I still remember the last time I lost sleep. September 14, 1994. Okay, I made a date, but I remember the night. It was the night before my first communion. After six months of memorizing prayers and passages from the Bible, I was finally worthy of eating the body of Christ — if the body of Christ was a tasteless wafer that gets stuck to the roof of your mouth.
My mom rented the goody-two-shoes, easy-bullying-target, off-white cream tuxedo, and the dark burgundy bowtie.
In one picture, I’m holding a rosary and placing my other hand on my heart. I looked nervous, ashamed, and embarrassed for all the sins I had committed until that day — being born one I didn’t have control over, but the most offensive of all.
Even though I was nervous, ashamed, and embarrassed, I was prepared.
Along with all the prayers, hymns, and responses I learned, I read about all the times when Jesus or Mary showed up to children and true devouts. At the time, I was both. The idea of any of these two characters stopping by for a visit horrified me. I wanted nothing to do with them.
I have nothing against the pair. If you can get past the blood and tears, they always seem to be sporting in paintings and sculptures; they seem like amenable white people. The kind you would see on university campuses with post-doctorate degrees and playing hacky ball.
And usually, I appreciate a good convo with a stranger. But as a rule, I’m never too trustful of people who appear out of thin air.
That night, my sister and I stayed in my mom’s bed. This was a typical occurrence since my parents had divorced the year before. My mom and my sister fell asleep, but I couldn’t. I saw a blue light coming from the hallway. I knew the Virgin had come to visit me.
To this day, I don’t know if the Virgin was there or if the lights of the street seeped through our tiny apartment windows. Maybe the Virgin did appear and thought, “I did my part. Now that little jerk needs to get his ass out of bed and come meet me. There is only so much a virgin can do,” — which is the same thing Joseph found out early in the marriage.
But I wasn’t interested in meeting her. I didn’t want the burden of communicating to the world how it would end, which always seemed to be transmitted at these in promptu encounters.
I thought, “No, thank you!!!” and pretended to be asleep. I was under no delusion; the Virgin could still walk into the room and ruin the plans I had for the rest of my life.
I was pleased when the Virgin didn’t talk to me all night.
When the sun came out, I took a 12-minute nap. I don’t know what it is about the sun, but its light has a way of erasing the possibility of ghosts and other supernatural beings.
I went to church in my very out-of-style suit. Everything went without a hitch, which is not an accomplishment when all we had to do was repeat some words and bang our chest three times.
In exchange, the priest gave us a wafer and a little wine. Something now foodies like to call an amuse-bouche or something that amuses the mouth — a little off-putting, if you ask me, when you put in the context that the wafer symbolizes a man’s body.
It is weird to think now that my dad was there. My dad became an Evangelical Christian right after he divorced my mom and made it a point to tell me he didn’t believe in any of the Catholic sacraments.
I was scheduled to spend the rest of the day celebrating this religious milestone with him.
My mom agreed to plan her party for a week after — which speaks to the many glories of being a divorced kid, like having two parties when you don’t even want one.
My dad’s idea of celebrating my first communion was to eat at a Chinese restaurant.
There were only two Chinese restaurants at that time in Barranquilla, the cheap one and the fancy one.
The cheap one was the one we went to the most. It was so cheap, I can’t even remember its name.
While my parents were still married, my dad and I would go there almost every Sunday to pick up Arroz trifásico and lumpias. Trifasico was just Chinese fried rice with three types of meat. Lumpias were Chinese egg rolls. It didn’t matter to Colombians that lumpia is the Filipino pastry, and it is concocted structurally differently than an egg roll.
I can’t name the three types of meat in the trifásico as they were somewhat unrecognizable to me as an 8-year-old. One day, I asked my dad what the meats were in the trifásico, and he solemnly answered, “I don’t know, but have you ever seen a Chinese funeral?” The implication being that Chinese people made a ritual of chopping their dead and cooking them in the rice so as not to be wasteful.
I hadn’t seen a Chinese funeral. I was 8 years old in 90s Barranquilla. I had not even seen a regular funeral, let alone a Chinese one.
So, without a sensible counterpoint to my dad’s explanation, I believed Chinese rice was prepared with dead Chinese people.
What’s scarier to me now is that I didn’t stop eating the rice. My only thought must have been that Chinese people sure were delicious. I wonder if I were curious about other races and the culinary tones their flesh would add to exotic dishes from their world region — I believe that’s called Terroir.
For this celebration, my dad took us to the fancy Chinese restaurant, Jardines de Confucio.
My younger sister, Rosy, came with us to celebrate my first wafer-cookie-eating event. When the waiter came around, she wanted to order the steak and frites. But my dad’s new girlfriend, Leonor, told her that no one orders steak at a Chinese restaurant; “you eat Chinese food at a Chinese restaurant.”
Don’t get me wrong; my sister was hella annoying then. But by that time, my sister and I had already formed an unbreakable bond forged by all the shit our parents had already put us through at a young age. If someone was going to say something annoying and snobbish to my sister, it would be me.
In solidarity with my sister, and for disillusioned divorced kids everywhere in the world, I also ordered the steak and frites.
But the woman who later became my stepmom was right. At a Chinese restaurant, you order Chinese food. I spent that night throwing up, and when I was able to sleep, I had horrible nightmares.
In between bouts of fever and running to hug the toilet, I dreamed that La Virgen María was pissed off with me because I didn’t come out to meet her the night before.
The Virgin and I were both in Cartagena, and she was coming from the bay. She was taller and scarier than Godzilla, which is easy when you are the same size as an atomic iguana but have blood tears running down your face.
She brought with her monsoons and tsunamis, and no one could escape her wrath. She was a destructive giant, to be sure. But she also brought with her all the guilt that only Catholics can feel or make you feel, which made her extremely terrifying.
So, in the end, the Virgin Mary still found a way to ruin my day.