Pedro's Promise by Lucas Rubio
It was his voice I missed most. All I wanted was to hear his voice again. The last time I'd heard R.J. speak before the accident was at his wedding. He and Christina got married at a church close to their home in East L.A. I stood next to him as he recited his vows. He chose to read something from Scripture. I don’t remember what verses he chose but I remember the sound of his voice.
When he had finished reading, everyone applauded as R.J. kissed his bride. Then R.J. turned to me and grabbed my hand. “Don’t you see?” he said, smiling. “The world can be good too.”
There was no honeymoon. Christina ran off a few days after the ceremony. I’d tried to tell R.J. he couldn't trust her. He didn't believe me though. He loved her. Why? Beats me. Mainly because she was fucking beautiful. Christina didn't make him happy, that's for sure. She was always flirting with other dudes, trying to make him jealous and shit. At least that's what R.J. used to tell me. She wasn't a very good mom neither judging from the rumors that circulated around the neighborhood. They said she whipped her little girl, Ruby—who she’d had with some fucking cholo when she was only in junior high—for practically anything. Forgot to pack your lunch for school today? That's a whipping. No more toothpaste? Whipping. You better brush your hair before I whip you, girl.
Yeah, Christina was one mean lady—a cheating wife, a violent mother, a sinner of the worst kind. A real villain. But R.J. was so nice, man, he'd put up with anything. He'd always been like that. In the fifth grade, when I first met R.J., I’d invited him over to my house for dinner because we were the only Mexican kids on our basketball team and so I figured we should've been friends. My mom made spaghetti that night—Mexican spaghetti, with hot sauce, the good stuff. And my mom kept refilling his plate, saying, “Eat, mijo, eat.” I saw that R.J. didn't want more spaghetti, though. He closed his eyes every time my mom plopped another serving onto his plate and he was burping a lot, too. But he was too shy to admit he was full, so he kept eating. He ate till he couldn’t eat any more. Around his third or fourth plate, R.J. turned around in his chair, leaned over and threw up all over our white carpet. My mom screamed, like, “¡Ay Dios mío!” I just laughed. His vomit was red, like tomato sauce. I remember because I had to wipe the stain clean. That was R.J.—too scared to say no, too scared to say anything, really. His whole life was like one big plate of spaghetti that he didn’t want to eat, that he didn’t have to eat, but that he ate anyways.
R.J. loved Christina because she was there, basically. She was like another plate of spaghetti for him. The universe had served her up and so he took her without complaint, without regret, without the courage to say no. But I guess that doesn't matter anymore. Christina left him. She straight up bounced and moved back in with her mom in Hollywood and would've slammed the door in R.J.'s face had he been there to watch her go. She kept the engagement ring. The wedding band too. That was Christina's way of saying goodbye, it’s over, and fuck you.
The marriage wasn’t over for R.J. though. He visited her every day, sitting for hours in his car parked outside Christina's mom's house with a bundle of roses lying on the passenger seat, crying, hoping to serenade her with his desperation. He thought Christina loved him. He thought being in love was like playing the role of some romantic soldier who was the hero in a bad movie. Who knows how long R.J. would’ve gone on playing that role if Christina's mom never called the cops and got a restraining order on that "loco"? The cops didn’t even handcuff R.J. when they took him in. I think they felt bad for him. The neighbors said later that they'd heard R.J. crying from their bedroom windows at night.
R.J. spent his last days lying on his couch drinking Tequila, looking through photo albums he and Christina had kept. He probably cried like a little bitch too. I can picture it now: tears dripping onto the laminated pages of the photo album, smearing a snapshot of R.J. and Christina hugging in front of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at mother fucking Disneyland. I shouldn't make fun of him though. He'd been with Christina since freshman year of high school. I've never even had a girlfriend for longer than a month. As soon as they say or do something I don't like I'm gone. I'll probably never understand relationships. But I know that Christina, in all her beauty and all her craziness, had consumed R.J. for pretty much his whole adult life. And so when she left him, R.J. stopped existing as himself. He was no longer the Chicano kid from Compton with a runaway for a father and a border hopper for a mother, or the kid who started helping his mom pay rent by selling oranges and apples at the farmers market downtown when he was twelve fucking years old, or the security guard at Wells Fargo who held doors open for people—a job that, by the way, he’d stopped showing up for after Christina ran off. No, R.J. thought of himself only as the abandoned husband of this royal bitch. He was barely a person. There was no more "I" in his mind. There was only Christina.
R.J. started sending her letters after the restraining order, and a few days later he disappeared. I don’t mean that figuratively, because you could've argued that he’d already been “gone” for a long time or whatever. R.J. really disappeared, like, poof, gone, abracadabra. One night around midnight the cops found his Honda Civic smashed against a lamppost on Sunset Boulevard. But R.J. wasn’t in the car. When they searched the neighborhood they couldn't find him anywhere. For a long time no one knew where he was. Rumors started: he'd thrown himself into the L.A. River; he was shooting heroine in some alleyway behind a donut shop; he'd run away to China to buy himself a new bride.
Detective Hernandez, that son of a bitch, didn't give a damn whether we found R.J. or not. Sure, he made phone calls and showed up at R.J.'s mom's door every once in a while to talk but he never said anything besides "Don't worry, señora. We're still looking for him" or "Remind me, how old was your son again?" He talked a lot about "progress" but even to this day Hernandez hasn't revealed what kind of progress he’d actually made. After a while the neighborhood started to suspect that Hernandez was actually the cause of R.J.’s disappearance. People said Hernandez belonged to a band of gypsies that went from town to town kidnapping people, holding victims captive while Hernandez did nothing to solve the case until the city put out a reward; then the gypsies would give a tip that led to the discovery, they'd claim the reward and toss Hernandez a cut of the loot. The truth was simpler: Hernandez liked money and hated people. When it came to work he preferred to twist his mustache while he read reports, filed paperwork and drank coffee—anything that kept him from having to learn about the victim's life, which is exactly what you need to do in order to solve a mystery. I found that out when I decided to investigate R.J.'s case myself.
Clues emerged as soon as I set out to find him. There was his car, of course, which had gotten totaled in the wreck. According to the reports the car had no remnants except for an empty bottle of Tequila, some cigarette butts stabbed in the ashtray and a copy of Pedro Parámo, a book that I owned and that for some reason had ended up in R.J.'s car. None of it made sense. Why were there cigarette butts? R.J. didn’t smoke. And what about that book? Had R.J. stolen it from me? I don’t know what he was doing with a book to begin with. Not reading it, that’s for sure. The only thing R.J. read was magazines like Sports Illustrated or the kind of books you found everywhere, books that everyone knows, like the Bible. Not Mexican literature. The more I thought about it the more I convinced myself that R.J. wasn't alone in that car when it crashed. He didn't smoke, he didn't read, and something tells me he'd shared that bottle of Tequila. But with who? Who would’ve sat and drank with a guy whose suicide seemed so certain? This person must’ve willed death as much as R.J. did. Or worse—they willed it because of R.J. Who was that crazy? That lonesome? That cruel?
I knew of only one person.
When I got to Christina's house, a man opened the door.
“Oh,” he said. “It's you.”
I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I'd never seen him before in my life. Christina's dad had run off when she was, like, thirteen or something. Maybe this guy was her uncle. Or her grandpa. Shit, I guess it's only fair that I didn't know who he was because this guy didn’t know who the hell I was either. He thought I was his son-in-law, or his nephew, or maybe he thought I was a ghost. I don't know. He turned his back to me and limped across the room. The right leg of his sweatpants was rolled up above the knee, revealing a wound that ate away at his calf. The wound looked like a rotten apple. The color wasn't green, and it wasn't red. Maggots had to be buried in there somewhere. If they weren't they would be soon. He sat down on the couch, lifted his bum leg onto an ottoman and pointed the remote control toward the T.V. The glow of its screen flickered as he flipped through the channels. I stepped into the living room and closed the door.
“I came to see Christina,” I told him.
At first he didn't say anything. He kept his eyes on the T.V. Then suddenly he banged his fist against the wall. Boom, boom, boom, real slow. The walls of that apartment must've been hollow because the whole place shook when he did that. Right after, Christina's mom walked into the room carrying a basket of clothes.
“He's here to see Christina,” said the man, still staring at the T.V.
Christina's mom dropped her basket of laundry onto the floor, then walked up to me and grabbed my hand.
“We can wait for her in the kitchen,” she told me in Spanish.
I barely understood her. My Spanish is bad. Bad for a Chicano, at least. And she spoke fast, you know, because she assumed I was fluent. Had she said we could wait for "her" or we could wait for "them"? I let her lead me to the kitchen, where she sat me down at a table and served two cups of coffee. I don't drink coffee but when I tried to say no thank you she shook her head, poured cream into my cup and put a plate of pan dulcein front of me. I thought about R.J. and all that spaghetti he’d eaten at my house when we were in the fifth grade. I listened to the noise of the T.V. echo in the living room. That guy, whoever he was, had finally settled on a channel to watch. The show must've been some kind of courtroom drama because I heard a lawyer, or a judge, or a cop, yelling "Guilty! Guilty!" For what felt like a long time, we said nothing.
When Ruby appeared in the doorframe, Christina's mom got up and reprimanded her for something—for not saying hello I guess. I couldn't understand anything she was saying. The Spanish was too fast this time.
“Hey, Ruby,” I said. “Where's your mom?”
She just looked at me. She didn't say anything. She didn't look like she wanted to say anything. Christina's mom kept yelling at her in Spanish and waving her finger all over the place. Then I heard the front door slam. A woman's voice spoke over the noise of the T.V. A voice that sounded like Christina's. When Christina's mom dropped her finger, Ruby disappeared into the living room. Before I could say anything Christina's mom walked over to me and held my hands again. Did she think I was R.J.? When I smiled at her, she turned toward the doorway. As I looked up, Christina was walking in.
She looked like shit. Normally Christina was so pretty, man, she didn't even need to wear makeup. But on that day she looked like someone else, or at least she didn't look like the Christina I knew. Maybe R.J. had seen this Christina before. Maybe everybody but me had seen this Christina before. Her hair was all greasy and shit, her skin pale, her lips chapped. She was wearing makeup but for some reason it made her look worse—as if she’d painted a scowl on her face. For some reason she hugged her purse when she saw me sitting at the kitchen table, as if that was all she could hold on to in order to keep from falling. I thought she was going to faint so I told her to sit down.
“You look tired,” I said.
It was a stupid thing to say but I didn't know what else to tell her. Besides, she was wearing pajamas.
Christina had ruined R.J.'s life. For all I knew she'd killed him. But right then what else could I tell her besides “I need you”? She'd been the last person to see him before the accident. She looked away from me as her mom walked out of the kitchen yelling for Ruby. Then a strange thing happened. Christina, this apocalypse of a woman disguised as a Mexican beauty, closed her eyes and cried. I don't know why, but I felt bad for her. I sat there, stupid, expecting her to either jump into my arms or spit in my face.
Finally I said, “Open your eyes. I want to see you.”
After a few sniffles, she looked up at me, moved her hands away from her face and laughed. It was a laugh I'd never heard before. A laugh like rocks falling down a cliff. It sounded like it hurt to laugh like that, so I reached out and I touched her. I felt her shoulders; they were naked and warm. I felt her arms. I felt her fingertips. Then Christina closed her eyes again.
“What happened to R.J.?” I asked her.
She didn't say anything. So I asked once more. This time she told me.
According to Christina, she'd never broken up with R.J.—R.J. had broken up with her. To celebrate their marriage, they'd left Ruby at Christina’s mom's house and went out drinking at some bar in Los Feliz. R.J. drank more than usual that night. He was so drunk that when they got home from the bar, he tried to rape her. He slipped off her skirt as she whispered to him, “Stop, stop.” But R.J. wasn't listening. He'd already thrown Christina’s skirt somewhere out in the darkness of their living room and now he was gnawing at her underwear. It wasn't the first time R.J. had pulled something like that, Christina claimed. Whenever he drank too much he'd pummel her, first begging for sex, then, if that didn't work, he’d force her legs open. But that night Christina wouldn't give him what he wanted.
“I was on my period,” she told me. “I don’t like to do it on her period.”
She kicked him, she pushed him, she swung her fists. Finally R.J. gave up the fight, stood over her and screamed, “You don't want to give your man some? Fine.
Then get the fuck out. Leave.” So what’d Christina do? She left. She pulled on a bathrobe, ran out the door and drove to her mom's house, crying so hard on the way there she never realized that she wasn't wearing any shoes. Meanwhile R.J. lay passed out on the living room floor without his pants, gripping Christina's skirt in his fist. He would call her in the morning.
She wouldn't take his calls. And so after about a week without an answer, R.J. started writing Christina letters. On the night of the accident, he’d left one on her doorstep. Christina kept it. “I’ve never shared it with anyone,” she said. “Not even Hernandez.” I asked her if I could read it. She didn't answer me. She just opened up her purse, pulled out a folded sheet of paper and slid it across the table. “I'll keep his letter with me all the time,” she said. “Forever.”
R.J. said nothing interesting in that letter, really. What you'd expect a heartbroken dude to say. I'm sorry, forgive me, I love you, it'll never happen again, I'll change, I promise. Blah, blah, blah. And then I came to the last words: “I'm coming now. I'm coming.” I didn't know what it meant. I didn't even know if it was supposed to mean anything. All I knew was, the last words in R.J.'s letter happened to be the last words in Pedro Parámo. First the book had disappeared from my bookshelf and ended up in R.J.'s abandoned car and now Pedro’s promise to Damiana—“I'm coming now. I'm coming”— had reappeared in R.J.’s letter, the last letter he would ever write to Christina.
I’d visited Christina to see if I could understand her and R.J.'s story but now I found myself in another story. I’d been seeking truth in a mystery only to discover that R.J.’s story wasn’t a mystery at all—it was a tragedy, one I’d known about all along, one I'd been a part of. You see, R.J. had never gone missing, he'd never “disappeared.” The book, the cigarette butts, the Tequila—R.J. was writing his own ending. The ending to his story left Christina and the rest of us reaching for him, searching for him, thinking of him. That’s all R.J. wanted, I guess. He wanted to be remembered and to be missed, to be found and to be loved, to resurrect himself. This was the only way to do it.
Or was Christina lying? Could R.J. really have been a pushover by day, a raping alcoholic by night? It’s true that he’d always been the kind of guy you felt like you could never really trust, even if you’d known him for pretty much your whole life like I had. He was just too quiet. There was only so much about him that you knew for sure. The rest you had to guess. I thought that maybe, like the Christina I’d never seen, there was the R.J. I’d never seen too.
No one will know for sure what really happened to R.J. The rumors around our neighborhood may even be true. He really had thrown himself into the L.A. River, or run off to China, or overdosed on heroine behind a donut shop. His body may even show up one day. Hernandez could break the case. But by then it won’t matter. By writing his own ending, R.J. not only fixed his story in history—he also reinvented his memory. It was a memory for us only, a borrowed memory, a memory that came from his imagination instead of from the world, but at least it was a memory. And it was permanent. Nothing was going to change now. We'll never remember R.J. as the son of a runaway father and a border hopper mother. We won't remember him as the twelve-year-old Chicano that sold oranges and apples at the farmers market so he could help his mom pay rent, or as the security guard at Wells Fargo who held doors open for people during the weekday and got drunk and raped his wife on weekends. We won't even remember him as a groom who once kissed his bride, smiling, because the world can be good too. Instead we'll remember R.J. as the hero of a story he'd written himself; as the lover who preferred to disappear forever than to never love again; as the man who stole a promise out of a book and made it his own. And I’ll remember the sound of his voice.
© Lucas Rubio 2103
Lucas Rubio's work has appeared in the literary journals The Truth About the Fact, The International Journal of Literary Nonfiction, The Story Graph (Oxford, UK) and the sports and culture blog PlayerzLeague.com, among others. He is the recipient of the John Claflin Scholarship Award and numerous other awards.
Pedro's Promise was read by Flavio Gaete for the Murder & Mayhem Show on 2nd October 2013