by Meliza Bañales
I’ve never been very good at putting on my face. I spent years digging through the trash in my parents’ house, mostly in the bathroom, looking for tools to help change me. I’m convinced my mother keeps blue eye shadow in business because she’s been wearing it, everyday, for as long as I can remember. And when my twelve-year-old hands would find the blue powder in the trash, just enough for one more face, I would hold it in my hands never quite sure what to do with it. I imagined I was a movie star or the geishas I’d seen on my abuelita’s scratchy TV. I imagined my eyes were big, exciting places revealing to the world where I’d been. Usually, the outcome was never that successful. It looked like a person with bear paws put that shit on my face, the blue shadow becoming more of a mask bleeding out the edges of my eyes and up in my eyebrows. I did this every two weeks, locked in the bathroom, hunched over the toilet, peering into the tiny mirror trying to believe that practice would eventually make me perfect. My mother was never much help. She caught onto my secret and told me, “Meliza, digging in the trash is disgusting. Stop using my old eye shadow.” To this day, I don’t remember my mother ever finding it endearing or sweet that I wanted to try and look like her, like a woman. She never showed me how to put on my face.
I stopped going through the trash and much of my adolescence was spent with a safe face, putting on only a little mascara and lipstick because those parts of me were clear, even outlined. And, I was coming out. Many of the girls I dated were femme, and I was a tomboy though I didn’t know that was what it was called then. These femmes had the face thing down. My first girlfriend, Anna, tried to show me how to do my eyes just like the lead-singer from the band Garbage and I kept messing up so much that she just took the stuff out of my hands and said, “Why don’t I just do it for you—it’s more fun that way.”
And she did do it for me. For almost an entire year that we were dating before she got pregnant from a drunken one-night-stand and she and her mom moved to Texas to straighten her out. I was on my own again, senior year of high school. I started to come to terms with my face, my plain face. Started liking it even. Came to grips with the truth. Maybe I was never meant to be the star I’d imagined my painted face would make me.
Then my brother went to prison.
In the nineties my older brother finally used up his chances of escaping our typical neighborhood reality of drugs and gangs. He landed in jail, my father shuffling into the police station in his slippers, messy hair, and work clothes from the night before. They wanted about $4,000 to get him out and being that my father and brother already had a complicated relationship, my dad just gave them the money hoping that would fix it. When they got home, he told my mother he had used my college fund that they had been saving up for the last fifteen years. But, not to worry. He would put it back. All of it, “Just don’t say anything to mi flaca. I don’t want her to worry.”
My older sister told me right away, “Look, Pop thinks he can put it back but seriously mija, that’s a lot of fuckin’ money. I just don’t think you should count on it. I’m sorry.”
I was sorry too. Sorry that I ever believed I would make it out of LA, my tiny neighborhood that felt like the only world I would ever know. At least when the tears came, my face was clean.
Two months later I turned eighteen and I decided that even though I had four more months of high school left, my big adult life was going to start now. I went to clubs every weekend, the gayer the better. I made out with every girl I saw because I was eager to make a reputation for myself, even a bad one. I wanted my life to be like a telenovela, where I have some big existential crisis and then come out on the other side through some sort of miracle, and having undergone a big change everyone would know and like me. But really, I was just tired of my poor, Brown reality and I wanted a new one, where everything was a big ass party. One night I got noticed for my dancing and was given a job as a go-go dancer. That was fine for awhile, until a friend of mine told me I could make more money doing amateur strip contests, “It’s way better than this. You just show up, do your shit, and make your money for the month.”
So I went. In my first contest, I placed third which still got me $500. And in 1996 for a girl from the ghetto, that was a lot of money. I wanted to place first, but I suppose that was too ambitious. I had never taken my clothes off for money before. I really never took my clothes off at all. I was 108 pounds, 5’2 and I loved my skateboard, my BMX bike, hair tied tight against me, my big Dickey work-pants that hung low off me like a flag of my tomboy state and skate shoes. It was a miracle there was any shape of a woman beneath. And my face was still so small. Maybe they all thought I wasn’t even eighteen yet and that I was trying to earn money like all the beautiful Latino boys who hustled on Santa Monica Boulevard because they were only fifteen and got kicked out of their houses for being gay.
Eventually, I got my wish. I won a few other contests and by late March was offered a job in a real strip club. I started small, one night a week, not making very much money. But it was my money and it felt good to be naked, under all those light, and for a few hours go by a different name, a different me. I became so comfortable in my new identity. I forgot all about my face, convincing myself that wasn’t the reason men would pay to watch me dance anyway. And it felt good to take their money, go home to my butch girlfriend and have sex, the kind where you fight and fuck and it hits you that you are both navigating each others’ pain and desire, but not calling it that. And back then, I let her fuck me so well I often cried. No matter what, those men would never have this body.
But my face. It wasn’t until I had been dancing a couple months that I grew tired of it. I didn’t look like a lot of the other girls, who were really women. Many of them were trans women, tall and fine. Their outfits always sparkled in the light. And they considered me their little sister, their bratty, tomboy little sister, always taking care of me. They would remind me to make sure I put my money away because I was going to college whether I liked it or not. They taught me how to pick which men in the crowd would give me the most money and respect and which were really vice cops just trying to get something for nothing. They always wanted more for me, even if sometimes they didn’t want it for themselves. There was Stacy who ran the club and she was the really strict one, I was afraid her for sure. She managed to buy the club herself and really own it. I followed every rule—I wanted her to be proud of me. There was Script. She was a singer. She would sing traditional Japanese songs that her mother used to sing to her when she was little. When she went to Thailand for a sex change, the doctor asked her if she wanted him to fix her eyes. Make them look more Western, more American. Give them a lift and a lid. He said he liked her so much he’d do it for free. It would give her a better chance as a singer, he added. But she told him no. Her eyes didn’t belong to her, she once told me. They were her mother’s. Her mother was dead. She didn’t have any pictures of her so she wanted to be able to see her everyday when she looked in the mirror.
There was Tanya and Martha—they did this twin-act with fire and hoola-hoops. They were the ones that were really hard on me, always making sure I still did my homework and asking me what books I was reading. They both wanted to join the circus but it was too late, they said—a bad time for circuses. Their era had passed them by. I wanted them to teach me their act, but Martha always reminded me that it was just a trick and that I already knew how to walk through fire— I shouldn’t be so afraid all the time.
And they loved when I changed. The baggy pants, sweatshirt, and skate shoes came off and there was my body—this creature I had no idea what to do with half the time. I spent hours looking at it while at work wondering about all its parts, its machinery. How the curves sat still, and moved. I could sometimes see my veins under the bright lights—I decided they were the freeways of LA, fast, moving, all instinct. I thought about my heart. It was a muscle I was still developing. A sharp thrust against my chest that make-up could never hide nor pronounce. I wanted to know its language. But Martha would tell me, “Language is more about listening, than speaking.” And believe it or not, this was the time in my life when I didn’t speak very much because I had a very rough Mexican-city-accent. I cussed way more then and I didn’t think I had much to say anyway. “But that’s part of listening, too, you know?” Martha said this while we smoked a joint outside on our break, because it was deep and we were stoned.
I always wanted to know why it was a big world and why I couldn’t have a few square feet of it that made sense to me. Script says that home isn’t a place. It’s a way of being. And she should know—she’s crossed oceans.
So, the club became my home. And most of the time I forgot that I was naked there. I forgot that I was a hustler. I forgot that my money was somebody’s savings, bonus, kids’ college fund, last paycheck. I forgot that my body was telling the story and it always ended with the climax. And I forgot that I was supposed to be in a land of men and sex and this sex was supposed to be for men. I always felt like I was in a land of women. And my girlfriend. She was a part of it somehow, but not really. She never asked me about it. She’d come pick me up after work and we’d drive back to her place in a thick silence. Though that’s not how I remembered it. I was too busy rambling on about some great thing Martha said or some cool outfit Script made. Or how Lani, my first friend there, taught me how to really work a pole and not break my neck. I was talking. But my girlfriend—she wouldn’t look at me. She’d see the money and would eventually say, “That’s a lot of money. You must have been busy with those guys tonight.” Then we’d climb into her bed and I tried to hold her but she’d pretend she was asleep and turn over. I was only 18 and I was so good at forgetting.
But then, it happens. And in this case, something happened between us—two colored girls from the hood trying to keep it together enough to runaway and never come back. Two girls that tried to spell it out, but really just faded into the scenery. We just stopped talking. I went home with her and more and more, she looked at my body and studied it with her hands, a frown forming across her face. She was looking for the parts of me the men hadn’t touched, hadn’t bought, hadn’t rented. She’d look and look until finally she would take my mouth to hers, part her lips, and take in my breath. But never kiss me. And my face—the one thing I thought told my story—was vacant. I searched hers. It was even emptier.
And when I thought my heart was broken on one night, one fine night when my butch girlfriend couldn’t take what I did for money anymore, left me crying outside the club, just five minutes before I had to work all night—it was Lani who came to my side, put her long arms around me and let me cry into her. Big, gaping sobs that left me hoarse in the throat, red in the face. It was Lani who cupped me into her hands and said, “Now there’s nothing a little eye shadow and blush won’t cure.”
And she put the brush in my hand. We both turned and faced the big mirror with lights around the border. For the first time, I saw myself. She had a brush too and moved it across her cheek with such choreography, a graceful gesture, “Now you try.”
I did the same. I did it to both sides of my face and then I took the shadow, closed my eyes and let my hands glide across the lids with the delicate purple shimmer. When I opened my eyes, I saw myself in the tiny bathroom, twelve-years-old, wondering how I would ever grow up, what I would look like, would I even recognize myself. It was me, and it wasn’t me, “Okay there,” Lani began, “it’s showtime.”
Meliza Bañales aka Missy Fuego is the author of Say It With Your Whole Mouth (poems, Monkey Press) and is currently searching for pulishers for her works: 51 Poems About Nothing At All (poems), Life Is Wonderful, People Are Terrific (fiction), and You Still Smell Like Danger (Stories and Essays). Her work has appeared in Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing-Up Working Class (edited by Michelle Tea), Baby, Remember My Name: New Queer Girl Writing (edited by Michelle Tea), The Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Change, and Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders of the Spoken-Word Movement (edited by Alix Olson). She was the first Chicana/Latina on the west coast to win a poetry slam championship in 2002, has toured with Sister Spit and Body Heat, and gained national recognition for her appearances on NPR and The Lesbian Podcast. Her short film with J Aguilar entitled “Getting Off” won the Jury Award at TG Fest: The Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival in 2011 and her spoken-word album, And Now Introducing Missy Fuego, is expected on Crunks Not Dead Records in 2015. She lives in Los Angeles.