When his father found the stockings for the second time, Felipe was twenty-six and still living with his parents, no wife of his own. His father had gone looking for a lighter and, unable to locate one in the kitchen drawer or next to the ashtray on the coffee table, went into Felipe’s room for the Real Madrid matchbooks his son always carried in his back pockets. While reaching into a pair of flung-away pants on the dresser, he found the stockings balled up underneath. Felipe, late for work, had stripped and cast off his clothing, unthinking.
At that moment, Felipe was at the Farmacia where he worked as a technician, handing out bottles of pills and directing customers to the cough medicine and cotton balls. He wasn’t a faggot, he told himself. The fabric sliding over the pinprick hairs of his calves put him in mind of all the women he’d imagined being with over the years, all the women he’d wanted to touch, but hadn’t.
The first time he’d been caught, he was fourteen. His father walked in on him standing in front of a full-length mirror in nothing but black stockings, like the kind Spanish girls wore under jean miniskirts and leather boots, tripping-tipsy on calimocho. His father, a broad-shouldered man who stood a full head higher than Felipe, did nothing for a moment, his hand hovering over his chest. His father’s whole body swayed with the expansion and contraction of his lungs, as though he were floating, barely moving underwater. And then his father broke through. He grabbed Felipe by the throat, and shoved him into the bedroom wall. A picture crashed to the floor. His father’s fingers gripped Felipe so tightly that his nail beds went white.
“I will not have a fucking maricón in my house.”
Snot and tears dripped down Felipe’s chin, both of his hands trying to pry his father’s fingers away, when, suddenly, his father let go.
“Clean yourself up. Your mother will be home soon.” And he left the room and Felipe, who was on the floor, rubbing his neck, panting. They never spoke of the incident.
Over the years, Felipe had almost forgotten the feeling of frantic blood building in his head and face, his vision going spotty at the edges. The memory was crowded by the cheers they shared when their favorite football star, Ronaldo, scored his goal in fifteen seconds; by afternoons on the balcony, faces sticky-sweet with melón on the hottest days of July; by the weight of his father’s hand on his back, right between his shoulder blades, as he said, “Good boy,” whenever he was proud.
Since the first time he’d been caught, Felipe hid his stash in a gym bag in his closet, underneath his football jersey and shorts. Some sheer, some thick and dark, others thigh-high, white and lacy like the edge of a wedding invitation, and still more with tessellating ripples and diamonds. Felipe liked the way they felt when he ran his legs over one another while he lay in bed at night, listening to some distant guitar strumming in the Plaza de Cervantes, the summer heat settling in his room through the open window. Sometimes, as he walked from the Farmacia where he worked in Calle Mayor, past the drunk, middle-aged men outside of La Restauración, who were falling over their tables, flirting with the waitresses, the slick push-pull of his pants across the fabric underneath made him smile.
But tonight, his father was waiting for him, sitting in the sundown-darkened room smoking. For a moment, Felipe thought someone had broken in. The mattress had been flipped off the bed—sheets and blankets tangled, drawers ripped from the dresser and tossed aside; everything from the closet rested on the floor in a great heap, including the gym bag, which was open, overturned.
“Dad,” Felipe started, “what did—” He stopped. He watched his father grind the nose of a cigarette into an ashtray.
“You have a girlfriend,” his father finally said.
He was sitting on the chair in front of Felipe’s desk, grinning. But there was a catch of something else in his eyes. He gestured to the pile of hosiery that sat near his feet. “Maybe more than one?”
Felipe flinched when his father moved, though he only bent down to grab the pile of stockings up in one hand.
“Seventeen pairs—souvenirs, right? From each girl?” He looked at Felipe, waiting.
Felipe was aware of the ticking of the clock above his bed, the sweat on his neck and back, how warm it suddenly was. His hands tingled; his calf muscles were taut, ready to move. But then, Felipe saw that the catch of light in his father’s eye wasn’t that of a wild animal, but of one that had been caged and tethered.
“Tell me—they’re from your girlfriends, aren’t they?” his father asked, his voice hoarse.
Felipe swallowed and then nodded.
His father mirrored this gesture. “Of course, of course they are.” He picked up the overturned wastebasket, and dropped the stockings inside. “Felipe, this is how men are—all these girls—this is the way it’s supposed to be. I understand that. But your mother, she wouldn’t. She won’t understand. It would destroy her. It would destroy our family.” And he reached into his pocket, and pulled out the Real Madrid matchbook he had come looking for. He handed it to Felipe.
Felipe took the matchbook. His father was breathing as if he couldn’t quite get enough oxygen. “Do you understand what I’m saying to you? It would destroy our entire family.”
Heart throbbing all the way to his fingertips, Felipe trembled—not at the memory of his father pinning him to the wall, but at a vision of the future, of his mother ripping tissues into bits while she cried, wrapping her pink bathrobe around her body while she watched Felipe pack his bags with his books, his football gear, his stockings.
Bile rose in his throat, but he swallowed hard, and tore out a single match, striking it on the side. The fire flared, and then began to burn, traveling down the thin cardboard. It worked its way farther and farther. Five more seconds and his skin would melt. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt. Maybe it was okay even if it did, so long as he held on. In the dark of the room, Felipe could just make out the glint of his father’s eyes, which were unblinking.
The heat had already invaded his forefinger and thumb, like a craving, but in that moment of hearing his father’s voice crack, Felipe knew he wouldn’t let the flame touch him.
He flicked the match into the wastebasket. There was a thrill of heat, the fire passing from one pair to the next, spreading like a rumor until the whole pile was in flames.
“Good boy,” he heard his father say. Felipe tried to see beyond the blaze, to find his father’s eyes and the mouth that formed the words. But there was only light, and smoke, and a shadow that used to be a man.
Ashley Caveda is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University and her work has appeared in the Superstition Review.