Junot in Brief: A Careful Sketch

Her skin is soft and cool to the touch; it’s as if she’s just stepped off a town square Christmas carriage ride, brushing loose snow off her shoulders, ducking into the glow of a local bistro to meet you for warm mocha and bright smiles. I’m not kidding. She has this aura year-round, even in the gusty August heat of Georgia’s Atlantic coast.

Her sense of style is a playful haute couture, and there is something new about her hair every time you see her. It will be shorter than before, or longer, or a different color. She is not a celebrity, but she is a mesmerizing figure with a full complement of followers on Instagram and Pinterest. In the winter she wears loud paisley scarves and soft deerskin riding boots; in the summer she dresses in white chiffon and Nancie sandals. She always smells icy fresh, and she was given a boy’s name, which she adores.

She drives a little antique hand-me-down Italian convertible that her father bought new after graduating law school, and she looks, as she likes to put it with a pucker, mwah fabulous — with a floating, dancing grace in every step she takes. Publically she is full of energy, compliments, and laughs. Privately she is cozy; in a perennial PJs, Netflix, and hot cocoa mood. She likes to watch documentaries on any subject as well as any foreign film from the 1960s. The pixie cut, she will still tell you, defined an era of bohemian majesty.

Junot lives with her mother, a stay-at-home poet-dreamer and an amateur oenophile on Tybee Island. The house is an early Craftsman beachfront with a wrap-around, screened-in porch that faces the tide to the southeast. Inside, their home is decorated in a mishmash of quilty Americana, and where large volume, stacked collectible books create end tables; where fluffy, heavy linen-draped couches and oversized citrus-colored pillows overwhelm and then consume their guests. Junot’s father, Martin, is a major software patent attorney who commutes to Boston where he has a townhouse and, apparently, another life altogether. He comes home every other weekend to see his wife and daughter, inspect his property, and handoff spending money because he hates credit and debit cards; he doesn’t trust them. He can be seen alone with a book, sipping good gin from the wicker set in the backyard garden on Saturdays. He also stops to quickly check himself whenever he passes his reflection. He arrives by taxi on Friday nights and leaves on Sunday afternoon like clockwork. Cheek kisses, brief hugs, and out the door he will go.

Junot’s mother, Mary Ella, feigns contentment and purpose by staying busy every day until 3:30ish with various errands and bookish, self-improvement studies to maintain the necessary level of sophisticated distraction. A quick run to the dry cleaners, some fresh produce from the farmer’s market, an hour-long class on Asian cooking at the community center. But then she succumbs to the emptiness, uncorks the first of a sundry number of wines, swallows a Xanax, and vacantly drifts through her iPhone social media apps in the evening lamplight of the sunroom.

Martin tells his wife that his work is very important as he packs his small travel bag on Sundays. Martin will tell his wife that he hates how they have to be separated for such long periods, but that it is necessary to maintain their standard of living along with the Tybee Island beachfront with which she could never part. Martin signals the cab driver and closes the screen door behind him while Mary Ella forces a smile as she waves him off.

* * *

I’m sure Martin is why Junot never wants to fall in love. Instead, she dates guys that make a statement with the what, not the who, of themselves. She once went out with an attractive black guy who was a sound engineer at a Savannah recording studio. She also saw a ginger runway model from Canada whose name was Florian — but went by Flo — and who, like the sound engineer, soon found himself in Junot’s well-appointed past. I think she approaches these relationships as photo ops; a chance to catalog something exotic and elegant on social media — like a trip to the French Alps or the summer beaches of Barcelona — but, in the end, happy to get off the plane, shed the baggage, and slip back into some flannel and the comfortable isolation of home.

Likewise, Junot’s sex life, as it were, is a sort of mystery. Smiling coyly, she will occasionally allude to adventurousness in the bedroom, even hinting at possible same-sex dalliances here and there, but never enough to paint herself as too promiscuous or overly experienced. Junot wants to be considered open-minded and worldly, but with a degree of innocence suitable for a storybook marriage to a most eligible bachelor. Should that ever happen, she will say, adding, should such a man even exist. And until such time, she will always insist, it will be Junot the ingenue.

Junot, the coquettish ingenue.

And then there’s me. Charlie. I have been friends with Junot since the fifth grade when we were table partners in the elementary art class and she was new to the Island. That’s a long time to know someone without knowing too-too much about them, but that’s Junot for you. We do things together all the time, from canvassing thrift shops for hidden treasures to grocery runs at those international food stores, looking for things like saffron for a Brazilian ceviche recipe. And you see, I am actually in love with her, terminally so, but I am afraid that telling her would destroy our relationship. She thinks I’m gay anyway, I’m sure, and I know that is one of the reasons that I am like a wardrobe piece to her; an accessory, sure, but a favorite, much-worn accessory. She has called me her best friend since a little after we met. We both like the same music, too, which is any band that Junot is into at the moment — that will one day be popular with the masses — but don’t forget that Junot loved it first and that she has since grown tired of their sound altogether.

Maybe it isn’t actual love, though. I really don’t know. But when she goes through her boyfriend phases I never get jealous. No, what Junot means to me is comfort and exclusivity. We always have a good time together, she has a generous heart, and I am envied by all who wish they were me. I have exclusive access to the beautiful-funky-social Junot. And while it may not be a whole lot, I know more about her than anyone. Except for her mom. She tells her mom everything. And I mean everything. No secrets. She even told her mom when she first tried the soixante-neuf in ninth grade with a boy she met on spring break. But it is me, Charlie, smoking clove cigarettes and sipping grappa with Junot on the veranda, listening to her future plans for the two of us in architecture or appraising renaissance art for Sotheby’s or owning a small French cafe. She has dreams. Big, ever-changing dreams.

* * *

During Christmas break, when Junot and I were nearing the end of high school, we decided to pop in on her father for a surprise visit in Cambridge. Just like any surprise visit from a daughter to a father, except that it was a very bad idea. And that’s because Martin has secrets. And on that day, Martin had company.

We flew a regional up to Manchester-Boston, had a ridiculously overpriced lunch as I recall at the terminal, and grabbed a cab. You could literally see the emotion on Junot’s face. She was so excited to see her dad. She was just going to drop in and visit, like grown-ups do. And Martin was also a sort of prize possession for Junot. He was successful, had very nice things, and was also very generous with the two of us. His generosity, like any other affectation, gave Junot an additional sense of charity and grace; as if she herself had given out the small stack of large bills.

But I believed then — and I still do — that Junot loves the idea of Martin, but not necessarily Martin himself. He was generally withdrawn and aloof, not to mention pretentious and terse with a perpetual hint of irritation in his voice. Like he always had someplace more important to be, or do, or so on. I brought all of it up to Junot once, and I could tell she felt the same way, but she shrugged it off with a big Junot grin and reminded me that he was pretty important and that, well, a lot of really smart people were like that. I used to think she was trying to convince herself of this, but now it’s clear that her excuses were simply justifications.

The driver drove us to the address Junot had given him earlier, the address where she would forward important correspondence to her father when it came to the island instead of his brownstone. The same address she would send her report cards, birthday greetings, personal accomplishments, etcetera. Junot had been to his place a few times with her mother, and she held dear the charm and elegance of the neighborhood the same way she held dear her father, but she actually loved her mother. Junot loved having her mother to herself, too. Truly, Martin could be considered a bi-monthly distraction and a source of pride and income for my dear friend, and, in reality, that is about all there is to that relationship.

When we turned onto Martin’s street, Junot asked the driver to pull over a block away from our destination. She wanted to sneak a quick cigarette mostly, but Junot also wanted to walk up without the distraction of a taxi cab parked in the street and spoiling her big surprise visit. Rolling the big suitcase behind us, we made our way up the sidewalk, sharing the cigarette just like we shared the luggage, just like we shared everything.

The nostalgia was building up with each step and Junot excitedly turned and smiled at me without saying a word. Her gait went from a semi-cautious approach to an actual frolic with occasional playful pirouettes. I knew what she was thinking, too. We’d be showered at the door with grateful but surprised hugs, mock-admonished for not calling ahead so that a decent dinner could have been prepared, but settling in with red wine and local pizza delivery with the three of us like SoHo poets on the living room rug, watching Woody Allen movies. Martin would treat Junot differently with Mary Ella not there, like the young woman she had become; mature, bright, and self-possessed, everything a father could ever want in his little girl all grown up.

So I stayed at the bottom of the stoop while Junot skipped up and rang the doorbell. She glanced back at me and quickly scrunched her face with a silly grin until the door opened. And to this day what I saw seems hard to believe. Martin answered the door, distracted, laughing at something or someone behind him. And apparently, he was expecting someone else when he turned and faced his daughter. Because Martin was standing there in full drag. Big, bouffy wig, super-short cocktail dress, fishnets and heels, his festive tone from just moments before turned into a wide-eyed shriek and he slammed the door. Tears immediately filled Junot’s eyes and she shot down the stairs, telling me to move the fuck out of the way with an angry push. I was shocked and clueless. I watched Junot running away from me, then I looked back at the slammed door, then back at Junot who was quickly disappearing in the distance.

I thought about chasing after her, and I thought about knocking on the door again. I wanted clarity more than anything, but I figured I should just leave it alone. So, I did.

* * *

Back on the island a few days later it was as if nothing had ever happened. We were back in the safety of Junot’s bedroom, listening to her music, with my head in her lap, her fingers combing my hair. I could spend the rest of my life with my head in her lap; Junot playing with my hair. What are we going to do with ourselves, she asked? I didn’t answer.




Proudly irreverent bon vivant, voyageur du monde, unapologetic apologist, expat, linguaphile, descriptive grammarian, and connoisseur of the Oxford Comma.

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christopher combest

christopher combest

Proudly irreverent bon vivant, voyageur du monde, unapologetic apologist, expat, linguaphile, descriptive grammarian, and connoisseur of the Oxford Comma.

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