Violence you cannot unwear
A few years ago I was out with a lover at a bar when a woman playing pool alongside us gave me crazy shade for no apparent reason. She was straight up disrespectful. “Where did you learn how to play?” She was all rolling eyes and pursed lips and swiveling neck. “Listen, let me tell you the rules,” she put her hand on her hip and proceeded to try to school me. She was mid-sentence when I turned and walked away. She followed me, her voice getting louder and more irate with each step. I turned. “Yo! Do. Not. Follow. Me.” She stopped dead in her tracks. I gave her that ill Brooklyn glare that I keep hidden in my back pocket for moments just like this. Then I turned and walked to where my lover was sitting. Laughing, he said, “Don’t smack her, alright.”
I sneered at him. “I’m not gonna hit her. Why would I do that?”
“I know you won’t…but I know that you could.”
I couldn’t answer. He was right.
When you’ve seen the kind of violence I’ve seen, when you’ve been the kind of violent I’ve been—scraped knuckles, yanked hair, putting people in headlocks until they yell mercy—you walk different, you move different, you wear that shit. I did not then nor do I now take pleasure in that reality. Trust me, I would rather have not had such a violent upbringing, but that’s just not my life. My mother would yank my hair so hard, my neck hurt for days. I know now that was whiplash. I learned to use my fists early on. That was how you survived in my house and in my hood. Writing about this, my truth, is not a glorification of violent. I write what happened and how I experienced it.
By the time I was five, I already knew something was wrong with my mother. I knew she wanted to kill me. And I knew it was my fault.
I was so little I had to climb onto the toilet seat to look at my reflection in the mirror. The blue plastic shower curtain framed my body. I pulled up my flimsy white t-shirt and stared at my torso. The left side of my rib cage was dotted with red splotches, where Mom had pushed the knife in. Not hard enough to break skin but hard enough so I that it hurt. Hard enough to terrify me and break capillaries. Hard enough that I thought she was going to kill me.
I don’t remember what caused Mom to flip out that day. Maybe I walked in front of the TV while she was watching one of her novellas that played on Channel 41 and 47. The ones she watched every night, sin falla.
Maybe I’d broken a glass, tripped and dropped some food on the floor. I’ve always been clumsy, and Mom couldn’t stand it. I got beat so many times for it. I fell. Scraped a knee. A hole in a pair of pants. “Es que tu cree que yo soy rica.” Slap.
Or maybe it was my mere presence that set her off. I was so often the target of Mom’s rages.
Mom was violent. She used her hands or a belt. A coffee mug with hot coffee hurled straight at my head. (Thank God I’ve always had good duck and weave skills.) An extension cord a few times. But that day Mom took her anger somewhere else.
I don’t remember where she got the knife. Or how. But I remember clearly how sharp it was.
It was a small knife. Like a paring knife Millie used to peel my apples. An orange peeled into a long curled string that I carried around until it was hard and cracked. But this knife was pointy. I felt that point push into my skin.
I didn’t dare look at Mom and I didn’t dare cover my ears. I heard her tell Millie, beg her, “Atréveme que yo mató a esta desgracia’.” That’s when she first poked me. I bit down on my tongue. I couldn’t yell. Couldn’t say anything. That would make it worse. I pushed myself into the couch. The rips in the plastic pinched my arms and scratched my back. Dug into my thighs.
No te muevas que te mata. I was so scared Mom would plunge that knife into me. Over and over.
She kept poking and daring Millie. Begging her.
I stared at the oil stained walls of our living room. The pictures on the walls. Pictures of my family. Us kids—me, my sister and my brother. My parents—Mom and Millie. I stared at Mom’s ceramic figurines on the wall unit. The capias from sweet sixteens and baby showers. Her porcelain Honduran flag. I looked at Millie. Pled with my eyes. Begged her to save me. My Millie who I met when I was two. Who took me in as her daughter, her negra. Millie, the butch who taught me love.
“Dejala. ¿No vez lo que le estas haciendo a la nena?”
Mom just kept begging her. “Atréveme. Atréveme.”
“Mommy, please.” Mom’s face was twisted. Wild. Her lips were pulled back over her teeth. She looked like the demons I’d seen in so many movies that kept me up so many nights; peering through the length of our railroad style apartment, I fought sleep until I saw daylight break into the kitchen window. Only then would I let my eyes close. I thought the demons only came out at night.
“İCállate!” she yelled and poked me again.
When I told my mother years later that she’d held a knife to me when I was five, she told me I was crazy, that I was making it up. She was not capaz of doing such a thing. I don’t think she’s in denial. In her mind she never did this. This was her first psychotic break that I can remember. It wasn’t the last.
Mom didn’t kill me that day, obviously, but she spent much of my life trying to break me. Tame me. And that day I learned that not even Millie could protect me from my mother. No one could.
Third and fourth grade were probably my most violent years in elementary school. That was also around the time me and Mel, my nemesis from the block, were fighting constantly. I’m not sure what made me so violent. I can only guess that the violence I saw around me and that was inflicted on me taught me that fists were the only way. I can look back now on that time and see that all the trauma I endured most certainly played a part.
I was molested for the first time when I was six by the old man who lived next door. I didn’t tell anyone. I blamed myself and punished myself for years after. I mutilated my body when I was just six years old. I know now that was when silence laid anchor in my life.
I was molested again maybe a year later in Long Island at my uncle’s house. A teenage boy was playing catch with us kids—a bunch of my cousins and my sister. We were running around the house and the backyard, laughing and screaming, avoiding the adults inside who were playing dominoes and drinking and doing their own laughing and screaming. It was already dark out.
I’ve never written about this one. Maybe because it wasn’t as invasive or, I don’t know, maybe because I blamed myself or maybe because I liked it. Shit, did I? I remember thinking how cute he was and wishing I was old enough for him. I was running up the front stairs when he did it. He grabbed me and picked me up, his hands were between my legs. He squirmed his hands deeper. I had jeans on but if I hadn’t, he might have penetrated me. I wiggled away and looked at him, surprised. Maybe I was even smiling, I don’t remember. He stared back, smiling that I-know-you-like-that smile. I ran away so fast and avoided him for the rest of the game, running with my sister or a cousin to keep him from targeting me. Later, my sister, who was all of a year and a half older, said he’d been flirting with her. We were in the van on our way back to Brooklyn. I put my hands in prayer position and pushed them between my legs. I prayed to forget, to make the feeling go away. It was a sick feeling, an unsafe feeling, an oh-shit-not-again feeling.
I haven’t written about that violation for all this time. I was seven then. I’m now two months shy of 39.
I’ve heard it so many times: you’re intimidating; you look like you could snuff somebody.
My dad died in October of my 3rd grade year. It was 31 years ago around this time that I saw him.
My dad, Raul, was living with his sister, my Tia Luisa, in Isabela, Puerto Rico, in the old wooden house his parents left them. It had a big paved front yard and a porch and it still had the second floor that you got to by going around back past the chicken coop. Papi’s room smelled of dead flowers, medicine and shit. And though that smell sat in my throat and made me want to hurl, all I wanted to do was sit next to him and watch him. His once porcelain white skin was yellow, like his jaundiced eyes. He was always bare-chested so the colostomy bag on his stomach was exposed. I counted his protruding ribs and watched the bag with gross fascination as it filled with urine and shit. And while I watched it, he watched me. My daddy who I wanted to love me so bad.
The last time we’d seen him, he’d come to visit us in April, just six months before. He looked strong and healthy. His hair was thick, his shoulders broad. My sister Dee and I danced and sang Menudo songs to him in our living room. He sat on the plastic covered red couch while Dee and I did the dance moves to Subete a mi Moto and Coqui. We climbed onto papi’s lap and told him stories about school and the books we were reading and how we wanted to go visit him in Puerto Rico. I told him I was going to be a lawyer. Dee was still deciding between becoming a writer or the first female president of the United States. I was just seven but I could see the way Papi watched Dee, who was the spitting image of him with her blonde hair and light brown eyes. When papi put me on his shoulders to walk to the corner store, I announced it to the block, my left hand my megaphone, “Look, this is my papi.”
The next time we saw him, he was a skeleton lying on a twin bed in that house in Isabella.
We spent ten days with him. One day I entered the room to check on him. Really, I just wanted to share space with him. I wanted to hear his raspy breathing. I wanted to touch his hand. He opened his eyes and smiled.
“Habre esa gabeta,” he said, pointing a bony finger at the bottom drawer of the wooden dresser that was parallel to his bed. I heaved the drawer open. “Sácame esa funda.” I pulled out the black garbage bag that was on top of the neatly folded clothes and brought it over to him.
I pulled out two crocheted dolls. They were identical except that they were different shades of pink. Both had glued on wiggly wiggle eyes, brown bangs and crocheted ringlets that poked out of large crocheted bonnets. “Pick one,” he said. My eyes widened. I couldn’t believe I was getting the first pick. For so long I believed daddy loved Dee more than me.
I ran out to give Dee her doll. Minutes later I went back into Papi’s room crying. Dee had been playing with her doll when an eye fell off. She ran to Mom crying, saying I’d given her the doll with one eye. Mom snatched my doll out of my hand without asking for my side of the story and gave me the now one-eyed doll.
Papi wiped my tears. He said, “Pero, look, she’s beautiful. Every doll has two eyes. This one has one so that makes her special, like you. ” He pinched my cheek softly and ran his hand through my hair until I smiled.
My father died two months later, just nine days after my eighth birthday. No one held me and told me that I would be okay. In my young mind, with him gone I lost any chance of being saved from my mom’s abuse. I reeled out of control after that.
When I came back, I was really sad one day in school. I was moping around the schoolyard during lunch when Marlene came over. Marlene was the bully who along with her gang made third grade hell. “You sad about your dad?” I nodded and let a tear slip down my nose. “Nobody cares.” She sneered. “Get over it already.” I chased her around the schoolyard and swang hard. My fist landed on her back. She fell against the gate. I walked away without checking to see the damage I’d done.
I was not taught to turn the other cheek.
One time, when I was eleven, Millie, the self-proclaimed butch who raised me, walked out of our apartment to find Caroline dragging me across the hallway floor by my long hair. Caroline was my frenemy from the block. A little black girl who was all sinewy frame and big white teeth, we got along for the most part, but when we didn’t, it was hard fists and scratching and biting. My mother had put me in Jehovah’s Witness bible studies classes a few months before and I was trying to change my I’ll-punch-you-in-the-face ways. Caroline wasn’t cooperating. That day I don’t even know what happened, one minute we were playing dolls on the stairs and the next she’d grabbed me by my hair and dragged me. The old V would have clawed at her, grabbed her afro puffs and yanked. The old V would have defended herself. The new V was screaming, “Let me go. I don’t wanna fight you.” That’s what Millie walked into.
Caroline let go as soon as she saw Millie. Her eyes were wide and wet with fear. Everybody was scared of Millie except me. I jumped to my feet.
Millie swallowed her lips and said, in that low, between gritted teeth you-better-do-what-the-fuck-I-tell-you voice, “Hit her back.”
I shook my head and looked down at my pink Kangaroo sneakers.
“Hit her back,” she said again.
I looked at Millie. Beads of sweat had sprouted above her lip and she had had this what-did-you-just-say-to-me incredulous look on her face. “I can’t, Millie. I’m Jehovah’s Witness.”
She didn’t say anything. She just turned and walked away, but before she did, she gave me the illest you’re-a-pendeja side eye that told me it wasn’t over. I’d hear about it later. If Millie hated anything, it was a punk. I’d seen Millie go toe to toe with men bigger and badder than her. She never backed down. She’d take out the switchblade she carried in her right back pocket and screamed, “Ven, vamos a ver quien tiene mas cojones.”
When Millie slammed the door behind her, Caroline ran out of the building. I sat on the stairs and didn’t go into the apartment until I heard Millie’s footsteps travel through the length of our railroad style apartment into the room she shared with mom.
Months later, we were in her green van, the one she glued a teardrop window to so she could get rid of the commercial license plate. We were on our way to Rockaway Beach and were packed in, cousins and tias and friends crammed in with tons of food—meat that had been seasoned the night before with sofrito and comino for barbecuing on the beach, a huge caldero of arroz con gandules, bags of chips and cheese doodles and nachos, a huge cooler filled with blocks of ice and soda cans. Millie started arguing with a man driving the station wagon next to us. He was apparently also on his way to a family outing. I leaned over to look into the car and saw a little girl about my age making faces at Millie. “Tell her papi,” she yelled. “Don’t scream at my papi.” I leaned in closer, “What she said? You better shut up before I punch you in the face.”
Millie glared at me. There was that ill you’re-a-pendeja side eye again. “Didn’t you say you were Jehovah’s Witness? You not gonna do nothin.” She pushed me off her shoulder and sped up, cutting the man off abruptly. I stayed away from her for the rest of the day.
It took me years to redeem myself. Five years to be exact.
I was already in my junior year of boarding school by then and was home for the Christmas break. My first love and I had a special arrangement (way too mature for our age but it’s what our lives required): we could see whoever we wanted while I was away at school but when I was home, he was mine. As proof, he showed me letters from the distraught girls he broke up with for me. They hated me. Blamed me for taking their man. One girl couldn’t leave well enough alone.
She sent me messages through mutual friends. “Imma fuck her up when I see her.” She challenged me to a fight, “Tell her to meet me if she dares.” I didn’t go. I wasn’t then nor am I now stupid enough to step into enemy territory. I know “hood rules” and I have common sense.
It was the day before I returned to Massachusetts for school. I was outside our building on Palmetto Street saying goodbye to my mom’s cousin who had come by for a visit. It was the first time I’d met her actually. Millie was sitting on our front steps. It was sunny and unseasonably warm that day.
When I turned to cross the street, I saw the group coming up the block. I knew what was about to go down. I made eye contact with Millie, looked down the block and back at her. She followed my eyes and stood up. I started walking down the block. Millie was close behind.
I didn’t talk to the female. I just swung my fist hard and quick, and the fight was on. I heard Millie and my mom yelling while I pummeled the girl.
Millie: “Con puños, Vanessa, con puños.”
Mom: “Quitasela que la va matar.”
The girl left bloodied and embarrassed. She never messed with me again.
Millie spoke about that fight for months after. Her eyes lit up and she glowed with pride every time. “Tu tenías que ver como Vanessa la puso…”
When you’ve experienced violence like this, you cannot unwear it. It becomes a part of who you are and how you navigate the world. Yes, it was hard, but witnessing & experiencing violence at such an early age taught me a fearlessness that’s come in handy in so many situations, like when my partner dared to put his hands on me, & recently when an old man disrespected my ten year old daughter in a lewd, perverted way. That fool tried to stare me down. I laughed in his face. No, I’m not applauding violence. I am saying, however, that if need be, especially when defending the people that I love, primarily my daughter, I ain’t scared & I won’t hesitate. Yes these fists now have words but when words fail…
This isn’t theory. This is real life.
I still have that doll my father gave me on his death bed. It’s sitting across from me while I write. It’s filthy and lost its one eye a long time ago. I’ve never washed her and she’s always been prominently positioned in every apartment and room I’ve lived in—boarding school, college, the various apartments I’ve had over the years. She’s all I have left of my dad.
My brother’s death in June last year broke me in ways that will never come together again. What surprised me most about the grief was the rage that it stirred. A rage that was hot, it was old and it terrified me. The more I write about violence and dig into the history of it in my life, the more that rage makes sense. The more I can understand and even sympathize with that rage. The more it seems a natural reaction to a devastating loss that brought up griefs I had never dealt with.
You cannot unwear the violence but you can talk to it, see its face, its humanity, and maybe even find forgiveness…