At a certain point, it began to feel as though I’d been staring at Marina the entire semester. She’d approached me once, saying my name with a kind of intimacy that made it seem as if we were longtime friends. She asked me to help her with her math homework. I solved the problems she hadn’t finished, explained how they were done, and smiled like an idiot as she took back her notebook. I caught a glimpse of her name, the letters a glittering green, on the first page. Her handwriting was much better with words than with numbers. She wore a ponytail held together by three butterfly clips too beautiful and shiny to have been made in Cuba. She kept the top two buttons of her white uniform blouse open, and her skirt never hung below her knees. She was a bit taller than I, enough for me to feel she was older, despite us being the same age. Her legs were the smoothers I’d ever seen. They were the color of caramel, and for all I knew, the same texture too.
I’d confess some of this to Otto. He and I weren’t close. In fact, we weren’t really friends. Otto had been assigned to sit next to me because, as Mr. Davino, our math teacher, had put it, “Raudel is the smartest and most applied student in the class, and you will learn from him.”
That didn’t get much attention from Marina except for the homework occasion, but it did from Otto. He’d repeated seventh grade twice, which next to being beaten up in front of everyone was the most embarrassing thing that could happen at our school. The place itself wasn’t much. The wooden windows were missing panes. Our desks—no matter the classroom—were barely hanging on. But our director, Mrs. Gamez, insisted that we were second best in our municipality. Our grades proved it. Personally, I intended to finish in the top three of my year and get into Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Vocational School, the best pre-college institution in the country. Otto had other plans, but they didn’t include flunking again. He figured I could be his ticket out of seventh grade. He’d shown up to the study groups, completed the homework, and barely missed any classes. The result was a grade average of 81. All in all he’d been a success story—and in the eyes of the faculty I deserved the credit—but it did me no good with my classmates, who resented me for having what they called “my own bodyguard.”
It didn’t impress Marina, either. I’d heard through one of her friends that she thought Otto was an “ugly brute.” I initially figured she’d noticed that I was both bright and cool enough to be friends with Otto. But having a shorter boyfriend who tutors an “ugly brute,” I understood, had its detriments. Her popularity level would plummet, giving false hope to the short imbeciles even I couldn’t stand.
Otto didn’t respond when I mentioned Marina’s name in the beginning. He just chuckled and shook his head. Afterwards, whenever she was called to the blackboard and the hem of her skirt was sticking high up the back of her legs or a butterfly clip seemed on the verge of falling off her hair, he’d nudge me with his elbow, flash a grin and whisper, “You better rescue your princess.”
For a while I regretted having told him anything. It was bad enough I felt physically inferior to the guy, who was taller and stronger than anyone in class. Despite Marina’s description of Otto, he was far from an ugly brute. His chest and arms were chiseled, sculpting the shape of his shirt. His light brown hair parted perfectly at the middle and fell to where his jawbone and ears met. He smiled with only one side of his mouth, and his knuckles were covered in calluses. Otto was no movie star, but he had presence and confidence in his stride, the kind I wished I had. People moved out of his way and sometimes stared behind his back. Someone in my position valued his opinion greatly.
One afternoon, long after the other students had filed out and we’d concluded our study session for the upcoming final exams, Otto said with a solemn face, “I have an idea.”
“You better not be thinking about cheating,” I said.
“Are you crazy? I’m acing those tests. I’m talking about Marina.”
“Come on, Otto. I don’t even like her anymore.”
“Stop lying,” he said. “It’s embarrassing. You should write her a letter.”
I laughed. “And that wouldn’t be embarrassing?”
“No, see, it would be. But in a good way.”
I’d spent enough time studying with Otto to know that I should trust his logic. “Go on,” I said.
“Write her a romantic letter. You’re good with words, right? I’ve seen you reading all those classic novels. Anyway, make it sound like you really like her, but not like you’re desperate. Like you just want to tell her this shit and you’re not expecting anything back, though you shouldn’t actually say that. You should, what’s the word…”
“Exactly. Let her think on it. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? She says nothing back, she laughs? She won’t be able to ignore you anymore. She’ll remember your name and the letter for a long time. She’ll probably tell her friends. Yeah, some might make fun of it, but I’m willing to bet there’ll be a couple who think it’s brave and beautiful and all that, who wish you’d written it for them. The trick is to not pay attention to her after you give her the letter. Don’t look at her. If she comes up to you asking for help with her homework, tell her you’re busy. Make her earn it. Marina’s high and mighty. She barely talks to anyone in this school. Those pink Reeboks she wears? You can’t get those here. She’s gotta have family in another country. She probably only pays attention to guys from high school who have motorcycles. This is your only shot. Come next semester, if she hasn’t approached you, I guarantee you one of her friends will. That’ll get you points. If nothing happens, give her a gift on Valentine’s Day, a cheap perfume or some flowers. Remind her you’re still there, then step back again.”
By the time Otto stopped talking, I’d written half the letter in my head. “I could become the laughingstock of the entire school. What if she passes the letter around?”
Otto scoffed at the question. “How many people do you know who have the guts to write a love letter to Marina?”
I thought about it for a moment. If not for the possible consequences, I would’ve hugged him then and there. “How do you come up with this stuff?”
“My uncle’s a lady’s man. He taught me how women think. He’s been cheating on my aunt forever and hasn’t been caught. He cheats with sexy women, too.”
“Your uncle’s a genius.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
We shook hands.
“Don’t get too sentimental,” he said. “Sound like a man.”
I assured him I would. He left. I stayed back for a while, composing a few choppy drafts on my math notebook before heading home.
That night I composed the whole letter. I used The Count of Montecristo as a reference especially for adjectives, many of which I’d underlined on my first read of the book. The letter was more poetic than Otto would’ve liked, especially when I described how I saw Marina. I compared her looks to all the romantic celestial objects I could think of. But in essence I was blunt and honest. I told her that I knew I had no chance. I wasn’t fooling myself. My only intent was to profess my love for her and the reasons behind it, because these things must be expressed, I said, because one could not carry that “burden” (one of the words I borrowed from Dumas). I wanted her to understand that some bravery had been involved without my actually saying so. After all, that’s how Otto had convinced me. It did seem courageous to embarrass myself in such a way, especially if I ignored her afterward.
I re-wrote the final draft on a clean sheet of paper, read it aloud, and signed it with my full name to show formality and poise.
As I made my way to school the next day, I resolved to give the letter to Marina the moment I saw her. I waited by our classroom’s entrance. My body shook as I stood against the wall. I cleared my throat every few minutes, to ensure I didn’t choke when she came down the hall and I uttered her name.
As it turned out, choking was not the problem. Instead, she noticed my hand trembling as I gave her the letter. I could tell because for the faintest of seconds she showed a worried expression. Once she heard me say, “It’s for you,” her facial muscles relaxed. Her eyes, however, remained as stoic and composed as her ponytail. She slipped the letter into her breast pocket and walked in. I followed, almost out of breath. I took my spot next to Otto, who was surprisingly early. I was about to tell him about my exploits when the bell rang. I jolted and banged my elbow against the table. Luckily only he saw it.
“You all right?” he said.
He stared at me, furrowing his eyebrows. “Did someone threaten to beat you up?”
“I did it.” My voice was as subtle as an exhale. “I gave her the letter.”
“Good!” He raised the corner of his lip, leaned back in his chair, and pretended to look at the blackboard. “Now forget about it.”
During the first two periods, I focused on the lectures and frantically took notes. At noon, when I returned from recess, Marina’s chair was empty. I hadn’t seen her out in the yard with her friends. Eventually she passed in front of my desk, glancing in my direction. This time she couldn’t hide her smile. There was an air of arrogance and flirtatiousness to it. It wasn’t a definite reply—and I didn’t interpret it as an invitation for me to try to approach her again—but it was just recognition of my effort. In my eyes, it was a kind of victory. I stuck out my chest and sported a moronic, self-aggrandizing smirk for the rest of the classes.
At the end of the day, Marina hurried out the door just as the bell rang. She waved to her friends, who fixed their gazes on me long enough to unsettle—though not shatter—my Don Juan fantasy. The smiles they displayed bore derision and malice. They were mocking me.
Otto zipped his backpack closed and smacked my shoulder. “I’m playing basketball with some buddies,” he said. “Have to run, but we’ll talk tomorrow after school.” He sprinted out before I could respond.
I made my every move deliberate: shoved my books inside my backpack, slid my chair under the desk with my foot, untucked my shirt with specious confidence. Laugh all you want, ladies, I was attempting to communicate. See if I care.
I tucked my shirt back in on the way home. God forbid my mother saw me in that condition. She would’ve questioned me for a good fifteen minutes, pleading that I confess if I’d been in a fight or if I’d finally started hanging out with the older boys around the corner.
“They’re gangbangers!” she always warned. She had no idea that Otto had been labeled the same thing at school.
I didn’t take off my uniform until late at night, when she caught me lying in bed, staring at the ceiling as if the moldy water stains had suddenly formed Marina’s face.
“You’re in love,” she said.
I scoffed, giving myself away.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“Fine.” Her tone heightened as she walked to her bedroom. “At least take a shower before you go to sleep. Being in love is no reason to be filthy.”
The next morning Otto was absent. Ten minutes after the bell rang, Mr. Davino still hadn’t come into the classroom. Some of us began to murmur that maybe we’d get a free period. I’d discreetly searched under my desk for a reply from Marina, but there was none. She’d ignored me again. And this time so had her friends. The game—as Otto might have put it—was on.
Another ten minutes passed. The class was growing anxious when Mr. Davino finally appeared, accompanied by Mrs. Gamez, the director. Her makeup had been smudged under her eyes toward her cheeks. Mr. Davino’s eyes and nose were red.
“We have some sad news,” Mrs. Gamez said. She coughed and ran the back of her hand across her forehead. “Your classmate Otto Zamora was killed in a tragic accident last night.” She gave us a moment to react, to let it sink in. After an initial series of muffled cries, the room fell somberly quiet, as if we were all holding our breaths for fear that it might somehow make things worse. Mrs. Gamez continued, “We have decided to inform every group at the school so you won’t have to hear about it from others and let rumors spread. Otto’s grandmother came in this morning to tell us.”
“How did it happen?” someone behind me asked.
“Oh my god,” said one of the girls in the first row, covering her ears and tightening her body. For an instant I thought she was having some kind of attack.
Mrs. Gamez ignored the question and the girl. “Starting Monday,” she said, “we will have a psychologist available in the main office for anyone who needs to talk. Classes have been suspended for today so that we can mourn this terrible loss. We’re going to speak with the Municipal Department of Education, and chances are the final exams will be postponed. We’ll keep you apprised of the new dates, and you should have enough time to prepare. We ask that you please respect the privacy of Otto’s family. The funeral will most likely be held in a week, though it’s too soon to tell. At that point all of you will have an opportunity to express your condolences. If anyone needs us, the teachers and I will be in the main office until 4 p.m. Thank you.” She wiped her eyes again, sighed loudly, and walked out.
Mr. Davino took a couple of steps to where she’d stood and said, “Go home, but you’ll be expected here on Monday.”
The class started to leave in stunned silence. Some of the girls were sniffling. The guys were scratching their heads, mouths slightly agape. A few people looked in my direction. I was numb, not knowing what to do. Mr. Davino approached me and asked if I was okay. I said yes. He patted my head and left. Marina and I were the last people in the room. She’d purposely waited for it to be that way. We walked side by side, not saying a word, until we reached the school’s front gate.
There she finally said, “I’m really sorry.”
“Me too,” I said.
As if that were all we could muster, we headed in opposite directions.
At home, my mother wouldn’t leave me alone. She insisted that I tell her everything I could about Otto.
“He liked basketball,” I said without much reflection. “Some of the guys are afraid of him because he’s won the fights he’s been in. He has a cool uncle. He’s smarter than people think. Most of his friends are older and don’t come to my school. He’s quiet in class. He repeated seventh grade.” I refused to admit he’d repeated the grade twice. I refused to speak about him in past tense.
None of this seemed to matter to my mother. “Did you spend time with him after school?”
“Yes, during study groups. Sometimes we did our homework together.”
“Were you really close?”
“No,” I said, “but he was a friend.”
She reflected for a second. “After the funeral, I’m taking you to see Marta. She’s an old acquaintance from the university. A psychiatrist. I want you to meet with her to make sure you’re okay. There’s no debating this.”
I told her it was fine. I knew she wouldn’t ignore the topic otherwise. And maybe speaking with a psychiatrist—someone who could walk me through what was happening to me—wouldn’t be a bad thing. In truth, I had no idea what to feel or how to express it. An unexpected piece of information had been planted in me, and now it had infected my body: my chest, my stomach, my bones. My fingers kept jittering on their own. I found myself at a loss beyond making simple, matter-of-fact statements.
“I told your father,” she added. “He should be here soon. Maybe you’ll feel more comfortable talking to him.”
To my mother’s dismay, my father’s latest girlfriend, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant, had tagged along. She was wearing a necklace with a strange symbol for a pendant. Her jeans were too baggy for her spindly legs. I could smell her talc-scented armpits when she hugged me.
“How are you, Raudel?” my father asked.
“I don’t think I ever told you,” he said, “but a friend of mine committed suicide when I was in military service. It was the first time I lost someone close.”
“Really?” my mother said. “This is how you help?”
“He’s not a kid anymore. He’s got to learn to deal with these kinds of experiences.”
“You friend is not completely gone, you know.” The clairvoyant said this. She was touching her own lips with her fingers. “His soul still lives on. Here, let me show you.” She stood against the white wall of our living room and directed me to concentrate my gaze on the top of her head. “Do you see a glow around my body?”
“Yes,” I said, assuming that it was the reflection from the light seeping through the window.
“That’s called the aura,” she said. “It’s part of your body’s spiritual energy. You could say it’s an extension or manifestation of your soul. Mine’s a bit larger than most because of my gift, but we all have it.”
My mother was glaring at my father.
The clairvoyant carried on: “I could maybe try to communicate with your friend, if your parents think it’d be good for you. We’d just have to do it at my place. The setting has to be right.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” my mother said.
“Well, Raudel should know that although the soul moves on after death, they don’t lose all touch. They can still listen and speak to us. They simply move on form this plane. Our earthly lives are only temporary.”
Apparently so was her stay at our home. My mother demanded, rather unapologetically, that she and my father leave. “You’ve done enough.”
Although grateful for the distraction, I couldn’t help agreeing with her.
Early in the following week, classes went by in a haze. I was deeply familiar with the material, so I wasn’t worried about doing badly on the tests. All everyone did during recess was gossip about Otto’s cause of death. A handful of people came to me. They inquired about him, about his family. They expected me to have details. I told them I didn’t have them.
“We weren’t really friends,” I said.
Supposedly he’d been hit by a car at full speed, which meant he must have thrown himself into oncoming traffic. A rumor had propagated that he’d committed suicide. I didn’t buy it. Otto was a fighter. You could see it the moment you met him. The most popular story claimed that he’d guzzled a full bottle of mint rum on a dare. He’d been so drunk that he hadn’t seen the headlights barreling toward him.
“His head was smashed opened,” some said. “His legs were mangled and trapped beneath the car.”
Marina and I avoided each other. We barely exchanged glances. I was afraid that she might ask me about Otto and I wouldn’t have an answer. I was embarrassed at how little I’d actually learned about him, all things considered.
On Wednesday, Mrs. Gamez visited my group again. She said that Otto’s funeral was scheduled for Friday at 8 a.m. Classes would be allowed to leave at noon so we could attend.
“Show you support,” she said, “and please be respectful.”
When Friday arrived, the initial shock over Otto’s death had faded. In its place had crept a morbid fascination with seeing his body. Some wondered if it’d be deformed or visibly stitched up. A handful of students were happy that they got to go home early. After we were dismissed, I saw Marina speaking with her friends, telling them she was staying behind. Once the room was empty, she asked if I was going to the funeral.
“Of course,” I said.
“Do you mind going with me? I’ve never seen a dead person.”
We exited the school and followed the mass of white and yellow uniforms for five blocks. The funeral home, which I’d occasionally noticed on my way to a local movie theater, had a line of students snaking out of its entrance and stretching down the sidewalk. We took our place at the back, advancing three or four steps at a time. Fifteen minutes later we were at the door. Marina, who’d been quiet, grabbed my hand.
As we entered, the poor lighting inside the building dimmed our vision. We heard a series of sobs and hushed conversations. Small bouquets of flowers had been arranged along the short corridor that led to the viewing room. Inside it, the casket had been propped up on a mantled table to our right. To our left, what must have been members of Otto’s family were sitting on a row of chairs, handkerchiefs covering their noses and mouths. A young man, possibly older than Otto, stood at one end, a blank look on his face.
Marina squeezed my hand as we neared the foot of the casket. The guy in front of us, a ninth grader, examined Otto from head to toe, a gleam of excitement in his eyes. I figured it must have felt like witnessing a welcomed apparition or a weird experiment. Death was as curious a thing as a ghost or an alien.
Marina went first. She lingered for half a minute, staring mostly at Otto’s face. I scanned his body. He was dressed in a suit, looking nothing like himself except for the head, which appeared larger, almost swollen. His skin was very white, as if elegantly coated with chalk. He seemed peaceful, as I’d heard the dead usually looked. I thought of his soul, which my father’s clairvoyant girlfriend claimed we all had within us. I thought about how—if it did exist—it’d already left Otto’s body, how what we were looking at was not a person who could wake at any moment, but a shell with no conscience or emotions. This wasn’t really Otto, just what he’d discarded after his death. I couldn’t see his aura, and I found solace in the fact.
I felt a pull of my arm. It was Marina. She led me out the rear door of the funeral home. She kept pulling until we found ourselves in a narrow, deserted alley. She released my hand, retrieved a folded piece of paper from her breast pocket, and ceremoniously presented to me.
“It’s your letter,” she said.
“No, it’s for you,” I said, feeling offended.
She vacillated before placing it back in her pocket.
“Is it true you called Otto an ‘ugly brute’?” I asked.
“What? No, that was Dalia. I always thought he was kind of handsome. Too rough for my taste, but handsome.”
“What about me?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think about me?”
She didn’t respond immediately, but then she leaned in and kissed me. She didn’t use her tongue, but her lips were enough. They dug deep into my mouth. When she stopped, she said, “We’re not boyfriend and girlfriend. Don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I can’t control if you tell your friends, and I don’t care, but don’t get any ideas.”
She took a peek at my crotch. I followed her eyes to the embarrassing picture before us: my pants had failed to hide a slight erection. She flashed a quick smile before she began walking away. I struggled to hide my humiliation with my hands. I untucked my shirt and let it drape over my fly. I waited for Marina to be out of sight before I started moving in the same direction. I sucked in my lips and tasted strawberry. She must have put on a flavored balm. I tried to gather what’d just happened, what Marina had said. I didn’t want to forget it. Otto was handsome, I thought, in his own way. I felt a rush of tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t figure out exactly what was causing them. I sucked in my lips again, the taste of strawberry slowly vanishing, but it didn’t dishearten me. I’d gotten a kiss. Marina had liked the letter. Otto’s plan had worked.
For the rest of the school year, I did not tell a soul.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.