I wrote this short story “Thwap” about the first year we lived in Latin America. While my mom and dad attended a language training institute, my brother and I attended our first American International school. It shocked me, the move from a duplex in Regina to the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica, a two-bedroom bungalow, a maid to cook and clean: our back yard gave way to open jungle. Walking to catch a taxi one night, after a dinner out in the city centre, we come across a man wearing jeans and cowboy boots kicking the living shit out of another man. Thud after thud after thud the intensity does not waver. I know that people in Regina got the shit kicked out of them, too, but I never saw it. San Jose in 1982 perhaps was not particularly violent at all, I don’t know, but to me the rupture between Regina and all of this is itself so violent, the break so extreme, that the whole city represents violence, at least a new understanding that violence is real and not always avoidable. The second half of the year added a new horror, this one courtesy of my new American “friends”, one a military brat, the other an embassy brat.
In every school I attended, I befriended sons of American military and the embassy (not exclusively—there were lots of other missionary kids around, always—and not intentionally). The Flores brothers (whose pictures can be seen here) were just so keenly intelligent, cool and unflappable that memories of them live in my head forever. In Chile, I rode a mini-van/school bus to school the whole year with the son of an ambassador and the son of a marine sergeant. One was opinionated and garrulous: the other was funny and friendly, you can probably figure out which was which. Our bus driver had long, flowing blonde hair and it was like if you put a headband on him, boom Bjorn Borg. Digressive, I grant you, but I didn’t know that in and around the barrio alto of Santiago so many thousands of grown men were going to look so regressively Aryan, blonde locks frozen in an 1974 après-ski for all-time, and if you knew of a portal back to a secret place where 1974 still existed I hope you’d tell me, too. The mouthy kid tried to convert Chilean Bjorn one day, and this was his tactic: “Hey guys, our driver doesn’t even believe in Jesus! Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous!? What an idiot!” Bjorn, being a tactical Bjorn mastermind, was way ahead of us, and he replied, “Why are you guys even taking a private micro (Chilean slang for "bus") anyway? In this city, only small children get picked up and dropped off at home. Take a regular bus, like all the other kids your age. Do you want to know what’s ridiculous? Teenagers afraid to take the bus, that’s what’s ridiculous.”
That dialogue is embellished—poorly, no doubt. But that driver, and his hair, would make someone a good character, just not me. I don’t feel the fiction much anymore. I guess mostly for that reason, and also because I wrote it so long ago, I am putting "Thwap" out there without any contemporaneous editing. This is the version I sent out in 2012 and 2013. As with all my stories, I sent it to three randomly chosen journals. I also submitted it to a short story contest. "Thwap" received no interest, or warm encouragement, whatsoever. I never know when I’m sending stories out what people are going to like. I’m probably wrong, and this story is probably not all that hot, but I like it anyway, you know? My mom’s in this one, she’s the hero. It was the last year our family lived together. I was 11. It’s vivid. I regret I wasn’t able to do it better justice.
The snow wasn't always this deep, nor the walls always so margarine: Regina v. San Jose
My hands weren’t to blame, they’d never had the training. Whenever I’d wanted to get off a bus back home, I’d pull a string, a bell would ring and when the bus pulled over to the curb, I’d step off. These buses had strings too, but there was nothing to ring. And the buses weren’t half empty like the ones I’d known before. There were no stops, no signs, no shelters. There were seldom seats available. Buses choked with fumes, teeming with life, old engines heaving, stopping wherever they pleased, often in centre lanes, not always at corners. Desperate measures allowed for shrill whistles, fingers in mouth, but this wasn’t the way, this wasn’t how it was done. With nothing to ring, you had to slap the string hard against the wall of the bus. The motion needed for this was precise, and men and women signalled their sense of self to each other by the signature of the sound they created. It wasn’t just the timbre of the thwap, but its resonance, the degree to which it lingered, whether it crawled forward from the back, or if it ricocheted, or snapped shut like an angry door. You could gauge the passenger by the sound created, you could predict what sort of night waited on the other side. The first time I tried it myself I was standing at the back, jostled in the crowded aisle. It wasn’t any trouble to reach over those around me. I was tall, even at 12, and few in San Jose, Costa Rica seemed to mind physical contact from strangers. I pulled back the string the way I’d observed others do. I tried an underhand pull, like I was holding a bar for a chin-up. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough power behind it; I think I did, but when I released the string it shot into the top joint of my fingers. My timing was all sideways. The string fizzled against the wall. It sounded like two loose sheets of paper rubbing against each other, and the bus did not stop. My hand stung. I shoved it in my pocket. Across the aisle, a tittering suave in Adidas sweatpants raised his chin towards me then looked away. The back of his head bobbled and swayed in harmony with the hydraulics of the bus. As I watched, I saw him reach up and pull the string. He didn’t move after he’d done this, not even to turn and gloat. He’d hit the perfect thwap, and he’d done so sitting, with two fingers, and without looking. His kindness and his prowess humiliated me. I looked away. When I felt the bus stop, I pushed my way to the rear exit. The buses were always crowded. Someone was always getting off somewhere near my neighbourhood, San Juan de Dos Rios. I didn’t care how much further I had to walk. I preferred exercising my legs alone, then to try and train my hands in public. I resolved never to try to thwap on my own, not ever again. I often found myself on the same exact bus. I recognized it because the driver had a cartoon decal over the vertical fare box at the front. The picture showed a nut, with a male face on it, chasing a bolt with a female face. The caption read, “No, sin aceite, no.” I attended Grade 6 at a private American Christian school, where classes were taught in English. But I studied Spanish also, and I picked it up so quickly, it was like a virus spreading through me, and I couldn’t have stopped it if I wanted to. “Not without oil.” In any language, I didn’t get it. But I knew that I wanted to. I wanted to mostly because I knew that the teachers at my school, and my own parents, were trying very hard to delay my understanding of the world from which that cartoon came. My family had no car the year we lived in San Jose, and so we often took the bus together as a family, my mom and dad, and my older brother and I. My dad was adaptive; he’d taken to the thwap like he should have been born here. I was proud of my dad; one out of a hundred gringos gets that thwap down over the course of a lifetime, but to get it down on the first couple tries – I caught young machos staring at him out of the corners of their eyes. No one ever looked at me like that. I know my mom was proud of my father, too, or at least she told herself she was. It was a bold move, a gay adventure upon which we embarked in this strange land, and there was never any doubt who our captain was. But she wasn’t proud of my dad the day we took the bus to see the doctor. We were all sick, the whole family – we’d expected to be sick, and we expected the diagnosis: amoebas. Nothing but water for a week, and then white rice with no seasoning for another. Something in my father’s appearance concerned the doctor further. He motioned towards three wooden chairs, and asked us to be seated. He directed my father to undress. My brother and I sat flanking our mom. My father lay on an examination table. He was naked, his bottom half covered by a thin sheet. When the doctor examined him, he pulled down the sheet and took my father’s – I never once heard my mom describe this system, not in terms clinical, comic or vulgar – in his hands. Sometimes she used the word thingamabob, but not in an exclusive way. So: as the doctor took my father’s thingamabob, bent like a horseshoe, in one hand, while reaching around between his legs with the other, it seemed as though my mom might convulse. It’s hard to ignore that much twitching. She covered her own eyes at first with a hand held horizontally, fingers and thumbs fully extended, with no light in between. “Boys,” she instructed, “close your eyes.” The doctor was speaking to my father in a soft voice, but I couldn’t hear about what, on account of my mom was talking over him. I looked at her, and when she saw that my eyes were still open, she put her right hand over my eyes, and her left hand over my brother’s. “Why, I never!” she said. Then she just started to make noise, a sputtering noise, an embarrassing noise, worse even than my own auditory failure, my abortive thwap. Her protective and prolonged string of nonsensical sounds continued until I felt her hand leave my face. When I opened my eyes, there was my dad, now sitting up on the table, fastening his belt buckle. When the doctor turned to regard the three of us, he chuckled at us as though we were children. “Bueno,” he said. “Somos todos humanos, no?” My mom and dad didn’t talk on the bus ride home. It was dusk when the bus pulled over, on the other side of the park, which served as the square of our neighbourhood. Modest bungalows, new and modern by San Jose standards enclosed the green space; behind them it was still jungle, banana trees and tarantulas. San Juan de Dos Rios was too new for any fountains or monuments like most of the other parks of the city. It was just grass, patchy from the dogs which roamed free. There were two dogs in the centre of the park. They were right in the centre, as though they’d synchronized watches, and so far everything was going exactly to plan. It wasn’t a glimpse of it we caught. It was coupling that endured from one end of the park to another. They were humping like an encyclopedic illustration accompanying the term doggy style. My mom was beside herself. “Dogs, must you!” The fingers on her hand went rigid and she covered her own eyes. She quickened her pace. “Don’t look!” she instructed us, my dad included. When we reached our front door, the moon was over the park and the dogs were still humping. For our Grade 6 Christmas Party, Ms. Loewen, from Madison, Wisconsin, had arranged to take our class roller skating. I couldn’t skate, not really – but I was confident that by San Jose standards I couldn`t miss Three Star Selection. The shift of symbolic masculinity to an area of endeavour in which I knew I held a competitive advantage cheered me, as though Santa was giving me a North Pole home ice holiday advantage that I couldn’t possibly squander. As a boy, it was my first real opportunity to be the man. Amy Tamlin wore navy pants to the roller rink. She wore those same navy pants most days. They were creased down the middle, rode above her hips almost to where I imagined her belly button to be, and were bell-shaped at the bottom. Around the rink, under the light of the disco ball, I followed her, me and Jeff Lee, whose father was a United States Marine sergeant attached to the American embassy, and Owen Marshall, whose father was the Canadian ambassador to Costa Rica. Owen was an inch taller than me and equally skinny. He seemed always alone in a morass of tristesse, and he skated as though he’d been born into the civil service, all quiet efficiency and bored resignation. Jeff couldn’t skate, but he’d brought a Polaroid camera to take pictures of the girls, and so Owen and I propped him up in between us. Owen said that earlier that year his mom and dad had invited him into their bedroom. His mom opened her bath robe and showed him her thing. I thought that was the most wonderful and most horrific thing I’d ever heard, and I could never bring myself to look his mom in the face ever again, even though my mom and dad were proud that their boy was friends with the ambassador’s son, and instructed me always to be on my best behaviour when I was invited over, which was seldom. I had never seen that thing on anyone, not even in a picture, and I was both relieved not to have, and desperate to know what Owen Marshall was really talking about. We were following Amy Tamlin around on Jeff Lee’s instructions. “Look at the panty lines,” he commanded. The panty lines were hard to see. The strobe lights were flashing. The rink was full, and not just with kids from our class. Depending on which colour light hit the rear of Amy Tamlin’s pants, things were either too light or too dark or a corner would come up too fast, or Jeff Lee’s ankles would give way and we’d all crumble into a heap on the scuffed surface, all elbows and insults. But I studied Amy Tamlin’s ass, under Jeff Lee’s tutelage. Like the edges of a smile, you could see lines, once you knew what you were looking for, rising from the centre of Amy Tamlin’s legs up towards the hip bones until they vanished into a white sweater, the sleeves of which were rolled up. Amy Tamlin skated with two friends also. They skated with arms linked, with the short, hesitant strides of the enthusiastic amateur. They kept glancing over their shoulders, as though to make sure they still had their audience. Amy had blonde hair and everything about her, the way she laughed, the way the in-swinging curls bounced against her sweater seemed to happen in slow motion. When she looked back, she looked at Jeff Lee. Ms. Loewen had given us our ten-minute warning. Jeff Lee had twenty pictures of Amy Tamlin’s panty lines. He said would sell them, for a dollar each. I had done nothing to distinguish myself. Even as a passenger to my locomotion, Jeff Lee was the star, and I hated him for it. On one of the final corners, I released Jeff Lee into Owen Marshall’s care. I accelerated around the girls and pivoted into my back stride. I began to do the criss-cross, and added a criss-cross arm motion as though I were directing fighter plane traffic on the H.M.S. Victorious. I had never done that motion before, and I didn’t know why I was doing it then. I smiled at Amy Tamlin. I smiled at her friends. I wanted to wink, but I didn’t know how. When I crashed it was sudden, and catastrophic. My skinny legs shot into the sky and my tailbone caught Amy Tamlin’s knees. She fell, as did her friends, as did Jeff Lee and Owen Marshall, although I think that Owen Marshall meant for them to fall because he was too good a skater to have fallen by accident. In the ensuing scrum, my hands found a sweater. Legs and arms were once again akimbo and you couldn’t tell the girls’ laughter from the boys’ on account of none of our voices had yet changed. Jeff pretended his had, but his laugh gave him away. I tried to stand up, but my legs slipped backwards and again I grasped sweater. I found myself, with my mouth open in wonder, clutching fully with both hands the small breasts of Amy Tamlin. I didn’t know what I was grabbing at first. I had no conception of female anatomy, such things had been shielded from me. But my hands knew. I felt a thrill shoot through my body like a disco ball had just come to life in my pants, fragments of energy shattered throughout me. I don’t remember the flash of Jeff Lee’s Polaroid, all I remember is the awakening. I saw the picture again the next Monday, as we rode the bus to school. Jeff Lee dangled the photo in front of my face, as we sat side by side. The evidence was damning. There I was, the son of evangelical missionaries, my head very close to the navy blue of Amy Tamlin’s crotch, my hands fully clutching her breasts, as though I was seeing if I could make them honk or if I could open them, the way I opened the combination to my locker, with two twists to the right, and one spin to the left. I was smiling with a delight that I’d never seen on my face before, and my eyes were pure excitement. I’d never been so ashamed of anything in my life. I wanted to stretch my fingers horizontally, cover my eyes with them. I wanted to tell myself not to look. “Wonder what your mom would have to say about that?” Jeff Lee said. He shook his index and middle finger together the way Latin men did. The snap seemed to produce the motion not the other way around. Jeff’s fingers went blurry, seeming to vanish into air. Thwap! It was a perfect sound. It was a sound my fingers had never made, even though I practiced that snapping motion in my bedroom every night, willing my hands to belong in this new place. I knew that Latin men made that motion, that sound, when women were around, or when there were things, shameful things, outrageous things, being discussed to which I was not privy. Audacious to even attempt that sound as a foreigner, yet Jeff Lee was both the son of a Marine, and a native Costa Rican, and he could do the finger thwap without trying. Who could compete? He put the photo away, and didn’t mention it again until lunch. With the exception of tamarind juice, nothing good came from the food kiosk, a stand-alone hut on the far end of the school’s soccer field. But the tamarind juice, thin and cold, had made disciples of us all, and we ran there, Jeff and Owen and I, as soon as Ms. Loewen released us, in order to secure a place in line. As we waited, Jeff asked me if I could treat him. He said he’d forgotten his wallet. My parents gave my brother and I the same weekly allowance, but it was intended mostly as emergency money, in case we needed bus fare, or change to use a public telephone. My family had no money; our tuition, our house – everything was paid for by the denomination which employed my parents, and there was very little left over for us to live on. I wore second-hand clothes, all Bazaar bin charity from big-boned prairie Mennonites, and I was still struggling to operate the checked plaid shirts stamped with the name Doerksen on the inside of the collar, the pleated church dress pants which had once belonged to some Wiebe or other. I had been paraded across so many religious rostrums, that I had come to expect charity from the righteous and the sympathetic as fair compensation for looking like a malnourished orphan, which I understood to be my performative expectation. Largesse was as foreign to me as the tamarind. I told Jeff Lee that I would buy him a juice. Jeff Lee expressed no gratitude. He said that he would also take two tamales. Jeff turned to Owen and asked him what he wanted. He said I was treating. Owen said nothing, so Jeff said that Owen would also take two tamales, as well as a tamarind juice. Jeff said that I should treat myself to two tamales, too. I told Jeff Lee that I didn’t have that much money. Jeff Lee told me that that wasn’t a problem. He told me that the kiosk would simply take down my name, and start a line of credit for me. I could pay it off at the end of the month. “Easy,” he said. I asked Jeff why I had to do it, why couldn’t he, why couldn’t Owen Marshall, who arrived at school each morning in a chauffeured, black Cadillac, and whose home was really a mansion that could contain 15 of the bungalows in which my family lived. Jeff produced from his back pocket the Polaroid. He waved it in front of my face. “You don’t have to,” he said. “But if your mom…” We had reached the order window of the kiosk. I asked for six tamales and three tamarind juices. The cost was twice my weekly allowance. I gave the kiosk attendant all of my cash, and put the rest on a credit account under my name. Jeff Lee varied his order throughout the week. He added chips and pepperoni sticks on recess break. By Friday, when I tried to order, my credit was no good, and I was instructed to bring sufficient funds to clear my tab in full, by Monday. Jeff Lee was with me – he was always with me – when I received this news, but it made no impression on him. “Just ask your parents,” he said. I told him that I didn’t think my parents had any money either. Jeff Lee told me that my parents had money. All parents have money, he said. That’s why they’re parents. He took the photo from his back pocket again. He told me it was up to me. Either I got the money, or my mom got the photo. I had had very little to eat throughout the week. Owen Marshall had been eating my tamales; he didn’t seem to enjoy them, he didn’t seem to enjoy anything, but he ate as though to make himself strong for an endless string of future $500-a-plate rubber chicken fundraisers. The thought of my mom seeing that photo made me feel sicker than the amoebas had. That my body was capable of producing vomit was, therefore, the primary surprise, but that I threw up while standing in line at the kiosk, and that I projected in the direction of Jeff Lee – that was surprising to me also. There hadn’t been much vomit – and what there was had been relatively presentable. Kaleidoscopic was not a description you could use for the colour – it was cream-coloured – nor did it contain any sort of chunks. Owen Marshall retained his equanimity. Jeff Lee grabbed a napkin from the counter and wiped off the front of his shirt. “Fine,” he said. “Have it your way.” My brother and I were playing Battleship in the living room when the doorbell rang. Inevitably, my father was away, a first responder to ecumenical distress, our home phone like a 24-hour spiritual law enforcement scanner, tuned to transmissions from beyond this realm. My mom, who sat across from us reading, stood and walked to the door. “David!” she called to me, “Look who it is!” I didn’t need to look. I’d been expecting that doorbell to ring all night. Jeff Lee was all charm. Owen Marshall was all Owen Marshall. My two best friends made themselves at home, accepting the hot chocolate my mother offered them. My brother retreated to his room, and as my mom busied herself in the kitchen, Jeff Lee produced the photo from his back pocket. He said nothing. He waved the Polaroid, now bent and crinkled, in front of me. There I was! – forever mammarily enraptured. “Mmm,” he said, once my mom had returned. “This is sure good hot chocolate, Mrs. Davison. Isn’t it good, David?” Jeff Lee smiled at me. My mom smiled at Jeff Lee. Owen Marshall stared at something only he could see. I sipped my hot chocolate. After they had finished, Jeff Lee said they better be getting home. My mom and father were in San Jose to undertake an extensive linguistic and cultural immersion program, after which they would be assigned to a mission at a yet undetermined location, somewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. My mother insisted that we observe all Latin American customs. She took acclimatization seriously. Accordingly, she bid farewell to Jeff Lee and Owen Marshall by hugging each of them in turn, and kissing them on both cheeks. My mom had yet to master the nuance of this gesture; its symbolism eluded her. She hugged even the most casual acquaintance as though they were stuffed toys, and she alone and afraid of the dark. When she was finished, she turned to me. “David,” she said. “Say goodbye to your guests.” “Bye,” I said. “David,” she said. “The Tico way, por favor.” This was awkward. Jeff Lee and Owen Marshall and I did not spend any significant amount of time hugging one another. Hugging Owen Marshall was unpleasant. We were both so gangly, disentanglement proved complex. Jeff Lee awaited me with outstretched arms that seemed inadequate for the size of his smile. I had never been asked to think on my own before, never once tasked to make a decision. The idea for what I did next was not the product of any training my upbringing had ever afforded me. I hugged Jeff Lee so tightly I could feel the bones in his chest bend. I could feel the oxygen being squeezed from his lungs, and I knew that his eyes, which I could not see, must be popping wide from the pressure. With my left hand, I reached into his back pocket where I knew the photo to be. Before I turned around the Polaroid was stuffed securely down my capacious, old-man Mennonite pants, and if Jeff Lee knew what I’d done he didn’t have time to express surprise. I pushed Jeff Lee and Owen Marshall through the front door, and shut it before either could say another word. “Your father and I are so thankful you’ve made such good friends here,” my mom said. “It’s what we’ve prayed for, you know. When you ask, God answers.” My mom told me to get ready for bed, and once I was lying down, she came and tucked me in. After she was gone, I lay there and listened for the sounds of my father returning. He hadn`t come back yet. I got up and turned on the light. I walked across the hall, and I walked into my parents` room. The door was never shut. My mom sat up in bed. She lowered her reading glasses and set her book on her lap. I didn’t have to say much before she motioned me to come sit with her. My sobs summoned my brother, but my mom shooed him away and told him to close the door behind him. I told my mom that I had done something terribly wrong, something so ghastly it was possible that I had forever removed myself from God’s grace. I promised my mom that I valued my personal salvation above all things, and asked her to help me pray. My mom consoled me in her arms. Once the tears had abated, she asked me to tell her the story from the beginning. I did this. Then I produced the Polaroid from the inside of my pants and showed it to my mom. “This is the only picture?” my mom asked me. I said that it was. I asked her again to help me pray. My mom kissed the back of my head and rubbed the back of my neck. “Aw honey,” she said. “You don’t need to pray. The only one that needs to pray right now is Jeff Lee.” She kept the picture. Then she told me to turn out her light, and to get a good night’s sleep. She said we had an early start tomorrow. When I awoke my mom was already up, and wearing her Sunday dress, even though it was Saturday. Her one pair of dress shoes was out by the front door and her one good coat was strung over the couch. My father was in the kitchen making French toast and bacon. He didn’t say anything to me, but he didn’t need to say anything – my father had only ever made French toast and bacon on Christmas morning, and that was still a week away. After I finished eating, my mom told me to hurry and up and get ready, that we were going into town. At least three soccer games, one of which involved my brother, were in progress in the park. We picked our way through them, holding hands. My mom hailed a bus and when she got on, several men stood up and offered us their seats. My mom had long, brown hair and long legs, which were always bare, always covered to below the knee; it was only ever her voice that gave her away as foreign, little about her appearance did. Wherever we went, people looked at my mom and lowered their gazes. She had a way about her. It was the only time my mom and I ever took the bus together, just she and I. We were travelling through the city’s residential districts of affluence. We were still far from the diplomatic district, where Owen Marshall lived, but now the houses were on expansive properties enclosed by adobe walls and iron gates, protected from view by big trees I could not identify. Guard huts were beside most driveways. My mom reached to her left as though to pull the string. I clenched my jaw in anticipation of her impending thwapping humiliation, but a man ahead of us slapped the string before she did. My mom had never met Jeff Lee’s parents before, never been to their house. But she knew the way just fine. A squat guard wearing a shiny, royal blue uniform a size too tight asked us our business. My mom used her Spanish, her atrocious Spanish, to request an audience with Jeff Lee. The guard was hesitant. He made my mom repeat her request several times. When it became clear my mom had no intention of leaving, the guard retreated inside his hut. He faced away from us as he spoke into the phone. We waited for ten minutes or so. Jeff Lee had not risen as early as we had, and he wore flannel pyjamas. We watched as he walked barefoot from the front entrance of the house, to where we stood, admitted inside the front gate but no further. Jeff Lee looked neither contrite nor surprised. My mom opened her purse and took out the photo. Jeff Lee looked not at her, but at me, and there was Monday menace in his stare. “Don’t look at him, look at me,” my mom said. Once Jeff Lee had shifted his gaze, my mom began to tear the Polaroid into tiny pieces. She ripped and she tore, and the shreds, smaller than postage stamps, fell haphazardly to the ground. Once the photo was destroyed, my mom said, “Don’t you ever do that to anyone ever again, do you hear me? Shame on you.” I thought we were done. But there was one final thing my mom needed to do. The smirk with which Jeff Lee had arrived remained intact. But only for a second longer. So quickly you couldn’t have seen it, she raised her left hand and slapped Jeff Lee on the cheek, just once. It wasn’t hard, but the timing of the thing was perfect. You could tell by the sound it made: thwap! My mom took my hand again, and we walked like that back the way we had come. I never heard a word about the Polaroid from her or my father, or from Jeff Lee, ever again.