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Antonio by R. C. Li

Antonio by R. C. Li

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

After Antonio finished his chocolate milk he closed his one good eye and rested his head on his lap. He knew it would be a while before his parents got home from work. It was cold out in the hallway and he could hear the soft rattle of the windowpane as the wind slipped in through the cracks. His mind drifted from one subject to the next until the smell of leather, cigarettes, and decaying roses made him aware that he was no longer alone.

“I’d hate to see what the other guy looks like.”

Antonio winced as he tried to open both his eyes and found he could only peer up at the stranger through one. His left eye was swollen shut but his one eye widened. Hazel eyes framed by thick, black eyebrows stared down at him with mocking concern. Antonio gaped at the man’s chin-length, white-blond hair, which stood out in stark contrast to his ebony skin.

“What’s the matter little man, cat got your tongue?”

With his leather jacket, torn jeans, and red boots, he reminded Antonio of a biker. I bet nobody messes with him, he thought. He wondered if this man had any tattoos.

“You live in 3W, right?” the man asked, pointing toward the apartment down the hall. Antonio nodded mutely. “I am Andrés, your next door neighbor.”

Bottles clinked against one another as Andrés switched the black plastic bag he held in his right hand to his left and extended his hand. Antonio had never seen nail polish on a man before; in fact he didn’t think he had ever seen black nail polish on anyone. He marveled at the smooth, long fingers with the short clipped nails that wrapped around his own hand. Women’s hands, his father would say. Antonio pictured his own father’s chapped and cracked hands, the stained fingernails.

“And you are….”

“Antonio,” he said cautiously. In this city most grownups kept to themselves even when they saw someone getting beaten up publicly. At the memory Antonio’s cheeks burned.

“Take it from someone who speaks from experience, you better put some ice on that. You want to come in and wait inside for your parents?”

His father had drilled into him the dangers of talking to strangers, especially in this neighborhood, which wasn’t called Hell’s Kitchen for no reason. But to Antonio it seemed that the day had already done enough harm to him. He knew it would be a long time before his parents arrived home from work. It was cold in the hallway, and he needed to use the bathroom.

“Come on little man, I’ll leave the door open so that we can see anyone coming up the stairs.”

Not waiting for a reply, Andrés took his keys out of his pocket. The warm gust of air that rushed out of the apartment to greet him convinced him to follow Andrés inside.

When Andrés turned on the lights, Antonio’s backpack slipped out of his hands and he stood blinking at the sight that greeted him. There was the stove, the sink, the fridge, and a small wooden table in the middle of the floor with four chairs. There was a bathtub up against one wall with a wooden plank on top of it. That wasn’t so surprising; many of the apartments his mother cleaned in the neighborhood had those. It was the dozen or so mannequin heads all wearing different hairstyles in bright colors, looking down on the room with arched eyebrows from the top of the cabinets that left Antonio agape. He imagined being left in the dark with all those heads staring at him and he wished he had stayed outside.

With a chuckle Andrés placed his bag on the table. “I know, it’s quite a shock at first but you’ll get used to the girls.”

“Why do you have them?” asked Antonio.

Cocking his head to the side Andrés assessed him and pursed his lips. “I never reveal all of my secrets on a first meeting.” He turned around and clapped his hands. “Now let’s see about that eye. Do you need to use the bathroom? It’s right behind the door.”

Antonio left the front door ajar and stepped into a closet-like space that held the toilet. Through the door he could hear Andrés trying to smash the ice into smaller pieces on the kitchen sink.

Once he was done, Antonio stood looking at himself in the mirror. His left eye was a bruised purple mess. There were scratch marks on his neck. Ever since that first day in school two years ago, when Eddie had snatched a comic book out of his hands, the older boy―alongside his cronies, Luis and Frank―had used him as their own personal punching bag. That incident in the third grade had set him apart from the other kids, who stayed clear of him as if any friendly contact with him might draw the attention of Eddie. Today they had cornered him in the public library. The librarian had told him that he wasn’t allowed to go back for a week, which meant he had to find another place to pass the time until his parents got home from work.

“Hello?” Andrés knocked on the door. “Did you fall in?”

Embarrassed, Antonio opened the door. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“No worries, just making sure you didn’t pass out,” said Andrés, handing him a small bag of ice wrapped in paper towels.

“Thanks,” he said, wincing as the ice touched his skin.

“Sit down.” Leaning against the sink, Andrés reached into his pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes. “And they wonder why things like Columbine happen,” he said, patting his pockets.

“I am not going to shoot anybody,” said Antonio. The thought of beating those boys up had crossed his mind briefly but he always dismissed it just as quickly as it came. He didn’t want to start up any trouble.

“Of course not,” said Andrés as he turned on the stove and bent over it to light his cigarette. Taking in a deep puff he said, “But don’t you wish they thought you would? Then they’d leave you alone.”

“I guess,” he said.

“Well I could tell you that it gets better and that you’ll move on but…” Andrés shrugged and took another drag. “Say how old are you anyways?”

“Eleven,” said Antonio.

Andrés whistled. “You’re a big boy for your age.”

“Antonio?” his mother’s soft voice sounded from the hallway. She was peeking in to the apartment through the open doorway.

Antonio quickly stood up. He handed the bag of ice to Andrés who took it and dropped it in the sink. Grabbing his school bag, he stepped out into the hallway. He didn’t want his mother noticing the heads.

Hola, ma,” he mumbled.

¿Ay que te pas ó?” she said, reaching out and gently touched his cheek. He was now the same height as his mom and they liked to joke that soon he would be taller than his father.

Una pelea con un chico,” he explained. This wasn’t the first time he had come home from school looking like this.

His mother sighed and looked past his shoulder.

“Hello,” said Andrés, leaning out of his apartment. “I’m Andrés. Your son just needed to use the restroom.”

“I’m sorry,” said his mother with a shy smile. Antonio rolled his eyes, his mother never wanted to impose on anyone for anything.

“No, no anytime. It was a pleasure meeting you Antonio. You too, ma’am.”

With a click of the door Antonio and his mother were left out alone in the hallway.

No le cuentes a tu papi,” she said as she opened up the door to their apartment.

Antonio snorted. Even if he wanted to, he could never tell his father anything. He barely saw the man. When he finished his job as a dishwasher he moved on to an office building where he worked as a janitor until early in the morning. Even though they shared a room, they always missed each other. Sunday was his only day off but by then the bruise on Antonio’s face would have significantly faded. As he went inside, it occurred to Antonio that perhaps it was his meeting with Andrés that his mother didn’t want his father to know about.

***

From his mattress on the floor Antonio listened to the sound of the lock turning as his father opened the door to their apartment. He heard the rustle of the sheets being pulled back as his mother quietly got out of bed and headed toward the kitchen.

With the back of his hand he wiped the perspiration that had gathered on his top lip. The heater was working overtime again and his father couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. Even though the ceiling fan was furiously spinning it did nothing but circulate damp, stale air around the room. He crinkled his nose in disgust at the wet mop smell rising from the carpet. They lived in a small, one-bedroom railroad apartment; his parents rented their room from an old Salvadoran woman, Do ña Ortiz, who slept in the living room next to the kitchen. Their room stood at the end of a hallway right next to the bathroom, opposite the entrance to the apartment. Except for random meetings on the weekends they barely saw the older woman who worked as a live-in nanny in Long Island. Sometimes Antonio wished they had rented out the living room instead. That room at least had a big window that looked out onto the street. Their room had a window but the view was of an air shaft.

He heard his parents talking quietly between themselves and he felt a pang of jealousy. At least they had each other. It had been their idea to come to this stupid country. No one had ever asked him if he wanted to move. He remembered a time when he believed this whole trip was temporary, that eventually his parents would decide to move back home, but now it had been two years. He often wondered what his cousins were up to. In the photos his aunt sent them, his cousins had started to look like strangers.

***

“Be still, muchacho,” said Andrés as he brought the buzzer in close to Antonio’s ears. As soon as Antonio had walked into the salon he had been ushered into a styling chair. Squeezing his eyes shut, Antonio tried to sit still but the falling hairs tickled his face as they fell to the floor. “Trust me, that bowl cut was not doing you any favors. You looked like freaking Moe from the Three Stooges. ¡Bueno ya!”

Using a soft brush, Andrés began to wipe away any errant locks that remained on his shoulder. Scratching his neck Antonio opened his eyes and looked in the mirror. Large brown eyes gazed back at him uncertainly. Self consciously, he leaned his head forward, wanting to hide behind his bangs, forgetting for a second that Andrés had cut them away.

“Look at those chocolate eyes and those cherub’s lips,” said Farrah, one of the girls who worked with Andrés. “Now all you need is for me to get those eyebrows under control.”

Antonio smiled at her. When Andrés had first invited him to stop by the salon a couple of weeks ago Farrah had been one of the first girls to introduce herself. She often sat and chatted with him as she waited for clients, who needed their eyebrows, upper lips, or anything else threaded. Antonio felt like he could sit and listen to her for hours as he breathed in the scent of lavender that always enveloped her. She told him that he reminded her of her little brother back in India.

“Oh no, you leave those thick caterpillars alone!” said Andrés, shooing Antonio out of the chair. “I think he looks very distinguished. Now that we’ve revealed what a beautiful face he has, the girls will come knocking.”

“What do you know about girls?” asked Tony, the other hairstylist, while applying bleach to a woman’s hair.

“Why, I majored in the study of the female form,” said Andrés, winking at Antonio.

Farrah went over to the cash register, where a bunch of photographs were taped to a wall, and took a Polaroid down. “He puts us all to shame,” she said, handing it to Antonio.

The woman in the picture looked like a supermodel. In a long, shimmering black dress, hands on her hips, she looked at the camera daringly. Smiling impishly, the woman seemed to be sharing a joke with the photographer. Her long red curls fell down her back.

That hair! How many times had he seen it hanging on top of the kitchen cabinet in Andre’s house?

“That’s you!” said Antonio, looking up at Andrés. He realized all the other salon workers were watching him, waiting to see his reaction. He had seen glimpses of men dressed as ladies before on television shows before his father quickly turned the channel muttering “maricones” below his breath.

“But here you look so so pretty,” Antonio cried out.

The room burst into laughter. “Finally someone had to say it! You are butt ugly unless you wear a pound of makeup!” cried Tony.

Antonio wanted to say that’s not what he meant but Andrés interrupted him. “It’s time for him to go home,” he said.

They walked outside the salon to a crowded midtown street. Night had already crept up on the afternoon and the sidewalk was filled with commuters intent on getting home.

“Still friends?” asked Andrés as he took a cigarette out of his pack. Today his nails were painted a bright pink.

Antonio thought of how Andrés had given him a place to go after school. Of how he had introduced him to his friends in the salon even though after their first meeting he could have just ignored the kid sitting on the stairs in the hallway waiting for his parents to get home from work. He thought of his parents, who still assumed he spent his time at the library, and of the school bullies who had lost interest in him after Andrés had picked him up from school a couple of times. If Andrés wanted to dress in girl’s clothes, well that was his business.

Without saying anything, he leaned in and gave him a hug. Andrés awkwardly patted his back. “Just thought I’d double check,” he said.

***

As the worshippers filed past Antonio to receive communion he was left alone in his pew. He picked up the leather-bound hymnal and flipped through it. Every week his parents dragged him out of bed to attend mass at Sacred Heart Church. He wondered why the mass in Spanish always lasted longer than an hour. Once they had been late and had had to attend the mass in English and it had only lasted 45 minutes. Afterwards they always ate at El Deportivo, the Puerto Rican restaurant nearby. His stomach rumbled, and he looked around hoping no one had heard.

“Pssst!”

Antonio’s heart sank.

“Hey fattie!”

He had thought that after seeing him with his new friend Andrés they would have thought twice about messing with him. He felt something cold and slimy hit the back of his neck. With his hand, he reached out and brushed the spitball away. He looked toward the front of the church but couldn’t see his parents amongst the lines that were slowly moving forward toward the priest.

Gripping the hymnal tightly in one hand, he turned around. There they sat, Luis, Frankie, and Eddie.

“Think we wouldn’t find you?” Eddie asked.

“Look at him all dressed up like a monkey,” said Luis, Eddie’s pale-faced lackey who after every comment always looked toward his taller friend for approval.

Antonio looked over at Frankie, waiting for an additional comment, but the youngest of the group was nervously keeping a lookout for any adults that might take an interest in them.

“Did you think we forgot about you?” Eddie asked, leaning in closely. “We’ve just been busy trying to figure out your new friend. The things you can find out about someone just by hanging out around the neighborhood late at night.”

“Yeah you sure know how to pick ‘em,” said Luis giggling.

Antonio’s heart picked up its pace. He tried swallowing but his mouth felt dry.

“It’s disgusting the things people will do for money out on the streets where anyone passing by can take a look,” said Eddie, giving a shudder.

Sensing a good opening, Frankie finally turned toward him. “You’re a freak just like him aren’t you?”

Luis clapped both hands over his mouth trying to control his laughter.

“Bet you didn’t know,” said Eddie smiling at him. “Well, we just wanted to share our findings with you before it was too late. After all, we figured your faggot friend wouldn’t be here.”

Antonio looked into Eddie’s blue eyes, saw the incomprehensible hatred in them, and without thinking about it, smacked the hymnal across his face.

He heard a shriek in the distance and before he knew it, his father was pulling the book from his hands and dragging him outside. Antonio looked back to see Frankie and Luis looking down at their friend, their mouths hanging open. Eddie sat hunched over, his hands covering his face.

¿Qué te pasa?” said his father furiously shaking him. “Nos vas a meter en un problema.

He was going to get the family in trouble?

Pero, papi―

His father put his hand up. He didn’t want to hear it, he never wanted to hear it. Antonio understood what this meant. He was supposed to just sit back and let things happen and not say anything about it. He stared at his father’s back for a long time as the older man stiffly walked away. His mother tried to put her arm around him but he just shrugged her off.

***

“That was my mother in Havana,” said Andrés as he carefully lined his eyes with black kohl in front of his vanity stand. They were in a small dressing room. From time to time the wait staff at the restaurant they were in would open the door without knocking and walk through to get to the back door to smoke a cigarette in the alley.

The grainy black and white photograph showed a smiling woman in a white wedding dress, a bouquet of roses in her hands. Antonio peered at the small photograph tucked into Antonio’s wallet.

“She left everything and brought me over during the Mariel Boatlift when Castro said anyone who wanted to leave the island could.”

“What about your father?” asked Antonio.

“He didn’t want to leave,” said Andrés. “But we’re digressing here. Don’t you have some math homework to finish?”

Antonio sighed and pulled out his notebook from his backpack. He tried concentrating on the numbers in front of him but he couldn’t. He wanted to tell Andrés about what happened on Sunday, but he couldn’t bring himself to repeat the awful things they had said about him.

“Have you picked the song you’re going to sing?” he asked, grabbing the CDs that Andrés had brought with him. “Who’s Ann-Margaret?”

“Who’s Ann-Margaret?” Andrés simply looked at him and started to sing, “Bye, bye birdie—Oh never mind, do your homework!”

But Antonio couldn’t concentrate. He watched Andrés finish applying his makeup and put on a long blond wig.

“Why so down little man? Those boys troubling you again?” Andrés sat down on the couch next to him. “You know boys like that grow up to be less than nothing. You just concentrate on school and before you know it, this will be a mere memory.”

“Did you finish school?”

“Nope.” said Andrés as he went back to sit on his vanity stand.

Just at that moment the door swung open and banged against the wall. A man with a stained white uniform hauled two large black garbage bags into the room. Before he could stop himself Antonio gasped. ¿Papi?”

Startled, his father turned around and looked at Antonio. “Antonio?”

“Mr. Gutierrez.”

Andrés’ voice broke the spell and his father turned toward Andrés. His lips compressed into a thin line as he took in Andrés. Before Antonio could back away, his father grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out into the alley.

“Mr. Gutierrez, whatever you think—“

“No! My son is a good boy,” said his father haltingly, his voice wavering in his fury.

“I know,” said Andrés, moving his hands in a calming motion. “But I just wanted you to know―”

“You come near Antonio, I will kill you,” said his father.

“Ow papi!” said Antonio in protest, but his father would not let go of his arm. He dragged him out toward the street before pushing him away.

¡Vete a casa!

***

The ringing of the doorbell startled Antonio.. He sat up in his bed and squinted in the half-light of the room. He felt his mother stirring on the bed across the room but his father still slept, oblivious to the sound of his own loud snoring.

There was a quick, successive rapping on the door.

Mami,” he whispered.

Hmmm, ve quien es,” muttered his mother.

At his mother’s request Antonio opened their bedroom door cautiously, as if the person outside the apartment was standing outside ready to strike. He looked up at the clock on the hallway and saw that it was close to six thirty in the morning.

The floor beneath his bare feet creaked as he approached the door and he just knew that the person outside could hear his movements. It had to be a neighbor. Who else would come knocking so early in the morning except for…Andrés! He felt his cheek redden in embarrassment; Andrés would never let anyone have the last word. He had probably come to confront his father.

He could still hear his father snoring in the bedroom. He leaned in close to the door and whispered furiously: “Go away!”

“Open up! NYPD!”

Antonio jumped back as the door shook under a more forceful pounding. Clutching his chest to try and still the wild pounding off his heart Antonio looked at the door in disbelief. Andrés had done it! He had called la migra on them.

“Antonio?” His mother was wearing the pink pajamas he and his father had bought her for Christmas from Macys. Her short hair was sticking up in all angles, and in the glare of the morning light coming in from the window in the kitchen, Antonio spied white strands. He thought of Andrés once more and his many dyes stowed neatly next to one another on the bathroom shelf.

He glanced back at the door.

Abre la puerta,” said his mother tiredly, waving her hand toward the door. She already seemed resigned to whatever the policeman had come to tell them.

Squaring his shoulders, Antonio licked his dry lips. Quickly, before he lost his nerve, he unlocked the door.

In his wrinkled grey suit and slicked-back hair, the man standing in the hallway did not look like a cop, but he held his badge up like cops do on TV. The man looked down on Antonio and flashed him a smile full of white teeth, but his eyes were not on him, they were already looking past him and into the apartment.

“Hello son, is mommy or daddy home?”

When Antonio did not reply, the man knelt down in front of him. “¿Mam á o pap á?

Antonio felt like rolling his eyes at him. People always assumed he didn’t speak English. He felt his mother’s presence behind him before her hands laid gently down on his shoulders.

“Hello ma’am, I am detective Mallory. I’d like to ask you a couple of questions regarding your neighbor Andrés Tomás. Can I come inside?”

“What happened?” demanded Antonio in alarm.

“Shhh,” said his mother, pulling Antonio backwards and allowing the detective to step inside the apartment. “My husband, he sleep. Un momento, please.”

Antonio watched his mother disappear into their bedroom. He heard his mother and father muttering to one another. This was his chance! He opened his mouth to ask the detective once more what had happened―

“Sir,” said his mother, opening the door to the bedroom.

Antonio let the detective walk in front of him before he started following.

“Ma’am, perhaps your son can stay outside?”

“They need me to translate,” explained Antonio. For once, he was glad his parents didn’t speak English.

He followed the detective into the room they called home. As the man’s eyes quickly took in the room, Antonio felt another blush coming. It seemed to him that his family and the way they lived would forever be a source of embarrassment. His mom let the detective sit on a desk chair while the three of them sat on the bed. They watched silently as he pulled out a notepad and pen from the inside of his jacket. His mother held his hand and laid it on her lap. He sneaked a peek at his father, who sat with his back straight, hands on his knees. Antonio could see a slight tick in his father’s eye.

“Did anybody hear anything last night from the apartment of Andrés Tomás?”

Yes, thought Antonio. David Bowie’s song “Rebel Rebel,” could be felt and heard through their bedroom wall. The record had started playing early in the morning, probably right after Andrés had gotten back from his performance. It was Andrés’ favorite song and last night it had been set to repeat. Antonio’s father had pounded on the wall with his shoe to no avail. Antonio had smiled to himself, knowing that Andrés could not be so easily dismissed.

Both his parents turned to Antonio in sync and shook their heads at the detective once he had translated the question. Sensing that his son was about to disagree with them, his father put one arm around his shoulder.

“Did you both know Mr. Tomás?”

His parents shook their heads. Yes, thought Antonio, looking down at the brown carpet.

“Now son, did you know Mr. Tomas?” the detective asked him gently, perhaps sensing his discomfort at his parent’s lies.

His father squeezed on his shoulder tightly. He knew both his parents were anxious to have the detective leave. Something bad had happened to Andrés; the detective would not be here otherwise. But if he admitted that Andrés had been his friend, the cop might want to know more about it, he might even have to go down to the police station. His father would be furious and his mother might start crying again…

“No,” said Antonio, looking the detective squarely in the eye like his father had taught him to do when dealing with officials.

“Well, thanks for your time folks,” said the detective getting up.

Antonio wanted to follow him but his father’s arm still lay across his shoulder. His mother walked the detective to the door.

***

Antonio sat on a bench in the schoolyard alone. Most of the kids had decided to stay inside, but he barely felt the cold. It had been weeks now and Andrés had still not come home. It hadn’t taken long for everyone in the building to know that Andrés had been attacked by a man he’d brought home with him.

His father had gone to the hardware store and given him his own key to the apartment, telling him he felt he was responsible enough to stay there alone after school. A week after Andrés was attacked, Antonio heard Tony and Farrah enter Andrés’ apartment. He listened at the door as they discussed what they needed to bring to the hospital. When they knocked on his door, Antonio ignored them. He didn’t want them to see the shame in his eyes for having denied his friend. Finally, one of them had slipped the name of the hospital Andrés was staying in under the door.

Now he clutched the address in his hands and debated on whether Andrés ever wanted to see him again. A movement out of the corner of his eyes caught his attention. He saw it was Eddie and his pals heading his way. The schoolyard had cleared of any other kids. Antonio stood up and started walking in their direction.

***

“I’d hate to see what the other guy looks like…” At the last word, Antonio’s voice became a whisper.

When Andrés turned to look at him from the hospital bed Antonio shifted his eyes to the white tiled floors.

“Hey! I wondered when you’d show up.”

Antonio stood by the door, clutching the plastic bag he’d brought with him.

“Little man? Come here,” said Andrés patting the mattress.

Antonio went into the room but did not sit down next to him. Andrés’ roots were starting to show and the nail polish on his fingers had chipped away. “Look at me, Antonio.”

He forced himself to look in Andrés’ eyes and what he saw there made tears well up in his eyes. “I’m going to be okay! I should know better than to let strange men into my house, but you had made such a good impression on me, I thought what the hell?”

Antonio swallowed and reached inside the plastic bag. “I saw this in the pharmacy and it reminded me of you.”

Andrés took the small bottle of electric blue nail polish. “Swagger, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Antonio, blushing.

“Well, let’s see how it looks,” said Andrés, shaking the bottle and handing it back to Antonio. He wiggled his right fingers at him.

Antonio sat on the edge of the bed and placed Andrés’ hand in his lap. Seeing the bruises on his knuckles, Andrés said, “I see my little hatchling is all grown up.”

Carefully, Antonio managed to paint a blue strip on Andre’s index finger before stopping. A teardrop of glittery paint fell on Antonio’s leg.

“Little man?”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Antonio, what happened wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m so sorry―”

“Would you drop it already? Now what is that delicious smell coming from that plastic bag of goodies you brought me?”

Antonio took the empanadas his mother had made for him and showed them to Andrés. “Oh you’re a life-saver! Hospital food is only good for one thing: losing weight.”

He wanted to tell his friend what he had done, how he had denied knowing him to that detective, but when he opened his mouth, Andrés beat him to the punch by lifting his hospital gown up and showing his midriff.

“You want to see something gross?”

And the moment passed.

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