Cousin Pedro, let’s call him that, there on the porch-step with my father and me. He has never been to a dentist a day in his life and his teeth are perfectly aligned. He smiles and I teeter, he smirks and I totter. Lean tissue of the thighs, shoulders padded with muscle, dimples with depth. His hair sheens and shines a shimmering black, his greasiness a workday sublime.
My father smiles a lot with Cousin Pedro. He laughs a lot, too, laughing like I would want to laugh if Cousin Pedro were talking to me. He brings his head down often, hiding away a coy smirk. He takes off his hat every two or so minutes and embeds the nails into the scalp. He keeps eye contact longer than he does with anyone else.
“Mande?” my father says to him.
It’s a word that is a question, sometimes demanding, sometimes irritated. But there is none of the coldness in it now, none of the coldness he uses when speaking on the phone or with my mother. With Cousin Pedro, the syllables are all affection, a playful passivity in their utterance.
Cousin Pedro, with mischief in the eyes, replies, “Chago, ya sabe lo que estoy diciendo . . .”
But I, Cousin Pedro, do not.
What is this between them? The words are buoyant, light, and filled with innuendo. There is a structure between them. Structure rarely seen, a structure kids are not meant to see. Their structure excludes.
He and my father are much alike. Perhaps that is where this structure of theirs comes from. Bachelor nomads, undocumented, home renters not home buyers, no intentions of wifing someone up. I dance around my father, tugging on his shirt and smudging it with chubby fingers caked with field-day dust, seeking his attention, his smile, his eyes, his hand on my head. I do this not knowing my father, like Cousin Pedro, never wanted children, never wanted the childhood annoyances I inflict on him, never wanted me.
A man passes by on the street. I do not know his name, and no one refers to him by his name, but everyone in the neighborhood knows him. He just recently moved here after hiking himself across a continent. He’s infamous for his walk, the swish in his hips, the lisping of the mouth. His name is always a description. Ese hombre, that man. He is a man suspected of curling his lashes. Sometimes he is not even ese hombre but simply ese, the definite article signaling a man and a man’s life and a man who is not fully a man.
My father and Cousin Pedro say nothing of this man, but keep their eyes on him.
“Mira eso . . .” Cousin Pedro says to my father, the words trailing off as if there is more to say. What is Cousin Pedro saying to look at?
“Mmmmm,” my father grumbles in response, continuing to watch this man sashay down the street.
They do not even need words to say they do not identify this man as their kind of people. No one in my neighborhood does. My uncle pokes fun at how woman-like he walks. My mother says he swishes harder than any women she has ever met. Watching him recede from view, I worry whether I, too, swish my hips like this man; whether I, too, am just a description with no name.
Cousin Pedro means to say something: lips to the side, a word forming between them, air ready to sound out something meaningful. What, Pedro, is it?
“Un dia, Chago,” he starts with that boyish intonation of his, the hands durable swaying in the air for emphasis, reaching close to the shoulders of my father, “quiero que nosotros . . . tu y yo . . . solitos . . . sin mujeres, sin hijos . . . quiero solamente un cosa . . . Chagito mio, un cosa . . .”
I wait for the end of his declaration, but the end never comes.
Both are now eyeing me, eyeing this blockage to their meaning. This thing like them and unlike them. This thing they see as the future, a future they are told to want, a future they want no part of. I mean too much, I am overdetermined, I am in their way.
Yet still, yet always, I want those brown eyes to gaze on me, to give me the time of day. No, I want more: a hand saying come over, a finger pointing at me, a smile in my direction. Me, is it me, Cousin Pedro? I want him to nod at me as he would nod at some Nancy or Joanne at the bar.
Cousin Pedro, in the United States, does not like women who look like his mother or sisters back home in Mexico. Women who wear the skirts long, who braid their hair, who speak the tongue of a woman used to shouting orders at men in fields, who toil in the sun for too long. In the United States, his tastes widen, yet narrow. He likes them lighter-skinned, lighter-haired, lighter-bodied.
The object of my desire is rarely men like my father, uncle, or the other men in my neighborhood. Cousin Pedro is an exception because, as a cousin of a cousin (twice removed?), Pedro is not like my father. A bit taller, skin a light caramel, features more the features of the lead men in the telenovelas. He’s more a Maximiliano while my dad is more a Pobrecito Pedro. Pedro is rough around the edges but not rough enough to make him that class of man you set yourself apart from, make yourself a distinction to. The taboo, I convince myself (I want to convince myself), is too strong to desire men who look like my father.
They get bored. They need more. They need contact.
Mano y mano, the wager is set, elbows on the table. I am supposed to root for my father. I do want him to win, sure, but I want Cousin Pedro to win more. I want to shout his name from the rafters. Measure the flex of his bicep. Cheerlead his unrivaled masculinity.
Three . . . two . . . one! Hand presses against hand, hard. Neck striations. Wincing of the eyes. Heavy breaths, in and out, a grunt between them. Man against man.
I am the referee of this arm wrestling shindig. Supposed to be unbiased and fair. Supposed to call out the elbow being raised, anytime the body lifts up a bit too much. Cousin Pedro does this on several occasions and I do nothing. My father never does it and I tell him he is doing it.
The tug of war grows fiercer. The muscles flex, and unflex, and then flex again. Those many, many hours the two put in at the fields show in this display of strength. Manly ferocity. Stamina more than the average human, more than enough to create a showdown to rival all the other showdowns on the block. They are superheroic to my eyes. The Thing vs. The Hulk. The clasp, the curling, the palms—all force, all masculinity. There are no egos. They are playful, playing in a world of their own private meanings. Their bodies are a ferociousness only intimates can share. Edging near, edging close to—what?
My father gains ground. Cousin Pedro is weakening, the grip falters, the elbow begins to bend. He is moaning, and my father is grunting. Veins bulge. Cousin Pedro looks at my father with pained eyes, eyes meaning something direct, pure, concentrated. My father’s strength overwhelms him—he gives in to his force.
Cousin Pedro flops onto the grass. His chest lunges upward then downward. I want to jump on him like I jump on my father when he returns home from work. Something, something invisible and visible, holds me back.
For the first time since Cousin-of-a-Cousin Pedro arrived in our front yard, I am spoken to by my father, “Porque te ves asi?”
No menacing tone to his inquiry. He’s genuinely curious as to why I look disappointed that my father, my hero, has lost. I shrug my shoulders.
Cousin Pedro laughs at this. Is he laughing at me? Cousin Pedro’s laugh does me in. The gruff guffaw, the deep crescendo at the end of it, the forward lunge of his body penetrating the air. I throw in the towel. No more, Pedro, no more.