Hello everyone! This is a single backstory from the first draft of a novel I finished last week. These backstories are simple attempts to get to know my characters better. They’ll remain unpolished, but I won’t publish anything I don’t find fascinating and fantastic. In this one we explore Roberto, who I see as a person people love, but who doesn’t altogether love himself. Why is that? Who is he? Where is he from? Some of those answers I discovered here. In the end, though, I have even more questions about him now than when I began. Namely: what do you do when you’re not as good a person as you think you are? Hope you enjoy! Follow me on twitter for more updates. And please share if you get a chance! Thanks!
Roberto was born in Sherman Oaks during the hot and smoggy summer of 1975. If you asked him now about his oldest memory he might tell you about the Olympics in ‘84, or about teaching his younger brother Javier how to hack a hundred lives in Super Mario, or he might even pretend that he remembered waiting in line to see Star Wars – an absolute falsehood – but the actual earliest memory he could access without an assist from a photo or a friend’s nudging involved sitting down in a dark theater with his grandmother marveling at a showing of Disney’s Fantasia.
Bare butts, walking magical brooms, dinosaurs destroyed by an asteroid. Super Mario, Zelda, Contra…games like that could only hope to approach such marvels. He kept this love of Disney to himself. Even before his hormones kicked into high gear he knew – not merely knew but felt– that his love was blasphemous or quite possibly even perverse.
His met his first girlfriend in Mr. Partain’s 11th Grade English class. Roberto was reading Frankenstein out loud and doing a fairly damn fine job of it. Whatever his faults, he did not struggle to perform for an audience. In between a monologue by the monster he glanced over and caught Priscilla wide eyed and awestruck by him. He’d never been too keen on Priscilla despite her very Disney princess like name and her clear love of Dumbo t-shirts. Roberto operated in a universe in which any and all individuals disliked him until they proved otherwise. So the look Priscilla had given him wasn’t merely a surprise, but shocking.
Mr. Partain’s class was a casual and relaxed room – a second home really – with not one but two sofas. He’d scattered the desks about like tetris pieces. You couldn’t find a pattern if you tried. Roberto showed up a few minutes early and he nabbed a spot on the sofa. Priscilla showed up early as well and parked herself close enough beside him that their elbows touched.
The class read from Frankenstein again and again Roberto volunteered to read out loud. For the first time in his school life he struggled through the reading. Not because of the big words, not because he was sick or thinking too hard about the theme from Pinocchio. No. He struggled because he was distracted. He was distracted because Priscilla had put her hand on his thigh. Not high up where it could prove problematic. Not too low where it wouldn’t do any good. No. Right there betwixt his knee and his thigh: a zone that teased of possibilities.
After class she asked him what he was doing for lunch and he said – not in an asshole way – “eating lunch.” She asked him if he had a car and he said no he didn’t have a car, he took the bus. Upon her disappointment he went home and asked his grandmother if he could get a car and she almost didn’t respond. She was reading a paperback copy of B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton as she stirred a simmering pot of stew in the kitchen. She laughed, didn’t look up, said, “Sure, you can have mine.” She didn’t even have a license.
Roberto and Priscilla continued this pattern – hand on thigh, brief conversation after class, no follow through – until, after two weeks of frustration, she made the next bold gesture. She inched her fingers up his thigh just enough to reach and, yes, actually touch his dick. There was something perverse about this, something wrong, though he couldn’t quite say what. He was so inspired that when class ended he asked Priscilla if she wanted to go see Beauty and the Beast that very night.
She said something along the lines of, “Oh my god, how did you know? I love Disney! I would hate to drag a boy there. It’s too girly for you. We can go see Point Break. It’s still at the Fallbrook.”
He brushed aside this request but said nothing of his secret love for Disney.
He took the bus to the Fallbrook mall that evening. Priscilla’s dad dropped her off. They sat in a packed theater and tucked their popcorn beneath the seats and made out for twenty minutes before the movie started. To outsiders they probably looked the way you’d imagine two vacuum cleaner hoses would look making out. When the movie started she returned her hand to his thigh and he joined her and placed his hand on her thigh and just when Beauty met Beast she inched her fingers higher yet again and felt – rather boldly – how excited Roberto was.
This didn’t continue very long. Teenage arousal has a rather quick half-life. His hand had been between her legs as well but when she brought him over the edge he took it away. Panic punched him in the belly. He’d never felt this before. Not the orgasm. That was familiar enough. But this…he couldn’t breath. He wanted and needed and absolutely desired to be any place but here. This itself was the real perversity. A theater showing a Disney movie was his church. And when he wasn’t at church he thought of girls. Somehow he’d wished upon a star and stumbled across both at once.
And now this…this…feeling. He could feel the wetness in his pants. He could smell Priscilla’s breath. Could feel her desire for him, the attention she gave him and not Beauty and the Beast. She held his hand and leaned into him and put her head on his shoulder and after a few minutes she reached between his legs a second time.
But he stopped her.
“Watch the movie,” he said.
He couldn’t sleep that night. He had never hurt someone the way he must have hurt Priscilla with that single dagger.
“Watch the movie.”
He left for school early the next day and bought some flowers with his lunch money at the Ralph’s off Winnetka and when he showed up to class he gave her the flowers and apologized for being a jerk. She was happy. She was blushing. Everyone stepping into class could see. She smiled at him and took the flowers and kissed him on the cheek. The kiss was nice because it was friendly and he felt better now that he had remedied his transgression. She took his hand and led him into class and every student joined together in a collective, “Aww.”
Priscilla had all the hallmarks of an attractive human being. The physical traits were easy to quantify. She was also charming in the sort of casual way Roberto wasn’t. People liked her because she liked them. She radiated sincerity. More than that she actually liked him. This confused Roberto of course. There must have been something wrong with her if she liked him. There were so many better choices. Chester, Marcus, Gerardo. They had cars, they could pick her up in those cars, they could let her touch them in those cars, and they wouldn’t act like a total spaz after she got them off. They would probably even go see Beauty in the Beast with her and pretend to enjoy it. More important than all of that, Roberto knew that they liked Priscilla. They coveted her.
Yet she’d chosen him.
And he didn’t like her.
They dated over Christmas break and continued on through the winter and spring. She came over to his house and she met Roberto’s grandmother who liked her maybe even more than she – Priscilla – liked him. Roberto tucked his Disney posters and his Disney VHS tapes in his closet on the floor beneath a Detroit Pistons championship shirt that he never wore. They did finally go see Point Break at the Fallbrook mall. They both thought it was trash.
“I thought you would like it,” she said.
“Well what movies do you like?”
He didn’t answer.
They never course corrected their vacuum cleaner method of kissing and he never explained the panic he felt after they were intimate or when she held his hand in the cafeteria.
In the spring they were lying in bed with his door open. She had just gotten him off. As he sat there with his jeans still on and his zipper up, trying to suppress the now familiar panic attack, Priscilla began to rummage through his things.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’ve just never really looked at your stuff.”
The wetness in his pants kept him in bed. She neared his opened closet, peeked inside and spotted one of the videotapes hiding beneath the Pistons shirt.
“No!” He actually shouted this so loudly that his grandmother called out to them from the kitchen.
Priscilla pulled aside the shirt. Despite their pristine condition, Roberto had dumped his collection there like soiled underwear you were too lazy to wash.
“What is this?”
Pinocchio, Fantasia, Snow White – he owned every tape available. She fumbled through them and he panicked, worried she might crease the edges or scratch the surface of a case. When she reached the last tape – Robin Hood – she began to cry. She flung it aside and found the framed poster that he had hidden beneath. The poster read: Bambi: A Great Love Story.
He waited until the summer to break up with her. Doing it during the school year would have been too much. He waited all day and into the evening to make the call. It began with her crying and then asking him to change his mind, but soon descended into her calling him a coward for doing it over the phone.
“The fact that you did it this way, that you were a big baby who couldn’t do it in person. I don’t respect you. That’s more upsetting than anything else. I can’t believe I loved someone who I don’t respect.”
In the fall she showed up to school with Chester and they made out out everyday on the bench near where Roberto and Patrick ate lunch. According to Patrick, Priscilla told everyone that Roberto was a small dicked homosexual who loved baby deer.
“You forced her to go see Beauty and the Beast? Really?” Patrick had said. That was the last time they ever spoke.
Roberto promised himself two things when he graduated High School. He would no longer be ashamed of what he loved. Likewise, he would never kiss another girl who he didn’t absolutely adore. He never really knew Priscilla. He’d probably asked her fewer than ten questions about herself. Zero questions about her love for Disney. He felt like a bad person. Bad people were bullies. They cursed at you, they beat you up, they cheated on you. Bad people looked a certain way, dressed a certain way. You could spot them. They didn’t look like he looked. Didn’t dress like he dressed. And yet when he looked in the mirror that’s who he saw. If he knew anything at 17 it was that he didn’t want to be a bad person.
Love who you love. Love what you love. He made these promises at grad night, when he found himself alone and semi-drunk in the side yard of some house party surrounded by beds of young tomato plants and one overflowing worm filled compost bin. A series of shooting stars cascaded above the smoggy light-polluted sky and in his drunken stupor he said the promise out loud. Love who you love. Love what you love. He repeated it to himself as a mantra the next day and many days after. But he struggled to keep it and soon forgot to even repeat it.
The third girl he ever kissed smelled like almond milk. Despite that hiccup they married. She later told him his breath smelled like a two day old banana peel. By then they’d had Abigail. Roberto’s grandmother was the first woman he ever loved. She raised him on C.S. Lewis and overcooked chili and she never turned him down to see a movie even when it was the underrated The Fox and the Hound for the fourth time. Though Abigail might have been the second woman he ever loved, she became the first to remind him of that promise he made beneath the stars so long ago.