What Papi and Angel Taught Me About Love
If you were alive, and fully aware, and not living under a rock, and you were not watching POSE, then I don’t know what you were doing with your life. POSE is a wonderfully written, wonderfully acted, swath of brightly colored uniqueness across a gray landscape of reboots and summer TV nonsense, focusing on the LGBTQ community in New York City at the height of the ballroom scene and the earlier years of the AIDS epidemic. Tuning in every Tuesday night was a requirement; there was no negotiation. Watching these men and women navigate life, and death, and love, and happiness to the backdrop of all the best 90s music and fashion was a privilege and a gift — the best thing I never knew I needed. And as the second season wrapped August 20th, 2019, I found myself thinking of what I’d learned, pulling every plotline apart, picking memories and lessons to keep with me, not just until next season, but as long as I possibly could.
FX, POSE’s parent network knew what they were doing — every new episode was followed immediately by a replay, which allowed me and other viewers like me to watch once for the plot, and as my friend Eric says, “once for the aesthetics.” The first watch captured the exceptional acting, the poignant writing, the emotional delivery of very real topics facing gay and trans people in their everyday life. The first watch tugs at your heartstrings. The second watch is a feast for the eyes. The outfits, the hair, the walks, the dance, the categories. Watching your fave gets 10s across the board in a dress fit for royalty, or contorting their bodies in a way actual models could NEVER — the joy of watching POSE was both calming and contagious. And for ten weeks I was glued to the television for two hours a night, watching the original airing and the replay, laughing and crying and clapping, live tweeting and giving every ball participant my own personal score. During every watch (and re-watch) I reflected on Pray Tell’s guidance, Damon’s growth, Blanca’s bravery, and Elektra’s epic reads. But the biggest emotional pull of Season Two was definitely the beauty and magic that was Angel and Papi. Nothing gave me more joy than Angel and Papi.
Angel Evangelista, ballroom and runway star and arguably the finest woman on the show, realized all her dreams this season, winning a place at the Ford agency and becoming an actual booked and busy print model. As a transwoman, it was a milestone both in Angel’s life, and a huge stride for trans equality, and recognition. Professionally, even though there were setbacks, Angel took her ballroom beauty and runway skills — and she exploded into the rest of the world. And personally, Angel found love. Real love. True love. Patient and kind love. And she found it with Papi, nee Esteban, a young hustler with a huge heart and a gentle soul. Reformed dope boys really do make the best boyfriends.
From the start of Season Two, the closeness between Angel and Papi was obvious. And it only took an episode to see that something in Papi had shifted where Angel was concerned. You could see his deference to her, his care of her. Papi didn’t “fall” in love; he leapt headfirst, without looking, without wondering, without hesitating. He ran, at full speed, into a love he wasn’t even sure he was worthy of. He just knew what he wanted. And knew that the possibility of getting it was a possibility that he was worthy of. That taught me something. Papi wore his heart on both sleeves, with no trepidation, and that taught me something as well. When Angel was afraid to pursue modeling for fear of being “clocked,” Papi pushed her while cradling her, defended her with his words (and fists), stood up for her womanhood — and that taught me something too. Something about love. Angel’s willingness to trust even after her ill-fated affair with Stan in Season One, even through whispers that her new career would put her on a path away from men of Papi’s perceived lower “station,” taught me something about love. Angel and Papi were real love, honest and pure. Love that stumbled at times but strutted mightily when it walked upright. Love that even with all of their life experiences, still rang so innocent and unsullied. Love that was loud and proud. Love that never failed. And it taught me something. It gave me something. It was a glimpse into what I’ve never known.
In the realm of romantic entanglements, I’ve known plenty of like, and tons of lust, clouds of infatuation, but never love. Never mutually anyway. I’ve thrown my heart to potential, wished on a star, opened my mind up, shut my vagina down, waited and prayed while simultaneously putting myself out there; I did everything everyone I’ve ever known told me to do. And still, love — real, reciprocal, love, has been elusive. I’ve given my heart but never received one in return. I don’t stop trying, and I don’t give up, but I have entertained the possibility of doing so. I don’t wallow in my lack of romantic success, but I have wondered why. I don’t blame myself or beat myself up, but there was a time when I did. These days I fill my heart with the secondhand joy of witnessing love. I’ve danced and cheered as each of my best friends took the journey to forever with their Angel or Papi. I went to each of those celebrations alone, and left alone. I’ve yearned for romantic love in secret, so as not to draw the condescension of those who think its “not that important.” Not only have I not really known love, lately I’ve been afraid to say how much I still want to know it. I’ve been afraid of even entertaining the possibility, lest I be hailed as weak in some way, or reminded of all the things I can achieve without a relationship “holding me back,” or worse yet — told how “lucky” I am to be free. Can you imagine having a dream and being told that you’re “lucky” it didn’t come true? That’s a cruelty that’s been happening to me for years.
This wasn’t what I was expecting. No one prepares you for this. They don’t teach adulthood in school, but even if they did, I doubt there’d be a class on loneliness. I doubt anyone knows how hard it can hit until it does. I doubt anyone knows how quickly it comes, and how much it hurts to feel your faith in love fading away when you never feel it yourself (even if you are witnessing it). This wasn’t what I was expecting. And to be honest, it’s been a tiring, frustrating road, besides the loneliness. Like Angel, I’ve started to wonder if there’s going to be anyone willing to see the whole of who I am and take the leap with me, for me. And as I’ve said, I’ve contemplated giving up. But then I watched Angel and Papi flourish in love. And it taught me something.
Papi and Angel’s love wasn’t like anything that I experienced. It wasn’t one-sided, or ambiguous. It didn’t hide behind coded language. Their love announced itself plainly as it entered the room, and refused to shrink away. And it taught me that I can’t shrink away. I can’t back down. This isn’t the time to be afraid. It’s the time to be brave. Angel and Papi taught me that. That my life deserves as much nerve as I want my love to have. That the audacity to speak my love into existence makes me heroic, not disillusioned. Not stupid or naive, not sad or pathetic. It makes me stronger. Papi and Angel taught me that. That you’re not wrong for having the hope and the dream. And that they can come true. But the key to that is first admitting that I still want it. I’m afraid just like Angel was afraid. But like Papi, I know that no matter how worried I am that it may not work, I know that I am worthy of the possibility of it working.
I thought over and over about what I was trying to achieve by writing this. I wanted to celebrate love, but I also wanted to express my hurt that it seems to be constantly skipping over me. I thought of Angel and Papi’s love and I wanted to exalt it, but without paving over the very real feelings of defeat that come with watching love thrive without you. Not the feeling of losing the race, but the feeling that you were never even in it. But also, that there’s room for renewed hope. And POSE spun Angel and Papi into a love story and reminded me what hope felt like. I didn’t want this to be a poetic waxing of failed romance and sappy self-pity. I wanted to say that the love I want, need and deserve is real and true. It’s patient and kind. It’s exposed and unafraid. It’s brave and trusting and honest. It’s loud and proud. Passion and light. It never fails. And Angel and Papi are the prototype.