1. Get out of my way, bitch, Mani thinks as he honks away a jaywalking teenage girl and screeches left onto Parkwood Ave.  He’s got the windows of his truck rolled all the way down and the AC on full blast. Feelin’ fine today, sí señor, the way he always does when he sleeps in until ten, squeezes in some lifting and sprays on Ocean Mist after an ice-cold, pore-tightening shower.

It’s been hot as hell recently, but not without some perks. The engine of one of the John Deere scrapers started fuming around 2 p.m. yesterday and they had to call in a repair specialist to check all the equipment in the morning, so Mani only has to go in for a half day.  Some of the guys on the team went on a bender last night and tried to drag Mani out but Mani said no way man, there is this fine-ass blanquita whose boyfriend is out of town tonight and homeboy needs go see if some of her pipes need fixing, if you know what I mean.

“Alright, Mani,” they snickered, “but remind us to lock our wives up next time you come over.”

“What you saying? You’re saying I’m like that?” Mani asked, puffing out his chest like a fighting cock.

They laughed and slapped him on the back and headed toward their cars. Mani dropped José off by Cross Grove and cruised straight on to Little Italy and proceeded to fuck Julia silly for the next three hours. They had fooled around in high school way back when and she had private-messaged him in February asking about him being back in town. The next thing you know, here she was again kneeling in the front seat of his Chevy Silverado, her blonde head bobbing up and down as he dug his fingers into her scalp. Julia was all right.

But today is a new day. Today Mani is feelin’ fine, smelling fresh as a daisy, and when he pulls into the Denny’s parking lot Sasha is already leaning there with her back against the wall, her hair pulled into a neat ponytail. He admires the curves of her thighs and the indent of her waist; there’s something damn sexy about the way she tied her apron against her black Denny’s server’s button-down shirt. Mani loves the black because it’s a color waitresses at fancy restaurants also wear, and he can imagine Sasha pouring chilled white wine into suited businessmen’s glasses with an elegant twist of the wrist. He sees them smiling into her dark eyes, lusting after her swan-like neck and heavy breasts. Sasha used to dance ballet in school, and even today she retains a kind of carnal grace that sometimes gives Mani goose bumps. He’s always had, he thinks, a fine eye for nuances; he notices auras and not just ass and tits. He knows how to appreciate things like women.

“Come here,” he growls out of the window to Sasha as she comes forward to greet him.

She climbs into the car and he pulls her into his arms, his fingers quickly working their way up the back of her shirt to undo the hooks of her bra. They met at a beach bar back in March when Mani and his buddies had gone to see if they could pick up some drunk spring-breakers, and instead he could not take his eyes off this mujerón with the long-ass neck and leopard stilettos. He’d grinded up against her and she hadn’t protested, and after they were done fooling around on the beach (not that she had given in then or even now; bitch’s thighs clamped so tight you’d need pliers), he combed the sand out of her hair and they just sat there watching the waves crash.

He doesn’t know why she just won’t let him fuck her, not even give him some head. At first he thought she was just that kind of girl, playing coy and hard to get until you gave her enough attention that she could brag to her friends about having a novio without feeling like a total psycho. So he complied: always texted her first, took her out for drinks, and even pulled a risky move and brought her home one evening when Abuela was there. But it’s been five months and the furthest he’s gotten is giving her head. He’s still determined. It’s that neck, those eyes. The prance in her step on the dance floor, because unlike other bitches she knows what she’s doing. Mi gacela, he tells her. One day you’ll award me that pussy. And she throws back her tender white throat and laughs.

It’s the end of her lunch break and Sasha runs back into Denny’s, furtively blowing him a kiss before disappearing around the corner. He knows that’s he’s scored some points today with the visit; she wasn’t expecting it. When he used to work at a car wash in high school the junior and senior girls would drive by and giggle and tell him to take off his shirt for them. He’d barely grown fuzz at that point but was jacked like a Marvel villain, all veins and bulges and enraged like a bull on the inside, too.  But the thought that bitches made motorized pilgrimages to come flirt with him prickled him pleasantly, and he’d rest his forearm on their car and point his hose at them and say, “Wouldn’t want to get you too wet, ladies,” and they’d shriek delightedly and speed away as he waved goodbye with an idiotic grin on his face.

When he exits the lot Mani tries to catch a glimpse of Sasha through the Denny’s window, but against the sun’s glare he only sees his beat-up truck and the asphalt road.

***

2. It’s past eight when Mani finally gets home from the construction site. He throws the keys on the kitchen table, not even bothering to reply when Abuela’s faint voice calls out “¿Mani? ¿Tan tarde, hijo?” from her bedroom. He’s starving but also queasy from the heat and the mortar, and his ears are still buzzing with shrill drilling noises and the humming and hissing of cranes. Abuela emerges from the bedroom, her dyed-brown hair done up in sections with plastic curlers, and Mani wants to tell her in that instant that the dye job draws attention to the fact that she is fucking ancient and that it looks fucking pathetic. Instead he sits down wordlessly at the table and fishes his phone out of his pocket, furiously checking all of his apps and barely waiting for them to load before punching the home button to close them. She totters towards the fridge, looking at him out of the corner of her eye.

¿No has comido, hijo?

Mani shakes his head.

Pues que quieres. ¿Spaghetti, pollo, hamburgesa?” She takes out a plate of leftover pasta from the fridge, her hand slightly shaky under the weight of it, and holds it midair until Mani looks up.

“That’s fine,” he says. There are trails of sweat down his temples. She microwaves the pasta for a minute and pours him a glass of water. She does not ask how his day went. He shoves his phone away and starts scooping big forkfuls of food into his mouth, too exhausted to even make a real effort to chew. Abuela bends down to take out a plastic bag of sunflower seeds from the cupboard, slowly makes her way to the living room and sits down at the edge of the couch. She is so skinny that she barely makes an indent. The Spanish-language news channel she puts on is showing an interview with some C-listed telenovela starlet and she watches fixedly, her beady eyes glued to the screen. Her hand reaches into the bag every few seconds with mechanical rhythm as she crunches the sunflower seeds and spits out the shells; it’s like she’s been a fucking rodent for her past seven lives. Mani stands up, the metal stool scratching the kitchen tiles shrilly as he straightens his legs. Abuela doesn’t seem to hear. He slams the bathroom door behind him to shut out the gooey voice of the starlet as she comments on how she has adapted to a life of fame.

The TV is still on but Abuela and the dirty dishes are gone when Mani reemerges wearing clean jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt, a cloud of Ocean Mist wafting after him. After his second cold shower of the day he feels a little better. He sinks down into the couch and stares into space for a few seconds, listening to the muffled noise emitted from the radio in Abuela’s room oddly harmonizing with the TV’s chatter. Then, startled by the program’s sudden switch to advertisements, he takes out his phone and starts scrolling through his list of contacts.

***

3. He is gazing up at the same ceiling again. It’s dotted with little fluorescent stars that Sasha once pasted in the shape of constellations, and they shine with a soft, milky glow. Her head is resting against his chest and the thin curtains of the open window right behind her bed graze his face whenever a gust of wind blows. Their skin is cold with remnants of earlier sweat, and she is asking Mani about his childhood, his family, the trips he’s taken, her voice sleepy and her intonation slow. She’s told him before about growing up just two towns over, working hard in school but never managing more than average grades, sobbing into her fist when she got only rejection letters from her dream colleges. She’s told him about the bleak white light of large underground auditoriums, the fights with her mother and four sisters when she’d hog the one bathroom to drink and get ready with her girlfriends, all of them with flasks of vodka in their handbags. She’s told him about discovering ballet, about falling in love, about her co-workers at Denny’s and, very quietly, about her longing to dance seriously one day, when she has enough money.

Now he tells her about the same little crammed apartment he’s lived in for twenty-five years, the lace and relics his mother used to collect on every imaginable surface; shrines everywhere, about all the Italian-themed Saturday night dinners the four of them — his mother, Abuela, Dom, and Mani — would have because his mother dreamed of going to Italy, of climbing the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, of showing her boys what lied beyond the highways and strip malls they’d known all their lives. He tells Sasha about his mother dying giving birth to a baby who stopped breathing in the womb when Dom was eighteen and he was twelve, about Abuela going to all of their PTA meetings and pretending that she was not failing to understand every single word that was spoken, about Dom’s high school girlfriend Christie, a strong, quiet Salvadoran girl who Dom dated for five years and would come by and help Abuela with taxes and classified ads and Mani’s tenth-grade geometry. He does not tell Sasha about jerking off to Christie every night but he does tell her about the hollowness left behind when Dom and Christie broke up their junior year of college and just like that, from one day to another, Mani never saw her again. Now Dom has two young kids with a woman called Sonia who he met at church, and at the wedding Mani could not help but wish that it were Christie’s face that broke out in radiance when Dom lifted the veil. Mani tells Sasha about going to Hampstead every holiday season to spend Christmas at Dom and Sonia’s little one-story suburban house, a three-hour trip with just Abuela in the passenger seat and both of them silent for the entire car ride.

Sasha kisses him lightly on his left pectoral and closes her eyes, her breath slowly becoming regular and warm in her slumber.

***

4. Mani grabs his phone from the nightstand and it reads 10:46 a.m. There are only a couple drunk messages from his friends that came through in the pre-dawn hours; Abuela stopped calling long ago when he did not come home for the night. Sasha moans in her sleep. He starts stroking her back lightly, up and down along her spine and slowly looping around to her breasts, and he knows she’s awake because she starts shuffling her ass towards his pelvis inch by inch, rubbing it against his hard-on. This time when he slides two fingers into her she says nothing but instead wriggles out of her underwear, and they kiss a little frantically.

“You want it,” he whispers into her ear, and she nods and Mani springs up to take off his boxers, crazed out of his mind but still a little incredulous that it ‘s finally happening. He finds his jeans on the floor, wipes his fingers on the denim and scourges out his wallet. But fuck, fuck, fuck, the two condoms he thought he had in here are nowhere to be seen, and suddenly he remembers that he used them both when he was over at Julia’s two nights before.

Mani looks over to Sasha, who is lying in bed staring at him expectantly, and says: “Gacela, you’re on the pill, right?”

She props herself up on her elbows. “Yeah.”

He lies back down next to her and starts kissing her neck. “I want you so badly, baby, it’s just that I don’t have a condom. But if you’re on the pill …”

He feels Sasha freeze up. “Mani,” she says, “I’d rather not.”

“But what’s the matter?” he pushes, his voice cajoling. “You know you can’t get pregnant if you’re on it, right?”

She shuffles away from him a little, lifting up the sheet to cover her tits. “I know, Mani, but I don’t want to do it without a condom.”

They duel with their eyes, his still playful and begging and trying to melt away her conviction but hers are dead serious. “It’s not about getting pregnant,” she says. “There are other things. I don’t want to get any … any … you know.”

For half a second he stares at her blankly, not understanding. Then he stands up wordlessly and puts on his boxers and jeans and T-shirt. She says nothing either. He does not even bother to look back at her once before closing the door behind him with a dead clunk.

***

5. She texts three times in the afternoon, hesitant messages like “hey, Mani,” and he ignores them. Sasha does not insist. At the club that night he sees her out with her friends, all dolled up and exploding out of a red dress, sipping a rum-coke by the bar and watching the entrance from which he did not come in. When she finally catches sight of him she nudges her way through the crowd, coming straight for him, and he pities her uneasiness with how to act — sincere and eager, or casual and nonchalant? — her expression recomposing itself every few seconds. But when she speaks her tone is unmistakably apologetic, scouring, testing the depths of his offense:

“Mani, this morning, I didn’t mean to w…”

She’s shouting over the music, but he does not bother. He raises his eyebrows, eyes glazed over with indifference. “It’s fine,” he says plainly.

“Do you want to go outside and talk? I’m really sorry, I…”

Just think you’re a filthy useless bastard. He feels a surge of rage well up inside of him, a strong, white-hot one that he hasn’t felt for years, so crippling that he only manages to let out a “bye, Sasha” through his gritted teeth before turning around and grabbing the fat, gyrating ass of a red-faced bitch in a cheap-looking dress with glitter smeared across her chest. She doddles her head and bats her false lashes as he grinds hard against her and bends her over, right there in front of Sasha who stands as if stupefied, and he takes this fat chick’s hand and drags her right past Sasha towards the bathroom, where he props her up on the sink and starts kissing — more like, biting — her so aggressively that she starts groaning as she sticks her hand right down his pants, and seconds later her legs are spread open and her dress is pulled up to her waist and Mani is fucking her and watching her saggy arms jiggle around his neck in the mirror, fucking her hard and without a condom, because in the end he’s nothing more than a dirty lowlife and a motherfucking sucio, right? — and the bitch cums so loudly she’s practically screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

***

6. Mani sits at the kitchen table in his boxers and pours half a box of Cocoa Puffs into a bowl of skim milk and whey protein powder. He’s plugged in the fan and set it right across from him on the table, where his mother always used to sit. Now there’s a piece of plastic that blows cold air in your face. Mani eats with downcast eyes and no appetite, and he knows he fucked up, he knows Sasha’s gone for good now. He smudges the globs of protein powder against the walls of his bowl to try to break them up. Abuela walks out of her room in chunky black leather heels and a tailored flower dress suit. She also has her pearls on, those that her own Abuela had given her and that had turned a light tinge of yellow with the passing of years. Mani likes her like this, as she often looks on Sundays before mass, with lipstick and a white hat over her too-brown hair. As she’s about to leave the house, he tells her:

“You look beautiful today, Abuela.”

Her eyes crinkle when she smiles and she walks from the door to the kitchen table where Mani is slumped. There must be voodoo magic about having the same blood flow in your veins, because Abuela takes his hand and puts it on the left side of his chest and presses it there. She looks into Mani’s sad eyes and, with care to pronounce each syllable right, says: 

“She will stay here one day, cariño.”