Carlos and I were in our usual lunchtime hiding spot underneath the bleachers by the football field. The only place we could get away from the “bro” haunted hallways of Washington Middle School. My lunch consisted of yogurt and strawberries, which the maid somehow thought I loved. I traded them to Carlos for his tortilla, queso, and beef jerky.
While I ate, I told Carlos that I saw Larissa’s bra strap poking out of her tank top during algebra. How it pressed against the skin on her shoulder blades and made these little red stripes. I wondered if her underwear, pressed against the top of her thighs and perfectly round bottom, made the same kind of stripes.
Carlos said bra straps were hot because they were close to the boobs. They absorbed all the sex hormones and stuff. It gave them an irresistible smell. If he had seen that strap he wouldn’t have been able to stop himself. He would have kissed her right there in the middle of class, and she wouldn’t have stopped him either. If a girl our age had boobs that big, it meant they were as crazy about sex as we were.
I didn’t like hearing Carlos talk about Larissa like that. The girl was perfection. Like the picture of The Virgin Mary in the back of the bible that I looked at to keep from getting bored at church.
To get him to shut up, I pulled out the baseball cards I had hidden in the sleeve of my trapper keeper. That morning, when my mom stopped to get gas, I asked her to buy me a dozen packs. Even though she knew I hated everything about baseball, she got them. Maybe she thought I was just pretending to hate baseball to make her feel better because my dad used to take me to games at his box seats in Metlife stadium.
Carlos had never been to a game, or even to San Fransisco, but he loved the sport. The one time I went over to his house, we hung out in the backyard where his father pretended to be a pitcher and threw the ball against the fence while we swung at it with an invisible bat.
Carlos had seven boxes full of cards, all of them Mexican players. “One day some kid my age is going to be collecting cards with my picture on them,” he’d say, all the time, even if no one was listening. Even if he was in the middle of class.
The packs were four bucks a piece, but I sold them to Carlos for two. He must have spent all the money he made working the strawberry stand by the farms on San Jon Road to get those cards. He opened each one cautiously like he was peeling a hard boiled egg.
There were only three Mexican players in the packs, but one was a guy he called “Hookey.” “It’s worth at least six bucks,” he shouted. Not thinking about how he just paid me twenty for the packs. Carlos couldn’t wait for the bell, and ran off to brave the halls so he could put the cards inside the plastic shells hidden in his locker.
Instead of sitting under the bleachers alone, I went to the nurses office. I told her I felt like I was about to throw up. In a way, it was true. All that stuff Carlos said about Larissa made a black hole in my stomach. Like the way it felt when I got the flu when we were flying back from New York.
The nurse had luggage sized bags under her brown eyes that made her look like she was about to fall asleep. She told me to lie down on the table and put a thermometer under my tongue. Then, she bent over to look at something on her desk. I could see her thick thighs, with a little roll on the front of her legs pressed against her white nurse pants. When she came back to check the thermometer, I had to cross my legs.
“No fever,” she yawned when she spoke.
“I’m going to puke all over,” I said.
She didn’t put up a fight and handed me the phone to call my mom. My mom was always busy with her practice, so I had to call her emergency cell. She told me to call a taxi, to use the credit card she gave me to pay, and that I better really be sick. Exactly what I figured she’d say.
The cab driver had red veins in his eyes and smelled like the hippies that hung out in front of the coffee shop. He didn’t smell like weed. More like incense or something. The rest of the car smelled worse than he did. A cross between armpits and a taqueria.
I told him to take me to the Macy’s at the mall and wait outside. He didn’t argue. I don’t think he was the kind of guy to argue about anything.
In the mall, I rushed past the food court and a security guard who gave me a stink eye that said, “shouldn’t you be in school” to the woman’s section of Macy’s. The underwear was either in little plastic packages on the shelves, or, if it was laced, hung from a hanger with two clasps on the edges.
When I imagined what girls wore down there, it was never the lacy stuff. I was sure Larissa and the nurse wore white or pink cotton briefs that covered everything. With only, maybe, a little bit of hair poking out in the front.
I picked up a circular tube with an oval top and brought it to the cashier next to the perfume stand. She looked at the pantyhose for longer than I was comfortable with, and I worried that you had to be a certain age to buy them. “It’s a little late for Halloween,” she said.
With my eyes plastered to the floor, I held out the twenty dollars I got from Carlos. I heard the scanner bloop over the hose, the woman take the twenty, then silently hand me change and a bag. I ran out of the store so fast, the security guard yelled at me to slow down.
Back in the cab, I handed the driver a piece of paper with an address on it. “I need to go here. It’s my dad’s house.” The driver’s eyes were redder than they were before and he smelled a little like weed.
He drove in silence, past the broken down auto shops, fast food joints, and gas stations of central Salinas. For people passing through, the entire town must have screamed, “Stop! But only for a second, and then stay away.” It was good advice. There was nothing worth doing in Salinas other than eating a burger, or getting a flat tire fixed.
He drove by the soy fields of San Jon road on the outskirts of town. The fields were full of workers, in wide-brimmed straw hats, who sat around on trucks or on rucksacks filled with soy. They smoked hand rolled cigarettes and laughed.
One time, when my dad was driving down San Jon road, one of those trucks full of workers hit us from behind. He was so angry, he swore, “Fucking beaners.” Spit flew out of his mouth and stuck to the windshield. He got out of the car and swung his arms around, like he was going to fight those guys. Guys who spent their days crunched over, working their muscles.
Even though there were eight of them, and they were twice as strong as my dad, the men in the straw hats just stood there and held up their hands like they didn’t want a fight. My dad yelled about how he was a lawyer, and he was going to get them deported. They were the slime, the rapists, and murderers who were ruining this country.
Eventually, the cops came. I worried they’d arrest my dad, but they let us go. From the rearview, I could see the cops handcuff one the men as we drove away.
“You ever been with a girl?” I asked the cab driver as he turned up the private drive that led to my dad’s house.
He looked at me in the rearview, and chuckled, “Yeah, bud. Once or twice.”
“What — uh, what kind of underwear do girls really wear?”
“Depends on the time of the month,” he winked and pulled into my dad’s driveway. “This is the address.”
“Yeah, this is right.” I grabbed the bag with the pantyhose, slid the card my mother gave me in the machine on the back of the passenger seat, and tipped him fifty bucks.
My dad’s house sat at the top of one of the rolling hills on the farthest outskirts of Salinas. When he moved out, he said my mom took all his money, so he had to get a smaller place. It was still almost as big as ours. There was even a bar with a pool table and one of those fizzy soda machines.
I scanned the long gravel driveway down to his house. There was no sign of him. Probably at work, or out with one of the women my mother yelled at him about. When he lived with us he hid a house key underneath the little green ceramic frog at the end of the driveway.
That frog had been at the end of our driveway since as far back as I could remember. My mom hated that frog more than she hated my dad, which made him love it even more. Whenever he pulled into the driveway he would stop to pat it on the head. He bought it a little Santa hat for Christmas, a tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirt for the spring, and a tank top with a surfer on it for the summer.
The frog still had its Santa hat on, even though it was spring. I lifted it up, found the keys to his house, and let myself in. Inside, I took in the foyer. The place was dirtier than when we were there on Christmas.
There were plates with half eaten food all over the living room, wine glasses, and ties thrown on the railing. The walls were covered with all the stuff my mom wouldn’t let him hang up; old movie posters, a plaque with The Grateful Dead bear on it, and probably every Frank Zappa poster ever printed. My dad told me he could never understand someone who didn’t love “Frank.”
Whenever I tried to listen to Frank’s stuff I didn’t hear anything but sarcastic noise. Some of the lyrics were funny, like the yellow snow song, or the one about the band in the garage. Even though they made me chuckle, it was hard to pretend I liked them.
My dad’s bathroom smelled like cat pee. The floor was sticky and the shower littered with empty bottles of shampoo. I dug around in the drawer under the sink, through prescription medicine bottles, rolled up toothpaste tubes, and something called Magicmoist vinegar and water pads until I found the blue plastic hand mirror I was looking for.
I took the mirror out to the pool. When I was younger, we would play odd monkey out in our pool, but his looked like it had never been used. Beside the pool, there was a bar with chairs, and a couple empty wine glasses.
One of the glasses was covered in lipstick smears. I picked it up and pressed the lipstick against my lips. The glass was cold and it felt weird.
I set down the glass, sat in one of the chairs, and opened the oval tube of pantyhose. I took off my pants and underwear. The pantyhose were softer than my legs. I figured that was what the nurses legs felt like.
I pressed the back of my knuckles against the perfect softness and slid them over my feet. The pantyhose didn’t provide much warmth, but they made my skin tingle. Like when I covered my legs with vapor rub.
I pulled them all the way up to my waste until it felt like half of my body was inside Larissa’s skin. I picked up the mirror and held it so I only saw the pantyhose on my feet and legs. I moved the mirror up and down, so my feet looked like Larissa’s when she walked down the hallway.
I flipped over on my stomach and moved the mirror all the way up to the bottom of my butt. In the reflection, my legs didn’t look like my legs anymore. I was someone else. Someone comfortable.
“What the fuck?” My dad’s voice came from the other side of the pool. I turned as he stepped out of the house and stood with his arms raised. The mirror dropped and little shards of reflective glass splashed into the pool.
I stood and put my hand over the front of my body. Everything down there felt so soft. In the best way possible. I wanted to curl up underneath that pool chair and disappear inside the pantyhose forever.
My dad puffed out his chest and walked over. “What is wrong with you? Do you — you want to be a woman?” He bit his lip like maybe he was going to cry.
“What kind — what kind of underwear do girls wear?” I asked.
I could see the vein over my father’s eye twitch. “Are you a fag?” he asked quietly, so the neighbors wouldn’t hear.
“I just — I don’t understand,” I said.
My father lifted his hand and smacked me across the eye. I fell towards the ground but caught myself on the concrete. “Put your clothes on and act like a man,” he said as he pulled out his phone and walked inside.
I sat beside the pool and rubbed the side of my face. It stung like a thousand red flies were biting me.
I could see the shards of glass from the broken mirror. I thought about picking one up, taking it inside and shoving it into my dad’s neck. Instead, I put on my pants and underwear, threw the pantyhose in the garbage can behind the pool supplies, and walked inside.
“Dad?” I asked, but my words echoed in his house.
Outside the window, on the other side of the living room, I could see my dad standing at the edge of the driveway. He had his frog in hand. He rubbed its head, took off its Santa hat, and put on its Grateful Dead t-shirt. Though he seemed calm, his face was still red, and his empty fist was clenched.
After he put the frog down, he waved to someone and my mom pulled into the driveway. It was kind of exciting to see them both in the same place. Maybe she could cool him off and I could convince them the pantyhose were a science experiment.
My mom entered first. She stood in the doorway, and said, “You need to apologize. You can’t skip school like that.”
My dad entered and lingered by the hallway to the kitchen. There were a lot of things I wanted to say, or ask, but none of them involved apologizing.
“Or don’t. I don’t care. You need to come home. I need to go back to work,” she said.
“Okay,” I said and moved like I was going for the door. My mom walked out. I slammed and locked the door behind her, then turned to face my dad. “What — uh, what kind of underwear do girls really wear?”
“That eye,” he responded, “It might turn black. If anyone asks you about it, tell them you got it playing baseball.”
I looked down at the floor and studied the brown and white tiles of the foyer. “I don’t like baseball.”
“I know,” he said, and walked into the kitchen.
There was nothing left to say so I walked outside. My mom was waiting in the driveway. She glared at me, her eyes colder than the breeze working its way up the hill. I ignored everything and got into the passenger seat of her sterling silver Sports Utility Vehicle. She drove in silence to the edge of the driveway, where I jumped out.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she yelled after me.
I picked up my dads frog. Ran my finger over its soft ceramic skin. The head worn down from sun and gravel. I tried to crush it with my fingers, but the frog was too strong. I looked out over the hill, the brown elderberry trees and endless soy fields in the distance. Salinas never looked so ugly. I turned the frog like a baseball in my hand and threw it as far as I could.