“Man, I wish you were a woman. Then, I’d just marry you, and I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this bullshit,” says Jack as he flips through a binder of CDs without looking up. He’s been working through some nonsense with his girlfriend Estrella, and you have to hear about it. Those two are the type that are constantly making up. Either they are at each other’s throats, or they are at each other’s zippers. That’s what he gets for dating a girl named Star—he picks up the sassiest Latina with a diva complex and then wants to bitch when she doesn’t put up with his attitude.
You and Jack have been best friends since that day he walked by your house while you were pulling weeds. Your mom was beside you, and she asked him to help. She had never even met the kid, but Jack was raised to be super respectful to adults. He had this look like he had gotten caught trying to skate out of work, like he was supposed to have shown up 15 minutes ago. He tossed his skateboard to the side and set about to help. Your mom just beamed.
After that, it was a wrap. You and Jack were pretty much inseparable. You had a crew in the neighborhood that you ran with, but you two were brothers. You two could drop in on each other at any time. The only reason you ever knocked on each other’s doors was to announce your arrival. You didn’t wait for someone to answer, you let yourself in. Every good and every bad thing you did from then on out you did together. Like that time you ditched school to go to the patio bar across the border in Algodones. You knew it was a stupid idea, but somehow you convinced yourself you could do it without getting caught. Jack knew his dad didn’t play that shit, but if you were getting in trouble, Jack was getting in trouble because fuck it, when either of you got grounded it felt the same as both of you getting grounded.
Now you were both nineteen, living in an apartment that looked like it was always on the verge of being clean without ever quite making it there. If the camera sitting on top of the pile of laundry you had washed three days ago ever flickered to life, whoever caught five minutes of the recording might think you two were gay for each other.
“What makes you so sure we’d get married? That’s a bit presumptuous bruh.” You love to talk like that, hood slang with big words thrown in. Sometimes, Jack will call you on it. But deep down, he digs it.
“Are you fucking serious?” He stops on a page and looks up. You can tell he’s annoyed and this amuses you. You press on.
“I’m just saying. I’d have options.”
“You’re serious. You wouldn’t marry me?”
“We’re homies. Maybe, I wouldn’t want to ruin our friendship.”
Now you’ve got him. It’s a typical line girls use when they think they’re letting you down easy, when actually they haven’t got the steel to give you a simple no. The irony of the situation escapes him. You conceal a grin as you thumb your bass.
“That’s the gayest shit I’ve ever heard. Whatever asshole. I know you’re lying.”
“Why do I have to be the woman?”
“You know you’re the woman. You’ve always been the bitch in this relationship.”
“That’s some heteronormative shit right there cabrón.”
“Speak English, ass.”
“That’s some heteronormative shit right there dude.”
“You know what I meant. God, I hate you sometimes.”
You and Jack had left Yuma with Matias and Carlos. You all had big dreams of becoming punk rock royalty, like NOFX but with more chicanos. Your band was tight, but the wear of living paycheck to paycheck and the uncertainty of a band playing dive clubs in Phoenix took its toll. Carlos lost his job and had to move back home and Matias knocked up his girl and had to take two jobs. Now Jack’s Stratocaster sits propped by the TV, its pickguard showing dust.
Jack’s a glutton for punishment, so he continues. “Why couldn’t we be gay? That would solve everything. We’d be just like we are now, except we could fuck each other.”
“Yeah? Well I’d be the top.”
“Buuuullllshit. You’ve always been a bottom bitch, and you know that.”
“A power bottom.”
Jack shuts up. In his own fucked up way of thinking, he’s right. Jack has always dominated the friendship. He was coming to Phoenix with or without you because he knew you’d cave. He has this habit of making underhanded remarks about you in front of other friends. Maybe he had to feel in charge. Maybe he was insecure. Whatever his motives, it was draining.
You set down your bass and head outside. Jack tosses the CDs on the couch and follows you. The stucco on your balcony is some southwest turquoise color that looks like it’s trying too hard. You hop on the ledge and lean against the wall of your apartment. You pull a pack of smokes and a lighter from your pocket. With a flick of the wrist, you pop one out of the soft pack. Jack’s making a motion with his fingers, and you toss the pack his way. After firing up, you underhand your lighter to him. Jack smokes, but he never has any cigarettes. That’s your job. When you’re driving, he makes sure to light two as he steals from your pack. That’s the division of labor.
You stare off into the distance. You love the desert, love that a few million people could decide to congregate in place so barren and unforgiving. The sun is setting that beautiful desert sunset. The clouds burn like giant waves of gasoline that God reached through and set on fire. Jack stares at the same sky. The question of who’s going to be the first to interrupt is answered as soon as it enters your brain.
“So should we sign a new lease or move somewhere else?” Jack asks.
You’ve been waiting for this question. You prefer to let things develop rather than bringing them up on your own. Once the lease ended, you knew you were playing a game with inevitability. Each month that passed felt like trying to push back a deadline that was inexorably approaching.
“I think I’m going to go to college.”
“Ok, so we should move to Tempe.” Jack knows exactly what you mean, but he’s forcing you to say it.
“No, I mean like go to college.” You drag out the end of the word go so Jack will catch your drift. He just stares at you. “You know like live in the dorms, actually do the whole college thing.”
He takes a drag of his cigarette. “Man, I knew your bitchass would puss out. College boy.”
“C’mon bruh. You should come with me. They’ve got all kinds of hookups for in-state students. It’s ASU. There’s all those hot Cali transplants who couldn’t get into USC or Stanford. It’s going to be pretty sick.” You say this in an attempt to keep the peace. Jack has never had any intention to go to college, and you both know it.
“What the fuck, man? You know I talked to Estrella about moving up. I can’t pay rent while she looks for a job.”
The prospect of having to live with Estrella and Jack’s constant bickering, having to always choose a side in the conflict and knowing that it had better be Jack’s was one of the reasons for your decision. Jack knows this, but he acts as if you’ve just blindsided him.
“I have to do something with myself. How long are we going to kick around hoping something takes shape? I work at a fucking car wash. Pretty soon we’ll be 25, working paycheck to paycheck, hoping we have enough money to party on the weekends. We’ll be like everybody else who never got out of Yuma—losers.”
You already made the decision never to settle for mediocrity—never give it a chance to slip into failure. But you worry that you’re choosing between your future and your best friend. Jack is your hermano for real, and you want to believe that nothing will change that. But what if this does? You worry that one day he’ll be that guy who used to be your best friend.
He flicks his cigarette over the balcony. “Whatever man.” He makes sure not to look at you as he heads inside.
You know what this conversation means. You take one long drag and exhale.
You jump up and down on the trunk of your car using your butt to will it closed. The trunk creaks its disapproval as you hear the latch catch shut. The paint flakes off the back as you slide down. Stickers of the bands you’ve played with litter the back window. You can’t see out of the back anyway as Jack’s belongings spill into the front seat.
“Let’s go bitch.” Jack happily jumps into the front seat with his book of CDs ready to play shotgun DJ. You’ve taken so many road trips together that this one doesn’t feel any different. Not yet.
As you head down the road, Jack pulls a couple of cigarettes from the pack resting on the center console. He lights them both at once and hands one to you as you crack the windows. As far as road trip compañeros go, Jack is the best—he never sleeps. Traveling across vast stretches of desert without a town for hundreds of miles is grueling work, and Jack plays his part. Even if he doesn’t say anything, he’s wide eyed, staring down the road. One time, the two of you had left to see some friends in San Diego. You woke up early, hit the city and headed home that night. It was pitch black as you headed down the mountains past San Diego into that barren wasteland between El Centro and the coast. And there was Jack just awake as ever, knowing full well that sleep was defeat, and if you couldn’t sleep, he wouldn’t sleep.
You’re at Jack’s parents just long enough to unload his things. He’s going to see Estrella, and you get to chauffer him across town. “I don’t know why I have to drop you off at your heina’s.”
“Because you’re the asshole that ditched me, college boy. I’m bout to slap the shit out of you.”
You smile over the usual banter. As you pull into Estrella’s apartment complex, you view the faded pink stucco with disgust. God himself cursed this place you think. Estrella comes running to the car dressed in some cut off shorts and spilling out of a tank top that looks like she bought it straight out of the discount rack in Baby Gap. Her eyebrows wear heavy pencil and she’s caked on her mascara all haphazard and shit, but you know Jack loves it. After a long, indecent kiss she turns to you. “Hey Jorge.” She draws it out all high-pitched and nasally.
“What up Estrella?”
You linger for a moment. Jack comes over and gives you a big hug. “Good luck bitch.”
You feel like you’re closing a book without an ending “I’ll miss you, brother.” You both look sad and awkward as you duck into your car. Normally, you drive slow and methodic. You enjoy your drives and listen to music and take notice of your surroundings. Today you can’t move fast enough. You back up quickly, trying to get away from Jack’s eyesight. Your eyes burn as your phone rings.
“I knew you’d tear up you crybaby bitch.”
“Bullshit, I saw you squirting tears before I put the car in reverse.”
“Don’t you lie. I saw you, gay boy.”
“Gay isn’t a pejorative.”
“Whatever crybaby. You left me.”
“Now who’s gay?”
“Haha, fuck you.” Silence. “Later man.”