On the plane ride to Portland, the first leg, HOU to SEA, I am seated by a woman with a 13-month-old boy – he sleeps, his strawberry blond cheeks puffed with air – he breathes. She says she will not arrive in Alaska until 7 a.m. He is impressive – sleeps almost the whole way to Seattle. He is tiny of course, situated in a harness, draped himself on his mother in that window seat. She is a body at rest, but I don’t think she rests. She wears workout gear – like she has done this kind of travel before.
There is a güerito behind us, in 24C, directly behind me, who has slowly drunk his way into a slur. He is loud, spending his time laughing with the attendants, entertaining conversation with the “bro” next to him – an empty seat between them, and because his actual hermano left our row at the start of the flight, there is now an empty seat between this woman, her child, and I. Both of our rows have the middle seat empty. The güerito’s hermano – a jittery fellow, asked almost immediately when we all boarded the plane to take a seat in the front of the plane, having noticed that there was a row of empty seats. So he got to move, excusing himself “besides, you could use the space for the little guy” doesn’t even say a word to his güerito brother who is already on his 2nd drink.
The güerito makes his jokes, poking fun at the attendants, but he elevates his play, wanting to reach out to the bro, to hold his hand. He bursts out “its not gay to hold hands man. I am gay, I can tell you what gay is.” The boy next to me rustles at the noise of the exchange, the “no, no, no… alright man, cool it”, and the “but why can’t you just hold my hand” and this noise grows and the boy rustles again, and the woman comforts him, just as he was about to wake.
“Please keep the noise down.” She asks.
There is silence for about five minutes.
The guero behind me is now telling the bro “don’t tell me to be quiet –you already told me to not touch you, but I can talk to you!” his words split with hoarse spit.
An attendant comes by with food for him. She is quiet at first, “maybe you should eat something.” I can smell the warm cheese and fruit mini- tray they provide for him. He inspects it. He replies, “I am thirsty.”
It is quiet for almost twenty minutes, and then the bro gets up to go to the bathroom and this causes a ruckus because the güerito begins to grope the frat boy as he crosses him to get into the main aisle. “Hey fucker, keep your hands off me!”, the middle seat between us shakes a bit. Frat boy makes his way out of the seats, walks to the restroom at the back of the plane. It is too late, the güerito has startled the boy next to me. His eyes wide awake, he is rocked, and this mile-second look of fear appears on his face. I look at him and smile. I whisper “hello”. He props himself up on his mother, he focuses in the direction of the gruff voice of the güerito, and then he looks at his mother, looks at me, and he is about to burst into tears.
She shushes him and says “just a little while longer.” Another twenty minutes have passed. The little boy has fallen back into sleep. The “bro” country frat boy has not come back. The güerito gets up to go to the bathroom. He trips and falls into the aisle, and his body hitting the ground and the simultaneous “oh fuck” now completely wake up the little boy, and I can’t breathe right.
I am gritting my teeth. I keep looking back to see where he is – waiting for him to bother this woman, this child again. I have an instant headache, I can feel the blood pump in my eardrums.
I have not felt like this in a while, the moment you are fearful of the unpredictable nature of an unreasonable drunk. It is incessant badgering, irrational thought blurted out. It is teeth laced with lost anger. It is hopeless and unavoidable – it is what is left when the bottle is empty but the party never came.
I have not had to be burdened with such childish ravaging since my youth since my father and his antics. Lots of cursing, lots of bruises, lots of abuse, lots of it verbal, lots of it on a single boy in my home. Lots of it on me.
I want to shelter this boy the way I wasn’t; the way I wanted my father to protect me from himself. Can that ever happen?
I have the sudden urge to wrap my fist into the güerito’s jaw. I imagine his teeth burst open into rum drops, splashing everywhere. I am the monster my father created. I can see the sound of his mouth ripple against my knuckles. I want him to pass out, the way my father used to. The bro – he never came back. Maybe he won’t be, so bro no more. The gugüerito now has a whole row to himself. I have decided I am ready.
He comes back from the restroom – asks “WhErE mY bRoThEr AT?!?” on repeat. Someone from somewhere says “He’s up in front, so be quiet.” And he does for a moment. But just a moment.
Ten minutes go by without a word. I begin to calm down. But I feel my seat and my row jerk again, the güerito hops over to the window seat in his row – and I hear his voice, this time directed at the woman “what the fuck is going on?! Where is this plane going?” He is shouting. The boy curls in fear. I tell him to calm down. I tell him to sit back.
He moves over to the middle seat, leans in and pokes me in the head and I am able to grab his hand. I tell him to do it again and I will make sure to get us both thrown off the plane but he will leave with a broken hand. And I squeeze. I stare at him while I do this. I am calm when I say this. I am somewhat quiet. I smile at him. He says something, but I cannot hear him. All I hear is the blood pumping in my ears.
I let go. He sits back. I am still smiling when he sits back, still staring at him. I turn to face forward again. I picture the way to snap his fingers to make him scream. He is all chicken bone to me.
He only jumps up once more, an hour later in the flight, freaked out that we haven’t landed. An attendant gives him water. He drinks it and falls asleep. But I am hot. I keep seeing his fingers intertwined with mine, the sound of a snap, a snap, another snap. Shhhhhh – don’t yell. It will make it worse, guerito.
I do not worry about whether or not there is a level of violence I rise to. I do not flinch at this viciousness. I am not squeamish. I have spent my time and even contemplated what the world would look like if I ended my father with an aluminum baseball bat. But that was a different time; a different place. I was a boy against a father. This was a father who was just as annoying, just as rude, just as useless as the güerito.
I had just gotten back from a date. That night was special. I was celebrating six months being with a young lady with a night on the beach under the stars. We did everything except have sex. I remember driving her home that night and listening to Selena’s “Fotos y Recuerdos” on KQQK 106.5 FM. We laughed as we talked about how we felt for one another. We talked about what it would be like the first time we had sex. We kept an eye on the clock. I would have her home before her eleven pm curfew. We lied and said we were going to a movie. We had gone straight to the beach.
I was in heaven all the way home. So much so, I did not pay attention to the fact that as I opened the screen door to my house, my father met me with a fist in my mouth. I was surprised. I fell from the shock. He was drunk and began to pound on me for what felt like an eternity. I had yelled at him to stop until he stopped. I remember repeating it like ten times. No-one turned on the porch lights in my neighborhood. My mother was at work still. It was past midnight. He stopped, stepped back and yelled at me to get into the house. He walked over to the couch and plopped down. I remember he said “limpiate la cara.” I mumbled something else as I walked away, but I clearly made out the words he repeated before he passed out – “Deberías haber sido el aborto.” Merezco un hijo mejor.”
I walked to the kitchen to get ice and then to the bathroom. I spent time examining myself. I wondered if I would have to listen to him again say things to me. I wasn’t looking for any problems, always feeling like I was a problem. I kept trying to make sure I could come up with a good reason not to tell my mother what had happened.
He hit me so hard in the face, I had to peel my lip off of my braces, ice my ribs and my head. I walked out into the living room prepared for some kind of confrontation, but it didn’t matter. He laid there, passed out, a beer halfway done, spilled on the couch and the floor. Something else I would need to clean.
I remember standing over him with a bat. I remember thinking, “this would be so easy to get rid of all my problems, just a few minutes.” I also remember thinking, “how did I end up here in front of him with a bat?” I thought more. He won’t even feel a thing.
But I chose against it. I thought of the mess it would make. Imagine that? This was the thought in my head, not a thought about the results of this action, not the trauma I would bring to my mother. I was being selfish. I was cold. I was numb I guess. I quietly went upstairs and changed clothes. I ran track in those days. So I grabbed my gear and quietly snuck out. I walked out of the house. I locked up the house and went for a nighttime run. I was seventeen.
During the run, I went through a multitude of feelings. I was angry. I was sad. I was hopeful. I didn’t feel any pain in the run. I was fucked up. I laughed as I ran too. I thought about the fact that I had a half a hard-on as I walked into the house, ready to rub one out, only to lose it completely because of getting beat up. My father knocked the hard-on out of me. I would never be able to tell anyone this.
I have seen my own face bruised. I have seen my body bloodied. I am always ready.
I realize I am triggered, but not the fragile trigger, where the bodily response is the fright.
I am the fight.
I am triggered to fight because that is the world I come from. Perhaps it is all the explore DNA in me. I am an only child, not the kind that is spoiled with things. Perhaps I was spoiled with family story and legacy and long drives to the Rio Grande Valley and to los cerros of Jalisco. Perhaps I am a surprised child that no one ever expected or wanted. But I am triggered I think because I see myself in the face of this mother and this little boy. I see this boy and this tired mother and my heart do more than breaks, it expands. I react to somehow protect this boy and this woman – try to take the brunt of this drunk on a flight. I don’t want a single breath of his broken because of a trauma thrown at him. I don’t want him startled. I don’t want to see a frantic swell of sweat on the brow of his mother. I want him to sleep. I want her to rest. I want the güerito to shut up, to shut up, to shut up. I want him away from them. I want the locura of his to go away. It is the uncertainty of inebriation I don’t trust. I know not to trust it. But what do I trust? Violence.
It does what it does and ravages and changes everything. Violence is a response that makes a spark jump into a dark matter vein and delivers a nova. Violence cannot whisper. Violence is both lightening and incantation. Violence can live in the body and deliver itself like a virus. Violence is warm and full of corazón and human.
I think now about a time, further back, in my youth. I must have been 14, just as my freshman year of high school was supposed to start. I remember driving back from a successful fishing trip with my father. It was 10 am on a Saturday. We were headed home after catching 10 croakers for a caldo. We had been up since 5 am. My father must have had at least a 6 pack and a half and we had an argument about something, but I can’t now remember what about. I remember us traveling in his navy F-150, which would eventually be my F-150. I remember watching all the young ladies jogging on the sea wall, and as young men do, I was aroused and tried to hide this from my father – but he noticed and told me “Cálmate y no tengas vergüenza – un día te echas una.”
He told me that a hard-on was normal and to enjoy the girls on the seawall. He laughed and asked me if I had a girlfriend and I said no. He asked if I knew what to do with a girl if we were naked and I told him, “si, ya se- tenemos HBO, lo he visto todo.” He laughed at me, a beer in his hand as he drove. And it dawned on me that this was the closest thing to a “sex talk” we would ever have. So I asked him the first thing I thought of. “¿Apa, cuantos años tenias cuando tuviste sexo por primera vez?” I figured I had nothing to lose. He would either answer the question, laugh at me or call me “pinche joto” (eventually he told me that he would call me this because I liked theatre and reading and didn’t talk about girls at home). But to my surprise, he answered. He said he was nineteen.
He saved up money he had earned from jobs he had from the previous two years. He said that all the boys did this, but that none of them would admit it. Every guy worked, gave money to their families for food and clothing – everyone lived in dirt-floor adobe houses and fished in an arroyo nearby. And he went on to talk about be a lavaplatos, a carpintero, “trabajé de todo, mijo” he said. And I asked him what that had to do with losing your virginity and he yelled at me: “¿tu crees que era fácil robarle las nalgas a una muchacha?” The first thought I had in my head “robarle las nalgas”, why would you steal anything from a girl? I knew what he meant. He went on – “no mijo” – he took a big swig of his beer. “Cada muchacho ahorraba su dinero para luego gastarlo a sus dieciocho o sus diecinueve con una mujer en el barrio rojo.” I was speechless. I didn’t ask my more questions. I think I said “oh, ok” and left it at that. I still think about this every once in a while. This is a form of violence. Not the fact that it exists, nor does this diminish or serve to same-sex workers, but I came to understand that for a moment, my father only knew that to have tenderness, was to pay for tenderness. He had to buy a moment with a woman. Every man from where he is from did this. They all inherited this practice. They understood a world where relationships of the physical kind were unnecessary, unless you were married or if babies were to be made. You were a man if you could afford to have sex. There was no time to grow relationships.
We were quiet for a bit in the truck. He parked it in front of the house and as I unbuckled my seatbelt, he told me something “Mijo, nunca deberias de sentirte apenado de lo que pide el cuerpo.” He went on to the day that he was in such a rush to do this, to go have sex for the first time that he selfishly took a bigger chunk of the money he earned and kept it. He lied to his father, saying he didn’t get paid as much and took the money he saved and spent it on a night with a woman in a room right above a bar with a jukebox. He said he felt guilty for a while. I asked him why “¿porque no te esperaste hasta que te casaste?” and he scoffed at me and said no. He said it was because he felt he took the money and spent it on himself and was greedy and took money meant for food for his younger brothers and sisters. He said it was the reason he never got married like many of his friends at the time. He didn’t want to get married right away like his mother would tell him – “madre, para qué? Para tener unos mocosos aquí en la casa, todos pobres , todos hambrientes en una playera sin calzones, con sus fundillos en el aire como nosotros?” He didn’t want kids to suffer like maybe he had suffered. He didn’t want to see them starving like he had seen his siblings starving. But what he told me about not feeling guilty, perhaps he was also telling me to not carry what he carried with him. Perhaps he was telling me in some way to not deny myself what my body wanted. Perhaps he was telling me to live without hang-ups. I told him “Ok, Pops. Hecho.” And we got out of the truck. To this day, I don’t know if my mom knows this about him. I think about him having to steal a moment of tenderness. I think about the stories of the violence of my grandfather. How hard he was on his sons. I think about what it means to be Mejicano = drink heavy, “vete con cualquiera”, don’t let people laugh at you, etc. I think about the past and the future.
I think about the violence in my youth. The number of grown drunk Mexican men I have seen full out fight at cookouts off of Heards Lane and 65th St. in Galveston, TX. I think about the güerito on this plane.
On this plane, I am the fight, Diosito, I am the fight. I am my father’s son and I remember the taste of beer tainted hands at my face. I remember the badgering – the unending irrational conversations that accuse you, that question your meaning, the threats of death or homelessness, or a beating, or that I am not a son. I remember that I will have to spend my days figuring out what tenderness can look like just as much as I learn to take a hit. I learned to fight my father. He taught me well.
I learned to ignore the pain, learned how to be patient, learned when to draw a line, learned when to shut him up at a party, learned how to bail him out of jail, learned when to be the adult in the room, learned how to push against a fear, learned that your own blood will reject you one minute and forget that rejection the next. I learned how to listen to his stories when he didn’t think I was listening. I learned how to ignore him when he wanted to tell me something stupid.
No one sees this violent side of me. Not even my wife. She would leave me if I ever let loose like this. Once I let a “fuck you” slip out at her at a bar when I got really drunk and passionate about a discussion on education. I felt awful the next day. That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten.
But still, there is something there underneath the surface. I am still on the plane with the guerito. I am full of knuckles and blood-red fingers, knuckles for days, güerito, knuckles just for you güerito, if you push me hard enough. I am not 42 on my best day. I am seventeen again, with a bat in my hand.
Poet, teacher, and activist Lupe Mendez is the author of the poetry collection Why I Am Like Tequila (Willow Books, 2019). He earned an MFA in creative writing (poetry) from the University of Texas at El Paso. His poetry has appeared in Luna Luna, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Revista Síncope, Pilgrimage, Hunger Mountain, Border Senses, Gigantic Sequence, and Gulf Coast, among others.
Mendez is one of the founders of the Librotraficante Movement and of Tintero Projects, a Texas-based grassroots organization that works to provide a platform for emerging Latinx writers and writers of color within the Gulf Coast Region and beyond. He has received fellowships from CantoMundo, Macondo, and the Crescendo Literary/Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Incubator.
Mendez lives in Houston, where he has worked as an educator for the last 19 years. You can find out more about him at www.thepoetmendez.org
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