He pulled at the neck of his T-shirt and fanned his face. The heat of Acapulco. How much will you have to pay for it, he wanted to ask Alfredo. They kept driving in circles hoping some of the women would appear on the sidewalk. The evening rain had stopped and from the asphalt emerged slithering shapes, vapors from the dying remnants of the day.
Alfredo stopped the VW Kombi at a traffic light and switched on the blinker. “We’ll find one,” he said. “There’s no rush. My parents and your parents like to talk and talk during dinner.”
Tlacuache tried to smile. Part of him wanted it to happen, had been praying for it to happen. Part of him was afraid. Would he be able to be naked in front of a woman? Would he be able to get her to enjoy it? From movies he knew prostitutes had no time, no desire to feel anything. And it was important for him, to see that he could not only experience pleasure but offer it too. He wondered how it would feel to do what he had imagined in dreams, done in the bathroom while looking at the magazine with those women bending over or resting a foot on a chair, women whose faces seemed to be beckoning him. I can be yours. A magazine he would not open for months after what happened that night in Acapulco.
The light changed and Alfredo turned onto a one-way street. Ahead of them a black beat-up Grand Marquis trundled as if it carried a coffin inside. “The first time won’t be great,” Alfredo said. “We all start too eager. A woman needs time, you have to be patient. But when they’re ready, I’ll tell you. Women are a gift from heaven.”
The Grand Marquis slowed down for a moment, the brakes screeching, then it sped up.
“Not all are beauties here,” Alfredo said.
Tlacuache stared at him as if he’d dropped a dead rat on his lap.
“Relax. We’ll find you one you like.”
At a corner, Tlacuache saw a silhouette and he swallowed. A figure was standing next to a tilting lamppost, its yellowish light flickering. He discerned two thighs, the negative space between them, the saltpeter on the chipped wall behind, the stretched cloth of the miniskirt. Then he caught a glimpse of her face, her skin damaged by viral infections and poverty.
“Let’s keep driving,” Alfredo said and turned again. He congratulated Tlacuache for having finished high school, the big step ahead.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Look at me. Five semesters behind me and I’m still alive.”
“That’s what everyone says.” He sighed. “Somehow it doesn’t help.”
Alfredo was a good friend. Tlacuache’s parents knew Alfredo’s for more than thirty years, had celebrated birthdays and Christmases and graduation parties together. They were almost like family. Three years older than Tlacuache, Alfredo had been an older brother without being a brother. He could listen to Tlacuache’s worries with enough distance to guide him, to assist him in his decision making without becoming too involved.
“I must say I never thought you’d choose biochemical engineering,” Alfredo said.
“Didn’t you want to be a cellist?”
“My father said studying engineering was safer.”
“Safer for what?” He clicked his tongue. “It’s your life, that’s all I have to say.”
Your life. Later that night, back at the hotel with his parents, Tlacuache would lie in darkness fretting over one thing: his future. Or the absence of it. He would sob in silence imagining halls full of people coming to hear him play Debussy’s or Poulenc’s cello sonatas, the Tomb of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe with viola da gamba. Feeling the bedsheets drenched in sweat against his back, he would imagine people holding champagne flutes, a marble fish spitting water from a fountain behind, long-necked women in tight dresses smiling at him, nodding, listening to the music. Where had those dreams gone? The excitement he’d felt in the moments before they found her, before she unbuttoned his pants and touched him, everything would be obliterated for months, years, destroyed by the dread that haunted him from that night on. The virus. The next morning his mom would ask him if he’d eaten too much salt—his eyelids were swollen. He would try to smile. Yes, the barrilete fish had been too salty.
They kept driving.
He started to visualize her, the way she would help him take off his soaked T-shirt, then smile while looking at his tousled hair. He imagined kissing her next to the lips, one side, then the other, and she would look down at the purse in her lap, rummage for a moment, then fish out a condom. She would let herself be kissed while she tore open the wrapper. She would not say the words he had feared all along: No kissing on the mouth. From movies he knew that was the entry to women’s true intimacy. They would not offer it to a stranger.
They saw several figures on the sidewalk, some holding a purse with both hands over the front of their miniskirt, others tottering as if on a tight rope, they tried to keep their balance on high-heeled shoes.
“It doesn’t have to be tonight,” Alfredo said. “We can always try another time back in Mexico City.”
“Back in Mexico City,” Tlacuache repeated. He knew it would never happen in the city. His parents were too protective. Where are you and Alfredo going, with whom, at what time can we call you, please make sure there’s a phone available. Only here, in Acapulco and with Alfredo’s parents, did they offer him some leeway.
“It’s up to you,” Alfredo said, and pulled over for a moment. “It’s my treat. I want you to have this. You deserve a treat after what happened with that girl at school.”
Tlacuache looked out the window. It was drizzling again. Yes, something had happened with a girl at school, the tall gymnast who never even looked at him. She had agreed to go out with him once, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps because Tlacuache had shown the courage to ask a girl like her out. She had told him how comfortable it felt to be around such a gentleman, respectful of women. But in the end she had chosen an older guy who’d come up to her and kissed her after only twenty minutes of chit chat. Tlacuache had seen it, continued to replay in his mind every detail. For weeks. He’d gone to the bar to get the beers and when he came back, the other guy’s hand was already on the small of her back. In an instant. Tlacuache stood next to her holding the two mugs; the beer’s foam was dissolving. He thought she would dismiss the guy any minute, turn around and grab her beer. But she had forgotten about him.
He looked at the trickles of water meandering down the windshield. “Do you think women can sense when a man has experience?” he asked.
Alfredo stepped on the clutch and looked at the side-view mirror. “There’s a place we haven’t tried yet.”
“Could we maybe check it out?” Tlacuache said, then cleaned the damp off the windshield with the heel of his hand.
“That’s the Tlacuache I know,” Alfredo said, nodding.
The following day, on the highway back to Mexico City, Tlacuache would think back to the moment when the drizzle had started again. It would become blurred in his mind how he’d felt so eager, so impatient for something that would seem so meaningless. The possibility of death was spreading to every cell in his body. A year later, when a girl would invite him over to her house and specify that her parents would be gone for the night, he’d wonder how much longer he could postpone finding out if he was infected or not. He’d begun to ask hypothetical questions to friends and uncles, neighbors who were studying medicine. If you were to have sex with an infected person, what would be the odds of getting the virus?
* * *
“That one?” Tlacuache mumbled, and Alfredo got out of the van. They found her standing under a red and white awning. Alfredo spoke with her for what seemed like a long time. Tlacuache didn’t look at her tight jeans or the piercing in her navel, the frayed leather jacket. He was watching her eyes, her lips, her eyebrows. He saw Alfredo take out his wallet and give money to the girl. Alfredo opened the sliding door to the back seat. “I’ll go for a walk,” he said to Tlacuache. “Take your time.” He winked at him, then left.
They both sat in the back and in one quick movement she removed her jacket and top. He stared at the bra, the pronounced cleft between the tanned breasts. “Now you,” she said. He obeyed, and when he had nothing else on except his underwear she smiled and shook her head a little. Was that a positive sign? Did she find him endearingly clueless?
He held her forearm and began to press it with his fingertips.
“What’re you doing?”
“Playing the cello,” he said. “I want us to make music together.”
She laughed, then slid her hand inside his underwear and began to stroke him. “Touch my breasts,” she said. “It will help you get hard.”
He didn’t move. He watched her. He wanted to record every muscle movement on her face, the approving delight he wished would become visible any minute in her eyes because the size of his rogue innocence was now growing in her hand.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She kept stroking his penis.
“You prefer not to tell me?”
“I don’t understand why you need to know.”
“I’m here, you are here.” He ran a finger down the middle of her chest. “We’re about to do something intimate together.” He told her his name, explained everyone called him Tlacuache. She tilted her head and smiled. “Tiffany,” she murmured. “You can call me Tiffany.”
He kept watching her. Tiffany.
Then she took out a condom from her purse. She pulled down her panties, stepped out of them and was about to sit on him when he stopped her. “How much time do we have? I don’t want to rush.”
“We have plenty of time,” she murmured, and with a delicate movement of a guiding hand between her legs, she straddled him
He sighed as if he were Sainte Colombe on his deathbed.
He closed his eyes, tipped his head back and gave in to the experience. So this was it, what he’d longed for all this time. Being intimate with a woman. Yet he felt nothing. He observed her face while she rode him. She could be washing dishes or sewing an old sock. After a moment he touched her shoulder. “Are you feeling anything?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not here.”
She laughed. “I’m right here.”
“It feels weird with the condom.”
She said it was normal, you would never feel the real thing with a complete stranger. She stood up, shoulders stooped under the roof of the van, and guided him to change position. They lay on their sides, he behind her, and she had to guide him inside her. He began to pump with enthusiasm, his eyes half-closed. He was feeling something now. After a moment he stopped. “What is it?” she complained.
“Turn around,” he said. “I want to see you.”
She sighed, then turned to face him. With one hand he lifted her thigh and continued his task with determination. It was as if he were being observed by the girl who’d rejected him. She was in awe. Tlacuache could also be that kind of gentleman.
“How far are you?” she asked.
“But how far?”
He shushed her. “You’re distracting me.”
Little by little their bodies found the rhythm. She was moaning now. For a moment Tlacuache wondered if it could be real. Was she really feeling something?
He kept looking at her face, the concentrated line in the middle of her brow. She was beautiful. She was a little older, by maybe ten years, but who cared. Maybe he could see her again; Acapulco was only three hours away from Mexico City. He wouldn’t ask her to stop working on the streets. Who was he to dictate what she could or could not do? Maybe when she got to know him better. Maybe when she got to see him play. He watched the tensed-up muscles at the base of her neck, her mouth half open. There was a chance she could fall in love with him, wasn’t there? Being together like this, wasn’t that what men and women wanted?
Tlacuache would always remember the moments that had followed the orgasm with her, the eternal instant when he lay as if in a daze, the buzz in his ears, the enigma— had she enjoyed it too? There had only been silence. She had looked down at her pubis and her groin, then gasped. The condom had broken. “That’s why we were feeling so much,” she’d said. He would remember that moment with a mix of regret and shame and bliss. She hadn’t seemed worried about getting pregnant, much less about getting infected with a venereal disease. It was clear he was a virgin. And even in her irritation, while cleaning and drying herself, she’d shown concern for what she knew he was thinking. “I always use a condom,” she’d said, before putting her underwear on again. Years later, after he’d noticed that no incurable disease afflicted his body, he finally got tested and went to look for her in Acapulco. Three nights he tried without luck. “I don’t know any Tiffanys,” one of the women told him. “But there are two new areas further up the costera. The business has expanded.” On the fourth night he thought he had found her, at least someone whose facial features reminded him of her. He wasn’t sure if it was she, the woman who stood at a corner with a group of older women. Her hair was dyed a copperish red and she wore too much makeup. “It’s me,” he said, rolling down the window. “Remember?” He gestured as if he were playing the cello. She took out a small cellophane wrapper from her purse and brought it to her mouth; Tlacuache saw how she pursed her lips and in a quick movement took out the chewing gum from her mouth. “What’s that?” she asked, then smiled, and told him they could do that and much more if he had five hundred pesos.
That night in the van he kept thrusting his hips with a delicate fury he didn’t know he had in him. Something was guiding his muscles, a physical memory he had never acquired. He felt a tickle deep in his belly and down to the base of his penis. This was it. He kissed her on the mouth and she didn’t move away. He imagined playing for her, a melancholic song at the far end of chapel, just the two of them, and she’d wipe off tears from her face. Nothing had ever moved her as much of those sounds.
Her face was flushed. He felt an effervescent burn in the core of his being and he tried to slow down but it was too late. This was it.
A. Mauricio Ruiz was born in Mexico City. His work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Catapult, Letras Libres, Gatopardo, Revista de la Universidad, The Common, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, among others. He’s been shortlisted for the Bridport and Fish prizes, and received fellowships from OMI writers (NY), Société des auteurs (Belgium), Jakob Sande (Norway), Can Serrat (Spain), and the Three Seas’ Council (Rhodes). His second collection, Silencios al sur, was published in 2017, and some of his stories have been translated into French and Dutch.