2020 Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction: Clean Teen

Francisco González

Around the time he entered the eighth grade, Agustín began to watch pornography on a blue iMac he had salvaged from a dumpster. There was a McDonald’s next door to his apartment building, and he would use its Wi-Fi to view free clips. He did this while his grandmother wasn’t home.

Agustín thought he was cautious, but he often dropped his guard. One Saturday evening, during a marathon download session, he took a bathroom break and neglected to quit QuickTime Player. He didn’t pause his newest video. Nor did he mute it. Instead, he left it playing in a loop.

He stepped across the hallway to the bathroom. He urinated, flushed, and washed his hands. Then he returned to find his grandmother standing just inside the threshold of his room.

For whatever reason, she had finished work early. She faced the computer screen, where two blonde women performed fellatio on a bald man in a black T-shirt. It was one of those poolside scenes in someone’s backyard. The man sat in a deck chair. He cursed softly at the women, who moaned and giggled.

Agustín watched his grandmother watching the video. He observed her frown, her crossed arms. Later, he couldn’t help but admire the fact that she’d walked into their apartment without a sound—an impressive demonstration of stealth. In that moment, though, he was choked with shame.

His grandmother trudged away to her bedroom. Agustín heard a drawer opening, closing. She reemerged with a cardboard box containing two-dozen condoms.

“When the time comes, use protection,” she said. “Once you have a child, you’ll never sleep again.”

She handed him the box. Holding it made him feel doomed.

Agustín’s grandmother barely slept. In the mornings and afternoons, she cleaned rich people’s homes in Winterhaven. At night, she bused tables at a Korean restaurant that also served sushi. She often returned to their apartment in the small hours, and woke before dawn.

Agustín didn’t want to end up like her. He wanted a job that was less like work and more like play. Occasionally, he considered whether he could be one of the actors in his pornographic videos. He imagined driving a fancy car to a studio in Miami or Los Angeles. He saw himself having sex with a different woman every day. The women would thank him, and the film crew would applaud his performance.

However, his fantasies always ended with him contracting a disease. This possibility frightened him so much that he decided it would be better to study hard and pursue another profession.

Agustín attended Mesquite Junior High School, an overcrowded, two-story complex in the heart of South Tucson. Rooms were crammed with as many as fifty children. The staff couldn’t tell students apart, let alone remember their names. For the most part, they addressed them as “you.”

Agustín’s English class was taught in a “modular classroom”—a trailer on the far side of the athletic field. Its remoteness made him feel that he was being punished. The trailer smelled like wet paint. Agustín hated its thin walls, its fluorescent bulbs, its popcorn ceiling. It reminded him of a storage unit. Fortunately, English didn’t require any effort. His teacher, Mrs. West, believed that school was pointless.

“It would make more sense for me—and all of you—to sit under a tree than to sit in this trailer,” she said.

Agustín had a crush on Mrs. West, who was from Birmingham, Alabama. He liked her drawl. He felt special when she called him “sweetie.” And he was fascinated by her long black hair, which had bolts of gray, despite the fact that she was in her twenties, younger than most of the other teachers.

The students looked forward to an easy “A” in English. Rather than make them read, write, or speak, Mrs. West allowed them to watch movies based on books. She’d wheel a television out of the supply closet. Then she’d present the children with a pair of DVDs, and they’d choose one by a show of hands. Mostly, they got to watch Hollywood blockbusters. Whenever possible, they chose movies that were rated “R.”

Sometimes Mrs. West would leave the trailer, claiming that she needed to find more chalk. She would return fifteen or twenty minutes later, without any chalk, appearing happier than before, but also drowsier, with bags beneath her bloodshot eyes. Between class periods, a few of Agustín’s friends, who had encountered similar behavior in their own homes, speculated that Mrs. West was a drunk.

And they were right. Eventually Mrs. West stopped concealing her habit. One day, while the class watched Jurassic Park in semi-darkness, she reached inside her desk drawer and produced a bottle of whiskey, along with a steel cup. She gave herself a pour. She sniffed the liquid, sipped it, took a gulp.

“A bit woody,” Mrs. West said. “Just the way I like it.”

Her drinking became a matter of routine.

Every now and then, Mrs. West would nod off during a movie, and the students would nudge her awake at the end-credits. When a nudge wasn’t enough, they would shake her by the shoulders, or yell at her, or both. But sometimes she looked so peaceful in slumber that it seemed cruel to rouse her, and they’d tiptoe out of the trailer, to their next class period.

Out of all the movies they saw, Agustín’s favorite was Starship Troopers, from which he learned that, instead of attending college, you should attack distant planets. He wished that he, too, could leave Earth, in order to shoot giant arachnids in outer space. It would be a small price to pay for showering with naked women, like the young male soldiers in the movie.

Word got around, and the school principal showed up at Agustín’s English class, flanked by two muscular janitors. At the sight of these men, Mrs. West groaned.

“Another talk, huh? You know how much I hate it when we have to talk.”

Her forehead glistened. Her nose and cheeks were pink. The janitors glanced at each other, as if they weren’t sure what to do. The principal stared at the television, on which The Beastmaster played. His hands were balled into fists. He was so angry that he appeared to be out of breath.

“Fun’s over, Stephanie. Leave your shit—we’ll box it up for you.”

“Fine,” Mrs. West said. “Fine, then. But I’m union, and you’d better remember that.”

Mrs. West stood and made her way toward the door. She had done very little to soften her boozy reek that day, and even Agustín, at the back of the trailer, could perceive it. Mrs. West couldn’t walk in a straight line. The students gasped in unison when she stumbled, nearly falling to the floor, but she regained her footing at the last moment, bracing herself against the wall. Shrugging, she said, “It’s these bourbon legs.” To Agustín, this sounded like an apology.

The school sent children home with letters, expressing “sincere regret” for Mrs. West’s “health issues,” while insisting that she was “on her way to recovery.” Agustín provided a loose interpretation for his grandmother, whose grasp of English was poor. She shook her head and told him that Mrs. West had gotten off easy. “She’s no better than an animal. Back in Badiraguato, we would have flogged her and joked about it later.”

Agustín’s English class entered a transitional phase, where a rash of stand-ins filled out the rest of the fall semester. Among them: a woman who brought a guitar to class and played her original compositions; another woman, who took the children on a field trip to Domino’s, where they learned how to fold pizza boxes; and a man resembling Dick Cheney, who wore cargo pants and tie-dye shirts.

In January, at the start of the spring semester, Mrs. West returned to teach. When Agustín walked into the trailer and saw her writing “iambic pentameter” on the chalkboard, he couldn’t contain his joy.

“You came back!” he cried. His classmates tittered, and he wished he hadn’t been so transparent.

“Naturally,” Mrs. West said. “Where else would I go?”

Within minutes, Agustín could tell that she wasn’t the same. Her eyes were clear and focused. Rather than slump at her desk, she now preferred to stand upright. Her skirt and turtleneck were spotless, with hardly a fold or a crease. It was as if someone had loaded her into a machine, which spat out a cleaner, well-pressed version of her.

Mrs. West began to assign homework. Gone were the daily movies, replaced with vocabulary quizzes, grammar lessons, and slender novels. Days passed, and the students waited for their teacher to revert to her old ways. When she didn’t, some of them stopped showing up, and Agustín couldn’t blame them. They must have found it difficult to unlearn what Mrs. West had taught them: that school didn’t matter, that they’d be better off in the outside world.

Agustín didn’t skip a single class, though. His attraction to Mrs. West persisted. He would arrive early, in order to make small talk, and he would always thank her on his way out the door. He loved Mrs. West’s cursive annotations at the end of his compositions; sometimes they were longer than the assignment itself. He imagined that she was writing him letters, and her desire was encoded within them.

A few weeks into the semester, Mrs. West gave the class a new kind of assignment: a half-page short story.

Agustín wrote about a man who feared his microwave oven. Every evening after work, the man would place a bowl of instant noodles in the oven. Then, after setting the timer for two minutes and pressing “start,” he’d flee to the living room and hide behind his couch. He did that because he thought the microwaves would give him cancer.

The day before the story was due, Agustín approached Mrs. West at the end of class. He asked if she could look at his draft and provide suggestions. He wanted to show her that he’d taken the assignment seriously. He also hoped that, by being the last student to speak to her, he could maintain a foothold in her consciousness.

They sat at Mrs. West’s desk, and it only took her a minute to read the story. She praised its premise, as well as its final sentence: Of course, no one really knows how a microwave works. But she made many corrections. Her pen lashed the page, carving boxes, hoops, and borders around words. By the time she finished, Agustín’s story contained more red ink than black. It looked mutilated. It looked like a piece of roadkill.

Ashamed, Agustín bowed his head. “It’s trash, isn’t it?”

“It’s a first draft. We all have to start somewhere.”

Mrs. West placed her hand on his. Agustín was aware of her silver wedding band, along with the dust of chalk on her skin. They were alone in the trailer. He looked up to see her smiling; her teeth were straight and white. She squeezed for several seconds before breaking contact.

“I’m happy to check out your work, anytime,” she said. “If you want me, you know how to find me.”

When Agustín got home, he browsed pornography on his computer. Usually, if he was attracted to a woman, he would search for pornstars who resembled her. In Mrs. West’s case, it was easy to single out performers who matched her build, the shape of her face, her eyes. But Agustín found those women unsatisfactory— there was always something not quite right about them. He had memorized Mrs. West’s finer features, her mannerisms, the modulations and inflections of her voice. He had come to believe that she was one of a kind.

 On a February morning, snow fell in Tucson. The Catalina Mountains glittered with fresh powder. Cacti froze, sagged, and broke to pieces. It was only two thirds of an inch, but the entire city went into shock. The school district officials, who had never faced such an unusual situation, lost their nerve and sent everyone home at midday.

As the students shuffled out of the trailer, Mrs. West asked if any of them needed a ride. Sensing an opportunity to be close to her a few minutes longer, Agustín said, “I could use a lift.” He spoke quietly, intending to sound grateful, but also reluctant.

Mrs. West and Agustín walked to the parking lot. She led him to her car, a Toyota Prius with a Jesus fish on its rear bumper. Agustín clicked his seatbelt. He looked out the windshield and saw snow melting into puddles. Sunlight had overcome the clouds, and steam wafted up from the asphalt. Mrs. West put on a pair of dark glasses. She pressed the ignition button and put her car in reverse.

“Whereabouts do you live?” she asked.

Agustín mentioned his cross-streets, and she raised her eyebrows. He was used to that kind of reaction; his barrio had a colorful reputation.

“Your parents will be home soon?” she asked.

“I live with my grandma. She works late.”

Mrs. West grunted.

“I’m not comfortable just deserting you there. Why don’t you hang with me for a while? I can whip you up some lunch.”

Mrs. West lived in a development surrounded by walls. In order to access her neighborhood, you had to type a code into a pin pad. Beyond the walls, roads were smooth and clean, as if they’d barely been used. Her community contained dozens of two-story houses, all of them white, or pink, or brown. The buildings were new enough that their orange roof tiles had not yet been bleached by the Arizona sun.

Agustín was exhilarated at being inside his teacher’s home. The Wests’ kitchen had marble countertops and wood floors, which were so firm that they accepted his weight without a creak. While Mrs. West rummaged through her refrigerator, Agustín explored the living room.

On a wall hung Mrs. West’s diploma from Bryn Mawr College, along with photos of the Wests, together and alone. In one photo, they stood side by side on a rocky beach. Agustín’s eyes lingered on Mrs. West, in her blue bikini; her husband wore only a pair of swim trunks, his belly overhanging them. Neither one of them smiled.

In another photo, a crowd of policemen stood witness while the mayor of Tucson pinned a medal on Mrs. West’s husband. Beneath this was a framed newspaper clipping, which recounted an attempted bank robbery, and the role of “Detective West” in putting a stop to it. He had shot one of the thieves and singlehandedly “subdued” the other, the article said. Agustín was surprised at the revelation that Mrs. West was married to a cop.

“Oh, that’s just Teddy,” she said, behind him. “Don’t pay him any mind.”

Agustín read the article again, and the word “subdued” lodged itself in his head. He could not comprehend its precise meaning. Nor could he understand whether Teddy West’s gunshot had slain the first bank-robber. He decided it probably had.

Mrs. West began to knead Agustín’s shoulders. As she did this, her breasts pressed against his back. Agustín scarcely noticed. He was lost in his thoughts about Teddy, whose name didn’t sound like it should belong to a killer.

“What are we having for lunch?” Agustín asked.

Mrs. West took hold of his arms. She turned him toward her. “You’re a sweet kid, you know that?”

With her face inches from his, she smiled. Then she leaned in to kiss him.

“Wait,” Agustín said, or tried to say. He attempted to pull away, but Mrs. West didn’t let go. Her strength caught him off guard.

The first thing that scared him was the fact that he found it hard to breathe with her mouth locked on his. He acknowledged excitement, too, weighing against the fright, but he couldn’t keep track of her maneuvers. He was shocked at the coolness of her lips, the darting of her tongue, her hands moving up and down his back, underneath his T-shirt.

When Agustín felt his brain slipping into darkness, he fought to regroup. Mrs. West seemed a lot taller now than she had in class, standing before the lime- green chalkboard. And the mechanics of kissing, which had appeared simple in pornography, were laborious and counterintuitive. Mrs. West knew what to do, though, that much was clear. He kept his hands on her waist and tried to let himself relax against her. She smelled like Tide. He detected peppermint on her saliva—just a passing tingle.

Agustín shut his eyes, opened them again. He wondered if his grandmother had ever experienced these sensations, perhaps in an era when she was not yet his grandmother. Then he felt ridiculous for thinking about her at such an important moment.

Minutes later, Agustín lay with Mrs. West on the floorboards. She had removed his clothing and hers.

“Shouldn’t we use a condom?” he whispered. Even in his daze, he could not forget his grandmother’s advice.

“No need—I’ve got an IUD.”

Mrs. West laughed, and Agustín felt stupid, as if she had just pointed out an obvious error in one of his papers. He had forgotten what “IUD” stood for. He didn’t want to compound his embarrassment by asking.

Mrs. West grinned as she drove Agustín back to the Southside. Her lipstick was smudged, and her blouse wasn’t tucked into her pants anymore. She didn’t seem to care.

They remained silent for several minutes. Agustín realized that his hands were trembling; he clenched and unclenched them. He craved the radio, a voice, an outside sound for his mind to lean on. When they reached a four-way stop, Mrs. West turned to look at him.

“Happy now?” she said. “Oh yeah—I bet you are.”

Her tone seemed to imply that the sex was something he had planned. She lowered her sunglasses, winked at him. Agustín didn’t know how to respond, so he stared at his sneakers. He quietly reviewed the sequence of events: he had asked for a ride, he had gotten into the car. Even so, their encounter didn’t feel like it had been his idea. He hadn’t expected it to go as far as it had gone.

Mrs. West dropped him off in an alley, a block from his building, so they wouldn’t be seen. From start to finish, they had spent roughly two hours together.

Agustín entered his apartment, locking the deadbolt behind him. His grandmother wouldn’t be back until after midnight, so he had plenty of time to shower and change. He took tortillas out of the fridge and began to heat them on the stove. He had missed lunch. He was starving.

That was Thursday. On Friday morning, Agustín’s genitals were sore. He had trouble putting on his jeans. When he walked to school, he stopped repeatedly to adjust his crotch. He was late to first period.

In class that day, Mrs. West acted like nothing had happened between them. Agustín winced, bit his tongue, crossed his legs. Meanwhile, she observed him, addressed him, corrected him, the same as any other student. She defined vocabulary words, etching them on the board. Foreshadowing. Allegory. Hubris. Agustín searched her face, her movements, for signs of distress, but saw nothing. He didn’t mention his discomfort to Mrs. West. He was too ashamed. He reflected that perhaps he had made a mistake during sex, that the soreness was his own fault.

On Saturday, Agustín’s friends stopped by the apartment and tried to lure him out for a quinceañera after-party, but he turned them away with an excuse about math homework. He took some of his grandmother’s Tylenol from the bathroom cabinet. It made little difference.

The pain was complicated by his guilty conscience. He wanted to tell someone about the incident, anyone who might advise him, reassure him. But his tryst with Mrs. West was too outrageous to be believed. And if someone did believe him, they would probably end up blowing his cover. Agustín could not forget the photo of Teddy West, or the newspaper article beneath it. Again, he pondered the word “subdued,” and he thought himself in danger of being arrested—shot, even. Having sex with a detective’s wife seemed like the sort of thing that would get you killed.

Agustín resolved to deal with the irritation on his own. A real man, he reasoned, would get to the other side of it without making a scene. He hoped he hadn’t contracted something fatal; he hoped it wasn’t HIV.

He didn’t worry for long, though. He was only in pain for two days and two nights. On Sunday morning, he woke up, ate a bowl of oatmeal with his grandmother, and felt fine. It was hard to believe he had ever been sore at all.

Agustín hadn’t anticipated that Mrs. West would want to have sex again, but it became a once-or-twice-weekly activity. She established rules for communicating. Agustín had a Samsung flip-phone, and they exchanged numbers, but, at her insistence, it was always she who called him to set up a meeting, and never the other way around. Mrs. West forbade texting. She justified this by saying that her husband could discover the messages.

Usually they would meet after school, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while both Teddy West and Agustín’s grandmother were working. There was a Quik Mart three blocks from Agustín’s building, and Mrs. West would pull into its parking lot. She’d drive him to her house. On the way there, she’d trace shapes on his knee, below the hem of his basketball shorts, without taking her eyes off the road.

Mostly, they had sex on her king-sized bed in the master bedroom, although there were instances when she couldn’t wait to climb the stairs, and they would do it in less conventional places. Agustín kept a mental list of these: the dining room table, the leather armchair in the living room, the downstairs bathroom, the stairs themselves. More than once, they got no farther than the garage. Whenever they couldn’t meet for a week or more, Agustín would recite the spots where they’d had sex, until he had the certainty that he was valuable to her.

Only the black upholstered couch, in the den, was off limits. Mrs. West said that her husband spent more time there than anyplace else, perched in front of his forty-three-inch television. A sports fan, he liked to watch the Cardinals, the Diamondbacks, the Suns, for endless hours. She was afraid he’d perceive something amiss. A shifted cushion. A strand of hair. Something small that most people wouldn’t notice. Something a detective would notice right away.

“If Teddy finds out about us, he’ll murder me first. Then he’ll come after you,” she said.

Agustín had already reached that conclusion on his own, and he was glad that Mrs. West was sensible enough to fear her husband, just as he did. At the same time, he found himself becoming jealous of Teddy West. It was strange to feel this way about a man he’d never met—a man who had killed before and could kill again. Agustín wanted to displace him. He wanted Mrs. West to be his, and his alone.

Due to his growing jealousy, Agustín liked it when Mrs. West complained about the state of her marriage. Between bouts of sex, she described her husband’s infidelity. Agustín learned that Teddy West had started affairs with some of his female coworkers. The Tucson Police Department often hosted social functions— softball games, dinners, fundraisers—and Teddy would force his wife to attend and interact with his mistresses.

“I wish they would all eat shit and die,” Mrs. West said.

Agustín was delighted to hear this. It nurtured his hope that Mrs. West’s resentment toward her husband would increase her reliance on him. Still, he knew he couldn’t crowd Teddy out completely, not unless Mrs. West took a stand and divorced the man, or at least kicked him out. Her unwillingness to do so struck Agustín as absurd, but pity kept him from telling her as much.

One day, however, unable to contain his frustration, he asked Mrs. West why she had chosen to marry such a wretched individual in the first place. As soon as he did, he cringed at his own stupidity.

“You’ve got balls, asking that,” she said, and laughed, but Agustín sensed indignation in her voice. They lay naked on her bed, which was so large that he thought an entire family should sleep on it. Her head rested on Agustín’s chest. He had no doubt that she could hear his racing heart. After a moment’s pause, she said, “We met in Philly. On the subway, of all places. He was a cadet in the academy, and I had a thing for policemen. It made me blind. Actually, I think Teddy could’ve just as easily been a firefighter. You know how it is—men in uniform.”

Agustín nodded, although he wasn’t sure what she meant. In hopes of easing the tension, he changed the subject. He asked her if she got good grades when she was his age.

“In middle school? I had other, hugely important things to deal with at the time, such as getting high. But you don’t get high, do you? You’re a clean teen.” She pinched his cheek. “You’re a good boy.”

Agustín didn’t like being thought of as a boy. He nearly asked Mrs. West if she loved him yet, in the way that a man and a woman would love one another, but held back. He still found her intimidating. Partly, this was because he had been taught to view whites as dangerous, and she was one of the whitest people he had ever seen outside of a pornographic movie. Her skin made the bed sheets appear beige by comparison.

Then, too, Agustín was conscious of her black-and-silver hair spilling over his arm, her smooth legs shifting against his, and it felt wrong to challenge her. He told himself he should be thankful for this type of relationship, which others enjoyed.

Days and weeks went by.

In March, Agustín’s grandmother turned sixty-three. To celebrate, the two of them rode a bus to Campbell Avenue and had dinner at Chipotle, a restaurant they’d never been to. After a few bites, his grandmother dropped her burrito and scowled.

“I thought beans and tortillas were impossible to ruin, but these people wouldn’t know good cooking if it kicked their teeth in.” She threw up her hands. “Whose brother-in-law invented this place? Nobody could have been paid to do it!”

On the bus back to their apartment, she told Agustín about one of her coworkers, whose daughter had been admitted to Northern Arizona University.

“And Martínez keeps lording it over us. He thinks the rest of us are beneath him. Ha! You and me will show him, won’t we? Where will you apply? I’ve heard that Harvard is the best!”

Agustín’s grandmother hugged him, and he smiled, but her question left him petrified. He was unprepared to face the prospect of life at a distant college. The thought of it made him miserable. He didn’t want to leave Mrs. West behind, didn’t want their relationship to end. He considered whether he should find a way to marry her.

Mrs. West often praised Agustín. She once remarked that he had a rock-solid ass. Another time, she said she wanted them to stay in bed forever. She told him that he was a naturally talented kisser, that she wished she’d met him sooner. Her compliments sounded familiar, though he couldn’t remember when or where he’d heard them.

By then, Agustín’s anxiety was continually growing. They had been seeing each other for more than two months, and the secrecy had turned into a terrible burden. He was plagued by fits of paranoia. In class with Mrs. West, he couldn’t stop asking himself if he’d left telltale evidence at her house; he expected squad cars to pull up to the trailer at any moment, sirens blaring. Whenever his grandmother asked him how school was going, he’d immediately begin to sweat through his clothing. He endured recurring nightmares, in which faceless policemen chased him around town, pistols drawn.

Occasionally, Mrs. West would disappear into the bathroom to “wash up” after they had sex in her bedroom. She would close the door behind her, and it would remain closed for several minutes. Agustín, suspecting that her husband could be hiding anywhere, would inspect his surroundings. He’d peer inside the bedroom’s oak armoire, which was tall enough to stand in. He’d look under the mattress, behind the curtains, and out the bay window. He’d check the hallway, too. Even after assuring himself that nobody was hiding nearby, he feared that a recording device might be planted in the room. At times, he had the urge to rip open the pillows and examine their contents.

And yet Mrs. West appeared increasingly carefree. Sometimes she’d settle down beneath the covers, close her eyes, and nap in Agustín’s arms. He had seen her sleep in class, but this was different. He enjoyed her steady respiration, the rise and fall of her bare shoulders, the odd twitch as she dreamed. She didn’t look like an authority figure. He could believe that she was once a child, someone vulnerable in need of protection, warmth.

One evening, while she dozed, he photographed her with his phone. He didn’t think she would mind. He made a habit of looking at her picture every night when they weren’t together. He thought that Mrs. West trusted him, that their relationship had deepened and was bound to deepen further.

Agustín could feel himself changing. Not only had he lost his taste for pornography, but he had also begun to regard his friends as members of a separate species. It was hard to talk to them, hard to relate to them. They bragged incessantly about making out with girls, feeling them up, getting their phone numbers. It seemed to Agustín that he had bounded ahead of them. He had become a man, while they remained locked away in time, as boys. By March, he was a confirmed loner. He spent his free periods moping in the library. At lunch, he ate by himself in a corner of the cafeteria.

Agustín avoided the girls he had once been obsessed with, but, to his bafflement, they periodically went out of their way to express interest in him. Foremost among them was Yesenia, a Guatemalan girl from P.E. class, who enjoyed temporary tattoos, and swore that she would cover herself in real tattoos the moment she turned eighteen. During one of Agustín’s walks from Science to Social Studies, she approached him in the hallway. She asked if he would watch a Friday-night movie with her. As Yesenia spoke, she stroked Agustín’s bicep and giggled, as if they had some kind of preexisting relationship. He accepted her invitation because he couldn’t improvise an excuse to decline it.

Their date, at Loft Cinema, was dreadful. Yesenia didn’t apologize for arriving twenty minutes late. With money he’d borrowed from his grandmother, Agustín paid for their tickets. He paid for Yesenia’s popcorn. He paid for her lemonade, as well.

They watched Howl’s Moving Castle. All the while, Yesenia never looked at Agustín. At one point, he touched her hand, and she yanked it away. Near the end of the film, he tried to kiss her, but she turned her head and dodged him. Irritated, he squirmed in his seat. Their interaction felt tedious, onerous, compared to the sensations he had shared with Mrs. West.

Outside the theater, Yesenia gave Agustín a quick hug, thanked him for the movie, and began to walk away. He called after her.

“It’s only ten. Where you going?”


“But why?”

“Because that’s where I live, fool. You got my number, though.”

Agustín was confused by her apparent lack of interest in having sex. By the time he got back to his building, the confusion had given way to anger. He wrote off the whole experience as a monumental waste of energy.

About two weeks later, Yesenia ambushed Agustín in the cafeteria. She jabbed a finger in his face.

“You never texted me. So that’s it, huh?” she said. “What are you, a fuckin’ faggot?”

It took him a few seconds to register that he’d offended her.

Eventually, Teddy West started working late shifts. Agustín would wait for his grandmother to begin snoring, then he’d sneak out of the apartment to meet Mrs. West.

One night, they almost got caught. They fell asleep in each other’s arms, and, since Mrs. West had forgotten to set an alarm, they didn’t wake up until five in the morning. They threw their clothes on in a panic. They were terrified at the knowledge that Agustín’s grandmother would have noticed his absence. And Teddy was due to return at any minute.

Half-dressed, they leaped into Mrs. West’s Prius. She was in such a hurry that she had gotten a shirt on, but her bra still dangled from her left shoulder, and she accidentally shut the driver’s door on it. In her haste to reach Agustín’s neighborhood, she ran a red light and three stop signs. With every traffic violation, Agustín imagined what would happen if a policeman pulled them over. He envisioned Teddy interrogating him, beating him, murdering him.

They reached Agustín’s barrio, and he jumped out of the car. It was the cusp of monsoon season. The air tasted cool, charged with captive rain. Agustín cursed: someone had locked his building’s entrance, and he hadn’t brought his key with him. His apartment was on the ground floor. He tried to get in through the kitchen window, which faced the street; however, humidity had swollen the wooden frame. In the process of forcing the window open, Agustín made a tremendous racket.

He found his grandmother in the kitchen. She sat in a chair, sipping coffee, watching Telemundo. She’d been waiting for him.

“Welcome back,” she said. She grabbed the remote, switched off the television set, and took a draught from her mug.“I can see right through you, m’ijo. Remember the proverb: ‘the devil isn’t smart because he’s the devil, he’s smart because he’s old.’ I know you were with a girl. I can smell her on you.”

“Oh. Yes,” Agustín stammered. “Yes, I was.”

“What’s her name?”

He eyed the window behind him, and saw new light edging over the mountains. He felt cornered. He couldn’t bring himself to lie so brazenly to this woman, who cared only for his well-being. Steeling himself, Agustín decided to confess the truth, the whole story, from start to finish: the first visit to Mrs. West’s house, the kissing, the sex. But before he had a chance to say anything, his grandmother burst out laughing.

“Ha ha ha! Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me! But you took care of it?”

“Took care?”

She narrowed her eyes.

“Prevention! You left nothing to chance, right?”

Agustín remembered Mrs. West’s IUD.

“That’s right.”

On a Friday evening, one week before the end of the spring semester, Agustín and his grandmother bumped into Mrs. West at Safeway. When Mrs. West crossed their path, Agustín was pushing a shopping cart, which contained a sack of pinto beans, a jar of Tang, and a ten-pound canister of Nescafé. He was conscious of the fact that he would appear poor.

Mrs. West wore black tights, and a pink sweatshirt with the word “princess” written across her chest. To Agustín’s horror, she introduced herself to his grandmother, shook her hand, and remarked that her grandson was reading and writing far above his grade level. Agustín’s grandmother smiled and nodded, pretending to understand. She said, “Thank you. Very good.”

Agustín remembered his latest session at Mrs. West’s home, two nights prior. She had stripped naked, but kept her pumps on. At some point during sex, she had forgotten herself and gashed Agustín’s shoulders with her fingernails. Now, in the supermarket aisle containing trash bags and paper plates, Agustín was keenly aware of the red marks she had inflicted, which smarted underneath his T-shirt.

Mrs. West kept talking at his grandmother.

“Agustín has been a real joy to work with. You should be excited! If he keeps this up, he can get into any college he wants.”

“Great!” his grandmother said. She knew the meaning of the word “college.”

Meanwhile, Agustín hoped he was acting almost normal. His stomach surged, and he found it difficult to say anything at all. He waited for his grandmother to notice the veiled chemistry between Mrs. West and himself; he waited for her face to fall in a moment of recognition, followed by a burst of outrage. But his grandmother only continued to nod and grin, pleased by the handful of English words she could comprehend.

Agustín watched as Mrs. West waved goodbye, walked to the deli, and placed an order from a white-aproned attendant. He asked himself if she had taken up drinking again, because she appeared to enjoy making choices that invited disaster. He couldn’t believe she had engaged his grandmother in conversation. He concluded that he was expendable, and her carelessness would get him killed.

Agustín’s grandmother snickered as they made their way to a checkout lane.

"So I finally got to meet that famous teacher of yours. She seems nice enough, but someone should tell her she’s dressed like a woman-for-hire.”

Groceries advanced along the conveyor belt. Agustín swallowed hard. He wished he could feel again the thrill of Mrs. West’s hand touching his for the first time. Before, her presence held so much wonder. Now she reminded him that the world contained too many ways to die.

All he could think of that weekend was his own apprehension. He kept to himself, in his room, gritting his teeth. Mrs. West called his phone a dozen times. Agustín did not answer.

On Monday, Agustín packed his books and binders and stepped out the door, but could not bring himself to go to school, where he would see Mrs. West in English class. His intuition warned him that if he set foot in that trailer, something awful would happen. He went instead to Reid Park, a ten-minute walk from his apartment building.

He was fourteen. Years later, long after Mrs. West went to prison, he would revisit that morning in his frailest moments. He sat beneath a palo verde tree, next to the duck pond. He tried to shake his head clear. Despite sun and blue sky, he couldn’t stop shivering. He thought about Teddy West and imagined that man’s existence, which was better than his. He hated Teddy, wished him dead, and thought he would be content if he were him.

Agustín’s phone vibrated in his front pocket. He was a liar and a monster, and his destiny was no longer his own. Suddenly he gasped, lurched forward, and vomited on desiccated grass, heaving until tears streamed down his face.

Other lives moved on. An old man tossed hunks of bread into greenish water, where ducks fought over them. Yoga practitioners stretched on their mats. There were joggers, and homeless, and women with strollers. No one bothered to ask what a sick child was doing in the park, in the middle of a school day.