The night before my very first trip on an airplane, in the hours before I left for college in New York late that summer—after the too-short hug and too-short talk with my dad in front of my mom’s building, after I promised my mom that everything needing to be packed was packed, so yes, I felt OK about going out for a little while—me and Omar were together together for one of the last times I let myself remember.
We made the familiar climb into the narrow backseat of his Integra. We were parked in a new spot, one we’d never tried out before, and we were kicking ourselves for thinking of it so late, after a year of wasting gas while we argued the pros and cons of every other spot on our list of places one could park and fuck. Omar had made the trek from Hialeah to Little Havana to get me—had come into my mom’s apartment wearing baggy jeans and this gray V-neck shirt that stretched tight across his chest and shoulders, and then moved some heavy boxes around for her without even really trying, without so much as sweating, my sister Leidy gawking at him, then at me and saying, Lizet, you are such a retard to leave so hot a guy, one who obviously could look past the fact that I was not on the same level of hotness as him—and from there we went north, up to Miami Lakes, to the golf course we’d passed a million times on our way back from the beach, with its big islands of grass and spats of sand and palm trees and some other trees that didn’t belong in Florida.
It was my idea—we were both trying to save money, so neither of us offered to cover the cost of a couple hours at a place by the airport—and I wasn’t sure it was a good one until I looked down at Omar’s pants to tear off his belt and realized that we were shrouded in such darkness, I couldn’t see the buckle. We couldn’t believe it had been as easy as just driving over a curb and out onto the grass, out to the darkest place—the very middle of the course, behind the trunks of banyan trees whose branches spilled back to the ground to make more trunks. That we could just turn off the headlights and become invisible. We couldn’t believe there were no cops around. Cops were everywhere we went—our school’s parking lot, the back road by the abandoned overpass in our neighborhood, behind the Sedano’s Market that some gangbanger guys Omar sort of knew burned down. Here were most Saturday nights that year: Omar would come, and I’d be just about to I thought, and we’d hear the thud thud thud of a flashlight against the rear window and see, behind me, a beam of light searching for my bare ass. It got so predictable that I joked that Omar was letting the cops know where’d we be and then flashing them some kind of signal when he was done and it was time to bust us—why else were they not giving us tickets for loitering or trespassing, like they said they would with every next time? Omar didn’t laugh at my joke though. Omar didn’t think of me as particularly funny.
He’d pulled out, and I’d cleaned up, and then we sat there, sticky and holding hands, his thumb not stroking the back of my wrist in that soft way that so many other guys would use later on…
That last night, he was making his sad faces and looking into my eyes more than he had to and giving me all his excuses (But I trimmed the hair around my dick and everything; I showered with that soap you like instead of the soap at the gym; I brought baby wipes—the ones with the aloe stuff you say makes your skin soft) which is why I got suckered in to his pleas that he not have to use a condom this time. That, and I’d been on the pill for three months by then—something I hadn’t told him because I knew he’d think it meant I was planning on sleeping with other guys now that I’d be one of those college girls. Before that night, we’d only had no-condom sex when I was on my period and when he remembered the towels—had them waiting for us in the Integra’s trunk—to put down on the backseat.
He’d pulled out, and I’d cleaned up, and then we sat there, sticky and holding hands, his thumb not stroking the back of my wrist in that soft way that so many other guys would use later on, but instead each finger firmly curled and gripping around to my palm, owning it in a way that, I hate to admit, I sometimes miss and haven’t found since. Every minute or so, he’d squeeze it and hold the squeeze, like he was trying to send some secret code through our hands, his pulses reminding me of just a few minutes before, when I’d felt that same kind of throb up in me—that sudden fullness meaning I needed, quick, to slide off and get out of the way. I thought I could sense what Omar was thinking. I worry now that he somehow knew that would be the last time it would be easy between us. I can admit this, though: In between those squeezes, the weird smell of bleach and musk surrounding us, a balled up baby wipe in each of our free hands, I really thought that we’d stay together. That we wouldn’t break up the way my school counselor, a sad woman I’d only talked to twice who otherwise never weighed in on anything, told me we inevitably would. That his plan to marry me my junior year of college would actually happen. I hadn’t been to the campus yet, not even to visit, had only seen the pictures in the catalogues at that point, so I had no way of knowing how absurd this would sound to me years later. And after my dad moved out that summer, my mom was all for a junior year wedding; Omar would protect me up there, and married people are so much more tranquilo than single people. Yet at that same instant, Omar’s hand squeezing mine, I saw some foggy future me—already looking back at Lizet in the car, there in the backseat, with her hair matted at the base of her neck, her chest slick with saliva and sweat—saying to that animal girl: No, no, no. I don’t know how, but I believed both visions: I believed we would find a way to be together, and I believed that there was no way that could happen.
I turned to Omar and shoved my face into his neck. I bit him around his ear, tugged with my teeth on his fake diamond earring. He squeezed my hand again.
—Me and you need to have a serious conversation, he said.
I dropped the baby wipe on the car’s floor and splayed the fingers of that hand and mashed his mouth with my palm, laughing to myself and pushing my fingertips into his eyes. I pushed his whole face away from me and swung my leg into his lap. He let go of my hand and grabbed my thigh, pulling it then slapping it, letting his palm feel the slap move through the muscle.
—See? he said. Now why you gotta go and do something like that? Fuck it, El, you’re making this tough.
His eyes had puffy little bags hanging beneath them, each shiny with sweat. He was trying to tell me, through the slats of my fingers, that this was hard for him, that he wanted to not miss me, to not want me to stay. He pulled my hand off his face and bit my palm, my wrist. I flipped him off then tried to pick his nose with my middle finger.
He kissed my forehead—his lips wet, cold—and it felt less like a goodbye and more like the start of something much more dangerous for each of us: the beginning of who we were going to be.
—Maybe I don’t need to be worried, he said. You’re too weird for anyone but me to want.
—That’s true, I said.
I was convinced he was right, but I could’ve only felt that way in Miami, in that car.
He pinned my wrist behind my back and pulled me toward him. He breathed out deeply through his nose—something he did a lot, like he was mad at himself for liking me so much, like he couldn’t believe he had these feelings inside of himself. He imagined himself a tough guy; he thought of us as a couple that shouldn’t be, but had to be, that some outside force had made him want my perceived weirdness (and I was weird, in that neighborhood, in our school of four thousand people and only a slim percentage of us going off to college full-time) despite his better judgment. He had to think this, because otherwise, he’d have to admit I was always on my way to being too good for him. He kissed my forehead—his lips wet, cold—and it felt less like a goodbye and more like the start of something much more dangerous for each of us: the beginning of who we were going to be. I was so sad just then, but didn’t understand the real reasons. I just knew I wanted both things, him and the future me, wanted to hold both versions of my life in my heart at the same time.
He put his chin on the top of my head. He said, You really don’t think your parents are gonna work to save their marriage?
His stubble-covered skin scratched my scalp as he said this. It was such a formal, unnatural way for him to phrase the question that I knew he’d practiced it in his head, had maybe heard some TV doctor say it or his own parents talk about their relationship this way. He must’ve felt a change in my body, a tensing, because just then he slid his hands under my ass and hoisted me up onto his lap all the way, pulled my hips towards his and held me there, my stomach against his half-hard dick, so that I couldn’t squirm away. I loved and hated his physical strength—the way he could just move me in and out of his way. I wanted it for myself.
I let out what probably sounded like a snarky breath through my nose, but mostly, I was just tired of thinking about my parents. I wanted both parents at the airport, a send off that was officially and formally impossible. And since I couldn’t have it, part of me was already on the plane.
—I really don’t want to talk about it, I said.
Out the back windshield, I watched white and red lights blur on the far-off expressway, unsteady beams of color. When I was a little girl, trapped in the backseat on our way home from visiting one of many aunts in Hialeah, I’d relax my focus on the road ahead and let the red from our side of the median become a wide stream of blood, the white on the other side—coming toward me—a lightning smear of angels. I always wished we were going the other way, not realizing that nothing about my view would change with that flip.
They’d ask, Is that a gang sign? and instead of saying, No, you are retarded, I started saying, Maybe, who knows with Omar. Other girls would feel bad for me and claim they understood: they’d seen it on TV, or they’d read The House on Mango Street “or something” in their AP English courses
—You know, you’re not the first person ever whose family hates each other, Omar said.
—Shut up, they don’t hate each other, I said. But I didn’t move away from him. I just kept staring out the back windshield.
That first semester of college, as I grew more and more distracted during phone conversations with Omar, I started to tell people who asked that Omar was a brute. He was an animal—more like an animal than a human. It seemed like what other girls wanted to hear. Omar looked the part, with his earrings and the close-cut hair and goatee, the wide shoulders, the dark brows, him leaning on his Integra and flashing a sideways peace sign in almost every photo of him I owned. They’d ask, Is that a gang sign? and instead of saying, No, you are retarded, I started saying, Maybe, who knows with Omar. Other girls would feel bad for me and claim they understood: they’d seen it on TV, or they’d read The House on Mango Street “or something” in their AP English courses. They knew about “the kinds of relationships that plagued my community.” Part of me was angry that they were half right: my parents did have a version of that relationship, but it wasn’t at all accurate for me and Omar. Still, when everyone around you has an idea of what your life is like, and when the main players look enough like the types people think they already know, it’s easier to play into that idea—it was easier for me to make Omar sound like a psycho papi chulo who wanted to control me. At the very least, it made trying to make friends simpler than it would’ve been had I tried to be a more nuanced, accurate version of myself.
The truth is, I loved that kid so much that I had to abandon some part of myself to leave him. I had to adopt some twisted interpretation of everything that came before college to make my hurting him OK—I had to believe the story I’d made up for other people. After a few weeks at school, invited by default one night to stay up late and listen to my roommate Jillian and her friends talk in our room about the boyfriends they’d broken up with just before coming to Rawlings and how their mothers all had stories like theirs, how their mothers had all met their fathers in college after having wasted tears on some boy that so wasn’t right for them, I decided—accurately or not, I don’t really know—that the worst “best” thing that ever happened to my mother was falling for my dad. To let her heart screw over her brain—that’s the worst best thing that could happen to anyone.
Omar tugged my hair and said, Everything’s gonna be fine, El.
—I know, I said.
—I’ll come out next semester for sure, once I can save a little, he said.
—And we’ve got almost three weeks at Christmas, he said.
He held both my shoulders with his rough hands. Do you wanna go? he said.
I didn’t think he meant the golf course. I thought he meant to New York, so I said, Yeah, of course. I’m ready, I think.
He blinked twice like he’d just placed contact lenses in his eyes. Then he slid his hands down to my hips and tossed me onto the seat next to him. I bounced there and he reached for his boxers on the floor.
—What? I said, pulling my knees up to my chest.
—Oh, you’re ready, huh? He jerked his shorts up his hairy legs, found his jeans and belt, his shirt. You think you’re the dude? Like, ‘Peace, I’m out.’ Then fuck you, bro.
I held my hands, palms out, and said, OK, what?
He pulled his shirt over his head.
—Wow, you really need to calm yourself down, I said, reaching for my bra between us on the seat. I snapped it on and adjusted my boobs in the cups.
Omar hated being told to calm down. In fact, saying, calm yourself down was the best way to get him to not calm down at all.
He grabbed the two front seats and hurled himself back behind the steering wheel, his T-shirt just hanging around his neck, not yet on, his arms still free.
—No, I got it. You’re ready. Let’s go then, he said.
He pushed his arms through the sleeves, grabbed at the keys and turned them, revved the engine. I tugged on my underwear, realizing that though I’d thought they matched, the bottoms were actually navy blue, the bra black.
I struggled to find the rest of my clothes. I twisted my pants around until I found where to slide my legs through. I shook them out and wiggled into them while Omar cursed up front.
—Omar, for real? I yelled. Then, like a mom, I said, Oh-mar, Please. Then, Oh seriously, come on already!
He put the car in drive.
—You know what? I said. You’re right. Let’s fucking go.
He turned in his seat and screamed, You’re the one who said she was ready!
I realized then the confusion, and I almost lowered my voice, but I didn’t know yet how effective that could be. I yelled, To New York, you asshole! I’m ready to go to New York. Not go from here! But whatever, do whatever you want!
I struggled to find the rest of my clothes. I twisted my pants around until I found where to slide my legs through. I shook them out and wiggled into them while Omar cursed up front. I found my blouse and tried undoing the buttons—Omar had just pulled it over my head to get it off, hadn’t bothered the buttons with his bulky fingers—but it was inside out. Omar kept changing gears on the car, which kept lunging forward, then backward, but not really going anywhere. I flipped the blouse and opened it, then wrapped the fabric around me, making sure the holes lined up with the buttons by starting from the bottom.
—Hey, genius, he finally said to me.
I didn’t answer, just looked out the window as my fingers climbed up, fastening me into my shirt. He pressed his head against the steering wheel, then lifted it and smacked his forehead with both his hands four or five times.
—We’re fucking stuck, he said.
My hands froze. What do you mean we’re stuck?
—I mean the car. He put his hand on the latch to open the door, but before he pulled it, he asked, You dressed?
I said yes and he opened the door, and dim light from the dome overhead suddenly yellowed everything.
I scrambled up to the front seat in time to hear Omar say, Oh fuck.
All he’d done was stand up, so I said, What?
—My shoes, he said. This fucking mud.
I tried to look past his legs and butt in the doorway, down to the ground, but my eyes were still used the dark, so I couldn’t see anything but him.
He stepped forward and I heard what sounded like a wet fart, and then he said, Are you fucking serious?
I will always—always—give Omar credit for doing everything he could to try and get us out of that mud without anyone’s help. His sneakers were ruined that night, along with the shirt he was wearing and the jeans. The towels from the backseat, already wet with sweat as they were, were also ruined once he’d used them to clean the mud off his face, arms, body.
How could I not have thought about the possibility of mud? About the rain that soaked the grass every day? This was Miami, it rained every day for at least forty-five minutes that summer.
I got to keep clean, mostly. Everything I was told to do—press the gas, then try neutral, then turn the wheel all the way left, then all the way right, now straight, straight!—involved me staying in the car, not getting splashed with mud. I stepped out only once, right after I’d pressed the gas down all the way, like he’d said to do, while he rocked the car from behind. I heard Omar scream and I thought maybe I’d accidentally been in reverse and had killed him—Oh my God, I thought, I ran him over! —so I threw the car in park even though it wasn’t going anywhere and jumped out, felt my flip-flops sink into the wetness and the mud seep between and over my toes. It wasn’t even cold; the mud was as warm and moist as the night air around us. I’d sunken in so fast and deep that when I lifted my leg, my shoe made a sucking sound but wouldn’t budge: if I’d tried to step forward, I would have fallen face first. So I turned at the hip, holding on to the roof of the Integra for balance, and saw Omar, who, covered head to toe in so much mud, really looked like a fucking monster.
How could I not have thought about the possibility of mud? About the rain that soaked the grass every day? This was Miami, it rained every day for at least forty-five minutes that summer. We’d driven onto the rough—a word I didn’t yet know meant the long grass, grass meant to be long, to slow things up for a golf ball. We’d glided onto it in the dark and rocked the car with our bodies enough to dig us in deep. Only when it hit 1 am—when he’d been trying for close to an hour and a half—did I venture to say, Omar, it’s late.
My flight was at 7:45 the next morning. Omar called his friend Chino, and Chino found the number for a tow truck and gave it to us. Chino offered to come out himself, but thankfully, Omar told him not to worry about it and hung up before he could ask any questions. The tow truck didn’t even take ten minutes to find us. The swirling yellow and red lights mounted on the top of his truck reminded me how even this last time, we’d never really gone that far from anything.
—What where you kids doing out here? the guy asked.
Neither of us answered, because we figured he already knew. He couldn’t be older than thirty or thirty-five. He laughed, and then, on the way back from the bed of his truck, chains in hand, he said, Which a’you two had the smart idea to park in this shitfest? We left that question unanswered, too.
The tow truck’s lights are what attracted the police. Omar finally got the ticket we’d been promised so many times before. When I told him I’d help pay off both—the ticket and the cost of the tow—he said forget it.
—A going away present, he said.
I wanted to laugh, but he wasn’t even hinting at a smile, so I kept the laugh to myself. I never thought of Omar as particularly funny, either.
Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of How to Leave Hialeah, which won the John Gardner Prize, the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was named a Best Book of the Year by The Miami Herald, The New Times, and the Latinidad List. Her stories have appeared in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Anthology 2011, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Epoch, and elsewhere. She joined the creative writing faculty at Florida State University in 2011 and has recently completed work on a new novel, from which this is an excerpt.