In middle school, I wore my hair nearly to my shoulders, parted down the center. Older women couldn’t resist stroking my curls, but most people found my appearance baffling. I became accustomed to answering the question, always with a twinge of adolescent indignation, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
When I decided to visit my friend Ronald in his native Venezuela for a month after sophomore year of high school, my hair was cropped and I had lost the glasses and braces that helped to disguise my sexual identity. Anyone could tell I was a boy — if a rather puny one — but I still felt as though I had something to prove. I thought that immersion in Venezuelan culture would toughen me up; indeed, Ronald and I devoured great platters of meat and chugged beer, always crumpling the can when we finished. When a boy named Javier threw a cookie at my head and tried to punch me, I bloodied his lip.
One weekend Ronald’s mother drove us to Ciudad Bolivar where Ronald’s extended family lived. His uncle Juany hosted a barbecue, and bearded relations strutted around the yard with revolvers stuffed jauntily into the backs of their jeans. Juany led me on a tour of his home. “These ones are for showing!” he told me, pointing to a rack of impressive rifles in his living room. “This one is for protection!” he said, producing a revolver from atop his vanity mirror in the bathroom. I followed him timidly into a dark and isolated closet. Smelling of whiskey, Juany gestured to another rack: “These rifles are for hunting!” Then, he pulled a pistol from his pocket.
“And this one is in case you try to steal something!”
He grazed my palpitating chest with the barrel.
That night another uncle offered to take us camping. I had never camped before, but it sounded rugged and kept with the spirit of the trip. The women would pack our knapsacks and prepare food so that we could leave the next morning for La Paragua (“The second largest man-made lake in South America!”) with Uncle Rogelio and two of Ronald’s older cousins.
We set off in Rogelio’s red Ford Explorer, which was packed with camping gear, firearms, meat and enough whiskey to make Rogelio forget we were there. We picked up the cousins on the road out of town, where they were standing with a woman who was not Rogelio’s wife. She climbed into the passenger seat and kissed him while the cousins squeezed in back with Ronald and me.
Rogelio and Angela did not fit the Hollywood paradigm that informed my understanding of extramarital affairs. Unconcerned that their romantic getaway more closely resembled a family gathering, they would leave abruptly from the circle in which we sat and crawl into the back of Rogelio’s Explorer, only to return 20 minutes later as if nothing had happened. I liked Angela, but couldn’t understand why she would participate in such an unglamorous affair; she cooked our meat — the meat Rogelio’s wife and Ronald’s mother had prepared just hours before — and scrubbed our dishes in the lake. At night she and Rogelio bedded down unbathed in the back of the Explorer while the rest of us slept in two tents. I thought about James Bond drinking champagne with his lovers on a Mediterranean yacht; even Woody Allen seemed like a scintillating heartthrob compared to boorish Rogelio.
On the second day, the cousins procured a motorboat large enough to accommodate the five of us men, but not Angela, who saw us off from the shore. The cousins perched in the back of the craft, Ronald and I meekly occupied the middle bench, and Rogelio posed, statuesque, foot on the bow, holding his rifle.
We arrived in a cove along a distant shore and Rogelio signaled for the cousins to cut the motor. He shouldered the rifle and shot at some bushes, sending something furry and the size of a duffel bag diving into the water. I had seen enough to identify the animal: it was a capybara, the world’s largest rodent. At zoo camp years before we had learned that the capybara lived in South America, but not that South Americans hunted them for sport. Even when, while playing Oregon Trail in third grade, hunger had forced me to hunt, I tried not to kill more buffalo meat than I could carry, and never would have shot something as hapless and ignoble as a capybara.
The cousins, following the instructions of their wildly gesticulating uncle, tracked the capybara. Rogelio shot at anything snout-like protruding from the water and eventually hit his mark. He hoisted the vanquished rodent, wet and bleeding, with the nonchalance my own father might adopt with a cup of tea. Hunting, the essence of machismo, only made me sad. Girly as it sounds, I much preferred feeding animals to shooting them. Rogelio, however, was overjoyed. “They look disgusting, but they taste great.”
Novice campers, we had neglected to bring a rain fly for our tent, so Ronald and I spent most of the night silently enduring the storm as it seeped into our shelter; I lay in an increasingly large puddle and shielded my forehead from the constant drops falling from the ceiling. Eventually the cousins invited us beneath Rogelio’s Explorer. The ground was boggy but my head remained dry and I was able to fall asleep. The morning broke calmly, but I needed a moment to recollect why the truck above me might be rocking with such urgency.
We packed our tents and drove back to Bolivar. Rogelio pulled off the road on the outskirts of town and the cousins and Angela waved goodbye. We arrived at Juany’s with an ice-filled cooler bearing the corpse of the capybara. Ronald’s mother was eager to head home. “Can’t you at least stay for dinner?” Rogelio’s wife asked. “We’re going to roast that animal the boys killed.”
Thankfully, we could not.