The Petting Zoo
“Look it’s you,” read the midday text I received from the boy I dated last summer. I scrolled up to see a picture of a doe in the fields behind his house, piercing the camera with its fixed, balmy gaze. My eyes widened at the tender creature on my screen, something I would never see in the hectic city where I grew up. I cherish the way I can be recognized as something so gentle and unassuming despite growing up always so brazenly assured of whatever thing or idea I was fixating on at the moment.
It wasn’t until a conversation I had with one of my girl friends much later that I realized this text message was part of a furtive collection of uncomfortable moments I’ve experienced throughout my childhood. These moments always caught me by surprise, but I never dwelled on them much until I started stitching each memory together.
My large brown eyes and allegedly melancholic expression are often the culprits of the animal comparisons. I can specifically recall my friend’s father speaking to me while taking us to middle school on the subway, “You’re like a lamb,” in reference to my curly hair, notable for its distinct size and shape. My dad was never quite as affectionate in his nicknames for me as my mom, being his second child and her only, but he would sometimes pat my head and say that I was a “good puppy.” It was admittedly odd, but my mom and I would just shrug, appreciative of the moments when he did decide to be affectionate. I’ve also gotten the odd comparison to a cat from some for my apparent “feline tendencies,” perhaps because of my sleep patterns, but more likely on account of me not being a man. After all, there’s a whole genre of greeting cards that represent cats as women and dogs as men. When I was really little, or what I like to call “half-baked,” the older generations of my family would call me Mimi, a slang term for a fly found in Puerto Rico. This was allegedly on account of my long fingers and disproportionately large feet and eyes as a newborn.
All of the animals I’ve been compared to growing up would probably form a good petting zoo. Hell, if it existed, I might even pay for a ticket to such a zoo myself. I do love animals. Sheep, dogs, cats, and deer are easy to fawn over and are relatively low maintenance compared to people and many other animals, surviving off assortments of kibble and grass unless you run into a particularly picky eater.
Sometimes I question if I should be honored to be seen as gentle as these animals. There’s a reason so many of them are kept as pets and featured in children’s animated films and TV shows as main characters (think Snow Buddies, the Fox and the Hound, Bambi I and II, or, my personal favorite, Shaun the Sheep). Except, to be frank, I just don’t get what they have to do with me. Steve Buscemi has large eyes, but I’ve never heard him compared to animals like that. I have been ascribed an innocence, submissiveness, and helplessness that often surprises me as a person who has taken the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Agency alone since I was 11 years old. I am quiet, yes, but I doubt I could find a family member that wouldn’t corroborate that I’m anything but a bit short of hellish. I could go on about my sometimes polarizing and unsolicited opinions, and I have been regularly challenging the adult men in my life starting from when I learned how to read. The messages I’ve gotten about myself throughout my coming of age confuse me even more. Am I more vulnerable than I think I am?
“Get a backbone,” one of my fellow ninth-graders back in high school said to me in an encouraging yet condescending tone. She, the resident gossip of the school, wanted to help train me to act better and stronger in our complex girls’ school environment. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be labeled as the quiet or meek one. Even my teachers would remark on their surprise when I performed on stage or when I gave a successful speech for student elections.
Yet, in the same breath, speculations and comments on my sexuality swarmed amongst my peers. I was somehow perceived as someone who was not only weak, with little expression of my own agency, but also somehow confident enough to express sexuality, regardless of my own intentions of doing so. “You’re such a slut on Instagram,” a girl in the Crafts Center, who I only knew from pictures on acquaintances’ Instagram, once told me. How could someone allegedly “weak,” “with no backbone,” and “doe-like” also be a “slut” at the same time? I became a projection of two seemingly different things simultaneously, creating a fictional image of myself I did not recognize.
“You’re a seductress,” my ex-boyfriend jokingly remarked in reference to the relatively revealing outfits I wore in my posts online in the months after we broke up and my general choice to wear summer-appropriate clothing. “You know how I feel about sundresses,” he said in response to my attempt at a dressy-casual look for the job orientation that day.
“You’ve got hoes” and “You are definitely a virgin” are among the bold speculations I have gotten from people I only know from my classes. I’ve even gotten the “I bet you are good at sex” from someone I barely knew.
The fact of the matter is, being a white-skinned Caribbean Latina raised in the Catholic Church, I am provided the cover and privilege of presumed innocence, while also often being sexualized and fetishized enough to remain alluring to those I don’t share identities with. This is only compounded as my queerness becomes more and more evident to those around me. “You’re definitely a top,” or “You’re such a bottom,” or “You’re for sure more dominant,” people inside and outside the queer community have uttered.
In due time, I was able to reflect on these experiences at university. In my sophomore year of college, I took a class called Tropical Fantasies, detailing the history of how the Caribbean has been portrayed and interacted with by its colonizers. Images of verdant and fruitful tropical rainforests—and “tropical women”—were encyclopedic knowledge for the white American man. Sometimes I wonder if I have become some sort of snow-inhabiting, tropical fantasy in others’ minds.
I see myself being both valued and devalued for my alleged purity. “I wouldn’t have dated you if you got with that guy before we started,” the same ex said. At the same time, I find myself being admired for my body and the perception of my sexuality, regardless of my own desires and intentions: insert a tinder message from a man pondering on whether I’d make a “good sneaky link” or if I was “looking mad innocent” and fit for a “coffee date.”
I constantly feel the gaze of other people waiting to see when I’ll make a mistake, to show a side of myself that confirms their beliefs about me and what they hope I might be to them: a villain, a sex symbol, someone to save. Someone pure, someone sexy—and it’s alarming how those often are conjoined in the same sentences and thoughts.
I have begun to melt easily into other people and what they want from me. The border between myself and the version constructed in the minds of my friends, peers, and strangers alike has dissolved over time especially as I came of age and into my perceived “womanhood.” Agency and self-determination, everything my ancestors have been fighting for since the US first colonized Puerto Rico, has become a personal micro-battle I have had to fight on my own for myself. I question whether or not to play up to the off-handed comments I’ve received over time in some self-serving reclamation act or if I should brush it off entirely. I also wonder, at the same time, if I should spend time making my own borders and boundaries for myself. I am still wondering how to stop asking for permission.