There is a song I’m sure everyone knows, it goes “What is love? / baby don’t hurt me / don’t hurt me / no more.” I remember listening to these lyrics as a little kid and wondering “what is love?” As a gay kid I never got to see what it meant for me. I mean, I got to see what it meant for straight couples. My family would watch Telenovelas and their love stories most cases involved someone’s twin, a deceitful villain or someone slipping into a coma, but in the end the hero and heroine always found true love to be stronger than anything. But what about me? Or people like me?
I’m from the biggest city in the world, Mexico City. Unfortunately there, there is a lot of machismo, and it always bothered me because guys who have multiple baby mamas, or who are cheating with multiple women, not being in a committed relationship, or men who just belittle women by putting them “in their place” are considered manly and macho.
This machismo was one of the reasons coming out to my family was a long process for me. I knew what a big deal it was going to be for them. I knew it well. I remember going to church as a ten-year-old boy, sitting there on that pew knowing what they thought about gay people, funny to look at on the movies or on TV where they were portrayed as “weird and funny” but who were undesirable and shameful to be in the real world. My father pointing at the “gay” waiter and saying “Look at that puto, maricon, puñal, mariposa, joto, mariquita” all these words that meant gay as synonymous to less than human, and me in that church, sitting there looking at the massive cross up on that altar, and knowing what I knew about myself and just praying “please god not me…not ever me”
We moved to the United States, and everything changed when I met Manny. We went on a date at Santa Monica, only I didn’t know it was a date because he had said “let’s hang out.” I stood there shocked when he said, “I want to date you.” Upon arriving to the United States, one of the first things I was told was to not trust anyone, not even my own shadow because of our legal status. Which is why when meeting Manny for the first time I hadn’t even introduced myself with my real name.
“You don’t want to date me,” I tell him. He frowns and asks me, “Why not?” I sigh and decide to tell him the truth “Well, for starters, the name I gave you earlier is fake.” I took out my ID and showed him my real name. “These glasses I’m wearing are fake too,” as I took the glasses off. “And these shoes have a three-inch insole so I’m not even 5-9,” and I took of the shoes I was wearing, which I had bought at a website called Tallmenshoes.com, shoving them onto the sand. “So, do you still want to date me?” He gets up, takes my hand, and kisses me. I felt like I was being seen for the first time, and that for the first time I could be myself. I told him everything, from my dad walking out on my mom and little brothers, no bills paid, having to give up school so I could work, how I had been fired from my job for being illegal and had to work any job I could find working under the table for well below minimum wage, working 16-hour shifts just to get by
“You are so strong. I really admire that from you,” he said. It felt kind of perfect, like the stars had aligned, like after all these years of hardship and suffering led me up to meeting him, him. A person who loved and understood me and who I understood. It turned out we were both Mexican and we were both Soñadores, DACA recipients, which is a program that allows people like me to stay in the country protected from ICE because we came to the US as children. We could trust each other. We could keep each other safe. I introduced him to my mom and my brothers, and they all thought he was such a “good friend.”
It was a regular night. We had been dating for almost two years now. We were watching Ru Paul’s drag race and he had laundry to do, so we went. We were there folding clothes at the local laundromat. This mundane task was so much better, so much fun around him. I’m there folding his t-shirts when I looked over and I knew. His were the t-shirts I wanted to fold for the rest of my mortal life.
I decided. I was going to propose and I was going to get married. I had met the love of my life and everything was going to go perfect just like a happy ending in a Telenovela.
Then came the worry because I had to come out to my family! No way was I going to get married without them with me. The first ones I came out to were my brothers and it was easy. It was the easier part to do because it was an easy thing to tell them, and an easy thing for kids to understand because they weren’t prejudiced like the adults. The big problem was my mom, she had heart problems. I didn’t want to upset her and get her sicker, but I knew I had to. I had been trying to work up the courage when I got a text from Manny.
“We need to talk about something.” “Sure. What’s up?” I replied.
“Lately I haven’t been all there in my head. And idk if I should tell you over a text.”
“You can call me,” I said.
The silence of the apartment broke as the phone rang almost immediately. The place seemed to have dropped in temperature. I was shivering.
“I been thinking about our relationship lately,” he started. I felt the air escape from my lungs.
“What about our relationship?” I asked, surprised at how composed my voice sounded.
“You have your responsibilities. I need to be with someone…” his voice trailed off. What did he mean he needed to be with someone? Someone? The words played over in my head. Someone meaning anyone? But I thought I was the one he loved.
“I still care for you,” he said. But I knew care isn’t the same as love.
“I been thinking about this for the past month.” Ouch. That stab went deep.
“What?” I croaked out. No. No. I refused to believe that. It couldn’t be when just days ago he had said how much he loved me and missed me and claimed how badly he wanted to see me. It was like talking to a completely different person. I wanted the man I fell in love with. Where was he? The argument that he was breaking up with me for my own good sounded like a cheap excuse.
A month had gone by and my mom needed to have eye surgery. It so happened that the clinic we were sent to was in the city of Montebello just a couple blocks away from Manny’s house. The procedure was going to take a few hours so in that time I walked to Manny’s house because I still had some of his belongings. I felt my heart was going to explode. I ring the bell and his brother answers. He greets me warmly and invites me in. “He is upstairs, do you want me to get him?” he asks. I wanted to say yes. I had the word lodged in my throat.
“No,” I say instead. I ask him to get him his belonging for me. He walks me out and talks to me for a few minutes when I see Manny walking out the garage taking out the trash. There is about ten feet distance between us. We make eye contact. I feel the world vanish before my feet. He takes out his cell phone, looks down, and walks away.
A couple of days after that my cellphone rings. It was an unknown number. I look at the screen with some skepticism. I never answer calls from unknown numbers. I figure that if it is something important, whoever is calling will leave a message. But the caller is persistent. I answer the phone and a male voice seeps through.
“Stop stalking my boyfriend,” the shrill voice hisses. There was a long pause on my end until I manage to say, “What?”
The voice says, “You know he told me all about you. He pitied you.” I could hear the satisfaction in this person’s voice. He continued to speak, “Sweetie, before he even broke up with you, he was sick and tired of you. You aimed too high. Now we are together so just back the fuck off. Plus, I can give him something you never could.” Without missing a beat, I reply.
“And what could that be? Herpes?” I wait angrily at his response.
“I’m an American citizen.” He said triumphally, and I felt my heart turn to dust.
The line went silent after that.
For the next couple of months, I spent my days trying to seem normal, but I dropped a ton of weight. It was noticeable what the situation had done to me. One day my mom came in and I was crying at the kitchen table and I panicked. I didn’t see her coming in, I didn’t hear her come in, and she saw me and asked me
“What’s wrong. You have to tell me what’s going on?” And at that moment my head was chaos. I wanted to come up with a lie, but the truth was much bigger and I couldn’t hold it any longer. I wasn’t planning on telling her like that and I vomited the words, “Ma, Manny and I broke up.” And my mom sat down and she stayed quiet for a long time and then finally she said, “So that’s why you’ve been like this this whole time.” I was taken aback by her response.
“But mom, did you know about me?”
“Well,” she started, “not everything is the way we want it to be. But yeah.” I had always had this notion that being gay was not seen as manly and that I was going to be seen as less by my mom, but she said, “When I was sick you were here with me, you cared for me and your little brothers. When your dad left us, you gave up school to work two jobs to pay the bills. Through my divorce, through everything you’ve been here fighting, defending this family. That’s what it means to be a real man.” I felt truly happy and accepted. It was way better than any Telenovela happy ending.
J. Daniel Cruz is a Mexican artist, writer, poet, and DACA recipient who also identifies as LGBTQ. He has been writing stories and poetry since he started learning English when he arrived to the United States at the age of 14 and continues to pursue a higher education. He has worked with the Pride Poets for the city of West Hollywood, is also a Queer Festival writer for Q Youth Foundation, and a live storyteller who’s worked with Houses on the Moon Theater Company.