Friday, January 31, 2014

PENANCE

Since I was 21 when I "lost" my virginity, I have had sex with 14 men.  That comes out to about 1.7 men per year over the past 25 years. In those 25 years, there have been several years when I was not sexually active, and this comforts my sense of morality, as does the fact that I remember the names of all but one of those men.  Its as though I can point to these facts and soothe myself into believing that I'm not a slut or a wicked woman because the number of sexual partners seems low, to me, anyway. 

But it was my first sexual encounter. The one that I don't include on that list. The one I don't consider a rite of passage.   The one I don't want to remember.  The one that makes me cry after I have enjoyed sex with a man. The one that brings me back to a time and space I no longer inhabit. The one that does not make me smile wistfully. Its that one, the one that makes me feel like a slut, a piece of shit, a dirty, evil, wicked person. Its that one, the 15th man who first touched me sexually who clouded sex for me forever - the act  of it, the idea of sex, my sexuality and my sense of myself as a sexual being.

It happened on Bryant Avenue. His name was Manuel.  He was probably in his 50's and I was 9 or 10 years old.  He was the common-law husband of my babysitter, Lola, in the tragic, sad place that was the South Bronx of the impoverished 1970s, where I grew up. Lola was efficient, cold, sarcastic, unloving and she was my sitter from the time I was 2 years old until I was 12 when I was finally allowed to go to home alone.  Manuel was a respectable man, my mother and father believed, and being with  him alone was as safe, to them,  as being with Lola herself.

I don't quite remember how it started.  I remember scenes...

...stripping in the kitchen as I danced for him while there were guests in the living room.  He at the dining table in the foyer making sure no one came by...

...behind the door of the bedroom on my knees sucking his penis....

...his fingers touching my vagina then sticking them in, his nails hurting me...

...watching me masturbate on the bedroom floor while he made sure Lola maintained a comfortable, questionable ignorance....

I remember feeling good, feeling loved, feeling attended to, like I was special and was somehow entitled to special privileges that never materialized.   Manuel and I had a bond, I thought.  A secret life that made me feel unique instead of fat and ugly and isolated, the way I really felt inside, and often still do.

I have a memory of a bedroom in the first building where I went to be cared for by Lola, upstairs from our old apartment on Beck Street.  I have an overwhelming feeling that something happened in that bedroom too, but I don't want to impose guesses upon facts.  I know the other scenes happened because I remember them happening.  

I know when these events occurred because it was around the same time I received the sacrament of Penance.  I sat in Saint Athanasius Church on Tiffany Street as the priest reminded us, "You should for your first confession think of something you have done that was wrong, offensive to God."  I feared confessing this thing, this - what could I call it?  An encounter, event, rendezvous?  Anything other than what it was - abuse! I remember telling myself as I sat on the pew, I have done something so bad, so horrendous that I can't confess it.   Just the idea that I even needed to confess - I knew that I was the sinner, I was the guilty one, I just knew God would never forgive me.  

Sometimes I wish the abuse had happened in that other bedroom on Beck Street when I was two or three years old, so that today I would not remember.  But, as people say, it is what it is.  But I do remember.  

And, I'm still doing penance for this memory that has cursed me to forever recreate a sensation in order to gain mastery over it.   A mastery that most likely I won't ever attain.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Otra Vez?

If one more person calls me prieta, negra, negrita, or morena - I'm going to slap somebody!  

Don't know what I'm referring to?  Then you must not be one of the Latino tribe, specifically, the Latino tribes from the Caribbean where there tend to be more people of African descent like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Colombia.  

Imagine you're at work and someone that actually likes you as a human being, who knows your name, and hasn't seen you in a few days, says to you, "Hey, Black girl!  Where you been?"  Too hard to conceptualize if you are white? (And, I'm not mad at your tribe, because we do this to ourselves!!!!)  Lets pretend I come up to you on the subway and I don't know you, but I need directions, and I say to you, "hey paleface whitey, how do you get to Times Square?"  I think you might be offended, at least put off guard.  Yet, this kind of communication is part of a typical day among Latinos of African descent.   

Once I tried to conduct an informal survey to see if others were as offended as I am at the use of these words, but I was swimming upstream.  No one thought it was a problem. I was surprised and went through a period of self reflection where I tried to accept the usage of these words. My mother sometimes used to described me as jaba (pronouned ha-bah, someone with a light or even reddish complexion), but never in a dismissive or nasty tone.   She thought it was funny, since she was a dark skinned woman. Many people called her negra and I knew they weren't disrespecting her! Not Dona Lala! The most pious woman in the parish, who would lead the 9 days of prayer after someone's death? Are you kidding!

I started to listen out for the offensive words in songs.  I noticed that in many Spanish songs of the Caribbean the words morena, morenita, and, less often, negrita truly are complimentary describing the beauty of  woman as the subject, the gorgeousness of her complexion and expressing the desire men have for her. If I knew that people who use these terms had an affinity for all people of the African Diaspora, then I might accept these as genuine compliments.   I fear they don't, and, in most cases, I know they don't.

I don't hear a compliment when someone calls me prieta or negra, especially if the person has no respect for other Black people.  

A few weeks ago someone called me prieta. The person who did it is not a Black person, at least not obviously.  He is Puerto Rican and often in conversation he has made a few comments differentiating himself from African American men or  morenos.  "Why do you like those morenos?" I don't care how many times people say, "its just a term of endearment."  I don't like it.
  
And, this argument is not about people referring to my black skin.  I know I'm Black and not just because of my skin color.  I know my family.   The first time I visited the Dominican Republic and met my mother's people in 1986, I realized, truly what I was; that there are no actual barriers between Black people from the Dominican Republic and Black people anywhere else except for the ones we construct ouselves.

What truly saddens me is that I have written this essay before - in high school, in college, in graduate school.  I have written about this so many times, and yet there is still a need to keep on writing about it.