A Lesson On Motherhood

 

“Making the decision to have a child– it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body” —Elizabeth Stone

I was told I would have a girl at my twentieth week sonogram. I looked up at my mother who was standing beside me. Her jawline contracted, “Ahora si vas a sufrir.” Mami took a long breath and closed her eyes.

I looked at the sonogram technician with fear and willed her to tell me different.

She offered a smile and told me the baby was healthy.

I helped her wipe the gel off my pregnant belly and hopped off the table. I walked slow and deliberate like a prisoner that faced a life sentence.

“Vas apagar las verdes y las maduras,” Mami whispered behind me.

I was three weeks shy of turning twenty-six when my daughter came early. My labor was long and exhausting, and an emergency C-section came at the end. I was put under and when I came to I was frantic. I lifted my head and searched around the room.  “Where is my daughter?” I asked a nurse with her back to me. She turned and pointed to a case nearby, where my daughter bundled in a white blanket with a thick blue stripe slept. The nurse walked over and pulled off her hat and showed me a full head of dark hair. I sighed with relief that she was alive and closed my eyes.

“What about her apgar score?” My eyes flew open as the nurse placed the hat back on her head.

“It was a 9,” she smiled.

I frowned.

“We don’t give anything higher. It’s bad luck,” the nurse explained. “Do you have a name picked?”

“Yes, Holden Emma,” I said the name the way I spooned strawberry ice cream. I wrapped my tongue around each letter.

“Well that’s a strong name for a little girl.”

I smiled, and thought of all the great things my daughter would do and be. Her tiny shoulders carried the weight of everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. But it would be years before I realized that like a tangled umbilical cord my ego wrapped itself around my daughter. That even minutes old I needed her be a tiny mirror of me. That her reflection wasn’t a true image, instead a distorted view of me. An optical illusion of all my insecurities.

School became my thing somewhere between fourth grade and sixth grade. Fourth grade was when I fell in love with reading, and sixth grade writing took hold of my heart. And somewhere in the middle I fell hard for good grades. That pretty red hundred on the top of a test became like fancy glamour shots. Next to a hundred I was no longer a chubby, frizzy haired, plastic welfare glasses wearing daughter of two, mi no espeak ingles immigrants. And against a row of hundreds and a steady stream of A’s I was made visible.

Last week my daughter received her High School acceptance letters. In her acceptance packets were  the notices for the academic and music scholarships she tested and auditioned for. Tucked into those envelopes were layers of unsaid hopes and fears. I opened the mailbox in my building’s lobby a shaky hand twisted the key and pulled at the tiny door. My keys hung off the lock, suspended in air. The elevator ride back to my apartment I held my breath and said a quick prayer. “It’s going to be ok whatever happens,” I whispered to myself.

“It’s here,” I walked into the kitchen. The big white envelope in my hands as if I was bringing up the sacraments during mass.

My daughter spun around a yogurt in her hand and the spoon inside her mouth. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going downstairs to get the mail?” She looked nervous as she took the envelope from my hands.

My face solemn,”No matter what it will be ok”.

She stared at me as the spoon dangled from her mouth. She placed the yogurt on the counter and then began to open the letter. Her finger moved slow across the flap. She scanned the various letters that were inside and then turned to me. “I didn’t get either scholarship,” she looked up at me and then down at the floor.

“Let me see,” I grabbed the papers from her hands and my eyes raced through words like: Congratulations on your acceptance, Unfortunately we are unable to offer you a scholarship at this time, and we want to thank you for considering us part of your future for the next four years.

I watched my daughter watch me. I measured my reaction. And I thought about when she was a toddler and would tumble and fall: Se mato, I would shout and race to her.  Then as if on cue her eyes widened and chin quivered as I ran to her. My husband would scoop her up and press her to his chest, don’t react because then you are teaching her to be afraid. I’d glare at him and let the waves of anxiety crash at my feet. Being a mother felt like that game kids played at the pool when you pinched your nose and tried to sink to the bottom.  And once underneath you must count how long you could hold your breath. I never would hold my breath for long, panic always besieged me. That was motherhood for me, holding my breath or breaking up to surface to gulp the air.

“Mami,” I pulled her to me and rested my chin on the top of her head. “I’m proud of you for getting accepted and for taking that test and the audition too. You are my Queenie.”

The spoon laid abandoned in the kitchen sink. “But I feel dumb,” her voice cracked and her shoulders shook.

“You know you are not dumb so I don’t want to hear that. No mas!” I pulled her at arms length from me and stared at her. As her eyes met mine I looked beyond her sadness and like primer on a wall I saw a steely strength that protected and coated. At thirteen my daughter was brave and strong, words that did not attach themselves to me until much older. And even now, they hang on loose and threaten to fall.

She sniffed and nodded her head.

“Listen to me, your friends that received scholarship to other schools I want you to be happy for them.  Don’t take away from them.”

“But I am happy for them,” my daughter looked at me with disbelief that I would think otherwise.

“And don’t let this take away from you,” I called out to her as she walked into her bedroom. Headphones on I stared at the back of her head as the music spilled out of her ears.

Later that day I called Mami, “Me tienes buenas noticas?” Mami aware that the acceptance packet would be in the mail yesterday, today, or the next day was praying a  Diosito, La Virgencita y Los Santos.

“No recievio veca Mami,” I cried once I said the words a loud.

“No llores,” Mami took a long breath. “Estas segura?”

“Yes I’m sure,” I wiped my tears with the palm of my hands.

“Como va ser?” Mami wondered. “Mira dios aprieta pero no ahoga,” Mami said. It was the words that she always told my sister and I during hard times. It was the words that she told herself, like a rope she would cling to them when we were kids and life threatened to keep her at the bottom of the pool for too long. And now as I felt overwhelmed Mami offered me the words that had often kept her from drowning.

I sat on the edge of my bed long after I hung up the phone with Mami. I was lost in thought that I didn’t notice my daughter come in. “Mama,” she called out to me.

“Yes?” I patted the bed for her to sit beside me.

“Since I didn’t get the scholarships to go… and I don’t want you and Papi to have to pay for my high school. It’s ok I don’t have to go there. I’m really ok with it! I will be fine.” She rushed out to tell me in one short breath.

I hugged her and cried into her hair.

“Why are you crying? I told you, you don’t have to pay. I don’t have to go to there. I will wait for my public school acceptance letters.” She looked at me hopeful that I would stop crying.

I reached for her hand. It was still smaller and felt snug folded in mine. “I’m crying because you and me, well we are different. You are what I always wanted to be,” my eyes wet.

My daughter is a collection of words like: sensitive, kind, thoughtful, and imaginative. She spends hours dancing in her room as I read in the room beside her. When her classmate’s mother died last winter she cried the loudest at the funeral mass I sat beside her and willed myself not to cry. But then she writes quotes on index cards and holds them to me like chocolates to enjoy with her. She reads them soft and dramatic and searches my eyes to see if I felt the beauty of the words. And when she hears lyrics that move her she grabs me by the shoulders to listen. “Listen Mami, isn’t that the most beautiful line you ever heard?”

 

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Days have gone by and news that she did not receive those scholarships has settled. And I realized a major difference between my daughter and I.  My daughter while she loves good grades and waves hundred at my face filled with pride she doesn’t need them. But I did. And part of me still does. That desperate need to hold up a score and say, Look At Me! See Me! That burns bright in me still.

“Almost at the finish line. I want you to go get what it is you want most! No one is going to go get it for you!” My spin instructor said with only two minutes left of the class.  Breathless and sweaty I hunkered my shoulders down and closed my eyes. “Let me hear numbers!” she called out above the loud beat of metal music that pounded in rhythm with my heart. “What are your RPM’s?” She shouted.

“112…” my throat dry I coughed out.

“Yeah, but what gear?” One of my gym buddies teased me.

“15!” I growled.

“Give me more! What do you see at the end of that finish line? Go get it!” My instructor hopped off her bike and walked over to me.

“128” I screamed.

“Go Connie! Connie! Connie!” the instructor and the other women that spun beside me cheered.

My eyes still closed I saw myself waiting at that very end of the finish line with my arms open. My daughter did not race beside me. She would have her own races separate from mine.  I raced alone, as she waved from the crowd. I pedaled fast ready to fall into my own embrace. And it was enough because I was enough.

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Exposed

At writing group this week we weaved in and out of conversation about the upcoming inauguration in between reading our pieces aloud and getting and giving feedback. And like all good conversations, it meandered and spilled over to other parts. And in one of those conversation bends my love for manicures came up.

And I admitted I was a gel manicure repeat offender. “I’m sure my nails will glow long after I’m dead. And I laughed and joked, “My hands are gonna glow bright from six feet under like those party necklaces ravers wear,” I quipped. I smiled when my writing teacher and group members laughed. “I’m Latina,” I shrugged my shoulders and held up my palms as if this explained it. But even as I said I knew there was more to it. That underneath my joke and generalization there was layers and layers of things unsaid.

I think my love for manicures and pedicures started when I was young. I would paint my nails on the very edge of Mami’s bureau. I’d fan out my fingers and paint over each nail in bright red. The polish always spilled over edges and looked thick and messy. And I would use remover and start again, a trail of reddish cotton balls around me. If my love for pretty and perfect nails began in my Brooklyn apartment well then the must was cemented in Colombia. The year I lived there after college I was amazed that manicures and pedicures could be delivered to your door step very much like a pizza, and for the equivalent of five dollars. A young girl would come with a suitcase on wheels filled with an electric spa tub, nail clippers in different sizes, tubes of creams, a bottle of acetone, a collection of polishes, an assortment of pumice stones and a roll of cotton. She placed towels on the ground and took her time as she pampered your feet.

“This is great!” I would say to my cousin. We would sit side by side on the wooden rockers in the backyard. “I don’t usually get my feet done as much back home,” I said.  I shaded my eyes against the bold sun and looked towards my cousin. She was few years my senior and full of  opinions. Opinions that were like grenades they destroyed what use to be and created a new landscape in the aftermath.

“Prima one thing I learned hanging around salones all my life,” she referred to my uncle and his wife who were hair dressers. They had even added an extension to the house and made a small salon, which they worked out of in the late evenings and weekends. She pointed a slender finger in my direction. Her nail painted a pretty pink against her whole wheat color. “You can tell a lot about a woman by her feet,” she pursed her lips and nodded her head with certainty.

I  looked down at my feet in the blue basin with curiosity. Bubbles covered my feet and the rim of the basin as well. “What can you tell about my feet?” I laughed.

“It’s how you keep your feet. Ask any man and they will tell you a woman is a puerca if her feet aren’t well kept. Don’t you know men notice everything Prima? So, make sure that your feet are always done.”

“They do?” I stared down at my feet incredulous that they were a keyhole into what type woman I was.

She shook her head yes, “and why wouldn’t you anyway.”

But it’s more than just my nails that I learned told a story about me. If the feet was the prologue, well then my face was the novel itself.

 

“Why do you paint your eyebrows?” I asked Mami. I studied her reflection on the round mirror that was perched on the edge of her dresser next to the pink lamp. The plastic it came with still wrapped around the shade.

Mami turned to me, “Why wouldn’t I?”

I was eleven and sprawled on my stomach on her bed. My finger traced the blue satin bedspread as I looked up at her.

“I barely have eyebrows,” Mami looked at herself in the mirror. She was bent down like a Geisha frozen in greeting as she inspected the space between her eyes and her forehead. “I only have but just a few hairs,” she traced a dark brown arch over each eye.

“Do you think when I get older I will have to do the same?” I flipped on my back and twisted my neck to keep my gaze on Mami.

“Siempre cara feliz para el mundo,” Mami reached for her pink Mary Kay blush compact. She slid the tiny brush up her cashew colored skin and left a streak of bright pink.

“But you are just going to misa,” I raised my eyebrows in confusion.

“Y porque no? So, what if I’m going to mass. The world has no business knowing what I’m going through. And my face won’t tell it.” Mami went over her thin lips with a rose colored lipstick.

I ran my hands over my face and became aware how exposed it felt.

It wasn’t till junior year of high school that I started to wear makeup. It was also the year that I went from an all girl school to a co ed school.  In an effort to make my lips fuller I went over the natural shape of my lips in dark brown lip liner.  I’d go over the cupid’s bow and make the peaks higher. And would then fill my lips in a matte plum brown shade. My lips unable to rub against each other.  My eyebrows plucked thin and traced over in a black arched line. I’d top off my look with a velvet choker, certain I looked like a Latina Drew Barrymore.

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The summer before college I ditched the brown lips for no shade, and only wore Blistex. My eyebrows unfilled and uncolored just hung undecorated above my eyes. I wore overalls and Peanuts t shirts and converse sneakers to class most days. My face bare buried in Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. I spent hours drafting short stories to be workshopped in my writing classes.

It wasn’t till my early twenties after college and living in Colombia that tight jeans and even tighter tops invaded my closet. Lots of cleavage and highlighted hair completed my look. A collection of girdles filled my dresser drawer. Fajas were not new to me, like an old favorite song that found itself back on a play list so had the girdles. The first time I squeezed into a girdle I was in eighth grade and headed to the graduation dance. I didn’t think I could look pretty without a faja that pulled and cut at me.

It wasn’t till my late twenties that I began to wear makeup again. I’d like to blame a student that interrupted my reading lesson with an eager hand in the air. But it wasn’t him. No, the need to hide and bury had already been set in motion long before.

“Yes,” I called on him.

“Ms. Meza,” he looked up at me as he sat cross legged on the rug in front of me.

“Is this about the book?” I placed the open book face down on my lap.

He ignored my question, “why is it so purple under your eyes?” He rushed out and asked.

The class went silent and almost thirty pairs of eyes fixed themselves under my eyes.

I stared at him for a long time as he waited for an answer. “I can’t believe you interrupted the lesson for something so ridiculous and rude,” I lashed out.

And once the lunch period began I went into the staff bathroom and stared at my dark under eye circles. Mami’s words: why should the world know what I’m going through by my face? like surround sound engulfed my brain. Later that evening I pulled over at a Rite Aid and searched for the right concealer. It  would have to be worn daily now. That boy wasn’t the only one to have noticed the purple shadows under my eyes, just the only one to say anything about it.

It started with concealer, but more was added. The year that my son was born and barely slept I added foundation. That was also the year that my daughter had one ear infection after another and we were living with my parents in between apartments. That same winter our a childhood friend lost her daughter and weeks later I found myself standing in front the Mac store on Montague in Downtown Brooklyn. My heart heavy and a tube of primer in my hand. “If you want your make up to stay beautifully you have to own this,” the makeup artist dabbed and blended the cream on my face.

I added eyeshadow to my eyelids when my friend and mentor at work retired. When my son’s classmate died I wept in the bathroom with shower running. Days later I walked out of the Mac store armed with bronzer and the perfect shade of blush. I even splurged on a special brush that was big and broad to go over the apples of my cheek. And that was how it was after every tragedy; my own, family or friend, I added more make up. My husband’s work schedule was reduced by a day without pay due to budget cuts. I responded by working after school and adding liquid eyeliner over my lids. The day my father was diagnosed with dementia I found myself once again at the Mac store highlighter in my hand. The little black bag on the passenger seat as I cried the whole drive home.

My sister and Mami like loyal cheerleaders encouraged every faja purchase, admired every addition to my makeup regime, and petted my painted nails as if they were the heads of toddlers. But the reverse was true as well, a hair out of place they both frowned in my direction, shoes were sensible and not trendy they wrinkled their noses as if I just stepped in dog shit. I often joked with my sister that Selena Gomez song Good For You  youtu.be/1TsVjvEkc4s was my anthem to her and Mami. That I would primp and gussy myself for them both like a teenager for the prom.

My neighbor once watched me get ready to go to my mother’s. My sister would be there too. “Are you all going out to dinner?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Why are you getting so dressed up?” She asked.

I pulled off my shirt and tried another one on. I ran from my bedroom to the bathroom and grabbed cream and bottles of hair product. I looked at her surprised, “I always want to look good for them,” I pulled my hair into a high ponytail.

“I don’t get it,” she shook her head. “It’s your mother and sister… why do you have to worry what you look like in front of them?”

I looked at her through the mirror of my bathroom as she watched me smooth my hair. “Why wouldn’t I?”

At the gym I’m surrounded by mirrors. They are mirrors in the spin room, the yoga room, and also during boot camp. And I catch glimpses of myself in those mirrors. Makeup wiped off before entering the gym my face is bare and exposed. As I grunt, sweat, and wipe at my face with the collar of my t-shirt I  get lost in that white space. It’s that space that some call the zone. It’s those burst of moments when you are so aware of yourself and nothing else. You feel stripped of who you are. You can only focus on the motion of your body and the sound of your breath. And this primitive sense comes over you. And it’s there that you realize that every stroke of the make brush, shade of color on your skin, and concealed blemish is nothing more than armor. That the flushed face staring back at you is the real you.

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A New Daredevil

On New Years Day I stood under the wide blue sky under a trail of fluffy clouds only a sunny day brings. I was at the Annual Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. The sun’s rays forced me to walk around in a perpetual squint, like drawn window shades. Sun glasses laid forgotten in the car. My arms were wrapped around a fleece blanket and a thick towel I would wrap my daughter in afterwards. She was the one plunging in the freezing cold ocean. I would watch safe from the sand.

My husband had taken my son to the bathroom. My in laws had come along to cheer their granddaughter and had wandered off the boardwalk to take in the crowds.  I turned to my daughter, “I’m proud of you,” I pressed my lips on her head. Her hair in a messy knot on top of her hair.  I noted that I didn’t have to bend down much. She had gone through a growth spurt this passed year. I grabbed her hand and slipped it into mine. At thirteen she had not outgrown holding hands in public as long as no other teens were in the near the vicinity.

“Why?” My daughter asked as she strained her neck and scanned the crowds. She searched for her two good friends that would plunge that afternoon with her.

“Because you are doing this?” I gestured with my free hand at the wet sand in front of us and the rough surf. The blanket and towel tucked under my arm.

“I’ve gotten in cold pools before,” she turned to look at me.

I fixed my eyes on her face. She wore the same determined gaze from two days earlier when she said over dinner that she wanted to try the polar bear plunge this year. Family friends had done it for a few years and asked me if I wanted to come along for this year. I mentioned it casually over dinner expecting vehement protests of how absurd it was to swim the ocean in the winter. But I was met with a strong yes instead of a scared no from her.

“You really want to do this, huh?”  I worried that my daughter would be trampled by the massive throng of people I hadn’t expected.

“I’m nervous… but it will be quick,” she reassured me. “And the girls are doing it too,” she referred to her two friends.

“I’m going to get as close to the water as I can. If it’s…” I trailed off. I didn’t want to sound like Mami, an emergency alert drill. A daily shrill of fear and worry that pierced my ears. If ten malicia y no vayas a ser boba were Mami’s trending hashtags, well ten cuidado would make the daily status update too. “You will be fine,” I said as I swallowed the words: If it’s too cold don’t go in… te vas a enfermar.

“Look they are here,” she pointed to her friend’s dad who at over 6 feet and three inches was easy to spot in a crowd as big as this.

She hugged her friends and slipped out of her fuzzy fuchsia boots. Her flip flops in her hands, she began to run to the surf. I watched my daughter charge the beach with her friends at her side. The moms and dads followed close behind and me further behind. I looked at the crowd at the beach dressed in costumes. There was a Sponge Bob, a chicken, a banana, a few cowboys and mermaids, even a bottle of Heineken and smiled to myself. Many wore robes, wet suits, shorts and t shirts, and some dressed in jeans and wife beaters. A group of about thirty men and women marched down the shore dressed in official looking swim gear like the kind that you see at the Olympics. Some even had Go Pro cameras fastened on their head like miner’s lamps. And I marveled at their sense of adventure and wild spirit.

I have always loved the rush of doing something forbidden and scary. The element of danger beckoning like a sexy finger. And yes, I had short list that would impress most daredevils: sky diving, diving, snorkeling, never ending roller coasters, and shot putting myself from a human sling shot. Then there is a darker and scarier list titled: stupid shit I did as a teen because I thought it was fun to see what I could get away with. For most of my teen years I loved the rush of stealing anything that could slip up my sleeve or be stuffed in my jeans. And enjoyed setting garbage cans in public bathrooms on fire and rolls of  toilet paper too.  A travel sized bottle of hair spray and a lighter could cause a tremendous blaze. I felt big and heroic after these feats, like Chuck Norris in all those movies Mami liked to watch.

I didn’t worry or over think when the harness of a roller coaster pressed down against my chest or when I slipped out of bathroom stall before the crackling of the fire. My heart would beat even and smooth as I crossed the metal detectors of a store. Simpler thing have always terrified me. I mean that sweaty kind of terror like when you are a kid and hide under the covers afraid to even peek from the sheets.

The first time I went iceskating. I was fourteen and had gone with two girlfriends from high school to Central Park to skate. New on the ice I didn’t know what to expect and clung to the sides of the rink and shuffled like an abuela in chanclas. And after a few laps I ventured to the center of the rink and found it impossible to stay up more than a few seconds. I soon found the crowd thinning and a huge circular machine being dragged through the rink. The rink was being cleared for a short moment to be cleaned. My friends skated off the rink and waved me over to meet them, but panic invaded me. After a few minutes I was the last one on the rink and despite the cold and the backside of my pants being wet I felt myself grow hot and filled with shame. I sucked and couldn’t do anything right with as much grace as a rhino on skates. I waited in the center of the rink as two young attendants skated over to me and grabbed me by the elbows. I clung on to each of their arms and let myself be dragged off the rink. My legs buckled every few steps, but they pulled me by the arm pits and grabbed tighter to my elbows.

Once off the rink my friends greeted me with small smiles and both insisted it wasn’t so bad, and no one had really paid attention. I sat on the nearest bench and pulled off the skates with shame filled fury. “I suck!” I yelled at my friends. “It was stupid to come. Why would I think I could skate if I can’t even ride a bike!” I let the words shove and push my friends like a pair of hands.

The train ride back I was quiet I was angry at myself for falling and even angrier for showing how upset I was. And I thought about how when I was five years old and tried to ride a bike without training wheels, but fell by a tree on our block. Broken glass and cigarette butts littered around the tree and I cut the back of my ankle with a shard of glass. Mami who herself didn’t ride a bike was unable to offer assistance watched in horror. She scooped up and told me were going to la sala de emergencia. No vas a montar mas, and I never got back on a bike. But at fourteen it was not Mami that proclaimed that I would never get on skates again it was me. And I haven’t been on an ice skating rink since.

Once a year I go with my  daughter and son to their school’s ice skating night for families and watch from the safe distance of the benches. I watch with my hands wrapped around a hot drink, my son, daughter, and husband skate. I cheer them on with a pumped fist in the air every time they skate by. And I marvel at people’s fearlessness at simple things like iceskating. I tell myself I’m safer behind the clear plastic partition that separates me from them in the indoor rink. Safer is better it’s not risky.

Yesterday I took my third boot camp at the gym. I had to work up the nerve to go. It’s taught by my favorite spin instructor who during my first spin class with her I spit out water all over the bike as I gulped for water and for air all at once. I hopped off that bike at the end of my first spin class with her, with shaky legs and my t shirt stuck to me. A wave of joy rolled over me because I felt alive. I ran down to the front desk and signed up for her class again.

But spin was one thing and boot camp another beast. The whole time I set up my step, weights, and mat I fought off that shrill of fear that no longer carries Mami’s voice, but my own. I suck! I can’t do this!  Shut up! I yelled in my head, but the voice taunted me, look around you Connie all these women are way fitter than you— who do you think you are? But I will get stronger I yelled back to the voice in my head. And I listed all the things that I had done in the last two years that I thought I would never do. Countless spin classes, survived pilates, applied to VONA and got accepted, took my first flight by myself,  wore contacts, drove in the snow, and… I counted my wins like a boxer about to enter the ring and the voice subsided.

As I looked straight ahead and followed the instructor. I kicked my knees high and squatted low and did plank after plank even though I could only hold them for just a mere few seconds. I guzzled my water and took heed to my instructor’s eyeballing me as she said, remember sips over long swallows. I paused and wiped the sweat off my face and kept doing the sets in front of me. And as I did crunches with a weight I prayed that the class would end soon because this seemed impossible to bare for a whole hour. At the end of class the instructor asked how we felt? Alive I  said with a big smile and I whispered to myself: I want to do this again.

Lately a lot of what I been afraid and seemed impossible I have reached out and said I think I want to try. I might be able to do it. And when this challenge came up  to write an essay a week  I thought to myself what if now that I’m older I can be a different kind of daredevil. Instead of throwing myself off a plane to feel alive. I can feel alive in small moments. Isn’t that what a daredevil is? Some one that is powerful and mighty and unafraid.

A week ago one that beach I called out to my daughter as she shivered and smiled in that cold water. “You did it Mama!”

My friend came up to me as everybody slipped into their dry clothes. “You should try it,” she said.

I instantly heard the shrill estas loca? You hate the cold! Y se te enfermas?  “I can stick my feet in,” I whispered.

“Here you can have my chanclas,” she offered.

I dipped my feet. The cold water shocked me and I jumped back to the wet sand. But I put my feet in despite feeling scared.

 

 

 

 

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Warrior Not A Victim

When you see me I certainly don’t strike you as a victim. I’m tall. My voice carries. I have a full figure and curves to match. When I speak I move my hands and my shoulders roll and I cock my neck too. When I get angry I feel suffocated by my own skin that has wrapped tight around me. And my default personality comes out. I have joked and referred to this side of myself as a streetwise and sassy Concha.  It’s called getting Sunset and when you are cornered you push your way out with your attitude and swing with words. So, under the guise of Concha any hint of victim has been hidden.

The rudimentary definition of victim is: a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime or accident. The dictionary gives further definitions such as: scapegoat, easily duped, loser, and someone who can be manipulated.  I can’t find myself in that list of words because boba I wasn’t raised. In my search on the web for the word victim I come across the words: victim mentality. The words that stared back in the screen were: someone that blames their misfortune on others. And only after reading those words several times and even once out loud did I recognize myself.

Growing up Mami would always tell me, “Ten malicia”. Those two words shaped my life. So, in order to have malice I looked at everyone and everything as potential evil. I saw harm in every bend, corner, and shadow. So, I spent most of my life walking fearful steps certain that only bad would come my way. Concha like an understudy waited in the wings ready to step in at the first sign of a threat. And like a hiker that carries a backpack of survival gear to cross the terrain I too loaded up. My backpack became heavy with: suspicion, anger, mistrust, and disgust for all things nice.  I pulled on the straps and hunched my shoulders down.  At times I would flip my backpack to the front. The weight pressed against my chest became a shield.  And took comfort that nothing could get past this makeshift barrier. I was blind to the fact that in my fervor to keep everything out, in turn nothing good could press through.

Mami like all great teachers had an arsenal of antidotes and used personal examples to drive her point home. “Ramona donde la ves aya con la bilbia abajo del brazo me tienia que pagar hace meses y nada.” Mami sold clothes and jewelry on the side and would let her friends pay later. So, most paid, but some didn’t. And when this happened Mami would rage against the world and how unfair it had been to her. She would list like a character in a Shakespearean tragedy all the wrongs that had fallen upon her. Her list covered the fact that her mother almost died at birth and she had to be passed a long to the local wet-nurse. How she endured barbaric beatings at the hands of her own mother who went hungry for days to feed her eight children. And a father she loved dearly, but who refused to send his daughters to school. It always ended up with the colossal mistake of getting married and having kids. I would stare down at my feet during these fits and counted in my head till she wound herself down. Afterwards she stared long and hard at me before she spoke, “no vayas a ser boba y ten malicia.” Boba a word so loaded with venom when pursed on Mami’s thin lips it was the equivalent of ten curse words and twenty vulgar images. She hurled it like a wild pitcher and when it landed at your feet, well you forgot the word simply meant fool.

I carved Mami’s words with every step I took across the terrain in front of me. Her words were a talisman that would protect me from harm.  If I had enough malicia and had no ounce of boba inside of me somehow that would keep me safe. What I had no idea of was how much harm I was doing to myself, hate and anger held occupancy inside of me. And it was eating me from the inside out. It started early on too but it took me decades to connect it all.

I believe my first two-step with depression was at eleven when I refused to watch the night news because I was consumed with sadness and worry. Books became my escape and I would spend endless hours in bed reading against the bright sun streaming through my window. By the time I was fourteen. That two-step had now become a long slow dance on the dance floor. I wore black, slept most of the day away, and read in between to escape from feeling. I listened to Nirvana like daily meditation and sang the Red Hot Chill Pepper’s Under The Bridge like I had penned the lyrics and not Anthony Kides. If those were the sound tracks of my depression REM’s Losing My Religion was my opening song to anxiety. Anxiety had made itself a guest of honor inside of me. It had come holding the hand of depression. The two took turns invading the corners of my mind and the curves of my soul.

In my late teens and early twenties winters and the days before my menstrual cycle were unbearable and a funnel of darkness always threatened to take hold of me. I looked for relief in prayer, talk therapy, treadmills, yoga classes, the smooth bottles of Heinekens, the burn of cigarette smoke against the back of my throat, rages that matched Mami’s, Most of my teens I had a nasty shoplifting habit and was a fire bug too. I had co dependent relationships that served no purpose other than to make me stand further away from myself.

I started suffering from a bad stomach and headaches in my early twenties. As the years went by other ailments were added to the list: asthma, chronic colds, muscular tension, debilitating menstrual cramps and nausea. I also found myself doing less and less the things that made me happy. By the time I was in my thirties I could be described by two words: irritable and frustrated. I would spend endless hours binge watching shows on Netflix and HBO GO.

One windy afternoon in late October I found myself in the office of a community acupuncture center in Park Slope Brooklyn. I was thirty-seven, but if age was weighed I’d be a semi truck. I studied the questionnaire they had handed me on a clipboard and checked all the things that were wrong with me. Once at the hands of a practitioner I was faced down, shirtless, and my face in a cradle. My back pricked by needles and a wave of motion sickness overcome me, which was soon followed by a deep feeling of calm, and soon sleep. And an hour later I felt certain lightness as I stood up from the table, floated down on the elevator, and walked towards my car. It wasn’t until I walked across the lobby of my building that I realized something was missing. And it wasn’t until I felt the familiar weight of that backpack again I realized I had not had it on since I left the acupuncture table. I grabbed my cell phone and made another appointment for the following week before I entered my apartment.