Back to school. I felt okay about it, mostly. The worst thing about school was that I couldn’t spend all day with Dante anymore. No more of those long, sweet, summer days where we lay down next to each other and held hands for hours. There was so much to say but sometimes I didn’t feel like talking. I could spend hours lying there on the back of my truck, looking at the stars and feeling his fingers touching mine.
I think maybe the reason I loved the stars was because they made me feel unutterably lonely. They were so far away and their light took so long to reach us that the stars we were seeing had disappeared into the blackness long ago. That was a really sad thought. I would lie there and hold Dante’s hand and hope that the night never ended. Then I drove us home and kissed him on his doorstep and went to sleep with his kisses lingering on my lips.
School meant a regimented calendar, homework, the future looming and taking increasingly solid shape. Study, work, plan, work some more. Work and rules.
We needed rules to make sense of the whole chaotic mess of adolescence, but that didn’t mean they felt good. Back at school, out in the world, the rule was that boys didn’t like boys, and that rule was enforced with words and fists.
“Sometimes you might have to keep your head down, Ari,” my dad had said to me a few days earlier. He and mom were sitting across from me at the dinner table and the conversation ended up inevitably turning towards my senior year. “I know you don’t want to. You’re brave, and I love you for it. But I don’t want you hurting someone or getting hurt. High school’s not forever.” Dad spoke in whole strings of sentences at a time now. I was slowly getting used to it.
“Like with Dante and Julian,” I said flatly.
“Yes.” He looked solemn and sorry.
I was down with the whole no punching or being punched plan, on the whole. But I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that we had to make this plan in the first place.
So even though I wasn’t mad about having to study and go to class, not really, I wasn’t feeling all that great about school. Still, I couldn’t help grinning when I went into the cafeteria and saw Gina and Suzy waving me over.
“You look different,” was the first thing Gina said to me.
“You saw me last week. What’s the deal, Gina. Have I got even more handsome since then?”
“Shut up. You’re happy. You never smiled at me in the cafeteria before. You used to act like this place was sucking the life out of you.”
“Ari’s in love,” Suzy said dreamily.
“Stop that,” I said. “Don’t use my own words against me.”
“Don’t be so defensive, asshole.” Gina chewed smugly on her fries.
“Is this what I’m gonna have to deal with for the entire rest of the year?”
“Yup.” Gina nodded as if the whole thing was concluded and turned to Suzy. “So, hey, Diego’s cute now, have you noticed?”
I stared gloomily down at my plate as they chattered to each other about who had gotten hotter since May. I wasn’t feeling it. The whole morning, I had been just waiting for another of those dumb icebreakers. What did you do this summer?
I pictured it. I kissed my friend who taught me to swim, I would say. And not only that. One time we were naked under the stars. Screams and hoots. What’s her name? Who is she?
He’s called Dante. Silence. Laughter. Something boiling hot inside me. Me, looking straight at the teacher, just daring him to say something.
“Ari!” Gina said loudly. “You look like you want to burn a hole in the table with your eyes.”
“Let’s not talk about it at school,” I said. “Just for now, okay. So what if I’m different. You’re different too. Suzy cut her bangs.”
“That’s sweet of you to notice, Ari,” Suzy said. “I’m gonna get a nice boy to date me this year. For real this time.”
Gina shook her head. “You’re all talk.”
“Don’t mind her, Suzy. You have a real nice smile. Boys will notice you.”
“Awwwww.” Suzy smiled at me. It was the truth. She had a nice smile. “You are different.”
“I take it back.”
“No takebacks,” Gina crowed.
I sighed heavily and ignored both of them. I could tell that they were exchanging glances, but I had no interest in all that.
Nobody except Suzy and Gina cared enough to ask about my summer that first day, though. I got a few more stares than usual, enough to know that some version of the story involving me and Dante and those boys had spread, but I guessed everyone was pretty well in the habit of ignoring Ari by now.
At least, everyone except for Michael Thompson. He came up to me at my locker.
“I know why you beat the shit out of Julian,” he said. “I know what you are.”
Michael was a burly guy who played a lot of sports. He and I kept clear of each other by mutual agreement. I didn’t like that Michael thought he had a reason to come up to me now.
“You know I’d do it again, then,” I said, and stared at him. I didn’t try and intimidate him, just stood there, waiting.
He squinted at me and then spat on the floor at my feet, turned away and went back to his friends, and that was that.
Suited me just fine.
When school was out I went home and fetched Legs and we went straight over to Dante’s house.
“Back before eleven,” mom said when I stuck my head into the kitchen to wave at her. “You have school tomorrow.”
“And the day after, and the day after that.”
“That’s how it goes. Have fun, Ari. Say hi to Dante and his parents.”
I set off running as soon as I got out the door. Who had time for walking when Dante was there waiting? Legs bounded ahead of me; clearly she felt the same way.
It was a hot, muggy day, clouds hanging heavy in the sky over the city. The road was wide and dusty with small clumps of trees sticking up now and again, bursts of green amongst the wearied gray and yellow of the highway. My shirt stuck to my back. I felt most fond of El Paso when its streets were leading me to the person I wanted to see most in the world.
When Mrs. Quintana opened the door Legs went crazy, barking and pawing at her legs. Mrs. Quintana didn’t seem to mind the furry onslaught of love. She bent down and buried her hands in the thick fur at Legs’ neck, then she stood up and kissed me on the cheek. I kissed her, a little less awkwardly than I used to six months ago. She hugged me for good measure.
“Feels like a reunion.” I grinned. “I was over yesterday, you know.”
“Yes, Ari, I remember.” She smiled at me and walked through to the kitchen. I followed behind her. “Dante’s in his room, you can go on up. Fill me in on how school was later.”
“School was school. Not much to tell.” I ducked gratefully out of the room and went up the stairs to Dante’s room.
Dante was sitting on his bed, reading. His hair fell in light waves across his forehead. He stretched out his legs and waggled a foot when he saw me. “Ari! How was school?”
Everyone’s favorite question. I groaned. “Moderately terrible but not all that bad. You?”
“Kinda good!” he said. I rolled my eyes at him. “I missed learning stuff. Does that make me weird?”
“I guess not.”
“And it was kind of nice to be back at Cathedral. Apparently I’ve gotten almost cool since I returned to Chicago and was hospitalised over the summer. I was told in those exact words. Wow, Dante, you’re almost cool now.”
“Aww,” I said. “If they think that they must not know you at all.”
In response, Dante pulled off a sock and threw it at me. I smirked when it missed me by several inches and landed on the floor.
Dante ignored his miss. “Are you cool now, Ari? Look at you, you must be. You have muscles and a truck. And a dog. Most teenage boys can only dream of those things.”
“I’m not most boys, Dante. And I’m definitely not cool. My truck is cool. But I’m not.”
“Well, they’re idiots, your classmates,” he said with conviction.
I went over to sit next to Dante on his bed. “Maybe they’re jealous ‘cause my boyfriend’s so cool and handsome and smart.”
Dante actually giggled. “And a genius,” I added, to try and make him to do it again.
“Okay, okay, calm down Ari.” He was blushing a little. I stared, fascinated. “Nice try. They don’t know about me. Right?”
“Dante, I broke Julian’s nose. It wasn’t subtle.”
“You sound angry.”
I looked at Dante’s face, perfect and whole and bright, and remembered it swollen and puffy and dark with bruises. Then I blinked my eyes downwards and looked at his hands.
“I was so scared and mad, Dante. And ashamed. That most of all.”
“Of me. Of myself. But also you and mom and dad and the whole stupid world.”
“It’s different now, right?” Dante said. He sounded hopeful and unsure.
“Yeah.” I kissed him to prove it. “World hasn’t stopped being stupid, though.”
He leaned back against the pillow and grinned. “If anything, it’s getting stupider each day.”
“That could explain a lot. Charlie Escobedo, for example.”
“Is Charlie adding to all the stupid, or is he a product of the world’s stupidity?” Dante said thoughtfully.
“Maybe both all at once. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“A stupid snake eating itself and growing bigger.”
I snorted. There was Dante’s crazy logic, strange and brilliant all at once. “Just a really, really dumb snake.”
“Stop that, snake! Get your tail outta your mouth!” Dante scolded.
“Bad snake!” I wagged my finger. We both cracked up, falling over each other.
Once Dante managed to stop wheezing he settled comfortably, snugged up against my side.
I thought about it, sitting there with my chin tucked into his hair.
Dante and me. The things that I’d learned, and the things that were still a mystery to me.
He’d drawn what remained of the fear out of me with his hands, bold yet gentle, relentlessly curious, and now I had this empty space left inside of me where it used to be and that space filled up and up with love for him. Maybe I was always made to be a vessel for Dante’s love. Didn’t seem like such a crazy thing to be. Except now I had space to carry so much more of it.
Sometimes, though, I thought I just had more space inside me to be angry. Or more space to be miserable. Space for new fears. I didn’t know how to tell him that.
“You’re thinking very loudly.” Dante stroked my hair.
“I’m thinking about you,” I said.
“Asshole,” Dante said fondly. “Read me something?”
“Okay,” I said. I thought for a minute. “Hey, Dante.”
“Can I read you a letter?”
The letter was in my pocket. I’d been carrying it around for three days now and the paper was going soft at the edges where I’d folded it.
Dante lifted his head. “Sure. Who’s it from?”
“Me. But I haven’t sent it yet. It’s a letter to Bernardo.”
Curiosity gleamed in Dante’s eyes.
I unfolded the paper and stared down at my own words. Be brave, I told myself. You have to.
“Dear Bernardo,” I read.
“I’m Ari. Aristotle. Remember me? Your brother. It’s been awhile, huh?
I don’t really know how to begin. You might have already decided to throw this letter away. But even if you don’t reply I hope that you read it.
I think maybe you don’t want to talk about mom and dad and and our sisters and that’s okay. But I don’t know about you and I don’t know if I want to talk about me.
I think I want to talk about us. What I remember most of all is how much I loved you. Bernardo, it’s like I almost never knew you and I missed you all that time. In my memory you’re so big, taller than mom and I’m not even up to your waist but you pick me up and spin me round and I’m higher than anyone ever flew.
I remember you laughing.
Now I’m seventeen and in my senior year of high school so don’t imagine that I’m still that little kid you knew. I know that happens, that people become fixed in your memory the way they were the last time you saw them, so it must be strange to think that I became an entire person while you were away in prison. It’s a weird process, growing up. Kind of hard. I think you know about that.
You can ask me pretty much anything, if you want, and I’ll do my best to give an honest answer. I am not sure just yet what I should be asking you. You have done things that I can hardly imagine. I’ve felt and caused pain, but the magnitude of your sufferings, the things you’ve endured and inflicted, is so great that I don’t know how to take it in.
Is it lonely in prison?
Sorry, Bernardo, that I can’t help but make you think about family, and talk about things you just want to keep to yourself. I know this is something the men in our family struggle with.
I know what you did, and I can hardly fathom how a person could do that. I didn’t know about it until recently. It weighs very heavily on me. I still love you, though. I hope you have read this far so that you know that. You exist outside of that prison, because I walk around with your name on my tongue every day.
Write back, if you want. It doesn’t have to be anything deep. Even if you don’t, I will write again.
I folded up the paper and tucked it away. It was quiet between us, but not a bad quiet. I looked at Dante and waited for him to say something.
“That’s good, Ari.” His voice was soft. “It’s really good.” Dante cleared his throat. “You sure tried hard to convince me that you were incapable of talking about feelings in letters.”
“Times have changed,” I told him.
“Sure have. Will you ever tell him about me?” Dante said.
“Yeah.” Presenting a Dante-less version of my life would be more than lying. It would be inventing some other Ari who’d never even existed.
“But will you tell him?”
“Maybe.” So much telling to do. Was it possible for a boy to like boys and remain inscrutable? Or did you have to parcel your rawest, best parts out to everyone you came across? I hoped, desperately, that it wouldn’t always be that way.
Dante sighed a little. “Family.”
“Just when you think you’ve figured them out, they keep growing in unexpected ways.”
“It’s complicated,” Dante said. “Even my baby brother is complicated and he’s not even a person at all yet! He might not even be a he! Screw complicated.”
“You want simplicity? You?” I raised an eyebrow and he laughed under his breath.
“I wanna kiss you,” Dante said. “It’s been a whole day.”
He dragged me down by my shoulders and pressed his mouth to mine.
It was dark when I set off home. Dante’s bed was really comfortable. Way more comfortable than mine, but that might just have been because it had him in it. But I managed to drag myself down the stairs to a slightly reproachful Legs, smoothing my hair down hastily. I still looked ruffled and sheepish though and it took some effort to look Mrs. Quintana in the eye.
“Get yourself home, Ari,” she said fondly. “I’m sure your mother’s waiting.”
She was, even though it was 10.58pm, sitting at the kitchen and reading a book with her glasses pushed down her nose. She glanced at her watch when I came in the room and raised her eyebrows.
“Hey, you should be asleep, mom,” I told her. “You have school tomorrow.”
She fixed me with a look. “I’m glad to see you taking such a responsible attitude towards bedtime.”
“That’s me. All grown up. Mr. Responsibility.” I sat down next to her at the kitchen table. She leaned her head on my shoulder. I was surprised for a second and then I put my arm around her. She smelt faintly of the perfume she liked to wear, familiar and comforting.
We didn’t need to say anything. It was peaceful there with the fridge humming quietly behind us. I yawned so wide my jaw cracked. Mom felt it, lifted her head and stood. “Bedtime for both of us,” she said softly.
I went upstairs and pressed my face to the glass of the window in my bedroom. The sky was clear, not quite the deep black of the desert sky, which on a good night looked black enough to swallow the whole world, but clear enough to see the stars. Small and bright, so still even as they hurtled through the sky.
Tomorrow I would get up and go to school and do it all again. And again and again until the year was done and I left El Paso and my parents behind.
Would it mean leaving Dante too? We hadn’t talked about that yet. We would, though.
Not yet, I told myself firmly. I took out the folded letter from my pocket and laid it on my desk.
Tomorrow I would put it in the mailbox on the way to school and it would make its way to Bernado, not the brother in my head but the real brother I’d longed to know as long as I could remember. Tomorrow I would see Dante again.
“Enough thinking, Ari,” I muttered to myself.
When I lay down and felt myself slipping into the darkness of sleep, I wasn’t afraid to dream.