I once punched a girl in the face for saying, "You're dirty like your lesbian moms," all because a boy she liked was interested in me. I didn't think about it; I just swung. Then I dared her to say it again. She didn't. She knew better.
I was raised in a gay relationship in the '70s and '80s, long before Heather Has Two Mommies hit the mainstream in the '90s and just a few years after the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off the list of mental disorders in 1973.
For years I was told that my family was living in sin, that my two mothers were immoral and disgusting and going to hell, that no one's born gay.
When I went to boarding school at 13, I didn't tell anybody about my family. I convinced myself that I just didn't want to deal with it. What would people say? How would they treat me? I was carrying my own shame.
* * *
I was orphaned when my mother Millie died nine years ago. My biological mother went back to being a Jehovah's Witness and now says she regrets being with Millie for 20-some-odd years. "Les di un mal ejemplo," she says. That's bullshit. Millie is the reason I'm sane.
See, Millie is the one who loved me -- tender, unconditional, I-believe-in-you love. My biological mother hasn't spoken to me in months. She's done that so many times throughout my life -- almost 39 years. That's how she punishes me. She denies me her love.
* * *
Millie always wore a black Kangol and a pair of worn jeans -- so worn the outline of her wallet was visible on her left black pocket like someone had traced the square with chalk. She carried a ring with a thousand keys on the belt loop on her right hip, and she always had beads of sweat above her lip and on the bridge of her pointy Castillian nose, no matter what season it was, summer or winter. She'd smile her chipped-front-tooth smile, such a big part of her face, and grab the brim of her hat and say, "Yo soy butch." But the way she said it was like she was dancing salsa, but just with her shoulders.
She was proud of who she was, proud of being boricua and butch. "Yo soy del monte. Yo soy Lares." At least that's what she showed me -- except when she and Mom fought. And when she was dying.
Mom and Millie were vicious to each other when they argued. They hurled hate like daggers. But when Mom took out her Uzi and called Millie "maricona," Millie shrank into herself. Her bottom lip trembled, and her eyes got watery. She pounded her chest and yelled, "¡Yo no soy maricona, coño! ¡Yo soy butch!" Her voice cracked, and she cried. "Yo soy butch." Over and over, like she was trying to convince herself. Then she wiped her face roughly with the front of her orange T-shirt, grabbed her keys and was out. "Me voy pa'l carajo."
What must have been going through her mind? What was it like for her to grow up a lesbian in the '50s and '60s in Lares, where the Pentecostal church is as deeply rooted as the wild mango trees? Is that why you left your querida isla, Millie?
* * *
When I came home from first grade and told her I was being bullied, she took me out to the backyard and taught me how to fight, how to throw an uppercut and a jab. "Pero ten cuida'o con esas manos de madera," she said about my heavy hands.
When I was obsessed with basketball, she fashioned a hoop out of a rusty tire rim, nailed it to a splintered piece of plywood and put it up in the backyard. Then she went out and bought me an official Spalding basketball.
When I wanted a bike, she went around and collected parts from her friends and neighborhood junkyards and built me my rainbow bike: one wheel yellow, the other blue, with a white seat and peeling aqua grips on the handlebars. I rode that bike like it was a king's chariot.
And when I told her excitedly, as she lay withering away from that mothafuckin' disease, cancer, "I think I wanna write a book, Millie," she propped herself up on one arm, her breath raspy, and said, "Pero negra, you've always been a writer." And that night I went home and started writing my first novel.
* * *
I visited Millie every day that she was in hospice. Calvary was just two miles from my house. I was home, collecting unemployment while nursing Vasialys, who was only months old. So every morning I'd bundle up my nena, pack up the stroller and walk over to the hospice, praying that Millie had had a good night, that she'd be vibrant and laughing, her breathing smooth, her pain eased.
Millie had been diagnosed with breast cancer six years earlier. She'd had her right breast removed and endured repeated stints of chemotherapy. But the mastectomy and chemo were not meant to save her life. The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes by the time she felt the lump in the shower, so Millie knew eventually she'd die from the disease. She carried her mortality like a heavy load that shrank her will and faith, and even her pride.
She said the breast that remained looked like a deflated whoopee cushion. She slapped it so it bounced and her double-rolled belly jiggled. "Si yo fuera una mujer femenina, esto me molestaría," she said of the keloid scar, which bubbled and sagged to one side.
I once caught her staring at her nude reflection in the mirror. She traced the wound with her finger and bit her lip. When she saw me watching, she laughed. "Yo sí estoy gorda, negra."
When I cleaned the gash, she searched my face, looking for a reaction. Disgust, I think. I never showed it. This was the woman who'd cleaned me when I'd shat my pants that time I'd had a bad case of the runs when I was 8. She'd carried me on her shoulders when I was just 3 and Mom had made us walk the two miles to Knickerbocker Park. She'd taught me how to take on life. "¡Con puños, Vanessa! ¡Con puños!" I was only doing for her what she'd done for me since I was 2. I was loving her.
* * *
One day, when I walked into the hospice, she was whimpering into her pillow. I ran to her. "What's wrong? ¿Te duele algo?" I reached for the nurse button, but she grabbed my arm with the hand that was forever swollen after the mastectomy, like a blown-up latex glove.
"No, I'm OK." She wiped the tear that clung to the tip of her nose. "Hi, negra." She kissed and hugged me. She was trembling. "Pásame la nena." I put Vasia in her arms, sat on the chair next to the bed and watched.
I knew better than to ask any questions. Millie didn't talk much when she was emotional. She did so in her own time. I get my I-need-to-process-this tendencies from her.
After she'd drunk the coffee (con leche y dos azucar) and eaten the old-fashioned doughnut I brought her every morning, after holding Vasialys and cooing at her, after explaining to Vasia what was happening on whatever show she was watching, and in between her stories about life and love and how blessed Vasia was to be my daughter, "porque yo la crié," she looked at me. "Tengo miedo, negra," she said.
"Why? What are you afraid of?"
"Ay, na'. It's nothing."
I grabbed the remote and turned off the TV. Only I could do that. Anybody else would have gotten an ice stare and something thrown at them, usually the closest thing to her. I raised my eyebrow and waited.
She looked down at Vasia, who was sleeping on the bed next to her. She adjusted her onesie and rubbed her back. Her hand was trembling. Then she said, "What if it's true? That I'm going to hell?"
"What do you mean?"
"Vanessa, la Biblia dice--."
I cut her off like I always did when she brought up the Bible. These kinds of conversations never ended well between us. I'd listen for a while, rolling my eyes. Then I'd get frustrated and go on a rant about how the Bible didn't come to Earth via fax, that it was biased, machista, and contradicted itself. She'd call me "atheist," and we'd stop talking about it. But this conversation felt different, so I held my tongue, or at least tried to. "Millie, you're not going to hell."
"What d'you know?" She stared out the window, one hand still stroking Vasia's head.
I leaned in and ran my fingers through Millie's hair. It had regrown after her last chemo session, but now it was gray and wiry, not thick and jet-black like it used to be. She started to cry softly. I held her head on my chest until she calmed down.
"How can God send you to hell? You showed me love, Millie."
She brushed the hair out of my face. "Tú eres mi negra. You know that?"
I bit back the tears. She needed me to be strong. This was no time to get lost in my grief. "You're really scared, aren't you?"
"Sí, negra. I lived in sin."
"¿Quién dice? Who is this God you're talking about? The God I know loves you."
"Sí, pero la Biblia dice que yo viví en pecado, Vanessa, y Papá Dio' doesn't forgive those things."
"What sin, Millie?" I was getting mad. I felt helpless. I knew that I couldn't do anything to save her from what she'd learned as a kid in Lares from her three brothers, who were all pastors, especially the one who was extra-self-righteous because he'd found God after being an alcoholic for 20 years. If he could give himself to God, anyone could, he thought. And then there was Millie's mother, who'd died begging her, "Deja esa vida, hija. Te quiero ver en el cielo un día."
My helplessness got the best of me. We didn't talk about it again. A few times I found her whimpering in the bathroom and sobbing into her pillow. Sometimes, before an exam or after a really bad night, she'd confess to being scared. I'd hold her until the shaking passed. It was all I could do.
* * *
I went to see Millie every day for nearly two months. I walked there con la nena during the dead of winter, even if it was snowing or raining. Eventually Vasia got really sick with fever, cough and congestion, so I couldn't see Millie for a week, though we talked every day. One day I felt something was off. When I called, no one answered. Finally, on my fifth or sixth try, the nurse answered. "She's sleeping," she told me. "She's been sleeping all day."
A mí se me metió algo. I had to see her. So when my daughter's father got home, I insisted he take me. I screamed and yelled and wouldn't let him change his clothes. I stood over him, yelling while he ate the dinner I'd prepared, turkey chili with white rice and salad. I flipped out until he finally agreed, though he argued the entire ride there. He screeched off when I got out of the car.
Millie opened her eyes when I walked in. For the first time all day, Mom said. She was propped up on the pillow, resting her head on her arm. She had an oxygen mask on. The cancer had invaded her lungs by then. She pushed the mask down and patted the pillow. "Pónmela aquí." I placed the baby next to her. Tears dripped down onto the pillow. "Cuídamela." She played with Vasia's fingers and smiled while Vasia kicked and stared. Millie looked at me. "I love you, negra." It was the last thing she said.
A version of this essay, titled "Millie's Girl," appears in the VONA/Voices anthology Dismantle.