They were still wearing short pants that year, we weren’t smoking yet, they preferred soccer to all the other sports and we were learning to surf, to dive from the high board at the Terraces Club, and they were devilish, smooth-cheeked, curious, very agile, voracious. That year, when Cuéllar enrolled in the Champagnat Academy.
Brother Leoncio, is it true a new boy’s coming? into 3A, Brother? Yes, with his fist Brother Leoncio pushed back the forelock hanging in his face, now let’s have some quiet.
He appeared one morning at inspection time, holding his father’s hand, and Brother Leoncio put him at the head of the line because he was even shorter than Rojas, and in class Brother Leoncio sat him in the back with us, at that vacant desk, young man. What’s your name? Cuéllar, and yours? Choto, and yours? Chingolo, and yours? Manny, and yours? Lalo. From Miraflores? Yes, since last month, before that I was living on San Antonio and now on Mariscal Castilla, near the Colina movie theater.
He was a grade grubber (but no apple polisher): the first week he came out fifth and afterwards always first until the accident, then he started goofing off and getting bad grades. The fourteen Incas, Cuéllar, Brother Leoncio would say, and he would recite them without taking a breath, the Ten Commandments, the three stanzas of the Marist Hymn, the poem “My Flag” by López Albujar—without taking a breath. What a whiz kid, Cuéllar, Lalo said to him and Brother a very good memory, young man, and to us, follow his example, you rascals. He would polish his nails on the lapel of his jacket and look at the whole class over his shoulder, showing off (well, not really, at heart he wasn’t a show-off, just a little goofy and lots of fun. And, besides, a good pal. He’d whisper answers to us during tests and during recess he’d offer us lollipops, money bags, taffy, lucky stiff, Choto would say to him, they give you a bigger allowance than all four of us get, and he ’cause he pulled good grades and us it’s not so bad ’cause you’re an okay guy, you little grade grubber, that saved him).
Classes for the lower grades let out at four, at four-ten Brother Luke had them break ranks and at a quarter after four they were on the soccer field. They would throw their books on the grass, their jackets, their ties, hurry up Chingolo, hurry up, get to the goal before the others grab it, and in his cage Judas went crazy, gr-r-r, his tail stood straight up, gr-r-r gr-r-r, he bared his fangs, gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r, he jumped in somersaults, gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r, he shook the wire fence. Jeez, if he escapes one day, Chingolo said, and Manny if he escapes you gotta stay quiet, Great Danes only bit when they smelled that you’re scared of them, who told you? my old man, and Choto I’d climb on top of the goal, he couldn’t reach up there and Cuéllar took out his penknife and swish swish he was dreaming it, he was slicing away and burrrrryiiiin, looking up at the sky, iiiiiinnnnggg, his two hands over his mouth, ahahahhh: you like how I imitated Tarzan’s yell? They only played until five o’clock, well at that hour the upper classes let out and the big guys ran us off the field like it or lump it. Tongues hanging out, brushing ourselves off and sweating they picked up their books, jackets and ties and we went out onto the street. They went down the crosstown avenue shooting baskets with their book bags, get this one, baby, we crossed the park up near Delicacies, I got it, did ya see, babe, and in the D’Onofrio candy shop on the corner we bought ice cream cones, vanilla? combo? pile on a little more, man, no gypping, a little lemon, stingy, a little extra strawberry. And then they continued along the crosstown avenue, the Gypsy’s Guitar, not talking, Porta Street, absorbed in their ice cream, a traffic light, shhlp sucking shhlp and crossing over to the St. Nicholas Building and there Cuéllar said good-bye, man, don’t go yet, let’s go to Terraces they’d ask Chino for his ball, don’t you want to try out for the class team? man, you’d have to train a little for that, c’mon, let’s go, let’s get a move on, just till six a quick game of soccer at Terraces, Cuéllar. He couldn’t, his father wouldn’t let him, he had to do his homework. They walked him home, how was he going to make the class team if he didn’t practice? and we finally ended up going to Terraces alone. Nice guy but a real bookworm, Choto said, he neglects sports for his studies, and Lalo it wasn’t his fault, his old man must be a ball breaker, and Chingolo sure, he was dying to come with them and Manny it was going to be real hard for him to make the team, he doesn’t have the build, no kick, no stamina, he poops out right there, no nothing. Still, he butts well, Choto said, and besides he was our buddy, he had to get on somehow Lalo was saying, and Chingolo so he’s with us and Manny, yeah, we’d get him on, but it was going to be tough work!
But Cuéllar, who was stubborn and dying to play on the team, practiced so much in the winter that the following year he was picked for the left inside forward position on the class team: mens sana in corpore sano, Brother Augustine said, now did we see? you can be a good athlete and zealous in your studies, that we should follow his example. How’d you do it? Lalo asked him, where’d you get that control, those passes, that grip on the ball, those angle shots. And he: his cousin Sparky had trained him, and his father took him to the stadium every Sunday and there, watching the pros, he learned their tricks, did we catch on? He had spent the three months without going to the movies or the beach, just watching and playing soccer morning and afternoon, feel these calves, hadn’t they firmed up? Yes, he’s gotten a lot better, Choto was saying to Brother Luke, the coach, really, and Lalo he’s a fast, hardworking forward, and Chingolo he sure organized that offense swell and, especially, he never lost his morale, and Manny did you see how he comes right down to the goal to get the ball when the opposition’s got it, Brother Luke? we have to put him on the team. Cuéllar laughed happily, blew on his fingernails and polished them on his 4A jersey, white sleeves and blue chest: you’re already on, we told him, we already got you on but don’t let it go to your head.
In July, for the intramural championship, Brother Augustine authorized the 4A team to practice two times a week, Mondays and Fridays at the hour for drawing and music. After the second recess, when the courtyard was left empty, dampened by the drizzle, polished like a brand-new boot, the chosen eleven went down to the field, we changed uniforms and, with soccer shoes and black warm-up suits, they came out of the changing room Indian file, jogging, led by Lalo, the captain. At every schoolroom window appeared envious faces to catch a glimpse of them running laps, there was a cold breeze wrinkling the water of the swimming pool (would you go swimming? after the match, not now, brrr it’s cold), of their goal kicks, and stirring the crowns of the eucalyptus and fig trees in the park peeping over the academy’s yellow wall, of their penalty kicks, and the morning flew by: great practice, said Cuéllar, terrific, we’ll win. An hour later Brother Luke blew his whistle and, while the classrooms were emptying out and the grades were lining up in the courtyard, we team members got dressed to go home for lunch. But Cuéllar lagged behind because (you copy all the pro shots, said Chingolo, who’d ya think ya are? Toto Terry?) he always jumped into the shower after practice. Sometimes they all showered, gr-r-r, but that day, gr-r-r gr-r-r, when Judas appeared in the doorway to the locker room, gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r, only Lalo and Cuéllar were washing up: gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r. Choto, Chingolo and Manny jumped out the windows, Lalo screamed he escaped look man and he managed to shut the shower door right on the Great Dane’s snout. There, shrunk back, white tiles and trickles of water, trembling, he heard Judas’s barking, Cuéllar’s sobbing and only barking and a lot later, I swear to you (but how much later, asked Chingolo, two minutes? longer man, and Choto five? longer much longer), Brother Luke’s booming voice, Brother Leoncio’s curses (in Spanish, Lalo? yeah, and in French too, did you understand him? no, but you could tell they were curses, stupid, from the anger in his voice), the shits, the my Gods, the get outs, the scrams, the get losts, the get goings, the brothers’ desperation, their terrible fright. He opened the door and already they were carrying him out, wrapped up, you could hardly see him between the black robes, passed out? yeah, naked, Lalo? yeah, and bleeding, man, I swear, it was horrible: the whole shower was pure blood. What else, what happened afterwards while I was getting dressed, Lalo asked, and Chingolo Brother Augustine and Brother Luke put Cuéllar in the school station wagon, we saw them from the stairway and Choto and Manny they tore off at high speed, honking and honking the horn like firemen, like an ambulance. Meanwhile, Brother Leoncio was chasing Judas who was racing back and forth in the yard, taking leaps and tumbles, he grabbed him and pushed him into his cage and between the wires (he wanted to kill him, Choto said, you should have seen him, it was scary) he whipped him savagely, beet red, his forelock bobbing in his face.
That week, Sunday mass, the Friday rosary and the prayers at the beginning and end of the classes were for Cuéllar’s recovery, but the brothers got furious if the students talked among themselves about the accident, they grabbed us and a whack on the head, silence, take that, detention until six. Still, that was the only topic of conversation during recess and in classes, and the following Monday when school let out they went to visit him in the American Clinic, we saw that he didn’t have a scratch on his face or hands. He was in a nice little room, hi Cuéllar, white walls and cream curtains, better already, pal? alongside a garden with little flowers, grass and a tree. They we’re getting even, Cuéllar, every recess pelting Judas’s cage with stone after stone, and he that’s great, soon there won’t be one unbroken bone in that bastard, he laughed, when he got out we’d go to the academy at night and climb in over the roof, long live the kid, pow pow, the Masked Eagle, swoosh swoosh, and we’d make him see stars, in good humor but so skinny and pale, that dog, like he did to me. Seated at the head of Cuéllar’s bed were two ladies who gave us chocolates and went out into the garden, sweetie, you go on talking with your friends, they’d smoke a cigarette and come back, the one in the white dress is my mother, the other’s an aunt. C’mon, tell us, Cuéllar, what happened, did he hurt you bad? real bad, where had he bitten him? well, was it right there and he got jittery, on your peepee? yes, blushing scarlet, and he laughed and we laughed and the ladies from the window hello, hello, sweetie and to us only a little longer, a secret, his old man didn’t want, either did his old lady, anybody to know, my boy, better if you don’t say anything, what for? it was only on the leg, sweetie, okay? The operation took two hours, he told them, he’d be back to school in ten days, look at all the vacation, how lucky you are the doctor had said to him. We left and in class everybody wanted to know, they sewed up his belly, right? with needle and thread, right? And Chingolo how embarrassed when he told us, maybe it was a sin to talk about that? Lalo no, how could it be, every night before going to bed his mother asked him did you brush your teeth? did you make weewee? and Manny poor Cuéllar, what a lot of pain he must’ve been in, if a ball hits you there it’d knock anybody out what would a bite be like and especially think about Judas’s fangs, pick up some stones, let’s get out on the field, one, two, three, gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r gr-r-r, how’d you like that? bastard, take that and that’ll teach you. Poor Cuéllar, Choto said, he won’t be able to shine in the championship match beginning tomorrow, and Manny all that practicing for nothing and what’s worse is, Lalo was saying, it’s crippled the team, we’ve got to make an all-out effort if we don’t want to stay at the bottom, guys, swear you’ll make an all-out push.
He only went back to the academy after the national holiday and, funny thing, instead of having learned his lesson from soccer (wasn’t it on account of soccer, in a way, that Judas bit him?) he came back more of a player than ever. On the other hand, studies started mattering less to him. And that was understandable, he was no fool, he didn’t have to grind away anymore: he went into exams with very low averages and the brothers passed him, bad exams and excellent, miserable homework and passed. Ever since the accident they’re treating you with kid gloves, we told him, you don’t know a thing about fractions and, what nerve, they gave you a ninety. In addition, they had him serving at mass, Cuéllar read the catechism, carry this year’s banner in the processions, erase the blackboard, sing in the chorus, pass out the notebooks, and on first Fridays he would come into breakfast even though he had not received communion. Nobody like you, said Choto, you treat yourself to the swell life, too bad Judas didn’t bite us too, and he that wasn’t why: the brothers made him their pet out of fear of his old man. Idiots, what have you done to my son, I’ll have this academy shut down, I’ll have you sent to prison, you don’t know who I am, he was going to kill that damned beast as well as the rector, calm down, calm yourself down, sir, he shook him by the collar. That’s how it was, honest, said Cuéllar, his old man had told his old lady and although they talked in a whisper he, from my bed in the clinic, heard them: that was why they made him their pet, nothing else. By the collar? what a liar Lalo said, and Chingolo it’s got to be true, the damned animal had disappeared for some reason. They must’ve sold him, we said, he must’ve escaped, they might have given him to somebody, and Cuéllar no, no, sure that his old man came and killed him, he always did what he promised he’d do. Because one morning the cage was empty at daybreak and a week later, in place of Judas, four white bunnies. Cuéllar, take them some lettuce, oh Brother’s little helper, give them some carrots, how they coddled you, change their water and be happy.
But not only the brothers had begun to spoil him, his parents had too. Now Cuéllar came to Terraces with us every afternoon to play ball (your old man doesn’t get mad anymore? no more, just the opposite, he was always asking him who won the match, my team, how many goals did you score, three? great! and he don’t get upset, Mama, I tore my shirt playing, it was an accident, and she silly, what did it matter, sweetheart, the girl would sew it up and you could wear it around the house, he should give her a kiss) and later we would go to the balcony of the Excelsior or the Ricardo Palma or the Leuro movie house to see serials, movies not proper for young ladies, Cantinflas and Tin Tan pictures. Every once in a while they’d raise my allowance and they buy me whatever I want, he used to tell us, he had his parents in his back pocket, they let me do whatever I like, I’ve got them right here, they’d do anything for me. He was the first of the five to have ice skates, a bicycle, a motorcycle, and they Cuéllar how about your old man giving us a cup for the championship, how about his taking us to the stadium pool to see Merino and Bunny Villaran swim and how about his picking us up in his car when the matinee’s over, and his old man gave it to us and took us and picked us up in his car: yes, he had him right here.
Around that time, not long after the accident, they began to call him P.P. The nickname was coined in the classroom, was it smart aleck Gumucio who made it up? sure, who else would it have been and at first Cuéllar, Brother, he was crying, they’re calling me a bad name, like a queer, who? calling you what? a nasty thing, Brother, he was embarrassed to repeat it to him, stammering and the tears were pouring out, and later during the recesses the students in the other classes P.P. what happened? and the snot was dribbling out, how ya doin’, and the brother, look, he ran to Leoncio, Luke, Augustine or Professor Cañon Paredes: it was him. He complained and he also became furious, what did you say, P.P. I said, white with anger, fag, his hands and voice trembling, let’s see if you dare say it again, P.P., I already dared and what happened and he shut his eyes then and, just as his dad had advised him, don’t let them son, he flung himself, sock ’em in the kisser, and he challenged them, stick out your foot for him, and thud, and he punched, an undercut, a header, a kick, anywhere, in the line-up or on the field, knock him down on the ground and it’s over, in the classroom, at chapel, they won’t bother you anymore. But he got more annoyed and they pestered him more and once, it’s getting out of hand, Brother, his father came spitting nails at the rector, they were torturing his son and he wasn’t going to stand for it. Let him wear the pants, let him punish those snot-faced kids or he’d do it himself, he’d put everybody in their place, what insolence, pounding the table, it was the last straw, it was the limit. But they had stuck the nickname to him like a postage stamp and, despite the brothers’ punishments, despite the rector’s be more humane, the rector’s take a little pity on him, and despite Cuéllar’s sobbing and kicking and threats and punches, the nickname got out onto the street and little by little it was making its way around the sections of Miraflores and he could never get it off his back, poor guy. P.P. pass the ball, don’t be greedy, how’d you do in algebra, P.P.? P.P., I’ll swap a Life Saver for a gumdrop, make sure you come tomorrow on the trip to Chosica, P.P., they’d go swimming in the river, the brothers would bring gloves and you’ll be able to box with Gumucio and get back at him, P.P., got boots? because we’d have to climb the hill, P.P., and when we get back we still might make the early show, P.P., like the plan?
They too, Cuéllar, we who were careful at first, started letting it slip out, old man, against our will, brother, pal, all of a sudden P.P. and he, blushing, what? or pale, you too, Chingolo? opening his eyes wide, man, sorry, it wasn’t with bad intentions, him too, his friend too? man, Cuéllar, don’t be that way, if everybody called you that it was catching, you too, Choto? and it rolled off his tongue without his wanting to, he too, Manny? so that’s what we were calling him behind his back? the minute he turned his back and they P.P., right? No, what an idea, we bear-hugged him, promise never again and anyway why are you getting mad, brother, it was a nickname like any other and finally don’t you call lame Pérez Gimpy and cross-eyed Rodríguez Pock Face or Evil Eye and the deaf-mute Rivera Golden Tongue? And didn’t they call him Choto and him Chingolo and him Manny and him Lalo? Don’t get mad, brother, keep on playing, c’mon, it’s your turn.
Bit by bit he was growing resigned to his nickname and by the sixth grade he did not cry or get tough anymore, he pretended not to notice and sometimes he even joked, not P.P., Big P.P. ha ha! and in the first year of junior high school he had become so accustomed to it that, instead, when they called him Cuéllar, he became serious and looked distrustfully, as if uncertain, was it a joke? He even put out his hand to new friends saying how do you do, P.P. Cuéllar, glad to meet you.
Not to girls, of course, just to men. Because at that time, besides sports, they were already interested in girls. We had started making jokes, in class, hey, yesterday I saw Martínez with his girl, during recess, they were walking hand in hand on the embankment and all of a sudden, pow, a hit! and at the end of periods, on the mouth? yes and they’d stayed a hell of a long time kissing. Soon, that was the main thing they talked about. Kiki Rojas had a girlfriend, older than him, blond, with blue eyes and on Sunday Manny saw them going into the afternoon show at the Ricardo Palma together and after the show let out her hair was all messed up, sure they’d made out, and the next day at night Choto caught the Venezuelan in the fifth year, the one they call Jaws ’cause of his big mouth, man, in a car, with a really painted-up doll and, sure enough, they were making out, and you, Lalo, made out yet? and you, P.P., ha ha, and Manny liked Chickie Saenz’s sister, and Choto was starting to pay for an ice cream and he dropped his wallet and he had a photo of some Little Red Riding Hood at a kids’ party, ha ha, don’t make faces, Lalo, we already know you’re dying over that skinny Rojas, and you, P.P., dying for anybody? and he no, blushing, not yet, or pale, he wasn’t dying over anybody, and you and you, ha ha.
If we got out at five on the button and raced down Pardo Avenue as if the devil were on our heels, we made it just as the girls were coming out of school. We would stand on the corner and look at that, there were the buses, they were the ones in third year and the one in the second window is Canepa’s sister, hello, hello, and that one, look, shout hello to her, she laughed and laughed, and the girl answered us, hello, hello, but it wasn’t for you, snot-nose, and that one and that one. Sometimes we brought little notes we skimmed through the air at them, you’re really good-looking, I like your braids, your uniform fits you better than anybody else’s, your friend Lalo, watch out, man, the nun already saw you, she’s going to punish them, what’s your name, I’m Manny, want to go to the movies Sunday? she should answer him tomorrow with the same kind of note or let me know shaking her head yes as the bus went by. And you Cuéllar, didn’t he like any of them? yes, that one in the back, four-eyes? no, the one right next to her, then why didn’t he write her? and he what would I say to her, let’s see, want to be my girl? no, how dumb, he wanted to be her boyfriend and sent her a kiss, yes, that was better, but it was short, something sneakier, I want to be your friend and he was sending you a kiss and I adore you, she’d be the cow and I’ll be the bull, ha ha. And now sign your first name and your last name and do a little drawing for her, what for instance? anything, a little bull, a little flower, a little peepee, and so we spent our afternoons, running after the buses of the Academy of the Indemnity and, sometimes, we went as far as Arequipa Avenue to watch the girls from Villa Maria in their white uniforms, just made your first communion? we’d shout at them, and we even took the express and got off at St. Isidor to take a look at the girls from St. Ursula and from Sacred Heart. We didn’t play as much soccer as before.
When birthdays turned into mixed parties, the boys stayed out in the garden, pretending to play tag, you’re it! who’s got the button or ring-a-lievo, caught you! while we were all eyes, all ears, what was going on in the living room? what were the girls doing with those big guys, what envy, who already knew how to dance? Until one day they decided to learn too and then we spent Saturdays, whole Sundays, men dancing with each other, at Lalo’s house, no, at mine it’s bigger, it was better, but Choto had more records, and Manny but I’ve got my sister who can teach us and Cuéllar, no, at his house, his parents already knew and one day, here, his mother, sweetheart, they gave him that hi-fi, just for him? sure, didn’t he want to learn to dance? He’d put it in his room and call his friends and would lock himself up with them as long as he wanted and also buy records, sweetheart, go to the Record Center, and they went and we picked out huarachas, mambos, boleros and waltzes and they sent the bill to his old man, that’s all, Mr. Cuéllar, 285 Mariscal Castilla. The waltz and bolero were easy, you had to remember and count, one here, one there, the music didn’t matter too much. The hard ones were the huaracha, we have to learn the steps, said Cuéllar, the mambo, and to twirl and move apart and show off. We learned to dance and smoke almost at the same time, tripping over ourselves, choking on the smoke from Luckies and Viceroys, prancing until suddenly, now brother, you got it, it was coming out, don’t lose it, move a little more, getting sick at our stomachs, coughing and spitting, hey did he let it out? liar, he was holding the smoke under his tongue, and P.P. me, we should count for him, did we see? eight, nine, ten and how he blew it out, did he or didn’t he know how to take a drag? And also to blow it out through his nose and to squat down and twirl around and get up without losing the beat.
Before, what we liked most in the world were sports and the movies, and they would give anything for a soccer match, and now instead it was girls and dancing most and what we would give anything for was a party with Pérez Prado records and permission to smoke from the lady of the house. They had parties almost every Saturday and when we didn’t go as guests we crashed and, before entering, they would go into the corner bar and banging on the bar with a fist, we would ask the bartender for five shots! Bottoms up, P.P. said, like this, glub glub, like men, like me.
When Pérez Prado came to Lima with his orchestra, we went to wait for him at the airport, and Cuéllar, let’s see, who shoved through like me, managed to make his way through the crowd, got up to him, grabbed him by the coat and shouted to him: “The Mambo King!” Pérez Prado smiled at him and also shook my hand, I swear to you, and he signed his autograph album, look. They followed him, lost in the caravan of fans, in Bobby Lozano’s car, to Plaza San Martin and, despite the archbishop’s prohibition and the warnings of the brothers from the Champagnat Academy, we went to the bullfight, to Sol Stadium, to see the national mambo championship. Every night, at Cuéllar’s we’d put on El Sol Radio and listen in a frenzy, what a trumpet, man, what a beat, the Pérez Prado broadcast, what a piano.
They were already wearing long pants by then, we slicked our hair with tonic and they had grown, especially Cuéllar, who from being the smallest and the puniest of us five turned into the tallest and strongest. You’ve gotten to be a Tarzan, P.P., we told him, what a build you’re growing muscles every day.
The first to have a girlfriend was Lalo, when we were in our freshman year. One night he came into the Tasty Cream, real dreamy, they what’s up with you and he, beaming, puffed up like a peacock: I’ve asked Chabuca Molina to go steady, she said yes to me. We went to celebrate at the Indian Messenger and with the second glass of beer, Lalo, how did you put it to her, Cuéllar started getting a little nervous, had he held her hand? a little annoying, what had Chabuca done, Lalo, and full of questions, c’mon, did you kiss her? Pleased, he told us, and now it was their turn, cheers, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, let’s see if we’ll hurry up and get a girlfriend and Cuéllar, banging the table with his glass, what did she say, what did you say to her, what did you do. You sound like some priest, P.P., Lalo said, you’re giving me confession and Cuéllar, tell us, tell us, what else. They had three beers and, at midnight, P.P. got sick. Leaning against a lamppost, right on Larco Avenue, in front of the public clinic, he vomited: chicken, we said to him, and also what a waste, throwing away that beer after what it cost, what squandering. But he, you double-crossed us, he wasn’t in the mood for joking, double-crosser Lalo, spitting up, you went ahead, puking all over his shirt, falling for a girl, his trousers, and not even telling us he was chasing her, P.P., bend over a little, you’re making a mess of yourself, but he nothing, that just wasn’t done, what’s it to you if I make a mess of myself, you lousy friend, double-crosser. Later, while we were cleaning him up, he cooled down, and got sentimental: we’d never see you anymore, Lalo. He would spend Sundays with Chabuca and you won’t look for us anymore, you fairy. And Lalo what an idea, man, my girlfriend and my friends were two different things but they don’t compete with each other, there’s no reason to be jealous, P.P., calm down, and they shake hands but Cuéllar didn’t want to, Chabuca should shake his hand, I’m not going to shake it. We went with him to his house and all along the way he was muttering shut up man and swearing, we’re there already, go in real slow, real slow, tiptoe like a thief, careful, if you make a racket your parents will wake up and catch you. But he began to shout, let’s have a look, to kick his front door, let them wake up and catch him and what was going to happen, chicken, we shouldn’t go, he wasn’t scared of his parents, we should stay and we’d see. Something’s gotten into him, said Manny, as we raced toward the crosstown street, you said I asked Chabuca to go steady and friend his face and mood changed, and Choto he was jealous, that’s why he got drunk and Chingolo his parents are going to wring his neck. But they didn’t do anything to him. Who opened the door for you? my mother and what happened? we asked him, she hit you? No, she started crying, sweetheart, how could you, how could he drink at his age, and my old man came in too and he bawled him out, nothing else, you’ll never do this again? no Papa, wasn’t he ashamed of what he’d done? yes. They gave him a bath, they put him to bed and the next morning he told them he was sorry. And Lalo too, man, I’m sorry, the beer went right to my head, see? I insulted you, I was bugging you, wasn’t I? No, what garbage, a question of a few drinks, give me five and friends, P.P., like before, nothing’s happened.
But something had happened: Cuéllar began to do nutty things to get attention. They gave in to him and we went along with him, how about I steal my old man’s car and we drag-race along the ocean drive, guys, why not man, and he took out his dad’s Chevrolet and they went to the ocean drive; how about me breaking Bobby Lozano’s record? why not man, and he whoosh along the embankment from Benavides to Quebrada whoosh in two minutes fifty, did I break it, yes and Manny crossed himself, you broke it, and you, you pansy, how scared you were; how about my treating us at Tastes So Good and we play possum when the bill comes? why not man, and they went to the Tastes So Good, we stuffed ourselves with hamburgers and milk shakes, they left one by one and from St. Mary’s Church we saw Cuéllar dodge the waiter and get out what’d I tell you? how about my blowing out all the windows of the house with my father’s shotgun? why not P.P. and he blew them out. He played the nut in order to get attention, but also in order to did you see, did you see? to make fun of Lalo, you wouldn’t dare and me sure I dared. He won’t forgive him for Chabuca, we said, how he hates him.
During sophomore year, Choto asked Fina Sales to go steady and she told him yes and Manny asked Kitty Lanas and she too. Cuéllar locked himself up in his house for a month and at school he hardly said hello to them, listen, what’s wrong, nothing, why don’t you come looking for us, why didn’t you go out with them? he didn’t feel like going out. He’s playing mysterious, they said, intriguing, kinky, bitter. But little by little he accepted it and returned to the group. Sundays, Chingolo and he would go to the matinee by themselves (little bachelors, we called them, widowers), and afterwards they would kill time any old way, hanging around, not talking or just barely let’s go here, there, hands in their pockets, listening to records at Cuéllar’s, reading comics or playing cards, and at nine they’d drop down to Salazar Park to look for the others, because at that hour we were already saying good night to our girlfriends. Did you make out asked Cuéllar, as we took off our coats, loosened our ties and rolled up our sleeves at the pool hall on Ricardo Palma Avenue, really made out, guys? his voice sick with annoyance, jealousy and irritation, and they shut up, let’s play, hand, tongue? blinking as if the smoke and the light from the bulbs were hurting his eyes, and we it made him mad, P.P.? instead of getting annoyed, why don’t you get yourself a chick and stop being a pain in the ass? and he did they French-kiss you, hacking and spitting like a drunk, till they gagged? tapping his heels, did you lift their skirts, get your pinkie in? and they the envy was eating away at him, P.P., really taste good, really nice? it was driving him crazy, better if he shut up and got started. But, never wearing down, he kept at it, now, for real, what had we done with them? how long did the girls let you kiss them? still at it, buddy? shut up, he was being a pain now, and one time Lalo got mad: shit, he was going to smash his face in, he was making like our girlfriends were putting out. We separated them and got them to be friends again, but Cuéllar couldn’t, it was stronger than he was, every Sunday the same crap: come on, how did it go? we should tell him everything, good making out?
In our senior year, Chingolo asked Baby Romero to go steady and she told him no, Tula Ramírez and she no, China Saldivar and she yes, third try’s the winner, he said, if at first you don’t succeed try, try again, happy. We celebrated in the wrestlers’ bar on San Martin Street. Silent, sulky, hunched over in his corner chair, Cuéllar downed shot after shot, stop pulling that long face, man, now it was his turn. He should pick out some chick and she’d fall for him, we told him, we’ll do the spadework for you, we would help him and our girlfriends would too. Sure, sure, I’ll pick soon, shot after shot, and suddenly, bye, he stood up: he was tired, I’m going home to bed. If he stayed he was going to cry, Manny said, and Choto because he was bottling up the urge, and Chingolo if he didn’t cry he was going to throw a fit like that other time. And Lalo: they ought to help him out, he was talking serious, we’d get him a chick even if she was a dog, and his complex would disappear. Sure, sure, we would help him, he was a good guy, a little touchy sometimes but anybody in his situation, it was understandable, he was forgiven, he was missed, he was liked, let’s drink to him, P.P., clink glasses, here’s to you.
After that, Cuéllar went to Sunday and holiday matinees all alone—we would see him in the back of the orchestra, slouched in the back rows, lighting up butt after butt, sneaking looks at the couples making out—and he got together with them only at night, at the pool hall, at Bransa, at the Tasty Cream, his face sour, good Sunday? and his voice sharp, he fine and you guys really great I bet, right?
But by summer his snit was over. We went to the beach together—to Horseshoe, not to Miraflores anymore—in the car his parents had given him for Christmas, a Ford convertible with no muffler, it paid no attention to traffic signals and deafened, terrified the pedestrians. For better or worse, he had made friends with the girls and got along with them all right, in spite of always, Cuéllar, they went around pestering him with the same thing: why don’t you ask some girl to go steady right now? So they would be five couples and we would go out in a pack all the time and they would be all over together, why don’t you do it? Cuéllar defended himself by joking, no because then they wouldn’t all fit in his mighty Ford and one of you will have to be the sacrificial victim, throwing off the scent, aren’t nine too tight? Seriously, Kitty said, everybody had a girl and he no, aren’t you tired of playing solo? He should chase Skinny Gamino, she’s dying for you, she had admitted to them the other day, at China’s house, playing truth and consequences, don’t you like her? Grab her, we’d help him, she would take him, settle on it. But he did not want to have a girlfriend and he put on the face of a renegade, I like my freedom, and of a skirt chaser, he was better off single. Your freedom for what, said China, to do nasty things? and Chabuca, to go around making out? and Kitty, with cheap girls? and he the face of a mystery man, maybe, of a pimp? maybe and of a profligate: could be. Why don’t you ever come to our parties? said Fina, you used to come to all of them and you were so much fun and danced so good, what happened to you Cuéllar? And he shouldn’t be such a drag, come and sometime you’ll meet a chick you like and you’ll fall for her. But he no way, waste of time, our parties bored him, old before his time, he didn’t go because he had better ones where I enjoy myself more. What’s wrong with you is you don’t like decent girls, they said, and he as friends sure and they only the easy ones, the trashy ones, the brassy ones and, suddenly, P.P., yes, I like I l-l-l-like, began, d-d-d-decent g-g-girls, to stutter, j-j-j-just n-not S-s-s-ski-n-n-n-n-ny Gamino, they you already squirmed out and he b-b-b-besides th-th-th-there’s n-no t-t-t-time f-f-for t-t-tests, and the guys leave him alone, we stuck up for him, you’re not going to convince him, he’s got his little plans, his little secrets, step on it man, look at that sun, the Horseshoe must be sizzling, floor the gas, make the mighty Ford fly.
We would swim in front of the Seagulls and, while the four couples sunned themselves on the beach, Cuéllar showed off surfing. Let’s go, that one that’s building, Chabuca said, that gigantic one, can you? P.P. jumped to his feet, she’d hit on just what he liked, at least he could beat us at that: he was going to try it, Chabuquita, look. He dashed—he ran sticking his chest out, throwing his head back—he plunged into the water, pushed forward with good strokes, kicking in unison, how good he swims said Kitty, he reached the peak of the wave just as it was going to break, look he’s going to ride it, he dared to said China, he stayed afloat and scarcely putting his head under, one arm rigid and the other striking out, cutting the water like a champion, we saw him rise to the crest of the wave, fall with it, disappear in an uproar of foam, look, look he’s going to get knocked down in one of those said Fina, and they saw him reappear and come in swept along by the wave, his body arched, his head out, his feet crossed in the air, and we saw him reach the shore effortlessly, nudged by the surf.
What a good surfer, the girls said while Cuéllar turned around against the undertow, waved good-bye to us and struck out to sea again, he was so nice, and really good-looking too, why didn’t he have a girlfriend? The boys looked at each other out of the corners of their eyes, Lalo laughed, Fina what’s wrong with them, why the horse laughs, tell us, Choto blushed, because that’s why, it’s nothing and besides what’re you talking about, what horse laughs, she don’t play dumb and he no, he wasn’t playing dumb, honest. He didn’t have one because he’s shy, Chingolo said, and Kitty he wasn’t, what was he going to be, more like a smart aleck and Chabuca then why not? He’s hunting but not finding, said Lalo, he’ll ask somebody soon and China wrong, he wasn’t hunting, he never went to parties, and Chabuca then why? They know, said Lalo, cross my heart, hope to die, they know and they were playing dumb, why? in order to worm it out of them, if they didn’t know how come so many whys, so many funny looks, so much bitchiness in their voices. And Choto: no, you’re wrong, they didn’t know, they were innocent questions, the girls felt sorry for him because he didn’t have a chick at his age, they feel sorry he goes around alone, they wanted to help him. Maybe they don’t know but one of these days they’re going to, Chingolo said, and it’d be his fault, what would it cost him to make a pass at some girl even though it was just to throw them off the track? and Chabuca then why? and Manny what does it matter to you, don’t bug him so much, the day you least expect it he’ll fall in love, she’d see, and now keep quiet here he is.
As the days passed, Cuéllar became more stand-offish with the girls, more tight-lipped and distant. Crazier too: he ruined Kitty’s birthday party throwing a string of firecrackers through the window, she burst into tears and Manny got mad, went to find him, they slugged each other, P.P. nailed him. It took us a week to get them to be friends again, sorry Manny, hell, I don’t know what got into me, buddy, don’t worry, I should be asking your pardon, P.P., for getting hot under the collar, c’mon c’mon, and Kitty forgave you too and wants to see you; he came drunk to mass on Christmas Eve and Lalo and Choto had to carry him dead weight out into the park, lemme go, raving, he didn’t give a damn, puking, I wish I had a pistol, what for, buddy? with pink elephants, to kill us? yeah and the same goes for that guy going by pow pow and for you and for me too pow pow; one Sunday he invaded the grounds of the Hippodrome and with his Ford vrroom charged the crowd vrroom who screamed and jumped the fences, terrified, vrroom. During Mardi Gras girls kept away from him: he’d bombard them with stink bombs, eggshells, rotten fruit, balloons filled with piss and he’d daub them with mud, ink, flour, soap (for washing pots) and shoe polish: brute, they’d call him, pig, beast, animal, and he’d show up at the parties at the Terraces Club, at the kids’ parties in Barranco Park, at the Lawn Tennis Dance, without a costume, a container of ether in each hand, eeny meeny miney mo, got her, I got her in the eyes, ha ha, hip hip hooray, I blinded her, ha ha, or armed with a cane to stick between the couples’ feet and make them fall down: thud. They fought, they punched him, sometimes we’d take his side but he doesn’t learn his lesson from anything, we said, they’re going to kill him on account of something like that.
His crazy pranks earned him a bad reputation and Chingolo, brother, you’ve got to change, Choto, P.P., you’re getting nasty, Manny, girls didn’t want to get together with him anymore, they thought he was a bad egg, a swellhead, a drag. He, sometimes so sad, it was the last time, he’d change, word of honor, and sometimes such a bully, a bad egg, huh? that’s what the loudmouths say about me? it didn’t bother him, he’d get over the dolls, they could go shove it, up to here.
At the graduation dance—a formal, two orchestras, at the country club—the only class member not there was Cuéllar. Don’t be stupid, we told him, you’ve got to come, we’ll find a girl for you, Kitty already spoke to Margot, Fina to Ilse, China to Elena, Chabuca to Flora, they all wanted to, they’re dying to be your date, take your pick and come to the dance. But he no, how dumb wearing a tux, he wouldn’t go, instead let’s meet later. Okay, P.P., whatever you want, don’t go, you’re bucking the crowd, he should wait for us at the Indian Messenger around two, we’d drop the girls off at their houses, pick him up and we’d go for a few drinks, roam around town and he getting a little sad sure.
The following year, when Chingolo and Manny were in their first term of engineering, Lalo in pre-med and Choto began to work at the Wiese store and Chabuca was no longer in love with Lalo but with Chingolo and China no longer with Chingolo but with Lalo, Teresita Arrarte came to Miraflores: Cuéllar saw her and, for a little while at least, he changed. Overnight he stopped doing crazy things and walking around in shirtsleeves, dirty pants and messed-up hair. He started to wear a jacket and tie, to comb his hair in a D.A. like Elvis Presley and to shine his shoes: what’s going on with you, P.P., you hardly look like yourself, cool down kid. And he, nothing, in good spirits, nothing’s going on with me, you’ve got to keep up your appearance a little, right? blowing on, polishing his fingernails, he seemed like old times. What a surprise, boy, we told him, what a switch seeing you like this, isn’t it because? and he, like a gumdrop, maybe, Terry? suddenly then, did he like her? could be, like a Chiclet, could be.
He became sociable again, almost as much as when he was a kid. Sundays he’d show up at noon mass (sometimes we saw him take communion) and when church let out he’d go up to the neighborhood girls how’re you doing? What’s new, Terry, were we going to the park? why didn’t we sit on that bench where there was some shade. Afternoons, at dusk, he’d go down to the skating rink and he’d fall down and get up, fooling around and chattering, c’mon c’mon Teresita, he’d teach her, and if she fell? No you won’t, he’d hold her hand, c’mon c’mon, around just once more, and she okay, blushing and flirting, once more but very slow, blondish, cute-assed and with her mouse teeth, let’s go then. He also started hanging around the Regattas, Papa, he should become a member, all his friends went there and his old man okay, I’ll buy a membership card, was he going to be a rower, son? yes, and Bowling on the crosstown street. He even took walks Sunday afternoons in Salazar Park, he always looked cheerful, Terry, know how an elephant’s like Jesus, considerate, hold my glasses, Terry, the sun’s very strong, talkative, what’s new, Terry, everybody okay at home? and generous, a hot dog, Terry, a sandwich, a milk shake?
It’s happened, said Fina, his turn came, he fell in love. And Chabuca he was really hooked, he just looked at Terry and started drooling, and they at night around the pool table, while we waited for him will he ask her? Choto will he have the nerve? and Chingolo will Terry find out? But nobody asked him to his face and he didn’t let on he understood their hints, did you see Terry? yes, did they go to the movies? to the Ava Gardner film, to the matinee, and how was it? good, terrific, we should go, they shouldn’t miss it. He took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, grabbed the cue stick, ordered beer for five, they played and one night, after a royal carom, in a half voice, without looking at us, it’s all set, they were going to cure him. He tallied his score, they were going to operate on him, and they what’re you saying, P.P.? they’re really going to operate on you? and he like somebody who couldn’t care less pretty good, huh? It could be done, sure, not here but in New York, his old man was going to take him, and we that’s great, pal, that’s fantastic, that’s really some piece of news, when was he going to go? and he soon, in about a month, to New York, and they he should be laughing, sing, yell, get happy, pal, hooray. Only he wasn’t sure yet, he had to wait for the doctor’s reply, my old man already wrote to him, not a doctor but a scientist, a real brain like they have up there and he, Papa, did it come, no, and the next day, was there any mail, Mama, no sweetheart, calm down, it’ll come, no reason to get impatient and at last it came and his old man took him by the shoulder: no, it couldn’t be done, son, he had to be brave. Man, what a shame, they told him, and he maybe it can someplace else, in Germany for instance, in Paris, in London, his old man was going to check, to write thousands of letters, he’d spend more than he had, boy, and he’d travel, they’d operate on him and he’d be cured, and we sure, pal, right, and when he left, poor guy, they felt like bawling. hoto: what a rotten time Terry picked to move here, and Chingolo he’d resigned himself and now he’s desperate and Manny but maybe later on, science was making such progress, wasn’t it? they’d discover something and Lalo no, his uncle the doctor had told him no, there’s no way, there’s no cure and Cuéllar anything Papa? not yet, from Paris, Mama? and if suddenly in Rome? anything from Germany yet?
And meanwhile he began going to parties again and, as if to erase the bad reputation he had earned with his rock ’n’ roll antics and to win over the parents, he behaved himself like a model guest at birthdays and barbecues: he came on time and without any drinks in him, a little gift in his hand, Chabuquita, for you, happy birthday, and these flowers for your mom, listen, did Terry get here? He danced very stiffly, very properly, you look like an old man, he didn’t mash his partner, c’mon cutie let’s dance to the wallflowers, and he talked with the mothers, the fathers, and he looked after may I help you ma’am the aunts, can I pass you a little fruit juice? the uncles a drink? gallant, how beautiful your necklace is, how your ring shines, talkative, did you go the races, sir, when is your horse coming in first? and flattering, you’re the life of the party, ma’am, you should teach him to dip like that, Joaquin, what he’d give to dance like that.
When we were talking, sitting on a bench in the park, and Terry Arrarte came close, at a table in the Tasty Cream, Cuéllar would change, or in the neighborhood the conversation: he wants to wow her, they said, pass himself off as a brain, he milks her for admiration. He talked about strange and difficult things: religion (being immortal, could God, who was all-powerful, kill Himself? let’s see, which one of us solved the puzzle), politics (Hitler wasn’t as crazy as they said, in just a few short years he turned Germany into a country that bullied everybody, didn’t he? what did they think), spiritism (it wasn’t a matter of superstition but science, in France they had mediums at the university and they didn’t only summon up spirits, they also took pictures of them, he’d seen a book, Terry, if she wanted he’d get it and I’ll loan it to you). He announced that he was going to study: next year he’d enter Catholic U. and she leading him on that’s good, what career was he going to pursue? and put her small white hands over his eyes, he’d pursue law, her plump fingers and long nails, law? ugh, what a bore! painted with clear polish, growing sad, and he but not to become some shyster lawyer but to enter the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and become a diplomat, growing happy, little hands, eyes, eyelashes and he yes, the minister was a friend of his old man, he’d already talked to him, a diplomat? tiny mouth, oh, how nice! and he, burning up, dying, of course, you got around a lot, and she that too and besides you spent your life at parties: blinking tiny eyes.
Love works miracles, said Kitty, how serious he’s gotten, what a regular gentleman. And China: but it was the strangest sort of love, if he was so taken with Terry why didn’t he ask her to go steady once and for all? and Chabuca exactly, what was he waiting for? he’s been chasing her for more than two months now and till now a lot of talk and no action, what kind of a love affair’s that? The guys, among themselves, do they know or are they playing dumb? but in front of the girls we stood up for him by covering up: slow and steady wins the race, girls. It’s a matter of pride, said Chingolo, he doesn’t want to take any chances till he’s sure she’ll say yes. But of course she was going to say yes, said Fina, didn’t she make eyes at him, look at Lalo and China so sweet on each other, and she dropped hints for him, what a good skater you are, how gorgeous your sweater is, how warm and she even declared herself to him playing, will you be my partner? That’s just why he’s suspicious, said Manny, with flirts like Terry you never knew, it seemed okay and then no. But Fina and Kitty no, not true, they’d asked her will you say yes to him? and she let them understand she would, and Chabuca didn’t she go out a lot with him, at parties didn’t she dance only with him, at the movies did she sit with anybody else? It’s clear as crystal: she’s crazy for him. And China really so much waiting for him to ask was going to wear her out, tell him right away and if he wanted an opportunity we’d arrange it for him, a little party for example on Saturday, they’d dance a little while, at my house or Chabuca’s or at Fina’s, we’d go out into the garden and they would leave the two alone, what more could he ask. And at the pool hall: they didn’t know, what babies, or what hypocrites, sure they know and they were playing dumb.
Things can’t go on like this, Lalo said one day, she had him on a leash, P.P. was going to go crazy, he might even die of love, let’s do something, they sure, but what, and Manny find out if Terry’s really nuts over him or it’s just flirting. They went to her house, we asked her, but she was the smartest girl in the world, she runs rings around the four of us, they said. Cuéllar? sitting out on the balcony of her house, but you don’t call him Cuéllar but some nasty swear word, rocking herself so the light from the streetlamp would hit her legs, he’s dying for me? they weren’t bad, how did we know? And Choto don’t play dumb, she knew it and they did too and the girls and all Miraflores talked about it and she, all eyes, mouth, little nose, really? as if she were looking at a Martian: that’s the first I’ve heard about it. And Manny go on Terry, talk straight, out with it, didn’t she realize how he looked at her? And she oh, oh, oh, clapping, little hands, teeth, tiny shoes, we should look, a butterfly! we should run, catch it and bring it to her. He’d look at her, sure, but like a friend and, besides, how pretty, stroking its little wings, little fingers, nails, tiny voice, they killed it, poor thing, he never said anything to her. And they what a story, what a lie, he must’ve told you something, at least he’d have flirted with her and she no, honest, she’d dig a little hole in her garden and bury it, a little lock of hair, her neck, her little ears, never, she swore to us. And Chingolo didn’t she even realize how he was chasing after her? and Terry he might follow her around as a friend, oh, oh, oh, tapping her shoes together, little fists, big doll eyes, it wasn’t dead, the faker, it flew away, waist and small tits, well, if not, he’d at least held her hand, hadn’t he, or tried to anyway, right? there you are, right there, we should run, or he had expressed his love, right? and again we should catch it, it’s that he’s shy, said Lalo, hold it but be careful, you’re going to smudge, and he doesn’t know whether you’ll say yes, Terry, was she going to say yes? and she ahh, ahh, little wrinkles, little forehead, they killed it and mangled it, little dimples on her cheeks, little eyelashes, eyebrows, who? and we what do you mean who and she better get rid of it, the way it was, all mangled, why bother burying it: a little shrug. Cuéllar? and Manny yes, she went for him? she still didn’t know and Choto then you do like him, Terry, you really went for him, and she I didn’t say that, only that she didn’t know, she’d see if the occasion presented itself but it was sure not to and they sure it would. And Lalo did she think he was good-looking? and she Cuéllar? elbows, knees, yes, he was sort of good-looking, wasn’t he? and we see, see how she liked him? and she I hadn’t said that, no, we shouldn’t trick her, look, the little butterfly sparkled among the geraniums in the garden or was it some other bug? the tip of her little toe, her foot, a tiny white heel. But why did he have that ugly nickname, we were very ill-mannered, why didn’t we call him something nice like we called Chicken, Bobby, Superman or Bunny Villaran and we she did like him, she did like him, did you see? she felt sorry for him on account of his nickname, so she did love him, Terry, and she loved? a little, eyes, a little burst of laughter, just as a friend, sure.
She pretends she doesn’t, we said, but there’s no doubt she does: P.P. should ask her and that’ll be that, let’s talk to him. But it was hard and they didn’t dare.
And as for Cuéllar, he didn’t make up his mind either: night and day he followed Terry Arrarte around, looking at her, doing favors for her, pampering her and in Miraflores those who didn’t know made fun of him, bed warmer they called him, what an act, skirt chaser and the girls sang to him “how much longer, how much longer” to embarrass and egg him on. Then, one night we took him to the Barranco movie house and, as we were leaving, man, let’s go to the Horseshoe in your mighty Ford and he okay, they’d have a few beers and play pinbali, fine. We went in his mighty Ford, roaring, screeching around corners and at the Chorrillos breakwater a cop stopped them, we were going over eighty? sir, officer, don’t be that way, no reason to be tough, and he asked us for our driver’s license and they had to give him a couple of bucks, sir? have a few whiskeys on us, officer, there’s no reason to be tough, and at Horseshoe beach they got out and sat down at a table in the National: what a dog show, man, but that half-breed wasn’t bad and how they danced, it was better than the circus. We had a couple of beers and they still didn’t dare, four and still nothing, six and Lalo started in. I’m your friend, P.P., and he laughed drunk already? and Manny we really like you a lot, man, and he yeah? laughing, an affection binge for you too? and Chingolo they wanted to talk to him, man, and also give him some advice. Cuéllar changed, grew pale, offered a toast, nice couple over there, huh? him a little runt and she a monkey, right? and Lalo why hide it, pal, you’re dying for Terry aren’t you? and he coughed, sneezed and Manny, P.P., level with us, yes or no? and he laughed, so sad and trembling, he almost couldn’t be heard: h-h-he was d-d-d-ying, y-y-yes. Two more beers and Cuéllar didn’t know wh-wh-what he was going to do, Choto, what could he do? and he ask her and he it’s out of the question, Chingolito, how am I going to ask and he by asking her, pal, telling her you love her, then, she’s going to say yes to you. And he it wasn’t on account of that, Manny, she could say yes to him but, what about afterwards? He drank his beer and he was losing his voice and Lalo afterwards will be afterwards, ask her now and that’ll be that, maybe he would be cured after a while and he, Chotito, and if Terry knew, if somebody had told her? and they she didn’t know, we already made her admit, she’s dying for you and he got his voice back, she’s dying for me? and we yeah, and he sure maybe sometime I can get cured, did we think so? and they yeah, yeah, P.P., and anyway you can’t go on like this, growing bitter, getting thinner, wasting away: he should ask her right away. And Lalo how could he doubt it? He’d ask her, he’d have a girlfriend and he what would I do? and Choto he’d make out and Manny he’d hold her hand and Chingolo he’d kiss her and Lalo he’d fool around with her a little and he and afterwards? and he was losing his voice and they afterwards? and he afterwards, when they had grown up and you get married, and he and you and Lalo: how dumb, how can you think about that now, and besides that’s the least of it. One day he’d ditch her, he’d start an argument for no reason at all and he’d fight and so everything would be taken care of and he, wanting and not wanting to speak: that was just what he didn’t want, because, because he loved her. But a little later—up to ten beers now—guys, we were right, it was the best way: I’ll ask her to go steady, I’ll stay with her awhile and I’ll ditch her.
But the weeks rushed by and we when, P.P., and he tomorrow, he hadn’t made up his mind, he’d ask her tomorrow, honest, suffering as they never saw him suffer before or after, and the girls “You’re wasting time, thinking, thinking,” singing the ballad to him “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.” Then the crisis began for him: all of a sudden he threw the cue stick down on the floor at the pool hall, ask her, man! and he started swearing at the bottles or the cigarette butts, and he tried to pick a fight with anybody or he burst into tears, tomorrow, this time it was the truth, on his mother’s honor he would: I’ll tell her I love her or I’ll kill myself. “And so the days go passing by, and you despairing…” and he would leave the matinee and start to walk, to trot down Larco Avenue, leave me alone, like a horse gone crazy, and they behind, go away, he wanted to be alone, and we ask her, P.P., stop suffering, ask her, ask her, “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.” Or he went to the Indian Messenger and drank, what hatred he felt, Lalo, until he got drunk, what awful pain. Chotito, and they would accompany him, I feel like killing, man! and we’d half carry him up to the door of his house, P.P., make up your mind right now, ask her, and the girls morning and night “For what you want most, how much longer, how much longer.” They’re making his life impossible, we said, he’ll end up a drunk, outlaw, madman.
So the winter ended, another summer began and along with the sun and the heat a boy who studied architecture came to Miraflores from St. Isidor, he had a Pontiac and was a swimmer: Butch Arnilla. He joined the group and at first the guys didn’t take to him and the girls what are you doing around here, who invited you, but Terry leave him alone, little white blouse, stop needling him, Butch sit down alongside me, little sailor’s hat, blue jeans, I invited him. And they, man, didn’t he have eyes in his head? and he sure, he’s horning in on your territory, dummy, he’s going to take her away from you, get going or your goose’ll be cooked, and he so what if he takes her away? and we doesn’t matter to you anymore? and he wh-wh-why w-w-would it m-m-matter and they he didn’t like her anymore? wh-wh-why w-w-would he l-l-like her.
Butch asked Terry to go steady toward the end of January and she said yes: poor P.P., we said, what a rotten break and about Terry what a flirt, what a bitch, what a dirty trick she played on him. But now the girls stuck up for her: nice work, who was to blame but him, and Chabuca how long was poor Terry going to wait for him to make up his mind? and China what do you mean dirty trick, just the opposite, he played a dirty trick on her, he had her wasting her time for so long and Kitty besides Butch was really friendly, Fina and nice and cute and Chabuca and Cuéllar a scaredy-cat and China a queer.
Then P.P. Cuéllar went back to his old tricks. How crazy, said Lalo, he went surfing during Holy Week? And Chingolo: not just in waves, in mountains of water fifteen feet tall, man, that tall, thirty feet tall. And Choto: they made a terrible racket, they reached up to the awnings, and Chabuca farther, to the top of the breakwater, they splashed the cars on the highway and, of course, nobody was in the water. Had he done it so Terry Arrarte would see him? yeah, to make her boyfriend look bad? yeah. For sure, like telling Terry look what I dare to do and Butch zero, and he was supposed to be such a great swimmer? he wades along the shoreline like the women and kids, look who you’ve lost, terrific.
Why would the water get so rough during Holy Week? Fina said, and China in anger because the Jews killed Christ, and Choto had the Jews killed him? he thought it was the Romans, how dumb. We were sitting on the breakwater, Fina, in bathing suits, Choto, bare legs, Manny, the walls of water were crashing, China, and they came right up and wet our feet, Chabuca, how cold it was, Kitty, and how dirty, Chingolo, the water black and the foam brown, Terry, full of seaweed and jellyfish and Butch Arnilla, and just then psst psst, look, here came Cuéllar. Would he come over, Terry? would he pretend he didn’t see you? He parked his Ford in front of the Horseshoe jazz club, got out, went into the Seagulls and came out in bathing trunks—new ones, said Choto, yellow, Jantzens and Chingolo he even thought about that, he planned everything to draw attention, did you catch it, Lalo, a towel around his neck like a scarf, and sunglasses. He peered scornfully at the scared swimmers, huddled between the breakwater and the beach, and looked at the wild and furious walls of water that washed away the sand and he raised his hand, waved to us and came over. Hi Cuéllar, some disappointment, huh? hi, hi, a look like he didn’t get it, better if they’d gone swimming at the Regattas pool, wouldn’t it? what’s new, a look asking why, how’re you? And finally a look of on account of the big waves? no, how could you think that! what was wrong with them, what was the matter with us (Kitty: what goes up’s gotta come down, ha ha), if the water was perfect this way, Terry, little eyes, was he serious? sure, great even for surfing, he was joking, right? little hands and Butch he’d dare to ride them? sure, body surfing or with a board, didn’t we believe him? no, that was what we were laughing about? they were scared? really? and Terry he wasn’t? no, he was going in? yeah, he was going surfing? sure: yelps. And they saw him throw off his towel, look at Terry Arrarte (she must have blushed, right? said Lalo, and Choto no, what was she supposed to do, and Butch? yeah, he shook like a leaf and run down the steps of the breakwater and dive into the water head over heels. And we saw him cut through the undertow along the shoreline and reach the surf quick as one, two, three. A wave built up and he dived under and then came up and dived in and came up, what was he like? a little fish, a porpoise, a yelp, where was he? another, look at him, part of an arm, there, there. And they saw him swim out, disappear, appear and grow smaller until he got out where the breakers started, Lalo, what breakers: huge, shaking, they rose and never fell, squirming, was he that little white spot? nerves, yeah. He went out, came back in, went back out, got lost in the foam and the waves and slipped back and pushed forward, what did he look like? a little duck, a little paper boat, and to see him better Terry stood up, Chabuca, Choto, everybody, even Butch, but when was he going to ride them? He delayed but he took heart at last. He turned around toward the beach and looked for us and waved to us and we waved hello to him, hello, little towel. He let one, two go by and with the third breaker they saw him, we imagined him stick his head under, push off with one arm to find the current, stiffen his body and kick. He caught it, spread his arms, rose up (a twenty-four-foot wave? asked Lalo, more, high as the roof? more, like Niagara Falls, then? more, much more) and he fell with the crest of the wave and the mountain of water swallowed him and the big wave appeared, did he get out, did he get out? and it came closer roaring like an airplane, vomiting foam, there, did they see him, was he there? and at last began to drop down, to lose strength and he appeared, so calm, and the wave gently carried him, covered with seaweed, how long he held out without breathing, what lungs, and beached him on the sand, terrific: he had us with our tongues hanging out, Lalo, with good reason, I mean. That was how it started all over again.
Toward the middle of the year, just after the national holiday, Cuéllar started working in his old man’s factory: now he’ll change, they said, he’ll become a serious guy. But it wasn’t like that at all, just the opposite. He’d leave the office at six and by seven he’d already be in Miraflores, and by seven-thirty in the Indian Messenger, leaning on the bar, drinking (a boilermaker, miss) and waiting for someone he knew to come in to shoot dice. He would spend the evening there, in the midst of dice, ashtrays full of butts, crapshooters and bottles of cold beer, and he killed the nights seeing a show, in sleazy nightclubs (the National, the Penguin, the Olympic, the Tourbillon) or, if he was broke, ending up getting drunk in the worst dives, where he could pawn his Parker pen, his Omega watch, his gold bracelet (bars in Surquilla or Porvenir), and some mornings he turned up scratched, a black eye, a bandaged hand: he was washed up, we said, and the girls his poor mom and the guys do you know now he hangs out with queers, pimps and junkies? But on Saturdays he always went out with us. He would come around to look for them after lunch and, if we didn’t go to the Hippodrome or the stadium, they would shut themselves up at Chingolo’s or Manny’s to play poker till it got dark. Then we went back home and they showered and we got spruced up and Cuéllar picked them up in the powerful Nash his old man had passed on to him when he came of age, boy, you’re already twenty-one, you can vote now and his old lady, sweetheart, don’t speed a lot, or one day he was going to kill himself. While we tuned up with a quick drink at the Chinaman’s joint on the corner, would they go for Chinese food? gabbing, to Chinatown? and telling jokes, to eat shish-kebab at Under the Bridge? P.P. was a champion, to the pizzeria? do they know the one about and what did the frog say to and the one about the general and if Tony Mella cut himself when he shaved what happened? he castrated himself, ha ha, the poor guy was so ballsy.
After eating, already turned on by the jokes, we went around whoring, barhopping, around Victoria, chattering, on Huanaco Boulevard, downing spicy food, or over on Argentina Avenue, or they’d make a short stop at the Embassy or at the Ambassador to see the first show from the bar and we’d generally end up on Grau Avenue, at Nanette’s. The guys from Miraflores got here already, because they knew them there, hi P.P., by their names and by their nicknames, how’re you? and the whores nearly died and they too from laughing: he was fine. Cuéllar would get hot under the collar and sometimes he’d tell them off and leave slamming the door, I’m never coming back, but other times he’d laugh and give them free rein and wait, dancing, or seated next to the jukebox with a beer in his hand, or talking to Nanette, let them pick their whore, we went upstairs and they came back down: that was a quickie, Chingolo, he said to them, how was it? or you took your sweet time, Manny, or I was spying on you through the keyhole, Choto, you’ve got hair on your ass, Lalo. And one of those Saturdays, when they came back into the main room, Cuéllar wasn’t there and Nanette all of a sudden he got up, paid for his beer and left, without even saying good-bye. We went over to Grau Avenue and found him there, slumped over the steering wheel of his Nash, trembling, buddy, what got into you, and Lalo: he was crying. Did you feel bad, old guy? they asked him, somebody poke fun at you? and Choto who insulted you? who, they’d go back in and we’d punch him out and Chingolo, had the whores been bugging him? and Manny he wasn’t going to cry over some dumb thing like that, was he? Don’t pay any attention to them, P.P., c’mon, don’t cry, and he hugged the steering wheel, sighed and with his head and his cracking voice, no, he, sobbed, no, they hadn’t been bugging him, and he wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, nobody had poked fun, who’d dare. And they, calm down, man, brother, then why, too much to drink? no, was he sick? no, nothing, he felt okay, we slapped him on the back, man, old pal, brother, they cheered him up, P.P. He should quiet down, laugh, start up the powerful Nash, let’s go somewhere. They’d have the last round at the Tourbillon, we’ll get there just in time for the second show, P.P., he should get going and quit crying. Cuéllar finally did calm down, left and by Twenty-eighth of July Avenue he was already laughing, man, and suddenly a long face, come clean with us, what had happened, and he nothing, hell, he just had gotten a little down, no more, and they how come if life was a bowl of cherries, pal, and he about a pile of things and Manny, like what for instance, and he like man offended God so much for instance, and Lalo what’re you talking about? and Choto he meant they sinned so much? and he yeah, for instance, some pair of balls, huh? yeah, and also on account of life was so boring. And Chingolo what do you mean it’s boring, man, it was a bowl of cherries, and he because you spent your time working, or drinking, or partying, every day the same thing and all of a sudden you were old and died, dumb, isn’t it? yeah. Is that what he’d been thinking about at Nanette’s? that in front of the whores? yeah, he’d cried over that? yeah, and also out of pity for the poor, for the blind, for cripples, for those panhandlers who begged for charity along the Union strip, and for those newspaper sellers who went around hawking the Chronicle, really dumb, isn’t it? and for those half-breeds who shine your shoes in Plaza San Martin, some dope, huh? and we: sure, some dope, but he’d gotten over it, right? sure, he’d forgotten about it? sure, c’mon laugh a little, so we can believe you, ha ha. Hurry up, P.P., make it go faster, floor the gas, what time was it, what time did the show start, who knew, would that Cuban mulatto be there forever? what was her name? Ana, what did they call her? the Caymana, c’mon, P.P., show us you got over it, another little laugh: ha ha.
When Lalo married Chabuca, the same year that Manny and Chingolo got their engineering degrees, Cuéllar had already had several accidents and his Volvo went around dented all the time, scratched up, the windows cracked. You’re going to kill yourself, sweetheart, don’t do crazy things and his old man that was the last straw, boy, how much longer before he changed, out of line once more and he wouldn’t give him another cent, he should think it over and mend his ways, if not for yourself for your mother, he was telling him for his own good. And we: you’re too big to run around with snot-nosed kids, P.P. Because that’s what he had taken to doing. He always spent evenings shooting craps with the night owls at the Indian Messenger or D’Onofrio, or gabbing and drinking with queers, with pushers at the Haiti (when does he work, we’d ask, or is his working a cock-and-bull story?) but during the day he’d roam from one section of Miraflores to the next and he was seen on street corners, gotten up like James Dean (tight blue jeans, a bright shirt open from the neck to the navel, a small gold chain dancing on his chest and getting tangled in the little hairs, white loafers), playing games with the teen-agers, kicking a ball in a parking lot, playing the guitar. His car was always full of thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old rock ‘n’ rollers and, on Sundays, he’d turn up at the Waikiki (make me a member, Dad, surfing was the best sport for keeping the weight down and he could go there too, when it was sunny, to have lunch, with the old lady, next to the ocean) with bunches of kids, get a look at him, get a look at him, there he is, what a doll, and he came well escorted, how fresh: one by one he got them up on his surfboard and he’d go with them out past where the waves broke. He taught them to drive his Volvo, he’d show off in front of them by taking curves on two wheels along the breakwater and he’d bring them to the stadium, to the wrestling matches, to the bullfights, to the races, to bowling, to boxing. That’s that, we said, it was inevitable: faggot. And also: what else was left for him, it was understandable, he wasn’t to blame but, brother, every day it’s harder to get together with him, they looked at him on the street, they whistled at him and pointed him out, and Choto you’re really concerned about what they’ll say, and Manny they’d bad mouth him and Lalo if they see us with him a lot and Chingolo they’ll get the wrong idea about you.
He put some time into sports and they he does it more than anything else to draw attention: P.P. Cuéllar, car racer like he used to be of waves. He took part in the Atocongo Circuit and came in third. His picture was in the Chronicle and in the Commerce congratulating the winner, Arnaldo Alvarado was the best said Cuéllar, the good loser. But he became even more famous a little later on, betting on a race at dawn, from Plaza San Martin to Salazar Park, with Kiki Ganoza, the latter in the proper lane, P.P. against the traffic. The highway patrol chased him from Javier Prado Street, they only caught up with him at Second of May Street, how fast he must have been going. He spent a day at police headquarters and that’s it? we asked, with this scandal will he learn his lesson and shape up? But in a few weeks he had his first serious accident, doing the pass of death—his hands tied to the steering wheel, his eyes blindfolded—on Angamos Avenue. And the second, three months later, the night we gave Lalo his bachelor party. Enough, quit playing kids’ games, said Chingolo, stop right now since they were too big for these kids’ pranks and we wanted to get out. But he don’t even try, what was eating us, no confidence in the pro? such great big men and so scared, don’t piss your pants, where was a muddy corner to take a slippery curve? He was wild and they couldn’t convince him, Cuéllar, buddy, it’s okay, leave us off at our houses, and Lalo he was getting married tomorrow, he didn’t want to break his neck the night before, don’t be so inconsiderate, he shouldn’t go up on the sidewalk, don’t run the light at that speed, stop being a pain. He hit a taxi on Alcanfores and Lalo he wasn’t hurt, but Manny and Choto bruised their faces and he broke three ribs. We had a falling out and a little later he telephoned them and we made up and they went out to eat together but this time something had come between them and him and it was never the same again.
From then on we didn’t see much of each other and when Manny got married he sent him an announcement of the wedding without an invitation, and he didn’t go to the bachelor party and when Chingolo came back from the United States married to a pretty Yankee and with two kids who hardly spoke a word of Spanish, Cuéllar had already gone up into the mountains, to Tingo Maria, to grow coffee, they said, and whenever he came down into Lima and they met him on the street, we hardly said hello, what’s new kid, how are you P.P., what’s up old boy, so-so, ciao, and he had already come back to Miraflores, crazier than ever, and he had already killed himself, going up north, how? in a crack-up, where? on those treacherous curves at Pasamayo, poor guy, we said at the funeral, how much he suffered, what a life he had, but this finish is something he had in store for him.
They were mature and settled men by now and we all had a wife, car, children who studied at Champagnat, Immaculate Conception or St. Mary’s, and they were building themselves a little summerhouse in Ancon, St. Rose or the beaches in the south, and we began to get fat and to have gray hair, potbellies, soft bodies, to wear reading glasses, to feel uneasy after eating and drinking and age spots already showed up on their skin as well as certain wrinkles.
THE CUBS AND OTHER STORIES English translation © 2011 Macmillan Publishers, Inc.