Since sophomore year, the crew walks three blocks to the bakery with the bitchy lady at the counter. Sometimes we get the cheese-filled dough beuregs, but sometimes we get the ground-beef flatbreads for only two bucks each. You can smell the cheese wafting through the smog on Broadway, and it meets the sweet smell of nazoug cookies from the pastry place across the street. The crew thinks it’s better than the Chinese place since Owner lets us sit there until Vartan picks us up. At least Ashot thinks it is, and we all care about what Ashot thinks because he’s fuckin’ Ashot–the only guy that can pull off a collared shirt without looking like a wimp.
One time, Owner said some shit like, “Tghek, do your homeworks.”
“You don’t need to graduate to start a business, aper,” said Ashot.
“Right. Back in Armenia, I graduate for music and was composer. What you want to be?” he said, wiping his hands on his sweaty apron.
Ashot said, “Rich. I want to be fuckin’ rich.” All of us busted out laughing, including Owner.
Ashot always knew what to say. Since the seventh grade, he always fucking knew. His dad beat him up with a belt almost every day which made him a smart ass, but he would move up in life as a loyal one too. When we were in the eighth grade, I got caught touching Maria’s tits because I didn’t really know how to ask her out. He didn’t even know me well, but he followed me to the principal’s office and told him that he dared me to do it.
We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us.
He told the principal, “They mentioned it in biology class and I wanted to know how it felt. Consider it a lab.”
I remember asking him later on why he did it. And he just shrugged. They gave him detention. But we stayed best friends.
“Do your work to be rich,” Owner said. “Want Cokes?”
We never want Cokes. We just go out on the sidewalk to smoke a pack instead.
Ashot says, “Kobe killed it last night. I love him, man. If only I could be him.”
Standing behind him, I can see a scar near his collar.
“Fuck yeah,” I say. “Who doesn’t?”
* * *
I actually like Maria. I’ve liked her since the incident with the boobs, for the last four years. The crew calls her a slut because she hangs out with the other Mexican girls near the football field at lunch and because there’s a rumor going around that they slept with the same guys in the soccer team. I didn’t really care if she did, because I knew she wasn’t dumb. I had English class with her, and one time, she read a poem she wrote about a car crash. It made me feel wack–like someone had pulled out my gut for a second.
The glass windows slide deeper into my heart. And I can feel me rip apart with each painful toss–hoping to be loved and pulled together, she’d written.
After class I said, “So you write poems?”
“Yeah,” she said, fixing her shirt. I could see her tits.
“It was cool,” I said and walked away. Her sharp, green eyes followed me out the door.
* * *
The football field where she hangs out is Latino territory, and one time, Ashot got busted for kicking a guy named Juan in the dick because he hit on Ani, the hottest girl in the school–and Ashot’s childhood friend. She has black, straight hair and rarely smiles, kind of like those Russian dolls–the ones Mam likes to collect to put over the fireplace. Ani moved here when she was four, same as Ashot. I don’t think Ashot liked Ani, but I think he just likes to protect the girls in the crew from older guys, mostly Mexicans.
“No one’ll want to marry her if she fuckin’ sleeps with that Mexican,” he said.
“What if she actually wants to sleep with the Mexican?” I said, unwrapping my burger.
“I don’t give a shit,” Ashot said. “There’s no way in hell she’s gonna do that shit. And if Vartan isn’t gonna do anything, then I am.”
“Let her brother handle it,” I said. “Why you gotta get involved and get us all in this?”
“Because we have to,” he said. “Because we’re the Armo fuckin’ corner.”
And then he sent a note to Juan through Marco, the half-Armenian half-Mexican kid to have him meet the crew up in their territory at lunch the next day. Juan showed up with five other guys, and Ashot kicked him in the dick. Everyone got pissed and started fighting each other–even me. It was messed up because Ashot got suspended and the rest of us had to do community service for a few months.
When the counselor called me in, she asked, “Who started it, Armen?”
I hate how counselors use names to make something sound more serious. The small waterfall on her desk chimed and echoed the sounds of rushing water. What the fuck?
“They started it,” I said. “Juan and his guys.”
“That’s not what I heard,” said counselor.
“Isn’t that called hearsay or something,” I said. Her face didn’t get soft.
“I’m just messin’. Listen, Juan asked us to be there ‘cause he had to talk to Ashot about something and then he just attacked him.”
She eventually let me go after firing off questions about why my math and science grades had dropped.
* * *
When I come home from school, Mam already has dinner ready for us–us being me, Pap, my three aunts, their husbands, and two single uncles.
“Of course Obamacare is a bad thing,” says Uncle Khachik. “They want our tax money to pay.”
“It’s for the greater good,” says my other Hopar.
“The Soviet Union was too,” Pap says.
“Greater good is capitalism. That’s all I know,” he says.
“So you vote democrat but aren’t one,” says Hopar Khachik.
After a pause my dad responds, “Of course, it’s California. And we like welfare.”
Everyone laughs, but I don’t really think it’s funny. The women don’t speak much and Mam doesn’t even work, but she has the smile of a woman who isn’t a fucking house wife–one that reminds me of a picture she has as a girl in Tzaghgatsor. She’s standing in front of a field of flowers in a skirt almost to her ankle, holding a set of books. As a kid she would tell me that the blooms in Tzaghgatsor were unlike any other, that they were caused by the beauty of Armenian’s most beautiful goddess, Anahit. The fields of flowers spill over into green, rolling mountains, almost like magic. I imagined, as a kid, that she was the goddess in some way, although her eyes have wrinkles around the edges and her hair is kind of faded brown. She dyes it blonde, probably to cover it all.
“Of course the United States will recognize the genocide,” Pap says. “The democrats will do it.”
“It’s a lie,” says my uncle Khachik. “They want us to vote like you.”
A pile of Asbarez newspapers sit face up on on our TV stand. Pap’s horn rimmed glasses shift lower on his nose. And no one can hear a thing.
My dad slams his hand on the table, “They raped our women and exterminated our people–the democrats actually give a shit. Armen, get us some cognac glasses.”
I bring him the glasses, and he says, “How was your school?”
“Good,” I say.
“Doctor or lawyer? Decided yet?”
“Not yet, Dad. One of them, though,” I say.
I go to my room. I like to think about Maria or watch porn or read. I stare at my Transformers poster sometimes or just watch trailers. Sometimes we even meet up at the parking lot near the Starbucks in La Cañada. All the guys from all the high schools meet up there to smoke–too young to have cognac anyway. We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us. Ashot rarely comes except for one night.
He sneaks out to join us. He’s wearing a stupid baseball cap, and he asks for a stog.
“What’s up with the hat?” Vartan says. “Vibin’ white guys, huh?”
And I see it then–the right side of his face all blue.
“What the fuck dude,” I say. “What the hell?”
“He just made a man out of me,” he says, smiling.
“Fuck man, you okay?” I say.
“Yeah, aper, yeah. Let’s have a smoke, and I’ll be good.”
“Should we tell the cops or call Counselor or something?” I ask.
“No, I’m good. I’m tight. I promised him I would get my grades up.”
“Yeah man, we should,” I say.
“We will. But let’s have a smoke first.”
“Fuck yeah,” I say, looking down at the pavement.