July 13, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
I don’t know if you and Papá Héctor have read the articles with my last letter or not. If not, we did have a funeral for Papá Héctor, and he is back with you and Mamá Imelda finally. I don’t know if that makes a difference where you are or not, but it makes a difference to us. The whole town helped, and all of the mariachis played. After, the family met in the workshop, and we talked about being sorry that we hurt each other sometimes. Our friend Calles was there with us. His family had a murder, too (his grandfather), and he says that it’s normal for everyone to be turned upside down after it. He says that a little thing like a music ban is pretty good, in terms of craziness he’s seen. He has one aunt he’s never met because she’s mad at his mother for marrying a Mexican because the murderer spoke Spanish. (Calles says the murderer was Salvadoran, too, which makes it even stupider.) Puts things in perspective a little, anyway.
Calles brought his cousin down here last weekend. Her name is Bridget Shaughnessy, and she’s fourteen and very pretty. She has red hair and blue eyes and freckles. I don’t know if you can get into people’s dreams too, but if you can, don’t tell anyone: I got my first kiss from her. And my second and third. I really wanted to tell you. I thought it would make you smile. Papá isn’t very happy that I was flirting. Mamá thinks it’s funny.
But she lives twenty-seven-hundred and forty-three miles away, almost in Canada, so that’s probably the only time I’ll ever see her. Rosa says I have to throw myself in the sea from heartbreak now, but I think I’ll hold off on that for a while, and just be friends with her online or something instead. Aside from learning about kissing, I also got to listen to Irish music, and we tried to come up with a way to mix Irish dancing and Mexican music. It didn’t work very well, but it was fun.
Abel finished up at school this year. He was going to get an apartment across town with some friends, but then he decided he wants to help make the addition at the hacienda. We’re making a kind of hallway between he old house and the new one, with a sewing room and maybe a new play space for Coco and the twins. Socorro is definitely turning into Coco now; she’s not even a year old and she’s already a real person! She’s right here with me, as usual. I made her a rattle, and she’s got a pretty good little rhythm going. Anyway, Abel is really pretty good at building things, and he’s helping the construction people and he’s watching the architect. He might want to be an architect. He did drawings of the new part of the house, and they’re pretty neat. The twins are waving out of the window, and Coco is dancing out front.
Tío Berto is starting to worry about the shoe business, but he doesn’t have to (and neither does Mamá Imelda). Rosa really likes making shoes, and maybe the twins and Coco will, too. And Papá and Tío Berto and Tía Gloria are all still young. Maybe Tía Gloria will still get married and have babies, and they’ll be great shoemakers.
I feel a little bit guilty about the shoe business. I started all of this. If it goes bad, will it be my fault? But it won’t go bad. It can’t.
Maybe I should marry a girl who likes making shoes. That would fix it.
I finished my good song, and Carlos says it’s really nice. He says he wants more verses, but only because he likes it so much that he wants to hear it for longer. I’m going to write more for the plaza, but I’m not going to not call them my good songs anymore. I’m going to write good songs for everyone. If I write garbage, it’ll go to the dump where it belongs. Or get recycled. Carlos says that bad stuff can be recycled into good stuff, if you understand why it was bad.
I hope everything is wonderful where you are. I really want to know what’s going on, and how everyone is! It’s weird that I can tell you things just by putting a pen on paper—at least I hope I can, and these letters are getting to you—but you can’t tell me things, except maybe in a dream, and I can’t even be sure that’s real. Or by sewing things to the jacket, but there’s no more jacket. I know you’re right beside us, but you sometimes feel much further away than twenty-seven-hundred and forty-three miles, and I can’t even be friends with you online. I guess it would be kind of funny if I could. Maybe there’s a song in that. It would be a weird one… Skeleton Snapchat! Huesogram! Skullbook!
Is it okay to make those jokes? I hope so, because when I joke with you I feel like I’m almost talking to you there instead of just imagining it. It stings a little, because I don’t like to think of you being bones, but I know that’s how it is, and I want to think of you having fun as you are.
The night was hot, as if the stars were giving off as much heat as the sun. Enrique had thrown the windows open two hours ago in the hope of a breeze, but there was nothing. He was starting to come around to Berto’s notion of installing air conditioning, no matter how often he’d opined that the family had lived here for a century without it.
But it would be an energy drain, and the more you got used to that sort of thing, the less you could handle it when it wasn’t there.
Luisa had finally fallen asleep on top of the covers, wearing as little as she dared with the door and window both open. The heat was too oppressive to think of being close to her, though.
Coco wasn’t sleeping. She was lying in her crib, wearing only a diaper and waving her hands and feet around, watching them with a goggling expression in her eyes, like she was surprised to see them doing what she wanted them to do.
Enrique watched her for a while, just loving her in a kind of familiar, aching way. The time was short with her here. Another few months and she’d move into the frilly little room that Luisa had been making for her in the old mudroom. Then she’d be in a child’s bed instead of a crib, and then there would be pictures of popular bands on the wall, and then she would sincerely believe that no one knew she’d been kissing a foreign boy up on the roof. And then she would be married, and would she even live at home, or would she end up in some snowy faraway town where—
“You are brooding, mi amor,” Luisa said sleepily, rolling over. “I see it on your face.”
“Just thinking about how fast the time goes. I’ll get old, you know.”
“I’ll be old first.”
“Well, I’ll try to catch up.”
He smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m being foolish.”
“It just feels like everything is moving so fast. Ten minutes ago I was thirteen. Now my son is turning into a man so fast I can actually see it happening. Life is so short.”
“It’s not, though. Haven’t you been listening? It goes on for as long as we’re needed.”
“Is there a difference?”
“I don’t know.”
She sat up and reached for the light switch, then changed her mind. The added heat from the lightbulb would be too much. And the moonlight was beautiful on her skin. “Growing up is inevitable,” she said. “I’ve decided to look forward to the man Miguel will become. I think he’ll be like you, and I like you quite a lot, so I think I’ll have a grown-up son to be proud of.”
In the crib, Coco cooed.
“And this one,” Luisa went on, “is starting to become herself. She likes quiet times, and she thinks her big brother is a minor deity of some kind, and she is already Papá’s little girl, in case you haven’t noticed that yet.”
“—loves Mamá, I know, but I get to see the way she smiles when you come into the room. You only see her smiling already.”
Enrique didn’t bother arguing. “I think she’ll be a dancer,” he said. “I see her tapping her feet on the crib when Miguel is playing.”
“And she’ll never know a day when she can’t dance to her heart’s content.”
“That’s a good thing.”
Luisa looked over at the crib with a soft smile on her face. “I want another. And another after that.”
“I’m still young, and the problems I’ve had, they’re… I know we can have more children. The doctor even said she wouldn’t rule it out and it was safe to try. I just need to be careful.”
“Let’s get this one into her own room first, all right?”
“All right.” She smiled. “Can I get a kiss?”
Enrique smiled. “I don’t know. Do you think we could keep it a secret?”
“Oh, I’m sure no one will ever suspect.”
He leaned over and kissed her quickly, a kind of glancing blow to the lips, then looked shiftily over his shoulder. “There. My parents will never guess. After all, they know nothing about this sort of thing.”
She laughed. “Now, give me a real one, you naughty thing.”
He did, but when he sat down, it was at some distance. It was too hot to have skin on skin at the moment, and that was a depressing thought.
She leaned forward. “I could get ice cubes.”
Enrique considered this for a long time, looked at the baby, and said, “Do you think she could sleep in her new room yet?”
Luisa nodded. “See? Time moving ahead is a good thing.” She got up and gathered Coco to move her next door, most likely only for an hour or so, and, while Enrique pulled the curtains and closed the window, went to the kitchen for an ice cube tray.
They cooled each other down. In some ways.
Luisa was lying in bed forty minutes later with the last ice water sitting prettily in the hollow of her throat when Coco started fussing. Enrique pulled on his shorts to go take care of her.
Miguel was already in there. He’d picked Coco up and was walking with her, singing her a lullaby he’d been writing.
He looked up, but then quickly looked away. “I, um… I couldn’t sleep and I was just out in the courtyard and I saw Mamá put Coco in here, and then she was fussing, and I, um… I thought maybe you didn’t… hear…” He glanced up again, then looked quickly away again.
Enrique looked at the door between this room and his own and realized that it was not a particularly heavy one. Still, it could hardly have been the first time Miguel had overheard anything.
Just the first time since he’d tried kissing a girl himself.
Enrique sat down on the little pink bench, which Rosa had adorned with red ribbons and stuffed bunnies. “You came from somewhere, Miguel.”
“Yeah… I mean… I know… I… I didn’t mean to hear, I was just up with Coco.”
Coco had stopped fussing, and Miguel put her down in her crib. He turned around, biting his lip, then said, very quickly. “Is it hard to learn?”
Miguel made a helpless kind of gesture. “It’s… well… I kissed Bridget Shaughnessy.”
He was blushing deeply enough to be seen in the moonlight now and he started pacing. “That was pretty easy, but I was reading this book that Rosa has, and everything else sounds really complicated. There was a contract. And… things.”
Enrique shook his head. “What book were you reading?”
“It has a tie on it. Rosa’s not supposed to have it, don’t tell Tío Berto, but she said I should read it and I don’t think I can do any of that…”
Enrique felt the laugh coming, but was powerless to stop it. He bent forward, the laugh gripping him tightly around the throat, tears threatening at the corners of his eyes.
“Sorry. But if it’s the book I’m thinking of… just don’t try it. It’s ridiculous. There are other problems with it, too, but mostly it’s just ridiculous. That’s not how it works, and you don’t have to learn it from books like that. You shouldn’t.” He wiped his face. “And Rosa should have a long talk with Tía Carmen about that one. I’m not touching it.”
Miguel sat down on the toddler-sized stool beside a tiny vanity (Papá had made the set for Gloria, and it had gone through Rosa’s hands as well), looking like a giant sitting in a human house. He seemed relieved at having brought the subject up. “It’s just weird.”
Enrique waited for the last of his laughs to pass, then said, “Miguel, you don’t need to worry about the complicated parts yet. And the complicated parts? They’re not what you’re thinking they are.”
“What are they?”
“Trying to figure out how two different lives can fit together and be one bigger life, while still being themselves. It’s not always easy.”
“But… you know what I mean.”
“I do. But that’s not something you should be thinking about until you know how your life is shaped, Miguel. And how another person’s is shaped. At least enough for you to understand how they might fit together.”
“I don’t think that’s how Abel and his friends act.”
“Tío Berto needs to talk to Abel.” Enrique sighed and leaned forward. “There are different ways to be a man. Different men to be. There are men who treat it as nothing special. Just a game.”
“And that’s wrong?”
“It is, but that’s not what I want to tell you. I wasn’t ready for this conversation tonight. I don’t really have a plan.”
“Do you usually?”
“I thought I would for this. Can I have a minute to put my thoughts together?”
Miguel nodded, but continued to watch Enrique avidly, which was disconcerting.
“All right,” Enrique said. “What I want to say is that treating love as a game cheats you. It cheats the woman in question, too, but I think a lot of boys who choose that path don’t care. You can have fun. You can score points. But you miss the good stuff.”
“What’s the good stuff?”
“The person you fall in love with.”
“Oh.” He looked out the little window. “Is there good stuff about me, too? I mean, do I need to… learn anything… to have good stuff?”
“Not the way you’re thinking. And definitely nothing from Rosa’s book.”
“Is this where you say to just be a good man?”
“Yes and no.” Enrique leaned back. “There are a lot of ways to be a good man. I think you’ll become one unless you do something doesn’t seem very likely from where I’m standing. But what kind of good man? Your Tío Berto, he’s a businessman. He doesn’t talk about his feelings much, and when he does, he’s not very good at it. Papá Franco, he’s a bit of a brawler. A good match for Abuelita. They take care of the family. Your Papá Isidro likes to lead you on little quests, and teach you. Papá Julio was always a gentle soul. And from what you’ve told me about Papá Héctor, he was devoted to his family and was funny and kind.”
“You’re funny and kind,” Miguel said. “At least I think so. You’re actually like Papá Héctor, sort of. But without the tap dancing and Frida Kahlo costumes.”
“Having listened to you talk about him for several months, I’ll take that as a profound compliment.”
“But Mamá isn’t anything like Mamá Imelda.”
“Strange how that works.”
“Will I be like you and Papá Héctor?”
“Your mother thinks you will.”
Miguel considered this answer. “You don’t?”
“I don’t know yet, Miguel.” Enrique smiled. “You’re like me some ways. You love your baby sister, just like I do. You’re excited about what you do. Believe or not, I feel about my shoes the way you feel about your music.”
“I do believe it.”
“But you’ve got a lot that isn’t me, too. You’re stubborn, like your abuelita. And her abuelita, as you tell it.”
“You’re more impulsive than I am. I don’t think that’s just age, either. Even when I was thirteen, I wouldn’t have kissed a girl I only knew for two days.”
“Do you think I shouldn’t have?”
“I need to think about that answer.” Enrique sighed. “You’re braver than I am.”
“No, I’m not!” Miguel said, offended.
“Yes, you are. I think I’d have frozen up if I’d found myself cursed to the other side.”
“I was really scared at first.”
“It wouldn’t require courage if you hadn’t been scared.”
“You would have found courage. I think you’re brave.”
“Thank you.” Coco reached up at a band of starlight, and Enrique watched her for a while, then said, “The point is, the good stuff isn’t all there yet. There’s a lot of it that is, but I think as you become a man, there will be so much more. And then you’ll find someone who sees it all, and loves it. And who sees the not-so-good stuff, because we all have that, and loves that, too.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to love the not-so-good stuff. I thought it was bad to… I don’t know, ask people to…” He lost the thread. “I remember when I was seven and a woman came into the shop, and she had a black eye. And Papá Franco told her that she should stay with us until the police made her husband go away. He didn’t think she should still love him for that.”
“Oh, when I say not-so-good, I don’t mean bad. There are also many ways to be a bad man. There’s a difference between hoping someone will put up with you telling bad jokes or being forgetful, and hoping she’ll ignore it if you hit her or steal her money.” Enrique shook his head. “All of that comes down to being selfish.”
“But I was selfish.”
“You were selfish as children need to be selfish to become themselves. You weren’t selfish in the way I mean.”
Miguel was quiet, but Enrique suspected the conversation wasn’t over, so he remained quiet himself. Finally, Miguel took a deep breath and said, “I was proud to think I was related to a murderer.”
“You didn’t know he was a murderer. You knew he was a great singer and guitar player, and you learned something important from him. Maybe the only good thing there was to be gotten.”
“But I knew all of his movies…”
“You knew the characters he played.” Enrique shrugged. “Movies are good at showing good men sometimes, even if no one making them is a good man. It’s all right to look at a movie character or a book character—just be careful of which movie or which book, the same as you’re careful of which real man or woman you admire. And as long as we’ve gotten to that point, I want to also tell you that you don’t only need to look at men to see what kind of man to be. You are your mamá as much as you are me. You’re Mamá Coco and Abuelita and Mamá Imelda, too. The things that make a good man are often the same things that make a good woman, so don’t ignore half the human race in deciding who to be.”
He smiled. “I could be like Mamá Imelda?”
“She was an amazing woman who kept her family together in the aftermath of something unthinkable. And you’ve made that family whole again after learning the truth. I think it’s safe to say you have a big part of her spirit in you.”
Miguel seemed inordinately pleased by this, smiling broadly at the idea. “That would be good,” he said.
“But the other part. The…” He made another vague gesture. “Is it hard to learn?”
“The physical part?”
Miguel nodded anxiously.
Enrique expected to be embarrassed by the question and was, but not as badly as he might have been. It was a fair question, and he was glad Miguel felt comfortable enough to ask it. That surprised him. He had thought he would panic entirely when this came up. “Well… like anything else you do with your body, it takes practice. More than tying your shoes, less than guitar playing or flamenco dancing. And your teacher is likely to be someone who is also just learning. Maybe not, but probably. And stay away from Rosa’s books. There are about a million examples of how to be a bad man in them, and not much help in becoming a good one.”
“Why does she read them?”
“She probably thinks they’re telling her secrets. I promised not to tell Tío Berto, but will you promise to try and get Rosa to talk to her mother about it? I don’t like to think she’s getting her information that way.”
Now, Miguel looked like he was done asking questions, but Enrique felt like he wanted to say more. He wasn’t sure what. “Miguel…”
He looked up with the vague surprise of a child reaching for a hot stove burner, when a parent yelled “Stop!”
Enrique thought about it. “You… you wanted to know if I thought you shouldn’t have tried kissing your friend Bridget.”
Now, Miguel’s eyes widened, like he thought he was about to be yelled at. “I… um… I didn’t really think it through and…”
“It’s okay. Maybe there’s no should or shouldn’t about it. She’s a nice girl. Pretty. But she’s probably not coming back.”
“I doubt you were thinking about that at the time.”
“No.” He gave an embarrassed little shrug. “We were looking at maps on her phone and trying to figure out how to get back and forth. And… well, your heads get kind of close when you’re looking at the same phone and…”
Enrique held up his hand. “I don’t need the details. It’s okay. But as you get bigger… it may not be okay to get involved with girls you’ll never see again. Things can happen. Be smart.”
“And on the matter of being smart, in practical terms… I wasn’t ready for this talk tonight. We’ll make some time to talk again, and I’ll be more practical. But the practical part is the least important part. Sort out the important things first.”
He nodded and started to leave.
“One more thing,” Enrique said and stood up. He opened his arms. Miguel stepped into them, and Enrique held him close, hot night be damned. “I love you, mijo. So much that it just knocks me over sometimes.”
“I love you, too, Papá.”
“And that’s what I want for you someday. To have someone you love as much as I love you and your sister. Someone who means everything. Because that’s the good stuff.”
Miguel didn’t answer exactly. He just hugged Enrique more tightly, then let go and headed back toward his own room.
Enrique watched him go.
He picked up Coco and carried her back to the main bedroom, where Luisa was sitting beside the door that separated the two rooms.
“How much did you hear?” he asked.
“A night this still?” She shrugged. “Enough.”
“I think I did all right.”
“I think so, too. You may survive your son growing up after all.”
“Maybe.” He set the baby down in her crib and kissed her head. “But you, Coco, are forbidden to do any more of it. I definitely won’t be able to handle that…”
Luisa rolled her eyes at him, ran her hand up his back in a friendly way, then went back to bed.
Enrique sat up beside the crib for a while longer, then joined her.