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When the world hurts, I write

November 21, 2014

Baby girl is going to her dad’s this weekend so I get to sit with myself like I do every other weekend and write and pace and take long walks and brood, and yes, miss my baby girl because even after eight years, I still miss her when she’s gone. I used to hang out on these weekends. I used to go out to bars and literary events and readings and drink sangria and wine and bourbon and come home stumbling. Sometimes I’d bring home a lover. These days, I write. I haven’t been out in months. I can’t say I miss that life. Not today at least.

***

I went out this morning to get ingredients for a beef stew. There’s something about soup that comforts me. First I put the cow neck bones in my huge caldero, by far my most used pot. I seasoned them with Adobo, oregano, basil, rosemary, ground peppercorn, and of course comino, the one I get from my aunt who does it old school style—she buys the seeds from the same African woman and toasts them on the stovetop with peppercorn, then she grinds the mixture and pours the magia that results in various containers that she disseminates to the family. I let the bone simmer with the spices while I peeled and ground three large garlic cloves. When I could hear the meat cooking, I added the garlic, vegetable broth and a few cups of water. I added the potatoes I’d peeled, and covered the pot. I peeled and cut up the carrots, the green peppers and onions, and chopped the cilantro and recao. I added it all to the boiled pot. As the aroma curled around me, I felt my chest loosen. That’s when the tears came. I thought of mom and my brother. When Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” came on the radio, I sobbed as I added the kielbasa sausage, a must for all beef and bean stews, mom says.

***

I’m tired today. I’m tired of the microaggressions that break our hearts just a little bit every day. I’m tired of rude people who can’t say thank you or you’re welcome because they deem us unworthy of politeness. I’m tired of all the work we put in & how the publishing industry continues to deny us a space where we do not to have to deal with absurd watermelon jokes. I’m tired of walking into Rite Aid & having to hear people defend Cosby. She said, “Why did it take her so long to say something? She’s a liar. They’re all liars.” The man responded, “It’s Bill Cosby. He wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t have to. ” As if they were buddies. As if these sexual crimes are about sex. As if they’re not about power. The old man who did it to me was loved. No one would have imagined he could do that to a little girl. But he did. He did it to me & only God knows how many others. I didn’t talk about it until I was in my 30s. Those people in Rite Aid reminded me of why: because of the shame, because we’re further victimized when our story is questioned & our perpetrator is defended. I’m so tired of this rape culture.

***

I peeled the yucca, the one the man in the vegetable aisle at the store picked out for me though he said he didn’t know how. “Just cut it and we’ll see,” I said with a smile. I think it was the smile that convinced him. He went hunting for the knife and used it deftly to chop the foot size yucca. The first two were no good. The last one was gorgeous, no spots, no sign of rotting. While I peeled it, I thought of mom.

I remember watching her hold the yucca firmly in her left hand, then she’d slice a line down the length of the thick, flaky skin, just deep enough to hit the meat. She’d use the knife to push the skin away from the inside so when she was done, the skin came off in one sheet and fell into the sink, resuming the same tube-like shape it had when it was hugging the white of the yucca.

***

When I went to the line to pay for my soup ingredients, the cashier was ringing up a woman with heavy make-up who was pushing her items into the cashier’s hand as opposed to placing them on the conveyor belt. I know the young Latina cashier enough to say hello each time I come in to buy something. She wears big earrings and has a ring in her lip. She chewed on it while she grabbed each item. She hadn’t put one down before the heavily made up woman was pushing the next one at her. The woman, who had a swath of red across her cheekbone and bright blue lining her lids, huffed and rolled her eyes. When she was done emptying her basket, she dropped it onto the floor with a loud clatter. It just missed my foot. Then she kicked it toward me and looked at me, no excuse me, no nothing, “Let me,” she demanded in a heavy Slavic accent. I moved back to let her push her basket next to the stack that was already there. She rummaged in her purse and paid, then grabbed her grocery bags and sped off. She didn’t say thank you to the young Latina who was still chewing on her lip ring and shaking her head while she watched her exit. I could almost hear her thoughts, “Ay si, vete!”

I thought back to a few weeks ago when a woman on the seven train pushed me to get onto the train. I had my back to her so I didn’t see her come in and, no, I was not by the door. Actually, I didn’t even realize I was in her way. I was too busy chatting with my ten year old about what a nightmare the seven train is on the weekend. I turned to look at the woman when I felt her palm shove me. She said, “You should have learned that when you came to this country.” She had a heavy Eastern European accent. I was stunned at her audacity. I didn’t know what was going to go down so I pushed my daughter behind me, deep in mama bear mode. The woman followed with a tirade of “you people this and you people that.” When I got off the train two stops later, she was still running her mouth. I was fuming. People were looking at her shaking their heads, but no one but me said anything to her about her behavior. No one called her out on her prejudice. People gasped and shook their heads but said nothing.

***

When I finally attempted to make soup from scratch last winter, I closed my eyes and remembered mom in the little kitchen of our railroad style apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, shuffling back and forth in her sofrito stained bata and flip flops. I lined up my ingredients in order on the counter like she used to—spices first, then the potatoes and carrots, extra cilantro and recao on the side por si a caso it needs more. The tin containing mom’s prized comino sat on the greasy counter above the stove, always close enough so she could add a pinch. I keep mine in the cupboard next to the stove.

I got the chicken soup down pretty quickly, and later moved on to beef stew. I’m going to try bean soup during the Christmas break.

Mom always made me my favorite bean soup when I visited. When we fought, those loud, ugly fights we’ve had so many times over the years, where I leave crying and reel into depression, curling myself up in my bed for days, mom would try to melt the ice between us by sending me a tub of bean soup to my aunt’s house. I’d get a text from my aunt: “Your mom sent you soup. It’s in the freezer.” That’s how mom says she’s sorry. How she admits to being wrong.

She hasn’t sent me a soup since she stopped talking to me last December.

***

I stirred the soup and added the yucca. You have to add the yucca at the end, when everything is in, including the cut up sweet plantain and chunks of pumpkin. Yucca cooks quickly y se deshace if you overcook it. I lowered the flame and let the soup simmer for a while until the scent floated through the apartment.

I light candles around my room. Place one on my desk, in front of the picture of my brother. Only then do I sit down to write.

***

When I saw my mom a few weeks ago in my aunt’s house, the first time in almost a year, we locked eyes when I entered the living room. We stared passed my aunt and her kids, her best friend and comadre. They’d been talking but got quiet when I walked in. Everyone knows the routine.

I thought I saw something shift behind mom’s eyes, or maybe I was just being hopeful. Mom jerked her face away and stood up, “Me voy,” she said. She stomped past me, pulling her shoulder in so she wouldn’t touch me. She left without another word.

“I’m sorry,” my aunt’s comadre said when she heard the door slam. She walked over and rubbed my back. “She’s so hard.”

I pulled away and walked into the bathroom. I ran the water but could still hear them talking through the walls. “She’s gonna die like that,” my aunt said, “Bitter and angry.”

***

After the market, I walked into Rite Aid to get some candles. As I approached the line, I heard them, two employees talking about Bill Cosby. The man was holding a newspaper open and they were leaning in, looking at an article, I presume. “They’re all liars,” the woman said and brushed her hair back with one hand. “He wouldn’t do that,” the man said. I put the candles down on the nearest shelf and ran out.

I thought back to when I finally told Millie what her uncle had done to me. “You could never tell your mother that,” she said. Millie died a few weeks later. We never spoke about it again.

When I told my brother, he too was on his death bed. He turned his face and stared out the window. By then they’d moved him to a room that had a view of a wall. They’d tried to brighten it up with a mural of trees and birds but it was still brick and mortar. In his last room he had a view of Roosevelt Island and the rushing current of the East River. We’d sit and stare out that window and talk for hours. Carlos got quieter once they moved him to that room with a view of a wall. When I complained and asked him to be moved, the staff explained that they needed to keep him in the cardiology department to monitor his heart. There were no rooms available with a view of the river.

My brother was quiet for so long, I took out a book and started reading. Or I pretended to. Finally, he turned to me and said, “His son molested me.” Then he turned to stare out the window.

My brother died staring at a wall.

***

I can’t remember experiencing racism or prejudice when I lived in Bushwick. It was a predominantly Puerto Rican and black neighborhood back in the 80s and, yes, there were racial tensions but the pervasive issue was poverty. Then I went to boarding school in white, wealthy Wellesley, Massachusetts.

“Rosie!” they yelled as I rushed past, my overstacked bookbag on my back, I’d just walked the two miles from my dorm to campus, I was sweaty and annoyed and didn’t need their shit. “Tawk, Rosie, tawk. We wanna hear you tawk.” There were giggles and loud chuckles and a weak, “Leave her alone.” This was 1989 and Rosie Perez as Tina from Do the Right Thing was the only context they had of a Latina.

A few weeks later, I was walking home with a St. Lucian girl who was also in the ABC program, a “scholarship kid” like me, when we had a lit cigarette thrown at us from a passing truck. I remember the guy’s bloated red face, his yellowed teeth, the snarl, “Niggas, go home!” She burst into tears. I swallowed my lips. We didn’t talk for the rest of the walk to the dorm at the top of the hill on Norfolk Terrace. We never talked about that incident again.

***

A few years ago, I took a job as an editor of a website. We had a strategy meeting within the first few days I was there. The CEO asked me what direction we should take with the site as we were prepping to overhaul it with all new content, a new look, a new everything. I said, “You should really start paying attention to the Latino community.” She rolled her eyes and said, “Latinos don’t go on the internet, Vanessa.” The next day, I sent her reams of data from the Pew Center and IAB that showed that Latinos were one of the largest growing populations on the internet.

A few months before I resigned, she wrote an article about the organization for Fast Money where I was referred to as “the Latina single mom.” No mention of my publishing credits or my Ivy League education.

***

I had a white friend from Kansas who would often joke with me about how he needed someone to clean his apartment, “You wanna do it Vanessa. I mean, I know your people are good cleaners.” He’d giggle and I’d squirm uncomfortably. I didn’t know how to tell him to stop that shit, that those jokes weren’t funny. One day I finally said, “Those jokes are getting real tired.” He never did it again.

I knew this other flamboyantly gay white guy from Connecticut who was always rolling his eyes and brushing his bangs out of his face so I always wondered why he didn’t just cut them. His favorite phrase was: “That’s so ghetto.” I didn’t know how to tell him that I cringed inside every time he said it. I didn’t know how to tell him about the pile of rubble I was raised in and how that term was so charged with racism and classism and a whole lot of isms. To this day, when I hear that come out of people’s mouths, I hear those lines from that Naughty by Nature song on loop in my head: “If you never been to the ghetto/ Don’t ever come to the ghetto./ ‘Cause you wouldn’t understand the ghetto./ So stay the fuck outta the ghetto.”

***

I’m exhausted today. I’m tired of so much but not enough to be silenced. Just enough to hole myself up to write. To write this meandering post. This is how I cry, how I shout & pull at my hair & scream. I write that shit. I write essays. I write books. I do so relentlessly.

13 Comments
  1. I’ve had partners from different ethnic groups to myself and I have to say I’ve often been oblivious to the racism – as well as some of the sexism – that they have experienced through their lives. It usually happens when I’ve not been around of course as people are cowardly like that, but it’s been heartbreaking to hear about when I have, and to know just how much a pert of their everyday lives it has been.
    I didn’t know just how badly my wife was bullied throughout her white ex-pat upbringing because of her origins and because she looked different until after we split. She never said much about it before, it just spurred her on to be more successful than they were.
    She later joined ethnic minority work groups at her workplace not because she wanted to use it to her advantage but because she felt a duty to.
    It shamed me to discover just how much damage she had endured. I would imagine her as a child – a gorgeous little thing by her photos – being bullied and finding her comfort in books and studies.
    Never showing fear or letting those other kids see how they hurt her. But they did.
    That damage lasts forever and now I know more about it I will never underestimate it again.
    Physical and sexual abuse is a whole other subject to address but totally interconnected and not necessarily more or less harmful in many ways, and the damage spreads to all those who love the victims throughout their lives in many ways, and I’ve seen this myself.
    You touch upon so many issues that need to be talked about more, but are so hard to do and the issues so deeply entrenched in our societies.
    I think you are very brave to raise them and hope others will respond positively to this.
    My own upbringing was typical of lower middle class white backgrounds where I grew up not seeing many of these issues until well past my childhood so I even feel guilty for that when thinking about these cruelties.
    Your post touched me and I hope it will others too, and maybe make a difference somehow.

    • Thank you for sharing your story and your honesty. All the best.

      • Thank you for sharing yours!

      • On your Cosby note – I’m sorry. But it does seem to be changing. Over here in Britain there is a huge movement to uncover historical sex abuse carried out by celebrities, and it has been gathering pace for some time. It started with Jimmy Savile, that horrid creepy man, but has now spread and spread. Im all for it. I dont care if ‘times were different’ then. Wrong is wrong. Abuse of position and power is wrong.
        I was on a train to Zermatt two years ago when my friend and I overheard a conversation between three people across the aisle from us.
        A very well spoken english guy and his two equally well spoken lady associates, who were rather annoyingly subservient to him, all in their late 60s, were discussing the latest news of tbese stories and proclaiming how unfair it was that these poor people were being pursued for ‘things’ they’d done 30-40 years ago, and how they should just be left alone.
        My friend and i were astonished. We thought about saying something but decided that if they could even harbour such opinions there would be absolutely no point trying to remonstrate since their minds and indeed mindsets were fixed in that same misconception that led to these deeds in the first place.
        Maybe we were cowardly, i dont know. But at least society is moving away from their view and publicity is showing that this behaviour is and never was acceptable. These ‘poor old men’ are being exposed, rightly humiliated and locked up for what they did. That sends a strong message which, although too late for the victims, at least goes some way to changing for the better and providing some sense of justice.
        I hope this gives some small comfort.

  2. Those Naughty by Nature lines at the end topped this piece AWF. I love how your writing is both casual and intense. Beautiful scenes.

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