Beautiful Bembé
Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Abuela screams my name nightly. BEMBÉ! BEMBÉ! BEMBÉ! She calls me a descarada: a short skirt, stubby legged whore who wears hoops the size of her padre’s wagon wheel. She asks me how fat the ox is, pulling at my culo. Is he a full decade older than me? Does he promise me corazón-shaped chocolates and a pretty dress for my Quinceañera? She tells me I will never be beautiful, never be a bride, never be nada. No, less than nada.

But, my grandmother is long dead—and I’m a fourteen-year-old boy.

Tonight is no different than nights before. I kneel at my bed and pray first to the Saints that they take away the voice of my abuela from our apartment. I pray second for my mother, but I think the Saints know my heart isn’t in it. So, I list specifics like the high price of utilities and even name drop mom’s douche boss, Charles. But now, and not for the first time, I look for the words to pray a blessing on myself and I half whisper, while I kneel on hard carpet with a fold of thin sheet between my lips: Please make me beautiful. Please Saints, make me beautiful.
 

***

 
In the hallway of Christos Reyes High, Carlos is even taller than our freshman lockers. I am close enough to smell the name brand detergent on his shirt. I am close enough to see the dead skin peeling down his slightly stubbled cheeks.

“Accutane’s a real bitch,” he says to me and I tell him at least his family can afford it. “You don’t get it—you don’t even need it,” he adds.

I blush.

“You don’t need it because you haven’t even hit puberty, Fucker,” he says and the breathy wave of his laugh crests across my forehead.

He brushes a cliché of dark hair from his eyes, while I switch my backpack from left to right and feign a grumble.

“Can I borrow your Earth Space book again?” I ask.

“Yeah, just give it back to me at lunch,” he says, slamming the locker shut.

“Sorry I still can’t find mine,” I say.

“Only cucks apologize,” he says.

“Sorry,” I say.

Me and Carlos have been friends as far back as I can remember: ten years, fourth grade when he lent me his pencil-led-eviscerated, yet-still-halfways-functional, slime-green eraser. I really think, he said, I’m pretty, pretty sure, he said, I’m done making mistakes. Confidence in one unmasks insecurity in another, at least I think that’s the saying. Either way, I am still reaching for the sureness of that nine-year-old boy.
 
 
In Earth Space Science, I trace my pencil over Carlos’s perfect cursive handwriting, comments and drawings he’s scratched in the margins, words he’s scribbled out to make a joke:
 

8.1 Human Impact on Land Resources This heat rises from within the Earth. Cracks in the lithosphere widen as the land masses spread apart and the upwelling of heat rises and pushes the plates apart.

 
Where it says “plates” Carlos has written “A$$CHEEKS” above in small letters. I laugh out loud and Mr. Pellow eyes me for a second before moving on.
 

***

 
I find our table at lunch. There is a clatter of trays and laughter and sneakers squeaked throughout the multi-level dining hall, but our table is especially roaring.

“P,” says Eric.

“U,” says Julian.

“S,” says Matt.

“S,” says Kyle.

“T,” I say.

“U,” says Carlos, after thinking for a moment.

“L,” says Eric, rolling his eyes.

“E,” says Julian.

“Ouija says, P-U-S-S-T-U-L-E… puss tool?” asks Matt.

“The Hell is that?” asks Kyle.

“Some sorta of dildo, yeah?” says Julian.

“Why do you always ruin it, Bem?” Eric asks me.

“Ouija says get a dictionary, you tards,” I say, and Carlos laughs.

Eric says something back, but mainly into his mayo and ketchup swirl, and we don’t hear him over Carlos’s drumroll anyway.

All six of our heads turn in sync to the left. Jessie Purcell is walking up the stairs two at a time, tray in one hand, plain milk in another. She swallows each step like they were track and field hurdles. There is a moment at the top step when the long, pale line of her back leg threatens to betray the green drape of her school uniform, and everyone but me bobbles their head and begins exorcising the dramatic demon of a single letter from between clenched teeth.

“P,” says Eric.

“R,” says Julian.

“E,” says Matt.

“T,” says Kyle.

“E-pre-TEND, you can be gentlem—,” I begin to say, but Carlos cuts me off.

“—T-T-Y,” Carlos shouts.

I slide down in my seat just a little.

“What a good girl,” says Julian.

“I’ll be telling the Saints about her tonight,” says Matt.

“Oh, Casper’s comin’!” wails Eric.

“Ew dude, too far,” says Kyle.

They all laugh, and I laugh too, but when Carlos’s eyes can’t stop searching for her afterimage, I hear the boiled voices inside.
 

***

 
My mother pounds on the bathroom door until it threatens to break. I don’t think about what might happen if it does. The fear of it would end me.

“Tssss!” I wrinkle my face in pain, the eyeliner brush’s bristle nearly poking a hole through the white of my left eye.

I look a complete fool in the mirror. Long hair kept at bay by a makeshift buff (a cut off sleeve reattributed). One eye with liner and mascara and the unsubtle pink stain of my mother’s Sephora “Seduce” lipstick painted across just the left half my mouth.

“Ouija says pathetic,” I mumble under my breath.

TAP, TAP, TAP. She knocks again. “Niño, I need to pee—now,” she calls.

I squeeze the eyebrow brush tighter—her eyebrow brush tighter—and press it into the pomade disk. I hiss at the door, “Aye coño, I’m trying to dump.”

“I’m going to get the KEY,” she shouts, and TAP-TAPS the bathroom door for good measure.

The brush in my hand clatters against the sink. In the mirror, a prepubescent clown panics: her one eyebrow dark, another light; her one eye a well-circled “O,” the other plainest of Janes; half her lips pale, the other a dipped gloss of champagne pink.

My eyes zigzag across the sink’s surface for the washcloth. But, it’s gone. I tug off my shirt and blast hot water through the white cotton. Again, and again, I scrub my face until the shirt is the sodden Neapolitan stain of ice cream, and my face is raw with heat.

Before the door bangs open, I toss the shirt beneath the sink. Its fall splits through the trapped air of one thousand plastic grocery bags.

“You always admire yourself in the mirror after you shit?” asks my mother, pushing past me.

I cover my chest with both arms. “Never come in here again,” I say, as she unbuttons her work khakis.

“Out, niño—and shut the door!” she thrusts a finger at the small hallway, her other hand rummaging for the spine of an old US Weekly.

I slip out of the bathroom and sidestep our coffee table. The overhead AC clacks on.

My mother hums behind the door. Some embarrassing bachata with bongos trickles in where she left dinner half cooked in the kitchen.

“DESCARADA!” screeches through the AC vent, and I duck. The word punches just above my head, whistling.
 

***

 
“Que descanses, don’t let the bed’s bug bite,” says my mother.

I grunt.

“Afraid of more bad dreams?” she asks.

“No, I’m fine,” I say, and she frowns, closing the door. She knows not to press further. We’ve been through it a thousand times.

Tonight, I have trouble sleeping. This is nothing new for a boy who hears his grandmother’s ghost. Since the time I was very little, my mother has told me the trick to good dreams is never falling asleep scared, and, just in case, remember no imagined demon can defy the expelling name of Jesus. There is still at least a little bit of Catholic left in her (and she hopes even less was passed onto me). She laughs that her mother, a devout woman, would never forgive her for the state of our godless household. This is usually the part where my mother preforms her one-eyed laugh, smiling at a faraway memory that isn’t meant for me. I think she’s kept a little more Catholic than she’s lets on. Above her bed is a large painting of St. Christopher—patron saint of protection—we laugh that he protects her from all men. But, she’s had it over her bed apparently since she was a very little girl, and when I was young and told her I should have one too, she laughed and insisted her patron’s painting was most definitely big enough to protect the both of us. I still hope that’s true.

Now, beneath the sheets, I whisper a quick prayer to St. Christopher.

How many times I have prayed to the Saints, to the Holy Ghost, to His Son, to any God?

Night—after—night.

Tonight, I will pray to my abuela. At least I know she can speak.

Be brave Bembé, I tell myself.

As the AC clacks off, I slip out from under my sheets to the side of my bed.

I place a bit of the comforter between my lips. “Abuela,” I begin, kneeling, “I did not know you well—or, I guess, really at all—in this life, but I think you are still here.”

The AC clacks on/off on/off, and my eyes open.
 

***

 
HOLY FUCK, I say, only in my head (and I hope that my cursing doesn’t register as part of the prayer). I scrunch my eyes shut and keep it desperately short.

Breathless, I whisper, “Make me beautiful. Por favor, abuela, make me beautiful.”

I am Catholic enough to know we do not pray to the dead. We pray to the Saints, the Godhead, the Holy Mother. So, when I crawl back beneath the sheets, it is a real crawl. My fear keeps me low under the sheets all night. In an effort to comfort myself, I think about Carlos’s advice. The AC clacks off for the dozenth time. Sleep falls into me.
 
 
In the morning, a voice jostles my conscience awake.

“Mom, can’t be seven yet,” I mumble, propped up on a shoulder. I have always been the type who’s waking is a puzzling apart of psychic debris. Before I can even open my eyes, my mind still piecing together the who, what, and where; I sense it is not my mother at the door. Why.

Is it not my mother at the door—
 
 
I have confided in Carlos on more than one occasion that I think I am too old for “bad dreams,” and, of course, he is the only friend who will admit that sometimes he has them too. I have considered admitting, again, only to him, about the voice of my abuela—but I think I know which secrets are better left in the closet. He’s told me his abuelo suggested bravery in the face of an unpleasant dream or monster; Carlos laughed when I described my dream self to him, running away from this ghoul or that goblin, screaming the name of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus as they chase me through house and cellar and field, their Santería beads clattering out the weak plea of my call for a savior.

It’s all in your head, said Carlos. And it’s your head—you can have sex with the hottest chick or chainsaw a monster’s head clean off—A dream is the easiest place to be brave, Bembé.
 
 
My vision is 20/20, better even, but the dark is hazy as if a scrim of water arcs over the height of my doorframe.

Inside my ears I hear my own heartbeat, and I realize I am not propped up on an elbow. Sheets drift and snap across my horizontal torso. A dream is the easiest place to be brave, Bembé, I tell myself.

Then, the voice sweeps inside my room. Then, it sweeps inside of me.

It is my grandmother’s, but softer and much sweeter. Memories of my grandmother are so, so far away.

Pure child, she coos, the well is deep inside you for ascension.

The figure is obsidian but dappled with light like the markings on a doe. White circles shine small over the feminine torso. The edges of her limbs are obscured, but I can feel the face of my abuela behind the words.

Show your beauty, says the voice. Beads clatter across each opened syllable.

A wet pressure cracks open across my forehead, then the smell of rich coconut oil spills into my nostrils, my ears. And then there is nothing but the hollow quake of linked batá drum, the kind my grandmother played for me when I was young. Before remembrance. My body a light rainstick in a room of wind. Here memories unspool—commemorations of spirit dancing through a racing swell of wet drum. Faster. Beat. And faster. Beat.

Until the day I am born.
 
 
Here, on the floor beside my bed, facedown, I am awake—I think. My mouth is frozen open, tongue quivering within a puddle of my spittle sticky to the carpet. The swollen grape of my uvula putters in and out of my throat.

My mother crescendos her knuckles against the door. “Bembé! I’m late! You have to walk today. Sorry, but it’s a nice day out. Wake up!”

I hear her. But, she is farther away than my waking.

When I stand, those things with which I am most intimately familiar feel foreign. I am already dressed. My legs ferry me around my room. My legs ferry me to the bathroom sink. My legs ferry me the two miles to school. Ferry me somewhere between the waking and forgetting.

There are four glass double-doors that stretch rectangles of tall light across the entrance of Christo Reyes High. It is 9:36 A.M. on a Tuesday. The sun beats across the soccer field, beats across employee parking, beats at the black center of Bembé’s wind-fingered hair.

A large crowd of students have gathered. They are smooshed in snaking lines of primary colors, caught between classes, against the plexi doors. Bembé ambles toward them, smiling.

Silence is rare in the halls of a high school. But here, just one or two students have their phones out. Everyone has eyes only for Bembé.

“Someone get a teacher,” one girl whispers.

The gathered offer no response.

“Someone get a teacher,” she says again without raising her voice. “Someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher, someone get a teacher.” She says it over and over, until a louder student approaches the crowd.

“Yo, what’s going on?” says the boy, hands planted atop the straps of his backpack, headphones around his neck, phone tucked under one arm. He is on tip toes.

The boy sees Bembé, and his hands come up to cover his mouth. The phone drops from beneath his arm and clatters to the linoleum. He doesn’t notice.

He says, Bembé is … beautiful.
 
 
This boy whose phone lies shattered on the ground does not budge when Carlos grabs his shoulder.

“Chris, dude—the hell’s going—” says Carlos, who is now all but face to face with Bembé smiling behind glass, his friend whose hand rises not in greeting but to pull the silver door handle and enter this maw of students.

“R-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-N-G!!” The overhead bell decries the beginning of Second Period. No one moves.

Carlos crouches and thrusts his forearms against the door: where Bembé reaches. The crash bar crunches. A chill of morning air whooshes into the hallway. Carlos grabs Bembé by the bicep and drags him through the crowd. Everyone parts for the stumbling pair.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Carlos breathes. The halls are relatively empty, and he signs the cross quickly with one hand, Bembé in the other.

They stumble into a freshman bathroom.

Another boy is zipping up at the urinal.

“Fuck out of here,” says Carlos, shooing at the exit.
 
 
Arms at his sides, Bembé eyes himself—trembling—in the refraction of mirror, six sink lengths long.

“Bembé, what is going on?” begs Carlos. He signs the cross again, slower, more deliberately, this time.
 
 
Bembé wobbles, planted at the center of the freshman boy’s bathroom. He is naked, save his white underwear and socks. There is a giant, white spiral of paint beginning at his sternum then tailing its way to a soft bulge of throat. The whites of his eyes are pure white, and his pupils the black of burnt bark. They are without recognition. His expression is a relaxed smile, while his hair pulls upward in tight, dark twists, anxious toward the ceiling, as if they were branches born from his scalp—born for the sky.

Something else has left Bembé paralyzed in place. His face. Unmasked. He is wearing a full face, of makeup. The pinked lips. The blacked lashes. Bronzer. Highlighter. The apples of his cheeks blushed mother’s love letter peach. Sweat rings a wet line around the perfect oval of his complexion.

“Bembé,” shouts Carlos, pulling at his shoulders, “Wake up.”

Both boy’s eyes are unflinching. Carlos on Bembé. Bembé on the mirror.

The distinct thwack of a male dress shoe reverberates through the outside hallway: teacher, principal, or pre-game-dressed-up-senior-varsity ball player, Carlos doesn’t know. He puts one hand to Bembé’s cheek. “Bembé … Hermano,” he says.
 

***

 
I am out. Half naked, and awake, in the middle of the freshman boy’s bathroom. There are voices, here—Carlos’s is the clearest.

“Bembé,” he says, “Bembé. I am afraid.”

I do not know if he knows, his hand is on my cheek. I do not know if he knows, he is the warmest thing against the morning, the dew-shook freeze of my skin.

Clear, I move forward, one white sock crossing the single tile of linoleum that separates us. Here, I let my nose seek into the side of his cheek.

My lips. I press into Carlos.
 

***

 
There are a handful of choice phrases you’d never want to hear your best friend say to you.

Fuck you, Forever.

Now, that’s at the top.
 
 
My chin reaches toward the exist, where the heel of Carlos’s sneaker still twirls with the final act of leaving.

I speak low, and only to the empty pit of boy’s bathroom. “What are you doing?” I whisper.

“A dream,” I respond, “is the easiest place to be brave, Bembé.”
 
 
I run. And I cry. It is not a rainy day. The sun burns at my naked back, and ropes of late-spring wind pull at the bareness of each stride. I run until my mind can’t find its way. Then, my legs find a kind of consciousness and send me out, ferry me, toward home.
 

***

 
I arrive. The door opens for me, and I feel I hadn’t thought to lock it before I left. I try and turn on the hallway lights, but they don’t work, and it is not dark. The overhead AC clacks on. I hear nothing, except my own breath’s slow catch. There is a trail of dirty footprints behind me, and, thinking of my mother, I pull off each sock. They stay on. The AC is cold on my back. I shiver as it pushes me. Toward my bedroom. Into home.
 
 
When the AC clacks off, I stand directly in front of my bedroom door.

“M-Mom?” My voice begins to call. Then—there is school—there is my reflection in the mirror—and there is Carlos—I stop. Thoughts coalesce into a cold shard at the center of my head.

Did I kiss him? Did we kiss?

I know in my bones: I do not have to open this door. And there is no voice inside my head now stronger than my own. In a dream is the easiest place, I say, to be brave, and turn the handle.
 

***

 
My bedroom has become the scullery of an ancient ritual—the charred chest cavity of a fairytale beast—or at least, that’s what I hope. I hope that my bedroom is black with unuttered dark. I hope there is no bed. I hope in place of it, the thick, white spiral on my chest is matched by a superior spiral galaxied across the entire carpet, the burned patch of my once-bedroom.

I hope I feel the face of my abuela behind me. I hope when she tilts her head to kiss the back of my neck, a conical crown of beads atop her head clacks and trimbles. I hope I step forward and the large spiral begins in glowing revolution. I hope this voice is not “family” Spanish. I hope it is an older, deeper kind of creole. I hope in my ears, it is sugar and salt, the warm song of belonging.

I hope the voiced progenitor is a small mound of ash. I hope it is the upper torso of a diminutive man-thing, melted as if in escape of the spiraled center he indwells. I hope his eyes and mouth are the toothed belly of cowrie shells. I hope pearly spires shine and lip against the black ash.

I hope the puckered center of his teeth pull back.

The AC clacks on/off on/off.

I hope the ritual beast, rises from the spiral.

The AC clacks on/off on/off.

Welcome home, prophet, my beautiful bride, he says.

The AC clacks on/off on/off.
 
 
I hope any reality comes to pass besides this one: where I am, this boy bodied beneath waves of self-doubt and guilt and the keel of every ancestor. They say it gets better. I pray for hope. I will open every door until there is something new behind it.
 
 
I step inside my room.

Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley belongs to the Onondaga Nation of Indigenous Americans in New York. His first, second, and third books debut 2018, 2019, and 2020: NOT YOUR MAMA’S MELTING POT (U Nebraska Press, selected by Bob Hicok), COLONIZE ME (Saturnalia), and DĒMOS (Milkweed Editions). A Kundiman alum, Ben is recipient of the Provincetown FAWC and Tickner Fellowships. Peep his recent work in Boston Review, FIELD, jubilat, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Oxford American, and Tin House, among others.