by Jenzo DuQue
Back in the summer of 09’ my roommate Carlos dated this vegan alternatina named Lalí, a name I couldn’t stand because it was like something out of a play written by a well-intentioned white guy, probably about the early Afro-Colombians coming face-to-face with Spanish Colonists on some yellow-sanded beach. When he first started bringing her up out of left field—at the gym while I spotted him, in our dorm lounge as we played Super Smash Bros.—I knew that there had to be a reason. It wasn’t just that my boy liked her. He had liked women in the past, although it always seemed to end poorly, with his number blocked and a collection of empty threats from the ex’s lady-friends. This new one was obviously some sort potential significant other; a future wifey, the main squeeze, his new boo or whatever, just not another girl from the around the way because Carlos had never had the patience for “these dumb sluts out here” (his words not mine).
“She’s different,” he said one night after we had already gone to bed. I could feel him staring at me from across the room but pretended to be asleep.
“She’s different,” he repeated into the darkness as though I hadn’t heard. “She’s the one.”
Which was the typical bull that college kids go through. But I couldn’t focus on that as he went on and on and on and on about her, finding the most inorganic ways to mention Lalí in conversations. So instead I’d get my brain rolling about that stupid name. Like bad Hollywood, Golden Era ignorance that was endearing but also clearly pretty racist are we not gonna talk about this?
“What The Jazz Singer did for international cinema is pretty obvious,” I once tried in a film lecture. “But are we not going to touch upon how fucked up that blackface was? They were also Jewish and stereotyped pretty bad. Anybody? Back me up here.”
Command shift 4
My professor was not amused. I think he was the department head. I think he was also Jewish.
“See me after class.”
I scraped by with a B-.
So it didn’t help that Lalí brought all that bad juju to mind. It only got worse from there. After letting my thoughts go that route, Carlos still talking his head off (“Lalí likes animated TV she thinks it’s meant for adults not kids” or “She has the most cutest accent, I swear ciento porciento Venezuelana”), my attention would wander into more aggressive and spiteful territories. What kind of latina was vegan, bro? In the early 2000’s no less. Not only because that wasn’t a realistic lifestyle for lower-income homies such as Carlos and myself, but also for the sacrilege that is the refusal to eat meat of one’s own volition. Half of all Latin-American food is meat—how you going to just voluntarily refuse to eat meat—it’s a goddamn delicacy and mi abuela makes la mejor asada because she puts all her love and third-world tears into it. Not to mention cheese and milk and everything else that’s delicious in this life that you can’t have. A vegan latina: that’s an oxymoron. Get the fuck outta here with that!
I had pretty much hot-wired myself not to like her before we had even met. Until one day Carlos’s talk stopped being talk and bam, she materialized before me during the fall of our senior year, baby-stepping into our lives out of nowhere. The first thing I noticed was her tacky tongue piercing. It quickly became my latest distraction; I could spend forever watching that little metal globe spin around in her mouth, catching the light as she tried to get to know me disingenuously.
“So Carlos tells me you like movies.”
We were eating in the dining hall. There couldn’t have been a worse venue for introductions. I scooped my soggy beef stroganoff from the Kosher station into my mouth. It tasted wet and gummy. But at least there was meat in it. Lalí’s plate was covered in a small field of mixed-greens and hummus.
“Yeah,” I said with a touch of hostility. “I’m a film studies major.”
If my attitude had phased her, homegirl did a good job of ignoring it. There was a friendly smile on her thick red lips that she complimented with heavy eye makeup. She could have been a lot prettier if she didn’t hate herself. But she was just a small brown girl living in a lonely world. Another self-loathing darkie. It’s a trope we learn to embrace.
“That’s really interesting,” she said, tracing figure-eights on the back of Carlos’s hairy hand.
“Don’t be so goddamn negative,” Carlos told me after listening to this rant spill out of my mouth. We were sitting in our room getting ready to smoke. He was always willing to hear me out, provided that we broke bread to loosen up first. That was part of why we went so far back.
I hesitated before taking my hit, the lighter’s flame suspended over my fat bowl like a sun setting on a grass bed patiently waiting to be scorched. Thinking better of it, I ripped the bong deeply and answered while exhaling, my voice now an octave lower due to the smoke. “Sorry, man. It’s the weed.”
Fortunately that was one thing we had in common, like all good hipster minorities should(that, and a well cultivated music taste). I was willing to forgive the transgression of her diet because she enjoyed some dank buds from time to time and also supported my love of Adventure Time, a show that Carlos almost always called dumb, but for some reason took great pains to criticize when he got too drunk. We hit it off surprisingly well during that first session at her apartment, enjoying a wide variety of cartoons and indie playlists. It was only when we broke out the Oreos that home girl started to flip.
“What the hell is this?” she shouted.
Carlos and I both sat up at attention on the couch, an Oreo or two stuffed into our mouths.
“Esta porquería that you’re eating.”
I brought my fists up to my head. “Christ, are you serious right now?”
She gave me that look that all latinas master at a young age in defiance of their matriarchs. These dark eyes—cómo parecen puto—how serious they look to you?
“Babe, it’s just Oreos.”
“Don’t you babe me,” she said with a flick of her manicured hand, as though to slap the word away. “There’s so many chemicals y mierda in those. You couldn’t be eating anything worse for you.”
We glanced down at the Oreos in our palms, their black cookies resting innocently enough.
“I promise you,” she said.
“For real, for real?” I asked, eyebrow raised, forever the skeptic.
“Daaaaaaaaaamn,” Carlos and I said in unison, dropping our Oreos to the coffee table, where they landed with a satisfying thump. Only then did I notice the episode of South Park we had running on the TV.
“Bro she’s ruined Oreos for me,” I cried.
Carlos’s bottom lip quivered. “I know, it’s a sad day.”
Lalí couldn’t stop laughing at us. “Do you two lovebirds need me to step out?” she asked in between gasps.
arlos and I looked at each other longingly.
The real story goes that Lalí became an established member of our crew, always got to tag along on our outings, and we smoked together regularly throughout the remainder of college. Eventually we made truce: every session without her we could eat what we wanted, but she would only get high with us on the condition that we accommodated her diet. This actually turned out to be pretty effortless, as almost everything tastes better stoned and whatever tasted bad could be reconciled by the knowledge that it was good for me. Plus Lalí was like an expert vegan, had been at it since early high school, though I still don’t understand what old fashioned latina mother would stand for that shit. Mine would have told me I could only eat meat, like that was some sort of legit strategy, it was meat or muerto de hambre malcriado.
“Trust me guys,” she assured us. “I know what I’m doing.”
And she did. Because Lalí was a vegan alternatina, meaning she carried with her all the history and understanding of latino cuisine that bonafide spics do. Being vegan in American cuisine is shitty, let’s be real. But being vegan is mad easy when you have frijoles, arroz, aguacate, and tortillas—that’s like the wetback starter pack. Getting high with her basically made me nostalgic as hell for both the homeland and my neighborhood, where those things were as abundant as bread and butter.
One time we got high together without Carlos and I told her all that.
She laughed, a high pitched song that I could get used to. Her silver stud bounced rhythmically under the cover of those juicy lips. “I know what you mean, man.”
"Sorry I shouldn’t have said anything,” I smiled awkwardly. “My bad, too stoned.”
Her hand found mine. “It’s okay.”
The thing that killed me about her though, I mean really, really grinded my gears, was her favorite snack. Now just to be clear: she used to have this snack anytime, anywhere. Not just when we were stoned, pero con muchas ganas precisely because we were stoned.
Everywhere Lalí went she took a bag of red cherry tomatoes with her. Everywhere. I’m talking to class, to orchestra practice, to MUN. One time I even saw her carrying some to a party, although I had no idea how she hid them in those tight dresses fine women always wear, but would have been happy to play hide and seek. And they were always in perfect condition; these bright red cherry tomatoes in a ziplock bag, never, and I mean never, got smashed. They wereimmaculate, so ripe that they were on the verge of bursting but somehow managed to contain themselves. These were god’s own cherry tomatoes, pulled from the heavens not for us mere mortals but for a modern goddess who looked like something out of an Urban Outfitters catalogue. All she was missing was the white guilt.
It gets better. Because yeah homegirl obviously was bananas about tomatoes, but when we were going to smoke she always came prepared. The ziplock bag was about portability. At our sessions, Lalí new she wasn’t going to move until she had eaten an entire box of cherry tomatoes, so she might as well go through the trouble of buying one. When reaching her peak high, Lalí would grab her little fair trade box that she had paid $2.49 for at a local non-profit, and then proceed to pop the tiny red balls into her mouth, swallowing them whole as Huitzilopochtli the sun god might have an Aztec’s heart.
She did this straight from the tomato vine as I watched, my back to the TV now, having found something more interesting to stare at. We were elated. I tried to sketch her as the deity a couple of times but couldn’t find the right balance between Aztec line-work and my own psychedelic style. It became something of a pet project, but really was just an excuse to spend time together. Besides, the hearts I drew never looked as full and red as the real tomatoes. That doesn’t help you not fall in love, studying someone’s face while picking their brain telepathically. We’d sit across from each other for hours, smiling like the stoned idiots we were, saying nothing. And yet it felt like that was because there was nothing more to say.
I more or less knew then. We never talked about it explicitly because I had been too late. That’s really all it was. She was my boy’s girlfriend and it wasn’t my place to impose. This went unsaid between us, until eventually one night we got too crossfaded and ended up in bed, her sticky breath in my ear, dámelo hector dámelo. Girl was a freak. We did stuff that one and only time that I’ve never done with some of the hoes I used to kick it with. Those girls were easy, but I think it must have been the emotional connection that made Lalí and me go straight for the dirty.
We tried to give it some space after “the mistake”—lots of crying and emoji-laden texts—but a year later Carlos got fucked up real bad and gave her a hell of a shiner, I’m talking must-have-wanted-to-make-her-bleed-and-missed bad. Of course it’s my doorstep she shows up on in the middle of the night, falling to pieces and saying shit like whattamagonnado whattamagonnado with mascara streaking down her face like blackened veins (“Dios mío, Lalí ¿qué te paso?”). I figured he had found out about the affair, but Lalí swore she had kept it on the DL, that Carlos sometimes got drunk. And then sometimes he got mad about stupid stuff, like the Dodgers losing or how other guys looked at her pathetic wannabe ass (his words not mine). So I was standing there taking this all in, wondering whether to call the cops, when the irony of me spacing out again hit me. She was going on and on and on and on about him. To the point where I missed something important she had said, distracted this time not by her stud but the swelling above her right eye. Its shades of purple and red were not unlike the ones found on a fresh heart for Huitzilopochtli, wet with blood and still beating on his tongue.
I blinked several times. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Jesus Hec we’re already engaged.’”
Jenzo DuQue is a Colombian-American writer from Chicago. He once spent four weeks alone in a rustic cabin, where he found himself, lost himself, and then found himself again. In the Fall he will pursue his Master's at Brooklyn College, with a specialization in Fiction. Read more of his work at http://jenzoduque.weebly.com/