The Coat of Stars
Rafael Santiago hated going home. Home meant his parents making a big fuss and a special dinner and him having to smile and hide all his secret vices, like the cigarettes he had smoked for almost sixteen years now. He hated that they always had the radio blaring salsa and the windows open and that his cousins would come by and tried to drag him out to bars. He hated that his mother would tell him how Father Joe had asked after him at Mass. He especially hated the familiarity of it, the memories that each visit stirred up.
For nearly an hour that morning he had stood in front of his dressing table and regarded the wigs and hats and masks—early versions or copies of costumes he’d designed—each item displayed on green glass heads that stood in front of a large, broken mirror. They drooped feathers, paper roses and crystal dangles, or curved up into coiled, leather horns. He had settled on wearing a white tank-top tucked into bland gray Dockers but when he stood next to all his treasures, he felt unfinished. Clipping on black suspenders, he looked at himself again. That was better, almost a compromise. A fedora, a cane, and a swirl of eyeliner would have finished off the look, but he left it alone.
“What do you think?” he asked the mirror, but it did not answer. He turned to the unpainted plaster face casts resting on a nearby shelf; their hollow eyes told him nothing either.
Rafe tucked his little phone into his front left pocket with his wallet and keys. He would call his father from the train. Glancing at the wall, his gaze rested on one of the sketches of costumes he’d done for a postmodern ballet production of Hamlet. An award hung beside it. This sketch was of a faceless woman in a white gown appliqued with leaves and berries. He remembered how dancers had held the girl up while others pulled on the red ribbons he had had hidden in her sleeves. Yards and yards of red ribbon could come from her wrists. The stage had been swathed in red. The dancers had been covered in red. The whole world had become one dripping gash of ribbon.
The train ride was dull. He felt guilty that the green landscapes that blurred outside the window did not stir him. He only loved leaves if they were crafted from velvet.
Rafael’s father waited at the station in the same old blue truck he’d had since before Rafe had left Jersey for good. Each trip his father would ask him careful questions about his job, the city, Rafe’s apartment. Certain unsaid assumptions were made. His father would tell him about some cousin getting into trouble or, lately, his sister Mary’s problems with Marco.
Rafe leaned back in the passenger seat, feeling the heat of the sun wash away the last of the goose bumps on his arms. He had forgotten how cold the air conditioning was on the train. His father’s skin, sun-darkened to deep mahogany, made his own seem sickly pale. A string-tied box of crystallized ginger pastries sat at his feet. He always brought something for his parents: a bottle of wine, a tarte tatin, a jar of truffle oil from Balducci’s. The gifts served as a reminder of the city and that his ticket was round-trip, bought and paid for.
“Mary’s getting a divorce,” Rafe’s father said once he’d pulled out of the parking lot. “She’s been staying in your old room. I had to move your sewing stuff.”
“How’s Marco taking it?” Rafe had already heard about the divorce; his sister had called him a week ago at three in the morning from Cherry Hill, asking for money so she and her son Victor could take a bus home. She had talked in heaving breaths and he’d guessed she’d been crying. He had wired the money to her from the corner store where he often went for green tea ice cream.
“Not good. He wants to see his son. I told him if he comes around the house again, your cousin’s gonna break probation but he’s also gonna break that loco sonofabitch’s neck.”
No one, of course, thought that spindly Rafe could break Marco’s neck.
The truck passed people dragging lawn chairs into their front yards for a better view of the coming fireworks. Although it was still many hours until dark, neighbors milled around, drinking lemonade and beer.
In the back of the Santiago house, smoke pillared up from the grill where cousin Gabriel scorched hamburger patties smothered in hot sauce. Mary lay on the blue couch in front of the TV, an ice mask covering her eyes. Rafael walked by as quietly as he could. The house was dark and the radio was turned way down. For once, his greeting was subdued. Only his nephew, Victor, a sparkler twirling in his hand, seemed oblivious to the somber mood.
They ate watermelon so cold that it was better than drinking water; hot dogs and hamburgers off the grill with more hot sauce and tomatoes; rice and beans; corn salad; and ice cream. They drank beer and instant iced tea and the decent tequila that Gabriel had brought. Mary joined them halfway through the meal and Rafe was only half-surprised to see the blue and yellow bruise darkening her jaw. Mostly, he was surprised how much her face, angry and suspicious of pity, reminded him of Lyle.
When Rafe and Lyle were thirteen, they had been best friends. Lyle had lived across town with his grandparents and three sisters in a house far too small for all of them. Lyle’s grandmother told the kids terrible stories to keep them from going near the river that ran through the woods behind their yard. There was the one about the phooka, who appeared like a goat with sulfurous yellow eyes and great curling horns and who shat on the blackberries on the first of November. There was the kelpie that swam in the river and wanted to carry off Lyle and his sisters to drown and devour. And there were the trooping faeries that would steal them all away to their underground hills for a hundred years.
Lyle and Rafe snuck out to the woods anyway. They would stretch out on an old, bug-infested mattress and “practice” sex. Lying on his back, Lyle’d showed Rafe how to thrust his penis between Lyle’s pressed-together thighs in “pretend” intercourse.
Lyle had forbidden certain conversations. No talk about the practicing, no talk about the bruises on his back and arms, and no talk about his grandfather, ever, at all. Rafe thought about that, about all the conversations he had learned not to have, all the conversations he still avoided.
As fireworks lit up the black sky, Rafe listened to his sister fight with Marco on the phone. He must have been accusing her about getting the money from a lover because he heard his name said over and over. “Rafael sent it,” she shouted. “My f**king brother sent it.” Finally, she screamed that if he didn’t stop threatening her she was going to call the police. She said her cousin was a cop. And it was true; Teo Santiago was a cop. But Teo was also in jail.
When she got off the phone, Rafe said nothing. He didn’t want her to think he’d overheard.
She came over anyway. “Thanks for everything, you know? The money and all.”
He touched the side of her face with the bruise. She looked at the ground but he could see that her eyes had grown wet.
“You’re gonna be okay,” he said. “You’re gonna be happier.”
“I know,” she said. One of the tears tumbled from her eye and shattered across the toe of his expensive leather shoe, tiny fragments sparkling with reflected light. “I didn’t want you to hear all this shit. You’re life is always so together.”
“Not really,” he said, smiling. Mary had seen his apartment only once, when she and Marco had brought Victor up to see the Lion King. Rafe had sent her tickets; they were hard to get so he thought that she might want them. They hadn’t stayed long in his apartment; the costumes that hung on the walls had frightened Victor.
She smiled too. “Have you ever had a boyfriend this bad?”
Her words hung in the air a moment. It was the first time any of them had ventured a guess. “Worse,” he said, “and girlfriends too. I have terrible taste.”
Mary sat down next to him on the bench. “Girlfriends too?”
He nodded and lifted a glass of iced tea to his mouth. “When you don’t know what you’re searching for,” he said, “you have to look absolutely everywhere.”
The summer that they were fourteen, a guy had gone down on Rafe in one of the public showers at the beach and he gloried in the fact that for the first time he had a story of almost endless interest to Lyle. It was also the summer that they almost ran away.
“I saw grandma’s faeries,” Lyle had said the week before they were supposed to go. He told Rafe plainly, like he’d spotted a robin outside the window.
“How do you know?” Rafe had been making a list of things they needed to bring. The pen in his hand had stopped writing in the middle of spelling ‘colored pencils.’ For a moment, all Rafe felt was resentment that his blowjob story had been trumped.
“They were just the way she said they’d be. Dancing in a circle and they glowed a little, like their skin could reflect the moonlight. One of them looked at me and her face was as beautiful as the stars.”
Rafe scowled. “I want to see them too.”
“Before we get on the train we’ll go down to where I saw them dancing.”
Rafe added ‘peanut butter’ to his list. It was the same list he was double-checking six days later, when Lyle’s grandmother called. Lyle was dead. He had slit his wrists in a tub of warm water the night before they were supposed to leave for forever.