Main Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Year:
2012
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
978-1-4424-0894-4
File:
EPUB, 922 KB
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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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Arise

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An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020

www.SimonandSchuster.com





This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2012 by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

is a trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc. The Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau can bring authors to your live event. For more information or to book an event, contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau at 1-866-248-3049 or visit our website at www.simonspeakers.com.

Book design by Chloë Foglia

The text for this book is set in Berling.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire.

Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe/

Benjamin Alire Sáenz.—1st ed.

p. cm.

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Ari Mendoza is an angry loner with a brother in prison, but when he meets Dante and they become friends, Ari starts to ask questions about himself, his parents, and his family that he has never asked before.

ISBN 978-1-4424-0892-0 (hardcover)

ISBN 978-1-4424-0894-4 (eBook)

[1. Coming of age—Fiction. 2. Families—Fiction.

3. Mexican-Americans—Fiction. 4. Friendship—Fiction.

5. Homosexuality—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.S1273Ar 2012

[Fic]—dc22

2010033649





To all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules





Contents


The Different Rules of Summer



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Sparrows Falling from the Sky

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

C; hapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

The End of Summer

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Letters on a Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Remember the Rain

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

All the Secrets of the Universe

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One





Acknowledgments





WHY DO WE SMILE? WHY DO WE LAUGH? WHY DO we feel alone? Why are we sad and confused? Why do we read poetry? Why do we cry when we see a painting? Why is there a riot in the heart when we love? Why do we feel shame? What is that thing in the pit of your stomach called desire?





The Different Rules of Summer


The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.





One



ONE SUMMER NIGHT I FELL ASLEEP, HOPING THE WORLD would be different when I woke. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same. I threw off the sheets and lay there as the heat poured in through my open window.

My hand reached for the dial on the radio. “Alone” was playing. Crap, “Alone,” a song by a group called Heart. Not my favorite song. Not my favorite group. Not my favorite topic. “You don’t know how long . . .”

I was fifteen.

I was bored.

I was miserable.

As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was.

The DJ was saying annoying, obvious things like, “It’s summer! It’s hot out there!” And then he put on that retro Lone Ranger tune, something he liked to play every morning because he thought it was a hip way to wake up the world. “Hi-yo, Silver!” Who hired this guy? He was killing me. I think that as we listened to the William Tell Overture, we were supposed to be imagining the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding their horses through the desert. Maybe someone should have told that guy that we all weren’t ten-year-olds anymore. “Hi-yo, Silver!” Crap. The DJ’s voice was on the airwaves again: “Wake up, El Paso! It’s Monday, June fifteenth, 1987! 1987! Can you believe it? And a big ‘Happy Birthday’ goes out to Waylon Jennings, who’s fifty years old today!” Waylon Jennings? This was a rock station, dammit! But then he said something that hinted at the fact that he might have a brain. He told the story about how Waylon Jennings had survived the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. On that note, he put on the remake of “La Bamba” by Los Lobos.

“La Bamba.” I could cope with that.

I tapped my bare feet on the wood floor. As I nodded my head to the beat, I started wondering what had gone through Richie Valens’s head before the plane crashed into the unforgiving ground. Hey, Buddy! The music’s over.

For the music to be over so soon. For the music to be over when it had just begun. That was really sad.





Two



I WALKED INTO THE KITCHEN. MY MOM WAS PREPARING lunch for a meeting with her Catholic-Church-lady friends. I poured myself a glass of orange juice.

My mom smiled at me. “Are you going to say good morning?”

“I’m thinking about it,” I said.

“Well, at least you dragged yourself out of bed.”

“I had to think about it for a long time.”

“What is it about boys and sleep?”

“We’re good at it.” That made her laugh. “Anyway, I wasn’t sleeping. I was listening to ‘La Bamba.’”

“Richie Valens,” she said, almost whispering. “So sad.”

“Just like your Patsy Cline.”

She nodded. Sometimes I caught her singing that song, “Crazy,” and I’d smile. And she’d smile. It was like we shared a secret. My mom, she had a nice voice. “Plane crashes,” my mother whispered. I think she was talking more to herself than to me.

“Maybe Richie Valens died young—but he did something. I mean, he really did something. Me? What have I done?”

“You have time,” she said. “There’s plenty of time.” The eternal optimist.

“Well, you have to become a person first,” I said.

She gave me a funny look.

“I’m fifteen.”

“I know how old you are.”

“Fifteen-year-olds don’t qualify as people.”

My mom laughed. She was a high school teacher. I knew she half agreed with me.

“So what’s the big meeting about?”

“We’re reorganizing the food bank.”

“Food bank?”

“Everyone should eat.”

My mom had a thing for the poor. She’d been there. She knew things about hunger that I’d never know.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

“Maybe you can help us out?”

“Sure,” I said. I hated being volunteered. The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.

“What are you going to do today?” It sounded like a challenge.

“I’m going to join a gang.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’m Mexican. Isn’t that what we do?”

“Not funny.”

“Not funny,” I said. Okay, not funny.

I had the urge to leave the house. Not that I had anywhere to go.

When my mom had her Catholic-Church-lady friends over, I felt like I was suffocating. It wasn’t so much that all her friends were over fifty—that wasn’t it. And it wasn’t even all the comments about how I was turning into a man right before their eyes. I mean, I knew bullshit when I heard it. And as bullshit went, it was the nice, harmless, affectionate kind. I could handle them grabbing me by the shoulders and saying, “Let me look at you. Dejame ver. Ay que muchacho tan guapo. Te pareces a tu papa.” Not that there was anything to look at. It was just me. And yeah, yeah, I looked like my dad. I didn’t think that was such a great thing.

But what really bugged the living crap out of me was that my mother had more friends than I did. How sad was that?

I decided to go swimming at the Memorial Park pool. It was a small idea. But at least the idea was mine.

As I was walking out the door, my mom took the old towel I’d slung over my shoulder and exchanged it for a better one. There were certain towel rules that existed in my mother’s world that I just didn’t get. But the rules didn’t stop at towels.

She looked at my T-shirt.

I knew a look of disapproval when I saw one. Before she made me change, I gave her one of my own looks. “It’s my favorite T-shirt,” I said.

“Didn’t you wear that yesterday?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s Carlos Santana.”

“I know who it is,” she said.

“Dad gave it to me on my birthday.”

“As I recall you didn’t seem all that thrilled when you opened your father’s gift.”

“I was hoping for something else.”

“Something else?”

“I don’t know. Something else. A T-shirt for my birthday?” I looked at my Mom. “I guess I just don’t understand him.”

“He’s not that complicated, Ari.”

“He doesn’t talk.”

“Sometimes when people talk, they don’t always tell the truth.”

“Guess so,” I said. “Anyway, I’m really into this T-shirt now.”

“I can see that.” She was smiling.

I was smiling too. “Dad got it at his first concert.”

“I was there. I remember. It’s old and ratty.”

“I’m sentimental.”

“Sure you are.”

“Mom, it’s summer.”

“Yes,” she said, “it is summer.”

“Different rules,” I said.

“Different rules,” she repeated.

I loved the different rules of summer. My mother endured them.

She reached over and combed my hair with her fingers. “Promise me you won’t wear it tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I said. “I promise. But only if you promise not to put it in the dryer.”

“Maybe I’ll let you wash it yourself.” She smiled at me. “Don’t drown.”

I smiled back. “If I do, don’t give my dog away.”

The dog thing was a joke. We didn’t have one.

Mom, she got my sense of humor. I got hers. We were good that way. Not that she wasn’t something of a mystery. One thing that I completely got—I got why my father fell in love with her. Why she fell in love with my father was something I still couldn’t wrap my head around. Once, when I was about six or seven, I was really mad at my father because I wanted him to play with me and he just seemed so far away. It was like I wasn’t even there. I asked my mom with all my boyhood anger, “How could you have married that guy?”

She smiled and combed my hair with her fingers. That was always her thing. She looked straight into my eyes and said calmly, “Your father was beautiful.” She didn’t even hesitate.

I wanted to ask her what happened to all that beauty.





Three



WHEN I WALKED INTO THE HEAT OF THE DAY, EVEN THE lizards knew better than to be crawling around. Even the birds were laying low. The tarred patches on the cracks of the street were melting. The blue of the sky was pale and it occurred to me that maybe everybody had fled the city and its heat. Or maybe everyone had died like in one of those sci-fi flicks, and I was the last boy on earth. But just as that thought ran through my head, a pack of guys who lived in the neighborhood passed me on their bikes, making me wish I was the last boy on earth. They were laughing and messing around and they seemed like they were having a good time. One of the guys yelled at me, “Hey, Mendoza! Hanging out with all your friends?”

I waved, pretending to be a good sport, ha ha ha. And then I flipped them the bird.

One of the guys stopped, turned around and started circling me on his bike. “You want to do that again?” he said.

I gave him the bird again.

He stopped his bike right in front of me and tried to stare me down.

It wasn’t working. I knew who he was. His brother, Javier, had tried to mess with me once. I’d punched the guy. Enemies for life. I wasn’t sorry. Yeah, well, I had a temper. I admit it.

He put on his mean voice. Like it scared me. “Don’t screw with me, Mendoza.”

I gave him the bird again and pointed it at his face just like it was a gun. He just took off on his bike. There were a lot of things I was afraid of—but not guys like him.

Most guys didn’t screw with me. Not even guys who ran around in packs. They all passed me on their bikes again, yelling stuff. They were all thirteen and fourteen and messing with guys like me was just a game for them. As their voices faded, I started feeling sorry for myself.

Feeling sorry for myself was an art. I think a part of me liked doing that. Maybe it had something to do with my birth order. You know, I think that was part of it. I didn’t like the fact that I was a pseudo only child. I didn’t know how else to think of myself. I was an only child without actually being one. That sucked.

My twin sisters were twelve years older. Twelve years was a lifetime. I swear it was. And they’d always made me feel like a baby or a toy or a project or a pet. I’m really into dogs, but sometimes I got the feeling I was nothing more than the family mascot. That’s the Spanish word for a dog who’s the family pet. Mascoto. Mascot. Great. Ari, the family mascot.

And my brother, he was eleven years older. He was even less accessible to me than my sisters. I couldn’t even mention his name. Who the hell likes to talk about older brothers who are in prison? Not my mom and dad, that was for sure. Not my sisters either. Maybe all that silence about my brother did something to me. I think it did. Not talking can make a guy pretty lonely.

My parents were young and struggling when my sisters and brother were born. “Struggling” is my parents’ favorite word. Sometime after three children and trying to finish college, my father joined the Marines. Then he went off to war.

The war changed him.

I was born when he came home.

Sometimes I think my father has all these scars. On his heart. In his head. All over. It’s not such an easy thing to be the son of a man who’s been to war. When I was eight, I overheard my mother talking to my Aunt Ophelia on the phone. “I don’t think that the war will ever be over for him.” Later I asked my Aunt Ophelia if that was true. “Yes,” she said, “it’s true.”

“But why won’t the war leave my dad alone?”

“Because your father has a conscience,” she said.

“What happened to him in the war?”

“No one knows.”

“Why won’t he tell?”

“Because he can’t.”

So that’s the way it was. When I was eight, I didn’t know anything about war. I didn’t even know what a conscience was. All I knew is that sometimes my father was sad. I hated that he was sad. It made me sad too. I didn’t like sad.

So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.





Four



WHEN I GOT TO THE POOL, I HAD TO TAKE A SHOWER. That was one of the rules. Yeah, rules. I hated taking a shower with a bunch of other guys. I don’t know, I just didn’t like that. You know, some guys liked to talk a lot, like it was a normal thing to be in the shower with a bunch of guys and talking about the teacher you hated or the last movie you saw or the girl you wanted to do something with. Not me, I didn’t have anything to say. Guys in the shower. Not my thing.

I walked to the pool and sat on the shallow side and put my feet in the water.

What do you do in a pool when you don’t know how to swim? Learn. I guess that was the answer. I had managed to teach my body to stay afloat on water. Somehow, I’d stumbled on some principal of physics. And the best part of the whole thing was that I’d made the discovery all on my own.

All on my own. I was in love with that phrase. I wasn’t very good at asking for help, a bad habit I inherited from my father. And anyway, the swimming instructors who called themselves lifeguards sucked. They weren’t all that interested in teaching a skinny fifteen-year-old punk how to swim. They were pretty much interested in girls that had suddenly sprouted breasts. They were obsessed with breasts. That’s the truth. I heard one of the lifeguards talking to one of the other lifeguards as he was supposed to be watching a group of little kids. “A girl is like a tree covered with leaves. You just want to climb up and tear all those leaves off.”

The other guy laughed. “You’re an asshole,” he said.

“Nah, I’m a poet,” he said. “A poet of the body.”

And then they both busted out laughing.

Yeah, sure, they were budding Walt Whitmans, the two of them. See, the thing about guys is that I didn’t really care to be around them. I mean, guys really made me uncomfortable. I don’t know why, not exactly. I just, I don’t know, I just didn’t belong. I think it embarrassed the hell out of me that I was a guy. And it really depressed me that there was the distinct possibility that I was going to grow up and be like one of those assholes. A girl is like a tree? Yeah, and a guy is about as smart as a piece of dead wood infested with termites. My mom would have said that they were just going through a phase. Pretty soon they would get their brains back. Sure they would.

Maybe life was just a series of phases—one phase after another after another. Maybe, in a couple of years, I’d be going through the same phase as the eighteen-year-old lifeguards. Not that I really believed in my mom’s phase theory. It didn’t sound like an explanation—it sounded like an excuse. I don’t think my mom got the whole guy thing. I didn’t get the guy thing either. And I was a guy.

I had a feeling there was something wrong with me. I guess I was a mystery even to myself. That sucked. I had serious problems.

One thing was for sure: there was no way I was going to ask one of those idiots to help me out with my swimming. It was better to be alone and miserable. It was better to drown.

So I just kept to myself and sort of floated along. Not that I was having fun.

That’s when I heard his voice, kind of squeaky. “I can teach you how to swim.”

I moved over to the side of the pool and stood up in the water, squinting into the sunlight. He sat down on the edge of the pool. I looked at him suspiciously. If a guy was offering to teach me how to swim, then for sure he didn’t have a life. Two guys without a life? How much fun could that be?

I had a rule that it was better to be bored by yourself than to be bored with someone else. I pretty much lived by that rule. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have any friends.

He looked at me. Waiting. And then he asked again. “I can teach you how to swim, if you want.”

I kind of liked his voice. He sounded like he had a cold, you know, like he was about to lose his voice. “You talk funny,” I said.

“Allergies,” he said.

“What are you allergic to?”

“The air,” he said.

That made me laugh.

“My name’s Dante,” he said.

That made me laugh harder. “Sorry,” I said.

“It’s okay. People laugh at my name.”

“No, no,” I said. “See, it’s just that my name’s Aristotle.”

His eyes lit up. I mean, the guy was ready to listen to every word I said.

“Aristotle,” I repeated.

Then we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing.

“My father’s an English professor,” he said.

“At least you have an excuse. My father’s a mailman. Aristotle is the English version of my grandfather’s name.” And then I pronounced my grandfather’s name with this really formal Mexican accent, “Aristotiles. And my real first name is Angel.” And then I said it in Spanish, “Angel.”

“Your name is Angel Aristotle?”

“Yeah. That’s my real name.”

We laughed again. We couldn’t stop. I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names? Were we laughing because we were relieved? Were we happy? Laughter was another one of life’s mysteries.

“I used to tell people my name was Dan. I mean, you know, I just dropped two letters. But I stopped doing that. It wasn’t honest. And anyway, I always got found out. And I felt like a liar and an idiot. I was ashamed of myself for being ashamed of myself. I didn’t like feeling like that.” He shrugged his shoulders.

“Everyone calls me Ari,” I said.

“Nice to meet you, Ari.”

I liked the way he said Nice to meet you, Ari. Like he meant it.

“Okay,” I said, “teach me how to swim.” I guess I said it like I was doing him a favor. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Dante was a very precise teacher. He was a real swimmer, understood everything about the movements of arms and legs and breathing, understood how a body functioned while it was in the water. Water was something he loved, something he respected. He understood its beauty and its dangers. He talked about swimming as if it were a way of life. He was fifteen years old. Who was this guy? He looked a little fragile—but he wasn’t. He was disciplined and tough and knowledgeable and he didn’t pretend to be stupid and ordinary. He was neither of those things.

He was funny and focused and fierce. I mean the guy could be fierce. And there wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of that meanness rub off on you. How could a guy live without some meanness?

Dante became one more mystery in a universe full of mysteries.

All that summer, we swam and read comics and read books and argued about them. Dante had all his father’s old Superman comics. He loved them. He also liked Archie and Veronica. I hated that shit. “It’s not shit,” he said.

Me, I liked Batman, Spider-Man, and the Incredible Hulk.

“Way too dark,” Dante said.

“This from a guy who loves Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”

“That’s different,” he said. “Conrad wrote literature.”

I was always arguing that comic books were literature too. But literature was very serious business for a guy like Dante. I don’t remember ever winning an argument with him. He was a better debater. He was also a better reader. I read Conrad’s book because of him. When I finished reading it, I told him I hated it. “Except,” I said, “it’s true. The world is a dark place. Conrad’s right about that.”

“Maybe your world, Ari, but not mine.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said.

The truth is, I’d lied to him. I loved the book. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever read. When my father noticed what I was reading, he told me it was one of his favorite books. I wanted to ask him if he’d read it before or after he’d fought in Vietnam. It was no good to ask my father questions. He never answered them.

I had this idea that Dante read because he liked to read. Me, I read because I didn’t have anything else to do. He analyzed things. I just read them. I have a feeling I had to look up more words in the dictionary than he did.

I was darker than he was. And I’m not just talking about our skin coloring. He told me I had a tragic vision of life. “That’s why you like Spider-Man.”

“I’m just more Mexican,” I said. “Mexicans are a tragic people.”

“Maybe so,” he said.

“You’re the optimistic American.”

“Is that an insult?”

“It might be,” I said.

We laughed. We always laughed.

We weren’t alike, Dante and I. But we did have a few things in common. For one thing, neither one of us was allowed to watch television during the day. Our parents didn’t like what television did to a boy’s mind. We’d both grown up with lectures that sounded more or less like this: You’re a boy! Get out there and do something! There’s a whole world out there just waiting for you . . .

Dante and I were the last two boys in America who grew up without television. He asked me one day. “Do you think our parents are right—that there’s a whole world out there waiting just for us?”

“I doubt it,” I said.

He laughed.

Then I got this idea. “Let’s ride the bus and see what’s out there.”

Dante smiled. We both fell in love with riding the bus. Sometimes we rode around on the bus all afternoon. I told Dante, “Rich people don’t ride the bus.”

“That’s why we like it.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “Are we poor?”

“No.” Then he smiled. “If we ran away from home, we’d both be poor.”

I thought that was a very interesting thing to say.

“Would you ever?” I said. “Run away?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You want me to tell you a secret?”

“Sure.”

“I’m crazy about my mom and dad.”

That really made me smile. I’d never heard anyone say that about their parents. I mean, no one was crazy about their parents. Except Dante.

And then he whispered in my ear. “That lady two seats in front of us. I think she’s having an affair.”

“How do you know?” I whispered.

“She took off her wedding band as she got on the bus.”

I nodded and smiled.

We made up stories about the other bus riders.

For all we knew, they were writing stories about us.

I’d never really been very close to other people. I was pretty much a loner. I’d played basketball and baseball and done the Cub Scout thing, tried the Boy Scout thing—but I always kept my distance from the other boys. I never ever felt like I was a part of their world.

Boys. I watched them. Studied them.

In the end, I didn’t find most of the guys that surrounded me very interesting. In fact, I was pretty disgusted.

Maybe I was a little superior. But I don’t think I was superior. I just didn’t understand how to talk to them, how to be myself around them. Being around other guys didn’t make me feel smarter. Being around guys made me feel stupid and inadequate. It was like they were all a part of this club and I wasn’t a member.

When I was old enough for Boy Scouts, I told my dad I wasn’t going to do it. I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Give it a year,” my dad said. My dad knew that I sometimes liked to fight. He was always giving me lectures about physical violence. He was trying to keep me away from the gangs at my school. He was trying to keep me from becoming like my brother who wound up in prison. So, because of my brother, whose existence was not even acknowledged, I had to be a good boy scout. That sucked. Why did I have to be a good boy just because I had a bad-boy brother? I hated the way my mom and dad did family math.

I humored my dad. I gave it a year. I hated it—except that I learned how to do CPR. I mean, I didn’t like the bit about having to breathe into someone else’s mouth. That sort of freaked me out. But for some reason the whole thing fascinated me, how you could get a heart to start again. I didn’t quite understand the science of it. But after I got a patch for learning how to bring someone back to life, I quit. I came home and gave the patch to my dad.

“I think you’re making a mistake.” That’s all my dad said.

I’m not going to wind up in the slammer. That’s what I wanted to say. Instead, I just mouthed off. “If you make me go back, I swear I’ll start smoking pot.”

My father gave me a strange look. “It’s your life,” he said. Like that was really true. And another thing about my father: He didn’t give lectures. Not real ones. Which pissed me off. He wasn’t a mean guy. And he didn’t have a bad temper. He spoke in short sentences: “It’s your life.” “Give it a try.” “You sure you want to do that?” Why couldn’t he just talk? How was I supposed to know him when he didn’t let me? I hated that.

I got along okay. I had school friends. Sort of. I wasn’t wildly popular. How could I be? In order to be wildly popular you had to make people believe that you were fun and interesting. I just wasn’t that much of a con artist.

There were a couple of guys I used to hang around with, the Gomez brothers. But they moved away. And there were a couple of girls, Gina Navarro and Susie Byrd, who liked to torment me as a hobby. Girls. They were mysteries too. Everything was a mystery.

I guess I didn’t have it so bad. Maybe everybody didn’t love me, but I wasn’t one of those kids that everyone hated, either.

I was good in a fight. So people left me alone.

I was mostly invisible. I think I liked it that way.

And then Dante came along.





Five



AFTER MY FOURTH SWIMMING LESSON, DANTE INVITED me to go over to his house. He lived less than a block from the swimming pool in a big old house across the street from the park.

He introduced me to his father, the English professor. I’d never met a Mexican-American man who was an English professor. I didn’t know they existed. And really, he didn’t look like a professor. He was young and handsome and easygoing and it seemed like a part of him was still a boy. He seemed like a man who was in love with being alive. So different from my father, who had always kept his distance from the world. There was a darkness in my father that I didn’t understand. Dante’s father didn’t have any darkness in him. Even his black eyes seemed to be full of light.

That afternoon, when I met Dante’s father, he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and he was sitting on a leather chair in his office, reading a book. I’d never known anyone who actually had an office in his own house.

Dante walked up to his father and kissed him on the cheek. I would have never done that. Not ever.

“You didn’t shave this morning, Dad.”

“It’s summer,” his dad said.

“That means you don’t have to work.”

“That means I have to finish writing my book.”

“Writing a book isn’t work.”

Dante’s father laughed really hard when he said that. “You have a lot to learn about work.”

“It’s summer, Dad. I don’t want to hear about work.”

“You never want to hear about work.”

Dante didn’t like where the conversation was going so he tried to change the subject. “Are you going to grow a beard?”

“No.” He laughed. “It’s too hot. And besides, your mother won’t kiss me if I go more than a day without shaving.”

“Wow, she’s strict.”

“Yup.”

“And what would you do without her kisses?”

He grinned, then looked up at me. “How do you put up with this guy? You must be Ari.”

“Yes, sir.” I was nervous. I wasn’t used to meeting anybody’s parents. Most of the parents I’d met in my life weren’t all that interested in talking to me.

He got up from his chair and put his book down. He walked up to me and shook my hand. “I’m Sam,” he said. “Sam Quintana.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Quintana.”

I’d heard that phrase, nice to meet you, a thousand times. When Dante had said it to me, he’d sounded real. But when I said it, I felt stupid and unoriginal. I wanted to hide somewhere.

“You can call me Sam,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said. God, I wanted to hide.

He nodded. “That’s sweet,” he said. “And respectful.”

The word “sweet” had never passed my father’s lips.

He gave Dante a look. “The young man has some respect. Maybe you can learn something from him, Dante.”

“You mean you want me to call you Mr. Quintana?”

They both kept themselves from laughing. He turned his attention back to me. “How’s the swimming?”

“Dante’s a good teacher,” I said.

“Dante’s good at a lot of things. But he’s not very good at cleaning his room. Cleaning a room is too closely related to the word work.”

Dante shot him a look. “Is that a hint?”

“You’re quick, Dante. You must get that from your mother.”

“Don’t be a wiseass, Dad.”

“What was that word you just used?”

“Does that word offend you?’

“It’s not the word. Maybe it’s the attitude.”

Dante rolled his eyes and sat on his father’s chair. He took off his tennis shoes.

“Don’t get too comfortable.” He pointed up. “There’s a pig sty up there that has your name on it.”

It made me smile, the way they got along, the easy and affectionate way they talked to each other as if love between a father and a son was simple and uncomplicated. My mom and I, sometimes the thing we had between us was easy and uncomplicated. Sometimes. But me and my dad, we didn’t have that. I wondered what that would be like, to walk into a room and kiss my father.

We went upstairs and Dante showed me his room. It was a big room with a high ceiling and wood floors and lots of old windows to let in the light. There was stuff everywhere. Clothes spread all over the floor, a pile of old albums, books scattered around, legal pads with stuff written on them, Polaroid photographs, a couple of cameras, a guitar without any strings, sheet music, and a bulletin board cluttered with notes and pictures.

He put on some music. He had a record player. A real record player from the sixties. “It was my mom’s,” he said. “She was going to throw it away. Can you believe that?” He put on Abbey Road, his favorite album. “Vinyl,” he said. “Real vinyl. None of this cassette crap.”

“What’s wrong with cassettes?”

“I don’t trust them.”

I thought that was a really weird thing to say. Funny and weird. “Records scratch easily.”

“Not if you take care of them.”

I looked around his messy room. “I can see that you really like to take care of things.”

He didn’t get mad. He laughed.

He handed me a book. “Here,” he said. “You can read this while I clean my room.”

“Maybe I should just, you know, leave you—” I stopped. My eyes searched the messy room. “It’s a little scary in here.”

He smiled. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t leave. I hate cleaning my room.”

“Maybe if you didn’t have so many things.”

“It’s just stuff,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have stuff.

“If you stay, it won’t be so bad.”

Somehow, I felt out of place—but—“Okay,” I said. “Should I help?”

“No. It’s my job.” He said that with a kind of resignation. “As my mom would say, ‘It’s your responsibility, Dante.’ Responsibility is my mother’s favorite word. She doesn’t think my father pushes me hard enough. Of course he doesn’t. I mean, what does she expect? Dad’s not a pusher. She married the guy. Doesn’t she know what kind of guy he is?”

“Do you always analyze your parents?”

“They analyze us, don’t they?”

“That’s their job, Dante.”

“Tell me you don’t analyze your mom and dad.”

“Guess I do. Doesn’t do me any good. I haven’t figured them out yet.”

“Well, me, I figured my dad out—not my mom. My mom is the biggest mystery in the world. I mean, she’s predictable when it comes to parenting. But really, she’s inscrutable.”

“Inscrutable.” I knew when I went home, I would have to look up the word.

Dante looked at me like it was my turn to say something.

“I figured my mom out, mostly,” I said. “My dad. He’s inscrutable too.” I felt like such a fraud, using that word. Maybe that was the thing about me. I wasn’t a real boy. I was a fraud.

He handed me a book of poetry. “Read this,” he said. I’d never read a book of poems before and wasn’t even sure I knew how to read a book of poems. I looked at him blankly.

“Poetry,” he said. “It won’t kill you.”

“What if it does? Boy Dies of Boredom While Reading Poetry.”

He tried not to laugh, but he wasn’t good at controlling all the laughter that lived inside of him. He shook his head and started gathering all the clothes on the floor.

He pointed at his chair. “Just throw that stuff on the floor and have a seat.”

I picked up a pile of art books and a sketch pad and set it on the floor. “What’s this?”

“A sketch pad.”

“Can I see?”

He shook his head. “I don’t like to show it to anyone.”

That was interesting—that he had secrets.

He pointed to the poetry book. “Really, it won’t kill you.”

All afternoon, Dante cleaned. And I read that book of poems by a poet named William Carlos Williams. I’d never heard of him, but I’d never heard of anybody. And I actually understood some of it. Not all of it—but some. And I didn’t hate it. That surprised me. It was interesting, not stupid or silly or sappy or overly intellectual—not any of those things that I thought poetry was. Some poems were easier than others. Some were inscrutable. I was thinking that maybe I did know the meaning of that word.

I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get—and never would get.

I was impressed by the fact that Dante could be so systematic in the way he organized everything in his room. When we’d walked in, the place had been all chaos. But when he finished, everything was in its place.

Dante’s world had order.

He’d organized all his books on a shelf and on his desk. “I keep the books I’m going to read next on my desk,” he said. A desk. A real desk. When I had to write something, I used the kitchen table.

He grabbed the book of poems away from me and went looking for a poem. The poem was titled “Death.” He was so perfect in his newly organized room, the western sun streaming in, his face in the light and the book in his hand as if it was meant to be there, in his hands, and only in his hands. I liked his voice as he read the poem as if he had written it:

He’s dead

the dog won’t have to

sleep on the potatoes

anymore to keep them

from freezing



he’s dead

the old bastard—

When Dante read the word “bastard” he smiled. I knew he loved saying it because it was a word he was not allowed not use, a word that was banned. But here in his room, he could read that word and make it his.

All afternoon, I sat in that large comfortable chair in Dante’s room and he lay down on his newly made bed. And he read poems.

I didn’t worry about understanding them. I didn’t care about what they meant. I didn’t care because what mattered is that Dante’s voice felt real. And I felt real. Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not in my world, they weren’t.

I went home and looked up the word “inscrutable.” It meant something that could not easily be understood. I wrote down all the synonyms in my journal. “Obscure.” “Unfathomable.” “Enigmatic.” “Mysterious.”

That afternoon, I learned two new words. “Inscrutable.” And “friend.”

Words were different when they lived inside of you.





Six



ONE LATE AFTERNOON, DANTE CAME OVER TO MY house and introduced himself to my parents. Who did stuff like that?

“I’m Dante Quintana,” he said.

“He taught me how to swim,” I said. I don’t know why, but I just needed to confess that fact to my parents. And then I looked at my mom. “You said don’t drown—so I found someone to help me keep my promise.”

My dad glanced at my mom. I think they were smiling at each other. Yeah, they were thinking, he’s finally found a friend. I hated that.

Dante shook my dad’s hand—then handed him a book. “I brought you a gift,” he said.

I stood there and watched him. I’d seen the book on a coffee table in his house. It was an art book filled with the work of Mexican painters. He seemed so adult, not like a fifteen-year-old at all. Somehow, even his long hair that he didn’t like to comb made him seem more adult.

My dad smiled as he studied the book—but then he said, “Dante, this is really very generous—but I don’t know if I can accept this.” My dad held the book carefully, afraid to damage it. He and my mother exchanged glances. My mom and dad did a lot of that. They liked to talk without talking. I made up things about what they said to each other with those looks.

“It’s about Mexican art,” Dante said. “So you have to take it.” I could almost see his mind working as he thought of a convincing argument. A convincing argument that was true. “My parents didn’t want me to come over here empty-handed.” He looked at my dad very seriously. “So you have to take it.”

My mother took the book from my father’s hands and looked at the cover. “It’s a beautiful book. Thank you, Dante.”

“You should thank my dad. It was his idea.”

My father smiled. That was the second time in less than a minute that my father had smiled. This was not a common occurrence. Dad was not big on smiling.

“Thank your father for me, will you, Dante?”

My father took the book and sat down with it. As if it was some kind of treasure. See, I didn’t get my dad. I could never guess how he would react to things. Not ever.





Seven



“THERE’S NOTHING IN YOUR ROOM.”

“There’s a bed, a clock radio, a rocking chair, a bookcase, some books. That’s not nothing.”

“Nothing on the walls.”

“I took down my posters.”

“Why?”

“Didn’t like them.”

“You’re like a monk.”

“Yeah. Aristotle the monk.”

“Don’t you have hobbies?”

“Sure. Staring at the blank walls.”

“Maybe you’ll be a priest.”

“You have to believe in God to be a priest.”

“You don’t believe in God? Not even a little?”

“Maybe a little. But not a lot.”

“So you’re an agnostic?”

“Sure. A Catholic agnostic.”

That really made Dante laugh.

“I didn’t say it to be funny.”

“I know. But it is funny.”

“Do you think it’s bad—to doubt?”

“No. I think it’s smart.”

“I don’t think I’m so smart. Not like you, Dante.”

“You are smart, Ari. Very smart. And anyway, being smart isn’t everything. People just make fun of you. My dad says it’s all right if people make fun of you. You know what he said to me? He said, ‘Dante, you’re an intellectual. That’s who you are. Don’t be ashamed of that.’”

I noticed his smile was a little sad. Maybe everyone was a little sad. Maybe so.

“Ari, I’m trying not to be ashamed.”

I knew what it was like to be ashamed. Only, Dante knew why. And I didn’t.

Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.





Eight



I WATCHED MY FATHER THUMB THROUGH THE PAGES. It was obvious that he loved that book. And because of that book, I learned something new about my father. He’d studied art before he joined the Marines. That seemed not to fit with the picture I had of my father. But I liked the idea.

One evening, when he was looking through the book, he called me over. “Look at this,” he said, “It’s a mural by Orozco.”

I stared at the reproduced mural in the book—but I was more interested in his finger as he tapped the book with approval. That finger had pulled a trigger in a war. That finger had touched my mother in tender ways I did not fully comprehend. I wanted to talk, to say something, to ask questions. But I couldn’t. All the words were stuck in my throat. So I just nodded.

I’d never thought of my father as the kind of man who understood art. I guess I saw him as an ex-Marine who became a mailman after he came home from Vietnam. An ex-Marine mailman who didn’t like to talk much.

An ex-Marine mailman who came home from a war and had one more son. Not that I thought that I was his idea. I always thought it was my mother who wanted to have me. Not that I really knew whose idea my life was. I made up too many things in my head.

I could have asked my father lots of questions. I could have. But there was something in his face and eyes and in his crooked smile that prevented me from asking. I guess I didn’t believe he wanted me to know who he was. So I just collected clues. Watching my father read that book was another clue in my collection. Some day all the clues would come together. And I would solve the mystery of my father.





Nine



ONE DAY, AFTER SWIMMING, DANTE AND I WENT WALKING around. We stopped at the 7-Eleven. He bought a Coke and peanuts.

I bought a PayDay.

He offered me a drink from his Coke.

“Don’t like Cokes,” I said.

“That’s weird.”

“Why?’

“Everybody likes Cokes.”

“I don’t.”

“What do you like?”

“Coffee and tea.”

“That’s weird.

“Okay, I’m weird. Shut up.”

He laughed. We walked around. I guess we just didn’t want to go home. We talked about stuff. Stupid stuff. And then he asked me, “Why do Mexicans like nicknames?”

“I don’t know. Do we?”

“Yes. You know what my aunts call my mom? They call her Chole.”

“Is her name Soledad?”

“See what I mean, Ari? You know. You know the nickname for Soledad. It’s like in the air. What’s that about? Why can’t they just call her Soledad? What’s this Chole business? Where do they get Chole from?”

“Why does it bother you so much?”

“I don’t know. It’s weird.”

“Is that the word of the day?”

He laughed and downed some peanuts. “Does your mother have a nickname?”

“Lilly. Her name’s Liliana.”

“That’s a nice name.”

“So is Soledad.”

“No, not really. How would you like to be named Solitude?”

“It can also mean lonely,” I said.

“See? What a sad name.”

“I don’t think it’s sad. I think it’s a beautiful name. I think it fits your mom just right.” I said.

“Maybe so. But Sam, Sam is perfect for my dad.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your Dad’s name?”

“Jaime.”

“I like that name.”

“His real name’s Santiago.”

Dante smiled. “See what I mean about the nicknames?”

“It bothers you that you’re Mexican, doesn’t it?”

“No.”

I looked at him.

“Yes, it bothers me.”

I offered him some of my PayDay.

He took a bite. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It bothers you.”

“You know what I think, Ari? I think Mexicans don’t like me.”

“That’s a weird thing to say,” I said.

“Weird,” he said.

“Weird,” I said.





Ten



ONE NIGHT, WHEN THERE WAS NO MOON IN THE NIGHT sky, Dante’s mom and dad took us out into the desert so we could use his new telescope. On the drive out, Dante and his dad sang along with the Beatles—not that either of them had good singing voices. Not that they cared.

They touched a lot. A family of touchers and kissers. Every time Dante entered the house, he kissed his mom and dad on the cheek—or they kissed him—as if all that kissing was perfectly normal.

I wondered what my father would do if I ever went up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Not that he would yell at me. But—I don’t know.

It took us a while to drive out into the desert. Mr. Quintana seemed to know a good place where we could watch the stars.

Somewhere away from the lights of the city.

Light pollution. That’s what Dante called it. Dante seemed to know a great deal about light pollution.

Mr. Quintana and Dante set up the telescope.

I watched them and listened to the radio.

Mrs. Quintana offered me a Coke. I took it, even though I didn’t like Cokes.

“Dante says you’re very smart.”

Compliments made me nervous. “I’m not as smart as Dante.”

Then I heard Dante’s voice interrupting our conversation. “I thought we talked about this, Ari.”

“What?” his mother said.

“Nothing. It’s just that most smart people are perfect shits.”

“Dante!” his mother said.

“Yeah, Mom, I know, the language.”

“Why is it you like to cuss so much, Dante?”

“It’s fun,” he said.

Mr. Quintana laughed. “It is fun,” he said. But then he said, “That kind of fun needs to happen when your mother isn’t around.”

Mrs. Quintana didn’t like Mr. Quintana’s advice. “What kind of lesson are you teaching him, Sam?”

“Soledad, I think—” But the whole discussion was killed by Dante, who was looking into his telescope. “Wow, Dad! Look at that! Look!”

For a long time, no one said anything.

We all wanted to see what Dante was seeing.

We stood silently around Dante’s telescope in the middle of the desert as we waited for our turn to see all the contents of the sky. When I looked through the telescope, Dante began explaining what I was looking at. I didn’t hear a word. Something happened inside me as I looked out into the vast universe. Through that telescope, the world was closer and larger than I’d ever imagined. And it was all so beautiful and overwhelming and—I don’t know—it made me aware that there was something inside of me that mattered.

As Dante was watching me search the sky through the lens of a telescope, he whispered, “Someday, I’m going to discover all the secrets of the universe.”

That made me smile. “What are you going to do with all those secrets, Dante?”

“I’ll know what to do with them,” he said. “Maybe change the world.”

I believed him.

Dante Quintana was the only human being I’d ever known that could say a thing like that. I knew that he would never grow up and say stupid things like, “a girl is like a tree.”

That night, we slept out in his backyard.

We could hear his parents talking in the kitchen because the window was open. His mother was talking in Spanish and his father was talking in English.

“They do that,” he said.

“Mine too,” I said.

We didn’t talk much. We just lay there and looked up at the stars.

“Too much light pollution,” he said.

“Too much light pollution,” I answered.





Eleven



ONE IMPORTANT FACT ABOUT DANTE: HE DIDN’T LIKE wearing shoes.

We’d skateboard to the park, and he’d take his tennis shoes off and rub his feet on the grass like he was wiping something off of them. We’d go to the movies and he’d take off his tennis shoes. He left them there once, and we had to go back and get them.

We missed our bus. Dante took his shoes off on the bus, too.

One time, I sat with him at Mass. He untied his shoelaces and took off his shoes right there in the pew. I sort of gave him this look. He rolled his eyes and pointed at the crucifix and whispered, “Jesus isn’t wearing shoes.”

We both sat there and laughed.

When he came to my house, Dante would place his shoes on the front porch before he came inside. “The Japanese do that,” he said. “They don’t bring the dirt of the world into another person’s house.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but we’re not Japanese. We’re Mexican.”

“We’re not really Mexicans. Do we live in Mexico?”

“But that’s where our grandparents came from.”

“Okay, okay. But do we actually know anything about Mexico?”

“We speak Spanish.”

“Not that good.”

“Speak for yourself, Dante. You’re such a pocho.”

“What’s a pocho?”

“A half-assed Mexican.”

“Okay, so maybe I’m a pocho. But the point I’m making here is that we can adopt other cultures.”

I don’t know why but I just started laughing. The truth is that I got to like the war Dante was having with shoes. One day, I just broke down and asked him. “So how come you have this thing with shoes?”

“I don’t like them. That’s it. That’s all. There’s no big secret here. I was born not liking them. There’s nothing complicated about the whole thing. Well, except there’s this thing called my mom. And she makes me wear them. She says there are laws. And then she talks about the diseases I could get. And then she says that people will think I’m just another poor Mexican. She says there are boys in Mexican villages who would die for a pair of shoes. ‘You can afford shoes, Dante.’ That’s what she says. And you know what I always tell her? ‘No, I can’t afford shoes. Do I have a job? No. I can’t afford anything.’ That’s usually the part of the conversation where she pulls her hair back. She hates that people might mistake me for another poor Mexican. And then she says: ‘Being Mexican doesn’t have to mean you’re poor.’ And I just want to tell her: ‘Mom, this isn’t about poor. And it isn’t about being Mexican. I just don’t like shoes.’ But I know the whole thing about shoes has to do with the way she grew up. So I just wind up nodding when she repeats herself: ‘Dante, we can afford shoes.’ I know the whole thing has nothing to with the word ‘afford.’ But, you know, she always gives me this look. And then I give her the same look back—and that’s how it goes. Look, me and my mom and shoes, it’s not a good discussion.” He stared out into the hot afternoon sky—a habit of his. It meant he was thinking. “You know, wearing shoes is an unnatural act. That’s my basic premise.”

“Your basic premise?” Sometimes he talked like a scientist or a philosopher.

“You know, the founding principle.”

“The founding principle?”

“You’re looking at me like you think I’m nuts.”

“You are nuts, Dante.”

“I’m not,” he said. And then he repeated it, “I’m not.” He seemed almost upset.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re not. You’re not nuts and you’re not Japanese.”

He reached over and unlaced my tennis shoes as he talked. “Take off your shoes, Ari. Live a little.”

We went out into the street and played a game that Dante made up on the spot. It was a contest to see who could throw their tennis shoes the farthest. Dante was very systematic about the way he made up the game. Three rounds—which meant six throws. We both got a piece of chalk and we marked where the shoe landed. He borrowed his father’s tape measure that could measure up to thirty feet. Not that it was long enough.

“Why do we have to measure the feet?” I asked, “Can’t we just throw the shoe and mark it with the piece of chalk? The farthest chalk mark is the winner. Simple.”

“We have to know the exact distance,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because when you do something, you have to know exactly what you’re doing.”

“No one knows exactly what they’re doing,” I said.

“That’s because people are lazy and undisciplined.”

“Did anybody ever tell you that sometimes you talk like a lunatic who speaks perfect English?”

“That’s my father’s fault,” he said.

“The lunatic part or the perfect English part?” I shook my head. “It’s a game, Dante.”

“So? When you play a game, Ari, you have to know what you’re doing.”

“I do know what we’re doing, Dante. We’re making up a game. We’re throwing our tennis shoes on the street to see which one of us can throw his shoe the farthest. That’s what we’re doing.”

“It’s a version of throwing the javelin, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“They measure the distance when they throw the javelin, don’t they?”

“Yeah, but that’s a real sport, Dante. This isn’t.”

“It is too a real sport. I’m real. You’re real. The tennis shoes are real. The street is real. And the rules we establish—they’re real too. What more do you want?”

“But you’re making this too much work. After every toss, we have to measure. What fun is that? The fun is in the throwing.”

“No,” Dante said, “the fun is in the game. It’s everywhere.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Throwing a shoe is fun. I get that. But taking out your father’s tape measure and rolling it out across the street seems like work. What’s so fun about that? And not only that—what if a car comes along?”

“We move out of the way. And besides, we could play in the park.”

“The street’s more fun,” I said.

“Yeah, the street’s more fun.” We agreed on something.

Dante looked at me.

I looked back at him. I knew I didn’t have a chance. I knew we were going to play the game according to his rules. But the truth is, it mattered to Dante. And to me, it didn’t matter so much. So we played the game with our tools: our tennis shoes, two pieces of chalk, and his father’s tape measure. We made up the rules as we went along—and they kept changing. In the end, there were three sets—like tennis. There were six tosses per set. Eighteen tosses to make a game. Dante won two out of the three sets. But I had the longest toss. Forty-seven feet, three and a quarter inches.

Dante’s father came out of the house and shook his head. “What are you guys doing?”

“We’re playing a game.”

“What did I tell you, Dante? About playing in the street? There’s a park right there.” He pointed his finger toward the park. “And what—” He stopped and studied the scene. “Are you throwing your tennis shoes around?”

Dante wasn’t afraid of his father. Not that his father was scary. But still, his father was a father and he was standing there, challenging us. Dante didn’t even flinch, certain that he could defend his position. “We’re not throwing our tennis shoes around, Dad. We’re playing a game. It’s the common man’s version of throwing the javelin. And we’re seeing who can throw his shoe the farthest.”

His father laughed. I mean he laughed. “You’re the only kid in the entire universe who could come up with a game as an excuse to beat the holy crap out of his tennis shoes.” He laughed again. “Your mother’s going to love this.”

“We don’t have to tell her.”

“Yes, we do.”

“Why?”

“The no-secrets rule.”

“We’re playing in the middle of the street. How can that be a secret?”

“It’s a secret if we don’t tell her.” He grinned at Dante, not mad—but like a father who was being a father. “Take it to the park, Dante.”

We found a good spot to set up the game at the park. I studied Dante’s face as he threw his tennis shoes with all his strength. His father was right. Dante had found a game as an excuse to beat the crap out of his tennis shoes.





Twelve



ONE AFTERNOON, AFTER WE’D FINISHED SWIMMING, we were hanging out on his front porch.

Dante was staring at his feet. That made me smile.

He wanted to know what I was smiling at. “I was just smiling,” I said. “Can’t a guy smile?”

“You’re not telling me the truth,” he said. He had this thing about telling the truth. He was as bad as my dad. Except my dad kept the truth to himself. And Dante believed you had to tell the truth in words. Out loud. Tell someone.

I wasn’t like Dante. I was more like my dad.

“Okay,” I said. “I was smiling because you were looking at your feet.”

“That’s a funny thing to smile about,” he said.

“It’s weird,” I said. “Who does that—look at their feet? Except you?”

“It’s not a bad thing to study your own body,” he said.

“That’s a really weird thing to say, too,” I said. In our house, we just didn’t talk about our own bodies. That’s just not what we did in our house.

“Whatever,” he said.

“Whatever,” I said.

“Do you like dogs, Ari?”

“I love dogs.”

“Me too. They don’t have to wear shoes.”

I laughed. I got to thinking that one of my jobs in the world was to laugh at Dante’s jokes. Only Dante didn’t really say things to be funny. He was just being himself.

“I’m going to ask my dad if he’ll get me a dog.” He had this look on his face—a kind of fire. And I wondered about that fire.

“What kind of dog do you want?”

“I don’t know, Ari. One that comes from the shelter. You know, one of those dogs that someone’s thrown away.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But how will you know which one to pick? There’s a lot of dogs at the shelter. And they all want to be saved.”

“It’s because people are so mean. They throw dogs away like they’re trash. I hate that.”

As we sat there talking, we heard a noise, boys yelling across the street. Three of them, maybe a little younger than us. Two of them had BB guns and they were pointing at a bird they’d just shot. “We got one! We got one!” One of them was pointing his gun at a tree.

“Hey!” Dante yelled, “Stop that!” He was halfway across the street before I realized what was happening. I ran after him.

“Stop that! What the hell’s wrong with you!” Dante’s hand was out, signaling for them to stop. “Give me that gun.”

“My ass if I’m gonna give you my BB gun.”

“It’s against the law,” Dante said. He looked crazed. Really crazed.

“Second amendment,” the guy said.

“Yeah, second amendment,” the other guy said. He held on tight to his little rifle.

“The second amendment doesn’t apply to BB guns, you jerk. And anyway, guns aren’t allowed on city property.”

“What are you planning on doing about it, you piece of shit?”

“I’m going to make you stop,” he said.

“How?”

“By kicking your skinny little asses all the way to the Mexican border,” I said. I guess I was just afraid these guys were going to hurt Dante. I just said what I felt I had to say. They weren’t big guys and they weren’t smart either. They were mean and stupid boys and I’d seen what mean and stupid boys could do. Maybe Dante wasn’t mean enough for a fight. But I was. And I’d never felt bad for punching out a guy who needed punching out.

We stood there for a while, sizing each other up. I could tell Dante didn’t know what he was going to do next.

One of the guys looked like he was about to point his BB gun at me.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, you little piece of dog shit.” And just like that, I reached over and took his gun away. It happened fast and he hadn’t expected it. One thing I’d learned about getting into fights. Move fast, take the guy by surprise. It always worked. It was the first rule of fighting. And there I was with his BB gun in my hands. “You’re lucky I don’t shove this up your ass.”

I threw the gun on the ground. I didn’t even have to tell them to get the hell out of there. They just left, mumbling obscenities under their breaths.

Dante and I looked at each other.

“I didn’t know you liked to fight,” Dante said.

“I don’t really. Not really,” I said.

“Yeah,” Dante said. “You like to fight.”

“Maybe I do.” I said. “And I didn’t know you were a pacifist.”

“Maybe I’m not a pacifist. Maybe I just think you need a good reason to go around killing birds.” He searched my face. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to find there. “You’re good at tossing around bad words too.”

“Yeah, well, Dante, let’s not tell your mom.”

“We won’t tell yours either.”

I looked at him. “I have a theory about why moms are so strict.”

Dante almost smiled. “It’s because they love us, Ari.”

“That’s part of it. The other part of it is that they want us to stay boys forever.”

“Yeah, I think that would make my mom happy—if I was a boy forever.” Dante looked down at the dead bird. A few minutes ago, he’d been mad as hell. Now, he looked like he was going to cry.

“I’ve never seen you that mad,” I said.

“I’ve never seen you that mad, either.”

We both knew that we were mad for different reasons.

For a moment, we just stood there looking down at the dead bird. “It’s just a little sparrow,” he said. And then he started to cry.

I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there and watched him.

We walked back across the street and sat on his front porch. He tossed his tennis shoes across the street with all his might and anger. He wiped the tears from his face.

“Were you scared?” he asked.

“No.”

“I was.”

“So?”

And then we were quiet again. I hated the quiet. Finally I just asked a stupid question, “Why do birds exist, anyway?”

He looked at me. “You don’t know?”

“I guess I don’t.”

“Birds exist to teach us things about the sky.”

“You believe that?”

“Yes.”

I wanted to tell him not to cry anymore, tell him that what those boys did to that bird didn’t matter. But I knew it did matter. It mattered to Dante. And, anyway, it didn’t do any good to tell him not to cry because he needed to cry. That’s the way he was.

And then he finally stopped. He took a deep breath and looked at me. “Will you help me bury the bird?”

“Sure.”

We got a shovel from his father’s garage and walked to the park where the dead bird was lying on the grass. I picked up the bird with the shovel and carried it across the street, into Dante’s backyard. I dug a hole underneath a big oleander.

We put the bird in the hole and buried it.

Neither of us said a word.

Dante was crying again. And I felt mean because I didn’t feel like crying. I didn’t really feel anything for the bird. It was a bird. Maybe the bird didn’t deserve to get shot by some stupid kid whose idea of fun was shooting at things. But it was still just a bird.

I was harder than Dante. I think I’d tried to hide that hardness from him because I’d wanted him to like me. But now he knew. That I was hard. And maybe that was okay. Maybe he could like the fact that I was hard just as I liked the fact that he wasn’t hard.

We both stared at the bird’s grave. “Thanks,” he said.

“Sure,” I said.

I knew he wanted to be alone.

“Hey,” I whispered, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“We’ll go swimming,” he said.

“Yeah, we’ll go swimming.”

There was a tear running down his cheek. It seemed like a river in the light of the setting sun.

I wondered what it was like, to be the kind of guy that cried over the death of a bird.

I waved bye. He waved bye back.

As I walked home, I thought about birds and the meaning of their existence. Dante had an answer. I didn’t. I didn’t have any idea as to why birds existed. I’d never even asked myself the question.

Dante’s answer made sense to me. If we studied birds, maybe we could learn to be free. I think that’s what he was saying. I had a philosopher’s name. What was my answer? Why didn’t I have an answer?

And why was it that some guys had tears in them and some had no tears at all? Different boys lived by different rules.

When I got home, I sat on my front porch.

I watched the sun set.

I felt alone, but not in a bad way. I really liked being alone. Maybe I liked it too much. Maybe my father was like that too.

I thought of Dante and wondered about him.

And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.

Wow, a world without darkness. How beautiful was that?





Sparrows Falling from the Sky


When I was a boy, I used to wake up thinking that the world was ending.





One



THE MORNING AFTER WE BURIED THE SPARROW, I woke up on fire with a fever.

My muscles ached, my throat hurt, my head throbbed almost like a heart. I kept staring at my hands, almost believing they belonged to someone else. When I tried to get up, I had no balance, no equilibrium, and the room spun around and around. I tried to take a step, but my legs weren’t strong enough to carry my weight. I fell back on the bed, my clock radio crashing to the floor.

My mother appeared in my room and for some reason she didn’t seem real. “Mom? Mom? Is that you?” I think I was yelling.

She was holding a question in her eyes. “Yes,” she said. She seemed so serious.

“I fell,” I said.

She said something—but I couldn’t translate what she was saying. Everything was so strange and I thought maybe I was dreaming, but her hand on my arm felt like a real touch. “You’re burning up,” she said.

I felt her hands on my face.

I kept wondering where I was, so I asked her. “Where are we?”

She held me for a moment. “Shhh.”

The world was so silent. There was a barrier between me and the world, and I thought for a moment that the world had never wanted me and now it was taking the opportunity to get rid of me.

I looked up and saw my mom standing in front of me, holding out two aspirin, a glass of water.

I sat up and reached for the pills and put them in my mouth. When I held the glass, I could see my hands trembling.

She put a thermometer under my tongue.

She studied the time on her watch, then pulled the thermometer out of my mouth.

“A hundred and four,” she said. “We’ve got to break that fever.” She shook her head. “It’s all those germs at the pool.”

The world seemed closer for an instant. “It’s just a cold,” I whispered. But it seemed like someone else was talking.

“I think you have the flu.”

But it’s summer. The words were on my tongue but I couldn’t say them. I couldn’t stop shivering. She placed another blanket over me.

Everything was spinning but when I closed my eyes, the room was motionless and dark.

And then the dreams came.

Birds were falling from the sky. Sparrows. Millions and millions of sparrows. They were falling like rain and they were hitting me as they fell and I had their blood all over me and I couldn’t find a place to protect myself. Their beaks were breaking my skin like arrows. And Buddy Holly’s plane was falling from the sky and I could hear Waylon Jennings singing “La Bamba.” I could hear Dante crying—and when I turned around to see where he was, I saw that he was holding Richie Valens’s limp body in his arms. And then the plane came falling down on us. All I saw was the shadow and the earth on fire.

And then the sky disappeared.

I must have been screaming, because my mom and dad were in the room. I was trembling and everything was soaked in my sweat. And then I realized that I was crying and I couldn’t make myself stop.

My dad picked me up and rocked me in the chair. I felt small and weak and I wanted to hold him back but I couldn’t because there wasn’t any strength in my arms, and I wanted to ask him if he had held me like this when I was a boy because I didn’t remember and why didn’t I remember. I started to think that maybe I was still dreaming, but my mother was changing the sheets on my bed so I knew that everything was real. Except me.

I think I was mumbling. My father held me tighter and whispered something, but not even his arms or his whispers could keep me from trembling. My mom dried my sweaty body with a towel and she and my dad changed me into a clean T-shirt and clean underwear. And then I said the strangest thing, “Don’t throw my T-shirt away. Dad gave it to me.” I knew I was crying, but I didn’t know why because I wasn’t the kind of guy who cried, and I thought that maybe it was someone else who was crying.

I could hear my father whisper, “Shhhh. It’s okay.” He laid me back down on the bed and my mother sat next to me and made me drink some water and take more aspirin.

I saw the look on my dad’s face and I knew he was worried. And I was sad that I had made him worry. I wondered if he had really held me and I wanted to tell him that I didn’t hate him, it was just that I didn’t understand him, didn’t understand who he was and I wanted to, I wanted so much to understand. My mother said something to my father in Spanish and he nodded. I was too tired to care about words in any language.

The world was so quiet.

I fell asleep—and the dreams came again. It was raining outside and there was thunder and lightning all around me. And I could see myself as I ran in the rain. I was looking for Dante and I was yelling because he was lost, “Dante! Come back! Come back!” And then I wasn’t looking for Dante anymore, I was looking for my dad and I was yelling for him, “Dad! Dad! Where did you go? Where did you go?”

When I woke again, I was soaked in my own sweat again.

My dad was sitting on my rocking chair, studying me.

My mom walked into the room. She looked at my father—then at me.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.” I couldn’t make myself talk above a whisper.

My mother smiled and I thought she must have been really pretty when she was a girl. She helped me sit up. “Amor, you’re soaked. Why don’t you take a nice shower?”

“I had nightmares.”

I leaned my head on her shoulder. I wanted the three of us to stay that way forever.

My dad helped me to the shower. I felt weak and washed out and when the warm water hit my body, I thought of my dreams . . . Dante, my dad. And I wondered what my dad looked like when he was my age. My mother had told me he was beautiful. I wonder if he’d been as beautiful as Dante. And I wondered why I thought that.

When I went back to bed, my mom had changed the sheets again. “Your fever’s gone,” she said. She gave me another glass of water. I didn’t want it but I drank all of it. I didn’t know how thirsty I’d been, and I asked her for more water.

My father was still there, sitting on my rocking chair.

We studied each other for a moment as I lay in bed.

“You were looking for me,” he said.

I looked at him.

“In your dream. You were looking for me.”

“I’m always looking for you,” I whispered.





Two



THE NEXT MORNING, WHEN I WOKE, I THOUGHT I HAD died. I knew it wasn’t true—but the thought was there. Maybe a part of you died when you were sick. I don’t know.

My mom’s solution to my predicament was to make me drink gallons of water—one painful glass at a time.

I finally went on strike and refused to drink anymore. “My bladder’s turned into a water balloon that’s about to explode.”

“That’s good,” she said, “You’re flushing your system out.”

“I’m done flushing,” I said.

The water wasn’t the only thing I had to deal with. I had to deal with her chicken soup. Her chicken soup became my enemy.

The first bowl was incredible. I had never been that hungry. Not ever. She mostly gave me broth.

The soup returned the next day for lunch. That was okay too, because now I got all the chicken and the vegetables in the soup with warm corn tortillas and my mother’s sopa de arroz. But the soup came back in the form of an afternoon snack. And for dinner.

I was sick of water and chicken soup. I was sick of being sick. After four days in bed, I finally decided that it was time to move on.

I made an announcement to my mother. “I’m well.”

“You’re not,” my mother said.

“I’m being held hostage.” That’s the first thing I said to my father when he came home from work.

He grinned at me.

“I’m fine now, Dad. I am.”

“You still look a little pale.”

“I need some sun.”

“Give it one more day,” he said. “Then you can go out into the world and cause all the trouble you want.”

“Okay,” I said. “But no more chicken soup.”

“That’s between you and your mother.”

He started to leave my room. He hesitated for a moment. He had his back to me. “Have you had any more bad dreams?”

“I always have bad dreams,” I said.

“Even when you’re not sick?”

“Yeah.”

He stood at my doorway. He turned around and faced me. “Are you always lost?”

“In most of them, yeah.”

“And are you always trying to find me?”

“Mostly I think I’m trying to find me, Dad.” It was strange to talk to him about something real. But it scared me too. I wanted to keep talking, but I didn’t know exactly how to say what I was holding inside me. I looked down at the floor. Then I looked up at him and shrugged like no big deal.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I’m so far away.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“No,” he said. “No, it’s not.” I think he was going to say something else, but he changed his mind. He turned and walked out of the room.

I kept staring down at the floor. And then I heard my father’s voice in the room again. “I have bad dreams too, Ari.”

I wanted to ask him if his dreams were about the war or about my brother. I wanted to ask him if he woke up as scared as me.

All I did was smile at him. He’d told me something about himself.

I was happy.





Three



I WAS ALLOWED TO WATCH TELEVISION. BUT I DISCOVERED something about myself. I didn’t really like television. I didn’t like it at all. I switched the TV off and found myself watching my mother as she sat at the kitchen table, looking over some of her old lesson plans.

“Mom?”

She looked up at me. I tried to imagine my mother standing in front of her class. I wondered what the guys thought of her. I wondered how they saw her. I wondered if they liked her. Hated her? Respected her? I wondered if they knew she was a mother. I wondered if that mattered to them.

“What are you thinking?”

“You like teaching?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Even when your students don’t care?”

“I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not responsible for whether my students care or don’t care. That care has to come from them—not me.”

“Where does that leave you?”

“No matter what, Ari, my job is to care.”

“Even when they don’t?”

“Even when they don’t.”

“No matter what?”

“No matter what.”

“Even if you teach kids like me, who think life is boring?”

“That’s the way it is when you’re fifteen.”

“Just a phase,” I said.

“Just a phase.” She laughed.

“You like fifteen-year-olds?”

“Are you asking me if I like you, or are you asking me if I like my students?”

“Both, I guess.”

“I adore you, Ari, you know I do.”

“Yeah, but you adore your students, too.”

“Are you jealous?”

“Can I go outside?” I could avoid questions as skillfully as she could.

“You can go out tomorrow.”

“I think you’re being a fascist.”

“That’s a big word, Ari.”

“Thanks to you, I know all about the different forms of government. Mussolini was a fascist. Franco was a fascist. And Dad says Reagan is a fascist.”

“Don’t take your father’s jokes too literally, Ari. All he’s saying is that he thinks President Reagan is too heavy-handed.”

“I know what he’s saying, Mom. Just like you know what I’m saying.”

“Well, it’s good to know that you think your mother is more than a form of government.”

“You kind of are,” I said.

“I get your point, Ari. You’re still not going outside.”

There were days when I wished I had it in me to rebel against my mother’s rules.

“I just want to get out of here. I’m bored out of my skull.”

She got up from where she was sitting. She placed her hands on my face. “Hijo de mi vida,” she said, “I’m sorry that you think I’m too strict on you. But I have my reasons. When you’re older—”

“You always say that. I’m fifteen. How old do I have to be? How old, Mom, before you think I’m smart enough to get it? I’m not a little boy.”

She took my hand and kissed it. “You are to me,” she whispered. There were tears running down her cheeks. There was something I wasn’t getting. First Dante. Then me. And now my mom. Tears all over the damned place. Maybe tears were something you caught. Like the flu.

“It’s okay, Mom,” I whispered. I smiled at her. I think I was hoping for a full explanation for her tears, but I was going to have to work to get it. “Are you okay?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m okay.”

“I don’t think you are.”

“I’m trying hard not to worry about you.”

“Why do you worry? I just had the flu.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“What?”

“What do you do when you leave the house?”

“Stuff.”

“You don’t have any friends.” She started to place her hand over her mouth, then stopped herself.

I wanted to hate her for that accusation. “I don’t want any.”

She looked at me, almost as if I were a stranger.

“And how can I have friends if you don’t let me go outside?”

I got one of her looks.

“I do have friends, Mom. I have school friends. And Dante. He’s my friend.”

“Yes,” she said. “Dante.”

“Yes,” I said. “Dante.”

“I’m glad for Dante,” she said.

I nodded. “I’m okay, Mom. I’m just not the kind of guy—” I didn’t know what I was trying to say. “I’m just different.” I didn’t even know what I meant.

“You know what I think?”

I didn’t want to know what she thought. I didn’t. But I was going to hear it anyway. “Sure,” I said.

She ignored the attitude.

“I don’t think you know how loved you are.”

“I do know.”

She started to say something, but she changed her mind. “Ari, I just want you to be happy.”

I wanted to tell her that happy was hard for me. But I think she already knew that. “Well,” I said, “I’m at that phase where I’m supposed to be miserable.”

That made her laugh.

We were okay.

“You think it would be all right if Dante came over?”





Four



DANTE ANSWERED THE PHONE ON THE SECOND RING. “You haven’t been going to the pool.” He sounded mad.

“I’ve been in bed. I caught the flu. Mostly I’ve been sleeping, having really bad dreams, and eating chicken soup.”

“Fever?”

“Yeah.”

“Achy bones?”

“Yeah.”

“Night sweats?”

“Yeah.”

“Bad stuff,” he said. “What were your dreams about?”

“I can’t talk about them.”

That seemed okay with him.

Fifteen minutes later, he showed up at my front door. I heard the doorbell. I could hear him talking to my mother. Dante never had any trouble starting up conversations. He was probably telling my mom his life story.

I heard him walking down the hall in his bare feet. And then there he was, standing at the doorway to my room, wearing a T-shirt that was so worn you could almost see through it, and a ratty pair of jeans with holes in them.

“Hi,” he said. He was carrying a book of poems, a sketch pad, and some charcoal pencils.

“You forgot your shoes,” I said.

“I donated them to the poor.”

“Guess the jeans are next.”

“Yeah.” We both laughed.

He studied me. “You look a little pale.”

“I still look more Mexican than you do.”

“Everybody looks more Mexican than I do. Pick it up with the people who handed me their genes.” There was something in his voice. The whole Mexican thing bothered him.

“Okay, okay.” I said. “Okay, okay” always meant it was time to change the subject. “So you brought your sketch pad.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you going to show me your drawings?”

“Nope. I’m going to sketch you.”

“What if I don’t want to be sketched?”

“How am I going to be an artist if I can’t practice?”

“Don’t artists’ models get paid?”

“Only the ones that are good-looking.”

“So I’m not good-looking?”

Dante smiled. “Don’t be an asshole.” He seemed embarrassed. But not as embarrassed as I was.

I could feel myself turning red. Even guys with dark skin like me could blush. “So you’re really going to be an artist?”

“Absolutely.” He looked right at me. “You don’t believe me?”

“I need evidence.”

He sat in my rocking chair. He studied me. “You still look sick.”

“Thanks.”

“Maybe it’s your dreams.”

“Maybe.” I didn’t want to talk about my dreams.

“When I was a boy, I used to wake up thinking that the world was ending. I’d get up and look in the mirror and my eyes were sad.”

“You mean like mine.”

“Yeah.”

“My eyes are always sad.”

“The world isn’t ending, Ari.”

“Don’t be an asshole. Of course it’s not ending.”

“Then don’t be sad.”

“Sad, sad, sad,” I said.

“Sad, sad, sad,” he said.

We were both smiling, trying to hold in our laughter—but we just couldn’t do it. I was happy that he’d come over. Being sick made me feel fragile, like I might break. I didn’t like feeling like that. Laughing made me feel better.

“I want to draw you.”

“Can I stop you?”

“You’re the one who said you needed evidence.”

He tossed me the book of poems he’d brought along. “Read it. You read. I’ll draw.” Then he got real quiet. His eyes started searching everything in the room: me, the bed, the blankets, the pillows, the light. I felt nervous and awkward and self-conscious and uncomfortable. And Dante’s eyes on me, well, I didn’t know if I liked that or didn’t like that. I just knew I felt naked. But there was something happening between Dante and his drawing pad that made me feel invisible. And that made me relax.

“Make me look good,” I said.

“Read,” he said. “Just read.”

It didn’t take long for me to forget Dante was drawing me. And I just read. I read and I read and I read. Sometimes I would glance over at him, but he was lost in his work. I returned to the book of poems. I read a line and tried to understand it: “from what we cannot hold the stars are made.” It was a beautiful thing to say, but I didn’t know what it meant. I fell asleep thinking what the line might mean.

When I woke, Dante was gone.

He hadn’t left any of the sketches that he’d done of me. But he did leave a sketch of my rocking chair. It was perfect. A rocking chair against the bare walls of my room. He’d captured the afternoon light streaming into the room, the way the shadows fell on the chair and gave it depth and made it appear as if it was something more than an inanimate object. There was something sad and solitary about the sketch and I wondered if that’s the way he saw the world or if that’s the way he saw my world.

I stared at the sketch for a long time. It scared me. Because there was something true about it.

I wondered where he’d learned to draw. I was suddenly jealous of him. He could swim, he could draw, he could talk to people. He read poetry and he liked himself. I wondered how that felt, to really like yourself. And I wondered why some people didn’t like themselves and others did. Maybe that’s just the way it was.

I looked at his drawing, then looked at my chair. That’s when I saw the note he’d left.



Ari,



I hope you like the sketch of your chair. I miss you at the pool. The lifeguards are jerks.



Dante



After dinner, I picked up the phone and called him.

“Why did you leave?”

“You needed to rest.”

“I’m sorry I fell asleep.”

Then neither one of us said anything.

“I liked the sketch,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because it looks just like my chair.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“It holds something,” I said

“What?”

“Emotion.”

“Tell me,” Dante said.

“It’s sad. It’s sad and it’s lonely.”

“Like you,” he said.

I hated that he saw who I was. “I’m not sad all the time,” I said.

“I know,” he said.

“Will you show me the others?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“For the same reason you can’t tell me about your dreams.”





Five



THE FLU DIDN’T SEEM TO WANT TO LET ME GO.

That night, the dreams came again. My brother. He was on the other side of the river. He was in Juárez and I was in El Paso and we could see each other. And I yelled, “Bernardo, come over!” and he shook his head. And then I thought he didn’t understand, so I yelled at him in Spanish. “Vente pa’aca, Bernardo!” I thought that if I only knew the right words or spoke them in the right language, then he would cross the river. And come home. If only I knew the right words. If only I spoke the right language. And then my dad was there. He and my brother stared at each other and I couldn’t stand the look on their faces, because it seemed like there was the hurt of all the sons and all the fathers of the world. And the hurt was so deep that it was way beyond tears and so their faces were dry. And then the dream changed and my brother and father were gone. I was standing in the same place where my father had been standing, on the Juárez side, and Dante was standing across from me. And he was shirtless and shoeless and I wanted to swim toward him but I couldn’t move. And then he said something to me in English and I couldn’t understand him. And I said something to him in Spanish, and he couldn’t understand me.

And I was so alone.

And then all the light was gone and Dante disappeared into the darkness.

I woke up and I felt lost.

I didn’t know where I was.

The fever was back. I thought that maybe nothing would ever be the same. But I knew it was just the fever. I fell asleep again. The sparrows were falling from the sky. And it was me who was killing them.





Six



DANTE CAME OVER TO VISIT. I KNEW I WASN’T A LOT of fun. He knew it too. It didn’t seem to matter.

“Do you want to talk?”

“No,” I said.

“Do you want me to go?”

“No,” I said.

He read poems to me. I thought about the sparrows falling from the sky. As I listened to Dante’s voice, I wondered what my brother would sound like. I wondered if he’d ever read a poem. My mind was full and crowded—falling sparrows, my brother’s ghost, Dante’s voice.

Dante finished reading a poem, then went looking for another.

“Aren’t you afraid of catching what I have?” I said.

“No.”

“You’re not afraid?”

“No.”

“You’re not afraid of anything.”

“I’m afraid of lots of things, Ari.”

I could have asked What? What are you afraid of? I don’t think he would have told me.





Seven



THE FEVER WAS GONE.

But the dreams stayed.

My father was in them. And my brother. And Dante. In my dreams. And sometimes my mother, too. I had this image stuck in my mind. I was four and I was walking down the street, holding my brother’s hand. I wondered if it was a memory or a dream. Or a hope.

I lay around and thought about things. All the ordinary problems and mysteries of my life that mattered only to me. Not that thinking about things made me feel better. I decided that my junior year at Austin High School was going to suck. Dante went to Cathedral because they had a swim team. My mom and dad had wanted to send me to school there, but I’d refused. I didn’t want to go to an all-boy Catholic school. I’d insisted to myself and to my parents that all the boys there were rich. My mom argued that they gave scholarships to smart boys. I argued back that I wasn’t smart enough to get a scholarship. My mom argued back that they could afford to send me there. “I hate those boys!” I’d begged my father not to send me there.

I never said anything to Dante about hating Cathedral boys. He didn’t have to know.

I thought about my mom’s accusation. “You don’t have any friends.”

I thought of my chair and how really it was a portrait of me.

I was a chair. I felt sadder than I’d ever felt.

I knew I wasn’t a boy anymore. But I still felt like a boy. Sort of. But there were other things I was starting to feel. Man things, I guess. Man loneliness was much bigger than boy loneliness. And I didn’t want to be treated like a boy anymore. I didn’t want to live in my parents’ world and I didn’t have a world of my own. In a strange way, my friendship with Dante had made me feel even more alone.

Maybe it was because Dante seemed to make himself fit everywhere he went. And me, I always felt that I didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t even belong in my own body—especially in my own body. I was changing into someone I didn’t know. The change hurt but I didn’t know why it hurt. And nothing about my own emotions made any sense.

When I was younger, I’d had this idea that I wanted to keep a journal. I sort of wrote things down in this little leather book I bought, filled with blank pages. But I was never disciplined about the whole thing. The journal turned into a random thing with random thoughts and nothing more.

When I was in the sixth grade, my parents gave me a baseball glove and a typewriter for my birthday. I was on a team so the glove made sense. But a typewriter? What was it about me that made them think of getting me a typewriter? I pretended to like it. But I wasn’t a good pretender.

Just because I didn’t talk about things didn’t make me a good actor.

The funny thing was, I learned how to type. At last, a skill. The baseball thing didn’t work out. I was good enough to make the team. But I hated it. I did it for my father.

I didn’t know why I was thinking about all these things—except that’s what I always did. I guess I had my own personal television in my brain. I could control whatever I wanted to watch. I could switch the channels anytime I wanted.

I thought about calling Dante. And then I thought that maybe I wouldn’t call him. I didn’t really feel like talking to anyone. I just felt like talking to myself.

I got to thinking about my older sisters and how they were so close to each other but so far away from me. I knew it was the age thing. That seemed to matter. To them. And to me. I was born “a little late.” That’s the expression my sisters used. One day, they were talking to each other at the kitchen table and they were talking about me and that’s the expression they used. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone say that about me. So I decided to confront my sisters because I just didn’t like being thought of that way. I don’t know, I just sort of lost it. I looked at my sister, Cecilia, and said: “You were born a little too early.” I smiled at her and shook my head. “Isn’t that sad? Isn’t that just too fucking sad?”

My other sister, Sylvia, lectured me. “I hate that word. Don’t talk that way. That’s so disrespectful.”

Like they respected me. Yeah, sure they did.

They told my mom I was using language. My mother hated “language.” She looked at me with the look. “The ‘f’ word shows an extreme lack of respect and an extreme lack of imagination. And don’t roll your eyes.”

But I got in worse trouble for refusing to apologize.

The good thing was that my sisters never used the expression “born too late” ever again. Not in front of me, anyway.

I think I was mad because I couldn’t talk to my brother. And I was mad because I couldn’t really talk to my sisters either. It’s not that my sisters didn’t care about me. It’s just that they mostly treated me more like a son than a brother. I didn’t need three mothers. So really, I was alone. And being alone made me want to talk to someone my own age. Someone who understood that using the “f” word wasn’t a measure of my lack of imagination. Sometimes using that word just made me feel free.

Talking to myself in my journal qualified as talking to someone my own age.

Sometimes I would write down all the bad words I could think of. It made me feel better. My mother had her rules. For my father: no smoking in the house. And for everyone: no cussing. She didn’t go for that. Even when my father let out a string of interesting words, she looked at him and said, “Take it outside, Jaime. Maybe you can find a dog who’ll appreciate that kind of language.”

My mom was soft. But she also very strict. I think that’s how she survived. I wasn’t going to get into the whole cussing thing with my mom. So I did most of my cussing in my head.

And then there was this whole thing with my name. Angel Aristotle Mendoza. I hated the name Angel and I’d never let anybody call me that. Every guy I knew who was named Angel was a real asshole. I didn’t care for Aristotle either. And even though I knew I was named after my grandfather, I also knew I had inherited the name of the world’s most famous philosopher. I hated that. Everyone expected something from me. Something I just couldn’t give.

So I renamed myself Ari.

If I switched the letter, my name was Air.

I thought it might be a great thing to be the air.

I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me.





Eight



MY MOM INTERRUPTED MY THOUGHTS—IF THAT’S what they were. “Dante’s on the phone.”

I walked past the kitchen and noticed my mom was cleaning out all her cabinets. Whatever summer meant, for Mom it meant work.

I threw myself on the couch in the living room and grabbed the phone.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing. I’m still not feeling great. My mom’s taking me to the doctor this afternoon.”

“I was hoping we could go swimming.”

“Shit,” I said, “I can’t. I just, you know—”

“Yeah, I know. So you’re just hanging out?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you reading something, Ari?”

“No. I’m thinking.”

“About what?”

“Stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“You know, Dante, things.”

“Like what, Ari?”

“You know, like how my two sisters and my brother are so much older than me and how that makes me feel.”

“How old are they, your sisters and brother?”

“My sisters are twins. They’re not identical, but they look alike. They’re twenty-seven. My mom had them when she was eighteen.”

“Wow,” he said. “Twenty-seven.”

“Yeah, wow.”

“I’m fifteen and I have three nieces and four nephews.”

“I think that’s really cool, Ari.”

“Trust me, Dante, it’s not that cool. They don’t even call me Uncle Ari.”

“So how old is your brother?”

“He’s twenty-five.”

“I always wanted a brother.”

“Yeah, well, I might as well not have one.”

“Why?”

“We don’t talk about him. It’s like he’s dead.”

“Why?”

“He’s in prison, Dante.” I’d never told anyone about my brother. I’d never said a word about him to another human being. I felt bad for talking about him.

Dante didn’t say anything.

“Can we not talk about him?” I said.

“Why?”

“It makes me feel bad.”

“Ari, you didn’t do anything.”

“I don’t want to talk about him, okay, Dante?”

“Okay. But you know, Ari, you have this really interesting life.”

“Not really,” I said.

“Yes, really,” he said. “At least you have siblings. Me, I only have a mother and a father.”

“What about cousins?”

“They don’t like me. They think I’m—well, they think I’m a little different. They’re really Mexican, you know. And I’m sort of, well, what did you call me?”

“A pocho.”

“That’s exactly what I am. My Spanish isn’t great.”

“You can learn it,” I said.

“Learning it at school is different than learning it at home or on the street. And it’s really hard because most of my cousins are on my mom’s side—and they’re really poor. My mom’s the youngest and she really fought her family so she could go to school. Her father didn’t think a girl should go to college. So my mom said, ‘Screw it, I’m going anyway.’”

“I can’t picture your mom saying, ‘screw it.’”

“Well, she probably didn’t say that—but she found a way. She was really smart and she worked her way through college and then she got some kind of fellowship to go to graduate school at Berkeley. And that’s where she met my dad. I was born somewhere in there. They had their studies. My mom was turning herself into a psychologist. My dad was turning himself into an English professor. I mean, my dad’s parents were born in Mexico. They live in a small little house in East LA and they speak no English and own a little restaurant. It’s like my mom and dad created a whole new world for themselves. I live in their new world. But they understand the old world, the world they came from—and I don’t. I don’t belong anywhere. That’s the problem.”

“You do,” I said. “You belong everywhere you go. That’s just how you are.”

“You’ve never seen me around my cousins. I feel like a freak.”

I knew what it was like to feel like that. “I know,” I said. “I feel like a freak too.”

“Well, at least you’re a real Mexican.”

“What do I know about Mexico, Dante?”

The quiet over the phone was strange. “Do you think it will always be this way?”

“What?”

“I mean, when do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?”

I wanted to tell him that the world would never belong to us. “I don’t know,” I said. “Tomorrow.”





Nine



I WENT INTO THE KITCHEN AND WATCHED MY MOM AS she cleaned out her cabinets.

“What were you and Dante talking about?”

“Stuff.”

I wanted to ask her about my brother. But I knew I wasn’t going to ask. “He was telling me about his mom and dad, about how they met at graduate school at Berkeley. How he was born there. He said he remembered his parents reading books and studying all the time.”

My mom smiled. “Just like me and you,” she said.

“I don’t remember.”

“I was finishing my bachelor’s degree when your father was at war. It helped me take my mind off things. I worried all the time. My mom and my aunts helped me take care of your sisters and your brother while I went to school and studied. And when your father came back, we had you.” She smiled at me and did that combing-my-hair-with-her-fingers thing.

“Your father got on with the post office and I kept going to school. I had you and I had school. And your father was safe.”

“Was it hard?”

“I was happy. And you were such a good baby. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. We bought this house. It needed work, but it was ours. And I was doing what I had always wanted to do.”

“You always wanted to be a teacher?”

“Always. When I was growing up, we didn’t have anything, but my mom understood how much school meant to me. She cried when I told her I was going to marry your father.”

“She didn’t like him?”

“No, it wasn’t that. She just wanted me to keep going to school. I promised her that I would. It took me a while but I kept my promise.”

That was the first time that I really saw my mother as a person. A person who was so much more than just my mother. It was strange to think of her that way. I wanted to ask her about my father, but I didn’t know how. “Was he different? When he came back from the war?”

“Yes.”

“How was he different?”

“There’s a wound somewhere inside of him, Ari.”

“But what is it? The hurt? What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“How can you not know, Mom?”

“Because it’s his. It’s just his, Ari.”

I understood that she had just accepted my father’s private wound. “Will it ever heal?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Mom? Can I ask you something?”

“You can ask me anything.”

“Is it hard to love him?”

“No.” She didn’t even hesitate.

“Do you understand him?”

“Not always. But Ari, I don’t always have to understand the people I love.”

“Well, maybe I do.”

“It’s hard for you, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know him, Mom.”

“I know you’re going to get mad at me when I say this, Ari, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think someday you will understand.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Someday.”

Someday, I would understand my father. Someday he would tell me who he was. Someday. I hated that word.





Ten



I LIKED WHEN MY MOM TOLD ME ABOUT HOW SHE FELT about things. She seemed to be able to do that. Not that we talked that much, but sometimes we did and it was good and I felt like I knew her. And I didn’t feel like I knew a lot of people. When she talked to me, she was different than when she was being my mother. When she was being my mother, she had a lot of ideas about who I should be. And I hated that, fought her on that, didn’t want her input.

I didn’t think it was my job to accept what everyone said I was and who I should be. Maybe if you weren’t so quiet, Ari . . . Maybe if you could just be more disciplined . . . Yeah, everyone had suggestions as to what was wrong with me and what I should become. Especially my older sisters.

Because I was the youngest.

Because I was the surprise.

Because I was born too late.

Because my older brother was in prison and maybe my mother and father blamed themselves. If only they’d said something, done something. They weren’t going to make that mistake again. So I was stuck with my family’s guilt—a guilt that not even my mother would talk about. She sometimes mentioned my brother in passing. But she never said his name.

So now I was the only son. And I felt the weight of a son in a Mexican family. Even though I didn’t want it. But that was the way it was.

It made me mad that I’d felt like I’d betrayed my family by mentioning my brother to Dante. It didn’t feel good. There were so many ghosts in our house—the ghost of my brother, the ghosts of my father’s war, the ghosts of my sister’s voices. And I thought that maybe there were ghosts inside of me that I hadn’t even met yet. They were there. Lying in wait.

I picked up my old journal and thumbed through the pages. I found an entry that I’d written a week after I turned fifteen:



I don’t like being fifteen.



I didn’t like being fourteen.



I didn’t like being thirteen.



I didn’t like being twelve.



I didn’t like being eleven.



Ten was good. I liked being ten. I don’t know why but

I had a very good year when I was in the fifth grade.



The fifth grade was very good. Mrs. Pedregon was a

great teacher and for some reason, everyone seemed

to like me. A good year. An excellent year. Fifth grade.

But now, at fifteen, well, things are a little awkward.

My voice is doing funny things and I keep running

into things. My mom says my reflexes are trying to

keep up with the fact that I’m growing so much.



I don’t much care for this growing thing.



My body’s doing things I can’t control and I just don’t like it.



All of a sudden, I have hair all over the place. Hair under my arms and hair on my legs and hair around my—well—hair between my legs. Okay, I’m not liking it. I even got hair growing on my toes. What’s that about?



And my feet keep getting bigger and bigger. What’s with the big feet? When I was ten, I was kinda small and I wasn’t worried about hair. The only thing I was worried about was trying to speak perfect English. I made up my mind that year—when I was ten—that I wasn’t going to sound like another Mexican. I was going to be an American. And when I talked I was going to sound like one.



So what if I don’t look exactly like an American.



What does an American look like, anyway?



Does an American have big hands and big feet and hair around his—well, hair between his legs?



Reading my own words embarrassed the hell out me. I mean, what a pendejo. I had to be the world’s biggest loser, writing about hair, and stuff about my body. No wonder I stopped keeping a journal. It was like keeping a record of my own stupidity. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to remind myself what an asshole I was?

I don’t know why I didn’t throw the journal across the room. I kept thumbing through it randomly. And then I found a section about