Short Story

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: “Wingman”

I saw Obed right before I paddled past the break. I was wading into a meadow of ocean that peaked and pulled around my waist when I turned around and saw him. He was short, a stub of a man. He had ruddy cheeks, burnt bread-skin and a bed of thinning black fuzz crowning his scalp. He stood on the beach watching me, then he sat down, as if he had every intention to see me surf. I focused back on the ocean. The surf report said the odds were in my favor until 11am, a good morning for catching a wave. A good morning for getting increasingly settled in my new environs, in South Florida where I had recently moved after my girlfriend from Plantation left South Florida, and me.

I climbed onto the board and stood up. I focused on the spread above, burning down to the cerulean waters below. I was just the ocean’s child, at its mercy, that great and furious heavy thing I could never tame.

I flew over a bump of blue and the wave carried me back to flat sand. The man clapped. I smiled at him, not knowing what else to do.

I picked my board back up and studied the sea again, waiting for another wave. I felt the man get up, start to approach me and reconsider it. At this point I just wanted him to say something so we could get the interaction over with so I could get back to this moment to myself.

Finally, as I started to approach the skirt of water again, he came up to me.

“We are in the same apartment. My name is Obed,” the older man said with a slight Spanish accent. He stared at me, near adoringly. I had never had eyes drape over me with such reverence before. “I saw you out there. I think you are beautiful.”

I blinked. I had never been called “beautiful” before, even by girls who usually called me “cute.” I was just a 30-year-old Black American and Puerto Rican guy from Pittsburgh who did part-time personal training while I dreamed of owning my own business. I had sharp, high cheekbones, a beaming smile, tawny skin and went to the gym regularly enough so layers of muscle rose from my torso and arms. Still, I rarely thought about what I looked like to other people. I didn’t know what he meant by “beautiful.”

“Thanks,” I said lamely, not knowing how to respond. “I’m Gideon. It’s cool we’re in the same apartment. What number are you?”

“2B,” he said, his eyes shining as he gazed at me. “I was hoping somebody as beautiful as you could help me.”

I wondered if I should try to book it or stay. I found myself lingering there a little too long because he went on,

“Will you meet me at my apartment at 5pm tonight? I will make you food and tell you how you can help me. I will give you anything I can give you in return.”

“I’ll let you know,” I said politely and returned to the ocean. As the water came up to my thighs, I looked back to see if the man was still there but he’d moved on.


50 SE 12th, or rather the two-story Gentle Palms, was yellow-painted, box-shaped and quickly going to shit. The windows creaked and rattled, the punched-in roof wilted, the walls were thin and poorly made. Dishes slammed, stallions on television galloped, voices hollered in different languages at all hours of the day. I’d rented the one-room place after Thalia left and I’d started seeing clients at BackRoom Gym. The apartment was cheap, ugly and distinctly unimpressive but I couldn’t afford anything better. Every so often I’d have fantasies about Thalia rushing back and I wanted something better for her than this place. But still, I was stuck here and had been for a little over a week.

On my drive back home, I strangely thought about Obed, which was a welcome break from replaying my relationship with Thalia in my head over and again. I hadn’t really noticed Obed around the apartment much. 50th had a grabbag of folks from all walks of life, a 4 foot 10 Peruvian woman named Ellie who brought me ceviche and told me to warn everyone that a machete hung over her door. There was Frances, a Haitian bodybuilder who would always be outside for some reason, stalking the lawn and hollering to an angry somebody on the other line. There was a pregnant white mother named Laudy who had a tightly pinched face and exhausted eyes. There was a red-eyed Swedish college dropout we never saw who always came back at 3am. He was the guy I got my weed from. I didn’t know the others. But I would have remembered Obed. He said I was beautiful but there was something both strange and shimmering about him.

When I got back to my apartment, I went to my place on the second floor which was right next to Ellie. Ellie, with her brown bowl cut, skinny walk and oversized shirt with Tweety Bird on it, emerged from the door when she saw me pass.

“Hey Ellie,” I turned around and caught her before she went back inside. “Do you know Obed? I don’t know his last name. I saw him on the beach this morning.”

“Yes, yes,” she said. At that moment the body builder wrestled his door open and came outside, yelling on the phone again. Ellie ignored him and kept going, “He’s from Puerto Rico like your father. He came here a few weeks ago, he’s like you, a newbie. He just got a divorce and wanted to start over anew in the United States.”

I felt more relieved knowing that he legitimately lived in the apartment. “He asked me for a favor and to meet him today at 5pm. I don’t know what to do.”

Ellie shrugged. “He’s harmless. If he’s not I’ll be over with my machete.”



At 5pm, I found myself in front of Obed’s apartment, awkwardly holding a 6-pack of Jai-Alai. I had no idea why I was there, maybe because it was my off day and I wanted to meet more people, maybe I wanted to be more adventurous since Thalia told me she tired of me never taking risks, always staying in the box. I wondered if it was because he called me beautiful, so tenderly, and I thought a dude like that can’t be all that bad. So maybe a good old fashion mix of curiosity and narcissism led me to that door that afternoon.

Obed immediately opened up. Something sharply piquant was on the stove and fumes of garlic powder, plantains and oleander rushed through the door. I couldn’t place the smell.

He beamed when he saw me. “Gideon! You actually came. I didn’t think you would come to see me.” He ushered me into a cramped black space. A Puerto Rican flag hung from the wall and there was a tilted picture of an amateurish ocean on the wall. He didn’t have a couch, just two pillows propped up on a foldout bed.

He gestured for me to sit on the sofa so I did. He also didn’t have a dining table so I had no idea where we would eat.

“What are you making?” I asked. “Puerto Rican food? My father is Puerto Rican. My ex is Puerto Rican. I’ve had it before.” I bit my tongue, irritated that Thalia had found her way into even this conversation.

“Where was your ex’s family from?” he said, ignoring my question about the food and my own heritage.

“Rincon,” I said. “But anyway she’s an ex so I don’t need to keep talking about her.”
He grinned. “I understand. I am here because my wife doesn’t want me anymore either. You think you’re in control for the entire relationship then one day, the girl is gone. So is your money, your time, your heart. And there she is, unbothered.”

I hoped Thalia still cared about me on some level, but since she’d left me for That Man, I had no idea. “What favor did you want from me?”

“I’m in love with someone new,” he said. “There’s a girl I want to help me move on.”

“That’s great,” I said. “What do you want me to do though?”

“I want you to accompany me to the coffee shop where she works. You are young and handsome and can surf well, so I thought she might think I was a normal, nice guy if I have a friend who is like you. I was hoping you could talk about my finer attributes.”

“Okay,” I said and thought this man was definitely good for my ego which had taken a bruising after Thalia left. He basically just wanted a wingman. “How long have you known her?”

“Two months. She works at the coffee shop on E Sunrise Boulevard. I go there as often as I can to see her. I want to bring her food. I’m making some for you today.”

He excused himself and walked over to the kitchen. He piled a scoop of something grey and mustard-colored onto the plate and he handed it to me. It had sticky gravy, yellow rice and way too many onions.

“This isn’t Puerto Rican food,” I said. “What the hell is this?”

Obed winked. “It’s a concoction of my own. I think I would like her to try it. Here, you try.”

I blinked a few times and took a bite. Or a sip. I couldn’t quite describe the slippery substance that soured immediately in my mouth. Obed was just sitting there, glowing, expecting a compliment.

“Yeah, I don’t think you should give this to her,” I said, reasoning that insulting Obed now would save him trouble later. “Seriously don’t.”

He, expectantly, looked hurt. “Why not? I eat this everyday.”

My eyes widened. He sighed and took my plate away from me. “My wife used to cook for me. I’m still trying things out myself. I suppose I’m no good.”

“Maybe you can just not give her anything and just be yourself on the first meeting. Girls don’t want to be bribed into you going out with them.” Or at least that’s what Thalia told me.

He stared at me. “With your help, I can.”

I smiled. I had no idea what I was getting into. “We’ll see.”

He decided to go tomorrow morning and I decided to accompany him before my first client. He convinced me that he should bring flowers at least and he said scarlet roses would be the best pick. I told him he was coming on too strong and suggested daffodils instead. He agreed. We had nothing to eat so we ate Obed’s strange soup and watched the Packers score.

“Gideon,” he said during a commercial. “Do you know why she left?”

I paused. I didn’t want to get into it yet but I was always eager to talk about my Thalia issue. I thought about how her face darkened when I asked her about all of those text messages on her phone and how she started crying. How I said nothing more, tucking the flash of heart and secret sentences I’d just seen somewhere inside of me so I didn’t have to think about them. How I held her close as she wept, how I, bizarrely was the one to comfort her as she told me how she was divided between me and Him. That Man.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “It wasn’t me. It was never me.”

Obed watched a commercial of a CGI mouse running under a table. “I’m sorry, my friend. The thing for me is that my girl always loved me. And I loved her. She was devoted and capable in our marriage. But I just saw her as a constant, as something that was easy to recline into, like a good couch. She was furniture to me. She hated feeling that way.” He tapped the side of his wilted sofa. “And one day, after our son married, she told me she was leaving and going to her aunt Ag’s house in Guayanilla. And she never came back no matter how many times I tried to convince her. So I came to the U.S. to start again but there was a part of me hoping she’d try to make me stay in Puerto Rico. And she didn’t.”

“Well, now you can talk to someone new,” I said, hoping that he wouldn’t get doused in the kind of sorrow I fought every day.

He smiled. We returned to the TV and watched the mouse get stuck in the trap.


Ideally, when your girlfriend cheats on you, you bounce. It’s the Biggest No-No, the strictest and fiercest line. Cheating is cold, wildly ugly; it’s vicious lies, an incessant pattern of deceit that builds and layers and transforms the woman you loved into some misted ghost, someone untouchable and terrifying. When Thalia told me about Him, her silky-tongued, long-term friend who she fell for, I firstly wanted to beat the shit out of him. Secondly, I wanted to ask Him a bunch of questions. This person who shared the body I loved, while I was loving it, what did he think about when he gazed at my girlfriend? Why do this to another man? Were they fated to be together, or had he just gotten bored one day and decided to make a move on my girlfriend? I told her not to tell me anything about Him, but I imagined Him walking through the door and tightly embracing her and I wanted to vomit every time.

She didn’t know I wanted to cry when she told me the truth, but I didn’t. I always told myself that I would exit if I was ever cheated on but tight-knit bonds were not so easy to sever. I found myself begging for her to choose me over Him. I thought I was a good enough looking guy, my job brought in a fine enough income at that time. I told her I’d stay with her regardless, I told her I’d always care for her. She called me too perfect, a straight line when she was shaky about our whole relationship. My friends called me a soggy chump, but I thought I knew my girl’s core so I didn’t care what they said. And then, she chose him and left our apartment one simple morning. She was sobbing when she left; I knew she loved me. But love wasn’t enough.

I thought the feelings would pass after I moved to Fort Lauderdale, and the fast snap of pain grew duller as the months went by, but the general dreariness remained. I worked, I came home, watched television, did it all over again the next day. Maybe the monotony of the quotidian and being tired of thinking about Thalia happily hugging Him had made me softer toward Obed. I didn’t know. What I did know is that I’d agreed to help this man, and my brain could be preoccupied, at last.


In the morning, I went over to Obed’s and helped him pick out an outfit. He didn’t have much in his closet, but he did have a pastel pink polo and well-cut slacks, so I thought that might be fine enough. He’d already bought his bouquet of fresh-smelling bright red roses (not daffodils) and he was doused in Old Spice. After he got ready, he dragged me to this car, a 98’ Volvo clunker, and we hopped in and drove to the shop.

The coffee shop was called Skeleton, and it had photographs of bones and skulls scattered around the place because “Skeletons endure the longest after death” or so said a sign on the door. The vibe was sleek; black leather couches decorated a bright crimson space. Obed paused at the door as his eyes travelled to a woman at the counter.

She had a sheet of straight black hair that brushed her shoulders, a spray of freckles over her nose, bright olive skin, a long sharp nose and plump lips. She looked like she was just slightly older than me, which in my opinion, sort of young for Obed, who looked like he was in his mid–60s. She was standing at the register and she wasn’t smiling. I thought, this might not be a good idea, he didn’t give me enough information about this.

Obed came in through the door with his bouquets of flowers and I winced. He was beaming. The woman looked up at both of us and gave us a curious glare.

Obed approached her nervously and I followed him.

“Hello, my dear,” Obed said to her. “It’s been a while.”

She stared at the flowers as if wondering why he wasn’t mentioning them. “Not a long while, Obed, you were here just last Friday.”

Obed blushed. “Well, I enjoy coming here to see you.”

She didn’t smile. “Who are the flowers for?”

“You, amor,” she said. “I’m hoping you might like them.”

He thrust them into her arms and she accepted them awkwardly. She put them behind the register and blinked at both of us. “Thank you,” she said flatly. “What can I get for you?”

There was a tense, heavy silence that spread out between us and I said, “An Americano, please.”

“And who are you?” she asked with raised eyebrows.

“He’s my friend,” Obed said. “A personal trainer and a surfer.”

She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and glanced at me up and down. She wasn’t assessing me like I was someone she was interested in, she was stripping me down with her eyes, assessing if I was worth even responding to. I half-smiled, trying to be friendly but she switched her eyes at both of us and she touched her hair uncomfortably.

“One Americano, anything else?” she asked. Obed opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again.

“Yes. I’d like to ask you on a date this Friday. At La Caretta’s,” the words tumbled from Obed’s mouth too fast. The woman’s eyebrows jutted up and while I was looking at her surprise my eyes travelled to the wedding ring on her white finger. I wanted to kick myself. I should have asked Obed more information about this woman. I would have told him it was a no-go.

She leaned forward, preparing to reject him, but I pulled Obed away and said, “Actually, we’re hanging out on Friday. He got the date wrong. Forget about what Obed said.”

She didn’t buy it. “You know, I’m married,” she said to Obed. “Happily.”

Obed looked unfazed. “I guessed as much. But I believe in true love and I know you’re the right one for me. Let me prove it to you. Let me—”

“Hey, hey, sorry about this. Two Americanos,” I said, waved at her and pushed Obed to an open table. He tumbled into the chair, his face broken-looking.

“She doesn’t believe in what I believe. I thought she felt the connection we had,” he said. I sighed and said, “Some connections are imaginary. They’re projections. You have feelings for someone and your feelings of mutuality are pushed onto that other person. It’s real to you, just not to her.”

I tried to explain all this but Obed wasn’t having it.

“Perhaps I should have written a poem.”

“No,” I said. “That wouldn’t have done a damn thing.”

He glanced at me crisply. “What do you know? Your girl left you for another man, didn’t she? Maybe I should have asked someone else to accompany me.”

At that moment, the woman came over with our Americanos and she placed them in front of us. She said nothing. I thanked her and she slipped away, wordlessly.

I frowned. “Believe what you want, man,” I said, wondering why I went along with all this to begin with. Was I this lonely? This desperate for purpose? I stood up.

“Hey, let’s go back home,” I said and dragged his forlorn body up. “She’s just trying to do her job.”

Obed sullenly followed me to the car. I drove, and we didn’t speak. The more I thought about the last thing Obed said, the angrier I became. I was helping him, I wasn’t hurting him. And he chose to blame me for him asking out a married, heavily uninterested woman? He threw my past back at me.

I switched my gaze over at Obed, and saw that his eyes were wet. I let out a long breath. We were just two fucking idiots.


I always thought Thalia might return. If she called me Perfect, how could anyone else do? I didn’t know what I could have done wrong. I knew she loved me the day she moved into That Man’s house, and I knew that when things went sour between them she would think of how well I treated her, or at least how lovely I tried to make our lives. I probably didn’t have as much money as That Man, but I loved her deeply. Her father was the consummate deadbeat and he had done a horrible number on her, but I tried to show her what Real Love was like: unconditional, unceasing. It was picking her up from work, cooking steaming meals for her, giving her “Thinking of You” cards, kissing her to sleep and making sure she used her inhaler. I knew she appreciated the little things, but not enough. What had That Man done that I hadn’t? Was she so lucky in life that she could find two men to care for her unceasingly but I was stuck mooning over one person who decidedly didn’t pick me?

That night, I leaned over the railing in front of my apartment and lit a cigarette. I’d dropped Obed off and we hadn’t talked anymore past that. I inhaled, exhaled, inhaled. The smoke felt full and rich and fine. Ellie wandered out of her house and saw me there.

“You look miserable,” she said. “I’m guessing you didn’t become good friends with Obed. ”

“It didn’t work out,” I said, taking a puff. She sucked her teeth.

“Why did you come to the States?” I asked Ellie, trying to change the subject off of Obed. I didn’t feel like talking about what happened today. “I’ve always wanted to ask you that.”

Her eyes glazed dreamily. She stared at the black-blue spread above. “A man from Minnesota came to Colombia. I was a bartender at this small spot in Bogota. As much of a cliché as it was, I loved him immediately. He was handsome and kind and ready for marriage. He fell for me too. It was fast, quick, easy. But it wasn’t so easy when he told me he had to come back to Minnesota. So I decided to come with him. I’d always wanted to go to America and now this wonderful man was taking me back. So he did. I remember the first day I was in Minneapolis. We arrived at his house and it was snowing. He had brought me a coat but I refused to wear it. I ran out into his yard and tasted the fluffy white bits on my tongue. I’d never seen it before. It was majestic to see snow like that.”

I smiled, happy it wasn’t a dreary story. “And what happened to him?”

Ellie said, without emotion, “He died. But he was very old. 98 when he passed. We all knew it was time.”

“Maybe you should be the one accompanying Obed,” I laughed. “It seems like you found a good love.” Right on schedule, Frances the bodybuilder slammed opened his door and started yelling into the phone again. He stalked the halls with his heaving body, his feet plucking the ground and when he came to Ellie and me, he waved. I awkwardly returned the gesture, he’d never acknowledged me before. The person on the other end abruptly must have hung up because he swore and threw the phone back in his pocket.

“Kids,” he explained to us. “It’s not easy to parent when you’re doing it from another country.”

“I bet,” I said. He started talking about his children, three, all ages 12–20. He’d come to the U.S. to make money as a gas station manager and send it back to Port-au-Prince, he’d said. But there were always problems at home. I heard another door open, slightly. Then it creaked fully open and I saw Obed walk out of his apartment on the first floor. He glanced up at us three.

“I heard you were talking about me. I heard it,” he hollered up at us. “Gideon, were you making fun of me?”

“He wasn’t,” Ellie yelled down to him. “Tonto. Why don’t you come up here and be kind to this young man? Sube a platicar con Gideon, ahora.”

Obed trudged up the stairs and joined us. He looked at me begrudgingly. “Sorry Gideon. Thank you for accompanying me today. Finding another girl will not fix my immediate problems. I live in dreams and fantasies and they don’t work out well for me.”

“I get it,” I said. “But we’re in the real right now. And really, it’s not that bad.”

I thought someone would say something in return but nobody did. We watched Orion’s Belt blink and shudder against blackness.

“Gideon,” Obed finally said. “Did you think you were enough for your girlfriend? I always wonder why I wasn’t enough.”

Enough. The word had stabbed me and destroyed me and belittled me. I always wondered if I was enough, Puerto Rican enough for her, man enough. I glanced over at Ellie, who had her beautiful love story. At Frances, who was just trying to raise his children. We’d all ended up at this shitty apartment, just trying to survive in this country.

“I don’t know if I was enough for her. But that doesn’t mean I’m not enough,” I said. “I think we’re all enough.”

Ellie slapped my back and then rubbed my shoulder kindly. I smelled the air, ripe and salt-doused, it was ocean air, the same ocean that calmed and swept me. I stamped out my cigarette and after what had felt like months, I smiled.


cover for When Trying to Return Home by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
When Trying to Return Home by Jennifer Maritza McCauley

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