Indignant At Being Forced
by Gerry Gomez
When you make peace with authority, you become authority. -Jim Morrison
I was born with luminescent white skin, big brown eyes, and curly, bright red hair. I was a ghost on fire. To my mother I was like the Holy Ghost. I was different from the rest of the family and lavished with attention as my coloring marked me as a being with special status. When my father saw me at the maternity ward for the first time, all he could say was “that’s not my son.” He viewed me as alien, corrupted, wholly other, and how I looked was the starting point for derision, ridicule, verbal abuse, and punishment.
My father resented my special status, my immediate and deep connection with my mother. He did not like that my mother breast fed me for over two years, that I was getting some and he was not. The drooling, the spit bubbles, the sucking sounds nauseated and enraged him. He started calling me trompudo, blubber lips, a name that was used so often that I started responding to that before I would respond to my actual name. Trompudo, lloron, pendejo, cabron were also directed towards me; not the typical words researchers would recommend to enhance infant language development.
Sitting in my highchair, age two, eating mashed refried beans and corn with my hands, I flung some in the direction of my father and he yelled at me, cabron. I started to cry. He hit me on the back of my head with his fingers and I went face first into my food, fainted and vomited. My mother didn’t know what to do, how to revive me, so she put me in the kitchen sink and turned on the cold water. There was no response. She started yelling, my father panicked and they rushed me out to the car and then to the hospital emergency room where I came to as they were walking in. My father insisted that we leave, they couldn’t afford this and he decided that I fainted simply because I got angry when he yelled at me. It was my fault.
Another incident. Walking, wearing a cloth diaper wrapped by my gun holster and carrying my toy pistol, I wanted attention. My father was distracted by the news, worried about some crisis somewhere, nervous – as he liked to say, so I hit him on the wrist with the pistol. The backhand was swift and decisive, knocking me against the wall. I have some memory of leaving my body, going to a phantasmagoric realm and then I returned, screaming.
My mother rushed to comfort and protect me as she yelled at my father. Her accusations of being drunk and abusive escalated to an attack on his character as a husband and father, that he was mentally ill, that she would leave him. Pure rage ensued. My father pushed my mother up against the wall, held her by the throat, threatened to smash her face in so that no man would ever want her. He left and spent a few days at his sister’s house. My mother called him and said that my brother and I were not eating because we missed him and wanted him to come home. He returned a hero. This cycle of violence and then rapprochement would be repeated for decades.
I started spending more time with my grandparents, my mother’s parents, who lived upstairs. A respite and a place where my fondest memories were made. My grandma would wake me in the morning, change my diaper and ask what I wanted for breakfast, hand me a bowl and send me out to the chicken coop and garden to collect eggs, tomatoes, carrots, sweet peas, strawberries, and cherries as she started frying bacon and making fresh tortillas. Sometimes I would not come back inside. She would find me sitting between rows of strawberries with the garden hose water turned on, my diaper soaking wet as I carefully selected, washed, studied, and ate one strawberry after another. She would hand me a warm tortilla wrapped around a couple of pieces of bacon and I was content.
I spent a lot of time in the garden playing, pretending, grazing, watching my grandparents work. I would watch them hoe and dig, plant, fertilize, water and harvest. There was so much fresh food that we could not possibly eat all of it, so it was canned. I would sit in the kitchen as my grandparents washed, chopped, mixed and seasoned all that the garden had given. Then various concoctions were put in clean mason jars, the gold lids and bands were screwed on tightly and the jars were boiled in water, then cooled until we heard a popping sound from each jar that indicated that the seal was good. All of the jars were put in the cellar under the house and throughout the winter we had vegetables, peppers, and jams.
Once a week my grandmother would wake me and say, in broken English, “it’s time to change the shits.” I would watch as she stripped all the beds and then put the sheets in the wringer washer, pull out a block of homemade lye soap and use an old cheese grater to add shredded soap to the wash. I loved the part when she would run the sheets through the rollers, a few times, and then we would go outside to hang them up to dry. I would hand her clothes pins and watch as the sheets flapped in the breeze.
My grandfather had a Kodak Brownie camera and loved to take pictures, black and white pictures of me. These became my happy memories:
- Sitting in the garden in my diaper, strawberry juice running down my mouth and chest.
- Me, my brother, and a cousin all wearing paper party hats sitting with a cake in front of us, my brother’s fourth birthday.
- In the front yard, in a diaper and striped tee shirt, my brother next to me on his tricycle holding his dog Snowball.
- On the front steps of my grandparents’ house, wearing a winter jacket, holding my toy pistol.
- Sitting on a tree stump, wearing long dark pants and striped tee shirt, holding my hula hoop, looking straight at the camera. I was three years old and I was smiling.
Then we moved to Denver, to Mr. Joe’s. The pictures stopped and, over time, the smiling became forced.
Five years old, on the school bus, the first day of kindergarten, the other kids stared, pointed, laughed. Was it my skin, my hair, the bow tie I insisted on wearing? Was it the first sign of childhood paranoid personality disorder? I sat alone. We arrived at school and I was the last one off the bus. I saw my teacher for the first time and I was in love (why can’t I remember her name?). I was just so happy looking at her, and I wanted and learned to please her. The year was a blur except for Valentine’s Day. I was in line, holding my special Valentine card for HER, waiting for my turn. I gave her the card, she gave me mine and then she kissed me on the cheek. I tingled. That feeling carried me through the rest of the year.
Sometime before that kiss I had made a discovery. I was in the backyard on the swings when I decided to shinny up one of the a-frame poles, gripped the top pole and just hung there. After a minute or two I noticed a strange physical sensation between my legs, a numbness and tingling, and then a stiffening. I lost all sense of time. I lost my mind. I became completely corporeal. I did not understand any of this, except that it felt good. It wasn’t until that kiss from my teacher that I realized that there might be more to that feeling, that there was a link somehow. I started spending a lot of time hanging out on the swing set, and thinking about that kiss.
We moved again, to a tenement apartment in downtown Denver, a poor Mexican enclave surrounded by a predominantly Black ghetto. I started first grade at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. Every day I wore black slacks, black dress shoes with leather heels and soles so as not to mark up the school floors, and a blue Ban-Lon polo shirt. On religious holidays and other special days designated by the school, I wore a white dress shirt, red bow tie, and blue blazer. I went to Mass every morning before school, and then again on Sundays. I learned that I was a sinner. I learned that there was something bad about the body and any sensations around it. I realized that my private time on the swing set, the feelings I had there, were bad and that I was going to go to Hell. There was fear and guilt, but that didn’t stop my aberrant behavior. I was leading a double life.
Second grade, running to and from school every day, zigzagging across streets, between cars, against traffic, trying different routes, trying anything so as not to get caught by the teenage punks that were chasing us. My brother and I had become targets. It was our school uniforms and the new briefcase I carried, at my mother’s insistence. It was big and made running difficult.
Early October, we were being chased on our way home from school. I was running as fast as I could but I was falling behind. The distance widened between my brother and me. I looked at his dress shoes, blurred as he turned a corner and escaped. I abandoned my briefcase. I lost a shoe. My heart was pounding. My head was pounding. There was not enough air. Everything slowed. And then I was caught. I was held on the ground by five teens, kicked and punched, clothes ripped. A rag was produced, airplane glue applied and then held over my mouth and nose. Absolute terror. I struggled, held my breath, and then choked in the vapors. More punches, more kicks and then I was abandoned, no longer entertaining. I was light-headed, wheezy, sick, bleeding. I stayed on the ground for a long time. And then I went to find my shoe, my twisted briefcase and ripped books. I walked home. No one was interested in chasing me now. I was too pathetic.
My mother bought me a new uniform and dress shoes. I put the box with my new shoes under my silver glittered plastic angel nightlight. I put some of my green army men on top, for extra protection. I kneeled there and prayed. I asked God to protect my shoes, to protect me on my way to school and I also gave Him some direction as to the types of dreams I would like to have, dreams about flowers, birds, clouds, rainbows. I hoped that He would block the nightmares, of being chased, of being beaten, of missiles going off, of nuclear annihilation.
It was that October, the one in 1962 when the Cuban missile crisis dominated the news, my father’s interest, and our lives. I was exposed to too much information about Soviet targeting, that a first strike attack on the United States might include a nuclear bunker being built at Cheyenne Mountain (NORAD), only 75 miles away. On the news I saw diagrams of concentric circles radiating out from Cheyenne Mountain. I heard descriptions of the blasts that would incinerate the area and then the radiation fallout that would follow. My mother stockpiled canned vegetables and soups. We did not have a bomb shelter or a basement so this food supply, which would help us survive the nuclear winter, was kept in a box in the bathroom. Every night, as I sat in my bath, I would look at the box. I wondered if my mother had remembered the can opener.
At school the nuns had us praying almost non-stop during those thirteen days in October. We prayed and had duck and cover drills. The nuns seemed nicer than usual, so I knew they were frightened. The priests would visit us on the playground during recess and talk to us as they compulsively smoked. They encouraged us to be good, to pray more. They said that God loved us but we had to make sure we did not sin, in our hearts or deeds. They seemed frightened.
I was frightened. For thirteen days in October I stayed off the swing set.
My father was frightened, nervous. He could be especially dangerous when he was nervous. It was on a Saturday that he unleashed Hell. I was keeping a low profile, doing chores, homework, praying, pretending to be a priest. I wanted to be a priest, if world events would allow. I was conducting Mass at the end of my bed, a makeshift altar. My blanket was laid out as the altar canopy, wood matchsticks – used and found in ashtrays around the house, served as candles. My chalice was a plastic cup with juice, my communion wine. My brother tried to convince me to leave this sacred activity and go with him to collect golf balls out of Cherry Creek. I declined and my brother went out alone on his bike. He was gone all day. The later it got the more agitated and angry my father became. I became invisible. My brother returned at dusk, filthy, wet, smelly, without his bike. Before he could explain, in the front yard where all the neighbor kids and their parents could watch, my father went nuclear. He took off his belt, his favorite belt for beating his children, the one with the silver horseshoe buckle with a gold horse embedded in the silver and a matching silver tip on the end. He chased my brother around the yard, lashing at him with the belt, the silver tip cutting into his face, arms and legs. My brother collapsed, stopped screaming, stopped moving. My mother and I watched from the window. She just shook her head and cried. I was silent. I was learning not to feel.
We all survived October and continued on with the routine. The nuns returned to their old, bitchy selves; the priests no longer visited during recess; I returned to the swing set. I also began preparation for my First Holy Communion by taking extra catechism courses after school in the church basement. This involved learning, by rote, the answers to questions regarding my readiness to be in communion with Christ. This required, first and foremost, that I believe that the bread and wine that I would be consuming was literally the body and blood of Christ. I was told that this communion was a two way street, me coming to Christ and Christ coming to me. For my part, I was more than willing to meet him halfway if I got a little relief, if the fear, anxiety, nightmares and beatings stopped. I was all in. Bring on the Holy Eucharist.
But I knew in my heart that none of this was true, that it was nonsense, that what I was hoping for would not really work out. And it didn’t. Nothing changed. Life seemed meaningless. I was seven years old and I was going through an existential crisis. I was tired of the mendacity, coercion, and brutality. In my second grade school picture I looked straight into the camera. I was smirking. I was indignant at being forced.
About the Author
Gerry Gomez is a former contributor to Impact Visuals, a photojournalism cooperative committed to progressive political and social causes. His photo work has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines including The Vietnam Investment Review, Vietnam Airlines Magazine, Birdlife International and Mature Outlook Magazine. He is currently a portrait and documentary photographer living in Santa Barbara, California and taking writing courses at City College. This is his first published work of creative non-fiction.