This piece was first published in Quarto’s 2018 Spring Print edition. It was awarded the 2018 Best Fiction Prize by Guest Judge Rebecca Curtis.
First job I took after active duty was as a security guard at the Coca-Cola plant in Moanalua. It wasn’t what I lived for. Work had never been that for me or anyone I had known. What I lived for in those days, I thought, was college. I had just enrolled part-time at Honolulu CC. I might have been half a decade older than the kids sitting at the front of the room, and I might have been dumber than them, too—high school math in Panama isn’t what it is here, not even for you suburbanites who spend adolescence too drunk to apply for university—but every time I walked into that building, I felt as if I was getting payback against those predatory fuckheads who had recruited me on a promise that I’d be able to go to school while serving in the infantry. After I had spent eight weeks crawling in the mud and busting out of dryers which confederate grandsons had shoved me into and then turned on, I asked the fuckhead recruiters how I could start classes. And what did they say? Nothing. They were busy cackling. But that’s another story. The point is, I thought, and would tell Maria this during our late night phone calls, that I had finally found some kind of purpose. And that much was true. What wasn’t true: school wasn’t really it. Ass was.
This was nowhere clearer than in my spending. Maria’s income had been nominal, so when we split, I didn’t lose much. No dog food, more money, and even with the new cost of rent, you’d expect my standard of living, or at least the amount that I was sending home—same shit—to go up. But I swore, long distance calling cards got more and more expensive, and even when I did make time to call my mother, her complaints grew louder and more incessant. Julianita es la mejor en la clase con pies llenos de vejigas porque sus zapatos no le quedan, she’d say, or Renato está creciendo como futbolista, y como quisiera poder meterlo en una liga—both of which meant the same thing: wasn’t I going to send something their way again soon, or, if you want to go deep, I hadn’t forgotten about them, had I? And man, how I wanted to send more, how the heat hit my face every time my card bounced in line at Moanalua 99 with only eggs, spam, and rice in my cart. It hadn’t occurred to me that the money I spent at nightclubs was real. I saw no connection between my being broke and my clubbing.
Even my friendships were about ass. Some friends are brought together by music, others by drugs, and while those certainly brought us together too, they were only our ayahuasca— there to enhance our worship of the Ultimate Good. It was what we talked about, what we chased, and why we hung out: collectively, our individual stocks rose. The only dude in my friend group more sex-crazed than me was this Salvadorian guy named Yeffrey. I met him through another buddy, Tommy, who had been in my platoon and who had met Yeffrey I don’t know where. Tommy and I had been tight until I found out that Maria was fucking him, along with some other dudes in the barracks, and from that point on, even though I never brought it up to him, I kept a distance between us. Again, another story. Yeffrey, on the other hand, I drew myself to. We would work out together, hit the beach together, and, of course, club together. He was the kind of guy who would scream while he lifted and who would let his free weights crash onto the floor, the kind of guy I had always fantasized about punching in the face, but he got more ass than me, and so, for a brief while, I became his loyal, albeit hesitant follower—more witness than apprentice. I couldn’t dig the tight-fitting neon-colored t shirts he wore, and I would always refuse when he offered me the syringe that he’d jam into his ass cheek—and, except for once, I never did coke with him.
Yeffrey was the kind of guy whose compliments didn’t depend on the amount of respect you had for him. One moment, you’d be cringing at him for eating cereal in water, and the next you’d be red in the cheeks, glancing down at your biceps and flexing lightly or toying with your crucifix pendant because he had said you looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tupac. Maria was like that too.
I think I liked hanging out with him because he was the only person I knew who appeared to feel emptier than myself.
Aside from what I could observe during our weekends out, I knew nothing about his personal life—what he actually did for a living, why he had immigrated to Hawai‘i—and I didn’t ask. I prefer to keep people out of focus.
There was nothing special about the night I met Maria. We were at Rumours—and then we weren’t. After we’d finished, she put her hands on my waist and giggled the word petite. I got pissed and put on my clothes and left. The next day, I called and apologized. So began us.
HAND IN HAND
“You’ve got to quit that shit, man.” Yeffrey poured skim milk into two jars already filled nearly halfway with chocolate protein powder. He twisted the cap onto the carton and put it back onto the shelf in his fridge, which he had left open. When he shut the fridge, a few droplets of the protein shakes spilt onto the white countertop.
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
After tightening the lids on the jars, he shook them vigorously, as if there were stones in them that he was trying to grind to dust. “Moving on. Fucking your ex. The two don’t go hand in hand.” He offered me a shake.
“Thanks,” I said, grabbing the jar from him. I took a swig. The powder clumped at the back of my throat like small chunks of mud.
“You married too young.”
“You always do, don’t you?”
I didn’t consider telling Maria that we should stop seeing each other for good until I met Mamaisa at my first AA meeting. She told the group a story about her last relapse, which had occurred a few weeks prior. She had started drinking again—in secret. She would hide in her car in the parking lot outside her apartment and get drunk while her husband, also in recovery, and eight-month-old slept through the night.
Me, I gave few details about what had brought me there.
After the meeting, I approached where she sat alone at a table on the other side of the hall. She wore a Death Row t shirt and a pair of over-the-ear headphones, and she watched the wall on the opposite side of the hall like it was a tv. When I sat down next to her, she pulled one headphone off her ear and sipped the brown liquid in her dixie cup. “What?” she said.
“Oh, I didn’t say anything,” I said to her. “You can keep listening.”
“Thanks for your permission,” she said, pulling the headphones down onto her neck, “but it’s all right. I should, er, interact with other humans.”
“I’m not human.”
“I fucking knew it.”
She smiled and set down her coffee.
“So you have a....”
“We all make mistakes.”
“Jeez,” I said. I took a bite from the stale wafer on my plate. “You’re....” I held out an mmm sound.
“What a name.”
“Hitting on married woman at an AA meeting, are we?” she said, reaching for her headphones. When I blushed, she pulled her hands from her headphones and said, “I’m fucking with you, dude.”
I laughed sheepishly and immediately hated the sound that emanated from my throat. “I just liked your t shirt.”
She held it between her thumbs and examined it. “Have you heard Pac’s new album?”
I shook my head.
She reached for her headphones and actually put them back on. We both laughed, the noise in my throat now warm and round. The shuffle of the other members filled the hall.
“And you are?”
“Alone-so,” I said. I studied her face. “You look familiar.”
She brought her lower lip and her brow toward her nose. “So do you.”
“Yeah. Another guy who thinks Asian women look alike.”
I blushed again.
After laughing, she said, “Nah, you’re right. I think we’re actually neighbors.”
It wasn’t until I learned that we lived in the same apartment complex that I began noticing Mamaisa—on the elevator, in the laundry facility, you know, the usual spots. That was the extent of our contact, and yet, especially given the nature of my job, which involved little more than staring at a clock for several hours a day, be it in a factory or a classroom, this was more than enough to send my mind into long bouts of fantasy. What was her life like? I only knew what little I’d learned from our conversation after that AA meeting, the first and only I had seen her at. Her mother was from Guam, her father from New York, she had graduated from the University of Hawai’i a few years back, and she worked for a nonprofit downtown. She drove away from that meeting in a run down Mazda. I pictured us rolling down the highway, her car rushing into the green mountainscape like a parakeet into a hurricane.
On workdays, I would eat small meals during lunch breaks—rice, tuna or spam, a hard boiled egg, a strip of seaweed—all heated in the microwave of the office in the facility where I worked. The office workers would give me dirty looks, so I wouldn’t eat at their table in the office kitchen. I’d take my lunch to a bench outside, where some of the factory workers would smoke cigarettes during their breaks. I’d eat silently, looking beyond the city’s skyline toward the landscape’s jagged green peaks. They were similar to the ones I’d stared at growing up during my walks home from the bus stop, though I’d learned to stop staring when one time I awoke from a daydream with a knife at my neck. I gave him the fifteen cents my mother had given me for the day and went a little hungrier than usual, which wasn’t saying much. I had always looked forward to meals, then. That might have been because they were infrequent, meager. But it also could have been because they had reminded me of the people in my life, and now they reminded me of my solitude. Now, I ate quickly and savored the skyline.
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER
Dozens of messages on my answering machine. Some of them from Maria, most of them from Yeffrey. A few times, he banged on my door and shouted, “I know you’re in there!” while I sat in the living room on the couch and held my breath and hoped he didn’t kick the door in. I wondered why he was so desperate to see me. Throughout our friendship, he had given me the impression that I was an accessory. There was a part of me that enjoyed what I wielded over him. This newfound power, inevitably, was short lived.
I got home from work one night and found him sitting on the bench outside of my apartment complex, his buff calves glowing in the yellow light of the streetlamp, the toes of his sneakers barely touching the pavement. He pulled off his sunglasses and cleaned them with his shirt and asked me where I’d been. Before I could answer, he told me to shut the fuck up, he knew where I’d been, I’d gotten a new girl, hadn’t I? Why was it that every time I got a new girl, I forgot that he existed? When was I going to learn who the real people in my life were? He might have pushed things a little too far the last time we hung, but he wouldn’t do it again. That was the difference between me and him. He learned from his mistakes. He was gonna teach me, one way or another. This Friday night. He wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Eventually I stopped seeing Mamaisa around the apartment building. I wondered if she had moved, or if she had started drinking again again, or if she had abandoned her family. Whatever the case, she ceased to be the subject of my fantasies. This is not to say that I stopped thinking about her. It was just that she eased into the realm of nightmare. We’d be in that mazda whizzing through the hills—only she’d be tugging on the doors and crying for help as if I had trapped her in the car. I would push on the brakes and the car would accelerate. The doors would unlock and fly open and she’d get sucked out into the gray night and skid along the concrete, smearing burgundy splotches where her body bounced. I’d pull over to the side of the road and dig through the wet brush, which basked in the blue and red lights of the police cars that had pulled up behind me. They’d arrest me and toss me in a lineup with five other suspects who were clones of myself. Through the one-way window, I’d see Mamaisa, smiling as she picked me out.
Maria’s calls had dwindled. One morning, after a long night of dreams, I called her back and begged for forgiveness. For what, I wasn’t sure. I wanted an apology from her, and I (stupidly) expected one in return. After she forgave me, she asked me out. “Yeah,” I said, my jaw clenched, “Friday works.”
As he had done during the last night I hung with him, Yeffrey got the evening going with a couple lines of coke, snorted from my countertop through a protein shake straw. He didn’t offer me any. Those were my terms. I was to hit the club sober. I offered to drive. He refused. Yeffrey, as usual, was on some boys-come-first shit, which I found hypocritical, since his unemployed ass had every other night of the week to chase pussy. I hadn’t told him about my reconciliation with Maria, so he spent the whole pregame and the dangerous drive that followed talking about how much I needed this, a boys’ night out, to get back on my feet. I was young and soon I would learn that bitches weren’t shit, he shouted over Danny Tenaglia’s “Bottom Heavy,” which ricocheted throughout the car’s interior. Once I understood this fact, I would understand what it meant to be a man.
I half-listened and said nothing. All this talk I knew he’d forget as soon as we walked into Rumours and he locked onto a target and rode his own heat-detecting dick to her, which was no mean feat considering the magnitude of that club. A dance floor with two cylindrical cages which propped up on each side sprawled out from the heart of the club, and a waist-high wooden ledge traced the dance floor’s borders in a sad effort contain the bodies which coagulated on it. Cushioned armchairs wrapped around this ledge so that the idle could watch the dancers while they drank. The whole square—dance floor and surrounding ledge included—was insulated by several layers of tables on each side. On the half nearest to the entrance was the full bar, behind which several bartenders toiled, and in front of which the regulars clustered. I walked to the bar and quietly ordered a cape codder on the rocks.
“What was that?” the bartender asked.
The woman next to me repeated my order for me, adding, “He’s embarrassed.”
Her voice was familiar. “Mamaisa,” I said, “what are you doing here?”
OH, THE USUAL
“Wrecking myself,” she said.
“Aww, don’t say that!” I told her. When the bartender set a drink before me, I took a big gulp and then asked, “Where have you been?”
“You ask good questions.”
“And you give generous compliments,” said Yeffrey, who had somehow appeared next to me, a blonde woman by his shoulder.
Mamaisa gave an uneasy laugh, which intensified when he offered his hand to her and introduced himself. “You know Alonso?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, rubbing his hand into my shoulder. “I know him better than he knows himself.”
My face grew hot.
“Is this the new girl you’ve been ditching me for?” he asked me, loud enough for all to hear.
Mamaisa appeared not to notice. “And who is this?” Mamaisa asked about the woman standing beside Yeffrey.
“Oh! I’m glad you asked,” Yeffrey said to Mamaisa, wiping the sweat from his forehead,
“this is, er, this is....”
“Go on, Yeffrey, introduce her,” I added.
The woman smiled a smile that said that this wasn’t the first time she’d done this, and began,
“Tiffany!” Yeffrey said, though the fact that he had forgotten was already clear.
“He’s a classy one,” I said to Tiffany rather loudly, my hand cupped next to my mouth.
Immediately, I regretted what I’d said, but before I could apologize, Tiffany glanced at his crotch and said to me in another fake secret, “It’s not his money I’m after,” at which point all of us—all of us except for Yeffrey—burst into a laughter half-mortified, half-spiteful. Tiffany then said something into Yeffrey’s ear and left the three of us at the bar.
I ordered a third drink and downed it. As I set the glass back onto the countertop, I asked,
“Where’d she go, Yeffrey? The bathroom?”
“To hide until you leave?”
“Oh, fuck off,” he said, brushing off his nose and leaning onto the counter to order a shot.
“You two bicker like an old couple,” Mamaisa said. “It’s adorable. And sick.”
ALL EYEZ ON ME
Live the life of a dog nigga
Till the day I die
Live the life of a boss player
The future’s in my eyes
I sang with the voice that emanated from Mamaisa’s sound system. She looked at me, tossed her head toward the wheel, and laughed. “That’s not how it goes, dude,” she said. “Fuck you,” I said, “talk to me when you know another language.”
“Buenu,” she said.
I stared out the window at the black mountainscape. It inched against the star-speckled sky as we drove along the highway. In the window, the lights of the city blurred into the white and red reflections of the speedometer and the blue light of the stereo control panel. “What is it, then?” I asked her. She sang along with the next chorus:
Live the life of a thug nigga
Till the day I die
Live the life of a boss playa
We been gettin' high
Then she said, “I like your version.”
I felt something open up inside of me. I wondered how she could fail to hear questions like are you drinking again? and where have you been for the past month? yet distinguish dog and thug in the uncertain and accented English in which I rapped. I didn’t ask. Part of me didn’t want to know. I was staring my fantasy right in her face. I could touch her, smell her, let her laughter ring in my ears. I didn’t want to know. She was perfectly out of focus.
“Of course,” I had said when she asked if we could go back to my place. It wasn’t until we entered the apartment and found Maria twiddling my pager between her thumbs at the kitchen table that I remembered that I had made Maria the same promise only a few days earlier.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Maria.
“Who is she?” Maria asked me.
“I should go,” said Mamaisa.
I grabbed her by the shoulder. “No, no, stay, please. This isn’t what it looks like. I can take care of this, I—”
“Alonso, who is she?”
“How did you get in here?”
Maria dangled a key in front of her face.
“I really should go,” Mamaisa said, and tried to pull away from my grip, but I held on tighter. “Ouch,” she said, “let me go.”
I didn’t. “Mamaisa,” I said, “please, just give me a second, this isn’t—”
“It’s exactly what it looks like,” Maria said to her, “and you’re right. You should go.”
A piece of Mamaisa’s dress tore when she finally tugged hard enough to escape my grip.
“I’m so sorr—” I began.
But she had opened the door and there on the other side stood Yeffrey, his chest rising and falling with his heaves, his eyes completely open and as red as his face.
GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE
Mamaisa didn’t dare squeeze past Yeffrey, whose body filled the whole door frame. She retreated into the apartment on her tiptoes, as though he were approaching her. But he didn’t notice her. He only noticed me. Indeed, everyone seemed to be watching me, waiting—for what, I don’t know.
“No,” I said, unsuccessfully suppressing the quiver in my voice, “You come here.”
Yeffrey didn’t hide his quiver. “I’m not going to ask you again,” he said, “you ungrateful fuck....You don’t get it, do you? You and me, we’re the same. No matter how many fucking books you read. You are me. And I ain’t shit. Now, get your ass over here so I can show you.”
My eyeballs swelled. “No,” I said. “You come here.”
“Ah,” he said, “who am I kidding.” And then he unballed his fists and left the doorway.
I made eye contact with Mamaisa and laughed nervously. She didn’t crack a smile. It was as if I had become invisible, as if she were looking through me at some grotesque occurence—a conquistador throwing an infant to canines. She shook her head, then left.
There was only me, Maria, and a heat so heavy that it seemed to make the floors sag.
“Baby,” she said, “It’s not your—”
“Go,” I said.
A few months later, during my first visit home since I had come to the U.S., I finally understood Yeffrey. I pulled my face out from the gap between the wall and the bedframe where I had been retching and wiped my mouth off with the covers. My high school best friend’s older sister lay in bed half-naked beside me. Let’s keep it, I said.
She smiled in her sleep.