The first time Rafael told me he loved me it was from a jail cell. We had all eaten mushrooms and were driving up to an abandoned house we called the mountain house and would sleep in sometimes on the weekends, when a cop pulled Wesley over for a broken taillight and arrested both boys for outstanding warrants.
I walked home and a few days later we all went to the impound lot and broke out Wes’s truck with a pair of wire cutters. But all that night Rafael called me from jail. I don’t know how he was able to do it, but when he ran out of time the phone would hang up and he would call back a minute later. When he said he loved me it was like this: “I love—” click. And then he called back.
No one had ever loved me the way Rafael loved me. We were like two lost orphans clinging to one another for warmth. If orphan is another word for urchin (which it is), we were two lost orphans clinging to one another. If orphan refers only to a person without parents this isn’t true for us because Rafael’s mother was a prostitute and his father was someone, whoever he was. His mother walked out of the apartment one morning when he was seven and pushed the keys inside the mail slot where they fell in a heap in front of Rafael and his four siblings. His older sister took care of them for two months until a neighbor noticed they were living alone.
Rafael and I used to laugh that every Christmas they were in foster care, someone from some church somewhere would bestow him with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle “Raphael” action figure and his brother, Ashley, with a Barbie doll.
I forgot sometimes that Rafael wasn’t like the other boys who had all grown up together, that at one time he was an outsider, new to their group like me. He wasn’t from the mountains like they were; he wasn’t even from the United States. He was born in Mexico, though even he doesn’t know where, exactly.
When he was nine or ten, he lived with a foster family who owned a rug store right across the El Paso border. Every morning the father figure would roll Rafael and his siblings into rugs, carry them across the border, and roll them out to work. I think this is how he became an American citizen, but it doesn’t explain much. It explains the secrets I knew about him, like the fact that he couldn’t really read or write in English and the graffiti we all drew at night was a way to cover that up.
I also had parents, but they were too mentally ill or too high to know it. Rafael and I were both unwanted early in life and this meant we were dysfunctional in the same way, but it also meant we showed love in the same way. Our version of early romance was constructing “sex books” for one another where, in elaborate and ornate detail, we listed out every carnal memory and sexual act we’d ever witnessed or been exposed to, working backwards in time to when we were both small children. We traced our histories together, working for months long into the night, smoking cigarette after cigarette and surrounded by Prismacolor markers we stole from Hobby Lobby. When we were done, we offered these books to one another like ceremonial objects.
We knew we were repeating history, but isn’t that inevitable? As a child, I took care of my brothers the way his sister had taken care of him. I took care of all of us. But sometimes things were different. Once, when we were riding our bikes late at night, a car full of men drove by yelling and threw raw eggs at me out of their windows. They hit like bullets on my back and my legs and I was shaking so hard I had to stop riding. Rafael pulled up next to me, unaware I had been hit by anything, but it took him only a second to pull off his shirt and wipe my face and then the eggs from my clothes and skin. It’s been years since we were together and I can still feel that moment, those broad strokes of his hands pushing down on my body, washing something away.