By José Antonio Rodríguez
In the spring 2005 semester of my M.A. program, a faculty couple decides to conduct a summer study abroad program in British literature in London, England. My friend Melinda and I, who have never left the country except to shop on the Mexican side of the South Texas/Mexico border, scrape the money together to enroll in the six-week program. We can’t contain our excitement, commiserating on what it might be like, being so far away in the land of James Bond and Jane Eyre and researching things to do and places to visit.
Four days before Melinda and I and the rest of the program students are set to fly out, London is struck by multiple suicide terrorist attacks, the deadliest in England since World War II, killing fifty-two residents and injuring over seven hundred. The professors give the students the opportunity to bow out, but none of us do. At least for me and Melinda, nothing’s going to stop us from going. We’ve invested too much time and energy scraping the money together and steeling ourselves against the anxiety of traveling so far from home. We figure that, post-attacks, London must be the safest city in the world.
After landing at Heathrow airport, taking a shuttle to our dorms, and getting settled therein, Melinda and I go for a walk because we almost can’t believe it. We’re like children, giddy with excitement, though we try not to pull out our cameras too often because we’re committed to not being the obvious and obnoxious tourist.
The class meets regularly in a room at the University of London but beyond the literature, this trip becomes more a journey of discovery, an experiential learning experience. One night in a pub, a couple ask Melinda and me where we call home. When we say the U.S., they smile then give us that “so sorry” look because our president is George Bush Jr. Agreed, we say to them, then realize that in that moment we feel closer to them in spirit than to so many Americans who stand by the president and the violence he’s unleashed.
Untethered from the country’s geography and much of its media on the other side of the ocean, I begin to notice that I don’t miss it much, not as a country. And rather than foster in me a “love of country” that’s focused on the dominant culture or religious doctrine, perhaps I’d rather foster a love of humanity, of human dignity, and interconnectedness. This isn’t to say that the nation-state must necessarily dissolve as such, but that the nation-state doesn’t have to be the dominant paradigm through which we encounter the Other, the one not-like-us, the one that doesn’t “belong.”
I’m not so naïve as to believe that in this moment I’ve shed my Mexicanness or my Americanness, but I do believe I begin to see a new way of being in the world. And it inspires me.
And so when I visit the enormous and imposing British Museum, I cannot help but think of all the conquering and pillaging and wealth that goes into a collection of world artifacts this massive, of how this particular museum, the structure and everything in it, is itself an expression of England’s national ethos, a celebration of the Empire’s might and reach. And still, even with this realization, I marvel at the objects’ haunting beauty, like the giant tapestry laid out under glass that is made up of the vast amounts of medication that the artist has consumed to treat his AIDS-related illnesses. Backlit, the pills, each encased in a clear individual envelope and sewn together, shine like precious stones. No witchery, no prayers, just the intersection of biology, chemistry, and art. What a gift to the world, this that helps demystify the syndrome so misunderstood by so many. Patrons hover around it, mesmerized.
Two weeks into our program, a second coordinated terrorist attack is attempted. But the bombs, placed in different locations of London’s subway system, fail to detonate, with only a small part of them exploding. No one is killed but millions are evacuated from underground, including Melinda and other classmates, who are left to walk their way back to the dorms and worry about why I’m not there to meet them. All this is unknown to me at the time it happens, because at that moment I am in a small village outside the city. A faculty member from UTPA once mentioned that she was from a village called Bexley, and I’ve decided to visit it.
On the way to the village, already outside of the city and switching trains, I hear over the speakers something about the subway system but can’t make out the rest. I figure I’ll learn about whatever I must learn about when I return to London. This is why, when everybody is walking back to the dorms, I’m having lunch at a diner in Bexley, where business goes on as usual. After lunch, I take a walk without aim, running into a cemetery with ancient gravestones next to a picturesque, green field. I cannot help but smile in this moment, the Mexican village boy standing here on the other side of the planet, in a land he only ever read about in old novels and plays, a reminder of life’s unpredictability.
When I return to the dorms, Melinda tells me what went down. The professors offer us an immediate flight back to the States. One student takes the offer. I walk down the block to a pay phone and call my parents.
“I was just calling to let you know I’m okay,” I tell my mother. But she doesn’t know what I’m talking about because the news, it dawns on me, has not yet reached her. In her part of the planet, it is as if London’s second terrorist incident hasn’t happened yet. I’m not sure what to make of this moment, only that I begin to see London not as a static exemplar of Empire but as an ever evolving one, sometimes resplendent and sometimes tarnished.
“You’re going to hear news about London soon,” I say. “Just know that I’m alright. All of us are alright. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
“Alright,” she says. She sounds uncertain, but I can’t bring myself to say more, only good-bye. I hang up, step outside the public phone booth, and walk back to the dorms enveloped by the crisp, early evening.
One night, Melinda and I stroll Oxford Street, the club district, hundreds of people spilling onto the streets with only taxis crawling through, music blaring, lights and glitter, a beautiful club lit night. We come upon a club called GAY. People stand outside, boys in tight shirts, slim hips, holding each other. The passersby don’t sneer, don’t stare, don’t nothing. We’re not in South Texas anymore.
Here the giant letters G A Y shine in hot-pink neon above the entrance. Inside, people dance in improvised spaces. The Vodka is nicely chilled. Melinda and I bop in a corner to the thumping techno that reverberates in your gut. I love it. After a good sweat, we step outside. Straight couples still flood the streets, and for a second I miss the ring of bushes around the old bar back home. I miss the privacy of exiting.
“So we went out last night,” says Melinda to another student over breakfast.
“Where?” she asks.
“A club called GAY on Oxford Street. So much fun.”
“Really,” says the girl, eyes widening. “You know, if you go again, let me know, I’d love to check it out.”
The following weekend, Melinda and I decide to return to the club, and word spreads in the group. Having limited knowledge of the city and thirsty for some nightlife, the girls are up for it and invite the guys, who despite their hesitance, finally acquiesce.
“So is it like a bar?” asks one of the guys.
“What if someone makes a pass at me?” asks another. Great, I think, they’ve never been to a gay bar. If they didn’t want to come, they shouldn’t have, but it’s too late and so I try to soothe their anxieties.
“It’s just a bar like any other,” I offer, “relax.”
The line outside the club screams popular, which excites the girls even more. They take turns looking up at the huge neon sign. The guys stand with their hands in their pockets, say nothing. The group ahead of us is ushered in, and after a few minutes, the doorman unhinges the velvet rope before us.
“How many in your group are gay?” he asks.
Caught unaware, we stare at each other, unsure of the relevance of the question. “I’m gay,” I stutter. And though I was here the other night, and though I am out to all my classmates, it feels odd to announce it to a complete stranger. I feel found out.
“Just you?” he asks. I look at their faces for a second—nothing.
“Yeah, just me,” I say.
“Sorry, but you all can’t come in,” he says.
“Why?” asks one of the girls.
“Because the majority of the party must be gay.”
And then his question makes sense. And somehow I feel tricked, though what’s even odder is that everybody looks stunned―slack jaws, eyes unfocused, brows slightly furrowed. We are prompted to move out of the line, and we do so in silence. Turning away from the club, facing the way we came, one of the guys utters slowly, sounding out every syllable: “It’s not right.”
I think of all the straight clubs I’ve been in back in Texas, clubs with names like Tejano Saloon and Hillbilly Heaven and ghostly unwritten letters hovering behind their neon signs, letters that spell “Straight”, a sign I cannot help but read, a sign I carry with me always like a former job’s nametag I can’t bring myself to toss. I think of a lifetime of passing, of the lessons learned early in the school playground, of what could happen to me if I kissed another man at one of those clubs, if I held hands.
My lack of sympathy for my straight peers surprises me. I want to taunt them: “There it is. How does it feel?” But I don’t. The past is too much with me, walks beside me even in these distant streets. The night tilts and totters around us. I smile and ask, “Why didn’t anybody pretend to be gay?” But they pretend not to hear.
José Antonio Rodríguez is a poet, memoirist, and translator, and the author of the poetry collections This American Autopsy, cited in the New York Times as “new & noteworthy;” Backlit Hour, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize; and The Shallow End of Sleep, winner of the Bob Bush Memorial Award from the Texas Institute of Letters; and the memoir House Built on Ashes, a finalist for the PEN America Los Angeles Literary Award, the International Latino Book Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Other awards and honors include the Discovery Award from the Writers’ League of Texas, the Founders’ Prize from RHINO and multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in numerous venues, including The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, Pleaides, The New York Times Magazine, Latin American Literature Today, and the Academy of American Poets website, among others. A Mexican immigrant and first-gen college graduate, he holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and is associate professor at The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.