Rubin lived ten minutes away in the subdivision across Mobile Highway, and I knew Mom didn’t want to go to the Lopez house because she distrusted all Hispanics. She thought they all carried knives and would rob and cut you without a second thought. Still, she didn’t say anything to Dad because she knew going to dinner at the Lopez house was to ensure that Rubin would take an interest in me at the dojo, and she wouldn’t purposely undermine one of Dad’s projects that involved helping me.
The Lopez house was smaller than ours. A bar dominated the right wall of the cramped living room, which spilled into the dining room and led into a tiny kitchen. Mr. Lopez, in a Hawaiian shirt and Panama Jack straw hat, was behind the bar, waving at us as Mrs. Lopez showed us in.
“I’m having rum and Coke,” Mr. Lopez said. “What do you want to drink?”
“I’ll take the same,” Dad said. I knew he was kissing up to Mr. Lopez because Dad despised liquor.
Mr. Lopez nodded questioningly at Mom, but she refused any alcohol, and instead accepted a glass of ice water. Mr. Lopez poured me a Coke in a small, fat glass like he and Dad drank out of. I took a drink and imagined what the rum tasted like. A sofa and two armchairs, both covered in plastic, were all the furniture in the living room. This was the first time I saw furniture covered in plastic, and it didn’t look very comfortable. Mom didn’t seem overly impressed by the furnishings in the Lopez house, and I thought the plastic really put her off. After Mr. Lopez made Dad’s drink and freshened his wife’s and his drinks, we all went out to a narrow covered back porch.
Rubin’s parents weren’t much younger than my parents, and from the adults’ talk, I learned that Mr. Lopez fought in Korea, and, like Dad, served in the Navy. Mr. Lopez had his training in Pensacola, and once the war finished, Mr. Lopez returned a hero to his Puerto Rican village. He used this prestige to marry his petite wife, who, as Mr. Lopez bragged, was the most beautiful girl in the region, but he didn’t say anything about how she looked now. Mr. Lopez stayed in the Navy and retired to Pensacola, the city where he got his first taste of American living.
Mr. Lopez and Dad, after putting the steaks on the grill, talked up a storm, just like they had in the dojo the other night, while Mrs. Lopez and Mom spoke occasionally to one another about housework and cooking. Both, as they told it, were great cooks. That night, along with Dad’s steaks, Mrs. Lopez prepared an excellent salad of Romaine lettuce, covered with grated Parmesan cheese.
I wondered where Rubin was. He was, after all, the point of us coming over, but no one mentioned his name. Maybe he wasn’t that crazy about the idea of the newest white belt and family coming over for dinner. Working with me at the dojo was one thing, but at his home he would have to hang out with me. We wouldn’t be in our dojo roles of black belt and white belt; we would be teenage boy and adolescent boy thrown together and forced to feign friendship.
But feigning wouldn’t come from me. I would have loved to be friends with Rubin. He was obviously someone Dad approved of, and having the youngest black belt in the state as a friend could not be a bad thing. Reasons for wanting Rubin as a friend were easy to think of, but so were the reasons he wouldn’t want to be my friend. My age and my inexperience at Tae Kwon Do were only the two most obvious. Being covered with nasty-looking acne and sporting a roly-poly shape were the other two reasons.
“Wesley, you can go to Rubin’s room,” Mrs. Lopez said. “He was finishing up a model before you arrived. He should be done now.”
His room was easy to find because the Lopez house had two bedrooms and a bathroom, all down the hall from the living room. The bathroom was directly in front of me at the end of the hall. The door to the left was open and I saw black and white photographs of Mr. Lopez in his sailor uniform and wedding pictures in which Mrs. Lopez didn’t have the protruding belly. She was, as Mr. Lopez had said, a beautiful woman with dark hair and a lean shapely body.
The door to my right was partially shut, so I knocked softly, barely touching my knuckles to the wood. There was no answer. But Rubin had to be there. The bathroom door was open, so obviously no one was in there. And Mrs. Lopez had said he was in his room. I knocked louder, opened the door a little wider. I saw model airplanes, classics and jet fighters, hanging from the ceiling and a Spiderman poster on the wall. A blue light shone from behind the door, but I didn’t see Rubin, and I wasn’t about to enter his room without his permission.
I was about to return to the company of parents when I heard: “Hey, Wesley. Where you going?”
I turned and Rubin stood in the doorway.
“Where were you?”
“In the room, laying down,” he said. “You didn’t see me? I saw you.”
He smiled and his teeth brightened the dark hallway like a lightning bug at dusk.
Closets with sliding doors dominated the left wall of his bedroom. A small desk, stacked with comic books sat under a square window. Next to it was his bed, small and narrow, and immaculately made. I hated making my bed, would rather take a whipping than make it. But Dad thought that making my bed taught me responsibility and a sense of pride. Rubin’s father, I saw, enforced the same bed making discipline on his son. Only Rubin was good at it. My blanket was never straight enough, the sheets never pulled tight enough, and a small crinkle always rippled what was supposed to be the smooth surface of the blanket. I doubt if Dad knew Rubin made his bed so well, but if Rubin could teach me this too, Dad will get a bonus on his investment.
Model planes were suspended from the low ceiling in various positions: most of the jets had their noses in the air, looking as if they were climbing higher in the sky; the planes from World War II kept a more level flying pattern, though many had one of their wings dropped, as if they were about to circle back on an unseen enemy. All these planes filled the small room with activity, and the lowness of the ceiling meant that they hung less than a foot above my head.
Rubin’s other three walls were covered with comic book posters and homemade paintings that imitated comic book characters: Captain America, Batman, Superman, and a bunch of others that I didn’t recognize. While I enjoyed reading, comic books and I weren’t a fit. Something about reading a cartoon didn’t appeal to me. I wondered why they appealed so much to Rubin. Comic books, after all, were for the uncoordinated, uncool kids. Or at least that was my experience. Did this mean Rubin, black belt and all, wasn’t really cool?
The only sign of Tae Kwon Do in the room was in the very center of his closet, where his gi hung with the black belt draped over the neck of the hanger. The gi was bright white, crisp and wrinkle-free. I was supposed to wash my gi, but Mom did. I wondered if
Rubin’s mother washed his?
“We should sit out back with our folks,” Rubin said.
He turned the blue light off and I followed him to the back porch. I should have said something while I was in his room. Stupid silence was not a good impression.
“I don’t want the blood inside mine,” Mr. Lopez said. His wife, with a wave of the hands and loud uhmp, agreed.
“You ruin a steak when you cook it well-done,” Dad said, his face flushed.
“Not my steak, no,” Mr. Lopez said. “Blood is dirty. It’s not good for your insides.”
Dad opened his mouth but didn’t say anything. He was silent because of Rubin and Tae Kwon Do. Seeing me become the second youngest black belt in the state of Florida was more important at this moment to Dad than the steaks.
Their dining room table was a rectangle like ours and took up almost the entire dining room. Unlike ours, theirs was not wood, but Formica with stainless steel legs, and it sat horizontally, so whoever sat at the head of the table, in this case Dad, got a perfect view of the bathroom. Mr. Lopez was on the other end, his wife to his right, and Rubin to his left. A half-gallon jug of red wine sat in the center of the table, and everyone had a glass, even Mom, which I was glad to see. She and Mrs. Lopez were side by side, and I didn’t know if they had become friendlier on the back porch in my absence, or if it was the few sips of wine each of them had, but now they spoke more often and in louder voices.
After a few minutes of eating, Dad asked: “How you like those steaks?”
“Delicious,” Mr. Lopez said. “You’ve got to tell me who your butcher is.”
Dad’s face hardened. “You just tell me what kind of cut you want and I’ll get it for you.”
“Steaks are so expensive,” Mrs. Lopez said.
Mr. Lopez mumbled something in Spanish to her, and although we all heard it, no one let on. Mrs. Lopez lowered her eyes and stopped eating for a moment.
Dad’s painful grin came to his face, his eyes brightened, their sparkle accentuating his grin, bringing the devil out in his features, and I knew Dad was thinking of a way to use what he had just witnessed to his benefit.
After dinner, the adults stayed at the dining room table drinking wine. Mrs. Lopez and Rubin cleared the dishes off the table with a little help from me and Mom. All the while, Mr. Lopez and Dad sat at either end of the table like generals readying for battle. Luckily that night would only be war games.
Wanting to make up for my earlier silence, I gladly followed Rubin back to his room.
Rubin didn’t seem used to having company in his room, or much company period. I knew I was nervous, but he seemed to be a little as well. It was as if he didn’t know what to do with me or himself. He sat on the edge of his bed, which was lower than I remembered from before, so when he was seated, his knees were almost even with his eyes.
I stood in the center of the room. There was a chair, but it was pulled up to the desk and looked officially put away. Rubin had on gym shorts that originally had been blue but now were a faded gray. He pulled at the crotch several times, then saw me looking and stopped.
“What’s four times nine?” he asked.
Four times nine? I saw the phrase in my mind and hoped somehow the words would evolve into the correct answer.
“Don’t make such an ugly face,” Rubin said. “If you don’t know the answer, say so. Your dad told my pop you are smart, but you don’t know what four times nine is?”
“Math is my weakest subject in school.”
I couldn’t believe how I answered Rubin. That was definitely not how I should speak to him to make him my friend. I started to take it back, but Rubin was smiling.
“Thirty-six,” he said.
“That’s what I thought.”
“No it wasn’t. And don’t ever talk to me like that at the dojo. But do talk to everyone else, except for Mr. Bollars, like that. It’ll keep the older guys from trying to push you around.”
This was advice I was taking, and it seemed like Dad’s advice about beating people to the fuck, only Rubin worded it much nicer.
“Have a seat,” Rubin said. He leaned his head toward the chair.
“You like models,” I said, pointing to the ceiling.
“I like planes. I’m going to be a Navy pilot. Pop worked on them when he was in service, but I’ll be flying them.”
I didn’t doubt for a second that one day he would be soaring through the clouds.
“You like comic books?” Rubin asked.
How to answer this? Dad said comic books were for dummies, and I never knew anyone at school worth hanging round who read them. Yet Rubin, in Dad’s eyes, was no dummy, and he was certainly worth hanging round. No, while not the most endearing answer, would be truthful. But I couldn’t risk having Rubin think I was smarting off again. There was one time, after Mom and Dad had one of their fights, that she took me to the drugstore with her and bought me an oversized comic book. I asked for it because it was a Captain America comic book and I liked his nightly TV show.
“I have one large comic book,” I said. “It has more than one story in it with Captain America and some guy with a red skull that’s a Nazi mutant. He always wears a swastika on his arm.”
“I can draw that,” Rubin jumped out of the bed, turned on the lamp over the desk, and started rummaging through the drawer. I, without waiting for him to ask, got out of his way, and he, without acknowledging me, sat in the vacated chair. He pulled out a tablet of white paper and a pack of colored pencils. “It’s real easy,” he said, and leaned close to the desk, which made it difficult to see how he drew it, but I stood on tiptoe and watched over his right shoulder as he first drew the outline in black, then colored it in softly with quick flicks of his wrist with a fire-red pencil.
He held it up. The swastika sat square in the middle, about to leap off the sheet. “Take it with you. Just don’t let your dad see it. Mine hates that I can draw a swastika. He flips out and starts cursing in Spanish.”
Not only was this a gift, but contraband. Though he fought in the Pacific, I knew Dad would go on a tear for weeks if he saw a swastika in his house. I had to hide it in order to get it home. But how? If I folded it and placed it in my pocket, the picture would be ruined. I didn’t care for the swastika itself—it was only important because Rubin gave it to me—and for that reason I wanted it to remain wrinkle-free.
“Son.” Mom’s voice. Though she was my friend, she wouldn’t approve of a swastika either. “You ready to go?” Her voice stayed in the living room, and I was relieved that she wasn’t coming closer.
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be there in a minute.” My hands sweated, moistening the edges of the paper.
“I need to sneak this home without wrinkling it.”
Rubin’s eyes darted round the room.
“Come on, boy, let’s go.” Dad’s voice.
My hands flowed sweat.
“Slip it in here,” Rubin said, handing me a Spiderman comic book. “And take these also.” He handed me three more comic books. “Keep the one with the picture in the bottom comic book.”
Dad stood in the small living room, hands on hips, arms flared, and chest bowed. “What you got there?”
“Some comic books Rubin let me borrow.”
I prepared for a sarcastic response.
“Good to see you’re reading something other than those books you get from the library about those damn nigger football players.”
When we arrived home, Mom walked in the house first, but Dad grabbed me by the shoulder. I halted and hoped he didn’t want to examine the comic books. Dad turned me to face him, and a floodlight’s yellow haze made a nimbus 'round Dad’s head.
“You listen to Rubin. Do whatever he tells you.” Dad stepped back and the floodlight hit me in the face. “You listen to that saltwater-nigger bo,y and you’ll be a black belt in no time.”