Two days later Lulo texted that he wanted to hang out, catch up. OK. I said we should meet at the pastor’s office in the church where I still had a space for Underground Ministries. I wanted a witness; Pastor Dan was still on our board and would also like to see him. Lulo was all smiles when he arrived, confident, like some celebrity back in town. He wore a brand new Houston Astros hat cocked backwards and a touch sideways as he sauntered into the office and took a seat in Dan’s full leather guest chair. <quote-01>He put his new Nikes up on the coffee table and asked us what’s poppin<quote-01>.
He’d begun building his own nonprofit, he told us; <quote-02>Second Chance Outreach<quote-02> was already taking off. “You always made it sound so hard, Chris, back when we were building Underground. I went through the government applications and paperwork with my lawyer. <quote-03>I’ma be honest,” he continued while adjusting his hat, “it was hella easy, bro. Maybe not for you, though. I gotta remind myself sometimes that everyone’s different.”<quote-03>
He reported, as if he were a guest on our pastor office talk show, how many homies wanted to be about Second Chance, naming guys in prison I was particularly close with. “Yeah, I didn’t know those guys had real problems with you, bro. Like, they fuckin hate you. I know what you’re going to say, Chris; don’t worry. I told them you’re a good guy at heart, even if you have your ways. I told them to ride it out with you, give you a second chance. Cuz we’re not like that, cutting people off, like y’all did with me. We’re better than that, I told them. And besides, we’re not even ready to handle all the folks getting on board with what we got <quote-04>goin<quote-04>.”
He told Dan and me how amazed he was at himself. “I really thought, with everything I’ve been through this last month, I woulda gone back to drinking or gangbanging. It woulda broke most people. But no. It’s just made me stronger. And I tell you what”—he took his hat off for this—”none of that shit was as hard as what I chose to do last week. I had to face losing everything I love: my family, my marriage. I sat with down Selena and, my dudes, I told her everything. I didn’t have to, but I did. And you know what? I thought she’d leave my ass, but she said me telling her took courage. And that we need to put aside our beef as adults and think about the kids. So we’re gonna ride this out, figure shit out. That proved to me, facing that fear, how far I’ve come. See, there’s nothing you all can do to me that can break me at this point. Isn’t that <quote-05>crazy<quote-05>?”
Ten minutes later he strutted from the foyer, taking a call to his ear and saying the name of a lead staff member at Homeboy he knew I’d recognize. “Wassup, my man! Aw, dude, yeah, we finally <quote-06>getting the real thing going<quote-06> up here in Washington and I’m so grateful for your help guiding us . . .”
The next day I called some of the guys Lulo had mentioned. “What? Naw, that fool’s trippin,” they said. “Yeah, I saw him at a carne asada at the homie’s house for his kid’s birthday this weekend, and he was talking about some thing he was starting, and I don’t know what all went on between you two, so I didn’t ask questions, but I didn’t sign up for shit, bro. Come on. You know me, Chris.”
I don’t know anyone, I wanted to say.
One week later, as I was wrapping up hours of neglected correspondence before the holidays, two text messages from a new number popped into view. “Chris this is Selena.” Then, “I’m at work. Can you talk?”
She was whispering when she picked up. She’d taken a job at Macy’s since Lulo was terminated, in the women’s accessories department. She was on her break and was borrowing her coworker’s phone. She had some questions. I had to be careful, legally, about what I disclosed, so I asked her if she knew why Lulo lost his job. “That’s the thing,” she said. “I could never get a straight answer. It was just always about you: Chris this, Chris that. And it started to make less and less sense, all the ways he blamed you, even when I said, ‘But didn’t they give you a reason?’ And, Chris, he would be so protective of his phone. He started taking it into the shower with him.”
Here it came.
“But <quote-07>I learned how to hack into his phone with my friend’s help on her laptop<quote-07>. And underneath all these different names in his text messages this one name kept coming up. So that’s my question: who’s Esther?” She still had no idea.
Lulo had fabricated that entire Hallmark moment about coming clean with his wife and moving forward. <quote-08>He’d told an entire fiction right to my face<quote-08>.
“It started to make less and less sense, Chris,” she said again. “It didn’t sound like things you’d do. And when I got frustrated and said What if I call the Board? They must be able to give me a straight answer, that’s when he threatened to really hurt me. He said he’d beat my ass if I ever got ahold of them.”
That’s when she told me why she didn’t look at me outside the hospital weeks earlier. Lulo hadn’t told me what really happened with Corita. In reality, he’d taken out his rage on her that afternoon. Snapped on her. Grabbed her while she wept and proceeded to hit her, nearly breaking her arm. And when he stormed off, she fled.
I clutched my phone, trying to listen.
“That’s why she was in the hospital that night,” Selena finished. I understood the rest. He knew he could go back to prison. He knew what happens in prison to returned gang members who said they’d changed their lives upon release. He knew what happens to gang members who arrive with charges of hurting children. And he knew things always went better with law enforcement, with courts, judges, landlords, and donors when I was there at his side, advocating for him. So of course he called me that night outside the hospital.
“You don’t need to say anything, bro,” I suddenly remembered Lulo telling me earlier that summer. He’d been asked to give a presentation at a local community center and had requested I come along: “I just need that white face, <quote-09>buddy<quote-09>.”
You can imagine why I’ve not wanted to share any of this. But there’s only so much you can swallow.
“I’m so sorry,” I told Selena on the phone. “I want to tell you so many things. But since Lulo was terminated, I’m technically not supposed to disclose any of the reasons why. At least for a year or something. And Lulo has already talked to a lawyer. So you’ll have to talk to the board. How can I help you and the kids get to a safe place?”
“I have to get back to work.”
She called me again several days later. He’d denied everything, then the next day blocked her from accessing their joint bank account, which held her Macy’s checks. She was trapped. I asked more questions. Naturally, he hadn’t told her about the three months’ severance he was getting from Underground Ministries to “support the family and have time to heal his marriage.” After a moment of silence, she told me she needed to find a way to get enough money to drive back to Texas, to leave during the day while he was out of the house, just go, without packing anything, just to escape Lulo and get her kids to her family down there.
I told her that the board had set aside some additional funds to support his family through their transition and that this might be where they were needed. She met up with two board members that same day—bless their souls—at the food court outside Macy’s in an effort to preserve her anonymity and safety.
Just when I thought Selena would escape with our private assistance, just when I assumed Lulo’s family leaving him would expose not only his outrageous lies but the truth about Corita’s hospital stay, we got one more email.
It was addressed to our wider network of allies and supporters: after everything he’d been put through this last fall—an ordeal that destroyed his family’s holidays—Lulo had decided to put his family first and step away from the needs of the homies for a season. Bigger man kinda stuff. He’d be taking a “<quote-10>sabbatical<quote-10>,” retreating to Texas with his entire family, to Selena’s hometown where he could put them first and start building the foundation for Second Chance. “Because there’s so many guys out there in prison, who like me aren’t perfect, and who are used to being kicked out and rejected with shame, and I know I can help them, <quote-11>if you’re with me<quote-11>.”
Something like that.
And then they were gone.
Resting my head on my buddy’s shoulder in the rear of that banquet hall, something deep inside me knew our story would end this way. That’s why I said goodbye while I could.
If you told me, say, this Christmas, Murph, that <quote-12>crushing a teeny gnat<quote-12> into a linen tablecloth were a terrible thing, I probably wouldn’t feel bad anymore. And I definitely wouldn’t swallow it. People do change. As you said in your last comment before this push, <quote-13>Wuck<quote-13>: the story probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. True enough. I’m learning there are better ways to show my friends <quote-14>I love them<quote-14>.
These <quote-15>letters<quote-15> help.
Abram helps a lot too.
As I’m getting all this out—finally—relieved and almost gasping on a Friday afternoon, I like to think Baby Wuck is on his way into our world.
May he help ventilate your world, Wuck, with the tenderness <quote-16>we all need<quote-16>.
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