That’s how Miguel came into my life. We weren’t The Jeffersons, but my father wanted to move up and out. Crack addicts flooded our neighborhood in Washington, D.C. They stole anything and everything. We left when six crack heads moved next door, taking over an
Until Miguel, my life was like unseasoned food, edible but devoid of flavor or joy. At 15-years-old, I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was too much, but not enough for anyone it seems. Too black, too skinny, too weird, and too smart and yet, not black enough, not thin enough, not smart enough, not artsy enough.
Miguel changed all that.
He was like discovering that those sloppy juicy hamburgers your mother prepared taste better than Big Macs. That soft wet kisses don’t last for days, but the good ones made you feel like it. Pancakes taste good anytime. Popcorn tastes better with excessive amounts of butter, and that peanut butter and jelly is a good combo on anything.
We fled to the safety of the Maryland suburbs, a sprawling complex in Prince George’s County, with brick townhouses and ranch-style homes, and cropped lawns that seemed to remain a luminous shade of green all year long. For a while, my life was pretty much as it was in D.C. Everyone belonged to a group, except me. White kids hung together. Black kids hung together and a group of white, black and Asian kids all hung together. I was alone at the bus stop waiting for someone, anyone, to speak to me. They never did. All the kids socialized within their groups. I eavesdropped, envious as they shared highlights of their parties, football games or movie outings while I sat at the lunch table alone on Monday mornings. Even my cousins who loved visiting and sleeping over at our old home deemed our new neighborhood too white and refused to visit. I filled my weekends with babysitting jobs, Judy Blume novels and studying, but no friends and no fun.
One day a group of us stayed after Mrs. Walker’s Spanish class to earn extra
credit. Miguel was sitting in the middle of the classroom, surrounded by a group of white, black and Asian kids, laughing and joking as he conjugated verbs in Spanish. I was sitting alone on the
side of the classroom. A book folded over his knee as he leaned his chair back against the wall.
He wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and faded blue jeans with tiny holes in the right knee. I wanted to unravel the loose strings on his jeans and see more of his skin. Something about the sight of his bare skin peaking at me through that tiny hole made me feel as if we weren’t in a classroom at all. His caramel skin carried me to a tiny bistro in Georgetown. We could stay out as late as we wanted, and ordered White Zinfandel with our crab
cakes with no one demanding to see identification.
My world changed the day he walked over to my desk and said, “I’m making a snack run. You want something to drink, Michelle?”
I took a few seconds to respond. Was I hallucinating? An actual boy was speaking to me, and he wasn’t saying I looked like a dog or making some lewd suggestion. He wanted to know if I desired something from the vending machine. No male, other than my father and brother, had ever shown me such kindness. I asked for a Diet Coke. He returned with my drink, a bag of barbeque Fritos and a regular Coke for himself. He didn’t even ask me to pay for the soft drink.
At last, true love.
Weeks later, after discovering a shared passion for the Washington Redskins and Prince, he invited me to a picnic, and more invitations followed that. He sat with me during lunch. He gave me rides home after school, and he always wanted to know my weekend plans.
On Sundays, during the football season, we watched most of the games at Mrs. Walker’s house. She was our Spanish teacher. At these parties, she dressed in jeans and a number 87
jersey, a tribute to Jerry Smith, a former tight end for the Washington Redskins dying of AIDS.
Her two kids were always about, but her husband was a ghost. This was the relaxed version of Mrs. Walker. She was still in charge, but instead of reprimanding you for talking in class or failing to do your homework, she might inquire if you had tried the dip or ask how things were going in your other classes. The parties were okay. She had pizzas, chips, dips, cookies, beer and wine, but nothing like the feast my mother prepared.
Mom’s football parties featured spaghetti pizza, biscuits stuffed with sausage, and pepper steak, and plenty of family gossip. My mother discussed her younger sister’s latest romantic fiasco as she prepared the food.
“You know what Rosalynn’s problem is, don’t you? She can’t keep a man. Oh, she can get them, especially other people’s husbands, but she does not understand how to keep them.”
My mother’s guests almost always went home with a doggie bag.
I didn’t care about the food served at Mrs. Walker’s house. I was with Miguel, so the menu didn’t matter.
We kissed once during a party at her house. Miguel had too many beers. His face flushed, and sweat soaked his luscious and thick black hair. We were sitting on the floor, shoulders pressed together in Mrs. Walker’s bedroom. Miguel was discussing the Redskins’ playoff chances. He stopped talking and just stared at me.
“You’re a likeable girl, Michelle. I wish things could be different. I wish we could be...”
He leaned in and gave me a soft kiss on the lips. He tasted like Budweiser beer and Frito chips. I tilted my head, mimicking women in the movies. I wanted another kiss. I wanted him to kiss me for the rest of my life. He was about to answer my prayers, leaning in for another, but a voice interrupted, “Miguel, what are you doing?” Mrs. Walker shouted.
Miguel glanced up at her. “I was goofing around. Do you have a problem with that?”
Mrs. Walker glared at Miguel and then slid between us with a sneer on her face.
“So, Miguel, tell me, is Michelle your new girlfriend? How long have you two been a couple? I want to know all about this new romance of yours.”
At first, Miguel just looked at her before muttering, “Knock it off. It’s not like we’re married to other people or something. We can kiss each other and even have sex with each other,
if we want.”
I didn’t want Mrs. Walker thinking I was sleeping with Miguel. I wanted to be with him and kiss him and hug him, but I lacked the imagination for sex. I wasn’t even sure what it was exactly. Embarrassed, I ran out of the room.
I sought solace in the kitchen with a Diet Pepsi. Mrs. Walker walked in and opened the refrigerator. She said to no one in particular, “We’re running low on beer. Someone needs to make a run.”
She turned around to face me, but then looked back down in the refrigerator. “You shouldn’t take Miguel seriously. It meant nothing. He’s drunk. No more beers for him.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’ll give you a lift home, while I run out for more beer. It’s getting late for you. I mean, you should be getting home,” she said with a nervous chuckle.
“Don’t want to get you in trouble
with the folks.”
I wanted Miguel to take me home. He brought me, but I didn’t know how to tell that to Mrs. Walker. She was the adult. Maybe she knew best, so I said, “I would love a ride home.”
Mrs. Walker was a 34-year-old mother of two, with an eerie resemblance to Princess Diana. I’d heard lots of rumors about her even one about a baby given up for adoption. Some
students said she took a lover every year. They were always students. At least, that’s what kids said.
We were friends, I thought. She once used her American Express card to buy me a pair of shoes at Bloomingdale’s. I never paid her back.
No one thought it was strange that our Spanish teacher was always hanging out with a bunch of high school kids. Mrs. Walker was one of us. Sometimes, I wondered why she did not stay home with her husband and children, but I didn’t spend too much time on it. The situation did strike me as odd when I compared her to my mother, who seldom socialized without my father or family somehow involved. My mother was a few years older than Mrs. Walker, so maybe it was a generational thing or maybe my mom was just boring and no one other than family wanted to hang out with her, anyway.
Miguel had tickets to a surprise performance by Prince at a small club in Georgetown. I saw him in the hallway between periods. We waved. We never seemed to have enough time to chat, but that day he spun around and started walking backwards in my direction, “Hey, Michelle, what are you doing Monday night?”
“Studying. I have a history exam,” I answered.
“Bag that. I’ve got tickets to a Prince concert. Come with us,” he said.
He said something else, but he was too far away for me to hear. I wanted to see Prince, but my parents would never allow it on a school night. Surprisingly, my parents agreed to let me go. They were happy that I finally had friends and didn’t want to obstruct my blossoming social
Miguel couldn’t find parking.
Cars and people lined up outside the club. He drove around in circles for at least 30 minutes. Prince would hit the stage at 8 p.m., just 15 minutes away.
“Dammit, Miguel, just pay for a parking garage,” Mrs. Walker said. “Why, must everything be a monumental challenge?”
He told his friend Seni and Mrs. Walker to stand in line at the club while we searched for parking. Ten minutes later we found a place. He smiled. I smiled back all warm inside, thinking
seeing that smile could never get old. I wanted to see it replicated on our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Stay focused. That’s the secret to success,” he said.
We were three blocks away and held hands as we ran to the club. My heart was beating so fast that I thought I might be having a heart attack. Yet, I had no pain in my chest, only joy.
An actual boy was holding my hand. I wanted him to hold my hand, and he wanted to hold my hand. Seni and Mrs. Walker were three places in line away from entering the club.
A doorman checked our fake ID’s and let us inside. People were packed inside the hot club. Prince wanted the air-condition turned off. We sat in the back of the club on bleachers added to accommodate the overflow crowd. Miguel was sitting between Mrs. Walker and me.
Seni was next to me. We were all excited to see Prince perform. We debated Prince’s best
song. Miguel and Seni laughed because I picked “Purple Rain.” They selected some song I’d never heard of. Mrs. Walker wasn’t that into Prince, but said she appreciated some of Eric Clapton’s work.
I said, “Oh, I love Clapton’s “It’s in the Way That You Use It,” from the Tom Cruise and Paul Newman movie. It makes me want to dance.”
"That drivel,” Mrs. Walker rolled her eyes. “He was a God. Now, he’s just a pop star.”
Seni whispered something in my ear, but I couldn’t hear. The lights dimmed and the chords of “1999” started. Prince appeared on the stage and the crowd erupted with applause, chanting his name over and over, again. I am mesmerized by Miguel’s hand. It’s on a journey inside Mrs. Walker’s jeans. I tried to focus on the concert and Prince,
but I could not stop watching Miguel’s hand as it roamed inside Mrs. Walker’s jeans.
Everyone stood to applaud as Prince finished a song. I noticed Mrs. Walker’s pants were unbuttoned. As the crowd cheered, she leaned over and gave Miguel an open kiss on the mouth.
Full tongue. He pulled away as we made eye contact.
Prince played on, but all I heard was background noise mixed with the faint sounds of his guitar. I started drinking beer. I had never drank an entire can of beer or any alcohol, only sipped wine from my dad’s glass on special occasions. No drinking was one of the rules my parents set for attending the concert. I didn’t want to disobey them, but I needed something, and the waiter
kept supplying us with alcohol. I kept crashing into images of Miguel and Mrs. Walker. All the dinners, parties and other gatherings at her house. He was always in her classroom between periods, he took as long as he wanted to complete exams, and they even went Christmas shopping together.
Once, he was over at my house on a Saturday night watching a movie; Mrs. Walker called in tears and said a car hit her dog. He left. My mother said it was odd and asked why she didn’t call her husband.
Miguel loved Mrs. Walker. He would never love me.
Seni and Mrs. Walker chatted about Prince on the ride home. Miguel focused on the road.
I replayed highlights of Miguel and Mrs. Walker in my head. My brain was spinning from the beers, so I rolled down the car window, hoping the air would kill the buzz in my head and stop me from throwing up, but it just made me sicker. Miguel, Mrs. Walker and Seni were talking, but their voices were garbled. I wanted them to shut up. The sound of Mrs. Walker’s voice made me want to hurl.
As my head hung out the window, I wondered what went wrong. If I were prettier, my hair longer, my teeth whiter and straighter, my legs longer, my boobs bigger, would Miguel love me instead of Mrs. Walker?
Is this how things went wrong for Aunt Rosalynn?
I thought there was some secret to keeping and getting a man that no one would share with Aunt Rosalynn or me, sealing our fate as losers in love. Would I forever be in the dark about men, without love for the rest of my life? I vowed that night to demand my mother tell me the secret, so I would never again have to watch a man I love kiss and fondle another woman’s body.
I was still drunk by the time I arrived home. Miguel walked me to the front porch. He said something to me, but I did not understand. We were in Paris, and I didn’t speak French. I couldn’t find my door key. He knocked and Aunt Rosalynn answered; she was staying with us after another failed relationship.
Aunt Rosalynn came home and found her boyfriend with another woman.
“What the hell is going on here?” she screamed. Even though it was obvious what was going on. He was bonking some woman in their home, in the bed they shared. He didn’t bother explaining things to her. Instead, he told her to pack her bags.
She grabbed me, and I could understand her. She thanked Miguel for bringing me home.
Aunt Rosalynn took me to the basement because she didn’t want to wake my parents and didn’t want them to discover that I was drunk.
“I’m so drunk. I’m so drunk,” I kept repeating to Aunt Rosalynn.
“Yes, baby girl, you are.”
“Auntie, why won’t they tell us the secret? Why won’t they tell us the secret?”
And I cried.
“What secret? What are you talking about?” Aunt Rosalynn asked as she tried to get me to drink a glass of water.
“You don’t know the secret, and I don’t know the secret. We can’t keep a man. We will be old maids, spinsters, and live with my parents for the rest of our lives. Mama says you can’t keep a man. Miguel is sleeping with Mrs. Walker.”
Aunt Rosalynn held me and stroked my hair. It made me sleepy, and I closed my eyes, but all I could see was Mrs. Walker and Miguel kissing. Miguel exploring Mrs. Walker’s jeans.
All this time Miguel loved Mrs. Walker. Why couldn’t he love me? What was wrong with me?
Aunt Rosalynn said, “Listen to me. There is no secret. It’s all about finding the right person, and one day you will, and one day I will. Remember that. Always remember that, no matter what your mother says. It just comes down to finding the right person. There is no secret.”
I wondered if Aunt Rosalynn believed that or if that was something that women who don’t know the secret wanted to believe. I wondered about Miguel, and only wanted to wake up in the morning and no longer love him.
Author Constance Johnson is a freelance journalist working primarily in television news. She is based in New York City.