To block out the sounds of kissing, you turned up the volume on the silver boom box. You pictured British girls in red lipstick, walking through Paris in music videos, their dark sunglasses hiding glances. You undid your ponytail and, like those video girls, tossed your hair at Claudia lying with her arms behind her head on the bottom bunk bed. She pulled you in by the hair. The wall heater hummed and clicked, warming the house and separating you from the living room and your family. Rodney King’s grainy face flashed on the television. The freeway where he was surrounded by a halo of bald heads was fifteen miles away from where you were. The waters were rising all around you, but you were not paying attention.
It started like anything else, playing around. You loved your best friend, spending your summers eating pistachio ice cream from the Thrifty’s and walking to the video store to rent sexy horror movies starring lesbian vampires. Claudia liked them and that’s why you watched.
Then one day Claudia starts wrestling with you. It was all right. You were safe at home. She had you in a fake choke hold. You scrambled to get out of it, tickling was your only move. But you liked to win so you tickled more. You were a reed of a girl the color of pilón with wavy hair and barely five feet tall. Claudia weighed 145 pounds, most of it chichi, lonjas, and arms that made the softball land at home plate.
She flipped you over on the beige carpet where you’d watched actresses get chased into windowless rooms. Claudia was pushing your hands away. She let go and came down close to your lips. You laid there panting, smiling from the game. She kissed you softly and afraid.
She said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
You said, “It’s okay. I didn’t mind.”
This was true. You liked it. You were used to saying Yes, had no idea how to say No. You would go along with things to spare people’s feelings. She kissed you again and you felt her chapped lips and old braces, the ones her mother was too cheap to get removed even though the teeth are already straight. Because you were not supposed to do this, because you didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and because you delighted at the topless women in sheer night gowns of sexy Mexican movies, and if you closed your eyes, Claudia could be one of them, for all these reasons, you made out for three weeks with your best friend.
You made sure no hickies were on exposed body parts. Claudia was doing all the work, biting your skin into magenta roses. In the afternoons after your honors English homework was done, you’d lock the door to the family bedroom or in the bedroom Claudia shared with her mom. You would hide under Disney cartoon bedsheets kissing until your faces hurt. You liked the biting, the licking of your small breasts. But you were hoping the sex would feel better. You’d been masturbating since you were twelve to a stockpile of made up porno in your brain and knew enough to know Claudia didn’t know shit about it. When her fingers found your clit, they just poked around like when you brush your teeth with your fingers when you go camping. You faked orgasms once the clumsy sliding around got repetitive. At least she had short nails.
By the second week of making out, you got brave. You put your mouth on her C cups, feeling up around the pale folds of skin. Claudia’s cotton bra fabric cut into her sides, tender where the bra dug into her. You tried to put your hand inside her black bikini panties, but she didn’t let you. You didn’t want to, but you were supposed to. You didn’t try it again because you didn’t have to: you were getting all the attention.
Around your family, you thought you were acting normal, but your dad saw you hanging close to Claudia. From behind his black ‘68 Impala, he saw Claudia kiss your hand, then ride off on her bike after she asked you to be her girlfriend. He shook his head; he could see you were turning out just like him- women throwing themselves at you in broad daylight. He did not tell your mom about what he saw. Once she’d left, he told you, “Jenny, be careful with that girl, mija. She’s not who you think.”
You said, “Whatever, dad. Don’t worry about it.” You waved off his fourth grade education. You didn’t think about what it meant that he said this. You thought you knew best.
That night, your right ear was sore from pressing to the receiver.
“I think I’m in love with my best friend,” Claudia whispered into the phone. “I mean, not in love, you know…”
“Don’t worry,” you assured her. “I was reading Sassy and this article said it’s totally normal for girls to have feelings for their best friends.”
“Are you sure?” said Claudia. “It’s not weird or anything?”
“No, silly,” you said. “You’re fine.”
She sighed and you could tell she felt better. You looked at your clean, squared nails, feeling like an expert at matters of the heart. You were not concerned because you did not think about going to prom with her or having her babies. You did not yearn for her. Claudia did not notice your calm. She was too worried about what kissing you said about her.
During those weeks it rained so much that the L.A. River was full. Walking back to your house from Claudia’s, you went two blocks up Gage Avenue to the river and watched from the bridge, its low concrete railing the only thing keeping you from the froth kissing the lip of the river bed. It moved so hurriedly that you pictured the river knocking open the front door of your house, pouring in through the windows after jumping the freeway wall. The dirty water would come in so fast that your family and belongings would not be able to escape, your bodies floating like dead goldfish. You pulled Claudia away from the rail and said, “That’s enough.”
The boombox was not loud enough to hear from the kitchen. Your house was a single bedroom bungalow built in the 1940s. There was a heater in the wall with slits you could see through. The wall was shared by the family’s bedroom and the living room, the bedroom where your whole family slept. The queen bed was where you parents slept. You and your brother split the bunk beds.
Your mom was busy frying chile and garlic. Two televisions were on, one playing novelas the other cartoons for your brother in the living room. When you girls had walked in, she eyed Claudia. She didn’t like that Claudia couldn’t speak Spanish, such a liar she thought.
Your radio was playing muted electronic keyboards. You were topless, still wearing white denim shorts. Claudia was fully clothed, lying with you in the bottom bunk. She was holding you by the waist, talking about renting the latest Faces of Death movie that weekend.
Your mother needed you to buy fideo at the store. She was not ashamed to see what you were doing with the door closed. Your brother was busy with his two He-man toys and second-hand Legos. She turned off the flame and walked the few steps into the living room. She peeked through the grate in the wall heater.
She saw your bare back facing her, and Claudia’s arms around you.
“Open the door!” She yanked the knob so hard it almost came off. Claudia sat up, throwing you a green T-shirt to wear. You had no plan. You thought you’d get away with being this free.
You opened the door to a charging bull. She slapped you once across the face. She shook you, demanded to know what you were doing. Claudia rubbed her hands together and stared at the floor. She did not speak Spanish and could not answer your mother when she asked questions. You moved out to the hallway to plead insanity.
“This is the only time we’ve done it,” you cried. “We promise never to do it again.” Your brother gathered his toys and went outside to play. He was used to people fighting, the yard was the only place to go. Claudia passed you and sat on the living room couch, sensing it would be a bad move to leave, the garlic and chile in the air like mace. Your mother walked in circles in the living room, her chubby brown hands cutting the air.
“You can’t hang out alone together anymore! If Claudia comes over, you have to sit out where everyone can see you.” You translated this to Claudia. She nodded. You thought you were making progress.
“You need to go home,” said your mom. Claudia left, and you went after her saying you’d call later. “No, dummy. Go talk to your mom. Don’t call me tonight,” she said.
You went back in and repeated yourself. Your mom said, “You’re not supposed to do that with girls,” and wiped her eyes. You said it didn’t mean anything about you. You convinced yourself that your mom who was raised on a ranch had also read that Sassy article. Your mom agreed to let Claudia come over sometimes. You said okay and thought you’d won. But then she said, “I have to talk with her mother.” You jumped in front of the phone. “No, mami,” you said. “Please not right now.”
She backed away but you wondered how long you had before shit went down with Claudia’s mom. You were afraid of her over-powdered face, her meaty hands strong as a man’s. Claudia’s mother frequently beat the shit out of her when they argued. Your mom marched out to buy pasta for dinner and took your brother.
Your mothers had never met and didn’t speak the same language. They wouldn’t need big words to punish their daughters.
The next day, the rain stopped.
You met Claudia during nutrition. “Your mom called my house late last night,” said Claudia. She turned her face and a bruise like dirt colored her jaw. “Don’t call my house until things get better.”
“I’m not sorry for what we did,” you said. Fuck everyone, you thought.
“I am,” she said. “You don’t have to deal with my mom. I gotta go, kid.”
She did not look back at you. What would you do without her? She was all of your time. The whole neighborhood would know what happened. You walked around school worse than a loner, a gay loner who didn’t think she was gay at all.
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming multi-genre anthology Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices, edited by Helen Klonaris and Amir Rabiyah. As Writing the Walls Down goes to print, Trans-Genre Press is striving to raise $9,000 for its launch. All the donations will go directly to the press, will help print the first 1,000 copies of the anthology, pay shipping costs, and pay contributors. Readers can donate, pre-order, or both by visiting Trans-Genre Publishing.