Christian Aguiar has called Worcester, Pawtucket, East Providence, Providence and Inje home, in that order. He currently lives in Washington, DC, where he is a graduate student in English at Georgetown and teaches literature and composition.
It took me ten years of squinting before I got my own glasses. Blurred vision had its own kind of benefits. However many blunts I smoked, my eyes never got any narrower, so I could still drive, wave at my friends’ parents, or buy cigarettes without feeling weird about it. And since I couldn’t see the blackboard I had to figure out ahead of time what was going up on it, so that I learned the cadence of the classroom from the outside in. I never had to pretend to be surprised to see anyone, either. I always was.
Since I could get away with being high all the time, I always was. This particular time we were in the back of her Toyota. Well, her parent’s Toyota. Her name was Lea. It wasn’t really Lea, it was some other sisterly angel’s name, but Lea was her best friend’s name, and really, she was more of a Lea and Lea was more of a her, so you’ll forgive me if I make the switch. Lea’s parents had bought her a sparkling silver Camry that was so lightly used it still smelled like plastic. That’s how it works when your parents have money: they buy you shit you don’t need, like an almost-new car when you’re sixteen. It was a gift of sorts, the Camry, a way for her folks to show how proud they were. She went to this nice Catholic high school a couple miles away, which was a big deal. They had been through a lot, all of them, so having a daughter as smart as Lea was proof they had made it. We talked a lot about making it, Lea and I.
Turns out we both had these dusty old memories of the WIC office where we went to get shots. Mine was made of red brick and mildew and smelled a bit like the incense they use at mass. Hers was different, yellow brick with lots of faux-marble linoleum and those big soapy-yellow plastic windows. We went back about as far back as two people can go when one of them is sitting behind the wheel of a newish Camry celebrating another night of being the golden child. Now she turned around and giggled and licked the blunt from end to end, saliva pulling across the corner of her mouth like a spider web. Her tongue flicked between her lips, pink and so pillowy-thick they made me shiver every time I let myself look. She handed me the blunt and I ran a lighter under it until the seams of the green leaf pulled tight together and the air started to smell blue.
It was on a side street over near where Lea lived. Her parents lived in a neighborhood of little Cape houses, the kind of place where old white people lived out their last years alongside Caribbean families who could swing the mortgage. Her father had mango trees out back with a sliver of always-green lawn. It was a little slice of the American dream. Whenever I came by to sit on the leather sofa in the living room and watch Lea flip through the high-numbered channels, I wished I’d never have to leave.
For some reason she and all of her friends thought it was cool to just roll up in front of somebody’s house, park, and spark up a blunt or two. Seemed crazy. When I smoked with my boys we drove around with the windows down and worked plenty of cigarettes into the rotation to clear the air. But here we were, parked under a streetlight so we could break up the bud on a Mariah Carey CD and split the Dutch up. We’d get so we wouldn’t even move for what seemed like hours. We’d just sit there in an amber haze, running through all the stuff her friends got into, which was pretty much what my friends got into, except we had to pay for it.
Before we even got the blunt into rotation Lea wanted to tell me about this dream she would have most nights. She’s trying to talk to her grandmother but the words won’t quite come together; suddenly she forgets every drop of Spanish she has ever known and her grandmother leans in, smiles, pats her on the thigh and starts to tell her something, but her ears turn into thick gray skin and sprout hair and she can’t make out a thing her grandmother is saying. When she leans in she gets these shooting pains in her stomach. Her head starts to wobble and she feels she has to jump up, to run away, and only when she is far far away can she make out her grandmother’s words. But all the old lady’s saying is fall, fall, fall.
I said I understood her completely, but I didn’t. One of my grandmothers was dead and the other one I never met, so I couldn’t imagine their coming to me in a dream. I had fallen for her so hard that I told her whatever I thought would make her feel good. We were at that point in the summer when I would try really hard to convince her that I should be her man, and she’d pretend like she didn’t notice. It happened every summer back then. Each week was on a loop, and if I wasn’t at work or cooking with my mom, I was probably sitting in a car somewhere passing a blunt. If Lea asked me to come over, I would scoop up my cigarettes and lighter, pull on my jeans, hop down the front stairs, bound out across the porch that sagged six inches with each step, hop in my car and pull off real carefully, barely making it past the rusted-up work trucks and beater Hondas parked against the curb. I didn’t give a thought to how it made me look, always running out to see her like this, scrambling for whatever scraps of time she would throw my way. I had fallen. I didn’t care. I would roll down the windows, put on some Ghostface and wind my way through the side streets, down the worn alleys between big three-decker where old men sat talking and past the park where dudes were still shooting baskets, until I got to the bridge and crossed over into elsewhere. I went on still, past the bored corner stores, past the dazed strip malls, past it all until I pulled up in front of her house. I would dust the cigarettes off me with some cologne and walk real casually up to her front door, knock as politely as I knew how and then pull it open, since it was always unlocked anyway.
I lived like that for as long as I could.
My dreams aren’t like Lea’s. I don’t lose anything. Usually I’m sleeping when something wakes me up. I start to look around the room but I can’t make anything out but shadows. I have pillows piled up around me like a fort because there’s something out there. I feel panic scurrying the hollow corridors of my bones. I push through the pillows and run out into the street and then I see them, a pack of wolves, the nails of their paws clicking on the pavement. I know I can’t outrun them but I try anyway. I wake up before they reach me, which means that the wolves are free to come again. There will be no resolution.
Shit changed real quick, but I pretended it hadn’t. I would call up Lea, or she would call me up, and I would sit on the stoop of one of the big buildings on the Green and stare out into the starless night sky and talk to her. I’d tell her about a party that weekend. Front like my plan wasn’t to go down by the river late at night and flick butts into the water and see if I could get up the guts to throw myself in and inhale its depths.
I was spending my weeks across the river on the East Side, in the dorms. I went to class and studied at the library, but I left before anyone had time to notice that I had snuck in. See, I had a full scholarship, or as close to a full scholarship as anyone else I met, which meant free room, free meals, free classes, and free access. It was supposed to be a gift but it felt like a trick. I sat in class, exhausted, with a faded hoodie and boots stained with a summer’s worth of grease. Around me were couples back from visiting their prep school friends in the Hamptons and curly-haired trust fund kids from Connecticut. The offhand comments about the janitors and the cooks, all of them my neighbors, their kids my classmates, didn’t help either. The assholes rapping along to Biggie, but turning his one room shack into a parody, his success into a failure, had me wishing I had the guts to bust into a frat with an uzi.
My dreams started to change. No more wolves: now there are people running through the night naked, carrying burning embers in their palms without getting burned. Their feet press down against the cobblestones and push back up without ever actually touching it, flying in tandem like butterflies dancing. When they get to the summit they cast their flame to the ground and it throws up sparks and the sun rises.
You know what a chupacabra is? I didn’t either until Mikey on my cleaning crew started talking about his trips back to Ceiba. He’d go out into the campo with his girl to fuck, whispering to her below the revs of his dirtbike that the chupacabra was gonna get her. Once they were deep into the bush, he’d run off. When he’d come back after a while she’d be terrified, so scared she was wet again, he said, and everybody laughed so hard they smacked their hands against the table to keep from pissing their pants. When we were all laughed out it got real quiet and we finished up our lunches in silence. I didn’t get it, really, but I knew that these guys were much tougher than me and they had all gotten silent with respect or fear or something, so I’d better too. We finished our burgers, piled into the back of the truck and drove back to the stadium to change the rest of the trash cans so we could go home. Ice cream left in a garbage can for a few days in direct sunlight turns into a sort of white tar that burns if it drips onto your skin but then stays there, sticky, pulling the little hairs together in a swirl that has to be scrubbed off with soap. Those summers waiting for Lea to say yes, were a lot like melted ice cream.
That same summer of the chupacabra, she told me she couldn’t do it, and that was it. She had given up, I thought. She was going down to Kingston and was going to study sociology. She was going to be really happy, going to go to the club a lot and smoke lots of weed and forget about everything. It was cheaper for her parents if she went there, too. Not everybody gets scholarships, she reminded me. We were out on the sidewalk in front of a three-decker where some people lived. Down in the basement guys were passing blunts and listening to Raekwon and up on the third floor there was Bacardi and Hennessey and all kinds of fruity mixers and reggaeton. She leaned in close to me and I reached my arms around and linked my fingers together over the brown speckled oasis low on her back, above the faded denim of her short-shorts. Her lips were sticky and her skin smelled like coconut. Tasted like coconut too. We stood there for a minute, just like that, and then I let go.
She turned around and wiggled her butt in that exaggerated way she had. She wanted me to say what a great butt she had. She was inordinately proud of it. I wanted to tell her it was her brain she should be proud of. I didn’t. Ever. Who was I to say that? I just smiled and nodded. I wanted to walk home so I could suck the mentholated night air into my lungs and fantasize about somebody testing me on the walk home so I could prove I was still worth something. But I didn’t do that either. I went downstairs and squatted down on the cement among a bunch of faces I sort of knew and took the blunt when it came to me and passed it on when I was done and when they started talking about the chupacabra I knew exactly what they meant. Never mind what anybody else tells you about it: the chupacabra is this evil little sucker that makes everything run on repeat like an endless river that never makes it to the sea but never lets you see you’re not getting there, either.