By Sarah Rodriguez
Andy hated feeling stuck. The bus was late, it was raining, she was sure she forgot to put on deodorant. Her arms mirrored the lackluster sheen of the summer shower, sticky. Andy was only joined by Gloria, an older regular on the 236. Gloria waddled up to the benches, her envelope sized purse pinched delicately between forefingers and thumbs. The tired-faced crowd of Houston Metro riders kept to themselves, trying to distance themselves from known talkers.
Gloria’s usual signal was settling onto a stone bench with a tiny wiggle that morphed into a squirm until she was much closer than was appropriate for strangers at a bus stop. Gloria launched into her latest overtelling the moment Andy made polite eye contact.
“So, I told Esther she needs to tell her son enough is enough. There’s only so long you can be without a job, right?” Gloria sighed, clacking her nails against her purse. She glanced at Andy. “You at least have something stable, Andrea. You went to college, didn’t you?”
Andy flinched at Gloria’s pronunciation of her full name. The heavy first syllable burst into her ears, popping somewhere near her vestibulocochlear nerve. Andy had memorized a diagram of the inner ear in high school to impress some aspiring nurse.
“I didn’t. I got my cosmetology license,” Andy said. She’d told Gloria that before.
“Right, right,” Gloria chortled, “Maybe you can come over and cut my husband’s hair one day!”
“I could.” Andy rose to lean against a thick, glass-tiled barrier. She was always asked for haircuts like this. The neighborhoods around the Port of Houston ran on tabs of begrudging Latino reciprocity.
“Aye, sí,” Gloria heaved a heavy, drawn-out sigh, “My Scotty…he’s really let his hair grow out. Parece un perrito, you know?”
“I don’t really cut men’s hair,” Andy said, trying on an apologetic wince.
“Hair is hair.” Gloria’s wrinkled hand wafted through Andy’s excuse. “That’s what Scotty says. He also says no one’s hiring mechanics anymore. Can you believe that?” Gloria tsked. Her fingertips kneaded into the pleather of her purse. Andy could see the raisin dark imprints, oil stains like pressure points.
“I…I just—,” Gloria was revving up and the rest of her words flowed out of her, superfluous. “I go to work. Everyone’s so nice there. They like me. And when I get Scotty’s unemployment coming in, I can even take some time off. But—” Gloria gulped. Andy could see the older woman’s jaw shifting around, like Gloria was tasting her next thought. “There’s pinche tire shops and car lots all down I-10 he can work at! He’s just there on that sofa morning and night. When I get back, he goes, ‘Ah, Glorie, can you get me a beer?’ Like he can’t get up.”
The sky grumbled with a roll of thunder, as if it were annoyed by Gloria’s husband, too. Andy watched the littering of rain turn into a heavy flashing onto pothole puddles. The bus was never going to come if the weather got any worse. Traffic from Baytown was bad enough on an early weekday morning without rain scaring drivers, either driving too slowly or zooming over the freeway as if racing the planes in the sky.
When she was younger, Andy rode a few flights in the rain. She hated the way the aircraft jerked and shook. Raindrops slapped onto the windows and lingered for a minute, clinging a ride. Her second oldest sister, Luisita, bet on which drop would fall first and made gruesome fantasies about their crash to the ground. She would unfasten Andy’s seatbelt and pretend to push her into following the rain’s path.
The last time Andy was a rider on a storm, she was older — just out of high school, eighteen — and the plane’s shuddering and the thunder’s growling and the lightning’s white-hot flashing and the engine’s unshakable tremoring were the last sense of excitement Andy would have for years.
She was returning from a Veracruz summer for the last time. Andy remembered gulping through tears at the thought of never having her grandpa’s cooking again. His steaks were always ready on the break of dusk, tickled pink in a perfect medium finish. Over the summer, the Morenos had communed in courtyards of fawny dirt and ant hills for birthdays, or full moons, or funerals. And at each table, there were mangoes. Grandpa molcajeted mangoes into salsas, sizzled them atop dying flames in spontaneous plate adornments, squaring and squashing them. Andy liked to trap lakes of spiraling limón and tamarindo and beer salt and ancho, weaving them between the avenues of crisscrossed mango cuts until they glowered golden in the light of the grill.
The weathered round tips of Gloria’s Skechers poked into the side of Andy’s vision. She blinked away from phantasmic puddles, shaking out thoughts of aircraft and thunderheads and mangoes and heartbreak.
Gloria slumped against the tiled wall. The mumbling rain around them was left uninterrupted. There was no sign of the bus, and the sky was a thicket of slate as if night had fallen at six in the morning. Andy narrowed her eyes at the clouds from the dry safety of the bus shelter. Despite the surface view, she knew the sky was bright up there.
Gloria’s life sounded like a bog, dark and upsetting — a life trapped in a single moment. A geologist Andy dated once called bogs nature’s museums. They trapped and perfectly preserved any lifeform caught lingering in the muck and mire. Andy didn’t think there was any point in wanting to escape something like that. Gloria’s next sigh, a light breath of surrender, told Andy the old woman knew it was useless, too.
“But that’s the price we pay for loving men, right?” Gloria smiled up at Andy, as if sharing some timeless secret.
“I’m gay,” Andy said.
The surprise on Gloria’s face reminded Andy of a rousing pinball machine, music slowing to a start as the lights wobbled awake. Andy was always reconsidered after small coming-outs like this. The snapping, springing eyes from one feature to another. Gloria’s thoughts were practically visible in the humid rain vapor. First the hair — that’s why she keeps it short — then the outfit — slacks every time I see her.
“Oh.” Gloria nodded, shifted on the bench. She flashed a quick glance at Andy. Andy watched her play with the buckle of her envelope purse, tempted to make some sort of comment. Gloria coughed and sputtered out, “Bus is late.”
Andy laughed. “Yeah.”
As far as coming-outs went, Gloria didn’t react too badly. Andy found the awkward sidestep of coming out to strangers more satisfying than her family’s first response.
Her script wasn’t different then. “I’m gay” got the message across perfectly. Fifteen-year-old Andy spent a year with the two words — “I’m” and “Gay” — clinking around in her unfinished prefrontal cortex (learned from a med student in a party house bathroom) like a pair of gambler’s dice. They spilled out onto her mom’s tablecloth after she poured a second helping of beans into a styrofoam bowl.
Her stomach fizzed in her family’s unsurprised silence. Andy remembered Luisita yawning and the way the twins, Matt and Celeste, kept digging through their bowls like Andy hadn’t spoken.
A loud smacking of lips around a chunky bite of carnitas preceded her dad’s, “When’s Pride?” Her mom snorted. The conversation turned back to Matt’s girlfriend’s kid — paternity pending.
If there was a conference of repressed teenage years for queers — Andy was convinced there was, and she’d missed the invitation somehow — her coming out ranked last. The anti-climax didn’t leave much of an impression on Andy. If anything, Andy felt like the biggest part of her life had been solved in that moment. She often thought, alone and drunk in her room, her life lost any mystery or interest then.
Andy wondered if that was why her love life was dead, too. She stockpiled chronologies of girlfriends and partners and let’s-not-label-this-yets and one- to five-night-stands. Andy never brought anyone home. She didn’t see a reason to, not when she knew they wouldn’t last.
And because nothing around her lasted, Andy never had dreams in the aspirational sense. Her REM-induced visions were filled, instead, with memories of summers on her grandpa’s ranch in Veracruz. When her romances reached a dissolution — empty, gray, a little sad — Dad dumped ice and beers into a cooler. They drank and listened to Morrissey until Mom kicked them out of the sala. Andy’s mom always wondered (out loud and right after another break up) why Andy even bothered dating if she wasn’t serious about relationships in the first place. Mom was focused on the long run.
Sylvia Espinoza-Moreno wanted a British Empire of grandkids, the sun always kissing the kiln-fired brown cheeks of an Espinoza-Moreno somewhere on the globe. Andy’s older siblings had kids already. Manuel, the oldest, had a shutter-shocked picturesque life in California. He taught at the same elementary school as his wife. They had three girls. Andy went to San Francisco Pride with them two years ago. The whole time she wondered if this was the life she was supposed to aspire to. A wife and kids. Going to Pride each year. Out on display for the people who couldn’t be, with the grandkids Andy’s mom was waiting for.
Andy never had dreams — passions, her mom called them. Andy graduated high school, winced at the thought of four or more years at a desk, got her cosmetology license, impressed her way into an upscale salon in Montrose, took the bus downtown every day.
It was still raining. The bus was still late. Gloria still wanted to talk. Andy’s underarms were still sticky. Everything was sticky. Andy hated the eternal summers of Houston, the way any liquidity in the air bound itself down on a cellular level. If Andy feared commitment, like one of her psych major lovers once suggested, the weather here was enamored with it. Like a haunting. Like the air around her wanted Andy to stay. Andy wasn’t sure she agreed with it anymore.
Andy wondered how her grandpa was doing, a thousand miles away, maybe in the same chair as before. The chair next to the table where Andy set down her futures and a plate of mangoes.
I should call, Andy thought, see if anything’s changed. She doubted it. There hadn’t been a change in five years, but Andy picked her phone out of her pocket anyway. Her thumb slid over the screen to mark a reminder into her calendar. She jumped a little at the sudden buzz of a notification. The first few lines solidified at the top of her screen, …emailing to confirm your interview time at…
Andy dismissed the notification. “What?”
“I asked if there are many gay hairdressers,” Gloria said.
Andy started to say her salon was in Montrose and that should say everything Gloria needed to know. “As in queer people or lesbians?” She asked instead.
“I guess there are,” Andy said. “I think just me and Joanna are at my salon, but I’m sure there are others. I know the colorist at our other location is bi for sure.”
“Because you dated her?” Gloria asked. Andy shifted against the wall. She didn’t want to describe her sex life to a random old lady at the bus stop.
“I’m sorry,” Gloria said. “Was that too much?”
“A little.” Andy was surprised Gloria asked at all. Andy’s mom didn’t ask. Maybe Mom thought there was no need to, not when Andy couldn’t get anyone to stay.
“There’s not much you can do with hairdressing,” Gloria said.
Andy’s cheeks dropped. “What do you mean?”
Gloria bobbled her shoulders, straightened her back. She looked like a lector stepping up to the pulpit, ready to cut free her Damoclean gospel into the crown of Andy’s head. The rain shifted tunes, hammering a marching beat to herald in the Word of Gloria.
“Well, once you become a hairdresser, what else is there to do?” Gloria asked.
“You could manage your own salon.” Andy’s practiced response. She gave it to herself on late nights scrolling through travel sites, when her only company was a deep serving of añejo. She muttered it while winding her fingers into the same patterns of hair and scissors she’d been performing for years now. Her fingers twitched into action at the thought, trained in the motion so well that Andy didn’t have to think much at work. She never really had to in the first place. There was a time when she was okay with that, existing without much thought. It was easier.
“Do you want to?” Gloria asked. Andy must have looked confused because Gloria smiled up at her in an almost maternal way. Grandmotherly, Andy thought. She never had the grandmother experience. They died before Andy was born. She only had summers with Grandpa.
Andy’s grandpa told her he had always wanted to sell mangoes at the flea market, but he was dispatched to a life as a carnecero instead. It was a tradition passed down from Moreno to Moreno. Andy imagined Grandpa like a character in Night at the Museum, a living antique with anachronistic skill. His love for fruit cultivation wasn’t as profitable as meats. Mangoes were left to cart runners on the side of copper grass-lined roads or in the maize-shadowed market. The Mango Man, for all his soft words and promises, lived at a dead-end stop.
Andy watched her tios teach Matt and Manuel how to build a table once. According to them, the sanding was the most important part. If you went along a grain with an unfitting grit, you created a splinter in waiting — a miraged smooth surface only exposed with a lacquer finish. Grandpa’s finish came when the Mango Man died.
Andy pictured herself pressed under the same sticky gloss. Her job — her life was fine. It was easy. But a single splinter had begun to stick out, a repeated record scratch in the back of her mind.
“Do you want to start your own salon?” Gloria asked again.
Andy’s answer resounded from the far corner of her interiority she’d been stuffing with haircuts and hookups and memories of Grandpa.
Andy always thought she got off easy in the — Shit, it’s been five years — she’d been a hairdresser. Styling hair wasn’t mindless. It could be hard to translate what clients said and what they wanted. A disconnection between external and internal desires Andy had to piece through.
It wasn’t mindless, but Andy had started to feel like her grandpa’s old Chavela Vargas vinyl. Midway through the record, the needle skipped into the lyrics, Paloma negra, paloma negra dónde, dónde andarás. Fourteen seconds repeated. Andy used to count them down the way she now counted every twenty-four hours.
When people like Gloria asked her if she was ready for that next step, to get off the predestined route she was on, Andy could hear the answer she wanted to give them in the back of her mind.
“I have an interview,” Andy gulped, maybe to stop herself from voicing it out, “To be a flight attendant. Stewardess.” She wondered if the wording mattered. “Whatever.” The fragments yanked into the air like darts. “It’s Friday.” Andy dug out her phone again. “I don’t think I’ll get it. No experience.” A nervous giggle tapped out her throat. “Fuck. I haven’t even told my mom.”
Because telling Mom would make her application more of a choice and less of a vague action Andy took because she was drunk and bored. Andy knew that was why she didn’t talk to her mom about her hook ups either, asked about them or not. They weren’t real relationships, no future there.
Gloria nodded. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Andy said. Her voice caught up with her ears. That was the first time she’d heard the words out loud, together. She filled out the application on a travel site last night. Andy couldn’t say why she sent it in. She just wanted the record skip to stop.
“Thanks,” she said again. Andy wilted onto the bench next to Gloria. A flash of lightning illuminated through the square tiles of glass behind her. Andy watched the light flicker onto gray concrete like rows of TV screens. Rainfall fizzed like electronic noise in Andy’s ears. She had deflated like this before. A crash of emotional awareness she’d only felt on the flights home from Grandpa’s ranch when she compiled the summer into flashback.
Andy remembered waking to the base beat of knives on wood tables each morning. The air in the state of Veracruz didn’t stick like Houston, it lingered like a first crush. Andy would sneak out of the kids’ room, bare feet over cool concrete floors the color of mourning doves, and play audience for her grandpa’s histories. She and her siblings, in their scattered Spanglish, called them cuentames, the stories of adults’ past lives.
Grandpa only cuentamed when he plucked at the slick, fatty fibrous muscles of beef and cabrito and pork and veal like his fingers were leaving calluses on his memories instead of someone’s next meal. He sprinkled brujeria in scarlet spices, curanderismo greened with leaves of basil and bay. Grandpa would scrape a chair to the counter’s edge and lean Andy over bubbling bone broth to study the magic herself, telling fortunes in the surface fat.
He told Andy about his loves and hates — his passions. Those stories always led to the market, to Grandpa’s mango man.
On Sundays, Andy’s mom would let her skip church so she could follow Grandpa in the market. He took Andy on a meander under kaleidoscope tarps frayed through with sunlight like fire opals. At the end of this canopy was the Mango Man, who knew Andy’s grandpa well enough to always have freshly cut fruits for him.
The Mango Man was exiled to the very end of the furthest stall in the market. Andy remembered each turn and curve on the winding path Grandpa took to him. Grandpa had known the Mango Man his whole life, he said. Maybe longer. Andy didn’t know what that meant, but she thought she could see it in the gentle way the Mango Man passed his fruit to her grandpa. Grandpa held the mangoes close to his nose like he could find fine-tuned marbling amongst the amarillo flesh.
The Mango Man let Andy play around his stall and patted her head, calling her nieta even though they weren’t related by blood. One day Grandpa said they were all related by something bigger than blood. Andy was thirteen then, cringed at the word love that lingered at the sidewalk end of Grandpa’s sentence.
Sometimes, Grandpa and the Mango Man would sit at the back of the stall, silent and hidden from sunlight. Andy wasn’t supposed to say anything about the way they held hands or how Grandpa rested his head on the Mango Man’s shoulder. The other vendors turned away from the Mango Man and Grandpa. Andy watched their polite disapproval linger across the sawdust-colored street. The Mango Man didn’t seem to mind. He always held Grandpa’s hand, firm and open and still. As Andy got older and “I’m” and “Gay” beat stronger in the back of her mind, she understood the quiet of those Sunday mornings. What was between the Mango Man and Grandpa didn’t need to be said. And Andy never needed to explain herself to them. They were and they weren’t, a half existence neither out nor in.
Andy and her grandpa always finished market visits whispering their secrets to hummingbird-kissed clusters of cempasuchil. The petals were the first to hear Andy’s fears, Grandpa the second. He said most people never wanted the life they had. Andy thought that sounded like death. Grandpa disagreed. He said death was to be nothing and they — he, the Mango Man, and Andy in their strangeness — were No Cosas, No-Things.
All the nothings and never-nots voided Grandpa up in the end. Andy hadn’t returned to his ranch since she graduated. The last time she saw him, he was vacant, unoccupied. His eyes were dulled down. He wasn’t cooking. The chair he’d waned into was as good as a grave. He didn’t blink when she offered him a plate of mangoes.
On nights she let herself think of him — usually a bottle of añejo down and two Natalia Lafourcade songs away from watching Frida again — she pictured him in that grave chair. Empty and gray. A little sad.
Her grandpa was a man gone. His body was there, continuing its work without directive. And if his body could carry on like that, Andy used to think she didn’t need dreams or passions. She could just keep rattling along until the void she inherited from Grandpa came to make her a No Cosa, too.
Andy was becoming a woman of muck and mire, sinking down into a perfect preservation. Like Grandpa. Like Gloria.
A bus brake squeal bobbed Andy out of her vignette memory. She still had her phone clutched in her hand, and mimicked Gloria’s quick opening of the Metro app. Andy shuffled up the short stairs of the bus behind Gloria and scanned her phone to pay the fare.
Andy passed Gloria to take a seat at the very back, secured out of view.
Andy didn’t know why she told Gloria about the interview. Maybe it was the way Gloria had looked at her like they shared something in common while complaining about her shitty marriage.
Andy sunk into the weathered stiff fabric of the bus seat and fiddled with her phone until the email lit the screen again. Licking her lips, Andy let herself fall with the storm outside and clicked Confirm. She and Gloria didn’t share anything. Gloria was stuck. Andy wasn’t. She was in the process of unsticking. She was peeling herself up from Grandpa’s grave chair. Andy was coming out.
Sarah Rodriguez is a queer, non-binary Chicanx born and raised in Houston, and living in Austin, Texas. They graduated from the University of Houston, where they earned a BA in English, Creative Writing. She can often be found listening to BTS and playing Pokémon. When not working as the marketing and editing fellow at the University of Texas Press, she writes short fiction with a focus on queer and Latinx narratives.
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