The name of the town doesn’t matter. Neither does mine.
His name was Eduardo, which he hated, so everyone called him Flaco. I didn’t know we were friends until one day in the fifth grade when he slipped me a note in class that read, Wanna see something?
I followed him into the woods after school. We walked a path until it forked, took the trail to the left and continued until we reached a creek, which we then traced deeper into the woods. The creek became a stream which led to a lake, like a capillary becoming a vein that leads to the heart.
He stopped at a flat rock upon which lay a dead bird. He turned to me, and I knew it was my job to break the silence that had existed ever since we met.
“What do we do?”
His hand disappeared into his Levi’s and emerged gripping a yellow box cutter.
I kneeled beside him as he cut from the base of the bird’s neck down its belly. When he was done, he sliced the bird twice more: once at the top of the initial wound (Are they still wounds when you’ve died?) and once at the bottom. The resulting intersection of incisions was a red capital “I.”
He pulled the flaps open, and we looked inside. We peered at life, at what had been hidden but known. We glimpsed God’s design, the bird’s and somehow our own. We saw the seeds of ourselves.
Seven years later, we found ourselves in those same woods, in a clearing where sun fell heavily like rain, as we had many times before.
He sipped his Budweiser, and I played with the tab on mine, him in the corner of my eye. He lounged on the grass, shirtless, barefoot. His T-shirt lay beside him like it too was sunbathing, as if it were a third boy. A line of bristly hair traveled from his belly button to the waistband of his briefs, which perpetually rode above his loose fitting jeans.
I only ever saw colors when I was with him. His jeans were lake blue; his skin the brown of the clouds of dirt we disturbed when we stepped into the water; his eyes the green of the grass beneath us; his shirt and underwear the blinding white of noon sun; the hair on his belly the obsidian of my dog’s nails.
“You done?” he asked.
“No,” I said, my beer heavy and cold in my hand.
He hauled himself up, ambled over, and took it from me. As he drank, I stared at his stomach, where his abs stuck out like the bumps on the off-brand Legos I played with when I was younger, due more to lack of fat than development of muscle.
When he was done, he tossed the can aside, pulled out a half pint of whiskey.
“For the occasion,” he said, smiling.
After his swig was mine. I managed not to cough or grimace by pretending I could taste his spit. Another round and the flat bottle was empty. Without a word, he turned and headed to the lake. He peeled off his tree bark brown belt, hopped out of his jeans.
We toweled off near his truck, which he’d started bringing a few years before when his abuelo gave it to him. Easier than trekking through the woods, but I missed those walks, how our steps fell into rhythm without our trying. As we dressed, I thought about his girls, the ones who came up to me at school and asked if he was ever going to call again. I stopped myself from asking him where he took them, because I knew he didn’t bring them here. I wondered if I’d give up our special place to find out.
He leaned into his truck and turned on the radio. The name of the song doesn’t matter.
“I’ma miss you, kid,” he said, wrapping his arms around me.
Despite a layer of cotton separating them, my fingers easily found the dimples of his back, the ones that made him resemble a string instrument from behind.
The hug became swaying, which led to dancing. He laughed as he spun me, and I rolled my eyes but smiled. Then he brought me in close, closer than the hug. Our pelvises touched, and I shivered, told myself it was the wet hair.
I remember not wanting to leave at the end of the summer, so we could do this every night, knowing it was only happening because I was leaving.
That’s when anger overcame me, blistering and snarling in my chest, in my fingertips, in my stomach, in my throat. I didn’t shove him like I wanted to—I uncurled my fingers and took a step back. The look on his face was casual, as if he hadn’t wanted things to go differently.
That night, on the ride home, I hated myself for not hating myself more, for not taking what little he wanted to give me, a man in the desert refusing a sip of water because he wanted a rainstorm.
There was a moment, before we got to my house, when I could have corrected our trajectory, sent us barreling down a road never traveled by the people of our town, leaving nothing but dust in our wake. He stopped at a light, and a streetlamp carved the top half of his face out of the darkness. My breath left me, my hands itched, I felt his gravity tugging on my chest.
And he knew. His eyes told me that. And more. It’s your turn, they said. Step onto the branch, feel it sway. Walk it like a tightrope. Don’t fall.
He didn’t move when the light turned green. He waited for me. And waited.
But I didn’t move, couldn’t.
And eventually he released the brake, stepped on the gas, and we drove on.
A part of me never left that intersection.
Aaron H. Aceves is a Mexican-American writer born and raised in East L.A. He graduated in 2015 from Harvard, where he received the Le Baron Russell Briggs Award after being nominated by Jamaica Kincaid. His work has appeared in Raspa Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, New Pop Lit, and The Acentos Review. He currently lives in New York, and his debut novel This Is Why They Hate Us is coming spring 2022 from Simon & Schuster. He can be found on Twitter (@aaronhaceves), Instagram (@aaronaceves), and online (aaronhaceves.com).