I blinked. After a few seconds, I realized I was staring. ‘Yeah,’ I said, bursting into laughter. ‘Come in.’
Jack nodded, standing smartly over the door entrance and into my living room as I close the door behind him. The girls are so immersed in the television they barely acknowledge the presence of an unfamiliar soul in their space.
I look up at him. He’s always been taller than me by a few inches, and as someone who is just over six feet tall, I rarely have people to look up to. Jack is one of them, though, towering at a whopping six feet five inches tall. He’s darker than I am but not by much, with him being the byproduct of a mixed family; his mother was black and his father was from Slovenia, but he was adopted by an Italian woman who raised him Jewish. Now, there’s a dream or nightmare case to be studied by a psychologist who specializes in identity politics, that’s for sure, all wrapped up in him. His olive skin is light enough to see freckles pepper the bridge of his nose, under his mischievous, green eyes, and running along his high cheekbones.
‘What – I mean,’ I begin, trying my best to word my words. ‘Jack, what are you – I mean, you couldn’t – I mean, what are you –’
‘Listen,’ he says, smiling widely. ‘I owe you a big explanation but I really have to pee. Can I use your bathroom? And then I’m taking you out and buying you drinks all night. Deal?’
Still kind of stunned, I nod and point down the hallway to the entrance to the bathroom, and, nodding again, he calmly sets his blue duffle bag on his suitcase against the wall and waves at my sisters and Mother and Abuelita, who are smiling but mute, before he disappears into the bathroom.
I look over at them.
‘People have a strange habit of waltzing into our house uninvited,’ says Mother, taking a long swig of her wine. Her eyes fall on Jack’s belongings. ‘How long is he staying?’
Abuelita rises to her feet quickly and heads over to the side table next to the sofa, pulling out a fresh charcoal and placing it into the cauldron while emptying the ounce or two of dried lavender she had in a mason jar. She’s taken to placing her collection of herbs and dried roots and the like in our mason jars and keeps them underneath the side table.
‘I have no idea,’ I reply to Mother before looking at Abuelita. ‘What is that for?’
‘Lavender for peace and tranquility,’ she says, before returning the mason jar and pulling out what looks like ground cinnamon. ‘And this is for open and honest communication.’
I knew what she meant. Cinnamon for an easier interrogation.
‘Abuelita,’ I begin, protesting, but she smiles and returns to the kitchen table.
I hear the toilet flush, followed by the sound of the tap running, before the bathroom door swings open again and Jack walks back over to me, drying his hands on the back of his jeans.
‘So,’ he says, sighing. ‘Hi.’
‘Everyone,’ I say, turning. ‘This is Jack. He’s my good friend.’
‘Hi Jack,’ says Percy, her eyes flickering up to him warmly before turning back to the television. My favorite scene of The Nightmare Before Christmas is playing, after Jack Skellington is shot out of the sky and begins to sing in the boneyard.
What have I done? What have I done?
How could I…have been so blind?
‘That’s Percy, my oldest sister, and Dee, my youngest,’ I say, leading him through the living room. He waves again, goofily, following me, his spindly legs reminding me of a spider.
‘Jackson, is it?’ says Abuelita as we arrive. She stands up and walks over to him, looking dwarfed in the process, before smiling. ‘I’ve heard so much about you.’ A little white lie. But then again, she doesn’t really need anyone to say words for her to hear things, does she?
‘This is my Abuelita,’ I say. ‘Abuelita Maria.’
‘Abuelita is just fine,’ he says, smiling at his attempt to sound authentic in Spanish. ‘And you must be Mama Bear?’
Mother laughs, smiling brightly. ‘You were the one who took care of my son for all those years in New York, right?’
His laugh is nasally and chaotic, like someone slammed all the flat keys on a piano at the same time. Yet still, highly addicting. ‘Mama Bear, it was more like he was taking care of me.’
I watched as Abuelita hugged him and kissed him on the cheek, and as Mother did the same after. One of the most striking things about him is his ability to become instantly…what was the word…familiar with people, as though he had met them his whole life. Well, at least people that were important to his friends. I could still run circles around him when it came to interacting with random strangers and getting them to talk to me as though we’d been friends since we emerged from our mother’s womb. He’s always told me that I can make friends with a backpack if it could talk back. I’ve always told him that he could easily pass as family.
He then turned to me, breaking my thought process, and raised an eyebrow before stretching his hands out. ‘Alright, bring it in, bro,’ he says.
I can’t help but smile as I hug him, which is like hugging a coat rack.
We break our embrace and take each other in for a moment. He hasn’t changed a bit. Well, granted, it’s been a month. How much can you change within a month? Then again, Abuelita is sitting in my kitchen right now. Our domestic gifts, however strange and abnormal as they seem, are reacted to with less effort than batting an eye by my sisters and even Jason.
Maybe a lot can change in such a small window of time.
I grin as I look at him. ‘How did you even get my address?’
‘You mailed me a postcard, Lucas,’ he says, flatly. ‘Come on, don’t you have a photographic memory?’
Photographic, not perfect, but I digress. I had remembered sending him a postcard. The first thing I did, really, as soon as I unpacked and went to Rite-Aid to buy deodorant and conditioner. It was just a quick ‘hey this is my shitty town, check it out’ kind of thing. I hadn’t thought much of it after that, and I filed it away in the back of my mind shortly after.
‘I didn’t think you got it,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘I mean, it’s not like we talked every day or anything.’
‘True,’ he says, nodding. ‘I know I should’ve called.’
I punch him on the shoulder. ‘Yes, you should’ve.’
‘The last time an uninvited guest breached our house, he got drunk and vomited upstairs before passing out,’ says Abuelita in a matter-of-fact way. ‘I hope, seeing as you are our guest now and you are staying here for a few nights, that you can promise to avoid that.’
He snorted. ‘I can promise that if I get drunk and vomit, I’m going to do that outside or in the toilet.’
Abuelita and Mother laugh while I roll my eyes. I know the truth and he’s not joking. It just sounds like he is. I’ve rubbed his back many times in the past as he expelled the contents of the night into trash cans and toilets. People would stare on the street, odd, since there were far stranger things that happen in New York before sunrise, and I would nod at them, knowingly. ‘Morning sickness,’ I would offer. Nobody every appreciated my humor. Nobody ever laughed, except for Jack, in between wiping off the vomit and sweat.
‘You’re more than welcome to stay as long as you want then,’ says Mother.
‘I suspect just until the end of the month?’ says Abuelita, studying Jack.
He nods, cocking his head, his eyes narrowing, but he smiles. ‘Yeah. Until the first.’
He does not ask how Abuelita knew that. He throws the same smile in my direction, and judging from the twinkle in his eyes, I can tell that he expects an answer. Soon.
‘I’m going to kidnap him for the rest of the night,’ he says to them in a way that suggests no protesting or changing of plans.
‘On one condition,’ says Mother, her eyes surveying him. They finger through his dark blue windbreaker, onto the black and grey and white striped sweater underneath, the soaked maroon colored pants, and finally at his boater shoes, which, undoubtedly, had to have been completely drenched. ‘Why aren’t you spending Christmas with your family?’
‘I am,’ he says, putting a bony arm around me. ‘I’m adopted. I choose my own family.’
Our first stop of the night was The Pourhouse. The rain had eased up a bit and it was now drizzling instead of coming down hard, which was nice and refreshing; we didn’t have to worry about catching pneumonia while smoking outside. Walking into the bar, I frowned. Aleah wasn’t there, and in her stead, a shorter woman with blonde hair and a streak of mother-of-pearl emerging from her bangs. She looked up, offered a smile that looked more like a grimace, as we took two empty bar stools in front of her.
‘Can I check your ID’s?’ she asked.
No nonsense. No warmth. But, hey, that’s the holiday spirit, right? We shuffle through our wallets and produce our plastic ID cards and she takes them, frowning a bit.
‘New York, huh?’ she asks, vaguely interested as she hands them back to us.
‘Yep,’ I say.
‘Well, aren’t you so glad you’re here instead of there? It’s raining, but you’ll find the weather and the people better here. Everyone smiles all the time.’
I kept waiting for the irony to settle on her face but the moment passed and it didn’t. Neither of us responded and she sighed, her eyes glancing around the mostly empty bar. A few people gathered around the pool table in the back, noncommittally hitting the billiard balls with less conviction than a bored housewife’s knitting, and she turned her attention back to us.
‘What can I get you two?’
Shots of Jameson for the first round, followed by Goose Island IPA’s. Jack opens a tab, and as she sets the drinks in front of us, she turns her attention back to the bar, looking thoroughly disappointed, looking for something to occupy her time.
‘So,’ I begin, as we clink our shotglasses and swallow. The gentle burn that I’ve come to adore so much lingers around my throat as we chase the shot with our beer. ‘What’s your story?’
‘I don’t have a story,’ he replies, smirking. ‘I’m just a guy at a bar with his best friend. Can’t that be the story?’
‘I mean what brings you here?’ I ask, smiling.
‘The wind,’ he says, looking up at me. ‘A Boeing 747. Oh, wait, that’s your line, isn’t it?’
I shake my head. ‘You’re impossible,’ I say, laughing.
He sighs, taking off his jacket and placing it on the stool beneath him before he sits back down. ‘I broke up with May.’
His girlfriend, not the month. Well, ex-girlfriend, now. I felt a few things. Confusion, one of them, since their relationship seemed like the kind that people dream of, that set their aspirations to. That I, from time to time, felt a kind of green envy for. The next closest thing I felt was perhaps stunned. Never in a million years did I think they would break up.
‘Why?’ I ask, my face straight.
He shrugged, sighing. ‘Who knows,’ he said, shaking his head slowly. ‘Why does anything happen these days?’
The wind changes. Seasons come and go. Flames go out, new ones start. One month dies, another month is born. A new year fast approaches, leaving the old one behind in a wake of fabled memories and gilded emotions, some of which you can never forget, even if you want to. I whistle, sighing. ‘Damn. That really sucks.’ I add, after, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
He nods. There isn’t much to say right now. That’s okay. I’ll wait until there is.
‘My turn,’ he says, turning to me. That same devilish smile, the kind of mischief and trouble and secrets, slowly creeps along his face. ‘Your Abuelita. Is that where you get it from?’
I look at him and it’s like he’s in on a joke that I’m supposed to be aware of. ‘Where I get what from?’
‘You know,’ he says, cocking his head and grinning. ‘How you can read minds?’ A flash of orange, playful and potent, blurs around him, all warmth and light. Like a halo around an unholy fool.
‘I’m not a mind reader, Jack.’
‘Okay,’ he says, rolling his eyes as his smile grows wider. ‘Okay then, my mistake, I guess living with you for four years means I know nothing about you. Whoops on me.’
I don’t give him enough credit, really. Usually I like to think that whereas I’m highly perceptive, he concentrates on the space around him and doesn’t notice the fly buzzing around or the beauty of a book. His mind, all cogs and wheels and machinery, spins constantly in motion, like a clock just tick-tick-ticking away. Facts. Evidence. Concrete language, grounded in reality. And yet…more than once I’ve picked up on the fact that he knows that I know something, be it about him or the people next to us on the streets of New York, or our mutual friends, things that I shouldn’t know because nobody has ever told me, but because of the strange and maddening gift of seeing. The gift of the Jaguar. Ix.
‘Let’s go to another bar,’ I say, looking around. ‘I need more excitement.’
‘You mean magic,’ he says, looking at me.
I grin. ‘Everyone can always use a little bit of magic.’
We pound our drinks, leave a generous tip considering the less than stellar service, and walk out into the night. The drizzling is like a fine mist in the air now, barely visible without the assistance of the slivers of orange light shooting out of the lampposts above us. We walk, smoking cigarettes, and I find myself missing him even more than when I left, if that was even possible. There he is, walking next to me, taking in the foreign and unconquered territory that I grew up in, and even though he is a stranger in a strange land, and even though I do realize how it feels that he doesn’t belong here, not quite anyway, it feels like he’s home. Like I’m home. Like the two of us somehow belong next to each other, tackling the cruel subtleties of life, wherever we may be. And I find myself feeling happy. Feeling complete.
We find ourselves outside of a bar called The Raven’s Nest on Raven and Broadway, and we can hear the noise, all bass and electro-club music and ambient conversation, spilling out of the bar and onto the quiet streets of Playa de Oro. A large, burly man with a long, thick, red beard and kind green eyes nods at us as we finish our cigarettes.
‘Ever been here before?’ he asks in a friendly manner.
‘Nope,’ I say, looking at the building. It’s brick and mortar, the door being ajar I can see inside, my eyes feeling through the darkened space, floating through bodies and bodies of mostly men dimly lit by the many black lights. Most of them seem to be wearing very little.
‘It’s underwear night,’ says the bouncer, smiling. ‘You two have the most clothing on.’
‘Underwear night?’ I ask, laughing.
‘This is a gay bar.’
‘Luc, you can’t ever stay too far away from them, can you?’ says Jack. ‘How are you this thirsty, it isn’t even Thursday yet?’
‘It’s Thirsty Thursday in here every day, friend,’ says the bouncer.
Jack then turns to me. ‘Okay. I say something and then you say something. Fast. Deal?’
He takes a deep breath. ‘I left New York. I have an internship that starts this Monday at Boeing. That’s my December surprise.’
Elation. Happiness. The piece of my soul that I left in New York flew on a plane and came back to me. And I didn’t even see this in the cards. ‘That’s great!’ I exclaim, giving him a hug. ‘This is – wow, this is fucking great!’
‘Yeah,’ he says, smiling. ‘I sign my lease tomorrow and move into my studio in a neighborhood called ‘Belmont Heights’, I think. I’ll have to double check it again.’
I nod. This was such great news. Around the corner of the building, I can hear a conversation, not quite audible, but still present. Two guys, from the sound of it.
‘Okay,’ I say, nodding and turning to face him. ‘My turn.’ I take a deep breath. ‘My Abuelita is a witch.’
‘That’s not a nice thing to say about your grandma,’ says the bouncer, before he laughs.
The conversation grows nearer, like the two guys are walking towards us. I look over to Jack for a reaction, and study his startled features before they blend into a throaty kind of laugh.
‘See?’ he says, grabbing my shoulders, smiling. ‘I knew it from the moment I met her. I knew that that’s where you get it from. It – whatever it is. I knew it.’
Why I had bothered never to tell Jack about it always remains a mystery for me. Maybe it was me actively trying not to stand out, to not be so different. To not be otherly. But now, standing in front of him as he exists in my hometown, where there are no secrets and hidden wounds, watching the orange glow about him grow brighter and brighter, I feel no shame. I draw wild cards and ride the Juracan. That’s what I do.
The voices seem louder now, and I can hear them, as though they’re right behind me. I turn around, and then, my heart sinks; I feel as though I have been hit by a heavyweight punch.
‘…babe it’s cold out here,’ says Noah, standing in a pair of neon pink underwear as another guy, dark, a bit shorter than him with a heavy jawline and spacey eyes, holds him, kissing his cheeks and then his lips.
‘So put some clothes on, Noah!’ shouts the bouncer, as he roars with laughter.
Noah looks up, smiling at first, but then it vanishes as his eyes lock with mine.
‘Noah?’ I say, cocking my head. I suddenly feel conscious of everyone staring at me. The guy who was kissing him stops and looks, his colors an odd, dull, green and grey, confused.
‘I just needed fresh air,’ he says, in accented English. He then turns back to Noah and sighs. ‘Okay, fine, we’ll go back inside and finish our drinks. And then…’ He pulls Noah along, adjusting his red briefs and they enter the bar and disappear into the void.
I suddenly feel hot, like my face is burning, and a painful ball begins to form at the back of my throat, making it hurt to swallow. Another one bites the dust.
‘Luc,’ says Jack, putting an arm around my shoulder. ‘Who was that?’
In my shock, I realize I dropped my cigarette to the floor, but I feel paralyzed, unable to move, unable to breathe.
‘Do you want to go to another bar?’
I nod and he takes me by the hand and pulls me aimlessly.
‘There’s another gay bar down the street,’ says the bouncer, pointing. ‘It’s called The Mine Cart, if you want.’
‘Thanks,’ says Jack, smiling at him. ‘We’ll see you later, buddy.’
‘Hope your night gets better,’ says the bouncer.
We walk through the night, our bodies cutting the darkness. I reach for my cigarettes and light another, my fingers trembling as I let out a long exhale.
‘Luc,’ attempts Jack, again. ‘Who is Noah?’
I shrug, feeling my heart start to beat again, and even though the wind is harsh and cold and unforgiving, my face is burning up with pain, and in the pit of my sternum, I feel the weight of the world crushing me, cruelly and slowly. My eyes start to sting.
‘Someone that I thought I knew,’ I say, and we cross the street.
Not anymore, though. Not anymore.