“I was seven years old. My mama and papa were driving back from Maryland in the middle of a giant thunderstorm. There was lightning and a whole flood warning. Mama was at the wheel. She was scared, and I was scared. Papa was scared, too. We worried that we weren’t going to make it home.”
I was seven years old.
My mama and papa were driving back from Maryland in the middle of a giant thunderstorm. There was lightning and a whole flood warning. Mama was at the wheel. She was scared, and I was scared. Papa was scared, too. We worried that we weren’t going to make it home.
Mama could hardly see with the water splashing on our window with the swishy things going back and forth. The car was swerving because the swishy things almost fell off, there was so much rain, and Papa started yelling at her. He said words that I had never heard before, but I could tell they were bad because Mama was crying. I covered my curly, brown hair over my ears like ear muffs. I thought about my favorite Garnet Hill pajamas and a warm bath waiting at home, and I closed my eyes tightly.
I loved my Papa, but I felt like this was someone else.
Sometimes, I would hear yelling and crying at night. One night, when I got up to go pee, I heard a noise coming from under my bed. I ran to Mama and Papa’s room, so they could give me a hug and tuck me back into bed.
As I got closer and closer to the door, I heard Papa yelling bad words again.
Mama was sobbing, harder than I’d ever heard a grownup before.
“Stop it, Jesse, stop it. We’re going to hurt her,” she said in-between shallow breaths. Were they talking about me? I was more scared of them than I was of whatever was under my bed. I turned and ran back into my room and never talked about it again.
I was eight years old.
Riding on Amtrak with Mama on my way to visit Abuelita. I must have had a sense even at that age, because I rested my head on her shoulder that smelled like honeysuckle and said, “Are you and Papa going to do that thing where you live in two different places?”
Mama didn’t know what to say. She wrapped me in her thick, black hair like a scarf. “We’ll always be your parents. Always. We love you so much.”
It wasn’t a surprise to me when Papa moved out. I was sad at first, of course, but it meant Mama and I got to have lots of sleepovers. We loved eating nachos and watching Gilmore Girls. We pretended we were Lorelai and Rory, and we played lots of imagination games. Mama was my best friend. Those years were the closest years of our lives.
I hated the days that I had to leave her.
On the surface, they did a really good job of making me feel loved and okay and safe. Even though they lived in different places, I never needed to choose one. We were still a family even though Mama and Papa didn’t love each other anymore. They loved each other, just not in the same way, they told me.
Papa bought me a lot. I would go over to his house on Wednesday and Friday nights. He let me paint the wall of my new room turquoise and bought me lots of vintage clothes for my new dresser. We’d harmonize to The Beatles songs to the tune of his old guitar. On Wednesday nights, we would order in Italian — warm, steamy bowls of lemon pasta coated in parmesan, Caesar salads on the side. He tried to make me feel special, trying to overcompensate for all the ways he felt he had failed me. Sometimes, I’d catch him scratching his graying hair when the check came to the door. He’d spend long hours milling over papers at Chase bank while I sucked on free lollipops and poured myself cups of hot chocolate in the waiting area.
“I’m going broke, sweetie,” he’d mutter under his breath every so often, as he pulled out his worn wallet to buy something. Even so, he’d keep ordering in and buying me clothes and taking us to fancy Broadway plays.
“Papa, stop it,” I’d say. “Stop buying.” Sometimes, I’d feel tears prick my eyes because I knew that Papa was doing it for me, but I knew he was hurting himself. What if we ran out of money, and it was all my fault?
Some mornings, I would creep out of bed and into the kitchen, early before Papa woke up. Granmom’s ceramic bowl sitting on the corner of the table, filled with black powder and skinny brown rolls. I touched the powder with my fingers and smelled it.
Tall brown bottles would line the walls of our fridge, and empty ones in the recycling bin, too. Papa always told me he didn’t drink or smoke. All the parents at parties usually sipped tall cups of red wine, but Papa always said he didn’t do things like that.
The next morning, when I asked about all the bottles, Papa would tell me that he had friends over. I knew he was lying because Papa never had friends over. I hadn’t heard any friends while I was asleep.
This was the point when I knew Papa wasn’t perfect, but I still loved him. Perfect people can do imperfect things. Papa was still perfect to me.
Sometimes, Papa got mad at me. I would tell him about the trips to Abuelo and Abuelita’s that I took with Mama over the weekend. He would scoff, rubbing his wrinkled face with his hands. He would tell me that my grandparents were cheap because they were brown. He would talk in a funny accent as he did impressions of when he used to know my grandparents. Sometimes, he would tell me mean things about Mama. She was so emotional. She took things too personally. She followed what her parents said blindly. One time, he even said that Abuelo and Abuelita didn’t want Mama and Papa to get married.
“What?” I’d say, disbelieving. “That’s not true. I love them.” I would always defend Mama and Abuelo and Abuelita. But that just made Papa even more mad.
“You don’t want to stay with me. I know you love your mom more. Stop defending her. She’s a big girl. She can handle herself.” Sometimes, he would yell. Sometimes, I would cry. It reminded me of when I peeked inside of their bedroom all of those years ago.
I drew Papa fancy Father’s Day cards on thick paper from the art store. I told him how much I loved him and how perfect he was. I wrote the words, hoping I would believe them again and he would go back to how he was. I even gave him chocolate chip cookies if I got them at school. He would buy me a fancy dinner and kiss the top of my head and tell me how much he loved me.
When I got back to Mama’s, she would tell me to put my clothes away, or set the dinner table. When I sometimes forgot, she would get angry.
“Why are you so sensitive? You’re so dramatic,” I’d say.
She told me that we were visiting Abuelo and Abuelita over the weekend.
I’d whine, “I don’t wanna go. Abuelo and Abuelita are annoying.”
Mama just got angrier and angrier. Why was I acting like this all of a sudden? Where was the girl that she had raised? The more and more conversations that we had like this, the more it became apparent to Mama that Papa was having an influence on me. It wasn’t as much as my fault but his. I didn’t want Mama to get Papa in trouble, though. I would defend him to Mama, the same way I would defend Mama to him.
“No, Mama. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry for being so disrespectful.” I would force tears to come out of my eyes and crawl into her arms. I would write her long apology letters, hoping she’d just let me take responsibility and forgive me. Mama saw through it, though. Mama knew that it was only after weekends with Papa that I acted differently.
One night, I heard her on the phone.
“You hear me, Tom? Now we’re back to square one,” she muttered a lot of words that Mama told me never to say. She didn’t even say them under her breath. She was yelling. She was angry. “Miella is an impressionable girl! You’re teaching her bad values, to ignore half of her identity! How dare you do this to her? To us?” Mama was crying and crying and crying. She was lying on my bed, a shawl draped over her shoulders, tears pooling in the craters of her black eyes. It felt like she was crying forever.
I was scared, but I liked seeing Mama do the yelling, instead of the other way around.
Papa didn’t talk to me when I went over to his house the next week. Grunting, he would ask me what I wanted for dinner, or make feeble conversation on the subway, hair hanging lankly in his face. Long, white hairs scattered the back of his woolen jacket, shed from the wind, his eyes sunken with the insides red.
Gesturing to two free fluorescent orange and yellow seats, we sat down.
“What did you say to Mama about my house?” he asked, pressure dislodging his vocal chords. “What did you tell Mama about my house?” A painful lump rose in my throat.
“Nothing,” I finally said, sheepishly, ears turning red.
“Why are you lying to me, Miella? Why are you lying?”
“I didn’t say anything but the truth.”
“The truth? You make me sound like I shame you for being mixed. I never said anything like that. I do everything for you, Miella, everything. If you weren’t in the city, I would move from this damn place, for god’s sake.”
Again, I would force the tears. “I’m sorry Papa, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” It was something I said all the time. I just wanted everything to be okay. I felt a weird panging feeling in my stomach when Papa said that he did everything for me.
Did he? Did I not appreciate it enough? Was I the reason why he was so sad?
I didn’t have to face him for a little while after that, because he went away for a long time. To some place across the country. He told me that he had a problem and needed help. Everybody talked about it in hushed tones. No one told me much more than that.
Three months later, he came back different for a little while. He wrote me and my mom long apologies about the mistakes he had made with the ways he treated us.
Mama got a really long letter, and I got a shorter one. Mama told me I could read that part, but there was more that I could only read when I was older.
My letter told me that he loved me, and I should never feel like I have to apologize for his mistakes ever again. Nothing was my fault. He promised he would try to change. I wanted him to explain more. I wish that I could have read the whole letter.
He started meditating and doing yoga on the weekends which made me laugh to watch, especially when he did the tree pose. Watching his big, heavy body balance on the weight of his tiny toes, gesticulating wildly to hold himself up. There were no more brown bottles in the kitchen anymore.
Even though he apologized, and he did yoga, and there were no more bottles, he went back to the way he was before. Everyone said that he had a life-changing experience, but he didn’t seem that different yet.
He would still yell for no reason.
Driving back from Toronto one summer, we were trying to exit a car stop parking lot when the cars just kept zooming past, inhibiting us from driving on the main road.
Jacked up on four cups of coffee, three hours of sleep, and a morning of driving, Papa couldn’t hold his temper. He screamed. Literally screamed. He yelled at the road, yelled at the cars, yelled at me. He cursed. He threw a hissy fit, like a child who dropped their ice cream cone.
“Miella!” he hissed, cussing between each breath, the stench of tobacco emanating from between his teeth.
Once our car starting moving, it wouldn’t drive straight. We swerved violently under the weight of his hands on the wheel. I panicked. I was trapped.
I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I stuttered. I sucked on my own tongue until it became dry. I couldn’t swallow. My chest ached. I was scared that there was something medically wrong with me.
I knew the yelling wasn’t my fault this time, but I was still scared. I felt like I was a dog being trained, before I had even been given a chance to do anything wrong.
I would cry.
Sometimes, it was forced, and sometimes, it was real. We still argued about how brown I was allowed to see myself. I would cry when I was finally given a moment to speak my truth. I would cry because my words felt so honest. Then, Papa would get mad, defensive, and I would feel like a bad daughter. Then, I would fake cry. He would tell me that I was only allowed to see myself as mixed or white, but I couldn’t deny him. He felt that the way I identified myself was a reflection of how much I loved him. I would try to tell him that it had nothing to do with him, and hug him, and cry to show how badly I felt for being a disappointment.
“Please forgive me, please, please, please.”
One day, my dad confessed to me that his mom had always wished that I had been different. She loved me, and how eloquent I was, but always felt a certain disconnection to me. She wished that I believed in the same things and saw the world through the same lens as she did. That hurt but almost felt like a relief to me. I had always known that she was judgemental of me, maybe even dissatisfied.
I had always heard the criticism in her voice as she begged me to say the hymns in church with her, gave backhanded compliments telling me that my hair weighed me down or my skin was so much worse than it used to be. My dress was too cheap, it didn’t flatter me. She didn’t want to see her granddaughter caught in that at the next family gathering.
The insecurity in her eyes when the pastor of the church questioned whether or not I was really her granddaughter.
It seemed like she had something against me, the something which neither of us wanted to admit to ourselves.
I remember that one summer in Toronto, I said at the dinner table that I thought that women should be able to pass down their own last names and choose whether they wanted it to be their middle or their last.
I wanted the choice to keep and carry on Mama’s last name if I wanted to.
I remember the fear in Grandmom’s eyes and the anger in Papa’s when I said that. Never, never, never, would I be allowed to carry on anything other than my father’s family name. I felt isolated and attacked that day.
I could deal with being misunderstood. I could even deal with my grandmother being hurtful. What I couldn’t deal with, though, was that Papa didn’t stand up for me. My Papa. The Papa I’d cried to. The Papa who’d made me cry. All the anger I’d ever suppressed towards him just built up, and I wouldn’t stand for it anymore.
Defending me was the one thing he could do to redeem himself.
Every summer, I waited and waited for him, and always came home disappointed.
The thing I was most disappointed about was that Papa didn’t know how to be clear about what he needed. His biggest flaw was that he didn’t know how to save himself, and therefore, didn’t know how to make himself happy.
Whether it was spending so much money on fancy things that he became broke, puffing into Marlboro cigarettes and buying lotto tickets even though he knew he was an addict, eating chocolate cake Ben and Jerry’s every night even when he knew his cholesterol was too high.
I always felt like I was a bad daughter who disappointed him, because he never knew what he wanted from me. I had always felt aggressive towards him, about the fact that he didn’t enable me to feel close to him. He always made me feel like I had done something wrong.
It was an arbitrary thing which happened one night, that made me realize this.
I reached for my orange and pink toothbrush on the white pasty stained side of our sink at Papa’s house. I noticed that the bristles were frayed, so I called out to Papa about where the new toothbrushes were.
“Papa, I’m getting a new toothbrush,” I called out to him from the bathroom. I found where the new toothbrush was, and I started using it, wiping the stained, minty skims from around the rim of our counter.
It was a few minutes later when Papa broke out into a series of grunting and questioning.
“Why did you need a new one, Miella? I swear, you changed it two months ago,” Papa groaned from beneath his covers.
“Well, I don’t really remember. I just thought I needed a new one. I think it’s been longer than that.”
“Are you sure, Miella? Really?”
“Yeah, I’ve had it for a while.”
“Why do you always need to be right?” Papa emerged from his dark room into the living room, belly jiggling above his boxer shorts, suddenly overly enraged about the topic.
“Why do I always need to be right?”
“You can’t admit that your toothbrush wasn’t old.”
“It was old. Papa, can we just drop it?”
Papa began to stammer and become red in the face. This always happened.
“Miella. I bought one for you from Duane Reade. Don’t you remember? Why don’t you remember?”
“Look, can we just drop it? Do you want me to keep using the old brush?”
“No, uh, um, I mean it’s fine that you’re using the new one, I just wanted you to… ”
“You needed to be right, didn’t you? You can’t say what you really need, just like everything else in your life!” I trapped him with his own accusation. I had finally learned to play smart with my Papa. No more tears for me. I saved them for midnight under the covers, but I wouldn’t let Papa see my weakness.
My Papa always projected what he was feeling onto me. He assumed that I always needed to be right because really, he always needed to be right. He wasn’t capable of saying “no” to me, telling me flat-out that I had done something wrong, yet he always resented me for it. I always resented him for it, too.
Now, I was in seventh grade. Boys had started to like girls, and girls started to like boys.
It was icky.
My friends always coaxed me into answering awkward questions, such as who I liked. I had no idea what they were talking about.
In movies and books and real life, everyone that got together or dated, broke up. I would always see girls in the bathroom with badly applied Wet n Wild mascara running down their faces, frantically calling their friends and complaining about their ex-boyfriends.
Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to getting hurt?
Liking boys seemed like a recipe for disaster and disappointment.
I remember the first time I came face to face with the fact that I was going to have more men and boys in my life besides my Papa. In the basement lunchroom at school, Brian told me on Friday, Pizza Day, that his friend had a crush on me. Everyone was really excited and kept talking about it and asking me if I liked him too. I was stunned and disgusted.
I pretended that I wasn’t freaked out, but I remember running home and ripping pages and pages out of my glitter decorated journal, drawing diagrams and writing complex comics with headlines in all caps about how much I hated boys.
I completely ignored Brian and his friend. I completely avoided the situation and the attention that went along with it. Even though I was so mature in the realm of dealing with my Papa and my parents, I was comparatively innocent and immature in relation to developmental milestones, such as boys.
When I told this my best friend at the time, she convinced me that it was okay, I was probably a lesbian. I kind of knew that probably wasn’t the case, but I still felt like it was the only plausible explanation for why I wasn’t like all the other girls. Why couldn’t I just be boy crazy like everyone else?
I remember one day I was walking out of the train station with Papa, heaving up the hill to our small house in Sunset Park after I had gotten a haircut, bangs which curled up like tiny caterpillars on my forehead. I remember liking it and being happy with it. When Papa saw it, he looked over me critically and said, “Why did you get that haircut during summer? It’s not like you have to impress boys at school anymore.” I felt red and shocked and upset.
This was the first time I realized that Papa thought that the only reason I wanted to look and feel pretty was for boys. As I got older, I learned that Papa wasn’t the only man who believed this.
Again, in the following weeks, I started experimenting with my best friend Miranda’s Bath and Body Works “Summer Dream” spray. After gym class in the locker room, we’d put on music, dousing ourselves in the mist and laughing hysterically. When I came home that night, it was no surprise that Papa had a reaction.
“Please don’t wear that in my house. You smell like a ten dollar hooker. You know, boys don’t like it when girls wear too much perfume.”
“But Papa… ” I tried to argue. “That’s not it. I just want to smell nice and look pretty for myself with my friends.”
“Sure,” he said, sarcastically, disbelief dripping from his words. “Don’t tell anyone about what I said.”
That’s what Papa loved to say. “Don’t tell anyone.” That’s part of why I’m finally writing about this, all of this, all of the secrets. I never felt like a victim. I always loved Papa. But years later, I realized all the things that had stuck in my mind like drips of sap from the pine trees on my fingers. All the words he’d said which rang in my ears when I was trying to become a woman. The first time I didn’t find a boy “icky.”
Instead of finding him “icky,” I learned to see myself as “icky.”
The guilt that would begin to encroach upon me if I talked to the guy at my science table about something other than science. Maybe we’d talk about how he went shopping this weekend or that he liked my new haircut.
Maybe I liked that he liked my new haircut.
All I could hear in my head was Papa.
These voices that started echoing. It was like that part of my mind was scaffolded with thick yellow tape and bright orange cones and labelled me as a danger zone.
I loved to write. I’d fill up pages and pages with doodles and diagrams of love triangles and haikus inspired by Rupi Kaur and drawings of my dad’s sunken face on the R-train. Stories about the witty repartees I had with guys and how everyone told me I was too hard on them. I couldn’t get a boyfriend because I was too much of a feminist, a girl told me one time. I promised myself that I would write a book one day proving them wrong.
When I finally liked someone for the first time, I discovered I had this weird thing that I couldn’t control, that made it hard for him to tell. The more I liked someone, the meaner I was to them. It’s usually something that you hear about little boys doing to girls, tugging on their hair in class, but it’s almost as if being mean to someone was implanted into my brain as the way to show affection.
Any part of me that wanted to be coquettish and blushing while twirling my hair was bucked against like a donkey. I was aggressive. I was intimidating. I spent a long time wondering why the boy I liked didn’t like me back. He liked to talk to me in secret, but was too embarrassed and scared to like me further. I’d think he liked me, but he ended up dating Melissa with the long blonde hair and the Brandy Melville crop tops. I was frustrated and confused. I thought I had finally learned to be normal.
My guilt and anger broiled into jealousy. I was stuck in a place of being guilty about boys and angry about boys, and, at the time, it didn’t make any sense to me why.
Papa has left scars in my femininity which might not heal. Certain moments will always twinge with pain like rubbing alcohol into the crevices of a papercut.
Rainstorms in the car.
Steaming cups of Swiss Miss in Chase Bank.
The smell of Marlboro cigarettes on hot breath.
Letters. Long ones which I never got to read.
The feeling of tearing open the cardboard around a plastic toothbrush.
That sinking feeling I get when I hear jarring voices ringing in my ears.
Assumptions that I meant to do something wrong.
Men and boys;
The world trying to teach me how to be pretty for them
Having to learn how to feel pretty for myself.
It will take a long time to learn how to fit the love I have into the mold of his body.
I’ll keep trying.
Papa is a musician.
Strumming the chords on his hollowed guitar, sitting with his halfway unbuttoned work shirt in the dark.
Strumming the words of his pain which he didn’t know how to say.
Papa returns to his work, editing and scribbling in chicken scrawl with his favorite Uniball pen.
Papa returns to his work with love and criticism and mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Lots of pain. Lots of scars are in Papa’s work.
Papa sings in a gravelly voice with brittle thumbs because Papa isn’t perfect. His mantra is that the lyrics don’t matter, only the tune.
Papa has made a lot of mistakes with me.
Maybe I am a piece of Papa’s work.
Mama was my rock while Papa was messing with the chords and writing and scratching out the words. She was my best friend. I told her everything. Mama is the real heroine in this story.
In the middle of one of my many pieces of writing about my Papa, one day, she stopped me.
“Miella, I think you’re ready to read the other half of the letter your dad left you.”