“Can you believe it?” my brother said, talking more to the air than to me. “They’re leaving us without a soccer field.”
“What?” I said to myself and went up to the roof, my favorite place in the house for the last few months. It was 1979.
And from the building’s roof I saw three bulldozers tear up the palm trees from the median strip, which really meant that they were knocking down the goal posts. I don’t remember if I understood it so clearly then, but the widening of the street was somehow related to my high school’s moving from the corner to a new school a few kilometers away, in a rich, protected neighborhood. This move irked me, because it surely had something to do with the fact that my father stayed home all day and I found myself exiled to the roof, above the water tanks, where I could see the source of all my misfortunes.
Perhaps because I did my thinking on the roof, I never gave much thought to Glenda Vidal, the daughter of the Attorney Laureano X. Vidal. I didn’t think about her until the day that she called me from her desk by the classroom door to make a rash request:
“I want you to draw me something,” she said with her voice that I’ve forgotten with the passing of years.
What she referred to were the drawings that I’d done that April with a set of felt tip pens over the dull blank space on my white sneakers. The illustration, with serpents, red masks that pulled out your tongue, a message in a bottle and carnivorous roses with long, sinuous stalks, hadn’t been made for any reason other than boredom as the school days repeated themselves, copies of so many other days of school. I never thought anyone else would want those drawings for herself. But Glenda Vidal asked me for them from her desk, which I had never noticed before, in the middle of a day like any other, as the sun shone through each of the classroom windows, boiling us in our own hormones.
“But where?” I said, seeing that she wore black buckled shoes. Her mother obviously picked out her clothes.
And Glenda took off her beige sweater and left her shoulders bare. She took her red pen and held it out to me. I squeezed that pale arm, as if I were about to give her a shot, and I felt her warmth. I began to tattoo her a rose with thorns that opened furrows between her imperceptible blonde hairs. It wasn’t until my gaze rose to her face that I noticed what had happened: Glenda was blushing.
And then it was I who started to sweat.
In the first days of June, without any space left to draw on my sneakers, I decided to undertake an ephemeral series of works, again encouraged by the down time in breaks between classes. Sometimes the work consisted of a rose behind the door, other times the way the classroom would look if the blackboard were a mirror, other times of things that I had seen, like a bulldozer uprooting a palm tree on my street. I drew distractedly between classes, while Glenda went to the bathroom or recounted the adventures of her trips to Houston or defined the hidden meaning of “tennis clinics,” which I thought were hospitals for shoes. And so, as a result of my carelessness, it happened that one morning, when Professor Sykes prepared to erase the blackboard and renew his eternal explanation of Beowulf, he froze for two seconds and asked, before the vision of a sign:
“Who drew this?”
“Me,” I answered after he took off his glasses and swiveled to look at us with his lean, British bachelor’s face.
Sykes took me by the arm, lifted me up and escorted me thus to the principal’s office. Everything moved so fast that I couldn’t react until Prefect Aguilar explained:
“Here, sir, we have blacks. We have a few little Japanese children in the kindergarten, we have dark-skinned students—many more than we would like. But no communists. The communists won’t continue on to the new school”—she declared and looked me directly in the eyes—”Where did you learn to draw that symbol?”
“I saw it in a book,” I confessed. “Not at my house, though, in a bookstore,” I lied, because, as things turned out, it seemed my parents were also committing a serious crime for possessing these books with a hammer and sickle.
By the time I freed myself by convincing the authorities that, as it were, I didn’t have the slightest idea what it meant to be a “communist,” the half hour of Sykes and Beowulf had ended. For the first time since I reached the age of reason, the other kids wanted to know what had happened to me. I felt a sort of pride when I showed a few of them how easy it was to draw a hammer and sickle, and from that day on the walls of the school were covered with the sign, almost a scribble from being drawn so often and quickly to avoid discovery. Most importantly that day, I kissed Glenda. The aphro-disiac of rebellion. Her mouth felt like defiance with a tongue that ran in circles, lips that lifted. And even with a little bite at the end. As strange as the tendency of our eyelids to fall when we looked at each other.
“Who taught you to kiss like that?” I whispered and caressed her hair. “The leaves of the trees in summer?”
“No,” Glenda said. “A boy on the basketball team.”
We took it as a given that we were girlfriend and boyfriend, and the sign of that was to hold hands, kiss, talk. I didn’t try to take off her clothes; she did it for me. Weeks passed and we had sex for the first time. It happened on the mats in the gym. There’s nothing to discuss, as it was a tremendous confusion, a surprise that every-thing felt so wet and hot, a desire to do something you’ve only heard about in whispers. I only know that we sweated more than was necessary, to the point that our flesh stuck to the yellow plastic mats. She closed her eyes the whole time. Later, the job done, we talked more and kissed less. I insisted on enlightening her life, which was filled with trips to McAllen to buy Milky Ways—which I treasured like objects traded over the Silk Road—and insisted that she read, at the very least, Cortázar, García Márquez, or Borges. Not Hopscotch, which I found unreadable, but Bestiary, and particularly “The Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” which I called “the story of the bunnies.” And I read it out loud to her and explained, “The rabbits are the problems that the man pulls from his mouth.”
And Glenda began to teach herself with the books that our American school would never buy: books by writers in Spanish. I brought them from my house, hidden in my backpack, because now that my father was out of work, he spent his time reading and smoking in his shirtsleeves, and he complained when he couldn’t find a book. Glenda had a pre-literary interest in books: she was fascinated by stationery. As a result she turned out to be a reader with little concentration, which led to the fact that, when she finally finished reading something, she retained the general meaning, but never the details. She couldn’t understand what I believed then to be the books’ “profundity,” and this heightened my instructive capacities. But my airs of superiority were always trampled when she extracted from her purse—she carried a different purse almost every day—an American candy bar. She shook it in front of my eyes and invariably I got distracted and we ended up eating it fast, forced it between kisses. Glenda’s cloying lips. And then I thought with my eyes closed about how her breasts were flaccid—before holding one in my hand, I imagined they were hard—and about the strange form of what was between her legs, the hotness inside, the way kisses degrade: after the first hundred they lose their novelty. And while I thought about this I opened my eyes and saw that hers were closed: Glenda, really concentrating.
The long summer vacation arrived as we prepared to go to Acapulco. But this year I wasn’t the most excited one for the trip. I had found the only reason to wake up early for school when one stumbles over sixteen years: Glenda Vidal Chardonnet. She was erratic: sometimes she took off running down the staircase to avoid me, laughing; other times she drew near to pass me a ridiculous note, damp from her sweating hands and covered with little hearts. Less often, we would end up taking our clothes off in a hurry in the art studio, in the gym, in an empty classroom. But for all the times I tried to take off the clothes that her mother, effectively, chose for her every night, she resisted:
“Let me do it, you’ll wrinkle them,” she said, scrunching up her nose.
But my emotion outweighed any such details. I watched her lift her white skirt as the sun shone through the gym window. I tore off my unfailing green shirt. And I knew that being alive was worth something.
“Rabbit,” I called her and she turned, her blonde locks falling all over her face. She lifted her hair and smiled.
“You’re a fool.”
“Or a veterinarian,” I always replied as I buttoned my big green shirt, an inheritance from my older brother.
This was the first time I wasn’t excited for the summer trip. We arrived in Acapulco after an infernal journey, during which my father’s Valiant 72 broke down so many times that we would have done better to travel by donkey. Anyone on a passing bus could see a family, mine, dressed in city clothes, taking shelter from what appeared to be a boiling geyser. That day I learned that the thing in a car called “radiator” can be dangerous when its contents shoot up at your face. It’s a miracle we weren’t disfigured for life. When we got to the hotel, the Copacabana, in the old district of Acapulco, we were all in a foul mood. The place turned out to be a pigsty, without a TV and with an air conditioner that roared, coughed, and whistled. If you wanted to sleep, you had to roast. You traded insomnia for cool but noisy air. In terms of food, we kids could have anything, but my parents seemed to have lost their appetite. I didn’t understand it until years later: people talked about the “abundance” of petroleum, but my parents were going through a period—which ultimately had no end—of scarcity. But at sixteen I thought the heat had taken away their appetite.
It was on whim of my brother’s, who had recently enrolled in the university, that we were brought to the lobby of the Fiesta Americana. My brother wandered off to buy a Monster magazine, whose cover showed a man with a disfigured face, the product of a radioactive experiment or a radiator. Meanwhile, I looked next door toward a room with a thick, wine-colored carpet, where a game of bingo was developing. There, holding her head in her hands, Glenda Vidal appeared.
“I’m going say hi to someone,” I told my mother.
I went up to Glenda, buoyed perhaps by the courage that came from being in a place that wasn’t school, and she, lifting her head, blushed again. Her family consisted of a fat father, who had a graying moustache and dyed blonde hair, and who, while holding a cigar, tried to flirt with a waitress in a miniskirt: it was the Attorney Laureano X. Vidal. The family also consisted of a mother, his second wife, who looked at me out of the corner of her eye and said with a false French accent:
And also of a younger sister who entertained herself by hiding under the table and counting bingo cards from one pile to another. That was as far as my family got. And they made their introductions.
“Are you staying at this hotel?” Glenda asked me.
“No,” my mother cut in. “We’re at the Hyatt.”
“Copacabana,” I corrected her. “We’re staying at the Copacabana.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then distant goodbyes.
My mother tried to erase the mistake.
“Her father is a redneck. Did you see how he spit on the carpet? And he’s drunk. How is it that someone like him has money for a room in this hotel?”
“He runs something in Petróleos,” I informed her, referring to the state-run petroleum company. “His name is X. Vidal.”
“That explains it,” my father snorted. When he worked, it was in hospitals for the homeless.
“They seemed nice to me,” I said, expressing my dissent. “Her mother liked my green shirt.”
My mother then gave me an unnecessary kiss on the scalp, which I rejected. What did her compassion amount to? For hours I looked at my pistachio green shirt, an inheritance from my brother, and I found it perfect. Despite its drooping sleeves and indelible stains, the shirt was worthy of praise: with it, you never felt the heat. It was pistachio green, and no one at school had one like it.
School resumed and brought with it with a pleasant surprise: Glenda Vidal’s new tan. Her tan wasn’t just a color, but a distinct scent. As if the sea air had stuck to her skin. But it had a counterpart: Glenda seemed aloof.
“I must not have rinsed all the soap off,” she said, defending herself, but I insisted on my better judgment that she smelled like the sea.
Before class and during the breaks, we struck up those little conversations in which Glenda resisted my compliments, knotting her hair with her finger, and I shot them out without thinking. We had lost something with our brief encounter by the beaches: the unreality of school. Now at recess she preferred to be with her friends, and I waited for her in the workshops, alone; I waited on my imaginary rooftop where I always looked out at the same gutted street. I decided to accost her in the hallways with a simple reminder of our lost intimacy:
“Rabbit,” I whispered in her ear quickly, the one time I caught her by the arm before she fled.
“You’re the rabbit I pulled from my mouth.”
“I’m not an animal,” she protested, so insensitive to first love, at least my first love.
It was through those hallway encounters that she invited me to her seventeenth birthday party. The party was to take place that same evening. I must have been the last person to find out, and, had I taken that into account, I might have understood her meaning. But it never crossed my mind that this detail could be relevant. On the contrary, I was obsessed by the fact that I would have to get her a present, fast, without money. I focused the rest of the day on imagining a place where I could walk in and easily steal a gift. A gift like my green shirt: something no one else would ever have.
At exactly four in the afternoon, with a headache from the sun, I crossed the doors of the Palacio de Minería and started to join the masses at the Book Fair, those people who would pick up a book, read the back cover, look at the price, and deposit it back on the shelf. The abundance of petroleum. I had a clear objective: We Love Glenda So Much, by Julio Cortázar. I walked among the people, calm, focused, moving with the rhythm of the horde. But just when I could make out the sign for the Nueva Imagen publishing house, I started to sweat. My heart raced. I had to do it quickly, without hesitating, and leave with the rhythm of the people, without turning back. I sought the book with clouded vision, I found it with sticky fingers, took it, I opened it a moment, ran my eyes over the illegible letters, and stuck to their paste, I began to walk calmly toward the next stand, the one belonging to the Chinese, then toward the Sudamericana. Once there, I was safe. I stepped out to the sunny sidewalks with Glenda’s gift in my left hand and breathed deep. I had it. I turned to see if anyone had followed me and, in fact, there were two policemen watching each side of the street. I hastened my steps.
Luck exists, but it always brings with it a bit of misfortune. Surrounded by people, walking in the opposite direction as me, like an enormous, languid child, was Julio Cortázar. He was very tall and wore an old jacket without a tie, fast and gangly all at once. Later on TV I found out that Julio Cortázar was on his way to present his new book, Unreasonable Hours. He passed me from a distance, literally, because from the height of his bearded face it would have been impossible to see me. Within seconds, Glenda’s gift became a potentially unique object: “For Glenda, from Julio Cortázar,” the inscription would say, once I retraced my steps and caught up to him. I did it without thinking. I saw the two policemen grow closer and I felt how one of them fixed his gaze on me a second longer than the rest. Some of Cortázar’s admirers had already gone ahead, and two photographers blocked my way. I raised the book over my head:
“Mr. Cortázar. Please dedicate Glenda to my girlfriend, Glenda.”
“Your girlfriend Glenda?” he answered from his heights and took the book without waiting for my answer (I was tongue tied).
Slowly, he started to write something which I never read. I didn’t have time. The two policemen cleared a path through the crowd while a man in shirtsleeves, who must have been in charge of Nueva Imagen, pointed at me.
“Bye, Cortázar,” I screamed and took off running.
After two blocks I stripped my green shirt out of fear, that shirt everyone admired, as I thought it would identify me to the police. These are things one does in a panic. I abandoned it on the street before I got on the metro. Later, before the inquisitive stares and sidelong glances on the train car, I knew that between wearing no shirt and wearing an incriminating green one, I had made the wrong choice.
I arrived at the Vidals’ house shirtless and without a gift. From the fence along the street I saw their wide garden, a dog, my classmates in the back in their swimsuits, ready to jump in the pool. Glenda, wearing a white dress that reached her calves, took the wrapped gifts, and without opening them, she passed the gifts to a maid who piled them on a table. Such would have been the destiny of Cortázar’s book.
I didn’t dare enter and got home late to our apartment, which seemed dark to me that night. I refused to explain why I was shirtless, though my brother was intrigued:
“You gambled it?” He looked at me out the corner of his eye from his spot next to the TV.
I put on my other shirt, also inherited from my brother, and collapsed in a terrible mood on the armchair that creaked with age. Cortázar appeared on the news for a few seconds, and he carried a book I imagined was destined for my beloved Glenda. I got close to the screen to see if the book’s cover coincided with the picture on Glenda.
“You’ll go blind,” my father muttered.
I closed my eyes with shame. I never told Glenda. Every time I saw her I thought of the lost book whose inscription only Cortázar saw once, that disappeared forever with him.
That elusive rabbit.
The new school was opening soon. We students in the neighborhood would have to take two buses to get there. To me, this seemed like an injustice. The administration had shown us a model of the new school, which had enormous classrooms and a deep pool on one side. Everyone was amazed by the pool, maybe because everyone imagined everyone else in bathing suits. The hormones of summer. I noticed a little sign stuck to one side of the model: there would be three speakers at the inauguration of the new building, the principal, a teacher, and a “specially chosen” student. Then I envisioned myself giving the inaugural address, and I would speak against all injustices: the end of our soccer field, the street with the palm trees, the school’s moving so far away, my father without work, taking the TV and books away from us, the sudden change in Glenda’s mood. I would say it all so everyone would understand what this summer meant to me, and then they would explain it, because I myself didn’t know what was happening to me. “Why?” was my favorite word in those months.
With the thought of running for speaker at the new school, I arrived home to confusion, to glasses wrapped in newspapers, silverware freshly polished with Brasso—its scent sour, chemical—jewelry in clear plastic bags. It seemed like we were moving, but we weren’t, according to my mother, who explained without looking me in the eyes.
“We’re not moving, but if we don’t pawn something soon, we’ll have to.”
The abundance of petroleum had hit bottom in my house. The road trip to Acapulco must have dried up the family’s savings, now that I think about it, to an extent that portrays my parents’ dark side: in one week on a beach they burned through all the money they had left. The last time we went to Acapulco. Still, they didn’t seem worried, but rather certain that pawning their most valuable goods would insure them through their old age. I took a volume of Borges from the bookcase, the book about sand, and I offered it to the collective sacrifice.
“You don’t pawn books,” my father decreed from behind a plastic bag.
“Anyway, they wouldn’t give us anything for it,” my mother calculated and leaned in to give me one of those compassionate kisses that only boiled my blood.
“Anyway, it’s mine,” my brother lied and snatched the book from me, in spite of the fact that I had stolen it.
“Are you going to pawn the table and chairs?” I asked, and the three of them laughed sardonically, the way you do when you’re about to burst out laughing with your mouth squeezed shut.
My mother leaned in again to give me that compassionate kiss, but I stopped her so that they would explain the joke.
“They wouldn’t even give us what the furniture cost. We bought it twenty years ago,” my mother finally explained, and I was grateful that the furniture’s age would save it from such a sad fate.
The pawning scene brought a radical change to the dinner table conversations at my house, which almost always took place over the scraps of the food my parents used to stub out their cigarettes. They began to talk about rich and poor, about doing something to improve the situation, about riots and rebellion. The dialogue took place between my parents, though sometimes my brother intervened, mostly with jokes that his new friends at the university told. I just listened. They called the president by a humiliating nickname—Jolopo, for the first letters of his last names—they told jokes about him, they talked about 1968. It was clear that the “abundance of oil” was drowning us.
Though my father remained unemployed, he seemed even more interested now in the strange books with portraits of Lenin or Marx from which I had copied the cursed symbol of the hammer and sickle. Some of the books even ended up on my parents’ nightstand. I leafed through them with little interest, confirming that the only illustrations were the portraits of their bearded authors and the famous sickle, crossed by a hammer, which was now obscurely related to the downfall of President Jolopo.
In my free afternoons I climbed up to the rooftop with one of those books, any one, and practiced drawing that symbol to the point of idiocy, but now with a sheaf of wheat underneath and a red star at the tip of the sickle. And so dusk fell over the bulldozers digging up the palm trees to build an enormous street. In fact, the school had already announced the exact date it would move, since the gutted earth, the chainsaws splitting the palm trees and the rumble of diesel engines now interfered with classroom performance, and the endless parade of three lanes of traffic injured our American school’s pride.
When I could no longer see the hammer and sickle in my drawings, the stars came out over my head. At these moments, I remembered Glenda. I stuck my fingers in my mouth and tried to pull out the rabbit. But now nothing came out.
A few days after we pawned my grandmother’s jewelry and a few pieces of silverware I’d never seen before, and after the pawnshop wouldn’t take the stereo my brother used to listen to the Beatles with the lights out, the candidate registry for student speaker on the first day of the new school began. That very morning, while we got dressed in the bedroom, I confessed to my brother:
“You know what I want to do?” I said, putting on my socks. “I want to be the speaker at the opening of the new school, the big one with the pool, and I want to tell everyone what they did to our street. That’s the source of all our bad luck.”
“Planaria, the school didn’t move because they widened the street,” my brother admonished, using the nickname he gave me when he began to study medicine. “The school moved so it could be closer to the rich people. You’re worth shit. We’re worth shit to them.”
I believed him, but I put myself on the list of candidates anyway. I looked over the names with my pen drawn. Total strangers: the tall basketball player from sixth year, the one who taught Glenda to kiss, another guy nicknamed Potatoes whom no one went near since his skin flaked off. Two losers. But I stopped at the last name: Glenda Vidal. Before I recovered from the blow—what the hell would Glenda talk about? How to go shopping in McAllen?—I found myself under the gaze of Prefect Aguilar, who raised her eyebrows:
“You, sir, want to give the welcoming speech?”
I raised two fingers to my sparse moustache.
“So what?” I replied. “I assure you that if I am selected, no one will forget it.”
“We would never forgive ourselves, Mr. Urdiales.” She turned and didn’t look back.
That day I knew I was done for, I would never be chosen. To begin with, I had “communist” antecedents. Those people never had a chance. I wrote my name on the list, in any case.
“Come down right now!” my mother screamed two days later.
It wasn’t yet completely dark and I cursed her for taking me from my daily pleasure of watching night fall over the destroyed street, when the machines turned off and the moon came out. And if I don’t come down, what? If I decide to live among the water tanks? My parents’ room was the same size as the one I shared with my brother, but more cramped: the king size bed fit just so that your legs wouldn’t kick the wardrobe or its full-length mirror. So cramped that, when I entered and saw them both inside, I felt instantly asphyxiated. My father was removing the gold cufflinks from his shirt. He placed them carefully on the nightstand, on top of a book by Mao.
“Your mother,” my father began, checking his wife’s expression. “Well, me too. We want you to do us a favor.”
“What?” I said distractedly, looking at myself in the mirror. I missed my green shirt.
“Your friend. The one we ran into in Acapulco.”
“Glenda.” I blushed.
“Yes, her. Her father works in Petróleos, right?” he said without waiting for an answer. “I need you to get me an interview with him.”
“You know, your dad has been without work for ten months now,” my mother interrupted, “and it seemed like a good idea to us. The doctors with Petróleos earn ten times more than anyone else,” she exaggerated. Suddenly everything was worth ten times as much.
“A few minutes with the attorney and I can take care of everything,” my father assured me.
Since there was a silence, I assumed the meeting was finished and walked toward the door. Before it creaked shut I heard a murmur:
“Thank you for helping.”
It was my father’s voice.
In front of the TV, my brother lowered his magazine and looked at me hard:
“Do it, for real.” He grew serious. “If Dad doesn’t get work soon, we won’t be able to study and they’ll make us work as waiters. Do you want that to happen to us?”
I had never been charged before with a family duty so serious and complex, and it was complicated further by the fact that Glenda was not as accessible as she seemed before Acapulco. What was it? I asked myself, without finding answers. Did I say something wrong? “Rabbit” wasn’t an insult. I never drew a hammer and sickle on her forehead. What happened? As for me, I could let her rot. But now I had a duty to my family find her and ask her a favor in my father’s name, my mother’s name, the name of my soon to be waiter-brother. Sometimes Glenda and I exchanged a few words, but The Big Topic—”Hey, one day you told me that your dad works in Petróleos. What a coincidence!”—never came up, because something like that requires a conversation of at least fifteen minutes. And I could never get that far.
In the afternoons that followed, I avoided my parents. I left on long walks without direction as the day’s last sunlight hit my back; I supervised the massacre of palm trees on my street; I came home just in time to watch night fall from the rooftop as I sat between the water tanks. My parents didn’t ask, they only looked at each other and shook their heads. So, after almost a week of carrying this charge, I interrupted one of Glenda’s discourses about whether one of her friends should accept a gold ring from some boyfriend on her street; I bombarded her:
“Why don’t you ever invite me to your house?”
She detached from me, languid, with a fuzzy gaze.
“You didn’t come to my birthday party,” she said, whispering, almost.
“What happened in Acapulco?”
From then on, Glenda avoided my gaze every morning. During the breaks she shielded herself behind her girlfriends; when she saw me in the hallways she slipped into the first bathroom at hand. Her reaction was one of absolute evasion, like a cockroach exposed to the light, and I’d only begun to ask questions. But as it turned out, the first question was unanswerable.
“I can’t, I can’t,” I told them Saturday at noon. “I can’t even make her come near me now. Make someone else do it. I quit. Fire me.”
In my head I saw the worksheets my brother used to study anatomy. The women had a kind of goat inside, with the horns pointing down. Glenda ran like the goat she carried in her belly.
“No, Max, we’re serious. Do it, please. The money already ran out. The car goes next.” My father pressed his hands against the table, crouched, ready to jump and strangle me. The Valiant whose radiator exploded on the highway. This was worth saving. Worth the sacrifice.
I tried to remember his anguished, pleading face the morning I took Glenda by the wrist and we wrestled for the first time in our brief history. She twisted, breathing heavy, I tried to tell her something that I never finished composing in my head. Exhausted, we stood up and faced each other:
“Come over to my house, Glenda, tomorrow.”
“You did what?” my mother said, exasperated.
“It was the best I could do. Nothing else occurred to me,” I justified myself.
My father snorted in the hallway, muttering under his breath that this was not the idea, this was not the idea at all.
“What’ll probably happen if Glenda sees how we live is that she’ll tell her father, he’ll take pity on us, and he’ll give you a job,” I speculated, trying to abate the tragedy.
“Good God, Max, no, you’re an idiot,” my mother said, summing up the general mood of the household.
“We really fucked up with you,” my father cut in, tipping his head to one side and lighting a cigarette.
“Never better said,” my brother hissed from behind a magazine.
“Why don’t you have furniture?” was Glenda’s first remark as soon as she got her first general impression of my house.
“The new furniture hasn’t arrived,” my mother improvised, “and we were so tired of the old furniture that we couldn’t stand looking at it anymore.”
Then I noticed that the old chairs had been replaced by bed pillows: the dilapidated furniture was piled in two back rooms to which Glenda would not have access that afternoon. That was the magnitude of shame that the armchairs provoked in my mother: it was better to set out the pillows on top of a threadbare carpet.
“Do you want something to drink, Lena?” my mother asked.
“Nestea,” Glenda said, without bothering to correct her own name.
“We don’t even know what that is,” I blurted. “There’s lemonade.”
Glenda piled up a few pillows and lay down on the carpet.
“Do you want to put on music, Max?” she said in a tone that sounded more like an order.
I walked over to the record player. On top of it rested a pawn ticket for my grandmother’s silverware. I grabbed the stub and wanted to rub it in her face. When my mother saw my violent intentions, she simply fled from the explosion’s reach. To the point that I thought I heard her running in the hallway.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked Glenda, waving the pawn ticket like a torch.
She took the paper, looked on both sides, tried to read, wrinkled her nose, but she didn’t understand from what world this message could come, a slip of red paper with the loan printed on a carbon copy, the uneven line that every ticket has after being torn from its mother, the list of debts. She crumpled the ticket and threw it behind a cushion.
It was getting toward dusk, I felt uncomfortable, my hands itched. I had nothing else to say.
“I’m going to the rooftop,” I announced, and, since it seemed so odd, Glenda followed me upstairs. We ended up sitting on a water tank, watching the city turn its lights off over the tired palms. As happened in school before the beach, the idea of being in an unreal place brought us a kind of renewed intimacy. We kissed without the mediation of American chocolates and we took each other’s clothes off for the first time. At some point I remembered the reason for the visit and told her everything, certain that she would understand. Glenda listened attentively to my plea, to my whole family’s plea—I told her that they were going to send my brother to waiter school—and her only reaction was to put on her sweater. She shook her head a few times, no. She said something to herself that she wouldn’t share with me.
Then she looked at her watch and said, “They’ve come for me.”
I followed her downstairs without having gotten a response. Glenda got into her long car, mute, closed the door and rolled down the polarized window. I stood in the street next to the car and held out my hand to her father, the one who played bingo with a cigar dangling out of his mouth.
“Mr. Vidal, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said, knowing full well it was only the chauffeur. Glenda grabbed me by the collar of my only shirt and forced me toward her as if to kiss me, but she didn’t.
“I’ll get your father an interview with mine under one condition.”
“That I stop calling you Rabbit?” I ventured.
“No. That you resign from your position as speaker at the opening of the new school.”
The first morning that we drive toward the new school, my father softly sings along to the radio in his Valiant 72. I’m riding with my cheek stuck to the window, not caring that it’s cold. A peso sign is stuck to the window to sell the car. I’ll have to start taking two buses that will take an hour to get me home. I have been dispossessed of the school on my corner. Today is the first day of my defeat. I get out of the car without saying goodbye. It’s been several weeks since I talked to my father. I simply have nothing left to say. I resigned from my position as speaker at the school’s inauguration, and as for my father, Attorney Vidal humiliated him for trying to use his daughter to get an appointment. He didn’t only not give him a job, he threw my father out of the Petróleos building escorted by guards. I heard my father’s story as he told it to my mother, I heard it told between clenched sobs, told by a doctor who was taught to clench his teeth but not to cry, I heard it with my ear stuck to the wall that my room shared with theirs. I closed my eyes. I never told my brother.
Each class is guided through the sleepy chill on a “historic” tour of the new school. It has an auditorium just as small as the old one, but the curtains are new. It doesn’t have any more classrooms, but the desks are closer together, and the patio gained only a little border of baby ivy. Sykes died over the vacation, inside the old school, by the workshops. The speeches begin: the principal who forgets to mention Sykes, Prefect Aguilar who talks only about Sykes, the chosen student, the tall basketball player, who talks with an evident cold about “the big athletic facilities” at “our” new and “nearby” school.
Everything else seems the same. In search of novelty, we gather around the promised pool. All that we can do is look down at the deep hole in the ground, with its concrete walls half-built. Glenda’s official boyfriend, the tall basketball player, makes a noise that interrupts everyone’s astonished silence. And he throws the first piece of dirty paper into the hole.
During the next few hours the following items entered the hole: soda cups, papers, a book, a Kotex, one boy threw another in, a roll of toilet paper, unrolled to create a sinister effect, the butts of cigarettes smoked on the sly, a lot of half-chewed food and a shoe belonging to a girl in third year. A week later, it was everyone’s trash can.
After another week, on the side of the building most visible from the street, I drew my first rabbit with a black, petroleum-based spray paint. It had an elongated face and two teeth; it rested on its hind legs, and its ears had been stroked or were drooping with sadness, depending on the viewer’s perspective.
The next year I had to leave the school.