For the longest time, I didn’t know what my name was. That is the thing you should know when you don’t know anything else. But I didn’t mind it. I could tell when people were talking to me and when they weren’t.
My mother called me Honey, Sugar, Pumpkin, Gum Drop, Caramelo when she slipped into her Spanish. I grew up thinking I was the derivatives of sugar. I was the ingredients that went into making a cake.
My father called me son. His voice the way I read italics in books. It made me believe I was the yellow ball of fire in the sky.
My grandfather called me María. After my late grandmother and because he was losing his mind. But he seemed to find it in me. And on the last tendrils of brain matter he had left, he saw my warm eyes and round cheeks and saw too much of his wife that it had to be so.
My friends at school called me Toño.
My babysitter called me 'little guy' because she was afraid she would say my actual name wrong. “Are we gonna have some fun tonight, little guy?” I would nod even though I didn’t feel that little. “Is it time for bed, little guy?” I would slump up to bed even when it was too early to go to bed and I was too old to be called 'little guy.'
My birth certificate called me Antonio María José Calderón Reyes.
When I was old enough to pick my own birthday cake but still young enough to get a dollar for my missing bottom tooth, my parents told me about my patron saint. I kept one eye on the ice cream cake that rested on the table outside. My friends hadn’t even shown up yet.
“Pumpkin, come here. We want to tell you about your birthday.” My mom did that thing that adults do, making their bodies smaller and lower to meet kids at eye level.
“But I don’t want the cake to melt. It’s gonna melt!”
“Don’t worry, son. It’s in the shade.” My father came over to us, hands in his pockets, not doing that thing with his body. He didn’t know how to smile which meant that he smiled with all of his teeth which I always saw as the best smile.
She had already put the candle in the cake, a big 6 the color of firetrucks, and, from the corner of my eye, it was sliding. Her hands moved when she spoke, her nails the same color as the big 6 and the firetrucks. My mother told me about Anthony of Padua who shared my birthday, August 15th, and was the patron saint of lost things or people. The finder of lost things and the saint of small requests, the book she flipped through said. All the pictures showed him cradling a baby, looking at it like he was its father but I knew that he wasn’t. This is where my first name came from. She also told me José came from another patron saint, for more divine protection.
Her red nails tickled my stomach and rose to her full height. She bent down to kiss me on the top of my head. I felt older then, too old to be worrying about such trivial things like an ice cream cake on the verge of not even being a cake anymore.
My mother grew up in America, Texas to be exact, to Mexican parents. She grew up speaking both Spanish and English. When she spoke English, you couldn’t imagine her speaking anything else but when she spoke Spanish, you forgot about the beautiful English she just spoke. She slipped in and out of it like a swimming pool. My father grew up in Delaware and went to college in Texas which is how they met. “I waitressed at his favorite bar,” she always smiled when she told people. “It was my favorite bar because she waitressed there,” he always smiled when she told people. Not long after, she became the manager and my father liked the Cowboys so that’s where they had me. My mother was raised Catholic but, after being with my agnostic father, it slowly rubbed off of her like the soles of well-worn shoes. “Fine, but I get free rein with his name,” she told him when she gave up mass. We still went on Easter and Christmas. The incense they rock back and forth stays in my nose for hours after. How I ended up with five names I am never called, for people I will never know and saints I will never be.
I grabbed the tray holding the cake, little pools of chocolate reaching my thumbs that held on, and stuck it in the freezer while my parents made food and hung decorations.
I went to quinceañeras when I was told to. Cousins or distant family members, girls I kind of knew in school. I had a suit that I wore to every single one, my father changing the tie to make them different. My mother loved sending me off after I was blinded by the flashes from her camera. She had told me all about hers. I watched many girls go from girls to women in big, poofy dresses in bright colors seemingly picked from popsicle boxes.
At one, the friends of the girl turning fifteen swiped a flask of tequila from someone’s uncle and passed it around. After my swig, I quickly downed my plastic cup of fruity punch so I could forget the taste. The alcohol seemed to sit at the back of my throat while the sweetness of the punch sat on my lips like lipstick. I drank more of the juice just to make them even redder.
The girl with the flask came back around to me after everyone had had a turn, holding it out for me, offering me more. Not wanting to get drunk but also not wanting to look weak in front of the girl, I took it from her and tipped my head back. I took another big swig of the red punch too. “You look pretty,” the girl said before running off to replace the empty flask with water. She left me there wondering what she meant by that. My face turning the color of my lips that turned the color of the punch and my mother’s nails and the firetrucks and my big number 6 candle.
I loosened my tie at my seat. It was time for the Changing of the Shoes. I watched her father come out with a shoebox and, at her feet, change her flats to high heels which still weren’t that high. I watched him take her to the middle of the dance floor and waltz to a piano rendition of a Tim McGraw song. She looked beautiful. The tulle of her dress hovered over the hardwood like a cloud. It was a voluminous white ball gown with a strapless bodice, red flowers and swirls embroidered throughout. It looked like the plates we ate off when we went to the Chinese restaurant on nights my parents didn’t want to cook. Her long, dark hair the color of chocolate was piled up on top of her head, the bejeweled crown corralling the curls. She somehow managed to match the color of the flowers to the color of her lips. I couldn’t even see her new high heels amidst everything else.
I watched until their dance was over and I left when it was time to leave. But on the car ride back home, maybe a little drunk from the two gulps of tequila, I wondered what my quinceañera would look like if I had one. What gown I would wear with my new high heels. I fell asleep before we got home.
My girlfriend, Ana, was the first girl who really looked at me the way she did. Other girls couldn’t look passed my long eyelashes and rosy cheeks. I was shorter than my other male counterparts, my muscles not as big. This is why she liked me, Ana would tell me.
We had been dating for three months, foolishly in the last three months before high school ended which meant five months until everyone went off to college. She was a musical genius and was going to Juilliard to figure out which instrument she was the best at to eventually join the New York Symphony Orchestra and then eventually teach at Juilliard herself; I didn’t know what I was going to do tomorrow.
Ana called me 'boyfriend.' Not having had one before, she used it just so she could hear herself say it. She knew the trouble with my name, how long it was, how everybody called me something different. When I got grumpy, she’d sneak around behind me and whisper in one ear then the other, “Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart.” Sometimes just the familiar, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” but it made me smile either way. With her fingers, she’d tap out each name on my collarbone, sending chills down my spine, and keeping beat like I was one of her many instruments. A piano under her fingers, a cello between her legs.
I thought I loved her. But maybe it was just the idea of her.
She was in my room one night. My parents weren’t worried about us being alone together and Ana would frequently spend the night in my room with the door closed. I was massaging her hands from a long day of playing and she was massaging my feet. We made a nice uppercase H with our bodies. We weren’t talking as we had already exhausted our topics of interest but we sat in silence and liked it that way.
Her big, brown eyes looked up from her lap where one hand was rubbing my foot while the other hand was being rubbed by me. I knew what that look meant. And with a small yank of my ankle, she pulled me close to her. I kissed her because I knew that’s what she wanted. She stood me up, my outstretched leg getting between us, so she could pull me closer. I was maybe an inch shorter than her so she looked down at me just slightly while we kissed.
I kissed her lips and then her cheek then her ear then her neck as I made my way around her until I was holding her from behind. She fit well into me. She closed her eyes and rested her head against mine.
We were cheek-to-cheek, so close I felt like her soft, peach-fuzzy cheeks were mine. That her luscious brown hair that smelled like papaya shampoo was my hair. That her smooth and necklace-bedazzled décolletage was where my rough and hairy chest was. I ran my hands gently across her breasts, looking down from my where my chin rested on her shoulder, and it was like they were mine. She drew in a breath as I held them like prizes. I reached down to her flat stomach. My hands felt like they were discovering new places on a map. My arms around her middle slowly moved up and down with her breathing. My hands rested further down on the button of her jeans. Her head was still back, leaning on me, and her eyes still closed. Mine couldn’t be more open. I looked down at her body and realized I had found what I had been looking for since birth.