My father shrugs his shoulders. “Just think of yours as the European model.”
My father was born in Brussels but grew up in Wisconsin and hates badgers, cheddar, and football for it. After college, he ditched the snow for Haiti. Nothing religious; an NGO hired him as a translator.
By the end of his first week, he had fallen in love twice.
By the end of the month, he was going steady with Ana, my mother.
He called her ma petite colombe. My little dove.
He would get up at dawn and go running in the hills. Packs of laughing children chased after this white apparition, this spectacle, wasting time and calories. Bold and sweaty, he would stop at my mother’s house, the final house at the top of a hill, to sneak kisses out of a blue window so high he had to jump for them.
I’ve never met my aunts, cousins, grandparents. The island ones, I mean. The white ones still send me folded up bills on my birthday. But the island ones, they don’t want anything to do with us.
I came out in a puddle of blood, on the bathroom floor of my father’s shared apartment.
They blamed my father.
They gathered more men. He tucked me under his arm (not unlike a football) and fled to the embassy. He was twenty-four.
It’s the start of seventh grade and we’re all at recess, and I’m licking the remains of my Lunchables, when Gabe Morales (my bff) says to me, “Dude we’re going over to Danny’s after school” and then Danny’s like, “I have this video” and I’m figuring how best to convey a hard-no, sans panic, but before I have time to answer, Danny grabs my nipple between his fingers and is like, “No you’re coming and if you don’t you’re gay.”
How is one expected to argue against such infallible logic?
Danny Vlashkin is a greasy bag of curly fries. Danny was held back a year. Danny wears band shirts covered in manufactured holes and safety pins. Danny collects pocket knives and zippo lighters, which never catch a flame, though he swears his older cousin has some butane.
His parents are from the Ukraine and are never home. The only reason we’re even friends with Danny is ‘cause he lives in the same apartment complex as Gabe.
I look over at Gabe and his fear and see all I need to see.
School ends and we (Danny has convinced others) chain-gang behind him and I’m whisper-praying with the sky and the god my father won’t let me believe in, for a flash of fire or flood or locust, anything to scrap this plan. Danny marches ahead; whistling, spitting, pretending to smoke a candy cigarette.
It takes ten regretful minutes to get to the apartment. In the courtyard is the world’s smallest pool, filled with screaming, splashing children. There’s a radio turned way up blasting banda. A rotund black woman sporting Lakers pajamas and red curlers in her hair walks past us carrying a chihuahua in an otherwise empty laundry basket. Danny barks, herds us up the stairs and into his apartment, which smells of actual cigarettes and sour yogurt. The couches are covered in plastic and there are weird dolls on the table and I try not to stare.
“The video’s in my room,” Danny says, “but we’re gonna watch it out here so you fags don’t wet my sheets.”
We laugh along with him.
We sit down. The plastic adheres to the backs of our sweaty knees. No one says a word until Danny returns with a Land Before Time VHS—and for a brief moment, I believe this has all been an elaborate prank. Tears of devout, embarrassed relief begin knocking at the back of my eyeballs (and I don’t care if they make fun of me for the rest of time, they’re set to fall) except Danny cuts that shit short, staring straight into me and growls, “I recorded over this. Smart huh? Plus my parents can’t read that good anyways.”
We all have the good sense not to laugh along with this one.
The video is exactly what you think it is.
It’s big and blonde and has lots of words. There are landing strips and men who look He-Man and grunt like Conan the Barbarian.
Danny keeps slapping our pants to see if we’ve come ourselves. He seems angry we haven’t and threatens violence if we do. Danny calls the women on the screen sluts, startling in me, a sort of faux-protective yearning.
Yet I do not stop watching.
I am angry and scared because it almost feels good; but most of all, I am watching the men, confused as to why their dicks don’t look like mine; wondering if, as I mature, this extra skin of mine, will further adhere (like clay shaped on a ceramicist’s wheel) to my dick and that’s how they get so big?
I’ve got this little mustache that resembles less hair and more dirt, growing from an upper-lip whose inside is rubbed raw by the square of a metal brace; my only relief found in Vaseline, which I apply generously and often. My backpack is bigger than my body. I am the proud-owner of a bottom locker. In my wake, I leave plumes of body odor mixed with aerosol deodorant. I am a bath of hormones, not so much horny as out of control. I pop boners watching pro-wrestling. Not even when the Divas are out there. A sheen of sweat across a steroid-back can get me stiff as a Dodge commercial.
I wear loose basketball shorts so I can rub myself in class.
However, I’m technically not unpopular. No one tries to come for me, for you cannot punk that which you do not see.
This cannot be said of my friends; everyone is hyper-aware of my homies, particularly girls and especially of bff Gabe Morales, who’s got a new girl every week, ’cause he’s so dreamy and cool and has a backyard-tattoo on his chest ’cause his brother died in a car accident or whatever, got a rose with a dagger over his heart, his brother, his hero, the primary provider and now they don’t know what they’re gonna do since his mom’s undocumented and Gabe’s smoking weed and drinking tallboys out of Carl’s Jr. bags like he’s so deep and emotional, listening to The Smiths and wearing skinny jeans—and look at me, I’m a girl with a midriff and a visible G-string and I should just like make-out with him all day or whatever cause he’s just so hot and mysterious and wounded.
If these girls are looking for a project, something broken to fix, why not look at the thirty-car pileup, dragging Axe Body Spray through the halls?
At this point and for a couple years to come, I am not a good friend to Gabe. Yet he continues to be good to me, despite it all; in fact, none of my friends ever shame me and because of their collective grace, I compensate all the more.
One day, before I meet them at our lunch table, I run to the bathroom, lock the stall, dig with disgust, excavate a stone of smegma, crush it between my fingers, and make the homies each take a deep whiff, all the while boasting how I just finger-danced some girl under the bleachers.
I pray the smell is a general enough genital odor that my friends will agree—perhaps even high-five and compliment—and though they all take pause, sending bolts of anxiety down to my toes, they quickly reassure themselves and grab my nipples and slap my ass because the alternative is so heinous and crazed, it cannot be otherwise.
The braces come off. I shave my shitty mustache and my shitty afro; I start lifting weights; I buy normal deodorant and form-fitting clothes.
I fumble my way into a relationship with Veronica Hesper.
It is a desperate love, deeper than a grave, convinced she is my first and last, the stars running the Milky Way, brighter than the light of the moon and then she says, in the movie theater, by the light of her flip-phone, “What is that?!”
Listen, Veronica has seen a penis before. Three, in fact. And I have forgiven her for those three hand-jobs, which she swore meant nothing and derived no pleasure from, for we forgive those we love, and love is blind and so are Voles and my penis resembles one emerging from the earth. She inspects it with what I hope is care and interest but turns out only to be fear. She does, begrudgingly, give me my first and I come all over the back of the seat in front of me to the gunfire and screams of a seamless bank robbery. She wipes her hand on my jeans, leaves for the restroom, and never returns.
When the movie finishes, I decide it best to clean up the mess with her flat soda, which I’m sure will make it all the worse for the poor theater employees but I figure if it can rub the rust off a penny, it can kill my DNA, because at this point I am convinced she has called the police.
The night ends with an endless ride home from my father, who expected to drop off the same girl he picked up, but bless him, has the decency not to question, which I quickly take offense to, and at some point I scream, “Why did you lie about my penis?” and “Does everyone hate Europe?” trumped only by, “I wish I had died with my mom.”
I attend the furthest college that accepts me.
I share a room with Jordí, who is Spanish and always naked. His body is long and lithe and juvenile like a Basque Iggy Pop. His penis also resembles an aardvark, though this does not seem to be an issue for him.
Life is cyclical and inescapable and it seems I will forever be surrounded by kind, soft men, who women fall down stairs for.
Girls show up at our dorm, only to hear his accent.
“Say Cliff bar.”
Yet he always includes me, to the ire of these girls; but sometimes, one of them, often the awkward one, half-smiles at me and we all get stoned and drunk, and me and this girl stumble through thoughts only just learned in classes larger than amphitheaters, that have blown our little minds and need, like truly need, to be explained this second to everyone in our muggy cramped hazy room; the others, not caring in the least, mouths already full of one another (is this the Europe my father alluded to?), leaving me and the girl to giggle, embarrassed, and excuse ourselves to the roof.
We smoke another joint and talk about the lives we left in the places we grew up and how we are never going back.
I study abroad in Haiti. I imagine, years from now, referring to it as a homecoming.
Naturally, it is not there. They do not believe I’m Haitian. I’m American, which means white; and my French does me no good because it’s not their French.
I try finding my family, and they stay hidden.
Mom is buried just north of Port Au Prince. It takes me about an hour to walk to the cemetery. I bring flowers and a fifth of rum. Adjacent to the cemetery is a bus station, though ‘station’ is generous. It is technically a place for a bus, for someone to yell and wave paper tickets and perhaps even pick up passengers, but the bus, like most things on the island, isn’t tied to any sort of schedule.
Stalls of women selling wares sit by the station.
Across West Africa, wooden penises of varying sizes are sold as tokens of good luck to those wishing for fertility. Fortunately, of the cultural things that survived the triangle trade, this was one.
I stand before a stall. I greet the woman. She nods towards me and asks in English if I have a wife. I answer in French. She uses her hand to cover a laugh. No one wishes to be condescended to, particularly when one already has a complex about home and place and the woman doing so appears nearly twice his size and about his age and is beautiful in a painful and monstrous way—like a siren wrapped in Caribbean colors.
Do I want a wife?
She is not asking for herself.
Do I want a baby?
Before I can answer, she takes the sleeping baby from her back and holds him out to me.
“Don’t worry,” she laughs in French, “he’s not my baby, he’s my sister’s. She won’t mind. You take him back to America with you. His name is Jacques. Change it if you want.”
She says America the way I imagine prospectors whispered California during the Gold Rush.
After a few more teases, she asks for my name and is surprised to learn it is Haitian. She softens when I point to the cemetery. I walk back to my mother’s grave and return with the rum. I probably shouldn’t guilt someone with the bones of my mother yet here we are.
We don’t bother with cups.
Her name is Mary. She has a large gap between her two front teeth like she’s country. Yet her cheeks sit high and her eyes disappear when she smiles, like she’s royal.
We proceed to get drunk. I move closer; she does not move away. Strangers walk past, giving us looks. No one stops to buy anything. I ask if I am ruining business and she replies, “Probably.”
The baby wakes with a smile and a cry. I scoop formula into a bottle, add water, and shake. This all feels silly and domestic and I try to explain this to Mary with little success.
“Why did you ask if I have a wife?”
“Why else would you buy one of these?”
She picks one up and puts it to her ear. It is longer than her face. She pretends to have a conversation with an astronaut. We dissolve into laughter, sweet as sugarcane. I want to kiss her. I put my hand on her thigh. She switches the cross of her legs. I move away and drop my heavy head, further weighted by the rum.
Mary says, “Get off it. There’s only room for one baby here.”
The sun wanes, and I help her pack up. I offer to walk her home but she doesn’t want me to walk back in the dark and the bus won’t wait forever and this is the last bus for tonight or for days.
I tell her I’ll be back and she replies, “Good. I should like that.”
I shake her hand.
I return a few days later but cannot find her. I return the following week: nothing. I return and return and finally ask for her, and although the other women know of her, they don’t quite know what’s become of her. Defeated, I buy a wooden penis from a different woman.
The following week, I fly back to the States. When we land, everyone but me claps.
I fall into an expected depression, severe enough that I decide to fly home for spring break. My father picks me up at the airport. He hugs me. I begin to sob. He drives me to In-N-Out.
I see all my friends. They take me to the dive bars we grew up by and swore we would never frequent. We reminisce. We bullshit. Someone says they heard Danny Vlashkin moved up to Simi Valley and makes a living selling whippets out of his trailer. We laugh at the absurdity, though it’s likely closer to the truth than we realize.
Gabe’s girlfriend just had her second baby. I bring flowers and rum, a gift good for any occasion. They seem real happy. Gabe shows me the pair of pink baby Vans he’s gonna hang on his truck’s review mirror.
Gabe’s gotten big. He reads me his protein regiment. He says he left all that emo-bullshit back in high school; he wasn’t gonna spend the rest of his life feeling sorry for himself.
He works security at the mall. That’s where he met Dulce. She was working the makeup counter. This is the shit people used to puke up sonnets about.
Dulce falls asleep on the couch, baby on her chest. Gabe carries them both to bed. I can hear him humming a lullaby through the closed door.
My father and I are out to dinner. It’s a tradition, on my mother’s birthday.
My thirties are setting. I have child of my own on the way. I’m not with the mother, never was, and before sleeping together, we had already agreed to that liberal postmodern bastion: co-parenting. She is a dear friend. She wanted a child. We were at a bar. I snapped my fingers, pulled out my phone, showed her a photograph of the wooden penis; I described its supposed magic. She laughed into my neck, her breath quick and hot, her lips brushing my skin, until they set a kiss down soft as a snowflake. The decision, though quick and liquored, was not flippant; though our mouths were buoyant, we made promises, set ground rules on a bar napkin—many we kept, some we didn’t. We left wrongly assured of what was to come next, who we would become next, that what we had wasn’t irreparable.
I say this to my father. I promise him I’m not caught up in the supposed salvation of a two-parent household.
My father nods, humoring my rambles. I order us another round of rum to assure we’ve been over-served.
“Dad this probably sounds like nothing to you—nothing like what you had to do.”
My father shrugs and smiles, “Piti piti zwazo fè niche.”
Little by little the bird builds its nest.