Gerard Cabrera

Gerard Cabrera grew up in Springfield Massachusetts and lives in Brooklyn.

Gerard Cabrera


Johnny’s my pana. That’s how they say best friend in PR. And he’s got a moped. He got it when he turned fifteen. You’re legal at fifteen if your father signs for you at City Hall. Papi says that’s the law, so forget about getting one. I’m almost thirteen, not even close. But Johnny’s father signed the permit, and Johnny got his moped for fifty dollars at Chico’s Gas Station on Dwight Street. They sell used cars and lawnmowers and sometimes mopeds. You have to be real lucky to find a good one.

Johnny came from Puerto Rico to Springfield last year. His real name is Juan Bautista Reyes, but nobody calls him like that. I guess when you move from PR to Springfield they change your name. That’s what happened to my cousin Miguel too when he moved here. Now everybody calls him Mike. His sister Nancy got to keep her name. Papi told me Americanos don’t like words they can’t say, it makes them nervous. Plus they like for everyone to fit in. That’s okay with me because I was born right here so my name’s the same as always, Robert. I asked my Titi Ana if I moved to PR maybe I’d have to put an “o” at the end of it to fit in over there. She grew up there so I figured she would know. That’s when she told me it wouldn’t make a diff because I don’t have the mancha de plátano like her. She told me it’s something that says you were born over there like an invisible tattoo that only other people who are born in PR can see. Miguel has it so Johnny definitely’s got it too. But I don’t care. When Titi Ana says the “r” in my name it sounds so Spanish that maybe it’s not such a big deal—R-r-r-ober-rt! she says—then she kisses me and squeezes me too hard against her squishy tetas.

I met Johnny one day I was at Titi Ana and Tío Ricardo’s house playing Trouble with Mike and Nancy on their front porch. Johnny lives with his family next door to them on Jefferson Avenue. Johnny rode by on his moped. I could tell he was being a real showoff. When he stopped on the sidewalk, we crowded around him. He was smiling and laughing a lot. Mike said hey Johnny this is my cousin Robert. We shook hands and Johnny said hi. Mike said Roberto es un lince. Johnny answered him back, Quatorce pendejos y tu quince. They both laughed and shoved each other. It’s a joke from PR they told me. I didn’t get it but so what? I like watching them laugh.  Johnny had a hairy face but he didn’t shave and some pimples but not too gross. I wanted to start shaving and have hair on my face but not the pimples. I had some hairs under my arms and they kind of itched. Johnny’s curly black hair looked wet but it was just shiny from the Bryl Cream. He had on jean shorts and a cool Bicentennial t-shirt that said 1776 on it and long white basketball socks with red and blue stripes. When I looked at his legs it went white then red and blue stripes then brown skin and black hairy legs and the jean fringes hanging down. He had a comb sticking out of his pocket.

Johnny said he’d give us rides up and down the street. When it was finally my turn he looked at me with a serious face  like Mr. Burney in Science class, and said Just hold on tight, I won’t go fast. He talked just like my Tío Ricardo. I held on tight and he didn’t go fast, just like he said. I smelled the gasoline from the muffler and Johnny smelled like Varon Dandy cologne, like at the barbershop. The comb was poking me and I kept pushing it back into his pocket. We went up and down the street. When he let me off my knees felt like rubber. It was the best ride I even had, but I don’t know, I felt shy all of a sudden. I said Thanks Johnny, looking down. He laughed and said ¿Te gustó? , muchas gracias, I answered. We shook hands again. After that, I kind of knew we would be friends.  

At first Johnny almost always came over to Titi Ana’s house. When I asked Nancy why, she told me his father was real strict about everything. Strict meant Johnny and his two sisters had to ask permission to listen to records, play Trouble and even watch TV. And they couldn’t make any noise in their house. His mother parecía de nervios and had ataques so everything had to be real quiet. Nancy told me Mr. Reyes used to punish Johnny and his sisters a lot for all the bad things they did, but she never saw them do anything wrong. Johnny and his sisters would be all normal one minute and then the next minute they’d look all sad and get real quiet. I guess they were remembering something bad they’d done. I couldn’t think what.

But finally one day Johnny asked me if I wanted to come to his house and see his room. It was in their attic because he was the boy. His sisters had regular bedrooms. We didn’t even have an attic in our house. We had a crawl space. That’s what my father calls it. I’ve never even seen it. You can only get there through a trap door in the ceiling of my sister’s closet. My sister’s room is next door to mine but she wouldn’t let me come near her closet and mess up all her clothes.

I was dying to know what Johnny’s room looked like. He had told me all about it, and I wanted to see if it was as great as he said. He took me to the second floor of his house. We were in the hallway and I could hear music coming from behind a door. That’s Mari and Lourdes’ room, he said quietly. Oh, I whispered back. Johnny pointed at two doors right next to each other. Adivinas. Guess which door? I picked one and he opened it and laughed.  It had sheets and towels and brooms.

He opened the other door. It was the door to the attic. There were little steps that looked like they were for Hobbits. I said so. What’s Hobbits? Johnny asked me. I read it in a book, I said, The Lord of the Rings. You reading all the time? Yeah, I said. Te gustas leer, he told me. The attic was warm, and it smelled like wood, maybe, and dust I guess. The smell was like you weren’t really supposed to be living there. It kind of reminded me of Titi Ana’s basement where my Tío Sammy lives, smoking and taking care of his roosters. We walked up, me first, then him behind me. It was one big room. All the windows were wide open and we could hear the birds outside. You could grab the trees from the windows. There was his bed, and his bureau and a mirror and a radio. He had his own black and white TV with a hanger antenna. There was a flag over the bed that looked like something from a history book. I asked him what it was. El escudo de Puerto Rico, you don’t know? It’s like a coat of arms it’s called. And that? I said pointing to a poster of a baseball guy. Roberto Clemente, you don’t know? Johnny looked at me like I was from Mars. I didn’t care. Everything about his room was great. He even had weights and a weightlifting bench.

And he had SSP racing cars. Which are the best, better than Matchbox by a mile. He had a Corvette, a drag racer and a dune buggy. I took the drag racer and he took the dune buggy and we raced them on the floor. I love the noise they make. It sounded just like ABC Wide World of Sports. It got loud and his sisters banged on the door and yelled. Johnny yelled back at them, Shut up! And then we heard his father’s voice downstairs. He said something in Spanish and everything got very quiet and then he walked away and then we could breathe again. What a diff from Papi. I mean he is the same way, but only when he gets drunk, not all the time like Johnny’s father. Mr. Reyes didn’t even have to drink. They were Pentecostals and read the Bible. So they were always talking about Pa’ fuera Satanás and Aleluia, and his sisters couldn’t wear pants or even cut their hair.

We were both sitting on his bed and Johnny asked me lots of questions about my school. I went to Lady of Hope. He went to Chestnut. Chestnut has gangs and fights. At Lady of Hope you’re not supposed to even call anyone names. He didn’t like Chestnut too much. They had left him back because of his English. I felt kind of bad for him. My father would kill me if I got left back. I don’t know why but all of a sudden I asked him. Why don’t you shave? He rubbed his face the same way my father does when he is thinking about something important. He said, To keep the hairs soft. Really? I never heard that before. He said, You don’t know? Once you start to shave your hair’s gonna get rough. I told Johnny that I don’t have hair on my face yet. He laughed at me and asked, De vera’? I turned red like a lobster. You want to feel it? he asked. What? I said, real high. I could feel how red I was. But Johnny took my hand and put it on his cheek. He let it go, and it froze there for a second. I started to move it slow on his face. It was soft all right. I couldn’t believe it. Yeah, it’s real soft I said with my throat hurting when I talked. It felt weird but I didn’t stop. I moved my hand over to his other cheek. Yeah, it’s soft there too, I said. And then his chin. Soft too, I said.

All right, pato, he said, laughing. I grabbed my hand back. My face turned hot. I was afraid I was going to cry because my tears felt like they were boiling my eyeballs. I was ready to give him a punch in the face. Hey, No te pongas bravo, he said. Take it easy, E’toy relajando pana, cógelo suave. Then he put out his hand and touched my chin like he was checking something. He turned my face up, and then to one side, and then to the other side. He said You’ll get your own peachfuss soon, pana, just be patient. He brushed my chin with his hand and I got warm all over again and I felt something in my pants I got so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do. He was looking right at me again kind of funny with his black eyes. I was looking right at him. And then there was a bang on the door. What’s going on up there? You too quiet! It was his father. He started to come up the stairs. Johnny jumped up, and I jumped up after he did. That’s when I noticed his pants were sticking out too. Johnny’s father came half way up the stairs at the other end of the attic. Juan! Qué hacen ustedes? his father asked. Everything’s okay, Papi, Johnny said. We were just playing. Johnny sounded scared, but his father just made a sound and went back downstairs.

The attic felt too hot. I’d better go, I said. He looked at me. You still enfogona’o? Don’t be mad, Roberto. I ain’t mad, I told him. But I was a little scared. I’ve got homework to do. Johnny said, Me too, I got homework in Inglis, and he showed me a paperback of Johnny Tremain. Man, I really love that book! I asked Can we ride the moped tomorrow? He looked at me and said, Si. Mañana. Tomorrow. Johnny smiled and fake-punched me. Want me to show you the weights? I tried to sound cool like it was no big deal so I said Yeah, and I’ll help you with the book. And that’s how me and Johnny got to be panas.