Pushcart XLII: Jaquira Díaz, “Beach City” (nonfiction) from Brevity #52

We talked about Miami Beach like it belonged to us, convinced that the tourists who came down to swim in our ocean and dance in our nightclubs were fucking up our city. We were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-old hoodlums, our hair in cornrows, too-tight ponytails, too much hairspray, dark brown lip liner, noses and belly buttons pierced, door-knocker earrings, jailhouse ankle tattoos….
We were the ones who knew what it meant to belong here, to be made whole during full moon drum circles, dancing, drinking, smoking it up with our homeboys. We knew what it meant to bloody our knuckles here, to break teeth here, to live and breathe these streets day in, day out, the glow of the neon hotel signs on the waterfront, the salt and sweat of this beach city.

Complete story available online at Brevity

When I encountered Díaz for the first time five years ago, I said her story had a “mastery of tone and nuance”. She still does. This reads like poetry.

It’s a short piece, a memoir-ish essay about growing up in a city famous for its high-end glamour lifestyle. After the introduction dispenses with the outsiders, she tells us of her own experience in brief snippets. The slight defensiveness of the opening fades and pride of ownership and belonging takes over, her disdain for the bright lights and fancy cocktails and expensive clothes eclipsed by community and friendship and love.

I think a lot of us understand this sense of being part but apart, whether we live in college towns or resort areas. Even in sleepy Vacationland, we have the summer influx, the cruise ship visitors who ride up and down Congress Street on the Downeaster Duck bus/boat, watching us locals emerge from CVS with our aspirin and pretzels or go to the bank or take a lunch break from our jobs.

But I wonder if there is more recognition on the other side than we locals realize. My husband and I used to visit Mt. Desert Island once or twice a summer. We always recognized we had a lot more in common with the people making birdhouses than the Bar Harbor/Northeast Harbor yacht set, or even the Acadia National Park hikers. We knew we didn’t belong at Jordan Pond House, but we went anyway, just for the popovers. Then we’d hang out in Southwest Harbor, where the working people kept their boats, and feel like we were home.

In any event, Díaz’s evocative essay brought a lot out for me. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of writing: not to be over there, explaining one’s existence, but to connect with others, to let us all be the same in some way. The next time you’re on vacation, enjoy the luxury, but look also at the wonders beyond the glitz.

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Pushcart 2013: Jaquira Díaz, “Section 8” from The Southern Review, Winter 2011

Ed Smith: "Raft"

Ed Smith: “Raft”

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.