Parents don’t have the book on raising kids. Pick your cliché. Blind leading blind, flying by the seat of your pants. Hair on fire. I know dad and mom had their hands full, being young 20-somethings and bursting out of the gate with six boys and barely a means to raise them, and barely a breath in between. Taking risks was a big part of it. They didn’t mean to, but they made being a kid that much tougher. So, growing up was a little like closing my eyes and just going for it. By the time we got to be teenagers, we got to be real experts in trial and error.
She thought it wasn’t me. Though I insisted it was something I really wanted to do. My brother talked to me about the idea of getting his ear pierced. For a minute, it sounded somewhat appealing. My cousin Martha and I sat in Spanish class and argued for a time while Mrs. Thompson did her best to ignore our whispers. The blonde maestra handed back our homework with a note at the top of my worksheet warning me about cheating off my cousin. Who copied who? was her question. In truth, neither of us copied. We worked out the translations together, last minute, on Sunday, when no kid should be asked to do homework. C’mon. I’ve got important things to do like visit my grandparents, eat good authentic homemade tortillas made by the caring hands of my abuela, and play football to imitate my Denver Broncos backfield idols.
I loved carrying the ball and plowing over my cousins who fell away as they tried to tackle me, ignoring my dad who told me not to get grass stains on my best school pants. The long green smears represented a couple of versions of either being courageous or stupid. I risked wearing the dirty pants to school because dad wasn’t doing laundry – not on Sunday. Plus, if he saw I defied him, there’s no use running. I had to take my lumps like a man or the boy pretending to be running back Rob Lytle or Otis Armstrong, and did they ever get spanked by their parents, especially when they said, “And don’t think you’re too old to get a whippin’.” It was a hollow threat with my dad anyway, but there was always that ounce of what if…
In the old days, my parents told tall tales of having to go find their own switch, how they pulled off the largest and lowest branch from the oldest tree in the yard, one grown for such a purpose.
When our football game ended and sweat was running down my brow, my studious cousin asked me if I had finished the translations. I shook my head, my shyness preventing me from expressing my exact thoughts, ‘not even close.’ She disappeared to her room and brought out the Spanish text book, showing me how far she had got. We sat at the dining room table, sweat plunking to the surface of the worksheets, while my brothers and male cousins gathered around the TV in the next room. In 1980, the Broncos were struggling three years after winning their first Super Bowl. The Orange Crush failed to make a statement and the team barely made .500 going 8-8 that year. I couldn’t stand to see them lose.
My cousin Martha and I also didn’t care about learning Spanish, only slightly ironic because we descended from a proud Mexican family by the name of Marquez. I was ridiculed through my adult life for not knowing the native tongue of my ancestors. Each time, I insisted, I’m American, born and raised – the beginning of a racial attitude. I wasn’t white, but I was somewhere in between.
My interest in schoolwork faded. I got drunk for the first time at age 14 on four cans of Budweiser the year before at a classmate’s party. The bitter taste left a good feeling. Another school week passed and my attention span grew shorter by the minute, being one of those high school underclassmen who stood at a crossroads – get my head straight about school, about life, which made no attempts at explaining a meaningful future… or not. My head spun about which way to go with my grades already slipping.
I could try to be cool, which required some measure of being involved in sports and clubs or having money. I ran cross country and wrestled but my heart wasn’t in it. So, I just became part of the blend − ran with the pack of Gering Bulldogs like wayward mongrels − and went where it took me. I didn’t fit in but I also didn’t stand out.
That weekend, instead of plans to visit grandma’s house, I ended up going out with a girl from across the N. Platte River. She went to that other school in Scottsbluff. We made out at a party and she took me into her bedroom to get friendlier. I was easily roused by her perfume and soft touch. She got scared, then scolded me about getting pushy. I stood up, called her tease and slammed the door in a huff.
Outside in the living room, my brother’s older, more mature girlfriend was pushing a needle through his ear. I cringed, he winced. Then he downed another beer to kill the pain. She took an earring from her own thick lobe – she had several, plus a tattoo of a heart with an arrow through it on her oversized ass. She lowered her pants to show us, then laughed because of our dumb expressions – eyes wide and mouths agape. Mother Nature was doing enough of a job on me, causing me to seriously ponder altering my body with holes and ink just to be cool. I didn’t need to make my situation worse.
After my brother rose from his chair, a shiny diamond earring now part of his veneer, his girlfriend turned to me and asked if I wanted one, too. The crowd, sitting on the surrounding couches and chairs, all yelled in glee at the idea.
My brother raised his eyebrows and shrugged, “up to you, man. Stings like a bitch though.”
The girl who had led me to the bedroom reemerged, reapplying her lipstick. Making it known to our observers that she had every desire of staking her claim, she removed a diamond stud from her own ear and placed it in my palm.
“Here, use this,” she said, turning to my brother’s girlfriend, instructing her to do a good job.
The older girl giggled, then told me to sit down. The legs of the wooden kitchen chair wobbled or maybe it was the beer in my belly making the room tremble. Someone brought her a tray of ice and a bowl. She took an ice cube from the bowl and rubbed my earlobe with it. Ordering me to open my mouth, she poured a shot glass of hard liquor.
“Takes the edge off,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s it,” one of the guys yelled out, slurring his words. “It goes in the left ear. Or, maybe he likes guys. Then it goes in the right ear.”
The young girl standing next to me, the tease, grabbed an ice cube out of the bowl and threw it at him. It hit him dead center in the forehead. Barely able to move, he reached for the ice cube which slid down to his red plaid farmer’s shirt. Failing to grasp it, he raised his hand and pretended to throw it back.
“Why’d you do that?” he asked, raising his heavy lids enough to reveal his bloodshot eyes, high as a kite. “It’s true, bitch. That’s how you can tell if someone’s homo.”
She dug into the bowl for another ice cube and sent it sailing. Bull’s eye.
“Stop it,” he whined.
By this time, my ear lobe was sufficiently numb and my brother’s girl kept urging me to sip more beer. Before she held up the needle from a sewing kit sitting on the kitchen table, she took a sharp cutting knife. She held it up to my eyes, and in a sultry voice, said, “you ready?” The girl who had teased me raised her stenciled eyebrows, put her hand on my tense shoulder, squeezing, and said, “she’s kidding.” The older girl giggled until a coughing fit finished her off.
When she recovered and after she proclaimed, “that (my bemused look) was funny,” she used the long knife to cut a potato in half. The older girl handed it to the Tease, and said, “you’re going to help me.” She then brought out a lighter. Holding it up to her round face and hazel eyes, the long flame licked at the needle. Giggling because my brother was making faces at her, it shook her large afro. He stood in eyeshot of her leaning against the dining room wall covered with peeling drab wallpaper in the pattern of a cornucopia. I remember this only because the older girl told me to turn my head and face toward it. The Tease straddled my legs holding the potato in place, while the older girl moved next to her with the needle.
She pushed it through, making a popping noise, then exclaimed, “Oh shit, it’s really bleeding.” Extracting the needle, the blood clotted. “Give me the earring. I need to get it in there before it closes.”
My ear felt like it was on fire despite the numbing effect of the ice. Then as if to reward me for being brave and bearing the assault on my ear, Tease gave me a long, warm kiss.
“You look badass,” she said, long false eyelashes fluttering over big brown eyes. The halter-top she wore barely covered her slim build and her jutting breasts, which she made sure I noticed. She ground her hips onto my lap, and I could feel her warmth.
“Just remember I’m not easy,” she said. “Behave yourself.”
The next morning, I awoke to a pounding headache. There was blood on the couch pillow sticking to my ear. Tease’s head was on my chest and her sour breath was shooting up my nose. The band-aid covering my wound was on the floor. The phone rang. It was my dad calling around to see if my brother and I were going to church. Picking up the phone, my brother barely got the word “hello” out of his mouth.
I could hear dad’s growling voice through the receiver, “You two get your butts home now!”
It sounded worse than it was. His bark was much louder. That Sunday afternoon we sat on the couch while he gave us a five-minute lecture about how hard it was to take care of six boys on his own and we were welcome to go live with my mom in California if we didn’t like living with him.
“What do you think I should do with you?” he said, nearly weeping.
We apologized, more for how he felt than for what we did, which was defy curfew and make him worry. He never stayed mad at us, especially me, calling us his ‘mijos’ and hugging us with tears in his eyes. And despite what we said and promised, it happened again and again. Familiar with the potential dangers of night and of whatever lurked in the shadows of the twin cities, what we called a backward podunk farm town, he took a hands-off approach, allowing us to stumble. Having been a heavy drinker himself, a recovering alcoholic, he already knew about the trouble ahead.
In Spanish class the next day, my cousin asked if I had finished my homework. I shook my head. Almost immediately spotting my infected ear, she asked, “Why did you do that? It isn’t you. That’s dumb.”
After Mrs. Thompson’s verb conjugation drills and a short talk on increasing our vocabulary, she took up our homework, my worksheet only half finished. She eyed it, saying, “at least you’re trying and doing your own work. Keeping trying.”
She winked at me, making her way up the aisle between desks.
I smiled, basking in the goose bumps of having received attention. My guard down, I felt a sharp tug at my ear. Before I could pull away, my cousin pulled at the earring, causing the flesh to tear. Instead of a perfect hole to hold the small post steady, it wobbled.
“You might as well take it out,” she said. “You need to let it heal.”
She grabbed at my ear again and told me to hold still while she removed the backing and the diamond capped post. I held it in my hand and in my own mind confessed defeat, relieved. She took a Kleenex from her small purse and began dabbing at it, studying the wound.
“Looks OK. It stopped bleeding.” Martha looked puzzled. “Why did you do that anyway? It wasn’t you.”