#52Essays2017 Week 13: Guerrilla Tits

“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” –  Anaïs Nin

*

I was eating dinner when I received the text.

“Why are your tits online?”

It was my homegirl, hitting me up. I thought she was joking, so I said so in my response. Stop fucking around. She assured me that this was no joke. She sent me a link and I got on my laptop, dinner forgotten.

There they were, round, brown, and THERE. Smuts R Us. That’s what they called the blog they had posted them on. The description on the blog indicated that the blog was created to “expose” women for their “smutty” ways, which, in this case, included sending intimate photos of themselves to someone. Actually there were two pictures of me on that site. One of me topless, close up, baring my nipples to the camera, and the other of me posing topless in white cotton panties in front of my bedroom mirror.

I immediately began to cry. I was humiliated. I felt made fun of. I felt violated, invaded. My mind raced to figure out who could have sent them. It was a scorned lover, an ex maybe, or a woman in their life who found my pictures somehow and sent them to this blog in sheer anger. I couldn’t understand why someone would want to do something like that to me. I was sobbing, heaving with my humiliation, my shock, my utter helplessness when my mother came into the bedroom. She looked concerned, sat next to me on my bed and held me as I shook with each wracking sob. I couldn’t breathe through my tears. When I finally told her what this person had done to me, she gasped and looked at me with shock etched into the corners of her mouth, her eyebrows.

“How could you do something like that, Imani? How could you?”

*

The word “smut,” is derived from the German word “schmutzen,” which means, “to make dirty.” The first use of the word “smut” used to describe something offensive was in the 1660s. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the term was used to describe offensive material that was sexual in nature. Think pin up magazines and pulp fiction.  The term “smut,” is now a word akin to the likes of “slut,” “ho,” or “whore.” It is meant to derogatorily describe a woman that is considered promiscuous.

The origins of the word began with a way to describe  a “black mark or stain.”

To be called a smut then, meant that I  was a marked woman, a woman with the stain of dirt. I was offensive. I was not to be taken seriously.  I was for sexual entertainment only.

*

I don’t know how or why I ended up on the phone with a dude who had liked me in the past, but there I was, distraught and crying and telling him the sordid details of my humiliation. I just wanted comfort. I wanted someone to tell me that I had done nothing wrong, that they were on my side, that I was not smutty, or disgusting, or unworthy of respect.

He asked me why I had sent the pictures. He asked me why I felt I had to do that.

I didn’t have an explanation. I didn’t think I needed one. I was an adult, wasn’t I? I was a sexually active woman in her mid-20s in the 2000’s. I didn’t see anything wrong with sharing my sensuality with someone I was already intimate with or was planning on being intimate with. But those pictures posted on that site were telling me I was nothing, I was less than nothing. I was blindsided by this violation. I was crushed and my confidence was shattered. I sobbed into my cell phone and he remained silent for a few moments.

“Can I see them? The pictures I mean?”

“What?”

“I mean, you have ’em, right? I know you have more. I know you don’t care to send ’em out. So send me some.”

“Why would you ask me that? How dare you ask me that!” I choked through tears, anger singing the edges of my humiliation.

“Are you kidding me? Whatchu expect? You think you’re so fucking hot, well this is why your shit got exposed. Shit’s good for you. If I had pictures, I would send them, too, just to remind you that you’re not all that, ma. Get over yourself.”

He hung up on me. I don’t know why he mattered. I know that his words were the nails in a coffin that was already suffocating me.

It’s crazy what you hold on to.

*

In catechism classes, you are taught that in Exodus of the Bible, Adam and Eve cover themselves out of shame. You are a child and have no idea why they cover themselves because you have no idea that to be naked is to have shame. Adam and Eve had the bliss of no misfortune, no judgment. They were perfect creatures that God created. You are told that it was not until Eve shamed them both by taking the fruit from the tree of knowledge and seducing Adam into eating it with her, that they were banished from the Garden of Eden.

As child, you think knowledge is everything in the world. Every topic you can conjure in your young brain.  The fruit Eve had taken meant she knew what God knew, she knew everything, she was suddenly a genius who knew every line of every book and every math problem ever. It is not until you are older that you are told that the knowledge people are mentioning is about their bodies and realizing they were naked. All of a sudden, you have questions. Was being naked a bad thing? Was the knowledge that they feasted on, the knowledge of sex? The knowledge of sensuality? Of pleasure?

You ask yourself why Eve is blamed for Adam’s actions. You ask why it is said she seduced him into sin. And then you realize the Bible, as sacred as it is, was written by men. That even back then, men needed to blame women when they couldn’t control themselves, they needed to blame women for their sexual urges, and they wanted to be excused for not controlling them. And what better way to do this then to label the mother of all women, Eve, as the Biblical reason? Eve was the real sinner here, poor Adam was “seduced” to eat the damn apple. He was “seduced” into recognizing his own sexuality. It was her fault.

Essentially, slut-shaming is of Biblical proportions.

*

I am at my homegirl’s house. I am using her computer and try as I might to avoid it, I go to the stupid blog. I report the blog, over and over and over, hoping with each report that it will suddenly delete itself from the ether. I find my pictures and begin to read the comments.

“Oh shit, isn’t that the little poet chick? Ha ha.”

“She has gorilla tits.”

“That’s what she gets for sending out pics like this. Dumb bitch.”

I close the browser. I cry into my hands. I ask a friend, a computer-techy kind of dude, what my options are. I have none. There is no law against it. There is no way I can legally track the anonymous blog creator. I have to swallow my pride and wear this shame like a a tattoo.

That night, in my bedroom, I finish work for school and line up my books on the folding table I worked on. I sit on the edge of my bed, holding a box cutter my brother gave me for protection in my hand, staring at the veins in my wrists. I run a fingertip over one, green under my untanned skin. I breathe deeply. I have done nothing but create chaos for myself. I have done nothing but set in stone that I will never be “good.” My mother says, “Men don’t like girls who are too much.”  I am too much and too much means I am not “good” enough. I cry. I cry. I cry.

I put the razor down because I imagine that if I go through it, my spirit will float to the ceiling and I will watch myself bleed rubies onto my sabana. I imagine my spirit floating there as Mami finds me and I imagine how much pain I will feel watching her cry. I open my journal. I write that down. I rip out the page. I put the razor back in my schoolbag. I am angry. I am angry because I could feel shame for my body, feel shame for being flirtatious and sexy. I am angry because no one ever “exposed” men.

I cry alone. No one comes to tell me I will be okay. I don’t expect anyone to. Why should they?

*

Over brunch at IHOP, a friend I hadn’t seen since before the pictures were posted, looks at me over our stacks of buttermilk pancakes. We haven’t spoken about it. It’s almost as if we’re both avoiding the topic. When it finally comes up, I busy myself with eating pancakes as she speaks.

“When I saw the pictures, Angie, I wanted to kill you! You should’ve known better!”

*

“Guilt is feeling bad about what you have done; shame is feeling bad about who you are – all it is, is muddling up things you have done with who you are.” – Marcus Brigstocke

*

In 2015, I attended my second VONA. Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation is a week-long multi-genre workshop for writers of color specifically. It is the only one of its kind in the entire nation. I call it safety. I call it healing. I call it family.

We started the day with a prompt, “Write about the thing you cannot say.”  I decided to write about this experience. Part of what I wrote:

“I’ll never forget the words ‘gorilla tits.’ I’d like to thank that person though, tell them that the story I could only say once to my family…the story that wasn’t about me but really about what they thought I had done and how it humiliated them…that story is just a seam in my skin. I own it…hold it out. It’s there. My gorilla titties are quite fucking perky thank you very much. And if that person were here now, I’d flash them, blind them with my rich gorilla rounds and tell them a word. A word that takes it all back, takes it back from family and judgment and shame. Takes it back from them all. MINE. I can say that word if I can’t say anything else.” 

When I read the piece aloud, one of my fellow workshoppers spoke up:

“I am not sure if you meant ‘gorilla’ like the animal or ‘guerrilla’ like in warfare, ya know? I think if I were you, I’d leave it as the warfare ‘guerrilla’ though. You’re fighting a battle, you know.”

I was fighting a battle. I was struggling. I dug the change of word…. guerrilla tits.

I never looked at it quite that way.

*

“Growing up is, at heart, the process of learning to take responsibility for whatever happens in your life. To choose growth is to embrace a love that heals.”
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

*

Shame was rooted in how I defined myself long before Smuts-R-Us. By the time these photos were posted, shame was a shadow that followed me everywhere. When I was 19 years old, an ex-boyfriend showed up at my building asking for my attention again. Our relationship had been one fraught with volatility. When I told him I was no longer interested, he called me a “dumb bitch” and a “ho.”

“I don’t know who told you thatchu hot shit, but I know you better than anyone, Angie, remember? You ain’t shit. You just a ho, bitch. Watch. You gonna die alone.”

It’s funny the kind of shit your psyche chooses to remember.

I’ve talked about shame before and about it’s long lingering effects. It infects you and soon, it’s so braided into how you view yourself that you don’t remember life without it. You create ways to avoid it. You run from it. You feed it like Seymour feeds Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Nothing ever satisfies its hunger.

Feed me, Seymour. Feed me.

But you never, ever face it.

My mother clutches her pearls when I tell her that I feel no guilt about  what happened. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong in my eyes with a sexually active adult woman doing something that is sexual. Por favor. I did nothing wrong.

But, I was ashamed because I felt no guilt. I was ashamed because I was told my actions reflected on everyone around me. I was ashamed because no one could love someone who feels no guilt about sending sexy photos of herself. I wasn’t a “good” woman because I should’ve known better.

Guilt is feeling bad about an error made and shame is feeling bad about yourself. The thread in carrying shame is always contempt, the feeling that you are beneath consideration and that you deserve scorn, that you deserve bad.

I treated myself with contempt for years.

And years.

I did do something wrong though. What I did wrong was share myself with someone unworthy of ME. But that in and of itself, is proof that I have so often let my shame dictate my life.

Because I felt unworthy I remained with the unworthy.

 

I can’t say that I sucked it up and honored myself after this happened. I can’t say I made the best choices. I didn’t. I wanted so badly to not “die alone” that I chose not to be alone and in my invitation to people unworthy of me, I fed the carnivorous shame over and over.  I am known in my circles for being bubbly, sociable, confident, sassy even. But admittedly,  I have always been unsure of myself, of what I had to offer and the fleeting relationships I held were proof of it. I prolonged relationships with men who were emotionally unavailable, who gaslighted and manipulated me. And when honest and loving dudes came my way, I self-sabotaged the situation. Yes, people hurt me, things happened to me. But I kept blaming people for the residues of their actions. I kept them as the villain in my mind’s eye. I heard their words, I felt their judgment, I wore the humiliations for years after. I fed Audrey II for years.

I kept that toxicity in my body and soul. I kept it without knowing its name. I became the villain in my story. I became my own adversary in my battle.

I am only now recognizing it for what it is.

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#52Essays2017 Week 12: You Are STILL Gold

“We all have history. You can think you’re over your history. You can think the past is the past. And then something happens, often innocuous, that shows you how far you are from over it. The past is always with you. ” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

*

The other day, I saw someone from high school on a dating app that I’ve been on and off of for a couple of years. I didn’t even recognize him at first, until I saw his picture while scrolling on my social media timeline. There he was. I thought to myself, “Oh shit! Welp, why not?” and I hit dude up to make fun of the fact that we found each other on this dating app and admittedly, to flirt. At first, we had a few giggles about it and I mentioned we should hang out. But it soon became clear to me that homeboy was just not interested.

Now, don’t get it twisted, this is not what the issue was. In fact, I was a-okay with homey not wanting to hang out, or get to know me or what not. In fact, I am currently in a space where I am enjoying and savoring my alone time, enjoying my singledom without the desire to be with anyone, be it romantic or sexual. I’m good, b. It occurred to me the other day that I am doing so much work on myself , emotionally, spiritually, creatively, that it is probably for the best that I didn’t capture his attention as I first intended to when I found him on the app.

What stuck out to me about our interaction was his reasoning for why he couldn’t or rather, why he wouldn’t, attempt to get to know me. He admitted he was just out of a relationship and wasn’t looking to be with anyone and because we knew mutual people from high school, he didn’t want it to end up with me thinking he was an asshole and letting those mutual people know that he was, in fact, an asshole.

The issue for me is that, though a lot of these people are on my Facebook or Instagram friends and followers lists, we don’t break bread and we don’t share intimate moments. The people he knows and I know, of course, I show love to and I always will, but in the same way that they are different people, we are different people. I am a different person. I’ll keep it real with you, homeboy didn’t really know me in high school. We never hung out and I would bet money homeboy didn’t even know my name back then. But social media does what social media does.

So, at this point, my gut is all, “Why does the opinions of people that now know me only through social media matter? Is it….ME?” And then I started to create a narrative, or rather, my 14 year old self created a narrative, that this man was only shitting on me because he would be ashamed to admit to these mutual friends that he could possibly be attracted to me.

Now, this man never said those things. In fact, I highly respect his honesty about where his heart is and his not wanting to do me dirty. I appreciate him for that, because that kind of honesty is rare in the dating world.

So, to be clear, he ISN’T an asshole. Or at least in that moment with me he wasn’t.

But isn’t it fucked up that at 32 years old, I went back to that frame of mind?

That shamed teenage girl who felt not good enough was continuing to be shamed and by no one but me.

That’s some heavy ass shit to see in yourself, ain’t it?

*

“We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think. Who have turned pretense into an art form. ” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

*

When I was a young adolescent girl and the necessary conversations about sex happened, my mother would tell me that my virginity was my “gold.” In my young mind, I thought if I lost it, I would never be the same again.

When my mother found out I was no longer a virgin, I mistook her pain that I had not confided in her about it as disappointment in me. I had lost the one thing that meant I was valuable, the one thing that kept me “good.”

I had given away this “gold” of mine without a care and now I had nothing.

*

I am a senior in high school. I have recently developed a friendship with a girl in one of my classes, an Albanian girl from Brooklyn. She is kind to me and we laugh a lot. I value our growing friendship a great deal. So much so, in fact, that when she invites me to hang out with her and her homegirls from school at her house, I am quick to say yes.

These are not girls I usually hang with. I wasn’t friendless, of course, but these girls were just not my crowd. As we lounge in her living room, shooting the shit, the conversation of sex comes up. I am unafraid to talk about it. I feel no shame in saying I am not a virgin.

I quickly realize I am the only non-virgin in the room.

One of the girl’s friends, an Asian girl who had always been polite to me even though she smiled at me with pursed lips and had been shocked to see me hanging out there that day, sits up straight on the couch. She is staring at me with eyes narrowed as I am answering the other girls’ questions about sex.

Does it hurt the first time? Hell yes.

Did you bleed? No, but you might.

Did you use protection? Yes. I did, of course.

Her voice is a judge’s gavel when she speaks.

“I don’t know how you could’ve done that. You’re so young.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said, I don’t know how you don’t feel gross about it. I mean, you can’t lose it again, you know. Sex is going to lose all meaning for you now.”

Her words hang in the air like a thick fog. I sit there, stunned to silence. The rest of the girls are quiet as well, staring at me, half-expecting me to curse her out, I suppose. But I don’t. I swallow hard and ask my friend for some water, shrugging it off a bit. This isn’t the first time that I have been slut-shamed as a teen.

I follow my friend into her kitchen and gulp the water down as soon as she gives it to me. She puts a hand on my arm and looks at me with concerned eyes. I feel the heat of tears rising to the wells of my eyes and ask for the bathroom. She points and I damn near run to the bathroom and close the door behind me.

And I cry. I cry hard, stuffing a hand into my mouth to keep from making noise.

I cry out of embarrassment. Out of being spotlighted as the “whore” of the crew. Out of being told that I was now worthless and had no real value. That I was now never going to be loved because I wasn’t as clean, as much of a “good” girl, as they were.

I never hang out with them again.

*

Contrary to belief, shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is feeling remorseful for your actions, it is an individual emotion. Shame, though, is a cloak cast on you by others, by society, by people, by words. You didn’t disgrace yourself, no. You are just not what they tell you that you should be. You have deviated from their idea of “good.”

Shame is a clingy son of a bitch. It sticks to you. Shame is an ink stain on the psyche.  It’s thick and heavy and it simmers long before you notice it’s about to boil over. You carry it so long that you forget it’s there. You carry it so long that you begin to believe it is a part of you.

By the time I was 16 years old, I had been sexually assaulted by a boyfriend. It happened at a time of intense grief in my life. I didn’t define it as sexual assault at that time. He was a boyfriend. I told myself it was nothing. I told no one but my best friend. I began to drink alcohol in excess, even went to school drunk sometimes.  I went to after school parties and hooky parties, too. I had friends but I certainly didn’t have their respect. I was losing control. Often, I would jimmy the lock of a locked girls bathroom of the 6th floor of my school and pass out until I was sober enough to go back to class.

Sometimes, I couldn’t get to class.

And then, I would go home and do my homework. I would go home to my mother, still in the throes of her own grief, her own heartaches. I would go home to my brothers, who I thought I could never tell. I told myself that I couldn’t say anything. How could I add to their distress? How could I possibly make my grieving mother think it was her fault?  I told myself they would hate me for shaming them, for disgracing myself, and call me a slut.

Because that’s what I was.

*

A few years out of high school, I am hanging out with a homegirl, venting to her about the men in my life as we ride the train together. I am in the middle of lamenting about how I am alone and all is terrible in my love life when she puts up her hand.

“Well, maybe if you didn’t sleep with them right away, they’d stick around. You ever think about that, Angie?”

It is a thunderclap statement, silencing me. I stop talking  or we change the subject, I am not sure. I am unclear as to why that assumption is made on me.

A few years later, she tells me that I am just “too sexual.”

*

“Forgiveness is about giving up all hope of having had a better past.” -Anne Lammott

*

I wish that I could say that there was some lesson to be learned or that after high school I grew from that trauma. The reality is that I had to go through a lot more bullshit first.

A great majority of my 20’s is spent partying and pretending the lack of emotional stability and direction in my life is okay. I have been laid off from a cushy well-paying job right when I begin college again. I have pushed away every man with honest intentions because I am so afraid they will see just how terrible of a woman I am. I want to detox my life,to clean myself up. I just don’t know how. I think getting my degree is the answer. At the time, I am in a relationship that is shaky at best, a relationship that still revolves around me trying to prove that I am good enough for him to love, that I am worthy of love. He plays me like a fucking fiddle.

I feel like a joke most of the time.

My heart and spirit are in constant disarray. I keep loving the same man in different bodies.  I am called a “slut” more times than I would like to count during my 20s, behind my back by the very man who says he loves me.  I imagine jumping off of a bridge and drowning in cold water. I imagine it so often, that when I fantasize about it, I can feel the air in my curls before I hit the water.

I don’t do it because I don’t want my mother to kill herself when she realizes I am dead.

By 2011, I am still drinking too much, still not taking care of myself, but functioning. I have a 3.9 GPA and a hangover every weekend. Late that year, I am too drunk to fight off a man I trusted to take me home safely after a night of partying. I go home that night, more ashamed at myself than ever.

Didn’t this happen already?

I tell myself what I have been telling myself since I was a young girl: You should be ashamed of yourself. You did this to yourself. How can anyone love someone who has done such damage to herself? How can love come to someone who lets shit like this happen to her? I cry alone mostly. To the world, I am okay. I am confident. I am unashamed. I am fun and fantastic. I am sunshine.

To my reflection, I am the ugliest I’ve ever been.

*

“She was a mess. So what? We are all stinking messes, every last one of us, or we once were messes and found our way out, or we are trying to find our way out of a mess, scratching, reaching.”
― Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

*

I won’t say that during my life I was ashamed of my sensuality because I wasn’t and I am still unashamed to say that I value it. I have never been one to shy away from sex talk or feel like being open about sexuality was something a woman should be shamed for.

I fucking hate slut-shaming. Sex is fucking awesome and people, women and men, should be able to enjoy it and explore their sensuality as they see fit. Sadly, our patriarchal society runs on the virgin-whore binary. Slut, ho, thot, whore, skank, smut. You break the rules, ladies, and that’s what you are. There are no gray areas. It is saint or sinner. It is good girl or bad girl. There is no humanity, no complexity in you if you’re a woman that likes to fuck. You’re just damaged goods.

I don’t hate myself and I guess I should make that clear. I am very tender with myself nowadays, knowing that I am unloading these burdens to the Universe. I am big on self-love and self-care nowadays. Celebrate yourselves! Love yourselves! But I am still learning what shame and trauma have done to the young girl I was. I am still forgiving her for not “knowing better.”

I am 32 going on 33 and I am realizing only now, that the one person I have been shamed by the most, is myself.

In my entire life, I have told myself that I was unworthy of love more often than I have told myself that I am deserving of it.

Ain’t that some shit?

I’ll say this though: Fuck slut-shamers. Yo soy una fucking sinvergüenza and proud of it. I have had my share of lovers, had a brief poly-amorous chapter in my life, even a few one-night stands.  I have, for lack of a better way of saying it, sowed my wild oats and had fucking fun doing it.

But the reality was, that while I was unashamed to be sensual or to be a sexual being, I still carried the weight of judgment for years. I carried it. I wrote it down. My journals speak volumes about what I truly wanted. I wanted to be loved despite what had happened to me, despite what I thought I had done to myself.

Someone told me I should write a letter to my younger self. But this letter would be the shortest thing I have ever written:

“Dear Sunshine,

No one should love you “despite” your past, they should love you…period. You ARE worthy of the grand love you want.

You are not and will never be what was done to you or said to you.

You are STILL gold. “

 

#52Essays2017 Week 11: I Call It a Theme…

Owls seem to follow me. If there is one thing people remember about me, it is my affinity for these beautiful birds of prey. I have been gifted many times over with beautiful additions to my growing and unexpected collection. I have a red alabaster owl straight from Italy from a lover and a carved wooden one gifted to me by a former student’s mother. I have a knit one made by a long time homegirl, an ornate gold and ivory painted one I bought in Philly on a day trip with a sister friend. Three small paintings done special for my 25th birthday, a small ceramic bank that I fell in love with in a store window. Mugs. Countless earrings, necklaces. Some call it an obsession. I call it a theme.

One cold night, I was at home with my mother and brother. I had spent a lot of the day doing schoolwork and was in my bedroom, when my brother rushed in and walked towards one of my windows. His urgency slowed as he got closer to the window, his fingers reaching for the pull to the Venetian blinds. Slowly he pulled it up, revealing the top of the air conditioner that sat in the window year round.

The windows needed to be replaced, and were old and cloudy, showed a mere silhouette, but something was sitting on my air conditioner. Something big.

“Angie, look at this bird!” he whispered. “Come slow so you don’t scare it.”

I stepped up from my bed, laying the laptop I was pounding away on down on the sabana. I inched my way closer. I saw it’s feathers before I saw it’s eyes. It’s head turned over it’s shoulder, it’s round eyes staring at me, it’s beautiful fringed feathers blowing in the air, edges delicate like powder. The bird was big, bigger than any kind of bird that had ever landed on my air conditioner before. This was no normal Sedgwick Avenue bird.

“I think it’s a hawk. Or an owl.”

It flew off before we could get a better look through the old clouded window of my bedroom.

My mother insists it was an owl. My brother and I can’t decide.

She says it’s because they’ve always followed me.

*

My mother and aunt took care of my grandmother everyday for the last eight years of her life. Just like it had been them helping my grandmother take care of her ailing sister, who had lost her mind from Alzheimers. Except this time it wasn’t their aunt. It was their mother.

My mother and aunt spent eight years taking care of my grandmother every single day, visiting the nursing home to bathe her, take home soiled batas and robes to wash fresh, feeding her meals, changing her diapers. Every nurse in that nursing home knew my mother and aunt’s names. They were present. They were her daughters, the oldest and the youngest, bookends. You don’t abandon your mother to the wolves of low-income nursing homes. You take care when and where you can. And when we couldn’t, when we ran away and avoided, they were constant. They were stable.

The owl has forward facing eyes, kept immovable by fixed eye sockets. Their heads are only connected by one socket pivot, allowing their heads to be more flexible, able to turn. Flexible, but facing forward. Mami and Titi seem to have this same flexibility, this focused sight on what has to be done, forever knowing the result, but only being able to move around that. Nothing gets done if you are not paying attention, if you’re not present. Tita was the fixed eye socket, everything else was the one socket pivot.

I wonder so often about the fortitiude it takes to care for someone. Mami says it’s not work if its someone you love, like your mother, but that always didn’t feel right to me. Wasn’t it a lot to see her like that, to see this pillar of strength wither, become feeble? How unsettling to face the crumbling of a foundation that kept you built up. What does that do to your strength? I think you are allowed to be shaky when facing that kind of earthquake. Love or no love.

When my grandmother is put into the nursing home, it is my mother and aunt that clean out her apartment. My mother asks me what I want from my grandmother’s house. I only ask for four things. One is the pendant that she wore of the Virgin Mary around her neck. I don’t get that, it probably being passed to my cousin or kept in my mother or aunt’s jewelry box. The second thing I ask for is a doll, a flamenco dancer dressed in lavender lace ruffles, holding a fan. The third item I ask for is an English decorative tea pot with gold paint details and images of men in fancy clothes riding horses. It is one of those pieces that remind me of the TV show “Antiques Roadshow,” one of those episodes where the person is blown away because it’s worth 500k. I’ll never have it appraised but I imagine that a fortune worthy of my grandmother is sitting on my altar.

When she dies, I ask myself if I want to put some of her ashes in there.

But the last item I ask for is the owl pot holder she always had in her kitchen. Made of cast iron, I’ve always loved it. I remember her placing it on tables that would soon grow heavy with holiday food. I remember pots of white rice that sat on top of it, beans thick with flavor, cinnamon rich avena in the mornings.

No one else asked for those items. I insisted on the tea pot and the pot holder, reminded my mother over and over to grab the owl. I still have it, sitting on my small kitchen window altar next to the tea pot. It is the first thing I look at in the morning before work, gulping down vitamins. They say that in many dream interpretations, seeing an owl can often represent a deceased loved one come back as the owl.

*

I am washing dishes as I think about this essay. While scrubbing bits of baked on cheese off of a pan, I look up at the altar made on the kitchen windowsill where sunlight crawls in by fingers. I’ve had friends over, a sister friend from VONA who stayed overnight after wine and working on our laptops and a childhood homey for breakfast the next morning. The day is filled with laughter and food and comfort and creative work. My eyes land on the cast iron owl potholder as I wash our breakfast dishes.

I didn’t have some mystical experience with owls that spawned this connection. I actually have never seen an owl outside of the Bronx Zoo and maybe perhaps that night in my bedroom. But the symbol has followed me and when asked to talk about why, I wanted to make sure that I knew in my mind that something connected for me. So, I did what I do best. I read. And I found all of these meanings of the owls as symbols, it’s symbolism in different cultures.I even researched how science can even be interpreted into some emotional significance for me. It was, to the say the least, overwhelming. There were all sorts of connections that I could make about this theme in my life.

I stare again at the cast iron potholder.

I smile, turning the faucet off.

I say hello to her as I wipe my hands dry.

I know who to write about.

#52Essays2017 Week 10: South Bronx by way of Brooklyn and Naranjito

My name was supposed to be Imani Angelique, not Angelique Imani.

The story my parents tell me is that my father begged my mother after she gave birth to me, tears in his eyes, to give him the honor of having his daughter named Angelique.

And so she did. She gave him the honor and kept Imani for herself.

Imani was always my mother’s name for me. She is still the only one who calls me Imani and nothing else. And when someone does actually call me Imani, it often comes as a surprise to me, almost a “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” surprise.

They have no idea what a privilege it is to call me by the name my mother gave me on the day I came into the world.

*

It is August 29, 1954 in Barrio Anones. The barrio of Anones is one of eight barrios in the town of Naranjito, Puerto Rico. Naranjito is located in the mountainous interior region of the island, named for a small orange tree that travelers once used as a reference point on their way to the bigger town of Toa Alto.

My paternal grandmother is pregnant with her third child, my father. At the time of her pregnancy, she has been staying with the family of her children’s father, while he has gone to New York City, presumably for a better life than the difficult and poverty-stricken life they have been living in Naranjito. Today, she is in labor and there is no one to help her to the hospital, so she begins the long trek herself.

Dressed in a simple bata, slippers, and burlap panties, my grandmother slowly makes her way down a mountain, stopping to rest on rocks when the labor pains overwhelm her.I imagine, that at the moments the pain is searing through her, she is pissed off that she is alone, that the father of her children is in New York City while she traipses down a mountainside to give birth to his third child. I imagine her as a young, beautiful woman, legs streaked with amniotic fluid, worried and in pain, surrounded by the lush green of the mountain side of Naranjito, her stomach curling into itself with hunger, her womb stretching with her son.  I imagine she is scared for her life and that of her soon-to-be-born child, scared for the two children she has left back at her in-laws, scared that if she dies, they will be left without her.

I imagine it is the thought of her children that compels her to continue this trek.

When she reaches the bottom of the mountain and walks into the valley town, she catches the hour-long bus ride to the sole hospital in town. She makes it, I imagine in tears and sweat and fluid, the August heat of the island like a shroud around her. She arrives at the hospital and gives birth to my father, Angel Ruben Rodriguez,the first of his name. They allow her to stay in the hospital overnight and then discharge her in the morning because the need for a bed is so high.

Unable to go back up the mountain, my grandmother reaches the valley town and asks for help. Someone in the town uses a horse to go back up the mountain to get Don Chago, my great grandfather. Hours later, Don Chago arrives on a horse of his own. My poor grandmother, exhausted and hungry and clinging  to her crying child, asks how she will be able to get on the horse after just giving birth. Don Chago and some of the men of the town create a makeshift bed with two branches and a sheet, lining it with leaves. They attach the makeshift bed to the horse and the trek up the mountain begins, my grandmother and father in the bed, dragged along slowly over land.

While my grandmother waits for Don Chago, she tries to breastfeed her newborn son, who is shrieking in hunger. She is so malnourished, she cannot produce milk for him. His shrieks pierce the air, oppressive in the heat. She walks into a colmado and begs the owner to give her something for her child. She has no money, so he turns her away. She continues to beg and my father continues to cry. The screams of hunger finally get to the colmado owner and he thrusts a can of pear juice towards my grandmother.

My father’s first meal was a can of pear juice on the side of a road in a valley town in Naranjito, Puerto Rico.

When he tells me the story, my father laughs and says, “And you want to know what, Angie? I fucking HATE pear juice.”

*

“The rhythm is in your blood.”
-African Proverb

*

On the night of my birth, my father threw a jam session in the house. He tells me there was a full orchestra in their Sedgwick Avenue apartment in the Bronx. They jammed for hours, music celebrating my birth, drums and horns and piano welcoming me, his only daughter, into the world. My father prepared a grand meal for all the men that came that night, some of whom included both my father’s best friend and my godfather, William Everich and Baba Femi, my father’s mentor and spiritual father, two pillars of his existence in this world.

He tells me that Lucy, my mother’s best friend and our next door neighbor, would always say of that night, “It sounded like the Palladium in there!”referring to a famed Manhattan mambo club.

“It did though, Angie! It was a beautiful time. We sounded great!”

In African tradition, the drum is not mere entertainment. It is conversation. It is the sound that marks all stepping stones of life and one that represents unity and heartbeat. Drums are played at births, at weddings, at funerals, etc. The drum in African tradition is one of the most important tools of community and love.

I know how important the drum is to my father, his life, and his destiny. His playing that night was to tell the Universe how joyful he was, fulfilled by his three children and the woman he loved, the friends closest to him there that night.

There is a cassette tape somewhere in my mother’s house of the night of my birth. I have yet to hear it, but I imagine it being redolent with joy, exuberance, love. I imagine that there are men’s voices singing, talking, laughing.

I kind of love the idea that the sound of drums and horns welcomed my birth. What a proper introduction for my life.

*

Greenpoint Hospital was opened in 1914, a beautiful brick and limestone building bearing the strong Neo-classical architectural design of the time, clean lines, archways and grand entrances. The hospital, which still stands, although no longer a medical facility, sits at the intersection of three Brooklyn neighborhoods: Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. Used as a medical facility in North Brooklyn for nearly seven decades, Greenpoint Hospital was shuttered in 1982 and replaced with Bushwick’s Woodhall Hospital.

It is the first day of spring in 1955. My grandmother is pregnant with her fourth child, my mother. She has carried the baby for the full term of nine months and yet her belly is small. This worries her. She lives with her first three children and her husband, who works as an EMT at Greenpoint Hospital a mere few blocks away.

My mother is born in Brooklyn on March 21st, 1955, the first and only of her mother’s children to be born in New York City. It is the first time my grandmother has given birth in New York City, but more importantly, it is the first time she has ever given birth in a hospital. Her other three children have all been birthed in a house in Puerto Rico under the guidance of a midwife known to the family.

I can imagine her apprehension. There is no midwife, just a doctor, lab coats, sterile walls, the smell of alcohol, men. I imagine her not knowing whose hands are reaching in for her child and being disgusted at the thought. I imagine her gritting her teeth in her pain. Life in New York City is not easy for her or her family and she relies solely on my grandfather’s income because as el hombre de la casa, he refuses to let her contribute. Their marriage, though one of love, is also tense and controlled and at times, volatile. I imagine my grandmother feels alone, feels lost, feels trapped in a city that doesn’t want to help her or her children.

I don’t know if my grandfather is with my grandmother when my mother is born. I do know, though a full-term pregnancy, my mother weighs a wee 4 pounds at birth and is kept in the hospital for a month. Knowing that my grandmother had never given birth to any of her children in a hospital before, let alone with strangers, let alone with males, I can imagine how frightening that must have been to leave her youngest child in the hospital frail and helpless with strangers.

When I ask my mother if my grandmother had ever told her about her birth, my mother says all she knew was that my grandmother was frantic about leaving her child behind. When I ask her more, my mother hums that “Hmm” sound she makes when she is slightly amused and I imagine a hint of a smirk fluttering over her lips.

“I wouldn’t know a lot of details, Imani. I was being born.”

*

My mother has two sons, both born before me. Growing up, she always told me that she dreamed about having a little girl, about being a mother. She brags that she gave birth to all three of her children naturally with no epidural, brags that she never had any stretch marks from any of her pregnancies.

She tells me that my father lied to her when I was born and said it was a boy. Her heart dropped because she had been praying for a girl. She loved her sons, of course, but a little girl was a dream for her, so her disappointment was real.

“When he saw my face, he gave up the joke, probably out of guilt and told me the truth. That moment that I found out it was a girl….when they told me it was a girl, that was the ultimate happiness for me. I was overjoyed for all three of my childrens’ births, but to know that I had a girl, that was the happiest moment of my life.”

*

“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

-James Baldwin

*

On June 20, 1984, I was born in the “new building” of Lincoln Hospital. My mother likes to call me and my brothers “true Bronxites,” as we were all born in Lincoln, a central and well-known health facility in the Bronx. Lincoln Hospital, or officially Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, founded in 1839 as the “Home for the Colored Aged,”was originally in midtown Manhattan and was meant to support aged Black people, many of whom had been slaves prior to the abolition of slavery in New York.  In 1882, it’s name was changed to the “Colored Home and Hospital.” In 1902, it’s name was officially changed to Lincoln Hospital after finding a home on 141st Street and Concord Avenue in the South Bronx. In 1976, the “new” building was built at a cost of $220 million dollars. In 1970, the Young Lords Organization took over the hospital in protest of the neglectful treatment of it’s patients, who were primarily Black and Latino. The facility takes up five full city blocks, continues to serve and support the health needs of its community and is the third busiest emergency room site in the nation.

My mother says she felt labor pains and me being her third child, knew to go to the hospital, where her water broke. She tells me that Dr. Jafari, the doctor who helped her through birth, was a “George Clooney looking motherfucker,” who had the pregnant women requesting him and giggling like teenagers. My father says that the “funnest” part of becoming a father was witnessing our births, though I am sure that my mother would disagree. He tells me I shot out like a football and he caught me.

Both of my parents tell me it was a joyous time in their lives, their children all young and growing, having their last child be a girl was the icing on their cake. I arrived in Kingsbridge in swaddling in the Blue Monster, a huge 2-door Blue Maverick.

There is something to be said about knowing your birth story, knowing where you born, who was there, who celebrated with your parents. It gives you an anchor to your story. This is point A. I think it’s so interesting to know how my parents came into the world, to know the start of their journeys in relation to my own. Their birth stories in many ways, though different share so many similarities, and it is because of them that I am here.

How life can twist and turn is the story. How life can start. How life can be joyous and difficult and scary and full of hope or despair. That’s the story.

But to know where the story is going, you should always know where it began.

My story begins in the South Bronx, by way of Brooklyn and Naranjito, Puerto Rico.

#52Essays2017: Week 9: Not Your Problem

Having an anxiety attack in front of someone is probably the most annoying and frustrating experiences I can have. Not only do I have to navigate my own emotions and ground myself, I aggravate my anxiety by dwelling on how the person is reacting. I create narratives about what they are “really” thinking despite them reassuring me that all is cool and we’re chilling, etc. I’ve mentioned this in some of my previous writing on the topic.

Anxiety is like my shadow. I am always aware of it. I am always conscious of it because it can just happen. There is never a warning or anything. It’s not like my anxiety steps into my brain and says with Kanye West-swagger, “I’ma let you finish this day, but I’m the boss now, bitch.” Anxiety is not polite and it is certainly not patient. It will bumrush the fuck out of you and leave you breathless and angry with yourself or worse, it will make you feel like a turd. And no one wants to feel like a turd, man. No one.

*

I am at the house of a former paramour. I am reading a book of short stories sprawled out on his bed, while he showers. I am fine. I am enjoying the read and comfortable and ready for a nice night. Everything is okay.

He comes out of the shower and asks me if I’m ready to eat dinner. I nod, closing my book and follow him to the kitchen. I stand next to him as he is serving me a plate of rice and beans and a chuleta. I peel the banana I bought from the bodega and place it on the plate he’s holding and serving my food on. It’s yummy to me but not common, so he smirks at me and I open my eyes wide at him.

“What?” I giggle.

“Nothing. Just never seen that.” He smiles.

“I like it. My mom likes it. It reminds me of family.” I’m not lying. Mami always served me steaming plates of arroz con habichuelas with a regular ass unpeeled banana growing up. It’s delicious and it saves the trouble of having to peel a plantain and fry it in oil, even though that shit is just as delicious, if not more.

He nods, smiling with me, and drops a spoonful of beans on top of my rice. He hands my plate over and I walk out of the kitchen to sit at the table.

And that’s when I feel the heat tingling at my toes. The wave of it washes over me like sauna heat and I can’t breathe. I don’t know why it’s happening. It’s just a feeling. Maybe it’s because I had taken a swig of vodka before he went in the shower. Maybe it was because I was reading a short story about fear right before dinner.

Or maybe my anxiety was just being an asshole again.

I stare at my plate and think to myself, Oh shit, he’s never seen me have an anxiety attack. Please stop. Please stop. 

Of course, that shit only makes it worse.

*

“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”

-Charles Dickens

*

How do you tell someone that you have anxiety? Or depression? Do you have a long conversation with them? Do you write them a letter? Do you send them links to articles about it with the hopes that they can connect the dots?

There is a huge reason why people so often hide their emotional struggles and mental issues. It is because of fear. The fear of being shunned, ridiculed, laughed at. I mean, let’s be real here, who the fuck wants the negativity and the stigma? And let’s not front like there is no stigma to it. Because there is. Especially in communities of color. For generations, we have been dealing with the “blues,” with “los ataques de nervios,” etc every day. Hardship and adversity is part of our regularly scheduled programming. Who wants to admit that they are overwhelmed by what everyone else is trudging through and dealing with? The reality is this: Not everyone knows they are dealing with it. Not everybody wants to admit it.

How do you tell someone you have a problem when you don’t how to define the problem? When no one has ever talked about it? Today, in the information age, we have access to resources that help us understand these issues. Ask yourself what our parents and grandparents had. Probably nothing but some Agua Florida and alcolado. Probably nothing more than a nap. And then they went back to work, back to surviving. No one talks about it because they couldn’t. Survival mode was more important.

I think about my maternal grandmother, single mother to four children, busting her ass working in factories and ensuring that her kids were safe and fed. My grandmother had to deal with that, with the constant stress and uncertainty of survival, but also the hardships of  being a dark-skinned primarily Spanish speaking Puerto Rican woman in a city that essentially didn’t give a fuck about her or her kids.

I wondered if she was scared sometimes. I wonder if,  like me, she would try to cry as much as she could in the shower because there she could pretend her tears was just the water she was bathing in. If like me, she tried her best to hold it all together. I never saw my grandmother lose it but I imagine there must have been moments where she felt overwhelmed. She was human after all. She had emotions. She wasn’t made of stone. Not the way she loved.

I think about her every time I acknowledge my anxiety. She’s a big reason why I am so open about my struggles.

She’s no longer with us, but I still hope she sees it as a strength.

*

My anxiety attack that night at homeboy’s house was a big one. One I couldn’t control. I felt like my entire body was on vibrate. Like the tears would never stop. Like I could take the wrinkles out of his sheets with how hot I felt. I wnet to his bedroom, afraid his roommates would walk by and think I was some sort of raging loca crying over her arroz . I ended up eating that meal slowly, cold rice and dry chuleta, banana mushy. I grounded myself lying on my back on his bed, listening to ocean sounds and imagining being anywhere but having an anxiety attack in front of him. It helped that he was willing to help, that he was patient.

When I spoke to my mother about it later, she told me that it was probably best if I walked away, excused myself.

“Try to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom if you are feeling that way, Imani. That kind of thing can be too much for someone to handle, especially a guy you’ve only been seeing for a few weeks.”

“But Mami, I have done that in the past and it doesn’t help. I’ll stay in that bathroom for a million years. Then whoever I am with either thinks I am a wack-job or that I was shitting…on a date. No, no, forget going to the bathroom. If he wants to date me, then he needs to know that anxiety is something I have to deal with.”

“But that’s not his problem. It’s yours. That’s too much to have someone you’re just dating be responsible for. That’s too much to have them deal with.”

I ended that conversation with a quickness.

*

I didn’t end that conversation with my mother because my mother was wrong. On the contrary, she’s right. It is no one’s fault, responsibility, or problem that I have to deal with anxiety. I am completely and one hundred percent aware of that.

But, here’s the shit. My anxiety attacks are always, and I mean always, exacerbated by worries of how whoever I am with deals with me having an anxiety attack in front of them. I literally make it worse by worrying about it being “too much” for them. I drive myself crazy worrying if I am a burden, or if I am making a fool of myself, or if this will dictate our future.

And I’ve come to this conclusion. I am open about it because the shit happens. It happens and I won’t excuse myself to cry in a germ-infested public bathroom because I am more concerned about how they’re taking it. Fuck that. Not when I need to focus on grounding myself. I have enough to deal with when I’m having an anxiety attack.

Not to mention, if someone can pass judgment on me for it, if they can choose to leave or dismiss me because of it, if they feel it’s “too much” for them, then they aren’t meant for me anyway.  Boy, bye.

I’m trying the best that I can. I am managing this rollercoaster ride as best I can. I didn’t ask for this. This is all a learning process for me. But I can’t be silent about it. I can’t hide something that is now a part of my life. How would that be building anything with anyone? What if, like that night at homey’s house, I just can’t control it? I can’t excuse myself?

No, it’s not his or anyone else’s problem. No, they shouldn’t feel obligated to do shit for me other than show some damn compassion. They shouldn’t be burdened with this, I know.

But trust me, if anyone feels the burden of it, it’s me.

 

#52Essays2017: Week 8: Dropping Shit Ain’t Easy

Some can forgive and move on and never bother with the thought or memory again. But for someone like me, someone with anxiety, the thought kind of sticks around. It hangs out in the recesses of my mind, a pebble in my mental shoe. And when I am somehow reminded of this person or event, I feel it all the way in my stomach. I relive the moment. I relive the humiliation or pain or anxiety. I begin to blame myself again. I get angry with the memory. I piss myself the fuck off because I feel the anxiety begin to creep up to my throat and then I have to go through the process of grounding myself.

I trigger myself with memories. It sucks.

But then, I sit back and breathe. I remind myself that I have forgiven those moments and those that have crossed lines with me. I have to remind myself because I can get consumed by those memories and those emotions.

I remind myself every day that I have forgiven those that have hurt me.

And it ain’t fucking easy, let me tell you.

*

He smiles at me as if nothing ever happened.

“Oh my God, Angie? Is that you?”

His smile is wide and pretty like I remember it. His skin still reminds me of when bananas first turn brown, that soft brown, that sweet brown. I hear his voice and I keep looking at my book, because I had already seen his ass and was sitting there praying to everything holy that he wouldn’t notice me. But he does and now I am sitting there, looking up at him, my book opened on my lap, not smiling back.

I nod.

“Wow. You look great!”

I nod again. His smile is beginning to piss me off. All I want is to reach up and smack him with my book but I know that I would just fuck up my book which will only make me more pissed off. So, I nod. I am silent.

I am on the A train. It is April 2015. I am 31 years old. I have not seen this man since I was 19 years old, when he and his buddy showed up one day in front of my building. He told me that day that he was a changed man and when I rejected him he called me a stupid bitch and told me I was making a mistake. He and his buddy stayed parked in front of my building for an hour while he called me over and over.They only left when they got bored.

I have never told anyone that story before.

He had been a boyfriend in high school. The one I hid from everyone because I didn’t want them to know I was scared of him. The older boyfriend who threw a can of habichuelas rosada at me when I failed to make dinner for him at his apartment one day after I left school. The same man who pinched me in the side until I bruised when I said hello to a guy I knew through my brothers, who burned my leg with the ace of his Newport because some guy had called me “sweetheart” in front of him. The same man who made me want to drink until I laughed away the embarrassment, and for the most part, if you ask anyone in high school, I did just that. The same dude who made me feel that he was the only man that would want me because I wasn’t pretty enough for the guys at school or smart enough and I was just a “poor little dumb ass.” The same man who was 22 to my then 16 when we met. The same man who mushed me so hard one day when we were eating at  a diner that the woman who worked as the cashier there followed me into the bathroom and told me to go home to my mother and leave “el hombre demonio” right there at the table by himself.

That man.

But here we are, 12 years later and he’s smiling at me as if nothing ever fucking happened and I am sitting here nodding and silent, scared and pissed off, gripping my book with pale knuckles because I can feel myself trembling. Did I mention he’s a cop now?

“You’re still a reader, huh?”

I nod again. I realize one of his front teeth looks discolored and I don’t remember that. I tell myself his smile isn’t that pretty.

He turns to his partner and hits him in the chest with the back of his hand.

“This girl drove me crazy back in the day, man. Long story.”

Sure fucking is, shitbag.

My stop comes and I stand, brushing past him, and gagging at his cologne. He always did bathe in the shit.

“Take care of yourself, Angie.”

I nod again. I step off the train and pray to all that is holy he doesn’t get off with me.

*

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison (page 179)

*

I’m going to keep it all the way real with you and say that forgiveness is extremely hard for me. It requires a lot of spiritual fortitude, a lot of patience with yourself, a lot of ego-checking. Sometimes I just downright don’t want to forgive, especially when it comes to shitbags like that man. Fuck all that turn the other cheek mess, miss me with the warm gooey Christian ideas of forgiveness.

I’m of the grain that I may forgive you, I may no longer harbor any resentment towards you, but I ain’t fucking with you and I don’t plan on inviting you back into my life just because I have chosen to forgive your horrendous ass. Forgiveness is not about reconciliation, y’all. It’s about freeing yourself from the anger you feel for them.

And I was angry. For a long time. But I know my spirit just can’t handle all of that weight. It’s much too heavy for me. And I’ve been carrying it for far too long.

*

“Bag lady… you gone hurt your back
Dragging all them bags like that
I guess nobody ever told you
All you must hold onto
Is you, is you, is you…”

-Erykah Badu, “Bag Lady” from the 2000 album Mama’s Gun

*

I think what frustrates me about the shitbags I have dealt with, the people that hurt me like that man is this: I want an apology that I will never get.

Not that an apology would make me feel better. In fact, it wouldn’t but I want it. I want to believe in their humanity because I don’t want to live my life thinking that people can be so fucked up, can be that dangerous, that cruel, that mean, that careless with other people.

But I ask myself if he had said sorry that day after all that time, what would my reaction have been?

I probably would have nodded again, knowing I didn’t believe him. I probably would have been just as silent. I probably still wouldn’t believed he had humanity in him.

Sometimes, you won’t get the apology you think you deserve and you have to be willing to forgive them despite that. That’s what the fuck they say. That forgiving them is strength and I suppose it is to a certain degree, but what frees you is not forgiving them and giving them your grace, your mercy. Fuck that. That still makes it about them and what they did and forgiveness is about freeing yourself.

I didn’t realize until I started writing this that it was never about them. I had left the anger behind but just because my heart was no longer full of resentment for them, I still carried the hurt, the shame, the pain. I never asked myself why. I blamed them. I made what they did count for more than it should have. I just kept blaming them for the hurt the memories triggered, never realizing that I still wasn’t in the forgiving space.

It hit me when I had to step away from this essay for the fifth time this week.

I blamed myself. For a long time. I probably still do.

I shamed myself into thinking I had somehow whittled out this life and created the trauma myself. Not just what I experienced with that man but every fucking time I have been hurt, betrayed, abused, lied to by someone. I told myself that I could’ve done something differently, that if I hadn’t done A, then B would have never happened.

The anger was for them and I’ve let that go a long time ago. I ain’t fucking with them and I certainly don’t wish harm on even those who have put me through hell. The Universe is so big and wide and loves me so much that I can’t put  hatred into it because it will only come back to me, dig?

But it’s that hurt, that all-consuming hurt, the kind that swallows you up when its triggered, the kind that darkens everything. The shame of still feeling like that young girl, that young woman. That is what remains. Not the anger. That’s what I have to forgive. And that has nothing to do with them.

I have to forgive myself before I can forgive them. I realize that now. That young girl I was, so hungry for attention, yearning for the sweet high school first love she’d never get, yearning for the fairy tale who fell for the same kind of shit bag for years after she walked away from Shit bag Numero Uno. It wasn’t her fault. And she certainly wasn’t a “poor little dumb ass” for wanting those things or trusting that people wouldn’t do those things to her.

I have to forgive her for not knowing she never needed those things. I have to forgive her for not knowing yet that she was enough and she was more than what she had with him or any other shit bag after that.

I trigger myself a lot. These essays have been bringing up a lot of emotional things that have been ignored and avoided for long enough. I have to step back a lot and measure my steps in this process gingerly because I don’t want to trigger an anxiety attack, don’t want to dig a hole for myself that will be too hard to come out of.

I am only now figuring out how to get out of a hole I have always been in, realizing that I don’t need an apology from them or anything else from them. I need to address this shame, this guilt that has spread itself around my life. And babies, that’s ALL my shit.

Like I said, forgiveness ain’t fucking easy.

 

 

 

 

 

#52Essays2017 Week 7: Fuck Out My Face, Man!

My father tells me I was about 15 or 16 when I was first cat-called. He said I came home sobbing one day, crying that a guy had approached me and asked, “Are you fucking yet, shorty?” My father says my tears broke his heart. I don’t want to break his heart any further by telling him that I was much younger when I first experienced street harassment.

I was 13 years old when that man said that to me. That wasn’t the first time a man had said something to me in the street, no. But it was the first time a man had dared to step in my personal bubble to say it. I was walking to the bodega where Sedgwick Avenue meets Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, when I walked past him. I don’t remember much about how he looked, just that he was taller and leaned close enough to me so I could smell his cologne. It was Fahrenheit and the only reason I know this is because I recognized it as the same one my oldest brother liked to use.

“Damn, shorty. You fucking yet?” Those were his words. I remember only because I looked up from the ground and into his face. I must have looked scared because he kept it moving, not saying anything else. At 32 years of age, I ask myself what could possibly have inspired that dude to say that shit out loud to me. Clearly, by his question, my virginity was still a possibility, so homeboy knew I was young. I wonder what he thought would happen.

I talk to my father about that day and he says with a laugh in his voice, “Well, you weren’t listening to me or your mami…you had gotten into the habit of dressing like una prostituta, so men were starting to look at you differently, Angie. You know, mama… tight tight jeans and low low tops.”

The comment from my dad was said jokingly, but it struck me that a 13 year old (in his memory a 15 or 16 year old) in tight tight jeans and low low tops can be told that she is calling attention to herself, that in some weird way, it could be her fault that men could say something like that to her in a cloud of Fahrenheit cologne. Ain’t that some shit? At 13 years old, I was somehow at fault for this unwanted attention because I was “dressing like una prostituta.” I was, for lack of a better way of saying it, asking for it. The slut-shaming, victim-blaming of it all makes me gag a little.

Not that Dad meant it with any malice or judgment. Not at all. I’m all about acknowledging how all of our perspectives are shaped by the -isms of this society and how sometimes we can’t see how those -isms have shaped us in negative ways. I always say, “They don’t call it a blindspot because you can see it.” My father’s blindspots aside, I suppose my father just doesn’t want to come face to face with the infuriating fact that I was a baby when men began to harass me in the street.

Because that’s what I was, after all. A baby.

“Well, whatever you say, Angie. It wasn’t your fault, but after that, you learned your lesson. You didn’t dress like that anymore.”

I ignore the comment and instead tell him with a giggle, “Dad, tight tight jeans and low low tops didn’t go out of style for me for a long time after that. Shit, probably still hasn’t.”

We laugh.I ask him what he told me that day as I cried to him about Fahrenheit dude.

“I told you that that’s the kinda shit you’re going to have to go through as a woman. That’s why I raised you to be a bitch, Angie. Fuck these men. You didn’t deserve that at 15.”

I was 13. Like I said, it wasn’t the first time a dude had harassed me in the street. But it was the first time I was afraid of it.

*

Remember in your Saturday morning cartoons, how when a pretty woman character would walk by, the male/animal cartoon character would fucking lose his shit? I’m talking bulging eyes, stomping foot, drooling with an extra long tongue hanging to the floor losing it as they whistled at the woman passing? American English records the first use of the term, “wolf whistle,” a term that is defined as, “a whistle with a rising and falling pitch, directed toward someone to express sexual attraction or admiration,” in 1945.

The term ‘catcaller’ didn’t come around until the 17th century, during the 1650s, when theatergoers would whistle and jeer at the actors to express disapproval for the actions onstage, sometimes using a noisemaker that made a sound that sounded like an angry hissing cat. The term didn’t take on a sexual meaning until the 20th century, but the idea is all the same. Women, apparently, are present only for the entertainment of men and when they want to vocalize their feedback, they will.

*

For years after the Fahrenheit dude incident, I hated walking by men. I would walk with my head up, fearing that I wouldn’t see it coming and be unprepared for a man to invade my personal bubble again. I would walk by men, stiff and uncomfortable, staring straight ahead, my eyes on the next corner that was far enough away from him/them. I would cringe at my awkward gait, knowing that they’d see my discomfort.

And I would ball my hands into fists so tight I would leave red marks in my palms that took hours to get rid of.

Soon, I internalized the unwanted attention, validating how I felt about myself through them. I must look dope as shit if I’m getting that kind of attention. How I saw myself became wrapped in the violence of a whistle, in the overtly advances of men who were sometimes almost twice…no triple, my age.

Sadly, this went on for years.

*

I am 14 years old. I have a doctor’s appointment, so my mother has taken the day off and lets me play hooky. We stop at Caridad Restaurant on Kingsbridge Road to order take-out coffee cups of their sweet milky avena that we’ll sip on the bus ride over to the doctor. It’s a treat and I have to wait to have mine until after my appointment, but still, it’s so good, I don’t even care.

We walk into the restaurant and there are lines of cabbies from the Bailey Dispatch up the block ordering their breakfasts in Spanish before they start their shifts.

“Tráeme un tres golpes y una café negra, por favor.”

“Una tostada.”

Mami waits on the line, pulling a few singles out of her purse, chatting with the waitresses she recognizes from the neighborhood. I stand away from her, out of the way of the line of cabbies, silent in my awkwardness. A man walks towards me from the direction of the bathroom. He sees me standing there and smiles at me softly. I think he works for the restaurant and I always assume everyone recognizes me as my mother’s daughter, so I smile back, showing the gap in my front teeth. He smiles harder and steps forward.

“¡Qué linda sonrisa! ¿Sabes lo que dicen sobre las niñas con dientes separados?”

I hear my mother’s whistle, not like her normal long one that calls me upstairs, that fills the air with it’s piercing sharpness, but a short one, a quick exclamation point in the air that makes both he and I look in her direction. She is standing there, brown paper bag with our avenas in her hand, smiling the gap-toothed smile I inherited from her.

“Sí, señor. Podemos silbar. M’ija, let’s go. I don’t want to be late.”

My mother never used “m’ija” when talking to me.

The man lets out a low guffaw and smiles at my mother, turning towards the line so he can order his food. I walk towards my mother and we leave the restaurant. When we’re on the bus riding towards the doctor, she hands me the brown bag to hold and says, “Imani, I need you to listen to me.”

I nod. I wonder if I did something wrong, but she smiles and puts her hand on top of mine.

“Be careful smiling back at men, Imani, ok? When you’re in the street alone, don’t turn around when they call you and if they start walking behind you, just turn your head to the side so you can use your side-vision, your peripheral, you know what that is?”

I nod again.

“Be careful smiling back though, Imani. Just be smart when we’re not with you. Be smart always.”

At 14 years old, my mother gave me lessons she had to learn at a similar age. The same lessons her mother had taught her. Don’t invite the attention and don’t encourage it. In that way, you’re smart and you don’t invite them to take it any further.

I wonder how many mothers have had to have this conversation with their daughters or if its just me. At 32 years old, I am certain that every mother does.

*

I have gotten harassed/cat called/wolf whistled in the street in some crazy ass ways. I’ve been hissed at, shouted at from across the street, stared at as if I am an animal in the zoo. Car horns beep at me as I cross the street, startling me into turning to the sound only for a wink, a kiss, a smile. Sometimes, it’s not even the horn but a flash of their high beams.

I’ve had men grab their crotch as I pass by and  I’ve had men lean so close to me as I walk by them that I can feel the warmth of their breath on my earlobe as they whisper “Que bella, mami!” or “Preciosa!” or “Damn, mami!” They tell me, “You can at least smile!” or  “Damn, you can say thank you,” as if them invading my space is a compliment to me, as if I should be grateful that they acknowledged that I exist, let alone that I am attractive enough to talk to. I should thank my lucky fucking stars that they thought of me in a sexual way and wanted to tell me, a stranger, that they have a hard on.

It’s happened. On the subway, a crowded rush hour 4 train on my way to class at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. There was a Yankee game and the 4 train was extra crowded because of it. He was crunched in behind me. I had headphones on. I could feel his breath on my neck as he spoke, so I pulled out one ear bud and said, “Huh?”

He whispered it again. “You’re making my dick so hard right now.”

When I didn’t respond, but tried to push him off me a little, he sucked his teeth and shoved me.

“You should say thank you when a man gives you a compliment, shorty.”

Needless to say, I got off of the train and was late to class that day.

 But the most startling thing is the aggression with which some of them respond to my trying to ignore them. The hateful words spat in my direction when their attempt at not getting my attention . “Fuck you then, you stupid bitch. You’re ugly anyway. Nobody wants you anyway!”

Imagine what that can do to a young girl. Imagine the kind of self-hatred and bullshit that piles up into her adulthood. Imagine how unsafe she may feel when they get angry. Imagine how fast she walks home that day.

Now tell her it’s her fault.

*

There are groups out there that combat street harassment, I know. In fact, there’s groups all over the world that try to combat this. All over the world! I can’t say that I have joined any of their rallies or actions. I can’t say that I can recall a specific name of one of these groups off of the top of my head.

I suppose that’s one of the dangers of it all. This shit gets normalized. You get used to it. So used to it in fact, that you note when you don’t get cat-called because it happens so often that out-of-the-norm means you don’t get cat-called. I’ve had men tell me that it’s probably not that bad, that I’m gassed and have a too-high opinion of myself for even being upset about it, as if my ego somehow thrives on these incidents.

I can’t front. For a long time, especially during my teens, it did. Do you see how dangerous that is for a young girl? Something that frightened me to self-harm, something that made me cringe became so normal for me that at 16 years old, I would call myself ugly if boys/men didn’t say things to me in the street. What the fuck is that about?

I’ll tell you what changed and it wasn’t some grand epiphanic moment. The shit, when I wasn’t completely zoning it out, became straight up annoying. No one wants to be bothered in the street. Leave me the fuck alone, get out of my way, no I don’t want to fucking talk to you. Fuck. Out. Of. My. Face.  I began to respond to these advances by being rude and outlandish, combative and confrontational. Sadly, this placed me in even more danger.

So, what is my perspective on how this can end? Do we combat it by being defensive? Being combative? Do we zone it out? Do we say thank you? Do we continue telling our daughters that this is what they have to expect from men? That men are nothing but animals who can’t control their sexual drive, so they will call out to us, invade our personal space, make us feel unsafe…..and it’s all a compliment? Do we continue teaching our daughters “rules” to how to navigate walking home from the bodega?

 I suppose we must teach those “rules” to our daughters because, safety first and all that. Sadly, we live in that kind of world.

But we must also teach our boys that it is NOT okay to do that to women, no matter what they see their homeboys, their brothers, cousins, uncles, or their fathers doing. We must teach our boys that they must show women respect in the street and if they think she is attractive, that a hello, a good morning, a smile will do just fine and if she finds him attractive, being respectful and polite will only get him the attention he craves from her. We need to teach our sons that they are NOT uncontrollable animals that can only think with their dicks.  They are human beings with compassion and morals and brains. Teach them to tell their boys, their brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers that they shouldn’t do that and be protective of women, whether it’s their sister or their mother or whatever.

We need to stop saying that shit, too. “Oh, imagine if it was your sister that had to go through it.”

Guess what, genius? Your sister does go through it. Every fucking day.

Let’s stop normalizing this invasive and disrespectful behavior. Let’s stop making it okay for our boys. Let’s stop blaming our girls.

Teach our boys respect and consent and boundaries instead of warning our girls and blaming our girls for the lack of them.

*

I don’t know how to end this because I will be honest, I will probably get on the train and go home and have to deal with this shit as if I didn’t spend hours breaking it down in essay. I know I will have my headphones on. I know I will walk home. I know I will turn my head to the side, just like Mami taught me, using my peripheral vision. I know I will get home safe.

That’s what I know.

 

Look, Mami! I’m a Published Writer!

Hi, all!

First off:

Thank you all for reading and following and commenting. It means so much to me to see support for what I do. Very cool positive reinforcement. Thank you to all those keeping up with my #52Essays2017 posts.

Secondly:

Just had an essay posted on Core Temp Arts, described on their Facebook page as “CORE TEMP ARTS is the creation of Karly Beaumont, an emerging podcaster, photographer and filmmaker. A one stop shop where all our creative endeavors live. Whether through photographs, podcasting or in films CoreTempArts looks to dive in and create work that showcases the passion, beauty and ridiculousness in the ordinary.”

The essay that I wrote is called:

“You Are Not About This App Life: The Ins and Outs of Online Dating Apps.”

capture

Check it out among the other cool ass shit on the site. Comment, share, and tell me if you liked it! ❤

#52Essays2017 Week 6: Please, PLEASE Make America READ Again!

My first memory involving books is sitting cross legged on the floor in front of the bathroom in my childhood home. My mother is bent over the bathtub, scrubbing it down with cleaner. It smells like bleach or Comet. There is sunlight that comes in through the bathroom window and makes the white tiled walls seem to glow. I even remember the book. “The Fire Cat,” by Esther Averill. It was already pretty much in shambles as it had been my brothers’ first book as well. I read slowly and stopped for a few minutes on each page, staring at each picture. The cover was red and the pages were brittle, almost yellowed, some with crayon marks, others torn a little in the corners. But I was reading with no help from Mami, who listened to each word I read out loud.

“No. Say that word again, Imani. Try again. Sound out the word.” She’d turn towards me whenever I fumbled, sunlight framing her brown face, patience in her eyes.

Yes, I was taught in school the technical parts of literacy: what a noun is, vowels, etc. But I learned to love to read at home, sitting cross legged in front of the bathroom, reading an old hand me down book to my mother.

*

“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do.”

– from The Miseducation of The Negro by Carter G. Woodson

*

The system never wanted us to learn how to read.

Literacy has always been a powerful tool and the oppressor has always been well aware of this. With reading and writing, comes the acquisition of knowledge, the beauty of critical thought, the complexities of human intelligence and emotion. Literacy provided a freedom which the oppressor could not control….thought. During the slave era of the United States, the slave system relied so heavily on the dependence of the slave on their oppressors that to introduce literacy to slaves meant a potential for uprisings. In other words, if slaves could read and write, they’d be able to learn, comprehend, and communicate the atrocities they were facing. All of this would make them too human. And the slave system couldn’t handle that. Soon, laws forbidding literacy for slaves were created. A Virginia law in 1819 even states that a slave learning to read could be punished by 20 lashes. Despite the threat of this sort of violence, slaves often developed ingenious ways to gain literacy. In the Caribbean, even up until the end of slavery, there was no attempt to offer slaves an education and it was highly forbidden for them to learn how to read or write.

When I was teaching literacy at an after-school program in Washington Heights, a predominately Latino neighborhood in New York City, a lot of my middle-school aged students often told me that reading was “boring,” that reading would never get them anywhere, that they “hated reading.” How do you teach literacy to a bunch of middle-schoolers saying THAT?

I decided that the very first lesson of each semester would be teaching students about the prohibition of literacy during slavery both in the United States and the Caribbean. We wouldn’t read or write anything outside of a one-sheeter that listed different slave laws forbidding literacy. We spent the entire hour I had them to myself discussing how unfair it was and why they thought slave owners wanted this law in place.

“Because if slaves could read, they could read signs and run away.”

“Well, what do you think that reading gives us?”

“Words, letters, sentences.”

“Yes, of course, but how do you learn things really? Even math and science. How do you learn those things…by doing what?”

“By reading!”

“Right. So, if you can read things, you can do what?”

“You can learn.”

“Right.”

“So is that why you want us to like reading, Miss Angie? Because we can learn?”

*

The very first book I read that had a Puerto Rican in it was Spidertown, by Abraham Rodriguez. A friend of my brother’s had lent it to him and he had left it in his bedroom. The cover is what called me. There it was, my last name on the cover of a book. Of course, it wasn’t my full name, but it was my last name, Rodriguez. I was 12 years old and I devoured that book. I mean, I had always been a reader. I was a kid that used to run home from school to watch “Reading Rainbow” or “Wishbone.” By 10, I already had my own bookcase spilling over with books and the best days in school were the Scholastic Book Fairs. But this book, this book was just different. Inside it were street names I knew and characters that talked like people from my neighborhood. I couldn’t relate to the story of a hustler of course, but I knew what a hustler looked like and I knew where Burnside Avenue was and I knew what “wack” meant. I inhaled that book.

When I was 13, I found my mother’s tattered copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and went at it like a surgeon. I still have that tattered, taped-up copy, every word I didn’t know at 13 highlighted in bright pink. I would write down the words I didn’t know and the page number it was on, look them up, write down the definition, and then re-read the sentence knowing the definition. The Bluest Eye was the first book that took me longer than a day or two to read, the first book I actively read, the first book that made me question concepts like race and identity.

What’s more important than gaining literacy? Connecting with it. If a student cannot identify with the character, they will not enjoy the reading. Period. Yes, there are occasions where students who love to read will read anything, but for those kids who say they hate reading or that they think it’s boring, the connection to the material is essential. I’ve always loved to read and write since I was a child but the tool changed drastically for me when I learned that there were authors with my last name. I was able to connect to the story. Perhaps you’ve heard this before. I know I have. But gotdammit, it’s the truth and we have to pay attention to what works.

 Years after those two pilfered novels became the catalyst to my insatiable thirst for literacy, I dedicated my college career to reading writers of color and graduated in 2014 with a degree in Multi-Ethnic Literature and Multi-Ethnic Women and Gender Studies from the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies program. In 2015, with the encouragement of some sister-friends, I created the Boricongo Book Gang, an online book club that focuses on writers of color. Both of these things have reaffirmed my passion and have confirmed to me (and others) that there is more in literature than Holden-friggin-Caulfield and it should all be shared and taught and enjoyed.

I bet you’re asking why I mentioned those two books. Well, what’s most important to know is that I took both of those books without asking my brother or my mother. Pilfering those books led me down this beautiful path and I am so blessed for them, but imagine what would’ve happened if the books had been GIVEN to me?

In other words, y’all, share books with kids that they can relate to. Show them that their world is worth writing about and that it’s worth reading about. Read with them, make them read out loud to you. Make them put away the iPads, the game consoles, the technology. Encourage them to look up words they don’t know, to repeat the sentence, to talk about what they have read. Give them books that they connect with. Ask them how they connected. Push them. Have a night in the house where everyone (including you!) just reads. Push their minds. It will be an invaluable tool for them.  Shit, for YOU.

*

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
― Frederick Douglass

*

I suppose you can call this essay my love letter to reading or even a shameless plug for my journey and passion with literacy. What can I say? I am a proud booknerd, a plothead who enjoys the high of the page, a devout bibliophile and book hoarder. I knew I wanted to talk about literacy and I didn’t really know how to tackle the topic. I hope I have done it some justice.

But honestly, this essay is something else. It’s  a warning. Literacy and the critical thinking that comes hand in hand with it stands to be dying skills in the age of Instagram, reality TV, emojis, and blind posting. Bottom line is that the Republican administration which puppeteers the Cheeto-in-office, is working to maintain ignorance. How do you maintain that in the age of information, where your answers are a key-swipe away? By restricting fact, by strictly monitoring the media, by calling journalists fake, by recreating the narrative we teach our children by steering education into the ground with the likes of Devos, etc.

This hasn’t just started though.

Think back to 2011, when an Arizona law banned not just books but an entire curriculum of Mexican-American studies from schools, spawning the Librotraficante movement, which helped “smuggle” banned books back into the communities they were taken from. It is a movement that continues to fight against laws that are meant to restrict and repress communities of color from connecting with literature and knowledge. Approximately 82 books were banned from schools in Tucson and only 7 of these banned books as of 2014 were added back to the Tucson schools’ curriculum. Go ahead. Sit with that shock. 82 books, mostly written by writers of color. The list of books that are currently approved have only a mere sprinkling of writers of color, but therein lies the point of this law: to erase the color.

I guess that this essay is to talk about this: The oppressor works under the assumption of our ignorance and will do anything to keep us and our children ignorant. Our tools to fight against this are and have always been books and thought and words and language. It has been our stories. It is up to us to embrace the powerful tool of literacy that our ancestors risked their lives for, this powerful tool that can steer our youth to heights we never thought possible. Encourage it in everything. Shit, let them read this essay (you can cross out the curse words, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind it).

Talk about it with them and never forget that reading is thought and thought is the one thing the oppressors can never control.

And thought? Thought is just the spark to a bigger flame.

And they are so afraid of our fire, babies.

Read on. Write on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#52Essays2017 Week 5: Get Out: You’re in my Uterus Again

 

“No woman has an abortion for fun.” —Elizabeth Joan Smith

*

I had an abortion the summer my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was completely unprepared for a child both mentally and emotionally, not to mention being financially incapable of supporting a new life. Knowing of my mother’s diagnosis only placed me in a deeper eddy of my own emotional shit. At the time, I was just starting a new job, I had no degree under my belt, no plan of action for my life, no dreams. I was that plastic bag floating in “American Beauty” or like the white feather in “Forrest Gump.” I had no idea why the fuck I was there, floating on crests of wind, but there I was. Floating and shit.

The guy I had slept with was the guy everyone wanted me to stay away from but who I harbored such ardor for that I kept going back, rebounding after breakups by rolling around in his bed. I got pregnant after one of those he-always-makes-me-feel-better rebound moments where the condom broke and we stared at each other as if the world was ending.

“I pulled out in time. You should be okay.”

I thought I would be. I was wrong.

At the time, I didn’t tell him I was pregnant and I didn’t tell him that I was going to have an abortion. I justified it with, “Well, he ain’t looking for me,” or “He’s chilling with that other chick now, so who cares?” The reality was that I was afraid to tell him and I was afraid of what his reaction would be. Not my proudest moment, no. He deserved to know. I don’t regret much in my life, but not telling him is definitely a regret. Years later, when he finally confessed his love to me over a candlelit table and proclaimed that I was the only woman he could see himself having a child with, I put my hand over his and said, “I have something to tell you.” Our relationship was never the same after that, the rebound moments ended, though a warm friendship remained.

Perhaps, people think I made the choice out of selfishness. But I made the choice with the knowledge that I had put myself in a place I didn’t want to be in. I didn’t want to start a family with a street dude that didn’t know I existed outside of my vagina and what I can make him feel in bed. I didn’t want to have a child knowing that I could not provide it with the life it deserved, with the support it deserved. I was reeling from a life not yet faced. I hadn’t even begun to work on the layers of shit I had to unlearn because I was in the midst of creating more fucking layers.

I was not ready and I didn’t want to be a mother. That was my reasoning and I have been damned to hell and judged for it. By people in my life.

By myself.

*

When I decided on getting a copper IUD implanted, I was with my ex-boyfriend and to be quite frank, the Russian Roulette of condoms breaking or what not was not worth the lack of sensation and pull-out games were too risky. I didn’t want the fucking anxiety. We both got tested and then had a real discussion about birth control. I was adamant about steering clear of hormonal options, like the pill, which was tedious as fuck on top of being hormones or the NuvaRing which was easy as fuck to use but when off of it, took 2 years for my cycle to fully regulate back to normal. Two years! I wanted to stay away from those things. My doctor told me my only option if I wanted no hormones and long term birth control was the copper IUD.

When I arrived at the doctor’s office to have my IUD implanted, I really didn’t know what to expect. I got into the gown, took off my panties, placed my feet in the stirrups. The first part of any gynecological exam is the speculum, this contraption that stretches you open so the doctor has a better view. Sounds uncomfortable? It is. The second part of the IUD implantation is the measuring of your uterus. A ruler…a fucking ruler is placed inside of you to determine how long the thread on the IUD has to be so it doesn’t interfere with your daily business like wiping or inserting a tampon or what not. Sounds uncomfortable? No, it’s worse. Trust me. The final step is the implanting of the IUD which in and of itself is not too bad.

What completely and totally sucked donkey nuts was the excruciating pain and cramps I got the night I had it implanted. I was in a fetal position trying to become the damn hot water bottle I was in so much pain. I cried…no, wept, in my ex-boyfriend’s bed that night. He watched me sheepishly, not knowing what to do. The doctor said every woman is different and to give it a full six months before my body became adjusted to it.

The countdown had begun.

*

Going to the abortion clinic is one of the most demeaning experiences I have ever had. Walking into the clinic, there was a man standing out front. He didn’t smile or anything, just handed me a piece of paper that read: “You are about to kill someone.” He scowled at me when I crumpled it and threw it at his feet. I felt my face flush with fury and shame and after checking in at the front desk, I went into the bathroom and cried.

I waited for HOURS in that waiting room. I had been told not to eat or drink anything and I was hungry and tired and anxious. When they finally called my name, I was taken to a room where I changed into a gown. Then, I was made to wait again in another room with other girls in gowns, some who looked ashamed, others who looked bored. I stared openly at a girl, who’s belly had already started to paunch out a bit. She smiled at me and reached for a magazine on one of the coffee tables they had in the room.

A nurse called me into a room and gave me an ultrasound. The baby was the size of a shelled cashew on the ultrasound screen. I won’t forget that image. Let me make this clear, so everyone can understand. They make you look. They ask you over and over if you are sure you want to have an abortion. I know why they do this. For the women who are in fact, unsure. But I was very sure and I nodded every single time the nurse asked if I wanted to get an abortion. But even with all of that certainty, I felt shamed and guilty and alone and judged. I waited for a few more hours before being taken into the OR for the procedure.

*

When a friend became pregnant with her second child, she didn’t tell me. She asked me to talk to her about my abortion, tell me what happened. I told her all of the details. Told her how scared I was, how alone I felt.

When I found out she was pregnant, it was my best friend who told me. I asked if she was going to keep the baby.

“Yeah. She told me that she could never do what you did.”

 

*

I woke up in a room full of beds where other girls were opening their eyes or drinking water. When the nurse came to check on me, she smiled as she asked me how I felt. I nodded, my throat dry, my stomach curling into itself because I was so hungry. She lifted clean white sheets off of me to see my thighs completely covered in thick, gooey red. I was coming off of anesthesia, unsure what was happening, groggy still. I could hear panic in her voice, the sing song of her previous greeting completely gone.

“Doctor! She’s bleeding too much.”

I had begun to hemorrhage and the blood was flowing out of me like an ocean. I was dizzy and I remember thinking to myself only how badly I wanted to eat. The nurse smiled, putting a hand on my face.

“You’re going to be okay, We got you. Okay?” This woman held my hand as they rolled me back into the OR and put me under anesthesia again. I cried when they put the mask over my face. The nurse held my hand and said they were “going to get me all cleaned up.” I was grateful for her hand, for the real human touch and not the looks and grunts and sterile questions. I cried and she rubbed the tears from my cheeks with her gloved hands. Thankfully, they stopped the bleeding. I woke up, performed the actions that cleared me for discharge, was given crackers and peanut butter and orange juice for my blood loss, given a prescription for birth control and sent on my way. My closest childhood friend, Cynthia, came to pick me up.

We barely spoke the entire ride home.

“You okay?”

I wanted to tell Cynthia that I was relieved. I was hating myself for feeling relief, but I was relieved. Relieved, yes, that I was no longer pregnant. But relieved because I was alive. Relieved because I had been in a hospital, with doctors, where the problem was resolved and I lived. Relieved that the nurse held my hand. Relieved that she had come to pick me up. Relief is the only emotion I felt as we sat in the cab home.

I only nodded in response.

*

 

I called it “Murder Pants.” Two weeks of heavy bleeding. The cramps were unbearable at times and no amount of Ibuprofen or Midol or hot water would tame them. I’d spend the first five nights of my period whimpering, hugging a hot water bottle like a lover. During PMS and my period, I had huge surges of anxiety, changed a super plus tampon every hour, suffered headaches, fatigue, not to mention the hormonal acne I never had before that was sprouting all across my chin. I had been told by the doctor that I would experience heavier and longer periods and may have some more discomfort because of the copper IUD, but this was out of hand. I called the doctor’s office and was transferred to a nurse.

“You have to give it time. It’s only been two months. Your body is adjusting to the IUD. Every woman is different and their adjustment period is different. Give it time.”

“But why am I going through all of this?”

“That’s not from the copper IUD. The Paragard is non-hormonal meaning whatever you’re experiencing can’t be from the IUD.”

I suffered for another four months before I had it removed. Later, I found out that I was suffering from what is called “copper toxicity.” This meant that my body was reacting to an excess of copper in my system and was unable to eliminate the excess. Symptoms of copper toxicity include severe anxiety, hormonal acne, insomnia, fatigue, anemia, hair loss, etc. High copper levels are also linked to psychosis and Alzheimer’s. The list goes on, y’all.

The scary part was that I learned that with a high level of copper in your system, the essential zinc was imbalanced. Zinc helps strengthens our resistance to stress and anxiety, maintains intellectual function, and helps in the creation of all hormones. It is also a protector of our body, helping to create our master antioxidants, metallothionein and glutathione, which protect our body from diseases, like cancer. I immediately began taking zinc supplements after having the copper IUD removed.

All of this to say that it wasn’t in my head at all. I felt lied to. I felt betrayed. I felt violated. The doctor still tells me that what I was going through was in my head. That it couldn’t have been the copper IUD that caused those symptoms.

Ironically, once I removed the copper IUD and began taking zinc supplements, the symptoms completely dissipated.

*

In 1937, a U.S. bill was passed in Puerto Rico that allowed the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women. This bill, called Law 116, made forced sterilization, known popularly as “la operación,” legal and free to Puerto Rican women while providing them with no alternative methods of birth control. U.S. colonialism and sugar interests had left the Puerto Rican population poverty stricken. An entire generation of women began to enter the growing industrial workforce. The U.S., historically known for not holding itself accountable, blamed overpopulation instead of their invasion and sugar interests and the eugenics policy of Law 116 was enacted. By 1968, the program had sterilized approximately one-third of the women in  Puerto Rico, most of them in their 20s. Many of these women who submitted to tubal ligation were unaware of its permanency. Some, already mothers of one or two children were refused work or healthcare unless they consented to the procedure. By 1968, the island of Puerto Rico had the highest sterilization rate in the entire world.

Similarly, in 1956, the Rio Piedras and Humacao birth control trials,  run by Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood and Dr. Gregory Pincus, targeted poor women on the island. Women were told they would avoid pregnancy if they took this daily pill but were not told that they were part of a clinical trial or that their treatment was experimental. Though women complained of massive side effects which including headaches, dizzy spells, and nausea, Pincus dismissed it as psychosomatic. When three women died, Pincus paid their deaths no mind, stating that the women would fade into history.

The history of birth control is deeply rooted in the oppression of poor women of color, these two instances being specific to the very island where my family is from. This came to mind when I was going through my IUD ordeal. Especially when I was told that the symptoms I was experiencing, that countless other women I know were experiencing, were all psychosomatic. I wasn’t going crazy. The pain and the physical symptoms were real and was caused by yet another form of invasive female birth control that can change or warp a woman’s body.

In late 2016, a study on a male birth control was scrapped because the men who participated in the study complained of side effects like acne, increased libido, and mood disorders. Compared to the side effects of female birth control that include anxiety, weight gain, nausea, headaches, reduced libido, blood clots and in the case of the copper IUD, copper toxicity and all that comes with it, the idea of a male birth control study being terminated because of acne is an insult, at the very least.

But what it shows is that women remain the ones carrying the brunt of responsibility for contraception and all of its side effects. The idea of joint responsibility, is of course, unfathomable. Sense my sarcasm, people.  Sit with that.

No, this does not mean that I do not support birth control or Planned Parenthood. On the contrary, what all of this means, the history of it, reminds me of the need to hold our social justice organizations accountable for their histories, but also to challenge them to do better for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, to work with the knowledge of all of those intersections.

Birth control has been a part of my life for years now and it does indeed offer a freedom from the anxiety of potential pregnancy but it is a heavy freedom, y’all. A heavy freedom indeed. But it is a freedom and one that we need to ensure is protected for all women, one that is made safe and affordable for all women, one that is above all, protected as a right.

*

Let me be crystal clear with you. It was not an easy decision to have an abortion and it certainly was an ordeal for me, to say the least. My life would have been totally different if I had chosen to keep that child. I don’t regret choosing to better myself or my life. I am grateful to that experience, to that moment for pushing me in directions I would not have gone in, for pushing me to become a different woman. I know it was for the best and I will always fight for a woman’s right to choose what is best for her. I will fight against having that very personal and difficult choice being dictated by old white men in the government who will never have to be in that position.

But hand in hand with that gratitude, there comes shame and guilt. Especially as I am approaching my 33rd birthday and the looming idea that I may, in fact, not ever be a mother comes into play. I told my mother the other day that the possibility of not ever being a mami is there and that I must accept that becoming a  mother just may not be in the cards for me. Look, I know, I am still young and fertile and there is still time. But just like back then, I won’t just have a child because I want one or with just anyone because they want one, too. Mami says that someone could never be really ready for a child and that’s a given. People are always unprepared for what a child brings, even if they read the books and take the classes. But just because you want to swim, doesn’t mean you should jump into the pool without looking, dig?

So, the clock ticks along and here I am, that fucking plastic bag again. I guess I will be the best aunty in the entire world if that ends up being my path, I’ll tell you that.

It comes off as contradictory though, to say that despite my lack of regret that I felt shame and guilt, doesn’t it? But I don’t mean shame or guilt in a remorseful sense, I mean it in the sense that these emotions are residues of being judged and damned and ridiculed. How unfair. How sad. How painful it is to be judged for choosing to not give a child a difficult and arduous life. How sad it is to be judged by people who care only that the child is born, but not if there is food to feed them, clothes to give them, etc. How sad it is that women are demeaned and vilified for choosing not to be a mother.

But see, that’s the problem. A woman choosing to have an abortion is not calculated, or cold, or remorseless. On the contrary, the choice to have an abortion is one that is laden with layers of emotion. But a choice that is ours to make.

In the wake of Trump’s administration threatening these rights in his first week in office, I have seen people that I respect and care for, shame other women for having an abortion without ever knowing the context or the experience. I have seen people say that it is a murder, that it is a sin, that it is worth being punished for or going to hell for. People who hate Trump saying, “I think he’s terrible but I think he did the right thing in regards to abortion.”

I support reproductive rights, no doubt about it. I believe all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status should have access to safe, affordable, and adequate reproductive health care without discrimination, without judgment, without misinformation. That includes birth control and abortions and mammos and paps, etc. I support these rights and I will fight to protect them every day.

I do not get into those pro-life or pro-choice debates because my logic is this: Women have been performing abortions for centuries, boo. Using herbs and other methods, but yet and all, abortive methods have been around since before the religion you’re using to judge me for it even existed. This is not to say that abortive methods are a solid replacement for contraceptives or abstinence, or that these other methods are always the safest, but it exists and it will continue to exist because it has always existed.

And at the end of the day, what a woman chooses to do with her body is NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS.

Miss me with the moralistic and judgmental perspectives and the damning religious rhetoric.

I don’t give a shit.

Being a mother or choosing not to be is my choice to make, not yours.

Stay the fuck out of my uterus. Punto.

No, I don’t care to hear your thoughts about it because it just means you’ve gotten into my uterus again and my uterus is not yours to judge, not yours to damn, not yours to fill or empty, not yours to condemn. It is mine.

So, get out.