Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kique's Ghost - A Halloween (Self) Love Story

Note: I originally wrote and posted this story for Halloween 2007 as part of chica lit blog tour. I repost it with minimal changes. If you enjoy it, please comment and share. Thank you!   


By Sofía Quintero

Even through the veil of my hat, I see all eyes are on me as I sachet down the aisle toward Kique's casket. Good. That's the main reason why I squeezed my big ass into the red spandex dress. The same dress I wore on our first date when I was two sizes smaller.

Just as I reach the casket, a teary-eyed girl barely out of her teens carries away a toddler on her hip. Don't ask, Lili. Just let it go. I take a deep breath and look into the casket. Damn it if Kique don't look good! The bochinche was that the last woman he burned had shot him right between the eyes. Guess not. I glance at his crotch. Well, if she aimed there, the damage is not obvious.

'Chacho, the undertaker really did an amazing job. Kique's soul patch is sharply trimmed. Those perfect lips, rose and soft, are shaped into his signature smirk. Kique looks exactly the same way he did the day I realized I had fallen for him. That memory gives me the courage to do what I vowed I would to all my disbelieving girlfriends when this day came.

I look to my left then check to my right. Everyone is too busy mourning - or glaring at the llorona en la esquina who's making a performance of it - to watch me. I lean over Kique's body, lift my veil and spit on him.

“Burn in hell, ¡asqueroso!

Then I spin on the heels of my Via Spiga stilettos and march out of the funeral. Through the veil of my hat, I watch the others as they stare at me, their eyes so swollen and red. Look at them crying for Kique. Wearing black. Falling over themselves to praise him now that the son of a bitch is dead.

Di que Kique was so funny 'Member the time he did eso y lo otro?

Or when he was working, Kique was so generous.

And my personal favorite. Kique loved his children. All five of them. If he knew about 'em, he loved the hell out of those kids of his.

¡Hipocritas! All of them, if they truly knew him. Where's the bitch who shot him? That's who I want to see. Shake her hand. Buy her a drink. Ask if his eyes were open when she did it. Why she did it? That I don’t need to ask.

Just as I push open the door that leads from the parlor into the lobby, I hear glass crash against the tiled floor. A black wave rushes by me as mourners run past me toward the commotion. When I reach the scene, Kique's brother and best friend pull apart two women who still claw for each other. Water, glass, and carnations are all over the lobby floor.

“¡Saca a esa pendena, Junior!” yells the petite negrita with the box braids. “She didn't give a shit about Kique, and everybody knows it!”

The voluptuous chinita screams back, “You've always been jealous of me, bitch, ‘cause I'm the mother of his only son.”

Someone behinds me sucks her teeth. “That ain't true,” she mumbles “Doesn't Kique have a son in Santo Domingo?”

Another woman say, “And a daughter in Haina.” The revelation inspires several gasps. Don't these people know by now that scuttlebutt regarding Kique's “reproductivity” should be believed until proven otherwise?

I'm so over all this. As the catfight ensues, I ease my way through the crowd to the exit. By the door is an easel with a poster of Kique from his three-month stint as a real estate agent. It reads Enrique Kique Gilberto Mendoza, April 29, 1975 - October 29, 2012. As I walk by the easel, I snarl at Kique's picture and point to the crowd. “Damn it, Kique . . . even in death!”

Once outside the funeral home, I hand the parking attendant my ticket. As I wait for him to bring my car, I break out a cigarette. Fuckin' Kique Mendoza's dead.

I had just turned twenty when we met. Before Kique I was too busy being the dutiful daughter to date. Going to college, working my way through school, practically becoming the matriarch of the family as my mother cared for my father. . . What little time I had for a social life, I didn't want to waste on the boys around me because they were just that. Boys who just wanted one thing and yet were incapable or unwilling to offer much in return.

Then Kique came along and swept me off my feet, giving me all the romance I had been missing. Craving really. Then he ruined me for all men.

That's not a compliment.

Suddenly, a chill dances up my spine, and I shiver. What gives? It was almost seventy degrees when I left my apartment! The temperature must have dropped drastically in the few minutes I had been inside the funeral home. That's October in New York for you.

I wrap my arms myself while I wait for the valet to bring my car. He takes his time, stealing long glances at my dress. Or more like my ass busting out of it. That's why you're cold, Lili! I flick away my cigarette and drag the valet out of the driver seat so I can hop in. The car's pretty damn cold, too, so I blast on the heat as I drive off.

Only when I pull onto the Bronx River Parkway do I remember I still have on this silly hat with the veil. I laugh at myself as I sit on the entrance ramp and check oncoming traffic. Just before I'm about to merge, I pull off the hat and fling it onto the passenger seat.

“Nice hat.”

I almost give myself whiplash in the direction of the voice. Kique? He wears his burial suit, my spit sliding down his tie. In fact, Kique, his suit, his body, all opaque like crepe paper. But my saliva glistens in the ray of sunlight beaming through the front car window, just as fresh as I cut it loose.

I scream so loud that only the blaring of the horns of the cars behind me snaps me out of it. And what does Kique do? He chuckles condescendingly the way he always did when faced with a woman he drove to hysteria. “Pull over, Lillian,” he says, pointing to the shoulder. He folds up the tail of his tie to blot at my spit. “We need to talk about this lingering rage of yours.”

My mind scampers, trying to remember how to handle a ghost. A wooden stake through the heart! No, that's for vampires. Besides, who the hell keeps a wooden stake in the glove compartment? Then it hits me. I do have my shiny new Club under my seat. I hit my blinker and make my way to the shoulder of the parkway.

Kique continues to rub at his tie, but the spit remains as if untouched. “Spitting on me. . . “he says. “What were you thinking, Lili?”

Oh, now you want to know, asshole? The second I arrive at the shoulder, I reach down to grab the Club and swing it with all my might at Kique's head. It slices right through him, banging against the passenger window and ripping a crack through it. “Fuck!”

Only the sound of cracking glass makes Kique realize what I had tried to do. “First, you spit at me and now this?” He squints at me. “What happened to the sweet nena tranquila who would look away whenever I told her she was beautiful?”

Anger finally erupts, taking me far past fear. “Damn it, Kique, what are you doing here?” Then I remember. When you encounter a ghost, you're supposed to confront it. Ask him what he wants so you can give him what he needs to move on. They say sometimes a person just doesn't know or hasn't accepted that he's dead until a living person breaks it to him and convinces him to let go of earth. God, I hope this is not Kique's problem. The man was so full of hubris, it'll take his ghost weeks of hopelessly chasing live women before he accepts that he doesn't have “it” anymore and take his game to the netherworld. “You're dead and no longer belong here,” I say. “¿Que en carajo is holding you back?”

“I need you to forgive me, Lili.” He blinks at me like a child, that infamous smirk gone. “Without your forgiveness, I can't rest in peace.”

Shit. If that's true, I'm fucked. As a child, I never even had an imaginary friend but now at the age of thirty-three, I'm stuck with the ghost of the only man I ever loved? That'd be bearable if he also wasn't the worst ex-boyfriend I ever had. Like it wasn't bad enough that he lied to me about how many his-and-her kids he had, chased away my few male friends with his possessiveness, and eventually cheated on me with the most psychotic of his baby mamas. After I left him, Kique would stalk me every time he was in between women - from the “Oh, I was just in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop to say hi” drives by my apartment to the “IF YOU REALLY FUCKIN' LOVED ME YOU NEVER WOULD'VE LEFT SO EASY, YOU HEARTLESS BITCH!!!” messages on my answering machine. I finally had to file a restraining order against him.

”Of all the women you've known and screwed in your forty years on this planet, why me, Kique?” I yell. “I mean, according to the chisme, I got off easy.”

Kique cocks his head to the side. “That's true. What I did to you is nothing compared to what I did to Sherry. Or Flaca. Or La Bembe. . . “ I roll my eyes at him, and he halts the roll call of his victims. Kique looks at me with those sad eyes. Not those telenovela eyes reserved for performing deception and manipulation. The sincere eyes that I rarely saw in the short but intense six months we were together. The ones filled with tears at my father's funeral. The eyes wide with fear when Kique Jr. was diagnosed with leukemia then tight with joy when the cancer went into remission. The eyes that slacked with resignation when it finally sunk in that when I said I was never going back to him, I meant it and not playing along with the usual script he enacted with his other women.

Kique says, “But it doesn't matter that I was at my worst with them. You were the one I hurt the most. That's because you were the only one who truly loved me.”

I did love the son of a bitch. It hadn't matter to me that he was a twenty-eight year old father of three children already. I didn't care that he had those children with two different women, neither of whom he married. I didn't care that he only had a G.E.D. and changed his career every month.

“Look, Enrique, I really do want to forgive you. I mean, it's been thirteen years.” I say. Can you lie to a ghost? Probably not. So I level with him. “But I just can't. I've gone for months, even years not giving you a second thought, but when a certain song comes on the radio or I drive by a place you took me to, all the dirt you did comes rushing back right along with all the hurt and anger, and it feels like it just happened yesterday.” And here the feelings come again, and this time with an additional dose of despair. I start to cry. “I want to let go of all that shit. I've tried really hard to focus on all the good times we had. But I just can't.” Now I start to sob. “The fact that you're dead now isn’t enough to change it.”

Kique shakes his head, and that smirk of his reappears. Bastard. This is what he wanted all along. Rest in peace my ass, he came to haunt me. Like the realization that I will never be free of these ugly feelings toward him wasn't horrible enough. I'd try again to crash in his skull if I knew it'd do any damage. Maybe I should do it anyway, it night make me feel better even if just for a moment. No, Lili, you can't afford to break that window any worse.

“So you can't forgive me,” says Kique. “Do you know what that means?”

I wipe my runny nose against my sleeve. “What?”

“You haven't forgiven yourself yet.”

I suck my teeth at him. “Forgive myself for what?”

Kique sucks his teeth back at me. He knows I hate when he mimics me, pendejo. “For putting up with the shit I did and never giving me the hell I deserved for it.”

I think about that. I was so young. Back then I thought that if you were truly committed, you loved unconditionally and that meant relaxing my standards beyond recognition. All through high school and college, I told myself You're pretty, intelligent. . . You come from a good family. You're getting an education and planning a career. Why is it so hard for you to find a boyfriend? Then Kique came along and heaped on the romance, and grateful for attention, the validation, I did overtime to rationalize all the flags. So he didn't go to college. Don't be such an elitist, Lillian. And so what Kique has three kids but has never been married? Nena, if you prefer a Latino man and rule out single fathers, you drain an already shallow pool! OK, so he didn't tell you about them until you were head over heels. He was falling for you and was afraid of losing you. How can you not forgive him for that?

For the first three months when things were idyllic, it was easy. Kique always has a job, sometimes two. Kique not only supports his kids, he actually makes time for them. He didn't pressure you into sex, was gentle when you were ready, and is always attentive to your pleasure. I used all the good things about Kique as excuses for putting up with the mind games he played during the last three months. Only when he stood me up one night after going to his ex's apartment to visit his son did I draw the line. He said that had just pulled a double shift but didn't want to disappoint Kique, Jr. and ended up falling asleep on his ex's couch.

While he was “sleeping on the ex's couch,” I was crying my eyes out on mine. But the possibility that Kique had been cheating on me was the farthest notion from my mind. In my lovestruck naiveté, I truly thought that something terrible had happened to Kique. (He did allude to a thuggish youth.) I had called his job, his friends, and even his mother. She actually sighed and said, “Nena, there's nothing wrong with that boy for you to be so worried about him. Nothing you can fix anyway, and you shouldn't have to if you could because you're a good girl, Lili. Por favor don't give Kique another thought.”

I couldn't understand how his own mother could say such a thing. Eventually, Kique arrived at my door with a half-dozen roses. I rushed into his arms, sobbing with relief that Kique was with me in one piece.

My genuine concern floored Kique to the point that he couldn't tell me his story with a straight face. He expected me to be furious. To interrogate him while knowing all along what he had been up to, curse him out, maybe even hurl something at his head. Then Kique was supposed to seduce me, I was supposed to forgive him, and then we were supposed to have a fuckfest, all the while knowing that we were entering into an unspoken agreement that this scenario would repeat itself for as long as we were together.

The problem was I had really loved and trusted Kique with all my heart. Unlike his other women, I didn't need to be with him. I wanted to be with him. Looking past all our differences, I chose Kique, and that made his betrayal all the more egregious. As young and inexperienced as I might have been, I wasn't going to tolerate his constant betrayal of my love and trust. When Kique pulled me away from, looked me in the eye and insisted that nothing had happened between his ex and himself, the guilt in his eyes told me that I needed to stop lying to myself. He was not the man for me.

Damn it, Kique, er, his ghost or whoever, he's right. It's been thirteen years since I've been with the man, and I still haven't forgiven him for what he had done to me. But that's because I still blame myself for allowing him to do it.

I look at Kique who's checking himself out in the rear view mirror. Some things never change. “Kique. . .” I say to get his attention. He taps his finger on his tongue then wipes it across his eyebrow before looking at me. I snicker at the paradox of his old vanity and his newfound depth. “When did you get so damn insightful?” I ask.

“When you run toward the light,” he smiles, “a lot of things get really clear.”

“You're supposed avoid the light, Kique, not make a mad dash toward it.”

“Only if you want to live, Lili. Not when you're ready to go.” He pauses then continues, his voice heavy with exhaustion. “'Chacha, I ran toward that light, and I got, like, hosed with more wisdom then I could handle. That's probably why I had to come back and unload some of it. You know, before I could rest.”

It never occurred to me that Kique was unhappy. When I would hear through the grapevine about his latest escapades with the woman of the hour, I would swear that he enjoyed it. That it was all sport for him. That he reveled in the drama that he created over and over again. How bad it must have been for Kique to be so ready to let go and leave his kids behind. Especially if in that rush toward the light and the accompanying torrent of wisdom, he finally got an accurate count of how many kids he actually fathered.

I try to find something nice to say. Despite all the bonding, it's kind of hard. Finally, I settle on, “You made a really pretty corpse, Kique.”

Of course, he beams at that. “Thanks, Lillian. And thanks for coming to my wake in my favorite dress.” He hands me the veiled hat. “You know, you were the best thing that ever happened to me, but I always knew you deserved better.” Kique has said that to me before, but for the first time, I actually believe he's sincere. “That's why I did everything to mess it up. Then when I did mess it up, I tried so hard to win you back. Which is why when you wouldn't take me back, I got ugly. But I never stopped loving you, Lili. I mean, as best as a guy like me could. I truly gave you my best and, I'm sorry it wasn't worth much and that I broke your heart.”

I take a deep breath and give a long exhale. “I forgive you, Enrique.”

“No, you don't.” Ever the drama king, he practically sings when he says it. “You're just saying that to get rid of me.”

“Uh, if you were in my shoes, wouldn't you?”

“Yeah, but 'member what I said. You can't forgive me until you forgive yourself. You didn't realize that was why you were stuck until I told you three minutes ago so no way you're gonna get over it. . .” Kique snaps his fingers. “Just like that.”

I think I'm going to cry again, this time out of frustration. The ghost is more trying than the man ever was, I swear. “OK, here's the deal, Kique. In order for me to forgive myself so that I can forgive you, you gots to go, man. I mean, be reasonable here. If you haunt me, you're gonna piss me off, and that kind of defeats the purpose, don't you think?”

Kique gives it some thought. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“And have I ever lied to you.”


“So please I'm asking you to trust me on this. If you leave and go wherever it is you belong - and stay there! - I promise you that I will work through this.” I start to cross my heart but quit when I remember that the last time I crossed myself, I heaved a wad a spit onto Kique's cold body as it lay in a casket. “In fact, I guarantee you, Kique, your leaving is going to go a looong way in helping me make peace with what happened between us. It's best for both of us if you go.”

There goes that impish smile again. I brace myself for the worst, but Kique say, “OK.” His apparition steps through the door and climbs out of my car. My car suddenly becomes so hot, I snap off the heat. Kique turns around to look at me through the cracked glass of my passenger window. “One more thing, Lili.”

Damn it. “What?”

“An incentive.”

“What, Kique, what?”

“That dude who keeps hanging around your cubicle? Stop punishing yourself by blowing him off. He's the One.”


Nena, don't play dumb, you know you're no good at it. I ain't telling you nothing you haven't already wondered. Get over yourself and go out with the man.”

Before I can say thanks and goodbye, Kique's ghost blows me a kiss, pulls away from my car and just fades away.

© Sofia Quintero 2007

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Why We Can't Have Nice Things: A Meditation on Mental Illness and the Hip-Hop Generation

In the aftermath of the shattering death of Chris Lighty, activist Rosa Clemente yesterday broke the silence of her own struggles with bipolar disorder, depression and thoughts of suicide. It takes tremendous courage in our cultures – U.S., hip-hop, African-diasporic – for her to place her mind, body and spirit on the line like that. Especially since not only is she a public figure known for her outspoken voice and uncompromising fire, Clemente was also a Vice Presidential candidate in 2008, half of the first ticket in U.S. history to consist of women of color. (But y’all should know this already.) 

Along with Clemente, Lighty’s suicide has compelled many leaders in the hip-hop community to call for a discussion of depression and other mental illness among communities of color. My hope is not that only will these conversations take place, but that they will include a vigorous examination of some behaviors in our cultures that may actually be dangerous forms of self-medication.

Relentless hustling at the cost of meaningful relationships and substantive rest.

Spending far more on trendy objects with fleeting value than we produce for wages, in culture, and/or with meaning.

Partying too many nights and sleeping away too many days.

Obsessing over the lives of people we will never meet and don’t even admire (this being my personal drug of choice.) 

And the alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, oh my. My own awareness of the pervasive use of controlled substances by men of color in the hip-hop generation as a possible mask for widespread depression came when Joan Morgan called it in her 1999 seminal work When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down. Tens of thousands of us are committing suicide in slow motion through the daily act of ingesting toxins through our lips, and that impulse to not take seriously the proposition Morgan made twelve years ago is a surefire indicator that we have a pandemic on our hands. In our desire to not be judgmental – understandable given how ready and consistent others are in pathologizing our every action – we overextend to normalize and even celebrate almost ritually our penchants for self-destruction as if our ancestors were never lashed across the back while picking that shit.

And let us seriously consider that this penchant has been deeply implanted and cultivated by a system in which we were never meant to thrive. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer this past January, one of the first memoirs I read was Fred Ho’s Dairy of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level. The self-described Marxist matriarchal Luddite posits that there is no eliminating cancer without fighting capitalism. As a disease with no singular cause, an individual must take holistic measures to overcome cancer. According to Ho, this demands a collective strategy of activism as much as personal approaches to diet, exercise, emotional wellness and spiritual healing. Our economic system creates such powerful and varied toxicity in the physical environment and socio-political culture that we cannot fathom a world without cancer if we are unwilling to participate in global movements for justice for “capitalism creates more problems than it solves.”

I wonder if the same is not true for mental illness in all its forms. There’s a reason we do all these self-destructive things and with such great pride and defensiveness. It’s the American way, yo, and who else is on never-ending mission to prove worthy of our imposed citizenry if not people of African descent? We forget that the American way was not conceived with our success in mind. It’s precisely that we forget we sure as hell act in ways that prove that very point.

It never fails to shock me how the history of our cultural production in this nation often replays the trope of the geeks gone cool only to be undone for attempting to keep a social contract they were forced to make by those who are far more powerful than they are.  We begin at the margins, a necessary but underappreciated strata of the socio-economic structure. The dominant class needs us for its own survival but doesn’t recognize our humanity never mind respect our greatness. Yet we manage decade after decade, generation after generation, era after era, to fashion that marginalization into something phenomenal. We don’t do it with a calculated desire or decision to win over the haters. We do it to remember and assert who we really are in the face of their domination. We do it simply because great is who we are.

Then the haters get wind of our genius and want to be down. They want to capitalize spiritually as well as economically because domination has its psychic limits. (Although most are too busy dominating to be conscious of this otherwise they might evolve to more organic and effective strategies toward abiding fulfillment.) The haters finally see us, and so powerful is their recognition, we develop amnesia. We forget that we did not come to this table of our own will and say, “I want to play!” And like the geeks who finally get invited to the cool kids’ party, we run hard to stay in place. We mimic their present of consumptive excess as if we had their past of unearned privilege. Some of us even take a page from their domination playbook and eat each other.

The irony is that it is only the most fortunate of us who survive long enough to experience that psychic cost of domination and privilege. The pain, however, is far more excruciating because our privilege was actually earned and yet resolves nothing. It was never meant to we learn only now that we are so far removed from our natural, effective methods of self-healing as individuals and in community. Because we have lost sight of the joy of creating for its own sake, because we have forgotten the power of caring only what we think of ourselves, because we have internalized forms of medication that don’t even cure its creators, we come to realize perhaps too late that this is the real reason why we can’t have nice things and then feel powerless to do anything about it.

But first things first. Let’s admit to ourselves then one another how deathly afraid we are of being still and sober. Before we attempt to hush, patronize or ignore people who are fighting for lives of meaning despite mental illness, each of us must take inventory of our own behavior and honestly ask ourselves just how healthy are our coping mechanisms of choice despite how commonplace they may be. We must allow each other to confess that the darkness reminds us that we have chosen to play games that we were never intended to win and the occasional prizes we gain along the way may not be worth the struggle. Where anyone of us stands on the issue of whether this game is capable of changing or worthy of playing is irrelevant really. Left, right, center, we all agree that things cannot remain as they are. We might as well agree that self-care is as necessary as breathing, and that the breaths we most desperately need to take must come with words that break the silence over mental illness and its culturally sanctioned masks.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” said Audre Lorde, “it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pinkin' Ain't Easy

Pinkin’ Ain’t Easy

Big pinkin’, you spendin’ Gs
Ya think you’re backin’ a cause
Meanwhile you spreadin’ disease
You wanna be sure
that your runnin’ for cures
And you're not pinkwashed and pimped like a whore
Rethink pink and not get pimped
You gotta rethink pink don’t get pimped

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012, the pink ribbon inundation secretly irked me. I found the entire phenomenon suspicious and unsettling. But then out of guilt, I would buy the pen, USB drive or whatever trinket being shilled for the cause at the cash register. How could I as a woman not support breast cancer awareness and prevention and quite possibly contribute to research for a cure?

Looking back I realize how little the relentless commercialism did for my own awareness. On the contrary, it made me want to NOT think deeply about breast cancer.  The attempt to dress the illness in a traditional femininity and promote consumerism as the path to its eradication repelled me. 
After my diagnosis I did start to investigate, and being a long-time activist, my research eventually led to the unique politics of breast cancer philanthropy and what is referred to by its critics overall as pink ribbon culture. I am still reflecting where I land along the spectrum between pink ribbon culture and its feminist detractors, and that surely will be the topic of a future post or two. I am clear, however, that what I discovered about the way breast cancer is pimped by corporations in ways that run counter to the stated goal of ending the disease made me actively pursue a distance that I already felt from this juggernaut of which I was supposed to be a beneficiary.

And I certainly did benefit from Susan G. Komen’s successful fundraising efforts. At the time of my diagnosis, I was uninsured so I went to Planned Parenthood for my reproductive health care. If not for PPNYC and the funding it received from SGK, I might not have been able to get a mammogram, detect the invasive ductal carcinoma in my left breast or even secure insurance and therefore treatment through the the Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program. 
Then SKG lost is mind and temporarily defunded Planned Parenthood on the advice of its former senior VP for public policy who was intent on imbuing the organization with her pro-life politics. That Handel chick was slick, I’ll give her that. Nice tactic to suggest that the impetus to not fund organizations that provided abortions was to stay remain within federal funding policy. Close but no cigar even if it has a pink ribbon emblazoned on the wrapper.
Hence, my hot little letter to the SKG calling out the fact that their decision to defund PP effectively signaled that they only cared about finding a cure for women who were insured and told the rest of us we could just drop dead. Yeah, I went there. I even wrote, “Neither Planned Parenthood nor cancer asked me what my position on abortion was, and neither should you.”
This is also not to say that there aren’t things about so-called pink ribbon culture that don’t resonate with me. But this branding of the cause that raises so much money for anything BUT the cure? No, ma’am, don’t expect me to register for your race any time soon.
Here’s the ironic thing about the color pink; its choice was probably one of the few things SGK did right. As I learned from watching the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. which is based on the book of the same name by Dr. Samantha King, the original breast cancer awareness ribbon was salmon. When the woman who created it refused to get into bed with the foundation, SKG actually asked women with breast cancer what color the ribbon should be. They chose pink – with all its cultural loading. That choice shouldn’t surprise us regardless of how we feel about the color, especially if the members of that focus group were the typical face of breast cancer – White, heterosexual, middle-class women of a certain age. Call me cynical, but when I envision that focus group taking place, I don’t see women of color, queer women or even Goth girls at that table. The cultural loading of the color pink is precisely why the breast cancer survivors in that focus group chose it, and we can’t fault SKG for that.
We can fault SKG, however, for not more actively asking its primary constituency what we want about more substantive things — like where the money goes. Then again, I’m presuming that women in the throes of a BC journey are the foundation’s primary constituency. With all the emphasis on early prevention as opposed to a cure, we may not be. One can have Carte Blanche Healthcare, and cancer treatment still strain finances so perhaps SKG believes that those who have or have had breast cancer don’t have the disposable income as those who have not. Hence, we’re not a lucrative market for handguns and chicken.
All this said, I do pink.  I pink within limits. Like my BC madrina Jenny L. Saldaña, I wear the pink ribbon – usually on some funky attire that’s true to my personality – to identify myself as part of a tribe. To give the illness a different face than what people might be accustomed to.  I find that within certain communities, residual stigma still remains around breast cancer so I wear the pink ribbon to combat that among my own people. Most importantly I realized early in my own cancer journey that my own return to wholeness required that I be visible with both my strength and vulnerability.

That said, I won’t be walking, running, kayaking, skydiving, none of that for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure any time soon. I never say never though. When I have a say in where the money I raise goes, I will eagerly sign up, solicit donations and walk my brown ass off for SGK.  Until then I’ll make my donations directly to the breast cancer organizations whose work are aligned with my own values, priorities and politics.



Saturday, August 11, 2012

Stepping Baldacious to Snagglepuss

As I descend my steps, I suspect that's Snagglepuss entering the bodega, but I choose to head there now anyway. Before my diagnosis, not only would I have waited him out, I would have done so in the house, afraid that he might spot me the front porch and start his bullshit. Today I start something in the hopes of finishing it.

Snagglepuss is my primary harasser. I presume all who present female have at least one. His street name is Pooh. I don’t know what his mother named him, but in this neighborhood, his government name just might be Pooh, too.

His MO is to tell me I look good, that he loves me, and that he would marry (at least he knows damn well better than to propose.) Relentlessly. He insists that we went to school together. Chemo brain or not, I know homeboy didn’t go to school. Snags doesn’t even know my name. It’s, “Miss, miss… yo, I’d marry you.”  Eventually, he will yell, “You don’t have to say hi to me, but I’m never gonna stop trying to talk to you.”

And that’s a frightening thing to hear from a man who knows where you live.

As I sit on my porch typing this minutes after our encounter, Snagglepuss is walking out of the bodega back towards the Laundromat. In his red fisherman’s cap, red and white striped button-down shirt and red t-shirt, he’s like Radio Raheim had been styled by Garanimals.

Even though I walked into the bodega knowing that he was there, I find myself hoping he won’t notice me. I consider slipping out and coming back.

But then the kid that works there – a young guy in his early twenties who has a crush on me but engages me with politeness and respect – finally comments on my hair. Or more accurately my lack thereof.

“You look different.” Thinking that the baldness couldn’t be new to him since it’s been three weeks since the Big Buzz, I give him a quizzical look. After all, I am one of those chicks who runs to the store in chancl’as and sleepwear. Then Youngblood gestures towards his own cornrows, and I realize that he’s referring to my shaved head.

Before I can say a word, Snagglepuss turns. His eyes widen as he takes in my baldness and recognizes me. “You still look good!”

I ignore him and say to Youngblood, “Oh, it’s been like this for a few weeks now.” Instantaneously knowing and no longer caring that this will probably make me fodder for neighborhood gossip – especially among those who presumed that I lobbed off eight inches of thick curly hair to get my Amber Rose on – I add, “It was going to fall out anyway because I’m being treated for cancer right now so I decided to shave it off first.”

Even though I say this with a huge and genuine smile on my face, homeboy cringes. “I’m sorry.”

I got to give him credit for consistency. This news doesn’t faze Snagglepuss one bit. “So you do talk,” he says, boring his eyes into my profile. “I’d still marry you though.” 

Operation Ignore continues unabated. “My dad did, too,” I tell Youngblood, trying to chip away at that unnecessary look of pity on his face. “He took me to his barbershop.” Now dude is really cringing, and I want to snap at him to knock it off. Instead I grin on. “It was fun!” At this point, I probably don’t sound so convincing even though that experience was one of the most affirming I ever had in a male-dominated space.

“Why you don’t talk to me?” says Snags. “I be nice to you.”

So now the man has to pay for Youngblood’s well-intended but unwanted pity and his own imposition. “No, you’re not nice to me. Telling me good morning and keepin’ it moving is nice. Chasing after me down the block hollering that you love me and want to marry me when I’ve told you that I don’t like it is disrespectful.”

“OK,” he says with eyes like a remorseful child. Something in me yields ever so slightly. “I’m sorry. You forgive me?”

But I remember that we’ve been here before, and nothing changed.  “You and I have had this conversation before, but you don’t listen to me,” I remind him. “That’s why I don’t talk to you.” The bodegüero looks at me as if to say Give me your order, nena, so I can get you outta here.Un cafecito regular, por favor.”  He hustles behind the counter to the coffeemaker.

 “I’m sorry,” Snagglepuss repeats. “You forgive me?”

And I do want to forgive him. A major strategy in my journey back to wellness from breast cancer has been practicing forgiveness. One indicator of my healing has been the way men have responded to my baldness.  At Junco’s barbershop under my father’s protective and loving eye, my barber Richie and most of the other male employees and patrons held the space while I gave up one of society’s most cherished symbols of femininity. Now as I walk down the street, men compliment me with nothing but appreciation and respect. No sleazy undertone beneath their remarks, no dissecting the rest of my body with their tongues, no invasion of my personal space.  They say, “I like that look” for no other reason than to gift me that affirmation.

Oh, some men still harass me, proving the biggest lesson of this chapter of my life: cancer both changes everything and nothing. The power dynamics of the pavement remain the same. The men who articulate their awareness of me in a way that makes me feel safe make the choice to do so, and that is why to some degree I feel compelled to call it a gift. They decide to not harass me.

By the same token, I have found – no… recovered - and seized whatever agency I do possess on that unlevel playing field that is the street, and that more often than not has altered the potential scenario.  By choosing to walk these blocks literally stepping unapologetically into my proactive baldness, I say I’m more beautiful and stronger than ever. I dare you to talk sideways to me. I’m kicking cancer’s ass, and yours can be next.  Therefore, I’m radiating something that the men who compliment me merely choose to mirror back to me. To that extent, they aren’t giving me anything as much as they're reflecting what I have given myself. 

Please know that I have not lost sight that there are people out there who make other choices at the sight of a bald woman. Hurtful even violent choices. I do not mean to say that those they violate are somehow responsible for those transgressions and crimes. I do mean to acknowledge that I am not the first, the most vulnerable or even the bravest in the risk to be this authentic.  Empowerment – especially of one’s self – always entails risk.  As long as we live in a world where domination is normalized be it personal or political, authenticity will always necessitate risk. If anything, stepping baldacious is a choice that I can make, in part, because others have blazed a trail for me so that I can follow a road that is less treacherous. The only credit I can take is the choice to take that road.

“You accept my apology?” presses Snagglespuss.

And because cancer changes everything and nothing, I lay down the rules of engagement. I may be bald and have only one natural breast, but I neither want nor need Snags' validation. “You want me to forgive you? Don’t just tell me your sorry,” I say as I slide my change across the counter and take my coffee. “Show me by the way you talk to me. If you see me and tell me good morning, I’ll be nice back and say good morning, too. I’ve got no problem being neighborly witchu. But if you start with the BS about how much you love me and want to marry and are never going to stop harassing me, it’s gonna be a wrap.”

I punctuate that by slashing my hand across my throat. I don’t know what that means myself. I can’t stop Snagglepuss from saying things to me on the street, and now he knows that I’m being treated for breast cancer. That information in his hands can either shield or backfire on me. But in a way, how he handles my truth isn’t really my business.  I have a new truth now: I’m no longer going to be dipping behind cars and waiting on my gated porch to do me because he’s ambling down the avenue.

“OK. I’m sorry. Have a nice day.”

“You, too.”

In the past, I have willed myself to feel compassion towards Pooh with rare success. Now that I have set boundaries with him, it comes easy. It even feels a little like love. My more compassionate suspicions about him move from the back of my mind to the front of my heart. He’s probably struggling with some kind of mental illness. You don’t see him for stretches at a time because he’s in and out of institutions of some kind. Pooh really doesn’t mean any harm.   

Does this mean that I don’t expect him to completely forget or ignore our conversation and act the same way the next time we run into each other? Not at all. But I pray that the power I feel now is still with me whether I’m bald or not. Even more so, I hope that should I need to reinforce my boundary, I can do so with the newfound compassion I have now as well. It is so human to desire visibility without becoming a target.