When I was eight, the nuns told me to pray for my enemies. Knees against wooden kneeler, I prayed for Julio Gonzalez, the Puerto Rican boy who taunted me about my tip-toe walk and my pot belly. Three years later, all my fat gone, Julio snapped the back of my training bra like a slingshot against my shoulder blades. Another year, and he put his arm around me in the back of the school bus.
I liked it.
It was a sin to like it.
That arm around the shoulders – the gesture, the implication – opened an ineludible door. Or maybe, the lid to the treasure chest we all find secreted in the attic, or buried out back, the hinge well oiled, silently opening to the touch.
The nuns were still there. Dressed all in black like the black-lipstick Punks at the public high school. Like beatniks. Like bouncers. When I was thirteen, they called my father in because they’d seen a boy put his arm around my waist.
“Your waist, Evelina, your waist!” my father yelled that night.
I wasn’t allowed to go to the dance party.
So I rebelled. I went out with Eldrian Ocampo, the eighteen-year-old cousin of a Filipino classmate. Parachute pants. Hairspray. Forty neon spaghetti bracelets on each wrist. Yes. The certified, vinyl-scratching DJ of a back-spinning, moon-walking, boombox-carrying crew of break-dancers. Catholic break-dancers, it’s true. But as rebellions go, it satisfied.
I thought of Eldrian today for the first time in years, here in my high school room, and the room of college summers, where Flashdance posters and torn up toe shoes have been busy collecting dust. Keep-sake boxes stuffed with photographs and love letters are scattered across the floor, open among the trash bags and the cardboard box designated for things I cannot part with.
The other boyfriends are still here: The First Writer of Notes, The Under-Confident Gazer from Behind the Pillars of the Cafeteria, The Earnest Jock, The Frog Dissection Partner, The Verbal Abuser, The Only Other Cuban.
The Cheater takes up his very own box. Decorated with flowered wrapping paper and glued-on lace, his box is filled with compensatory, self-serving proclamations inscribed on ripped out notebook paper. Anyone but a young girl would have known that guilt is not the same as remorse, and that even remorse cannot serve as a predictor of future behavior. The pain of that gullibility still stings. But even so, when I think of The Cheater I think of an empty, moonlit room of wide-eyed discoveries. Sensual, but not mysterious. There is nowhere no one has not gone before. And nothing no one has not ruined.
Eldrian. Not a single thing remains of him in all these boxes. No FaceBook profile either. No Google hits. No appearances in the backyard barbecue photos of friends who used to be mutual.
I try to picture him as he might look now – short hair, or maybe bald – pushing the baby buggy with his wife, or teaching his son how to air-brush a girl’s name onto the inside of his sneaker. He had the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen, even and slanted and loopy, like a girl’s, but more elegant. An artist. With an interest in graffiti murals and maximum color saturation on concrete.
I think of the nuns. And of my father. Your waist, Evelina, your waist! It’s so laughable now: my marriage turned to dust, my childhood house more empty every day, dated, my waist no longer inciting anyone’s ire. The women praying the rosary after Mass come back to me like crows on the wind, some crying, some whispering, their eyes closed and heads bowed. I always knew – making my way out, looking the other way – I always knew they were praying for me.
Pregnancy. Disease. Religious prohibition. Reasonable. But what – really – was so terrifying about the sexual aura of a pubescent girl? Was it a fire with which I might have burned down the world? A perfume, the mere whiff of which might have condemned an entire life – my father’s, mine, some young, impressionable man’s – to ruin, to mental incapacity?
What I’ve never told anyone is that though Eldrian Ocampo was overweight, and posing as a non-conformist, and over-represented by his attention to his spiked, gelled hair, he had a tender soul, like a mollusk hiding on the underside of a leaf. No shell. Nothing at all to protect him. He was the only gentleman I ever dated. The only gentle man. Not like those blue-eyed cherubs to come. Not like the white boys, the American boys, my parents wanted for me. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents, his brother, his grandmother and two cousins. There were never any wayward hands. When he kissed me, he looked terrified, his eyes full of words he could not say.
Where are the tape mixes, the only art form that ever adequately approximated the wild horses of the adolescent heart? Lyrics were the only wisdom this world had to offer, and I only remember a few of the songs he spent hours collecting for me. Through the fire, to the limit to the wall, for a chance to be with you … I Feel for You Chaka Khan Let me Love You Chaka Khan … I want to love you P.Y.T, pretty young thing … And the slow dance numbers. Pretext to the tantalizing smolder, the two-footed sway, no dance skill required, excuse, only, to stand close in the dark, and taste, for the first time, illicit honey.
Regret is a disease of the mind, one of many potential stories we tell ourselves. I don’t delude myself about that. But there’s something here about mastery, and sexual competence, and never getting it quite right: what was mine, what was theirs, what should have been given, what should not have been taken, when, how much, my mind never, not even now, wiped clean of the hovering shapes, the unnamed fear, the shame.
I never touched the vulnerable skin of his chest, his spare tire, the thick trunks of legs he would not expose to me even in the pure sultriness of summer. I didn’t burn anything down. I left the matches, the fire, in my pocket. ***