Nights Spent

Hello Mr. Magazine - - NIGHTS SPENT - Text by Marcelo Agudo Pho­tog­ra­phy by Kevin Truong

My sis­ter calls me white-washed when we’re talk­ing over the phone one night. We have light eyes and are prone to sun­burn, like our Cuban par­ents who left the is­land nearly fifty years ago, mak­ing home in Mi­ami. They re­mem­ber lit­tle or noth­ing. We have the fair skin of our north­ern Span­ish grand­par­ents. We are white.

Since leav­ing home, my sis­ter has made a per­sonal cru­sade of declar­ing and pro­mot­ing our eth­nic­ity. Per­haps do­ing so felt un­nec­es­sary grow­ing up in a city where to be Cuban was to be just like ev­ery­one else. Now, she’s joined the Latina society at her col­lege, posts Face­book ar­gu­ments on the con­fined rep­re­sen­ta­tions of His­pan­ics, and deems me white-washed be­cause of my ap­par­ent tastes in men: skinny An­glo boys, freck­led and fair-skinned white guys.

“Or I guess, sex­u­ally An­gli­cized is what you are,” she re­phrases it, ad­just­ing the re­ceiver to the other side of her face, I can hear, as she’s prob­a­bly paint­ing a toe­nail. She’s jok­ing, but there’s truth in her words.

We’re talk­ing about one boy in par­tic­u­lar, who has dark eyes and thick eye­brows. I could look just as white as he does. And maybe that’s why I don’t share the same com­bat­ive views as my sis­ter. I’ve never seen my­self as some sort of Other. I don’t have an ac­cent. When peo­ple hear my name, they ask if I’m Ital­ian. On the con­trary, when I walk home through my largely Puerto Ri­can neigh­bor­hood, if I try to speak in Span­ish I’m greeted with trep­i­da­tion – here’s whitey, the lat­est gen­tri­fi­ca­tion tally, act­ing as if he’s some com­padre.

I’ve been see­ing this boy for six months, ex­clu­sively, though not very of­ten. Be­tween work sched­ules, friends’ par­ties, we’ll have a night to­gether a few times a month. He and I stay up late those nights, he tells me how he’ll be leav­ing the city soon, I count the birth­marks on his shoul­ders. Even­tu­ally light climbs in through his win­dow blinds, and with morn­ing comes plans, a client meet­ing, an old friend in town that one of us has to rush off to.

That’s my prob­lem, my sis­ter says. Lik­ing white boys. I’m cater­ing to some guy I feel in­fe­rior to, be­cause I’ve been sold that that’s what beauty is, or some­thing like that. Per­haps I don’t em­brace my eth­nic­ity as she does. Per­haps I am a bad Cuban. I don’t wear the spirit of the is­land like an arm­band, an im­age of a peo­ple ex­iled – who have set­tled in an Amer­i­can city built on Caribbean wist­ful­ness, the dusty mem­ory of what was, rum and to­bacco

and par­adise draft­ing in from fifty years ago and the other side of the sea.

I’m not lis­ten­ing to her. I’m tex­ting, “You free tonight?”

He’ll say maybe, but he’ll have to can­cel. I’ll brush off friends and spend the evening wait­ing. I’ll paint it more ro­man­tic than that of course, thumb­ing an old pa­per­back, a night to my­self, though con­stantly check­ing my phone. I know it’s un­healthy, but like any­one who’s been in my sit­u­a­tion, I won’t show it. All I want is to see him more.

It’s not that my sis­ter is An­glo­pho­bic. There are slight at­tributes that make us stand out. In school, she’s had trou­ble voic­ing her opin­ion and be­ing writ­ten off be­cause of her ac­cent, the slight elon­ga­tion of vow­els that Mi­ami girls are prone to. While I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced this, I know where she’s com­ing from, this strange re­luc­tance to be ho­mog­e­nized. I am not the ma­jor­ity! I could yell. I am not a white hetero! I could or­der my bagel in Span­ish. I could loudly tell co-work­ers about the men I’m sleep­ing with. I am dif­fer­ent! is all we want to say.

But this isn’t what’s driven her to em­brace our La­tinidad. She re­grets hid­ing her ac­cent to give her class­room com­ments more cred­i­bil­ity. She strug­gles with the pride she has for our an­ces­try, and through her cru­sade, has found an in­cred­i­ble com­fort in our Oth­er­ness. I ask her why she’s sud­denly taken on this iden­tity and she tells me, not be­cause she wants to be dif­fer­ent, but pre­cisely be­cause she is, be­cause we’re not in the Cuban bub­ble we grew up in. Be­cause some­one has to.

But I don’t feel this con­nec­tion to our past–an is­land we were taught to ven­er­ate in el­e­men­tary school, whose po­etry we mem­o­rized, whose his­tory, we were told, moved through our lungs.

One night, a year later, long af­ter this boy is gone, I’m at a friend’s birth­day in Har­lem. We drink mar­gar­i­tas with my friend’s fam­ily, in the back of the Mex­i­can restau­rant his par­ents own. I know no one, but one man looks across the pa­tio at me and, roused on booze, I play along. He walks up to me as a few men bring out a karaoke sys­tem. They sing boleros.

“You don’t know any­thing they’re say­ing,” this guy says, putting his arm around me.

I say noth­ing, though I know the words to ev­ery song.

His buddy tells him in Span­ish that I’m cute. I lick salt from the rim of my glass and play stupid. Later I leave on my own. I’m not ashamed, I just don’t find my­self as com­fort­able, and I envy my sis­ter for it. As though I’m try­ing to fit into a crowd, a crowd of my par­ents and dis­tant an­ces­tors, an­cient fig­ures with stoic faces, Jose Martí and all the gang of artists fa­mil­iar with the tropics, the tropics I only know as a hazy mem­ory off my father’s tongue. Yes, they’re all there. But I’m out­side, look­ing in.

We’re in bed one night over a year ago now, this boy and I. I try to tell him some­thing, the some­thing, and he says I don’t mean it. I guess I don’t mean a lot of things.

I guess I can be any­thing any­one wants me to be. What’s an iden­tity but a way of mak­ing your­self what some­one else wants? What is hon­esty but think­ing you’ve made your­self who you’ve wanted to be? We rein­vent our­selves. It’s the ex­cite­ment of meet­ing a stranger.

We’ve all edited our story, trans­lated from a tropic is­land to the streets of Mi­ami, a sec­ond ren­der­ing via a hand­some boy’s apart­ment, street­light catch­ing dust through the win­dow. “Say some­thing in Span­ish,” he asks me. In the lan­guage of my grand­par­ents, I say I wish I could hold on to him longer.

He asks what the words mean. I tell him his eyes are pretty.

He nods as though he un­der­stands.

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