IF LIFE WERE LIKE A COMIC
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, ahhh, yeah, daddy, harder!”
“You like that! Tell me how bad you want it? Beg for it!”
“Please daddy! I need it! Ahhhh, yeah, yeah.”
More moaning. More groaning. More wailing. Blah, blah, blah boring. Oh, porn. So tacky. So cliché. So predictable.
Compared to the rest of these 42nd Street theaters where speakers be falling out and the screens got a hole or two in it, this place ain’t shabby. Acoustics are fine. Most of the seats are intact despite the sticky stains here or there. The screen got a fuzzy glow to it but all the sweat, toil, and mustiness is legible. After all, ain’t nobody paying for some bootleg theatre experience. Good thing I don’t pay at all cause the guy in the admission booth likes how manicured my hair is. I tell him the secret is all in the hairspray. He always replies that hairspray is so 1989 and I just scoff and strut past him because 1989 was like a year ago so I don’t never know what he be talking about. On the screen, beyond the margins of my Batman comic, two muscular men adorned in leather outfits crept into view, looking like Roman gladiators from those history textbooks. Chiseled bodies like rocks. Abs like a lizard’s ass. Hair so puffy-prim and windswept that Brooke Shields would be jealous. How very un-verisimilitude porn is.
Imagine me a porn star – I would probably get stage fright the moment I heard the camera roll. Who would wanna see my ass naked on camera anyways? I ain’t some muscle-head or slim prince. I ain’t a fantasy for someone’s wet dream. And, if I am, where they at? Cause we need to meet. This hustling street life ain’t easy without no patrons to hold you steady.
This issue of Batman was much more interesting than those exaggerated orgasms, I mused, my body curled like a comma, dangled over the seat in front of me. The far right of the theatre that still had a working light bulb so I always set up shop in this corner to read comics, magazines, and books. I was popping bubble gum bubbles much to the frustration of the people around me. It was strategic. The more I popped, the more annoying it got, so the more people would move away from me. I didn’t need nobody groaning and gagging as they beat off while I was trying to do some casual reading. It was bad enough with guys touching themselves in the front and the back of the theatre. I may (not) be a high-dollar-hooker, but don’t these men have any class? Any decorum at all?
The comic that the corner bodega so graciously allowed me to borrow featured Catwoman scheming against Batman, as usual, plotting with other criminals to work against the caped crusader. Catwoman was the head-honcho and wanted to hit Batman where it hurt: his butler. Funny, how vicious and manipulative Catwoman is towards Batman, even though she secretly loves him. Reminds me of my damn parents; the lines between love and hate truly are confusing. I admire Catwoman for that, though. It makes her real, like an actual person, proving to the reader that we have those mixed feelings over whether we wanna love someone or hate them. Sometimes you can’t even tell the difference between the two.
It takes a certain kind of chic to walk around in a skin-tight, leather outfit, cracking a whip. You gotta have some major cojones. Coño, I wish I could be her! Strutting around this city like I own it, cracking my whip on bastards and doing flips and cartwheels like it was nothing. Me in leather, though, wouldn’t be pretty. Imagine it! Chichones protruding from the stomach area and the sides, love-handles popping out, ass jiggling around (that wouldn’t be such a bad thing). Now I wasn’t no big girl like Roseanne or Oprah, but I was thick. Extra pounds here or there. Squishy parts that could use a little trimming. Pero why should I care about being thicker? My clients don’t mind it. (My parents didn’t really mind it either, for that matter, I was un cute gordito. The effeminate shit was more of a problem, ya know?) I was no Catwoman, certainly no Batman, and definitely no Penguin. Then who could I pull off? Where was my comic book character? The answer: Nowhere. Hustler-Queens don’t get that character development, those fat thought bubbles. We lucky if we get some free condoms from the clinic over in Chelsea (and when they do give free ones they always those cheap, mierda ones that always break!). Hmph!
When I was a little mariconcito my mother would dress me up each year for Halloween as something I didn’t want to be. One year I was Hercules, despite wanting to be a clown. Another, I was a little commando. Even though I didn’t like the full military garb, adorable combat boots, and face paint that made me look like some incognito soldier camped out in bush, I looked cute as hell. She would take me around Spanish Harlem parading me in her absurd outfits, playing out her fantasy of the machismo son in the hyper-masculine outfit. Oh, Ettie, mira isn’t Divino super cute as Hercules? Look at his little muscle there, ya, feel it, big right? Isn’t he just perfect for the part? Oh, Nelson, isn’t Divino the perfect little soldier? He tells me he wanted to be soldier this year cause someday he wants to be a pilot. Bien chévere.
It was all one badly acted out scene. I learned to play the part of the good son, the macho that everyone needed me to be. She learned to play the part of the happy mother and wife. She couldn’t let all those other Puerto Rican women in El Barrio know that her life was just like theirs. Oh no, oh no, Christina Soto’s shit don’t stink. It fucking reeks! She just learned how to pour on enough knockoff Chanel No. 5 and adobo to drown out the putrid scent of unhappiness. She kept the photo of her life neatly cropped. It was always picture-perfect. Bien honky-dory. Bien chévere.
Sadly, I was the main prop in it all. I was her little muñeca, her porcelain doll, letting her blush my cheeks with masculine pomp, adorning me with strapping blue ribbons in my clothes to perform some façade of perfection. When I left the house, I’m sure she crafted some elaborate and convincing story for the neighborhood about where I ran off to. While I was thinking anywhere but here when I fled into the New York City streets, she was probably thinking to herself why would he go anywhere else but here? Isn’t life perfect? He had it all here.
When I was around ten I asked my mother if I could be Catwoman for Halloween. She slapped me so hard I thought my head spun all the way back to the Mexican pueblo my father came from. Boys can’t be Catwoman, Divino. Why would you even ask me about estupideces like that? Dios, all you do is work my nerves. I bit my lips to prevent the rush of tears, biting so hard a sliver of blood trickled out. I told her I hated Halloween and that I wasn’t going anymore. She shrugged and said that’s okay Divine. One less expense for me this month. I never was Catwoman for Halloween, and I never will be 'cause no one can compare to Eartha Kitt as Catwoman.
As I was getting to the part where Catwoman and Batman were about to get close to brushing their lips together in awkward romance, a man came in and sat right next to me. I didn’t bother to look up. I huffed, beginning to blow a huge pink bubble in the air. I was near completion of popping the damn thing when, Wham! Unexpectedly, the gum exploded in a pink glob across my face, ears, and chest. The bastard then had the nerve to crack up as I was peeling off the pink slime from my face, spattering saliva. As I prepared to lob a slaughterfest of cuss words and possibly a fist at the gum-popper, I noticed that it was Ani. Anastacio Hernandez! My Dominican crush from P.S. Hellhole! That Avenue D stud-muffin! That boy with the pelo malo (as the viejas like to say, but I think it’s perfect) and the lips bienbien Africano! Live, here, again! In the flesh for a round two! In my face, bursting my damn bubble. Literally and figuratively, kiddies. I gave him that side-eye. That well-known and well-archived eye stare that every Latino child knows and fears.
“Whoa, calm down, Divine. It was funny! You gotta admit, you didn’t see it coming which made it twenty times funnier,” he joked, rubbing me on the shoulder. My hairs jolted from his touch. Goosebumps bubbled up along my sunburnt neck.
“You can’t be coming up to people, bursting their bubbles! Now my gum got your germs on it and I can’t put that back in my mouth. I don’t know where your hands have been!” I scolded, slapping him on the knee. We was playing that find-any-reason-to-touch-each-other game.
“How bout’ this, I will buy you a whole new pack of gum to make up for it? What kind you want?”
“Juicy Fruit. And I want several packs of gum, not just one. And different flavors, too.”
“Mira, I ain’t no platano! You can’t just use me and abuse me. You think I’m rich or something?” He just called himself a platano. A plantain, yah, bingo, you are correct. Let me play ghetto dictionary: platano: when a Dominican guy is referring to his refusal at being used for his money and resources by a woman (except in this instance, duh, I got a pinga), usually always said from a place of shared affection and intimacy between one person and the other. I don’t know about you but I found that shit super cute. Like I was almost on the verge of blushing, I could feel the stormy flush coming on, but you know my pigmentation don’t allow for such displays of embarrassment.
Lord Jesus take out the fire that was growing in my body! Could he be the Tony to my Maria? The Batman to my Catwoman? JFK to my Jackie O/Marilyn Monroe?
“You so poor you can’t even afford gum? Damn boy, times are harder than I thought,” I scoffed, returning to my calm-and-collected-not-bothered-by-nothing face. I knew the guys liked it. Being cold is all part of the game of seduction. This, my friends, was the essential to the chase. And I ain’t no damn gazelle, getting mauled down by lions whenever they come stalking by. I am a tigress, deadly, unnerving, unflinching, anything else that begins with –un to assert my ferocity.
“Yeah, I make do. I’ll get you that gum don’t worry. So –”
Then, from the dingy darkness, some guy slid into the seat in front of me. Irritated, I looked at Ani rolling my eyes, and we stopped talking. An awkwardness occupied the former territory of cuteflirty dialogue. Just my pinche luck! Some horny bastard had to come and beat right in front of us! The unzipping of his zipper grated my ears. Flesh slapped against jeans. I was not having this, no, no, no. I wasn’t gunna let this horndog ruin our moment. I improvised. I began shuffling around, kneeing the guy’s seat, flicking pieces of dandruff on him, scraping the heels of my shoes against the floor. Irritation: the weapon of the disenfranchised.
He turned around, frustrated, “Do you mind? Damn.”
“Is (you pronounce it like a recent immigrant spic: push hard against the back of the throat, contort the vowel from an i, to an extended ee, making it vibrate out, then follow with the stressed emphasis of s, curling, an acrobatic feat, hissing out) there a problem sir? Ju wanna take dis outside?” I snapped, eyes stern, crossing my right leg over my left, exuding cattiness.
He looked at me, then at Ani, and grumbled off to another part of the theatre. Victory! My Catwoman-ferocity-realness had won.
“Anywho,” I said, readjusting my ass so I could inch closer to Ani, “can I get a flavor of gum I never tried. That would be real cool. Get me some kind of gum that Dominicans chew, ya know, like straight up imported from the island.”
“These demands you be making, sheesh. Okay let me see what I can do,” he said, a coy smile on his face, nodding his head over at my comic. “What you reading there?”
“I prefer Superman. He got way more powers than Batman does.”
“Batman doesn’t have a weakness. Superman does. Your superhero loses.”
“He can break Batman’s back way before that even happens.”
“Whatever. Batman is human and a very relatable character.”
“You gotta read something that relates to you? Shit, you would be waiting around all your life if you were. There ain’t nothing out there relating to us,” he said pointedly, his face smirking like his grandmother just gave him a portion of her lottery winnings. “Either way, Superman is better y, ya, it’s final. The law is spoken.”
I looked at him hard again, eyebrow arched, lips puckered at the corner of my mouth. You know the face. And here we were, going back and forth, bickering like we used to when we would hang out as kids. I remember he would even ride his bike all the way from his apartment on Avenue D, all the way up to East 119th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I grew up with my mother and father, where I would practice my ABC’s on the sidewalk with blue chalk given to me by Santa Clause (aka the Barrio Children Toy Drive) that Christmas, and practice my juggling skills as I weaved in and out of traffic, waiting to be discovered by the travelling circus. Each time he would pop over if I wasn’t already on the street, he would blow this whistle he carried around his neck so that I would hear from inside my building. Most of the time I never heard the actual whistle but I would hear the loud-mouth Cubana, Mrs. Lopez, from below us, screaming from her kitchen window to stop the damn noise and threatening to go down with her chancletas and whoop that boy herself.
I would slink out into the fire-escape, peer down in admiration, then I would make my way down feeling like Rapunzel of the Hood. I would hop on the top of the handlebars and he would take me on trips throughout all of Manhattan and the Bronx. He would sweat, he would wheeze, he would get light-headed at times, but he would still trudge on without letting me do the steering. He let me be the diva, the star, that I so deserved to be. He said he didn’t trust a loca driving, when that loca couldn’t even pump air into a tire. I didn’t fuss about that nor did I care because it made me feel oh so special. I, Juliet, and he thine Romeo.
He would trek through the hilly and steep streets of Washington Heights just to take me to get pastelitos. Man, I loved watching those little heart attacks fry! Sometimes he would see relatives (or strangers, you can never tell the difference with Dominicans cause they nice to everyone in their nationality) he knew and would chat them up. I would wait, hanging on the chip rack, watching the grease trickle down the metal sides, dripping onto the linoleum floors, as I listened to the dizzying dominicanspanish. Somewhere in the distance, bachata was playing, slipping through the door of the bodega, seducing me to grab Ani. The bachata faintly pulsed through my veins, insisting, demanding to take him. Dance you fool, the bachata would moan seductively. It seemed to cry out in its quick syncopation of instruments: Fuck the norms! Dance is the revolution!
Each time the bachata penetrated my ear canal, I found myself tempted. Tempted to break. Tempted to dance down the street, swinging with Ani’s slender brown body, demolishing the rhythms of machismo that ruled the streets. I always told myself that someday I would do it. Someday the beat would take me over and I wouldn’t care. It would whisper to unleash, let go, stop caring. Love hard, love fast, love through the streets. Break through the invisible barriers that bind you. Shatter, break, rompe. I never got the chance.
He still had the same wide grimace on his copper colored face that I remembered all those years ago. His dimples jutted out on each end like little crowns of topaz. Little islander jewels for my visual consumption.
“Tell me something. You come to a dark theatre that plays porn in the background to read?” He asked, his eyes wide as if he had seen a deal on the Goya juices at the supermarket. Don’t fuck with a Dominican boy and his Goya sales items, it could end yo life.
“Yeah. I find it all very… therapeutic. I like some background noise as I read. Much better than listening to traffic on the highway.”
“You’re so weird.”
“Thanks. And you’re not?”
“No, I’m normal.”
“Then why you here?”
We sat there stiff in our chairs, uncomfortable, watching the no-plot porn play out. Now, they were at the part where everything seemed to be in full throttle. Que asco it gave me to watch. Lots of moaning. Quick movements. Grunts and snorts. Sweat beads trickled down their bodies, slipping around on the oil coated from head to toe. All of it one un-poetic hot mess. Ani and I watched it not sure whether to talk about the porno playing, the weather, the massive zit on my chin, his busted ass Yankees hat, our lives, or just anything other than letting silence be the dialogue between us.
“So are you… ya know…?” Slight hesitation, I was waiting for that word to slip out of his mouth, “…ya know? Like… a part of all this stuff?”
“No, not at all. You see, nene, I don’t like labels. I got enough of those already. I am just here,” I replied, blowing a rogue curl from my face, shifting in my seat cause I was finally excited that the silence was broken. “How bout’ you? Are you into this stuff?”
His eyes darted to the side, his lips tightened, and he exhaled. I knew that face: 10th grade English. A place where he questioned whether the study of words and sentences was for him or not, or whether school was out to get him or not. And the question of sexuality, like 10th grade English, caused the same face. Latinos, especially Dominican boys, were always careful how they approached this question. I met a decent amount of Dominican queens in my time, let me give you a run-through, ladies: we got the flaming queens who run around looking like menstruating flamingos; some are the down-low dick-sucking machismos who beat up the feminine boys on the block to prove their masculinity; and then there are the semi-out princesses who go out at night looking like straight gigolos with cool designer gym-bags, so as to not draw the attention of their Dominicanyork familia, and then they secretly switch into their I-Wanna-Go-To-The-YMCA clothing as soon as they hit the packed dance floor. Which, I wondered, if any, was Ani?
“Nah, I’m not,” he stated seriously, looking over at me real stern. “I’m just very interested in a lot of stuff. Hey, I don’t like labels either.”
Cocky bastard. “Mmmhhhmmmm, I’m sure. And Michael Jackson is super straight and is so hyper masculine.” I said.
“For real Divine. I ain’t kidding.”
“So that would make you bisexual then.”
“Sure… if you wanna say that. Again, I prefer to just live life.”
Pobre bisexuality. The usual escape. The typical victim. The lesser of two evils. Much easier to say than certain other words. Despite bisexuality’s bad rep, I think everyone got a bisexual in them. Like, let me tell you how many times I just wanted to pounce on some chic or femme guy and love him. The feminine and I go way back, muchachas, so it’s something I don’t mind at all. It’s playful, creative, aggressive, romantic, catty, moody, brilliant, enthralling. Maybe I am bisexual. Maybe not. I got a lablelessness thing going on that works for me. It’s a muddier road to choose when you don’t let others define you, but its better. At least for me it is.
The muddier road, though, ain’t a luxurious one. Growing up, I was always that effeminate kid, the one other boys picked on real quick. Oh, you don’t like basketball, verdad? You like Catwoman more than Batman, but she’s a girl? You rather play hopscotch con las muchachas than shoot bebe guns with the boys? Oye! Divino, chico, ju got it all backwards! This is the part where the scared little Divine would absorb all their comments and negativity like an obedient sponge. What is wrong with girls? What is wrong with the feminine? Why does everyone hate on feminists? Ya know, it just took some years of experience to rethink how I felt about the feminine. My inner feminist came out at some point during those years in junior high when I just stopped giving a damn.
I was never ashamed of my so-called femininity. Hell, I wore it right! I would look in the mirror growing up and, besides a pimple or a chunk of fat on my side, admired what I saw. Now, I wouldn’t mind a rounder butt, more cherubic facial features, and a nose more finely sculpted— nothing a little nip and tuck couldn’t fix. In fact, it was always everybody else who told me there was something wrong, something I could do better, then forcing me to claim their scrutiny as disease. Y, the moment I hit the streets, I told myself que no mas. I am The Divine. Fabulousity incarnate. The future of the spic world. No one, I vowed to myself, would take me down.
Some of these other queens go around hustling and stashing money away in super-secret places, all in efforts to fund their trip to Thailand or Mexico to get the snip-snip surgery they always dreamed about since they were little maricóns. Y, Poof! Just like that, with a flick of their magic wand (and lots of lonely, painful time spent in a foreign hospital), your fairy godmother makes you the Cinderella you always knew you were. For some it works and they are much happier now. But for most of them, they leave the operating room feeling the exact same way before they came in: empty. Y sabes que? They come back here and get the same reception of disgust they got when they had the pinga. Pobrecitas.
To be honest though, the one thing I do get a little insecure and ashamed about is my weight. I always been a thick kid, never really bothered me, until I met all these other locas who are toothpicks and all they eat is white dust and rocks. Putas got it easy. Anyone who so much as puts a speckle of sugar in their coffee, or a sprinkle of salt in their eggs, automatically is considered bigger than these ladies. You enter the unforgivable wasteland of being a gorda asquerosa. Que horror! I never really felt that fat, at least, in the average Americano way of thinking, mostly cause I grew up in a neighborhood filled with Puerto Ricans whose religion is praying to manteca gods and cauldrons of rice-pork-and-beans. A chunk here and a jiggly butt there were all natural ingredients to have a fulfilling life according to the barrio elders. McDonalds, after all, was the (poison) alternative when our mommas didn’t feel like cooking the good stuff. So, a little extra weight was inevitable. Now, the Television, the magazine ads, the other divas trying to battle it out for success, are the ones that sabotage your barrio fantasy that your jiggles are beautiful mounds and hills to be honored.
Ani’s ambiguous answer on his sexuality was all I needed. Pobrecito, probably needed support more than anything at a time like this. I whispered, “So… if you don’t mind me asking… what kind of… people you like?”
“Cute ones—” he looks down, pensively—“Someone funny. Someone who can smile—” this time a wide, playful grimace smears across his face—“Someone who is good in bed, obviously. Someone who don’t care about the bullshit—” he looks straight at me this time, coconut-shell brown eyes exploding passion, locked on, at me—“Someone similar to you would be nice,” he said winking, that bright white smile appearing once again, my insides fuzzy and warm.
This Dominican would make this MexiRican (almost) blush. Cónchale! Spic to spic flattery is an interesting, unheard of thing that is also, as of yet, untranslatable. Not in English. Not in Spanish. It is all professed in the language of elsewhere. Not universal in any way. Que puede hacer, you know?
The porno continued playing. Grunting, slurping, moaning, barking. The usual shit you expect from these films. All just background noise as Ani and I talked about the little things. About how much we like Whitney Houston’s music. About our favorite comics. How we wish when we talked little thought bubbles would appear. Baseball cards of Sammy Sosa that his dad gave him so he could know his people had a positive role model. About the old beat-up Buick he bought with his money. The exaggerated cartoons in the newspaper and about how much he loved them and how much I hated them.
We watched as three movies slipped by, as new oiled, olive muscledaddies appeared on the screen, as moviegoers beat and left. I thought about what my life would be like if Ani and I were the lead characters in a comic: revolutionary, mind-blowing, blasphemous, catastrophic, appalling, uncouth, unimaginable. With my saucy hair-flips, pursed lips, and runway struts, accompanied with his macho looks, mile-a-minute speaking, and awfully constructed jokes, we could have it all. A dynamic duo for the new approaching millennium. A ghetto match made in queer paradiso. Carràmba! It all sounded so perfectly perfect.
Pero, the printing presses didn’t have enough shades of brown ink for all that. Ya pues what can you do? My life wasn’t as action packed as a comic book anyways. It was blah, blah, blah boring. Too commonplace. Too aesthetically unpleasing. Too un-extra-ordinary. At least, that’s what it seems like. Besides, I prefer to be genre-less. It’s my way of imagining some kind of freedom away from it all. Like little invisible wings I attach to my back, a barrio Icarus, floating and pirouetting, onward, skyward, to the blazing warmth of the sun – ya feel me?
So, niñitos, all we did was talk about the little things. About the insignificant things that made our lives significant. The big things in life could wait for another day.