On The Streets, They Call Me Iris Chacon

This morning, I hobbled into the spin room at the gym. Sore, hopped on the bike, to the right of the instructor. I turned to my Sunday morning spin comrades, and told them I barely made it in. I had skipped Pilates, unable to scrape myself out of bed any earlier. Before they could ask me why, I told them. I danced for two hours straight, closer to two and a half. My record is four hours, but that was some time ago.

Smiles.

“I had to, don’t you know on the streets my name is Iris Chacon?” I clipped onto the bike.

The Latinas in the room howled.

“I’m Iris! Didn’t ya’ll know?”

*

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

I spent hours of my childhood mesmerized by Iris Chacon. Watched her shake her big ass on the screen, dressed in a body stocking, while the lights of the stage caught the glint of every sequins placed across her chest. A cleavage, that plunged to big breasts, a tiny waist, and round hips. Her bright red hair as wild as her dance moves. Iris looked like a goddess.

Born in Puerto Rico, Iris was known in all Latino homes. Her variety show that she hosted weekly in the 1980’s on Univision was never short on viewers. Mami walked by the television and screamed the word, fresca at the screen. Her eyes glared at me, and then landed on Papi. Papi peered from his newspaper or looked up from his typewriter, and then settled on Iris. I turned towards Papi, and watched his eyes dance across the stage in step with Iris. If only I could grab everyone’s attention like Iris. Glamourous in her high heels and red lipstick, and with each sexy rumba shoulder roll. While, my hair puffed with frizz, thighs stuck together, and forehead resembled a potato.

Comparisons drawn, I felt defeated, and soon wandered from the sala, in search for something other than the truth. I was not beautiful like Iris Chacon. I grew use to the absence of attention, and looked elsewhere. School became my stage, and books the sexy dance moves I could impress those around me with.

*

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

Mami has two left feet, and I’ve never seen her dance ever, not even a quick bounce to a catchy commercial tune.

But, Papi, well he was born to dance. Before being confined to a wheelchair, Papi never sat down for a song. Papi sang the lyrics of every song like he penned them. And, in between the lyrics he whispered, que letra, pero que letra. Driven by the poetry of the words, hand wrapped around a can of beer, Papi’s body pulsated with every beat. Tia Lola, Papi’s youngest sister, often danced alongside him, salsa, merengue, and vallenato, but it was their cumbia that they were best known for. People circled Papi at parties, and cheered him on. But, when it was brother and sister, and La Pollera Colora came on, it was like the Colombian Ginger Rogers and Fred Astire. Silence came over the room, and all eyes made their way towards Papi and Lola. More than once a long flowy skirt was chucked at Lola, and she slipped it on, her pollera. Smiles broad, Papi and Lola’s bodies picked up every call of the drums, melody of the Native flutes, las gaitas, and the European composition of the music. Souls swayed back and forth in response to a time long ago. And, though it was just the two of them circling around each other, the space between their bodies held room for all those that had come before them. Papi danced as if all his ancestors were inside of him, and his moves told a history of Colombia.

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

It was the last summer we would be in Colombia together. And Joann’s last. Maybe, somewhere deep inside Joann knew that, and willed herself to learn to dance. We were seventeen and fifteen, I held a book in my hands, but peered above the pages at Joann. I watched Joann dance with her yellow walk-man as her partner in the first bedroom at Abuelo’s casa. A stand up fan in the center of the room whirled, as Joann moved to the beat that spilled out of her headphones. In midst of the heat and mosquitoes, Joann’s confidence grew, and she danced every chance she had afterwards. During college she entered local salsa club contests and won. She competed with dancers that took years of lessons, her dance studio were those parties.

I learned to dance watching those that know how to dance.

It was in Zumba classes that the basic steps to salsa were broken down to me. Side to side, front to back, a count was given, and my instructor shouted at the class to listen to the beat. And to feel the music. I already learned to dance with music, but  Zumba taught me how to dance to the music.

*

Yesterday, I went to my madrina’s 80th birthday party. I handed my godmother a small bouquet of flowers, and held her hand as she told all her guests that I was her god-daughter. “You look like your Tia Lola,” My godmother stared at me. Madrina and Mami had been comadres decades, and knew each other’s family members.

A compliment.

I chuckled to myself. Several weeks ago my sister and I did our makeup in the same hotel bathroom mirror.  “Oh my goodness, I look like Lola,” I looked at my reflection, which smiled back at me. My eyes moved to Joann’s reflection, her eyes traced over my face, and she shook her head. “You do,” she nodded.

Armed with a fresh gel manicure, winged eyeliner, bright red lips, dressed in all black, and knee-high boots, I was ready to face a Latina party. Small talk, a part of life, like bees in a summer outing, an annoyance, but expected. Saved by music, pulled onto the sala dance floor by the first few chords of Joe Arroyo’s En Barranquilla Me Quedo. I spun on my heels, swung my hips, and shook my shoulders. I belted out the lyrics, like I had written them, and smiled. Tossed my head back and laughed, as some gathered around to watch me and the other two Colombians at the party.

Colombia! Colombia! The cheers by a room of Cubans.

Transported to my year in Colombia. In those early months I watched those around me dance salsa, and longed to join the crowd. Later, after some shots of aquardiente, I found the courage from the licorice flavored alcohol, and danced. Unsure, I stared at my feet the whole time, and cursed Papi for not having taught me to dance.

But, I was wrong all those years ago, Papi indeed taught me how to dance. You let the letra, the lyrics, tell your body the story, and then you feel it, not just your feet, but deep inside of you. When you do all that, everyone will look up and notice. Because you have told a story.  And, everyone loves a story.

My story is: Yo Soy Connie!

 

 

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Prayer Warrior

A loved one told me a few weeks ago that it was a waste of time to pray. That my waking up early in the morning to do so was futile.  I thought of my tattered prayer-book that I tuck under my pillow, within reach, in both the light of day and the dark.

Enraged. “I have been praying my whole life,” I answered

But.

While true, there was a time I stopped. Ceased prayer, as if God could be extinguished. Then prayer made its way back to me.

*

The first time I remember praying I was five or six years old. Scared, I crawled under my bed, looked up the wooden slats, and whispered a Hail Mary, and then another, and one more after that. Bed sheets hung down low, it was hard to see the world from this place. I heard Mami’s voice in the distance. I turned on my side, and burrowed myself.

It was Mami who had forced me into hiding in the first place.

When I first heard the term rageoholic, I recognized my mother. Never a time that Mami was not prone to rants, which turned to the wild fires of rage. Mami’s voice forever sounded an alarm in my chest, but when she hated the world, well a convoy blaring engines pulsated through my body.  Calm, steady, and reasonable, seldom occupied Mami’s state of mind. But, on that day in particular, Mami’s sand colored face was smooth and even, at first. Then, taunted and insulted, an argument ensued with Mami and our neighbor Angela’s home attendant.

Mami sat down to have cafe in Angela’s apartment. I circled around the women in the kitchen, a broom in hand. Mami bragged to her friends that I loved to clean. And, forever in search of her approval, I told myself I loved to clean, and grew to believe it.

“I pray all the time,” Mirian pressed her hands together in prayer. “But, I only pray to Jesus. I don’t believe in La Virgen.”

Mami’s eyes bulged.

My heart joined. La Virgencita, Mami had always insisted was more of a mother to her than her own. And, Joann and I were to hold La Virgen with the same adoration, and to do anything less was criminal.

“She’s a common woman. Why would I pray to her?” Mirian shook her head back and forth, as if the motion explained her blasphemy.

Glued to Mami’s reaction, unable to push the broom, I held my breath.

“You must understand one thing and one thing only,” Mami slammed her hands on the table. “Con la virgen no te metas.” Her voice thundered.

“Ok, everyone is entitled to their opinions,” Angela said. She sat between Mami and Mirian in her wheelchair. The pancreatic cancer had scooped her hallow, within months Angela would succumb to the disease.

Unable to be reasoned with. Mami shouted her love to the Blessed Mother with the fervor of a Menudo fan in the 80’s.

Mirian, unwilling to acquiesce, repeated her opinion over and over, each time a bit louder.

Rattled by Mami and Mirian’s voice. The heat that rose from the space between their chest and throat. I worried that I’d be engulfed by their flames. I bolted out of the apartment unnoticed. And hid. And prayed.

After the uproar about the Blessed Mary, Mami discovered Catholic vigils in honor of the Holy Mother in Bayside Queens Angela’s youngest daughter, Licey, swallowed by the grief of her mother’s death, accompanied Mami to the first vigil. Licey a self proclaimed former wild child had found God, as Angela was dying, was now devout. Deemed Catholic and legit by both Mami and Licey. Joann and I attended the next one alongside them. Licey’s husband Bob, drove us in his run down Chevy, on a Friday evening. Quiet the whole ride there, the only sound to escape Bob was the inhale and exhale as he smoked countless Marlboro Lights.

Once there Bob pulled close to the main entrance of the park. An Irish Catholic bartender, Bob didn’t join us. Bob preferred to nap in the car till it was time to drive back home. Mami and Licey unloaded the trunk: lawn chairs, a coffee thermos, and blankets. I looked towards Joann and wondered how long this vigil would be. But, neither of us dared to ask. Mami and Licey slapped crocheted doilies on the top of their heads, both dressed in long skirts, and each with a strap around their neck. Mami a pair of binoculars, and Licey a Polaroid. I looked up at the night sky, and felt the urge to laugh. This made no sense. I clamped my lips shut. The absence of light meant I could not read, and I could not pretend to be somewhere else.

Loud speakers were set up all along the park, and on stage a small brown-haired woman recited the rosary. Mami said her name was Veronica and that Mary had appeared to her. I opened my eyes wide, old enough to disbelieve, but to young to understand why. Throngs of people gathered around the stage, and the click of rosary beads filled the air. Joann and I trailed behind Mami and Licey with a fold up chair under our arms. I looked all around me. It was spring, so the evening air was brisk, and I noted that many had on sweaters and thin jackets. Mami had insisted we wear long sleeves, a sweater, and on top a jacket. I tried to wiggle out of the jacket, but too tight I got nowhere, as the layers beneath restricted me. Annoyed I looked at Mami, steps ahead. Mami marched like a solider intent on obeying orders, back straight, gait fast, and her hands at her sides, Mami was never at ease. Even at this religious vigil, Mami was extreme.

Mami parked herself under a tree, pulled out her silver rosary, and began to recite the rosary a loud in Spanish. Licey bilingual, prayed in English, her arms open like a priest at the altar. Joann and I set camp beside her. We entertained ourselves playing with the flyers about Veronica’s life story that were passed around. I folded them into paper fans or fortune tellers, and hoped time picked up speed. But, in between the incessant rosary chant, Licey and Mami took pictures. They both titled their heads back and snapped pictures at the night sky. Seconds later their wrists snapped, fast back and forth, and then waved the photos to expose the image. Their heads pressed together as they studied the pictures. Most of the time they said nothing, but sometimes they let out short gasps. They examined every inch of the photographs, and only then passed them to Joann and I.

I expected to see the silhouette of Mary, perhaps Jesus in the night sky. But, instead they were ribbons of light that curled and lined the dark. No pattern or shape that formed any type of letter, no great revelation. Once those ribbons formed what looked like three number sixes, Mami and Licey shrieked in horror, and showed those around them. I watched them excited to find answers, but not privy to their questions, I just looked away. I composed my own questions. Why couldn’t Mami be normal? Why didn’t Papi try to stop Mami from these schemes? Why would La Virgencita appear in a park in Queens of all places? And why did Mami need to believe so bad?

But others seemed to enjoy Baysider vigils simply because the ritual made them feel close to Mary, Jesus, and God in a way that traditional Catholic services did not.

 

If you were to ask Mami about those vigils now she would hold firm that the Virgencita was there in between the trees, in the beats between each Hail Mary recited, in the way everyone walked around and shared stories about Mary. How La Virgencita had interceded on their behalf, and now were believers. Saved. Perhaps even in those pictures that captured all the dark, but one sliver of light.

We went to those vigils for months. Once I even went dressed in my Communion dress. And each time Mami snapped pictures at the sky like a paparazzi, recited the rosary with the piety of a cloistered nun, and waited for an apparition with Linus like belief, but instead of a pumpkin, Mami waited for Mary.  I hated those vigils. Beside that they were long and boring, and that I wished to be home watching that night’s ABC lineup of sitcoms, those vigils scared me. I worried my mother had lost her mind. Now, I know it wasn’t that at all. This was how Mami saved herself. How she kept herself from being swallowed by her life. A past that hung heavy on her back. A present that threatened to capsize her.

This summer my writing teacher for a week at the NYPL scholars and writers Cullman Center, Salvatore Scibona said, writing at its best is a holy experience. Yes. I nodded my head. He knew. And, that’s a lot like my writing these days. I go and write, and hope to be saved.

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The Facts and Romance of Colombia

I’ve been accused of being a Colombiana de Bibloteca before. An insult to slap me with the truth that I’m not a “real” Colombian. A Colombian-American shaped by the proses of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the lyrics of Rafael Orozco’s vallenatos, and the docu-dramas that Carcacol favors, and I watch on Netflix. My defense, five words: I love all things Colombian. Arepas, palmeras, futbol Colombiano, Shakira, Juanes, Grupo Niche, Los Carnivales, los indios del Caribe y los Chibchas. I spent most of my childhood summers in Colombia damn it! Lived there for almost a year after college hijueputa! I have dual citizenship to both America and Colombia, both blue and brown passports to prove it too. That’s not a Colombiana de Bibloteca!

murio-gabriel-garcia-marquez

And for the longest time I was so certain of my position as a Colombiana. But, a Tuesday evening a few weeks ago, a memory from the past, and something my daughter said, has made me reconsider. Perhaps, I’m neither Colombian or American, but a bit of both, and something in the middle. I’m still trying to figure it out.

*

This was the weekend I was supposed to be in Bogota at a U2 concert with Mike and his girlfriend. And, for a few hours on a Tuesday evening in mid September, it almost came true, but facts and romance collided. And my dream to travel to Colombia disappeared.

“Have you ever had a pipe placed in the back of your head?” Ruben asked.

We were in Mike’s living room. The Yankee game on the big screen television illuminated Ruben like a spotlight.

I sat on an ottoman with my legs tucked under me. The air conditioner buzzed in the back, a reminder that summer still clung in the night air. Mike and his girlfriend on opposite ends of the couch, the space between them where Ruben just sat. Bracco, retired for four years already, sat in a corner, able to see the whole scene as it unfolded. The original grade 5, the three of, having taught years side by side, always came together. Dinner, brunch, even a late lunch squeezed in, and pow wows when one of us sent out a Batman signal.

“Well?” Ruben asked again. His hair sweaty from the motorcycle helmet he had worn.

“What kind of pipe?” Mike’s girlfriend flashed a wicked smile.

“A pistola mujer!” Ruben said in Spanish, though only I could understand him. “You know what it’s like to hide because someone shows up waving a gun.” Ruben looked down at me.

“Yes, but…” I pushed away the memory, and turned to Mike and his girlfriend.

“We are going to stay in one of the best hotels,” Mike’s girlfriend waved her phone to show a blur of color on her screen. “I read the reviews.”

“Reviews? Ha! You don’t know Colombia like I do,” Ruben shook his head back and forth, and slapped his forehead. “Four times I had a gun pointed at me in Colombia. One time coming off a bus in the middle of the day. Do you know what they wanted?” Ruben looked at us.

I knew the answer: a Casio watch. Cheap plastic hand me down watch. Ruben had told this story in front of me several times, but I watched the others become transfixed by his words.

A warm week day night, similar to the one now, crept it to my mind. Eighteen years to be exact.

Bored by a long hot day of doing very little. Sophia pointed the video camera I had brought with me from New York. We passed the time by making videos of our adventures in Colombia. Inspired by the endless hours of MTV Real World we both watched like devotees, Sophie and I taped the snippets of our lives. This way we fooled ourselves, that we were doing important things in Colombia, like soul-searching, and cultivating experience. And, not hiding from life.

“We should go out tonight?” I said as I did my makeup by the glow of the veladores on the altar Tia Delia had for Francisco. His picture in a silver plated frame bounced the light of the flame that flickered in front of him. Next to Francisco was my Abuela’s framed photo, having died two decades before, it seemed less ominous.

“Yeah,” Sophia nodded. She laid across the bed stretched on her back, eyes closed, and arms crossed made a pillow rest under her head.

“I will call Ruben at work,” I said. “He will know a spot for us to have fun.”

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Colombia is broken up by classes, and the color of skin tends to fit that structure like in every other country. The lighter folks sit in the high estrato, status acquired by money. Nightlife could be found in all the estratos de Barranquilla, but El Norte was the it place. The bars, restaurants, and nightclubs were modeled after Miami’s South Beach. Populated by rich kids, tourists, and the likes of me, American-Colombians killing time. I took taxi cabs from San Roque, Abuelo’s neighborhood, to El Norte several times a week. I ate lunch in La Cafeteria Americana, strolled the huge department store, El Super Ley, and looked at the latest t-shirts and dresses at the clothing store called, Tennis. I had even gone clubbing at clubs with names like: Macondo and Frog Legs. All while I stretched the monthly allowance Mami sent me. For the first time I felt rich, that I was in Colombia, a detail I learned to accept.

El Norte was as safe as Colombia could get, and I was not in the least worried when three men barged into the bar looked around and left. The crowd in the bar had dwindled down, not even ten in the evening, and it was near empty.

Buzzed, by the four Cuba Libres I had just down, the world around me felt magnificent. I laughed at Ruben’s jokes. And, belted the lyrics to Ricky Martin’s Vuelve with Sophie, our heads pressed together and arms around each other’s waist.

Algo me dice que ya no volverás. Estoy seguro que esta vez. No habrá marcha atrás. Después de todo fui yo a decirte que no. Sabes bien que no es cierto. Estoy muriendo por dentro.”

I pulled apart from Sophie and pressed my fist to my heart, pantomime the heartache of the lyrics. My eyes shut, I popped them open, and saw Ruben’s face transform. No longer tipsy and laughing, Ruben’s face became very still, and in the calmest voice he told me to go to the bathroom.

“Go now, both of you.” Ruben ran over to the bartender.

“What’s wrong?” I looked around. The three men were back again, but carried rifles over their shoulder, as if it were nothing more than a gym duffel bag. I grabbed Sophie’s wrist and ran to the bathroom.

“Don’t come out until I get you.” Ruben called out.

“Are we going to die?” Sophie looked at me. Her eyes teared, her eyeliner smudged.

“No,” I answered. I reached over and wiped Sophie’s smudged eyeliner with my thumb. I strained to hear, with our bodies pressed against the door, and listened for wails, broken glass, or bullets. But, only Ricky’s voice rushed to my ear.

“What just happened?” Sophie asked.

“Those guys came in. They had guns,” I said. My brain answered, my voice spoke, but my mind played scenarios. I worried Ruben would be dead by the end of the night. And, with nothing to do but wait. I prayed to El Divino Nino.

Thirty minutes went by before there was a knock on the bathroom door. “It’s ok you can come out.” Ruben said.

I pulled the door open, Ruben stood before it. “Oh my God, what happened? I thought you were dead.” I flung my arms around him.

“Some guys had beef with another guy here last night. They thought they saw him. Came to settle things… They looked all over the place, couldn’t find who they were looking for, and left.”

“What if they hadn’t left?”

“Someone had to have the bartender’s back.”

“You? What about the cops?”

“La policia here is not like in Los United.”Ruben grabbed my hand, and put his arm around Sophie’s shoulder, and steered us towards the door.

“Hombre, I like how you think. You were fast.” The bartender said, as we walked by.

I looked at the counter where two shot guns were laid down.

“Want a drink before you leave?” The bartender pulled a bottle of aguardiente and three shot glasses.

“Next time,” Ruben said.

*

Later on, the story of hiding in the bathroom while three armed guys almost shot up a bar, seemed less terrifying. It became an example about how wild and scary Colombia could be, and how I lived there for almost a year. It was badass. I was badass. Now years later, I sift through that memory, and think not how bad ass. But, how sad. Sad for Colombia, and sad for the people in which violence is part of their everyday, and survival instincts are developed alongside the terror. And, how every summer on those last days of August I got to climb back on plane and head home. New York. Where cops are called from the smallest to the biggest incident, sometimes late, but they do come.

And that year that I lived there was a blur of dancing, musica, aguardiente y cerveza, and day trips to the beach. Long evenings rocking back and forth on Abuelo’s porch with the stars above me, as the night breeze rushed past my arms. But, there were a list of facts I tucked away. Refused to dwell on, that my watch was locked away, that I never took the bus by myself, and that before eight in the evening you had to be locked inside. That I hopped on a chair and unscrewed the light bulb above the porch light, and helped my cousin Clarita drape blankets over the windows so no light from the inside spilled out. An invitation to los rateros.

*

“So, are you going?” Holden asked me a few days later. She knew about this possible trip to Colombia.

“No, tu papa says it’s dangerous. He’s afraid something will happen to us if we go.” I rolled my eyes. “Colombia is safer than it once was.”

“Mama, don’t you get it.” Holden shook her head in my direction.

“Get what?”

“Haven’t you listened to all of Papi’s stories.” Holden’s eyes searched my face.

I looked at her. She seemed so grown up right there in the kitchen table dressed in her soccer uniform. Apple sauce cup in her hand.

“He knew a lot of people who died over there. It wasn’t just Francisco for him that was killed. He was just the one that mattered most.”

“I know that,” I sighed.

“Ok, then give him time. You keep pushing Colombia on him.” Holden scooped apple sauce in her mouth.

What if he’s never ok? I wanted to ask, but didn’t. Later that night in bed I thought about the trip that never was. Ruben thought of Colombia in facts, and I thought in romance. I wondered if we would ever meet somewhere in the middle.

 

 

 

Drowning On Land

The word itself, is like a ragged blanket, one you wrinkle your nose at, as it lays unfolded at your feet. Taking my cue from those around me, I have kept that part of myself the most hidden. And, in order to build distance, I laugh and joke, as if depression has a sense of humor. Smiled in its face, hopeful that my dimples will force a grin on its somber face. It never has. These “funks” have plagued me since I was as young as three or four, unable to escape the shroud which enveloped me, night terrors invaded my sleep.

I didn’t have a name for it until much later. But never tired of all the different ways I could describe it.

  • Drowning on land, the ocean my thoughts, and emotions the waves.
  • A dark tunnel, like the ones that take you on a ride at Six Flags, but endless with no euphoria in sight.
  • An exhaustion that comes from the fuse box of your soul. And sleep is all you can hope for.
  • A sadness so heavy and thick, it wraps around you like burlap. You wrestle to loosen yourself, but the ache of melancholy grows tighter.

The evening news triggered my nightly decent into despair, my heart hung low, close to my stomach. Late at night, laid on my back with my hands folded between my heart and chest, my fingers pressed the space, and willed the pain to subside. I was ten, maybe eleven when I realized that the sadness on the screen crept around my throat and left me mute.  Weeks later I gave up the news altogether. But, already contaminated, sadness had infected me, a zombie bite to my soul.

Sadness like any emotion is sticky, it clings to you, settles into that part of your brain that stores memories, and comes to keep you company. And for most of my life, sadness sat the emperor of all my emotions.  The reason I love heart wrenching ballads, dramas that make you weep till your eyes are sore, and poems that make you wince. As a teen I video taped episodes of Life Goes On and 21 Jumpstreet and watched the super sad ones over and over. I cried over dreary scenes, soundtracks that matched what unraveled on the screen, and emotional dialogue, which all gave me permission to cry. The first time I watched Platoon I balled as the character of William DeFoe got shot as he ran from the Vietnam jungle and towards the helicopter. I saw the scene several times over, feeling connected to the pain on the screen, awakened. Numb free, if only for a brief moment. I knew this fascination with heart-break was odd, so I kept it a secret.

My last summer in Colombia with Francisco being alive, I was fifteen, and he was in his early twenties, the Spanish translation of Platoon came on canal RCN. It was late at night, Francisco sat in front of the television. His bare feet on the floor as he pushed himself back and forth on the rocker. Uncomfortable on the orange couch, but near Francisco and the television, I sat and read. A novel propped in my hands, lost to the world of the pages before me. I looked up when Francisco began to quote the character of Charlie Sheen. His eyes closed and fist balled in the air, no longer in Abuelo’s sala and on that rocker, Francisco dug into his own sadness. Francisco became Chris the hero in Platoon, as he rode high on the helicopter and looked down on the chaos that was Vietnam.

And when he finished his performance I clapped. “You are so good!”

“I’ve seen this movie so many times. It’s my favorite.” He smiled wide at me.

“Everyone thinks I’m weird because I love Platoon. I also like Born On The Fourth of July too.” I thought about how I had read the book as well. “I guess I like war movies,” I said.

“Nah, your like me. You like sad movies.” Francisco rocked back and forth, his eyes straight ahead.

“I like sad songs too,” I said.

“The sadder the better,” Francisco now faced me.

“Why?”

Francisco stared at me for a long time before he spoke. “Because we have a lot of sad in us.”

I nodded. I didn’t realize until much later, that the attraction to sad things, was the shine of a flashlight against the silhoutte that was us.

“You and Joann are my sisters. But, you and me, we are the most alike.” Francisco eyes clung to me.

“Claro,” I agreed with him.

*

In many ways, Francisco was right. A lot of sad existed in him and exists in me. If I search in my past I can come up with a long ass bulleted list. But, I suspect there is more to it. A predisposition fortified by this sensitivity that has me feel things in only two frequencies: deeper and deepest.

Recently when I told a friend I felt sad. I was asked: Why? That I needed to think of the misforntune of others. I became quiet. Said nothing because the retorts were on the tip of my tongue. But, I no longer want others to understand me. I seek to accept myself. Of course I know why. I’m a writer, and articulation of feelings is what writers spend endless hours cobbling. The misforntunes of others? A keen awareness of other’s has always been my greatest burden, but it’s the reason many confide in me, and share details of their life with me. At forty, I realize these truths about myself cannot be hidden, es como tapar el sol con la mano.

Here it is: I’m mad sensitive, and I over think, and I live in my head way too much. I seek art, to be punctured by its beauty, because it moves me. I get into these funks, and always have, since I was a little girl. The waves don’t batter me like they use to, when the current pulled me under and left me breathless. I have learned to defy the waves, turn my back against them and ground my legs. Also, I have learned ride them, lay on top of them, float. When you see me quiet and lost in thought, know that I’m on my back riding the waves, my eyes on the sun. The sun, so merciful, it bows down everyday so that the darkness can be illuminated in its absence.

sylvia-plath

 

Doc Martens 

This past Thursday I had a rare ninety minutes to myself. Ruben was at soccer practice, Holden at her best friend’s volley ball game, and my husband late at his office due to the company move. Laundry was in the wash, chicken cutlets fried, baked beans and a salad were the sides. I thought of going home to wait for the clothes to be done, so I could toss it in the drier. All in an effort to save time later in the evening, and maybe in between, watch the season premiere of This Is Us on my DVR. But, I found myself driving to Park Slope, in search for a new pair of shoes. I needed something comfortable and practical for work. I sped through the Belt Parkway, merged onto the Gowanas, and then the Prospect. Sun, hung low in the sky, as it threatened to disappear. Pandora was on blue tooth, the Eagles station, forever hopeful for Hotel California, instead Tommy Petty’s voice came on.

She’s a good girl, loves her mama

Loves Jesus and America too

She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis

Loves horses and her boyfriend too
Windows wide open, my hair wiped over my face, with one elbow propped on the window, and the other on the steering wheel. Those four lines, transported me to another time. A time when ninety minutes to myself was not something I snatched and stole, but owned. I thought of being in college and dressed in a bright orange Charlie Brown shirt, green baggy pants, and the latest shoe trend at the time on my feet. Converse, Adidas shell tops, Timberland loafers, Nike high tops, and Doc Martens, once I stepped into them I became someone else. Cool. Artsy. Anyone but myself.

I parked by a shoe store in Windsor Terrance not far from my old high school. Bishop Ford no longer a highschool, closed down for the last two years, now a labyrinth of a charter school and a handful of universal pre k classes, maybe a public middle school too. The store was empty, all except one client at the register.  I walked in, a giant timer was set in my mind, time quickened its pace. A fast look of the displays of shoes, and I saw nothing I liked. I should be at home, midst a juggle of wiping down the kitchen, answering emails, and planning lessons for school. Forever in a mad dash to finish before ten, so I could have some writing time. I turned on my heels to leave.

“Can I help you?” A sales woman asked. She walked over to me and smiled.

I flipped around to face her. I really did need a new pair of shoes. “I need something for work, practical and comfortable. I have the flattest feet ever, can you help?” I asked.

“The dansko shoes have great support. She pointed to the front of the store. Those by the window are all the latest ones we have.”

I walked over and grabbed one clog after another. They were ugly and looked like an odd-shaped box. How I could wear these?

“Why don’t you try them on. See how you feel.” Sales woman said.

I nodded. “I guess these in a size 8.” I held up a reddish-brown clog.

While I waited for her to return. I looked at my phone. I had forty-five minutes before I had to pick up my son at soccer practice. My eyes wandered to the display next to the dansko clogs. Doc Marten combat boots lined up a tiny corner of the front window. I reached for a pair of maroon combat boots, and traced my finger around the yellow thread around the bottom of the boot. My mind drifted to freshman and sophomore year of highschool. Obsessed with Doc’s, I wore them with everything, my school uniform, jeans, shorts, and even long dresses. Loved the echoes that followed my footfalls as I walked. Stomped. And I felt heard.

“I have a size eight and nine for you. They don’t come in half sizes.” The sales woman said.

I sat down.

She placed the shoes by me.

I pulled off my sneaker and slipped on the clog and walked around the store. One sneaker on and one clog, with each foot set in a different world, I hobbled around the store. I hated how I looked in the clog, and ignored how comfortable they felt. I didn’t wait for her to ask if I liked them or wanted to see another color or style. “I hate them,” I said. Still up, I yanked the clog off. I walked over to Doc Martens and asked for a size eight. “I want these.”

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Those were the words that played on an endless loop in my head as I tried on the maroon boots. I want them. What I heard when she told me the cost. I want them. And when I asked to wear them out, and stuffed my sneakers in the Doc Marten box. I want them.

I didn’t think about how they were not in my budget. Nor did I think about the fact that I was forty and bought Doc Martens to wear like a seventeen year old.

A mother of two, financially responsible for three, owner of my apartment in Brooklyn, married, and a school teacher for seventeen years I have little space for rebellion. My schedule is rigid, packed tight by places to be and events to attend. I must show up. But, my Doc Martens are me showing up for myself, the biggest rebellion I have stomped for.

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.

 

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.

death

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.