Last weekend, surrounded by a few of my home girls, conversation flowed among us. Swayed back and forth, like late summer breeze across grass, we spoke about motherhood, our struggles with our own mothers, the men in our lives, and then sex. I mentioned I’ve only been hit on by only two men in my life, my ex boyfriend and husband. Met by skeptical eyes and arched eyebrows, I shifted in my seat, and changed the direction of the conversation. They were right, this was a lie, there were other men. A boy in high school who I hung out with my junior year, named Michael, and my friend Gabriel in Colombia. And recently, I realized I had been hit on, but didn’t figure it out at the moment, only later.
Sure they have been more, but the ones that have made the list, haunt. They were friends. We were friends.
We write to hold up a mirror to our souls. Language is the vehicle, and that is why we write. Laleh Khadivi.
I do this thing, once I’ve told my confidants something unearthed from a dark corner of my soul, I ask for secrecy. Terrified, as if truth is a catalyst for catastrophe, I’m quick to add: Don’t tell a soul. As if these words are both lock and lost skeleton key. Words, meant more for me, than them. My soul to take heed, and place around itself a do not disturb sign, and for a long time this suited me just fine. But, my soul no longer dormant, and as it awakens, courage becomes shaped by my voice.
I began to keep secrets around the time I began to suffer from night terrors and wake up in the middle of the night to eat slice after slice of Kraft cheese. Not one incident led to this, but many, were needed to accumulate, while I sunk in silence. Always careful not to enrage Mami, I tuned only to her, while the world around me was left ignored and muted.
My first inclination when anything happens is to ignore it, good or bad, fooled by a hushed layer of protection. Later, and only then, when suffocated by the weight of it all heavy on my chest do I speak up. Decades later I must learn to do what others learned so long ago. Live. Feel. Be.
This past Spring, my then thirteen year old, daughter mentioned that a boy in her class had called her a stripper as a joke. Enraged I asked what the hell did he mean, as I plotted to show up to her school, ready to fist fight this boy. Holden studied my face and said the boy thought it was compliment. I gritted my teeth, through the close gate of my mouth, asked if she told the principal or a teacher. Eyes rolled, Holden answered: I took care of it. How? I demanded. I thought of my daughter in her navy pleated uniform skirt, white button down shirt, and cardigan, and saw an everyday Catholic school uniform. But, he saw Brittany Spears in the classic video, Baby One More Time. Holden recounted: she told him off, shoved him, and reminded him not to speak to her that way. Eyes fearless, Holden marked off the details. Surprised by my surprise, Holden reacted. I’m not a boba, her eyes glared at me, offended. The words: I’m not fool, fluttered in the air like a trapped moth caught between light and dark. Damn, Holden was tough. Tougher than I was and am, then and now.
The first time I got cat called, I was ten, about to turn eleven. My body did not match my age, it was shaped like that of a woman. Tall, curvy, and a full chest, were my measurements. Scared, I took to looking down, and felt betrayed by my own body. What had it done to rile up this attention? The more my body filled out the bolder the cat calls. Old men on the corners, like the villainous wolves of fairy tales, turned on by innocence and fear. Hidden behind my books and glasses, I let the world fade away, and said nothing. Baggy clothes, which I favored in my early teens, a thin armor against stares that penetrated. Unable to see myself beyond the stares, I felt ashamed of my big ass, wide hips, and large breasts. Only now, settled into my skin, do I walk unashamed, like the main attraction, and not the freak show. (words from the poem Elephant by Elizabet Velasquez)
At sixteen, I’d run my tongue across my teeth, and wondered when my first kiss would be. I had crushes, but like the stars in the sky, I remained distant and beyond reach. Then things changed middle of junior year, two boys liked me. My buddy Michael, and my ex boyfriend, Jose. Michael and I often sat next to each other in History class, and would help each other with test answers. Michael spoke with flair, hated sports, and his eye roll game could rival a Valley girl’s. Jose had struck out asking out two of my friends, and hung around me bummed. One sat by my side, to hide, and the other lamented over my friends. Clear about my position with Michael and Jose, I let my guard down. We were friends, and I could now be myself. But, high school, a lair of lust, and emotions, made a sharp turn, somehow I became an important pivot. Stunned, when both boys sat beside me one day at lunch, and told me they liked me. They had discussed it, and wanted me to make a decision, they would be fine with my choice. I looked back and forth from Jose to Michael, knew only one could want me, and days later chose Jose.
Smitten, Jose claimed ownership right away, always an arm around me, insistent that I was his girl. As soon as Michael caught me by myself in the lunchroom, he called me a cock tease, and refused to speak to me. His words echoed through my body, cock tease. Afraid that it was true, I asked Jose. He shrugged his shoulders, said all girls were, cock teases, but I was his girl now so it didn’t matter. You are all the tits and ass I need, Jose assured me, and slapped my behind, as we walked down the hallway. I looked around the hallway to the smirks of other boys, embarrassed, but happy too. Happy to be wanted.
We were together for five years.
Twenty one, broken-hearted from my first love, Jose, and filled to the brim with grief because of Francisco’s death, I dreamt to be another Connie. Six years since my last visit to Colombia, I arrived June 20th, 1999, weeks after college graduation. My suitcase filled with books, mosquito repellent, and pretty dresses from the Gap. Jose had cheated on me, rejected, I wished to be wanted again. I wished to catch men’s eyes, and when I walked the foot falls of my heels moaned. Certain that my heart could not be penetrated by love again, I did not allow myself to hope. A string of lovers, I was sure would soon follow. But not love.
Down to a size eight and a new devil-may-care attitude, men began to notice me. Still afraid of their catcalls, I forced myself to look up, smile. Fuck it! It felt good to be wanted. Some so bold, sent over bottle service of Aguardiente for myself and my prima Clarita, I waved to them. They asked me to talk English. I did. Then asked me to dance, and I did, but as soon as their advances grew, I retreated. Cock tease. Michael’s words like a bullhorn let my mind hear nothing else.
Desperate to get over Jose, and curate a list of men that would love all the parts of me, even the ugly and broken, I scouted for a wingman. And my answer came in form of Gabriel. By the time I got to Barranquilla, Gabriel had already been in Colombia for more than half a year. Born in Colombia, but left for Nueva York at seven with his mother and older sister, he grew up in Spanish Harlem. But, now Gabriel lived with his Tia, a few blocks away. He was dating D, the girl next door to Abuelo’s casa. D, Joann, and I had played tea set and jumped rope when we were young. Later, we fan girled over Ricky Martin during our teens. Now both in our twenties, and accustomed to long periods apart, our friendship had grown vines, sturdy and strong.
I spent my late afternoons, reading on Abuelo’s porch, as the heat relented. Then to D’s porch, to sit in conversation, between her and Gabriel. The three of us rocked back and forth, Coke bottles in our hands, as we talked about things that mattered, and didn’t. And when it was time for D to help with dinner, Gabriel and I didn’t budge from our spots. We continued to talk, but now free to talk in English. And in one of these English only sessions, Gabriel revealed the details for his long stay in Colombia.
“I got busted yo.” Gabriel looked away when he spoke. “D, doesn’t really know all the details, so keep that shit on the down low.”
I nodded, despite what he said. “What were you slinging?” I asked. It was never a question that they sold, but what they sold.
“Mostly weed, but some blow too,” Gabriel eyes rested on me. “Yo you is mad cool, even if you went to Catholic school all your life.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” I laughed.
“It’s the reason you always have your nose in a book,” Gabriel said. He handed me a cigarette.
I reached for it and smiled.
“Look what I got,” Gabriel whispered. He looked towards the front of D’s door.
I watched him pull out a small bottle of aguardiente from the backpack at his feet. He waved for my Coke bottle and poured a long swig. Then did the same to his Coke bottle.
We sat in old wooden rocking chairs, our faces straight ahead, as the sun dipped low, lower, and out of the sky. A cigarette in between two of my fingers, while the rest wrapped around the spiked Coke. And to break the silence Gabriel, rapped, mostly Biggie, but they were others. I never tired of his rendition of Suicidal Thoughts and often asked for it. Gabriel rapped every word, his voice filled with rage, and with his eyes closed, as if he was somewhere else, the corner of East 116th.
It was Gabriel’s idea to go to Palm Tree that night in late September. I was happy to go clubbing, something I had done very little of back home. But, since three is a crowd, D invited Ruben. Already having flirted with Ruben at a graduation party the week before, and had dragged him to the dance floor, as I gyrated to Elvis Crespo’s, Suvamente. I was nervous, but excited to get to hang out with him. We kissed that night near the bar, later we danced to Carlos Vives, and kissed some more. The next day, Ruben sent me flowers and asked me to be his girl. I said yes, and a few days later he sent another dozen roses.
Excited to tell Mami that I finally liked someone else, that the memory of Jose did not sear a gap in my heart. I phoned her and told her I liked Ruben, yes Ruben from three houses down, yes the one with the two brothers and younger sister. Time stood still, as I waited for Mami’s answer, certain that she would be happy Jose had loosened from my heart. But, I was wrong. Her words: Please don’t tell me you like that enano. Afraid to battle differences with Mami, even matters of my heart, I said nothing. Her words you like that midget, made me fold inside of myself, and though we were the same height, I felt ridiculous. I cried to Sophia, who had arrived to visit me in Colombia a week before. We concocted a plan to hang out at the beach and get drunk. Gabriel was to come with us. Upset at Mami’s reaction I got black out drunk by mid day. Unable to stand straight and puked on, Gabriel suggested we crash at a motel for a few hours, until I sobered up. I flung myself on the plastic mattress with a flimsy sheet. Gabriel tipsy himself laid beside me. The room spun, Gabriel’s voice seemed far away, I reached for Sophia’s arm, but she pulled away from me.
“I want to kiss you.” Gabriel rolled over, his face leaned towards mine.
“No,” I moved my head back.
“What’s up with you?” Gabriel reached towards me.
“What about D?” I asked through the fog of alcohol. I thought of D, and how she loved to play with the dusty pink tea set my Tia kept inside the gabinete, even years later.
“What about her?” He slurred. His eyes rolled in his head.
“Ruben,” I said. I tried to pick up my head, but moved it a millimeter. “I’m kinda seeing him…”
“Wait you really into that immigrante,” Gabriel looked at me dumbfounded.
“I guess I am,” I struggled out of the bed. Waves of nausea weakened my knees, and I crawled to the bathroom. I passed out on the cold tiles.
Some time later Sophia dragged me up. She called my name until my eyes fluttered open.
Helpless I stared at Sophia, opened and closed my mouth, opened it again. “Gabriel wanted to hook up with me,” I wailed. Sophia pushed me into the shower with my dress still on.
“You have to snap out of this.” Sophia leaned me against the wall, and turned to leave.
“Don’t go out there.” I called out.
Sophia glared at me.
“He’s gonna try something with you,” I sputtered.
“You know what…” Sophia studied me. “You want all the boys to you like you, but can’t handle when they do. There is a word for that…” Sophia slammed the door shut.
Decades later I’m reminded of those that called me a cock tease, and even more so, by the one that did not say it, but said so much more. Hurt. I chose to say nothing, but under the silence grew a loud rumble. This is my reckoning, and now at forty. I will check you. But, only because I have checked myself.