My incessant quest for independence had continued ever since my grandmother returned from her dream trip to Jamaica. It was another sleepy Sunday. Tired of the Bomberos’ same old routine practice run of scaling the hook and ladder atop Magnolia Building while they sprayed the roof with water, I retreated back inside the apartment. The firemen finally rolled up their long thick hoses unto large white wheels, piled onto their big red fire trucks and drove off.
I slipped out of sight under the cot I slept on, a custom I had acquired since the sole responsibility for cleaning the entire apartment had fallen to me. This small refuge gave me a “space” to myself for at least a few moments. I opened to a magazine on sexology, one of the few magazines I’d ever been able to own. Perusing through it uninterestedly, I began thinking about the girl next door who had befriended me long after my sister Aminta had run away to live with my mother in Colon.
I thought about the last time we had just played with each other on a rainy day during the school year. How beautiful she had seemed to me with one of her sheer white school uniform blouses tied in a fashionable knot at the waist. That day the rain made the blouse transparent accentuating for me all her youthful charms. Her continual flirtations from the balcony with the boys on the street below had provoked me to a series of jealous outbursts, making me terribly uncomfortable that this girl could claim such power over me.
Then I thought of my double-crossing friend who lived on the other side of our flat of apartments. The boy we all knew as Horacito deliberately went out and told all the guys in the neighborhood about my “love affair” with the girl. Soon a stream of boys appeared like dogs in heat to challenge my claim on her. I decided to back off and really got more diligent about my visits to the dental clinic, spending long hours just to stay away from the streets but particularly from that girl I still liked.
I’d found some peace and a sense of purpose in my role as a dental assistant, satisfied that I my work was almost always approved by the owner of the clinic. Soon my Aunt Marie came by and said, “You tell that Clyde to fix your teeth, tell him I will pay him!” She then sauntered off complaining out loud, “Damn it that boy is too old now to be hanging around toothless.” And it was true. I had tried to disguise my rather shameful appearance since my four upper front teeth had been pulled after a nasty bout with a pyorrhea infection, but my self esteem suffered greatly. In Panama at the time this was the usual treatment for such conditions and it was quite a widespread phenomenon to see young people with missing teeth or wearing denture.
It was during that week that I ran into Horacito whom I discovered sitting crying on the stairway where he lived. Although I hadn’t seen him for a while after he had practically set all the neighborhood boys against me over the issue of a girl, I figured I wouldn’t retaliate against this younger and weaker kid.
I was about to go past him feeling I’d overcome the initial rage when I found out he had gone back on his word and betrayed a confidence I had made him swear to keep as men. I couldn’t resist his sobs, however. “What the heck is the matter with you?” I asked him. Getting no response, I insisted. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Rico hit me,” he finally blurted out wiping his eyes.
Before I could really get a chance to hear any more, the boy’s aggressor made his appearance. “You better get out of here if you don’t want some of the same!” Rico said menacingly. “You had better be careful who you threaten because I am not Horacito,” I shot back at him. “Everybody knows that that kid can’t fight somebody like you.” Rico only became more enraged. “You want some of it? Let’s get it on right now!”
This story continues.