From "The Rulemaker"
There are things I still remember about growing up in Juarez: I remember the name of my school, Escuela Carlos Amaya. I remember my first grade teacher's name, Laura Cedillos. I wanted her to be my mother, not because she was pretty, but because she was so nice and smelled like flowers. I remember the playground, cement and dirt and grass that never really grew up to become a lawn because it was never watered and because we stomped the ground until it was a fine powder. We couldn't pound anything else but we could pound the dirt.
I remember the fence around the school, a fence that was there to make us feel safe. I remember the first time I got into a fight. I wasn't any good at it. I was eight and Marcos Manriquez punched me right in the stomach and I writhed on the ground in pain. "¡Levantate!" he screamed. But I just lay there on the ground and refused to get up. Everyone laughed at me and called me a joto and all the other mean names kids call each other. I don't think I cared that they called me names. It didn't bother me because I didn't think it was a good thing to know how to fight, to use your fists on other people. I never liked the idea of hurting other people — and if that made me a joto, then I guess that's what I was. Not that I knew whatjotomeant at the time.
And anyway, after that fight, Marcos and I became friends. Marcos had good fists. But he had a better heart. He was the best friend I ever had. We rode our bikes around the streets of my neighborhood yelling and screaming and laughing. And then one day my bike got stolen.
I never really knew where my mother got the money for us to live. We had an okay house, small, two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, a kitchen. The walls were all painted white — except the yellow and blue kitchen. My mother had a picture of San Martin Caballero in her kitchen. San Martin was a gentleman on a horse and he was offering a beggar his cloak. I don't know why I remember that. I guess you could say he became my patron saint because I've always given beggars on the streets all the change in my pockets. I didn't have a cloak like San Martin Caballero, but I always had a quarter and a few pennies.
The small house where I grew up was clean — but it was clean because I taught myself how to clean a house. It's not a bad thing to teach yourself things. And besides, I didn't want the house I lived in to be dirty and I didn't want the house to smell bad. I sometimes sprayed the house with my mother's perfume. Except my room. I didn't spray my room with anything. It smelled like old books and it probably smelled like me. Maybe my room didn't smell so good, but I took a shower every day and I always brushed my teeth and combed my hair. And I washed my own clothes.
There wasn't a father in the house. I didn't know if my mother had been married or not married and nobody ever said anything about him. I remember asking her once, "Do you have a picture of my father?"
She looked right at me and said, "Nuncaquieroque me preguntes de tupapa." I knew it was serious business because she almost always spoke to me in English. When she spoke to me in Spanish, it meant I'd better listen. She had this thing that I had to learn English, even though I lived in Juarez. She said I was a U.S. citizen and that I should know the language of my country. But Juarez was the only country I knew — and it was the only country I cared about. She'd bring me to El Paso sometimes and I'd play with my cousins and we spoke both languages, English and Spanish. But El Paso wasn't Juarez and it wasn't mine and I always felt that I was just a visitor there.
I had a friend named Jorge who lived next door. I liked Jorge's family because even though my mother disappeared for days, they always watched out for me. And Jorge's dad was good to me and he would take me and Jorge with him to do things and I sometimes felt like he was my dad — only I knew he wasn't. I was sad sometimes, but not sad, sad, sad. Just sad in a normal way, I think.
I liked my life when I lived in Juarez. And even though I was sad sometimes, I was also happy sometimes. I loved my mother and it's not as if she was really mean to me. I knew she had lots of problems. People can't help it when they have problems. Everyone in the world has problems — even rich people. At least that's what Jorge's father said. Jorge's mother said that maybe it was true that rich people had problems too. But she also said, "If the rich don't care about the problems of the poor, then why should the poor care about the problems of the rich?"
The rich and the poor, they were big topics of conversation in Jorge's house. In my house too.
From "The Rulemaker," Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Copyright 2013 by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Excerpted by permission of Cinco Puntos Press. www.cincopuntos.com