Santiago Jose Sanchez

June 25, 2024 
The following is from Santiago Jose Sanchez's Hombrecito. Sanchez (they/them), a Grinnell College assistant professor of English and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a queer Colombian American writer. Their writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, ZYZZYVA, Subtropics, and Joyland and been distinguished in Best American Short Stories. They are the recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship from the University of Iowa and an Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellowship from Lambda Literary.

Mountains border the city on all sides. Their peaks slice open the clouds blown in from the Amazon and the Pacific, staining the city brown with rain. At the city’s edge are pastures green with brush where herds of smooth, black cows graze diligently under the sun. A single snowcapped volcano, bear‑shaped and fierce, rises in the distance—on the clearest days, the boy can stand on tiptoe in front of his house and look eastward, sighting across the city and beyond the sharp dip of the trees the faint, almost imagined line of the blue volcano. The boy has grown up amid the mountains, in a tract of orange‑shingled houses a thirty‑minute drive from downtown. Past their backyard is a stream choked with polished, smooth stones, and beyond that, a field of mango and palm trees home to colonies of bats. Their neighbors are doctors and engineers, always coming or going to Medellín and Bogotá for business. Farther up the mountain, in a richer section, compounds and villas house Ibagué’s politicians and landowners in their fantasies of a secluded paradise. The boy knows, thanks to the brother, that kings are always above their people—and that they themselves are almost kings, close to kings. He has never needed to ride a bus or jump on the back of a motorcycle. His mother drives a Volkswagen. They eat meat every day of the week.

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They have vacationed in San Andrés and Cartagena. Just last year, they spent a week in Miami visiting Abuela.

Here are the boy and the brother a month before the move to America, walking home through the city of night. The brother pushes past the fruit vendors, launching himself into the crowd of umbrellas, and the boy runs after, rain needling his head, playing follow the silver raincoat. The boy prefers walking with the brother. The father, when he’s home, makes the boy lead the way through the mercado to their favorite tamale stand, so that every few seconds he has to turn around and make sure the father hasn’t vanished in the crowd. The mother keeps him at her side when they go to doctor’s appointments and uniform fittings, never letting go of his hand or neck, so that while walking they’re a single, clumsy creature. The brother always walks ahead of the boy, facing the world of strangers so the boy doesn’t have to, so that as the rain lessens, becoming a fine mist, the boy can look at the shirtless men honking at their girlfriends’ windows and the men in the video bars arm wrestling over beers. Everywhere he looks, from the grocery stores to the pharmacies, to the clouds of smoke issuing from the swinging half doors of pool halls, there are small groups of men in lively conversations.

His footsteps are heavy with a sense of being in the middle of everything. Free to look at what and whom he wants without shame or consequence, he looks everywhere, even at the soldiers standing at the intersections, one on each corner. He’s never prepared for how large the guns across their torsos are. To draw less attention to himself, the boy matches his footsteps to the brother’s with the logic of a shadow. At the brother’s side, his fears are smaller. He looks up again like he’s reading a sign or checking the clouds, doing anything but studying the soldiers. Slowly, in pieces—unibrows, downy mustaches, skin cratered with red pimples—he puts together the faces he sees underneath the rain‑studded helmets. These are faces as young as the brother’s. These soldiers are still boys. He looks away, pretending he hasn’t seen this. He won’t ask the brother where they’ll hide after curfew. He’s heard that boys caught by the soldiers are shipped to faraway cities to become soldiers themselves, never to be seen again by anyone they love; but he won’t ask if these stories are true. There’s another hour, maybe two, before they have to think about that.

For now, he returns his eyes to the ground, to his feet. Fleets of mice disappear in and out of the telephone bills, the wrappers of chocolatinas, and the napkins stamped by red lips strewn across the uneven sidewalk, stirring, murmuring, crossing between his and the brother’s feet along invisible threads. The boys reach larger streets with more people, where it’s possible to forget the soldiers under the red neon signs blinking venta venta venta. Potholes filled with the stardust of ground‑up glass bottles catch the lights like portals into an underground world. Girls on billboards blow kisses down onto the traffic, and mournful folk songs spill from the bars. Buses boom down the avenue, full of poor people and pickpockets, bad thoughts and the smell of wet onions, pregnant brown girls selling little yellow candies from large plastic bags for a penny or two. He can’t look away from the bursts of light the world becomes in the rain.

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In the future, when people in America ask the boy where in Colombia he’s from, he’ll recite a list of facts about Ibagué: It’s the seventh‑largest city in Colombia; located in the interior of the country, between Bogotá and Cali, surrounded on all sides by the Andes; known for its music and rain. And no one will understand any better where he’s from or what he’s talking about.

They reach Plaza Bolívar. There’s not a pigeon in sight tonight, not a single one. Skipping down the steps, past the sculpture of three Natives sailing a canoe, the boy sees posters with the faces of politicians—on the walls of the bank, the courthouse, the old capitol building. There are layers and layers of them. Some have peeled back to reveal another face beneath—there, an eyeball on a lip. An ear over an eye.

For no reason at all, the brother screams at the top of his lungs. Then the boy, too, is screaming. Both of them scream like maniacs, like men who’ve lost their limbs in a minefield, like orphans stranded in an empty plaza. Because they want to. Because they can.

Stirred from their hiding place, hundreds of gray and black birds, their bodies swollen with rain, soar into the sky. As the shrieking mass circles, swirls, and swoops furiously around them, the boy remembers like a vision the day the father brought them here to feed the pigeons.

It was sunny, the plaza full. Children flung corn across the square, and the kernels caught the light like gold. The father filled his own hand with corn, and instead of tossing his palmful, he lifted his arm high in the air with that look he got when he tested the mother’s patience. Within seconds, a bird perched on his wrist. The mother, haunted by worry, by the world of germs and diseases only she could see beneath her microscope, protested. She slapped the father’s shoulder with her purse, calling out his full name the same way she called the boys when they were in trouble, but the father laughed through the blows. The boy wondered whether this was strange or the way things were supposed to be. He took the bag of corn from the father and did as he was told. He filled both of the father’s hands until yellow hills peaked in his palms, which he then held out at his sides like a man bound to a cross. Pigeons flocked to him. He was majestic. Perhaps what the boy felt then, without entirely understanding it, was the distance between the father and the mother growing fast, faster than he imagined possible. The boy filled his own hands. The mother tried to pull him into her arms, but it was too late—the birds were already swooping. At first, the boy was exhilarated. The pigeons zipped past his head, wings brushing his shoulders. Tiny claws curled around his wrists, digging gently into his skin. Each pigeon had a heart of its own; he felt each one thumping. Three, four, five, then more came to eat from his hands. They clashed before his eyes in feathery collisions. The mother’s voice flared around him, dull as if heard through a storm. The birds pecked at one another’s eyes and throats, greedy to claim his arms, but he was too small to hold them all. He couldn’t tell the pigeons apart anymore. His skin was swelling red beneath their desperate, flapping bodies.

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That night, the mother rubbed his forearms with cooling slivers of aloe, and her face, as before when glimpsed through all the feathers, was disappointed.

Now the brother jets across the street to the recessed walkway below the offices of the national bank, and the boy, giving himself over to joy, follows. From under the enclosure, side by side and both fantastically grinning, they watch the birds shit across the plaza in explosive bursts of white.

At the end of the walkway, they cross the street again, past another soldier, another gun. The pavement turns to rubble as they descend into the blue, fluorescent flames of the neighborhood ahead. No sidewalks here. Some boys play soccer barefoot in the rain. Two cats fight over a tin of Vienna sausage left on the hood of a car. The boy knows the bottom of a hill is a bad place to be, as is any place too brightly lit, but tonight the mother’s rules don’t matter. He lets the brother steer him down the hill by the shoulders. A shield or an offering—the boy doesn’t care which he is. He pounds into the mist forehead first, past the two‑story houses, past the grainy walls streaked with mud. His mind is clear, sharp, noticing every change in pressure between his shoulders and the brother’s hands.

The security lights over the doorways ignite as they step under the sensors, the rubble becoming their stage. His shadow hides close to his feet. Without the brother having to utter a word, the boy stops in front of a metal gate decorated with swirls and knots in the shapes of flowers. Behind the gate is a red door. Under the light bulb, the scene is bright as day. The brother’s face is calm, even amused, looking past the metal flowers through the door to a light only he can see.

The jab between his shoulders means Knock. Out of habit, the boy knuckles the door like in the cartoons, five taps followed by two. The mother’s words crawl around his mind, though he’s tried his best to bury them: “Your brother has always hoped to fall into another family.” In the silence, moths rocket past the boy’s face into the overhead light. Footsteps sweep across the room on the other side of the door. Past the metal gate, a pair of legs appear—thin, long, dark—darker than his and the brother’s. He wants to keep her face out of his head, as if seeing it would be enough to make her the new mother. The girl’s hot pink nails straighten her plaid school skirt over her knees and scratch the spot over her lips before resting at her waist; he looks no farther than her mouth when she asks: “What are you doing here? Is everything okay?”

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She’s trying to sound concerned, older, like a mother, but there’s an edge to her voice, something delicate breaking.

The brother jabs him again, meaning Speak, so the boy says hello to the girl’s skirt.

The knife at his back is unsatisfied, prods him to say more. “Our‑mother‑forgot‑she‑is‑a‑mother.”

The words shoot out of his mouth as if from a wound.

She bends down to his height, forcing him to look at her. Her cheeks are the wide handles of a pot. How did he not know the brother had a girlfriend? He drops his fists like anchors at his sides, afraid he’ll be swept away by the tug deep in his heart.

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“It’s okay,” she says, stroking his wet hair through the bars. “Santiago, right?”

She tells him to calm down, to repeat himself—for her, she says—and slowly this time, he pulls each word out of his mouth, one by one, hanging the mother in the air between them. He thinks he’s made himself understood when the girl’s lips strain into the shape of a smile and her eyes narrow as if recalling the name of a capital city.

“Come inside,” she finally says. “I need to borrow your brother for just a minute.”

The metal gate bangs shut behind them. The red door remains open. She takes the brother to the middle of the kitchen in the other room, but the house is small and she is loud.

“Seriously? What the fuck is this stunt?” Her arms barricade her chest—the place where feelings live. “I’ve told you again and again: Your parents fighting isn’t my problem. And it’s definitely no excuse for sticking your tongue where it doesn’t belong!”

The brother steps toward her, settles one hand on her elbow, then the other on her shoulder. The boy can’t make out his words from the living room, but he wants to believe it’s possible they’ll still embrace.

The girl slides out of the brother’s grasp and backs away from him until her calves press up against the stove.

“How could you think bringing your little brother would change things? How can I make this any clearer? You. Me. We’re done, Manuel.”

“Luisa, Luisa, Luisa . . .” The brother says her name, a last resort. He repeats it to her as if somewhere inside her is another girl—the one he longs to see.

An excuse—it’s all the boy has been. He turns toward the door, fitting his face between the metal bars. The betrayal spreads—he can’t unthink it—staining every part of the story he’s been telling himself about this night.

They’re screaming at each other now. Their words pass through the boy, but some are impossible to ignore—“What’s wrong? I thought you would be happy to see me!” and “Do you really take me for a fool? Everyone knows about her!”words that also belong to the mother and the father.

He looks up to watch the boys who were playing soccer march down the street. All six are skinny and tan with identical rattail haircuts; their white shirts hang like towels over their shoulders. The one with a metal thorn through his eyebrow kicks the ball ahead, so that it bounces against the side of a parked car, taps a lamppost—rainwater exploding around each impact—and finally climbs ashore on a mound of trash. Before he knows it, the boy is standing outside, like he might yet join their game. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to go somewhere else—anywhere else but the sidewalk—and the mother’s lap is where he lands: He’s between her legs, staring up at the triangle of her rigid jaw, his ear pressed against her churning belly. The father’s voice wanders down to him, in and out of static, from the phone at her ear. She will tell him everything afterward, how los muchachos, as she calls the guerrilleros, had stolen a ton of cement overnight. How the company’s guards had accidentally shot a local after a night of whiskey and cumbias. How there are more delays, more months, many, many more months, before the roads will be finished. After every call, her finger traces a spiral on his stomach as she maps out the story of the Guerrilla for him again. “It began in the far reaches of this land, in the jungles,” she says, making him squirm when she pokes his armpits and traces his nipples. “And then they spread to the small towns between larger cities.” She draws circle within circle, nearing his belly button. “And for now, the only safe place is here.”

The gate flies open. The brother is still saying please when he’s spit out onto the sidewalk next to the boy, still saying please when the door shuts; he’s a pleading patch of brown skin under the spotlight, saying, “Please.” Then, as he rises to his feet, “that bitch.” The gravel crunches beneath him as he takes small, backward steps from the house. “That bitch.” The boy whispers curfew, not loud enough. “That bitch,” the brother keeps saying, looking around himself as if there were a way to escape he hadn’t considered—a trapdoor, a chute, a ladder, a red button to the next life. In the middle of the street, he picks a handful of stones from the ground and studies each of them on his palm. He stops and drops all but one. He kisses the chosen one, the one now sailing through the air at the second‑floor window, the one having the time of its life.

Up the hill, the street is molten and strange, the surface of another planet. The boy pinches his thighs through the lining of his pants to remind them to keep climbing. He doesn’t recognize it at first—the pulp at the bottom of his pocket—the unfinished drawing of the mother, of her face that wouldn’t manifest. His nails dig into the wet clumps.

“That bitch!” the boy yells at the top of his own lungs.

The shouting, the curfew, the fact that he didn’t get a last look at the girl—it doesn’t matter. What does is that the night smells terrific, like fried plantains, and the streetlights, they’re huge enough to fill entire puddles.


From Hombrecito by Santiago Jose Sanchez published on June 25, 2024 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Santiago Jose Sanchez

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