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Experiments in Writer's Block

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The day after he and Julio returned from el Boca del Cielo, after he'd unpacked all his things from the car – tense, silent, flinching away when Julio reached under his hand to grab a cooler, Julio half-turning at the end of the drive, mouth open, eyes ashamed – Tenoch sits down to write.

This is what he writes:

shit shit shit

*

Two days after he and Julio returned from el Boca del Cielo, after he'd come home from another of the endless political dinners – sulking in the corner in his suit and tie, watching his mother glide around the room, gaze adoringly at her husband, wishing he had thought to drink before, or better yet, go to Saba's, get some weed, show up high to his father's dinner, that'd be a laugh, he could tell Julio – Tenoch sits down to write.

This is what he writes:

bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch

*

One week after he and Julio returned from el Boca del Cielo, after he'd floated in the sporting club pool for two hours – cold, it was really too cold for this, the summer had almost passed, his fingers and toes pruned, his body floating in space, unhearing, unseeing, unfeeling, unthinking, with only his breath and his bones and his blood, roaring through his ears – and showered, Tenoch sits down to write.

This is what he writes:

fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck

Tenoch writes one thousand fucks with his hair still damp, in a towel that still smells of chlorine. Then he throws the notebook across the room.

***

The trouble is, Tenoch doesn't know how to be with Julio, now, but he doesn't know how to be without him either. They have spent the last decade of their lives wrapped around each other, until neither of them was sure where Tenoch ended and Julio began. They were both young and strong and entirely too full, of themselves and of spunk and of that relentless drive forward common to young men and sharks, which whispers in their ear “stop, and perish.”

He catches a big-tittied woman on the television and reaches for the phone to tell Julio to change his station; he turns the wrong way going to the country club, heading for Julio's street. He feels for a tooth and gets a bloody socket; he reaches to scratch an itch in a phantom limb.

He remembers he's not speaking to Julio, and the pit drops out of the bottom of his stomach.

*

Hey man,” Saba says, peering out through a crack in the door. “Where's Julio?”

Fuck if I know,” Tenoch scowls.

Saba shrugs. “Okay then. Come in fast, I'm halfway to hotboxing the whole apartment.”

Tenoch sucks in his stomach and slips into a world of blue-white smoke. Saba's place always smells like weed and sex, low, pungent, and earthy, but this is exceptional.

Dude, are you just burning the stuff?”

Saba looks offended at the mere suggestion. “What, and waste my good California shit? No way.” He sits on the floor next to the end table, which is strewn with rolling papers, and scoops his grinder into the bag. His fingers fly, twisting the grinder, tapping it out into the paper, then corkscrewing the whole affair into a generous blunt and passing it to Tenoch with a lighter.

You have to admire a man with talent, Tenoch thinks, and sparks up.

*

His notebook still feels the same, has the same weight and heft and smell, cheap glue and the copper-bottomed smell of his ink, but his pen doesn't work right. He used to just think, and it moved, little stories about the Charrolastras and his mama's society people and sex and blood and death spilling out onto the page. He'd scribble them down during class, then hand the notebook over to Julio after school, watching him, his hair falling down into his eyes, as he leafed through the pages and said, “Hey, man, this doesn't suck.” Julio read everything Tenoch gave him, even the stupid, dry stories he wrote for school assignments.

The words fly across his mind, but there is nothing he can do that will make them land.

*

So seriously,” Saba wheezes, forming the words with a minimum of air to keep a maximum of smoke in his lungs, “where's Julio?”

Tenoch's mind flits to a shack on the beach, to tents full of pigs, to a car full of silence. His phone has rung and he hasn't answered; knocks on his front door have filtered to the back of the house, where Tenoch lay flat on his back on a cool tile floor, unmoving, staring up at an unlit bulb.

I told you man,” he says, “fuck if I know,” and reaches for the joint.

*

The coffee shop is small, full of over-stuffed furniture and students, with extremely black coffee served by a wizened old man with skin almost as brown as the coffee. It belongs to Ana more than Tenoch, the kind of place she inherited from her father's stories about his time as a young journalist, dreaming of rebellion. She brushed him off after her plane landed, claiming that eight hours of morning breath was too much, and told him to meet her here the next day.

A spring from the quaint old chair is gouging him in the bottom. Tenoch shifts uncomfortably.

So, that's it then,” he says, his voice flat.

Tenoch,” she rolls her cup in her hands, rocking it about its base. “I really do think it's for the best. Italy made me see that. It's nothing you did -”

I know you slept with Julio,” Tenoch blurts out, the words forcing themselves through his lips without conscious thought. He has no idea why he did that. He covers, adding through a sneer, “you whore.”

Ana's eyes flash, and he remembers too late that she has never taken any tiny piece of his shit. “And I know you slept with Cecilia. She told me. So I feel it's time we all stopped pretending, hmm?”

Tenoch goes to the toilet, partly to pee but mostly to think. The walls are a heinous yellow, stained and old, lit by a single bulb. He's washing his hands mechanically. When he starts to rinse, a flash of white on his wrist catches his eye. A line of soap has evaded the water, high on his wrist, nacreous and gooey, and - Julio's moaning low against his neck, his wrist's about to cramp up, but he's still going, and then Julio shudders against him and goes limp, Tenoch resting his head on his shoulder, looking down, panting, at the stripe of wet just above his palm -

Tenoch runs into a stall and throws up.

Ana's standing outside the washroom, her bag already over her shoulder. Her lips are set in a thin line.

I've paid the check – I ought to have made you do it, after what you said, but it's worth it to avoid another argument,” she says briskly, about to turn to leave. Then she looks at him, at the slump of his shoulders and the way he's wiping at his mouth, and asks, “Are you okay?”

I'm fine,” Tenoch says, and walks out.

*

If there's even one positive aspect to a break-up, Tenoch thinks, it's that it ought to be grist to the writer's mill. All the best writers had a woman in their past. Look at Dante. Look at Catullus. Look at de Larra.

His notebook doesn't agree. It mocks him. It's almost a relief when the housekeeper calls up, “Tenoch! One of your friends is here!” and he turns from the desk, where the blank page stares at him.

Julio's leaning against the door jamb, arms crossed.

Hey,” Tenoch says.

Hey,” Julio says. “Look, if you're writing, I can go. I just – Cecelia just dumped me, and -”

No way, man, her too? Ana tossed my ass to the curb about an hour ago.” The words come out of his mouth like they've been programmed. Tenoch thinks, idlely, that if he had to be replaced with a robot, the least the universe could have done was picked a model that knew how to write, and sit in a chair without fidgeting, and look his best friend in the eye.

When he managed to get his gaze in the vicinity of Julio's face, he's smiling. “Those losers! They tasted the delights of Italy, and now home-grown boys aren't good enough for them.” He flops down on Julio's bed and starts tapping out a cigarette. “Wanna head out tonight, remind ourselves what they're missing?”

Nah, man, I have plans,” Tenoch lies. Julio smokes his cigarette and babbles about the evils of foreign women, and they both pretend not to notice that Tenoch doesn't bitch at him about smoking in the house, or come sit next to him, or hand him the notebook and ask him what he thinks.

*

Julio keeps asking Tenoch to come out with him, and sometimes Tenoch says yes. More often he says no, though, and gradually Julio stops asking, and they only see each other at parties, where they don't have to talk, or at big dinners, where everyone is talking over each other and every conversation has five occupants.

At one of these dinners, Tenoch slides in first,down to the end of a long booth, and motions to a girl friend to come in after. At the last minute, she darts out to the entrance of the restaurant to say hello to a late arrival, and in the crush, Julio is shoved in next. The space between them shrinks as more and more friends show up, debating loudly and calling for the waiter to take another order, until there is no space. Julio's thigh is pressed up against Tenoch's, along the whole length, no matter how tightly he presses into the wall.

Tenoch spends the evening breathing shallowly, trying not to smell sweat and the cheap detergent Julio's mother uses. Julio spends the evening chatting with the girl at the far end of the other side of the table, perpetually turning into Tenoch's space.

They don't say a word to each other.

*

Tenoch and Julio stay like this, two bodies in a decaying orbit, until Saba throws another of his parties, this one at a house he's watching for a relative who has gone to the United States for an extended trip. Tenoch has recently begun dating his neighbor, Mariana, more out of convenience than any real passion. She's close, and pretty, and unlike Ana, she is endlessly understanding of his excuses. He sidles up beside her as she's fixing herself a drink, palms her ass and says, “Stay right there, babe, I'll be right back.” She giggles, and he wanders off to find the restroom.

The first floor is filled with people, talking and crowded together, but the upstairs is more quiet, fulfilling the function of upstairs rooms at parties everywhere: giving people room to make mistakes. “Last door in the hall,” Saba had said, and Tenoch opens the door on the right, only to find a bedroom, not a toilet, and two people kissing, silouetted against a window.

No. Kissing is the wrong word, Tenoch thinks. The two are devouring each other, tangled up, fighting to determine the give and take, because they are remarkably similar in height. Tenoch recognizes Daniel's hair, flying about his face in a cloud where the girl isn't crushing it in her hands, but the girl -

Daniel shifts a little, moving around to face the bed, and Tenoch suddenly sees -

The girl is Julio. Or rather, the boy is Julio, eyes closed, moaning a bit as Daniel grabs the front of his pants.

Tenoch turns, and runs as fast as he can.

He is nearly certain Julio saw him.

*

Not long after, Tenoch comes home and the housekeeper informs him that his presence is required at dinner. Tenoch swears, but under his breath. The political dinners are bad, but dinners at home - with his father at one end of the table, his mother at the other, and Tenoch and Hernan in between – are worse.

So, Tenoch,” his father says, wiping his mouth with one corner of his napkin, precisely. “Have you given any more consideration to what you might study at university?”

His mother clacks her silverware against her plate, scraping up the last of her rice. Tenoch hates this, this petty grasping for power. It's not enough for his father to win; he has to win in front of as many people as is possible without becoming indecent. This setting is a calculated gamble; if Tenoch gives in, his father's power within the family rises, but if he resists, holds out, his father isn't overly embarrassed. His mother hates this sort of thing; it's no wonder she's unhappy, it's no wonder -

I've been thinking – I think I'll go for economics.” Hopefully that would be enough.

It isn't. “Really, Tenoch?” His father says, a pleased smile sliding across his face. He has to confirm things, always, to take his moment in the spotlight, standing on his opponent's head with his nose in the dirt and his mouth full of ashes.“When I spoke to Jano he said you were still thinking about this writing nonsense. I mean, it's all very well for Jano,” he pauses here, taking a sip of his wine, “but your mind is meant for greater things. Like mine, and your brother's, no?”

Tenoch's mind used to be filled with greater things. It used to contain the sticky-sweet taste of sugar skulls, the percussive intake of breath before a boy's fist connects with a stomach, a hundred thousand bats, nestled under a freeway bridge, with the clean scent of manure and wet dog and a high, sharp note of cat piss all rolled into one. Tenoch's mind contained wonders.

Then he lost it.

Yes, papi,” Tenoch says, and takes another bite.

***

The last time Tenoch sees Julio, they talk in code, every word standing for one thousand fucks.

Julio says, “Daniel's a self-proclaimed queer,” and, “he has a boyfriend and everything,” and he means, “We could have had that, too, we could have been happy like that, that could have been us,” and, “it's not too late,” and “everything's changing now.”

Julio says, “Economics,” and means, “you coward.”

Julio says, “Biology,” and means, “Live your life, man, I can't see you like this, because before we were anything we were friends, and I wouldn't wish this on an enemy.”

Tenoch says, “Luisa's dead,” and means, “That was dead on arrival, a stillborn fetus, malformed and twisted by the manner of its birth,” and, “There was too much truth that night, Heaven's Mouth clamped down on ours and choked us in a kiss,” and, “There are some things you can only do when you know you're going to die.”

Tenoch says, “See you later, yeah?”

He means, “I'm sorry,” and, “Goodbye.”