“What are you going to do with the pictures?”
“Look at them,” he tells me. “No one else will see.”
I scratch my elbow, remembering I forgot to put on lotion. There are tiny bottles of Kahlua and peach schnapps on a glass shelf against the wall. Beneath it is an upholstered bar, tufted black leather, supporting empty tumblers and jade elephants with upturned trunks.
“Does your family drink a lot?”
“It’s Hector’s,” he tells me. “He built it and everything. The bar. None of us are allowed to touch it.”
I step closer and wipe a finger along the neck of a bottle of Malibu, revealing the white of the plastic wrap against the gray dust that had collected there.
Justin’s stepfather, Hector, works at a restaurant in the Theater District. He rides every afternoon to the last stop on the 7 train to recommend wine to rich asshole American tourists. That’s how Hector had phrased it to me in the hallway during Justin’s confirmation party back in May, before we broke up. “Jews own this city,” he whispered between toothpick-clenched teeth before singing songs by a Colombian pop star I’d never heard of.
I consider myself lucky I don’t have to deal with a stepfather. My mom never remarried after my father moved back to Fajardo. “Stay away from Spanish boys,” she would tell me Saturday nights when she straightened my hair. “They’ll only bring you tormento.”
As a child, before I knew the word, I always used to imagine tormentas instead, storms, and picture my father sailing his ferry through gathering clouds and violent waves on his way to Culebra.
Early in my relationship with Justin, back when we would cut whole days of ninth grade and spend them burrowing into each other underneath bedsheets of whichever friend’s parents weren’t home that day, he’d told me that Hector had taught him how to masturbate in the fifth grade.
“How the hell does that work?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “He said it was time. He just sat me down in the bathroom one day and showed me.”
“On you?” I asked. A single daughter to a single mother, I wasn’t sure how it worked, if this was normal for boys.
“On himself!” He looked at me, disgusted.
I felt guilty for not understanding him—for not reacting correctly, for the shock and shame in my own voice. It was the only thing he’d told me about his stepfather besides what I saw and heard myself: snuffing Justin’s head into the dining room wall for leaving his wet towel on a wooden chair, the violent crack in my ear when he would throw their cordless phone at Justin’s feet anytime I called, the sound of his tongue clicking against his teeth whenever he referred to me as tu mamita.
I felt sad for Justin after that, but in a way that made me want to hold him and kiss him until I forgot.
“Please don’t touch,” Justin repeats from across the room, not looking up from his new camera to where I’m standing at the bar. “He’ll know if someone touched it.”
Justin sits at his computer desk, deleting pictures on his memory card to make room for more. I know he started hanging out with other girls this summer; he made that very clear by leaving Away Messages of copied and pasted IM conversations with girls he’d met at basketball camp.
I creep over to him, toes curling flat against plastic dollar sandals, so that he does not hear me flipping or flopping behind his chair. I catch a glimpse of a girl I don’t recognize in one of the photos he deletes. Her hair is pulled back but she has blonde bangs. The hem of her T-shirt is pulled up and through the neck of her collar, creating a T-shirt bra, like some kind of low-rent Christina Aguilera. Her face is overexposed, though, washed out in the bright sun of the basketball court, so I can’t make out her expression.
He catches me looking and smiles.
“The girl in the picture you are pretending not to have seen. Her name is Ashley. I met her at practice last week.”
He licks his lips and says, “I love white girls.” His thick eyelashes flutter against his lower lid when he says love, but they roll back in time to see my reaction.
“Oh yeah?” I run all ten fingers through the knots in my hair and meet my hands at the back of my head, as if to offer him a bouquet of black curls over my shoulder.
“Any white girls take pictures like this?”
I regret the words as I say them.
“No,” he says. His pouting mouth teases a smile.
He touches my hip and stands up, setting off a line of fire inside me from my thong to my throat.
“Let’s go to the bedroom.”
His parents’ bedroom was technically his, too, in that it was also the room in which he had a bed; he slept on a twin mattress that rolled out from beneath their queen frame in the narrow space next to the wall, but all of his clothes, books, and toys were stored in a short dresser in the living room. I never felt comfortable there. The last time we hooked up on the bed his grandma came home early from grocery shopping because she forgot her benefit card. I pulled my pants up just in time before she came pinballing in. We claimed to have been looking for a CD, but she pursed her purple lips at me and told me to go home.
“What’s wrong with the couch?”
Justin appears to think about it for a moment and consents. He motions me over to sit in the middle of the couch while he positions an ottoman directly opposite me. I sit and wish I had planted myself closer to the corner. It would help, I think, to feel the arm of the couch at my back, supporting me. The skin on the backs of my thighs sticking against the white leather, I already feel naked.
He sets the camera on the cushion and comes over to touch the nape of my neck. It is hot in the apartment without air conditioning and his cool hand feels good on me. His thumb pins down my earlobe as he bends to kiss me. His lips are pillowy and consuming, his mouth hungry in a way that makes me feel like it has been a lot longer since the five weeks since we last kissed. That was the day before I phoned to tell him I was done hearing stories about him kicking it to other girls at school, in the neighborhood, at the park; that was the day before he called me a bitch so loud that the receiver I was holding shook in my hand.
“You are so fucking hot,” he says. And I’m his.
He sits down on the ottoman and powers on the camera. I feel like my face is flushed and I reflexively rest my hand between my thighs. We sit there and for a moment it is a game of chicken. It is me looking at a smirk underneath a camera and imagining behind that, how the light is dancing in his eyes as he waits for me to make my first move.
It had been my idea. I told him I’d wanted to do this ever since he got the camera for Christmas. How exciting, I’d thought, to take whatever kind of pictures we want and not risk cops and perverts intercepting them at the one-hour photo.
“It will be fun,” I’d said. “Just one last time, you and me. Are you not interested? Are you scared?” I was bullying him into loving me. “Prove it,” I’d said.
My hand clenches my white sundress where it rests. I pull up the hem slowly to reveal the six-dollar contraband I’d stolen from Afaze at the mall for this specific occasion. I knew I’d have to hide it inside a slit I’d cut in my box spring and wash it separately to keep my mother from ever finding out that I even owned a thong. I pull it aside and decide the risk was worth the reward as I watch Justin’s lips curl into a wider smile with each plastic snap of a new digital picture.
“Yes,” he grunts, his “s” long and lazy. “That’s it right there.” It doesn’t sound like he is speaking to me at all.
Afterwards, we eat Fla-Vor-Ice and look at the images through the preview LCD screen. His stubby thumb, bruised purple beneath the nail from a chest pass he caught short, clicks past each photo gingerly.
“That’s disgusting,” I shout from the back of my throat, balancing blue ice on my tongue. I swallow. “Delete!”
I grab the camera out of his hands, quick, and delete a close-up. He protests to keep the others and I let him.
“You don’t know how hot this is,” he says, placing a hand on my shaved thigh.
“It doesn’t even look like me.” The spaghetti strap of my dress had slackened against the cool flesh of my upper arm and I pull it tight across my shoulder.
It feels weird to be sitting with him like this, both of us appraising each photograph of me captured on the 2 GB memory card inside his camera. It doesn’t feel like I thought it would—like smacking the wood-paneled sides of my cousin’s TV set to get a clear picture of the Playboy channel at my uncle’s house. It feels like the quick shock of side-stepping the flattened guts of a pigeon on the pavement, crushed by a car tire. It feels like the second look at the feathers and the flesh that you force yourself to take .
Out the window to my right, a fire escape sits beneath the branches of the lone elm tree in the building’s concrete courtyard. A plastic orange ball pops up into view and sails down just as quick. Up again and back down to children cheering. They are trying to see how high they can throw the ball.
“You’re out!” I hear one of them call. “I win!”
“Not fair!” I hear. “Let me try one more time. Come on, just one more time!”
I grab my purse—a single-strapped washed denim bag that houses my strawberry lip gloss, a five-dollar bill and a fake ID that once belonged to a Maya Goldberg—and I tell Justin I am leaving.
“Well,” he says, pressing a button in the shape of a red right arrow, still skimming through the pictures left on his camera.
“25th Hour will be on in 15 minutes. HBO?”
Click, I hear him press. Click.
“The Spike Lee movie?”
We had been meaning to see it together on 82nd Street that winter, but got into a fight about him talking to strange girls online, or maybe it was about him flirting with one of my teammates at volleyball; it was hard to keep track anymore who was doing what when and why.
“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “If you want to stay?”
His voice cracks. It is a question. He raises an eyebrow, and seems to only dare look at me out of the corner of his eye, his head still hanging low over the new toy in his hands. He is a little boy again, and I feel in this moment the same way I do when I remember his stepfather.
Cold from the icee, I rest the padded base of my palm at his collarbone and graze the slope of his neck with the back of my unfiled fingernails, sharp and gummy underneath from scratching the summer sweat behind my knees. He looks up at me then, and I see squarely into his caramel eyes for what I realize is the first time that day. The gold light from the setting sun shining through the leaves, through the blinds, causes the irises of his eyes to appear to be in motion; rippling, his pupils merely boats in a storm.
“Your parents will be home soon.” I give him a squeeze and open the metal front door.
Outside, I turn onto Whitney Avenue and make my way to the elevated train on Roosevelt. I pass by a bodega whose red, white, and blue bulbs are already lit and flashing to the loud bachata coming from inside. Four or five men stand outside smoking Newports and speaking loudly over the vibrating bass, their garbled Spanish limping under the weight of thick Dominican accents.
I know what is coming and just as I brace for it, I hear the mamis and hija de putas and hollering and teeth sucking. And it’s a little less gross than every time before. I straighten my spine and swivel my hips in time with the music as I pass. The locus of my power emanating from behind that lilac thong riding further up inside me with each step I take. The men shout and groan appreciatively. I’ve won.
I bite my tongue between my teeth until I climb the steps to the 7 train and swipe through the turnstile of the Junction Boulevard station. I stand on the platform looking west over the rowhouse convenience stores. There, toward the glimmering silhouette of the Manhattan skyline against the setting sun, no one can see my blue-stained lips spread and disappear into the tight smile I can’t stop from coming.
Christine Kandic Torres is a Latinx writer from Queens, New York. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction has appeared in Kweli, Newtown Literary, and The Sonder Review. Her non-fiction can be found on Ravishly, On She Goes, and in the print anthology States of the Union, for which her piece, “The Devil We Know,” won the Editor’s Choice Award. She is online at ChristineKTorres.com and Twitter @christinemk.