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Jon Pineda


Learning the Language


Because we were boys, not yet teenagers, we would laugh to ourselves
when we said words like fuck or cocksucker or cunt. We would
gather what little bit of money we could find around our houses,
usually in the sticky folds of couches, and walk up to the gas station
on Battlefield Boulevard. People filling their cars before heading
into Great Bridge would stare at us like we were strays. You could
tell by their pursed lips. They were hoping we wouldn't wander any
farther than where we were. Our hair tousled, our shirts stretched,
brushed with grass stains and some blood garnered from a neighborhood
football game. Each of us was a pariah-in-training.

Sometimes, emboldened, we'd stare back in disgust or yell
things and flip them off . It was all part of the role. They expected
it of us. At the pay counter, we'd smirk at the receding hairline of
the clerk, an old speckled man with palsy who would rather read
his paper than have to look his customers in the eye. We blessed
this apathy. Word had gotten around too. His inattention couldn't
have been better. While towers of coins tumbled into his shaky
hand, we'd demand soft packs of Marlboro or Camel or Kool brand
cigarettes. Without so much as glancing at us, he'd smile.

Sometimes we only wanted the finger-sized, cherry-flavored
cigars with crimped tips, the ones kept arranged in a container
near the register. They would be next to the single roses wrapped
in plastic tubes, vials of green water cupping the clipped stems. In
triumph we bore our stash back to the fort, a rusted maintenance
van that had been left to rot in a side lot near Timmy's house. Even
in warm months, we'd sit inside this van. The doors and windows
would be sealed shut, and we'd thumb slowly through issues of
Penthouse or Hustler someone's uncle had given us.

I remember in one there was a woman whose body had been
decorated to resemble a landscape. Tiny orange diamond-shaped
construction signs balanced on her nipples while Matchbox cars
of all sizes lined up in a traffic jam between her breasts. Other
cars heading south on the makeshift road of her belly actually
disappeared inside her. In another issue some of the pages would
be torn. More oft en than not there would be a worn oval section
between a woman's legs. Of course we knew what from, and on
subsequent pages, there were places where the heads of these naked
women should be but weren't. The images beyond violated, but
we didn't care. We didn't really think of them as being violated,
didn't know the various forms violations could take.

Instead, we'd cough and laugh as we spoke in what we thought
was the language of men. We were learning the language. We
wanted to become men so badly we'd do whatever we thought was
necessary. Break all the rules, if that's what it took. It didn't matter
that we had kissed girls already. Or had felt a few up. Everyone had.
The van became a sanctum where any knowledge gleaned from
the adult world was shared with all. In a full sweat, we'd throw
out questions to each other, ask if any of us knew what certain
girls from our school would really do. One of us would inevitably
offer a story about so-and-so doing this and that with so-and-so.
I would listen intently, as would the others.

Once, someone put two fingers in the air, the fingers close together
like their knuckles were knees to a pair of modest legs. He said,
You want to smell what it smells like?

We were nervous, said Fuck, no, but then each took a turn.

Who is it? I said, stepping back, feeling like I had to sneeze.


You don't know? he said, laughing.


Who is it? I said.

Man, it's just your sister, he said.


Of course I knew it wasn't, but I charged at him anyway. You
had to do that. It's what boys did. We fell to the floor, and he was
laughing, saying he was just kidding, just kidding for fuck's sake.
Soon, all of us were laughing. It was how it was. We were mostly
friends, easily forgiven for whatever lines we crossed with one


Sorry, he said. I didn't mean your sister.


He brushed dust from his shirt as he stood up. He smiled. It
was the kind when people only barely show you their teeth. Gums
with just a trace of teeth. Like they have something in their mouth
they don't want to let out just yet.


Don't say it, I said. I knew what was coming.


What? he said. Like your mom cares if I tell you.


That's it, I said, and we were down on the floor of the van


-from Sleep in Me 

BIO: Jon Pineda's first collection Birthmark was selected by Ralph Burns as winner of the 2003 Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition. His second book, The Translator's Diary, won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press. His third book, a prose memoir, Sleep in Me, was published by The University of Nebraska Press in 2010. The recipient of a Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, he teaches in the English Department at Old Dominion University and in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. He lives in Norfolk, Virginia with his wife, Amy, and their two children.

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