THE fights between my parents were frequent, and my three siblings and I were used to their separations. Papi would gather his things or Mami would throw them into the street, cursing the day she met him. But this time we were the ones who left. Papi had gotten involved with the woman next door, and for Mami this was the last straw. She swore never to go back with him. And she didn’t.
We moved into my grandparents’ house in Guayama and from there, in quick succession, to my aunt’s, my godmother’s, my sister’s godmother’s, my neighbors’ and, on occasion, even strangers’. We lived like nomads, pushing on whenever our hosts’ hospitality had run dry. We hated living in those houses. Mami had become a tyrant: we couldn’t talk at night, not even in a whisper, and if anyone offered us an extra helping of food we had to say no. If we did something bad, she’d lock us in the bathroom and beat us in a blind rage — and we had no right to cry.
Mami had always been a little melodramatic. When we were little she would call us over to her bed and tell us she had only a few minutes more to live. Her hands would drop to her sides, like those of dying women in the movies, and she’d pretend to be dead. We’d shake her, press our ears against her heart, and she’d open her eyes laughing her head off and ask if we had believed her. Relieved, we would exchange our tears for laughter, hugging her, happy that she hadn’t died.
Eventually, people got tired of giving lodging to four kids and a woman who was separated from her husband. One day, we had nowhere to go. So Mami left the three of us older kids in a ballpark where nobody ever played and took our youngest brother with her to see if she could find someone to take us in. The hours passed and we were scared and hungry; finally she appeared and waved us over. She led us to the back room of a furniture store where we were supposed to pick out boxes to sleep in that night, in the park.
This seemed like fun, like camping out, and we laughed with excitement — but very quietly so that Mami wouldn’t hear us. I found a washing machine box in perfect condition and felt happy to have a room of my own. We took the boxes back to the park and pretended to make a living room.
But in the end, we didn’t have to sleep there. When the news reached our uncle that we were in the park, he went looking for us to take us home with him.
My uncle was young and had just married a lively young woman who always smiled. They lived in Arroyo, in a house by the sea. I loved two things in particular about the town: going to the theater to see the posters of the movies they were playing and tiptoeing among the rocks that formed a breakwater down by the small dock. I loved the breakwater, and when I’d sit at the very end I’d feel like I was traveling, like I was far away from everything.
One day, a library opened in town. There was a party with clowns and free books, and even the mayor was there. I didn’t dare go in because my shoes were missing, so I was wearing flip-flops that belonged to Mami, and it didn’t look right. Luckily my aunt went out and bought me some shoes. I was so happy that I put them on, gave my aunt a thousand kisses and ran straight to the library.
It had air-conditioning, reading tables, a puppet theater, records you could listen to with earphones, a globe. But what was most fascinating was an illustrated collection of literary classics: “Moby-Dick,” “Les Misérables,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I read them silently, sitting at a table, until the librarian explained that I could get a card and take the books home with me. I was afraid to take them in case something happened to them, but I wanted the librarian to think I had a house and a normal family, the way it was in the books.
The first book I took out was “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott. I had already started reading it in the library and I couldn’t put it down. My aunt sat me in an armchair in the living room so that I could read in peace. I spent hours there, totally fascinated.
One evening that week, after many months without any news from him, Papi showed up with some money. Mami received him with the hatred and anger that stirred her to love him despite everything. We kids ran out to meet him, shouting Papi! Papi! Overjoyed to see him again, we crowded around him, my sister showing him a dance step, my brother, an egg-laying hen he had found, and me showing him my book, “Little Women.”
What’s this about little women? he asked my mother. “¿Estás criando un pato?” — You raising a fag? They argued, and he stormed out and slammed the door of his van.
That was the word I most feared in school, or playing games with my cousins, the word I couldn’t escape. I was ashamed to hear it from my father; it was painful for me to see him leave, thinking that of me. When I looked at my mother, she screamed, “Queer! Little woman!” and she grabbed the book from me and tore it into pieces.
Now I would never again be able to return to the library nor would I be able to finish the illustrated series of classics. Everything goes wrong in the end, I thought. I’m just not meant for good things. Because of that word that no matter what — no matter what I do or how I do it — I could never escape. Crying, I went out to the breakwater.

Luis Negrón is the author of the story collection “Mundo Cruel.” This essay was translated by Suzanne Jill Levine from the Spanish.