I will bite my tongue
even when my heart’s aflame.
Silence is safer.
“They believe women,”
The man claims, skims the story.
I wish he’d been there.
The question sits there:
How many unheard voices
live between these lines?
I will bite my tongue
even when my heart’s aflame.
Silence is safer.
“They believe women,”
The man claims, skims the story.
I wish he’d been there.
The question sits there:
How many unheard voices
live between these lines?
I’m on the second day of the OnBeing Gathering, and I am already in awe of the number of connections, spiritual fulfillment, and pure grace I have gained here. Every time someone has joined me at a meal or started a conversation, I have been so grateful to be pushed outside of my introvert zone and made some truly fantastic connections.
One of the benefits of this has been the space to refocus and start clarifying my own purpose and desires. I’m beginning to realize, very quickly, that I really love writing— poetry, prose, short, long– I want to write more.
So, beyond giving up coffee, I’m going to write a poem a day for the rest of Lent. I have some making up to do, but I’m excited to push myself in this way. It won’t be perfect, I know many of them will be bad, but I know I need to start rehabilitating and rebuilding the muscle.
Anyway, here’s the first.
When the last, best thing
spills forth from
your lips, what will be
the image that you paint?
The story that you tell?
You have lived a life on
the cusp for years now,
so carefully dipping
that funny toe of yours
right the buoy marked, “SAFE.”
You have reached around
that barrier trying to
find some sign saying to “GO.”
Can you see beyond yourself?
Can you find the place
in you that is pure
movement? That bubbling
red blood in your gut
that fuels the body
to movement, to action?
Can you ride that river
to the sea that called
your ancestors, as it
once did to you? Can
you find comfort in
the raging currents,
see the beauty and
not fear the white-foamed
wave that swallowed you?
See your rabbit-heart as
the paddles of your ship,
the curve of your hip the
rudder of riding the current.
Know that the last, best
thing you say or see will
be found on the side of a buoy
or ever be the safest route.
Go, now, knowing the best
thing will be to set out
and find yourself home
I’m going through a month-long healing phase after my body has finally shut down from a two-month manic period. With that time, I’ve discovered the writing I created but was too scared to edit and publish.
She has been practicing her sleight of hand for years now.
It’s almost second nature, at this point. She smiles, catches their eyes with a snap and a whip of her fingers. It appears all flash and no substance, but then she makes the card appear when it seemed impossible The audience is astonished. Bamboozled, really, because they were so sure they could not be fooled. That there was no way she’d actually get the right card.
It doesn’t really matter, though. She’s moved onto the next trick.
What they don’t see is the hours of practice that goes into the moment where the Magician makes something out of nothing. They do not notice the red-rimmed eyes, tired from staring into the mirror and watching the same trick over and over again. The Magician is trying to make sure it is perfect for the audience. It has to be perfect for the audience.
They do not hear the ringing in her ears from years of listening to cries and catcalls instead of the sound of her own breath. They have failed to notice her skin, dull and red, from the make-up she wipes off in streaks each night, slumped over her dressing room table, barely able to move. They do not care that there are times where she is unable to focus her eyes before going on stage– she knows the gauzy film between her brain and the world it should be perceiving is problematic, but she also knows that she has to go out and perform.
The audience needs its show. They must be entertained.
So she goes out, night after night, honing her “craft,” learning to read the room. When she feels like she’s losing them, she slap-dashes something together and throws another coin into thin air, pulls another rabbit out of her hat, changes the mark to a more forgiving body on stage with her. It doesn’t matter what it takes. Stand on the back of the bucking horse? Sure! Swallow swords, eyes watering as she wide-grin-smiles toward the crowd? Of course! Anything so that she does not lose them. She cannot lose them.
Because she knows what happens when the crowds go home, and she is left in the dressing room, alone.
She sinks, slowly, into the chair. The table is in disarray– make-up is strewn, long smudgy splashes of color on a faded, white, wooden top. The makings of a face finger-painted on to a splintered canvas– the metaphor is almost too painfully obvious, even to her, who has lived without subtlety for years now.
There, in her solitude, when the memory of the crowd roars in her ears like the ocean, there is no one to distract her, no one to look at, no one who she must bamboozle. She is in a standoff only with herself. There is nothing to face but her own existence in that moment.
The question sits there, unmoving. No sparkle, no flash. There is no magic trick that will satiate the audience who is witness to her own brokenness. There is no bucking bronco or sword to swallow that will turn her gaze away in the mirror. There is only the heavy question, the ball and chain tethered to her. She sees it reflect back at her in the shine of her eyes, the creases in her skin.
She sighs, tears the question away from the mirror and places her head in her hands. Instinctively, her fingers reach into her chest pocket and pull out a card. It’s one of the few times she can ever answer anyone properly– showing them the card they were thinking of.
She holds it up to the mirror, tries to fake a smile.
Is this your card?
She flicks it to the floor, reaches in, and grabs another.
How about this one?
She flicks that one away.
She stops mid-reach. Her eyes finally connect back with her self.
Her card will never be pulled.
Photo by Calamic Photography.
I’m taking a sick day for the first time in forever, and I’ve spent much of it sleeping.
I wrote this a bit ago after another re-reading of Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, which is evident in the style. This is a highly excerpted and edited version of a much longer piece that I’ll probably never publish (though, thanks to Doug, Colin, Leslie, and Lindsey, who gave me feedback on the full reads). But it felt good to get this out.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, story-truth is an interesting thing. Timelines are fuzzy, things get fictionalized, etc.
And I’m sleeping just fine now.
You always assumed your love triangle phase would happen in your twenties. Some youthful lark, you figured, some princesa shit you’d pull on some guys when being young and bitchy was acceptable and you could chalk it up to youth. You’d roll your eyes at this younger version of yourself someday, and you’d be able to blame the selfishness of it all on your twenties and be happy you moved on.
Now, though, you are thirty and the stakes feel higher for everything. You still wear your hair long, your shorts short, and cling to something you cannot yet name. You didn’t spend your twenties being bitchy and pretty like you hoped you would. Instead, you were chubby and awkward and terrified you’d die alone. You nurtured and loved and were so desperate to not miss on the opportunity for “the love of your life” that you ended up letting the brief period you thought could love yourself selfishly slip through your fingers.
So, after kicking the last heartbreak, you figured you finally had all your shit figured out. You knew what you wanted, you told your friends. You were gonna focus on you. You weren’t going to rush anything and you were gonna be patient and wait for the right guy. They nodded their heads hopefully, encouragingly, but silently laughing that you’d fuck up again and end up causing the same internal drama you always do.
That’s what makes your current predicament so fucking annoying. You end up with the same internal drama. Now, you find yourself in a weirdly shaped cage that you don’t know how to get out of.
You have not slept properly for nearly two months— you refuse to admit that the myriad of reasons your friends list (post-breakup trauma, current inner-turmoil, a new job) may matter. You insist to your parents that you are seeing a therapist and that you are fine and that you’ve simply never slept well. These things are all true, but even you quietly admit to yourself that three hours a night for a month doesn’t make for the most lucid version of yourself.
This is the version of yourself, though, that is riding high-octane fuel into each weekend, turning yourself into a woman with a variety of interests that you vaguely hope will not only make you happy, but pique the interest of a dating life that sometimes feels dead inside you. You teach all day, then run three-miles as a coach, then run to CrossFit, then run to Jiu-Jitsu for few hours. You are usually tired, but feel like if you stop, you will be turning your back on things you fought so hard to regain control of in your life. You often don’t come home for twelve hours, dripping with sweat and barely able to stand. You’ve never been in such good shape, and you keep silently praying that putting your body through this will mean that, finally, you will sleep.
But you don’t. Somehow, sleep still eludes you.
So, you have to fill the time.
We’re not talking about anything physical, though. It was never about that. You just miss having a person. The one you talk to throughout the day and night. The one who listens to your dumbass jokes and sends you news articles throughout the day and gets your shit. You have friends who will be there, sure, but you’re consistently concerned that you are bothering them. Secretly, you’re worried that if you’re not repaying someone with love or money, they have no obligation nor desire to listen to your shit.
It’s the nothingness, though, that scares you. It feels foreign, unreal, unfathomable. That night, for the first time in a while, you cancel a second date. You have no desire to go out that night.
It wasn’t the date. It was you.
To be fair, you’ve had another three-hour nap for sleep, and this week you have realized that sometimes your eyes don’t focus properly for a few minutes. Still, you don’t know what is going on. You, who were always so passionate. You, who were always so ready to jump into the arms of the next great love story and open your heart. Where are all those feelings now? Where have they run off to?
You’re so tired and your eyes still won’t focus and you don’t know how to stop your mouth anymore. Instead of the date, you call a friend, rambling and lamenting to him that you’re scared you’ve lost the parts of yourself that wants to want someone else.
He listens. Then, he asks you: what if you’re not ready?
You sit with that for a second. You ask yourself— did you want to bail on the date because you wanted something else? Or did you bail because you wanted a friend and not the work of being someone’s thing-I-got-right?
You tell him he may have a point. He tells you to get off the phone and write.
That night, for the first time in months, and without the aide of liquor or medication, you sleep for six hours straight.
And the walls of the cage come tumbling down.
I’ve been looking through old writing, and I found this. In a desperate attempt to stay fresh, I did some editing, because writing is rewriting and repurposing, yes?
It starts by willing yourself out of bed.
I’m not trying to trivialize that. It took what seems like years to get here. You have spent hours wrapped in sheets, unable to get up from the crushing weight of yourself. When you flip onto your back– the first movement you’ve made that hints that, just maybe, you will sit up this time– a rolling pain starts behind your eyes and down your back. It hurts. It paralyzes you for a moment, as you try and breathe past what, rationally, you know is not there.
The expanding of your rib cage hurts. The balloon of your stomach hurts. Blinking hurts. Everything hurts. It hurts enough for you to consider rolling back into the fetal position. You are tempted to throw an arm over your face like a boxer in a losing match– please, please, just stop hitting me— closing your eyes and trying to make the world disappear.
The thing is, depression is the quieter cousin of anxiety, and you’ve been dealing with this pair for years. They have been slipping into your bedsheets and sliding next to you in bus seats since you were an adolescent. They have wrapped your hand around razors and your body in blankets. They have convinced you that the world outside the life raft of your bed has waters far too dangerous to explore and watched as you did not eat, nor sleep, nor talk to anyone for days in fear of it. They have made you think that sitting with them in the darkness while they silently hold your hands is your only option.
And, years later, you have learned that this is a lie. You know, deep down, that staying with them only begets nights much darker than the one you are in right now. Wisdom teaches you that you have to get up. The rational part of yourself– a minority voice in the chorus of your aching mind– grasps desperately at that wisdom: You have to get up now. You have to get up.
You take a deep inhale, and sit up, a body rising from the grave.
I haven’t been able to stop writing in second person lately. It’s a bad habit of style, I have no doubt. We always teach against the second person; the constant use of “you” can come across as preachy or pedantic, and no audience likes to be told what they feel. It is difficult to do well, and I am no Junot Diaz.
I’ve been desperately trying to break out of the pattern. I start pieces with “I,” feverishly forcing myself to read down a mental list of the feelings I could tell you about, the dynamic verbs my body could be doing, or the thesaurus-long list of words that better describe how I could “say” any of this (‘I mutter,’ ‘I gasp,’ ‘I scream’).
Then, I realize that I have no idea how I feel. I have no idea what I’ve been doing. I am secretly in crisis mode, my brain the burnt out rubble of a war zone at the end of a long battle. I am glassy-eyed and shaken, triaging each moment like a trauma nurse on the field. I am figuring out what needs to happen so I can take the next breath. Sometimes it is stumbling through the motions because it feels like there is nothing else left to do.
And I see myself doing that. I see myself wander through the wreckage of my own being, unsure how to rebuild. At times, I can convince myself that the destruction will warrant whatever new creation I put together.
Sometimes, though, I am so paralyzed with fear that I can’t think through what comes next. Trying to figure it out hurts. Instead, I see myself go glassy-eyed and back away.
So, sure, I am partially writing like this in a desperate attempt to help you understand what I’m feeling. I am trying to unstitch and open myself, let you slip into this world for a moment by narrating what it feels like.
I understand now, though, that my audience isn’t just the reader anymore. My audience is myself, wandering that wreckage shaken and unsure. I am watching this version of myself try and figure her way out of the rubble. I see her sit down and bury her head in her hands, wondering what she should do next. I slam my hands against the screen, desperately trying to get her to hear me. I am writing her letters and stories, telling her that I understand, that it’s okay, that it won’t be this way forever. I want to jump in next to her, throw my arms around her, and then shake her by the shoulders.
You have to get up now. You have to get up.
I am still trying to write a thing. I don’t know how it’s going.
Here’s the thing: I like telling stories.
That doesn’t make me special. I’m a sometimes-writer and full-time English teacher. I have spent years fitting events into narrative structures: dynamic characters, dramatic tension, nuanced relationships wind through conflict and still end with a neat resolution. My world, most days, is spent somehow trying to craft something that fits into a narrative.
I thought this was just craft, something I did on paper. Then, someone noted a small, white lie in my work, saying, “You like making things fit your story.” It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.
It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.
I have been telling myself stories for years.
Nearly every relationship I’ve had is subjected to hours in the tumble-dry cycle of day-dreams. I take the smallest tidbits, find the narrative and fill it with so much hot air it floats away with the rest of my imagination.
My narrative habit has been curling its way through my brain, around my heart, and into my actions since childhood. A gossamer string, my desire to adapt my perception of reality– then manipulate that reality to my perception– has been woven into my life since long before I could understand it.
It’s in adolescent journal entries describing, in excruciating detail, the real meaning behind my crush putting his hand briefly on the back of my chair as he talked to someone else. It’s being sure that, when his “ocean blue eyes, like a stormy sea” (a line, no doubt, purloined from some bad fanfic I had read on the internet) locked with mine, it was because he was seeing something deeper in me. It’s embedded into the fabric of time I’d spend skulking around corners at school, hoping to “accidentally” run into some guy.
When, somehow, I would convince that crush to actually date me– with obvious flirtation, with praises and pretty words– I was still creating storylines for them that would, eventually, end.
Storyline: A young Mormon missionary falls in love with a Catholic girl. He proposes. She says yes. He goes on his mission and when he returns, they find a way to work through their religious issues and have a happy life.
In reality, six months after he left, the heady high of my first kiss and first love had worn off. I was sixteen when he gave me a ring. I was seventeen when I sent my missionary a Dear-John-email (we weren’t allowed to call or see them in person, or I swear I would have). He begged me to accept his God into my heart. I ignored his messages. I returned his ring.
He’s married now, I think. He blocked me on Facebook.
I did this a few more times in high school:
Storyline: The midwestern track star who tutored me in math dates the unathletic drama kid after they meet in orchestra. Very High School Musical, before that was a thing.
He broke up with me when he realized our time was up. I threw a fit and sobbed some dramatics, though deep down I agreed.
Storyline: The fellow thespian, who I badgered to go out with me my senior year. We went to the same church, sang in choir together. It made sense.
In reality, we were both biding our time, play-acting what we thought love looked like. we fought, we made peace and we parted ways.
This, of course, is natural for many high schoolers. As a teacher now, I see myself in so many sixteen-year-olds skulking around corners, hoping to bump into someone.
What is more difficult to realize is that I didn’t leave the practice behind in my school like I thought I did. I see now that I have been weaving webs of stories and heartaches long past my graduation.
It is a weird, almost-archeological act to look back on old writing. Yes, many of us find and keep memorabilia from past lovers (photo booth strips, ticket stubs, a napkin they wiped their mouth with after a first kiss and other moony tangibles of the like).
Words are different. Journals, emails, and even now text messages create archives that speak not just to the existence of a relationship, but our mindset while we were in the relationship. Much like past love letters my parents have, first-person stories of just how besotted (or frustrated) we have been with someone exist for years to come.
Unlike the previous generation, however, artifacts of my relationships are not hidden in a Tupperware box in my closet. They are strains of my old-self buried in my email account. They are left-over rice grains in the drafts folder of old blogs—just when I think I’ve cleaned them all up, one sticks to the bottom of my foot months later. Try as I might to delete someone (and trust me, I try), bits and pieces of past relationships are consistently available at my fingertips.
I look over old emails and the words still feel strangely foreign. The person in them doesn’t sound like me at all. Who was this “us” we created? It appears so strongly here—casual banter and mutual knowledge, names appearing as always-conjoined or pronouns notating the “we” and “us”. Don’t worry about us! We’ll meet you there.
It is strangely dissociative, and I’m filled with a sudden urge to figure out the mystery of the woman I have been these past few months who feels so distant now.
After a stable three-year relationship, I had a moving-too-fast fling. Maybe I was desperately seeking to fill the space left by my break up. Maybe I was overly romantic and allowed myself to get swept into someone else’s fantasy. Maybe I just went temporarily insane.
Some texts remain. Like the emails, I feel so removed from the woman in those words. She is more like a character in a story I have written than any semblance of my actual self.
I read the texts in her voice:
Meet you @ home in 20 min. Who was this girl who gave allowed a near-stranger to call her apartment “home”?
That’s ok, I just wanted to make sure you got home ok 🙂 Who let hours-long absences go because of a breezy “I love you.”
Who was this woman, and how was she ultimately betrayed?
He once joked that at least he would be an interesting story for me to write, but he ultimately failed there too. Our relationship ended with so much banality: he cheated on me. A tale as old as time that any good writer could have seen coming from a mile away, but I was so willing to accept his stories that I completely lost myself in them.
I read the messages, and then I realize that I was also telling myself stories the entire time: that I was okay with this “relationship,” that I had been okay with the break up before it, that the two weren’t connected. Even the past emails were, in some ways, stories: I was a girl planning a to meet somewhere with a man who didn’t particularly like travel; we were breezily headed somewhere that, in fact, we were not.
These past words feel foreign because they are merely images of the character I was in that part of my story. They are no mystery at all; they are merely chapters in my life now closed.
The question is not, though, how to move onto the next chapter. The question is how long I will be able to keep weaving stories for myself, or if I will ever pause, look around at myself and my reality, and see and accept things as they are.
Here’s the problem: I’ve been weaving stories for so long, I can’t help but wonder what that even means. Even now, as I look at what I’ve written, it’s difficult to figure out what is “truth” and what is “story-truth.” I read the words and wonder how many of the choices I’ve made in my life happened because it was what I wanted, or because that’s what I thought, as the writer, should happen next. How many plot-line roller coasters have I strapped myself into, thinking I saw denouement at the end?
Storyline: A woman sits in her apartment trying to write. She is trying to figure out how the story should end. She sits, looks at the screen, sees the blinking cursor. She knows there is no one to ask for help writing the end. She also knows that, as much as she wants to, she does not know how to end the story.
She looks at the screen. She sees the blinking cursor. She waits.
Side note: I wrote a piece about meeting with my students re: recent events over at EdWeek that, for me, is a companion to this.
“They identified the shooter in Dallas last night,” I am on my phone, wrapped in bedsheets, reading the news to my boyfriend, Chase, as he gets ready for work. My thumb brushes page after page upwards, the blue glow wrapping around my face in the early morning light. I scroll quickly, almost compulsively, through information.
“Oh, yeah? Did they catch him?”
“No,” I reply quickly, eyes still glued to the screen. “They killed him in a standoff.”
We talk a little more about the shootings. All the news this week– the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and now the execution of Dallas cops who were doing their job with care— leaves me with a pit in my stomach. My heart races as I read accounts, hear gunshots in videos, see images that stay behind my eyes longer than I’d like. The weight of it all can envelop me, wrapping me in gray and following me for the day.
Chase leans over me on the bed, takes his hand to the side of my face, and strokes my hair. The act makes me tear my eyes away from the screen and look up at him, handsome in his Navy uniform though he hates when I say it. I catch my breath. I have not yet told him, but feeling his hand there– fingers intertwined in my hair, palm heavy on my temple– is one of my favorite things.
He searches my eyes for a moment, before kissing me lightly. “Don’t read the news today,” he entreats softly. He kisses me again, nips my bottom lip. He is clean and Listerine-mint to my sour morning breath and tousled hair. “It makes you sad.”
My gut instinct, the twenty-one-year-old wanna-be activista, balks. Ignorance and silence are compliance, a voice in the base of my brain quickly beats back.
I know he is advocating for neither, though. He simply doesn’t want to come home and find me there still, wrapped in bedsheets and paralyzed by my own personal melancholy. I look up and give a slight nod. “Okay.”
I thought about that this morning when my department chair, Marybeth, sent me an email asking for resources not just for our students, but for herself. She noted that engaging with the news is frankly overwhelming when she is also taking care of two young children at home and, you know, being an excellent teacher and mentor.
Once you “go down the rabbit hole,” she explained, it can feel impossible to get out. “I can’t let that happen since I need to be able to care for my kids. But I decided… I need to allow my students to think and converse about this since, otherwise, I am still part of the problem.”
The email hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew exactly what it was to go down the rabbit hole. I knew what it was like to get lost in its darkness, like there was no bottom, like there is just falling into greater depths of our own helplessness. I knew the hours I had spent reading, listening, wondering, feeling helpless.
Of course, we’d be mistaken to not see our own privilege: I am not Black. I don’t live in a highly segregated city (arguably I experience as close to the opposite as exists in the U.S.). While I have certainly experienced racism, my experience can’t compare to what other people have seen last night and for generations.
I still stand by this, but I want to make it clear that none of us, myself included, are built to handle seeing trauma 24/7/365. Processing trauma is not an Olympic sport. There is no correct form for it. Simply because I know that many people have it worse doesn’t mean I beat up anyone who decides to take a break to care for themselves. I am getting better at trying to include myself in that.
It’s a weird thing, sometimes, sharing piecemeal on this site, in my other writing, on various social media platforms. Like anyone else, I suppose, I only share the parts of myself that I’m willing to– because they make me happy, or they feel important (and safe) to share. As a writer (who even sometimes gets paid to write), I also admittedly think about my audience, what will be interesting, or what people will actually care about.
Yes, I am the girl at the top of the story with the handsome boyfriend who reminded me to take care of myself. It’s a sweet story with a nice ending. I also watched him close the door, and had a lightening-flash of worry. What if something happens to him at work?
Then, I buried my face in my hands for five minutes and cried, still wrapped in bedsheets. I cried because I was sad that I had thought that. I cried because I was still terrified that it could happen. I cried because there are people who fear much worse every day.
I’m a huge advocate for being vulnerable and upfront as often as possible. Still, please don’t think for a second that I don’t have parts of myself that are hidden and scared. I hope I never paint a picture that I am not terrified at times, that I have no idea how I will discuss this with students or, one day, my own children. There are days where I worry that I simply will be unable to.
There are days when I can’t stop crying, and there are days where I close my computer and decide, “that’s enough.” It is a privilege to be able to shut it down, I know.
I also know, though, that if I don’t, my ability to also be the girl who sits in the diner and hears her students talk about these topics, or encourages them to write about it, or tries to elevate their voices when they raise them, can get washed away in tears.
Those are the days that I don’t always write about, but those moments of quiet self-care, of seeking out light in the darkness, that are just as essential.
In a salsa club, the only silence exists in the panting breaths between songs.
When the music starts again, it normally begins with the tambores, hitting a heavy bass rhythm on calfskin, setting the stage. BA-rum-rum (breathe) BA-RUM-rum. The snap of the drummers wrists gives our bodies the heartbeat for what comes next. The bass and piano listen for un momento, oyen el ritmo, pick up the cues, then slide into the stereo the way crema spreads over a tostada. Ya listo. It’s ready.
At this point, everyone in the room who speaks “Latin music” knows what’s coming— bachata, salsa romántico, cumbia— and men begin to grab women’s hands and move towards the floor. The more conservative dancers stay on the edges. The peacocks and studio dancers (and maybe some viejitos who’ve decided life is too short to dance on the edges) move right to the middle.
A bar or two, then trumpets begin blaring and the floor— which is anything from gorgeous polished hardwood to interlocking pieces of plastic faux-wood set down on the carpet of some Cuban restaurant; we are a resourceful people after all— is alive. It’s own moving organism, the floor ripples and undulates with the collective heartbeat and shared shoulder rolls of whoever is on it.
Except, of course, when cha-cha comes on.
Cha-cha, for most dancers, is “when we all take a break y tomamoms bebidos,” my partner, Marco, said to me once. He shook a glass of cheap tequila at me before taking another sip. Then he winced. I had been dancing (badly) for six months when he approached me at La Playa, the only club that would let me in. He was 26 to my 18 and, when he realized I was too young to date (“A baby!” he had said, “I guess you’re not coming to my place tonight. Let’s go,” as he pulled me onto the dance floor), he decided to mold me into his dance partner instead. Unlike most Latinos, I didn’t grow up dancing at family parties or in backyards, so I just looked up at him, wide-eyed and eager, sipping my water.
When I first started dancing, I knew none of these rules. It would take me years of clubs, then performing, then competition to understand the difference between a salsa and a cumbia (footwork and the accented beat) or the unstated rudeness of neglecting to keep your long hair up (lest you whip it into the face of some unsuspecting nearby couple or, worse, your partner). I began to go to clubs by myself, but it still took thousands of nights before I could read the difference between being led by studio dancer, practiced and flailing for attention; the LA B-Boy whose body dipped into hidden hip-hop bass drops only he heard; and el salsero, who had somehow found the more ancient rhythm that had been flowing in our blood for centuries.
Somewhere in that time, I thought I understood my body’s role in it all. It was the frame (Marco would pinch my shoulders when they drooped) and the steering (one touch on the front of my left hip, and I knew which way to spin). One night, a studio dancer pulled me close and put his lips to my ear. He told me he needed to use my body to help make space on a crowded floor. “No tienes miedo,” he smiled devilishly as he told me not to be afraid before he whipped me out into turn after turn that purposefully smacked into the dancers around us.
That night, my body was the weapon.
Still, all that was years ago, I take a breath and remind myself. I am newly twenty-four, newly single and, for the first time, at Steven’s, a massive steakhouse-turned-club in industrial Los Angeles known mostly to locals y Latinos.
This is my first time out in years. Marco got a girlfriend, I had had a boyfriend who didn’t like to dance. I became a teacher and a runner. I understood that the rules often meant short skirts and forever-wandering hands (lest no man ask me to dance for the rest of the night) and I stopped dancing.
Now, though, it is a Saturday night and I don’t know what to do with myself. I am on my own for the first time in years. I drove to Steven’s on whim; I put on make up for the first time in days. I am wearing the only skirt that fits— too long and a little loose. I have only been asked to dance a few times, but fortunately years of training make up for lack of eye-candy status, and I get asked a few more times.
Then, a cha-cha comes on.
Oye como va, el ritmo, “come on and listen to the rhythm,” Santana croons.
This is a great song, I think. Then I realize: I love cha-cha. Cha-cha was the first Latin dance I learned when I was 17 and in my first week of college. I remember when I first started dancing— before I cared about being noticed by competitors or scouted for companies— I always danced cha-cha when it came on. I was sort of a slow salsa dancer— I didn’t read physical cues as quickly as I always should— but cha-cha played into that as a strength. The core of the cha-cha was in the wait-and-hurry-up. This dance was patience. This dance was the slow game in music form.
I am very good at the slow game.
I begin to sway and, without thinking, I take a step forward onto the edge of the floor. It is a silent sign that, if someone is interested, I will dance cha-cha.
A man walks up to me. I don’t register his face or his age, just the pale, pale blue of his shirt, como el cielo, like heaven, as he extends his hand.
I reach up, and take it. We begin moving, and after six years, I actually listen to the words in the song. Oye como va, listen up, el ritmo, the rhythm.
And for the first time in years, I exhale completely and let go. The music carries me, the guitar weaves its way into my hips. My partner watches me, for once, and reads both when to act as the motor and spin me, and when to draw up the breath before the cha-cha-cha step. We are languid and smooth. We are lava over ocean— rolling red over the cool, steady ritmo of the rhythm section. He sends me out into an empty floor and I pause at the end of my extension and look up.
My body is no longer the frame or the steering. I am not a car being driven. I am not the weapon sent to clear the floor.
I smile. Instead, I am fire itself, and my body is nothing but my own.
I don’t often write fiction. I don’t think I do it particularly well, but I’ve been reading a lot of Junot Diaz this weekend and I guess I wanted to see what would happen. Here’s an excerpt.
You are sitting with your back against a white, wood-paneled wall. The sun is streaming in. It is Winter, yet somehow still bright out. It is early morning and the cold seeps through the cement of your crappy apartment near the subway and all the way through to the wood of your wall. The cold is soothing on your back. It is 6:25 in the morning, and you are unsure if what is happening to you right now is real.
Moments before, you had snuck to his phone and looked through. A cardinal sin, yes. But you have a gut feeling. That’s how you justify it. Or maybe your life-long desire to Nancy Drew your way out of situations has reared its ugly head again. Or maybe you were just curious. Maybe all three.
Anyway, you do it, and after snooping through some text messages, you find photos. Lots of photos. And videos. Some girl whose face you don’t know, but in that moment it doesn’t matter. Later, you will wonder if she was in on it, if she knew, but, in the end that won’t matter either. She didn’t promise you anything. All you know is that the photos are there and the photos mean it’s the end and the photos rip you down the middle.
Now, you are sitting against the wood wall, trying to understand what your life looks like in this moment.
Later, after you have kicked him out of your small studio, you will realize you need to be at the lab in twenty minutes. In a daze you will find clothes and your coat. You won’t know how you got there, but the doors will swoosh open. You will duck past the interns waiting to be briefed by you. “Hi, Doc!” one will call out as you give a small, tight-lipped smile back. Later, he will remark to his friends that you seemed off that morning.
You will find your way into the office. Dan, your lab partner, will turn to ask why you’re late. He will see your face and know. He’ll wrap his arms around you and you will allow yourself a single sob. A convulsed release of the air and pain that have been sitting in your chest since 6:22 that morning when you saw the photos. He’ll give you a squeeze, then you’ll release yourself from his embrace, smile, and say, “Here we go,” before you turn to do your goddamn job.
That’s for later, though. Right now, you are sitting in your room, your back against a cold, white, wood-paneled wall. You look at his body splayed across your bed, his feet hanging off. You pull at your lower lip, your nervous tick he always picks on.
When you found the photos, your stomach tightened, you caught your breath. Suddenly, for a second, you saw only white, before it faded away and the photos and the videos were there again, as clear as day. It was as though your brain has taken a screen cap of that image, so that later when you are deciding what to do, it would throw the memory of this moment back front and center. Your ears start ringing. It will not stop until you make it into Dan’s arms later that morning. You drop to your knees, before getting up, putting on the first dress you can find and sit on the bed.
You find yourself there now, your back pressed against the wall for stability.
Later, after you have woken him and told him what you know and told him to leave, he will sit there, his eyes red and wet. He will apologize, but he will know better than to ask for another chance. He will tell you he still loves you, and how sorry he is before you finally get him out the door. It will take nearly an hour.
That hasn’t happened yet, though. That will be the memory you sit with later that night over a glass of whiskey that you are crying into: the image of him on the edge of your bed for the last time.
Right now, you are sitting at the other edge of your bed, you back against the cold, white, wood wall. You pull at your lip and furrow your brow. You wonder for a second if you could simply erase the image. If you could make things easy. If you could continue unabashed and unabated.
You know you cannot.
You take a breath. In. Out. You take another breath in and reach over to shake his leg.
“I need you to wake up now.”
Over the past few months, I’ve been having my students write papers about love. In doing so, it made me both read and reflect on my own experiences with love and growing up– especially in my early twenties. This is where that led me.
A letter to my wayward self.
My dear girl,
I have no idea where you are running to, but I promise you none of the directions you are heading towards are “home.”
I know: you are horrible at the long game. There is no patience in your bloodstream, no chill hidden anywhere in your bones. You are all chicken skin and red hot veins. Your muscles are overrun with fast-twitch fibers. You go far beyond “starry-eyed”— your pupils dilate again and again as your mind wanders in explosive bursts with fury, unprepared for what happens in the moments after when the star has burned out and things are dark again.
You are spontaneous decisions and seeking the next high. Yours is a rabbit-heart that beats furiously, always asking questions: when? who? why how what where where where where? always searching. You race—no, bounce and sometimes tumble— down trails, so assured that the next turn will lead you to find home. You are certain that this rock or that tree is a sign, that the next moment will finally find the thing you want most: an anchor, a resting place, a haven that just might soothe the pitter-patter that runs from your heart, through your veins and into every other part of you.
The problem is, “home” is a vague X on a map without a key. There is no description or clue as to what it is. So you keep thinking you’ve found it: in the hands of one boy, in the furtive glances of a different man, the fervor of a blurred dance floor, the bottom of an empty wine glass. You hop from all these things, assured that each sip or kiss or beat is a sign that you are almost where you need to be.
It’s a confusing concept, but I promise you none of these things are where “home” is. Don’t confuse the feeling you get when you catch his eyes meeting yours with the experience of being appreciated fully in the gaze of someone who loves you. Don’t mistake a flurry of kisses for a downpour of actual caring. Don’t assume the pain-numbing warmth at the end of a long sip is the same as the soothing release of healing when you actually take care of yourself.
“Home” is not found in the temporary bliss of mind-numbingly good kisses. Don’t get me wrong— you can still have mind-numbingly good kisses, but they are merely decoration on the outside. “Home” is built by weathered boards that have been worked on and sanded. They are stained with difficult decisions and tears. Their nails are the choices you make, hammered in with mutual respect. They are painted with the laughter of jokes built over years of shared comfort. Home will wrap you in its arms when you walk into it looking like something the cat dragged in. Home will stay standing when you tear the furniture apart in rage. Home will still protect you when you can do nothing but sit there in silence.
I wish I could tell you things turn out okay.
The problem is, it’s hard to know when you have found a forever-home. Sometimes we outgrow a place, decide we need to do what’s best, move on. Or we realize the foundation isn’t solid. Or we take a job in Hawai‘i and move thousands of miles away.
Here’s the thing you will need to learn: home can never be some summit that you have to venture to. Home should never be a place that can only be entered when terms and conditions apply. Home can never truly be yours if it only exists within the happiness of another’s.
The only place you will truly find it is when you stop, close your eyes, and breathe. You will feel the ground beneath your feet, the beat of your heart in your own ears, the muscles behind your eyes relax. Then, you will realize that home was never some external site to begin with. You will realize the only real home is the quiet, still place where you both know and love yourself, exactly as you are.
And in that moment, you will finally be found.