August 2008


I’m not much of a believer, but check the PostSecret blog religiously.  Honest, it’s the one ritual I do each Sunday: click on the favorites menu, scroll down, and read each of the week’s new entries.  Sometimes they make me laugh, bring a sad feeling or just puzzle me.  A scant few make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, it’s as if I wrote them and sent them in. This week there are two about coming out and one about superstitious wishing.  Another one reads, “I’m 20 and I can feel that my body wants me to have a baby, and the scary thing is I kind of want one too.”  As a twenty-year-old who occasionally hears her ovaries screaming “BAAABY!! Look, there’s a cute baby! Time to make an embryo!”, I understand that slightly alarming confusion, and why it’s posted on the website: what makes a sentence or story into a secret is that it’s scary.

Coming out–to myself, my closest friends, my parents, in that order–was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I almost had a miniature panic attack in the middle of French class one winter day, when it dawned on me that being attracted to women wasn’t just a fluke or a phase, that all those labels, stereotypes, and slurs that society tends to apply to non-straight people could now be used against…me.  That realization scared the shit out of me. Maybe I should explain: I wasn’t afraid of gayness, per se, but of becoming a rainbow-tinted target at already-tense family gatherings, and how I would actually hold up under the pressure of being that “other” I’d read so many high-vocabulary critical theory articles about.

See, as much as I strive to be an independent, strong, smart Woman with a capital ‘W’, my greatest fear is that deep down, I’m actually a coward.  I don’t look particularly tough, I can’t bench-press my own weight, and I’ve never punched anyone, though a number of my friends probably wouldn’t believe it.  I’ve learned some ways to camouflage my inner weak-kneed wimp, by learning how to fix things and yelling back at harassers on the street.  But I still don’t always fit the adjectives I admire most: strong, capable, outspoken, fearless, respected.  Maybe it’s from being a blonde or having big breasts or growing up a girl in this culture of Barbie dolls vs. Tonka trucks, but I hate feeling more like those other words: small, powerless, frightened, dismissed.

In coming out, I feared losing what power I had over my life and voice.  Would my parents believe me, or consider it a passing phase? Would I have to defend my own emotions to fundamentalist religious friends? I was afraid of becoming invisible and yet a bull’s-eye at the same time, yet staying silent scared me even more, knowing how easy it had been to delude myself all those years, how much I had missed.  So I gathered my courage and spoke my secret, anxious as a little kid who just ate that entire stash of chocolate her mom hid away in the cabinet that was supposed to be too high for her to reach.  I finally did it.

It wasn’t as terrible as I’d worried, or as it could’ve been.  Certainly not panic-attack-inducing.  And it felt really freaking good not to keep that particular secret from my parents and friends anymore.  But I suspect my poor mama is still afraid that she’ll never have grandchildren to spoil and feed and sew Halloween costumes for.  I want to tell her not to worry about that, but it’s hard to explain that even though I never could picture myself married to some man, bearing his children, I’ve always imagined raising kids.  I’d love to watch my child learn to walk and dance, tell bedtime stories and make up explanations for what clouds taste like and why worms eat dirt.  I want to teach my daughter how to fix a bike and never be afraid of herself.  This is a secret I really hope to share with my mother someday, once I find the words.

Secrets aren’t just silly childhood whisperings, they’re the reason we invent rituals and superstitions, why we pass on secret family recipes, play drunken “Never Have I Ever” games and value friends’ loyalty.  It’s in the sharing of a secret, rather than its making, that lends weight and color to something that was once hidden in darkness.  Before I came out, I was scared.  Now I’m still plenty scared, but I’m not alone because others know.  That’s why PostSecret is so popular and the self-revelatory graffiti in the library bathroom is so prolific, why our tongues loosen when we drink.  Though I’m twenty, I didn’t start to feel “grown-up” until I started facing my fears and telling them.

When I have children, I know they’ll keep certain small secrets from me just as I did–still do–from my parents, like that time I smoked or wasn’t actually staying at Emily’s house or stole Dad’s CD.  When I have children, I will be scared for them, that they will bruise more than just their knees and grow up to wear hidden scars inside them.  But I hope my kids will never hesitate to tell me when they’re frightened, when they’re in need of help, when they’re in love.  I sincerely hope that any panic attacks in French class will be the result of pop quizzes and not crises about their sexuality.

If we weren’t all so afraid of ourselves–what we’ve done, or not, and regretted–would we trust each other more? Would you tell me your secrets if I promised to keep them safe? If I tell you mine, will you believe me?

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The man who’s teaching me conversational Spanish wears a black ankle bracelet that tracks his movements and sets off an alarm, I guess, if he strays outside city or state lines, like those invisible dog fences.  He didn’t kill anyone or steal cars or sell drugs; the worst he did was show up to work one day, the day state police and la Migra decided to show up, too.  My teacher used to be a janitor, earned maybe six American dollars an hour for cleaning up after others in courthouses.  The ironic thing is, now he gets to see the inside of a courtroom without a mop in hand, has traded his work uniform for an ankle bracelet.

At our first lesson he teaches me how to conjugate verbs in the past, present, future (hablé, hablo, hablaré).  Pasado pretérito: He moved here years ago, long enough to raise kids, watch American TV, buy a mini-van.   Futuro: He doesn’t know where he’ll be in two months, so it’s hard to make lesson plans.  Presente: In the meantime, his daughter says, he sits at home and drives her and her two siblings crazy, while his wife looks for a second full-time job.  The oldest girl, who helps translate for her parents and reads a high-school textbook on law, is a few years younger than me (más joven que yo).  Her dad might not see her graduate from the best public high school in the city, if he’s deported.

He asks me whether I’ve ever been there, to Guatemala, and I say no. (It’s the same word in both languages, short and final.)  No, I’ve never visited his home country, but he has been living in mine for years; the tripledecker house he lives in looks like the one I’m sharing now, and I don’t understand, no comprendo, why there isn’t enough room for both of us here.

three storms, three years.  a numbered song, in the style of post-Katrina blues.

_______

1. okay

i’m okay, she says to reassure me

or herself or maybe both of us, i’m packing up

my clothes and books into

a suitcase, and leaving with friends

tomorrow.  this time

she’s not going to wait for buses that don’t come and sit

in stadiums with the taste of

desperation rising acrid at the back

of her throat.

________

2.  your number’s up

(more…)

i hereby resign

my position as US citizen

i hand in my passport and

social security card–i faked them anyway–

that smile on the photograph

is actually a grimace, because this

isn’t my country tis of thee

it’s somewhere i’ve never been and I don’t

recognize this constitution

it was signed long ago by men now dead

this place is wasting away

and as much as I try to dig my roots in, water this dust

with my tears and sweat, it’s not enough

never enough

for you, hard stern mother-country

i don’t know how to hold you

and you own me without

even knowing my real name, so just take

back my citizenship, this number

you gave me

at birth. i never really earned it anyway

and you have no idea what I’m worth.

(Copy of a poem-comment I just posted to Jen’s blog):

slip a piece of paper
into a locked box
switch a lever and
press a button
electronic is safe, they say, better than human error
but I’d prefer a human touch any day
than blank iron-clad terror forcing
us to go one way
or another,
one choice or forever
hold your peace
I hold pieces of a worn-out driver’s license
and registration card
in my hand and I’m not certain
whether they’ll believe me
whether it’ll feel relieving
to finally enter my opinion into a black box machine
and out will come a god
deus ex machina
to fix all our nation’s ills
sing and dance our economic recovery
regain the world’s goodwill from
these unforgivable actions
I don’t know whether I believe me
when I try to tell my grandmother that she
is wrong, without showing disrespect
how can I convince her to vote
and elect
someone I’m not sure I trust all the time
but who’s better
maybe a little better
than the folks currently in line
to hold that power tight
in their white fists, raised high as if
they ever knew what oppression felt like.  listen
I want to tell her
can’t you hear the sound of a country
splitting open at the seams
like a giant fault line through the middle
of its brightest dreams, we
stand on opposite sides from each other but
she is still my blood, my mother’s mother
shouldn’t that mean something?
I write her a note
slip it into a light blue envelope,
hope she will learn to decipher
what I’m trying to tell her–it’s not
that I believe, but I wish for more
and I lose faith every fucking day but maybe
there’s something in this we can both hold onto, a rope
I can throw her across the gap between
us, jagged and wide
scarring the outside we see
beyond the curtains of the voting booth.

dial tone

please leave a message for

the number you have

busy signal

your call is important to

the party you are trying to reach

please do not hang up

this is the office of

if you know the extension, enter

is unavailable right now

if you would like to page this person

para español, oprima dos

stay on the line

thank you for calling

your voice is important to us

will call you back

can’t be reached right now

if you are seeking

please be patient

is out of the office

on vacation

on maternity leave

on the golf course

cannot come to the phone right now

dialed incorrectly

please wait

your words may be recorded

mailbox is full

leave your name and number

please hold

you are unimportant

press three

is not here right now

lost signal

cannot hear you

please speak after

all lines are currently busy

and try again later

voice mail

dial tone

the person you are trying to reach does not exist

please hang up or

answer me

I’m sorry

you are disconnected

wish you were here

because now that you’re so far away, it’s hard to believe

you are real

and my mind’s not playing tricks on me again

wishful thinking

taking over. now we exchange

written words and long-distance phone calls instead of

fingertip touches, and I’m a little

untethered

never expected it to happen like this

never thought I’d have this kind of power, one that comes from sharing

and giving. makes me want to jump and grin,

take your hand and spin us into a new type of dance

I’m still learning the steps to. I can’t quite

call it love, not yet at least

but there’s more than a splash of romance in the way

our stories entwine, and I

wish you could be here, to wind your

fingers around mine and convince me that this is not just

possible,

it is real

across the space between us.

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