Carnival was brutal. We cooked non-stop, taking sales and delivering food. We got resupplied a few times by the restaurant, which was just one of us running back and forth with a handcart, but we were selling food like people had never eaten before and just discovered the idea. The cart was chained overnight, but we were back out there by late morning because of the crowds.
“This is crazy,” I said to him. “Why don't you have a cart here all the time?”
“This is a special event, so it's the only time the carts are allowed,” he told me. “But the business and the advertising for the restaurant are fantastic.” He looked up. “I just hope the storm they predicted doesn't come.”
At the end of the night Claudio's dad came to pick up the cash and any leftover food that needed to be stored. Mauricio left with him and teased his brother that he should walk his friend home, likely just to cover letting us have a few minutes together. I was tired, though, and the idea of walking home kind of stunk.
When the truck was out of sight he took my hand and led me through the streets, which were growing quieter with the hour growing later. It was nice to walk with him, feeling his hand in mine, the smell of the ocean carried on a steady breeze.
“Hey. How come you're good with PDA in public, since you're trying to keep your family in the dark about you being gay?”
He smiled widely. “Easy. My grandparents usually go home by early afternoon and stay there, and my parents work with us and go home after – they don't like coming into town during the tourist season, because it's so crowded. So I don't have to worry about them seeing me. Plus our family doesn't hang out with other people much, so I don't have to worry about people seeing me and reporting back. My grandparents' friends are all their age and stay inside, my parents have some friends who are also running local businesses so...I'm free to kiss you under the stars all I want.”
I grinned and quirked an eyebrow at him. He was right – I wasn't turning down affection. We were about a block from his home when he pulled me aside, between two other houses with a narrow space between them, and pushed me against the wall.
“Do not tell me I smell like cock right now,” he said in a mock warning.
I opened my mouth to protest, but he covered my mouth with his and aggressively kissed me. He moved forward, pinning me with his body, and I snaked my arms around him. We both smelled like the food we'd been cooking all day, plus a little of our own scent from working hard while it was hot out. None of that mattered very much, and it mattered even less when he reached behind me and grabbed my butt with both hands and pulled me tighter to him.
Of course, it wasn't meant to last. As much as I was suddenly feeling sexually frustrated, there was no place where we could work that out – unless we drove my car somewhere.
“I like your butt,” he said, squeezing with both hands. “Fits my hands just right.”
I smiled and laughed lightly. “Is that a fact.”
He gave me two squeezes in response. “Come on. Let me take you home.”
This close to the house we kept our hands to ourselves, but of course feeling him was on my mind now, and I wasn't sure how fast I'd be able to get to sleep. Maybe a quick shower would help. The water tank for the bunk room was definitely apartment-sized, or maybe more like something for a second grader to wash their face. I swear if you even noticed the water was getting warm, it stopped. Like it knew.
“Good night,” he said in the back yard, then leaned forward. “I love you.”
He leaned back, and as I opened my mouth to reply, he put a finger over his lips and smiled.
He grinned and shrugged before going inside. I went to our bunk room and grabbed a towel. Bry was stretched out on his bunk, hair damp, and looking at his phone.
“I'm starting to get worried it's not your mom we have to worry about,” he said.
I paused. “Meaning?”
He lifted his gaze to me. “I thought she kind of knew about you and Claudio, but I guess she didn't realize that was a real thing until she checked my 'gram and saw us all. Now she knows Marina and I have a thing, and she's not happy she didn't know – but that's nothing compared to how she's asking why you didn't tell her about Claudio.”
I lifted my arms and dropped them. “I told her she could meet a boyfriend when I got one. She did meet him, too! We just weren't boyfriends, yet.”
“Check and check,” he said with a little grin.
I tilted my head. “What do you think you know?
“I know you go out most nights with Claudio. I know he told his sister you guys already said the 'L' word,” he pretended to gag. “And your lips are so swollen you must have sucked his dick right off.”
“What?” I asked, leaning into the bathroom to look in the mirror. “I did not!”
“Uh huh.” He sniffed. “You never sucked my dick.”
I snorted. “Don't start.” Leaning out of the bathroom I looked at him. “Just so you know, he's just an aggressive kisser.”
He mimed giving a blow job, and I flipped him off and went to take a shower. Cold, due to him showering before me, rather than by design. Still, the memory of the kiss and him grabbing my ass meant I needed every drop of cold water – after the evidence of my excitement was swirling the drain.
The final night of Carnival was busy, but I think I was getting used to it. The air was definitely cooler, and the sky carried a promise of rain; the question was when. As the day wore into evening, the wind began to pick up, and the breeze got a little cooler, bringing more of the salty ocean air into town. Unlike Friday and Saturday, the Sunday event was finishing up around ten at night, and we served our last few items about quarter after. The wind had picked up a bit more by the time Claudio's dad got there with his truck to pull the cart back to the storage lot.
“You guys want a ride?” he asked Claudio and I.
“Nope,” Mauricio said, climbing into the passenger seat. “I'm not having anyone on my lap. Let them walk!”
His dad just laughed and said he'd see us at the house.
“Mauricio is a pretty good brother sometimes,” Claudio said with a little smile. With the truck turning a corner, he took my hand and pulled me to him – right there in the sidewalk. “Shall we walk home?” He gave me a peck on the lips. “What do you think?”
“I...actually don't think much when you kiss me.”
He laughed, and we started for home. We had taken no more than a few steps before a hard wind blew past us and the rain finally came down. Fat drops splashed down, and we crossed the street. The remaining crowd from Carnival began to disperse with some laughter, some crying out about getting wet, and then there was us, splashing across the street. Then the fat drops turned into walls of water, drenching us. Claudio pulled me back the way we'd come, to hide under the canopy of an ice cream business.
Two girls ducked with us under the canopy for a moment before running to the next one, shrieking with something less than good humor but not true anger. I looked at Claudio and found him to be so fetching in the moment – hair that was usually full and feathered was smashed down, flat to his scalp, and his face was shiny with water, grin wide as he ran the fingers of one hand through his hair.
I really cannot be held responsible for this. I mean, he did it all the time. In that moment I found him utterly irresistible, and all I wanted was to touch him, so I did. I took my turn at pressing him against the wall, one hand in his hair and one on his hip, and I landed my kiss like a pro. He responded eagerly, placing one hand on the back of my neck and the other grabbing my ass. It was hot. It was a sensory overload, messy and perfect.
At least until the guy started yelling. Then pulling on my shoulder, breaking our kiss.
Oh. It was his dad. He was yelling in Spanish, too fast for me to catch completely, but it's plain he was pissed. Claudio spoke back to him, moving to get himself between his dad and me, but I moved to stand beside him – just to be clear where I was on this whole thing – whatever they were saying. I knew it wasn't good, and it didn't seem like his dad was having the kind of response Claudio had been sure his family would give him.
Mauricio pulled on his dad's shoulder, yelling at him and dragging him back to the truck. His dad kept yelling, and Claudio yelled back, and it was a nightmare. Suddenly the rain wasn't romantic, keeping us in a bubble under a canopy. Now it was an oppressive hand, cold, dampening the sound of the yelling, but not the tone. That was clear. Mauricio got his dad back into the truck and waved at us before getting in the passenger side. His dad was gesturing angrily, and Mauricio had his hands held palm-down, like he was trying to calm the older man. They finally pulled away, pulling the cart and going faster than they should.
“Claudio?” He turned to me, his mouth set in a grim line. I took a step closer. “I just want you to know...I'm here. For you.”
His lips pressed tighter, and his cheeks puffed out a bit, and then one fat tear rolled down his cheek, quickly followed by more. I engulfed him in a hug, holding him tightly as he cried. His hands splayed out on my back, and he held me tighter than anyone ever had before. It wasn't desire but raw need – the human need to be comforted in terrible times.
He slowly let me go and rubbed his eyes, squashing the remaining tears. “Okay. Okay. So. I guess...I have to go home.”
I moved next to him, pressing my shoulder to his. “I'm here.”
He looked at me, and his lips twitched. “Yes. You're here. Okay. Let's...no point in putting this off.” I took his hand, and he looked down at our hands, lifting them up and looking at them with intent. He looked at me. “This is what I need. Whatever happens next...I'm sorry. The drama, the-”
I shook my head. “Don't. I wanted this, too. I'm here for it.”
He nodded and squeezed my hand, and we set off. The rain slackened, but the wind kept up a steady pressure, and we were pretty cold by the time we got to his house. All the lights were on, and loud voices were coming from inside. He pulled me behind him up the front steps and into the house – the first time I'd been inside.
The living room was full of people – his grandparents, parents, Mauricio and Marina. Even had I been fluent in Spanish, the voices were overlapping, and the best I might have gotten is a few words here or there, but you didn't need to be a polyglot to know this wasn't a positive conversation, nor a quiet one. His grandmother was on the couch with his mom. The grandmother was crying, and the mother was red-faced, eyes wet, but her mouth set in a grim line. His grandfather was waving a hand in the air while his father was roaring at Mauricio.
Mauricio and Marina were screaming at the adults in a fashion I'd only seen in movies. No one was listening to anyone; it was just a mad jumble of loud emotions banging off the walls. As the door closed behind us, the father noticed our arrival and turned his rage toward us. He took a step in our direction, but Mauricio moved to block him. Claudio pushed my shoulder to keep me by the door, released my hand and waded into the argument.
All the noise made the situation even more uncomfortable and confusing. When people need to focus, like when my gramp is looking for a house number, he turns the radio down, because he thinks better with a little quiet. Gram says it's because he doesn't like her music, but that's another story. Now I was convinced my gramp was right. The confusion and noise in front of me was so loud that I was having trouble stringing my thoughts together. I couldn't recall being in a situation where I felt so...confused and unable to function. My instinct was to go to Claudio for comfort and mutual defense, and given my inability to think, that's what I did.
I grabbed Claudio and spun him around, taking him in my arms and screaming at them all to stop, to just stop. The room went into a stunned silence, but that wasn't to last.
Maybe for my benefit, Mauricio spoke first. “This is why we didn't tell you! Look at you! He's your son and this is how you act? Like he's a murderer?”
“My son isn't a pervert!” his father snapped. “The bible says-”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Marina jumped in. “If you saw people doing half the things the bible talks about, you'd have them arrested or make them go see a psychiatrist. Don't pretend a book with talking snakes gives you good reasons to judge people.”
“Marina Luisa!” her grandmother said from the couch in a shocked tone.
“I'm sorry, Abuela, but it's true. You all want to throw away your son over that?”
“No one said anything about throwing away,” her mother said, gaining her feet. “Clearly these two gringos have been a bad influence on you both. They need to leave.” She looked at me. “You're fired. You and your friend.”
“No!” Claudio protested, joined by his siblings.
“I will say this in English for the benefit of this person,” his grandfather said, clapping his hands together for attention. Straightening his back he continued, “Claudio, we are your family. We are a Catholic family. The church is very clear about this sort of thing. You can choose to follow God, or you can choose this sin. You can choose your family or this disgusting, immoral person and have a false relationship. You cannot have a family with him; you need a good, loving woman to be complete. It's God's plan and his will – do not defy him.”
Claudio, who'd worked his way free of me, shook his head. “Abuelo, your parents left a terrible system for something better. Of all the things they gave you, one terrible thing you hold onto is your religious bigotry. You love a God you've never seen so much you're willing to sacrifice me.”
“God has walked with us,” his grandfather said resolutely. “He has been there for us.”
“Then that means it's a choice, Abuelo,” he said. “What about all those he chose not to save? The starving, the sick, the dying? If we are his children and we are so important, then why punish us for using his gift of free will? Why punish us for loving?”
He lifted his chin. “Choose. God and family, or a life of sin.”
He turned and took my hand, tears standing in his eyes and looked back at his family. “You're telling me to choose. Rion would never ask me to choose, so...it's really no choice at all.”
Claudio's father straightened his back. “Get out.”
“This is bullshit. I'm leaving too, then,” Marina said.
“I'm out. You kick out one of us, you do it to all of us,” Mauricio said.
That set off another round of incoherent yelling in Spanish. Claudio turned to me. “Go get your things. I'll meet you out front with my bag. I don't know where we'll go or what comes next. Maybe after a bunch of yelling, things will settle down here a bit,” he said, his voice hitching.
I nodded, feeling more stressed than I could ever remember. My voice broke, and I felt almost as if I wasn't getting enough air to breath, much less speak. “I'm here. I won't leave you behind.”
The corner of his mouth pulled up in a sad smile, and he patted my cheek. “Corazón mío. What did I do right to get you?”
I blushed. “Loved me back, I guess.”
“I'll meet you out front. Wait for me.”
I nodded and looked at the loud mass of people behind him. “Are you sure you'll be safe?”
He glanced back at his arguing family and then to me. “I'll be okay. Go.”
I nodded and headed out the front door and down the side of the house. As I entered the backyard, Bry stood from the table he'd been sitting at.
“Marina told me to wait out here. Lots of yelling, but nothing physical. I was kind of worried she might get hurt.”
I shook my head. “They have more to fear from her than she does from them.”
Studying my face he said, “They found out. About you and Claudio.”
I nodded, my eyes getting wet. “Yeah. It's bad in there. They wanted him to choose between his family or me.”
“Oh, fuck,” Bry said and grabbed me in a hug. Everything about that hug was what I needed right then, except that it wasn't Claudio. Bry's warmth, the feel of him, his scent – all familiar, and I drew immediate strength from him.
Patting his back I released him. “They're kicking him out, and his brother and sister say they are leaving too.” I paused. “We're fired. Bad influences is what they called us.”
Bry gave me a weak smile. “Finally someone recognizes us for the bad asses we are.”
I returned his weak smile. “Claudio told me to get my stuff and meet him out front. Might take a while.”
“Okay. Let's pack,” he said, slinging an arm around my shoulders.
We gathered up our gear, which consisted of our clothes from vacation plus the t-shirts we'd been given for our job. We debated leaving them, but what the hell? We'd had a mostly good experience and made some good cash. We moved the bags to my trunk and pulled my car up across the street from Claudio's home and then got out to lean against the car to wait.
“So. What's the next move for you?”
I shrugged. “I'll call mom to tell her I'm going to my grandparents. I'll explain everything to her later, but by the time we get back I'm going to be wiped and in no mood to deal with her.”
“A-fucking-men,” he said. “I guess I better call my mom and let her know I'll be home soon.”
He moved to the front of the car to call home, and I moved to the other end of the car to do the same. It was really late, but it would be worse if I didn't tell my mom more or less right away. She always said she was like a lawyer – tell her what I did up front, because she'd be my fiercest advocate, and that had been true from time to time. It didn't mean I didn't get consequences, but she'd definitely gone to bat for me when I'd needed defending – from teachers or a principal, for example. Like the time a teacher had accused me of plagiarism, because, they claimed, there was no way I'd read a particular book. It was too advanced for me, and the things I was spotting in the book were things we hadn't studied yet. I may not have had names for the things I was picking up on, but I wasn't a moron either.
My mother had charged into that school breathing fire. So yeah, she wasn't a bad person, she just had that one really annoying trait. I'm sure I have a few myself. She picked up on the second ring.
“Are you all right? I'm getting dressed. Where are you?”
“I'm okay, Mom. Don't get dressed.”
“Are you sure? Do you know it's like two in the morning? What time is it, actually? Who calls at two in the morning? Nothing good, that's what.”
“Listen. I'll give you all the details later, after I've had some rest. I just wanted to let you know that...that Claudio's family....”
Her voice grew soft. “What? What did they do?”
My voice hitched. “They're kicking him out. They told him to choose between me and them.”
“Those motherfuckers,” she said in that same, soft tone. “Are you on the road?”
“No. I'm waiting for him outside the house. Bry is with me. We'll go back tonight, but I need some...space to think and just rest before I tell you everything. It's kind of exhausting, so we're going to Gram and Gramp's place.”
“That kind of strong emotional stuff wears you out fast,” she agreed. “Listen, maybe you should get a hotel room? You don't want to fall asleep at the wheel. I can call and give them my credit card number.”
I shook my head. “We're in a tourist town; I'm sure there are no rooms close by. If I need a break, Bry can drive.”
“Jesus take the wheel, do not let Bry drive. You'll arrive at Mach one and in six pieces. That boy,” she said, trailing off.
I couldn't help but chuckle. “Stop. You love him.”
“I can love people and recognize they are shitty drivers, Rion, “ she said firmly. “Promise me you'll pull off if you're tired. I'll pay for a room; just call me. Promise?”
“I promise. Thank you.”
“Is Bry calling his mother?”
“Right now, actually.”
“Okay. Text me when you get on the road, okay? I love you. It'll be okay.”
“I will. Love you, too,” I said before hanging up. I glanced at the time on my phone, noting it was almost midnight. It would be stupid o'clock by the time I got home if I left now, so it made me think I should probably call my grandparents with a warning.
“Okay, so, my mom is all up to date. She kind of wants me home, and I figure you don't need me cramping things up with you and Claudio...probably need some time together after this.”
I nodded. “ I understand. I can bring you home, first.”
He sighed. “You're supposed to say you need me and ask me to stay with you. Dick.”
I glanced up at him, and he was giving me a tired grin. I smiled back. “I'm only letting you rest so that you will be awake enough to listen to all my stressed out bitching later.”
He chuckled. “Claudio. He's the one, huh?”
I looked back at the front door of the house. “The one? How would I know? I can tell you...he's enough of the one to not let him out of my sight. I mean...it's his family. He's used to having that big family. For all I know, they yell at each other like this. People always talk about coming from big, loud families and...I don't know. We don't have that. Maybe this is normal?”
He leaned against the car and pushed his shoulder against mine. “Maybe. People get loud and say things they don't mean or only mean in the moment and then regret it. Everyone makes mistakes.” He looked at the house and squinted. “This is a pretty big fucking mistake, though.”
I nodded and sighed. “He's going to need me. It's kind of a new feeling. Intense.”
He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “You're used to that. I've needed you for years, bro. Don't act like us not bumping uglies means we didn't depend on each other for stuff.”
I chuckled. “We've had our shit, no doubt. But your mom never threw you out.”
He let his head tilt side to side. “Yeah, valid. Just don't forget I got your back on this.”
“Trust me, I-”
We both turned at the splash of light when the front door of the house opened and the sound of loud voices accompanied it. Marina led the way with a bag in each of her hands, followed by Claudio with a back pack and a duffel, surprisingly followed by Mauricio with a back pack, a small suitcase and a duffel.
“Hope you have room in your trunk,” Marina said grimly.
Lowering his voice, Bry said, “You do know if she goes to your grandparents, you're not dropping me off.”
“I can try.”
I smiled at him and popped my tailgate. For once, having a small wagon was going to work in my favor. “What happened?”
“More of what you saw, but in Spanish,” Mauricio said with a tired tone. “I know it's a little out of the way, but my roommates already have our apartment for school. Can you drop me off?”
“Uh, sure,” I said.
“I'm not leaving my brother alone with you for this long, so I'm coming,” Marina said. Then she smiled and added, “Besides, we have to stick together.”
I smiled back. “Yeah, we do.”
Claudio was the last one, and his eyes were wet, so I grabbed him into a hug.
“This is fucked,” he said softly.
He pulled back and pursed his lips. “Not going to try to say something to make it better?”
I shook my head. “I'd love to. I wish I had the right words to make this all...go away. But I guess right now all I can do is remind you I'm here. I'm still here.”
The corner of his mouth pulled up. “See? You had the right words all along.”
He put his bag in the back, and then everyone was working out where they were sitting. I called my gramp, who answered in a very confused tone.
“Gramp, it's me.”
“Who's me? I mean who am I? No, who are you?”
I blinked in confusion. “Gramp, it's me, Rion.”
I heard him pull away from the phone. “I think it's a wrong number. Some girl keeps saying 'It's me'.”
The speaker rustled, and my grandmother was on the phone. “Hello?”
“Gram, it's Rion.”
“Rion? What's wrong?”
“Things went bad here, and I wanted to give you a call that I'm heading for your house. Um, with guests.”
“Oh? Oh! Right. Well. Let yourself in whenever you get here. We'll talk in the morning. Thank you for letting us know.”
“Right,” I said, hanging up. “I'm not sure they'll even remember this conversation.”
I got in the car, glancing back at the Gutierrez house. Their mother was standing in the open doorway, hugging herself. I can't imagine what she was feeling, but I wasn't inclined to be sympathetic in the moment. She lifted a hand for a moment, maybe a wave, maybe an aborted attempt to reach out to her kids, but I stopped looking at her and got in the car.