"Exactly What You Want" a Story by Zachary Benavidez
ArLiJo.com, the Arlington Literary Journal online, is featuring Exactly What You Want by Zachary Benavidez, a local Washington, DC writer.
Exactly What You Want
I hear Carlos’s key turn in the door to our studio apartment. It is Friday night, and with an empty duffle bag on my bed and only twenty minutes before Paul gets here, I hope Carlos goes back to his mother’s house in Columbia Heights, or to a friend’s place in Dupont Circle, anywhere else but here.
“Tom, I home.” Carlos doesn’t really talk like this. The accent had developed over the past four months when one night, in bed, he tried it, and I said I liked it, that it turned me on, so that night he used it until I came. After that, his accent meant flirting and foreplay. I don’t look up from my duffle bag. Instead, I reach into my dresser drawer, pull out a worn blue t-shirt, and sniff the chest and the sleeves. The shirt smells fresh from fabric softener, so I ball it up and toss it in my bag, but I can smell wet cornhusks in the room, too.
“My mom,” Carlos says, standing beside me now, holding a small tin pot.
“Tamales?” I ask.
“You know how she is.”
The smell of red chili tamales, the kind I tasted once at his house, the spicy kind, remind me too much of Carlos’s upbringing, not mine. “Your mother never made tamales?” his mother Soila asked me that night. “What kind of Mexican is she?” And then when she found out I do not speak Spanish, Soila said, “Shame on your mother.” Those memories come to mind, and I shake my head at Carlos, at his small tin pot of tamales, and he shrugs his shoulders in resignation and walks to the kitchen.
“Open a window,” I tell him, and although I want to sound harsh, I cannot bring myself to raise my voice at him. We have not yet reached that point in our relationship where we can use a tone to admonish one another without hurting the other’s feelings. “I can’t have the place smelling like tamales when Paul gets here,” I explain.
Carlos clicks his tongue. “Ah, yes. Jour other husband.” That accent again.
“I don’t have much time. Would you put that pot away?”
“My mother said, ‘Tell Tomás I say hi.’ I told her you like to be called Tom. I said, ‘Mom, he goes by Tom,’ and she said, ‘His mother named him Tomás, so I going to call him Tomás.’” He smiles. “Want some?” He takes a tamale from the pot, puts it near his crotch, and with his thumb and forefinger, he wags it at me. “Is good,” he says. “Very good.” Grease drips onto the floor.
I look at the drops of grease then at him, and I go back to my packing.
“Ay,” he says. “Sorry.”
Paul, the first and slightly older man in my life, never gets my eye-signals, a silent language I tried to cultivate with him so we could communicate in stores to make comments about other customers. In fact, with Paul, this eye language often made things worse because he would ask out loud what I meant then he would look around to see if he had missed something. Carlos, on the other hand, knows how to read me. He rips a piece of paper towel from the spool above the sink and lets it flutter like a feather to the floor. When it lands, he moves it around with the toe of his shoe.
“She said she made them just for us.”
* * *
In these months since I moved from Philadelphia to Washington for grad school, since Carlos and I first met at Club Fuego, and since his mother came into his room that first morning to call us to breakfast, when she talked to us without screaming, or breaking a sweat, or asking for an explanation, yes, since all of that, Soila Rosado has taken me as one of her own. “Think of me like your own mother, mi hijo. Just don’t call me mother-in-law,” she told me. And when Carlos started to spend more time here at my place, she took it upon herself to make food and send it to us every chance she got. Tortillas, menudo, beans, rice, chicken. She knows we can cook, I have assured her many times, but she also knows we don’t have the time to cook. We live busy lives. Carlos works and I have school. What I haven’t told her, of course, is that we spend most of our spare time leg-locked in bed, sixty-nining on the floor, kissing in the shower, and if we had a fire escape like the one Paul has in Philadelphia, we would be out there, too.
* * *
Carlos takes a tamale now and peels away the cornhusks, discarding each layer into the plastic garbage bag we keep tied to a drawer pull under the sink. He picks at the red chili con carne at the center and takes a bite.
“She thinks we’re getting too skinny,” he says as he pulls up his t-shirt to expose his abs and the thin line of black hair that I want to trace with my fingers.
“Open the window,” I say again. My duffle bag still sits slightly flopped over on the bed. It is filled with t-shirts and a few balls of athletic socks. I want to go running along the Schuylkill over the weekend. Hopefully with Paul.
“You always get weird when your husband comes,” Carlos says, pushing the window up as high as it can go: six inches. Only six inches, I might have said, playing a game we made up in the gym locker room—thinking of the good and bad things that stretch out to six inches—but I have a checklist on my mind: jeans, t-shirts, underwear, toothbrush, toothpaste, condoms, lube.
“Where is that bottle of lube, the one that’s almost finished?” I ask.
“Under the bed, I think.”
The bottle is not under the bed where I expect it to be, so I get on the floor. I hear Carlos switch on the fan above the stove.
“I just don’t need Paul asking where I got fresh tamales.” This I mean to say to myself, but as he walks up to the bed, he hears me.
“You could say you made them,” he says coolly.
“He knows I don’t know how to make tamales.” The bottle has rolled further under the bed than I can reach, in the darkest part of the shadow where all I can make out is its shape, a long tube with a round top. Carlos walks over to the other side of the bed and lies flat on the floor. He takes up the bottle with ease.
“Here you go.” He tosses the bottle on the bed, jumps up, and brushes the dust off his shorts.
Up now, too, I watch as he walks back to the kitchen, to his tamale on the counter.
“You know, Tomás, I would like to meet this Paul of yours. I’ll help you take your bags down to his car.”
The idea stops me. The loud fan, the traffic noises outside, the honking, the sirens, the stereos, all stop. Carlos cannot be serious. Not with twelve minutes left. Not after two months of perfecting alibis, managing to keep Carlos’s name out of conversations, and developing a tone of voice that masks the truth. No, Carlos cannot be serious.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I mean I would like to meet this man in person. This man you will not leave for me. It is the least you can do. Show me who is so important to you.”
“I told you it’s complicated.” That line.
“You could say I am your friend from school.” Carlos sits on the bed next to the duffle bag, now topped off with two pairs of jeans, Carlos’s jeans, and several of our t-shirts. From his sudden stillness, I realize how much he has been moving around in this small place. He brings a piece of his tamale to my lips. “Come on,” he says. “You know you want some. She didn’t put olives in them this time. I told her about the last time, how you got sick from the olives.”
“You told her?” I cannot believe this either, that he would tell his mother something I said about her cooking. What would she think? The aroma of the red peppers makes me hot in the face and when I put the back of my hand to my forehead it comes away with a smudge of sweat. I wipe my hand with the hand towel on the nightstand, crumpled hard from last night and from the night before. “I can’t believe you told her.”
“She’s my mom.” White corn mush sticks to his teeth as he speaks. “I tell her everything.”
“Now she’ll think I don’t like her cooking.”
“You don’t like her cooking. But here’s your chance.” He presses what is left of his tamale against my lips, but I blow hard against it so it falls out of his hand and onto the floor.
“Paul’s going to be here in less than ten minutes, and I don’t have time to brush my teeth again. Stop.” There it is, the harshness I have been trying to avoid. I go to the bathroom, and though I don’t watch, I know he has gone for another piece of paper towel to clean up the floor.
In the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror, I think of that first batch of tamales I had at his parents’ house. Those tamales had been filled with big green olives, the worst, which caused me to spend two hours leaning over the toilet throwing up rough chunks of corn dough, then afterwards, washing my face, and looking at the puffiness of my eyes and cheeks, and wondering if Carlos would notice. There is a tightening in my stomach from the memory of that night. I grab my toiletry bag and walk out to find Carlos at the kitchen sink, washing his hands.
“You’re sure no olives?” I concede.
* * *
My cell phone vibrates on the counter just as I finish the tamale: no olives.
“He’s early,” Carlos says, looking at the clock. Not yet six.
I wipe my hands on my jeans, and Carlos reminds me that I am wearing his jeans. The phone continues to vibrate, and Carlos hands it to me then zips up my bag. It is a text message from Paul, not a missed call, and some relief comes over me. His text says he is here, and I go to the window to look down to the street below, and there he is, double-parked by the entrance. I call him on the phone and watch him get out of his car, answer my call, and make his way to the front steps.
“No, no, I’m ready,” I tell him, then turning to look at the apartment, at Carlos by the door. “No, I don’t need your help,” I insist, and remember not to lose control. “Just out of the bathroom,” I say. “Be right down.” OK, Paul says, finally. I hang up and remind Carlos not to call. He puts his hands up as if to tell me not to worry.
“I’ll be back Monday morning on the seven o’clock train,” I remind him.
“In time for your birthday!” Carlos says, handing me my bag at the door.
“Don’t make a big deal of it, please.”
He pulls me against his chest and gives me a kiss, the kind he likes to give me in bed, his full lips sucking on mine, leaving my bottom lip with a small bite. He tastes like tamales, and I know I do too, but there is no time to brush my teeth. I pull away, but he kisses me again.
“I got all the tamale taste out of your mouth with the last kiss,” he says.
Carlos turns me around, squeezes my ass, slips something into my back pocket, fitting whatever it is tight against my wallet, and pushes me out of the door, toward the elevator.
“I am waiting, too,” he says, and he closes the door behind me.
* * *
In the car, Paul leans in to kiss me, but I make it quick. You taste good, he says. Just had dinner, I tell him. Mexican leftovers, I consider saying, but that is too much of an explanation. We drive down New Hampshire Avenue, through Foggy Bottom, and onto the Key Bridge to get out of the city. His sons, Matthew and Andrew, are on his mind, I can tell, because this is not our usual route or routine. Usually, we drive through Dupont Circle, have dinner on 17th Street, then we head out of the city through Silver Spring. Not tonight. Not really in the mood to be social, he tells me. He will have Matthew and Andrew later this week, and the planning is getting to him. His ex-wife Christine is being her usually difficult self. A half-hour later, on I-95, north of DC, on our way to Philadelphia, Paul points out the sign to Columbia, Maryland.
“That’s the way to Matthew and Andrew,” he says, looking at a place beyond the lush band of trees.
He has never mentioned that sign before, though we must have passed the town ten times since I moved down here for school. Odd, too, that I have seen his ex-wife’s forwarding address on his mail and never registered the town’s name. He has been waiting to introduce me to his boys, perhaps after I finish school, when I would officially be his live-in partner, but why wait that long? I ask him to take the exit, just to show me his routine when he has custody weekends, when he spends his time with the boys and not me. Besides, I think to myself, I want a sneak peak at Christine’s house—not hers, really, her parents’—because I want a setting for the stories of all the fights they have had. Carlos’s words, “Show me who is so important to you” keep going over in my head, too. Paul doesn’t want to get off the road; he makes that clear by complaining about it the moment I suggest it.
“It’s your own fault,” I tell him. “You knew I’d be curious.”
“I’m going to want to stop,” he says. “I hate being so close and not stopping.”
“Then you should stop. I’d love to meet the boys.”
Paul says nothing.
“We’ll just drive by,” I say. “I’ll look at the house from the main road. We won’t have to turn onto their street. We won’t have to stop.” As if automatically, he takes the exit, and I sit back and watch as the town shapes itself out from behind the trees. There are apartment complexes, I see, and a pavilion, a sign tells me, and we pass a mall with a P.F. Chang’s and an IMAX.
“They might see us,” he says, driving at 25 miles-per-hour, a speed that makes us more obvious in the evening traffic. Teenagers pass us in their cars, but nobody honks or seems annoyed at Paul’s slow driving. He takes another street, and we are suddenly in a neighborhood.
“Nobody will see us,” I say. “They’re not expecting you, so it’s not like they’ll be looking out for your car.”
“Exactly. My car will stand out more.”
The suburban houses all look the same, red brick with white siding. I expected more than what I see, more than quiet streets and perfect green lawns, more than this sudden feeling of being out-of-place. There are no teenagers throwing hoops in the driveways despite the nets and backboards nailed above every garage door. It is dusk, and the lack of sunlight makes the houses look deserted. Everyone must be at the mall. Small plastic stop signs stand in the grass at the corner of each front yard warning burglars. Inner-city burglars? Who would drive all the way out here? We pass a street called Whitford Road, typical of suburban street names, and after we pass it, I know that I have seen that name on papers, legal documents left on his kitchen table.
“Paul, that was it.” I turn around in my seat and look at the green sign: Whitford Road. “Yep, that was it.”
Paul drives out of that neighborhood, and the sign grows smaller and harder to read. Finally, it disappears when he pulls into a Wawa parking lot.
“What are we doing?” I ask, getting out of the car after him. “Wasn’t that it back there? Whitford Road?” I look at the main road, the sign now completely out of sight, then I look across the roof of the car at Paul, and as always, I admire how tall he stands, a full six-feet two-inches. He looks away from me, away from the road, and I notice he is graying at his temples. Gray at age thirty-five. Beads of sweat form above his eyebrows despite the cool September evening, and the base of his neck has turned pistachio red, like he has sunburn, though the sun set over half an hour ago.
“You want anything?” he asks.
* * *
Inside the Wawa, we decide on a large can of Pringles to share, black coffee for Paul, and Mountain Dew for me. At the counter, when from my back pocket I pull out my wallet, a pack of Dentyne Ice falls out. Carlos’s thoughtfulness makes me smile, but the cashier and Paul have their eyes on me. Brought this from home, I want to explain. Got it before we left, I want to tell Paul, but instead I put it on the counter next to the Pringles and pay $1.80 for my mistake. Soon we are back on the interstate, not speaking. There is no need for silence, but I cannot think of anything to say, cannot tell Paul how I really feel, that it is time for me to meet the boys. Paul tears open the pack of Dentyne, takes a piece and hands the pack to me.
I think of Carlos back in the city, the feel of his hand on my ass, this gift of gum in my hands. He is not as uptight as Paul, but he has certainly never been in as serious a situation either. After all, the boy still lives at home with his mother, whereas Paul’s parents turned their backs on him after he came out and started divorce proceedings. I stare out the window, at other cars’ dashboards, the small patterns of lights that illuminate the faces of perfect strangers whose lives must be so uncomplicated. It will be awhile before we get to Paul’s Rittenhouse Square apartment—the one he got for me, when we first started our affair, the one he moved into himself after he sold the house where his family both evolved and dissolved—I close my eyes and think of those arguments in Christine’s driveway. I have never been there to witness the arguments myself, but I have heard stories, first-hand accounts from Paul. He often told me about those fights when the adrenaline was still boiling at the brim of his consciousness, usually just moments after he dropped off his sons from a custody weekend. She is fat, I know that much from their wedding albums, and she is what Carlos calls a frosting-covered candy-sprinkled bitch. She can tell Paul where to stick it and still end her calls with “Have a blessed day” or “Love in Christ.”
I picture her standing in the driveway shouting, “There’s a special place in hell for fathers like you!” What did those words taste like coming out of her mouth? Sweet like cake being chewed or sour like mucus you cough up and swallow to be polite? I know she wears purple sweatpants and matching sweatshirts, because Paul told me that since she had the boys, sweats are all she wears now. I think of her the way I first saw her, through the lens of Paul’s laptop camera. When we first met online and started chatting, me at my dorm room desk in Arizona, he at his kitchen table in Pennsylvania, Paul would take incredible risks. The best secrets are kept in the open, he would say; besides, she never asked what he was working on so late at night. The night I saw her she appeared behind Paul as a headless torso. He had been caught.
* * *
Two hours later, we park on Spruce Street, near an Italian café that has just closed. This part of Center City smells of olive oil and wet leaves, and the night’s breeze gives me a chill. After we bring in my bag, I sit on the bed to take off my shoes, and Paul asks if I am OK. His way of moving out of the awkward drive of silence. When I say nothing, he asks if I want to take a shower, which is his version of Carlos’s accent. Sex with Paul is clean, always clean, and familiar, me on my back, legs over his shoulders, his face buried into my soap-fresh neck. Nice, yes, because there is comfort in the routine, but not much romance, not much rhythm anymore. I shower, of course, and we get into bed. Sometimes, like tonight, I imagine our first summer together, after he moved me to Philadelphia, into this place on Spruce Street, so that he could come by before and after work for sex. I think about the secret pictures he had taken of himself in each room—spread-legged on the bed in the bare white bedroom, flexing in the mirror of the yellow-tiled bathroom, leaning against the counter in the kitchen filled with midday light—he is naked in each. He had emailed the photos to me, saying he wanted to give me a sense of the small part of Philadelphia I would come to know. He included photos of the row houses, the iron railings on front steps, the thick dark oak trees lining the streets, and him, a married man, a father who had everything, and still wanted more. Our sex in this apartment building—once in the damp basement amongst the storage lockers—is my deepest impression of the city. I think of all of this tonight, after our silence and after my shower, as he puts me on my back and kisses me.
* * *
The next morning, after Paul leaves for the corner market, I empty my duffle bag on the bed and call Carlos.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Just waking up.” It is nearly nine o’clock, and sleep still lingers in his voice.
“Did you go out last night?”
“Me and Jose went to Fuego, but it was so lame without you.”
He moves around in bed, sleeping naked, of course, probably even massaging himself. Because I can hear the bed sheets rustling, I ask what he is up to.
“Ay, you know I save myself when you go away.”
This is true, he does “save himself” when I am away, because always just after he picks me up at Union Station or after Paul drops me off, Carlos is at the door, pulling away my clothes, unbuckling his belt, calling me mami, sometimes with Paul’s car just turning out of the street. He pulls me onto the bed next to the wall-sized mirror, his trick to make the space feel larger. Of course, I know the truth is he likes looking over at himself while he pumps back and forth behind me like a salsa dancer, my elbows digging into the mattress with each thrust. No shower, no scents of soap, just Carlos’s large hands pulling my waist hard against his pelvis, pushing himself into me as far as he can go.
On the phone, we talk about birthday plans, the surprise he has for me when I get back to D.C. on Monday—he offers only one hint, it is something I told him I want—and then he tells me to be good.
“Take care of your husband, but remember who I am, too,” he says.
* * *
On Saturday morning, during my return run on Kelly Drive, past the rowers gliding along the blue waters of the Schuylkill, past the statues along the riverside park, then past the reservoir and the sound of the river breaking and falling at the base of the palatial museum, I think. Not necessarily about Carlos or that he is right to want to meet Paul, no, but his wanting to meet Paul tells me I am important to Carlos, and I begin to feel how much Carlos is important to me. As I cross the front of the golden-bricked Philadelphia Museum of Art and run around Eakins Oval, I feel like I have been going in circles with Carlos and Paul, wanting both of them and deciding on both, but knowing that having them both cannot last forever. Carlos has been growing more curious about Paul and more demanding on the issue of my leaving him, this man that left his wife for me. That is what people do when they meet someone new, Carlos has insisted many times. They leave. Paul did it, he left his wife for you, and so he will understand, Carlos has argued. I run past Rodin’s statue of the Thinker, the nude male leaning over his knees, trying to work something out in his head. How can I get Paul to introduce me to his sons? We have been together for nearly two years, and because he has spoken so much about them, and so much of his anxiety comes from wanting to be with them, I want to meet them more than I have ever wanted before. I pass the fountain in Logan Square that faces the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, and the idea of shared roles comes to mind, partnerships and responsibilities. My Paul insists on going through his divorce alone, which, I suppose, is the only way he can. Down 18th Street, suddenly cast in the shadows of the downtown buildings, more questions emerge: how does he balance being the boys’ father, my boyfriend, and Christine’s ex-husband? How does he manage to keep these roles separate from one another? Can’t I help? Through Rittenhouse Square now, parents and children are already throwing Frisbees or rolling around in play on the grass. They are laughing and smiling. I will ask to go with Paul when he picks up the boys tomorrow night. It is time we stopped alternating our weekend visits and actually spend a weekend together, the four of us. If I come back to Philadelphia after grad school, to make a home with Paul, shouldn’t we soon tell the boys who Paul and I are to one another? All these are steps we will take toward coming out to them, I will tell him. A yes from Paul about meeting the boys would be the best birthday present, I will say as a finish. Now, with cold sweat matting my shirt onto my chest and back, I am ready to approach our apartment on Spruce Street.
* * *
At home, the place smells of coffee and bacon, and I hear Paul in the kitchen. “Going to take a quick shower,” I yell. When I come out, he is sitting at the table with his laptop. He has scrambled some eggs and left them in a pan on the stove. He pushes me a plate of toast.
“There’s juice in the fridge,” he says, not looking up from his laptop screen.
“Fairmont Park is so cool in the morning. You should come with me tomorrow.” I bite into a piece of crunchy bacon then take the juice out of the refrigerator and pour myself a glass.
“She’s doing it again,” Paul says.
“What?” I say with my mouth full.
“She won’t let me have Matthew and Andrew next week. She says Matthew has ‘an important social obligation’ after church on Sunday. She’s telling me seeing a friend is more important than seeing his own father.”
Now with toast in hand, I read over his shoulder. He must be exaggerating about her language, but no, Christine has worded her email exactly that way.
“Man, she pisses me off,” Paul says, as he types a reply.
“You really need to get everything finalized,” I say. “Get a court order.” I am not telling Paul anything he doesn’t already know. My own knowledge about court orders and custody battles comes from him.
“She wants me to give her my word that I’ll be off from work all week and that nobody else will be watching them,” he says.
There it is. Her greatest fear: her boys being with me. Suddenly, it makes sense that Paul keeps the boys and me apart, at least during this particular time, while he and Christine are in separation phase, when weekends and living arrangements are still being negotiated.
“She’s worried about me,” I conclude out loud. “She wants to make sure I am no where near them.”
Paul says nothing in response to this.
“Just tell her I don’t live here anymore.”
It has been a year since the divorce proceedings began, and a little less than a year since we moved in together, but even then, when I lived here, he would take his boys to his parents’ house on custody weekends. After I moved out, we started alternating our visits so Paul could have his sons here in the apartment. Tell her all of that, how we put our relationship second to the complex arrangements we have made to appease Christine’s needs, I want to say. Instead I say, “Tell her about our alternating weekends.”
“It’s none of her business,” Paul says. “She should trust my judgement as a parent. I never question hers.”
Paul continues typing. I take my plate, grab the newspaper and my laptop, which he has set out on the table for me, and I walk through the bedroom, climb out of the window and onto the fire escape. We have a folding chair out here, and on cool mornings like this, the fire escape feels as good as any balcony. The sun shines behind our building, but its glare hits the large window directly facing ours. A gay couple live in that apartment; I met them when Paul still lived with his wife. One night one of them knocked on our bedroom window and asked me to top his boyfriend, so I crawled out of our window and into theirs. Easily. Their apartment has lots of plants, I recall, and the boyfriend was already on the bed, waiting. I sat on the sofa with the other guy, the one who knocked on the window, not because he was cuter, but because he asked about Paul, my regular “gentleman caller.” Have they knocked on the window for Paul? Or perhaps they moved out. These are questions I cannot ask.
I put the plate and the newspaper under the chair and open my laptop to check email. The fall semester is already in full swing, but it is so far from my mind. The summer classes I took also seem like a distant memory. Early admission to my program allowed me an early start, something that seemed like a good idea back in June, but moving to D.C., dealing with Paul’s divorce, and meeting Carlos in a matter of months have me forgetting all about school. I close the computer, keep it on my lap, and shut my eyes.
Carlos has probably gone back to bed, tired from a night of dancing at Fuego, the club where we met. Or he may be online, chatting, or going to hang out with friends by the fountain in Dupont Circle. In any of these places, I imagine myself close to him, leaning into his arms. One thing I am glad about is that Carlos knows about Paul. Harboring too many secrets can get confusing. Being candid with Carlos has never been a problem because two young Latino men somehow know there will always be another man in the equation. It is just the way things are. A given. Besides, my relationship with Carlos is only a few months old. A justifiable need, because Paul is so far away. Carlos always agrees with this point, usually with a smile, his head on a pillow next to me. We talk about marriage on mornings after sex, and about kids, a daughter for me a son for him. Then we go for a run—both of us shirtless—through Dupont Circle up the gradual hill of Massachusetts Avenue to Observatory Circle, and back. Afterward, we shower together, and after that, I call Paul to check on his weekend with the boys while Carlos makes breakfast or leaves for his mother’s house. He is good like that.
* * *
There is a creak on the fire escape, and I wake up from my nap to see Paul stepping out, rubbing his head with his hands.
“Did you eat your breakfast?” I ask.
“Not hungry.” He leans against the railing.
“You can’t let her do this to you. See what she’s doing to your health?”
“It’s not her,” he says. “I’m just not hungry.”
“I want to go with you when you pick up Matthew and Andrew.”
Matthew and Andrew are four and two, not yet old enough to fit their names, but Christine has asked Paul never to call them Matt and Andy, saying if she wanted to call the boys Matt and Andy, she would have named them Matt and Andy.
“No,” Paul says. “She’s never seen you and I want to keep it that way.”
“It could lead to something,” he says. “It’s ugly enough when I go by myself.”
“I could stay in the car,” I suggest. “She won’t notice.”
“She’d definitely notice if you were sitting in the car,” he says. “She helps me put the boys into their car seats.”
As I lean back in the folding chair, the metal scratches and scrapes the brick wall.
“Why don’t you just keep them the next time you have them?” I ask. “What can she do?”
“She’d say I was kidnapping them, like always.”
Christine has accused Paul many times of kidnapping. If he did not return the boys exactly on the hour, she would call his cell phone and threaten to call the police. He was usually just down the road at McDonald’s, buying the boys Happy Meals, and he would have been at her house in fifteen minutes, but to Christine, fifteen minutes is enough to call Paul a kidnapper. Once when Paul picked up the boys for the weekend, he was so excited to have them that he drove away without their overnight bag. Minutes later, Christine called him and said unless he drove back for the bag this would be considered kidnapping, and she was sure the courts would agree.
“What if you did that,” I wonder out loud. “Actually kidnap them?”
“I’d get caught. And then I would never see my boys.”
Across the way, at our neighbors’ window, there is movement behind the curtains. The laptop is still on my crotch, a good thing.
“What are we doing tonight?” I change the subject.
“Let’s just stay in,” Paul says. “I’m not really in the mood to go out.”
A nice dinner, a small present, an evening out with you, all of this is why I am here, I consider saying. The talk I scripted on my run seems muddied now and it cannot be drawn out from the recesses of my mind. Instead I look hard at the curtains, which are no longer moving, and I try to see if anyone is back there, but I am blinded by the sun’s glare in the window.
* * *
On Sunday morning, as the train pulls into Washington’s Union Station, I call Carlos to tell him I am here. He says he has been waiting for me in the Grand Hall, the wide foyer with the high curved ceiling. He is sitting at the café with the spiral staircase. I picture him there, in the echo of that hall, surrounded by the tourists and passengers, who all look tired and miserable. He is happy I am back early, he tells me over the phone. He will meet me at the gate. The train stops, and I pull my duffle bag over my shoulder, and stand in the aisle with the other passengers, ready to get off. I cannot wait to hug Carlos. He is tall too, and his wavy black hair, smooth olive skin, and natural muscle tone make him so nice to hold. He is 23, a few months older than I am. We are both just starting out, and sometimes I feel that it would be nice to start out with someone my own age. Carlos lives without baggage, a stress-free life, one that allows him to introduce me to his family, and one that allows him to be here when I change plans suddenly. The attraction would be obvious to anyone who meets him, and it would be obvious especially to Paul, who loves Latinos.
The train doors open and we are let off, and as I make my way past the Amtrak silver train car, it sighs its warm exhaust, and I sigh too. It is during moments like this, with Paul still fresh on my mind and when making comparisons is easy, that I wonder why I stay. Love, I suppose, exists between us. We say it often enough. But seeing the harsh reality of his separation from Christine, from his sons—separations that might never have happened, had he never met me—reaffirms what I already know: I am staying with Paul because to leave him now would be an act of cruelty. I walk out of Amtrak’s Gate A, and almost immediately I see, beyond the shoulders of the people in front of me, Carlos flipping through a magazine at the Hudson News shop by the gate.
“What are you doing here?” I ask smiling as I walk up to him, half disappointed that I won’t get to kiss him in the more romantic setting of the Grand Hall. He takes my bag and hugs and kisses me.
“I hate custody weekends,” he says. “How is he?”
“Not good,” I say.
“Poor old man.”
“Sometimes I think he should take his kids and run. But he’s too smart for that, too level-headed.”
Carlos holds my hand, something that is so easy for him, and we walk to the exit out of the train station that leads to the Metro. On the red line’s platform, I continue: “His ex-wife is making his life hell. She does everything she can to keep him from his sons.”
“What can you do? They’re not your boys.”
“That’s what sucks. I haven’t even met them.”
On the metro, we sit near the door, and I rest my head on Carlos’s shoulder. The metro is usually packed, but as it is Sunday morning, the train car we are in is fairly empty and quiet enough to lull me to sleep.
* * *
“I love this city,” I say once we are in Dupont Circle, walking down New Hampshire to our place. Philadelphia almost always feels so wet and gray. At the apartment, I drop face-first onto the bed.
“Want food?” Carlos goes to the kitchen. “I made chorizo con huevos.”
“Did you?” Suddenly, the place is warm and sharp with the smell of spicy sausage.
“Before I left, I did.” Carlos says. “Thought you might be hungry.”
“I’m glad I don’t have school or work today.” I walk into the kitchen. “I’m going to sleep all day and dream up some way to poison that woman.”
Carlos sets a plate on the counter, pours me some juice, and tells me to eat first.
“What do you want to do tonight?” he asks as I eat.
“What do you mean?”
“For your birthday. What do you want to do?” he asks again. He turns on the faucet and starts washing the frying pan and the dishes he used over the weekend. “Dinner? Dancing? A movie? Your pick, my treat.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Whatever we do, we have to go to my mom’s first,” he says.
“She wanted it to be a surprise, but I’ll tell you,” Carlos says. “She’s making menudo and baking you a cake. Pineapple-upside-down cake, like the one your mom used to make for your birthday. She called me, by the way.”
“Your mother. She said she called your cell phone this morning, but you didn’t answer, so she called me. She asked if you were OK.”
She called Carlos? She has never done anything like that before; in fact, I cannot remember ever giving her Carlos’s cell phone number. She wishes you a happy birthday and she wants you to call her, he tells me. Carlos’s plans and my mother’s message force me to search back over the last two days with Paul for a moment, one moment, when Paul mentioned my birthday. It was our regularly scheduled weekend together, but he told me weeks before that he would make this particular weekend special. Instead, our weekend was filled with the sound of typing: Paul emailing back and forth with Christine, trying to work something out for the upcoming week.
“What’s wrong?” Carlos turns the faucet off and looks at me. “You got quiet.”
Paul probably hid a gift or a card in my bag, so I leave my plate on the counter, and check my bag on the bed. I dig through my clothes, through the balls of socks, feel around them then dump everything out.
“Did you leave something at Paul’s?” Carlos sits down on the bed and moves the socks around. “We can buy you another one, whatever it is.”
“It’s nothing,” I say, pushing everything aside and sitting down. “I’m just tired.”
Carlos tells me to sleep. It is my birthday, after all.
* * *
Carlos’s mother has dinner ready for us when we get to her house on Kenyon Street in old Columbia Heights. The living room is warm with flavors, mostly the garlic smell of boiling tripe. The Rosados are one of the few Mexican families I have met in a city full of Salvadorians, and Carlos’s mother has told me many times that our finding one another means Carlos and I are meant to be. Carlos’s little niece and nephew run around the house, and from the kitchen his brother yells at them to behave or play upstairs. Carlos chases after them, picks up the littlest, his brother’s three-year-old daughter, and hands her to me.
“Here is your birthday present,” he says.
I laugh. She is so cute with her curly brown hair pinned up especially for the occasion. Yes, I want a daughter just like her someday. We walk into the kitchen to see the rest of the family.
Carlos’s mother Soila and Emilina’s mother are at the kitchen island chopping the last of the lime and cilantro for the menudo.
“Emilina, you want to go home with Tomasito?” Soila asks. The baby smiles and nods and kisses my cheek, then she wiggles, so I let her down. I greet the ladies with kisses on the cheek, too.
“Happy Birthday, mi hijo,” Soila says.
“Everything smells so good,” I tell them, overwhelmed.
After dinner, there is pineapple-upside-down cake, just as Carlos said there would be, and they sing feliz cumpleaños to me, and I blow out the wax number candles, which Carlos set up as “32” for a joke. When they call for a speech, all I can say is how touched I am at all the food and the cake, and I thank them for everything. I look at Carlos and his family and I hope they know what I mean.
“We are family,” Carlos’s mother says. “That is what families do.” She tells Carlos to get the present in the other room. It is a large box, wrapped with shimmering rainbow-colored wrapping paper.
“It’s from all of us,” Carlos says as he hands me the box.
Emilina and her brother reach for it and help me rip away the wrapping. It is a new bag for school, a leather satchel that I have admired a few times in a store in Georgetown. I am embarrassed to know how much it costs.
“This is too much,” I say. “Too much, Soila.”
“Ay, no Soila!” she says. “Call me mom.”
I give her a hug, and Carlos’s brother, his girlfriend, and the babies give me hugs, too, and I get a kiss from Carlos in front of everyone. The party moves into the living room. There is music and drinks, and a piñata on the coffee table ready to be strung-up. Soon I am laughing and talking about the things Carlos does when he sleeps.
“Too much information!” his mother says. “TMI!” Nothing is too much for her, we tease back, but for a moment I wonder exactly how much Carlos actually tells her.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, and I excuse myself to the kitchen. It is Paul, probably calling to make sure I made it home OK, so to be sure I can hear him and to make sure he does not hear the party, I step outside to the back porch.
“She finally let me have the boys,” he shouts. “I am so freaking happy! This is how it feels to get exactly what you want.”
“I want you to meet the boys,” he says.
“Wait,” I try.
“I just picked them up, and we’re coming down to D.C. to get you. Screw what she thinks. You deserve to know them,” he explains. “Spend the week with us, or at least have dinner tonight, for your birthday,” he says this last part as if he had not forgotten all about my birthday when I was in Philadelphia.
Carlos opens the porch door, and calls, “Mi amor! My mother wants to know if we want to sleep over.”
“Who is that?” Paul asks on the phone.
“Who is that?” I hear Matthew and Andrew repeat.
Carlos holds the door open. Inside, the piñata is up and the kids are beating it.
“Are you coming in?” Carlos asks. “I think it is ready to break.”
# # #
Copyright © 2010 by Zachary Benavidez.