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“González’s elegant, wrenching, and poetic memoir recounts his childhood among poor Mexican farmworkers, losing his mother at twelve, whippings for youthful cross-dressing, being abandoned by his father, and coming out and finding peace with his identity amid a culture where machismo is prized.”—Out
“Wrenching, angry, passionate, ironic, and always eloquent about conflicts of family, class, and sexuality. The son and grandson of farmworkers, constantly moving between Mexico and the U.S., then and now, González weaves together three narrative threads: his angry present journey across the border with his estranged father; childhood memories of growing up a fat, bookish ‘sissy-boy’; and his urgent longing for his sexy, abusive older lover. . . . An unforgettable story of leaving home today.”—Booklist (Starred review)
“This moving memoir of a young Chicano boy’s maturing into a self-accepting gay adult is a beautifully executed portrait of the experience of being gay, Chicano and poor in the United States. . . . González writes in a poetic yet straightforward style that heightens the power of his story.”—Publishers Weekly
“A poignant, heartfelt memoir of a gay Latino . . . coming-of-age, played out against a relentless backdrop of abuse and neglect.”—Kirkus Reviews
Butterflies, my lover calls it, the art he places on my back. He locks his lips on each shoulder blade and sucks the skin, leaving deep red, almost purple hickeys that he says resemble wings. One butterfly on the left side and one on the right, and then he works his way down to the middle of the spine: a trail of love bites. He perfects his craft over months, after that first accidental mark on a vodka and crystal meth night.
"I just gave you another butterfly," he says. And I know then we are meant for each other because his gift matches my fantasy tattoo: I want a path of monarchs spiraling out of the base of my back and spreading open like a tornado, the insects growing in size as they flutter up toward my shoulders. Monarchs, I tell him, remind me of home and of my family.
"But I thought you hated home and your family," he says.
"But I love them too," I say.
My lover gives me butterflies on those sheet-twisting nights of sex and sweat. I learn to bear, and even welcome, the pain of his mouth. Each time his lips take hold of my skin I squirm beneath him, resisting the urge to push away as my flesh tightens and tingles. My eyes close and I clench my teeth. I tell myself this is the man who loves me, who has taught me the intimacy of his body and his bed without condition, who has put an end to my loneliness. I will never leave him.
The declaration sounds extreme, but that's how I've always heard it done in those Mexican ballads: smoky-voiced women belt out hyperbolic assertions with such conviction that even if their words compose impossible tasks, they seem binding and incontestable. At least in that moment.
I never ask my lover for butterflies and neither does he seek permission. He simply draws new ones as soon as the old ones fade out.
"Just make sure they don't reach above my neck," I remind him. "I don't want anyone else to see them."
He complies. Always the butterflies are the secret between us, like a private language, and it gives me pleasure to press myself against the back of a desk chair to sense the fresh prints of my lover's heat while I'm taking notes in a college classroom.
Since my lover works long hours, I have learned to wait. I study or read on those afternoons after classes, knowing that my lover is just as anxious to see me. Homework and research and academic papers are but distractions, a way of keeping time until the phone rings. And then he calls, sometimes at eight, sometimes at nine, and I drop everything for him. How perfect that the watch keeping time on my right wrist is a gift from him. The black leather band and convex glass over the pearl-colored face make me feel elegant. The heavy platinum watch my father gave me two years ago was tacky, and I was more than pleased when I lost it in a public restroom just two months after wearing what felt like a manacle. My lover's watch is prettier, more delicate, but it has been tightening like a handcuff as well.
Everything changes. I don't remember the first time at all. I don't remember when those marks on my body became fiery bruises, when his fist against my skin became part of our lovemaking. Sometimes he forgets why he has given me those wounds, and he kisses them with apology. Sometimes he surprises himself with the discovery of them.
"What's this?" he asks, tracing a new find after taking off my shirt.
I don't answer.
He wraps his arms around me, as if protecting me from himself.
"It looks like a butterfly," he says. And I forgive him immediately.
But not this time.
I slip my crooked glasses over my face. Seeing clearly doesn't do much to assuage the stinging in my eyes. My eyeballs ache from the furious crying the night before, after I told my lover I was leaving him for good. In our one-and-a-half-year history this will be breakup number three. My throat is hoarse from the screaming, my ears continue to buzz from listening to his. Through the sticky eyelashes, my lover's bedroom looks unfamiliar somehow, as if I've never been here before. My mind has begun to erase all memory of my stays. Even my lover's smell intoxicates; I detect him through the odor of liquor and pot. He's wearing his old cologne again, in defiance of my allergy to alcohol-based scents. The rash on my arms and torso are his fault.
As I look around the room to make sure I'm taking everything that belongs to me, my lover stirs awake. Like me he sleeps on his stomach; when he flexes, two dimples form just below his shoulders.
"So when are you coming back?" he asks, his voice muffled.
"I'm not," I reply in a hostile tone, perhaps to remind him of where we left off the night before.
"Don't be a bitch," he says, "I mean when are you coming back from México?"
I relax, but I'm disappointed that he's so easily accepted my leaving this morning. The entire time I'm dressing he looks at me through the one eye exposed; the rest of his face remains pressed against the pillow. In the corner, another week's worth of the unread Press Enterprise lays stacked and abandoned. I catch the familiar mugs of President Bush and Vice President Quayle on the front page.
"I don't know," I say. "I may decide to stay away the entire summer."
I'm not surprised we haven't had this conversation before. When I brought it up last night it was part of my threat, not my lament. It's as if we were both looking forward to an undetermined length of separation, a respite from the stress of stubbornly holding on when it's clear the relationship is over.
I expect him, however, to protest a little, or at the very least to seize this final opportunity before my exit to suggest that we should talk when I return or that I should stay in touch, but again his silence disappoints me. This break-up isn't following the pattern of all the other ones we've had. There's no pleading after the fight and the fuck.
I tie my shoes slowly. Still no response from my lover. For a moment I think he has fallen asleep, so I intend to make some noise to wake him up. But when I look, he's still face down, staring at me through his eye. He's being unfair because I can't read his expression that way. I can't tell if he's angst-ridden under there or staring at me coldly.
"I'll walk back to my apartment," I say.
"I wasn't offering a ride," he says. I feel the sting all over. And then comes his dare, "Is something holding you back?"
I shake my head. We've done all the insulting and humiliating the night before. I accused him of cheating on me and he called me jealous and possessive. Both are true. I threw his alarm clock against the wall and he punched me on the chest, my body falling into pieces like the plastic clock after it struck the hard surface, its bright red numbers going black. And somewhere between the slap on the face and the spitting of words we wedged in our soft tongues and the cooing. I cling to the memory of his hairy body grating against my smooth skin, but the image suddenly gets swallowed up by the one in which he grabs my hair to make sure I look at him when he swears at me in Spanish. In Spanish our voices are much more violent because the hatred comes from the gut, not from the schools of our adopted second language.
I find more clues to the night before: a cleared mantel with a pile of photographed faces to one side of the fireplace; my lover's belt with its buckle looking wide-mouthed in exhaustion; the hastily torn condom packet and the dented tube of K-Y with its cap two inches away like a broken tooth; one of my textbooks with its covers spread apart against the wall. Its ruffled pages make it look like pigeon roadkill. I can't remember if that last object was his act of rage or mine.
When I look into the mirror to fix my hair, I notice a crust of dry blood inside the ring of my nostril. I scratch the flakes off with my thumb. This wound is unintentional: my nose struck my lover's shoulder when we rolled around in bed during the scuffle and embrace of sex.
I don't have to hold back tears because I don't have any to offer anyway when I finally say good-bye to my lover who now looks inoffensive and tempting in his dark nakedness. His strong arms appear defeated and this fills me with sadness because they're the feature of his that I admire the most. They're the parts of his body I reach for when I wake up in the middle of the night and I want to remind myself that my lover, all muscle and strength, is still in bed beside me.
Out of habit I'm about to say, "I'll call you later," but I hold in the phrase just in time and it drops like a weight inside me. Instead I pick up the damaged textbook and slip it into my backpack along with my socks and the extra underwear I keep in one of the cherry wood drawers. I don't want to search through the stack of photographs for the one of me standing on the dock of Redondo Beach, the dock that burned down months after our visit. So I let it remain in the rubble as a dramatic symbol of what is now no longer. I debate about the watch. I take it with me.
As I walk out of the bedroom I make sure to leave the door ajar so that I may hear my lover no matter how softly he may speak. But all I pick up by the time I reach the front door is the slight snoring that I have grown accustomed to, that has given me peace of mind on those uncertain nights when I wondered if my father even thought of me anymore.
I close the door behind me. I test the knob. Yes, I've definitely locked myself out.
Walking from his place to mine is a surprisingly short distance. We both live off Blaine Street, a strip of housing complexes with cheap student housing. He lives there because he's a professional and can afford his own place; the rest of us contend with roommates. It has taken me a while to admit that this proximity to younger men is also a matter of interest to him.
The temperature is already warm at eight in the morning and the day is clear and sunny, as if anything can come to light. But none of these college kids heading on foot toward the university can even guess the secrets I keep. This makes me want to scream at them. And then a thought strikes me. This morning, with a backpack over my own shoulder, I blend in. I'm one of them. So I continue my trek home as if there is nothing out of place in my head.
I expect the phone to ring the entire time I'm packing in my apartment. But there's no ring. I call a cab, leave a note for my roommate along with next month's rent, and arrive at the Riverside Greyhound station on Market Street just ten minutes before the next bus to Indio, 90 miles south into the Coachella Valley. I picture my lover sinking into the bed as if he were deflating like a prop in a movie set.
How quickly I slip from one world to another, I think on the bus as it circles around the station en route to Highway 10. In Riverside I'm a college sophomore majoring in the humanities and no one knows I'm involved with an older man who makes love to me as fiercely as he angers me. In Indio I'm the son and grandson of farmworkers who have never once hugged me, but whom I miss terribly, especially when I need to run away from the man who tells me that he loves me, he loves me, he loves me.
On a direct route, the trip between Riverside and Indio takes about an hour. On the Greyhound, which makes stops at all the little towns in between, the journey will stretch out to four hours. I'm drowsy enough to nap, but my shoulder bothers me when I press my weight against it. Behind me, two old men chat in Spanish about the rising tensions in the Middle East, and about what a better president Ronald Reagan was than his successor. Their drone knocks me out temporarily, and I'm grateful that I'm not possessed by the urge to kill myself. Again I'm resorting to the desperation in those Mexican heartbreak songs. The other times I broke up with my lover that seemed like the only next step though I never took it. This time I have a direction. South.
Chapter Two Welcome to Indio, California, Pop. 36,793
There's nothing like a bus ride out of town after a lovers' quarrel to make a person sentimental about getting home to family. This trip to Indio is only the first step toward a longer journey into México, into the state of Michoacán, into the town of Zacapu, where my father was born, where my mother was raised, and where I grew up. The visit will be more significant because I'll be turning twenty while I'm there. As I take in the low desert scenery of sparse brush and cracked topsoil, I can't help but look forward to the lush greenery and fertile mountains of the homeland. When the bus passes Windy Point, just south of Palm Springs, the energy windmills shoot up from the barren panorama. The windmills are huge white shafts with three blades that spin like propellers but at slow speed. They remind me of cartoon stick figures running in place. By the time the field of giants disappears in the horizon behind me, I've made a mental list of my goals for the summer:
I will not fight with my father. I will not long for my lover. I will forgive my father. I will forget my lover.
Never have simple sentences seemed so complicated. As my eyes water I can't make up my mind about what's making me cry: the possibility that I will indeed never go back to my lover, or the possibility that my father and I will finally reconcile. I'm grateful I decided weeks ago to entertain my father's offer. His second wife and their children have gone to Michoacán ahead of him, and since I had been planning a visit to my maternal grandparents, wouldn't it make sense for my father and me to be traveling companions?
"Are you sure you know what you're getting into?" my brother, Alex, warned me on the phone when I told him about my plans.
"I think I'm ready," I replied. "And don't forget," I quickly added, "I need to pick up that photograph I let you guys borrow."
"Let's talk about that when you get here," Alex said.
"What? What happened?" I asked, panic in my voice.
"Just wait," he said.
Minutes from the center of town I begin to get nervous. How frightening to expect that things will be different when the flat town of Indio itself looks unchanged year after year. There's a fancy new gas station near the first major off-ramp, but the vehicles are the same beat-up trucks and cars with dented doors that the farmworkers drive to and from the agricultural fields. The long lines at the pumps can only mean that the crews have stopped working for the day. Any of these people scrambling about for water to quench their thirst could be someone I'm related to. Any of these bodies wincing at the trappings of their hot clothing could have been me. I feel lucky that this was not my fate.
I shut my eyes to look past this scene, this town, and even this country, reaching back to the place where I keep my early memories. Sentimentalizing is my only recourse, especially since I know that within the hour I will have to face my father. What gives me courage is remembering the man he used to be. What disheartens me is knowing the man he has become. I imagine my mother in moments like these. She was always staring out the windows of our many residences over the years, waiting for my father to get home. Had my father known she was not going to live a long life, he might have gotten home sooner instead of staying out drinking. I particularly remember her hair, shoulder-length and wavy, because on so many evenings of her sadness and patience, I stood behind her, unnoticed.
Later, as my cab pulls into the Fred Young Farm Labor Camp off Van Buren Avenue, my mind switches completely to Spanish and the stress begins to build inside me. This is my grandparents' apartment, but my father stays here through the grape harvest. He spends the rest of the year with his new family in Mexicali, just south of the California border. My younger brother, Alex, who dropped out of high school, is now living that same cycle: México, United States, México, United States, work and rest, work and rest. When I enter the door to the cinderblock building, my grandfather greets me. He has just dyed his hair pitch black. I expect to find the stained toothbrush he uses on his mustache in the bathroom sink.
"You're here?" he asks. "You need a haircut, you?" No one but my grandfather ever cuts my hair, which is why my visits to Indio usually coincide with my need for a trim.
"Later," I say. "No one's back from work?"
"I'm surprised," my grandfather says, already serving me a plate of chicken in rice noodles without asking if I'm hungry. And although I'm not hungry I'll still eat. It's all part of the ceremony of my homecoming. The long tattoo of a colorful peacock that he carries on the inside of his forearm glares out at me from the kitchen.
Excerpted from Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto González Copyright © 2006 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Part 1: Smarting Points, Starting Points
Summer's Passage, Southern California, 1990
Welcome to Indio, California, Pop. 36,793
Ghost Whisper to My Lover
Now Leaving Mexicali, Baja California, Norte
Ghost Whisper to My Lover
Part 2: Childhood and Other Language Lessons
Bakersfield, California, 1970–72
Zacapu, México, 1972–79
Thermal, California, 1979–80
Thermal, 1981–82 (Our Little Home on Top of the Garage)
Part 3: Adolescent Mariposa
Ghost Whisper to My Lover
Indio, 1983–88 ("El Campo" Years)
Part 4: Zacapu Days and Nights of the Dead
Ghost Whisper to My Lover
Zacapu, July 1990 (Imago)
Part 5: Unpinned
Ghost Whisper to My Lover
Posted September 12, 2011