Adaptation and the monstrosity of my shadow

(Essay 8 of the #52essays2017)

Riding in a gray Honda up a dark road, I felt someone looking at me.

It was the light of the moon.

Bright and full in all her splendor, in awe at feeling her warmth, I heard her speak.

“What are you going to do next?”

Lost, so lost, and for so long, I whisper, “I keep looking for the signs.”

I had been looking up and waiting. And waiting. And waiting. “I have no map. I need guidance”

She kept reaching for my face, asking me to look up into her eyes as she told me it was ok to come alive.

“You need to learn to live here, now. This life.”

I hear the words echo, come out of other women’s lips, wondering what that is supposed to look like as she traces lines along my body.

The moon reminds me of my mother.

All of them.

I reach through the window and touch her, feeling like a child, the fragility of the moment, the fear of letting go.

Her light warms my face and I know that she is reaching around me, holding me close, so I cry into the night sky and whisper goodnight.

Upon waking up, and waking up, and waking up again, I see she lights up the earth the way she lights up the map of my body.

When I was a kid, starting at the age of 9, I spent a couple of summers with my family at The Rodney Motel and Apartments on 94th street and Collins Avenue. My parents loved it because it was economical (we had a full kitchen so we could make breakfast and lunch) and it was on the beach. The motel had two pools; a large clean one and a smaller, usually dirty one. White round tables surrounded the area and at night, I’d stare at the darkness of the night sky. I could feel my heart beating in my ears; I was afraid of the dark, and yet, I would force myself to look up at it, into it. “It’s not going to swallow you,” I’d think, reminding myself of the impossibility of such a thing. But it felt like it was going to swallow me whole along with the ocean. It felt as if I could jump into its darkness, its void, the ocean and sky changing places. When the moon was out, fear and romance did a funny dance in my belly.

We stayed at The Rodney the summer I was 14. There, I thought I was so in love with a little Cuban boy name “Joseito”. I didn’t yet realize I was in love with a place, a mood, a tone. The motion of water, with the smell of salt and smooth sand beneath my feet was an enchantment that exuded a kind of sex and joy I wouldn’t know for years. But my body knew. There is something about learning to surrender to that darkness, and to sex, and to life, that could only come with age and experience. Still, it made me wonder what wonderful and terrible things hid in the dark.

***

I am uncomfortable with the in between spaces. I don’t mind the beginning and end of things, with birth and death. But that part in the middle where life happens? Where the sickness and worry and joy all takes place…that makes me uncomfortable if I’m not sure of the outcome. And that is literally life.

***

When I first moved to the suburbs almost four years ago, I wanted to light up my driveway like a NYC sidewalk. It’s what I was used to. The streets have been well lit wherever I lived. And I never lived in a house. I’m not used to living in darkness, aside from the one I carry inside.

I used to stand by the kitchen window terrified of what I couldn’t see. I used to look out that window, squinting, wondering how far into the darkness I could see and wonder, if something was there,would I be able to see it before it got me? At the time, my husband worked and went to school in the city so he wouldn’t arrive until well past 10pm. We live across the street from the Metro North station. I live in a quiet neighborhood, I can hear the train pull in. You’d think I would get used to the sound of a door opening, of metal hitting metal, of footsteps arriving around the same time on any given weekday. I’d still jump though, still feel my heart race and my stomach turn. This feeling never really went away. It just dissipated, slowly, through the years. Like a receding tide.

Back then, it was easy for me to live in a perpetual state of longing. Change does that to me. Or did that to me. I don’t know yet if it’s past tense or not. Not quite regret, but not quite at peace with the past, in those early days I wasn’t writing, yet. Just reliving nightmares in my head. Reliving mistakes made, wondering why I was still so lost and unhappy when I had gained so much.

***

This wasn’t supposed to be about trauma. This wasn’t supposed to be about my ex-husband. I hate that most things I write, circle back to him. But this is about letting go. Stripping away the things that have held me back, living in another time.

The last time I stayed at The Rodney Motel, I was 21. I was already married. We (my husband, my parents, brother, my sister-in-law, and sister) went on a big family vacation. I didn’t yet know that he would sabotage every special occasion, every event. That he would cast a shadow on all the memories that were supposed to be light. Finally, a trip to Miami when I’m legal and can enjoy time with my family! I thought. My college graduation. Vacations. My birthdays. The birth of our son. All tainted.

Most of the abuse was about proving my love to him.

***

We’ve had a black dog for over two years and a cat for almost as long as we’ve lived here. When we first adopted Luna, my sweet black cat, everyone including the vet recommended we keep her indoors. “You have all sorts of wild animals out there that can hurt her,” the vet said. No reason to risk it. She’s been an indoor cat that purrs on my head at night, cuddles with my son when he’s feeling sick, and snuggles up on my husband’s shoulder when she misses his attention. But still, I sometimes feel bad watching her stare out the window as she tries to catch bugs on the other side or leaves as they fall in autumn. I remind myself that it’s not selfish to want her to live as long as possible. She’s an animal though, and I hope I’m not hurting her in some way. I have become terrified of the idea of her escaping, of being out there at night and me not being able to find her. I’m very protective of Luna while I hope she enjoys life.

Our black lab is a big goofy dog that barks at you because he wants to lick you to death, wants you to rub his belly. I used to joke that he couldn’t defend me from an attacker because he would be too excited. After two and half years, I trust his instincts a little more. And mine.

I don’t take him on the long walks I should. Walking from the house to the driveway, you have to walk up a path through the yard, and I do this often when it’s too late and I’m tired. There’s a shed in the driveway. I put a solar light with a sensor on it. I have always made sure to keep my phone with me just in case the shed light didn’t work, I could use my flashlight. One night this summer, I forgot my phone and my glasses. The shed light didn’t work. As I walked around, waiting for him to do his business, it occurred to me that I wasn’t in a hurry. It occurred to me that I was in the dark. It occurred to me that I didn’t fear what would pop out from behind a tree, that the sky wasn’t going to swallow me. As I walked back to the house, I felt an odd sense of pride. And when my shadow scared me, and I pictured it a monster with claws ready to grab me, when I felt that something was behind me and might grab me, I took a deep breath and told it to leave me alone.

It was around this time that I started opening the window in my bedroom. It took almost 4 years for me to feel safe in my house, which isn’t bad.

It took me around 11 to feel safe from my ex-husband.

***

I hate that feeling. That feeling that someone is watching you, following you, is about to reach out and grab your arm. I don’t understand how the mind works. But I’ve adapted in order to manage the fear, and not run away.

***

Maybe I didn’t look out of the kitchen window so much in fear but in amazement. This is mine. I did this. And I was afraid someone would come take it all away.

***

For a while recently, I had been pushing my husband away. I was living another timeline. I was suddenly afraid of being taken advantage of in unreasonable ways. I wouldn’t laugh, I could barely smile. I had to unlearn and unload the abuses I learned a decade earlier.

I wanted him to prove his love for me.

I had to learn to walk into the dark without retraumatizing myself.

***

We’ve gone camping every year since July 2011; my son was 5. This is entirely my husband’s domain: the wilderness. This is where as a general rule, I follow directions on how to do things (we are not like this at home at all). It has become a time for me to have a mental vacation. No internet, no phone, complete disconnect. Our survival is almost entirely my husband’s responsibility. He worries about food, and cooking, and keeping us dry from the rain, and picking a campsite that’s close to the bathrooms. He’s in charge of making sure the garbage and food are all properly stored (you have to put it in your car when you go to sleep so you don’t attract bears). I love camping. I love being outside and I love being close to nature. But, every year, I would go to bed when he went to bed because I was afraid to stay outside alone. I was afraid of the tricks the light of the fire plays on your eyes. Of not recognizing the sounds of an animal were it to approach. If I had to walk over to the bathroom alone, I’d pray the whole way there, imagining all sorts of ridiculous horror movie scenarios.

Except this year.

This year, I realized I adapted to the dark.

This year, I learned I was both my own darkness and light.

This year, I didn’t want to go to bed. I stayed up with the fire, I stayed up with my pen. I loaded up the car when he forgot. We camped by a pond, and I looked out into the water, into the abyss of the sky and darkness, with the waning moon shining down upon me.

And I knew I was living. Here. Now. With and without the monstrosity of my shadows.

Advertisements

Libelulas

(Essay 7 of the #52essays2017)

The point was to get out of my own way and just write. My goal was to be imperfect but honest and to post in order to reach those goals. I know myself. I know how easily I get distracted. I’ve been hoarding essays though. I’ve been hoarding weekly topics and hoarding rough drafts on my hard drive, telling myself I’ll get to it later. It’s true, I’m busy. That’s not the lie. The truth is, I started getting scared and didn’t want to face that. So I kept making excuses, abandoning the work.

 

My maternal grandfather died almost twenty years ago when I was fifteen and finishing up my freshman year of high school. He died on Father’s Day actually. He and my grandmother were supposed to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary that year. He was one of 16 children and dropped out of medical school to marry my grandmother. Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear he was a romantic or a fool. See, his father was a doctor and his grandfather was a doctor. But, he got married and proceeded to have seven children. I never fully understood his official occupation, and apparently neither did my mother, but I always knew his unofficial one was that of writer and poet. He had a little book of poems published in Ecuador; though I don’t quite understand the process, it seemed to be printed by a cultural center. So it’s only natural that I think of my grandfather often when I write.

I recently made an unconscious comment to my mother, exasperated by the mess that surrounded me and told her, “I’m getting like Abuelo Lizardo; there are papers and books all over the place, falling off shelves and tables.” As I said it, I realized it had never really crossed my mind, how much like my grandfather I’ve become in my obsession to collect stories. It doesn’t help that I prefer to read on paper than on a screen so I end up printing a lot of articles and then feel guilty for using paper and if I throw it out, it’s a waste; or what if I want to refer back to it later? No no, I have to save it! Hence, papers and folders and books all over the place in my small home.

I often wonder where my grandfather’s typewriter ended up. Someone probably thought it was garbage and threw it out; a vintage black lustrous machine that I played with as a child. I used to quickly run passed the foul smelling maroon colored bathroom to take my important seat at the typewriter. Stored in a poorly lit room full of shelves overflowing with dusty books, ripped magazines, and disintegrating newspapers, all of it on high wooden shelves, he had a book on every subject, every topic, every era. This had been someone’s bedroom once. One of my uncle’s and when we would visit, my brother slept in this room. There was a small bed with a vivid red throw and my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine next to the desk. I used to wonder if through osmosis, the words would find their way into my brain. Everything was in Spanish and I struggled to read and write the simplest of sentences well until high school.

I appreciated the dingy window without a view. He probably placed his desk there for inspiration or maybe I found inspiration in that window. Click click click I’d go with no one’s permission, enjoying the sound and watching the metal arms move quickly. My mother once told me not to waste the ribbon writing nonsense but my grandfather made sure I knew how to use it. A stern but kind-hearted man, for the most part bald and still using hair grease, I don’t know why I was so afraid of him. I was such a shy kid. But I have this bizarre, out of place memory of him talking to me about my fingers. Long, thin and delicate (my sister used to tease me and say they looked like E.T.’s), he explained that I could miss one of those round keys spread so far apart and hurt myself. Leaving me to my writing, he would calmly leave and shut the dark wooden door. The damn ding on a typewriter was my favorite sound and all I wanted to do was push the lever to go to the next line and start it all over again. I didn’t write much though. Some letters maybe. But I was impatient and just wanted to get to the end. Patience is a virtue I have always lacked.

I live in a 140 year old farmhouse; anyone with arachnophobia couldn’t live here. I try to find the cobwebs I’ve missed, remembering somewhat that I know I saw one in some corner by some shelf. I look around and wonder, sometimes cry, because how can I write in this mess? Suddenly, each pet hair in each corner of the house needs to be cleaned up. It’s crossed my mind that I need to reorganize all of the books! By subject. And what about magazines? Where should I keep them? Sure I need to write an essay for class, along with a 5-7 page paper, I need to review over ten sources and need to edit an essay for something else and need to work on an application. But how can I get anything done, really, if my husband has gone fishing (leaving me alone so I can write and study in peace) if the baseboards need to be cleaned? The corners need to be uncluttered to allow for energy to flow. Here’s the thing though: I’m messy. I have always been messy and I will always be messy. As a matter of fact, I have clutter from cleaning out closets and decluttering other spaces and needing to donate old clothes, coats, and shoes. And then I wonder: am I procrastinating? Avoiding work? What am I hiding from?

I think of my grandfather’ poems. The ones for my aunt (his youngest of 7 children) and my sister (his first of 19 grandchildren), coincidentally my aunt and sister so much alike despite being born so many years apart. I think of how I know nothing else of my grandfather’s inspirations or process. I am somehow positive, however, that the organized chaos of the words and mess that surrounded him also inspired him. I asked three of my grandfather’s kids (one being my mom) about him dropping out of medical school. Each answer is a light shining through a different piece of stained glass, creating a picture I can’t quite put together yet. If you ask my mother, she’ll tell you he would have been a great doctor and should have found a way to finish his studies. Que bobo she says. But she does it wearily, with some doubt, knowing full well she never had any intentions of staying in the US when she came here but then met my father. And so, here she is and there they are over 40 years later. If you ask uncle O, he’ll also say my abuelo was a fool that fell in love. “Why not just wait?” he said. But if you ask my uncle G, the love and passion radiates out of his eyes and he speaks to me about how my grandfather was a lover of philosophy and the arts. How he was good at medicine but his heart wasn’t in it.

I try to do better amongst my mess. I always try to be a little neater though let’s be honest, when we procrastinate, there are always distractions and something like cooking will substitute cleaning. Sometimes, to refocus, I think of the word libélula. Libélula is dragonfly in Spanish. The first time I remember reading it was to my son from a children’s board book in Spanish. I thought it was such a fun word to say. And it’s no coincidence that when I needed a small desk lamp, I bought a stained glass lamp with a dragonfly on it, on sale at Overstock. This was after my pleasant and warm surprise at discovering a poem titled Libélulas in my grandfather’s poems. As I wrote this, I searched for the thin pale book, and found the poem. This is the last stanza (with a loose translation):

Pienso quieto y medito, en libelulas claras.

(I sit still and meditate, on clear dragonflies.)

Pienso y siento la dicha de su vuelo al pasar,

(I think and feel the joy of its flight as it passes)

y comprendo abismado en las dichas más caras,

(And understand baffled in the most expensive joys)

Cuando hay vuelo y soy libre, no hoy porque desertar.

(When there is flight and I’m free, there is no reason to abandon.)

Memory

(Essay 6 of the #52essays2017)

When I think about the first time my ex-husband told me he didn’t love me anymore, I imagine myself sitting at our dinner table, a rectangular blonde wood, one foot up on my chair, pajama shorts on, a Marlboro light in my hand, blowing smoke out the window by our kitchen. They could have been Parliaments, but I think of the gold from the box on the Marlboro. I think of April and Spring. We are in our first apartment in Woodside, Queens, a one bedroom that was the size of a studio apartment, just a few blocks from the 7 train. I remember almost every detail of that apartment. How the kitchen was crawling with roaches we could never get rid of. A problem we later found out was common for the building. Or was it the area? I loved the sheerness of the curtains in our bedroom with embroidered vines on them, a gift from someone. Maybe my aunt. We were excited about the bamboo curtains in our living room and loved the white Ikea medicine cabinet we installed in the bathroom because we needed more storage. It had a cerulean blue circle in the middle; blue is my favorite color. Memory is a funny thing. I remember being happy at some point. I remember installing the cabinet and feeling happy. I remember his smile and how his eyes would light up when he was OK. I know that when I think of sharing that space with my ex though, the apartment seems smaller. I can’t quite breathe. When I picture myself sitting on the couch alone, the space of the memory suddenly opens up. I know that this memory is flawed. This wasn’t the first time he told me he didn’t love me. This memory is really when we had attempted to write Christmas cards together and couldn’t. It had to have been January. I never sent the cards out. I don’t remember the first time he told me he thought he was in love with someone else. I just remember my reaction: I cried and I stayed.

The second time my ex-husband told me he wasn’t in love with me was when we lived in Astoria. We had moved into this 2 bedroom apartment because we needed more space. I was messy (and still am) and he had hoped a larger space would help me be more organized. Walking up to the second floor, I saw an eviction notice on the brown door. “Sorry the lights are off. We’ll have that fixed right away,” said the agent. A short, stocky man with thick brown hair that disappears from the sequence of events in my mind, he almost seems like a ghost. We walked around with flashlights. “I think I smell gas,” I said. I should have taken it as a bad omen that the previous tenants looked like they had left in a hurry. Who else would leave photo albums behind? There was a crib in the middle of the room with piles of things inside. “All of this will be gone before you move in,” he said. I sometimes question this memory. Am I making this up? Could the signs have been that obvious? We didn’t know yet that I was pregnant.

He’s lying on the same couch as the one from Woodside. A dark burnt brown, like clay, with lighter trim that would open up to a queen size bed for guests. The cushions were large sloped triangles, perfect to rest your head on while you watched TV. “I’m not sure if I ever loved you,” he said. Or something like that. He would look me in the eye and say these things but posture, posture denotes an attitude about whatever it is you’re saying. I was holding my newborn son in my hands. “You couldn’t tell me this sooner?” I said, squeezing my baby tighter, staring at the wall, searching for words. But he had told me sooner. I don’t know how at that moment I had chosen to forget that fact. I’m sitting at the dinner table, a large dark rectangular wooden table that he would eventually give away. My mind wants to force a window into this image but it can’t. From where I was sitting, I was leaning on a wall.

The first time I told my husband I was sure I wanted a divorce was the only time I had to say it. I can tell you it was August and I had just come back from burying my cousin in Miami. I can tell you that we should have been sitting in the living room or our bedroom but instead we were sitting in the nursery. I can tell you that we sat in front of each other and I looked him in the eye. I can tell you that it felt like the sun was shining into the bedroom but that doesn’t make much sense because not much natural sunlight came in through that particular window. See, while I was gone, he switched our bedroom with the nursery after I had asked him not to. “But you said to go ahead and do it,” he insisted. Once, he asked me to make a cake with chocolate frosting. When he got home, he was upset because he said that he wanted vanilla. It was always stupid little things like this that confused me, made me question my mind, memory, reality. Switching the bedrooms after having them the same way for so long confuses me when I try to look back. But I look back often and remember that the details don’t make it any less real.

My son was 9 months old.

Nature

(Essay 5 of the #52essays2017)

My body is as sore as my soul will be soon. Of that much I am sure. I have been in Arizona for a week to attend the second of three workshops for a writing fellowship. I am supposed to be writing a personal creative nonfiction narrative on my experience with harmonies between science and religion. When I first applied, I thought I’d have a year or two to work on this. It turns out, they wanted a completely finished draft within 7 months of the first workshop. It’s been four months since that first workshop in DC. A week ago, I still had no story. Drafts yes, but no story. Guesses and questions and research galore, yes. But no narrative to tie it all together. And then on the first day of this workshop, while sipping a coffee, eating a sandwich and listening to a talk about exposition, it hit me. It had crossed my mind before but the story I thought had no place in this narrative was the story I had to tell. And I wanted to cry. “No no no no no, that can’t be it,” I thought. It’s always the same fucking story.

 

Many of my ideas turn into movie scenes in my mind. This is how I have felt ever since: sober but drunk on nerves, imagining myself standing in the middle of whatever place I am inhabiting in that moment, everyone rushing by. The dizzying effect often seen in movies when they’re trying to show you someone drunk or high, fast motion, like something out of Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, I am still standing still living in my head. I’m not quite ready to go home.

 

Mentors, made up of established authors and editors, were assigned to a group of three; fifteen fellows divided into five groups. For this workshop, mentors were swapped so you would receive a different perspective. The person I would work with for just an hour was an editor and a woman, who asked the right question. “You have lots of interesting information here but no story. You’re not here as a character at all.” It’s not like I didn’t know this. It’s that she got me to talk. She asked the right question, the obvious one, when I said I was uncomfortable writing this. “But why was it uncomfortable?” I thought I was going to be writing about religion and childhood or something like that. I have said this so many times, the words have almost lost their meaning: I was raised Catholic, born and raised on the Upper East Side, told to lie by my parents about our Afro-Cuban religious practices.

 

I didn’t think I’d be writing about what lead me to get married at 20 to my second cousin who was abusive. That shit just didn’t seem to fit. I didn’t want it to fit. There was shame there. And both mentors I had to work with saw it. And I was embarrassed. But I persisted. “Michelle, I want you to consider research. I mean, if this becomes too difficult to write, you could just focus on research,” he said. He is the mentor I have been with for months. “No, it’s fine. I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I said. We were walking in the rain to the final day of the workshop on the campus of Arizona State University. Just the day before, he had given his group a small talk about the importance of language. He’s a poet. I had dreaded working with a poet because I don’t think I have the level of command on language that poets do. One of his pet peeves seems to be when the writing becomes obvious. “Don’t tell me you’re sad and it’s raining,” he said. Well, I was sad and afraid and we were having a serious conversation in the rain.

 

I have doubted myself since day 1. I have wanted to be told precisely what the project leads wanted from me and my story in order to produce it. Oh yes, explore, explore away in the writing, but pretend I’m an actress and you’re the director. Tell me to improvise but tell me the mood, the tone, the backstory. Here is something I was relieved about during the first workshop: everyone was really fucking nice. I was relieved because I felt like I didn’t belong. Here is something I realized during the second workshop: one person of color dropped out of the fellowship (I don’t know why) who I really wish didn’t because they were intelligent and witty and had a kick ass story to tell that needs to be told, and the few others left have been taught to assimilate in ways that I do not understand. One is very consciously fighting that assimilation but some don’t realize the consequences of their assimilation. “Maybe italicize the words in a different langue” was one suggestion. It was done in writing so I couldn’t explain in person why I won’t do that. But that’s the only example of where I have the response ready.  I have found myself insecure, the words stuck in my mouth like bad food I didn’t want to swallow but didn’t know where to spit out either, and unable to defend myself. It would make sense that this was not the story I wanted to tell now, in this setting. Because I was afraid and that fear paralyzed me in front of the page, trapping the story inside.

 

One science part of my story has to do with nature.

 

When I was a kid, my mother didn’t allow us to do much of anything that risked us getting hurt. “Ashley invited me to go skiing at Lake George. Please let me go,” I’d beg. I’d usually corner my mom in the kitchen while she was distracted cooking, as if that was going to help my plea. “No, that’s dangerous,” was always her response. She would use examples of people who had broken limbs or died. Of course, I had no idea where Lake George was or what the Adirondacks were. There was no camping or road trips but my parents took us to Miami and to Ecuador. While visiting my mom’s hometown in Ecuador, I was the gringa who didn’t know how to do shit outdoors. Actually, this only became a bigger issue when my ex-husband seemed irritated by my fears of getting hurt or not feeling I was athletic. But it’s not that I didn’t want to do those things.

 

I cannot and will not ski. I almost got a concussion the first time I tried and ended up hurting a nerve in my right wrist the second time. I am not the most graceful creature.

 

I have cried a lot this week. The first time was in a cafeteria at our lodge in the Grand Canyon. I asked my husband and son to meet me in Arizona during my son’s winter break. After ordering lunch, practical things like roast beef and cheddar and grilled chicken sandwiches, I could not hold them back any longer. “Mommy, why are you crying?” Lucas asked. “Are you crying because everything is so beautiful?” my husband asked. Because that is the type of person I married; the type of person that appreciates being alive long enough to witness new beautiful things. “It’s been a rough couple of days. It’s been building up,” I said.

 

I usually feel like I’m being ripped apart.

 

The Grand Canyon really is magnificent. My cell phone camera didn’t do it any justice. Even the clouds look amazing, the grays, blues, and whites in contrast to the browns, greens, orange and red of the canyon. Beauty didn’t make me cry. The fact that water did that, water ripped that earth apart; water shaped it and molded it. Everyday people gather to stare at it, walk through it and touch it. We are made of water. Over 50% water. Sometimes, we have to be ripped apart by the water inside.

 

Maybe my story is made of water. My tears are.

 

I walked through Lower Antelope Canyon which is owned by the Navajo. It’s a glorious canyon and the price you pay to spend 90 minutes in there is worth it. You walk down over 80 feet, mostly on very narrow stairs, and with a guide. “This canyon was made by flashfloods and rain,” our guide said; a young guy, who took the time to show us how to take better pictures with our camera phones, and told stories about how animals fall into the canyon and they have to get them out before people come to walk through. This guy was so relaxed, so used to the people and the crowds and everyone being awestruck, that you could tell his happiness was genuine when he saw the sun hit a certain spot of the canyon through a hole above ground. It was just before noon and he said that the fact that the sun was hitting there was a sign of Spring. “You can tell the seasons by when the sun reaches some spots down here. Just a week ago the sun wasn’t hitting here at this time,” he said. I looked around, touched the smooth brown sandstone, caressed it, said hello to it. Water did this. Rain. Rivers. I am water. And I kept repeating it. I am water. So why the fuck do I feel so inadequate?

 

I dream of water a lot. I know that some things are trying to reach me. I know that there are some entities, not just Yemaya, that speak to me through water. I know in my dream what it means when the water is dark and murky, when it’s rough or smooth. One night not long ago, I had a dream that I could see the ocean but couldn’t get to it. The sand was wet and I kept slipping in it. No matter how hard I tried, I slipped and fell. Another time, I had to drink her water. Another time, I was the water. Those are my favorite.

 

Eight months after I started dating my husband, we went away for a weekend in April 2011 in the Adirondacks. I had never been there and was excited when I saw the pictures of where we were staying. This might be one of the first times I took a real strenuous hike. Not a hike through a park on flat land but a hike to a climb; we climbed up to the top of Castle Rock. I think falling in love with my ability to be in nature played a part in me falling in love with my husband. At one point, I didn’t think I could keep going. This was the kind of climb I had never been allowed to do before. “You got this. You can do it.” My husband worked with kids for over a decade and there’s something to the tone of his voice that is safe and real. Something that says I believe in you but won’t think less of you if you give up. I remember putting my feet in crevices of rock and stone in a way that I thought would hurt or feeling like my heart might explode. And I did it. I got to the top and easily hiked back down. This became our thing and this became the thing that I would insist we always do – hike. But life happens and you get out of shape and hikes that we used to be able to do while barely breaking a sweat turned into hikes that had us not gasping but wheezing for air at the end.

 

We need sometimes need reminders of lessons learned. Or maybe we see the things that we are ready to see.

 

I insisted we go to Sedona while in Arizona. “So tell me a little about this place,” he said while driving. “Are you kidding me? Didn’t you read anything I sent you?” I answered. “And I’m tired of people asking me to explain things. Just in general. I need a break of explaining anything,” I said. I had read that Cathedral Rock had a couple of trails varying in difficulty. Cathedral Rock trail is the shortest and steepest of the 3 trails we had to choose from going from an elevation of 4,040’ to 4,770’. “Oh no, that’s too steep,” I said. As we walked to an intersection in the trail, I changed my mind. My 11 year old’s enthusiasm was contagious and my confidence a bit inflated. “That other trail seems boring,” he said. My husband checked two, three, four times with us, asking if we were sure as I looked up at the steep red rock formation. “We can get at least up to that plateau,” I said. I had no intention of hiking the entire trail. Here’s the thing about hiking popular places that have been around for ages: many people have gone before you. Inevitably, we shape parts of nature with our hands, our feet, we make little spots to put the front of our shoes, to grab onto. To climb. Many have gone before me and many will come after me. When you hike and climb, it’s a matter of seeing where to put your feet, maybe secure your hands. It’s strategy and patience. If you go the wrong way or change paths, you still end up in the same place. It’s controlling your breathing when you’re nervous so that you don’t have an actual heart attack between the strain, excitement and nerves. There are conflicting accounts of this hike. For some, it’s simple. For others, like myself, who were never allowed to take risks or learn to do much of anything outdoors, this is a monumental challenge. It’s one thing to hike up to a place, it’s another thing to not have much to grab onto and be afraid of heights. “I don’t know if I can keep going,” I said. Both my husband and son looked at me, all love, and said, “Sure you can. You got this.” My legs were already sore from hiking earlier. From hiking the day before. From being nonstop, trying to see as much as possible in such little time. My legs weren’t going to give out. That’s the only way I would have stopped. I see that now. My mother always used to say, “Lo unico que no tiene solucion es la muerte.”

 

Like with anything else in life, you see all sorts of people with all sorts of opinions along the way. Big and small, some with the stamina to shoot straight up the trail, some who admitted being afraid of heights, all who said it was worth it. We came across this family with three children who had climbed all the way up and were working their way down. Their daughter, a little strawberry blond child, warned us of where not to go so that we wouldn’t die. Her father shook his head and apologized and my laugh echoed. “They have been doing this to everyone along the way. I am so sorry. Kids, you are not going to die if you fall. This is a measured fall,” he said. A measured fall. They were obviously experienced and he was right. A measured fall because if you fell from where we were, at that point, meant you’d hurt yourself in several different kinds of ways. And there is always a risk and the question is: is the risk worth it?

 

In my hotel room in Phoenix, during the 3 days of workshop, the window curtain glided easily and smoothly on its tracks. On the last night, in a hurry to get to dinner with new friends, I took that ease for granted and didn’t hold the plastic rod correctly. What resulted was a horrible cut on the inside of my index finger; the skin taken clear off in such a way that it didn’t hurt until after the fact.

 

I climbed up and down Cathedral Rock in a couple of hours, at some points surrounded by cactus. Using my hands, sometimes doing a sort of crab crawl. I slid back down at other points on my butt. Not once did I cut myself.

 

It is usually the one thing we don’t count on that ends up hurting us.

 

When we reached the end of the trail, I sat on a rock as two ravens circled us. I thought of the raven that greeted me when we first walked into the Grand Canyon. A raven flew right into my path, then up into a tree and kept looking at me. I love crows and ravens but have a soft spot for the iridescence on the feathers of a raven. I looked out and admired the different colors of the mountains. How the colors change. I thought of the iridescence. It suddenly hit me that my son is green/red colorblind. “Lucas, what colors are you seeing? The mountains I mean.”

“Brownish greenish. It’s darker than the cacti,” he said. “But, then what color are the trees and plants down there?” I asked. “It’s hard to tell. They’re a bit of a bright green,” he answered. And as my heart started to break a little, realizing that he couldn’t see things the way I was seeing them, the vibrant oranges and red, he said, “The colors depend on the light. The clouds on the bottom and to the top of the mountain over there are pinkish.” He knows when he isn’t seeing a color correctly. But he also still enjoys all of the beauty. A su manera. And sometimes, seeing things a little differently might be better.

 

Ravens and crows are associated with the spirit world and with death, carrying messages. I sat there on that rock and watched them fly, play, turn, come back around. I watched as another joined them. It was like they were putting on a show and recorded their squawking. And my heart swelled because I knew, so much is about to change.

my form of protest: we matter

(Essay 4 of the #52essays2017)

Iterations of the same story

I’m trying to figure out why I’m embarrassed by the complexities of my life. I’m embarrassed in the way that it makes me stumble not just when I speak, but every day. I fall behind on a deadline. I haven’t been able to help my mother during her complications with chemo. Shit got complicated at home. I have to be a mother too. A stepmother, a person who loves from a distance with absolutely no authority or say over that child. I have to be a wife. I stand in the kitchen, look at the time on the oven, look at the time on the coffee maker and think, “Why am I standing here again? What am I supposed to do next?” I sometimes read while I wait for something to cook. But I go to wash a pile of dishes instead, my son, sitting at the dinner table, calling me, “Mom, you said you were gonna help me.” Oh right. But, everyone’s life is complicated.

I don’t like to complain. I don’t like to feel that I’m whining. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or responsible for me when I explain my new issue. And then I remember my parents. My parents saw struggle as failure. Struggle is a reflection of poor decisions. They struggled as immigrants so that we wouldn’t have to as citizens. Struggle equated lack of money and money was supposed to solve shit. In my parent’s quest to avoid struggle, I don’t think they looked around to appreciate what they had accomplished. In my father’s quest to get rich quick, he allowed some people to come in and out of our lives that should never have been there.

I remember my brother and sister’s bunk beds. The bunk beds with blue drawers, metal circle handles I would play with, Star Wars and Pac-Man bed sheets; I hid, horribly, in a dark corner of the bottom bunk.

At 14, some problems at school lead to some problems at home. Digging through the dirt of memory with a therapist, an old memory blooms. I shared it with someone I knew who told me it made sense. They had a similar memory about the same person, but they were older, they remembered it clearly. Maybe I was too young to remember, but my body never forgot.

Memories, particularly those of the traumatic kind, can become distorted. There’s research that shows the memory can become distorted but contain a high degree of sensory detail, the memory becomes fragmented and disjointed. Something happens to the nervous system. It fails to process the experience as a whole. Everyone is different though.

Several months ago, as I was throwing out some rotten spinach, I suddenly smelled his breath, the grease in his hair. It is in the mindless, everyday tasks that the memories come back. Bits and pieces always come back. Something gray. Something dirty.

I actually thought he was dead. I recently found out I was wrong. I had only killed him in my mind.

When I was 14, my parents sent me away for two weeks to my mother’s homeland. They thought it would be good for me. Depression, an eating disorder, suicidal thoughts, they were confused as to what I had to be depressed about. In a small outdoor concert full of vacationers during carnival, I drowned for a moment in the crowd and had my small breasts squeezed violently. My body felt up in different ways. I gasped for air to get out of the crowd. I said nothing. I thought it must be my fault. The clothes I was wearing, the shorts too short, the shirt too revealing. I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. This was also when I would meet my future abuser.

My mind and body were never my own.

At 15, on a bed in the middle of the world, I fell asleep. I woke up to a cousin making out with my shoulder. Frozen, hoping he would stop, I said nothing and pretended to sleep. I didn’t want to make him feel bad. I drown in his spit. Just a couple of years later, I would see him again. Primo I would say and greet him with a hug. After all, boys do those things. I was told it couldn’t be helped. Sitting at a bar in the West Village, his older friend buying me a drink (lucky me because I didn’t have a fake ID), I bring up that night because I’m not sure if I made it up in my head. I used to never trust my memory. He tells me he had hoped I would wake up and kiss him back. I laugh and am a master of ambiguity, diffusing the tension with laughter and diversion. I never speak to him again.

I took an eight or twelve hour bus ride once with my mother’s aunt. A funny woman with small straight lips and very short curly hair she would often dye red, she took the opportunity to talk to me about boys. More importantly, the fact that you shouldn’t let a boy touch you “down there”. “No mijita,” she would say. It’s dangerous. I laughed at the awkwardness and laughed at antiquity of her approach.

At 15, some friends and I go to an older friend’s house. I have too much to drink and this guy in his 20s kisses me. I don’t mind the kiss, the taste of tequila and bad breath. I’m starving as I drunkenly sway, try to eat cold rice in his dark kitchen; he walks up behind me, I think he’s going to hug me. Wrapping his arms around my waist, he puts his hand down the front of my tight black jeans. So tight, I would later wonder how he managed to do that. I try to get his hand out as he tries to push his finger in. I push him away. I didn’t mind a kiss on the lips. I had been told that girls can’t do those things. A kiss is permission for something more. Good girls don’t drink. Good girls don’t hide in dark places.

I know I have a nice body because everyone says so. I’m also called weird and angry by plenty of friends and family; smart is something I’m supposed to know I am based on grades and teachers. I never used to believe anyone when they tell me I’m smart.

At 20, I marry a cousin. I wake up to small earthquakes sometimes. The bed shaking, him touching me. I ask him to stop. I tell him it bothers me. He tells me there must be something wrong with me.

My son was the Immaculate Conception.

I was taught that you couldn’t say no once you started. Because if something hurt, you were frigid or a prude. Because you have to be a porn star. Because my body was never my own. Because I didn’t learn to attach my mind to my soul to my sex until I was ripped open by a child that grew inside of me and needed me. Because in splitting in two, I became one with myself. Because I don’t want my son to grow up to be a brock turner. Because this shit needs to stop. Because my son should grow up learning to respect others while he learns to respect himself. People who respect themselves don’t use other people as objects. Because no means no and consent is beautiful and sexy and fun.

None of this was fun.

You speak to people you admire and sometimes when they ask for your thoughts, the words get stuck in your throat. I doubt everything I say. You wake up after one of those moments and realize how the phrase “the personal is political” relates to you and inevitably begin to think about why you don’t think you’re good enough the way they do and how are you supposed to teach your kid that he’s good enough and not an idiot when you’re not so sure about yourself? And then you remind yourself of everything that you’re doing and how hard you work and none of it feels validated and it all feels mediocre because there is nothing, no section of your life, that you can possibly give 100% to because you still have to be a supportive wife and a mom that’s there and a student and a writer and you know that if you dedicate yourself to one thing and give up on yourself, as most women are conditioned by society to do, and continue with this fucking guilt, then you’ll resent everyone and be angry that you’re doing nothing instead of sad that you’re doing so much.

I’m reading Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and keep thinking of it as Dangerous Women. It’s inevitable that we look for pieces of ourselves when we read other women’s stories. Fictional or not. There’s a story with a rapist doing something for penance and absolution. Some people may say that my complications or complicated life is penance and absolution. I sometimes refer to it as purgatory. A rapist is looking for penance and absolution in one of those stories. So why the fuck am I the one living in purgatory?

I normally can’t think clearly. I don’t know what it is. My diet, maybe too high in sugar and carbs? My anxiety, messing with all the neurons, maybe they are misfiring? Some studies show that a woman’s brain changes after trauma. Not many people seem to care about that these days. We’re supposed to move on. We’re supposed to put our big girl panties on and stop our whining.

I am not my mistakes or my trauma. I know that. They do not define me. If they did, I probably wouldn’t be here. But acknowledge humanity. Acknowledge the emotional complexities of moments lived and the lasting effects on the psyche. Fucking read about people that are different from you and your experience.

One in three women experience sexual violence in their lives.

2016 was the most dangerous year for transgender Americans.

Sexual trauma enhances all-cause mortalities, including risks of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. (I recommend reading research conducted by Bessel van der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist based in Boston)

I am not quick on my feet. I remind myself that that isn’t an indication of my intelligence, it’s just the way I am. Maybe that’ll improve one day. I take at least a day to come up with adequate responses to questions and observations. Some close friends have told me I’m witty. I guess my sarcasm can be called wit. My husband once said I’m only like that when I allow people to get to know me. When I’m honest. It’s hard to be honest when you’re ashamed of who you are, when you don’t even understand what there is to be ashamed of, when you’re raised to be secretive and not trust people, and you have honest words ready to flow out of every space in your body. But I try. There’s a bottleneck somewhere, a space that is clogged with information that I was never allowed to explore or told it wasn’t worth exploring. At some point I absorbed my designated value.

This is an exercise in undoing shame.

Home

(Essay 3 of the #52essays2017)

My house is for hobbits. Built in 1877, I sometimes wonder if I should throw a sort of party to commemorate its 140 year old existence. It’s an old farmhouse with low ceilings that make my 5’10” husband look like a giant. The three bedrooms are small, so small that the real estate agent even warned us and said she had plenty of other options to show us. But we didn’t care. The pine wide planked floors upstairs are probably the original; the black claw foot tub (that I now hate) added so much character, all so quaint and perfect. Sure, we say special prayers to the Gods of Winter so that we don’t have to replace the ancient boiler just yet, and it turns out that you should get a sewer line inspection when you move into old towns, and that wide plank floor needs replacing in some spots, and the basement needs resealing, and the half bath on the first floor has no insulation so you could quite literally freeze your ass off if and when you sit on the toilet but, it’s ours. And I’ve never owned anything or lived in a house. But inevitably, we had to bring some old things with us. One of those things was a desk chair.

For the most part, we did well decorating the house with what we had. Except for one of the most important rooms, our bedroom. After almost three years, I insisted we redecorate. Buying a king size captain bed with drawers (off of Craigslist), painting the bedroom light gray to get rid of the burnt orange, getting rid of the bulky dressers, I could finally have a desk in a nook by a window. Slanted ceilings meant a low desk. The only chair that would do for now was my old, foldable wooden desk chair.

We had gone through the house at some point and tried to do the whole Marie Kondo art of decluttering thing. Well, kind of. It was more the art of getting rid of things that reminded us of unhappy times and places. Of which we each had plenty. I kept the chair. It was just a chair. Chairs are kind of important to have. I don’t remember where I bought it, but I bought it with my ex-husband. That chair was with me in my first apartment in Woodside Queens on 65th Place by the 7 train. It wasn’t quite a 1 bedroom, not quite a studio, but it was at my tower computer desk, holding me as I wrote papers for school. It was there when my ex had too much to drink and threw up on his sneakers. The sneakers were by the chair. I had to clean everything up. It was there when we moved to a 2 bedroom in Astoria. When we set up the extra room as a “den” or TV room (I don’t actually know) and had a red lamp that we didn’t realize would make the room look like a brothel not knowing that I was pregnant and we would quickly have to change the brothel looking room into a nursery. It was in that chair that I sat when we started our own company. It was the chair I sat in at a desk, in my bedroom, to keep track of my contractions on the bottom of a desk calendar, alone while my then husband was in DC saying goodbye to his best friend who had been hit by a train. It was also in that chair that my ex sat in when he wrote me a story, Castillo de Arena, that I wish I still had, describing the way in which he lost me. I sat in that chair when I responded to his story. I took the chair with me to my parent’s 2 bedroom in Queens, ill equipped for their youngest daughter and their first grandchild, leaving behind so many things including my Catholic high school bible where I had taken so many notes, highlighted so many passages, but also included the doodles of my 15 year old self with his last name. And it was in that chair that I filmed my barely 2 year old son singing Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, at the desk in our little bedroom at my parent’s house. 6 years later, we would dance to that song at my wedding.

A couple of months before my son’s 3rd birthday, we moved to a rent-stabilized apartment in Spanish Harlem where we would live for 5 years. It was like finding a unicorn but we weren’t meant to stay there. That apartment turned on us and suddenly, I hated everything. Including that fucking chair. I became suddenly aware of how uncomfortable it was. I kept it at the rickety desk in what they called a “half bedroom” aka closet. I was grateful for the time there, but that apartment was like something out of Poltergeist. And yet, I didn’t throw out the chair when I moved in 2013.

On New Year’s Eve 2016, I had been sick for a week. I decided to sit at my desk (most likely to read or write) when the chair crumbled below me. I went down in slow motion, like when you see someone slip on some snow and they’re trying to steady themselves, with my left hand I was reaching out to grab onto something and my right arm going back to the floor. It was enough time for me to actually think, “Oh so this is happening.” That is how slowly the chair gave out but still not enough time for me to just stand up. Almost 3 weeks later, I still crack up when I remember what I must have looked like and almost wish someone had recorded it. The dead broken chair is resting on the floor in my sunroom. Three years ago, I had no idea what a sunroom was. I don’t know why when I look at it, I feel a little sad. I don’t know why I want to give it a hug goodbye. I want to burn it and give it a funeral. Objects carry so much with them. I don’t know why it broke on the last day of the year and maybe it got tired of holding me. And as I write this, I wonder what this 140 year old house has been witness to and what it has held. Though it feels as if it’s telling me to let it all go and that chair might be one of the last pieces here from that time in my past.

compounding vulnerability: why am I doing this to myself?

(Essay 2 of the #52essays2017)

“If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way-especially shame, fear and vulnerability.”
~ Brené Brown

(Quote found in Elephant Journal)

I often contemplate on the person I could’ve been. This isn’t a better or worse reflection, this isn’t contemplation on regret or woe, it is simply an acknowledgment that every decision we make takes us somewhere. Even if you’re the type to believe that you end up wherever you’re meant to be, the journey has millions of variables. What if I had let my ex-husband return to his homeland BEFORE getting married at 20? Instead of being an insipid needy girl with a bruised ego because he was willing to leave me. What if I had done that semester abroad I wanted to do instead of staying because I felt guilty leaving him behind? What if I hadn’t chosen him at all? Instead tactfully flinging myself at someone who, at the time, I was shocked showed an iota of interest in me. What if I had learned to be on my own, be a different kind of free, travel, before motherhood? I’m never quite sure of what success looks like in these dreams, but I’m sure they involve feeling powerful. My years of reckless spontaneity were spent learning how to survive being wife, then mother, then single mother. In every imagined scenario, I can’t erase my son. Not because it makes me feel bad, not because of guilt, but because who I became when I had him at 23 was precisely because of his existence, and I’m grateful for that. The question of paternity arises in these daydreams and I wonder only briefly if he would be who he is had he had a different father. Probably not. Not because he’s mine but, he’s a pretty cool kid and knowing my deficiencies as a human, I can’t imagine what it would be like to parent a kid who isn’t like him. And then earlier this week, while reading about the upcoming full moon, I came across this, “Surrender to happiness, even if it differs from the picture you had painted in your head at one point about what that would look like.” So am I happy?

I remember the first story I wrote that I was embarrassed to share. 1989-1990, I’m in the 2nd grade sitting at the dinner table, mortified that I had to write something I was going to read the next day in front of the class. I giggle, fidgeting, about the writing prompt (something to do with aliens) as my mother, standing at the stove making dinner, glances at me telling me not to worry. Seven or eight years old, already lacking confidence and being afraid of public speaking, I was in Ms. Cavilia’s class. Ms. Cavilia was, as one of my coworker’s would now say, a funny fish. To a second grader, she was a tall woman though she was probably just average height with burnt frizzy hair she kept coiffed in the same do, not quite mullet but raised high in the front, some strands in the back, and the color of dirty hay.

Her desk was in a diagonal position in the corner of the classroom leaving me nowhere to hide, everyone in her line of sight. When I thought it was my turn to read, I covered my ears, trying to imagine that no one was actually hearing me, telling this story to a void. It wasn’t long before I was interrupted by a tap on my shoulder, it wasn’t my turn yet. Ms. Cavilia smiled, I sunk in my chair, but what I was most terrified of never happened. I don’t think anyone made fun of me, and yet I was still mortified. It was this same year I grabbed a bunch of loose-leaf paper, stapled them together, wrote a title and told my mother I was writing a book. She was upset I was wasting so much paper. I wrote a sentence or three and never wrote anything else.

In the fifth or sixth grade, I had to write a poem. Once again, embarrassed, my mother asked my brother to help me. Five years older than me, I remember he tried to help so I don’t remember how what I ended up reading in front of the class was actually written by him. It was beautiful. My brother had a command of language that I did not. He had a gift that my mother would say he inherited from her father, a poet. I trembled as I read this poem I did not write. Or maybe my brother helped me to the point that I felt I didn’t write it. Maybe the point isn’t in the facts but on how I felt. My teacher, Mrs. Mirra, commended me on such beautiful writing. Empty praise.

Throughout the 90s, all sorts of music played in my house. My brother and sister making fun of me, saying there was no way I could understand the lyrics yet naturally made me paid attention to the lyrics. Trying to be able to sing them, figure out what they meant, they were right, I didn’t know. (You can imagine what I thought Push It by Salt-n-Pepa meant) They listened to everything from Skid Row to Boys II Men, U2 to Radiohead, A Tribe Called Quest to Marc Anthony (when he had the long hair and Harry Potter glasses). But I paid attention. When I was in the seventh grade and had to pick a book for a book report, I picked Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. Metallica had released “One” in 1988 when I was 5 and I saw the music video, using scenes and dialogue from the 1971 movie “Johnny Got His Gun”; I had to read the book. It’s an anti-war book, gruesome in its description of human suffering after a soldier comes home from WWI. I was 12. I read Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club like everyone else, but much earlier I had secretly read my sister’s copy of Forever by Judy Blume and tried to read The Scarlett Letter. I read Catcher in the Rye at an age when I had no idea what I was reading but words on a page, taking me years to understand the value of reading comprehension and not just appearing to read. I watched movies I shouldn’t have watched yet, absorbing information like a sponge, taking my level of weird to new heights. I kind of miss being ignorant of my weirdness, even though for as long as I can remember, that’s what I was called.

In the eighth grade, I wrote an article about my father, adding moments in history that were happening, running parallel to his life. It kicked ass. It was in two columns and what I learned over twenty years ago are ideas that I still carry with me today. Then I had to write a short story, and back to my brother I went. “Can I read some of the stories you’ve written?” I asked. Sitting at his white computer desk, leaning into a drawer where he had filed his stories away, he said, “Don’t copy it Mich. I’ll let you read it for inspiration but don’t copy it.” He believed what he was saying. I changed some things around but let’s face it, I copied that shit.

I thought nothing of copying a story about a heroin addict. My teacher, Mrs. Geiss, called me up to her desk as she was grading the stories. I spent most mornings having panic attacks, bent over, trying to put my head between my knees, trying to find a way to breathe. She was probably the first and only teacher that noticed my frequent trips to the bathroom, my constant calls home saying that I was sick. She really was concerned and tried to figure me out. “Michelle, do you know someone going through this at home?” she asked. I laughed; I did not. Maybe if I did, things would have made more sense to her. That was the last time I copied anyone else’s writing. A habit I began that year was keeping a journal. And I have all of them from high school buried in a closet. I read through them not long ago and saw how cryptic I was being even to myself. Not all of the time, but who the fuck journals and keeps secrets from themselves? We usually lie when we’re ashamed or embarrassed by something. And I was taught to lie about a lot. Though I’ve somewhat concluded that my mother’s penchant for lying was rooted in survival and appearances, I had to unlearn that. When I applied to high schools, she told me to lie in essays. I had to lie about religious beliefs, something that is fundamentally a part of my identity. When she knew that I was shoplifting (an exorbitant amount), she told me to not get caught. When I did, she lied and said she never knew. She had two or three friends at my elementary school, never quite fitting in, asking us to correct her if she said something grammatically incorrect. Embarrassed by her accent, embarrassed by her inability to speak English perfectly, she sometimes scowled and without provocation would declare at dinner, “Ustedes si pueden. You are just as good as everyone else.”

I’ve taken on more than I care to admit, and I do not mean this as a humble brag. I am not slaying anything, not kicking anything’s ass; I am pushing. I didn’t get an A on my first graduate level class, I got a B+. I didn’t get into grad school the first time I applied a couple of years ago. I’m currently working on a Women’s and Gender Studies Graduate Certificate in order to later, maybe, apply to grad school. I start my second of four classes in a week. I received a writing fellowship back in August that I’m reminded isn’t a competition, only I feel incredibly inadequate and far behind. But I haven’t given up or dropped out. I keep pushing. My next draft is due in less than two weeks. I feel far behind on life. I have a full time job that I’ve had for over eight years and I’m about to enter a somewhat busy period of time between now and April. I’m a wife and mother and stepmother and daughter and sister and friend. I also have a little side project I’m working on because I imagined it years ago and felt an extra push, meeting the right people that I felt comfortable sharing the idea with, and so there’s that. And then there’s this essay a week. The first essay I posted left me cringing for days, coinciding with some feedback for my fellowship, while I was sick, while I had my period, while I was figuring out whether to continue with this graduate certificate because Lord knows I can’t afford it but I have to finish it dammit. The first time I heard of vulnerability hangover was from Vanessa Mártir when I took her Writing Our Lives workshop. What I was now experiencing was that hangover x 100, compounding vulnerability. I felt defeated, afraid, and exhausted, longing for the days of sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing television (good movies and television being my alcohol) helping me forget everything else I want to accomplish. After all, I supported and encouraged my husband to pursue a college education when he was 38. He graduated last May, is turning 45 this year, and is finally working in a field he loves. I am proud of him, but I believed in everyone else but myself for so long.

What is personal essay writing but an exercise in truth? Starting this challenge was about me confronting fears; maybe it’s through this challenge that I can get to where I want to be. Make sense of me in ways that I cannot answer simply when people say, “You’re doing a lot” but infer, “Why are you doing so much?” I cringe when I share parts of myself; I still picture the little girl sitting at her desk, covering her ears trying not to hear the jeers. I still feel stupid a lot of the time and my anxiety plays tricks on me. But I’m here, learning, letting go of shame and telling that little girl in 2nd grade, be honest, stay weird.

“Life is richer because of what we feel, whether it’s passion, love, joy, or sadness and fear. Life has gotten you this far. You haven’t stumbled or ruined anything—you just didn’t know that, all along, this was where you were being led. Trust in your destination as much as you have in your journey, knowing that there is a reason for everything. There is a season for everything.” ~Kate Rose

Inheritance

(First essay of the #52essays2017 challenge I decided to take on)

I miss waking up to the smell of my mother’s pernil, usually two, three, maybe four spread out from the kitchen to the dinner table. With a kitchen that today reminds me of a closet, where I still don’t understand how my mother managed to cook so much, I’d sometimes sit at the dinner table, an old mantel under a bowl as I shredded cheese by hand, creating a small mountain for the empanadas. I’m still not sure why my mother didn’t just buy the shredded cheese. I miss the ability to eat whatever I want without getting sick. Though there was this one time I ate 10 empanadas and proceeded to throw up. I miss being able to eat pernil for days. Day 1, with pieces of the crispy skin on the side, arroz moro, and yuca. Day 2, leftovers. Day 3, a pernil sandwich in whatever resembled pan cubano. I miss the 100 empanadas being fried in a huge vat of lard, the smell infusing into my curly hair and clothes (though it would piss me off), a small variety of plain cheese, cheese with onion, picadillo empanadas that were mouthwatering but I’d still pick out the olives. My mother was like a machine, cooking and laughing, swimming in compliments of her cooking. I miss waking up to my parent’s energetically cleaning, getting ready before a party, La Mega 97.9 reverberating throughout the house. Having a central location apartment in Manhattan meant my parent’s parties lasted all night long, people dropping by whenever, taking cabs home or staying long enough to sleep off whatever they drank, eat some more, 4, 5, 6am.

 This was the quietest Christmas of my life, highlighting everything that once was and is to be, leaving me hiding and crying for a moment. It’s my mother’s second round of cancer in three years. Struggling for a while to keep up with herself, she is now forced to slow down in a way that is foreign to her. Standing in the kitchen trying to reheat food, my sister and I are not the most domestic pair. Neither of us inherited my mother’s tirelessness and love of the kitchen, her organization and execution of the perfect meal. I inherited her propensity for procrastination due to perfectionism, but I struggle to attain her resolve. I’m taller than her by several inches, but feel so small when she walks in, points out everything we are doing wrong because it’s not the way she would do it, as my father stands there wondering aloud for the 100th time what is taking me so long to heat up food for my son. And I lose it.

 I didn’t imagine you could grieve over losing who a person was. I didn’t imagine you could grieve over wanting to relive moments. 

*

There’s a video of me on an old laptop somewhere ringing in 2009 in my apartment in Harlem. My son had just turned 3, finally living on our own but he was spending New Year’s with his father. I threw a big house party, invited all of my family, fitting at least 40 people in my two bedroom. Wearing a short, dark purple dress with gold sequins adorning the neckline, I had a carnival masks for everyone that I bought at Jack’s, a .99 store. The music had everyone dancing, with moments of singing songs like Pasame la Botella by Mach & Daddy, leaving my white linoleum floor stained until I moved out in 2013. For the countdown, we turned on Dick Clark’s Rockin Eve and at midnight, as everyone hugged, kissed, cried wishing each other a Happy New Year, I’m caught on video taking a shot of tequila. There’s a moment where you see me look around, scanning to see if there was someone I was going to hug or kiss first. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends there, I shrug my shoulders and take the shot. I smile during one of the loneliest minute of my life. I still hear the annoying high-pitched pitos. My best lived upstairs, running up and down as we took over the building with our parties. Cleaning up the next day, I recorded all the bandejas of food strewn all over the apartment, plates under the couch, remnants of some vomit on the bottom of my couch cover, and laughed. 2010 turned out to be a pretty good year.

I threw parties like that not because my son wasn’t with me, but to forget he wasn’t with me and why. Looking back, there are so many that I barely speak to anymore, if at all. Some are divorced, some have moved away, and some have experienced horrible loss and illness. 

*

I woke up this morning vomiting words instead of what I drank the night before. I live in the suburbs in what I consider a central location, close to the train, but not a cab ride away from anyone I know. Walking around town at night, I often look up in awe that I can see stars. I take pictures like a tourist, my son shouting at me to stop taking pictures of the moon. We spent New Year’s in sweatpants, quietly and peacefully with some friends, me sick and exhausted from the preceding 364 days. I enjoy hosting, but I do not have the party house. 

Holidays used to be an excuse to get together with family, drink, eat lots of food, and dance. A new year was bittersweet, with many crying at midnight. Another year far away from family in another land, another year where dreams and wishes maybe didn’t come true. 

*

During my first marriage, unsure of what was happening but seeing me unhappy, my mother told me that my father became a better husband seven years into their marriage. He grew up she said. I came along seven years after my sister, five years after my brother, so I have a vague idea of what my dad was like before I came along that I prefer to keep vague. What I do know is that I miss watching him clean the house with vigor, sometimes with a Salem menthol cigarette hanging from his lip. It’s funny what we remember. The beds were always made, the mess contained in plastic bags hidden in my mother’s closet (a horrible habit I’ve inherited, though my house is never as clean), the bathrooms and kitchens always spotless. We had one and a half bathrooms but my father had MacGuyvered a small radio to turn on when you turned on the light of the full bath. There was always music playing in our house. A habit I’ve somewhat learned to keep. Though one may argue that being uncomfortable in silence is a bad thing, I at least enjoy solitude. 

My father, the life of the party, would do what we thought was his own little dance that amused most people, leaving us wondering where it came from. He would be slightly bent over, shaking his shoulders, bending his knees, sliding a leg out, turning; it wasn’t the salsa or merengue we were used to seeing. It was Rumba Cubana. I have a picture from one of their many parties, him dancing on a chair, gallon of Bacardi in his hand. Sometimes he would pour the rum into his mouth, a little on the floor para el muerto; he loved the show, to be entertaining, having available whatever kind of liquor you wanted. He enjoyed getting people drunk and seeing them happy. Unhappy drunks confused the shit out of him. I don’t try to get people drunk, but I try to learn what people like to drink, making sure to have it available for them. It makes for a better night.

It’s hard now to watch my father walk. 

An old 73, his back problems have led to knee problems. His right leg goes out in a way that seems he’s kicking it in order to walk, needing a cane, having to pick his leg up to get into my car. He traveled this New Year’s to Miami, needing a wheelchair in the airport. He’s always been one to mumble, which has only gotten worse now that he needs hearing aids and refuses to wear them. Fucking vanity. He used to call me vanidosa when I’d look at myself in the living room mirror, large behind the couch, difficult to avoid. Today, he prefers to drink wine with Sprite. He might hide a good bottle of whiskey somewhere for him to drink alone; he hates sharing. 

Grief can come in many forms. It strikes me as cruel that it can come when a person is still with us. Or maybe it’s a favor, getting ahead of an inevitable process. We can grieve anything, including the death of who a person was, an expectation, moments.

 My father seems determined to regain strength. He wants to be able to walk 30 blocks again, which he was able to do not so long ago. I miss dancing with my father.

 *

 I once walked by a bar with its windows and doors open, smelled the spilt stale beer, heard the clinking of glasses, and bad music and was filled with dread and sadness. Some old songs can remind me of a time when I enjoyed them, reliving why I no longer can, leaving me numb. Drunk men make me nervous and annoyed, the smell of certain liquors makes me nauseous. Old music brings a mix of nostalgia and regret I prefer to avoid. 

*

I am lucky to still have my parents, and I’m okay with grieving the loss of who they once were while trying to accept the natural progression of things. I just didn’t realize that while I was still figuring out my life, I was going to have to figure out whatever this is as well. This knowing to check up on parents, this figuring out what’s next because I have stairs in my house that my father struggles to climb, or consoling my mother when she admits she doesn’t know who she is if she isn’t the one taking care of everyone, or keeping track of her treatment and their health.

I find myself wishing everyone peace, tranquility and new opportunities after a chaotic year. A reflection of where I am. It seems obvious that life isn’t always what we want it to be. I took on new roles, new responsibilities in 2016. All of which would have been much easier had my son not had a hard time with other aspects of his life, if my mother hadn’t gotten sick, if my father had done some things differently years ago.

My mother wished me something similar today: salud y tranquilidad.