4 Love Stories, Summer 2020
by Eric Ponce, Prose Staff, Class of 2022
David Estrella. Mexican-Jewish, really wonderful cultural intersection, with the different attitudes of both peoples—mix of confused infatuation with and crippling fear of death, a veiny, gimcrack pride, a litany of complexes, not all of them detrimental to his well-being and general success, a demonstratively suppressed sexuality—and an upbringing of looking-over-both-shoulders and still merging lanes without signaling. Matzo in salsa verde, a privileged ancient desert upbringing.
David was the baby, watching his brothers grow from curly-haired boys to thinly-mustachioed men. Three other bar mitzvahs before this, starting when David himself was four. He remembered each of them. How couldn’t he, the cultural cross-over episode of a Mexican bar mitzvah. Solemnity mixed with hooting-joy, a serious, spicy/salty/acerbic air hanging in a neon-lit room. Kitschy, verging on campy. They were unlike the other bar mitzvahs he went to, where strait-laced, guttural Jewish joy floated hearts and hats. With the Mexican, it got deeper and lighter, becoming even more wild and serious at the same time, an understanding of differences, an acquired palette, a tear that showed what was underneath was the same dark-red. A jalapeño bagel, his dad would joke, pouring potato vodka into a Modelo.
Now, finally, thirteen, his turn. The theme was Special Agent, David having watched all of the Austin Powers movies that spring, and the hall was black with silver decor. His dad had been the one who did the event planning, David signing off with a curt grin. His duty was of course the memorization and the speaking: ancient pressures, time’s pyramids.
The culmination of excitement and detail, little stars aligning into one day. Kith and kin, out before your eyes, an ancient tongue and hungry belly. It’s all a lot for a thirteen-year-old boy to handle. Manhood breathing down your neck. In bed the night before, it felt like he was going to Disney world the next day, except everyone would be staring at him. And there would be no ears.
But David knew what it meant. Manhood. His father told him, it means knowing where you’re needed the most. It means bravery and strength, the ancient virtues. It means owning your self. Your own self, in your own hands. Even though the Mexican Man and the Jewish Man seemed starkly different to him—the way his Tio Rogelio carried himself, his shoulders back led with his chin, was different than how Moishe from shul did, with strong arms and leaning forehead—he knew he would have to be both, to carry all parts of himself. The way his brothers did it, just became themselves.
And of course all the other kids were talking about it, man stuff. Everybody had differently shaped ideas, but all the same color. It was big, being a man. It was honorable, but it came with perks. Like a platinum rewards card. Most importantly, it had to do with your body. Bodies.
Thirteen is undoubtedly a weird corporeal station, and Mexican-Jews are no exception. David was scrawny but with a wide chest and small hill of a paunch. Some of his friends already looked like men, shaving, sharpening, spinning muscles from nothing. And, naturally, sex was everywhere. Everywhere now that they knew where to look, how to read the signs, but still not really why. The girls became nice to look at, and even some of the teachers. David resisted this at first. Growing up with the only woman in the house being mom, he knew women to be on a pedestal, admired and respected. But when you went to the bathroom and everyone in there was talking about how short Georgia Goldman’s skirt was, it was hard not to want to fit in. Thirteen-year-old defense-mechanisms transform into grown-up dysfunctions. David did not know this.
So, it was a confluence of pressures, ancient, filial, sexual, that pushed him to the morning of his bar mitzvah. Late morning, chilaquiles and orange juice. Mom had picked up Manuel and Avi at the airport yesterday, and now they all sat, still pajamaed, eating. Hurried quick bites, only a plate each. Pats on shoulders and noogies, all under one roof again.
Mom had laid out his suit on his bed. Black jacket, trousers, shirt, shoes, with silver socks and tie. He had wanted the zany blue of Austin Powers but mom insisted that if Powers was redone in 2015 that he would wear something like this. David didn’t believe her.
Shower on, steam filling the volume, David looked in the mirror. He felt much smaller than Manuel or Avi or Sam had been at his age. He felt that by this age, all of his brothers had already grown into themselves, into men, Mexican-Jewish men, whatever things hung on that identity. He still wasn’t sure. It had to do with your body. Creating.
The boys at school always talked about it. In the bathroom, the gathering place of the chismosos and yente, where sacred pieces of knowledge were thrown into the cauldron and everyone watched as it stewed and frothed. You put your hand. It didn’t seem natural to David. Up and down all around. He asked dad about it but he didn’t say much. Why would you want to. It took a while until. Some tried it different ways. David didn’t try it. He said he did. Sometimes every night. It didn’t feel as good as they said. A man. Everyone else. Becoming men. It’s what they, you, did. What goes on in your mind? Be good, do what you should, you know. Come.
Power is how you define it. How you make it act. The act, he thought, is to be a man. Come into being. David, slowly then all at once. Extending, your arm, your self. Any other part belonging to a man. What’s in a man? How to become. It’s not about power. It’s not force or brutality. It is constantly becoming. Is what he thought, under cumulating steam, the smell of Fiji. All the pressure on one point, decompensation. It is emergence, all of the ingredients are already there. A star fish arm that always grows back. On his back, cold marble, perpendicular to the sky. He found his own rapture.
I asked a boy what the law was. We were both wearing hoodies. He answered that it was the guarantee of the exercise of possibility. Skittles and Arizona Tea, look just like me. I ate him.
White Blood Cells
It was during one of those febrile parties, right before covid, as if we knew we had to get this out of our systems, when everything was just so hot and bothered and I needed to take a breather that I went upstairs and found a room of guys sitting on the floor, kind of kumbaya but Vineyard Vines. Hemenway was there, sitting next to Burge who was in media res.
“And so we’re at dinner, the three of us, and she says ‘I’m not sure what to call your mother, Zack.’ And I ask her why and she explains that, like, in her culture they have to refer to people who are older than them in a certain way with a certain honorific so she says ‘Your mother is older than me so I have to use a certain kind of name, one that implies respect’ and she’s just trying so hard to be nice and relatable to me and to let me know that she’s in my life now but no, fuck that I’m not having it, I’m not gonna take that shit from her, not gonna let her be my new mom or whatever the fuck so I just look at my dad and I say, ‘Well if she has to call people older than her that, what does she have to call you, dad?’ And he just looks at me and laughs and says ‘fuck you, Chris.’”
“Jeez,” Hemenway says, laughing too. “That’s fucked.”
I nod in agreement, looking around the room to make sure this is the correct response. Young men learn from mimesis.
“Yeah, so my dad and I have always been, uh, rough. Just never really got along, especially after the split. Especially now after this girlfriend.”
Hemenway nods sympathetic. “That’s how it was with my dad before he passed. Just not good. I really didn’t like spending time with him, but y’know, he was my dad. Is my dad. Just rough, man.”
Pascal, a freshman, gets off the desk he was sitting on and half-lotuses down on the floor next to Burge. Seven of us in this circle now.
“That sucks Burge, I can relate” Pascal starts. “I didn’t fight with my dad when I was younger but when I got older I kinda started seeing how he treated my mom.” Pascal is drunk but his voice doesn’t sound it. “Just real shitty, getting mad at tiny things, being a real dick. He never hit her in front of me but when I was eleven I remember seeing her with a black eye that she tried to cover with makeup. I didn’t know what it meant, those colors on her face.” Everyone nods solemnly. Hemenway tries to look Pascal in the eye, but he just keeps going. “The shitty thing is I never used to care, er, maybe care isn’t the right word. I just didn’t realize how wrong it was, or that I should protect her. I was numb to it I guess… But so one time when I was fighting with my mom, because, y’know I figured dad screams at her all the time so it’s alright for me to too, and so we were fighting and I said something shitty, I don’t even remember but it must have been fucking awful because she took my phone and hid it in their room, like she always did when I said awful stuff to her. But there was something I thought I really needed the phone for though, like fantasy or something, and so when my parents were gone I went into their room and looked everywhere for it, under the bed, in the drawers, everywhere. Finally, when I was looking in the closet I—I found this box on some high shelves under a bunch of towels and stuff, a real heavy box. I took it down and opened it and inside were a bunch of notebooks, like probably fifteen. I started to flip through one and—and I just couldn’t recognize what I was reading at first. The words were like, attacking me. It was my mom’s handwriting. They were just filled with dates like a dairy, but each date was— was describing the horrible things my father did to her that day. It was awful. Each page was filled, rammed with the most awful things you could imagine. He—he beat her. He said terrible things to her. He hurt her in so many ways, ways I—I can’t even talk about—I just…” The circle was closing like an aperture. “There were so many books. And in each one she said that the only reason she did it, that she stayed, was for me. The only reason she stayed was for me. And when I went to put the box back, and I tried to put it back in the exact way I found it, I saw there were more. At least four other boxes, all filled. I stopped looking for my phone and I went into my room and just screamed, screamed into my pillow… And now I never disrespect her. I always try to love her, as fully and wholly as I can. I protect her now. I fight my dad whenever I have to. And it’s often. Especially when he’s drunk. She doesn’t know that I found the notebooks, I don’t think I want her to know. But my aunt told me that she’s going to leave him, my dad. The only reason she stayed was for me. But she’s going to leave him soon. Especially now. Now that I’m gone.” He cried. Big red bubbles, in his face and throat. He showed us that he had the courage to suffer.
We collapsed into each other, a tight mass. Trembling a little bit, embracing harder at each cry. We were white blood cells of love, killing the demons.
There’s Nothing Wrong (With Love)
During one of those frequent droughts in LA—when Steve Carrell would interrupt our playlists to remind us that “if it’s yellow, let it mellow!”—when she and I moved in to the apartment near the Scientology building (unaffiliated), she suggested we start showering together. We had a few times before, in hotels and when my roommates weren’t home, always seeming to forget that water had anti-lubricant effects and so having to scoop up globs of the coconut oil she used for her hair we’d make slippery love, is what I’d call it. I thought she just wanted to fool around again and so I agreed to get behind the curtain with her. When she took off her shirt I did my signature “OwOOOga!” face and she said you’ve seen me like this a thousand times and I said yeah and I’ve seen the sunset a thousand times too, something I got from a movie I think.
She bites my lower lip, water pooling in between my lip and teeth, pouring out from the sides of my mouth, and I reach for her but she slaps my hand away and I remember Steve Carrell and our civic duty. I go for the shampoo but she says “wait” and grabs it herself.
I remember being a baby and taking baths in the sink. My mom or dad or both standing there washing me in the marble, all of us young. Of course, I wasn’t thinking about anything then, only now. Only after the memories came back to me in a bubble up from the depths like an underwater volcano.
In the shower she squeezes a big glob of lavender shampoo into her hands and puts it to my head. She’s only a few inches shorter than me so it’s not much of a reach. She starts by making sure she gets all of my hair, on top of my head and the sides and the back neck part, running it through all over. Her hands are small and strong but I know she’s trying to be gentle. I close my eyes and breathe in the smell. It’s her shampoo, not mine, which is green apple. It feels good to smell her smell from my own head. She’s close to me.
She takes some of her body wash and sudses me up, all over my chest and my arms and under. She uses her body to spread it all over the both of us, nuzzling against me. Wet skin slippery now and soft, slight and sweet like a secret. The bubbles smell like figs and are white and big, intocable. She rinses us both, using her hands to splash me and running them over my head, making sure nothing gets in my eyes or mouth, taking time so that all the soap is gone and kissing my chest and back, slow and easy as breathing.
She bathed me, made me clean. At some point in your life it becomes your own responsibility to get clean. Love isn’t about you, though, I don’t think. It’s about someone else, recognizing something is bigger than your own soul. Sending that love, the action, out of you, onto someone else. She cleaned me, cleansed me. Like I was sitting in the sink.
I was afraid this might not happen to me.
photo from reddit.com