I hid them in a garment bag. I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore.
Much of how I maneuver within womanhood was determined by my current environment. I’ve been watching women and building preferences for as long as I’ve been alive. The core of my style was settled long ago, pretending then to be a statement of preference for the other women in my life, with a tactile longing I only recently came to understand. But its current expression owes much to where I am now. Nearly my entire wardrobe is from the heaps of donations I’ve received, filling my closet to bursting and slowly being evaluated for whether and how I’ll actually wear each item. The friends who provided these items have fairly different styles of their own, and I accepted their largesse knowing that I’d be picking and sorting through it as my style evolves.
Most of those friends are Canadian. None of them are Hispanic. And it makes me wonder.
How different would I look if I had recognized myself in Miami, instead of in Ottawa?
There’s little about me that I think would have benefited from that peculiar place. I am the person I am now because I was able to get away from it and find a place better suited to me, whose cozy warmth belies its icy streets.
But I know the clothing advertisements here don’t have as much in common with the ones in Miami as the shared US-Canada economy would let one imagine.
And I know I looked strange and foreign and a little ridiculous way back when, when I clung to the past like a protective shell and wore my guayaberas in Canada. I wore them regardless of season, layering sweaters underneath as the ground turned white. I wore them to school, I wore them to errands, I wore them to the Latin nightclub I once frequented. I kept them in regular circulation with my handful of other loose-fitting button-down shirts that are a sensible choice for tropical heat even as my style moved toward tight-fitting t-shirts instead.
I hid behind their looseness. In their draping shapelessness I could disappear from my own mind. I looked good in them, but I hardly noticed. From outside, they were an itchy relic and a signal, a way for me to tell others where I came from and to make an extra striking impression on the women I escorted to the salsa floor. From inside, they let me not see myself at all.
They’re all tied up in that emotion now, too fraught to wear, too dear to remove.
I looked like my father in them. I look a lot more like my mother now.
I’ve looked into guayaberas in women’s styles, but they mostly look like the repurposing of menswear that they are. Tailoring my old guayaberas to my new body would be no better, and I’d still face their itchiness.
I haven’t danced in years. I hurt my ankle, I ran out of money, I moved farther and farther away from the Latin nightclub, and my interest has waned. I used to be one of the more impressive of Ottawa’s amateur dancers—handily outpaced by the performers and professionals, but a local fixture all the same. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember the leads and style flourishes and the mental paths I built to make sure my steps aren’t too big. The basic rhythm will never leave me, but I would have to relearn everything else.
Salsa and its cousins are a place where I built confidence and verve, where I had enthusiastic permission to have my hands on women’s bodies and where I could explore a version of masculinity that was a crucial step toward the person I am now: graceful, stylish, small, with hips that never stop. In that darklit place, I could be beautiful.
Under that Panama hat and that guayabera and those linen pants, I could be a vision of a history that didn’t thrum through me the way it seemed to demand a home in my family. I could feel…connected.
All of these dance forms are highly gendered, and instructors-in-training refer to learning how to follow as learning “the girl part” and vice versa. I had to learn a whole series of cues and patterns to become a competent leader, cues that are altogether different—not even reversed, totally foreign—when one is instead following someone else’s lead. I would have to learn them anew, or learn the follower’s steps, replace my well-honed footwork, and accept men’s hands on my body. Even if I could stomach all of that, I am too easily dizzied to handle the amount of spinning a salsa follower is expected to manage, even if I still have a pitch-perfect pencil turn.
I hid my dance shoes in the roll-away box where I stashed most of my remaining boy clothes, because I feel too many things when I see them.
Ania bought me a beautiful Panama hat to replace the one that got run over by a bus on a windy day and started to disintegrate. That one was a free gift with some cologne whose smell I still like, but which isn’t for me anymore. The new hat has a pheasant feather. I have never owned a more beautiful hat.
I wore the old hat to all sorts of improbable places. I used to go dancing in winter with the old hat stretched over my tuque, trudging through snow in something made for the Ecuadorian sun. I wore it to the market in summer to shade my eyes. I wore it to the airport and back, remembering that, however different the final message in the two locales, it was a jaunty style statement in either
I don’t know what to do with that hat. It’s tied in with a phase of my life that is several layers of concluded, and it’s a style that clashes with the clothes I wear now. It hasn’t left its hat box in months. The last time I took it out, I looked at it, sighed, and put it back.
Ania is learning how to make my mother’s and my grandmother’s signature dishes. She’s found enough online guidance that she has virtually duplicated my grandmother’s pasteles (tamales to the rest of you), my mother’s lechón asado, my grandmother’s ox-tail soup, the Cuban sandwiches from every local grocery store, the congris and yuca that are part of every holiday feast, without my even knowing what the relevant spices are. She knows I’m useless at that kind of memory, that I can cook capably for myself but that matching others’ flavors, managing subtle cooking times, linking the deep emotional joy of such familiar fare to certain amounts of cumin and salt, those tasks are as yet beyond me.
She knows that she can’t ask them about it, either, not since they decided that her defending me from their verbal abuse was a bridge too far and have loudly demanded that she never interact with them again in several subsequent conversations, none of which otherwise involved her.
I know she might never manage the one I asked my mother for at least one in every visit, the one that’s white rice made yellow with a spice mix that contains achiote (annatto to you lot) and made a delicacy with cut-up Vienna sausages. I don’t think that one has a name, so there’s nothing to look up, and I’ve tried and failed to make it so many times that I hardly remember what the correct outcome looks like. But I remember that I miss it.
When we finally found a grocery that sells banana leaves, I almost cried while holding them. Maybe I should have.