C. Adán Cabrera
            No, it wouldn’t matter that the wine glasses were plastic, that the cutlery was cheap and pre-used, that the powder-blue placemats were stained with the grease of too many a meal. None of these things were important, Sal decided, opening the cupboard that morning. Mateo, the poor bastard, had probably been so used to scraping his meals off metal trays with a spork or a spoon or whatever else they gave prisoners these days that he would probably be grateful just to eat at a proper table again. Sal knew nothing about what went on in that concrete, windowless shoebox downtown, but if being locked up was anything like the movies, imperfect place settings would be the least of Mateo’s concerns. 
	Besides, sterling silver knives or an impeccable set of china plates would go completely unnoticed by Mateo, even if Sal could somehow afford these things. The poor bastard wouldn’t be able to identify a Waterford if his life depended on it! Sal’s teaching salary might be meager, but he at least had good taste. Mateo had just a bad temper and a funny accent, not to mention that hideous scar. Bless their mother, God rest her soul, for always wanting to include Mateo, no matter how uncomfortable he made everyone. Sal had certainly raised eyebrows at the school fundraiser back in September when, reluctantly, he’d allowed his mother to bring Mateo. The poor bastard showed up looking like a gangbanger - baggy plain white t-shirt, faded parachute jeans - and that scar on his face that drew stares from the teachers and parents. Mr. Lee, the school’s principal, was already on edge because of district budget cuts, and had already warned that lay-offs were imminent. Sal thought that he’d be on the chopping block for sure after that night, especially after his mother, God rest her soul, made it a point to introduce Mateo to everyone in the room. “Sal’s big brother,” she’d said, proudly.
	Of course, in losing his job Sal would also lose his health care, something that he couldn’t do without, especially considering the news that Dr. Sánchez had given him three weeks ago. Positive, one hundred percent. What optimistic phrasing for a diagnosis, Sal had thought. 
	He sorted through the mismatched plates, chipped saucers, a pair of neon green goblets, a porcelain salad plate, flimsy souvenir mugs he’d brought back from Las Vegas, Toronto, Milan. He grabbed a mug by its rhinestone-encrusted handle and felt a wisp of spider web wrap around his finger. A thin coat of dust had settled on the bottom. Sal put it aside and continued to survey the cupboard, only to discover more spider webs and the mummified remain of a fly. Disgusted, he loaded everything into the dishwasher, and added extra soap for good measure.
	Sal sat down at the dining room table, already tired. Probably a side effect from the medication, he realized. Looking at the stacks of ungraded math homework and breathing in the various smells (curry, syrup, bacon) emanating from his kitchen, Sal considered meeting dining at a restaurant instead. Then again, Mateo had never been to Sal’s apartment. Feeling better now after a few months of depressive solitude, and considering that his brother had been released a week ago after another three-month stint, playing host felt like the appropriate thing to do. Truth be told, Sal was surprised that Mateo had accepted an invitation in the first place, and Heaven help him if plans changed at the last minute. Mateo, touchy Mateo, untutored Mateo, would certainly cancel, and not without some choice words.
	No, no, Sal thought, surveying the apartment, shaking his head at the mess. Six months without as much as a word between us warranted a special occasion. Everything, everything would have to be cleaned. 
really didnt matter what was for dinner o dessert o what he would think so what if i didnt show up at all o maybe i would but with ester all broken o what if i showed up in a suit y tie y knocked oh so politely on sals front door whatever it looked like probably made with ivory o gold and when i knock looking all fly what would that dumb ass say when he opened the door man the look on his face would be fucking priceless hermano ja ja if only mama que en paz descanse could be there to wipe off the look of surprise y shut his pinche mouth what would mi viejita say ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja ja
	Footsteps, slow and heavy behind him. The floorboards creaked when the pad of bare feet approached the door. Mateo puffed on his cigarette. It was almost out.
	“Hi, baby,” he said, his eyes fixed on the sidewalk. From his front porch he could see that mass had ended. Veiled señoras and their stiff-faced husbands streamed out of the church across the street. The collective scent of their sweet perfume wafted over to him on a calm, cool breeze. It was bright and hazy outside. He squinted. 
	“You heard me coming?” Ester said. “From way over there?”
	Mateo took a deep drag and blew the smoke at his toes. A flutter of pigeon wings.
	“That’s why I said ‘hi.’”
	Twelve rings of church bells parted the air. An old man coughed in the distance. Next door, a lawnmower roared to life. Three hummingbirds flitted in the rosebushes. The cigarette began to singe his finger. Mateo let it burn his skin for a moment and held the pain between his teeth. He ground out the butt with his foot.
	He reached into his shirt pocket for another smoke, and sighed.
	“You just gonna stand there all day, or you gonna come out here and enjoy the day with me?” he said, surprised at his own bellow. The unlit cigarette dangled from his lips when he turned around. He unclenched his fist. 
	Ester was standing in the shadows, her bare toes curled around the doorframe’s bottom ridge. One hand held a cup half-emptied of what seemed to be soda; the other rested on her stomach. She stepped onto the porch and sat down next to him. She smelled of cocoa butter and sadness.
	Mateo moved away from her. He lit the cigarette. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that she was watching him. She cleared her throat, played with a strand of hair. 
	“Can I get one?” she asked. 
	He took another long drag, and blew the smoke into the sky in one long, white puff.
	He sighed, loudly. “No,” he said. “You can’t.”
	An airplane boomed overhead, making the ground tremble. An ice cream truck turned the corner. 
	Ester rubbed her fingernail with a corner of her blouse. “¿Porqué no?”
	Mateo let his head roll back on his shoulders, and turned to face her. “Ester, are you really that stupid that you have to ask?” He flicked her stomach with his middle finger. “Did you forget about this, o qué?”
	She rubbed her abdomen. “It’s not like it matters anymore,” she whispered. She still hadn’t looked at him.
	Mateo sighed and spit into the grass. He stood and flicked the cigarette, still burning, into the street.
	“Well, baby, it still matters to me,” he said.
	Mateo walked up the stairs and into the house, and closed the door behind him.
	After lunching on a tuna fish sandwich and stacking the clean dishes back in the cupboard, Sal drove to the Rite Aid on Sunset and Vine. He walked into the store wearing his darkest pair of sunglasses, looking – and feeling – like a Hollywood celebrity going incognito. He passed the magazines, passed the cosmetics; he passed all the lotions and latex and loofahs until at last he reached the pharmacy tucked in the back of the store.
	Sal was relieved to find it empty, save for the lone Armenian woman at the front of the line who was complaining about the cost of some ointment. The clerk, an older copper-colored woman, fiddled with her computer’s keyboard while the lady ranted on and on in her broken English. His gaze darted around the pharmacy for a familiar face, or worse, a former student.
	“I’m here to pick up a prescription,” Sal said when he reached the front of the line. He slid his driver’s license to the clerk.
	The copper-colored woman hardly looked up while she tapped on her keyboard, pausing only to press something on the screen. A strand of her black hair came loose and fell across her nose. She blew it away. Sal could smell the faint trace of an orange Starburst.
	“It’ll be just a minute, Mr. Salazar,” she said after a few minutes. She handed back his license. “The pharmacist needs to talk to you. Have a seat.”
	She motioned to an empty chair next to an old man who was mumbling into his chest. Sal sat down next to him, and pushed the sunglasses higher on the bridge of his nose. The old man looked up momentarily, and continued whispering to himself.
	Time dripped. At least, that’s how everything felt to Sal these days, how that his time was measurable, not only in hours and minutes and seconds, but now also in heartbeats and cell counts and viral loads. His life force had lost its mystery, was no longer an invisible, vibrant thing; it was instead a number that Dr. Sánchez, the family doctor, had scribbled on a pad back in May. Too many nameless men in the park, in by-the-hour motel rooms, in the back of their Civic or Beemer or Mustang had left him at with the virus at twenty-six. Immediate treatment, the doctor had insisted, folding a slip of paper into Sal’s sweaty hand. And then, hovering in the doorway, avoiding Sal’s eye, Dr. Sánchez said that with medication these days a normal life was still possible. 
	What the hell did the sonofabitch know about “normal?” Sal had thought, sitting on the butcher-paper covered exam table, glaring at the glossy diagram of the digestive system on the wall. “Normal” means nothing to worry about, nothing to keep you awake at night. Sal felt that the worse kind of death sentence had been handed down to him: the kind without a fixed date. From here on out, death would be a constant companion, he thought. 
	Sal had driven home that same afternoon disconnected from the feet that alternated between gas and brake, felt severed from the hands that steered him to his apartment. How he longed for his mother then, God rest her soul, who with the scent of her perfume alone would make him cry with the promise of comfort!
	What would she say now? Sal had thought after getting home. He had thrown himself on the bed, burying his face in his pillow, hating that the late afternoon sunlight was fading slowly into evening. He screamed into the bed, screamed until his voice was so hoarse he spit blood. What would she say now? Sal had sobbed, imagining his mother’s soft, rounded face, and the way the mole on her lower lip would tremble moments before she would begin to cry. 
	Sal hardly left his apartment for three months after getting his diagnosis, barely willing himself to eat, to shower, to smoke. Thank Heaven the kids were on summer break. For those three months Sal floated somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, starting up in bed thinking the entire doctor’s visit had been a dream, only to sink down again at the sight of the crumpled prescription gathering dust on the nightstand. 
	Friends came in search of him, of course, wondering why he was absent from the many social functions taking place all over Los Angeles. He had their sympathy whenever he shared his illness, but not much else. No one really knew what to say, and Sal suspected that HIV was a buzz kill among his other, younger friends. When he finally was able to rouse himself out of bed and out of his house, the first place he had visited was the Macy’s counter at the Beverly Center. How his mother, God rest her soul, would have laughed to have seen him spending hours at the mall, just to sniff the bottles of the perfume she used to wear!
	She had been gone since December the year before, and now slept cold and dreamless under a stone angel at a Glendale cemetery. Mateo, of course, in his signature way, didn’t even bother coming to the funeral. He’d mumbled something about being busy, about being out of town or something. As if his own mother’s funeral wasn’t excuse enough to come back to L.A.! Sal had thought, seething. If Mateo couldn’t handle his mother’s death, Heaven help him when it came to dealing with Sal’s illness. The poor bastard could hardly manage his own life, knocking up poor Ester and then getting locked up again for God knows what. Giving him something difficult to deal with seemed out of the question. Sal was alone.
	The same Armenian woman from earlier was yelling at the copper-colored woman, screaming that she had been prescribed the wrong ointment and that she demanded her money back. She banged her fists on the counter, rattling the bottles of cough syrup and energy drinks. Several shoppers stopped and stared, their shopping baskets hanging from their arms. 
	How embarrassing, Sal thought, bending forward to pull a magazine from a nearby rack. He felt sorry for people like the Armenian woman and like his brother, people who couldn’t control their temper to save their lives! Mateo had lost control last Christmas Eve, three days before their mother died. He had exploded out of nowhere, complaining that he couldn’t hear the goddamn T.V. over the conversation Sal was having with their mother. Mateo had hurled the remote control at Sal’s head, who managed to duck a moment before it shattered against the stucco wall. Sal stood and started to yell. Mateo had stomped out, pulling an apologetic Ester by the wrist. Their mother, God rest her soul, hadn’t even cried. She’d gotten used to his outbursts, it seemed. “Poor Mateo,” she’d said to Sal that night, staring blankly at the tamales boiling on the stove. “I wonder if he’ll ever be happy again.”
	Three days later, a stroke had claimed their mother’s life. Even after the funeral, Sal had considered reaching out to his older brother, eager to make peace with him now that their mother was gone. They only had each other now, after all; Mateo’s father was dead, and Sal’s dad had split before he was born. Truth was Sal missed his brother. They used to be close when they were boys, playing Nintendo together in that one-bedroom at the edge of Echo Park. Mateo had pretty much raised him, considering that their mother, God rest her soul, had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Sal could never forget the years of burned tortillas or the pancakes with uncooked middles, or all the bleach-blotted Dodger jerseys that poor Mateo had ruined.
	Still waiting for the pharmacist, Sal glanced past the pharmacy. Back to school supplies were just being set up. Nine months, Sal realized. Nine months had passed since he’d seen his brother. Perhaps tonight could be the first step in a new direction, if the poor bastard made some effort. Their world had changed and, like it or not, they needed each other. Sal needed his brother.
	The pharmacist, a young, strong-jawed Filipino, was calling his name. 
	“Salvador? Salvador Salazar?”
	Sal bolted to the counter, blushing. “I go by Sal,” he said.
	The pharmacist nodded, and adjusted his glasses. He reached into a paper bag and pulled out four separate bottles. He recited a list of possible side effects for each medication, tapping each lid with his index finger while he spoke. Sal nodded, shifting his weight from foot to foot. The pharmacist put the medications back into the bag.
	“No,” Sal said, scooping up his prescriptions. “Thanks.”
	He clutched the bag against his leg as he walked away, squinting through his sunglasses while he frantically sought the exit.
	The water ran in hot rivulets down either side of his beard, his chest, the hair on his forearms. Mateo grabbed the soap and began to lather himself up. He opened his mouth and let the water from the showerhead fill his mouth. He gargled, and then spit over the tile. The water tasted grainy and metallic. Mateo pulled back his foreskin and urinated. A dark yellow pool filtered down the drain. He leaned forward so that the steady stream of water struck his face. He breathed in the smell of soap and steam and shampoo.
this is much better than prison no pinche mop y bucket waiting by the corner after i was done only way to get some fucking privacy there didnt wanna see no other fools wrinkled dicks dont gotta see no one except ester now no gabachos ni negros ni chinitos would see my turtle neck why did i still have one anyway y not salvador showering together big brother little brother save water buy food makes you see shit you werent ready for makes you feel less americano you know scar already bad enough that hijo e puta soldier how could he do that to a little kid
	Mateo lifted a finger to his face and traced the thickened ridge of skin that ran from the corner of his left eye down the left edge of his upper lip. He clenched his teeth in rage.
sonofabitch hijo e puta maldito how could he do that to me i couldnt even read good yet how could that sonofabitch drive the edge of a machete down my face i was just a little kid now you wont forget me hed said ja ja ja hed said mamá que en paz descanse thrashing like a dying goat in the grasp of another soldier hands hitting him everywhere saying mijo saying mijo what are you doing to my son for the love of god señor what did you do to his face shed said oh mi niño thank god they let them escape no more blood just a trail carved into his face that burned in the hot sun when they left san salvador 
	Mateo pressed a tight fist against the steamy tile. He opened his eyes. The world was blurred. Water gurgled. Mateo curled his toes and uncurled them and clenched them again. One bubble of soap floated aimlessly in the air, and popped. Darkness.
poor mamá que en paz descanse in cold rain o thirst o fever o hunger eat that bite of tortilla mijo cut off the green part yes thats a good boy poor mamá que en paz descanse sweatier than new clay bricks never complained saying only mijo dont worry we will be there in four o five days though it was really four o five weeks poor mamá que en paz descanse sick with that water parasite squatting among the cacti sal didnt have to see all that now did he running y running y running finally arrived in los angeles los angeles with holes in their zapatos as big as quarters no sal didnt have to see all that now did he didhedidhedidhedidhedidhedidhedidhe
	Mateo’s knuckles pressed into the wet tile. After a moment, he opened his eyes and bent to tighten the shower’s squeaky knobs. He opened the steamy shower door and reached for his towel. It was rough and smelled funny but he dried himself with it anyway, drying his face last. One long, hairy leg followed the other out of the tub.
	Mateo stepped onto the scale. He’d gained a pound. He turn around to face the medicine cabinet, wiped the steam away with his hand. He stared at himself, using his finger to trace his scar’s reflection in the mirror. His reflection glared back.
sorry little antonio sorry sorry sorry sorry wish you could see all the fucked up beautiful things in life but instead youre floating floating floating somewhere i will never be able to see you wordsnotfistswordsnotfistswordsnotfistswordsnotfists goddamnit i promise
	A tap on the door was followed by Ester’s soft voice.
	“Mateo?” she called. “It’s after five. Aren’t you meeting your brother at six?”
	Mateo wrapped the towel around his waist. He opened the door with one hard tug. Ester hopped back, her hand still raised in mid-knock.
	He pushed past her. He had almost reached their bedroom door when she called to him again. 
	“Mateo,” she began, leaning against the bathroom’s doorframe. 
              He turned around. 
              She licked her lips. “Mateo, you know I have to take those pills tonight, right? Doctor said it’s not good for me to keep it any longer.” She stared down at the carpet.
             Mateo said nothing, and tugged the towel tighter around his waist. 
             “We can say goodbye to him tonight,” Ester said, “after your dinner with your brother.”
             “I won’t be back ‘til tomorrow,” Mateo said. “Help me get dressed.”
              Ester nodded. As she approached, he hated how flat her belly looked under her loose, purple blouse. 
	Sal sat by himself at a pupusería on Vermont and Beverly. He was staring down the chubby waitress in the hope that it would speed up his order. He’d raced home after leaving the pharmacy to finish cleaning, thinking as he drove about all the possible dishes he could make that evening. A salade niçoise, perhaps? Some baked brie as an appetizer?
	In the end, however, remembering that Mateo was a picky eater who hated anything green that lacked a morsel of red meat, Sal had opted for a favorite meal from their childhood: pupusas stuffed with pork and cheese, and cream-filled empanadas topped with sugar. This Salvadoran restaurant prepared their dishes just like their mother, God rest her soul, used to make them. He’d burn it off on the elliptical later, Sal thought. It’s a special occasion.
	“Your order will be ready in ten minutes, señor,” the chubby waitress called to him from behind the register. Sal nodded. Her accent was as thick as the pupusas they sold here, Sal thought with a smile. She caught his eye, and showed him a mouth full of braces before bending to answer the phone. She shouted orders in machine-gun Spanish to the cook. 
               A saxophone’s melancholy song spilled out of the jukebox, followed by a chorus of trumpets and the slow beat of a bongo drum. A whelp of recognition went up among the diners. A couple, probably in their forties, began to dance. Sal watched as the woman’s hips rode the beat, her feet moving opposite to the man’s in perfect time.
           “To go, señor,” the waitress said, setting his order on the table. The food was wrapped in a plastic bag, knotted at the top. She set the bill down next to him and walked back to the register.
            Sal undid the knot and looked inside. He didn’t trust his Spanish these days, and knew that some of his students teased him for not being able to speak it fluently. The waitress hadn’t helped his confidence, either. Something about the way she cocked her head and twice scratched out the order on her greasy pad told him that he should double-check before he left the restaurant. He peered inside the bag, past the curtido and the red sauce, and pulled off a corner of the tin foil. They had gotten it right.
             Sal left a twenty on the counter and walked onto Beverly. A woman was cooking hot dogs on a mobile grill. He stood there for a moment, watching her wrap a link in bacon. The smell of meat and the sizzle of fat hung in the early evening air. Sal looked at his watch. 5:15. Mateo, if he was on time, would be at his house in less than an hour.
            Sal tucked the food under his arm and raced past the cart, nearly tripping on one of its wheels. 
	Mateo was on the 720. The bus was inching down Wilshire, toward Sal’s apartment on the Miracle Mile. Cars clogged the surface streets, nothing new on a Saturday night. He sat in the back of the bus where he could see everything. He wasn’t too familiar with this part of Los Angeles, and only knew he was passing Koreatown because he could read only a few of the signs – LIQUOR or CIGARRRETES or KARAOKE! TONIGHT! Everything else was written in circles or lines. Nothing made any sense.
	Red light. Mateo spotted a homeless woman with a dirty white hair standing near a trash bin. The woman was rubbing herself frantically – her armpits, her calves, the back of her neck, her ashen cheeks. When the bus passed, Mateo saw that the woman had been rubbing herself with a stick of blue deodorant. She threw it at the bus as it drove away, hitting the exhaust pipe. 
	Green light. A middle-aged black man in the seat across from him was using a nickel to vigorously scratch at a lottery ticket. He cursed when he didn’t win anything and tossed the ticket out the window. Salvos of conversation – something about the war, something else about recording an episode of Sesame Street, something else about a shitty boss – were being exchanged behind him. 
	Mateo smelled something fried. Looking toward the front of the bus, he saw a little boy about five years old carefully balancing a bucket of fried chicken on his lap. Every now and then the little boy, who had the longest eyelashes Mateo had ever seen, peeked inside, as if to make sure that every breast, thigh and wing was still there. There was man sitting next to the little boy, with the same kind of eyelashes. He placed a hand on the boy’s head and rubbed it, messing up his hair. They laughed.
	Mateo looked away. He slumped deeper into the seat, and stared out the window. They had reached the corner of Vermont and Wilshire. Though he’d been on the bus more than half an hour, they’d barely moved two miles. 
	He sighed, and straightened the edges of his white shirt. He closed his eyes, and tried to sleep. The bus jerked forward.
	Mateo opened his eyes. The next stop – WILSHIRE/WESTERN – scrolled by, followed by the time: 5:55 p.m. He’d be at Sal’s in a few minutes. Mateo leaned forward in his seat, sighed loudly, sat back, leaned forward again. He eyed the bus driver, looking frustrated because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic, watching her foot press uncertainly on the gas before hitting the brake instead. The yellow cord that passengers used to signal a stop dangled with the bus’s movement.
	The little boy giggled, and accidentally tipped over the bucket of chicken all over the bus’s floor. Mateo stood up and, after pulling the yellow cord, made his way to the exit.         
	Where the hell was he? 
	It was 6:15, and still no sign of Mateo. Sal tugged aside the curtain and peered into the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the familiar baggy white shirt. Nothing. Two homeless guys pushed a shopping cart over the asphalt, making its wheels squeak.
	Sal sighed. He had laid out two placemats and two cups on the dining table. The pupusas were stacked in a small tower in the center of the table, flanked on either side by the empanadas. The apartment itself was completely transformed, every cobweb wiped away, every surface had been dusted and scrubbed clean. The smell of cheese and the sweet smell of the empanadas tainted the air. The pupusas glistened in the light. Sal was ready for his brother, but Mateo was still missing. The poor bastard was always late, yes, but this was excessive. Sal’s stomach started to rumble.
	Where the hell was he?
	Sal let the curtain fall back. He kicked off his shoes and sat on the couch. His eyes caught the glimmer of two clean forks, wrapped individually in squares of paper towel. Droplets rolled off a pitcher of ice water that Sal had placed in a corner of the table. He sank deeper into the couch and closed his eyes, trying to calm the anger he felt boiling inside of him.
	He eyed the telephone, tempted to call Ester to see if Mateo had forgotten or if something had happened. Pride, or something like it, dismissed the thought from his mind. Instead, Sal’s head relaxed into the couch. He glanced at the clock: 6:31. He reached for the controller. A moment later, the blue buzz of light filled the room like water.

	Mateo opened the door. Ester was stretched out on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. She had been crying.
	“You’re back,” she said, wiping her eyes. “That was quick. It’s not even seven.”
	“Yeah,” he said. Mateo kicked off his shoes and walked toward the sofa. He knelt next to his wife and kissed her forehead. 
	“Am I too late?” 
	“I just took them,” she said. “But no, you’re just in time to say goodbye. Nothing’s happened yet, I don’t think.” Her eyes were big and wet and bright.
	She touched his cheek with her hand. He held it there with his own, and closed his eyes.
	“It’s not your fault, you know,” she said, rubbing his cheek. “The doctor said it would have happened anyway, even without the fight.” She paused, swallowing her tears. “You know that right, baby?”
	Mateo said nothing.
	“It’s not your fault,” she repeated, and guided his head down to her stomach. His eyes still closed, Mateo yielded.
	The phone rang, and rang and rang and rang.
	Mateo opened his eyes. He wrapped his fingers around her thumb and rested his head, ear down, on her belly.

C. Adán Cabrera is the queer son of Salvadoran refugees. Among other publication credits, Carlos’s writing has appeared in Westwind, Switchback, From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction, and Missing Pages: A Short Story Anthology. While living in San Francisco, Carlos was also a member of the 2010 Intergenerational Writers’ Lab and wrote for the bilingual newspaper El Tecolote. A 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow, Carlos is also a regular contributor to the online magazine Being Latino. Carlos holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA. He currently divides his time between Los Angeles and Barcelona and is hard at work editing his first book, Tortillas y Sal, a bilingual collection of short stories about the many faces of the Salvadoran diaspora. Please visit his website at www.cadancabrera.com

Fiction:  Los Brothers