by Madari Pendas
Ofelia doesn’t tell Alejo that she has access to his internet history. Why would she? It’s the only way she can find out what’s really going on with her seventeen-year-old son. Last month, he looked up “Are my moles regular or cancerous” and “NYC housing” and “How to find an agent?” And the month prior to that he Googled “Panic attack or heart attack???”
She enjoys having insight into her son’s life, seeing his personality through his searches, what phases he is going through, and learning what he fears. Ofelia believes people are most themselves when they think no one’s watching.
It’s why she’s always loved that John Quinones show, What Would You Do? Ofelia wept during the episode where they filmed how restaurant goers reacted when no one showed up to a six-year old’s birthday. It’s false–and a little manipulative–but shows the truth about people. Some didn’t stop eating. One guy laughed. But many walked over and sat with the boy, singing to him as his cake was brought out. Another episode that left Ofelia cold was a son coming out to his parents at a Denny's. When the parents reacted poorly, almost all the other diners defended the boy.
A year ago, Alejo had been searching “How to come out?”
It wasn't a surprise for Ofelia. Eso se cae de la mata. She’s known this fact since he was five years old and demanded to be taken with Ofelia to the nail salon. With his thick legs dangling over the edge of the seat, he’d flip through Cosmo and Ms. Magazine. For his ninth birthday, he asked for a wig to imitate Celia Cruz. To be cute, instead of shouting "Azucar!" Celia’s catch phrase, he’d yell, “Sal!” It eventually became his motto to convey all manner of displeasure.
Ofelia had looked up “How to support son during coming out?”
All the sites and forums said to let him tell her when he’s ready, to do it on his timeline, and not to interrupt. On a forum for mothers of teenagers, one user (BigMomma787) wrote, “This is the most important moment in their life!!! So be niiiice. It’s not about you. >.<”
Of course, Ofelia would be nice. Whatever that meant. She knew she wouldn’t scream at Alejo or kick him out of her house. She’d be understanding, kind, the model of empathy.
After having perused the forums for a while, she got the sense that most of the mothers on there were Gringas. They were huffy, arrogant, quick to condemn, and quicker to cry when called out. Ofelia stopped visiting the site after a woman complained that her son was developing an accent due to their Dominican nanny. Sal!
* * *
Ofelia packs two suitcases for her trip to Havana. Her plane leaves in three hours. Her sister is throwing a small quinces party in El Vedado in a palader that’s usually reserved for tourists, but due to some broken pipes and asbestos has been closed to the general public.
“Mami,” Alejo says, knocking on the door frame of her room.
“Mhm,” Ofelia says without turning. She can’t get the zipper to shut. She uses every trip to the island to bring her family things they’re missing. Last year she was heralded as a queen for bringing them an air fryer.
She takes out the Black & Decker toaster oven and tries again. She rearranges the contents of the luggage, taking out some clothing, but the toaster is still too large and makes a lump on the surface. She tries again.
“¿Dónde pongo esto?” She holds up the toaster. “¿En mi culo?”
Alejo walks and sits across the suitcase, at the end of her bed, near the San Lazaro shrine. He holds the top flap open, sliding the zipper side to side, while she searches for a spot for the toaster. “Can we talk?”
“Yes,” Ofelia says. “Humans can talk. Parrots can talk, too. Your cousin, Lazaro, told me once his dog talks to him.”
Alejo rolls his eyes. “Wow, you should be on the Tonight Show.”
“They can’t afford me.”
After taking out a week’s worth of panties, Ofelia is able to fit the toaster. “¡Eso!” But now she wonders if she can go a week with one pair of underwear. She’ll wear several pairs on the plane, she figures. Or put some knotted up pairs in her jean pockets. She stifles a laugh when she imagines herself using one as a scrunchy.
“Mami, I’m serious. Can we have a grown-up conversation?”
Ofelia resists the urge to say that we’d need two grownups for that, chamaco. He’s sensitive and a bit humorless like his father. Everything is serious or grave or urgent. “Okay, talk. You have my ear–only one, the other needs a tune up.” She can’t help herself.
He takes out notecards from his back pocket and clears his throat. He’s going to do it, Ofelia thinks. He's going to come out. She checks her watch. She has time. In three hours, they could do a lot. She doesn’t want to rush him or blurt out I’ve always known, papo.
Alejo swallows. “Sorry, give me a second.”
“Okay. One, two–”
“Can you be serious? God!”
Ofelia has told him that having a sense of humor helped her survive her life in Cuba. Telling jokes was the only way to endure. A mal tiempo buena cara. But Alejo doesn’t care.
“I’m here, listening,” Ofelia says. “Sorry.”
“You are forgiven.” He looks over his cards, shuffling between two.
She wonders if he’s scared. Does he think she’ll hit him? Threaten to kick him out? Maybe one can never really know. Someone can be kind until they’re not. She wishes he could sense how much she adores him and wants to support him. If he saw her internet history, he’d see: “How to pay for NYU” and “remortgaging house?” and “Can Florida prepaid be transferred?”
He swallows. “I’m going to get a glass of water.” He strides out of the room, then down the hall.
“Mijo! You remember I have a flight, right?”
She hears the fridge door open and close–probably not closed all the way. Sal! Then hears his chancletas slapping against the bottom of his feet as he returns.
Alejo returns with a Crush soda and plantain chips. He settles back into his spot. The luggage separates them on the bed. “Okay, one moment.”
She loves how formal he is. Every time he answers the phone he says, “Good morning” or “Good evening.” If Ofelia had co-workers, she’d tell them about her little professor son. When she’s cleaning someone’s house, she sometimes talks to the cats, if the owners have any. “What are your kids like?” she asks the tabby that lives in the two-story Tudor in the Gables. “Mine takes me for granted too. Not feline good.”
Alejo re-orders his cards and clears his throat. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you–”
Ofelia’s phone rings.
She holds up a finger to Alejo. “It’s your titi ‘spera.”
She walks out of the room, closing the door behind her, and into the hallway. On the hallway wall are pictures of Alejo taken at Sears when he was three years-old. He was all head at the age, like Bobble. In one photo he’s a little sailor and in the other squished between pumpkins and hay.
“Hello?” Ofelia says.
“Oye, I’m calling to make sure you’re at the airport.”
“I have three hours.”
“Ofelia, look at the flight number and time again. Vez. Por esto te tengo que llamar. It’s always the same with you.”
“One second.” She sounds like Alejo, then goes to her purse in the living room and digs for the boarding pass she printed yesterday. “¡Me cago en diez! Okay heading there now. Bye.”
She doesn't give Nivea a chance to gloat or criticize. There’ll be plenty of that when she lands in Havana.
Ofelia rushes into the room.
Alejo’s re-reading one of his cue cards. He looks like he’s going to give a big presentation about Mitochondria and how it's the powerhouse of the cell. There's a vulnerable cuteness to his posture, his back bent over the cards like he's cowering.
“I have to go.” She lifts the suitcase off her bed.
“You got the times wrong again?”
Is this a thing? Does her family talk about how forgetful she is behind her back? Ofelia thinks it must be true, but if it is she'll probably forget this realization. Maybe she already has.
She hurries to the front door and pulls out her phone. She checks the Lyft rates. Ofelia has a soft spot for second place. It’s why she prefers Burger King over McDonalds and Hulu over Netflix. When you're in second place you have to try harder, really win people over.
“Mami.” Alejo follows her to the front door. “I wasn’t done. You’re really going to leave in the middle?”
“I…have to get to the airport.”
He’s worked up so much courage. If she leaves now, will he tell future therapists and partners about this? My mom was so homophobic she just left in the middle of my coming out. Like, she didn’t even want to hear it. What a hag!
She checks the arrival time on the app. She turns to him, “What?”
“It’s fine. We can talk when you come back.”
She wonders if he’s told his father. They’ve gotten closer these last four years. Juan is more involved now than when Alejo was a baby. It’s easier now. The boy has already been raised. Sometimes she catches them talking on the phone at night. But what about? Ofelia ponders what her son could have to say to him that he couldn’t say to her.
She looks at her phone then back at Alejo. “Want to come with me to the airport?”
* * *
She expects the Lyft driver to be silent and give her and her son some privacy, but the man talks about Venezuela, his family in Caracas, and what’s happening with Juan Guaidó.
“You can whisper,” she says to Alejo. “I can also read lips–that’s how I learned your papi’s social security number.”
He doesn’t laugh or smile. “I don’t know why I even came. This is so dumb.”
“What if you just show me the cards?”
He rubs his chin and pulls on the few scraggly hairs that are growing. “No.”
If she tells him she knows, she might give away the fact that she has access to his internet history. He may never trust her again. He leaves in a year for college, and she doesn’t want him to feel like he’s fleeing. It should be a mournful departure, not an escape.
“Whatever it is, you know I’ll love and support you,” she whispers, grabbing his hand. “Always.”
He nods and doesn’t push her hand away or recoil. A good sign, Ofelia thinks, very good. Then she wonders if and how he came out to Juan. Was it casual and easy, revealed over wings at Flanigan’s? Did he just say it like a Shakespearean aside? In some part of her heart, she believes Alejo loves his father more than her. She thinks this is a universal truth for all boys.
They pass signs for Miami International Airport. Ofelia will be there in ten minutes. She wants to know what he has to say, otherwise she’ll spend the rest of her trip wondering what will be waiting for her when she comes home.
The driver stops talking and focuses on merging into the departures side.
“You know,” Ofelia begins. “There are certain things a mother knows…” Ofelia fingers the pink rosary under her blouse. She feels she sounds vague, cliche, like she’s repeating the tagline to some daytime soap opera. Una madre siempre sabe. ¡Los domingos en Univision!
“What do you know?” Alejo asks. A dimple forms in his forehead as he looks at her.
“I’m only saying–señor, we’re flying Delta. We have to go to that door. What was I saying?”
Alejo moves his hand away.
“I think I know what’s on that card,” Ofelia admits. She’s trying to make it easy for him, less scary. She wants him to know she’s loved him all this time, knowing who he is and that nothing will change. “Mijo, I know.”
Alejo presses the cue cards into his chest. “…Know what exactly?”
It’s hard. She’s coming out for him. Ofelia feels a heat on the back of her neck and on her forearms. She takes a breath. “I know you’re gay, Alejo.”
“Who’s gay?” the Lyft driver asks.
“Pablo Alborán,” Alejo replies.
The driver sucks his teeth. “Claro. All he sang were love songs. Pssh."
Ofelia tries to touch Alejo again, but he scoots away. “Please say something. This doesn’t have to be hard.”
“What’s hard?” the Lyft driver asks.
“Parallel parking,” Alejo says.
“No, that’s not that hard,” the driver replies. “It’s super easy. I do it like every day.”
Ofelia is thinking about booking a later flight. She doesn’t want to end the conversation like this. She wants to understand why her son is so upset with her–she can feel his anger radiating towards her from the other side of the car. For a moment, Ofelia wishes she could hop on to the mommy forum and ask what to do at this goddamn moment.
The Lyft driver parks, and Ofelia opens her door. “Come on.”
Alejo shuffles out, not helping with the two bags.
The Lyft driver closes his trunk and smiles, revealing a gold molar. “I give you five stars, you give me five stars, okay? Okay!”
Ofelia knows she needs to check her bags, go through security, and take the skytrain to her gate. Is it too late?
“Alejo, say something.”
He shakes his head. When he looks up, Ofelia sees his eyes watering. What would BigMomma787 tell her to do? Be niiiiice?
“That wasn’t it,” he whispers as if they’re still in the Lyft. “Here.” He passes her the notecards. She reads quickly, not waiting for the voice in her head to pronounce the words. Alejo is not coming out of the closet. He's written that he will not be going to college next fall.
“Are you serious, Alejo Alejandro?”
“You can’t!” Ofelia says.
She folds the cards.
She wishes she could destroy them, throw them in the air dramatically, but that’d be littering. She’d feel like a fool picking up tiny scraps of paper. Even if she did, they'd still exist. Alejo's words would still exist.
“You said you’d support me,” Alejo pleads. “You said that.”
"That was before I knew this." Ofelia checks her watch.
Alejo stands with his arms akimbo, watching as she struggles to carry the luggage from the curb. "Aren't parents supposed to love their kids unconditionally?" he asks.
"Okay, start killing people and see how much I support you. There are limits to a mother's love."
"I'm not killing people! What's wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with you?" Ofelia says.
She wonders if he told his father this.
Did Alejo test the waters with the easy-say-yes-to-everything-parent? Or did Juan coach Alejo on how to talk to Ofelia? That man probably told Alejo to approach Ofelia while she was in a hurry. What does that man care if Alejo goes to college or not? It’s easy to be supportive when all you care about is being perceived as “cool” and "Mr. Fun."
"Mami, say something."
“You have to go to college. That’s it.”
Ofelia stacks her duffel on the rolling suitcase and grabs the handle. She rolls towards the double doors.
Alejo follows behind. “It doesn’t make sense. Everything I need to know is online.”
“So you want to go to Google University?” Ofelia marches in and scans the area to orient herself.
“Degrees aren’t what they used to be.”
"What do you know? You haven't gotten one, Alejo."
"Neither do you."
She pretends that comment doesn't hurt her. She keeps her face neutral. She knows she's not dumb. Ofelia wishes she could say, based on your searches education would do you some good, but she can’t. Instead, she looks around the airport to check her bags. The AC is turned low, and she feels her sweat drying on her back and neck.
Ofelia sees where she needs to go.
She moves quickly towards the line–she still has forty-one minutes before boarding. She can do it. The airport's not too busy. And she's not afraid to cut people in line.
Alejo continues following her.
“Mami! It doesn’t make sense to go to school for acting, when I can just, you know act. Lots of people have done it. It would be real world experience. It’d be a waste of time to sit in a classroom for four years, when I can be out there, auditioning, working with directors, and learning about the business.”
“And if it doesn’t work, what’ll you fall back on?”
“Oh my god! You can’t think like that!”
“Well, one of us has to think!”
“I can manifest my future.”
Ofelia turns to him. “I shouldn’t have let you watch The Secret.”
He is definitely his father's son, she thinks. That man would argue a wrong point for hours—and when he did learn the truth, he'd argue that Ofelia didn't do enough to educate him. Sal!
They reach the Delta bag check area. The line moves quickly. There are only two people in front of Ofelia. A couple. They'll be processed together. It'll be fast.
"Mami! Are you listening?"
"That's the problem. I'm listening."
She felt more prepared for Alejo to come out then this. She can’t support this. Do parents have to support every dumbass decision their kids make? All the forums focused on support and encouragement, but what about correction? What about when you know your kid is wrong? What if your son, who you love more than life itself, is a dummy?
“Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t go to college,” Alejo says.
“When you’re rich, college doesn’t matter, mijo. Nothing matters if you have plata. For people like us, college opens doors. For what's-his-name, doors are already opened. Can’t you see the difference? It's easy to be fool with money.”
Alejo huffs. “How do you know he’s rich?”
“I’m guessing, but I’m probably right. People like us, pobretones, can’t just live off whatever acting job comes by. You need money to be a bohemian. Go on Google U and check.”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions.” He clicks and taps on his phone for a few seconds. He reads and then sighs. “Whatever.”
The line moves forward.
Alejo is still looking at his phone.
Ofelia thinks he’s throwing away his future, opportunities, and respectability. She gave up college to come to the U.S. at nineteen. She had dreamt of being a linguist–she hoped to one day study tenseless languages like Yucatec. Ofelia loved language, its etymologies and changes and corruptions. She wanted to learn how one could talk about the past and future without tenses. Was their relationship with time different? Was it just one continuous present? Or an extended past? Had she studied and worked for the military as an interpreter and writer—one of the few jobs available in her field— she wouldn’t have been allowed to leave Cuba. she would have been part of the professional class, too “valuable” to be allowed out.
Her hope is for Alejo to be somebody–to never have to make do or pinch pennies or depend on the charity of others.
“Gyllenhaal's parents weren’t even that rich. They only had like two houses.”
Ofelia turns. “What about NYU? That's such a good school.”
“Defer? Defer?” She says the word so many times, Ofelia feels like she's saying da fur? “Miggy, you have the chance to make money, to have a title, stability. You can teach acting–oh at a college, and go to auditions, too. You can do local theater. Teachers in Florida get a good pension.”
“I don’t want to be a teacher. That’s lame.”
“How is that lame?”
He bites his lip. His father used to make a similar expression when he had been caught bullshitting.
“Mami, it’s my future. My future.”
Why didn’t his search show he was thinking about not going to college? Did he know she was spying? Or did he look it up on his high school’s computers during his free period? Or did he not want the Internet’s advice? Maybe testimonials or blogs would have given him cold feet. Maybe he was avoiding any information that could have taken the wind out of his sails. He probably would have found his own forum of struggling actors.
“Acting makes me happy. It’s my passion!”
“Alejo, I make $23,000 a year. Do you think that’s a lot? Shut up. Don’t answer. It sounds like a lot to you because you don’t know anything, but–it’s not. You have…you can be more. You were born here. You can–”
“Ma’am!” a stern voice calls from the counter.
She looks at Alejo. “Think about what I just said. Don't just think about a different way to make your point.”
He rolls his eyes.
Ofelia sighs and goes to the front desk counter.
"You're cutting it close," the clerk says apathetically the way one observes a storm on the horizon.
"I'll make it."
She checks her two bags and wonders what Alejo’s father told him. As the bags are loaded on the revolving belt, she thinks she can hear his voice, his critics, and the unearned confidence with which he spoke.
Did he say it was okay to not go to college? That he didn’t need it? Or did he go on one of his FOX news inspired rants about how feminized college campuses have become?
The man seemed intent on opposing whatever Ofelia believed. He would have said the sky was orange just to disagree with her.
Maybe he knew how much it'd hurt her if Alejo didn't go to college. Perhaps he had drafted his arguments to place a permanent anxiety within her. More worry than she already lived with. A new type of concern. He'd know she'd never sleep well again wonder if Alejo has enough money to eat three times a day or if some producer is trying to follow him up to his room.
“Have a good flight!” the young woman from the counter says.
Ofelia laughs. “I’ll try.”
Ofelia and Alejo silently walk together to TSA. Her Reebok sneakers squeak on the waxed floors as they shuffle down the long corridor, past the Auntie Anne’s counter with the sweet cinnamon scent that makes Ofelia's stomach grumble and curse her diet that has her eating like a hamster.
After passing the third currency exchange kiosk, Ofelia stops. Then Alejo stops as well.
“Is this why you’re having panic attacks?” Ofelia asks. Suddenly it makes sense. The roped-off entrance to the security checkpoint is six feet feet away. A security guard leans on a stanchion, checking people’s IDs and boarding passes. She's close enough to smell the guard's Old Spice cologne.
Then she regrets asking the questions. Alejo's nostrils flare and he tilts his head to the side like a detective who's finally figured out who-dunnit.
"Never mind," Ofelia says, pointing at the TSA entrance. "You can WhatsApp me later."
Alejo sucks his lips inward, jutting his chin. “How do you know I’ve been having panic attacks? I didn’t say anything…” He pauses, as if working the problem out in his head. “I never mentioned panic attacks to you. I’m like one-hundred percent certain.”
“I really have to go.”
She’s revealed too much. Ofelia grabs her boarding pass and turns. She shouldn’t have said anything. Sal!
In that moment, she forgot what she was supposed to know and not know. Everything happened so quickly, and the realization came over her body like a seizure, an impulse, a knee jerking towards the sky after being hit with a mallet. She didn't mean to say it aloud.
"Don't walk away," Alejo demands. "Don't leave."
Ofelia stops. She makes eye contact with the check-point man, then turns to her son. "I already checked my bags."
"Oh okay," he says sardonically. "Can't lose a bag."
Ofelia thinks she can play it off as a joke or say his father mentioned something about it to her. But Alejo knows they don’t talk. She doesn’t even greet him when he comes by the house to pick Alejo up for his weekend visitations.
“Alejo, I’m in a hurry. You could have come with me.”
“I didn’t tell anyone about…how did you know? Did you go through my stuff?”
“I–of course not–Alejo…”
“Tell the truth!”
“I…I mentioned it because you looked like you were–you looked like you were going to have one at the counter.”
“What?” Alejo looks at the floor. “No, but that’s not how you said it. You said I’d been having panic attacks.”
He’s right. She had used the perfect progressive tense.
“Alejo, let's talk about this when I get back. It'll only be a week.”
Ofelia remembers a controversial thread on the mommy forum about spying on your children and going through their things. Some said it was a gross invasion of privacy, others said it was necessary with moody, taciturn teenagers.
One woman had said if Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold’s mothers had spied, maybe Columbine wouldn’t have happened. The thread was shut down and deleted a few minutes after that comment. It couldn’t be found in the site’s archives either. It was gone.
Alejo grabs Ofelia’s hand. “Are you just going to keep lying to me?”
She could. She could say she misspoke. Or deny, deny, deny. But the anxiety is keeping her from forming clear thoughts. Her mind feels like an overpacked suitcase. The truth is easier. It’s simple. It doesn’t need preparation or massaging. It’s always there, ready to come out.
“Sometimes,” Ofelia starts, her voice cracking, “sometimes, you don’t tell me anything. I have to go on Facebook to see what’s going on with you or ask one of your friend’s moms. You never tell me anything.”
Alejo shakes his head and releases her hand. “So the truth finally comes out.”
He would be a good actor, Ofelia thinks. He’s always had a flair for dramatics. He used to fake faint in the kitchen when Ofelia read through his disappointing middle school report card. I’m being persecuted, he’d say, my enemies are numerous.
So the truth comes out, she repeats in her head. The phrase sounds over-rehearsed, copied from elsewhere, unnatural to the moment and time. Maybe that’s the type of acting he likes, melodramatic and with that strange Transatlantic accent.
“When you have kids of your own–”
“No one tells everyone everything,” Alejo says, one hand on his hip. “Do you tell me everything?”
Ofelia furrows her eyebrows. She's tried to train herself out of that expression to avoid wrinkles—more wrinkles. “Well, no, pero–”
“There are lots of things you don’t tell me, and I don’t pry or snoop. Why can’t you treat me like you would anyone else?”
A woman over the PA system announces the boarding call for Flight 102 with nonstop service to Havana. It’s too late. There isn’t time to go through TSA, walk to the sky-train, and make it to the gate. She has to get her bags back or onto another plane. Sal!
"You don't respect me," Alejo says, shifting his weight to the other foot. "You don't. Dad's right."
“It’s different. It just is.”
“Right I forgot, I'm an alien,” Alejo says. “Great talk, Mami. They should invite you on podcasts.”
Her skin is hot, and her mouth has a metallic taste. Everything is going wrong.
He’s always been good at cutting right through her, knowing what would hurt her. Every child knows how to piss off their mother.
Ofelia wonders if she can change her ticket or get a refund. Sometimes she feels out of place going back home, like she’s not from there anymore. Her cousins say her accent has changed or they laugh at her when Ofelia complains about the heat; they look at her like they look at the tourists. Ofelia could just send money–probably more appreciated than her company.
She looks at Alejo. His face is red, and his gaze is low. Is he going to cry? He’ll run off to his ugly-ass daddy and vent about her. His father will stoke that hate. She can’t leave things like this between them.
She motions for him to follow her as she searches for the Delta customer service counter. Moving distracts her from the knots in her stomach. “What do you want to know about me?”
"I don't want to play your dumb game," Alejo says. His shadow falls over Ofelia. He's keeping close.
"This'll be your only chance."
Alejo hums while he thinks, then asks, “Why’d you leave my dad?”
“Okay, why don’t you talk with Tia Anaivis?”
“When did you lose your virginity?”
He smirks. “Fine, uh, why do you always kiss food that falls on the floor before throwing it out?”
Ofelia smirks. This one she can answer. She went hungry plenty of years in Cuba, especially during the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, El Período Especial. So much food is tossed, half-eaten, or unwanted because of a few brown spots. She’d rather eat until stuffed than scrape a good meal into the trash. Or cut around the mold rather than let it go into the bin. She likes making the bread look like a jigsaw puzzle.
“Okay,” Alejo says. “Whatever.”
They wait in line together. There are three people in front of them. Ofelia doesn’t want to leave things like this. She doesn't know how to change his mind or even give him some hesitation. It’s a mistake. It’ll cost him the good future he deserves. The good future she deserves.
“Amor,” Ofelia starts, “you can’t do this. Take it from a vieja, you have to think ahead. A degree can set you up–”
Alejo sighs. “My dad said it was okay.”
Ofelia tries to stay calm, but her heart’s racing and a headache radiates behind her eyes. He’s trying to provoke her. Pit them against each other like he used to on Christmas and Día de los Reyes Magos.
“A degree can open doors–”
“He said I was being an independent thinker.”
“Mhm.” Ofelia cracks her fingers, pushing on each bent digit with her thumb. The fingers look like knights kneeling before their king. She stops herself from insulting his father. “I understand what he means, but–”
“He said he was proud of me for making such a mature choice.”
“Your father wishes he had gone to college. You think he wants to spend his day underneath cars?”
Alejo sucks his teeth. “You’re not smart, Mami. You just don’t get it. You’re just repeating the dominant narrative.”
She knows she's not dumb, but Alejo's confident lilt makes her doubt herself. Maybe, she thinks, she is stupid. “The dominant qué?”
"The voice of the culture or society," Alejo explains.
Ofelia’s woozy. She hasn’t eaten all day and she can sense a mareo coming on. Her blood pressure's dropping and she just wants to get on that plane, but it's too late for that now. She'll settle for him agreeing to do a campus visit. She steadies herself on the stanchion.
“Don’t be so dramatic, Mami.”
“Get me a water, please.”
He jogs towards a vending machine near the currency exchange. Even if she says no, he’ll probably still do whatever he wants. Maybe he’ll lie to her, send her stock photos of football games and dorm room parties, and make up a course schedule. She’s seen how good he is with Photoshop. He could make a fake degree to try to fool her.
Maybe he has to fail to see her point of view.
Alejo returns with an Evian bottle and hands it to her. She takes several sips, crunching the plastic in her hand.
“That was a dollar fifty, by the way.”
“You know with a college education you could have money for lots of water bottles.”
Alejo rolls his eyes. “Hilarious.”
Ofelia sighs. Maybe failure will be the only thing that he responds to. “If it doesn’t work out–the acting thing– then will you go to school?”
“Promise me, Alejo.”
“Yes, I’ll go to school if it doesn’t work, but it will.”
“Three years, then school.”
“Four. Maybe six.”
“I cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Alejo’s giddy and shakes his fists with enthusiasm.
“Okay.” Ofelia grinds her molars. Some failure, she thinks, will do the boy good. He’ll learn how hard things are without a title or credentials. He’ll see the world for what it is and how it treats people who aren’t seen as capable or competent.
“No more spying,” Alejo says, “It was just my computer right?”
“I promise, baby. It was only on your laptop.”
If he ever becomes famous, will he tell this story in interviews? Will he laugh with Diane Sawyer–or whatever peppy blonde replaces her–and thank only his father for believing in him? He supported my dream from the jump. My mother, on the other hand, took some convincing, Diane! Or will he blame her for giving him such a strict timeline? I almost ended up in a nine-to-five like every other putz!
“Just on my laptop?”
Ofelia smiles. “Of course. I’m not tech savvy enough for anything else.”
“That tracks,” he says, “I’m going to order an Uber. Have a good trip. Say hi to Titi for me.”
Ofelia nods and kisses his plump cheek, pressing her lips into his beauty mark. “Bye, papo.”
She wants to call his name, ask him whether he’s gay or if he’ll come out some other time. She opens her mouth, then closes it.
Ofelia readjusts, moving her legs to avoid blood cloths. Maybe not everyone has to come out, she thinks. When a truth is obvious, perhaps, it doesn’t need declaration. Instead, it can be a series of recognitions. It puts the work on the other person, to pay attention, listen.
* * *
Ofelia has to wait around the airport for her bags to be taken off the original plane and be brought out. She is on stand-by for the evening flight, the last one, to José Martí Airport. Alejo left after their talk at the counter. He didn't want to waste the rest of his day waiting around MIA.
On her phone, she pulls up the spying software. She can deactivate it remotely, learn to trust him, but what if something awful happens to him later?
Ofelia read all the #MeToo stories as they came out in 2017, horrified by the things actors were coerced into doing for art–not even for art’s sake, for a mere chance at making art.
What if it happens to Alejo?
What if someone takes advantage of his enthusiasm and naivety?
Would he tell her?
He probably wouldn't. Ofelia leans in her seat, smelling the diesel fuel in the air. Out of shame or guilt, he'd hide something like that. She can't delete the spyware. It's her only tether to his life, to his truths. If she knows what's going on with him, she can help him, give him what he needs. He'll understand some day.
She opens the spyware app on her phone and sees Alejo typing to his father. She watches the text bubbles. The three dots rise and fall. Rise and fall, like a child’s steady breathing in the night. A message from his father comes in:
How’d she take it?
She waits for Alejo's reply. The text bubbles appear then disappear. Is he unsure of how to answer?
What will he say?
What truth will come out now that he thinks she's not watching?
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer and visual artist. She received her MFA from Florida International University, where she was a Lawrence Sanders Fellow. Her work has appeared inCraft, The Masters Review, PANK Magazine, and more. She is the author of Crossing the Hyphen (Tolsun 2022).