cups of delicious latte with ornament in cafeteria

Stories No. 84 – C. Adán Cabrera

Reaching Back

by C. Adán Cabrera

Lorenzo Rivas stirred a seventh packet of sugar into his coffee. He wondered how much of his twelve-minute break he’d spent staring at the barista’s arm. Or, rather, the lack of it. Even now, while Lorenzo emptied the stainless-steel pitcher of creamer into his cup, the sweet concoction rising precariously close to the top, the barista – a skinny, naïve-looking thing probably half Lorenzo’s age – was in his periphery. Though Harry –Lorenzo had overheard someone call the barista by name – was a blur of Starbucks black and green in the corner of his eye, Lorenzo could see him flitting from corner to corner of the bar like a hummingbird. Harry paused every now and then to fill an order or stopped to pour milk from one cup to another with one arm, while steadying it with what was left of the other. The barista worked with relative ease, unhandicapped, the arm seeming intact but invisible. 

Though Harry was probably young enough to be Lorenzo’s son, there was something undeniably appealing about the scruffy beard, the pinch-red lips, and the barista’s long, elegant neck. For a moment Lorenzo imagined himself on top of Harry, sucking his earlobes, biting the young man’s nipples. What would sex be like with someone missing half an arm? he wondered. An image of Harry raising his stub in erotic ecstasy floated to Lorenzo. The color rushed to his cheeks, and he turned his face to the window.

Harry was calling out orders, pointing with his fingers at the Americano, the hot chocolate, the tall nonfat no-whip latte. The cream and sugar that Lorenzo had poured into his coffee made it the color of his own skin – café con leche, as Emilio used to say – but did little to counter its bitterness. Lorenzo took a big gulp, nevertheless, opening and closing his mouth like a fish at the coffee’s bitter aftertaste.

In fact, the only reason why Lorenzo was drinking coffee – he hated the drink –  on this Tuesday afternoon was because of Emilio. Lorenzo had slept little lately. Friday would mark one week since Lorenzo had walked into their tiny Echo Park apartment and found it silent as a morgue. The apartment had always buzzed with noise. Emilio, an English teacher, spent most of his afternoons at home filling the apartment with the clicks of his typewriter or the soaring lamentations of an operatic signora. Although Lorenzo hated opera more than anything, he said nothing, and sometimes hummed along with the arias whenever Emilio was within earshot.

Taking another sip of his coffee, Lorenzo dreaded going back to the apartment after work. Every night this week he had volunteered to drive the longest and most exhausting bus routes, the ones the other drivers didn’t want, so that he could exhaust himself and fall into a deep, restless sleep the moment he stretched out on the bed. Since there had been no extra shifts available last night, Lorenzo had run the empty dishwasher and left the television in the living room blaring all night long before he crawled into bed with Niña, their incontinent elderly cat. He barely slept with all the noise but couldn’t bring himself to turn off the television. Instead, he let his head sink into the pillow and stared at the ceiling, counting all the ripples in the stucco until morning came once more.

Lorenzo sat at the empty table and looked at his watch. Eight minutes left. A small knot of passengers was standing next to his parked bus, waiting to board. Though he was still on break, Lorenzo felt guilty about making his passengers wait in the failing December light. Soon the afternoon would lie crumpled on the sidewalk like the fallen cherry blossoms that littered Santa Monica Boulevard. The evening would bring a biting wind that was frigid, even for Southern California. Lorenzo studied the lid of his coffee cup before turning his gaze back to the barista.

From where he sat, Lorenzo had a clear view of the bustling coffee shop. Business had picked up, and Harry took orders, entering all the drink specifications with quick taps of his stub on the register. Lorenzo looked at the amputation. The entire section beneath the elbow (could it be called an “elbow” without the forearm?) was missing. The skin was pulled so tight that the end of the stub was wrinkled like a desiccated kiwi. A tiny fraction of what looked like bone was visible between the folds of flesh. 

Lorenzo had to look away, and when he turned his head, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the window. He had a corona of graying hair; what little remained was graying far more quickly than he liked. And then there were the wrinkles around his eyes, lines that made his skin look like an ancient riverbed. The fifteen years he’d spent with Emilio had ravaged his good looks. Lorenzo remembered that back in El Salvador, all the women would gossip about his thick, tanned arms; his nipples like melted chocolate; and rave over his hair that was blacker than volcano ash.

Realizing that he was gay in a country where homosexuality was thought not to exist made Lorenzo’s social life in El Salvador non-existent. For years before he left for the U.S., he’d invent girlfriends that lived in the capital to stave off the interested women and to throw off the men in his family that pressured him to settle down. Most nights he’d wait until he could shower alone in the communal facilities, where he would masturbate quietly, imagining what it would feel like to be inside a man.

And then the war had erupted like Izalco Volcano. Its violence threatened to destroy the lives of every salvadoreño. And when the conflict started to affect the countryside near San Emigdio, his little hamlet, Lorenzo knew it was time to leave. A week after his twenty-fifth birthday, Lorenzo climbed into the back of a dusty pickup truck with his fragmented English, his life savings stuffed into an aluminum can, and a duffle bag heavy with clothes. His family would flee to Honduras, and Lorenzo would go north to live and work among the gringos. Three months later, he met Emilio.

Lorenzo sighed at the thought of his ex-boyfriend. He looked at his watch again. Six minutes remained on his break. Enough time for a smoke, Lorenzo thought. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and stepped into the cool evening air.

Lorenzo blew his cigarette smoke into the wind. The bus was parked at the stop in front of the Starbucks in the heart of West Hollywood. The bus looked out of place among the immaculately-clean convertibles. Lorenzo puffed on his cigarette while leaning up against the coffee shop’s wall, one foot propped behind him. A blender roared inside. Two men dining at the French restaurant next door were holding hands over the table. A jogger passed in front of Lorenzo. A glistening black Civic was stopped at the light. The driver was listening to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Lorenzo sighed and flicked the lit cigarette onto the sidewalk.

That song had been playing on the radio the night Lorenzo lost his virginity to Emilio, hours after meeting each other. Lorenzo was working as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Los Angeles when they met. It didn’t take much prodding or convincing to get Lorenzo to come with him, Emilio used to joke. The night they met, Lorenzo, with his apron folded in his back pocket, crammed into Emilio’s fist of a car. Two hours and several beers later, Emilio and Lorenzo wound up parked in the hills of Griffith Park, staring at the city’s silent lights. Lorenzo experienced many firsts that night: the first scratch of another man’s stubble against his lips; the first taste of another man’s sweat when it dribbled from Emilio’s forehead and onto his waiting tongue; how foreign and ticklish the rough hand of another felt when they first caressed his genitals; that first release inside another man; and that first serenity that followed. Spent and drowsy in Emilio’s arms, Lorenzo never wanted to be alone again.

And at first, he never was. Emilio was equally smitten, it seemed, and spent most of his time at home with Lorenzo. Lorenzo, meanwhile, worked any job he could find and that would pay him a decent wage. Six years went by like this, and not once did Lorenzo see his family.

That’s when things started to change. First came the late nights, when Emilio would claim to be stuck at work and Lorenzo thought it odd that teachers worked late nights. Then the undeniable distance that grew between their bodies after Emilio crawled into bed, smelling suspiciously clean. But Lorenzo blocked all this out, even ignored the hickey he saw on Emilio’s left buttock one night when they made love. He closed his eyes instead. Then came the shouting, the bursts of rootless anger, the loss of respect. For a long time neither one of them talked about where their relationship was headed. Lorenzo found himself awake at night, reaching back to that first kiss in the car, that first moment of entry into the unfamiliar. 

Emilio tried several times to end things with Lorenzo: Lorenzo, we’ve grown apart; Lorenzo, we’re different people now; Lorenzo, we’re out of love. It was this last grievance that Lorenzo had the most trouble understanding. If they had run out of love, he reasoned, the only solution was to make more of it. Whenever Emilio brought up the dark subject of separation, Lorenzo broke the tension with a kiss, moving his tongue in and out of Emilio’s mouth until Emilio’s expression softened and was coaxed into bed. For Lorenzo, every conflict could be dispersed with his hips.

But Emilio eventually ended things with Lorenzo the way he knew best: the written word. This Friday would mark a week since Lorenzo had walked into the apartment to find an envelope taped to the television screen in the bedroom, his name written in long, curly letters. Lorenzo tore into it, finding a check for $900 – “TO GET BY” had been written in the memo line – and a typewritten letter. His hands trembled at seeing Emilio’s name at the bottom in block letters. Lorenzo sat on the bed, and with Niña pressing her wet nose into his arm, he began to read. 

Mi querido Lorenzo,
Walking away from my best friend of more than fifteen years hurts me more than I can ever describe. I know you probably hate me right now, but please know that this is not your fault. I’m unhappy, querido, plain and simple. You have been unhappy too, I know. 

Lorenzo tossed the letter on the floor and let himself fall onto the soft mattress. He sat up within seconds, overwhelmed by the muskiness of Emilio’s cologne. He looked over at the towel that dangled from the doorknob, and at the sock hanging like a tongue from the drawer that Emilio had left open. He is gone, Lorenzo thought, dabbing at his eyes. But I’m still watching him leave.

With two minutes left on his break, Lorenzo was back in the line, contemplating a chocolate chip-studded scone. The caffeine had left him craving something sweet, and the pastry had caught his attention on his way back from the bathroom.

There was only one other person in line, and she was taking forever to order her drink. Lorenzo, already tasting the scone, rolled his eyes, and caught Harry’s gaze. The barista smiled at Lorenzo. Lorenzo smiled back.

That was when Lorenzo decided to do it. All the fantasizing, all the curiosity about the arm, could be satiated in one night, one date. So, what if Harry was a kid. Company is company, Lorenzo thought. And if that company turns into naked company, then all the better.

Of course, Lorenzo was nervous. He steadied his shaking hands by putting them into his pockets. Lorenzo fingered his keys, his Chapstick, he traced the corners of his wallet. If Harry were to go home with him, he would be only the second man that Lorenzo had ever been with. The prospect seemed terrifying. As Lorenzo stood in line, he kept hearing Emilio’s voice, kept hearing Emilio’s heavy breathing, imagined Emilio writhing in pleasure on the bed. The thought of another’s body seemed so foreign, so unnatural.

“What can I get you, sir?” Harry said, looking at Lorenzo.

Harry was staring at him, the stub of his arm resting on top of the register. Lorenzo was paralyzed. Finally, he stammered out his order.

“Coffee,” he said.

He watched the barista pluck a cup from the stack next to the drip. He used the stub to hold the cup against the machine so that it wouldn’t tip over. Lorenzo’s cheeks were hot when he took the cup. He slid over a five-dollar bill, avoiding Harry’s eyes.

Harry nodded and started to reach for the money with his amputated arm. He laughed. 

“Sometimes I swear this thing’s still there,” Harry said, waving the phantom arm.

Lorenzo didn’t say anything. He took a big drink of the coffee, scorching his tongue, hating the way the cup burned the tips of his fingers.  

C. ADÁN CABRERA is a Salvadoran-American writer and translator based in Barcelona, Spain. Among other publication credits, his writing has appeared in Carve Magazine, The Acentos Review, parentheses, Spanglish Voces, 433 and Kweli. Carlos holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA. You can visit him online at

C. ADÁN CABRERA‘s chapbook, Books Can Only Take You So Far, was a finalist in our Fall 2020 Digging Press Chapbook Competition.

Photo by Tim Douglas on