Look at how Adriana wears her skirts!
She shaves her legs, too!
Yes, she had sturdy, smooth legs and every boy eyed them. Even the priests couldn’t help but admire the lively, flexing muscles just beneath her short, plaid skirt. And then she developed a bosom, to boot! Trouble, trouble, trouble. Too easy to predict, eh? Who couldn’t have?
So, when people started to notice a tummy on Adriana (not much of one, a mere shadow, really, but on her slim hips, it was quite noticeable), poof! she was gone. Sent away to Mexico to stay with relatives.
Money problems, said her mother, Ana. She can help out with her rich tía Isabel and send money to our family here. I’d go instead but who’d raise the other four niños not to mention mi esposo? You know men! Roberto would let the children run around naked, dirty and hungry.
What of her studies?
Oh, the nuns are wonderful! They give me the homework and I mail it down to her. Her tía is very educated so she helps Adriana. My sister went to the university!
They knew it was all bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
But they played along with the charade.
She’s such a good daughter! You must be very proud.
Oh, yes. Very proud. We are lucky parents.
James didn’t care about any of this. Before she failed to come back to school after the Christmas break, Adriana sat across from James (to his left, and one desk up, to be exact) in Sister Sharon’s sixth grade classroom. From his vantage point, he could rest his tired eyes on the white nape of Adriana’s neck. Her short, brown curly-cue hair, with the help of the white, Peter Pan collar of her uniform blouse, framed that little patch of peaceful beauty just for James. There in that safe place, two almond-colored freckles hung just below her curls and above the horizon of her collar like twin dark stars. If he could only kiss her neck, in that spot between the freckles, and breathe in her shampoo-scented hair, he would be a happy boy. So, with a Halloween dance looming not more than a week away (planned by his friend, Davie Gomez, whose reckless parents never seemed to be around), this was his chance to ask Adriana to come with him. At morning recess, Davie egged James on.
Don’t be a pendejo, James! Ask the bitch out! Can’t get none unless you ask! Davie dug a bony elbow into James’ equally bony ribs.
James winced but he kept his eyes on Adriana who played handball across the schoolyard.
Go! Another jab in the ribs.
James jammed his hands into his worn-out corduroys to hide his erection and started his trek to Adriana. As he approached, he admired her tough punches of the large, red ball. She seldom lost. A warm Indian summer wind blew through the yard and the other children’s laughs, shouts and cries merged into a big, invisible woolen blanket that seemed to swathe James’ entire body. His stomach hurt and he burped up the flavor of his morning café con leche. James finally stood a few feet from the three girls.
She didn’t hear him.
She heard him and looked up. The ball bounced past her.
Sonia ran for the ball and Monica stared at James. Monica’s mouth hung open like an old sweater.
Adriana repeated: What?
Do you want to come with me to Davie’s party? Next week?
Davie’s laughter could be heard from across the yard.
Heads up! yelled Sonia. Adriana acted fast and caught the ball.
No, Adriana finally answered. She turned away and hit the ball with a tight, little fist. No, I don’t.
Maybe if I died right now, she’d feel sorry she said no, James thought. But he didn’t die right there. He merely stood there and watched helplessly as Adriana easily beat Monica. James sighed and turned. He could see Davie doubled over, laughing. As he walked back to his friend, he muttered, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. His erection shrunk and his brain hurt. Shit, shit, shit, shit. Davie tried to catch his breath.
¡Pinche pendejo! Davie finally got out.
Fuck you, whispered James as he re-took his place near his friend.
Davie wiped tears from his face and let out one more chuckle. The bell rang making James jump. The nuns signaled with waves of their arms for the children to go back to the schoolhouse.
Race you! yelled Davie as he slapped the back of James’ head making a sound like the butcher, Mr. Ortiz, assaulting his cutting board with a fat salmon. Davie jumped forward and started pumping his thin legs. James narrowed his eyes and took off after him. As Adriana strolled with her friends, she looked up and watched the boys racing. She smiled and dribbled the ball.
At the last bell of the day, James fled the school. Luckily, Sister Sharon had not assigned any homework that night, so he was not burdened by books. James simply didn’t want to walk home with Davie or anyone else. He headed towards Pico Boulevard instead of taking his usual route on Fifteenth Street. Once on Pico, James breathed freely and he slowed down to enjoy the sights of the busy street. His stomach growled because, in a nauseous fit, he’d thrown away his lunch. He turned and headed east towards Palomera’s Books, an ancient bookstore that also sold snacks. The owner, Marta Palomera, wanted to make more money so she had her husband, Pedro, add a glass case for pan dulce, sodas and candies to attract the school children. (Also at her behest, her husband added a comic book rack which was a stroke of brilliance, if truth be told.) Pedro disappeared one night six years ago but the glass case and comic books stayed along with Marta. Being Cubans, she and her husband were oddities in the Mexican neighborhood and were, for many years, viewed with great suspicion.
You know Cubanos! They were all rich before Castro. Uppity, uppity, uppity. ¡Ay!
Now, people just referred to Marta as pobrecita not because she was starving but because she was abandoned by her husband. Now, at age fifty-five, how could she ever find a husband? Gracias a Dios she couldn’t have children.
James entered the bookstore with a tinkle of the tarnished bell that hung on the door. The delicious musty-sweet odors took over his senses. Marta chatted into her old, black rotary telephone receiver in rapid-fire Spanish. She looked up and waved at James. Her after school assistant, Leonard, a lanky Chinese boy from the nearby high school, sat on a tall stool at the far end of the counter reading Sports Illustrated. Several adult patrons browsed about but luckily no one from school was there. James wandered up to the glass case and perused its treasures. His stomach rumbled so loudly that a dapper, large man at the SALE! table looked up and frowned. Marta finally finished her conversation, dropped the receiver into its cradle with a loud clack, and maneuvered her still-lithe body to the other side of the glass case.
An oreja and a 7-Up, please.
Well, Jimmy, a hello to you, too.
James blushed. Only she called him Jimmy. And he should have said hello before ordering.
Hello, Mrs. Palomera. He scratched a scab on his sharp elbow. A Tito Puente song, “Lucky Dog,” played on a small Sony compact disc player behind the counter. She kept the music low enough not to bother the customers but loud enough to keep herself happy.
Hello, Jimmy. Marta picked-up a pair of metal tongs, deliberately and efficiently used it to snatch an ear-shaped piece of pan dulce from the corner of the glass case, and put it into a little paper bag. She handed it to James.
And a Coke?
No. A 7-Up. Please.
She pulled a green and silver can from the other corner of the versatile case and put it on the counter. That’ll be one dollar and seventy-five, por favor.
With some effort, James pulled two crumpled dollars from his pocket and laid them near the 7-Up can. Marta rang the order up and slid a quarter towards the boy.
Quiet today, Jimmy. A lot on your mind?
No. Yes. No.
Which is it?
James grabbed the soda. Bye.
As he turned to go, the shop door opened with a tinkle and there stood Adriana and her two friends.
Shit! James turned back to Marta. In two seconds, she figured it out but she didn’t know which of the three giggling girls, who now hovered by the comic books, was the problem.
Leonard! Watch the store.
Leonard’s head popped up.
Marta signaled to James with her head. I’m taking this young man to the back to help me pack up those books, okay?
Sure. Leonard returned his gaze to the magazine. Tito Puente started up with On Broadway.
Marta lifted the counter’s wooden panel so that James could follow her to the storage room. He quickly obliged and beat her there. The area in back was almost as large as the store itself. James stopped in the middle of the room and examined its contents in wonderment: boxes of Coke, 7-Up and Orange Crush took over one corner, while piles of books and half-emptied boxes took over another. The back wall owned a counter, sink and small refrigerator. A gurgling Krups coffee maker sat near the sink. Spider plants, burro’s tail, and Boston ferns hung like bats from the ceiling encouraging James to duck even though there was really no need. A dirty, narrow window ran across the back wall above the little kitchen area allowing a little sunlight to bleed in. A single, unshaded one hundred-watt light bulb hung over the sink.
¿Café? asked Marta as she swished past the engrossed boy. She touched his shoulder on her way to the sink. James liked the perfume she wore.
Sí. Gracias. He usually didn’t like to speak Spanish but it seemed right to do so right then.
She poured coffee into a large, white mug that had a dancing Snoopy emblazoned on it. ¿Con leche?
Marta opened the refrigerator and pulled out a little carton of half-and-half. James noticed a wall calendar that hung near the boxes of soda. The calendar was nothing more than a long piece of laminated paper with a vibrant painting of a city’s shoreline and all twelve months of the year 1958 lined up in neat little squares below it.
As Marta handed James the mug, he asked, Why do you have that up?
She looked over to the calendar and smiled. James liked the crinkles that formed at her eyes.
That was the last year my parents and I lived in Cuba. Before we had to escape. You know about Castro, don’t you, Jimmy? She touched his shoulder again.
Yes. He felt his cheeks grow warm. What a stupid idiot! he thought. Of course that’s the year she left! James took a sip of his coffee.
Thank you. It’ll go better with your pan dulce. Sit, sit. There’s a nice comfortable chair over by the books.
But I thought I was going to help.
Later. Let’s talk first. I think I can help.
But help she didn’t. In between interruptions from Leonard who had trouble opening the cash register, Marta attempted to pass on to the befuddled James every ounce of her knowledge concerning all things romantic. He sat in an overstuffed, brown leather chair while she walked back and forth in front of him like she was teaching a science or history lesson. Men want this. Women think that. Don’t force things. But don’t ignore her too much. Marta gesticulated with great ferocity making her numerous gold bracelets jangle and clink like wild background music.
Sadly, none of it helped James. All the information merely confused him and made him feel small. The only consolation was being able to hide out until Adriana had left. That, and getting a chance to enjoy wonderful coffee, sweet bread, and the perfectly-shaped curves of Marta’s breasts that pulled against her almost sheer, turquoise blouse. When she ran out of advice, she said, Anything else you want to know, Jimmy?
No. No, thank you.
Yes. Thank you. What about the boxes and books?
Marta smiled. No. That’s okay. Some other day, Jimmy.
James handed her the empty mug, nodded (absorbing one more pleasant viewing of Marta’s friendly breasts), and left the bookstore cradling the now warm can of 7-Up in his left hand.
Davie’s Halloween party came and left (Adriana didn’t even show up), as did All Saints’ Day and Thanksgiving. On the last day before the Christmas break, James either found himself lost in the lush terrain of Adriana’s neck as she worked on a Christmas card, or admiring her athletic, purposeful movements at the handball wall. Happily, Davie was absent so James could enjoy his thoughts without harassment. Ever since that day Adriana said no to him, he decided to admire her from afar despite Marta’s advice to the contrary. It was certainly safer that way, no doubt. And it gave him such joy just to watch Adriana living her life. She looked a bit different recently: a little heavier, clearer skin, fewer smiles. But her beauty only seemed enhanced as far as James was concerned. In the end, however, she lived in her world, and he in his. And James came to accept this as their reality on the last day of school before Christmas. So, you can imagine his shock when the dismissal bell rang and the children burst into a cacophony of ecstatic screams.
He looked up from his desk and saw Adriana standing above him, hands behind her back, swaying slightly like she was nervous.
Wanna’ walk me home?
James stood and tried to speak but couldn’t.
He coughed. Yeah. Sure.
Come on then.
And so they headed out together. Sister Sharon smiled and wished them a good holiday. She put a hand on Adriana’s shoulder and wished her good luck which confused James. Why did she need luck?
They walked down Fifteenth Street in silence while other children ran by laughing and horsing around in general. When most of the others had disappeared, James felt ready to ask a question.
Why did Sister Sharon wish you luck?
Without hesitation, Adriana answered: I’m going to Mexico for a few months. Probably won’t be back until a month after seventh grade starts.
A restored ’67 Thunderbird appeared from around the corner and blasted away their solitude with an old Al Green song. They didn’t speak until it had disappeared.
Why are you going?
They finally reached Adriana’s house. She turned to him.
You’re a nice boy.
James smiled but he didn’t answer.
I wish I had gone with you to Davie’s party.
Me, too. James quickly put his hands into his pocket. He looked at her home. It was a duplex with Adriana’s family squeezed into the three-bedroom unit on the right and the Romo family shoehorned in the other. The cement stairs shot up quickly to a large landing that met the two front doors.
He turned. Adriana leaned close to him and lightly kissed his lips. He tried to kiss back but couldn’t. She pulled back slowly.
Adriana turned and ran up the steps and quickly disappeared into her home. James touched his cracked lips with his right index finger. He closed his eyes and smiled. Shit, he thought. Shit.
That night, as his brother, Marco, twitched and snored in his creaky metal bed across the small bedroom, James drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming that Adriana sat near his feet. She spoke to him and laughed a gentle laugh. And he laughed and listened to her. Finally, he fell into a deep sleep with no dreams at all.
Because of that little kiss, Adriana’s ensuing ten-month absence stung James that much less. The rumors, however, entered his soul with a searing ache so deep that he found it hard to breathe whenever he heard people speak of her. Davie was the biggest source of news.
Shit, man, she had a boy! Can you believe it?
No, said James as he tried unsuccessfully to swallow the first bite of his tuna sandwich. No, I can’t believe it.
It’s goddamned true!
Yes! Tom told me and his mom knows a family in Mexico that lives near Adriana’s aunt. A baby boy named Jesús! Shit, man! Tom says the father is José, her older brother!
Their mom caught him on top of her Halloween! Guess she couldn’t go with you. Had better plans!
James felt sick.
Davie laughed and little white spittle formed at the edges of his mouth. Notice he ain’t around no more? Joined the Army. Wouldn’t you?
And so it went for ten months. The stories got wilder and wilder. The one baby became twins one day, and then triplets the next. And through it all, James kept the kiss to himself and refused to believe any of the rumors.
Finally, a month after seventh grade started, there she was, suddenly, appearing at the school gate, just as the morning bell rang. Adriana held her books tight across her chest, kept her gaze to the ground, and worked her way through stares and murmurs right into Sister Marie’s class. She found her desk, carefully put her books down, and slowly lowered herself into her seat.
When James came into the classroom, he saw her and a shock ran through his thin body. It was Adriana! She looked the same but different. Older. Thinner. Taller. But it was her. James smiled but she averted her eyes. He found his desk. Now, her place was behind him, and to the right. The second bell rang, and the children scrambled to their desks as Sister Marie, a large woman with clear, almost beautiful skin, moved to the front of the classroom. James twisted in his seat and tried to get Adriana’s attention. For but a moment, she looked up but she fluttered her eyelashes and tilted her head down again.
The nun cleared her throat. James turned to the front. Sister Marie turned to the subject of the children’s impending Confirmation. As she explained, once again, how they would soon become Soldiers for Jesus, James ever so slowly turned his head towards Adriana. Within a minute, he could make out her face in his fuzzy peripheral vision. She was looking up now, but James couldn’t tell if she gazed at Sister Marie or him. He turned towards the front and closed his eyes and brought to his mind the back Adriana’s neck, the way it looked last year when he sat behind her. In his mind, Adriana’s skin looked so soft, so peaceful. James smiled, took a deep breath and wondered what Adriana would do if he stood up right there, walked over to her, and planted a soft kiss where Adriana’s hair met the nape of her neck. Would she scrunch up and smile? Would she push her neck into James’ lips? Would Adriana say, hi, I missed you? I’m glad I’m home?