That night, I couldn’t sleep. I had to ask Cindy to be my girlfriend early the next day, before Hugo got to me. If he beat me up after she started officially dating me, he’d look like a sore loser. I could hire a Latin trio and go serenade her at midnight. Except I’m not that great of a singer. Still, it’d be legend, so worth a shot. I called a group I’d seen at a couple quinceañeras. They charged $500 for half an hour.
On to Plan B. I pulled out my box of Cindy mementos from under the bed. There were a couple old gums in wrappers she’d given me long ago. A pencil I never returned. A USB Flash drive with pictures of her I’d downloaded from the computer in Journalism class. And a note she passed me once in SexEd asking what we were supposed to have read for homework the night before. Also, my leather bound journal, with an inscription on the inside cover:
“Tía Matty- If I die for whatever reason, please make sure this journal reaches Cindy Nuñez.”
Then her address and phone number underneath. I opened the journal to the last page- my “Cindy Likes” list page. Persimmons. Salsa music. Guys with beards. Bunnies. Also paella made with rabbit meat. But not bunny meat. Ponytails on Mondays. Cruz Azul (Mexican soccer team). Sensational celebrity news. And red roses.
If I were an artist, I could spread all the contents of the box onto a canvas in all of their aesthetic glory, from the wrapped gum to sleazy news articles, with printouts of her beautiful face overlapping all of it. But something in my gut told me that wouldn’t turn out well. So I decided to bring a red rose to her locker early the next morning and ask her to go dancing with me Friday night.
I knocked on my aunt’s bedroom door. I had heard her use the bathroom a few minutes earlier. “Tía Matty. I know you’re awake.”
“Go away. I’m sleeping.”
“I just need a favor.”
“Are you dying?”
“Then you don’t need a favor.”
“Please? It’s an emergency.” I opened the door.
“I need you to teach me how to dance.”
Her face lit up. Or I imagine it did. Her bedroom had a nightlight but it was still pretty dark. “Well why didn’t you just say so?” She got out of bed and switched on the lights.
“I have to learn by Friday night. So that just gives us today and tomorrow.”
“Is this about a girl?”
I couldn’t conceive any other circumstances in which this would not be about a girl. So I played with her a little. “No. It’s about a boy. I-”
“¡Cállate!” Shut up. And her open palm hovered inches above my face, ready to slap down on it. …So I guess we know where she stands on that.
She pulled out her old Tito Puente and Celia Cruz albums and started jiggling around like a worm. As I tripped over myself I began wondering if it was even worth it. I just wasn’t the dancing type. But then I pictured Cindy dancing with Hugo and me watching from across the room with a patch over my black eye. My grandma had gotten up too and the smell of fresh coffee penetrated the old Victorian cedar walls. We kept at it til three in the morning. It was a good way to expend my nervousness.
Four hours later, I drove to the nearest supermarket to pick up a single red rose. Since it was late autumn and we lived so far north, they didn’t have any. I was going to have to drive into the city. Which meant I’d probably miss first period. I might as well hit my uncle up for breakfast, since I was heading in that direction.
I texted him and we agreed to meet at a coffee shop. He said he knew where to find red roses and he’d get one for me.
I drove in circles around the block til I was able to find a free parking spot and then walked for five minutes between hordes of men dressed in hunting clothes and people in office attire. Why would anyone want to live in that place?
My uncle handed me the rose at the cafe. “Who’s it for? Cindy?”
How did he know about Cindy? I shrugged. “How much do I owe you?”
“It’s nothing. I know a girl.”
Not sure what I was supposed to make of that. Did he steal a rose from some lady’s bouquet? Was he sleeping with a florist?
We ordered our drinks and he started talking about my uncle Pablo, the one in prison, and how he hadn’t made parole.
“Are you his attorney?”
“Well I’m not proud of it. But he’s kind of the reason I got into Law to begin with. My mom couldn’t afford to pay no one, and you know how the state-appointed counsels can be.”
I nodded, but I had no idea.
“So what’s he in for?”
He gave me one of his deep analytical looks. The I-haven’t-seen-you-in-years-but-I’m-going-to-figure-you-out-in-ten-seconds look. “You know I’m not supposed to tell you that.” He scratched his beard. “But he’s upstate by Helado Flats if you ever think you need to talk to him. There’s a reason your aunt asked me not to tell you these things. She knows as well as I that no one can stop you from becoming an hombre. A real man can handle the truth.”
“Did he kill my mom?”
His eyes widened as he looked at me and then they filled with pain. He put his hand on my shoulder and took a deep breath, then looked at his watch and finished his latte. Not another word about it. A real man can handle the truth.
His phone rang and I was about to leave but I needed a note from him on account of my tardiness. I sat through the conversation- something about motions to dismiss and a pretrial and the racist D.A. He covered the mouthpiece with his coat collar and leaned over. “This is going to be a while.”
“If I were you I wouldn’t say all that stuff in public.” I looked around at all the professional looking folk around us. The courthouse was only three streets over.
“I’ll have to call you back.” He hung up and got up from the table, and I asked him for the late slip.
Back at school I decided to wait for Cindy in front of her second period classroom. The bell rang and Hugo swung the door open with a couple of his buddies pushing into him. I clenched my teeth and looked at the ceiling. I should have taken Hugo’s whereabouts into account that morning but I was sleep-deprived, running on caffeine and endorphins, not to mention the fear of rejection. I tried to turn around and face the wall, but as the hallway began to shake all around me, I knew it was all over.
“Hey Punk, that rose for me?” Hugo’s friends laughed at his supreme sense of humor.
Whatever I replied, it didn’t matter. Any second, Cindy would come out the room, see me pinned against the wall, taking a beating. My life was over. I’d have to move away, out of state, and start from scratch.
“I was just- I was just-” Damn it. Why start stuttering again now?
“You were just about to hit on my woman, weren’t you, dip-shit?”
The whole class had formed a circle around us. His friends egged him on. “Do it Hugh-boss. Beat that mamón’s ass.” He grabbed my shirt collar into his fist as I calculated the pros and cons of running away.
Cindy stepped forward. “Leave him alone Hugo. He’s just my friend.”
Now, let me tell you, that hurt about ten times more than the beating I was about to endure. The girls in the crowd started giggling. Where was Meztli? At the the other side of the school, probably, casually wandering over to Journalism.
Mrs. Gutierrez, Cindy’s English teacher, stepped out into the hall. “Cindy, is this the boy you wrote about in your last essay? The one about repressed emotions?”
Jesus Christ!, I thought, could this get any worse?
The teacher went on. “George, let me take that rose from you before you poke someone with it. And all of you, off to third! You’re blocking the entrance for my next group.”
Hugo leaned in and whispered in my ear. “Mamón, watchatela.” Dumbass, you better watch it.
Cindy stayed behind everyone and straightened out my shirt. She took my arm and asked, “Was that rose really for me?”
“That depends. Are you holding my arm as a friend or the other thing?”
“What’s the other thing?”
“Cindy, I’m sorry, I thought you weren’t dating anyone-”
“I’m not. Dummy. Why would I be holding your arm- You don’t think I’m just a flirt, do you?”
I looked her in the eyes. Those eyes, like a pool of chocolate you could drown in. She looked at my lips, and so, I kissed her.