Sunset Park In Da House

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If you ask me where I’m from the first thing out of my mouth is, Brooklyn. I say the word more with my body, than with my tongue and lips. It’s as if every part of my body reacts, memories are triggered, images evoked, and emotions are unleashed. So, when I say Brooklyn those eight letters are flavored with sazon and adobo, pulled to dance by Frankie Ruiz, and asked to rep by Biggie. And when asked what part of Brooklyn, I say: Sunset. Only after my street cred is affirmed do I explain. Explain that I live in Bayridge now, but born and raised in Sunset. Moved over to Bayridge at twenty-four. I joke and say, wanted to move on up like the Jeffersons. I laugh and say I’m George and Weezie, wanted a piece of the pie.

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When I hear the words Sunset Park, a parade stomps up and down my body. I puff out my chest and slide my hands up my hips. Yeah, I’m from Sunset, I say all slow and badass. Not always though. My love for Sunset came after the world reflected back to me what they thought about my neighborhood. And me. Comments stuck to my brain long after the words no longer vibrated through the air. Words shaped my thoughts, I take the shape of my thoughts, and I believed it all.

  • You can take the girl out of Sunset, but you can’t take the Sunset out of her.
  • Damn isn’t like bad over there?
  • Why are all the door bells ripped off?
  • You know you sound just like Rosie Perez, right?
  • Aren’t they gangs over there?
  • Don’t they call it Gunset?

I didn’t realize that there were neighborhoods that didn’t look like mine. Where my Mami and Papi’s friends lived in Jamaica Queens and Jackson Heights, resembled my own. My Tio, in Patterson, New Jersey, could be added to the list. It wasn’t until I was in third grade, that I saw what existed beside these neighborhoods. An appointment in Bayridge for my terrible sinuses was my first glimpse. It was minutes away from Sunset Park, but it could be another country. Foreign. Graffiti, broken glass, signs for WIC and Food Stamps, and red and yellow bodegas were absent on these streets. Brownstone houses, streets lined with trees, fancy store signs, and delis were in place. People walked at ease. This was something I had no name for. Later I would learn it was a class and race thing. And the right set of class and race bought you safety.

*

A few weeks ago I took Holden and Ruben to La Gran Villa Bakery, in Sunset Park. Located in the heart of Sunset, La Quinta. Fifth Avenue. A few blocks from the park itself. We were in search for flan. My mother in law’s birthday that day. The kids and I wanted to surprise her. Flan, a favorite among all of us.

“Why don’t we live here?” My daughter asked as we crossed the street. Parked on the opposite side of the bakery.

It was mid day. One of those warmer than usual days. Where the whole world lives outside. Gaits are slowed down. No one seems in a rush when the sun is out. As if the sun a giant stop watch, clicked to stop time.

“What do you mean?” I asked over the reggaeton music that blared off of a car driving by. “We leave in Bayridge.” I lifted my palms, as if that was explanation enough.

“You grew up here,” she walked ahead. “My grandparents live here, we come here all the time, and you even taught here.” She listed off.

In front of the store. Cakes for quinceaneras, bautizos, cuempleanos, and bodas displayed behind the large glass window. A sign in block letters, open 24 hours above the door.

“Yeah,” My son pushed the door open. “You are always saying Sunset Park this and that…” He trailed off.

Once inside we were greeted by Gran Combo’s Me Libere. The smell of fresh-baked biscocho, fresh brewed cafe con steamed leche, and pressed sandwich Cubano. All in competition to reach my nose first. I watched my daughter order a flan, and a sandwich Cubano with an order of fries, to spilt between her and Ruben. My son walked up to the counter. He ordered a small red jello cup. Both at ease. And I thought of all the times I joked and called Fifth Avenue. Filth Avenue.

I walked over to Holden and Ruben at the counter. My hand over my chest, in some feeble patriotic attempt. I ordered a loaf of pan de manteca, a cup of arroz de leche, and two guava con queso turnovers. My children wide-eyed. Impulsive buys were something I was not known for. But overcome by shame. I wished to atone.

*

This past Friday I sat on the fringe of the class circle. My students sat crossed legged on the blue rug at the front of the classroom. I watched my students show case objects from their cultural background. One by one, they stood in front. The smart board behind them. Some held their object in front of them. Others slide them under the document camera. They were those that spoke in low whispers and with bent heads. Others spoke loud, and held their heads high. All marched to the front of the room with their object nestled in their hands.

Coins from Palestine, a Turkish decorative dish, a tostonera from Haiti, a glass tumbler in shape of a skull to represent el dia de los muertos, and a Bengali string instrument, a Jewish mezuzah. Five minutes alloted for Q. A. after each presentation. How long is the plane ride to Kosovo? Where in Italy have you visited? If your mom is Peruvian and dad Cuban, do you feel one more than the other? I watched each and everyone one of my students faces flush with pride. Smiles wide, each question received like flowers tossed on stage at the end of a concert.

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And my mind drifted to the very start of our social studies immigration unit. I brought a balcon de Colombia to show my class. I held it up like a trophy. As I spoke about my summers in Colombia, the meaning behind the balcones, and accents that decorated the miniature porch under the Spanish styled roof. My balcon was passed around my students. My chest a helium ballon inflated with Colombian pride. I thought of my parents, and their love ballads to Colombia in their everyday. Colombian news on RCN transmitter radio, the smell of arepas de juevo on weekend mornings, the statue of El Divino Nino on my dresser, and the bottle of menticol by Mami’s nightstand. No shame. Celebration for all things Colombian.

But. I only spent most of my summers in Colombia. I lived in Brooklyn. Sunset Park, Brooklyn. And if Colombia was a love song, well Sunset Park was as hostile as head banger metal. Mami made her discomfort of Sunset Park clear. Her discomfort made me grow uneasy. Sunset Park was held at arms legnth. If I was the Cuban DA from Law and Order SVU I would enter the following list as exhibit 1 thru 5.

  1. Sunset Park Pool off-limits. “Aya te violan,” Mami insisted rapist congregated at the pool ready to pounce on women and young girls. “Y esa picina sucia hasta aye SIDA,” Mami wrinkled her face in horror at the thought of the AIDS virus on the surface of the pool, like a deadly inflatable float.
  2. Open Johnny Pumps in the summer off-limits. “No.” Mami held up her hand every time we saw an open water hydrant on hot days. “Estas calles estan llena de peligro. Y eso no se usa en Colombia.” And if it wasn’t custom in Colombia it was not to be done.
  3. Stoops off-limits. Porque se van a sentar afuera? Ojo con malas amistades. Eso es lo unico que un encuentra en la calle. Stoops a snare trap for friendships that would lead to bad influences.
  4.   Walks to La Quinta off-limits. Forbidden. “Hacer que? Buscar novio? Malaclase en cada esquina. Corners crowded with thugs was deterrent alone to be kept home. Walks around the neighborhood, an invitation for a disgrace to spill into our lives.  So, great was Mami’s fears of the street she walked us everywhere. Seldom was her shadow not beside my own. Even walked beside Joann and I on our way to highschool, and on real cold days took the car service ride with us.
  5. Sunset Park off-limits. En ese parque matan la gente. And Mami would list off all the deaths that occurred in the park in the last twenty years like some seasoned detective.

Mami’s list while comical and exaggerated was based on truth. The Sunset Park of my childhood in the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s is not the Sunset Park that it is now. A Sunset Park that battles gentrification. A battle that it will lose.

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But if I narrow my eyes, look close at Sunset Park. I can see traces of what it was. And I can remember how Mami would walk fast once the sky darkened. Each hand wrapped tight around mine and Joann’s hand.

On holidays when we spent late nights in our godmother’s building. Mami would ask my madrina for one of those long forks used to turn the pernil in the oven.

“If anyone comes at me I will stab them,” Mami walked with the fork under her arm. Concealed, but accessible.

“Ring the bell in case anything.” My madrina instructed. “Call me when you get home,” she dead bolted the door behind us.

Mami walked with her head twisted back. A meat fork under her arm. Corners filled with thugs. Sneakers dangled from the metal arm of the street lights. Drunks zig-zagged down the streets. The smell of weed perfumed the night air. Merengue poured loud out of open windows, mixed with the rap that spilled out of cars. Tagged up buildings completed the scene. And that was the Sunset Park I remembered. The one I feared. A clichéd obstacle course of the hood.

In a New York Times article written by Marcia Chambers Sunset Park 80’s gang activities is discussed. Sunset Park gangs during that decade are compared to the epidemic of gang activity in the South Bronx.

With the devastation of the South Bronx over the last decade, gang activity in New York City has shifted from the Bronx to Brooklyn. That borough has 82 of the 109 city gangs that the police have identified, and gang rivalries over the last seven years in Brooklyn have left dozens of gang members, their girlfriends and innocent bystanders maimed or dead.

In Brooklyn, residents of Sunset Park were enraged over gang activity for nearly two years before Edgar Gonzales, 8 years old, was fatally hit last May by a stray bullet during a battle between La Familia and a group believed to be the Filthy Mad Dogs. The police in Brooklyn say La Familia members have been responsible for four shootings since 1980. The victims were a girl who is now paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, two girls who were wounded in a gun battle, and an 18-year-old who was killed as he was leaving a birthday party.

*

When I walk in Sunset Park now, it’s slow. And absent of Mami’s shadow. I want to savor all the things that I ran past. I notice the piragua cart. The discount stores where security is a shelf that holds your other shopping bags. Your claim ticket a torn playing card. Clothes stores have mannequins with ample hips and butts. Vendors on the street sell sliced mangoes in plastic containers. Tables with Avon products, Latin American flags and bracelets, and knock off perfumes are set up every few blocks. A preacher with an amplifier on the corner. His message of God’s word belt out into the air. Bacahata interrupt his words. An undesired duet. Teen girls with carriages push through the street. Teen boys on the corner. Jordans on everyone’s feet. And I smile. Because this is my Sunset. And I think of my own list about Sunset Park. The one that makes me every bit a part of this neighborhood.

  • I rock Tims. I leave the lace lose and the small tag still on.
  • I bounce to Freestyle music and dance at the first sound.
  • I crave helado de coco every spring and summer.
  •  And when I get pissed off I call it getting Sunset.

Sunset is every bit a part of me. I think there is beauty in it. The name suggests it. I have learned to walk slow through the streets of Sunset. Claim it as my own. And only when I do that does my soul scream: SUNSET PARK IN DA HOUSE!

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Road trip

 

imgres-3A road trip can be defined as a long trip in the car. It can also be seen as a journey. That latter definition appeals to me. It suggests the possibility of something greater and deeper, beside having to sit for long hours in a car, as the world passes by.  My writer self, a road trip becomes blank note-book page, hopeful for metaphors. The vast road, bends, curves, a sky personified by color, long shadows, and nature within reach; all become psychedelic, as you travel your mind.  No, road trip the same. With every mile gained, the traveler grows distant from who they were when they embarked. I came to this conclusion, a day after I arrived home. I suspect more will be revealed as the days go by. That every subsequent road trip like a sorcerer will hold a revelation.

I began this road trip like most things in my life, guilt ridden. Guilty and conflicted by all the roles I am. I carry this guilt the way a Senora de la iglesias carries crumpled tissues and judgement. I hold it close against my skin, a part of me. Motherhood, wife, daughter, friend, teacher, writer, and self, all roles that fight to play lead. Not one of them, willing to play understudy. Then there is, Self. Banished to the wings. Bullied to the side.

The teacher role receded last Friday afternoon, at dismissal. I waved to my students at the school yard. Wished them a safe and fun spring break. The time blinked 3:00pm, once I slipped inside my car. I let out a long drawn out sigh. As I sped through Fourth Avenue, I shrugged off Ms. Meza. The teacher. Biggie blasted from the radio. I bounced my shoulders excited to be off from work for a little more than a week. But, I’m more than a teacher, and the other roles clamored up my chest, and elbowed for space.

When we decided to drive across to the Midwest to visit my best friend. My daughter and son were excited. They had not seen their godmother and her two children for a long time, almost nine months. I longed to sit side by side with my best friend, and talk in circles, about little and enormous things. I’d make her laugh. She’d laugh. And we would be fourteen again. My husband thrilled to have a few more states to add to his list. A collection, like his old model cars, which he could point to and talk about with pride. But underneath more was to be said.

“What states will we visit on our way to Iowa?” My son asked days before.

“Let’s google it,” I pointed to the iPad.

“Will there be a lot of cows?” My daughter teased, “I want to ride one.”

I laughed happy to have my thirteen year old act silly.

Excitement for the road trip was like their overstuffed duffel. It stretched over the fabric, ready to burst. Armed with pillows and blankets, iPads and headphones, sketch pads, books, and plenty of snacks my children marched into the car early Tuesday morning. Lost to them was that they were not headed somewhere fun or exciting. Found was adventure.

But. I saw what it wasn’t: not a cruise, or getaway to the Caribbean, and no jaunt to Europe. And though I am genuine with my well wishes for my friends that can check off the above list. Well, it would be lie if I didn’t mention that a part of me says, good for them, but behind those three words is a train of questions. What about me? When will it be my turn? When will I be able to afford something greater than a road trip. And like a toddler that needs to be soothed by words, I calmed my fears. Whispered: your time will come! Later I realized my soul ached for something more than just to be pacified. It desired gratitude. And I almost made the entire trip unable to find what my soul marked off as a destination. But a podcast and another perspective lead me to a different route. And it was there that I found gratitude.

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I have nicknamed my family, Road Trip Warriors. We have steadily checked off a list of states that includes, from New York all the way down to, Florida’s Key West. We have made this trip a handful of times. And stopped in each state as if permission must be granted by one state to enter the next. While others we lingered for days, South Florida, we have occupied. Two full weeks. Our beloved, our adopted state.

This would be a new collection of states that were to be explored, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. (After New York, there are, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but these neighbor states we’ve frequented often.) As we sped along route 80 we busied ourselves with the things you do during road trips. We listened to endless hours of music, played an app version of truth or dare my daughter downloaded on her phone, munched on flavored popcorn, looked at the scenery, and filled time with chatter. And when our bodies tired from being folded upright, we pulled over to rest areas. We stretched our legs and wandered shops that sold key chains, neck pillows, candy bars, and sweatshirts with the name of the state written in script.

And sometimes we rode in silence. Our heads turned to the scenic images like special effects in blockbusters, unable to take our eyes off of. Other times I checked Facebook and scrolled through twitter, my elbow perched on the window. I wrote in my writer’s notebook, listened to podcasts of short stories read by Junot Diaz, or others that talked about writing craft. But often I looked straight ahead and marveled at the beauty of the open road.

Once night closed in, both Holden and Ruben pressed their pillows to the side of the window and slept. Their deep breaths filled the car. From navy sky to black, the car rolled across the interstate. The miles between New York and Iowa bridged, the distance of a family of four with hectic schedules and active lives, now wedged tighter. And for a moment it appeared we were the only four humans on the earth. The road is an oxymoron. It makes you feel significant and insignificant all at once.

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It was the car ride back to New York that I wished for this trip to slow down. I was overcome by the need to settle into the moment. Time and distance seemed so elusive, I longed to grab both by end of the hair.  And when I grabbed the last hours of this road trip with both arms, the sorcerer held both palms open. Rations of truths. Mini revelations. The world did not shift. But I did. This sorcerer does not live behind mile markers or in the thicket of trees and brush. It lives in the simple everyday things. A spring breeze, a short story, and a shared moment.

The writer Ann Hood, reads the short story Alone at The Movies by Jonathon Lethem  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/06/17/alone-at-the-movies in the Tin House podcast, How to Write a Kick Ass Essay http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/44174/how-to-write-a-kick-ass-essay. Ann Hood delivers the Ten Commandments on personal essay and reads Jonathon Lethem’s essay, an example of a Kick Ass Essay. The essay takes you on Jonathon’s journey, who lost his mother at thirteen. Later as an adult he understands that his mother’s love of movies was a connection. One he’d have with her for the rest of his life.  And that his own devotional love for movies made him closer with himself, and not just his mom. This essay not only served as a great mentor text, in which I studied the craft. It held a greater purpose for me on the road Saturday afternoon. Jonathon Letham words were like the cords of blinds, intent to pull the shade up. I guess that is what all great pieces of writing do. They pull the shade up. Allow for light to come in.

These roads trips that I thought were bootleg versions of real vacations were not that at all. I was being salty, unable see what they really were. At every road trip my husband and I left bits of memories for Holden and Ruben along the road. This was no different. And while we busied ourselves with the GPS and planned the next bathroom break, Holden and Ruben stooped down to gather these bits. Strung together, their memories would turn to rope. Bound and sturdy. All the miles spent on the road would tether us four. A few days a year, a road trip, would turn into a lifetime of connection.

My second revelation came later that night. A simple conversation uncovered something profound.

As we entered New Jersey, Holden and Ruben slept. My husband took a long breath, the kind you take when you feel at ease. Both his hands on the wheel, his dark hair made darker by the night, his eyes fixed on the road. Musica de Grupo Niche and Joe Arroyo played for the last half of Pennsylvania. Shakira, Juanes, Cabas, and Carlos Vives was the soundtrack of New Jersey.

“People can say what they say about America,” he said.

I nodded.

“But look at what we did. We drove for a little over 900 miles and nada,” he took one hand off the wheel and opened his palm, to gesture his amazement.

I watched his face lit by the lights of the cars on the road.

His jaw clenched, “there were no retenes.” Resentment crept up his throat as he clutched the wheel tighter. “No worry about la guerilla, coked up narcos, cross fire…” He trailed off.

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My mind wandered to my time spent in Colombia where every few miles on the road you were stopped. Cops searched your car, your person, no reason given. Being pulled off the bus, no different than to board and hop off. La guerilla a constant threat for Colombians. Crazed Narcos and sicarios, as real in Colombia, as American FBI and CIA. Powerful. Trained to maintain order, just on the opposite side of the law.

“When you ask me if I miss Colombia. I don’t. I have no good memories.” His eyes brimmed with anger.

“I know,” I offered.

He reached for my hand.

“I know both our versions are so different,” I wrapped my fingers around his hand. It was rough and calloused and strong.

In an interview Colombian born writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez describes what growing up in Colombia was like in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

SIMON: Can we, living today in North America, understand what life was like in Colombia under the Escobar reign of terror?

VASQUEZ: Well, those years were very long years, I must say, more than a decade of bombings and shootings in the streets.

I understood now what these road trips were for him. A departure, of the part of him that grew dark and rough, as he watched his country destroy itself in front of his eyes. That with every road trip more distance between him and Colombia is gained. He collected memories alongside the road too. An attempt to bound himself to America and loosen himself from the stained parts of Colombia.

And as we crossed the Verrazano and came into Brooklyn. I thought of myself and all the parts of me that awaited me in Brooklyn. That all the twist and turns that my many roles takes, it leads to one road. And with every word I write I get closer to my journey. Mine alone. A journey of self.

 

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VONA: Where I learned lessons on writing and self…

 

images-5VONA is four letters. But it could easily be the five letters of the word magic. So magical I spoke about it several times throughout the day at yesterday’s Kweli The Color Of Literature Conference.  I looked at my new writing friend and told her to apply next year and if she didn’t get in apply again. And when she got in she’d know the magic too. Really, VONA stands for Voices of Our Nations Arts, a multi genre writing workshop for writers of color. I applied for VONA not knowing what it was. All I knew was it involved Junot Diaz. It was on his unofficial twitter feed where I saw the post about the week writing conference. I was in search of something to make me feel sexy as a writer. What I got was so much more.

But like an untold story I was unaware of the arch plotting its points before me. I took the information to my writing group and worked up the nerve to show them the post. I hoped they’d talk me out of it. Instead they asked to see the application and began to talk me into it. They insisted I submit my first twenty pages of my novel as a writing sample. I was plagued by doubt and offered excuses, like pigs in a blanket at a cocktail hour. My kids are to be little to be left alone, my husband can’t deal with everything like I do, and it’s expensive. What about my parents, they are old and need me. A week is a long time and a lot can happen. I’m so selfish.

“Are you done?” my writing teacher looked at me from her recliner. She touched the side of her glasses and waited.

I took a long breath.

“Your kids are not babies, your husband will manage, and you will sacrifice and budget yourself to make it work.” She held her fingers up as she listed. “What else was there?” she rolled her eyes. “And your parents will be just fine. Your sister will be here.” She peered at me through her glasses. Her eyes fixed on me, dared me to offer another excuse.

“I’ll do it,” I sighed. My words weak, like overcooked pasta hung limp in my mouth. But I said them a loud and I would go ahead, and apply. Nothing was a greater insult than to be called out for being a punk. And to back out after I said that I would do it, well that was a punk move. So, I blackmailed myself.

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I applied certain to not get excited. My heart protected by a make shift bullet proof vest, stitched by I don’t cares. If I wasn’t picked my lack of excitement would hold back the disappointment. I have spent most of my existence lukewarm to joy. Joy’s sharp edges have pricked and poked like those of hurt. And have both left me exposed. Life was made easier if I anticipated the pain and braced myself.

When I was accepted to VONA I told my husband. I sent him a screenshot of the acceptance email. I told no one for a few days after, afraid it would be snatched out of my hands, once I claimed it. And days before I left to VONA I toyed with the idea of not going. Again I pulled excuses like the cocktail franks ready to serve them to anyone that walked by. June is a hectic time for teachers and the weeks leading up to VONA would be stressful. I can’t read all that writing by all those other writers, who has time for that? And there is other reading too?  What if I don’t like my roommate? This was a dumb idea I’m not a kid anymore to chase my writing dreams all the way to Miami. And who the fuck did I think I was going to a writing retreat? images-4

It was my first time away on my own ever. I was thirty-eight. A mother of two, married 15 years, and a teacher for fourteen. It was the first time I was anywhere by myself.

My whole life I talked myself out of doing and being. Both the protagonist and the antagonist in my own story. A list of what I should’ve and could’ve done, long and heavy. Regret is both an endless loop and morbidly obese, an unforgiving weight.

My list of things I talked myself out of doing, but regretted that I did:

  1. The week-long trip to Europe junior year of high school offered to the AP humanities students. (I didn’t want to go if my boyfriend at the time could not go).
  2. The internship at a publishing house I wanted and knew I was perfect for. And when asked at the interview if I was willing to work long hours and on weekends if need be. I shook my head and walked out.
  3. The Peace Corps application that I filled out and had ready to send after Hunter College, but ended going to Colombia instead.
  4. The trip to Argentina my husband and I wanted to take early in our marriage, but put off. We wanted to save more and spend less, the trip could wait, and it still waits.
  5. The trapeze lessons I asked for as a gift and never used.

There is more to this list, but these were the ones that bubbled up to the surface. The ones that have clung tight around my neck. I did not want more to add to the list. So, I read all the manuscripts, typed up response letters, borrowed a fancy laptop to take with me, and packed a small suitcase.

*

The first time I heard the words: learned helpless, was at VONA.  They came out of Rich’s mouth. And like a rubber band pulled all the way back his words snapped in my direction.  They stung. Words meant to call my attention like the clap of a pair of hands or the shrill of a whistle. Not meant to hurt.  And the sting subsided soon after. The words like a snap chat filter removed off a selfie, left me feeling bare. Rich’s words echoed long after he spoke them. And in the aftermath I stared at the world as if it was a full length mirror, and watched myself reflected back. It was hard to find myself. Tucked and hidden. I was lost to myself.

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It was my first full day when Rich spoke the words learned helplessness. I was desperate for mosquito repellant and anti-itch cream for bug bites and followed behind Rich to the closest CVS. We were part of the fiction crew, twelve novelist and Mama Evelina made thirteen. We were carless and traveled on foot. It was what I would call a few blocks away, but in the sticky humidity of Miami it felt like miles.

“Thank God I could trail after you,” I followed Rich. His gait sturdy and confident. I on the other hand, walked unsure of myself.

Rich turned back and studied me. He wiped his sweaty brow and walked ahead.

“I suck at directions,” I offered matter of fact.

He walked into the CVS, “Well you got to unsuck at directions,” Rich said. He pulled at his t-shirt that stuck to his chest. Glued by sweat.

“Nah, I will be thirty-eight in August and I’m never going to be good with directions.” I shrugged my shoulders as if this was explanation enough.”It took me over forty minutes to find the cafeteria for breakfast today,” I laughed at my poor navigational skills.

“That is just sad,” Rich moved his head back and forth.

I lifted up my palms up in mock surrender. Looked at the signs above the aisles in search for the words: repellant or bug spray. I scratched at the mosquito bite on my arm.

“You know what you have?” Rich stared at me. His sunglasses now on top of his head.

I looked at my reflection through the lenses. My shoulders slumped and back bent, as I clawed at my skin. “Yeah?” I smiled ready for a joke.

“You have learned helplessness,” Rich nodded his head with conviction.

I was silent. As I tried to make sense of what the words meant. They seemed to not compliment each other, like polk-a-dots and stripes. How do you learn to be helpless? It was not like dividing fractions which you learn to operate with the formula, keep, change, and flip.  I looked at Rich and said I never heard of that before. His words sunk into my brain and settled there. They took occupancy and refused to be put out.

After a quick google search I found the following definition for learned helplessness: a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression. Written words have been my secret passages that led to other passages or have provided a nook to hide. But these words were different and yanked me out of those dark hallways altogether. I was left with a flimsy curtain to hide behind.

*

It was the first time we sat down for dinner in the college cafeteria that I realized I found my tribe. It was most of the fiction crew together, crowded around in a large booth. Our trays in front of us our conversations colorful and animated. We spoke in long narratives, peppered with images and metaphors. All word junkies, book lovers, all highly sensitive, and everyone filled to the brim with story. I looked at all the faces around me and knew I had found a family. Later that night asleep and underneath the glow of the campus lights I thought about the day’s event. “Where have you been my whole life?” I whispered to the night air.

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On the very last full day at VONA two things happened to me. One, I cried in front of the group. Something I swore I would not do. We sat in Evelina’s living room. Some of us crossed legged and others on chairs or the sofa. We would read our last writing pieces to each other in the comfort of Evelina’s casaita. The day before she gave us the prompt: Write the scene your afraid to write. The one that you don’t want to write. And I did. But I did not want to read a loud to myself, let alone a group. Yes, even if they were my tribe. I readied myself to read my one page scene about my character’s need to be seen and noticed by her Papi. My voice calm and steady I read. Then like the car accident I thought I avoided, a few sentences short of being done with the piece, I collided. My voice choked. My head bent down, laptop on top of my thighs, legs tucked under me, I wept. Ashamed by my tears. My weakness and lack of resolve I shrunk into myself. It was Stephanie who wrapped her arms around me until I could look up. And through eyes filmed with tears I saw others faces streaked with tears. I finished reading what I wrote. I looked at every one of those faces and thought, my tribe was here now.

The second thing that happened was that I got a few minutes alone with Evelina on the car ride to the ocean. We spoke about my novel and what made it work, and what needed to be tweaked and added. As we both walked to the beach I was left with the need to be reassured. Validated. I wanted to be told I was a good enough writer. Evelina, a generous soul, turned towards me, the sun a bright blaze in front of us. The ocean waves a soundtrack.  “You have to believe it first Connie,” she spoke. Her words weighed and measured, “until you believe that you are a writer there is nothing I or anyone can tell you that will make you feel like it’s enough. You have to believe in yourself, it’s as simple as that.”

Once in the ocean I told Marcus about my conversation with Evelina.

He smiled not shocked by Evelina’s words to me. “She’s right,” he whispered.

Again my tribe.

I think like all pivotal moments in your life you get a sense that they are just that— life changing. But the depth of Evelina’s words have taken a long time to seep into my bones. I think they have burrowed between the epidermis and the lymph nodes as of now. And the days that I feel brave I act like they have made their way to my bones. But until then I will show up for myself as if the words: I’m writer are etched into my bones.

 

 

 

 

Daughter and Mother

 

i-dont-want-my-children-to-follow-in-my-footsteps-8912657Last Saturday was my daughter’s high school orientation. Keep in mind that she will not be an official freshman till the upcoming fall. Five months to be exact. I hold on to those months with both arms. The way I held her sleepy little body, firm and unwilling to let go.

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Once inside the school building, parents were relegated to the auditorium.  I listened and took notes, as various presenters talked about the importance the next four years of high school would be. I read and re-read, What to Expect When Your Expecting the way I would study for finals. Then later underlined and annotated What to Expect The First Year like I did during college courses. Certain pages folded at the corner for easier access or tabbed with torn pieces of post-its. I realized straight away, that nothing in those pages could prepare me for being a parent. I doubted this lecture would prepare me for a high schooler. My eyes scanned the neat list of bullets I jotted down in the back of my writer’s notebook. Then I glanced around the other parents around me, and wondered if they were filled with the same anxiety as me.

My mind drifted to my daughter’s first day of school as a pre kindergartener. Dressed in a Dora the Explorer denim skirt jumper, purchased for the occasion. Dora light up sneakers that adorned her feet. I hugged her tight that morning as I said goodbye. Her head rested on my pregnant belly. I was due in three weeks with my son. My husband took her to that first day of school. It’s always been him. I have missed every first day of school for both my children. A painful fact, but one that I have resigned myself too. I’m a teacher. My own classroom and students await every September.  Guilt has wrapped tight around me as a teacher-mom long ago. I believe the first bear hug from this guilt was the day in which I left my daughter six weeks old with Mami on the first day of school, fourteen Septembers ago. I was with children all day, and not my own. And later that day when I picked her up at Mami’s, I was filled with fear. Frightened that her head would refuse to nuzzle in the crook of my arm. I braced myself for her rejection.

And the fact remains that I will miss her first day of high school. She will have to walk herself. But last week was different. I could attend orientation. Holden left the apartment in: fitted jeans, a Walking Dead t-shirt, and purple Timberlands. Her hair in a ponytail and pink lip gloss completed her look. She raced ahead of us. My husband and I followed behind. I wondered if the next few years would be that. Me, watching my daughter, Holden race ahead towards life.

Days before she started Pre-K I asked Holden if she wanted to go by her middle name. Emma. I worried that her name was too heavy for her to carry. She looked at me, her eyes filled with conviction and said, “No, I’m Holden.”

Holden never went through separation anxiety which plagues most toddler. The closest she came to it was her first dance lesson where she cried, as I left the dance studio and waited by the front desk. It was the protocol. I worried she wouldn’t want to go back to next week’s class. But I was wrong she went without any drama or even a single tear. I latched onto a new worry, my daughter was fearless and this would lead to a slew of reckless behavior. It dawned on me later that this was not fearlessness, but a sense of security. This was what I always wanted for my daughter, confidence, independence, and inner strength. Qualities I longed for at her age, and later learned I needed to cultivate them, in order to grow them, and gain from them.

I thought about this while I sat in that auditorium. The future freshmen were in classrooms where they did community building exercises.  At the end of the orientation the parents walked to the school’s gym. Students were gathered on the bleachers while staff took a group shot. I craned my neck as I searched for her among the sea of students in blue t-shirts, given on that day. I couldn’t find her. And before I could find her, Holden found me. In her hands a small wooden sailboat. A replica built as an ice breaker she was fast to tell me.  As a writer, I detected foreshadow, and placed my arm around her shoulders. I didn’t want my daughter to drift from me.IMG_2045

High school is not the only reminder my daughter will be fourteen in a few months. July to be exact. I’m reminded of this in other ways. The way her jeans fit over her hips and shirts settle over her chest. The exasperated way she watches news in the morning and sucks her teeth when the screen reveals another ridiculous move by our government.

Then I’m reminded by how she is seen when she is out in the world. I’ve followed men’s gaze on her. Anger overcomes my chest and I stare back. My eyes scream: she’s only thirteen you asshole.

“Did you see that dirty old man looking at you?” I scowl.

“No,” her eyebrows up, surprised.

“Disgusting…” I swallow my lips.

“Don’t get angry,” my daughter loops her arm around my own. Her touch soothes me and my anger begins to dissipate. But not all, some remains…lingers.

Stares directed at Holden began as early as eleven from old viejos, and increased at twelve. It was at twelve that teenage boys began to notice along with the viejos. Now at almost fourteen she is noticed even more, and she has become aware. Aware that male attention is something she can stir up. She is neither overly comfortable nor uncomfortable by this fact. It just is. The opposite of how I felt at her age. I was afraid of the viejos’ wet eyes that leered. Down right scared of the dirty comments that rolled off their tongues. I hunched my shoulders and tugged my sleeves and hid.

Most of my teen years I spent tucked away and hidden. My eyes buried in a book and ears blocked off by the headphones of a disc man. While girls talked about boyfriends during freshman and sophomore year I daydreamed about Dallas Winston and Holden Caulfield. Girls would write their names and their boyfriends names in big bubble letters across their binders. The date of when they started going out, written underneath or on the side. Some even wore double heart rings with their initials or door knockers with the same design. They were ones that bragged about lost virginities. I’d glance at them during class, not shocked by their lost virginity, but by the matter of fact they spoke these words a loud in the cafeteria or gym class. Still haven’t had my first kiss I’d stare at my reflection in the school bathroom mirror. I’d tilt my head the way I’d seen on television when couples kissed. And run my tongue across my teeth, close my eyes, and wondered if a boy would want me.

Junior year of highschool two major things happened. One, I changed high schools. Two, I got my first kiss. I went from an all girl Catholic High School to a coed Catholic High School.  The change came after I wrote Mami and Papi a long letter why I wanted to change school. I slipped the letter into an envelope and left it on top of Papi’s type writer. I hated my former high school, found the girls too catty and mean-spirited. My only hope was to go to a coed Catholic High School. Since Mami refused to send Joann and I to public school. As long as she they were houses to clean, and jewelry and clothes to sell on the side, she would continue to make tuition payments. We would go without, but Catholic school was a must. I resented Mami’s stance against public school for a long time, only later did I understand her sacrifice.

It was my best friend at the time who introduced me to who would be my first boyfriend. My first love. My first. It was early that fall. He was her chemistry lab partner.

“He likes me,” Sally said, (not her name, but for the sake of this essay let’s pretend).

“Oh,” I looked across her. We sat in the crowded lunchroom. She had taken to sit at another table and not with me. Most days she sat with the boy she was dating. But he was absent on this day. I acted like this was a something I was cool with, when I wasn’t. We left our former high school together, and after the first week of junior year had gone separate ways. Well, Sally went a separate way. I roamed along beside her, until it became clear she had no room for me in her life.

“I mean I don’t like him. He’s not that cute. And I have Joe.” She brushed her bangs and added another layer of plum brown lipstick. Her Cover Girl compact opened in her palm.

“Yeah…” I picked up my book and began to read.

“Here, he comes,” Sally waved over her lab partner. “I’m gonna ask him to sit with us,” Sally said.

My eyes still on my book I did not look up when he sat on the table. I did not want to watch the spectacle of Sally flirting. She was desperate and insecure. (I knew it then. Now I see we both were, but acted out in different ways.) It was pathetic how she much she wanted the boys attention. But like always I remained silent. Everything crammed inside me.

“What’s up?” He sat next to Sally.

I detected a slight accent and looked up. He was the color of dulce de leche, his hair inky black, laid flat and oily on his head. He looked Asian, his eyes were shaped like almonds and his cheekbones were stone steeples.

“This my friend Connie. We transferred together in September.” Sally shut her compact and faced us both.

I rolled my eyes. We were no longer friends. There was no big fight or big talk. We just stopped hanging out. If Joe wasn’t absent she wouldn’t have sat with me. And maybe my first kiss would’ve been with another boy. But life’s script is written way before we have taken up our roles.

“I’ve seen you around,” he turned towards me. He smiled without showing his teeth. “I’m Jose,” he extended his hand.

I placed my book down and placed my hand in his. It felt warm and sweaty.

We became friends from that moment. I was looking for someone to fill the void Sally left. I realize now, Jose filled a void created by more than just Sally. An unfair weight placed on his shoulders, but I did not keep the straps forced on his back. As it turned out he had his own backpack he carried. Never asked me to carry it. But would place it down or buckle under the weight, and I would offer to help him. Sometimes I would stoop down and take out of his backpack and add to mine. I’d do his homework, write his papers, buy him lunch with my lunch money and shake my head that I wasn’t hungry. I wanted to help. I didn’t think I was enough to love as is. So, I gave, in hopes to be made more lovable.

We were friends for all of the fall, and part of the winter. That is years in the minds of teenagers. He jumped from the crush on Sally to another friend I made that year. She was a transfer student like me and we were in some classes together, and forged a bond. She was opinionated and strong-willed and loved all things artsy. I kept my opinions under my breath and folded like a page in a book to avoid confrontation, and loved all things artsy too. But she had a boyfriend at her former highschool and was not interested in Jose.

At the time I told myself he fell in love with me because what we had started out as a friendship. And that is deeper and more meaningful than a crush. I feed myself these lies like nerd candies in order to avoid the truth. I was his third choice, because he had been rejected twice before. I was his third swing at the plate. And at the time I was flattered to be noticed regardless of the number order.

All these memories have sifted through my mind the past week. My daughter like any thirteen year old has crushes. She has boys from her class that are friends. At the orientation I saw boys look at her and saw her look at boys. I know my daughter and I have separate races to run in life. But at times I have to remind myself of that fact. I get tangled in the sticky web of anxiety and captured by my own memories.

Scared by this whirl of emotion. I do the only thing that I know is the greatest defense in shaping my daughter to what I wanted to be. What I wasn’t. I build myself. I make myself all the things I wish I was in highschool. Strong. Secure. Confident. Compassionate. And I write because with every essay I get closer. Strong. Secure. Confident. Compassionate.imgres-1