A Space for Women of the World
I hold my breath as I hear a sound behind me. In the dark it seems all around. Even breathing here seems to echo throughout the canyon. I try not to rustle as I walk. I keep going and step on some glass but the shard imbeds in the sandy wash rather than my sneaker. A sound trails behind me. The oval of my flashlight combs through the waist-high chamisa and summer thistles.
It is so different from San Francisco, where by now the fog would have rolled in and covered the tops of buildings and hills. It is a cold pink and orange breeze rolling in from the ocean while in the further valleys of the California coast the heat of summer would have just been lifting.
I would watch it roll in until sunrise when he would stir. I can still hear the crackle of fresh baguettes tearing and the wet pour of the orange juice exactly as the hundred times it had happened every morning before.
That life was the cool mist of morning on my face, the hum of the city all around and the knowledge that I was where I was meant to be.
Chris had found me sleeping under a branch lean-to in Buena Vista park. He woke me and asked if I wanted to get something to eat. I didn’t want to go, but I was hungry, so I followed him down the hill towards Market street.
He had bought me coffee and an egg sandwich. He thought I was some sort of undocumented Mexican. I had told him I was Navajo and he shrugged. He didn’t know what that was. It was like I didn’t come from anywhere. I was clean to him. But I also thought he would never know me unless he knew where I was from.
“Family! It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it’s always going to be the same bullshit. My friend Tom got kicked out by his family. Doesn’t matter what color you are you are still going to get fucked by anybody who was supposed to give a damn about you. I mean….”
He had sipped his coffee and looked across the table at me. I had been slouched down, playing with the zipper of my coat. I didn’t meet his eyes, even though I had been practicing it since I’d gotten there three weeks earlier. I noticed if you didn’t look white people in the eye they thought you were hiding something or were about to steal. So I trained myself to look them in the eye but that time, into his, I couldn’t.
“… if you’re happy where you are, why do you need family? I got a good job, a place to live and friends. Nothing else should matter.”
“Yeah I guess so.”
When I looked up, he smiled. He moved back into his seat and groped his crotch in a downward motion with his left palm cupped.
“C’mon, you ready?”
He rested the wide palm of his left hand along the fold of his thigh and crotch. I realized he was framing his package for me. Besides one other, I hadn’t had sex with anyone else. He was tall, dark haired and had these amazing blue eyes that seemed to take everything into them.
I didn’t know what to do, even after everything that had happened, I felt backward. When people looked at me, I could feel a heat burn behind my eyes. But at that moment, this anonymous white guy smiling at me, all I knew was I wanted to be somewhere. I wanted to let go. I wanted my way there, what I had carried, what I had left behind and who I had been to all fall away from me like water flowing over my body and into the earth. So I nodded and followed him home.
Afterwards, while he held me and slept, I didn’t know how to feel. Home was something far away and I could feel the presence of it slipping further away already. I wanted to fall asleep and wake up to my parents and grandma eating breakfast and talking in the language I was always outside of, already having been awake hours before me. I wanted everything familiar and around me like a spell or chant or something. I wanted a line of relatives between me and all the bad things in the world. I wanted to be safe.
But things change. I didn’t want to be hiding anything from my family and so that day, three months ago, I stood up, playing with my hands and told them simply, not looking up, “I like guys.” Nobody said anything. But then, my sister got up and crossed the room and hugged me. She held my face and said, “You’re my brother and whatever happens I will always love you. Ok?” I started crying. I expected something else. I thought there’d be yelling, anger, something dramatic like when my other sister Sheila said she wasn’t going back to college. But Katy surprised me and for that I will always be grateful.
Then later that night my dad took me outside by the corral. I thought he was going to give me some speech about being careful about disease or say something about whom to tell or not to tell. He folded his hands and put his elbows on the top post. He didn’t look at me.
“Son, I want you to pack your stuff, what you can carry and in the morning, I’ll take you to the bus stop at Cuba so you can get into Albuquerque. Ok, I’ll give you some money to go somewhere. We don’t care where you go but you can’t stay here anymore. Ok? Son?”
I felt like somebody pulled off my skin. I was all back tingles and wanted to throw up. I don’t remember anything after, except staying outside all night. Nobody came to see me and in the morning, even before my father was awake, I left.
I hitchhiked to Albuquerque. My cousin Delphine lived there and I thought she would let me stay. I called her and she told me to wait for her at this truck stop near I-40. I waited all afternoon and evening for her. I called and called. There was no answer and she never showed.
I caught a ride with this white guy. He drove an old gray Accord but was nicely dressed. He had a large gold ring on his wedding finger. He was handsome as some older men can get. A long, lean, slightly muscular body. He had gray eyes, which shined brightly under his hooded brow. He talked about his wife, his kids, his job. I stared at the dark triangle of chest hair peeking from his shirt while he talked.
I had dozed off and then just outside Gallup I woke up when he pulled over. I didn’t know where we were. But we weren’t on the interstate anymore. I was going to ask what was going on but he motioned silence. He unzipped his pants, looked over at me and pulled out his dick. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what he wanted me to do. I had never seen a white guy’s dick before. HBO never showed them this close and Navajo guys I’d seen in gym really didn’t compare. I was freaked. It was all fat and veiny. It looked like a tiny fat bald man with a red hat on. He didn’t have foreskin.
I was frozen. He smiled and reached over, grabbing the back of my neck and pulled me down to him. When I gagged and tried to pull away, he pressed on the back of my head harder. When he finished, he threw me against the door. I didn’t move. He asked me to get out.
I caught four more rides before I ended up in Barstow, California. The last trucker didn’t wake me when we passed the state line. When we pulled into a rest stop, we both slept. I think he was in his forties. He was pretty tall and broad shouldered with this fat belly like he was pregnant.
I didn’t know where I was going. In my mind, every guy wanted something. All I wanted was to be somewhere. Then I thought the ocean. I thought I would make it there and then decide what to do. But when I got to Monterrey and watched the gray landscape bleed into the horizon, I knew where I was headed.
I watched the immense ocean and thought all it could do was swallow me. I made it down to the rocky beach and watched the water, which by my feet seemed manageable. It lapped over my shoes and darkened my jeans. I was pushed and pulled by the motion. It was like a tongue on my body, pulling me deeper into itself. I didn’t know how to swim and I knew past my shoulders it would be too late.
I had no home and no people. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a place to live and I didn’t know anyone who could help me. I traveled thirteen hundred miles to have my anonymous body wash up on shore and be found by an old white woman walking her dog.
But the ocean didn’t want me. I got up and left Monterrey. I caught a ride into San Jose. I had thought I was smack dab in the middle of San Francisco. It was so large it had to be the city from TV. The guy left me off with a “are you sure?” I said yeah, thinking why wouldn’t I be? It took me two days to make it to Market and Van Ness. A week later I was panhandling with some guys I had met in the South of Market area. Three weeks later I was living with Chris. I had been seventeen at the time and he had been twenty-eight. We were together eighteen years.
I am walking in the canyon behind my parents’ house. It is midnight and I can hear something behind me. This sandstone canyon I climbed up as a child usually echoes soundly with any movement and animal noise. Tonight there is only my breathing and someone behind me. One of the plastic handles of the Target bag I have tears and I hold what I am carrying with my right arm. The sound does not grow louder behind me and I know my father will not approach any further than he has now.
Chris died five years ago. After I stayed that first night, he said I could stay another but then that was it, I had to leave after that. The next morning he said I could stay another night but no more. A week later he stopped telling me to leave. I found a job delivering groceries for a Chinese grocery store. I went to old Chinese people’s apartments. I gave them groceries and took money and lists written in Chinese characters. They got mad when I didn’t speak back to them in Cantonese. I worked there for about two months and found something else.
Chris was a teacher. He taught English to high school students and said he loved his job. He was strict but caring. He took so much interest in their lives. He wanted them to get out of their bad circumstances and find themselves, he said. I didn’t know what he meant but I knew he wanted something good for them. I think that’s why he ran into problems. He argued and got a reputation for being trouble. No school wanted him. He switched schools so many times but still he persisted. And we needed to make rent.
We lived like that, moving from one thing to another and always only scraping by. I got odd end jobs and he taught. For all the little stuff things were great. We went out dancing, partying, did drugs, got drunk, got sober, got counseling. And eventually I met other Indians, mostly white looking folk who found out they were Indian in college or something. But there was this Cheyenne guy, this Pima guy and this Pueblo lady that were like me.
All of us were from our reservations. All four of us came out to our families and were exiled or needed something else, finding ourselves in the Bay area. All of us had white partners, except the Pima guy who was a drag queen and dated this black guy. I was the only one who had anything like a serious relationship.
And it was serious, even though I knew Chris slept with other guys. I was jealous at first but, after talking to other couples, found out certain “arrangements” were common among guys. But that day walking into our home with him inches deep into some blonde guy, I freaked.
“I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“What about me? Fuck, don’t you care?”
“Don’t start crying. Jeez, I hate it when you cry. It means nothing. It’s like wacking off except you’re with someone else. And it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
He told me he fucked guys at parks, city restrooms, back alleys and, even when we were together at clubs, he got quickie blowjobs in the restroom. I looked him in his bright blue eyes and saw a strange sort of fear I hadn’t seen before. I didn’t know what to think. No man had ever told me he loved me, even among my family. I watched him lick his lips and furrow his brow.
“Ok, as long as you never bring them here and I don’t have to hear about it.”
He never brought anyone home again and I never heard about it afterwards. We still had sex every other day.
I had tried out our “arrangement” myself a couple of times but got embarrassed and scared when guys were interested in me. The last time at the far end of Golden Gate park, a guy had come right up to me. I thought he was going to ask me to go with him into the bushes but instead he told me he wasn’t into Asians and walked away. I didn’t correct him. I walked to the edge of the cliff and watched the ocean. After that I decided not to have sex with anyone else.
I am walking a mesa top trail carved from the red and yellow sandstone cliffs of my home. I carry a cedar box under my right arm. My father is behind me as are my family further back who do not approach. I am walking to the cliff edge of my youth, where I would watch the orange sun fade into the distant hills and mesas, darkening the piñon and cedar trees, shadowing the land in streaks and pools. There is no sound but my breathing and footsteps. Night is a blanket. There is nothing between me and the edge but my last footsteps. I know I am a carrier of these last things I hold with me.
Ten years ago Chris told me he was HIV positive and that he was going to die. He was calm and sat me down after we ate the dinner I cooked. Pasta and broiled chicken. I put a little rosemary and thyme under the skin with butter and poured lemon juice and a little balsamic vinegar over the top. First, I cooked the breasts nearest the flame to brown and crisp the skin and then turned off the broiler to continue cooking in the regular oven. It was the first time I followed my own recipe. They turned out great.
I was about to tell him I made it all by myself, when he told me I needed to get tested.
“I mean it. You need to go tomorrow.”
He told me I didn’t sound serious about it. I guess he didn’t realize how proud I’d been making my own dinner.
A couple weeks later, I walked into the Indian AIDS place. The receptionist gave me the most sympathetic look I have ever gotten, even after everything. I wanted to punch the old queen in the face. I wanted to tell him not to feel sorry for me. I trembled when I looked into his dark brown eyes. He led me to the peer counselor and left me at the door, that fucking look of concern still painted on his face.
I am at the cliff’s edge, facing the darkness below I imagine is all depth and distance. There is no need to close my eyes as I see the figures my sisters and I were running hill to hill at sunset. There is no need to hold my breath to hear the place my heart has chosen to settle into. There is no need to go any further than this place I claim and know within to be me.
I was told what I had known. I didn’t say anything. The guy continued talking but I didn’t hear him after the “po-.” I couldn’t breathe. I looked at the floor. I didn’t know what to do or think. Then I heard him say “one thing at a time.” One thing at a time, I repeated in my head. One thing, like get up, open the door, walk. One more thing, go outside, catch the bus, get home. But they all seemed like too many things to do. I thought of it like a recipe of what I had to do next to get home. Move, walk, money, bus, stop, get off, walk, don’t look up, move, climb, key, door, in.
Then I closed the door of the clinic. I opened my mouth. And like I hadn’t done when this little Yazzie guy kicked the shit out of me when I was eleven for being a fag, like I hadn’t done when my grandpa died, like I hadn’t done when my dad told me to leave, like I hadn’t done when that guy told me to get out of his car, like I hadn’t done when that guy thought I was Asian—I screamed. I screamed and screamed there in the street. Nobody noticed.
I am feeling the cool sandy soil between my toes as I walk up the end of the canyon to the place I claimed as a child long ago. This small westward facing outcropping over the valley below I thought so large when I was young. It is just before dawn. I carry my lover’s ashes in the cedar box I have kept since his leaving under my right arm. I am sitting before the emerging dawn. I dig a hole and leave my lover to look over the edge of this small cliff and into the dark and familiar landscape that claims me. I will cleanse myself and, at first light, pray. Then I will get up and go home.