by Cris Eli Blak
When my parents came to America in the fifties they had dreams bigger than their minds could understand. They wanted the typical things: a home of their own, jobs and opportunities—you know the story, it’s been told a thousand times in movies and television shows. Honestly, it’s misleading. They show a small part of the journey. What they don’t show is the blood, the sweat, the sleepless nights and days of endless working; the crying, the bounced checks, the late rent, the weekends without power or running water.
Yes, my parents came in the fifties for that dream, those Kodak moments. And for the most part they got it. Nothing extravagant, of course, but a place to lay their heads, which is definitely nothing to complain about. But it’s not the fifties anymore. It’s the eighties, and no one is chasing Kodak moments. They’re getting high, they’re hooking up, they’re falling in and out of love, they’re making art. My parents came with dreams, sure, but I know one of those dreams was not to have a gay Puerto Rican son. They named me Ronaldo because they figured people could just Americanize it and call me Ronald. But I don’t vibe with that name. I go by Papi. Everybody calls me Papi. I’m five-foot-seven and one hundred forty pounds. Not much but enough to turn the heads of both men and women. Some are turned on just by the brown skin. This ain’t the sixties anymore, brown is beautiful. Accents are admirable.
But that’s not what this story is about, unfortunately. Trust me, I’d much rather tell you a story about how good I am in bed. It’d probably be a much better tale to tell but we don’t choose the path life takes us down sometimes. Some people are like my family. They work their asses off to be something of purpose and slowly climb the ladder. Some people are like me. They don’t think about what they’re doing, or the consequences. They don’t ask the questions one should probably ask. Instead, they fall in love with the first person who bats an eye. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just the screw-up.
His name was Johnny (that was his real name, not the American one given to him). He had the smoothest tanned skin, like he was fresh off the beach, even though he lived in one of the city’s darkest boroughs. We met at the Round-Up, a club designed for people like us with a western twist. Everyone in there has soul and rhythm. The music is always loud and hypnotic, taking you out of the cruel realities of your life or the outside world and placing you in a wood-floor fantasy. It was the first place that actually made me feel like I was home, like I belonged somewhere.
Johnny was the bartender there, his smile almost as infectious as the Motown spins playing overhead. We got to know each other, and within a week or two we were already saying we loved each other (when you know you know, right? Wrong). I thought he was my knight in shining armor. In reality he was the dragon guarding the castle, or the evil stepmother locking my immune system on the highest floor of his castle. And here I am, down ten pounds. When I stretch I can see my ribcage. The lesions are beginning to look more like leeches, stuck, sucking my last bit of strength. My hair, once curly and vibrant, is starting to look patchy and stale. I can barely walk, but when I do, I play a game with myself called “Twins.” I look around my block and count how many men look like me, their flesh and bones fading, their faces sinking in.
I moved to New York when I was eighteen, desperate to get away from my family’s grip. Not that they were overly controlling or anything, I just didn’t want to hide from myself anymore. At times I felt like a shadow with a shadow. For all they knew I was following my own dreams, going off to places bigger than even their old school aspirations could think of. They were proud. They haven’t seen me since except for a couple of holidays here and there but not at all in recent years, not since I learned that my own body has something against me. I know that if they were to see me now they wouldn’t know what to do, how to react. But if I want to see them again before my inevitable end, I’m going to have to face the music and accept the nonstop questions and crying. So I pack my bags and travel thirty thousand feet in the air, unable to think of nothing but the day when my cells give out and I’m, hopefully, taken much higher.
When I land and walk out of the airport I immediately see my brother’s yellow car that looks a lot like a taxi. I can tell he doesn’t recognize me and I don’t blame him, so I yell out his name to get his attention. “Manuel!” He turns, his face turning to one of horror. Again, I can’t blame him. I throw my bags in the back and slide into the passenger side as he drives away.
I wait for his questions.
Over bridges and past trees.
He finally opens his mouth as we start into the main street of our hometown. “So, I hear in New York everybody’s a genius. Is that true?”
I look over at him and speak the first thing that comes to mind, “I wish.”
We pull up to the small house belonging to my family. I can tell by the cars spilling out of the dirt driveway that my mother has invited everyone they know to welcome the New York kid on his return. I freeze in my seat.
“It’s okay,” he says.
“It’s not. You don’t get it. I can’t go in there.”
“You can. You have to.”
“But,” I begin. “I’m gay, Manny. I’m gay and I’m sick and that’s scary.”
He starts to laugh, confusing me even more. “Bro, you could have gone to the East Coast and joined a gang, gotten shot, anything. I don’t care who you are or what you are or what you have. We all got our thing.”
“I’m dying,” I responded with urgency. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Of course it does. You’re my blood. But I love you no matter what. We all do.”
He comes around with my bags and opens the passenger side door, reaching out his hand.
“Are you sure you wanna touch me?” I ask, too used to people’s fear.
“Come on. Let’s go home.”
I step out of the car with legs like stilts and walk up to the house. We get to the door and Manuel knocks. Neither of us know what’s next but for once, I am satisfied with not thinking of future. Right now, all that is important is right now.
Cris Eli Blak is a playwright, screenwriter, producer, performer and poet. He wrote the short film The Brother’s Survivor, which was an award winner at the Worldfest Houston International Film Festival. He was commissioned by the Louisville Arts Network and Lift Up Lou to write his performance piece HOPE: Living as a Black Man in America, is a two-time poetry slam champion and has had his work produced, published and/or performed by Urban Stages (Off-Broadway), Illuminate Theatre, Roaming Theatre Collaborative, Earworm Audio Theatre Podcast, the International Human Rights Arts Festival and Next Generation Stage Directors, among others.