Robert the Dancing Queen, Dead

“It’s not the dead you have to fear, son; it’s the living.
We don’t cry for the dead, but for ourselves.”
—My mother to me, April 1981


A dancing queen was murdered in San Fernando.
A transgender man was murdered.
Robert “Peter” Navarro.

Please, just say it, his name. Then, for balance, say your own, or the name of someone who loves you, or that of the many we memorialize—the many.

His mutilated body was found yesterday in Snake Valley, a forested trail that leads up San Fernando Hill. Naked. Brutalized. As young boys, my cousins and friends and I would find our way through that track, leading up to Breakneck Pass and the top of the hill, where I’d later hike with other cadets from F Company—Ayres, Tyson, Ako-Adoo, and them.

There are rocks, trees, vines.

He was there. Right there. Five minutes from Upper Hillside Street, where he lived. Broken up and dead, his body rotting. His brother Raymond seemed to know. We stood at the end of Ambard Street the other night—me smoking, he looking further up the hill to Romaine Street, where Robert was last seen alive.

“Ah feel dey kill him, yuh know.”
“Nah, boy. Doh say dat, nah, Raymond?”
“Yeah, boy. Ah feel they lick him up.”

You know how these things go, he seemed to say, remarking on his brother’s reputation as a dancing queen in the same breath as how good a person he is—was. His brother who people will tell you everyone loved.

I offered him a DuMaurier and noted the apparent ease with which he mentioned the facts of Robert’s disappearance to me: a phone call, a hurried exit, a far too long absence, then questions, searches and failures to search. He looked up.

“But sometimes,” he said, “ah does have to just come and watch, nah. Is a spirit thing.”
“Yeah, boy. Fuh dat.”

The apparent ease, betrayed by subsequent confessions of being torn apart for a brother who was a dancing queen. I found out the same way, between compliments of the season and the requisite puncheon. There was no wringing of hands or beating of a chest. He’d been crying earlier, though. And drinking. Grief is a hell of a thing, isn’t it? Grief in the offing.

This is a season of loss. Grief is its precipitation. We—all of us, everywhere—are soaked in it. It’s  not a question, we know, of whether grief will touch you, but rather of when and where and in what particular form. It’s a matter of scale, of depth and reach.

We, who run through the yard are accustomed to it. Just last week, I watched my aunt be cremated a stone’s throw from where she had lived as a child. She taught me things: how to care for the old and the sick and the dying. Care, she knew, was the manifestation of a certain kind of patience. And how to swallow when there is the impulse to bawl.

We learn to ride the wave. But our hearts still beat in the tide.

Call me an optimist (which I’m not), but I don’t yet think we’re as numbed and desensitized as those so deep in their well-earned cynicism might have us believe. I think we feel the loss. Still. We feel the hurt—either as a piercing or a deep, abiding nausea that circles the navel, forcing the eyes closed and the breath to grow long, just so you can swallow. We feel the grief.

We, my people, exist in a place between praise and lamentation. This is part of the reason we grieve in much the same way we celebrate, not because we lack imagination, nor fail to recognize one or the other. Not because they’re killing us—women, men, children—with the impunity one would expect from gasping empires and their foolish little upstart nations, nor even because we understand that the one is linked to the other, but because we are in a state of perpetual expectation and acceptance. This is why news of a transgender man’s murder would raise hardly an eyebrow among those who know him and his family—know, not knew, not so soon, so quick.

They will tell you that he cleaned people’s yards.
They will tell you that he sang (perhaps as well as he danced).
They will tell you that his manner was kind, but not to be trifled with.
They will tell you that he abhorred bullies and would dismantle you with his words if you tangled with him.
They will tell you that just before he disappeared, he danced in the yard.
They will tell you that everyone loved him. Everyone.
They will tell you that it didn’t matter who he slept with.

But it did.

Rumor has it that it was a former lover who consummated a threat made when he was still in prison. Promises to keep for those who think persons can be owned, that their bodies ought to be plundered, then colonized. It will come out soon enough (that much has been decreed).

For the moment, though, let us pretend that Robert’s life (as most will come to know it) didn’t begin where it ended, and that his disappearance is more than a cruel example of the way homophobia, transphobia, domestic violence, rape, torture, and murder are ignored in this place—this place, with its bloody absurdities and hypocrisies that snap at each other like mancrabs. Lest we betray the fact that, as a society, we are obliged to mistake tolerance for acceptance, let us pretend that his disappearance is not the preferred fate of “a macumé man.” Erasure. Let us, just for a few minutes, pretend that nothing can be done when a lifeless body is painstakingly picked from the branches, a full eight hours after being found, and that the stench that causes the corbeaux to circle is not his alone but the putrefaction of an entire society in the latter stages of decay.

Putrefaction. Complement to the season.

But take heart. The stink will pass, as all decay will inevitably end. Desiccation will follow (and, lucky us, we have the perfect amount of sun for it).

We simply have to do nothing.

Stay quiet, hold strain, relax. Vote. Don’t vote. Drink. Dance. Grieve in style. Trinidad nice and Carnival coming.

Somewhere, someone is designing a costume.

Oh, my people. What a thing to have to be strong only because you are weak, taking more and more (and more). What a thing to have to back away from that, from yourselves, just long enough so you can see what you must in the suffering of others. In their death.

Denial aside, it is the case that when you have cause or occasion to ask yourself (or anyone else who loves you) how much your heart can take, there comes an answer: More.

Always, sadly, more.

In matters of grief, there is a tendency to make what you feel be about you—indeed, because you feel it. It is, I think, a natural expression, an articulation of an instinctive response to protect and preserve oneself. You recognize the closeness of death and other dangers. You may tremble, perhaps because you are coming to terms with the fact that death comes to everyone, or perhaps because you have never known or seen it close enough to touch the dying (the way their bodies take to ambient temperatures, then stiffen, then decompose, until nothing). And even that—the not knowing—brings with it a burden that no ignorant bliss could outweigh.

In the midst of that feeling, though, you must also come to face the fact that your feelings are a privilege—indeed, because you can feel. And in recognizing your feeling as a privilege, endowed to you through nerve and marrow and ligament and sinew and blood and water, you must face the fact that the one for whom you grieve is dead.

The dead feel nothing.

Nothing. Not even sorrow for having taken their leave of us, the still living. The sorrow is, instead, ours to feel. Because we can feel.

Or because we can’t.