I have a memory that is almost like a dream: the yellow leaves from Mima’s mulberry tree are floating down from the sky like giant snowflakes. The November sun is shining, the breeze is cool, and the afternoon shadows are dancing with a life that is far beyond my boyhood understanding. Mima is singing something in Spanish. There are more songs living inside her than there are leaves on her tree.
She is raking the fallen leaves and gathering them. When she is done with her work, she bends down and buttons my coat. She looks at her pyramid of leaves and looks into my eyes and says, “Jump!” I run and jump onto the leaves, which smell of the damp earth.
All afternoon, I bathe in the waters of those leaves.
When I get tired, Mima takes my hand. As we walk back into the house, I stop, pick up a few leaves, and hand them to her with my five-year-old hands. She takes the fragile leaves and kisses them.
She is happy.
And me? I have never been this happy.
I keep that memory somewhere inside me—?where it’s safe. I take it out and look at it when I need to. As if it were a photograph.
Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and there was a hint of rain in the morning air. I felt the cool breeze on my face as I walked out the front door. The summer had been long and lazy, crowded with hot and rainless days.
Those summer days were over now.
The first day of school. Senior year. I’d always wondered what it would be like to be a senior. And now I was about to find out. Life was beginning. That was the story according to Sam, my best friend. She knew everything. When you have a best friend who knows everything, it saves you a lot of work. If you have a question about anything, all you have to do is turn to her and ask and she’ll just give you all the information you need. Not that life is about information.
Sam, she was smart as hell. And she knew stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. She also felt stuff. Oh, man, could Sam feel. Sometimes I thought she was doing all the thinking, all the feeling, and all the living for both of us.
Sam knew who Sam was.
Me? I guess I wasn’t always so sure. So what if sometimes Sam was an emotional exhibitionist, going up and down all the time? She could be a storm. But she could be a soft candle lighting up a dark room. So what if she made me a little crazy? All of it—?all her emotional stuff, her ever-changing moods and tones of voice—?it made her seem so incredibly alive.
I was a different story. I liked keeping it calm. I guess I had this control thing over myself. But sometimes I felt as if I weren’t doing any living at all. Maybe I needed Sam because being around her made me feel more alive. Maybe that wasn't logical, but maybe the thing we call logic is overrated.
So on the first day of school, the supposed beginning of our lives, I was talking to myself as I headed toward Sam’s house. We walked to school together every day. No cars for us. Shit. Dad liked to remind me that I didn’t need a car. “You have legs, don’t you?” I loved my dad, but I didn’t always appreciate his sense of humor.
I texted Sam as I reached her front door: I’m here! She didn’t answer.
I stood there waiting. And, you know, I got this weird feeling that things weren’t going to be the same. Sam called feelings like that premonitions. She said we shouldn’t trust them. She consulted a palm reader when we were in the ninth grade, and she became an instant cynic. Still, that feeling rattled me because I wanted things to stay the same—?I liked my life just fine. If things could always be the way they were now. If only. And, you know, I didn’t like having this little conversation with myself—?and I wouldn’t have been having it if Sam had just had a sense of time. I knew what she was up to. Shoes. Sam could never decide on the shoes. And since it was the first day of school, it really mattered. Sam. Sam and her shoes.
Finally she came out of the house as I was texting Fito. His dramas were different from Sam’s. I’d never had to live in the kind of chaos Fito endured every day of his life, but I thought he was doing pretty well for himself.
“Hi,” Sam said as she walked over, oblivious to the fact that I’d been standing there waiting. She was wearing a blue dress. Her backpack matched her dress, and her earrings dangled in the soft breeze. And her shoes? Sandals. Sandals? I waited all this time for a pair of sandals she bought at Target?
“Great day,” she said, all smiles and enthusiasm.
“Sandals?” I said. “That’s what I was waiting for?”
She wasn’t going to let me throw her off her game. “They’re perfect.” She gave me another smile and kissed me on the cheek.
“What was that for?”
“For luck. Senior year.”
“Senior year. And then what?”
“Don’t bring that word up again. That’s all we’ve talked about all summer.”
“Wrong. That’s all I’ve talked about. You were a little absent during those discussions.”
“Discussions. Is that what they were? I thought they were monologues.”
“Get over it. College! Life, baby!” She made a fist and held it high in the air.
“Yeah. Life,” I said.
She gave me one of her Sam looks. “First day. Let’s kick ass.”
We grinned at each other. And then we were on our way. To begin living.
The first day of school was completely forgettable. Usually I liked the first day—?everybody wearing new clothes and smiles of optimism, all the good thoughts in our heads, all the good attitudes floating around like gas balloons in a parade, and the pep rally slogans—?Let’s make this the greatest year ever! Our teachers were all about telling us how we had it in us to climb the ladder of success in hopes that we might actually get motivated to learn something. Maybe they were just trying to get us to modify our behavior. Let’s face it, a lot of our behavior needed to be modified. Sam said that ninety percent of El Paso High School students needed behavior modification therapy.
This year I just was not into this whole first-day experience. Nope. And then of course Ali Gomez sat in front of me in my AP English class for the third year in a row. Yeah, Ali, a leftover from past years who liked to flirt with me in hopes that I’d help her with her homework. As in do it for her. Like that was going to happen. I had no idea how she managed to get into AP classes. She was living proof that our educational system was questionable. Yeah, first day of school. For-get-ta-ble.
Except that Fito didn’t show. I worried about that guy.
I’d met Fito’s mother only once, and she didn’t seem like she was actually living on this planet. His older brothers had all dropped out of school in favor of mood-altering substances, following in their mother’s footsteps. When I met his mother, her eyes had been totally bloodshot and glazed over and her hair was all stringy and she smelled bad. Fito had been embarrassed as hell. Poor guy. Fito. Okay, the thing with me is that I was a worrier. I hated that about me.
Sam and I were walking back home after our forgettable first day at school. It looked like it was going to rain, and like most desert rats, I loved the rain. “Air smells good,” I told her.
“You’re not listening to me,” she said. I was used to that I’m-annoyed-with-you tone she sometimes took with me. She’d been going on and on about hummingbirds. She was all about hummingbirds. She even had a hummingbird T-shirt. Sam and her phases. “Their hearts beat up to one thousand, two hundred and sixty beats per minute.”
“You’re mocking me,” she said.
“I wasn’t mocking you,” I said. “I was just smiling.”
“I know all your smiles,” she said. “That’s your mocking smile, Sally.” Sam had started calling me Sally in seventh grade because even though she liked my name, Salvador, she thought it was just too much for a guy like me. “I’ll start calling you Salvador when you turn into a man—?and, baby, you’re a long way off from that.” Sam, she definitely didn’t go for Sal, which was what everyone else called me—?except my dad, who called me Salvie. So she got into the habit of calling me Sally. I hated it. What normal guy wants to be called Sally? (Not that I was going for normal.) Look, you couldn’t tell Sam not to do something. If you told her not to do it, ninety-seven percent of the time she did it. Nobody could out-stubborn Sam. She just gave me that look that said I was going to have to get over it. So, to Sam, I was Sally.
That’s when I began calling her Sammy. Everyone has to find a way to even up the score.
So, anyway, she was giving me the lowdown on the statistics of hummingbirds. She started getting mad at me and accusing me of not taking her seriously. Sam hated to be blown off. WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE LIVES HERE. She had that posted on her locker at school. I think she stayed up at night thinking of mottoes. The substance part, well, I got that. Sam wasn’t exactly shallow. But I liked to remind her that if I was a long way off from being a man, she was an even longer way off from being a woman. She didn’t like my little reminder. I got that shut-up look.
As we were walking, she was carrying on about hummingbirds and then lecturing me about my chronic inability to listen to her. And I was thinking, Man, when Sam gets going, she really gets going. I mean, she was really jumping into my shit. Finally I had to—?I mean, I had to—?interrupt her. “Why do you always have to pick a fight with me, Sammy? Look, I’m not making fun. And it’s not as if you don’t know that I’m not exactly a numbers guy. Me and numbers equals no bueno. When you give me stats, my eyes glaze over.”
As my dad liked to say, Sam was “undeterred.” She started in again, but this time it wasn’t me who interrupted her—?it was Enrique Infante. He’d come up behind us as Sam and I were walking. And all of a sudden he jumped in front of me and was in my face. He looked right at me, pushed his finger into my chest, and said, “Your dad’s a faggot.”
Something happened inside me. A huge and uncontrollable wave ran through me and crashed on the shore that was my heart. I suddenly lost my ability to use words, and, I don’t know, I’d never been that angry and I didn’t know what was really happening, because anger wasn’t normal for me. It was as if I, the Sal I knew, just went away and another Sal entered my body and took over. I remember feeling the pain in my own fist just after it hit Enrique Infante’s face. It all happened in an instant, like a flash of lightning, only the lightning wasn’t coming from the sky, it was coming from somewhere inside of me. Seeing all that blood gush out of another guy’s nose made me feel alive. It did. That’s the truth. And that scared me.
I had something in me that scared me.
The next thing I remember was that I was staring down at Enrique as he lay on the ground. I was my calm self again—?well, not calm, but at least I could talk. And I said, “My dad is a man. He has a name. His name is Vicente. So if you want to call him something, call him by his name. And he’s not a faggot.”
Sam just looked at me. I looked back at her. “Well, this is new,” she said. “What happened to the good boy? I never knew you had it in you to punch a guy.”
“I didn’t either,” I said.
Sam smiled at me. It was kind of a strange smile.
I looked down at Enrique. I tried to help him up, but he wasn’t having any of it. “Fuck you,” he said as he picked himself up off the ground.
Sam and I watched as he walked away.
He turned around and flipped me the bird.
I was a little stunned. I looked at Sam. “Maybe we don’t always know what we have inside us.”
“True that,” Sam said. “I think there are a lot of things that find a hiding place in our bodies.”
“Maybe those things should keep themselves hidden,” I said.
We slowly made our way home. Sam and I didn’t say anything for a long time, and that silence between us was definitely unsettling. Then Sam finally said, “Nice way to begin senior year.”
That’s when I started shaking.
“Hey, hey,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you this morning that we should kick some ass?”
“Funny girl,” I said.
“Look, Sally, he deserved what he got.” She gave me one of her smiles. One of her take-it-easy smiles. “Okay, okay, so you shouldn’t go around hitting people. No bueno. Maybe there’s a bad boy inside you just waiting to come out.”
“Nah, not a chance.” I told myself that I’d just had this really strange moment. But something told me she was right. Or halfway right, anyhow. Unsettled. That’s how I felt. Maybe Sam was right about things hiding inside of us. How many more things were hiding there?
We walked the rest of the way home in silence. When we were close to her house, she said, “Let’s go to the Circle K. I’ll buy you a Coke.” I sometimes drank Coke. Kind of like a comfort drink.
We sat on the curb and drank our sodas.
When I dropped Sam off at her house, she hugged me. “Everything’s gonna be just fine, Sally.”
“You know they’re gonna call my dad.”
“Yeah, but Mr. V’s cool.” Mr. V. That’s what Sam called my dad.
“Yeah,” I said. “But Mr. V happens to be my dad—?and a dad’s a dad.”
“Everything’s gonna be okay, Sally.”
“Yeah,” I said. Sometimes I was full of halfhearted yeahs.
As I was walking home, I pictured the hate on Enrique Infante’s face. I could still hear faggot ringing in my ears.
My dad. My dad was not that word.
He would never be that word. Not ever.
Then there was a loud clap of thunder—?and the rain came pouring down.
I couldn’t see anything in front of me as the storm surrounded me. I kept walking, my head down.
I just kept walking.
I felt the heaviness of my rain-soaked clothes. And for the first time in my life, I felt alone.