She’s last, but she finally made it to the family reunion carrying a bowl of potato salad because she swears hers is the best and she can’t eat just anybody’s potato salad. Actually, she can’t eat just anybody’s food – period – because she doesn’t know how everybody else keeps house. She also has packets of hot sauce in her purse (right between those peppermint candies, a trial size hand lotion, a pack of tissues, and a mini perfume stick of White Diamonds) just in case the food ain’t seasoned quite right.
You’re not sure what her real name is, but it says “Tweety” on her license plate, so you call her Aunt Tweety. That’s OK though because she can never get yours right either.
“Uh…Brian…uh Brandon…uh Benson…”
“Aunt Tweety, it’s Marcus.”
“Yeah, Marcus, honey run out to the car real fast and bring Aunt Tweety her sandals in the back seat. I need to get these shoes off.” She’s only been there five minutes and hasn’t helped with any of the cooking, but her feet hurt. You do what she says even though you are not her child.
Aunt Tweety is driving a champagne-colored Mazda, but you’re not sure if she bought it or if it’s a rental since her son wrecked the black Altima she used to drive. Your cousin Junior is 32-years-old and still lives at home with Aunt Tweety, his only occupation being going down to the corner to buy Kool cigarettes for her. She’s always complaining to anyone who’ll listen that he needs to get up out her house and move in with “one a dem lil gals” (but not the fast-tailed one she told not to come by there again unless she’s bringin the granbabies with her).
The Mazda is just outside the front door because no matter the occasion, Aunt Tweety always has the best parking spot. She’ll wait for 20 minutes behind someone getting ready to leave instead of parking 2 spaces further from the door. There’s a Christmas tree air freshener hanging from the mirror, but the car always smells like swap meet incense. You grab her sandals – kitten heels – but at least they kind of go with the capri pants she has on (with her t-shirt tucked into the elastic waistband, obviously). She put on her nice pants today because she just got her hair done, but didn’t comb out any of the curls.
You go back inside to hand off the shoes, which she will put on over her stockings.
Aunt Tweety is in conversation with Aunt Sheila, so you put the shoes under the chair holding her purse – black aunties never put their purse on the floor.
AT: You been doin good?
AS: Can’t complain, can’t complain. You?
AT: Oh, blessed and highly favored.
AS: I tried to call you the other night, Thursday…
AT: Oh we took the grans out to Applebee’s.
AS: Oh that musta been nice!
AT: It was, it was. Me and Otis wanted to go to the Red Lobsters, but not with the chirrn.
AS: I been had a taste for some cheddar biscuits truth be told, we should go one weekend.
AT: Y’all should come on down to our church one Sunday and we can go after. Just let me know when.
You always have to let Aunt Tweety know when you comin to visit the church ahead of time because she ain’t always there herself. Sunday is when she usually catches up on her stories and all the week’s programming featuring Steve Harvey. You remember that from the last time you spent the weekend there, sleeping on the couch because the extra bedroom is her exercise room. It’s really just a treadmill and then a whole lot of bags from Kohl’s/Macy’s/Burlington Coat Factory sales, plus random things from every flea market in the area, but she calls it her exercise room anyway.
The living room is fine though, even though the TV is always playing the Temptations movie on VHS. Or the Jacksons movie. She has a big earth tone sectional sofa on the main wall below a “black art” picture.
At one end of the sofa is an end table with decorative giraffes. The other end has a decorative elephant on the floor. Those coupled with the African masks on the wall almost make you think she knows her roots, but her only connection to Africa is the fake kente tablecloth she puts out during Kwanzaa.
The dining room and kitchen are one big room, the only decoration being the Footprints poster (you know the one) above the dining room table and a ridiculously oversized wooden fork and spoon hanging near the stove. When she’s cooking, no one is allowed in her kitchen until everything is done, which means you have to stay out from 8am when cooking starts until 2pm when dinner is served extremely early. She cooked all day, but she won’t eat – she just sits down with a piece of chicken on a paper towel.
Unless she’s on a diet. In that case, she won’t eat all day, sitting down for dinner with 6,000 calories on the plate, too much salt in the food, and wine with ice in it.
Obviously no food is allowed in the other living room, the fancy one that no one ever goes in, with the empty candy dish on the table, the floor model television that doesn’t work and is just there to showcase old pictures of your aunts and uncles from back when photos were all shades of red, a black Jesus hanging on the wall, plants – every plant in the world, the *new* furniture that’s been there since you can remember (covered in plastic), and this wicker chair:
This is the room where she keeps all her CDs too. She really likes Mary Mary. This is also where she keeps all of her Terry McMillan and Eric Jerome Dickey books, along with the biggest Bible you’ve ever seen. In white.
Back in the present, Aunt Sheila and Aunt Tweety are still making summer plans, probably involving Frankie Beverly & Maze lawn tickets at an outdoor pavilion. You sneak away before anyone mentions how much they miss Luther Vandross and how nobody makes music like him and Teddy Pendergrass and Peabo Byrson anymore. You try to find your mom to let her know Aunt Tweety is here before she runs into your dad. Aunt Tweety is your mom’s sister and she fights with your dad, especially after a few wine coolers. She’s usually ok, but certain situations set her off: waiting in a line that’s not moving and saying to no one in particular, “This don’t make no kinda sense”; making commentary about a conversation she wasn’t invited to join, with “Let that been ME…”; or just refusing to comment at all, letting her true feelings known with a side-eye and a grunt. No, we don’t want to see Aunt Tweety turn up, so keep her away from Dad.
It’s the end of the reunion anyway. Once the music comes on, she’ll be the first one to get up and start line dancing. She’ll also be the first to leave the dancefloor to fix a plate for everyone at home who didn’t come. She won’t be cooking tonight because she has a spades game Uncle Otis organized. He’s a barber (or thinks he is) and only wears casual linen short sleeved suits with shoes like this:
They’ll play spades (maybe some bid whist), but not too late because they both have work, starting the day with The Tom Joyner Morning Show and a reminder to tell Junior to go find a job.
Maid is the best show on Netflix.
There’s no more realistic portrayal of single motherhood in poverty than this series.
I do a lot of stream-of-conscious thoughts about things I’ve seen and I call them Hot Takes. These are Hot Takes, but a little more in-depth than usual, with some personal reflections at the bottom.
1. C’mon Emmys! Everybody is doing their good good acting here. I used to sweep hair in my mama’s salon and I used to do electrical work on my daddy’s remodeling jobs, so I know the pressure of doing your best work with a parent around. So, props to Margaret Qualley for hanging in there with her mom, because Andie McDowell ain’t no slouch.
2. Lo-key was waiting on Anika Noni Rose to break into song, at least a lullaby or something.
3. You can call it prostitution or whatever you want, but you not finna put me in a house with this man and expect me to keep my draws on.
4. The shame of being poor is so complicated and layered. You know you need help. Your friend in a position to help you knows you need help. You also know that your friend knows. And yet, you pretend you do not need help! Your friend pretends that you do not need help, because they are ashamed that you need help and they want to avoid making you feel more ashamed about needing help.
It’s all an extension of this value we put on people based on how much money they make. Rich people are rich because they are good people and are being rewarded for being hard-working, good people. Poor people are poor because of some moral failure. Part of the reason the fight for higher minimum wages is so tough is this moral hierarchy of salaries. The person who bags groceries deserves to make enough money to live, but giving them a higher salary puts them closer to your salary, and you feel like you’re a better person than they are because you made choices (or had choices) that kept you from being in a position to bag groceries. You want to be able to look down on people who you feel made bad choices or don’t work hard enough.
So, it’s hard to ask for help. You don’t want your friend to look down on you like a person who made bad choices or doesn’t want to work hard enough. You pretend everything is fine so you can look like a good person.
5. The fact that Alex also has to parent her mother is a great addition. I think a lot of conversations about single mothers stop there, at providing for their child. A lot of people in poverty are there because of the lack of choices they had growing up, which is a reflection of the environment created by their parents. Young adults are sometimes caring for their parents too.
6. Also, I’ve been working out in my head how to word this and it’s always clunky, but here goes: I like that this story is about a white woman. One of the reasons why conversations about social safety nets and universal healthcare and access to housing only go so far is racism. There are too many White Americans who will cut off their nose to spite their face — they don’t want Black people to get “free stuff” so nobody ends up getting aid. The picture of the Welfare Mother as painted by (Mostly Conservative) White America is a Black woman in an inner city with multiple children by multiple men locked up by the state. It’s not an intelligent white girl running from a bad situation cleaning toilets to get by. I think Maid is an important piece of art about poverty because everyone can watch it devoid of race. Conservatives can “see themselves” and Liberals can see poverty divorced from having a conversation about what part race plays in the choices we have.
7. It’s a near-perfect limited series for me. I haven’t read any of Stephanie Land’s essays (the story is based on her), but now I’m going to. I can’t say anymore here without spoiling it, but it touched me very deeply and it’s taken me about a week to process it. I’m about to add some more personal observations, but there will be spoilers, so you can stop here if you haven’t watched it.
I watched this last week, but it’s taken me a long time to be able to process how it made me feel. Y’all, I was sobbing multiple times throughout the course of that series, because it was so accurate. I’ve been homeless and I’ve made bad decisions because of mental health struggles and I’ve worked in a domestic violence shelter just like that, and I was transported. The stories are told so well.
I’ve used pennies to pay for something off the dollar menu. I have budgeted every cent I had for the entire month to make sure I had enough money to ride the subway to work…but only to work. There was a bad patch years ago where I had been unexpectedly fired from a job and had trouble finding a new one. When I finally got an offer, I didn’t have any money for transportation to and from work until my first paycheck, so I walked home every day. Three hours, regardless of the weather. I had to walk home, because I had budgeted everything I had until my first paycheck. I’ve negotiated labor with a landlord. I had been living in an illegal basement apartment where the owner got caught and I had to leave with no money for First, Last, and Security. This old gay man on the UWS let me live there for reduced rent in exchange for errands, cooking, and cleaning.
When I saw Alex’s pocket of cash slowly depleting with each essential purchase, y’all. Y’all! I was sobbing. I check my bank accounts and credit card balances multiple times a day, every single day, to make sure I still have money. Before I buy anything at the grocery store or put my card down to pay a bill in a restaurant or make a purchase online, I check the account to make sure there’s money in it. Logically, I’ll know that I have more than enough money to last me for a few months, but I have to check, to make sure the money is there. Every single time! I mean, I don’t have any money now because my savings dried up during the pandemic, but even when I’m comfortable, I still feel very uncomfortable.
Not having enough money to live is embarrassing and soul crushing and you don’t want to talk about it, because you’re ashamed that you failed. But you need to talk about it, because you still have to live, and you need help. The way Maid captured that tightrope act is masterful storytelling.
Paula, Alex’s mother, adds an entirely new level that we don’t often see. I’ve never had to care for anyone other than myself, but in caring for myself I saw a lot of Paula. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions because my brain was too foggy to make the right ones. I once lost a job because I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I knew I had to work and I knew what would happen if I didn’t go to work, but I couldn’t actually make myself get up and leave my room. I’ve put myself in so many abusive situations for some sense of stability. Sometimes I could see that where I was or what I was doing was unhealthy or dangerous, but I put it aside, because you gotta eat. That’s about as much detail as I’m ready to put online, but I’ve told myself “I’m fine!” a lot, when I was absolutely not fine.
And the shelter…
I’m still in a bad place because one of my girls from the shelter overdosed a few months ago. I can’t shake it and I want to find another way to help that’s further up the chain of command. When you work in a DV shelter (and I volunteered in one for a decade), you do see the same faces come back and forth. And then one day you don’t see them again and you wonder, “are they back in a bad situation or did they finally shake it?” But you can’t wonder too long, because there’s a new face. There’s always a new face.
When Alex is back with her ex and down an emotional void toward the end of the series, I had to take a break. I think I cried for like ten minutes. There are so many women I never saw again at some point, and I know that’s where they are — in a void, just going through the motions, trying to survive. They’re stuck there because we don’t have enough systems in place to pull them out. We have court systems that won’t help you leave an abusive situation until you have a black eye or a broken bone. No rewards for being smart enough and brave enough to see the physical abuse coming just beyond the horizon — you have to stay until you get hit, and then maybe there’ll be assistance for you.
It takes a special kind of person to do that work for decades, and it’s not me. I can’t go back to a DV shelter. I don’t have the inner strength necessary to do it and I don’t know how I feel about that. I’ve told myself that it’s okay to admit you’re not strong enough to help the way you want to help, but I grew up with guilt as part of my upbringing. I feel like I’m failing myself.
But it also makes me more determined to find a way to help further up the chain. The more steps removed you are from the day she leaves a bad situation, the more women you are dealing with who are absolutely ready to leave for good.
I want to be the person who can offer a job. Her boss wasn’t the best boss, but Alex was able to make money because there was someone there offering (very basic, mildly exploitative) employment for someone with no skills.
I want to be the person who can offer housing. When my mom married my dad, she didn’t sell her house, because she was proud of it. She was a single Black woman in the South who bought her own house, and when she moved in with my dad, she rented her house out to other single Black women who would’ve had trouble finding housing elsewhere. She accepted low income housing credits and she adjusted the rent based on what the woman could pay.
I want to be the person who can offer free legal services. If Alex had had a lawyer the first time she went to court, she wouldn’t have lost her daughter for a week. If she hadn’t had a lawyer the second time around, she wouldn’t have been able to take her daughter to college with her so she could make a new life for herself.
What I really want to do is go to med school to be an OBGYN so I can give my time to free clinics in underserved communities of color. There are no unwanted children in Maid, but in reality, that’s the number one predictor of poverty for women. Unwanted children keep women shackled to bad situations and oftentimes it’s the result of no access to reproductive services. Birth control, from preventative to reactive, needs to be free and available.
There are so many reasons Maid is a good show, but the realism is intense. There’s no part of it that I didn’t recognize in some way, either personally or through the stories of women I’d met in the DV shelter. Everyone who has ever been poor can relate. Every woman who has ever been in an abusive situation can relate. And everyone who has experienced neither should watch it for a glimpse into what those lives are like.
Everything is broken.
What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad.
I was depressed after I moved to NYC. Years and years later I would finally get diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but back then I just looked for coping mechanisms to make me feel better. I didn’t want to do drugs, because they make you look old. I didn’t want to eat my feelings, because I’d already been chunky when I was younger and could vividly remember my babysitter calling me “husky” for the first time when I was in second grade. And I didn’t have any money — retail therapy wasn’t option.
So I volunteered. I learned during COVID lockdowns last year that I’m actually a nurturer, and taking care of people makes me feel better. When I was new to the city, I volunteered because it made me put my struggles into perspective: I hated my apartment on the top floor of an overpriced building in Bushwick where they were making crack in the basement, and I couldn’t find a job that paid me enough to eat more than bologna and cereal, but I did have a roof and I did have food and I did have my health. Volunteering also tapped into my desire to help people feel better, so it was a win-win. I started volunteering at a battered women’s shelter, which turned into babysitting for their kids when they had job interviews. Babysitting eventually became a full-blown youth program in the neighborhood complete with college prep, tutoring, and museum trips.
I met so many kids over the past decade who I think about all the time. One girl made me want to rip my hair out because she used to drag everybody around her unprompted, so I had to discipline her, but I also had to hold in the laughter each time because she was so smart and the reads were good. She works for the MTA now. There was a little gay boy who used to follow me around everywhere. The center was administered through a Catholic Church and he was just so fascinated by an openly queer man traipsing through the building like I owned the place. He’s currently at CUNY to be a teacher. One of my kids got into Penn. One is a manager at the Target where I shop.
One night years ago, maybe 8 years ago thinking back to the apartment I was living in at the time, I got a call around 3am. One of the women said a teenaged girl had walked in. She thought the girl had been sexually assaulted, but the police hadn’t been called yet because the girl was asking for me specifically. I got dressed and went, but I didn’t recognize her when I got there. I pretended to, but I had no idea who this girl was. June looked to be around 13, and she was disheveled, but she obviously wasn’t living on the street. Street kids never come in wearing a satin bonnet on their hair.
I was able to pull the backstory out of her. June and her mom had briefly stayed at the shelter a couple of years ago when they ran away from the home they shared with a man who was physically abusive. I guess June’s mother and boyfriend worked it out soon after, because she went back to him and I never saw the mom or June again, but I did remember her after I talked to her for awhile. She was good at math I think. Or science. It was a long time ago, but I remember being impressed with a class she was taking at her age.
Fast forward a couple of years, and mom’s boyfriend raped June, so she ran back to us. She said she felt safe at the shelter and she didn’t know where else to go. She didn’t want to run to the police because the boyfriend’s brother is a cop, but we talked her into it. What other choice did we have? The system is imperfect, but without reporting it, there was absolutely no way for her to protect herself from this man.
She ended up with CPS and I don’t know what happened after that. I dropped the ball. Her mom was on and off drugs, so I don’t know if she was on June’s side or the boyfriend’s side, but I would guess the boyfriend. We saw a lot of instances where the man would take an interest in the daughter, and the mother would blame the daughter for “enticing” him. But yeah, I totally lost track of her. She never came back to the center and I just let myself forget about it. We had so many kids come through with their mothers that we’d see for a week or two and then they were back to their lives. I don’t think you can keep them all in your spirit, because emotionally and mentally, it will wear you down and tear you apart.
A couple of days ago I was chatting with one of the kids I met back in the day, Alissa. We were giggling about memories we both had from when she used to come by for the afterschool program. Sometimes they find me on social media and it’s nice to see them doing well. Alissa has a kid and does nails not too far from the center. A lot of them live right in the same area, and they know each other because they went to the same schools or they’re related.
Alissa told me June died a few months ago of an overdose, probably fentanyl-laced heroin. She doesn’t know what happened with June’s rapist, but June was in foster care for a few years, aged out, and worked the streets selling sex for rent money, and then for drugs. Alissa and June had mutual friends from the neighborhood because they went to school together and she got those pieces of the story through the grapevine.
I don’t know how I feel. I’ve heard bad outcomes before. One of the kids I used to tutor in English was shot and killed a couple of years ago. A few have been in and out of jail. You try to focus on the wins and realize you can’t help everybody, but so so so many people failed June and I feel heavy inside. If her mother had had support to get off drugs, support that wasn’t immediately tied to imprisonment for possession, it’s possible she could’ve stood on her own two feet without a man, and she wouldn’t have had her daughter around an abusive boyfriend who would eventually rape her. If the foster system was equipped to provide guidance for young adults, June wouldn’t have been on her own when she turned 18 without resources. If we had better social safety nets in this country, she wouldn’t have been forced to do sex work to keep a roof over her head.
I don’t write about politics and current events as much as a I used to. For a few years, I was making a decent income breaking down the news of the day into my own words so other people could take an interest in what was going on in the country. I felt like I was helping people get involved — by giving my POV, they would be inspired to do something. I liked getting messages from readers about how I made them look at something differently or why they donated to a certain cause because of what I said. I was being helpful, and that’s the nurturing part of me. I could make the world a better place by staying informed and keeping others informed too.
And then I stopped believing that. I just did not want to write anymore after the 2016 election. It peeled back too many layers of the country and I didn’t think anything was actually fixable. The United States is rotten to the core. Everything is broken and nothing works. Human nature isn’t as intrinsically good as I’d hoped. You can’t teach empathy and you can’t help someone care about human suffering, so what was the point?
I do appreciate the people who have the moral foundation and mental fortitude to continue fighting the good fight, so I didn’t think it was responsible of me to put more negative energy out there. Better to be silent and let the fighters fight than to get on this soapbox and continually tell people how broken everything is.
I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety a few years ago, and after some false starts, I found the right pharmaceutical cocktail for me, and some of the negativity lifted. Everything isn’t terrible all the time. There is joy all around us. Even in times of darkness, the overall trajectory of humanity is still an upward trend in a positive direction. It’s hard out here though. June has me down a well and I’ve been at the bottom of it for a couple of days now. Why didn’t I check on her? She should be working at Target or doing nails or going to CUNY to be a teacher. She shouldn’t be dead. She asked for me specifically when she ran to the shelter for help, and then I just…released her to the system and into the world.
I don’t know y’all. I’m trying to focus on the wins and keep the positives in mind, but I’m tired. Some of y’all who have been reading this site for a long time wonder why I don’t write as much anymore, and I just don’t always have the energy to pay attention to the world the way I used to. There are just so many Junes and I don’t know what to do about it.
What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad today.
Happy Birthday Mommy!
I baked a little something for you!
It’s been a YEAR and, to be honest, I’m not doing that well, so I just wanted to check in real quick and get some things off my spirit.
First of all, let’s get the most important stuff out of the way immediately:
Jackée is gonna be on Days of Our Lives!
Look out, Salem.. here I come. 😉 https://t.co/xMp0qGPG9C— Jackée Harry (@JackeeHarry) December 8, 2020
I don’t know who she’s gonna play or what the character will be like, but clearly I will be tuning in…because I’ve been watching that doggone show since birth because of you.
Also: Don’t actually go to her Twitter. You too High Holy Christian for all the mess she puts on the internet.
Anyway, yeah…this year has been rough. I got my dream job in March (yay!) but then I lost it a week later because the office closed due to the pandemic and I got let go — last hired, first fired. The first day on the job I actually cried on the way home because I’d been searching for that perfect career move for years and I thought I finally found it. So, that was a huge disappointment that knocked me on my butt for awhile.
Then Travis and I stopped speaking. I had been building up this resentment toward him and his boyfriend because all of the things we used to do, he was doing with his new boyfriend instead, and I didn’t have anybody to hang out with anymore. We were on lockdown so I couldn’t go anywhere. We’re best friends who live together, which was great until the boyfriend moved in and I didn’t have my best friend to spend quarantine with anymore. They’ve since broken up, but the cracks in our friendship are still there — I resent him for ignoring me and he resents me for not trying harder to accept his boyfriend. We’re fine now (great, actually) but it’s right under the surface if we get upset about something unrelated.
And our third roommate is…difficult. In the best of times he’s not the ideal roommate because he’s LOUD and oblivious to other people’s needs. He’s absolutely the type of person who should be living alone, but since the pandemic, it’s ten times worse because he’s an actor and a comedian who no longer has a stage to perform on, so his computer is his stage. All day every day is just the sound of his voice, from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, hanging out with his friends videochatting, yelling and doing voices.
I wear headphones all day now and just count down the days until the lease is up because I can’t wait to get out of this apartment and away from him.
Speaking of away from him, I thought I found an outlet this summer. I met guy (we’ll call him John since other people can read this)…and we had chemistry! I don’t trust my feelings around men anymore. I’ve never developed deep feelings for a man who returned those feelings. It’s just a string of unrequited love, so if I feel a spark, I try to stamp it out to save myself another disappointment. But this was different because he pursued me. I let John make all the first moves to be sure I wasn’t building a fake relationship in my head like I usually do. He told me I was beautiful every day, he kissed me first, he came on to me first, he suggested we take a trip together, he suggested we move in together. I heard all the right things, so I let myself fall for this man. I was almost looking forward to the inevitable Winter COVID Lockdown because I could go hang out at his apartment and get away from mine. We were gonna cook and watch the snow. I was gonna spend a week or so at his apartment here and there to make sure we could live together in preparation for a move next year. He wanted to get two dogs.
Just before Halloween, John’s energy was off. I’d had a pumpkin carving party and our dynamic was different. He wasn’t paying much attention to me — which is fine because all of my friends are great and they all liked him — but the lack of affection was odd. So I brought it up a few days later and he said we should go back to being “just friends” because it bothered him that people thought we were, and asked him about whether we were, in a serious relationship. John had said from the beginning he didn’t want to be in a serious relationship, and I was totally fine with that. I told him he could date whoever he wanted, but he said he didn’t want to date anyone. I told him he could have sex with whoever he wanted, but he said he wasn’t interested in sex. He just wanted to make new friends and work on himself, but we had this great connection that he was really into. I was like, “okay…if that’s what you want…”, but I told him people would assume we were in a serious relationship if we kept acting like we were in front of everyone. He said he was fine with that — let them think what they want.
He wasn’t actually fine with that, so he decided we should pump the breaks.
And the next week John fucked my friend that I had introduced him to, the friend that he’d been sitting next to at my party instead of talking to me.
Here’s the thing Mommy…my self-esteem is shot and my abandonment issues are through the roof, and it goes back to that moment when you found out I liked other boys and our relationship changed forever. You were my best friend growing up. I felt awkward around the other kids, I felt awkward around my dad, I felt awkward around my cousins, but you made me feel normal. If I wanted to watch Days Our Lives and talk about the war in Kuwait, you let me. You took me everywhere and taught me so much about life. You told me I was the most important thing in the world to you. And then my teacher told you I was gay and you told me I was going to Hell. And you told me that regularly for the next ten years. I told you I was going to marry a man and have a happy family and you told me I was gonna get AIDS and die alone.
I let you make me feel bad about myself for years. Even after I moved all the way up the East Coast to NYC, I still felt like I had to respect you, even while you were tearing me down. When you would end every conversation wanting to pray with me for God to take away my homosexual demons, I let you, because you’re Mommy and I didn’t want to lose Mommy. When I finally got fed up and decided “this is the last time, this is the last conversation,” it was your birthday 9 years ago. I never told you why, but I picked that day because we had a fun conversation. I called you to wish you Happy Birthday and you gave me all the latest gossip on the family like you always did. We talked about random stuff, laughed a lot (your laugh is so ridiculous and I miss it more than anything), and then I jokingly asked you what I should buy you for your birthday — jokingly, because we both knew I had no money and I wouldn’t be getting you anything at all. You replied that you didn’t want anything; all you wanted was for me to give up my homosexual demons and come back to the Lord.
Mommy we had talked for an hour, a delightful conversation about everything, and in that last sentence, you threw me in the trash again. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had taken it since I was 12 years old and I just reached my limit. I kept the conversation light and made some kind of joke to get us back on track, but in my heart I knew I would never speak to you again until you made a turnaround. I wanted that to be the last conversation we had in case it was the last conversation we had, so that our last conversation would be full of good memories for you. I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth, but I wanted you to be left with lightness and joy. I swallowed my feelings, told you I loved you, and hung up for the last time, because you died later that year.
And now I’m stuck. I still feel so much guilt for being fed up. I missed you then and I miss you now and I feel like if I hadn’t stopped speaking to you, you wouldn’t have died, and we could’ve eventually found our way back to each other. I keep letting people treat me badly because if I stand up for myself, they’ll go away and I’ll never see them again. If I stand up for myself, I’ll be alone, and I would rather be with someone and feel bad some of the time than be alone and feel bad all of the time because I don’t have that someone anymore.
I realized that about myself a few months ago, so that’s the first step. And I’ve tried to stand up for myself more as of late.
Last week, a friend (we’ll call him Brian) asked me out to dinner. I met Brian just before the pandemic and he’s such a sweetheart. We had an instant bond and I was looking forward to getting to know him, but COVID kinda put a halt to that. NYC bounced back this summer, and Brian lives in the neighborhood, so I invited him into our little bubble for a couple of parties and brunches. We already had some mutual friends, but he also took quickly to John and to Travis, so he was a good addition to my social circle.
At dinner, Brian told me that he had fucked John. I introduced the two of them. I invited them both to brunch and to parties. The week after John said we should just be friends, he was out to dinner with Brian and fucking afterward.
All of John’s flings are hot and all of the guys he would show me on social media that he liked, fucked, or planned to meet up with looked more like Brian than me. I was insecure about being involved with a guy who looks like John because gay NYC is vicious and I could imagine the whispers of “wow John is way too hot for that guy” because I’ve heard people I know say it about other couples. John knew this. John knew about all of the guys I was into who liked Travis — the taller, hotter best friend — instead of me. John knew about all the times I’d been out with my Friends Who Lift and how some random guy would make me feel like trash because I don’t look like them. He knew all of that and still fucked my hot friend the week after he broke up with me. All of the men in the city, all of the men right there in Hell’s Kitchen where he lives, all of the men who hit him up on Grindr, and he fucked the one that would obviously hurt me the most.
But I cut them both off! Obviously I’ll never speak to John again because that kind of betrayal — when someone knows your insecurities and disregards them anyway– is like a knife to the heart, but my first reaction when Brian told me what he did was to let it go, because this is gay NYC and most of them do have fewer boundaries and hangups around sex than I do. My boundaries aren’t invalid just because other people don’t share them and I did what I needed to do for my mental health. I don’t have to prioritize a relationship that’s damaging to my mental health. I don’t have to swallow my feelings to make someone else feel more comfortable with their personal failures or mistreatment of me.
So I’m proud of myself for standing my ground, but it’s still the holidays, and I’m still lonely. I miss John every day. I miss what we could have been doing this holiday season, all the winter plans we made. When I was younger, I’d assumed I’d have a family by now to make Christmas traditions with. Instead, I just watch the little family I’ve built in NYC — my circle of friends — latching on to their own families, and I just feel rudderless and a little rejected. Abandonment issues are complex.
This is a lot longer than I meant it be. I hadn’t planned to tell you about the “gay stuff” because I know it makes you uncomfortable. I still haven’t finished reading the email you wrote me, but I read a little more of it each year until I start crying again. I’ve gotten to the part where you’ve come to terms with my attraction to men, so I think you would be okay hearing about my relationship/friendship problems at this point.**
And if not, well here’s a cake to sweeten it up a little!
I do love to bake — thanks for passing that on to me — but I don’t decorate anything….thanks for passing that on to me too. I decided to bake a cake and actually try to decorate it for once, and the end result isn’t half bad! True, I did try to make a Red & Hunter Green Christmas themed cake and I guess my dye was the wrong kind so it’s a Pink & Pale Green Easter themed cake instead, but it tastes good. You would especially like it because it’s not super sweet and I used buttermilk instead of regular milk.
So Happy Birthday! I feel a little lighter after getting some of that off my chest. Maybe this will be a thing and I’ll bake you a little something every year and give you an update about how I’m doing. Next year’s update will be much better than this year’s, I’m sure of it.
If nothing else, I’ll be much better at cake decorating anyway.
Love you Mommy!
(**a note for y’all who don’t know: When my mom died, I went through her emails to compile some information for my dad and I found an email that she had written to me a few weeks before she died. She sent it to an address I no longer use so I didn’t get to read it before she died. The first line says “I’m sorry…” and it took me about 7 years to get farther than that. I still haven’t finished reading it because I know she died thinking I ignored her email and I’m not strong enough to handle it yet.)
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