From the time I was born until the age of 11, I lived in Jersey City. Someone, though I can’t remember who, taught me to memorize my address: 339 Communipaw Avenue. If you asked my six year old self her address, she would recite it promptly and semantically satiated the way she would her name or her age. Jersey City was a place I knew well more inside than I did out. According to my parents, it was a dangerous area, and for that reason, they did not let us outside. My life was confined to a limited space. From the living room window, from the fire escape, and from my brother’s bedroom window, I became an observer. I lived through other people’s stories. There were the ones my mother told frantically and loudly over the phone as her Dominican calling card ran out. The ones I borrowed from the library, whose pages’ words I would stretch to cover with my slender arm to fill with imagined tales. I listened to the stories of street corners, stoops, burned apartment buildings, running fire hydrants, boarded windows, power line sneakers, and faded murals.
We each must take our very distinct steps in our very distinct directions to find our way home, to learn when to protect ourselves and when to let go.
In the winters, our apartment might as well have had no walls. The cold crept in every way it could, and because of it, the pipes would freeze. We would sometimes have to go to my aunt’s house to shower. There were times when I would layer many sweaters or wander the house wrapped in all my blankets. Between the pipes freezing, prostitutes overdosing and passing out before our door, my parents went to great lengths in order to shield us from the realities of this apartment. My parents were the concrete that covered the cracks and held all the trouble from seeping in to taint us.
Vale’s corner bodega was my favorite place. One reason being that in the summer, it was one of the few places we were allowed to go unsupervised to buy our coconut ice pops, quarter juices and chips. My mom would send my brother and me hand in hand. She’d hang out the window and when it was safe to cross the street, she would nervously yell at us to come and go until we were safely back in our building. We never needed money, we just grabbed whatever we wanted and he would write it down. Most mornings though, no matter the season, my dad would buy two of the best sandwiches there and he would split the second sandwich two ways in the car and give us each a little sip of his café con leche. My dad was very good friends with Vale.
What parents tell their children is important. Tell your children that they are smart, that they’re important, that the place they hold in the world matters in the grand scheme of things, that the world is theirs, and it is at their fingertips.
A few short years after we moved away, my father was heartbroken to find out that he had been shot protecting the bodega during a burglary. We watched the news when we found out and saw people blanketing the street for a two block radius outside his bodega in every direction to show respect. Our hearts warmed when they named the plaza after him. My existence was bound to that crossroad, an intersection. The rest of Jersey City was supervised, filtered through a window, finite by held hand.
I lived their stories, their heartbreak, their fears, until I decided I wanted to write my own. Living life at arms length didn’t suffice anymore. As an adult, I wrote memoir briefly to try to find myself. I found my memory was lost, or maybe they never existed for they weren’t my own. Writing was first a task, an assignment. Then, very suddenly it became a tool of survival. My survival and that of my story’s survival, my words. I came to know myself the way I knew my surroundings more inside than out. That I am not just a story, I am flesh and water and bones, and sometimes, they are as light as air, and other times they’re too heavy to carry on my own, but the pages make the burden a little lighter. As a child, in my corner of the world, in my microcosm, beauty was never the end all be all it wasn’t a concept it wasn’t something I aspired to. I wasn’t told I was beautiful when I was younger. My father told me that I was smart, that I could do anything, conquer the world, and nothing anyone could ever say would change that
Having grown up that way, I struggled with my grasp on society’s idea of femininity. Bras were uncomfortable, women’s clothes were too tight, and flimsy, heels (like, come on, seriously, Satan invented heels) but I wore them anyway.
What parents tell their children is important. Tell your children that they are smart, that they’re important, that the place they hold in the world matters in the grand scheme of things, that the world is theirs, and it is at their fingertips. Children believe their parents. I believed when he said it, and when you believe things like that the way you look it takes a backseat. Beauty for me, I suppose, was intelligence and talent. I didn’t envy pretty girls. I envied smart, talented, and courageous girls. I wanted to increase my proximity to them so I never let my envy get in the way. It became more of an admiration that I would model myself after. I never wanted to compromise my proximity to the thing I loved the most.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I acknowledged the way I looked, and it wasn’t until high school that I began comparing myself to others. I couldn’t find in other girls what I saw in the mirror: Hyperpigmentation, body hair, dark circles, stretch marks, cellulite, bushy eyebrows, and defiant curls. I shaved, waxed, lightened, covered, and straightened. I went from wearing the clothes my brother grew out of to squeezing into figure hugging outfits. As a child, I was a bit of an outcast. I shared interest with all my male cousins, played with action figures, got dirty, wore boys clothes because I was allotted the space to develop my own interests. Having grown up that way, I struggled with my grasp on society’s idea of femininity. Bras were uncomfortable, women’s clothes were too tight, and flimsy, heels (like, come on, seriously, Satan invented heels) but I wore them anyway. It wasn’t until college, until I began to really write MY story, until family circumstances that lead to my depression begged for my attention to more important matters than superficial beauty. It became about my happiness, my balance, my peace.
In the mirror, I didn’t see someone who needed scrutinizing anymore, I saw someone who needed to be cared for, held, nurtured, and comforted. I knew immediately that I was the only person who could do that for myself. In order to do it though, I had to forgive myself, I had to be selfish, I had to acknowledge the hope that kept the fragmented beat of my heart persistent. I lost myself in some ways, but I was unapologetically myself in others and so lost in a numb globule of days woven together by melancholy to even notice. I stopped eating as much, talking as much, laughing as much, but also I wore loose fitting comfortable clothes, I ceased wearing the makeup that made my face itchy, I let my curls run wild, and I wrote more than ever before. I found new and favorable realities in other peoples stories again, and I didn’t just read them, I learned how to tell my stories. I filled black books, marble notebooks, and leatherbound journals. I translated my life in images and words on blank moleskine pages. Moleskine journals saved my life. They gave me space, freedom, and control. Characteristics I couldn’t find in my daily life. I eventually wrote my way out of my depression.
Today, I stand before my dresser’s mirror and marvel at my hair product arsenal, a military force designed to combat the likelihood of a bad hair day. Edge control, leave-in conditioners, hair lotions, and sprays all for curl enhancing and moisture retention. As I continue to ease my comb through my knotless hair for the sheer feel of triumph over my knots, I can still feel my mother’s hands on the other end of the comb. I remember her willful desire to restrain my curls. Three different hair detanglers and conditioners sat on my mother’s bureau. She would shout threats to shave my head bald if I didn’t sit still. Spray mist settled on the mirror before us, but soon blurred by the tears in my eyes as I cried through every rough stroke of the comb.
“Por arte de magia,” my mother said, managing to tame my wild mane and subdue it into eight parts, braids jutting out from each portion, and a colorful hair tie on each end.
“You look so pretty with your hair straight,” is apparently a compliment. I thought once that they were right. I think of my buried teenage self, a girl burning through her curls in her bedroom, her image clouded in a smokey haze. I would burn it straight, and be ashamed to have to wait for three years for my hair, my real hair to grow back. I would embrace the curls then. An old boss of mine told me once that my hair was unprofessional. A link on a website I found for new ways to do my hair offered me “9 Ways Straight Hair is Better,” a link I would not click.
No matter how the relationship you have with yourself begins or what turns that relationship takes, it can be salvaged. It will heal with a little patience and forgiveness. It seems like a difficult task, to be tough in the right ways. How do you learn how to protect yourself when you’re so far removed from yourself. We each must take our very distinct steps in our very distinct directions to find our way home, to learn when to protect ourselves and when to let go.