Authors: Carlos Alemán
Happy That It's Not True
Published in the USA by Aignos Publishing, Inc.
1910 Ala Moana Blvd, #20A
Honolulu, HI 96815
Printed in the USA
Edited by Jonathan Marcantoni
Cover art provided by Carlos Alemán
Art Design by Carlos Alemán
13-digit ISBN: 0986023396
10-digit ISBN: 978-0-9860233-9-2
This book is fictional; the story and characters herein are not meant to portray any person who ever existed or who has ever been purported to have ever existed.
The author and publisher have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage caused, or alleged to have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the information conveyed in this book.
Introduction for Happy That It’s Not True
Or he can levitate, if he wants, when he wants, and what he wants most is for you to know that. The fact that he asked me, his editor, to write this introduction and to include that factoid in a book that is long on tragedy and bittersweet romance should also tip you off to the fact that, even in the darkest of times, Carlos has a sense of humor, and so does his book, which is why I love it as much as I do.
I have been editing books for eight years now, I have done around twenty of them, and I find myself at a point where I expect certain things from certain types of authors. Among those expectations are that self-published authors are prima donnas, that their books are largely trash, and that first time authors, whether previously self-published or looking for their first credit, have serious issues with sustaining a narrative, writing dialogue, creating compelling characters, and so on. First time authors take on average four times as long to explain something than a seasoned writer could (on a good day). First time authors, not knowing the narrative tricks that experienced writers do, oftentimes hamper their own writing by trying to over explain things, or approach a situation in as clichéd a manner as possible because they lack the confidence to take a risk. The fact that this book, previously titled
Happy as Ling
, was both self-published and Carlos’s first book, I was hesitant to consider it for Aignos, and I mostly did so because it had been recommended by Maria Ferrer, who runs the Latina Book Club and who reviewed and gave great support to my first novel,
. Maria had been generous to me so I decided to return the favor when she brought up Carlos and his book, while ever so subtly mentioning it was a finalist in the International Latino Book Awards. Knowing Maria has good taste and figuring that no book, self-published or not, would be a finalist for a book award unless it was at least decent, I jumped in and, well, I still haven’t come back. Carlos hooked me from the first page, and no it wasn’t perfect, we made a lot of narrative changes and cut away at some of the excesses of the original, while creating whole new ones. Only a couple times could I tell he was a new author, otherwise this book reads like most writer’s fourth or fifth book. It was confident, had a clear vision, took risks, challenged the reader, and it was incredibly moving. I think the story brought me to tears about three times, which is no easy task.
Carlos also proved to be an exception to the rule concerning self-published authors. He was always generous, kind, humble, and willing to meet every challenge I gave him. While working with him as his editor he also became my friend, as we are both competitive and perfectionists, so like any true friends, we pushed each other to be better than even we thought possible, not just on this book, but on later projects in which we have collaborated. I cannot believe I have known him for only a year, he often seems like Diego, a long lost uncle who becomes more precious with every passing day.
Just knowing Carlos one feels like they have reunited with an old friend, his characters have that lived in quality that makes them immediately recognizable. From page one I knew these people, they had been figures in my own life, whether as friends from high school, mentors I’ve had, relatives I still hold dear or fear. The journey of discovery that Cara experiences, the yearning for connection that consumes Octavio, Alex’s insecurity about his weight, the heartbreak of the castaways, Diego’s search for meaning , I’ve been in their shoes more times than I care to admit. I carried these characters with me when I wasn’t reading the book, imagining my own scenarios with them, as if this was a book I had written, or really, a life I had lived. It has been a couple months since I read the book all the way through, but I still think of them, particularly Diego, whose devotion to Ling is what all boyfriends and husbands should strive for with their significant other.
The last thing I want to say about the book is, Zach Oliver and I started Aignos not only to discover new voices, all publishers have that desire, but to promote new ways of storytelling. Whereas many publishers shy away from the unconventional, we embrace it. Carlos’ structure throughout the book is different and innovative, but it becomes clear in the books final ten pages that what you just experienced was the sleight of hand of a seasoned magician. For a first time author to do something as ambitious as what Carlos does here, and not only that, to pull it off like it was nothing special, that is the kind of innovation and vision Zach and I wanted to represent our company. Carlos doesn’t just tell stories, he creates experiences. I credit that daring to his being a painter. As a painter, he takes a simple image, say, a flower, and transposes layer upon layer, until the flower is just an outline, what the painting really means held within.
Happy That it’s Not True
is like a painting, it is not enough to read it, you have to immerse yourself into it, peel back the layers, and discover something new, about art, about storytelling, about love, about life, and most of all, about yourself.
I like you when you’re silent
Because it’s as if you were absent
Far away and hurting
As if you had died
One word then, one smile is enough
And I am happy
Happy that it's not true
- Pablo Neruda
Ocean waves were transmitting dreams like the dust from the Sahara that sometimes reaches the Caribbean. The surf receded with a fizzing sound as the shadows of palm trees stirred the sea. A man surveyed the beach, looking for pieces of Styrofoam, the kind that washes onshore from cruise ships. He thought about combining a few large chunks with some old tires, and building a wooden frame to tether a raft.
This seemed like a much better solution. Rather than swimming himself to exhaustion and drowning on such a beautiful day, he could start over. If he survived the journey as a balsero, he would awaken in a new world, a new person. The plan would not mend a broken heart, but made it possible to live another day.
He found the letter one evening while searching for an old book. He grinned when he first looked at it, thinking it had been penned for him. And then—the labor pains of his death began, brought on by words so erotic, they could never be spoken. It shocked him that his wife could love another man with such intensity. Perhaps she had intentionally left the letter for him to find, and planned his devastation—callously wishing that he would leave her.
He didn’t want to betray her expectations. His disappearance would atone for all their marital discontent, but could never explain why his name had been blotted out of his wife’s heart. How can it be so easy to fall out of love? He kept asking himself.
And then there were the children. They were a constant reminder of what his own father had done to wound his soul. They were also his most effective narcotic. How strange that it would all end this way. To lose what he could not live without. His hands, empty of the love he had always wanted.
And this is why he had to build a raft. Somewhere in a new world, perhaps he would also find true love, just as his wife had. No one can prove that love actually exists, but the letter seemed to be inspired by something so vulgar and vile, he could not deny its beauty.
Octavio could hear the loud clanking coming from a disintegrating belt of ammunition. He could taste the cold air again; smell the stench of an abandoned village. He and several others left their makeshift bunker in a mud brick house and ran across the road to pursue the enemy. They climbed to a rooftop and aimed their weapons down a staircase shaft.
“I can’t see anything—I don’t like this!” said one of the reservists. The group huddled around the opening in the roof, flinching with fear. “All right, let’s do this. Watch each others’ backs.” They slowly descended the stairs.
“Run! Run!” screamed the man in front, and the soldiers bolted back to the rooftop.
“What the hell happened?” asked one soldier.
“I felt wire! The place must be booby trapped.”
The soldiers paced the rooftop shouting profanity to relieve tension.
Octavio was startled to see a head emerging from the shaft. He quickly aimed his rifle, but realized it was a small boy. “Don’t shoot—it’s a kid!”
The boy, wearing only one shoe, walked slowly, deliberately toward Octavio, his English as clear as a blue sky. “Other countries have clean streets and parks where children can play. I just want a ball.”
There was a sound like a wave sweeping along a shoreline, a projectile agitating the air around it. It struck the house and Octavio felt himself falling. He reached for the boy, but he was too far away. The boy descended into a maelstrom of dark dust and smoke, and then a rain of bricks buried the child of sorrows. Octavio, unhurt and lying on a heap of ruins, heard more distant popping of rifles. Then he heard the distinctive sound of wood cracking and a cheering crowd, and remembered he was at the ballpark with his children.
The batter in the bottom of the order had connected with a sixth inning shot that had traveled 370 feet. The camera flashes flickered like an ocean sparkling in the sun. Octavio turned to look at his five year old, Alex, who seemed to be in a trance. Octavio’s nine year old, Cara, was surprised to see her father’s heavy expression.
Octavio patted Alex’s head. “I’ll get you that baseball you wanted—okay?” Unable to concentrate on the game, he stared into the sky, thinking of what the weather was once like and what it was now.
The days were a harmony of extremes. The summer heat conceived cold rain—ropy weighty showers brought relief from a severe and zealous sun. Storms were arriving a little sooner every day, like an art student eager for class to begin—hands wringing in anticipation of clay and the unfinished still life
This particular evening, the violent skies had already spent their deluge and now it only smelled of rain—distant rainless clouds writhing and glowing in architecture of peach and indigo. The close proximity to storm clouds brought a slight coolness, which mixed with the heat and humidity to cause the skin to smile and the eyes to sting with sweat.
Octavio’s thoughts became lost in the clouds, seeking a heavenly sanctuary.
Can’t think of the Afghan children. It’s just too sad. It’s true what they say, that God goes to Afghanistan only to weep. How can I bring back all this sorrow to my family? If only I were feeling better, then I could appreciate this perfect night.
After the game, they walked down the spiral ramp of Gate D, Octavio carrying Alex and holding Cara’s hand. Cara knew it would take a while to reach the exits, and even longer to find the car. The descent gave her a sensation of bliss, as if the stars—which were lost in the bright lights—were somehow conspiring to prolong her delight. Alex had fallen asleep in the ninth inning, and Cara felt as if she were alone with her father—as if father and daughter were together in the dream.
“That was a good game,” Octavio shouted above the bedlam of the crowd moving together like a herd. Cara looked up and smiled, delighted by anything her father had to say. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a game-winning grand slam—and you
only had to wait until nine years of age,” Octavio bantered with a smile he used to cover his pain. “So you can’t really appreciate this.”
The three wore black team shirts; Alex wore a cap that was too big for his head, still turned inside out for the ninth inning rally. Octavio, a soldier used to carrying over 130 pounds of protective gear, weapons and ammunition easily shouldered Alex like a light and momentary burden.
It was just a game, but the win was the type of warmth Octavio needed, another form of medication. His primary source of healing these days had much to do with the love of his children. He was glad that they didn’t seem to notice how differently he had been acting, how hard it was to remember things, to see within the fog of the second war—the battle to readjust after a deployment. He kept glancing down at his daughter, almost afraid to look away—to miss a moment of her life.
Cara’s glowing face radiated the heat of the summer night; her eyes—partly hidden behind the sweaty strands of hair—spoke contentment and peace. After Octavio had looked long enough, he noticed the man walking in front of him, and admired what looked to be an authentic jersey with embroidered numbers and lettering. “I know what you guys can get me for my birthday,” Octavio said lowering his voice a little, pointing to the man’s back. He turned to Cara and silentl
. Cara laughed, happy that her father could be a kid just like her. Octavio noticed the quality and detail in the fabric, and began to feel a bit foolish, that he would desire something so frivolous and expensive.
“Oh that’s okay—those things cost a lot of money. Besides, I really need to buy you guys something tonight.”
“Thanks for bringing us to the game,” Cara said.
“My pleasure, my little string bean.”
“I love you dad.”
“I love you, skinny-bones.”
When they stopped to get souvenirs, Octavio purchased a baseball for Alex, and Cara decided on a small team picture plaque. Later, when they got to the car, Alex woke up as Octavio buckled him into the back seat. Alex put his forehead up against the window to look at the stadium with a brief smile and his eyelids began to close again.
“Aww—look at the little baby,” Cara said and then giggled.
“Don’t say that,” Alex said.
“Just a little baby.”
“Make her stop saying that!”
“All right, stop it,” Octavio said as the car softly bounced on the stadium parking lot grass.
Cara smiled a very mischievous smile as she turned her head away from her brother, determined to remain quiet the rest of the way home.
Forty minutes later, a few blocks away from the house, Octavio grew impatient with the car in front of him. “Why are you driving so slow?” The words were barely out of his mouth when he noticed a large truck darting through the intersection. Octavio felt an icy stab in his chest and found it hard to breathe.
“Did you see that? That truck ran a red light.” He looked in the rearview mirror to see Cara still awake. “If it hadn’t been for that slow driver in front of us, that truck might’ve hit us.” The traffic light turned red as the slow car drove ahead into the night. Octavio stopped his car at another intersection, slowly exhaling as his head fell forward; the thought of the near death of his children made his heart race, his stomach turn in knots.
As he was examining the shards of glass on the street, left behind by a previous collision, an earsplitting horn blast from a pickup truck startled him. The light had turned green and someone screamed, “Move it!”
Octavio’s hands were trembling, his face perspiring. The pickup drove around him; a man shouting obscenities. Cara took off her seatbelt and reached over to put her arms around his shoulders.
“It’s okay Dad.” She could feel him shaking, the t-shirt drenched. Alex was frightened and couldn’t say a word.
, please put your seatbelt back on—okay?”
Cara quickly slid back in her seat and fastened her belt. Octavio blasted the air conditioner while driving the rest of the way home.
“Here’s the key Cara—I’ll be in—in a few. Go on—tuck your brother into bed.” Cara’s eyes were welling up, but Octavio didn’t notice.
“Love you Dad.”
“I love you too—you too Alex.”
Cara held Alex’s hand as they entered the dark house, both afraid. She turned on the light and took Alex to his room. She changed Alex’s clothes, put him to bed and gave him a goodnight kiss on top of his head. Alex smiled and turned over, lifting his knees up, his body forming a ball. Cara turned on a nightlight, turned off the lamp and sai
. She walked to the living room and looked out the window through the sheers, wondering when Dad might feel better.
The storm clouds were as incandescent as they had been all evening, only now further away—brighter because of the blackness of night. The vibrant skies could also be seen from an empty hospital room several miles away. A nurse walked in and took a moment to look out a window, before removing a handmade sign that read:
Miracle in Progres
. She felt almost as brokenhearted as the patient’s family as she looked at it and just about threw it away, but then folded it and placed it in her pocket. The words, even if they were lies, were as sweet as wine, for truth can only be found in parables.
In the morning, Cara’s eyes slowly opened to see the sunlight patterns dancing on sky blue walls—walls which had become another of uncle Diego’s canvases. The large Florida strangler tree outside created its own paintings with shadows and sun ringlets—the branches and leaves moving back and forth across the mural. Saturday gave her time to study the brushstrokes of puffy white clouds and hot air balloons. She tilted her head back to look at the upside-down acrylic apple tree and playful animals huddled by the roots—Diego’s signature, carefully hidden in the blades of grass. She was too young to remember when her Tio had painted the murals, but it made her feel special, like the main character in a children’s book.
Cara, still in her baseball team shirt, sat up and let herself fall to the floor, pulled on a pair of baggy shorts and walked to the window. Squinting, she peaked through the blinds and noticed that Mom’s car was not there yet. She quietly went into Alex’s room, and saw that he was still sleeping, the sheets on the floor, his limbs spread like he had jumped out of a plane and was falling to earth.
Cara looked into her parents’ room, but there was no one there; so she tiptoed out into the living room. Octavio was lying on the couch also skydiving with one arm by his side and the other hanging to the floor. She tried not to make a sound, but Octavio opened his eyes, turned his head toward her and scanned the room.
“Hey pumpkin,” Octavio said in a tired voice.
“Hey Daddy,” she said walking towards him, her hands reaching out for a hug.
He sat up and held her. “Mommy will be here any moment—want to help me make breakfast?”
“Have I ever told you that you’re the most wonderful little girl in the whole wide world? Cara, one day you’ll marry a prince—a perfect man—just like your father.” Octavio and Cara both giggled, looking into each other’s eyes.
“Actually, he doesn’t have to be perfect. You know your Mom and I are like beauty and the beast? Mom is like the beautiful Belle and I’m the hideous beast. I asked her over and over to marry me, but she wouldn’t do it. So I died of sadness.”
“Na-uhh! You didn’t die.” Cara smiled.
“She saw me and cried and her tear fell on me and turned me into a prince—she brought me back to life.”
They had only managed to get the eggs and some other ingredients out of the refrigerator when they heard the closing of a car door.
“Mommy’s home!” Cara said and ran out the door. Adriana, a garden of beauty, provided Cara’s eyes, hair and slender frame. She grabbed Cara by the arms and swung her until she came to rest with her legs around her nursing scrubs.
“How was the game last night?”
. I wish I could’ve come. I work all night and you have fun—that’s not fair,” Adriana laughed.
“Why do you have to work?”
“That’s just how life is—work is good—I get to help people.”
“We were about to make breakfast for you.”
The two walked into the house. Octavio and Adriana exchanged Mi Vida’s and Mi Amor’s and kissed. A smiling Alex came put-putting out into the living room, the coy squint of his eyes exaggerated for sympathy and cuteness.
After breakfast, Octavio and Adriana were alone at the table drinking decaf. Cara and Alex could be heard giggling in another room. Adriana reached into her pocket, took out the paper sign and unfolded it.
Miracle in progress,
Octavio said. “Yeah, you told me about that. What happened?”
Adriana looked down and shook her head.
“So the patient died,” Octavio whispered.
“Tavi, it was the most depressing thing—these people were so positive—the most positive people I’ve ever seen. Shows you how far being positive will get you—really depressing—you almost lose your ability to hope for anything.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without hope. Remember when you got pregnant at sixteen? It seemed like the end of all your dreams, but everything worked out—things work out somehow.”
“When Cara turns sixteen, you better believe she’s gonna be on birth control.”
“Adriana—My God—do we have to think about that kinda stuff already?”
“I’m serious, Tavi. Life shouldn’t be so hard. I’m working my butt off at night and you’re on the other side of the world getting shot at. And I’m starting to wonder if you’ve even thought about everything I’ve been telling you. We’re in serious trouble, Tavi—and you seem clueless.”
Cara sat on the doorsteps of the house next-door with her friend Michelle who was a couple of years older. Both had their chins on their knees looking down at ants that crawled along the grout on the tiled steps. Cara imagined the ants heading toward some underground metropolis of silent drama.
“Did you hear about Sheryl Janzovich?” Michelle asked.
“My parents said she tried to commit suicide.”
Michelle could tell by the look on her face that Cara hadn’t understood what she said. “She tried to kill herself!”
Cara’s face went from a blank stare to a morbid amazement, her mouth open, not knowing what to say.
“She was texting her boyfriend and sent him dirty pictures, and then they broke up and he began sending the pictures to all the boys at school—”
“Dirty?” Cara didn’t understand what that meant.
“She had no clothes on!”
“So they all started calling her a slut and teasing her—that’s why she cut her wrists.”
Cara also didn’t know wha
meant, but knew that it must have been a bad thing. If she had been so wrong abou
, then what could slut mean? She pictured Sheryl Janzovich in her mind, associating her face with the terrible word.
Cara and Michelle heard soft thuds and got up and walked towards the source of the sound. Matt, her other next-door neighbor, was out in the front yard juggling a soccer ball with his legs, wearing a white shirt that said FREE HUGS in large bold letters. He was listening to his MP3 player, his attention fixed on the ball. Cara and Michelle both ran to see him.
“Hey Matt!” Michelle said.
“Hi Matt!” Cara said.
Matt pulled out his ear buds and asked, “Hey—think you can do this?” He stopped and let the ball fall to the grass.
Michelle picked up the ball and bounced it on her foot, which made the ball roll away from her.
“Try using the shoelace part of your foot,” Matt suggested.
Michelle tried it again, but was unable to start a juggle.
“Michelle—come here!” a voice in the distance shouted.
“That’s my mom—gotta go,” Michelle said and ran home.
“Want to try, Cara?” Matt said.
Cara was barefoot. She thought about where the laces would be on her foot and arched her toes to scoop the ball out of the grass. It popped straight up and she kneed it even higher. Matt snatched it out of the air, the ball having moved out of her reach.
“Whoa—that was really good! —try not to use your knees, just the thighs.”
Cara was giddy and could not stop smiling. She was with Matt. So many times she had seen him out of her bedroom window. A teenager. It was a little scary, especially after the story Michelle had just told. She wondered if Matt could ever cause a girl to kill herself—if he could ever do something that bad. Matt bounced the ball on the top of his foot and then to his thighs to demonstrate. Cara looked up past the juggling to his face. The bright sun set his straight light brown hair ablaze like a golden crown. She looked at the words FREE HUGS and wondered how she could get one.
Cara was glad that Matt wasn’t looking at her, that he wouldn’t be able to read her face—see into her heart. She was conscious of her mannerisms, her adoration.
“Want to try again?”
“Okay,” she said, startled, as if caught stealing.
Matt handed her the ball and she bounced it on her thigh very carefully holding her hands out to correct the trajectory. She heard screaming coming from her house. The ball fell to the ground. It took her a moment to realize that her parents were arguing. She thought she heard Adriana sayin
I can’t live like thi
and Octavio sayin
what do you want from m
Matt also noticed the screaming and said, “Hey—you wanna hear some really cool music?” He put his buds into her ears, which had been left on and screeching the whole time. Matt looked at her house with an expression of concern. Cara invaded Matt’s world of ferocious drum playing and thunderous guitars. She smiled and nodded her head to the snare. Matt gave her his MP3 player and closed her hands around it.
For a few minutes Matt practiced his volleys and ground kicks into the bushes. Cara was unsure if she should take off the buds—if this would undermine Matt’s attempt to shield her from distressing sounds. A Kia pulled up on the driveway, and she decided that it might be a good time to remove the buds. The argument in her house had ended. A pretty blonde girl about Matt’s age got out of the car and walked toward him.
“Free hugs?” she said and jumped on Matt, tackling him to the ground and kissing him. Cara felt strange new emotions: jealousy and a desire to be older.
“Wanna go out and grab a bite?” the girl said.
“All right, let me tell my parents I’m gonna run out for a little bit.” Matt turned to Cara and said, “Hold on to my music for a while,” and went inside the house.
The girl walked up to Cara. “Hey bitch why don’t you go home—little slut!” A dull pain filled Cara’s being. She was too angry and humiliated to cry, but that was what her eyes were determined to do. She turned around to walk home and felt a shove in her back and fell to the ground. She quickly leaped to her feet and ran home, refusing to let her oppressor see her tears.
Cara was about to open the door to her house when she heard more screaming. It was Adriana’s anguished howling that seemed to give words to her own emotions, only the words made no sense, something about th
adjustable rate mortgag
—and then the critical stabs:
You can’t even remember that you had a doctor’s appointment today...you can’t remember anything...we have bills to pay... none of these greedy companies car
you’re fighting for this country. Octavio I love you, but this is unbearabl
no lo puedo soportar.
Cara didn’t want to go in the house, but needed a sanctuary. She kept her head down, not knowing if she had been seen entering and moved cautiously toward the feet of her parents. “I just wanted to say that I love you both very much. I just wanted to say that you’re the best Mommy and Papi in the whole world. And I know how hard you must work to take care of me and Alejandro. I just wanted to say that.”
Later that evening as it was getting dark, Octavio sat in his car, hardly able to lift his head. Adriana leaned against the car, clinging to his arm, reading his face with her palm. Her eyes felt warm and tired from the waves of tears that had poured out like dew on the yard.
Adriana spoke as if having to slaughter her prized lamb. “Baby—we should probably do this—honey. We have to do something to save our marriage. This isn’t a marriage—Tavi. We’re not intimate—we just fight. If this is marriage—then why be married?”
Octavio, unashamed to let Adriana see him cry, reacted with words that he could not anticipate. “I don’t want us to separate—I don’t want us to separate—please—please—this can’t happen—Oh God—oh God.”
“Baby—baby—I love you—it’s only to give us a chance. Sometimes at the hospital we have to do some drastic things to save people’s lives.”
Octavio took a deep breath and stared at some invisible and somber point of realization in front of him.
“I’m gonna try and get better. But if anything should happen—please promise me that you’ll never be bitter. Please don’t ever throw away our wedding pictures. You looked so beautiful in those pictures.”
“I won’t throw anything away, Octavio.”
Adriana wept as she kissed Octavio’s head. “I’m so sorry. Let’s do it for Alex and Cara. You get better—come by as much as you want. Just please get better Tavi. You know how much I love you. I need you to get better.”
Cara, once again, looked out the window at her father’s car. Adriana’s presence comforted her—it offered hope that perhaps her father’s needs were being tended to. She was just a girl—what could she possibly know about solving problems she couldn’t even understand? Things seemed simple enough. You love someone and you find ways to express that love. If Daddy was in a bad mood—then why not let him be in a bad mood? Yet there was much more. She knew this—life was a bit more complicated.
Cara heard the words echo back and forth
I love yo
. The car made a treacherous sound, the lights illuminating the night with bluish halogen as it rolled into the street.
The raft’s bobbing seemed tamed after the last band of showers. The men’s hands were swollen from their clinging, some surprised they hadn’t fallen into the ocean. One man interrupted the storyteller as if the details were more important than life.
She leaves him? The man is shell-shocked from war, and she leaves him?
He is corrected by another man.
She is asking for a separation, it’s not the same.
It might as well be.
The largest and strongest of the men gently scoffs by exhaling.
Let him tell his story. It will preserve our sanity. But make no mistake, there is much more to the telling of a story. We are all storytellers. We have a dark side within ourselves. We create tremendous dramas. Our emotions create thoughts and our thoughts create more emotions. So it seems to be the end of a marriage. Life goes on for them.
No—the storyteller says—Life doesn’t just go on. A man must survive his injuries.
The summer Cara turned nineteen, the days had become cold and gray. Even as the South Florida temperatures soared, bleaching the roads and causing the skies to explode into heavy downpours—too much had happened for life to feel like a season of warmth. First there had been the foreclosure and eventually the divorce. Octavio was redeployed to Afghanistan and every time he returned, he was less the father, fading into a secret life of angst and emotional pain.
For a time after the foreclosure, Adriana knew homelessness, living with Cara and Alex in her car during the day, and at night inside a friend’s garage. It was only for a short time, but it broke her spirit. She never told Octavio, who had been on a tour at the time, but, in time, put together enough money to move to an apartment in Hallandale.
Alex had grown into an overweight young man, not as tall as his father, his glasses adding to his awkwardness and slight but detectable self-conscious bearing. Cara, slim and lovely, did everything she could not to stand out or reveal any splendor, dressing in grungy clothes, wearing her hair in a bun most of the time. She had hated high school so much that she only wanted it to be over, and when she graduated wanted no further education.
Adriana hid bottles of liquor in her bedroom, which she craved when she got home from work, deluding herself with notions about calculated drinking and stopping before it became a problem. Her drinking had started after she had married a man named Luciano, who entered her life like an aggressive salesman, promising an end to loneliness.
Luciano had worked for the hospital as an orderly when Adriana met him. Every night she would care for patients, and Luciano wouldn’t be far behind making beds and changing linens. Alex and Cara did not like Luciano. Even Adriana did not like him.
Aside from being a Cuban American, Luciano was a strange creature she had nothing in common with. During the wedding, Adriana’s skin broke out and her allergies assaulted her. She would regret not listening to her body screaming in protest. It was a miserable day, and she thought that when it ended she would feel better.
Luciano was a failed pinch hitter in his thirties still in the Class-A minor leagues. Although he spent much time weight training to improve his upper body strength, he only succeeded in becoming a large man with a substantial potbelly. His use of sports supplements made him irritable. He had unruly hair, gray at the sideburns, absurdly heavy stubble and a hairy neck. His eyes were puffy and swollen, which would have been his dominant feature if it weren’t for the large bushy mustache that made him look like a spaghetti western villain.
Most evenings, Luciano was absent, frequenting nightclubs and strip bars with younger baseball players. When he lost his job at the hospital, he became a terror—spending more time at home and becoming emotionally abusive. Alex and Cara avoided him, but any attempts not to speak to him would result in interrogations and more hostility. Adriana lost her nerve to argue with him; never sure of what he was capable of.
In the midst of her miserable family life, it was Adriana’s volunteer work at the VA that provided moments of joy and a sense of purpose. It allowed her to avoid the possibility of having to spend time with Luciano, and it was also a form of penance. Her failed marriage to a soldier had left her with guilt and regrets she could not utter. The separation had done the opposite of what had been intended—Octavio became more immersed in his waking dream and all but forgot his family.
Adriana was entering the VA hospital one day. As her eyes adjusted from sunlight, she saw a hand-cycle cruising down the hallway.
“Hey—look—I got it—it came in at last!” said a young soldier about Cara’s age wearing a leg prosthetic.
“Nice trike! Have you been outside yet?” Adriana said.
Adriana, with the help of another person entering the building, held the double doors open—allowing the hand powered recumbent trike access to the bright warm day. After watching the young soldier ride back and forth down the sidewalk several times, they both found shade under a tree. Adriana sat down to engage the soldier in the type of conversation she always hoped would help her better understand her former husband.
“Nice hand cycle. How’s the leg?”
“This leg’s much better—the battery lasts a lot longer.”
The soldier almost seemed too young to have served his country. A rocket-propelled grenade had hit his vehicle in an ambush in Afghanistan, forever changing how the world would look, taste, smell, sound and feel. He still needed a bone graft, about two more surgeries and some implants for missing teeth. He was fortunate; the facial scars weren’t too bad and only needed minor plastic surgery.
“So what’s been going on since I last saw you?” Adriana said.
“Remember my little brother?”
scared to look at me—h
think I’m a monster.”
“I told you—you’re in really good shape.”
“I scare myself a little when I look in the mirror.”
“That happens to everyone,” Adriana smiled compassionately.
“Not to you—you’re beautiful.”
“Thanks—let me remind you, I’m old enough to be your mother,” Adriana laughed.
“So the leg’s good?”
“Yeah—just a little upsetting—the way people look at me and don’t say anything. I wish someone would ask me what happened. I could tell them that I lost my leg while serving...”
As he spoke, Adriana realized how much she still loved Octavio—how her pain now was greater without him. It was a heartbreaking yet joyous discovery, but at least now she knew. She could almost picture Tavi’s fragile countenance, clawing at her heart. Inside her, eternal frustration and sympathy, feelings that had never left her. Why hadn’t she stayed with him? If only she had known that the end of a relationship would never have cured her of caring more for him than anything in the world. She missed him, the greatest friend and lover she had ever known. The past and who they once were, far away at the other end of the universe. An incomprehensible glimpse into the truth of their love opened up before her. She felt like a child without a shred of wisdom or knowledge, not knowing what to think or feel. But in an odd fashion, she was grateful for this revelation.
Life is often transformed by the subtle and imperceptible, the delicate surprises that happen so gently that one is almost unable to notice them, like a gradual and disarming trail that guides us to some sense of purpose. It is only when we lower our defenses that truth is comfortable enough to sneak up behind us with an embrace—truth that we will never fully understand, truth that exists unnoticed and independent of our approval. Yet there are some things that are as plain as the sunlight that find their way deep into our cavernous lives. For Adriana it was her love for Tavi that was both plain and surprising.
For Cara and Alex, it was still a time of subterranean activity, the means by which lives become cavernous. There is much that forms a young heart; every day is a new birth, filled with opportunities for life and the injuries that raise unwanted defenses.
After school, Eduardo—a young man with bad acne, marred by his pathological contempt for anyone who didn’t speak Spanish—grabbed Alex’s iPod Touch and ran through the neighborhood, avoiding dogs and cursing neighbors. Alex did his best to keep up with him, determined that no matter what, he would fight to the death. Eduardo, after an eternity of being tracked, his hands sore from jumping fences and his lung capacity diminishing, stopped and hunched over, gasping, the device held against his sweaty thigh. Alex, also out of breath, caught up and slowly approached him.
“Give it back,” Alex said.
“You’re such a coconut. I can’t believe you listen to indie music. What’s wrong with you? You don’t act like a Latino. You don’t talk like a Latino. You don’t have a Latino attitude. You’re not Latino! You disgust me!”
“Give it back.”
“Careful, don’t get too close or I’ll sack tap you.”
“That’s not even funny. A guy on the news had to have a testicle removed because of that.”
“All right, truce then.”
“Give it back.”
“I thought you said truce?”
“Yeah, I’m not going to sack tap you.”
Alex was standing too close and Eduardo slapped him. “Fat ass!”
In the moment it took for Eduardo to recover from his laughter, Alex grabbed his iPod Touch and ran, Eduardo chasing him. Alex ran in the direction of his home, grunting and groaning, hoping that Eduardo would tire. Eventually, he did, but Alex kept running—hoping that he would disappear into the horizon, that his street and apartment number would remain a secret.
Alex, sweaty and wheezing entered the apartment to another profound disappointment, his stepfather.
“What’s wrong with you?” Luciano asked in a tone that said he really didn’t care what the answer was.
Alex walked into his room, knowing not to close the door.
“What’s your problem, you don’t want to talk to me? You better answer me.”
“I was outside running. I’m out of breath.”
—you should do something about your laziness— you’re such a geek—on the computer all the time.” Luciano had said this just as Alex was powering up his laptop, and it made Alex hate him more. He started to say something under his breath, but didn’t want Luciano to see his lips move.
“When I was young,” Luciano continued prodding. “I would be outside all the time getting into trouble—breaking windows, raising hell. Kids nowadays are a bunch of sissies, staying indoors with all your girl toys. You’ll never be a man
. At least get a job, so mommy doesn’t have to give you lunch money.”
Luciano stood at the doorway to the room, badgering Alex with his presence and a stare that was burning the back of his head. After a minute he spoke, his voice sounding more conciliatory. “You don’t like me, fine—the hell with you.”
Luciano went into the kitchen to check the refrigerator and talk to himself. “You’re dumb, just like your mother.”
Alex’s jaw tightened with anger. For a moment, he could picture his father fighting the Taliban and wondered why he hadn’t inherited his father’s courage—why he couldn’t stand up to Luciano.
Luciano was watchin
through the pass-through in the kitchen, commenting on the day’s scores and highlights—cursing the unfortunate losses. Alex browsed Wikipedia and searched for the word epigenetics.
My God, it’s so important to cure neuroses before they’re passed on to children...
A cat food commercial filled Luciano with a strange enthusiasm.
They’re so cute. Have you seen the kittens in the parking lot?”