Chapter 12 from my unpublished book, "Sky of Dreams, Sky of Nightmares": This is the story of Juan and Lisa...
25 min read
The trip to the police department at 850 Bryant Avenue from Juan’s apartment at 1347 South Van Ness Avenue takes about twenty seven minutes. With a few dollars and some change you can ride the bus all the way along Cesar Chavez, jumping on the Number 27 bus from Van Ness and 26th St. to Bryant and 7th St. and walk the half block to the right towards the stairs of the monolithic, gray building. The concrete cube can immediately be seen from the bus, looming tall and colorless on the corner of the street where the bus stops and lets its passengers out at Bryant and 7th St. It is devoid of individuality, a perfect government establishment that seems more likely the product of an architect from post-war, communist Poland than the contrasting old buildings that favor forest greens or pale pinks, or even the newer, start-up tech-culture styled storefronts that favor shiny chrome and steel with open windows, and bold yellows, oranges and reds. The building is an almost perfect rectangle, no artwork or graffiti, no balconies or stairwells. It is a fortress of sorts, keeping criminals in or criminals out, and hosting the armed and badged police affiliates within. From the outside, you would not be able to guess where a holding cell or temporary jail could be; there is no form to indicate function beyond the obvious. This is a structure meant to be taken seriously, grimly. Devoid of frills, the symmetrical rows of small windows seem almost an afterthought, as if someone had said, half-way through construction, “They might need some natural light.” A humane gesture, one that didn’t diminish the fact that even cages have openings, neat and falsely impenetrable.
Juan had dressed himself in grays and blues. He wore black jeans with a muted blue t-shirt the color of the sea before a storm, a gray jacket and black leather boots. On his right wrist was a bulky red bangle and a yellow beaded bracelet. On his left wrist was a red beaded rosary that wrapped around a wooden bracelet with pictures of the Virgin Maria on them, like little picture-frames. Juan drew on some light, black eyeliner and brushed on some mascara. He slicked some gel into his heavy black curls. His hair was only a little more than an inch long, but his curls caused his hair to lay heavy and curved in pronounced waves, even with the gel. He wrapped a black shemagh scarf around his neck, tucking his keys into his leather shoulder bag, and stepped outside.
It had begun to to sprinkle outside. The light misting of rain hit his cheeks and threatened to make his eyeliner bleed, so he pulled sunglasses out of his bag and pulled up the hood of his jacket as he waited for the bus. He could wait for Number 12 or Number 27, but the latter rolled up sooner. He climbed up, paid with his Clipper transit card, and sat down across from an elderly El Salvadorean woman. There were lots of Latin Americans in the Mission district and surrounding neighborhoods. There were never a lack of places to get a pupusa or burrito. Some people only spoke their native language; there were health centers and other outreach programs that catered to this population, and getting a job as a bilingual Spanish speaker was easier than if you only spoke English.
Juan had been raised by his grandmother, a devout Catholic from Cuba. She had made him go to Catholic mass every week, sometimes twice. His father had disappeared when he was four years old and his mother always needed to work two jobs to get them by. So, his grandmother -his father’s mother- had lived with him and his mother, and it was from her that he got his faith. He knew that his family would never accept his lifestyle, however. He knew the church condemned his sexuality, and so he left when he was seventeen.
First, he moved to Portland, Oregon. Then, he spent some time in Los Angeles with a lover. After he realized that he had been cheated on repeatedly, he knew that his emotions were being toyed with and left. He got a job at a restaurant in San Francisco, lived in a shared apartment that was far too expensive, and settled in, drinking alone at night. After time, he made friends and eventually got a good job working at the fertility clinic. He moved out of the cramped apartment and into 1345 South Van Ness. It was the nicest place he could have afforded on his own, and though sometimes it attracted questionable people during the night -homeless and drug addicts- he had found somewhere he could call home.
He began to find out what kind of person he was, and realized that his time in Los Angeles was merely an experiment in playing the role other’s wanted him to play, pretending to be the type of gay man that they wanted him to be, the type of boyfriend he thought they found attractive. It took getting his heart broken to force him to leave, and it took him being alone to figure out who he was.
Late one night after work, Lisa had invited him to go out for drinks. They’d spent hours at the the Kava Lounge, drinking non-alcoholic coffee cocktails. He hadn’t expected to be drinking coffee when she said she’d wanted to buy him a drink, but it was refreshing to get to know someone without being tipsy. He felt strangely comfortable, even though alcohol, that inhibition-killer, was absent. They took a cab home to her place and had whiskey night caps. It wasn’t long before they became best friends. She was the wing-woman to his outings at clubs and bars. She rarely dated, and never seemed very interested. A year and a few months after meeting her, she had a birthday. She was quiet as she blew out her single candle on a cupcake Juan had brought her.
“What did you wish for?” he asked, sensing a tension in the air that hadn’t been there before.
Her eyes were gazing at where the flame had been, smoke making serpentine-spirals upward. Her face was placid as a lake at winter, and there was a sadness in her features making her look elegant and tired. She looked up at Juan slowly, regarding him. She was trying to find an answer in his face, or maybe it was the permission to give him the truth that nestled in her heart.
“Lisa..?” Juan put his hand gently on her shoulder. She bit her lip, and took a breath.
“I wished…” she paused, her breathing seemed more labored, heavy. “I wished for a child.”
Juan was stunned. He’d never seen her with anyone serious, and he had already asked her if she was a lesbian. That would’ve been easier to understand than what she’d confided in him, that she simply wasn’t attracted to anyone. She had some dalliances with a boy here or there, sometimes an androgynous woman. Nothing lasted and nothing mattered. She enjoyed her job, she enjoyed playing matchmaker for Juan, but she wasn’t interested in her own love-life. How was she going to have a child unless she adopted?
“I can’t adopt. It has to be mine.” She’d said, after many drinks and a lot of questions from Juan.
“But Lisa, where are you going to get the money to pay for that?” They both knew how expensive it was to get IVF, In Vitro Fertilization, and even adoption was difficult. There weren’t a lot of adoption agencies that would look favorably on a single mother who earned a middle-class wage. The easiest way, the cheapest way, was to just get knocked up via an old-fashioned one-night stand.
“I don’t want the father to be part of his life. At least, not officially. I don’t want anyone else having a claim on my child, and I can’t risk someone I don’t know making a deal with me and changing their mind last minute.” Her jaw was set firmly, her lips a thin line of certainty. “My child will not be dragged into a courtroom custody-battle… all because someone decided they want a claim on the outcome of the donation of their sperm.” She had thought a lot about this.
“But don’t you want help raising the baby, I mean a father-” A sharp look from Lisa shut him up. He realized the idiocy of what he said. He hadn’t had a father raising him. It was only the deep seated desire to have known his father that made him say that. He had had two mothers, and neither of them had the education or the job that Lisa had. She had graduated from nursing school and helped at the clinic tremendously.
“I have a good job, a place of my own, and savings.” She said, very business-like. She looked at him, her eyes suddenly showing nervousness that had never been there before. Her cheeks turned red. “I just need… the extra ingredients to make it happen. Maybe… from a friend.”
It took Juan a full sixty seconds to process what she meant. As soon as he did, his face turned red and his stomach tightened up. Oh my God, he thought, I can’t believe she’s asking me this! I’m gay!
“No. No, no, no way. Wow.” He pulled on his jacket and turned away. “You can’t ask me that. I am gay, Lisa. Fag. I like dick. You aren’t seriously…” He stormed out, slammed the door behind him, and as he reached the street, he muttered under his breath, “Fucking...puta!” but the words were without anger. They were sad. Mournful.
They didn’t talk for three days. That’s the longest they could go without seeing each other, however. They had to show up to the same shift eventually. At work things were tense. Lisa was quiet and withdrawn. It only took a day for Juan to start to feel guilty. After work, he stopped her and quietly said,
He told her that he didn’t want to lose her as a friend, that he was scared she had developed feelings for him, and he didn’t want to lose what they had. She laughed and said,
“No, Juan. I love you. I accept and love who you are and the way you are.” She sighed, tired. “I would never change that.”
“Then… why would you ask something so impossible from me? Why would you risk our friendship?” He had genuine fear and concern in his voice.
“I don’t want to.” She took his hand in hers. “But… you’re the only one I trust.”
Her fingers were small and dainty. She suddenly seemed fragile, and Juan noticed, for the first time, the difference in their size. He was taller than her, stronger, and could’ve lifted her if he’d wanted to. He had a fleeting moment, strange and alien, where he distinctly noticed the feminine in her and the masculine in himself. He was often the more gentle of his male partners. A strange heat rose in his chest, and he felt protective of her. He understood her longing, and thought of all the times she had been the best of friends to him, given him time and love and loyalty and sacrifice. He pulled her into a hug, and whispered into her ear.
“If we’re going to do this…I’m going to need a drink.” He heard her exhale and tension leave her body. “A lot of drinks. And you’re buying.”
She laughed and squeezed him. “Thank you! Thank you. Thank you.”
“And let’s be honest… I’m probably going to need some kind of dick around, also.” He laughed, but was semi-serious. “If you want this to work, you want this” he gestured toward his genitals in no uncertain way “to work, it’s gotta be a lot more gay.” Then he put his hand around her shoulders, and decided this would simply be another strange adventure.
Lisa and Juan both worked out a date to attempt conception. Being employees at a fertility clinic had the added benefit of Lisa knowing exactly when the highest chance of successful conception would be. Lisa marked it on a piece of paper and handed it to Juan during his shift. Juan knew it would be difficult to get in the mood, so he’d invited a bisexual lover to join them. After many drinks, they all headed to Lisa’s place and made love. It was the strangest sensation… as if he were moving outside of his body, watching a film on the bigscreen, immersed but not involved.
When it was over, Lisa was asleep in the bed. Juan had made love a few times to his male friend, Daniel, and then while sipping a night-cap, laid in bed next to Lisa, almost tenderly. The humid steam of sex and sweat hung in the air, warm and heavy as a blanket, and Juan felt that, despite his best efforts something had changed. He just hoped it was the status of Lisa’s fertility, not their friendship. He wrapped Lisa in a summer sheet, tucked her hair behind her ear, and left a cool glass of water by her bed. He and Daniel, the lover he’d invited, kissed goodnight at the doorway after Juan walked him out.
He could have left. He could have gone with him, but he had the strange feeling that he should stay, that he should watch over Lisa. In any case, he couldn’t sleep. His thoughts filled with fantasies of being a father, being someone he had wanted for himself growing up, and he imagined the possible life forming in her womb.
When one month passed and nothing happened, Lisa didn’t talk about it. She simply said, “It didn’t work.” but didn’t dare ask again for the ‘help’ Juan had given her. Juan was relieved, but at the same time a little saddened. This was better for him… but not for her. Something inside her had quieted, as if a light in a lonely room had suddenly dimmed and gone out.
The bus halted with a screech that caused Juan to stagger. He’d been standing, holding on to the safety rail above him. His height made it more difficult to balance after being thrown forward so abruptly. He looked up. He’d arrived at Bryant and 7th, just a few yards from the edge of the ominous building that housed a cold room for interrogation. In his reverie, he’d almost missed it. His mind was almost wholly on Lisa.
Lisa… He thought, moaning internally. Why did you have to die? His heart was tight, his footsteps heavy as he climbed the steps to the entrance of 850 Bryant St. He checked in at the front desk, and they called up to room #525, “Investigations”, was promptly told by a gruff fifty year old woman with stubble to “Wait over there” by the bolted-together steel chairs and an ancient water fountain.
Detective Belgrove and a young man with blonde hair and blue eyes whose nametag read Cook came down to collect him. They asked him to empty his pockets of any metal or weapons, and then was sent through a metal detector and searched. Juan thought they might cuff him, was glad that they didn’t. They simply sent him ahead of them, up the elevator to the 3rd floor and brought through an office, past several other officers at work, criminals or suspects cuffs chained to metal benches, and a cacophony of cursing and ringing phones. Juan could smell booze and vomit, as he was ushered forward away from the drunks, coffee and cigarettes as he almost ran into another officer. Finally, a door was opened for him, he was seated in a cool, steel chair. The door clicked shut. Silence.
Detective Belgrove sat opposite his suspect, eyeing him with a hawk’s fascination. He had a small file in front of him containing details from the night of the murder, pictures of Lisa’s body. He opened it, checked the date of the murder -November 10th, called in at approximately 4:52am- made a face of severe concern, looked up at Juan and closed the file, pushing it to his left.
Belgrove made a thin-lipped grin, faked but sincere enough to try and put his suspect at ease. He pushed the record button on the tape recorder in front of him.
“Juan Jesus Martinez, age 34, you live at 1345 South Van Ness. Is that correct?” Belgrove was opening with the facts. When someone listened the tape later, it was standard to know who was being interviewed.
“Yes, that’s correct.” answered Juan, feeling tense.
“Mr. Martinez, how long have you lived at apartment 1345?”
“About three years.”
“Where did you live before?”
“I lived in the Tenderloin with a few other people. It was a shared flat.” Juan made a face of displeasure. The Tenderloin’s human traffic included many drug addicts and homeless. During the night you could often hear the serenade of violent yelling and hysteria from outside a balcony window.
“Ah, yes. That’s always an interesting neighborhood.” Belgrove chuckled. “My first apartment was in the Tenderloin. I didn’t sleep a single night without earplugs and music playing. It used to be much worse than it is today, if you can believe it.” Juan settled in his seat. “Anywhere else?” Belgrove was giving him open ended questions. He just wanted to get him to talk himself into an unsuspecting calm, then he’d grill him on the murder.
“I used to live in Phoenix, Arizona as a kid. I lived with my mom. But I left when I was seventeen. Went to Portland for a while, then Los Angeles, and now I’m here.” Juan decided it was best to be straightforward, but he didn’t need to include his grandmother. He was born here, didn’t have a criminal record, he didn’t have to worry, he thought. His grandmother? Well, she taught him at a young age to avoid getting into trouble with the law. She had no citizenship to speak of, although she’d been there for over forty years, brought over by a son who later abandoned his family.
“How about your father?” Belgrove asked.
“Left us when I was young. Don’t remember him.” Juan said, stiffly.
“What a shame. My dad wasn’t around much, either.” Belgrove frowned, his demeaner serious and sympathizing. “My mother, though, she was a saint. I bet your mom was one strong woman to raise you on her own.”
“Yes, she is.” Juan didn’t agree with his mother, but she had always worked hard and protected him.
“No, just me.”
“I see. And what about work?” Belgrove continued, casually. “I’m sure you’ve had a lot of jobs since you were seventeen.” It was just Juan and Belgrove in the room. Juan and Belgrove, and his young partner, Cook, listening from behind the two-way glass wall.
“A few. I was in the service industry for a while, before I took night-classes at school and got the job I have now.”
“And what are you doing now?”
“I work at a fertility clinic.”
“Oh really? Tell me about it.” Belgrove feigned interest. “My wife and I have been considering that.”
Juan felt surprise at the sudden personal comment from the detective, but a part of his brain that fell back on the comfort of a familiar role made him start to tell Belgrove about the services that the fertility clinic offered, the types of people they helped.
“I don’t do the actual medical services,” Juan added. He’d had no training for that and he didn’t want to get the detective suspicious that he was operating without a license. “I just help with the tests and assist the new mothers-to-be with our counseling and consulting options.”
“How long have you worked there?”
“Almost five years.”
“And how did you know the deceased?” The question was abrupt, and nearly threw Juan off course. He’d gotten comfortable talking about something he considered to be his professional life, something almost unemotional compared to what was going on in his personal life. His face changed, and Belgrove saw it. Belgrove’s eyes narrowed a fraction, and he took a mental note of Juan’s behavior.
“I, uh, I met her at work.” Juan felt hurt somehow, as if they were having a civil discussion over a cup of tea, and then someone came and flipped the drinks over and broke them. He knew the getting-to-know-you portion of this interview was over.
“How long ago?”
“It’s… it’s been about-” Juan bit his lip, thinking. It felt like forever since he’d met her. She had been such a huge part of his life. “-two years. I think.”
“We saw pictures of you both all over your apartment.” Belgrove crossed his hands. “It seems you both were close. A lot closer than work-acquaintances.”
“Yes. Everyone knows that. We were friends. She was like, an amazing person.” Juan felt defensive.
“How well would you say you knew the victim?” Belgrove started writing notes on a paper pad. Juan glanced over, nervous. He didn’t want to get into how intimately they knew each other.
“Lisa. Here name’s Lisa.” He stuck out his chin, a little defiantly. Lisa was a person, not just some ‘victim’ to add to their crimes list. “Very well. We were best friends, or almost like best friends. We were nearly inseparable.”
“And so you knew where she lived?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And she knew where you lived?”
“Would she normally come over to your residence in the middle of the night?”
“No, but if she felt like she needed a place to crash,” Juan stopped and pursed his lips, narrowing his eyes in return to the detectives questioning, “of course she could come and knock on my door.”
“Well, she was found close to your apartment. What was she doing there that night?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know she was coming over.”
“She was pregnant, walking in an alley at night. You seriously are asking us to believe that she didn’t tell you she was coming by?” Belgrove had a tone of sarcasm in his voice. “Come on now. It’s the age of cellphones. Technology. She would’ve told you she was nearby.”
“I don’t know! She didn’t tell me.” Juan was getting upset. He had thought this over and over again. He’d lost sleep wondering why, Why hadn’t she just called me? He thought. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened to her if…
“I don’t know why she was there that late. She shouldn’t have been walking around at night like that, not in her condition.”
“Condition? You mean pregnant?” Belgrove’s eyes raised.
“She was in the first trimester. You can lose the baby easiest during that time.” Juan looked at Belgrove’s expressionless face, and mentally cursed him. He didn’t get it. “If you are going to have a miscarriage, it’s going to be within the first three months, the first trimester.”
Just then, the blonde-haired and blue eyed officer, Cook, came in. Juan barely recognized him as the younger cop he’d spoken to the night of the murder. Cook leaned over to Belgrove, whispered something to him, and left. Belgrove gave a curt glance to Juan, grabbed the file on the table and gruffly said,
“I’ll be back. Wait here.” He paused, an aggressiveness in his posture that wasn’t there before. “Try and see if you can remember anything more before I return.” Then he left out the door, leaving Juan alone in the cold room.
Juan sat in the room, feeling deafened by the quiet. It seemed as if the room was getting smaller, colder the longer he stayed in it. He hadn’t brought his watch, and they’d confiscated his telephone before he entered the room. He began tapping his fingers on the table, drumming out patterns to songs that played somewhere in the back of his subconscious mind. His seat became uncomfortable, and he began to wish to get up and move around. He stood, paced, sat back down again. There was a temptation to test the doorknob, just to see if it would open. Why would it be open, Juan? Damn. They’re not gonna just tell criminals to stay here and wait and expect them to do it.
Then a thought occurred to him, one that chilled him to the bone. Do they… think I’m the criminal? Juan, again pacing the floor, stopped dead in his tracks and sat down. He felt his palms sweat, his body get cold. Oh god, no. Virgin Mary protect me. I can’t go to jail, no no no they have the wrong guy. How could they think that? Lisa…She was my friend. She was. ...wasn’t she?
It must have been more than twenty minutes that he’d been left alone to worry, to make assumptions about what the detective was doing. He got angry, frustrated, and finally, he got afraid.
And he couldn’t shake the thought he’d had since they’d found her that night, dead, defiled, her body destroyed. If she was really my friend, why didn’t she come to me?
Then another thought occurred to him. What if she was? What if she was running from something and running towards me, for safety?
A fresh wave of despair washed over him. Time, he knew, didn’t favor anyone. Every drag queen knew that. They joked about age, and they saw the younger, “newer” version of themselves come and go. He was still young, but he valued the company -and wisdom- of older queens. But the lessons they taught were also those of sacrifice, of knowing that you might lose your dearest friend because they were careless, or careful, because they loved the wrong person. You might show your love and die by hate. You simply never knew… and so everything was honored and sacred, at least it was to them. And that’s what he learned from them, to live that way, with that in mind.
He had never expected it to be Lisa. Somehow, he thought he would have been the one to die young. He had never expected Time to take a few moments from him that would keep him from seeing her in the alley, keep him from helping her, or at least saying goodbye to her during her final breaths.
She died alone, horrifically, in the dark and in pain.
The door swung open without warning. Juan wanted to yell out, “I know my rights! I didn’t do anything. Why did you keep me in here so long!”
Instead, he kept his mouth shut and sat down. The caution his abuela taught him as a child came rushing back. He swallowed and met Belgrove’s gaze.
Belgrove’s eyes looked darker than before, his demeanor more imposing. The familiarity and ease that he’d had before had vanished. He threw down a file, larger than before, on the table.
“Mr. Martinez, we have reason to believe you a possible suspect in the murder of Lisa Falealili.”