It was May of 2000. And we were beautiful.
We were fierce.
We were Boudreaux and Rothschild, Miller and Stackowski, O’Toole and Greene. We were Dani, Alyx, Rickie, Carlita, Jaz, Sam. We were butch. We were femme. We were bois. We were a tribe. Una familia. We pitched our tents between a bombing range and an ammunitions dump. We slept on sand still hot from the sun. We fueled our righteous indignation with campfire speeches and furtive tangles in the dunes. Our voices ached to be heard. We are here! We are queer!
In clumsy high school Spanish we planned to rescue la isla nena one sign at a time: Vieques Libre! Bomba no mas! Latinas Para Paz!
They told us where we could not go.
They told us who we were supposed to be.
We did not listen.
We were solid and ready. Our ankles were strong. We were floating seaweed, pale as a neap-tide moon. We were blue-blooded crabs, armored in the shape of luck. We were thirsty. We tied our salty dreads. Our scalps burned in the blazing sun.
We named our patch of sand: Camp Peace and Justice.
We had fathers. We wanted fathers. We wanted to be fathers. We hated our fathers for cheating on our mothers. We had alcoholic fathers who stayed and Navy fathers who left and crazy fathers who had no choice and congressional fathers who made the laws. Our fathers did not speak to us anymore. We had never heard our father’s voice.
We named our patch of sand: Camp Peace and Justice.
We sent out scouts for fresh water and meaty pastellios and waited for word from our adversaries, Los Norte Americanos and their local thugs, the Grupo de Choque, who carried jointed truncheons and smoke bombs and righteous indignation that matched our own. They held their positions. And dios mio, did that one wave?
We were sure-boned and steady-kneed. We tested our mettle. Our flesh shimmered in the jostling heat.
But the Grupo de Choque pushed back, pressing their guns into our breasts, the only yielding part of us. They called us hermafrodita, fenómeno, monstruosidad.
When I turned seventeen, I told my mother I was born to love women. She cried. She yelled. She took me to a shrink: an old man with a scaly forehead and food in his teeth. Very helpful, that. He told me, categorically, that I had mother issues.
My reply: Tell me something I don’t know.
But my mother, Rosarita, Rosie, Mami, god-rest-her-soul, she loved me, even if she was, put kindly, inconsistent. At fifteen, I might stagger in, hours after curfew, reeking of alcohol while she feigned sleep on the couch and said nothing. Then the next night she would stand in the doorway, smoking a cigarette, backlit in her nightgown, waiting to ground me for a month for returning three minutes after midnight. She would stay home thirty nights in a row and then go out three times in one week, bringing home a different man each night, shooing them out in the morning in time for early Mass. A mountain of dirty clothes rose in the bathroom until I was forced to dig and find the cleanest of the dirty underwear. Dishes festered in the sink, stacks of cups and plates that filled the house with that peculiar smell—that unwashed odor that is always the same after three days, no matter what you’ve cooked or eaten. Then, without warning, she would blow through the apartment armed with a rag, a bucket of bleach water, and a mop, a Mr. Clean hurricane, descending into a screaming fit if she found so much as a sock on the floor after.
Mami could live with the dirt she made only until she glimpsed her life from the outside in. She couldn’t keep up with that woman she longed to be. It was the tragedy of her life, the female half of fraternal twins born to Maria Santiago and Bart Stackowski—pious Puerto Rican mother, gruff GI father—mysteriously pregnant when she was only seventeen, shipped off to Miami relatives for the birth and follow-up. No good island girl could come back from that shame, not in 1974.
In 1998, the Universidad de Puerto Rico accepted me to graduate school and I made the stoplight parrotfish the focus of my research. For the first time in my life, I visited my grandparents in their little cement block home with the statue of the Virgin in their carefully swept front yard and a painting of her Suffering Son bleeding above the plastic-covered couch. I wore my hair in a crew cut that year. I fit no notion of what they thought a good nieta should be, but they were boisterous and affectionate and plane fare to Miami was expensive, so I joined them for Thanksgivings and passed Puerto Rican holidays at their table. My mother never came, la paria that she was.
Camp Peace and Justice lulled us to sleep at night with the shushing of the waves against the sand and the million coqui trilling in the trees. (Eleutherodactylus coqui, the Puerto Rican tree frog, songstress of the island.) By the end of the first week, the coqui drove us crazy and we vowed to kill every last one (except Carlita, who loved every animal, even spoke to the feral goats wandering on the other side of the high chain-link fence). We slapped our arms and legs and grumbled out a new name for the place: Puerto Mosquito.
At least the vocal coqui ate their weight in bugs.
We slept in sight of the Navy’s fenced-in burial ground for depleted uranium, the skull-and-cross-boned signs the artwork of our outdoor living space. We slathered DEET on our bodies to keep the pesky bugs at bay. We hoped our children would not be born with two heads.
In every group, one person holds the whole together. That person was Carlita, our sexy femme.
If we wanted children. If we found a way to have them. In my earnest voice, I told Carlita she would make a good mother. She tossed her hair and laughed, her hair, roasted in the tropical sun those many weeks, had turned red-orange like the flowering tree the islanders called flamboyan. I told her this. She laughed again. We, her bois, began to call her Flamboyan.
In every group, one person holds the whole together. That person was Carlita, our sexy femme. She made us strong. She made us brave. With a glance over her sunglasses, a furtive smile, a touch on the arm, she could make you want to hold her nestled gently in the crook of your arm, drop whispering caresses against her collarbones, then open wide and devour her. When Carlita pressed her body against mine, my shoulders broadened for the embrace. A hand, rested on her softly curving hip, brought every cell in my body to a point.
Jaz and Alyx had spent the fall and winter performing as drag kings. The pay and tips were good. They encouraged me to join the troupe, knowing money was tight. Jaz’s stage name was Buster Hymen. Alyx called himself Richard Cranium. My persona, had I chosen one, would have been a Cary Grant, a gentlemanly Jimmy Stewart. Me, in coat and tails, offering my arm to an elegant woman with swishing skirts. A handkerchief-in-the-breast-pocket man. But drag was burlesque. It did not appeal to me, not even as an easy income stream.
I knew the drag kings in that troupe did not desire to become men. They mocked and imitated them. A few hours of inhabiting a mysterious other. They were not avoiding mirrors, ashamed to look at their own naked bodies. They did not stare down at their strange, pillowy flesh and think pervert.
No, they were proud dykes, disdainful of the base desires of men. To have the strength of a man was good. To want to be a man was a betrayal. Alone in bed at night, I rehearsed my confession. In the dream response, my friends stood in a ring, tribunal-style, horrified butches tut-tutting my Coming-Out 2.0.
There were no winners in my imaginary arguments.
A beach is a terrible place for a standoff. Even the ground will not back you up. And yet, how many beaches have been launch pads for invasion? How many a spot that armies storm? In Tio’s war, men stormed the mud-clay jungles and waist-high rice paddies. He carried home a toenail fungus, nurtured to this day; twenty-five years and Tio’s fungus survived Y2K.
Carla—mi Carlita—she was the standout on the beach. The Grupo de Choque stared at her body, which was—and still is, more than ten years later—magnificent. Taut brown skin, breasts as generous and sweet as coconut jelly, just the right amount of push and give.
The forceful guards that day excited her. The giveaway? A sheen of sweat on her forehead, aggressive curls at her hairline that rose in the breeze, the wide stance of her brown legs, the heave and fall of those glorious breasts. She was waiting for the first Something Big of her life to happen.
Carlita must have been a combative child. In her sleep, she mumbles challenges and threats, confronting the stalkers of her unconscious hours, never backing down. At twenty-two, half 50s pinup beauty, half footloose hellcat (mi Madonna-Monroe), she was searching—always searching—for a worthy adversary. And those face-shielded fellows on the beach, those magnificent compañeros shimmering in black riot gear, were only too happy to oblige.
On a stultifying morning in mid-May, the beach flared with heat and tension. The ocean roiled against the coastline. Carlita was alone, on still-wet sand at the edge of the water, doing yoga stretches in her bright yellow bikini. The Grupo de Choque lifted their binoculars. They moved closer. Between poses, she paused to converse with a feral goat grazing on the other side of the fence. Buenos días señor cabrón. Do you want to pose with me?
When the goat was ten feet away, his front hooves came down with a metallic bong! In that same instant, an explosion cut the air and the goat was gone, parts flying in all directions.
He was white, a shaggy thing, good-sized, with two thick horns; a billy goat who smelled—even at that distance—sharp, like rusted iron and wet musk. As I watched, he backed up to the fence and unleashed a stream of hot, defiant, billy goat piss. Carlita let out a surprised bark of a laugh and the billy jumped away, pogoing on his front legs, popping up and down, stiff with surprise. Carla made a few hops of her own, in solidarity or imitation. For a moment, they were in perfect synchronization, the randy goat and the laughing pinup.
When the goat was ten feet away, his front hooves came down with a metallic bong! In that same instant, an explosion cut the air and the goat was gone, parts flying in all directions. Carlita was knocked back from the blast and fell into the sand, her hands covering her face. The goat’s head and haunches flew over the fence and landed in the sand between us, hitting with a soft thud. The heavy horns pulled downward so the head of the poor beast stuck solidly into the sand. The chest was a bloody maw of shredded meat and pink hair. My first thought was that the crazy guards had blown up a goat to intimidate us.
Carlita looked at her hands. She screamed when she saw blood pooling in her palms.
We had camped for weeks before the billy goat exploded and the compañeros decided to arrest and cart us off. What had we done that day? The answer was never clear, but an explosion had happened, a goat was dead, a woman was injured, and the rest of us were guilty of witnessing it all.
We spent two difficult nights in jail, Carlita a bright spot in her yellow bikini all the while. We were harassed, but in very different ways. They “fixed” her split eyebrow with a butterfly clip and denied her clothes, but she remained dignified even as the guards took their breaks beyond the bars to better ogle her. She kept her smile and her lovely laugh and she made them look like fools.
These days, Carlita sports a small crescent moon of pale skin that cuts through her left eyebrow. She wears it as a decoration, a badge. A year after the Vieques encampment, she had the head of a billy goat tattooed on her right shoulder. She is an Aries. It works, reminding her of fight and loss.
For me, I will always remember the night before the raid, when we left Camp Peace and Justice and poured out through the gates beneath a full moon. We walked to Bioluminescent Bay and entered the water amid millions of microscopic dinoflagellates whose bodies lit up in response to every swimmer’s stroke. The whole bay was alight with shooting-water-stars. We were happy. We were milky-way safe. We were in love.
I took Carlita’s hand beneath the water, our joined fingers aglow with life. I was only twenty-five but I knew enough to know that such moments were fleeting. That this was the woman I wanted to spend my fleeting moments loving.
She stretched her arms above her head and leaned back lazily to float, breasts rising above the waterline, face toward the stars. I put my hands beneath her; her weightless body hovered just above my palms. The warmth of her skin traveled through the saltwater and into my forearms, my wrists. “I’ve got you,” I said in a whisper.
Her flamboyan hair spread across the water, catching tiny creatures that sparkled through the length of it. She sighed and I felt her weight drop into my arms as her lungs emptied of air.
I repositioned my hands and pulled her gently back onto my arms, an underbody hug. “I’ve got you,” I said again.
She turned her face to mine, one ear dipping below the surface. She smiled a melancholy smile. “Mi Dani, my darling, are you sure?”
Mary Akers is the author of the short story collections Women Up On Blocks and Bones of an Inland Sea. She is an ocean advocate whose creative work frequently focuses on the intersections between art and science. She edits the online journal r.kv.r.y.