The house was full of guests. Step by step, I followed the bumblebee across the living room until I reached the sliding door. It was open. I was about to walk out when the nanny swept me off my feet. She caught me from behind, her arms under my arms. “Saved by the bell!” she yelled. Outside, the tiles were wet. If she hadn’t caught me I would have slipped and cracked my head open, I think. She closed the door leaving the cold outside and carried me back to my parents and their noisy dinner party.
Ok, let me explain.
Step by Step
I was born in 1984, the Orwellian year. The eighties and early nineties were important to me. The way I look at the world was in part shaped by the TV shows I watched then. I’m sure other kids my generation would say the same, but I think I was more influenced than most because my parents worked on television.
My younger brother and I started watching Step by Step on the school holidays. The show aired at seven thirty in the morning. I made an effort to wake up on time to watch it. It was a sitcom starring Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers. They played two single parents, each with three children, who get married and start one of our now ubiquitous modern families.
I liked the show because it was funny, and because my Mum liked Patrick Duffy, who was Bobby from Dallas. It was a circuitous but effective way of bonding with Mum. Duffy’s character in Step by Step, Frank Lambert, turns forty during an episode that aired on March 27 1992. In the episode Frank’s family throw him a surprise party. I watched the Spanish-dubbed version in Mexico City on August 8 1992, the morning of my Mum’s 42nd birthday. To my eight-year-old self it made perfect sense. Of course Patrick Duffy’s-aka Bobby Ewing’s–aka Frank Lambert’s birthday fell on the same day as my Mum’s. It was a sign. I wasn’t entirely sure what of, but definitely a sign.
Dallas and Dynasty were important shows for Mum. She studied both soap operas systematically, particularly in terms of their narrative structure and their use of the cliff-hanger, which she borrowed when she wrote her first soap opera for Mexican television in 1988.
Before doing telenovelas Mum worked on sitcoms. She started in the early seventies with a then little-known comic actor and writer who went by the name of Chespirito.
Chespirito’s real name was Roberto Gómez Bolaños. They called him Chespirito because he was very good with words. A friend of Roberto’s once said that he was so clever, his dialogue so witty, with such flawless comedic timing, that he was like a little Shakespeare, un Shakespeare chiquito. The phoneme “sh” does not exist in Spanish; it was transliterated into “ch” (Shakespeare = Chespir), and so Roberto was known as Chespirito, Latin America’s little Shakespeare.
Roberto was my godfather. He and Mum worked together for almost twenty years. Mum became the first female television director and producer in Latin America. Their show was a hit. According to Forbes, to date, more than twenty years after the last episode of Chespirito aired, its reruns across Latin America average ratings of ninety-one million viewers per day, seven days a week. To put that into perspective, the Super Bowl has more or less one hundred and ten million viewers.
No one knows about Chespirito outside the Spanish-speaking world, for good reason. Most of the show’s humour comes from wordplay, alliteration, and phonetic games, which are devilishly difficult to translate. But one of Chespirito’s characters made it past the border and became famous in the United States, or at least a version of one of his characters did.
Late one night during a trip to Tijuana, Matt Groening turned on the television in his hotel room and came across a Surrealist tableau of a middle-aged man prancing around dressed like a red bee, or a mosquito, or something along those lines, brandishing what looked like a yellow and red war hammer (my brother and I used to play with that war hammer when we were kids, and I’m pretty sure the original is stashed in some dark, dusty closet in Mum’s house). The red bee in question was not a bee; it was a grasshopper, a ginger grasshopper to be precise, one of Chespirito’s most famous characters, “El Chapulín Colorado”.
The man in the bug suit (Chespirito himself) was yabbering away in Spanish. Groening didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but he thought it was a hoot. What happens in Tijuana usually stays in Tijuana, but this particular incident crossed the border back into the US. Thus, The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man was born.
Chespirito’s show was allowed at home, but telenovelas, Mum’s other source of income, were not. One evening I was in my room, huddled in front of the TV watching a soap opera with my nanny, Chayito. I was enthralled because the innocent, beautiful star, who was paraplegic, was about to step away from her wheelchair to kiss the man she loved. At least that’s what I thought was about to happen. The screen went dark. The lamp on the ceiling was on, which meant the electricity was working.
Dad stood behind us with the remote. “Telenovelas are for women and fags,” he said. “We don’t watch them in this house.”
My parents were together for twenty-five years. The first half of that quarter of a century was a long honeymoon. I remember more the second half, when our money was replaced by a wealth of screams, by father’s alcoholic rants, much psychological violence. Dad forced Mum to stop working and invested everything she had in a business that flopped. When we outgrew our school clothes Mum started sewing new ones for us because we couldn’t afford to buy anything. It was a confusing time.
We lost almost everything. In those days there were no royalties for directors and producers, only for actors. Around that time I started watching reruns of Full House, the show that began the Olsen-twin empire. Bob Saget as Danny Tanner and John Stamos as the cheekily charming Jesse Katsopolis became the opposite sides of my spectrum of male role models. Thrown into the gumbo of my subconscious, they become archetypes of kind, good-hearted men.
Before books, Full House was one of my escape hatches to a better world. It’s funny. I find it hard to write about this. When I scratch the surface of what happened at home during those years, when I get close to the difficult topics, they push me away. My words turn to ash. The prose goes bad, too ripe with sentimentality. What was going on at home? Our house was full, of things I’d rather not talk about. We were always at the edge of a catastrophe, a new emergency, a fresh calamity that had to be staved off. I discovered I had a half brother from my Dad’s first marriage, Nicholas, whom until then we knew nothing about. I was still Mum’s first born, but overnight, I became Dad’s middle child. As I said, it was a confusing time.
Saved by the Bell
I was not saved by the bell. The fucking bell doomed me.
I realised I liked guys when I started watching Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell. He ran from classroom to classroom in wholesome polo shirts, eyes opened wide–which was pretty much the full spectrum of his acting–under sun-bleached eye-brows. Penny loafers and lolling Adam’s apple, flattop hair with golden waves combed back except for a curl or two, each strand a winding solar highway, the promise of happiness. I liked his side grins, the tight denim shirts that often turned into tight denim shorts.
Zack Morris was my downfall, and that of so many other gay kids in the late eighties and early nineties, when homosexuality was not something a prepubescent boy looked forward to. I shouldn’t generalize like that; I didn’t look forward to it. Being gay in one of the most homophobic parts of the world, with a homophobic father to boot was not in my plans. I had frightening dreams of Zack Morris’ hairless chest, dense aureoles in changing rooms, hairy calves with caked mud sluicing down white tiles, past feet equally pale, chiseled to stand defiant in battle. His features pushed me toward a cartography that did not exist, a dark expanse with no rules, no guidelines, no family friendly prime-time TV role models like the ones I’d painstakingly cobbled out of episode after episode of Full House. Zack Morris’ trickster smile was the catalyst to my first pangs of one-sided love, the rocket in the chest, the heady climb and those cooler soft explosions of secondary stars.
We’re well into the nineties now.
Reruns of The Nanny still make me laugh. Those scripts are nothing short of genius. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to write that show week after week, year after year, with that impetus for good humour. I know I couldn’t do it, and I take my hat off to the writers. Looking back, I think that my sense of humour was moulded by that show.
I had several nannies over the years. They were not from Queens. They were from rural, recondite parts of Mexico. Poor women who flocked to the capital in search of poorly paid jobs and a modicum of stability in their lives. I adored them. I loved them with a child’s unconditional, unreasoned affection, without knowing most of them had children of their own who were not being looked after because their mother was with me. Rosario, whom I called Chayito, was dearest to me. She lived with us. Her whole family did. They were from Huitzo, a village in Oaxaca, a speck of ink that goes unnoticed in most maps. Chayito’s Mum, Bertha, was our housekeeper, and at fourteen Chayito was my fulltime nanny.
Chayito and her family were devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. They loved me very much. That’s why they were intent on separating me from my mother, whom they saw as the Harbinger of All Evil. My mother is a tepid catholic who leans more toward agnostic spirituality than any institutionalised form of religion. Bertha, the housekeeper, did not agree with most of my mother’s ideas about my education, like sending me to a school were they taught science and philosophy. For months, as soon as my mother stepped out the door, Bertha read to me texts published by the Witnesses’ Watch Tower Society, which in her eyes carried the word of the Lord, and the path to Salvation.
One day, a month or two before I knew about my half-brother’s existence, I told Bertha that one thing I wished for more than anything, anything in this world, was an older brother. Someone to play with, who could guide me and maybe look after me at school, fence off the bullies. As it turned out, with the sort of timing that seems trite in fiction and only reality can get away with, not long before I said this to Bertha she had overheard an argument between my parents about Nicholas, my half-brother, and whether he should be introduced to us or not. The power of the Lord was great, Bertha said to me, and maybe, just maybe, if I prayed to Him every night, with a pure heart, and I ate whatever Chayito cooked for me without complaining, and realised once and for all what an Evil Witch my mother was, maybe, God would grant my wish and give me an older brother to play with.
Chayito was my last nanny. She left like all the others. She and Bertha and the rest of the family went back to Oaxaca, and every now and again we received long-distance calls asking how we were. That started a new period in my childhood, in my life, really. I sat down alone to watch hours upon hours of television shows that Chayito and I used to watch together. Perhaps those cartoons, sitcoms, and thrillers were a way of connecting with her. When I watched ThunderCats with an empty seat by my side, Chayito’s ghost was keeping me company.
A month after Chayito left I started watching The Nanny. The show became a surrogate companion, I guess. When my parents were not in the house Chayito and I used to put on records and dance from one side of the palatial living room to the other until I was sweaty and breathless. When we laughed, which was often, my stomach moved on its own and I couldn’t make it stop. It made my jaw and my ribs hurt. I think Fran Drescher brought back some of that, and that’s why I liked her. Last month I found out on Facebook that Chayito committed suicide after a long battle with depression. I can’t write about that now. It pushes me away.
I don’t know how, exactly, I started to migrate from television to books. Mum was a big reader, but never a literary reader. She read for plot, John Grisham and Tom Clancy and Taylor Caldwell. When I was learning to read, practising with every billboard I saw from the car window, every piece of paper that fell between my hands, my mother told me books were doors to other worlds. I had no idea what she meant, but the thought that a book could be like the wardrobe to Narnia (which I knew from the 1980s miniseries, not the books) was exciting. My father did not read, but he was instrumental in making me read. He bribed me into it, actually. Dad bought me books on things I was desperately excited about – dinosaurs, the history of magic, treasure hunts – and paid me ten pesos for every book I read. When I turned twenty-eight, halfway through my PhD, a behavioural optometrist asked if I knew I was dyslexic. Really? Was I? Yes, she told me, but somehow I had developed strategies to cope with my dyslexia. Was I brought up in a literary household? No? Well, whatever my parents did, she assured me, it worked.
I have to come clean. Not everything I said here is true. I took some artistic license. I hope you will forgive me for that. The first paragraph you read with the gimmicky words in bold, where Chayito runs after me as I run after the bumblebee and she stops me from slipping on the wet tiles…that never happened. Or not like that. I wasn’t saved by the bell. Chayito did not get there on time. I did step past the sliding door. I slipped on the faux terracotta tiles. I banged my head against them and fractured my skull. That was early on in my story, though. Before Zack Morris and the fag soap operas, and before Dad invested Mum’s money on the business that never bore fruit. We were in the middle of one of my parents’ famous dinner parties. There were journalist and actors, writers and lawyers, and many doctors who said I should be rushed to the hospital.
Gabriel García Ochoa was born in Mexico City. He teaches Cultural Literacy, Translation, and Comparative Literature at Monash University. He studied at Harvard University’s Institute for World Literature, where his research focused on the works of Jorge Luis Borges. His writing has been published in the Harvard Review, The Australian Book Review, Verge, Etchings, and other publications. He is currently working on his first novel.