Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hector and Juanita were on the patio ceiling, near the bare bulb that attracted the slowest, dumbest bugs. They'd been there all evening and had eaten so many mosquitoes they were full and lethargic, barely even trying, now, to catch the occasional ant that wandered past.

Beyond the patio, the rain fell softly and cicadas sang, lulling the two geckos into a quiet, pensive mood. They'd known each other since college and felt comfortable together, often sharing childhood memories and their thoughts on politics and celebrity gossip. While Hector tended to be easygoing and sentimental, Juanita wasted no time saying exactly how so-and-so failed to measure up to her high standards, standards she applied with Puritanical fervor to her own life. Although she was too well-mannered to tout herself as an example of perfection, Hector suspected she was deeply self-satisfied. He was surprised, then, when she cleared her throat and said the following:

"God, I feel like such a loser."


"A loser. I feel like a loser."

Hector thought for a second. Was she joking? Was she testing him--trying to see if he'd react in a way that was "too nice"? Oh well, he thought, he couldn't help it: "You're not a loser! What are you saying?"

"I told you, Hector--I. Feel. Like. A. Loser."

"Aw, Juanita, you're not a loser! Come here," he said, lifting a clammy arm.

Juanita stiffened. He should have known better. When she spoke, her words came out in a growl. "I don't need a hug, Hector. I just feel like a loser. Ok? That's all. I don't need a hug, I don't need anything, I just"--her voice cracked--"I just...I...I'm such a loser, Hector!" She began to cry, and Hector listened, aghast. "Juanita," he said softly, "what's this about? You, of all people, a loser? Come on."

"I know," she said, sniffling, "it's not like me to feel this way. That makes it worse, actually." She was quiet, and he waited for her to continue. "You know how I play the saxophone?" Hector nodded. "Well, it's embarrassing to admit, because, I don't know, it sounds so dumb, but Hector, it's all I think about." She paused. "It's all I want to do."

"I know, Juanita, you told me! And you played that song for me the other day--it was great! You're so talented!" Hector believed that, and he was glad to tell her, but doing so didn't seem to help: the corners of her mouth still trembled and her eyes were still wet with tears.

She sighed. "Thanks, Hector. It's just that sometimes it seems so pointless. I love playing the saxophone--I really, really love it--but I can't do only that for the rest of my life, can I? I spend so much time practicing. What for? I can't make a living playing the saxophone, I can't even take my student loan payments over from my parents. I'm thirty-five, Hector, and all I do is play the saxophone." She shook her head, disgusted. "Do you realize how much time and energy I've put into it by now? Playing the saxophone while lying on your stomach isn't exactly easy. And getting my lips around the mouthpiece--my god! I don't even want to think about it."

Hector's answer was ready: "Juanita, every time you play the saxophone you're adding to the beauty in the world. When you played for me the other day, my skin got all dry--I'm not kidding, that's how much it moved me. You're a good saxophonist, Juanita, and you need to keep playing. Do it for me at least!" Hector's voice cracked--he, too, was close to tears.

Juanita turned to look at him. "It's nice of you, Hector, but what you're saying doesn't help much. 'Adding to the beauty in the world'? Please. What I need to do is add money to my bank account. The fact is, if I'd put the same amount of effort into, say, freelance mosquito-baiting, just think where I could be now! I could have my own business. I could have an income and, instead of relying on other people, I could be helping them..."

They were both quiet. The rain had stopped, stars were peeking out from behind the clouds, and the air was fresh and cool. An enchanting smell--mosquito larvae?--drifted by on the breeze, and something stirred deep down in Hector. A strange feeling began to grow inside him. What was it? He wasn't sure, but he thought--no, he was certain--it was good. The feeling continued to grow, getting bigger and stronger every second, and as it did he thought about all the times he'd been understanding, sympathetic, conciliatory. His whole life, he'd been nice. Why? What good had it really done him or anyone else? The feeling was spreading to his fingertips and toes now, threatening to burst through his gray translucent skin, and when he turned to speak to Juanita he knew things would never be the same.

"You're right, Juanita, you've been acting like a loser. You want to keep playing the saxophone? Fine, go ahead--just don't complain that it's the only thing you do. It's time to get your head out of your butt and start doing something else--doing something productive, for god's sake. You know it, so do it! Stop moping--it's annoying." Juanita's eyes widened, and it looked like she might cry again. This time, though, Hector wasn't worried: he was tough now, and he would push her. With his help, he knew she'd be ok.