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Coquito

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The summer he loses Jack, Kent goes home.

Home like New York. Home like the little apartment in Spanish Harlem. Home like his mother. Not the billet.

He spends the first few weeks after the draft in a fugue. Eats the asopao his aunts cook for him, the lentejas his mother swears by, the smuggled candy that Telesita brings to him. She looks more like him than when he left—at thirteen she’s all spindly limbs, her hair lightening in the summer sun in contrast with the way the same rays take to her skin. They all have the same eyes, blue-gray-green like there’s something in there that just won’t settle. Mamá says it’s what made him decide on hockey. She says that pushing himself to the limit came naturally. Says he gets it from her.

If that’s the case, he wants to ask her, then why is she still living in the neighborhood she never loved? He won’t ask her, though, because he knows the answer, and part of it lies in the blonde hair both he and Telesita are still growing into. When Kent looks in the mirror he sees less of his mother every time and it makes something inside him ache worse than the day he first left New York City. He wants to shake himself and her in equal turns, demand what’s inside him that makes him want to curdle, that makes everything that’s once loved him suddenly turn away.

It was something he noticed as a child. Like his mother sees something in him that makes her love and hate him in varying degrees. Something that only ever shows on her face. When she cooks for him, he tastes how it’s the only way she knows how to apologize.

The first few weeks he was away he felt like he was starving. The hunger crawled up his throat in the mornings and at night and at random hours throughout the day, settled bone-deep and refused to dissipate. Eggs and chicken and rice didn’t feel like enough. He wanted farina in the mornings, guisado at night. He missed drinking agualoja with his grandmother, the way she would fuss over his hair and whether or not he was eating enough. He missed taking a shot of coquito with his tíos Umberto and Darío, even if he left in the summer all those years ago and not at Christmastime.

When he first arrived in his mother’s home again, they cheered him. He still feels like they made a mistake, handing out drinks and croquetas, kissing him like they thought he’d never return. Like he was a blessing. He thinks of how he stayed up all night in June, how he still hasn’t heard Jack’s voice—loud, accusing, vitriol like he’d never heard before—since then, how he’s not sure if he should be grateful for anything that happened in the aftermath.

The night he arrived his mother smeared butter on bread and when the toaster was done sprinkled sugar over it. He felt like he was eight years old again, up late on a Saturday, interrupting his mother at the kitchen table. When his father left it was a common sight—Rita Parson, née Mora, abandoned by her too-good-for-her husband and with two mouths to feed. When he looks at her now, Kent feels both older and younger than his nearly-eighteen years. He wonders if the feeling will ever go away.

Now, home, he eats home cooked meals like how he remembers them. His grandmother makes him carry the groceries back to her and his grandfather’s apartment, just across the street from where their only daughter lives. He wakes up early to run the streets, still full of people heading home, and at night does the same thing. He goes down to the gym that his tíos started running the year he was born and sometimes he finds someone to spot him but most days he makes an enemy out of a punching bag. His mother watches him with the same eyes as always. He doesn’t call Jack.


 

His favorite cousin is named Josefina. She goes by Joe.

She shows up the day before his birthday, after his evening run. She has an eyebrow piercing on her left eyebrow and two on her right. She looks like his mother but like he’s looking at her through a bottle of amaretto, which she pulls out of her bag when she plops onto his bed.

Downstairs in the shop, his mother is closing up and prepping the next day’s batch of pan. It’s barely nine, and she probably won’t be up until after ten. She likes Joe, regardless, the youngest niece she has from either of her brothers, and has always respected Kent’s space besides. Joe expects him to drink it straight.

“How could you not bring mixer,” he says.

“Shut the fuck up and get us some ice,” she says.

This is another thing Kent missed while he was gone. The way that café and liquor were so easily interchangeable. Beer drunk for the social aspect it promised, rather than the inebriation. The first time he had rum he was fourteen, sweet like coconut, warming him even more than he already was in the crowded downstairs apartment his grandparents still live in. Joe was there but occupied with another cousin, Flora, and Tío Umberto said he was old enough to appreciate a single shot.

Besides, Tío Darío said, when Kent’s mother caught them immediately after the act and started telling them all off, you’ve eaten enough arroz con gandules to soak it right back up.

He takes a seat on an old computer chair, mug of ice and two fingers of amaretto loosely gripped in one hand. Joe is cross-legged on his bed, the bottle carefully closed and put on the floor, where his mother might not see it if she happens to walk in. There are still posters of Britney Spears on the walls, and he wonders if anyone has a clue.

“Okay, primis,” she says, “you turn eighteen in three hours. What’s the move.”

“We can’t get in anywhere,” he says to her, trying to remember to sip and not gulp his drink down, trying to pay attention to her and not the ways he does and does not fit into this room. Joe has always been the one who knows him best, and worst. “You know this.”

“There are eighteen-and-up places.”

They both make faces at each other.

She nods at him. “You’re right.” She takes a sip of her drink, then gives him a considering look. “Besides,” she continues, “I can tell you’re not up for it.”

“You’re not gonna trick me into wanting to go out.”

“I’m not doing that,” she says, “I just wanna talk. I know you want to.”

“You can’t talk to people like that,” Kent says to her. He can feel his face heating up. He wonders if he still shows all his emotions there, the way he did before he left. It was the expressive mouth, the too-big eyes. He grew out of it, he thought. At the very least he had long-recognized it as something he had to do. Sneaking around with another boy when they both had dreams bigger than either one of them is a pretty hard thing to treat casually. Kent’s pretty sure he completely failed on that front.

Joe has always been good at needling. At tugging until every fiber of his being comes loose, until he’s nothing but the remains of what he thought he was. When he left she didn’t speak to him for weeks, came to the café the next day and said she wouldn’t miss him. He cried all the way to the airport, big sobs he tried to hide and that he knows he didn’t. She has a tendency to crack him open and leave him there for the taking. He can almost pretend it prepared him for Jack.

“Everyone else might think you’re some sort of prodigal son,” she says to him, “but you’re a fucking person, Kent.”

She sounds angry. He says nothing. Looks at his drink, takes a long pull that leaves ice against his mouth. Joe’s bangs are cut just above her pierced eyebrows, the rest of it pulled into a messy ponytail the second they got upstairs, because the heat of ovens on the first floor always makes its way up. Down the hall, he can hear the sound of some tv show that Telesita likes playing.

Joe’s jaw clenches. They have the same chin.

“You should be able to talk about anything with us,” she says. “with your mom. With me. I watched the news, too. Me and Tía Rita, we know. We know who he is, even if no one else really cares.”

Kent wants to laugh in her face. It bubbles up in him, but his lungs won’t cough it up. Better that way, really; Joe wears acrylics. Joe ripped a few earrings out—hers, other girls’—in a fight a year or two ago, he remembers the call, remembers how she had laughed about it, on the phone and hundreds of miles away from him.

Of course his family doesn’t care. Kent was the only kid on their block desperate for Rangers tickets instead of the Yankees. Gustaffsson wasn’t even Puerto Rican, he reminds himself, has always reminded himself, whether they win or lose, whether he scores that game or not. Kent has nobody, not even a father, to look at and say, that’s me. He’s never let himself be mad about it. He can feel it building, now, in the same place that hysterical laugh was hiding, deep in his gut like it’ll take a scalpel to dig out. A place in him that was carved out when Jack decided he had enough of everything.

He says, “You wouldn’t understand.”

Joe, whose mother left a year ago for another man, looks at him for a long time. Her eyes are almost hazel, a soft brown that makes him feel like all the attention in the world is focused on him.

“Of course I wouldn’t,” she says, expression unreadable, and reaches for the bottle once again.


 

On August 3rd he wakes up to Telesita’s singing. It’s a Sunday. When he looks at the alarm clock next to his bed it reads 9:03. His mother has probably left for mass, otherwise he’s not sure what else she’d be doing. Figures Telesita would get out of it, though, much more adept at getting what she wants than Kent was at that age.

Back then the NHL was just a pipe dream. No one had ever heard of a boricua in the NHL, and now, now they would. Soon. But back then, five years ago, his grandparents and his tíos had scrimped and saved and gotten him brand new gear for the next season, had framed it as a combination birthday-slash-Christmas present. Kent had cried. Kent had been told to man up. His mother curled her small, strong hands around his shoulders, Kent already taller than her by a few inches, and said, cry if you want, querido, in a few years it won’t matter.

His uncles had been crying when he got home in June. Big, fat, happy tears on their canela-colored skin. His grandfather had kissed his face and said, what a man you’ve grown to be, his accent all Puerto Rico, and Kent still thinks it was meant as a compliment, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Last night, he and Joe decided to hit up her friend’s sister’s quinceañera. They took too many shots of tequila, and got into a screaming match five blocks from home. Kent remembers it all too vividly.

You’re not my fucking friend, he said to her, a sensation like buzzing underneath his skin. She wanted to talk, she always wanted to talk, and normally Kent would do it, but not tonight, not that night, he can’t do it on August 2nd.

I’m your favorite, pendejo, she responded, mascara running. Kent had been crying, unknowingly, too. He could still taste the salt on his lips. He remembers being thirteen and kissing a girl for the first time, one of Joe’s friends. Fourteen and liking boys, fifteen and disappointing his mother, sixteen and loving Jack.

Seventeen and thinking the beginning was close enough to touch.

I don’t owe you shit.

Who would you be without me?

You think I don’t wanna know?

It's like we'll die of thirst without you. I can't stand it.

He should probably call her. Text her. Maybe later. He looks at his phone and he has no messages. In the living room, he hears Telesita sing.

When he swallows it tastes stale, bitter. He practices a smile, something the cameras might like, and his lips crack. He clears his throat. Shouts, “Telesita!” And waits for the singing to stop.

It pauses. Waits. Starts back up again. He groans.

“Teresa! Niña,” he says, with emphasis.

The singing stops again. The volume on the TV goes down. He listens as the heel-toe-heel-toe strike of Telesita’s stride approaches his room. She shoves the door open unceremoniously, takes in the decorations that haven’t changed in the two or three years he’s been gone. The blankets are soft, worn, and probably in need of a wash again. Kent watches her face, sees all the things they share, and says, “Teresa, did you eat?”

She blinks at him. “You were shouting for that?”

“I wanted to know if I needed to feed you, too, or if I could go pick up some McDonald’s.”

“I thought you couldn’t eat junk food.”

“A hash brown won’t kill me.”

“Maybe it’ll make you grow.” She’s five-five, already. He’s hoping they put 5’10 on any official documents concerning his stats.

“Ha,” he says, and sits up. He feels the beginnings of a headache behind his eyes, decides he needs water. “I’m leaving in fifteen. What do you want?”

“Orange juice,” she says, slipping out of the doorway and back down the hall, “and a hash brown, too.”

The streets are already hot when he gets downstairs, not even 9:30 and already with that thick, humid feeling that Kent used to miss during the season. He can feel himself start sweating the moment he steps on to the pavement, wonders if he should have put on a darker shirt than the light gray tee that he has on.

Before June, he and Jack used to make weekly trips to McDonald’s. They wouldn’t blow their diet—it was usually after a game, and they’d order chicken tenders, and chug Gatorade like they’d never get to drink anything again afterwards. They’d get home late, usually, but their billet mom was used to it, didn’t bother being concerned after the first few times they tried it, and sometimes, before they’d head back home, they’d pull over somewhere, shift to the backseat and—

Kent wants to drop into a run, but he doesn’t want to be any sweatier than he already is. The sun is pulsing, it feels like, the light burning his eyes. He wishes he had a hat. He wishes it were still earlier in the summer. Wishes he could look at Jack again, pupils blown in the back seat of a beat-up Honda, say, you’re a fucking miracle, but he can’t. He knows he can’t. He wants to so bad he could choke on it.

On every corner in this city there’s something that he promised Jack he would show him. Every time they got their hands on each other, Kent would say, you'd like this little restaurant, this summer I’ll take you, for your birthday, it's a gift, knowing all he’d order would be chicken or a steak. Knowing Jack didn’t want the offer.

Kent checks his phone again; reads, 9:31. There’s a text from Joe. He ignores it, opens up a new message instead. He writes, happy birthday, zimms, doesn’t sign it, hopes he hasn’t changed the number. He hits send. He wonders if there was anything else he could have done.

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