In the aftermath of night, when all the lights are out in all the apartments chewing through the skyline like teeth, you think of the drowned boy. The one who lived next door in 3B, with curly black hair and brown eyes like saucers, face just like his mama’s. He would stomp across the cheap linoleum that was just like yours every morning at 6 AM, his squeals of delight echoing through the thin walls dividing your lives. He would walk in circles around the courtyard pulling a rolling toy dog behind him on a string. When he was an infant, you remember how he would cry all night, how you prayed that this newborn nuisance would go somewhere, anywhere else. Rafael was his name, Rafael who squeaked with laughter all day and cried all night, with a face just like his mama’s. His mama who, with her tanned toned legs and shiny black hair, was the prettiest woman in the housing complex, back before the grief turned her skin yellow.
The boy had brown hair and blue eyes and freckled forearms. You remember him in fragments, at odd times. His t-shirts always smelled of lemons and he had moles dotting his collarbone like small islands. He wore his hair longer than any of your brothers or cousins did, and his mouth was soft. Like a girl’s you thought, the first time you kissed him. You liked this, the softness, unlike any of the boys before, who made sex feel like something mechanical, the gutting of live fish. Now, you think of the color of the sky as you two drove down endless highway, how the summer wind felt on your skin. You think of your legs against his and of his brown hair buried against your neck. You wonder where he is now, when he’ll finally call. Beneath the pressure of the knife, your fish belly bursts.
Rafael was seven when he died. Seven with hands coated in sugar, knees skinned and sticky with dry blood. The kind of boy who you knew would cause trouble, handsome already by the second grade. You weren’t home when it happened. It was a Saturday night, and the community pool was full of children, illuminated like butterflies above the glowing chlorine surface of the water. You didn’t sleep at home that night, or else you would have heard about it. You were with your cousins, maybe; or sleeping over at Marisol’s, or driving through the city; you forget. Rafael’s mama did not like to swim. She was sitting by the pool, and then she wasn’t. Maybe she went to get a Pepsi from the vending machine. Maybe she was running back to the apartment because she had forgotten a towel for Rafael. Maybe she had worked a long shift at the photo department in CVS and was tired. Maybe she just fell asleep.
Maybe Rafael screamed and thrashed when he realized that the water had begun to suffocate him. Maybe he sent water into the faces of some older boys and they ignored him, thought he was just trying to play. Maybe he didn’t make a sound, the water filling his lungs too silent and quick for him to notice. Maybe he never knew that he was going to die.
The pool lifeguards were seventeen, just like you. They always were. Maybe they were on their phones or on their break. Maybe the two who were supposed to be on duty were in love. Maybe they went into the staff locker room to kiss or to do something else. Maybe the pool was so full of color and children and noise that when Rafael went under, nobody noticed. The point is that he went under; that the boy drowned.
The old boy was named Jonah. He came from a small farm in Vermont, was here because he wanted to see the country, he said. He traveled by Greyhound and slept wherever he could. Told you there was a friend he had in Miami, a boy he went to school with. That’s where he was staying. Couchsurfing, he called it. You met him on the beach and saw him again in the morning buying coffee. He was in line before you, said I’ve seen you before, offered to pay for your drink. He told you where he was from and where he was going, asked if you would be willing to show him around Miami. The shy girl in you puffed up her chest and you said sure, whenever you’re free.
He had immaculate hands, calloused in the palms, with soft beds of skin that held you face gently when he kissed you. You drove him around in your father’s rusted Toyota pickup truck, letting the Miami night swallow you two whole. You drove through your neighborhood, slow enough to see the apartment buildings with their dead-grass lawns and rusted bicycles, dogs and children corralled behind fences. The rattling teeth of chain-link fence and tire screech and sirens kept your part of the city from being peaceful. Does this scare you, you asked, meaning the violence, the jarring noise. This happened for a few weeks, night drives through the city followed by you two fucking in the confines of your father’s old truck, breathing in still air from one-inch cracks in the rolled up windows.
One night, both of you still breathing in ragged unison, your sundress back on but your underwear not, he told you it was his last night in Miami. I’m not done yet, he said. He was sitting back with his hands behind his head, belt still unbuckled. You looked at him in astonishment like a kicked dog. Hey, I mean, we both knew I wasn’t gonna stay here forever. I’ll come back for you, he offered, seeing your wounded look and softening.
You dropped him off at his friends’ house. He kissed you goodbye, on the mouth. You haven’t heard from him since.
The drowned boy’s mama could never keep a man. Your mother tutted her for this, shook her head as you walked past the door of her apartment. Some nights, you could hear her in a fight with whatever man currently inhabited her life. Before Rafael drowned and her face turned its sick, waxy yellow, she was the prettiest woman in your building. You remember her church outfits on Sundays, white suits and lavender blouses and high heels, a light pink lipstick. Her dark hair pulled back in a sleek bun, her face still full, all plump cheeks, no grief. Your mother never mentioned this side of her. She only saw the midnight side of Rafael’s mama, the woman weeping in a nightgown behind thin apartment walls, cowering under the voice of every different man she thought she loved. Rafael’s mama who you sometimes saw smoking on her balcony in the mornings, feet away from you, so close you could see the dark circles and dried tearstreaks staining her face. She was impulsive, fast-talking, shouting or laughing or snapping her cinnamon gum loud enough for you to hear from your apartment. Her boyfriends all called her crazy but you know this wasn’t true. She just let her sadness burst holes through her and leak across the floor of her life.
You went to Rafael’s funeral right from the doctor’s office. The procedure had been successful, standard. The waiting room was full of other girls, some your age, some older, and a secretary with thickly outlined lips and inch-long acrylics that click-clacked against the keyboard of her computer. The doctor was a middle-aged man with a kind, worn-out face and the room was white-walled, faintly bleach-scented. It only hurt a little. You remained silent, indifferent, thanking him meekly when you left. Outside Planned Parenthood, you ignored the Christian mothers and fathers with their picket signs and spit that landed on your shoes.
The funeral was held in the local church and lasted three long hours. The ceiling fans above your head whirled stale air around the crowded room. You sat in the back row, chair against the wall, a dull ache between your legs like the doctor said there would be. Framed baby pictures of Rafael were passed through the crowd, photos of him riding a bike, playing with a kitten, even swimming, which he had always loved, a cruel punchline to all of this.
You didn’t have any pictures of Jonah. You thought of him then, in a flash, and his hair curled around his face in your head, but the memory of his features blurred. It wasn’t until a month after he was gone that you woke up bloated, moon-faced and needing to vomit. He never knew. You figure it’s better that way. You paid for it yourself. You weren’t sorry. You still sometimes imagine the child that wasn’t and your brain gives him a face like Rafael’s before you can even help it. A bleating laugh. Big, shiny eyes.
On the altar, Rafael’s mama wept drowned boy and the whole church heard. She was collapsed in her chair like a wounded cat, yowling, and something in you bruised, your body aching with grief and the soreness. I understand you. You looked at her hard across the length of the crowded room.
My favorite souvenir is a set of four bracelets I got at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts last summer. They're glass beads dipped in translucent paint and I bought them during the first trip I took to visit my girlfriend.
Greta Wilensky’s work has been published in the Best Teen Writing of 2015 anthology, and will appear in the forthcoming Winter Tangerine Summer Anthology. She is a 2015 YoungArts winner for short story, and was named runner up for prose in the 2015 Winter Tangerine Review prizes. She currently lives in Lowell, Massachusetts.