Writing in the shadow
Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.
But silence is impossible.
Silence is a message,
Just as doing nothing is an act.
Let who you are ring out and resonate
In every word and every deed.
Yes, become who you are.
There’s no sidestepping your own being
Or your own responsibility.
What you do is who you are.
You are your own comeuppance.
You become your own message
You are the message.
Since my brother’s death almost seven months ago, my memoir has gone in a different direction than I’d planned. A more true direction. A punch in the gut direction where I’ve caught myself many times out of breath during the writing. These past few weeks I’ve been feeling it more, since mom has stopped talking to me for the nth time since I left her house when I was thirteen. It’s making the silence I’m writing about more deafening.
The silence screams.
The banshee scream that no one hears but has haunted me for so long. Silence around my mother’s rape. Silence around my brother’s disease. Silence around his addiction. Silence around how bad it got and the person he became. Silence around who mom wanted me to be and how cruel she was when I didn’t fit her impossible demands and expectations. Silence around my own suffering and how I had to leave to save my life but ended up suffering in other ways. But it was my suffering, what I chose, so I carried it. I’ve carried it silently. Until now.
When all you know is silence, you stay silent about how you feel even if it eats at you and pushes into your throat with the ferocity of tornadoes, you swallow that shit because silence is what you know. Because all the times that you weren’t silent, when you talked back, you got slapped, your hair yanked so the next day you could barely move your neck. Later you’d learn that it was whiplash, an injury usually associated with car accidents not mothers who lash out.
And though you learn to hate silence and become outspoken, quick to tell your truth in so many areas of your life, in the important ones, the vulnerable ones, you perpetuate silence and the violence that comes with it. Because, yes, silence can be as violent as a punch to the face, an uppercut, a straight right to the chin, an elbow to the solar plexus.
You learn to be silent about love. You learn not to say I love you. Your truth will only trouble the waters. You’re so tired of stormy seas.
You’re silent about your brother’s addiction. You don’t flip out when he steals from you and from your friends. You don’t say anything when they tell you he called saying you had an emergency and he just needed some cab money to go help you. You look away when they tell you he sold them the metrocards you bought him to get to his program for the week. Nobody told you that silence made you complicit.
There were so many silences. Silence around who Millie was to us. We called her our “aunt” to people that weren’t related to us though we knew she wasn’t our aunt.
I don’t remember how we started calling her our aunt, and I don’t know who started it. I just know that when people asked, which they always did, inevitably, I’d say, “She’s my aunt.” Then I’d look away, avert my eyes. Pretend I didn’t hear when they asked, “She’s your mom’s sister?” I learned to avoid the follow up question, the quizzical look on people’s faces, the arched eyebrows that said, “We don’t believe you.”
In my first erotic memory, mom is leaning against the washing machine in our kitchen smoking a Newport Lights cigarette. Mom smoked that brand for more than twenty years, until just after Millie died and she became a Jehovah’s Witness again, like she was before she met Millie. I watched Millie stride over to her, her eyes intent, lustful. Mom smirked and she took a long drag. Millie leaned her body on mom’s and kissed her. I blushed and watched the smoke seep out of the corners of their mouths, their tongues clinging to each other.
As a kid I made Father’s Day cards for Millie, complete with cardboard tie and collar. I knew she wasn’t a man though Millie dressed like one, in her polyester bell bottom pants, polo shirts and guaberas, and Kangol hats. She even shopped for shoes in the men’s section of Fabco. But Millie had breasts and I’d seen her naked enough times (as she walked through the length of our railroad style apartment from the closet sized bathroom in the kitchen to the room she and mom shared) to know she was a woman. But Millie was treated differently from the other women in the family. During family functions, Millie drank latitas of Budweiser and took shots of Palo Viejo with the men while the women sat in the kitchen and cooked and talked.
It wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that I realized. I was in the cafeteria of P.S. 274 on Bushwick Avenue, serving as a lunch monitor. The well behaved “seniors” were given the task of watching over the younger grades. It was a role we all coveted.
I’d just sat down with my second grade class when I heard it. They were sitting just steps from me. The fat girl with thick glasses and oily skin said, “Her mother’s a butch.” Her face twisted in a look of disgust.
She wasn’t talking about me but I’d heard Millie use that term many times before. She’d whisper it repeatedly when her and mom argued and mom called her a maricona. And I’d hear her say it to her friends, one hand on the brim on her Kangol hat, “Yo soy butch” and she’d do this wave thing with her body so she looked like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders. I’d never asked what it meant but I knew that word carried weight. I knew that’s what Millie was.
“Ugh, her mother’s a lesbian,” replied the skinny girl, scrunching her red pimple dotted forehead.
“Butch don’t mean lesbian!” I yelled, almost choking on a chunk of soggy pepperoni pizza.
“What do you think it means, stupid?” I wanted to punch that fat girl in her face. I wanted to punch her hard enough to send her flying around the caf like a decompressing balloon. Instead, I buried my face in my tray and didn’t look at them for the rest of the lunch period. When I got home, I watched mom and Millie. I never told anyone what I discovered that day and I didn’t treat my family any different, especially not my Millie. How could I? She was the one who showed me tenderness and love.
Years later when my sister was bullied her freshman year in high school and rumors were spread around about her, I overheard her tell her friend, “that bitch is telling everyone my mom’s a lesbian.”
I jumped off the car I was sitting on and yelled, “Mom ain’t no lesbian.” Dee stared at me. I stormed off down the block. I wasn’t ready to face it even though I was in eighth grade at that point. When I left to boarding school, I didn’t tell anyone about my family. I was secretly relieved that I didn’t have to explain my family to anyone anymore. I didn’t have to tell people Millie was my “aunt.” I was carrying my own shame.
I didn’t know how Mom met Millie until last year. My brother told me the story while he was on his death bed. Carlos was five when it happened. I was two. He said, “One day we were going to the Kingdom Hall then Millie moved in and that year was the first Christmas we celebrated.”
It was last year that mom finally confessed that Millie never paid a bill in the house. Mom paid everything, from the compra that fed our family of five to the rent to the light bill and the WHT cable service that was all Brooklyn had back in the early eighties until the streets were ripped up to install the cables that brought us hundreds of channels.
I didn’t know the truth about who Millie was to my mom and my brother until she’d been dead for seven years. Mom said: “You were the only one of my kids that Millie loved.” Carlos said, “Millie was a fuckin’ bitch, sis. I know you loved her but she was a bitch.”
Mom and Millie had a violent relationship. In my memory, it was Mom who attacked Millie, going at her with the same flailing open palms that she attacked me with. But mom and my brother insisted that it wasn’t like that. They said it was Millie who hit Mom. It was Millie who provoked her. I’m still wrapping my heart around that. The mother I remember didn’t let anyone push her around. The mother I remember was the one who attacked that fourteen year old who took a box cutter out on my sister Dee the summer I was eleven and Dee was thirteen.
It was just last year that mom told me that Millie bought that house on a hill in Lares, Puerto Rico in the 80s with the social security money mom got when Papi died. Millie didn’t put mom on the deed until she was dying of cancer, and she did it on the condition that Mom leave the house to “un Rodriguez,” one of her clan. “She didn’t want any of you to have it,” mom said. “Not even you.”
Millie was controlling and domineering and she was a bully, that much I do remember. When I told her I was being bullied in the first grade, she took me out into the yard and taught me how to fight. She smacked me around until I learned how to block her blows, laughing and taunting me when I got frustrated and started to cry. One day, when I was eleven, Millie walked out into the hallway to find me being dragged by my hair by Carolyn, my frenemy from the block. Millie watched while I pulled myself up and dusted myself off. She moved to block the front door, the only way out of the building, and told me, “Hit her.” “I can’t, Millie, I’m Jehovah’s Witness.” I stuttered. Mom had put me in bible studies classes a few months before and I was gung-ho about it. I was even working on changing my always-ready-to-fight ways. That was how Carolyn had managed to get me to the floor; I didn’t defend myself when she attacked. Millie sneered and pushed past me. She gave me the silent treatment for days but never mentioned it. Not until later that summer.
We were in the van on our way to the beach. Millie had the green van that she’d glued a fake tear drop window to on the right side to get rid of the commercial plates. Some guy in a station wagon cut her off. Their car was piled with people like ours was. Millie rolled up next to him and started yelling. When the girl in the passenger seat yelled back, I stuck my head out and told her, “You shut up before I knock you out.” Millie stopped her barrage of swear words long enough to glare at me, “Whatchu gonna do? No es que tu eres Jehovah’s Witness?”
I didn’t regain her respect until five years later when I had a fight one day on the block while I was on vacation from boarding school. Millie held mom back and watched me pummel the girl, yelling, “con puños, Vanessa, con puños.”
I’ve been silent about how it felt when mom stopped talking to me all those times. There have been so many times, I lost count. She uses silence like a samurai sword. A fucking machete that hacks into me again and again leaving me bleeding and missing pieces of me. I’ve been hobbling around for too long already.
Writing was the only space where I could express myself freely. It was crucial to my fragile sense of well-being. I was often the family scapegoat—persecuted, ridiculed. I was often punished. It was as though I lived in a constant state of siege, subject to unprovoked and unexpected terrorist attacks. I lived in dread. Nothing I did was ever right. That constant experience of estrangement was deeply saddening. I was brokenhearted. ~bell hooks, “Writing from the darkness”
At VONA 2010, when Chris Abani asked me why I write, I thought I had it all figured out. I was arrogant. “It’s the air that I breathe,” I said, swearing I’d made him swoon with my poetry. His response, “Yeah, that’s cute but it’s bullshit.” He proceeded to interrogate me like I was a serial killer and he was an FBI agent. “Why do you write? When you first started writing, what made you pick up a pen? And why writing? You could have done something else?” None of my responses was enough. He kept prodding for what felt like forever but was probably only minutes. Finally, flustered and stuttering, with beads of sweat on my lip, I blurted, “Because on the page I could be myself. I could shut out the voices that said little girls shouldn’t act like I did.” He softened, “So you write to take back your power.” I was devastated. What the fuck does he mean? There’s nothing powerless about me. Does he know who I am? Class felt like it lasted an eternity and it was only the first fucking day. When he dismissed us, I ran to my room, curled myself into fetal position on the floor and cried. I stayed there for hours, until hunger sent me searching for food.
I’ve gone back to this lesson time and again in my writing. I’ve dug into those moments when I knew I needed to create stories even though I didn’t know why. Like when I climbed the plum tree in the backyard when I was six and laid my skinny body down on the branches. I closed my eyes and imagined a different life. A life where mom didn’t snap at me for the slightest reason, she didn’t call me retardada or ordinaria. She wasn’t cruel. A life where my sister was my friend. She didn’t sacudir her dirty feet on my head at bedtime. We played dolls together and talked about boys together. I could tell her anything and she wouldn’t tell mom.
Writing was how I screamed back at the silence.
It was years before I realized just how powerful my words were. I was in seventh grade and was writing all the time at that point. I was published in a school anthology and my poems and stories were always up on display on the bulletin board.
One day mom caught me and Ruben together. Ruben was my first love. A boy from the block who was exactly two days older than me. I loved the little bigote he had on his upper lip. We were just 12. An innocent love, we were just starting to discover the magic of giggles and holding hands and the heat of our bodies. We were playing in the Waldbaums parking lot which we still called the lumber yard because that’s what it’d for so many years. I was leaning on the gate and Ruben was leaning into me, his hand curled into the wire mesh just above my shoulder. I pushed him away when I saw mom roll up. She called me puta and yanked me away by my hair. That night she caught me writing Ruben a letter. She ripped it into pieces while she yelled. I can’t remember what she said but I remember “puta” was her exclamation point. I didn’t say anything and I didn’t move. I just stared at her while she spit “puta” in my face over and over again. Then she started crying suddenly and stormed out. It was then that I realized my writing had power. Anything that could make mom lose her shit like that was powerful.
It was through writing that I resisted mom’s forked tongue. It was how I talked back to her cruelty and how I pushed myself out of the corner she pushed me into.
I’ve kept diaries as far back as I can remember. When I lived with mom, I wrote in the composition books and on loose leaf, never in anything that looked like a diary because I was scared my sister would read it and would use it taunt me more than she already did, or worst, that she would tell mom.
“Writing was the healing place where I could collect the bits and pieces, where I could put them together again. It was the sanctuary, the safe place.” ~bell hooks, “Writing from the darkness”
Writing was the only safe place I had. It was the one thing that was mine. My journaling was an integral part of the road that led me here, to this writing, to the blogs I post, the essays and memoir. It was my struggle against being molded, against being broken, against becoming like anything and anyone other than who I was.
I was trying to be brave. I know now that an anguished heart is never a brave heart. ~bell hooks
All these years later, I’m still trying to be brave. This confessional writing, this breaking of these decades long silences, it’s all a way of gathering the pieces, a licking of the wounds, a “ya basta.” So when that professor told me when I was a student at Columbia University that journaling isn’t writing, “You’re not writing unless you’re working on a poem or a story,” I sneered at his arrogance. “That’s bullshit,” I said, not caring about the consequences. It was in journaling that I started to find and define myself. It was in journaling that I sought refuge and created a safe space for myself. And, it was in journaling that I began my journey to memoir. It’s why I ask my students if they journal and, if so, how long? If not, why not? Journaling has long been disregarded because it is largely a feminine undertaking, pero, carajo, it was in journaling that I started to back my power and learned to exert myself in different ways, and that has played an integral role in shaping me into the woman and writer I am today.
A distinction must be made between that writing which enables us to hold on to life even as we are clinging to old hurts and wounds and that writing which offers to us a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully. Such writing is not an anchor that we mistakenly cling to so as not to drown. It is writing that truly rescues, that enables us to reach the shore, to recover. ~bell hooks, “Writing from the darkness”
It was after Chris Abani gave me shaken baby syndrome that my writing started to shift. I pulled up a chair and sat in my grief and started to dig into it. It’s why I couldn’t finish that 352 page novel I walked around with for six months after VONA 2010—memoir took over. The writing took on a new mission—a mission of rescuing myself, reclaiming the little girl I was. And four years later, hundreds and hundreds of pages of journaling and memoir drafts and essays later, I’m still working on recovering. I’m still trying to reach the shore. Toni Morrison was right when she wrote, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” Indeed it is.