Poem by Barbara Jane Reyes
from Brown Girl Beginning
The breaking begins before you have words for it. Before skinning your knees on sidewalks riding two-wheelers, before coloring books and peachy flesh Crayolas, before Hello Kitty and Disney princesses, before applying your mom’s Avon lipstick behind the locked bathroom door, before unearthing you dad’s Playboy magazines at the back of his closet, before your Barbie dolls’ first girl on girl action. They are already breaking you. When your “uncles” kiss you too close to your lips, and inhale you. It doesn’t matter how boozy and pomaded, how tobacco stained or how much gold they’re flashing, how much unbuttoned chest hair, aftershave, and body funk. You must allow them to handle you fast at the waist, be a big girl squirming on their laps and bulging crotches. You are to sit still, and smile. When they marvel at how you have grown, dalaga na, you learn you are to say, salamat po.
This is how it began: When I was seven, I never knew that ladies’ hands could hold hammers and hurt. When I was eight, they told me to stay in the shade. They told me no man would ever want a dark Igorot girl, so dirty. When I was nine, I learned I should smile at all the men who told me I was pretty. When I was ten, I learned to flip my hair, to roll up my skirt at the waist. When I was eleven, they told me my legs were fat, my knees so black. When I was twelve, they said (in front of company), hija, you should be bleeding na.
When I was twelve, I wanted sharp pressed suits — David Bowie, “Modern Love.” I wanted those cheekbones. I wanted to play electric guitar, slung low between my legs, pointing to heaven and wailing. I wanted a motorcycle jacket, and rockabilly hair. I wanted dragon ink to ribbon my arms — Japanese, whiskered, breathing fire. I wanted cowboy boots and a big-ass black stetson. On Saturday mornings, my dad would call from under his Mustang, ‘64-½, with Alabama plates. I’d wear his old shirts. I’d hand him each greasy tool, one by one. He’d nod, “that’s my boy.”
When I was thirteen, they let me dance with boys, five, six years older than me. When I was fourteen, they told me I gained weight. They told me my hips were wide. When I was fifteen, they told me I should be I should be a wife by the time I turn 21. When I was sixteen, they told me to study hard and go to college. They told me to stay away from boys. They told me to let the men drive. They told me to wait. When I was seventeen, they told me I must give my parents grandkids. When I raised my eyebrows at them, they told me to do as they say. They told me a lady does not talk back. They told me a lady always obeys.
One day, a group of boys said they’d rape you. Just drag you behind the bushes, and rape you. Just like that. Because you did not smile at them. Because you did not say thank you. The threat was so artless, and this is when you knew it was idle, dumb boys puffing out their chests because there was nothing else to do that day. Who knows what they were waiting for you to do. When you told them that they could go fuck their mothers (among other things), you could see the fraying, those thinning tethers to manhood, that thing that tells a young man to weep is weakness. Some tears fell. They weren’t yours. Nobody touched you that day, not a hand on your motorcycle leather, your fishnet thighs, your shaved skull. Your eyeliner never smeared or ran. You never ran. And even today, you tell this story, only in second person.
Barbara Jane Reyes, adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco, author of Invocation to Daughters (City Lights Publishers, 2017), and four previous collections of poetry, including Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005) and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010). Letters to a Young Brown Girl is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd., in 2020.