There is an old scrapbook buried beneath my mother's sweaters in a top corner her closet. People outside the family rarely see it, but I have seen it countless times.
It is hard to imagine my parents as I see them there, beneath palm trees, camera-ready smiles, gutted pineapples studded with pink umbrellas in their hands. They pose in front of landmarks and the neon lit façade of their hotel. Young and full of hope, they are stunning in their beauty.
One picture in particular is kept hidden on the very last page: my mother wrapped in linens, dark hair tousled, shoulders tan and bare, smile almost forced, still thick with sleep. Beside the bed is a chair on which a white sheet lays crumpled and marked by a shock of red at the very center—a bulls-eye.
If I ask my mother, she will say the stain is the red wine that tumbled from her hands as she waited for her wedding night to begin.
If I ask my father, he will swell with pride and relax into a gloat and say it is the blood of a virgin.
"Your mother," he'll say, "was a good girl."
I was known as una bola de humo. Literally translated it means ball of smoke, but when applied to me, the phrase meant flirty, bold, precociously sexy, and my father would not have it. An innocent conversation with the older boy down the street was enough to bring out the album, after which he'd sit me down and rearticulate his most cherished expectation of me—that I be known as a good girl, cherry intact.
I hated that picture, but I was too afraid of him to say how much. Not nearly as ballsy as he claimed, I never got the nerve to ask him what sort of man violated his wife's privacy and trust just so he could bully me into submission? My silence was my armor whenever the indoctrination began.
"You, know m'ija, Esperansita's fiancée left her at the altar. Si, si, es verdad, he found out Pepito had her first. Que verguenza."
"Juanita kept her secret until her wedding night, but when she didn't bleed, fuacata, her husband threw her out on the street, desnuda. Is true, naked!"
"You know who I ran into? La mama de Susanita. La pobre, she's doing so bad. Susi got pregnant, el cabron left her and now the whole family's on welfare. Das' what happen to di bad girls. Si señor!"
He was too cagey to come right out and forbid me to have sex. That would have required a conversation about sex. Instead, after the true life testimonials, the laundry list that was to ensure my virginity began: No shaving my legs above the knee; No short shorts or string bikinis allowed; No walking around the house without a bra; No dating without a chaperone; No dating more than one boy at a time; No visits from boys without parental supervision; No going away for college; No leaving home before marriage; No wearing tampons. Ever.
Tampons were the enemy, reserved for putas and white girls (one and the same, really, according to Papi), and could single-handedly do away with my good-girl status by annihilating that mysterious strip of flesh that represented the sum of my worth. In fact, my hymen was monitored more closely than my grades or health. My virtue was inexplicably attached to my father's honor and he would part with neither.
Often he'd mistake my silence for guilt rather than rage and ask,
"Have you no shame?"
As if shame were something worth having.
There was no talking to him on the day he came home early and found me on the couch with my boyfriend and brother watching MTV. We were fully clothed, but that was but a minor detail. Neither of us were surprised when he grabbed me by the hair, red-faced and panting and dragged me to the car. He threw me into the backseat and drove me to his old Cuban doctor to determine if his property was still in one piece.
As I lay there, legs bound in stirrups, the doctor touched me with fingers that were cold and papery with age and peered into the center of my body to check if I had been broken. When he declared me whole, still una señorita, my father smiled and shook his hand, and never once looked at me. As I dressed the tears rolled down my face and into my mouth and I finally learned the taste of shame.
I'd be lying if I said it hasn't stayed with me. To this day, my razor stops at the knee and I have yet to flee the city where I learned to be a good Cuban girl. I don't wear tampons, either. Not because I don't find them convenient, but because I simply can't bring myself to use them.
My father still tells the story of how he scared the putería out of me, usually at family gatherings, where he knows I will not stand up for myself and ask him why he never mentions how we lost each other or that he subjected me to the most devastating humiliation I have ever known.
I, too, tell the story, to my daughter, but with different intentions. I tell her about the photo, the doctor, my ignominy in an effort to keep her strong, which she is, because her look is laced with pity, as if I were weak. She will never know the strength it takes to break his rules and watch her drive away with a boy I hardly know, or when I mail out her college applications that will take her far away from me. I do not caution her to wear the bulky pads under my sink or to avoid the beach every four weeks. Instead I buy her Tampax and tiny bikinis and tell her she is the best girl I could hope for.
I tell her and then I tell myself.