*An essay a week in 2016*
(Late again, I know…)
August 14th marked the thirteenth anniversary of the Northeast blackout of 2003. When I saw an article about it, my mind ricocheted back to that day. I had to walk uptown to Dyckman-200th Street from where I worked on 57th Street and 10th Avenue. I had just met my daughter’s father a few weeks before and we had already declared our love. The following week we went to Dominican Republic and three months later, I’d get pregnant with our daughter. The relationship didn’t last three years. I was such a different woman then.
Over the past week I’ve had numerous reminders of the woman I was. There was a celebration for what would have been my friend RD’s 51st birthday. We all came together at his house upstate to remember him. Dozens of people, many who I knew from way back when and many who I didn’t. I saw people I once considered friends and even two exes. I looked at one of my exes and remembered who I was when we started. Just 16, he was 24 and I thought that was the flyest thing in the world that an older man had noticed me. He loved me when I wanted someone to love me and he was smooth, he knew exactly what to say to a lonely sixteen year old girl. Why that relationship lasted six years I can attribute to the ignorance of youth. He wasn’t faithful and he wasn’t careful with his infidelities either. I put up with it. He wasn’t reliable and I didn’t ever feel safe with him, but at that point that’s what I thought I was worth. I’ve done that so many times…sold myself short because I didn’t realize I deserved more, that I deserved tenderness and consideration and reliability.
He tried to get me back, that one, a few years ago, after he spent a few years in jail. I agreed to see him because, well, I’d spent years of my life with him and at that point I still believed (hoped?) that we could be civil and perhaps even friends. He showed up with an overnight bag. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that he was not staying in my house. He didn’t get it. He pulled the same game he pulled when I was sixteen, but by then I was in my early thirties, I was a mom, and had lived enough to know I wasn’t going there ever again.
You tend to think about the past a lot when you’re writing a memoir.
I’ve been writing about my childhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Bushwick of the before. Bushwick when it was all black and Latino, when rubble and tire strewn junkyards and burnt out buildings dotted the neighborhood, going on for blocks. Bushwick at the beginning of hip hop, when Planet Rock blasted from passing cars and boom boxes and the b-boys laid out cardboard boxes to do their headstands and windmills. Bushwick during the crack era, when the candy color topped vials dotted the landscape, in the cracks of the sidewalks, in the gutters, in our playgrounds and stairwells. It wasn’t always pretty but it was home.
I feel an incredible sense of loss when I think of Bushwick, and it’s not just because of the gentrification. Sure, it sucks that the revitalization isn’t for us, the brown and black people that were stuck there when nobody wanted to go there. But what I remember, what makes me feel the loss, is that once I left, I never returned, and in many ways, I’ve felt unanchored since…
If I close my eyes I can go back to that moment. It’s three o’clock in the morning on a warm, cloudless night in late August 1989. My second mom Millie borrowed her brother’s church van to take me to Wellesley, MA where I would be starting boarding school in a few days. We were packing the van with my things. Two maletas of clothes, toiletries, an alarm clock, a bookbag, pens and paper, the square toed village shoes my sister gifted me that I only wore once on the first day of school because they blistered my feet so bad, just the sight of them made my toes ache. When Millie brought out the red ten speed she bought off a crackhead just a few days before, I asked if I could ride it before she put it in the car. Mom shook her head and said “‘tas loca, es media noche,” but Millie insisted, “Dejala, no ves que se va.” I rode that bike up and down my block and said goodbye. I blew a kiss up to the second floor window where my first love lived. I rode through the lumber yard turned supermarket parking lot that we kids played in and where I got my first kiss. I knew somehow that though I’d be back for vacations and breaks, I would never really be of that neighborhood again though I would always be from it.
I stared out the back window of the van when we pulled off an hour later and said goodbye to the Vanessa I was, who I’d never be again.
There have been so many versions of me. The Vanessa who was ashamed to be from poverty, from Bushwick, ashamed to be Latina, brown and black and all things she was taught were inferior. The Vanessa who rejected her roots because she just wanted to feel like she belonged to something, to somewhere. Then I was gifted How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents in my junior year of boarding school and for the first time I learned that my people have history and literature and stories. And so I grew into the Vanessa that would fight for Ethnic Studies at Columbia so I could study the history of my people, their rich cultures and stories.
During that era I was still the Vanessa looking for love in all the wrong places. I was the Ivy League student in love with a drug dealer from uptown. I lived two completely different lives until I turned around shortly after graduation and realized this wasn’t the life I imagined for myself so I left him and I bounced around for a while. I fell in love again and still sold myself short. I worked in corporate America. So many jobs, so many times getting fired, so much unhappiness. So many betrayals and lessons. It was having my daughter that caused the first major shift in my adult life. It made me stop running away from writing. I threw myself into that world and never looked back. The second huge shift was my brother’s death. I had to face all the griefs I was carrying or be broken by them. I had to face and name that primordial wound of being unmothered and all the stupid shit I’d done as a result, including repeatedly falling for mirror images of my mother, emotionally unavailable and abusive.
Of course so much happened in between and during all these eras of my life, all these renditions of Vanessa. So much partying and drinking and hanging out. So many tears, friendships made and ended. A whole lot of drama.
The butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects. Urbandictionary.com defines it as: The scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.
- A man traveled back in time to prehistoric ages and stepped on a butterfly, and the universe was entirely different when he got back.
- The flap of a butterfly’s wings changed the air around it so much that a tornado broke out two continents away.
This week I revisited the story of being molested. I’d been avoiding it. I wrote it years ago and haven’t looked at it in at least two years. I knew it was time to dig into it for my memoir, so I took myself to the park where I could sit under the big, blue sky and be held by Pachamama while I worked. It was so hard. I’d written it in visceral detail, including everything that motherfucker did to me. I know I had to write it all to get to the point where I could edit it for craft. I chopped it up for the book, then slammed my computer shut and sat for a while.
Later that day, someone who’d read my work reached out to thank me. She too is unmothered but didn’t have the term for it until she read my essays. She insisted that this reality has made us stronger. Here’s the thing: It’s difficult to hear that what has made me suffer also made me strong. It’s not that I don’t get that. Trust me, no one knows that about myself more than me. Yes, I am resilient and relentless because I had to learn how to be. It’s just that that strength does not negate nor does it protect me from the suffering that came (and still comes) from being unmothered. This shit has layers.
I started going out to the backyard and up that plum tree when I was five. I did it to escape my mother and her abuse. I was molested in that backyard when I was six and for a long time, even after that desgraciado moved back to Puerto Rico, that backyard didn’t feel safe to me. That’s when I started climbing into the junkyard next door. It was easy to climb into because the fence that separated the lot from the yard was falling apart so I could easily slip my body through the gaps.
The yard was like those that dotted the neighborhood—piles of rubble and trash, tires and rusted license plates, lumber with nails sticking out at angles, hypodermic needles strewn throughout. Trees and bushes pushed through those heaps of garbage. It was there, among the feral cats and kitten sized rats, that I imagined I was the female Indian Jones on a quest in a foreign land to save the world. I saved myself over and over in those fantasies.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like had I not experienced such trauma at such a young age. What would my life be like if I was mothered, if my mother was tender and kind? I have no answers. I know that it’s all contributed to me becoming this fierce woman who is just as beautiful as she is flawed. Would I change it if I could? I can’t say no…but I can’t say yes, either. I may have struggled and suffered but I’ve created a life for myself that I’m proud of. I’m raising a fantastic kid who shines supernova bright. I’m in a relationship, experiencing a love I’ve never known where I feel the safest and most cherished I have in I don’t know how long. I’m the writer I imagined I wanted to be, doing the work I want to do. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s no less amazing. So, no, maybe I wouldn’t change anything though I confess it chokes me up to admit this… It just be like that sometimes. I told you this shit has layers, right?