Hector groaned as he tried to straighten his middle finger. It was green and bent and fat at the knuckles, looking more like a jalapeño than an actual part of his hand.
“Bro, that looks terrible,” Carlo said, sucking in breath from the sides of his mouth. “I hate to say it, bro, but you need to go to the hospital.”
“I’m fine,” Hector said, dismissively. “They prolly wouldn’t have me do anything but put ice on it anyway.” He sat on the couch, pretending to relax—like this was no big deal, not even concerned—but all he could think about was the throbbing in his finger. And how his coach was going to kill him. And how he couldn’t go to the hospital because Ma just got a new job—a good job with benefits and everything—but their health insurance wouldn’t kick in for another 60 days.
But Carlo was one of those cats who was stubborn in all the good ways. He saw the tension in his friend’s jaw, noticed that Hector didn’t even crack a smile when he joked about his ex. Carlo was perceptive. And empathetic as hell, even though most guys don’t want to be. So he wouldn’t let it go; he wouldn’t let his best friend sit here in pain.
Carlo grabbed his keys and Hector’s good hand. “Bro, get UP. Don’t make me break one of these sausages too.” Hector stood up reluctantly and silently, tilting his head in resignation. He knew he couldn’t win this battle. And more importantly, he knew he shouldn’t. “I’m taking you to my cousin’s house. She’s a nurse, bro, and she’ll give you a once over, no problem.”
“I’m fine bro, for real,” Carlo whined.
“Bitch, this is not optional,” Hector said, opening the door and pushing his friend through the jamb. “Get in the car.”
Hector walked heavy steps to the passenger seat of Carlo’s Kia and didn’t even bother buckling his seatbelt. He already knew he was fucked. He knew he would be out for the rest of season. He knew his team would lose in the first round of States without him on the mound. He knew he was letting everyone down. And he knew there was no way he could afford the medical treatment or surgery or physical therapy or whatever he’d need.
“Buckle up, you ain’t dying on my watch,” Carlo said, forever vigilant. You just knew he’d be a good dad someday. But definitely not any time soon because you would never catch your boy without adequate protection. Hell to the no.
“Alright, alright,” Hector said, pulling the strap across his body and clicking it into the fastener. “When did you get so bossy? Damn.”
“Sometimes you need a little bossing around, Hector. Don’t be mad at me, bro. I’m not the one who launched the ball from point blank range.”
“I know. FUCK, man.”
“You alright, bro?”
“I don’t know, Carlo,” Hector said, his voice straining. He wasn’t on the verge of tears, not because he was scared to cry, but because he was past that. He was in some new territory, some run-down emotional graveyard where all the good feelings go when they die.
He doesn’t even like basketball. He just did it to pass the time and keep his mind off the fact that Tatiana broke up with him. But one errant pass right into the middle finger of his pitching hand, and now homeboy is heartbroken and fingerbroken and just straight up fucked. What a week.
“You gonna be alright bro.”
“Says you,” Hector chirped back.
“Yup, and I’m the boss,” said Carlo. “We just established that.”
They pulled up to a small blue house with no driveway, then followed a walkway of gray slates that weaved up to two busted concrete steps.
“Pick your head up and stop moping around so you don’t trip on the steps.” Carlo said, as if barking orders was the only way he knew how to show love. “And we don’t have any money, so don’t bother suing us when you crack your teeth or twist an ankle on the way up.”
Carlo knocked twice on the screen door, then opened it and entered before waiting for a response. “Where you at, flaca?” he called.
“Downstairs, fea!” came the response.
“Stay here a minute,” Carlo said, barreling into the house with his shoes on, so familiar and comfortable with his drop-in invasion.
Hector stood in the entryway, looking around at the photos on the stairwell and the weird-ass Christian crosses and Jesus portraits and symbology that adorned every surface in the foyer. The photos suggested that the family living here had two parents, two daughters, and at one time two dogs, though from the crosses and folded up notes embedded in photo frames, it looked like the pups had long past.
“Real nice, Carlo. You make your injured friend stand at the door like a mannequin? Come in, come in,” Nani said, flicking on a light in the kitchen and summoning Hector in with a full arm circle.
He stepped into the kitchen tenderly, like he was cursed, like didn’t want to break anything else. Like any second, the place might blow up.
“Let me take a look at you. Hector, right?”
Hector nodded and extended his hand. Nani grabbed it by the elbow and slid her hand up to Hector’s palm.
“Do you talk, Hector?” she smiled at him, holding his wrist and his palm gently and making eye contact just glancingly before looking back down at his finger.
For a second, he thought it was a burst of pain from his finger. But what it really was is that Hector’s heart jumped into his brain, man. One of those AWOOOGA! moments you only see in cartoons. That look from Nani was heat!
She held his hand with care, differently than regular hand-holding, which—let’s all agree—is actually sweaty and crowded and bony and haphazard. Her fingers held the back of his hand while her thumb visited the knobby, green knot on Hector’s injured middle finger. Her touch felt like home.
“Look, I’m not a doctor,” Nani said. “But it looks broken to me.” It almost sounded like a joke. She was smiling. Maybe laughing, to be honest.
What was so funny to Nani wasn’t the obviousness of the injury. It wasn’t that her idiot cousin took his idiot friend here instead of to a doctor or the hospital. It was that this 18 year-old kid just licked his lips, tilted his head, and smiled at her like she was some kind of morena Aphrodite. Like something might happen here.
“You’re smiling [ ]” Unfortunately, the right punctuation for her half-asking, half-asserting tone doesn’t exist.
“I guess so,” Hector said, the corners of his mouth now drawing further and further into a fully committed smile, the way a humble little sunrise turns into the hottest day of the year.
For these past 90 seconds—and that’s all it was, even though it felt faster and slower at the same damn time—Hector had basically forgotten that Carlo even existed. His best friend. The person who brought him here. And vamoose! Not even on the radar. Some friend, huh?
“Why you smiling? You like broken fingers?” Carlo asked. “Because you got nine more and I could make your fucking day, bro.”
“No, I just thought of something funny,” Hector said.
“Oh, interesting,” Carlo replied, not doing his friend any favors. “Why don’t you share it with the class?”
At this exchange, Nani let go of Hector’s hand and walked to the other side of the kitchen, opened the freezer, and grabbed a bag of frozen peas.
“Want to know a secret?” Nani paused, then folded the frozen vegetable bag on the front and back side of Hector’s hand. “I don’t even eat frozen peas.”
With Nani now buzzing around her kitchen, no longer conducting electrical love vibes through Hector’s hormonal teenage soul, he sat down at the kitchen table and realization set back in. Things were no different now than when they got here. He still had a broken finger. He still ruined his baseball season. He was still a junior in high school with no girlfriend, no health care, and a best friend who gave him no slack whatsoever.
That his life was far from over. He wasn’t getting scouted or anything, so it’s not like he was going to play ball in college. He definitely wasn’t going to play pro ball. He’d be back in time for his senior season. Better that this bullshit accident happened this year than next year.
That Tatiana was kind of a drag. Yeah, she was fine, but what did they really have in common? She didn’t have any hobbies, his mom didn’t like her, and she spent all her time and money on lashes and nails and extensions. Did she like anything other than being fake pretty?
He sat down, leaning his head onto his good hand while resting the pea hand on her table. Cue the most devastating puppy dog eyes you’ve ever fucking seen.
He could have let out a string of curses. He could have screamed—in Spanish, English, or both—or just let out a guttural yawp. Damn, he could have at least let out a deep sigh.
But it was so much worse because he was totally silent.
Filling the space, Nani and Carlo talked on the other side of the room, catching up about inside family biz or whatever.
The story is about humanity and empathy, and people who know what to do when you’re feeling like absolute dog shit. Worse than dog shit. More like one of those little rat shit piles in a disgusting restaurant that just got sanctioned by the health department.
Hector didn’t want to be some kind of charity case. So he wasn’t going to sit here and whine about not having health insurance or a way to pay for his busted-ass finger. He was pretty much resigned to it hurting for weeks and growing back into a crooked, fat link of chorizo.
But sometimes you don’t have to say shit out loud if your face is saying it loud enough. And it’s not exactly fair or healthy to expect that people are going to read your mind or pick up on your hints, but Nani and Hector? They’re special.
The prince of tough love suddenly found a soft spot. “Hey. You’re gonna be fine, my man. Promise.”
Nani brought the real talk. “Look, Hector. I get it. Right now, this sucks. But we see this shit all the time. Are you kidding me? A broken finger?” she rolled her eyes and waved her hand dismissively. “What are you? Seventeen? This thing will take like a month to heal, and you’ll be completely and totally fine.”
Hector nodded and then let his head drop. He was probably hoping for a miracle, as if it would be worth God’s time to fix something so small and inconsequential. A middle finger.
Then, she grabbed his chin, pulled his head up, and looked him right in the eyes. She knew. As a nurse—fuck that, as a human—she knew that face meant he was scared and didn’t know what to do and was embarrassed and felt helpless over something so stupid like health insurance.
She’d seen it a million fucking times. Literally every single day. So she knew just what to do and just what to say. “Right now, there’s nothing else we can do, okay?”
Hector nodded, and she could see he was holding back—not tears, but not far from tears either.
“I promise—it’s not going to get worse overnight as long as you don’t do anything stupid. But tomorrow, come back here in the morning and I’ll take you over to a doctor. He’ll get you in a cast.”
Before Hector could protest or ask questions, Nani clarified. “It won’t cost you a thing, okay?”
You know when you didn’t realize something was weighing on you so heavily, and then it resolves itself, and it’s like you swallowed a mushroom in Mario Bros., and now you’re bigger and stronger and more resilient against Koopa Troopas? A moment like that.
“He owes me a favor. And then you’ll owe me a favor,” she said, breaking the grateful tension before Hector could even ask the pathetic question on his mind this whole time. How could I ever repay you?
“And in 6 weeks, my moms is gonna need the gutters cleaned or driveway repaved or whatever.”
Hector nodded. “Thank you so much, Nani, you have no idea,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” she said. “Now get out of my house.” She winked, but she also meant it.
Nani didn’t need this kid mistaking her kindness for some kind of invitation. She wasn’t looking for a teenage Romeo or to adopt a puppy. She was just being human.
And when you really think about it, how is that even a story?