A B.S. in Environmental Science
Hector’s brother, Berto, wakes him at a quarter to midnight. He slaps Hector’s face with his fingertips until Hector throws out his arms, swinging. Hector starts to shout, but Berto puts his hand over Hector’s mouth and points to their sister, sleeping.
The streetlight coming in through the blinds stripes Berto’s face. He grins, and his teeth gleam white in the darkness, transforming him into the Cheshire Cat of Ash Street. “Undie run,” he whispers.
Hector gets up.
Their parents’ door is closed. No light escapes under it. But the two know that even if their parents were awake, their dad would talk their mother into letting them go. He would grin and say, “Boys will be boys,” and they’d wait for their mother’s death stare, then eye roll, then wave of her hand before they left.
They grab coats and put on their sneakers outside, shutting the door behind them, so only they can hear the click. They can see their breath outside, white plumes from their mouths. Berto nudges Hector, winks, and pretends to smoke. Hector joins him. The two grin before looking away. They haven’t pretended to do that in seven years, not since Berto went into junior high and Hector was in fourth grade, but it feels perfectly natural now that they should be out pretending to smoke in the middle of the night. Berto nods, and with their shoes on and coats zipped, they walk down the stairs and head east toward the nice part of Old Towne Orange that starts just half a block away. They walk without talking, their footsteps pushing them closer to the college, away from the train tracks and the defunct packinghouses, to a place where people run in their underwear to celebrate finals week.
“You came up just for this?” Hector asks.
Berto nods. “Well, that and Mom said she had a batch of my laundry done.”
“You been to this before?”
Berto nods again, slower. “Oh yeah.”
The houses transform from Craftsmen with barred windows and chain link to ones with landscaped lawns and crisp white fences. The doors become windowed. Furniture stands on porches with throw pillows and outdoor rugs.
Closer to the university, girls’ laughter blankets the air, light and fluffy and full of next-day misgivings. They stop next to a falafel place closed for the night, and Berto pauses next to the dark windows. Suddenly, he takes off his jacket, stuffing it in the bushes. He strips off his shirt and moves to his pants.
“What’re you doing?” Hector asks. He looks around, but all he sees are houses and shops shut up tight.
“Blending in,” Berto says.
“This is blending in?” He points to Berto’s bare legs.
Berto’s jeans are bunched in his hand. “What did you think we were doing?” He stuffs the jeans in the bushes, too.
“This isn’t like a parade or something, Hector. You don’t stand on the street and watch girls jog in their bras. They’d have us arrested or fined for being out past curfew…for you at least. ” He stares at his brother. “So if we’re going to do this, we need to do this.”
Hector’s heartbeat covers his body. He can feel it in his fingertips. He looks around, checking both sides of the street as if he were going to cross it, before taking off his jacket. He takes off his pants next, and then he’s left standing next to a restaurant in nothing but navy Walmart boxers and an undershirt. He glances at his brother, who’s wearing Christmas-themed boxer briefs with ho ho ho over the crotch. Berto stretches in the cold, his six-pack goosebumped. Hector smooths his undershirt into place.
“The shirt next, bro,” Berto says.
Berto nods, points to the shirt.
The night is cold on Hector’s face, but he can feel the heat as he blushes. He checks the street again.
“You won’t get a girl in an undershirt, dude,” Berto says.
“Who said anything about getting girls?”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t to hear that. The shirt goes next.”
“Don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“Mind your own business. Do you want to get a girl or not? The shirt next.”
Looking at the ground, Hector pulls off his shirt. He can feel the tug of cotton on his belly as he takes it off. He shoves it in the bushes with the others.
“Better.” Berto grins and gives Hector a Santa hat. “It’ll make you seem festive.”
Berto winks and puts on an elf hat.
“Really?” Hector’s body shivers. He can feel his belly jiggle as he moves. He’s begun to dance from one foot to the next, pulling his knees almost up to his chest.
Berto puts an icy hand on Hector’s shoulder. “Girls like it if you can make fun of yourself. No one wants to date an asshole.”
“Who said anything about dating?” Hector hears panic in his own voice.
Berto punches him in the arm. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Hector shrugs and puts on the hat, brushing his black hair away from his eyes.
Berto starts walking and Hector follows. “Now,” Berto says, “what are you majoring in?”
“You need to be majoring in something. Something preferably endearing.”
“I’m a junior in high school.”
“Yes, but they don’t know that, and please don’t tell them that, Hector.”
They turn the corner and enter through the university’s gates.
“Environmental science,” Hector says. It’s the first thing he thinks of, but he stops and realizes how good that sounds. “You know, yeah.” He nods. “I like biology and these guys came into class last year and talked about it. It’s kind of cool, looking at problems and figuring stuff out.” Music flashes into his head seconds later. Girls like musicians.
Berto nods, his face serious. “Environmental Science is good, dude. That’s some smart-ass shit right there, and it looks like you care about the earth. That’s on point.”
“Thanks. I was going to say music.”
Berto touches his shoulder, looks him in the eyes. “You made the right choice. A music major is a nerd.
A music enthusiast is a man who gets laid.” He holds up a finger, pointing to Hector and then to the heavens. “And tonight, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you.”
Hector grins, but he can feel the sweat pool in his armpits. “What about you? What’s your major?”
Berto snorts. “Econ.”
Hector pauses, stares at his brother. “Why not make up something better?”
Berto holds up a hand. “Okay, first off, econ is awesome. Don’t act like it’s not. My degree is the shit. Second, econ makes it seem like I know money, and knowing money means that I’d make money, and making money is good to bring up to women. And finally, I know econ.” He leans forward. “And this brings me to my first rule of the night….” He pauses. Hector rolls his eyes, but Berto continues, “Always keep your lies as close to the truth as possible. You get in less trouble that way.”
“Whatever, dude,” Hector says. “You still go to Fullerton or here?”
“Here, of course. Otherwise, why would I be here? Think, Hector.”
Across the university, streetlights pool, illuminating patches of cement, grass, art. The two pass a statue of the founder sitting in a copper chair surrounded by orange trees. They pass a plaza complete with a fountain that shoots up water in a cascade of ever-changing colors. They pass the college’s original buildings, painted to Victorian-era specifications, and then they stand next to the hundred-year-old auditorium and see a sea of underwear. They stop. Hector stares.
Never, not even at the beach in August, has Hector seen so many undressed people.
Berto leans next to him. “Isn’t this worth losing some sleep?”
Hector stands in his navy boxer shorts, white socks pulled up to his knees, black converse flat against the sidewalk. He nods as a flock of girls passes in bras decorated with twinkle lights.
The crowd builds, and packs of girls huddle together to keep warm as if a magical magnet connects them all. Bottles snake through the groups, being passed around like collection plates on Sunday. Everyone freely takes, until someone presses the bottle into Hector’s hands and Berto grins and Hector drinks. It burns his throat. It’s not the first drink he’s taken, but the burning still surprises him, makes him sputter. Girls giggle. He drinks again, longer this time, until he can feel the heat straight from his lips through his esophagus and deep into his belly.
Berto places his hand on the bottle. “Share the wealth,” he says loud enough for everyone to hear. “Don’t make me kill you,” he whispers. “I am not about to handle your drunk ass, and Mom would murder us both if you woke up hung over.”
Hector gives him the bottle. Berto holds it up, the clear plastic bouncing in the streetlight, and drinks a quick drink before passing it along. He leans over to Hector. “Rule two, don’t get drunk in a strange situation. It will always end poorly.”
In front of them, two girls with the symbol for Delta Gamma on each ass cheek suck something from a baby bottle. Their straight hair, dyed in different shades, floats behind them.
“And rule three,” Berto says. “Being the sober one can pay off.” He walks up to the sorority girls, cheering. They cheer back, and Berto gives them a high five before maneuvering them into a side hug. The girls cheer again, sandwiching him, jumping up and down, and Berto winks at Hector.
Hector can feel the alcohol swirl inside of him, eating its way through his stomach lining. “I am an environmental science major,” he says. “I like the earth and music.”
All at once, they run. The mass of people surges and moves. Hector’s Converse beat against the pavement, the night air against his chest, his back, his legs. Everyone bounces back and forth as they make their way past the lawn and the sign that announces the school, crossing onto public property. Hector’s body moves without him telling it to. He can no longer feel the air on his chest. He is warm, and there is underwear everywhere. He runs, staring at a lacy black bra. His body grows red. Things swell, and he looks away. “Concentrate,” he whispers. “Concentrate.” He does, making himself look at the buildings instead of the girls—the law school, the dentist, the lawyer, then the abogado right next door, the Craftsman refashioned into a café, and the gas station changed into a restaurant. They pass the halfway home, the mechanic, and move on to the true downtown. To the church that used to be a vaudeville stage (and once was a pornography theater), to the sandwich place that used to be a key and safe store and originally was who knows what, to the antique stores, the record company, the candy store, the facades for countless films set in the fifties. Hector focuses on this, the buildings’ past that his father always talks about. His body calms as he reaches the park in the traffic circle.
A giant tinsel Santa and Frosty wave. Already, students are getting into the Nativity scene. A girl pole dances on the menorah. The crowd bunches as it reaches its destination—a fenced-off fountain in the middle of the circle. The city blocked it off after one too many semesters went by with college students bathing in the historic water. Students try to climb over the fence—guys being extraordinarily brave, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their loose boxer shorts; women being extraordinarily wonderful, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their cross-trainers and panties. Cops lift the students off the fence, and Hector joins the crowd in booing.
He looks around for his brother, but Berto has disappeared. He cannot see that green hat anywhere. Of course, Hector thinks. Of course, Berto would do this—trail off with some girl when he has a sweet-ass girlfriend already; of course he’d pretend to be all friendly and then ditch him the first chance he gets. With nowhere to run, Hector jogs in place. He likes the bouncing up and down. It gives him something to do. It lets him forget that he is actually just a half-naked sixteen-year-old boy who has to wake up in six hours for school.
Plastic clatters to the ground. A girl curses. He turns to see a bright pink bra and a girl with braided pigtails, bending over. He checks out her ass. It’s small but good. And then he has to remember to concentrate and focus again. She points to her phone on the ground and curses again. He looks for friends of hers, but she’s by herself, pointing, cursing, bending, swaying. Berto’s warning about staying sober enters his head. Okay, so he’s not entirely sober, but he seems more sober than she is. Plus, she’s pretty. He could go to school here, he thinks. Yes. She doesn’t know. He nods to himself. He jumps up and down, and hits his leg twice. “Let’s do this,” he says, and then walks over to her. “Hey.” He keeps his voice calm.
She looks up. She has green eyes. Freckles. Her face is flushed.
Hector grins, and he can tell that it’s his creepy grin, the one where he just parts his lips slightly and keeps his teeth together like those cabbage patch dolls his sister had.
“Hi,” she says and looks back down. She sways.
“Need help?” He’s still grinning.
She holds up her phone and the case, reassembling it, using her beautifully flat stomach as a prop. “I got it.” She looks back at him, smiles. “But thanks.”
“I’m an environmental science major,” Hector says.
“Okay.” She grins again but a bit more uncertain.
Get it together, Hector reminds himself. “Where are your friends?” he asks.
She huffs. “Well, my roommate ran off with some guy.”
“He wasn’t wearing an elf hat, was he?”
She laughs. “No, but I like you, Santa.” She blushes. “I mean, your Santa hat. I like it.”
“Thanks,” Hector says. “How’s your phone?”
“Works fine. See?” She holds up the lit screen to Hector.
They exchange years and names—she’s a sophomore. Her name is Samantha—and Hector, without thinking, admits to being a junior. “A junior?” she asks. “You look so young.”
“I graduated early,” he says. “From high school. I graduated early from high school because you need a high school diploma to go to college.”
Samantha tilts her head. “How old are you?”
“You’re like Doogie Howser.” She shouts it as if this is the discovery of the night.
“Because you’re young and stuff.”
In front of them, police usher everyone back. A bullhorn tells them to return to school. The crowd moves again, slower this time, with less urgency. A few people stay around, pop into the bars, but the rest move en masse to campus.
Samantha asks about finals. Hector says he has six. She asks about his other classes. He says he’s taking history and science and art. That’s her major, she says. Art. And when he asks her where she’s from, he can hear the lie in her voice when she says, “New York City. How about you?”
“Here,” he says. “I’m from down the street.”
“No.” She bats at Hector, her hand on his shoulder. “Not where you live. Where are you from?”
“Here,” Hector says again. “I grew up two blocks away.”
She sighs. Leans forward and moves her hand to Hector’s chest. Concentrate. Focus, he reminds himself.
“No,” she says again. “Where are you from? Like…” She waves her other hand. “You know, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala. Like, I’m Irish. What are you?”
“You’re from Ireland?” Hector asks.
“No.” She shakes her head. “I’m from here.”
“Me, too,” he says.
But she sighs. “Come on. Tell me. What are you?”
Hector closes his eyes. “Mexico, then, I guess. I was born in Mexico City.”
Samantha takes her hand from Hector’s chest and puts it over her mouth. “That must have been so hard.”
Hector looks away. “Being born?” he asks. “I don’t remember.”
“No, silly,” Samantha says and bats at his chest again. She trails a finger along his stomach. Everything inside of him clenches. Concentrate, he reminds himself.
She tilts her head to the side. “Like, it must have been rough transitioning. I once took a class—”
He interrupts her. “I was two when we moved here, so I managed.” He looks at her hand on his stomach. He looks at her chest just a few inches away. “But, you know,” he says. He takes her hand. “It’s never…” He searches for something to say, anything. “It’s never easy?”
Samantha leans on him, nods. “You, sir, are brave.”
“Okay,” Hector says.
Her eyes grow wide. She smiles. “You want to walk me home?”
“Yeah,” Hector says. “Where do you live?”
“Over on Ash.” He points left.
“Ash,” he says it louder. “One street over from you.” Her face is blank. “Last one before the train tracks.” Still blank. “By the parking lot.”
She stops and stares. Her green eyes look over Hector, and he instinctively covers his chest, making an x across his nipples.
“Really?” she asks.
“Yeah, in the apartments.”
“I didn’t even know there were apartments there.” She laughs. “Rent must be ass cheap.”
Samantha looks down at her shoes, pink Pumas, before looking back at him. “Oh, you know.” She lets her voice trail off.
Hector looks at Samantha, at her tan body with pink, pink, pink. He wants to tell her that he has to go back to his street that is cheap for a reason, but isn’t cheap like she thought. Back to his life that apparently is hard and worthy of bravery, but he sees her and follows her down the street, heading towards both of their homes. Her street is quiet. It isn’t crowded with cars or shadowed with empty lots. It is a street where people are sleeping deeply.
She leads him behind a yellow and green Craftsman to a backhouse covered in ivy. “This is me.” She leans against a bright blue VW Passat.
He waits for her to say more. He thinks this is the moment where girls invite guys in.
“Thanks for walking me. I always feel a bit unsafe around here at night, you know.”
His stomach pushes him forward into her, and he kisses her, hard. But she kisses back, and she tastes like Fruit Roll-Up. She’s in a bra, he thinks, she might be kind of racist, but she’s in a bra—he pushes closer—she’s in panties, too.
She pulls away. “This is nice, yeah?”
“Yes!” He leans in for more.
But she stays back. “We should do this again.”
“Yes!” Hector steps forward.
Samantha steps back again, but he finds himself reaching out for her, touching her waist and pulling her towards him. They kiss, and she leans into him. Half of his brain is telling his body to behave. The other half of his brain is focusing on her body. The latter half wins. He backs away from her, hoping she won’t notice.
“Come here.” She leads him up the stairs. He follows. His eyes widen.
Her apartment is pastels. Candles. Framed pictures of Rome and Paris. There are throw pillows on the couch. They match. Hector notices this, but he doesn’t have time to process the information. Instead, he stares at her ass and follows. They sit on the couch, and Hector sweats against a purple fleece throw.
“You want to watch a movie or something?” She points to a collection of romantic comedies.
“Sure.” Hector brings his shoulders up to his neck once. Sweats some more.
She puts in a movie. Hector doesn’t pay attention to what it is. This is happening, he thinks. It’s happening. Holy balls. It’s happening. She sits back on the couch and kisses him. She lies on top, pushing her weight into him, until she pauses and leans back. “I’m not really from New York,” she says.
“I’m from Indianapolis. New York just sounds better, you know.”
“Mmhmm,” Hector says, rubbing his hands up and down her back.
“And here you are from Mexico City.”
“I’m from here, really. Orange. I grew up here.”
Samantha shrugs. “Yeah, well.”
“I’m from one block away.”
But she isn’t listening. Instead, she’s prattling on about Mexico. How’s she’s always felt an affinity with the region. How she wants to go there and see the culture. She’s not afraid, she wants him to know. She’s heard about the shootings, but she’ll get along. She’s tough, she says. She wants to see their art museum. She finds Frida Kahlo dreamy.
Hector leans his head back. He laughs. He can’t help it. “Dreamy?”
“So what if I find her dreamy?” She moves to the other side of the couch. She coughs, once, her cheeks bright red, and turns back to the movie.
“Hey,” Hector says.
“I’m watching this.” She crosses her arms.
Music plays. A phone on the television won’t stop ringing. Hector can’t stop looking at her, trying to catch her attention, but she keeps her eyes locked on that screen like it could save her life. As the movie plays, he moves down the sofa like a caterpillar, inching along until he’s by her side. His leg grazes hers—his bare leg all hairy and goosebumped, hers smooth. “Hey,” he says again, only now he looks at her face.
He pushes his leg against hers, but she doesn’t budge. She doesn’t wake up. “Fuck, man,” Hector says. He tries again, but she’s asleep. He checks out her rack one last time, gets up, goes. On his walk back to the restaurant, he can see others heading home, but no one is near. He can walk without having to make eye contact, without having to nod his head hello. He pulls on his clothes to the sound of drunk people trying to walk quietly.
Hector slaps his feet against the cement as he walks home, trying to fill the night more with his steps and less with his thoughts. Behind him, he can hear an occasional shriek, but for the most part, the night is quiet. At his apartment building, he creeps up the steps, and there is his brother waiting for him.
Berto grins. “Where were you?”
Hector opens his mouth to explain, shuts it, grins, laughs. He sits down next to his brother. His breath poofs white in front of him. He nudges Berto and pretends to smoke. They smile.
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