desk office writing sitting

Stories No. 94 – Gerard Cabrera

Proud Mary

by Gerard Cabrera

Santi put the phone back into its cradle. It was the agency calling about his placement. Let go, just like that. His two years at the law firm over. Two whole years and not a word from the boss. Ray didn’t even have the nerve to tell him to his own face. Of course, Ray had a private office, with a door and a window, not a cubicle. Santi looked down at his phone. He took out his rubbing alcohol and cotton puffs and cleaned the earpiece, then the mouthpiece, and then the keypad. For the last time, he thought.

Santi looked up at the back of Diane’s head. Today her hair was done in corn rows. His hand went up to touch the back of his head and smooth over his bald spot. He looked at Diane surrounded in her cubicle by cartoons and dolls, all of Betty Boop. He looked at Diane’s pictures of the Obamas and Will Smith and Jesucristo. Diane had been hired the same day as him, and neither of them was getting any younger. Diane had been working the permanent temp assignment too, but neither one of them would get a placement like this one again. Not with the economy. Then Santi thought about his nephew. What was he going to do about Talvin?

Santi took his tea things from out his desk. His tea bag, his Splenda, and his mug. Might as well. He got up and walked past Diane as if everything was normal. He smiled and said, Be right back, boo. Okay, hon, Diane smiled back. Boo this, hon that, he thought. And what was that tone in her voice, he asked himself? Esa, esa — he couldn’t think of the right word for her. Of course Diane must know, he thought. But of course Diane would pretend she didn’t know anything. That’s what people did.

But Santi knew. Oh, he could see what really went on, every day. No crystal ball needed. He wasn’t no Walter Mercado. The pretending that went on in this office was ten times more than all the acting on all of the stories on the mini-TV Shirley at Front Desk thought no one saw her watching all afternoon. The lawyers pretended to care about justice and rights and the underdog. Ray pretended to be in charge. And Diane, she pretended to be interested in their running in and out to court all day long. Good mornings and Have a Blessed Day to everyone. The Bible sat shut on her desk but there was judgment in her eyes when Santi would come in with his fashion, his touch of eyeliner, his gold prendas. Meanwhile Diane’s job was the same boring job as his—opening the mail, word processing, answering the telephone, making copies, taking staples out of papers before throwing them into the shredding bin in the copy room—but Santi didn’t think he needed to act like the First Lady.

Santi walked to the staff lunch room. He filled his mug with tap water and put it into the microwave. Two minutes. He looked around as if seeing for the first time, dirty tables, dirty chairs, dirty floors. Nobody cared. But Santi’s apartment was clean. Soon he’d be spending more time there. Now it would be even cleaner. Clean with Windex and Pledge and Ajax and Maestro Limpio. He’d have time. He’d put the bore back into Boricua.

The two minutes passed and Santi opened the door. The mug was steaming and the water was bubbling. Tea should be hot, he thought. He dropped in his Lipton tea bag, and the water sizzled like hot oil for a second, then the teabag sank a little. He poked the tea bag and the water began to turn the beautiful color before you add the milk. Santi was like that, he thought. Light and sweet. Not like Diane who took lemon. The teabag floated up again, flat on the surface. Santi thought about Talvin the time he and Yvette watched him take a swimming lesson at the Boys’ Club. His little body, and in all that water. How that boy could swim! Santi didn’t like the water and had never learned to swim. He had heard once that it was because of slavery days that some folks were afraid of swimming. Sounded like some racist bullshit to him. Talvin loved the water. Yvette had made him promise to provide Talvin with the things that she would not be able to give once she was gone. She had grabbed Santi’s hands in her own hands, which had always reminded him of cute little bird feet, and held them so tight — the thought made him bite his lip — and he had said to Yvette in the Terence Cardinal Cooke hospice sun room, overlooking the winter trees in the park across 110th Street: Te lo prometo, te lo juro, mamita. That promise had changed his future.

Santi lifted out the tea bag with the spoon he had brought from home. He wrapped the little string around the plump bag and pressed out the last drops, then threw it into the garbage can under the sink. He was adding the milk and Splenda when one of the Westchester associates came into the lunch room. Young and smooth, gay and proud in tight pants. Hi Santi, the lawyer said, walking over to the vending machines. Hello, Santi answered, stirring. The associate asked, staring at the candy, Plans for the weekend? Santi thought about it for a second, then said, I’m attending a social function. It’s Gay Pride, the associate said in a lower voice. Santi paused and replied, I know. He thinks it’s some damn secret, he thought. Anyway, the young lawyer went on, turning to Santi, Don’t know what I’m doing myself yet. The parade, the dance on the pier, maybe Fire Island instead, who knows? he continued. Not coming in on Monday anyway! The party boy raised his hands and pushed at an imaginary roof and moved his hips a little. Santi smiled and nodded and answered him silently, What a loca! The Westchester lawyer waved and walked out of the lunch room, trying not to jiggle his ass too much. See ya later, he called out, back turned. Later, said Santi, and shook his head. The lawyer hadn’t bought anything from the machine. Santi felt as if he’d won an argument.

As he made his way back to his desk, Santi went over the past week in his mind. He hadn’t planned it that way, but on Monday, he had stayed home. He had woken up that morning and taken Talvin to school. That’s when he realized his subway reading was still on the nightstand, so he turned around and walked back to the apartment. It took him longer than he thought, because he stopped at the Duane Reade to pick up a prescription. He had intended to go to the office, really he had, but all of a sudden he couldn’t bring himself to leave. He had called Diane’s cell and told her he wasn’t coming in. Ray had told him when he started working there to call Diane when he was running late, and not to bother him with calls like that. So that’s what Santi did. He had spent the morning – how fast it flew by! – reading his Vanity Fair, pruning the house plants, and before he knew it, time for lunch at the cuchifrito. He ate most of the chicken and all the beans but only half the rice and two bites of flan, por cuenta del azúcar. It was a sunny day, so he took a walk and went home for a nap and the next thing he knew it was time to pick up Talvin. He chatted with the security guards and reminded himself to bring them some coquito at Christmas. Then all the way home and Talvin’s bath and dinner, then homework, a little Gameboy, a story and bedtime. His own shower came next, and then his own shows and on to the internet to watch his pornos. He fell asleep after that.

Tuesday he had woken up feeling so rested he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so good. He surprised himself and called Diane to tell her he wasn’t coming in. He took Talvin to school and played hooky the same way he had done the day before. On Wednesday, he had called out again. Was there something wrong? Diane wanted to know. Santi said, Everything’s fine. Did he have to explain himself to Diane? Was Diane his boss? He got the itch that afternoon and went on Grindr and hooked up with a guy who worked for Transit. He put on his puto jeans and they took a long walk to Van Cortlandt, to avoid his wife the macho had told him, and even though it had turned a little rainy, they did it outside and he got some much needed sucky fucky. He had a blue freeze pop after that and picked up Talvin a little late. 

Santi slowed his pace to pass the deposition room, suits everywhere, and a crying woman sitting at a conference table. On Thursday he had kept Talvin home. It already felt like a long time ago. They went to the Museum of Natural History. Que muchacho inteligente! Nowadays they called it Gifted and Talented. Oh Miss Thing, he had fought hard.Hard. Meetings on top of meetings and not taking no for an answer. And if he had to claw over the faces of every Upper East Side mom with a Dooney-Burke handbag he was going to get Talvin into the right school when the time came, come zip code, extra lessons, placement tests or whatever.

He had given Yvette his promise, after all. His bedroom had gone to the boy, and he had moved himself into the living room. He slept on the sofa. He did everything the free lawyers told him to do. God bless them. There was never any evidence of Carlos when child welfare came for their visits, and he was always ready with coffee and tea and cookies. They loved Talvin and the adoption was almost done. Everyone could see he was going to be someone. An architect or an interior decorator, Talvin said. Whatever you want papi, Santi laughed, excited to hear those things. And who knew? Talvin was very intelligent and a real cutie. Talvin could have a future. Santi liked to think that Talvin took after him. Well, at least in his eyes if nothing else. If only he and Carlos could have stayed together… But Carlos couldn’t handle fatherhood, and the apartment was too small for three. Santi hardly ever let himself have those thoughts though, because it would make him have too many feelings, and he’d think of his Yvette, and that would make him remember, and next thing he’d get the moody blues. 

There were seventeen cubicles and twelve windows on the way back, all of it memorized. The twelve office windows Santi passed faced the World Trade Center memorial. Ground Zero, but he didn’t like to look. What for? On 9-11 he had been home. Yvette had called from her job at the Conway near Macy’s. Talvin hadn’t been born yet. Santi had walked all the way there to meet her and walk her home. It took hours. Yvette was so freaked out they stayed together for days, watching the TV, and getting food from the chino take out. They had missed a whole week of work until things were better. Of course, he wasn’t working downtown at the time, he was still cutting hair, and when he came back in, unlike the lawyers and Ray and Diane, those folks and customers were happy to see him. After that, he tried to forget about the whole thing.

And now, at last, it was TGIF Friday, and People’s Express Temps had fucked him and all his good feelings. Right as soon as Santi walked through the door, Diane said, Good morning Santi, you had a call and I put it straight through to your voice mail. Diane sounded different, though, and that’s when Santi should have known. Santi said, Thank you Diane, and listened to the message left at 8:14 am. He heard the words ‘complaints,’ and ‘unexplained absence’ from the lady at the agency. The other words he hadn’t caught. The lady’s voice was too small for him to pay complete attention. Diane didn’t turn around, but Santi felt she had something to do with it. Maybe it was something Diane told Ray about him? Should he ask her? Diane could get a lot across just with her tone. Some people were lucky that way. Santi, on the other hand, felt he always had a hard time explaining and that he had to spell everything out, and even so, people still had a hard time getting his meaning.

He reached his cubicle and sat down with his tea at last. He could tell Diane was talking to her boyfriend because Diane always whispered to him. The rest of the time she was loud. He took his book from his backpack. She shot him a look. He caught it and froze her with his eyes. It was E. Lynn Harris he was reading. Men were dogs, the same old. He put in his earbuds and selected an album off his playlist. Albums, he thought. Nobody called them that any more. Donny Hathaway’s name lit up. He had such a sweet way of singing, as if he was singing only for you, that it cut Santi’s heart like a knife through a bizcocho from Valencia. He would have liked to meet Donny Hathaway. There had been rumors… All at once he felt like crying. He died so young. Oh why? He blinked and two hot tears fell onto his timesheet. Donny died too damn young. Yvette and the fucking HIV. I told her not to trust that cabrón boyfriend. He was surprised by the anger rising up in him like the heat from his mug. It wasn’t fair. But life’s not fair, he thought. It don’t make sense. Look at this place right here. Crazy. A poor Mexican breaks his back falling from a construction site. The lawyers buy a condo off it in Florida with their money, and the worker gets a custom handicap van with an elevator for his wheelchair. A young lady gets pregnant and has to risk her life for an abortion. Now you take the train and you got to check who has a gun. And look at me, of all people, raising my sister’s kid like a single mother. He looked at Diane. Who the fuck was she? Just try and do better. Sitting there so righteous with her Bible Will Smith Obama Betty Boop family problems fights and money trouble same as Santi, but there she was judging him all dressed up and sitting on her throne like RuPaul. Mo’Nique was more like it when Diane started working her bemba.

Santi stopped himself. He dried his eyes and blotted the tear stains on the time card so the ink wouldn’t smudge. He didn’t want to be bitchy. He didn’t want to sink to their low level. It wasn’t right, what they’d done, but showing his feelings to these people was beneath him. He had been there a long time and worked for all of them honestly. Two entire years, no benefits. He had never slipped up but this one time, and he couldn’t even explain to them why. And now they could not care less. Just poof, bye-bye. Santi poured his untasted tea into the garbage pail under his desk with a steady hand. Well, they could say what they want, but he had his pride. Gay pride, Puerto Rican pride, you name it pride. He could have hated himself, he could have wanted pity. But no, he wasn’t going down yet, not without a fight, puñeta. Santi wasn’t feeling like Donny anymore. He shuffled his music. It landed on Ike & Tina. Things had been worse.

Gerard Cabrera is a Massarican from Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the first American dictionary, Dr. Seuss, and basketball. His writing has appeared in Gay Community News, Acentos Review, Angel Rust, Apricity, JONATHAN, and Kweli. His novel, Homo Novus, was published in October 2022, by Rattling Good Yarns Press, and was supported by the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a Bread Loaf Bakeless Foundation fellowship at The Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. He lives and works in New York City. Visit him at

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

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