Mami used to tell people that I was a very delicate boy.
My parents instilled in me to do right and to avoid hurting others. I took it to heart. I always assumed that if I treated people the way I wanted to be treated, people around me would do likewise. It was the golden rule.
The golden rule. Little did I know that this moral imperative would be seriously challenged within a few short years of exposure to other kids in my barrio, especially in unsupervised settings, like on the alleys and empty lots off Medio, Guachinango, and San Gabriel Streets. I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.
Henry, Oscar, Félix, Vento, Pupi, Armando, Generoso, and Helio were at least three or four years older than me. They attended the same public school in our neighborhood. I took the bus to Irene Toland School, a private school run by the Presbiterianos in the Simpson neighborhood, on the outskirts of Matanzas. At Irene Toland most of the kids were paired in classes with the same-age kids and supervised by gentle but discipline-inclined teachers. I had some run-ins with other kids from time to time at school, but short of name-calling and a shove here and there, I rarely encountered kids who didn’t share consensus in the golden rule.
In my barrio of Matanzas Oeste, things were different. I soon learned that finding my place among a group of kids in the neighborhood came with a complex set of herd behaviors. To say that I was beyond naïve was a gross understatement. I was drawn into fights I didn’t provoke, pushed into puddles I didn’t intend to step in, blamed for stealing or breaking things I neither stole nor broke. Because I was younger, I became the by-default recipient of most nefarious happenings in the neighborhood. Whenever there was need to blame someone for something gone wrong, I became the designated perpetrator.
I was the youngest of a group of boys that wandered about the calles in my neighborhood. This was our playground.
It didn’t help that my father was a well-respected businessman in the neighborhood who had no tolerance for me being out of line, even in unprovoked situations where I might have been trying to defend myself. My father embraced a “customer is always right” and “turn the other cheek” philosophy, which I suspect served him well with his customers. He was a polite, albeit big and muscular man, who exuded and demanded respect, and who actively avoided altercations. What this meant for me was that if I ever took a swing at any of the neighborhood kids, even in self-defense, and a parent ever came to complain about me to my father, it didn’t matter who did what, or when. I was always in the wrong.
It was under such tenuous circumstances that my childhood socialization and coping mechanisms soon imploded. The boys in the neighborhood nicknamed me “Lagrimitas” (“little tears” in Spanish). And so it was, that whenever my face became the target of a flying fist or my knee the substrate for an asphalt confrontation from an ill-intentioned shove, I had to suck it up: Don’t fight back, turn the other cheek, succumb to the misery of passivity and walk off quietly, hold back the sobs, try to hide the anger, pain, and frustration that comes from humiliation and helplessness. That was it. But holding back tears was contrary to the physiology of the moment.
It also didn’t help that I was not a meat eater. According to my mother I was “anémico and asténico” because of this. I was what some would describe as a wimpy, scrawny kid. I used to faint at the sight of blood, and was known to collapse when overheated. In contrast, the rest of the kids in the barrio were tough, street-hardened kids. Félix was the most macho and Pupi, at age thirteen, looked and smelled like Kid Gavilán, the legendary Cuban welterweight champion. Pupi had glistening blue-black skin and well-developed muscles on his arms and torso. He even had bulging muscles on his forehead and neck and hair in his underarms.
Despite being skinny, I was a good technical boxer and I could outrun any kid in Matanzas Oeste, except for Armando, who was fifteen and already had facial hair. Abuelo taught me to punch well, but the accuracy of my punches was consistently undermined by the lack of impact-force behind them. And so it was: if I was to coexist in the barrio, I had no choice but to have hope for the golden rule. But just in case, as I perfected the art of turning the other cheek, I learned to run fast whenever I had to.
Then there was Helio. A habitual brawler, Helio would put my golden rule to the test on several occasions. A head of curly black hair topped his greasy forehead, and tufts of unruly eyebrows rimmed a pair of beady, menacing eyes. When he spoke, a stench of rotting meat seeped out between and around a mouth busied by thick lips and several missing teeth. He was short and stocky and rolled his sleeves over his biceps.
Helio was an only child. His father was a bricklayer who drank aguardiente on a regular basis. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Helio’s father beat him regularly, sometimes for no obvious reason. I overheard Mami talk with neighbors about Helio’s mother not being a very motherly woman. I think Helio had no one in his family to teach him about the golden rule or the importance of cheek-turning. But I lacked the intellectual maturity to rationalize this at the time, so I couldn’t help but dislike him intensely.
I don’t know, but Helio was an angry person whose purpose in life, it seemed, was about stealing fruit from La Plaza market or skipping school or even beating up people like me who could not defend themselves. Most of the other neighborhood kids tolerated him but no one ever sought him out to play.
They say that every person has his day of reckoning. My uncle was greatly instrumental in allowing my day of reckoning to materialize. He knew that I was being bullied by someone in the neighborhood. Uncle Yayo sensed that I had withdrawn for several days. I came home from school and found excuses not to play outside. He asked me if something was wrong, and although I tried to avoid the topic, the lagrimitas on my face would ultimately betray me.
Uncle Yayo told me that as a child he had been bullied. He told me that his uncle Luis gave him a solution to the problem and that although he knew my father wouldn’t approve of it, he felt it was time for him to intervene on my behalf. I was mortified. I didn’t want my uncle to embarrass me in front of the neighborhood kids by trying to defend me.
The next day when I stopped to see Tio Yayo, he said he had something for me. From the glove compartment of his Chevrolet he pulled an object which was wrapped in brown paper, and tied neatly with twine. It was about four inches-by-one and triangle-shaped. When he handed it to me, it felt dense. I suspected it was a rock wrapped in paper. Indeed, it was a chunk of heavy, white marble.
“Keep this in your back pocket at all times,” he said. “The next time anyone does something really bad to you, you just quietly stand up, take a step back, slide your fingers into your back pocket and smile.”
“Smile for what?” I said.
“You smile to make him think you are not angry. At the same time, you are gripping your rock tightly in your hand and you are positioning yourself just far enough not to be reached by the bully, but not too far to miss your target,” Yayo said.
“You mean, you expect me to throw the rock at him? Is that what you mean?”
“No, not exactly. I want him to catch the rock that you will be pitching to him as fast and as hard as you can throw it. If he is not quick enough to catch it, then it becomes his problem. Then you apologize politely and walk away.” That is what Uncle Yayo said to do.
I was totally confused. I could not believe my uncle, a highly respected teacher, was telling me to do this. Urging me to deliberately hurt someone went counter to everything Mami, Papi, and Abuela ever taught me. At the same time, however, I was desperate. I felt trapped in my own anemic, asthenic, and scrawny body. I had had it with hiding from Helio when I got home from school. The taunts and shouts of “Here comes Lagrimitas, crying down the street… Are you going to hide under your mami’s blusa?” were more than I could take. Now that I was almost ten, I didn’t like the idea that girls in the neighborhood would see me crying and running away—especially Catia.
I put the rock in my back pocket and headed home. That night I hid it under my pillow so Mami wouldn’t see it. The next morning, I hid it under the mattress and when I came home from school and changed into my play clothes, I placed the rock in my right rear pocket.
As I went outside that day, I felt different somehow. I knew I wouldn’t likely do what my uncle suggested, for it was not my nature to be violent, but I felt more secure knowing, just in case that I had protection. I noticed I began to walk differently. I looked up instead of at the ground. I swung my arms with confianza y seguridad, instead of letting them dangle by my side.
Several weeks went by. There were no confrontations, no taunts from the kids. I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion. I had to get new paper to rewrap the rock every two or three days, as the sweat from my body and the friction from playing frayed the wrapping.
I began to think there was something special about my rock, that perhaps it was a talisman and that it protected me from the taunts and the bullying while still letting me apply the golden rule and avoid becoming the neighborhood pincushion.
One day, several of the kids had been talking and bragging about birds they had trapped in the fields. We called these small finch-like birds tomeguínes (grassquits). Prized for their beautiful song, many people in Matanzas trapped and kept these little birds as pets in homemade cages and aviaries.
Uncle Yayo, who built bird cages out of river reeds, helped me build my trap cage. This cage had a center compartment, in which a male bird would be placed as decoy. Tomeguínes are very territorial, and a singing male would attract other birds. On the side compartments of the trap cage there were rocking trap doors onto whose edges I glued thistle seeds. Birds attracted by the decoy’s song would land on the cage, hop towards the rocker panels in search of the seed. Upon landing on the rockers, their own body weight would push the rocker doors and they would fall through to the bottom of the trap, unharmed, but unable to flee.
Others in the neighborhood had similar traps. We would go out to the sugarcane fields early on weekends to trap the prized songbirds. By day’s end it was common to return to find ten or twenty tomeguines in our cages. We traded, sold, or kept the best birds, and let the others go.
I brought out my cage to show the kids a tomeguín I had trapped two days earlier at Juanito’s father’s farm. Uncle Yayo said he was an unusually fine bird, with the loudest and sweetest song he had ever heard. I placed the cage on the edge of the sidewalk at the base of the steps of the butcher’s shop. My little tomeguín with the olive-green body, fiery yellow breast and shiny black beak hopped to and fro in the cage. I knelt against the curb, with the cage in front of me. Henry and Oscar and Félix and Helio were sitting on the steps, with Helio nearest to the sidewalk.
As I began to tell them where I had trapped this bird, the little tomeguín started to chirp excitedly, then went into a singing flurry. The boys were amazed, as was I, at how loud, crisp, and clear this little bird’s song was. That is, all except Helio. He looked down with disdain at the cage, and as he uncurled his legs out from under him, he puckered up and spit on my cage. He then kicked the cage off the sidewalk with his right leg. I fell back onto the street, trying to catch the tipping cage.
I eased the cage onto the curb, then stood up slowly. Helio glared at me.
“Don’t you start to cry, now, Lagrimitas… You can just take your little tomeguín and shove it up your…” Helio seethed. He was shouting so close to me that I could smell his foul spittle as it sprayed my face.
I stepped back, smiled, and reached with my hand around to my back pocket, just like Tio Yayo said. In one single, smooth motion I put my left foot forward, leaned back slightly as I unsheathed the rock. All I can remember was an uncontrollable fury unfurling inside. In a blur I swung my arm forward with a strength I never before experienced. I flung the rock at Helio. His groin got in the way.
In utter disbelief, Helio looked at me and tried to lunge. His fists were curled, his rotten teeth showing, eyes glaring. But as he tried to get to his feet, his eyes rolled upwards in a most unusual way, like a doll’s eyes. He grunted, exhaled, fell to his knees, and then face-down onto the concrete sidewalk. His arms lay curled below his hips. Helio lay there, limp, like an abandoned marionette.
They all thought I had killed him. He wasn’t moving. A man across the street ran towards us, lifted Helio up, and put him in a car with the help of a woman passerby. They took him away.
The other three boys stood silent, arms at their sides, looking like they’d just seen a ghost.
I knew what I had done. I thought of my father. I thought I would go to jail. Then I thought I would go to Hell for having killed Helio and that God would never forgive me.
I ran up the street to Abuela’s house and slammed the front door shut, panting heavily. My heart raced. I felt flushed. My chest was tight and my fingers tingled. This time there were no tears. Leaning behind the closed front door, I felt an ugly calm inside. I had left my trap cage and my little bird by the curb. But I felt like the whole neighborhood knew what a terrible thing I had done. I could not go back out in the street.
I stayed at Abuela’s house until it was dark and then scrambled to the apartment behind Papi’s grocery. I didn’t eat my dinner that night. Luckily, Papi had been at a Chamber of Commerce meeting since earlier that afternoon, so he didn’t come home until after I was in bed and he didn’t know about Helio. Mami also did not know what had happened because Abuela had not told her. I buried my face in a comic book after draping my mosquito net over the posts on the bed when Mami came to kiss me good night. She must have assumed I was asleep, turned out the light, and closed the door. I lay awake in the darkness for most of the night. No tears.
The next morning, I left for school. No news of Helio. The police had not come to arrest me yet. I prayed at the Irene Toland Chapel, but I felt no remorse. All I could feel in my heart was an empty, emotionless dark space.
When I got off the bus from Irene Toland School that afternoon, my father was standing at the corner, waiting for me. Helio’s father was there, as was Helio’s mother. There were several neighbors around them, including Oscar and Henry and Felix. None of them could look me straight in the face. I scanned for the familiar drab, tan uniform of Matanzas policemen, but there were none in sight.
My father said nothing. He twisted my ear in front of all those people and dragged me inside the grocery store. He slid off his leather belt as he pulled me into my bedroom.
I felt no pain. The sound of the leather snapping midair before it struck was welcomed. I deserved punishment. I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died. Still no tears. Ugly calm inside.
I realized then, as I lay face-down on my bed, accepting my father’s anger and feeling the sting of the leather on my buttocks that Helio must not have died.
I would find out later that night from my parents that Helio went to the hospital, that the neighborhood kids who were there explained to Helio’s mother and father what had happened. My father implored Helio’s parents not to call the police. They didn’t. Papi promised them I would be punished by being confined to my room for a month and that this would never happen again.
The month went by. My father did not speak to me for the whole time. I would come home from school, change into my play clothes, and sit on my bed. I read comic books and drew cartoons to ward off the boredom. I thought many times about escaping out the window and running to Abuela’s. I thought about running away from home altogether. Twice I packed some clothing, a penknife and some candy, and fashioned a bundle with a shirt whose long sleeves I knotted together and looped as a handle. I was ready to escape, but I didn’t. I was afraid.
I didn’t know what happened to my tomeguín or my trap cage after the incident. I was not allowed to visit or talk to Abuela or Abuelo, or to my Uncle Yayo, or to play with my dog, Yuti. My mother would never talk about the incident, but somehow I wished she could know how I felt.
After the month of home imprisonment ended, I felt both relieved and scared to be free. I didn’t know what would happen. Would Helio be waiting to ambush me? Had he been plotting to kill me? What would the neighborhood kids do?
They were all playing hide-and-go-seek on the early evening of my release. I walked down the street eating shaved ice with coconut syrup from a paper cone. I sat on the curb near where Félix was counting. The other boys ran off to find places to hide. Félix looked over his shoulder towards me. “Ocho, nueve y diéz… Here I come.” He nodded. I looked down and away towards my snow cone. I bit into the sugary slush.
One by one all but Henry ran to home base without being tagged. Félix tagged Henry and they walked towards me. Félix then patted me on the shoulder, bending down slightly to meet my eyes.
“Wanna play?” he asked.