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Relentless Files — Week 36

September 3, 2016

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*An essay a week in 2016*

I finished Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson this week. All I can say is cop that. Cop it soon, especially if you were raised in 1970s &/or 80s Bushwick.

What stayed with me?

Repeated refrán throughout: This is memory.

Woodson seamlessly braids the story, jumping back and forth, making connections. I was never lost.

Later in the book, she writes:

“Linden, Palmetto, Evergreen, Decatur, Woodbine—this neighborhood began as a forest. And now the streets were named for the trees that once lived here.”

I learned something new about the neighborhood I still consider home though I’m no longer of there, I will always be from there.

The book ends with the protagonist, Autumn, her brother and father back in Tennessee, on the land where they once lived, that they left to move to Bushwick. They are at the lake that their mother walked into. “This earth is 70% water. Hard not to walk into it.”

She ends the book: “I lifted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, all this, everything and everyone, became memory.”

Metaphor.

It was a betrayal by one of her best friends that made August finally look to leave Bushwick. She threw herself into her books. They were her way out.

For me, it was my brother’s leaving the house that was my reason. I was in seventh grade. There was no one in the house to love me like that… Books were also my way out.

***

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The book brought me back to Brooklyn. To my brother Carlos and all the stories I have of him.

…When we played house one day and I discovered something was different about him. He flicked his neck and the pantyhouse he was wearing on his head cascaded over his shoulder. I knew later that what I was seeing for the first time was that my brother was gay.

The time he burned his face making my sister and me pancakes.

How he would tuck us in at night and tell my mom, “Ya arrope las nenas…”

In a house where no one could protect me from my mother’s abuse, my brother brought me a sense of safety and love no one else could. Then he turned 13 and everything changed and I didn’t know why. He started acting out at school. When he broke curfew, mom beat him with a belt then locked herself in her room. We could hear her crying from three rooms away, in the kitchen.

Mom would later say, “Se aferraba a mi…”

She says Millie told him. Has built a whole narrative around that. My brother told me she’s the one that told him about how he was conceived in a rape. He was never the same after that.

This is memory…

What I know is that once my brother left, the abuse became amplified. Maybe mom wasn’t crueler, maybe she didn’t yank my hair as often, giving me whiplash, but my brother wasn’t there to get me out…to help me forget…

Carlos me apoyaba. He wrote letters that my first love dictated to him. Then he snuck them to me. He helped me get out of the house to see my boo. Carlos talked to me and trusted me. He told me about what boys do. He didn’t call me puta when I told him I kissed Ruben, like mom did that time she caught me and Ruben talking. All we were doing was talking.

When I got my period when I was ten, he mushed me and said, “Stop growing up,” and laughed.

When I told him about boarding school, though he rolled his eyes when I told him Millie agreed that I should go (they had a different relationship), he called mom to help convince her. I never moved back…

***

Juan Gabriel passed away on Sunday, 8/28. If you were raised by a doña in the 70s and 80s, his songs were part of your Saturday morning ritual.

Juan Gabriel

Katia and I were listening to his songs, Hasta que te Conoci, Querida, No Me Vuelvo Enamorar, on our way to my house early Monday morning. The sun hadn’t quite come up yet but she was announcing her ya vengo arrival in the purples, red and deep blues that crept up on the horizon. NY was still quiet. Early risers made their way across the streets to trains or buses, mostly women from what I saw, carrying lunch bags with what I imagine was leftovers from last night’s dinner.

I thought of my mother, mop in hand, singing along loudly to Juan Gabriel. She is in a bata, her hair messy, the smell of King Pine wafts through the apartment, I stand in awe of her and wonder if she knows how beautiful she is.

When she and Millie fought, and Millie ran off to God knows where (I’d find out years later that she had a fourteen year affair with a women who lived just a few blocks away on Linden Street), mom blasted Juan Gabriel records as she cried, her body curled in the corner of the couch. At these moments, I’d watch her from the backyard or the bottom bunk, far enough so she didn’t notice me. I was smart enough not to interrupt her grieving.
No sabia, de tristezas, ni de lagrimas
Ni nada, que me hicieran llorar
Yo sabia de cariño, de ternura
Porque a mí­ desde pequeño
Eso me enseño mama, eso me enseño mama
Eso y muchas cosas más
Yo jamás sufrí, yo jamás llore
Yo era muy feliz, yo viví­a muy bien
Yo vivía tan distinto, algo hermoso
Algo divino, lleno de felicidad
Yo sabia de alegrías, la belleza de la vida
Pero no de soledad, pero no de soledad
De eso y muchas cosas más
Yo jamás sufrí, yo jamás llore
Yo era muy feliz, yo vivía muy bien
Hasta que te conocí
Vi la vida con dolor
No te miento fui feliz
Aunque con muy poco amor
Y muy tarde comprendí
Que no te debía amar
Porque ahora pienso en ti
Mas que ayer
Y mucho mas

We had a sound system by then. The one with the glass front that clicked open. It was the most expensive piece of equipment we owned. The speakers were almost my height and just as loud.

Mom doesn’t like the way I write about Millie. “She was bad to me,” she says, but that’s not what I remember. And isn’t that the problem (and beauty?) of memory—it is flawed, imperfect. Think about it: how different people tell stories of a moment they all shared.

Whenever my brother spoke of Millie, he prefaced it with, “I know you had a different relationship with Millie than I did…” and what followed was usually a story about how controlling Millie was, how violent…

Like the story of how my brother ended up moving to our grandmother’s house after a fight with Millie. At that point he was in high school, working at The Gap, and coming into his own. He dressed in that New Wave/Village style of the 80s that I later learned was popular in the gay clubs—fitted tees, bell bottom pants with thick soled, platform Village shoes with the metal plates on the toes.

I don’t know what they fought about this time. My brother said I was somehow involved. He and Millie were always fighting at this point.

Carlos admitted he wasn’t doing the right thing. Although he was working and going to school, he was selling weed on the side. Millie confronted him about it but the war between them started long before that when Millie suddenly moved in and months later we celebrated our first Christmas. This was their final battle.

Mom told me the story of how she met Millie after Carlos died. She went with a brother from the Kingdom Hall to his sister’s house, for what I’m not sure. Mom says there were all women there but she didn’t think anything of it. Millie noticed her right away and sat next to her on the couch. I imagine my mother, who though she was 21 and had three children by then, was naïve about so much. Millie asked her why she was there. Mom pointed to the kitchen where the brother was talking to his sister. Millie asked if she knew what was going on there. My mother shook her head, with confusion. Millie grabbed a woman’s hand and started dancing with her. She brought her close and grinded against her body. She let her hands slip below her waist. My mother stared.

After that, Millie started showing up at random moments and places: on the train when mom was on her way to work en la factoría: when mom picked us up from the baby sitter, Millie would show up on a bike and ride alongside us, Carlos, who was six, glared at Millie and pulled Mom toward him, but he was no match for Millie. One day Mom came home to find Millie waiting for her on the stoop of the building. She walked us up and marched in without waiting to be invited in. She moved in not long after and that was that…

Carlos and Mom told me stories to correct my memory.

When they fought before we went to Coney Island, the threat of cancelling the trip hovered ominously. Mom explained that it was about money. Millie raged about mom not having money, meanwhile Mom says Millie never paid for a bill in that house, not the rent or the light or groceries. I don’t remember that.

This is memory…

***

On Wednesday, enroute to NYC after a fantastic day at Dorney Park, the car started rattling and making scary noises. We were on a busy highway. Babe, being the stupendous driver that she is, made her way from the outer lane to the shoulder, thus preventing something tragic from happening. We got out to find the back left tire shredded so bad, it was smoking. She had a spare and the tools necessary (of course), and she and my sister friend Nívea joined forced to change the now disintegrated tire. Lawd, I have never been so grateful to be with two butches who know how to handle these kinds of situations. I watched, my body shaking and heart pounding, as cars sped by so fast, the car shook in their wake. I prayed silently, asking the universe to protect us. “All is well,” I repeated over and over, like a mantra, while I watched these two women work, my daughter and her BFF giggling absentmindedly in the backseat, unaware of how different this could go… Then a generous trucker pulled up behind us to help, his 18 wheeler now protecting our car from the rushing traffic. “Y’all alright? Need help?” he asked in a thick Southern accent. He gave us air to fill the spare, told us he once lived in NY, now lives in South Carolina but his daughter is still at NYU studying medicine. I have never been so grateful for the generosity of strangers who see someone in need and pull over to help. May his generosity return to him a thousand fold.

God has so many faces. Mother, Father, God can show up to you in the form of a truck driver with a thick Southern accent who first words to you are: “Y’all alright? You need help?” And proceeds to assist you by giving you air from his truck to fill your spare. Homie really just pulled a hose from his eighteen wheeler. *pause for effect* The cars and trucks whizzed by him but he is unbothered by it, he does not flinch or hesitate. He lifts the shredded tire, thick workers gloves on his hands that are dirt and oil stained, he is like a fish in water, the roads are his ocean. And he was sent to help you. How beautiful is that?

***

My comadre Alicia introduced me to Pomodoro this past May at the Sankofa Sisterhood Writers Retreat. My bruja sister Lizz reminded me of this magical method during our weekly check in. Basically, the method goes: you write/work for 20 minutes (timed), take a five minute break then hit it again. After an unsettling night of repeatedly interrupted sleep and strange, lucid dreams, I woke up anxious and couldn’t kneed the tightness from my chest, so I needed this method this week more than ever. I lost count of how many Pomodoros I did, but I got so much done including writing for the memoir, syllabi, Writing Our Lives prep emails and questionnaires, creating Google drives for my classes and inviting the appropriate parties, etc. Praise your community that holds you up and shows you you got this even when the anxiety leans in and makes you fret and wonder how the fuck you’re gonna get it all done.

That night, exhausted and still feeling the heaviness, I received an email telling me that one of my essays is slated to be included in textbook for first year college students (in the chapter on Race and Identity). I squealed when I got the news but I hesitated to share it. Still, after such an emotionally challenging day, I pressed myself to share the joy.

This got me thinking about how we’re taught to be humble to the point of self-deprecation, especially us women of color. And we internalize that shit too so we often don’t share  when something beautiful happens to us and when we do, people say we’re showing off, we’re arrogant, full of ourselves, etc. Why? Haven’t we earned this shit? Haven’t I?

Celebrate yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments. Celebrate your love(s) and your life and your ovaries. Don’t you remember how you walked through fire? Don’t you remember when they told you you were too much of too much, that girls like you ain’t shit and won’t be shit? Don’t you remember how you vowed to be somebody, to show them, the most stinging blow coming from your mother who called you retardada and ordinaria, said, “yo sabia que tu no ibas a ‘cer ni mierda con tu vida” when you told her you weren’t going to law school. It didn’t matter that you still had your graduation gown on, the Columbia crown stitched onto the lapel. You had to prove your worth. Is it enough yet? Have you showed yourself yet that you’ve always been worthy? Do you see now that though you suffered, all this served to show you how relentless you are? Unfuckwithable. G’head mama, be proud. You were forged in storms. You’ve earned all of it, carajo. Word.

Y después de un tiempo
uno aprende que si es demasiado,
hasta el calor del sol quema.
Asi que uno planta su propio jardín
y decora su propia alma, en lugar
de esperar a que alguien le traiga flores.

Y uno aprende que uno realment puede aguantar,
que uno realment es fuerte,
que uno realmente vale,
y uno aprende y aprende…
y con cada día uno aprende.
~ “Y uno aprende”, Jorge Luis Borges

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