The auditorium has the familiar smell of ghosts: dust from shoes of students now old or dead, fragrance of hair and skin clinging to bleachers. Invisible fingerprints graffiti the walls, and the ceiling is stuck with shadows forming patterns like flowers over the heads of singing students, one of which is my niece, a glass girl toeing the tightrope between childhood and adolescence.
The children are lined up like candles. This is the spring concert, and the audience is full of adults and children impatient to get back out to the cool dusk, to the ghostless May air. I sit between my mother and sister, both silent, both once children who opened their mouths to sing in auditoriums like this one on nights like this one. Me, too.
And then, scanning the crowd, I see him, in a suit, sitting by the children who've already sung, their teacher. It is unmistakably Aparicio, who I met in rehab when he was fifteen and I was twenty, who came with me to parties in the mountain woods and kissed me with a mouth that was softer than other mouths I'd kissed from New Jersey to Maine, a mouth that spoke a language different than the one I was used to hearing my whole life up to that point. He was chubby, a kid. But my memory of him is infused with the scent of wildflowers and the recklessness of nights when I was still young enough to be reckless.
I don't catch his eye. I shrink down in my seat, aware of my glasses, aware of the lines that threaten to form in my face at any moment. But he's a man, sturdy now, gold skin glistening under hot lights. It was one summer, ten years ago. But it feels like a different lifetime, an alternate universe. If I were to tell the story to someone now, I'd start off by saying I was fucked up back then. Aparicio was, too. The fact that he was so much younger than me didn't matter as much as our shared sadness. My sadness was amorphous, but his was real. Maybe I needed his to give mine shape.
My niece stands in the chorus, mouth open, singing "Moon River." It strikes me how old she must be now to sing such a song. Are all children acquainted with sadness, or only the ones I know? When she was four years old her father was passed out drunk on the toilet and she had to shit on the floor. When she was three years old she sat in the carseat in the back of the car and I sat beside her, and she looked at the brake lights glowing in front of us and said, Red makes me miss Grandpa, who used to dress up like Santa Clause every Christmas, who was dead.
In rehab, we sat in a circle and related stories. I didn't talk much. But Aparicio told us that when he was a child in Colombia he was kidnapped by his uncle's friends in some drug-related scheme. His parents were killed. He worked running drugs before he even had pubic hair. He knew the smell of guns but not his mother's skin. Later that same day, outside, smoking, his story floated outside of him and hung in the trees like Spanish moss, and he told me his biggest sexual fantasy was to one day see a woman completely naked except for her socks. I remember that conversation as vividly as the sad story of his childhood. It seems like one should be more important than the other in my memory, but that's just not the way it is.
I see Aparicio get up and walk out of the auditorium, maybe to make a phone call, maybe to his wife, another woman who opened her mouth to his like she wanted to sing but ended up swallowing his song. I leave my mother and sister to follow him out into the quiet, carpeted hallway. At first I see only his back. He is on his knees, as if praying, but then I realize he's kneeling down to drink out of the children's water fountain.
I'm afraid for him to turn around, so afraid that he won't recognize me. Maybe more afraid that he will. I open my mouth to say his name, but then the muted sound of applause reaches us like an approaching wave, and the doors open, and the crowd rushes out between us, and I can't see him anymore.
Later, I will ask my niece the name of the teacher sitting beside the students who sang before her, and she'll say Mr. Cortezar, and I'll realize I never knew Aparicio's last name. My sister will ask me, then, if I know him, and I won't know how to answer, if I should say yes, or no, which is more true.
About the author:
Jacqueline Vogtman is originally from New Jersey and is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she teaches and serves as an assistant editor of Mid-American Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glassfire Magazine and Twelve Stories.