Oscar Cuevas

Essay Contest Winner


I. Megan

The sun and whipping wind worked together to keep our eyes narrowed and faces scowled as we sat in the bed of the pickup truck taking us to the lake, which we called the beach because it had sand. Megan sat next to me, furthest in the back, and she was leaned against the tailgate. I thought we were going much faster than we should've been, but back then, I still thought that when anyone but my mother or stepfather was driving. Megan was in her bathing suit underneath the towel wrapped around her shoulders, looking out into the dried fields of what was leftover from the wheat. Her hair was so blonde it was almost invisible in that bright sunlight, and the way it was blowing, it looked like she had an undulating halo around her large head, which looked even more unfortunately bare-skulled because of it. I couldn't stop myself from staring, even though a few times she made eye-contact with me and buckled her mouth into a smile before letting her gaze drift back off to the fields or the gravel road flying by beneath us. At first, I couldn't look away from her ears, which stuck out so far at the top that only the meanest of kids made fun of her for them. She looked like she had no eyebrows, and she had a mild cleft lip. The more I looked at her features, the more I noticed. He nose was uneven, with one nostril slightly larger than the other. She only seemed to manage to breathe through her mouth. Few of us in the neighborhood had straight teeth, but hers were crooked enough to stand out, and her voice always sounded as if she had been yelling for days before she spoke to you. She looked nothing like her brothers and sister, who were all solidly built, tough, some fat. She was thin, frail, sharply angular, and her skin was so pale it was almost translucent and you could see faint blue veins just below its surface. I watched her look up to the sky and close her eyes as if she were praying for a moment before we hit a pothole, and she jerked her head back down. She was the only one leaning on the tailgate, and I began to wonder how secure that tailgate was on such an old truck, which rattled everywhere. I started imagining it falling open, and her flying out, as if being sucked, and I worried about having to witness her big head breaking open on the road. I can't explain why it was then, and not any other such occasion that I had been around her, but I felt such deep sorrow for her, as if I was already starting to mourn her death. I looked back on her miserable, short life, and I felt grief. I hated her parents, her druggie mother with her lisp, and her drunk father with his long greasy hair. There were so many children in her family. She was neither one of the eldest or the youngest, and she was by far the most strange looking. I wanted to reach out and move her away from the tailgate, but I felt if I moved, I'd begin sobbing. I kept seeing her blood mixing with the dirt of the road and staining her fluorescently white hair, her pointed arms and legs being snapped and ground, the towel ripped away from her unsteady body. I imagined that all of her life was leading up to this moment, to a specific pothole, with this tailgate, on the way to this lake on this summer day, and I wondered why it should have been her, when it could've been anyone. It could've been someone beautiful, someone older, someone who'd lived a life through a face and body less wretched. I started to silently cry, and hid my face under my towel, thankful for the open wind pulling away most of the sound we made in the bed of that truck.


II. His Death

The only times my stepfather tried to bond with me overtly were when he was already drunk. He'd call me out to our sloping porch after midnight. Those calm Kansas nights sit in my head as a quiet burden, a place for his raspy voice, which was the most subdued then, his large, shirtless body laying over a quilt, as if already giving up. He'd talk to me about the call of an owl close by, the dogs chained in our yard, yanking themselves toward the sound of him, the black shapes of the trees against the starred sky, how one looked like the head of a gorilla—the silent beast I feared in him. These were the times I remember him touching me, placing a hand on my shoulder, fingers in my hair, patting my leg—fatherly gestures I had never experienced, and receiving them so rarely and at night made everything feel perverse. I regretted wearing shorts, or sitting too closely. A few times he told me he really did love me, because it was understood between us that he didn't, that my mother, the woman lumped on the couch, too numb to weep, was my only fleeting safety in the dark, decaying house. These hushed moments are what haunt me most now, more than his raging voice or tightly gripped fists—these times that were so cruelly filled with hope, when we hadn't known his death was barreling toward us, bringing with it our great, scattered collapse.


III. Free Lunch

An aunt I haven't seen in over a decade asks me, "What's up with your mom? I haven't talked to her in six months?" I say I don't know—we don't speak to each other much. I can't decide if I should tell her that mom only calls when she's drunk. Then she is in my head. Everywhere I look, I see some shard of my mother.
     I think back to the summer before we left—when we were taken away—and how we went to the nearly empty grade school building because they'd give free lunches to any kid that came. We knew about the lunches because one of the lunch ladies lived across the street. She used to go out walking every day, and she came past our house. She had shorn, dark hair, stone gray at the roots, and her hands always in her floral pockets. She led with her large stomach everywhere she went, as if she were following it. She walked right up to us in the yard and said, "You kids ought to come to the school for lunch this summer. It's free food. Just show up by eleven," and we did. Everyone in that small town knew about our mother, they just didn't address it directly in front of us.
     That summer our mother was gone nearly every day, and what else were we eating? Our small lives had felt so stagnant that when the police came into our bedrooms and asked us how long our mother had been gone, did we know what was she on?—it felt as if we were being flung somewhere, by some thing, and who was there to man the trajectory? They told us to grab a change of clothes and we got into their car. I knew it was coming. I had planned for it—I told my brother to tell his summer school teacher that our mother was gone. I knew how it worked, it was only then that I stopped fighting it.
     And we were flung. So far from one another, into different homes, different cities, different lives. And we learned how unfamiliar that word—lives—was from anything we could have imagined it to be before.
     I can feel the cold stillness of that air-conditioned cafeteria, us sitting before our tan trays on the faux-wood benches, only a handful of other children in the room, our shame part of what we tried in quiet desperation to consume. Though we didn't know it, we were silently praying—hoping the movement of our bodies could be the thing that delivered us.


IV. Hermano

From the porch, I see a small, shadowed boy, shirtless and hunched over in the overgrown yard, near our redbrick house with cracks so large, birds nest in the space between outside and in. As the sun descends and the grass starts to lose its green, the bruises on his back begin to blend into the dark. I cannot tell what, but he has something in his hands, and he rocks back and forth as he intently looks at it. This boy is my brother—in a time before we understood his innocence was being gouged from his tiny, almost iridescent body. If I lean forward and close my eyes I can almost hear his humming—a song I hope will thrum through his limbs for the rest of his life, the only thing remaining constant. When I'm no longer there to hear it, it will be all he has.
     Later, when he is left alone in an all-boys home, the one time I can visit him I will see the empty, yellowed-over cinderblock walls, feel the cold eyes of the staff on me, our sister and mother, with such light regard and I know the heft of our childhoods was to prepare us to bear things like this. When I hug him goodbye, it's as if all fourteen years of his life burst through me—nothing specific, but the abandoned nature of them, the feeling of being tossed out from the beginning. It's then, in our embrace, that I feel him as a toddler, that I imagine holding him forever, his arms locked around my neck, running in the night through black trees, away from his father, our mother, from a system built to dismember him. I'll remember the stains of my tears on his blue sweatshirt, the small fuzz on his round face that sprung up when nobody watched. He is stoic because the world has not yet allowed for him to be anything less.
     Looking at his condition with imperfect contempt, as I know I am not blameless, I see there was always space—countless times he could've been taken from our home before it was too late, someone stopping the doctors from filling him with all those pills, a hand to reach out and grasp his with no other intention than to truly guide him. We all dislike it—the search for something useful in so many shadows. Here, in the dusk of our yard, I imagine that what he has in his hands is a vision—a promise from God that will be more than I can ever give him, and I pray the song he hums carries up into the heavens.


V. The Bag

When I went back to Kansas for the first summer break of graduate school, my bag fell apart. I spent a week trying to find a new bag, and when I finally found one I liked, I bought two of them: one canvas and one leather. My little sister came to town to see me, and on her shoulder was the same ragged canvas bag I'd made her years ago—when I still made things. It was falling apart at the seams, and the strap, which wasn't adjustable, had always been too long for her torso. But here she was, holding everything she needed in it, everyday, the bag I had made for her. I told her to take the new canvas bag I'd just purchased. I kept the leather one for myself.
     Now, it's been three months since we've had a real conversation. On my last night in town, we were both very drunk and got into one of those sibling fights that terrifies everyone watching, as the years between us fold out, the jagged edges rending everything close. For a while, it seemed as if we were both in a standoff, waiting for the other to finally admit fault, though neither of us could remember it all, but now I know it's not that simple.
     She's changed, since the rape over a year ago, and it's increasingly difficult to help her, now that she needs it the most. She's more self-destructive than she's ever been—bar fights, hospital visits, hands that won't stop shaking. I want to run home, swoop her up, and fight off everything, the prosecutor who refused to prosecute, the police who kept asking her, "How much did you have to drink? And did you flirt with him? You walked into his house?" the boyfriend that left her, from our own mother, who isn't there.
     I tried, over a thousand miles away, to carry as much of this weight as I could, and now I'm seeing how I've changed: I don't have the energy to fight with her for her best interest anymore. And what kind of brother does that make me? I am barely fighting for my own best interest. I think of her everyday, of the call from a month ago, when she was drunk, screaming at me in a voicemail I can't listen to all the way through. I sat alone in the dark of my bedroom, and for the first time in my life, I ignored her calls.
     I know she is still carrying the bag I gave her, as if I made it, and the things she always carries with her: a wallet, her phone, and jet black eyeliner, which is the only makeup she wears, applying it to the inside of her lids like our mother used to.


VI. Diptych

A) I remember one pushed-down summer twilight, when we were little and lived in the crumbling brick house my great-grandmother gave us, before our stepfather died, and before our mother's drug addiction got out of hand, my sister fell off her bike near the ditch that ran by our house. She kept trying to mount it to ride it out and up the slope. She fell deeper and deeper down toward the water each time she tried. She never thought to get off the old bike and drag it out to a flatter area. I watched and laughed so hard I nearly fell over myself as she shot me looks as dirty as our bare feet—but really, what was so funny about wanting to ride out of that darkness?

B) Finally, I just gave up and became my mother. At this point in my life, it was terrifying how easily it came. The children she'd had at this age, all three of them, were waiting with filthy, wanting hands in my doorway when I came home. I turned away from them, already ignoring the need radiating off their bodies like heat. My belly bulged and stretch marks tore their way up and down me. My legs got shorter, grew wider. My hair, the red curls I was born with that she loved so much, wilted and frizzed, the color draining before my eyes in the mirror of a bathroom that dampened and molded as I stood in it. I looked to my bedroom, expecting to see my dead stepfather's large brown body, breathing off the beer of any drunken night from his life, but the empty mattress reminded me that even becoming my mother is not an act powerful enough to conjure that kind of evil. And is it so reckless to call the man evil?


VII. 1144 Louisiana, Apt. 8

For a while, I thought the best compliment I ever got came from a one-night stand. Naked in the dark of my living room and the quiet of our strangeness, I stood to get water from the kitchen, and still seated on the couch behind me, he said, "You've got the ass of a Greek statue." I still return to that night, and try to imagine someone else saying the same thing.
     It's a small apartment, the one place I truly ever lived alone, until the end, when someone else moved in with me—a man I actually invited in, let him slither close like a snake to the warmth of a body in an open tent, a man I would've jumped into rivers for. It's a large, old house turned into multiple apartments, with wooden floors that were painted-over in matte brown. I couldn't imagine who would want to do that to natural wood.
     There was a man who told me, "You give the best head I've ever had. I live in New York now, and I've gotten a lot of head, so trust me, that's a compliment." When he finished, after I came back from spitting him out, he kissed me a few times, said, "I can taste my own dick. I have to go," and left. I looked down at the dull floor and saw that a five-dollar bill must've fallen out of his pocket. I left it there until morning.
     The first movie I remember crying about when I was a child was Elephant Man. I was lying on my mother's bed in front of the metal-bladed box fan, and I wept as she put on makeup in front of the stained mirror. She turned and smiled at me. She could look at me like that when she was still around.
     I brought a man home, one I had slept with before, but pretended I'd never met him when I saw him that night. He lay back on the couch, and as I crawled on top of him, I had to fight the urge to ask, "Why are you doing this again?" I felt like crying before I entered him. The next morning, I woke up still drunk and made him leave as I yelled about how late I was for something. I heard about him years later—he'd randomly stolen one of my friends' credit cards, and was using it all over town. They caught him because he was signing his own name to the receipts.
     A few blocks away from my apartment, I found a goat, splayed out and dead on the riverbank. All its fur, save for the head, was stripped away, its bare skin a deeper blue than the water around it. It was on its back, with its neck curled up like a gliding dancer making one final leap. One of its front legs crossed over the other. Its back legs were opened, and I couldn't look down at it without wondering what kind of pull the bodies of the dead have, if any. I think there must be something, some drive, or some willful deliverance. Its utter ballooned over the rest of its exposed flank. I imagined the smaller goats that nursed from it. What I couldn't stop looking at was its spread legs, so vulgar and beautiful at the same time. The eyes were open, grayed-over like ashed coals.
     I want it happening this way—I'm walking with friends in New York City, on the busy street. My long hair's blowing, like a wind machine has been placed in front of me. I'm all straight-teeth, slow-motion laughing, and a man comes right up and approaches me—like a witch I've drawn him in—and he sees the fire I feel burning, he can hear the roar of the flame that's deafening me. I act humble, embarrassed even. He says, "I see you." I look incredulously to my friends, and when he takes one of my hands in both of his, I give in.




"Megan" was the first part I wrote for this essay, though I didn't know that's what I was doing. I was in a poetry workshop in graduate school, so I was writing a lot of short prose pieces. "Megan" started out as an image from my childhood I remembered and I wanted to get it down, planning to later revise and turn it into "real writing" before I brought it in. One day, I didn't have a piece to workshop, so I used the still un-revised "Megan" as a last resort, and I was terrified. As I printed out the copies to share, I thought, maybe I should just skip class, because nothing about it seemed "artful" or "poetic" to me. Before, I was writing fairy-tale-esque stories, with lots of flowery language and magical realism, so this was a big departure for me. Response to this newer work was really positive, and afterward, I couldn't stop writing more autobiographically—I felt as if I was turning the lens directly on myself for the first time, so I wasn't able to hide behind my notions of metaphor, language, or the fictive aspects of what I usually wrote. This piece represents that necessary shift in my work, an opening up and delving into the self, a further deepening of the exorcism that writing has always been for me.