Chronicles of a becoming: Fear and what haunts
When I got my period when I was ten, mami said she hoped I never have a girl, “las ninas vienen al mundo a sufrir.”
For years I thought sufrimiento was my lot.
When my nena turned 8, I told her, “When they tell you you’re not enough, tell them about your mama and how you saved her.”
As a child of five and six, I was terribly afraid much of the time, especially at night. We slept in the windowless third room of a four-room railroad style apartment. The only windows were in the kitchen (facing the backyard) where we entered the apartment, and the last room where Mom and Millie slept (which faced the front of the building). I’d wake up trembling in the middle of the night, if I slept at all. At night was when the monsters and goblins came out, demons and all things scary and menacing. Mom made it clear early in my nightmare stage that I was not allowed to knock on their door or sneak into their bed no matter how much I cried, “Mami, tengo miedo.” I learned when I was really young that mom wouldn’t make me feel safe or protected, so I’d lay in the bottom bunk or the couchito (the bed that opened and closed in half like a sandwich), wherever it was I slept that night, and stared through the living room and kitchen into the backyard, praying silently, “Papa dio, protejeme de’l diablo.” If I closed my eyes in exhaustion, they snapped open at the slightest noise—my sister turning in the top bunk, Millie snoring behind their locked door.
I’d stare into the backyard, past the iron gates on the windows that I swear did nothing to stop the demons from getting me. Didn’t they float through walls in movies? I didn’t drift off until I saw the light of dawn creep into the backyard.
To this day, I often sleep with a light on in my apartment, especially if I’m there alone.
While I was terrified much of the time, I courted fear. I devoured the horror movies of that era, from the Friday the 13th movies to Psycho and Nightmare on Elm Street, but it was The Exorcist that shook my insides in a way I’ve never recovered from. To this day, I can’t even hear the sound effects of that damn movie.
Since I can remember, when I’m particularly frightened, I look under beds, open closets, even the oven door. I check the locks and the knobs on the stove. I pull back the shower curtain and peek behind open doors. I check the apartment room by room, crevice by crevice, and after the inspection, I still leave the light on. Ghosts and demons can appear in mid-air, you know.
I wonder sometimes if I courted fear consciously. If I learned to lean into it because I knew safety would be so elusive in my life.
When I was with the drug dealer in college, I once got into a fight with a neighborhood girl who attacked me while I was on my rollerblades. Her boyfriend kicked me in the stomach to get me off of her. My boyfriend did nothing about it. Not a damn thing.
When I first started with my daughter’s father (we’ll call him Lee), he was waiting for me outside the supermarket while our compra was being run up. He winked at me while he watched me through window face of the market. Out of nowhere, a man pushed me aside without so much as an excuse me. Before I could react, Lee rushed through the doors and ran up on that guy, grabbed him by the nape, and with his face inches from the rude guy’s said, “You see her, she’s my wife and you say excuse me to her. You do not push her, ¿oístes?” It was the safest I’d felt in years.
A few years ago, I was hanging out with a lover at a bar. He was trying to make things right. I had recently decided to end things. “My heart can’t handle it,” I said. Still, I thought we could be friends so I agreed to meet him. Later, we were dancing and flirting as people who are attracted to each other inevitably do, but I was still resisting.
I made my way to the bar for a drink when a stranger I’d never seen or met before leaned in and said, “You ready for him?”
Before a “what the fuck?” could leave my mouth, he turned to my lover and whispered something. My lover’s eyes shot wide open. His face curled into a rage I’d never seen. He pointed at me, “You see her, I love her. You understand that? I love her.” Then he grabbed me by the hand and led me away. We left together a little while later. He’d made me feel safe. I had to give him another chance.
I fought a lot as a kid. I fought because I was terrified. I was terrified of not being accepted. I was terrified of being thought of as a punk. I was terrified of not fitting in. I was terrified of everything and didn’t know how to release or handle it. What I did know was how to use my fists. I knew that my fists could get people to do what I wanted. I knew that my fists could get me acceptance. I knew that my fists would make people fear me.
Last week, my comadre asked me to facilitate a brief writing workshop during her birthday picnic. When I asked what she wanted me to do, she said, “Go with whatever’s been on your mind.” I thought of home. Home as something we long for, miss, try to recapture, remember, redeem…or not.
I wasn’t completely sold on using home as a theme until the morning of. I went to the farmers market just two blocks from my house and found green plums like the ones that grew on the tree in our backyard in Brooklyn. I put the plum to my nose and inhaled deeply. The smell sent my memory hurtling to climbing that tree when I was five and imagining a different world from the one I lived in. It’s in that tree that I started the journey toward being a writer. I thought of mom tending her garden, how in she was, hypnotized, her brow intent with concentration. I remember longing for her to be as gentle and tender with me, to give me as much of her time. This longing for her love is an old one.
I knew the workshop had to be about home. How we write about it. How we avoid it. How we long for it. How we reject it. How we try to forget. How it influences our work.
I started with the story Chris Abani told me in response to a question I posed to him for the March edition of the VONA/Voices newsletter.
Vanessa Mártir: In an essay on TruthDig.com titled “Abigail and My Becoming,” you write: “Ghosts leave their vestigial traces all over your work. Once they have decided to haunt you, that is. These ectoplasmic moments litter your work for years. They are both the veil and the revelation, the thing that leads you to the cusp of the transformational.” Can you trace the origins to The Secret History of Las Vegas to a specific ghost or story that haunted (or continues to haunt) you?
Chris Abani: When I was a child, maybe five or six, I was playing in an old orange orchard in Afikpo, Nigeria, with my sister and some other kids. We came across a man hanging from a tree. We ran to get grown ups and though no one would explain what had happened, in fact, my parents tried to convince us we hadn’t seen it, I gathered from whispers that it was a man who had betrayed his family in the war to save his own life. That body, hanging there in the middle of a summer quiet orchard alone, reeking of melancholy and an aloneness I can never find the words for, to be discovered by children; that body is the primordial ghost that haunts all my work. I know I can never solve the riddle of its humanity, but I try. That body holds the unspeakable name of God. This is law. This is fact. But that man’s final gift, his final redemption lies in the fact that he haunts my work and because of him, I pursue the ghosts of the nameless and try to give them a face, a meaning, a liberation.
The writing prompt: How was home unsafe for you? Write for ten minutes.
Pens rushed across the page. Some stood up and walked away to write in solitude. There were sighs and a few tears. When the ten minutes was up, the feedback was mostly, “that was hard.” We kept going but the question stayed present. Present like a boulder stuck in my trachea, somewhere between my throat and my solar plexus. That’s where it sat until a few days ago when I finally penned the image that has haunted me for so long.
I’m up in the plum tree watching mami below me in her garden. She is wearing her bata, the white one with blue flowers that is stained with sofrito and oil. She is on her knees, a small shovel in her hand, she is tilling the earth, pulling out weeds, marveling at what her work created, this garden. She is surrounded by color—the green of harvest, red and green tomatoes and peppers, purple eggplants, yellow sunflowers. She raises her face to the sun and inhales deep. There is a small smile on her lips. She does not look up at me. She looks down and keeps working.
The morning I finally wrote the scene, I woke with a line on loop in my head. “And some days I wake with a roar in my belly.”
I remember the longing. I write from that place. This is what haunts me, that devastating, unrelenting, unrequited longing for my mother’s love.
A former lover once told me, while he was leaning on me drunk and hungry, “I know why you take care of me…because no one took care of you.” It knocked the wind out of me. I pushed him away. He reached for me. “I need you to give me a minute,” I said. I remember feeling so exposed. “I see you,” he texted me the next day. He broke up with me a few weeks later. Via text, no less.
I think of the protagonists in my two novels. Both unmothered women. I’ve said before that I was running away from memoir in my fiction. I think running around is a better description.
I wrote the haunting scene in the park while my daughter read and wrote next to me. I imagined the scene in such detail. Relived it for the sake of writing—the smell of the soil, damp and mossy, my mother’s body bent over her plants, the bright green of the tomato and pepper plants, the tall sunflowers and their hairy stems. When I closed my journal, the tears came. Plump, heavy tears. No sobbing. No shivering lower lip. Quiet tears is all I had.
My daughter leaned her head on my shoulder. “What you thinkin’ about mom?”
“Tata.” That’s what my her grandchildren call my mother.
“I’ve been wanting to tell you something.”
I watch a huge yellow butterfly dance around the grass and weeds on the slope in front of us. It flitters from white flower to white flower. The grass will be cut tomorrow. The weeds weeded. Neither the flower nor the butterfly knows that.
“When tata told me to cover myself, I know she’s just trying to protect me.”
My mother hasn’t spoken to me since December. She doesn’t have a relationship with my daughter either. She never really has. The last time my daughter saw my mother, it’d been months since she’d seen her. She saw her in my aunt’s house where my aunt was taking care of her while I worked. Vasia, my developed nine years old who has her mother’s body and her father’s height (she’s longer and more gorgeous than I could ever be), was wearing a pair of yoga pants and a white t-shirt with Girl Power embroidered in glitter on the front. Mom took one look at my daughter and said, “You should be wearing a longer shirt.” She pulled Vasia’s shirt down to cover her booty that she gets from her mama. “And you can tell your mother I said that.”
Shame. She’s teaching my daughter shame. We make our girls so ashamed.
“But she did it to protect me,” Vasia said that day, like a seer, like the universe sent her to give me perspective, to remind me. “Remember I told you men look at me,” Vasia whispers. Her big eyes are wide and moist. She sighs. “It scares me, mom. I have bad dreams about it sometimes.”
Yesterday a man looked at my daughter a little too long. I wanted to pummel his eyes into his skull.
A recent study found that trauma can be carried through generations. The trauma is stitched into the helix of your DNA.
I wonder when my reactions to men will stop being dictated by my having been molested at six and my mom’s rape. I’m carrying all traumas from generations of women, their rage and their sorrow.
Memory flash: I am six. I am staring out into the yard. The dirty old man who has molested me, hypnotized a rat the size of a kitten. He walks up to it slowly and steps on its head. I hear a crunch. Then Valentín looks at me and licks his lips. I push away from the window and scurry into the bathroom.
Just a few days before, he has molested me for the last time. I was in the plum tree when he called me over. He offered turrón. Said he knew it was my favorite. I went. I didn’t know.
I couldn’t go out into the backyard for days, until mom asked, “Que te pasa que no has ido a la yarda?” She eyed me suspiciously. I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t want her to know. It was all my fault. I climbed through the window into the yard. My heart banged in my chest. I walked slowly past mom’s plants and grappled up the tree. Then I cried.
For two years mom toiled in that yard. She cleaned up after the neighbors who threw their trash out the windows. She harvested peppers, eggplant, squash, and tomatoes. She even had flowers like geraniums, and a spice garden where she grew peppermint, sage and cilantro.
I watched her turn a tomato over in her hand. She smiled at it. She’d been eyeing that plant for a while. It’s tomatoes were so green, their skin so smooth, not one blemish. She made plans with them—she would dice them with onion and cucumber, cilantro and comino. A bit of olive oil, fresh garlic and salt, and she’d serve it with dinner.
One afternoon, while she was cooking, she sent me to get her the tomatoes. “Los de esa planta,” she pointed. I didn’t need her to tell me which. I already knew. I’d watched her marvel at that plant so many times.
I saw it from a few feet away. Some of the tomatoes were on the ground, some still on the stalk. They were gnawed into, tiny rat teeth marks on the once so smooth, unblemished skin.
These were the same rats who’d eaten the frogs we brought home from Forest Park and made the mistake of leaving out in a fish tank overnight. Poor frogs had nowhere to hop off to.
After two years of this disappointment, mom abandoned her garden and brought her plants inside. At least there she could protect them.
Mom still has plants around the house, taking up more than half of her dinner table in the corner of the livingroom. There’s only room for two people to sit and eat at one time.
The backyard is overwrought with weeds and garbage. It’s been neglected for years.