Down but Not Out
As you may or may not know, I have a story coming out after two years without releasing a title. In fact, Heavy Hitters was supposed to come out many moons ago, then life happened to me and I decided to pull it until I was ready to come back. And here I am. Thanks to Lisa and The Novel Approach for having me over and giving me a platform to talk a bit about my newest book, and all of you for taking the time to read. 🙂
This was supposed to be a joyous occasion for me. Not only I feel well enough to release a new story, but the story I’m releasing is set in my beloved Puerto Rico, featuring local guys, our culture, characters based on people I grew up with, and all the things I was surrounded by. Needless to say, Heavy Hitters is the story of my heart, but I must admit writing it was far from a walk in the park.
You see, we Puerto Ricans are awesome people. We dance. We sing. We celebrate. We support each other. We are fiercely proud of our heritage. We are listed in the top ten happiest people in the world, and that despite all the issues ailing the island. So of course I wanted to convey all the wonderful things in my story—I wanted you to love my homeland so much, you’d be ready to book a vacation by the time you finished reading the book. But (there’s always one, right?) if you have read my stories before, then you know I like to keep it as real as possible, so Heavy Hitters also features machismo, domestic violence, religion, and the intolerance toward the LGBT community that’s prevalent, due in part to religious rhetoric, which is…loud. After all, 90% of the island is Catholic.
That intolerance is manifested in many ways. Beatings of gay people… ridicule…murders. Way too many murders…and yes, I covered it all in Heavy Hitters. Which brings me back to how this release was supposed to be a joyous occasion, but it isn’t.
If you’ve been following the news, then you know about the Orlando shooting. By now all the victims have been identified. Twenty-five were Puerto Rican, and at least five were from Ponce, Puerto Rico, which is my hometown and the setting for Heavy Hitters, and one of them was part of my extended family. At a time where I should be excited about promoting my book, I find myself hurting over the tragic deaths of guys who lived through the things I wrote about. Guys who made it to the other side. That were free and out and trying to enjoy their lives, only to be murdered by some deeply troubled man.
And it hurts.
I’ve been in a constant state of grieving ever since I heard the news.
I considered cancelling all my promotional posts. I even considered pushing the release date yet again—wait until a time where fiction and reality didn’t feel like the same. Then I realized that might never happen, so instead I’m going ahead. I’m going to release Heavy Hitters as scheduled and try to honor all those victims with my words. And I’m going to pray: for change, for understanding, and for tolerance, even though I hate that word in relation to the LGBT community. I’m going to continue to do my part to educate whenever I can, and I will write as many books set in Puerto Rico as I can, because the Latinx community needs to be heard.
For now I’m going to leave you with an excerpt from Heavy Hitters, featuring baby Santi.
For years Santi had begged Mom for a dollhouse and a Barbie with a fluffy skirt and shiny top, only to be told again and again he couldn’t have it. Santi knew it upset Mom every time he asked, probably because boys weren’t supposed to play with dolls. Also, Mom didn’t have the money to get it for him. Santi never stopped asking, though. Not until that time when Mom dragged him out of the store and made him promise he would never ask for a Barbie again. They’d been to the store many times since then and Santi hadn’t asked, but he’d never stopped wanting it. Today he was asking again.
Mom had told him he’d be allowed to choose one present from the thrift store for his birthday. Santi had prayed every night that no one bought the dollhouse because he wanted it more than anything in the world. God had listened to him. No one had bought it, and it was his birthday. That meant he could finally have it.
“What in the world do you think you’re doing?” Mom gasped. “How many times do I have to tell you boys play with things like cars and action figures? You shouldn’t be looking at this.”
Santi didn’t look at his mom. He was too busy trying to lift his birthday present without dropping it to the floor. “I’m getting my dollhouse.”
Mom tried to pry the plastic dollhouse from his hands, but Santi refused to let go. “Come on,” she cajoled. “Let me put it back before anyone sees you. They have rules about touching the merchandise if you’re not going to buy it.”
“But we’re going to buy it.” Santi smiled at his mom. “Can we pay for it now? I want to start playing.”
“We’ve talked about this, Santi.” Mom glanced around. “You promised me you wouldn’t ask for a Barbie and a dollhouse again.” Her voice was stern. She sounded like she was about to ground him, but that couldn’t be, right? It was his birthday. Nobody got grounded on their birthday.
“I kept my promise.” Santi took several steps back, holding onto the dollhouse. “I was good. I didn’t ask you for a dollhouse for a very long time, and I’ve behaved. I’ve been good and helped you in the house and— right, Julito?” he asked when Julito and Omayra joined them. “Tell Mom I’ve been good and deserve to get my present.”
“Oh, lord.” Mom wrung her hands together. “Please, don’t do this,” she begged, looking over her shoulder.
“Put that back, Santi,” Omayra whispered, her eyes as big as saucers.
“You’ve been very good,” Julito said. “Mom knows that.”
Santi smiled at his big brother. He could always count on him to take his side.
“You’re always good, mijo,” Mom confirmed with a tremulous smile. “This has nothing to do with that.”
Julito added, “I think you should put the dollhouse back.”
“Why?” A frown promptly replaced Santi’s smile. “I want it so much… I told you that. Don’t you remember?”
Confusion at why Julito wasn’t helping him distracted Santi from the fact that his mom had almost taken the dollhouse from him. He yanked it back with such force that he fell on his butt, and the dollhouse and the Barbie doll landed on the floor with a loud thud.
“Because Dad won’t like it,” Julito said, “and you know how he gets. I don’t want you to get grounded, buddy. Do you want to get grounded?”
A store employee ran toward them. “Is everything okay?” She crouched next to Santi and reached for the dollhouse.
“That’s mine,” Santi yelled.
“Don’t be disrespectful, Santi!” Mom snapped, crouching next to the lady and offering a tremulous smile. “Everything’s fine,” she said in a lower voice, then glared at Santi when the employee nodded and left. “Don’t you ever raise your voice to an adult, you hear me?”
“She was going to take my present away,” Santi whined, reaching for the Barbie doll.
Julito crouched next to him and grabbed his arm. “Come on, Santi.”
“Why are you doing this again?” Omayra asked. “Do you want to get your ass whooped?”
“I told you this isn’t a good idea,” Julito continued. “If Dad ever finds out you want to play with dolls—”
“I don’t care if he gets mad.” Santi clutched the Barbie doll in his hand and looked at Mom, silently begging for what he must have. “I want this Barbie and the dollhouse as birthday presents,” he said in a trembling voice, just in case Mom couldn’t read his eyes.
Omayra bent down and kissed him on the head. “You’ve got to get something else,” she urged. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“Put the doll down,” Mom ordered. “We need to go.”
“Let’s go find something else you’d like to get.” Julito said, pulling on his arm.
Santi ignored his brother. He ignored Omayra and his mom, and also the store lady who had just come back. He knew Mom was getting really upset, and that he’d be in big trouble if Dad saw him like that, but he didn’t care. He didn’t want to get his ass whooped, but he couldn’t give up his Barbie doll.
“I don’t want something else!” Tears burning his eyes, he slid back on the floor when the store lady moved closer. Still clutching the Barbie with one hand he reached for the dollhouse with the other. “You said I could have whatever I wanted from the thrift store for my birthday, Mom. You told me every time I asked you.”
“I didn’t mean you could have a dollhouse,” Mom clarified with a sad look in her eyes.
“It’s my birthday,” Santi sniffled. “I blew out the candle on my cupcake this morning, and I wished we’d find exactly what I wanted. My birthday wish came true. I want my dollhouse.”
“You can’t have it,” Mom said, and Santi could tell she was running out of patience. “Come on, now. We’ll get you a different toy. Maybe they have water guns or a basket ball.”
“I want my doll house,” Santi whimpered. “I wished for it…”
“Choose something else,” Omayra said. “Please, Santi, choose something else.”
“Listen to your sister.” Mom’s mouth tightened. She looked angry. “If I have to tell you again, you’ll get clothes instead of a toy.”
“Let go of the doll,” Julito said, pulling at Barbie’s legs.
“No!” Santi’s screech froze everyone in place, and he took advantage by getting up and picking up the dollhouse from the floor. “I don’t want to let it go. I don’t want clothes either. I don’t want those ugly pants and T-shirts you make me wear. I like pink and purple T-shirts. I want to wear pretty things and you don’t let me.” Santi sobbed. “Why won’t you let me look pretty, Ma? Why?”
“That’s enough.” Mom grabbed the dollhouse and the Barbie so fast he didn’t have time to hide either from her. She put them back on the display table. “Calm yourself down and listen to me very carefully.” She cradled his face and forced Santi to look her in the eye. “You’re a boy. That means you can’t wear pretty things. Not now, not ever. Pretty things are for girls. You can’t have dolls, and you can’t tell anyone you want to play with dolls.”
“But why?—hiccup—“I”—sob—“like”—sob—“pretty things.”
“Those are only for girls, you understand? If people hear you say that you like dolls, they’ll make fun of you. Do you want them to call you pato?”
“Why-why would”—sob—“they”—sob—“call me a duck?”
“Because pato is what people call boys who act like girls, and no one likes that,” Mom explained. “Boys climb trees and ride their bikes.” She wiped his tears with trembling fingers and kissed him on the cheek. “I want you to play outside. I want you to start your training with Dad. How about we get you some boxing gloves instead?” She kissed him again. “I want you to start sparring with your brothers. I want you to exercise and get strong. I want you to win fights and make your father proud. I want you to stop thinking about Barbie dolls and pretty shirts. Okay?”
Santi took several deep breaths. “It’s my special day,” he repeated, fresh tears running down his cheeks as he looked at his mother pleadingly. “I’m supposed to be happy today. I don’t want a basketball or-or a water gun. I want t-to get-get something I re-really like for my birthday. I want to see Granny Esperanza and my-my f-friend Luca and I want to play with the doll-dollhouse without”—sob—“getting grounded”—sob—“or being called a pato. I don’t want my own bo-boxing gloves yet, Ma.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I want a Barbie doll.”
“What did you just say?”
Mom turned around at the sound of Dad’s thunderous roar.
Julito and Omayra got to their feet immediately.
Héctor stood quietly behind Dad.
Santi held his breath and stared at his father’s corded neck and reddened face.
Dad stepped forward and yelled, “What the hell did you just say?”
Santi didn’t have time to answer. He didn’t have time to blink before his father reached his side and struck him across the face so hard that he fell on the floor and saw stars. He didn’t even have time to cry out before his father kicked him on the side twice. Then he grabbed Santi by the hair, forced him to get up, and punched him on the chin.
Santi fisted his hands, closed his eyes, and bit the inside of his cheek.
Don’t cry. You know he’ll hit you harder if you cry in front of him.
“We’re going to the sporting goods store to get you a pair of boxing gloves,” Dad announced through gritted teeth. “Not because you deserve them, but because Julito was right when he said you’ll be a good fighter. The sooner I make a champion out of you, the better. We need you leeches to start winning fights and bringing some money to the house.”
Dad started walking toward the front door of the store without releasing Santi’s hair. No one in the store said a word. No one intervened on Santi’s behalf. Most adults thought kids needed to be disciplined with whips if necessary, and his family knew better than to try to stop Dad when he was so mad.
“After we buy you the gloves we’re gonna head home.” He turned sideways and smacked Santi on the face. “No visiting your grandma today and no birthday cake. We’re gonna go home, and when we get there you’re gonna glove up. You’re gonna spar with Héctor and Julito and you’re gonna show me what you got. Then you’re gonna spar with me, and I’m gonna keep punching you until I’m convinced you aren’t a goddamn pato and can fight like a man. You’re gonna live to make me proud.”
Santi’s face throbbed. He could barely walk from the pain on his ribs, but he managed to swallow his whimpers along with the blood from the cut inside his mouth. His shoulders shook in silent tears when he took a last look at his Barbie Dream House out of the corner of his eye.
“Pray to God I never hear you say that you want to dress in pussy colors and play with dolls,” Dad said as they approached their car. “If those words come out of your mouth ever again, I’ll make you wish you were dead.”
About the Book
His toughest opponent is himself.
World Boxing Champion Santino Malavé González has been fighting since he was a kid. Poverty, domestic violence, and emotional abuse were early contenders. Guilt and self-loathing were beaten into him at an impressionable age, and now machismo, an integral part of the Latino culture, rules his life. In the ring he’s undefeated. Outside the ropes life constantly hits him below the belt. It takes a sucker punch from his best friend to finally knock the denial out of him and force him to face his true nature like a real man.
A natural born entertainer, Luca Jenaro Betancur Ferrer has grown up serving God, performing, pursuing a career in music, and celebrating life among his tight-knit Catholic family under the scorching Puerto Rican sun. Singing the wrong note on stage is not a mistake the multi-platinum award-winning singer would ever allow. Falling in love with a man is not a transgression his devout family may ever accept. The ties that bind him are strong, but the pull toward his childhood best friend may just be enough to tear it all to shreds.
Anger, mistakes, bigotry, and the need to conform put up a good fight throughout their life journeys. Their religious and chauvinistic society constantly challenges their pursuit of happiness, and only time will tell if their relationship will survive the battles, or if they’ll lose each other by technical knockout.
About the Author
Taylor V. Donovan is a compulsive reader and author of gay romance and suspense. She is optimistically cynical about humanity and a lover of history, museums, and all things 80s. She shamelessly indulges in mind-numbing reality television, is crazy about fashion, and passionate about civil rights and equality for all.
When she’s not writing or making a living in the busiest city in the world, Taylor can be found raising her two daughters and their terribly misbehaved furry baby in their home.