The sand is foreign under my feet, invasive between my toes. I stuff my hands into the pockets of my brother’s sweatshirt and think about the cold. About the empty beach on the edge of a city. It feels like home, a lonely place where my feet, bare and unpolished, leave marks for a few minutes before the water comes.
My brothers live close to this beach, in L.A. I live in Chicago with a roommate. When I get back from the city, our apartment is dark. We communicate mostly in notes: There’s pumpkin pie in the fridge help yourself! I’ll write that check when I get back from New York. Don’t be discouraged because you are young, and other fragments of verses and thoughts and little pin holes through post-its. Last time I left for the weekend, drove my car three hours west toward the cornfields to visit my parents, I said I promise I still live here. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
Last time I went to Spain, I met a woman named Carmen, an artist in the city of Lugo, a city long abandoned by all the young. She was 25. One day my Spanish grandmother took me aside and said that even though Carmen was Manolo’s granddaughter, she was “differente”. Then scrunched her face up in disgust. I looked at her until she spilled — una lesbiana, una lesbiana. Shh.
I remember giving my grandmother a sad smile and wondering why it was she looked down on a woman open about her sexuality, comfortable even, when it seemed my grandmother and I had always struggled to accept ourselves as straight, self-contained, European women. Why is it that my grandmother cries behind a mask of makeup? She leaves lipstick stains on her coffee mug. When no one is looking, sometimes I see her wipe away the wet from her face, tears the man who calls her “wife” has made her feel as he exerts his power, his manhood, over her. And I, at the same time, scrunch away from my boyfriend when he touches my stomach, too fat for a country where female leaders take the form of pop stars and rail-thin models rather than scholars and preachers. Carmen walks Lugo with purpose, with poise. Past the empty Catholic cathedrals. Back home, there’s still a sect of Christianity that won’t let women speak at all.
My grandmother and I take a walk around the Roman Walls of Lugo, built between 263 and 276 A.D. to defend their city, La Muralla. We wrap our coats tighter around our bodies, waiting for my grandfather to finish working. From this height, we can see the expanse of the city, gray and beautiful. We both look. She breathes in and says to me, Tienes el mundo delante de ti. You have the world in front of you. Ojalá, I wish, que yo tenía eso, I did, too.
I push my hands to the very bottom of the pockets in my brother’s sweatshirt as the waves get higher up the beach. The cold water paralyzes my fear, keeps it from entering my brain, and I listen to the white foam fizz against the sand. I remember my best friend Codey from high school. Andrew Kurz in college. Lugo Carmen and the artistic expression of her feminine sexuality. In my unintelligence, in my otherness, I feel at peace, a Jesus kind of peace, with those who self-identify as homosexual. Their struggle to accept their sexual orientation, one that wars them against what is defined as acceptable and polarizes them from others, this struggle is similar to the Christian one. Our answers, our conclusions, might be different but we both fight wars against a culture that claims tolerance.
On the beach, there is sun, sky, deep blues. There are soothing echoes and childhood laughter and sunscreen to protect you from burn. This is where I stand now and what I hear. But I know the ocean’s power, relentless in its force. It is unforgiving.
Empathy is me. I remember — I sit next to my mother on the porch as the corn sways and listen to her be. She says, Yo queria ser una escritora, I wanted to be a writer, and then she smiles and shows me her crow’s feet. I cry with her and promise myself I will never be defined by a man: father or boyfriend or husband. Instead, I will write the stories of women who have been dragged in by the ocean’s force and stretched thin by the rip tide. My mother runs her hand through my hair. She has always been the mirror to my insides, who I am and what I will become. No eres como yo, she says, you’re not like me. You’re strong, tienes fuerza, and you don’t need a man to have worth. Estoy tan orgulloso de ti, I’m so proud of you, my daughter, mi hija,. I tell her she should write too, that she’s not too old, it’s not too late. She laughs, pats me on the head, then takes a sip of wine and closes her eyes.
Because of my mother, I was born half Spanish. And since my dad is a bunch of quarter pieces of other things, I guess I’m half American. I have blonde, curly, frizzy hair while my mom’s is smooth and dark like her eyes. You don’t look Spanish. People love saying that to me. It’s not racist, so it’s fine. I used to explain, set them straight — a favorite educational philosopher of mine once said, the oppressed must liberate themselves. So I should defend myself, it’s a prescriptive. But after years and years, I don’t have the heart to make them feel the same kind of small they’ve made me feel. To let them know they are confusing Mexican with Spanish, that Spain is not known for its bright colors or beans, but for its kings and cathedrals and that the history of these countries only crossed blood lines through rape and war. I want to tell them that when I was little and mistook a Spanish song for a Mexican one, my grandmother called me maleducada, poorly educated. That I used to be ashamed I spoke Spanish with an American accent. In Spain, I was the American grandchild, but in America, I was shamed for not being Spanish enough, for not wanting to call my grandparents and speak my broken Spanish. I want to tell them after struggling through my split identity, feeling neither one nor the other, I finally found the Spanish pride given to me through my grandparents. It’s tucked deep beneath my white skin. When they say, You don’t look Spanish, they touch that pride and pull my insides out so far that sometimes I leave the room so my emotion won’t embarrass me. Emotion I know I have because I’m Spanish, the wrong half of me, as I continue to live in a country whose values are set by the shapes and colors that appear in the mirror.
Simone DeBeauvoir once said, “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” But if you are born with the sense of an inevitable becoming, is the line so black and white?
I roll up the sleeves of my brother’s sweatshirt so my goosebumps show and I face the wind, wipe the ocean spray off my inked arm. I only thought seriously about having lines that form words that have meaning poked into my skin after I had my heart broken, after I became the girl someone didn’t want. I got my tattoo, bought a leather jacket and dyed a purple streak in my hair, and I looked my ex-lover in the face without crying. They say Jesus will have his puncture wounds from the nails they hammered into his feet and hands in heaven, only the wounds won’t be scars; they will be marks that remind us his pain has become his glory. Evidence of his power, his human perfection. My tattoo is not scar tissue. It is a reminder that suffering and struggle do not make a woman ugly. Her battle scars are her glory. This is the new eternal feminine.
A flock of seagulls has surrounded the lone trash can on the beach. I watch as they fly off together, with a few stragglers who linger near the waves before scrambling, turning circles around themselves, and flying away. How do you live in a world of transition between the old eternal feminine and the sporadic, staccato voices of feminine freedom that come out in speeches to the U.N. and Jennifer Lawrence movies but are stifled in homes and churches across the country?
When I visited California last summer, Scott, one of my older brothers, took me to the Grove. We stopped at the Spanish restaurant in the market and got a plate of jamon serrano, which tasted like home, and the cashier spoke our Spanish, the king’s Spanish. I love your accent, I say. She blushes and says no, no, I want to sound American like you. When I come home and mention it to the Bolivian girl who calls my boyfriend her best friend, she says, “Don’t ever say that to someone from a different country; it’s an insult.” I turn my cheek into my boyfriend’s arm, feel the soft fabric against my skin. I say nothing. Not in English, my first language — and definitely not in the king’s Spanish, my second.
But when my Uncle Dave asks me when he should clear his schedule for my wedding as a joke, I do say something. I say, 3.5 years at the earliest, an arbitrarily specific number. I try to keep the bitterness out of my voice, as this is the weekend after a too-fresh conversation with my boyfriend about the future, more unknowns, a pile of insecurities. Even for Dave this joke is low, and most of me knows it’s not really a joke. Both of his daughters dropped out of college and married young. I am the weird one, the feminist, the graduate school educated writer who hasn’t been given a ring. In Spanish culture, a woman is only worth as much as the man she marries. This is an unspoken rule. The problem used to be that I’ve never been legalistic, not in my religion or my political beliefs or my institutional commitments, but since then I’ve carved a way for myself in my family with my strong opinions and bold, relentless heart. My grandparents respect me, my mom has given me room to find my worth apart from any man, and let me disagree with her choice to follow my dad around the country before he asked her to marry him. But Dave, relentless, keeps the jokes coming. The jokes slam against a visceral, real, desire I have always had to eventually marry with the option to name my kids household items and dress them in hipster clothes, and the fear that the option will be taken from me. I sit in my chair until I can’t bear it anymore, and then I say, It’s actually a sensitive issue. I say this with no shame.
On a quiet Monday a few months later, my roommate comes home early from work and we both sit in our living room at the same time. I tell her about my uncle, his sardonic humor, and I say, If it were socially acceptable for women to propose to men, I would’ve already proposed. She thinks for a while, and then she says, Maybe. Or maybe just having the option would relieve you of that pressure. Maybe having the power, the choice, makes all the difference.
The cold comes in wet clumps that I bunch with my toes, in the rocks that break into grains from force and pressure and become sand. I stand on that beach in southern California with my Spanish heart and think about Dave’s smirk and about that Jesus peace, which comes unwelcome, uninvited sometimes, when I am alone. I wrap my brother’s sweatshirt tighter around my woman waist, and I wait, watching a grocery bag that has found its way onto the sand tumble open against the wind.
Cristina Cerny is a first year MFA student at Roosevelt University. She studied English and secondary education at Wheaton College as an undergrad, with an emphasis in creative writing. She lives on the outskirts of the city while still feeling the feminine heartbeat of Chicago.