I find him sitting on a plastic lounge chair by the hotel pool. I give a little wave and he stands. We kiss on the cheek. He tells me I’m taller than he remembers.
“Sit down, sit down,” he offers just as thunder rolls in, so we find a spot on an iron bench under a flaking white gazebo.
“It’s been a long time,” he says.
We were never a couple. Still, it felt that way because Día was always mad at me. I tell him that thinking it’ll go over like a joke but he just stares at me like he doesn’t remember it like that. He called a few days ago, the first time in five years, to say he was coming to Miami and he heard from Malik and some others that I live here now.
“I tried to say goodbye,” I say. “You never picked up the phone.”
“You were always good about those sorts of things.”
Día looks like life ran him over. Must have dropped twenty pounds, melting into his blue button-down and his black pants have all kinds of shadow spots on them. The Día I remember had soccer legs and sharp shoulders but now he looks gelatinous, eyes twitching, mestízo skin yellowed, hair knotted in buds. While he talks about the humidity, how he can’t understand how a civilized person can live here, I look for the rod he used to have in his tongue, a tiny barbell that got in the way every time we kissed.
I’m just looking at his pallid face, bushy brows wiggling over his eyes while he tries to explain crap like it’s a peace treaty, full of rehearsed rationale.
I don’t see it.
I ask what brings him to town and he’s agitated, looking to the dark clouds for the right words.
“You’re not going to like it,” he says.
“Just tell me.”
I think it can’t be that bad because Día was never one for drugs. He managed a bar for years without drinking, spending the slow afternoons before the happy hour crew rolled in reading history books on a stool in the corner. That’s how we met. One day I asked what he was reading.
“I’m a professional gambler,” he says.
I can’t help it, my whole forehead lifts like strings are pulling.
Last time I saw Día, he was studying for the Foreign Service exam. Spoke six languages and could talk politics and literature in any of them, always on my back to study, asking what grades I was pulling since I was majoring in screwing around. He’d yell at me on the corner of 14th, tell me a smart girl like me was throwing it all away. Call me an ingrate, a brat, a blind fool for running around with Malik, who Día said spent more time in the bathroom snorting the amputated limbs of my compatriots than being a boyfriend to me.
Día explains he started playing blackjack online then joined some secret league in the city. His eyes shine when he tells me he realized he had a gift; cashing out every night with thousands, way more than the small wads he earned at the bar.
It’s been too long for me to play the friend, tease him, ask him what happened to Mr. Integrity. I’m just looking at his pallid face, bushy brows wiggling over his eyes while he tries to explain crap like it’s a peace treaty, full of rehearsed rationale.
He came down to Florida to play the Indian casinos. Was at the one in Seminole till five this morning. He moved out of the Astoria place and has a loft on the Bowery now, though he hardly ever leaves, except to play poker in Bay Ridge. He’s got standing matches online a few nights a week against people all over the world; the Koreans are tough to beat, he says, and some guy in Australia is the reigning king. But Día grows taller for a second, tells me he’s ranked fourth in the world.
“It’s a really big deal, Gatina,” he tells me and when I hear his old name for me I notice his voice changed—it used to be deep and lush, like the voices of that guy who sings on Tuesdays at the Carioca place on First. Now it’s hollow, scratchy, creaking—as if he’s not used to speaking so much anymore and even though we’re looking out at the beach, it feels like we’re in an empty apartment.
When he’s through, he says, “So what do you think?”
I know my smile is so weak not even Día buys it. He offers me a cigarette but I tell him I quit years ago.
We used to smoke together. Sitting on the radiator of my apartment, blowing smoke out the window, watching each other. We were just friends at the time, dropped the kissing part because I was with Malik now. “I don’t understand what you guys talk about,” was Día’s favorite line, and just to piss him off I’d say that was the best part—Malik and me didn’t talk about anything.
I used to wear these big hoop earrings, my hair down to my hips, super-tight jeans and blouses with embroidery, like I was some kind of gitana—a full dimension away from the teacher garb I’m wearing now. I used to take photos, mostly of city people with sad faces, and sometimes Malik would tear off his shirt, lay against a brick wall showing off his wingspan, flexing his back to carve a new landscape for my camera. Malik, with his Egyptian curls and lion tattoo ripping across his back, a guy who couldn’t plan past next week. It was Día’s idea to curate my first show right there in the bar. Threw me a party and everything, but when I tried to introduce him to my friends, Día hung back and stayed in his corner.
Día asks me if I ever think about moving back and before the question is all the way out, I’m shaking my head.
“I wonder if I could stand to live here,” he says, sticking his palm out into the curtain of rain.
I look at my watch.
“Somewhere you need to be?”
I feel bad. Say no, I’ve got time. Let’s finish this thing.
We play catch up. Start each sentence with “Remember when.”
Día asks me if Malik and I still talk, and I say no.
“Why did you split up anyway?”
He wants to hear me say it even if he heard the story long ago from the people on the block. How Malik hit me because I was on his case about the coke. Punched me in the face so hard I landed on a little girl blowing up balloons on her Third Avenue stoop. The little girl cried and by the time I got to my feet, missing two teeth, Malik was around the corner. Some Honduran deli guys saw the whole thing, cleaned me up, wiped my face, and told me they’d take me to the station to press charges, but I said no. Told the dentist I fell. I went into hiding. Thought maybe Día would come looking but he never did. I hated him for that.
Día tells me after I left, he went back to Brazil. Got sick of New York and had this feeling he needed to be among his people. Taught English at a bunch of different schools, rented a great apartment in São Paolo for cheap, had a car and everything. But New York called to him. He returned to the same apartment in Astoria, same job pouring drinks for the same drunk idiots. Got married in between, then divorced just a few months ago from that girl he hired as a cocktail waitress around the time I started up with Malik. Asks me if I remember her. I don’t.
“She remembers you,” he says.
I recognize those eyes from back when he used to grab my arm in the bar, tell me to stop drinking, to go home like a normal girl and stop spending my nights with degenerates. “You’re so judgmental,” I used to tell him and Día looked like he might fold over and cry.
It’s raining all around us. Heavy sheets more like walls as we sit on the bench under the gazebo. There’s nowhere to go. Not without getting drenched down to our skins.
Día tells me the wife forbade him from reaching out to me all these years. She sensed his thing with me ran deeper than cigarettes and nerdy conversations in the corner of the bar.
I don’t know what to say. He’s looking at me like this is what he came here for and I wish the rain would stop already.
“Tell me about your life.”
“You know,” I say. “Nothing special.”
“You always had a few in rotation.”
There was a time when I wanted it to be Día. Only Día. When I wanted him to wipe that crabby look off his face and tell me something real, not one of his theories about the world. He used to mock me. Make me list all the things I believed in: God, Heaven, the inherent goodness of mankind, and then he laughed and gave me reasons why none of these things existed. We’d sit together in the park, our thighs smacking against each other on the bench while break dancers and skateboarders rocked their bodies nearby. He’d talk about the world, everything that was wrong with it. Sometimes I listened. Sometimes I wished he’d just mellow out and take me home, lie on the bed next to me and be still and quiet so we could fall asleep together. Then I met Malik who pulled me by the wrist into the phone booth one night and told me to be his girl. Día was watching from behind the bar when I let Malik kiss me.
“Why did you come?” Día asks me.
“To see an old friend. Catch up.”
“Is that all?”
We let that sit. The rain lets up and the sun cleaves the sky. I can’t stand it anymore. I get up and tell him I’m going. He doesn’t move. Just like me to run away. Just like him not to do much to stop me. When I’m on the other side of the pool, I look back at Día sitting there lighting another cigarette. I wonder why we never fit. Why we never tried.
Patricia Engel’s stories appear in Boston Review, Slice Magazine, Harpur Palate, Nimrod, Driftwood, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Florida Artist Fellowship in Literature, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, and the Boston Review Fiction Prize.