"You'll never know unless you try." This coming from your friend Jorge, one of the lucky ones. Ever since he did it, you've quietly observed his metamorphosis from the sidelines: the bright fingernail polish, the rainbow pins decorating his backpack, the braces-bound smile that never takes a day off. He's emerged from his cocoon but forgot to take you with him. "Just look at me."
You yearn to say those words too, breathe them in like your mother's perfume, taste them on your lips like warm horchata on a snowy day. Just look at me.
No one's looked at you in a while. Not the way you want them to, anyway.
You lie there on your bed and stare at the glow-in-the-dark stars blanketing your ceiling, the relics of a bygone childhood. As a kid, you used to close your eyes and vanish under your comforter and wish, on those neon green stars, for impossible things—a pet dog, a nicer sister, the ability to talk about girls the way the other boys in your class did and to really mean what you said. When did things get so complicated?
You inform Jorge that, by the way, he bungled the expression. He's on speaker phone, just in case your parents are eavesdropping, in case they can find out that way, without you having to tell them. You know it won't happen, can hear the television down the hall and the sound of their laughter bouncing off the walls. But you can dream.
With a soft sigh, you correct your friend: "No, I'll never try unless I know."
Because there are so many things you don't yet know. How much your mother will cry, her mascara smudging as the tears flow like a broken fire hydrant on a summer day, or if she'll cry at all. Where your father's hands will go—around your back or by his side or to his belt. Whether your little brother will still ask you to drive him places, and whether your sister will still ignore you.
You have another friend, Martín. He isn't one of the lucky ones. You and Martín and Jorge used to be the three amigos, before Martín took that phrase to heart: "You'll never know unless you try." Now he lives with his uncle on the other side of town and takes two buses to get to school, waking up before the sun does while the barrio slumbers, dreaming of a better future.
Martín's father owns the laundromat you and your mother used to visit every weekend. You stopped accompanying her after he disowned your friend, told her you were going to devote your Saturday mornings to studying. Your voice shook when you said it because you hate lying, and you couldn't look her in the eye, so you gazed at the ceiling and made a wish. But you're a C student, so she simply smiled and told you how proud she was, gathered your unwashed clothes and left. On Saturdays now, you stay at home and launder your own dirty secrets.
Jorge scoffs and says, "Now you're just creating a paradigm." You combat the urge to correct him again, and somehow you manage to keep the word "paradox" to yourself like a little treasure. He speaks with the conviction of an expert, claims that someday he's going to write a book called The Guide to Being Yourself. This coming from a D student.
But you can't find any faults in the title. Because if there's one thing Jorge is now, it's himself.
He's told you his story before. He'll tell anyone who'll listen. How he sat at the dining table two months ago, the beginning of January, and, halfway through the meal, clinked his spoon against his bowl of birria, cleared his throat, and then followed through on his New Year's resolution. His parents blinked with open eyes and closed mouths, silent as sentries. When he finished telling them, it was his older brother who said, mouth half-full of beef stew, "Yeah, and the sky is blue. Now pass the pepper." And when Jorge dropped his spoon and laughed, his parents smiled and embraced him in their arms. You've said it before and you'll say it again: Lucky.
"Thing is, my parents knew," he tells you now. You haven't heard this part of the story before. "They knew the whole time. They were just waiting until I felt comfortable enough to tell them. Until I found myself."
The words are like a snake charmer's song, forcing you to poke your head out of its hiding spot. You wonder if it's possible, if your parents have been watching you with a secret checklist, crossing off boxes when you flick your wrist the wrong way or stand with your hands on your hips or stare at your sister's armada of cosmetics in the bathroom for too long. Part of you thinks maybe that wouldn't be so bad.
Sighing, you close your eyes and try to imagine yourself several years from now. Your mind conjures the image of a bookstore, which you think is a mistake because you haven't been in one of those for years. Still, you wander through a row of novels and comic books and magazines in search of some truth. What you find at the end of the path is a memoir. You recognize the title. You recognize the author's photo and name on the dust jacket in neon green lettering: Jorge Riviera.
And that's when you realize this vision is false.
Because you both know your English grade is higher than Jorge's. And that makes you think: If that book is going to be written, if it's going to make a difference to all the people like you in the world, it might as well be done right. Why shouldn't it be you who does it? After all, you're the one who knows the difference between a paradigm and a paradox.
In the living room, your brother's voice has overshadowed the television. He's recounting something funny that happened during lunch today. Your sister interjects every few seconds to add some missing details. You hear the smile in your mother's voice when she asks, "And what happened next?"
When you open your eyes, you decide to follow through on your vision. Jorge is still yakking, still trying to convince you, unaware that you're already up and walking towards the door. You decide to leave him like that, his voice rising from the nightstand, so you know you'll have something—someone—to return to. Just in case.
With each step forward, you think about Martín.
The doorknob is cold in your fingers. Another burst of laughter erupts when you totter into the hallway. You wonder how long it will last. Hesitantly, you turn off the light and before you close the door, you take one look over your shoulder, at the stars on the ceiling, bright as the future, and make a wish.