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.

Matters of Consequence.

The following vignette was written back in 2013 as a college senior for a final project. The task was to reflect back on moments and individuals in our lives that had influenced and shaped who were were, at that time, as writers, thus creating a “Writer’s History.” “The Little Prince” remains one of my favorite books to this day, and it always reminds me to tend to my rose, or in other words, take care of what it is I love despite the troubles. This moment also remains one of my favorites, as it affirmed what I had known all along to be true: my love of words matters.

It’s a thin book, in paperback form. A boy with unruly blonde hair stands on what appears to be a huge rock or a tiny planet. He is dressed in a bow tie and a green, bell-bottomed suit as he stares off into the distance, his mouth an “o.” “The Little Prince,” the book is called, and it’s written by some person whose name I can’t pronounce. There are illustrations in it, and I wonder if this is a kid’s book. I’m thirteen, not four, I think. I thank my sister Alex for the Christmas gift and go to my room. As I hold the book I get the feeling that there’s more to it than meets the eye, however. I open it.

On the cover page, in black letters, I find an inscription written in my sister’s neat cursive.  It is a brief, yet meaningful message in which she promises the book will be important to me. I read the last two sentences over and over again: “May you forever continue to love books. There is no greater gift.” No one has ever inscribed a book to me before. And no one has ever acknowledged my undying love for literature in such a way, either. I realize that someone sees how much I love to read, and furthermore, they see potential in me. I feel something in my chest which I cannot quite place but I blink it away.

Stranger Stories PVD.

Last night was big for me. Life-changing, almost. I submitted a true story to Stranger Stories PVD back in December and was chosen, along with six others, to share my work at the Artists’ Exchange in Cranston. The theme was “Dinnertime,” and I went with a piece that I had posted on this blog back in 2013, titled “Figs.” I made edits and fleshed it out, trying to make it more story-like. I submitted without actually thinking it would be picked.

A big thanks to Jennifer, Stephanie, Cindy, Charmaine (and for the edits/feedback) & Jake for attending. Thanks to everyone else that encouraged me and checked-in. Your support means more to me than you’ll ever know. Thank you to Stranger Stories PVD for the opportunity and making me part of a community I didn’t know I desperately needed. Presenting “Figs:”

The spoonful of white rice is halfway to my mouth when I hear: “Exactamente de que se graduó usted?

Goddamn. Here we go. It’s been over a month since I graduated college and my father is once again asking questions.

“English. I have a degree in English.”

“So you went to school to learn…English?” he asks, a jar of plump, syruped figs in his hand, a fork in the other. I avoid his gaze and focus on the half-empty glass before him. Such an odd combination, brevas and cold milk.

No. Literatura.”

There’s a pause. “So you got a degree in books?”

I know where this is headed so I try to make a joke: “No me vio con un libro siempre en la mano?” Didn’t you always see a book in my hand? A brief silence and a slight arching of his eyebrow promise that I am not amusing.

“It’s just that when people ask me what you studied or what you do, I don’t know what to say.”

“Usually English majors become teachers…” my voice trails off. I watch as my mother rips off a leg of her fried chicharron and pops it into her mouth.

“Usually? But what about you?”

With a rolling of eyes, I shrug and turn my attention to my beans. The way he slams the jar on the dining room table startles me. His brown eyes are wide and he points the fork with a half-bitten fig towards his chest.

“You see, I’m an electrician.  When people ask what I do, I say ‘electricity.’ When you ask the head of a law firm, he says ‘law.’  He’s a lawyer. He has a profession. Entiende?

I want to say that yes, I understand, but I am afraid to speak because I feel the beginnings of a tremble in my chin. My dad has always had a way of getting under my skin and ever since I can remember our conversations have never been conversations but yelling matches.

“So tell me,” he says, trying to lower his voice. “What is it that you want to do?”

“There are lots of things she could do. Jackie, answer him. What do you like to do?” My mother’s hands are now clasped under her chin. She tries to keep her face calm, but I see a darting nervousness starting to brew. It’s easier to look past her eyes and up at her crimson-colored bangs.

Nada. I haven’t been able to find a job.”

Ah. Ya,” my dad replies. Oh. Okay.

I chew my food as my parents turn their attention to the rising costs at the local meat market. I now know he wasn’t trying to pick a fight. He just had a very valid question – what the heck do I do? It made sense to pursue a degree in English because reading and writing were what I loved to do. They were all I was good at. I wasn’t thinking about a career choice or the possibility of graduating at a time when the state’s unemployment rate was at an all-time high. I never thought that I would graduate college without a solid plan.

My father, his figs, and his booming voice make my mind travel to a thought which nearly breaks my heart: I have let him down. I think of him, all of seven-years-old, walking two hours to school by himself and hiding in doorways to stay dry from the downpours. I try to imagine his fear when he stepped onto US soil for the first time, thousands of miles from his warm home. The past 45 years of his life have been dedicated to back-breaking work. And for the last three years he has woken up at 6AM to drive me, without complaint, to the train station as I worked towards my undergraduate degree in Boston. I am ashamed to think that all of his hard work has been for nothing.

But then I think of my own accomplishments. I went from drinking 40s on a friend’s porch for two years to graduating from community college with highest honors. I was then accepted into colleges I never thought could be options for me. I am reminded of the times, during my first episode with major depression, when I would leave Statistical Psychology to cry in a bathroom stall. Although the pain was all-consuming, I would dry my tears and return to class, determined to finish senior year. I, too, made those 6AM trips for three years. I, alone, made the 8PM trips back, packed like a sardine against strangers, body and mind exhausted. And while things haven’t turned out as expected, my hard work cannot have been for nothing. I refuse to believe that our work hasn’t been for something.

“I know!” I say, interrupting their conversation. “I went to school to be una escritora.”

In the middle of dinner, on a chilly September evening, in the midst of my father’s impromptu interrogation and the angst of not being able to find a job, while sitting in my oldest and most comfortable sweatpants, the most fundamental truth of my existence hits me. I say it again, so that he knows. So that I know.

“I am going to be a writer.”

He studies my face, so similar to his own. Eso si. That’s more like it, he answers with a slow head nod as he closes the lid on the jar of figs.