Look at him. White socks pristine and pulled above the knee. The ribbon around his left arm neatly tied. Hair greased and parted. Ramón poses just like the others: feet together, shoulders square, but while they are stone-faced (some frozen mid-blink, some gazing beyond the frame), he is holding back a smile, eyes flickering with pride.
These boys are young, only eight or nine. Still in awe of small mysteries (marbles like milky eyes, bird nests built in sign letters). Still admiring of their mothers (a nut-brown stocking rolled up the length of a leg, a not-to-be-questioned knowing of the world). They are only just starting to test limits (slingshotting stones at street dogs, pocketing other people’s change at the feria). They are only just starting to play with power.
Captured here on the occasion of his first Communion, Ramón feels important. Sure, his mind wanders during prayers and yes, he doodles in the margins of his Bible study guide (mainly bug eyes and occasionally P-47s, their propeller blades fat as flower petals), but today he is a good boy and God is pleased with him.
He has not heard the word yet.
He does not smell it coming like kindling smoke, does not know that his classmates have overheard their mothers chismeando over tea (sabes qué? they say, swirling sugar, tapping spoons). Ramón does not know that the wedding ring his mother wears is rumored to be fake, bought at a pawn shop behind Estación Mapocho, or that she was spotted stuffing an apron into her purse on the evening of the Easter pageant. He is too busy heeding the photographer’s commands (closer together, boys, hold still) to notice the eyes lingering a beat too long on the third pew, where his mother sits alone, fanning herself with a folded program. In other words, Ramón no tiene ni idea, which is why he is so pleased with the first big milestone of his boyhood. Which is why he is not expecting it when, just a few weeks after this picture is taken, the word hits him like a hot wind from the back of the classroom.
The fine hairs on the back of Ramón’s neck stand in alert. Turning over his left shoulder, he finds a pack of conspiratorial eyes, but he cannot pin the wind to a particular mouth.
The sound of it. Like a furnace groan. Like one of the sins Padre Clemente stretches into long strands at mass, each syllable raining spit on the first row of foreheads. Ramón cannot define the word, and yet, this flash of acid in his belly, it is familiar somehow.
Ramón has been taunted before. Had tongues wagged at him for failing to land a trapeze with his diabolo. Had his oversized ears tugged after that too-short haircut his mother gave him with the kitchen shears. But this is different, a secret everyone but him is in on. What has he done to deserve the word? And how come it calls up his most private shames? The downy scrap of shawl he rubs between his eyes after a nightmare, even the nightmares themselves (the earthquake like a thousand horse hooves that cracks his bed clean in half, the super-sized Holy Trinity that cackles at him like a huddle of fun house clowns). All of his classmates are gawking at him now. More and more mouths are joining forces with the word. And his skin, it is stinging.
He’s been taught to say, he’s dead. To repeat it like a mantra. It’s the neatest explanation, definitive as a door sealed shut. No more questions. No stories from Before. No friends at the apartment. No leaving home with wet hair. No touching anything in a doña’s house.
When Ramón squeezes hard on the sponge of his memory, it comes in drips: playing alone in the corner of a large living room. Told to be silent, patient. His mother upstairs, putting someone else’s son to bed. A marble fell to the floor and when he crouched to retrieve it, the doña appeared: chubby neck choked with pearls, mouth shriveling at the sight of him. And like a cat in heat she hissed.
Ramón is sweating in the strangest places: the crooks of his elbows, the slits between his toes. Even after his teacher calls the class to order, slams the textbook on her desk and demands attention to the appointed page, even after the wind dies down to a faint snickering, the word stays stuck to him. He shrinks into the little wooden desk, hot blood throbbing in his ears.
Diego is the first to speak directly to him. After the bell, he is just beyond the gate, schoolbag slung over one shoulder, kicking at a tree root with the toe of his shoe. Eyes avoiding, he mumbles this so soft Ramón can barely catch it: I’ve heard the word before.
But Ramón cannot make himself ask. He is already teetering on a wire, already applying all his attention to stifling tears. If he tries to make sound he will lose his footing. His throat will contract, he will cough up spit. Instead, he fingers a loose button on his shirt, watches Diego kicking up earth, waits.
A huacho is someone God doesn’t want, Diego tells the ground, his scuffed up shoes still prodding and stomping the root. Mi mamá me lo dijo. She said huachos are sinners because their parents broke the rules. And that the mothers of huachos are putas. Dirty like dishwater.
They let that last phrase hang in the air between them. There is no malice in Diego’s voice, just the regretful tone of someone reporting bad news. And Ramón isn’t angry, just tired. Yes, suddenly exhausted. His body is a bag of wet sand, and he wants desperately to be alone in the quiet of the apartment where he hopes the word will not follow him.
The two boys walk home not speaking, only the sounds of the city between them: bus traffic, bird chatter, street vendors singing the names of their wares in bored encores. A señora with missing front teeth rings a bell over her cart of dulces. A group of men in the plaza, their sleeves rolled and faces unshaven, hand out flyers to passersby. Ramón accepts one mechanically, stashing it in his jacket pocket without even a glance. He is picturing the last scrubbed pot from Sunday’s almuerzo set to dry on a dish towel. And in the sink: food particles, grime, the muted shine of oil. His mother’s hands reaching in for the stopper and the thirsty drain that drinks it all down. There it goes surging through the long snake of pipes, zigzagging through the building’s interior, until finally spilling into the steady river of pale brown sewage that runs along the curb.
Inside the apartment, Ramón removes his jacket, places his schoolbag on a chair. His mother has left him a pot of cazuela and, beside it, half a palta wrapped in a cloth. Ramón pulls a matchbox from the drawer to light the stove, the smell of sulfur filling his nostrils as he watches the flame catch, the condensation begin to form on the walls of the pot. The remaining pan amasado is going stale, but Ramón slices one and arranges it on a plate anyway.
It has always been just his mother and him. Hers, the voice Ramón hears in his head even more than his own. And on good days (when her feet are not too sore, when she is not sighing to herself about the time it takes to make a meal he devours in a few quick swallows, when she is not far away inside her mind, spinning her ring like a top on the kitchen table), she smothers his head with kisses and into his hair she breathes: you are my best thing, mijito, my very best thing.
The condensation is forming on the walls of the pot now, the steam beginning to rise. Ramón fills a bowl for himself, places it on the table and a spoon beside it. He sits. He reaches for the salt. And by the time the first bite touches his tongue, he has resolved never to tell her about the word.
(It is the first of many secrets he will keep from his mother, the first of many shames he believes he is shielding her from.)