I’VE SEEN ENRIQUE’S CHARM work many times at school, how his smile would trigger another to smile. A girl would put her weight on one leg or twirl a strand of hair nervously or giggle like my little brother just said the wittiest thing she’d ever heard. There was Nichole Beckman. There was Carla Avila, Tammy McIntyre, and Jodi Green. The Heekin sisters and Debbie “Lip Lock” Luckenbach. But none of them, it seemed to me, he was serious about. None until Ashley Mahoney—the first girl he brought to the house.
I’m not sure if it was Enrique’s idea or my mom’s to invite Ashley over for dinner, but whoever’s it was, I didn’t like it. I was nervous all day. Ants ran around in my stomach and my palms were two damp sponges.
I opened my closet to see if I had anything cool to wear. Nothing but jeans and band T-shirts, a pair of slacks, and a few button-down long-sleeve shirts. I pulled a plaid one from the hanger and threw it on. I rolled the sleeves up, then down, then up again. In the bathroom I wet a comb under the faucet and dragged it through my hair. It looked too neat, so I flicked the front with my fingers so a few dark strands fell across my forehead. I brushed my teeth and flossed for the first time in my life. I fidgeted with my hair some more until the doorbell rang.
By the time I came downstairs, Enrique was introducing Ashley to my mom.
It’s nice to meet you, Ashley said, and shook Mom’s hand.
It’s good to meet you too, she said, quickly glancing at Ashley’s hair, all those green waves. She held her smile still. It looked as if her top and bottom teeth were glued together.
Hiya, I said, sounding like a dork.
Ashley lifted her nose and sniffed. That smells good, Mrs. Mendoza, whatever you’re making.
Carbonada, Enrique said.
It’s an old family recipe, my mom added. I hope you like it.
I’m sure I will, she said.
We stood around, the four of us. There was an awkward pause full of head nodding and smiles.
Shall we sit down? my mom finally said.
I took my usual spot at the table. Enrique sat where our dad used to sit and it was strange seeing him there, filling up that space. Ashley sat between us. Her hair smelled like apples. Under the table I wiped my palms on my jeans while my heart galloped inside my chest.
I hope you’re not a vegetarian, my mom said as she set a bowl of beef stew in front of Ashley. I should’ve asked Enrique if you were.
No, no, it’s fine, Ashley said. I like meat.
When my mom headed back to the kitchen, Enrique’s shoulder dipped, his arm reaching under the table. Ashley jumped in her seat and slapped Enrique on the shoulder, playfully. Behave, she whispered.
My mom served Enrique and then me before finally sitting down with her own bowl. If you don’t like the broccoli, you can just take them out, my mom said. I won’t be hurt.
I like anything that’s green, really.
My mom eyed Ashley’s hair once more and smiled.
Ashley spooned a small stalk of broccoli out and lifted it to her mouth.
So how did you two meet anyway? my mom wanted to know.
Biology class, Enrique said. I sat behind her and copied all her answers. That’s why I didn’t do so well in that class.
Ashley slapped Enrique again. Playfully again.
Do you know any nice girls for my Marcus? my mom asked.
I almost choked on my stew. Stop, I said.
It would be nice, my mom continued. Then the four of you could all go out together. I think you spend too much time in your bedroom, Marcus. Always drawing or listening to music. I don’t know how you got to be so passive.
I felt my cheeks fill with blood, my embarrassment glowing like neon.
Beth doesn’t have a boyfriend, Ashley said, her voice optimistic. You know her, Marcus, right?
Who’s Beth? my mom said brightly.
She’s a girl who isn’t my type, I said.
Well, then, what’s your type?
Don’t you want to meet someone?
Look, I said, annoyed. When are you going to start dating again? I asked. I wiped my mouth and looked straight at her.
Oh, don’t be silly.
I don’t think Mr. Cormac is married, Enrique said.
Yep, he’s single, I said.
Ashley shook her head and placed her hand on top of Mom’s. He has a potbelly and a comb-over and crooked teeth, she said.
They’re not that crooked, I said.
Ashley laughed. He’s not right for you, Mrs. Mendoza. Don’t listen to your boys.
Oh, Enrique, he sounds terrible.
Yeah, well, beggars can’t be choosers, I said. I picked up the saltshaker and shook some grains over the beef stew. It’s not as flavorful as the last time you made it, I said.
My mom frowned. I’m not begging, she said. I’m happy where I’m at right now.
Ditto, I said, which wasn’t true. I was jealous as hell that my brother—my younger brother—had a girlfriend over for dinner, someone as cute as Ashley, a girl my mother was warming up to. It didn’t seem fair. I was the one who noticed her first. If I wasn’t so damn shy, things could’ve turned out differently. Ashley could’ve been slapping me playfully on the shoulder instead of Enrique. And Enrique could’ve been the one who felt inadequate instead of me.
I leaned in and spooned stew into my mouth, the broth seasoned with diced onions and parsley. I felt Ashley’s foot nudge mine before she pulled it quickly away.
Sorry, she said. I kicked your foot.
As if that’s all she did to me.
It was the last week of July when exterminators came to cover up the house behind our house with a striped red and white tarp that turned it into a circus tent. Earlier that week, I heard a woman shout, You’re a beast! followed by the sound of glass breaking. It was as if we were one big house: Our neighbors lived in the north wing and we lived in the south wing, the now much quieter wing. I imagined the poison spreading inside their darkened bedrooms, the living room and garage. I imagined a spider crawling up a wall and falling to the ground, curling up into a little black fist.
My mom was in the backyard, digging weeds out from the rectangle of grass by the swimming pool. She used a trowel and wore gardening gloves and dumped the weeds into a cardboard box.
Ashley’s sweet, she said. Don’t you think?
Yeah, she’s cool, I said. I was sitting on a low brick wall, drawing my mom, hunched and digging into the world.
I didn’t care too much for her hair.
I could tell. You kept looking at it.
Why do kids do that?
To be different.
But green? she said, yanking another weed out and dumping it into the box.
I’m going to dye my hair one of these days, I said.
You want to look like a clown, go ahead.
Hey, Mom, I said. She looked over at me and I pointed to our neighbor’s house. At least we won’t have to hear them for a while, I said.
She pushed the trowel into the grass. I know, she said. It reminds me of the house that I grew up in.
It reminds me of the house that I grew up in.
Oh, Marcus, it was never that bad.
Are you kidding? I put down my pencil and looked at my mother. There was a smudge of dirt on her forehead.
Your father and I never screamed at each other like that, she said. Maybe a few times, but not like that. She waved the trowel toward our neighbor’s house, the tarp billowing like the sail of a ship.
I was talking about Enrique and Dad, not you and him, I said. Besides, I think you were in denial a little about what he was doing to Enrique.
I was shading the ground where she crouched over the grass, the pencil scratching the page, but when I glanced up I saw that my mom was now on her knees, sitting back on the heels of her shoes. I couldn’t tell if she was hurt or angry or both. It was the first time we’d ever talked about this.
You don’t think that I tried to talk to your father, that I tried to make him understand what Enrique was going through?
I hope you did.
Marcus, I tried. I really tried.
Well, it wasn’t enough.
My mom stood and picked up the cardboard box and walked to the trash cans by the side of the house, dumping the weeds into one that was open and haloed in flies. Are you coming inside? she asked, still angry, her voice hammered flat.
After I finish this, I said, tapping the drawing with the end of my pencil. I’ll just be a second.
I know you’re still angry, she said.
I mean at your father.
Oh, I said.
I looked at our neighbor’s house, the small waves that rolled across the tarp whenever the wind bothered it, and remembered again the sound of glass breaking. The next morning I saw the damage on one of their bedroom windows. A giant hole with teeth. An opening for any winged thing to fly through.
I thought about the day my dad brought my mom ten red tulips on their ten-year anniversary. I thought about this other side of my dad, the side whose eyes welled up when he hugged my uncle at the airport. The side that took me out for ice cream when my soccer team lost the finals. And the side that would scoop up Enrique from the couch whenever he fell asleep watching TV, carry him to bed gently so as not to disturb whatever dream he was having.
It was a Saturday, the sky overcast and the grass in our backyard still damp from the previous day’s rain. Enrique and I were kicking a soccer ball back and forth. I was ten, he was nine. The ball went into the flower beds and Enrique went in, careful not to flatten any of my mom’s daffodils or daisies. He high-stepped over the flowers and his shoes sunk into the soil and when my mom called us in for lunch, we sprinted inside the house.
Enrique, my dad shrieked from his sofa chair. My body flinched. I turned and saw the muddy tracks on the pale yellow carpet, the brown footprints that led to where Enrique stood. Oh shit, he said, chuckling. Did I do that? My dad pitched forward and swung and his hand clapped loudly against Enrique’s face. He fell, stunned. He held his cheek with a small hand and cried and his face turned scarlet. You think that’s funny? my dad said, pointing at the tracks.
I should’ve done something then as my dad kept yelling, his fury a black wind blowing through the living room, full of electricity. I should’ve said it was my fault, that I was the one who told Enrique to go into the flower beds and retrieve the ball. I should’ve done something, anything but cower in the corner and press my hands against my ears, which is exactly what I did. My dad lifted his hand again, swung again. I shook until I peed on myself, my jeans going dark down my pant leg, and I remember thinking, Now he will beat me.
Not once did my dad turn his rage on me. It happened to Enrique too often to have to do with timing, and it wasn’t that I was lucky, either. It had something to do with what was inside of me. Or, rather, what was not inside of me. Maybe he recognized in Enrique what was his, not only the shape of his eyes and the slope of his nose, but his sharp tongue.
Once, when a glass of orange juice slipped from my hand in the kitchen, I quickly dropped to my knees on the tile. I was already picking up the shards and crying when he found me. That’s okay, Mijo, he said. Don’t cry, Mijo. He joined me on the floor and, in a calm voice he rarely used with Enrique, he demonstrated how I should pick up only the big pieces, being careful not to cut myself, then used a wet paper towel to mop up the tiny shards we couldn’t see.
I was ashamed for never defending Enrique, but I was also relieved my dad never hit me. I told myself that Enrique got hit because he talked back, but I knew it was more than that. My dad didn’t beat me because he knew I was weak, because he knew I punished myself enough.
Until I turned thirteen, Enrique and I shared a room. We had a bunk bed—I had the bottom bunk and he had the top. On a day when Enrique was beaten, I felt him thinking hard above me. He would turn over and over and the bedsprings would squeak.
You can’t sleep? I’d ask.
Nuh-uh, he’d say.
One time, when neither of us could sleep, I asked him if he could live anywhere on earth, where would it be.
Antarctica, he said.
They have lots of penguins.
But it’s so cold, I explained. No one lives there, Enrique.
I know, he said. I’d like that.
I turned over and looked around our bedroom, the black outlines of the chair and desk, the deep navy blue of the window. In the corner, our Casper the Friendly Ghost night-light glowed a pale green.
Good night, I said.
What’s good about it? he said.