miércoles, febrero 22, 2017
I parked the car and stepped out into the damp, cool evening. The day had been spent in relative bliss, and I felt like dancing and singing, and being inside of myself, with no care for the world around me. This is a rare feeling. I better take advantage. And under the darkened drizzle, I walked with my light down jacket zipped up tightly. “If I close my eyes, this could be San Francisco and not Phoenix.” If I close my eyes and let the stillness hold me. The performance was transfixing, Rubén, Jorge’s friend, brought characters to life, through gestural suggestion, carefully crafted words, poetic punctuation. Light. Theater has always been a place where I felt safe, but tonight, I must admit, I was overwhelmed by the whiteness of the audience. I sat comfortably, easily enough, in my slightly inappropriate purple mini skirt and black tights, ankle boots, hair misted by the rain. But I felt somewhat oppressed by the polite tittering around me about vacations and shopping forays, where the woman who sat next to me asked me if this was, indeed, row k, and wasn’t it awfully close for row k. I replied, drily, that I wasn’t intimately familiar with what row k ought to feel like, being that I was not a frequent purchaser of orchestra seats, and therefore was totally useless as an informant for her inane validation-seeking. Of course I said none of that, just that I didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like. The rest I kept to myself. There was a well-intentioned young person who created a wall of speech to pre-interpret the play, Esquinita, USA, for an audience she assumed was not fully equipped to interpret black and brown characters from the ghetto, any ghetto, as the world crumbled around them. I tried to close my eyes, to ignore the yammering, to transport myself to other theaters, other times, when I used to walk to the CNA before it was the CENART and watch world-class acts, and student plays alike, for a nominal fee for students, and how I never feel lonely when I am held in suspense, in the suspension of disbelief, in the energetic field that emanates, pulsing and writhing, from the actors centers.
I have always loved the theater (just not musical theater, sometimes). And Ruben was, simply sublime. But I am reminded too, of the magical sway that an actor can hold, how their embodied characters can touch us, and how, sometimes, we fall in love with the changing gels, illuminating nuance and power. I think about Brigadoon. I must have been in middle school, perhaps 7th grade. We went to the high school, and settled into our seats, my mother next to me, my brother, perhaps too, though memory does not cast him as anything but an amorphous possibility. I fell in love. I remember it clearly, because it is a feeling that I have spent the greater part of my adult life chasing, that warm wash of emotion, the heightened touch, the gasping breathlessness, the hope. I’ll confess, it has been a while since I’ve felt that hope, but that is neither here nor there.
For me the space and time of a play was as close to a religious transubstantiation as I was ever going to come, and I bit that metaphorical wafer hook, line and sinker. There is a calm that comes with this vicarious living, one that I later rediscovered in film, but there is something in the physical proximity, the sweating, breathing, smoking, bleeding humanity that makes live performances magical and often morally compelling. The Greeks, I suppose, had it right, and the longing for catharsis, the purging of excess emotional baggage, the orgasmic build up of tears that pull from your chest, behind your eyes, and then spill over in deep compassion for someone else’s plight, because, of course it is never your own. I am grateful for this certainty, that by making characters speak to one another, to watch the drama unfold in front of me, I will always have a way out of my own labyrinth, out of my own, chafing, binding disappointments. They melt away in the darkened theater, and then, as in a classroom, where the rest of the room falls away, and it is only me and the person who is telling me stories, they are speaking directly to ME, and I am held captive, breathless, and free.
lunes, febrero 13, 2017
Week 6/52 February 13, 2017
Atlas shrugged, and then let go…
Sometimes we learn something about our lovers, something so deep and dark and altogether unseemly that from it we cannot come back, cannot return to the innocent unknowing, or rather to the willful ignorance. And sometimes it is the fact that they hid from us who they truly are that is the most crushing, the most love-killing.
I think that this is how we spend our lives, desperately trying to protect our core from someone else, wanting keenly to be known, to be seen, to be safe, but at the same time terrified that if we are seen, what we are, what we need, what we want, will be ridiculed. It is a paradox really, because the people that we let close to us, they are the ones we may disappoint, their opinions matter, they know where our tender underbelly may be exposed, so we don’t divulge who we are, not fully, for fear that we might recognize our own shame in their eyes, reflected back upon us, and that would simply be too much.
Yet, there is still a way we rationalize, we mollify, we protect. Them or us? What happens when that boundary isn’t clear? Do we protect, instead, respectability? That word sticks in my craw, and yet… the sense of how we measure up at a societal level plays so much into our self-esteem, or ability to continue in the world, to agree to the contract of getting up in the morning and facing our days. And for what? It is hard to say. Maybe our natures are always being tamed, always being ushered into what we think others want from us. And I fear, we will always, always fail.
To say something like “It happened more or less at the time my marriage was failing” as an opening line, is fundamentally dishonest. Not dishonest because the marriage did, indeed, fail, or because it happened to be during a crisis point in the relationship, but because how can the demise of something built on a fundamental misrepresentation of who we are be considered a failure? Isn’t it rather a failure to endure, to persist, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the person we love, have loved, did love, does not, in fact, exist? There is another problem with that opening line and that is more about its narrative function. We are regularly assaulted with stories of triumph, stories of overcoming painful, psychic destitution or physical abjection… but those stories, the ones that get published, the ones that get made into movies, they share a common characteristic. The character, our character, us… wins in the end. The stories have a postscript, at the very least, telling us that so-and-so escaped domestic violence, or trafficking, or bankruptcy, or a life of gang violence, or simply being gas-lighted by the person they thought was on their side, to finally, in the end, find true love… or parenthood, or peace or purpose.
But what if we don’t?
So, the story, my story, any story, today, cannot begin under the premise that there is a happy ending, because, in the end, I don’t believe that there is any ending but a dreadfully painful one. Death. Painful to us, sometimes, painful to those we leave behind, always, without fail. It is funny, you know, how we never give ourselves credit for all the times we didn’t lose it, didn’t scream, didn’t cry, didn’t accidentally or purposefully violate the privacy of someone else’s psyche and trying in an act of love or terror to understand what makes them tick. So today is an unstory, monstrously repeated, as needed, to extricate one’s heart from love misplaced.
It happened, more or less, at the time my marriage was failing: (Note that there are no references, of course, to the thousands of times prior to that in which fears and feelings were squashed, rewritten and, simply bundled up and sent to the dead zone before the critical moment came.) I moved to California, we moved, and as the entirety of the country, along route 40 unfurled itself, I applied the silent treatment. There had been an accident, an emergency room visit, a series of unkind words exchanged. And yet, they were no more or less terrible than what had come before, or even than what would come after, but I didn’t know it at the time. I just sat, tight-lipped and seething and watched the landscape change, from a lush green, dripping and thick with sweat and mosquitoes through Appalachia, to the desert wasteland, scorched by the unrelenting sun, calcified bones and tumbleweeds in the petrified forest in Arizona. I didn’t want to talk anymore. I didn’t have words. The joy was gone. We hit the coast, and there was some need for words, there was some shared admiration of the majesty of the pacific ocean, the golden grass on mountain sides. There was a relenting. I thought.
We had been in our new home a week when I stumbled onto him. Sharp, angular, cut off by half, with the mountains as backdrop for his yet unknown life. I told myself it was justified, that if I was going to be constantly under attack, I could carve out a secret space for myself. I responded: “Have we met? Will we?” and that was enough. Something so simple detonated my life. I couldn’t have known that it would, of course, our carelessness abounds when we simply don’t care anymore... but nothing is clearer to me now than that decisive moment. I chose life. And life is messy and painful, and terrifying, but I chose that, and I wrote, and wrote and wrote to the one person who I dared to see me. Dangling my want and my need and my love in an ultimate act of submission, blinded and bound, but emboldened in the mutual knowing. Of course, in the end, it didn’t work. There were threats and careers held over the chopping block out of spite and vindictiveness, but in the end, it ended because that is the nature of these sorts of things. And I learned that I can be seen, and loved, and that maybe that’s not enough to “win,” but the winning is in the learning. And today, I’m reminded that the real triumph is dusting ourselves off, and trying again. Each time, with more transparency than the last. Each time with a better understanding of who we are, and why we want what we want, or at least a willingness to explore what it is that we really do want, and then ask for it without fear, not because we are guaranteeing that we will be granted this dearest of wishes, but because in the not asking and not demanding, we are guaranteeing that we won't. Because, in the end, what is “success” in a relationship? Is it bound up in reproductivity? In exhaustion of sexual appetites? In joint expenses and mutual support? In abating the loneliness that is part of the human condition? All of the things? None of the things? Perhaps somewhere in the middle, in which we can bear to look at ourselves in the mirror, and to look them in the eye. And they can look back at us, and be our mirror, and see us for who we are, frail, penetrable, and perverse. And we can laugh. Together. Medusa laughed, and her gaze could still be deadly, Atlas shrugged, and decided to let the world fall to her feet.
martes, enero 31, 2017
Week 4/ 52 January 31, 2017
All through the day, today, I kept thinking: seventeen years ago, at this time, I was in labor. I guess that’s still true, since I delivered my baby girl after 18 hours of labor via cesarean at 4 am, and it is only 10 pm here, now, and that’s only two hours behind east coast time… so… yeah, if I can close my eyes, I can almost remember the absolute indignities of a medicalized childbirth.
Close your eyes and picture this with me:
It is mid-winter in New Hampshire and the barometric pressure is going crazy. Let’s get out of the house, how can I make this baby get out of my womb? The obvious choice was swimming at the local gym. Obvious for me, at least. So 21 year old, baby-faced me, and my equally baby-faced husband go with my beach-ball belly and swim laps, and goof off in the water. I’m sure maybe I am making this memory happier than it actually was, but I don’t care. I could see the winter sunshine filtering in through the plate glass windows, brilliant flashes on the already set, iced-over snow, evergreen trees bending and swaying gently. The penetrating smell of chlorine, comforting as always for a pool rat like me, and the weightlessness of floating, with a person inside you, also floating, moving against the current. “Maybe now she’ll hurry up and come out.”
And the next morning, you wake at 10 am, and suddenly you think, have I really peed myself? No, it is my amniotic fluid leaking from inside of me (yes, that’s exactly what you think… not, oh, my water broke, because you are just that annoying. Always have been, always will be, undoubtedly). And the contractions begin mildly. So you call the doctor and you walk around, and you time the contractions and you go to the office, and they send you home, but it is a 30 minute drive back to your house, so your mom and your husband and you wander around the mall, timing your contracting uterus and its maneuvers, and it simply doesn’t hurt, but the contractions start to get closer together and you don’t want to have an “accident” at the mall, and there is a forecast of snow, so you haul yourselves over to the hospital, and they begrudgingly take you in, whisk you away in a wheel chair, though you are still waiting for the pain.
That will come later. When they decide that you are not contracting hard enough, or fast enough. You are not progressing. You are speaking in English and translating everything into Spanish, and trying to manage everyone’s anxiety, and damn, if this won’t just be easy. And so, they insist, and you are too small, and young, and insignificant to push back, and thus begins the Pitocin drip… and then the nurse wanders away and forgets to check on you, and the Pitocin has suddenly taken your mild-mannered contractions and turned them into a bucking bronco that JUST. KEEPS. BUCKING. With no release, and by the time they come back to check on you, you are huddled in a weeping mass, and they quickly lower the dose when it becomes clear that you have had a 25 minute unending contraction with no respite… and you slip into the bath, because you read all the damn books about what to expect, and what to do, to you know, be a good mother from the get go… and it doesn’t fucking work because your goddamn 21 year old body won’t cooperate, it won’t, it won’t. And you’re crying, and refusing pain medications because you are stoic, and you don’t want to hurt the baby that you haven’t even met yet, and he paces anxiously, and doesn’t know how to protect you. And the idyllic cerulean floating of yesterday seems thousands of light years away, and WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU DONE? And you settle in, for the long, medically-intervened haul, with doctors that look at you like you’re an idiot simply because you happen to look like you are 12, and because your partner and you are speaking a language that they don’t speak, and it doesn’t matter that you wrote and defended an excellent thesis just months before at a fancy private women’s college, because to them, you are just a body that needs to be dealt with, and a shameful teen-mother at that, and with a foreign baby-daddy… well, who knows. Maybe they weren’t thinking any of those things, and were simply ho-hum-drumming their way through another day at work, and for you, this is the most monumental trial (and tribulation) of your short (but not that short) life, and you don’t feel heard. And you feel small and meek and overlooked, and holy shit, you feel like a failure. ALREADY. Breathe. Yes, you remind yourself, breathe. In… Out… In… Out. The antiseptic space really doesn’t seem that bad, by now there is late afternoon sunshine, the waning day comes early at 4 pm, but this will go on for hours. Each time they tell you, nope, not dilated enough… you’re stuck at 8 cm, and you will your body to do what it is supposed to do, and then you think that you would have been one of the many dead mothers in the middle ages, or in the middle of the bush, with no access to running water and sanitary bedding, and you breathe in and out some more, and probably crack jokes, because that is your general response to pain. And it is dark, so dark, there is no sun and the snow is falling softly in the black sea of night, and it is almost midnight and they say, you know, maybe you should have a c-section, your water broke over 12 hours ago, and you refuse, you try walking, up and down the hallway with the iv drip and the metal-stand from which the bag is hanging, but no. So now it is 1 am, and you beg them for another chance, one more, let me use the birthing ball, and you labor, trying to will your body into submission following the techniques that you learned about in the class where everyone else was 15 to 20 years older than you and made you feel alienated and ashamed for your lack of your own home, and your own career, and the fact that you were living in your parents’ big, beautiful home, basking in the glory of kitties and your teenage bedroom transformed, and it is now 2 am, and they’re having none of it. So they no longer give you a choice, and you are shaking, and crying, and exhausted, and in pain (but it is a pain almost immediately forgotten), and the force you to bend forward on the edge of the bed while they jam a thick-gauge needle into your spine (and you think of all the horrible ways a spinal tap could go heinously wrong, and leave you permanently paralyzed), and there are innumerable hands holding you down, telling you to be still, to not shake as your body rends itself apart in contraction upon contraction and they are trying to force your unruly body to bend to their will, and you are so angry and weak that you feel a flood of urine, warmth wrapping itself in a shameful spill around you as they manage to wrestle you into a moment of stillness and insert the epidural. Then the rest is a blur, you don’t feel and you won’t look as they cut you open, they pull a perfect baby girl with a head of hair so thick she looks like a monchichi from your battered womb. And he cuts the cord, and is beaming. And they don’t ask, they just give you medicine to let you rest, that then makes the baby sleepy and you itchy, because they didn’t read your chart, or note your allergy to opioids. And you worry that your colostrum won’t come in, and within hours, they’re trying to force you to feed your baby formula, and you refuse. And you fight with your husband, because he says something unkind, or maybe he doesn’t but he isn’t defending you against these unrelenting police. And you don’t let them take her away, insist on her sleeping in your room with her, and she is perfect, and tiny, and yours. And eventually she gets the hang of the nursing, and the tears of rage and shame and frustration that you felt at being ignored and dismissed by the medical staff cede to simultaneous joy and terror. What if you drop this baby. You don’t really think, because the birth is this single-minded goal, but then suddenly, you have this live thing, and you have to NOT KILL IT… For, like 18 years… and so…you will keep copious records of her feeding and her pooping, and her shots, and the teeth she loses, and you will laugh until you cry and cry until you laugh, and she will be your best friend and your harshest critic... but, tonight, on the eve of her last childish year, I baked her some brownies (that she is begging to nibble while I refuse until it is actually midnight) you remember that it was so so long ago, and not so long ago at all. And that time really does fly when you’re having fun, or struggling to keep your head above water, or slogging through graduate school, or aiming for tenure. And it is good to just take a moment to breathe.
lunes, enero 23, 2017
Week 3/52 January 23, 2017
Full confession. This is week three, and I have already slid a day behind each previous week. I don’t know if this is indicative of some horrid form of self-sabotage, or if my other worldly concerns were just too heavy to write, but I find that all through the week I am thinking of topics that I would like to explore with a thoughtfulness and attention that I have yet to give to myself or my writing, and then, when it comes time to write, I have discarded all of my previous ideas. Perhaps, then, this week will simply be a report on the status of… this woman.
Since the election, I have had somewhat of a numb feeling. Like, I know how horrible of a human the new president is, and I worry about all the things that might happen… but somehow, perhaps because of my already precarious emotional state, I just… sort of shut it off. Like the feelings of despair are simply cordoned off, and then wrapped up in bubble wrap and sent off to deep freeze.
I think that’s what I do with negative feelings in general. And maybe positive ones, too. Like any emotion that is too hard to contain, I just… set it aside and move on.
I wouldn’t know this, of course, except sometimes my parents, and other people tell me stories about things that I did or felt and I have, literally, no memory of them. Like, not at all. Perhaps this is simply the nature of aging, but I’m convinced that it is not.
Oh, who the fuck am I kidding with this? I cannot write when my heart feels like it is being ripped from my chest, and stomped on by a smiling executioner. How can I? I can’t maintain some jocund tone when I know that underneath the smiling mask, my face is crumpled in that puffy red ugly cry that comes with dry-heaving gasps. Separation anxiety is real, even when separation is the path to the best possible outcome.
Why, I wonder, is letting go, letting be, so hard? Why? Because our hearts are a veiny, thorny morass of feelings upon feelings that we’ve built and broken and rebuilt and rebroken until we don’t know whether we are living or reacting to the present situation or the past, or if we can ever disentangle ourselves from the quagmire of our previous mistakes. Or maybe just because we love. Hard. And losing it, losing hope, admitting defeat is just. Too. Defeating. Or maybe not. Maybe it is because we are afraid of actually asking for what we need and want, and deserve, because if we were to get it, really, we might lose it… and that… well, from that, we know we could not recover.
When I think of my daughter, when I hold the thought of something terrible happening to her in my mind, and I examine it, I am filled with a sense that I would simply not survive the loss of that person, to whom I am so, deeply, and tightly bound. I would shatter. You hear stories of couples who have been together for 60 or 70 years and who die within minutes of each other. And I wonder, do I really want a love like that? Maybe not in this lifetime. I don’t want to depend on another person, I don’t want to give over my autonomy, my sense of adventure, my need to hang myself over the abyss and dangle by my toenails. I don’t want to need you. And still, I do. I can tell myself that I’m not really capable of love, because I’m not capable of trusting another human not to drop me. (I always hated those icebreaker games that were meant to build trust in which you had to blindly fall into the hands of people who you had only just met, as if the fact that forcing yourself to do something terrifying would build trust. No! It just meant they didn’t fuck up… that time… but there were no guarantees that they would be reliable for any other sort of thing.)
So, that's where we are.
I can’t let go because I can’t trust myself. I can’t listen to myself when I say: just hold yourself, you don’t need anyone else. I can’t trust myself to listen when I say: you deserve to be treated with love. You deserve to be safe. So I hold on to threads, and shreds and scraps and crumbs, because if I fill in the gaps, and I weave them together, I can trust in my own handiwork. I can build my own safety net with words, and memories, and friendships intertwined. And that is enough. It really is. It is so much more than many people have. I don’t need more than my fair share.
So, today, in the car, as a passenger, I read about a house bill that was introduced trying to undermine Roe v. Wade by establishing “life” at fertilization, and I finally lost it. I mean, I held it together in the car, so as not to be taunted or have to defend a position, but I came home and sobbed, face down in my bed, hunched over, still standing with my face in my hands. Then, I made dinner. But I can’t stop crying. At least not on the inside.
lunes, enero 16, 2017
Week 2/52 January 15, 2017
I want to write about food, but I realize that such a broad undertaking will require more than a single, pithy eleventh-hour essay (who am I kidding? the only deadlines here are those I have self-imposed, and yet…). So let me begin, somewhere. Anywhere, really.
For me, food is love. My relationship with food, and love, has always been somewhat anxious, not because either of them were ever less-than-abundant, but because, somewhere along the line, in my child-mind, I must have equated food and love with the notion of “deserving” and somehow, I simultaneously feared that I didn’t deserve, or that there was such a thing as scarcity, and that I must gorge myself on both. I realize as I write this that there is a pattern to be dissected, but that will be a task for another midnight writing session.
My earliest memories of food are inflected with love, the familial and familiar kind, but also with competition, a sort of a sibling rivalry. The anxiety and competition stemmed from my position, perhaps, as second child, always trailing, always furious about a perceived injustice. I would keep eating at the table just to make sure that my brother didn’t get more than I did. Later, when we were teenagers, I would run home to make sure that he didn’t eat what I had saved for myself from dinner the night before. It was a losing battle.
I think of the summer of 1982, in Madrid, on the Plaza Mayor, playing soccer and wondering why I could not play shirtless like the boys… at age 4, questioning what seemed like an asinine and unjust convention, the pleasure of running up to the ice-cream man and ordering a popsicle in bright blue aquamarine shark-shaped glory. I remember the glorious bubbles of coca-cola. I don’t remember, but I’m told, that I wholly rejected (and subsequently vomited) a fancy, hand-crafted cream of mushroom soup in the Andalusian countryside because I claimed it didn’t taste like Campbell’s, though I was sickened, it would seem, from sucking my thumb that had played in public fountains, filled with pigeon poop and the desperate hope of wishes sunken into the deep in the form of abandoned coins. I’m fairly certain that my parents were more traumatized than I, considering my abiding love of cream soups, and mushrooms, and a curiously bookendish ending to this particular episode a quarter century later, in Chiapas, in which I rejected a cream of mushroom soup because it purported to be a hand-made soup of local hongos, but was, in fact, Campbell’s. I didn’t fall ill, I just, not without certain chagrin, returned the soup to the kitchen and had an unmemorable dish instead.
I have distinct memories of my Zaydie cooking scrambled eggs and lox and singing in the kitchen in some mix of English and Yiddishy sing-songs that he would make up. Sometimes, when my grandparents would visit, he would pull out what looked like a briefcase, but was really a portable cocktail mixing set and I would watch him joyfully move about the kitchen. Food was love for him. He would buy me Planter’s cheese puff balls… colored as they were with yellow #5, I would never buy them or consume them at this stage in my life, but oh, I can still remember the buttery melt-in-your mouth joy that they would bring with each crunchy ball that I savored. I remember my father cooking bananas flambé on Sunday mornings, the rum-orange butter flaming before being served to the clamoring masses (ie: my brother and me). And I remember my Mimi serving up stick-to-your ribs American fair, skittish to make sure that my Puggy’s meal was ready at the 5 O’clock hour. When they would visit on their tours around the country, hauling handicrafts in their truck, she would always find the time to make a double batch of merengue cookies with chocolate chips, my father-her son’s favorite, and she would leave them in a massive plastic bin in the freezer for us to consume in her absence.
Of course, it was my mother who prepared the vast majority of meals, but as history is unfair with those who perform invisible labor, so too are my memories of her in the kitchen. They mostly blur together. I do remember cooking spaghetti sauce and beef stroganoff along side her. Later, when I decided I would be a vegetarian (mostly prompted by my misguided need for control and food restriction due to deep adolescent self-loathing, but also, nominally, because, let’s be honest, when one really considers that eating meat is eating animals, it is rather nauseating… and then we forget), she insisted that I make my own meals, a wonderful lesson in self-sufficiency, in which I ate a copious amounts of broccoli and macaroni and cheese, and some variation of split pea and carrot soup, and quesadillas with salsa for quite a number of years. Like I said, misguided.
Since then, the meals I have shared and cooked with my best friends, and for my family, and lovers and loves have been some of the most salient moments of joy in a life that, though punctuated with a certain fundamental sadness, has been overwhelmingly fortunate and overflowing with if not satiety, then an abundance of curiosity and the means to scratch the itch of wanderlust that accompanied my penchant for emotional thrill-seeking.
And so we return: If food is love, then why isn’t an excess of food a warm bath of self-love, a balm for the soul? Or maybe it is? This is the point at which we consider that our pleasure centers and our physical embodiment are often-times at cross purposes, but that, too, is a topic for another day. When one euphemistically “struggles” with her or his weight for the majority of their adult life, it isn’t uncommon to hear the sage advice: in order to change yourself, you must change your relationship to food. So easily said, but, how? And what part of the relationship must we modify? And, must we stop loving food? Stop loving others through the preparation of this ultimate act of care-taking? I’ve never gotten that far, that is, I never manage to change my relationship beyond forcing a regimented rigor that is never pleasant, but usually effective. And so it is, to this topic, I will undoubtedly return, but for now, there is a big pot of black beans (my version of Guatemalan style) that require attention, and into which I will pour sautéed onions, garlic and a dash or two of pure love.
sábado, enero 07, 2017
And so it begins... week 1/ 52 January 7, 2017
Where does one put pain? Physical pain or psychic pain, it doesn’t matter: our bodies preserve it, in the interstices of our nerve synapses, among the weaving fibers of our flesh. Our minds spirit it away into dark corners. How do you chase the pain away? There are metaphors that can be used: put it on a shelf, set it aside, table it. Postpone the pain until it isn’t so raw… and there are so many trite platitudes like “no pain, no gain” or worse, “something better is waiting for you” or even, “it gets better” or the Mexican one I love, “no hay pena que dure cien años ni cuerpo que lo aguante” (there is no sadness that lasts 100 years, nor a body that can last that long) and in some cases, in certain company, the ever-unhelpful “God has a plan for you.” And while it is true, we aren’t capable of bearing the pain of disappointment, abandonment, failure, or just plain loss interminably, it is simply the not knowing when you will feel better that adds to the weight of grief. So, where do you put pain? I tend to put it into writing, and though this wasn’t my intended starting point for a new writing project, here I am, facing a blank page, and facing my own demons. Again.
The idea: a personal essay once a week for the entirety of 2017. I have misplaced my joy, it seems, and when that happens, I recognize my need to create. Sometimes cooking is an outlet for this creativity, and sharing food with friends brings the added joy of bringing happiness to others, but, in the spirit of honesty, I have lost my appetite for food. Of any kind. That’s when you know the joy has been sequestered and the pain has taken hold, and maybe, just maybe, it is time to do something about it. In years past I have undertaken photo projects, a daily self portrait (to try and be kinder and more loving to my physical likeness, and thereby, my physical embodiment), then a weekly one, then a daily portrait outside myself. This is to say, there is a theme. If it is the renovation of the imposed Gregorian calendar, or the lunar/ solar universal laws, the winter season often finds me in the doldrums, full of fear and pain that are, perhaps explicable, but certainly not often acknowledged. And the only cure is to write. Or to travel, but sometimes the pain travels with you… with writing, it always just pours out onto the page.
So here goes, a 52-week love letter to myself, to my friends, to future love, or to my child, or to you, dear reader, who may not yet exist, a window to my soul (thus, after all, Paul Simon reminded us, is akin to losing love).
A week before Christmas, 1994.
Miramar, Argentina: Province of Buenos Aires and as the name suggests, a balmy beach town in the summer.
For months Leo and I had met, clandestinely, at the Petit café and then under the boardwalk, among the wild dunes. His kisses tasted of tobacco and his skin of salt, his hair a bit shaggy, and salt burned in the style of the young men in this country not my own. I was afraid. Always afraid. What if Freddi found out? What if they sent me home? What if I lost the school year because of carelessness? What if? What if? What if? But never “What if he stops loving me?” Never “What happens when I inevitably have to leave?” I am 16 and nervous, sensual, he is tired of kissing and grinding me to orgasm through his thick jeans, he is ready. Insistent, We are in the dunes among the trees of the forest where later I will find myself screaming to fend of a would-be date rape, but here it is all the heady drunkenness of teenage love. Or so I thought. He pulls out a condom. I say no, fully aware of the consequences of an accidental pregnancy on my future, in a place I don’t know, where I trust no one, where I cannot fully navigate the social mores nor the knowing looks, nor the expectations, nor the scolding tongues. I am alone. Leo is with me. I think. I push his hands away: “I’m not ready,” I say, believing fully that he will understand, must understand, that I am simply afraid of the unknown. I knock his hand and the bright pink plastic falls to the side, on sandy ground. He grows angry and it is in this anger, and subsequent withdrawal that I understand that I might lose this man-boy that I love, that is my lifeline, my only friend. But I’ve gone and done it, and I can’t take it all back. So, I do the next best thing, for which I am, apparently, already known, the slutty yanqui, though only because I have a big mouth and talk a big game. He finishes and I gag, and spit. The blue sky spins around pine trees and I know, like a prescient pit in my stomach, that I didn’t fix anything, that maybe there was nothing I could have fixed. We walk the flat city grid back to my temporary home on the central plaza in stony silence.
He doesn’t call me all week. On Christmas Eve day, on the hot street, filled with throngs of summer beach vacationers from the capital, we meet. He asks if I plan to go out that night to a club. I have been moved to a new house, where the mother tells me she will protect me from the clucking tongues, and the eagle-eyed gaze of my German guardian. I feel scared and I know something is wrong. He doesn’t hold me the way he usually does. Doesn’t stop to play on the swings at the diagonal corner to discuss the linguistic nuances of querer and amar,
We have a midnight dinner on the esplanade, drink sparkling sidra, champagne’s sychophantic cousin, and the young folk teeter our way to the coastal clubs at the far end of the beach, at the edge of the vivero. The music pulses and throbs, and I feel nauseous and disoriented, and utterly alone. I try to dance, which I find slightly easier while tipsy, but I am overheated and frustrated because Leo is nowhere to be found, and cell phones were not a pervasive nor portable technology at the time. So I stood on the rooftop terrace, overlooking the lapping of the black-night sea, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. It is Leo. He has a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, “Che, Ilana…” he says, and the lilting tone in his voice is a tell. My heart jumps to my throat, but before I can be engulfed in dread, a girl, whose factions cannot reassemble themselves in my mind, comes bounding up behind him and demands to know, “Have you done it already?” and then I am fully engulfed in dread, shock, terror, humiliation. I feel the floor move, but there is no earthquake. He tells me it is over, though I don’t even know if he says the words. I ask him how long, and he says, “a week.” Of course I know now that this was a pious lie, meant to shield me from additional pain., but then, all I could think about was, what if I had just offered up my virginity to him? What if? What if?
All out of the fear of consequences, I grabbed the first blond-headed, long-haired boy that crossed my path (to whom I had been introduced earlier that evening) and promptly made out with him very publicly in the middle of the dance hall. It was a mild version of revenge sex. I don’t remember how he tasted, but I think it was of mint gum and smugness.
Weeks later, after I had made out in an alley behind the clubs with Leo’s best friend the following week, just for an extra dose of spite, I found myself desperately ill, and under the care of the family that was meant to “protect” me. That’s not what happened in the throes of my fever, but that’s a story for another day.
There is no moral. There is only pain. But it can go, I don’t want to hold it anymore. I learned my first lesson in mistrust, having previously never experienced neither deep love nor deep betrayal… nor violation of the sanctity of my sleeping body. I want to reverse this miseducation. I want to heal my fear. I want.