Tlaquaches

 

i.

I don’t recall the first time I saw a tlaquache, an opossum, though I do remember the first memory I carry of one. Tucked inside me, an assemblage of ideas behind my heart, maybe, or just under it, left in that dry dirt, in the weeds of things I do not like to think about but, even with effort, cannot forget. An alley, maybe a monte, an abandoned lot, a room, maybe a shed or a pouch, a field of dark mud, some realm inside us that shoulders our shadows—I think each of us carries such a place.

In the summer, after wanting very badly to, I read the opening to Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy, and I remembered, then, horribly, while laying in my bed, while cuddling my small hairless dog who died at the end of that summer, I remembered my mother’s boyfriend, and I remembered that small opossum on the fence one night when I was very young, and I remembered the baseball bat, a man’s bulging brown arm, the look of bonecrush and gutcry, the grown man’s full-muscled swings.

In the opening of Louis’s novel, we are told about the boy’s father and we are told about their poverty and their hardships and his queerness growing up in a small French town, and I remember all of this, having identified very much with its shadows, even if my own life came about half a world away. We are told that the boy himself is soft in the ways that boys like us can be soft, and also, we are told the boy’s father is cruel, an attribute, a behavior, a routine proven so early in the novel by the father’s resolution to his problem of the stray cat that stayed near the house having kittens. So early in that story, Louis tells us the father places the stray’s kittens in a plastic bag and slams the bag, the bag with small kittens inside it, against the brick wall. Again, again, he does this. Again, again, he kills them. Until there were no more cries. A resolution, perhaps for the father, ridding himself of these kittens. Yet, resolution for someone often leads to irresolution for another—as it so often plays out, someone’s light is ultimately someone else’s great darkness.

I do not have to tell you my mom’s boyfriend was a real asshole; I do not have to tell you all the shit things he did to my family. But I will tell you that all of the world is stark naked, it is, at some point, when no one or when everyone is watching .

Yes, that night, I saw men kill a tlaquache. Yes, they used a baseball bat. Yes, it was brutal. Those men laughed and they laughed, yes. I was twelve, thirteen, maybe. A strange place, that age, that place of a boy’s life, with the children in the bedroom playing a game and the women around the table laughing and laughing, swallowing their beer, and the men being men in the trees under the streetlights, their long tongues, their sweat, like their stories, building lies of the real men they were and how each, via his tale, held membership in the clan.

Afterward, away from them, behind my mom’s boyfriend’s grey truck parked on the street, when no one was watching, I squatted down to my knees, and holding my fists over my eyes, I imagined what had happened to the small opossum’s body, which lay, then, on the other side of the fence, in an alley, where they’d pitched its battered body when they were done with it. In my throat, my curled heart. In my heart, a heat I’ve encountered only a few other times in my life. Call it rage, call it clarity, call it brownness and queerness. And while I could hear them joking near the barbecue pit, I tried not to think of it, and I promised myself I would grow stronger than them all one day—with my heart in my mouth, I tried not to think of taking a baseball bat to each one of those shitty men.

 

ii.

I cannot say that I have always loved tlaquaches. They are not like hummingbirds or jaguars—there is no glamor to a tlaquache. Hummingbirds are magical, of course. The fury of their marvelous wings, their iridescent green coats, their red throats. Jaguars, also, with their magnificence, their predatory prowess, their status as warrior symbol, are easy to love or fear, maybe admire, perhaps all of these potencies at once. But tlaquaches are not like hummingbirds or jaguars. Tlaquaches are opossums. They live under our houses, in dilapidated sheds, in great montes, we find their bodies in or the by the sides of roads—they eat ticks, they carry their young on their backs, they lay in the hot sun in the middle of a street or road and die and are run over again and again, if no one picks them up. If they are picked up, frequently, their bodies are frequently trashed. There is no burial, no grief for tlaquaches.

 

iii.

Behind my heart, or just under it, left in that dry dirt, in the weeds of things I do not like to think about—I am not a good man, I fear. But even not-good men deserve love and want it.

If I say it, will I believe it? If I write it, will you believe me? 

 

iv.

When my husband and I moved in together, he expressed horror over the fact that I knew a tlaquache lived under our house. It is an old house made of wood, with too many rooms, and two fireplaces, one of which is now buried in one of the walls. Since 2008, I’d lived in the house, having left for two years, but returning with my new husband, after my second lover took his life. The house was built in 1925. It is a large house, and true to the time period, it stands atop piers and beams. There is a crawl space, and to access the crawl space, there is a small wooden door on two grey hinges. The door is the size of a large shoebox, maybe one for keeping boots or Stetson hats. Plumbers and electricians have entered the crawl space to perform work underneath the house, and late at night, after walking dogs or upon parking in the driveway, I have seen cats and skunks and tlaquaches using this door. My husband also saw the opossum, one night, pushing its grey body beneath this door, out into the rest of the world. My husband gave it no second thought: he wanted it gone.

 

v.

The first man I ever loved was not an animal lover. But he loved me, perhaps more than any other human ever has, perhaps more than he loved even himself.

The second man? An animal lover who once, as a boy, rescued a raccoon he called Bandit, and in our time together, also rescued a young blind skunk one dusk, keeping her in one of the bathrooms in our house, and he fed her and cradled her until I convinced him that her best chance lay not with us but with an animal refuge an hour outside of San Antonio. He wept the whole drive home after we dropped her off. He wouldn’t let me console him. Indeed, this man loved animals, more, in fact, than he cared for me, or for himself, or for any other human in the world, except perhaps his mother.

When he doesn’t know I’m watching, the man I love now is so sweet to our new dog that I think my heart will whistle so loud it will give me away. Four years ago, I never thought I’d see the day. Over Thanksgiving, when we lost our pit bull Kimber, I think he wanted to cry, though I never saw him do it if he did. At its worst, sorrow can destroy a man. At its best, sorrow will show us who we are, who we can be.

As for me, I will always be an animalero. Ever since I was a boy. Dogs, cats, owls and other pajaritos, jaguars and ocelots, wolves, coyotes, and armadillos, of course, and, of course, los tlaquaches. But dogs, especially dogs—I feel most at ease when I am home with my family of dogs—I don’t know how else to say this. Perhaps this is my pack, perhaps I, too, simply yearn to belong.

 

vi.

When you are a boy, you also might have a pack. As part of a pack, you also have the choice to go along with shit or to eschew it. When you are a boy, so often, it is true: the world is yours. When you are a brown boy, the world is and is not yours. A queer boy, too. We are told this in so many, many ways. And so, it is, in fact, routinely easier to go along with racist shit, to laugh at rape jokes, to join in or silently acquiesce as people are ridiculed as faggots or illegals. But these beliefs are not yours. No. None of us owned this shit. Not when we were born, not when our skin first tasted air, not at the moment of our first scream. It was given to us, placed over our bodies like a heavy coat of sticker burrs and tar, forced upon us, even. Eventually, though, we make it ours. We choose. If we don’t molt that tar-burr coat given to us by the world, if we don’t cut away those patches of shit clinging to our hands and our chests, then, we accept those burrs. Accepting them means we are okay with these violences enacted upon others. And often, and tragically, enacting these violences is a way to say we belong, that we are members of the pack. Yes, we choose the kind of boys, the kinds of men we become. Or if, even, we don’t become men at all. At some point in our lives, gradually. All of us. Molting, choosing, tar, chest, power and burrs.

 

vii.

If I tell you I once believed only good men deserve love, what will I say next? If I tell you this is an old story, a story older than fire and bloodshed, will you believe me?

 

viii.

Perhaps it is the fact tlaquaches are maligned for their queerness, for that pouch they shouldn’t have or use, for their semblance to other dismissed animals like rats, that we carry aversions to them. “They are so fucking ugly,” someone told me once. “So gross.”

I will not try to explain away others’ disgust for these animals as much as I will try to convey the idea that ugliness is a variable, and the truest discoveries in life also live in the realm of generalizations and variables.

Once, years ago, when I first moved to San Antonio, I bought a camera, and one night sitting on my stoop, I watched a tlaquache make its way out of the alley across my caliche driveway in front of my second truck to the landing below the stairs—a small, square, concrete patch, where I threw food for the stray cats who lived around my house. I watched the little animal eat. I watched it move slowly, watchful and weary at first, and then eat more profoundly, swallowing the morsels as if, in fact, the creature knew pleasure and comfort and wanted joy to last. I tried one night to capture the not-so-small tlaquache with my new camera. I waited by the house. The porchlight dim; my camera on a tripod; my little dog asleep inside. Back then, I did not know much about lighting or shutter speeds and apertures, so when I clicked the trigger, the animal froze and then as I tried to adjust the focus again, the noise startled the animal who took off, leaving its meal behind, abandoning its joy, abandoning it for safety—swiftly, he scurried beneath and then behind my truck and back into the overgrown alley.

 

ix.

When I was 12, I watched my mom’s boyfriend and his friends beat the shit out of a opossum with a baseball bat. Maybe I was 13. Maybe I was one of them, maybe I am a lie.

 

x.

And so, it is an old story. Older perhaps than story itself. The boy and the men. The boy and weapons. The boy on the hunt. The boy and the expectations, the duties he will fill. The boy on the farm, in the field. The boy standing before the great sky, the darkness of trees, the wide expanse of his breath, the one inside him, the one he is putting out into the great world. But the boy who isn’t what a boy is supposed to be and be and mean. But the boy who doesn’t want blood on his knuckles–not in his teeth, not on his clothes, not on the ideas that make themselves swirl in his head like a clutch of starlings. Not at all. Nothing like that.

 

 

Read the rest of this essay in our FALL 2017: Dirty Laundry Issue.