It bothered Alfonso that he missed the island, that he thought about it all the time. Most of all he missed water -- the turquoise waves of the Caribbean, the rivers that crisscrossed all over, the rain that arrived every afternoon at two, more punctual than a train.
Here, it never rained, and the closest he could get to water was in the building next door. It was, by far, the nicest building in Leones. The walls were painted a dirty pink and over the front entrance, the name of the place was written in fancy script: Desert Crest Studio Apartments.
He was looking at it now, the pool shimmering across the fence.
"What's the worst that could happen?" Sisto asked.
"You know," Alfonso said, giving Gregorio, who followed Sisto everywhere, a sidelong glance. Gregorio, he knew, felt the same even if he didn't come right out and say it. Gregorio never came right out and said anything.
"Don't let him get to you," Sisto said. "We get thrown out we get thrown out."
Alfonso drew circles on the sand with the toe of his shoe. Sand. This all used to be beach a million years ago. Where did all that water go?
"I'm getting too old."
Sisto's tone bordered on mockery, as it did too often. "It hurts you, don't it," he said as if feeling shame or embarrassment was something to be ridiculed.
"Nah," Alfonso said, "but it makes me want to kill him."
"No vale la pena," Sisto said. He's not worth it.
"I didn't mean for reals."
What a huge disappointment, this Mojave desert. It wasn't covered with smooth sand dunes as Alfonso had seen in pictures. There were no camels here, no sparkling oasis. This was rough, the sand coarse and covered with scrub and dry shrubs. The California desert made itself unattractive on purpose, it deliberately covered itself with its own trash, as if to say stay away, there's nothing here for you. A hot hand of wind slapped him as if to confirm his thoughts. Dust in his teeth, his nostrils, his eyes. He should be used to it by now but he wasn't.
He wondered what life would be like on the other side. Every time he left his apartment, the turquoise water of the pool called to him. But twelve feet of chain-link fence protected it from people like him. For added security, and because nothing else grew here, a dense cactus garden surrounded the pool, it's thorns long and sharp.
On the weekends, blonde men and women, their skin slick with cocoa butter dozed all around it on huge colorful towels. That was only early in the day, before it got too hot. Then they retreated to their air-conditioned apartments to wait out the heat.
During the workweek the swimming pool lay abandoned. What was the harm in using it if no one else was?
The fence was hot to the touch but he didn't care. Pain shot up his legs as his bare toes dug into the thick burning wire.
"No fucking fence is going to keep us out," Sisto said.
Alfonso swung a leg over, then the other leg, the fence rattled as he dropped into the cactus garden. The hot sand burned his feet, thorns were everywhere. He dodged through the cactus expertly. He'd done this before.
Sisto scaled the fence even faster and jumped in the pool with a war cry.
Why did he have to be such an idiot?
Alfonso almost changed his mind, but the draw of the water was too strong. He entered slowly, letting the water swallow him bit by bit, his ankles, his knees, his waist, his shoulders and finally his head.
Gregorio had made it over the fence and jumped in, just as noisy as his pal.
"Why you guys have to be like that?" Alfonso whispered.
Sisto's response was to jump on Alfonso with both hands on his head and, laughing, try to drown him. Alfonso grabbed his legs from under him and Sisto went down, his arms splashing the surface.
When he let go, Sisto emerged, took a deep breath and swam away laughing. He heard Gregorio take a giant breath, as if the whole time Sisto was struggling under water, he had been holding his breath too.
Alfonso always thought of Gregorio as a slightly more human version of Sisto. Sisto had no concerns. Over in the deep end he was shouting and splashing and having himself a great time. Alfonso envied that about him, the way Sisto was always having fun even if someone just held you underwater until you were a breath away from death.
Now, Sisto jumped on Gregorio, who screamed, and immediately it all got loud and crazy. Both were fourteen years old, two years younger than Alfonso and right there, in the water, he knew he had outgrown them. Or that he should.
Away from Sisto, Gregorio had the potential of being a good guy, but they were rarely apart. Gregorio was the opposite of Sisto, who was one of those blond Cubans you see from time to time. Gregorio was more typical with black hair, and a dark complexion prone to even darker pimples.
It took a while but eventually they exhausted each other. The two leaned back into the water as if they were on a bed and peacefully floated next to each other oblivious to the scorching sun.
You nigger spics get the hell out of my pool!
A thick, familiar voice boomed through the desert silence. There was frantic activity in the pool as all three scrambled out.
I'm going to call the cops, this time I mean it. Just try me.
As they ran out Sisto and the building manager exchanged a barrage of insults. They reached the front gate and stepped out onto the sidewalk, dripping wet, short of breath. Sisto was laughing. The laughter puzzled Alfonso – they had just been through a horrible, humiliating experience (and not for the first time).
He needed to get away, but they followed when he crossed the street to a sandy lot as big as a city block. The lot was vacant except for an enormous fig tree in the center. Everything around it was brown, dead, or dying but the fig tree grew bigger and greener with each passing year.
Sisto was still laughing and cursing in two languages.
"That fucking asshole."
"Hijo de puta."
"He can't keep us out and he fucking knows it."
"Shut up, man," Alfonso said, knowing that Sisto would go on for hours if he didn't stop him.
"It's your own fault, with all your splashing and shouting. Every time I tell you to be quiet and every time you get us thrown out."
He could see Sisto trying to come back at him but his little brain could only do so much.
"The guy's a fucking asshole."
Gregorio nodded but it was hard to know which one he was agreeing with. Had they stayed in the other country there would be hundreds of boys who could be his friends. Here he was limited to just these two. His brother had disqualified himself. His brother picked his companions from a much wider world. Alfonso didn't quite know how to do that, or even if he wanted to.
He was trapped. Trapped and lonely. It was 1973, and nothing was moving. His parents kept sinking deeper into the sand, the dictator was still in power, and it had been two years since they had any rain. The blaring horns of trains and trucks reminded him, every day, that all he had to do was leave. The thought of leaving gave him the same feeling he got when he dove in the pool. Everything went quiet in his head. Where would he go and how would he get there? He had liked the first place where they had lived, Miami. It had beautiful warm beaches - so much like Cuba - but his father got in some trouble there. After that they went to New Jersey where they were told there were jobs, but it was too cold. Alfonso and Geraldo were just kids then and spent most of the school year with coughs that didn't go away until they left.
They moved on to Los Angeles where it was warm and his father knew some people. The people were miserable. In Los Angeles even the crappiest neighborhoods were too expensive, so they banded together and pushed out like a wagon train in search of a place they could all afford. It would only be a temporary they said. Leones got its name because some crazy gringo once raised lions there, to sell to circuses and zoos. But, by the time the Cubans arrived, the lions were long gone and nothing much happened in Leones anymore.
Even in the shade of the fig tree it was hot. Sisto had dozed off, his head cocked against his shoulder as if his neck was broken. Gregorio lay next to him, staring up at the leaves. Those two had been here as long as he had but never once mentioned leaving. It was good for them here, they could run wild. After a bit Gregorio closed his eyes too. They were so trusting, both of them, like babies. In fact, when he met them ten years ago they were just out of diapers and look at them now.
Alfonso figured there must be something about being from the same country because six Cuban families moved to Leones at the same time. Some of them were related by blood, some were not, all had known each other back in on the island, and were "like family." The only family no one knew was Francisco Castillo's. Francisco had a wife, Hortenzia and two little girls, Odalys and Clarita. Sometimes Alfonso wondered how they appeared to outsiders this dark-skinned, annoying tribe that lived in apartments crammed with all sorts of furniture and could be heard talking from blocks away.
He left Sisto and Gregorio under the fig tree like two dead bodies somebody had dropped there, and headed home.
Sometimes, Alfonso wondered about the ghostly white families who lived in Leones. He walked past the small wooden houses with dirty old couches on brown velvet lawns and knew that if one of the Cubans could afford a house, even a small and cheap one, they would take better care of it. Vast, vacant lots, like giant sandboxes, separated the Cubans from the houses of their neighbors and that was fine with him. He passed men with thinning hair and bright pink faces who sat alone drinking beer out of silver cans while the sun set over palm trees that crackled in the arid breeze. Not people he wanted to know. As his father said, they had been in the same place for generations and had made no progress. They're as poor as the day they arrived.
"Este es un país muy solitario,” Alfonso’s mother said. This is a very lonely country, pointing with pursed lips at the neighboring houses. "In our country, we knew all of our neighbors."
It was hot and lonely here. It had been hot in Cuba too, but there had been cool ocean breezes, and hundreds of Framboyan trees with branches so wide you could park five cars in the shade of just one tree. There were houses with porches and buildings with awnings and women splashing the sidewalks with buckets of water and shouting out prayers as they did.
No one watered anything here, not even God. Rain, when it came, was brief and flimsy. And the pool next door was hardly worth the trouble. By the time he reached his apartment he was thirsty. His shorts had dried unevenly and were chafing him. He itched all over from the chemicals in the water. All he wanted to do was take all his clothes off, flop down on the bed and wait until the sun went down and the heat eased up a bit. Hopefully Geraldo wouldn't be there. The building manager's words had followed him home. Sisto was right, they hurt.
He almost walked right into the squad car, but once he'd seen it he circled around and hurried on home.
His younger brother was home, lying in bed wearing nothing but his undershorts. Huge NOVA40 headphones covered his ears. Even with headphones the faint sound of a shredding guitar buzzed through in the room.
With one move Alfonso grabbed the earphones off Geraldo's head.
"What the fuck?"
"Shh, cops," he whispered.
"Fuck off," Geraldo growled.
"I'm serious. Turn that shit off."
Geraldo sat up and yawned. He slowly inspected the headphones for damage, then set them down on the pillow where his head had just been.
"So fucking what," he said.
"Did you do something?"
Walking to the window, Geraldo carefully parted the curtain a tiny bit and peeked out. Was it possible that Geraldo had grown even taller? Or did he seem taller because he'd gotten so skinny? He still couldn't get over the long, blond hair. At first the fights with their father had been over the length of his hair. The day he soaked the whole mane in hydrogen peroxide, the battle had been epic. Apparently Geraldo was the only boy who did not know that boys do not bleach their hair.
"What makes you think they're here for me?" Geraldo asked.
"You're the one who runs with those two idiots. What did they do now, steal a bike? Break into some poor bastard's house?"
"They don't do that anymore, not since--"
There was a knock at front the door and they both paused. Alfonso opened his mouth to whisper but Geraldo put his hand over it and pushed him into the bathroom. The bathroom was safe, there was no window in there, just a very loud exhaust fan next to the ceiling light.
"That's why I hate being home," Geraldo whispered. "It's always something with you people."
"Why is that cop here?" Alfonso asked.
"Fuck if I know."
Alfonso felt his brother's eyes on his.
"A minute ago I was laying in my bed listening so some sounds and now I'm in the bathroom and you're shaking like you're going to come apart."
"Alright then," Alfonso said and made for the door. "If you have nothing to hide, shouldn't be a problem."
Geraldo grabbed him and looked him in the eye.
"Lesson number one, you never talk to cops if you can avoid it. Just sit on the toilet and wait it out."
Alfonso did as his younger brother told him. You people, he'd said as if he belonged to a different family. They had been close once, back in Cuba, little boys playing together. They were so close in age that their mother dressed them in identical outfits. Until Geraldo decided he didn't want to anymore. No one was too upset, they all knew the day would come. He was ten years old at the time, and that was just the beginning.
There was another, harder knock at the front door. Alfonso remained on the toilet. Geraldo sat at the edge of the tub, and they waited.
"Could be because Sisto pissed off the manager next door," Alfonso said.
"You still sneaking into the pool?"
"Just this last time," Alfonso said. He had to get away from Sisto and Gregorio. They were stupid and immature. But then he wouldn't have any friends.
"You really need to give it up on that pool and consider diving into pussy," Geraldo said.
"Like I don't."
"I know you don't."
"Like you're such an expert."
He could feel Geraldo looking at him.
"I know what I know," Geraldo said.
"Sure," he said. Alfonso had caught him in a lie and it made him nervous.
"They're out there."
"Those nasty desert chicks?"
"You can't be too picky out here. How about the Castillo sisters?"
"No so much anymore. Odalys looks just about ready to me."
"She's like my sister."
Geraldo grinned at him like he was pathetic. He wondered what would happen if he hauled off and punched him flat on the nose. Fall backwards and take the shower curtain down with him? Probably the shampoo bottles, too. But then the cops would hear and it would get serious because in spite of his hippie vibe, Geraldo was scary. He'd seen him go after their father. He was merciless.
"Think they're gone?"
"Yeah, man, they're gone."
Geraldo returned to the bedroom and the headphones. Alfonso stayed in the bathroom a bit, his mind working too fast for this weather.
It only got hotter in Leones that summer and the pool was off limits. He could walk by it, he could look at it, but he couldn't go in it. He needed a job, and to save money for his escape. There had to be something he could do.
That day he talked to every shop owner in town but nobody was hiring summer help. He took a last, envious look at the boy bagging groceries, at the gas jockey wiping down a windshield, at the soda jerk swatting flies off the counter and headed home. The sun was bright and hot on his back as he followed the sounds of his footsteps the five miles back home. Pounding sand they called it here.
Then, as if the saints had decided to lift his spirits, as if there truly was a gracious God who took pity on the soul sick and the poor in spirit and on those who tend to get lost in His deserts, she appeared. Her presence was a cool breeze, her skin was tanned and exposed in a bright green bikini, a mountain of stiff golden hair piled on top of her head. Even at a distance her eyes were green and drowsy from the heat.
Alfonso was not the first to see her. Sisto and Gregorio were already at the fence staring through the cactus at the angel by the pool.
"Look at those tits," Sisto whispered.
"Quiet," Alfonso told him. "You don't want to look desperate. A situation like this, you can't enter with your dick hard and your tongue hanging out. You have to be in control."
Gregorio said nothing, he just looked.
With a wave and a giggle she motioned them over. Her boobs hung full, freckled and round in a brassiere that could barely hold them.
Alfonso looked around. If the building manager called the cops again, it wouldn't be as easy as hiding in the bathroom. You only get away with that once.
She waved again and Sisto immediately started to scale the fence. Alfonso dragged him down by his belt and signaled to the gate. She nodded, understanding.
He took his time walking around the building to the front entrance. She was waiting there. She looked a lot older up close, mid thirties.
"Welcome amigos," she said. Alfonso watched a drop of sweat travel down between her tan, freckled breasts and wondered how that might taste.
"Thank you," he said.
Sisto and Gregorio said nothing at all but he noticed that their eyes were droopy, as if getting so close to this nearly naked woman .had made them bobo.
"I'm Alfonso, this is Sisto, and this one is Gregorio," he said, placing a hand on each boy's head.
He waited for Sisto to slap his hand off, but he did nothing.
"Where are you all from?" she drawled.
"Cuba," they all said at once.
She studied them, seriously evaluating them like studying items on a menu. Alfonso wondered what she saw, this juicy Americana, this bon bon the miel. This honey candy. Not men, not boys, not Cuban, not American. Three boys wandering the desert waiting for something to happen. She saw her eyes shift to him, and look through him like an x-ray. She liked him, he was the eldest of the three and closer to being a man. She was checking out his pinga, which was swelling, he could feel it and she could see it.
"Well okay then," Lisa said.
She stepped back and like shivering shadows they followed her every step.