*An essay a week in 2016*
One of the questions that always comes up in my Writing Our Lives Class is about privacy. How do we write about our past and not violate people’s privacies? How can we prevent angering or hurting people? I often quote Ann Lamott who once tweeted: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
I refer them to my essay “How We Rationalize Privacies We Invade”.
I may still be called an atrevida and traicionera. I hear my brother’s words on loop in chest, “Write it, sis, may somebody’ll fuckin’ talk.” I feel the guilt and the shame dig their claws into me. They make my fingers tremble as I type. I clench my jaw. I hold my breath. I see my daughter’s face and remember the why…she can’t carry this silence like I did. I won’t allow it. I write on.
We eventually get to the core of what they’re really asking and what writers of memoir and personal essay have asked themselves for ages: Can you protect people when you’re writing about your past?
Before I answer, I ask my students: Who are you trying to protect and why? Who protected you?
The energy shifts in the room. A few people nod. Someone may cry. Someone is staring at her notes or fidgeting with something, anything to avoid looking at me.
The question is again asked: Can you protect people when you’re writing about your past?
My answer: No.
A friend tagged me on a video on fb of a “wolf symphony”. In the video a lone wolf on a road howls. He is facing the brush, trees in the distance, he is in his natural habitat. A symphony of howls answer back. The camera moves to two howling wolves in a field. They are howling back and forth. Answering one another. This is how they connect. Tell each other: I am here. You are not alone.
This is what writers do: we howl on the page, it’s how we connect with the world, our stories resonate with others. This is how we find one another, our wolf packs. How we listen and answer back.
It was in writing about being unmothered that I learned that I am not alone. There are so many women and men like me whose mothers are very much alive but still can’t, won’t mother them.
It was writing about the grief over losing my brother that I connected with people who were grieving. I learned there were places and people with whom I could share my grief and not be made to feel like I was too much, my grief was too much. I wasn’t told to get over it and move on. I wasn’t told that I was wallowing. My sorrow wasn’t dismissed with a “it will/you will be okay.”
It was in reading the work of other writers that looked like me and came from where I came from, that finally gave me the audacity to pen my own stories. I remember when I finished the last line of my first novel. I mouthed: “I’m a writer. This time I believed it.
I think of the last line of Dante’s Inferno, as Dante and Virgil climb out of Hell on the other side of the world: “Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.”
Nostalgia came in hard as Christmas approached. I left my shopping for just days before the holiday and not just because I hate shopping. I thought of my brother and how he’d drag me out to the stores, to Herald Square and SoHo. Up 6th Avenue in Chelsea. The perfume shops on Broadway. The shops we couldn’t afford on 5th Avenue, where he’d share all the clothes and shoes he’d buy for us when he finally had the money. He always imagined a life in some distant future. My brother lived his life pining for more, more money, more happiness, more joy.
I went back to Christmases during my childhood. Millie’s gaudy fake Christmas tree, wrapped with so much tinsel and shiny garland (reds and greens and golds) and colorful lights that you couldn’t see any of the green. I can still hear the gold chirping ornament that she hid deep in the tree that we kids, my brother, sister and me, searched for hoping to be the first to find it.
I remembered the gifts under the tree. The year my sister and I each got a no name Walkman while my brother got the latest yellow SONY Walkman.
Mami se botaba en la cocina during the holidays. I picture her in the kitchen in her grease stained bata. Super KQ is playing on the radio, the smell of sofrito wafts through the entire three story building from the pernil baking in the oven for hours after sitting in the fridge for two days soaking up the juices of mom’s seasoning. I remembered the sweet aroma of cinnamon and clove when mom made arroz con leche. The huge caldero of arroz con fideo boiling on the stove. The many salads–a green salad, a cole slaw made al estilo Hondureño, a salmon salad.
I remembered the ritual of making pasteles that happened some time around Thanksgiving. The process of making the meat and the masa. This was before mom had the machine that grinds the bananas and platanos so she had to grind them by hand into a huge vat. You could almost guarantee that there was blood and layers of skin in that masa from the inevitable scraping of knuckles on the grinder. There was also the caldero of oil that had to be heated on low, the achiote added to it slowly. This oil was lathered onto the banana leaf before the masa was scooped on, followed by the meat. The leaf was folded in half and placed onto wax paper which was then folded precisely to hold the contents inside. The last step was to tie it all together with string. Mom still makes pasteles during the holidays though the process is long and difficult. She sells them for $30 a dozen. It’s her side hustle. And let me tell you, I’ve tasted a lot of pasteles in my day and no one make them like my mama.
Two years ago I started a tradition of making Christmas breakfast in my apartment for my family. This year it was in my new place where there’s so much more room for us to spread out and chat and laugh. I didn’t realize that the joy would later be shattered…
It started late that night when I awoke to a cryptic, accusatory text from my sister. That slid pretty quickly an all out fight during which we angry texted and she called me at one point screaming. She said some pretty absurd things including that I always play victim, that I don’t care about how my writing will affect people, that my work is bullshit, what I write is bullshit. She told me more than once to get the fuck out of her life, which in reality (as I reminded her), I’m actually not in much other than on holidays and an occasional text and phone call.
Yes, that shit hurt, but it also reminded me of why she and I don’t have a relationship. And it also made me miss my brother even more. I would call him whenever my sister and I went at it. We always commiserated on how awful my sister could be…still is.
My sister and I have never had a close relationship. The truth is that she was cruel and malicious to me when we were growing up and that tendency still runs strong in her. Like most little sisters, I spent much of my childhood wanting to be like her. And like a big sister, she spent much of our childhood shunning me.
As a pre-teen and teen, she would pen stories of torrid love affairs, always with a Latino urban twist so I imagine her book cover would be like those long-hair Fabio covers, a raven haired woman in his arms, her head thrown back in ecstacy, except Robby Rosa (from his long-hair Salsa days) would be the man on Dee’s book cover.
And the woman would look like the stereotypical Latina, curvy, red lips, an off the shoulder peasant blouse, jeans, and her head is thrown back, her expression in that in-ecstacy-mouth-slightly-open-and-trembling-eyes-shut kind of look.
I would climb onto my sister’s top bunk when she wasn’t home, sure to memorize exactly how her teddy bears were placed (always in a neat row) so I wouldn’t trigger her OCD “this ain’t where I put Cabbage Patch doll” rages. Then I’d go into her stash, behind her huge mirror, where she placed the stacks of stories she wrote. I’d sit there for hours, rifling through her papers, imagining the scenes, the heartbreaks. And I imagined that I too could write like she did. I was at the age where I wanted to be everything Dee was, do everything she did. I wanted to dress in the tight pink chiclet jeans, wear broaches on my button down blouses, tease my hair so it added three inches to my height (remember, this was the 80s). But I could never pull off what she did. I couldn’t make my hair blonde. Couldn’t make my eyes light brown. Couldn’t make my skin creamy white like hers. My hair was dark and curly. My eyes were dark and brooding. My skin was the color of my indigenous ancestors, my Mayan blood. But I could write like she did. Or I could at least try. So I did. In secret. Hiding the spiral binders under the bed and in my bookbag that no one looked into because it was such a disorganized mess or at least it seemed to their eyes. For me that was my protection. So no one could know what I was doing. That I was writing. This was my secret. This was mine.
(While we were arguing, I told her that so much of the reason I am a writer is because of her. She told me in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t give a shit about that.)
In 1988, while mom was in Honduras, my sister and I (she, age 14 and me, 12) fell for two best friends, Ruben and Alex. My boyfriend was Ruben. He was my first love. We would tell mom’s gullible cousin who was watching us while mom was gone that we were going to hang out at our friend’s Minelia’s house down the block. Instead, we hung out in the hallway of Ruben’s building, laughing and making out with our boos. Mom found out not long after she got back from the bonchincheras on the block. We both got beat and punished for weeks “primero por putas” and second because we were technically not allowed to date until we were 16. One day, Alex called and broke up with my sister on the phone. Ruben and I stayed together, and my sister hated it. She ratted on me so many times when I snuck off to see Ruben or hoveled myself in the fort I made in the bottom bunk to write Ruben long love letters.
The truth is that many of my memories of my sister go like this–I trust her and she betrays me. Once we were in the car waiting for mom and my sister did something to me, probably minor infraction that in my then four year old mind felt huge, and I cursed at her. Her eyes opened wide. She said, “Say it again, please. I wanna learn how to say it.” When I did, all excited like only a naive four year old who worships her sister can do, her face twisted into that malicious grin that I know far too well now. I didn’t know better yet. She told mom as soon as she got back in the car. When we got home, mom beat me bad and washed my mouth out with ivory soap. To this day I hate that fucking soap.
When I was five and Dee was seven, my sister insisted I needed a haircut. “Look, you’ll look so pretty,” she said, folding my hair under so I could see how I would look with shorter hair. I let her cut it, like a pendeja. That’s how much I trusted her. I took the hair she snipped and walked by mom who was wrapped up in a conversation with the neighbor. By the time my mom noticed, my hair was cut close to my scalp, like a boy. We got beat so bad that day. Mom says her neighbor had to pull her off of us.
I let my sister do to me what I never let anyone do–I let her swing on me and I didn’t hit back. This lasted for years. Once, when she was pregnant at 17, during one of my breaks from boarding school, she sent me to the Chinese restaurant like four or five times to get her the fried lobster legs that were her antojo back then. This restaurant was six or seven blocks from our apartment on Palmetto Street but the lobster legs had to be from that specific spot though there were at least three other Chinese restaurants that were closer. I went, repeatedly, that one day, until I was tired and not in the mood. When I said that I wasn’t going, she punched me in the face. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.
A few years later, when I was in college, I was visiting my mom’s house, where my sister still lived. I don’t remember what happened or why she felt the inclination to slap me, but I was over it and her at that point. I remember the sting of the slap and I remember pouncing on her. I pinned her to mom’s couch while she screamed and tried to get me off, but she was no match for me. My mother pulled at my shirt and my arm, begging me to let her go. “Sueltala que la vas a matar,” she yelled. Everyone knew I could kick my sister’s ass easily, but no one thought I ever would. I didn’t think I would…until that day. I put my face centimeters from hers and whispered, “If you ever put your fuckin hands on me again, Imma rag you the way I rag those bitches in the street.” When I let her go, she jumped up, her blonde hair stuck to her face in spots where the sweat had pooled. She cursed. She raged. But she didn’t touch me. She’s never laid a hand on me since. She’s taken to bullying me with her words… She says shit like: “you write bulshit” and “you always play victim.”
There is more, of course. So much more…
She told me once “You had Millie and Carlos had mom, who did I have?” I felt for her. I imagine she felt alone and unsupported for much of her childhood. The thing is, I did too, but I can’t write her story. I can only write mine. But she doesn’t get that. Instead, she tells what I do is bullshit. She tells me she’s over it and over me and that our relationship is toxic. I wonder what relationship she’s speaking of since the truth is we don’t have a relationship. We never really have…
I love my sister. I wish her peace and love and joy, but I’m not the girl I was who always sought her approval, who let her punch me in the face and didn’t react, who wanted to be just like her.
What started all of this? My sister said she was hurt that I don’t acknowledge her husband of 22 years on the holidays. This man who called me a skank when I was 8 months pregnant and told me to get the fuck out of his house. This man who has disrespected me countless times. This man who doesn’t come to any family events, who didn’t show up when my brother died, not to the memorial service, not to the hospital, never. As I explained to my sister, he’s her husband. I don’t have to accept him or like him. That truth is that I don’t think about him or his world like I’m sure he doesn’t think about mine. But no, I won’t buy him a gift to assuage my sister. I won’t be the better person in this one and I won’t apologize for that.
At this age, I don’t tolerate anyone disrespecting me, past or present. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of people over the past few years who weren’t my real friends or didn’t show up when I was in the darkest place of my life after my brother died. If you know me, you know I’m big on respect. I don’t care who you are. You don’t respect me, I don’t fuck with you. I walked away from my mother for this very reason. I’ll walk away from anyone, including my sister’s husband, and neither one of them has to like it.
Here’s the thing: I also know that my sister has shown up for me in ways that I am forever grateful for. She came with me to tell my mother I was pregnant with my daughter. Once, when mom told me she should have had an abortion when she found out she was pregnant with me, I crumbled into my sister’s arms and she held me while I sobbed. “Why would you tell her that, ma? Don’t say that to her!”
I also remember how cruel she was to my brother. Once, when he was already an addict struggling to kick the heroin habit, they got into an argument about Lady Gaga. They were in my mom’s house watching videos and my brother compared her talent to that of Madonna, who they both idolized. My sister called Lady Gaga trash. They blew up on eachother but it was my sister who called my brother a tecato and a loser. She frothed at the mouth as she berated him. Later, when he went to apologize to her, saying, “You’re my sister, we shouldn’t fight like this,” she pushed him away and started railing on him again. I wasn’t there but my mother told me how ugly it got and so did my aunt and my brother. They were all mortified that my sister had gone there. You get her mad, she will say some real heinous shit to you, and she’ll be completely unapologetic about it.
She’s apologized to me in the past about how she treated me. We had a conversation about our childhood a few years ago where I told her that she was just mirroring what she’d learned from mom. This was around the time she finally admitted that mom was harder on me, that I was often the target of mom’s rages. She’s backtracked on this now. Now she says I always play victim.
On 9/11, my mother had everyone convinced I worked at the World Trade Center. The truth is I worked on 57th and 10th Avenue. When I went to see my mom a few days later, my sister ran to me crying and apologizing for how horrible she was to me as a kid. “I was never a sister to you and I’m sorry for that,” she said. Now she claims it’s all in my head. I’m the eternal victim.
I’m wincing as I type this. I’m sipping on some bourbon and ginger ale to calm me down. My hands are trembling and I’ve welled up a few times.
During a speech years ago, writer Melissa Bank said if you’re going to write about people you know, you have to be prepared to lose them from your life. We writers know this on some level. Even in your fiction, people will claim to see themselves in characters you create. NonFiction is an entirely different beast. I write knowing that what I write may hurt some of the people I love. I think about this all the time. I make the decision to write it anyway because these stories are important to me. I don’t take it lightly ever despite what people may claim. Here’s the thing: I won’t continue to protect people who didn’t protect the girl I was. I don’t write these stories out of vengeance. I write to take back my power every single time I face that page. I do this work with love. People won’t always see that and they don’t have to…even if it hurts when they lash out and demean your work to make themselves feel better. I’m not sure if the losing people part will ever get easier. I know that the more I confront these traumas, the more clarity I have and the more able I am to stand in my truth. I am no victim. I am a woman who digs into her life stories to understand how I became the woman I have become, the mother, the teacher, the partner and writer, the daughter and sister. I won’t let anyone take that from me. Ever.
There’s no preparing yourself for losing people you love when you’re doing this work, but I won’t protect people who have been assholes to me. Not anymore. This isn’t to vilify anyone. I know my sister can be a good person. I’ve seen her be that and have even been on the receiving end of some of her kindnesses…but I also know that raging bitch she carries inside of her. I have been the target of her ugliness so many times. The last time being not 24 hours ago. Siblings have a special ability to break our hearts. The thing is, I write about my heartbreaks. I dig into them to find, make healing. It’s what I do. I won’t apologize or defend it. If you don’t like it, you need to X out of this essay and bounce, because I won’t stop doing this. I won’t stop writing these stories. I won’t stop digging into my life. I won’t stop working on my healing. Don’t try to stop me, and know that if you try, your trying only fuels my want to continue to do it. I am relentless. You should have known that by now.
I look back and know now that this is why I had (and still have) such a hard time trusting women. It’s not just because of my mother. It’s because of how my sister treated me too.
It’s sad, really. Reliving this is sad for me. My sister telling me to act like I don’t have a sister is fuckin’ sad. I come to this: my sister is still that little girl who will attack and berate me and try to make me feel small. I don’t want or need that in my life, especially not from someone who is supposed to be my sister. It’s fucked up. I know that. It’s painful… but it’s in these stories that I find healing. It is in my writing that I’ve learned (and continue to learn) to trust again, and to no longer allow that in my life. It’s how I stop the cycle that I repeated well into adulthood, inviting women and men in my life that were mirror images of these two women who have caused me so much pain…and yes, that I’ve hurt as well.
I am healing so I can be better, for myself, for my daughter, for my partner and my students and the world… I dig to heal. This is my journey. I can’t and won’t let anyone take that from me. It is a mirror I hold to myself. I don’t see a victim staring back. I see a woman taking her power back. I see a woman who has to do this to continue living a more whole and full life than the one I was given as a child… I’m not that girl who trusts so easily and gullibly. I see you. I howl back…