‘Hunger’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Three months after the breakup, you meet Paquito. Well, at first his name isn’t Paquito. It’s RightNow95.
You’d spent the day in bed crying, listening to Taylor Swift’s Folklore album like it was going out of style. You’d tried everything to regain your bearings after the breakup. You’d resumed counselling and signed up for yoga class at two separate studios. You’d said yes to every single social invitation you received until the lockdown happened. If you could still work at Wendy’s, heck you’d even take an extra shift.
You’re not into drugs, you don’t drink, and while you’re a cook in a fast-food restaurant, you tell yourself it’s just to pay the bills until you become a real chef. You stay away from fatty foods, and yet you found yourself going so far as to buy it one day—a ganja-infused double-chocolate brownie made with rich Trinidad cocoa. You’d bought it from the nice lady with the gap tooth in the green market. Just a small piece, she’d said. A tiny morsel of the rich, pudgy square would do. You ate the whole thing. No effect. Nothing. Not a damn thing! This is how you discover that you fall into that select category of People For Whom Ganja Is Useless.
Tonight, it’s only 7.11pm, and already you have to make a mental note to visit Massy Stores tomorrow to pick up more beer. The last crate is finished. It stands next to the fridge looking like the emptiest thing in the world. Then, the Grindr notification bleeps.
Someone with a profile called RightNow95 is clearly not promising. Though not unusual in a country where people are still funny about these things, a blank profile is nonetheless disappointing, even if it holds out the suggestion of something quick, without frills—a casualness that borders on carelessness or sweet surrender. The thought of another hour alone listening to Taylor moan about cardigans is too much. You look at the black space where RightNow95’s face should be and say to yourself: who knows what lies behind the emptiness? A little chat won’t hurt. You send a terse greeting in the universal opener to modern love:
There’s an instant reply:
what you doing?
Then you both go through the checklist: age, height, hair colour, eye colour, body type, preferred sexual position, penis size; can you host, in the closet, out or discrete…
Finally, you reach the make-or-break point.
pic? RightNow95 asks.
Post-breakup depression and the extra hours of running have reshaped your body. And for this, at least, you have something to be thankful for. You’re surprised by just how pleased you are with your own image. You take the photo in the bathroom mirror wearing nothing but jeans. You’re not a jock, not a twink, but you’ve got this twunk thing going. You hit send.
RightNow95’s swift reply: nice
He sends his photo. What. The. Fuck. You almost drop the phone. He’s hot. Absolutely hot. He’s in jeans too. He’s got tattoos. Given his Latino good looks, you assume he’s Venezuelan. A stolen image, surely? You vacillate between being impressed—his dreamy gaze into the camera, his washboard abs, his tussled hair—and being convinced this is some kind of sham, some dodgy catfish operation. But the image has done its work. You exchange numbers. He tells you his location. Shit, he’s literally down the street. He can come over now. Right now.
Your face looks a mess. Your hair looks a mess. Your clothes look a mess. You try to slick your curls back with water from the bathroom tap. You decide the curls aren’t falling with that effortless, uncultivated, everyday chaos you like. Start from scratch. You have a shower; let the water run over your head, as if being baptised; let the wet hair fall however it will as you dry off and put on another pair of blue jeans and a white t-shirt. Then you switch to black jeans and a black t-shirt. You’re still not convinced you look attractive enough compared to him, but perhaps some extra daubs of cologne will help cloak your shortcomings. You guzzle Listerine. And then the thought creeps into your head. Is it too soon? Is this all too soon?
You remember the articles you read yesterday. ‘What to do to get over betrayal,’ ‘Learning how to love again,’ ‘The secret to being single and happy.’ One article, ‘How to move on after a breakup,’ listed five things to do and not to do. Fucking around was on the list of things NOT to do.
‘It will be weird; you will feel guilty,’ author Laura Carmichael of Modern Living observed. Not to mention the usual fears about STDs. Shit, what about Covid? And, well, what if this really is a catfish operation, and some bandit wants to rob you? In Trinidad, not unheard of.
You decide to stick to your practice of meeting people only in public. When he arrives, we’ll go to the bar around the corner. That way, you decide, there will be witnesses to your interaction—at least the first part of it. There’ll be people who could later say, ‘Yes, Officer, we did see the unkempt little twunk with the wet curly hair and the other fella who looked like Juan Guaido. They came to the bar, had a few Caribs, then left.’
You could also text your best friend, Finn—always working late in the engineering firm around the corner—the details known to you thus far: Mr Guaido’s mobile number and his Grindr profile (though it has no details and could easily be deleted). Another message comes before you complete the thought—
He’s really outside.
Keys. Wallet. You also pick up a tattered pack of spearmint gum. You pause at the door and send Finn that text with the skeleton details. Then, just so he’s not caught off guard, you decide to tell the guy waiting outside your gate that you’d like to go to the bar around the corner first.
He’s taller than you expect. His hair is slightly longer, sleeker and shinier, like an Instagram model’s. In fact, he looks like a walking Instagram post with his luxury-brand joggers, fashionable t-shirt. All that’s missing is some idyllic background like Mykonos, the California wine country or the beaches of Mallorca. Not the subdued, sleepy streets of Woodbrook where sometimes late at night, sad prostitutes come out to get customers. As you and Mr Instagram walk to the bar, he smiles and tells you his name is Paquito and reveals a set of teeth vined with braces. The chaplet of tiny metallic brackets glisten under the streetlight. This surprise, which at once makes him appear vulnerable and vain, endears him to you. As if reading your mind, he says:
I like your curly hair
The bar’s a hole in the wall with a jukebox that’s never worked. Beer posters are plastered everywhere. There are no windows. Large doors open onto the pavement. The waitress says no one without a mask is allowed. You realise you’ve forgotten yours, though Paquito has his. You quickly turn around and exit. You’ve no problem with this abrupt end to the public segment of the date; at least the waiter saw you both, and too besides, there was a man on a bike who cycled past slowly, looking at you a little too intently, before you both turned the corner back to your place.
Paquito’s carrying a navy Jansport knapsack, like the one your half-Venezuelan cousin, Felix, used to carry years ago. And for a moment, this coincidence makes you remember how Felix would often use his knapsack to keep his slingshot, his sneakers, maybe a pack of Ovaltine biscuits. Paquito uses his for the gym, but you can’t help but go down the road of wondering what else might be inside. Let me take your bag, you say, as you shut the door behind you, once you’re both indoors. He gladly relinquishes it. It’s light—as light as your mood has now become. He sits on the sofa, waiting patiently for you.
After the sex, which renews your faith in the healing power of the carnal act, you spend a torturously long time telling him in broken Spanish about yourself, how you’ve been looking to improve your Spanish for a long time now and maybe you could practice each other’s mother tongue—though you really hope this involves tonguing of another kind. You don’t feel bad or guilty at all. You feel as if for a moment a world of troubles has been shrunk to just two spent bodies lying side by side.
Later, with a contented look, Paquito grins as you walk him to the gate. He stops suddenly and hugs you. He starts to say something in broken English about having a really good time, then he pauses, pulls out his phone and starts typing a note for Google to translate:
please can i have some cash to buy groceries i’ve no food and
need oats and eggs
Of course. There had to be a catch. It was all too good from the start—too easy, too fast. How could you be so naïve? To think a 10 would be interested in a six, with your grey hairs, scrawny chicken chest, average face. Twunk my ass. Still, a part of you begins to feel sorry for him, to think how desperate a person must be to beg for cash for food, to use their—your mind wanders back to the sex, then quickly flits to what you would do if you, like him, were a foreigner in a strange land who had fled a country ruled by a dictator. If he was desperate, what were you? You had read of all the foreigners being robbed, murdered, exploited. Of dead Venezuelans found in cesspits. You don’t want to think of the stories of sex work and sex trafficking.
But one thing you know for sure: there is no way you are taking out your wallet to give this man cash. At the same time, you also know there is the possibility—as remote as it is—that this could just be a desperate man in need of food. This could simply be someone for whom all options have run out. Yes, he’s wearing all these brand-name clothes, but could they be cheap imitations? Should it even matter what he is wearing? Should you give him the benefit of the doubt?
You work out a compromise: you will give him a few groceries you’ve gathered in your pantry (before the pandemic, you had been zealously preparing for a disaster for months, to the chagrin of your ex-boyfriend, Dexter). But even as you formulate this plan and tell Paquito to wait a moment, you’ll be right back, something like hurt bubbles over in you. You could never work out how to hide your feelings. Dexter always saw through you too. Paquito says:
lo siento, i should have not asked never mind, tranquilo
And you see what looks like shame on Paquito’s face. No, you tell him. Stay here. Back inside you grab baked beans, tuna, sardines. You add a four-pack of caramel popcorn Dexter had bought months ago and never ate. You add some low-calorie fruit juice Dexter also bought which you hated (he thought you were getting too fat; what an asshole). To the bag, you include a half-dozen eggs. There are two big packs of Ovaltine biscuits, so you grab one. You keep one back because you still like to eat them; they comfort you, remind you of those days in the country with Felix.
You go outside and hand Paquito the bag. His knapsack is already open, like a dog’s mouth expectantly waiting. Still, you find that you are not as upset as you should be. You’re disappointed in yourself, but you also see a sad look on his face, which is suddenly not that handsome after all. You feel, maybe hope, that something has passed between you both—some admission of vulnerability that eclipses what has actually passed between you and this stranger. You find yourself hugging him, and for a moment, his body relaxes in your arms, which makes you feel good, feel that maybe the magic of the whole night wasn’t entirely a mirage and maybe, maybe, you are wanted after all. He says:
me, you, viernes beberemos
Drinks Friday? You think not. Yes, you say aloud, nodding as if convincing yourself. You wonder if you will ever see him again.
You remember that day on the beach many years ago, when your family would spend every August in Toco. You would leave under cover of night, when it was cooler, and the moon shone over the surface of the sea just beyond the winding road as Father navigated the darkness.
That August, your cousin, Felix, joined the annual ritual with his older brother Ricardo, whom you didn’t like because Ricardo would only talk to your sisters. One day on the beach, you were exploring the length of the small bay, crossing over rocks, when Felix discovered a giant gash in the cliff. It tunnelled, darkly, through the land to a hidden cove.
Smooth white stones lined this cove. It seemed filled only with exotic creatures unknown to man. There was a small stream that emptied into the sea, its water cutting across a sandy area of the beach, making fans like tiny deltas. You remember Felix telling you the names and uses of various plants and creatures, sometimes speaking to you in Spanish and at one point boasting how his Spanish was way better than yours. Then, he abruptly takes off his trunks, flashing you. Let’s take a dip, he says, mischief in his eyes.
You had seen your father naked before, but the fact of Father’s maleness had never really registered. It was like any other piece of furniture back at home in the city: reliable, functional, taken for granted. But Felix is so different yet so similar. What shocks you is the surprisingly vulnerable pink tip of it, how it perfectly matches the pink of his lips. And now you wonder if all males have such hidden patterns and secrets, including the men you sometimes stare at every August on the beach with their goatees and fluorescent board shorts. Do you like them? You wonder. He makes you wonder.
Perhaps there was something about the hotness of the little wooden house amid the sleepy trees. Perhaps it was the wall of sound that surrounded the house—the crickets chirping, the seagulls crying, the wind rustling through the broad leaves of the breadfruit trees. Perhaps it was the gentle way the house exhaled, the bones of its structure crackling and contracting as the night cooled. Or perhaps it was just how close Felix liked to be to you, the nearness of his hot limbs, the soapy smell of his flesh. Maybe it was all of this that made you fall into a spell that same night after skinny dipping with him. Maybe it was the way he casually touched your thigh as he lay next to you on the mattress on the floor whispering a story in the cosy room. Maybe it was the story he told you, in graphic detail, about having sex with a girl named Jasmine—a girl you’re not even sure exists—as he takes your cock in his hands. You haven’t even noticed how hard you’ve become until you register the shock of his hands, hands that are the same as yours yet not the same. Fingers firm yet compliant, soft yet sovereign. You feel a small ooze of fluid pearl at the tip of your dick. And, as he whispers and whispers and whispers into your ear, his tongue so close, you feel something building in, some wave about to crash, but he stops just at that point when the truth would be too messy.
It never happens again. You never speak to Felix about the night he stroked your dick; he never mentions it either. It is as if it never happened. But you know that for you, it has changed everything. And while it may not have meant the same to him, some primal bond has nonetheless been roused between you that only comes with transgression through a taboo. It is something you will never really forget as you both move on from that August—you studying hard at the Hospitality Institute to achieve your dreams of becoming a chef in a Michelin-star restaurant; Felix immersing himself in life in Paramin, becoming a jab jab, then a blue devil, liming with the fellas in the village, starting a tiny business selling jewelry made from seeds.
Dexter messages you on Friday. You already know what he wants even before you read the message. He wants to pick up a few things he’s left at the apartment.
You’ve already assembled his things, have them in a neat pile on the table near to the door. These last few months, these items have been riling you, each taking you back to a time when he hadn’t yet dumped you for a younger model named Dwayne, whom he met at the gym.
There is the lamp with the weird lampshade that he thought was ‘youthful’ and ‘arty’ and bought without consulting you, placing it on your nightstand. Then, the giant paperweight he brought home from the law firm he worked at even though it was the ugliest thing you ever saw—some kind of mutant turtle. There was his old Igbo mask which scared the fuck out of you at nights. And an ancient CD player with an equally ancient CD collection (he had a weakness for Celine Dion, Luther Vandross and various opera singers like Jessye Norman and Kiri Te Kanawa).
As you wait for him to arrive, staring at these spiteful relics, you find yourself glimpsing at the pack of Ovaltine biscuits. You text Finn, tell him all about Paquito and what happened that night. The reply is quick:
What?! No way, that’s super sketchy. Avoid. Avoid like the plague…
You put down the phone. You munch an Ovaltine biscuit. You’ll get started on dinner soon. At least that’s one thing you will always be able to do no matter what. Cook yourself some love.
But first you find yourself browsing Facebook. Your feed is filled with stuff your ex-classmates from the Hospitality Institute are doing.
Someone’s experimenting with macarons. Another is trying out all sorts of fancy cakes and pastries. The avalanche of sweetbreads and savoury rolls paints a picture that brings on a sick realisation: other people are moving on with life, making plans, sharing their hopes and dreams.
You are about to scroll on to something else when you see one of your friend’s most recent photographs, a throwback to a few months ago, apparently taken at a hair salon on Alfredo Street. In the photo is Paquito, standing with a hair dryer.
In this moment, the phantom of Paquito has become real. In the caption your friend complains about not having her hair done in months. Paquito is not tagged, not named. But at least you know for sure now, he’s a hairdresser. Maybe he’s legit. Maybe he was truly in dire straits. Hairdressers, too, are now shut down because of the pandemic. Could it really be? Was it really real?
You begin to text him. You wonder what to say. No, don’t. Don’t bother. You don’t want to seem desperate. You browse dating websites for advice on seeming cool. ‘Definitely don’t message too early,’ Lucinda Cocklehurst of Good Company says. It’s been three days, so that’s okay, you think.
‘If you’ve previously set a tentative plan, it’s okay to bring that up,’ counters Fred Fox in Glitz and that line alone is the validation you need. He did say Friday, you think. Maybe he could really help you with your Spanish? You have wanted to learn more after all. You remember reading how Spanish is the world’s most popular language, except for Mandarin. You pull up Google and start researching random Spanish phrases:
How was your day? ¿Que tal tu día?
What are you up to? ¿Que piensas hacer?
I want your cock. Quiero tu polla.
No, don’t. You put the phone down and start preparing dinner. Get a grip, you say. This is the real world; things don’t happen like this. Hustlers don’t become husbands. Do you think this is Pretty Woman?
And fuck Michelin stars and macarons and puff pastries; tonight you just want some thick steak fries and a hamburger. You gather your ingredients, moving through your small but well-stocked kitchen. Your parents have been helping you with groceries, the same groceries you handed over the other night so magnanimously. Funny how after everything, you’ve reverted back to where you started. Mother and Father. You shudder at the thought of moving back home. As you slice into an onion, Dexter arrives. He’s still got keys, you remember with annoyance.
The conversation bristles the way conversations do when they occur between two people who have recently broken up. In such conversations, ‘Hello’ might as well be ‘You have some gall showing your face here, you bastard;’ ‘Would you like to have a seat?’ becomes ‘I bought this couch, bitch, and I am keeping it;’ ‘Well, it’s getting late’ means ‘Get the fuck out.’
Dexter has come from after-work drinks with the partners. In his shirt and tie, he veers from being sheepishly awkward to having a look of cool malice and spite like a senior corporate villain in a Michael Mann movie. He thanks you for gathering his things, slowly places them into the box he’s walked with and then gives you a reminder to send him the cash you owe him for the last electricity bill he had unilaterally taken it upon himself to pay some time before the breakup. Sure, you say, wishing you could sign a cheque right now but secretly relishing the thought of never repaying him. Then, he notices you’re cooking.
‘How’s the dream of becoming a chef going these days?’
For a moment you’re not sure if there’s mocking sarcasm in his voice. Is he now, after everything that he has done to you with that little gym rat, mocking your dream? You always felt he looked down on your goals, with his corporate law background; that he always felt they were too menial; you were too menial. Or is his question mocking the way life has a way of bringing people down from their dreams? Is he commiserating? Either way, something tastes bitter. You are about to say, ‘What the fuck is it to you?’ Instead, you say, ‘It’s Friday and it’s getting late and Dwayne must be waiting.’
Dexter has a look of disappointment which almost hurts you as much as everything else, as though, with your words, you’ve put the final nail in the coffin of something.
It’s really and truly over.
When he leaves, you put a burger patty on the fire; the oil spits and spatters violently as the raw meat sizzles. The nearby toaster heats up, and the sesame seed buns get crisp. You top the patties with huge slices of cheese and throw on mushrooms. On the bun, you bathe everything with mayonnaise and ketchup and mustard. You open a bottle of pickles. You add the steak fries, which you’ve cooked in the oven despite your better judgment, and slather them with garlic sauce. And then you sit and watch your Pollock masterpiece on the plate. Despite how hungry you are, you can’t eat. You feel it coming.
You pick up your phone. Against your better judgment, but with a distress that feels familiar, you send a message to Paquito and await the reply:
Come over tonight, Ven esta noche,
I cooked a meal for you. te preparé una comida.
About an hour later, around 9pm, Paquito’s reply comes. He says he’s in Chaguanas but is on his way back to Woodbrook and could come over later to eat something.
You quickly fry a second burger. You need more rings, so you slice into an onion. As you slice, the knife slips; you nick your finger. Out of a very small cut, a river of blood flows and flows, and you wonder how so much blood could come from so tiny a wound. In the bathroom you wash your hands and apply a bandage, look at yourself in the mirror and doubt what you see is really standing before you.
When the second burger is done, you put all the food away in the microwave.
Towards midnight, you are ravenous, but you decide to give it one more hour.
You wait. He might still come, you think.
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