*An essay every Friday in 2016*
I’m sitting in the loft of a converted horse barn in upstate New York as I type this. From the open window, I can hear the loud screech of blue jays. They’re such show offs. Their nervous chatter makes me smile. I can also hear red cardinals. They remind me of a Christmas ornament from my childhood. My second mom Millie always hid it in the gaudy tree she trimmed with tons of lights and tinsel and garland so you barely saw the green. It was up to us to find that chirping ornament. If my sister found it first, she wouldn’t tell. But my brother Carlos and I always told one another. That was our relationship. We looked out and covered for one another. Dee? She only looked out for herself.
This week I saw a picture on FB of the man who introduced Carlos to heroin. I don’t remember his name but I can’t forget his face.
That’s the strange thing about FB, sometimes you run into shit you don’t want to see, like the face of that man, and you will feel an arctic heat rise into your chest and your hands shake and clench into fists, and you know it’s not his fault that your brother is now dead, and it’s not his fault that your brother struggled with a horrible addiction to this drug for more than fifteen years, but you can’t help but curl your lip in rage and hatred though you know that’s not you being your best self but this is your humanity and you just miss your brother and wish you could go back to that day all those years ago and slap that drug out of their hands…but you can’t and that will never stop being heartbreaking.
This man, we’ll call him G, was one of the dancers who introduced Madonna to the vogue craze that was all the rage in the NYC gay club scene in the late 80s, and she, of course, introduced it to the world. He danced in her videos and was even in her Truth or Dare movie. He was a member of the House of Extravaganza (as was my brother later was) and now there’s a documentary coming out about the crew of voguers so I’ll be seeing G’s face plastered all over the place.
I remember meeting G back in the late 90s, just before I graduated from Columbia in 97. I recognized him right away, of course. He was handsome and flamboyant, and I wanted to know him. “Ay, she’s so cute,” he said as he pinched my waist, which in those days was always exposed, belly ring out for the world to see. “You should bring her out with us, Guineo.” (That’s what that crew called my brother: Guineo. Why, I’ve never known.) My brother rolled his eyes. “Pay it, negro. She ain’t goin’ nowhere wit’ us.” My brother never let me hang out with him and his friends, and I resented him for it. I felt rejected and didn’t understand why. We’d been so close as kids, why didn’t he want to hang out with me? I was in my early twenties and hitting the club scene, partying and working and being carefree, like he was, so why didn’t he want me around?
One day, I ran into him in the street. Or maybe we’d planned to meet up, I can’t remember. I was on my way to a party so I had a jug of Bacardi in tow. We were standing on a street in uptown Manhattan, talking. It must have been late spring or early summer because neither of us had coats or jackets on. I don’t know why but we started arguing and he called me a “fuckin cuero.” I went blind and the next thing I knew, we were both staring at the shattered jug of rum on the sidewalk. I’d swung that bottle at him. He had ducked.
He looked at me and yelled, “You’re fuckin crazy!”
I glared back. “Yup. You already know that. Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.” And I walked off, back to the liquor store to get another bottle.
Those were ugly times between us.
I hated him for not wanting me around. It felt like another rejection and I’d had so many rejections in my life by then. I see now that my brother was protecting in the best way he knew how—by keeping me away from those people who introduced him to that drug that destroyed his life and eventually took it.
When Carlos died in 2013, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about grief. One of the things I read spoke of the guilt that strikes when you find yourself no longer consumed by that grief. In a way you feel you are dishonoring the person you lost by continuing to live your life, by daring to be happy. I remember thinking that I couldn’t way to get there. At that point, the grief was like a vise around my neck. It sat on my chest with such weight, I felt like I was suffocating much of the time.
I only recently realized that that weight is gone. One day, I sat down at my desk to write and looked at the picture I have of him and me at his last Christmas. I gasped and teared up. I hadn’t thought about him in days. Suddenly I felt like I’d failed him by daring to forget him, if only for a few hours. How dare I be happy?
But I was. I am. And I know my brother wants that for me.
I talked to my therapist about it today. He suggested, “It sounds like you’re moving away from the grief over losing him to the love you have for him…the love you’ve always had.” I sighed. That sounds about right.
As the world knows, Prince passed away yesterday. The incomparable Prince is gone. As soon as I heard, my mind immediately went to my brother. We danced so many of Prince’s songs together. I remember his face lighting up when we watched Prince’s music videos. Those moments confirmed what I already knew. This was the early and mid-80s. The era of the 1999 and Purple Rain albums. In ‘88 came Lovesexy and that unforgettable cover that got him so much shit.
The first time I knew, we were at home alone. I don’t remember where mom and Millie were. I imagine they were probably a few blocks away on Hancock Street playing dominoes and had left my brother in charge as they always did. We decided to play house and Carlos said he was going to play the mom. He put on one of mom’s dresses and her short heels. (Mom wasn’t the three inch heel kind of woman.) He pulled a pair of stockings over his afro and even put on a bra which he filled with his rolled up tube socks while we both giggled. When he pulled the straps of mom’s purse over his shoulder, he flicked his neck, causing the beige nylon stockings to cascade over his shoulder. Then he looked at my sister and me and said, “Let’s go, girls. We’re going shopping.” I was on the plastic covered couch watching him and remember thinking at that moment that my brother was different. I just didn’t know how different and I didn’t have the language to explain.
So when my brother and I watched those videos of Prince, bare-chested, looking lustily at the screen, gyrating his hips and licking his lips, making us all sweat and fan ourselves, we knew on some level that Prince was changing things. He was challenging all notions of masculinity and gender, and he was giving people like my brother permission to be their beautiful queer misfit selves.
It was when he entered high school in ’86 that my brother began exploring his queerness. He started working (first at the early renditions of SYEP, then at The Gap and Benetton) and making his own money meant he could buy his own clothes, which mirrored Prince’s bold style—clunky platform heels with exposed steel toes, bell bottoms, tight shirts and vests. When he came home with his ear pierced, mom nearly lost her shit, but Prince had given Carlos permission, told him that his queerness was beautiful and worthy of being flaunted, and my bro wouldn’t waiver in his commitment to expressing himself.
Carlos didn’t come out to me until years later when we were in our 20s and even that wasn’t the typical, nerve wracking “coming out” talk. I don’t remember where we were or what we were talking about, but by then he was diagnosed HIV+ (which he told me he’d contracted from a woman) and was living with the disease for several years. He looked at me, as if searching my face, then said, “You know I’m gay, sis, right?” I rolled my eyes and told him about that night years before when we played house. “Papa, I’ve known you were gay since way back then.” We both laughed and the conversation kept flowing like it always did between us, big bro and little sis.
The afternoon of Prince’s passing, I was scheduled to teach a personal essay writing class with a group of tenth graders, mostly boys. They’re a challenging group that has made me reinvent my entire approach, but they’re a fantastic bunch. They’re funny and brave, and have opened themselves up to me in profound ways. I had promised to share some of my work because I really believe that if I’m to expect them to share themselves and their stories, I should also share mine. It’s how you build trust. I shared an excerpt of my essay “Millie’s Girl” which is about how I watched my second mom Millie die terrified of going to hell because she was a lesbian. The discussion that followed was great and it helped the students open up about griefs they carry. I want to also note that not one of them made a disparaging remark. If anything, a few said they were sorry I had to go through that and said it was messed up what happened to Millie.
After their writing assignment, the paraprofessional in the class (it’s a D level class where many of the students have learning disabilities) commented on how well written it was and how she believes God is a loving God. I felt my insides squirm and I tried to divert the conversation because my instincts were blaring their alarm. “That’s between her and God,” she said. I stared at her and said, “Yes but I don’t believe how she lived was wrong.” The woman then said in Spanish, “But God made a man and a woman for a reason.” My stare became a stop that shit glare. “I’m gonna ask you once not to do that. Don’t.” She was shocked. I’m not sure why. She too read the excerpt. Did she expect me to nod and agree?
She excused herself minutes later and left the class. The teacher was horrified when I told her. She applauded my response and thus I was reminded that not everyone is that narrow minded and inappropriate.
I thought of Prince and my brother. I thought of my Millie. I thought of my many students who have told me about their queerness before they told anyone. I thought about my own queerness and the woman that I love and am building a life with. I thought about the many who were never granted the permission and lived devastating lives as a result. I thought about this woman and how she echoed what Millie had been taught and the damage that has done and continues to do.
I wonder if Prince knew about the many lives he saved by granting them permission. For misfits it matters when a misfit makes it and is loved for all his misfitness. Praise the ultimate misfit himself, Prince Rogers Nelson, for giving us misfits audacity.
A tweet is making the rounds online. In it, a woman writes “Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
Yes! I’d add that they also help us know the people we love. For me, Prince helped me know my brother and for that and so much more, I will always treasure him. Thank you, Prince. Godspeed.