Mami crossed oceans to avoid getting drowned, but you can’t escape water like you can’t escape fate. You attended the school of her hard knocks: the fairy tales she lullabied at bedtime about gangs and death squads and narcotraficantes marauding the countryside and her childhood. Her family dined on the tough meat from the horses that didn’t make it to the glue factory. Her sister killed herself after giving birth to an illegitimate son and the family gifted Mami the boy to raise but he was never hers, not like you. Her father assassinated. She shipped herself to the U.S. no return address. None of the relatives ever reach this shore to reach you. She spends a life scrubbing toilets and replacing jizz-stained sheets at the Hampton Inn and the Homewood Suites and the Howard Johnson. She raises two sons of her own, you and Nick. You remember when she beamed. Before Nick’s first stint locked up, before Dad knocked out one of her teeth so now when you see her you see a jack-o’-lantern, before y’all Greyhounded to Philadelphia to see him, and she fought one of his side chicks with your Louisville Slugger, and he still wouldn’t come back to her or to Nick or to you.
Now she spends her time saving what’s left. You see her researching gang tattoo databases. She decodes the hieroglyphics emerging on Nick’s face like fire ants. He protests when she walks by his open door, when she side-eyes the portable scale and the glassine bags. She worries he is lost at sea, but you are her baby boy. You’d spend hours at the library. You’d be by her side like Velcro until she had to leave for work. You’d refuse to sleep alone or even worse, next to Nick. You’d demand cuentos every night until last month when you lied and said you didn’t want to hear her anymore. Now you’ve stopped looking at her in the eyes and you drag your feet around like sandbags. You know she knows something’s wrong. She’s going to lose her sons like she lost her husbands but you try to ignore this because between the drugs and school and the jerking off and your sadness it’s too much, and she still cooks and mops and sweeps and laundries, which is what matters. You’ve caught her a couple of times holding a cup to the wall to her ear, and you know she is spying on your phone conversations and strategizing how to control you and your brother but you don’t care because you are grown.
* * *
What she hears when you’re on the phone talking to Salvador:
Yo, I got busted for tagging a swastika on my desk.
N’ombre, I didn’t know it was some neo-Nazi shit. Like you know the capital of Colombia? Yeesh.
Guero, my stepdad, had it tatted above his right titty. He said they told him to choose sides when he was locked up. He said he wasn’t about to get punked.
Right? That white-complected fool was probably the only Hispanic dumb enough to support Hitler.
Real talk, what they want is to send me away forever. I know what it is.
Why do you think they have us report to school in brown and khaki uniforms and black and white shoelaces? They take away our colors, our Electric Limes, our Shocking Pinks, our Purple Mountains’ Majesties. I know my Crayola Box buey. They say colors are for gangbangers, but we are all made of color. Maybe not that white ghost principal whack job Dr. Stark.
I’m no poet bitch. They say they’re preparing us for the future and they talk about college and the army and be all you can be but I know what they really want for us. I see our school building with the no windows. I mean it’s got a couple slits to look through, but that’s it.
Yeah, I know you like the word, “slit,” doofus. Remember when one of the life skills kids set fire to the trash bin like Adele set fire to the rain? We were almost a bunch of baked Colombians. That building is a walking fire hazard no matter all their stupid ass fire drills.
Adele’s lame, but that is a good song. Don’t act like you don’t jam out to her.
I heard in jail music doesn’t exist. If you sneak in radios, they silence you. Guero said you get no toilet seat and no privacy to shit. Guero said bad things happen in there. Never stopped him from returning though. Said you don’t come out the same. Said that’s how faggots get made. Come out saying shit like: Have you ever looked up at the blue sky and seen a cloud the shape of a dick?
Did you see the new mural going up on the side of the Family Dollar? It has everything: an angel and zopilotes and fat cats and the Sun Maid skeleton lady in the red bonnet clutching a basket of gleaming green grapes and the ladies that never smile with the black caterpillar eyebrows and bleeding hearts and La Llorona Lloronaing while she drowns her baskets of babies.
Did you know La Llorona lived 20 minutes away?
Check out the signs man. They say, “Woman Hollering Creek.”
Guess what? The other night I saw my brother, Nick, banging his main chick. She was hollering. We sleep in the same room and it was all dark and he had this glow in the dark condom on and the green lit up the room like a dick lantern. It was some real Alien vs. Predator shit.
Did you know if you don’t use a rubber and you stick it in long enough, you are under that girl’s spell forever. It’s like mind control.
You know when the school’s old ass mouses have no balls and you have to poke around to move the cursor, that’s how you finger a girl. The other day I fucked Desiree, didn’t shower, and then fucked Daisy. It was sick!
I’ve got to jet because your Mami is calling. Later cabron.
* * *
What you don’t tell:
You could bite into Salvador’s bicep, into his blood and bone and marrow and sinew. If he let you. But he’s straight. Miss Uribe taught you that word: sinew. Said you need to know it for college, for some standardized test that will decide your fate forever. Like fates weren’t already determined.
Some library book said the Greeks believed in three ghouls named the Fates. They controlled the fates of everyone, including the Gods, and every human’s life hung on by a thread and when the Fates busted out these giant scissors and snipped, you were a goner. The Fates especially loved to slice and dice poor people’s lives so that even if you lived to the national life expectancy, you had to defeat a gang of the final bosses: lead paint, crack cocaine, black tar heroin, the craziness that caused Tio Epifanio to walk around sticking chewed up pieces of gum to his hair, the drive-by that penetrated prima’s skull, the white cans of government meat labeled “Pork” and decorated with the saddest cartoon pig, the solvents leaking into the soil and groundwater because Fort Bliss didn’t care it was poisoning Brown people, McDonald’s and Burger King, the crushing weight of being poor, “adverse childhood experiences,” a white people word for trauma, jail and prison and you’ve been handcuffed twice, zip-tied once, in the back of a police car four times, racked up three charges, two felonies, and been to a bunch of hearings where old white Republicans look at you and tell you to say you’re sorry, which you did but you weren’t, the hour long wait in the food stamp line every month, diabetes and anemia that Mami already has, all of the things, because real talk, you were murdered long before your physical body disintegrated.
They beat the spirit like a dog.
* * *
Before the doctors and the lawyers write your unhappy ending, you want to be like Nick. He used to be a Suicidal Loco until the gang threw a gangbang of his friend Desiree, who had agreed to fuck him and Julio, but when the whole gang showed up, she didn’t want it, but they still kept coming, and Nick couldn’t do it, and he couldn’t wear the color red after that.
“I wish my fucking blood was blue,” he said and punched the wall until blood streaked down down down the cinderblock.
“You got to stand up for something.” The one piece of advice he gives you. He got two panda eyes and a limp, but the man stood up.
Now he’s an Unknown Delinquent Criminal, and he deals girl and boy. When he got his newest tattoo of a crown below his right eye, the school told him please don’t come back and so now you sell boy for him so he doesn’t lose out on his primary customer base. This is your first job, and you are on week two. He packs the brown into plastic limes, green like the grass on the white people side of town. Camouflage, so you don’t get caught and the drug sniffing dogs don’t sniff.
Trouble is, you keep sampling the product. First, you put a grain under your tongue, and it tastes like shit and chemicals, but lately you’ve been inhaling key bumps. Better than oxygen. Better than whippets. Like you’re on a rollercoaster at Fiesta Texas and it’s only you and the wind and no screams and no fears. (Sometimes when you’re up you feel like jumping, but you avoid heights. You don’t stand on tippy toes. You are no faggot. You are no Icarus.) It’s like if you are wrapped in a forcefield of jet-puffed marshmallows while getting a blowjob and you’re getting close, except that feeling isn’t just on your dick, but all over your body. It’s like everything else has melted away and all that’s left is how you feel your first time in the Gulf of Mexico before you realized you couldn’t touch and you couldn’t swim and you could drown and death was a thing.
You wonder how long before you get addicted. You wonder how long ‘til you get fired. You don’t tell Salvador about the drugs or the dealing. You don’t want to ruin things.
You discover yourself one night sleeping next to Mami. Then the only furniture was the one mattress on the floor and in the other room, Nick’s bed of blankets. You touch yourself and touch yourself and remember that Mami had said you should never touch yourself there but the guilt only quickens your touching until you erupt, and your crotch turns cold and damp, but you fall back asleep anyway and then wake up to shame. You don’t know how to get clean again, but it keeps happening and every time you shiver.
Truth is, the doctors say Mami suffers from paranoia but she denies it. Says instead they are out to get her. Says the doctors and guys in general will try to corrupt you. You wonder, does she know? And what is so bad about corruption? If you do get corrupted, can you get clean again? The church says Jesus Christ will forgive and forgive and forgive but Mami believes none of that.
One day, you have a nightmare. You are at school barefoot and the ground is covered in a mountain pile of syringes and you can’t not step on a needle and they are all infected with AIDS. One day, Mami gets a job as an environmental technician, which is a fancy word for housekeeper, at the downtown hospital, and she comes home and is anxious about getting pinpricked by a needle that fell out of bedsheets she was changing and she has to wait a whole month to find out she doesn’t have AIDS. One day, school says you can’t get AIDS from sharing straws, but you can from loving another man.
* * *
You don’t like going to school because of what school stands for. School is named after the poet of the Confederacy. It’s the only Sidney Lanier left in the country. Sidney Lanier is a beige box modeled after the county jail. Sidney Lanier is 99% Latinx and a former segregated vocational school, Autobody, Welding, and Printshop, its most prized course offerings. Its mascot is called a Vok, short for vocational. A Vok is an electric blue, smiley-faced blue cog. The Vok is a message to us students. You are a cog that the system will discard when you’ve rusted and lost your use.
Dr. Stark, Sidney Lanier’s principal, holds an assembly in the atrium to sing, “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” She says you and your classmates are an inspiration, the wind beneath her wings. Every day this old Harrier Miers-looking motherfucker wears an electric blue power suit skirt and you wonder to yourself: Does she have eyes?
Sidney Lanier doesn’t like you, and you don’t like him.
You don’t like school because the stalls in the men’s restroom stink, are shit-smeared and doorless. So no matter how many sodas you drink from the vending machine you hold it because ever since your father left and then your stepdad left, you don’t feel like a man anymore, and so you sit down to pee and the boys make fun of you for enough already. You don’t like school because school locks up all of the textbooks, and you work on photocopies of fill-in-the-blank worksheets with the answer keys provided.
You like getting high, but mostly you like being straight so you don’t know why you keep messaging hornyboy69 about meeting up and fucking. You are at the library that looks like a bunch of parces took a bunch of Red Legos to make a pyramid but forgot to make it triangle. Next to you is some bum watching porno. He’s got headphones in but you can hear her moans. He smells like old socks. What a pervert.
Hornyboy69 says he is thirty and hung, like nine inches. That seems like a lot of inches. You consult a ruler from school. They are all chipped. He says he won’t send pics because he’s not out yet and asks if you are discreet. You say, Yes, but don’t know what that means.
Besides your brother’s neon penis, you don’t really know what sex is. You couldn’t see nothing else. Mami said sex ed was going to corrupt you and that sex was bad according to the Holy Ghost, who was looking for a reason to thunderbolt sinners, so instead you were the only kid in a room banished to the library to read some random book about fallopian tubes and ovaries and eggs. Made you hungry for breakfast.
You attempt a scavenger hunt for nudity and sex at the library, sifting through pages of Greek and Roman myth and the history of white people art and modern Anglo lit because only the conquerors deserve to be documented. All you find are photos of old Greek sculpture with micropenises and boobs with no nipples, a short story about rape fantasies, which doesn’t seem right, and a book on the sixth floor about some creep who hires a young Moroccan boy for sex and the boy tenses his ass cheeks before he lets him in.
The guy on the chat wants to meet next weekend here. You keep cancelling on him. He gets angry, calls you a flake and a fake and a phony and a waste of time and you feel bad, like you wronged the guy, like you blew your shot, but he keeps talking to you anyway, which gives you hope, tells you he’ll pay you for your time, says he bets you are a total babe and that he is happy to help a friend in need. This is exciting, but you are already failing at one job.
You wish you liked the girls at school, but they are always opening their mouths at the end of every sentence like Kermit the Frog when he cracks a joke and Sharpieing their eyebrows and using caca brown lipliner on their Red Delicious Apple lips and whispering and giggling like idiots. But you want Salvation, not Salvation Army.
Salvador with arms that peak and valley like mountains and skin the color of individually wrapped candy caramels, a color more precious than any precious metal and more heavy than any heavy metal, if he was made of adamantium metal like Wolverine, was his dick Excalibur and would it come to life in your hands? and dimples deep like the Mariana Trench and lips that must be pillowtop soft and hands that could treat you like a juicebox and suffocate. Salvador in sweatpants and you can’t look away. Salvador, you could find him in a rainstorm by the way the raindrops and the lightning bolts would fall around his body. Salvador and you wish for photographic memory in the locker room. Salvador Cruz, if only he gave you mouth to mouth and saved you all night long? Salvador whose girlfriend Geneva is a bitch and a slut.
She’s the one who spills the beans. She is hornyboy69. She prints out the chat logs, tapes them to all of the lockers with the face shot you sent. Before they can escort you to the principal’s office, you dip.
Octavia, the neighborhood one-eyed curandera, is expecting you. She makes a show. Cracks an egg on your head, massages your left pec, grabs at the air, says your secret’s in a jar in her closet. She shows you. It’s an old Ragu pasta sauce jar filled with brown liquid. It could be flat Jolt Cola, but she says it’s not.
“It’s what hides in the shadows mijo. What people don’t want to face.”
Look, you didn’t know where to find safety other than the place everyone told you to avoid. Nick said she knifed a dude. Mami warned you about her, how a dog chewed at her face when they were both little girls because animals can see things we can’t, and witches and the disabled—and she checked both boxes—will only try to corrupt you. But Mami never gave you a glass of lemonade when she saw you thirsty or figs from her backyard tree when she saw you longed for sweetness.
Octavia claims relation to a pack of gitanas and you picture hyenas and she says she lost her eye in a civil war and you don’t care and then that’s when you blurt out that you didn’t want to be you anymore and you wanted to kiss boys and tattoo their bodies with your lips.
“One spirit, two spirit, three spirit, four spirit,” she says. “Dr. Seuss should have written that fucking book.” She says that your Native-American ancestors had words for people who didn’t love the opposite sex or that didn’t resemble their gender, that it was normal, that even if it was a sin, so was a woman cutting her own hair.
A pair of scissors materialize in her knobbed hands. She is holding them the wrong way, the blade facing outward at you. Like whacking the weeds, she hacks at her ringlets until the floor browns, and only jagged fur covers her scalp.
“Now, we are even,” she announces. “It’s OK to be a work of art.” She laughs and laughs and laughs, and you run and run and run.
You dream an escape. No one can help you now. You’re exposed, found out, barebacked to the world. You can feel Mami’s love splintering like spiders hatching. She’ll run away from you like when Dad called you a butterfly and ran away, and the kids at school will look down at you, and Nick will say he doesn’t employ sissies, and Salvador will shun you, think you’ve been trying to turn him gay all these years, and you will be alone but it doesn’t matter because you’ve always been alone and no one knows who you are, except maybe Salvador, but even he doesn’t really know and it doesn’t matter anyways because eventually they’ll cage you some place with no sun and no windows and you’ll die long before you’ve stopped living and now you can’t breathe but your feet still work.
You can’t breathe when you see the mural. The blue of the creek calls and you press your hand to the wall. The wall bleeds water, soaking your hand. You listen intently. Sounds like the inside of a seashell. Sounds like a siren. Sounds like La Llorona singing a lullaby. Sounds like an onijegi hollering “Rolling in the Deep.” Sounds like Andrea Yates and her hair is still wet. You press your other hand to the wall. You move your ear closer. A halo of water washes over your head. You disappear into the mural. Maybe the world will miss you, and they’ll put you on the sides of milk cartons under big red letters that spell MISSING but you know better. You are too brown, and you are too poor.
* * *
Mami doesn’t leave her home for months. Shortly after you disappear, Nick catches a charge and a sentence with no punctuation. A weight oceans-heavy rolls in and sits on her chest. The paleta men, the ice cream trucks, the slender men that ride the slender bikes, they all drop off tamales and Frito pies and Klondike bars and candy cigarettes. She thanks them, chews, returns to sleep, imagining her bed a coffin.
One summer day lightning javelins the sky and she parts the curtains and witnesses rain falling so hard she could see birds gunned down, wings flapping, then wings still. Mostly pigeons, but one is a seagull, and the rain diminishes and stops and the sun shines and the rays pierce everything and everyone, and Mami and her neighbors open their doors and step outside, and the old widows sweep the birds off the sidewalks and the streets, and the fatherless children splash in the water that pools where the sewer drains had stopped draining and the teenage lovers embrace and Mami walks to the Family Dollar for a bottle of Yoo Hoo and she remembers what you said about the mural and she hears a river roaring and she sees the Fridas and the calaca raisin lady and Botero’s voluptuous felines and she remembers when she used to sketch superheroes and Amazons before someone told her that she wasn’t anything special and anyone can paint like she could and then she sees you, the boy who looks just like her boy, and she worries that maybe some maricón artista had seduced you, drawn you, and then stole you, but she could see you are smiling the type of smile no one can counterfeit and she sees you are running away with one of Frida’s hearts and your mouth is full of green grapes, and she thinks, “Boy, that boy could eat,” and she moves closer and closer to the mural until she is in it, and takes her place as a third Frida, the one that sees her child and smiles.