by Reena Shah
Reena Shah is a writer, educator, and dancer. Her work has appeared in Origins Journal, Temenos, and Chalkbeat. She is also the author of the biography Movement in Stills: The Dance and Life of Kumudini Lakhia (MapinLit). She holds an MFA from New York University and has been a member of the Parul Shah Dance Company for several years. She is also a public school teacher and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two young boys. Members of the Texas Review staff interviewed her about her story “Flamingos,” which appears in our fall/winter 2017 issue and is reprinted below the interview.
TR staff interviewers: Laura Brackin, Savanah Burns, Cora Davis, Anne Galloway, Ashley Kulhanek, Roonama Noori, Stephanie Savell, and Kathryn Ulrich.
TR: Because we get Mari’s point of view first, it tends to bend the entire narrative toward her, which is to say, it feels somewhat like this is Mari’s story, even as we learn so much in turn about Shane and Gordi. In this way, it would read differently if we got Shane’s or Gordi’s version first. What was your process in choosing the order of the sections? Did you know from the beginning who would be presented first, middle, and last?
RS: My first stab at this story was from Gordi’s perspective. I had the image of him fixing his hair and had in mind a misunderstood kid who kills a flamingo in the Bronx Zoo. I don’t usually know all of the characters until I start writing because I generally don’t work from outlines. It was only after fleshing out Gordi’s story that Mari became more important. I found myself veering away from Gordi to write about her, and at some point I realized that she could anchor the story. Her lie, or implied lie, is what kicks off the action and becomes central to the flamingo killing. It’s a cry for help but also a tipping point.
I decided to have Gordi’s story last because I wanted to reveal him in stages, first through Mari’s eyes, where we see how uncomfortable he makes her, then through Shane’s adolescent cruelty, and then finally how he sees himself. I’m hoping that each perspective complicates the reader’s sympathies, or lack of sympathy, for any individual character.
TR: Within each larger point of view section, the narrative shifts in tense from past to present to future. A lot of this story’s conflict centers around perspective, and time is part of that perspective, so how did you see these various narrative tenses illuminating or complicating the story? We especially thought the future tense sections provide a feeling of certainty to the resolutions of the story, but we were curious what you had in mind.
RS: At first, the tense shifts were writing exercises I created for myself, a way for me to move time forward and avoid getting mired in backstory. I found the structure oddly freeing and I actually wrote the first draft a lot faster because of it—a rare experience for me. My intention was for each character’s past, present, and future sections to take the plot a step forward and deepen the reader’s understanding of the previous character, kind of like a fugue that builds through repetition. With each character’s section repeating some events from the previous character’s section, my aim was for the story to unfold kaleidoscopically to eventually cover a broad span of time.
I found myself wanting the story to be both episodic and expansive, and, again, the structure helped me with that. The present tense is meant to feel urgent, to draw attention to the events at the zoo. What happens there is both significant in shaping the lives of all three kids and also not significant at all. The future tense sections speed up, and the characters find themselves still struggling, and striving, in different ways. In a sense, the tragedy of time is also what saves the characters from their own actions; everything fades, everything passes.
TR: How do the flamingos, as both title and image, function in the story? What experiences of the characters, if any, do they reflect?
RS: Initially, it was just an event. Gordi stabs a flamingo at the zoo. Even now, after so many revisions and rewrites, I can’t say I was consciously trying to build symbolism through the flamingos. But in retrospect, I do see a connection between zoos and the busing program that takes Mari and Gordi to Milford public schools. Zoos may be well intentioned, but there’s still an enclosure, a lack of freedom. While the busing program may intend to offer opportunity to Mari and Gordi, it negatively impacts their identities and their sense of belonging in the world. I think that’s one connection between the flamingos and the characters.
In addition to the flamingos, there are other animals in the story, not just because part of the story takes place in a zoo, but because Mari is drawn to them. She longs to have a pet, dreams of being a veterinarian, and takes a job at an aquarium. I think she sees having a connection to animals as uniquely American, but also a way to feel connected. I think of Mari as closed off and introverted, even though she briefly relishes the fleeting attention that comes with being Shane’s girlfriend. Still, I think she knows that the connection to Shane is momentary and conditional and longs for something simpler.
TR: Gordi, Mari, and her family speak both Spanish and English in the story. There are times when the characters are speaking Spanish, but it is written in English. Other times, the dialogue is in Spanish. How do you decide when to switch between the languages? How do you see language playing into a story where understanding (or lack thereof) is so pivotal?
RS: Because Gordi is a recent immigrant, sent by his uncle to the United States, there were just some lines of dialogue and thought that felt most natural in Spanish. I was guided mostly by intuition and what sounded right in terms of rhythm and cadence. As a child of Indian immigrants, I grew up with language mixing and even now my “home” language peppers my thoughts, even though English has become the main language I speak at home. When I was inside Gordi’s head, I heard his thoughts in a similar way.
There’s a line where Gordi thinks that what he wants most is to understand. Not the language, but what’s behind the language. His English, I imagine, is pretty good. But there’s the “unspoken code” that no one teaches him. He assumes that Mari should be his teacher. He doesn’t pick up on her discomfort, how familiarity is not something she wants with him, how hard she herself is trying to belong. Though they share a language, by itself it’s insufficient to build understanding, to communicate a person’s interior, something all three characters experience.
TR: How did your background as a teacher and educator inform your approach to these characters and their struggles with school, bullying, abuse, and so on?
RS: Sometimes, I am shocked that I am a schoolteacher because I struggled so much in school, particularly elementary and middle school. I grew up in Connecticut and attended suburban schools and didn’t enjoy it. I was on the outside and thought the experience would never end.
That said, I’m drawn to the school environment. Schools are strange social experiments where we organize children by age and expect them to get along in ways that adults, often, cannot. These institutions become their own social microcosms that we carry around for the rest of our lives. We remember so little of what is taught but so much of what happens in those in-between moments—in hallways, at recess, in lunchrooms, on buses. As an educator, I’m as interested in how children experience those moments as what they do in the classroom.
I’m lucky to have worked in several progressive schools with lots of support for social and emotional learning and conflict resolution, but I’ve also worked in a few places that focused more on control rather than understanding a student’s experience. The incident at the zoo draws from a real event during my first year as a public school teacher. The student who did it was an enigma to me, a kid that I didn’t teach directly but who was famous around the school as a tough kid. At the time I was struggling to simply stay afloat as a teacher, but the event shook me. I realized I knew next to nothing about this student and that the school itself was just letting him drift along. Years later, when I began writing this story, I began with this experience and let the story take off from there.
Mari Mejia’s pet gerbil Loca lived for six months before dying in its sleep. Mari was five years old. Her father wrapped the body in brown paper towels and placed it gently in the trash. Afterward, Mari had wanted a larger, more significant pet, like Harlow McCalister’s bloodhound or Ella Avery’s tabby cat. She had hoped her mother might even have another baby, a girl, so Mari could have a sister. Something Mari could hug and teach things to. “No space, Mari,” her father insisted, which was true. Back then, Mari had after-school play dates with Harlow and Ella. Their houses featured pebbled landscaping and tire swings, carpeted bedrooms large enough for gymnastics, and multiple pairs of rhinestoned Keds lying soles akimbo by the door. Their pets lived for years and were buried in fenced-in backyards.
Mari lived in a two-room apartment on the second story of a clapboard house in Bridgeport. Dresser drawers slid open if they weren’t taped shut. The windowless kitchen smelled of sancocho and mangú. Mari did not attend her local, urban school. Her parents hoped to avoid the fate of their neighbor’s daughter, who fought so much that her face looked dented. Instead, they enrolled Mari in a kindergarten program that bussed her, along with a handful of other Dominican children, to and from Harborside public schools in the leafy suburb of Milford, forty-five minutes outside of Bridgeport.
By the end of third grade, Mari no longer sat with Harlow and Ella at lunch, though they sometimes did round-offs together during recess. By fifth grade, their only interactions were during class when paired up for buddy reading—a strong student mixed with a weaker one for “reciprocal teaching.” Mari was weak.
In eighth grade, she grew two inches. Her brown legs lengthened; her body curved and rounded. The rest of her face caught up with the fullness of her mouth, which Mari still tried to hide by biting her lips. Milford’s bussing program only ran K-8, so she applied for one of the limited seats reserved for out-of-district students. She was in the remedial program, which Harborside Junior High called “level 1,” but Mari thought she had a chance, if not in Milford, then in Ridgefield or Redding. She worked hard and was respectful, statements that crowded the comments section of all her report cards. Twice a week, for writing help, Mari attended afterschool, where Shane Neilson, a boy with soft golden hair that fell over his eyes like a curtain of lace, was assigned to tutor her. Mari showed him her notebook filled with disorganized, misspelled words in meticulous, bubbly penmanship. He provided lists of vowel combinations, which she diligently practiced.
She did not show him the notebook she kept hidden in her locker under a bag of gym clothes and the pair of teal high heels stolen from her mother. There, she wrote poems about animals, inserting words that she didn’t know the meanings of, like obsidian and trance and municipal, because she liked how they looked with dog and cheetah and octopus.
At the Winter Celebration, Shane asked Mari to dance and held her so tightly Mari could feel his erection. “Too close,” Mrs. Selcowitz said and placed a hand between them to illustrate. Mari became the only Bridgeport bus kid with a white boyfriend. When they kissed, she cracked open her eyes and counted the freckles on his cheeks. She pictured him in her kitchen with the curling linoleum, examining the knickknacks her mother placed in their one glass cabinet, cherished objects that were other people’s party favors. Maybe these things wouldn’t matter; maybe she’d crossed an invisible line.
In the middle of the year, cousin Gordi from DR came to live with them. Mari’s parents could not refuse family they’d left behind, so for him they made space. He spoke his thickly accented English like he was making announcements, and he slept on a mat in Mari’s small, closetless room, choking the air with his raw odor. He had a habit of standing too close and staring too hard. And though he was two years older, Mari’s parents fought to enroll him with her, hoping she would help him adjust. The Harborside teachers grouped them together for study hall, advisory, electives, and gym class, as if he were the sibling Mari had once longed for.
When Shane finally suggested that they go to her place—“I’ll take the bus with you”—Mari shook her head. Maybe the knickknacks and windowless kitchen and fake leather chairs wouldn’t matter, but there was no hiding Gordi, who sprawled out on his mat, eating dollar-store potato chips, crumbs suspended like flies in his hair gel.
The day after Easter break, Mari receives a rejection letter regretfully informing her that she cannot attend Milford or Ridgefield or Redding High. She reads the letter twice, hoping the words will rearrange themselves. Then she folds and tucks the paper under her notebooks in her locker.
In social studies, she leaves half her quiz blank. Who shot McKinley? What is yellow journalism? After class, she lingers, hoping Mrs. Selcowitz, her teacher and advisor, will inquire about the letter. She does not, and glances up reluctantly from her stack of papers to ask, “Can I help you, Mari?”
Mari draws a deep breath. She intends to discuss high school and her desire to stay in Milford, even though Milford usually makes her feel like she’s on the outside looking in. Mari stares at the sunny yellow bulletin board and the neon pockets filled with homework packets. Tomorrow is the eighth grade class trip to the Bronx Zoo, and Mari knows she’ll be partnered with Gordi. She thinks about having to dress in the bathroom where there is no place to leave her clothes except on the wet sink, and how sometimes, in the middle of the night, she hears Gordi scratching himself. He flicks cereal at her during breakfast, and the little O’s often land in her shirt. He leaves the door ajar while he primps in the bathroom mirror, smiling at her like he’s a movie star when he catches her eye, a constellation of blackheads crowding his nose.
“Gordi,” she finally says. “I have to share a room with him. In the mornings, sometimes . . .” Mari trails off and pulls the cuffs of her sleeves over her thumbs.
“What is it, Mari?” Mrs. Selcowitz leans in, her voice full of syrupy concern. Mari forces herself to remain perfectly still while Mrs. Selcowitz searches her face. “Does he touch you?”
Mari feels tears roll down her cheeks, and she wipes them away. She does not refute the confirmation they offer, even though Gordi has never touched her, not like that. She is aware that the classroom door is open and that by the time Mrs. Selcowitz realizes this, it’s too late. The hallway kids have already decided on what they’ve heard. By fourth period, versions of the story have multiplied like tumors. Hears him humping his pillow at night. Picks the bathroom lock. Poor Mari. At lunch, Shane is especially doting, fetching her lunch tray and keeping a firm hand around her waist as they eat. The entire eighth grade watches them like royalty, like Mari has always been one of them.
When Gordi returns to the lunch counter for more condiments, one of Shane’s friends spits on his mozzarella sticks. Mari looks away as her cousin dips the fried cheese in ketchup and places it whole in his mouth.
On the bus home, Mari leans her head on the scratched window and does not lift it until they arrive at their stop. She can feel Gordi looking at her from the seat across the aisle, can sense that he wants to speak to her, but she acts like she is angry, like he has done something terribly wrong. That night, she complains of a stomachache and goes to bed early. She fakes sleep when Gordi enters, even though he makes enough noise to wake the devil in God. In the morning, she tiptoes out of the room. She hears him call after her as she walks to the bus, and her mind twists itself into justifications, her face hot with shame.
For the Bronx Zoo trip, Mari is not grouped with Gordi; for one day, her teachers are not expecting her to guide him along.
Instead, Mari and Shane are together, chaperoned by a dad in khaki shorts and orange flip-flops. Mari is surprised that they are allowed to hold hands and kiss while they wait in line for tickets. The dad just squints his eyes and puffs air into his bangs.
When it’s time to choose an exhibit, Mari wants to follow the sign for the less popular American bison area and away from the other groups, even though Shane insists that they visit the snow leopards first (“My parents saw one in the wild in Nepal once”), where Gordi’s group, chaperoned by Mrs. Selcowitz, is also heading.
“Fine,” Mari says, “but I have to pee.” She stands inside the bathroom stall with her back to the door and counts to 100 with Mississippis.
It has been twenty-four hours since her conversation with Mrs. Selcowitz, and Mari is waiting for the rumors to turn on her, for someone to say, Maybe it’s a Dominican thing. Maybe she likes it. For the guidance office to call her parents for a meeting, which means less hours, less pay. It usually takes a day for shit to change course, and Mari can feel it coming. The red panda exhibit gives her no joy, though she does her best to coo like the other girls. In the Congo Gorilla Forest, she forgets to laugh when Shane points out a gorilla fondling his balls.
They arrive at the flamingo enclosure at 1 pm, the class’s designated meeting spot for lunch. The birds cluster together on a flat, brown rock in the middle of a shallow pond. Their thin legs are cocked at odd angles, knees broken-looking. One is standing by itself in the water. Its long neck bends in an S, and its black beak points at Mari.
“Look. It likes you,” Shane says and inches his hand toward Mari’s right butt cheek. “Blow it a kiss.”
Mari slaps him in the chest. “Screw you.” Then she stands with one calf drawn up to her thigh and stares at the bird with wide, mocking eyes.
The other groups begin to arrive. Mrs. Selcowitz carries boxed lunches of tepid sandwiches and cut fruit for kids who don’t bring their own lunches, but Mari plans to pick at Shane’s sandwich and pretend she’s not hungry.
When Mari turns around, she sees Gordi emerge from the Mouse House. He is alone. She is about to turn away when he reaches into the front pocket of his frayed cargo pants and pulls out her father’s butcher knife, the expensive one that slices yucca into thin rounds.
The next day, Mari’s parents will sit in the guidance counselor’s pale green office with Mrs. Selcowitz, and Mari will quietly explain. She will tell them about her hopes for high school and the rejection letter. How she was not afraid of the knife because the knife was unimportant. She will tell them that Gordi has never touched her, not in the way that she allowed Mrs. Selcowitz to believe. As she speaks, Mari’s parents will sit with their arms folded over their soft middles, leaning forward attentively, as if they, too, are here to confess. Both her mother and Mrs. Selcowitz will wipe tears from their eyes, but only Mrs. Selcowitz will reach for Mari’s hand. Mari will politely shake her head, even though she wants desperately to take it.
Mari will not talk about Gordi’s habit of popping pimples in front of her or the tuft of stiff hair sprouting in the middle of his back, how these images stay in her brain, never leaving her in peace. How though they are family, he is still a stranger and his flesh disgusts her. How ashamed she is of being so mean.
When Shane stops calling her, Mari will feel equal parts relief and disappointment. She will find it easy to avoid him in the hallways because they share no classes, though when their paths occasionally cross, he will smile at her the way he smiles at people he barely knows.
Gordi will move into the living room, folding up his sheets and stowing his plastic mat behind the TV console each morning. A city social worker will visit Mari and her family, lining them up on the coffee-stained loveseat while she asks questions about who sleeps where. After a few months, Mari will venture a good morning to Gordi, but he will only nod in return. When Gordi drops out of school at seventeen and decides to move out, Mari’s parents will protest in vain. They will ask Mari to speak to him, and she will try. She will say, “School is the only way,” and Gordi will shrug. “No te preocupes por mi.”
Mari will attend her local high school and then Gateway Community College for three semesters before taking a break to pay off mounting bills. She will look for jobs at pet shops, as a dog walker, selling online grooming supplies, anything close to animals (except zoos), because she still loves animals. She will even harbor dreams of becoming a veterinarian, though the cost will be prohibitive. She will finally land a job at Mystic Aquarium—just for a year, she will say, but it will become two and then three. She will start as a cashier in the café before being promoted to the visitor information center. She will rent a room, not in Mystic, but in cheaper, neighboring Stonington, and on weekends she will tag along with her roommate to clubs and bars that leave her dissatisfied.
At night, she will write meandering poems that she whispers aloud to herself.
One evening, after the aquarium has closed, she will sit by the manatee tank and wait for their pale, sad bodies to skim past the glass. She will place her hand against it, hoping to feel the brush of their skin, but when she feels nothing, she will look over her shoulder and slip through the back door that leads to the boulders at the surface from where the beasts are fed. She will crouch so that her face is so close to the water that it laps the tip of her nose, hoping to graze a flat, warm snout. She knows she only has a few moments before she has to retreat or be discovered. At the last possible minute, she will feel the vibration of an impossibly large weight rising from the water’s depth and will whisper encouragements, as if she alone can undermine their captors.
Shane Neilson spent his kindergarten year traveling around the world with his family. A once in a lifetime trip, his parents boasted to their Milford neighbors before they left. In Vietnam, they posted a photo of Shane sweeping runoff water from the monsoon into the open sewers with a group of village children clad only in fraying towels wrapped around their waists. Shane was taller than all of them. The photo received 215 likes.
When Shane began first grade the following year, he struggled, at first, to catch up. He wrote only in capital letters. He didn’t know the rules for magic c or silent e. His teacher strummed a lap harp at drop-off to corral the children’s attention while parents said their goodbyes, and then spent the rest of the day speaking harshly to him. He played soccer with the Dominican kids during recess and drew stars with permanent marker on his bedroom walls. He wished he could take hold of one of the stars and have it launch him into outer space. Or just somewhere else.
His parents hired reading and writing tutors and enrolled him in co-ed scouts. His mother was a popular scoutmaster who made sure he earned his badges. They built him a tree house and invited potential friends along for holidays in Turks and Caicos.
By sixth grade, Shane regularly received folded notes from girls who liked him. As the most popular orbited him in the cafeteria, he feigned ignorance, which only heightened their attention. Secretly, he worried that at any moment he’d turn back into the kid no one cared to know.
By eighth grade, his teachers thought he was an excellent thinker with a knack for logical argument. He was invited to join the after-school peer-tutoring club where he worked with Mari, the Dominican girl with the droopy-eyed cousin from DR. He could have poked fun at Mari’s inadequate grammar and spelling, but he didn’t. He also could have told her that he too had once been tutored, but he didn’t do that either. When they kissed, she smelled like oranges and toothpaste.
He heard about Mari’s talk with Mrs. Selcowitz and felt a pleasurable weight of responsibility, like Mari’s sadness was something he could fix. “You should have told me,” he said to her at lunch with his arm protectively slung over her shoulder. That day, when Gordi was in the bathroom, Shane snuck a photo of him from above the stall. It showed Gordi with his pants around his ankles, staring at the blue tiled wall, his sallow, skinny penis urinating a pale yellow arc. In the evening, Shane texted the photo to a few friends, who posted it to Instagram. One girl, to demonstrate her loyalty, coined the term finger dick and printed out the image to tape on Gordi’s locker.
“Gordi!”Mari yells. Shane turns his back to the flamingos and sees Gordi’s shiny hair, like a dark ocean reflecting the sun, before noticing the object in his hand. He hears someone yell, “Please put that down,” and then a whimper. Gordi holds the knife stiffly in his left arm and away from his own body, as if carrying a stinking object to the trash. Except that Shane can see the veins in Gordi’s forearm bulge from the pressure of his grip. As Gordi draws closer, Shane realizes that his gaze is fixed not on them but at a point beyond them, and Shane has an urge to look over his shoulder but doesn’t. He removes his hand from Mari’s waist and holds both hands up by his ears, palms out. “Yo, man, relax. Just relax.” But Gordi points to the ground with the knife and screams, “You sit fuck down!” Shane crouches and thinks of the first time he dove underwater, how he kicked frantically toward the light at the surface. He thinks of the lisp he had as a child, how a therapist taught him the correct location for his tongue behind his teeth. Sometimes he still forgets.
When Mari speaks, he nearly startles, as if expecting her to be somewhere else. He hears her say something low in Spanish, the rhythm of the words like a lullaby. She takes a step forward and reaches out her arm, like she’s coaxing along a small animal. Shane imagines her hand around the blade, squeezing it in greeting.
A tear trickles down the topography of Gordi’s cheek. Shane closes his eyes and silently vows to be a different kind of person, someone who only does good things. He whispers to himself please over and over until he hears a splash followed by gasps and more screams. When he turns around, he sees the flamingo, the one that was looking at Mari, floating belly up in bloody water. Its long neck is submerged but its black beak points toward the sky.
Shane will receive a week-long, in-house suspension for taking the photo of Gordi. He will report to the vice principal’s office each day of the suspension and will dutifully complete assignments and then ask for more.
He will dial Mari’s landline several times that week but each time he will hang up before someone answers. His father will watch sympathetically before finally sitting him down to explain why such things cannot work. “I know you were trying to help,” he’ll say. Shane will delete Mari’s number from his phone by the end of the week but will smile at her when they see each other in the hallways.
Shane will attend one of the county’s best high schools the following year and will date the same girl, a soccer player who lives a few streets down from his house, for the next three. He will break up with her after they have sex for the first time, and he will convince himself that the sex has nothing to do with it. That he is actually being kind by not letting her believe that he loves her.
After graduating college, Shane will teach English in a Peruvian village and will become fluent in Spanish. He’ll enjoy his time bathing in streams and the smell of the bleached straw roof he sleeps under. He’ll enjoy it so much he’ll consider staying another year until his parents implore him to come home. For a week, he will argue with them over poor FaceTime connections but will ultimately give in. His parents, he will say to himself, deserve loyalty, a modicum of respect after all they’ve done for him. He will convince himself, with a sigh and sense of sacrifice, that his parents need him close and will ignore his own relief.
Several years later, while doing pro bono legal work for a worthy nonprofit in downtown Brooklyn, he will run into Harlow McCalister. They will marvel at the coincidence as they grab a drink, then two.
After they marry, they will intend to stay in their one-bedroom in the Meatpacking District until deciding that Ridgefield, Connecticut, is a better place to raise children. On their third round of IVF, they will have twins, a boy and a girl who will look like him. Shane will hug them tightly each night until Harlow tells him it’s time to lay them down. He will wait by the door until he hears their even, sleeping breath, and when they are older, he will sneak back in, lean over each one and whisper into their ears, love and be loved, as if the words offer protection.
Until Gordi Mejia was twelve years old, he wore his bangs slicked down so that they lay flat against his forehead. Several times a day, he’d spray his palms with canola oil and press forward wayward strands that attempted to recoil. Uh-uh, he thought. He didn’t care that the rest of his brown hair kinked and swirled around his face. He didn’t care that his own mother laughed at him when she cupped her hand around his chin.
That was in DR, before he came to live with his cousin Mari in Bridgeport. Not wanting his only son chasing chickens and dark-skinned girls all afternoon, his father sent him to a brother in El Norte. Gordi arrived just after his fourteenth birthday, bangs still pointing darts at his eyes. Acne bloomed on both cheeks; the peach fuzz above his upper lip had darkened. Girls back home never cared, but Mari looked at him with the edges of her mouth curled in disgust like she couldn’t help it.
Mari had red-brown hair that she wore pulled back so tight her eyes squinted.
At school, Gordi tried to be nice, but the other kids saw his face, the shine and clutter of it. They saw his Styrofoam plate at lunch, how he devoured the packaged roast beef sandwich, how he lapped up the watery ketchup with a spork, and they laughed. They stuck signs on his back with stolen sharpies: pizza face and refugee and dick. They tried hard to mark him as feo, the ugly one. But each morning, Gordi told himself he was not.
He didn’t hear the rumors about him and Mari until after lunch, but he could sense them lurking in the hallways. Cruel things he did not believe his cousin would say. Gordi knew his presence bothered her, but what could he change? When he saw the photo of himself, the arc of unapologetic piss, he could have laughed had Mari acknowledged him, had she explained what she was after.
On the morning of the eighth grade class trip, Gordi heard Mari tiptoe out of the room. He took a shower and then rubbed alcohol into his cheeks to calm his inflamed pimples. He combed Martian-blue gel through his hair until his bangs rose up two inches off his forehead, like Bruno Mars, whose poster Mari had taped inside her locker. If he tilted his chin down and to the left, Gordi thought the likeness was credible.
The knife was an afterthought. He saw it propped in the metal dish rack. He wrapped the blade in brown paper towels before slipping it into his cargo pants. Por si acaso, he thought, but just in case of what he was not sure.
Gordi lingers at the Mouse House as Mrs. Selcowitz and the others slip through the exit. The room is dark and cold, with glass windows to look in at the animals. Gordi eyes a group of younger kids pointing and cooing at a hutia, a cross between a rat and a guinea pig, sleeping between two brown logs. He sucks his teeth. In El Norte, you pay to see fucking rodents. To the kids he says, “In DR, hutia everywhere.”
“Really?” says a little girl with perfectly symmetrical pigtails.
“Yeah.” Then he adds, “We fry ‘em up. Eat ‘em for breakfast.”
The girl bites her lower lip and glances back at the slumbering animal.
Gordi smiles to himself as a parent shuffles the children away. He steps out of the Mouse House and into the blinding daylight. His group is ahead of him, at the flamingo habitat, the place where all the groups are supposed to meet before lunch. Gordi knows this and he waits, watching Mrs. Selcowitz grow anxious as she registers his disappearance, until she turns around and sees him. Anger and relief flood her tired face. Mari’s group is to the left along the enclosure, and Mari is leaning against the metal fence no higher than her hips. Shane stands next to her, his arm wrapped low around her waist so that one hand circles the top of her ass. Mari pulls away from him and draws one bronzed knee to her hip and giggles.
Gordi feels the weight of the carving knife in his cargo pants, like a small child pulling gently on one leg. A light but constant tug. He walks toward his classmates and reaches into his pocket. The blade runs all the way through the handle. He wants to grip it steadily but his hand trembles.
He holds it out in front of him and points it in the general direction of his cousin and her boyfriend.
He hears screams that sound far away though they are close by. He wants it to be like those telenovelas where the guapo wins and is loved by all and the feo loses. Despite what they think, Gordi knows he’s the guapo.
In DR, he would form a circle with the other kids and cheer for one side or another. Sometimes, someone might need stitches, though usually the cuts were shallow, like thin dotted lines. But here, Gordi sees Shane step back with his hands up and lips moving, terrified.
Gordi wishes he could explain that he is not angry about the photo, though it was hurtful. That he is not angry that they call him names. That actually, he is most angry about not knowing. Not understanding. Yes, he knows the words, but he does not know how things work. The code, its rules. He wants someone to show him how. Someone to say, Like this.
Instead Gordi swears and yells, “You sit fuck down!”
Mari moves toward him. “Lo siento, Gordi. Aquí no se hace las cosas así.”Her voice is nearly a whisper, and for the first time she looks at him like they are family. Si así no, he thinks, pues cómo?
“Why you lie like that?”he says but knows she can’t answer it, that she can’t possibly know why. Mari continues to move closer, and because he does not know what to do, because this is not a telenovela, because he has only seen other people carry knives, he runs past her and toward the flamingos.
Mrs. Selcowitz will accompany Gordi along with two zoo security guards to a brick office that smells of cat litter and old socks. He will sit in a torn leather chair, the stuffing spilling out, and will keep his hands folded in his lap. When he looks at the ground, tears will fall like slow motion drops of dew. When he closes his eyes, he will see the bird’s black pupils staring through him. How easily the knife had sunk into its soft, feathery flesh at first, as if cutting a marshmallow, until the blade met bone and sent a dull vibration up his arm.
He will want to explain that he had no intention of hurting anything. That when he jumped over the enclosure and charged through the shallow, murky pond, he was not inside himself. He was only a hot, white light. He will want to find words to explain that in DR, they would frown and then laugh at this. That the moments would come side by side, like nothing matters so much.But all he will say, over and over, is, “She lie to me.”
Harborside Junior High will be banned from the Bronx Zoo for the rest of that year and the next. In an effort to keep the story contained and not jeopardize a future career as superintendent, the school’s principal will suggest a two-week, out-of-school suspension, something that does not require approval from the district and that Gordi will serve while watching American soaps and telenovelas after smoking up on the fire escape. He will dream of hitching to California and becoming an actor who can play romantic leads and action heroes and large-hearted father figures.
He will move his mat into the living room and will avoid Mari. His father will call him and ask, wearily, if he wants to return to DR, and Gordi will say no, though he misses the smell of salt and oil and burnt things on his mother’s skin. He does not want to ruin the Gordi he imagines he has become in DR, the one who was sent to El Norte to be made new.
He will start high school with Mari in Bridgeport, and while she will soften toward him, Gordi will know it means nothing. After he leaves school, he will drift for a while. In time, his acne will fade and he will stop trying to tame his hair. It will grow, not long, but out, and once, while bussing tables on a busy Friday night at a bar full of wild-eyed people, a woman will place her hand on his and say, “You have beautiful hair,” and her smile will be warm and fleeting and her friends will laugh. He will smile back and take her empty drink and walk away. Over the years, others will say that he should do something with his looks, people who give him cards and tell him to call them. He will try, only to reach voicemails and leave messages that are never returned.
He’ll return to DR after his papers are finally in order, after he knows he can escape if he wants to. He will be el guapo from El Norte and will walk through the streets of Santo Domingo, hoping someone will discover him for the telenovelas he used to love, but he will tell no one this. His mother will ask him why he doesn’t cut his hair, why he wants to look like a savage. Her eyes will be shot with pink branches in the whites, and he’ll wish she had held him tighter, had let him be.