Rebecca Sumner Burgos, Rumors: Remembering José Esteban Muñoz (1967-2013)

I will miss him forever. Everything is now less fun, an insult to fun. Everything is more stupid, and pointless, and boring. From now on, I will be lonely. In the face of the inconceivable: his loss, I take this opportunity to document our ferocious friendship. I wish to bear witness, as José did, to the power of our dysfunctional queer families and the ways we imagine each other, lift each other up, and pull each other down.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎In the spirit of José’s work, and as a strategy for surviving his loss, I apply his methodology and theoretical concepts to document the ephemera and gestures of our friendship. As José argued, the ephemeral is often all we have recourse to as evidence of queer histories. “The key to queering evidence, and by this I mean the ways in which we prove queerness and read queerness, is by suturing it to the concept of ephemera. Think of ephemera as trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor.” Rumors are how we expressed our then and there, our reinterpretation of events; they were a crucial world-making technique for us. Although “the dance is over and seemingly gone,” my memory serves as evidence, as “ephemeral proof” of our queer lives together. Within the undermining, unconditional, and enabling dysfunction of our tiny world, I want to evidence, through rumors, my deep and abiding love for him.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎In our queer world, we sought dirtier, darker, harsher pleasures. On our nightly downtown adventures, together we experienced many of the performers he writes about. I introduced José to Kiki and Herb. (He would be furious to hear me say that, but it’s true.) I saw Kevin Aviance with him at the Roxy. The pages reprinted here encapsulate some of the aspects we embodied in our friendship as queer people of color. Like the analysis José offers of Kevin Aviance’s performances, we tried to recodify signs of abjection and to access the pathos—the pleasure and pain—contained in our lives. Through our friendship, we turned abjection into triumph and survival.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Our friendship transpired, more often than not, in the dingiest and dirtiest spaces of queer New York nightlife in the mid to late 1990s—Meow Mix, The Cock, José’s apartment. We met in 1995 when I entered the NYU American Studies Program. I believe he was 26 and I was 23. He was a rock star, but I didn’t know it yet. Even when I did, I would barely acknowledge it to him. (But he understood withholding, vindictive, and treacherous women.) We became a part of each other’s everyday lives. I had keys to his apartment, although he rarely bothered to lock the door. (I still have the keys to his apartment as a reminder of his love and tolerance for me, proof that there was no need to panic: that I did always have a place to go, that I was not alone.)
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He would often find me on his couch watching our “friends” on the soap opera The Young and the Restless or just waiting for him to come home. I would clean his apartment and berate him for eating ice loudly. The ice-eating and his endearing slovenliness were, for me, two of José’s signature queer gestures. The ice-eating was obsessive, compulsive, and maddening (to me). I would tell him that eating ice was what made him gay. (A running game throughout our friendship was to say that something you were embarrassed by or a certain painful experience was what “made you gay.”) He would respond to my tirades with a very convincing impression of a machista Cuban man, “Sió!” or tell me that joining the Taliban would be good for me because I lacked structure; I didn’t know my place.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎As for his messiness, I would reprimand him for being a bad Latino. An over-attention to cleanliness is a source of cultural pride, I argued. Our people wash the sidewalks in front of our houses. You can perform surgery on our kitchen floors. In defiance of our shared colonial history and racist stereotypes, Latinos are exceptionally clean. Sometimes I shamed him by invoking his mother, saying I was certain she didn’t raise him like that. We were always looking for ways to turn the scars into something that made us—Latinos and queers—better, faster, and smarter than the rest. And we would invent the proof, if necessary. I usually ended up cleaning his apartment myself, and ranting to him about how he reproduced gender roles while claiming to be such a feminist. Eventually I found him a cleaning lady from Mexico named Emma—I shudder to think of the “ephemera” she must have encountered while cleaning his apartment—and I would make fun of him for barely being able to look her in the eye. (Emma could elicit a sense of shame that I could not.) Truth be told, I always felt privileged to be allowed access to his mess, his chaotic and expansive spirit.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎We obsessed over details of each other’s personalities and found ways to gripe and nag about them. We would locate the place that hurt and practically squeal with pleasure when we cut too close to the bone. We were always together and often acted like we hated it, impatient and dissatisfied with each other, in ways that suggested our own struggles with self-loathing and the familiarity between us. We relished driving each other crazy, saying unspeakable things one night, ignoring them the next morning, only to bring them up later at inappropriate, cringe-making moments around others. We lived for it, this alienating performance of our twisted relationship. We lived unsustainably. We had too much fun, too little sleep, and cut too close. We both cared for and were careless with one another. And we took it too far; we played rough; we hurt for the sheer pleasure of seeing how the other would react.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎José wrote that “my family has always been one that showed affection by mocking and joking. It is just our dysfunctional little way, and as those people with whom I live my emotional life today can attest, I am very much a child of that home.” That is putting it mildly. We called each other out in ways that touched our deepest insecurities: about ourselves, our histories, our place in the world. Our cruel truth-telling felt like the most reassuring kind of love.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I told José a story about one of the first times I came home drunk as a teenager. My mother was sitting in her usual position, and I staggered past. She called me to her. I tried to keep my distance, but I’m certain that I was swaying and slurring, undeniably drunk. She looked at me long and hard and said, “Báñate.” (Bathe yourself.) That one word sentence expressed a shame, disappointment, and disapproval that I will forever try to shake. José would often utter this sentence to me in a way that felt like recognition, not judgment. (Although, I’m sure he would also say that he was judging me.) The injury was transformed into something else. A seeing. A knowing.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎According to José, I was and will always be la peor de todas, una sinvergüenza. He was right. I am. And he made me feel proud of it, my excessiveness, my misguided rebellion, my delusional sense of self. Being bad or deviant in a world that is so wrong is like being right. It is the proper response. It is a refusal and sacrifice worth making. José would also call me “payasa” (clown) or “sad clown”, among other things. He could see that my incessant chatter and raving personality could sometimes spiral into monstrosity. In fact, he would often call me a monster, which I considered a complement. I overcompensated; I dominated conversations, only talked about myself, and was visibly bored by others. A monster, indeed. José could tell that it was motivated by the ghosts of a girlish desire to please and be liked—which is never a good reason for anything. He also knew that I became my most vicious and reckless when I felt nervous, intimidated, or hurt, which of course I always did, but would never admit. By calling me a sad clown he conjured up all the insecurities, shame, and disapproval that I carried with me for not conforming to culturally-prescribed forms of femininity—modesty, decorum, restraint—and made it into something to be celebrated.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎These self-referential verbal gestures intimate the ways we negotiated our sense of lostness and loss as queer Latino subjects. It was an incorporation of that loss, as José himself describes: “We can understand queerness itself as being filled with the intention to be lost…To accept loss is to accept the way in which one’s queerness will always render one lost to a world of heterosexual imperatives, codes, and laws.” Embedded in our dialog of insults was an avowal of how lost we were together: “To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.” We were intentionally lost and invoked what we were lost from as a refusal and a reminder of possibility. We were lost in a way that was found. We created a parallel universe with different rules and value systems that changed every time one of us transgressed them. We constantly accepted each other and re-negotiated ground rules to find ways to keep loving each other.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎There was something unconditional about our friendship, which was accompanied by a self-destructive impulse to test our love for each other, to try and destroy it, just to see if we could. I returned to Puerto Rico after becoming too sick to continue touring or working or doing anything besides quitting drinking. Over the years, José would throw “stay-away” parties for me when I left to dry out in Puerto Rico. We often dragged each other down, loving every minute of abandon. Eventually, we crashed and burned. We became too much for one another. We hurt each other, we created a dynamic that was hard to face, as we lashed out at one another in ways that reflected our own self-loathing. But eventually we saved it. I quit drinking—white-knuckled it—and visited José regularly so I wouldn’t take myself too seriously and so that he might begin to. It’s been five years, which was the goal.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I always told José that I believed in the “scorched-earth theory of life,” as I coined it. Burn everything to the ground and then build it back up. When there’s nothing left, everything is possibility. There was pleasure and revolution in burning it down. I would do it again (I probably will.) There was also great pleasure in imagining what came next and diligently trying to make it concrete. José was with me when I burned it all down, and he was there to help me cobble together something that resembled a livable life.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Our relationship evolved, and we started treating each other with a little more respect, a little more of what might be understood—by the layman—as love. The ease and the bite were still there—sweet, stinging, and comforting—but neither was trying to hurt the other anymore. He let me know that he was proud of me. He performed pride reluctantly, like a parent attending to a needy child. We always feigned resistance when we were forced to express our admiration for each other. Recently, while working on my thesis, I lashed out in exhaustion and demanded that he “just be supportive.” He responded: “I’m your biggest fan. Now.” He was the only one I ever wanted to impress or think I was cool. He was the only band that mattered. (I would have never admitted that to him or expressed it publicly. But, if nothing else, this disaster has taught me humility.)
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Through the re-telling of these stories—this ephemera—I want to suggest the afterlife of our friendship and locate its futurity. I want to see where it lives, and how it can endure. I see him in my friendships with the queer tribe of misfits I’ve been fortunate enough to assemble in Puerto Rico: two women and one boy who allow me to come and go freely from their homes, the ultimate sign of unconditional access. My love for the three members of this tiny queer coven verges on the romantic.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The boy, who I refer to as Nancy, is a private young man, which needless to say, produces an irrepressible urge in me to crack the code. With him, I continue the tradition of relentless boundary-crossing and teasing that, for me, signifies the deepest type of love. I am demanding, insistent, and sometimes mean. Bestia, as José would call me affectionately. Nancy calls me Macho for much the same reason; I’m an emotional tyrant, impossible to please. I am convinced that if Nancy can survive the intensity and monstrosity of my friendship, I will have prepared him well for the trials and tribulations he will face as a queer Latino man. I see traces of our queer world in his gestures. The flash of his eye and the way he bites his lower lip when I’ve gone too far, cut too close. (I live for this, but I would never want to cross the line. It’s not worth it. I learned that with José.) The way he rolls his eyes whenever I receive praise from some third-party and mutters under his breath, “Insoportable” (unbearable).
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎My queer family here understands the darkness—la caja (the box); the cave; el vórtice (the vortex)—the need to dissociate from the world; and we use days in bed and SVU marathons to treat our condition. I’ve accepted this as necessary. The darkness originates from a utopian impulse and makes us queer in a world so deeply threatened by difference. That darkness is our natural resource. It calls this world out as insufficient. We self-sabotage, squander opportunities, and rail against what is expected. The world is not right; this is not ok, and we should be shouting it from the mountaintops. Sometimes we get tired and must retreat to our coffins. There is no shame in that.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎José often said, “It takes a village to raise Bequi.” It still does.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎José taught me that to survive this world, we had to be monsters. If we are considered excessive or demanding—deficient or lacking in our version of femininity—we are doing something right. Every failure or disappointment contains a utopian spark of invincibility. This new constellation to my queer life has been vital. They accept my pathologies and dysfunction with an unconditionality that verges on the heroic. (José would say that they’re humoring me and offer his sympathy to them for having to put up with me. “No es fácil.”) Like so many, I carry many layers of grief. (This latest layer—the loss of José—seems unbearably heavy.) José knew how to transform the burden of unspeakably painful experiences into something else. We joked about the most painful parts of our past off-handedly, disarmingly. I feel like my new tribe captures that dark aesthetic, and understands that we are in this world and not of it. It is our duty—our privilege—to make new worlds and document the ephemera that confirm our existence.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But, now, in the deepest moments of my grief, I am exhausted by this latest blow, this permanent and transcendent loss of what held me in time and place. I am unrecognizable to myself now without José as my distorted frame of reference. I find some solace in the text message I received from him in 2012 on Christmas Day. It simply said: “I see you Bequi. I know you.”