Russ López has authored six books and is currently working on a novel. A Californian native living in Boston, he is the Editor of LatineLit. His website is www.RussLopez.com
Nothing scares me. After you’ve had three-hundred-pound linemen slamming you to the ground, you’re not afraid of anything. And I don’t fear going anywhere, especially this overpriced university that thinks it’s the center of the universe. What are they going to do to me, anyway? Post an ugly picture of me on social media? I may not look tough, but I am.
Not that everything here has been easy. You’d be horrified by some of the things they throw at you. There was the guy during orientation who asked me how old I was when I sneaked into the US because he thought all Latinos were undocumented immigrants. And just last week, a girl was shocked I could speak English. I almost dropped out my first day of class when a professor mistook me for the A/V guy. “Don’t just sit there with a stupid smile on your face, help me get the Wi-Fi working,” he snapped at me. Then there have been the police stops. Apparently, I’m too dark to be a college student.
I didn’t confront any of these people, though I did drop that class. I have this nightmare that if I say the slightest wrong word, the next thing I know I’ll be in the back of a police car pulling up to my parents’ place. As they kick me to the curb and toss my worldly possessions out on top of me, they’d shout, “Your son is a loser!” You have no idea how much energy it takes to stay invisible.
I only made it through the last couple of months because my boyfriend has had my back. I met Sebastian at the gym during Orientation Week. I was scoping the room to check out the guys while acting like I was trying to decide what weights to do next when he called, “You can stand there and collect dust or give me a spot.”
If I hadn’t been so worried what people might have thought, I would have jumped on top of him right there. He is that good looking. “Sebastian Hernandez from Irvine, California, otherwise known as God’s country.” He finished with his billion-lumen grin that continues to blind me.
“J. Colton Ramirez of San Jose, California.” Surprised at the new name? I thought it was time for a change as I was tired of being one of several million Josés.
“Local boy. Afraid to leave the county because you’d miss your mama?”
I shrugged, praying he was checking me out. “Nah, I came for the money. I snagged the best deal from this place.” This was true. I had snagged an almost free ride to Stanford with just a few thousand in loans, way too sweet an offer to say no. Then I took the joke too far, like I always do. “They are paying me to go here because of my good looks.” Sebastian laughed hard.
“With that beak they should charge you an extra twenty thousand tuition.” More laughter. “I got a ride, too. Though I like to think I’m paid to come here because of my ability to make small talk.”
It turned out we had more in common. We were the same height and weight, for example. “I was on the diving team, but then I grew, and no one wants a 5’11” diver,” Sebastian explained.
I had the opposite problem. “I played football, but then stopped growing, and no one wants a 5’11” quarterback.” His nickname for me became QB while I called him Platform. There was no need to tell Sebastian that I was always third string and my entire career on the field added up to less than ten minutes. Nor did I mention I would throw up before every game even though my chance of being sent in were minimal. Anyway, the coincidences. We were both majoring in Electrical Engineering. I am the youngest of three, so is he. My family was from Southern Sonora, his from Northern Sinaloa, neighbors. My parents and his were teachers so neither of us were first generation college students, though we were both so lost in the crowd here, we would have clung to each other even if we had been straight. I was convinced right then we were meant for each other. But at first, we were only friends.
We hung out together so much that people joked we looked like twins, weird as he is mad handsome while I’m so plain, only my mother thinks I’m cute. I had arrived at school with a bowl cut, one framed by a bowl two sizes too big for my head because I had been going to the same barber since I was two—Pop’s buddy so I had no choice. Sebastian had my jet-black hair and dark brown eyes, but his hair was wild, sticking out in every direction as if it were a pack of angry snakes.
“They call it the E-boy style,” he told me as I watched him spend ten minutes shaping it into its precise mess. It took me six weeks for my hair to grow enough to pull off the same look.
When your insides are squished and pulled apart by the tension of unrequited love, you can’t trust any of your senses or believe any of the clues thrown at you. I wasn’t convinced that he liked me like I did him even when he put an arm around me to thank me for having gone to the library with him for an evening of studying rather than partying with everyone else. Nor did I read anything into his telling me that I was the smartest student in our calculus class because he was the brains of our duo.
It took until the third Friday night for us to finally hook up. There were a half dozen guys in my room besides us, all rowdy in anticipation of hitting the parties and getting laid. I wanted to shoo everyone out and have Sebastian to myself. I wanted to look him in the eye and say, “Let’s stay here.” But even though we were sitting together on my bed, legs touching, I was afraid he’d hit me in the face so hard I’d lose my teeth. I’ve never been able to make the first move on a guy.
Sebastian made it happen. “I have to send a couple of texts,” he casually told the gang as if I wasn’t there. “You guys go ahead, and we’ll catch up with you in a few.”
Alone at last. I sat next to him as he tapped at his phone, terrified that if I so much as took a deep breath, I’d shatter into a billion tiny bits of matter, my essence forever spread across the infinite universe. I was pondering my fate as the darkest of dark matter when he said, “It’s my life’s goal to make it with a quarterback. Can you help me out?”
Now, I know I am not the first guy to fall in love; I’ve read the books and seen the movies. But I had no idea how energizing it could be. I wanted to bench press five hundred pounds, run a thousand laps, and jump so high in the sky it would take an hour to fall back to earth. I couldn’t go to sleep because it meant not being conscious of him next to me. I’d wake up at dawn just to hear him breathe.
With Sebastian’s support, I made it through all the bad times. When I grew tired of the bland dorm food and frustrated that a full scholarship didn’t mean I had enough cash to run off campus to eat, he felt the same way, and we’d scheme to snag something tasty to get us through the night. He talked me into staying in school after the second time I got stopped by the police and asked to show ID that I was a student, and I did the same when it happened to him. Mostly, he was someone with whom I could just relax and be myself. I was in heaven.
Telling the parents
As Thanksgiving approached, my anxiety rose at the thought of going home for the long weekend. I didn’t want to be apart from Sebastian, but we didn’t have any choice. He also had to go see his parents. “I don’t want to be responsible for them crying themselves to death by not showing up,” was his explanation. We were both too timid for me to go to Orange County anyway and my bedroom back in San Jose was now occupied by a cousin and her boyfriend. There is no such thing as an empty bedroom in Silicon Valley. They all get immediately absorbed. My parents had purchased a little house in a neighborhood squeezed between Downtown and the swanky malls to the west. Built in the 1920s, it was a half block from a highway and the house was tiny with the yard smaller still, but it is home.
The big question was what to tell my parents about me. I wasn’t scared of rejection; they didn’t care who I might be, as long as I did exactly what they wanted. That was our unspoken deal: I could be gay, but I had to be perfect. My big fear was that they would ask me a thousand questions about how I was feeling to gauge my mental health, and I just don’t like talking about myself. How do you come out without attracting attention?
Though I hadn’t been home since orientation, the trip is fast, just twenty minutes by train. They were waiting for me. Mom gasped that I had lost weight and set a plate of cookies down on the kitchen table for me to eat. Pop complained about my hair. “Maybe you should spend more time studying and fewer hours standing in front of a mirror,” he scowled. “Don’t disappoint me, mijo.” Same ol’ pop.
Wednesday dinner was much too crowded for The Talk and then I went to a party thrown by a high school buddy. My ex was there, and we exchanged pleasantries. I knew she had a boyfriend up at Berkeley and I assumed he was much better sex than I ever was because, frankly, I was never into it with her though she was damn hot. We made it several times a week because that was what was expected of me. I was undercover at school, but there was a network of guys to tap into, and I connected with a bunch including a hunky bro from the East Side and this güey two streets away who went to City College.
I wasn’t dumb, so as soon as it was authorized for guys my age, I set my sights on getting PrEP. I figured I couldn’t go to my pediatrician, the shock would have killed her, so I hit up my Tío Paul, the business manager of the health clinic on Santa Clara Street. Kinda spacy, but a nice guy, and even though he has known my parents since they were kids, he and my dad played little league together, I could absolutely trust him to keep a secret.
“I can set you up with a doctor,” he said gravely, “but promise me you won’t tell your grandmother I helped you with this. No word can reach Abuela Dolores. Promise?”
Now, that struck me as weird because she was the one person I thought I could confide in. She was way elderly, though in pretty good shape for sixty-four, and many ancient folks are old school. But my abuela had a mad progressive streak in her, always working for one liberal cause or another. But I don’t question other folks’ fears. I put this down as another quirky thing adults do. “I’ll keep quiet.” I had my prescription within a week, and I put it to good use.
It was great to see the old gang at the party. I kept it cool and mostly listened to what everyone else was up to. That’s always been my style: let others get loud so I don’t have to talk.
That’s my way with Sebastian as well. “You are a dream,” he moaned during a particularly intimate moment. Rather than say something stupid, I just went all out on him. Show. Don’t tell.
The one time I did speak up was after Sebastian received an eighty-seven on a midterm and was devastated. “I can’t be anything less than perfect,” he said through his tears, shaking as he looked as he was about to get sick. “It will kill my family if I don’t get all A’s. I have the whole damn Chicano race depending on me to do good and I’ve messed up.” He let out a loud sob. “I’ve got to do better.”
“I’ve been under the same bone-crushing pressure all my life,” I said as I tried to get him to breath. Feeling him sob cut my heart. “If I jaywalked, I got yelled at that I was disappointing my family. If a teacher frowned at me, I’d be grounded for a week. I had to be a perfect student, a perfect son, and a damn perfect athlete or else I’d get that look. They’d give me those big sad eyes like I had kicked dirt on my grandfather’s grave. They keep saying I’m the only chance for the family to amount to anything, and I must prove to the world they are wrong about us.” We know where each other are coming from.
We never considered monogamy, there were too many hot guys to keep our hands off them. “Go ahead and fuck anyone you want,” he told me. “You are way too stuck on me to fall for anyone else,” he boasted. I’d never have the guts to say that to anyone. Sebastian could pull that line off easy, though. That’s why I am so attracted to him, he says the things I would say if I could.
Anyway, there was this guy, Charles Obregon, at the party. Short, wiry, and movie star handsome with sparkling eyes, he was friends with my buddy Kenny, and we had exchanged looks at Kenny’s sister’s quinceañera back in April, though nothing came of it. When Charles asked if I’d like to check out his place before heading home, I was into it because a plain guy like me doesn’t get many chances with someone as hot as him. We talked a bit, I told him all about Sebastian, and then we did the deed a couple of times. So, it was nigh four a.m. when I rolled onto the couch at my parents. I was up by eleven though. Plenty of time to help get the beans and rice my mother had cooked to Tía Elena’s for turkey dinner. I am a dutiful son. That was how I made it through high school.
With the chaos of a large family Thanksgiving meal, I was able to avoid spilling personal information about myself though several times I feared that in my hungover, vulnerable state I’d say something about Sebastian. I also kept my name change a secret, though my new hair was the talk of the family. “Anyone can get that look,” my brother teased. “All you need to do is to soak your head in lime juice for an hour and then stick your finger in a socket.”
“Be nice to him,” my cousin Luisa scolded. “He looks like he’s in a boy band.” I am not too old or dark to blush.
Friday morning was my planned time to tell my parents. I flubbed it, of course. “Please pass the juice. I am gay and have a boyfriend. He’s cool and Mexican from Orange County.” Now you understand why I don’t talk. Mom almost dropped the plastic container she was drying and gave my father one of the most intense glares I ever saw come out of her. Pop stared back at her from over the paper he was reading.
They knew. The summer before my senior year, my dad and I were driving around doing some errands when he suddenly says, “We are going to Ike Guerra’s tonight for dinner. I know you are friends with Ike’s son Joe, but I don’t like his father, who will be there. Jacinto Guerra sometimes says anti-gay things that make me angry. I’ve tried correcting him, but he keeps doing it anyway. I thought I should warn you.”
That was not a conversation I wanted to have. I didn’t want to talk about myself, and I didn’t dare tell my father that I had sampled Joe Guerra’s legendary sexual powers. We hit it off in and out of bed, but he played for a rival high school so the tension of that betrayal meant we never could have a relationship. “It’s cool,” I said, desperately trying to find a way to change the subject. “Thanks for the warning. That reminds me. Any word if Joe is going to start for Del Mar this year?” Talking sports was an easy way to distract my father.
I only tried out for the football team to make Pop happy. I would have preferred sitting in the library reading novels every afternoon, a pastime I hid because my parents’ thought fiction was a waste of time, but he pushed me. I made the team because that’s what perfect sons did for their dads. I’m glad I played because eventually, I grew to love it. I made friends with guys from the team and was suddenly no longer a nerdy loner but one of the cool kids invited everywhere. Plus, it impressed Sebastian.
Both Mom and Pop grew emotional. As my mother put her hands on my shoulders, my father reached out to hold my hand. “We love you. You will always be our little boy. We are glad you could talk to us about this.” He spoke like he was recalling the lines from a book that he read to prepare for this moment. Then he became himself again. “Congrats on the boyfriend, mijo. When do we get to meet him?”
My mom’s breathing grew labored as she cleared her throat. My father looked at her, nodded, and then warned, “You can tell us anything and we will always love you. But one thing, you absolutely cannot under any circumstance say anything about this to your abuela. It would kill her. Please. Please keep it to yourself.” And with that, my family rushed me back into the closet so quickly I was lucky I didn’t hurt my neck.
Besides going to Stanford, getting perfect grades, and then becoming an asset to la raza, the one obligation I couldn’t refuse, delay, or pass on to someone else was that I had to make myself available to Abuela Dolores to help her with some chores on Saturday morning.
I had spent Friday night with Charles. His enthusiasm was good for my ego. “I always thought you were the best-looking guy in your class,” he told me as he pulled me on top of him. For the record, he also liked my hair. We started much earlier, so I was asleep at my parents a little after midnight. The advantage was that when I left to ride the bus to Abuela’s that morning, I was coherent enough to read the worry in both my parents’ faces. They didn’t have to warn me to keep a certain topic quiet, but they did, separately and together. If they were going to keep this up, things were going to get tedious fast. This whole secret thing was making me anxious, and I am nervous enough as it is.
Abuelo Jose Francisco, my mother’s father, had died decades before I was born. He had worked in a semiconductor fabrication plant in Sunnyvale where there was some sort of horrific chemical release that turned his liver to mush. He and abuela had just had their residence here legalized curtesy of Ronald Regan’s amnesty law. The celebrations of their new status, which were supposed to include their first visit back to Sonora since they had come to the US, were cut short by his funeral.
Abuela, left widowed with three kids, was tough. She was an off-the-books bookkeeper doing accounting for off-the-record businesses, and everyone, clients, family, the neighbors, and people I had no idea how she knew, loved her. She lived in a little house off Alum Rock Avenue, about four miles away.
I am almost a foot taller than her, and she is so skinny that a stiff wind would blow her away, so I am a handy helper. There were several chores on the day’s list: connect her new speakers to the WiFi, sweep and bag the leaves in her backyard, and get the tamaleros, her giant pots, down from the attic. Next week abuela would supervise a dozen helpers making tamales for the Christmas season.
She blindsided me while taking a break to eat leftover Thanksgiving tres leches cake. “I hear you’ve become quite friendly with Carlitos Obregon. He is a very handsome young man.”
“How do you know we’ve been hanging out?”
“There are no secrets in the town,” she laughed. “When I played pickleball with his abuela yesterday afternoon, he came to pick her up. He kept telling me how wonderful and handsome you are. He was happy that you could spare time away from your boyfriend to visit.”
She hugged me tight. Abuela was awfully happy for someone too delicate to know I was gay. “You know I’ve been prohibited by everyone to talk about this with you.” I was curious.
“I’m not surprised. They are just trying to protect me.” I was completely lost. Then I watched her smile morph into an intense expression of grief. Her facial muscles tightened even as her skin sagged. Her hands began to shake as she hesitated, unsure if she should continue in English or Spanish. “Siéntate,” she told me though I was already sitting down. She pulled a chair close to me so that we could hold hands. She seemed so frail at that moment I worried that a single word might send her to the underworld.
“Has anyone ever told you about my brother Pedro?” she said at last.
“I think I may have heard his name,” I lied. I had never heard of him.
“He was three years younger than me, my youngest sibling and the only one to be born in the US.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “He had been so happy when he was young. Pedro collected stamps, shot marbles, and raced his bike up and down the street. He liked catching, what is it in English, renacuajos?”
“Yes. Tadpoles. That’s what he was, a little tadpole in the big river of life. Things began to change when he was in middle school, though. He grew sad and distant. We stopped playing together and he had all these secrets. I knew what was going on, but I didn’t betray his privacy as he built a wall around him so our parents wouldn’t know his true nature. They found out, of course. I don’t know how. But when Pedro was sixteen there was this giant blowup, and my father threw him out of the house.”
“Yeah, Mexicans were pretty tough in those days.”
“No meaner than Anglos, but this was beyond the ability of my father to understand and accept. I never forgave him for that.” She pulled a Kleenex out of her pocket. Abuelas always have pockets full of tissues.
“Mama and I gave him money so he was never homeless. But he struggled. Eventually, he moved to San Francisco, got a job as a florist, and for a couple of years he was happy again.” She sobbed.
“Then he got sick. Oh my god, he suffered. That’s my one fear for you. Please promise me you’ll protect yourself. There are drugs that prevent infections. Promise me you’ll take them.”
“I am taking them now.” I didn’t betray how I got them.
“La SIDA killed him. It first robbed him of his dignity, then his eyesight, and at last his mind. Mama and I drove up to the city to clean his apartment, check up on his caregivers, and make him meals. But he and Papa never made up. They were both too stubborn. Oh, José, I still miss him. I will always miss my baby brother.” Abuela was crying uncontrollably, which made me tear up a bit as well. “Everyone knows that tragedy, so they were trying to protect me from further hurt when they figured out your story. They didn’t want me to cry. But I’ve never stopped. And I will never stop loving you.” With that, we went back to work. I ended up having dinner with her, neither of us wanted to end the day.
When I finally left because I had to get to Charles’ for a goodbye bop, she said, “One final thing, mijo. I like your hair. You look like the boys in the Tik Tok videos.” I had a lot to tell Sebastian.