*An essay a week in 2016*
God, how I ricochet between certainties and doubts. ~Sylvia Plath
I’m moving after 7 years in the same apartment. I’ve amassed a lot of stuff and while I know I’ll be getting rid of tons, the idea of packing gave me tons of anxiety last week. I need help. If you know me, you know I have a hard time asking for help. You think you’ve discovered the many ways that your trauma manifests itself but the universe has its ways of reminding you that there are layers left to be dug into.
After procrastinating for days, staring at the pile of crazy in the corner of my room that is the direct result of the recent collapse of several ceilings in my apartment, I started packing last week. I started with the journals. Flipping through them as I packed, all I could say at first was “Wow” over and over. My daughter, who was sitting not far from me, removing our dozens of DVDs from their cases and putting them into the DVD storage binder, stared and asked, periodically, “You ok, mom?” I nodded and kept sifting. “Yes, baby. I’m ok.” I wasn’t being completely honest.
The oldest one was from 1994, while I was a student at Columbia in a relationship with a drug dealer. (That’s a story for another time.) I was already writing about being unmothered and how devastating that was for me. I was just 19 years old.
I hadn’t looked at or flipped through most of those journals in years. Journals covered in dust, holding so many memories and thoughts, sadnesses and joys scribbled on to lined and unlined paper. Big journals, little journals, journals that can fit in a clutch purse for those nights that I was out on the town. Journals with hundreds of pages, some with only a few dozen. Leather journals, cloth-covered journals, journals made of hemp, others made out of marble notebooks, collages on the front and back cover to inspire and encourage me to write. A suede journal one of my former students gifted me where I wrote my second novel on my long ass commutes across Fordham Road in the Bronx to my aunt’s house to drop off my daughter to then jump on the train for an hour to get to work, and back again in the evening. I’d type what I wrote every night, editing as I typed.
Journals where the papers were stitched together with thread, glued or stapled; ring and spiral bindings. There are so many journals. Many of them filled, others barely written in at all. One, a small, leather turquoise joint with accordion binding and a ribbon to tie it shut, had just one quote on the first page in my cursive: “The heart has reason that reason does not understand.” That feels especially true as I ponder the little bit that I read as I packed and what I’m sure to dig into once I’m moved out and in to start anew…
I am leaving a neighborhood that I absolutely adore. But I know I am ready. I know it is time.
The final straw was when I came home two weeks ago to find that part of the ceiling in my living room had collapsed. Within 24 hours, the ceiling in the bathroom and the hallway leading to the bathroom also fell. We lived in that mess for a week before it was fixed; under gaping, leaking holes, debris still falling in pebbles and granules. My asthma’s been triggered, which makes sense since there’s now a thin layer of dust on everything. I’ve wiped and dusted and swept and mopped, but that stubborn layer is back within hours.
On Wednesday, I went to the management company to hand in the letter saying I was moving. The man who handles the accounts in my building, who I’ve argued with countless time, who’s gaslighted me and been a dick to me, was standing at the window. When he finished with the woman in front of me, I slid my rent payment and letter through the slot, glared at him and said, “I’m moving. I’m done with you and that building and this management company.” I was all flared nostrils and sneered upper lip and swiveling neck. His eyes grew wide. “Ok,” he said. He stepped away to get me my receipt and returned with a smile. Maybe he was trying to be conciliatory. I didn’t wait to find out. I grabbed my receipt and bounced.
I smiled as I walked up the block to catch the bus. “I did it.” I giggled. “I’m doing it. I’m moving.” Just then the bells started ringing at the church across the street. The church’s name is St. Augustine Our Lady of Victory. I took out my phone and texted my partner. She saw it too—that was definitely a sign from the universe. It was a glorious moment. (Note that St. Augustine’s Confessions is the considered the first memoir in history. No coincidences. None.)
I teared up on the bus ride. I cried all week. Pensive tears. Tears as I prep for this new beginning.
I moved into this apartment back in 2009. I moved from the apartment I’d shared with my daughter’s father before I kicked him out when she was one and a half. I moved after my first VONA, where I promised that I was going to quit my editing job and move to facilitate this writing life I was creating for myself. This apartment was symbolic of so many things.
For so long I’d done things and made decisions for my mother—maybe if I do this she’ll love me, maybe if I do that she’ll love me. Moving was for me. Quitting my job was for me. My throwing myself heart first into this writing and teaching life was for me. I was starting a life that was mine, for me and my baby girl. I was taking my life back.
My healing started in that apartment. My facing myself and the ghosts that haunt me and being unmothered and all that means and has meant, started in that apartment.
I took long walks in the park last week. Walks in the woods, where I sat at the various spots I’ve frequented over the years. I thought about the many times I’ve traversed those trails. That time I was falling apart, I felt so lost and alone, I asked the universe, begged her to hold me. It started with the red cardinals, three of them to my left, then it was the blue jays behind me. More birds joined the chorus until I was wrapped in bird song. I cried so hard. This was the way the universe held me—in bird song.
I sat at the end of Diamond Six, in front of me the view of the Henry Hudson Bridge, Riverdale and the Metro North station where that derailment happened a few years ago.
I’ve been saying bye to my park. Yes, of course I will return. Of course I’ll visit and I’ll hike those hills and go hug the tree at the top by the overlook spot that is according to legend the oldest tree in the park. I’ll come hike the forest in the spring when the earth is coming alive and the shoots are pushing through the winter hardened soil. I’ll be sure to come by at the beginning of June when the floor is carpeted by the yellow and orange tulip tree blossoms. And I’ll come when the foliage is bright yellows and reds and oranges, as the trees shed their weight for the winter. I’ll always return. A piece of my heart will always be in that park, the only natural forest on Manhattan Island, but I know it’s time for me to leave…and I know I’m ready to go.
On Wednesday night I read on a friend’s status that there was a blackout in Brooklyn. I immediately texted my mother. It turns out the blackout was only on my friend’s block in Flatbush but I didn’t know that when I checked in. Mom was nice at first. She joked that we should go out for a drink soon. She shared that it was hard for her to see me and my sister recently at our mutual friend’s baby shower. She said that when she sees us “I miss so much my son’s presence.”
I was feeling soft and vulnerable so I let her in. I told her that I miss him too (I so do) but it’s unfair and selfish that she pushes her daughters away. I confessed, “You don’t know how much this has made me suffer. I’m tired of hurting.” Her response came a few minutes later. She dismissed me, saying the same damn thing she’s said since I was a little girl: “That’s your problem…you’re too sensitive.” She told me I had to let go of the past. That it’s up to me to forgive her…that she’s made her mistakes, like I will make mistakes with my daughter.
Forgiveness doesn’t work without personal accountability. Not in my book at least. Not right now.
It’s the same people who tell you to stop living in the past that are the same ones who refuse to face how their ghosts are eating at them from the inside out. Ain’t that some shit?
I’m so tired of being shamed for having emotions and having the audacity to express them.
When I told my therapist on Friday that that apartment symbolizes the beginning of deliberate healing work, he asked, “What does that healing look like?”
I answered: Writing. Walks in the park. Hikes. Reaching out and creating community. Writing Our Lives. Therapy…
And in the middle of that healing, my brother died and the griefs within the grief left me gasping for breath. I embarked on a new healing and confrontation of myself and that wound I never wanted to name because naming it made it more real. It meant I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
The wound of being unmothered.
I don’t know where I found the term. I’m sure if I look in my journals I will find the source. What I do know is that I was looking for women like me who have antagonistic relationships with their mothers, who feel abandoned and alone and unanchored in the world. I felt so isolated. I needed to know that it wasn’t just me…because knowing that was evidence that it wasn’t my fault. That there wasn’t some defect in me that made me unlovable and unworthy… So when I found the work of people like Jaquira Diaz, I read everything I could get my hands on by her. How does she write about this? How does she cope? How has she lived without her mother’s love and guidance? How will she continue to?
This has been my healing: the questions and the answers. This is the journey I embarked on while in this apartment…so, yes, it makes sense that all these things are coming up now, as I pack and get ready to move. As I sift through all this stuff I’ve amassed. As I get ready to throw away a whole lot of shit and start this new life.
It’s scary. I’m nervous. That good kind of nervous where you feel like ladybugs are dancing in your cheeks so you can’t help but smile and laugh. You want to skip and dance and run and cry and cry and cry.
Thank Goddess for those good cries.
My daughter shared a poem with me the other day where she wrote about our family’s eyes. About me she wrote: “Everyone in my family is strong, but behind their eyes they are all crying for a way to let it go, like babies crying for their mothers. My mother has the eyes of a warrior. One with many scars, one who’s been waiting to let go of her arrow…”
About herself she wrote: “Me, my eyes are the eyes of a wise old woman. Eyes like they’ve lived before. Eyes who have been through never ending tunnels of confusion and bright paths of curiosity and strength…”
One of the greatest lessons of this journey over the past seven years is the realization that I did (and am doing) that, I raised and molded (am still raising and molding) this little girl who can write these words; who can tell me without hesitation that her goal for her seventh grade year is to be valedictorian; who after nine years of dancing decided this year to try something new: the cheerleading team at her new school. When I asked her why she wanted to do that, she said, “I want to try something new. I want to challenge myself.” When I prodded, “But why?” “I want to take a risk, mommy. I want to do what you do: you take risks all the time.” Baby girl went to three hour practices every day for two weeks. She found out last week that she not only got on the team but she is also a candidate for captain.
I did that. Me. Word!
The week ended with the leaked recording of that fool Trump saying his fame entitled him to grab women “by the pussy.” I heard about it from my partner at date night on Friday. I admittedly stayed away from the news outlets last week as I was feeling super sensitive and just couldn’t deal with the shit show that is the election and the media overall. When Katia told me about the recording, my mind flashed to two specific instances in my life where I was grabbed by the pussy: one at the last Puerto Rican Day Parade I attended in 2001 and the other when I was walking through Bushwick one evening. I thought of the essay, The Danger of Being a Woman, that got picked up by Roxane Gay’s The Butter.
I heard him hissing at me but just kept walking. I always keep walking. That hissing and calling me mami shit has never gotten my attention. I slept. I noticed when it was too late, when I heard his footsteps running up behind me. When I turned, he pushed me against the wall and started grabbing at me. He grabbed my breasts. He grabbed my crotch. He went to yank open my pants. Thank God I had a belt on.
I started punching and scratching and screaming. I remembered that teacher who told me when I was a tween, “If someone attacks you, don’t fight back.” “What? Hell no!” I said. I couldn’t hide my exasperation. “You’ll get killed,” she said, looking at me real serious. “Imma fight back,” I said, shaking my head and staring right back at her. And that’s exactly what I did. I fought. I screamed loud, “Get the fuck off’a me!” And I punched. I punched hard. I slapped. I clawed. But, shit, he was so strong.
He held me down with one arm across my chest, above my breasts, while he groped me with the other hand. I just kept screaming and hitting him with everything I had.
The entire incident probably lasted under a minute. When he ran off, he yelled, “I never wanna see you around here again, bitch!”
That day I learned again just how vulnerable I am. How dangerous this world is for women. That’s the day I learned how right I was to tell that teacher “I’mma fight back.” The Danger of Being a Woman
Over the past few days I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a woman and what it means to raise a young woman. I thought about how young my daughter was when I first had the conversation with her about how dangerous the world is for girls. I’ve given my daughter boxing lessons, showing her how to throw a straight right and a jab, and showing her how to kick and yank and free herself from holds. I thought about the first time I saw a man harass my daughter in the street. She was ten. He was in his sixties. I told him I would break his fucking legs. I wasn’t lying.
This past spring an atrevido told me I should gift my daughter to him. “Regalamela,” was his exact wordage. I didn’t pounce and claw him porque Dios es grande, but he deserved that and more.
My daughter has confessed that she’s had to deal with street harassment from men and boys for years. “It makes me feel dirty,” she said and dug her face into my chest.
People have dismissed Trump’s words as “locker room talk.” They have claimed that all men talk that way. Some have even said that women are just as bad.
On October 7th, writer Kelly Oxford posted on her Twitter:
Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first:
Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.
Thousands of women responded. Tens of thousands. I was going to then I wondered where I should begin. What was the first assault? Was it when the old man from next door grabbed me when I was five? Was it when the teenager grabbed me by the crotch when I was seven? What about all the times it happened at bars and clubs and lounges, where men think your having a drink in your hand and dancing with a friend gives them license to rub themselves on you, grab you, curse you when you reject them. What about all the times it’s happened on the street?
I thought about my daughter. I thought about how though I will try, I cannot protect her from this horrible side of humanity. I thought about all the people I saw denying that Trump’s words are a clear example of rape culture, and those who even dare say that rape culture does not exist.
I don’t wish harm on people but there is a part of me that wishes they could experience this life as a woman, this woman, that woman who knows what it is to be assaulted, raped, violated, so they can see what rape culture is and how the world treats us, violating us again and again after the initial violation, when they blame us, ask if we were drinking, ask what we were wearing, say shit like: “what were you doing there, anyway?” Perhaps then they wouldn’t be so dismissive. Perhaps then they would acknowledge this fuckin problem and stop gaslighting us and making us feel that we are the problem, we are to blame simply for being women and having the nerve to exist and be.
I think of the officer who interviewed me after that pendejo assaulted me in Bushwick.
The cop, a heavy-set white dude with bright eyes and a worried face, said, “You have to be careful out here. You shouldn’t be walking alone.”
I looked at him. “And what if I don’t have anyone to walk with? Am I supposed to stay trapped in my house?”
He shook his head. “Just be careful, okay?”
I’ve never been the same since that day in my mid-20s. I always look back to see who, if anyone, is following. I don’t sleep on anyone. When I’m out late, I carry my keys splayed in my hand, one key in between each finger, in case some fool dares. Us being careful doesn’t solve the problem, though. The problem is this culture that says that women are here for men’s eyes and fetishes and hands, we are objects to be touched and lusted over.
When I told my mother I was having a girl, she shook her head and sighed, “Girls come to this world to suffer…” I didn’t want to believe her. I didn’t want to understand, but I get it now, as I raise a little girl having to show her how very dangerous it is for us women and girls…