Always they find us inappropriate, but today especially so. Here we are with nowhere to go and nothing to do, sitting in a rusty pickup truck, the one leaking oil, the one with the busted transmission that sounds like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here we are with the engine running for the AC, the doors wide open for our bare legs to spill out. Because this, right here, to survive the heat, this is all we have.
An hour ago we became outcasts. One of us—not me—would not shut the fuck up. And since the grandmas are prepping for the monks and need to focus, we’ve been banished outside to choke on traces of manure blown in from the asparagus farms surrounding us, our hometown, this shitty place of boring dudes always pissing green stink.
And according to the Mas, everything about us appears at once too masculine and too feminine: our posture—backs arching like the models in the magazines we steal; our clothes—the rips, studs, and jagged edges—none of it makes sense to them. The two of us are wrong in every direction. Though Maly, the girl cousin, strikes them as less wrong than the boy cousin, me.
“Ma Eng can suck my dick,” Maly says, still not shutting the fuck up, her long hair rippling in the gas-tainted breeze of the vents, her blond-orange highlights dancing, or trying to, anyway. “What is up her ass? Seriously, I should have a say in this party’s fucking agenda. It’s my birthright!”
“At least Ma Eng gives a fuck about you,” I say, my chin resting on the steering wheel. Under the truck, the cracked concrete of Ma Eng’s driveway seems to be steaming, and I swear the very dust in the air is burning, it’s so hard to breathe. We can’t even listen to the radio, you know? Can’t focus on anything but our own sweaty boredom. I look up at the harsh blue sky, how it crushes the squat duplexes of G Block. I am trying to deprive Maly of my full attention, but her vivid presence, that vortex of cheap highlights, it exhausts my energy. Plus, she’s slapping the side of my head.
“Ves, Ves, Ves!” Maly says. “Look at me!”
“Jesus,” I whine, batting her hand away. “I thought you ‘gave zero fucks’ about this party. Why do you care if they’re making amok or not?”
“It’s what I want to eat, okay, and it’s my dead mom.” She violently throws her head sideways, cracking her neck. “I mean, apparently she’s not dead dead, anymore, but still . . .”
Unsure of what to say, I clench my teeth into a lopsided smile. I can’t help but admire her looks, as I always do. Almost with pride. Maly’s got it going on, no matter how disheveled. Even today, on this random August Sunday, as we wait to celebrate the rebirth of her dead mother’s spirit in the body of our second cousin’s baby, she looks good. Her left leg’s thrown up onto the dashboard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she started clipping her toenails. She’s in a pair of jean shorts she stole from our other cousin, who was too chunky for them anyway, and a white T-shirt cut into a tank—also stolen—which she’s stuffed down her panties so you can notice her thin waist. Hard to say if it’s intentional, the way her clothes fit, all these hand-me-downs, which is the effect she uses, I guess, to chew up guys too dumb to realize she will spit them right out.
Through her cheap sunglasses, I see her bug eyes looking at me and past me at the same time, an expression affirming how I feel sometimes, like she’s my responsibility, like I’m a dead broom reincarnated into a human, my sole purpose to sweep away her messes—whatever Maly happens to shatter next.
“Stop being dramatic,” I tell her, my hands tapping the steering wheel. “You know it’s all bullshit—the celebration, the monks, our third cousin or whoever the hell she is.” I’m not sure I believe what I’m saying or if I’m just trying to make Maly feel better. “It makes zero sense, right?” I add. “Like, I’m no expert, but why would your mom reappear over a decade later?”
Maly shrugs her shoulders, indifferent now, too full of herself to entertain my attempts to console her. It reminds me of our sleepovers. Whenever my dad got stupid drunk, my mom would send me to Ma Eng’s. He was never violent in front of me, but who knows what happened between my parents when I was sleeping on Maly’s bedroom floor, especially in those years when my dad was jobless—after his restaurant failed and before he started cooking lunch for a rich-kid school—and when it became obvious I wasn’t, you know, a normal boy, that I was a girly wimp who despised sports and watched weird movies. I was a precocious freak who came out before puberty, and I was clearly doomed. It’s hard enough for people like us, my mom would say. All very cliché, in that gay sob story kind of way, but I can’t explain it any better than that. They are my immigrant parents.
Anyway, every night of what my mom called “bonding time with grandma,” even though technically Ma Eng’s my great-aunt, Maly would nudge me awake with some fake urgent question, like was she actually pretty, or even that funny? For weeks, she obsessed over our eighth grade English teacher, how he claimed she wasn’t ready for the high school honors track and then refused to write her a letter of recommendation. Why do teachers always hate me? What if that stupid dirtbag is right? Every night I told her, You’re awesome, everyone’s a dick, and so on, only to discover that she’d fallen asleep before I even stopped talking.
I was always there for Maly, right where she wanted me, on the floor beside her bed, doling out reassurances until she sank into her dreams. Though maybe she’s getting worse these days, needier than usual. Because in less than a week, I’m heading to a four-year university in LA, while Maly’s stranded, stuck with Ma Eng for another two years, at least, as she makes do with community college.
Maly has closed the passenger door and is now sticking her head out of the window. She leans her right hip against the door, presses her left foot onto the center console, holding herself in place for a moment, grabbing on to the truck’s roof, until she steadies herself into a stillness, like she’s posing for a famous photographer. I watch her, skeptically, as she dares to go handless, crams her fingers into her mouth, and whistles a deafening sound.