“Drown” travels frequently (and often jarringly) between past and present narration. Disillusioned with his adult friends, job, and living situation, Yunior uses his memories to gain strength from his younger self, whom he views as stronger, funnier, and less bothered by his lack of ambition or direction. However, despite his best efforts, Yunior cannot draw a clean line between his past and present selves, largely because Beto’s friendship and painful betrayal were critical parts of his past that therefore define his present and future.
Beto’s friendship was one of the central parts of Yunior’s life from a young age. Beto is the person from whom Yunior learned how to be a man and how to carry himself in the world. Throughout the story, therefore, Yunior longs to reconnect with his positive memories of Beto, but finds himself unable to do so without also bringing up residual trauma from Beto’s betrayal and assault. For example, Yunior lovingly recalls the “raging” and “crazy” summer that he spent with Beto before he left for college because it was a time that he felt free and uninhibited. However, even in the midst of positive memories of that summer, Yunior cannot help but include distinctly negative aspects of Beto’s personality. In describing their youthful days of mischief at the pool, for example, he points out that Beto began to drown Yunior when Yunior knew something Beto didn’t.
Beto’s influence also extends to how Yunior both views and remembers his neighborhood. At first, Yunior paints a tender portrait of summer nights in his neighborhood. He describes the “Abuelas with their night hair swirled around spikey rollers” punishing boys who were caught in the pool after hours, the “families arranged on their porches” illuminated by their glowing televisions, and the heavy smell of pear trees in the hot air, which all contribute to a fundamentally sweet and positive memory of his home and community. However, as the story progresses, Yunior’s observations about his neighborhood become linked to negative memories—either memories of Beto’s own disdain for the neighborhood, or memories of the trauma that Yunior experienced in his neighborhood at Beto’s hands.
It’s clear that Yunior has been profoundly influenced by the fact that Beto “hated everything about the neighborhood, the break-apart buildings, the little strips of grass, the piles of garbage around the cans, and the dump, especially the dump.” For Beto, the neighborhood represented failure, decrepitude, and decay. In the present, Yunior notes the same “sickly fuzz” on top of the dump that Beto hated so much, which shows the extent to which Yunior is still seeing the neighborhood he once loved through his estranged friend’s eyes (this is also apparent in Yunior’s increasing urgency to escape from the neighborhood like Beto did himself and also encouraged Yunior to do). Indeed, as Yunior divulges more of Beto’s negative attributes to his readers, his memories of his neighborhood are each clearly linked with a memory of Beto that continues to haunt him.
This is particularly true because the neighborhood is the site of Beto’s assault, and all the places that used to give Yunior joy become painful reminders of how their friendship ended. For example, because Beto’s assaults took place after the two boys swam together, Yunior no longer views the pool as a site of youthful freedom, but instead uses the water to escape his problems. All in all, despite Yunior’s attempt to use positive memories to distract from the ways that Beto altered the course of Yunior’s life, it becomes clear throughout the story that Yunior is fundamentally unable to remember a positive past without linking it to a negative memory of Beto. As a result, far from being strengthened by memories of his younger self, Yunior appears at the end of the story to be trapped within destructive patterns that are largely influenced by Beto.
Past vs. Present ThemeTracker
Past vs. Present 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.
The heat in the apartments was like something heavy that had come inside to die. Families arranged on their porches, the glow from their TVs washing blue against the brick. From my family apartment, you could smell the pear trees that had been planted years ago…
I can still go far without coming up. While everything above is loud and bright, everything below is whispers.
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.
Both of us had seen bad shoplifters at work. All grab and run, nothing smooth about them. Not us. We idled out of the stores slow, like a fat seventies car.
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.
One teacher, whose family had two grammar schools named after it, compared us to the shuttles. A few of you are going to make it. Those are the orbiters. But the majority of you are just going to burn out. Going nowhere. He dropped his hand onto the desk. I could already see myself losing altitude, fading, the earth spread out beneath me, hard and bright.