I knew I was in trouble by the way Mami said my name. For 14 years, she usually called me “Georgie” — anglicized with a thick Puerto Rican accent — but on that summer day in 1996, my mother pronounced it in Spanish. I followed her voice into my bedroom, where she told me to shut the door. And the instant I saw my unsent, unfolded note in her hands, I knew our relationship was about to change.
“¿Que es esto?”
I feigned having no idea what it was. But her unwavering glare convinced me to look again. Given that my native tongue had stunted seven years earlier when we left the Island of Enchantment, I stumbled over the vocabulary of a first-grader. “Solo una nota para Amaya.”
I was certain, with her limited English, she couldn’t understand what I’d written, which was about a boy in my school. Then she mentioned Ricky by name, inquiring why this note was insisting that I loved him. I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know how, in either language, at least not out loud. The words had only ever existed on paper, meant for the eyes of an open-minded friend — not for my mother, who stared as she waited for a response, nor my father, who stayed out of sight that evening, unable to look at me altogether.
Mami said my name as she had before: the “Jor-” harsh as a hurricane’s breath in whore. She then asked, “Tu eres gay?”
The question stunned me. I had no clue that the Spanish word for “gay” was gay. It was never said, not in my house. After all, Miami as a whole was different than its portrayal on TV — a closed city of open beaches and open minds; the place that had recently allowed both Gianni Versace and The Birdcage to come out. Only 20 miles beyond that mirage, however, lay a scorching land saturated by a melting pot of devout Hispanics. True, we were first to embrace metrosexuality in pop stars like Ricky Martin — my mother’s idol — but the only homosexuals presented on Telemundo were flamboyant fortunetellers and feisty jesters. Caricatures. And there my mother was, asking if I was one: un gay.
I couldn’t deny the evidence. I wouldn’t. Plus, she wasn’t asking if I was gay so much as how. I assured her it wasn’t my choice, that it was just the way I turned out, that neither she nor Papi did anything to cause this — clichés by today’s standards, but at the time, I was on my own. No one ever taught me what to do if my parents found out I was gay. I wasn’t ready.
I explained myself delicately in what proved to be yet another language foreign to her. Still, no matter how much thought I put into each answer, she kept jumping to the next, until I realized it wasn’t that my responses were being ignored; they simply weren’t what she wanted to hear. I became disengaged, then defensive, on autopilot by the time she posed a question that blended in with the others. Was I OK with this “situation,” Mami wanted to know, or did I want to change it?
Given how much it would determine the next few years of my life, I should have considered my answer with greater care. But her interrogation had become so unbearable, I would have confessed to murder if it meant getting me out of that room. So, to the question of whether or not I wanted to change, I shrugged — a defeated, indifferent shrug that condemned me to my sentence. It was the mere promise to receive treatment that would effectively revert me back into isolation.
* * *
And so it was set for later that week: my first “therapy” session. Eight p.m. Thursday night. The 30-minute car ride ended as Mami pulled into someone’s driveway — a private residence with the lights all off. Dragging my feet toward the porch, I stopped when I read the sign by the door: “Welcome to the Wild House.”
We were soon greeted by a married couple who kept the place lit by candle. They were in their early 40s, and I was as much struck by the woman’s assertiveness as I was her husband’s handsome face and salt-and-pepper hair. The four of us had a short conversation before the man took me into another room, while his wife stayed with my mother. As I imagined the details of this treatment, my heart skipped at the idea of us being alone in a dark room. There, he warned me of the personal questions he was about to impose, so I braced myself to talk about Ricky Gonzalez, the boy in the note that started all of this. Instead, the man asked, “Who do you think of when you masturbate?”
I thought of John Stamos and Jonathan Taylor Thomas immediately, but I pretended to mull it over before answering. Which made him smile, what could’ve been labeled a seductive grin, frankly. He did this all throughout his sexually explicit questionnaire, and as I wondered whether this man’s marriage was a sham, he said, “Can I be honest about what I think? Of you?”
Gulp. “Of course.”
“See, I don’t think you’re really gay.”
“No. But I know why you think you are. Follow me so I can show you.” He put his large hands on my shoulders, and I gulped again, my imagination way ahead of us.
He guided me into another room, this one brightly lit, bare and windowless. There, he told me to stand in the middle of the room, then he proceeded to open the walls, which were actually accordion-style closet doors. At once, I was surrounded by eyes, dozens of eyes belonging to porcelain statues — religious figures with rosary beads over their shoulders. I had no idea who these people were, but the anonymous faces unnerved me, as did the already-lit candles.
The man explained that I was to kneel in front of one statue in particular and close my eyes and think about the “question” of my sexuality. “If you remain still, you are who you say. But if you lean forward, it means the saint is moving your body to confirm that you’re confused.”
I was dubious, but I humored him, and after a few minutes of kneeling, I was indeed wobbling to and fro. Once we finished, the man boasted how the saint had shown my true self despite my resistance. And he was right; my body had continued to rock back and forth. It had nothing to do with my knees endlessly pressing against the tiled floor. Nothing to do with aching muscles throwing off my balance. Absolutely nothing to do with my eyes remaining shut as I waited for this ridiculous test to be over. No, the spirit had proven that I was, in fact, a fauxmosexual.
That still didn’t explain why — something he waited until we’d rejoined my mother to reveal. My being confused, he told us, and the reason the saint had been able to move me around, was because I had a gay demon making me believe I liked men.
Luckily, his wife added, the two of them happened to know how to get rid of it. She didn’t divulge what that entailed, but she insisted we take our time before deciding whether to proceed. “But remember,” she said, “the longer it’s in you, the harder it’ll be to get out.”
Once we were alone, I expected Mami to scoff along with me at the ridiculous idea. Instead, she asked if I would do it. As far as I was concerned, this exorcism wasn’t to keep me from going through this “situation,” but so that she wouldn’t have to. Still, even then I knew: For Mami to see my truth, I’d have to rule out their lie first. “Si remedio no tengo,” I said, and meant it; I really had no choice.
And a few weeks later, we returned to the Wild House.
I came dressed in an old shirt and shorts and brought a change of clothes, as instructed, still having no idea what would happen. The couple greeted us as if my mother and I were the first to arrive at their dinner party. But the only thing they would serve, we soon learned, were a pair of birds I could hear cooing and clucking as I was escorted into another dark room, made to stand beside two covered cages.
The ceremony began once I’d stripped down to my shorts, bare feet against the cool floor. I had agreed to keep my eyes closed the whole time, no matter what I heard or felt. As the birds’ protests increased, so did my suspicions. They’re not really about to—
Then came a tickling on my arms and neck. Feathers.
Oh, crap, they’re totally about to—
And suddenly, the loud crack inches above me expelled every thought from my body. One shock was replaced by another: the surprising warmth on my scalp, pouring down my neck and shoulders like heated massage oil; the rasp of his chanting; the silence of the birdcage.
The next thing I knew I was scrubbing the red off my body, in their shower. Before we left, the couple handed us a paper bag — leftovers from the Wild House, including their fruitless offering, my bloody clothes, and the responsibility of their disposal. Mom and I found an undeveloped street on our way home, where I threw the doggie bag behind some trees before returning to the getaway car. We shared a morbid laugh, afraid of the alternative. Still, the drive back was long, quiet, awkward — as if we had buried a body. Maybe just part of a body. Part of me.
No. For that to be true, I would have felt different. Which I didn’t. Guilty, yes, like a fraud, for helping the couple con my mother. For staying quiet as they took advantage of her desperation. But nothing else had changed.
When we pulled up into the garage, Mami used the Spanish pronunciation of my name again. But this time, I didn’t feel like I was in trouble. Instead, she told me not to tell anyone the details of what happened, not even my father, who apparently still believed I was seeing an after-hours psychologist. I wasn’t sure whether she knew beforehand what was going to happen, but it was clear that either way, her regret was immediate. I figured this would give me relief; instead, my guilt grew stronger.
During my follow-up interview a few weeks later, the couple discovered my demon was still lusting after Uncle Jesse and JTT — and I threw in Urkel just to spite them. They concluded that the failure was my own fault, that I’d lied about wanting to change. The man explained this to my mom while sneaking glares at me, his demeanor that of a sore loser, as he lost the flirtatious charm ironically meant to seduce me into turning straight. He acted as though I’d gone back on our understanding. The only thing I went back on was what I should have embraced all along: my “situation.” Because I wasn’t confundido. I wasn’t poseído. I was proud to be un gay once again.
* * *
Of course, just because the whole experience gave me affirmation didn’t mean it changed my mother’s view. Horrified by the animal sacrifice, she decided on a more practical cure: a Catholic priest willing to perform what was tantamount to a back-alley exorcism.
Again, I was instructed to keep my eyes closed, but the only thing to be spilled on me this time was holy water. Sure enough, just minutes into the priest screaming in-the-name-of and by-the-power-in, the droplets came. Ongoing, tiny random ones that made me peek. Apparently, that wasn’t actually holy water I’d felt. It was spit — sprayed all over my face by the overzealous priest. Holy as his saliva may have been, it was not enough to rid me of my gay demon.
Two botched exorcisms later, Mami admitted that the whole possession thing was a stretch. That was not, however, an indication she had given up on trying to “cure” me. For the next attempt, I was taken to a real psychologist during real office hours. This time it was my father who took me. He waited outside during my preliminary session with this doctor, with whom I felt much more comfortable answering questions. Half an hour later, she had “heard enough,” and called my father in to join us. She seemed disturbed while sharing her diagnosis with him: “You came here with your son, saying you needed help, so he can become straight again. Which is why I propose we schedule an appointment, so that I can help — help you accept him for who he is.”
For some reason, we never saw that psychologist again.
In the years that followed, the extent of our progress was to not discuss it. I never told Mami about my first boyfriend, and I introduced my second only as “mi amigo.” Meanwhile, that three-letter interlingual word continued to go unmentioned in our household. In fact, it would never be mentioned again until long after I had moved out.
By the spring of 2010, I was 28, which meant I had been out to my parents for exactly half of my life. I was in my Greenwich Village apartment when Mami called to ask if I had heard the shocking news.
“Ricky Martin?” I asked. I had indeed, though my surprise wasn’t about his sexuality, simply that he had finally made it public.
“¿Puedes creerlo?” she gushed, like a gossiping schoolgirl. She, apparently, was flabbergasted that a heartthrob of such high status — whom she’d had a crush on, no less, and a Puerto Rican to boot — could be “¿Gay? ¿Ricky Martin?” She wasn’t upset by the news. I think she was stunned that she had blinded herself to what had been obvious all along. Again. But while I responded to his coming out with a shrug, the best part was Mami’s reaction. She became obsessed, proceeding to watch and read every interview on the subject. She even bought his autobiography, in which he explained that it wasn’t a choice, how hard he struggled coming to terms with it, what it took for him to do so at last — basically everything I had told her a decade and a half earlier. Hearing it from me was listening to the rants of a demon-possessed 14-year-old. But Ricky Martin’s words on paper were scripture.
Ultimately, that’s how Mami came to accept homosexuality, and by extension, me — because of Ricky fuckin’ Martin. Suddenly gay was part of her vernacular, and she often asked about my new boyfriend: before they met, after they met, and after we broke up. All this thanks to a man neither of us had ever met.
And that’s precisely what I told him a few years later, when I attended his book signing: Thank you for being an inspiration — not to me so much as my mom, to whom I couldn’t get through the way he had. I rambled quickly and vaguely, yet he understood right away, seemed genuinely touched. While signing the book, he even indulged me in saying hello in a video, which moved Mami to tears. But it was in the book I had yet to send her, within those handwritten words, “Love, Ricky,” that it came full circle — a journey that began all those summers ago, when my mother found the unsent note professing my feelings toward a boy with that same name.
But that was her journey; mine was still in progress. Because ever since that night at the Wild House, my resentment escalated, until I stopped trying to stop it. In all those years I waited for my mother to accept me, I never once considered doing the same for her. Yes, some of her actions may have been misguided and ignorant, but neither hate nor ill will were ever factors. She never abandoned me or made me feel she’d stopped loving me. And just as I’d never been taught what to do if Mami found out I was gay, neither had she.
Eventually I found the empathy I needed to embrace her wholeheartedly. Only then could I cleanse myself of that destructive demon called bitterness, and the real exorcism occurred.