Tio Hector, my namesake, came to stay two weeks after my fifth birthday. Snow crunched beneath his boots as he moved his cluttered apartment into our guest bedroom, piling boxes on the bed. While Papi stayed home to steam-clean the carpet, I went with Tio Hector to bring what hadn't fit to a musky storage unit, chattering on and on about how excited I was to see him. A day later, Mom quit work "for her health."
I didn't know sickness could be of the mind. I thought she might be dying, and I remember asking Papi how long she would live and if she was going to be in a hospital like Abuela, connected to so many pulsing machines, but only received a half-smile and a dismissive wave. Mom grew thinner, never smiled, and would stare at nothing for minutes or hours, listlessly wandering from room to room like a paler ghost whose freckles forgot to fade with the rest of her. Even her hair—alive with reds and coppers as if possessed by early autumn in photographs Papi kept on his desk—became limp and lackluster, often reeking of oil. When a year passed, and she wasn't much better, I asked Papi, "What's wrong with her?"
"You were supposed to have a sister," was all he said, and that didn't make much sense to me. I could recall her swollen belly, her face flushed with pride when the ultrasound technician announced she was going to have a daughter, and she even went to the hospital on the proper date, jabbering about all the names my sister might have depending on the set of her eyes. I don't know why I didn't think much of the baby not coming home, but it took years for me to put the pieces together and years more to understand why it broke her.
"Your mama, she's always been a little off." Tio Hector smoked cigars, and I liked the way they smelled. I'd sit next to him on the porch while Papi tried to get Mom to eat something. I hated their noise, especially in the winter when her depression was at its worst. "It's just the straw that broke the camel's back. Or the boulder, I guess." Tio Hector could blow smoke in perfect Os and blew them in my face until I giggled. "Ey, mijo, smile. Want to go watch a movie? We can sit in my room. You can't hear them in there."
I agreed and followed him around to the front because he knew I didn't want to walk through the kitchen. That year, I was eight, and we hadn't celebrated my birthday because I didn't want to bring friends over to the house. Even Leon, my best friend and neighbor, hadn't been invited over. Tio Hector knew I was embarrassed, and he'd stopped Papi from making a fuss about it. He said that it was my decision, and he still bought me a present: my playstation and a few games for it. I thought of asking him to go play that instead, but when I sat on his bed and leaned against the pillows he'd propped on the headboard, I was content.
"Do you want to watch something scary?" Tio Hector asked, and I nodded, even if scary movies gave me nightmares. He chuckled and popped in something with really cheesy effects but a lot of gore, puffing on another cigar when he finally settled on the bed beside me. He put his arm around me, and I rested my head on his chest, near his heartbeat. He smelled like dry sweat, spicy cologne, and stale tobacco.
He was right. I couldn't hear my parents and fell asleep right before the first murder, hearing the actress's scream and Tio Hector's quickening breaths.
Papi started calling me Junior when yelling Hector through the house became too confusing. Either both or neither of us would answer, convinced he was asking for the other. Over dinner, when Mom was in especially good spirits, Papi reached over the table and ruffled my hair. "You don't look much like a Hector, anyway. You're going to be handsome."
Hector elbowed his ribs, but they both laughed while I ate my potatoes more slowly. I felt nauseous, watching spittle collect at the corners of their mouths, watching Mom rock slightly and murmur for the gravy. I tried to fix my hair but my curls were thick and stubborn. "I like my name. It's going to be weird. Everyone else calls me Hector."
"You'll get used to it," Papi promised, helping Mom with the gravy because she'd drench her chicken and get upset. She reminded me of a child, lost in a knit sweater that reached her knees. The lines around her eyes and mouth made her like a ventriloquist's dummy, but I still thought she was beautiful, especially with her so-green eyes. "It's just so no one's confused, okay Junior? See. Less confusing."
"Whatever. When is Tio Hector moving out?"
My question silenced the table. The silverware was polite enough not to clatter, and Mom stopped chewing. I didn't know if the question or the sudden lack of movement had disturbed her, but Papi cleared his throat. "That's an ignorant thing to ask. Hector has helped a lot around here. I couldn't afford the mortgage without him, let alone the bills. You should be so grateful, and I don't want to hear anymore of that selfish shit, okay? Your mom is very sick, and I need any help I can get."
He rubbed Mom's knee, and I wondered when it became okay to talk about her like she wasn't there. She seemed more fragile than she had before, and sometimes she would cry instead of speak because words were a stuttering frustration. When I was ten, I thought she was getting better, but I was thirteen and every day was another regression. She had stopped showering again, evident in her greasy ponytail, and I looked at Hector. "Oh."
"Don't be too hard on him. Kids don't understand that stuff," Hector said and lit a cigar after he stood to open the window and pour himself half-a-glass of Papi's good whiskey. "What do you want for your birthday this year, mijo? It's coming up soon."
"I was just going to spend it at Leon's. Y'know, he's in Elgin now, I could do with some distance," I answered, robotically shoveling what was left on my plate into my mouth. I didn't want to be at that table anymore, and the smoke burned my nostrils no matter how fragrant it was. It reminded me of cherries, and I wanted to leave. "You don't need to get me anything."
"Just tell me if you think of something, ey?" He sat beside me and smiled, resting a hand on my shoulder.
The room paled, my throat swelled, and without warning, I emptied my dinner back onto the plate while Papi glared and Mom yelped something obscene.
I went to see Leon on a Monday because both our schools were closed for some holiday I couldn't remember the name of. It was early spring, and the slush was black and grey, soaking my shoes and then my socks. I shivered to the bone when Leon let me inside, and I tried not to admire his house too much; both Leon's parents worked during the day, and they made the kind of money that bought pinewood floors and perfect interior design. "Shit, I should have worn a coat."
"Stop cussing," Leon scolded, picking up my shoes and throwing them in the closet, laying my socks over the vent. "But yeah, you should have. Did you walk or something?"
"Fuck no. That would have been an hour. I took the bus, but the stop was a few blocks away." I laughed because his glare was nothing short of pathetic. "Okay, okay. Sorry, I won't swear. Jesus Christ, you're like my—"
"Lord's name in vain," he stated, but we both had to laugh at that.
I followed him up to his bedroom after we got soda and Doritos from the kitchen. His room was at least twice as big as mine and always clean because his mami was a hellhound about organization. I was surprised his books weren't alphabetized and his closet wasn't arranged by color, and I gleefully unmade the bed by flopping on it. "So, are you stuck with the Bible Nazis this summer?"
"Don't call them that." Leon sat on the edge of the bed, gingerly opened his soda as not to drip on the comforter, and flicked on the television. I didn't pay attention to what movie he had on, but it sounded familiar. "Anyway, I'm not. I think we're going to the lake house, to see my dad's parents. Do you want to come with again?"
"Sure." I reached to tug his hair, and he looked at me. I grinned. "You need a haircut, faggot."
"Uh huh." He rolled his very-blue eyes, swatting my wrist after he set his drink aside and stole my can from my hand before I could attempt to open it lying down. Leon was a good-looking guy, favoring the white genes from his dad. I couldn't tell he was PR unless he was speaking to his mami, rolling his Rs like a good spic and pandering to her in Spanish because she was softer on him that way. "You need a life. Stop touching me."
"You like it." I sat up and pinched his neck until he squeaked indignantly, a sound that would have had me clutching my stomach if it wasn't for another thrill. I scooted closer to him. "Hey. Leon. Look at me. Come on, stop being a pussy."
He turned, mouth open, and I kissed him. I grabbed his hair, and I kissed him until he stopped sitting stiffly, until he returned the pressure so faintly it made me hold him harder. On screen, someone died screaming, and I wrapped my arm around his shoulders and tasted bile, wondering if it was his or mine. He was shaking, I thought, and when I pulled away he asked me beneath a whisper, "What's wrong?"
That wasn't what I'd expected. His face was red, but he looked at me funny for another reason. I glanced at my hands and realized I was shaking. "I don't... I don't know."
"We uh, need to talk about that." I could tell he was trying to hold himself together, and I was shaking. I looked at my hands again, and I was shaking. He gripped my elbow tighter and tighter until I looked him in the eye, shaking. "Seriously, though, right now you're uh... crap, are you going to puke? Don't puke on my bed..."
He stood and dragged me to my feet, but I didn't puke. I shook and swore smoke like cherries was caught in my nose until I croaked, "I'm sorry. You're not like that. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I'm not a faggot. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Hey, it's okay, man... Rose."
I don't know why he called me by my middle name. Maybe he thought it would make me laugh, because we had laughed about it being girly before, but it sounded serious now. Leon said it again, and it sounded like me but pristine. Me minus Mom and her dead baby, Papi's whiskey, and Hector's cramped bedroom with a gory movie playing in the background.
Leon hugged me because he was too nice, and I rested my head on his shoulder when he said, "Rose, I love you. It really is okay."