Spring break in LA is one long day at Magic Mountain. My friend Moses parks his 1985 Caprice Classic next to our chain-link gate. The engine clicks off and the Led Zeppelin guitar goes quiet. He brought Eva, Rudy, and my boyfriend Beto to pick me up. We’ll be on roller coasters if only we can get out of the alley I live in. From the family bedroom, I hear all four doors close. Rudy jokes with Amá. She’s letting them into our cement yard. Then, no more laughing.
I grab my jacket and go outside as soon as I can, but not fast enough. Amá is standing in her apron facing her wall of pink geraniums. That’s when she thanks them for being my friends, especially after “that thing that happened.”
“What thing?” my boyfriend asks. Beto pushes up his glasses on his nose as if it will help him hear better.
Amá is not talking about the boys who groped me during recess in seventh grade. She doesn’t know about the drive-by shooting on Loveland Street that Claudia and I ran from, so she isn’t talking about that either. But Amá is talking about Claudia, my ex-best friend/ex-girlfriend. The catcher from the softball team. The girl whose braid smelled like cookie dough. The one she caught me kissing.
“That girl Claudia molested my Chata,” Amá announces. I am still inside, but Moses will give me full details later. “I’m so glad you look out for her. Take care of my Chata.”
“Sure we will, señora,” Moses says. He uses his obedient son voice. He’s afraid of Amá, too — her hands are calloused and biceps are used to hammering whatever calls for it. Moses, my floppy-haired homie, he’s the senior who taught me how to drive. He’s the only one who knows about me making out with Claudia. Eva and Rudy raise their eyebrows at Amá: Vickie was molested by another teenage girl? When I get outside, people have already gotten back in the car. I plop down next to Beto, who barely looks at me. Everyone else is quiet. Moses turns up the radio. Five minutes into the car ride, I ask Beto what’s wrong.
“You tell me,” he says. “What happened with Claudia?”
I whisper. “What do you mean?”
“Your mom said Claudia molested you.”
Cars pass us. I look out and wish I was in one of them, driving the other way. Chingao, Amá. I want to pack my one bag and leave home right now. All my business spread around like chisme, and from my own mom. It’s not even true.
“She didn’t molest me,” I say, keeping my voice lower than the music. Eva glances back at us in the rearview mirror. She brushes hair out of her eyes. We drive west. Over the LA River, the water is a trickle. One wall is marked up with tagging in red and blue that says nothing to us. We don’t know the language from under bridges; we know distortion on mixtapes. We know boys and girls, not girls and girls. The river is not bursting and dangerous like it was when I kissed Claudia. We made out so hard our lips ached. I don’t kiss Beto as hard, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love him.
We pull up to Eva’s house in Bell so she can change clothes. Eva’s house is a converted garage that her mom made into a casita. She opens drawers and slams them shut. Her bedroom floor is carpet and it itches my legs. I look anywhere except right at her.
“How could you not tell me you were gay?” Eva huffs. “I’ve changed in front of you so many times!”
Girl, you are not my type. I think this, but don’t say it. We weren’t friends last year because she wanted to punch me — for no good reason (something about a guy liking me and not her friend — totally juvenile). I don’t say shit. There are only so many times I can take a sucker punch today. I mumble a half-assed, “Sorry,” then stare at the photo collages. On her walls are dozens of pictures with Eva in cheer uniforms or with Moses in their matching brown bobs.
I want to pack my one bag and leave home right now. All my business spread around like chisme, and from my own mom. It’s not even true.
Eva’s side-eye and pouting follow us into the amusement park. Me and Beto are in five million lines to ride Ninja or whatever shit is cool right now. And next to us, white teenagers are ready to eavesdrop on us.
“I thought I was the only one,” he complains.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have told you. I didn’t know how.” There is no shade in this whole park. My skin feels like it’s melting off.
I may have to quote that Sassy magazine article, the one about how being in love with your best friend is normal. I’ve repeated that idea to myself for years, but in line right now, I’m empty thought bubbles.
Beto and I wait to ride Colossus, the longest wooden roller coaster in the country. We move inch by inch as the ride creaks and moans around us. People scream in a way I want to but cannot.
I kick into denial, a small flame burning low in my chest. I’ve only watched one movie to model what I had felt with Claudia. “Maybe we’re lesbians,” Claudia had said. I wasn’t so sure about that — what about all those boys? — so instead we decided that we were bisexuals. This was our coming out: only to each other in the safety of her bedroom. We would not admit this out loud to anyone for years. After we’d broken up, I thought I was pretty much over being attracted to other girls (“except sometimes,” I admitted in my journal. “I have ‘flashes,’ not with the two of us, just ‘flashes.’”). But this moment, with Beto staring me down, hurt and angry, this is not the time to come out to him. He wants me to tell him that I am his. That I was wrong.
“I should have told you,” I say.
“I don’t know if I can trust you,” he says. I sigh. It’s not that serious. I mean, sure, I lied, but this is only a big deal because Claudia’s a girl. He’d be over it if it was some guy I’d slept with.
The roller coaster carts roll up. Moses and Rudy shoot me weak smiles. Eva is still sour. We board. The train turns hard on the first curve, and I think I’ve made progress with Beto — his weight is leaning into me. All 180 pounds of him. It’s going to be okay. Pero no — he scoots away as soon as the next turn comes. This is gravity.
I cling to the cold rails, face the sharp drops. After so many turns, I forget I’m sad and laugh. My belly is in my throat and I laugh harder. Beto’s the student body president and I’m his girlfriend the parliamentarian, a position he handpicked for me when I lost vice president. He is my normal. If not for him, I would have nowhere to go when Amá and Dad fight. Lately their fighting is more vicious: Amá throws oranges at Pop when he comes back from his other vieja’s house. Now that is a drive-by I can’t avoid. I can’t stay in a house like that. I let my weight lean all the way into Beto. He can take it, I know he can. The sun is setting, and this will soon get better.
Rudy carries a small box with funnel cake and french fries. The sugar makes Eva lighten up. She takes out her camera and snaps photos of Moses and me at a lunch table. He makes me go get BBQ sauce with him.
“You okay?” he says.
“Sure,” I go. “My pinche mom ratted me out. I feel great!”
“Eva will get over it. Rudy doesn’t care. These fuckers will forget all about it.”
“The thing is,” I say, “I’m not sorry I did it. Just that we got caught.” I lean on the metal ledge where they keep the condiments.
“Yeah, but people are dumb and won’t understand. Maybe you shouldn’t brag yet. Your boy’s definitely not ready. Look at that fool.”
Beto is busying himself by taking several fries off my plate, as usual. I want to yell at him to get his own, but I’m already on his shit list. I smile at him. He catches me watching him and, like a kid who got caught taking money, he smiles back all coy.
“I’m gonna wear this fool down, watch.”
“Oh I’m sure you will.” Moses hands me a couple of white paper cups with BBQ sauce in them. “Here, carry this. Look alive.”
When it gets dark, the cold is not bad as I thought it’d be. My jacket is enough — what I have is enough: a boyfriend and girl I still love, even though it’s not like that. On the drive home I scratch Beto’s hair until he falls asleep. No que no? Putty in my hands.
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Moses turns into my alley. His headlights illuminate the wall at the far end, a tall soundwall no one’s bothered to cover in ivy. There’s a message scrawled on it in crooked red spray paint:
We get out of the car to inspect. The marks are unsure and childlike.
“What the fuck, man,” I say.
“Stupid fuckers can’t even spell your name right,” my friend Rudy says.
Whoever wrote it clearly used spray paint for the first time. This is not the handiwork of world-famous tagger Chaka. Whoever told me to fuck off has clearly written it with their feet. “And I thought people hated me the most!” Eva laughs. “You win.” We all laugh loud, relieved something else is wrong now. Somebody else but me is fucked up. “It has to be Pánfila,” I say. Rudy shakes his head no.
Pánfila, my old best friend with thick legs, is on a school-wide campaign talking shit about me: at the school newspaper, with the yearbook kids, and in the student body room to anyone who’ll listen: “Vickie’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than everybody. She thinks she’s all that. ”
Pánfila hates me because a boy she likes has a crush on me — I may be fanning that flame a little, but fuck her, right? I steal glances and joke with him, but is it my fault dudes like shit like that? Pánfila’s so mad she even made up a new class favorite category for me: Biggest Ego.
“Dude, don’t even defend Pánfila,” I tell Rudy. “You know she’s crazy.”
As additional revenge, Pánfila tried getting Rudy to sleep with her. She told him: “My braces make my blow jobs feel hotter.” Poor Pánfila — no one should put themselves in a mouth full of metal.
Eva and I exchange looks, like, Maybe you deserve it, Vick. I had a crush on Pánfila’s boy, it’s true, except mine was really, really tiny. Probably because it was some kind of power trip. You know, a “who can get him first” kind of thing. Guess I didn’t stop soon enough.
On the drive home I scratch Beto’s hair until he falls asleep. No que no? Putty in my hands.
“Don’t feel bad, Vick. That’s the shittiest tagging ever,” Moses says. “I bet she paid them in blow jobs.”
We all laugh except for Rudy, the only one who knows for sure.
“Call me tomorrow?” I ask Beto. He nods and gives me a little peck. I take it. I take it because I am not giving up all of this just to correct my mom and tell her what I really think: that I’d sleep with Claudia again, and, with any luck, maybe I will again someday.
Amá has pinto beans on the stove when I walk into the house. They make the house steam and shrink. Pop is asleep on the couch.
“How was it, Chata?” She is in a great mood, smiling at my homecoming instead of railing about how I’m a pata de perro, out on the street instead of home.
I tell Amá I had fun and get ready for bed. My little brothers are asleep. I pretend she’s done nothing wrong. Amá can think I’m a victim because her baby can’t be anything but perfectly straight. But her Catholic Chicana baby is definitely gay, okay. She loves that I’m currently straight, with straight friends, and going to college in the fall. Maybe she is a great actor too. We are both amazing actors, winning prizes for just living.
My eyes close, knowing the crooked graffiti will get painted over by the city tomorrow. Of course, the words will still be underneath.
They still are.
* * *
Vickie Vértiz was born and raised in Bell Gardens, a city in southeast Los Angeles County. Her writing is featured in the New York Times magazine, Spiral Orb, Huizache, Nepantla, Omniverse, the Los Angeles Review of Books, KCET Departures, and the anthologies Open the Door (The Poetry Foundation and McSweeney’s, 2013), and The Coiled Serpent (Tia Chucha Press, 2016), among many others. A 2018 Bread Loaf Environmental Fellow, a Macondista, and a seven-time VONA participant, Vickie was also the 2015 Lucille Clifton Scholar at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. She was the 2016 Summer Resident at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Vértiz’s first full collection of poetry, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, was published in the Camino del Sol Series and won a PEN America Literary Prize in 2018. A member of Miresa, a cooperative speaker’s bureau, Vickie teaches in the MFA writing program at Otis College of Art and Design.