I read Romeo and Juliet all of that last summer I was home; it was sweltering, hazy heat, and the air shimmered. I had a battered green copy with swirling cover art, and that summer more than once the pages were stained with sweatdrops, saline as lovers' tears. Sometimes, in the hot afternoons, the words sort of blurred with the same haze as the rest of the air, and I'd find myself focusing on the same line, over and over:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: the more I give to thee,
The more I have; for both are infinite.
I was convinced.
It seemed I had an endless bounty of sweat, making my pores glisten night and day, so why shouldn't my love be equally infinite? There could be some gland just below the skin that would exude the scent that drove lovers mad, pumping away forever and fueling all kinds of mad declarations. I would find my own Romeo and share kisses and vows for all the summer. I didn't think about the end of the play in my daydreams.
Often on those early summer days I would go out biking on my new red Schwinn, pushing the limits of my suburban knowledge. Sometimes I passed through the Puerto Rican neighborhood, the bronze-skinned men sitting shirtless on the stoop and smoking, potbellied grandfathers spitting tobacco on their porches. I biked fast there, stifling the latent xenophobia bred into me by a relentlessly WASP upbringing--I was too cultured to be a bigot, too cultured to be afraid of those with different skin!--but nonetheless, I stuck out terribly, a white girl on a bicycle the color of an inflamed appendage. The girls were short, dark-skinned and busty, wearing white tank tops that bared their coppered skin to the blazing air. Their eyeshadow was blue and red and green and they yelled at each other in loud Spanish as I passed in a blur.
The nights that summer were equally hot but differently lit; the darkness was pale and grey, with the grainy texture of fine ash. There was an oval of wrought-iron gate in my front yard that looked like plastic in the moonlight and I often sat just outside it, my feet on the asphalt, the rest of me planted firmly on the sidewalk that was still warm from the sun it had absorbed all day. Cars stopped passing after ten. My neighborhood slept early and soundly, the lights shutting off one by one in the houses like dying fireflies. The maple trees sweated through the night, wind shivering through their leaves so that they could have looked cold. It was stifling.
No matter how many times I flipped through the play, I could find no hint on how to get such a Romeo in the hot underbelly of my town. Clearly, I was doomed to be forever untouched and untasted, left to rot among the white picket fences, or wilt unlooked-at like an unpicked flower. I longed to be bronze and wide-hipped like the Puerto Rican girls, with their curves and the sweating males who unashamedly drank in their every movement. The street was rectangular and the white picket fences felt like an envelope, sealing me away.
It is my soul that calls upon my name.
How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!
I didn't know anything about that.
The Puerto Rican neighborhood started eight blocks from my house; it was only when I biked those blocks at speed that I realized all the trees and hedges were perfectly trimmed, not a leaf out of place, coiffed as the mothers and fathers whose children wore padded helmets on their tricycles. It was a small sixteen-block radius that the WASPs lived in and I suddenly felt cold even as the sun's rays beat on my back, because I didn't want to live there anymore. When I passed the border between the perfectly paved asphalt and the cracked cement, the air changed texture, became more humid, suddenly contained the scent of frying plantains, and I felt more comfortable somehow, so that my posture changed on my bike, and I slumped over a little more. I was wearing a white shirt with sleeves up to my elbows and I suddenly felt like I should roll them up, unbutton a few buttons.
But I was thin and the color of paper and my collarbones stuck out a mile. I passed a solid block of brownstones with long stoops, every step full of brown-skinned people leaning back in various attitudes of basking in the sun; the girls' limbs were wonderfully proportioned in their white tanks and I felt a quiver of jealousy. There was a stoop that seemed to be only for boys and girls, around my age, kissing and talking and laughing, sitting near or on each other, and I sped past that one the quickest. I did the loop of their neighborhood a few times, keeping my eyes on the tarmac and letting the smell of frying plantain drift into my nose and hair and skin. I didn't care what my mother would say when I got home. Let her think I had strayed farther than I had. Or that I'd found some Romeo here, where the glances people gave each other were fired with some kind of meaning.
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
What did I care for the fore, only the where? It was too soon to fall, and too soon to the time when I would have to leave my shirt buttoned up to the highest, and too soon until I was sitting in one of the rows and rows of square desks with my perfectly arranged binders flipped out in front of me, writing notes in neat bird-scratched handwriting, and too soon until the Puerto Rican girls started wearing sweaters. I only had two months.
We were having meatloaf for dinner that night, in my house. It all seemed cut and dried, an uninspired slab of brown on my plate like it was cut from shoe leather, with a red sauce slopped in geometric patterns on the side. My mother's nails were impeccable and painted a dull beige that was exactly one shade darker than her skin.
"Where've you been all day, Angie?" she asked, laying a thin white hand on my arm. She smiled at me, and it struck me that her potato-white face with the layered blond hair looked boiled, like she'd been lying in water too long. I wondered if being too clean did that to people, whether one needed to sweat in the sun to look anything but sterilized. Did I look like that? Angie. Angie. What a name. It brought up only a picture of white sponge cake that tasted like saccharine and meant nothing to the tongue.
"Just around the block, mom." Clipped. I hoped that would end it.
"Be careful, Angie. You have so much potential. Don't let idleness get in the way of your ambitions!"
Mother, mother, my fifteenth summer. For then, my only ambition was to somehow turn several shades darker, gain twenty pounds and a set of breasts, and become a Puerto Rican girl. If only, if only!
It seemed to me that Shakespeare must have been Puerto Rican. Surely he couldn't have been white; Shakespeare's house was not immaculately carpeted, his walls were not creamy white, he did not have a living room whose proportions were perfectly tailored to offset the foyer! Shakespeare's characters looked at each other and meant it, they didn't speak of ambitions, they didn't fight for 4.0s they weren't smart enough to earn; they kissed more than they spoke, they spent hours talking on the stoops, they shared their passions. Romeo and Juliet.
I thought they must be like the Puerto Rican couple I always saw hand-in-hand as I biked by, the same one, the girl's eyeshadow color changing daily, but her breasts were grapefruit-size and you could see their outlines through her white tank-top. The boy was tall, broad, well-muscled, and he didn't wear a shirt most days, his scant chest hair dark and brown and his jeans faded. They were on a brownstone instead of a balcony and their families didn't fight, but when they kissed I thought it must be the same.
I'd never kissed anyone but I thought it must be strange, coming out of your own white envelope to be instead enveloped in someone else, in their arms and lips and tongue, and to make it so that it was only you two instead of only you in your envelope. I had no one but the white picket fences, I had no friends, and only a group of bronze-skinned people who stared as I rode past. I longed to be allowed to sit on one of those brownstones.
That summer I read Romeo and Juliet so many times I didn't bother counting, and by the winter after I'd left my town forever.