The first time my father calls me a joto, I am five. I don’t know what the word means yet, but I know what he means by the hate in his eyes, the rage on his lips, the disgust on his tongue as he spits it out—¡joto! Like chunks of sour milk in his coffee. Like a mouthful of blood. Like a fly that had the gall to die in his beer—¡joto! The word reaches across the breakfast table and smacks me across the face, sucks the air from my lungs, rips my world out from under me. Then he does. With his big meaty hand. With his grip like a vice. He reaches across that table and pinches my tiny little fingers between his own giant ones. His eyes are bulging, his face turning red like my favorite toy fire truck, like the paint on my fingernails. He barks—“Qué es esto?”
My fingers themselves turn red then white as he squeezes. I squeal—“You’re hurting me!” But he only pinches harder, demands to know what is on my nails. Tears start in my eyes so I squeeze them shut to keep him from seeing what a baby I am. Tears are for sissie lalas—that’s what he always says. Hombres nunca lloran.
"¡Leticia!” he roars. “¡Leticia, venga! ¡Ahora!”
Amá comes running up behind me, panic on her face. Guilt grabs hold of my stomach and twists. Apá is irate as he holds my painted fingernails up for her to see—"¡Mira!”
Horror. Shock. Shame. They each take their turn expressing themselves on her face, in her eyes. She echoes Apá, screeching—"¿Qué es esto?” Eyes wide like an animal, she yanks my hand from Apá’s. She is furious. Rabid. Demanding to know how the polish got there. “¿Quién fue? ¿Quién hizo esto?” 
But I’m no tattletale. I’m no chismoso. My lips are sealed tight.
And for that, there are consequences—SMACK!
Amá’s palm catches me on the back of the head—hard—sends my face slamming into the eggs and beans and fried potatoes on my plate. When my head pops back up there are beans up my nostrils. Eggs and salsa on my forehead. Tears that can’t be held back any longer rush down my cheeks. Snot and beans slide out of my nose, over my lips, dripping off my chin and onto my plate. My breakfast is turning to soup but that is the least of my five-year-old worries.
Apá rises out of his chair and comes around the table—a giant towering over me. It will be years before I realize he is actually a very short man. Much smaller than average. For now, he is a monster. Huge. Enormous. Terrifying.
Inches from my face, the monster bellows, “¡Ningún hijo mío va a ser un pinche joto!”
That meaty hand is on the back of my neck now, dragging me out of my seat, forcing me out of the kitchen, down the hall, moving so fast my feet trip one after the other. His other hand—with its triple-thick callouses and hairy knuckles same as the one holding my neck—yanks open the coat closet door and hurls me inside. I smash into the back wall with a hollow thud and crumple onto a pile of shoes. He stares down at me with fire in his eyes, lips snarling like a wolf, breathing so hard his chest is heaving. His shoulders rise and fall with each word—"Joo want to be a faggot, joo can stay in the closet where faggots belong!”
BAM! The door slams hard enough to shake the whole closet, the whole apartment even.
Apá never yells at me in English. English is for public. For church. For show. Spanish is for family. Panic sets in as I choke on my tears in the dark. Have I been disowned? Kicked out of the family? Is this where I live now? I pull my knees to my chest and rock back and forth, praying to Jesus for help. Snot and tears run down my face as I repent my evil ways and beg God to forgive my sins. The closet walls press in—crushing me with my own desperation.
Rewind. One day ago. The after-church picnic.
I’m soooo bored. None of the boys my age want to play with me. Or maybe I don’t want to play with them with their stupid wrestling and competitions and sports that are hardly a good match for my Sunday best. Maybe I would rather sit quiet and look at magazines. Maybe I would rather lie on the grass and look up at the clouds or make daisy chains with the girls.
Yes! All of those things are better than playing in the dirt or running across a field in the shoes I just shined this morning. Better than racing Matchbox cars when Amá only buys generics anyway. Better than waging war with Transformers when I don’t own any. Better than being made fun of. Better than being pushed into the mud. Better, but not allowed. I’m old enough to know that, to know that I’m supposed to want to play with the other boys. I’m old enough to realize there’s something different about me. The church ladies call me sensitive. Always generous with the compliments—Apá calls me a wussy.
Yard sale lawn chair sagging under his butt, root beer that would be a real beer anywhere else but here at church in one hand, a plate full of meat and macaroni salad and cake in the other—he starts in with a chide, “Why joo still sitting here?”
Shrug. Focus on the grass instead. I pluck a few blades loose and roll them through my fingers, hoping he will get bored and leave me alone.
Apá thrusts his chin towards the boys in the field. He loses the church English, tells me to, “Vete a jugar.”
My lower lip gets heavy. My head shakes side to side. Gnawing on a fried drumstick drenched in picante, he frowns at me. Waits for a reason but all I say is I don’t want to. “¿Por que?” he asks. “¿Tienes miedo?”
My bottom lip gets heavier. I don’t say anything.
“Joo scared you gonna get hit by the ball or something?”
My breath hitches but I manage to squeak out, “No tengo miedo.”
“¡Que lastima!” he huffs as he tries to hand his buckling paper plate to Amá. She’s got her head turned talking to someone else, not paying attention to him, so he growls, “¡Ten!” and shoves it towards her chest. His brow is folded over in anger, dotted in perspiration as he struggles to rise from the ancient lawn chair sunken low to the ground. Once he is standing he grabs me by the arm, just below my shoulder, and yanks me up with him. He barks—"¡Vamános!”—and drags me towards the field where the other boys are chasing a black and white ball back forth.
My little legs running as fast as they can to keep up, I beg him to slow down. When he doesn’t my eyelids get heavy like my lip, the tears building up until they leak down my face.
“¡No lloras!” 
He’s furious but desperate to hide his temper in front of these people. Church people. People he hides his hate and alcoholism from. People who hide the same, maybe worse, from him, from each other, from God Himself.
Without warning, he stops at the edge of the field and I almost crash into him. He looks down at me, frowning, and points at the boys running back and forth after the ball. They’re falling down and getting back up, yelling, and high-fiving, and tackling each other. Which is really confusing—isn’t fútbol supposed to be a non-contact sport? Looking up at Apá, I think better of asking him. He’s shaking his pointer finger at the field, saying, “¡Mira!” He waits. I shrug. He explains—“Nobody’s getting hurt!”
That’s not what matters but he will never understand. I don’t want to run in wingtips! I don’t want to sweat in my favorite suit! But I can’t tell him that. Those are not acceptable answers.
With one hand on my back, he gives me a little shove, tells me to go, make some friends.
Head down, I walk out onto the edge of the field, try to blend in with the pack, pretend to chase the ball, wait for Apá to stop paying attention to me and focus on his plate instead. At first opportunity—when his head is turned, mouth full of cake and church gossip—then it is into the forest I go.
(Okay, okay, it’s an acre of pine trees behind the church. Not exactly a forest. But I’m five, remember? So it’s a forest to me, okay?)
Everything changes in the forest. It’s quieter. Colder. The air is fresher. It feels safer here—I always feel safer alone. No one to tease me. No one to punish me for being ME. I find myself in this world, in the trees standing tall and the logs fallen on the ground, on the flowers, the bees buzzing nearby, a butterfly with wings so white they’re almost invisible. Fluttering from plant to plant, not a care in the world—the butterfly living its best life. Inspired, I lift my arms, my own wings, and flap them at my sides. I am the butterfly. Free. Made from grace. Gliding on the wind, flying wherever my whims lead. The world disappears. There is just me. Just me flapping my translucent wings, hidden among the pines and ferns and moss. Innocent. No one to scold me or tell me how wrong it is to be who I am or like the things that I like. The whole world is like a big green blur and I can’t remember the last time I was this happy or this free from the cares and burdens of being five-year-old me.
Until—SNAP! An infectious giggle pops me out of my imagination, drops me back into the real world. So delicate, so feminine—nothing like raucous noise of the boys on the field—this laughter, this silky trill, is like lotion for my soul. I look left, look right, but she spots me first. “¡Julio! ¡Ay mijo!” Delia calls from where she sits with three friends, hidden in the trees listening to music. I rush towards her and she wraps her arms around me, catching me. She asks what I’m doing all of the ways over here.
Shrug. “I didn’t want to play fútbol.” She frowns and tells me it’s not safe to wander off by myself, even at church. “Tengo cinco años ya,” I remind her. “I’m a big boy now!"
Delia and her friends giggle and she pulls me onto her lap, asks me why I don't want to play. I sigh—loud and dramatic maybe because they giggle again—so I explain: I don’t want to get dirty or sweat or yell. She squeezes me tight, says, “So sensitive mi Julio. So sensitive!” Her friends giggle and they all share a strange look.
Frowning, I tell her, “I’m not sensitive! I just don’t want to get dirty, okay? This is my favorite suit!” Dark grey with pinstripes, a bright red tie—Amá only lets me wear it once a month so it doesn’t wear out.
Delia giggles some more and squeezes me tighter. Tells me to ssshhh ssshhh—it’s just a little joke, she wasn’t being serious. “Tranquilo,” she says, stroking my hair. “Tranquilo.” Delia is my favorite cousin. She babysits me sometimes when my parents have a date night and she sneaks over chocolate and she never ever ever makes me read the Bible before bed.
“What are you doing out here anyway?” I ask, pretending to be suspicious. Which is silly of course. Maybe other teenagers would be out here smoking or drinking or something but not Delia. The worst she’s doing is listening to the Devil’s music. One of the other girls hits a button and the music stops—proof enough. It’s my turn to giggle.
Delia pretends to ignore my laughter, says they’re just hanging out. The four of them exchange ANOTHER weird look but I don’t have time to focus on it because that’s when I see what is spread out between them and my jaw drops and my eyes go wide and sparkle with delight.
If there really is a heaven, this must be it. Spread out on the pine needle ground is every color of nail polish I have ever seen before, and more. Every purple and blue imaginable. Greens and pinks galore. Reds of course, and there are even yellows and oranges and browns. Black and white. Greys from light to dark. Sparkles and shimmers and opaques. Bases and overcoats. Nail files and buffers in every color, shape, size. All I can say is, “Wow.”
The girls giggle and one of them picks out the brightest bottle of pink polish that could possibly exist. She holds it up and it matches the color on her lips. It’s hard not to cringe when she asks, “How about this one?” Of course, I don’t want to hurt her feelings. So I look at my cousin for help. Finger my tie. My red, oh so red, tie. Delia comes to my rescue and plucks a matching deep red from the collection.
Nodding furiously, I say, “That’s it! That’s the one!”
My excitement is tempered by a shame that can’t be understood at five years. A shame that pollutes our fun after the manicure is done. My nails look fantastic, they match my tie perfect, so why do the girls want to take it off before it’s time to leave? Maybe little boys aren’t supposed to feel like princesses. Maybe we’re not supposed to feel pretty. These are the lessons that life is teaching me at this age.
I beg Delia to let me keep the polish on. She bites her lip like she’s thinking and sighs, tells me to keep my hands in my pockets. Especially around Apá—“Ya sabes how he gets.”
Fast forward. Back to the coat closet. Fast forward some more, until I’ve been there a couple of hours.
I’m yelling for Amá but she’s not answering. “¡Amá! ¡Amá, tengo que ir al baño!”
Silence. No matter how many times I call for her, she never comes. I fall asleep instead—curled up like a baby on top of her shoes.
I have no idea long I sleep like that, only that the door opens eventually and a whoosh of bright light wakes me up. I have to shield my eyes with one hand and squint but when I smile big and reach out for her she doesn’t bend down, doesn’t pick me up. There is no sympathy in her face. No understanding. No love in her eyes.
“Ten,” she says, her voice flat and emotionless.
She tosses in something soft, wrapped in plastic—a loaf of bread. Then she rolls a bottle of water across the floor. She closes the door.
“¡Amá!” Crawling two feet to the door, I beg, “Amá, espera, ¡Por favor!” Tears flood my eyes and pour down my cheeks. My breath hitches in my chest as I beg for her to come back. Something changes in that moment. Something in me, something between me and my parents, something in my world. Forever. There’s no going back now. I don’t know how I know, but I know. I can feel it in the middle of my chest, in that space where my ribs meet. I can feel it in my bones. A knowing. An understanding of my place, of my family, of the conditional nature of Amá and Apá’s love, of how, given the choice between their son and religion, they will never choose me.
 “What is this?”
 Men never cry.
 “Leticia, come here! Now!”
 “What is that?” “Who was it? Who did this?”
 “No son of mine is going to be a fucking faggot!”
 Apá pronounces his Y’s like J’s thanks to his heavy accent, making you sound like ‘joo’.
 “Go play.”
 “Why?”, “Are you scared?”
 “I’m not scared.”
 “Let’s go.”
 “Don’t cry!”
 Technically “oh my son”, but it is used in the village sense, not the literal sense.
 “I’m five years old now.”
 “Calm down”
 “You already know
 “Have this”
 Mom, wait, please!”