Dancers

I don’t cry. Mr. Richards says I am very brave. He reminds me of the robot toy I used to have, because his face doesn’t move, and he keeps saying the same things: I have to be strong, and Papa would want me to keep going, and God has a plan, and I’m gonna be a man some day. But when he looks at me, I feel important. He was one of Papa’s “drinking buddies” and always looked me in the eye, even back then. I do my best to be brave. We walk up to Amancio’s apartment together and he helps carry my boxes. As Amancio puts away the boxes, he bends down to shake my hand.

“You watch out for yourself, young man,” he whispers. “God knows, your brother certainly won’t.”

Amancio didn’t cry either, at the funeral. And I know he cries a lot. He cried all the time when he still lived at home. After the funeral, people didn’t call him brave. They said he was heartless. They looked at me and shook their heads and said, “Poor child, to have to live with that man. This isn’t right.”

I hold up my chin like Papa taught me and tell Mr. Richards I can take care of myself. He nods at me and leaves.

“Rico, come in,” Amancio says.

Amancio is very tall, like Papa, and he cuts his hair short, like Papa did, and his face is just like Papa’s. But he talks different and moves different. He doesn’t grab my shoulders and say things by my ear. He doesn’t touch me at all. He looks at me from three feet away, and he smiles a little crooked, like he learned how to do it all wrong.

“It’s good to see you again. How are you?”

“I’m okay.” I look around. “Where’s my room?”

He shows me to my new room, which is smaller than my old room and still filled with Amancio’s things. “I’m gonna get another bed soon,” he says. “But for now you can sleep in mine, and I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“Where am I gonna put all my stuff?” I ask.

“It’ll be fine. There’s lots of space.”

“But your stuff is all still here!” I point at the books and paints and miniature ballerinas everywhere. “I’m not gonna clean up your stuff!”

He looks at me for a second. “Fine, okay. I’ll clean up.”

He shows me the rest of the apartment, which has even more books and paints, CDs and pillows, weird posters and ballerina statues. In front of the TV there’s a little blue sofa and a big brown couch. We sit on the couch. It makes a farting noise.

“How do you feel?” he asks. “About all this?”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m tired. I don’t feel like talking.”

I turn on the TV, and Amancio sits with me a little longer and then pours me grape juice from the kitchen. I hate grape juice.

We unpack my things. Amancio moves his stuff out of the room, and I spread my favorite things over every surface I can see. But it still doesn’t feel like my room. It smells different. The blankets are too soft. My special birdhouse window is on the wrong side of the room, and the birdhouse is gone. Someone must have taken it during the move. I have a bad dream that first night. The world is upside down in my head. Everyone is talking backwards. When I wake up, I get out of bed and go to the living room. Amancio is sleeping on the big brown couch. When he isn’t moving or talking, he looks almost like Papa. But his hair isn’t gray, and the lines on his face are in the wrong places. Papa had laugh lines. I don’t know what these lines are.

I lift the blanket and crawl onto the couch. Amancio groans, but moves to make room. It’s a big couch, and I won’t fall off if I lie on top of Amancio. He is very warm.

“What is it, chico?” he sighs.

“I don’t like my room.”

He wraps an arm around me very gently. I think maybe this should feel wrong, because Papa was never gentle, but it feels okay. “I’m sorry. I know you miss your old house.”

“It was bigger.”

“Mmhm.”

“I want to go home.”

He kisses my hair. I close my eyes. “I know, chico.” His breath puffs my hair. “I know, I know.”

I fall asleep to the sound of his breathing. We both wake up late, with cramps everywhere, and I have to run to school with breakfast in my hand. That night, Amancio makes mushy, watery things for dinner. I tell him I miss Papa’s carne frita, and he promises to take me out for dinner on the weekend. I remember that I don’t like Amancio. I go back to my room to sleep, and this time, I don’t dream anything.

Other than the funeral, the last time I saw Amancio was four years ago, when he left home. He was crying again. Papa told me to go to bed, but I snuck back out and watched him and Amancio scream at each other. Papa’s face was all red, and he kept raising his hands, like he was going to slap Amancio. But he didn’t. Finally he yelled, Get out! Get out of my house! and my brother ran outside with a suitcase and never came back.

I don’t really know why. I was six. I asked Papa, but he just told me Amancio had it coming, and he was a dirty maricon, and I shouldn’t think about him anymore. I still don’t know what he meant. I guess Amancio did something really awful, or maybe Papa got sick of a son who was always crying and fighting and smoking with strange people. I don’t remember. All I know is, I’ve never been more scared in my life than watching Papa yell.

This new Amancio never cries, or fights, or smokes. He works a lot. He works every day except Sunday. He goes to a studio nearby and he studies art on a scholarship, and he specializes in drawing dancers. On the weekdays he sees me off to school, and then after school I play with friends or do homework. If I’m back home before the sun goes down, he never asks me where I’ve been. I tell this to my friends. Josh says I’m lucky Amancio doesn’t care, because I get to do whatever I want. I stay out with my friends more. On Thursday I go to Ian’s place. I know that Amancio’s apartment is farther from school than my old home, but today for some reason I forget. I try to walk home and get lost. I find Ian’s place again after an hour. His mom has to drive me home.

In the car, Ian’s mom says I can sleep over at their place any time I want. “The people from church are all worried about you,” she says.

I tell her thank you, and yes, I’ll talk to Ian when I want to sleep over, but she shouldn’t worry about me. I lift my chin and try to look like a grown-up.

Amancio never finds out that I got lost. I don’t tell him. Papa worked a lot too, but he always knew where I was and when I wanted him to be there. He would come up behind me and lift me all the way up to his shoulders. He knew the names and parents of all my friends. He helped me every time I got stuck on homework. After school and on the weekends, we would play airplanes and futbol and baseball. His job was loads cooler, too. He was a security director for a shopping mall, and he led personnel and caught criminals.

Amancio asks me how I’m doing every night, but he doesn’t know any of my homework answers, and we don’t play sports because the apartment is too far away from the park. We’re both quiet at home. He says that his dancer friends sometimes give him tickets to their shows, and we can go to one, if I want. I tell him that dancing is boring. I know about dancing, the kind with the women and the musicians and everyone clapping hands. Papa took me to see it once. This was before Amancio left. It was the three of us standing in a row, and I remember Amancio was crying again. I remember the color of the dresses. And then Amancio was gone, and Papa didn’t take me to a dance again. He said a child can dance and a baby can paint, and a grown man spends his time on something better. He taught me to be a grown man. I don’t understand how Amancio can be a child, a baby, and a grown man all at once.

Amancio brings a painting home on Tuesday night. It’s a woman in a grey shirt and black shorts, standing on her toes with her arms open. It looks like she’s moving on the paper.

“I finished a new series today,” he says. “This one didn’t quite fit, so I can’t sell it. But I thought you might like it.”

“What’s she doing?”

“She’s dancing. This is called contemporary dance. Her name is Maria Anisimov.”

I take the painting. It doesn’t have a frame. “But it doesn’t look like she’s dancing,” I say.

“What does it look like, then?”

“It looks like she’s trying to fly.”

“Oh.” Amancio smiles. “That’s good. That’s fine.”

I put the painting in my room, and Amancio makes dinner. He tries to make it not as mushy, but I still don’t like it. We wash the dishes together. “You want to talk?” he asks.

“Talk about what?”

“I dunno. Come on, let’s sit on the couch.”

We sit. The couch makes the farting noise again. I turn on the TV. National Geographic is comparing how deadly crocs and hippos are.

“So I’ve been meaning to ask you about your father. Our father,” Amancio says quickly. He pauses. “How do you feel? About, um.” He pauses again. The crocodiles sleep in the sun.

It’s easy to guess what he’s asking. “I’m okay. I just miss him,” I say.

“Okay. I know I wasn’t in your life very much, these past few years. But I just….” He picks at the couch. One crocodile leaps up and kills a zebra. Amancio twitches and stares.

“What’re the statues for?” I ask.

He’s still watching the zebra die. “What?”

I point at the ballerina next to the TV. “What’re they for?”

“Oh.” He looks around the room, like he forgot he had statues in the house. “They’re models, when I want to draw but I can’t find someone to pose for me. I have a lot more at my studio.”

“Why are these at home?”

He smiles a little. “They’re my oldest models. I don’t need them anymore. I don’t usually draw ballet these days. But I can’t bear to part with them.”

“Do you only draw dancers? Don’t you ever draw anything else? Like, um.” I stab at the TV. “Like a crocodile.”

“Well, for practice, of course I draw other things. And I only just started painting seriously, so I might do different things later on. But so far I always seem to come back to dancers. It’s funny. You know I don’t dance myself. I’m horrible at it. But I can draw the people who can. They’re making art with their bodies, and they love it so much. They love their bodies. I think I was envious at first, but then somehow I fell in love, too. You have to see it to understand. It’s different when they’re moving.”

I don’t know what any of that means. He says I can come with him to the studio one day, if I want, but I say I’m okay. I turn back to the TV. Crocodiles have better teamwork, but hippos are more aggressive and dangerous. The hippos win.

James comes on a Saturday night. Amancio and I just ate dinner. James has red hair, and small green eyes, and the widest mouth I ever saw. I stare at him from the little blue sofa.

“So this is the famous Rico!” he says, and ruffles my hair. I feel my face burn. I try to punch him to make him stop, but he just laughs.

Amancio is laughing too. “Oh my God, hands to yourself, James! You’re a disgrace. Rico, James is one of the dancers I’ve had the privilege to work with. I didn’t know he was coming today.”

“I finished the show, thought I’d come by a little early because, you know, all the stuff that’s happened lately.” James bows to me with one arm out wide, the other on his chest. “And I especially couldn’t wait to meet you.”

“You’re a dancer?” I ask.

“Indeed I am.”

I decide that I hate him even more than Amancio. I lift my chin. “Dancing is for girls.”

He straightens up. His mouth is a big “O”. “Is this boy for real?”

Amancio touches his shoulder. “Rico doesn’t like dancing.”

“Yeah, well, there’s dislike, and then there’s blatant ignorance. Look, kiddo,” he says to me. “Dancing is for everyone. And never turn your nose up at girls. Girls will kick your ass.”

“Rico, don’t use that word,” Amancio says quickly. “James, come on. Let me fix you a drink.”

They both go toward the kitchen. “Seriously, how is he your brother?” James asks quietly. I can still hear them if I mute the TV.

“We had very different upbringings. Just, keep it down, alright? It hasn’t exactly been easy, and with you on the other side of the States.”

“What do you mean? Are they still giving you shit about the adoption?”

“No, no. I don’t care about that.” There’s a pause. “It’s just, it’s hard. For Rico and me both. I’ll—later, okay? I’ll call you and tell you about it later.”

“Right. Yeah, okay.”

They start talking about wine glasses and grape juice, laughing a little. I unmute the TV.

James stays for a long time. He keeps asking me how I’ve been “holding up,” and how’s school, and isn’t my brother great? His voice is too loud. Amancio acts so different around him, even less like Papa. James says that my brother loves me very much and works very hard for me, so I need to make sure to take care of him. I tell James that Mr. Richards said I have to take care of myself. James laughs. He and Amancio talk a lot, about dancing and painting, about people I’ve never met and places I’ve never been. I don’t want to think about these things. Papa would definitely hate James too. I go to the kitchen and fill a glass with grape juice and ice. I walk back into the room. James and Amancio are sitting close together on the big brown couch. I stand behind the couch. I pour the glass.

Amancio screams first. James jumps up and turns around, and he grabs the empty glass out of my hand. He’s making the funny “O” face again. I run into the kitchen. Amancio finds me and starts yelling about responsibility and respect and James is a guest, Rico, I thought you knew better. It’s like he wants me to cry. But I won’t cry. I yell back at him. I tell him I can take care of myself and he can’t tell me what to do. Amancio raises his hands and then drops them and walks away. He gets a dry shirt for James from a drawer. He tells James to leave, he’ll text. I run into my room and sit on the chair.

Amancio knocks on the door. I tell him to go away. There’s no lock. He opens the door.

“Why did you do that?” He still has juice in his hair and his shirt.

“You had it coming. Leave me alone!”

“I’ve been trying, but clearly giving you space hasn’t helped! Why can’t you just talk to me?” He walks closer, and I grab the painting on my desk and stand up. “Rico!”

“You’re not my Papa! I don’t have to tell you anything!”

“I’m still the one who took you in! Is this how you repay me? Sit down.”

“No!”

“Sit down!”

“I hate you!” I shout, and it feels so good that I keep going. “I hate you, I don’t have to listen to you, you’re a dirty maricon!” I throw the painting on the ground and stomp on it.

And suddenly Amancio looks exactly like Papa. Papa when he was yelling. His whole face is red. I can’t move, I’m so scared. He grabs my shoulders and shouts, “Nobody in this house speaks that way to me! I don’t care if you’re my brother, I don’t care if you’re sorry. I took you in because I thought I could save you! But it’s too late for you—you’re just the same! Just the same as all the rest!”

He turns me toward the door and lets me go. “Get out.”

I can’t move.

“Get out of my house.”

I can’t move.

“Get out!”

I fall down and sit next to the bed, and I start to cry. It feels like I’m exploding. I want to stay quiet, but it’s like I’m screaming, and I can’t stop. Everything hurts.

Amancio watches me cry for forever. “Oh my God,” he finally says. And then he hugs me. His arms are gentle and then so tight I can hardly breathe. He starts crying too. We rock back and forth. The world moves back and forth. “Rico, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m so sorry.”

We cry and cry. It goes on forever. It’s like I had all these tears ever since Papa died, and now they can finally come out, but there are so many they don’t know how to make the hurting stop. I cry until I think I’m going to die. I cry until I’m so tired I can’t move. Amancio lifts me onto my bed, and he gives me some water, and he tells me to sleep. I hold onto his shirt. He lies down next to me and doesn’t let go.

After Papa died, people told me I would maybe have to live with my brother. I didn’t really understand until Mr. Richards said, Amancio. His name is Amancio. And then I remembered my brother and his crying. It had been years since anyone mentioned him.

People thought that maybe Amancio wouldn’t come to the funeral. He hadn’t been to the neighborhood once since he’d left, too busy being full of himself, and he hated Papa anyways, everyone said. But they were looking for him. When they saw him at the edge of the group, they whispered to themselves all at once, and Mr. Richards held my hand so hard that it hurt. Afterwards, Amancio came up to the two of us.

“You’re not qualified to be this boy’s guardian,” Mr. Richards told him.

Amancio’s face was very still and cold. “That’s not up to you to decide. That’s up to Rico and up to my lawyer, and yeah, I damned well talked to a lawyer. Now if you’ll excuse me, this conversation has nothing to do with you.”

He bent down. “Hello, Rico. You remember me?”

I did. I nodded.

“I’m sorry we had to meet again this way. You loved your father, didn’t you?”

I didn’t know what to say. I nodded again.

“It’s okay to grieve. Sometimes it’s even a good thing. It helps you realize how much a person has changed you, for better or for worse. I grieve with you now.” He held out a hand. “I’m not going to be your father. I want to take care of you, from now on. Would you like that?” I didn’t think I remembered anything about him except for his crying, but his hand, when I took it, was familiar. I said okay.

“Why did Papa hate you?”

“I don’t know. I think it was because I was different. I didn’t fit in the way he saw the world.”

“But why did he like me? He was always so nice to me.”

“Well, Rico, you are a very likeable boy.”

I sniffle. He hands me another tissue. “You’re not that different,” I tell him.

“No, I’m not that different.” He pokes my side. “Did Papa teach you that word?”

He means maricon. I nod.

“Don’t use it again.”

“Okay.”

He takes a tissue for himself. “What was Papa like?”

“You don’t remember?”

“I remember what I thought he was like. I want to know what you thought he was like.”

So I tell him about soccer and pineapple juice and playing cops and robbers. I tell him about Papa’s laughter and Papa’s cooking and Papa’s stories about the street he’d grown up in. I tell him that, once, I got stuck on the roof at school, and the principal was so mad, but Papa came with a ladder and got me down himself and the principal is still extra nice to me when she sees me. We both cry some more. It doesn’t hurt.

We wash the stains out of the couch. A few days later, the bed finally arrives. James comes over to help move furniture. I apologize to him like Rico made me practice. James forgives me and ruffles my hair. He still stops me when I punch him.

When we’re done, the apartment feels smaller, but I’m used to it now. I ask James if I can see him dance. He grins at me.

“You’re not going to call me girly, are you?”

I shake my head. “Girls will kick my ass.”

He laughs. Amancio covers his face. We make a little space in the middle of the TV room, and James dances for a minute. It’s only a minute, but it feels like forever. I hold my breath the whole way through. It looks like he’s flying. Like he’ll jump off the floor. Out the window. Up into the sky.