Marcelo wondered where time dissipated. Or, conversely, why time dug in so doggedly, trickling by in infinitesimally small drops. Sometimes the week would drag on, day by day, each moment not a moment, but eternally long; the weekend would whiz by in a whir, surely breaking some law of physics. Or, sometimes, it felt like both workweeks and weekends would fall, one by one, like obedient dominoes, for weeks on end, each one succeeding the other in a blur, nothing quite sticking, every day much like the next, each alike in the rapidity of its passing. Marcelo didn’t understand time, how it could meander like the stream in Malibu Creek State Park, or rush like the Los Angeles River in flood after a storm, or seem constant like the roil of the Pacific, often simultaneously. There were times he tried to control his perception of time, to consciously live every moment, inhabit every minute, take in the time and savor it, whatever he happened to be doing. But time had a way of subverting his attempts, and it would quickly impose its own will with little trouble. There was, however, one certain feeling he had: time was inexorably passing him by; whether it did so quickly or slowly didn’t matter; if it did so quickly, he would marvel at the suddenness of it all, of how onrushing flowed the time from awakening to repose; if slowly, he would sense its slow passing, its grinding away like so much wheat being sedately milled into powder. He was far from old, only in his early thirties; however, each year that passed saw him tacking further away from his youthful goals, his dreams remaining so, and it gnawed at him. It didn’t gnaw enough at him for him to do anything about it, though. It gnawed at him just sufficiently for him to feel put upon, and to elicit random, elegiac sighs.
For Marcelo, time was bifurcated, divided into “before” and “after.” Not before Papá’s death and after Papá’s death, no, but before the family left New York and after they arrived in Los Angeles. That was the great fissure in his life, the point at which time started over. A lifetime had passed since the great trek westward—Mamá and Papá and Lexie and Celito and Abuela and Abuelo, catching a redeye like refugees on the last plane out of a disintegrating South American republic. Carlos was already in Southern California by that time, having decamped for warmer climes, seeking something different, some other experience than that offered by a cold northern city. Carlos had hated everything about New York—the noise, the grime, the casual rudeness, the banal brutality, the bitter winters leavened by the humid, insufferable summers. He had even bought a car—a Dodge Omni, with a barely functioning engine—just to get used to driving, because he knew he would take it one day and drive it across the continent and park it in front of Tía Evelina’s house, with a eucalyptus tree exuding its redolent oily smell, broad-leaved plants sprouting in the back yard forming a wall of green on the white fence, roses blooming in December. He had always known he would pack up his forlorn little car with all his possessions, and drive west over the George Washington Bridge, west across New Jersey and beyond, and slough off New York’s grit like a heavy, snow-laden woolen overcoat.
Marcelo’s memories of New York were colored by a 14-year-old’s romanticism for the place of his birth. Mamá and Papá didn’t allow him to do much, sheltering him as much as they could from the city’s hardships. What he was able to do, though, he relished. He had savored the freedom of hopping on the subway in his last summer and riding from Washington Heights down to Soho or the Lower East Side, and just walking around, soaking in the life all about him. There was a science fiction bookstore in the Village that he adored, and would steal away every chance he could get. There were walks along the Upper East Side, and the haughty looks he’d get from passersby who were undoubtedly thinking that he was a bit further south than he should have been. He and his friends would amble along 42nd Street and gawk at the hookers and the junkies and the hawkers luring Midwestern tourists into XXX-rated peep shows—something he of course never told Mamá and Papá of doing. That last year the city began opening up to him, and he to it. He would take his little girlfriend, Roxanne, to the main branch of the Public Library, get lost in the stacks and make out, their pubescent, wakening bodies silently writhing against each other, lips smacking hungrily together. He and his friends were chased out of Trump Plaza, instilling in him a dislike of malls and a hatred of anything associated with Donald Trump. He would go to the Guggenheim by himself, quietly taking in the paintings and sculptures and installations as he wound his way up the ramp. He had an almost complete freedom, as long as he was home by six.
It should come as no surprise that Marcelo loathed Los Angeles upon moving there. He remembered a visit he had made a few years before, he and Mamá, staying with Tía Evelina and Tío Roberto and Anna and Art. It had been his first trip outside of New York, or at least outside of the tri-state area, and his first airplane flight. Mamá had dressed him up in a suit specially bought for the occasion, and he had felt silly deplaning and seeing his cousins and aunt and uncle dressed in shorts and sandals, and had felt even worse upon leaving the terminal and being greeted by a burning, smog-choked summer day. But he clutched onto the wings that a stewardess had given him as recognition for his first ever flight, and he pressed his face to the car window, looking at the soaring palm trees. Anna was a couple of years younger than him, and Art was in high school, and their long, lean, tan bodies reclined lazily in the back seat, comfortable in their easy, preternatural grace, even though the three of them were squeezed in. When they turned off of Century Boulevard and into the more residential area, Marcelo gawked at the houses lining the street, with their red-tiled roofs and their sparkling green lawns, every house a miniature park, overflowing with foliage and flowers, cars parked in the street and in driveways, shiny and bright. He got out of the car and looked up; there was so much sky, scrubbed blue, not like the little slivers of horizon he could glean from between the tenement buildings of his neighborhood. The street was clean and quiet, save for the sound of a sprinkler system, or the muffled shout of children playing in some backyard or other. He realized he was somewhere different, more different than he had ever thought possible, and it was almost magical.
However, that sense of the wondrous and new was sorely absent by the time the family moved out to L.A. Marcelo had almost demanded that he be allowed to stay in New York with his Tío Andres, in a tone that mixed childish petulance with adult determination. Papá considered it carefully, knowing that the school in which Marcelo was enrolled was the best in the city, if not the country, and was loathe denying him the opportunities it offered. Mamá would hear nothing of it. Carlos had already left, and she couldn’t look after her mother and father and husband and two remaining children all by herself. She was strong, and had kept the family together this long, but she was just at her point of rupture. Everything about her had become brittle and jangling. The lines of worry creased her face like fissures in a rock. She sighed more than anyone should have a right to, pacing around the house, busying herself to keep the thoughts of a sick husband and aging parents and defenseless children from occupying her too much. Papá was way past the time he should have given up the barber shop, but he refused to quit working and have everyone depend solely on Mamá. He didn’t mind Mamá working; they were immigrants, and had to make their way in their new country by dint of their own endeavors. But he wasn’t going to throw the entire load on his wife. He was not that kind of man.
Marcelo sullenly succumbed to the inevitable. He hardly spent any time at home his last month in New York, as he spent as much time as he could visiting with friends, having going away parties thrown for him, soaking up everything he could before his banishment. He promised to stay in touch with Yves and Rafael and Wilfredo, calling and writing, visiting if he could every summer, keeping an anchor in the city, resisting the pull of his new home vigorously. Lexie, being younger, was excited for the impending adventure, even though she cried at the thought of leaving her friends. Papá sold the barbershop to one of his employees, making a tidy enough sum to set them up in the new house that Carlos had found for them. Everything went as smoothly as could be expected, the family’s habits of thrift ensuring that they wouldn’t starve or be destitute.
When they landed at LAX, they were greeted by an enormous welcoming party: Tía Evelina and Tío Roberto, Anna and Art, Tío Roberto’s mother and sister and niece, Carlos. They had made a huge sign saying Bienvenidos a Los Angeles, and broke out in cheers when they saw the family emerge from the tunnel. Marcelo dutifully kissed everyone, but all he could think of was flying in over L.A., watching the endless expanse of lights stretching out beyond the horizon, broken only by the ocean and the desert, and wondering to what sort of alien landscape he had traveled.
To Marcelo, Los Angeles was a bleached-out wasteland. He was sure this wasn’t an original thought. Indeed, living in New York inculcated a haughty disdain for the rest of the country, but especially for L.A. He marveled that anyone could live in the place. It was February, and while in New York winter still burnished the city with its bite, in Los Angeles it felt as if summer had arrived, with one day after another in the eighties. He sadly watched his winter clothing wallow unused in the closet, as his mother scrambled to outfit him in more appropriate gear. While his travels in New York were somewhat circumscribed by Mamá’s worry, he had to an extent the freedom afforded by a subway system that traveled to all of the city’s corners, or at least all of the corners worth visiting. In L.A., he was dependent on rides, from Carlos, or Art, or some other adult who could spare the time and the trouble. Weekend days that he would spend traversing the city with his friends were now squandered uselessly at home, or at Tía Evelina’s house. If he was lucky, someone would take him to a movie. But mostly, he was faced with a stultifying, grating boredom. Taking what passed for a bus system didn’t really occur to him, even if Mamá would allow it. The city was an expanse of clogged roads, clogged freeways, clogged lives, and the buses seemed pitifully small in number to get him anywhere that he actually wanted to go to in any decent amount of time.
During this period, time seemed to slip by unnoticed. Nothing stuck. Marcelo remembered the days hazily passing by, one by one, with nothing latching onto him, imprinting itself. He had felt afloat in the smog that so blanketed the city back then. The sky seemed so odd to him. If he looked straight up, it was as blue as any finely formed marble. It was empyrean, it was cerulean, it was almost unreal in its blueness. But as he brought his gaze downward, the blue metamorphosed into a pale white, or a soupy white with hints of brown. At least in New York, when the days were hazy and the humidity stifling, the entire sky was milky and viscous, no matter what direction one looked, with the sun’s searing disk burning through a hotter white. This hint of cleanliness was just a mirage, another insufferable tease. He heard tell that on clear days one could see that Los Angeles was ringed by towering mountains. It was almost two months before he saw a mountain, and that only because he was riding in a car towards it.
The only thing to make an impact on him those first few months was Maria Velazquez. It was hard for her not to make an impact, as she had been duly designated to be his welcoming committee. His first day in European history class—his first day at St. Ignatius High School, which was a far cry from Bronx Science—he was seated behind Maria. Mr. Poole, the young, aching-to-be-hip teacher, had, prior to his arrival, told Maria to make Marcelo feel welcome. The day had already been a whorl; Marcelo had felt off-balance the whole time, everything moving strangely, as he went from class to class, the kids looking at him like an exotic specimen, an other-worldly New Yorker, dressed in his odd New York fashion, striped Le Tigre shirts and Lee colored jeans and Adidas sneakers with the fat laces. (He would enjoy this freedom of dress for only the rest of the term. The next year St. Iggy instituted a dress code, starting with his class. By then, though, he had begun to change, ever so slightly.) He tried to smile and strike up conversations with the teenagers around him, but they seemed as foreign to him as he did to them. There was a subtleness to them that he had never noticed in his peers in New York, a scrim of reticence masked by an almost overly-exuberant conviviality. He didn’t have a social context in which to place them, and he felt adrift, like the seaweed he had seen floating in the ocean, brown and wet.
“Hi, I’m Maria, welcome to St. Ignatius.” She was turned around in her seat, facing Marcelo. Her face was beginning to lose its baby fat, but had just enough so that she teetered on the precipice between childhood and adulthood. She wore her hair long then, combed down in straight brown locks, with a pronounced widow’s peak which would seem to become more pronounced as she aged. Her eyes were big and round and black, soft and comforting and eager. She extended her hand towards Marcelo forthrightly. He hesitated for a moment, this further eruption just a bit much for him on a day that was a bit much, but he finally took it, shaking it, hoping that he didn’t look completely nonplussed. She introduced a couple of girls and a boy seated around her. Marcelo barely registered their names, trying to mimic and return their too-easy smiles. Maria’s smile was not facile, though. She exuded sincerity. She had been given a task, and she meant to perform it to the fullest, as if it were her duty not only to welcome Marcelo, but to integrate him as fully as possible into the school’s fabric. From the moment Mr. Poole had given her the assignment, she had decided to make Marcelo her project. She would take this obvious fish out of water and, if not change him completely into a California boy, which she surmised, even at a cursory glance, would be impossible, to at least acclimate him to his new surroundings, pulling him into the warp of his new home.
“How do you like L.A. so far?” she asked.
“Well, it’s different than New York,” he replied judiciously, not wanting to offend, knowing, at least from his experience back home, how attached people were to their places, how they would take umbrage at the least insult to their country.
Maria laughed. “Yeah, it’s not New York. I’ve never been there, but I’d love to go.”
Marcelo sighed. “It’s great. You’d love it there, I think.” He said this even though he had known Maria for a total of five minutes. However, still attached to the place from where he was, still filled with the conceit of it being the greatest city on the globe, the world’s great, gray center, he couldn’t imagine someone not instantly falling in love with it, not forsaking whatever bedeviled town they lived in for it. He didn’t understand how anyone could not live there. He didn’t understand how he came to not live there.
Again Maria laughed. Laughter came easily to her. Her face was a laughing painting.
“Oh, I don’t know if I’d love it. I’m sure I’d have fun. But I don’t think there’s anything like California.”
Marcelo half hid a smirk.
“You don’t like it here, do you?”
“I hate that I can’t walk anywhere here. There’s nothing close to my house, except for a little market. I miss having a pizzeria around the corner, and a Cuban sandwich shop up the street, and the library a couple of blocks away. It’s all houses and houses and houses. I’m always stuck at home. How can you stand it?”
Maria smiled gamely, wondering what to make of this strange boy. He was obviously embittered, and that was something she had never encountered. She could handle sadness, she had an inkling of what to do with disappointment, but this was more than either. It was something that bordered on hatred. She had no mechanism to cope with loathing, with a sense of base betrayal by the world. Her life up to that point had not prepared her for such a hedge of sullenness.
“Well, it’s not what you’re used to, I know. I mean, I’ve lived here my whole life, so it’s different for me. I love it here, and would probably feel the same way as you do now if I moved to New York. But really, give it a chance. I think it’ll grow on you.”
Marcelo had a thought of mold when Maria said that, but he kept it to himself. He thought about the summer, and how he would get to fly back home for a vacation, although it wouldn’t be a vacation so much as a sojourn in an oasis before having to trek back into the desert.
Mr. Poole called the class to order, and Maria turned back facing forward after flashing Marcelo another smile. Marcelo would often think back to this awkward first meeting with a genuine warmth he felt for few enough events in his life. It was this encounter that would lead, inexorably, to a friendship closer than any of the childhood friendships he had forged in New York, which, over the years, would slough off, one by one, dulled by time and distance and the changes which transform one from the person one was to the person one is.
Marcelo, in his new life, would make very close friends. Maria was his lodestar. There were a few others. And this was for a purpose.
He had grown up with children he thought would be friends forever, as children often think. Then when circumstance parted him from them, he made new friends. But circumstance would part him from them as well. Always life intruded, not so much breaking friendships, as rendering them obsolete, no longer germane to the conditions of his life.
Every new school, every new job, would bring a new batch of friends, a jettisoning of old ones. There were no hard feelings; that’s just how it was. From every new group of friends, one or two would evolve into what he would consider as keepers, ones who would remain when, inevitably, his situation would change, his life would morph, and a new landscape would arise.
He didn’t treat his friends cavalierly. He cherished them all, as long as he had them. But, from experience, he knew he would slough off most of them, keeping only one or two or three pearls, to whom he would cling for life. He accepted this ebb and flow of friendships, and he hung onto the ones who hung onto him. It wasn’t because he didn’t care for the ones who eventually left his orbit; it was just the nature of life that people leave your circle, for one reason or another. Time is pressed, tastes vary, and suddenly people whom you saw almost every day became people whom you would call once or twice a year, until, eventually, you’d lose their numbers.
But the friends who stood the test of years: those would be the ones who would gather around his deathbed, seeing him off to the next life. Those would be the ones with whom he’d grow old, impart the commonality of experience, be able to share a secret language. They would survive all of life’s frailties and chance disasters, marking him as he marked them.
“We really need some new breakfast places,” Maria said as she sat down.
“We could’ve done Swingers,” Marcelo replied.
“Ah, but see, that would involve me going north of the 105. I only do that for Patricia.”
“It warms me so incredibly to see how much you take my possible preferences into consideration.”
Maria blew him an air kiss and giggled. They perused the menu, even though they each knew what they were going to get. Marcelo set the menu down and looked off to his left, the ocean hovering into view, an expanse of blue merging off in the horizon with the cobalt sky.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Maria began. “I’ve been thinking about how almost the only time we meet anymore is over breakfast. Or occasionally over dinner. But eating is always the excuse. There must be some sort of meaning in that.” She leaned back in her chair as a busboy approached, pouring coffee into her cup.
“That’s hardly my fault,” Marcelo responded. “You’re always too busy. I have to be happy with whatever I can get.” He poured the contents of four sugar packets into his coffee, and stirred in the thick cream. “And don’t say anything about my sugar intake”
“You Cubans and your sweet coffee.”
Marcelo snorted, and took a sip from his cup.
The waiter appeared. Marcelo ordered two scrambled eggs, sausage links, homefried potatoes, and the short stack of pancakes. Maria ordered the eggs over easy, bacon, homefried potatoes, and the short stack of pancakes. This, with slight variations, was their usual breakfast at this place. The menu was varied enough for them to order other things, but each was afraid to stray too far from what was familiar. Maria, of course, also ordered orange juice, juice that she considered to be the best in L.A. Marcelo didn’t like having too many beverages cluttering his space; he therefore stuck to coffee, sweetened to a degree beyond endurance for others. He had grown up drinking Mamá’s sweet Cuban espresso, and, once he started drinking American coffee, found that he had to sweeten it to a comparative degree to make it at all palatable. Maria, coming from a people without the Cuban predilection for sugar, always marveled at the mounds of sweetener Marcelo shoveled into his coffee. She would on occasion take sips of his coffee, and would have to follow immediately with a long draught of water to kill the cloying sweetness.
“So how is Marcelo?”
“He’s fine. I told you last Sunday was our yearly trip to church, right?”
“Yeah, you mentioned it. How was your mom?”
“Every year she gets better. I can’t remember the last time that she cried. I can’t even say that the wound’s scabbed over—I think the scab’s gone.”
“I don’t think the scab’s ever gone, honey. It’s just smoothed over.”
Marcelo thought about it then shook his head. They sipped their coffee while waiting for their orders to come out, the morning sun already hot, bathing them. They didn’t speak for some moments, letting the ambient sound of voices, pedestrians, and the nearby ocean circle them in murmuring eddies. Marcelo caught snippets of conversation from adjoining tables: a girl’s singsong cadence as she described her previous night’s less-than-stellar date; a young male hipster waxing philosophical about a local gallery show he had seen, how art has become almost meaningless in a world driven by commercialism, while he pulled his knit woolen cap more tightly over his head in summer’s heat. They could enjoy these silences together. They felt no need to fill in every moment with conversation for its own sake. They had lived a lifetime in each other’s wakes; that allowed for a certain degree of ease.
“I always feel like I should be having some meaningful talk with you,” Marcelo said.
“Well, that’s a silly thing to say.”
“We used to have serious conversations. I mean, 3 a.m., sitting-in-a-car type conversations, when it seemed like the directions our lives would take hinged on what we discussed.”
“You want to go back to that?”
Marcelo shrugged in the way he did, a practiced insouciance.
“I don’t think I’ve had a meaningful thought in months. I used to have them all the time. Or at least I recall having them.”
“Pobresito Marcelo,” Maria said, patting his forearm. “You always want to go back and take the other fork in the road.”
“Yeah, I’m never happy with what I have.”
“You should really look into that. It’s one of your few failings.” She scrunched her mouth into a smile.
The food arrived and they dug into it. Maria gave out a little appreciative moan.
“Breakfast tastes better eaten out in the sun, don’t you think?”
Marcelo nodded as he sipped on his coffee.
Maria chewed thoughtfully on a piece of thick bacon. “So what’s wrong, honey?”
Marcelo shrugged again.
“I’m feeling a creeping, middle-age ennui.”
Maria rolled her eyes. “You’re thirty-two,” she said.
“Yes, and I thought my thirties were so far away. And here they are. They just came a bit sooner than I thought. Which means my forties galloping towards me.”
“No, they aren’t. They’ll come in their own good time.”
“And I’ve done so little with my life. I’ve done nothing that I wanted to do.”
Maria remained silent for a moment.
“Is everything okay with Jessie?”
Marcelo waved his hand almost dismissively.
“We’re the same. Status quo.”
“Is that good or bad?”
He laughed. “It is what it is.”
“Oh God, you two worry me. I like her. I’ve always liked her. She hasn’t worn me down. I rarely say that about any of your girlfriends. Can’t you work out whatever it is that you need to work out?”
Marcelo shrugged with his entire body, resignedly.
“Maybe there’s nothing to work out.”
Marcelo fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair. He loved Maria more than he could tell, but he hated it when she latched onto a line of questioning. He knew she wouldn’t let go until she had received satisfactory answers. Jessie was a subject he didn’t like to discuss, mostly because he discussed it so often, with Maria, with friends, with his therapist, with Jessie. What they were going to do with their relationship was a topic that had been worn like a screw head given one too many turns. He wished he could come to a decision about Jessie, but nothing was ever that easy, at least not for him. He often thought that he felt a perverse need to complicate his life. Staying with Jessie was a complication; leaving her was another complication; doing nothing and existing in a half-world with her was yet a further complication. All three paths had qualities to recommend them. But he didn’t want to think of any of that at the moment. He pushed the thoughts aside, gave Maria a look, and settled down to eating his breakfast, regretting he had mentioned how much he missed the conversations they used to have when they were younger. The question of Jessie, in fact, had subsided into a low hum as of late. Other concerns crowded his mind.
“I’ve started writing again,” he said.
“That’s great,” Maria replied. “What are you writing?”
“Nothing serious. Little vignettes, observations of people I see on the street or on the train. I try to spin out narratives until I have nothing left to write. It’s more exercise than anything else, just trying to get my writing muscles working again.”
“I thought you seemed different.”
“Oh, I don’t know. More relaxed. You’re always more at ease when you’re writing. I hate it that you don’t stick to it more seriously. You’re very good.”
Marcelo laughed. “Tell that to a publisher.”
“Yeah. And how much of your writing have you ever submitted?”
Marcelo held up his hands. “Point taken. But in my defense, I’m afraid of rejection. It’s something I talk about with our common therapist often.”
Maria shook her head bemusedly. “I never thought you’d go see my therapist. I know I suggested it, but I never thought you’d do it. You’re so anti that.”
“Well, I don’t get to talk to you often enough. I need someone I can unload on regularly.”
Maria made a moue. “I’m sorry. I know we don’t get together as much as we should. It’s just so hard to juggle everything.”
“Maybe I should start interviewing for a new best friend.”
“I’ve told you that before!”
Maria polished off a bite of her breakfast and drank the last of her orange juice. She put her hand on her stomach, indicating fullness, even though half of her food remained on her plate.
“Well, that explains why you’ve lost so much weight. You never finish a meal.”
“I’ve never finished a meal. You know that. What’s inexplicable is why I used to be so fat.”
“You were never fat. Plump, yes. But not fat.”
“You only say that because you love me.”
“And because I fear you.”
They broke down into childish giggles. Suddenly there on a restaurant patio in Manhattan Beach they were eighteen again, tasting the first faint fruits of adulthood, having breakfast out like adults did, without their parents or older siblings, yet still connected by tendrils to childhood, still able to erupt in uncontrollable laughter over nothing much at all. That was why they loved each other, the ability that blossomed in each others’ presence to set time back to a period where they approximated innocence and a feeling of sans souci, where every weekend brought another party, or another trip to Magic Mountain, or a weekend in San Felipe wading in its transparent blue, warm waters.
Marcelo flagged down their waiter and paid the bill before Maria had a chance to grab the check.
Marcelo asked, “Walk?”
Maria responded, “Sure.”
He offered his arm and Maria took it, walking in step together the short distance to the sand, walking across the sand to the shoreline, then walking north along the shore, waves lapping at their bare feet, walking until they were small receding figures, heads bobbing in laughter and discussion, drowned out by the ocean’s swell and the sun.