Mami’s Search

When I think of Mami I see her impeccable posture and sturdy face. Her silver hair shines in the sun. Mami’s voice like fire engines, a rapid blare of too loud. Wild and funny comments, spill out of her mouth like she has a team of comedy writers in her head. Mami says: que no tiene pelo en la lengua. But. Mami’s tongue is a belt, striking with the intent to hurt, refusing to cinch anything. But, as of late I see more than the caricature, villain, and warrior goddess I made my mother. Lately, I see someone whose had so much loss.

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Mami never read to us, how could she? But, Mami taught Joann and I to pray, and not that on your knees by the foot of the bed kind. No, Mami taught us to talk to God. And she told us stories. Stories from the book titled: La Vida Mia. Sometimes, not stories, but shards of details, chucked at Joann and I like daggers. While other times she doled them out to us like bits of a broken cracker, as if it was too painful to give them to us whole.

She left her hometown of Chalan at 12 years old to go work de servienta in Barranquilla. One of eight, guilty that she was another mouth to feed, she left her home. Mami enticed by the promise of an education. A tia took her in, with the assurance: school in exchange for help around the house. She lied. Mami was given a rag, a broom, and a cucharon, and not the notepad she hoped for and pencil. Mami was in her early twenties when her father died, killed by out of control car on the road he walked. Grief striken, Mami set out into the world as a nanny, first in Venezuela, then Puerto Rico, and finally Nueva York. Married at thirty-six to Papi, who already taken vows to el trago when they met, Mami was hopeful she could lure Papi away from drinking. A battle she fought, but knew she wouldn’t win. And then, Mami struggled to get pregnant, afraid that motherhood would elude her like education did, she prayed Joann and I into existence. Then, there was the matter of las casas, Mami’s stake in the world. Las casas.

*

Mami loves to walk. She can walk block after block, with the stamina of a long distance runner. Mami says it’s her meditation and the reason at 81 she’s so fit, a type two diabetic for close to three decades, walking is what she claims has kept her from insulin shots. Yes, Mami never learned to drive, and city buses are used only during cold or rainy days. She walks everywhere: to la misa, Keyfood, the pharmacy, and to her friends. Mami has often walked from Sunset Park to my apartment in Bayridge, unperturbed by the forty or more blocks. I frown and tell her I will pick her up and drive her home, and she is reluctant to climb in my car. And for the longest time I wondered what she sought during these walks.

But earlier this week, a visit to a lawyer and an article shared by my VONA sis, Salima from the New York Times, helped me piece it together. https://www.nytimes.com

We often think of searching as a kind of movement, a forward motion through time, but maybe it can also be the opposite, a suspension of time and memory. Heidegger wrote of a metaphoric pain, calling it the “joining of the rift.” It’s this rift, he said, that holds together things that have been torn apart, to perhaps create a new space where joy and sadness can find communion. This is the space I believed Takamatsu found beneath the sea, where he could feel close to his wife, in the rift between “missing” and “deceased.”

*

Tuesday of this week Mami, Holden, Rubencito, and I drove to the lawyer that handled the purchase of Mami and Papi’s apartment fifteen years ago. Forty years in America, Mami decided to buy a home, only after losing her casas en Colombia. Mami wanted to put the apartment in mine and Joann’s name, but we had questions before we went ahead. Hector, Mami’s real estate attorney agreed to meet us in the late afternoon.

“Hector, does it make sense to put the apartment in our names now?” I asked. I sat upright across the desk from Hector, my hands folded, and Mami to my left. “I know this should have been done years ago,” I sighed.

“Yes, they look back five years from the date of the transfer.” Hector looked back and forth from Mami to me.

“I told her to do this years ago,” I said in English to Hector. I was intent on leaving Mami out of the conversation, annoyed that she hadn’t listened to me years ago when I suggested this.

“Que fue?” Mami looked over at me.

“I knew we should have done this years ago,” I now said in Spanish. Anxious I bounced my leg up and down.

“Yo no sabia,” Mami said. Her voice a pitch higher.

I braced myself. I needed to ask about Papi and the Medicaid help he received. Papi was now wheelchair bound and diagnosed with dementia for several years. When Joann and I looked to get Papi care after too many falls and a three-month stint in a rehab center, the apartment came into question. Desperate to get him help and unburden Mami we applied for Medicaid on Papi’s behalf. Joann filled out the papers. I was the courier. “My father has full care in the house, seven days a week, twelve hours a day.”

“They wanted to give him twenty-four care, but I said no.” Mami said.

Hector nodded.

“I don’t want people in the house when I sleep,” Mami explained.

Hector looked at both of us, took a deep breath before he spoke. “I don’t want to sound crude, I will just give you the facts. Medicaid has not touched the apartment because you are still living there and it’s your primary residency,” Hector gestured towards Mami. “But when your father dies they will serve you a bill to pay for the services.”

I swallowed. Leaned forward, my elbows on the desk now.

“Cuanto?” Mami asked.

“It depends on how long he lives. It depends if you will need long-term care down the road.” Hector hands formed a steeple, he rested his chin on the top.

Papi’s care could drain every cent from the apartment.

Mami sat up straighter. ” Dios mio, this is why I pray to God I will just die in my sleep like my mother did. And be a burden to none.” Mami’s lips were set in a thin pencil line.

Hector looked at Mami for a long time before he spoke. “I have no perfect answer to give you. I can’t predict the future.” Hector said. “I wish I could.”

We sat there for another thirty minutes. Hector used words like: capital gains, power of attorney, sole beneficiaries. I forced myself to listen and took careful note of everything he said. I would report back to Joann.

On the drive back to Mami’s, my kids asked: What took so long? Why was I so quiet? Mami turned back in the car and said, “I’ve never wanted a lot in life. I asked God for only mis hijas. Y un trapo de casa. Lo unico.”

*

Mami wanted and strived for a house to call her own for most of her adult life. It was as if walls and roof would make her whole. Once settled in Nueva York she worked for a doctor as a nanny with three kids. Her goal: buy a house in Chalan. And she did, it was the first house she owned, but desperate to win her mother’s affection she signed it over to Abuela, Repa. Mami so sure that her mother would live the rest of her life there, never worried that the house would not find its way back to her. Her mistake. She underestimated La FARC guerilla,  already entrenched in Colombia since 1964, los guerrilleros took to the jungles of Colombia, and small pueblos like Chalan. An invasion by La FARC of the region of Sucre, where Chalan resided, left Mami without a home. And Chalan now at the mercy of los guerrilleros.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FARC

Mami so sure she would return to live in Colombia worked harder and bought a house in Barranquilla. Back in the States and in need of a caretaker, Mami called on her younger brother, Elicer. A newlywed, Elicer and his bride moved in.  Now, five children later, and a handful of grandchildren, Mami’s house more his than her’s. Extensions added, a makeshift garage built, and a small business wedged in the back of the house. Repa lived her last years in this house with Elicer and his family, this gave Mami comfort. Comfort that her brother, not unlike the guerilla had taken over her house.

Then there is Mami’s last attempt to buy a house in Colombia. The first time I heard about Chicho I was six or seven years old. Old enough to follow a story, but too young to grasp that Mami was not the hero in this story. Mami who walked in la calle with a straight back and the narrow eyes of a prison warden, had been duped. A victim. I realized this later, when I figured out that Mami carried as much stories as she did bolsas de ropa. Like the brown shopping bags with handles she lugged around Sunset Park. Mami sold clothes to friends and friend of friends at a discount prices. Mami, a traveling boutique, who had a lay away plan and accepted food stamps as payment.

*

“People have always stolen from me,” Mami said. She looked down at me angry that her friend Moncie had only given her a crumpled ten, though she owed so much more. Joann and I helped her organize the ledger where she kept track of each client’s transactions. Our childish handwriting wrote the names of the clients on the very top, Mami did the mental math of the sales and tallied what they owed, Joann and I jotted it down. The three of us walked alongside the park like a motley crew of business women. We were on our way home from Mami’s Friday payday visits to her clients homes. They all lived in last floor apartments in run down walk ups or makeshift rooms in basements, no one lived in their own private house.

Tired and thirsty I nodded. Mami forbade us to ask for a drink at anyone’s house. And every place we left as soon as we were within ear shot she would say: Ni agua nos ofrecen.

Joann, on Mami’s other side, was silent.

“Do you know we would’ve had a beautiful house,” Mami flung la bolsa across her back.

“The one Elicer lives in?” I asked. I thought of the corner house in San Roque, next to the bakery.

“Not the house where Elicer lives, no this one was in El Norte.” Mami looked ahead as if she was seeing a movie on a screen only she could see.

Shocked, I said, “El Norte?” El Norte de Barranquilla, the Northern most part of Barranquilla. Where los que son de dinero lived, like Ricardo and Cecilia De La Pena. Mami and Papi’s life long friends, who had a cleaning lady named Petra, and daughters that took private swimming lessons.

“I sent money every week like a pendeja for years. The house was built from scratch.” Mami lost in thought looked straight ahead and walked faster.

My small legs trailed behind.

“But, I listened to your father. He said we should have his friend Chicho take care of everything.” Mami jerk her head, as if the image of Chicho was stove hot, and seared her brain. “A lawyer, ha!” Mami twisted her head towards Joann and I. “Un demonio,” Mami bared her teeth.

I wondered if we could get the house back. Somehow. “Where is Chicho?” I asked.

“In hell!” Mami growled.

I looked around  to see if  people had heard Mami. No, eyes to the ground, purses pulled close to bodies and footsteps darted quick across the street. The sun was ready to set and was ripe with the color of honeydew and mango. Graffiti spotlighted in the glow of the sunset, I wondered why Mami didn’t buy a house here. Colombia was the summer, Sunset Park was always.

“Why did he take the house?” I asked.

“Your father said he was someone we could trust,” Mami said. “And when he asked me to sign papers to make it easier for him to deal with everything. I did. Una pendeja.” She hung her head low.

Mami didn’t say much after that. My heart ached for Mami. Afraid to interrupt the silence that now enveloped us, I ran up to her, and clasped her hand.

 

*

A few days after our visit to Hector’s I called Mami.

“Como estas?”

And if on cue, “It’s in God’s hands let it be His will,” Mami said. Her voice calm like water.

I remained silent on the other end of the phone.

“I have lost so much.” She sighed into the phone. “Dios tiene la ultima palabra.”

We didn’t say much after that.

Mami had talked to God, like she taught Joann and I, when were young girls. And maybe all the hours she spends praying is like that Japanese husband in the article who keeps diving into the ocean to look for his wife so many years after her disappearance. It’s that space between loss and memory that brings him peace. Mami knows how much she lost, she keeps a careful tally, and has no hope to gain what’s lost. But, as she walks through the memories of her life, she searches for that young girl who left Chalan who was so full of hope. And there she finds some peace.

 

 

 

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I once had this friend…

I’m abundant in friends. And I’m grateful. But, have not always been a good friend. The truth is that when it mattered the most I fucked up. Now, I take pride in my being a loyal friend, but it can be knocked down with one moment. A choice. Complicit in my inaction to stand up for a friend, I chose to abandon her.  Annoyed by truth, I broke the promise made to help her. And like all stories that haunt, this one is no different.

It starts cliché enough, Sophia, that’s what I will call her, and I bonded over our hate of gym, junior year of high school. Side by side on the bleachers we concocted excuses to get out of class. But, it wasn’t until a year later that Sophia went from: my I hate gym class buddy, to: friend status.  Worried and upset, I confided in Sophia, after being caught shoplifting in the West Village, the fall of senior year. Held captive by my story, Sophia offered to lend me the hundred dollars to pay for the shoplifting fine. Desperate to pay, and fearful of Mami finding out, I accepted, though stunned by Sophia’s offer and also that she had the money.  And with only a wrinkled ten in my pocket, I  was most grateful that Sophia cared. Cared that I was scared and helpless. The next day she held out five twenties. “Don’t worry, pay me back when you can,” Sophia said. But, only after I hesitated towards her outstretched arm.

Social researcher, Brene Brown, says that trust is built in small moments.

It’s no surprise to me that after that moment Sophia became my confident. In the spring both accepted to Hunter College, we decided to attend. The shoplifting incident in the past, Sophia and I were thrilled for the future. College was fun, then Sophia became ill late in the summer before sophomore year, left paralyzed from one day to the next. She was hospitalized for two weeks as the doctors searched for answers. It took countless tests and examinations to diagnosis Sophia with a rare and hard to pronounce with way too many syllables, disease.  I visited almost everyday at the hospital, and brought with me: pizza, whopper juniors, and cookies, in hopes to distract Sophia from the fact that at nineteen she would have to learn to walk again. As the days passed, Sophia gained some mobility, and was soon discharged from the hospital able to walk a few steps. One arm left so weak she had to pick it up with the other to move it. Numbness and tingling became everyday sensations, and intense rehabilitation was needed. Sophia hoped to go to school next semester.

And as weeks passed and later months, Sophia grew strong and found herself walking, arm weak and limp, rested by her side. Sophia registered for the next semester, and I was hopeful for times past. When we use to charge our credit cards like mad, fancy dinners in the City, great finds after hours rummaging through CDs at Tower Records, and nights at the Angelika in the East Village. But, Sophia grew quiet and what mattered before, now didn’t. She stopped attending class and spent most of her days in her bedroom. And when I graduated, she was semesters behind.

Now, decades later, I can decipher her behavior as depression, but at that time I thought myself better. I was a survivor. She was not. My own depression propelled me into action, as if busy could out run sad.

But.

There is more, always is. I recall a request, from Sophia one of those early days she was hospitalized. And one that Sophia echoed often after that.

“Do  you know the doctors tell me they know so little of this disease,” Sophia laid across her hospital bed. Balloons and flowers decorated the room.

“I still can’t believe this happened to you,” I said. I sat at the foot of the bed.

“They said I’m lucky that I gained the ability to move my hands and feet right away. That there is no cure. That this now part of me.” Sophia’s eyes on mine, they searched to be understood.

I looked away.

She persisted. “The doctors told me about some studies that have been done,” Sophia blinked hard. “People that have this,” she gestured at her body,  “it usually occurs in their late teens or early twenties, and then…”

“Sophia, don’t think about that,” I grabbed her foot over the sheet that covered it, and squeezed it.

“But what if it comes back?” Sophia’s voice shook.

“It won’t,” I said. But I worried.

“It comes back worse… What about if I turn forty and I am just a head?”

“A head?” I laughed. “What are you talking about?”

“I will be a head. Paralyzed from the head down.” Sophia took a breath before she spoke again. “That’s what happens.”

Scared I forced myself to speak. “You gotta believe it won’t,” I said.

“If it does…” Sophia started.

“Sophia!” I stood up.

“But if it does happen… and it happens like it did this time while I was watching television… I don’t want to be a head.” Sophia swallowed.

I held my breath.

“Will you… will you help me?” Sophia asked.

“Of course,” I said.

“I don’t want to ever live like that. Promise me you will help me!” Sophia’s voice was like the beeps from the machines in the hospital, urgent. “I don’t want a life where I am paralyzed and can’t do anything.”

I nodded, agreed to help her.

*

The summer after my college graduation I embarked on a trip to Colombia.  Determined to write a novel, my time in Colombia would be spent writing. And I could get to know more of my roots as a bonus. The truth was I wrote very little, and looked for distraction, and Sophia and I hatched a trip for her to come visit me. I was ecstatic. Three months into my trip in Colombia, Sophia’s two-week trip turned into a two month stay. We ran through Barranquilla the way we did the City. We spent money like we were Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Sophia had bought a wad of money, which she borrowed from her credit card. It was during that time that Sophia met and became involved with one of my cousins. Once back in the States, their relationship continued, and they eventually married. Sophia and I were thrilled, now official family.

Their marriage was troubled early on. And I knew it, but remained silent. Afraid of conflict, I avoided Sophia’s marriage troubles like driving in the snow. It terrified me. But, the more Sophia’s life was fucked up, the more I took a sigh of relief in mine.

It was seven years before Sophia walked out on her marriage.  Now, years later I wonder how long Sophia spent getting it all sorted in her mind. Years. Months. Days. Hours. But, she told me in minutes, in a bathroom that Thanksgiving.

“I’m leaving him.” Sophia sat on the toilet. She was composed and matter of fact.

I wasn’t. “What’s going on?” I asked. I had my son to my breast. He was a little over a year and unable to wean him I still found myself nursing him to nap.

“I don’t want to be married to him anymore,” she looked down.

“Tell me…” I braced myself.

“He’s not good,” Sophia whispered.

My back ached from the weight of my son in my arms, but I leaned in closer. “Why?” My mind drifted like it always did and does when I’m scared. I studied all the bottles of creams and hair products my sister had lined on the back of the toilet.

“He hurt me.”

“He hits you?”

“No, but I’m scared of him. He…”

I heard only no, and didn’t want to hear anything that followed. And said the words that I have regretted since then, “but he doesn’t hit you right?”

Sophia’s eyes brimmed with tears. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to leave him.”

*

There so much more to this story, like any story it has many layers to it. But, I write this not to understand their relationship. Nor my relationship with him, that’s complicated, and for another essay. This is about Sophia and how I failed her. How I chose to leave Sophia during a time when she needed me the most.

Two weeks after Sophia’s confessional in Joann’s bathroom we made dinner plans. We went out for Thai and I slammed down one mango-tini after another. I tried to convince her to work it out for the sake of her son. She wouldn’t budge, said it was over. We walked along Third Avenue as it snowed, I was silent and drunk.

“We will always be friends. ” A statement, but the way she lingered at the end, it became a question.

I responded with silence. Angry at Sophia for putting me in the middle. I looked ahead. Distance had already wedged itself between us, she walked ahead and I stumbled behind. I watched the snow dust her hair,  and I hated her at the moment.  I vowed that I would never put myself before my family. She was selfish. I was better. Better woman. Better mother.

It was the last time I saw Sophia, and it’s been near a decade. I no longer think that I’m better than her. Sophia saved herself. I don’t think Sophia was ever the same after her diagnosis. That diagnosis handed her a sense that life was finite. When she became trapped in her marriage she walked out before she became paralyzed. And when Sophia asked for my help I failed. I did not keep my promise.

*

Two weeks ago my daughter came across my old high school year book. She flipped through the first few pages and then came to search for me. I sat in the living room reading one of my writer friend’s work. My laptop balanced on the arm of the sofa.

“Wow!” Holden entered the living room. “You use to be so mean,” she flopped herself on the sofa beside me. The yearbook in her hands, opened like some great tome.

I looked up. “What are you doing looking at that,” I said annoyed.

“Like did you sit in your room for hours and come up with all these names?” Holden’s eyebrows arched high with surprise. “Wow Mama these are terrible.”

“Let me see that,” I swiped the year book out of her hand. I flipped through the rows of graduation pictures and read the names written above each shot. Names like: Whopper, Bird Beak, ET Neck, Negative A, Planet of the Apes, Dragon, and Pinto Bean scrawled in black marker. Other names are there too, ones heavy with racial slurs I’m to ashamed to write.

As I flipped through the pages I saw Sophia’s picture. I had spared her a nickname.

And with the yearbook on my lap I realized that beside this mean streak that I had. And, now work to extinguish. I always used others to measure myself against and make myself feel better. My year book is proof. Yeah, it can be attributed to adolescent dumb-assness, but something else lurked behind all those terrible nicknames I jotted down over people’s pictures. I couldn’t see beyond the surface of a person. I made on sight judgements of people and laughed it off as a joke.

Maybe Sophia knew this, and made me promise loyalty that day in the hospital certain I would not deliver. But she hoped.

I hope to never repeat my mistake again and fail a friend. I’m older now and can admit I fucked up, and this essay is my attempt to loosen my shame. I was wrong, but I am sorry.

 

Rantings of a Novelist

Fiction, my greatest escape. No surprise it became my greatest disguise. But underneath it all, is just me, Connie, trying to tell stories. But in order to tell them all, first I must tell Delores’ story. And though I am Delores and she is me, we are not the same. This is not an epiphany I  was quick to arrive; no, it’s taken time, through the evolution of author and character. An evolution I did not know I was part of, until a series of events led to an interview, which traced our journey. Delores and I.

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*

My thought for the day… at least now with writing opportunities you are living and not just existing. My dear friend and teaching mentor, Valerie’s words appeared on my cell phone screen as I drove home yesterday afternoon from teaching summer school. A week of summer school to cover a teacher/friend’s program. Yes, the extra money does not hurt, and part of it will go to help fund another writing adventure in August. But, giving up my summer even for a few days is a betrayal, not to mention I have my own children to take care of in the summer. Teaching has always felt like the mistress to my spouse, writing. But, able to bare it, if the summers were devoted to writing. And as every summer burst wide and snapped closed, little was devoted to writing. Time spent: being a mother of two, professional teaching training, graduate summer courses, hours spent on Netflix, endless to do lists, and self hate for not writing. Summers began with so much possibility, and ended marked by a great sense of loss. I ached for it to be different, for me to be different.

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Valerie’s words, a pair of hands, which lead me to my laptop last night. Guilt hoisted on my shoulders, the words: never enough, spelled out on top. Writing very little since my return from VONA, fearful to disappoint others, but most, myself.  But, writing, has been and is my altar. Where I kneel with clasped hands, prayer for salvation on the tip of my tongue. So, I wrote, Val’s words swirled around my brain, shaped from truth, they grasped my skull. Writing, a clear looking-glass, the world reflected back to me. And a true mirror, in which I see myself. Life shines brighter when I write.

*

I began to write my first novel soon after I decided to be a writer. I was eleven. Determined that I could write a better ending to the ABC Afterschool Special, Cheats. http://www.imdb.com I wrote my own version of Cheats. A blue ball point pen and a marble composition notebook, I set up residency in my bedroom. I wrote most of the time on my stomach across my bed. A thin scarf flung over my night-table lamp. The dim glow of the light gave the writer’s feel I sought. Later I would learn this is process, a writer’s ritual, an effort to create a mood. The mood to create. So, when it rained I set up camp on the thin windowsill of my bedroom. The street light of the avenue illuminated my handwriting, big, slanted, and curly.

My first main character was Samantha. She had long straight hair to her waist and wore small shorts because her legs were long and fit. Popular and from a big family, Sam was loved by her many friends and all her siblings. Beautiful, but not snobby, smart, but not nerdy, feisty, but not a renegade, Sam struck a perfect balance. American and from middle America, Sam was stripped of any culture. She didn’t appear in my imagination or third eye like writers often describe how they create characters. Nor did I hear a persistent voice like a tap on my shoulder, which wouldn’t cease unless I began to write. I created Sam like I’ve always written, I dipped into my life. Sam was me, by being everything I wasn’t.

My fiction has always been inspired by those around me, a quick name change made them feel like my own. Always a reader, everyone a character, the writer in me drafted stories from those in my life. My first fiction workshop class in college I wrote a short piece about a young Puerto Rican girl away at college. My best friend, Angelique. Then in my next short story I wrote about a guy who played handball at the park. He loved free style music and dreamt of being a DJ. He was Peruvian. My ex boyfriend, the first main male character I wrote. And so began a series of character driven stories, all Latinos with a story to tell.

It wasn’t long before I began to write about certain moments in my life, like the time my friend Lesslie, her older sister, and I went on a wild goose chase to hunt down a guy nicknamed The Russian. Or the time I was caught shop lifting as a teenager in the West Village. And, so I emerged, walked across the pages. But unable to untangle myself from memory and truth, I held the light towards other characters, and cast myself in the shadows. So, with no main character to claim center stage, Mami was pushed to the spot light. And this is how it was for a long time as I wrote myself as a nameless character who swayed and folded at Mami’s will.

An intense flashback scene from my first novel, and abandoned 3/4 in, uncovered a story behind those of my early twenties. Compelled to tell what came before I began my new novel. Only a few years since then, my main character remained nameless until my writing teacher, Colleen, asked me to name her. Named years later after her birth, her name perched itself on my shoulder like a fallen leaf. A character that existed since my very first story, just different versions. Morphed, but the same outline, the same character in my short stories, poems, personal essays, and even that first abandoned novel. Slow to evolve, but now impatient to live. Delores begs to be written.

*

At this past VONA, one writer/friend/sister, Salima, in my section wrote an interview between her and her character. She came to class and assured us it was freaky, but helpful. I listened. But didn’t think I needed to complete this exercise. I was my character, and there was nothing I did not know about her. And later that week, one late night as I spoke to Vanessa Martir, on the stoop of a house next to the bar restaurant we were chillin at. I confessed my anxieties and fears about finishing my novel.

“I’m so close,” I said and looked at her from the side.

“Writing a book takes time Ma, be gentle with yourself,” Vanessa said. Her eyes fixed on me.

“But V,” I clenched my fists on my lap. “I want this so bad.”

“What do you want?” Vanessa’s voice cool against the warm summer night air.

“I want to get this book out there,” I tilted my head back and looked at the night sky. “Publish it.”

“But what do you really want?” She pushed.

Silent. “Damn your good V, you are giving me a one on one and it took me a minute to get it,” I smiled her way.

A smirk appeared, “So, what do you  really want?”

I bit my lip.

“Say it, you were just about to say it,” Vanessa insisted.

“I just want to tell these stories. I want to tell Delores’ story first. And then I can tell Mami’s. I want to write Mami’s story next, but first I want to tell a little of mine.” My eyes brimmed with tears. It seemed so simple, but could it be that simple?

“Well you got to talk to her tell her what you want,” Vanessa cocked her head to the side, her brown eyes filled with infinite tenderness. “And she will tell you what she wants.”

I swallowed and nodded my head.

“Yo, Connie talk to her,” Vanessa said one last time as we walked back to our table.

*

“When are you going to finish your novel?” A question that grabs my shoulders and shakes them. Hard and Ragged. Never asked by writers, or rarely. But, I shake it off and smile. So, much buried under my smile. “I’m writing it, page by page,” I offer. Persistence, my answer, but not seen as enough. Attacked by another question: “Well haven’t you been writing it for a long time?” Ashamed I offer the details of my life, my head bowed in contrition. “I’m married, have two children, am a full-time teacher, and have two sick parents, and have a full life.” My list has granted me forgiveness by the questioner. But. Relief evades me, only confirmation of an unfinished novel echoes long after the conversation. And resentment. Resentment for everything that stands in my way, even me.

In her interview with Guardian.com, author of, The God of Small Things and activist Arundhati Roy https://www.theguardian.com discusses her process as a writer and why it took her twenty years to write her second novel.

…fiction just takes its time. It’s no hurry. I can’t write it faster or slower than I have; it’s like you’re a sedimentary rock that’s just gathering all these layers, and swimming around. The difference between the fiction and the non-fiction is simply the difference between urgency and eternity.”

An article shared by my VONA fiction section, part of our homemade weekly assignments. But that quote, like a traffic officer in an intersection, waved in my direction. Permission, to admit that writing a novel is fucking hard! That you sometimes have to do crazy shit like interview your main character so that you can write that last third of the book.

My Interview With My Main Character

Connie: Delores?
Delores: Oh, so now you want to hear from me. Maybe I will just sit here with my arms crossed and say nothing. You think that you know everything, don’t you? So, go on Ms. Tiny Buddha. Ms. Writer!
Connie: Why are you so angry at me? Hell I made you up. That’s like being angry at God for having created you…
Delores: Man! Do you even hear yourself talk? Or do you need to see it typed up on a screen to get it?
Connie: What the fuck?
Delores: You and me are one in the same. Isn’t that what you always say. It’s like you want everyone to think you are so deep. And feel sorry for you. But that’s because you don’t want people see the real you. So ,you created me. But, we are not the same people. 
Connie: I don’t think I’m deep and want people to feel sorry for me. I’m not an asshole. And you are part of me.
Delores: Yes, a part. Listen to your words. 
Connie: Uhuh
Delores: Admit it.
Connie: Admit what?
Delores: That you still hide. You have all these gray hairs now and have old lady knees as you like to call them, but your still that scared eleven year old.
Connie: Fuck you! Now I’m tight. I should just hit delete. That would teach you.
Delores: Do it. But you won’t. You need me. 
Connie: I don’t need you. 
Delores: Ya you do. You see, Connie you need me because I make you less afraid. 
Connie: Gimmie a break. Your not even real!
Delores: But I am! You created me so you could hide and exist and be less afraid.
Connie: I’m over this! Of course I created a character with a Dr. Phil complex. Tell me… what am I so afraid of?
Delores: Let me see… hmmm…Mami, success, the truth, dreaming… FINISH THIS NOVEL STOP BEING SO AFRAID
Connie: (Silence)
Delores: So your mad at me now? You are taking away my voice?
Connie: (Silence)
Delores: I can wait. I’m good at waiting. You have me waiting all the time, weeks, months. I’m good, abandon me. You always do…
Connie: That’s not fair!
Delores: You want to know wants not fair? You want me to exist. But you can’t give yourself permission to exist. We are not the same people. But I need you to be strong. I need you to exist so I can live. You think I like being trapped in that brain of yours? It’s crowded in there. Go and live Connie. But let me live too.

*

Writing is not for the weak. You gotta work, and stare at the screen for hours, your shoulders roped with tension. Your bullshit stares at you, and sometimes it strikes back at you. Your left with a hallow stomach and messy pages, chapters, an entire manuscript. You can rework it or delete it. Or you can revise with the truth. And my truth is that more often than not I am afraid to be exposed. My true self on tip toes above each sentence. But I push. And I write. Delores has grown strong and tugs at me till I get her on the page. This is how I live, and not just exist.

A Writer’s Prayer

What did I learn after a week long writing retreat with writers of color? The question I’m asked. Answer: I learned I’m so blessed. Blessed to have so many lift me, believe in me, and hear me. Something so beautiful in that!

And.

I learned I’m a writer yo! Yes, me the homegirl, with that Brooklyn accent, who in my excitement over words, trips over them like untied shoelaces and says, infinity instead of affinity. The one that loves the way my tongue dips in the inkwell of my Colombian Spanish, as the cadences brush against my lips. Yup, me hater of small talk, lover of long jam sessions. All the hues in a person exposed. My own too. Compelled to hold onto that image, that very moment, my brain begins to draft. I long to capture. Sensitive. Writing my weapon. I didn’t realize it was my medicine too. No, that I’ve learned along the way, with every chapter I write, and every essay.

But those words, I’m a writer, have not always slipped out of my mouth. Unsure. I bunched them up and never ever spoke them, though I always believed it was my destino. When I was young and the world seemed more fair than unfair. Life and its’ circumstances, a leg stuck out, as I walked my journey, ready to trip me, bring me to my knees. And as I busied myself with the bruises, bought on by life, I forgot. Forgot lo que era mi destino. And though I know life holds two fistfuls of fair and unfair, and I will encounter those dips and bends, uneven patches and boulders on the road. Es tu destino will echo, and with one hand on the ground and another on my bent knee, I will stand. Strike forward, and walk, towards mi destino.

*

It’s the Tuesday after my week at VONA. The irony that it’s Independence Day is not lost. My second time at VONA. And many have asked me, which was better, 2015? Or 2017?

My answer: I loved them both. Blessed to have had the same maestra, Evelina Galang, twice. Sexy, sassy, and words her samurai sword. Her ease and confidence in the way she cuts the air with her words inspired and inspires me to do the same. Blessed to have had two amazing fiction groups each year. Damn good writers with souls that run deep. So, much so when I read their work I waded in their souls. My ankles first, then my waist, and finally my chest, until I’m submerged in their words. Worlds. Soul mates linked by sentences, anchored by the pages, and branded by images. We ran deep. We run deep. We will run deeper.

How can people you met in a week become family, some ask? One word: Tribe. We all love books and words like late night lovers. A passion only you two can know. Outside, we stand out, but together, we stand whole. Writing, a passion, something spiritual that illuminates us from the inside.

And as I said bye to my fiction crew minutes before my family picked me up, whisked me to my life. “This,” I circled my finger around us, as if laced with invisible thread, we moved closer. “This is so deep because before we fell in love with each other, we first fell in love with our souls. Because we left a little bit of ourselves on the page. So, I knew you before I met you, and loved you.”

And that is the difference. Our words pressed in between our bodies as we hugged. Family.

 

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I am different now that I was in 2015. Scared that I would not and could not hold onto the magic of VONA. That as the days became weeks and the months unfolded with every season, the magic would dissipate from my finger tips. Grasp. Unaware that the magic settles into your bones and the crevices of your mind. Evelina’s words: leave your soul on the page, the melody I whistled as I sat in front of the computer every single time since 2015.

Two years later, certain that VONA magic is sustained. I walked in to UPenn sure of this. And sure of something greater, that VONA, like a handwritten page in felt pen caught in the rain, it bleeds. Bleeds to other parts of your life. When you look back at that muddy page of ink, the faint outline of the words can be seen, but the layers of that felt color have leaked. Leaked into how I: read, teach, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and exist beyond the page. And when I arrived at my second VONA, I thought the same page would be there for me to write my name across. My soul ready to be left on the page. My felt pen poised in mid-air I pulled the cap off and reached for that same page. But, under that page was another one. A blank one. Bound by all the pages that make me, me. And I wrote.

  • Scene
  • Backstory
  • Dialogue
  • Internal Thinking
  • Exposition
  • Sensory Image
  • Conflict
  • Plot
  • Character

Craft moves, but life moves too. And I shared. I opened myself up. I read. I listened, took note, did not look away when praised or cheered. But I also cheered and praised too. I heard stories. Story after story, some left my heart broken. Wrapped up in power and joy, poetic energy all around me. I took risk. Cracked myself wider, and refused to hold my breath. Hugged close by my fiction crew, and by my Latina home girls I chilled with in between, Vanessa Martir, la loba, leader of the pack.

So, on that last day of class, made bold and brazen by my section. Eight beautiful souls shaped by the seduction of words, I read the prayer I wrote that night before. And revised in the morning.  Evelina’s words: little by little it leaves your heart, the new melody.

PicCollage-2

When I was little and Mami raged against the world. I hid. Made myself small under my bed. A rosary clutched in my fist. My eyes squeezed shut until the world disappeared. I’ve always prayed, buried little novena cards in my bra, even tucked in the waist of my panties. El Divino Nino would guard me. It would be Him that would render me whole.

No longer ok to bury my prayers. I said them a loud. Screamed them even. But, always behind the screen. My head bowed in search of grace. I waited. Atonement evaded me. I wished not to be silenced. The chokehold to be lifted. Silence at first. Whispered next. Said in prayer after.

My Prayer to My Writer Self

Ayudame Senor. Please let me forgive Papi. I no longer pray to be noticed by him. I now wish to have my hurt unloosen. Diminish. Drift. Grow legs and walk away.

Ayudame Senor, be all things Mami, but the good, and not the bad. Once my novel is written. Let the shadows that we created on the page no longer cast their shade in our lives. May I write her story next, erect brick by brick, the words that built her.

Ayudame senor, tell these stories that live in my bones. My knees scooped hollow by the stories that live nestled in there. The ones so buried in the space between my collar and above my breastbone. How I’m afraid of men. And why. Drunken men and their eyes rolled around in their sockets like marbles, whom I stared at before I drifted off to sleep. At someone’s house party, alcohol spread like fingers in a hand in, every direction. My eyes, recorded everything, my soul swallowed everything, broken people all around me. My prayer to make them whole, to tell their story.

Ayudame Senor, tell these stories for the women in my life. Mis abuelas, mi madre, mi hermana, mi sobrina, y hija. Their stories, woven on their backs, vertebrae by vertebrae, hunched by the weight of stories untold. Daughter and niece shoulders piled high, close to their ears. Ready for the weight that is to come, let the weight refuse to take grasp. May it refuse to bend around the dip of their necks, and drag them down. Let it fall by their feet.

Ayudame Senor, give voice when emotion has been stamped dead. The men in my life, a steady march. Machismo a trail they all walk, every last one, as they square their chin, and set off. Mi Ruben made so sad, so early, and with nothing left to do. He grew rage. Both our inheritance. My nephew, quiet, a steady beat of pain with every basket shot. His dreams laced tight like the Lebrons on his feet. My brother in law, imprisoned long before the time he served. Poetic and dramatico, no room for that in the projects of the South Bronx, so he puffed up his chest and false bravado took hold. Hold of where ideas and dreams settled, refused to be heard, held silent by Biggie. The soundtrack he was given in the absence of any other. My son, sweet and my baby boy, at his side a soccer ball, images and metaphors tumble from his mouth without great effort. And my stepson, silence his greatest defense. My men.

Y Colombia pues. Who permeates my writing, every last bit. History. Violence. Joy. Laughter. Mi Colombia. I say the words like it’s my favorite shawl. The one I drape over me, tight, over my back. I carry it everywhere, sometimes tucked in my backpack, unsure when to pull it out. Colombia. La tierra de mis padres. Mi tierra.

Finally, there is me. Ayudame Senor! Let me tell these stories. That the choke hold I have on my own throat unclench. And only then will I be free.

*

And as I finish this essay. Firecrackers pound the air like fists. Fists breaking through and striking past. I sit in my kitchen with the window wide open and imagine they are for me. For all the writers of VONA. The Voices of Our Nation Arts.