In eighth grade, I was voted Queen of the Swallows.
Queen of the Swallows meant that on Swallows' Day, the biggest annual event in my hometown, San Juan Capistrano, I got to dress up in a long white dress, don a red velvet cape with a faux ermine collar, and more importantly, wear a CROWN. I presided with Luis Aguilar -- the King -- over the festival celebrating the return of these small birds with the wedged tail to their North American home. Every year on March 19, the swallows came back to Capistrano from Argentina, where they wintered.
And Capistrano partied: had town barbeques, parades and communal drunk-ins.
March 19 is also St. Joseph's Day, a big feast day for Mexican American Catholics. On this day, the Mission courtyard was decked out with a platform stage in the center of the rose garden. The Old Mission School children performed a variety of folkloric dances for the locals and tourists, from rhythmic Juaneno Indian stomps to colorful twirls around a Mexican sombrero. Locals gathered around the stage, as an Irish community might around a boxing ring, gawking at the children earnestly dancing in celebration for these mudhut feathered twerps. And for St. Joseph. And for the public -- tourists from Nebraska Idaho Wisconsin Argentina Australia Germany, etc.
In my day, all the spectators had to stand; but the Queen and King of the Swallows got to sit at the top of the only bleachers in the courtyard. No heads blocked our view. Best seats in the house, as it were. And the spectacle lasted three hours. Fucking Royalty! It was awesome.
All my life, I'd dreamed of this moment. I'd spent the previous 8 years of my K-8 Catholic education longing to sit at the top of the bleachers wearing the crown and the red velvet cape. I didn't dream it was Mario Gonzalez next to me, though. Mario lived in the section of Mission Flats that smelled like lard and beans. The streets in Mission Flats smelled that way; the houses in Mission Flats smelled that way, and all the Mexican kids from Mission Flats smelled that way. However, the way they smelled was better than the way WE smelled -- my brothers I. We smelled like shit, literally. Given my family's affinity for flatulence, this should be no surprise. It seemed like everyday I'd have to fluffdry my red plaid polyester uniform jumper in the dryer just to TRY and rid it of stale farts fumes, pre-pubescent sweat, and whatever lunch detritus had dribbled over it at the picnic tables that day.
To console myself, I'd spend evenings fantasizing that I was the most popular girl in the world, as popular as Dee Dee Mechmachen. Dee Dee was blond, tan, nice, and she wore black horn rimmed glasses, and blinding braces in her mouth. When I was in second grade and she was in eighth grade, she was the Queen of the Swallows. I tried to emulate her look -- first by crossing my eyes for 10 minutes every night so that I'd have to get glasses, and then by creating my very own homemade set of braces.
I fashioned my braces from the wires inside the "twisty" of an Alligator plastic sandwich baggie. Each morning in Sr. Grace's second grade classroom, I'd reach into my desk, pull out my lunch, undo the twisty on the sandwich baggie, and proceed to denude it, pulling all that gummy paper off until only a thin, flimsy wire was left. I'd wrap the wire around my two front teeth so that it stayed there. Then I'd turn around and show my best friend Mary Young my "braces."
"Those aren't braces, stupid," she'd say (honestly, I did this more than once, and IN EARNEST.)
"Yes," I said, "they are. They're a new kind of special braces. I have an overbite."
Dee Dee had an overbite, whatever that was.
As stupid as I might have been, Mary still loved me -- loved me so much, she'd grab my arm and interlock it with hers, pulling me all over the playground during recess and lunch. I felt guilty when, at about the time I felt I might throw up, I would have to yell: "Mary: Let. Go. Of. Me!" I wanted to go play kickball or butts up with the boys, and she just wanted to gallivant around and CHAT.
Kickball and Butts Up were where I'd find Robby Mitchell. Robby Mitchell Robby Mitchell Robby Mitchell. Robby Mitchell.
Robby Mitchell was the third son of Maureen Mitchell, my mom's dearest friend. Robby and I had grown up together -- we were in cribs together, so say our moms. The intimacy we shared as a result of spending so much time together was palpable to me even at the tender age of 5. There was an erotic energy between us, I swear. One time in his bedroom at La Casitas we handcuffed ourselves together while our moms were having coffee downstairs. We were four years old. We weren't thinking as we did it; we just did it because the handcuffs were there. I remember this feeling of darkness descending when I realized that we might be stuck together for a very long time. "WHERE IS THE KEY?" our moms yelled. Key? What's a key? We searched the condo for over an hour, and we could find no key. Finally, Mrs. Mitchell called Old Mission School and asked the secretary, Sr. Cleo, if she could talk to Tommy, her second son. The handcuffs were Tommy's. Tommy was lean, wiry and hyperactive. And tricky. The key was on his keychain, which was in his pocket. Apparently, Tommy not only knew what keys were, but he OWNED some. Mysterious, for sure.
After three hours of being handcuffed together, Robby and I were finally unhooked. Mrs. Mitchell had driven to the school to get the key from the hoodlum Tommy. I remember that when the darkness lifted, with it went a small part of my heart. It was my first inclination that darkness could be sweet.
Mario Gonzalez was the opposite of dark.Mario -- King-to-my-Queen-of-the-Swallows -- was jovial, sweet, and little boy cute. His only problem was that he smelled like beans and lard.
Robby Mitchell left Old Mission School in the sixth grade and went to Marco Forster Junior High School, the public school named after my grandfather. I felt like we were still connected somehow, even though I never saw him again. Which is weird because my mom and Mrs. Mitchell stayed friends throughout all these years.
Robby was a "surfer boy," although in actuality he mostly boogie boarded. He had sandy blond hair, dark brown eyes, dark eyebrows, smooth tan skin and high cheekbones. Even as a boy, when he pulled his wetsuit off after getting out of the water, his sculpted hipbones gave way to defined groin muscles. The thin white line of untanned skin peeking over the neoprene suit was enough to drive me to distraction for years. Throughout elementary and middle school, I included him in my "I'm the queen looking for the right king" fantasy that I played out before bed each night.
In my dreams, it was he sitting next to me at the top of the bleachers. In truth, he disappeared, got swallowed up in the darkness of real life.
I wonder about him sometimes.