To: Dante Quintana
From: A. Mendoza
Date: Monday, June 14, 1999 2:26 PM
Subj: My father
I know you’re going to be surprised when you see this e-mail. I’m sorry I haven’t written back lately. Things have been crazy at work. That dancing baby you sent me is terrifying, by the way. I don’t know how you find these things.
I guess I’ll get to the point of this. My dad died yesterday, Dante. He had a heart attack. The ambulance came, but he didn’t make it. I probably won’t check my e-mail again soon, but I thought you should know. I thought you should hear it from me.
A Decade Past
Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go.
—Henry Austin Dobson
The house looked the same. It smelled the same. His parents had been threatening to turn his bedroom into an office for years now, but they never actually had. Even his bed felt the same, although—maybe it was just his imagination—he didn’t think he fit into it as well as he did when he was sixteen.
Legs woke him up that morning with a cold, wet nose against his neck. It’d been a long time since she’d bounded out of bed for a six o’clock run, but she was still an early riser and so, by default, Ari was too. He helped her down from the bed and scratched her behind the ears. She led him through the house as if it hadn’t been years since they’d lived there, and he let her into the backyard to take care of her business. She was getting old now, and a little slower, but she was still the smartest dog he’d ever met.
He got a pot of coffee going. He was sitting at the table with a steaming mug when his mom shuffled into the kitchen in a tattered white robe. “Ari,” she said, and touched his cheek. He studied her face; she looked tired, her eyes puffy. He’d been afraid for her since he found out.
He put his hand over hers. It dwarfed hers in comparison. He wondered when that happened. “Did you sleep?”
“In bits and pieces,” she answered. She poured herself a cup of coffee and smiled at him sadly. “Your sisters should be here in a few hours. Do you think you could run to the store for a few things? I don’t think we have any milk.”
“They won’t care about milk, Mom,” he said, but she raised her eyebrows at him and he returned the smile. “I will. Can you keep an eye on Legs while I’m gone?”
She nodded and looked out the back window. Legs had plopped down on the patio, her belly up to the sun. “She’s a good dog.”
“She is a good dog,” he agreed. He stood up and kissed her on the cheek. That was still not a family ritual, but it felt right. She patted his hand again so he knew that it was.
“Change your shirt, Ari, that one’s dirty.”
He laughed. “Mom, I’m twenty-seven.”
“I know you’re twenty-seven. You’re twenty-seven and still wearing dirty shirts. You need a boy in your life that knows how to do laundry.”
He loved how easily she said that. How second nature it sounded. Ten years, ten years since he’d figured things out, ten years since he’d painstakingly unearthed the part of him he’d tried to keep buried, and it still wasn’t easy, but it was easier, he thought, with a mom who said you need a boy in your life and didn’t even blink an eye.
“Twenty-seven-year-olds aren’t boys, Mom. They’re men.”
She pointed her mug at the door like she was giving orders. “You’ll always be my boy,” she said, and then, louder, as he was leaving, “And real men wear clean shirts.”
Ari drove past the supermercado where his family did most of their shopping and navigated to the Albertsons on Mesa instead. The risk of running into someone who knew his father at the mercado was too high. He didn’t want to take that chance.
Unfortunately, this grocery store was about fifteen times bigger, and it took him forever just to find the dairy section.
He got two gallons of milk—he knew it was only a matter of time before people begin flooding to the house to pay their respects, and his mom would’ve been mortified if she couldn’t offer milk for their coffee—and grabbed some dog food before heading towards the registers. There were twelve of them. It seemed pretty unnecessary. He chose a line at random and was pushing his cart forward when he heard, from behind him, “Ari?”
He turned around, already rehearsing his thank-you-for-the-sympathy speech, as perfectly polite as his parents had raised him to be, but it wasn’t a friend of his father’s, not an overbearing church lady, not a neighbor of a cousin of his mom’s brother’s barber—
It was Dante Quintana.
It had been years since he had seen Dante Quintana, but he was there, in the flesh, holding a bouquet of flowers in front of register number six. It didn’t make any sense.
“Ari,” Dante repeated, this time not a question. His hair was shorter, and he wasn’t as skinny, and he was older, but he was still so very Dante, with a smile that lit up his eyes. Ari still hadn’t said anything. It was like he didn’t remember how.
“Ari,” Dante said again, utterly unperturbed by his silence, and he reached forward and hugged him, the cellophane around the flowers crinkling between their bodies, a full-bodied hug, an unrestrained hug, a Dante-at-sixteen force of nature kind of hug.
Ari managed to find his voice, and he pulled back and looked him in the face. “Dante, what are you—”
“I came as soon as I could. Are you okay? Of course you’re not. You e-mailed me, for God’s sake. I’m so sorry, Ari. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Dante, what are you doing here?”
Dante held out the bouquet, unsure, for the first time. “I tried the floral shop, but they’re closed today—”
“No, I mean, what are you doing in El Paso?”
Dante looked at him like he didn’t understand the question. “I got your e-mail,” he said simply.
“And you drove to El Paso? That’s, like, a thousand miles from San Francisco.”
“I drove to Los Angeles, actually. And then we flew to El Paso. We just got in.”
“My family came too.” Dante gestured towards the doors bordering the parking lot. “My parents, my brother. They’re in the rental. Dad threw a fit about getting a minivan, but it was all they had on such short notice. Mom thinks it’s hilarious.”
“But what did you come for?” Ari asked, and he knew he sounded frustrated, and that it wasn’t the correct reaction to have, but he was having trouble processing things. His dad was too young. Dante wasn’t supposed to be here.
“We came for the funeral,” Dante said, softly, carefully, watching him with a guarded expression. “Ari, I came for you.”
Ari opened his mouth to reply, and then closed it, and then opened his mouth again, but he was interrupted by the cashier at register six, smacking her bubblegum and looking indescribably bored. “Ex-cuse me,” she called at them. “Are you gonna pay for that milk?”
Dante carried one of the milk cartons out of the store. He’d abandoned the flowers at the register (“Were they too much? Yeah, they were too much,” he’d said) and insisted that Ari come greet his family. His parents were sitting up front, the windows rolled down, and BJ, Dante’s ten-year-old brother, was playing some sort of handheld game in the backseat. (“My parents named him Byron,” Dante had said the morning of his birth, trying to sound disgusted but failing, because his voice was brimming with pride. He loved being an older brother. He was a good older brother. “Byron Javier. What kind of name is that, Ari? I’m calling him BJ. I don’t care what they say.”)
Mrs. Quintana got out of the car immediately when she spotted him. “Oh, Ari,” she said, and she hugged him tightly, just like Dante had. Sam followed closely behind. He kissed Ari on the cheek, like he wasn’t an adult. Parents never saw them as adults, no matter how old they got. BJ popped his head out of the back window. Ari hadn’t seen him since he was five, six years old. He was the spitting image of Dante. It was bizarre.
“I’m sorry your dad died,” BJ told him earnestly. Mrs. Quintana looked embarrassed, but Ari didn’t want her to. He appreciated people who didn’t beat around the bush.
Ari smiled at him. “Me too,” he said, and Mrs. Quintana put her arm around him and rubbed his back.
“How are you doing? How’s your mom?”
“We’re okay. Really. How’s Los Angeles?”
“Oh, it’s fine. Sam’s happy at UCLA. And Byron likes the beach.”
“I’m pretty good at surfing,” BJ said.
“Cool. I’ve never been.”
“And the auto industry?” Sam asked him. “Doing well? Your dad sent us pictures of the garage a few years ago, Ari. It really looked fantastic.”
Ari didn’t know his dad had ever taken pictures. He didn’t know he’d ever written the Quintanas.
“Ari’s going to be a self-made millionaire by thirty,” Dante said, grinning at him. “What’ll be your first impulse buy? A beach house?”
“Maybe,” Ari said, and threw a pointed look at Dante. “Good thing I know how to swim.”
Dante looked delighted. Ari liked that he made that happen. It felt like they were teenagers again.
If Ari had to pinpoint the single happiest time of his life, he probably would’ve said the end of summer before senior year. When they were untethered and carefree, when he’d learned how to stop being afraid. That was a good summer. It was before reality had hit them, before they went back to separate schools, before college acceptance letters had begun rolling in. Dante had received so many. Every day, it seemed, another school wanted him. Ari had understood that. More than anything, Ari understood wanting Dante.
Dante had cried when he'd showed him the letter from Berkeley. “Come with me,” he'd said. “It’s so close to San Francisco. You'll love it there. There are so many people like us.”
That was the winter Ari relearned how to be afraid.
He didn't go with Dante.
That had been okay, at first. There were fall breaks and spring breaks. Three weeks at Christmas. Dante loved college. Ari got a job fixing trucks.
And then, suddenly, it wasn't okay. He can't explain it more than that; it was okay, and then it wasn't. For either of them.
"But we'll always be friends," Dante had insisted. He was crying again. This time it was over the phone.
And they were friends. They wrote letters. (Dante, of course, wrote more.) They saw each other during fall breaks and spring breaks. Those three weeks during Christmas.
Until his third year of school. Dante studied abroad. He was in Italy during fall break. Prague at Christmas. His letters became more spaced out, but he still wrote. He wrote about famous sculptures and foreign cuisine and historical landmarks. He wrote about European men.
Ari moved up the ladder at work. He enrolled in business classes at the community college.
Dante came back to San Francisco and rented a one-bedroom apartment with a boy he'd met in his painting class.
Ari moved out of his parents’ house two weeks after he'd gotten the letter about the boy in Dante’s painting class.
Dante graduated with high distinctions from Berkeley with an arts degree. He got a job teaching at a private high school in the city. Ari finally sold Aunt Ophelia’s house and used the money to open up his own garage.
Years passed. They spoke on the phone, occasionally. They wrote letters, occasionally. Dante had signed him up for e-mail and spent a good hour walking him through it.
And now they were here. In an Albertsons parking lot in El Paso on a hot June day. They were here, and Ari’s father was dead.
The smile slid off Ari’s face.
“I have to get this to my mom,” he said, holding up the milk carton. “She’s going to think I’ve been mugged if I don’t come back soon.”
“Of course,” Sam said, and they took turns hugging him again. “We’ll see you soon. If you or your mom need anything, Ari, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Dante looked at him, then over his shoulder at his parents. They rolled their eyes simultaneously and climbed back into the van. BJ waved at him before rolling his window up.
“Can we get lunch?” Dante asked. “Just us? I mean, if you’re busy—I’m sure you have plenty of things to take care of—”
“Lunch,” Ari said, cutting him off, “sounds great.”
He stopped back at his mom’s first, to drop off the groceries. It felt like there were a thousand people in the house. There weren’t actually that many bodies, though: his sisters, their husbands, their kids. It was just that his sisters started crying whenever they saw him, and his nieces and nephews all talked a mile a minute, and his mom was so busy scurrying around the house and playing hostess that it seemed like there were five of her, and his sisters’ husbands had taken over the living room TV with a fútbol game, and it all added up to so much noise.
Usually when he came to this house his mom was drinking coffee and going over lesson plans. His dad was reading silently in the recliner. The TV stayed off.
His dad would never sit and read silently in the recliner again.
He wondered why they even paid for cable.
“You’re leaving?” his mom demanded, accusingly, when Ari escaped one crying sister’s grasp and narrowly avoided another, inching towards the door.
“Dante’s here,” Ari said.
The look on her face immediately shifted, her eyebrows lifting. “Well,” she said. “I’d guess you’d better go, then.”
“I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Ari turned to look at her, but after a second, she pursed her lips and shook her head. “Tell Dante I say hi.”
Ari picked Dante up from the hotel. “It’s either that or be dropped off by my parents like a fifteen-year-old,” Dante had said, and Ari was glad that he wasn’t the only one that reverted back to adolescence whenever his parents were around. (Never again would he be able to say his parents. His mom. It was just his mom now.)
Dante climbed into the passenger seat and buckled up, his eyes on Ari the entire time. “Wow, deja vu, right? It’s like nothing has changed. Except that your truck got a major upgrade. It’s really nice.”
“Thanks. It’s a work-in-progress.”
“You did this? It’s really something, Ari. It really is.”
Ari pulled out of the parking lot and headed south. “It’s my job,” he said, and shrugged. “What about you? How’s teaching?”
“It’s…” Dante tilted his head to consider. “It’s pretty great. I mean, it definitely has its challenges. I never saw myself being a teacher. I didn’t even understand teenagers when I was a teenager.”
“But I love teaching art. Some of the kids are so talented. And the ones that aren’t usually make up for it with a good sense of humor.” He paused. “And actually… There was a club at my school. Some students asked me to be a sponsor. It’s called a gay-straight alliance.”
Ari raised his eyebrows. “What’s that?”
“It’s kind of like a safe environment for the kids that are struggling with their sexualities. And some kids that have it figured out. And their straight friends that support them. They get together and talk things through, how they’re feeling, what they’re going through. They try to educate their classmates. It’s really powerful.”
“They talk about that at school?”
“I know. It’s hard to imagine, right? Can you imagine? When we were sixteen, having a group of people to talk to? Or a teacher that would’ve understood? I think it’s mostly in San Francisco now, but hopefully soon they’ll have GSAs in schools all over the country.”
“They’ll never have them in Texas.”
“You don’t know that.”
Ari had lived in Texas his entire life. Ari had driven a date seventy-five miles north, for one night, to make sure they didn’t run into anyone they knew. Ari felt pretty confident that he knew that.
He didn’t say anything, though. Dante frowned at him, and then turned to look out the window. A few moments passed, and then Dante added, like he was trying to keep his voice upbeat, “Of course, having a summer vacation is a pretty nice perk too.”
“You always were the hardest-working lazy person I’ve ever known.”
Dante went to protest, but then Ari steered the truck into the restaurant parking lot, and he cut himself off and laughed. “No way,” Dante said. “The Charcoaler is still standing?”
“Proudly serving burgers since 1961.”
He pulled up to the menu board—which hadn’t changed much in the past ten years, except that now they served burritos and had fat free raspberry vinaigrette—and Dante leaned across him for a better look. It was the closest they’d been in years. Ari studied the freckle below his left ear.
“What’s good here? I can’t remember.”
They both laughed.
“In that case, surprise me.”
Ari ordered cheeseburgers and two bowls of caldillo and watched through the window as the teenaged employees laughed and flirted and flicked straw wrappers at each other. He didn’t remember flicking any straw wrappers when he worked there. And he’d never been good at flirting.
“I haven’t had caldillo in so long,” Dante said.
“They don’t have caldillo in San Francisco?”
“Not like here. The seafood is amazing, though. I’m really into sushi right now.”
Ari had never had sushi. The opportunity had never come up. “We have pretty good ceviche,” he pointed out.
“You’re right,” Dante agreed. “We do.”
“I meant we as in El Paso.”
“I’m from El Paso. I can claim it.”
“You’re not from here. You lived here for a few years.”
“When people in San Francisco ask me where I’m from, I say El Paso.”
“Why? So people will think you’re a real Mexican?”
Dante looked at him blankly. “That’s pretty rude, Ari.”
“I didn’t mean for it to be rude.”
He hadn’t, actually. He didn’t know why he was acting like this. You were supposed to have this shit figured out in your twenties, he was pretty sure.
A teenaged girl with her ears pierced five times each brought their food to the window. Ari passed Dante his cheeseburger, and his soup, and then said, “I’m sorry,” as he handed over the utensils.
“Don’t be,” Dante said, waving it off, just like that. He freed a spoon from its plastic casing and added, trying to sound casual, “I’m taking Spanish classes.”
“What? Classes? Why?”
“To practice speaking Spanish.”
“But you already speak Spanish.”
“Barely. I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve spoken Spanish in the last ten years.”
“¿Qué? ¿No hay paisanos en San Francisco?”
“There are. Just… everyone speaks English there.”
“That's why I'm taking classes. Deja de sobarme los tomates."
“Tanates,” Ari corrected him, laughing. “Not tomatoes. Good try, though."
“My parents have failed me,” Dante said, shaking his head in a disgusted sort of way. “My dad taught me how to read at three but let me go my entire life without making sure I knew the Spanish word for ‘balls.’”
After they ate, Ari threw their empty wrappers into a trashcan and glanced at the time. “I should probably head back. My sisters are going to lecture me for leaving.”
That made Dante smile. “They still treat you like a child?”
“Last Thanksgiving they tried to stick me at the kid’s table.”
“Ouch. I went to Eric’s parents’ for Thanksgiving. My mom didn’t forgive me for three weeks.”
Ari looked resolutely out the windshield. “Eric? That’s the one that teaches at your school?”
“Yeah. Biology. He’s pretty nerdy. I guess I’m pretty nerdy too, though.”
“You are,” Ari confirmed.
“Gee, thanks.” Dante reached forward and lowered the radio’s volume, even though it hadn’t been loud. “So… are you seeing anyone?”
Ari adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. “No,” he said. “Not right now.”
“But you were seeing someone? You were always so secretive in your letters.”
Ari knew that there were places in El Paso that he could go. There were clubs downtown with lines out the door on Saturday nights. He’d almost done it, once, but he’d parked and idled his truck for about ten minutes before reversing and heading back home. He wasn’t worried about who he was, now, years after accepting himself. He just didn’t see the need to announce it to the world.
So he’d relied on introductions. His sister’s hairdresser, for instance. (That was catastrophic.) A grandson of a particularly progressive church lady. (That wasn’t bad, actually, except that their schedules never seemed to line up.) A coworker of Gina’s. (That one had lasted the longest. Six solid months that ended only because they both in good nature realized that it wasn’t going anywhere from there.)
“I guess,” Ari said.
“What was his name?”
“John? Not Juan? Ari Mendoza, were you dating a gringo?”
“A gringo that speaks Spanish,” Ari pointed out, and Dante threw his head back and laughed.
“Ouch. Okay. Touché.”
Ari could feel Dante’s gaze on the side of his face, but he didn’t shrink away from it. He didn’t meet it either, though. He just drove.
“You’re not that different,” Dante said after a moment. “I was afraid you would be. But you’re not.”
“You’re not either.”
“No,” he agreed. “I’m not.”
What did they do with that, Ari wondered, as he headed back towards the hotel. Two boys who were no longer boys but who weren’t so different than they used to be?
That night, back in his childhood bed, he had a vivid dream: He was flipping burgers at the Charcoaler. He had a spatula in each hand, but they kept piling up, faster and faster, faster than he could handle. “Jaime!” someone called from the drive-in, and he turned desperately to look for his father, for help, until he realized that they were calling to him.
“Jaime! They need you!”
“I’m not Jaime,” he tried to explain, but then he caught a glance of his reflection in the front window and froze. He was dressed, head to foot, in army fatigues. He looked up. Suddenly, he wasn’t at the Charcoaler anymore. He was in the middle of a paddy field, but it was murky and out of focus, like someone trying to recreate a picture they’d only seen once. There was a soldier standing next to him. He pushed his helmet away from his face. It was Dante.
“No tienes los tanates,” he said.
Gunfire started blazing then, coming in from all directions; bullets were zipping past him and bodies were falling and dead birds were raining from the sky—
Ari woke up gasping, and didn’t fall back asleep for the rest of the night.
And On It Goes
I know well what I am fleeing from
but not what I am in search of.
—Michel de Montaigne
The next day was the funeral. Running on little sleep and a lot of coffee, the entire day passed for Ari in a strange, hazy blur. He remembered seeing his father in the casket for the first time and not feeling terribly sad, like he would’ve expected. Instead, he felt like he was looking at someone’s crappy artistic rendering. The color of his skin wasn’t right. The suit was too nice. The worry lines in his forehead had been cleanly smoothed out. There was an American flag draped over his casket, too, which confused him until his sister Cecilia pointed out that his father had been given a military funeral. Ari thought it was ironic that his father couldn’t escape the war, even after death. He spent a good chunk of the day mindlessly wandering around. He wondered if anyone had told his brother that their father had died. He couldn’t bring himself to ask. Sylvia sobbed openly on his shoulder, and he was glad to have a job. He went to fetch tissues after that. He spent a long time pretending not to see any.
The part he remembered most from the day was when Cecilia had grabbed him by the elbow and dragged him back to the front of the room, by the casket. “Come on, Ari,” she said. “We have to be in the receiving line.”
He didn’t understand why they had to have a receiving line. He already knew exactly what everyone was going to say: I’m so sorry. Mis oraciones y pensamientos están contigo. He was a great man. And so on and so on and so on.
He didn’t recognize half the people in the line, anyway. He wondered if his father would’ve wanted them there.
“There’s food upstairs,” his mom said in between mourners, rubbing his back in a slow circle, like she used to when he was a kid and woke in the middle of a nightmare. It had always calmed his nerves. “Make sure you eat later.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Ari, you should eat.”
“Have you eaten?”
“No,” she admitted, casting him a soft smile.
“Do you think Dad would’ve liked the funeral?”
“Your father would’ve hated the attention. That’s why we waited until he was gone to have it.”
She said it so earnestly that it took Ari a moment to realize she’d even made a joke, but he laughed once he did. A few family members shot him scandalized looks from the other side of the room.
“It really sucks that he died, Mom.”
“It does suck,” she agreed. “A lot.”
Ari was pretty sure his mom had never said the word suck in his entire life. He liked how unnatural it sounded. He liked how well she was handling this. It made him less afraid.
The line surged forward. “Mis oraciones y pensamientos están contigo,” a mustached man was saying to his mother, shaking her hand, when Ari looked up and saw that Dante’s family was next. He shook the man’s hand too, and each of his sisters dutifully kissed his cheek, and then Dante stepped up first.
It was a strange thing. Everyone, so far, had treated his mother like she was fragile. They held her hands for the briefest of seconds and then dropped back like they were afraid she’d shatter. They gave air kisses. They stood three feet away and dabbed at dry eyes with funeral-provided tissues and said empty words that they’d probably been rehearsing all morning long.
That was not Dante.
Dante threw his arms around Ari’s mother and hugged her tight. Ari watched them in wonder as his mom squeezed him back, like it was somehow exactly what she’d needed, and he loved Dante for it. That thought was fleeting, and unprompted, but he did. He loved him for it.
Dante moved forward as Mrs. Quintana took his place. He sized Ari up with his eyes. “You haven’t cried yet,” he observed.
“It’s okay to cry, Ari.”
It wasn’t that Ari had tried to stifle his crying. He hadn’t needed to. If he cried, here, he didn’t know what he’d be crying for. He felt no connection to this place. This was just a ritual. A task on the post-death to-do list. “I don’t feel like crying.”
Dante smiled. “That’s okay too,” he said.
The house was impeccably clean. Ari had done the brunt of the work, before the funeral, because his sisters were busy chasing their kids around, and their husbands had disappeared to a sports bar down the street, and his mother was on telephone duty. It kept ringing off the hook. Mexican families were humongous.
There was a lot of food in the kitchen, including about twenty casseroles and his aunt’s famous tamales, but Ari still wasn’t hungry. His jaw was tired from the hundreds of ‘thank you’s he’d given out all day. He thought it was probably more than he’d spoken in the last month combined. There were still so many people there, way past overstaying their welcomes, and they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. He was considering escaping to the bathroom for a momentary reprieve when Dante appeared at his shoulder.
“Go for a walk with me?” he asked.
Ari didn’t even hesitate. He grabbed Legs’ leash and brought her too.
It was dark out, hours past sundown, but still sweltering outside. Ari wished he’d changed out of his suit before leaving the house.
“I forgot how hot it gets here,” Dante said, like he was reading Ari’s mind. “I think my feet might actually melt.”
Ari squinted through the darkness and laughed in surprise at Dante’s bare feet. He hadn’t noticed. “Dante, you’re a teacher. You’re still in a war against shoes?”
“No. I’ve given up on that. I’m a regular footwear-abiding sheep now. I just thought it’d make you laugh.”
“Is it worth suffering to make me laugh?”
“Yes,” Dante said, completely unembarrassed.
Ari looked at him, and then looked away. They had their own lives now. Seventeen-year-old Ari had seen the future clearly: he saw them getting their first apartment together. He saw them learning to make menudo. He saw them giving up on making menudo and ordering take-out several times a week instead. He saw them doing things in the bedroom that brought a flush to his face and even when it was already real, when it was happening, when it was palpable and frequent, god, they’d had a lot of energy when they were teenagers, he still had trouble putting those things into words—but he didn’t have trouble imagining them.
None of that happened, though. Ari’s apartment was built for one. Dante had a biology teacher named Eric.
It was startling how easy it was, still, to picture what could’ve been.
“When do you go back?” Ari asked, to fill the silence. He was glad Dante couldn’t actually read his mind.
“I haven’t bought the return ticket yet, actually. My parents did, they have to get back to LA tomorrow. But, you know. Summer vacation. I thought I’d… I thought I’d stay as long as I was needed.”
Won’t Eric be upset? Ari wanted to ask but didn’t. He wondered if that was how Dante felt. That Ari needed him. He wondered if he did. “You’re going to rent that hotel room by yourself?”
“I guess so, yeah.”
“You can just stay at my place,” Ari said, surprising himself.
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to—”
“I have a couch. It’s not a great couch, but it’s a couch. And it’s free.”
Legs had paused in the middle of the sidewalk for a break—she did that more often now. Dante bent down to rub her neck, and she leaned her entire body into him appreciatively. “I do like free. You’re not staying at your mom’s?”
“I was, but my sisters are there now. It’s so loud. They’ll be glad to get rid of me.”
“Impossible,” Dante said. “But if you mean it, I guess I’ll take you up on that offer. Are you sure you’re okay, by the way?”
Dante studied his face carefully. “Okay,” he said, and then he planted a big smacking kiss against the top of Legs’ head. She let out a happy little yip and licked his face.
They winded up walking past the Memorial Park pool, probably not entirely by accident, but not explicitly planned, either. Dante’s eyes lit up. It’d been closed for two hours by then, so there were no screaming and splashing children on the other side of the fence. Just silence.
“I’m so happy this is still here,” Dante said. “Do you ever go swimming?”
“Dante, I’m an adult.”
“So? Adults don’t swim?”
“Adults don’t go to public pools by themselves.”
Dante looked at him again. Ari almost wished he’d stop. “Do you think it’s weird for adults to go to the pool by themselves?” he asked, challengingly. “Or do you think it’s weird for gay men to go to the pool by themselves?”
“I don’t know what you’re—”
“Do you ever say that word, Ari? I’ve never heard you say it. It’s not a bad word.”
“I know it’s not.”
“So then say it.”
Ari squared his shoulders. “I’m not a puppet.”
“Gay,” Dante said. He was trying to be serious, but a hint of a smile peeked through.
“Come on,” Ari said.
“Let’s go, Legs.”
Dante reached forward and snatched the hand that was holding Legs’ leash. Ari looked at him and something happened, a wave of electricity traveling between them, old and new and somehow somewhere in between. Dante pulled him closer. Their feet were almost touching. Dante looked him in the eyes and drew in a steady breath.
“Gay,” Dante whispered, and then they both, simultaneously, cracked up.
It felt good to laugh like this, without holding back, without forcing it, without having to be mature. “You’re awful,” Ari said, shaking his head. Dante seemed pretty proud of that.
“You know,” he said, and looked back over his shoulder towards the pool. “There’s no one around. That fence can’t be that hard to scale…”
“You think we should go swimming?”
“I think we should go skinny-dipping.”
Ari didn’t know if he was joking or not. In a past life, Dante could’ve persuaded him to do almost anything. In a past life, Ari didn’t have that much to lose.
“Ari, I’m kidding. Don’t look so worried,” Dante said, and he tugged Legs’ leash out of his grip to get her walking again.
In a past life Dante wouldn’t have been kidding.
That was how Ari knew that they’d actually, truly, officially grown up.
Back at the house, the crowds were finally starting to disperse. Ari and Dante were putting dishes away when the principal of his mom’s school passed through the kitchen with his wife, his suit jacket tucked over one arm. Ari was pretty sure his mom had only invited him out of politeness. And yet here he was, in their house, eating their food, well past eleven o’clock at night.
“Aristotle, right?” the man said, and rather than correct him, Ari simply nodded. “So sorry to hear about your father. He was a wonderful person.”
Ari wondered if he’d ever actually even met his father. He’d never been one for school functions.
“Glad to see you’re taking care of your mother, though. She tells me you’ve grown into a fine man. You got yourself a wife yet?”
“Oh, no, sir,” Ari said. “I’m very, very gay.”
There was a loud clatter as Dante dropped the plastic bowl he was holding. Ari had never seen him look more overjoyed in his life. It was brazen, and probably stupid, but worth it for that alone.
“Oh, uh, well,” the principal sputtered, “that’s fine, too. That’s just fine.”
“Thank you,” Ari said seriously, and the couple flashed strained smiles and left the room. Dante turned to him in awe.
“That,” he said, pretending to flick away a tear, “was beautiful.”
That night, for the first time in years, Ari dreamed about the accident.
This time, though, he was the one driving the car.
The car was accelerating on its own. He was in the driver’s seat, but he wasn’t controlling it. Dante was standing in the middle of the street. Ari wanted to slow down, but there was no brake. He wanted to turn out of the way, but the steering wheel was gone. He tried to yell out a warning to Dante, just before the impact. But it wasn’t Dante anymore.
It was his dad.
Ari jolted awake, his heart racing, and he realized that he was trembling and covered in a sheen of sweat. He tried hard to steady his breath. There was a small part of him that wished, childish as it might be, that his mom was there to rub his back.
Ari was back at his mom’s for breakfast the next morning. “Which one do you want?” she asked, pulling a multitude of covered dishes out of the refrigerator. “Egg casserole? Potato casserole? Chorizo-egg-potato casserole?”
He wrinkled his nose. “Coffee and toast,” he said, and she sighed with relief and pushed them back into the fridge.
“Coffee and toast sounds great.”
“Where’s everyone else?”
“They went to the zoo. I needed them out of my hair for a minute. I thought you and I could tackle your dad’s closet today.”
Ari paused with his hand on the coffee pot. “What do you mean?”
“It needs to be organized. Your father was never a materialistic man, God bless him, but there are plenty of things we could donate to the church.”
Ari’s dad was in this house a week ago. He was sitting at this table a week ago, drinking his coffee, reading the newspaper. “Mom, it’s too soon.”
“Padre Santiago says the longer you wait the more it hurts.”
“Padre Santiago doesn’t have a family.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, even though he wasn’t. “But I can’t today, okay? I have plans.”
She pulled the toast out of the toaster and carried two plates to the table. “What plans are those?”
“I thought I’d take up television.”
That got a wry smile out of her. She raked her fingers through his hair, pushed it away from his forehead. “You can’t run from this, Ari.”
I can try, Ari thought but didn’t say. He buttered his toast without really seeing it, drank his coffee without really tasting it. He could try.
Mr. and Mrs. Quintana stopped by in their rented minivan on the way to the airport. Dante tumbled out of the backseat, BJ following after him like a miniature, shaggy-haired clone.
“Sorry we can’t stay longer, Liliana,” Mrs. Quintana said, hugging Ari’s mother. “It was a beautiful service.”
Ari watched them, the people he’s always liked most in the world, embracing as they said their goodbyes, and his heart felt full. He wished his dad were here too. Sam hugged him last, and kissed him on the cheek, and said, “You’ve turned into a good man, Ari. You really have. You have a lot to be proud of.”
The women got misty-eyed. There were more hugs. BJ high-fived him and promised to teach him how to surf, one day. The Quintanas left, but Dante stayed behind.
Ari brought Dante to his apartment after dinner. His sisters were back from the zoo and the house had, again, transformed into a flurry of noise and activity, and they’d actually polished off not one but two of the casserole dishes. Ari’s nieces and nephews spent most of the night pestering Dante, and Ari had tried to apologize, but Dante had just smiled and said that because he probably wouldn’t be an uncle for another twenty years, it was fun to play along.
He felt a little nervous about bringing Dante home, but he didn’t know why. He’d tidied up that morning. He’d put clean sheets out on the couch. “It’s nothing spectacular,” he said, leading Dante inside. Dante appraised the living room silently, looking from the bookshelf, spilling over with the books he’d amassed in the last ten years, to the well-worn mahogany coffee table, which was the only piece of furniture he’d taken from his Aunt Ophelia’s, to the walls, which were bare except for a framed print of Nighthawks that he’d affixed over the couch. Dante’s eyes lingered there the longest, and then he turned to Ari and grinned.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s very Ari. And it’s five times the size of my place, so I feel like I’m boarding with a king.”
Legs ambled in from the bedroom, where she’d presumably been taking a nap, and beelined straight for Dante, like Ari didn’t even exist. He laughed and knelt down to pet her.
“Traitor,” Ari said, shaking his head. “Don’t forget who feeds you.”
It was late already, and Ari hopped in the shower while Dante got settled, and he stared in the bathroom mirror while he was towel-drying his hair and tried to see what Dante saw. Dante had told him once that he looked like Che Guevara. He was pretty sure he didn’t, although he’d been too busy to shave over the last several days and he was looking pretty scruffy.
When he got back to the living room Dante had changed into plaid pajama pants and was sitting cross-legged on the couch, flipping through a book that he’d taken from Ari’s shelf. Giovanni’s Room. Legs was curled up on top of his feet.
“I read this in school,” Dante told him. “It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. It is.”
“You know that book A Separate Peace?”
“One of my classmates did a presentation asserting that the whole book is incredibly homoerotic. It was pretty convincing. I don’t know how I didn’t see it when I was younger.” Dante smiled. “I didn’t read any books with two male characters the same for awhile after that.”
Ari didn’t say anything right away. He’d never heard anyone say the word homoerotic out loud. He’d never once thought about A Separate Peace that way. He thought he had a copy, somewhere, but he wasn’t sure where.
Dante studied him. “Do you want to smoke weed?”
Dante didn’t explain how he got the weed. Ari didn’t ask. He had a balcony, but no balcony furniture, so they sat on the ground and let their legs dangle through the bars. They lit the joint with an old plastic lighter he’d kept in his coat pocket for ages, and passed it back and forth between them, watching the smoke drift away into the night sky.
It had been awhile since Ari had smoked. He’d never stopped liking it, he’d just gotten too busy for it. Too old for it. Too something.
“Maybe we should’ve driven out into the desert,” Dante said.
“Yeah,” Ari agreed.
“You can’t really see the stars out here. Well, you can, but not like out there.”
“Yeah,” Ari agreed.
“Do you still do that ever? Drive out to your spot?”
“Not really.” Dante passed the joint back to him and he paused to take a drag, held it in, let it out, before going on, “I work too much. When I’m not working, I feel like I should be.” He leaned back on his elbows and searched the skies. He remembered when the stars had been theirs. “I was going to open a second garage. In Austin. I was going to move there, and Dad was going to take the reigns here. He said I should call it Mendoza and Son. I said I should call it Mendoza and Father.”
There was a long and heavy silence after he said that, and Ari wondered if he should’ve kept that to himself. Wondered if he’d only said it because of the weed.
Finally, though, Dante put the joint out against the cement ground and pulled his legs out of the bars, and angled his entire body so he was facing Ari. “Wow,” he said. “I had no idea.”
“Yeah, we didn’t really tell people in case it didn’t work out. But I’d just found the premises. And an apartment.” Ari wished he’d kept the joint lit. He needed something to do with his hands. “But. You know. Things happen.”
“You still could,” Dante said. “You could still do it, somehow.”
“Nah. It was probably a bad idea in the first place.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
Ari laughed. “Dante, you didn’t even know about it until ten seconds ago.”
“Well, I know about it now. And it’s a great idea. The best idea. You have other employees, right? There has to be someone that’d be willing to step up here.”
“I don’t know.”
“Or someone from your business program, to run that side of things?”
“I don’t know—”
“Or maybe you could merge with another business—”
“I’m just saying.”
“Why, though? Why do you care so much?”
“Because you’re too good to stay in El Paso forever.”
It looked like the words slipped out without Dante meaning to say them; he quickly slapped a hand over his mouth, like he could catch them and put them back. But it was too late. They were out there.
“Oh,” Ari said.
“I don’t mean it like it sounds.”
“Then how do you mean it, Dante?”
For the first time maybe ever, Dante didn’t have a response.
Ari didn’t need one, though. It was pretty clear what he was implying. “You think you’re better than me.”
“Yeah, you do. You have since you went to college.”
“Ari, come on, no I don’t—”
“It’s fine, Dante.” Ari stood up, dusted off his pants, and headed back into the apartment. Dante immediately trailed after him.
“Ari, stop. Please.”
Ari didn’t stop. He was in a weird headspace, where his body felt light and floaty, but his heart and brain were weighing him down. He didn’t feel equipped to have this conversation sober; he couldn’t imagine trying to sort out his thoughts when he was high. He went into the bedroom, and halfheartedly tried to close the door behind him, but Dante just pushed it back open and followed him inside.
“I don’t think I’m better than you,” Dante said. He grabbed Ari by the shirt—he realized, belatedly, it was one of the clean shirts his mom had laid out for him—and forced him to stand still. “I don’t, Ari. And I don’t blame you for staying until now. You had a lot of great things happen here. You still have a lot of great things happening here. But don’t you think…”
He hesitated. Ari didn’t say anything.
“Don’t you think you’ve outgrown it here? Don’t you think you can do so much more?”
He let go of Ari’s shirt and scrubbed his hands over his face, rucking his hair up in the process. It was distracting enough that Ari almost forgot that he was annoyed.
“I didn’t think I was better than you when I went to college,” Dante said quietly. “The only thoughts I had about you back then were how badly I wanted you to come too.”
Ari nodded. His mouth suddenly felt unbearably dry. “I need some water,” he said, and went into the bathroom. He left the door open, turned the faucet on. And then he came right back. “And now?”
Dante tilted his head. “Now what?”
“What thoughts do you have about me now?”
A smile bloomed across Dante’s face, slow and beautiful. “Aristotle Mendoza, are you flirting with me?”
The sink was still running, and El Paso was in a drought. “No,” Ari said, and didn’t stick around long enough to figure out whether or not that was true.
Ari forgave him pretty easily. They stayed up entirely too late talking only about inane, unimportant things, and Dante passed out on top of the blankets on the couch before Ari dragged himself to his bed and set his alarm for entirely too early.
He slept soundly for the rest of the night, though. He woke up not remembering a single one of his dreams.
Everything At Once
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs
and returns home to find it.
He’d been away from work for a week now, which was a week longer than he’d been away since he’d started working after school. He scrawled a note for Dante and left it on the fridge—unless Dante had undergone some major personal growth he figured it would’ve been lunchtime before he woke up, anyway, so he left the coffee in plain view and drove the short distance to his garage.
Ari had four other guys on staff, including a high schooler who’d begged to do the grunt work until Ari had conceded, and they were great, capable workers, but he still had about forty messages to sort through, and order forms from his suppliers, and he didn’t even get to turning his computer on until halfway through the morning. He only ever checked his e-mail at work, and not even that often, because of how long it took to load. Not that many people had his e-mail address, anyway. His inbox was pretty empty. He skimmed through the list of senders quickly, his mind already wandering to other tasks, but he stopped short when his father’s name jumped off the screen.
He felt a little breathless. The e-mail had been sent last Saturday. The day before his dad had died. There was no subject line.
He dragged the cursor across the screen and double clicked. His heart was thudding wildly in his chest.
It was a long message; Ari leaned close to the screen to read: Have you ever seen a beautiful woman out with an ordinary looking guy and thought, "How did he get a woman like that? He must be rich! I'm as good looking as he is! Why can't I date women like that?" You ask yourself, "What does he have that I don't have?"
“Whoa. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Ari ripped his gaze away from the first paragraph to see Dante strolling towards him with a plastic bag in hand. The sight of Dante at his garage was almost as bewildering as the e-mail his dad had written.
“You’re staring at the computer like it tried to bite you.”
He didn’t know how to explain, so he just leaned in to read the next paragraph: The answer is not that he is smarter, richer, or better looking. He just knows the secrets! The secrets of meeting and charming beautiful women! He knows where to meet women, he knows what to say, (and what not to say), what to wear, (and what not to wear). Basically, he knows what women respond to.
“What’re you looking at?” Dante asked, rounding the desk and peering over his shoulder.
“My dad sent me this…”
Dante mouthed the words to himself as he read the e-mail, and then he pulled back and nodded gravely. “Spam,” he said.
“It’s called spam. It’s not really from your dad. He must’ve clicked on something and it sent out fake e-mails to everyone in his address book. I get spam e-mails about penis enlargement all the time.”
Ari hurriedly deleted the e-mail before it veered into that territory, and even though he knew his dad didn’t write it, he felt a slight sense of loss as his father’s name disappeared from the screen.
Dante was still watching him, though, so he forced himself to shake it off. “What are you doing here? What’s in the bag?”
“I brought you lunch. Am I an amazing friend or what?”
“The fact that you’re awake before noon on vacation is amazing by itself. What’d you bring?”
“Pizza. I had a craving.” Dante grabbed a free chair without asking permission and dragged it over to Ari’s desk, shoved some papers out of the way, and made himself comfortable before dishing out the goods. “Plus, you know. Only thing in walking distance.”
There were a million things Ari needed to be doing, and he was planning on working through lunch that day, but instead of voicing this he sat down and grabbed a plate. The e-mails could wait.
“By the way,” Dante said, gesturing around the room with a bottle of water. “This place… is incredible. I saw the pictures, but I guess I couldn’t picture how real it all was. You’re an actual businessman! I mean, wow, Ari. Wow.”
Warmth crawled up the back of Ari’s neck. He’d spent long enough imagining Dante’s reaction when he’d purchased the place. It somehow meant just as much now. “Thanks,” he said, which wasn’t enough, but he thought Dante would understand. “Did you bring any napkins?”
The only way Ari could convince Dante to leave and let him do some work in peace was to let him borrow his truck. “I’m gonna work late tonight. Take good care of her,” he said, dropping the keys into Dante’s outstretched hand, and Dante laughed and rolled his eyes.
“I’ll treat her like she’s my own.”
Ari was pretty productive for the rest of the day; he crossed off at least six of the tasks on his to-do list, and even fielded a thirty-minute phone call from some pissed off customer who kept ranting on and on about tires. He sent his employees home at five, forced himself to sort through more order forms, replaced the alternator belt on an old Chevy, swept down the garage floor, and didn’t start locking up until around eight.
When he got into the parking lot, Dante was already there waiting for him.
He was in the passenger side of Ari’s truck, the windows rolled down, the radio blaring. It was Queen, he was pretty sure. Dante had always liked Queen.
Ari tapped on the hood of the truck, to get his attention, and Dante started and turned the volume down. “Hi,” he said brightly.
“Do you always work twelve hour shifts?”
“Only when I’m coming back from vacation and none of my guys know how to handle a broom.”
“Well, how tired are you? Do you have plans tonight?”
He’d called his mom earlier that evening, to check in. She and his sisters were going to his aunt’s for the night. Sometimes Ari was very glad he was a guy.
“Not that tired. No plans.”
“Good.” Dante grinned and pushed the driver’s side door open. “Get in. We’re going to the desert.”
“We are. I packed a dinner, and bought beer, and grabbed the extra blankets from your living room. I drank two beers while I was waiting for you, though. And I also snooped through your medicine cabinet. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.”
Almost resignedly, Ari laughed and climbed into the truck. “Did you find anything good?”
“Your tylenol’s expired.”
Ari put the keys in the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot, headed for the highway. It had been a while, but he could do this drive with his eyes closed. He raised an eyebrow at Dante. “Thanks for the warning. I have a feeling I’m going to be getting a lot of headaches while you’re here.”
It was smack dab in the middle of the summer, so the sun had stayed out late, but it was just starting to set as they pulled into their old spot, unchanged even after this time. That was Ari’s favorite thing about the desert. That it always stayed the same.
They climbed into the bed of the truck and settled on top of some worn blankets. Dante had brought along two brown paper bags. From the first he pulled premade sandwiches and potato chips. The second was filled with beer.
“I hope you still drink the cheap stuff,” he said, and used the bottle opener on his keychain before passing one to Ari. It was still cold.
“The cheap stuff is my favorite,” he answered, and they tapped their bottles together and drank.
For the first half hour Dante talked about himself. It might’ve been annoying to anyone else, but Ari was pretty content to sit back, nurse a beer, and listen to him ramble. He talked about Europe, and wanting to plan a return trip, and he talked about his parents, and how they’d joined a PFLAG group and were still active members in LA, and he talked about the club scene in San Francisco, which had been fun, for a while, but was was quickly growing tiresome in his “old age.” That made Ari laugh.
“Are we old now?” he asked. “Should I start listening to AM radio and complaining about politics?”
Dante grinned. “Start eating bran oats for breakfast. My dad puts a scoop of powdered fiber in his milk every morning. Says it keeps him regular.”
“I don’t think I needed to know that.”
“Yeah. Guess not.”
Dante went ahead and broke out the second six-pack. Ari hadn’t even realized they’d finished the first. They didn’t clink these ones together, but rather, Dante took two or three successive swallows of his and then said, “So what do you do here? I mean, I’ve seen your life now, your apartment, your job. And you’ve got an amazing setup. But do you, you know, go out? Go on dates?”
Ari swirled his beer around. He licked his lips. “I don’t know. I guess? I’ve gone on dates.”
“I don’t keep a calendar.”
“Well, when was the last one?”
“Uh. Sometime last year? But I’ve been really busy working—”
“No one is too busy for dinner once a week.”
“Yeah, it’s really easy for you to say that. You have a boyfriend already. You live in a huge city.”
Dante sat back and looked at him, questioningly. Ari continued to stare at his drink.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Dante said.
That made Ari look up. “You don’t?”
“But—I thought—Eric, the science teacher…”
Dante was quiet for a moment, but then he shook his head. “Eric and I broke up around Easter. He told me I wasn’t serious enough about our relationship. He said he felt like I was settling.”
“But you live together.”
“We used to. I’ve got a studio now. A really crappy one, actually.”
This was brand new information to Ari. He thought about Dante staying on his couch last night. Asking him if he was flirting. He wondered if he would’ve felt differently, knowing that Dante was single.
“Isn’t it awkward? Working with him?”
“It was a little awkward, yeah. But that’s actually not going to be a problem anymore. I told them I wouldn’t be coming back this fall. I mean, not because of Eric. I’d been considering it since Christmas. My school is just so… progressive. Which is awesome, don’t get me wrong. But I know there are so many schools in the country that aren’t progressive, and kids like you and me are suffering. And I always thought that if I was going to be a teacher, it’d be so that I could make a difference. You know, maybe start a GSA somewhere. Like in Texas.” He smiled knowingly at Ari. It wasn’t surprising that Dante had big dreams. He’d always had big dreams. He was always good at following through on them. It was just surprising that this was the first Ari was hearing of it.
“And anyway,” Dante went on, “my rent is insane, and I think I’m ready for a change of scenery.”
“Why are you just now telling me this?”
“I wasn’t trying to hide it. I just thought there were more important things to focus on this week.”
Ari took another sip of beer. “Oh.”
“We still haven’t talked about your dad, you know.”
“It’s not healthy to keep it bottled up, Ari. You know it’s not. And you don’t have to talk to me. But you should talk to someone. And I’m here. With very available ears. I’ve gotten pretty good at comforting backrubs, too.”
For a brief moment Ari wondered who he’d practiced on. He banished that thought quickly, though, annoyed with himself, and just said, “I don’t need to talk. He died. There’s nothing to talk about.”
“There’s plenty to talk about. You at least have to try to process it.”
Ari’s heart was beating faster than normal again. He could feel it in his fingertips. He wanted this conversation to end. He wanted to get back in the driver’s seat and go home. He wanted Dante to stop looking at him like that. “Is that why you were trying to get me to move out of El Paso? You think it’ll kickstart the healing process?”
Dante shifted, resting his back against the side of the truck, upending the bag of potato chips in the process. He ignored them. Ari was pretty sure that they were sitting closer now, but he was also pretty sure it was unintentional. Maybe. Probably.
“No, Ari,” Dante said softly. “That was not why.”
Ari dropped his empty bottle back into the bag, a little clumsily. “Shit, it’s hot,” he said, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.
“Shit,” Dante repeated. “It’s hot as shit.” He’d always liked how it sounded when Dante cursed. Even now. Even when curse words had officially been theirs to use freely for over eight years.
“At least the sun’s down now.”
Dante tipped his face back to look at the breaking night sky, so Ari did the same. It was so expansive. It went on and on and on. There were so many stars, just beginning to flicker awake. How was it that Ari was almost twenty-eight years old and he still didn’t know any of their secrets? He thought he’d figured them out, once. But they didn’t keep. The sky was infinite. They were not.
“Why did we let so much time go by?” Dante asked from beside him, so quiet that he might’ve been whispering. Their elbows touched. Ari thought that even their bodies had a language of their own.
“I don’t know,” Ari answered. “I think that’s just a part of life.”
“It didn’t have to be.”
Ari looked at Dante. He was so close. He’d been so ashamed, once. He couldn’t for the life of him remember why.
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Ari swallowed. He sat up a little. He could see the stars reflecting in Dante’s eyes, like they lived there. Like he was made of them.
Dante moved closer. Potato chips crunched underneath.
None of this felt unexpected. The world traveled on its axis. Maybe it didn’t take a year to get back to where it started. Maybe it took ten years. Maybe it took his dad dying.
“I have to work tomorrow,” Ari said.
Dante blinked, and looked confused. But then he nodded. It was an out; Ari was giving him an out, and he was taking it. “Sure. Yeah. Of course.”
“We should probably go.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Ari was in some sort of trance. Dante wasn’t moving. Ari had worked too long today, probably. He hadn’t slept enough last night. Dante was waiting for him. To make a move. To do something.
Ari knew he should do something.
He gathered the bag of empty beer bottles. They rolled around and clinked together, and the sound was like an explosion of shattering glass into the still and silent night.
And just like that the trance was broken.
It was hard to say what he felt, as they drove home, shoulder-to-shoulder. He was trying not to feel it. They didn’t turn the radio on. They didn’t talk much. They went back to Ari’s apartment, together, and they went to bed, separately.
The earth only ever took a year to rotate. That was science. The world had turned so many times since they were kids. Over and over and over again.
That night, another dream:
The undertaker was lowering his father’s body into the ground. Ari was standing overhead, watching it descend. Suddenly, though, there was a pounding against the top of the casket. His dad was inside, struggling to get out. Ari looked around in alarm. “Stop!” he called out. “He’s in there! He wants out!” He grabbed the sleeve of the undertaker. It was Dante.
“Then let him out,” Dante said. “Go ahead.”
He tried to hoist the casket back up, but it kept sinking into the earth, lower and lower. “Help me!” he urged Dante, but Dante shook his head.
“You have to help yourself,” he said. “No one can help you.”
Ari watched futilely as the earth opened up and swallowed the casket whole.
He awoke again in a mild panic, his heart hammering inside his chest. Ari knew, after all this time, that his dreams were trying to tell him something.
He just wished they’d say it a little more quietly.
Ari had to work again the next day. He left another note for Dante in the kitchen, this time letting him know that he’d be spending his lunch hour at his mom’s house. His mom’s house was not in walking distance. He would try to pretend he hadn’t planned that.
His mom was happy to see him, though. “Ari,” she said, “I could really use your help. I can’t get your dad’s desk drawers to open. Could you try, please? There are some important documents I need out of there.”
“Can’t it wait?”
“No, it really can’t.”
So there he was, his work coveralls unzipped to the waist, bent over at his dad’s desk and trying to jimmy a screwdriver inside. His mom was making coffee, which was supposed to be some sort of consolation offer. Luckily, the desk was only jammed. After a minute or two of swearing and yanking, the drawer sprang free.
His plan was to get it open and leave it untouched for his mom to handle.
He was not banking on seeing a picture of himself right up top.
It was the first in a stack of photographs, neatly arranged in the corner of the drawer. He was four or five in the picture, and wearing his dad’s much-too-large church shoes. His face was frozen right in the middle of a joyous shout of laughter. Ari reached down and gingerly picked up the entire stack. He shuffled to the next one. It was his sisters at their high school graduation, arms around each other, beaming at the camera. Below that one, his brother. Ari’s heart gave an uncomfortable jolt of recognition. Bernardo was just a kid in the picture, hanging upside down over the back of the couch. Ari kept flipping. His sisters in their cheerleading uniforms before a basketball game. Ari’s first day of school. Christmas morning, all four kids surrounded by mounds of wrapped presents. Ari’s mom and dad. They were young, and standing close together, dressed to the nines, his dad’s hand splayed proudly against his mom’s waist. Ari’s eyes searched his dad’s face. It had only been a week since he’d seen it, but he drank it in like it’d been years. He realized, unexpectedly, that there were tears streaming down his cheeks.
He flipped to the next picture. A picture of Sylvia on her wedding day. Below that, Cecilia on her wedding day. Below that—
Ari froze. Below that, a picture of him and Dante. They were teenagers. They were at a bowling alley. Sam must’ve taken the picture on one of their group outings, because Ari’s parents were seated behind them, wrapped up in their own conversation. In the foreground Ari was holding a bowling ball in the wrong hand. Dante was laughing and reaching for Ari. They were completely, blissfully unaware of the camera and completely unselfconscious because of it.
It was obvious, even in this picture, that they were not just friends.
His dad had kept this picture tucked safely behind pictures of his sisters and their husbands. He had kept this picture in his desk. He had kept this picture forever.
Ari turned around. His mom was leaning against the doorframe, looking worried. He wondered how long she’d been standing there.
“Mom,” he said, and he couldn’t help it: he took in a shaky breath and the floodgates broke open. She rushed towards him and he cried into her arms like a little boy, because his heart was shattered, because his dad was gone, because his father had never stopped loving Ari even for a minute when he’d found out about him ten years ago and because he’d never truly appreciated how lucky he was while his dad was still alive.
Afterwards, when he was all cried out, his mom rubbed his back and they went through the rest of the photographs together. “These were his favorites,” she said, smiling indulgently at a picture of the three of them on Ari’s confirmation day. “He looked at them all the time.”
“He was a really good dad,” Ari said. He’d tucked the picture of him and Dante into his pocket, after receiving his mom’s blessing. “I should’ve told him that more often.”
“Oh, trust me, mijo, he knew. Every single day, he knew.”
Ari stood up. His lunch hour had long ended; his employees were probably wondering where he was. “I have to get back to work. I didn’t mean to…”
“I know.” His mom pushed his hair back away from his face. “But Ari, don’t you feel so much better now?”
Parents, Ari thought, back in the front seat of his truck. The wind blew across his face and he felt light enough to blow away. Why did they always have to be right?
After work, Ari drove back to his apartment. He didn’t stay late that night. He was finished locking up by 5:01. He quietly worried the entire drive. He worried that Dante had left. That he’d booked his flight. That he’d decided that they—whatever they were—were done.
He worried while he opened the front door.
Dante was sitting in the living room, Legs curled up asleep in his lap, contently reading a book on his couch.
It was one of the best sights Ari had ever come home to.
“Hi,” Ari said.
Dante looked up and smiled. “You’re early,” he said. “Well, you’re on time. Which is early for you. I wasn’t expecting to see you for hours. I even ate a late lunch today—”
“Dante,” Ari laughed, “shut up.”
He crossed the room and kissed him.
He ignored the soft sound of surprise Dante made against his mouth. There was nothing uncertain about this kiss. Kissing Dante was so easy and familiar, it was like no time had passed. It was like their bodies remembered each other. It was like coming home. Dante reached up and cupped Ari’s neck with both hands, drawing him closer.
Only Legs complained. She whined from in between them and jumped down off of Dante’s lap, giving them a haughty look before stalking off to another room.
They broke apart and laughed.
“Is this real?” Dante asked, pulling Ari down onto the couch beside him. It was strange, how well Ari fit into that space. “Are we doing this?”
“Do you want to?”
“Ari,” Dante said, very seriously. “I’m not sure I ever stopped wanting to.”
They ended up in the bedroom. There were detours along the way: they had to take a break when Ari’s stomach rumbled, loudly, mid-kiss, and he admitted he’d never actually eaten lunch; Dante had pressed him up against the fridge and kissed him long and sweet and lingering, his hands wandering south; Ari had paused to refill Legs’s water bowl, and they spent several minutes making out by the bathroom sink; and then finally, finally they ended up in the bedroom, where Dante was unzipping Ari’s coveralls.
“Do you remember how, in the beginning, we were so nervous to touch each other?” Dante asked, his hands gliding underneath Ari’s shirt, raking his fingers along bare skin.
“I remember how you never stop talking,” Ari answered, and pressed a light kiss against the side of Dante’s neck.
“I had to beg you to let me give you a blowjob. You thought it was uncouth.”
“I did not think it was uncouth,” Ari said, even though he barely knew what that meant. He resolved to look it up later. “I just thought it was, you know. Kind of weird.”
“Do you think it’s weird now?”
“No,” Ari said firmly, and Dante grinned and pushed him towards the mattress.
Ari didn’t want this to end. He’d been with other guys, since, but it was never like this. Dante kissed the inside of his knee without any sort of hesitation. Dante made taking his socks off sexy. Dante wrapped his hand around him and said, delightedly, “I can’t wait to see if your orgasm face has changed at all.”
After everything, maybe that was what Ari had been waiting for. Maybe moving forward didn’t mean in a straight line. Maybe circling back around could somehow be progressive too.
That night, his dream: He was in his parents’ living room. His dad was in his recliner. His mom was grading papers on the sofa. Ari was holding Dante’s hand. His dad looked over at them and nodded his approval.
That was it. That was the entire dream.
He woke up that morning, warm, mostly naked, Dante pressed against him from behind. He smiled and ran his fingertips along Dante’s arm, and then smiled even harder when Dante groaned in complaint and pulled the blankets up over his eyes. Leaving the bed seemed impossible, but he had work to do. Bills to pay. Possibly a second business to open.
They hadn’t talked about it yet, hadn’t figured things out, but it was easier, he thought, to leave home in the morning, when he knew he would be coming back to this.
To: A. Mendoza
From: Dante Quintana
Date: Wednesday, June 30, 1999 6:17 PM
Subj: This Is Not Spam
I’m back at my apartment in San Francisco. The high was in the 60s today. I shivered the entire bus ride home. It was weird leaving El Paso. I swear, I almost got off the plane.
Isn’t it weird how quickly you can get used to something, Ari? I’m talking about the heat and you. You are very, very easy to get used to.
I’ve been to so many different places in the world and I’ve seen so many amazing things but nowhere has ever really felt like home. Dad always says I’m a nomad. For a while, I thought he was right. I thought I was always bound to wander the earth in search of somewhere better.
I’m starting to think that’s not true. It’s not the place, is it, Ari? It’s who you’re with that matters. That’s what I think now.
I’ll see you soon.
P.S. Check this out: http://www.hampsterdance.com/ Isn’t the Internet amazing?