Mom took off on Fridays. Left behind twenty bucks, enough white bread, ham and cheese, and chips to last the weekend. Sometimes she left enough money to buy a new game for the Nintendo.
She always said she’d call the next day to check on me. She seldom did. She’d say she was going to stay with some friend, but I always peeked through the blinds to see the car and driver. Every couple months—sometimes weeks—there was a different car. Usually something fast: A Fiero, an IROC, a Corvette—and, of course, a different driver. Some dude who almost always had a mustache.
Then she came home one Sunday morning, crying, and came clean. On the brown couch where we ate dinner and watched TV, she told me she’d been trying to find me a father, but all she ever found were losers.
I need your help, she said. You need someone I can’t be. A man. A father figure.
I wanted nothing to do with this. Who the hell wants to help his mom find a man? What did that even look like? Hey, you, wanna fuck my mom?
I didn’t know why she thought I needed a father. I was just fine without one. I took care of myself without getting into any trouble or asking for help. I cooked my own food—nothing fancy, but sure as shit better than ham and cheese sandwiches. I also washed my own clothes. I even washed and folded her laundry. I didn’t need anyone, especially a father.
But I didn’t say anything. As shitty as it sounded, I would play along. I owed her that much. She was the one who didn’t leave.
I didn’t remember much about my dad other than that he had long hair and wore cutoff T-shirts and blue jeans. But I did remember the day he left. Mom threw up and cradled the toilet for so long I had to take a leak in the kitchen sink. Twice. From then on, I smelled pee whenever I went into the kitchen.
I hated doing dishes.
If you have any questions, Mom said as she fiddled with the collar of my polo, about anything, like being a man, don’t be scared to ask, okay? It’s what he’s there for.
Should I ask him about the birds and the bees?
Sure. I doubt you’ll like the example he uses.
What’s wrong with you?
She laughed and laughed.
When Jaguar picked me up that night, Mom walked me to the car. The whole thing shined under the streetlights, even the tires. She made her way to the driver’s side door, leaned in, and gave Jaguar two quick kisses on the cheek. You guys have fun, she said.
Jaguar smirked. We’ll be homeboys in no time.
Jaguar didn’t bother with questions about girlfriends or music or movies. He just drove and scratched his right thigh. Ten minutes later, Jaguar parked on some dark–ass street across from the hospital on Temple Street. I instantly remembered all the stranger danger lessons from elementary school. A grown man, a teenager, a dark–ass street—not a single “good stranger” in sight. Nothing good could come from this.
Why are we here? I asked. You need me to get you a doctor?
Jaguar looked into his rearview and driver side mirrors and the flickering lights of the 101 straight ahead. No. We won’t need a doctor. Jaguar chuckled and scratched his right thigh. Not if everything goes the way I want it to.
I put my hand on the door handle, ready to bolt. But at that moment, Jaguar looked me dead in the eyes.
You write? Tag. Do you tag?
I knew what Jaguar meant, just figured he had to mean something else. Jaguar was a legit grown up. He went to college, worked at an office building or something. Guys like him didn’t tag. Why was my mom dating a fucking tagger? Did she know? There’s no way she would date him if she knew. Or would she? I didn’t know, but I was glad he wasn’t a rapist.
No, I said. I don’t tag.
You will tonight. Come on.
I used to tag. For one summer I went by Atlas, that is, until some angry fucker with a machete chased me and my boys for three blocks. The whole time I didn’t think of death, but of the possibility of losing an arm. What chicks would want me then?
Street fame didn’t seem so cool after that. It didn’t seem cool now, either.
Jaguar opened his trunk and pulled out two black hoodies, two pairs of latex gloves, and two cans of black spray paint. He handed me one of each. Shake the can up now.
I’m not tagging. I’ll be your lookout or something.
Don’t be a bitch. Think of a name.
I shook my can of spray paint. It was all I could do to not punch Jaguar in the face.
Look, if you can’t or won’t think of a name, then I’ll think of something for you. Jaguar smirked. I got it. Ember.
The name wasn’t half bad. Ember, like fire.
Where’d you get that from?
It was easy. MB. Short for mama’s boy. Just added “er” to it. You like it?
I wanted to punch the fucker in the face.
It’s time. Put the sweater on.
We hopped the fence onto the freeway and shook the cans as we ran toward the wall. Car after car zoomed by. I felt the rumble of the road beneath my feet, the air whipping my face. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest Alien-style.
The paint came out faster than I remembered. It splattered and dripped and smelled so damn strong. Just seconds in and I already felt dizzy, so I moved as fast as he could, made the letters as large as I could arc my arm. DH 4 Life.
What’s the DH stand for? Jaguar yelled over the sound of speeding cars.
Of course he’d say that. What a dickhead—who, for some reason, tossed his can of spray paint and took off running like a motherfucker. Just then, blue and red lights flashed against the wall and I ran like a motherfucker, too.
Jaguar, with a good twenty-foot head start, hopped the fence clean like a true vandal and disappeared into darkness. I followed after Jaguar and crawled up the fence. As I hopped to the other side, the pocket of my hoodie got caught on the top of the fence and, instead of landing on the ground, I dangled there like a limp dick Christmas ornament. I could hear the footsteps and walkie-talkie of the cop closing in, so I wiggled my way out from the hoodie and fell onto pavement. I popped right back up and kept moving. I thought Jaguar couldn’t be too far ahead until I saw him peeling the fuck out.
I didn’t stop running.
The cop’s footsteps and heavy breathing behind me.
I ran across the hospital parking lot across the street and into and through someone’s backyard, into another, and another, and, all the while, thought of punching Jaguar in the face.
I got off the bus a couple stops from home. It was cold as fuck, so I kept my hands in my pockets, arms tight against my body. I didn’t know what to tell Mom. It’s why I exited the bus so soon. I needed time to think. I’d lie, maybe, say I got bored and ditched Jaguar and apologize and say no more playdates with the guys fucking her. I didn’t need a father. The only guy I needed stared right back at me in the mirror.
I looked over my shoulder and saw Jaguar, parked across the street from my apartment, waving me over. My hands were too cold to make a fist.
You got away. Good. I was worried for a second.
Not too worried to wait for me, though. I rubbed my hands together.
Rule of the chase: Each man for himself.
I wanted to dropkick this motherfucker.
Anyway, have you seen Universal Soldier? That Van Damme flick?
I shook my head. No.
Good. Jaguar shuffled through a half dozen movie tickets, pulled one out, tore it in half, and handed me the stub. An eight p.m. showing of Universal Soldier at the Mann Theater in Glendale. You can tell your mom I took you, okay? Cool. Tell her I’ll call her later. Peace.
When I walked into the apartment, Mom put the TV on mute and jumped up from the couch.
So what’d you think? Tell me. She looked so happy.
I didn’t want to say shit, but I had to say something. He’s all right. I guess.
You guess? She squinted her eyes and scrutinized my face.
What? I said he’s all right.
So you didn’t like him.
I didn’t say that.
No, you didn’t like him.
Mom, I said he was all right.
I know what you said, baby, she said.
She put a finger to her lips. It’s okay, she said, and faked a smile. Plenty of fish, right?
It was playdate two. Two movies, and now an Angels game because fuck the Dodgers.
Fuck the Dodgers and Dodger stadium, Mustang said, the ghettoest parking lot next to the Coliseum.
I ignored him as best I could and focused on the game, which I had to squint to see.
You know how to shave that thing on your lip?
I paid him no mind.
All right, here’s how you do it. Wash your face, and I mean scrub that shit. Lather yourself with shaving cream, but don’t overdo it. If you end up looking like Santa Claus, you overdid it. After that, put the razor against the top of your lip and slide it down. And just like that, Mustang snapped his fingers, hair gone. And when you get old enough to grow some dick hairs, you can do the same thing there. Ladies love it.
When enough time passed to get Mustang’s hairless dick out of my mind, I took a stab at shaving. Enough people commented on my “barely there” mustache to know I had to get rid of it.
I splashed water on my face, rubbed my upper lip good, or what I thought was good enough, took one of Mom’s pink razors, placed it flat against the top of my lip, and slid it down. I got most of the hair, but couldn’t get the stubs. I then remembered the commercials for shaving cream and razor blades and the phrase they always used: “For a close shave.” I figured the blade wasn’t close enough to my skin, so I reset the razor on my upper lip and scraped it harder and tore a piece of my lip right off.
When Mom came home, I was on the couch and had a wad of toilet paper pressed against my upper lip.
Your boyfriend’s a fucking idiot, I said through the toilet paper.
Mom dumped Mustang that night. She said a real man would have been there to show me how to shave. Not that I wanted that. I just wanted to be left alone.
F-150 took Mom and me to the movies. There was no backseat, so we sat side-by-side, Mom’s hand on F-150’s thigh. Talk about a shitty start to the night.
As we walked to the theater, F-150 held Mom’s hand, put his arm around her waist, and waited in line to buy tickets. He called her babe and kissed her on the cheek every damn chance he got.
And the fucker leaked like mad. At dinner, he got up to pee every ten minutes. And every time, I got a word in. Do you have to let that fucker kiss you so much? I asked.
He’s not putting his tongue down my throat. Relax, baby.
You go out with your mom and watch her let some idiot scam on her and see how you like it, I said. And stop calling me baby! I’m not a damn baby. I’m going to graduate junior high soon. Babies don’t do that.
Some dude at a table beside us turned to look.
Mijo, please calm down, Mom pleaded.
You’re lucky I’m not saying anything to him.
She gave me a death stare, but I didn’t care. I stared right back at her.
He’s a good man with a good job, who calls his mother every night, she said finally. There aren’t many men like him in the world.
You’re right. Not many men pee their pants like that clown probably does.
We didn’t talk for the rest of dinner.
When we got back to the apartment, I got out of the car and held the door open.
Mom didn’t follow me. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? She said.
I nodded. Of course she would leave with that clown.
Would you mind closing the car door for me? She asked.
Yeah, I said. I left the door open and walked up to the apartment.
Mom dumped F-150 a week later.
She went on to dump Taurus and Miata, but Taurus #2, Civic, Integra, and Merkur dumped her. One after the other.
Why? I asked.
She wouldn’t say.
On the phone one night, she told Lola or Maria, one of her friends. From my bedroom, I heard her say I was the problem. None of those dudes wanted to bother with a kid who saw them as an interloper—Integra said this—and who didn’t want to talk or do much of shit with them.
But it’s up to him, I heard her say. If he can’t click with anyone, I’ll just stop dating. I don’t know what else to do. I just want to give him a real family, you know?
When Honda picked me up that night, Mom walked me to his car. The roof and hood were covered in brown and white clumps of bird shit. Mom walked over to the driver’s side door, leaned in, and gave Honda two quick kisses on the cheek.
You guys have fun, she said.
Honda smirked. We’ll be best friends in no time.
What a douche.
Honda hummed along to TLC’s “Baby Baby Baby” on the radio. Not Guns N’ Roses or The Chili Peppers. TLC.
What’s the plan? I asked, and lowered the volume. I didn’t care if it was rude.
A buddy of mine at work told me about this laser tag place. I thought we’d check it out.
A friend from the law firm?
That’s it. What’s a lawyer doing playing laser tag?
Honda furrowed his eyebrows. Adults like to have fun, too.
I guess. I spat a loogie out the window.
Okay. If that’s too kiddy for you, we could do something else, something more adult.
Sure, man. Whatever you want.
Honda hopped onto the 101 and headed downtown.
Ever been to a titty bar?
I’m not eighteen yet.
Come on now. That never stopped me when I was your age. The way I see it, you’re old enough to look at titties when your age consists of two syllables. Just promise not to tell your mom.
Honda gave me a wink.
It hadn’t been ten minutes, and dude wanted me to lie to my mom.
Honda palmed a twenty to the doorman of The Booty Drop—a neon-decorated dump in the part of downtown that light avoided—and walked through the velvet drapes that stunk of old carpet and cigarettes and what had to be loneliness if loneliness had a smell; Honda slapped me on the back and said, See where a well-placed twenty will get you; I watched Honda howl like a wolf and toss at least a hundred singles into the air and onto some brunette spreading her legs; I drank six Cokes and pissed three times in a restroom stall littered with bright blue condom wrappers; I told every girl that came my way I didn’t want a dance, that I really was eighteen; and told that one skinny chick with the tattoo of an Aztlan priestess on her stomach that I didn’t want a blowjob. Then a big-tittied dancer wearing a neon green bikini too tiny to cover her nipples grabbed me by the collar and said, I want to prove to my friends that you aren’t gay, and dragged me into a dark booth in the back of The Booty Drop. She grinded her ass into me until I busted a nut. As I looked for noticeable stains on my pants, I saw the chick with the tattoo of an Aztlan priestess walk Honda toward the VIP rooms—closed off from the rest of the bar by its very own neon-lit door—and slip him something small and bright blue. I heard Honda howl from behind that neon-lit door. And then I went to the bathroom and threw up.
Naked chicks all around me, and all I could think of was my mom and the scumbag she was dating.
When I walked into the apartment, Mom was playing it cool. So what’d you think? she asked.
I kicked off my shoes and sat beside her. I didn’t want to say shit. The entire night was my fault. Had I just shut up and gone to laser tag, we never would have ended up at a strip club.
Mom, I said, sitting beside her on the couch, dude’s a fucking scumbag. He took me to a titty bar, and I’m pretty sure he fucked a hooker while we were there. Her face went to stone.
He’s outside, I pointed. He said he’s waiting for you to say good night.
Through the blinds, I watched her walk toward Honda, who opened his arms when he saw her.
You son of a bitch! She screamed, before smacking the shit out of him.
I’m sorry, Mom, I said when she came back inside.
She sat beside me and bit her lip. Then, she broke. She cried for days and days.
She stopped dating.
I didn’t know if it was a dry spell or what. She didn’t say, and I didn’t ask.
She didn’t talk much those days, didn’t go out with her girlfriends. She came home straight after work—no more happy hours, early dinners with co-workers, nothing—and stayed home on the weekends. She spent her time watching Lifetime movies and MTV. She took to sleeping late at night, past Leno and Letterman, and falling asleep on the couch. Sometimes I would wake her before I left for school. After a month, I stayed in, too. I ignored my friends and watched shitty Lifetime movies with her. Every now and again she rested her head on my shoulder and fell asleep.
One night I felt her gaze. I turned and saw her staring at me, my mouth.
Your mustache, she said. It’s grown out. Are you going to try to shave again?
I don’t know. I guess.
She patted my thigh. Come on.
Just follow me. She led me to the bathroom and turned on the faucet. She opened her drawer and took out face wash, shaving cream, and a pink razor. She tested the water, adjusted the hot and cold until it was just right.
Here, she said and squeezed some face wash into my hands. Wash your face.
Mom, it’s all right. I can teach myself.
Not from what I saw. Start washing your face.
I did as I was told and made sure to scrub my mustache extra hard.
Mom sprayed a dab of shaving cream onto her fingertips and spread it on my upper lip. All you need is a light layer. If you end up looking like Santa Claus, you overdid it.
She handed me the razor. Don’t apply a ton of pressure. It’s okay if you don’t get it all in the first swipe. Just place it on the top of your upper lip and bring it down, she advised.
I took the blade, placed it at the top of my upper lip, and looked at her. She was almost smiling.
I slid the blade down and missed the stubs like the last time.
Relax, baby. Keep going.
She spread another layer of shaving cream on my upper lip. Now, turn the blade upside down. You’re going to go against the grain this time.
If I cut myself, I’m going to tell all my teachers you did it.
She smiled. What’s the worst that’ll happen? They send me a bunch of thank you letters?
I dragged the blade up my lip and took out the stubs clean.
See, she beamed, you should listen to me more often.
I rolled my eyes. Riiiight.
Cavalier wouldn’t stop tapping the steering wheel with his fingers.
I reminded myself not to be a dick, to give the clown a chance.
Is there anything you want to do? Cavalier asked.
Not really. We could go see a movie. I guess.
We could, but that wouldn’t really give us a chance to talk. That’s sort of what your mom wants.
Yeah, I know. Believe me. I know.
Cavalier started slowing down.
What’s the matter? You get a flat?
See the guy ahead of us? The Z. He’s been swerving the last couple blocks. Better to drive a couple car lengths behind him. That way I have control. If I was ahead of him, there’d be little I could do to prevent him from hitting me.
I hadn’t heard that one before.
Sorry, Cavalier said. Maybe I’m a little bit paranoid. Anyway, how about the batting cages? I know a place in Sherman Oaks that has batting cages and miniature golf—if you’re into that sort of thing. What do you think?
Yeah, let’s do that.
Cavalier hopped onto the 101 and headed toward the Valley. Twenty minutes of no talking later, Cavalier pulled into a parking lot filled with mothers pushing strollers, fathers carrying their kids, some on their shoulders. There were some teens, hanging with their crews, but not many.
Cavalier put the car in park and just sat there, thinking.
Look, let’s just get it out there. I know your mom wants us to bond and me to be your role model and all that, but if I had to guess, you want none of that. I’m not going to pretend you want another dad or some fake big brother. All I want to do is make your mom happy. I like her a lot. I mean, a lot. And I really want things to work out between her and me. She’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. I just hope we can at least be cool with each other. You want a friend? I can be that. You want me to leave you alone? I can do that, too. Just tell me what you want, and let’s make the most of this.
The dude was upfront. I had to give him that.
All I knew going into the night was that I would try, say more than a couple words, and at least pretend to be interested in what Cavalier had to say.
I didn’t expect to respect the guy.
I know I’m going to sound like a dick for asking this, but what’s your name again?