Salana Livingston did everything right, from taking her multi-vitamin to kneeling before bed to say her prayers every night. She followed the path her parents had planned before she was born, never questioned the role until the day a bus-load of sweaty kids from the Bronx got dropped at her parent’s horse farm.
Tiago Alcazar knew a life of hard knocks. An incarcerated father, a missing and strung-out mother who left him to rely on his aged grandmother for most of his life.
Tiago runs the mean streets of the neighborhood that raised him, living hand-to-mouth, everyday a gift, if he can just make it.
Burdened by a world that only wants to see her as perfect, Salana finds her greatest confidant in a boy society has labeled as worthless. Their paths cross too many times for their stubborn hearts to deny the connection, but can the delinquent and the debutant defy the odds and overcome the social constructs that condemn them?
Fresh Air Fund, New York City 2008
Santiago had never left the city, unless you counted New Jersey. The school bus was sweltering and the chaperones hollered every time somebody cracked a window. Luckily, he and Chico were in the very last seat so there were too many infractions to bother with—the adults couldn’t even make it all the way to the back to reprimand them. Chico expertly spat sunflower seed shells out their very open window. He had silver braces and gold chains, a fade haircut and a perpetual pubescent mustache that he had yet to devirginize with a Bic razor.
Tiago shaved even though he didn’t need to; he was the man of the house. His pops had been locked up for years, even before he passed away, and Tiago had inherited his menagerie of grooming supplies and jewelry: a gold crucifix and bracelet, an old watch, a wallet-size laminated card of La Altagracia from the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, his social security card, a can of Barbasol, a shoebox full of faded photos where some of the faces were scratched out with a pin, and a couple hundred dollars in cash. A legacy that didn’t even fill up half a box, but a reputation bad enough to declare Tiago a menace by the time he was four. He wore and used all of his inheritance, not only to feel closer to his father, but to approximate the manhood he was forced into too early.
Chico had an iPod and headphones he’d snuck along on the trip; the kid didn’t go anywhere without music, constantly sang radio songs in Spanish. He’d sometimes do hilarious impressions that made Tiago lose his shit. He and Chico took turns murmuring the lyrics to reggaetón songs that narrated the kind of life they both lived. Being raised off and on by their grandmothers wasn’t the only thing they had in common. Parents incarcerated, living in the projects, no plausible out for their lives except dreams of professional baseball or rapper stardom. Chico always said he’d join the Marines, while Tiago instead dreamed of seeing the world on his own terms, maybe by backpacking or hitchhiking to California for starters. Money was always tight, food was scarce, and new clothes were a miracle from God el santísimo, himself. Chico and Tiago would sometimes rotate jeans just to freshen up their clothing game, which was pretty much already in the toilet. If Tiago ever got to see the world, he’d want to do it in some badass kicks. He’d rob a fucking bank if he had to someday to get himself some sneakers that were worth getting a beat-down trying to defend.
Tiago wore his Yankees cap and an unbuttoned baseball jersey over a white tank top. His father’s watch and gold bracelet, a chain with a crucifix that dangled between his pecs. Cubic zirconia studs in his ears, which had been pierced by his mother when he was only three years old. His skin was dark and his maternal grandmother blamed it on his Dominican father. She said he would have been born with beautiful light skin had his deadbeat mother married a decent Puerto Rican or even a “gringuito,” if she were smart instead of una maldita, desgraciada, verguenza, or whatever insult of the day she felt the need to toss at her. She was old school, fell for that Caribbean obsession with whitening the race. Tiago didn’t pay much mind to the crazy shit she spouted. He liked his skin; it was dark in the summer, lighter in the New York City long-ass, dirty rain, gray skied winter. His drug addict mom was just as bad as his lying, cheating, stealing Dominican father, regardless of their skin colors, but he wasn’t keeping score. He wasn’t a saint, he’d be the first to admit—but he wasn’t taking no bad rap for something his pops did before he even took his first breath. His grandmother was the only consistent adult in his life who stayed out of trouble. So he let her complain; at least she kept him in food and underwear with a roof over his head and a mattress to fall on. Which was more than he could say for his mom and dad. They’d had him too young. They didn’t finish school. His dad got fired for the wrong reasons and it wasn’t his mother’s fault she’d gotten hooked on the bad shit and started turning tricks to feed her habit. He’d heard all the excuses. Tiago felt like people do the shit they gotta do in fucked-up situations. He didn’t judge, thought he probably wouldn’t have handled it any better if he were in their shoes. His hermano Chico’s family was similar, but he had two sisters and his mother took off and left with some guy who promised her a house with a pool in Vegas. What the fuck they gonna do? They were both sixteen years old. Stick it out. No sweat. Just chill. There were thousands of kids in the city who had it even worse off than they did.
But it was thanks to their paltry existence that they got into so many city-run programs. Their Fresh Air Fund trip today wasn’t being footed by their parents. Free trip to ride horses, lunch and snacks and on the way back to the Bronx, a stop-off at a local water park—all paid for by the city. Tiago and Chico made tiny paper airplanes out of the brochure for the Equestrian Farm they’d been given when they boarded the bus. They threw them into the back of an afro belonging to a kid sitting a few rows up. So far they’d each lodged one without the kid noticing and they laughed until they had tears in their eyes, the sound of their joy completely covered by the din of fifty excited kids and the wind rushing in the open windows as they tore south down 95.
“Did you eat that girl Angelica’s pussy the other night?” he asked Chico as he tore paper for another plane.
“Fuck yeah I did, and I couldn’t barely even get in her bra. Dumb bitch. But she shoved her cunt in my face like it was the all-you-can-eat buffet at the mall.”
“You like her, you stupid fuck. You blush when you talk about her,” Tiago said. Chico punched his bicep hard and Tiago knew it would burn bright red. He also knew Chico was whipped and he was jealous. They’d bagged chicks before, bagged at their age meaning hit all the bases, but this thing with Angelica was getting serious. Chico had seen her at least a dozen times. He was afraid of losing his friend.
“You gonna get pubes stuck in your braces if you eat so much pussy. Did she suck your dick yet?” Tiago asked. He knew it was a sore subject. Good. Helping himself to Chico’s seeds, he spilled half of them in the dip of the pleather seat between them.
“No, but she jerked me off after I showed her how. She thought spit was gross so she used Ponds cold cream and my dick smelled like my grandma through at least three showers.”
Chico falling in love was disgusting, barely tolerable. Tiago elbowed him hard in the ribs. He wanted a girlfriend badly, but he would never let one of his boys know it if he’d gotten whipped. He knew how to treat girls so that they wouldn’t take advantage of you. Even his grandmother told him all women were gold diggers and they’d try to get pregnant just so they could spend a whole lifetime milking you for money. Grandma never told him not to have sex, she was practical and sharp, she told him to get his dick out before he got her pregnant and he still felt short of one hundred percent clear on how all that worked. He knew about condoms from Louie in his building who ripped them off from the drugstores. He once gave Tiago a lesson on how to put one on in the elevator, over a plantain from the bag which Tiago had bought for his grandmother at the bodega on the corner.
“Pinch the end, so your jizz has some place to go. And if the pussy smells fishy, don’t put your dick in there in the first place. Best bet is in her mouth, or go in the back door if you don’t mind a little bit of clean-up. Give her the line about keeping her virginity and she’ll let you around the back, you’ll see.”
Tiago had been only twelve and although he thought most of the things Louie was telling him were suspect, he was still a rapt and captive audience. Louie then proceeded to tell him about gay men and to steer clear unless he wanted to volverse puto, as he put it. Tiago wasn’t positive, but it didn’t sound very plausible—then again, what did he know about gay men or buttholes? He didn’t have a dad or a big brother around to tell him how to get from A to B or even how to stay out of trouble. Louie drank forties all day, had two gold front teeth and could sing Guajira like nobody else. He lived alone but for a whole flock of pet birds, parrots, cockatoos, parakeets—you name it, it was screeching up in a cage in his apartment.
His grandmother sometimes made him bring the guy a plate of food. Louie would peel back the foil and inhale, salivate and smile. He’d jerk his chin for Santiago to come in. The floorboards were uneven but shiny as fuck. Louie kept a pretty neat apartment, considering he was a bachelor and always half drunk. Louie had a futon couch and it wasn’t covered by plastic, but it was covered in bird shit and Tiago always sat on it perched like a girl in Sunday school. It was over mouthfuls of beans and rice, with much gesturing from his fork, that Louie explained the ins and outs, the birds and bees, and most of the sexual education Tiago would get in his lifetime. The pretense was that he would stay and take the plate back up when Louie finished, and by that time he’d be halfway hard from imaging the things that Louie would lay out for him in graphic detail.
He’d lost his virginity when he was thirteen, to a friend of his mother’s. The lady had come by looking for his mom when Tiago and his grandmother hadn’t seen her in months. When his grandmother asked him to see her out, they took a short detour. She was drunk, gave him a beer and then sucked him off in the basement. He tore his nails gripping the over-painted, bumpy cement wall while he thrust into her pink lipstick-painted mouth. Her teeth were yellow and her breath smelled like cigarettes. But she was queen of the universe when she swallowed his cum, so much so that he almost wanted to kiss her. She didn’t know much about teenage boys and jerking off, because she thought after his first blowjob he’d be out for the night. But he was hard again before she’d wiped the saliva off of her lips.
“I want to stick it in you,” he’d said to her, his face open and curious.
She obliged him over a folding chair and the sagging dejected look of her vagina repulsed him—however, not quite enough to kill his boner. He’d desperately shoved himself in and out of her, with no rhythm or love, just lusty preteen madness and the story already buzzing past his lips to fly out on tomorrow’s school yard.
She’d groaned as the chair squeaked and Tiago wasn’t sure if the sounds meant pleasure or pain, but he couldn’t stop, he wouldn’t stop and he baptized her pale and pancaked ass with another shot of his tender boyhood semen. His introduction to love hadn’t been the least bit romantic or even sensual, but it was a rush of panic and adrenaline unlike anything he’d ever experienced. He felt like a man as he pulled up his jeans and did his belt buckle. His pearly essence dripped into her butt crack and he felt like he’d accomplished something rather monumental. Maybe his father would be proud? Maybe not?
But none of that changed the fact that he’d never had a real girlfriend, or the fact that Chico did—his face was busted, but he still got one first, go figure. And not to mention, he was whipped and he liked it. Tiago couldn’t even imagine what sex would be like if you were into the person doing the giving or receiving. But Jesucristo, he wanted to find out. He’d take the baddest bitch in the Heights. He wouldn’t even care if she were ugly. He needed somebody to talk to.