In “Drown,” Junot Díaz suggests that intimacy can be both protective and limiting. While Yunior’s close and often codependent relationships with his mother and Beto at first provide him with stability and structure for his life, they sour as he grows. His relationship to his mother limits his growth by keeping him in his childhood role, and the intimacy of his friendship with Beto betrays him when Beto sexually violates Yunior. Furthermore, his close relationships with Beto and with his mother allow him to continuously think of himself as his mother’s son or Beto’s friend, instead of realizing that he is in control of his own life.
Despite the fact that Yunior is an adult, his life is still just as intertwined with his mother’s as it was when he was a child: they live together, she cooks for him and does his laundry, and they watch TV together and chat, showing their emotional intimacy. However, Yunior is not simply a child in their home—he also takes care of his mother, in many ways filling his absent father’s role. For example, Yunior takes his mother to the mall and gives her money to hunt through the bargain bins in the same way that his father used to do before he left. Despite the hassle of a long bus ride to the mall, Yunior explains that “as a son, I owe her that much.” Yunior’s intimacy with his mother, then, makes him simultaneously a child and an adult.
However, their relationship seems to prevent Yunior from becoming an adult on his own terms instead of as a substitute for his father. For example, Yunior and his mother’s close relationship and the routines of their domestic life mean that Yunior must continuously conceal the way he spends his free time (in particular, he must hide the fact that he pays their shared bills through dealing drugs). As a result, Yunior is often silent or secretive with his mother so that he can maintain the illusion that his life is innocent and simple, preferring to appear childlike rather than admitting to (and grappling with) his complex adult reality. Furthermore, the comfort of living at home in a familiar apartment with a woman who loves him and takes care of him seems to stunt Yunior’s ability to imagine a different future for himself. He has a nice life at his mother’s house, even if that life resembles his childhood, which leaves him stuck.
Much like Yunior’s relationship to his mother, his friendship with Beto is by turns intimate, supportive, and damaging. For much of their childhood, Beto and Yunior are so close that Beto is practically a member of Yunior’s family. At first, it seems that Yunior’s intimacy with Beto is a positive influence since, unlike Yunior’s mother, Beto pushes Yunior to leave New Jersey and ask more of his own future. However, this seems somewhat disingenuous. Beto pushes Yunior to challenge himself academically and socially, but since Beto prides himself on being the better-educated one of the two of them, he can’t accept it when Yunior knows something Beto doesn’t, such as the meaning of the word “expectorate.” This demonstrates that Beto pushes for Yunior’s success only to the extent that Beto still remains the more knowledgeable and successful one, which complicates the value of their friendship.
Furthermore, the fact that Yunior’s reverence for and trust in Beto is so absolute makes Beto’s unwanted sexual advance all the more confusing and destructive. Yunior explains that he allowed the sexual encounter with Beto to continue and recur solely because Beto was “his best friend, and that mattered more than anything to me at one point.” Once the second encounter concludes, however, the two boys are immediately estranged from one another, and Yunior can’t bear to share space with Beto or even hear his voice. Beto’s betrayal of the terms of their intimacy creates feelings of confusion and trauma that last well into Yunior’s adult life, which is perhaps one reason that Yunior, at the end of the story, is still so embedded in the comforting, stable, trustworthy home his mother has created. In this way, Beto’s betrayal of his intimacy with Yunior perhaps stunts Yunior’s growth more than living in his mother’s house does.
Through Beto’s betrayal and Yunior’s mother’s failure to push her son, Díaz seems to imply that intimacy has the potential to damage or limit someone, as intimacy makes Yunior think of himself in relation to others instead of focusing on his own future. However, both of Yunior’s intimate relationships also provide essential foundations to his life—his mother’s stability, kindness, and trustworthiness ground him, comfort him, and help him recover from Beto’s betrayal. And while Beto’s betrayal leaves Yunior feeling, in the short-term, that perhaps straying from the life he knows might make him unsafe, Beto’s years-long influence on Yunior’s life seems to still have a hold on him, since by the end of the story, Yunior appears to be contemplating seeing his friend again and leaving their New Jersey town to seek a new life.
Intimacy and Estrangement ThemeTracker
Intimacy and Estrangement Quotes in Drown
He's a pato now but two years ago we were friends and he would walk into the apartment without knocking, his heavy voice rousing my mother from the Spanish of her room and drawing me up from the basement, a voice that crackled and made you think of uncles or grandfathers.
He hated when I knew something he didn't. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn't tell him; he thought I didn't read, not even dictionaries.
She has discovered the secret to silence: pouring café without a splash, walking between rooms as if gliding on a cushion of felt, crying without a sound. You have traveled to the East and learned many secret things, I've told her. You're like a shadow warrior.
He knew a lot of folks I didn't—a messed-up black kid from Madison Park, two brothers who were into that N.Y. club scene, who spent money on platform shoes and leather backpacks. I'd leave a message with his parents and then watch some more TV. The next day he’d be out at the bus stop, too busy smoking a cigarette to say much about the day before.
Mostly I stayed in the basement, terrified that I would end up abnormal, a fucking pato, but he was my best friend and back then that mattered to me more than anything.
After I was done, he laid his head in my lap. I wasn’t asleep or awake but caught somewhere in between, rocking slowly back and forth the way surf holds junk against the shore, rolling it over and over.