Martha 1978

September 25, 2021

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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I knew Martha from our remedial composition course and I thought she was beautiful and out of my league, brown as me and almost as tall with beautiful thick hair. She could have a spectacular Afro if she wanted. She had sharp cheekbones and beautiful luminescent eyes. She looked like a maiden I saw on calendars in Mexican bakeries, but more like the warrior dudes than the maiden, because the dude warriors were always brown and the maidens pale.

I asked her out and I was surprised that she didn’t say no. I met her at her apartment in San Rafael dorm. She invited me in and asked me to wait on her couch while she finished getting ready. I noticed a photo of a handsome and tall Latino guy with his arms around her. My heart sank. She caught me looking at it and laughed, reading the dismay on my face.

“That’s my brother,” she said, and there was life after death. We went out for coffee and she wore shorts that made her beautiful long legs look even longer. Walking across campus was exciting and weird. I noticed that every short dude was staring at her. I wondered if she noticed. She had.

“I hate those guys always gawking at me.”

I nodded, glad that I was taller than her, but barely.

Martha danced in the Baile Folklorico on campus and she’d invite me to the practices. Among her friends it didn’t seem to matter that I thought of myself as a black guy. I was Mexican to them even though I didn’t speak much Spanish, and neither did Martha but she understood it. I liked hanging out with her friends even if there were things I didn’t understand. The Latino gardener, the fat dark one, said something to her and her and face went stony.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, but she shrugged and didn’t respond. I could tell she was pissed.

Again, I asked and he had tears of anger in her eyes.

“That’s ok. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“No,” she said. “You didn’t. That fucking dick did. I hate him.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that I was dark and ready.”

“What?”

She sighed as though she didn’t want to talk about it.

“It’s cool, I don’t need to know.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged, but she was rigid with anger. 

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Martha invited me to a Halloween dance fundraiser for Baile Folklorico. I hated dances and didn’t want to go, but she persuaded me. I was easy to persuade. She went as a crazy sexy witch and I went as me because I’m horrible about costumes. I danced a bit with her and it was cool, but her friend Yoli looked alarmed and pulled Martha away from the dance floor and pointed to a beautiful girl dressed in all white, and these Cholo looking guys I hadn’t seen before on campus were crowded around her.

“What’s wrong?”  I asked, but it was though I wasn’t standing there. Martha and Yoli were obviously panicked.

“Maybe we should end the dance now,” Yoli said.

“I don’t know. Those cholos are gonna want their money back,” Martha responded.

“What’s going on?” I asked but both women ignored me.

“If they find out Jesse isn’t a girl…”

Neither needed to explain further. Jesse was the slender guy who was obviously gay and who danced the female’s parts if one of the female dancers couldn’t make it to practice. He was a nice guy and everyone was protective of him, but now nobody knew what to do.

Martha and Yoli spent the rest of evening trying to lure the cholos away from Jesse, but Jessie was the bell of the ball. She was lovely and secure in her beauty. The dance ended and Jessie vanished like Cinderella and everyone could breathe again.

Martha said Jessie disappeared for a while and then Yoli saw her on campus at the employment office. She glowed with happiness having transitioned. She had on a beautiful skirt and very high boots, and as she hugged Yoli and turned to leave, she stepped on the hem and pulled down the dress but, always composed, she straightened herself and left for a new life.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.