Jacques Fleury: The Haitian Firefly
[Excerpt from my book Sparks in the Dark, A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir]
I was the first-born boy in my family and my appointed religion was Catholicism. With that came a lot of responsibility. And I’ll get into that shortly. Since I was the first-born boy, my mom nicknamed me “Garcon” which means “Boy.” I did not retaliate against this absurdity—that is not until I came to the United States. I discovered that in this country, “garcon” is a name attributed to a waiter. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with being a waiter. It’s just that I wasn’t one. When I turned the hormonal age of thirteen, I demanded to be called by my proper name.
The story in my family is that I was born on fire. What I mean is that when my mom was birthing me, I was told that she ran out of the hospital just as I was coming out of the darkness of her womb, valiantly striving to reach the light. So just as I was coming out, she made a giant leap for “pain kind” out of bed, bolted out the door and caught a cab home! Why you ask? My head was too big. It’s that simple. I was born with a humongous head! I think that this fact set the foundation for my later behavior, which I will also explain later. It was said that my father was simultaneously horrified and amused. The event was a first for the hospital. My father ferreted her and brought her eighteen-year-old ass back to the maternity ward kicking and screaming. So you see, I was born into a plethora of drama! So my birth itself explains why until this day I am so FABULOUSLY DRAMATIC!
My father thought that I was a little too “fabulous” and a little too “dramatic” growing up. So as soon as I got old enough he enrolled me in a very exclusive, very rigid all boy Catholic school that was adjacent to Haiti’s White House. He wanted to “make a man out of me” and he thought that this militant Catholic School would do it. He told my mother once that my legs were too “pretty” and that I needed to “toughen-up” some. You see, in Haiti, boys were expected to start grunting, spiting and grabbing their crouches long before they hit puberty. They had to assert their masculinity LOUDLY, like a wailing fire engine or a fuming train announcing its presence. Doing so was supposed to be a sign of burgeoning virility.
So as the seeds of puberty were growing inside my pants, so did my desire to experiment, particularly within my catholic school confinement. The island sun was my conduit. It affected all the kids, boys and girls alike. But the girls had to be a bit more reticent about their sexual exploits. Girls had to live overburdened with higher expectations of acceptable ways of behaving. But before I get to the girls, let me elaborate on the sexual songs of debauchery of the boys.
In Catholic school, I learned to wear my uniform well, as uncomfortable as it was. I wore a short sleeve, gold colored shirt with red stripes around the sleeves and collar, and short grey pants. The school was so strict that one day I saw a kid tripped and fell while he was playing. The principal beckoned him over, berated him and then spanked him. His reason was that the boy’s parents were not paying good money for him to run around like a wild animal. We were even expected to play with civility. Conformity was our mantra. So we learned quicker than the speed of quicksand to conduct ourselves accordingly, at least when we new THEY were watching.
The school was called “Frere Andre” which means “Brother Andre” in English. Some of the brothers were passable as human beings, showing a little more tolerance and a little less malevolence. But most of them were part of an array of half humans who often became as vicious as a choleric serpent posed to strike at any given moment. It wasn’t a matter of “if” they would strike; it was a matter of when. But we managed to be deceptively disorderly even in the face of this panoptic fraternity. Big brother was always watching, keeping us feeling perpetually uneasy.
In the morning, before the Brothers showed up after their weekends of likely stealthy and hypocritical indecency, we held a boyhood ritual called “The Examination.” We would go into the restrooms, yank our pants down and check each other out. Not only did we check for who had the biggest pleasure wand, but we also checked for who had the most “growth” since the last “examination.” There was always an undercurrent of homoerotic element in our midst. Even though we were not aware that that’s what it was at the time.
Another part of our ritual was to discuss “Les Affairs Du Jours” which is French for “The Business of the Day.” We used to talk about whether we had taken the innocence of our young maids yet. The answer determined just how much of a man you really were. Being in this exclusive religious school, most of us were middle to upper-middle class and beyond. So of course most of us had one to two maids per household. The maids were mostly girls sent over from Haiti’s countryside. Places like Cap-Haitien, Les Cayes, Leogane, Bainet, Jacmel, Fons Des Blanc, Fons Des Negre, Wanaminthe.
I always enjoyed visiting Haiti’s countryside, where the colors are so vivid that it hurts to stare directly at them. In some parts of the country only the boys are allowed to go to school. The girls stay home to learn domestic skills so to prepare them for their future husbands or before they get sent to the city to work as maids. In Port-au-Prince, these maids are called “Santanize”. They were ejected right out of the lips of fireflies, galloped their way down the mountains and tumbled into the arms of servitude in Haiti’s capitol city.
My family lived in a two-story house that my grandfather built and left for my mom and her four sisters. We lived in a part of Port-au-Prince called Carrefour on a street that bore the name of the then president of Haiti. It was Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier Avenue. The irony of living on that street was most definitely lost on me back then. The house was painted blue and white, with a mini pool in the back yard, huge balconies on the front and back sides of the second floor, and a sizable porch on the front and back of the first floor. We usually gathered there, particularly during black outs. Our Grandmother would regale us with fables and folklore as the children surrounded her, youthful fascination dangling from our lips. Listening with as much intensity and attention as we could muster. Those were the only times the lines blurred between the parents and the children, because our parents were also considered to be children by the presiding Grandmother. She used to recount stories of “Bookie ET Malice,” translation “Boris and Morris.”
We had coconut and mango trees in our backyard and other types of edible plant food. We literally lived off the earth. “Notre terrain produit beaucoups des fruit.” Translation: “Our land produced a plethora of fruits.” We were all strong, healthy and full of “Joie de vivre!” We were enamored with life indeed. Our appetites were insatiable. Our appetites for sex, love and food were the ultimate conductors of our colorfully orchestrated reality!
All of the sisters had husbands except for the youngest, who were still in school when my grandparents died. We had three maids all together, one of them belonging to my mother and stepfather. My biological father was emotionally and physically separated from my mother and myself. He lived in his own house in the center of town where he ran his own tailoring and retail business. The maids were young and robust and full of life. They were just happy to have a place to sleep and feast with their adopted city family. You see, in the country girls were not sent to school. That privilege belonged only to the boys. The adults figured that if the girls did not know how to read and write, they wouldn’t write love
letters to boys and become involved prematurely in sexual relations before marriage. They were kept illiterate in order to avoid being emotionally and physically compromised by pubescent boys. Most often they came to the city as virgins, in every sense of the word. Which brings me to “Les Affairs Du Jours” that I mentioned earlier.
To Be Continued…
Jacques Fleury is a Poet, Author and Columnist; his book “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. Sample or buy the book at: www.lulu.com. 20% of proceeds will go to Haiti charity Partners in Health. For personal appearances or comments, contact Jacques at: firstname.lastname@example.org.