Besame Muchoby Jaime Manrique
These stories and excerpts from novels cover a wide range of themes: the lives of Chicanos in California and the Southwest, magic realism in the Colombian countryside, santeria, the world of hustlers and Houses in New York, transvestites in Rio de Janeiro, the homophobic role of the Catholic church in gay Latino culture, and, of course, love. See more details below
These stories and excerpts from novels cover a wide range of themes: the lives of Chicanos in California and the Southwest, magic realism in the Colombian countryside, santeria, the world of hustlers and Houses in New York, transvestites in Rio de Janeiro, the homophobic role of the Catholic church in gay Latino culture, and, of course, love.
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THE STRAIGHT FRIEND WHO
CAME TO DINNER
* * *
I wouldn't normally apologize for my well-developed sense of lust. It wouldn't be like me to belittle the one drive that has kept me yearning for another day, way in the future, when it would be fulfilled. Lust as hope, lust as the struggle for self-realization, lust as a zest for living, I won't apologize for this, but I will make amends (one day) for trying to fulfill my lust by impersonating a Catholic: I will shamefully admit that only lust led me to attend Sunday services at St. Matthew's. Hesus Sang had become president of Catholic Youth and whether or not he remembers it, he touched my hand, or rather scraped it, when he passed a flyer to me after school and the edges of it scratched the surface of my skin so lightly that I nearly bled through the sensation alone.
My first, second, and third services were quiet affairs, spent in reticent observation of Hesus Sang's firm posterior as he sat in the front pews of the well-lit glass church on Wilshire. I then walked away alone, fearful of my desire. I didn't know how long I could continue to attend services before they began to suspect genuine piousness on my part and start inviting me to First Communions. When I finally made my move on that fourth Sunday, I introduced myself not to the youth leader himself but to Father George, the parish priest, who led me like a guiding spirit to him. I shook his hand, firmly and as macho-like as I imagined a same-sex shake of hands must be.
I must clarify that I am not, and never have been Catholic. I am instead Jewish, or culturally Jewish and religiously apathetic with a mother who is militantly atheist. But born in Santiago, Chile, and brought up there until my early teens, I'd been around Catholics long enough to know how to pass for one, if and when necessary. In Santiago, I succeeded in my attempts to blend in, although, due to the vociferousness of my mother's beliefs, we were expelled from Chile anyway. Not because we were atheist or Jewish, but because mother was a Socialist. Personally, I was never much of a leftist convert, but I did learn to please my mother and pass for a socially concerned activist. I was born to don disguises, and therefore I had no qualms about attending Sunday services at St. Matthew's with the single motive oflet's saysodomizing the president of Catholic Youth or, given my real inclinations, to be sodomized by him instead.
"This is Hesus," said the priest. The youthful leader wore a gray two-piece suit and a tie long enough to administer an execution by hanging. "He'll be your mentor," he said, "should you need one, of course," he added not having meant to read neediness on my gaunt, famished face.
"Anything I can do," said Hesus, "that's what I'm here for."
He was fantasy, and at seventeen, already a man in the flesh, fully formed, with a glint of eagerness in his eyes. I knew already that his Salvadoran mother had gained fame baking her notorious fresh pupusas laced with kimchi in honor of his Korean father (they'd been "Pick of the Week" in the LA Weekly earlier that spring). Like one of his mother's culinary creations, he was the best of both worlds, with his wiry black hair partly covering his almond-shaped eyes. A light orange tinge spread through his skin, but his lips bore a bright red seal as if they would stain if they were to kiss one. His nose lowered from his forehead into a pointed tip, and his nostrils often spread out as if flaring in anger. He shook my hand. I felt a softness and boyishness in his weak (or perhaps uncommitted) grasp which was otherwise betrayed by a severity and seriousness of purpose in his expression.
But that was only the beginning of a long process of mere insignificant acquaintanceship. His mentoring left a lot to be desired. It consisted mostly of playing basketball with me and with other members of Catholic Youth, followed by Father George's brief after-game "Scriptural follow-ups." Silence ensued between us the rest of the time. An occasional pat on the back made things physical, but the same pats went elsewhere, generously distributed to the rest of the members of Catholic Youth. During the showers after each game, I felt compelled (by the paucity of opportunities, one must understand) to develop a method of looking at my Catholic playmates without ogling. I learned that a brief glimpse of some aspect of flesh went a long way to stir my imagination. I had a practical reason for training my mind not to dwell on the look of naked playmates: I feared getting an erection at a Catholic gym. I was at least grateful to discover that most Catholic boys in the U.S. are circumcised, and here I did not have to fear any cultural disclosures from that angle. My penis remained mercilessly silent throughout the ordeal.
That day, I decided that I would finally make a declaration of some kind, a disclosure, anything that might break the silence. I waited until Hesus Sang had draped the towel around his waist and he stood shaving in front of a mirror. His face was too smooth for shaving, but I wasn't about to shatter his illusions. I was dressed in my jeans and Catholic Youth T-shirt and matching cap and windbreaker. "Can I, like, speak to you about something really serious?" I asked. He was headed toward his locker by then, feeling shaven and brazen, eager to get dressed. He walked with his arms arched, as if he'd been some buffed-up Asian-Latin cowboy.
"Can it wait?" he asked. "How about dinner?"
I fidgeted in discomfort. "I can't afford that."
"I own a restaurant," he said.
"Oh," I looked on perplexed. "That's right, the Salvadoran-Korean Express."
"Got it!" he said. "Hope it won't take longI got physics homework. Could you help me?"
"I'm failing history," I answered. "And math," I added, as if adding to a list of youthful failures. I didn't have much else to say for myself. I had nothing to offer him except this belief that my feelings, for some reason, mattered and needed to be reciprocated lest I fall into a state of depression that would endure to old age and I'd die a tragic hero of unrequited love (so many of my Chilean aunts had).
I followed him through the doors of the standard mini-mall store with its confining hole-in-the-wall look and was surprised to feel comfortable inside. The restaurant was furnished by modest foldout (but padded) chairs and patio tables. Pictures of both Salvadoran and South Korean landscapes decorated the walls and green plants hung from the ceiling. I was introduced first to Mr. Sang, a short thin-faced man who surprised me by bowing. Mrs. Sang (maiden name Leticia Contreras) greeted me in reticent English, as if fearing her pronunciation. Mr. Sang asked her to bring us sodas using broken Spanish. She answered in spartan Korean, telling him what I took to mean, "Get it yourself." Neither spoke English well. But perhaps silence was required between them to get on with the matter of survival and prosperity and the simultaneous multiplication of the Salvadoran-Korean communities. The couple had spent some twenty years working at their restaurant while giving birth to their five sons. I met only two of them that night, the two brothers who worked for the Salvadoran-Korean Express. Hwan-Jose was the youngest, the shortest, and the most prepubescent-looking, practically a child at sixteen. He wore a busboy apron that tightened into his small frame and made him disappear behind it. Kyong Javier, the older brother, was more to my demanding taste. Kyong Javier resembled Hesus and bore the same arrogant stride of manner, although he was shorter and, again for my taste, not as enticing as the president of the Catholic Youth. "He never finished school," said Hesus with surprising disdain as if to warn me to avoid him like radiation.
Mrs. Sang served us tamales with bi bim bap and an assortment of other dishes I could hardly name. She smiled at us with a cocky reassurance as if to suggest she rated the best, if only, Korean-Salvadoran cook in the world. The aromas arising from the table, pickled cabbages and green corn tamales, entranced me, and, one might even say, seduced me.
"II love all of this," I told Hesus, uncertain of what else to say.
His red lips looked stained in kimchi. "Yeah, little hole in the wall, keeps the family going. Want more pulgogi with your chile relleno?"
"No, thank you. I think the sulong tang with albóndigas was rather filling. But you know what I really want to talk about ..."
"These last couple of months have been very special for me."
"Me, too," he said. "The faith grows within us."
"Uh, yeah, that too, what I really mean is ..."
"Yes? What?" He tore the leg of some poultry-like animal soaking in some inscrutable sauce.
"I feel very close to you."
"You should. We go to the same youth group, we're in the same school, even though it's too secular, my parents don't want to pay for Catholic prep."
"I prefer it that wayyou get to meet different people."
"But we didn't meet because of school. You're in the slow courses, they segregate us too much, maybe I should tutor you to get you going in your senior year. I'm your mentor, anyway. What are mentors for?"
I sat crumpling the paper napkin. I didn't like that the conversation was headed in an academic direction.
"Are you a virgin?" I finally asked.
He looked unaffected. "Oh, you want to talk about sex."
"Not really talk."
"I know, who needs talk?" His mother walked by like an attentive waitress and smiled. We waved. "Better not get me started on that subject," he said. "Not here."
"Do you masturbate at least?"
"Look ..." He stared around him. Kyong Javier could be seen busing an empty table, pocketing the tip. He wore a green apron and stopped to light a cigarette. He took a few puffs before continuing to clean the table and giving us both a smile of complicity, as if he'd heard us.
I pressed on. "Have you ever masturbated in public?"
"What? What type of question is that?"
"I read it in Arthur Miller's biography."
"Famous Jewish playwright," I answered and almost added "like I myself would like to be," but I did not want to explain either my theatrical ambitions or my actual heritage. "I read it in his biography that he once caught the entire football team in his school masturbating in the locker room, not each other of courseeach to his own, you know, but together like a good team. And he wouldn't join because he was too shy. I would have been too shy too, but I probably would have looked. What about you?"
I thought I'd dropped enough hints. He looked by now rather perplexed. Mrs. Sang walked by wiping her hands on a white cloth. "¿Todo está bien?"
"Oh, sí, sí, ¡exquisito!" I said, giving myself away as a Spanish speaker. I didn't feel I had time for her and I hadn't bothered to make an effort to speak much to her in any language. Mrs. Sang looked as if she would leap at me and embrace me, which mercifully she didn't.
"Muy bien, habla español," she said. "Casi nunca hablo mi propia lengua, a estos estúpidos les da miedo, fíjese."
"Mom, stop calling us stupid," said Hesus. "I'll study Spanish and Korean in college, OK? Right now I got to concentrate on pre-med, remember?"
I decided not to get involved in this cross-cultural, intergenerational, opportunistic debate.
By then, Hesus had thrown down his napkin. "I think I should drive you home now."
Two weeks went by, and I did not hear from Hesus. My mentor missed two weeks of after-school church activities. Father George announced to his flock of young basketball players that their president was preparing college applications and couldn't be bothered with the game. He encouraged us to make our own collegiate plansI resented Hesus for this already. At best I rated as one of the more promising students in remedial math but hoped that in the artsprobably in the crass entertainment wingI'd rise above the norm. That was my highest form of ambition, but my audition as King Lear did not impress the prominent members of the Drama Club, so I had already been rejected in the only field of endeavor I found. I decided the judges didn't know intentional overacting when they saw it and hoped I'd be better understood by future vanguards of culture.
A few nights before Halloween, I opened the door of our one-bedroom apartment to answer an unnecessarily loud thump and found Hesus standing on the welcome mat. He held a six-pack of O.B. Korean beer he'd lifted frown the restaurant. I was alone. He had missed my mother by a few minutes. She'd slipped into her red Partido-Socialista-de-Chile-en-el-Exilio T-shirt and gone to meet her friends at a Nueva Canción concert, leaving me some Afghani take-out for dinner. Hesus Sang found me in a thermal set of pajamas that sealed my body from neck to toe as if to hide it from the lust of strangers. He walked by me without at all commenting on my appearance. He had no words on the shoddiness of the apartment, with my single bed in the middle of the living room where a coffee table might have fared better. He couldn't have failed to notice the Che Guevara poster, but instead plopped down on the couch, eager to talk about himself.
"Finished the applications, man," he said. "I'm ready to party." He was about to hand me over a can of beer when we heard the keys jiggling outside. Hesus managed to throw the beer beneath my mattress, then sat up to witness the entrance of my mother, a woman in her late thirties with long reddish hair that curled up into U's on the side. Sabina Sverloff, daughter of purged Soviet Marxists who ended up in South America from where we were equally exiled, cut a striking figure, a presence, an intensity of epic proportions. One could imagine her posing for Delacroix holding a revolutionary flag as her breasts broke through her blouse to hover over the battlefield. She looked irked about forgetting the tickets to the concert, a benefit for Chilean human rights organizations, but when she saw Hesus, she appeared to change into softness and sweetness uncharacteristic of her.
"So he has a friend," she said, surprised. "One friend."
"From Catholic Youth," said Hesus Sang, shaking her hand. She thought nothing of it; she herself associated with gentiles in greater proportion than Jews. "I'm his mentor," he added as I rolled my eyes.
"Yes, please be his mentor," she said as she found her tickets beneath a flyer for an anti-nuclear proliferation rally. "Be a good oneI'm his mother, by the way."
"And he's told me so much about you."
"No, he hasn't. He's ashamed of me. We had to leave Chile because of me. I'm a subversive, he'll never forgive me, sometimes I think he just disdains me ... I have to go now." She swung her bag on a thin leather string and was gone.
Hesus sat down hitting his knee with the palm of his hand.
"She's a subversive," I reminded him. I was worried. I'd begun to imagine an attraction between them. Worse than mutual attraction, passion and consummation, I feared the two would wed and mate and I'd end up Hesus's stepson instead of his lover. I imagined I'd end up as a baby sitter to my stepbrothers as she and he attended South African anti-apartheid rallies. Sabina had a tendency to date men I found attractive and the message of Fate or the Life Force seemed clear: she attracted men, I didn't, and I was doomed to know the difference. "She's a Marxist, and very, very dangerous," I told him.
"And who am I supposed to be? General MacArthur landing at Inchon?" He popped his first beer open. "Pretty South American womenyou can tame them, you know. Dad should know."
"Your mom is Central American," I corrected.
"You know what I mean. What's wrong with you today, man?"
"And why are you calling me `man'? Why are you here?"
"Because," he said, breaking into a pout full of playful boyishness that was, to my eyes, irresistible although I never would have let him know this. "Because I've missed you."
"Missed me?" I looked up suspiciously. "Why?"
"I've been thinking about what you said, and I guess I am kinda shy, like that writer, Arthur Mills."
"Miller, Arthur Miller."
"I guess I couldn't whack off in public either."
I reached out for my own beer can. "Well, why not?"
"Because it's gotta be private. Just me and the thoughts of that special someone."
"You know ... a babe."
"Make that a hot momma!"
"What? Stop that, stop right now!"
"I should, but hey, this is my fifth beer tonight."
"Yeah, and after a couple more beers, I think I'll go home and do what the football team did, but alone."
"I won't get into trouble that way, I have pre-med to think abouthell, it's all I've got."
"How sad ... if that's all you've got."
"I don't want to get anyone pregnant."
"That shouldn't be a problem."
"You mean condoms."
"They've become necessary."
"No, I don't want to blow my chances. It's pre-med or nothing, I don't wanna be like my brothers, bunch of nobodies. Whacking off is all I've got."
I felt my face flushing in anger. I finished my first beer, placed the can on a stack of anti-Pinochet flyers and stood up. I felt responsible for all this. I'd been the one to bring up the subject, and all I'd done with it is confirm his celibacy. I felt like a failure.
"You have to go now," I told him. "I have to, uh, do homework."
"You don't like homework, you said you're not academically inclined."
I opened the door for him. He noticed for once that I was serious.
"Oh yeah, right! What's wrong with you ... I come here, everything's fine, your mother's awfully pretty."
"I like her a lot!"
"Man! I don't believe this!"
He left clutching the four remaining cans of beer and heading for his father's pickup truck parked off Sunset Boulevard. The evening traffic had become loud and festive with weekend cruisers crowding into pickup trucks and shaking their vehicles back and forth to crawl through the 10-mph traffic.
I shut the door and bolted it. I threw the weight of my feather-light body on the bed and began to suffocate myself with the synthetic pillow. But then I felt my stomach turn as my first beer ever had its effect. I lifted my head and threw up on my mother's bookshelf, straight onto the leather-bound collected speeches of Fidel Castro.
For an entire week afterward, I found myself sitting at home at night by the kitchen table that was my desk, attempting to bury any thoughts of my future in wasted subjects like math and history, wasted at least as taught by uninspiring teachers. I was an underprivileged student from a Third World country, a poor Jew posing as a Catholic, a repressed homosexual incapable of attracting the president of the Youth Club, and living in fear that in order to compete for Hesus's affection I would have to fend off not only the female gender but my mother, an obstacle of gargantuan proportions.
Sabina came home eager to peel out of her sweaty deli uniform and to soak her contact lenses. "I saw your friend tonight at the Fairfax," she said, squinting.
"What friend?" I asked. My stomach felt bloated, full of gas and resentment. Sabina on the other hand looked healthy, hair flowing down to her shoulders, rosy cheeks full of vigor, legs exposed to the evening air as she gave them a sponge bath in front of the radio that was playing marimba classics. Her fingers squeezed through the yellowish sponge. The water came gushing out and running down the smooth trail of her legs into the tin basin she'd bought once in the artisan town of Pomaire near Santiago.
"What do you mean what friend?" she answered. "The only one you've got. Havier something."
"He's cute. What is he? Filipino?"
"Too complicated to explain, Sabina. Go to your room."
"Hah, hah, hah, that's really funny." She was rubbing lotion on her legs. "Let me tell you thisthis friend of yours. He just sat there all night sipping on a cup of coffee and nibbling on a hamantasch. He was staring right at me, and when I asked him if he wanted a coffee refill, he bit his knuckles."
"He's a stalker. He's deadly. Like one of those men that go after stars and strangle them. You should have called the police."
"I can take care of myself," she said, then sighed. "Ah, the president of Catholic Youth's after a deli waitress, an exile, a nobody in the scheme of thingsrather flattering."
I thought I'd gotten used to the attention Sabina got. There was the Alabama gas attendant who used to follow her home at night until she made it clear she was a Jew, the Armenian owner of a shoe repair store who offered to make her a partner, the Spanish professor at UCLA who claimed to be studying South American accents, the lesbian supervisor at the deli who quit her job after mother declared her heterosexuality in kind but firm words. My father himself had been a gentile she never married. He left her to wed an upper-class young Catholic woman in Santiago, daughter of a fascist politician. He ended up joining the National Party, which he used as a forum to promote not so much his politics but his wine bottle cork exports. When the Revolution failed, he was at least enough of a gentleman to find us a safe way out of the country. He got rid of us without killing us, and that was in fact quite civilized for a National Party member.
"Hesus left me his number written on a napkin," she said. "Should I call him?"
I sat up, shut the textbook. "Call him? As in to ask him to come tutor me? To help me with school and all?"
"Oh, hasn't he mentored you enough? He's paid his dues, I'm sure, trying to teach you math and stuff. He is infatuated with an older womanI like that in a boy."
"He's young enough to be your son," I reminded her.
"I didn't get kicked out of Chile to be told who to date," she said.
"Date?" The word became threatening and alarming. "He's seventeen, you'll be arrested."
"Look, Hesus looks serious, looks older and mature, knows where he's going, he's going to be pre-med. But all right," she compromised, "I won't call him until he turns eighteen."
I sat staring at her as she continued to wash. We'd come to a standstill in the conversation. She was whistling. I was for the first time ever trying furiously to finish my homework.
The truce lasted a week. The following Thursday she came home with an announcement: "He's coming next Thursday, to help you with your homework. He's really generous with his time." She went into the freezer and unloaded a pound of fresh salmon into the refrigerator.
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