Your son’s father is on Fresno PD’s MAGEC’s list of gang affiliated, even though you only can see the dog paw inked on his shoulder haphazardly. When he gets pulled over by the police as he’s driving you to dinner, you can hear the son you share holding his breath in the back seat, tiny air filling his cheeks, his hair cropped in shiny black curls like he’s an angel baby. You wonder why they call a gang task force MAGEC. If they could ever make boys like your son turn into smoke.
You met your son’s father at a roller skating rink in Clovis. When you get dropped off there with your friends, there are brown boys hanging on outside the wall of the place, like they’re Christmas decorations. They light up like that, because they look like they’re in love with you. They look at you like you’re mysterious, because all they know about you is the three dollar bills you paid to get in and the blue hand stamp on the web of your hand. Your hair’s dyed drugstore burgundy black and is cut to your chin like you think you’re Cleopatra or at least Mia Wallace, minus the bangs and white shirt and cigarette pants. Instead, you’re wearing a black and white cropped t-shirt from the RAVE store at Manchester Mall that says “Angel” on it and black denim shorts with a metal belt buckle hanging on your hip like a smile.
You’re with your friend from school, a white girl named Lisa, who talks with a fake Spanish accent and has a spiral perm and is wearing the black cherry lipstick shade from Wet N Wild. She knows she skates better than you. In fact, you realize that you don’t know how to roller-skate very well at all, and you try to casually hold on to the wall, like no one will notice. Lisa finds boys to talk to, boys that will make her green eyes sparkle. You’re beginning to realize that she’s using you somehow, but you don’t have the word for appropriation yet. You just know she’s not brown or black like all the other kids in the skating rink, but she still wants to get in on the music. There’s a disco ball that dots the ceiling sky with colors, and Lisa sways her hips back and forth as she skates with the swirl of kids on the rink. You watch her from a picnic table by the snack bar. Your feet are heavy and your legs feel like twigs. You want to rip the angel wings from your t-shirt and fly back home to northwest Fresno.
A group of brown boys comes and sits with you on the table. There are three skinny boys and one boy you would best describe as husky, a boy who seems like the unofficial leader of the crew. He introduces himself as Tino. He has beetle black hair cut short on top and large slanted eyes that dip into half-moons when he smiles. He has a raspy high-pitched voice when he talks and he curses a lot. He still talks like this now. You don’t know that this will be your son’s father someday. You think these boys are the cholo brown boy version of the crew from The Goonies. But they don’t like when people call them cholos, because they say that’s an LA thing. You’re supposed to call them Gs, they say. They all have buckles on their pants with letters. You assume these letters are for the names of their girlfriends. They go to Cooper Middle School, which isn’t too far from where you live, but feels far because it’s south of Shaw, and you’ve only seen that school occasionally when you’re driving past in the back seat of your mother’s car. The boys make you nervous, but the Tino boy talks so much, it’s hard not to talk back. His chatter is mixed up with the strawberry taste of the licorice rope that you’re chewing from and the cola that burns like a hole in your throat. When you tell him what school you go to, he asks you what a Chicana like you is doing go to a school like that, and you don’t know what he really means until years later, but all you can do is say, I live out there.
These brown boys from Cooper school go out and skate on the rink. You think their baggy pants look like parachutes, like they just fell out of the sky. You think about the cursive “Angel” on your shirt and you wish you could fly like that too. Some of the girls are smiling and laughing on the rink, but some of them look stoic like they’re going to take those fuzzy filter pictures at the Fulton Mall, with starburst and Smile Now, Cry Later faces in the background. Lisa comes by to check on you. You realize that you don’t want to take fuzzy filter pictures at the Fulton Mall with Lisa, because when it comes down to it, she’s not down for you. You’re just her brown decoration, too.
Tino comes up to you and asks you for your phone number. He has to skate around the roller skating rink to find a pen to write with. He borrows one from a black girl he goes to school with. She’s holding hands and skating with a boy because the lights have dimmed and the couple’s dance has begun. They’re playing Zapp and Roger’s “I Want to Be Your Man.” The pen is skinny and dotted with glitter and has a pink poof at the end of it. You write your number on a piece of paper that you fold up in a square and give to Tino, even though you don’t want him to be your man. The girl skates by and claims her pen back like it’s a fairy wand and you think she looks beautiful flying away like that. This boy is just a stranger to you and there’s only the synthetic drumbeat and the leftover disco ball to see your way through to the exit sign and the parking lot to wait for your ride. He doesn’t call you after that and you don’t know that he’ll be your son’s father someday.
You imagine Tino and his friends walk down Echo Street to get to Fresno High. A cop car pulls over and asks them where they are going. They answer very smartly, because where else would they be going? They are not supposed to be walking in such as large group, the officer tells them. They are not campus police; they are street police. There are rules against too many boys walking together. Your pants are too khaki, the officer is saying. Your mother’s womb made you brown, the officer is saying. She made your eyes a little too slanted, the officer is saying. They made you boys too free, he is saying.
You chance upon Tino again. His last name is Juarez. He says he’s related to Benito Juarez. He says this proudly. You try to imagine him at a party with politcos drinking tequila. He’s best friends with your cousin and they go to Fresno High together. You and your cousin walk over to Tino’s pad, where he lives with his dad. His parents are divorced like yours and he tells you his dad sells used tires for extra money. When he asks you what high school you’re going to, and you tell him you’re going to Bullard, he laughs and tells you you’re prep and that school’s for white people or maybe, you’re, you know, the Hilary Banks type. He has long slicked back hair and a razor skin fade. He uses Three Flowers pomade because his cowboy grandpa wore it and because it’s cheap and he thinks it smells good.
He puts on a red light bulb in his room because he thinks it’s fancy and blows weed in your face because he thinks you’ll like it, but you don’t and you never will. He likes your long hair and your big hoop earrings and how your bell-bottom jeans drag under your sneakers. Your cousin tries to put on his Life After Death CD, but even though he likes it, Tino wants to hear West Coast shit, something you can be authentic too. Something from where we come from, he tells you.
You fall in love with him that summer and summer turns to fall. You find out his father named him after the silent film star, Rudolph Valentino and this embarrasses him. He wears a black hooded utility jacket when he comes to see you. It has fake Sherpa lining to cut the cold and the fog, but his hair still smells like three flowers pomade. He has a friend who goes by the name Pita, who’s a butch dyke and has the same hair style he does, except it swings in a long pony tail tied up in a rubber band. She sings alto soprano and hasn’t seen the girl she’s in love with for three weeks because the girl’s mother and father forbid it. He brings her to your house and she pops in front of a large gilded mirror that hangs near the entryway. She likes that song, “My Love is The Shhh!” and she sings and pops to it in her red Mickey Mouse shirt. You sit in Tino’s lap and watch her dance because there’s nothing else you two want to do. She’s like a swirl of red, a bandanna in her back pocket, the slow kick of denim, floating like she’s in her mother’s womb. She says she competed in a popping competition at a house party once, wearing a zoot suit. You imagine that the suit is white and that the room is warm and filled with longing. You imagine a drumbeat and rose petals and honeysuckle on the floor. The crowd throws it at her because this place is filled with a bunch of boys who pop, but she always wins, again and again.
You and Tino break up and he gets another girl pregnant that summer. You see him occasionally at the bus stop on McKinley and West, or you hear about him from one of your cousin’s. He always asks for/about you, but they decide not to tell you, because you’re living your life north of Shaw and the music is a loud drum and you’re not his Pocahontas baby any more.
When you and Tino get back together, he has a new haircut, a one on top and a zero on the side. His daughter was born in 1999. She lives with her mother and wears white ruffled socks and Dora the Explorer Sneakers and talks like a gangster. She bobs her head to the car radio. The son you have with Tino cries every time you drive past Shaw, without crossing north of it. You wonder why he does this. What he thinks is on the other side.
Your son walks down Echo Street to go to Fresno High. He’s fifteen and a freshman. He refuses to catch a ride with his father and you see him walking on your way to teach at Fresno City College, where you’re an adjunct and teach English. You can tell that he has both of his ear buds in and you wonder if he’s listening to a rap song or a podcast. He’s been trying to politicize his existence, even taken to watching Fox News in the afternoons to learn the other side of things. He’s wearing a grey flannel shirt. His father tells him he can wear grey, black, brown, and green flannel shirts, but never blue and never red.
Your son’s father wants to send your son to another school, north of Shaw. In fact, it’s your own high school alma mater. You don’t want your son to go there because you know what it’s like there. You remember how the kids at your high school laughed at the brown and black kids crossing Shaw on Bus 26 to come to their school. They call them the ghetto kids or hood kids, never really going to belong kids, they’re lucky that we let them come here kids.
This morning when your son left for school, you can hear Tupac playing through his ear buds, and you remind him that he needs to keep one ear bud out when he’s walking on the street. When he gives you an attitude, you want to remind him how your body had to make room for him for nine months, how your body made room for a brown man, and you’re still learning how to do this. He walks away in his brand new sneakers that he’s polished with a toothbrush and runs his hand through the pompadour in his rockabilly haircut, the look he traded his skin fade for a few years ago. You call him later to ask him why he hasn’t come home from school yet and you can hear him with him friends laughing in the background and you know that he doesn’t want to move schools, that his altar is set up in that place. When he gets home, you feel safe, and he burns a stick of copal like he can read your mind and he plays synthetic drum beats as an offering to the gods.
You ask yourself why you stay with your son’s father despite all your differences. You ask yourself why he’s the only G to ever really love you. You ask him why he wears his red fitted cap when he’s driving, when he knows the cops will pull him over. You ask yourself why you all never learned Spanish, but you still you tell him, “No Chingasoss an offering whenever he goes to the cantina down the street from your house because bad shit just might happen if you go there, but you all keep going back anyway. Sometimes you get all dressed up in a mini skirt and put on black lipstick and you go with him. Why, you ask? Do you keep going back? There are people walking out on Olive Avenue, who look inside the cantina and are scared to go in, but you do. You keep going back, because you know that after nine o’clock they trade the jukebox for the D.J. and they clear the floors and there are colored lights everywhere. There are dancing skeletons on the wall and there are all the old gangsters. There are no more hand stamps, just the echo of your empty womb, all the things that you’re still learning. You still haven’t married your son’s father. You’re not his wife. You’re still his old lady. You tell people you live this way for political reasons. In the morning, you’ll argue with him again about what school your son should go to. But for now, the music is a loud drum, and these days, you know how to fly and to skate.
Monique Quintana is a contributing writer at Clash Media and Senior Beauty Editor at Luna Luna Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno, and her work has appeared in Huizache, Bordersenses, and The Acentos Review, among other publications. She is a member of the Central Valley Women Writers Color collective and teaches English at Fresno City College.
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.