My father was a distant and short-tempered man who talked to us, when he bothered to, in a constant, vicious stream of curses, commands and complaints, in both English and Spanish. He wanted my brother Marcos and me to be men in the way that he thought a man should be: as cold, hard and unbreakable as granite, and he would tolerate nothing else. I found that out the hard way when I was just seven, a scene I went back to many times after my life had ended.
"Papa," I called one autumn afternoon, running up to him where he sat on the sagging, tattered sofa in our apartment's tiny living room. He was watching a football game and glaring at the screen as though he would personally like to kill the entire opposing team.
"Papa!" I said, breathlessly waving a paper in front of him, "Look! Escribí un poema! I wrote a poem!"
He flicked the TV off and turned to me, still wearing the murderous scowl.
"What did you say?"
I held out the paper wordlessly, beginning to understand on some level what I had done wrong.
He grabbed it from me and tore it to shreds without even glancing at it.
"Poems are girl stuff!" he said, and some other things which I would rather not repeat. "Don't you ever show me anything like this again! Do you understand?"
It was a relatively small thing, as these incidents went, but I think that was the point when I became a total lost cause.
I tried to please my father by following my brother's example, so when Marcos said, "Just try it," handing me a beer one night when I was still in junior high, I did. I was a big drinker, but I also did other stuff, too. I tried a lot of the drugs that Marcos bought and sold. I had spent my childhood being teased and tortured by Marcos and his friends, and I would do anything if it meant I didn't have to feel like an outsider.
Marcos was in one of the Los Angeles gangs, so, when I got old enough, it was a given that I would join as well. It never really occurred to me not to. I ended up dropping out of high school my junior year, which was a lot better than most of the guys I knew had done. I had gotten that far in the first place because my mother wanted me to stay in school, but that was the year she got sick and died, so I figured it didn't really matter anymore.
I helped Marcos with his business, got in a lot of fights, and stole anything I could reach. Seriously, I lifted more iPhones than you would believe.
All I can say for myself is this: I never killed anybody. I guess I would have, eventually, if I'd lived long enough. But I never did. Someone killed me first.
Watching your own funeral is really creepy, just standing by as everyone you know gathers around your grave and tries to remember you. But there is a dark curiosity about it too. I watched my father especially closely. How would he act, faced with my death like this? I had this feeling, like, maybe if he cried just a little for me, my life would have meant something. Except I watched him the whole time and he didn't shed a tear. My father never cried, so what made me think that he would start now? He just stared straight ahead in stony silence, just like the granite that a man should be.
Marcos wasn't at the funeral because he'd been convicted just last month and gotten eight years in prison for dealing drugs. When he heard about my death, he just let his shoulders droop and put his face in his hands for a second.
"Damn it, Angel," he whispered, "You idiot."
I think he felt guilty because he wasn't there to protect me, not that he really could have done anything in the end. All the guys that Marcos and I used to hang around with were more solemn at the funeral than I'd ever seen them back when I was alive. Most wouldn't meet each other's eyes. A couple of them started to plan retaliation before the ceremony even ended. But no one cried.
God, what kind of a person has no one to cry at his funeral?
Then, just as everyone was leaving, I saw her, hurrying toward the place where I was buried. No one noticed her; they just passed her in the other direction and left, mostly in silence, leaving their memories of me behind. But she came closer.
It was like a dream when you see someone you hardly know. I recognized her, just barely, but it had been almost four years! Why was she here? I didn't even know her name, just that I was pretty sure it started with an L. Laura? Lily?
Finally, she stopped and gazed down at my unimpressive gravestone, and she stood there like that for a long time, just looking.
I had met her in my second year of high school, before I stopped going. I had known her for all of one day, and then never seen her again. It was a big school, and L.A. is a big city; it's way too easy to lose people.
It was lunch period, and I was smoking out in the parking lot that day with a couple of other guys. She was sitting about thirty feet away on an old wooden bench, tears just pouring down her face. For some reason, I couldn't stop looking at her.
"Why you staring, Angel?" my friends teased.
The truth was that seeing her crying that way reminded me of my mother. It was weird because they looked nothing alike. This girl had fair skin and long blond hair in a braid. She was short and slender, too, probably weighed 90 pounds, if that.
"Go talk to her if you're gonna stare like that," said the guy next to me, who was on the wrestling team and who had always had at least two girlfriends at once since seventh grade.
"Yeah, talk to her," someone else chimed in, "See what she's got to cry about."
I was no good at talking to girls, especially when they were crying, but I didn't have much of a choice, did I?
I passed the joint to the wrestler guy, who whistled as I walked over there, which made her look up and wipe her eyes. I sat next to her.
"What do you want?" she asked, voice trembling.
I stared down at the bench rather than meet her gaze. The wood was all scarred and the paint was mostly peeled off. I wondered how many kids had sat on this bench over the years to cry about how miserable the world was. I bet it was a lot.
We both sat there until I couldn't stand the silence, knowing that my friends were watching.
"What are you crying like that for?" I asked, finally.
"It's none of your business," she said, sliding away from me a little and wiping her face again with her sleeve.
I lifted my eyes and looked over at her. Her face was all blotchy and she had big green eyes, circled with red from crying.
"I just wondered," I said.
"What do you want?" she said again, trying to sound angry, but only succeeding in sounding hurt and lonely.
"Don't you have any lunch?" I asked her.
She shook her head.
"I didn't bring money, okay?" she snapped at me.
I stood up, "Okay."
I shoved my hand into the pocket of my jeans and came up with four crumpled dollar bills.
"Here," I said, shoving them into her hand, and then I walked back to my friends.
"What'd she say?" they asked.
I shrugged, "Nothing."
The class I had after lunch was chemistry, which was something I had absolutely no time for. I usually ditched that class, but on the day I talked to the girl, I went because I didn't have anything else I wanted to do. The teacher was going over some complicated homework which I hadn't done and I was bored before a minute was up.
I took out a notebook and opened to a blank page. I was thinking about that girl I'd met, and why she might have been crying. And, without thinking, I started writing.
It didn't fully register until I was done that I'd written a poem. I read it over, kind of amazed that something like this had actually come out of my head. It was sort of a love poem, but not really. Love poems are lame and unoriginal, and this was different. Besides, you can't write a love poem about someone whose name you don't even know. But this poem was definitely about her. It was for her.
I ripped the page out of my notebook, folded it, and put it in my pocket. My father or Marcos would make my life hell if they found it, but I couldn't just get rid of it. It was important to me somehow.
So I carried it around, in my pocket and in my head, for the rest of the day. I was waiting after school for the bus when I saw her again. I was sure I'd heard someone say her name at some point, but I still couldn't remember it. Lauren? Lisa?
We saw each other in the same moment and each of us started moving toward the other so that we met halfway.
"Hey," I said. A real gift for words.
"You're Angel, right?" she asked.
"Thanks for the money today," she said, and made to walk away.
"Wait!" I blurted, and then my hand was in my pocket and I had the poem out. What was I doing? Before I could think too much, I said, "This is for you," and waited just long enough for her to take it, looking surprised, before I hurried off in the other direction.
I couldn't believe it was me who had just done that! God, she probably thought I was such a creep! What had I been thinking? At least this way no one back home would find that poem, right?
I told myself that's why I did it and tried not to think about it anymore. And I didn't. I saw her a couple more times just around school, but we never talked again, or even made eye contact. The next year I dropped out, and I hadn't remembered that day since.
But now here she was, the same little green-eyed blonde, standing over my grave and gazing at it like it was something special.
"Angel Cardenas," she murmured, reading my name off of the headstone and laying her hand on it. It was hot outside, so the stone would be warm, I thought, although I couldn't touch it for myself. I could just watch and look back at my life and wonder.
I looked on in amazement as she slowly took a worn piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolded it. Was that what I thought it was? I drifted closer to check. Yes, she still had my poem after all this time, almost a love poem, but not really. We both read it again, together, and it was still crazy to think I had come up with it.
"I'm going to keep this forever, Angel," she said, folding it back up delicately. She was looking down at my headstone and I wished she would look at me instead, although she wouldn't be able to see me.
"You were there when I needed help," she continued, her soft voice rippling through the fabric of my entire life, "Thank you so much."
Then her green eyes filled with tears that fell onto my headstone, drops like jewels. She hurriedly put the poem away so that her tears wouldn't ruin the paper, and cried for a few moments, but, this time, she was crying for me.
I wished so much that I could reach out and touch her shoulder, ask her name, tell her how much it meant to me that she was here. But being dead means you've lost your chance to do things like that, so I stayed close to her until her last tear fell and she slowly left the graveyard.
God, what was her name? Never mind, it didn't really matter. What mattered was that I felt a great sense of relief, because my life had made some meaningful mark on the world. I had actually accomplished something during my time on Earth. One little thing, for one person, but, for me, that was enough. I had done one thing right down here. That was all I wanted to know. Now I'm ready to move on, to find out whatever comes next.