Bob Dominguez looked like some of my cousins, but I didn’t know if I looked like any of his. All I knew was I wanted him to like me. He was brown with wide shoulders and long black hair that made him look like the warriors in the paintings on taqueria walls. My dark hair was cut short. My mom paid a lady eight dollars every month to run her clippers over my head until she almost broke skin, saying it was one less thing to worry about. But Bob’s hair was always untouched.
I met him the summer before freshman year, when we spent each day out on the football field, hitting each other, getting dark beneath the sun. In the locker room, Bob changed his clothes with a freedom I’d never known. I watched him, following the veins in his arms, until they bloomed into a scar across his bicep. He told me his brother had done it, said something about a screwdriver. Bob didn’t seem to hide anything. I was embarrassed by the lines on my arms and legs, where the brown met the white, where my mom met my dad. So I’d wait for most everyone to leave, and on their way out, when they’d ask why I was just sitting there, I’d tell them I was tired from practice, and they couldn’t argue with that. The truth was, not many guys asked. I was quiet, and to be quiet in a boy’s locker room is to be invisible. But for some reason, Bob saw me.
Maybe it was because that day we were the only ones left in the locker room. He asked if I wanted to go upstairs and get something to eat from the vending machine. Bob was one of those high school boys that could eat anything and still stay lean. I’d never been that way in my life. Later, when school started, I’d see him in the hallway licking the hot cheeto dust off his fingertips on his way to first period. He’d wink at me like it was an inside joke.
After we were done eating, Bob said he had to go to the bathroom, and I said I did, too. I washed my hands and splashed some water on my face, while Bob undid his jeans and leaned into the urinal, looking up at the white tile ceiling and making a noise that took the breath from me. Back then I knew you either liked girls or you didn’t. And I knew I liked girls. Bob washed his hands, while I balled up a paper towel. He didn’t seem to notice that I hadn’t gone to the bathroom, the same way he didn’t seem to notice that I didn’t talk. I wondered if this meant that he liked me, or if I was just the only one left at school, if I was replaceable. I looked into the mirror and I saw the both of us. To me, we didn’t look that different, but I knew it couldn’t last. I was browned from the summer, but my pink would come back. I would lighten in the winter.
Once school started, Bob would nod to me in the hallways, but we didn’t talk much. He hung around the brown kids, even the ones who didn’t play football. He was at home there. I stayed away from the group, even when Bob called me over. It scared me, to have that many knowing eyes on me. It wouldn’t take long for them to find me out, to see I wasn’t like them. The only time I went to the group this big mouth-breather who everyone called Squez stared me down while Bob introduced me to the circle. After the bell rang and the group broke apart, Squez found me and backed me down against a wall. I’d heard he was always starting fights over little shit, like if you laughed too loud at a joke, even if it was his joke. There was a rumor that he got kicked out of the house for beating his mother. That day, he got real close to my face, so close I could see the mocos shining on his upper lip. “Bob might not know,” he said, “but I do.”
So I stayed away from the group, and I stayed away from Bob. Until each night, when practice was over, and we were the only ones left. In the daytime we felt like a secret. But in the night he’d shove me in the shoulder or throw his arm around me, and I’d forget all about it. We’d wait for our rides on the concrete steps outside the basketball gym. Bob did most of the talking, and when he did he’d throw bits of Spanish in there like magic. Pero this, pero that. Mira. Este when he was thinking. My mom didn’t speak Spanish, and my grandparents never spoke it to us, only on the phone with family. But being there in the dark alone with him made me bold, and sometimes I’d speak the few words I knew, trying to drop them in my sentences as casually as he did in his. But each time he’d tease me about my accent. Then he’d say the word I remembered the most, the word that scared me, the word I didn’t want to be, not to Bob. Güero. That’s what he called the white boys on the team. Pinche Güeros. His dad had this busted white truck that he’d pull into the lot, and Bob tensed up each time he saw it. It was the only time I saw Bob anything but in control. He’d put on a good face though, say “alright then”, and dap me up, our fingers locking in this perfect way. And I’d sit there alone in the dark, watching the white pickup disappear out of the lot, and I’d wish the daylight would never come, wish that each night could follow the next, and that Bob and I could sit on those steps in the dark forever.
October came, then November, and I’d press my hands against the beige wood of my desk in class, fearing the day when I matched the color, and worse, when I didn’t at all. It was late November, and Bob and I were changing into our football pads, when he smiled at me and said it. “You starting to look like a güerito.” I rubbed my thumb across the top of my hands, shook my head and laughed. I didn’t say anything.
And then it was December. Football season ended, and with it ended our nights. With the season over, we didn’t have as much keeping us together as I’d thought. Bob kept on hanging out with the brown kids, and it made sense because most of them could speak Spanish back to him. I could never give him that. I started to hang out with the güeros. I became a beige oddity to them. They’d ask me questions, and it felt nice to be treated as an authority. Tell us the dirty words, they’d say. They always wanted to know the dirty words. And I’d say, okay, coño. Verga. Tetas. Culo. They’d say them back, punching each other and laughing. But they didn’t care about me. They just wanted to fuck a brown girl one day. To them, I was a part of a mysterious group, a group they’d never be a part of, but what they didn’t seem to notice or care was that I’d never be a part of that group either. Whatever words I taught them, I never taught them the one. I figured if I knew that one, and they didn’t, well then that was something I had over them.
That’s how the four years went. I’d ride around with the güeros and get high, drunk when we could. That’s how I found myself, how I remade myself. If I wasn’t brown and I wasn’t white, I could always be fucked up.
Sometimes I’d see Bob and his long black hair around in the hallways and cafeteria, but I was always with the güeros. I had a feeling he knew my secret by then. Maybe Squez had told him. There was no wink or nod or nothing. He’d just walk right by us. And sometimes the güeros would slip up and put on some dumb cholo accent, mocking him after he’d left. After, they’d look at me, a little nervous, as if waiting for me to laugh. And I did, I always did because that’s who I was to them. Their absolution. Their exception. But each time it happened some part of me wished Bob would turn right around and beat their asses. After, he’d look at me and say, what’re you doing? And I’d shake my head and say, I don’t know, Bob. Then he’d tell me that night he’d be on the steps outside the basketball gym. “Meet me there,” he’d say, “and I’ll tell you who you are.”
After school ended, Bob got a woman pregnant. I say woman because she was a good ten years older than him. He stayed with her though, and that made me happy in the way little things do. Last I heard, he was selling used cars for her brother. I imagine he must have cut his hair by now.
One of the first nights, early in the fall, when Bob and I were waiting on the steps to go home, I asked him how long he’d been growing it. Shit, he’d said, forever. What would it take? I asked. He shook his head. Come on now, how much? Nunca, he said, nunca. I ran a thumb over my browned hands in the dark and told myself the same.