Relentless Files — Week 57 (#52essays2017 Week 4)

*An essay a week in 2017*

I’m late on this one. I’ve been processing. I’m still processing. I just got back from Tin House where I worked with the phenomenal Lidia Yuknavitch. If you don’t know who she is, I encourage you to pick up her memoir The Chronology of Water (check out Roxane Gay’s review of it here). That book shifted me when I read it last spring. It gave me the permission to write my memoir the way I want to write it. (While you wait for the book to arrive, because I assume you’ve order it by now, right?, read her essay “Woven” in Guernica.)

Instead of telling you how fuckin amazing that workshop was (because it was so dope, amongst the best workshops I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a quite a few so that says a lot), I’ll show you something I produced, because, yes, Lidia didn’t just workshop the pieces we submitted beforehand, she had us generate work too. Thanks again Lidia! I love you. 


Lidia said: Locate a place where you came into consciousness. Pick one. Write about the placeness. What was it about your body that you knew you had a consciousness shift.

I wrote:

I’m in the backyard. I’m up in the plum tree. I look over at the junkyard next door. One of the feral cats has had kittens. I will go in later to catch them and play with them and pull the bugs off of them. Squash them between my thumb and index finger. The kittens will claw at me, scratch my arms. I will let them. They will learn that I will protect them and scratch them behind the ears. I will make them purr. Sneak them some milk in a bowl. Mom can’t see me. She’ll beat me if she does. Tell me she doesn’t buy milk for those malditos gatos.

I hear mom in the kitchen. I wonder when she will go out for a smoke or to El Faro, the supermarket down the block. She climbs out the window and goes to soil. I’ve seen her watching the yard. She was plotting but I don’t know what.

She looks up at me and sighs. “Te vaz a caer d’alli un dia. No creas que te voy a llevar al hospital.” Grumbles: “Machuda” befores she turns her attention to the ground and starts pulling at the weeds that up to her knees. She does this for hours, for days. When she finishes each day, her face and clothes are streaked with dirt and sweat.   

Mom will plant a garden in the yard that spring. She will grow tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and squash, spices like rosemary and cilantro.

I will watch as she treats those seeds and plants with a tenderness she rarely shows me.

She won’t let me help her in the garden. That is her space. Her project. I will watch from my branch in the tree. Mid-summer, I will pluck a yellow plum off a branch and chew on it as I watch mom. The bitterness will burn my tongue and make me wince. I will keep chewing, grab another and bite down. Let it burn me.

Lidia asked: What’s the story underneath?

She will ask for volunteers to read. I will look around the room. The other five writers are looking around the room too. I think: Fuck it. I’ll share. 

When I choke up when Lidia asks: What’s the story underneath. I know it, of course. The story underneath…

That I’ve always longed for and still long for my mother.

Later, when a writer apologizes for crying, Lidia will tell her never to apologize for her tears. She will tell us about her Lithuanian grandmother, who said “crying is the only language she trusted because it was the language of the body.”


Tin House Winter Workshops are held on Newport Beach, Oregon, three hours outside of Portland. The drive is gorgeous, through farm country and forest. And when you arrive, the Pacific greets you with all her majesty. Yemaya of the Pacific has a completely different energy than she of the Atlantic.

I’m processing quite a bit since returning from Tin House. I went into a story this past weekend that I’d willed deep into the recesses of memory. I’d never even written it down anywhere, not in my journals, nowhere, so I was shocked when it came barreling out. It made me realize a few things: 1. That I hadn’t forgiven the girl I was who broke her own heart so many times reliving the “love me, please love me” cycle I learned from my relationship with my mother, and 2. I carry quite a bit of shame around it. As I wrote yesterday and I shook and I cried, I knew I had to tell my partner. Why? She was on her way to pick me up so we could go food shopping, and she knows me so well, we’re so connected, that I knew she would pick up on my energy. I imagined sitting next to her as I penned the story. I imagined her walking into my writing room to check in on me like she does. I imagined her saying, “You okay?” knowing that I wasn’t. She always knows when something is off.

Telling her was the scariest thing. Scarier than exposing myself to the world. I worried: How will she see me? Will her feelings for me change? Can she, will she, still love me after seeing that kind of ugly? So, I told her. I told her minutes after she picked me up. I stared at the grey sky and told her. And she, in turn, held me and reassured me and reminded yet again, that I am safe with her.

Why am I sharing this? Because sometimes process requires that we move slow through the work. That we consider our lives and the people in it. That we confront these kinds of fears. That we let ourselves feel the stories and all that means before we share it with the world.

I keep thinking about what Lidia Yuknavitch asked us the first day of workshop: How many bodies have you been? I didn’t list the body of the girl I was who was so lost she did things that lost girls do. This weekend I learned that I have to forgive that girl. This is the journey.


You were 14 when he first said it: “When you’re 16, you’re gonna be mine.” Years later, this will make you tremble, but not in that good way it did back then.

You were 14 and you were fierce. You cut your eyes. You sassed. You said fuck you to the men on the corner who congregated by your grandmother’s apartment building in upper Manhattan. You loved to go there. Not for grandma. She was so much like your mother. When you angered her, sighed or gave attitude, she rolled up the thick Vanidades magazine she had stacked on her coffee table, and slapped you with it. Hard. She always went for your face.

But when you visited grandma, you got cable. There was no cable in Brooklyn then. You got cable TV and you got the boy-men on the corner who blew you kisses and winked and told you you were so so beautiful. And that made you feel special. Beautiful, even. It made you feel seen. All you wanted was to be seen. But you didn’t want them to know that. You didn’t want them to think you weak or fresca or easy. So you curled your lip, and when one of them, the most atrevido of them all, dared to touch your long hair and get too close, you told him off and pushed him away. They laughed. They loved it. And secretly, so did you.

You were 14. They loved the spectacle of you.

But him, what was it about him? He was no different from them. Early 20s. A drug dealer. He smelled of cigarettes and Heineken. They all did. But him. His smile, missing a front tooth. Imperfect like you. The way he looked at you through his thick glasses. The way he made you feel seen. He called you by your name. Vanessa. He walked next to you. Not too close though. He never dared get fresh. He never dared touch you inappropriately. The first time he kissed you, when you were 16, it was so soft. He was so soft. Gentle. Like you were a doll. You so wanted that kind of tenderness.

You gave him a chance because he was soft with you. Because he treated you like you were porcelain. A doll. At least at first he did.

What can you say about that relationship? About your first. He wasn’t your first love. If only you’d stayed with that boy who grew up down the block from you in Brooklyn. The one that was born two days before you. You fell for him when you were 12. You were with him until you were 16. Until the drug dealer. The one who took your virginity. The one they named after an amphibian, because of his bottle bottom glasses and scratchy voice that was like a rasp. But that bottle bottom glasses wearer was a man when he got you. 24 years old, he knew what to say. He knew how to say it. And he knew how to touch you. Where to touch you. He knew to go visit you in Boston where you were attending boarding school. Where you felt the loneliness in the marrow of your bones.

So you lasted years. Your senior year in high school. Your four years at Columbia. And one year after. Until you said: “Ya.” Until you claimed to have woken up. But you hadn’t. You just went on to the next emotionally unavailable man. But that man with the bottle bottom glasses left you scarred. It’s been twenty years since you left him. And still, when you see him, something inside you squirms. You can’t be around him for long without being disgusted. More with yourself than anyone.  

He tried to get you back years ago. After you had your daughter. You were single then. And you still wanted to be loved. Just not by him.

He tried to get you with the same game he got you with when you were 16. Except you were in your 30s by then. You were a mother. You were growing into your writer skin. You’d written a book where the antagonist Fabian was inspired so much by him. Fabian was a drug dealer too and had bottle bottom glasses too. He was vile. He was callous. Later your ex will claim that you wrote the book about him. You will laugh at this. You still laugh at this.

And that day when he cried to you, said he missed you, said you were the love of his life, you again laughed at him. You laughed at his tears. You laughed at him saying, “I can’t believe you had a kid. How could you do that to me?” You will look down at the overnight back that he brought with him and tell him in no uncertain terms: “You are so not comin’ home with me.” The fuckin audacity.

You know that so much of what happened in that relationship was your fault. You wince as you type this, but you know it’s still true. Because you allowed him to treat you like that. You allowed all the women, all the nights he didn’t come home. You fought, you accused, you cried, but you stayed.

You will flash to the memory of a night you have tried to forget, and you did for so long, until Tin House, when in her craft talk Melissa Febos asks you to write a list of things you could never write, and then challenges you to write one of them. The memory comes out in the writing.

It is 1994. It’s the fall of your sophomore year at Columbia. You’ve been together two years. He is staying with you in your dorm. He always has since you started at CU. Your first year you buy a futon to accommodate both your bodies. You do it with your first credit card, thus beginning a history of bad credit decisions.

That day he comes home late. So late you have to go down to the front desk to sign him in.  This is before the guards know him so well, they just let him come up. 

You have class early the next morning. He knows this. He doesn’t care.

He will barely look at you in the elevator on the way up to the suite, where you have a single room in an apartment with five other people.

You watch him, your arms crossed over your chest, wondering what he’s done now. He’s already done so much.

You want to be close to him. You want him to love you. Want you. It’s all you’ve ever wanted. For someone to love you. For him to love you.

You smell her later. The other woman. Her perfume and the acrid scent of her body. He didn’t even shower after being with her. You wonder, think: I’m not even worth that?

You want him to think of you when he closes his eyes. Not her. Never her… So you do things with him. To him. As you smell her all the while.

You don’t leave. You will stay with him for another three years. There will be more women. You still stay.

Weeks later, on your way back to your dorm, you will be pulled over by the cops a few blocks from where your dorm is on Claremont Avenue. The cop will tell you to get out of the passenger side of your boyfriend’s green convertible Volkswagen rabbit. You shake in the cold as the officer questions you. His tone changes when you show him your Columbia University ID. You point up the road, say: “I live up there at 47 Claremont. We’re on our way back. I have class in the morning.” He will tell you both to get back in the car and have a good night.

When you park, you watch as the man with the bottle bottom glasses pulls something out from under the seat you were sitting in. It is a brick, a kilo of cocaine. You will yell at him. You will rage. You will stay up that night as he sleeps next to you. You will think about how differently that police stop could have gone. How that could have fucked up your entire world. You know he has probably carried drugs in the car before with you in it. You know he will likely do it again. You still don’t leave.  

How do you come to terms with that girl you were who put herself in such danger? Who accepted such treatment? Who didn’t love herself enough to know better? To demand better?

Last night, I went out on my deck and looked up at the moon. I mouthed: I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you. I almost believed it.



  1. Omg!!!! Inspiration. I lost my mom not even a year ago, so this came close to home for me…And, as a child I used to sneak those same kittens from your story into my room, and get in trouble with my mom for doing so. Great post!

  2. I really relate to this essay. I write about everything else about me–about my loves, sometimes about my mental illness–but the one thing I can’t write about, in memoir or fiction, is being sexually abused. More specifically, my parents anger at me for not telling them first. (I told my favorite teacher, someone I trusted) I want to write about it. I am having a hard time forgiving myself for it. I don’t want to write a sob story; I’m sorry. But as I was reading this essay, I was reminded that that is the hardest thing to write about.

    I want to write about it–about my parents’ resentment about not telling them first. About how the DYFS social workers made me feel so stupid, so small. And I also related to wanting to be seen. I think I’m in love with someone who makes me feel like magic and makes me feel seen. But I wonder if he’s right. I don’t know. But I just really relate to this essay. I want to thank you for sharing.

  3. Gorgeous, Vanessa. I too love Lidia’s work, btw. It’s so important for us to write these stories, show our vulnerability. Not only so we can forgive ourselves, but in order for the readers who are touched, who see a part of themselves, and realize they can also forgive themselves. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Thank God I am not the only one who secretly loved when the men on the streets looked and said nice things to me!
    Thanks for sharing this Tin House experience with your audience.

  5. Consciousness and the “language of the body” – powerful stuff. Thank you, Vanessa for going deep. A lot of mom relationship stuff has been presenting itself to me this week, too. Health, illness, death, relationship. It is a deep and powerful well you have entered. Ache

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