(NBC)

"Don't go in the bedroom!": Working in Spanish soaps turned my love life upside down-- it took years for me to learn love without drama

It seemed like my dream job at first. But high theatrics on-screen have a way of warping expectations in real life


Court Stroud
January 11, 2016 4:30AM (UTC)

In the pilot episode of the new NBC sitcom "Telenovela," Eva Longoria’s character (Ana Sofía) accuses her ex-husband of sleeping with Shakira. After he calls her ridiculous, she storms off-set and throws a hissy fit, screeching in front of her fans and demolishing a garbage can.   

Over-the-top emotions may be the hallmark of Spanish-language soap operas, but for people in “the industry” like Ana Sofía and me, high theatrics on-screen have a way of warping expectations in everyday life.

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Growing up in South Texas, I quickly discovered the Latino TV channels, sparking my obsession with the beautiful people and all-consuming passions on telenovelas. For a young gay boy like me, born into a religious family in a conservative state, Univisión’s screen provided a safe place to find handsome, muscular men to cast in my fantasies. In my happily ever after, Prince Charming and I didn’t live in a castle, but a hacienda.

The fascination with Latin men only intensified when I got offered a position in Hispanic media right after college. It seemed like my dream job.

***

“Bad traffic. There shortly,” he texted 10 minutes late for our coffee date. Though we’d met two weeks earlier on Match.com, a site that boasted a reputation for serious relationships, his profile didn’t have a photo. Even after numerous exchanges, he avoided sending me one, claiming that while he was openly gay to family and friends, his recently published book about successful Hispanics in the business world necessitated keeping a low profile.

I’d been waiting for over 30 minutes and was preparing to leave, putting on my jacket, when an attractive man who looked like the rapper Pitbull flashed through the door. Augusto recognized me immediately—I had provided a photo—and rushed toward me to introduce himself.

“Please don’t tell me I’m too late,” he said in a flirting and apologetic tone, as he placed his hand on my shoulder. When I stood unmoved, he looked in my eyes. "Look, we’re both here. Why not give it a chance?”

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Maybe because I liked his voice and mischievous smile– or perhaps because in our email chats he had confessed a love for Latin music, I sat down. To be honest, I wanted to get to know him better. Both of us had careers in Hispanic television. And, once I learned his last name, I realized we’d been employed at Telemundo at the same time a decade earlier, albeit in different cities.

As I started to warm up from the evening's cool beginnings, my date told me about his childhood in Cuba, about how his father, a journalist, had been sent by Fidel Castro’s thugs to do hard labor in the island’s sugarcane fields. The punishing conditions broke him physically, so authorities sent him home, expecting a quick death. But he recovered and Augusto’s family escaped when a Communist party official — who was also an uncle — took pity and helped them board an airplane and flee the country.

By the time we were finishing our second cups of coffee, I was impressed how Augusto embodied the American immigrant story — arriving with nothing and making a good life. He flattered me by saying he was attracted to my Southern manners and Bobby Flay, boy-next-door looks.

In turn, I told him how my father was a bricklayer from the Ozark Mountains who never completed junior high school, while my mother was an elementary school teacher who taught me to value an education. I’d recently completed my MBA.

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“Where did you go?” he asked.

“Up near Boston,” I said.

“What part?”

“Uh, Cambridge.”

Sensing my discomfort, Augusto leaned in and quietly said, “It’s OK. I went to Harvard too.”

We both even attended St. Xavier’s church, although he frequented the Sunday night service while I went in the morning. If our rendezvous were a soap opera plotline, the coincidences would have put us right at the requisite threshold of incredulity.

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Presenting me a dozen roses one evening shortly into our second month together, Augusto said, “God brought us together.”

“Actually, Celia Cruz should get the credit.” Though I was joking, I did suspect our mutual adoration of the “Queen of Salsa” may have predestined us to be a couple.

Six months of dating bliss later, we planned to celebrate our first Thanksgiving as a couple with a potluck dinner at Augusto’s for our New York friends. The next day, we’d take our first vacation together. I was concerned about money, having lost my job at Latino.com the previous month, but Augusto, now my boyfriend, had offered to loan me cash for the trip—as well as December's rent. He also wanted me to break my lease and move in with him.

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In the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, I was slated to bring over soup and metallic folding chairs for the 40 guests who’d accepted our invitation. A last-minute scheduling conflict meant I needed to move delivery time to the morning. When Augusto didn’t answer his phone, I imagined he must be running errands and headed over.

I rang the bell. No response. I rapped on the doorframe. Nothing.

Balancing the crock pot on one arm, I unlocked the door with my set of keys, but the chain was latched.

Óyeme! What’s going on?” asked Augusto. In his boxers, he peeked through the crack and let me in.

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After placing the soup on the stovetop, I took off my coat and walked over to toss it on his bed, but the door was shut.

“Don’t go in the bedroom,” he said. “Somebody’s in there.”

“Who?” I wasn’t sure whether to faint, vomit or punch him.

“Don’t make this into a telenovela. My buddy from Philly came early this morning for the party. He brought a guy with him who needed a nap.”

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“Where’s your friend now?”

“Out walking around. Just go home. Come back later for the party.”

My hands were shaking. Augusto and I had agreed on monogamy. If this were a tryst, then I should cut all ties. Now.

Like an actor on a Spanish-language soap, I wanted to go on a rampage: yell at Augusto, break down the bedroom door, throw the stranger out of the bed. Instead, I pursed my lips and walked out the door.

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Outside his building, I screamed in anger and kicked a tree. During the walk home, I reminded myself I had been single for a long time. Augusto was my first love in seven years. Was I prepared to shoulder the shame of calling our Thanksgiving guests and canceling the visit with my parents?

Later that afternoon, I was trying hard to convince myself the situation had only looked bad. Then, when I returned the apartment, Augusto introduced me to a blond 20-something as the napping guy from the morning. With a virtual smile frozen on my face, I played the part of the happy co-host, tending to people as my boyfriend and his new boy toy seemed to share frequent laughter.

Although I stayed the night, convincing myself I was just being a drama queen, I still wanted to whack Augusto when he gave me a goodnight kiss. The next morning, we headed to the airport for our holiday.

Augusto always said he hated his passport photo and got angry whenever I asked to see it. When he was asleep, I noticed the travel document sticking out of his backpack. He had lied. The year of his birth showed he was 41 years old, meaning he was eight years my senior rather than the four he had told me. I checked on Match.com, where we had first met. I had canceled my account, but his was still open.

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At Augusto’s suggestion, we had arranged a layover in San Antonio, Texas, so he could meet my mother and father. I now regretted that he’d be the first love interest I’d officially introduce to my family.

At my parents’, I didn’t say much. I sat quietly while Augusto did most of the talking.

“Just because I’m here with him, doesn’t mean he’s the one,” I muttered to my mom as we left. “I’m not moving in with him.”

Back in New York, over the next few months, I put us both through agony. With histrionic outbursts, I’d break up with him. Afterward, he'd woo me back. Rewind. Repeat. Rewind. Repeat. The specific arguments changed, but the fact beneath them remained the same; I didn’t trust him.

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***

A year later he moved to Baltimore for work. I was already fuming about the relocation when one Saturday afternoon I saw him walking down the sidewalk. He hadn’t told me he’d be in town.

I crossed the street, and thrust my finger into his chest. “We’re done,” I said.

Though I insisted, Augusto wouldn’t pick up his remaining clothes from my apartment. Finally, when I threatened to donate them to charity, he gave me an address where to drop the box. For a long time after that, we were incommunicado.

Looking back, I never expected perfection, but at least in the romantic movies, love songs and certainly telenovelas I had seen, people are swept up in a passion so intense that issues of trust, intimacy and fidelity don’t spoil things—at least not in the initial stages. If, after the honeymoon period, one of the lovers turns out to be a philanderer, a con artist, or just a jerk, the other can still hold onto those idyllic moments. After that Thanksgiving, I was unsure of every kiss, compliment or romp with Augusto. It infuriated me that he hadn’t left me with even one untarnished, rose-colored memory.

Over the next several years, I went out with a number of men. A dashing fellow named Rafael, whose family also came from Havana, confessed to me, “I’m really into you now, but monogamy’s not for me. If that’s a problem, better you know.”

His candor was refreshing. I had never met anyone so upfront. It wasn’t an ardent or passionate declaration of feeling. But it was honest and direct, and I was beginning to appreciate these qualities more in transactions of the heart.

Rafael and I didn’t last long. Within a month, our romance exploded into a jealous screaming match on the beach boardwalks of Fire Island. Later, on an Alaskan cruise, a mutual friend introduced me to a good-looking comic named Eddie. After the initial meeting, neither the comedian nor I paid any real attention to the other. At a bus stop a year later, Eddie recognized me and sparked a conversation. I asked him out, but got turned down.

“I recently started seeing someone and only go out with one guy at a time,” he said. While I was disappointed, I respected his character. He invited me to a literary event. We began socializing, but strictly as friends.

Three months later, Eddie said he wanted to walk me home after a reading by Colm Tóibín for the novel "Brooklyn."

"Is it too late for that date?” he asked, after telling me he was single again. Thrilled, I grabbed and kissed him. We started a romance, my first serious one since Augusto.

Eddie loved when I’d go see his act when he was performing in New York City. He noticed my frequent agitation after waiting for him after the shows.

“Do the chuckle-fuckers bother you?” he asked one night. I laughed at his use of the industry term for humor groupies. My skin did turn red when I’d see good-looking fans approach him after gigs. I confessed about feeling anxious when he was on the road.

“Let’s be exclusive, but also agree no one should be penalized for telling the truth,” he said. “I would tell you right away if anything happened.” My shoulders relaxed. My need for constant vigilance over any sexual transgression had exhausted me. I liked the idea of letting go of the fear and the drama.

We agreed that an infidelity should lead to couple’s therapy, not an automatic breakup. But while my head knew Eddie was loyal, my heart still struggled with doubts.

When, after being out of contact for a decade, Augusto reached out of the blue and invited me for coffee, Eddie encouraged me to unchain the ghosts of my past. My Cuban ex told me he had been in a long-term relationship for many years. We were both off the market. He seemed to want closure. As spring rain drizzled down the windows of the diner, I felt emboldened, so I brought up my suspicions of his infidelity.

I was shocked when he answered, “I was 100 percent faithful to you.”

I scratched the nape of my neck and asked probing questions, but couldn't imagine Augusto had any reason at this point to lie. For the first time, I wondered if the blond man in his bed so many Thanksgivings earlier really had simply been sleeping. Could my insecurities have blown the situation out of proportion? Yes, Augusto fibbed about his age, but the rest of my evidence might have been selective perception. Maybe I pushed away and hurt – a very good man because I couldn’t distinguish drama from real life.

I was ready to accept Augusto’s version of the story, because I had to admit that my insecure form of love could turn the most faithful man in the world into a Don Juan — at least in my head.

For years I had referred to the Cuban as “No me Augusto,” a play on words in Spanish for “I don’t like him.” It helped me feel emotionally superior. But “no me gusto” actually translates into English as “I don’t like myself” a much truer picture of my relationship with him and other men. A lack of self-confidence had led me to distrust in love.

After the resolution with Augusto, I felt liberated. Releasing years of bottled anger allowed me to loosen up and have greater faith in Eddie. More than ever, his approach to sexual mores struck me as measured and fair — a kind of “compassionate monogamy.”

A year later, I asked the funnyman to marry me.  He said yes.

The poet Anaïs Nin wrote, “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.” For the longest time, I not only worked at companies that created novelas, but also let that exaggerated world overlap into my own. Now that I’ve learned to turn off the melodrama, I’m content just to watch parodies of Spanish-language soap operas, like NBC's "Telenovela," and not play them out in real life.


Court Stroud

Court Stroud is a writer and a longtime media executive who has worked for companies such as Univisión, Telemundo and Azteca América. He frequently contributes to Media Life Magazine and is working on a memoir about his adventures in Spanish-language TV. Follow him on Twitter: @CourtStroudNYC

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