The winner of Boston Review’s 15th annual fiction contest
“Desaliento” is a story of unusual sophistication, and would be so even for a well-established writer. The careful balance between language, plot, character, and landscape made it an absolute joy to read. It was easy for me to pick this story as the winner. Watch out for this writer. — 2008 contest judge Chris Abani
Diego was this guy that I met on Washington Avenue at three in the morning the summer I quit my job at the art gallery and decided I needed a month in Miami to evaluate my next move. Elsa and I had just come out of a nightclub, sweaty, half drunk, and stinking of cigarettes because that’s how we did it back then. We needed to sober up before driving home so we went to Gino’s for a slice of pizza. Elsa’s Ukranian, a magnet for Russian guys, and within seconds she was showing off her Moscow slang to some guy named Vlad who was handing out flyers for the full moon party. Vlad pulled up a chair, and then his friend showed up: a shirtless Argentino—there are millions in South Beach—wearing camouflage shorts and a pair of blue eyes like it was all he needed to get by. He spotted Vlad and dropped his own flyers on our table, sat next to me and said this is where he needed to be.
You know how it is when you’re twenty-three and looking for meaning. I was so empty back then that Diego seemed prescribed by the gods. We gave him and Vlad a lift to Opium because they were supposed to hand out flyers outside the club. They got paid twenty dollars a night for that work. When they got out of our car Diego stuck his head in through my window and kissed me like some kind of satyr, deep, wet, and fast and before I knew it he was halfway down the block.
We were staying in my parents’ condo. Told everyone we were reflecting on our lives. But really we were just tanning and partying. We made a ton of beaded jewelry and tried to sell it on Ocean Drive but we always ended up giving it away to guys who flirted with us. And when we weren’t smoking cigarettes on the beach, we were at Diego’s place. He lived in a one bedroom apartment in the craziest building on Collins, where they rent by the month and the lobby is a revolving stage of drag queens, college kids, hookers, and the men who love them. And then there were the illegals: kids who should be in school or something but they were exiled from wherever they came from by either a shit economy or a miserable home life. Diego shared his apartment with fifteen others. The bedroom had eight mattresses on the floor and they all slept there like it was war times. Most of these kids were from Argentina, like Diego, fleeing last year’s collapse; backpackers turned refugees working valet parking at the hotels and clubs while the girls waited tables at the cafes on Lincoln where they don’t ask for papers.
Vlad lived there too and while he and Elsa huddled on the couch talking about how he fled Lithuania by stowing away on a cruise ship and jumping off at New York harbor, Diego and I sat on the balcony smoking and drinking yerba mate from his special gourd. He didn’t try to kiss me again after that first night. I was mad for his fat lips and clear eyes, his choppy singsong Spanish and the way he thought shirts were optional. When I complained to Elsa she just rolled her eyes at me and said, “You always do this.”
Even when we got sloppy drunk in the pool, beer cans floating next to us, me on his shoulders for a chicken fight trying to knock Elsa off of Vlad, Diego never made a move. Even when we ended up sleeping in the same bed, like that time we all drove down to Key West in nothing but our bathing suits and ended up staying for three days. We washed our swimsuits in the bathroom and let them dry. Vlad and Elsa in one bed doing God knows what, and me and Diego in the other, chaste as virgins.
I knew Diego slept with tons of other girls. There was this one, Valeria, a Uruguayan fox with long black curls, who seemed to own only hot pants and halter-tops. She was twenty-six and every chance I had I pointed out that she was older than Diego and me. She gave him a hundred bucks to buy herself a spot in the aparto/hostel for a couple of weeks and when we’d all be hanging in the living room, the guys strumming Soda Stereo songs on their guitars, Valeria would dance along like it was her only currency. Diego, like all the other guys, watched her tiny thighs jiggling and the way she was always picking the spandex out of her crack.
There was another one. Roberta the Chilena whose father owned a shoe store in Hialeah, and who fell in love with Diego one night at Automatic Slims. I wasn’t around because I was on a real date with some Peruvian UM med school fool, son of a family friend and if I didn’t go out with him I’d hear about it for a year from my mom. Roberta offered to marry Diego on the spot because she had her papers already. And Diego was considering it which made me nuts. She said he’d have to work in the shoe store with the family though, and Diego wasn’t sold on that last detail. We were at the nude beach one cloudy afternoon when he was thinking it all over out loud. I was topless and Diego was completely on display, which, looking back, should have been awkward for us, but it wasn’t.
I asked him if he was going to go through with it, trying not to sound jealous.
“I’d rather marry you,” he said, and I think he meant it as a joke but it didn’t come out sounding that way. Still, I laughed and he laughed too.
“I’m serious,” he said after a minute or two. “If it came down to it, would you marry me so I can get my papers?”
I shook my head. “I’d only marry for love.”
“Easy to say when you’re not illegal.”
Diego didn’t believe in love. He read so much socialist lit and Osho, and he said love was an imagined condition of the weak. Elsa entertained his debates on the subject while I just turned my eyes to the sky. He said he’d never felt anything that resembled the popular notion of love in his life. Not for anyone besides maybe his parents. I took this as a challenge. And when I got him alone one night, sleeping in my bed after another drunken barbecue, I poked him awake with my finger and said, “Diego, I’m going to break your heart one day.”
He turned his big eyes on me and said just like that, “I hope you do.”
I wish I could say my life changed after that summer but it didn’t. I went back to New York and got another shit job in a gallery, this time uptown. Diego and I would talk on the phone a few times a week. He gave up handing out flyers and got a job bussing tables at one of the big clubs. He came up to the city to see me for a few days and I took him all over: Central Park, Chinatown, the Met, and the Museum of Natural History. He’d never seen a dinosaur and said the bones along with the skyscraper skeleton of New York City made him feel insignificant, like he could just disappear and nobody would notice.
His mom was dying of cancer but his parents still said he should stay in the US, that there was nothing for him in Argentina. No jobs, no opportunity.
We were sitting in my living room, rain pouring outside, turning the city into a giant puddle. He was eating choripan, the only thing he ever ate, and I was drinking a coffee from Abdul the Tanzanian’s place downstairs.
“You’re my best friend, Sabina.”
He nodded, sausage filling his cheek.
I’d go back to Miami when I could, see Diego who was now dealing pot although he didn’t want to admit it. He had to though, when I asked him where he got the money to buy not one, but two motorcycles, in addition to an Isuzu Trooper and kite surfing gear. He was rolling in the dough now, sending loads back to his parents, spending some, and saving the rest in a white tube sock in the back of his closet which he said I should rescue if he ever got arrested.
“How will I know if you’ve been arrested?” I asked him and he said that he’d use his one phone call to reach me.
It was a cool November night and I’d taken a few days off from work to be there. I went to see him at his new place, a cute townhouse on Euclid with its own patio and everything. His cousin Nacho was staying with him. The primo was another knockout, taller and tanner than Diego with delicate features. He spoke English with a British accent, which Diego thought was ridiculous, and he was always asking me about art, which I liked. But Diego said it’s just because Nacho was trying to land himself a rich girl and I felt instantly stupid.
Diego had to go make a delivery so Nacho and I were alone in his place. Diego had photos up on his wall of our Key West road trip with Elsa and Vlad. I missed Elsa a lot. After that summer, she decided she had had enough of life as a Manhattan financial analyst and went to Russia to teach English, but decided she hated it and went on to Israel to work in a kibbutz. She’d write me that I should go join her there, that working with your hands in a community kitchen is much better than it sounds. She said she was growing out her blond hair, which for Elsa, was a big deal. She was talking about getting her Israeli citizenship and I was like, “Elsa, you’re from Jersey,” but she said it didn’t matter, that she belonged over there now.
Diego had blown up and framed one photo that Elsa or Vlad must have taken of us without our knowing. It was during the drive down, when we pulled over in Key Largo to swim at Pennekamp’s. We were the only people there and the sea was flat as glass. Diego and I were up to our waists in water and he reached over to hold my hand, just as some dolphins started flipping in the distance. Like a fucking movie scene.
I remember thinking I might be in love with him. But later that day he met some sorority girl in Mallory Square in Key West and snuck off to be with her. I’d ended up crying on a bench while Elsa and Vlad were inside a bar. Then Elsa came out to hold my shoulders and told me that none of this was real.
“You don’t really want him,” she said. “You just think you do because he’s always there.”
Nacho was next to me, handing me a drink, some expensive beer, which was funny because I remembered that when I first met Diego the only beer he bought was Natural Ice which gave us the worst headaches ever.
Nacho came to South Beach for modeling. Apparently he was already pretty successful at it in Buenos Aires, thought he’d make it big here but they said he was too old already, almost thirty. “I’m not like my cousin,” he kept telling me with distaste, which I thought was a pretty shitty thing to say since his cousin was the one putting him up and giving him dollars to spend. But Nacho thought Diego was from the dirt side of his family, and that the fact that he was dealing was shameful and what’s weirder is that I found myself defending it, saying Diego dealt pot with integrity.
“I have a business degree,” Nacho told me from across Diego’s living room. “I’m an entrepreneur. I have so many ideas. I just need a little backing to start and I’ll make a killing. I’m brilliant, you know.”
I thought of that old joke you always hear Colombians telling: How do you kill an Argentino? Make him stand on his ego and jump.
I laughed to myself and Nacho looked offended, and then shot point blank: “So what’s a girl like you doing hanging out with a guy like my cousin?”
“You don’t know anything about me or what kind of girl I am.”
“I know you’re a rich girl who likes to play poor.”
It sucks when a perfect asshole manages to hurt your feelings. It was even harder to confront that Nacho was so good-looking and the art history major in me is a martyr for aesthetics which is why I ended up letting Nacho kiss me on Diego’s couch.
To this day I don’t know if Diego found out about me and Nacho getting busy like that while he was out. But just a few days later Diego kicked Nacho out, saying Nacho had stolen some cash from him. “I don’t care if our mothers are sisters,” he said. “Nobody is going to eat my food and then rob me.”
The next summer, Elsa was pregnant. She met this Israeli guy in a Tel Aviv nightclub and they fell in instant love. She was living with him in Jerusalem and I thought she was bananas but part of me envied her. I was back in Miami for two weeks, on a date with some other son of a family friend, set up through the Colombian diaspora dating network. He was a few years older than me, some kind of Brickell banker and he seemed potentially cool, not uptight like the other Colombian guys around. I was always getting set up with these super lame hijos de papi and I rejected all of them earning me a rep as a failed Colombiana, possibly a lesbian, and my mom pretended this didn’t worry her. After dinner I suggested we go to this club on Miami Ave, where Diego told me he was going to be. He and I still spoke but he had a new girl, his first real novia. He even dared say he loved her a little bit.
He had told me her name was Petra and he met her at Churchill’s. He’d said she was a real rocker chick who rode a skateboard better than Tony Hawk. At the club, my date Juan Carlos went to get us drinks while I went looking for Diego. I spotted him shirtless and drunk in the back garden. But before I made it to him for a hug, some short girl with spiky orange hair jumped in front of me, saying, “Stay away from him, he gave me herpes.”
Diego laughed it off saying that was his girl Petra and she was jealous like that, her trick for keeping other girls away. And Petra warmed up and even gave me a brief history of her tattoos, all five of them, from the evil clown on her calf that she got the first time she ran away from home at thirteen, to the blue rose on her forearm, in honor of some boyfriend who caused her three abortions. Sure enough, Petra had her skateboard in hand. She also had enough pockmarks on her face to play pinball, and Diego looked positively addicted, littering her shoulders with kisses while I introduced Juan Carlos.
“Your friends are nice,” Juan Carlos told me when he dropped me off at home later. The guy couldn’t wait to get rid of me.
I’m jobless again and came down to Miami for another break in the condo. Diego is right here next to me on the balcony. We’re smoking cigarettes and it’s been two years since we met but, to me, he’s the only one who looks older. His formerly taut abs are hiding under just a little bit of mush but he’s still without a shirt all day, even when we went for lunch earlier, which would only fly in a place like Miami. Everywhere else, you’d get arrested. But he’s a blanco even if he’s Latin which makes him slip under the radar. He’s got mad luck and fifty grand stuffed into that same tube sock.
Diego’s been trying to break up with Petra for months now but the girl just won’t move out so now he says he’s got to be the one to go. He say’s he’ll leave her with a few months paid rent so she doesn’t have to go back to stripping at the crappy place on Biscayne, put a lump of cash in the freezer for her and hope she won’t spend it on a pair of boobs.
Since I met him, Diego’s been threatening that he’s going to bail on Miami and drive from here to Mexico, down through to the Nicoya peninsula and make it a five year journey back to Argentina. His mom passed away last December and his father is really hurting for money since their pesos turned to paja.
“Are you really leaving?”
“Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next day. One day you’ll call me and I won’t be here.”
He’s always said that, when he goes, it will be without a goodbye because what are goodbyes good for anyway?
“I’d stay if you married me,” he says with the same smile he gave me that pizza night on Washington. The same night he ducked his head into the car and planted one on me.
I can feel it coming and this time I’m ready for it.
Diego disappears the way he said he would, without a word. He calls me from California. He drove that Isuzu all the way over and managed not to get pulled over once. After California it’s Mexico and somehow his crossing the border hurts because that’s his last step out of here, through the Venus Flytrap.
Elsa says she’s happy in Jerusalem with her husband who lays bricks for a living, her baby who will speak Hebrew. She says I should come visit and I keep promising her that I will.
“Remember that summer,” she says every time I get her on the phone, and then she’ll ask me about Diego, if I’ve heard from him.
“Not in months,” I tell her, but I’m sure he’s okay. Diego always gets by.
And just when I’ve started to forget about him, Diego calls from Playa del Carmen. He’s been living in a cottage on the beach, making back plenty of money from a bar he invested in. He ran into his cousin in el DF. Nacho went out there to try to get on one of the Mexican soaps since they love casting pretty Argentinos.
I catch him up on Elsa and my life though there’s not much new to report on my end. Just that I recently repainted my bedroom. I’ve just started dating the Swedish bartender who works at the bar across the street, but I keep that to myself. Diego doesn’t say anything and for a second I think the connection dropped but then I hear him sigh.
“My father died, Sabina. Three months ago. I didn’t even know he was sick.”
I’ve had enough people close to me die to know that it doesn’t mean anything when people tell you they’re sorry. But I say it anyway.
“Now there’s really no reason to go back,” he tells me. And we both know there’s no way for him to come back here unless he’s going to try it coyote style.
“I’m thinking of opening up a little hotel here,” he goes on and his voice lifts a little. Typical Diego, not letting anything get him down too long. “A simple place where people can stay by the beach and get high. The hotel that Miami weed built.”
“Beautiful,” I laugh and then we both get quiet. I imagine him looking out at the sea, like we did that day in the Keys with the dolphins. I’m looking out my window at 14th Street. I can hear that kid playing drums on his plastic bucket on the sidewalk under my window. And then Diego says my name, says it like it’s the first time.
“Sabina. You there?”
“You broke my heart just like you said you would. Like the fucking wind. You broke it wide open.”
And because my Diego is no fan of farewells, he just hangs up.
Patricia Engel earned her undergraduate degree at NYU and her MFA in creative writing at Florida International University, where she now teaches. She is Colombian-American and was born and raised in New Jersey.