Manuel Vargas spent his elementary years protecting the pieces of his broken heart with a pair of worn, wool mittens. In the mornings, by the bus stop, he spread them for his mother. Flexing five-year-old fingers, he felt half a heart beat deep within each palm. No one, not even doctors, knew what to call it. An abnormality, they said, or a miracle.
Manuel, curious by nature, spent his early years in the treetops of his barrio. His mother was terrified by the possibility of bark rubbing away his palms, so she required mittens to be worn at all times. In the swelter of July, while the other boys swung monkey-like along the oaks and elms and maples, Manuel pooled his finger sweat into his mittened hands. In his weaker moments, when he considered flinging them across the yard, he’d glance up to see his mother shaking a finger at him through the kitchen window. He’d tried to bury them once, by flashlight, though his mother spied the beam through the window and proceeded to duct tape them around his wrists.
On Thanksgiving afternoon, Uncle Bernito reached a hand for eight-year-old Manuel’s hand and gripped tight. “Put’er there,“ he grinned, squeezing. As Manuel sank to his knees, his half-heart throbbing, nobody but his mother understood the pain or the harm or the falling.
“He’s not like the other children,“ she cried, reaching for him as cousins and grandparents gathered to peer. “You shake this boy’s hand you might as well stab his chest.“ She shamed all of them. She asked how dare they stare. Concerned, the hoard retrieved ice packs and water and Tylenol. Eventually, the beats re-found their rhythms. They still ate turkey that day.
Everyone agreed: Manuel Vargas took some getting used to. As if his misplaced heart was not enough, a lilted voice and spindled body made him an easy target. Most, however, preferred to ignore him entirely. While the other boys played basketball in Paulo Guitierrez’s backyard, Manuel took to kicking a soccer ball against the brick wall of Roberto Clemente Middle School. While Paulo and the others preferred the thud of the basketball and the sound of leather thwocking hands, occasionally, on their mothers’ orders, they played soccer to keep Manuel from getting lonely.
“Okay Manny, I kick to you now,“ Paulo announced, then slowly rolled the ball to his foot. Manuel trapped it, quite easily, and though he wished they wouldn’t, the others cheered his success and patted him on the head.
During his eighth grade year--when sports were at a standstill--kids went to the cinemas and exchanged promises of love while in line for concessions or while loitering in the maroon carpeted hallways during previews. Meanwhile, Manuel sat alone in a broken seat in the corner of the back row--sole witness to the tongue-and-grooving of others--and sipped cautiously at his root beer.
Everyone went to the horror films, but only Manuel bothered to watch. He marveled at the two-headed monsters devouring the most beautiful humans alive. They even devoured the un-beautiful. Two heads and four eyes, these monsters swallowed anything they could. Glancing away from the screen, Manuel watched the same taking place all around him. Heads and eyes meeting over the arm rests, dripping tongues lashing back and forth. Even the un-beautiful, like Hector Orujillo, found someone to swap him for spit.
Tina Suarez, one night in November, arrived late and alone to the theater. Finding no other seat she wedged herself beside Manuel. He sank low in his chair and smiled to her in the dark.
They shared a vampire movie, and as the fangs sank into the neck of one beautiful girl after another, he felt her hand instinctually pull to his. Holding firm, she scooped out all the air. Her flesh met his mitten and she kept it there, afraid no longer, and her eyes held tight to the screen. He tried to stay calm, but already, his heartbeat pounded promises to her. Her fingers like a pecking bird, but still, she stripped off his mittens.
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