“Look what I found!” Alan called out. First thing that morning, Alan had burst through the door with supplies from Noreen’s. Zip and I were just waking up, rummaging under the kitchen counter for the steel coffee pot. Alan was at the front door and behind him stood a short but well-framed man dressed in blue plaid shirt and faded jeans holding a bouquet of white and purple wildflowers.
“Who’s that?” Zip asked turning towards the front door.
“This is Vegas everybody. Jackpot!”
“Yeah? And? What are we going to do with him?” Zip challenged, eyebrows raised. Alan gave Zip, his husband, the look.
“Play nice you two,” I said. I walked towards the foyer. Alan passed with the groceries. Vegas handed me the flowers, “Gracias…I think?” I said looking up. I met his dark violet eyes and lingered at his black lashes fringed thick like bishop’s lace. Eye to eye, in a glance, knowing enacted recognition. Not merely strangers meeting. I held out my other hand.
“Con gusto,” he said.
Alan scurried back, snatched the flowers from me, “Edwin, great, you’ve met. I picked these on the way. Gorgeous! Be a love and get me the small crystal vase while I show our guest around. And Eddie, don’t forget to wash it out.” The fresh green stalks left a dewprint in my hand.
As we lit the morning fire, made coffee and breakfasted, Vegas told us how he escaped Mexico for the States. The other workers thought it funny when he told them how he stole a border guard’s truck in Nogales, bribed another guard he knew to let him cross, drove to Nevada, ditched the truck in the desert and walked to Las Vegas, thus earning his nickname, “How didn’t you get caught?” I asked.
“Pues, I tied the border guard up with duct tape and stuffed him inside a culvert.”
“Ai caramba!” Alan burst out ridiculously.
“Entonces, the guard was mexicano like me. I took his ID as insurance. You know, who can tell us Mexicans apart?” He winked; we laughed again. However, he said, suddenly pensive, he has not repeated his childhood name, his true one again; “Now that I am thirty-eight and my mother dead and family scattered — except my cousin who keeps my childhood name secret — I only answer to Vegas.” He said that over the years he’s been called many things and seemed to imply that the new identities he assumed during this time negated his real name, made it unnecessary, outlawed. It was as if white rapids flooded his past and now he appeared without history, unmappable, a scrubbed featureless landscape. The nickname his only identifier.
Alan was rapt with attention; Zip had to pull him away to go prepare the boat’s launch. Vegas leaned towards the fire, blew, and activated the unburned twigs with his breath. It was as if the tiny bones inside my ears burned with the telling vibration.
Lake St. Clare lay thirty miles outside the medium sized city of Dos Rios. It was a small, quiet lake, with a few camps used mainly for hunting and fishing. Every June, since my first year of high school, the year Alan and I became best friends, we would ready the small cabin inherited from his father and take a week to enjoy the aquatic wildlife and scenic nights by the open fire. When he met Zip a couple years back, he also joined us, somewhat upsetting the peace and balance we had established. But I eventually grew to confide in Zip especially about the relationship with my ailing partner Aidan. It helped that Zip and Aidan were both of the same age (in their sixties) and mutual friends who had palled around our small town together.
At the same time, I sometimes questioned my friendship with Alan. He once told me he had only befriended me because I was the sole puertorriqueño in our school. But why would he? Why was I special? Perhaps he saw himself in me. Being shunned by his Mormon family for his blatant sexuality mirrored my own struggles as a gay Latino teen in that intolerant, seemingly homogenous town. Either my outcast nature befitted him or it was some kind of fetish. Either way I called him my best friend, for over twenty years, good or bad, and with some friends it is better not to look too closely, or you might not like the shape of your silhouette in their eyes.
After breakfast, Vegas and I looked out on the lake. I pointed over towards Alan, who with Zip, was busy readying the bass boat, stowing tackle, reels, lines and vests, “And how’d you guys meet?” I asked.
“Waiting outside Noreen’s store,” he said, “For my cousin to send a Moneygram to Mexico.” Every June he and his cousin bought an old truck seeking work. They travelled north to Dos Rios to pick strawberries.
“He just came up to you?” Vegas rubbed his dark stubble, nodded grinning; “Crazy Alan. So like him,” I said.
“Crazy?” he replied. “No, I’m just muy atractivo.” I couldn’t help but agree. Then he pulled me to him, put his mouth to my ear and whispered: “I am La Liebre, The Jackrabbit. I run and run and run from the fox. I run under fences, through tunnels, over deserts. I never tire. My ears hear the sun rise before it reaches the horizon. My fur is the color of a dust that never settles to earth. When you see a jackrabbit, you must never say his sacred, secret name, La Liebre, out loud. If you do, he will run and take your memories too.”
I stared at him, unnamed trails crossing the burnt plains of his face. I was intrigued and a little scared. A mayfly alighted on my cheek. I brushed it off and it flew around Vegas’s head, then landed on his lip. He blew it away. It skimmed the surface of the water, radiating bull’s-eyes. I was about to speak. He put an index finger to my lips. We heard Alan calling us over. The boat was ready to launch.
We pulled away, our small motor propelling us to the other shore where the fish liked to feed under the newly green lily pads or hide beneath the broken branches that fell haphazardly into the water in winter. Overhead, mist rose round the slouching hills as if to wrap their cold shoulders in white lace huipils. We anchored, and as Alan and Vegas prepared the fishing lines, rigging the hooks with fresh worms, artificial bait, and spinners, Zip and I stood at the front of the boat looking out into the shadowed curves of the water. Zip asked me about Aidan’s health. He knew I felt guilty for leaving Aidan behind. “Well, the doctors say the meds have destroyed most of his liver function,” I said fidgeting with the fishing line.
“Eddie,” he said bowing his head slightly.
“You know how I feel. The meds are designed to save you and kill you at the same time like chemo. Is Aidan with it? How is he?”
“They’ve sedated him. But it’s doesn’t seem real to him or me. The hospice nurse said she would call if there were any changes.” It was true; he was dying. But, it was a relief as well. I was grateful for the time we had, the HIV medications. But no one anticipated the relentless side effects. They made Aidan fatigued and nauseous even during our best days and wore down his resilience, caused his long decline. Of course I loved him. He taught me patience and acceptance, to look beyond the limitations of our fatal bodies. But the life I had planned for myself did not unfold and a ten year relationship with a slowly dying man had embittered me to the possibility of free, uncompromised love. Honestly, I looked forward to the few days at the cabin to escape sickness and to mourn our relationship’s end.
“But, as you well know, he is almost seventy. I’ll never forget that day fifteen years ago,” Zip added; “I’ve told you the story many times. I’m glad I made him go to the hospital when he was about dead lying in his favorite worn-out chair. So skinny, his hair and teeth falling out.” He shook his head at the recollection; “He’s had an amazing recovery. Since then and since he met you he has been happiest. I never thought I would live such a full life either, especially at my age, and then to meet Alan, as crazy as he makes me, is a joy.” We laughed then hugged.
“What are you two queers giggling at?” Alan called over; “Get over here and help. This isn’t a gay cruise where you lie around all day ogling young boys hoping to get lucky. We’re here to work!”
“Shut up Alan.”
“You’ll scare all the fish.”
We each grabbed a pole. We cast. I looked down at Vegas leaning over the side of the boat, his face scattered into countless flashing fragments struggling to make a familiar whole. We caught four good-sized bass and bluegill. It was past noon and we were sitting on the boatdeck drinking chilled ciders, “Tell them how you got your name, Zip!” Alan said, spinning on his chair.
“Oh God, not this story again,” I said, rolling my eyes at Vegas. He had been quiet except to give us pointers on the luckiest spots to cast. He was right most of the time. He mentioned that he and his cousin fished often, for extra food.
“Come on Zip, tell them,” Alan whined; “I love how you tell it.” He was now leaning on Zip’s shoulder, a little unsteady. He was on his fifth or sixth cider.
“So, I was in the bathroom, right? Back in the sixties in the only city that had anything closely resembling a gay bar. This little dive called The Longhorn. And I was going at it with this guy in the stall….”
I looked over at Vegas. He didn’t seemed fazed by the talk that day or Alan’s general flamboyance or flirtation. Vegas knew the score from the moment Alan picked him up at the store. But I questioned Vegas’ motivation. I would need to ask him: Why stay? Maybe he needed a break from care, like me; he seemed at ease, comfortable. The knowing looks he passed suggested a history of experienced yet unacknowledged pleasures.
“So next thing I hear is POLICE! Then they are crashing through the door. What could I do? I disengaged, so to speak, and grabbed his fly and up we go! The guy was screaming and bleeding so bad that it gave me the distraction I needed to burst out the back door…..” Alan howled. Vegas grinned big. And I just shook my head, “And that’s how I got the name, Zip!”
Midafternoon I stripped off shirt and pants, jumped into the dark water. I dove under and swam a few feet and back. Bobbed up. There was Vegas standing naked in the boat ready to jump. Over my head he flew, the sun at his back. His compact body sailed over my head. Quetzalcoatl’s rabbit leaped; his shadow spread over my stunned, full, moon-pale face. Alan, now sitting on Zip’s lap, gave me a quick evil-eyed glare, then he swung the chair away. Vegas splashed me, went down. I felt a mouth nibble like a tiny minnow. He rose and grabbed me close. Water fanned down his black curly head, over his triangular nose shaped like arrowflint. I caught the turquoise on my tongue as they dropped one by one off his lashes. Two thick eels circled underwater.
We waded off to a secluded sandbar. We swam to where we could be alone and lie on a little stretch of sand jutting off the side of a small overgrown island. As he held me, he asked me to tell him something of my life. I confided I was in a relationship with an ailing partner.
“But you don’t have the virus? Lucky. Doesn’t it scare you?” he asked. It scared me all the time; but, I explained there was only an infinitesimal chance of transmission. We didn’t do certain things in order to minimize the risk. Because he loved me, Aidan did not want to see me burdened financially, by constant medical tests, by the long term effects. But, I told Vegas, I was ready for a new love, a love without precautions, that I had already grieved enough even though Aidan hadn’t yet died. I grieved for missed opportunities and wanted to leave sickness and worry behind. Maybe I was idealistic, foolhardy.
“It seems we are destined to an unsettled, unspoken life,” Vegas said; “But it is not late.” Unsure if he meant the afternoon or my chances, he grabbed my hand, jumped up, and lifted me from the sand. We swam back to the boat. Alan said it was time to return to camp. Once there, we would stretch our legs at the fresh cracking fire, would see the sun backlight the hills circling Lake St. Clare and watch the water settle as the fishing boats docked, all the men going back to their camps, to ice the fish, eat, drink, and recount the day.
The day darkened. The long evening light expired. We ate our fish and were drinking around the campfire. I had to take Alan aside. He was obviously smitten with Vegas. But I could feel Zip’s jealousy heating up. Alan, drunk, acted high-spirited, flirtatious. I felt impending conflict; I sensed Zip drawing an imaginary line. I grabbed Alan’s elbow and brought him outside the circle beyond the tall firs that seemed to lean into the firelight as if to eavesdrop on our conversation. Out of earshot, I whispered, “You might want to cool it, you know, with Vegas.”
He turned to me, a little cockeyed, “You cool it, Mary, or is it Maria? You want him all to yourself. What about Daddy?” he said louder.
“You’re drunk. Leave Aidan out of this,” I seethed stepping closer.
“You’re glad I asked Vegas here, Papi. We see what you’re playing at, Little Miss Innocent. You don’t fool us. Why should you get him? A second chance?”
“Enough Alan, you prick.” A classic Alan scene was brewing if I didn’t ease up. So I let him convince himself Vegas would sleep with him. Alan was always dissatisfied, his marriage to Zip a conventional attempt to domesticate his passions.
“Please Alan. Don’t fight. Put on a song and we’ll dance.” Alan stumbled over to the picnic table setup for music under the deck. I rejoined Zip and Vegas at the pit. We watched as the fire transformed the logs into their ashen cores. Vegas and I danced on the lawn. A light trance played, not loud enough to disturb the other campers, just enough to enhance the fireflies’ pulse.
“If I didn’t look forward to the drama of divorce,” Alan said from his chair, “Then I could never survive the tedium of marriage.”
Zip turned. “What was that?” He said, hackles raised.
“Oh nevermind, Zip. You’re too old to understand.”
“What’s wrong? Your new Mexican friend not paying you enough attention? Collecting Latinos like sugar skulls. Don’t worry. You’ll find another.” Only Alan could hurt Zip, an ex-first lieutenant who had served in Vietnam.
I grabbed Vegas’s hand. We felt free, but costs mounted. Vegas said we should go up to the deck and give these two some space. We knew they were about to fight and if Alan didn’t have an audience, it might not escalate into a full-out match. Alan’s drinking could sometimes push him to violence. There had been a couple of incidents where he showed up at my house with a bloody nose or split lip. Plus I wanted Vegas alone.
We continued dancing, closer, on the enclosed deck above the house, and we could still hear the faint beat and Alan and Zip’s strained voices. Vegas reached his hand out to my face and I kissed the tips of his black, strawberry-stained fingers. His hands felt chapped and rough. I told him I had a cream that might help that I used when working winter jobs. He put his arms around my neck. I pressed my hips to his. Then I felt a buzzing against my groin. His phone, “Do you want to get that?”
“Esta bien…just my cousin checking up on me.”
I laughed. “You left him at the store this morning. Won’t he be worried?”
“No, we’re good. I always pop in and out.”
The buzzing stopped, “What’s he look like?” I asked teasingly.
“Not as good as me…”
I had my eyes closed, my cheek nestled against his neck. I heard shouting and running up the stairs. I pulled back a little startled, but I didn’t want the conversation to end, “What’s your cousin’s name?”
“What is it? Reno?” I joked.
“Funny. Nice try. It’s Alberto….”
“Si, but he prefers ‘Beto’.”
“Can you tell me your real name? Who are you? Vegas or the Jackrabbit? If you are the jackrabbit you said I may not say your secret name. So what is true?” Some part of me wanted to believe in the power of the forbidden name, even though I resisted dreams, or the mistaken identity of metaphor.
“I am and am not the Jackrabbit. But don’t be silly. I will not take your memories.”
“Prove it. Say the name with me then.”
We said it, simultaneously, “La Liebre.”
A triumphant shout. Someone screamed. Water rained down. A spray of purple and white wildflowers shot over our shoulders. Vegas broke away. First Aidan, now the rabbit was slipping through my fingers. Then, before memory dimmed, before Vegas carried me bruised to the bedroom, before we eventually united after our long, tired migration, I caught crystal fragments of the vase scattering around my feet and Alan yelling faggot and spic from the far side of the room.