2007 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (3 page)

BOOK: 2007 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
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Oscar had always been a young nerd — the kind of kid who read Tom Swift, who loved comic books and watched
— by high school his commitment to the Genres had become absolute. Back when the rest of us were learning to play wallball and pitch quarters and drive our older brothers’ cars and sneak dead soldiers from under our parents’ eyes, he was gorging himself on a steady stream of Lovecraft, Wells, Burroughs, Howard, Alexander, Herbert, Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein, and even the Old Ones who were already beginning to fade — E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Stapledon, and the guy who wrote all the Doc Savage books — moving hungrily from book to book, author to author, age to age. (It was his good fortune that the libraries of Paterson were so under funded that they still kept a lot of the previous generation’s nerdery in circulation.) You couldn’t have torn him away from any movie or TV show or cartoon where there were monsters or spaceships or mutants or doomsday devices or destinies or magic or evil villains. In these pursuits alone Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insisted was part of the family patrimony. Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. (If only he’d been good at videogames it would have been a slam dunk but despite owning an Atari and an Intellivision he didn’t have the reflexes for it.) Perhaps if like me he’d been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.↓

≡ Where this outsized love of genre jumped off from no one quite seems to know. It might have been a consequence of being Antillean (who more sci-fi than us?) or of living in the DR for the first couple of years of his life and then abruptly wrenchingly relocating to New Jersey — a single green card shifting not only worlds (from Third to First) but centuries (from almost no TV or electricity to plenty of both). After a transition like that I’m guessing only the most extreme scenarios could have satisfied. Maybe it was that in the DR he had watched too much
, been taken to too many Run Run Shaw kung fu movies, listened to too many of his abuela’s spooky stories about el Cuco and la Ciguapa? Maybe it was his first librarian in the U.S., who hooked him on reading, the electricity he felt when he touched that first Danny Dunn book? Maybe it was just the zeitgeist (were not the early seventies the dawn of the Nerd Age?) or the fact that for most of his childhood he had absolutely no friends? Or was it something deeper, something ancestral?

Who can say?

What is clear is that being a reader/fanboy (for lack of a better term) helped him get through the rough days of his youth, but it also made him stick out in the mean streets of Paterson even more than he already did. Victimized by the other boys punches and pushes and wedgies and broken glasses and brand-new books from Scholastic, at a cost of fifty cents each, tom in half before his very eyes. You like books? Now you got two! Har-har! No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed. Even his own mother found his preoccupations nutty. Go outside and play! she commanded at least once a day. Pórtate como un muchacho normal.

(Only his sister, a reader too, supporting him. Bringing him books from her own school, which had a better library.)

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.

Pa’ ‘fuera! his mother roared. And out he would go, like a boy condemned, to spend a few hours being tormented by the other boys — Please, I want to stay, he would beg his mother, but she shoved him out — You ain’t a woman to be staying in the house — one hour, two, until finally he could slip back inside unnoticed, hiding himself in the upstairs closet, where he’d read by the slat of light that razored in from the cracked door. Eventually, his mother rooting him out again: What in carajo is the matter with you?

(And already on scraps of paper, in his composition books, on the backs of his hands, he was beginning to scribble, nothing serious for now, just rough facsimiles of his favorite stories, no sign yet that these half-assed pastiches were to be his Destiny.)

Oscar was a social introvert who trembled with fear during gym class and watched nerd British shows like
Doctor Who
7, and could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentraedi walker, and he used a lot of huge sounding nerd words like
when talking to niggers who would barely graduate from high school.

One of those nerds who was always hiding out in the library, who adored Tolkien and later the Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman novels (his favorite character was of course Raistlin), and who, as the eighties marched on, developed a growing obsession with the End of the World. (No apocalyptic movie or book or game existed that he had not seen or read or played — Wyndham and Christopher and Gamma World were his absolute favorites.) You get the picture. His adolescent nerdliness vaporizing any iota of a chance he had for young love. Everybody else going through the terror and joy of their first crushes, their first dates, their first kisses while Oscar sat in the back of the class, behind his DM’s screen, and watched his adolescence stream by. Sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years. It would have been one thing if like some of the nerd boys I’d grown up with he hadn’t cared about girls, but alas he was still the passionate enamorao who fell in love easily and deeply. He had secret loves all over town, the kind of curly-haired big-bodied girls who wouldn’t have said boo to a loser like him but about whom he could not stop dreaming. His affection — that gravitational mass of love, fear, longing, desire, and lust that he directed at any and every girl in the vicinity without regard to looks, age, or availability — broke his heart each and every day. Despite the fact that he considered it this huge sputtering force, it was actually most like a ghost because no girl ever really seemed to notice it. Occasionally they might shudder or cross their arms when he walked near, but that was about it. He cried often for his love of some girl or another. Cried in the bathroom, where nobody could hear him.

Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we’re talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands. Everybody noticed his lack of game and because they were Dominican everybody talked about it. His tió Rudolfo (only recently released from his last and final bid in the Justice and now living in their house on Main Street) was especially generous in his tutelage. Listen, palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. That will take care of
. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo! Tío Rudolfo had four kids with three different women so the nigger was without doubt the family’s resident metéselo expert.

His mother’s only comment? You need to worry about your grades. And in more introspective moments: Just be glad you didn’t get my luck, hijo.

What luck? his do snorted.

Exactly, she said.

His friends AI and Miggs? Dude, you’re kinda way fat, you know. His abuela, La Inca? Hijo, you’re the most buenmoso man I know!

Oscar’s sister, Lola, was a lot more practical. Now that her crazy years were over — what Dominican girl doesn’t have those? — she’d turned into one of those tough Jersey dominicanas, a long-distance runner who drove her own car, had her own checkbook, called men bitches, and would eat a fat cat in front of you without a speck of vergüenza. When she was in fourth grade she’d been attacked by an older acquaintance, and this was common knowledge throughout the family (and by extension a sizable section of Paterson, Union City, and Teaneck), and surviving that urikán of pain judgment, and bochinche had made her tougher than adamantine. Recently she’d cut her hair short — flipping out her mother yet again — partially I think because when she’d been lime her family had let it grow down past her ass, a source of pride, something I’m sure her attacker noticed and admired.

Oscar, Lola warned repeatedly, you’re going to die a virgin unless you start
. Don’t you think I know that? Another five years of this and I’ll bet you somebody tries to name a church after me.

Cut the hair, lose the glasses, exercise. And get rid of those porn magazines. They’re disgusting, they bother Mami, and they’ll never get you a date.

Sound counsel that in the end he did not adopt. He tried a couple of times to exercise, leg lifts, sit-ups, walks around the block in the early morning, that sort of thing, but he would notice how everybody else had a girl but him and would despair, plunging right back into eating,
, designing dungeons, and self-pity.

I seem to be allergic to diligence, and Lola said, Ha. What you’re allergic to is
. It wouldn’t have been half bad if Paterson and its surrounding precincts had been like Don Bosco or those seventies feminist sci-fi novels he sometimes read — an all-male-exclusion zone. Paterson, however, was girls the way NYC was girls, Paterson was girls the way Santo Domingo was girls. Paterson had mad girls, and if that wasn’t guapas enough for you, well, motherfucker, then roll south and there’d be Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, the Oranges, Union City, West New York, Weehawken, Perth Amboy-an urban swath known to niggers everywhere as Negrapolis One. So in effect he saw girls — Hispanophone Caribbean girls — everywhere.

He wasn’t safe even in his own house, his sister’s girlfriends were always hanging out, permanent guests. When they were around he didn’t need no
. Her girls were not too smart but they were fine as shit: the sort of hot-as-balls Latinas who only dated weight-lifting morenos or Latino cats with guns in their cribs. They were all on the volleyball team together and tall and fit as colts and when they went for runs it was what the track team might have looked like in terrorist heaven. Bergen County’s very own cigüapas: la primera was Gladys, who complained endlessly about her chest being too big, that maybe she’d find normal boyfriends if she’d had a smaller pair; Marisol, who’d end up at MIT and
Oscar but whom Oscar liked most of all; Leticia, just off the boat, half Haitian half Dominican, that special blend the Dominican government swears
no existe
, who spoke with the deepest accent, a girl so good she refused to sleep with
three consecutive boyfriends!
It wouldn’t have been so bad if these chickies hadn’t treated Oscar like some deaf-mute harem guard, ordering him around, having him run their errands, making fun of his games and his looks; to make shit even worse, they blithely went on about the particulars of their sex lives with no regard for him, while he sat in the kitchen, clutching the latest issue of
. Hey, he would yell, in case you’re wondering there’s a male unit in here.

Where? Marisol would say blandly. I don’t see one.

And when they talked about how all the Latin guys only seemed to want to date white girls, he would offer,
like Spanish girls, to which Marisol responded with wide condescension. That’s great, Oscar. Only problem is no Spanish girl would date you.

Leave him alone, Leticia said. I think you’re cute, Oscar. Yeah, right, Marisol laughed, rolling her eyes. Now he’ll probably write a book about you.

These were Oscar’s furies, his personal pantheon, the girls he most dreamed about and most beat off to and who eventually found their way into his little stories. In his dreams he was either saving them from aliens or he was returning to the neighborhood, rich and famous — It’s him! The Dominican Stephen King! — and then Marisol would appear, carrying one each of his books for him to sign. Please, Oscar, marry me. Oscar, drolly: I’m sorry, Marisol, I don’t marry ignorant bitches. (But then of course he would.) Maritza he still watched from afar, convinced that one day, when the nuclear bombs fell (or the plague broke out or the Tripods invaded) and civilization was wiped out he would end up saving her from a pack of irradiated ghouls and together they’d set out across a ravaged America in search of a better tomorrow. In these apocalyptic daydreams he was always some kind of plátano Doc Savage, a supergenius who combined world-class martial artistry with deadly firearms proficiency. Not bad for a nigger who’d never even shot an air rifle, thrown a punch, or scored higher than a thousand on his SATs.


Senior year found him bloated, dyspeptic, and, most cruelly, alone in his lack of girlfriend. His two nerd boys, AI and Miggs, had, in the craziest twist of fortune, both succeeded in landing themselves girls that year. Nothing special, skanks really, but girls nonetheless. AI had met his at Menlo Park. She’d come onto
, he bragged, and when she informed him, after she sucked his dick of course, that she had a girlfriend
to meet somebody, AI had dragged Miggs away from his Atari and out to a movie and the rest was, as they say, history. By the end of the week Miggs was getting his too, and only then did Oscar find out about any of it. While they were in his room setting up for another ‘hair-raising’ Champions adventure against the Death-Dealing Destroyers. (Oscar had to retire his famous aftermath! campaign because nobody else but him was hankering to play in the post-apocalyptic ruins of virus-wracked America.) At first, after hearing about the double-bootie coup, Oscar didn’t say nothing much. He just rolled his dio’s over and over. Said, You guys sure got lucky. It killed him that they hadn’t thought to include him in their girl heists; he hated AI for inviting Miggs instead of him and he hated Miggs for getting a girl, period. AI getting a girl Oscar could comprehend; AI (real name Alok) was one of those tall Indian prettyboys who would never have been pegged by anyone as a role-playing nerd. It was Miggs’s girl-getting he could not fathom, that astounded him and left him sick with jealousy. Oscar had always considered Miggs to be an even bigger freak than he was. Acne galore and a retard’s laugh and gray fucking teeth from having been given some medicine too young. So is your girlfriend cute? he asked Miggs. He said, Dude, you should see her, she’s beautiful. Big fucking tits, AI seconded. That day what little faith Oscar had in the world took an SS-N-17 snipe to the head. When finally he couldn’t take it no more he asked, pathetically, What, these girls don’t have any other friends?

BOOK: 2007 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
6.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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