You were low-key dating a sorority girl when we first met at the Fatburger checkout line, but didn’t tell me for like, a fucking year. My buddy Alex comforted me when I found out, telling me it was because she could dunk a basketball better than she could hose down a triple patty.
It was spring midterms, rush week really, and we were hanging out studying. We were alone and laughing and drawing butts instead of parabolas on our engineering homework.
“I broke up with her, Cielo,” you mumbled through a mouthful of Popeyes, even though you knew I knew. Your pencil stopped scribbling, and I walked away, slamming the door so hard that your pencil rolled to the ground.
“It’s because she’s whiter than you,” Alex told me a few months later, patting me awkwardly on the shoulder, as we sat on lawn chairs watching your new guerita girlfriend slam a volleyball into a net. “¿Pero sabes que? No cancer, no sunburn for you Cielito.” He nodded encouragingly.
Guerita was the type of Kappa who never wore shirts, just walked around in a bra, showcasing her flat athletic chest. She never made a big deal about it. She was also the type of girl who knew how to make tortillas from scratch, and her corn in a cup sold for a dollar a Dixie. Her manicure had squared tips which meant she was a verifiable badass. Rafael, I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this. I can honestly hear you laughing because you know it’s true.
Anyway, after the sun went down and your girl had beat everyone and their mom at sand volleyball, you invited me inside. Here’s the vibe: The apartment was stripped down, the walls were bare, there was nowhere to sit, reggaetón music blasting. Our boys had just started rolling up with their big ass speakers bumping in their F450s, and we knew it was game time. Both of our partners called out our names, their voices muffled against the saltwater pool.
Honestly, the thought of dancing with my boyfriend made me want to kill myself.
“Five seconds, Cielo, five seconds,” you pleaded, among the boxes and packing tape.
I set the timer on my phone. “The countdown starts, now.”
So our first kiss was leaning against an Oreck vacuum cleaner in a dark hallway which still shows up in my dreams. Can I be honest? My universe kind of split open. I have a feeling we both stopped because we were thinking about the pencil and also because we could hear Guerita’s shrill Ricki Lake voice saying, “Where’s Rafael? Where is he? What the hell?” through the open air of the window. I left through the back door and soon enough, you moved to Houston to live with your mom. Here’s the kicker: I was so goddamn homesick for my mom, my barrio, my routine of going to the gas station twice a day to buy tacos, of making googly eyes at the twenty-two-year-old meatpacker at Wal-Mart, who was my high school prom date. But guess what? I didn’t go home. I thought the whole state of Texas couldn’t contain the both of us. So, a year after you moved with your mom, I packed up my car and moved to Pittsburgh, never to be seen or heard from again.
* * *
Four years later, I was in your city. You promised you would pick me up the second I got off the plane and you weren’t lying, spinning me into the air at baggage claim, and then again in front of a new Jeep Wrangler you bought stealing money working concessions stands in high school.
“Rafael, a Jeep?” I said. “Not the Camaro I remember.”
Clearing your throat, nothing came out of your voice box. It was always tough, starting over—experiencing the pain of everything we had missed in the time in between. Your style was off—suit pants with muddy Converse sneakers. A plain white t-shirt with a Astros cap. A faded tattoo of a flaming baseball halfway up your neck. In high school, you had to wear a uniform and never really learned how to dress.
“I’m not good at hellos,” you finally said.
“Or goodbyes,” I answered, ducking my head into the car, which still smelled new. “You listening to Kenny Chesney now too?”
“Oh, hush,” you said, wrapping me in a hug. “When I saw her, I knew she was the one.”
It’s going to sound stupid, but anytime you hug me, it feels like I haven’t been breathing since the last time that we saw each other. I began to laugh, and you patted your Jeep, singing her praises, your palm close to mine.
* * *
Three years later, you drove me to a seedy bar in Galveston, one where the bartenders recognized us, and there was a 1920s New Year’s party every Friday night. We sat near the water, watching people board the ferry, the tails of sequined dresses flapping in the wind. You were the same and not. You had a hardness to you now. You were a cop who would buy the weed off the kids on the street rather than arrest them for it. You said less, drank more. But there was something solid between us, a chemistry that rendered the outside world meaningless.
Staggering back to the Jeep sticky with sand, I looked up into the sky, an unanchored balloon feeling filling up in my chest. Down below, mosquitos were biting my ankles right at the spot where heel met Nike.
“Hey,” I yelled once we were inside the Jeep. “You ever watch Saved by the Bell?”
“Yeah, tiger,” you said, laughing.
I lowered my voice. “You know when Kelly Kapowski walked into the Max? And Zack sees her and the screen blurs around her face?”
“Well, I don’t remember that,” you said.
“Well,” I said. “That’s what happens when I see you.”
You shushed me, throwing my sneakers in the back and draping an Astros fleece over my bare legs. I fell asleep there, and woke up the next day in my hotel room, a grey sweatshirt with our college logo over my head, my Nikes lined up neatly by the door. I was still wrapped in that blanket. It pained me to know that you had gone into my suitcase and looked until you found it. Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart, Seamus Heaney once said. That sweatshirt had always smelled like the both of us.
* * *
A week before our first vacuum cleaner kiss seven years prior, you picked me up in your black Camaro with purple taillights almost every week, because I didn’t have a car and for one other very important reason. You were my best friend.
My head bobbed to the beat of Tupac songs. We parked outside of dormitory lots at sunset where we spent the nights talking until dawn. You had seen my ugly cry, straight off of the worst of telenovelas. You had met my mom, two of my five sisters, and my third-grade teacher. We ate together, studied together, and both pretended that our partners didn’t care. I didn’t have the courage, it was never the right time, I lacked the guts, to tell you what was written in every step I took.
I had heard on the radio that some people were attracted to each other because they have similar immunities to illness. I think we repel the same viruses, I decided to say.
“What’s on your mind?” you said, wearing our college sweatshirt. I pressed the fabric between my forefinger and thumb, the screenprint crackling where you had washed it in super hot water.
“I need to tell you something,” I said.
“I can’t do it here. Cheesecake Factory?”
After the cheesecake, you rolled down the windows, pointing out an egret standing in the reeds. Floating next to the egret was a full-size squirrel skeleton. We drank a whole can of Nescafe between us before we remembered that we were both lactose intolerant.
“Keep driving though,” I said, tapping the windowsill to the beat of a Leona Lewis song on the radio. We began to sing, our voices melting together.
The first time I met Guerita, she asked me where I was from. Prosper, I said. ¿Que? Dallas, I corrected. All Dallas girls are bitches, she said, dismissing me with a wave. I thought of this as we drove on I-45 at golden hour. The light colors your thoughts and makes you feel powerful. Once, you told me the Texas skies made you feel small, less than. I feel exactly opposite, and perhaps that’s our fundamental difference.
“Why don’t you pull over there?” I said arbitrarily, pointing to a bar we were too young to drink at.
A dollop of ice cream was melting into a vanilla pool on your dashboard. You accelerated to ninety miles an hour, the lights blurring in drunk lines past us.
“We’ve never made it on time for the ferry,” you contemplated.
We walked down the coast, our hands close but not touching.
“I wasn’t going to go to class anyway,” you said. “But in case you’re wondering, it’s been three hours, and it’ll be another three to make it back again.”
“I think we have similar immunities,” I announced. “That’s all I wanted to say.”
Your whole face changed, kicking at the sand. Oh shit, I thought. He must have listened to NPR this morning.
“Do you even like me as a person, Rafael? Be honest.”
“I wouldn’t have driven three hours if I didn’t like you. I have a question for you. What do you see in me?”
I cleared the cotton in my throat before speaking. “Everything, Rafe.”
You put both of your arms behind your head and shook it, the way you did when you were conflicted. That’s not good enough, you were thinking. I wasn’t the type of girl your mom would like. I was vulgar, a slob, my Spanish sucked, and my skin was too dark. I knew enough to walk back to the car then. We didn’t turn on the radio on the way home. We didn’t sing. We couldn’t even look at each other.
* * *
“I’m here for good now Rafe, but you know I’m not allowed to talk to you. This is just a hologram. My mom and my sisters staged an intervention.”
“Where’s your boyfriend?” you said curtly.
I could tell that your body was deeply tired.
“He just doesn’t get how our thing works.”
“You got me there. I’m not sure I know how our thing works, and it’s been what, like ten years?”
This, really, was your moment. I don’t care that you can’t dunk a basketball, you should have said. Hey, Cielo, I’m lonely and I don’t want to share anymore. Come meet my Houston homeboys, I wanted you to say.
“This is how today is going to happen. I’m just going to fade into the distance like a Hollywood movie, and it’ll be like we never saw each other. And, I told him I was going to the hair salon.”
“What are you going to do about your hair?”
I handed you a pair of scissors. “Cut my bangs.”
“Just do it.”
You cut, slanting slightly left, similar to the direction of your loping handwriting. You touched the back of my head lightly, over the patch that was beginning to gray like yours, before you leaned in for a kiss. I didn’t like to kiss you, because I could feel those ten years in that tight kind of togetherness, a rubber band snap that reminded me why it was safer to stay away. We were back of the car, hotel room, on the beach kind of people when it came to hooking up. We found each other somewhere, somehow, in spite of, because. We weren’t texters—more like go hide at the laundromat and talk and talk until the feeling of living is bearable again. Our partners had always appreciated how much clean laundry we could bring to the table.
La noche la hacen dia, my mother used to say.
Here I am again, in the curtains waiting for my life to begin.
* * *
The following summer, it was my apartment that was empty, and I made the mistake of meeting up with you instead of my boyfriend. You came to visit me in Pittsburgh for your thirty-third birthday. Love and infatuation are different, you told me at dinner, as if I didn’t have a clue. You were regretful about breaking things off with your girlfriend who stocked the shelves at the HEB. She had a timeline, you said. Sticky notes fixed to dates she wanted to have a baby, get married, and go back to school. I don’t want to be with someone who ticks me off in a box, you complained. “But Cielo,” you said, leaning in so that I could hear. It was only a whisper. “Me and her, we had something. For once in my life, I wanted to finish what we started.”
The feeling was so disorienting, like I saw the story of us flash before my eyes. I had held on to that story since I was a barely adult—I held on to that feeling as though my life depended on it. You searched my eyes to see if I agreed with you, and then I saw alarm, sadness, and then unbearable tenderness. This was perhaps our only other fundamental difference.
In those moments when my self was unraveling, I saw the top of a mountain where we gazed upon the El Paso star one balmy summer night. I heard the uproarious laughter of us chilling at high school musicals even though we were way too old, because we were drawn to sudden stardom, especially in dorky theater kids. I felt our give and take, and how I was always more give, you more take. I felt around in my past for those lonely years I spent looking for you at parties I wasn’t invited to, glow sticks illuminating our faces in the dark, as we shared childhood secrets over a can of Shiner Holiday Cheer. I miss our silences. I miss the people we once were.
* * *
Four years after I met you for the emergency hair appointment, my boyfriend, my buddy Alex from college, decided to propose. When he got that look in his eyes, I grabbed my stomach and said I needed to go to the bathroom. I ran the shower on hot and called you.
“He says he wants to marry me,” I whispered into the receiver, enunciating each word. “Help.”
“Do you want to marry him?”
I began to cry.
“What do you want, Cielo? What do you want from me?”
“I don’t want to be fifty and wake up and realize that I fucked up my life.”
“Mira, it took a decade for you to trust me. Even longer for you to stop telling half-truths.”
“This isn’t helping.”
“This is important. I want you to remember this.”
You cleared your throat, as if it pained you to say it. “All those years girl. All that coming and going. It was worth it.”
I need more than that, I thought. I really need much more than that. I hung up the phone.
Alex cornered me in the bathroom to break me down, when I was alone and naked and afraid.
“It was him, wasn’t it? You’ve got to let it go Cielo.”
“I can’t marry you. I don’t feel grown yet.”
“Baby, you’re like, thirty. And, Cielo, well, did you ever tell him how you feel? Like with all those words you have inside you?”
“Well, not exactly,” I said. “But I’ve always known he’s the one.”
* * *
Maybe this is the story of how I ended up alone, or the story of a perpetual cheater who can’t move on from that identity. I stay away from water these days. Whenever I’m near it, goddammit, if my heart doesn’t end up in Galveston, on a ferry I never rode, a sky drenched in darkness.
When I hung up the phone that last time, I didn’t tell you it was goodbye. I think you got the picture after I didn’t call you back the next fourteen times, one call for each year that we knew each other. That’s our story. The universe, and circumstance, and pride, brings us together and apart, like the ebb and flow of the bay, like the millions of parallel lives we could have lived together if both of us had said yes.
What I couldn’t bear to say in all of these stories, red herring goodbyes, half-truths—what I couldn’t tell Alex, because these last sentences are hard—everything reminds me of you. The gray skies above, the swagger of young men in Nautica sweatshirts. Police car sirens. Movie theaters. The eyes of blue dogs.
The us that existed in my brain, it had many seasons. Monsoons, periods of stillness, and the art of being either the loved or the beloved. I fall asleep thinking of you so that maybe you can show up for me in the way that I needed you to. The pain that I feel, it means you haven’t left me yet—like the day we got drunk on cheesecake and Texas sky, and we were so damn close.
Out of habit, I still fall asleep with the phone against my ear, only I can’t hear you on the other end anymore, and Rafe, let me be honest. We should have both been honest. Not hearing your voice brings me to a dark place. Ring, I whisper to the phone with telepathic determination. Ring ring ring. You were always enough. Please think of how the pencil made me feel. Would I have felt that way if I hadn’t meant what I said?
After all these years, I can finally name what the feeling was, what I feel about you I mean—it was the feeling of arriving home.
Nancy Garcia is from McKinney, Texas. She earned a B.B.A. in Finance and a B.A. in Chemistry from Texas A&M University, and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has been featured in Shepherd University’s Anthology of Appalachian Writers, LatinX Audio Mag, Grist Journal, and The Acentos Review, among others. She currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts. Nancy’s current projects include experimenting with art journaling, collaging, and completing a short story collection.