May 21, 2021
Write about the boy you see on either side of the reflection.
There was a little pond by our house. Rumor had it that it was there that people would go to score, and I would confirm that as a teenager, when Marco would send me in the middle of the night to pick up his dope. But back then we were only kids, Marco and I, and during the day, while Mami was at work and we were supposed to be staying with Güela, we liked to go hang out at that pond. It was easy to sneak out because Güela didn’t like to take care of us, and all she needed to hear was that we would be staying home watching TV and she would let us go. Then, about half-an-hour before Mami was due to arrive, she would come to our apartment and make it look like she had just brought us in to save Mami the five-minute detour to her place.
In the summer, a lot of children would play at the pond. Most of them were like us: kids whose parents worked long hours and didn’t have money to pay for a summer camp or other form of childcare, and resorted to leaving them with people who didn’t really take good care of them. Amadou was one of those kids. His parents were from Mali, and I knew that because we went to the same school, and had actually been in the same class since kindergarten. His mom was a part-time language teacher in the middle school, and I remember thinking they didn’t belong in our neighborhood. They seemed awfully sophisticated, and their French was definitely better than our Spanish. But over the summer, their struggles were the same as ours, and Amadou and Youssouf would be at the pond pretty much every day.
That one summer in particular we were ten. Our days in the pond were becoming more of a needed rendez-vous, and I was starting to miss Amadou whenever he didn’t show. He would always bring Cry Babies and would give me the blue ones because blue was my favorite color and my favorite flavor, too. In the beginning, whenever he wouldn’t come, I thought it was the candies that I missed. One day he told me he wouldn’t be there the next day, but that he had hidden extra candy for me right next to the pond to make up for it. The next day, as I unearthed the little ziplock bag with three blue Cry Babies—one more than usual—I understood it was him that I missed. I asked him the next day whether he’d let me hold his hand, and he said yes right away, so we just sat close to the pond, his hand in my hand, but without looking at each other.
“Yuck,” I heard someone say, and turned around. It was Carlos, a kid who was also in our class. He kept going, “Amadou’s holding a boy’s hand, gross.”
Amadou looked down, evidently ashamed, but he didn’t let go of my hand.
“You’re dumb, Carlos,” I told him. “No wonder your mama doesn’t love you and left your sorry ass.”
In my defense, I was only ten. But even then I knew it was wrong to say that to someone, so I might not have a defense after all. Carlos’ mom had left them, yes, but it was because she had been deported back to Guatemala. I’d only learn that later, though, when Mami had explained to us that that was the reason why we had stayed at home for a week, no school, no work, without turning on the lights, working the stove, nothing. Mami was scared that they would take her, too.
But, as wrong as I could’ve been, Carlos was still a goddamn snitch, and that same afternoon he went to his tía, who then went to Mami. Of course, I only learned about that the next day, when I was holding Amadou’s hand by the pond again and I saw Mami rushing to where we were, the devil in her eyes.
“Jesús sacramentado!” She shouted.
Amadou ran to Youssouf, who was playing ball with his friends, and I just stayed there, frozen.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She looked at me in the eye, and I knew it was over, whenever there wouldn’t be people around, she’d kill me. She’d kill me and throw the body to the pond so that nobody could find me.
She dragged me back home by the arm and shouted for Marco to follow behind. She closed the door and looked at me as she grabbed the electrical cord. She’d never hit us while school was in session, that was how one of her friends had been deported—when the school had reported her daughter’s bruises to DCF. But during the summer, it was the perfect crime. She’d beat us up to her heart’s content, and require Güela stays with us and made sure nobody saw us while the wounds healed. I was bracing myself for quite a paliza at that time. But instead, she let the cord fall to her feet, approached me, got on her knees, and looked into my eyes.
“Papito, for Dios,” she told me, “don’t do that again, that’s not okay.”
I knew that what she was saying was important, because she was saying it in English. She had this thing where she’d talk to us in English whenever what she had to say was important and she wanted to make sure that we would understand her.
“What, Mami?” I asked, genuinely curious, “what did I do wrong?”
At the time, to be honest, I thought it was the candy. Mami didn’t like it when we ate candy—she didn’t have money to pay for the dentist.
“Boys can’t hold hands, papi, that’s wrong. Plus,” she said, resting her hands on my shoulders, “that boy is black.”
“So what?” I asked her, confused because our skin wasn’t exactly that many shades lighter.
“Maybe it doesn’t make sense now,” she told me, “but believe me, one day you’ll understand.”
As I grew up, many things she said turned out to be true—she was right about many of them. But for that one, she wasn’t. And as it turns out, I never understood.