Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
SEVEN STORIES PRESS
“Faggotry is always subversive.”
“So then, a melodrama is a drama made by someone who doesn't know the difference, Miss?”
“Not exactly, but in a certain way it is a second-rate product.”
âManuel Puig, “A Melodramatic Destiny”
Copyright Â© 2010 by Luis NegrÃ³n
Originally published in Puerto Rico in 2010 by La Secta de Los Perros under the title
English translation copyright Â© 2013 by Suzanne Jill Levine
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Book design by Jesse Heuer
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
NegrÃ³n, Luis, 1970-
[Short stories. Selections. English]
Mundo Cruel : stories / by Luis NegrÃ¸n ; translated by Suzanne Jill Levine. -- A Seven Stories Press First edition.
ISBN 978-1-60980-418-3 (pbk.)
1. Santurce (San Juan, P.R.)--Fiction. I. Levine, Suzanne Jill, translator. II. Title.
Printed in the United States
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Ever since I was little I've heard my mother tell the story, more than once, that when they presented me at church, barely forty days old, the preacher predicted that I would not be like other boys, that every step I took would be a step toward Jehovah. I grew up with the certainty of being anointed.
My brothers and father were opposed to this idea. Papi swore to my mother that they weren't bringing me up right, that all the church and religion was going to ruin me. My brothers, backed by Papi, never went to church. They made sure I had something to talk about in Bible class when we'd discuss Job and his trials. They'd hide my Bible and my neckties. They'd spray me with the hose minutes before the bus arrived to take Mami and me to worship. If I cried, Papi would make me fight them and would shout at me:
“Defend yourself like a man, goddamn it!”
I felt comfortable at church. They'd take me from town to town as a child preacher. The adults would ask my advice; the women would beg me for visions. One night during a vigil, I went out to the bathroom. The only light outside was the one on the toilet. When I entered, I heard a noise and as I approached the urinal stall I saw sister Paca's son doing brother PabÃ³n's son from behind.
At that moment I had my first true revelation. My whole body was telling me that I wanted to be in the place where brother PabÃ³n's son was. When they noticed me they got scared, but I was able to calm them down when I started to lower my pants. I wasn't able to touch them, though, because at that very same moment brother Samuel came in and caught us.
The news reached Papi through my brothers, who were eager for the beating that would follow. With the eyes of a Pharisee, while Mami turned up the volume on the radio that was playing the evangelical station, Papi grabbed my whole face with one hand and crushed it like a ball of paper in his fist. He took off his belt and whipped my back. When he saw that I wasn't crying, that I didn't make a peep, he whipped my face with the buckle until the little choir on the radio stopped singing. He left both of my eyes swollen and my nose broken. After the swelling went down my face was transformed. It looked like the faces of the saints in those little prayer cards my grandmother, the Catholic, kept in her house. For the other boys it was irresistible. They all wanted to be my boyfriend.
The preacher's son gave me an illustrated Bible on Valentine's Day. I liked to look at the pictures: Adam covered with a big fig leaf, ashamed to notice his private parts for the first time, and me with him; Lot's wife turned to salt, looking toward the burning city because you just had to; David's torso, strong and magnificent; Goliath's legs, with him being a giant and all, my imagination soared.
My father decided to go to church too to see if he could change me by force of prayer. He was tired of giving me beatings every time he caught me making out with a male cousin or walked in on me when I was modeling in front of the family mirror. He'd drag me out of the bathroom at the supermarket where I'd hook up with meat packers. He'd slap me hard or punch me with his clenched fist, and I just took it. Beatings with leather belts, belt buckles, flip-flops, wooden switches from tamarind or gandules trees that my grandmother sent from Arroyo, or pulled off the lemon tree that we had in the yard. I hated the lemon tree. One time my brothers and I claimed we had seen the Virgin appear on top of it. The news upset Mami and, fearing that the house would be filled with Catholics, she cut it down and there were no more switches.
When I turned fifteen it was my turn to be baptized. I didn't let Mami buy my outfit at Barrio Obrero. I made her give me the money and I went to the mall instead. The clothes had to be white. I bought a pair of linen trousers and combined them with a white guayabera shirt and leather women's sandals that really looked like they were for men. Nobody would notice the difference.
I took the bus and felt happy when I saw the driver. “Thank you, Father,” I said to the Almighty. We already knew each other. Every once in a while he called me and waited for me at Parada 20 to take me to a motel on Highway 1. I sat where he could see me through the rear view mirror and where I could see him perfectly. He told me, when I was about to get off, to go to the end of the route with him, that it was his last trip for the day. From there he took me to a motel in Caguas.
Since we got out early I decided to run by the house to leave the bag of clothes I bought before going to church, where there was a fritter sale going on to raise money. When I got home, there was the preacher's son. He had come to find out why I hadn't gone to church. Nobody was home and I invited him in while I took a bath. He came in, nervously. I took him to my room. He sat on my bed and I stripped naked in front of him to go into the bathroom. I let the water run before getting in so it could get hot. I hated cold water. When I got in, the preacher's son stripped naked and got in with me.
Afterward he went off to church and I stayed home. I called Mami to tell her I was staying home and to bring me fritters. Two and a diet coke. Mami said she'd be back much later since they had to take a sister to Humacao and that was far away. I went out on the balcony and started to smoke a cigarette.
I learned to smoke with a Christian singer who once played a show at my church. When I noticed him he was flirting with a group of young sisters, talking about the Word. I watched him from afar and noticed how he got distracted whenever he looked at me. He didn't take his eyes off me while he sang a Christian bachata and read a psalm. When the concert was over he greeted me with a trembling voice.
“Do you sing?” he asked.
He invited me to join his choir. I gave him my number, but before that he spoke with my parents and told them that being in the choir was a good service, a special calling. The preacher agreed and my parents gave me permission.
I was on tour for a whole summer and all that summer we were lovers. He loved me in an obsessive way. When he'd light a cigarette he'd give me one and I've smoked ever since, secretly and all the time. He'd say the smoke made his voice hoarse and that that turned on the sisters. He'd tell me that when he crossed over to worldly music he was going to take me with him so we could live together. We'd make love every night and sometimes in the morning. But I got tired of my calling and went back home.
While I was finishing my cigarette sister Dalia's husband was walking by. He works in Acueductos and has strayed from the Word.
“That's bad for you,” he said to me, and stopped, not before looking around on all sides. “Are you all alone?”
“You always seem so quiet and I'm surprised to see you smoking. Maybe you ain't such a little saint after all.”
In Mami's roomâto keep an eye out through the windowâhe pulled me by the hair and possessed me, salivating and telling me how delicious it was to do it with me. When we finished, sister Dalia's husband left. I lay down, picked up the Bible the preacher's son had given me, and read a psalm to put myself to sleep. The next day was my baptism.
Mami was furious when she saw the sandals before we started out for the baptism in the Yunque. “You look like a damn fag,” she said to me. “You're not going anywhere dressed like that.” I didn't change. She hit me in the face with the tambourine, she pulled my hair and kept slapping me but I didn't change. I was going to the baptism in that outfit. After she got tired of beating me, she said to me:
“You're the one they're going to call fag.”
Once we got there, Mami grabbed her Bible and left me. I went over to sister Evelyn, who was in charge, and signed in. Then I walked toward a place a little farther away, where the church buses were parked. I sat on a rock, still swollen from Mami's beating. I looked at the sky and told God I needed to talk to him. God spoke to me with a voice that came down from heaven but that I felt right in my ear. “Thou art proud and of a mind that thou canst do whatever thou wouldst.” “But Father,” I said to him, “if I'm a chosen one and I can't do what I want, what's the point? Besides, forgive me, as you are God, but I remind you that I also have free will.” He fell silent, but I listened to him think.
“It's up to you,” he finally said. “Go thou with my blessing.”
I was satisfied when the meeting ended. I had made my point. From the rock I saw one of the bus drivers sitting in his driver's seat, looking at me. He gestured for me to come over. I climbed into the bus and he had already pulled it out of his pants. We continued in the last row. I liked him because he talked dirty and, grabbing my face amid all those dirty words, he said he'd never seen anything like it. I left the bus in a sweat, dying for the baptism to start so I could cool myself off in the water.
I got in line and they gave me a candle. Papi, who had gone earlier to help the pastor set up, was with Mami. They watched from the riverbank with desperate looks on their faces. They wanted them to put me under the water already to see if the Holy Spirit would enter and
change me. I was the third in line and soon it was my turn.
The pastor looked at me with that prophet-look he knew how to put on. I saw him look at me with anger and then his eyes saw my slutty face. Full of pleasure upon seeing me look at him that way, he revealed his rage to me. I saw his dark thick body through his damp white clothes. I saw the hairs on his wet arms, close to his skin. I saw that he saw that I saw what he saw. I saw through his white pants how inside his white cotton jockey shorts, he grew large. I saw the brothers on the shore fascinated with my beauty, looking at me. I saw Papi's face in the distance, looking at me look. This boy is a monster, his face said. I saw Mami look at my monstrosity in Papi's face. I turned my back on my father and my mother and looked again at that thing that was already curving over the preacher's thigh when he immersed me in the water.
The sound of the water pressed against my ears. Among the rocks there was a beer can. Some river shrimp clung to an old tennis shoe. I saw the preacher's feet in his blue rubber flip-flops. Then he took me out of the water and held me for a second in his arms. “You are clean,” he said to me, and winked.
A while later, when they were taking photos of me with my parents, he announced that I would go back with him, alone to the church, because we had things to talk about. My parents gave me permission.
He couldn't wait until we got to a motel: he made me touch him on the way there. I caressed it and looked at it (identical to his son's).
“I felt something divine,” he confessed still exhausted on the bed. “You're a mystery to me.”
He hugged me and cried. He took me in his arms like the day of his prophecy and told me that he loved me. I promised to love him forever and to go live with him in Orlando and to found a church there, but I didn't want him to take me home in his car. I asked him to leave me near the church. I wanted to be alone for a while and clear my head a little. And feel the cool night air on my face. And why not see besides if I might find some guy on the way home. Then I'd lie down, read a psalm, and fall straight to sleep.