What We Can Get Away With

Artist Cielo Oreste

December 1, 2005

Back when my sadness still had some kind of poetry to it, in the latter stages of adolescence—my early twenties—before I had experienced real despondency, betrayal, or menace, when I used to fill notebook after notebook with longing, and exaggeration, I lived for a few months in a small town in the Dominican Republic. My school in Michigan had a program, and we went down, twenty-three of us, twenty of Fitzgerald’s “lost Swedes,” myself, and two black American kids, one of whom was an as of yet undeclared homosexual, and is, for that reason, for the reason of being, along with myself, the most outsiderly among us, still my friend today.

Our Dominican classmates couldn’t get enough of the blond Scandinavian farming girls from MI. Groups of young men were tripping all over themselves to get past me and Carlos (my friend who came out years later), and Catherine (the one black girl on our program). Within about a week, all the girls on our program had Dominican boyfriends, the most handsome mulattoes in town, even the girls who had boyfriends sitting back home, watching cable in the suburbs of Detroit.

Catherine and I were, of course, greatly annoyed. We felt insulted by those young men who looked more like us, those
swaggering pirate computer-programming students. They were charming, and their dating was full of ritual—formal dancing where the man led. There were boyfriends who came and courted their girlfriends on long wide porches while great aunts looked on, then went for a drive with the girl-on-the-side. It was horrible to end up a girl-on-the-side, your fate was sealed, but we were only in town for a few months and the rules were different,
especially for the white girls. Back home, none of us were dating yet. We were still getting drunk at parties and landing on each other and dancing meant you stood in the vicinity of the opposite sex and swayed.

We were breaking every rule we’d learned in our women’s studies courses, letting the men lead as we danced merengue at the discos, and we loved every minute of it. The girls from Michigan were getting all the fun out of rituals considered archaic, and whenever it was inconvenient, we, they, could slip back inside our modern-woman rules. We were leaving.

Back then, I would do anything to try to make other girls like me. I would stand at all kinds of odd angles, hold myself so as to never compete, make anyone jealous, never take up space. It’s not their fault I was so weak, I know, except that they were like each other and I was unlike and we are very aware of those dynamics. We instinctively understand our places in the rooms we enter, even if we’re so accustomed to them that we don’t mention them, that it would be like noticing unadorned walls, or the hum of an air conditioner.

I had attached myself to a white girl named Pamela. She was witty and athletic and the family she stayed with lived up the street from the old widow I stayed with. In the mornings, I picked her up and we walked to school together in the gorgeous, raging sun.

When we first started hanging out, we both had it for a literature student named Tomas, who eventually picked her. Tomas had beautiful coloring, brown-red, sheening and smooth and he was a sidekick; the quiet, reflective friend of a much more macho man. Tomas’ friends tried to make out with me in the back of trucks, in the dark corners of discos, well, they did, but then they always went on to sit on the porches of their true Dominican girlfriends or a pale, laughing Michigan princess.

I forgot one other person. An Arab girl from Detroit named Sofia. She was pale, white really, with sandy brown hair and large blue eyes. She was a short, thick girl, with a booming voice and her chest thrown unnaturally out. She had blemished skin and was rather boyish. I don’t think she’d ever had the attention of young men before, she hadn’t cultivated that kind of thing, and she had, I swear to god, about seventeen boyfriends in the time we were down there. She lived across the street from Pamela’s family, and it was not unusual for her to come back from a movie in one car, and hit the disco later that night on foot with a less moneyed suitor. She fucked all of them but the nicest ones, who wanted to marry her. Our citizenship was very valuable. Townspeople with family in Nueva York got checks in the mail, lived better. Sofia had one of those false, super-controlled hipster manners that doesn’t have a real person inside. I am mean to her because she had even less self-respect than me. This doesn’t mean she deserves it. It just means we all instinctively understand what we can get away with.

A stocky, bearded American professor had told us on the first day of orientation that racism didn’t exist in the Dominican. He had lived much of his life there, with his gorgeous, full-lipped, red-head, beige-skinned mulatta wife and his four tumbling children who were darker than their mother. We all, the three of us that thought about such things, quickly knew that his statement was an outrageous lie and wondered how he had succeeded in being delusional for so long.

We’d thought we were getting away from being the “minority” by going to a country of brown people.
But Carlos, who was still acting as if he wanted girls, said, “You could paint a piece of shit white in this
town and they’d telegraph marriage proposals.” We watched our Michigan peers become coveted, bright and shiny objects.

One day, I was standing out in front of the cafeteria with Pamela. We were making fun of the old lady I lived with, who said “ten cuidado,” be careful, and wagged her morose, knotty finger at me all day. “Say it again, bitch,” Pamela said. She’d made herself into the dwarf who manned the controls in the old lady’s brain. It was a young, laughing moment.

Somebody called from behind us, “What’s your problem, white girl?” It was a thick, New York accent, which to me was the language of glamour. I fell back into the space of observer, and turned to see who was calling to Pamela. “What?” she said. Behind us was a big-eyed, olive-complected young man dressed in jeans back before urban youth wore them four sizes too large. He, immediately, from a distance of over twenty yards, emanated macho. He stood, jaw first, with fidgits that came from movies and videos.

“What?” Pamela said, with indignation. She was from New Jersey, the only one on our program not from Michigan, and she was not totally unfamiliar with his type. He gestured toward me, he said, “... what’s your problem, white girl?”

I flushed with embarrassment. It was silly to say such a thing. It wasn’t true. I also knew, in that instant, the complex reasons why he felt he could, why he would, say such a thing. He was just a bit darker than me, olive, while I am yellow, and he was more Caucasian in feature than me, with a small but high-bridged nose and not-so-full lips. His eyes were almond like mine. In DR, in that place, he would have been considered white by some, not by many, but he was lighter than other people and he wanted to be white and he wanted me to be white too because we were very much alike. He was creating his own system of divisions. I understood it all instantly, even with my young mind, even with all my lying to myself and refusing to see, and I felt a familiar embarrassment, but I also knew he was like me and was drawn to him right away. No, not drawn to him, tied to him. There was already something deeply understood. We already knew each other.

He came and spoke to me and gave me the up and down, rolled his large brown almond eyes over me, ankle to skull.

“Where you from?” he said to me, stepping forward, with his hands in loose fists.

“Michigan,” I said. I could feel Pamela responding, scoffing, really. She did not approve.

“Michigan!” he said incredulously. It didn’t make any sense.

“Where you from?” I asked. I was talking tough in a way I could have only gotten from TV Cop shows.

“Brooklyn, Jack,” he said. It thrilled me.

“Michigan,” he said, shaking his head at me, running his eyes over me, and walked off.

Pamela hummed the Rocky theme song. She laughed at him. For a moment, I had the guts to resent her.

In the next couple of weeks, I did not see him. I walked over to Pamela’s house after dinner, went to the disco at night where I sat next to more popular girls and waited to dance. I made out with a guy whose named translated to Sailor Wood, of course, Pamela and I called him Sailor Wood.

The afternoons, at school, I hung out with Carlos, who was becoming a deeper, more important kind of friend.

Anyway, Carlos, who was a masculine young man, and whose sexual preference was easy to hide, was able to roam about the city with much more freedom than I. People were befriending him, acting like hosts, taking him to visit hookers and finding the best whiskey and Dominican stews and escargot and hash in town, introducing him to their families, and talking shit. He told me the legends of his adventures. He’d discovered two subcultures which were particularly intriguing to me. He’d met up with a group of American basketball players, NCAA players who weren’t good enough to make the NBA, who were big heroes there in town. Their Spanish was horrible and Carlos’ was fluent, his mother was Panamanian, and they had started carting him around as a guide. He was living somebody else’s dream come true with hotel rooms full of stacked r-trilling negras y mulattas, and he secretly didn’t want any of them. The best of these players was from Detroit, from the innercity, while Carlos was from a more bourgeois black area. I think Carlos loved being down with Paul, who, one rainy night confronted him by saying, “... I told you to be your ass here at eight o’clock.” He hit each syllable hard and we called him “Beyourass,” for a while. Young people make their lives of derision and mockery. We were very aware and critical of
hierarchies, incensed by the racism around us, people’s denial of it, and yet we made fun of Paul’s working class ways. Funny thing was I didn’t come from a place so different.

The other group of people were “los Joes,” which was what people called the Dominicans from New York, because they were always yelling across the street “yo,yo,yo,yo,yo.” We weren’t saying ‘yo’ in Michigan yet ... we would eventually pick it up from MTV, of course, but it was new to us and Carlos and I liked to say that one Yo was never enough. The macho young man who had approached me in front of the cafeteria one day, was obviously a Joe.

I ran into him again. His name was Edwin Ahmed, as his family on his father’s side was Arab. I was his girl on the side. He and his cousin Wilson would pick me up from Doña Carolina’s house, and Wilson would drive while Eddie and I made out in the back seat. Wilson, I was thrilled to be able to tell Carlos, packed. He always wore a leather jacket, no matter the weather, and whenever he got pissed off driving, he liked to put his hand on his pocket where the gun was and say “... you motherfucker.” He was heavy, deep brown, with an accent more Dominican than Brooklyn, though he’d obviously lived there too.

Eddie had a sweet, boyish side and he liked to tease me. “Brooklyn in the house. Bronx in the house,” he would sing along with the tapes they played in the car. The Joes rejected, even scorned, everything but house music. “Michigan in the house,” he said. His voice had a gentle, reverberating timbre.

Eddie was studying computer science. He was also a budding loan shark.

The Dominicans from the island complained that the Dominicans from New York had brought crime down to the island. This was, to some small extent, true. There were Dominicans in New York working underground, and though it was only true only a small percentage of the time, that the young men were involved in the drug trade, it was true enough to be a verifiable social phenomenon. It was also true enough that those uninvolved were invariably touched by those involved. The Nueva York families were often the wealthiest families in town, a few had questionable sources of income (which led to the assumption, of course, that most had questionable sources of income), and Eddie’s family was certainly one that frightened people. Eddie had a distant, bracing look because he had to go confront people looking for money. He wasn’t doing well in school, he told me with a great deal of regret. He was busy with business and he was on the road to becoming a full-time criminal.

He was actually quite an honest person. Perhaps that’s what the girl on the side is for, the real stories, the one who really knows the deal. He didn’t pretend to be an upstanding citizen with me, and in spite of his sense of humor, and in spite of being rather wealthy and popular and glamorous, being a lot of things a young man wants to be, he had a sorrow even deeper than my own. His sorrow was still poetic too ... he wasn’t a wounded person like some of us are, like I have since become, but it was deep.

One night, Wilson got pissed and said he was not going to drive us around unless I got him a girl. I was horrified, for two reasons: he was extremely overweight, nearly obese, and unfashionable, even those of us from rural Michigan had learned somewhere that Jheri curls were a mark of provinciality, but even more so, because they talked like hoodlums and looked like hoodlums and I didn’t need everyone around me to know I’d gotten involved in that ... mostly because I feared their judgment. Carlos, who was running around (completely platonically) with Paul the womanizing coke-head basketball player, would be the only one to understand. There is the part of us who has seen ourselves in the movies, and finds it glamorous.

Wilson insisted. And so the first house we drove up to was Pamela’s. The nice-guy brother of the family she was staying with answered the door. He was a studious sixteen-year-old, emaciated in the way of heady boys, with blondish kinky hair and a jovial, innocent spirit.

“Hola, está Pamela?” I asked. I didn’t want to make conversation with him and looked away.

“Yes, come in, come in.” No, I said. I have friends with me. He looked at the car. He took a good, long, look at the car. “I’ll get her,” he said.

She stood there with her short blond, soccer-girl hair cut, squinting out with disbelief in Wilson’s direction.

“You have got to be kidding,” she said.

“You don’t have to makeout with him. Just come for a ride.”

“Tell him I have a boyfriend.”

“That’s not gonna be enough of an excuse.”

“Tell him I find him unattractive.”

“Please Pamela.”

“No way.”

Then we went to the house of Mandy and then the house of Monica. “Him?!” Monica sneered. No way, they said. That is literally what they said: no way. We had to stop by Carlos’s house for me to get the class list so we could see where all the girls lived. One by one, we informed the entire program that I was the mistress of the school loan shark. Finally, sulking and humiliated, Wilson ended the evening at eleven and dropped me off at the old lady’s house.

After that, I didn’t want to be around anyone on the program but Carlos. I was afraid of their judgment. Carlos was staying with the divorced mother of two children, who had asked him to marry her and he was so fond of her, he was actually considering doing it. One night, I came home from one of the two or three evenings I actually spent in the library, and there was a message from Carlos. I called him back.

“Have you read the news, today?” he asked me and I said no. “The Berlin Wall came down,” he said.

For a moment, it seemed like any news event; events I largely ignored. Like he’d call to say something about Israel or China. I had trouble understanding why he had called me. It sunk in at the end of the long silence that followed. He was frustrated at having to say it. He felt I should know, “the Soviet Union has fallen apart.” And then he didn’t say the rest of it, but I understood: the cold war is over. The world as we know it is not as we know it anymore.

We were going back. Our semester was ending, and Carlos was not going to marry the mother of his host family, and Pamela was crying over Tomas, and Eddie and I, who had not consummated our relationship, went to a drive-in motel.

There was something very emotional about Eddie that night. It seemed larger than saying goodbye to the girl on the side after a few months. We pulled into one garage, he went to look inside and came out angry. He drove back to the little booth, insisting on a different one. He said it was dirty. I hadn’t dated young men who wanted things to be nice for me before. I felt like a lady.

You pull up into a garage and the door comes down over your car so nobody sees it. You walk into this set of cool, clean air-conditioned rooms with rattan furniture. If you call for room service, they deposit the stuff on a lazy Susan next to the door, so that the deliverer doesn’t see you either.

Eddie brought in a monkey wrench and I thought I was going to die. There was a deep tension underneath a heightened tenderness he had toward me that night, and I thought perhaps it was because he’d decided for some reason to beat the shit out of me or even kill me. He saw me looking at the large wrench. And he said, with that timbre I can recall today: well I don’t know you either.

We had the kind of sex twenty-one-year-olds have when they care about each other. It was tender and sweet, I wasn’t accustomed to that either. I was kind of lacking, as you’ll have come to know by now, in self-respect back then and I had fallen into situations, pretty much, where boys didn’t much want to see me again. We can smell each other’s weaknesses. But Eddie, he had this kind of automatic respect for me and this kindness. Before we left. He asked me how many guys I’d been with.

“Guess,” I said, having no idea within what zone to realistically place my untruth.

“Six,” he said. That’s about right, I said, knowing that it was a detail I’d save for Carlos. “That’s
too much,” he said. “You’re gonna want to get married one day.”

It surprised me that anyone thought of me as a girl who would get married one day. Eddie saw me differently than people back home had. He saw me as a girl, a bit innocent even, a girl like everyone else. He respected me more than I respected myself, even as his mistress, even in this criticism.

After I got home, Eddie called me in the middle of the night. The old lady answered and called me, and I started awake from a deep, nether-world sleep. He said that he didn’t always say what he wanted to say to people. He said that he was going to miss me.

I failed to notice, and relish, his sweetness. When we left, as we were leaving, I didn’t reflect on the trip in the way I should have. I didn’t leave with my mind on Eddie’s phone call, or with the knowledge that I’d found a life-time friend in Carlos ... who had to think more bravely than other people. It is years now later that I think back and admire. I flew out with Pamela, thinking of myself as an extension of her. I flew out being jealous that Tomas had been her boyfriend, chosen her, that I was a girl on the sidelines to whom life didn’t happen. After all of my adventures, that was how I saw it.

Eddie called me one more time the next year, caught me at my parents’ house in Michigan. I had decided to move to New York, and I was waiting tables, saving up money to do so. I had changed a bit. I had quit smoking and taken up aerobics. Eddie said he was in New York working at Bloomingdale’s in the perfume department. He must have done that so he could meet women. He said he’d thought about me. I liked it that he said that. I liked it that he liked me. We talked about mutual friends and said goodbye.

Who knows why Eddie called me, what had happened in his life that made him want to reconnect with me on that day—I imagine it had something to do with his girlfriend, who might have been someone else by then. I was an extremely unjealous person then, perhaps because I didn’t ever expect to be given things, and so sharing Eddie didn’t so much bother me. His womanizing, for some reason, it amused me, made me smile. When I moved to New York later that year, I scoured Bloomingdale’s looking for him. I went looking for him over the span of a couple of weeks. I even went to the branch in Queens that requires a couple of transfers to reach. The people working in perfume laughed at me because I came asking for him so often.

I hope he went back to the island, even though he wanted to be in New York so badly, because in New York he probably would have ended up doing time. This is where the tough guy stuff stops being the amusing posturing of a young man, and takes on real brutality, a pain without poetry.

I am writing this eleven years later. Eleven years after the end of the cold war, the triumph of capitalism. Carlos and I are still friends. Carlos has fallen
in love with a good person, and I still have trouble
with relationships ... they never last very long. You might say it’s because I choose men like Eddie, but I’m thinking now, that it’s because I haven’t chosen men like
Eddie, the ones to whom I am instantly tied. This
doesn’t mean they need to be criminals, it means they might be people my coworkers would disapprove of. This is what happens when you’re educated beyond expectation. I am not the same girl on the sidelines, now, not so much. I don’t adjust myself to the other girls so much. I work hard not to see myself as the one outside watching. I have been through the pain that
is not poetic. I’ve become a person who fears a
return to that pain, that worst-thing-that-ever happened to me pain, that many children, and most adults know.
I worry that I’ll never be the same again. I used to love so freely. Even my love for Pamela, self-deprecating as it was—perhaps that was better than my current
distrust. I long for old things, things from this perspective seem not so bad. missing image file

Lara Stapleton is from East Lansing, Michigan. She also lived in Manila as a child. Her short story collection The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing was a 1999 Pen Open Book Committee Selection and an Independent Booksellers Selection. New York City is her home, and she is at work on a novel and her new love, poetry.