I remember her eyes, the gray of a sky about to let loose a storm. I remember the way she placed her finger on her bottom lip when she was lost in thoughts as dark as her eyes. I'd have given anything to live that close to her lips.
I used to picture her eyes as I was lying in bed. Her eyes and that finger touching her bottom lip. I'd lie there and listen to the radio on my favorite station, K-O-M-A in Oklahoma City. It reached me all the way to where I lived in southern New Mexico. But it could only reach me at night. Just at night. I used to wait and hope they'd play that song by Frankie Valle You're just too good . . . Even if I was half asleep, if I heard the song, I'd suddenly be awake. I'd hum along and put together a scene: a girl dressed up for me and a dance floor shiny as glass. Even the ice cubes in our drinks sparkled in the light. That girl was Juliana. And the whole damned world was mine. I need you ba-a-by . . . And then, after the song was over, I'd fall asleep exhausted from trying to keep the two of us together. Being obsessed with Juliana was hard work. The word obsession came into my vocabulary the second I met Juliana.
It was the way she looked at me that kept me coming back. Just as I was about to give up on her, just as I was about to tell her, "Look, screw it all. I don't need to suffer like this. Just can't take it." Every time I was about to tell her something like that, she stretched out her arm and made a fist. She'd tap her fist with her other hand, until I nodded and pried it open. I would stare at her open palm, and she would ask: "Do you see?"
And I would nod and say, "I see."
"You see everything now, don't you?"
"Yes, everything," I'd say.
"You see everything."
"Yes. Todo, todo, todo."
Now, when I think of her open, outstretched hand, I have to admit I didn't see a thing. I see my lips moving, "Yes, todo, todo." I wonder why I lied to her. Maybe it wasn't a bad lie. Maybe it was. Maybe there aren't any good lies. I don't know. I still don't know. And I didn't know anything about reading palms either. I've never known anything about that. Not then. Not now. One thing I did know—no matter how many times she let me pry her hand open, her fists were still clenched. They'd stay that way forever.
Juliana letting me pry open her fist. That was a lie. Maybe it was a good lie. I think it was.
I told her once that she collected secrets like some people collected stamps.
"You're full of shit," she said. "Where do you get that crap? You're so full of shit."
"No, I'm not," I said.
"Well," she said, "everyone needs to collect something."
"Collect something else," I said.
"No, I don't like them. That's your thing, Sammy. Did you know everyone calls you the Librarian'?" She looked at me. I pretended I knew. I didn't. But I pretended. And she let me. "And besides," she said, "only gringos can afford books. But secrets don't cost a damn thing."
She was wrong about that. Secrets cost plenty.
I used to write her notes in class that said, "Stop collecting."
"Not yet," she'd write back.
"Then tell me one. Just one secret." What did I think she was going to tell me?
The first time she told me what she was thinking, I found myself trembling. "I've always wanted to smoke a cigarette." That's what she whispered. I pictured her wearing a backless dress in some smoky bar with a cigarette between her lips. A drink in her hand. I pictured my hand on her bare back—that's what made me tremble. And that song came into my head you'd be like . . . I almost offered to buy her a pack, buy her two packs, buy her a carton. But I was sixteen and could never talk when I needed to—and my pockets were empty. So I just stood there trying to figure out what to do with my hands. I wanted to die.
That night, I decided to be a man. I was tired of sitting there like a chair. That was me. Sammy Santos. A chair. Sitting there. Thinking. As if thinking ever did any good. To hell with everything. After dinner, I walked out of the house, borrowed Paco's bike and stole two cases of Dr Pepper bottles from Mrs. Franco. She had a nice house. She didn't live in Hollywood. She didn't need the bottles. I cashed them in at the Pic Quick on Solano—and bought my first pack of cigarettes. My dad wanted to know where I was. "Just taking a walk," I said.
Dad's smile almost broke me. "You're like your mom," he said. "She'd walk and think. You take after her." He looked so happy. If you can be happy and sad at the same time. That's how he looked when he talked about her.
I hated to lie to him. But I couldn't tell him I was stealing Dr Pepper bottles from Mrs. Franco. I couldn't. He thought I was some kind of altar boy. He never went a week without telling me I was good. Good? What's that? Sometimes I wanted to yell, "You don't know, Dad. You don't know these things." I wanted to yell that. It would have broken his heart.
Later, in bed, I held the red pack of Marlboros and studied it like I was going to be tested on what it looked like. I smelled the cigarettes through the cellophane—and it was then that I . . .Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. Copyright © by Benjamin Saenz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz
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