Oscar de León was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about. He wasn’t no player. Except for one time, he’d never had much luck with women.
He’d been seven then.
It’s true: Oscar was a carajito who was into girls mad young. Always trying to kiss them, always coming up behind them during a merengue, the first nigger to learn the perrito and the one who danced it every chance he got. Because he was a Dominican boy raised in a relatively “normal” Dominican family, his nascent pimpliness was encouraged by family and friends alike. During the parties—and there were many, many parties in those long-ago seventies days, before Washington Heights was Washington Heights, before the Bergenline became a straight shot of Spanish for almost a hundred blocks—some drunk relative inevitably pushed Oscar onto some little girl, and then everyone would howl as boy and girl approximated the hip-motism of the adults.
You should have seen him, his mother sighed. He was our little Porfirio Rubirosa.
He had “girlfriends” early. (Oscar was a stout kid, heading straight to fat, but his mother kept him nice in haircuts, and before the proportions of his head changed he’d had these lovely flashing eyes and these cute-ass cheeks.) The girls—his older sister’s friends, his mother’s friends, even his neighbor, a twenty-something postal employee who wore red on her lips and walked like she had a brass bell for an ass—all fell for him. Ese muchacho está bueno! Once, he’d even had two girlfriends at the same time, his only ménage à trois ever. With Maritza Chacón and Olga Polanca, two girls from his school.
The relationship amounted to Oscar’s standing close to both girls at the bus stop, some undercover hand holding, and some very serious kissing on the lips, first Maritza, then Olga, while the three of them hid behind some bushes. (Look at that little macho, his mother’s friends said. Qué hombre.)
The threesome lasted only a week. One day after school, Maritza cornered Oscar behind the swing set and laid down the law. It’s either her or me! Oscar held Maritza’s hand and talked seriously and at great length about his love for her and suggested that maybe they could all share, but Maritza wasn’t having any of it. Maritza, with her chocolate skin and gray eyes, already expressing the Ogún energy that would chop down obstacles for her the rest of her life. Didn’t take him long to decide: after all, Maritza was beautiful, and Olga was not. His logic as close to the yes/no math of insects as a nigger could get. He broke up with Olga the next day on the playground, Maritza at his side, and how Olga cried! Snots pouring out of her nose and everything! In later years, when he and Olga had both turned into overweight freaks, Oscar could not resist feeling the occasional flash of guilt when he saw Olga loping across a street or staring blankly out near the New York bus stop, wondering how much his cold-as-balls breakup had contributed to her present fuckedupness. (Breaking up with her, he would remember, hadn’t felt like anything; even when she started crying, he hadn’t been moved. He’d said, Don’t be a baby.)
What had hurt, however, was when Maritza dumped him. The Monday after he’d shed Olga, he arrived at the bus stop only to discover beautiful Maritza holding hands with butt-ugly Nelson Pardo. At first Oscar thought it a mistake; the sun was in his eyes, he’d not slept enough the night before. But Maritza wouldn’t even smile at him! Pretended he wasn’t there. We should get married, she was saying to Nelson, and Nelson grinned moronically, turning up the street to look for the bus. Oscar was too hurt to speak; he sat down on the curb and felt something overwhelming surge up from his chest, and before he knew it he was crying, and when his sister Lola walked over and asked him what was the matter he shook his head. Look at the mariconcito, somebody snickered. Somebody else kicked his beloved lunchbox. When he got on the bus, still crying, the driver, a famously reformed PCP addict, said, Christ, what a fucking baby.
Maybe coincidence, maybe selfserving Dominican hyperbole, but it seemed to Oscar that from the moment Maritza dumped him his life shot straight down the tubes. Over the next couple of years he grew fatter and fatter, and early adolescence scrambled his face into nothing you could call cute; he got uncomfortable with himself and no longer went anywhere near the girls, because they always shrieked and called him gordo asqueroso. He forgot the perrito, forgot the pride he felt when the women in the family had called him hombre. He did not kiss another girl for a long, long time. As though everything he had in the girl department had burned up that one fucking week. Olga caught the same bad, no-love karma. She got huge and scary—a troll gene in her somewhere—and started drinking 151 straight out of the bottle and was taken out of school because she had a habit of screaming NATAS! in the middle of homeroom. Sorry, loca, home instruction for you. Even her breasts, when they finally emerged, were huge and scary.
And the lovely Maritza Chacón? Well, as luck would have it, Maritza blew up into the flyest girl in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the queens of New Peru, and, since she and Oscar were neighbors, he saw her plenty, hair as black and lush as a thunderhead, probably the only Peruvian girl on the planet with curly hair (he hadn’t heard of Afro Peruvians yet or of a town called Chincha), body fine enough to make old men forget their infirmities, and from age thirteen steady getting in or out of some roughneck’s ride. (Maritza might not have been good at much—not sports, not school, not work—but she was good at boys.) Oscar would watch Maritza’s getting in and out all through his cheerless, sexless adolescence. The only things that changed in those years were the models of the cars, the size of Maritza’s ass, and the music volting out of the car’s speakers. First freestyle, then Special Ed-era hip-hop, and right at the very end, for just a little while, Hector Lavoe and the boys.
Oscar didn’t imagine that she remembered their kisses but of course he remembered.