In the depths of his loneliness he began playing with toys. He’d go to K-Mart and Wal-Mart, to thrift stores and garage sales in search of that one item that instilled in him an unspeakable juvenile desire. It was always action figures. Muscle men with swords or machine guns; G-I Joes, X-Men, and generic, cheaply made barbarians with legs and arms that did not bend in the middle, their stoic faces a harkening to his youth when things were as simple as choosing which one he would devote his affections to that day.
The cashiers in said retailers rarely asked about his purchases, though some—usually ones who avoided the turnover long enough to accustom themselves with his long standing habit of buying dolls—inquired now and again.
“My little boy brought home all A’s on his report card,” he sometimes said, though it wasn’t long before they noticed he was never in the company of children or for that matter anyone else. When he felt the stares settling into a muck of judgement, the inquiring morphing into something close to inquisition, he’d drive thirty miles east to the next county where he was known to spend anywhere from eighty to one hundred and fifty dollars in a single spree, all on things other men his age had outgrown decades before.
He was not a collector. He did not buy these things for the purpose of keeping them boxed and placed on shelves; mementos on display for guests (of which there were none) to increase in value with each passing year. No. Instead, he tore them open the moment he set foot in his tiny, plastic crammed apartment. But there were times when even this was too futile a task. The previous Christmas Eve, he found a vintage Hulk Hogan figurine circa 1987, its paint still a vivid coat of yellow and red, all but immaculate save for a tiny piece of ceramic chipped away on the doll’s right boot.
That cold day, as the highway was slick with ice and as the people considered well-adjusted by societal standards rushed home to be with their families, he tore open the cardboard casing around the toy and directed a four hour film right there in his still running car. In it, the doll was stranded on a distant planet culled from mud caked floorboard and frozen steel. He made believe the toy was afraid and desperately radioing for home base to send him an escape pod. He injected an element of sci-fi horror in the form of his own hand, which he used as a massive spider that lurked in the shadows ala the Alien franchise.
“This is Woodchuck to Grey squirrel, do you read me?” he made the doll ask. “This is Woodchuck to Grey squirrel…I need help! There’s…there’s something here! I’m in terrible trouble and I need help!”
As the film progressed, he fashioned a plasma charger from his never before used car cigarette lighter and delivered scene after scene of what to him was pure, pulse pounding escapism, never noticing the frigid night that had seeped in and turned Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, the people passing his car on the freeway believing he was simply a man that had misplaced his keys or dropped a contact lens as he lurched over the passenger seat to play with his Hulk Hogan toy.
His virginity went without saying. He wore it the way an obese person wears their inability to climb a long flight of stairs without stopping to rest. Around women he was uncomfortable and meek, his eyes only meeting theirs for brief intervals before refocusing themselves on the carpet below. His voice was a nasally, self-hating drone that peered out and retreated like a frightened tortoise from its shell. In his mind he sometimes went to a place in high school when a girl two years his junior accidentally brushed his genitals with her wrist as everyone flooded the halls en route to their respective classes, and years later he still held that as the pinnacle of his sexual exploits.
He was not naïve or damaged in terms of how he saw himself, however. He was not challenged or blissfully oblivious to things like women and sex and the way men were for women and vice versa. He was quite aware that he was missing out on everything, that the time spent investing in and playing with toys had stunted him beyond measure in relation to not only the fairer sex, but the world as a whole and how a person finds their place within it. And there were nights he awoke drenched in icy perspiration at the thought of his existence slipping away one wasted day at a time as he waited for his life to begin.
When this happened, he’d turn on all the lights in his apartment, find whichever toy he was smitten with at that particular time, and direct them in movies until the anxiety subsided. He was twenty eight years old.
On the floor directly beneath his, and two doors to the right from where his was positioned, there lived a young girl and her mother. The girl’s name was Valencia. Her mother made a living styling hair and applying makeup to corpses for the county coroner. Though he’d initially put Valencia at fifteen or sixteen, she was in actuality nineteen but looked younger because of her bubbly face, colorful braces, and tiny voice. He first saw her on a rainy Thursday afternoon just after coming into a vintage Planet of The Apes figurine with a missing arm for a dollar fifty at the Taylor County swap meet. He heard a voice through his open window so he lifted a single blind to see two girls crossing the courtyard. One was dark with a bob haircut and spectacles hanging from her neck on a beaded aluminum chain. The other was Valencia.
Her hair came down to the small of her back, the shimmer from the emerging sun changing it from amber to burgundy with each movement. Her white shirt clung to her torso, accentuating her tightly coiled fat rolls so that they resembled pork sausages in a pack of ball park franks. Her tiny pink shorts clung to her, a large ass gobbling then spitting out the soft fabric encasing it in tight but loose gulps. All of this was set atop a pair of milky, tree trunk sized thighs that segued into feathery ankles above dainty feet and manicured nails.
He raised an additional blind and squinted for a better look. She spoke with her hands; pressing them together or waving them around in emphasis of each point made. Her laugh was high pitched and jovial, sometimes causing her to toss her head back in comic earnestness, and for some reason it reminded him of fresh strawberries doused with water in a health cereal commercial he’d once seen. When she flung her hair over he caught the feint scent of conditioner all the way from where he stood on the second floor.
It was her friend that noticed him first, turning at the waist to see the outline of him at his window.
“Look,” he heard her say.
When Valencia unexpectedly looked over her shoulder at him mid-sentence, his breath nearly exited his chest and he almost dropped the toy in his trembling hand. Once the girls had resumed their conversation, and once he was sure the focus was no longer on him, he retook his position as voyeur at the window, losing himself in her walk and form, in her pure femininity that awoke in him something he only recalled in boyhood fragments. When she came out of her sandal stepping over a lawn chair someone had left in the tall grass of the courtyard, he saw her smile up at him as she turned and bent down to pick it up. He watched her until she was gone. He did not play with toys that day.
Every day, when her sandals were heard to scuttle across the sidewalk, or to shuffle through the yellow courtyard grass, he’d be at the window with the blinds undrawn, waiting for her. When she was alone she walked briskly to and from her mother’s apartment, sometimes to a friend’s, sometimes to the landlord’s office to pay the rent. When she had company she moved slower the way people tend to do when engrossed in conversation as they walk. And she knew he was there, and he knew that she knew he was there, sometimes with his clammy palm around his penis beneath his sweatpants at the window.
Often she seemed perturbed. She’d rolled her eyes at him twice that he could recall. Once, he saw her make a disapproving expression to the girl she was walking with as she motioned towards the second floor. He imagined her saying he was a pervert or a peeping tom, but in his own mind he was neither because he had never actually been within twenty feet of her.
Other times she reciprocated the attention, smiling and batting her eyes his way, and on one momentous occasion waving to him flirtatiously as he came down the stairs carrying bags of trash to the dumpster. In that instant he felt himself go cold then hot, as though his blood had turned to ice before the ice melted and became hot cocoa with marshmellos on a wintry December night. Mentally, he would replay that moment at least one thousand times. Even as he loaded his cart with action figures at a newly built Toys R’ Us days later, he would see her and her gorgeous waving hand enter the landscape of his mind’s eye. And as the register tallied ninety one dollars and sixteen cents for a limited edition Millennium Falcon replica, he could not help but think of the things he could do with his money.
He was washing his clothes in the communal laundry room downstairs when a voice said, “I always thought you’d be fat or something.”
It was Valencia. She stood in the laundromat doorway with her left foot propped against her right calve, her childlike finger drawing invisible circles in the cinder block wall adjacent to her. He was speechless at first. His eyes widened and his mouth was agape until he caught himself and cleared his throat. She stepped into the laundromat with a nylon sack which she dumped out onto the nearest fiberglass table. He saw dirty socks and brightly colored thongs entwined with flannel shirts and the odd torn pair of jeans.
“My friend thinks you’re a serial killer,” she declared, setting the washer knob to cold water before switching it to warm. “She says you have dead bodies in your place like Jeffery Dahmer, only they’re not men because you have a thing for spying on young girls.”
He bowed his head to hide the redness of his face, crushing an already dead bug on the tile underfoot with his shoe as she sat herself atop the very washing machine he used, her thighs quivering with the vibration of the rinse cycle. Against his will he was taken aback by her forthrightness, by her ignoring of the imaginary bubbles he believed everyone encased themselves in. She asked him his name, and in his unsure timbre he gave it to her. She asked him how long he’d been living there, and he gave her that as well. And he did this not looking at her but at the crushed bug on the floor, giving the entirety of his gaze to the deceased insect because the girl before him scared him in ways he could not comprehend. When he applied himself, he looked at her long enough to observe her thin, sloped nose as well as the constellation of pimples on her chin. He saw wisps of brown hair sticking to her large, moistened forehead, bringing to his attention the rainforests beneath his own arms.
He feigned coolness as he delivered his own obligatory fleet of getting to know you inquiries, his voice struggling to jump hurdles and keep steady as he went. But she sensed his lameness. In mild annoyance, she responded with expressionless one word answers and uninterested shrugs. When she removed her sneaker to massage the sole of her right foot, he caught the aroma of corn chips and vinegar and he became erect, and he was relieved for that because it meant a tiny if still present kernel of testosterone had survived the initial wave of fear that had seized him.
“Are you down?” she eventually asked, her eyes glinting naughtily.
He did not know why, but he instinctively knew she was asking if he smoked marijuana.
He said he didn’t, but that he was offered joints all the time where he worked. Her gaze fastened skeptically on his. She knew he was lying. The question then became whether or not she was one of those people that had a low tolerance for dishonesty. She was not, fortunately, and after much cajoling as they folded their laundry side by side, he agreed to attend a party with her that evening.
The party took place at a bungalow on the freeway in the Mexican district. They arrived at dusk via his car, where she chirped along to the radio with her feet on the dash as he tried in vain to control his heavy breathing, his insides a rickety pinwheel nicking his ribs and heart as he drove. He heard heavy dance music from the house as they walked the broken sidewalk towards the front door. A young couple outside were already very drunk and arguing, pushing and pulling one another until they tumbled over a circular plastic pool in the front yard.
They were all Valencia’s age, though with some young people it’s nearly impossible to tell for sure. He was only certain of himself being the oldest one there. The party was ninety seven percent Hispanic with only one or two whites, their pale faces sticking out almost as much as his in the sea of olive and brown skins. The boys wore near identical uniforms of oversized, XXXL white shirts with saggy jean shorts hanging half off their asses, tattoos on their forearms and necks of the Virgin Mary and sad, incarcerated clowns, all in that crude, prison ink shade of green.
The girls had whitish blond hair with their black roots showing and tick like moles above their upper lips with copious amounts of eye shadow and mascara and beige concealer. One girl of about twenty bumped into him, and as she passed he noticed she had outlined her clown red lips with what looked like black felt pen.
He felt the stares, the looks of who is this? as he passed. The males were like pit-bulls to his vulnerable mailman with their thick necks and foremost chests that seemed built for combat. He made direct eye contact with no one but instead observed everything peripherally. Unbeknownst to him, however, was the advantage his age afforded him, for in that room full of boys and girls he was a man, and the others had a peculiar reverence for him.
The party was for a just released convict named Hector. He’d gone in the first time at fourteen for vandalism, then again at seventeen for driving a stolen vehicle, then again at nineteen for beating an elderly man with the butt of a stolen revolver, his sentence reduced considerably after three witnesses stated the old man had attacked the boy first. Nonetheless, most knew the party wasn’t so much in celebration of Hector’s freedom but rather in celebration of what little time he would enjoy on the outside before going back in.
He watched Valencia mingle and dart between partygoers, stopping to hug one guest before lilting over to another. The boys seemed fond of her, setting their tall boy cans of Colt .45 down on the nearest piece of furniture to embrace her with both hands. One of them affectionately called her guapa. Another referred to her as mija. He saw one guy kiss her cheek, and when seconds later he drunkenly tried for her lips, she turned away and looked over her shoulder at the most inexperienced person there.
She went into the kitchen and came back holding two clear plastic cups of beer, one of which she handed to him, her delicate finger intentionally grazing his as she did. He of course was not a drinker. He vaguely recalled getting into his father’s liquor cabinet at eleven and sipping something that burned his throat like fire. But he was invested in this and he wanted her to see him a certain way so he took the beer and killed half of it in one pull. Watching him almost gag, she smiled.
“Easy, borracho,” she said, gently removing the sweaty cup from his lips.
“What does borracho mean?” he asked.
“It’s Spanish for drunk.”
“Oh. How do you say toys in Spanish?”
“Juguetes,” she answered.
They walked through the crowded house towards the backdoor, the Mexican hip hop so loud the empty beer glasses vibrated towards the edge of the dirty kitchen table.
Outside there were people getting high on the patio and drinking malt liquor from soggy paper bags. At one point Valencia stopped, took a hit from a large spliff, and led her guest to a swinging chair beneath a canopy. To the right was a low rise chain link fence where a trio of thugs were perched, shouting obscenities and ogles at any attractive girl walking the avenue, their shaved heads as hard and as scalped as baseballs in the purple sunset.
When a fight broke out, she placed her hand on his leg as if protecting him from some potential calamity that never came.
“It’s only temporary,” she suddenly announced.
“What is?” he asked.
She raised her hand to highlight everything within view.
“All of this. These people. This life. It’s only temporary. I won’t always hang around places like these. And I won’t always live with my mother. One day I’ll be a nurse. I put in an application at the care home over on 23rd street. I start in two weeks as an aide. From there I’ll take the courses to become an RN. When I get enough saved I’ll get me a little car and an apartment, maybe a dog or a cat with a big television that mounts on the wall and a bunch of the clothes I try on at Dillard’s but never buy. Did you know registered nurses can make up to twenty three dollars an hour?”
“I think I heard that somewhere. And after that?”
Valencia shrugged and sipped her beer, forcing him to sip his from some wanton need to keep up.
“And then my life will begin,” she answered. “That’s kind of the way I feel most days—like my life hasn’t officially started yet. Like right now I’m doing the prep work to get everything ready. But I can’t wait. I can’t wait to get out on my own with no net beneath me, or however people say it. I can’t wait to make mistakes and treat myself to nice things when the bills are paid and the money is just lying around. You know what I mean. You’ve been on your own awhile.”
“Sure. Being on your own is great,” he said, his beer glass raised to his lips so that she could not detect the lie he’d fed her.
But for the two of them, the backyard was vacant an hour later. When the DJ spun a ballad sung in Spanish over the sound system, she bolted from the chair swing and extended her hand.
“No, the guy behind you. Come on. Dance.”
He allowed himself to be led to the center of the patio. She gently kicked the empty beer cans and loose cigarette butts away to create a dancefloor. She showed him where to put his hands—one in hers and in midair to the side of them, the other on the small of her back—before she placed her head delicately on his chest, snuggling her ear inside a concaved dent at his breast. He followed the pattern made by her feet on the cement, and with what little rhythm he had he was able to waltz at a passable level. Though he could not understand the words and meaning of the song, he knew the agonized voice of the mariachi horn section well, for in those screaming trumpets he saw himself as an old man with no life experience to speak of, and it caused his eyes to film up and his stomach to drop with exquisite pain.
Standing there dancing, he understood himself no more than a homeless man understands his need to exist in squalor. His mind went in search of the exact time and place his loneliness became his only sustenance, but it found nothing beyond the vast openness that was as deep and as wide as the imaginary worlds he created for his toys.
The last thing she expected was for him to grab her around the triceps and kiss her. His mouth was clumsy, first as wet and as wide as a teen’s during their premier summer fling, then with lips as pursed as if they had just swallowed rancid prune juice. She placed her hands on his face and guided him, showing him the way in a throaty whisper until it was only them and the music for what seemed like miles around.
It had been a good day. One augmented by young people drinking and having a good time. By policemen having dinner at the Mexican restaurant down the street and enjoying themselves so much they did not notice the noise. When he left she elected to stay, but not before kissing him amid a backdrop of sirens and gunfire in the fierce urbanity of the barrio.
Driving home, he accepted his place in life as a perpetual loner with only artificial plastic men to keep him company, and neither a woman nor a genuine friend to make the journey with. He accepted it the way a farmer accepts a tractor being stuck so far in the mud it can never be moved.
They did not speak again, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on her part. She knocked on his door twice the following week. Both times he kept the door locked and eyed her through the peephole until she went away. He began washing his clothes at a Filipino cleaners downtown to avoid contact with her. One morning, as he descended the stairs carrying a basket of dirty sheets and pants, she called his name but he pretended he did not hear her. Eventually she gave up and lost interest because frankly Valencia did not need to wait on any man, boy or woman.
He still watched her, though nowhere near as intently, most times kneeling before the window to disguise himself though she could always make out the crown of his head through the blinds. Yet she felt no anger or disappointment towards him, for she knew, young though she was and just as he did, that it wasn’t the prospect of failure that scared him, but rather the possibility of greatness that gave him pause, for there will always be people who chase what they want most, and there will always be people who run from it even when it takes them dancing in the night.