Stamps.

I stamped 450 postcards yesterday and, halfway through, I remembered that I fancied myself a stamp collector for a few years as a kid. I used to get these finely bound, glossy magazines in the mail with cool stamps and stamp collector paraphernalia, and I would read them from front to back, circling the ones I really wanted. I’d also do calculations: this amount of stamps will cost this amount of $. If I actually purchased anything it was minimal, since I didn’t have a penny to my name at the age of 8. Hell, I still don’t.

I guess the concept of having the money – the luxury, really – to splurge on stupid shit like NASA-themed stamps and stamp albums (no disrespect to stamp aficionados, truly) was appealing to me. It seemed like a fancy hobby to have.  I also liked the idea of borrowing the family’s best pen (you know which one I’m talking about, every household has one), writing the best love note known to man, and shipping it off with the swift lick of a tongue on the back of a stamp (remember when stamps didn’t have adhesive? The horror!). It’s just funny because up until yesterday, I hadn’t given a single thought to my stamp-collecting days on East Street in Pawtucket.

Being a kid was cool as shit. You pick up early that the world can be a crummy place, but you’re typically too lost in your own imagination or toys to really let it hurt. Not every kids’ experience is like this, sadly, but for the most part, we are gifted the ability to sit with innocence for some time, however brief. Good ol’ naivete spares you for a little bit. You don’t have much of a concept on money, so you think your parents can afford to buy a whole book of stamps and also keep the electricity on. You don’t have a concept of time, so you aren’t aware that some people in your life won’t be around forever. You cannot comprehend, just yet, that you won’t be around forever, either. You have no concept of ignorance and hatred, so you don’t understand that you might be viewed as less than, stupid, or as nothing because of how you look, your gender, or your zip code. You aren’t familiar with heartbreak, so you don’t know better than to memorize every inch of the face of the round-eyed boy that sits next to you in class.

I could go on forever. I’m feeling melancholy, I suppose, and I just want my leopard overalls, jelly chanclas and gafas back, along with a stamp magazine. Maybe this time I would buy myself a pretty stamp as a reminder – a token – of a better time.

Lenny.

Dear Lenny –

I love you so very much, my Lenny bear! I am so sorry that you feel like the world doesn’t love you – but I do. You are an amazing little guy, with so much to offer this world. You have the kindest heart and the best smile. You also give the best hugs when people need them the most. I wish you could be a kid forever, so we could keep you safe forever. I hope the world you grow into loves you just as much as I do. I promise to always defend you.

<3,

Jax

Lenny is my best friend Cindy’s son. In explaining the protests, she had to have the heartbreaking conversation with him that he is viewed differently – negatively – because of the color of his skin. He asked her: why doesn’t the world love me or my daddy? At just five years old, he is starting to learn that his place in the world isn’t as safe as he once thought.

Imagine having to have that conversation with your son. Imagine saying that to a child who is pure light, goodness, and joy. Imagine knowing that once he becomes a teenager, growing tall and strong, he will begin to be perceived as a threat by the world outside the safety of his home. Imagine knowing that your son has to fight ten times as hard as everyone else to prove he belongs, is intelligent, isn’t a threat, and deserves to wake to see another day.

It’s not my job to tell you what to do or think or which side to stand on. I, myself, have lots of learning (and unlearning) to do, and I have begun that process. They’re uncomfortable conversations and introspections to have. But I do know that race isn’t a joke, that skin color affords some of us certain privileges, that police brutality is never warranted, and that our commander in chief is a race-baiter, among other things. I also know what’s right and what’s wrong. It is never right to watch a man be suffocated to death over $20. It is not okay for 15-year-old boys to be murdered for running away from the cops or because someone thinks they don’t belong in a particular neighborhood. It is also not right to have watched it happen for so long or to let it happen ever again. There are so many things that are just not okay. This calls for a systemic overhaul (and not just in law enforcement) and that can only happen if we each do our own work and come together as a collective to insist that BLACK LIVES MATTER.

P.S. Anyone interested in doing some reading, I recommend Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It’s put a lot of things into perspective for me. It’s a text everyone can read, regardless of race.

Fit.

We’ll do anything to make ourselves fit – into jeans and spaces and roles and relationships even when it is obvious that we do not fit, belong, or are wanted there. Shit, sometimes we don’t even wanna be there. Yet, we are willing to deal with and do things that go against what we stand for or believe in. We bend and accommodate even when it’s killing us on the inside. We try again and again, becoming flustered and crying into our so-over-it pillows. We face rejection and we internalize it, blame ourselves. “I am this, this, or that.” When we’re being especially spiteful we start with the “I am not this, this, or that enough.” It’s painful, ain’t it?

One night, when getting over my last heartbreak – and it took me what felt eternities – I began berating myself once again, remembering all the ways in which I had messed up, cheated myself out of happiness, and the time lost hurting. Eventually, I shrugged and thought: All I did was try to love him. I can still remember that moment crisply, precisely. A calm came over me, and I knew, I just fucking knew, that I would never be upset over that shit again. I had loved someone wholeheartedly, selflessly, and without agenda. Had my love/attitude/expectations been perfect? No. But I had attempted to give someone all of me – with its chipped nail polish and quick comebacks and collection of books & insecurities – unconditionally and until I took my last breath. It was out of my control what they did with it. It was not up to me to decide what they did with that gift. In that moment, I found that idea beautiful, more beautiful than any other thought I had ever had. I could rest easy because all I ever did was try to be good to someone.

So, if you’re going through it (and I know some of you are) take comfort in that, soon enough, your golden little heart will heal. You might always feel a sting of hurt, or even of love for that person, but your idea of love just isn’t their idea of love. You just didn’t fit into their bigger picture. And that’s okay. It’s beautiful and wholesome and amazing that you tried.

<3,

Jax

Olla tomica.

My parents use la olla atómica for everything. Lentils, meats, potatoes, chickpeas, the kernels for mazamorra. Everything goes into the pressure cooker. My dad will inevitably ask, “cuanto tiempo ha estao pitando?” and my mom will say that it only just started whistling and to give it a few minutes. When I was younger, I would tip-toe past it because I thought that if I was too heavy-footed, it would explode. To this day, its screech eeeeeeeeeee! makes my heart skip a few beats.

One day, back on Sylvian Street, a BOOM! rang throughout the apartment. I met my mother in the tiny kitchen, and found her wide-eyed, looking up at the ceiling. I found a blob of beans clinging for its life and water dripping down the cabinet drawers and puddling at our feet. I looked at my mother, she looked back at me, and I know we were both thinking the same thing: What the fuck are we going to do with this mess?

Am I the olla? The frijoles? Or am I the mother and daughter duo, coming to the realization that this shit is messy and won’t be easy to clean up? I’m not sure. But when I was thinking of a way to explain how I sometimes feel lately, that particular memory came to mind. It’s a feeling that is overwhelming, unnerving, and quite frankly, unnatural. I feel it in my brain and I feel it throughout my body. It keeps me up at night. It’s unlike anything I have experienced before.

I’ve been advised to calm down. Relax. Stop overthinking. Obviously, I know that being optimistic is better than being anxious. Thinking of worst-case-scenario does nothing for my mental health. We will get through this, healthy and okay. But if I’m being honest, all I hear is eeeeeeeeeee!

Amén.

I was walking out of Mi Ranchito on Westminster when I noticed a man in a black jacket peering into the car window of two young men. The driver of the car leaned into his car and extended his hand towards the man, his fist full of coins.

I remembered what the woman sitting next to me in the restaurant had said to her son: she’d given a homeless man nachos and had been charged $5 for it on her bill. But weren’t they free, her son asked. I wondered if this was the man they had been talking about. I slowly crossed the street, watching him. He lingered by the car, talking to the guys. He appeared to be Central or South American.

I made it to my car just as the car drove off. I grabbed a few dollars out of my wallet and rolled down my window, waiting for him to approach. I waved him down while starting my car.

“Hola,” I said, handing him the folded bills. I expected the interaction to be brief, as they typically are, but he stayed, looking at the money in his hand.

“Apenas queria para un cafecito.” I only needed enough for a coffee. 

“Ojala que si le alcance.” I do hope that’s enough, I said.

Well, with what you gave me, I’ll have enough for another one tomorrow, he said. I smiled and really needed to be on my way. He kept talking, mostly mumbling so I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Up close, his eyes were bloodshot and teeth small and separated.

“Nos vemos,” I said, grabbing my gear shift. See you later.

“Amén,” he said, so loudly and clearly that it startled me. He looked me right in the eyes and I knew that he meant it. If that amén meant that “yes, young lady I will see you again” or if it meant “thank you” or if he was blessing me or if it meant something entirely different, of that I am not sure. All I know is that he believed in the power and divine meaning behind the word. I smiled, unsure of what to say.

His eyes quickly scanned my car. “Usted tiene una vida muy buena.” You have a very good life. It wasn’t said spitefully, sarcastically, or with jealousy. It was an observation. It was also a truth. I do, I really do have a good life.

I wished him well and lazily drove the two whole fucking minutes back to work. If you know me at all, you know I cried all the way there. And I am not even sure why.

I’m also not sure why I felt compelled to write about this moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about it since yesterday. I don’t want to exploit this man’s experiences and current circumstance (which I don’t know) to make it about me and what I learned about myself or the world or gratitude for the things and luxuries we have, blah blah.

I just know that a pretty standard transaction, which I’ve done many times before, has left me feeling like it was anything but.

 

Pain.

We all have pain that we carry. Not the what-the-fuck-I-stubbed-my-toe-on-the-couch kind of pain, but the I-need-to-remind-myself-to-breathe kind of pain. Some of us tuck it into the soles of our shoes. Some of us fold it into tiny squares and pocket them. Sometimes it’s too much and we wear it as if it were our skin, all-encompassing and visible. There are a million reasons why we might feel pain. The loss of a spouse after 30 years of being together. The loss of a parent or child. Childhood trauma or neglect. Seeing the love of your life moving on without you. Sexual assault. The squandering of a good opportunity. Never being able to return to your homeland. Rejection from your community when you don’t fit neatly into a pre-determined mold. The list is innumerable.

We all deal with it differently, too. Some of us try to drink, exercise, work, fuck, laugh, hide the pain away. But it sometimes manages to bubble up, resurface when we least expect it. After one too many drinks. During a night of honest conversation with friends. As you’re halfway through a run. When you look around a crowded room and realize you’ve never felt lonelier. When you turn off the lights at night and feel the immediate stinging in your eye. When you meet someone with the same name as the person you once loved. When your friends have to constantly remind you of how amazing you are.

Today, I feel it deeply. Today’s pain manifested itself with a breakdown in the Barnes & Noble parking lot and a walk through the rain-sodden park in my nicest leather chanclas because it’s what made the most sense in the moment. Writing it away simply won’t do. There isn’t a single person that can convince me that we do not have past and future lives, for I feel their pain as well. This pain is multi-dimensional, cross-generational, and knows no bounds. It’s like being trapped in a spider’s web.

To have to feel this way is sad. But it’s also part of the healing process. It’s part of being human and the experience. I have been here before, it ain’t no thing. So if you see me and it doesn’t seem like me, know that I am hurting. Even if I look happy, know that I am still hurting cause that shit never goes away, not for me and not for you. Tell me I’m wrong. It’s just stored away, most likely in the tangles of my curls.

One of my favorite people summed it up best: “just gotta live, live right through it.”

She Remembers, Side B.

A few weeks ago, I shared side A of an assignment for a creative writing class I am taking. The task was to write 20 memories revolving around a person, place, or event and submit 10 to be shared with the class. They could be entirely fictional or we could use our own experiences as inspiration. Since my childhood was so meaningful to me, I went with the place that was my second home. I don’t even have to close my eyes to remember it and I often wonder what would happen if I walked up the front steps and let myself in. Below is Side B, the memories we did not present to class, but which are as equally important to me:

She remembers reaching for the refrigerator door. Her eyes quickly find the pitcher of Kool-Aid, always in the same place next to the jug of whole milk. The handle is sticky in her hand. In the other hand, she holds a Styrofoam cup.

She remembers sticking her nose into her Mamita’s body powder and inhaling deeply. It tickles. She hears footsteps approaching and quickly closes the lid on the jar. Her nose wiggles, and a sneeze threatens to give her away.

She remembers her uncle Pedro’s small and cluttered bedroom. Old newspapers crinkle underneath her sneakers. Hundreds of books – arithmetic, Latin-American history, accounting – line the wall. The air is still.

She remembers flicking the hanging wire basket on her way to the bathroom, heavy with plastic apples and bananas. As it spins in the air, years of dust unsettle from the fruit and slowly fall to the carpeted floor.

She remembers the salsa music blaring from the stereo speakers. She watches the ease with which her uncle Luis glides his feet to the music. He seamlessly guides his dance partner with a steady hand on her back.

She remembers the blue tin of Royal Dansk butter cookies sitting atop the refrigerator. She can reach them now by standing on the tips of her toes. She passes them out: a rectangular cookie for Nancy, a round one for Marlon, and a pretzel-shaped one for Carla.

She remembers Tito pretending to spy on her through the space underneath the bathroom door. “I see you,” he sings. She stands by the sink, shrieking in fright and unwilling to move. Nancy laughs so much she pees her overalls.

She remembers the concrete fence around the yard which doubles as a balance beam. “I could be in the Olympics,” she exclaims. Mid-twirl, she loses her footing. “Oof,” she cries on her way down, as she scrapes her skin from knee to ankle.

She remembers the incessant sound of the AOL dial-up. “Necesito el teléfono,” her grandmother yells out, the receiver far from her ear.

She remembers sitting on the carpeted kitchen floor. The carpet feels coarse underneath her palms. Quiet and unnoticed, she watches as her sister Alex cries.

She remembers the sound of the KitKat bar as she snaps it in half. She licks the melted chocolate from her thumbs.

 

Margarita.

Last week, during a Community Lunch at RIC, I was asked to work on a gratitude activity. The task was to express gratitude towards someone who had been good to us, so I chose an angel walking on earth – my mother. I wrote:

Margarita: I am thankful that you gave me life and have saved my life. I am thankful for your thoughtfulness, dedication, sense of humor, selflessness, kind heart, positivity, encouragement, acceptance, nurturing. And for making life sweet.

I kept it short, but halfway through I was holding back snot and tears. It felt nice to get it out, to verbalize just how important she is to me. I don’t want time to continue to pass without honoring all of her amazingness. When others have broken my heart she has skillfully stitched it back up like a surgeon. When I gave up on myself she refused to, picking me up on her shoulders like Jesus and his cross. No one is more important than my Maggie.

It’s her birthday, so call her up. Sing her a tune and make her laugh. She deserves it.

Friend.

Back in December I ranted about my inability to move forward with my writing and my desire/hesitation to apply to RIC’s Creative Writing Certificate program. Update, my babies: I applied and was accepted! I was dropping off my mom at home and on my way to dinner with my pumpkin patch Cindy when I received the email from the Graduate Director notifying me of my acceptance. “MA, I GOT INTO THE PROGRAM!” I yelled through my window and sped off. I clutched my crystal rings and thanked my lucky stars.

Since then, cynical and ruthless Jax has had a bit to say, like: “the program isn’t that hard to get into,” “there probably weren’t a lot of applicants so they accepted you by default,” and “you are a shitty writer who can’t compete with the big dogs.” But my excitement and yearning for a transformation and the realization that I am moving forward – and never again back – silences such needless thoughts. The encouragement of my family and friends has also been amazing; having people in your corner makes you less afraid.

Shit feels like it’s going right. Not just right, but upwards and at the speed of light. I am making amends with my body by treating it better and going to the gym as often as possible and making healthier diet decisions. I am taking a creative writing class that has forced me to be creative and analytical once again. I am making an effort to travel more and can’t wait until my next trip in May. My friends and I are branching out and trying things we were once ashamed to admit we liked. Two weeks ago I was at the State House in support of the RI Promise being expanded to RIC and two days later attended a Women’s Summit. Next weekend I will be attending a Latinx conference. Not all is perfect; life never is. But growth is happening, things are busy.

I attribute this change in attitude to my experience with Stranger Stories PVD and my recent trip to Orlando. Sharing my story aloud validated that people like what I have to say. My cousin Tito reminded me that while I have made a lot of progress and growth, there is still a lot more to be accomplished, and that the search for happiness and purpose never ends. But more than that, I feel like a different person. I have let go of some baggage and just want to laugh and travel and learn. It’s as simple as that. I’m tired of the gray, tired of the stagnation, tired of limiting Jax to what she knows or is comfortable with. I feel so selfish and, for the first time in a long time, purposeful. I like myself, and it’s so fucking sad to think that at one point I didn’t. I ain’t ever felt bettah.

“and i said to my body. softly. ‘i want to be your friend.’ it took a long breath. and replied, ‘i have been waiting my whole life for this.'” – Nayyirah Waheed

She Remembers.

I am taking a creative writing class and our first assignment was to write twenty memories revolving around a single place, person, or event, all beginning with “She remembers.” We then had to cut them out, choose ten of the memories, and rearrange them to our choosing. They could be fictitious or influenced by real memories, and no interpretation or introspection was allowed. Strictly memories. Below is what I submitted:

She remembers knocking three times on the window. She watches as her Mamita slowly makes her way to the door, wearing her favorite purple capri pants, striped shirt, and sweater vest. Her short, white hair is perfectly combed. She smiles when she finally recognizes who it is.

She remembers the smell of pernil, burnt nearly to a crisp. Her aunt Olga unveils the BBQ chicken wings and arroz con gandules. The oven door opens and the smell of turkey fills the kitchen. “Yummy,” she can’t help but say.

She remembers the purple rosary that hangs from her Mamita’s bedpost. The glass beads catch the rays coming in through the single window and splatter reflections of light across the walls. Christ’s body twists in agony.

She remembers sticking her nose into her Mamita’s body powder and inhaling deeply. It tickles. She hears footsteps approaching and quickly closes the lid on the jar. Her nose wiggles, and a sneeze threatens to give her away.

She remembers opening a cabinet drawer; its heaviness takes her by surprise and she nearly drops it. She rummages through old photographs, inkless pens, batteries, half-melted candles. She pockets the pennies and nickels that have been left behind.

She remembers how the wine sloshes as she places the heavy jug of Carlo Rossi to her lips. It’s bitter and she pulls away, unable to hide her dismay. Droplets of deep red wine begin to spread on her t-shirt.

She remembers zooming through the kitchen and down the hallway during games of tag. “Keep that door closed!” and “Stop running!” ring out to no avail. Her untied shoelaces loudly tic tic tic against the linoleum floor.

She remembers opening the china door. “Shhh,” Nancy whispers. She gingerly pulls out the crisp dollar bill. MOTHER THERESA is written in black marker on the back. They look at each other for a moment and then back at the dollar, but neither speaks.

She remembers nestling into the corner of her favorite couch. She traces the outline of a flower with her finger. The velour lightens or darkens depending on the direction she swipes it in. Her mother lays a wool ruana over her and tucks in the edges around her body.

She remembers locking eyes with the portrait of John Paul II hung in the living room. They have a staring contest, one which the Pope wins yet again. Her eyes explore his face and red robe, and finally land on his wrinkled hands.