A familiar, aromatic gust downs itself on my nostrils upon entering the cafeteria of my school. What a surprise, green enchiladas. They’re being served with red rice and potatoes since it’s Thursday. The entire room smells of familiar scents. I could easily be eating this at home. My mother, although an excellent cook, doesn’t stray too far from the usual Mexican cuisine. She’s bold with her spices and herbs, but never bold enough to cook something different. Her plates are pretty predicable, customary, much like herself. She brought the standardized recipes her mother taught her years ago in Mexico with her when she moved here from Ciudad Juárez. Since then, she hasn’t changed much, only in age and in health.
This morning, she didn’t tend to the kitchen. She was resting in bed as she usually is as of late. I hadn’t bothered to check-up on her because I had woken up rather late. My father, who is no help around the kitchen, had us pour ourselves bowls of cereals for breakfast. In between his shouts and demands, my brother and I got ready for school. As usual, my brother started off our morning by insulting my choice of attire. He had chosen the typical oversized white T-shirt and baggy jeans he always wears. “What a man should look like,” he says, “nothing like the girly shit you wear.” Him and I don’t get along that well, although we don’t necessarily despise each other. I, on the other hand, wore my red tight jeans I had purchased a few weeks ago at The Popular, my favorite department store. They were cherry red, which perhaps wasn’t suiting for the season since we were transition into fall, but I wore them anyway. My pink, floral buttoned-up with short sleeves was from that department store as well. It was crisp and well-ironed, pressing against my slim torso. I had borrowed Stephanie’s maroon blazer with the broad shoulder pads a few days ago because I kept complimenting it and she said I could. I immediately thought they would go well wit the red jeans. I always put time into looking my best.
“Hurry up and finish getting ready,” my father instructed this morning. He gave me his usual look of disapproval, of disgust. “I don’t understand how you can go outside looking the way you do,” he said. “It’s such a shame.”
He gave me his usual stare of disapproval, of disgust. It used to burn right through my skin and dwelled inside my soul, cracking the walls of my character. I would feel the knot start climbing up my throat and the cornered pools of tears gathering in my eyes, but that was a while back. Now, I simply start back at him as an act of defiance. I slipped on my gold bracelet as I stared back into his vacant, raven pupils inside his tired eyes. His weak, dwindling eyes. I looked back at the mirror to reassure myself that the foundation I had applied earlier than morning was fine. A smirk appeared on my face as I noticed my brother looking into the mirror as well. “You’re disgusting,” he said.
As we walked out of the house, my brother’s friend picked him up in his 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass. My brother’s friend had worked all of last year at the Bowie Bakery down the street in order to purchase it from his cousin who had boughten it a few years back. I love the car and had asked my brother once if him and his friend would take me for a ride one day. “Pelon said he doesn’t want to be seen with you,” my brother responded. “Nobody does, man. Look at you. I don’t even want to be seen with you sometimes, Daniel,” he said. My brother glanced back at me as he got into the car this morning. “This could be you too,” he said. “It’s time for you to change already, man. Give it up.”
As I walked through the streets buzzing with store owners putting out their fresh fruits and pastries and the elderly women watering their plants, my brother’s words resonated within like repeating verses of a song. I had managed to put up a fight against my parents about the way I dressed, but my brother was another story. He always had a way of getting through to me, even if it was just a remote and vague consideration. I pondered his words as the Walkman played the New Wave mix tape Stephanie had made for me a few days back. It made the walk to school easier as I could disconnect by mind and ears from the outside world who would repeatedly call out slurs that used to make me feel defeated. Instead, I now block them out and let music shield me from the outside world.
I don’t bother getting in line at lunch. Instead, I sit at one of the furthest tables usually occupied only by faculty and staff. There’s only one custodian sitting at the far left end of it. I sip on my Diet Coke, glancing at all the unfamiliar faces. Pathetic, I think to myself. How would they be so eager to eat something so common, so expected as green enchiladas?
The cafeteria is a hustle of starving neanderthals. The cafeteria is a massive land of forest with all the same species galavanting through it’s trees and plethoras of bushes and mushy grass. I am the only human being roaming through in it’s proximity. None of them even notice me. They go about their animalistic venture without any form of humane consciousness. They grope and lash at each other like beasts. I walk amongst them without even a care from any of them.
I turn around, surprised to hear my name said aloud. It’s my Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Guerrero. I just finished having class with her prior to lunchtime.
“Yes, Mrs. Guerrero?” I respond.
“Your father just phoned the school. He’s on his way to pick you up. Daniel, I don’t want to alarm you, but he said your mother was in the hospital. The secretary didn’t know where you were, so she asked me to find you. I knew you would be here, I don’t even see you in the outdoor eating area. Go to the front office, he’ll pick you up there”.
The annoying smell of green enchiladas and red rice reminds me of my mother and, in my head, I can picture her serving dinner like she used to before she become ill. It had been several months since she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her limited mental capacity wouldn’t fathom nor comprehend the landslide of information her doctor had been giving her and she simply had stopped abiding by his orders. Instead, because she couldn’t comprehend exactly what was internally happening to her, she spent her days enthralled in a deeply rooted daze of confusing, pain and discomfort. When she wasn’t feeling ill, she’d asked me how my day went and I’d respond very apathetically, as I usually did. She’d look me deep in the eye, not insisting more than what I respond, but giving me a look of understanding but with a hint of discomfort, wanting to know more perhaps. She always looked at me in the eye, but never at the rest of me, and it wasn’t because she acknowledged me. I knew she preferred to look at me in the eye because the rest of me appalled her. “You’re not my daughter, you’re my son,” she once said. “This isn’t how God intended you to live.” Her voice was as harsh and demeaning as a horn section that was badly out of tune. I didn’t cry that day. Instead, I stole some of her nail polish. I had been mesmerized by it years ago when I was younger. It was shimmering gold.
“Daniel?” Mrs. Guerrero said.
“Okay, that’s fine.”
“Let me know if you need anything else, Daniel. You came make up the assignments if you need to miss any days.”
I push the chair back and stand up, grabbing my Diet Coke and nodding at her. I head out of the cafeteria, eager to leave behind the wretched smell. As I make my way to the front office, I notice a framed Cesar Chavez portrait hanging on a wall next to the very few trophies won by the school. I stagger for a while, staring at the portrait. It’s vintage, the corners bent and freckling, just like my mother. My mother loves Cesar Chavez. She has a picture of him on her bedroom wall. She has the Farm Workers Union symbol of her wall too. I don’t know much about him or the Farm Workers Union, nor do I know if they ate green enchiladas and red rice like the students at my school, but I know my mother is very fond of all of all three. It’s the first time I really pay attention to his image. His eyes seem tired in the portrait.
My father was waiting for me at the front of the school when I walked out from the front doors. His glance was off far into the distance and I knew he wasn’t looking out to see when I would arrive. The day was quiet. You can feel the tranquility in the air. Few birds chirped. The rumbling of Segundo Barrio, the neighborhood I live in, wasn’t prevalent as it tends to be and I found that quite rare. The usual blaring car horns were replaced with a swiftly breeze. The blasting cumbia music wasn’t sounding. Instead, the day was silent. Perhaps that is precisely why each footstep I took toward my father’s car sounded like collapsing pillars.
As I got in, my father’s glance did not move away from his invisible focal point, his tired eyes weary from a hard life. We drove in silence for a good while. Then, he turned to me and said “Your mother is extremely sick. I took her to the hospital shortly after you boys left for school.” He mentioned that he noticed her breathing dwindling and growing weary during her sleep the night before, but had wanted to wait until morning to see if she needed medical assistance. By ten o’ clock this morning, she was gasping for air, he said.
“You’re going to have to go home and change,” my father said.
“But why?” I asked.
“You know exactly why. You’re mother doesn’t want to see you like this. Look at you. You’re going to embarrass her while she’s in her own death bed. Is that what you want?” my father exclaimed.
Like exalting lava, I could feel my own temper rising. Having to defend myself against everyone at school, sometimes even my teachers, was bad enough. Having to defend myself from my own family was exhausting. No one understood me. Besides Stephanie and Mrs. Guerrero, who never spoke about the way I dressed but didn’t condescend it either, no one at school befriended me. I couldn’t find consonance at home either. After school and sometimes during the weekend, I would go to Stephanie’s house and talk to her about the way I felt. How unengaged I was with my own body. Both of Stephanie’s parents worked late night shifts at the maquiladoras in Juárez, so we were often left alone to play with her make-up kits while we talked about how it was difficult growing up different in the barrio while getting high. She hadn’t told anyone else yet, but she was starting to realize she had sexual impulses toward girls. She wasn’t entirely sure what that entailed, but it helped her be accepting of my own reality. I had long ago accepted the fact that I had honest wishes to be a woman. I viewed my male anatomy as an perpetual prison, an endless ocean of disparity between the person my mind depicted and the one that my eyes perceived.
Up until a year ago, my parents would dress me up in boy clothes, mostly hand me downs that my brother no longer fit into. It wasn’t until I met Stephanie that I had the opportunity to try on a dress, something that I had been wanting to do for the longest time. Unlike many boys who perhaps eagerly wanted the newest game console or a bicycle, I yearned for a beautiful dress to put over my boy body. I wanted the seams of the dress to caress the flat and rugged edges of my male figure and magically give me the female curves I lusted for, to swift me off into another reality where my golden locks draped over my pink cheeks and unto my growing, pre-adolescent breasts that barely gave the top of the dress an arch. Stephanie never really asked to inquire any information about why I wanted to try on certain things. She simply let me. I saw her as my Peter leading me into paradise.
Because I was deeply enthralled in my own exasperation, I hadn’t noticed that we were outside my house. “Go, Daniel!” my father instructed. “Go put on some normal clothes. Borrow some of your brother’s if you have to. Your mother told me to bring you here to change before you go see her. It’s what she wants. You need to stop this bullshit already.”
“This isn’t bullshit,” I responded. “This is who I am, how I feel deep inside. You know, you and mother and Jorge keep insisting I change, but I’m not going to change. You should consider simply accepting it and not expecting any change.”
“Don’t do this for me or your brother,” my dad continued. “Do this for your mother. She only wishes to see you as your normal self before she passes away. She has the right to remember you as she truly knows you; her youngest son. Her baby. I’d love to see that too, but this isn’t about me. I’m not the one dying. You and I will have to deal with this one day on our own, but not today. Today is for your mother. It’s not even about you.”
His tired eyes looking into mine. His drooping, defeated eyes that glanced into the distance as if awaiting the arrival of a deafening spark of hope looked into my eyes. My eyes full of impudence and inner-strength, eager to battle a war toward freedom. They mingled and intertwined, our stares. They meddled for a few seconds together, tugging at each other, provoking reaction from one another. I got out of the car and headed into the house.
As I walked in, I took a look around our modest and humble living room with only two, aged couches and a single, wooden coffee table. An accompanying lamp table sat next to one of the couches. On it was a framed picture of my family and I outside our old house in Juárez, back when I was only a toddler. I don’t remember the house, of course, but I had heard many stories of it and the time we spent living across the border. Those were tough times for my parents. By no means were we rich here in El Paso, but from what I had heard, we are better off here. Both my parents, uneducated and of poor, had to work extensive hours at maquiladoras to provide for us, just like Stephanie’s parents. They didn’t make enough money to enroll us in private schools and were struggling to keep up with necessities. My mother talked about a day when they gathered whatever belongings they could carry and arranged for one of my uncles to help us cross into El Paso illegally. Back then, she said, people could be easily hired to guide you through the journey. She called them “coyotes.” They traveled in the mere hours of dawn when the darkness of the night was still prevalent but the first signs of morning were creeping up on the edges of the horizon she said. I imagined my mother carrying me pressed against her cleavage, her hands burying my face against them to mute my cries. I imagined how hard it must have been for her to carry out such a terrifying experience with two small children. She must have been in constant fear for our lives, yet also in constant yearning for a better future. Up until now, I hadn’t realized exactly what those moments, those hours, must have entailed as she and my father trespassed invisible lines. I walked to my room and looked into the mirror. The foundation was now starting to cake-up, clump at the edges of my face and become untoned from my neck and collar. Some of it had smeared off on Stephanie’s blazer. I looked not only on my reflection and my clothing, which now seemed irrelevant and less of a statement then it was earlier this morning. My struggle and fight to embody the person I truly wanted to be and expose it externally seemed too murky and insignificant against the struggles my parents had undergone to provide for me and my brother. Now even more so against the struggle my mother was succumbing to. Her cancer had overtaken her body, had spread the way a hurricane can expand waters through every pathway and avenue and crevice. The intangible and invisible force had pressed down against her breast, making her cave and succumbed her bed. Her death bed. I looked back at my reflection, strong and empowering, and walked over to the restroom.
Lathering a good amount of facial wash, I then applied it on my face and massaged it deep into every pore, deep in the crevices of my face. At first, it was gentle and passive. As I thought about my mother and her passing, I vigorously washed off the foundation. I saw the pasty, mushy mess drip down my face and into the sink. The flowing water from the faucet was accumulating with it and pressing it downward, into oblivion. When I was finished, I looked in the bathroom mirror at my reflection. My face looked fresh and crisp, youthful and zealous. I pressed my face against a towel and dried it off. I felt relieved.
I changed into some old pair of blue jeans and a band T-shirt from my freshmen year in high school. I played the flute back then, but had no interest in rejoining. My brother, along with many others, had proclaimed that no boy should ever be a flute player. “That’s a girls instrument,” he said. I put on the old sneakers my brother had handed me down after he bought himself some new Nike Cortez’s. I then walked back to the car.
Once I got in, my father looked at me. His eyes were fixated not on my old clothes, now unfitted and unfashionable, but on my face. He examined it for a brief moment. He then smirked and I noticed that in his tired eyes, there was a small shimmer, something I hadn’t seen in a long time.