The People Who Eat Pain
1. Fire Ants
I once ate fire ants when I was a boy. I was seven, and no, I did not eat them out of hunger. If anyone tells you fire ants have any taste to them, I wouldn’t be the one to confirm much less contradict this statement, as I only ate three of them, and fire ants are very small. Moreover, the three red ants crawled around a couple of blades of grass, which I tore from a lawn, so that when I put them in my mouth and chewed, I mostly tasted only grass. To say grass tastes green is not synesthetic. It really did taste like a color.
When I was young, my small claim to fame was that I could eat virtually anything. When I say eat, I mean eat. Insert, chew, swallow. Though I am not proud to confess this, and a part of me feels an acute shame for my wastefulness, I could rather easily, and without much fanfare, put into my mouth the mixed contents of a school milk box with peas and pineapples and, of course, whatever chocolate milk remained after eating my lunch. From a young age, I’d learned to endure, to take things inside me and not complain, not confuse disgust or reprehension with a fight for my life.
Some things, I learned, you just take them.
You accept them.
You swallow and pretend it wasn’t that bad. It could have been worse.
2. Oklahoma Is a Place I Did Not Want to Die
Maybe I had the wrong idea. Maybe strength is not at all a matter of endurance, or what the body can suffer without breaking, the confidence that attends knowing what the mind can withstand, or accomplish, how much the stomach actually will stomach. Maybe a whistle inside me is the testament to what I am capable of. Less of a train whistle, maybe a cowbell, an airhorn, a siren made of birdbone and conch.
And I get stuck on this idea of a body breaking, having never broken a bone in my own body, yet, having felt, at times, unassembled and not at all together, out of myself, as a consequence of difficult shit. Like the time, driving from Missouri to Oklahoma, my second lover became enraged over a text he’d received and told me he was going to kill us both. “I’m not afraid to die,” he told me, inflamed, his big knuckles biting the wheel, as he sped between eighteen-wheelers and minivans. The speedometer lifted its tiny orange arm into the high eighty miles-per-hour range, a velocity against which the old brittle body of the Nissan protested and rattled, and I knew this man I loved was truthful when he spoke this, as already he’d tried to take his life three times, and these were the times when I was present and he claimed to desire death and teetered very near that immutable edge, with me watching, which does not take into account the occasions before me when he also tried. My second lover knew breakages in ways I did not, in ways I never will. As a boy, once, after riding a motorbike down a remote country road, he’d been struck by a drunk driver, and his body, which was a boy-thing back then, snared between the automobile, the motorbike, and the hard asphalt road, broke. His entire foot nearly snapped off, he told me when we met, showing me the raised flesh of the old stitching as we lay back in my bed. It looked painful. It looked otherworldly, as if in fact our pieces do disconnect, and possibly, if we are fortunate, come back to reattach. While he slept, weeks and even years into our relationship, I often sat with the lamplight of the nightstand and stared at the scars that riddled his body — ankles and neck, ribs, forearms, legs — places where skin had punctured or ripped open, been rubbed off itself. And as he slept, I massaged these old wounds, or kissed them, thinking this was compassion, thinking this is how love goes from one man into another. Yes, I felt a great pang of pity for what he’d endured.
But ask me about that message on the highway in Oklahoma, and I couldn’t tell you a thing. Huge portions of his life he lived hidden and strongly guarded, and so, I never did learn the contents of that message that afternoon in the grey truck in the middle of Oklahoma. I never did learn a great many things about my second love. Finally, though, when he did take his life, and after his friends had ransacked the house, taken what they’d wanted, I was able to come in and clean up the rest. I learned a few things that don’t matter necessarily to this account of passing through those Oklahoma hills. I don’t recall the number of the highway, but I remember feeling very grateful when the land became flat again, since I was unhappy with this man and still hopeful about life, not yet ready to die. Even if you have never held in your mouth the immensity of thinking someone is going to end you, perhaps you can understand what happens inside the body, then, when any great sentiment leaves our flesh, goes its own way, succumbs to a more powerful force like joy or a slower speed and flat land or the sign that says Welcome to Texas, which, to me, means home.
There is power in wanting not to die.
And my fascination extends beyond a rupture of muscles, the separation of ligament from the bone and flesh it’s meant to connect. Maybe it’s sentiment, those epigrammatic and legendary emotions emerging out of trauma — resilience — which attracts me to other men’s endurance, what they can suffer, their pain.
That a body can lose touch with its other parts, be torn from them, physically, yes, that instructs me to listen, it’s one of the elements of my second lover that asked me to love him. But in spirit, that disassemblage — it’s a stunning thought, enough to take my breath away and maroon it to the moon. Can we say that the sigh being ripped from a body is not breakage? Is not division? Is not breath that belongs in the lung, yanked out like a tongue, left beside itself — is that not a cue?
3. Necessity, of Course
“Mexicans eat the funniest things,” a boy once told me. Tongue and cow brains, tripe, cactus, pigs’ feet, other things, too. I do wonder the magic of hunger, how one human hand took each of these items, at one time, at one historical moment, and pushed it bravely, perhaps curiously, mischievously, maybe, into the waiting mouth. Necessity, of course. Ingenuity. Making the most with what one has available, how that is one way to make the world ours.
4. People Who Eat Pain
When I think of trauma my ancestors suffered and still, survived, it is easier to breathe. Not at first, of course. Because, initially, the pangs of suffering hit the old nerves, the ones that never do dull or go numb or die.
My grandmother’s pain is my ancestor.
I don’t know the extent to which my ancestors suffered. Forgotten, how do they speak? If I don’t even know their names, how can I claim this pain?
Aguantate. Endure it, my mother often told us when we were young.
My grandmother once told me, There is a body buried behind the house. For a while, I became very afraid of the backs of people’s houses. When we came back to America, I would lay in my little part of the bed and stare at the dirt that made the space behind my grandmother’s small mud house.
There are bodies buried in the hillsides and mountains, left in dumpsites, tossed by roadsides, grandmother.
My grandmother’s losses, her broken heartbone. All the wishes, the dreams still asking for burial. I will never know what it means to a body to walk toward pain, knowing there is no recourse, knowing there is no one after to hold you —.
During the hardest fight of my life, my mother and my brother and my sister-in-law showed up. I won’t say they rescued me. But they helped me rescue myself.
They say a body can inherit trauma, carry it in DNA. By they I mean science. By they I mean God.
There are bodies buried in my skin.
There are bodies in my blood, in my breath.
Moctezuma, tied to stakes, had his feet burned. Torture. Men thought he would surrender the secrets of gold. He gave no secrets, and so the men gave fire to his skin. But where was the gold?
When I lost my house, a wise woman told me to remember how many others like me have lost houses and land and suffered great indignities, but they made it, and I would make it, too.
Intergenerational pain remains: silt, smoke, bones, sediment, stone, story, ash.
I will always remember the image of an old woman in LA chained to her house, clutching a pillar, refusing to be taken away by police, who had come to serve evictions, because Dodger Stadium had to be built and Chavez Ravine was no longer hers.
I might be Macbeth at the banquet table, celebrating my pain among hallucinations. Open-mouthed, yes.
But what if we can unlearn pain? And what if the body really does code itself to carry release? To heir along survival, resilience, love?
Above the genes, I might tell the scientists, native peoples have known this for centuries. It’s how we still stand.
5. The Story of Tongue
The first time I ate cow tongue I must have been ten. My grandmother boiled the oleaginous mass in a black speckled pot over a slow blue flame. It took a long time for the tongue to soften. It took a long time to make its way to our plates. What I remember, though, is not the saltiness or the pink-white peppered foam the tongue formed inside the pot’s rim, not the squares of the chopped meat falling on my plate — what I remember is the pulled tongue wrapped in paper, on the counter, before cooking, before dropping into the bubbling water. What I remember is that there was pulling involved, that a hand and some sharp-enough blade had taken force to the cow’s tongue, not that I’d seen any of this, not that I’d been privy to or a witness to the act of severing, no, it occurs to me now that I hoped the animal had been fully dead and could feel no pain when this severing happened. If I’d witnessed the event of the tongue being cut out, it was in fear, imagining the cut, then, in compassion, for suffering drove me to that place of not wanting harm, for I believe people like us must know despair before we can know compassion.
And I’d like to believe the people I surround myself with are goodhearted and filled with compassion, active agents of the heart’s tenet that kindness will always trump cruelty. Most of us think that we surround ourselves with the good guys, though. Of the ones we love, of the ones to whom we devote our hours, our bodies and hopes, we.
I’d like to believe the people around me can withstand long drought, civil war, hardships, long journeys, and hurricanes. Not because they are near me. Not because they carry blessings in the soil of their hearts or are bearers of forcefields and auras generating guardianship, but because we wear bodies that are fluent in adapting, in learning, in lo rasquache, en aguantando.
The world, after all, is what we make of it, que no?
Birds of a feather, guey. Flock together.
But doesn’t the world also make us — are we not made of air and ideas, muscle and machinery, rules and rebellions and floods? A rule of law can break the spirit of the body’s laws. Yes, the body has its tenets, laws constituted by elements other than punishments and crimes.
And yet, I am not one to easily comment on shit I don’t know, because all I can do is consider the consequences. I may not know the true extent to what my body can suffer; I’d like to believe it’s a knowledge my body deserves not to know.
Because I am in love with the idea of survival, you may begin to doubt my love affair with death. Suddenly, there will come a day when I am all out of aguanto, when my body really is just a body that can go no farther, that has run out of time. I am okay with this. I understand that I may not be remembered. I understand that my tattoos like my brownness will become ash. In the meantime, I remember the moments when I was frightened of my own survival — while some poets and storytellers tell of these magnificent dreams of snakes emerging from places in our bodies or white doves and great fish in the great sea, Love, what am I dreaming of? These days it’s gunfire. Machetes, toothbrush shanks pointed at the skin inside my eyes. A sledgehammer aiming for my whole skull. I can fault The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or a myriad of other engagements with violence. I can blame the little voice inside my tripas that whispers that I am always, no matter where I am or how, under attack. If this makes sense to you, if it resonates in the tremors you feel at sirens and flashing lights and newscasts that paint horror and doom for us, then, I am sorry but know I am like you. If it makes no sense to you, if it easy for you to dismiss the realness that some of our bodies are always under attack, then, let me remind myself that there is a common sense for bodies like mine. Even if this excludes you, it still is common.
When I was twelve, I decided I no longer wanted to eat tongue.
When I was twelve, I wanted no one to watch me take the meat and place its hot mass in my mouth.
When I was twelve, I sat in the monte, near my mom’s boyfriend’s Ford truck, my face wet and red and buried in the crush of my hands, because I hadn’t wanted to use the machete my mother’s dude had handed me, because I hadn’t wanted to clear brush, to hack wildly and sweat and lift branches and pile them to be burned, I hadn’t wanted to destroy anything, even if for money, even if we needed it for food or to pay the light or to keep a roof over our heads. What did I want? I wanted to ride my fucking bike, to throw the football with my friends, to watch cable at someone else’s house. And by resisting, by telling him, No, I’d pissed off my mother, humiliated her, made her life difficult by displeasing her man, and so, in the monte, my mouth clamped tightly, I dropped the machete at the truck’s tailgate, and my mother, glaring at me, said, “Joto,” which means faggot. She said, “You’re acting like a damn joto.” It was the first time she’d force-fed me that word. A heavy four-lettered slab.
I just stood there. It was the first time I’d heard her crush me with that word.
Kicking the machete, her boyfriend just shook his big head and reached for the axe, and my mother, wielding her anger inside her small body, handed me a bag to pick up trash.
The first time your mother calls you a faggot — that’s some hard shit to swallow.
If you have the urge in your body to ask instead for a story about tortillas or the aroma of serranos roasting through a small wooden house, a pitcher of horchata, an old-world song, you will be disappointed. Yes, those can be rich and lovely accounts, unlike this one, and so, you might feel as if I am not doing my job, me, being a Mexican, talking about not wanting to eat tongue, writing about ancestral memory and men’s bodies and hurt. What I mean is I won’t recreate a warm Mexican kitchen just for you. No, I won’t serve that hurt.
7. A Knife, a Tongue
A beautiful man once told me he was soft.
It’s amazing what a man will tell you when you are lying beside him in a bed, your arms pressed around his big body, or small, both your bodies exactly that, precisely, bodies, hair and muscle and fingernails and tattoos, holding him, skin and blood-throb, air and eyelids and sighs heavier than ash.
One man told me he wanted to be a firefighter, and this was something he wanted no one else to know, in case it didn’t come true, so I apologize now for telling you this, but it was too beautiful to be trusted so simply not to say it when discussing pain.
Brittle is another word for ego. Ego is another word for man.
This one man from El Salvador told me he did not know the day he was born, so, when he came to the United States, the family with whom he lived told him to make one up. He chose June 1. “Because it’s the first day of summer,” he said.
Once, a man from a small town in South Texas drove an hour to sit with me in his truck by the shore near the town in which I was born. He smelled of soap and drove a big country truck. In his front seat, we listened to old Tejano music and swapped stories about eating goat, and I didn’t think he’d ever been with a man until I put my hand on his thigh and began to rub him a bit. Then, he told me he’d been gang-banged in prison. He said he’d never told this to anyone before. His statements seemed to come out of the salt air, and I barely knew this man, so I don’t know why he told me this, but perhaps that’s the reason, which is a sadness I do not know, to go one’s entire life in the small towns I love so much, living and working and eating small goat, never having someone to tell this to, even a stranger. By the shore, we sat in his truck, the waves crashed in on the sand, and I let him hold my hand and kiss me. My beard is what he liked, he told me and rubbed himself against me, as if he might pull my smell, borrow or keep some for himself. It was November and cold, even in Texas, then, when he asked me to take off my shirt, because he wanted to see my skin and read my tattoos. He asked with a simple politeness common to men from this part of the world. In the green dim light of his dashboard, he ran his rough hands over my chest and kissed the letters, the beads of the rosary which dangle over my sternum. He put his mouth on my belly and undid my pants. As he touched me, he began to lose his breath, the windows of his truck grew damp, and when he wept, I did not expect this, so I took my hands out of his hair and simply rubbed the back of his neck, the upper parts of his back, until he apologized then thanked me and thanked me again when he’d finished me and said he needed to go home to his wife.
Of course, in the meantime, I carry my own bricks, my own thick bag of blocks that if I walked into the Gulf would make it impossible for me to come back.
The first man I ever loved very much once told me that his mother had not killed his father, though that was the claim they’d all agreed to. As he confessed this, he began to sob and fought them, those sobs, which was an impossible task, like stuffing whole armfuls of oak limbs and weeds into a can, until I put my mouth on the brown slope of his neck, the part where he wore another man’s tattoo. At that point, his body became more than the body he wanted to be. At that point, all I could do was hold him — I cannot tell you how many times he buried his breath in my chest. I cannot tell you all the other things he told me.
But some men, they never say anything.
Some men seal their shit up deep within, because not many men want to let another man go inside him then come out covered in shit.
This one man I met once lifted up his shirt before he kissed me back, showing me a chest made of piquetes, a plot of long stitches strewn across his brown torso. “My ex couldn’t control himself,” he told me, his head bowed and voice much quieter than we’d met. I hated his shame. Its clout, its cover. My brown eyes on his brown mouth, my brown hands on his skinny brown back, I asked for permission before I let my tongue do its work. I won’t tell you that I ate those wounds. I won’t tell you that I took anything harmful away. But I will tell you when we were done, I felt very heavy, like I was carrying inside me a palette of his sighs.
The best part of being with a man sometimes is the story only he can tell.
The best part of being with anyone is knowing we are not alone.
And I refuse to believe that what’s done is done.
Sometimes I believe a man who doesn’t want to hear my pain isn’t worth loving. I don’t know if you agree. I want you to agree, but that’s only so I don’t feel wrong, though I’m typically fine with being incorrect, so I suppose I want you to agree so that I don’t feel alone.
I am wrong to state this. It feels irresponsible to tell you an act is not an act unless I name its consequence. But can shit be undone? Can harm ever be unleveled, made level, again, lit, alas made light?
8. Death by Light
There is a species of fireflies who use their light to lure. Opulence or love, just the sight of a site to feel joy — who can say what exactly the insects lured by light experience? But they die. As a result of it, they are eaten and the hearts inside them which I make believe exist stop bleating the song we all sing. I don’t know the sound for an insect’s death. I’d like to think my own death will hum. And I, too, want to die a lit death. Not by fire. Not by crashing my truck into a light pole or staring into the sun so deeply, for such an extended period of time, that I burn myself from the inside out. Blindingly. Combustion, ashes. Alas, smoke.
When I die, I will come back. I am making that promise, which I hope not to break.
I will offer a feast. Or many feasts, which is a feat in and of itself to assure you.
Invite any hungry body, any sadness that also wants to hold light. Huge plates of nopales and cairns of water and prickly pear, lemons, a cornucopia of pecans and fat Texas peaches, a few grapefruit from the citrus groves that stand by the river, of course, of course, yucca, sweet camote, and corn, all the marvels to be made with it.
To behold the molcajete, the metate — to wonder who touched it before us, who carried it this far?
This might just be a gathering of ghosts.
This might just be a gathering of syllables and bones and platters of dark pears.
But if this be a gathering of sustos, the traumas that pull the sigh straight out of the body, the spirit, also. Then, the dead have done their jobs. Then, I am proud to be among them.
Whatever it is I am planning, do not call it a haunting, do not tag it supernatural or surreal. Call it remembering my ancestors. Call it how people like us make do and eat light so that all we are eating is not pain. I call it memory.
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