Monkey Girls: On Growing Up Hairy


I.

It grew in dark and wiry wisps down the sides of our faces. We were the girls with sideburns.

It framed our faces and our perspectives and never cooperated with product or prayers. My sister’s protruding hairline aggressively consumed precious forehead real estate so we joked that eventually it would meet up with her eyebrows and she would need a lawn mower to tame it. My other sister locked herself in the downstairs bathroom with a razor, lathered her arms in my dad’s shaving cream and emerged twenty minutes later with the smooth forearms of a light-weight body builder. No one had the heart to tell her it would grow back thicker.

The hair might have been bearable had it been confined to places where the magazines told us it was supposed to grow or maybe if it came at a reasonable age or maybe if we had friends who also resembled feral animals.

The night before the first day of sixth grade, I stole my mother’s tweezers, over-plucked my bushy eyebrows, and prayed the fluorescent lighting would be kind to the fuzz growing above my thin upper lip. I wore long pants and long sleeves to gym class even when it was eighty degrees and the teacher questioned my sanity. When the high school boys climbed the bus stairs smelling like gym socks and chewing tobacco, stalking down the aisle looking for prey, I ducked my head and anxiously tugged at my braids. They passed my seat and kept walking towards the back where Fat Rachel sat with her afternoon snack and a blush on her cheeks.

I was good at hiding.

II.

We buried Grandpie at the end of June.

I’m told his blood was made of liquor but I don’t remember the smell or the glass tumblers he held in his sun-wrinkled hands. What I do remember is the stack of phone books he sat on to see over the dashboard of his Cadillac sedan. Despite the additional height provided by two hefty volumes, he looked like a blur of black hair as he drove down the road. I remember his caramel skin against a stained white t-shirt that didn’t quite cover his jiggling, joyous belly. I remember the look of concern on my teachers’ faces when he came to pick me up and their reluctance to release me to his custody even though we shared a name.

Before his organs turned black and his skin sallow, his family came to visit. I say “his family” and not “my family” because they were as much strangers as the Hospice nurse who gave him his pills. They wore heavy perfume and held vigil next to his bedside, whispering prayers with a faith and language I didn’t understand. They cried fat, dramatic tears and made howling noises that hurt my ears. I watched from the doorway and wondered if the cancer was contagious.

His sisters stayed with us for months. They arrived on a plane from San Juan with their teas and their candles but no concern for their imposition. Our matchbox house barely fit the five of us and the dog; we definitely did not have space for two aunts and their telenovela grief.

“Everyone on the Island is a cousin,” they said. “You must take care of your family.”

I went to school while they went to Grandpie’s house or to the hospital or to church. Sometimes I came home to Aunt Lucia standing in front of the stove, a big skillet in one hand and tiny green bananas in the other. They were so adorable I asked if all fruit came in miniature sizes.

She scolded my ignorance and taught me that they weren’t bananas but plátanos; she wasn’t an aunt but a tía. She criticized my unkempt appearance and combed my monkey hair back with her long, cherry red fingernails.

On the last day, mom ushered me up the narrow staircase to his room. The lights were dimmed but I could still see the confusion in his cloudy eyes when the nurse announced my presence. His body was shriveled, his skin so translucent that I wasn’t sure I knew who he was either. He took my hand and I tried to not flinch when the tubes keeping him alive touched my fingers.

I didn’t see my tías again for 15 years and when I did, it was only because one was dead and the other needed my father’s signature so she could take his share of the inheritance.

Everyone on the Island is a cousin.

III.

J.R. called me his “little Puerto Rican.” I was fourteen and didn’t understand the constructs of feminism, hadn’t heard of the Other or jungle fever. He had alabaster skin and a proclivity for persuading me into things I never wanted.

I owned two pairs of jeans: low-rise and light-washed, tight as leggings but without the apologies. When I pulled them up over my too-large calves, wiggled them up my thighs and over my ass and struggled to button up the front, I thought of him and the eyes he’d make when he spotted me walking down the hallway. He loved the pants almost as much as I loved being wanted by him. For once, the extra curves on my hips and fullness in my face felt more like tools for seduction than scars to be hidden.

He liked when I wore the jeans with a red soccer jersey and large gold hoop earrings, when I lined my eyes with dark kohl and my lips with too-bright drugstore lipstick. I pulled my hair back until it was so tight my forehead tingled, whipped it around into a bun and smoothed out the monkey hair around my face, slicking it back with mousse or the excess oil my body wouldn’t stop producing.

I looked absurd—a mostly-white girl playing J.Lo dress up. I thought I was in charge of my body and my identity; I didn’t realize I was just a caricature created by someone else’s desires.

Mom raised her eyebrows but let me leave the house anyway.

IV.

SAT day brought equal parts fear and confusion. I barely studied and was years away from learning about testing biases; the deepest anxiety came not from geometric shapes and complicated sentence structures but from the identification supplement test takers completed, “for research.”

I carefully printed out my name in the allotted boxes, obsessively filled in the bubbles to a blackened state of perfection, provided my address and school information and gender. The hardest part came in the form of a seemingly innocuous question:

What is Person 1's race?
1. White
2. Hispanic
3. Other

I looped the monkey hair around my fingers, a nervous habit that made the wisps curl away from my face. There were probably other choices on the page but none that applied to me or my situation. Not even ten minutes into test time and I was already stumped and nervous I’d mark the wrong answer. I feared the day CollegeBoard came after me, knocking on my door and demanding a DNA test to prove my ethnicity.

Does it count if you don’t speak Spanish? If your father was called a spic but you weren’t? If half your family pronounces your name incorrectly because it makes it easier to blend in?

I desperately wanted a 4th option. A write-in choice, maybe. I could mark “halfsies” or “undetermined” or “disassociated Hispanic.”

I took a deep breath, bubbled in “Other,” and closed the test booklet.

V.

Freshman orientation was a chaotic but invigorating mess of discussion panels and frat parties. I drank too much Keystone Light and nearly missed Convocation. On my first walk of shame, I got lost in town with bare feet, reeking faintly of the skunk his frat brothers chased as we ran away from campus security the previous night. I was out of my element but too concerned with my pong skills to think about culture shock or self-actualization.

Mike was an Italian dude from Long Island, played rugby and had trouble making eye contact. He liked to tell us stories about working at a pizzeria but didn’t care for showers. He lived in a pigsty three doors down and was hanging out in the hallway when I locked myself out of my room on the third day.

“So you’re Italian, right?” he said, apropos of nothing.

I squinted my eyes and shook my head. “No, not Italian. What would make you think that?”

“Your name. Cartagena?” he asked, with a comical (and incorrect) emphasis on the “gee” sound. “Totally one of my people.”

I thought about Grandpie and his eighth grade education. I thought about Aunt Lucia and the cross she wore around her neck. I thought about my father growing up with his dark skin in rural Maine and all the reasons that made him disown such a large part of his identity. I thought about the monkey hair on my head and how it once seemed like such a problem to be different.

I was eighteen and far from home when I finally figured out that it could mean something without meaning everything.

“Nope, definitely not. I’m Hispanic.”


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