Drown

by

Junot Díaz

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Drown Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Yunior is home watching television, Yunior’s mother tells him that his old friend Beto is home from college. When his mother is asleep, Yunior puts on his jacket and goes to see if Beto is home. Yunior notes that Beto is a pato (faggot) now, but that they used to be close enough that both he and his mother considered Beto to be a member of their family.
Díaz immediately establishes Yunior’s close relationship with his mother, and also the ways in which he conceals his emotions from her. In addition, Yunior immediately places his relationship with Beto in the past tense and seemingly points to Beto’s sexuality as the reason the two are no longer friends.
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Yunior remembers that the summer before Beto went to college, the two boys were “raging”: stealing everything they could, breaking windows, and challenging people to come out and fight with them just because they felt invincible.
Presenting “rage” as a positive quality indicates that the two boys’ friendship was largely characterized by a shared emphasis on masculinity, power, violence and strength. Notably, these are traits Yunior sees more in his past self than his present self.
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Yunior explains that Beto was “delirious” at the thought of leaving for college because he hated everything about their neighborhood and wanted to leave as soon as he was able. As a result, Beto never understood why Yunior did not have the same drive to leave their hometown. Yunior told Beto that, unlike him, he still has a year of high school left and no opportunities anywhere else.
The two boys had different relationships to their neighborhood. Beto sees it as a place to escape from, while Yunior indelibly belongs to it, bound by his relationship with his mother and to his final year of school. In addition, Yunior does not see himself as having the ambition that Beto has to leave.
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As he makes his way towards Beto’s apartment, Yunior remembers the ways that the two boys used to spend their summers together. During the days, the pair would go to the mall or play stickball in a local parking lot, but at night they would eagerly hop the plastic fence at the local pool to swim with the rest of the neighborhood children. This was the most effective way of beating the “heavy” summer heat, splashing and goofing off until the neighborhood adults yelled at them to go home to their own apartments. 
Confronted with the possibility of seeing Beto again, Yunior remembers the pool: a positive space to be surrounded by his community and peers. In addition, because the pool is surrounded by a fence, swimming is a reward for physical strength and breaking the rules, as it is clearly not something the children are allowed to do.
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When he arrives at Beto’s apartment, Yunior is stirred from his memory. He puts his ear to the door, but only hears the sound of Beto’s air conditioner. He explains that he has not even decided if he wants to speak to Beto at all since the two have not seen each other for two years.
Arriving at Beto’s apartment Yunior is confronted with a familiar space that now makes him feel like a stranger. Much like Beto himself, the apartment is alien and unwelcoming.
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In spite of himself, Yunior makes his way towards the familiar racket at the local pool, assuming that Beto will be there. As he has gotten older, it has become much harder for him to hop the fence, and a neighborhood teenager mocks him as he falls over the top.
Yunior returns to the pool, trying to find memories of Beto and childhood again but he finds that everything has changed. Not only is Beto not there, but the fence is much harder to climb since he’s older now and he is mocked by the pool’s current patrons.
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When Yunior straightens up, he notices that he is one of the oldest people at the pool, surrounded mostly by the younger siblings of his high school classmates, who recognize him primarily as the guy who “sells them their shitty dope.”
Surrounded by siblings of his former classmates, Yunior is somehow out of phase. Despite the fact that his classmates have moved on, he is still trying to fit in in childhood spaces to which he no longer belongs.
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Only mildly daunted by his relative age, Yunior dives into the water. Still a talented swimmer, he glides underwater for a long time without making a splash. He takes refuge in the “whispers” that he finds under the surface, a welcome contrast to the loud brightness above. He notes that, when they were younger, there was always a risk of coming up for air and finding the cops yelling at them to get out of the pool and go home. 
Yunior’s obsession with physical strength is Díaz’s commentary on the machismo culture that he grew up in. Exaggerating strength is also the way Yunior attempts to prove that he is still young and still belongs at the pool. However, while he used to swim to be surrounded by his community, swimming is now his way to escape from the parts of his life that give him stress.
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When Yunior comes up for air, he is comforted by the familiar signs of teenage mischief around him. He notices an old sign that says “No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating,” to which someone has added “No Fat Chiks.” When they were younger, Yunior recalls that Beto became upset with him when Yunior knew what “expectorating” meant and Beto did not. When Yunior would not tell Beto where he learned the word, Beto held Yunior’s head under water for a long time until he began to choke. Beto, Yunior recalls, did not like it when Yunior knew something that he didn’t.
Beto pushes Yunior to grow as long as it conforms to his terms, becoming threatened if Yunior excels in a way he cannot. When Yunior knows a word Beto doesn’t Beto responds by asserting his physical and emotional power over Yunior. Yunior both resents and admires this behavior, since Beto is his model of both masculinity and physical strength.
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Yunior explains that he still lives alone with his mother, and though she still pays the rent and utilities, he makes enough to cover the phone bill. Despite their close quarters, Yunior’s mother is so quiet that Yunior is often startled to find her in the apartment. He explains that she has “discovered the secret to silence,” walking, cooking and crying without making any noise.
Yunior’s relationship with his mother prevents him from fully growing up in many ways. Though she still protects and nurtures him by paying his rent and cooking for him, they also interact like strangers, spending most of their time in silence, unaware how the other spends their days.
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Returning from the pool, Yunior finds that his mother is still awake and he watches television with her. They settle on the Spanish language news because it provides violence for Yunior to watch and drama for his mother. They watch the story of a baby that survived a seven-story fall out of a window.
Television is a critical part of Yunior and his mother’s relationship, as it allows them to spend silent time together that is still emotionally connected. Their choice in programming also shows that Yunior is familiar with what his mother needs and he compromises to please her.
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Yunior’s mother is disappointed that he wasn’t able to find Beto, thinking that it is a shame that the two don’t talk anymore. Yunior’s mother tells him that Beto is doing well and is about to start business school in the fall.
By bragging to Yunior about Beto’s successes in school, Yunior’s mother is still viewing Beto as a member of their family, proving how disconnected she is from Yunior’s feelings about Beto.
Themes
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When Yunior’s mother tells Yunior that Beto also asked how he was doing, Yunior is angry and embarrassed that she didn’t lie and tell Beto that Yunior had his own apartment. Yunior’s mother doesn’t understand why the two men don’t speak anymore, and she counsels Yunior that they should make up the way she and Yunior’s father have: they were once very angry at each other but are now able to be civil. Yunior ignores her and continues to watch the television.
When confronted with Beto’s success, Yunior is angry with his unimpressive lifestyle (even though he is also comforted by his mother’s care). He clearly still cares deeply about what Beto thinks of him. He is also angry that she tries to compare their relationship to her relationship with Yunior’s father. He does not bring his feelings up, however, retreating back into his silence instead.
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Over the weekend, Yunior’s mother asks him to take her to the mall. Yunior agrees, explaining that he sees it as one of his duties as a son, despite the fact that they have to walk two miles through “red neck territory” to catch the bus. 
Here, Díaz provides insight into Yunior’s routines with his mother. His compromise shows that he is bound by a “duty” to make her happy.
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Before they can go out, however, Yunior’s mother makes Yunior check every window latch in their house. Despite the fact that they never open their windows, Yunior’s mother is paranoid that intruders will break in when she is out and hold her hostage, which happened to one of her friends when she was “lazy” and didn’t lock her windows.
Yunior’s mother physically cannot lock the windows by herself because she is too short. Therefore, Yunior helps his mother with something important to her but which Yunior also knows is unnecessary. This makes clear that, in the absence of his father, Yunior is the man of the house.
Themes
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Yunior notes that it is a special occasion when his mother decides to go out, and she always gets dressed up and puts on makeup. As a result, Yunior cannot resent taking her to the mall even though he often sells the bulk of his drugs on Saturdays, so the mall trips interrupt his work.
Yunior’s life is so intertwined with his mother’s that he is totally familiar with her rituals. His comment also shows that he is aware that they do not lead a particularly adventurous or outgoing life if the main reason she has to get dressed up is to hunt for bargains.
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Yunior recognizes most of the kids on the bus to be teenagers that he sells to. He prays he will not be recognized, but his mother seems not to notice.
Yunior’s mother’s obliviousness proves how little she knows about his life, complicating the reader’s understanding of their closeness.
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At the mall, Yunior gives his mother fifty-dollars to spend. He explains that, when he was younger, his father would give her one hundred dollars to spend at the beginning of the summer for Yunior’s new clothes. She would take over a week to spend it all, hunting carefully through the various bargain bins. Yunior hates to think of his mother bargain hunting.
Although Yunior is not the financial provider in their relationship, he has fully stepped into his father’s role in their life, a role that he strives to do well. Yet, he is embarrassed with her bargain hunting (which he sees as an emblem of their poverty) though he does nothing himself to ease their financial strain.
Themes
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While his mother shops, Yunior tracks the same route through the mall that he and Beto used to at the height of their shoplifting. He recalls the way that they finessed their routine, taking time to stop and browse through merchandise instead of just pulling a “grab and run.” Of the two of them, Beto was better at being smooth, often asking cashiers for directions or asking Yunior what he thought of a particular item even as his bag was full of stolen goods.
To distract himself from his current errand, Yunior remembers happier times with Beto. Because shoplifting requires criminal instead of intellectual finesse, it is the one realm in which Yunior can be Beto’s equal. Yet, as in all things, Beto is still the superior shoplifter, and Yunior is happy to learn from his skills.
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Beto’s recklessness always made Yunior uneasy, worrying that the two might go to jail. Beto made fun of Yunior’s worry, explaining that there is no jail time for shoplifting and the police just let your father discipline you. For Beto, this is not much of a punishment because his father has arthritis. Yunior is startled when Beto tells him that his father doesn’t hit him, assuming that his own father’s violent temper and history of physical abuse is shared by all fathers.
Yunior’s assumption that all fathers are violent proves that he believes violence to be a large part of what it means to be a man. Also, by equating his father’s beatings with jail time, it is clear that Yunior is terrified of his father’s temper and strength, since it is as strong a motivator to stay out of trouble as prison would be.
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Yunior recalls that his mother never suspected that he was shoplifting, even though he brought home large quantities of new clothes. Yunior’s father, however, saw exactly how his son was spending his time and cautioned him that he would get caught eventually.
Yunior’s mother has clearly been selectively ignoring Yunior’s activities for a long time. Like his drug dealing, shoplifting is an illegal activity that she would rather not confront.
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Indeed, one day when shoplifting from the book store, Yunior and Beto get stopped by the store security guard asking to check their bag. Yunior tries to walk past her, but Beto stops and hits her in the face with his bag. The two boys try to run from the cops, but are found by store security hiding under a car across from the bus stop, having been too scared to take the bus. Yunior notes that they held hands when they were found.
In the presence of a threat, Beto’s immediate impulse is to become violent in an effort to save himself and also protect Yunior, showing both his great tenderness and volatility. Indeed, Beto even holds Yunior’s hand when they get caught, which indicates their strong brotherly connection and that Yunior views Beto as his protector. 
Themes
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Without Beto’s friendship, Yunior now spends his evenings with his friends Alex and Danny, drinking at a sleepy bar full of “washouts and sucias.” The men drink too much and fight with each other, scaring the wait staff and other patrons. On the way home from the bar, Yunior notices the Raritan River in the distance, noting that it is the same river that Beto goes to school on. 
Yunior responds to the loss of Beto’s friendship by finding friends that are Beto’s opposite. Indeed, instead of inspiring him to be better, Alex and Danny reinforce Yunior’s negative traits and model the kind of false, strong, and violent masculinity that Yunior resented in his father. Nor do these new friends help Yunior to forget Beto; the observation about the Raritan shows that Beto is still top of mind no matter how much Yunior does to forget him.
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In the mornings, Yunior explains that he always goes for a run behind his apartment. When he runs, Yunior looks for an army recruiter who has stopped him before and asked him to enlist. Back when the recruiter stopped Yunior, he explained that the army gave him “loyalty” and “discipline.” Although Yunior turned him down at the time, he notes that he would now easily take the recruiter’s offer because he “just wants to be anywhere else.” 
In the absence of Beto’s grades and ambition, Yunior’s physical ability was always the only thing that could help him escape New Jersey. However, though his desire to leave increases as he ages (and his strength leaves him) he still has absolutely no ambition to plot his own escape, hoping instead that the recruiter will passively rescue him.
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When Yunior returns from his run, he finds his mother whispering on the phone. She is on the phone with Yunior’s father, who lives in Florida with a girlfriend. Yunior explains that he often calls his mother to beg for money, lying that he will leave his current girlfriend if she moves to Florida herself. Yunior’s mother knows that Yunior disapproves of their phone calls, so she leaves the refrigerator door open in hopes that its hum will mask the sound of her voice.
Yunior’s mother’s rare moment of secrecy shows the way the two hide significant parts of their lives from each other. Yunior’s mother hides her phone call because Yunior truly hates his father. Critically, however, he hates his father for his violence and bad treatment of women, the same behavior Yunior exhibits with Alex and Danny.
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Yunior remembers that he often skipped classes when he and Beto were in high school. Because he didn’t have a car, Yunior would spend the day watching TV or watching old documentaries at the library, making his way back to the neighborhood at night to see Beto. Sometimes, however, Beto was not around because he was visiting other neighborhoods or spending the evening in Manhattan instead. Yunior notes that Beto had friends that Yunior didn’t know, some of whom were active in the New York club scene. Despite Yunior’s questions, Beto rarely told him about what he did on his nights out, although he did always encourage Yunior to expand his horizons and meet new people.
Here, Yunior overpraises his younger self’s street smarts and ingenuity to make himself seem more equal to Beto’s intellect. In addition, he notes that Beto had friends Yunior didn’t know, proving that Beto was actively expanding his social circles in a way that Yunior could not. However, Beto was seeking out other gay men in New York’s club scene, a world that Yunior cannot access partly because he is privileged enough not to have to.
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Some nights, Yunior explains that he drives with Alex and Danny to New Brunswick to drink at bars with college girls. The young women don’t dance with them, but Yunior and his friends get adrenaline even from being refused. After the clubs close, they speed through the empty streets, keeping the windows open so that Alex will not fall asleep and wreck his third car.
This anecdote is another example of the ways Alex and Danny further trap Yunior. Firstly, by drinking in college bars, he is taking refuge in an idea of his own youth and virility that is unrealistic. In addition, he is forced to be negatively masculine to compensate for his discomfort.
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The men always drive past a gay bar on the way home, and Alex will often pull into the parking lot and pretend to ask for directions. When one of the men comes over to help him, Alex points a plastic pistol at the men outside the bar “to see if they will run or shit their pants.”
Alex attempts to be overtly strong and violent to mask his discomfort with gay men. Likewise, Yunior uses terms like “pato” to justify and support the violence his friends inflict.
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Spurred by this, Yunior explains that the nature of his relationship with Beto abruptly changed the summer before he left for college. One day, the two boys were in his apartment after going swimming, watching one of Beto’s father’s porn videos. Yunior notes that Beto’s father often watched porn in the middle of the day, even as Beto’s mother cooked in the kitchen. Often Beto would watch porn with his father in silence.
Díaz interrupts the description of Alex’s violence towards gay men by evoking a memory that Yunior would rather not recall. In addition, the fact that the two boys watched porn together proves that there was already a level of comfort with shared individual sexuality in their relationship, but that it was treated casually.
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As the two boys watched the video, Beto reached into Yunior’s pants and began to give him a hand job. He continued despite Yunior’s protest and confusion. Yunior recalls that he ejaculated immediately out of fear and then left as soon as he could. Beto said nothing as Yunior left to go home; he just kept watching TV.
By reaching over and beginning to give Yunior a handjob, Beto is crossing a line in their relationship. Importantly, Yunior views watching porn together as a normal, heterosexual act, but giving or receiving sexual pleasure during it enters a realm of perverted, unmanly behavior.
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The day after Beto’s sexual advance, Yunior refuses to spend time with Beto, spending the day in the basement instead, terrified that he will end up “abnormal.” When his mother tries to find out what is wrong, Yunior snaps at her, causing his father, who is visiting from Florida, to slap him.
Since Beto is his primary masculine role model, Beto’s unwanted advance not only challenges the nature of their friendship, but also Yunior’s concept of masculinity itself. Indeed, Yunior allows his father to beat him for talking back to his mother potentially to be assured of a “normal” violent, masculine response.
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Despite his feelings of hurt and confusion, Yunior still goes to the pool that night because Beto is still his best friend. After they swim in silence, Beto takes Yunior back to his house and gives him a hand job again. Beto offers to stop, but Yunior is afraid to say anything. After Beto is done, he lies his head in Yunior’s lap, oblivious to Yunior’s discomfort.
Yunior’s ability to allow the assault to recur shows that he has no concept of his life without the structure that Beto provides, but also that he does not have the ability to say no to Beto. Therefore, the two men experience the event in opposite ways. Yunior, retreats further into himself out of trauma. Beto, mistaking Yunior’s silence for consent, experiences the event as tender.
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Confronted with the reality of Beto leaving for college, Yunior thinks back to a time when his high school teachers made his class watch the space shuttle launch from Florida. The teacher compared each student to the shuttle, explaining that only some would have the emotional momentum to ascend, while the rest would merely burn out. Yunior remembers feeling, in that moment, as if he himself was already losing altitude.
In the midst of his assault, Yunior is confronted with his own lack of ambition and personal momentum to transcend his circumstances. Indeed, since Beto betrayed their friendship, Yunior feels doubly lost. Beto is not only his best friend, but also his role model for ambition and masculinity, a model that has now betrayed him.
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After the second sexual encounter, Yunior sits in silence on Beto’s couch for a long time. Soon, he hears the hallway door burst open. He jumps up, terrified, but Beto is unfazed, explaining that it is only his neighbor. Nevertheless, Yunior puts his clothes back on and leaves Beto’s apartment.
Beto’s behavior after their encounter shows the way in which the two men have become alienated from each other. Previously inseparable, Beto is now unable (or refuses to) recognize or validate Yunior’s discomfort and fear.
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The narrative returns to the present, weeks after Yunior went looking for Beto at the pool. Yunior explains that he believes he saw Beto driving in his father’s car, but he assumes that Beto is already back at school. Yunior is still dealing drugs in his neighborhood, but the teenagers he deals to now have part-time jobs of their own.
Having remembered Beto’s past betrayal, Yunior is no longer able to present a nonchalant picture of his present. He notes that his drug dealing is stale and ineffective and even his young patrons have more sense of their personal direction than he does.
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When Yunior gets home, he finds his mother cooking dinner. She shows him new t-shirts that she bought for him on two-for-one special. Despite their tight fit, Yunior is grateful to her and thanks her for the new clothes.
Despite his unhappiness with his life, Yunior still takes refuge in the stability and care that his mother provides him and is eager to validate her and everything she does for him.
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The two sit down to watch a classic Spanish movie on TV and Yunior gives his mother the money that he earned for the day. She chastises him for crumpling the bills and smooths them out herself.
This exchange shows that Yunior has a childlike inability to respect his money and that his mother reinforces this quality by continuing to do everything for him.
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As they watch the movie, Yunior’s mother takes his hand in hers. Near the end of the film, she falls asleep and he imagines that she is dreaming of walking in Boca Raton with his father. When the movie ends, Yunior shakes his mother awake and she asks him to check the windows before they go to sleep. He promises that he will.
A parallel moment to Beto’s assault (which also takes place in front of a TV), this opposite, tender encounter shows Yunior choosing the safety and stability of his mother’s home over his complex and challenging feelings about Beto. Like his sleeping mother however, Yunior will eventually have to wake up and face the complexity of his life.
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