My father did seasonal work in the fields. He picked grapes in the summer, asparagus in the winter. In between, he held a series of odd jobs, mainly with construction crews whose company owner paid cold cash. Occasionally the crew was hired for a project in ritzy Palm Springs. Palm Springs was a haven for retired actors and well-meaning debutantes who championed causes like wildlife sanctuaries and who organized golf tournaments for charity. The Coachella Valley got to hear all about the rich folks through the evening news and Gloria Greer’s “Stars of the Desert.” Featured in her segment were costume balls, barbecue fund raisers and the rare interview with the likes of Florence “Mrs. Brady” Henderson.
At one time or another, everyone in the Valley knew of someone who had crossed paths with a famous name, especially if that someone worked at the plush hotels or on the luxury links. Or in construction, like my father.
“My father did some renovating for Bob Hope,” I bragged to a friend.
Not to be outdone, he answered full of pride, “My father fixed a driveway for Kirk Douglas.”
Among the countless celebrities who inhabited the Palm Springs area was Liberace, the flamboyant entertainer with the trademark candelabra and outlandish outfits. He was easy to imitate. I simply threw a comforter or an unzipped sleeping bag over my shoulders and let it drag like a train, Lady Di wedding-dress style. The walk across the carpet on a pair of my mother’s high heels I never mastered, so I wobbled all over my pretend stage.
What attracted me to Liberace was the way he got away with the whole theater of his presentation: minks, rings, makeup, and a hairdo that saluted the heavens.
“Pinche joto,” my father declared each time Liberace stepped onto the stage at his variety-show specials in the early 1980s. Damn fag. My family was devoted to watching him because he was, after all, a great musician. Music was important to my father, who had been in a band back in Mexico. An added bonus was that we could poke fun at Liberace s antics. I watched in admiration, envisioning myself swallowed in fur, thrusting my diamond-heavy fingers at the studio audience. Thank you, daaaarlings! Batting my eyelashes at the camera seemed so much safer than batting them at the bathroom mirror. Liberace could bat, pucker, wink, strut and blow kisses with the wave of his hand. And Liberace was fat.
Always an overweight child, I developed an intense insecurity about my size. For me, the courage to step out into the world as an obese kid came by making believe I didn’t notice I was fat, that my corpulent body was invisible. Yet that fantasy was a delicate one, easily shattered when a cruel kid on the street yelled out, “Hey, fatso!”
Reality hit hard during a Christmas pageant. Our homeroom was designated to complement a Santa Claus skit with the singing of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” As soon as our teacher walked in with a box of green and red elf outfits—hats and matching vests —I knew there’d be trouble. The hat wasn’t a problem, but when I was handed the vest, I became dizzy with embarrassment.
“Why don’t you just wear a green shirt instead,” my teacher suggested.
When the day of the pageant arrived the following week, I begged my mother to let me stay home from school.
“What’s wrong with you? Are you sick? You’re not sick!”
“I’m fat!” I responded.
I showed up at school with a green shirt. Throughout the entire pageant, and especially through the singing of the Christmas carol, the stage lights shone heavy on my face. I knew everyone in the audience understood why I was the only elf without a vest of my own. The yearbook photographer even requested that I be moved to the back of the squatting chorus, or to the side, at least.
After that incident, being fat was the perfect scapegoat for all my other misfortunes. If I fell off my bike, I fell because I was fat; if I scored low on my spelling test, I scored low because I was fat. And the one time I didn’t get the gift I wanted for my birthday, yes, I didn’t get it because I was fat. I became determined to slim down, to be as skinny as my large-ankled, knobby-kneed brother, whose neck was so narrow it looked as if his head floated above his shoulders. The ambition was there. The question was, how?
For my Mexican grandparents, fat meant healthy; obesity was a status symbol. In Mexico, if you’re fat, you have plenty to eat and the money to buy it with. Liberace—fat, famous, wealthy. In the United States, even the poor can be fat, because bad diets and junk food are cheap. When my brother and I first came to the United States, we were diagnosed as anemic and were prescribed vitamins—big, red pills my grandmother shoved down our throats with a jab of her index finger. Every morning before school, the pill, the finger, the gagging. We would laugh at each other getting subjected to this daily routine.
“I want you plump and beautiful,” my grandmother used to say. My mother and my aunt, both big women, would wrap their bellies with plastic to make themselves sweat when they did their stretches on the floor. Every morning I heard their swish-swishing all the way from the front porch. But nothing seemed to change. They looked the same as their photographs in the brown stack offamily albums. I imagined their disappointment as each picture became a testament to their failed attempts at weight loss. Eventually the swishing ceased, but my ingenious aunt found a way to compensate for the lack of exercise: a tomato diet. She’d skip breakfast and instead eat one juicy, red tomato with a dash of salt. Later she substituted the tomato with a grapefruit sprinkled with a spoonful of sugar. When she tired of that, she switched to chopped cauliflower with sour-cream dressing. Then came the avocado-with-chives stage, followed quickly by the refried-bean-burrito-with-melted-cheese week. Diet soda, of course.
Instead of diets, I was subjected to the infamous fat-burning cream my mother ordered for herself through an ad on television. Thick and yellow, it smelled like some kind of rusty metal—battery copper or a dirty butter knife. As soon as my mother applied it to my stomach, it stung like acid. I jumped up and down, crying out, “I’m burning! I’m burning!” She pushed me into the shower, then rubbed cold butter on my skin.
“Don’t tell your father,” she warned me as she treated my burns. “And don’t take your shirt off.”
No problem. I never took my shirt off in front of anyone, because I was ashamed of my llantas, my stack of tires. I couldn’t watch a Michelin tire commercial with my cousins around because they’d point out that I resembled the Michelin Man. The Pillsbury Doughboy and the cherubic Campbell’s kids also sent me running out of the television room.
My mother’s little yellow diet pills were another craze of mine for a while. But all they did was make my heartbeat race and make me crave food. They also made me lose sleep, and when I couldn’t sleep, I got hungry. I sneaked into the dark kitchen late at night while everyone slept. I had memorized the location of the bread, the jelly and the utensil drawer. I recognized the spoon through touch. If my mother heard me stirring, she’d call out my name and demand that I put back whatever it was I had taken. I simply froze in my tracks, shut my eyes, and pretended I was floating back to my bed. But the weight of the jelly sandwich anchored me firmly to the kitchen linoleum.
My father became increasingly concerned about my weight. My mother’s own obesity was contributing to her ailing health. She always had a weak heart, and those extra pounds were dangerous. Besides, all that baby fat on my body made me look girlish. It was painful enough that by nature I was effeminate, not rough-and-tumble like my brother. I didn’t dare tell my father about the kid who had asked me during school recess whether I was a boy or a girl. I actually answered his question, giddy with the excitement of being the object of his attention. I suspected my father hoped as I did that those diet pills would shrink me down to the gangly boy shape my brother had.
“You look like you have girl tits,” my brother pointed out. “Can I suck on them?”
“You fag,” I said, then caught myself. How many times had I been accused of being a fag because I was a chubby, soft-spoken sissy—too slow and passive in P.E. “Move, you fag! We’re going to lose the game because of you!” I’d come home, fat and frustrated, to bite into my own, fleshy arms, admiring the tooth marks afterward with an air of revenge and accomplishment. I became resentful of the one boy in school who was fatter than I was. Alfonso never wore a belt, so his underwear and butt crack kept showing; he had a crow’s nest for hair that attracted chalk; and once he sneezed in class so hard he splattered himself with mucous, earning the nickname Alfonso Mucoso. Yet it was I who was feminine fat. Fag fat. Even Alfonso recognized it. One time he threw his arm around me from behind and squeezed my nipple so tightly it bruised. Yet it was that violent grip that made me realize something about myself, because for nights after that I touched my wound, hoping to recreate that sensation of pain and pleasure— that gift given to me by another boy.
I kept my sexual desires secret all through middle school and up until high school. My obsession with my own body intensified. I had mastered sucking in my stomach and pinching my fat until I lost my appetite. Obese people made me sick, especially when they laughed. Unless you were Santa Claus, there was no reason to ho, ho, ho. Fat meant disease. Fat was fatal. I had known people who were hurt by their own large bodies. Like my mother. I always wondered if her early death could have been avoided if she had slimmed down. Yet there they were, the fat people, taking up more space than the average people, complacent in their vulnerable, big bodies.
I had shed plenty of my baby fat, but my weight fluctuated dramatically. I went through periods of overeating and even longer periods of denying my body nourishment. I had no control. Other high-school kids talked. There were only two ways a teen-ager at my high school lost that much weight: eating disorders or drugs. But only girls were anorexic, so everyone assumed I was doing coke, crystal or angel dust. No one could know that whenever I had the chance, I took my plate of food into my room and emptied it into sheets of newspaper. If I had no choice but to eat in front of my family, I did so, only to force myself to vomit into the toilet while the shower was running.
My rapid weight gains and losses persisted throughout my adolescence. My grandmother had a number of explanations. It was puberty. It was that stomach virus going around. It was depression. According to my grandmother I was still mourning the death of my mother, who had died a few years before.
My high-school days worsened when I started struggling with my sexuality. I took refuge in books to avoid contact with the people around me. I read Greek mythology, drawn to it by the erotic depictions of the Olympian gods on the covers. I absorbed E.M. Forster’s “Maurice,” Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”—literature that taught me about disguised courtships and same-sex attractions, the pain and the pleasure of it. I sought out clandestine affairs of my own, which wasn’t hard in a Mexican community, where it’s possible to be a fag and not a fag, ours the homophobic environment that pressures homosexuals to embrace a publicly heterosexual life. Men satisfy their urges secretly, confident that their public sexuality displaces any suspicion or speculation about their private one. Only men are allowed to use the degrading terms and callous words in the power play of machismo; women are expected to be polite and not even imagine the possibility that there is a homosexual locked inside a man they know. I had flings with married men, with men who had children as old as I was. They went to church on Sunday, drank beer, and eyed the teen-age girls in gym shorts. They showed me photographs of their fianceés and sent me wedding invitations. They were strong and loved to flick big-breasted women. They were macho. I was their own, personal Liberace, who whispered tunes in their ears they could never admit to having heard. It didn’t matter that I was fat or thin, just that I was available. They desired me just the same.
“I wish you could stay with me forever,” one of the men once said to me in bed, right before the phone rang. He picked up the receiver. “Cariño! How I miss you. How are the kids?” I never felt more invisible than on that mattress, under those heavy sheets that smelled of someone else’s nights.
I sneaked back home and made a ham sandwich, spreading the mayonnaise nice and thick on the bread. I savored it to punish myself. I ate it and made one more.
Everything I had learned to be and not be, accept and deny was finally derailed in the late 1980s when Liberace began to attract suspicious attention. To me, Liberace had it all. His personality drew attention away from his obesity and sexuality. He was my hero, the master of disguise and deceit, the man who successfully showed this so that no one could see that. He was all things big: big name, big smile, big hair, big shoes. One big secret. One big lie.
That lie slowly revealed itself as Liberace began to shrink out of public view—literally. He was losing all that weight, a feat he attributed to a watermelon diet. I remember my high-school health teacher saying, “That’s a terrible diet! Watermelon is 99 percent water; Liberaces going to starve to death.”
At first I thought I understood Liberace even more, that I was more like him than I imagined. I pictured him gnawing into the white part of the watermelon beneath the red meat, or even into the hull, convincing himself that this was working—the pounds were coming off! I believed we had both fantasized about being one of those weight-loss-products spokespeople on television, the before-and-after images of our bodies liberated from the nasty cycles of weight gains and losses.
But then Liberace died. The county coroner made the cause public: “AIDS-related death.”
The end of my hero was one big disappointment. He should have exited big, not amid the tabloid gossip and public paranoia. When a fat, blond boy came forward as Liberace’s lover and sued the Liberace estate, I felt betrayed. Where would I go from here?
Liberace sent me a postscript a few years after his death. In the late 80s, I was in college and still in the closet. The other college kids talked. “You’re gay,” a girl said to me when she turned me down for a date and I asked for an explanation.
I had lost 75 pounds in less than a year. “They don’t give you beans?” my grandmother exclaimed incredulously when I explained I was only fed hateful, American foods like pot roast and vegetarian chili. There was much speculation in the college dormitory about my condition. It was rumored I had AIDS, and I was subsequently ostracized.
During that difficult first year, I made a few visits home. On one occasion my father showed up with a two-basin kitchen sink in the truck bed. He acquired it on a job at the former Liberace residence. It was going to be thrown out, he explained.
“Do you remember Liberace?” he asked me. I got goosebumps.
“Yes, so?” I responded.
“So it’s his sink!” my father said.
“What do you want it for, anyway?” I asked, almost stuttering.
“Are you kidding? This sink can get me maybe 50 bucks if I sell it across the border.”
“Why? Because it’s Liberace’s?” I asked, looking for any distinguishing marks, for a candelabrum or a music staff etched near the drain, maybe some telling initial.
“No, it’s nothing special.” My father lightly tapped the side of the basin with a wrench. “It’s just a goddam sturdy sink, that’s all.”