a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
“You could come over and I can make you dinner. Tomorrow? My sister is in Greece till Friday. I can make you a meal and share a bottle of wine,” John texted late Wednesday night.
After an on-and-off eight-month relationship, we were currently off but in talks to meet. We agreed a daytime hang without alcohol could be a healthy step to friendship. I suggested a hike Friday afternoon, but he had a work event. He countered with dinner Thursday night. To an outsider, this text might have seemed sweet, but I knew dinner was code for, “Come over while my sister is out of town so we can fuck.”
“I’m not strong enough to resist this temptation,” I texted a friend.
“What’s the big deal?” she replied. “It’s not like his penis is a surprise. You want him, and he wants you.”
“But I want more.” At that moment, I knew my decision had been made. After an hour-long debate with myself, I picked up the phone again.
“I have a friend’s birthday dinner tomorrow night, so Saturday afternoon then? Enjoy your work event.” I had considered bailing on the birthday dinner but knew if I did, I’d most likely regret it.
“You could just come over here tomorrow night and let me eat your pussy (purple devil smiling emoji).”
It was close to 11pm when his last text came in. I took a couple of quick nudes and played with the idea of sending one with the note, “Is this what you want?” And then revised to “Is this all I am to you?”
I deleted the photos.
My first childhood nickname was Ugly. My second brother called me Ugly so much, I once signed his birthday card, “Love Agly.” He teased me for not knowing how to spell the word. He was that kind of big brother.
My mom, on the other hand, treated me like a prize. Her greatest desire was to have a daughter, and after having three sons three years apart each, she finally had her baby girl three months before her 33rd birthday.
No matter if I was on my way to church or on my way to play with cousins, she decorated me in two pigtails clasped by large ribbon and lace bows that matched in color to whatever ribbon and lace dress I had on, a petticoat underneath, laced bloomers covering my diaper (because diapers were ugly) underneath that, and on my feet, white-laced socks and shiny, white patent leather Mary Janes. She told me stories from her childhood as she primped.
“I was fat when I was young, and no one wanted to play with me. No one liked me because I was too fat,” she’d say.
“Mommy, I think you’re beautiful,” I’d tell her as she buttoned and tied different parts of me.
“Thank you, Mamis,” she’d say and go on with her stories.
“I was never good enough for my mom. She picked apart everything I wore and how I behaved all the time,” she said one time as I stood on the lip of the tub so she could weave a braid across the top of my head.
“I like the way you look.” I held her face in my hands as she tucked fresh pink buds picked from the yard into the crown of hair.
She stepped back to look at her creation. “Perfect!”
Her stories became mantras she repeated for no one but me. As a child, she was too fat for friends and too fat for her own mother’s love. As an adult she was too fat for her boss who told her she didn’t dress right for success, and she was even too fat for the doctors who performed emergency surgery on her for a burst gallbladder.
“When it was time to move me from the gurney to the operating table, I heard the staff grumble. I told them, ‘I bet you wish I was skinnier. Huh?’ I told the doctor, ‘I bet it’s easier when there’s not so much to shove around.’” I could tell she felt clever in this story.
Once, as a small child, I was lying, as I often did, on her chest while she watched TV. Sometimes I fell asleep like this.
“Mommy, I like you fat,” I said.
“Sure, it makes you nice and squishy,” I said, nuzzling into her soft, warm body, but my encouragements never stopped her from telling these stories over and over.
By 11 years old, I’d started my period and gaining weight. By Junior High, I found I didn’t have any friends in my class. During school hours I sat with a mismatched group of girls who, like me, were too awkward and too weird to hang with the cool girls from the A Team or even the average B Team girls. We were more like the D Team and treated as such. I was regularly teased, and in turn, I found others to tease. Once, I spent an entire music class lobbing staples into the long, frizzy brown hair of a girl everyone bullied. With each tooth of metal I flung, I hoped to stop any insults from being flung at me. It was a miserable way to live, and I begged my mother to remove me from that school, but she refused.
This is the only time in my life I considered suicide.
Or I should say, I pondered it. But no, even that’s too heavy a verb. To be honest, I never fantasized how I would do it, nor did I ever make a plan or gather materials. I never even attempted to self-harm, aside from compulsively overeating. I do remember secretly scarfing pink frosting straight from a toothpaste-like tube before my mom got home from work, and thanks to an episode of “Different Strokes,” I wondered how I might make myself throw up, but even that I never attempted. And yet, I knew it was an option.
What I did was write a long, impassioned letter to a friend I’d made through my church’s youth group. I wrote it while on a plane to visit my first brother away at Stanford University. Scribbling across the fold-down tray, I told her how thankful I was to finally have a friend, and how I worried I might die without one, but now, thanks to her, I didn’t have to die. I mailed her the letter from the college campus. She never brought it up.
Back at school, a classmate invited me to her birthday slumber party. When it was time for bed, we placed our sleeping bags in a single row that went through the living room through double doors into the next room. Mine was situated at the very end of the line under the dining room table. Sometime in the night, I woke up to an itching in my crotch, most likely from pubic hair growing in. Thinking all the other girls were asleep, I scratched, but the girl next to me wasn’t. By Monday morning, the class rumor was I had crabs and jokes comparing pubic hairs to the curls on my head were being flung my way.
At the beginning, dates with John were sweet and earnest. The first time we kissed was after a five-hour hang in Little Tokyo.
I had invited him to an event I was reading at. Readings can be boring, but “Drunken Masters” was being held at one of my favorite bars, and I was reading for a panel of experts who would give me notes as they drank. It was sure to be entertaining.
He arrived late and missed my performance, but I was giddy to spot his 6′2″ frame hunched over the bar and ordering a drink. I ushered him to a booth where I sat across from him. His smile was almost too wide and awkward, but the way he fidgeted with his glasses and the knit cap he wore over his brown, baldhead as he talked entertained me. Other writers kept stopping by our booth to say hello, or to talk about upcoming events, open calls, publication advice, and I grew nervous. I hadn’t thought about how many people I’d know. I apologized.
“Why? I think it’s pretty cool to see you in your element,” he said, fiddling with the edge of his cap, and I blushed.
After all the other writers left, after the bar closed, after late-night noodles, after an awkward hug goodbye in the street, and after getting into our separate cars and driving away, I looked down the dark and desolate 10 Freeway and wished I had kissed him. I sent him a text saying so.
“I wanted to kiss you too. Where are you now?”
Snaking on a road north through the San Gabriel Valley, I anxiously parked behind him alongside the Caltech campus in Pasadena. It was 3am. The windows of his black Prius fogged as we hungrily kissed. Our faces parted for a moment. We were silent. He brought one finger up to the collar of my gray V-neck and slowly pulled me back to him.
“I’m going to see you next week,” he said to my lips. His directness thrilled me.
“OK,” I said and waited for his next kiss.
I believe I was 12 and sitting with my parents at my second brother’s high school jazz band performance, when I first felt an unfamiliar and exciting tingle down below. The band’s bass player, a scrawny sixteen-year-old with thick, dark hair and milky skin plucked his fingers along the long neck of his instrument, and the rhythm did something fantastic to my insides. I thought, being talented means being attractive.
It wasn’t a farfetched idea. In fact, it’s the big lesson in the song “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from the 1960s musical Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood.
Wood’s character, Louise Hovick, tours the vaudeville circuit as the sidekick in an elaborate all-kid song and dance team, a vehicle dreamed up by her mother-manager to drive her blonde and bouncy sister, June, to stardom. But when June elopes to escape the clutches of her momager, the brunette and boyish Louise must fill in as the show’s leading woman. As she prepares backstage, she doubts she has any beauty or talent to succeed, but a band of rough and wise burlesque dancers inform her she’ll need more than that to make it as a performer.
“What you need is an idea that makes your strip special,” Mazeppa, a bugle-blowing stripper, counsels Louise. According to the dancers, being worth a buck, or a man’s attention, is all in how you present yourself.
Louise dresses in a royal blue, mermaid-cut gown and arm-length, white gloves and pins her hair into an elegant up-do. Before she steps onto the stage to perform solo for the first time, she stops in front of a mirror and takes in her full image.
“Momma, I’m pretty,” she says, surprised.
From the moment that bass player’s fingering tickled my insides, to be talented became my deepest desire.
On our second date, John asked about my career and called me fascinating. I bragged about this to a friend who, the summer before, told me I needed a man who saw me for the shining star I was. At that time, I was newly dating a skittish record shop owner who needed constant attention, but I had just left him in L.A. for a month-long writing retreat in Pennsylvania. I was worried that without me around, he might forget why he liked me. During a stopover in DC, I asked my friend for advice, but it was her husband who chimed in.
“This is crazy!” he said. “What are we even talking about? Forget? Forget what? You’re a fucking shining star!” There was no more discussion after that. Two weeks into the retreat, the record shop owner did, in fact, dump me.
In 8th grade I saw my third brother perform in a high school production of Cabaret. He played a sailor with one line. I fell in love with the flashy, nightclub production and the way the show’s Sally Bowles shimmered under a spotlight. That summer I auditioned for my first play, a bootlegged, church production of Into the Woods. I scored my own one-line role as “Little Red Riding Hood’s Granny,” as well as an invitation to hang with a group of older kids, many of whom I’d seen in Cabaret only a month or two earlier.
It felt like a dream, and by the time I stepped into high school I was hooked. For four years, I reveled in the hours spent rehearsing into the night cloistered within the dark basement of “The Little Theatre” with a bunch of misfits like me who understood life on the D Team.
In classes, not much changed. The boys flung insults like loudmouth and freak, which were supported by male teachers who didn’t care much for my enthusiasm.
Once in US History, we came to a short passage in the textbook about 200 frontiersmen traveling the Oregon Trail. I raised my hand to make a point about the women who had been left out of the story. An argument kicked up with the boys in class, but I stood my ground. I was smiling and feeling proud of myself when suddenly my very large, football coach teacher roared, “Oh! Just shut up!” through his bristle brush mustache. I choked on whatever words were halfway out my mouth and put my head down on my desk before anyone could see the tears forming in my eyes.
After, he didn’t apologize, and I didn’t expect him to. I was indeed loudmouthed, and I believed I deserved it.
But after classes let out and team practices finished, the school emptied, and we, the theatre kids, were left alone to be as loud and as passionate as was natural. In fact, our director constantly chided us in rehearsals to be “Louder!” and “Bigger!” And by the end of high school, I was sure I’d found my gimmick even if I hadn’t yet found love.
By graduation, the only person I had kissed was my best friend, David. Dark and handsome, David radiated attraction like a modern-day teenage Ramon Novarro. He had all the talent in the world, including the power to lure anyone he wanted, boy or girl, to his side with just a look. One night, at a Godspell cast party, sitting on David’s lap in someone’s parent’s laundry room, we shared one drunk and sloppy make out session. It made my whole semester.
On our fourth date, I took John to a brewery in the Arts District. We sat on two stools against an open-air window. The night was cool.
“Wow! I just realized I need to buy your book, so I can talk to you about what you do,” he said. His words made my insides tingle.
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s a lot about me being single and never having a boyfriend,” I said, getting nervous.
“I’m going through a divorce. I have a lot tethered to me. I think you’re good,” he said, taking my hand. That night, sitting in those stools, his brown, calloused fingers softly stroking mine, I hoped this could be the love I worked so hard to find.
In college, I majored in theatre still believing acting was my path to everything I wanted. The first production I auditioned for in my first semester at San Francisco State was none other than Cabaret. When I didn’t get a part, I ended up on the properties crew where I happily flirted with Tom, a 28-year-old handsome and handy, sturdy dependable type. At 5′6″ we were nearly the same height, and I enjoyed working alongside him and getting into heated arguments when he said certain jobs, like lifting heavy furniture, needed a guy’s help. He seemed to enjoy my feistiness and the flirting, but never made a move.
On opening night, I went to the cast party determined to kiss Tom, but instead of making out with him, I found myself being led out into the street by a stalky Brit who had been invited by a cast member. Away from the other cast and crew, in the house’s shadow and in the presence of garbage cans, he pushed me against the garage and burrowed wide and wet into my mouth. Hands grabbed under my white-cropped tank, lips sucked hard on my neck, and I thought, Yes! Finally!
At call time the next day, I ran into Tom in the hallway. He immediately noticed the purple hickeys pancaked around my neck that I had tried to smooth out with the bottom of a lipstick tube and then with the back of a metal spoon.
“Jeez,” he said.
“What?” Yeah, you missed your chance!
“Why would you let a guy do that to you?” His words deflated me of all indignation before he turned and walked away. The following week, after the show closed, I saw the Brit in that same hall. He pretended to not know me. I thought back to Tom’s question: I don’t know.
In the middle of my junior year, I transferred to my best friend’s school in Long Beach because switching state schools was easy and we could be roomies. Plus, in my sophomore year at San Francisco, I’d fallen for a guy who became my first everything, and now that the romance was over, I needed out of town.
My bestie was in a sorority, and every weekend I tagged along with her and her sisters—dressed accordingly in high boots, short skirt, and sparkly lip-gloss—as they marched into one stain-covered house after another. Each party felt the same. We entered as a group, grabbed drinks, and b-lined to the first coffee table we found. There we danced hip to hip above the crowd, a row of girls on display, and waited for white frat guys to pick us one after another until the table was again bare.
One night, done with this mating ritual, I stepped off the coffee table, out the front door, and onto the sidewalk. I’m not sure I knew where I was going except for away from the party. Once outside, I spotted a group of guys sitting on armchairs on the front lawn of a little, one-story cottage next door. They looked ten times more interesting than the guys I had left.
“Hi! I’m Xochitl,” I said, stepping up to the group. “I was at a frat party next door, but it sucks.”
“Shoot, girl! That party looks like it sucks. Why don’t you kick it with us? I’m Andy.” Andy was a kind of grimy (in a 2001 punk sort of way), 21-year-old Chicano kid and a Long Beach local with a shaved head and long, baggy shorts. He introduced me to his friends who were mostly guys Andy had adopted, recent transplants from places like Wilmington, North Carolina and Duluth, Minnesota, with a few other locals mixed in.
“Do you have a beer for me?”
“You know I do!” Andy cracked open a fresh can and handed it my way.
From then on, after classes I would head to Andy’s house where the door was always open and inside I could find an intriguing mix of people coming and going. On the weekends, we threw parties. I was in charge of bringing the sorority sisters, and he was in charge of bringing his skater buddies. At one of these parties, we made the mistake of eating pot brownies and spent the entire night sequestered together in a bedroom trying to handle our highs. At another, we found ourselves playing Truth or Dare on a king-sized bed with a few others. Into the second round, it got back to Andy.
“I pick dare, but only if the dare is to kiss Xochitl,” he said.
“Fine, but she picks the place.”
I remembered how my bestie told me the inner thigh was the sexiest place to be kissed, but when his lips touched my skin no tingle happened.
“Next time, try shaving higher,” he said. I guess there was no tingle for him either. On the next go around, still determined, he dared himself to kiss me on the mouth. We all laughed.
Then one weekend we made plans to drive to Santa Barbara to visit his friend with a house in Isla Vista. The only girl in two carloads of guys, I rode shotgun in Andy’s beat up Nissan. He played the Magnolia soundtrack for us. “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Two can be as bad one, it’s the loneliest number since the number one,” Aimee Man’s sad, haunting voice filled the car as night came. When we were nearly to Santa Barbara, the highway began to climb a big hill.
“This is my favorite part,” he said of the drive. I looked out and saw headlights and brake lights snaking upward to the sky. I wanted it to be my favorite part too.
It was late by the time we arrived, and we went straight to drinking and smoking. Into the dark AM hours, people began to pass out across the living room floor, and I fell asleep among the bodies. But then a hand woke me in the middle of the night.
The hand slowly grew to a whole body moving in behind me. Soon I realized the hand belonged to a short guy from Duluth who always wore a backwards baseball cap. He was new to Long Beach and the group and hadn’t really said too much to me before this moment.
Almost like any other dare, his hands moved under my shirt and then down my pants. His fingers slipped into me, and before I knew it, so did his dick. Nothing about this seemed too weird, except maybe the blonde hardwood floor stiff against my hip. The black armchair above me seemed to ask why I didn’t sleep there.
In the morning, Andy and I went to a taco shack for breakfast burritos. Sitting across from him at a sidewalk picnic table, he made a comment about the night before. My face turned red.
“Did you think I wouldn’t? We were all in the room.” His question, his disappointment, reminded me of purple hickeys and Tom.
“I –” my voice trailed off. I took a bite of my burrito and changed the subject.
It wasn’t long before John started showing up for dates indecently late. Because I lived in my parents’ backhouse, I didn’t want him coming over past 10pm and told him so. One night, he showed at my door three hours late, holding a bag of groceries from his work. I tried to manage my anger.
“I don’t want a fuck buddy,” I told him as we stood in the kitchen, unpacking what he brought.
“I don’t want that either. I’m not built that way. You’re important to me,” he said. He hung his head like an injured dog. “I’m sorry.”
“I really don’t want to be mad. I want to enjoy our time, but –”
“No, you’re right to be upset. Please, I need you to keep me to my word.” We made dinner together, steak with broccolini. He washed the dishes. I wanted this to work.
One night he called me, hyperventilating. “I can’t come,” he said. It was the latest battle with his soon to be ex-wife. I told him not to worry and called him the next day to check in.
Another time he came over and let me hold him as he cried. I thought this was progress, but we were like the flowers he sometimes brought me from his work.
Once it was three starburst lilies. When he handed over the bouquet, only one had bloomed. The anticipation of watching the other two lavender buds open excited me, but by the time they showed their pink freckled insides the first had died.
Too slowly, I came to understand John was reeling and did my best not to hold his behavior against him, and when he said he needed to be friends, I didn’t hold that against him either. I had a deep feeling he was worth my time and energy. Though, if I’m being honest, I had a need to be worth his.
Months after receiving my BA in Theatre Performance and going to a handful of open calls, I realized I was a terrible actor, and at 23 I became a high school theatre teacher instead. At 26, unhappy with teaching, I told myself if I ever wanted to find my talent, it had to be right then.
I decided to take one semester of poetry at a community college because I always liked poetry. I used the poems written in class for my application and the teacher as my reference. A few months later I received an acceptance letter from the only MFA program I applied to. The validation was intoxicating. I thought, Now, I’m on my way!
Over the next few years, I enjoyed the accolades I built from one acceptance to the next. And when I won a prestigious award from Poets & Writers in 2013, which included a paid trip to New York City to meet important writers, editors, and publishers, I believed poetry had the power to transform me from an ugly, fat, loveless nobody to a star. But when my debut collection was released in fall 2016, I was sick with anxiety.
I was 36, living in my parents’ backhouse, jobless, childless, and loveless. I’d spent the past six years writing and editing the book, and the closer publication came the more fevered my work. I thought once I had the book in my hands the amazing man I’d been waiting for would finally see all I had to offer and be drawn to me. I thought he and everyone who doubted me through the years would finally know my worth, and I could be whole. In a way, the book was my prized baby girl, but when publication day arrived, the only thing that had changed was a physical representation of my greatest hopes and fears could be bought and sold, held and read, judged and hated.
The fear of being discovered for a talentless fraud haunted me at all hours of the night. By the time morning came, I found myself gagging at the sight of sunlight streaming into my room. I forced the words, “What a beautiful day,” through the sick coating my mouth, knowing I didn’t believe it.
Throughout the day the sick gnawed at my belly. I stopped eating.
One evening I went out for Vietnamese food with two cousins. I ordered pho. When the bowl stayed filled to the brim, I could tell they noticed and did my best to drink the broth.
“Are you anorexic or something?” one asked.
“It’s this book,” I said.
By the time I traveled to Washington DC to promote the collection at AWP17, the biggest writers conference in the nation, I could barely leave my hotel room. The first morning, I told my roommate I had work to finish and that I would meet her inside the convention hall. The truth was I wanted to be left alone to throw up.
When I could no longer avoid going into the conference, I made sure to be done up in my best poet-gimmick attire: black dress, pink tights, floral-embroidered shoes, gold bamboo hoops, and red lipstick. As I walked into the convention center and stepped on to an escalator leading to the main entrance of the conference, someone from the first floor called out my name. I looked down and saw a writer I knew. She mouthed to me, “You look amazing!” When I got to my press’s table for my scheduled signing, I asked the young intern at the table to take my photo.
“Please make sure to include the book,” I said, propping it in front of me. She snapped a couple of shots and handed the phone back.
“Let me know if those are good,” she said. I flipped the screen over, and saw a very skinny, very dark eyed me.
“You could just come over here tomorrow night and let me eat your pussy.” I read John’s sext again. The purple devil emoji smiling from the phone taunted me.
It was 1am by the time I replied. As I typed, I imagined all the women who would never reply. Part of me wished to one day grow into that woman, to be able to erase such a text and such a man from my life forever and always, but deep down I knew she would never be me.
“I understood the intentions behind your invitation for dinner, and though I do want to fuck you…
1. I really do have dinner plans, and 2. I’m trying to change old patterns. I might not always be good at this, but I’m trying.”
The next day he texted an apology for “being so forward,” and that he did, in fact, want to be friends. I could no longer ignore that his actions said otherwise. He never did buy my book.
“Your text wasn’t forward, it was disrespectful. All I could think was you must be dealing with some demons.”
One morning, a few months after the release of the book, tired of the usual sick chewing at my gut, I tied running shoes onto my feet and walked out of my little backhouse. When I arrived at the end of my street, I took notice of a bush of two-toned roses. I snapped a photo of their scarlet faces and butter bodies and commanded my feet to keep moving. As I walked, I directed myself to focus on my surroundings: smell the air heavy with ripe citrus fruit, listen to the crunch of fallen bougainvillea petals below your feet, appreciate the morning glory blooming from a chain-link fence. With each step the chewing eased.
When I returned home, I posted the two-toned roses to my Instagram with the words, “I’m determined to take care of my mental and physical health.” Then I spilled reflections into a notebook. This became my process, and from those spills my first poem since publication took shape.
I hadn’t been able to write one for months, and I was scared I might never write one again. What if I had lost the skill? What would I be if not a poet?
The poem was a list of activities throughout one day with anxiety. It included feeding the cat and visiting the library. It ended with, “Breathe in purple tropical blooms too bright in the midday sun. And then remember to breathe again.” I learned poems didn’t need to be extraordinary, nor did I need to write poems to be extraordinary.
Besides walking and journaling regularly, I also began meeting with a group of girlfriends for moon circles. Once a month, planned around the phases of the moon, six of us gathered at one of our homes to reflect on the month before, share our losses and hopes, and set goals for the following month. With this women’s circle, I finally found a safe place to share my anxieties. Slowly, with their support, and the flowers I passed each day for inspiration, I began to love myself.
One fall night, we gathered for the harvest full moon at our host’s home in East Hollywood. In the living room, we sat with journals opened on our laps and circled around an altar filled with flowers, gourds, and lit candles. One sister shared how her mother had been encouraging her to be more honest and vulnerable with potential partners.
“I don’t really show emotions, but she thinks I should be more open,” she said, and we all nodded in agreement. “See, when you’re honest about your desires, the guy only has two choices: to honor your honesty or decide it’s not for him and leave. If he leaves, then he’s not for you.”
“I’m good at the first part,” I said, “but the second is still hard to deal with.” As I spoke, I thought of John’s sext from only days earlier and our eight-month on-and-off relationship.
I realized then when you hold your boundaries and know your worth, people show you who they are, whether you want to see it or not. I felt inches taller, but the growth hurt.
Now, I wonder if flowers feel pain when they bloom. I wonder if they can see their own beauty. I really hope they can.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications 2016). A former Steinbeck Fellow and Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner, she has creative nonfiction published in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Offing, and [Pank]. She is the director or Women Who Submit, a literary organization fighting for gender parity in publishing.