The Brave Essay I Wrote For Myself

Leave your soul on the page. Evelina Galang

Those were the words that struck me the most after my first experience at VONA, 2015. For two years, the words refused to peel themselves from me, certain there could be no better writing advice. But, then Evelina offered something else during VONA 2017. Words, not her own, but given to her, ones that moved me, and made me want to be brave.

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*

Saturday night, my husband, daughter, son, and I went to a bookstore in The Lower East Side, called Blue Stockings. I left my daughter’s soccer game with a copy of Evelina’s Galang’s latest book, Lola’s House,tucked under my arm, ready to be signed by my two-time fiction VONA teacher. During the thirty minutes it took to drive from the soccer game in uptown Manhattan to the bookstore in lower Manhattan, I thought back to my week at VONA this past summer. The first time I saw a copy of Lola’s House, Evelina passed it around to the nine of  us, whom made up her class, like a proud mother. Later that week Evelina read from Lola’s House at the at the faculty reading. And I recoiled as these Lolas, Filipina elders, recounted their stories, of abductions and rapes. Their brave souls seeped out of the book, and settled in my chest. Women raped over and over by Japanese soldiers during WWII, referred to as comfort women, these Lolas survived being sex slaves. I wondered how they could speak about their pain, tell their stories, and not collapse under the weight of it all.

My story, a love letter to myself, nowhere as harrowing and graphic, yet being unable to speak it, pressed itself into a sharp edge, and cut at me. No, greater ache than a story untold. And in order to tell my story, I had to look at the oppressed and oppressor in me, my interactions in the world as a woman. No, great crime, no torrid infedility, just a betrayl of self. All in my quest to be noticed and wanted, never seeing that the reflection I most wanted to see was my own.

Little by little it leaves your heart. Evelina Galang

On the last day of class at VONA 2017 I read my writer’s prayer, and overcome with emotions. I wept. Buckled by the weight of years spent policing my words, being silent, as I choked under all of the things that I have left unsaid. Swallowed. And when I looked up, Evelina quoted one of her Lolas’ words: little by little it leaves your heart. First in Tagalog, and then in English. Filled with relief I sighed, as the echoes of all the Lolas invaded my heart, and believed that one day I too would be brave.

But, bravery does not happen in one single act. It’s little bitty acts, which build on one another, and bulge like muscle. And the heart is just that, a muscle.

In the web page, Inner Body I found this definition of Cardiac muscle, and at first it read text-book and boring, but after a closer reading. I saw the poetry that is the human body, the heart itself, something of great beauty. Cardiac muscle tissue is an extremely specialized form of muscle tissue that has evolved to pump blood throughout the body. In fact, cardiac muscle is only found in the heart and makes up the bulk of the heart’s mass. The heart beats powerfully and continuously throughout an entire lifetime without any rest, so cardiac muscle has evolved to have incredibly high contractile strength and endurance. And because the heart maintains its own rhythm, cardiac muscle has developed the ability to quickly spread electrochemical signals so that all of the cells in the heart can contract together as a team….

The fact that the heart beats powerfully and without rest its entire life, and that in order to pump the way it does it relies on the cardiac muscle tissue. A muscle tissue, individualized and wrapped around the heart to be strong, be fierce. Hearts, are made to seem so fragile, shattered, broken, and achy with pain, but the heart, the heart is so much more. The heart can grow strong again as you release your pain, the muscle will stregnthen.

Upset and unsure about a particular situation, I set out on Friday to write an essay that I knew I could not share on this blog. Freed by the fact that my essay would not be seen by others, and would live in my laptop, I wrote my bravest essay. Uncensored, the dark shadows that creep alongside my soul and mind, found themselves on the page. I dug. And when I thought I had exposed this other side of myself, I worried I would no longer be able to find my way back to the Connie that tucks and hides. Ashamed of the layers that had fallen by my feet with every truth I typed, I looked for a penance.

Penance from my VONA sisters, Yesenia and Elizabeth. A writing trio, bonded by our roles as mothers, wives, Latinas, and writers. I sent out a batman signal in form of a messenger text: I just wrote the rawest essay ever. My bravest one. Can I send it to you both? Quick were the responses of: Yes! Of course. I warned them that it was deeply personal, that I trusted them with my writing. What I meant was, please don’t judge. I wanted to be brave, like the Lolas, because I believed, little by little it leaves your heart.

But, to write an essay that kicks ass, you must write that sentence that is hard. That line that you shrink back from, the one you don’t even whisper to yourself in the dark. Ann Hood’s Tin House podcast on How To Write A Kick Ass Essay lists among her Ten Commandments on essay writing, that writing brave is the road to writing those essays, which take the writer on a journey.  The writer starts one way in the essay, but by the end they are someone altogether. And that is what I did.

After I wrote my last sentence Friday night, I hit save on my document, and shut my laptop down. The waves of truth forced me to stay awake. I waited for the relief to come. It didn’t, not until days later. Once truth and fear had been confronted. A new Connie has emerged since then, one not afraid to draft around the darkest corners of herself. And, yes little by little it leaves your heart.

 

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Time and Teaching and Joy

This past week marked the first full week of teaching. Sixteen completed years. And, with the lapse of seven days came a greater sense of time, how it sifts through, and accumulates.

I have been obsessed with time for so long, can’t pin point when it started, but it started early. As a child I laid on my back, my Raggedy Ann and Andy sheets beneath me, my red-headed Cabbage Patch doll named, Cindy on my side, my arms crossed over my stomach, and ankles to match. I stared at the ceiling in a trance, and wondered where time went: how could movements, conversations, and incidents all disappear? They had to keep existing somewhere, on a perpetual reel, I hoped. If not it all seemed so unnecessary, irrelevant, and worthless.

And as a teen I was desperate for time to gain speed, weave in and out of the years that unfolded before. I gave many of my friends birthday cards, and inscribed my fear: one more year closer to death happy birthday! All around me I saw time dwindle, as if a joke about time and death made it cool and less scary.

In my early thirties I read this book called the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It was filled with great tidbits and quotes, but I lacked the motivation to search for my happiness. It did not seem important, my to do list had greater priority, and happiness seemed only to grace others, and not so much me. One quote in that book haunted me, seemed to whisper to me in the dark, and rattled my insides. The days are long, but the years short. I would sign my emails to my brother-in-law, Al, while he was in prison like that. And for a lot of his time inside, we wrote back and forth, about time. Time, he was serving, and the one slipping from my grasp.

He once wrote me: sis you sure love that line.

I responded with a simple: I do. But unsure why.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

This summer I was the oldest group member in my VONA fiction section. Some, as young as twenty-three, the closet to my age, Salima at thirty-six, I was a few weeks shy of turning forty. The only married one and with kids, somehow I felt older than forty, but also younger in other ways. But, my fiction members saw, not what I lacked, but the abundance of my experience. And long ago, I realized if people expect you to be a certain way, you do what is expected, and I did. I dispensed advice like Lucy Van Pelt in Peanuts.

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I wanted them to succeed, and sat next to every one of them: Amanda, Annie, Anum, Bobuck, Nia, Noelle, Ruben, and Salima, and in our conversations I left them scraps of myself, and listened to their story. At the very end of every conversation I told them one thing, which I had learned: time had legs, and it ran from you. Go! Do! I urged them all. I needed them to listen.

But, what we tell others is what we long to tell ourselves.

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My last night at Las Dos Brujas I drank a beer at a local bar and spoke to Michelle and Tomas, both VONA alum I met in 2015, now we met again at Las Dos Brujas, two years later. Young poets I asked about their dreams and marveled at all the time that laid at their feet. I did what I had done at VONA, and urged them to see time as a gift, but one that quickened its pace with years. They nodded.

“You know,” I looked at both Michelle and Tomas. “Time has legs, it runs from you.”

Silence.

I repeated myself again, knowing that poets follow the echoes of words.

They told me their plans.

I smiled. I urged. I reminded them time was on their side and not to let it slip.

“What about you, Ms. Time Has Legs?” Michelle asked.

I laughed. Stalled, as I waited for the puncture of my words repeated back to me to fade. “I’m going to write. Writing is my joy,” I said.

“Ok.” Michelle shook her head, her smile wide. “Because time has legs, Connie.”

*

This week as I drove to work and listened to an audio by Dr. Wayne Dywer he quoted one of my favorite books, one I read long ago, required reading for Sociology. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A sophomore in college, nineteen at the time, I read the book on the train ride the day it was assigned, horrified. How could someone live their whole lives without purpose, and their last thought be a deafening scream, as Ivan realized time had slipped from him. The agony of wasted time a torture for Ivan and Tolstoy’s readers.

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Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light…Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside. The dying man was still screaming desperately and waving his arms. His hand fell on the boy’s head, and the boy caught it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry. 

Naive and young, I declared that I would never be Ivan. I knew what I wanted more than anything in my life. I wanted to write. This I was sure of.

But.

Time has legs, and it runs from you. But, since I’ve spoken those words I have learned that there is more to it. Where you stand matters. And, if you are angled in such a way, those legs can look like more of a trot than a run. You can fool yourself. Stronger now, I can run alongside time. My own voice has been the shot in the air, the one that has signaled me to run.

*

Time seems to be everywhere. The trees are changing colors, the hues are subtle, only a few scattered leaves have fallen, but I notice. And like the seasons note the passage of time. School, notes the transition of time for me, a signal for me that another year has left me.  Seventeen classes, not including the two from summer school I taught those early years, before being a mom, When teaching felt new, like a coat. A coat, not broken into, no crumbled receipts in the pockets, loose change in the lining because of the small tear in left corner, and frayed cuffs.

I catch my reflection as a teacher, teaching sits on my shoulders, hangs off my arms, wraps itself tight around my chest. It’s familiar. But, it weighs on me.

On the first official day of school, I asked my students to write goals about what they wanted to accomplish this year. They had to write academic as well as personal goals, and while they shared their goals, written out in colored index cards. One particular student turned in my direction, and asked me what was my goal. I did not hesitate, and answered in one breath: I want to find joy everyday I teach. I wrote out my goal in black sharpie and placed it beside theirs.

Later that day, as I walked home from school towards my car, I saw a former student. Now, a freshman in highschool I asked him what school he attended.

“Stuy,” he said.

We walked next to each other the whole length of the block before we parted ways. But, not before I asked him about what he was reading, and how he felt about being in one of the best high schools in the nation. Shy and matter of fact about his accolades, I rejoiced for him. This was one of my favorite parts about being a teacher, my former students, and learning about their current lives. Not one student has failed to remember me, but sometimes I must slow down and stare at a former student’s face for a long time, their name always come back to me. And once I have a name, the memories come, flood and invade.

My oldest students are now twenty-six, some twenty-seven. They seem to stick closer to my memory, and I think about them, sure I have made a difference in some of their lives. And, while this fulfills me, I want something greater. I can’t help, but want to grow, and make my students proud of me. I want them to say: Ms. Meza was my teacher before… she went and followed her joy.

I recently got a writing mentor. He came into my life when I asked the universe to send me light and love. We have begun emailing back and forth.

Today I wrote him an email, I asked him if I could be so bold as to ask him when he realized that writing was his joy. I told him that I was eleven when I feel in love with writing, but only during these last nine months did it become clear, writing is my path to joy. And as I typed my email to him during the warm up of my son’s soccer game, I couldn’t help, but look up every other sentence. The bright blue sky above me, the hot son on my legs,  as ants crawled up my sandals, the world seemed perfect. I was content. Everything seemed to come together. Holden played soccer on the side, with my friend, Kristen’s, six-year-old daughter. Rubencito jogged the field with his knees high up in the air. My husband sat close to the sideline ready to cheer our son on, and I emailed my mentor about writing. I described the way the grass moved in the light breeze, and how shiny it looked under the bright sun. I confessed to him, writing makes me giddy, and forces me to look at life and those around me different.

Writers, write above your imagination. Laleh Khadivi

Laleh Khadivi dropped so many quotes and lines that fucked me up. In a good way. Her words, continue to unfurl from my mind, and they slant my vision, and I’m left in awe by her knowledge and wisdom.

I’m doing the work. I’m digging. I let Vanessa Martir words on the first night of VONA this summer guide me. Under the lamp-post by the restaurant, Copacabana I stood with V. She squinted her eyes in my direction, and said: “Connie, we are not so different. I’m no different from you. I made a choice to live this writing life… that’s all.”

Her words have played over in my mind, and I know she’s right.

And on Friday I was tagged on a post by one of the writer’s I studied alongside with at New York Public Library Cullman Scholar Writers Center, for a week in mid July, under Salvatore Scibona. Kelly, inspired by my weekly essays, has begun to write an essay a week, and created her own blog. Filled with joy, my eyes watered, and I knew for sure then, what I wished for at eleven, to write, was my path to joy.

He broke up with Colombia and I’m Still Going Steady

You either believe in signs or don’t. It’s that simple for me. Maybe we all look for signs, but only some of us admit it. I have always looked for signs in the universe, my neck craned, and eyes squinted. The world one giant magic eight ball. I no longer scavenger the world before me like a giant I SPY book. But, as I wade through the ebbs and flow of life, the signs bob up to the surface, unexpected, but connected bits.

Throughout this past week Colombia has haunted my memories more than normal. As if, my soul and bones are in conversation behind my back, and Colombia whispers to them both.

The early days of September, as a teacher and a mother of two, a marker for me, back to school season. Much of my time spent lost in the world of lesson plans and bright chart markers, and filling out forms, and asking my daughter and son about their new teachers. But, today I realized September makes me lonesome for Colombia too. As I walked down the block of my building, I noted the browning of the tree leaves, and my eyes longed for another tree. Las palmeras de Colombia. Countless months of September, spent as a child, homesick for Colombia, summers in Barranquilla, the fireworks and hot dogs of my American childhood.

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In mathematics, two angles that are said to coincide fit together perfectly. The word “coincidence” does not describe luck or mistakes. It describes that which fits together perfectly. –Wayne Dyer

Since they are no coincidences, just angles that coincide, not stunned in the least that Colombia began to do more than whisper. It tapped my shoulder. And when I turned, I saw Colombia everywhere.

Late night last Sunday, my husband and I sat down to watch the new season of Narcos. Excited to watch the third season, my VONA sis, Tabitha and I, hatched plans the week before to write separate essays about the show, and what it stirred up for us as Colombian-Americans. Ruben and I saw the first two episodes. My eyes on the screen, I watched the Colombia of the 90’s unfold before me. He watched his past erupt in front of him, as Colombia’s long history with violence played out on the screen. Saddened by how Colombia rested in our hearts, I watched him turn off Netflix and flip to CNN. American news has always given him solace, despite the current state of our government.

*

Monday, Mami called me breathless, her loud siren voice, louder.

“Que fue?” I shouted into the phone. My mind went straight to Papi, was he dead? Had he fallen? Something was wrong.

“Nada, calmate.” Mami said, and rushed ahead. “I looked at my savings account book. You know the money I have in Colombia.”

“Yes,” I said and thought of Mami’s dream casa in Colombia, that never was. The last time she was there, a little over a decade, Mami had opened a savings account, a nest egg. Mami had not anticipated Papi’s diagnosis with dementia, and his declined health, so soon after that last trip.

“I want you go to Colombia for me. So, that you can take the money out for me.” Mami voice small. “I don’t want to lose the little bit I have. Yo a perdido todo.”

“But when?” School had just started, my next time off would be in December. Tickets to Colombia for Christmas were astronomical.

“Find out what we need to do so we can make this happen.” Mami said. “Will you go?”

I thought of the seventeen years that wedged themselves between Colombia and I. Of course I’d go. “Claro,” I said. And the pictures a writing friend from hispanedotes.com, had posted these last two weeks, from his trip to Colombia flashed before me. I imagined the captions of my posts, and licked my lips in anticipation of, arroz de coco y mojara frita.

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“Maybe you and Ruben could go?” Mami echoed my worry.

I had never been to Colombia alone.

Once off the phone with Mami, I called Ruben. “Hey, I just spoke to, mi Mama.” I took a deep breath before I spoke. Unspoken, this dream seemed possible. “She wants me to go to Colombia. Let’s go. Please!”

“Que? How can we go? The kids, and we can’t afford four plane tickets. Where would we stay?” Ruben’s questions and statement, like a skilled boxer’s upper cut and jab, left me doubled over.

“What if we just go, us two?” I sucked in my breath and balled my lips.

“How? The kids?” Ruben asked again. “I want to go as a family, want the kids to meet Santiago…” Ruben trailed off at the mention of his son, eighteen years old, and father and son had never met. Though Ruben paid for his college, and sent him a monthly allowance, a small remittance for all those lost years. Santiago used silence against his father, and refused to speak to him, soon after their first conversation, about a year and a half ago.

“I don’t want to go to Colombia without you,” I said.  The last time I was there I stood in the airport in Barranquilla, my arms around Ruben’s waist, his head pressed against my temple. Afraid I’d never see him again, the plane ride back to New York my heart never left my throat. And I only cried seven months later, when Ruben stood in front of me in Brooklyn.

“I don’t want to go,” Ruben said. His voice like water, soft and steady, but the surge of rage threatened to implode.

Colombia, a pair of hands for both Ruben and I. For, Ruben fists, ready to hurt. And, for me, hands, which waved me over.

*

Tuesday, the first day teachers were due back. Excited to see Mike, once just a colleague, and now family. We have worked together for a decade. I sat in his classroom as we caught up, among dusty book bins, piles of old paperwork, and scattered pencils.

“Hey, listen to this. My mom’s wants me to go to Colombia.” My head rested on the heel of my hand. I looked at him, my eyes wandered to the wide windows that revealed a blue sky. I imagined Colombia’s egg yolk yellow sun, and oppressive rays.

“Funny you say that, I was looking at flights to Bogotá last night, for October.” Mike said.

“What?”

“Yeah, Bogotá is the last tour city for U2.” Mike said very matter of fact. A huge fan of the rock band U2, not surprised that Mike looked into going to another concert by them. He had already seen them earlier this summer in Jersey, and raved about the Joshua Tree Tour.

“You would go to Colombia without me?” My voice gripped around my throat, a grunt.

“I just looked last night, I didn’t buy anything.” Mike laughed.

But I was serious. “If you go to Colombia without me I will never speak to you again.” I did not care if I sounded like a crazed brat.

“I couldn’t find a direct flight.”

“What! You were going to go without me?” I knew I sounded ridiculous, but like a jealous ex, I became fixated on the thought that Colombia would cheat on me with Mike. “Don’t you know I miss Colombia like a person? That it’s been seventeen years. You can’t go without me!”

Mike’s eyes rested on me for a long time. Then he said the kindest thing. “I will look again tonight. If they are three seats together in a direct flight to Bogotá I will get them.”

I smiled. “I can sit, between you and Jennifer,” his girlfriend, another big U2 fan. “I will translate, we can drink aguardiente, and cerveza Club Colombia.”

“Do you even like U2?” Mike laughed.

“Of course I do.” And I do, but greater is my love for all things Colombian.

“The chances are low that this will work out,” Mike a math person, saw life as one probability problem.

“I know it is, but can we pretend. Just for a day or two, can we pretend!” I didn’t care if I sounded foolish. Mike was my brother, we knew how foolish we could be, and it had never mattered.

*

Tuesday night,  Ruben and I sat side by side on the coach to watch the Colombian vs. Brazil elimination game for FIFA 2018. The game was earlier in the evening, and we knew the score, but it was our custom to watch the game as a family. I had already called him on the drive home from work to tell him about this very slim possibility, that I might go for a weekend in October to Bogotá to see U2. He half believed, but gave me his blessing. Friend with both Mike and his girlfriend, Ruben knew I would be in great company.

“Here,” Ruben handed me print outs, the application to renew my passport. “You will need to expedite.”

“I don’t think it will work out,” I clutched the application.

“But, if it does. You have to have a passport.” Ruben said, his eyes now on the game on the screen.

“What about you?” I asked. I ran my hand across the side of his face.

“The day I got on the plane to New York. I told myself I would forget Colombia, and all the bad things that happened there.”

I didn’t say anything after that. Did not say that my last time in Colombia, my only comfort was the hope to be back soon. That at Colombian restaurants, I close my eyes for the briefest moment, and fool myself that I’m in Colombia, and not Jackson Heights.

*

Wednesday, my mentor and dear friend Valerie texted me that Pope Francis is in Colombia. I chuckled to myself, seemed like everyone had Colombia on their mind.

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*

Thursday, I meet my students for the academic year, my seventeenth class in my teaching career. A mom and father, Colombians, told me they were disappointed their son was not placed in my class. I assured them they were in great hands with one of my grade team members. The father, an offical for the New York, Colombian consulate,  I explained to him I needed a power of attorney for Mami, in order to take care of something for her.  He offered to help print out the papers, which Mami and I would need to bring with us to the Colombian consulate. I thanked him.

*

Friday,  I hung out with Zoraida after school. The papers, delivered by the Colombian parents that very morning at lineup, inside my back pack, right beside my feet. We sat on Zoraida’s couch and chatted about the week. Our son’s played video games in the next room, we awaited phone calls from our daughters to pick them up, both at practices, one at volleyball, and the other in soccer.

Only told her about Mami’s proposition, time ran out before I got to the U2 Bogotá scenario. I lingered over Ruben not wanting to go to Colombia.

“I can’t believe Ruben does not want to go to Colombia,” I said. The news on, footage of Hurricane Irma model, and the exodus across Florida, in the background. Floridians, on the screen worried, and sad to leave their beloved Florida.

“He broke up with Colombia. And, like an ex he does not want to have anything to do with Colombia.” Zoraida said, no-nonsense.

“You are right,” I nodded. The only problem was that I was going steady with Colombia.

*

I don’t know when I will go to Colombia. But, I know that just like I watch for signs. Well, the universe listens and watches too. This essay is my shouting from the rooftops, Colombia I miss you. I want to see you soon, and want my daughter and son to meet you too. Colombia, one last thing, loosen your grip on my husband’s heart, so he can love you once again. Te amo Colombia!

 

 

Don’t Tell A Soul…

Last weekend, surrounded by a few of my home girls, conversation flowed among us. Swayed back and forth, like late summer breeze across grass, we spoke about motherhood, our struggles with our own mothers, the men in our lives, and then sex. I mentioned I’ve only been hit on by only two men in my life, my ex boyfriend and husband. Met by skeptical eyes and arched eyebrows, I shifted in my seat, and changed the direction of the conversation. They were right, this was a lie, there were other men. A boy in high school who I hung out with my junior year, named Michael, and my friend Gabriel in Colombia. And recently, I realized I had been hit on, but didn’t figure it out at the moment, only later.

Sure they have been more, but the ones that have made the list, haunt. They were friends. We were friends.

We write to hold up a mirror to our souls. Language is the vehicle, and that is why we write. Laleh Khadivi.

I do this thing, once I’ve told my confidants something unearthed from a dark corner of my soul, I ask for secrecy. Terrified, as if truth is a catalyst for catastrophe, I’m quick to add: Don’t tell a soul. As if these words are both lock and lost skeleton key. Words, meant more for me, than them. My soul to take heed, and place around itself a do not disturb sign, and for a long time this suited me just fine. But, my soul no longer dormant, and as it awakens, courage becomes shaped by my voice.

I began to keep secrets around the time I began to suffer from night terrors and wake up in the middle of the night to eat slice after slice of Kraft cheese. Not one incident led to this, but many, were needed to accumulate, while I sunk in silence. Always careful not to enrage Mami, I tuned only to her, while the world around me was left ignored and muted. 

My first inclination when anything happens is to ignore it, good or bad, fooled by a hushed layer of protection. Later, and only then, when suffocated by the weight of it all heavy on my chest do I speak up. Decades later I must learn to do what others learned so long ago. Live. Feel. Be.

*

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This past Spring, my then thirteen year old, daughter mentioned that a boy in her class had called her a stripper as a joke. Enraged I asked what the hell did he mean, as I plotted to show up to her school, ready to fist fight this boy. Holden studied my face and said the boy thought it was compliment. I gritted my teeth, through the close gate of my mouth, asked if she told the principal or a teacher. Eyes rolled, Holden answered: I took care of it. How? I demanded. I thought of my daughter in her navy pleated uniform skirt, white button down shirt, and cardigan, and saw an everyday Catholic school uniform. But, he saw Brittany Spears in the classic video, Baby One More Time. Holden recounted: she told him off, shoved him, and reminded him not to speak to her that way. Eyes fearless, Holden marked off the details. Surprised by my surprise, Holden reacted. I’m not a boba, her eyes glared at me, offended. The words: I’m not fool, fluttered in the air like a trapped moth caught between light and dark. Damn, Holden was tough. Tougher than I was and am, then and now.

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The first time I got cat called, I was ten, about to turn eleven. My body did not match my age, it was shaped like that of a woman. Tall, curvy, and a full chest, were my measurements. Scared, I took to looking down, and felt betrayed by my own body. What had it done to rile up this attention? The more my body filled out the bolder the cat calls. Old men on the corners, like the villainous wolves of fairy tales, turned on by innocence and fear. Hidden behind my books and glasses, I let the world fade away, and said nothing. Baggy clothes, which I favored in my early teens, a thin armor against stares that penetrated. Unable to see myself beyond the stares, I felt ashamed of my big ass, wide hips, and large breasts. Only now, settled into my skin, do I walk unashamed, like the main attraction, and not the freak show. (words from the poem Elephant by Elizabet Velasquez)

But.

At sixteen, I’d run my tongue across my teeth, and wondered when my first kiss would be. I had crushes, but like the stars in the sky, I remained distant and beyond reach. Then things changed middle of junior year, two boys liked me. My buddy Michael, and my ex boyfriend, Jose. Michael and I often sat next to each other in History class, and would help each other with test answers. Michael spoke with flair, hated sports, and his eye roll game could rival a Valley girl’s. Jose had struck out asking out two of my friends, and hung around me bummed. One sat by my side, to hide, and the other lamented over my friends. Clear about my position with Michael and Jose, I let my guard down. We were friends, and I could now be myself. But, high school, a lair of lust, and emotions, made a sharp turn, somehow I became an important pivot. Stunned, when both boys sat beside me one day at lunch, and told me they liked me. They had discussed it, and wanted me to make a decision, they would be fine with my choice. I looked back and forth from Jose to Michael, knew only one could want me, and days later chose Jose.

Smitten, Jose claimed ownership right away, always an arm around me, insistent that I was his girl. As soon as Michael caught me by myself in the lunchroom, he called me a cock tease, and refused to speak to me. His words echoed through my body, cock tease. Afraid that it was true, I asked Jose. He shrugged his shoulders, said all girls were, cock teases, but I was his girl now so it didn’t matter. You are all the tits and ass I need, Jose assured me, and slapped my behind, as we walked down the hallway.  I looked around the hallway to the smirks of other boys, embarrassed, but happy too. Happy to be wanted.

We were together for five years.

*

Twenty one, broken-hearted from my first love, Jose, and filled to the brim with grief because of Francisco’s death, I dreamt to be another Connie. Six years since my last visit to Colombia, I arrived June 20th, 1999, weeks after college graduation. My suitcase filled with books, mosquito repellent, and pretty dresses from the Gap. Jose had cheated on me, rejected, I wished to be wanted again. I wished to catch men’s eyes, and when I walked the foot falls of my heels moaned. Certain that my heart could not be penetrated by love again, I did not allow myself to hope. A string of lovers, I was sure would soon follow. But not love.

Down to a size eight and a new devil-may-care attitude, men began to notice me. Still afraid of their catcalls, I forced myself to look up, smile. Fuck it! It felt good to be wanted. Some so bold, sent over bottle service of Aguardiente for myself and my prima Clarita, I waved to them. They asked me to talk English. I did. Then asked me to dance, and I did, but as soon as their advances grew, I retreated. Cock tease. Michael’s words like a bullhorn let my mind hear nothing else.

Desperate to get over Jose, and curate a list of men that would love all the parts of me, even the ugly and broken, I scouted for a wingman. And my answer came in form of Gabriel. By the time I got to Barranquilla, Gabriel had already been in Colombia for more than half a year. Born in Colombia, but left for Nueva York at seven with his mother and older sister, he grew up in Spanish Harlem. But, now Gabriel lived with his Tia, a few blocks away. He was dating D, the girl next door to Abuelo’s casa. D, Joann, and I had played tea set and jumped rope when we were young.  Later, we fan girled over Ricky Martin during our teens. Now both in our twenties, and accustomed to long periods apart, our friendship had grown vines, sturdy and strong. 

I spent my late afternoons, reading on Abuelo’s porch, as the heat relented.  Then to D’s porch, to sit in conversation, between her and Gabriel. The three of us rocked back and forth, Coke bottles in our hands, as we talked about things that mattered, and didn’t. And when it was time for D to help with dinner, Gabriel and I didn’t budge from our spots. We continued to talk, but now free to talk in English. And in one of these English only sessions,  Gabriel revealed the details for his long stay in Colombia.

“I got busted yo.” Gabriel looked away when he spoke. “D, doesn’t really know all the details, so keep that shit on the down low.”

I nodded, despite what he said. “What were you slinging?” I asked. It was never a question that they sold, but what they sold.

“Mostly weed, but some blow too,” Gabriel eyes rested on me. “Yo you is mad cool, even if you went to Catholic school all your life.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” I laughed.

“It’s the reason you always have your nose in a book,” Gabriel said. He handed me a cigarette.

Kools.

I reached for it and smiled.

“Look what I got,” Gabriel whispered. He looked towards the front of D’s door.

I watched him pull out a small bottle of aguardiente from the backpack at his feet. He waved for my Coke bottle and poured a long swig. Then did the same to his Coke bottle.

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We sat in old wooden rocking chairs, our faces straight ahead, as the sun dipped low, lower, and out of the sky. A cigarette in between two of my fingers, while the rest wrapped around the spiked Coke. And to break the silence Gabriel, rapped, mostly Biggie, but they were others. I never tired of his rendition of Suicidal Thoughts and often asked for it. Gabriel rapped every word, his voice filled with rage, and with his eyes closed, as if he was somewhere else, the corner of East 116th.

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It was Gabriel’s idea to go to Palm Tree that night in late September. I was happy to go clubbing, something I had done very little of back home. But, since three is a crowd, D invited Ruben. Already having flirted with Ruben at a graduation party the week before, and had dragged him to the dance floor, as I gyrated to Elvis Crespo’s, Suvamente. I was nervous, but excited to get to hang out with him. We kissed that night near the bar, later we danced to Carlos Vives, and kissed some more. The next day, Ruben sent me flowers and asked me to be his girl. I said yes, and a few days later he sent another dozen roses.

Excited to tell Mami that I finally liked someone else, that the memory of Jose did not sear a gap in my heart. I phoned her and told her I liked Ruben, yes Ruben from three houses down, yes the one with the two brothers and younger sister. Time stood still, as I waited for Mami’s answer, certain that she would be happy Jose had loosened from my heart. But, I was wrong. Her words: Please don’t tell me you like that enano. Afraid to battle differences with Mami, even matters of my heart, I said nothing. Her words you like that midget, made me fold inside of myself, and though we were the same height, I felt ridiculous. I cried to Sophia, who had arrived to visit me in Colombia a week before. We concocted a plan to hang out at the beach and get drunk. Gabriel was to come with us. Upset at Mami’s reaction I got black out drunk by mid day. Unable to stand straight and puked on, Gabriel suggested we crash at a motel for a few hours, until I sobered up. I flung myself on the plastic mattress with a flimsy sheet. Gabriel tipsy himself laid beside me. The room spun, Gabriel’s voice seemed far away, I reached for Sophia’s arm, but she pulled away from me.

“I want to kiss you.” Gabriel rolled over, his face leaned towards mine.

“No,” I moved my head back.

“What’s up with you?” Gabriel reached towards me.

“What about D?” I asked through the fog of alcohol. I thought of D, and how she loved to play with the dusty pink tea set my Tia kept inside the gabinete, even years later.

“What about her?” He slurred. His eyes rolled in his head.

“Ruben,” I said. I tried to pick up my head, but moved it a millimeter. “I’m kinda seeing him…”

“Wait you really into that immigrante,” Gabriel looked at me dumbfounded.

“I guess I am,” I struggled out of the bed. Waves of nausea weakened my knees, and I crawled to the bathroom. I passed out on the cold tiles.

Some time later Sophia dragged me up. She called my name until my eyes fluttered open.

Helpless I stared at Sophia, opened and closed my mouth, opened it again. “Gabriel wanted to hook up with me,” I wailed. Sophia pushed me into the shower with my dress still on.

“You have to snap out of this.”  Sophia leaned me against the wall, and turned to leave.

“Don’t go out there.” I called out.

Sophia glared at me.

“He’s gonna try something with you,” I sputtered.

“You know what…” Sophia studied me. “You want all the boys to you like you, but can’t handle when they do. There is a word for that…” Sophia slammed the door shut.

*

Decades later I’m reminded of those that called me a cock tease, and even more so, by the one that did not say it, but said so much more. Hurt. I chose to say nothing, but under the silence grew a loud rumble. This is my reckoning, and now at forty. I will check you. But, only because I have checked myself.