Authors: Luis Alberto Urrea
We tried to watch a movie, but our hands crept toward each other. Which led to kissing. And once we kissed, we no longer cared what was on the TV. I freed her nipple from the laceâit was pink and swollen, like a little candy. I thought it would be brown. What did I know about Mexican girls? She pushed me away when I got on top of her, and she moved my hand away gently when it slipped up her thigh.
Pope came home walking sideways. I had no idea what time it was. I don't know how he got home. My pants were wet all down my left leg from hours of writhing with her. I knew I should be embarrassed but I didn't care. When Pope slurred, “My dad's in town,” I didn't even pay attention. He went to Cuca's piano in the living room and tried to play some of “Tommy.” Then there was a silence that grew long. We looked in there and he was asleep on the floor, under the piano.
“Shh,” Amapola said. And “Wait here for me.” She kissed my mouth, bit my lip.
When she came back down, she wore a nightgown that drifted around her legs and belly like fog. I knelt at her feet and ran my hands up her legs. She turned aside just as my hands crossed the midpoint of her thighs, and my palms slid up over her hip bones. She had taken off her panties. I put my mouth to her navel. I could smell her through the thin material.
“Do you love me?” she whispered, fingers tangled in my hair.
“Anything. You and me.” I wasn't even thinking. “Us.”
She yanked my hair.
“Do,” she said. “You. Love me?”
Yank. It hurt.
“Yes!” I said. “Okay! Jesus! I love you!”
We went upstairs.
*Â Â *Â Â *
“Get up! Get up! Get the fuck up!” Popo was saying, ripping off the sheets. “Now! Now! Now!”
Amapola covered herself and rolled away with a small cry. Light was blasting through the windows. I thought he was going to beat my ass for sleeping with her. But he was in a panic.
“Get dressed. Dudeâget dressed now!”
He put his fists to his head.
“Oh shit. My dad!”
She started to cry.
I was in my white boxers in the middle of the room.
“Guys,” I said. “Guys! Is there some trouble here?”
Amapola dragged the sheet off the bed and ran, wrapped, into the bathroom.
“You got no idea,” Pope said. “Get dressed.”
We were in the car in ten minutes. We sped out of the foothills and across town. Phoenix always looks empty to me when it's hot, like one of those sci-fi movies where all the people are dead and gone and some vampires or zombies are hiding in the vacant condos, waiting for night. The streets are too wide, and they reflect the heat like a Teflon cooking pan. Pigeons might explode into flame just flying across the street to escape the melting city bus. Pope was saying, “Just don't say nothing. Just show respect. It'll be okay. Right, sis?”
She was in the backseat.
“Don't talk back,” she said. “Just listen. You can take it.”
“Yeah,” Pope said. “You can take it. You better take it. That's the only way he'll respect you.”
My head was spinning.
Apparently, the old man had come to town to see Pope and meet me, but Pope, that asshole, had been so wasted he forgot. But it was worse than that. The old man had waited at a fancy restaurant. For both of us. You didn't keep Big Pop waiting.
You see, he had found my letters. He had rushed north to try to avert the inevitable. And now he was seething, they said, because Pope's maricÃ³n best friend wasn't queer at all, and was working his mojo on the sweet pea. My scalp still hurt from her savage hair-pulling. I looked back at her. Man, she was as fresh as a sea breeze. I started to smile.
“Ain't no joke,” Pope announced.
*Â Â *Â Â *
“Look,” he said. “It won't seem like it at first, but Pops will do anything for my sister. Anything. She controls him, man. So keep cool.”
When we got there, Pope said, “The bistro.” I had never seen it before, not really traveling in the circles that liked French food or ate at “bistros.” Pops was standing outside. He was a slender man, balding. Clean-shaven. Only about five-seven. He wore aviator glasses, that kind that turn dark in the sun. They were deep gray over his eyes. He was standing with a Mexican in a soldier's uniform. The Mexican was over six feet tall and had a good gut on him.
The old man and the soldier stared at me. I wanted to laugh. That's it? I mean, really? A little skinny bald guy? I was invincible with love.
Poppa turned and entered the bistro without a word. Pope and Amapola followed, holding hands. The stout soldier dude just eyeballed me and walked in. I was left alone on the sidewalk. I followed.
They were already sitting. It was ice-cold. I tried not to stare at Amapola's nipples. But I noticed her pops looking at them. And then the soldier. Pops told her, “TÃ¡pate, cabrona.” She had brought a little sweater with her, and now I knew why. She primly draped herself.
“Dadâ¦,” said Pope.
“Shut it,” his father said.
The eyeglasses had become only half-dark. You could almost see his eyes.
A waiter delivered a clear drink.
“Martini, sir,” he said.
It was only about eleven in the morning.
Big Poppa said, “I came to town last night to see you.” He sipped his drink. “I come here, to this restaurant. Is my favorite. Is comida francÃ©s, understand? Quality.” Another sip. He looked at the soldierâthe soldier nodded. “I invite you.” He pointed at Pope. Then at her. Then at me. “You, you, and you. Right here.” He drained the martini and snapped his fingers at the waiter. “An' I sit here an' wait.” The waiter hurried over and took the glass and scurried away.
“Me an' my brother, Arnulfo.”
He put his hand on the soldier's arm.
“We wait for you.”
Popo said, “Dadâ¦”
“CÃ¡llate el osico, chingado,” his father growled from deep in his chest so only I could hear him. He turned his head to me and smiled. He looked like a moray eel in a tank. Another martini landed before him.
He sipped. “I wait for you, but you don't care. No! Don't say nothing. Listen. I wait, and you no show up here to my fancy dinner. Is okay. I don't care.” He waved his hand. “I have my li'l drink, and I don't care.” He toasted me. He seemed like he was coiled, steel springs inside his gut. My skin was crawling and I didn't even know why.
“I wait for you,” he said. “Captain Arnulfo, he wait. You don't care, right? Is okay! I'm happy. I got my martinis, I don't give a shit.”
He smiled, and I was pretty certain he did give a shit.
He pulled a long cigar out of his inner pocket. He bit the end off and spit it on the table. He put it in his mouth. Arnulfo took out a gold lighter and struck a blue flame.
The waiter rushed over and murmured, “I'm sorry, sir, but this is a nonsmoking restaurant. You'll have to take it outside.”
The old man didn't even look at himâjust stared at me through those gray lenses.
“Is hot outside,” he said. “Right, gringo? Too hot?” I noddedâI didn't know what to say.
“I must insist,” the waiter said.
“Bring the chef,” the old man said.
“Get the chef out here. Now.”
The waiter brought out the chef, who bent down to the old man. Whispers. No drama. But the two men hurried away and the waiter came back with an ashtray. Arnulfo lit Poppa's cigar.
He blew smoke at me and said, “Why you do this violence to me?”
“Iâ” I said.
He snapped his fingers again, and food and more martinis arrived. I stared at my plate. Snails in garlic butter. I couldn't eat, couldn't even sip the water. Smoke drifted to me. I could feel the gray lenses focused on me. Pope, that chickenshit, just ate and never looked up. Amapola sipped iced coffee and stared out the window.
After forty minutes of this nightmare, Poppa pushed his plate away.
“Oye,” he said, “tÃº.”
I looked up.
“Why you wan' fock my baby daughter?”
*Â Â *Â Â *
Sure, I trembled for a while after that. I got it, I really did. But did good sense overtake me? What do you think? I was full-on into the Romeo and Juliet thing, and she was even worse. Parentsâyou want to ensure your daughters marry young? Forbid them from seeing their boyfriends. Just try it.
“Uncle Arnie,” as big, dark Captain Arnulfo was called in Cuca's house, started hanging around. A lot. I wasn't, like, stupid. I could tell what was whatâhe was sussing me out. He sidled up to me and said dumb things like “You like the sexy?” Pope and I laughed all night after Uncle Arnie made his appearances. “You make the sexy-sexy in cars?” What a dork, we thought.
My beloved showered me with letters. I had no way of knowing if my own letters got to her or not, but she soon found an Internet cafÃ© in Nogales and sent me cyber-love. Popo was drying up a little, not quite what you'd call sober, but occasionally actually on the earth, and he started calling me “McLovin'.” I think it was his way of trying to tone it down. “Bring it down a notch, homeboy,” he'd say when I waxed overly poetic about his sister.
One Saturday I was chatting online with Amapola. That's all I did on Saturday afternoons. No TV, no cruising in the car, no movies or pool time. I fixed a huge vat of sun tea and hit my laptop and talked to her. Mom was at workâshe was always at work or out doing lame shit like bowling. It was just me, the computer, my distant girlie, and the cat rubbing against my leg. I'll confess to youâdon't laughâI cried at night thinking about her.
Pope said I was whipped. I'd be like, that's no way to talk about your sister. She's better than all of you people! He'd just look at me out of those squinty Apache eyes. “Maybe,” he'd drawl. “Maybeâ¦” And I was just thinking about all that on Saturday, going crazier and crazier with the desire to see her sweet face every morning, her hair on my skin every night, mad in love with her, and I was IM-ing her that she should just book. Run away. She was almost seventeen already. She could catch a bus and be in Phoenix in a few hours and we'd jump on I-10 and drive to Cali. I didn't know what I imaginedâjust us, in love, on a beach. And suddenly, the laptop crashed. Just goneâa black screen before Amapola could answer me. I booted back up, not thinking much about it, but she was gone. Completely. I couldn't even find her account in my history. That was weird, I thought. I figured it for some sort of computer glitch, cursed and kicked stuff, then I grabbed a shower and rolled.
When I cruised over to Aunt Cuca's, everyone was gone. Only Uncle Arnie was left, sitting in the living room in his uniform, sipping coffee.
“They all go on vacation,” he said. “Just you and me.”
Vacation? Pope hadn't said anything about vacations. Not that he was what my English profs would call a reliable narrator.
Arnie gestured for me to sit. I stood there.
“Coffee?” he offered.
I never really knew what the F Arnie was mumbling, to tell you the truth. His accent was all bandido. I often just nodded and smiled, hoping not to offend the dude, lest he freak out and bust caps in me.
“You love Amapola,” he said. It wasn't a question. He smiled sadly, put his hand on my knee.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He nodded. Sighed.
“Love,” he said. “Is good, love.”
“You not going away, right?”
I shook my head.
“So. What this means? You marry the girl?”
Whoa. Marry? Iâ¦guessâ¦I was going to marry her. Someday.
Sure, you think about it. But to say it out loud. That was hard. But I felt like some kind of breakthrough was happening here. The older generation had sent an emissary; perhaps they were warming up to me.
“I believe,” I said, mustering some balls, “yes. I will marry Amapola. Someday. You know.”
He shrugged, sadly. I thought that was a little odd, frankly. He held up a finger and busted out a cell phone, hit the speed button, and muttered in Spanish. Snapped it shut. Sipped his coffee.
“We have big family reunion tomorrow. You come. Okay? I'll fix up all with Amapola's papÃ¡. You see. Yes?”
I smiled at him, not believing this turn of events.
“Big Mexican rancho. Horses. Good food. Mariachis.” He laughed. “And love! Two kids in love!”
We slapped hands. We smiled and chuckled. I had some coffee.
“I pick you up here at seven in the morning,” he said. “Don't be late.”
*Â Â *Â Â *
The morning desert was purple and orange. The air was almost cool. Arnie had a Styrofoam cooler loaded with Dr. Peppers and Cokes. He drove a bitchin' S-Class Benz. It smelled like leather and aftershave. He kept the satellite tuned to BBC Radio 1. “You like the crazy maricÃ³n music, right?” he asked.
It was more like flying than driving, and when he sped past Arivaca, I wasn't all that concerned. I figured we were going to Nogales, Arizona. But we slid through that little dry town like a shark and crossed into Mex without hardly slowing down. At the border, he just raised a finger off the steering wheel and motored along, saying, “You going to like this.”
And then we were through Nogales, Mexico, too. Black and tan desert. Saguaros and freaky burned-looking cactuses. I'm not an ecologistâI don't know what that stuff was. It was spiky.
We took a long dirt side road. I was craning around, looking at the bad black mountains around us.
We came out in a big valley. There was an airfield of some sort there. Mexican army stuffâtrucks, Humvees. Three of four hangars or warehouses. Some shiny Cadillacs and SUVs scattered around.