Behind the mask, another mask.
Ghosts have no memory, but I do.
On a drizzly Friday evening I decide to ride my bike to the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, or MACLA, in downtown San Jose. I stumble upon a private party where no one seems to care that a spectator has shown up. The current theme is Our connection to the land, and artists share work through various mediums including sculptures and paintings. I am most drawn to a series of black and white photos by Karen Miranda Rivadeneira. The artist writes “… focuses their work on memory, storytelling and trans states through collaborative processes and personal narratives.” One particular photo stays with me; a woman crouches, eyes closed. The last line of the poem reads: carrying a wound is like carrying a wonder.
I do a Google search the next day and discover the series of photos is titled Rowing Chants. The full text is there, lit up on my phone and suddenly I have the same feeling as the night before, in that warm room, surrounded by strangers. It all connects and maybe I do believe some cosmic force is bringing everything together for this writing project.
a wound or a wonder. Have I too come as far as this quote?
I mapped him the best I could. Information third-hand & fuzzy memories whose existence I question with each flash in the brain. What’s the difference between memory and ghost? It’s been long enough now that when I see pictures I question if they’re real. The physicalness of them. Como espejo de recurdas.
An anecdote: father, naked after a shower getting dressed in the bedroom. I am a small child, perhaps 5 or less (see: uninhibited, unaware). I run in and smack his bare ass, shouting “nalgas” with each hit.
The story ends there. I do not remember how he reacted. I can imagine, sure. But again what is the difference? This anecdote both happened and didn’t happen. The ghost of his imagined response haunts the memory of truth.
I read a quote by Svetlana Boym in Trisha Low’s book Socialist Realism that really pierces, sticks like a burr in me: “The danger of nostalgia is it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one.” I am in a perpetual haze of nostalgia. I cannot remember a time when that hasn’t been the case.
A few days later I have my regular therapy appointment via Skype. “I get it now,” I confess. “I know why I never give Los Angeles a chance to be home.”
My therapist smiles into the camera, his eyes slightly below my line of sight. “Yeah,” he asks eagerly.
That night I wonder if this was somehow a transfer of knowledge. Did he know all along, waiting for me to catch up?
In 2001 when my father died I already was my future self; thriving in the ocean air enveloping Monterey, California. I was old enough to escape if I needed to. I had distractions. This is what I realized was missing when I was a child: jobs, friends, a car. Before, I didn’t have the means to physically leave the trauma of the cul-de-sac. I turned inward, found solace in the imaginary/perceived. I watched weeknight sitcoms where families were unbroken, and predicaments stayed unserious.
By 2004, I finally graduated from the community college where I spent too long. My father often asked when I was going to be done, and I found myself lying more and more about how close I was. An annoyance, it felt like more like a jab than genuine care.
I applied to one school, far enough away. And when I got accepted, I didn’t look back.
A friend reads a draft of this essay, suggests I read Janice Lee’s Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you. The same day I receive it, I decide to take a hot bath. It’s finally winter in San Jose, and the cold has felt brutal. In between reading I dunk my head in the water, up to my ears. Miles Davis is playing, and I can hear his trumpet perfectly underwater.
I wonder if I could stay submerged forever.
The last year of his life was difficult, although nothing was ever expressed by either one of us. I was already untethered from him. We were strangers sharing a space. My mother was still working part time, and caring for him the rest. I pitched in too, although I wasn’t happy about it. I feel selfish now, but back then I think I was dealing with the grief of his impending death and all the feelings I had suppressed for 21 years.
I take a breath. My therapist is still smiling at me through the computer screen. “I think, I never dealt with his death. I left as soon as I could and wrote a new narrative, the old long lost.”
Therapists love to ask how does that make you feel when you tell them something. I realized pretty quickly that I never had an answer for this question. I’d constantly say “I dunno, I’ll have to think about that.”
But it’s more an act of avoidance than an asterisk for memory. I remember a similar defense mechanism as a child. The morning after an incident where my mother took the brunt of my father’s abuses, I’d question her marks. As if I was unaware of their origin. As if they appeared overnight.
In my childhood home it was all the words left unsaid that mattered.
The pain is there,
in pictures: so easy
to ignore, until
you see it.
An anecdote: I’m coming home from a friends, seeing a band play, etc. The detail is not important. All you need to know is that I’m happy. I get to the door and it’s there, in the pit of my stomach. I hear my father, loud and drunk through the front door. I don’t know what he’s upset about this time, but it is also not important. I take a deep breath. I find something inside of me that I didn’t know existed. I turn around, and walk away. It’s that simple. I decide I have had enough. I don’t have to deal with this. Not now. I drive to a Denny’s and sip on cokes at the shiny bar.
I am alone. I am okay.
The first time I acknowledge that the pain is there in everyone’s faces is from a photograph of a particularly uneasy night when my brother was visiting. He had taken a job in another country, perhaps his imagined nostalgia couldn’t exist on the same continent as the actual home. He had a late flight, almost midnight. As was the custom on weekends, my father was drinking heavily. I remember finding solace in my bedroom while my mother and brother dealt with his altered state. Someone else to bear the burden, I suppose. By the time we had to take him to the airport, my father was on one. The car ride was tense, and all the way up to the gate no one was happy. My mother snapped photos while goodbyes were said among the men. There’s one of me with my father. Everything you need to know is in my expression.
Once I notice, I can’t unsee. Then I shuffle through the other fifty or so photos I’ve managed to keep over the years, from my childhood album that my mother insisted I hold onto myself. It is there in various familial faces at birthday parties, catholic ceremonies. I’m almost shocked at how often my father’s drinking problem swallowed up events.
My therapist reminds me of our first day: a discussion about what I “want to get out of therapy.” I’m brutally honest, and show all of the wounds I carry. In the last 10 minutes of our session he asks me to pretend my father is there, in the room. He points to a chair; he’s right there waiting.
What would you say?
I wish I could remember whether or not I had dreams about him in the process of writing “Susurros.” I’d like to say I did, with certainty. But I’m unsure. “It’s hard to carve out what is real and what is perceived after a delayed grieving period,” my therapist offers.
I talk to him about my dreams often, especially when my father makes an appearance. Again, he asks that ageless question: “How does that make you feel?” Again, I have the same answer. It’s a constant dance. But this time, I am genuinely giving it thought. We discuss the possibilities of ghosts, spirits reaching out from beyond. I always seem to preface the conversation the same way: “I don’t necessarily believe that it’s possible, but …”
I can say with certainty that I suffered through a lot of nightmares after his death. Intensified, I think, by the fact that we remained in the same space. A haunting?
I often do not remember any details for my therapist when he asks. I always intend to type them into my phone, but never do. All I can really distinguish is whether or not they are positive or negative. I realize that while in the process of writing “Ashes …” the dreams have made me feel good or indifferent. He asks whether or not I think it’s my father reaching out finally, looking for peace. Again I preface with “well, I don’t really believe in that but …”
of yourself, before
one in my
Shortly after his passing, my mother reveals that the thread holding them together was also wearing thin. I’m surprised by this admission, although unsure why. To think of my parents as separate entities is to rewrite the narrative. I’ll never ask why she stayed as long as she did. I’m not sure if she would even know the answer. Lately I’ve wondered what a divorce would look like, who would make the effort when our bodies slipped from shared space? With more time, would the wounds have healed?
To be honest, I don’t think I’d try. It took years of denial, distractions, and therapy to even get to a point where I thought about him in a positive way.
In any case, it’s strange
to think of you and me
as akin, because
I would have never
I arrive home for the holidays. I will not call it a return because it feels temporary. I borrow my mom’s car and head to a favorite coffee shop nearby. I text a friend that I’m surprised the coffee shop is still there, thriving. A few seconds later he texts me: You’ve been gone for 4 months, dude, not 4 years followed by several laugh/cry emojis.
Shit, I respond, it feels like 4 years.
Frozen, I stared at the chair. My therapist is still, expectant.
I realize now the words have been here the whole time.
An ongoing conversation, like a ghost, with no beginning or end.
Trisha Low writes “What is a home if not a void, at the end of the day.”
This time, being home, I don’t feel any nostalgia. For perhaps the first time ever.
I see you in me. A version I can live with.