“You’re fat!” states Don Iber, beaming as if these are the exact words a woman wants to hear. He leans forward on his motorcycle and looks me up and down with hungry eyes, nodding approval.
“Just like your wife!” I retort with a smile, trying not to feel stung by what I know is meant to be a compliment.
There are women in my culture who would catapult Don Iber head first over his handlebars for such a remark. On the day we speak, I weigh one hundred and fifty pounds (68kg), up from the one hundred and thirty five pounds (62kg) I dropped to when I was gravely ill. Iber’s wife weighs around three hundred pounds (135kg). After a three-month recovery from dengue and typhoid, I’m finally looking less like a walking skeleton and more like a human being. And I’m not gorda!
Skin and bone doesn’t work for me as a look; I have booty. Luckily for me, Latino culture is all about booty. The more the better. Instead of asking, “Do these jeans make my butt look fat?” Latinos manufacture jeans that highlight and enhance large bouncy melon-shaped tushies. So when someone comments that you’re fat, it’s a compliment. Gorda is good. It’s a synonym for desirable, attractive, sexy, gorgeous . . . I think you get it.
“You’re too skinny and you look ten years older,” notes Kenny, Don Talon’s wife, a week after I arrive home from hospital. This is not a compliment.
Still, “fat” is overdoing it a little considering I weighed over two hundred pounds (95kg) when I arrived in Mompiche. This doesn’t deter men from hitting on you, rather the opposite.
“Marry me,” whispers Don Talon every day for months when I go to get fish from the boats.
“Hands off! She’s mine!” announces Nyongo, Talon’s older brother.
“No way!” sneers Chuco, the eldest of the three. “You’re both too ugly! She’s my girl.”
The Castillo brothers compete daily for my affections. It makes no difference to any of them that I’m not interested. All three resemble chocolate-coated Frankenstein creations with enormous hands and feet. None of them has been further afield than Esmeraldas. They can’t read or write. They each think that being a fisherman with a run down bamboo shack is enough incentive for women to fall over themselves for such an irresistible catch. That Nyongo goes on a raging bender lasting three or four days every month isn’t important. That Talon has a wife and a tribe of kids doesn’t matter. That Chuco has a running tab at the brothel is a minor flaw to be overlooked.
“You’ll never have to come to the beach and search for fish again,” they promise.
Thanks but – ahem – I think I’ll pass. Besides, I like being on the beach.
“I just want to get my hands on that fat juicy butt!” snorts Angel, a seafood trader, thinking I’m still out of earshot as I approach Efren’s boat. The fishermen cleaning the nets laugh. Angel scratches his crotch and spits in the sand, leering as I near. He pulls up his grubby t-shirt and rubs his enormous hairy belly. “I don’t understand why you don’t like me,” he pouts, pushing himself away from the boat.
“Maybe your wife and five kids have something to do with it,” I say diplomatically, stepping wide to avoid his lecherous hands. If I get too close he’ll grope me again, tweaking my backside.
It’s true. I have a big round butt. I’m one of Freddy Mercury’s “fat bottomed girls that make the rocking world go round”, and I’m proud of my wobbly white orbs. That doesn’t mean everyone is invited to touch them. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have decked men for sexual molestation. Angel is lucky he didn’t end up face down in the sand.
Fernando isn’t so lucky the Saturday night he sneaks up behind me in the discotheque and cups my bottom with both his hands while I’m dancing with Yoyo. Instantly I spin around ninja-turtle style and box his ears then twirl back to my dance partner and continue to salsa without missing a step. Fernando’s freckled gollywog face bounces off the cement column in the center of the room and he staggers out the door shell shocked. Drunk and oblivious, he doesn’t feel the black eye until the following day.
On seeing Fernando’s impressive shiner, everyone asks “What happened to you?”
“Nothing,” he mutters, intently studying his feet.
“Roni clobbered him,” announces Don Julo, the storekeeper, a huge grin splitting his face as he regales the gory details to anyone and everyone.
The news spreads quickly. The story is embellished and improved upon as it’s passed along. By Monday everyone has heard one version or another. After that, no one ever gropes me again.
In a machismo culture sexual harassment is the norm. It’s not perceived as harassment. It’s meant as a come on, to let you know you’re attractive to the ogre who is ogling you.
“Mamacita rica,” men say as you pass in the street. Beautiful mama.
Plain-looking girls with junk-in-the-trunk and low self-esteem could be cured here, frequently listening to these compliments. From the six-packed surfer boys to the town drunk, every day some hopeful Lothario shares his opinion; wanted or not.
“You’re more beautiful every day,” says Don Jata, making puppy eyes at me as he shuffles towards the beach.
That he’s seventy five, can barely walk and has no teeth is irrelevant.
At first it’s good for the ego, hearing how gorgeous I am from every man with eyes in his head. Then I begin to realize they all want a piece of me; or rather, my wallet. You see, I’m filthy rich. I have three houses in my home country, a villa on the Mediterranean coast, a current model BMW at each locale and a limitless bank account. It doesn’t have to be real to be true in Mompiche. And when I try to explain the truth; that I’ve been a struggling artist my whole life, no one believes me. I can’t count how many men who aren’t on speaking terms with me because I refuse to share my endless pots of gold.
“Oh, Miguel, you’re not talking to me? How my heart breaks!” I tease. I couldn’t care less.
“Hello, my love. How are you today?”
On the main street, I turn to see who’s addressing me. The speaker is thirteen or fourteen at most. He’s kidding, right? Actually he isn’t. Every day for several months he greets me this way. In the evenings at the public well, he poses and preens to get my attention, dancing while stripping off to bathe in the unpaved street. I have to turn my back so he can’t see me laughing. Sometimes I hide inside when he passes with his buckets. He’s called Pipo. I don’t know his real name. He’s one of Ocho Mil’s brood; placed somewhere in the middle of fourteen siblings. He thinks it’s cool to be “in love” with the local gringa; at least until the next cool thing comes along.
As my face fills out again, changing from drawn and pallid to robust and healthy, my too loose pants fill up and stop falling off, and people begin commenting on how well I look.
“You’re fat!” says Juan Zambrano in the morning when I buy half a liter of fresh udder-warm milk from him for thirty cents.
“Thanks. I’m getting better,” I reply with a smile before going home to feed my cats.