I must have been about 37 when he walked into my world. He was six years my junior and built like a God. One of those fast and athletic Gods, like Hermes; not so much a powerful-too-many-steroids-and-small-dick God like Zeus. When I first saw him, my cheeks flushed, my body warmed, and the in-between-my-legs-place gushed. Ryan Gosling was my dream boy. Tall, blonde, perfectly sculpted body, and white, so, so white.
Ryan Gosling represented everything I couldn’t have throughout most of my life, or so I thought. White boys didn’t kiss brown girls like me; brown skinned, acne faced, chunky bodied, frizzled haired, completely-obsessed-with-Ted-McGinley-because-one-day-we-would-get-married-on-the-LOVE-BOAT-girls like me. White boys liked white girls. This was the way of the world, I realized as I sat at my 4th grade desk staring at a folded letter marked “No”.
I had slipped that letter onto Tyler Jackson’s desk right before class that morning. I spent the whole night before making sure my handwriting was neat, feminine, yet festive. The message needed to state a clear intent yet not a bossy one. And of course, no love letter was complete without straight lined, sharply angled, square boxes clearly marked “Yes” or “No” for your new potential “lover” to give you permission to write his name all over your notebook.
Tyler was the most transparent boy in school. When summer recess came, I thought it was completely irresponsible of the teachers to let that kid outside. But, Tyler was brave and unafraid about the way his ghostly face and neck would turn a vividly bright red within seconds of seeing the sun. All the other kids would pull out their sunglasses to reflect the light beaming off his skin while I would bathe in the glory of all his radiance while he transformed into a strawberry.
I sat at my desk folding and unfolding my letter. Was I clear when I asked, “Do you like me? Will you be my boyfriend?” Was this 4th grader not ready to commit to his soul mate forever? Maybe it was the way the folded corners of the envelope slightly collapsed in, like my heart when he said no. As I looked closer at the letter, I noticed a small note written in Tyler’s handwriting that said, “You’re ugly.” Without saying it, I knew exactly what he meant – my wide nose, my thick dark hair, my Kmart version of Adidas – nothing about me was white. Without realizing it, Tyler Jackson had set me on a path of no return; to seek and destroy all white men. (Ok, I didn’t actually think of destroying anyone, that would be some boiling-a-rabbit kind of shit, but I definitely was hoping to crumple some hearts.)
The next potential beau was Jason McCleary. That’s not his real name. It totally is! He won’t ever read this and if he does, he should be proud to have been the target of my affections because I’ve finally pulled my shit together and my skin has cleared up. Jason was everything I wanted in a man. He was white.
I could spend hours imagining spending hours staring into his deep blue oceanic eyes. I knew if Jason would pick me as his girlfriend, my Korean mother would be proud. At some point, my mother said to me that she never cared who I dated, as long as he was white, but definitely not Puerto Rican. My father was Puerto Rican. What I came to understand later was that my mom would be happy if anyone would date me because she never thought I had a chance with men because I was too “pig head”, “wirld”, and had a big nose.
Growing up in a small blue collar town in Virginia, I wasn’t exposed to many people of color and was the token “What Are You?” girl amongst my friends in school. That’s what people would ask me, daily, because clearly I wasn’t white and clearly I wasn’t black. I was brown but not even dark enough to be mistaken as Mexican.
Being asked, “What are you?” when I was younger didn’t bother me, and it doesn’t bother me now because I know that people are curious. Still, thinking of those words from the perspective of a well rounded adult stings a little and makes me wonder if that had anything to do with my need to belong to a group; to be neatly labeled and categorized. It also shames me that the one group of people I wanted to belong to, the smart wealthier white kids, was the one that rejected me the most. What the hell was I thinking? We all know the best group to belong to are The Gays.
Jason, unlike Tyler, was a kid of working class parents, like me. I was sure we’d have more in common than Tyler and I did, if he could look past my pimply scarred skin. We both liked metal. Well, he liked metal and I learned the names of all the bands before crafting my awesome look-at-me-I-too-love-Megadeth-and-hairspray love letter. We both had siblings, we were both people, and it was clearly fate.
Once again, I sat in my desk, a year older, none the wiser, staring at a “no” checked box in my hand. I watched Kim Cullerton, not her real name… it totally is because she should know that she destroyed my life… lean against Jason’s desk. Jason’s face turning as pink as original flavored Big League Chew gum as Kim’s white blonde waist length hair tickled his shoulder.
High school was pretty dry for me. I was afraid to talk to most boys for fear of rejection. For a number of years, I dated the one drifty brown kid that came into our school. He took my virginity and eventually dumped me for Taylor Stephens, who would later turn out to be a lesbian, which gave me great satisfaction to know that he clearly didn’t know how to fuck her either. Disclaimer: I am well aware that people don’t “become” gay, but please let me have this moment.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that I had been holding the magical key to my sexual kingdom the whole time! While standing in the hall to my dorm room, which actually was a Ramada Inn because my art school was reconstructing the dorms, I find out that men, not just the white ones, but most all men, “Have a thing for Asians.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked my newest crush, Tyrone. Not white, but black and dark, so, so dark, tall, with abs for days, and puffy fat lips that spoke words in a Barry White voice that would make my knees weak.
“It’s a thing. Men like Asians and they like Latin girls, too. C’mon, Elizabeth, you know you got it like that,” Tyrone said as he brushed the hair out of my eyes and my panties accidentally fell to the ground, which was weird because I was wearing jeans.
I couldn’t believe it. I “had it like that”. What did that mean? Did I always have it like that? Did I catch it when I forgot to bring flip flops into the gym shower? “What do I have, Ty? Tell me everything I have. WAIT! Let me grab a pen and then tell me.”
Tyrone proceed to ignore me and laughed because he thought I was charming, but I was desperate to know about my new found powers. He told me that I was funny and exotic and that big noses were beautiful, especially on my face; he never mentioned my acne scarred skin. He turned my hands around in his hands. I admired how they were two different colors; one side dark, the other side light. He whispered something in my ear, but I was too busy trying to will my jeans off like my panties and then he kissed me.
The next morning as I watched him sleep, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why did I let my self-worth be measured by white boys for so long when there was so many strikingly colorful people in the world? The answer laid in the question, “What are you?” I didn’t know what I was, but I knew I had spent too much time wanting to be white. White like my friends in school, like the Keatons on Family Ties, and like Olivia Newton-John.
But, that wasn’t who or what I was. Tyrone clearly explained that the night before, I had “that thing” and that thing, whatever that meant, was my thing and Ty liked it. I mean, not to brag, but he liked it a lot, like several times that night, I’m saying record breaking a lot. His warmth and honesty made me understand what I was and that was an idiot – a complete and total idiot for not understanding that being matters much more than belonging.
Tyrone, probably to his dismay, opened up my world. Men started looking like a Baskin Robbins challenge and 31 flavors was not enough. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the white guys, especially if they look like Ryan Gosling, or even Seth Rogen, if I imagine him with his mouth sewn shut, but at least it’s no longer about my insecurities about my race or face, rather, my focus is about what I want and who I love and boy, I do love them all.
This story was performed at You’re Being Ridiculous, a great Chicago Storytelling show and you should check them out.