(WOMENSENEWS)– “Mami,” I begin in Spanish, “it’s been a long time since I’ve had a boyfriend.”
She nods and gives me a small smile.
Her mouth opens, but no sound comes out. She covers her heart with her right hand in a pose similar to the one of the Virgin Mary that hangs over the bed she shares with my father.
“Mami, are you ok?”
“Ay, Dios mío.”
When she doesn’t say anything else, I fill the silence between us with a concise history of the LGBT, feminist and civil right movements, which combined have opened the door to higher education, better laws and supportive communities of what would be otherwise marginalized people. “It’s because of how hard you worked to put me through school that I am fortunate enough to be so happy and make such good decisions for myself.”
By this time, my mother is hyperventilating and fanning herself with her other hand. She stammers, “I’ve never heard of this. This doesn’t happen in Colombia.”
“You haven’t been in Colombia in 27 years.”
“But I never saw anything like this there.”
In the days that follow, Tía Chuchi accuses me of trying to kill my mother. (Tía is Spanish for aunt.)
We’re on the phone. She’s at Tía Dora’s apartment. As if it’s not enough that I am murdering my mother, Tía Chuchi adds with grim self-satisfaction: “It’s not going to work, sabes? You need a man for the equipment.”
For this, I am ready. I am not being sassy. I really do believe she doesn’t know and that I can inform her. “Tía, you can buy the equipment.”
She breaks out into a Hail Mary and hangs up the phone.
My mother develops a minor depression and a vague but persistent headache. She is not well, the tías snap at me.
“Don’t say anything to her!” barks Tía Dora over the phone. “The way this woman has suffered I will never know.”
But she wants me to know.
Pushing Away Tías
Tía Dora stops talking to me. She throws away a gift from me because she can see that the present (a book on indigenous religions in Mexico) is my way of trying to convert her to loving women. Tía Chuchi begins walking into the other room when I arrive home. Tía Rosa alludes to the vicious rumors the other two aunties have started about me. “It’s terrible,” she says, and then: “Siéntate, siéntate. I made you buñuelos just the way you like. Are you hungry?”
That my romantic choices could upset my mother and tías had been a given since high school. A lot can be said about a woman who dates the wrong man. But dating the same sex or dating both sexes has no explanation.
My mother now is hurt. More than anything, she is bruised, and she wonders what she did wrong. “This isn’t what we expected,” she says quietly one day as we walk toward Bergenline Avenue to catch the bus.
I keep thinking that if only I could tell my mother how it works with women, she would understand. The problem is I don’t know.
The closest I have to an explanation is a Frida Kahlo painting titled The Two Fridas, where the artist is sitting next to her twin who holds her heart, an artery and a pair of scissors. That is how I feel about loving women. They can dig into you and hold the insides of you, all bloodied and smelly, in their hands. They know you like that. But this is nothing I can say to my mother.
I miss the conversations now. More than anything, I long for the days when I came home to report that my ex-boyfriend Julio had given me flowers or promised to take me to Wildwood. We have, my family and me, including my father (who demanded to know if Julio was gay the whole time), settled into a region called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And it is hard, I imagine, for people who have not experienced this to understand the weight of that silence and how the absence of language can feel like a death.
Often when my mother tells me about those early days in her relationship with my father, she mentions the postres.
“He would bring pastries from the bakery,” she recalls, smiling and then adding with a warning, “That’s how they get you.”
Kristina does it with dulce de leche.
Our first date is a month after Sept. 11. The city is struggling to be normal. The subways are running and the New York Times is publishing its “Portraits of Grief.” Kristina and I eat burritos on Christopher Street and walk to the piers. In the summers, brown butches and black divas light up the area, their bodies pretzeled around their loves and friends and strangers, but tonight the piers are empty, muted, solitos. With the bone skeleton of lower Manhattan near us and Jersey’s lights across the river, Kristina and I kiss for the first time.
My mother would like Kristina. She would probably like her more than she likes me. Kristina believes in diplomacy. Like my mother, she doesn’t see why I need to write about sexuality. She values privacy. My mother would appreciate that.
When Kristina and I break up, almost five years after we first ate dulce de leche together, I call Tía Chuchi to deliver the news. “We’ve ended,” I say in Spanish. “For good this time.”
I don’t know what to expect from my auntie, but I’m figuring she will say something along the lines of good riddance. Instead, she exclaims, “That’s why you’re taking the martial arts class!”
“That’s why you’re taking martial arts. I knew this woman who rented a room once from a lady and it turned out the lady was, tu sabes, gay.” The lesbian had terrible fights with her partner. “It was horrible,” my auntie recalls, as if she had been in the room when the arguments exploded. “They threw pots and pans at each other and fought with their fists.” Tía sighs. “It’s good you’re taking the martial arts classes to defend yourself.”
I start laughing and crying, because my ex-girlfriend couldn’t face a kitchen mouse let alone strike another woman, because I loved her so much and walked away, because I glimpse in my tía’s words some deeper emotion, some love that struggles to be steady even when it hurts.
Excerpted from “A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir” by Daisy Hernández, (Beacon Press, 2014). Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of “Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism” and the former editor of Color Lines magazine. She speaks at colleges and conferences about feminism, race and media representations, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms. magazine, CultureStrike, In These Times, Bellingham Review, Fourth Genre and Hunger Mountain, and on NPR’s All Things Considered.
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