Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz - Read Online
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
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Editor’s Note

“Pride Month…”A visceral reminder of how formative and raw our teenage years are, and the life-altering effects that happen when you meet that one person — your first love. This beloved award-winner about identity and sexuality is the perfect read for Pride Month.
Scribd Editor

Summary

This Printz Honor Book is a “tender, honest exploration of identity” (Publishers Weekly) that distills lyrical truths about family and friendship.

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
Published: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on
ISBN: 9781442408944
List price: $10.99
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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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desire?

The Different Rules of Summer

The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.

One

ONE SUMMER NIGHT I FELL ASLEEP, HOPING THE WORLD would be different when I woke. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same. I threw off the sheets and lay there as the heat poured in through my open window.

My hand reached for the dial on the radio. Alone was playing. Crap, Alone, a song by a group called Heart. Not my favorite song. Not my favorite group. Not my favorite topic. You don’t know how long . . .

I was fifteen.

I was bored.

I was miserable.

As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was.

The DJ was saying annoying, obvious things like, It’s summer! It’s hot out there! And then he put on that retro Lone Ranger tune, something he liked to play every morning because he thought it was a hip way to wake up the world. Hi-yo, Silver! Who hired this guy? He was killing me. I think that as we listened to the William Tell Overture, we were supposed to be imagining the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding their horses through the desert. Maybe someone should have told that guy that we all weren’t ten-year-olds anymore. Hi-yo, Silver! Crap. The DJ’s voice was on the airwaves again: Wake up, El Paso! It’s Monday, June fifteenth, 1987! 1987! Can you believe it? And a big ‘Happy Birthday’ goes out to Waylon Jennings, who’s fifty years old today! Waylon Jennings? This was a rock station, dammit! But then he said something that hinted at the fact that he might have a brain. He told the story about how Waylon Jennings had survived the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. On that note, he put on the remake of La Bamba by Los Lobos.

La Bamba. I could cope with that.

I tapped my bare feet on the wood floor. As I nodded my head to the beat, I started wondering what had gone through Richie Valens’s head before the plane crashed into the unforgiving ground. Hey, Buddy! The music’s over.

For the music to be over so soon. For the music to be over when it had just begun. That was really sad.

Two

I WALKED INTO THE KITCHEN. MY MOM WAS PREPARING lunch for a meeting with her Catholic-Church-lady friends. I poured myself a glass of orange juice.

My mom smiled at me. Are you going to say good morning?

I’m thinking about it, I said.

Well, at least you dragged yourself out of bed.

I had to think about it for a long time.

What is it about boys and sleep?

We’re good at it. That made her laugh. Anyway, I wasn’t sleeping. I was listening to ‘La Bamba.’

Richie Valens, she said, almost whispering. So sad.

Just like your Patsy Cline.

She nodded. Sometimes I caught her singing that song, Crazy, and I’d smile. And she’d smile. It was like we shared a secret. My mom, she had a nice voice. Plane crashes, my mother whispered. I think she was talking more to herself than to me.

"Maybe Richie Valens died young—but he did something. I mean, he really did something. Me? What have I done?"

You have time, she said. There’s plenty of time. The eternal optimist.

Well, you have to become a person first, I said.

She gave me a funny look.

I’m fifteen.

I know how old you are.

Fifteen-year-olds don’t qualify as people.

My mom laughed. She was a high school teacher. I knew she half agreed with me.

So what’s the big meeting about?

We’re reorganizing the food bank.

Food bank?

Everyone should eat.

My mom had a thing for the poor. She’d been there. She knew things about hunger that I’d never know.

Yeah, I said. I guess so.

Maybe you can help us out?

Sure, I said. I hated being volunteered. The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.

What are you going to do today? It sounded like a challenge.

I’m going to join a gang.

That’s not funny.

I’m Mexican. Isn’t that what we do?

"Not funny."

Not funny, I said. Okay, not funny.

I had the urge to leave the house. Not that I had anywhere to go.

When my mom had her Catholic-Church-lady friends over, I felt like I was suffocating. It wasn’t so much that all her friends were over fifty—that wasn’t it. And it wasn’t even all the comments about how I was turning into a man right before their eyes. I mean, I knew bullshit when I heard it. And as bullshit went, it was the nice, harmless, affectionate kind. I could handle them grabbing me by the shoulders and saying, "Let me look at you. Dejame ver. Ay que muchacho tan guapo. Te pareces a tu papa." Not that there was anything to look at. It was just me. And yeah, yeah, I looked like my dad. I didn’t think that was such a great thing.

But what really bugged the living crap out of me was that my mother had more friends than I did. How sad was that?

I decided to go swimming at the Memorial Park pool. It was a small idea. But at least the idea was mine.

As I was walking out the door, my mom took the old towel I’d slung over my shoulder and exchanged it for a better one. There were certain towel rules that existed in my mother’s world that I just didn’t get. But the rules didn’t stop at towels.

She looked at my T-shirt.

I knew a look of disapproval when I saw one. Before she made me change, I gave her one of my own looks. It’s my favorite T-shirt, I said.

Didn’t you wear that yesterday?

Yes, I said. It’s Carlos Santana.

I know who it is, she said.

Dad gave it to me on my birthday.

As I recall you didn’t seem all that thrilled when you opened your father’s gift.

I was hoping for something else.

Something else?

I don’t know. Something else. A T-shirt for my birthday? I looked at my Mom. I guess I just don’t understand him.

He’s not that complicated, Ari.

He doesn’t talk.

Sometimes when people talk, they don’t always tell the truth.

Guess so, I said. Anyway, I’m really into this T-shirt now.

I can see that. She was smiling.

I was smiling too. Dad got it at his first concert.

I was there. I remember. It’s old and ratty.

I’m sentimental.

Sure you are.

Mom, it’s summer.

Yes, she said, "it is summer."

Different rules, I said.

Different rules, she repeated.

I loved the different rules of summer. My mother endured them.

She reached over and combed my hair with her fingers. Promise me you won’t wear it tomorrow.

Okay, I said. I promise. But only if you promise not to put it in the dryer.

Maybe I’ll let you wash it yourself. She smiled at me. Don’t drown.

I smiled back. If I do, don’t give my dog away.

The dog thing was a joke. We didn’t have one.

Mom, she got my sense of humor. I got hers. We were good that way. Not that she wasn’t something of a mystery. One thing that I completely got—I got why my father fell in love with her. Why she fell in love with my father was something I still couldn’t wrap my head around. Once, when I was about six or seven, I was really mad at my father because I wanted him to play with me and he just seemed so far away. It was like I wasn’t even there. I asked my mom with all my boyhood anger, How could you have married that guy?

She smiled and combed my hair with her fingers. That was always her thing. She looked straight into my eyes and said calmly, Your father was beautiful. She didn’t even hesitate.

I wanted to ask her what happened to all that beauty.

Three

WHEN I WALKED INTO THE HEAT OF THE DAY, EVEN THE lizards knew better than to be crawling around. Even the birds were laying low. The tarred patches on the cracks of the street were melting. The blue of the sky was pale and it occurred to me that maybe everybody had fled the city and its heat. Or maybe everyone had died like in one of those sci-fi flicks, and I was the last boy on earth. But just as that thought ran through my head, a pack of guys who lived in the neighborhood passed me on their bikes, making me wish I was the last boy on earth. They were laughing and messing around and they seemed like they were having a good time. One of the guys yelled at me, Hey, Mendoza! Hanging out with all your friends?

I waved, pretending to be a good sport, ha ha ha. And then I flipped them the bird.

One of the guys stopped, turned around and started circling me on his bike. You want to do that again? he said.

I gave him the bird again.

He stopped his bike right in front of me and tried to stare me down.

It wasn’t working. I knew who he was. His brother, Javier, had tried to mess with me once. I’d punched the guy. Enemies for life. I wasn’t sorry. Yeah, well, I had a temper. I admit it.

He put on his mean voice. Like it scared me. Don’t screw with me, Mendoza.

I gave him the bird again and pointed it at his face just like it was a gun. He just took off on his bike. There were a lot of things I was afraid of—but not guys like him.

Most guys didn’t screw with me. Not even guys who ran around in packs. They all passed me on their bikes again, yelling stuff. They were all thirteen and fourteen and messing with guys like me was just a game for them. As their voices faded, I started feeling sorry for myself.

Feeling sorry for myself was an art. I think a part of me liked doing that. Maybe it had something to do with my birth order. You know, I think that was part of it. I didn’t like the fact that I was a pseudo only child. I didn’t know how else to think of myself. I was an only child without actually being one. That sucked.

My twin sisters were twelve years older. Twelve years was a lifetime. I swear it was. And they’d always made me feel like a baby or a toy or a project or a pet. I’m really into dogs, but sometimes I got the feeling I was nothing more than the family mascot. That’s the Spanish word for a dog who’s the family pet. Mascoto. Mascot. Great. Ari, the family mascot.

And my brother, he was eleven years older. He was even less accessible to me than my sisters. I couldn’t even mention his name. Who the hell likes to talk about older brothers who are in prison? Not my mom and dad, that was for sure. Not my sisters either. Maybe all that silence about my brother did something to me. I think it did. Not talking can make a guy pretty lonely.

My parents were young and struggling when my sisters and brother were born. Struggling is my parents’ favorite word. Sometime after three children and trying to finish college, my father joined the Marines. Then he went off to war.

The war changed him.

I was born when he came home.

Sometimes I think my father has all these scars. On his heart. In his head. All over. It’s not such an easy thing to be the son of a man who’s been to war. When I was eight, I overheard my mother talking to my Aunt Ophelia on the phone. I don’t think that the war will ever be over for him. Later I asked my Aunt Ophelia if that was true. Yes, she said, it’s true.

But why won’t the war leave my dad alone?

Because your father has a conscience, she said.

What happened to him in the war?

No one knows.

Why won’t he tell?

Because he can’t.

So that’s the way it was. When I was eight, I didn’t know anything about war. I didn’t even know what a conscience was. All I knew is that sometimes my father was sad. I hated that he was sad. It made me sad too. I didn’t like sad.

So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.

Four

WHEN I GOT TO THE POOL, I HAD TO TAKE A SHOWER. That was one of the rules. Yeah, rules. I hated taking a shower with a bunch of other guys. I don’t know, I just didn’t like that. You know, some guys liked to talk a lot, like it was a normal thing to be in the shower with a bunch of guys and talking about the teacher you hated or the last movie you saw or the girl you wanted to do something with. Not me, I didn’t have anything to say. Guys in the shower. Not my thing.

I walked to the pool and sat on the shallow side and put my feet in the water.

What do you do in a pool when you don’t know how to swim? Learn. I guess that was the answer. I had managed to teach my body to stay afloat on water. Somehow, I’d stumbled on some principle of physics. And the best part of the whole thing was that I’d made the discovery all on my own.

All on my own. I was in love with that phrase. I wasn’t very good at asking for help, a bad habit I inherited from my father. And anyway, the swimming instructors who called themselves lifeguards sucked. They weren’t all that interested in teaching a skinny fifteen-year-old punk how to swim. They were pretty much interested in girls that had suddenly sprouted breasts. They were obsessed with breasts. That’s the truth. I heard one of the lifeguards talking to one of the other lifeguards as he was supposed to be watching a group of little kids. A girl is like a tree covered with leaves. You just want to climb up and tear all those leaves off.

The other guy laughed. You’re an asshole, he said.

Nah, I’m a poet, he said. A poet of the body.

And then they both busted out laughing.

Yeah, sure, they were budding Walt Whitmans, the two of them. See, the thing about guys is that I didn’t really care to be around them. I mean, guys really made me uncomfortable. I don’t know why, not exactly. I just, I don’t know, I just didn’t belong. I think it embarrassed the hell out of me that I was a guy. And it really depressed me that there was the distinct possibility that I was going to grow up and be like one of those assholes. A girl is like a tree? Yeah, and a guy is about as smart as a piece of dead wood infested with termites. My mom would have said that they were just going through a phase. Pretty soon they would get their brains back. Sure they would.

Maybe life was just a series of phases—one phase after another after another. Maybe, in a couple of years, I’d be going through the same phase as the eighteen-year-old lifeguards. Not that I really believed in my mom’s phase theory. It didn’t sound like an explanation—it sounded like an excuse. I don’t think my mom got the whole guy thing. I didn’t get the guy thing either. And I was a guy.

I had a feeling there was something wrong with me. I guess I was a mystery even to myself. That sucked. I had serious problems.

One thing was for sure: there was no way I was going to ask one of those idiots to help me out with my swimming. It was better to be alone and miserable. It was better to drown.

So I just kept to myself and sort of floated along. Not that I was having fun.

That’s when I heard his voice, kind of squeaky. I can teach you how to swim.

I moved over to the side of the pool and stood up in the water, squinting into the sunlight. He sat down on the edge of the pool. I looked at him suspiciously. If a guy was offering to teach me how to swim, then for sure he didn’t have a life. Two guys without a life? How much fun could that be?

I had a rule that it was better to be bored by yourself than to be bored with someone else. I pretty much lived by that rule. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have any friends.

He looked at me. Waiting. And then he asked again. I can teach you how to swim, if you want.

I kind of liked his voice. He sounded like he had a cold, you know, like he was about to lose his voice. You talk funny, I said.

Allergies, he said.

What are you allergic to?

The air, he said.

That made me laugh.

My name’s Dante, he said.

That made me laugh harder. Sorry, I said.

It’s okay. People laugh at my name.

No, no, I said. See, it’s just that my name’s Aristotle.

His eyes lit up. I mean, the guy was ready to listen to every word I said.

Aristotle, I repeated.

Then we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing.

My father’s an English professor, he said.

At least you have an excuse. My father’s a mailman. Aristotle is the English version of my grandfather’s name. And then I pronounced my grandfather’s name with this really formal Mexican accent, "Aristotiles. And my real first name is Angel. And then I said it in Spanish, Angel."

Your name is Angel Aristotle?

Yeah. That’s my real name.

We laughed again. We couldn’t stop. I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names? Were we laughing because we were relieved? Were we happy? Laughter was another one of life’s mysteries.

I used to tell people my name was Dan. I mean, you know, I just dropped two letters. But I stopped doing that. It wasn’t honest. And anyway, I always got found out. And I felt like a liar and an idiot. I was ashamed of myself for being ashamed of myself. I didn’t like feeling like that. He shrugged his shoulders.

Everyone calls me Ari, I said.

Nice to meet you, Ari.

I liked the way he said Nice to meet you, Ari. Like he meant it.

Okay, I said, teach me how to swim. I guess I said it like I was doing him a favor. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Dante was a very precise teacher. He was a real swimmer, understood everything about the movements of arms and legs and breathing, understood how a body functioned while it was in the water. Water was something he loved, something he respected. He understood its beauty and its dangers. He talked about swimming as if it were a way of life. He was fifteen years old. Who was this guy? He looked a little fragile—but he wasn’t. He was disciplined and tough and knowledgeable and he didn’t pretend to be stupid and ordinary. He was neither of those things.

He was funny and focused and fierce. I mean the guy could be fierce. And there wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of that meanness rub off on you. How could a guy live without some meanness?

Dante became one more mystery in a universe full of mysteries.

All that summer, we swam and read comics and read books and argued about them. Dante had all his father’s old Superman comics. He loved them. He also liked Archie and Veronica. I hated that shit. It’s not shit, he said.

Me, I liked Batman, Spider-Man, and the Incredible Hulk.

Way too dark, Dante said.

"This from a guy who loves Conrad’s Heart of Darkness."

That’s different, he said. Conrad wrote literature.

I was always arguing that comic books were literature too. But literature was very serious business for a guy like Dante. I don’t remember ever winning an argument with him. He was a better debater. He was also a better reader. I read Conrad’s book because of him. When I finished reading it, I told him I hated it. Except, I said, "it’s