By NANI POWER
Papi say we goin on a real vacation and Milky say Vegas and me, Tippy, I say Disney and then Carlo say Nueva York but no, say Papi, we gots to go to Acapulco. I say you mean Mexico and he say sí, cabrón, like I’m a dumbass. Carlo crackin up.
I say why we got to see our cousins anyway—
Papi hit my arm. That shit hurt.
My moms start her Spanish, all like Papi dont see his sister and mother for 18 year and your cousin boys almost grown and yall dont know them and that stuff about family and stuff, and since he came over he aint seen none their faces.
I don have easy life like you kids, Papi say.
I don like he when get that wet, mean look in the eye.
Carlo say that cool, Papi. Milky, you know, he the oldest and just reading a book anyway, as usual. Dude 17, you know. Getting scholarship and shit.
I remember Papi tell us about it, getting over from Mexico. Him riding in a truck with corn for five days and then the desert and he saw a hand next to a cactus and a lady’s baby die and she just up and leave that poor baby in the desert and after that, Papi say, he get in Texas.
So time coming we goin to meet the cousins we never met, Santiago and Mimo, in the lobby of the Mirador hotel in Acapulco first time.
Coming back to what you were saying, Professor Larias.
I understand, I know, you have every right to be concerned. I have been, erratic, pretty much absent actually, and you need the forms—
Israel Jesus Navarethe. That’s actually my given name, yeah, I changed it. Not sure if I mentioned that before, in our meetings, probably not. Very dramatic, I know. Not very Harvard, I know. Back home, they call me Milky, ma’am. Charming, right? Because I’m the white one.
I remember in class, you said that a coming of age story involves many classic devices. I remember the phrase “initiation into adulthood, often by a process of disillusionment,” to quote you, Professor Larias. The loss of innocence. Right? I speak from your notes, ma’am. But I was thinking, can you, seriously, find that, exact moment in your past? Well, I think a person normally can’t. I mean, we’re not characters. Maybe we have a series of reactions. But, just one moment? An Arc?
Except for me. I can.
My coming of age: it’s just a moment. That I want you to know about. I don’t want to write it, to process it, don’t want closure, just want.
I understand what you are saying, time, opportunity, but. Lend me your ears. This is not disillusionment or didacticism. This is real shit.
It went down like this, Professor.
Carlo say the cousins goin to be all vato like the street kids in San Antonio and I say maybe they wear those big Mexican hats and talk like Pepe and we laughin and then they walk in, tall and cool. Mimo shorter, got a shaved head. Santiago, hair wet black and got a shirt with metal letters and got tattoos on his arm, say Jesus.
Carlo whisper mira they like bangers yo, and I hit him in the side, shut
Badass bangers, he say. Milky, he the one with manners, he put his hand out to shake like a retard.
Mimo laugh, he say in his bad English, come here lil homies and hug us.
Abuelita all sad because she want everyone to stay in her house, not this big fancy hotel, but I heard Papi say I ain goin to that shithole again, I’m stayin in hotel regular, I don work my ass off to live like that again, to my Mami he says this.
Papi on the porch lookin at the ocean. He say puta de mierda no. Not now.
Is us three. Me, Carlo, and Milky. In room 214 and Mami and Papi get 216 and we all goin stay and spend Easter and eat a lot tostada de tinga and stuff. Abuelita, shes goin to have a party for us on Sunday and all the peoples coming she says and they goin have a whole pig. But now we on the porch with our cuz, and they smoking green all in the open.
And whoa they speak Spanish and just word of English here and there, you know. Hard to follow.
Santiago say you got any beer or something and we laugh, and he say I’m serious, primo, where the cerveza? Carlo now look up. No problem, cuz, we get some beer.
Mimo say, las gatas gringas, que tal, ese? to me. I say, yeah, the girls in Texas OK, homie. You come to Texas and check them out cousin. We got lot of girl, all the frame you want.
Yeah? say Santiago. He laugh.
We hang out some more. They wear these jeans we don wear, these are girl jeans in San Anton. With white belts.
Milky say, what kinda jeans yall wear here.
Santiago look up. He say nothin but just point to his jeans and his face come up like a challenge, like what, you don like my jeans motherfuckin primo. Man, his eyes black. They so black I want pull up all my words for black and Spanish ones too and just say negro, oleo and spit them all over the place. I saw them on animals like that, wild ones. But he say nothing. He got tattoos on his arms with names and a cross and you know what else, he got a black tattoo tear down his left eyes.
Milky say nothing but he looking at them.
Milky, they say he got potential. Milky don’t go the street like me and Carlo or chase girl or drink beer, he read book and go to the church club. Yeah. Mama’s boy. Last year he do those tests and then he got the scholarship at the rich church school now and wear uniform and then he go off to a college for rich boys. Mami say a place where the presidents learn.
I seen him talking in the mirror once. Saying words I don’t know, sounding like someone smart.
Milky say, what you want, fool, when he see me.
I say nothing.
He say, you listening my speech.
I say yeah.
He say, you think I goin win.
I say I don’t know.
Well, I am, he say. I’m goin win and get the fuck out this place.
Carlo and I don know Milky no more. Hell I dont even know what he sayin half the time.
I have two brothers. I mentioned them once or twice in our meetings, said we weren’t too close. I always said very general things about my family, and you would ask more, and I would shut you down.
Right. And you were nice about that, Professor.
Well, the thing is, my brothers and I were close. Real close.
We used to sleep all together, and I wore Batman PJs, and Tippy and Carlo wore Superman, and we clawed each other in our sleep and woke up and ate Fruti Loops or frijoles on Bimbo bread, and Tippy once hit me with a bat so hard I bled out my ears.
You know Chicharrones? It’s hard to explain, but let’s say: fried pork. We fought for the end piece, and we stayed the hell away from our old man, because Papi, he could flip-snap-like-this, one second man is cool, other days, whoa, calma-te, Papi, he smack down on your ass—
I’m sorry. I want to say my father had a temper. Mami says, my mother says, you don’t know how much your father has suffered for you.
So much you don’t know about me, Professor, even though I’ve spent so many hours in this office.
You know a lot of things, ma’am, for sure, but believe me, so much you don’t know.
I just need you to listen. That’s all, just listen. In our meetings, was I ever real? No, I wasn’t. I am now.
I can’t tell this to Papi, he’ll beat the shit out of me. I can’t tell that girl I been with. I can’t tell my bros why, you’ll find out. You’re my bridge, Professor Larias, like you always have been.
We’re drinking negras, I got two of them and Carlo three and Milky, shit, Milky drinking tequila, dog, and we’re playing 21 and Mimo ask us we been to Vegas and we say no and Papi and Mami come in and they say: You childrens wants to go Crab Night with Grandma?
And Santiago he all bad, talkin in Spanish:
I take these boys to the beach. Caleta. Get them rides and cotton candy and watch them like us good cousins going to do. Give them a good time. The boys have fun.
Mami say: that sound good, niños?
Milky, he say: cotton candy?
And Santiago say: fuck yeah, Papito.
And I say yeah! And Milky say wooo. And Santiago say hush down you dumbass. We drunk too. We all wasted. You ever ride a roller coaster drunk, yo? Me neither.
I want to be precise here, Professor Denise Larias. I admit I’ve had a bit to drink. A few shots of fine Mexican tequila.
I’ll be fine, please.
So, you speak a bit of Spanish, that I know. Well, the Spanish I grew up on is half mangled street from San Antonio, not your Castilian you picked up in summers in Barcelona. You won’t know it from any classroom. I’m dredging these words from a place so deep and purple and hidden and dark. Like olives in a jar. Bad metaphor? Is that why I am stalling, now? I mean you need signatures, deposits, the time has come. All that work, the rewriting, the hours, you gave to my cause. I’m so grateful, but what the hell am I doing? A full scholarship, the Oxford fellowship, a girl like Mia. So why am I in my room eating Fruti Loops, looking out at the snow, ignoring your e-mails? If I unroll my Spanish from its crypt, Señora, you won’t know what I say. These words are full of bad stuff. Full of my dad’s struggle and the dirty mud-packed streets of San Antonio. They don’t belong here.
You been to Acapulco, Professor Larias?
You little babies ready to go. You think you can handle it? You think you girls can handle what Caleta Beach has to offer? I don’t know.
Santiago talking shit. Mimo, he like to speak English, he say these boys is real mens they can handle anythings Santiago. And I don’t know why cotton candy is anything but whatevs. We get real clean up and fix the hair and drink more beers and throw shit off the back porch and Milky say stop that shit. Goin through the lobby like we own it, pendejo chingada.
When we come over on the plane, they dont show me no movie and dont give us no food either but Carlo brung candy. But thats cool and all, seeing the clouds and when we get low, the desert forever and Papi next to me, he lean down and I smell the beer and his breath like meat, and his arm around my neck, he points:
You sees dat shit mi hijo. Eh? You see that. Fuck. I live der 12 day no food. Sabe? One bottle water. I eat those cactus. And sleep on that shit. 12 day. Listen to me. The shit they did, hijo, you don want to know. I don tell you, Mami, tell no one but you man now, gon tell you, papito. One guy, he don pay the coyote. They cut that man. In front us all. Cut his stomach. Niños watchin, hijo. Mujeres, everyone watchin. Cut his stomach til his gut come out like a bunch of blue snakes and leave him right there. Nobody speak nothing, but we all shaking, hijo. He say, you wans to go to Texarkana, eh? You pay. Pay.
He turn his head around, his shadow go away from the window, I see still desert, hear him talking:
Yeah, please, I like beer, one Miller.
Thats when the plane pull away from all that cactus and then we just see ocean. Lots of ocean, and the desert go away, and right then the buildings of Acapulco show and then Papi turn and say: you my Tippy, right. My little man. You wan see where your old man come up? Eh? Papito.
He was shitface you know.
Professor, my cousins Santiago and Mimo came up from Mami’s side, children of her brother. This side was living south, on the worse side of town, way past the tourist beaches. My mother don’t talk much about it, sometimes we knew there were troubles. Sometimes she light candles for Mimo and Santiago and don’t tell us why. On the day of the Virgen I hear them first in her prayers when she puts the roses in front of her and lights the candles. I’ve been to your church here, Professor, dressed in a blue blazer, and I sung those hymns. I did that for the girl. Just one plain gold cross on the wall. No pictures of Jesus with blood dripping from his eyes or the Blessed Mother.
I am dying here. I am like a plant cut off from the source.
And I wonder if Santiago and Mimo felt the same way, us rich cousins coming back and all fat and white like pigs. Living with wall to wall in our little rambler off the riverwalk, going to malls, Mami and Papi dancing to merengue from a radio instead of outside in the cool night. Those two, tall, lean ones with sunken faces and bones and writing all over their bodies and eyes like cats looking at us, loving us but also hating us. We all got in their car that night, and the music was loud. The song playing was by Calle 13—Atrévete te te te, it goes, “Dare, dare, dare.” Professor. It’s a reggaeton rap, lyrics are pretty tight: Cambia esa cara de seria / Esa cara de intelectual de encyclopedia / Que te voy a inyectar con la bacteria / Pa’ que des vueltas como machina de feria. “Change that serious face / that face of an intellectual, of an encyclopedia / because I’m going to inject you with the bacteria / so you’ll make turns like a Ferris wheel.” Yeah, that song was the shit that summer. And the car, Professor, it was a ’93 Honda, believe it or not, but the tires had been tricked out, and the inside, no lie, red velvet. And it smelled like bananas and cologne, there was a bottle of it on the dash, it was Paco Rabanne, next to la Virgen hanging from the mirror, and we sat all crammed in the back. I could say we talked but we didn’t, the music was too loud, and we went into our individual reveries, Professor, and those bright lights of Acapulco blurred into streaks and the warm hot night whipped through the car and we sped around the mountains to the other side of the bay. Yo, that night, smelled like fruits and diesel and warm armpits, but I was alive, man. I was seventeen years old, Professor. You know, Professor, excuse me, but I felt it in my balls, the night, the excitement.
Im looking for the rides but I don see no rides. Seem like other side the mountain quiet and still. I say, where the rides, Santiago. And he say quiet little cousin I show you de rides, papito.
But we coming up to a street and it lit all outside and lots of people there and one big fat dog laying on the dirt and Mimo say we got to stay here little bit OK and then we go for the ride OK, familia?
Santiago push me out the car.
Those people all turn and then we hear music coming out the place, it has a big sign above it say La Neptuna and people coming and going, they all dressed and older, no kids, no babies, just real grown types all slick and shiny and pretty like.
Milky say what this fucking shit. This no carnival rides.
Where the cotton candy, I say.
Mimo laugh, haha. Santiago say time you know real cotton candy little primos.
Time you know real life. La vida verda’.
Milky look strong and calm.
So be it, primos, so be it, Milky say.
We go right in the front door. Nobody care about IDs or nothing. The front guy fat he just laugh.
Inside it dark.
So dark like a tunnel, so full of people. We was in a bar, long and music music music—
We walked into a dark place, Professor, on the other side of the mountain. There were no carnival rides, in other words. Walking in, the music swelled around us like warm rain, and I couldn’t breathe, Professor. The most we had seen in our life so far was a few warm beers with Joey Ramos on a Saturday and a few rounds with his sister without her shirt on for five minutes, even though we liked to talk some shit. We liked to say we pimped it out, Professor, but truth is we were barely past cartoons and Pop Tarts. When we looked up, there was a stage made out of wood, painted gold. And there, for the first time, we saw two naked women for real.
We drank shots of mescal in clay cups. Me and my brothers, like a small posse, we didn’t rat each other out or laugh, we lifted our chins. We forgot about the cotton candy. We were men, Professor.
I looked at my brothers like that, and I forgot. Forgot I was the older one. I saw them like men, and I forgot who I was.
After an hour the girls’ sweat was gleaming, and one sat on my lap kissing me. The music was heavy, dense and hard against my chest like a big drum, and my head was spinning. Mimo, he pushed us up on the stage, and the girls were laughing, they were sitting with us and kissing Tippy and Carlo, and I wanted to lie down on the floor.
I felt the world was falling away. I felt dizzy and fell to the floor, I am ashamed to say.
I turn around and up on that place there was naked chicks, I say Milky, Carlo, fuuuuuck! We just stare, dog, we just lookin. I’m like in a movie or somethin, I’m like a banger in those movies and Santiago give me a shot to drink and Im looking at pussy yall for real.
Then he lift my arm up
lil man he say papito how you like to go to the back
go the back with me
what about milky carlo mimo
whats in the back
he say it fun in the back hijo is funnnn in the back
so I say sure primo I go
so I got up and I go
I go to the back
Professor, I ran out of the bar, past all the people, and lay in the Mexican dirt for I don’t-know-how-long retching out my guts in the parking lot and the moon was a white line above me as I spun around and around and around. After a while my body just stopped puking and they picked me up. I remember the banana smelling car and I remember being sick again and I remember nothing more.
Then next thing I know, I woke up back in room 214 in the clean bed as the hot sun came through the blinds. I was sleeping with Carlo, and I got up to pee and then it hit me:
First I pee and I think through my clouded head. It comes back to those naked chicks, the tequila.
Tip? I call. Nothing.
TIP? Tippy, man?
He on the porch, I thought. Motherfucker liked the porch. But I pull the glass door and it’s empty, the beach wind blowing the hammock in circles.
I woke Carlo up and I said, where Tippy?
Fuck, man, he said, deja-lo. He alright.
I called over to Papi’s room, and Mami answered.
You shoulda gone to Crab Night, mi hijo.
Tippy over there?
No, Tippy not here.
I go to the lobby, cuz that crazy kid like to do anything. Not there.
Hours went by. No Tippy.
I call Santiago and Mimo. No Tippy
He came back with yous, says Santiago.
He came back with yous, he said.
Professor, listen to me. We called Tippy for hours. We combed the beach, and the police then came out after four hours, but they didn’t care, and Santiago and Mimo and Abuelita came back, and we all started to freak out then, by evening Mami and Papi were frantic, and then by Sunday morning we were insane, and we were leaving Sunday night. Papi went back to Caleta Beach, and when he came back with Santiago he was quiet. He wondered why we went there and what we were doing. Santiago said we were just stopping there to get money for the rides because he knows the owner and he owed them money. We said nothing. Santiago said, when he came back to the car, Tippy was gone. Carlo and me were so sick, we didn’t remember.
The night comes, and they don’t want to leave Acapulco.
They send me back on the flight, since I have the scholarship and all. I go back and stay in the house. Papi comes back a week later, and Mami stays.
And then two months later Papi says he going back, shit, just moving out of San Anton. Meaning, man, that the family is fucked. But I say nothing.
They rent the house. I stay at Tio Angel’s house and finish high school there. Papi and Mami move back to Acapulco with Carlo, they stay, and they look for Tippy. Everything becomes looking for Tippy. Me, the oldest son, I just go and ride my new life. I just study and win. I think about Tippy, but I keep studying. I keep thinking I can bring it all together if I just keep keeping on. That when they find Tippy I can breathe.
But, they never find Tippy.
Milky where you at where you at
Milky. Milky. Where you at where you at
I woke up last week covered in sweat in my dorm room because Tippy was calling me. Shit, Professor, you don’t know.
His voice faraway and sad, and I was crying. I woke up and looked outthe window, and the trees were covered with ice, and I felt my entire heart crush and fall away. My fucking brother Tippy.
I need to go back, I need to go and find Santiago and find out what happened to Tippy and get my family back. I am the older brother, I am the man of this family. Papi’s drinking again.
Do you know what that means? Do you know how when Papi first drank, our family was dead and I had to work at Walmart to pay the bills and Papi, Papi was gone all night? It was shit, Professor Larias. It was not good. My Mami crying all night, two babies in the bed, and me at Walmart and no future. And then it was OK. Then Papi got his self together. I got in school. It was all money, Professor. We were a family again. A strong one.
But now, I talk to him on the phone yesterday, and just like the old days, I think he sounded like he was, he was breaking down. Shit.
The money is all gone, he say. They’re trying to sell the house in San Antonio. Mami just cry all day long, he says. And Carlo, who knows. Stuck over there. What the fuck Carlo must feel, day by day, no Tippy.
So you want me to go to Oxford. I’ll live well over there, and I’ll be fed fancy shit, like roasted pig and chestnuts and the finest Bordeaux, and the women will find me irresistible with my street looks and book smarts, and I’ll no doubt win more fellowships too, and my life will be cushy. I can’t do that, ma’am.
So here it is: Professor, it is the wedding of Santiago on Sunday.
And, yes, Professor Larias, I am sorry, but I am hereby reneging on Oxford.
Yes, I know. I know the significance. I am creating a new trajectory, as it were, in my goals.
I have several options in mind:
Go to Acapulco, politely, and approach Santiago. Present him with a beautiful gift for the wedding. Get him away from the family, maybe a beer in the lobby bar of the hotel. Start out slow: hows it going, primo, shit, its been tough. Wow, you getting married, nice, nice.
Warm up his ass. Be all Harvard on his ass. Networking, schmoozing his ass.
If you were to know something about Tippy, I can be very very beneficial, Santiago. I can get you big money. I can set you up in the States. Get you a job, a life, a future.
I’ll order two more mescals.
Santiago, think about your wife, your future.
But I’m a realist, Professor Larias. And this don’t fly in my zone. Are you getting it. Reason will fail. The words won’t work. Not with Santiago. Because, Professor, I am Milky, and I am the smart one. I know what I have to do.
I don’t care if Santiago has the entire Mara 13 on his back.
I will seek him out as soon as I reach the tar pit of Acapulco. I will buy a bottle of Jimador in the airport, and I will drink it in the fresh air, because nobody gives a damn.
Oh I will find Santiago.
And I will not schmooze.
I will fuck him up with anything I can find. I will get vigilante on his ass. I will take any pipe or baseball bat or a fucking Uzi and I will fuck that shit up until he spills the truth about Tippy because he fucking knows.
I know what to do. In the core of who I am, I know. It was my fault and I’m going to fix it.
I’m making my exit now. I want to thank you for the connections, the advice. The opportunity of a lifetime. For telling me I was brilliant. For all the long hours of advice and the e-mails. For the beers at the Queen’s. For Thanksgiving and helping me through that Discourse of Modernity shit, and for taking me to the clinic that night the first year. For your help.
Look outside, Professor. It’s all ice here at Harvard. I’m going to drive in a taxi, fly in a plane for five hours. It was nice to know you.
When you leave here for the evening and get in your car, the one frozen out there, know I’ll be in Caleta Beach again, and the sun will be setting.
Nani Power is the author of Crawling at Night, The Good Remains, and The Sea of Tears, as well as two memoirs. “Caleta Beach” is from a forthcoming short-story collection called Acapulco 214.