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I tell Mateo to meet me at a wine bar. It’s a quiet, low-key spot—ideal for first dates, because it’s easy to make a speedy exit in case the red flags start flying—or worse, if the men in blue come knocking.

It’s been over an hour, and we’re on our second glass of wine when I realize there are no red flags. He’s not just monologuing, he’s asking me questions too. This is actually a good first date—and when was the last time that ever happened for me? But I can’t help but worry that the puddles from this afternoon’s shower may have dried up. Any time there’s a pause in the conversation, my head swivels to the exit to check for the men in blue.

After we finish our wine, we leave and start wandering around the Village. I tell him about losing my abuela a few months ago, how I really have three mothers, and she was one of them. He tells me about losing his mother last year, how after she died, he knew there was nothing left for him in Caracas. He talks about how living in New York these past few months has been hard and wonderful and exhausting. We toggle between English and Spanish. He gets flustered when he stumbles over an English word, and I confess I’m embarrassed when shades of a gringo accent creep into my Nuyorican Spanish. I love the easiness of our sudden vulnerability, how we’re skipping over the small talk and going right to the real talk.

We cross the street, and my hand grazes his, then grasps it. Suddenly, finally, my body is pressed against his body, my lips against his lips. We kiss gently at first, then with a crescendo of passion. I only half-notice when the car horns start honking and the cranky New Yorkers start shouting. The light must have changed. The kiss is a time warp, converting minutes into seconds.

We pull apart, laughing and smiling at each other.

“I think the cars are annoyed at us, Javier,” he says to me as we shuffle back to the sidewalk.

“The humans, too,” I say. I don’t remember the last time someone kissed me like that, the last time that joy felt feasible.

Then, as we turn the corner, I see them approaching from the corner of my eye. Two men in blue suits walking briskly toward us, their eyes cold with calm determination. Why do they have to show up now, just when the moment had edged its way toward perfection? My mother was right. They always show up at times like this.

“Coño,” I say. I turn toward Mateo. “Oye, I can’t explain, but we have to go. Fast.”

“What? Pero why? We were …” I yank him in the other direction. His head turns toward the men in blue, and immediately his eyes widen. “You’re right. We need to run.”

For a moment, I’m disoriented. The men in blue look like ordinary men, unless you know to look for them. Mateo must think they’re bill collectors or something. I'll bet he has gambling debts. I knew that red flag had to be hiding somewhere.

But the men in blue are less than a block away, and now they’ve broken into a run. Gambler or not, Mateo doesn’t deserve their attention just because of one date with me. “This way,” I say, running back toward Christopher Street. There’s a block where the street’s uneven, where there may still be a puddle or two.

We race down Sixth Avenue side by side. Between breaths I say, “We need a puddle,” at the same time as he says, “Necesitamos un charco,” the same words in two languages.

Our faces wrinkle at each other in confusion, but we barely break our stride.

As we turn onto Christopher Street, there it is, a charco, a long stretch of shallow waters where the sidewalk meets the street. I point at it, and Mateo nods. Our sneakers pound the concrete in unison as we race toward the puddle, the men in blue only a few strides behind us. Together we leap through the air and into the puddle. I close my eyes as the familiar wetness of muddy waters seeps into my hair, my jeans, my skin.

 


 

It was my mother, my abuela, and my tía who taught me about the men in blue, and about the puddles. We were cleaning up the kitchen when they first explained it to me.

“You have to look at the charco sideways, so you can see how it’s catching the light,” my mother said, passing me a handful of forks. “Then you can see where it will take you.”

“The key is to jump in with your feet flat,” my abuela said, scrubbing a pot with gloved hands. “None of this business of dipping a toe in first. Feet flat, o nunca funciona.”

Tía Anita was freshening up a vase of flowers, cutting the stems and stripping out the dead parts. She looked up from the flowers and shook her head. “What she really means is you have to jump into the puddle as if it were the deep end of a swimming pool. You have to know in your corazón that the puddle contains waters that run deeper than the ground.”

 


 

We climb out of the other side of the puddle, pulling ourselves up with our forearms. Coming back out is always the hardest part.

Palm trees line the sidewalk, and the seductive scent of chicharrónes drifts from a food truck down the street. At the end of the block, I see the entrance to la UP. What a relief we came out somewhere familiar. We were going so fast I didn’t even have a chance to check where the puddle would take us.

“Dónde estámos?” Mateo asks, wiping the wetness out of his hair. We’re both sopping wet. Charcos may get you there fast, but it’s not the cleanest way to travel.

“San Juan,” I say. “I went to school here for a couple of years.”

He takes off his t-shirt and wrings out the water. “Where did you learn about the charcos? And the men in blue?”

He’s flaquito, his dark brown skin showing just a hint of abs, covered with droplets from our journey through the puddle.

“My mother,” I say after a too-long pause, realizing I should stop staring and say something. “And my abuela and tía. Though my tía was the one who was actually good at explaining things.”

“My mami and tías taught me too,” he says. “I’ve never been to San Juan.”

I see a bus coming from a few blocks away—the one that goes to Condado. “We could go dancing,” I say.

“Qué sííííí!” he says. I smile and lead him toward the guagua, jogging to catch it. The bus driver squints at our dripping clothes and the wet dollar bills from my pocket, but lets us on with a resigned wave. I forgot to put my wallet back in my waterproof case, but at least my phone was tucked away in it, just like abuela always taught me.

I bring him to Scandalo. There’s a blackout on the block but the drag queens take the party into the street, performing their show in the headlights of a Toyota, the car radio blaring Shakira and Beyoncé. They direct the flow of traffic around them, sometimes sprawling dramatically on the hood of a car before it passes by.

After the show, everyone stays and dances in the street. Mateo is a much better dancer than me. When Elvis Crespo comes on, we merengue. He takes the position of following, but really he’s the one that’s guiding me, making me look like a much better dancer than I am.

I keep looking up and down the street for the men in blue, but there’s no sign of them, even though this seems like exactly where they’d come looking.

After the clubs close, we walk down the street, hands intertwined. “We should stay here tonight,” Mateo says. “I have this app where you can find cheap hotels at the last minute.”

“We should get home,” I say, “before the charcos dry up in the morning.”

“Then come back to my place,” he says, squeezing my hand. “After we get back to the other side.”

“Maybe next time,” I say, squeezing back.

“It’s been such a magical night. Don’t you want to?”

“It has been magical,” I say. “That’s why I want to wait. Sometimes it’s nice to build up a little anticipation.”

“Okay,” he says, smiling wryly, “con mucha anticipación, entonces.” But I know he knows I’m holding something back.

 


 

I was home sick from school and abuela was taking care of me while Mami and Anita were at work. She sat down next to me on the bed and gave me a bowl of her homemade chicken soup.

I sat up and took the soup, the bowl warming my hands. “Abuela, when did you learn to use the charcos? Was it when you came to New York?”

“Ay no, m’ijo,” she said, “our family has been brincando charcos long before your abuelo and I came to New York. Long before the men in blue came. My grandmother used to jump a puddle from Ponce to Yauco to visit her sister. But we used to mostly stay on the island. Then my brother died, and there were no jobs, and the men in blue were everywhere. So our family jumped a puddle that took us further than we’d ever gone before. We thought things would be different here, but so many things were just the same. Even more men in blue than on the island.”

“Do they chase us because we jump the puddles?”

My abuela touched my forehead. “Maybe they are jealous that we can jump the puddles, but that’s not the only reason why. They chase us because we didn’t just lie down and surrender when they first came. Because no matter what they do, we keep on existing.”

 


 

For our seventh date, Mateo and I jump through a charco on 119th Street and come out the other side in Orlando. We go to Universal, the rush of the roller coasters drying our wet clothes. We go on the Spider-Man ride four times. The line is long, but making out makes the wait go faster.

“Wepa!” he yelps as we climb out of the roller coaster after ride number four. Wepa was the first Puerto Rican word I taught him.

“That ride es una vaina,” I say.

“Now you understand lo que es una vaina,” he says. We’re developing a language made for two, a mixture of English and Puerto Rican Spanish and Venezuelan Spanish and newly invented phrases that only make sense to us.

We feast at a Colombian restaurant for dinner, then check in at a hotel in downtown Orlando. We’ve been dating over a month now and still haven’t spent the night together, but I promised Mateo that tonight the anticipation would reach its end.

We kiss and cuddle under the sheets. He takes off his shirt, and I kiss his neck, his chest, his shoulders. There’s a small scar on his left shoulder the shape of a half-moon. I give it a soft kiss and then keep working my way down his back. He slides off his underwear, revealing the most magnificent butt my eyes have ever seen. I clutch and caress it with both hands.

He turns around and gives me a wry look, gesturing at my shirt. I’m still fully dressed. I start to strip but can’t make it past my underwear.

“Sorry,” I say, and climb out of bed and walk over to the window, scanning the streets below.

“Qué haces?”

“Just checking for the men in blue,” I say. “You never know when they’ll show up.”

“I know,” Mateo says, joining me at the window. “When I was growing up on the seventeenth floor, mi madre taught me to always look out the window to check for them before I turned out the light. But these streets look pretty empty to me.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I get all in my head and I just … You must think I’m ridiculous.”

“No,” he says. “I think I’ve met a beautiful man, one who can jump through the charcos with me, and who knows the world is not an easy place. And who needs a little bit of time. Luckily, I have a gift for patience. Come back to bed. We can cuddle some more.”

“That sounds perfect,” I say, and hope the men in blue won’t come for the quiet tear running down my cheek.

 


 

We were doing the laundry together, and my mami, abuela, and tía were warning me about the men in blue.

Abuela was folding shirts. “Their suits are always blue—and stiff from too much starch. Their faces are serious, and they always look at you like you’ve done something wrong.”

My mother was pulling clothes out of the washer and throwing them in the dryer. “When you’re laughing, smiling—when you’re happy, that’s when they’ll catch you by surprise. That’s when you have to be on the lookout.”

“Hay que sacudir cada uno!” my abuela reminded my mother. “If you don’t shake every single piece, they don’t dry evenly.” She turned to me and said, “I’ve been bregando with the men in blue for longer than your mother. It’s not just when you’re happy. They can come for your anger, they can come for your fear. And when you lose someone, they can even come for your luto.”

I was folding clothes with abuela, but half the time she was redoing the ones I did. “But then they could come any time,” I said. “How do I stay safe?”

“Church is safe,” my mother said, giving a pair of jeans a passive-aggressive shake. “And go to confession at least once a week. That helps keep them away.”

Abuela grabbed a sloppily folded shirt from me and refolded it into a perfect square in two swift motions. “Even that may not be enough. Always look over your shoulder, and always stay close to a charco.”

“Ven, Javi,” Tía Ana said, passing me a basket of folded clothes and picking up another. “Help me bring these to the bedroom.”

I followed her into the bedroom with my basket. We sat together on the bed, placing piles of clothes into the drawers. “Your abuela has been through so much, your mother too. Things we may never understand,” she said softly. She was the youngest of the three of them, only eight years older than me. “They have so much to teach us about the charcos, about our heritage. Pero … don’t let everything they say weigh you down.”

“What do you mean?”

“Qué sé yo,” she said. “But it’s not just the men in blue on the streets that are dangerous. Sometimes the worst men in blue are the ones who get in your head.”

 


 

“Ven, ven!” I say, dragging Mateo down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. There was a deluge of rain all afternoon, and now there are puddles everywhere.

“Okay, Javier, okay,” he says. We’ve been dating almost three months now.

“This one,” I say, and yank him into a puddle before he has a chance to see where it will take us.

We climb out the other side, dripping water onto the sidewalk, the sound of traffic and honking horns nearby. Mateo wipes the water from his eyes, laughing. “Where did you even take—”

He looks up at the cream-colored building towering over us and falls suddenly silent, his mouth a flat line, an expression I’ve never seen on his face before.

“I found a charco to Caracas!” I say, my tone cautiously upbeat.

“I know where we are,” Mateo says. “I do not know why, Javier.”

“I thought you’d like it. We went so San Juan, I thought we could see where you’re from, too.”

He looks up at the sky as if it has betrayed him. “Have you not listened to anything I’ve told you these past few months? I’ve been so patient with you—so patient—and this is what you give me? Do you think that you’re the only one struggling with monsters in your head? You’ve never been caught by the men in blue, have you?”

“No,” I say. “My abuela was, but—”

“I thought you understood.” He stands over the puddle we came through, staring down at his reflection. “But you understand nothing.”

Without another word and without me, he jumps back into the puddle, leaving me alone in a city I have never known.

 


 

I was out in Chelsea at a party with friends when I first saw the men in blue for myself. Even after all the warnings of abuela and my mother and Anita, I’d never imagined they’d be so terrifying. It was the stoniness of their faces, their implacable relentlessness. I ran the moment I saw them.

It was late by the time I got home, and abuela was the only one awake. Sometimes it seemed like she never slept.

She made us chamomile tea. We sat in the shadows of the living room, and I told her what happened, how scared I was.

“You should be scared,” she said.

“What happens?” I asked. “What happens if they catch you?”

Abuela leaned forward in her chair. “It was a bright sunny day, not a puddle in sight. I knew we should never have had a protest on such a sunny day. But it was not my decision to make, and it was too important for us to miss. Your abuelo and I were there, in the plaza, chanting with the rest of them. For the first hour, it seemed like everything was going to be all right. But then, they were there, the men in blue, more of them than I’d ever seen at once. There were no puddles to jump. Many of us were captured. For others, it was even worse.

“My cell was in a basement, only one tiny window by the ceiling. The floor was cold, and there was no bed. They only fed us bread and water. I thought of trying to make a puddle to escape, but that was impossible. Only rainwater can make a puddle.

“After nine days and nine nights of that cold hard floor, a rainstorm came. I tried to reach out the tiny window and make a cup of my hands to catch the water, but it was too high up—just a few inches out of reach. So I took off my shoe and held it out the window, catching the rainwater in its heel. It took seventeen shoes of rain to make a proper puddle. I made it out. Most are not so lucky.”

 


 

It hasn’t rained for a week, so the locus of my anxieties vacillates between checking every corner for the men in blue and checking my phone to see if Mateo has texted me. He hasn’t called or texted in nearly two weeks.

I call my mami in tears. After I tell her about Mateo, about the men in blue chasing us, about San Juan and Caracas, she says, “Have you been to church? Have you confessed?”

“Ay, Mami, you know I don’t do that anymore.” A few years ago, I was so anxious when I came out to her, but she barely blinked, just said she’d love me the same as always just like God would. It probably helped that Anita had come out a few years before that.

“Then confess to Mateo,” she says simply. She has an astonishing dexterity for transposing her Catholic edicts onto my queer life with no concern for contradictions.

“I don’t think it works that way, Mami,” I say.

We hang up and I call Tía Anita. I tell her everything—even the part about how Mateo and I still haven’t had sex.

“You messed up,” she says. “You’ve got to own that. Also—flowers never hurt. There’s a good florist on 116th Street.”

She doesn’t offer much more than that.

I wish I could call my abuela too.

 


 

A few years ago, the morning of my graduation, we all met at Anita’s house. She had her own place by then, a house in Queens with her partner and two friends.

I walked out to the back and found the three of them setting up tables, decorating the patio with balloons and a big sign that said ¡Felicidades!

I looked up at the cloudless sky. It was only a few months after my own first encounter with the men in blue. “Maybe we should cancel the party. If anything happens, there’s not a single charco on the street.”

“Pero no,” my mother said. “This is your special day!”

Tía Anita was adding baby’s breath to the floral arrangements. “Y qué? We just postpone your graduation because it happens to be sunny?”

Abuela adjusted a checkered tablecloth so it was draped over the table with perfect symmetry. “Careful is important, yes. But caring matters more.” And she kissed me on the cheek.

 


 

It still hasn’t rained when I ring Mateo’s bell at his building in Brooklyn. There’s no answer, but his intercom is always broken, so that doesn’t mean anything. He may be making his way down four flights of stairs. I put my bags down while I wait, wipe the sweat from my palms.

A few minutes later he opens the door. “You are persistent, Javier.”

“I am,” I say. “And I’m sorry. On our very first date, you said you could never go back to Caracas. I thought you were, no sé, using hyperbole or something. But I should have listened. I should have paid closer attention, the way you always do.”

“True.” He gestures at the shopping bags at my feet. “And what is all this?”

“I come bearing gifts and lessons from all three of my mothers,” I say. I pull out the flowers and hand them to him. “These are from my Tía Anita.”

“How kind of your tía to get me flowers,” he says, but for the first time, a half-smile makes its way onto his face.

“I mean, they’re from me, but she taught me everything about flowers. This isn’t just a bouquet they had premade, I chose every flower myself. Anita taught me to always appreciate the little beauties in life. And she literally told me I should get you flowers.”

He sniffs the flowers and says, “Your tía is very sabia. And from your mami?”

“A confession,” I say. “It was never about building anticipation. I liked you too much, and that was terrifying.”

“I’m glad you finally said it aloud.” He looks down at the piles of remaining shopping bags. “And the rest?”

“All the ingredients for my abuela’s chicken soup. She taught me we always have to take care of each other. And to always mind the details.”

“Bueno, with gifts from all three of your mothers, you’ve won the right to entry. But no promises.”

We catch up on the past couple weeks while I chop up the vegetables for the soup. It’s strained at first, but slowly we find our rhythm again, that natural ease we had with each other.

“You know,” he says, “the sun is still shining. The men in blue could come any moment, and there are no charcos offering refuge.”

“Yeah,” I say, dropping the last bit of culantro into the pot. The aroma of chicken broth fills his whole studio. “It’s like, the men in blue are out there, and they’re after us, but sometimes I can’t tell when they’re really coming and when they’re just up in my head.”

“Yes,” he says, his tone gentle. “That’s the hard part.”

I leap into him with a kiss. His mouth is a portal that’s wetter and warmer than any charco I’ve ever traveled.



Ben Francisco is a queer Puerto Rican writer who lives in Brooklyn with their husband, Juan. Their stories range from magic realism to space opera and have been published in Podcastle, Fireside Fiction, and From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction. Ben recently won the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. Their first novel, Val Vega: Secret Ambassador of Earth, will debut in early 2024. Visit them at benfrancisco.net.
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