The following story is excerpted from Orlando Ortega-Medina’s short story collection, Jerusalem Ablaze: Stories of Love and Other Obsessions and is reprinted with permission from Cloud Lodge Books.
Invitation to the Dominant Culture
The first time I read Portnoy’s Complaint, I was barely 12 years old. I found it quite by accident, wrongly shelved in the children’s reading room of our public library. After leafing through the first few pages, I decided to become better acquainted with it, so I took it into the toilet.
Now, so you’re not disappointed later on, let me tell you right upfront – this is not going to be another whack-off story à la Philip Roth. Also, I’m not Jewish and I’m not into psychoanalysis – although my parents sent me to a psychiatrist once because I thought I was Jewish (for a very good reason, which will become apparent in due course). I’m only using this little reminiscence to illustrate a point. I’m convinced whatever intelligent force pulls the strings of the universe out there has a rather odd sense of humor.
What I mean to say is no matter how hard my parents tried to shelter me from the “corrupting influences of the dominant culture,” they found their way to me any way. Like that book.
I’m sure they meant well, these incurably Catholic parents of mine. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to have Saint Francis as a son? But the 18 years I spent under their influence – including the nine years of Catholic elementary and junior high school and the four years I spent in seminary (a fancy name for an all-boys high school) – did things to my mind beyond my parents’ holiest fantasies, things that leave me cold and confused, shaking my fist at the empty sky and asking:
How did I get here? Whose fault is this?
BE FRUITFUL, MULTIPLY, FILL THE EARTH
AND CONQUER IT!
Again, I ask, why am I here? The result of an act of violence, no doubt. Just the thought of my mother impaled on my father’s rod as it ejaculated me into existence sends me running for the toilet. What devotion to the faith, what Catholicity.
BE FRUITFUL, MULTIPLY … said The Book.
But, wait a second. That’s from the OTHER half of The Book, the half we don’t talk about (except when it suits us) – the Jewish half.
“Well, then, the priest said so.”
“And who is this priest that he should know so much?”
“God told him, he told us, we told you.”
Got that? God, GOD, G-O-D said we should.
Fuck that! I want answers, damn it. ANSWERS, not religious propaganda.
OK, all right, I’m whining. I don’t like to whine. Let me get it together here. I’ve got to face the fact; like it or not: I WAS BORN.
But, no, in fact …
I was expelled from my mother’s uterus in a rush of mucus and blood on May 25, in the year of Our Tormentor, nineteen hundred and eighty-five. The alien had arrived. After nine months of being referred to as an “it,” I was officially given a gender and a name.
Now, I was once naive enough to imagine one’s birth certificate was sufficient insurance against the hazards of an identity crisis. To me, a birth certificate was (for all intents and purposes) an official document inscribed in stone. Not so my case, as I came to discover.
Name: Guillermo Fausto Perez III. Nobody calls me this. None of my friends can pronounce it, so instead they call me Rick – don’t ask me why. Guillermo also happens to be my father’s name, so my family calls me Willie. I guess they figure this way it’ll be easier to tell the two of us apart.
Place of birth: Belleview, California. No such city. From what I understand, it was absorbed after my arrival on the planet by the great amoeba Los Angeles. Still, I have to endure inquisitive looks from nail-biting secretaries every time I fill out some kind of application, simply because it’s my official birthplace.
Hospital: Belleview Community Hospital. It’s not there anymore. Just an open field in East Los Angeles where neighborhood kids run through the weeds chasing a soccer ball.
It’s like a bad joke. And it gets worse.
Eight days after I was evicted from The Womb (was I such a bad tenant?), my incurably Catholic parents called in a mohel to perform a circumcision on me. Now, just so you don’t miss the irony of this, let me explain that a mohel is a Jewish person who specializes in performing ritual circumcision. AND, eight days after the birth of a “manchild” is the time prescribed in Jewish Law for this ceremony, known in Hebrew as brit milah.
So why did my Roman Catholic parents do this to me, their first child? W hy eight days? Why not six or nine… or never? And why a mohel?
“What tradition? It’s a Jewish tradition. I thought we were Catholic .”
“It’s a family tradition going back a long way, centuries, in fact. What’s wrong, you don’t like being circumcised?”
“I like it. I LOVE it. I just don’t understand…”
This conversation, and many like it, took place until I was 13. That was the year my grandmother (family historian and guardian of all closeted skeletons) wrecked my life. But more about that later.
My older cousin, Jackie, who wasn’t circumcised, used to make fun of my dick all the time. I was forced to change in front of him every time we went swimming at my uncle and aunt’s house. “Look at Willie’s mushroom head. Hey, Willie boy, what’s that fungus you got growing on the end of your ding-dong?”
Then one happy day, quite unexpectedly, Jackie’s parents announced he was going to hospital the next weekend – to be circumcised.
My theory is they could no longer endure the fact their son’s uncut dick resembled a tapir’s snout – they were always such aesthetically minded people. So, at age 15 (I think it was his birthday present), Jackie was force-fed humble pie. Kicking and screaming, Mr High and Mighty was checked into French Hospital in LA’s Chinatown, where an uncircumcised Greek doctor surgically peeled his precious dick like a banana.
Three months later, when Jackie’s dick was healed enough for him to take it in hand without passing out from the pain, his life returned to normal. I’m sure he hasn’t missed a stroke since.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of being initiated into my parents’ peculiar version of Catholicism. I must have been somewhere between two and three years old the day they shrined my room.
The first thing they did was to nail up a palm branch (which had been blessed by a priest during Holy Week) over the doorway of my room. Next came the installation of the three statues that would continue to be my childhood companions until I moved out at 14, when I was sent away to a Catholic boarding school.
The first statue was a life-size (at least it seemed so to me) crucified Christ – very naked and very bloody. My mother told me it was a replica of a Spanish Baroque masterpiece, and that I should feel honored to have it in my room. Looking at it now, as an adult, I have to admit it is a remarkable piece of work. The artist designed it so the compassionate (open) eyes of the dying Christ would be fixed on the penitent – which only worked if the penitent was looking up at it from a certain angle. It took my parents hours to find the “right place” to hang it, and another few days to get the thing to stay up on the wall.
The worst part about it for me was they made me pray to it; they told me I was supposed to love it. No offense, Jesus, but it’s not easy to love a naked, bloody man who has just gone through one hell of a Roman torture session when you’re only three years old. At that age all the theology doesn’t mean much. What stays with you is the image.
Other kids might have dismissed the image, I don’t know, but I was scared as hell of it at first. Its eyes followed me no matter where I moved in that room. Sometimes I would hide under the bed to get a little privacy. Most of the time, I slept with my head under the covers. But Bloody Jesus wasn’t as bad as the other two statues that made up the trio of relics my parents forced me to sleep with.
There were two nightstands in my room, one on either side of my bed. On one of them stood Saint Lazarus, covered with the oozing sores of leprosy, limping along with the aid of a crutch, followed by four scrubby dogs licking his sores. I was supposed to pray to him, too. On the other nightstand stood the Virgen del Cobre (an apparition of the Virgin Mary in eastern Cuba), rising like Godzilla out of the Caribbean and hovering over three tiny men in a dinghy.
Bloody Jesus, Leprous Lazarus and the Godzilla Madonna – these were my childhood buddies. So what if all the other kids on the block got to share their rooms with Mickey Mouse or the Flintstones, right? I shared my room with the real Masters of the Universe. I could actually talk to my roommates without feeling stupid, and (supposedly) mine could answer.
Eventually I got used to the statues. What I never got used to was the altar at the foot of my bed. This was where my parents lit candles and offered food to “the saints.” It works like this: first you take a small table and drape a white sheet over it. Then you load it down with candles and jars of rice and maybe toss in a rosary for good measure. Then you make daily offerings of fruit (usually tropical) or cigars in a jar of water (one of these was put under my bed every other week) or maybe some chicken’s blood.
If all this sounds strange to you, like no Catholicism you’ve ever heard of, it’s because my parents were from Cuba, a country whose religious culture is based half on Roman Catholicism and half on African voodoo. The result of this mélange is something called Santeria.
Families involved in Santeria typically belong to a small group of devotees led by a layman priest, in reality a kind of witch doctor. We went to monthly meetings where I witnessed ritual dancing, possessions by saints and all kinds of other public and private goings-on.
I’ve had a chicken’s throat cut over my head; I’ve had offerings of cigar smoke blown all over my body from the lips of a toothless hag; I’ve worn amulets around my ankles and around my neck; and I’ve been masturbated by our Santeria priest in special private counselling sessions – all this in the name of our religious tradition.
If the point of religion is to bestow grace, to free the mind from darkness and to empower the spirit, it didn’t work that way for me. Instead, it only served to feed my overactive imagination with images and desires I’ve only now begun to question and partially understand.
By the time I started puberty – at age 11 – I felt comfortable enough with Jesus, Mary and Lazarus that I felt no shame in regularly whipping out the old dong right there in front of them, under their watchful eyes. No problem. Everything was cool –or so I thought. Then came the night my feel-good session went too far and my dick exploded in my hand. Pus came shooting out of the end and I knew, I just knew, God had finally punished me … I had cancer. Slimy, sticky, white, chlorine-scented cancer of the penis.
I tried wiping up the mess with my pyjama shirt, but it kept oozing out. He wasn’t going to let me off so easily. So, tenderly holding my dick in my hand, I carried it into my parents’ darkened room and whispered into my (still sleeping) mother’s ear,
“Momma. Momma, wake up.”
She wakes up.
“What’s wrong, Willie?”
“Momma, I don’t know what happened … but my pee pee …something came out of my pee pee. It looks like pus.”
“What’s wrong?” This is my father waking up now.
“Nothing, you!” says my mother, “Go back to sleep.”
She turns back to me and whispers, “Go clean yourself off. You can talk to your father about it in the morning.”
“But I tried cleaning it already. It won’t stop.”
“Clean it again … it’ll stop.”
“I’m scared, Momma. Am I going to die?”
“You’ll be fine. Don’t forget to pray first, then go back to bed.”
The next day my father took me for a long drive and explained to me all about sex and the changes my body was going through, and he told me: “Try not to rub your pee pee because it’s self-abuse,” or some such crap. Our little man-to-man had set my mind a bit more at ease. I began to suspect what I suppose I knew all along. God hadn’t punished me, and it was probably OK for me to make myself feel good, and maybe even to have my dick explode every once in awhile.
Here’s where the story gets strange. After months of jerking myself around in bed, I started to have these very weird dreams – sexy dreams that made me come in my sleep. These weren’t what you’d call ordinary wet dreams. They were filled with images of violence, death and, of course, sex – kinky sex. And I liked them.
As I got older, my dreams became more (dare I say) sophisticated. The following is a dream I had when I was a sophomore in high school:
There are only two things of which I am aware: the unmistakable strains of a Wagnerian opera and my own heartbeat as I float in total darkness.
Suddenly I find myself walking along the gutter of a downtown street on a foggy night. It’s supposed to be London, but it looks like LA, somewhere near the Greyhound bus terminal on Main Street.
The opera continues.
Out of the fog steps a woman with long auburn hair and incredibly tight blue jeans. She beckons me forward with one finger (you guess which one), and I follow her. She looks like my mother, but I ignore that as I follow, enchanted by her beautiful ass, her perfect ass, her divine ass.
I follow (yes, three times I follow in this dream) her ass into an alley. Past the derelicts, past the corners reeking of stale piss, deeper into the alley we penetrate until at last we arrive at a large green garbage bin. The woman reaches out and pulls me behind it
There, on a discarded old mattress, stained by years of being pissed and come on, we both fall to our knees. I undo the ties of her thin white muslin blouse and out fall her breasts. Breasts as perfect and edible as the ass that goes along with them.
By now the opera is getting real serious (if you know what I mean about German opera). I push her down on her back and start to work my tongue up between her tits. I suck and I bite on her nipples which by now have grown as hard as jawbreakers.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a rat scuttle past her head. I glance up for a second – just long enough to see a small group of drunks gathering to watch. I don’t know if they’re attracted by her moans or the music but it’s all right … it makes the incredible sex we perform all the more enjoyable.
Then, as the last movement of the opera reaches its climax, I feel myself undergoing a transfiguration. I’m turning into Richard Wagner – a Richard Wagner with fangs. My lust is transformed into a hunger and I begin to bite her tits harder until they bleed profusely
By this time my young whore is screaming , her screams reflected back by the fog. I gnaw deeper and deeper into her chest, tearing away at what’s left of her mammaries with my claws. Having reached her ribcage, I break three ribs off at the sternum, reach into the chest cavity and, pulling out her still beating heart, sink my teeth into it.
The drunks applaud.
Dreams like this fuelled my waking fantasies. It wasn’t until I was late in my teens that I realized these were not the fantasies of every red-blooded Hispanic-American boy. This misconception resulted in some embarrassing conversations with girls. The following composite conversation is typical of my 11th-grade summer, the summer I first got to actualize my post pubescent powers. I’ll set the scene for you:
Her parents are away for the weekend and I’ve been invited over for one of my first make-out sessions. We raid the liquor cabinet and try to recreate some forbidden nectar – strawberry daiquiris. Of course, we’re both nervous as hell as we settle down next to each other on the living room sofa. I scoot closer to her and feel the warmth of her thigh as it makes contact with my leg. That first physical contact is enough to cause my prick to start inching its way up toward my stomach or down my pant leg. So I decide to get the thing going.
“What’s your kinkiest fantasy?”
She smiles. “You really want to hear?”
“Yeah, tell me.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Come on, be brave. Tell me,” I say, putting my left hand on the inside of her plump right thigh, the way my friends tell me they do it
“OK… I’ve always wanted to have someone…” here she stops and looks me straight in the eye, then down at my creeping hand.
“You’ve always wanted someone to what?”
She casts a furtive glance to one side, then back again.
“I’ve always wanted someone to come in my face and in my hair …”
A dramatic pause.
“That’s embarrassing?” I say.
“…and then lick it off,” she says, her face turning the colour of her strawberry daiquiri.”
“What about you?” she says, “What’s your fantasy?”
“I’d like to eat my partner right as she reaches her climax.”
“What’s so funny?”
“That word, ‘partner.’ Sounds straight out of a sex manual.”
“No, no, I don’t mean it that way. I mean, it’s kind of cute.”
She pulls my hand up higher between her legs, leans over and whispers in my ear, “Besides, you’ve got the perfect lips for eating a girl out.”
“Not eating out. Just eating…”
“ E a t i n g…? ”
“Yeah, you know, EATING – as in ‘the black widow eats her young; the praying mantis eats its mate’.”
Tense silence. She backs away.
“Forget it,” I say. “You’d better finish your drink.”
It didn’t take too many humiliations of this kind before I learned to keep my fantasies to myself. After all, I didn’t see any reason why I should keep freaking out my dates. As long as I didn’t actually turn cannibal while we were “doing it,” there was nothing to worry about, right? Well …
Fast-forward to my senior year at UCLA, zipping past six years of sexual debauchery and landing whack in the middle of the era of safe sex and monogamy, I find myself (against my better judgment) about to enter the apartment of one Connie Cash – UCLA’s resident nymphomaniac.
Connie is a young librarian type, with great legs and fabulous tits, whom I met in my art appreciation class, notorious for ringing her male classmates to engage in some steamy phone sex. No sooner had we passed around a phone list for everyone in class, than she pounced on the opportunity to begin her telephonic bordello.
The funny thing is nobody, and I mean NOBODY, took her the least bit seriously. Little did she know that before three weeks passed, she had become a sort of joke, a laughing stock among the guys (and some of the women) in the class. Not a week went by that someone didn’t have a new Connie Cash story to tell.
I remember the first time she rang me:
“Are you religious?” she says. (This is a classic Connie Cash opening line, which I’ve already heard from Lance, another guy in our class.)
“Not really,” I say, refusing to rise to the bait yet.
“What religion are you?” she says. (Aha! A change in strategy.)
“I’m a narcissist.” (I’m playing with her. I think she can sense it.)
“Do you believe in God?” she says, an edge creeping into her voice.
“Sure.” (I can’t keep this up much longer.)
“So do I.” (Here it comes …) “Do you know the first time I knew there had to be a God?”
“I couldn’t guess.” (Of course, I’m lying.)
“It was the first time I had sex – on the hood of my ex-boyfriend’s car.”
“Ye a h?” (Ya w n .)
“Yes, it was a true religious experience…”
And so on.
For some reason I started to enjoy these conversations. Maybe it was the novelty of hearing a 23-year-old coed masturbate herself into a frenzy over Ma Bell’s ice cube clear fibre optics; I don’t know. But after running up my father’s telephone bill, I decided to check out the merchandise in person. That was how I came to be at her door.
I knock once. The door flies opens, and I’m practically knocked on my ass by Siegfried pouring into the hallway. Connie sticks her grinning face out the doorway.
“Rick! Don’t just stand there. Come inside and give me a hug.”
She reaches out and pulls me inside, slamming the door behind me. She folds me in her arms and squeezes me for a full 30 seconds, which gives me an opportunity to quickly check out her apartment. It’s nothing like I imagined. No velvet paintings of naked Aztecs (HA!), no erotic art of any kind in fact, only three stuffed unicorns (Huey, Dewey and Louie), a well-stocked bookshelf, a couple of wall posters of the French countryside, and a thundering Wagnerian leitmotif swelling in the background.
“Why don’t you turn that shit off,” I suggest, prying myself free of her grip.
“ It ’s Wa g ne r.”
“I know what it is. Turn it off, please.”
“You told me you liked classical music!”
“Siegfried is not classical, it’s 19th-century German opera. That makes it romantic, not classical.”
“But you told me …” she says, pouting, “I remember you said you liked Wagner.”
“Look, Connie, I’m not in the mood for a bunch of screaming Nordics.” I move to the stereo and flip it off. “Besides, Wagner puts me in a funny mood.”
“Not horny …?”
“No, just funny. And hungry.”
Orlando Ortega-Medina was born in California and is of Judeo-Spanish descent via Cuba. He studied English Literature at UCLA and has a Juris Doctor law degree from Southwestern University School of Law. At university he won The National Society of Arts and Letters award for Short Stories. Jerusalem Ablaze: Stories of Love and Other Obsessions is his first published collection. Orlando is now a British national and resides in London, where he practices US immigration law.