Drown

by

Junot Díaz

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Drown can help.

When Yunior’s mother tells Yunior that his childhood best friend Beto is home from college for a visit, Yunior keeps watching television and pretends not to hear her. While he and Beto used to be like brothers, they have not spoken in over two years, ever since Beto went away to college and came out as gay. Beto always saw their neighborhood as a kind of prison, and he went to college farther down the Raritan River in New Jersey. Yunior on the other hand, stayed behind to finish high school, now living at home with his mother and selling drugs to the younger siblings of his former high school classmates.

Yunior recalls the summer before Beto left for college in which the two boys spent most of their time playing stickball, shoplifting, and terrorizing their older neighbors. At night, to beat the heat, they would hop the fence at the local pool and swim until the neighbors chased them all home. In spite of himself, Yunior walks past Beto’s house to see if he is home. When he doesn’t find Beto, Yunior once again hops the pool fence (though it is harder since he has aged) in hopes of finding his former friend. Beto is not there, but Yunior still dives into the water, spending several minutes submerged under the surface, cherishing the silence and clarity that the water offers him. Yunior notices that he is the oldest person at the pool by several years, but he still recognizes the same types of youthful mischief that he and Beto used to get up to. He notices an old sign, “No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating” and remembers that Beto was very angry with him because he knew the definition of the world “expectorating” while Beto did not. Despite encouraging Yunior to leave New Jersey and think more of himself, Beto hated when Yunior knew things that he didn’t.

Yunior explains that he and his mother still live alone in the same small apartment in which he grew up. Despite their close quarters, Yunior’s mother spends most of her days in silence, except when Yunior watches her soap operas with her in the evenings. Yunior’s father now lives in Florida with one of his many girlfriends, calling his mother whenever he needs more money. Yunior resents his father for his infidelity and violence during Yunior’s childhood, and he is unhappy that his mother still takes his father’s phone calls.

Yunior’s mother, on the other hand, thinks that her relationship with Yunior’s father is healthy, and she doesn’t understand why Yunior and Beto aren’t able to have a similarly civil relationship. Yunior deflects her questions about Beto and continues to watch TV. On Saturday, Yunior’s mother asks him to take her to the mall. Though Saturday is the best day to deal drugs, Yunior agrees, believing it to be part of his duty as a son. While his mother shops for bargains, Yunior remembers his youthful history of shoplifting with Beto, gleefully stealing bags full of merchandise from the same mall. Although Yunior’s mother never suspected that he was stealing, Beto’s recklessness eventually got the two boys caught and chased from the mall by a security guard. Yunior recalls that Beto was always much more suave and nonchalant when it came to stealing than Yunior could ever be.

Without Beto’s friendship, Yunior’s social and daily routines have become stagnant and unfulfilling. At night, he drinks in college bars with his friends Alex and Danny, starting fights and harassing young women to pass the time. In the mornings, he goes for runs behind his apartment, keeping an eye out for an army recruiter who once asked Yunior to enlist when he was younger. Yunior secretly hopes that the recruiter will return and give him a reason to leave New Jersey, since, unlike Beto, he never had much ambition to succeed in school, so college wasn’t an option. He often decided to skip classes even as he stood in line for the bus in the morning, and spent the day watching videos at the library or reading old magazines. Beto on the other hand, was always expanding his horizons, spending his evenings outside of New Jersey, and making friends who moved in different circles than Yunior, including gay men in Manhattan who were involved in the Club Kid scene of the eighties.

Now, Yunior often spends his evenings with Alex and Danny harassing men at the gay bar that they pass on their way home from the college bars. Angered by the bar patrons, Alex often pulls his car over to shout homophobic slurs at the patrons or to point fake guns at them just to terrify them. For Yunior, homosexuality is contrary to the ideals of strength and masculinity that are deeply important to him, revealing a weakness and effeminacy that he cannot abide. Spurred by the memories of Alex’s violent taunts, Yunior reveals that Beto sexually assaulted Yunior the summer before he left for college, but that Yunior did not fight back (and indeed allowed the event to recur) because of his bond with and allegiance to Beto. In addition to ending their friendship, Beto’s unwanted sexual advances made Yunior worry that Beto had made Yunior himself gay, or turned him unnatural in some way. Instead of sharing his sense of betrayal with Beto, Yunior allowed him to leave for college, never opened the book Beto bought him as a going away present, and broke off all contact with him.

Back from his run, Yunior cleans his sneakers in his bathroom and remembers a time when his high school class watched the space shuttle launch. One of his teachers compared the students in his class to the shuttle, in that only a few would have the personal momentum necessary to make it to space, and the rest would simply fall back to earth. Yunior explains that in that moment, he could already feel his momentum lag. When he finishes washing up, Yunior spends the evening watching a dramatic Spanish movie with his mother. They hold hands and Yunior’s mother falls asleep halfway through. Yunior lets her sleep until the film is over and then goes to check the windows before going to sleep.