Mirage

previously…
(…or start here)

I’ll never forget the very first thing she said to me. She said, “Shoes sink. New plan: set A-list dove wings in curl?” On second thought, maybe she said, “Blue-pink toucan wet, hurray! This loving the world?” It also could have been, “You think you can get away with shoving a girl?” It was kind of hard to hear because my testicles were aching from a recent, enthusiastic kick, and dirt was being shoved into my mouth.

Twenty years ago, at the age of seven, I had a gang. My lieutenant was Hakim, a master thief who could get anywhere. My thug was Angelo, who was tall and kind of chubby and therefore intimidating. Rounding us out was my cousin Banjo. Banjo was younger than the rest of us and pretty useless, but he wasn’t annoying, so we let him hang around. If we were a miniature mafia, I was the miniature godfather. Hakim stole what I told him to, Angelo threatened who I told him to, and Banjo stayed out of my way when I said so.

One afternoon, Angelo were hanging out at the school playground, and we saw a girl our age sitting on our swings. I wasn’t having that, so I sent him over to push her off. The fact that she landed in a mud puddle was a sweet bonus. A few mornings later, she retaliated.

My life changed that day.

Prior to that moment, Hakim, Angelo, Banjo, and I were marching down a path that led to juvenile detention and a mailbox full of welfare checks. But as I went home to clean myself, change my clothes, and lie to my parents so they didn’t know their son just got his huevos handed to him by a girl, I thought about her. If I was this humiliated without witnesses, how did she feel with a couple of her peers pointing and laughing?

From that point on, I had a new mission. I sent Hakim out to retrieve stolen toys and Angelo out to frighten bullies. But after about a week and a half of this, some of the bullies began to fight back, and it became apparent that Angelo was not a very good enforcer. What we needed was someone mean and angry. We needed that little girl.

I tracked her down and paid her five Merde Bars to take care of Simon Largo, one of our more obstinate problems. It worked out so well that we put her on retainer, at a price of one candy bar and a bag of Xtra-spicy Munlach Brand Buffalo Chips per week. Eventually, she loosened up enough with us that she started kicking ass pro bono.

Her name is Lisa Green, and she was the most important friend I’ve ever had.

I’ll never forget the very last words I said to her, ten years after we first met. I said, “Don’t you ever fucking dare ask me for anything ever again.”

And yet, there she was on the phone, asking me for something.

I repeated it, just to be sure: “You seriously want me to let you sleep in my place this weekend?”

“You’re right,” she sighed. “I don’t know why I thought calling you was a good idea. It’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Pretty high up there, at least.”

We both laughed nervously.

I told her, “I don’t have a choice, do I?”

“You can tell me to fuck off.”

“I don’t want to do that.” I took a moment to squeeze back the tears that were coming. “JFK or LaGuardia?”

“Newark.”

“Figures,” I muttered. “See you there.”

“Fuentes,” she told me, “I’ve missed you so much.”

I wanted to say, “I know,” or “Me too,” but my throat had tightened too much to let words out.

At Newark Liberty Airport the next day, I alternated between watching the arrival board and pacing. I couldn’t recall the last time I was this nervous about seeing a girl, especially one I had no plans to seduce.

With the travelers from her flight pouring into the baggage claim area, I paced harder. Would I recognize my long-ago-exiled best friend? Of course I would. I knew that face better than I knew my own. I’d spent my childhood and adolescence witnessing her growing into it.

There was that slightly too-large nose, which I’d had to squeeze shut the first time we’d ever smoked pot. It flared when it was angry, as it did when she’d discovered that the boy to whom she’d lost her virginity was interested only in keeping score. Today it was still a little too big, but smooth and elegant.

There was her jaw–a little too sharp to be feminine–that set when she was hurting, or clenched like it did when she saw me mere moments after uber-bully Ricky Ortega had shattered my nose in retaliation for some stunt I’d pulled. Today, it was still strong, but now soft and relaxed.

There were her eyebrows, furrowed, arched, and raised, now thin and inquisitive; and her hair, greasy and tangled, but now full and soft and bunched into a loose clip at the base of the neck I’d never seen before. There were her engorged lips, which rarely grinned, preferring instead to smirk and pout. Once, they were barely darker than the rest of her face, but now they were crimson, swollen, and sexy.

And then there were her chocolate-colored eyes, able to convey the broadest of emotions by being perpetually narrowed. They could be annoyed, as they always were around Banjo; they could be disappointed, as they always were around my friend Angelo; they could be inquisitive, as they always were around Hakim; they could be judgmental, as they always were around my girlfriend at the time, Heather; they could be stoic, as they always were around her family; they could be coy, as they always were whenever we exchanged secret glances; they could be flirtatious, as they were always were around most boys; and they could be angry, as they were most of the time. On the other side of the baggage carousal, they scanned the crowd until they found me and lit up.

She cautiously moseyed over, her head cocked as she examined me to make sure I was the right guy. As she did, I wondered what she had remembered about my face and whether the current one disappointed her in any way. I gave her a smile.

At this moment, so much needed to be said. She needed to apologize for what she did to make me hate her for so long. I needed to apologize for giving up on her. She needed to tell me how she’d grown up to be such a woman. I needed to tell her about the deep tear I’d made in my soul when I’d walked away from her ten years ago.

She went first. “Fuentes.”

That was my cue. “Hey, Green.”

“It’s good to see you again.”

“You’re wearing lipstick,” I told her.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Started doing it to impress a boy.”

“Did it work?”

She shrugged.

“It looks good,” I said.

“Thanks.”

“You want to get out of here?”

“I do.”

to be continued…
(… a look back, for perspective)

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Bupkis

“This is what I don’t get,” the clerk said. “You are standing there, telling me that you can get me anything I want, in exchange for two cases of beer.” He added, “And, because that’s not hilarious enough, you want to pay for the beer?”

“I’m not sure what’s so hilarious about this.”

“If you could get anything,” he said, “then why don’t you just get your own beer?”

“Were you a philosophy major when you dropped out of school?” I asked the clerk.

“I graduated, jackhole,” he replied.

“I see that worked well for you,” I replied back.

“Insulting the guy with the stuff you want isn’t helping, you know.”

“Respecting the guy with the stuff I want wasn’t helping me either,” I told him, “so I guess that leaves me at square one.”

“You got balls,” he said, “I’ll give you that. You just marched in here and told me you were eighteen without giving me any bullshit about a lost ID or even a fake.”

“That would mean a lot more to me if it came with a liquor purchase.”

“Well, it doesn’t.”

“What does?”

“A valid driver’s license or state ID with your real date of birth of more than twenty-one years ago,” he told me.

“Then we’re at an impasse.”

“No,” he clarified, “You’re at an impasse, and the chick behind you who’s probably not a minor is also at an impasse. Me, I’m right where I belong.”

I smirked and raised an eyebrow. “I was right! You really were a philosophy major!”

“Get the hell out of my store.”

“If I do what you want, will you let me buy the beer?” I asked, just in case.

His voice went up a couple of extremely frustrated octaves. “Are you fucking serious?”

“Only a little bit,” I admitted as I obeyed and whispered a quick apology to the chick behind me, immediately averting my eyes from hers, which were stunning, amber, and hidden behind thick-framed glasses.

Shrouded in frustration, I’d made it nearly a block and a half before a voice called out from behind me, “Hey, Bupkis!”

Since I didn’t remotely look Polish, I ignored it and returned to pondering my line of attack for the next gas station.

“Bupkis!”

I looked around for a Mr. Bupkis and realized that I was the only person on the street–other than the owner of that voice, of course.

“Why are you yelling Bupkis at me?” I shouted back at the shadowy figure strutting up to me.

“Because your name is Bupkis,” the figure replied, stepping into the light.

“Why?” was pretty much all I could choke out at that point. That was because I finally got a decent look at the woman who had been behind me in line, with her black, boyish haircut revealing a neck that sloped from her jaw all the way to the collar of her jean jacket, which both concealed and hinted at the snug T-shirt beneath, with a hem that didn’t quite make it to the waist of her just-as-snug jeans.

“Because that’s all your incredible ballsiness got you,” she replied.

“My name’s actually–“

“Don’t tell me,” she interrupted with a grin. “Bupkis is cuter.”

I blushed.

“Hi,” she said, “I’m Mac.” After a moment of silence, she added, “Mackenzie, in case you were wondering, but I’ll be fucked if I’m going through life with a cutesy Scottish surname like that.”

“Hi,” I squeaked.

She held a case of Sheisse-Haus Lite to eye level and said, “Pay up, Bupkis.”

“Really?”

“I wouldn’t buy this shit for myself, that’s for damned sure.”

I handed over a wad of cash and reached for the case, but she yanked it away. “That just covers the beer,” she informed me. “For me getting you the beer, you owe me one or two.”

I’m not stupid. I knew what she meant by that. Unfortunately that’s not what I heard.

What I heard were eight-month-old sounds, which were echoes of sighs and moans coming from the only comfortable spot in the car graveyard just outside the boundaries of my trailer park back home. What I smelled was weed, which was perfectly normal in this private, hidden location. What I saw was the misshapen lump of a hand underneath a T-shirt, cupping a breast, which was also perfectly normal in this private, hidden location. What I tasted and felt was bile burning the back of my throat, because that breast belonged to my girlfriend, whom I loved hopelessly, and that hand belonged to my oldest friend, whom I loved like a brother.

“Well,” I replied in the present, “I was, uh, planning on using it to, uh, bribe this guy in the theater department for…”

“That’s fine,” she said. “I can’t stay up too late tonight anyway. Classes and all.” Her eyes never found their way back to mine by the time she turned and wandered away.

That’s right. I was Bupkis.

to be continued…

Three Little Words

I know what those three little words mean. At sixteen, I’m not supposed to, but I do. They’ve been so diluted by music and television and movies that it seems pop culture’s most touching uses of them is how they get substituted with little codes like “I know” and “Ditto.” They still do mean something. I’m not stupid, you know.

Sometimes they’re used to manipulate; my friend Hakim does that. Sometimes guys say them to each other when they’re too drunk to know better; my friend Dusty does that with his frat brothers. Sometimes they’re used to stop an argument; my sister and her boyfriend do that. Sometimes they’re used as an apology; my step-uncle and aunt do that.

This is not what happened. She just whispered those three little words into my ear. Okay, it wasn’t just those three little words. She started with three other words: “Maximiliano Alejandro Fuentes”–two big words and a medium-sized one, I guess, followed by those three little ones.

It started last night. Before that, it started in the afternoon, when I said, “I’m not getting naked. Not for anybody.”

“Not even for Heather?” asked Hakim.

I did have to think about it. “Not even for Heather.”

“Oh, come on!” he whined. “You made it to second base with her!”

I cleared my throat. “Third.”

“So you’ve been naked.”

“Well,” I said, “we kept the rest of our clothes on.”

“You must be the only sixteen-year-old who’s never done it.”

“Heather hasn’t.”

“I have,” he told me.

“That’s because you’re a slut.”

“Lisa has.”

I stuck my fingers in my ears. “La, la, la-la, la!” Lisa has been my best friend since the first day she scrambled my huevos, so I wasn’t going to think about her like that. Ever.

“Dude,” Hakim insisted, “I’m not going skinny-dipping without you.”

“That’s wrong on so many levels.”

He clarified, “I’m totally chickening out if you’re not.”

“But Ange and his girlfriend, Whatshername, said they’d go.”

“Not the same.”

“And…” I gulped. “… Lisa…”

“I get to see Lisa naked anytime I want.”

“La, la, la-la, la!” I repeated.

“Come on, dude!”

“My name’s not dude.” And then, with utmost finality, I told him, “And I am not taking Heather skinny-dipping!”

And so last night I took Heather skinny-dipping.

Getting to that point was only a small challenge. The weaknesses in the security of the municipal swimming pool were the windows above the locker-room doors. These windows were really narrow, mind you, but, fortunately, Hakim was much, much narrower. He was tall enough that it only took the slightest boost to get him within reach, but, unfortunately, Hakim was as awkward as he was tall.

The only person with the strength and stubbornness to lift him up was Lisa, who steadied his legs with uncharacteristic patience. Her hands, perpetually grease-stained from the tune-ups she performed on her piece-of-shit truck and my piece-of-shit car, cupped his ass for balance, and her raised arms lifted the hem of her hoodie and turtleneck, exposing the bare skin of her hip as it thrust his weight upward.

“La, la, la-la, la!” I whispered.

“What the hell are you doing?” Heather whispered back.

“Did I just do that out loud?”

She giggled. “God, you are so weird.” She gripped my cheeks in her palms and drew me in for a clumsy kiss, complete with anxious squirming. “Sexy and smart and totally weird.” That’s all it took to snap me out of whatever the hell that was.

A glance at Lisa stretching out her taxed limbs snapped me back into it.

In moments, Hakim cracked open the locker-room door, and we scrambled inside. Ange wasted no time stripping and getting into the water, which was just as well, since I had no desire to see him naked. His girlfriend, Whatshername, took her time, which was not just as well, since I had no desire to see her naked either. Teenage curiosity made me look anyway, though, and I was not happy about that.

Heather did a slow striptease for me. This would have been much more exciting had it not been for three things: the first was that, having rounded 75 percent of the bases, I was already very familiar with her long, creamy white torso–perfect for stroking with my tongue, and her barely swollen breasts–perfect for holding in my hands while my fingertips squeezed her nipples. The part of her I hadn’t seen was covered by black denim, which she had yet to dispose of.

If she had gotten that far, I just might have missed the second thing, which was in my line of sight behind her. Hakim had removed his shirt to reveal the jutting ribs and shoulder bones I’d always suspected were hidden there. He’d peeled off his fishnet sleeves and half of his pants before he remembered he was also wearing tightly laced, calf-length leather and canvas boots.

The third was something I would not have missed, no matter how many girls might be rolling her hips for my benefit. And no amount of la-la-las could hide the way Lisa whipped off her hoodie and turtleneck and unhooked her bra in one smooth movement. I couldn’t stop it–a teenage heterosexual boy was blessed and cursed with a photographic memory when it came to exposed female flesh, even if it was just an arched, muscled back.

And then, almost as if she could feel me fighting the urge to stare, she turned her head, smirked, and uttered to me three little words that seemed at the time to be just as–if not more important than–the earth-shattering three little words I would hear later. “Don’t look now,” Lisa said.

Just like that, a door slammed shut in my mind, reinforcing the wall of the status quo, echoing with the loudest la-la-la of them all.

That settled, I focused again on Heather, noting that most of her jeans were gone, and her thumbs were hooked around the elastic of her underwear. After they dropped down to her ankles, she kicked them over to the rest of her clothes and told me, “Your turn.”

Home plate now in sight, I obeyed, with considerably less grace than she had shown.

“Wow,” she said.

“Yeah,” I repeated.

The other four were comfortable enough with each other’s bodies to splash around the pool, squealing with the goofy innocence of five-year-olds. Heather and I, however, stared into each other’s eyes in stunned silence. We drifted away, my arms holding her waist, her arms draped over my shoulders. After a romantic eternity, she leaned in close and said those three words–well, those six words. But it was those three at the end that were the most important. And though even though we’re both only sixteen, we know they’ll last forever.


… And now…

When You Pray, Move Your Feet

I knelt down, folded my hands, and told the person on the other side of the screen, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been four days since my last confession.

“Since then, I’ve smoked three cigarettes–which is up from last week, and it’s only Wednesday. I also thought a whole bunch of impure thoughts. I don’t know why that’s a sin, you know? I’m fourteen. That’s what fourteen-year-olds do. Oh, well, God’s house, God’s rules; you don’t make them.

“Where was I? Oh, yeah. What commandment tells you not to draw schlongs in someone else’s textbooks?” I asked. “Either way, we also drew gross pictures of Sister Mary Sebastian in the margins and put it someplace where she could find it. I mean, it’s not like I’m coveting Sister Mary Sebastian or anything, but I’m pretty sure framing Jimmy Emerson for that is bearing false witness against my neighbor.”

I added, “Speaking of coveting, Heather Baruchel is still going with Alfred Nuñez, and I really want her to be going with me. It’s not like they’re married or anything, but I still think it would be adultery if I stole her away, so I’ll go ahead and skip that one, I think. That’s not my kind of sin. Besides, Alfred’s kind of a…” I wracked my brain for a confessional-safe word. “… jerk-face. It’s only a matter of time before she’s single again.

“And of course, I skipped school yesterday…”

I straightened my back. “Actually, I’m not going to apologize for that. There’s nothing to apologize for. I thought no impure thoughts, I didn’t covet my neighbor’s wife, and I didn’t kill anybody. My friend had a crisis, and word got back to me–always does–and I went to her. That’s what I do. Am I supposed to do anything less?

“She’s lost. She’s like a sheep in a briar patch or something like that, and I’m going to lead her out.” I wanted to stand to emphasize my point, but that’s not how things were done in a place like this. “Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do?

“Anyway, let me get back on script: Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest–“

I thought of something else. “And it’s not like she makes it easy to lead her away from the thorns. One minute, she’s like a puppy, you know? Following me around and attacking anyone who’s being mean to me? And the next she’s sulking and impossible. But I still look after her because she’s a good person. She really is.”

With a frown, I asked, “Could I get sainthood for that? How do you get sainthood anyway? Is there an application process? Because, believe me, if the pope ever met my friend, he’d fast-track me.

“Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the reason I’m here in the first place: Darla O’Donnell hired Angelo Schaaf and me to steal the answers to her Anatomy final, and the Mother Superior heard us in the teacher’s office, and we took off, and I’m hiding in here until she stops checking out the chapel. Amen.”

Just before I made the sign of the cross, I added, “Oh, and I played with myself at least ten times since my last confession.”

“Jesus, Max!” hissed the screen.

“Priests don’t say Jesus,” I replied. “Taking the Lord’s name in vain and all.”

“I’m not a priest!”

“You’re on the padre’s side of the confessional, Ange;” I told him, “you’re the padre.”

“Fine,” he said, “but I don’t want to hear about you playing with yourself!”

“There are no secrets from the Lord.”

He mumbled a bit until he stopped and opened the door a crack. He whispered, “I think she’s gone, Max.”

“Anyway, Lord,” I said to the sky, “Got to go. Thanks for listening. I’ll say Hail Marys and shit later.” I made the sign of the cross, jumped to my feet, and ran for it.


… And now…

Ye Who Enter Here

“I ain’t goin’ in there,” Hakim told us.

I turned around to stare into his collarbone. Like the rest of us, he was eight. Unlike the rest of us, he was really, really tall. His growth spurt had kicked in about half a dozen years too early. You’d think the height advantage would have given him a little more courage.

“Fine,” I said. “Angelo?”

“That place is haunted!” Angelo replied.

“I ain’t goin’ in alone.”

“Get Lisa,” Hakim said.

“So you’re saying,” I clarified, “that a girl’s braver than both you guys, and you don’t care that I’m gonna tell everybody?”

“That place is haunted!” Angelo replied.

“You people make me sick.” I hopped on my bike and pedaled back to our neighborhood, seized by a bit more dread than I felt about that allegedly haunted house.

Lisa Green scared the crap out of me, and because she did, I could rest assured that I was perfectly sane. She was a sixty-pound bucket of undiluted viciousness, ready to splash on anyone standing too close.

What I’d discovered some time ago was that she was willing to splash on commission, and so we kept her on retainer at a cost of five stolen candy bars a week. The result was that we got a thug, and she got to eat chocolate and beat people up–her two favorite hobbies. Relationships didn’t get more professional than that.

Usually she was wherever we needed her to be, like magic. This morning, though, she wasn’t in any of the playgrounds she frequented, nor was she in her secret, special place in the desert hills that surrounded our trailer park. I had no choice: I had to go to her home, which I’d never been to before. Something about that scared me even more than she did.

The woman who answered the Greens’ door looked tired. There was no other way to describe her. She was really pretty, and really young, like she was in high school or something. Maybe she was the babysitter.

“Um,” I asked her, “can Lisa Green come out?”

The woman craned her neck inside and barked, “Kid!”

Lisa appeared instantly under the woman’s arm. For the first time since I’d met her fifteen months ago, she actually seemed a little happy–maybe not happy; more like not pissed off. “Hey, Fuentes,” she said.

“Hey, Green,” I replied.

Before we could exchange more words, a hairy, meaty hand clamped down on her shoulder. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” it growled before yanking her inside and slamming the door shut.

I should have left, but my feet were stapled to their cinderblock steps by the words pouring out of the walls. Most I’d never heard before. Of those, I’ve since became fluent in all but one. To this day, I have never spoken that one word, nor do I intend to.

More jarring than all that shouting was the way it stopped without warning. My feet still couldn’t move for the long-as-hell minute it took for the door to open again.

Lisa emerged, pulling on her enormous red hoodie, despite the fact that it was August. Through the curtain of her stringy, brown hair, I could see that her thousand-yard stare was bloodshot, and the snot trickling out of her nose was beginning to dry. “What do you want,” she said.

I gulped. “I need your help with …”

“Don’t care,” she replied. “Let’s get out of here.”

Nothing was ever the same again after that.


… And now…