When he went upstairs to change, his sister was jumping up and down on his bed, low screaming, It’s a date, it’s a date, and she jumped onto his back and nearly toppled him clean through the bedroom window.
So is this some kind of date? he said as he slipped into her car.
She smiled wanly. You could call it that.
Ana drove a Cressida, and instead of taking them to the local theatre she headed down to the Amboy Multiplex. It was so hard for Oscar to believe what was happening that he couldn’t take it seriously. The whole time the movie was on, Oscar kept expecting niggers to jump out with cameras and scream, Surprise! Boy, he said, trying to remain on her map, this is some movie. Ana nodded; she smelled of a perfume, and when she pressed close the heat of her body was vertiginous.
On the ride home, Ana complained about having a headache and they didn’t speak for a long time. He tried to turn on the radio but she said, No, my head’s really killing me. So he sat back and watched the Hess Building and the rest of Woodbridge slide past through a snarl of overpasses. The longer they went without speaking, the more morose he became. It’s just a movie, he told himself. It’s not like it’s a date.
Ana seemed unaccountably sad and she chewed her bottom lip, a real bembe, until most of her lipstick was on her teeth and he was going to make a comment about it, but he decided not to.
I’m reading “Dune,” he said, finally.
She nodded. I hate that book.
They reached the Elizabeth exit, which is what New Jersey is really known for, industrial wastes on both sides of the turnpike, when Ana let loose a scream that threw him against the door.
Elizabeth! she shrieked. Close your fucking legs! Then she looked over at him, threw back her head, and laughed.
When he returned to the house, his sister said, Well?
Did you fuck her?
Don’t lie to me. I know you Dominican men. She held up her hands and flexed the fingers in playful menace. Son pulpos.
The next day he woke up feeling like he’d been unshackled from his fat, like he’d been washed clean of his misery, and for a long time he couldn’t remember why he felt this way and then finally he said her name. Little did he know that he’d entered into the bane of nerds everywhere: a let’s-be-friends relationship.
In April, Oscar learned he was heading to Rutgers-New Brunswick. You’ll love it, his sister promised him. I know I will, he said. I was meant for college. Ana was on her way to Penn State, honors program, full ride. It was also in April that her ex-boyfriend Manny returned from the Army—Ana told Oscar during one of their trips to Yaohan, the Japanese mall in Edgewater. Manny’s sudden reappearance and Ana’s joy over it shattered the hopes Oscar had cultivated. He’s back, Oscar asked, like forever? Ana nodded. Apparently, Manny had got into trouble again, drugs, but this time, Ana insisted, he’d been set up by these three cocolos, a word he’d never heard her use, so he figured she’d got it from Manny. Poor Manny, she said.
Yeah, poor Manny, Oscar muttered.
Poor Manny, poor Ana, poor Oscar. Things changed quickly. First, Ana stopped being home all the time, and Oscar found himself stacking messages on her machine: This is Oscar, a bear is chewing my legs off, please call me. This is Oscar, they want a million dollars or it’s over, please call me. She always got back to him after a couple of days and was pleasant about it, but still. Then she cancelled three Fridays in a row, and he had to settle for the clearly reduced berth of Sunday after church. She picked him up, and they drove out to Boulevard East and parked the car, and together they stared out at the Manhattan skyline. It wasn’t an ocean, or a mountain range; it was, at least to Oscar, better.
On one of these little trips, she let slip, God, I’d forgotten how big Manny’s cock is.
Like I really need to hear that, Oscar snapped.
I’m sorry, she said hesitantly. I thought we could talk about everything.
Well, it actually wouldn’t be bad if you kept Manny’s anatomical enormity to yourself.
With Manny and his big cock around, Oscar began dreaming about nuclear annihilation, how through some miracle he was first to hear about a planned attack, and without pausing to think he stole his tío’s car, drove it to the store, stocked it full of supplies (shooting a couple of looters on the way), and then fetched Ana. What about Manny? she wailed. There’s no time! he’d insisted, peeling out. When he was in a better mood, he let Ana discover Manny, who would be hanging from a light fixture in his apartment, his tongue bulbous in his mouth. The news of the imminent attack on the TV, a note pinned to his chest. I koona taek it. And then Oscar would comfort Ana and say something like, He was too weak for this hard new world.
Oscar even got—joy of joys!—the opportunity to meet the famous Manny, which was about as much fun as being called a fag during a school assembly (which had happened). Met him outside Ana’s house. He was this intense emaciated guy with voracious eyes.
When they shook hands, Oscar was sure the nigger was going to smack him; he acted so surly. Manny was muy bald and completely shaved his head to hide it, had a hoop in each ear, and this leathery out-in-the-sun look of an old cat straining for youth.
So you’re Ana’s little friend, Manny said derisively.
That’s me, Oscar said in a voice so full of cheerful innocuousness that he could have shot himself for it.
He snorted. I hope you ain’t trying to chisel in on my girl.
Oscar said, Ha-ha. Ana flushed red, looked at the ground.
With Manny around, Oscar was exposed to an entirely new side of Ana. All they talked about now, the few times they saw each other, was Manny and the terrible things he did to her. Manny smacked her, Manny kicked her, Manny called her a fat twat, Manny cheated on her, she was sure, with this Cuban chickie from the middle school. They couldn’t talk ten minutes without Manny beeping her and her having to call him back and assure him she wasn’t with anybody else.
What am I going to do? she asked over and over, and Oscar always found himself holding her awkwardly and telling her, Well, I think if he’s this bad you should break up with him, but she shook her head and said, I know I should, but I can’t. I love him.
Oscar liked to kid himself that it was only cold, anthropological interest that kept him around to see how it would all end, but the truth was he couldn’t extricate himself. He was totally and irrevocably in love with Ana. What he used to feel for those girls he’d never really known was nothing compared with the amor he was carrying in his heart for Ana. It had the density of a dwarf motherfucking star and at times he was a hundred per cent sure it would drive him mad. Every Dominican family has stories about niggers who take love too far, and Oscar was beginning to suspect that they’d be telling one of these stories about him real soon.
Miraculous things started happening. Once, he blacked out while crossing an intersection. Another time, Miggs was goofing on him, talking smack, and for the first time ever Oscar lost his temper and swung on the nigger, connected so hard that homeboy’s mouth spouted blood. Jesus Christ, Al said. Calm down! I didn’t mean to do it, Oscar said unconvincingly. It was an accident. Mudafuffer, Miggs said. Mudafuffer! Oscar got so bad that one desperate night, after listening to Ana sobbing to him on the phone about Manny’s latest bullshit, he said, I have to go to church now, and put down the phone, went to his tío’s room and stole his antique Dragoon pistol, that oh-so-famous First Nation exterminating Colt .44, stuck its impressive snout down the front of his pants, and proceeded to stand in front of Manny’s apartment. Come on, motherfucker, he said calmly. I got a nice eleven-year-old girl for you. He didn’t care that he would more than likely be put away forever and that niggers like him got ass- and mouth-raped in jail, or that if the cops picked him up and found the gun they’d send his tío’s ass up the river for parole violation. He didn’t care about jack. His head contained nothing, it felt like it had been excavated, a perfect vacuum.
Folks started noticing that he was losing it. His mother, his tío, even Al and Miggs, not known for their solicitude, were like, Dude, what the fuck’s the matter with you?
After he went on his third Manny hunt, he broke down and confessed to his sister, and she got them both on their knees in front of the altar she’d built to their dead abuela and had him swear on their mother’s soul that he’d never pull anything like that again as long as he lived. She even cried, she was so worried about him.
You need to stop this, Mister.
I know I do, he said. But it’s hard.
That night, he and his sister both fell asleep on the couch, she first. Her shins were covered in bruises. Before he joined her, he decided that this would be the end of it. He would tell Ana how he felt, and if she didn’t come away with him then he wouldn’t speak to her ever again.
They met at the Yaohan mall. Ordered two chicken-katsu curries and then sat in the large cafeteria with the view of Manhattan, the only gaijin in the whole joint.
He could tell by Ana’s clothes that she had other plans that night. She was in a pair of black leather pants and had on one of those fuzzy light-pink sweaters that girls with nice chests can rock forever. Her face was so swollen from recent crying it looked like she was on cortisone.
You have beautiful breasts, he said as an opener.
Confusion, alarm. Oscar! What’s the matter with you?
He looked out through the glass at Manhattan’s western flank, looked out like he was some deep nigger. Then he told her.
There were no surprises. Her eyes went soft, she put a hand on his hand, her chair scraped closer, there was a strand of yellow in her teeth. Oscar, she said gently, I have a boyfriend.
So you don’t love me?
Oscar. She breathed deep. I love you as a friend.
She drove him home; at the house, he thanked her for her time, walked inside, lay in bed. They didn’t speak again.
In June, he graduated from Don Bosco. He heard in passing that, of everybody in their section of P-town, only he and Olga, poor, fucked-up Olga, had not attended even one prom. Dude, Miggs joked, maybe you should have asked her out.
He spent the summer working at the hardware store. Had so much time on his hands he started writing a novel for real. In September, he headed to Rutgers, and quickly buried himself in what amounted to the college version of what he’d majored in throughout high school: getting no ass. Despite swearing to be different, he went back to his nerdy ways, eating, not exercising, using flash words, and after a couple consecutive Fridays alone he joined the university’s resident geek organization, R.U. Gamers.