He sat on the orange plastic subway seat gazing at some indistinct point on the ceiling with that vacant look that suggested sullenness to the outside observer. The Chinese character tattoo on the light brown skin of his neck marked him as one capable of the unexpected, and therefore not to be messed with.
That was exactly how he wanted it. No intrusions. No invitational eye contact, no one choosing to sit next to him. No outside energy that might threaten the tight grip he had on his emotions. That grip that held awareness of what was about to happen in the rational part of his being, which just dealt with facts. The last thing he could do was let himself get carried away. The stakes were too high.
On his way to see his family. He usually never came home this early. Out with the boys, or working on one of his “projects.” Always having an excuse not to make it home in time for dinner, always moving too fast to get pinned down to a specific story.
It was the story that he had the hardest time with. His English teacher, the gringo lady whose name began with an H, always rambled on about how your life is a story that you create for yourself. Well, every story he had read seemed coherent, stable, made sense in some way. All of those ‘poor kid makes good’ stories about overcoming ‘adversity’ and ‘beating the odds’ made sense. Beginning, middle, end. Predictable after the first one. Not like his life. If that was the kind of story you had to have to get into a book, he was sure his wasn’t going to be read by any high school students anytime soon.
Too many things did not fit together.
There was the tattoo. His father had given him his last beating when he had come home with the Chinese symbol for warrior on his neck. Papi had thought it was a gang tag, that I had become a part of a different family. I took that beating, not trying to dissuade him from his fear, but I let him know that that was the last one. I am bigger than he is and when I look him in the eye now we both recognize that my days of beatings are over.
Then there are my boys. Always my boys. Together, we make all of the bullshit tolerable. Every stupid rule, every adult telling us where to go, or what to do, or mostly what not to do and where not to go. All of that powerlessness wiped away by a comment, a laugh, a joke and a toss of the head dismissing the authority as we comply with it. Bullshit made funny was still bullshit, but at least it was tolerable bullshit.
That system didn’t work with cops though. Like the time that we got pulled over in the car the Felipe stole. Cool red Ford convertible. The cops got the five of us out of that car and spread eagled in a heartbeat. No laughing that time. I did the well-spoken polite thing in English that I had been practicing on the Principal at school, while everyone else kept their mouths shut. You could tell that those cops really wanted to pound the shit out of us. Slapping us on the side of the head, poking their sticks in our ribs, just begging us to respond with a wise crack or a punch, but we kept our cool. Everyone knew to leave the talking to me and take the bullshit straight up. We hadn’t talked about it before hand, but we all knew how it had to go down.
And then there are my sisters. I am crazy in love with them. I make sure that no one messes with them in school or on the street. Help them with homework. Even sneak into Sunday school to make sure that no one gives them a hard time.
All of this was now going to change because of that crazy Mr. Adams. I have to get home before he gets there. Everything changes as soon as he arrives. Part of me wishes I had never walked into his lab room that day after school to ask a question. I didn’t understand what he meant about chemical bonding and the production of energy. I wasn’t going to say something in class, but I figured that it couldn’t hurt to just stop in after school to ask a simple question. When I walked in to his room there was all of this equipment just sitting out there in the open ready for anyone to grab. Meters and glassware, sensors and a computer that did stuff with all of the other stuff plugged into it. A goldmine in that little back room where I found him that day. We had never seen any of this stuff in class. There wasn’t enough of it to go around, and they probably did not trust us with that kind of stuff anyway. Too expensive. But now I knew where it was all kept.
So two years later, Mr. Adams is headed to my house, not to add a new piece into my puzzle, but to wipe all of the pieces off of the table. I didn’t try to get that score on the chemistry or the physics tests. They just happened. After what he and I had been doing all of those afternoons in that back room, the stuff on the test was a piece of cake. Adams had never said anything about college. Never told me he had been talking to MIT. Can’t take the home boys to Cambridge, nor my sisters and I don’t think that my jokes are going to work. They never worked on Adams. I must have had an idea about this, though, because I made sure that my tattoo doesn’t go above the neck line of a button down shirt.