The Places I've Never Been (2012)

I met my father for the first time twice in my life. The initial first was in the summer of 2009. While snooping around the house on a day I could not stand to show up to my high school summer job, I came across the photograph of a man who shared my crooked smile. I turned it over and in plain, black letters it had my father’s name and beneath it, ‘Giselle’s Dad.’ An hour later, I sat on my twin sized bed with the telephone receiver to my ear and called the operator. Within forty-five minutes, I found him in Texas at in his mother’s house. He had no knowledge of the stories I built around him, each ending with him either dead or at least with limbs blown off in war. When you are a child who does not know her father, you become good at telling stories. You develop what teacher’s used to call a “writer’s imagination.” You cope in the only way you can.

The second time I met my father, I flew. After talking to my mom about the pros and cons nearly four years later, I decided to go to Texas and meet the other side of my family. By then, I was nineteen and old enough to understand loss without being torn apart by it. Two round faces were waiting for me at an airport in St. Charles, Louisiana. When you meet your second family for the first time, when it is the first because of a personal choice and nothing else -no death, no war- you don’t want to hug these people, but you do.  You feel you must. You are part them.

I eye the man whose face looks just like mine, a face I have known every day of my life: high forehead, wide mouth, large nostrils, round nose and look back at a mirror with no glass.  My grandmother stands beside me and I think of the things I have missed. “Grandma” does not roll off of the tongue nicely, much like the word “dad.” The three of us walk towards the exit. We finally get into the car. On the drive to Texas, my father turns and asks if I plan on getting my hair done while I’m there. I do not touch my afro. I do not spit. I smooth the snarl from my lips. I say, “It is done,” and it is. All of it is done. My opinion was done forming. The mystery was finally solved. My hair was a conditioned, wild cloud around my head.

After this exchange, I cower in the back seat, Louisiana swampland rolling past. I think of the sky, how it is the same blue everywhere, even in places I have never been. I get to the house and remove my shoes. The only things that belong to me stay close. My scarlet duffel bag, hot pink blazer, and canvas sneakers with frayed laces are all familiar. Even though these people are my family, they do not belong to me. Not like my mother or my home does. They are a land I have acquired but never set foot on. A home left to me because of birth, whose living room I did not decorate.

The immediate family greets me in the living room. I meet my aunt Sarah who is the constable of a quiet town in Texas. My family has a large meal prepared for my arrival and I sit quietly, answering questions when I can. I am exhausted by all the new people with names I cannot remember: Cousin Herman, Miss. Something who goes to my grandmother’s church and lives down the block, Cousin Torsha, and Uncle Somebody. After a while, my aunt sees that I am uncomfortable and takes me for a car ride. We talk about all that has happened since I have been gone. She is warm and kind.

Over the next few months, I do everything to avoid seeing my father. I learn his patterns. He comes over to the house for a few hours every morning. I train my body to wake up as soon as the door closes behind him. I gravitate towards Aunt Sarah and Cousin Herman. They do everything to make sure I am happy in this strange place. They take me crabbing in the Sabine River; I brown my skin in the Texas sun. I laugh with them and go out to eat. They even drive me to meet my younger sisters for the first time.

I watch the way my father interacts with the family and find that there is no poetry in the way he lived. There was no story to craft around his absence from my life. He was just a lazy man who hopped from family to family. Just a sick man, who had a few strokes, learned how to talk again but still loved the same. He loved with his absence. He loved by taking. I decided to have nothing to do with him and by the second week. I remained cordial but never spoke after, “hello.”

Childhood imagination became a dull flicker when held to a brighter light.  I needed the visit to quiet my youthful wonderings. I needed to know what I was missing, if anything at all. There is a hole you carry when you don’t have certain answers. When left alone, it widens until there is nothing left. Other times, we fill the hole with things that do not grow. People can smell it when we step into the room. We carry what is missing with us, even if we do not know its name. I found out that sometimes the gift is the lack of a gift.

On the last day of my trip, my father was so angry at my lack of communication that he flung a cup of iced tea in my direction upon departure. He started toward me violently, my aunt Sarah blocking his way and my cousin Herman holding his arm. I smiled and shrugged, wiped up the cool, sweet liquid. On my way to the airport, I gave thanks. My grandmother did not tell me she loved me as I boarded my flight. She was clear about where she placed her loyalty.

When I finally reached New York and found my brother, uncle and mom, I did not say too many words. On the ride home, the sun tinted the sky a rich red violet. It was my welcome mat. I did not learn much except that the face is a well that never dries. Family is not a bloodline but a way of being; it is a mutual presence. Finally, I learned that the sky is the same blue everywhere, even in places I’ve never been.

 

Unlearning The Phantom (2013)

This essay was written exclusively for The Body Narratives

It didn’t take long for my body to swell into a thing beyond my control. I was 7 or 8 when it started. When I learned what ‘fat’ meant as it spat itself out of someones mouth and rolled its girth in my direction. I remember the Summer well. My mom and step father were arguing every day. My mom decided to send me to Palm Bay, Florida so she could focus her attention fully on the home in flames before her. It was then I experienced my first bout of depression and learned quickly how to gorge through that sadness. I arrived home at the end of August, plump with all my grief. By 11, I towered over all of my peers. Stood last on the girls’ line each morning. My skin erupted in angry signs of puberty across my forehead and cheeks. I learned what it meant to carry yourself in a body that had to be guarded. One people felt you should apologize for.

When you are young and people replace words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘enough’ with ‘potential’ and ‘good reader,’ it is a long trek towards learning what was not taught. You sit in front of many mirrors. You straighten your back. You take deep breaths and sigh and squeeze and tug and swell and poke. Afterwards, you are a hot air balloon post flight. The whole of you curled into yourself. Your body in need of a warmth you only ever had when someone gave it to you.

I spent many days in school bathroom stalls alone, my face burning with the cruelty of children. I came to expect the howls of laughter. The feet sticking out to trip me. I learned to mouth the words to their recess songs. Began singing them to myself. I learned how to become small in ways my body could not be for me while enclosed in my uniform of pleated skirts and wool sweaters. I slouched my shoulders. Bended my spine. Made my voice softer, smaller, higher pitched. Hoped like a dog whistle, humans would not hear it. I morphed into something subhuman. Here, but not quite. Sat so still, I felt like a phantom.

I carried these feelings of unworthiness everywhere. Fell into the arms of lesser men because they were open. Because I never thought arms would be there for me to pick from. The images of women found lovable or desirable did not look like me. Did not fill their dresses the way I filled mine. Did not tower up, sturdy in the way I was sturdy. I had never heard the words pretty and sexy in reference to bodies soft in the ways I was soft.

I remember my first boyfriend. His name was Khy. I remember him kissing me for the first time. I remember spitting into a flower pot afterwards when his head wad turned. I remember him cheating on me. I remember scattered experiences I mistook for intimacy. My body in a few beds. On a few couches. Against a few walls. Being touched by hands that would not hold me up even on my brightest day.I don’t think I began to believe I was beautiful until I left high school. Throughout the years I had days, of course. I would stretch my legs into the right pair of jeans or drape a silk dress over my head and see a glimmer of the kind of beautiful I could be. It was only when I retired the life long catholic school uniform for good and gained permanent autonomy over my body that things began to shift in my life. I started being able to decide what it was I wanted to put on my body. How I wanted to navigate through life. What I wanted the image reflecting my inner world to be. I claimed my body for good and in doing so, released the reins people once used to tether it into place.

It started slowly. Oxblood lipstick spread carefully over my pout. Spikes. Neon. Prints. Then one day I took the scissors and cut off the final bit of safety blanket I had left. In this freedom, I bloomed.

If we use units outside ourselves to quantify our worth, how will we ever be enough? Instead I learned to be compassionate. I did what felt good. Now, I wear lavender oil because it makes me feel beautiful. I cover my body in lush, printed fabrics. I avoid wearing anything that does not feel good beneath my hands. I soothe myself with spiced teas and fill my plate with vegetables in a myriad of colors. I light candles at night and burn nag champa in the morning. I wash my hair with mint and twist it with shea butter. I make it to yoga when I can. Extend and stretch the limbs I once cursed for being so long.

I will not say there aren’t days when I don’t wish myself something better. Sometimes, I fall into old patterns; Into the wrong arms. But this is no longer a default space to live in. Now, it is a crevice I know I can crawl out of. And I do. A few days ago my mom was at the lady’s house next door and when she came home said, “the neighbour’s daughter is so sweet. She sees you every morning and thinks you look so cool.” I laughed because this journey is one in which we are given many names, none of which matter but the ones we choose for ourselves.