SEA SALT AND SANDALWOOD by Karmenife Paulino. Copyright © 2015 by Karmenife Paulino. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author. The following text has been printed as a part of the Gorilla Publishing Collective 2014-2015 Series. The Gorilla Publishing Collective is a small group of writers that produces individual books through a collaborative editing process over the course of an academic year. Our series is written, illustrated, edited, and designed by students at Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT). Electronic access to our series via Issuu.com: https://issuu.com/gorillapublishingcollective Books in the 2014-2015 series:
And Then Who Knows? by Marissa Castrigno Sea Salt and Sandalwood by Karmenife Paulino Words From The Kitchen Table compiled by Yael Horowitz Women I Have Disappointed by Raphael Linden Today I Am Allergic to Tangerines and It’s True, I Feel Relieved by Kai Wilson Managing Editor: Marissa Castrigno Head Designer: Giorgia Sage Special thanks to Kate Weiner. This year’s series was funded by the Wesleyan Writing Program and by private donors through a grassroots fundraising campaign. A very sincere thank you to all those who contributed. Special Donor’s Circle: Tony Castrigno Stacia Cronin Julie Glantz Lisa Korn Mina Seeman David Wilson Heather Woodward
Sea Salt and Sandalwood Karmenife Paulino
Table of Contents Murals 9 Elementary 12 Oscuro 14 Mother 18 Child 22 Beast 23 Senior 24 Touch 28 Wesleyan University, 29 2014 Trapped 33 Family 38 Speak 42
Murals We used to paint spirits in the hallway. My mother would take down the plethora of plants that hung from the ceiling and clung to the windowsill and then spend hours painting the hallway white. After it had dried, my mother would invite me and all my other first grade friends to come and “tell a story” on our walls. We would ravish the white spaces with our paintbrushes and ingenuity. The creatures we had created in the folds of our brain tissues were released onto the walls in hues of reds, magentas and blues. We would crouch down together, my mother pouring in the paints while I mixed them into perfect shades of lavender and periwinkle. Hours would pass, but eventually the entrance to our home would be adorned with angels and hills supple with the prowess of Mother Nature. I remember how rugged and caked our canvas walls felt as I traced my fingers against the grooves of paint we’d smeared on together. A month or two would pass and then it was time for us to smother our masterpiece with white, waiting to see which world we were ready to create next. As I got older, the murals ceased. Soon there was nothing for me to trace my fingers against. There were no creatures to admire –our relationship was changing. It continued to shift and shape itself into an unknown correlation and I began to lose touch with the mother I knew, just as our hallways became foreign after losing the colors and warmth that once enveloped our home. I was born in a midwife house in the Bronx, NY on May 19, 1993. My mother tells me that that morning her midwife called her and asked about her condition. “Just wanted to check in. I know the due date is soon, but I also am aware of the fact that today is Malcolm X’s birthday and knowing how much you adore him, I thought it would be pretty funny if the baby decided to arrive today.” An hour later my mother began to have contractions and 45 minutes later I was born. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem with my father and my older sister, but this union did not last long. After a few years my parents divorced and my father moved to Queens to form a new family. Soon after that my sister moved to the Dominican Republic to be with her father. For most of my life it was just me and mother; our own alliance. During my preschool and early elementary school years, my
mother would arrive early on Fridays and ask to pull me out of class. We would pile into our car and she would rummage through the glove compartment, searching for her beloved Tina Turner or Marc Anthony cassette tape. My mother would drive to a park, a garden or a Buddhist temple in upstate New York. My favorite road trips were the ones that involved the ocean. My mother would often drive me to the beach, even in the winter. We would kick off our shoes and chase each other or sit in the sand together and make palaces. We always arrived with a piece of fruit or flowers that we would then offer to the goddess of the sea. We would sit together, our toes kneading through the sand and grit, our tired fingers intertwined. “Education is very important Karmen, but education is not just academia. It is about absorbing and observing your surroundings. You are a child of nature and you can never forget mother earth. It’s easy to forget her when you’re stuck in the concrete jungle. It’s easy to forget her sunlight and her moonlight when you’ve become too taken with the lights in the television. But she is your life source, she is your family, she is your world. I bring you to these places so you don’t forget her. In this society you are expected to always be in motion, to always be working, to always be doing. You are not a “human doing,” you are a human BEING and being means existing and enjoying this life that is in your hands. You need to find a balance between working and being, always making sure that you’re in tune with mother nature because she is a constant. She’ll never turn her back on you.” Our trips to the beach became less frequent after the front of our car was hit by a red truck lacking a sense of direction. The backseat stopped smelling like saltwater but if you looked closely enough you could find specks of Mother Nature’s gritty ocean seeds in the grooves of the car seat. Less frequent transitioned to rare after the patience my mother had for finding parking in New York City was wearing thin. One day after, searching for parking for over thirty minutes, my mother slammed the brakes and said, “Fuck it I’m done with this car.” She honked ferociously at a man crossing the street. “You! Yeah, you! You got a car?” “No.” “You want one?” And just like that, our blue Toyota disappeared. It became difficult to visit Mother Nature’s salty womb but mom and I made do. One summer her sunrays proved too forceful, beaming
over the city, breeding with the concrete to produce a surplus of suffocating heat. Lying on my sheets I could sense Mother Nature’s desire to kiss her daughter. My shades were drawn but her beams peaked through anxiously scoping my bedroom in search of a forehead to kiss. Her kisses sunk into my skin, so humid and thick when she enters my nostrils. Inhale her, her love expanding inside my lungs, her appreciation escaping my body through sweet beads of sweat. Mom knocked on my door interrupting the other mother’s quality time with her small, sweaty daughter. “Come to the living room I have a surprise.” I crawled out of bed, my sheets wet with Mother’s grateful kisses. SPLASH.
My face and hair are drenched in cold water. My mom is standing in our bathroom, large water balloons bouncing in her arms. I run into the living room and she follows me, her balloons jiggling, mimicking the laughter that bubbles out of her throat. I hide behind the couch and she throws another one, her faulty aim sending it straight to the plants above my head. I sprint and duck underneath her, running to the bathroom to collect the balloons she’s left behind. I throw one at her and watch the rubber break and release its watery innards on her hot, thirsty pores. We spend an hour ducking, running, laughing and throwing until our two-bedroom apartment is soaked with the spoils of our fun. We mop up the water and lay our wet bodies on her bed. I rest my head on her chest, her fingers tugging at my naps as she reads to me. The sunrays have receded and soon she sends the moonlight to visit through the blinds. I lay there, mom’s scent of sandalwood burrowing into my nostrils. Mother Nature’s white kisses beaming on my forehead. My eyelids become heavy and my breathing aches of exhaustion. I close my eyes smiling at how lucky I am to have two mothers who will never turn their back on me.
Elementary My mother’s raised me on sunlight, embraces and books. After I was finished with preschool, my mom devoted all of her time and energy into finding an elementary school that would encourage the creative energy that was humming in my growing limbs. After months of searching I was finally enrolled in River East Elementary. I fell in love with my teachers and my assignments, especially reading and River East only stimulated that adoration. Yet in sixth grade the excitement and joy I felt entering the school drastically evaporated. River East Elementary was always encouraging parents to volunteer. One man in particular was always found volunteering at the school: Mario. Mario had a son in my class and was always chaperoning our overnight trips as well as spending many afternoons at River East. Mario was very charming, funny and kind, always sneaking gifts to the children. In sixth grade he began bringing me DVDs of my favorite television shows, once even giving me a Simpsons poster he had stolen off a subway car. He began frequently inviting me over to his home to watch movies with him and his son, but every time I asked my mother if I could go she said “No.” “I love Mario. I think he’s such a dedicated father and a very sweet man but something in my gut tells me I shouldn’t let you go over there.” “Mom but you just said that you love him.” “Yes mi hija, but my intuition says no. You need to always trust your intuition because it’s only job is to look out for your best interest. It solely exists to guide you, you can never ignore it.” I rolled my eyes, ruling my mother’s words as one of her other silly superstitions, not knowing that the combination of my mother’s intuition and drive to keep me safe evaded horror. In sixth grade my mother decided to begin her own investigation of Mario and unearthed some disturbing news: In October 2000 Mario had been charged with sexually molesting a boy he had tutored in a local service center. He had also been indicted on sodomy charges as well as other sex crimes against children. My mother contacted the authorities who seized Mario and later came to arrest my principal because he allowed Mario to chaperone our night trips and volunteer at the school despite being fully aware of his history of abusing children. My mother pulled me out of River East and homeschooled me for the remaining three weeks of the sixth grade school year.
“I think we need a fresh start, somewhere new. What do you think?” Seeing that nothing else was tying us to New York, I agreed and we began packing our bags. We decided to move to Eugene, Oregon, a town we had fallen in love with after only visiting it twice. We had no home, no job waiting for my mother and no knowledge regarding the school system there. We would pack up our things and mail them to the one close friend we had in Eugene and sleep on her couch bed until we “figured it out.” One day we both sat in front of my mother’s massive bookshelf in the living room. Boxes spread around our legs, one going to Eugene and the rest heading off to storage. While deciding which bound, prized possession needed to come with us, my mother began to cry. “I just hope I’m making the right choice for you morena. I can make mistakes too and I am so scared of this being one of them. You deserve a plan, and here we are going off on a whim. I just hope this is the right decision.” “I think it is. I’m not sure why but I think we’re going to be fine.” I wrapped my arms around her and felt her face burrow into my neck, her arms squeezing my frame. She was right. We had no plan but that did not seem to bother me at all. For me home was where you felt warm, where your limbs and your mind had sufficient space to swell. A space where I shined even though the world outside had no desire to recognize beauty or worth in the kinks of my afro or the fullness of my lips. Home was not a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem or a house in Eugene. Home was the smell of sandalwood that warmed my nostrils as my mother’s arms enveloped my ribcage.
Oscuro “Mami, do they have to live underground?” “Claro Karmen, that’s the only way they can grow.” “It’s so dark down there, they must not like it.” We were going on one of our daily walks in a park that was only three blocks away from our home. At the time my fear of the dark had enforced a strict nightlight policy in our home and I showed no interest in letting the policy expire. My nine-year old fingers gripped my mother’s hand as I examined the little green stalks that sprouted from the dark, damp ground. “Everything that is born from this planet is born in darkness. When you were growing inside of my womb, there was only darkness. When plants are beginning to grow green and tall, their journey begins in darkness. All life, yours and those that belong to nature, begins in darkness. You will know darkness when you are born into this world and you will know darkness when it is time for you to leave it. Darkness is more familiar than you think. Darkness is nothing to be afraid of.” My young mind could not process the weight of my mother’s words, so they sat atop my membranes and slowly soaked into my brain as I continued to grow older. I find a new person emerging from the darkest periods of my life. My survival completely dependent on the wisdom my mother left behind in the fluids of my brain. After finally moving to Oregon, my mother and I stayed in our friend Beth’s living room. Our first two weeks there my mother and I spent all of our time talking to the locals about the best school options and searching for a job for my mother. Our search led us to the Village School, a small public Waldorf school with paintings in the hallway and a whole room dedicated to teaching children how to knit. After a quick tour my mother held my hand and whispered in my ear. “Close your eyes Ife. Imagine the hallways, the classrooms, the cafeteria. Think about the classes and the playground outside. Can you see yourself learning here? Can you imagine yourself walking through these hallways? Can you imagine yourself playing on the monkey bars outside? Can you see yourself here?” These were questions my mother always asked when it came time to pick a school. We had visited two schools before this one and when I would close my eyes and think of the classrooms and the halls I could not see my legs walking through them or my hand raised in class. I saw nothing. This time I could hear my laughter roaming through the halls of the village school and my fingers playing with all the balls of yarn in the knitting room. “Mom this is it. This is my school.”
When we went to the principal’s office to discuss enrollment one of the administrators took great interest in my mother after learning that she spoke Spanish. When my mother told her that she used to teach Spanish in New York she was immediately offered a job. “We really need a new Spanish instructor and I feel like you would be a great fit here.” So in under an hour I had found a school and my mother had found a job. Later that week we found an apartment ten minutes away from the Village School and we could not help but feel proud of ourselves for taking the risk to travel with no plans set in place. I made friends fairly quickly at the Village School and the entire school fell in love with my mother. Her teaching habits were quirky but extremely effective. She taught us seventh and eighth graders how to flirt in Spanish, she brought a fake skeleton to class to teach us how to say body parts in Spanish, she bought countless books in Spanish for children in the lower grades and would sit and draw with them when she was off her shift. She took the time to get to know each of her students and soon it felt as if she had been working at the Village School for years, not two and a half months. One brisk November afternoon, my mother and I were eating lunch together in a festive little restaurant when I suddenly felt a tapping on my shoulder. I looked over to see my mother bobbing her head uncontrollably, saliva foaming and bursting from the corner of her mouth. I screamed for a doctor and laid her on the ground, trying to steady her sharp quivers by holding her head in my hands. As I watched her wriggle and quake with seizure, my childhood came to a screeching halt. I proceeded to feel the naïve mentality I had grown accustomed to shiver out of my body like the saliva that quivered down my mother’s chin. Tumor. A meningioma the size of a golf ball. A round, hard mass lodged in the folds and membranes of my mother’s frontal lobe. The doctor’s held up the x-rays and said that test results show that the tumor had been growing for more than a decade. Growing up around the ages of nine and ten, I specifically remember my mother consistently suffering from severe, stinging head pain. She would get these debilitating headaches that would skewer her temples. Sometimes the pain was so overwhelming that she would be forced to lie in bed with the curtains drawn and the door closed, encasing herself in a makeshift bubble that blocked any reverberations of light
and sound. My mother had a steady job and some money saved up from her past organizational leadership work. She decided to use the money to seek proper treatment for her pain inducing condition. “It’s always important to ask for help when you really need it, especially if it is about your health. It is not a sign of weakness. You need to work hard and be independent to get through life, but never feel ashamed to ask for guidance when you’re lost.” Yet the sad reality was that if you were a woman, especially a woman of color, asking for help from a society that views you as a dispensable exploit is dangerous, sometimes fatal. My mother put her trust in her doctors and in return they misdiagnosed her multiple times. First they diagnosed her with one mental illness, then another and then another. My mother would open up to them, talk about her mood swings, her dizziness, her throbbing pain swelling inside her skull. My mother would fight and try to redirect the doctors to the pain in her head, even once asking about MRI scanning. But time and time again she was ignored and slapped with other misdiagnosis and a new prescription slip. My mother took the pills they gave her in hopes that in doing so it would make her healthy and allow her to continue functioning and caring for herself and her family. The pills led to an enlarged liver, massive weight gain and distorted moods among many other things. It did not matter that my mother brought in documents of research she did regarding the treatment she should be receiving. It did not matter that my mother graduated top of her class in high school and received a full scholarship to New York University. In the eyes of modern medicine, my mother was just a “crazy” black woman who should learn to stay quiet and do as she’s told. Now, years later, after suffering a grand mal seizure, my mother finally got her MRI. As the doctor showed us the scans, I held my mother’s hand and observed that white, thick golf ball of flesh and mucus that countless other doctors never bothered to find. It was the cause of her shakes. It was the cause of her headaches. It was the cause of her mood swings, her impulsivity, and her loneliness. Doctors crowded her body, cloaking my mother with x-rays, pills and surgery plans. The Village School community heard about my mother’s condition and took it upon themselves to ensure that she and I had everything we needed. There was a chart placed in the hallway where parents could sign up to bring us food for different days of the week. The lower grade classes would have early morning bake sales and the
proceeds all went to helping my mother and I. The bake sales were an insane success and I was shocked to find that these small children had raised enough money to pay a full month of rent. As the date for my motherâ€™s surgery grew near, the community at the Village School grew closer and tighter around us, desperate to show us all the love and adoration one could forget in moments as arduous and terrifying as these. The tumor was removed successfully in December 2005, but skin and brain matter were not the only things that were taken away. As my mother began her healing process, doctors stated that everything seemed normal. My mother and I continued our life in Eugene until we decided to move back to New York for reasons I can no longer remember. We said goodbye to our friends and companions and travelled back to our apartment in Harlem, never able to forget the immense kindness we received in Eugene. Returning to our old district, our alliance was ready to tackle high school and prepare me for the road to university. But as my teen years began to pass I noticed that the scraping of membranes and the extraction of that mass took away the mother I recognized and left me with three personas, each struggling to control the body that gave my life. The first persona was Mother, her normal, loving, vibrant self. The second was Child, jealous, scared and vulnerable. The third was Beast, violent, disgruntled and vengeful. I remember darkness shrouding my skin with a suffocating snugness that stemmed from never knowing who I would come home to.
Mother I’ve watched my mother make a man twice her size cry. We were walking home from Central Park when a man smoking a cigarette on a stoop unknowingly spoke his last words. “Mmmmmm girl. You look good as fuck.” My mother’s head whipped back and mine slowly followed He stood at six feet, his tank top exposing his arms bulky and sagged with muscle and age. Gray mustache hairs tickling his tongue as he spread and wiggled it over his lips, never once breaking eye contact with me. My mother stood almost a foot away from me but I could feel the velocity of her anger spinning through her veins, vibrating through her 5’7’’ frame. Vibrating, bubbling, beginning to froth the rage uncontrollably until it pried her mouth open and bared her canines and her viper tongue. “What…the…fuck…did you say to my daughter?” I know that voice. That voice that dominates her cells and turns her eyes to glass. That voice that sharpens and lengthens her viper tongue, waiting for the hot saliva that dripped from its sides to turn into foreign, thick, catcaller blood. Everyone else in the neighborhood knew that voice too. They heard it when white people began to invade our Harlem neighborhoods, pushing us natives out and replacing us with bike lanes and veterinary centers. They heard it when police splashed the blood of our brothers and sisters on the pavement for all of us to absorb. They’d heard it, I’ve heard it and this foul shell of a man was about to hear it too. “Not talking to you lady mind your business.” Vibrate. Bubble. Saliva. Blood. She slithered towards him, her head upright, her knuckles white, even standing at a distance I could feel how deep her fingernails pushed into her palms as her fists solidified into rock. Then she began to laugh. Her chuckles rising and dropping the hot tension embedded in her shoulders and her fists. “That’s my daughter. She is my business. My beautiful, intelligent, creative child that I’ve raised on my own and here I am trying to enjoy a walk with her and I have to deal with yet another one of you saggy, dirty ollddddd motherfuckers spewing vile things that should never reach her ears in the first place. What do you think is actually going to happen? She’ll hear your tasteless, offensive comments and drop her panties? She’ll look over at your saggy, veiny, lifeless skin and become
instantly enamored enough to want your decrepit mummy penis? You come after my daughter because she has what you want: a future. She has something in her that will take her so far in life, something you wouldn’t know because you’ve wasted yours. You lust for her beauty, her youth, her everything because that is what you have lost: everything. You’re a sad old man whose brightest moments of the day consist of sweating in a used up tank top and disrespecting women that look at you they way we look at shit when we’ve stepped in it. You contribute nothing of value. Go shrivel up and die you pathetic, sack of saggy garbage. At least your death will be the only good contribution you give to this planet.” She whipped her head back towards me, gripping my hand as we began to walk away. His blood sticky on the buds of her tongue, his tears sizzling on the hot stoop steps. We reach our apartment building and while we waited for the elevator, my mother grazed her fingers through my hair. “I love you mi hija. Don’t ever let them determine your value. You know your worth, and you can let them know too once you’ve crushed them under your feet.” The elevator doors open and after we entered I wrap my arms around her, feeling drops of her sweet, warm saliva on my cheek after her kiss. “Your daughter can’t read.” My mother sat across from my ninth grade English teacher, her posture straight and her eyes widening. “Excuse me, what?” “She needs serious help with reading. She’s failing her grammar tests, she’s not doing so well in her vocabulary handbooks. She’s struggling and I really think you need to find her a tutor.” “My daughter has been reading books since she was five years old. She’s been writing her own short stories since she was seven. All my daughter does at home is read, write and draw. You have to understand that this is a new environment for her, and she’s told me many a time how intimidated she feels by your teaching methods. My daughter may be struggling with these grammar quizzes and books, but don’t you dare tell me she cannot read. If that’s what you sincerely believe than you do not know my daughter.”
My mother came home from that parent teacher conference completely exhausted and infuriated. I was enrolled with a full scholarship to the Rudolf Steiner School, a private Waldorf school in lower Manhattan. After returning from Oregon I was originally enrolled in Crossroads Middle School but was forced to leave after being bullied severely by the students. A friend who knew of my love for Waldorf education directed us to Steiner and I melted when I thought I found a school that would mimic the loving community I found in Oregon. However the extreme lack of diversity and the fact that I was poor forced me to realize that this would be nothing like the haven I found in the Village School. I began to feel threatened by my peers who could not seem to understand me. My confidence was always intact because of the fact that I prided myself in being an excellent student, especially in English, but that confidence evaporated when I entered into Mrs. B’s ninth grade English course. Her main focus at the time was on grammar, and the books and worksheets she would hand to me seemed foreign and unpalatable. My lack of interest and understanding was translated as a lack of intelligence and soon I found myself dreading to go to school. I would cry to my mother, telling her that I seemed to be getting stupider and she’d run her fingers through my hair and place my head on her shoulder. “Sometimes it’s really hard transitioning to a new school. Let me talk to the teacher I’m sure everything will be fine.” Now after finally talking to my English teacher it was clear that everything was not fine. The week after that my mother spent her free time digging through boxes of family photos, old report cards and projects of mine she had been keeping for years. She called my advisor and asked for another meeting with my English teacher. The day of the meeting my mother picked up a box and carried it with her into the meeting. My English teacher was there along with my advisor whose presence was requested by my mother. My mother grabbed the box and dumped its contents onto the table in front of my teacher, papers, drawings and letters spreading all over the wooden surface like liquid. “These are all short stories my daughter has written since she has learned how to read. I have also included various letters of recommendation she’s received from ALL of her past English teachers, all regarding Karmenife as having an incredible talent and love for reading and writing. There are also two prizes she’s received from past schools for “best storyteller” and “best writer.” There are poems she’s
written, lists of her favorite books, book reports she’s made, all graded excellent. Please explain to me how my daughter could have acquired any of this if she does not know how to read well? My daughter has problems with grammar. That is a fact and she does need some help. But she will not be able to ask for help if you continue to make her feel dumb. She is a poor child of color trying to excel in an environment that caters to rich, white children. You cannot even imagine what kind of stress she is under right now. Tell me, have you ever read the Autobiography of Malcolm X?” My teacher nodded and said yes, she had. “Then you must remember the scene in which Malcolm tells his teacher that he wants to be a lawyer, and his teacher slaughters that dream by telling him that his skin color made him more apt to be a carpenter. Do you remember how that teacher’s comment broke Malcolm inside?” “Yes of course I do.” “Good. Then you sit there and think about what kind of teacher you want to be for my daughter, because I guarantee that she’ll be writing about you someday as well.” My mother picked up my poems, stories, awards and notes and placed them back in the box. After that meeting my teacher was much more attentive to me. She began helping me with grammar and made a true effort to be less intimidating. I began to see a kinder side of her, a side that felt genuine and tangible. Before I graduated from the Steiner school, Mrs. B had become one of my biggest supporters and favorite teachers. I remember sitting on the couch with my mother as she described that meeting with my teacher in detail. A large, infectious grin could not help but stamp itself on my face as she ended her tale. “You need to always stand your ground and be confident in yourself mi hija. We are living in White America. They’ll say you’re worthless because you are Afro-Latina. They’ll say you’re crazy because you are woman. They’ll do anything to discredit you because you threaten them. Remember Audre Lorde, Mamá Tingo, Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur. Women of color have ALWAYS changed the world. That is a fact that will always ring true. Don’t ever let them try and tell you otherwise.”
Child It was late when her footsteps crept into my bedroom. My sleep interrupted by a faint hand shaking my shoulder. I turned to see my mother, standing at the side of my bed, her comforter wrapped around her body and head. Clear, blank eyes staring out from the blankets into mine. “Can I sleep here with you? I’m scared.” I turn over, burrowing my selfishness in my bedsheets. “Scared of what? Go to your bed.” I expected to hear her warm chuckle or feel her fingers shake my shoulder once more. But all that I heard was a fragile whimper and the taps of her toes hitting the hardwood floors as she slowly walked back to her bedroom.
Beast The night sky was nurturing me to sleep, my tired sixteenyear old frame climbing into my bed, hiding myself away amidst a sea of blankets and stuffed animals. Suddenly I felt a significant amount of weight on my hips. I pulled the blanket down and felt ravenous fingers gripping my neck. My mother lay on top of me, her eyes glowing blank slates. After what seemed like hours, she let go and floated out of my room, wandering our halls as if she had never stepped foot in our home before. She had no recollection of that evening, so I grabbed a scarf and tried to forget about it as well. I remember standing behind the door and feeling my fingers swell in different shades of royal blues and purples because I had slammed them between my desk and my dresser in an attempt to barricade my bedroom door. I remember multiple instances in my junior and senior years of high school where my attempts to escape led my mother’s hand to linger near her library of medications or her selection of sharp objects. “Coño, that’s it. I can’t do it anymore. You’ve killed me. I want to die, I need to die.” She would gather up her array of lethal possessions and lock herself in her room for hours. I would knock and call her name, but no noise would slither from under the locked door. I waited hoping that the transition from the moon to the sun would not leave behind a dead parent to bask in the sunrise. I remember feeling evil for the days when I no longer cared what the sun and the moon chose to do with her. I remember being in my junior year wandering through the city at night, longing for the shadows to cloak my skin and soak me into the towers of glass and metal that dominated every New York City block. I watched the taxis scurry through the streets like insects in a soiled kitchen. I inhaled their fumes of distress and exhaled my own. One insect raced down the block and I viewed its accelerated pace as an invitation. I jumped, landing face down, waiting for the insect to run over my shell and send me to the darkness that was waiting with open arms. Instead I was met with incessant honking. I opened my eyes to see that the taxi had stopped and was now angrily beeping at the blockade my body had created. I ran, accepting that even the darkness did not care to have me.
Senior “This is all I can leave you as an inheritance.” My mother’s outstretched her arms in front of her tall, vast bookcase. “We don’t have much money Ife, none that could make any kind of dent in college spending. But I have my books and in my eyes they shine like gold.” With less than 300 dollars in both our savings and checking accounts, it became apparent that I would need a full scholarship to attend university. Senior year had finally reared it’s head and along with all of the arduous work and responsibility that came with it, I was also forced to witness my mother’s condition worsen to the point where she was becoming unrecognizable. Her real self would peak through at times when she would wake at 5:30am to make me breakfast, edit my applications, find me books, make me tea in the dead of night as I filled out scholarship applications and forms. But she dwindled, her warmth and familiar fingers swallowed and suffocated by Beast. Beast did not want me to leave her side. As the weeks began to pass, home became the inferno. My mother would scream in my face while I’d attempt to fill out applications, frothing and yelling out her woes over how she wished she had gone through with her decision to have me aborted. I became skilled at blocking out her venom, until one day her fist came slamming down on my computer, denting my keyboard and leaving behind a small crater of anger and loneliness between the numbers and the space bar. I once came home to find that she had hidden my computer, which resulted in me losing my ability to turn in an application because the deadline was that evening. Beast became obsessive, my every move and keystroke a matter of public record and scrutiny for her. She stole my computer while I was in class and sent it to a hacker in order to have access to all my actions, thoughts and ideas. I became one of the first students to enter my high school in the mornings and one of the last to leave at night. I would wake up at dawn, smother the deadbolt lock with my scarf to dull the noise, and sneak off to the Starbucks on Lexington to finish off any applications she would not let me finish the night before. I remember darkness finally accepting my presence two days before I turned eighteen. What had started as a ritualized argument soon escalated into one of my mother’s most vicious episodes. Her breathing became burdensome, the heat of her breath smothering my
pores and before I could react, I found myself pressed against a door with her teeth in my face and her fists on my thighs. I remember how warm and bubbly her saliva felt as it sat and made itself comfortable in my small flaps of exposed skin. I managed to sneak an attack of my own and once I broke free from her grasp I darted for the door. That was the last morning I spent with my mother, a dawn that ended with silence and the smell of open flesh. I remember darting down the stairs and out of the building. The rain pummeled the city, strangling the buildings, streets and people until they were left in a morose shade of gray. I remember running past the gray, the rain like darts hitting my skin before I jumped on a bus. I sat at an open seat and wondered what would await me when I returned home later when I felt a sudden tapping on my shoulder. I turned to see a stranger sitting next to me, her damp hair clinging to her forehead, her brown eyes brimming with concern. I remember her outstretched hand toppling with napkins, the wrinkles on her hands almost mimicking the grooves on the paper. “For your face. You need something.” She pushed her hand in my direction and it was then that I noticed that almost every face on the bus was turned towards me. Their stares commanded me to take a napkin and in silence, I dabbed it on my face. I peeled the napkin off, feeling it slightly tug at the small flaps of flesh on my cheek. I looked down and saw that large patches of white on the napkin had been swallowed by blood. I remember clenching the napkin in one hand and holding my phone in another. It buzzed incessantly, my mother’s texts forcefeeding my inbox. “When are you coming home?” “Things may have escalated but we can work it out” “When you come home we’ll fix this.” The napkin felt heavy in my palm. The phone buzzed again “when are you coming home?” How could I come home when home was gone? Two days had passed and I was staying with my godmother. That morning I received another text from mom stating that she was no longer in the house and would not be there for some time. The only indication that she gave to her whereabouts was that she said she was in a “safe place.” My godmother argued that could mean she’s with a
friend or in the hospital, for me the fact that shone most was that she was not in the house. I had been wearing the same pair of underwear for a couple of days and had not packed that much clothing in my emergency bag. This was my chance to retrieve my things. It was drizzling as my godmother and I piled into her car and drove to my apartment. There were no clouds in the sky, only a grey blanket covering the heavens. We finally made it to the apartment building and soon found ourselves in the elevator jetting towards the sixth floor. I pressed my ear against the door, checking for any sign that mom might have lied about her whereabouts. I heard nothing and opened the door. I stood in front of the hallway I had known for eighteen years. The hallway my mother and I used to paint angels on. The hallway that once hung my mother’s collages made of rose petals and leaves she had crushed between her fingertips. The hallway that held her shrines and plants. The hallway we would cover with candles. The hallway I no longer recognized. The hallway was dark. Dozens of papers were taped to the walls like sinister snowflakes. The papers were ridden with handwriting that took minutes to decipher, partly because some of it was illegible but mostly because I did not want to accept that the handwriting was hers. “POISON. EVIL MOTHER. SICK. POISON MOTHER.” The green and black marker ink bled on some of the pages. My godmother rushed in front of me and began tearing them off the walls like Band-Aids, but I could still sense the infection they left behind. I continued walking, gusts of wind from the living room snapping at my tears and lips. The kitchen was desolate, my bedroom door was closed. I shut the windows only to find our box of family photos sprawled out on the floor. There were more papers on the wall and my godmother reached for them and ripped them as I leaned towards our memories. I remember how we used to sit on to of the animal skin rug in our living room, my fingers tracing our faces and smiles on the glossy prints as mom revisited each moment they represented. “This was your first violin recital. We found that dress two days before the show. You kept pointing at it in the store, your eyes large with adoration. Then after the recital you never wore it again.” “Here you are, six years old holding that horrible Free Willy doll. That was the only movie you ever wanted to watch. I had to watch 100 minutes of that fucking whale almost everyday. I made the mistake of
getting you that doll. You became so attached to it, it was almost as if it grew it’s own skin grafts and welded itself to your side. I’ll never forget the day you lost it in preschool. You threw tantrums like I had never seen. I tried to teach you that sometimes we lose things we love, but your tears and blood rushed cheeks shielded you from my words. I ended up buying you another one the next day.” I sat on the floor, my fingers trembling as I grazed them over the glossy film. I searched for her face but could not find it. She had cut her face out of almost every photograph and written “POISON” over the pictures the scissors had yet to meet. My body began quaking. I searched for the long gray hair she used to let me twist into braids. The brown eyes that used to glisten when she sang Mercedes Sosa songs. The fingers she used to massage lavender oil into my shoulders when the stress of exams tensed the muscles under my flesh. I searched and searched only to find harsh scissor marks and ink. My godmother grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the box but not before my tears had begun to smudge and distort some of the glossy fragments that were left behind. I grabbed three suitcases and filled them with essentials: clothes, papers, shoes, identification, underwear. Sitting in my desk drawer was my acceptance letter to Wesleyan University. I remember the day I received the letter. I remember how my mother lay in bed, meditating in hopes of eliminating the throbbing pain that cinched itself around the scar that had once exposed her frontal lobes. “Mami look! I did it! Full scholarship!” I remember how she embraced me, the stench of pride radiating from her pores and binding itself to my skin and clothes. “You did it mi hija, you’re going to make a great life for yourself.” I grabbed the letter and put it into my suitcase. My hands grew clammy as I grabbed my luggage and shoved it out the door. A new life that began with my feet darting away from the glossy fragments on the floor and my hands locking our door and sealing in the poison that seeped into our walls.
Touch “Diablo Karmen, don’t put too much soap on that.” I handed my mother the washcloth as I watched my god brother splash and soak his toys in the bathwater. We didn’t get many chances to babysit Max and while I was excited to spend time with him, eleventh grade author’s project was looming over my head. Paper deadlines and projects flooded my mind as my mother knelt near the bathtub. “Max, can I wash your arm? Can I wash your leg? Can I wash your back?” Each of my mother’s questions were met with a nod and a giggle. Only then would she proceed to take the cloth oozing with bubbles and rub it against his skin. “Why do you ask him that? He needs the bath, just wash him and it won’t take so long.” “This is how I used to wash you. It’s to condition children from a young age to recognize consent. He needs to understand that his body is his and that no one can touch it if he doesn’t want them to. You may think it’s strange but look at how you carry yourself now. You understand the necessary weight of consenting touch. You understand that this body belongs to you, it is no one’s object of conquest.” I sat next to her on the floor as Max grabbed the washcloth and submerged it in the sea of suds and plastic ducks. “Can I hug you?” She smiled, nodding as my arms locked themselves around her; She held me while we sat on the tiles, her scent of sandalwood peeling from the fibers in her sweater.
Wesleyan University, 2014 My room is in disarray. Dark circles cast shadows under my eyelids. Sitting in my bed, immersed in blankets I bring the shirt to my nose and violently inhale. The smell of sandalwood creeps into my nostrils as my fingers embrace and grip the cloth. It was my mother’s pajama shirt. The shirt she cooked me dinners in. The shirt she wore when we watched movies and critiqued the white wash dripping from the credits. My nostrils calmed with the residue of essential oils and if I smell hard enough sometimes I can vividly imagine her arms wrapping around my frame, applying a pressure that tells me “you’re safe, you’re loved.” But soon that pressure fades and when my nose becomes exhausted, I place her shirt back in the plastic bag and hide it in the depths of my closet. It has been three years since I’ve last seen or spoken to her. When I left, I imagined a new life waiting for me at Wesleyan. I arrived believing that I had left the darkness behind me, but the universe instead dug me into a pit of obscurity in which I needed to find my claws in order to scratch my way to the surface. The second month of my freshman year, my mother’s greatest fear came to life: I was raped. That month in 2011, I was participating in the Eclectic application process. That night began with me being kidnapped by members, swallowing the alcohol they shoved down my throat and giggling as they spun me around and led me blindfolded through the house. Suddenly the blindfold was stripped off and I was in a party amongst my peers and tubs of jungle juice. I kept drinking and laughing, my body wet from sweat, my soul warm from the attention and interest members showed in me. As I moved in the light, they came forward asking me questions about my past and background. I could not help but smile as I introduced myself because a large group of people had found something inside of me that was worthy of attention and intrigue. Here I was not a disease or the symbol of someone’s ultimate woes. I was not a burden. I was not evil. I was not worthless. Here, I was special and that sense of worth overwhelmed my pores, smothering the beads of loneliness that had been burrowed in them for years. This newfound joy energized and excited me. It unleashed a hunger that could only be fed by more faces and conversations. I wanted to swallow the entire campus and relish the delectable flavor of the chance to adopt a new identity. A friend and I soon left the party, running and giggling underneath the columns of Eclectic as we headed towards Psi Upsilon. We walked into the house together but shortly after arriving we were separated
by masses of students and solo cups. I wandered through crowds of pledge brothers and beer cans determined to reunite with my friend only to find that someone else had been looking for me as well. His name was M. and this was not the first time he had searched for me. I had met him during the first week of classes and each time we met afterwards were instances drenched in concern and discomfort. He would always try to kiss me, his fingers either digging into my hips or scratching towards my inner thighs. Each time I would say “No” “Don’t fucking touch me” and each time he would ignore me. My words did not matter. My desires had no value. I was prey. A body for him to ravage and my attempts to reinforce boundaries only magnified the target he saw painted on my forehead. He was tall, his limbs long and his frame towering over me. His speech slurred but his eyes were fixated on mine. His hands soon began to mimic his gaze, his fingers gripping the sides of my face holding it in place as he shoved his tongue inside my mouth. I froze wincing at the taste of his venom, but the claps and cheers that erupted from his pledge brothers made me question my feelings. Am I wrong? Should I kiss him back? Is this supposed to feel good? If I push him away will they ravage me too? Is this how hooking up is supposed to happen? Before any of my questions could be answered, his lips parted from mine. He grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the stairs. My body, accustomed to an adolescence ridden with feeling unsafe and uncomfortable, followed him as if out of habit. I remember lying on the tiles of the Psi Upsilon laundry room. His sweat and stench of alcohol on my chest and neck, my blood staining my face and his hands. I remember whimpering, trying to stifle the cries that were aching to escape my body while he was violently entering mine. He only stopped to say, “Excuse me” as he slithered off my chest and stomach and crawled to the corner of the room to vomit. I began collecting my clothes, throwing my sweater over my body in haste. Vomit began to trickle up my throat as soon as my nostrils sensed that his odor had infringed upon my clothes as well. The first chance I had I darted out of the house. I remember bolting through the door and feeling the seeds of repression plant themselves in my mind as my feet hit the pavement. Weeks passed and I thought nothing of the tiles. Those memories were burrowed in the parts of my mind reserved for
reminiscences of violence. His smell, his words, his taste, his fingers, my blood, my tears, my skin were all locked away in a place where they would swim and murk together with the mother I did not recognize. I turned to humor to deal with my trauma, mocking him and hoping that if I laughed hard enough maybe it will just be that: a joke. Weeks turned into months, months into years, until the second semester of my junior year arrived and the walls that were rooted in my skull began to crack. I remember the day when the mortar that was sandwiched between the bricks blocking my trauma turned to dust. Psi Upsilon was struck with a lawsuit regarding another incident of sexual assault that took place within the house. The entire campus erupted with anger and soon I could not find a space on campus that was free of the words “rape” and “fraternities.” I could not even escape it in class. During one of these classroom discussions, I raised my hand and spoke about an article I read that stated that survivors of sexual assault often re-write the experience as a coping mechanism necessary for surviving trauma. Rape transforms into just a “bad hook-up.” As class continued, that statement continued to ring in my head. “Rewrite…Coping Mechanism” “Survive…Coping Mechanism” “Trauma…Coping Mechanism” It rang while I was in class, but it blared when I walked outside. The words slamming themselves against the bone in my skull, my hands shaking as I briskly walked back to my room. I walked faster, keeping my head down. I wanted no one to look me in the eye out of fear that they would see the cacophony that was rampant and fuming behind my pupils. I walked past Psi Upsilon when the powerful reverberations of “rape,” “trauma,” “survive” shattered through the wall allowing everything within to ooze through.
I remembered his smell. I remembered his fingers and where he put them. I remembered how my throat viciously fought to close up. I remember how he laughed when he saw my eyes water. I remembered how I whimpered. I remembered how his fingers sprawled over my mouth, his hands squeezing on my face with such force that I thought he would split my skull. I remember the blood that rushed out of my nose and into the grooves of the skin on his palm. “I rewrote…Coping Mechanism” “I survived…Coping Mechanism” “My trauma…Coping Mechanism” There was no wall to hide behind anymore.
Trapped “I can’t go back there.” My fingers traced along the edges of the wrapping paper, ripping the ends as soon as my fingertips reached them. “You have to. You can’t give up your scholarship and all your years of hard work? That is your right and you’ve earned your place there. Don’t let your rapist take that away from you.” “I’m not letting him do anything. I just can’t be there. I’ll see him. He’ll know where I live, he’ll eat where I eat. He’ll be at the coffee shop, the grocery store, the mailroom. He’ll be there and when he’s not I’ll just be thinking about where he is. I don’t fucking deserve that. No one fucking deserves that. I’m not going back to Wesleyan knowing that he is somewhere on that campus waiting for me.” I stood up to adjust the air conditioner. The combination of my anxiety and the New York summer heat made beads of sweat rush down my neck. It was the summer before my senior year and with it the dreaded countdown to my return to Wesleyan. As the days passed my night terrors increased. My anxiety forced me to stay indoors. When my roommates would ask if I wanted to go out I would tell them I had work or was not feeling well. Sometimes my words were true, but mostly lying was easier than saying that I was afraid. Lying was easier than saying that my intestines would twist in knots when men gazed at me in the street. When men looked at me like he used to. Lying was easier than explaining how white my knuckles would get when I pressed my keys in between them. Walking out into the night became almost impossible because underneath every gaze, catcall, whistle or corner cloaked with darkness I saw his frame towering over me again, ready to drain more of my blood to quench his thirst. Now the summer was coming to an end and I would be moving back to the campus that made me his target practice in the first place. I sat on my bed, my fingers moving rapidly around the paper, shredding it until a mound of little bits and pieces formed on my comforter. My godmother pulled a chair over and sat across from me. “Karmen, I am not going to sit here and act as if I understand your situation. This is extremely painful and awful and you do not deserve it, no one does. But you need to go back to school. You’re almost finished, it would be such a tragedy if you just left. What would you do if you left? How would you support yourself? If this were a decision you wanted to make because you truly believed Wesleyan is not right for you I would stand by you, but you cannot let your fear
dictate your future. You do not know how this will end up. Have you decided on reporting? Who knows what might come from that. We could work on getting you a restraining order. We’ll figure this out together, you’re not alone.” “I can’t get a restraining order because in order to do that I have to report him to the police. Women of color don’t report rapes to the police. It’s not an option.” A week before, Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer. Rallies and protests had erupted in Brooklyn and my innate fear of the police had been amplified. As a child of color growing up in Harlem, I was very well aware of the fact that you could not call the police because people like us are murdered by cops, not helped. I began sobbing on my bed because as a poor woman of color there was no way I could legally obtain a restraining order against my rapist. There was no way I could even have my rapist legally charged with sexual assault. My rapist came from an immensely wealthy background had a family of lawyers. They could hire Private Investigators who would unearth my sexual history and use it against me even when it has nothing to do with the case at hand. I would be painted as a money grubbing whore because that is the image that is projected if a woman happens to have a sex life that deviates from any toxic monogamous, virgin ideals. They could easily drown me in paperwork and appeals. I had no money, no assets, and no parents, not even a home to call my own. They would destroy me before the case ever even made it to court. Reporting him at Wesleyan was the closest thing I could get to an actual hearing. My sobs became heaves, my tears became streams of disappointment and frustration: I was trapped. I had no choice but to return to Wesleyan. It was my only source of a guaranteed meal everyday. It was the only place I had a room of my own. It was the only place I had a job waiting for me. I completely depended on the campus in which my rapist dwelled, and that fact alone made me want to climb up to the roof of this New York City apartment and jump away from a reality that was more pain than life. “You’re not alone on campus either Karmen,” my godmother scooted her chair forward and gently held my trembling hands. “You have so many friends at Wesleyan that love you. You’re living in that society, frat place with all of those people that you care for. You’ll be going back to a family on campus. They’ll be there for you and so will I.”
Teardrops splattered on our intertwined fingers and my sobs began to wean. She was right. I had my friends. I had the Eclectic Society. I had a family back at Wesleyan. Eclectic would never allow Him to enter my home. They would defend me just as I have defended them. I will be protected. I will be loved. I will be safe White tiles. White bowl. Glass mirror. Closed door. I gripped the edges of the toilet bowl, steadying my shaking knees on the floor, resuming the position. I had barely eaten anything that day and whatever had reached my stomach was spewing out of my lips and into the toilet. My eyes watered as my innards twisted and knotted together squeezing out any substance within it. After the last bit of vomit trickled from my lips, I sat on the floor with my back against the wall focusing on singular items in the bathroom in order to stop the spinning. Paper towels. Doorknob. Faucet. Sink. It was the first week of classes and while preparing for courses and gathering books, vomiting has become just another feature of my daily routine. Everyone on campus everyone can’t help but comment. “Karmen! Did you lose weight? You look amazing!” “You got so skinny, you look fantastic.” “Wow girl what’s your secret I need to know!” I would humor them, chat about diet and exercise when all the while my weight loss was attributed to a different kind of regimen: coexisting on campus with the man who raped me. I would see him in the eating hall, in the coffee shop, in the campus grocery store. I would see the length of his limbs stretching over the steps of the library. I would smell his presence wafting through the mailroom. I’d freeze, my brain begging my legs to stretch and take me away from his smell, his frame, his eyes. M.’s eyes would shoot straight into my abdomen, twisting my insides until I found myself in a bathroom assuming the position. As the days progressed, the sick, twisting, rotting feeling in my abdomen became inflamed with rage. He would glance at me, scanning my frame and then look away, continuing on as if he had never tasted the fear in my skin. Once I walked into the eating hall to see him sitting amongst friends, his head thrown back, his mouth wide, tongue-bellowing laughter.
His eyes were gleaming, his skin was radiant. He was happy. He was beaming with the enthusiasm and optimism I used to have before my skin and sweat lay battered on his floor. My innards began resuming their twisting, jerking motion as I moved closer, my teeth clenching and my knuckles turning white. He looked at me, my tight jaw and shaking legs, and immediately turned back to his audience. His laughter never missing a beat. My rage left me frozen, almost foaming at the mouth. I could barely eat and sleep let alone bother with class and this prick continues to live and enjoy this campus while I cower in the shadows. No. I want him to remember the whimpers that were squeezed out of my body. Remember how sticky my blood was when it stained his fingers. How he chuckled when he pried my jaws open. I wanted him to share this anxiety of knowing that someone on this campus is out there and ready to claim you and gnash your flesh to mounds of tissue and skin. “Rape is a crime, a disgusting act of horrible violence against the body and the soul. It does not matter who the rapist is, what they have done is heinous and their actions must be labeled and denounced for the whole world to see.” The first time I remember hearing my mother say those words I was around nine years old. I had begun asking her how babies were made and she purchased me plenty of incredible books that explained sex and reproduction to children. We would read them together, mother always by my side ready to answer any questions I might have. One of the books had a few pages dedicated to sexual abuse, telling the reader that no one else should ever touch your private parts without your permission. I remember asking my mom what they meant by touch and my question led to a long, difficult discussion about sexual assault. “No matter what, this body is yours. It belongs to you. No one should ever try to touch you when you do not want them too. We live in a world that will constantly try to own you. They’ll tell you that you
belong to them because you are woman, because you are Afro-Latina. This is YOUR body. This is YOUR life. This is YOUR world. You are a child of this planet and you are entitled to respect. And if anything ever happens, if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, if your intuition sends you signals, you run and get to a safe place. If anyone does ever touch you or tries to, tell me. Itâ€™s not your fault and it never will be, but Mami will always be here to protect you, to hug you and to love you. I will defend you until the end, but you will not even need me to do that. Because you have a voice, and you must never let it fade in the face of injustice. That is when it must be the loudest.â€? Standing twenty feet away from him, I reach into my pocket and grab my phone. He can redirect his gaze, he can walk away, he can ignore the presence of my frame; but nothing will stop his earlobes from bursting at the high-pitched wonder of my torment-drenched battle cry. Nothing will stop the entire campus from hearing my shrieks and taking notice of the vile and filthy creature that hides underneath his superficial innocuous laughter and lanky limbs.
Family “This is very serious, everyone needs to listen. If anyone on this campus hurts anyone in this society, they will be banned. I repeat, anyone on this campus, it does not matter who it is, hurts someone in this society, they are instantly banned.” I had attended almost every Eclectic house meeting since I had been initiated my freshman year. I currently held the position of Lawspeaker (the society scribe) and in the past I had served as Alumni Chair. After running from my mother’s house with luggage in my arms, Eclectic was the first place I felt I could set down my things and call a space “home.” I never thought I would live in a home with dozens of bedrooms and pillars like colossal teeth shooting from the earth like a God-like marvel. The best surprise was finding that within each room and behind each door, there was a member who genuinely loved me. I had no problem tending to their ailments, holding them when their tears splashed on my knees and laughing with them while we laid in bed and held 40’s in our hands. The family I was born into was shattered, a fact beyond my control. The family I chose was present, loving and kind, and I could not help but give thanks to the universe for blessing me with a second chance to call someplace home. Now for the first time I desperately needed them. On September 8, 2014, I reported my rapist to the university and the Eclectic President asked me if I felt comfortable discussing house bans in the following house meeting. I nodded, and explained that I felt comfortable because my family would never want my rapist to be near me or in our home in the first place. After repeating that introduction twice, the president proposed to ban my rapist. Everyone in the room began shouting “Why? What did he do? I don’t understand.” I sat there, clenching my sweater between my fingers thinking, “If they knew what he did to me, they’d hate him. They’d never want him in here. They want to protect me, but they can’t protect me until I tell them what to protect me from.” I held my head high and shouted: “He raped me.” My close friend responded by slapping his knees and shouting “Great! Now we know! Let’s move on.” His mockery and dismissal
of my pain shot through my skin, the rest of my “family” got ready to show me their undying support. “Well why the hell were you with him?” “What were you doing with him?” “What did he do specifically?” “How did he do it?” My breathing became sharp and short, their arrows piercing my skin and exposing the blood he tasted. Why did they think I wanted it? Why did they think I had a choice? Why were they blaming me for the skin he bit? Just when I thought all the blood had rushed out of me, another member of my “family” was preparing to inflict a fatal wound. “Well he’s actually a really good friend of mine and I want him to spend time with me here. So I propose that I personally escort him to and from my bedroom when he decides to visit.” Silence. Someone who lived two doors down from me threatened to bring my rapist into my house and no one came to my defense except for one close friend. A room of 23 people said nothing while someone threatened to unleash the man whose teeth were smudged with bits of my flesh into our home. They continued screaming at me and I continued to shake. When I finally gathered enough strength to stand, I walked to my bedroom and collapsed on my comforters. I laid smothered in my blankets, my frame shattered and my insides crushing together like compressed, rotting fruit. This is supposed to be my home but I shake as I can’t help but smell his sweat. This is supposed to feel safe but I can’t help but feel the power in his lanky limbs and the helplessness in mine. They were supposed to be my family but I freeze as I can’t help but hear them laughing in the hallway. Pillars, sharp fiendish teeth shooting from the earth. They glower at me as I sneak towards the front door that stood underneath them. After the meeting I found it impossible to sleep in the house. I would lay in bed, stagnant, while they all would wander outside in the halls,
giggling and carousing as if they had broken nothing. The member who threatened my life continued to reside in our house with the approval of the majority. He desired to bring a serial rapist into our home and Eclectic was quick to come to his defense. I took it upon myself to write notes on his door, naming him for what he was: a rape enabler. “I should not be subjected to living with a rape enabler. Respect the women here by leaving.” “You are not a friend. You are not an ally. You are not a leader. You are an embodiment of rape culture at its most toxic level. I do not deserve to share this space with scum like you. If you had any shred of humanity left you would get out of this house.” The Eclectic Society only showed signs of disdain when they bore witness to the angry and desperate pleas I taped to his door. The house manager of Eclectic, a man I had lived with over the summer and genuinely cared for, took my notes and reported me to the university. He was finally using his voice and he was using it to slander my name. He lied to the administration and stated that I was dangerous and that I had personally threatened to “kill and burn each Eclectic member alive.” The house manager of Eclectic decided to commit one of the oldest treacheries ever known: when a woman speaks her truth, you paint her as insane. If that woman is a woman of color, you illustrate her anger as unjustifiable madness. It was clear I was not welcome. It was clear I was not wanted. It was clear I was not safe. My best friend on campus was kind enough to offer me her couch to sleep on, so we returned to Eclectic to gather up my things. The hallway was dark. The doors were all closed and I quickly walked to mine and fit my key into the lock. My room was desolate. The curtains drawn, papers scattered all over the floor. I crouched down in front of my dresser, throwing underwear and pajamas into a backpack. I could not help but feel a familiarity with the motions of my fingers and the pain inside my chest. Three years ago I was crouched in the same position, throwing my belongings into a duffel bag in my mother’s apartment. That time I promised myself that I was on the path to a new life. I would leave this apartment and find myself a home where my clothes would not need to be ripped from their hangers in haste, where feet would not have to tiptoe an escape. I collapse on the
ground, smothering my sobs with my t-shirts and dresses. Three years later and I am forced to break the promise I made to myself long ago. I zip up my bag and sneak out of the house, running past the pillars, body heavy with the knowledge that home was gone.
Speak “Your rape hearing will be taking place on November 7 th 2015.” With the hearing nearing closer, I find my hands shaking. I find myself too terrified to leave my room. The pressure stemming from fear and isolation burdens me, forcing me to think, is it even worth it? His father is on the Board of Trustees. His parents paid for the room I have class in. Why did I bother saying anything if his status will protect him while mine deems me a target? I lay on my bed, hugging my mother’s t-shirt in my arms, praying for it to reciprocate my embrace. Suddenly one day, it does. Dearest Karmenife, I heard about your rape and I am so sorry. DO NOT BE SILENCED. DENOUNCE IT.LET WESLEYAN KNOW THAT YOU WONT BE SILENCED. BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY!!! Remember the words of Audre Lorde: "SILENCE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU". You are a very vulnerable and strong Being. Do not allow your vulnerability to be hardened because if that happens you lose the real strength. I am talking to you as a woman and also as the woman that served as the vehicle for you to come this time to this existence. Continue being like you are- having the courage to be you. Also remember, whoever the rapist is -man or womanit is a violation, a crime against the body and the soul. A total fragmentation in pieces that we need to gather back and heal. A horrible and disgusting experience. But rape is always rape...and your pain has to be felt and embraced in order to be able to be released. Karmenife whenever it is that you decide to see me again, I am here just waiting to hug you like I always did. Remember the love...,mi hija. I wish I could bathe you with my tears and clean you inside out of pain, but mi amor, in the pain is the healing. Go through it. I am always with you because you are always in me. Te amo mi amor.
For the first time in so long I finally heard the voice I had been desperately trying to hear: Mom. Three weeks pass and I am standing in the mirror fixing my blazer. It is the day of my rape hearing and my shaken hands struggle to get my statements and notebook into my briefcase. I walk to the student center and print out the last thing I need: my mother’s email. I was not able to find the strength to respond to it because in the past I have learned that responding to her letters and messages stimulated the resurfacing of her other personas. I do not know if I will ever be in a position where I can respond to her messages. For now, I know that I cannot respond because I m still too vulnerable. She easily sweeps me into her words and judgments and soon I see myself becoming that small, shell of a girl Beast chewed and gnashed in her torment. To this day my mother continues to deny the abuse. In her mind, it never occurred and I cannot tell if this conclusion is due to her illness or to the powers of denial. I wish I could take her hand and go back to ocean we played in on our special Fridays together. I would guide her into the salty waters and watch as Mother Nature purge her of these other personas that clouded her essence. She would arise out of the waves, Beast and Child peeled off of her and sinking into the ocean’s sandy depths. She’d embrace me, sandalwood and salt engulfing my nostrils and cleansing us both. Yet life does not allow for that to happen, just like it does not allow for me to be rid of the scars that are left behind. They are there, they exist and as we get older we work to find the tools to manage them. I cannot respond to my mother’s message, but today I do not even have to. I cannot have a relationship with her now, but she can exist through the actions that I make and the voice that I release. I hear her voice as I speak out against the violation of my body and my rights. I exude her as I prepare to bring my rapist to his knees. I honor her by expelling my vigorous words, anger and determination in the face of my oppressors. I choose to be the change I wish to see on this planet and no rapist, no illness, no fraternity, nothing will ever stand in the way of that imminent change. I knew darkness when I was born into this world. I will know darkness when it is time for me to leave it. Darkness is more familiar than you think. Today I prove to her that darkness is nothing to be afraid of.