asked.

     “Because sex is everywhere,” Coco replied, spreading his arms like wings, palms facing up, twisting his torso from side to side. “The birds sing because they want to fuck other birds. We’re here because our parents fucked. Rats fuck like crazy. That’s why there are so many goddamned rats in the world. You see how the bees are buzzing around the flowers? They’re fucking them.”

     “Wait, really?” Manny asked.

     “Really?” Rabbit asked.

     “Yeah,” Coco said. “I want to fuck every girl I see because fucking feels so good. In fact, if Julian were a chick, I’d probably want to put my fingers down her panties.”

     Manny and Rabbit went into a teasing frenzy and started to push Julian around, poking him with the sticks they were using to mutilate all of the innocent creatures that they came across and weren’t smart enough to run away. Julian was the only innocent amongst them, or at least the only one who wasn’t afraid to admit it.

     “Alright, stop acting like faggots and leave him alone,” Coco commanded. “Yeah, so this girl was all up on my nuts. She kept telling her friends about me.” When they finally reached the top of the hill, Coco turned around to face the other kids. He planted his walking stick perpendicular to the ground, and they all took a seat on whatever they could find.

     “So, then what happened?” Manny asked. “Did you see her pussy?”

     “Yeah, did you see her pussy?” emphasized Rabbit.

     “Well, one day when I was walking by the bathroom I saw her walking out. So I pulled her into the guys’ bathroom and locked it,” said Coco. “After that, she started jerking my dick and I put my fingers in her pussy.”

     Manny’s mannerisms became jittery, manic. He was receiving the drug upon which his brain depended. Rabbit, who was sitting right next to Coco, couldn’t take his eyes off of the storyteller. Julian was worried. He was hoping that Coco and his girl didn’t get caught. He wanted to hear more but was afraid that an adult in the story would find out what Coco was doing in the bathroom.

     “Did you dildo in her pussy?” Rabbit asked, not blinking once.

     “Man, are you stupid or something?” Coco asked, exasperated. “I’ve told you a thousand times, dildos are fake cocks. Man, you should know. Your mom probably sticks a couple of them in her pussy when she’s not getting fucked by half the neighborhood.”

     Coco and Manny started laughing, coughing because of the amount of dust their giddy feet were kicking up. Rabbit laughed, taking his friends’ reaction as a compulsory laugh track he subconsciously needed to obey. Julian laughed under the same pretenses, but he could see that the remark had hurt Rabbit a little bit, his upper lip drooping slowly, draping over his chipper smile.

     “Yeah, so then she bent over and spread her ass for me and that’s when I shoved it in,” Coco said. “Man, she was so fucking tight that I busted a big-ass nut in her.”

     “How long did it last?” Julian asked. All eyes turned to Julian. How come I didn’t think of that? Manny and Rabbit wondered. This was the main reason why the boys hated and liked Julian. He was intuitive and sensitive. He thought of things they would’ve never thought possible, making them feel curious and stupid, all at once. After a second or so, all eyes went back to Coco.

     “I think it lasted like a minute,” Coco said, scratching the back of his head, the tingling feeling that accompanies nervousness. “It’s because once you stick it in you automatically come.” The boys’ eyes bulged in disbelief. “One time I had sex and held my come inside my balls for five whole minutes.”

     “Damn, that’s a long time,” Manny said.

     “A long fucking time,” Rabbit said, padding Coco on the back.

     “Yeah, I felt like my balls were going to blow u—” Coco said, suddenly interrupted by something he saw.

     “What happened?” Julian asked.

     “I don’t know,” said Coco, “I just saw something black run behind you guys.”

     “Yeah, me too,” Rabbit said.

     Manny and Julian turned to see what the other boys were so alarmed about. Coco stood up in one clean motion and pulled his wooden Excalibur out of the earth. He brought his index finger up to his face and formed a cross with the line between his lips, whispering, “Shut the fuck up.”

     The other boys rose up slowly and spread out around the bush Coco had motioned to.

     “Rabbit, when I tell you, you’re going to throw this rock at the bush,” Coco instructed.

     “Okay,” Rabbit whispered.

     When Coco mimed the stone throw, Rabbit launched the rock into the bush. The bush shook for a moment. Nothing happened. With a look of puzzlement, the boys took a step forward. The bush rattled once again, and a piglet, brown and hairy, bolted out as if on fire, past the four boys. Coco yelled out to follow it. As they sprinted downhill, right behind it, the piglet kept looking, unsuccessfully, for another place to hide, swerving left and right, jumping over rocks and fallen branches. The boys picked up rocks along the way and threw them at the fleeing animal, trying to injure it. The piglet veered away from the points where the rocks collided, gliding through the clouds of dust rippling around it.

     “Look, it’s going into that cave,” Manny said.

     “I’m not fucking going in there,” Julian said, curtailing his stride, falling behind the pack.

     “Yeah, you are, fucking pussy,” Coco yelled, trying to catch his breath.

     The piglet ran in, as did Coco, Manny and Rabbit. It took Julian a few seconds, but he reluctantly joined them. When he finally caught up with the other three inside the dark cave, Manny was shining a light on the creature.

     “It looks like a baby,” Julian said, alarmed by how small and defenseless the creature was. Its shivering vulnerability reminded Julian of the nights when he used to console his brother after he’d wake up from a nightmare.

     “You look like a baby,” Rabbit scoffed, poking Manny’s ribs with his elbow.

     “Let’s kill it,” Coco said as he began to gather several rocks. Manny and Rabbit did the same. The piglet was trying to burrow itself, digging desperately into the dirt.

     “Get him! He’s trying to get away,” yelled Manny.

     The boys began to hit the piglet with a torrential rain of rocks, eliciting ear-piercing cries from the animal, similar to those of a child. This was the very reason Julian had refused to bring his brother Thiago along. He could picture his brother being tortured in the same fashion by the gang. Julian closed his eyes. The boys laughed. The symphony of pain and play reverberated through the cave walls and through Julian’s tortured eardrums.

     “Coco, it’s running towards you,” yelled Rabbit. Coco kicked the piglet like a soccer ball, its little, broken body thudding off the wall and bouncing on the dirty ground. “That’s my boy,” Rabbit yelled, as he and Coco hand-slapped, echoing over the piglet’s dying whimpers.

     “Hey, Julian,” Coco said, “open your goddamned eyes, you little pussy.” Julian opened his eyes and saw the piglet heaving violently, its last breaths interrupted by spastic jerks. It looked like a run-over puppy. “Come over and kick it a little. Don’t worry. It’s almost dead.”

     “No,” Julian said turning his back to the boys. “It wasn’t hurting anybody.” Hurting things was fun, Julian thought, but killing was different. He imagined it felt like drowning, like being thrown from the third story of a building and not knowing whether you would survive or never open your eyes again. “Just do it without me.”

     “What?” Coco asked. “Bring his faggot ass over here.” Manny and Rabbit ran over to Julian, who was beginning to run towards the mouth of the cave. They dove towards him before he could exit and grabbed his legs, knocking him flat on his face. They flipped him over and dragged him by his feet towards Coco, who was standing over the piglet’s tenderized body. Manny and Rabbit picked Julian up and each held him by his arms.

     “Here, kiss your baby boyfriend,” Coco said, picking up the bloody pig from the ground and shoving it in Julian’s face. The piglet’s eyes were hanging out of its sockets like a landfill baby doll, and blood was gushing out of its baby snout. It was shrieking in pain. “I want you to kick me, Julian,” Coco mocked, snorting like a pig.

     Julian knew what he had to do. The piglet would never be the same. It would never run or play again. Even if he refused to torture it, it would die at the hands of his friends or in agonizing pain if he were to convince them to leave it alone and go home.

     With one eye opened and the other half-closed, Julian saw the piglet on its side, running in circles with the only leg that wasn’t completely broken. He took a deep breath, a big gulp of snot and closed his tear-lined eyes. With tears rolling down his cheeks like drops of blood, Julian let out a loud cry that filled the totality of the cave and jumped up in the air, breaking free from his captors’ grasp. As he landed back on the dirt floor, Julian crushed the piglet’s skull. The sound was similar to that of stepping on a raw egg, the bloody yolk bathing the ground adjacent to it. Julian’s shoes were spattered red with blood and muddy with purple brain matter goop and bone. He released it from their cruelty, just like he would’ve wanted someone else to do for his brother. To end his misery in the face of brutality. To send him to heaven instead of living in hell.

     “What the fuck?” Manny yelled, “What did you do, stupid?”

     “What did you do, stupid?” Rabbit yelled, or maybe it was just the cave’s echo.

     “That’s okay, guys,” Coco reassured them. “We were going to kill it anyway.” Coco began to unzip his pants and motioned the rest of the group to do the same. “Let’s pee on it now.”

     Julian was apprehensive once again, but he also knew that if he didn’t comply, it would take them even longer to head back home. As the boys whipped out their baby penises, Coco pulled out his large, over-developed one. Manny and Rabbit started to spray and splatter their urine on the piglet’s desecrated carcass almost on command, but Julian was having trouble starting. Manny and Rabbit were laughing and crossing streams and Coco kept tugging and jerking at his penis, which looked erect. Julian was first to finish.

     “Hey, Coco. What the fuck are you doing?” asked Rabbit.

     “I’m jerk—”

     “Aw, dude. Are you jerking off?” Manny interrupted.

     “Yeah,” Coco answered with a smile.

     Julian remembered what that looked like from the pornos he had seen, but it wasn’t until that moment, until he saw Coco release semen, that he figured out what had happened to him a few months back while watching Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film “The Godfather.”

     The scene where Michael Corleone undresses his Sicilian wife Apollonia, exposing her small, perky, olive-tone breasts. That sight gave Julian a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach, as if he needed to pee. After everybody went to sleep, Julian rewatched the consummation scene, and the sensation in his pants returned. The organ that had delineated his boyhood was slowly petrifying and cobblestoning the way into his manhood. The scene passed, and so did the feeling. Julian rewound again, and again the feeling returned, a little more intense each time. The rush that it elicited was an addictive feeling. Julian did it over and over. He was transfixed on Simonetta Stefanelli’s Barbie-doll breasts. Julian stared at her body for an eternity. The amount of time necessary for Julian to thrust himself out of childhood and come forcefully into manhood. When he reached the unbearable feeling Coco had mentioned, he felt a warmth emanating from his innermost being. Julian imagined that this was what Mary, the mother of Christ, must have felt when her body was inhabited by the Spirit of God. It was complete and utter envelopment. A baptism by fire.

     After the intensity of the moment allowed Julian to blink and move his limbs again, he found that he had soiled his white cotton briefs with the same substance that Coco was dripping onto the piglet’s cadaver.

     “This is the cave of dicks,” Coco said proudly. “And I’ll beat the crap out of you, like I did this pig, if you mention this to anybody.” They shook on it and zipped up their pants.

     They were greeted by a darkening sky as they emerged from the darkness of the cave. Everybody was quiet, even Rabbit. Julian wished he had stayed back, playing the stupid games his brother wanted to play. He knew that they had a long way to go before they saw any streetlights. Coco would probably run off before then, with one of his real friends. Rabbit would disappear like he always did. Manny would start acting as if he was Coco, talking about things he knew nothing about. And Julian would go back to being his brother’s older, chubbier twin. But he knew that even after he crossed the threshold of his grandmother’s house, he would never be able find his way back home.

Artwork by Cory Bilicko

Bilicko, C. (2016). Pee-Shy [Painting]. Oil on canvas, Long Beach, CA.