Heading deeper into my season of grief, and yet feeling permeated with light, beaming from every pore.

January the year I turned 18 I “ran away” for the last time. That time I made it to safety, after so many tries, so many threats, so many terrors.

It was not very safe, but it was safer there than I ever had been, even walking late nights with my sharpest key between my knuckles, meth addicts in place of zombies, because Snohomish County is a place that I came from.

I still have running away dreams, so many of my dreams involve being chased, having to go into hiding. Waypoints on the two highways that segmented the town we lived in, bus stops and routes that ought to overlaps but don’t, the precarious nature of navigating between them. Bike paths that end in train stations with seven stacked labyrinths and no elevator. Waiting behind a door to fool those who might open it into believing the room is empty.

But I open a new door this year, and I want to stand in the middle of the room, under the brightest light. It is terrifying, and I am alive. It is dangerous, and I am living.

I did not kill myself by the time I turned 25. I am 30 years old now, and that is a fucking miracle. He didn’t kill me, either.

Sometimes safe is just the place where he isn’t, and sometimes I make it myself, thumb prints in clay. And I did. I got me here, fists and boots and traveling spoon, spoked wheels and determination, a hard no and a hard yes. Heart in red marker on my sleeve, because I am not afraid of caring (anymore).

It is in winter that we dig up the old roots, and plant new bulbs.

trigger warning for IV drug use. take care of yerself!

We’re talking about syringes in class, the different types, their uses, the basic components: barrel, plunger, tip. I slip in and out of focus. I remember watching her cook and shoot up. She ground up the tablets first, then mixed them carefully with bottled water (Evian, like the model she could have been), put a lighter under the spoon, stirred till it all cohesed and bubbled. Maybe there was more. The shag carpet smells like the inside of a vacuum bag, like home. Aaron* ties her off and his mom comes in. “Are you using the bent spoon? Don’t burn all my nice spoons.”

He isn’t, but insists he is. Tap, tap. Tap, tap. He taps her vein until it bulges, an army drab river under alabaster pale. I can’t watch the needle piercing flesh, the flush of blood before push. Ulric reaches out and grabs my hand, as much for comfort as to break the spell. “I can’t do it either. I’d rather drink a beer, anyways,” he says.

We lay facedown on the crusty carpet. As Aaron ties off for his shot, Ulric noses over to me, puts an arm around my back, and presses his lips behind my ear. He grazes the flesh and makes for my mouth, misses. Ell sighs and my head shoots up. “How do you feel?” I ask, curious as much as wary.

“Good.” Her eyes are big, sparkly-manic, ice blue fascination. I press Ulric’s hand and get up. Aaron staunches his clumsy shot with a rag.

“C’mon, let’s go. We should get some beer,” I pretend to know exactly how we would go about it.

In the parking lot of the Safeway downtown, two twenty-something guys with greasy scalps and patchy beards sway, leering at Ell and I, clearly resenting our companions. “Twenty bucks, Black Label. All the way from Canada to your underage hands.” Ell slapps the money into an open palm.

“High alcohol content,” offers Ulric approvingly. “Like a lager.”

The beer tastes tinny and sweet, worse warm than cold, and we only drink it warm. I don’t drink more than two, more anxious to hold my own than to prove my capacity. The night air seems like enough, the novelty of roaming streets less rural than my own. 3 years ago when I moved here I thought it such a small town, but I’ve up and moved to an even smaller one, and now I can observe this town as a novelty, an adventure.

Somehow Ulric and I end up in his bed, messy limbs and malt liquor sweat. We have sex but neither of us comes. I am unconcerned, the sex is more perfunctory than interesting, at least for me. He offers to go down on me, but seems relieved when I decline. We sleep, toss and turn unfamiliarly. In the morning we go again. At least it doesn’t hurt. It’s over fast, and he’s happy to use a condom before sheepishly confessing he can’t really keep it up right now, either.

Ulric and I, we keep in touch for a while, long enough for a few phone calls, halfhearted and awkward. We meet Ell in Seattle for a show, drink malt liquor in the alley, chain smoke and make small talk, but I can’t convince myself that we are either of us interested in picking up where we left off. His mohawk is up, a foot and a half of soft brown fan dividing the scalp above his baby face. He has the chunky build of a toddler. A driver honks and calls out, “Sweet hawk!” as we share a cigarette.

He turns to face traffic and his hair lingers on my face. I touch my cheek in wonder. “It’s so soft,” I marvel. “How do you get it to stay up?”

“Egg whites, mostly. A little glue and Aquanet. It takes me two hours!” he reveals proudly. This boy who has already dropped out of high school at 15, relegated to a lifetime of work at his father’s dog grooming shop, cares that much about his own hair. Between his bondage pants, patched vest, and studded jacket, it is the one feature of his ensemble that is made from his body, an accomplishment he has both grown and crafted. He’s a nice boy, I think, momentarily tender. He catches my eye and half-grins, half-snarls. “C’mon, let’s get into the pit.”

The tiny venue can scarcely afford the band space for bodies and instruments, let alone audience members, but somehow we fall all together in sweat and stink. The bassist leans into us and is held up, then knocked into the drums, knocks over half the kit, and still they play on. It’s a good night.

I hear from Ell that he got back together with his ex and she gave him the itch**. I ask Ulric about it and he laughs. “Fuck. Well, I deserved that one, didn’t I? Stupid shit, got what was coming to me. Thinking I was so mighty with Ell and Aaron all the time.”

*all names changed

*gonorrhea, thank god for small favors

trigger warning for: aftermath of sexual assault and childhood abuse.

9/2/12 journal entry (1st page of this journal, edited for clarity)

“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

He could be in heaven, but I doubt it. I think I’d have gotten a phone call, maybe a letter. I’d like to think there would be a letter. But that seems unlikely, too, come to think of it. What I want is the money. I want an apology, too, even more–but the money might better make up for the way his bullshi8t derailed my dreams. I mean, “interesting” things happened when I went off the college track, to be sure, but it’s just so hard to get back on.

[I pause in between typing and wonder if I was ever on that track to begin with, or if my mental “illness” would have stopped me then.]

After he got out of the navy, he let all of his hair grow, even his scraggly beard and a clumsy mustache. [my mother used to say: “looks like he’s gonna rob a 7-eleven.”] He was a mass of coffee-stained flannel, tangled dark hair, cigarette smoke residue. I can feel him in my bones sometimes, when I walk purposefully, heel-toe, heel-toe, over a hardwood floor in my boots.

Daddy is a powerful word. I started calling him Papi or Pops when I was a teenager–I was trying to take some of the power back. It only worked sometimes, and even then I was quaking inside when I had it, riding fight or flight and expecting the next thump to be my father’s hand on my shoulder, turning me around. [at night] Turning me over.

It didn’t have to happen in this world for it to happen. As it turns out, if your father leers at you and touches you just this side of inappropriate right around the same time you are raped several times over by one of the neighborhood predators, your brain will have a hard time distinguishing the difference. Especially when you’re dreaming.

Hungry

06/11/2012

I’ve been trying for a few weeks to write about alienation from my father/his family, comfort food, and my own nostalgic longings, with only some luck. Fathers’ day is coming up, I guess? So I hear. I guess it makes sense that this feeling has been growing as it approaches.

It’s troublingly easy for outsiders to essentialize cutlures down to their food and language, but food and language was what I got of our family’s Mexican roots, along with a complex history of colonialism/assimilation and a darker complexion than my Mormon cousins, who stared at us at family reunions like we were aliens for not sharing their Wonder Bread pigmention, cornsilk hair* and blue-gray eyes. There was no question of whose offspring we were, everybody knew the story of our pariah arm of the family. “[My grandfather] went on his mission and came back with a señorita!” (Little pitchers have big ears, yo.)

This year for my birthday (in a few weeks) I think I just want to eat spicy food, cry, practice my Spanish while struggling not to be embarrassed, and tell stories. We’ll see how that works out.

Draft below, definitely not the last–this one needs to stew for a few before I can pick it up again, I think. Needs more prose on the process of nixtamalization, for sure. So fascinating, and such a useful metaphor!

Nixtamal: Spoon of the Comfort Eater

i have a confession to make:
even while food fanatics seek to reform its production and consumption
there is nothing that makes me happier
than the smell of corn.
not that corn that comes in a can or half-mildewed ears from the supermarket,
not even the sweet kernels encased in ice that we put on black eyes and bruises as kids
but those kernels that have been reborn better thru nixtamilization.
ground for maisena, tortillas de maise, tamales–or left whole for posole and menudo.
sometimes hominy just sounds like a bad pun for home.
today as my posole simmers on the stove,
i call up your voice, tia, and i miss you.
i must have been 7 or 8 the year we visited you in Alaska,
everything outside your door dazzling and snowbound,
i could have made snow angels until my fingers froze off.
“posole,” you explained the aroma simmering over your kitchen, and rationed me a bowl.
although as a Mormon, you’ve probably never been hungover,
you advised me that i would eat posole someday when i was,
that it would cauterize colds, broken hearts, and hangovers.
i tucked your advice down in the suitcase when we left, next to the other gifts,
but it wasn’t until my 20s that i found it–
heartsick, sad, and lonely, that winter my makeshift family broke open again
only to reveal that no one is safe enough to ever be counted upon.
in my bag, like any runaway, i still had my spoon.
outside the taqueria in the rain, i felt silly hesitating,
i could not bring myself to step inside those heated walls.
my face swollen with sobbing and sickness,
i thought of the steaming dish you set before me those years ago,
and i went in.
i could speak no spanish as i ordered, tho i asked as politely as mama had taught me for a bowl
and sat down salivating, waiting for my number to be called.
i still get tripped up on pronunciation and grammar, too embarrassed to speak
words lost in the fire that destroyed what bound us together
for what feels like a lifetime, and a lifetime ago–
until i am alone, reading Neruda aloud to myself because a language can sound like family,
and i am lonely sometimes.
my face drained sorrow in slick wet streams as i snuffled into my hanky between mouthfulls
glasses fogged up and eyes not dry–
i must have looked a fool to be so glad over a bowl of soup adorned with lime and cilantro
flavors alight in the dark tunnel of my glistening mouth.
but sometimes where the burning has been
becomes something more nourished
than was before.

-RD

*ironically, i guess? all the babies in our branch of the family tree are born with cornsilk white hair–but it falls out at ~10-18 months, and then grows darker and darker with every year, “like bodies shirking off colonization.”

Strong trigger warning for: emotional and physical abuse, incest, sexual assault. Please take care of yourself! Click away to pictures of adorable kittens here.

editorially: this poem is several years old at this point, but today i submitted it as a performance piece for a Take Back the Night rally. unsure about certain elements of the final stanza but i <feelings>. thinking a lot about how different my personal narrative is from many other folks, and especially thinking of CeCe today. -RD

I came out of the house of rape, abuse, and neglect.

It was not my home, but I lived there for a time.

They kept me under no lock and key, I was bonded by the state to my father’s house.

Threats straddled the doorways, booby-trapped the exits with their sinister and invisible promises.

“You belong to me,” he said.
“I can do anything I want with you.”
“You are my daughter.”
He didn’t say “You will submit to me,” but he should have.
Echoes steal their way back as echoes will, a sensation as simple as a wet kiss and a brush of stubble on my cheek can trigger me to panic.
I give warning to those with whom I will share a bed, “If I cry or fight in my sleep, don’t touch me, just use your voice to call me back from the nightmare. I’ll tell you when it’s safe to touch me again.”
Bruises in the shape of his hands have healed, but the stain of being treated as chattel does not, nor can it wash away.
But I am wearing it down, like sanding a label off of a steel frame.
My self-worth, my integrity, and my boundaries remain intact.
I am borne up, out of the house of rape, abuse, and neglect.
I am lucky.
My mother has lived her whole life in the shadow, fearful.

My early childhood bedtime stories were of bogey-men who would put their hands on me at the slightest provocation, a short skirt or a late night walk or the simple appearance of vulnerability.

Working late one evening, my only other company is a male co-worker who is, in my experience, incredibly kind and friendly. But as I walk to the bathroom, I am terrified he will follow me there and force himself on me, where no one will find me huddled until the morning.
You see, it is not the strangers that I fear the most, it is my acquaintances. It is my lovers, my friends, the people closest to me.
If my consent was so ill-regarded by someone who was supposed to love me best and most of all, then what is my consent to all the others closest me?
I can not remember all of his trespasses, though they come to me in the night.
I am not always sure of truth or fiction, because I have tried to separate myself from the devastating nature of truth.
But I do remember, concretely, words and blows, boundary-crossing, abject fear, threats.

In the light I look like some one, but I know the truth of how tenuous my circumstances are.

If I fall, it will be without a net.

But if I succeed, I have arrived on my own two feet, at the pace and on the path that I have chosen, and that is the greatest achievement of my life, beyond any epic art or activism, that I have arrived here of my own accord.
By my choice, by my words, by my deeds, I am borne up, and out of the house of rape, abuse, and neglect.

-RD

true story

04/20/2012

writing lyrics. imagine Modest Mouse meets yelling music.

we find our selves in the strangest places
behind the two ogres and the crack motels
i lived with a crooked bird in a crowded cave
we clicked and clacked under the feet of the witches, witches
they were not kind
they were not cruel
just witches, witches

auburn frizzy hair and deep black eyeliner
ruddy thick fingers with claws
she beckoned me to secrets
i could not hear her incantations
all i could hear was her damnations

sometimes i think that i live there still
will i have to beg for my dinner
will i have to beg for love?
i’ve never been safer than in harm’s way
i’ve never been safer than in harm’s way
i know the worst that you hold.

we wrap ourselves in our wings
you never hear us sing but too loud
i’m learning to take up space
gonna feather myself down to a safer place.
i’ve never been safer than in harm’s way
i’ve never been safer than in harm’s way
i know the worst that you hold.

trigger warning for um, y’know. the stuff of nightmares. violence, sexual assault, despair.

lots of bad dreams lately, ugh.

nightmare the 1st: my mother, stepfather and i are in a car, speeding down a highway through the forest. it’s curvy, maybe in the Cascades. we are arguing and drinking, gulping vodka from a plastic jug. they are taking me to the woods so they can leave me there because they don’t want me any more. i am a bad seed, too gender variant to fit into their lives, their family. i keep trying to grab the wheel to make us stop or crash so that we can all either die together or i can get out and run away. something very bad is waiting for me at the place they are taking me. i pull out fistfuls of my mother’s beautiful black hair, bloody flecks of scalp cling to the ends. i hate this dream. i wake up unable to move and breathing hard, trying to will myself awake so i can turn over and put my hand on the person next to me, remind myself of all that is real.

nightmare the 2nd: my father is chasing me around trying to rape me. he has done this before, he will do it again. and again. my parts hurt. i hate him. i hate that 8 years later, i still wake up yelling. it took me hours to fall asleep, heart rushing and mind racing, and this is what i get when i finally fall sleep. i hate whatever it was that happened to me (i still don’t know what it was!) that makes my brain call it back up like this. i hate waking up exhausted, body aching. i hate feeling like there is so much work to do outside of myself, but that what i really need to be doing is self-care. i feel broken the whole morning, carrying this memory of a nightmare inside of me like cancer that sheds despair. how can you kill what is a part of you? sometimes i think: i would torch my childhood memories (even those happy ones) to rid me, for once and for all, of these nightmares.

11/04/2011

the 2nd time that i ran away (successfully), i was how old? 13 or 14, i think. i was tired of alternating between being screamed at and fed or going hungry and ignored all the time. we had just moved to a new town, a small town. i had already tempted suicide and fate in various ways, tho none serious enough to warrant the attention of my guardians beyond chastisement for being so weird. in either family i was the outlier, the weirdo. a friend has a piece of writing entitled “home of the constant weirdo,” and this sometimes pops into my head at the strangest times, like now, recalling that life.

even at church, the most forgiving and accepting environment i could find, i was a weird. a queer, pro-choice, atheist…mormon. i kept all those things inside, bore testimony like an actor at the academy awards. church was safe space: food, shelter, music. any yelling was a chant about god and righteousness, never in anger. even the cliquish cruelty of the popular kids was stayed by fellowship in our common mormon-ness, tho they never called me their own (wise of them, really).

had i been raped yet? it’s unclear. there was a boy who claimed to have done so while i was sleeping, but when i confronted him (what a brave little thing i was!) he recanted with the ever-popular: i was just trying to impress my buddies, i swear nothing really happened. was he telling the truth, or did he know that i would rustle up a posse and hunt him down (this was in one of my old neighborhoods, where i had allies). there were other things, the creepy boundary-crossings of my father that did not quite register at the time. it didn’t matter if i had been raped yet because i already knew the weight of my worth in the world–and it was little, so little that i was surprised anyone noticed my absence at all.

that morning i walked most of the way to school and kept walking, on and on, up the highway at rush hour, thru the morning and afternoon. i hid in the bushes and changed clothes to throw them off my trail, tho later i learned no one had been able to remember what i was wearing and they had given the cops a completely made-up description of my outfit. we had lived in town only a few weeks (at most a month?), and for many of my classmates the picture being passed around when i was declared missing was our first introduction. i did not leave a note. why should i, most uncared for of things, most alien, leave a note? i was convinced everyone would be better off. i was tired of watching my father beat up my step-siblings and get away with it, apologize, call a family meeting and pray, and her come back to him (again). i cut to relieve the tension of bearing witness (and the guilt of not taking his fists in their stead), but unlike others i hid my marks carefully, changed quickly or skipped gym altogether. made sure not to cut too deep so my mother wouldn’t question the scar when (if) i visited.

i had learned by some source that there was safe(r) space for runaways to be had in the city. if i could only get to it, there would be freaks and queers a-plenty. i knew that it was dangerous to be undocumented in the way that runaways are, that i would probably get hurt or killed. i just wanted (needed!) a chance at autonomy, and i knew if i didn’t run now i might not survive until i was legally given that right (well, as much as anyone is, under capitalism & the state, hey-oh!). the only way i could figure on surviving was dumpsterdiving, sleeping in alleyways, squatting, shoplifting, and prostitution, and i felt strangely well-prepared for all of those things, despite having never really done any of them before. i knew i couldn’t possibly be the only one, there were kids at school who were constantly in and out of juvy and rehab, who had already started to fight for their autonomy and survival–some who had never had much of a choice to begin with, practically born with fists flying.

[there’s more story here when i get to it, but suffice it to say i got Judas’d by a ‘friend’ who didn’t get it and dragged home by the cops. maybe i’ll finish writing that later]

10/31/2011

I must have been about seven years old when I tried to run away for the first time. My room had deep pink walls, and was huge, the biggest place I’ve ever lived, and the first time I’d ever lived in not-an-apartment. We shared a house that my step-grandparents owned while they were living/working in Europe. I’m not sure if my baby brother was born yet, but he must have been on the way. I had already started to show the signs of what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Sometimes I would fly into an inconsolable rage or despair. I broke things. A lot of things. Tore all the clothes from my closet and screamed until my face was dotted with cherry sprinkles of broken capillaries.  (understandably) Cut my father’s picture from every photograph I had, refused to go to school.

But this wasn’t one of those days. I don’t remember where I planned to go, or what I planned to do when I got there, I just knew that I had to get away. I’m almost certain that my father had gone missing in action again, and that I had some thought of looking for him.

I pulled the quilt off of my bed (still have that quilt, still sleep beneath it almost every night) and packed up what I thought I’d need: the dingiest and most-loved of my stuffed animals, my journal, probably my watercolor set, knitting box, and jacks inside, bundled it up and dragged it to the stop of the staircase (earlier, probably that same year, I cracked my tailbone after slipping and falling down those stairs).

And then I asked my mother to call me a cab.

Why?

Because I’m running away, I explained.

Oh. Okay.

The cab never arrived and I’m sure I had to explain myself to my stepfather later, or maybe Mister Jackson, the creepy white-haired counselor who asked me weird questions about my feelings about my vagina (I hated going to see him, hated talking with him, he made me so uncomfortable and did not seem to help with anything).

Canned Tomatoes

10/12/2011

My mother and I are very close; we grew up together. I recall holding her hand as her ears were pierced for the first time (I was 3, she was 26–the age I am now). While we do not talk all that frequently (once every few weeks or every month), we both write letters when we can and I feel her with me everyday. I carry her here (imagine my fist pressed to my chest). Not as a weight, but as a buoy.

I don’t want to talk too much about my mother’s life, reveal too much without her permission, but I will say that she has survived a fair amount of trauma, and bears the marks of that in the form of PTSD and other (for lack of a better word) quirks. As children, my baby brother and I were discouraged from making sudden loud noises lest we trigger her. As a concession we were given time to scream. We’d all pile into the car and she’d start to drive and then yell “Okay, one, two, THREE, SCREAM!” And we would, voices raised in joy and rage. Life with my mother was never dull. My mother raised me with the same kind of constant anxiety that she herself experienced. She raised me on caution, suspiciousness, anxiety, double-checking locked doors, looking over my shoulder at the sound of approaching footsteps. I don’t think she meant to–she was just trying her best to keep me safe from a dangerous world.

My mother talks in code when we talk on the phone, as if someone might be listening at some point and interject, protest, punish either one of us for the secrets we share, as parent and child. She calls trauma ‘canned tomatoes.’ My mother has a specific palate for using metaphor to confront even the most difficult of subjects, something I learned well–we are both writers.

I was raised on canned tomatoes, stocked and stewed for years. It’s taken me a long time to stop taking on other peoples’ tomatoes when they share them with me. For years it physically hurt to hear my friends and loved one’s stories, and I would find myself dragging them around with me and being hurt by their trauma over and over, how could these horrible things happen to these people I love? I’d better be careful… My pantry was over-full. I had enough canned tomatoes that I might not ever want to leave the house again, were that possible.

But. I am learning how to be present, to sit with other peoples’ stories of trauma (with my own) without taking on the weight. This thing happened to you, you did not deserve it, it was awful–and it is okay. I am not responsible for it and I can’t take it away, but I can be present long enough to listen, to hear you, and sometimes that is enough. Sometimes that is more than enough.

My pantry shelves are getting lighter. There’s finally room for the fruits (and vegetables!) of liberation, too–and not just the fruit of our sorrows.

-RD