Week 20: #52Essays2017 Day One – VONA 2017

Night of My Arrival

I forgot a pen. How can someone attending a writing workshop forget a pen? The irony of it all.

This is my third VONA and I am excited to be here for one reason. I missed this energy. I remember, for my first VONA in 2014, arriving in Berkeley, California and looking so pale and anxious, my sister friend begged me to put on lipstick. I was anxious. I was also completely hungover from my 30th birthday celebrations, but that is an entirely separate essay.

I suppose I was more prepared for this VONA. I was anxious all week, felt the anxiety settle into my stomach, gurgle there. I was nauseous for most of Saturday before I got here. I was dizzy and jittery. When I hugged a sister-friend, who, also attending, offered to drive me to Philly, she remarked that I was shaking. I didn’t even realize that my entire body was buzzing until she said that.

I ask myself what VONA brings to my life and all I can say is energy and ink. The VONA experience is one that is about mastering balance. You must balance the work, the ink, the language, the craft with the emotional, social, and spiritual current running through the entire set of people in VONA. I want to make the best of this experience and I don’t want to squander the it. I am a sponge and VONA and all of its wonderful spills and overflow of energy, is the life-giving water. I want to grow this year as a writer. I want to laser-focus on what I am working on.

*

Day One of Workshops

I hadn’t really slept well the night before, but I was up and at ’em at 5:45am to make sure I was showered and dressed for the scheduled sound circle with Gina Breedlove. I went down to the dining hall with my dormmates for the week. Sat down to scrambled eggs, two sausage links and two pancakes, a take out cup of coffee and I was out. I had never done a sound circle before and didn’t know what to expect but I was open to the emotion and the experience.

The room smelled like sage and roses when I walked in. The scent of sweetness and herbs is calming for me, reminds me of botanicas and altars.  Gina, an elegant woman shrouded in spirit addressed us all with the salve of her voice. She wore a floor length, long sleeve dress with greens and blues twisted throughout, shoulders framed with lilies of the valley, a tattoo of a butterfly on her neck. She has the kind of voice that soothes, that eases. Her movements were smart, intentional. Her gesticulations and breath were calculated, measured. Every thing she did was with an intention. Her voice was the sage in the room. I would like her to narrate my life.

The sound circle was meant for us to move energy through our bodies with sound, with the sound of our voices. Each sound was meant for a specific chakra, each Sanskrit word seemed to vibrate against us as we chanted them. The energy was lifted in the room. I felt it. I suppose I was vibrating hard because a number of people said they could feel strong waves of my energy. Sarah even came and placed a hand on my back and checked in with me, told me she could feel my energy from across the room. I thought to myself that this energy I am exuding is all because of VONA. I am allowing myself to be open to waves of energy that in any other way, I am guarded and wary of. New York City can do that to someone, force them to create walls around their spirit.

I felt the places where energy is blocked. I know it is blocked. No, not blocked. Locked. I know I have the key. I am working on loosening those joints so I can be fully open in my spirit. Solar Plexus chakra, the place that holds grief, the stomach, flipped and flipped when we chanted for it. I cried when I felt the chant reverberate there. I know the grief and trauma I feel is pushing against my solar plexus, my stomach, my bowels, my “gut.” I feel it there. I am swallowing to keep it all down. I have to allow myself to process and release. It’s all so complicated when you are unsure of how much you are holding there. Gina Breedlove referred to this release of energy and grief as having a “productive cough.” That resonated with me.

I know I am an energy carrier. I hold weight in this room, in this world. During the sound circle, we were asked what one of our favorite sounds are and my response was the sound of summer, cicadas in the trees, the buzz much like the hum of those chant words. I realized that my spirit is as wide as the ocean, as powerful as the ocean, and as vulnerable as the ocean. I must protect myself always. Ocean and roses.

*

After this opening of spirit, we went straight to our workshops. Our facilitator, Kiese Laymon, is the kind of spirit that reminds me of this beautiful Philly summer weather we are having. Warmth and light and cool, cool, cool breeze. He is a tentative and real soul. Someone that doesn’t parade as a facilitator but more like a prodding stick: Let’s think this, let’s ask questions, let’s make this messier. His brain and his language and writing are brilliance. His heart though. I know that is where he is the shiniest.

The conversations were just stunning. The sound circle work really opened us up and thought and heart poured out of us. I am choosing not to talk fully about what was discussed out of respect to some of the personal things the other writers spoke about, but I will highlight what crossed my mind throughout our workshop discussions.

I wrote in my journal, “When I forget things, I get scared about losing my mind.” I think about Titi Li. I think about Tita. I think and worry about my aunts, uncle, my mother. The loss of lucidity is my worst fear. I want to die with clear eyes and no cobwebs in my brain. I suppose I am pressed to publish and write these things because I am scared that if I don’t, I will forget it all. I will lose it in the mist of dementia one day.

And I want to die with clear eyes.

I thought about being 7 years old and telling all of my secrets to Velvetina, my velveteen rabbit doll. I told her all of my secrets and shared all of my child hopes with her. I whispered so much to my doll, that the seam in her pink satin lined ears had begin to tear. Pages and ink and words became the tear in that ear. I write for that ripped satin ear.

I described writing as being about fucking with your wounds constantly. Healing is not finite. One day you’re ripping off your bandages, exposing them to light and air. Other days, you pick at the scab, the stitches, the scar. The next day you coddle and recharge, you’re gentle, you try to heal yourself. There is no end point to this kind of work really. There is a constant rekindling, , a constant new lens on your wounds, your trauma, your pain. This kind of thinking made me think of Alex La Salle, advising me that too often people use the word “revolution,” when we should be saying “evolution.”

When we workshopped the first person’s piece, I think what came across is the line between technique and emotion, text and intention.The need to make sure that you are present when you write, that you put yourself in the story, and not just in a way that you are just a mere moving part. Place yourself in the story because you are a functioning and emotional part of the story.

We discussed the need to be compassionate with ourselves. Most importantly, we discussed the need to give ourselves permission to do this work, to trust ourselves with the art.

*

And that was just day ONE.

 

 

 

 

#52Essays2017 Week 19: I Don’t Want This Anymore

“The way that people feel changes everything. Feelings are forces. They cause us to time travel. And to leave ourselves, to leave our bodies. ‘”- Helen Oyeyemi
*

The other night, I travelled back in time and met my younger self.

I was on a date, a first date. I had met the man when I left a meeting I had in midtown Manhattan. He got my attention as I was walking with my headphones on by waving frantically. I was a little taken aback, thinking I had bird shit on me or something so I stopped. He smiled. He was shorter than me, but had a great smile. He put his hand out to shake mine and we laughed at his waving.

“I had to get your attention somehow! You have headphones on!”

The conversation was pleasant. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet for dinner later that week. When we spoke on the phone, he let me know he was a business owner with multiple businesses and that I “had nothing to worry about.” Our first conversation was really just him talking. I didn’t mind really though I did make a note that he dominated the conversation. Without any prompting from me, he told me about his ex-girlfriend and the reason they broke up. He broke up with her because she didn’t accept an extravagant gift he gave her. He was offended that she didn’t want to accept something that her man had given her and he left her because doing that showed him she didn’t value him enough.

I’ll be honest with you, that should’ve been a red flag, but I shrugged it off, thinking to myself that at the very least, it would be a decent dinner and decent conversation, even if we never hung out again afterward. I thought if there was no romantic chemistry, there would at least be some friendly banter and a fun night.

I was wrong.

*

I was a “sexy matador” the Halloween that the film “Black Swan” was smash hit. I plan all of my Halloween costumes meticulously, so all the details mattered. Fake rose in my hair, a double ring that had red roses on it. I was all in. It was cold, a snowstorm expected the next day. My friends and I had all purchased tickets to a boat ride party, something we had done in the past. I called a guy I had a physical relationship with to accompany me, hoping at the very least, that the night would end in some drunk sex. He arrived late and we were all the last to get on the boat before leaving the dock. I was a little irritated, but I shrugged it off, ready to enjoy the night. His costume was a cheap dollar-store orange prisoner jumpsuit costume that clearly showed last minute effort, and was highwater, showing off his dingy white socks and crispy clean sneakers. He looked like an asshole, but it was Halloween, so we got on the boat and proceeded to get shitfaced.

The night, overall, was decent. When we all left, my friends and I jammed into his car. I asked him to drop off a friend of mine a few minutes away from the boat and he went ballistic. He was so angry that my friend asked to be let out so that she could take a cab. I was furious but said nothing. I knew the fool would end up, despite his bitching, driving the rest of us uptown, so I sat back in my seat, expecting that the situation was squashed and we would ride in peace.

I was wrong.

“Why the fuck are you so stupid? I swear I told you I didn’t feel like driving anyone. Do you not listen? Are you deaf or something? Am I talking to myself, stupid? You are just so fucking stupid, I don’t even know why I fuck with you, I swear!”

My friend Ciara piped up in the backseat.

“Stop calling my friend stupid already. Just drive the car!”

I sat in that front seat and let him drive us back uptown, knowing that the night would end with him wanting to be physical. I knew sitting there, biting my sharp tongue, that I wouldn’t let that happen.

Whatever my intention though, I sat there and absorbed all the words, absorbed all the stupids, all the venom.

*

My trip back in time started with a royal blue vintage dress and heels. First dates are always fun for me. The meticulous care to detail for me. Which perfume? What outfit? What jewelry? Fresh curls. What makeup?  I take my time getting ready. It’s special to me. Who is to say that this first date won’t be my last first date? Call me vain, but in our “how we met” story, I want him (whoever he will be) to say that I looked and smelled beautiful and that the night was full of my brilliance which added to how amazing I looked.

Yep. I’m a little vain. I get it.

I smelled like a fucking rose for this guy. The Universe must have known that shit was about to go down because I grabbed the wrong set of keys and locked myself out of my apartment on the way out. I had to go get my landlord’s extra set and the whole process made me extremely late for the date.

When I called homeboy to apologize for my tardiness, he said, “Don’t worry. Get in  acab. It’s on me. I told you. Don’t worry.”

I did just that.

I arrived in the front of this fancy Cuban spot in the Theater District of Manhattan and stepped out of the cab. He came out of the lobby of the restaurant and walked towards me.

“Did you have to wear heels? You’re already tall.”

“Hi.” I laughed awkwardly.

He didn’t laugh with me. He rolled his eyes and turned to pay the cab.

“Now people are going to look at us weird because I look shorter than you. You don’t put much thought into shit, do you?”

I felt the familiar sting of venom but ignored it and followed him into the restaurant. The place was beautiful, spacious and warm, with booths of  quilted light blue fabric and greenery hanging from the walls. I loved it. He greeted the concierge with a hug, chatted with the staff as I stood off to the side. He didn’t introduce me but instead made a show of knowing everyone there. The people waiting to be seated stared and I smiled back sheepishly.

He requested a booth for us and we sat, the waiter serving us glasses of red wine. I giggled and told him that I felt like we had stepped into a scene from “Scarface.”

“Was she taller than him though? I don’t know. Next time, let me know what you’re wearing so I can tell you if it’s okay or not.”

I gritted my teeth as I sipped at my wine glass. I could feel time trying to pull me back. I could feel the past tingling at the hem of my dress. I sipped more wine.

“So, look at the menu. What do you want to eat?”

“I looked at the menu online. I like everything on it. Since you’ve been here before, choose for me what you like best.”

He rolled his eyes and looked to the ceiling. “Here we go…”

*

I was drunk after that boat ride. I was fine when the music was bumping, when I was surrounded by people and music and laughter. But in the front seat of that car, trying to ignore being berated by the dumb ass driving, the world began to spin a little bit. I was able to make it into my friend’s apartment. He followed inside. My homegirls decided their night was not over. The room was a blur in its spinning. I declined to go. My friend shrugged, said to leave the slam lock when I left. He and I were left alone. He reached for me, his eyes no longer venomous, but full of lust. I pushed him away.

“I don’t even like you as a person, you know that? I think you’re a terrible person.” I slurred.

“Oh word? You hate me?”

“I don’t hate anyone. I just don’t like you.”

“Well, fuck you then, ho. Figure out how the fuck you’re getting home then.” He pushed me hard as he walked past me to leave the apartment. I was too drunk to really care.

As soon as he left, I struggled to stay lucid as I sat on the couch of my friend’s apartment. I knew a snow storm was coming and I didn’t have any clothes or snow boots at her apartment so I forced myself to wake up and call someone. I had a homeboy that lived close enough, so I called him and asked him to come get me.

“Damn, Ang, my boy borrowed my car tonight. Are you okay? Are you safe?”

“I’m just drunk and that guy was an asshole.”

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No. Not at all. He got mad and left.”

“Well, get in a cab over here and I’ll take you home when my boy drops off the car. You can sober up a little on the ride. I’ll see you in a bit.”

*

The dinner was expensive platano maduro and churrasco. I’ve had better for cheaper in the hood. The restaurant was beautiful and it should’ve been a really fun night. Instead, it was tense and awkward and for most of the evening, the dude berated me for everything: the way I responded, the responses I had, the way I didn’t look him in his face for every word he had to say against me.

“You’re so disrespectful. No wonder you’re single, baby. You need to learn how to listen to your man.”

You’re not my man. 

I sipped at my wine and tried my best to lighten the mood. I have a large tattoo on my right hip to thigh area. The very edge of it was visible. Homeboy I suppose caught a glimpse and pulled my skirt up my thigh to see the tattoo better. I yanked my skirt down and scoffed.

“Are you crazy?”

“No. Are you? I’m here with you, treating you to dinner. You’re supposed to be sweet and nice to me. I just wanted to see your stupid tattoo.”

“You should’ve asked instead of sticking your hand up my skirt.”

“I can’t believe you. I hope you’re not always this ungrateful.”

We ate mostly in silence. There was something pulling at me, a familiar sense of confusion, of trying to see through muddy waters. This man was fucking with me, right? No one could be this ridiculous. I thought back to those times in my life when I had felt bad about shit like this, bent over backwards to appease the dude I was with because if I didn’t, he’d up and leave or he’d start to call me all the names I already called myself. Either way, I would be alone. That past shimmered there in the dim restaurant like a mirage. The wine didn’t taste good anymore, the food was subpar. I saw myself as a younger woman, apologizing to the man I was with. I gritted my teeth this time, pushing time ahead with my silence, knowing that if I opened my mouth, I would spaz and all I wanted was to end the night peacefully.

The waiter was a handsome older Cuban man wearing a light blue guayabera and rust colored shoes. He had a nice smile halfway hidden by a thick black mustache. Every time he came back to the table, he would joke with the dude I was with a bit and then turn and ask me if I was okay. He didn’t ask me if I needed anything and maybe I read too much into the question, but he kept asking me if I was okay when he would come back. I thought to myself that he had probably seen this guy mistreat women before. I nodded and remained silent. I was swimming in the treacherous waters of the past and I was trying to keep my head above the water, trying to keep clear and cool.

When the bill came he smiled and asked me to guess how much he spent on me. I answered and he laughed telling me I wasn’t used to men spending their money on me. I was all fire on the inside at his arrogance. I swallowed it and asked if we could leave. When I stood up and grabbed my scarf to wrap around my shoulders, dude rolled his eyes again.

“You look like a friggin’ tree next to me. I can’t even reach your shoulders to help you with your scarf. No more heels for you ever.” He smirked. “Let’s get in a cab to my house. I’m in the city and I’ll have him drop me off first and then give you cash to go the rest of the way to your house. Okay?”

“Sure.”

I followed him out of the restaurant. Our waiter was outside smoking a cigarette.

“Be safe, young lady.”

*

“‘Forget’ sounds like such a passive act, but anyone who has experienced the powerful force of repression will know the effort it takes to unforget, to remember.” – from “The Black Notebooks” by Toi Derricotte

*

I took the cab that night thinking I wouldn’t be waiting there long, but when I got there he wasn’t even dressed yet. He asked me to relax a bit while he showered and we waited for his boy to bring back the car. I passed out in my costume on his bed.

I thought it was a dream when I felt him on top of me.

He had pulled up the dress of my costume and was kissing my neck and breasts, whispering how beautiful I was, how good I felt. I could feel him undressing me, but I couldn’t move. I was fuzzy as if I was eating cotton as if my brain was made of it. I felt him push himself inside of me and I could feel my mouth moving and saying no but I couldn’t hear my voice and I couldn’t lift my arms, which felt like lead, like someone was sitting on them.

I pushed him away in my mind. I yelled no in my mind.

When he finished, he kissed me on the lips and I turned away. He turned to the wastebasket and threw out a condom.

He took the time to put on a condom. He thought about this before he did it. 

He thanked me for spending  time with him, offered me water, coffee, helped me sit up, handed me my panties.

“I don’t feel well. I need your bathroom.”

I threw up in his bathroom. I stuffed my fist into my mouth and held back screams. I felt as if my body wasn’t my own any longer. I felt like he had taken it and stripped it of me. I was no longer me. I was no longer me. I felt lied to. I washed my face and rinsed my mouth. I wiped smudged mascara off of my cheeks. I swallowed it. I absorbed it. I soaked it in.

“Get me a cab.” I said it softly.

“You don’t wait for my boy anymore? I can take you, babe.”

“I’m not your babe. Get me home like you promised.”

He paid my cab, slipping me twenty dollars as he tried to embrace me. My arms were limp. I was nauseous still, the room still spinning. I was still drunk. I stumbled down the steps outside. I slurred when I gave the cab driver the address to my apartment.

And then I thought, How could you let yourself be here again?

I cried the entire way home. I slept for days after, called out of work. When I returned to work, there was an email from him asking why I was acting weird with him. Didn’t I realize that the moment he shared with me was so special? So important to him? I didn’t respond to him. I never spoke to him again.

But I wasn’t even awake. I should’ve just stayed on K’s couch. I should’ve slept there and dealt with the damn snow somehow. I did this. I did this. It would’ve never happened had I just stayed where I was. I did this. 

*

After eating expensive platano maduro and drinking copious amounts of red wine, I got into a metered cab with dude. I was kind of happy to be on my way home. I couldn’t wait to take off my bra, enjoy my red wine buzz alone with the doggy bag I had taken with me without his ass berating me. It was going to be a great end to my night.

Instead, he lunged at me, sticking his tongue in my mouth and his hand up my skirt. I could feel his fingers trying to shove my panties to the side and his tongue slimy and stale against my teeth. I shoved him off of me. Hard.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Are you serious? You pushed me off of you?”

“It’s our first date, man. What is going on? I am not okay with that.”

He didn’t respond but instead turned away from me and looked out of his window. We rode in silence mostly. He muttered the entire time.

“Ungrateful. You’ll never find a dude that will do what I did tonight. Stay with these broke dudes then. You don’t deserve this shit.”

When the car came to a stop near his building, he paid for his ride and jumped out, slamming the door. I shrugged and told the driver where I was going. I couldn’t find my wallet and I could feel myself getting anxious, so I asked the driver to pull over and put the light on so I could look for it. As I was looking, the dude came and opened the door.

“I’m sorry I acted that way. I promised to get you home. I just called a cab service. It should be here in a few minutes. Get out of this so you don’t have to pay a metered cab. I’m sorry. I really am.”

I hesitated.

I should’ve stayed in the car. Instead, I got out. He handed me some money and reassured me that a livery cab was on its way. As I waited, he asked me what my problem was.

“I was just being nice to you all night and you went crazy on me.”

“That wasn’t nice. Are you crazy? That was inappropriate. Period.”

I was holding the money in my hand when he reached over and yanked the money away.

“Give me my fucking forty dollars, stupid bitch.”

And that’s when I unleashed the Bronx on his ass.

*

“The stomach, is the core seat of the Solar Plexus. This chakra, governs all physical systems related to digestion – we’re talking the stomach itself, the intestines, the bowel, and all peripheral digestive areas. Energetically, the Solar Plexus governs core self-esteem, self-worth, self-value, and overall feels of empowerment.

In fact, many people see the stomach as the seat of your personal power.” –Sarah Petruno 

*

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really tell anyone about that Halloween night. I kept it to myself for a long time. In fact, I told one person at the time. It was a male friend of mine, someone I no longer communicate with. His reaction was seared into my brain for years, a keloid in my psyche.

“You allowed this man to disrespect you. How is it his fault if you allowed him to do it? You put too much trust into these dudes and then want to blame them for what happened. If you hadn’t trusted these men, you’d still be unharmed, you wouldn’t be damaged the way that you are.”

How could I disagree with him? I called that supposed homeboy that night. I asked for a ride home. I passed out on his bed. I was too drunk to function. I was too drunk to communicate until it was too late. I was damaged and it was my own fault.

So, I pushed it down. I pushed it all the way down and ignored it. I let it sit in my stomach, let it fester there. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed of my choices that night. I was able to get away from one abuse only to allow another that night. Not only had this happened with someone I thought I could trust, it was not the first time. I had been sexually assaulted when I was a teenager. I had promised myself then that no man would ever violate me in that way again. I felt nauseous, as if my life had become a chaotic tornado and I was spinning. Spinning.

I thought I was stronger and smarter than that.

One day, I told the story to some of my sister-friends, one of them being the friend that I was with that night, the friend whose house I had left. Her eyes went wide when I told her. I could see tears brimming in them and she reached out a hand to me. I don’t know why, but I pulled away and shrugged.

“It was nothing. He was just a jerk that got what he wanted. I don’t talk to him anymore. We’re not friends. I was drunk. I should’ve just stayed here that night.”

“Ang, so what if you were drunk? So fucking what? He was on top of you when you woke up! Mama, that’s rape. He raped you. I’m so sorry he did that.”

I excused myself and went into the bathroom, feeling as if the room was moving around me, as if I was being swallowed up by her words, her watery eyes, the hand that reached out to me. I didn’t want it. I sank to the floor in front of the toilet bowl and vomited. I threw up and cried and threw up and cried. When my friend walked into the bathroom, she didn’t say anything. She stood there and let me cry. Our other friends had no idea I was sick.

“You can’t hold on to shit like that, Ang. You’re getting yourself sick like this.”

I nodded, head dipping towards the cool of the porcelain. I felt sick. I felt as if my insides were rotten. As if I were rotten.

How much shame can you carry before it weighs you down and pours out of you?

*

When he grabbed the money out of my hand, I flashed back to the car ride home that Halloween night, flashed back to all of the times in my life when a man put his mouth to talk down to me, all the times I’ve been treated like dirt. I had tried to keep it cool all night but the moment he snatched that money out of my hand, I felt fury rippling through me.

And I fucking spazzed in the middle of the street.

I called him all kinds of names, told him to shove his money in his ass and twirl, told him he was a fucking psycho and to stay the hell away from me. I headed towards the corner where I saw a cab waiting at the stop light. I ran towards it and heard him yelling “Babe! Babe, wait!”

I turned, my hair slapping me in the face with the force of my turn.

“I’M NOT YOUR FUCKING BABE, YOU FUCKING PSYCHO!”

I walked to the cab and jumped in, slamming the door shut and locking it, as I watched homeboy walk towards the car. He reached for the door handle, pulled. His face softened as he looked at me through the window.

“Why are you acting like this?” I heard him say.

“Fuck you! Leave me the fuck alone.”

There was a guy sitting inside the cab I had jumped into, paying his ride. I didn’t even notice until he cleared his throat.

“I am still paying for my ride.”

I turned to him with laser eyes. “I don’t give a fuck what you’re doing. Pay and get out but I’m not opening this door.”

I watched as my date handed the money he ripped out of my hand to the driver. I hated that he was watching me with sad eyes, as if I was indeed the one who was bugging out, as I was the one who had violated him, his space, his time, his body. I was furious and scared and tired. I just wanted to go home.

I could feel my body begin to tremble, the familiar heat of anxiety creeping up from my toes. When the car pulled off, I burst into tears. I was in full panic. I sobbed out of fury, out of fear, out of relief. I was on my way home. I was safe.

I thought of that young woman I used to be, the one who people said allowed men to mistreat and violate her. I mourned her pain. I cried because for so long I kept her pain inside of me. I probably still do.I don’t know. I know that the curls in my stomach, the nausea that swept over me, the panic attack he triggered…it all took over me. I was a mess.

The cab driver asked me if he was my boyfriend. I shook my head vehemently. He smirked.

“So then why did you even go out with him?”

“It was a first date!”

“You should’ve gotten to know him better then, young lady.”

“It was a first date!”

The cloak of my shame wrapped itself around me. I told myself I should’ve stayed in the metered cab, told myself I should’ve walked away when he started his bullshit in the restaurant. I told myself that I was the one who let it get this far. I went on to Instagram and did a live feed, knowing that one of my tribe would see me, a puddle of tears and anxiety. I was right.

“You did nothing wrong.”

“This isn’t your fault.”

“You’re safe now.”

Simple words. Powerful words. Words I am grateful for.

I got home, went into the bathroom and threw up. I purged out all of the expensive platano maduro, purged out all of the venomous shame. I let myself cry.

And then I forgave myself for traveling back in time.

*

I didn’t tell the story of that night because I was trying to show you all how much I have grown past moments like that Halloween night. I told the story of that horrific first date to remind you all that sometimes in the journey, you time travel back in time. The Universe puts a repeat episode of your past right in your face. It tests you, asks you where you want to go with it, pushes you to make a decision.

Are you going to move forward or are you going to fold and repeat history?

I can’t tell you how many times I have repeated history or how many times I will.

I can tell you that on that night, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to blame myself any longer. I can tell you that on that night, I felt myself step out of my body as if I was watching myself react to this arrogant douchebag.

I was the Universe that night, asking myself what I was going to do.

And all the memories of trauma forced themselves to be seen, like a movie screen before me, bright and clear. The past and all of its bullshit, all of the tears and fear, all of the anxiety, the shame, the fear…it all was sucked into that moment there.

I don’t want this anymore.

That is exactly what I thought to myself before I spazzed on homeboy.

I don’t want this anymore. I won’t forget. But I don’t want this anymore.

Here’s to the past and for all I went through. Here’s to the future and all that may come. But most of all, here’s to being present and being aware and refusing to step back in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#52Essays2017 Week 18: Cascadas y Mariposas (or Being Alone is a Superpower)

“And sometimes the best cure to loneliness is, in fact, to be alone.” – Samuel Leighton-Dore, from “The Difference Between Loneliness and Being Alone”

*

The trip was supposed to be a cutesy coupley kind of thing with the dude I was briefly dating this winter. I won’t even get into details about why it ended only to say that we were not compatible. He had purchased the Niagara Falls weekend couples package off of GroupOn and at first, we were both super excited. As time passed, I could tell that his enthusiasm had disappeared. When I confronted him about it, he denied his behavior, telling me everything was okay. I pushed a little because my intuition was telling me that he just wasn’t 100 percent into dating me any longer.

And I was right.

He finally ‘fessed up to the fact that he didn’t feel we were compatible, but not before he tried to paint the picture that it was because of something I had “done” to make him feel that way.

“Look, J… if you need to blame me for things ending, then go for it. I am okay with that. Just know that I am aware that it’s only because you’re not totally into the situation.”

Cue La Lupe’s “La Gran Tirana” here.

Now….what to do with that GroupOn? Homeboy tells me it’s mine, to go for it, makes a corny joke about wanting half back if I take a dude with me. The next day he hits me up and asks me about the refund policy because he “highly doubts” I will go alone.

I bought the bus ticket the day he texted me those words.

He must not know about me.

*

I planned every detail of this trip. I made a checklist of things that I needed to take with me so I wouldn’t forget, paid for excursions beforehand, wrote down every detail of my itinerary. I crossed every T and dotted every I.

This was the first time I would be taking a solo trip in my life so I wanted to be prepared. I had traveled alone before, sure, but there was always something waiting for me at the other side: a friend, a lover, family, a community. I had never taken a trip where it would be just me for the entire trip.

It occurred to me, at age 32, that the “couples” trip I was supposed to have would be the very first “couples trip” I would have ever taken. I can’t lie, the anxiety of the entire thing had me asking around.

“Do you have the time to accompany me? It should be fun.” No one had the time.

The Universe though, had other plans for me.

*

My bus to Canada left Port Authority at 5:15am. After taking a Lyft ride to Port Authority, I waited in the dingy waiting area for my bus to arrive. Something about Port Authority before NYC wakes up is creepy and sad all at the same time. Part of me kept my eyes open for my own safety as a woman travelling alone but prayed for every soul wandering around and wanting a warm place to sleep in the middle of the cold concrete of the city.

The bus ride was long. Nah, not just long but extremely long. Eleven hours to be exact with transfers in between. I slept in between transfers thanking the Universe I hadn’t forgotten my airport neck pillow. When we arrived in Rochester, border patrol came onto the bus and asked each of us for our passports. There was a beautiful couple sitting in the back, like one of those couples that should be in a perfume ad or something. They had been sitting together since NYC, cuddling and nuzzling each other in between their own naps.

Apparently,  the handsome male of that couple didn’t have proper paperwork. He was asked to get off the bus. They both tried to explain they were on a romantic weekend trip together but the border patrol officers insisted they exit the bus, one of them resting his hand on his holster in that way cops do when they want you to know that you should do as they say or else.

They both had accents, they were both brown. The young woman with him, eyes wide with fear, was told she could stay on the bus, but of course, she grabbed all of their items and waited outside for him. I applauded her in my mind for that. I watched as the border patrol walked the young man off the bus, towards their patrol car, frisked him, digging their hands into his pockets, patting him down.

I watched this happen, just like every other passenger watched. I asked myself if he could feel everyone staring. I was ashamed for watching and made myself look away.

A redhead in back of me with a short haircut sucked her teeth. She had already been irritating for a lot of the ride, talking so loudly on her cell phone that I could hear her over the music in my headphones. I wasn’t the first to be annoyed. An elderly woman asked her to lower her voice and she snapped that she was almost done and for her to “hold her horses.”

She was a pain in the ass and she was sitting directly behind me.

“Good riddance.” She spat between her sucking teeth.

“I think his passport was just expired or close to expiring. They are getting very strict about those things.” I said this out loud to the air, knowing she would hear.

The redhead leaned forward in her seat so I could see her face clearly as she spoke. She had thick glasses that made her beady eyes beadier and a row of sparkling braces over still-crooked teeth. I could see the spit forming in the corners of her mouth as she spoke.

“Nah. I’m glad he got kicked off. I don’t want no terrorist on my bus.”

I turned away from her. I asked myself later why I didn’t acknowledge her or why I didn’t tell her that her comment was problematic. I can admit to myself now that I did not want to engage a long drawn out conversation with a bigot. I was exhausted from the trip and the anxiety I was feeling from travelling alone and to engage her would zap me of the energy I had left. I can admit to myself now that I was also scared of the conversation escalating and my being kicked off the bus for being the browner of the two. I was apprehensive about being kicked off a bus I had already paid for, losing my money, and losing time on a very short trip. I was apprehensive about this happening without someone to get off the bus for me like the young woman had done for her beau.

I was apprehensive about this happening while I was alone.

But, on the other hand, I was ashamed for not saying something. I was ashamed for not standing up for that beautiful brown couple. I was angry at the redhead for her words, for sparking shame in me for my own inaction. I put my music up and held back hot stinging tears.

Sometimes that kind of shit can make you feel a hell of a lot more lonely.

*

When I finally arrived in Canada, it was not the brilliant springtime weather I assumed it would be. High temperatures did not take away from the chill in the air. I arrived in the hotel completely drained and wanting to hide. Upon my arrival, I found out that I was unable to use some of the vouchers for the GroupOn because they were only valid for couples. I cried in the lobby waiting for my room to become available while I contemplated how much additional money I would have to spend, unloading all of the energy I had absorbed on the trip over there, unloading the redhead, the shame, the anxiety of being alone.

I called my mother and she comforted me by saying I deserved the trip, that a man would take away from the experience, that I needed to calm down, get to the room, and relax. She told me that I did the right thing by protecting my own energy from the ginger on the bus. I thanked my lucky stars I had thought to pack a bottle of red zinfandel in my bag to keep me company this weekend.

I spent the first night using the hot tub that came in my couples suite, sipping wine, and munching on rice crackers and trail mix, watching whatever came on the television. I took selfies and slept and kept the blinds and drapes shut tight. I hibernated that night and gave myself quiet time to replenish my drained energy. I didn’t want to deal with anymore people or talk or look at anyone. I was protecting myself from bad vibes by cocooning in my hotel room.

*

I woke up early the next day swimming in anxiety. I stared at the empty side of the bed, a side I had left empty because I don’t know how to sleep in the middle of a big bed. I always make room for someone else, even if they aren’t there. I wished I had someone to curl into when waking, someone who would hold me and encourage excitement for the day.

But there was no one. I frowned.

I stayed in bed for a half hour, urging myself to get up, even if it was just to brush my teeth. This was a familiar conversation with myself. It’s why I put my alarm clock for half an hour before I am supposed to get up every day. I have to convince myself that I need to get up and handle the day, give myself a pep talk.

I stared at the ceiling. “So, you’re going to pre-pay for all of these excursions and just stay in bed? You really want to waste money and do what you could’ve done in the Bronx, minus the eleven hour bus ride? Get the fuck up!”

I sucked my teeth at myself. I was mad. I was grumpy. I was anxious.

“Let’s go. At least get dressed and go eat downstairs at the IHOP. At least do that. You’ll feel better after coffee.”

So, I did. I started small. I put music on and sang along with it as I moved. First, I brushed my teeth and pulled out my outfit for the day. I unfolded one of the hotel towels and hung it on the hook right outside of the shower. Then I pulled out the papers and junk I needed for the excursions I had paid for. Showered and washed my hair, lotioned with my favorite vanilla lotion, stared at myself in the huge hotel mirrors in my black bra and panties.

I stared at the bed behind me, imagining the man I loved lying there, smiling at me, staring at me with eyes that desired me, adored me. I blinked, imagined a man sitting at the edge of the bed, tapping his foot, looking at his watch, his face contorted with annoyance.

Except there was no man there. Not a sexy, kind-eyed one nor an asshole perched at the edge of the bed rushing me.

A part of me was sad by this and a part of me was relieved.

*

After breakfast, I walked towards the falls, using screenshots of Google Maps because once I left the safety net of  the hotel WiFi, I had no use for my phone other than its camera.  The day was neither cold or hot. It was a bright sunny day with warmth and breeze. After stopping at an information desk and getting all of my questions answered, I walked to my first excursion. It was the boat ride that went to the front of the falls called the Hornblower Cruise.

Excited, I stayed on the top deck, clinging to slippery silvered barricades, sliding across the slippery gray floors of the boat that reminded me of the cheap New York City party cruises I would go to in my 20s. People crowded together on that deck and as the boat moved, everyone readied themselves for I don’t know what…war? Magic?

The closer we got to the falls, the mistier it became. It became clear why those plastic raspberry-colored ponchos were necessary. The water looked like it had been painted and it was a teal blue that looked like I could’ve swam in it like a fish, like the kind of teal blue Crayola would never be able to recreate. The front of the boat where I was standing began to feel as if it were being pulled into the falls. As we hit the Horseshoe Falls, the water falls on the Canadian side of Niagara, the power of the water around us was astounding. While everyone around laughed and took selfies, I watched the water pouring over the sides and listened to the roar of it crashing down.

The power of the falls scared the shit out of me. So much in fact, that I turned away from them a few times. I felt as if at any moment we would all be swallowed into its power and be lost to the swirls of misty teal blue waves, into the crashing white thundering down around us. I had never felt more out of control, more powerless, or more miniscule outside of that night in December all those years ago. Except, this time, I was exhilarated, replenished almost.

I was reminded, standing on that slippery gray deck in my flimsy plastic poncho, that we are all guests on this Earth. I was reminded as I felt so small there surrounded by these skyscrapers of blue-green and frothy white water, that humans spend so much time trying to control things that were never ours to control, that we never had a right to control. I was reminded that power is beautiful.

I was reminded that something that can stand alone can be powerful and gorgeous and provide the world with energy.

I was content in that moment. I knew that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I were focused on a man or a friend with me.

I looked around me, saw couples, old and young, gripping each other, kissing in the mist and I felt a pang. That would’ve been a classic, right out of the movies moment for sure.

I looked up at the falls again as the boat began to go back to the dock.

And she roared that I was not alone.

*

Every man that wasn’t related to me that I told about this weekend solo trip to the falls thought I was just being pathetic and lonely. Can I say their words didn’t sting? Nope. Can’t say that at all. It sat with me so long I wrote them down, chastising myself for being what one had referred to as “mad desperate for attention.”

One even told me I was stupid to try to “prove a point to a dude who doesn’t give a fuck.”

“Now, you’ll be at one of the most romantic places in the world alone. You’re going to look like a dumb ass, watch. How you gonna go without a man? Why didn’t you ask me?”

Because every man’s assumption, outside of my older brothers, thought that for a romantic weekend getaway, I should call them.

Because of course, I wanted them.

Por favor.

*

I visited the Butterfly Conservatory next. It was a bus ride away and the transportation in Niagara Parks was fairly easy to navigate. I arrived and walked in, sat for the informational video before the walk through the conservatory.

“Butterflies can’t hear but feel vibrations.”

Oh shit, they’re empaths like me.

“These sound wavelengths they feel, we are oblivious to, but it is how they move about the world and how they sense their enemies.”

Kinda like women’s intuition. 

“The colors on their wings are created by millions of scales that are layered and reflect brilliant and sometimes vivid colors.”

I’m made up of a million layers, too. 

“Please make sure not to touch their wings because as beautiful as they are, their wings are extremely delicate.”

Sounds about right. 

As I wandered around the conservatory, beautifully colored butterflies floating around me in iridescent blues, yellows, greens and reds, I couldn’t believe I was seeing these gorgeous insects face to face, some that I had really only seen in pictures before. A beautiful black and lime green winged butterfly landed on my pointer finger, greeting me almost.

I thought of that silly movie where Ashton Kutcher fucks up history by touching a butterfly in the past when he time travels and wondered what would change since that little black and green lady landed on me. I thought back to the Hornblower Cruise and the power of that kind of beauty compared to the delicacy of the butterflies. Could beauty and power be both hard and soft? Could there be a balance?

“Most species of adult butterflies are solitary creatures.”

So, there’s beauty in being delicate and alone. Okay, I can dig the shit outta that.

*

I can honestly say I enjoyed the rest of that day. I was overjoyed and super proud of myself that even with anxiety trying to nudge its way into the day, that I was able to get through it and motivate. I was proud that I was able to really enjoy the day and best of all, with no one else. That was such a huge accomplishment for me.

And then came the steak dinner at Keg’s Steakhouse.

I dressed up for myself meticulously, wearing special earrings and a beautiful dreamcatcher necklace I had purchased in a gift shop there. I used extra vanilla lotion and fluffed my curls. I walked to the restaurant from the hotel and regretted not packing boots as I shielded myself from the chilly wind rushing past me.

I was seated after a short wait and ordered a glass of a dark red zinfandel. I munched on the amazing complimentary bread. I ordered bacon-wrapped scallops, a filet mignon with asparagus. I relished that food, sipped at my wine. I even ordered a mini creme brulee for dessert. The meal was expensive because the couple voucher for the restaurant was invalid for a single person but I had decided upon arrival that I wouldn’t nix the steak dinner.

As I was paying my bill, a woman sitting at table next to mine with her homegirls approached my table.

“You really ate that meal alone? So did you get stood up? Me and my friends were all wondering.”

“No, I’m alone. I am visiting the falls alone.” I tried not to be offended that I was a topic of conversation at their table.

“Wow. You’re brave. I dunno if I could do that without someone here wit’ me, ya know? You don’t see all these couples, girl?”

“I see them. But I was hungry.” I shrugged, signing my bill, and placing the pen down.

“That’s it though? Just hungry? Or you’re trying to prove something to a man?”

I sat back in the chair, handed the billfold to the server as he walked by the  table and smiled.

“I guess I was at first. Not anymore. I guess I’m trying to prove something to myself now.”

I smiled again, stood, and wished her well.

I never asked her name. I didn’t need to. I knew why she had approached me and I thanked the Universe as I walked back to the hotel.

I proved to myself that I was capable. That I could enjoy myself. That I could love myself enough to do exactly as I planned without anyone there. That I could shield myself from negativity like that stupid ginger on the bus by being certain and sure of me. I proved to myself that I could give myself the care I needed to recharge and that I didn’t have to rely on external things to ground me. Love and the desire for it stopped being a salve, a fix-all, a hoped-for safety net. I proved to myself that the anxiety about being alone wasn’t enough to hold me back.

I proved to myself that what made me vulnerable, what made me delicate like those butterflies is what also made me powerful like the water. I was both.

I realized that I could be both cascada y mariposa.

#52Essays2017 Week 17: Loogies, Pogonophilia, and Creamy Crack Crowns

When I was a child, someone spit in my hair. And I don’t mean sprinkles. Nope, I mean a big, fat, gross loogie. I was standing with my mother at the corner of Jerome Avenue and Fordham Road, right under the 4 train, when my mother looked up and started cursing and yelling in Spanish. Someone had spit their glob of phlegm into the tracks and because the train is elevated on Fordham Road, the tracks were right above where people walked.

Where we were walking.

“¡Animales! ¡Sucios!” My mother was horrified. She pulled out a tissue and tried to wipe it from my curls.  I reached back to see what had fallen in my hair.

“No! Don’t touch it!”

When she washed my hair that night, I remember her gagging as she washed my hair twice. Her fingers rubbed shampoo into my scalp in soapy swirls, combed through my hair with her fingers with such vigor that my head pulled back with her movements. She washed and re-washed my hair as if the loogie would somehow leave an imprint, leave a residue I wouldn’t be able to get rid of.

“Your hair is your crown, so you always keep it clean, Imani, okay? Y cuidado con el mal de ojo que te mira a su corona, okay?”

When she finished washing my hair, she rubbed coconut oil into the strands and braided it. I remember hating when my mother combed my hair.

Now, I ask her to comb and braid my hair every chance I get.

*

The great majority of the men that I have loved have had facial hair. I blame my father.

My father’s beard was always a part of him. In fact, I don’t recall seeing his chin until I was a young adult. It was always long, thick, and as he got older, became a salt-and-pepper identifier. It was how I defined maleness as a child. He had a beard and that meant that he was un hombre, he was in charge, he was strong and would love and protect me.  My father was all of those things and I suppose in some weird psychological way, my subconscious still defines facial hair as being attached to maleness, to love, to safety.

My father doesn’t have a beard anymore. He lives in Florida now, where the humidity makes his face itch if he has too much facial hair. He doesn’t like the way his beard smells in that kind of humidity. He’s used all kinds of face washes and fragrant beard oils, but something about Florida humidity affects his beard. He shaved it off and hasn’t had a beard since he’s lived down there.

Florida made my father a different man in a lot of ways. He has always been a man in movement, doing something, creating something….a man as rhythmic as the congas he can’t live without playing. He tells me he can’t take the pace of New York anymore, can’t live through the cold winters and ice and snow that hurt his bones and make his joints ache. But warm, humid Florida has slowed him down a bit, though the congas are always and will always be there. His rhythm is now just a slow clave compared to the bomba of his youth.

When he shaved his beard, I knew things would be different.

*

I rarely straighten my hair. I can’t stand the smell of salon in my hair, the mixture of shampoo and burnt hair. I can’t stand the length of time, close to two or three hours, that I have to spend in the salon. Because I am not a regular at any salon, I feel uncomfortable around women who chat as if they’ve known each other for years. I become fidgety. I hate sitting under the hair dryer for hours. And then when I leave the salon, I hate having to worry about rain or humidity making the silkiness of my straightened hair turn into frizz and poof.

I prefer my hair curly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to do something different with my hair, but I look at my senior picture for high school and ask myself, why did I always think straightening my hair meant something special? To look at my high school yearbook, you’d think I always wore my hair straight when I didn’t. People remember my curls, the straightening was for the picture. Because it was a “special day.”

When I became an adult and began looking for work, people recommended I pin up my hair or straighten it because it was more “professional.” Curls were deemed too wild, too unreliable.

I suppose I prefer to be wild.

*

I have clear memories of my mother relaxing her hair. Mami would sit in a wooden kitchen chair, towel draped around her shoulders as her best friend from next door, Lucy, would coat sections of my mother’s hair with white cream that looked like paint. Lucy would make sure every strand was coated in the white paint which smelled yummy until it started taking a hold of my mother’s hair. Then it smelled funky, like if it was burning her.

They would chat while they waited for the burn smell. When Mami would start reaching for her hair, poking fingers into her cream-covered scalp, Lucy would help her wash it out as she bent over the bathtub, using a plastic cup that had a handle and a picture of the Simpsons on it. Then, Lucy would take big plastic rollers and Mami would sit and wince as Lucy tightened each roller so that no piece of hair was crinkled. She would sit under the dryer for hours until her hair was dry and then she would take out her rollers. She would blow dry the roots and then do a doobie, wrapping the hair around her head and covering it with a silk scarf she used specifically for her hair. Only then would she be able to do anything else, which was usually just go to bed.

The process would take hours of her night. It would be planned. This had to be scheduled into her week. My father always hated it, says he prefers her hair natural, kinky, big. I remember chapters of my life where Mami had her natural texture and it always looked just like she said, una corona. When I tell her that Dad prefers her natural hair, she smiles at first, the kind of smile that makes you think of a young girl being wooed, but then she scoffs that “Ay plis!” reaction she is a master of.

“These aren’t afro days….we’re not in the 70’s anymore, Imani. Your father has no idea what it was like with his straight hair. It’s not as simple for me.”

My mother has a short haircut now, cropped close to her head, and her hair is evenly silvered, the kind of gray I hope to inherit. She says it’s much easier to manage than before.

*

The first time I ever straightened my hair I was 12 years old. My mother took me to the salon when she had to do her hair. When they washed my hair, they pushed and pulled and yanked at my hair with a detangling comb. My neck hurt with each yank. The lady, chatting with her friends the entire time, cut my hair with sharp shiny scissors. My mother, who had been getting her own hair washed, walked up and spoke harshly in Spanish to the woman who had cut my hair. She hadn’t asked for my hair to be cut, let alone that much. The lady apologized, offered a portion of the bill to be taken off. Infuriated, my mother sat to get her hair put into rollers.

The woman put my hair into rollers, pinning them in with metal hair clips. I had never been to a salon before, so I did as I was told. This was supposed to be like this, the metal clips poking me in the head. I sat under the dryer and waited. At first, it wasn’t that bad. As the metal clips became hot, I could feel their imprint in my head. I sat there, thinking to myself that this is what women must do all the time and all I had to do was get used to it. I cringed and squirmed, put my hand under the hairnet to lift some of the clips. The woman saw what I was doing and scolded me, told me my hair wouldn’t dry right if I moved it again.

So, I sat there, legs bouncing up and down because I was so scared to move and ruin the rollers. I knew my mother was paying for my hair. I didn’t want to get anyone upset. So, I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, feeling the burning but thinking to myself that I just wasn’t used to this, this is what getting your hair done felt like. Eventually, about 2 hours later, I was crying. The pain was too much for me to take. Mami came from under her hair dryer on the other side of the salon when the woman told her I was crying. She knelt,  pulled the hood off of my head, and comforted me.

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” she asked.

“It hurts, Mami. My head hurts!”

She untied the hairnet, and began pulling out the rollers one by one. When she realized that the woman had used metal hair clips, she balked. The woman said she didn’t realize I was so soft-headed and my mother’s eyes bulged in fury.

“¿La quemas y dices que es ella?” she stared at the woman. “You must be crazy.”

The woman used her blow dryer on high to finish my hair. I cried every time the roller brush with metal bristles grazed the burned tender spots on my scalp. My mother sat there, watching, her hair not done, her face ruby red with rage.

When the woman asked to be paid, my mother told me to put on my jacket and wait outside. Before I walked out, I heard my mother say, “Tienes suerte de no hacerte daño ahora mismo, m’ija. You’re not getting my money for burning her. I won’t be coming back here.”

Mami tells me that they didn’t try to stop her. I had huge patches of scabs on my scalp from the burns for months.

I didn’t get my hair straightened again until I was a senior in high school.

*

It took me years to find hair products that helped my hair texture. I spent a great majority of my adolescence putting basura in my hair in hopes of taming my curls. I am considerably low maintenance when it comes to my hair as I hate the salon and I’ve only dyed my hair once in my entire life. Once I realized how much work it would take to maintain the color, I vowed I wouldn’t color my hair until I get much older and begin to really gray. I don’t have the thick, coarse texture of my mother so the products for her hair weighed my hair down and made it flat. I don’t have the thick, straight texture my father has, so the products made for that texture hair never helped with frizz or hold and left my hair feeling like straw.

I found products finally that worked with my texture curl. Shea Moisture. And for some time, it was my go-to. I would hunt for bargains in the “ethnic” hair aisles, haggle over prices in beauty supplies, cut coupons even. I remember not even being able to find it anywhere for some time when I first started using their products. As the brand became more and more popular, I was happy because I knew it would be easier to find.

Then, they dropped the ad.

In the ad they released, they were no black women that helped make the brand what it is represented at all. A Latina looking woman and two white women. Look, the reality is that people should use whatever works for their hair texture, whatever race they are. If Shea Moisture works for a red-head with curls, then so be it. The problem is not white girls using Shea Moisture or even white girls in the ad. The problem is that they stripped the ad of the very customer base that made them what they are, the very customer base that supported it when it wasn’t as popular and wasn’t as easy to find.

This isn’t about inclusiveness at all. This is about erasure.

I told myself I could still use the products and not feel bad, because their products work with my hair and blah, blah, blah. But my spirit wouldn’t let me relax. How can I fight against the erasure of people of color and use products that did that very thing? Perhaps, to some, the conversation about hair, stories about hair politics and so forth, seems frivolous. But the whole Shea Moisture situation is what made me think of these stories of my mother and father and myself. The way that experiences with hair have shaped parts of my memory, of my identity.

It’s just a small piece of the puzzle though.

#52Essays2017 Week 16: Letter to A

Dear A,

Let me first say that this letter isn’t about him. It’s not about what he did to us and this is in no way an opportunity to shit on either one of y’all.  In fact, it’s been years since he and I have had any contact and I’m truly happy with that. Because you roll in similar circles, I have seen some of the things you are involved with. I know that if it hadn’t been for the drama, I’m sure we would’ve been cool as fuck.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

For clarity though, we know he was an asshole. At least I know he was and I am assuming you know it now as well. He was conniving and manipulative and he pitted us against each other so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge and own up to that fact that he was hurting us so deeply. Just so you know, I was never with him when he was with you. At least, to my knowledge, I wasn’t. But knowing his ass, maybe I was.

Why don’t we just acknowledge that the entire situation was a clusterfuck? He played us like a fucking orchestra. And we sang for him. What a shame. Dos sirenas singing for a sailor struck with a fucked up case of wanderlust.

Sometimes, I imagine us bumping into each other on the train or in the street, after all of these years, after all of the drama has dissipated, both of us in different places in our lives. I guess some shit would probably go down since I am very certain there is still bad blood for you. But honestly, I wouldn’t know how to react. I can tell you that for a long time after he left my life for good, the thought of it would render me speechless because I would have no idea how to address you if I ever did actually bump into you.

Maybe I wouldn’t even bother, just let you ice grill me and believe what you needed for you. Or maybe I would smile. Maybe I would say your name out loud so you’d turn to me or maybe you’d be the first to speak. Maybe I wouldn’t say a word, just let the moment pass, watch you walk by me. Shit, maybe you wouldn’t even know it was me. Nah, let’s stop fronting, you’d know it was me the same way I would know it was you.

I don’t know the intricacies of what you shared with him and I won’t say I care to know. I don’t. I do know that he led us both to believe that he loved only us, and I am sure to a certain degree and at certain points, he did really care for us.

I won’t say love though. I know he didn’t really love me.

It took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that with him, the word “love” was a way to ensure we (among others) stuck around. I remember he said he had a problem with ending things with people, that he didn’t know how, that goodbyes were always so difficult for him. I told him to just do it and that way he could no longer be held emotionally responsible for the fuckery.

Obviously, he didn’t take my advice.

I hope you know that, too, A. I hope you know that you deserved more than he gave you. That you deserved more than the drama. That you deserved more than the lies and the tears and the manipulations. That you deserved real and honest communication. That you deserved sincere and genuine love.

We both did, mama.

But enough about that. Here is what I want to say to you: I have let him go already but now? Now, I must let you go.

In my time with him, I was constantly compared to you. I was not as special, as beautiful, as smart, as amazing as you. I told myself that every time he made me cry, every time he made me feel like I had done something that caused him to ignore me, treat me like dirt. I told myself that he would never love me because of you. You were the other side of the fence, the greener grass, the better woman. You were the better option.

He told me once he and I couldn’t compete with what he had shared with you. I’m sure that might make you smile, make you feel like you’ve won something. He watched me cry for hours after he said it. And then we fucked because the sad woman in me still loved him enough to think I could make him love me back with my body. That I could erase his doubts about me with my thighs, my breasts, my mouth, my pussy.

He said he loved me that day, too. Just not enough.

Here’s the thing though. You, who you were, stopped being you, a long time ago.  It’s not you, A. You, as the idea of the other woman, the better option, became the personification of all of my insecurities. You became the symbol of those scars. Even in future relationships, there was an A there, the phantom woman that could scoop my love out right from under me. There was an A in every relationship I had, a specter of a woman that had everything that I lacked and that they wanted. To me, there was always someone better. There was always the threat of being abandoned by love because of an A that flaunted her perfections in front of my cracked mirror flaws to remind me and remind him that I wasn’t enough and never could be.

I stopped believing in my own special uniqueness, my own beauty. I stopped believing that what I had to offer was enough. I believed that I was lacking something, believed that it was my fault and that I should have done this or I should have been this just to make him, or any man, stay with me. I told myself I wasn’t beautiful, that I wasn’t a good woman. I shamed myself. Often.

So, you see, when I say I have to let you go, A, I really have to let go of what you represent. I have to let go of the idea that I am not and can never be enough for someone. I have to let go of the feeling that you exist and honor myself by embracing the imperfect me, the regular ass me.

I have to let you go because you’re in the way. You’re in the way of who I need to be and what I need to do, ma.

I have to start believing that I am enough and have enough and that I am really and truly a sublime being with oceans of love to give someone. I have to believe that my oceans are enough. I know you’ll sometimes come back in glimmers of self-doubt. But I am saging you out, sis. I am taking some metaphorical palo santo and smoking you the fuck out of my psyche as best I can. I have to start loving myself better and know that I am worthy of love. And you can’t be around for that.

I’m working on it.

Best,

Angelique Imani Rodriguez

 

 

 

 

#52Essays2017 Week 15: My 10% Desperation

“We are like sculptors, constantly carving out of others the image we long for, need, love or desire, often against reality, against their benefit, and always, in the end, a disappointment, because it does not fit them.”

-Anais Nin
*

At the time, I thought he was the most intriguing person. Tattooed, a kind of poet, artsy-fartsy, with a great sense of depth. I fantasized about this dude. I thought about him. I wanted to get to know him better.

I said so to him one day after a poetry workshop we attended together. Walked up to him with all the courage I could muster, a warm smile on my face, nervousness in my shaky hands, eyes bright with all my “Please like me back” vibes. I stood there and let him know that I was interested in just getting to know him. I had made feeble attempts of saying so and failed attempts at hardcore flirting in the past, but in my mind, I figured that being face to face and “brave,” he’d see I was genuinely into him.

In my mind, I saw him smiling and nodding, I saw him saying he’d love to hang one day with me, that he’d love to get to know me, too.

That wasn’t what happened at all.

Instead, homeboy smirked and with the smirk lingering at the corners of his lips said, “You look like the type of woman that 90 percent of the time gets what she wants and 10 percent desperately tries to.”

I didn’t know what to say. I mean, how the fuck do you respond to that? It was like a door slamming shut in my smiling face. I was shocked. Worse, I was humiliated. He thought I was desperate to be with him. Desperate, of all things.

I stood there for a shadow of a second, the smile plastered on my face. If I allowed myself to stop smiling , I would burst into embarrassed tears right in front of this man who thought I was desperate for him. I refused to let that shit happen. I felt my face flush, heat circling my neck like a wool scarf. I nodded, I think. If I said something, I don’t remember what it was but I can say they weren’t “brave” words anymore. I finally turned away from him and walked down the stairs and out of the building.

I don’t remember what I did after that. I hung out with friends. I drank wine. A lot of wine.

When I saw him next, I avoided him completely. Fuck that.

That 10% was only 10% after all.

*

The definition, in the context that homeboy used, for “desperate,” is “having a great and urgent need or desire for something.” The  origins of the word “desperate” are rooted in the Latin word, “desperare,” or “desperatus,” meaning “derived of hope.” It is also rooted in the late Middle English word for “despair.”

I asked myself when I looked up the word if despair has marked my actions in love, if I had, indeed, lost hope.

I can sit and blame a myriad of things. Disney movies. Fairy tales. 90210. Telenovelas. Pine fucking Valley.

Love, had always been something that was supposed to happen, it was something that was meant to happen. Love, to me, meant someone else. Love meant giving my hope and desire to someone else. I fantasized and desired these men as could-happens, tortured myself with the should-happens. I desired them without knowing their rot or their ruin, without knowing or asking if the vibration of their energy, of their humanity, came even close to what I was giving them.

It never did. And it never occurred to me that I should keep that love and hope for myself.

It never occurred to me that my desire for someone was only my desire to be loved.

I don’t want to act as if I didn’t have love in my life. I did…I do. I am loved on multiple levels by multiple people. Family, friends, kinfolk, etc. There’s lots of love in my life.

But where. oh where, did that fucking “desperation” come from?

*

“I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

*

I was going to write about my failed relationships in detail here, but I am choosing to spare you all the gory details. Mostly because I realized it would only be me spewing whatever residual resentments I have lingering and that I would be filling the page with moments of heartbreak instead of clarity and transformation.

Besides, this essay is not about them.

In trying to write this essay, I combed through a lot of my old journals. The entries about these men that I wrote about are all laced with yearning, with hopes that somehow or someway, they could possibly see how much I loved them and then just……love me back. I spewed dribble about seeing a perfect existence with them and that they could be the man I just knew they were deep down on the inside if only they would really see the depth of my affection for them.

I always thought the strength of my love was enough to make them see the light, make them see me in the light.

The most humbling thing about reading those entries in my journals though is that they all, in some form, asked the same question:

Why don’t you love me?

Why can’t you love me?

Why am I unlovable to you?

*

“To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships, more than any other, will rescue and redeem us. True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.”

― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

*

I was a young woman when I met Anthony in my early 20s. I will be honest and tell you that I can’t really recall how we met and I can’t tell you why we split. I suppose it was the usual fade-out bullshit that people do when they don’t know how to end things.

For some reason, because a bruised heart-slash-ego always keloids, this is what I remember:

One day, on a phone call, I was crying and frustrated and we were arguing. I don’t remember what we were talking about. I do remember that towards the end, he said words that I have carried with me ever since.

“You’re not ready for a real relationship, Angie. You wouldn’t even know how to handle it.”

I don’t know why I believed him. I just know that I did. That I carried that with me. That sometimes, when another attempt at a relationship has failed, I hear him say those words in my mind. And I cringe.

*

I can tell you that I have been lied to, cheated on, stolen from, manipulated, yelled at, physically abused, ridiculed, disrespected, sexually assaulted, blamed, gaslighted. I can tell you all of those things and yes, they are all terrible moments in my life. But this isn’t about the men who I loved so hard who could (and would) never love me back and this isn’t about the things they have done to me.

This is more about who I loved more during that time.

And it was always them.

I never fit myself in the equation I made. I never saw myself in the fantasy I created. I saw them. I wanted them. I desired the fantasy.

But you can’t force a square peg in a round hole though, no matter how much it looks like it should fit. It won’t. Instead, it will become lodged in and stuck, immovable until you slam down and force it through, breaking edges and bruising yourself along the way.

But what good is that though? What good is the bruising when you’re the one with the fist?

So now, I ask myself:

Why don’t you love yourself?

I ask myself:

Who told you that you are unlovable?

I ask myself:

Why did you believe them?

*

“How wrong is it for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself?”
― Anaïs Nin

*

Self-love is not a one-time decision, y’all.  It’s not like I woke up in the morning and said, “You know what? I am going to love myself and that’s that. I love myself. Operation self-love done.”

Perhaps, others can do that. I am not one of those people.

Self-love is a fucking excavation to the center of the Earth. It is a discovery of yourself in the most cavernous parts of your psyche, your spirit, your heart, your intellect, your emotion, your memory. It is a dive into the deepest depths of the ocean and the pressure can become so paramount that you are forced to come up for air occasionally.

The process of self-love is a mirror that has been shattered. And you have to sit and glue all the pieces of this fractured mirror back, one by one, suffering cuts and lacerations, until you can finally see yourself, cracked and imperfect but whole and beautiful.

There is nothing easy about working on self-love when for your entire life you had no idea that all you have done was spawned from the lack of it, when you had no idea that what you once thought was done out of confidence, out of a liberated sense of self, was merely you working to hide scars and run from pain.

Working on self-love has been and is still the most excruciating and the most fruitful emotional experience for me. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you have had your back to the sun this entire time. It felt warm at one time. But you were hiding your face the whole time, dig?

I can say that I am slowly seeing myself in the very light I so wanted those fools to see me in.

Fuck that. Today…. I AM the light. Bask in me.

 

#52Essays2017 Week 14: A (Not So Very) Beautiful Way to Explain Death- Part 1

“There is a beginning

and an ending for everything

that is alive.

In between there is living.”

-from The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie

*

Before they renovated the apartment where I grew up, Mami tells me that there were swinging slatted doors to the kitchen. She tells me that for a long time before the renovations, you could see the spot where the hinges used to be. I don’t remember the doors, but I know something was once there because I do remember those hinge holes in the doorframe.

When I ask her what happened to them, she is quiet for a moment before she speaks.

“Your father ripped them out of the doorframe six months after your Uncle Tito died.  He had been so silent about it, taking care of everyone else, that one day, he just got red in the face and ripped them off the wall, crying. He was curled up in the corner when I went to him. Uncle Tito dying really changed your father, you know.”

My father is not an explosive man. His explosions are usually tactical, strategic, at the point of overflow. Yet, he is one of the most emotional men I have ever met and is the reason why I truly believe in my heart that real men are unafraid to cry. But his emotions are usually very even-keeled and easy-going. If my father is upset, he is either really touched, really sad, or really angry. And if he’s “really” any of those, it’s not a tear falling or a sharpness in his tone. It is oceans and thundering explosions kept at bay for far too long.

So, when I hear that my father’s grief gave him Hulk-like strength to rip those swinging doors straight out of the kitchen doorframe, I don’t doubt the overflow was too much to bear any longer.

When I ask why they never put the doors back on the kitchen doorframe, my mother pauses again.

“I don’t know why. I guess I didn’t think it was right to.”

*

When we were children, my parents bought a book for me and my brothers called Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. The book has beautiful depictions of nature in its living form and in its death. It is indeed a beautiful depiction of death. It gave us what we needed to know.

You live and then you die.

Everything lives and everything dies. The natural cycle of life.

It didn’t mention gunshots.

It didn’t mention rupturing arteries in people’s brains.

It didn’t mention unending grief.

When I speak to my oldest brother about grief and death, his words make me pause, make me write.

“You know what I was thinking, sis? Uncle Tito’s death is the reason why we were so aware of our own mortality as children.”

*

I am a very young girl. I don’t remember what I am doing but I hear a scream unlike anything I have ever heard. It stretches into the air, holds itself high, unbroken. One that seems to come from some deep crack in the earth.

I am a very young girl. But I know it is my mother screaming.

I walk to the kitchen, where my mother is. The refrigerator sits by the doorway on the left, the first thing you see. Next to the fridge, sits a wooden chair. You can almost hide behind the fridge in that chair if you pull your legs up. I’ve often done it in games with my brother. I see the curled wire of the house phone on the right wall in front of the fridge stretched to that chair, but I can’t see Mami.

I can hear her though.

She is sobbing, wailing almost, as if she is in pain, only I can’t see her. I stand there, afraid of stepping forward. The cries coming from Mami are ones I have never heard before. They fill the room, they drown out all other noise. They scare me.

I walk and peek around the fridge’s side. Mami is sitting in the kitchen chair, the phone pressed to her ear, her head leaning on the side of the fridge, her eyes shut, tears pushing through her lashes.

“Mami? Mami, what’s wrong??”

She looks up at me, lashes wet, cheeks flushed with her emotion. “My cousin Bibi died.” I think, for a moment, my mother awash in her grief, forgot I was a little girl, forgot a gentle preface. I didn’t know who cousin Bibi was, but years later, my mother would tell me I have her gait, her walk, her shape. It makes her smile with her eyes.

When we speak about this day, my mother tells me that I went back to my room and drew a picture to make her feel better. It was a drawing of her cousin Bibi in a coffin. I can imagine it was quite the shock.

I don’t remember drawing this. I remember nothing but thinking death was my mother’s wails.

*

Growing up, I never saw a picture of Uncle Tito because no one I knew had any.

My father tells me now that after he died, my aunt, in her extraordinary grief, made the entire family, sometimes with threats of violence, give her all of their pictures of Uncle Tito. He tells me her house became a shrine to her favorite brother. I asked Mami how Uncle Tito looked and she tells me he was baby-faced, with dark blonde hair, with the indigenous and European features of my father’s side of the family.

All of our lives, my brothers and I have heard the story of how he died. He was shot in the head. They called it a suicide but no one believed it.

“My generation is almost all gone, Angie,” my father says softly, his voice choking back a sob on the other end of the phone. “And my brother is still not at rest.”

I let him speak. I hold back my own tears because my parents’ emotions always make me cry, too. I hear him compose himself before he speaks again.

“I fucking hate when people tell me, ‘You can’t bring him back.’ No shit. I know he’s dead. But if I had the money, Angie, I swear I would open his case again. My brother has never rested and I never found out why he had to die.”

I was in my teens when, deep in our family photos, my father found a small picture of his brother, one so small that you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention. Uncle Tito is in a leather hat and jacket, staring into the camera with facial features that remind me of my paternal grandmother. My father has it on his altar. It is the only picture he has of his younger brother. The one he still mourns.

*

Death is not hooded in black, holding a scythe, glimmering in the moonlight. Death is unbearable sadness, it is cold skin in coffins, it is my parents’ tears. Death is the bringer of grief. The Grim Reaper does not visit the dying or soon to be dead. If the Grim Reaper really exists, it does not visit those that are to die, it visits those that will grieve, those that live still.

*

When I tell my mother I am writing an essay on how death and grief permeated my childhood, she scoffs at first, tells me that death and grief wasn’t a huge part of my childhood, as if she had kept me and my brothers in a glass box where we could not hear or feel the energy of grief around us. But when I tell her I remember the day she found out Bibi died, she sighs into the phone.

“Okay, so your childhood was terrible then.”

“No, Mami, I didn’t say that. It was beautiful, but there was pain, too. It was a human childhood. Tell me about Bibi.”

She sighs again, “Bibi’s room in Puerto Rico was that good-girl type of shit. Posters and creative things everywhere. Remember how you used to have all that stuff on your bedroom walls? Like that.”

“Her textbooks were all in English and she only knew Spanish. I would spend so much time helping her translate her homework. We would laugh so much. I don’t remember about what but I miss laughing like that. When her parents died, she didn’t take it well. First, my tío Jojo and then her mami. She was in pain. I think she died of a brain aneurysm, you know, when a vessel pops in your head.”

“Your grandmother called me after Bibi died. I was so heartbroken after she died, Imani. One of my biggest regrets in my life is  not being able to say goodbye to her, not going to her funeral. Anyway, my mother told me that she had a dream where she saw Jojo and his wife and a teenage version of Bibi. They were walking side by side, with Bibi in the middle, their arms linked, you know? Like walking together, holding each other. She said in her dream that Bibi turned back and her smile was radiant. Radiant. That’s the word she used.”

I ask my mother if she is still sad about Bibi. There is sadness dripping in her silence.

“It’s hard for me to dig deep like that, Imani.”

*

Uncle Tito died on January 2, 1982 and I was born on June 20, 1984. I was born into the open wound of my father’s grief. I have always known how he died since I was a child. A gunshot wound to the head. The story was always just the raw details.  Baby faced and 19 years old and he was shot. When I ask my father the details, the images he speaks of are vivid, strong, emotional. I cry with him when he tells me. I ask myself sometimes if Uncle Tito would have been around, if he would have come to visit me and my brothers, if he would have liked me, been proud of me.

My father was 27 years old when his younger brother died. That night, my father was playing the Sesame Street tune on his flute for my oldest brother, who was three years old going on four. Everything was rolling along normally, just like the night before and the one before that.

The phone call interrupted the flute playing. Someone on the other end, he can’t remember who, was screaming on the other end that his little brother had been shot.

Our upstairs neighbor drove my father down to 170th Street and Sheridan Avenue, across the street from the schoolyard of Taft High school in the South Bronx. The bodega where Uncle Tito had been shot was the exact bodega that my father had seen my mother enter with my grandmother on September 8, 1976 and was so enamored with her smile, that he waited for her sitting on a mailbox, legs swinging, Puerto Rican papi chulo swagger on lock to capture her heart for the next quarter century of their lives.

This was once a place of joyous memory for my father.

What he was driven to that January night in 1982 would erase the joy for him.

When he arrived, my paternal grandmother and aunts were in hysterics. My father, in a strong thunderous voice demanded to know where his brother was.

“Where’s his body? Where’s his body?” They could only point into the bodega, where there was an office in the back that Uncle Tito would sometimes go and hang out at.  My father walked to the bodega’s entrance and was told by the officer standing there that he wasn’t allowed in.

“That’s my brother, officer. Look, I’ve been to Vietnam. I know what it might look like. Let me see my brother.” My father told me he didn’t regret the lie. Besides, he already knew what to expect. My father knew what death looked like.

“It was the South Bronx in ’82, mama. We had all fucking seen it already.  Baby, when they tell you there’s a war on drugs, don’t believe them. It’s just a war on us. Just a war on us.”

What my father walked into changed his life. There was his baby brother, slouched on the ground, the back of his head “shattered,” his blood and bits of his brain coating the brick wall behind him. The bullet had gone behind my uncle’s right ear and through the back of his head. My father says he touched his brother’s leg and it felt cold like clay, like ice and he “melted” in front of his little brother’s body. He prayed an Our Father over his little brother’s corpse, prayed for his soul.

“Padre nuestro, que estás en los cielos, santificado sea tu nombre,
venga tu reyno,
hagase tu voluntad,
asì en la tierra como en el cielo.

Danos hoy nuestro pan cotidiano,
Y perdónanos nuestras deudas,
asì como nosotros perdonamos á nuestros deudores.
Y no nos metas en tentación,
mas líbranos de mal.

Amén.”

My father watched as the EMTs zipped his brother’s body into a body bag, watched as they wheeled the gurney to the ambulance, helped them lift it into the ambulance. He kicked the door of the truck and then composed himself, because he knew he would have to navigate the all- consuming grief of his mother and sisters.

His grief would wait until six months later to erupt in ripped doors and sobs that curled him into himself.

*

“My brother’s death was ruled a suicide, Angie. But I don’t believe that shit. I never have. There was a bullet, lodged right in the tool box there on a shelf on that brick wall. I took that bullet and gave it to someone and then no one ever talked about it again. No one ever talked about it. The case was never followed up. It was just another Puerto Rican kid, just another Latin kid involved in some shit and no one cared. I cared. My family cared. We cared. I know he didn’t do that shit to himself, Angie.

My brother was left handed and the bullet entered the right side of his head. Right behind his ear. How did that happen? How COULD that happen? The gun residue was still on his skin when I saw him Angie. I saw it. The bullet was from a Magnum, my brother has a .38.  No, no, Angie. I never thought my brother killed himself.

And the people that know what really happened, they will face their judgment by God when the day comes. Some of them are dead already, Angie, and I hope they asked for forgiveness. They will feel the kind of pain that made my sister surround herself with a shrine to Tito, the kind of pain that could rip apart my family for years. Those were crazy times for your daddy, Angie. For my whole family. I stayed away from that shit. I stayed away from it. But when it’s your family, your heart never leaves.

I knew that the bullet I found was gotten rid of because it told the truth about what happened. But I got scared for my life, scared for your mother and your brother. I knew when that bullet disappeared, that they wanted it to disappear and me bringing it up again would put us all in danger. We could’ve been killed, too.”

My father stops talking after this. I feel the heaviness of that decision in the way his voice sounds when he speaks next.

“I always thought this shit would be easier as I got older. But it’s not, Angie. You just get older and deal with it. You turn gray and you get smarter, but you deal with it. That’s what you do.”

*

There are details of this story that my father and mother have divulged to me that I have chosen not to write. Details that could rupture fractured familial ties further, details that would be too shocking and too sad for people to read. My father has urged me to write them and I will, when the backlash of it all will only be for me and not for him, nor for my mother.

I won’t add to my father’s pain, hardened like a bug in amber, that he still wears. I can’t.

His grief is still my grief.

*

This essay is not done. I’ve realized that as I struggled with writing it. I realized that grief has impacted my family in ways that are hard to limit to just one essay. I realized that grief is layered, becomes hardened. I realized that there has been no transformation because it has been something we just “deal” with and not anything we allow to flow. We must get through it. We must deal.

We have not faced it. And I’ve only just begun putting it all into the light.

To Be Continued….

#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.

#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 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.