I am eight years old and lost in my daydreams outside Kmart as I weave in and out between the iron bars used to keep people from stealing shopping carts. Suddenly I become aware of my father’s gaze. I meet his eyes and find myself immobilized by the disgust in his scowl.

He speaks—calmly, matter-of-factly: “Papo, if I ever find out you are a maricón, I will kill you and then kill myself.”

I don’t know what maricón means, though I hear it hurled at me enough times by other boys, along with pato. I think it has something to do with my skin being lighter than my father’s. I think it has something to do with how I cry too easily. I think it has something to do with how all my friends are girls, and I have no interest in playing baseball. I do not know what maricón means, but I know I am found out. I do know being a maricón is the worst betrayal imaginable. But what is it that betrays me? A hand gesture, I wonder, or the way I carry myself. Do I daydream too much for a boy? It is something in my eyes perhaps. Do they betray how much I am afraid all the time?

My father’s threat conveys both the gravity and the impossibility of our open secret, a secret that feels at once a revelation and as old as my name. I stand there before my father, naked in my disgrace. But here’s the thing you need to understand: my father does not hate me. My father loves me. I know because love hurts more than hate, and it keeps on hurting. I am his favorite—that’s what my sister says. He loves me so hard that he thinks his love eventually will transform me into someone else. He boasts to anyone we meet about my many girlfriends and what a strong worker I am at the boatyards. Embarrassed by his lies I stare at my shoes—the diffidence another sign that I am partido. Broken, limp-wristed. The crowing tells the story of his shame and makes me wish I could escape his scrutiny and disillusionment. No luck. His ideal son shadows me everywhere. I flinch at compliments.

During summers I accompany my father to the boatyards that line the Miami River, where I perform the drudgery that even a fat, clumsy child can master, freeing the boat carpenters to practice their craft. Often this means I spend the day pumping mosquito-infested water from the rotting hulls of boats. By the end of the day, the sun seals the fiberglass dust onto our skin. I can think of nothing but getting home to shower, but my father is playful and relishes these interludes when he imagines himself temporarily freed from the obligations of work and family. Driving home on Coral Way, he pulls up next to a woman perched on her bicycle waiting for the light to change. He whispers obscenities for me to repeat.

Mamacita, I wish I could be the seat on that bicycle.”

I stare at the woman plaintively, my head hanging from the window of our beat-up, green sedan; she smiles gently at my pained silence. I imagine she understands. My father goads me without success. When the light changes, I sink back into my seat. The stench of sweat and sawdust, redolent of failure, suffuses the interior of our ‘74 Chevy Impala. But my father appears pacified. I leer at a pretty woman, and aren’t eyes like hands anyway? For a few moments in the blinding Miami sun, I am not entirely a lost cause.  

Hiram Perez teaches in the English Department at Vassar College, where he currently also directs the Women’s Studies Program. His first book, A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire (NYU Press), was awarded the Lambda Literary prize (or “Lammy”) for LGBT Studies in 2016. He has published memoir recently in Tahoma Literary Review and Burningword Literary Journal. In 2018, he was awarded a Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts Summer Residency. 

Photo by Kim Adrian