AMERICAN GENERAL by Ernest White II

Diego flicked on the bathroom light as he let the door slam behind him. His mother probably didn’t hear. Not with Mongo Santamaría’s syncopated percussion dancing a loud mambo from the record player in the living room out of the house through the open Plexiglas slats of the hurricane windows. The night was breezy, typical of late October, and the faint smell of oranges from the Valencia tree next door mingled with the dying aroma of garlic from the kitchen. While ferns danced in white, plastic pots suspended from the ceiling, his mother’s feet danced while she was busy working on a charcoal sketch of Cousin Laura. Mami wouldn’t notice anything, especially since the gang of trick-or-treaters tapered off after nightfall, distracting her less often from the easel. Behind her, the glass case holding Diego’s trophies vibrated with Mongo’s horns. The sweaty lifeguard t-shirt and gym shorts Diego had played basketball in earlier that afternoon hung languidly on his body. The sweat dried, making the cotton of the shirt feel papery against his skin. His mother had been bugging him about taking a shower all evening, but gave up after a half-hour of near-silence at dinner. She had cooked a pan of lasagna she bought at the Sam’s out by 95 and baked a pumpkin cheesecake decorated with sixteen candy-striped candles. Diego had blown them out with a quiet thanks, slowly eating a section of lasagna that would have ordinarily taken him a few minutes to devour.

“What’s wrong, mi vida? Tired?”

“A little. I’m really not that hungry, Ma.”

“You have to eat something. You know how you love some lasagna.”

“I’ll eat it later.”

“Well, what about your birthday cake?”

“Más tarde, Mami.”

Teena-Marie had serenaded them earlier and Marvin Gaye before that. Now it was Mongo and his bongos. Mongo peppering the entire street with his bongos. His mother always played her music loud, a habit Diego was quickly acquiring as his own music collection grew. “Loud-ass Puerto Ricans,” Diego knew the neighbors were mumbling under their breaths. They always did.

The fluorescent light showed moonlike in the clear water of the toilet bowl. Diego leaned over it, the curly shadow of his hair eclipsing the light’s reflection. Dried urine stained the rim of the bowl, usually left a few days until his mother got tired of waiting for Diego to clean the bathroom only he and houseguests used. The stream of urine sputtered to a milky start, breaking through the film of dried semen from earlier in the afternoon and sprinkling clear droplets on the rim and floor. Diego sighed as he relieved himself, the light rippling in the bowl, the smell of the urine rising warmly from the stream. Once done, he stared as the ripples quickly became smaller, then stopped. Diego moved his hand from the shaft of his penis to the base, then ran his three middle fingers down the backside of his testicles along the warm, moist skin, slightly parting them. He raised his fingers to his nose and inhaled. It wasn’t the first time he’d smelled himself. But it was the first time he smelled like someone else, like another boy at least. Diego realized this male commonality, earlier in the afternoon. Like a humid day at the beach—heady, sticky, salty, strong. Jennifer and Erica and Melanie and Jolene were…different. A different part of the beach.

“Yo, D,” Ron had shouted. “I know your punk-ass ain’t ready to take it to the court after school.”

“Ah, nigga, you can’t take me.”

“That’s wussup, dog. Gym. Three o’clock,” Ron had challenged. “You better have your high yellow ass out there, too.”

Three o’clock came.

“I jayed that shit right in your face, fool. And you supposed to be the center of the basketball team. You ain’t shit.”

“Oh yeah?” Ron spun around under Diego’s left arm, then shot the lay-up off the backboard. “Bim, muthafucka! Stick yo ass to the football field, bitch!”

The ball thwacked rhythmically against the painted wood, interspersed by squeaking rubber soles for a long while. Grunts. Sighs. Shit-talking. Elbows. Feet. A tripped body crashing into the floor, Diego wincing from the impact. Ron pinning him down. Grunts. Shit-talking. Ball bouncing, less and less high. Elbows. Ball rolling. Struggle. Knees. Sweat. Hands. Grunts. Knees. Shit-talking. Less. Resistance. Grunts. Breath. Awkwardness. Skin. Grunts. Hands. Lips. Grinding. Hips. Stiffness. Sweat. Breath. Wetness.

Rectangular, dark green tiles edged half-way up the bathroom wall, followed by white, fleur-de-lis-etched wallpaper that was beginning to curl slightly at the ceiling. The cold water was on, sounding like television static. A cartoon coqui grinned goofily from the bottom right corner of the bathroom mirror, holding a Puerto Rican flag. Diego stuck it to the mirror soon after he and his mother first moved into the house. He got a spanking for it, but she never peeled the sticker off. Diego looked at the dark, thickening hair underneath his nose. He looked at his lips, pinkish-beige, soft. Lips just touched by Ron’s lips. Ron’s lips which were fuller, browner, under darker, thicker hair. Lips like Seth’s. It wasn’t right. Not right, to enjoy it so much. To enjoy stiffness over softness, angles over curves. Jolene, now that was right. A stallion. Fine, stacked, brick house. Track team. Thick thighs, hips, lips. Put her mouth anywhere. He could go over to her house right now and have her tongue all over…where Ron just had his. He’d be sucking all on her chest, her breasts. Wasn’t fucking right. Fuck. Fucked. He’s fucked. They fucked. On the fucking gym floor. On the fucking pirate in the middle of the fucking gym floor. Where the fucking custodian could have caught them fucking in the middle of the fucking gym floor. That fuckin’ Ron and that fuckin’ Diego fuckin’ in the got-damn gym.

Tylenol and Campho-Phenique and Q-Tips and Speed Stick and Band-Aids and Dimetapp and Pepto-Bismol and Aqua Fresh and Plax and Vaseline and Reach Floss and 70% Isopropyl Alcohol Rubbing Compound and nail clippers and tweezers and African Royale Hot 6 Oil and Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Lotion and Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion and a container of double-edged American General razors. The light flashed in the mirror as Diego closed the medicine cabinet. Mongo’s bongosflutessaxophones still thumpedblewsang, muted, through the bathroom door. Through Diego’s head. Loud-ass Puerto Ricans. Erica, she gave the best head. Loud, crazy-ass Puerto Ricans. Best head he ever had before today. Faggot-ass Puerto Rican. He rotated the plastic razor container slowly in his right hand a couple of times, then slipped one of the thin strips of metal out of the package with his thumb. The box fell into the sink, sliding to the bottom and resting on the stopper, doused under the running faucet. STEEL RAZOR read the shiny silver thing between his right thumb and index finger. It felt cold, wet. But it was dry. “Have your high yellow ass out there.” High yellow. He wasn’t high yellow now like he would be in January, when the season was over and he wouldn’t be outside as much. He was low yellow. He was almost red. He even had to look hard to see his veins. He wasn’t yellow, he was red. Taíno. Fuck it, he was black. Strong black man. Mandingo warrior. Uncut, baby! Shit, ask Jennifer. Erica. Ron. Fuck.

Diego stared, engrossed at the bluish channels of life beneath his skin. He traced the blade flatly against the dermis, scratching white streaks of dead cells. He wondered if he should slit across, matching the creases just below his palm. Or should he trace downward, following the vein south like a road map. Bracial, basilic, bronchial, one of them muthafuckas. Who the hell pays attention in class anymore? Right? No. Not fucking right. The steel traveled slowly, determinedly, leaving an expanding trail of crimson staining the road map of his left arm. Jacksonville to Miami. He only got just beyond Titusville, and barely half that distance on the right arm before the blade fell into the sanguine lake already forming on the tile.

Sitting under the sink, life coursing rhythmically from his body, Diego didn’t know if he made any noise when it happened. Mongo didn’t stop bongoing. Mami didn’t shout, “Diego, que fue?” The earth didn’t stop spinning. Crazy Puerto Rican. The bathroom light didn’t go out. Letting another boy touch you like that. The water in the sink didn’t stop running. Do stuff to you. The red on the floor looked black, reflected in the green tiles of the wall. That shit ain’t right. Loud-ass Puerto Rican. You ain’t right. Loud, crazy, faggot-ass Puerto Rican. What the fuck were y’all doing? Ron? Ron, what the fuck you doin’, man? Ron’s tongue entered Diego’s mouth, silencing his protests, their kisses echoing in the deserted gymnasium.

 


Ernest White II is a storyteller and explorer. He is the creator of multicultural travel portal Fly Brother, a contributing writer at literary travel journal Panorama, a former assistant editor at Time Out São Paulo, and founding editor of digital men’s magazine Abernathy. A Florida native, Ernest’s obsessions include Indian curry, São Paulo, and Rita Hayworth.