*An essay a week in 2016*
(A bit delayed..read on to know why…)
It is July 7th, 2016. I spent the last two weeks in June helping to run VONA’s summer writing workshops in Miami. Last week, on Wednesday, June 29th, I received the news that my friend RD, who I’ve known since I was 18, who I hung hard with and cried with and danced with and did drugs with and fought with and so much with, threw himself in front of a train. The news is full of stories of the shooting of two unarmed black men. I just read about a number of Latino young men also killed this past week by police, one who was shot as he was driving his car.
It hasn’t been 24 hours since I landed back in NY.
This morning my daughter and I went to breakfast, then we went food shopping. She insisted on bringing the shopping cart up the stairs. She put the food away but not after first cleaning up the fridge. She then cleaned up the counter top and made us a smoothie.
Why am I sharing this? Because it reminded me that we have to find reason in our own lives for continuing to do the work and fighting the good fight and believing, somehow, there is good in this mess.
This evening I went for a walk with my daughter. I had to get out to feel the air around me and the sky above me, the ground beneath my feet. As I passed the entrance to the subway, I heard the train roar into the station. I looked down the stairs and imagined that train hurtling into the station. I thought of my boy RD. I thought about what he did, the rage and conviction that went into his actions. He had to walk no less than 13 blocks, across town then downtown, to get to that train station where I imagine him on the platform… He watches the train enter the station. When it nears him, he makes a run for it…directly into the train’s path.
I can’t wrap my heart around the violence of that act. The deliberateness he put into it. He’d tried before. He wrapped his car around a tree not two years ago. Once, he was talked off the George Washington Bridge. He talked so much about wanting to end his life. I’d been hearing it since I met him when I was just 18. 22 years ago. He finally did it. I don’t think any of us thought he would…not like this.
I want to respect his wife and his family. They want everyone to remember and celebrate his life, but if I’ve learned anything over these years since losing my brother, it’s that you can’t dictate how people grieve.
I feel everything. I process through my writing and my brooding. I can’t write about RD and not think about what he did and how he did it. I think about the ghosts that haunted him that made him do it like he did.
What was it that haunted you that made you decide to do it like this?
It hit me on Friday morning, July 1st. He was pronounced dead the night before at 9:22pm. I was walking around in a numb haze, in disbelief that RD made good on what he’d been saying for years…that he wanted to die… I had a writing program to run. This is important work…
I walked into the dining hall that morning and they were playing old school salsa. The kind my mother would blast when she cleaned the apartment, the smell of King Pine wafting around her. The kind that they blast from bodegas in the hood, even now, decades after the songs were released. Tito Rojas, Frankie Ruiz, Jerry Rivera, Los Adolescentes. The kind RD loved, the kind we went out to dance to to so many clubs around the city—Copa, Latin Quarters when it was 96th Street, Expo, China Club…so many. We went to Le Poulet to see Frankie Ruiz in 1996 and weren’t surprised when we heard he passed a year later; he was so high that night at the club, he could barely move but damn, he clutched that mic so hard and he sung the shit out of those songs.
RD couldn’t dance to save his life, much less salsa which requires so much rhythm and dexterity. He took classes but nothing could cure those two left feet he had, but he didn’t give up. He kept trying. Eventually he learned to lead and to move his hips. God, we danced so many salsas…
I met RD when I was 18. I was rolling a blunt on the corner of Vermilyea and Academy Streets in Upper Manhattan. “That’s so cool,” he almost shouted. He was pacing, like he always did. Flailing his arms and pulling the brim of his cap down, he stared at me as I wrapped the already shredded marijuana into the paper and made a perfect pencil out of it. “Wow,” he said. Then he took out a booch of cocaine, took two inhales and pushed it in my direction. “Want some?” I shook my head, shocked by this man and his brazenness. “Who are you?” I asked. “Oh, I’m RD. I’m your boyfriend’s brother.” We were inseparable from that moment on.
I’ve been deluged by so many memories since I got the news. He was the only one always down to do a roller blade mission with me—to Brooklyn from upper Manhattan, to Orchard Beach, to the Village to hang out, to Purple Lights in Battery Park City.
I once crashed his Benz into his driveway. He was so mad but he wasn’t the type to dwell on those kinds of things. He got the bumper fixed (however much it cost him) and I was driving his car within a week.
He was the one who convinced me to take a C++ programming class the second semester of my senior year at Columbia. On the first day, I stared utterly confused at the professor who was talking another language at the front of the lecture hall, a white board filled with all sorts of gibberish (algorithms?) behind him, I walked out of the class, straight to the registrar and dropped that class. RD didn’t let me live that up for years.
It is July 12th. I’ve been back in NYC for six days. I took the summer off to write and it scares me that I haven’t done much of that yet. I am feeling my friend’s death hard. This grief thing is so hard. I’ve known that for some time. I learned it when my brother died three years ago, and when my boy Will died a few months before. I learned it when the butch who raised me, my Millie, died eleven years ago. I learn it every time there’s a loss. There’s no getting used to this. The devastation of it. It’s different every single time… But the way my boy did it, shit…
A few days ago I had a conversation with my partner about the work I do. She says this is a gift I have—this ability to dig into the stories that haunt me and somehow pull myself back out and not stay stuck there. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to take myself out of it,” she confessed.
I think about this work I do and the work I’ve done to be able to do this digging, to stare at my past, my wounds, without looking away, unflinchingly, when they claw at me and I cry.
I remember when I wrote “White Straw Climbs,” the story of when I was molested. I was fucked up for days after that. I remember how it was that I was even able to go there, to write the piece after so long of living with the memory of being molested in the backyard of the building I grew up in on Palmetto Street in Bushwick, just feet away from where my mother was cooking in the kitchen. I remember what I did that night, how I mutilated myself. I did that for months after… I was able to write about it because a sister friend shared that she did that too, and so she gave me permission, unwittingly, to write the story and dull the sting of that shame and trauma.
I’m able to do this digging, this confronting, because I’ve honed this skill. I’ve worked at it for years, and continue to work at it. Make no mistake, there are times when the stories make me reel. That’s when I turn to self-care methods that I’ve carried over the years, and I have to periodically reinvent because overuse renders them less effective and sometimes useless, even. There are the walks I live by, the hikes in the forest, bike riding, rollerblading, working out at the gym (heavy squats when rage sits in my chest). There’s therapy and talking it through with friends and loved ones. And there are times like today when I get quiet and need to brood by the water, until I can bring myself to pick up the pen or keyboard.
I do this work because it’s important. Because writing is part of my healing. It’s how I connect with the work and with myself. I don’t believe in that “you just have to move on” advice that does nothing to heal the heart. I believe the only way out is in. I live by that. Hard.
My mind keeps going back to my dear friend RD. I saw my boy Jason yesterday. He’s an artist like me who also knew RD and spent time with him and also has so many memories of him. We talked about RD. We talked about the beast that keeps us going and inspired and working. The muse or whatever you want to call it. The thing that drives us and we heed to…that call that if not answered can also drive you insane.
I don’t know if the Greeks and Romans were right in their belief that creativity came from some distant, unknowable force. The Greeks called it daemons; the Romans called it the muse—a magical entity that lived in the walls of an artist’s studio who would invisibly assist the artist with their work. In 1933, Garcia Lorca called it duende “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought.”
I don’t know if the Rennaisancers were right when they claimed that creativity came from the self, thus nullifying (negating?) the idea of a mystical creature who serves as a conduit for creative genius.
I think it may be both. What I do know is this: that thing (interior or exterior) that propels us to create can save us and inspire us and motivate us, and it in turn has the capacity to destroy us. That thing is often fueled by the ghosts we carry, that we revisit in our work again and again and again.
Is it the choice we make to heed the call that makes the difference or are some of us simply not built to handle the “struggle”, as Lorca calls it? I’m not sure.
What I do know is that doing this work has lessened the sting of the memories that haunt me. I can talk about my brother and how he slowly killed himself with drugs without reeling into depression. I can talk and write about being unmothered and what that’s meant for me, the stupid shit I did in my incessant search for love, how I mother in resistance to the way that I was mothered, how I heal and am healed through my work. I can own all that I am with my flaws and beauty because of my relentless want to be well…
I always go back to that scene in Toni Cade Bambara’s Salt Eaters:
Are you sure, sweetheart that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.
I’ve seen and felt the cost of not being well. It took my brother three years ago and it took my dear friend RD last week. I think I’ll take my chances with wellness and will have faith in where that journey will lead me… Word.