We Were Friends

He was a husky kid with dark eyes and his skin was just a tad on the olive side. His dark hair was slicked back against its will, sticking up just a little here and there, where the gel couldn’t get to it.

The day I met him he was wearing a fleece sweater that looked like it had only been washed a couple of times and a backpack that could’ve been a spaceship. His sneakers still smelled like the mall, and his school binder was straight out of the bat cave: a maze of zippers, ball-point pens, and velcro. His name was Joey Espinoza. He had an easy smile, a friendly, raspy voice, and a kindness that reminded me of the way I behaved in Sunday School.

I never imagined he’d want to be my friend. That he’d be want to hang out in our studio apartment above a carport on the wrong side of town; that he’d want to watch a movie on my ’70s television set and meet my housemaid mother; that he’d want to be seen at the school curb climbing into our ’84 Toyota Tercel.

Of course none of that was Joey’s fault. You might be able to trace it back to the day my mom warned us not to tell our friends we shopped at secondhand stores. “Pueden burlarse de ustedes” (They could make fun of you). Or maybe you’d have to go all the way back to my childhood in Guatemala City, where little boys wore pressed shirts, parted hair and shiny shoes. Where we dressed como la gente (like proper folk, literally, like people) because we needed a source of dignity in spite of our poverty, and we disdained the street urchins outside in their wife-beaters and gold chains. Ishtos cerotes. (Piece of shit punks). And the truth was, we were just as poor as they were, just as desperate. We just hid it better. Call it politeness.

And the truth was, we were just as poor as they were, just as desperate. We just hid it better. Call it politeness.

Then again, maybe you wouldn’t have to look that far back. Maybe all you’d need to do was rewind a few weeks of tape, back to that afternoon with a kid named Brian.

My mom was his family’s maid, and since we couldn’t afford an after-school babysitter, mine and Brian’s moms had a great idea: why not have me come play with Brian while my mom scrubbed the house down in the afternoons? I bet they’ll get along great.

I still remember the two of us standing by his lap pool, surrounded by the evergreens that rimmed him back yard. I was wearing a Dockers denim shirt that had likely belonged to him the previous year. It was my favorite and I wore it everywhere. We had spent the afternoon wandering around the yard, and were now tossing leaves and twigs onto the water silently.

“Hey, nice shirt!” he said. There was a bounciness to his inflection, a sense of genuine cheer.

“Thanks!” I replied a bit too enthusiastically. A rich white kid had just complimented my duds. I was beaming.

But when he spoke again there was poison in his tone; undiluted disdain: “You’re not supposed to have a nice shirt. You’re poor.”

Shit. To this guy I was the ishto cerote, the piece of shit punk, and my Dockers denim button-up wasn’t going to save me. This was the first time I had been on the barrel end of the gun of classism at point-blank range: Blam! There is a pecking order here, a social structure. And you’re closer to its ass than you are to its head.

Fast-forward to the day I met Joey. When this spaceship-backpack, mall-scent-tennis-shoes wearing kid — way out of my friendship league — asked me where I lived, I scanned through my inner tax-bracket topography map — still developing — and said I was from Hillsborough: an upper-crust enclave and the region’s inarguable Alpha neighborhood. It was a lie I immediately loved.

But I wasn’t done. See, my mom had just begun to date Peter Lindes, a middle-aged white guy with a background in tech who was on the chubby side but looked smart, maybe sophisticated, and hopefully rich. Maybe it was having met him — staring across the dining table as my mother introduced him — that helped me pick out my next lie.

“So Lopez, what does your dad do?”

“Dude, he invented the CD!”

Wow. Sometimes I even impress myself.

I had no clue what fathers were for. I’d never seen one up close. I just knew two things were missing from my life at the same time: a dad and money. I figured if I was going to imagine one, I might as well imagine the other arriving right along with it. Have this new father of mine make himself useful. Dos pájaros de un tiro. (Two birds with one stone.)

That was just the beginning. The lies became more and more specific, more and more elaborate. We had a second home in Germany and a personal gym at home. We had a playroom full of super-hero costumes where my dad and I would play-fight every day after school until either my nose bled or dinner was served. Once you stop telling the truth, a world of possibilities opens up. At first I knew this was all unfair to Joey, each lie leaving a bitter aftertaste, but after a while it just felt like daydreaming out loud; all of the fun, none of the heart burn. Once you muscle past the guilt reflex, you can explore entire fantasies untethered. You can say anything, and I did. I gave myself permission to invent the wildest, most outrageous things because I wanted them to be true, and I let that desire swallow me whole.

One afternoon after hanging out at recess and lunch for a few weeks, Joey invited me over to his house. I was floored! It was working! I was in.

I could imagine us having the kind of fun I had lied about time after time. Expensive toys, an attentive mom who brought in snacks, and a bedroom the size of my apartment.

And boy did Joey deliver. When I first arrived at his place, I couldn’t believe it. It was the largest in the neighborhood. A handsome two-story structure that looked like it could’ve been lifted right out of a 19th-century German village. We had driven by it several times on our way home from my uncle’s place up the street. And now here I was, going in the front door, like I was one of them. Ha! Eat your heart out, Brian!

We played with Joey’s Super Nintendo for most of that afternoon, and I was in heaven. His mom made us snacks and we sat cross-legged on the carpet in his straight-outta-Saved-By-The-Bell room, pushing buttons, tilting controllers, leaning into turns with our entire bodies when we thought it would help. But time flew. Pretty soon the doorbell rang and Joey’s maid came up the stairs to tell me my mom was there to pick me up. Immediately I realized I hadn’t thought this all the way through. It hadn’t occurred to me that a creature from reality — my mother — would be making an appearance in my fantasy life. And then it hit me: she was here in our blue ’84 Tercel, wearing her fresh-from-cleaning-a-Palo-Alto-toilet clothing.

It hadn’t occurred to me that a creature from reality — my mother — would be making an appearance in my fantasy life.

I watched her chit-chat with Joey’s mom at the door, desperate their conversation would be brief and all fluff. Joey was beside me, and we were leaning on the banister outside his bedroom, looking down at the front door through the double-height ceilings in the living room. Alright, alright. Let’s make a quick exit. Don’t want too much information being exchanged here.

“Joey has been talking about David for weeks. It’s been so nice to have him over.”

“Thank you. Maybe next time Joey can come over to our place.”

“That sounds great. David mentioned you live in Hillsborough?”

Boom.

The boundless eternal expanse of fantasy and wonder shrunk. The facts that had seemed so flexible and fluid became rigid and unyielding again; like landing wrong when you come off a bike ramp and feeling the merciless ground do anything but yield. Oddly, this suddenly rigid, confining, concrete life seemed wholly unfamiliar. In a way, I had forgotten I was poor. The lies had gotten to me. Every day at school I had been surrounded by kids who really thought my life was extraordinary. And though my mind had always stayed aware of the truth, my heart hadn’t. When my classmates ooh’d and ah’d in admiration of the life I was describing, my heart believed them. They like me. I’m wowing their socks off. I’m the cool kid! Being a millionaire was so much fun. So that night, at the banister, watching the truth explode onto the scene my insides were genuinely surprised. Wait a second. I’m not loaded? Harsh.

And then Joey turned his head.

“Lopez, you lied? I don’t get it, man. I thought we were friends.”

I felt my eyes dry up and my chest fill with static. My arms were cold and they suddenly felt burdensome. I did my best to pretend I didn’t exist. There’s a point at which your vast resources of imagination, your ability to exploit the universe’s elasticity, to manipulate the perception of those around you, runs out; a point at which there are no excuses within reach, there’s no emergency exit, no release valve. You can’t deflect the piercing glare of someone who feels betrayed coming at you like a glass blade. You can’t keep it from making you tear up a bit in shame. You have to look up at your friend’s face, his eyes slightly squinting in pain, his nose wrinkled somewhere between confusion and disgust, and accept his disdain in its entirety, each shard of it slamming into your face unforgivingly.

It’s called getting caught.