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Ball Game (a novel excerpt)

By
November 15, 2007

Chapter 1

Cuauhtemoc felt exiled in a world without his friend.

Without Xavier, Cuauhtemoc belonged nowhere, was alone everywhere. Silently, they had agreed to be each other’s chosen family: the closest bond, closer than blood, an unspoken covenant. Does such a thing survive beyond one’s death? Does friendship extend to the grass growing on someone’s grave, to the flowers and the air that surround it? Cuauhtemoc didn’t know, and Xavi—the only person he would’ve asked—could no longer answer.

And yet, he should have been thankful that Xavi died when their friendship was still intact, still unconditionally generous, as strong as their youthful athletes’ muscles, as stubbornly perfect. Neither of them had ever required proof or sacrifice of any sort from one another. The two friends radiated their bond like an aroma, and everyone could sense it.

Xavi had lived to share defining adventures with Cuauhtemoc—the dawn of their adult life. He didn’t live to see them fight over a woman, over the differences in their background: the things that make even the truest of friends drift ever so slightly apart, like a hairline crack in china darkening over the years.

Still, Cuauhtemoc somehow felt that if Xavi had betrayed him by dying, he had betrayed Xavi more deeply by surviving.

On the way to Xavi’s funeral, he dropped these thoughts as he dropped a few coins into the wrinkled hat of the habitual beggar sitting at the top of nearly all steps leading down to the Mexico City metro. In the metro, he saw mirror images of himself. Perhaps that is why he found it comforting, why he felt he was less alone, why he found that there, he missed Xavi a little less.

As soon as he went down the steps, his spirits soared in the underground communion. There were many other young people walking around the metro stop, especially at this time, especially on the green line that goes to the University. Many of them, like him, wore jeans and well-worn t-shirts, sneakers that looked like they had been custom made for their feet. They adorned their ears with one or two earrings, some like pirates, on both sides, others on one ear only. Some draped leather chords with all kinds of stones, amulets and signs around their necks—depending on their fashion sense, some wore the anarchist A, others the Ying Yang, others yet the peace sign, or a fluorescent plastic or blown-glass pacifier; those who could afford a stone wore many-colored pukka beads, or a carved amber or turquoise, even, as if to recall the Aztec warriors who had once, not so long ago, it would seem, roamed the streets of the city. They, like him, carried themselves with a mellow swagger, and they carried satchels, backpacks, long-strapped book-bags with books peeping out: books as varied as the youths’ faces and sense of style, titles as different and somewhat complementary as The Communist Manifesto, Les Fleurs du Mal, The Aleph and anything by Mario Benedetti, Osho, or Philip K. Dick. Some, but not all, were students; others, like him, were done studying for any number of reasons—family obligations, money, graduation, laziness, apathy, activism, success, drugs, raving, failure, in short: life.

Perhaps he wasn’t alone in finding the metro a space of welcoming chaos, a space to find himself in other people’s anonymous faces and remote features; perhaps many of them walked down the steps and paid the meager fee just to walk and walk and see. But perhaps also, he, unlike most them, was one of the few who could have asked for a ride from his mother anywhere and gotten it; one of the few there who could have asked his mother for a new car, even, but who chose not to. For him, it wasn’t a sacrifice to the much-bloodied altar of virtue and poverty as much as it was a convenience not to have to deal with the upkeep and responsibility a car implied. He preferred the noise and smells of other people than that of a stereo piping out through small speakers in front of his nose and the stench of stale cigarettes in the ashtray—which would have been, invariably, the smell and sounds of his car. He preferred not to have to think about the trying to get around potholes and buses and taxis speeding by in a frenzy or crawling past angrily, and he rather imagined himself, transported in the warm belly of this giant underground snake, as a sort of contemporary Jonah. It was as if, inside this moving beast’s belly, he were be transported to a feeling of somehow having atoned for whatever trespass he had committed against his friend—a betrayal he couldn’t help but feel, even though he could not name it as such. This walk, a silent and self-imposed apology, was a release.

Before entering the funeral parlor, Cuauhtemoc tried smelling himself. He wanted to find the bittersweet smell of Jai Alai even now, even here. The smell of Jai Alai was the most familiar smell. Its familiarity was what made it sweet—not sweet like candy but sweet like the memories of long forgotten childhood dishes. It was the scent of rank youth, of sport. The scent of sweat mixed with blood: a truthful, if painful scent.

It was also biting, sharp, and slightly bitter: the smell of pelotas, rubber—the tennis soles melting on the court floor—and damp socks and wet shorts and armpits and young muscles exhaling life, leaving traces of themselves in the air.

This was his scent, the scent he shared with Xavi most intimately, most particularly. If he had to describe it, he would have said it was part butter cookie melting on the pan, part garlic, part saltwater and mint—it was singular, almost indescribable. A similar odor extended to his other teammates, but it was different in each of them; instead of mint some smelled more like thyme, others like cilantro; instead of butter cookie some smelled more like toast, others like nuts—all together it was the scent of the ball game bleeding into the universe.

The smell was bittersweet: deeply human and yet clean, like the smell of wet earth and grass and manure after a storm, which you can still notice in the middle of the city.

But for an interminable moment as he entered the funeral parlor, this new smell managed to erase all that. He walked alone, and in front of Xavi’s encased corpse, Cuauhtemoc was surrounded by the heady scent of the spikenard and white tuberose. He thought he would vomit. The flowers surrounded the closed shiny white casket like sprays of white froth spitting their scent out at him. He could smell nothing beyond their sweetness, nothing of his friend, his brother. He leaned into the casket. In a corner, he could barely see his own mother. She had already arrived and was busy tending to Xavi’s mother, who could barely stand up. The stench was intoxicating, and he felt he would overdose: he started to rip the flowers out of the vases and throw them into a corner trying to liberate Xavi’s smell, to burst their saccharine hum, to bring him back, if only for the space of an inhalation.

The need to smell him was so painful, he strained his eyes and started to cry, as if through the tears, he could have smelled his friend better: through odor, the skin pours out the body’s pungent essence, people are distilled in scent, and Cuauhtemoc seemed to understand this now.

Mourners had started to notice him now, and his mother walked towards him, ready to pull him away from the casket and hug him tight. Everyone in the room thought they understood the youth’s tears, mourning his dead friend. But Cuauhtemoc wasn’t crying because he was sad—he needed no tears to fill the emptiness of Xavi’s absence—he was crying because he was desperate to smell his friend one more time.

His mother helped him into her car and drove him home in the afternoon rain and traffic. He offered no resistance and instead tried breathing the pervasive hum of funeral flowers out of his nostrils. He remembered the last time he’d smelled something similar: the day of his father’s funeral. As his forehead bumped against the car window and the raindrops tapped against it on the other side, he tried thinking of his father: he could barely remember his father’s face let alone his smell; still, he looked at his mother driving and remembered.

* * *

After Xavi’s funeral, Cuauhtemoc locked himself up in his bedroom. His clothes somehow were now permeated with the smell of tuberose. As he transported the smell of the funerary parlor back into his room, he felt the violation of death in his life once again. He stripped himself so quickly he was almost ripping the buttons off his dress shirt. He opened the window that gave onto the street and threw his clothes out, watching them waft down into an odorous pile of socks, underwear, pants, shirt, and a fancy dark tie. The absurd pile looked like someone had vanished into thin air right there on the street, leaving only his clothes as clues that he was ever there. It reminded him of a film he’d watched about the bombing of Hiroshima, wherein slight shadows or a pair of bent spectacles were all that was left of people. He wished that pile of his clothes could be all he left before he disappeared and thought that this is all death is: a cruel magic trick played on the living: now you see him, now you don’t—a vanishing. He closed the window again and shivered slightly.

Now he was completely naked. Accustomed to his naked body, he felt a small pride in it, knowing that his muscles looked good and that his body, skinny and tight, was like a perfect machine. He thought of Xavi’s naked body, now only remembering it by a careful comparison to his own: his own arms were skinny and taut while Xavi’s muscles and especially the tendons protruded like vines wrapping themselves around a limber branch—Xavi’s arms were thicker and more polished, smoother somehow. Xavi had a large, black, perfectly round mole on his left bicep; Cuauhtemoc had an oval dark brown one on his left wrist just above the bone. They were both about the same height and had jet black, unruly hair. Xavi’s eyes were coconut brown and his more like hazelnut, a little greener. Xavi had a small and round nose that made him look a little Asiatic; Cuauhtemoc’s nose was large and long and made him look more Middle-Eastern, even though they were both Mexican. As he remembered his friend’s lips against his, he wept.

In elevators when asked by strangers whether they were related, they would often lie and say they were cousins; other times they would take it one step further and say they were brothers; and finally the ultimate lie—Xavi said it one day to shock a grey, old woman who carried her groceries in a wheelie cart—that they were lovers. He had then thrown his arm around Cuauhtemoc’s neck and pressed his forehead next to his cheek. Cuauhtemoc blushed and couldn’t look the lady in the eye, but he half-smiled. When the lady huffed her way out of the elevator, they both laughed together, breaking the thin weave of lie that had woven itself around them.

It seemed to Cuauhtemoc that these things only happened in elevators. Now he would feel more alone than anyone who rode them.

He remembered the first real kiss: that night they stumbled out of the elevator and into the party on the umpteenth floor of the too well lit apartment building.

The party was boisterous, like many of these sporting celebrities’ to-dos. There was too much gold: in the glasses, on people’s heaving chests, the toilet fixtures. They had drunk too much of it. Cuauhtemoc was dazzled, smoked hugely, and his eyes needed to step back into the night and relax.

Xavi had been talking to a group of women, amongst them Claudia, the hostess, who kept pinching his left cheek and pursing her lips.

Cuauhtemoc was questioned by two men with too much hair on their chests and big gold crosses on the pussy that came with the cesta. Their shirts had ponies and alligators on the breast and Cuauhtemoc thought about how silly that was, like something out of his childhood nursery.

—The game, man, the game! They kept patting him on the back as if he were their accomplice or their buffoon.

He laughed and lit yet another cigarette. The skinniest man retied the knot of his sweater around his neck more tightly and offered him another drink. They were talking gambling now. All the players were strictly forbidden to engage in these conversations, but Cuauhtemoc didn’t know what to do with himself. The air seemed full of powdered gold.

Instead of talking too much, he just kept himself on a steady diet of champagne and smoke. A silver tray, like the heavy one at his grandmother’s house, was being passed around by a waiter who looked neither awake nor asleep. The tray held tiny golden spoons, similar to the ones he had used for the caviar earlier but smaller even, and a little mountain of perfect white dust gathered in the middle.

Again, Cuauhtemoc didn’t quite know what to do. It wouldn’t be polite to refuse, would it? He looked across the room to his friend. Xavi noticed him and the tray, took their hostess’s arm in his and came to see how Cuauhtemoc was doing.

—Try it, she said. It’s lovely. You look too drunk, it’ll sober you up, sweetie.

The maternal and authoritative tone convinced him. He was too drunk. Before he could even think again, Xavi had already taken a spoon and tried it.

—Fuck it!

Neither of them really thought of the anti-doping tests, the championships were too far away and their coach wouldn’t test them unless they were routinely late to practice, which they weren’t.

Claudia had taken a tiny bit of the cocaine with her pinky and rubbed slowly over her white teeth.

Cuauhtemoc just took a heaping spoonful and inhaled hard. She dusted his nostrils with a perfect finger, and he blushed.

—You don’t want to look like a little parrot now do you? She laughed and took Xavi by the arm back to their conversation. Xavi turned back to look at him and shrugged his arms, smiling. With this woman near him, Xavi looked not only handsome, but also distinguished. He was a man whom women marked.

Cuauhtemoc gave him the thumbs up and went to the bathroom to sit before he was surrounded by the host and his friends again.

He felt a little trickle in the back of his throat that made him swallow repeatedly. Then, he rubbed his eyes and went back out into the gold-dusted light.

The party ended later than late, and the friends went laughing noisily through the empty streets and down to Reforma to catch a cab. As always, the allusion to a shared adventure delighted them.

—Man, Claudia’s hot, he slapped Xavi in the back.

—Yeah, she likes me. Xavi beamed.

Beautifully drunk they were! They congratulated themselves while they waited for a cab.

—You think she’d lend us her chauffeur! They paced impatiently up and down the empty sidewalk.

On the car ride back to Cuauhtemoc’s house, Xavi kept hitting Cuauhtemoc in the arm, again and again, and they laughed.

—You’re too old for this The cabbie kept staring back at them through the rearview mirror shaking his head.

No one knew if he was addressing the pair, or rather, himself.

As they twisted down the streets of the fancy Lomas suburb, their bodies clanked against each other more than once, then, after a particularly gruesome turn, Xavi pushed himself against Cuauhtemoc’s face and kissed him on the mouth.

It wasn’t a tender kiss; it was more of a drunken, sloppy bite. It jolted Cuauhtemoc back into his body.

—Damn! He wiped the saliva on his mouth with the back of his sleeve and turned to look at Xavi, ready to ask a question.

But Xavi’s eyes were closed, and he leaned against the window as if he had been sleeping off the champagne for the past fifteen minutes. Cuauhtemoc had wanted to get home. His body ached.

* * *

Now, the tears really burned his cheeks with their salt. He put his fingers to his lips and bawled like a baby, shaking all over, trying and failing to catch his breath. He had a good cry, the first one he’d had in years, and hugged himself tightly. He felt uncovered not just because he was naked, but because he was sobbing. He was stripped of his self in the world: his best friend and brother was dead, and he could not think of a new way to exist.

He took a pelota from the floor and bounced it up a couple of times, still sobbing. He threw it with a frustrated gesture against the ceiling, and it dented the plaster. He did it again with more strength, and the ball stayed there for a fraction of a second, stuck to the ceiling, as if defying gravity for an instant. He wished he could somehow pitch the ball at himself and knock himself out. The best he could do was throw it as hard as he could against his legs or stomach. The ball left its marks as white circles that quickly turned a deep red against his tan skin.

He thought of the first time he decided to play without a helmet: it was just he and Xavi in the public frontón court of Tlaloc, Xavi’s neighborhood. No one was there to supervise or scold them as they dropped their white helmets in a corner of the green and white court and played a game against death more than against each other. Ballet with bullets, some people called the game. He always thought this was a sensationalist nickname, right out of the Alarma! newspaper or something like that. But like all nicknames, it was true to a certain extent. At 180 mph, The Guinness Book of Records had Jai Alai pelotas down as the fastest balls in the world. He always carried a cutout of the record with him, for when people didn’t believe him. It was a great conversation piece.

He smiled briefly at the thought of their courage and their stupidity too. On that court, they had thought they were invincible, so innocent that death couldn’t touch them or come near them, and they dodged it as it twisted and squirmed inside the rubber and goatskin ball. They played until the adrenalin made them dizzy, and then Xavier tried to pull off an extravagant underhanded return shot and the ball somehow rolled out of his cesta, as if it were tired of their childish playfulness and had to take a break, death leaving them time to live some more. They both stared at it in disbelief as if it had refused to obey them, and they too rolled on the cement floor, laughing, the petals of peeled paint from the public court floor stuck to their arms and legs.

Posters of Neruda and Hemingway playing Jai Alai covered one of Cuauhtemoc’s bedroom walls. To his teammates and friends, he was known as The Reader for his ability to read what kind of pass the opposing pelotaris were pitching at him or at Xavi, his partner, but also because everyone knew he loved books and had these posters. Xavi’s nickname had been The Lizard, because he could climb the court’s sidewall with the ease of a reptile, like a kung-fu movie star, disobeying the earth’s pull and catching the highest picadas. Xavi was also known as The Lizard because he was so sleek and suave. He was a favorite of the ladies in the audience, which made lots of men bet against him. But together they were almost invincible.

He found the cutout he carried with him under his pillow, left there since Xavi’s death. Cuauhtemoc loved the name: Jai Alai meant “happy game” in Basque. He loved the cesta, the custom-made wicker and bent chestnut sling that extended from his wrist like a prosthesis that made his arm look like a mutant insect’s out of a 50s sci-fi movie. It was better than playing soccer or any of the other games his friends played at school. Better than lacrosse (its bastard cousin, he called it—which he had tried out once when visiting a friend after classes at the American school). A mix of sheer speed and skill, to him, Jai Alai was a quickening of blood in the brain, a hastening, and a sliver of pure dynamism. Better than any drug he’d ever tried. It was like playing with lightning—he pictured himself a god throwing the ball like rays of light into the atmosphere and then harvesting them with his cesta to send out some more.

Cuauhtemoc threw the ball against his legs in frustration one more time. He knew he would be black and blue by tomorrow morning. He was happy to feel these smallish dots of pain over his body. The tears stopped; the ball sent two different sensations to his brain: the first a high-pitched smarting, the burn of his skin; the second was deeper and more baritone, the muscles and even the bones aching and reacting to the pain. He smiled.

Gabriela Jauregui‘s first poetry collection, Controlled Decay, is forthcoming on Akashic Books/Black Goat Press in June 2008. She is a Soros New American fellow and a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California as well as an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Gabriela is currently working on a novel. This is her first fiction publication.

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