The same summer the Magic City Strangler started cruising South Beach men’s rooms, before the Section 8 projects were dismantled and we were all forced out, I did my last stint in juvie. I was sixteen, and I went in pretending I owned the place, bragging to all the younger girls that it wasn’t my first time.
So much is going on in the background of this story, yet the focus is always on a sixteen-year-old trying to negotiate a path through adolescence. There’s a very subtle hand at work, and a lot of mastery of tone and nuance.
Section 8 housing, the Strangler, and a killer who hasn’t left enough burned female corpses behind to earn a nickname yet – this is the background of Nena’s life. This is where Nena just spent an extra month in Juvie because her mother couldn’t be bothered to pick her up.
But it’s more than just background or setting. It adds a bass line thrum of threat throughout, sure, but, as the last sentence of the story makes clear, it’s also an intrinsic part of the story: Nena’s relationship with her homegirl Boogie.
Maybe it was the way we were raised, the way we were programmed to think of two men, or two women, as simply wrong. Maybe we were excited by the wrongness of it. Or by the danger. Either way, it didn’t matter. I thought of the possibility of losing her, Boogie up in Jersey without me, lying like this in someone else’s bed. And so I kissed her.
With marriage equality surging (finally!) all around us, it’s sobering to remember there are still places where being tagged “gay” can get you sprayed with bleach. Or worse.
This relationship goes through several twists and turns as Nena feels a tug-of-war between her long friendship with Boogie, and the fear of the difference between what one moment might have meant to her, and to Boogie. Diaz executes each change in Nena’s relationship with Boogie with a delicacy that can only be appreciated by reading the story.
Complicating all that is the arrival of a new kid on the block, Junito, who brings out a powerful protectiveness in Nena when he shows a reluctance to discuss his mother’s incarceration: “I wanted to tell him that I understood, but I kept my mouth shut. I hated when people thought they knew what I was going through.” Look at the layers there – she doesn’t want to tell him she knows how he feels because she knows how he feels about that.
Maybe because Diaz isn’t that far removed from teenagerdom herself, the kids are perfectly observed throughout, oscillating between bravado and panic, stupidity and wisdom, cruelty and gentleness without missing a beat. The events swell and recede, and the most important moments happen in near-silence, like prayers:
“Am I sleeping over?” she asked, changing the subject. Before I got locked up, she slept over all the time when her mom worked the graveyard shift.
“Don’t know,” I said. “Are you?”
“If you want me to,” she said.
It had been nothing, but we were still dancing around it. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I took her hand, and we sat there for a while, our fingers interlaced.
“I want you to, ” I said finally.
I love the writerly choices Diaz makes, the way she focuses our attention at various moments. The final climactic event is itself a crash of cymbals, yet the heart of it all lies, again, in that which is not explicitly narrated, but powerfully conveyed nonetheless. And yet, I found it a difficult story to write about: it’s like trying to capture a cloud and hang it on the wall.