the GENDER issue / FICTON
You're the Only Friend I Need
by Alejandro Heredia
The streets of La Zona Colonial are buzzing with motion. Curious customers run in and out of markets and shoe stores. A line of school kids follow their teacher out of a museum. Tourist couples walk aimlessly, hand in hand, their unexpecting shoulders singed red by the Caribbean sun. Noel and his friend walk past one of the unlucky couples and laugh. They are hungry, but don’t have enough money to stop by a colmado. They are boys, sixteen and still running the streets on their parents’ money. Noel tells his grandmother he will be at Fabio’s, Fabio tells his father he will be at Noel’s. A juvenile lie, but it works. They have just enough money for a cup of coffee, and for the bus back to school in the morning. Wherever the night finds them, they are optimistic they will get by with what they have.
From the bus stop, they walk to the grand expanse of Parque Colon. The square is lined with verdant trees as tall as buildings. People crowd the benches under their shade, talk in groups or peruse the day’s paper. At the center stands a statue of the colonizer. One arm down, the other raised to the sky. He points his index finger north. He stands in all of his power. As if to say, if I have found you, I can lead you. Looming large over the square, he could be the center of the whole universe, holding all of gravity at the tip of his skyward finger.
Noel and Fabio scare off a cluster of pigeons and take their place on a bench. The birds take flight, flap their lazy wings in the last remaining stretches of yellow sun. Next to the boys sit a group of girls. They talk amongst themselves like birds. The boys still wear their uniform, light blue polo shirt with khaki pants. They hate the uniform policy, just as they know the privilege of attending a private school over a public. In the ladder of education, their school sits just above the public sector, a privilege gifted to them by their respective mothers, who work in New York and make just enough money to pay for their education. Still, they do not come from the same world as the girls they sit next to. They know just by hearing them talk, they are part of the true elite, schooled in some corner of the privatized city, taught by gringo foreigners to speak proper Spanish, English, French. If Noel and Fabio were remotely interested in girls, they would turn to face them, make the park’s cobblestones the stage of a lovers’ drama.
“Mira,” Noel says instead, pulls from his bookbag two fat, yellow mangoes. He’s been hiding them until now, hoping to surprise his friend. Fabio curses at him for hiding them for so long, claws for his mango and tears into it with his teeth. He makes a small hole in the flesh of the fruit. He massages the pulp into juice, sucks from the fruit every last drop of sun. When they are done, the skin of the mango is taut, wrinkled and saggy. Only the seed remains.
Next to them, one of the girls says something into her circle. They all laugh. The boys feel the energy shift toward them. Fabio, always quick to react, flips them a middle finger. He squeezes the mango on his left hand too hard. The seed breaks through the rubbery skin, falls wet and sticky on his lap. The girls laugh again.
“Okay, okay, let’s go.” Noel hands his friend a paper towel, one he’s reused multiple times at this point, but it will do. He throws the seeds into a nearby bush, pulls his friend up and away from the girls before he barks at them.
“I fucking hate girls, I really do,” Fabio says.
They wait for their friend at La Cafeteria Colonial. Inside they take a seat by the counter, order one coffee, negro con azucar. Fabio drinks most of it, talks ardently about the cafe. It is famous for hosting some of the nation’s most illustrious minds. Painters, writers, even revolutionaries have met here in their youth, men who would later become leaders of the country, or public enemies of the nation’s authoritarian elite. Here, at separate times, in their own eras, as far back as the 1930s. All strung together by the coffee he drinks from now. Fabio’s favorite is Pedro Mir. It’s rumored that the writer once sang his most famous poem here, that the walls of the cafeteria were filled with laments about the tierra, this sad old country.
“I bet he’s a maricon, too,” Fabio whispers into Noel’s ear, to avoid the curious eyes of the other customers. The only thing Fabio loves more than the great Dominican poets is twisting their poetry to create queer alternatives of their lives. Mir isn’t sad about the country, he’s sad cause he’s not getting fucked. Cartagena Portalatin writes about una mujer sola not because of the great social burden placed on Dominican women, but because she’s a raging lesbian. The dream she writes is about finding another woman, eloping under the Caribbean sky. Even Salomé, founding mother of Dominican letters, is a subject of his queer reconstruction of history.
“Why do you think she started that school for all girls?”
“You’re sick,” Noel says, rolls his eyes, but he laughs. Their minds are what draws them together. They are not particularly excellent at school. Fabio gets better grades because he can focus last minute to pass a test. But for the most part they go unnoticed by the teachers and the few students who compete amongst themselves to get good grades. Rather, it’s their curious obsessions that binds them. Noel with his facts about the sky, his obsession with Newton and all his thought experiments. Fabio with his queering of Dominican poets. Even if they know little about the other’s interest, they listen to each other, their minds like two cups of water, filling and emptying into one whatever new or wild idea entertains the other.
And of course there is the secret that everyone knows but no one braves themselves to say. They’ve never had serious girlfriends, not anything of significance. And anyway, no relationship status could hide the mannerisms. Their walk, the way they hold their hands, how their eyes rolls to the back of their heads when they’re annoyed. Far too flamboyant to not be noticed, especially Fabio. Where Noel is shy, Fabio is unapologetic and exuberant. Any attempt to justify these mannerisms were thrown out the window in ninth grade, when Fabio got into a fist fight with one of the popular girls in school, precisely for harshly pointing out what no one else was willing to say. Maricon, she called him, back when that word was still just a fresh wound. After Fabio’s fight, there was no question. Fabio was a girl fighting maricon, and Noel, by association, was maricon adjacent, far too close to the thing to be considered straight.
They sit at this cafe now, waiting to escape the social isolation that has plagued their adolescence.
“Where did you meet this guy anyway?”
“I told you loca, friend of a friend. You know how that goes, everybody has a gay cousin,” Fabio says. Noel likes the sound of that, “loca.” They’ve been doing this new thing where they refer to each other in feminine pronouns, and it feels good. Simple. Like seeing each other better.
Finally he comes through the door. “Fabio, verdad? Ren,” he says. He has the eyes of a fox. Playful, seeking. He takes the boys in, their uniform, their smooth faces round with youth. They grow weary under his eye. Noel notices that both of Ren’s ears are pierced. Most of the men he knows only have one pierced. Certainly never the gay ear, though which ear marks one as a homosexual, Noel always forgets.
They talk until the cafe closes at nine. Ren tells them where he went to school, the odd jobs he does now to get by. They circle around the topic, but never enter into it, past that hidden door. Noel looks around to see if anyone will notice. Perhaps the old couple sitting by the door. Or the owner, who doesn’t stop to come out from behind the counter to ask them what they’d like. They must see it in Ren, at least. Fabio is unapologetic about his femininity, will throw it in anyone’s face, but only when he is confident he is safe. Often, as he does now, he comports himself to his environment if he is around new people or in a public space where shame or slurs might follow him. For Ren, there seems to be little performance. He exudes feminine energy out of some unfathomable core at his center. A soft, swooshing flirtation, like a curtain dances to a summer breeze. How he wipes sweat from his forehead with an open palm. The way he puckers his lips, just so, to accentuate a joke. Or his smile, which is childlike, matched with his feline eyes which denote a hint of wisdom. As if he has access to some hidden truth. He even crosses one leg over another, the way men shouldn’t, the way these boys have been instructed not to do their whole lives.
Noel wonders if this is their future, if they will look and speak and move like Ren one day. If they too, can build themselves a core like his. The thought of it is as exciting as it is frightening. Noel cannot tell which feeling dominates the other. The one that comes rolling down his forehead in the form of a sweat droplet, or the anticipation that moves him to shake his leg violently under the table..
Outside, a moonless night covers the city. “Okay, chicos,” Ren says, and they follow him down Calle El Conde. They turn to a dark alleyway, away from the light. Ren says he will go first, tells them to keep watch for the stray drunk or militant officer doing his rounds. He goes into the shadow with his bag slung over his back. When he returns, he is a new person. Noel looks at him with his mouth agape.
“Wow,” Fabio says. Ren wears a long, wavy black wig that falls to the middle of his back. A loose maroon dress hangs off his shoulders, open chest, revealing a tattoo of a rose right below his left collarbone. He continues the rest of his transformation before them, in the soft orange street light. Two small hoops replaced by large silver earrings. Worn down sneakers replaced by tall strap heels. His make up takes the most time. He looks at himself in a small, compact mirror to powder his forehead. Finally, when his eyeliner is done, he pulls out a tube of red lipstick. The boys stare as Ren paints a line across each mound of flesh. He presses them together, then puckers his mouth to show off his soft red lips.
“This is what I spend all my fucking money on,” he says. “How do I look?”
Fabio’s eyes are full and wide. He looks as if he’s found a pearl, after searching long and hopelessly in the dark. He nods, smiles, says nothing. He is too struck to speak. Next to him, Noel is unnerved. He feels as if he might laugh at the sight, a man turning into a woman right before his eyes. The part of him that is dictated by logic, that which has always been good at following the rules, that part of young Noel wants to laugh at the absurd. Then there is the other. Or the others. The multitudes within him that fight to push their way to the front of conscious thought, like a field of fireflies flickering in synchrony, as if to point to this moment in time. As if to say, “you have arrived.”
“Can’t be seen out here looking like a maricon, can’t be seen in there looking like an ugly man. Que maldito lio,” Ren says, rolls his eyes, but smiles at his reflection in the compact mirror. Fabio goes into the shadow next, comes out wearing his aunt’s blue blouse, tight black jeans. His skinny arms stick out awkwardly, and the blouse is a little too big for him. He parts his small fro, and in it places a white flower. “Oh she’s virginal,” Ren says, and fixes the flower on Fabio’s head. Then, he takes a few pins from his bag, uses them to tighten the boy’s blouse in the back. Now, it looks as if the blouse was made for his body exactly, not to be filled with breasts and an older woman’s heft. Ren puts an orange color on Fabio’s lip, and uses a hint of highlighter to accentuate his cheekbones. Noel comes out from the shadow of the alleyway, walks back into the cut of light from the streetlamp. Fabio looks at him in disappointment. Noel has dressed up like the partygoers he’s seen in music videos. Tight jean shorts, and white tank top, a shirt tied to his waist.
“What are you doing? I thought you were taking something from your grandma,” Fabio says.
“Do I look bad? I don’t know, I wanted to look more cool, than girly, you know?”
Ren jumps between them before Fabio can respond. “You look cute as a boy, it’s okay. But we gotta get some paint on your face. You’ll like it, te lo prometo.” Ren draws a winged eyeliner on each eye. He likes the way Ren holds his chin up to the light, this sudden intimacy. Noel looks in the small circle of the compact mirror. He looks like a creature of the night. Birdlike, a crow. He quickly looks away from his reflection. A rush of shame warms his face. Ren tells them they’re close, they’ll go through the back alleys so as to avoid crowds. Noel does not think it, refuses to turn the feeling into thought, for fear that it will paralyze him. But he feels it. The body responding to danger, to the possibility of meeting the baton of some cop, dressed as they are.
Not so long ago they were boys playing baseball in the street. Raging against some inner beast. Or not resisting at all, taken over by its might. The wrath of boyhood; a scream, a belch, unabashed laughter. The soles of their naked feet slapping the concrete. The bloody knuckle crushed against another’s cheekbone. A bruised lip, a cutting joke, a chorus of argument. And when alone, or in couples, the sudden gentleness. Protection, when needed. Showing up to a friend’s fight just in case. The ubiquitous shyness. In front of girls, in front of teachers, in front of the mirror facing their naked bodies. Skinny or fat or too small or too big or smooth or growing hair, each day something new. The fear of jumping but jumping anyway, even if only to impress. They were everything, everything. Boys.
Now, look at them. Girls, or adjacent to them. Not quite girls, but not boys either. Girly boys, maybe, gliding through the streets of Santo Domingo, protected by the night. Soft as feathers. Quick as shadows. Hiding, but filled with a gust of pride for everything they’ve made of themselves, what they’ve managed to take from the corner of the mind or a dream. A fantasy materialized.
They arrive at the front of a white and yellow house. In La Zona Colonial, most structures are old, built decades ago, many as far back as centuries. Noel does not come to this part of the city often. Even in the night, he can tell that whoever owns these white and pastel houses must have money, more than he and any of his family might collect together, as far back as he can trace. Maybe his uncle Tony, who married a wealthy doctor from La Romana. But his uncle had distanced himself from the family as soon as he crossed over to the other side of wealth. He entered the world of the Dominican elite and never looked back, not even to thank his mother, Noel’s grandmother, for everything she’d done to raise her kids alone, after her husband died in the civil war.
Ren leaves them behind a tree on the sidewalk. He enters the alley, walks toward the back of the house. His heels click on the pavement, echoing and filling the otherwise quiet street. Noel listens for the echo of Ren’s walk until it disappears.
“Are you mad at me?”
Fabio turns his nose upward and away. He puts one hand to his ear, pretends to be distracted by something down the street. When Ren returns, he confirms that everyone’s inside, he has the green light to enter.
“Listen to me,” he says, and his eyes turn serious. He’s taller than them by a few inches, more so now, in his heels. “This is fun and all, pero tienen que tener cuidado. No drinks, no going home with no old man, nothing. I’m serious. Make friends, but don’t lose sight of each other. You’re the only one the other needs. Got it?” Ren grabs them by the shoulder and pushes them together. He leads them through the back, up the stairs to the second floor. A boy like them opens the door. He dons a red wig that stops at his shoulders, wears a white spaghetti strap blouse, blue jeans, apple-red heels. He screams the name Renata. Fabio looks behind him to see who he’s talking to, Ren hugs the person at the door. Before he runs in, Ren turns, puts his finger to his eye, as if to say “eyes open,” and then disappears inside. An intoxicating smell of rum and tobacco wafts from inside. The smell carries with it a melancholic sweet and bitterness. It beacons them in and repulses them at once. Fabio puts his arm around Noel, and they step forward, together.
Alejandro is a queer Afro Dominican writer and community organizer born in Santo Domingo and raised in The Bronx. He is a 2019 Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium Fellow and winner of the Golden Line Press 2019 fiction chapbook contest, selected by Myriam Gurba. His work has been featured in La Galeria Magazine, No Dear Magazine, and NPR's Latino USA, among others. His chapbook You’re the Only Friend I Need, a brief collection of stories about migration, queerness, and friendship, is forthcoming March 2021.