In this short story by Afro-Puerto Rican author Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, a tough preteen girl fights for acceptance and finds unexpected kinship.
I've come to the conclusion that purple is the color of secrets. In art class, the teacher insists on teaching us that colors have meanings. Red means passion. White is purity. Green seems to be the color of hope. Nobody speaks of purple but I encounter it so often, accentuating the skin, cheeks, and knees of so many classmates around me, that for a long time I wondered what it meant.
Today I know.
In 1969, Ricardo Santos and I are not friends. Our loathing is mutual. Every chance I get, I throw his schoolbooks on the floor in the middle of class. Ricardo imitates me and does the same to mine. If circumstances allow, I break every possible pencil he owns. Then Ricardo does the same with my crayons. I even spill the glass of milk that is included in his lunch, while he does the same over my slice of raisin bread.
I take part in the first and second thrashing that various students give him in one of the corners of school. I knew they called Ricardo mujercita, but that wasn't why I joined in on beating him up. I did it because he's always challenged me in the style of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If I tear his ruled paper in half, he does exactly the same with mine. If I rip his uniform shirt, he tries to do the same, or at least makes a hole in my plaid skirt. If I stick out my foot so he trips during recess, Ricardo discreetly waits for me in the hallway that leads to the library and makes me fall there. Since he doesn't seem to fear anything I do to him, I join the little group that gives him the beating.
The group is made up of the scalper's twins, the barber's son El Cano, and also the stepson of the captain of the Cataño ferry, a kid whose arms and legs are always covered in purple bruises. When I accidentally overhear them planning to thrash him, I express my desire to join them. Right away, El Cano denies me entry into the gang. His reasoning is , "You're a girl and a machúa. We ought to beat you next, maybe then you’ll learn that yourself."
To my astonishment, the others protest. They claim that it would be advantageous to use me precisely because I'm butch, a strong girl—and daring. Miguel says that, in the middle of a ferry crossing toward Old San Juan, his stepdad told him to be careful with me because mujerotas like me hit really hard on account of our more masculine hormones. Twin Pedro asks what the hell hormones are, but nobody pays him any attention and the group gossip goes on as they call me strapping, bearded, and a marimacha. I still haven't reacted, mouth agape and with no idea what to say, when the other twin, Andrés, exclaims, "But she's heavy and she has muscles. That's why it'd be good for us to have her in the club, to give big marronazos."
Next I know, everyone’s convinced. They hug me and congratulate me on having been admitted to the club. They even muss my hair in a sign of approval. I’m so happy I even forget how confusing the whole thing had felt.
And that's how, one month before the launch of an astronaut to the moon, we gave Ricardo the beating of his life. The kid defended himself as best he could, but he still wound up pulverized. He didn't come to school for a week.
When he returned, his body was covered in purple bruises, earning him the nickname of Niño Morado, the Purple Kid. Ricardo also had one arm in a sling and a pronounced scratch on his left cheek.
The boys in the gang boast that I threw the strongest punches, but the truth is that I don't remember much.
I guess that the thrill and the adrenaline were to blame for my actions.
Two weeks before watching the moon voyage everyone’s talking about on TV, I discover Ricardo on his knees sucking Pedro's bicha. They're hiding behind a warehouse. To my surprise I see the other twin approach, push his brother to one side, and demand his turn. Pedro pulls up his shorts and straightens his shirt. Andrés unzips himself and pulls out his tiny penis. Then Ricardo opens his mouth again and settles in once more.
Stunned, I move clumsily, and I try to avoid being spotted. The twins don't see me, but Ricardo's gaze latches onto mine. Still sucking that pubescent chunk of flesh, he blinks as if he were sending me a message, begging. It's not very clear to me if he was asking for help or wanting me to leave them alone.
On Monday, at school, El Cano greets me with a punch to the shoulder. He does this in front of the whole group and that makes me mad. It's a habit of his. He hammers on the other guys just like he does with me. But since he doesn't like me, he hits me much harder.
"Why don't they shave off that beard of yours at your house, Elena? We can do it for you at my dad's place, if you want."
"Leave me alone," I shout at him, and run my hand over the wooly hairs of my double chin.
"I'm going to steal your girlfriend," he whispers, grabbing his crotch. "Don't think I haven't seen how you look at Johana."
"I said leave me alone," I shout even louder this time.
"Don't you shout at me, I'm the boss."
Cano's challenge makes my blood boil.
"If you were the boss, they'd be sucking your dick as well. But nobody wants you."
"What is this marimacha talking about?" El Cano demands.
The twins look at each other a few times. They lower their heads and remain silent.
"Come on, you little chicken-shits, talk," he explodes. "Tell me what that pato Ricardo does to you with his little mouth."
What happened next came as a surprise. "He sucked off the rest of you, too?" Miguel asked.
I wanted to ask "what do you mean, too?" but there was no need. Miguel explained that Ricardo's first beating was because he started to do his faggy things to him. "And I didn't want to. I didn't want to," he said, vehemently. The twins started shouting out loud that he had done the same to them. The boss, that is to say El Cano, declared that the time had come to teach Ricardo another lesson.
"That way he’ll learn some respect," he decreed.
Summer slid by in the village, hot and full of excitement. I discover that one can see all kinds of commercial exchanges in the streets, now that we don't have classes. In plain daylight, the cacos sell little bags full of white powder, little bags with crystalline rocks, little bags of green or brown herbs. The prostitutes, adorned with necklaces and earrings, show off their bodies, shimmering with sweat. Lottery tickets are sold, and chicks and hens, scalped tickets, lilies and candles with the image of Saint Lazarus, even collecting debts can be arranged if the chance arises. For example, during one of my walks I notice the barber and Miguel's stepfather embroiled in an argument. They suddenly move in close to whisper things, and it seems like the first man tells the second that he can't pay him. He claims he has few clients and buries his hands in his pockets, only to turn them out to show they're empty. This incontestable gesture of not having even coins on him doesn't go down well with the captain, who shoves him and promises, "I'll come by the barbershop then, for the usual."
Because it’s so hot, the drug dealers open the fire hydrants and all of the kids bathe in the middle of the street, squealing with delight.
I'd like to jump into that stream of water and get all wet with Johana, who I recognize right away frolicking with the other kids from the building. But I can't. I'm on my way to perform an errand.
Today it's my turn to bring some goods to the vet who talks with the mares. They were sent by my mother, who's got a reputation for getting her hands on strange or even illegal things. Inside the bag I'm carrying there's a syringe full of horse tranquilizers. It was explained to me that such things are used in animals and in humans, although they say it can be fatal to people. That's why I should never try it on anyone, I wasn’t to even open it without permission, no squirting it on my fingers to play with it, or even smelling it, nothing. If I did, Mama told me, it would even get into my hair.
The vet's name is Ulises, and according to what people say, he's not a doctor at all. He's just someone who got used to treating the pets of the neighborhood's horse rustlers. From time to time he has to operate on the animals or put them to sleep. Since he doesn't have a license or anything like that, he needs to buy contraband syringes like what my Mama sells him. I give him the package and in exchange Ulises gives me an envelope of money, but not without first showing me how to start conversations with the mares. He explains to me that the stallions are nasty bastards, and that's why he doesn't even say a word to them. But the mares are docile and eager to please, he’s quick to add. He says any old thing to them and they whinny and show off their teeth. To me it seems like the funniest thing ever.
For some unknown reason I decide to stick my hand into the envelope of money, pull out two dollars, and walk toward El Cano's father's barbershop. I see the sun is about to set and it's possible the shop is closed. However, I think it’s worth a shot. Maybe El Cano will take pity and will help me deal with my facial problem. Normally I wouldn't do it, but the sight of Johana left me unsettled.
When I reach the front door I find it closed, but I hear sounds coming from inside. I think that El Cano might be in there, still sweeping up all the hair that's fallen to the floor, since that's the daily chore his father always demands of him. I know because El Cano spends hours on end complaining about having to clean the floor and leave it free of all the hair—gray, straight, curly, or dyed—of all the people who pass through there. I go around to the back and decide to try the rear door.
As I open it, a large, rough man wearing a sailor hat comes out. It's Miguelito's stepfather, the captain of the Cataño ferry. He almost bumps into me because he's a bit drunk.
He tries to stare at me but he is unsteady. Before pushing me aside to continue on his way, he whispers: "Mujerota . . ."
I can't say anything back to him though his comment makes me furious. It all happened too quickly.
Inside, still not finished sweeping the floors clean of hair, I find a Cano who is a bundle of nerves. He pulls up his pants and dries the tears on his cheeks.
"Don't you dare say anything to anyone," he threatens me.
My heart is still beating fast when, spellbound, I see behind the thin strip of fabric of his tank top the bruises that are starting to form on his shoulders.
On July 21, my mother and I eat queso de bola and drink coffee in the living room of the house of Ricardo's parents. There is also guava paste, olives, and soda crackers. We're waiting, together with the rest of the neighbors, for the transmission of Neil Armstrong's moonwalk.
Ricardo's parents are the only ones who have a television and they've gotten the whole old neighborhood used to gathering together to watch events of this type.
The veterinarian who isn't a veterinarian takes advantage of the gathering and thanks my mother, in a low voice, for getting him the xylazine. He's going to need two more syringes very soon because he needs to amputate a leg from the mechanic's mare.
"I owe him a favor, see," he adds. Then he explains that the mechanic helped him to repair his Datsun. So, by way of exchange, he'll try to save the mare's life.
"And cross your fingers that the gangrene hasn't spread to the rest of the poor creature's body," he says.
Mama chews on olives and guava paste as she assures Ulises that there won't be any problems. She has a boyfriend in the San Juan agrocenter who will get the medication for her.
"I'll send it to you tomorrow with the nena."
Both of them look at me and I smile. Although it sounded absurd to me, I realize they're talking about me. I am the nena, the little girlie.
As NASA recounts in English and then a translator explains in Spanish everything happening with the Apollo 11 spaceship, I realize that Johana is leaving the room to go out into the yard. As I munch on a few squares of guava paste, I see out of the corner of my eye the way she greets the Niño Morado. She asks him how he feels. He smiles, nearly recovered. He touches his head and a scar with butterfly stitches over his eye, and tells her he's fine, that he's holding up. Johana says something in a soft voice and Ricardo howls with laughter. Then I hear the phrase "I'm in love" and try to move in closer when Ricardo starts to pull a photo out of his back pocket.
Johana has a look of astonishment. Her eyelashes are fluttering quickly and she flushes a deep red. She seems happy. She’s very pretty when she's happy.
I move away and go back to the table with the sandwiches. Mama hugs me and asks Ricardo's mother if it isn't true that I look better now, after having my beard shaved off. Our hostess agrees, of course. And she adds that the yellow skirt and the patent leather heels look very nice on me. She promises to ask her husband to bring some ribbons from the fabric warehouse where he works, so she can make bows for my hair. Johana's aunt, who has been listening attentively to all this, proposes to take me to the beauty salon one of these Sundays, to cut my bangs—so long as I promise not to get mixed up with “all those gang kids.” When my mother nods, I imitate her.
I look back toward the yard. I try to guess where those two have disappeared to. I walk toward the exit and down the steps. There, hiding behind a few snake-bark bushes, Johana applies red lipstick to Ricardo's mouth.
"I need your advice," I say nervously.
"What do you want to know?"
Ricardo is sickly, he looks like a baby bird and his battered nose is like a pigeon's beak. Johana and her aunt have left. Many of the other neighbor kids’ grandparents and godmothers have gone as well. My mother is chatting animatedly with the owners of the house, who are explaining to her how to make adornments and frills for the curtains, bedroom, and bathroom.
"Why don't you break? How do you do it?"
He chews some gum and plays with some dayflowers on the ground.
"There's nothing to give up, Elena. We just are the way we are."
"And if I want someone but she doesn't want me?"
The Niño Morado pulls out the photograph he's been hiding in secret and shows it to me. It's in black and white, but there is no doubt that the one posing before the camera lens is El Cano.
"I also want someone who doesn't want me," he whispers.
"Then you need to get closer. Little by little. And never give up. And never back down. Just talk. If they listen to you and get used to listening to you, that's already a big step, no?"
I nod and then ask, "Even if they beat you up and make fun of you?"
Ricardo looks me over from head to toe. He sighs and says, "I liked you more when you looked like a boy. You saw yourself as someone braver."
In 1970, Ricardo Santos and I become inseparable. So much so that he sometimes brought the flowers I sent to Johana, agreeing to not tell her who they were from. During the third thrashing the gang gave him, I defended him.
I threw punches left and right until I managed to get the other kids to leave him alone.
From that moment on, El Cano and I declared war. We loathed one another. We glared at one another with infinite hate whenever we were in front of other people. If we found ourselves standing next to one another in line at the cinema or the verbenas, we pushed one another, shoulder to shoulder.
When no one saw us and his father wasn't around, he let me into the barbershop through the back door. The ferry captain is no longer a bother any more, neither drunk nor sober. Not to us nor to anyone else. It's said around the neighborhood that one day he got so drunk that he fell and hurt himself in a very private area. They also say that it had to be amputated, although the biggest mouths claim that, when he woke up from his monumental binge, he started to shout, his voice full of desperation. He shouted that his thing had been chopped off. He'd been knocked out with drugs, he insisted. He lost a lot of blood. He was very sick in the hospital and they relieved him from his job. He's still recovering. One might have thought that his stepson Miguel would have been very sad about this state of affairs, but it turned out that he spent most of his time playing with us, he no longer showed up covered in bruises, and he seemed very happy.
During that same period my mother punished me. And she forced me to spend a handful of days without going out to meet up with the guys. It seems that on my way to bring the order to the veterinarian, I lost one of the two syringes. The mare couldn't be saved.
After everything eventually gets back to normal, El Cano shaves me once more to get rid of the bothersome strands of hair that still grow from my jowls. And so, at the start of the new school year we played lucha libre in secret and even made drawings on construction paper stolen from art class.
El Cano didn't let me talk to him about Ricardo. He made that quite clear the first time I tried.
And he said that if there were rumors going around that they kissed some time, they were just that. Rumors. Lies. I shouldn't pay any attention to them, he insisted.
What he did let me do was talk to him about Johana. And he let me show him the crescent moons I drew and later painted with watercolors. He asked me if the little figure I sketched on every moon was Neil Armstrong making his moon landing. No, I answered. It's me. Me, because when I grow up I want to be an astronaut. Cano asked me to tell him more stories. And he encouraged me to tell him how I imagine Johana's face will look after we share our first kiss.
"The Niños Morados" © Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro. By arrangement with Editorial Egales. Translation © 2019 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.