Stephen Hopkins – William Bardot
May 2, 2018
Last summer my friend Pablo and me were riding the Metrorail to Gabriella Sophia Rodriguez’s Quinceañera when we got into another fistfight. Pablo had me in a full nelson and was slamming my face against one of the aluminum poles, waiting for me to say he was the master of the letter S, when some old Cubano in a white guayabera pulled him off me and said, “Oye, cool it!” I told him to cool it and Pablo shoved the guy and I took that opportunity to kick Pablo in the stomach and then we were back on the filthy floor punching at each other’s ribs. The Cubano backed off and left us alone when he heard us laughing. We liked to laugh when we fought.
The reason Pablo and me were fighting was really two reasons. The first was because I slaphumped him. We invented slaphump after kids at school started playing blackbird. Blackbird was when you punch your friend in the arm whenever he says a word with the letter B in it. Pablo and I didn’t think that was violent/funny enough so we invented slaphump. Slaphump is when you cup your hands and slap your friend’s ears, to mess up his equilibrium, and then you hump him, whenever he uses the letter S. It was a big hit at school and so far I was the reigning slaphump champion. It’s pretty much the only thing I’ve ever been good at. That and American History. But Pablo didn’t think slaphump rules applied on the Metrorail because of the train cops that sometimes patrol from car to car. That’s bullshit, I told him so, but Pablo claimed not-bullshit and punched me in the face.
The second reason Pablo and me were fighting was because of Gabriella Sophia Rodriguez. We were both twelve and earlier in the summer we snuck into my older brother Jeff’s room and stole one of his Hustlers. We took it with us to the bomb shelter and took turns with it in the corner. I went second and took longer because it didn’t happen, but I said it did. So on the count of three we both said the name of the woman we wanted and we both said: “Gabriella Sophia Rodriguez.” Things had been weird ever since. Pablo was my best friend and I was his best friend. We had cigarette burns on our wrists to prove it. But it didn’t matter. Pablo could win Gabriella’s heart and not me.
The reason Pablo could win Gabriella’s heart was another reason that was really two reasons. The first was because Gabriella was an ESL student two grades above us— we only had her for gym—and ESL meant she only knew Spanish. Pablo was Cuban and spoke Spanish. I didn’t speak Spanish. We were both born in Miami but Pablo got to be Cuban, too. I can say I’m Russian and Irish but it’s not the same.
The second reason is Pablo did all the little things suave. Like, his birthday card? It had his signature in cursive and it was beautiful. It looked like John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence. It even had these little accents. I could do cursive but my signature on my card looked really bad. Mine looked like Stephen Hopkins’ signature on the Declaration of Independence. Stephen Hopkins was the Governor of Rhode Island and had cerebral palsy. While he was signing the Declaration of Independence, he said, “My hand trembles but my heart does not.” I wrote that on the bottom of Gabriella’s birthday card. But it’s not the same.
By the time we got off at the Allapattah stop we were both pretty messed up. My nose was bleeding and Pablo’s bottom lip was busted. We made up and called an end to slaphump for the day and things were cool walking to Gabriella’s house until Pablo made fun of my style.
He said, “You look like a Kentucky tourist.”
I was about to slaphump him for the S in tourist, but then I remembered.
He flinched anyway.
I said, “You look like you just got off the raft.”
I was wearing neon green swim shorts and sandals because it was a pool party.
Pablo was wearing his swim shorts under his ratty jeans and he had on combat boots. We both had mohawks. Pablo did his first because he likes punk. Everyone made fun of him until I did one, too. I think punk’s okay, and I look pretty awful with a mohawk, but no one made fun of Pablo but me.
On the way up Gabriella’s street, Pablo got excited. “Dude,” he said. “I want Gabby so bad I can’t figure what I want to do with her first. There are so many perfect body parts to play with. Like, I wouldn’t mind playing with her armpit or even her toes. I just want every piece of that girl. You know what I mean?”
I knew what Pablo meant and he knew I knew it, too, because he was watching me from the corner of his eye, and I guess normally this would’ve set me off but instead it just made me sad. I’d had pre-sleep fantasies for months where I already did all the usual stuff with Gabriella, so lately I’d been experimenting. I’d had the armpit fantasy just the night before, but mostly I thought about her hair. Every morning I kept having this dream where I was pressed against her tan back and my head was buried under her hair and my face was all mashed against her curly neck fuzz and I’d lick it softly and then my cat, Meg, licked me back, and I’d wake up.
We Rock-Paper-Scissor’d for who got to go in first. I won and Pablo said, “Two out of three,” but I had already rung the doorbell. Mrs. Rodriguez opened the door a crack, but kept the chain on. I could see she was in a bathrobe and was scared of us. Pablo and I had that affect on mothers, but once they got to know us they wanted us around all the time, like we were family, because we acted chivalrous around their daughters and they liked that we looked like we could protect them. Fathers hated us at first and then they hated us some more. We stayed away from fathers.
“What do you want?” she said.
I said, “We’re here for the Quinceañera, Mrs. Rodriguez.”
Pablo didn’t like that my voice sounded formal. You could tell because he huffed.
He pushed me aside and said some stuff to her in Spanish. She laughed, said something back, and slammed the door on us. Pablo spit through his teeth, gave me his Murder Face, and started walking back to the Metrorail.
“What happened? What’d she say?”
“Wrong day, dumbass,” he said. “Party’s tomorrow.”
Then he called me some names in Spanish. I knew some of them, but he was going all out. I didn’t say anything. We rode back to our hood in mostly silence, mostly because Pablo called me a stupid fucking maricón at every stop.
It was my fault. Pablo’s invitation got lost in the mail and I have Attention Deficit Disorder. That’s what the school said, but we couldn’t afford the medication. The school said I had ADHD, or that I’m dreamer, or an underachiever with potential, or a slacker clown. It depends on which teacher you talk to. My brother Jeff says I’m a retardotron. I thought I was a retardotron too, until I discovered American History. Like I said, that’s something I’m good at.
Here’s a list of things I’m not good at: suave, whistling, dancing, seeing Magic Eye stuff, rolling my R’s, burping/farting on command, playing a guitar, singing, tying a tie, fractions. Pablo could pretty much do all of that stuff and I wonder who taught him. And I wonder why nobody taught me. But I’m especially bad at dates in the present, like I’ll get my Mondays and Wednesdays mixed up or I’ll forget the order of the months. I can do dates in the past, no problem, as long it’s American: Jamestown was founded May 14th 1607, Lincoln was inaugurated March 4th, 1861, all slaves were freed by order of the second Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863, and we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. August 6th is also my birthday and that’s one way American History can ruin things for you. Like when it’s your birthday and you think about that girl who was only two-years-old when the bomb dropped and while she was dying of radiation poisoning she made these little origami cranes. She thought if she made 1,000 of them she’d be cured, but she only made 664. I don’t know what’s a sadder number than 664.
Sometimes, when I can’t remember what day it is, my dad will yell at me.
He’ll yell, “What’s the first question they ask you in the loony bin?”
The correct answer, he’ll say, is they ask you what day it is.
Dad is always asking me questions. Like when I forget to close a door he’ll ask me if I was raised in a barn, and I’ll moo. Or he’ll ask me what part of ‘no’ don’t I understand, and I’ll say, the N. O. Besides, I think he made that up. The first question they probably ask you in the loony bin is, “Hey, what’s your name?”
And I know my name. My name is Sam.
That night, at dinner, we ate pork chops. Mom made them, which is a good thing, and Dad had to work late at the dog track and showed up while we were doing dishes. Dad trains the greyhounds. He’s good with them, makes sure they’re safe and healthy and gets them into good homes when they retire. We don’t have a dog. We have an orange tabby cat. Her name is Meg.
Dad was eating room temperature pork chops when he saw my bruised face. He tapped my cheek with a pork chop. He said, “When you going to grow up?”
I said, “Tomorrow.”
He whacked the top of my head with the pork chop. “Don’t sass. No more fighting. You fight again, I’m gunna whoop you.” He kept whacking me with the pork chop. The juices were flowing through my eyebrows.
I said, “Try it.”
Mom tried to stop him but he already had me in a headlock. The pork chop was dangling from his mouth. Jeff laughed at me. Mom hit him. Meg ran in circles around the table. This is typical. We fight a lot. We’re a violent family. It’s how we show love and our neighbors are scared of us. One time we got kicked out of the Venetian public pool for starting a brawl against some other violent family. We won, but now we’re not welcome there anymore. We get kicked out of lots of places. The other famous place we’re not welcome is the Miami Science Museum. It’s my fault. I don’t remember it but when I was six my mom turned her back on me for a second and I was gone. She says she found me at the Planetarium circuit breakers screaming at some crying kid as I held him up by his hair and also I had started a fire. Now there’s no more Pink Floyd laser shows at the Miami Science Museum. I think our family was just born with violence in us, and that’s okay, but sometimes dad goes too far.
I was kicking his shins and telling him to let me go so I could stab his heart with a fork when he restrained me on the floor and said through the pork chop: “Do not ever threaten someone’s life. Rough housing’s one thing, but you do not ever threaten someone’s life unless you mean to take it. Do not forget the government trained me to kill. I’m a trained killer, Sammy. Do not forget it.”
I slapped the pork chop from his mouth. Meg pounced on it. I ran to my room and slammed the door. It’s sort of true that the government trained my dad to kill. He was in Vietnam, but that’s only sort of true, too. He never actually went over. What he did was in 1965 he was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base as an air raid combat instructor. He trained pilots to use the F-105 Thundercats for strike bombing missions during the ongoing Operation Rolling Thunder. A couple of his trainees went over and died, or were captured and tortured and died, and a hundred thousand North Vietnamese died and now he takes MAO inhibitors and on Memorial Day he walks around the house muttering, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I’m not anti- or pro- war. Well, actually I am something, but I keep secret what I am. If I want to be a good historian then I’m not supposed to be biased. I can only tell you what happened and that’s what I’m doing. I’m telling you the facts.
So sometimes my dad reminds me the government trained him to kill and that’s when I sleep with the WW II American Bayonet under my pillow. The school knows about it. They found out when they asked me questions after I stabbed Jimmy Herrera’s face with a fork. That sounds worse than it really was. Jimmy is a monster. He’s my age but plays on the Varsity wrestling team, looks like he’s eaten nothing but weight gainer in front of Kung-Fu marathons his entire life. He only wears his martial arts uniform, even on picture day. Plus he’s got a moustache. We were in the cafeteria and Jimmy wanted my Moon Pie. He said he’d kill me if I didn’t give him my Moon Pie.
I said, “Go fuck yourself, Jimmy,” and then Jimmy reached for my Moon Pie so I stabbed him right under his left eye with my fork. That still sounds way bad, but listen: the fork was plastic. Still, I was suspended and had to see some school psychiatrist for my violent outburst and she asked me questions. I slipped, though, cause she was smart, and I told her about the bayonet under my pillow.
She said, “Sam, why do you sleep with a knife under your pillow?
I said, “Because my dad’s a government trained killer. And the British.”
She said, “The British?”
I said, “It could happen.”
That’s when they tried putting me on ADHD medications, for my hyper activity, and we told the school that I was taking them even though we couldn’t afford them and they let me come back. Jimmy left me alone but rumor was he just didn’t want me to think he was out for vengeance. Also, I’d heard he knew that Pablo and me liked Gabriella and that he liked Gabriella, too. This bears many similarities to the Boston Tea Party, if Jimmy’s the British and I’m the Sons of Liberty. Historically, the problem with fighting for your independence, means, sooner or later, someone’s going to beat your ass in the school parking lot. But so far, there’d been no Coercive Acts, no Miami Massacre. And now I’m sort of famous at school for my catchphrase: “It could happen.” It’s great for all kinds of questions.
This night I’m telling you about, I was in bed reading a book about the American Civil Rights Movement when I heard Jeff jimmying my door. He’s the only one who knows how to unlock it. Jeff is sometimes all right but mostly evil. Up until the month before I was under the impression that tuna juice tasted like a girl’s vagina because of him. From his evil mouth also was the fact that girls go wild for the smell of their own vagina. So the next time I saw Gabriella with her friends in the hallway, I shoved my tuna juice hands in her face and said, “Let’s go to the movies sometime.” She ran away.
Jeff came in and jumped on top of me, pinned me down with his knees.
He said, “I’m missing a Hustler.”
I said, “What?”
“Hustler,” he said. “December. 1995.”
“What’s it look like?”
“She’s eating vanilla ice cream.”
“Haven’t seen it.”
Jeff grabbed my mohawk and dragged me into the bathroom we share. Then he interrogated me using Stress and Duress, not torture, with the toilet. Even while Jeff was dunking my head, I was thinking how much he loves me. The reason I know my brother loves me is just one reason. When I was eight, and still a mega retardotron, I stayed home from school with chicken pox and used Jeff’s chemistry set to make a magical potion. The reason I made a magical potion was because I wanted a superpower. I didn’t care which one. I used everything in the chemistry set and then I drank it from the beaker. When Jeff came home from school he found me in his room, on the carpet, with my mouth foaming. I was feeling the magic. Jeff said, “What the fuck?” and I pointed to the chemistry set and said, “I made a magical potion. Don’t tell mom.” Jeff told mom and at the hospital they pumped my stomach and the doctor told me I almost died. And I know my brother loves me because when I came back into the ER waiting room I caught him crying.
Now Jeff was interrogating my head with the toilet and asking me where his December 1995 Hustler with the girl eating vanilla ice cream on the cover was. Only he wasn’t asking it all at once. He was asking in stages:
“Where’s.” Dunk. “My.” Dunk. “Hustler.” Dunk.
On the nineteenth dunk I forgot to hold my breath and I thought I was going to drown in the toilet so when I came back up I told him the Hustler was buried at the bomb shelter. He lifted me up and cleaned my wet head with a towel like I was his baby. He was really loving about it, my brother the psycho. He said I was to return the Hustler by tomorrow night and it better be clean, or else.
“Or else what?”
“Or else I feed you to the alligators.”
I said, “Okay.”
Just before Jeff left I confessed to him it didn’t happen for me yet. I told him it had happened for Pablo, and not me, and now I thought Gabriella would somehow know Pablo had done it and was a man, and that I had not done it and was not a man. (I should probably say now, that since the events of this summer I’ve come and it’s great.) My brother Jeff got all wise in the face and said, “Bros before hoes, bro,” and left me by the toilet with his wisdom.
But that night I kept thinking: Pablo is not my bro, he is my best friend, and Gabriella Sophia Rodriguez is not a hoe, she is the love of my life. I tried figuring it out but Meg jumped in bed with me and started purring so I fell asleep. I had a dream. I don’t remember what dream it was, but it was probably the reoccurring one where my head turns into a banana and I can’t breathe and I ask people on the streets of Miami to please peel and cultivate me pronto, only I’m saying it in Russian with an Irish accent and nobody understands me.
I am undecided if my father actually came into my room that night and kissed my forehead and asked me if I knew that he loved me more than anything in the world. I have no historical evidence to support this. I don’t even know why I think it, or if it was part of the dream.
In the morning Pablo woke me with a righteous slaphump. He claimed I used a lot of S’s in my sleep. He said I said, “Slippery snakes are soothing my sweaty scrotum.” I think I would’ve killed him with my bayonet except I had a boner. I didn’t want to kill Pablo with a boner. The police would think it was a crime of passion and not a crime of justified slaphump revenge.
Pablo wanted to go to the bomb shelter and warm up with the Hustler for Gabriella’s Quinceañera later. I didn’t want to do anything but sleep but then I remembered I needed to return the Hustler to Jeff, or else. So we rode our BMX bikes to the bomb shelter.
Pablo and me found the bomb shelter the year before, out in the Everglades by the Miccosukee Gambling Casino. It’s just this huge empty cement room underground and at night there’s always high school dropouts having cookouts and fucking down there, so we go during the day. I did Historical Research on it later at the Miami Dade Public Library and found out that it was part of a top-secret nuclear holocaust safety initiative, ordered by John F. Kennedy during the sixties when we were trying to overthrow Castro but failed. We suspected he was building nuclear missile sites with Russian parts. He didn’t have any missiles built yet, but we thought he did, so we tried to kill him again but failed that, too. We do that a lot, try and kill people who we think have nuclear missiles. The Russians took back their missile parts in exchange for the removal of our nukes in Turkey. That’s the closet the world ever came to nuclear war, and Miami would’ve been the first to go. Afterwards, in 1967, Cuba had no nukes. The United States had 31,255. That’s five times the amount it takes to kill everyone on Earth. So Pablo and me had found the shelter and were pretending to be Navy Seal commandos when we ran into a bunch of real commandos. They were dressed in jungle fatigues with patches that said ALPHA 66 and had automatic weapons and when I saw them I froze. The head honcho lit a cigar and smiled at us. I tried smiling back but then more guys came out from the swamp like Swampthings and I started shaking so bad I thought my body was having a seizure, but Pablo did his suave thing and spoke calmly to them in Spanish. The head honcho nodded and didn’t look at me until Pablo pointed and said, “Gringo.” Then they all laughed, including Pablo, and let us go. When I asked Pablo what that was all about he shook his head at me and said, “They’re training to take back the motherland.”
Going to the bomb shelter is dangerous, very little chance of safe passage. I liked to pretend I’m Lewis and Pablo’s Clark and Sacajawea runs alongside us in a skimpy loincloth. We had to ride our bikes for two hours down Tamiami Trail, or ‘Alligator Alley’ if you’re a local. There’s no sidewalk, and it’s next to a canal full of gators, so cars are always swerving and honking at us as we ride the narrow ledge of asphalt. The unmarked turn to the bomb shelter is just before the Miccosukee Gambling Casino on the Indian reservation. There’s a gun range you have to pass before turning again into the swamp. The gun range used to face the casino, but one time a bullet somehow jumped the retaining wall and killed someone who had just won a million dollars. That is the truth. Now the gun range faces the other direction, which is the direction of the bomb shelter, and sometimes, like this time, we heard bullets zooming past us on the bike trail, exploding a tree a few feet away from my head. Always my head, never Pablo’s. There are also coral snakes. If a coral snake bites you, you die, no hope. We hadn’t seen the Cuban commandos since that one time, but still.
At the bomb shelter we parked our bikes against the top of the structure and climbed down the hole with the ladder. It’s pretty dark and musty inside but there’s these vent holes that shine light beams all over. It looks like someone painted the place with polka dots of sun. Pablo dug up the Hustler from the dirt patch in the corner and I let him go first. When he finished he threw me the Hustler. It was sticky and covered in dirt. I went in the corner and thought it happened, but it was the wrong color, so it still didn’t happen, but I tried for five more minutes. Afterwards, I came back and smiled like it happened and Pablo took out two cigarettes he kept in an Altoid’s box, to hide the smell, and we smoked. Slaphump was still on, but Pablo wanted to communicate freely, so he asked me for an hour-long slaphump truce. I didn’t want to, cause I for sure would’ve gotten him back nasty for that unjustified morning slaphump, but I said okay, and that’s when Pablo showed me the condom. It was wrapped in gold and said: MAGNUM XL.
“I bought it off Omar at the Quick Stop. He let me have it for twenty bucks.”
He handed it to me. I couldn’t understand why it felt like there was water in it.
“That’s a great deal,” I said.
“Hell yeah it is,” said Pablo. “I got three for the price of one, came in a little black box. Omar’s one shifty dude, selling condoms to minors, but I’ll hook you up with one later, maybe, not tonight though. I might need all three for Gabby. I’m cool with making little Pablocitos, but what if that girl has the HIV or crabs or something. I’m not taking chances.”
“Gabriella’s never had sex,” I said. “I found out last year when we talked about sex ed. You were sick that day. They asked us if we had had sex and nobody raised their hands.”
“But did they teach you about toilets? Or what if she shared panties with some other girl. Some skanky girl. Sometimes you’re too fucking stupid, Sam, for real. I got a twenty-dollar condom, don’t be jealous.”
I was and wasn’t jealous. I was jealous because Pablo had a better chance at impregnating Gabriella because of Spanish and suave and John Hancock, but I wasn’t jealous because I knew that you didn’t have to be eighteen to buy condoms. Pablo thought it was illegal because his Catholic family told crazy ass lies. Like, he also thought optometrists and dentists were the devil, and he needed glasses and a thorough teeth cleaning, but his family thought shit like good eyesight and a nice smile was a luxury. My family’s not Catholic. We’re Episcopalian. I don’t need glasses, I’m 20/20, and I see a dentist every year and still get cavities. The only two differences I know of between Catholics and Episcopalians is Episcopalian preachers can have sex and we’re not crazy. So it’s better.
After we finished smoking, we did Murder Face practice.
After Murder Face practice we discussed top celebrity blowjobs, but it always came down to Pamela Anderson and Mariah Carey. Pablo was for Pamela and I was for Mariah. My number one was really Meg Ryan, but I wasn’t telling anyone that back then. Now I’m more open with that kind of stuff. My favorite movie is When Harry Met Sally.
I wiped down the Hustler as best I could with a nasty sock I found on the floor and then we went home, to get ready for Gabriella’s Quinceañera.
In the afternoon, Pablo and me took the Metrorail to Gabriella’s house. Pablo wore his swim shorts this time, too, because it was almost a hundred degrees out. He said he’d rather get shot for looking like a Kentucky tourist than die of heat stroke. I thought that was smart and then I didn’t, because, if you think about it, Miami’s going to get you either way.
Mrs. Rodriguez let us in the house and gave us each a funny look. Everyone was dancing to techno in the living room and some people looked at us and laughed. Nobody was in swimsuits. They were in real suits and expensive dresses. Pablo gave me the meanest Murder Face I’ve ever seen. It was my fault. I had misunderstood the part of the invitation that said: “Don’t forget to wear your suits.”
“If you ruined my chance at Gabby,” Pablo said. “I’m going to zuffocate you with my condom.” Slaphump was on. Z is the best replacement for S. He said, “Zam, I’m going to zuffocate you with my twenty dollar condom and pizz on your dead body.”
I didn’t say anything. Everyone was dancing ruthlessly because they were all jacked up on colada. Pablo walked all suave into the middle of the dance floor and found Gabriella. She was so beautiful in her white dress I had a hard time breathing. The dress had big round puffy shoulders like Snow White only she was prettier than Snow White. The way Pablo looked asking her to dance, even with his swimsuit on, it was like he had planned looking like a dipshit the whole time, like the boboness was just the extra juju he needed.
R. Kelly’s ‘Bump N’ Grind’ came on and Pablo brought Gabriella real close to him and his hands were inching down her backside. I didn’t know how to dance and there was no one else I wanted to try it with so I went out through the sliding-glass doors to the back patio. There was a pool. Not that it mattered. On the other side of the pool was a small coral wall under a Banyan tree, with hundreds of roots streaming down to the earth. There was a busted piñata on the terracotta and a refreshment table with refreshments. I poured a cup of punch from the punch bowl and sat down on the end of a poolside lounge chair and it capsized forward and my ass hit tile, because that’s what happens when you forget lounge chair dynamics. But I didn’t let it faze me. I just stayed there, on the cool tile, with the lounge chair sticking up behind me, thinking about punching Pablo, and about how violent American History is. Like, if you look at the chapters in your American History book, most of them are categorized by violence, by wars fought and people killed. Even stuff that was supposed to have been about ending violence is shadowed with violence. Like there was American Colonization and Native American Genocide. Or Woodstock and Kent State. Or Kennedy and Oswald. Or the Moon landing and plans for orbital reentry warheads.
I was sitting there drinking punch, thinking about violence and American History, and how I’m good at them, but bad at girls and math and dancing and Spanish, and I was trying to see if I could find a connection, a way to make it all okay, something that would stop me from all the sadness I would feel that night, when a grizzled voice from behind me said, “You’re fucking dead, Sammy.”
It was Jimmy Herrera. I didn’t know he’d been invited. He wasn’t in a suit either. He wore a black marital arts uniform with a white tie around his neck.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. I stood up and started back inside.
Jimmy cut in front of me. “Where you going bitch? You’re not getting off so easy,” he said. “And don’t think you or Pablo is scoring with Gabby either. She’s mine. Me and her are going to fuck like dolphins.”
Jimmy humped air and made dolphin sounds. It was stupid, but I couldn’t help visualizing them together, naked on a moonlit beach somewhere, Jimmy humping away like a vicious animal and her hating it, regretting her decision to let him be her first. I hated it, too. I hated it for her.
I said, “You stay away from Gabby.”
Jimmy pounded his knuckles together and came towards me, smiling. He said, “I’ve been practicing my Brazilian-style Gracie jujitsu for this all summer.”
I took a breath and hit my chest three times. “Fuck you Jimmy!” I said. “I’m Stephen Hopkins!”
Jimmy said, “What?”
Everyone inside turned to face us. I don’t know why I said that, but it felt true.
I said, “It could happen.”
Then I ran.
But Jimmy was fast. He did some complicated seven-point blitzkrieg of hurt on me and I was mostly on the floor. My back had collapsed over Jimmy’s knee and my left arm was flailing somewhere out to the right. This was pain. I let out a scream and Jimmy said, “This is what happens when you stab people in the face with forks. Say it with me: This is what happens when I stab people in the face with a fork.” He applied more pressure to my arm and I could feel muscle tearing. “Say it,” he said.
I didn’t want to say shit, and I definitely didn’t want to fight back. Or I wanted to. I wanted to fight back more than I’ve ever wanted to fight back, but I also didn’t want to spoil Gabriella’s special night. But Pablo didn’t agree. As if imbued with the ancient spirit of stupid, Pablo was behind Jimmy with the lounge chair raised over his head.
He said, “Zuck it, Jimmy!” and down came the lounge chair.
Jimmy hit the floor and I rolled into the pool, hung onto the side with one arm because my left arm felt broken. Everyone was outside now and the music got cut. Gabriella screamed and some of the guys started chanting, “Fight!” Jimmy jumped up Bruce-Lee-style and ran at Pablo. Pablo grabbed the punch bowl and threw it at him. Only it didn’t hit Jimmy. It slipped and hit the floor. Some of it splashed onto the bottom of Gabriella’s dress. From the pool it looked like a small critter had stepped on a landmine. The frill of her white dress was splotchy. She looked down and burst into tears. Pablo was so stunned by his dreams of Gabby withering right before him that he didn’t see Jimmy coming at him full speed. Then the chanting stopped. The reason the chanting stopped was because Jimmy had Pablo by the throat and was holding him a foot off the ground and Pablo was making the universal sound of someone being strangled to death. It was horrible. I tried lifting myself up to help him but fell back in the pool.
Just as some relative of Gabriella came outside waving a handgun in the air, I remember thinking that I really like pools. I would say pools are definitely my favorite body of water. The reason pools are the best is because it’s the only thing you can swim in where you can see everything in the water and you know it’s clean, and pure, and safe. That’s how I felt when I let myself sink to the bottom when I saw the guy with the handgun. Safe. The world gets muffled and when the ripples from submerging are gone, you can look up at the sky through a crystal roof. It’s the opposite of violence at the bottom of a pool.
I didn’t know then what went down, but found out later. Even when I let out some air to sink I can still hold my breath for a full two minutes. The trick is to go limp, be perfectly still. What happened was the relative of Gabriella’s with the handgun was a Miami-Dade police officer. Jimmy saw the gun, let go of Pablo, and took off running. Pablo saw the gun and ran, too. They ran in opposite directions around the house. Gabriella’s dad ran after Jimmy and the handgun guy ran after Pablo and everyone went to the front to watch them run around the block in circles. That’s when I came up for air. I came up slowly, Navy Seal quiet, in case the guy with the handgun was waiting to blow my head off, but no one was there. I swam to the ladder and got out, my left arm tingling and I knew that meant it wasn’t broken, so I moved my fingers and regained some sore feeling. I was just going to leave when I heard crying.
Gabriella was sitting alone on the little coral wall in the back. I guessed we had ruined her party. The Banyan tree branches were casting shadows across her punch- stained dress and the sun was finally setting and well, everything was pretty fucking romantic. It was the way it feels in the end of movies I used to tell everyone I hated, but that I really liked the most. I sat next to her. She was crying into her hands and didn’t notice me. I had only English but I thought maybe she’d understand. So I dug out the wet birthday card from my pocket and placed it in her lap.
I said, “It’s wet now so you can’t read it. But it wasn’t that great before anyway. My signature is ugly. Pablo’s was nicer. His signature looked like John Hancock’s. Hancock was one of our founding fathers and his signature was perfect. That says: ‘My hand trembles but my heart does not.’ This other guy, Stephen Hopkins, he said that once, but nobody remembers because his signature was ugly like mine. People always tell you to, ‘Put your John Hancock here’. That’s an American idiom for signature. But what they should really be telling you is, ‘Put your Stephen Hopkins here.’ Because it shouldn’t matter if your signature sucks or you can’t do certain things right, what should matter is your intentions, but history forgets intentions, and I guess it doesn’t have the same ring to it. But I think any combination of words could ring true if you used them enough. Like, if you were going to name a hamburger business, and McDonald’s didn’t exist, and you said to me, ‘Sam, I want to name my new hamburger business McDonald’s,’ well then I’d call you retarded. But I like that anything can ring if you say it enough, or maybe if you don’t say it at all, like a word nobody’s ever heard. Does that work in Spanish? I know it works in English, but can any word ring your ears in Spanish? I bet it can.
“Listen: do you like white guys? I know some people have a preference. I don’t. I like all kinds of women. But do you like the white sailboat people of the Upper East Coast? Cause I was thinking, maybe we could go there when we’re older. My grandmother lives there. They don’t fight as much as we do down here. I’d like to live there, with a woman and my cat, and build a house with a pool that’s far from the ocean. I’d like to have children and create a new rich history for them, one that’s remembered for its acts of kindnesses and love and not violence. I haven’t come yet. You want to be my girlfriend?”
Gabriella shook her head. She wasn’t saying no, she was saying she didn’t understand. I tried smiling it off but my eyes felt heavy and my temples were burning and the pain from my arm was starting to shoot down my wrist and I wanted to just say fuck it, get up and leave, look for Pablo, but then I noticed something: our reflection in the sliding glass doors. It was strange, like I was seeing us through this lens where nothing’s distorted by perception, because the scene didn’t look like what I thought it did in my head. I didn’t look romantic or heroic. I looked wet and scared. And Gabriella didn’t look like a Disney princess waiting for a kiss. She looked confused, and a little sad.
Everyone was funneling back into the house. Gabby was staring at me, so I asked if it helped if I spoke slowly and she said “Sí,” so I said, slowly: “I’m going to learn Spanish for you. It’s going to take me a long time because I’m dumb at stuff. I don’t expect you to wait for me. But don’t go out with Jimmy. Okay?”
She nodded. “Qué quieres…” she said, “Samuel, do jou like tres leches?”
That’s Cuban cake. It’s really good. I shouted, “I fucking love tres leches!”
That made her smile. Then her dad came running out of the house and pointed his finger at me like: dead. So I kissed Gabby on the cheek, jumped the wall, and bounced.
I found Pablo hiding in some bushes in front of the house next door and we got on the Metrorail. I was pretty fucked up and he was pretty heartbroken. I guess he was a little fucked up and I was a little heartbroken, too. We hurt, inside and out, and for some reason blamed each other for it. We wouldn’t look at each other. We were supremely pissed and no longer on speaking terms after we vowed to somehow remove our cigarette burns to eliminate all traces of our previous friendship, and that was that.
But as we came through Government Center, and the neon Miami skyline lit up like a backdrop on the other side, I kept catching Pablo’s sour face in the window’s reflection and it made me smile. He tried not to smile back and put on his Murder Face but I just laughed and he laughed, too. I don’t know why we were laughing. It made us angry, in a good way. Sometimes we can just make each other angry for no reason and it’s hard to stop laughing no matter how bad you think you feel.
Right before our stop Pablo turned to me.
He said, “Who the fuck is Stephen Hopkins?”
So I slaphumped him.