#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.

 

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#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 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 3: “Did You Tell Her That Your Kids Are Black?”

*The first section of this essay appears on www.blackdiaries.org*

When my mother was pregnant with my oldest brother, the apartment she shared with my father on 181st Street and Valentine Avenue was broken into. Someone who robbed the apartment next door had knocked down the thin wall in their closet to get into my parents’ apartment, knocking over my father’s stereo system and robbing my mother of all kinds of things she had owned for years. Real jade pieces that my uncle brought back for her from his tour in Vietnam, money, records. When I asked my father who lived next door, he said, “One of the last Mohicans, Angie. All the white people were running from the South Bronx and had been for years. But she was one of the last white people living in the Bronx at the time who was a tenant and not a landlord.”

Despite most of their own possessions being stolen, the neighbor accused my father and mother of being behind the robbery of her apartment and the situation was beginning to get nasty.  With my mother’s belly swelling every day, my father went out looking for an apartment with $600 in his pocket. He found what he was looking for in the Kingsbridge section in the Bronx. The apartment where I grew up. Where my mother still lives.

At the time, the landlords of the building were two white women who lived on the top floor in an apartment that were two apartments in one. They literally lived on top of their tenants who were becoming increasingly brown and this, apparently, was a problem. So, when they met my father, with his light skin, green eyes and straight thick black hair, who spoke of a lovely pregnant wife, they were, of course, delighted to offer an apartment to the happy couple.

The first week in their new building, my father and mother were in the elevator. One of the white lady landlords came on to the elevator and smiled wide at my father. She didn’t acknowledge my dark-skinned mother, did not look in her direction. White Lady Landlord smiled her white lady smile at my olive-skinned father who she assumed was Italian.

“Oh, hi! How’s the apartment? How’s your wife?”

“She’s standing right here.”

White Lady landlord’s eyes widened and her smile froze.  She finally acknowledged my mother, belly full with my brother, brown skin glowing with Africa. Her lip curled with a sneer and she scoffed as the elevator door opened.

My mother smiled and spoke as White Lady landlord left the elevator.

“Nice to meet you!”

*

I asked my mother how she felt when White Lady Landlord looked at her like that.

“She did what she did, Imani. I was still going to be there even if she didn’t want me there.”

Mami was the prettiest woman I knew and I wanted to be her color, that warm rich brown that only deepened in the sun. She was unafraid of her Blackness, unafraid of her Boricua-ness. Since I was old enough to understand, she’d tell me that in her youth, she was, “Too Black for the Puerto Ricans and too Puerto Rican for the Blacks.” She tells me how difficult it was to fit in but stresses that she wouldn’t drop one for the other.

“I’m Puerto Rican, Imani. Boricua. That’s who I am. But I’m Black. Can’t change that. I’m a Black woman but no one can take Puerto Rico away from me.”

*

My father is an African drummer, a congero, an amazing percussionist and I do not say that because he is my father. The man has skills. He is also a light skinned Puerto Rican man with a mane of thick black hair that has thinned somewhat as he’s gotten older and green eyes that always change color from green to hazel to gray to even blue sometimes. He often tells me stories about having to prove himself to other drummers who had more African features, tells me how they doubted him because he was just a “white boy” trying to play the congas.

And then he’d show them.

He’d show them that Africa lived in his hands hitting them skins.

And they’d believe him.

He told me once that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he ran home from school, hiding when he could because as light as he was, he just knew he would be a target for the Black kids in the neighborhood. And he was, indeed, a target. What saved him? Speaking Spanish.

“If I didn’t know Spanish, Ang, they would’ve beat my ass that day.”

When I asked Dad how he felt about White Lady Landlord not acknowledging Mami, he paused for a breath and said, “You kids have no idea what  your Mami had to go through.”

*

When I am five or six years old, I draw a picture of my mother and color in her face using a Black crayon. I am proud of the picture, had taken care to color in the lines and draw Mami’s silver bangles on her right hand and the three silver studs, one for each of her children, in her ears. The picture shows Mami as beautiful and I am proud to show it off. My brothers giggle, tell me that’s not what Mami looks like, that she’s Brown not actually Black. Mami just smiles, takes the picture from my hands, stares at it with an amused glint in her eyes. I don’t think she sees anything wrong with my picture.

When I ask her why people call her Negra all the time, she says it’s a nickname that people she loves call her. When I ask her what it means, she beams, the gap in her front teeth showing, when she says, “It means Black Woman.”

My mother is unflinching and clear about who she is, what her blood and her skin and her spirit represent. She is Black, spending most of her life in the United States navigating the racial binary of Black and White. And she is Puerto Rican, a woman from a colonized island, a woman from an island rich with history, rich with African blood, language, music, and religion. Where my father taught me Africa is in the drumming of bomba y plena and religious practices, Mami is the first one to teach me that some of the inflections and words used in the Puerto Rican dialect of Spanish are pure Africa. Ñame, mofongo, mondongo, bochinche, gandinga, chevere.

As I get older, my mother raves about how beautiful I look when I’m tanned a beautiful brown by the sun and when the color fades with the sun-depleted winter, she tells me I look almost as white-skinned as my father. It’s her way of reminding me that people could never mistake me for anything but Latina the way they so often think she is not Puerto Rican.

There is a moment in my life that I have written about in story before. A moment that feels so tangible even now as I type it. Mami and I were going home on the subway and it was crowded. I don’t know where we were coming from but it was packed on that train. I mean that New York City subway tight crowded where you can’t help but bump into others and hit people with your bag. Mami made sure I was holding on and knocked her bags into the knees of a bottle blonde woman who turned to her friend sitting next to her and said, “Brujas negras nunca tienen modales.” I remember their giggles. I remember Mami’s hand over mine on the subway pole. As we were leaving the train, Mami turned to the woman, smiled, and said, “Mira lo que dices porque nunca sabes quién habla español en estas calles.”

I’ll never forget those women’s faces when they realized that my mother was a Latina like them.

It made me want to be my mother even more.

I tell her now that a lot of people never think I’m Puerto Rican. I’ve been asked if I am Yemenese, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Pakistani, Egyptian,etc. and I tell her I just smile and say, “No. I’m Puerto Rican but thank you for the compliment because (fill-in-the-blank) women are so gorgeous.”

She laughs and says, “Esos personas no saben na’…All I see is a little light skinned Puerto Rican girl.”

*

In 2015, I attended the VONA writing workshops in Miami, Florida. VONA is a safe space for writers of color, the only multi-genre week-long writing workshop for writers of color in the nation. I was insulated by the warmth of being surrounded by people who fully understood me, people of color whose passion for writing was the same as my own. I felt at home.  When I went to VONA in 2014 in California, I experienced a period of mourning after VONA ended. It was why I stayed an extra week in California before returning to reality. I did the same for the 2015 VONA. My father lives in Florida, a short half hour car ride from where VONA was being held so it was an easy choice. I was able to spend time with my dad and decompress from VONA, emotionally and mentally preparing myself for the reality of a world that didn’t feel as safe, didn’t feel as good.

One day during that week I spent with him, he took me to the house of his girlfriend’s brother, let’s call him, Hugh. Hugh had just hooked up his pool and my father and I were both invited to spend some time there, drinking beer and swimming. The three of us were enjoying ourselves, sipping at cold Budweisers and shooting the shit. Dad and I did some flips in the water and joked around. It was actually a nice day. Hugh was a decent enough person from what I can remember. Not someone I would hang out with on the regular but he was generous with beers and reminded me of one of those stereotypical New York Eye-talians, thin gold chain on over-tanned skin, Brooklyn accent, gesticulations and all. We were laughing when his wife came home from her nursing job.

“Hugh!” We all looked in the direction of her voice. She stood there in pink scrubs, a petite woman with too-tanned skin, long white blonde hair cut in a tacky outdated style, too long platinum bangs fringing eyes rimmed in cheap black eyeliner. She stared at me, saying nothing. She didn’t smile back when I smiled at her and greeted her. She stood there and acknowledged only my father and her husband when they said hello. My father introduced me and she nodded, turning to walk back to the glass enclosed patio, grabbing a beer from the cooler.

I felt awkward, unsure if I was bugging out. Did she not even care to meet me?

I thought to myself that it was only because I was a much younger woman in her home and then scolded myself for thinking that about another woman. But why couldn’t I place this discomfort that crept up my toes and flushed my face, making me want to cover myself, making me feel so unwanted? I realized it like a punch in the gut. Looked at my now-deep bronze tanned skin compared to my father and to her husband and to herself. I swam to my father, who was finishing the last of his beer and leaned in to his ear.

“Dad? Did you tell her that your kids are Black?”

“Of course I did, Angie. I know, she acted so weird, right?”

My father and Hugh both got out of the pool to dry off and sit with Hugh’s wife in the patio to talk and drink more beers. I stayed in the pool a little bit longer, knowing she was watching me swim, knowing that she was watching my big brown beautiful self and my big brown boobs floating in her beautiful brand spanking new chlorine pool. I knew she didn’t want me there. I stayed in that pool and relished that water as if it were life-giving. I walked out of the pool only when the edges of the sky turned lavender and my father motioned for me to come have a beer before the mosquitoes ate me up.

I sat across from her at the glass patio table and she stared at me, her cheap black eyeliner bleeding into the corners of her eyes. There was small talk, very awkward small talk that grated my nerves. She smiled politely at my father and mostly just smirked at me, responding with boasts about what her husband had fixed up in the house and asked me if I had a house where I was. Where was I coming from again?

“The Bronx.”

“I had a feeling.”

Now how the fuck do I respond to that? I smiled and sipped at a can of quickly warming Budweiser.

When we left their house, I told my father that I was sure she would have her pool cleaned.

*

My dad later told me that he had to say something to them about the language they used in front of him when they first met. They called Black people “coons” and “tar babies” and referred to the predominately Black neighborhood in their area as “Boogietown.” My father responded immediately to their nonchalant way of using the words and spazzed one day, telling them they were disrespectful to say those things.

“The mother of my children is a Black Puerto Rican. I don’t like that language. When you say shit like that you’re talking about her, you’re talking about my kids. You’re disrespecting the people I love. I don’t want to hear that shit anymore. Stop fucking saying it.”

“We didn’t know you’d take it like that, Angel. We didn’t mean it like that.”

I have always resented that ludicrous response. How else could it have been meant? Also, how was he supposed to take it? Did they assume that because my father is a light-skinned Puerto Rican that he’d be okay with that kind of ignorant language?

I wonder how many times my father has had to have this conversation with people who assume he is okay with hatred because he is a white-skinned Puerto Rican. I wonder sometimes if he was always as vocal as he was with them.

My father tells me they have never used those words in front of him again. During the 2016 elections, he tells me that they are avid Trump supporters and talk about the Obamas as if they were both dirtying up the country. As if they took a big shit on the lawn of the White House and smeared it over the country.

I told him that I was sure they never stopped calling it “Boogietown.”

I don’t doubt it at all.

*

Though the experience of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean compared to that of the American South were different, the fact remains that no one, not even Latinos themselves can deny that Africa is a part of Latinidad. Out of the 10 to 16 million Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery, a large percentage of those Africans were sent to Brazil or the Caribbean. While American slavery determined race in a two-category system, Latin American countries developed complex racial categories, that included terms like mestizo, mulatto, octoroon, etc. With this being said, it is important to note that African was still deemed the lowest of these racial categories. This set the very foundation for the colorism which is apparent in many Latin American countries.  In his 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets, one of the first texts I ever came across  that discussed Afro-Latinidad, Piri Thomas, contemplates his racial identity as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man and how it has impacted his life in the larger society of the United States where he is seen as Black and within his family, where their African roots are mostly rejected. Rafael Trujillo, one of the most infamous, vile, and cruel dictators of the Dominican Republic, told Black Dominicans to call themselves “Indio,” or “Indian,” to distance themselves from Blackness. One last example is in a recent episode of the popular reality show “Love and Hip Hop: Miami,” where DJ Young Hollywood, a light skinned Latino producer, calls Amara La Negra, a dark-skinned Dominican musical artist, “Nutella queen,” implies that her natural hair is not “elegant,” igniting social media with conversations about the Afro-Latino identity and what that means.

Despite her jokes on us about needing more sun,  my mother never let my brothers and I forget who we were. Essence magazine was the only magazine subscription Mami made a point to keep since it’s first issue in 1970, paying that annual bill so that images of Black excellence and beauty would come in our mailbox every month. In the midst of the popularity of white Blonde Barbie dolls, Mami bought me a Kenya doll and told me that I was beautiful and smart  just like her and I believed her. My parents spoke to us about what we were to face as we became adults, spoke to us about our history, our blood, our ancestry. I was shown pictures of my mother’s uncles, their dark skin like ink in the black and white photos and was told to never forget that along with Taino and Spanish, that I have African in my blood, in my ancestry. I was never deprived of representations of Blackness in my life because of my parents. I was surrounded by it. And I can’t thank them enough for providing me with those tools, that pride, that history.

I won’t defend my Blackness or feed into divisive conversations about how dark someone has to be to be considered Black. That’s ludicrous. We all need to stop doing that. That’s just the residues of  the divisive history of racism in this country and in the Caribbean. To talk about who is Black enough, who is allowed to claim Blackness all while ignoring the African presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Latino diaspora and culture, denies us the right to speak on our ancestors and on our history. What I will do is acknowledge that my experiences as lighter skinned Afro-Latina can and will never match those of darker-skinned women, of the history of African American women in the United States and of darker-complected women in the Caribbean.

But I can’t change that I am a woman of color. I can’t deny or erase my Blackness because that would mean denying my mother, denying my very real and very Black family, deny my ancestors who died in slavery. I refuse to do that. For anyone.

I can’t change that I am a Puerto Rican woman of color and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to.

I suppose what is infuriating about Hugh’s wife is that she made me feel as if I had done something to her, that me being me was an affront to her. What is infuriating about that memory is that I was polite when I could have been true to myself and asked her what her damn problem was. I am angry at myself for not standing up to her. I am angry at myself for believing that my kindness, my manners, my niceness would eliminate or outweigh her obvious distaste for me, would change her lack of kindness, would erase her racist and prejudiced perspective. But would a show of my anger have changed her either?

How do you navigate that kind of shit knowing how fucking unnecessary it all is?

If me existing pisses racist people off, well, mi gente, I’ma just keep doing that. I’m just going to be here, existing and shit and watching those asshats stare at me with disdain. Just like that bottle blonde pendeja in pink scrubs.

This time I will stare back and finally be just like my mother. Just like I’ve always wanted.

Completely unafraid of my Boricuaness. Of my Blackness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#52Essays2017 – Week Two – Changing Journals

I don’t feel guilty about leaving a journal only half finished because I believe in energy. I believe that chapters of our lives carry huge surges of energy and holding on to those surges, if only through ink and paper, may not always be the smartest thing to do. Though clearly, facing your shit may not always be the prettiest thing, sometimes you have to set it aside, walk away from it. Sometimes, journals exude the very energy you have put in them.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never go back, flip through the pages, cringe….cringe harder.  It just means, you need to shed some energy to create more.

Today, I changed my journal. It takes me awhile to connect with a journal. I have a whole box full of blank ones to choose from (most, beautifully enough, have been gifted to me), but the process takes some time. I don’t sit and ponder them. I grab one, carry it with me for some time and see how it”fits.” Sometimes, it doesn’t. Like the recent butterfly decorated one I used post-breakup and then post-breakup-breakup. There was a whole lot of energy in that fucker, let me tell you, and it was high time to shed that shit. So this weekend, suffering from sinus headaches and chills, I opened the box full of opportunity and  decided on a wide pink faux leather one with gold lettering that reads, “Live Each Day with Grace, Love, and Laughter.” I like the brand of journal because I like the thin lines and wide pages, the way the journal lies flat when I write so I don’t have to use my other hand to keep it open or worry about metal spirals coming undone. I’ve used the brand before. I had a mint-green one that read, “Make Things Happen” in gold lettering that has begun to wear off. That’s packed away somewhere with the others. Now, the writing has to happen. I plan on collaging these essays into the journal. This is a chapter after all,  is it not?

*

I think I own every journal I have ever written in. I keep them in their own labeled section of my writing stuff, each one dirtied from purses and handling, sparkling still with some form of embellishment as if they were jewels in a treasure box. Wait. I lied. There’s a small part of my life missing in my journals. My teenage years. I don’t have those.

*

I bought the journal when Columbus Circle was an open air market, before it became this shiny and marbled shopping and dining monstrosity for the privileged in the area. Okay, it’s pretty but I liked it better as an open air market and now it’s all shiny glass windows and has this aura of privilege and consumerism that stinks up the place. It took something away from that area when construction started there. It doesn’t even look like at one point, it was indeed an open air market, the one where I found that journal. I bought it at the start of my sophomore year in high school. I connected with it immediately. It looked like a heavy chapter book and it was covered in this gorgeous red fabric that reminded me of kimonos. The lines were thin and it was just so fucking pretty. I even bought a new pen, I think, just to use in it.

I wrote the first line on the very first page, “Today it has been a month since I lost my virginity.” I stopped writing and then kept going. And going. I carried that thing with me everywhere. I wrote things that really happened at school or at home. I wrote things that didn’t happen or kind of happened and made up names of characters and told stories. It was my closest confidant.

I wrote about the neighborhood boy who I had “done it” with, who I loved with such ardor it seared the pages. I wrote about the things going on in my family, a mess since we were all reeling in the grief of recent losses, about death, about my brothers getting on my nerves, Dad leaving, the anger and pain that hung from us like anchors, rooted in the same place. I wrote about Lucy, my mother’s best friend, who died in the winter I was 15, and I wrote about how when the EMTs took her out of her apartment on a stretcher, her eyes looked at me but didn’t see me. I wrote about how I ran to a friend’s house and cried raindrop tears while she stood holding her apartment door, unsure of how to comfort me. I wrote about leaving in shame and running back to my apartment building around the corner and running up the stairs to find my brother Justin, who rarely cries, his head leaning against his arm, his eyes swollen red and watery, telling me she was dead. I wrote about the yell that brought my oldest brother and his best friend up the stairs and all the neighbors heads poked out of their doors. I wrote about punching him in the chest until he gripped my wrists and yelled at me to stop. I wrote about knowing what this would do to us. To me, to Mami, to my brothers and father and to Cynthia, my best childhood friend and Lucy’s daughter. I wrote about meeting a boy, an older boy, who held me sometimes when I cried and who used closed fists on my arms and legs and didn’t care if it hurt. I wrote about my sadness because there was so much sadness around me I felt I didn’t need to give people more. I kept those secrets and stories in there.

My mother didn’t read that though. She read the first sentence. And that was that.

*

I can’t really tell you why I eventually threw that journal out or the others from back then. I know I felt ashamed. I know I felt disgusted with myself. I felt like an idiot. I felt like a liar. I felt I was too emotional in the pages. I threw it out in my early twenties, at a stage in my life, where money was flowing and a good time involved sky high heels and tits out and lots of drunk dancing and flirting. I was having a blast and I didn’t like the person on those pages. I thought she was weak. I thought I was better than her.

I was always her though. Sometimes, I still am.

*

It was the first hot night of the summer, late June, I think. I had just turned sixteen years old. I was outside with some neighbor girls from the building and we were devouring a huge bag of David sunflower seeds, spitting the shells into one huge gross pile on the sidewalk as we sat on the trunks of cars in front of the building. No one does that now. Sit on cars. We were laughing over something when I heard my mother’s whistle. It is a whistle I will never forget and a whistle that to to this day makes me turn my head when I hear it. It’s a whistle that uses the gap in her teeth, the gap I inherited, sucking in air until the sound pierces the air. I cringed. I was the youngest of the crew of girls and was always the first to have to go upstairs.

“Yeah, mami?” I looked up to our fourth floor window. It was early, the sun just set, the purple of the sky still tinged with coral. Why did she want me to go upstairs?

“Imani, come upstairs I have to talk to you.”

I stomped towards the building with my best this-is-so-fucked-up-you-never-let-me-do-anything face, eyes rolled already. When I got to our floor, she was standing by the door. That was weird. Uh-oh. What the hell did I do?

“Imani, close the door.”

I locked the door and then walked to my bedroom where my mother was waiting for me. When I see her, she is standing with all of my secrets in her hand. The red-fabric wrapped secrets I had left right on my bed, right there for her to open. She held the book up so that the light caught the red of the cover and left my face.

“So, you lost your virginity?”

“Uhhhh…ummmm….uhhhh..” I expected a smack in the face. I expected yelling. She dropped the book on the bed.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Imani. How can you not tell me this? I’m your mother,” she said and I could see the hurt shimmering under the rage in her eyes.

“Why did you read my journal? Why?” I was crying. I was crying because I knew there was more in that journal than that first line. I knew what that journal was. Sure, I felt guilty about not sharing that I had lost my virginity with her, but I felt more guilty about what I knew was in there, what I was scared she had read. The stories of us. The stories I made up and the ones that were real. About my kind-of-sort-of boyfriend who I spent some evenings with throughout the school week instead of studying like I told her, who left bruises on my arms so my brothers wouldn’t see.  The ones about Lucy. Her best friend. About that day and about Dad and about roses that never grew in the neighbor’s yard and how I wondered if that was a sign that I should have paid attention to. I knew what that would do to her.

“I thought it was stories. I thought you were writing your stories,” she said, her own tears rimming her eyes.

In hindsight, I can say that I’m sure that is exactly what she thought. I wrote chapter books in composition notebooks all throughout middle school, inspired by my avid reading of R.L. Stine. I still have some of those composition notebooks. I giggle at that girl. She was cute. Knowing this, I know that when she opened it, she did so with the intentions of sneaking a read of her daughter’s storytelling and found something real and uncomfortable to read. And in that reading, she gave me my shame. She still tells me all the time, “We both learned lessons that night, Imani.”

We argued for the rest of the night, I think. I don’t remember. I remember putting it in a drawer and not writing in a journal for months before buying a new one and writing in fourteen pages and then buying another and writing in it for fifty. I changed journals and hid them because I was hiding.

I was making sure no one would see it all in one place again.

*

I don’t think I am hiding anymore when I change journals so abruptly. I don’t feel shame about what I write in my journals any more though I am fiercely protective of them and will leave a relationship or end a friendship if that line is ever crossed. My journals remain my vault of deepest secrets and thoughts. But, I  do lament chucking that red-fabric little nugget of teenage secrets because I could learn so much from her. I could forgive her by reading her words. I think about my mother and finding out that one secret and how I told myself for years, “At least she didn’t read the rest of it.”

Honestly, I don’t know if she did.

Now she doesn’t have to.

*

I stared at the page when I opened my chosen journal today and wrote in blue ink, “I’m hoping that I can use this journal for cultivating better energy, better intentions. I’m hoping there is some healing in here.”

When it comes to my journals, changing often means growing.

 

#52Essays2017- Week 1-“Is this why you’re still single?”

“All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.”
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

*

He said all the right shit. And he talked a whole lot of it, too. I can’t front, my interest was peaked by what he said. The whole idea of a man catering to me and what I need, the idea of a man telling me that his ultimate goal in a relationship was to make his lady happy and attend to her needs as best as he could appealed to me.

I mean, fuck, who wouldn’t that appeal to?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a naive idiot. We all know there’s a whole lot of give and take in any relationship, but on some real shit, in most of my relationships it has usually been pretty one-sided in the effort department. I always end up taking care of someone or trying to light a fire under their ass or comforting them. I’m not saying they didn’t care. I’m saying they didn’t try.

This guy wasn’t the answer to my prayers, but after a string of yawns and eye rolls, he was talking quite the good game.

*

It is New Years Day. He says he wants to see me, that he wanted to spend a few hours with me before he went to work at the bar where he was a bouncer. Tells me he is skipping the gym and this should prove to me how much he likes me. According to him, it’s a huge sacrifice for him and something that’s a big deal apparently. I don’t know. Never the gym rat, I recently have been the type to work out by sitting up when I read or lifting my coffee to my mouth. Anyway, he says he wants to see me and I am with it. We have recently just connected and he has peaked my interest and I am excited for the getting to know each other chapter.

I dress carefully, putting on some of the new duds I had splurged on as my Christmas present to myself, use my good smelling lotion and perfume, apply my makeup with care. I feel good. Real good. And damn it, I look good as shit, too.

He calls me and when I mention facetiously that I got cute for him, he says, “Oh, I am in sweats. Who told you this was a date?”

Ummmmmmmmm….say what?

“Well, I assumed we would be going to a place where we could sit and eat and talk. I didn’t think that we’d be getting something to grab and go.”

“I’m a grab and go kind of guy, ma. Besides, I don’t eat anything heavy after 2:00 or 2:30pm.” I look at the cable box, 4:30pm. Okay, I guess a nice dinner spot is out.

There is a small pause before he speaks again. “You know what I really been feigning for? Cuchifrito. Let’s go to Harlem and get cuchifrito.”

Wait. “You don’t eat heavy after 2:00pm but you want to go get cuchifrito?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t eat full meals. Are you listening to me?”

I feel my eye twitch a little. Was he serious?

The fucked up part is….I let that shit rock.

*

The most frustrating thing about being gaslighted is that what you know to be true is argued as false. Gaslighting is a thing, y’all. A big thing actually.

Didn’t you ever ask yourself if you were bugging when they spoke to you? Didn’t you ever brush it off at first as just a weird and awkward moment? Didn’t you ever begin to feel adamant that you heard what you heard yet they still made it seem as if it were just confused and jumbled in your brain? Didn’t that shit drive you crazy? Didn’t you sometimes have to stop and breathe and go over it all in your brain to reassure yourself?

Didn’t that shit fuck you up? The doubt? The doubt in yourself? As if you couldn’t believe yourself? What the hell is that shit about, huh?

And didn’t they just rub that shit in?

The term “gaslighting,” comes from a 1944 Ingrid Bergman film that is about a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane. Think about that for a moment. He makes her think she is going crazy.

The word “manipulate,” means “to handle or control with skill, to control or influence unfairly.”

To handle or control.

Whenever it occurs to me that I am being gaslighted, I remind myself that it is merely a feeble attempt to control me.

But it has to occur to me first.

*

When he picks me up, he doesn’t get out of the car to greet me the way he did the other night. Instead, he waits until I’m in the car to ask me again what I want to eat.

“I thought you wanted cuchifrito.”

“No, baby. It’s whatever you want.” He pauses. “You really don’t listen, do you?”

“Well, it’s New Years Day. I don’t know what’s open.”

“I’m not trying to do anything crazy. I mean, I’m in sweats and shit.”

I bring up a favorite pizza place in the neighborhood that I mentioned in a previous conversation. He shrugs. I try again. “Let’s drive and see what’s open.”

“Why didn’t you decide this before?”

I feel my eye twitch again. “Like I said, I don’t know what’s open. It’s New Years Day. ”

We drive by a Mexican spot I love. He grimaces. “Hell no, I ain’t eating Mexican right now. I told you I don’t eat heavy after a certain time.”

We drive by a diner. Another grimace from him. “A diner? Really?”

Deciding on pizza in my mind, I ask him to pull over so I can get the address for the pizza spot so it will be an easier drive for him, a Bronx novice. He sighs. “I really don’t understand why you didn’t do this when you were at home.”

I choose not to repeat myself but feel the anxiety creeping up my toes. Is this happening or am I bugging? This is weird but I must be bugging because he likes me, we connect, he can’t be serious. Maybe I just have to get used to his personality.

He turns to me as I am pulling up the address on my phone. “You seem agitated.”

“I’m not. Let’s just figure this out.”

“Why can’t you just be real and admit that you’re upset? If we’re going to date I can’t have you getting upset with me for every little thing. I am so tired of over-sensitive women. I am so done with women who do that shit. I wish I could just find someone who can keep it real.”

My eye was fluttering. Fucking fluttering, y’all.

*

We drive to the pizza place and pull up in front.

“This is it? This rinky-dink place is it? I mean, call me materialistic or whatever but I thought it would be a nice place. This is just a regular ass pizza spot.”

“You said you were grab and go. You said you didn’t want a full meal. I’m kind of unsure what you want.”

“See? Keep it real with me. I know you’re upset. I keep telling you to decide on what you want and you’re getting upset with me because you can’t make up your mind. Just keep it real and tell me if you’re pissed off.”

“I am getting there, yes…because every suggestion I’ve made you have balked at. I am trying to do what you’d like and I am at a real loss now.”

“I want to do what you want to do, baby. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

What the fuck is happening here?

 “Look, you mentioned cuchifrito. Let’s just go get cuchifrito in Harlem.”

“No, let’s do pizza. I’m not trying to drive down there.”

*

“Gaslighting means telling people that they’re not really thinking, feeling, or perceiving what they are. Its very often used toward women due to the assumption that women are too sensitive and that, especially when we’re calling out sexism, we’re overreacting.” – Suzannah Weiss, bustle.com, 1/9/2017

I am not crazy. I am not over-sensitive. I am not over-thinking. I am not over-reacting. I am not too much. I am not being emotional. I am not a psycho. I am not being a pain in the ass. I am not difficult. I do not like to argue. I am not too strong.

*

We eat in silence. I tell him to choose what we do after we eat since he didn’t have to be at the bar where he bounced until 11:00 pm. He tells me all he wants is to be with me. We get into his car and he comments that the pizza was just okay. That shit makes me cringe a little because for a New Yorker, sharing your favorite pizza place with someone is a big deal. This dude was for sure a New Jersey cat. I shrug. I liked it. I was content.

He asks me to direct him back to my house so that we can figure out what to do parked in front of there because he doesn’t want to be parked in front of this “hood ass pizza spot.” I shrug. Whatever.

When we get to my house, he puts his hand on my thigh and asks to use the bathroom. I oblige. I wasn’t scared of this man. I was annoyed by him. Not scared. He tells me that he thought we’d end up here, and smirks.

The smirk is more annoying than anything.

*

I don’t know who can be considered too strong. What is that? Why is it a bad thing for me to be strong? Why do men say they prefer women to have a voice, to have a mind, to have thought and opinion but when faced with it, say that we are “too strong” or “too aggressive?” What the fuck is that about?

Do you know how many times men have said that to me?

“You’re too strong.”

“You need to calm down.”

“You must like to argue.”

“You should relax.”

“Be easy, ma.”

All this when I speak. All of this when I respond. Wow.

*

When he comes out of my bathroom, I am sitting in the kitchen, hooking up my small bluetooth speaker to my phone. He sits at the table with me and stares at me.

“You seem upset.”

“No, I’m fine. Just want to hook the music up if we’re going to chill here.” I was already eyeing a bottle of red zinfandel in my wine rack.

“You’re full of shit. Full of shit.”

Did this man just curse at me in my own home?

“Excuse me? How are you telling me how I feel? You’re not in my brain. I am not upset at all.”

“I didn’t say you were upset. I said you ‘seem’ upset. You read books, that’s your thing, right? You should know what the word ‘seem’ means.”

Nah. Nah. This ain’t for real. He just HAS to be fucking with me. 

“I am not upset. But this conversation is beginning to get to me. I don’t know what to do or say to end this. You let me know.”

“I don’t fucking believe you. Wow. I’m so tired of women acting like this. So fucking sensitive and always getting mad about everything. I need to know if you’re a psycho because I can’t deal with another psycho.”

I stare at him in disbelief. I lean back in my chair and cross my arms. It’s the first time I have really taken full stock of him. He is a tall man, with big muscular arms and a small belly that was once a six-pack. His face is pock-marked and he is showing the first signs of a double-chin. He’s a washed up papi chulo and I know it, knew it all along. None of this had bothered me before. I was into him and what we had spoken about. I liked him and what he was showing me on the inside. But now, hearing the passive aggressive bullshit frothing from his lips made him the fucking Elephant Man. Except I’m pretty sure John Merrick was a lot fucking nicer than he was being, I’ll tell you that.

“See? Look at how you’re sitting in your chair. You must not be ready for a relationship because real relationships, young lady, mean you might not always be happy with me. It means being honest about what you’re feeling.”

“But I am being honest! I haven’t said anything about being upset. I have done nothing today but try to accommodate and compromise with you. Nothing has worked. But I am very uncomfortable with the way you are talking to me.”

I was at the point of aggravation and when I’m aggravated, I say what I need to say. Punto.

“You need to lower your voice a decimal before you talk to me. Why are you so aggressive? Is this why you’re still single?”

OH HELL NO.

I stand. “This isn’t going to work out. You’re going to have to go.”

And like a child who has been denied candy, he storms out of my apartment, huffy and puffy, not looking at me as he grabs his shit.

Good riddance, pendejo. 

I slam the door behind him and call my mother to tell her about it.

As I’m on the phone with Mami, he starts to call me…one….two…three.four..five times. Texts me eighteen times in a row. He’s apologetic now. Tells me I didn’t deserve that, that he felt horrible about it because he felt he failed me and was trying so hard since he picked me up to impress me.

I read my mother the texts and she is aghast at the blatant manipulation.

“What the hell is wrong with this guy?”

“Shit if I know.”

He texts me again that “if you truly want me to then @ least text me the words (leave me alone) and I’ll respect your space.”

My mother insists that ignoring him will make him leave me alone. I know better. I’ve been here before. He will not stop until I respond. He will probably even go so far as to insult me if I don’t respond. If I give him any kind of leeway, he will drip sugar all over his words until the sweetness is blinding me. I will not allow this to happen. If he wants me to tell him to leave me alone, bueno, papito, I’ll do just fucking that.

“I don’t think our personalities mesh well and tonight showed that to me. I am no longer interested in being made to feel that way. Please leave me alone.”

He hasn’t hit me up since. Mami says I was too nice to “el maldito pendejo.”

I might have to agree.

*

I saw a meme once using the words of a woman named Portia Nelson, that reads as follows:

“Chapter One of My Life. I walk down the street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in.
I am lost. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It still takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place! But it isn’t my fault. And it still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there. I still fall in. It’s a habit! My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter Four. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter Five. I walk down a different street.”

If this is not the very story of my love life. I would fake the funk like I was at chapter five, this confident and take-no-bullshit kind of woman, but the reality is this.

I had no idea that for the longest time, I have been stuck in Chapter 3. I knew the sheer fucked-up-edness (yep, I made a word) of it all, of the behavior of the men that came into my life and was still stuck in the damn hole. Still climbing out of it. It has always been a process of getting in the hole and then getting out. I have been reading this chapter for years.

I thought it was me. I told myself for a long time that maybe I really wasn’t prepared to be involved with someone. Maybe I am just not cut out for being in a relationship. Maybe I am too difficult to be with someone and deserve to be alone. I told myself that I had to pick and choose my battles and be conscious of their feelings, even if it meant silencing mine. When a then-boyfriend asked me once if I liked to argue when I brought up something that bothered me, I beat myself up and told myself I wasn’t being a good girlfriend to him, that I was mean and bitter. I tried to figure out why I was so angry. I blamed myself. I was going crazy.

I never knew this was all one big mind-fuck from the same man with different faces. I never knew that while I thought I wasn’t….I was dating the same man. I was dating the same scenario. I was fighting the same fight. I was clawing out of the hole every single time.

I don’t know if I am at chapter 4 or chapter 5. I can say that I am working on it. I can say that I am aware that if I am uncomfortable or feel disrespected in any way, that I am not crazy or over-emotional. That I have every right to speak on how I feel when I feel that way without being told I am being “aggressive” or “too strong.” That I do listen and that I must listen…to my gut. That I am a sublime being with the potential to love and to be loved and that I deserve that. That I am figuring out what I can do to be a better partner by learning how to be a better person.

And before you kill me with the cliche and trite ass “Stop looking and it will come to you” nonsense that so many people that are in relationships like to tell me, let me remind you that this kind of work is not being done with the sole anticipation of “finding someone.” I am deserving of the kind of love I know I am offering. Not only am I deserving of it. I am ready for it.

But I’m not searching. I am not pushing or praying for someone to change and I won’t settle for someone just because he’s nicer than the last guy. I am not waiting to be saved or protected or redeemed, because I save and protect and redeem myself every day.

This work on myself is done with the knowledge that I am unlearning all of the bullshit and insecurities that was garnered over years and years of being in that damn hole.

Fuck that hole, b.