BY STEPHANIE N. STODDARD CORTÉS
“Steph, tengo que hablar contigo,” is the godforsaken sentence that makes the world stand still, and the bird living in my chest to hide beneath its wings. An unshakable sense of guilt was accompanied by the utterance of such a sentence, and immediately made time slow enough to quickly think back to everything I had or hadn’t done since the last time I was home. Nothing rang any bells. I begged the bird to calm down. We were safe there, on that table in the middle of the mom-made breakfast I can no longer recall clearly. Dad said, “no quiero que pienses que estamos molestos contigo porque no lo estamos.”
Mom interrupts him to say he shouldn’t be talking in plural because she has nothing to do with this. I looked at him first, confused; turned my head to look at my mother questioningly, then at my sister who had gone wide-eyed across from me: it was evident they all knew what dad was talking about. The bird shivered. I put on a brave face and asked if I could please be brought up to speed. The rest happened in a blur. Between the noise, I mostly remember feeling: incredulous turned to defensive turned to scared, and finally settling somewhere between angry and sad. There was a lot of shaking involved, and even some of that uncomfortable, disbelieving laughter that tastes like you’ve just bitten your tongue.
When I was about ten, on a morning we were about to have breakfast, I sat at the head of the table for the first time. My dad, after he came out of the bathroom, told me that that chair was meant for the “man of the house”. I was confused at first, because ten-year-old-me thought a chair was just a chair. The only special thing about it was that I could rest my lanky arms on its wooden side frames. Even then I refused to move, cross-armed and pouting: I had gotten there first, dad. I was comfy. I look back at this particular memory and feel Sarah Ahmed’s words float around ten-year-old-me slow-motion surround-sound-style. I realize now that could’ve very likely been my first unknowingly “feminist” stance. Today, when I drive home to Isabela, I sit there in a form of protest. I am very conscious of the fact that this bothers my dad on some level because he is “the man of the house” (he laughs, like he’s joking; I can’t ever tell if he is), and I am his child. His female child. To my amusement, he sits at the other end of the table in a form of protest as well: he’s still “the man of the house” if he sits in the other one, right?
That day—the day the godforsaken “we have to talk” spilled out of my father’s worried mouth— I wasn’t sitting where I usually sit, which is both interesting and weird come to think of it. The word “vulnerable” pops into mind for whatever Freudian reason. That day, it was mom who sat there. Dad was standing, his hand on top of the other man-the-house-chair at the end of the table. He says “Mami (as in Nora, my grandma, his mom) me dijo que Beatriz (my aunt, his sister) le dijo que Denise (my other aunt, not his sister) le dijo que tu estabas jangueando con una amiga lesbiana. Beatriz me llamó bien preocupada. Yo también estoy preocupado, como tu papá”. I don’t think I have to explicitly say my father's side of the family is very passive-aggressively homophobic (and racist). Everyone has different degrees: my dad is the most intolerant, mami es más eso-esta-bien-si-es-ajeno-a-mi, Alicia me da esperanza, y a Saulo le gusta decir que no es homofóbico, but he sees it more like a threat to his masculinity though he admits not understanding why, which I appreciate because it leaves room for the willingness to do so.
I remember I opened my mouth and what came out of it was a disbelieving “what” followed by a genuinely confused face as Titi Denise has only every seen one of my friends in passing. They didn’t even have a conversation because we were on our way to a tennis match. In the 3 minutes that I introduced them, smiles and pleasantries were exchanged. By some logic, no doubt stereotypical, Titi came to the conclusion not only that Emma was gay, but that this as she is my friend, was inherently bad bad bad.
My father thought it was important to have a conversation—a very serious conversation that is—about this rumor that was going around in my family that was tainting someone—his daughter—as gay, which he has always perceived as unnatural and somehow dirty because it reflected back onto him. Now, I realized three things while dad was talking. One: my brother had woken up and sat attentively in the computer chair across from us on the table. Two: the problem here wasn’t so much dad thought Emma was a lesbian, but that I might be her lesbian lover. This is subtext. Three: if they asked me point blank if I was into girls, I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question with an answer that both satisfied and relieved them. (Hago un paréntesis para decir que I am not coming out as anything mostly because I don’t think there’s anything to come out of, but really because I don’t know. I can’t say I am anything, not for sure. People are people. ) But they never asked that question. Dad mostly stressed that he was worried people were going to start calling me a lesbian too, which he assured me he knew I wasn’t. The bird inside my chest started to smoke.
I clarified that Emma wasn’t a lesbian, but that it shouldn’t matter if she was. My voice, which had remained unwavering, cracked when I told them I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation. I was torn between an all-consuming anger, deep sadness, and the fact that my parents were genuinely worried about how their daughter was perceived by the rest of the family, and how this could ruin my reputation, and thus— theirs. Dad told me I should be careful with friends like this because lesbians take advantage of female friendships and they can “attack” when I least expected it. The bird inside my chest let out a sharp noise, which I echoed in disbelieving laughter. I feel compelled to admit I don’t like to cause unhappiness. What I mean is— I will if I have to, but: I want to keep being a part of the family even if I remain unseated from the table where I thought I was safest.
The day the godforsaken sentence was uttered, I told my family I didn’t care if people called me a lesbian. My brother rose at this, agitated: “What do you mean you don’t care?” In a split second—though it had been building since I refused to move from the-man-of-the-house chair when I was 10— I experienced what Sarah Amed was talking about: I was unseated from the table. I caused unhappiness. “No,” I told Saulo—I told all of them. “Why would I? There’s nothing wrong with who you love.” Alicia smiled at me, like a secret. The bird inside of me felt proud. Felt sad, felt betrayed. Was on fire.
*Names have been changed.
Stephanie N. Stoddard Cortés is a 21 year old from Puerto Rico.