After college, Oscar moved back home. Left a virgin, returned one. Took down his childhood posters (Star Blazers, Captain Harlock) and tacked up his college ones (Akira and Terminator II). These were the early Bush years, the economy still sucked, and he kicked around doing nada for almost seven months until he started substituting at Don Bosco. A year later, the substituting turned into a full-time job. He could have refused, could have made a “saving throw” versus Death Magic, but instead he went with the flow. Watched his horizons collapse, told himself it didn’t matter.
Had Don Bosco, since last we visited, been miraculously transformed by the spirit of Christian brotherhood? Had the eternal benevolence of the Lord cleansed the students of their bile? Negro, please. The only change that Oscar saw was in the older brothers, who all seemed to have acquired the inbred Innsmouth “look”; everything else (like white arrogance and the self-hate of people of color) was the same, and a familiar gleeful sadism still electrified the halls. Oscar wasn’t great at teaching, his heart wasn’t in it, and boys of all grades and dispositions shitted on him effusively. Students laughed when they spotted him in the halls. Pretended to hide their sandwiches. Asked in the middle of lectures if he ever got laid, and no matter how he responded they guffawed mercilessly. How demoralizing was that? And every day he found himself watching the “cool” kids torture the crap out of the fat, the ugly, the smart, the poor, the dark, the black, the unpopular, the African, the Indian, the Arab, the immigrant, the strange, the femenino, the gay—and in every one of these clashes he must have been seeing himself. Sometimes he tried to reach out to the school’s whipping boys—You ain’t alone, you know?—but the last thing a freak wants is a helping hand from another freak. In a burst of enthusiasm, he attempted to start a science-fiction club, and for two Thursdays in a row he sat in his classroom after school, his favorite books laid out in an attractive pattern, listened to the roar of receding footsteps in the halls, the occasional shout outside his door of Beam me up! and Nanoo-Nanoo! Then, after thirty minutes, he collected his books, locked the room, and walked down those same halls, alone, his footsteps sounding strangely dainty.
Social life? He didn’t have one. Once a week he drove out to Woodbridge Mall and stared at the toothpick-thin black girl who worked at the Friendly’s, who he was in love with but to whom he would never speak.
At least at Rutgers there’d been multitudes and an institutional pretense that allowed a mutant like him to approach without causing a panic. In the real world, girls turned away in disgust when he walked past. Changed seats at the cinema, and one woman on the crosstown bus even told him to stop thinking about her. I know what you’re up to, she hissed. So stop it.
I’m a permanent bachelor, he told his sister.
There’s nothing permanent in the world, his sister said tersely.
He pushed his fist into his eye. There is in me.
The home life? Didn’t kill him, but didn’t sustain him, either. His moms, smaller, rounder, less afflicted by the suffering of her youth, still the work golem, still sold second-rate clothes out of the back of her house, still allowed her Peruvian boarders to pack as many relatives as they wanted into the first floors. And Tío Rodolfo, Fofo to his friends, had reverted back to some of his hard pre-prison habits. He was on the caballo again, broke into lightning sweats at dinner, had moved into Lola’s room, and now Oscar got to listen to him chicken-boning his stripper girlfriends almost every single night. Hey, Tío, he yelled out, try to use the headboard a little less.
Oscar knew what he was turning into, the worst kind of human on the planet: an old, bitter dork. He was depressed for long periods of time. The Darkness. Some mornings, he would wake up and not be able to get out of bed. Had dreams that he was wandering around the evil planet Gordo, searching for parts for his crashed rocket ship, but all he encountered were burned-out ruins. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, he said to his sister over the phone. He threw students out of class for breathing, told his mother to fuck off, went into his tío’s closet and put the Colt up between his eyes, then lay in bed and thought about his mother fixing him his plate for the rest of his life. (He heard her say into the phone when she thought he wasn’t around, I don’t care, I’m happy he’s here.)
Afterward—when he no longer felt like a whipped dog inside, when he could go to work without wanting to cry—he suffered from overwhelming feelings of guilt. He would apologize to his mother. He would take the car and visit Lola. She lived in the city now, was letting her hair grow, had been pregnant once, a real moment of excitement, but she aborted it because I was cheating on her with a neighbor. (Our only baby.) He went on long rides. He drove as far as Amish country, would eat alone at a roadside diner, eye the Amish girls, imagine himself in a preacher suit, sleep in the back of the car, and then drive home.