Your Malicious Moons
You're on your way to meet your half-brother at the Mexican restaurant. You will finally tell Víctor what he's suspected all along. By default it's the right time since Sunday your picture will be plastered on the newspaper's human interest feature profiling the gay experience in the Caliente Valley. At tonight's event you're positive someone from the press will mention it, and even though you'd get a good kick out of shocking Víctor, you don't want to let the cameras catch him by surprise. That would be too cruel, even for you.
You know your revelation will piss off your half-brother. But he can't afford to tear you out of his life either. He agreed to meet you because he wants to hit you up for a loan. He's gathering funds for the campaign he's going to launch after he makes his big announcement tonight. You're both comfortable with this game of strained compromise. Once, while you were visiting from college, you fought over the use of your mother's car. Víctor won because your mother voted in his favor, so he drove you to a friend's house to cool off for the night, only to come knocking the following morning to offer you the car. You walked out of Steve's, making up a story to explain the hickeys on your neck, which Víctor didn't question. You know he didn't quite believe you but he had no choice -- he needed money. On the way to the bank he even advised you on how to cover up the blemishes. "Rub the back of a spoon against them," he said with a nervous chuckle. You handed him the cash; he handed you the keys. Today's exchange will be no different: he needs you and your favor will cost him.
You're twenty minutes early to the Mexican restaurant, so you wait in the parking lot of Las Cazuelas. You straighten the collar on your black suit; the cempasúchil in the lapel has spread its heavy fragrance in the car. Your nose twitches so you pinch it in front of the rear view mirror. When you're stressed you feel like a Dalmatian. You pull back the birthmarks on your skin as if smoothing them out will make the flesh swallow them into your face. You got the birthmarks from your mother's side of the family: all your tíos have brown and black moles on their cheeks, chins, and foreheads. Tío Eddie has a big one the size of a fly on his nose. Your mother's were beauty marks. She called them lunas because they were feminine and pleasant as the moon. Before you got too big, before Víctor, she used to let you play connect-the-dots on her, drawing invisible figures that found their way to your skin when you compared birthmark patterns. You still carry them. That and the memory of the playful fingertips that made your mother coo each time they pressed down on her flesh.
The cempasúchil was your mother's favorite flower -- the flower of the dead. And now she's dead, which makes it all the more appropriate to wear one to Teresa Talamontes Remembered. In a few short hours begins the function commemorating the fourth anniversary of your mother's death. Víctor and his wife Pamela Jean, former Homecoming queen, organize celebrations for the deceased: Día de los Muertos, César Chávez Day, and Teresa Talamontes Remembered. All three events take place in the Woodrow Wilson High School auditorium, where you lost your virginity to the chorus teacher. The auditorium can be decked with skulls, red United Farm Worker Union flags, or enlarged portraits of your dead mother who's a former mayor of the town, and all you can think about during the speeches and school band recitals is Ms. Symington going down on you as you perch on the piano bench. Since that day you have discovered that you like men, but thinking about Ms. Symington still gives you a hard on. So do piano benches.
Your eyes jump as Las Cazuelas' entrance lights come on in the twilight. A wagon wheel and a piñata swing from the building's eaves. You start the ignition. One time around the block, you promise yourself, and then you go in. You're anxious, not about Víctor, but about your mother -- dead four years and you still carry her coffin. Each time Teresa Talamontes Remembered comes around you feel like the rebellious boy she criticized for being self-absorbed. You admit now she was right. You are selfish and self-centered. You only think about yourself. You refuse to change because you want to spite her, and even with this firm conviction you can't help but wonder if it's still her power and not yours.
You make a U-turn at the traffic light and drive up to the Texaco to buy bottled water and a pack of cigarettes. The town's gas station attendants have always been high school kids with cheap shoes and tight Dickeys. You were one of them once, minus the cheap shoes because your mother was dating the manager of a Reebok outlet store at the time. White, balding, and with an irritating lisp, he was the one, your mother kept proclaiming until she found out he was gay. You could have told her that.
Inside the convenience store you feel out of place wearing a tailored J.C. Penney's suit. You opt for the generic brand of water. You buy Benson & Hedges, menthols. You ask for matches though you carry a gold-plaited monogrammed lighter in your coat. How to explain to the guy in the tacky red company shirt that the suit is borrowed and that the lighter is pilfered from the Lost and Found drawer of the hotel where you're the morning concierge.
"Hey, man, spare a smoke?" A doped-out cha-cha with a bad perm taps your arm. She's holding the pay phone receiver with the other hand.
After tapping the box five times against your palm, you open the pack and pluck a cigarette out. You give it to her, trying to show no interest in her cocky gestures.
"Can I pay you for a ride, man?" she asks.
"I didn't drive here, honey," you tell her as you walk away and snap your fingers, "I flew in on a one-passenger broom."
"Hey, fuck you, asshole," she spits out; then adds, "Fucking faggot!"
You back out between the service islands, cigarette in your left hand to expel the smoke through the window, then merge into the boulevard traffic. This was one of former Mayor Talamontes' strokes of genius: rerouting the boulevard to benefit the business district. Now there's more noise, more pollution, and a string of potholes that, once covered up, reappear overnight. To her credit, the influx of outsiders warranted the construction of a fancier hotel, which supplied you with a job after you dropped out of college. You're due for a promotion soon: evening concierge.
You could live on what your mother left you in her will, but she didn't want you to have it easy, so you get your yearly modest allowance only if you're steadily employed in her town -- an odd provision, but she wanted to force you into an unrewarding life in the place you always said you hated. That's how she's getting back at you. That's how she wants to hurt you for not being Víctor since, unlike your gullible half-brother, your mother figured out long ago you are just like the shoe store boyfriend. The hickeys on your neck -- man bites through and through. She always knew. She was Teresa Talamontes, mother, mayor, sage. You've been hoarding your inheritance, living frugally until you have enough to flee and forfeit the allowance, which will automatically be given to your half-brother, who waits patiently for you to give up on the Caliente Valley and leave. In another time, you might have called this battle a "stare down." Your brother wouldn't because he always loses a duel. He's going to lose this one as well. You will lend him the money, but only if he gives you a job once he makes mayor. You can already see your future: a bogus office for a dummy adviser who spends most of the term sipping margaritas in Acapulco. Technically, you'll remain employed in your mother's town. You grin at your own cleverness. Just as quickly you lament that you're not as good a driver as you are a scheming bitch.
You've never mastered two driving maneuvers: parallel parking and cutting off other drivers. Instead of interrupting the steady flow in the next lane to make a left into Las Cazuelas, you decide to keep going, make a right at the next light, turn the car around, and then take the left turn arrow back down the boulevard. You don't count on the pedestrians at the intersection, especially not the old lady in a pink sweat suit that makes her look like a giant bottle of Pepto Bismol. You put your cigarette out in the panel ashtray. Pepto Bismol is going to take her time across even though you give her an anxious stare through the windshield. The light changes to red but you manage to make your turn so you lift the curse you've placed on Pepto Bismol: that she will trip at the next curb and break her dentures.
The detour runs smoothly, but just before you reach the parking lot entrance a van with engine trouble two cars down halts your lane to a stop. You take this as a sign. You can't spot your brother's car from where you're sitting and the lights to the restaurant entrance look brighter. You're now ten minutes late.
The male passenger in the car to your left takes a good long look at you before the car speeds up and leaves you comparing him to Guillermo, a former lover: similar stubby nose, similar cleft on the chin. Maybe they're related. They had to be: Guillermo came in and out of your life just as quickly, carried off by another pretty face. Currently boyfriendless, you spend too much time fending off the drunken patrons at the hotel, male and female. At first you found it flattering, but with time you realized they found you convenient. Only once did you consider accepting an offer, but the handsome man had squeezed in the come-on between a request for a wake-up call and a query on late-night food service hours, so in the end you politely declined.
In the station wagon in front of you, a young boy rides in the back seat. He picks his nose staring at you. Behind him, another child throws an object at his head; the boy, undaunted, simply moves to the side and continues to pick his nose.
That's nothing like the times you struck your brother from behind, when he thought he was safe -- pardoned from your longing to attack. Patience is your revenge tactic. You're the seasoned predator, stalking your prey until the timing's right for the kill. You waited an entire week before you reminded Víctor of the damage to your Spirograph: he had launched the plastic drawing wheels out the window and they flew into the road, in the path of old trucks and Memo's ice cream wagon. Seven days later Víctor was snacking with the refrigerator door open. His neck smooth and brown -- exposed. You swung your fist so hard he crashed into the metal compartment dividers, knocking down the lettuce, the ripe tomatoes, and those rum cherry chocolates your mother served up at her council meetings. Supine on the linoleum, Víctor turned blue, his mouth covered in melted chocolate. You knelt down and stuck your fingers down his mouth but you couldn't get at the slippery lump. You envisioned his burial, the house in mourning, and then the clouds opening for the world that was now yours alone. But there was no death, no grief and no new sky because Víctor dug the piece of chocolate out of his throat himself. Víctor would do that -- be his own hero just to piss you off.
Víctor should have never lived in the first place. You knew the story of the premature birth, the lengthy postpartum hospitalization, and the subsequent revelation that his father was that celebrated plastic surgeon to the aging movie stars. Víctor doesn't like to mention his father, but neither will he refuse the money that comes his way once in a blue moon. Your father, on the other hand, was the guy who played Joseph at the Pastorela, the year your mother played Mary. You were conceived during an uncontrollable urge behind the manger, consummated with your parents still in costume. Your mother told the story without a hint of nostalgia the day you turned fifteen and finally confronted her about your father, whom you've never met. "Ours was just a fuck," she declared. Always aiming between the eyes, she explained that the quickie with the father of Christ is also why she named you Jesse.
Víctor will say that your coming out is all part of some plot to dampen his small-fry political career. He's right of course, but nothing can stop him from getting elected mayor. At twenty-five he's the youngest executive board member on both the Town Council and Latinos Unidos. The town cherishes the Talamontes name. When Teresa Talamontes died of an aneurysm while in office she became an instant saint. For the next four years, the town council groomed Víctor, the former high school football star and present high school football coach. The town wants a Talamontes in office again. These are the days of family values, ethnic pride, bilingualism, and public service. You were never considered a worthy candidate. You left home and majored in philosophy and minored in French. After five years you dropped out, far from achieving the necessary credits toward a degree. You like Machiavelli. You dislike Socrates. You can understand Baudelaire titles but not poems. You can French kiss and ménage a trois. You can hear your mother's voice declare: "And so what? How is any of that going to change the lives of the people in this community?" You promised your mother you would return home and do something useful for a change, but you stayed away until her death and that will with its hard-edged condition -- her final kick in the groin because she wanted you to admit defeat, to concede that she was always right and that you should have done something more noble like become a politician and married your high school sweetheart. Yours was really Jimmy Peña and not the girl you took to the prom, so your mother's plan wouldn't have worked out either. In the meantime Víctor has been taking care of himself. He's a winner, and the son of a prominent citizen in the neighboring town who watches over him from a distance. Your father was a bit player in a mystery play. You don't even know his real name.
The van with engine trouble is pushed aside to the curb and the two cars in front of you switch lanes so you quickly move forward and into the parking lot. When you finally enter the restaurant you rush up to a podium decked in green, white and red. Nearly out of breath, you tell the hostess, an awkward white girl in a señorita outfit, "I'm late for a reservation, but my date might still be here. Talamontes?"
You crane your neck to look around the crowded room while the young woman checks her reservation book.
"He was here," she tells you, "but he said he was stood up. I'm so sorry."
Your look of anguish is hard to disguise. She quickly adds, "But I assure you your date didn't look that upset. Don't worry, everything will turn out fine."
You stare into her eyes. They're hazel. She smiles. She's young and pretty, probably funding her tuition at the junior college. You decide not to tell her that Víctor is your brother and not really your date. You will let her keep the satisfaction of having offered a total stranger, a gay man, compassion and understanding.
To thank her you remove the cempasúchil from your lapel and hand it to her. She blushes as she takes it. Her smile widens. You want to kiss it. You want to show up to Teresa Talamontes Remembered, unconditionally, with your birthmarks alive with the patterns of happier times.
When you finally arrive at the Wilson High auditorium, your mother's blown-up portraits stir the bile in your stomach. You look like her; you're as beautiful as she, but no matter how you move across the room you know she's watching over Víctor, the champion and true successor of her energy and drive. Her darker side is all yours. The misery of her loneliness, of crappy romances and loser boyfriends, also belongs to you. You stand at the cold wings ready to push out your face into the light for Víctor to see you. You want to show Víctor your malicious moons, no different from your mother's, but hers have been enlarged to look like bullet holes. Víctor's wife comes up behind you and places her hand on your shoulder. Pamela Jean's touch is heavy with pride. The glaring lights blind you as your half-brother takes center stage to test the sound system. You can't help but feel the bottom of your bitter heart grow suddenly warm. Maybe it's Pamela Jean's breath thawing the left side of your face, but in that moment you make up your mind to disappear after all, to spin your moons out of their axes and shift your life into a new direction. The tension between you and your dead mother is not really Víctor's fault. Víctor is your little brother, caught in the merciless crossfire. And soon your little brother will be mayor, all adult and professional. You think maybe it's time you grew up as well. More importantly, you think it's time to bury the dead, to leave, to live and let live. But then Víctor turns his head. He winks at Pamela Jean and then scowls accusingly at you, narrowing his eyes in that all too familiar way that means: "Wait, just wait, I'm going to get you back, you loser." And suddenly the order of things becomes clear again. You look down at your watch. Your mother has been dead four years and five days -- your prison term and counting. Critical decisions are still being made: pardons denied and sentences extended. Víctor begins to mumble a few words of his speech at the podium and you begin to rehearse yours. In just a few hours both of your lives will continue to be screwed.
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