Black Girl: As Is

Writer. Creator. Shapeshifter.

How to Disappear Completely.

On August 27, 2007, I got married...sort of.  Butch was sweet, funny and incredibly shy.  He was sensitive, thoughtful and unique.  He had excellent penmanship and was an amazing portraiture artist.  He was also an ex-con.  I leave that detail last because judgment is quick, cheap and deadly.  It sits next to self-righteousness and cackles like a clown.  

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White Noise & Invisible Ink.

Deana Mena. Age 26. Blonde. Blue-eyed. Unremarkable. I think about her often. I wonder what her family was like and if she had a sense of humor. I wonder who her friends were and if she went to college. Mostly, I wonder what ran through her mind as she shot my father. I think it takes a special kind of pain to drive someone to switch weapons, mid murder. It takes a certain kind of madness to premeditate. Why the Kabuki makeup? Did she have a real knowledge of Japanese culture or did she see it in a movie? I wonder what ran through her mind when she sat outside my school and my mother’s doctor’s appointments. Did she think my mom was pretty? I used to think stalking was kind of romantic. I blame The Police. At the time, I thought her obsession with Usher’s ‘You make me’ would ruin it for me. So many phone calls, so many voicemails. But alas, that shit is catchy. I wonder what was going through her mind, the morning she made that last phone call?

On October 8, 1997, Deana Mena lured my father to her Oak Cliff, Texas apartment. She’d left numerous voicemails on his work phone. Never words only Usher on repeat.  She’d called his bosses repeatedly and told them that he was a drug addict and she’d suggested that they let him.  He’d had enough.  Forever the optimist, he thought he could reason with her.  She put six bullets in his head, face, torso and hand. I try not to think too hard about that hand wound. Try not to picture my father attempting to block his own death or plead for his life. She then dressed herself in Kabuki makeup, left a suicide note and shot herself.

Before that, it had been a day like any other. I got up, got dressed and impatiently waited for my ride to school. I was late. Punctuality mattered to me. I was 17 going on 40.  I didn’t want to fall behind. Black girls start from behind.  My dad was much more relaxed about those things. He had a routine. Coffee. Cigarette. Newspaper. Morning shit. They had to be simultaneous and they each gave him equal pleasure. After whining, coaxing and screaming (apparently, I’m cute when I’m mad), I finally got him to get going. I waited for him by the door and I swear he moved like he was treading molasses.  He sang the theme song to the Tom Joyner morning show and cleared his throat the entire ride to school.  He danced and jerked his shoulders to the music.  He smiled broadly and slapped the steering wheel on beat.  He knew it annoyed me. He loved to drive me mad. I’m told that when I was a baby he used to lightly smack me on the butt because he thought it was cute when I cried. He told me he loved me when he dropped me off. I did not return his sentiment. I slammed the door and stomped off in a huff. I was fuming. In a moment that I replay over in my mind all these years later, I told a friend that if he died that day I’d piss on his grave. I replay that moment, not because I meant it, not because I credit myself with intuition, but because it was perhaps the meanest thing I’d ever said aloud. It shocked me and it was exhilarating.

My dad never came home that night. More accurately, my dad never came home again. That moment when I slammed the door and stared at him with contempt would be the last moment I ever saw him alive. When I got home from rehearsal that night, my mother was pissed. He’d taken her car that day and he wasn’t home. As the hours ticked by, pissed morphed to worried. She called hospitals and police stations. We couldn’t yet file a missing persons report, so my mom reported her car stolen. My stomach hardened and I didn’t really sleep that night. Somehow, I knew I’d never see him again. I knew that my life would never be the same. In that moment, I held my breath and I don’t know that I’ve breathed deeply since.

I have no recollection of how I got to school that next day. I do recall that I had a choir concert that night and rehearsal for “God’s Country”, a docudrama my school was producing about white supremacists in which, by ironic twist, I played the defense attorney. Texas is God’s country, I suppose.  I was called out of choir practice to see the principal. I couldn’t tell you how it happened. I don’t know if someone came to get me or if I was called over the intercom.  I remember standing on the risers blending sound and suddenly I was in my choir director’s office.  It was as if I’d apparated. I had been waiting for this all day. It was as if I’d been walking around cloaked in shadow waiting for the discovery.

She must have sensed that something was wrong because she asked if I was ok. I asked her if she’d pray with me and she took my hands in hers.  I closed my eyes and time stood still. Those moments in her office were my last moments of wholeness.  I wonder if she knew she was witnessing a tiny death?  I wasn’t given any information, just told that someone was there to pick me up. I knew that it wouldn’t be my dad, though I did hope beyond reason. My brother’s maroon Ford Escort was parked out front. He was very calm, very collected. “She killed him, Dreezy. She shot him, then she shot herself.”

“Mom?” I asked. We laughed. It’s funny how humor locks hand with tragedy.  But I was only half-joking.  I didn’t know if Deana had gone over the edge or if my mom had.  I knew my mother had a gun, it was Texas, we all did.  In fact, she and I had gone to confront Deana a few weeks earlier and I watched as she put it in her bag.  The entire time we were at Deana’s house I stared at the bag like it was on a timer.  She’d goaded my mother by discussing my father’s bedroom antics.  She’d slung microagressions and ageist insults.  I knew that timer could go off at any minute.

We took the long way home and we rode mostly in silence. My brother and I have not always gotten along, but we’ve always understood each other.   I wondered what he was thinking. He knew Deana, they worked together and she’d babysat my nephew. We arrived to a house that felt completely empty.  I don’t remember who was there, I didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t hug my mother. I didn’t exhale. I walked straight back to my room to sing to my brand new baby niece. I remember telling her that I was sorry she’d never get to meet him. I was sorry that she’d never fall asleep on his chest. I was sorry she’d never get to wrap her little fingers around his pointer. I poured all my sorrow into my song ‘La Marseillaise’ because I just couldn’t cry. Why the French national anthem?  Because I’d just done a play about the French Revolution and it was on loop in my head for the greater part of a year.

When I could no longer hide in my room, I went and looked at my mother. I hadn’t really looked at her in a very long time. She was making phone call after phone call, saying, “Don’s dead. He was shot” No one expects those calls. No one can process that news. She’d sometimes have to repeat the sentence two or three times to the same person. It was too much. I asked to be driven back to school. I had a performance and a rehearsal and I couldn’t fall behind, especially now. My brother followed my lead and decided to go back to work. When I think back on this moment, I am ashamed that I abandoned my mother but I also consider this the first act of self-care I ever committed to. A black girl in the South learns to make concessions. She learns that there is a pecking order and she is always served least and last. I’d learned to bend myself around those around me, to cater to every whim. My mother used to say, “You’re a child, you don’t have any wants.”  In that moment, I wanted freedom and self-preservation, and for the first time, I took it.

I went back to school and went about my day. If I went through the motions maybe my life wouldn’t change. The weeks that followed were surreal. I took my SAT’s. I helped make funeral and travel arrangements. I helped communicate that they had put my dad’s face back together wrong and made him up in an unrealistic way. I helped and helped, and in that helpfulness, I lost my capacity to request any help of my own. I learned behavior that still plagues me. I learned to give of myself until I bottomed out. I was a basin filled with the waters of the world’s needs. I began sleeping with my mother. She hadn’t slept alone my entire life. I could feel her need. We clung to each other like ivy. But we were incapable of climbing. 

Following my father’s death, an article ran in the Dallas Morning News, headlined “Murder-suicide leaves two dead Police say woman shoots lover, self” The article described my father as a physically abusive monster, who took advantage of a sweet young girl. The man who wrote the piece, Stephen Power, detailed stories from neighbors who Deana had shown her bruises to. Phone calls to friends about my dad’s abusive behavior. I know what you’re thinking. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I have an idealized version of him. But, you’re wrong.

My father was many unsavory things over the years. He was negligent and selfish. He was at times a liar, a thief, and a crackhead. He smoked away my somewhat substantial inheritance within a year of my grandfather’s death. He once visited my grandmother in her retirement home and pried the rings from her fingers. He sold my first bicycle for crack, a few weeks after I learned to ride it. He once left me in a car while he went in and scored crack then insulted my intelligence when I went Judge Judy on that ass. I may have been seven, but I was no fool. He was also kind and charming. He was incredibly funny and loved to make people laugh. He would give you the shirt off his back and he looked at my mother like she was the moon. He also listened. He was the only person in my family that never tired of letting me prattle on. He looked at me when I spoke. He knew me. He liked me. He would wake me in the middle of the night to make gas station runs for Coke and Snickers bars. He took me to my first dance and on my first date and told me to never settle for anyone who didn’t treat me as well as he did. I had a very realistic view of who my father was.

This article pissed me off.  It was a one-sided glorification of a murderer. The dead don’t speak, but this man’s bias spoke volumes. The poor little white girl must have been bamboozled, tricked and beaten. What else would drive her to commit murder, if not to protect herself? Because poor little white girls never do vile things for no reason. Because poor little white girls are precious and they have value. My father’s legacy didn’t matter, because to Power, my father didn’t matter. He looked at the victims, he poked around a bit and he came to the conclusion that white men often come to when they see their women with a black man: She had clearly been corrupted and soiled. Even though her suicide note left instructions for her brothers to kick my dad’s ass if he survived. Even though she switched guns in the middle of murdering my father. Even though the ‘abuse’ happened after my father had moved out and was living with us. Even though she had stalked, harassed and threatened us, she deserved humanity.

What he didn’t do was dig. What he didn’t do was smell a rat and seek the scent. What he didn’t do was his fucking job. So, after a week of being “comforted” by students and faculty who felt guilty for not identifying the nonexistent “signs of abuse,” I called the Dallas Morning News. I demanded to speak to Mr. Power and I demanded a retraction. I requested a meeting to discuss the facts. After slinging the words “racist” and “skewed,” I got my meeting. I was able to easily dispute the testimonies based on the fact that every time she accused him of beating her, he was either at home with us or at work. I was 17 years old. I didn’t even need to leave my house to get the truth; I just needed to give a shit about what was being reported, about the people being reported about. .  My mother and I waited with bated breath for the retraction to be published.  But we never got a retraction.

Nearly a year later, op-ed columnist, Steve Blow, showed up at our door one sunny afternoon.  He said he wanted to get our side of the story.  Finally. He interviewed my mother and me and he was respectful and kind.  We had a nice rapport. He recommended that I go into journalism.  This was the first of many times some white person would compare me to Oprah because I could articulate my thoughts.  About a week later Steve’s article was published.  ‘Drug –Related Tragedies Not Just Kid Stuff’.  It was a bullshit fluff piece, cautioning against the dangers of getting involved with drugs. A fire raged in the pit of my stomach.  I pictured myself driving down to the paper and burning it down to the ground.  Instead I tucked that anger in a box, threw away my college applications and applied for community college so I could remain close to family.

This was the first of many times that I slathered my outrage in butter to make to it more palatable. To get shit done. This was how I was made. The gauntlet was dropped and I quickly picked it up. I would tell the truth. I would defend. I would protect. I would tuck myself up and put myself away. I would survive.

I had learned that you could live a good life, be charismatic, charming, and beloved and you could still be shot down like a rabid dog. You could still rot and your blood could soak through layers of fibers and tile and linoleum. You could be gentle and kind and “not see color” and they could still make you a monster, a brute. You could be a murderer and they’d play you a redemption song. Nothing is black and white and everyone is capable of anything.

After my father’s death, my mother became addicted pain meds. She checked out. Abandon ship. My brother battled addiction to anger and narcotics. I postponed college to stay with my mother and be closer to my niece and nephew. I made sure she didn’t burn the house down and I cleaned the sheets when she fell asleep in piles of food. I wanted to hang on to the family that I had, and I feared that without me everything would crumble. I tended to her. I tended to them. I reached for everything outside of myself so that I wouldn’t have to face myself. I wouldn’t have to face my grief.

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve never been sentimental about dates, but it’s odd knowing he’s been gone longer than I ever knew him. I’ve spent so much time trying to move forward, trying never to fall behind, that I forgot to stop and mourn the loss of not only my father, but my entire family unit. I thought I’d made peace with my father’s murder but I’d really substituted peace with subjugation. I’d made my life an ode to self-sacrifice, and I’d made a career of self-sabotage and imposter syndrome.

I’d thought that demanding a retraction would make a difference.  I’d thought that it would be atonement. Instead, it was an after school special with a word count.  Despite my fervor, despite my action, in the end it didn’t matter.  It didn’t matter that I was right.  It didn’t matter that I was articulate and it didn’t matter that I’d stood up for the underdog.  My father was still dead, my family was still punctured and I would never be fully whole. 

It took 20 years to realize that atonement was not the mission. Telling the story was.  Stephen Powers, Steve Blow and the Dallas Morning News do not own my father’s story. I do.  My father’s murder taught me to ask questions.  It taught me to demand the truth and to always own my story.   No one gets to decide that I’m a victim.  No one gets to determine my fate.    My story may not be perfect, it may not be the story I would have written for myself, but it will always be mine.

Me too.

The first time I was about six.  I was at church and I had been sitting on my pastor’s lap.  I had always liked him and I worshipped his daughter but I didn’t want to sit on his lap.  It made me uncomfortable but I’d already learned that my discomfort came second to the whims of the adults in my life.  My father came into the room and retrieved me.  He told me that I wasn’t to sit in any man’s lap, ever again.   The elation of my rescue was overshadowed by the shame I felt.  I didn’t know exactly what I’d done wrong but I could tell that he was upset and it was somehow my fault.  Note to self, no laps.

About a year later I was talking to some boy friends at church when I heard my name.  My mother looked pissed.  When I got home, I was in big trouble.  Apparently, I had been talking to them with my hands on my hips.  I hadn’t realized.  I also didn’t know why it mattered where my hands were when I talked.  I’d later hear that I was trying to be ‘sexy’ and grown.  I thought I was just trying to be heard by my friends, my mistake.

When I was nine or 10, I was walking home from school when a man rode alongside me on his bike.  He told me I was sexy and he asked where I was going.  My hackles were up, so I told him I was going to a friend’s house.  He told me I shouldn’t be walking alone and he asked if I wanted him to protect me.  I’d already gotten to my street, but I didn’t want him to know where I lived and I didn’t want him to know I’d be alone.  I kept walking.  I walked in the middle of the street and my eyes darted at every house, hoping to see someone sitting on their porch.  He kept talking and I tried to walk faster and faster.  He asked what street my friend lived on and I said ‘It’s just up the way, I got it, thanks for protecting me.’  He kept following.  He kept talking.  I’d long crossed the established boundaries my parents had set for walking near home, but I wasn’t sure what else I could do.  I started to pray.  I knew that if I walked much further, I’d be lost.  I saw a police car at the end of a block, so I turned toward the car and waved at the officers.  The man turned and biked away.  I didn’t tell the officers, but I stood next to the car waiting until I thought it would be safe to walk home.

The following year, I started middle school.  I was bussed to a safer, whiter part of town.  On the bus the boys tried to kiss me and put their hands between my legs. It was a long ride and a lot of boys. I told the bus driver and she told me to sit in the front behind her, but she was mean to me from that day forward. She was so mean that I had to tell my mother because she started to single me out and poke fun at me.  I was shy and soft spoken and she treated me like a whiny brat. My mother came and threatened her life.  She was nice after that.  I started dating a boy at school, but I didn’t want to do more than hold hands.  When I refused to kiss him, he spread a rumor that I had toxic breath.  He drew a crude picture of me and put it on my locker.  Other kids replicated this image and would leave it in my chairs in class, on my table at lunch and I’d see it drawn in some of the bathroom walls.

We moved the following year.  More boys hands on the bus.  We lived in an apartment complex and my favorite cousin had come to stay for the summer.  My parents worked during the day, so the two of us would walk around the complex and to the convenience store.  We made friends with some of the boys in the complex.  We weren’t discriminatory but there were no girls our age.  We invited the boys over for PB&J’s and Sinbad.  The one I liked was nerdy and freckled but he had a friend who was a little older and a lot more aggressive.  He cornered me in my bedroom and kissed me.  He bit my lip and wouldn’t let go.  He held me against the wall with his full body weight.  He pushed his pelvis into me and asked if I liked it.  When I said ‘NO’ he told me I was acting like a silly little girl and he thought I was woman.  I kissed him so he would relax.  It worked.  As he tried to pull me toward the bed, I told him I had to go to the bathroom and went back to join my cousin and my friend.  I stared at the television laughing boisterously, pretending it was the only thing on my mind.  He left and he told everyone I was a terrible kisser.

By the time I got to high school I was a pro at smiling and pretending.  I’d also put on a ton of weight and learned to hang my head low and not make eye contact.  It didn’t make a difference.  There was the boy who wanted help in Mr. Mancini’s Spanish class.  He was cute, he had dimples and he asked if I could help him.  He didn’t want anyone to know he was having trouble so he asked me to meet him under the stairs.  As I unzipped my backpack he put his hand under my shirt and my bra.  He told me I should be quiet so no one would hear me.  What would people think?  He kissed me and told me I was pretty.  Then he told me not to tell anyone and he walked away.  I stayed there for several minutes because I was worried people would see me and think I was a slut.  There was the boy who called me heavyweight fatty and barked at me.  He asked if he could copy my science homework and when I said NO he got all the other boys to bark at me too.  When we were alone he told me he was sorry and that he wasn’t really like that.  He put his hand on my ass.  I started letting him copy my homework.  There was the boy who I thought was my friend.  He’d walk me to class and we’d talk on the phone.  We mostly talked about books but he was really nice.  One day he saw me share a glance with a boy I liked and he asked me what was up.  When I told him we’d been talking, he slapped me.  He told me I was his.  I had no idea.

There was that time in Junior College when I was at a party with my friends. I went to lie down with a male friend I was super comfortable with.  We’d slept (just sleeping) together before.  We were close. We cuddled.  A few minutes later a mutual female friend came in.  She lay on the opposite side and joined the cuddle.  A few minutes later I felt the bed shift and I saw her hands moving up his body.  They started kissing and I felt a hand on my leg.  I set upright.  I jumped up, grabbed my shoes and exited.  He followed me asking if I was ok.  I told him I was.  I wasn’t.  There was that time I auditioned for Oleanna and my theatre professor and mentor called me into his office to tell me I’d given the best audition, but he couldn’t cast me because realistically the audience wouldn’t think I was sexy.  That one may not count, but it made me feel just as small as the rest of them.

There was the time my best friend slipped me Ecstasy and had sex with me.  There was the time my boyfriend decided to punish me for my “smart mouth” mid-coitus by choking me and pounding into me so hard I bled.  There was the time I told that guy to stop and he said to stop crying and let him finish.  Then when he did he held me close to him and told me it was going to be alright.  There was my first full body massage, given by a man I knew, who went from massaging my thighs to inserting his fingers inside me in 5 seconds.  There was my first professional spa massage years later, a gift from a friend.  While massaging my thighs, he asked me if I liked to cooked because he could tell I liked to eat.  He said he also liked to eat and I should cook for him sometime.  I remained silent.  He massaged my scalped and then grabbed a fist full of my hair and pulled.  He looked at me and asked me if it was ok.  I didn’t know what to say.  I told him it hurt.  I tensed and waited for the hour to be over.  He walked me to the front to wait for my friend who’d apparently fallen asleep during her massage.  The front desk clerk gave me a tiny envelope and told me it was for gratuity.  He was standing right next to her.  I tipped him and sat waiting for my friend.

There was the time my boss told me I needed to dress sexier at work.  I ignored him.  He told me if I took care of him, he’d take care of me.  I didn’t. He fired me and told everyone I was a thief. There was the time a friend cornered me in a bathroom and wouldn't let me out until I showed him my breasts.  There was the time a different man offered me $100 to show them to him at the bar. There were more times.  There will be more times. If you're still finding excuses to keep your eyes open and your mouth closed, maybe it's time.

Volume Four: Mount Sinai *The Climax*

I arrive in the Observation Unit and am startled by its brightness.  It’s a large white room directly across from the nurse’s station.  When I arrive I am alone and I am exceedingly grateful.  I know that it’s only a matter of time before I am confronted with some new horror.   They tell me that TV is free in this room and assure me that I’m in good hands.  I’m weak and labeled a fall risk.  I’m supposed to ring for a nurse whenever I need to go to the bathroom but I’m not having it.  I use the IV pole for balance and I slowly drag my weak ass to the bathroom.  It’s miniscule, the trash is overflowing and my elbows touch the walls as I squat.  It feels like 4am at a dive bar. I arrive in the Observation Unit and am startled by its brightness.  It’s a large white room directly across from the nurse’s station.  When I arrive I am alone and I am exceedingly grateful.  I know that it’s only a matter of time before I am confronted with some new horror.   They tell me that TV is free in this room and assure me that I’m in good hands.  I’m weak and labeled a fall risk.  I’m supposed to ring for a nurse whenever I need to go to the bathroom but I’m not having it.  I use the IV pole for balance and I slowly drag my weak ass to the bathroom.  It’s miniscule, the trash is overflowing and my elbows touch the walls as I squat.  It feels like 4am at a dive bar. 

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Volume Two and a Half: Mount Sinai *The Remix*

Brain:  You are dying.

Heart: Fuck, I’m dying.  I’m not done yet.

Brain:  You are dying.  T will wake up next to you and find you dead.  That’s traumatic.  You should move.

Heart:  I love her.  I don’t want her to find me like that.

Brain:  Roll out of bed.  Crawl to the living room.  Try to make it to the couch.  Try to maintain dignity.  Even in death, you can be considerate.

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Volume Two: Mount Sinai *Take One*

I ended my job on January 8.  It seemed like a pointless shift.  Slow, uneventful, fully staffed.  My final hours were anticlimactic.  My shift ended, we did the obligatory family meal…that’s a shot, preferably tequila or bourbon, if you didn’t know.  I waddled my way to the sunset.  Fin. 

My great hope was that the sun would hit my face and I would feel free.  That last day of school freedom when the bell rings and you smell possibility and newness. This was not that.  I mostly felt tired and pained, like usual.  I went home and grafted into my couch, like usual.  I put my feet up and squeezed down the fluid to try and relieve some of the pressure.  There is no relief; there is only pressure.  

 

 

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Volume Three: The Song That Never Ends

During my second Mount Sinai vacation, I was visited by three wise women on the same day.  Mary Catherine, Maria and Hibbs.  They all remind me to apply for every benefit I can to help assist me in the healing and transitional process.   I admit that though I’ve applied in the past, I still have some guilt around it.  I admit that the term ‘Welfare Queen’ lives like an invisible lock on my spine.  It makes me stand up straighter sometimes and it leads me to work my fingers to the bone for other people’s projects, restaurants, and dreams.  Perhaps, it’s the lock that landed me in the Observation Unit of Mount Sinai. 

These women remind me that I’ve worked my entire adult life.  They remind me that this is what these programs are for.  They remind me that they would all apply without thinking about it.   This reminds me how infuriating perceptions can be.  It reminds me why I’m always on a slow simmer.  It makes me wonder if Lupus is a slow simmer set to boil.   I agree that I will apply for everything, as soon as I get home.  

I apply for Medicaid on 1/31 while I’m still in the hospital.

Here’s how it goes in Medicaid land:  You’re asked to submit documents and you’re given a two-week deadline.   They have two weeks after the due date to review those documents.   On the very last day they ask for another document ----two weeks to submit---two weeks to review---one more document----two weeks to submit---two weeks to review.

A month goes by very quickly.  I haven’t been able to see a doctor in March, I have yet to see a Rheumatologist since my insurance changes constantly and currently I don’t have any.  I call my patient advocate and ask her to find out what’s going on.  Turns out, I’ve been denied because my employment letter is missing an address.   No one has contacted me.  No one has heard of Google or a phone.  I called the restaurant and get a new letter within 5 minutes and submit it. ----two weeks to review----It’s now March 15.   I am accepted, I now choose a plan, which is effective 4/1. Yes, April.  I’m told that it’s retroactive.  Which is not at all useful.  How do you go back and see doctors that won’t see you?  How do you go back and get prescriptions? 

In the meantime, I’ve had to opt for paying out of pocket for an Insurance premium.  This is a $600 insurance premium.  Seeing a specialist is $55.  Seeing a PCP to refer that specialist is $35.   The medications for a month with this insurance, is $389.   Were I to have paid out of pocket for all of this it would be reimbursed. I must mention that one of the medications is $1200 out of pocket.  Yes, one.   So, unfortunately, I’m shit out of luck.

When I arrive home, I also apply for disability, unemployment and SNAP.  If you feel some kind of way about any of that, fuck you.   Seriously.  But, keep reading because you might learn something.  I apply for all of those things on 2/6.  The disability application is still in process and I’ve learned that it can take up to 3 -5 years.  Yes, years.  I think they hope you die or become homeless in the meantime.   No, I’m not kidding.  I actually think they do.  Did you know that in order to even apply you have to fill out paperwork for your last 15 years of employment?  I gotta tell ya, when your hand constantly tremors that is A LOT of work.  It feels a bit mean.  They tell me they have the information they need but they want me to see a Neurologist.  They make the appointment and I confirm.  I get to the appointment and I’m told it was canceled two weeks prior.  They don’t know why no one called me and they don’t know why it was canceled.  Awesome. 

Unemployment tells me to call on Friday and submit my claim. I do so.  I get 947 letters asking about my medical history and why I left my job.  I fill these all out, the restaurant fills these all out and we both submit.  I get a letter from them on a Friday evening, telling me that it needs to be submitted by my doctor within 6 calendar days of the mail date.  This means that this letter needs to be submitted by my doctor on that Monday.  What doctor?  Your guess is as good as mine.  This is February, so luckily I have insurance, but shocker, I can’t get an appointment last minute.  I am denied.  I get three letters the following week.  One letter tells me I’m denied because I quit my job for no reason.  One letter tells me I’m denied because I’m not physically able to work.  One letter tells me I’m denied because I failed to submit paperwork.  I get it dudes.  Awesome.

Which brings me to SNAP.   I've saved them for last because the vitriol lodged in my throat needed these previous stories to loosen it like phlegm.  These stories are like cute little anecdotes in comparison.   As I mentioned, I’ve applied for SNAP benefits in the past.   It was easy and I received them the same day.  I was young, healthy and I was working.  I was working part-time, volunteering and not making nearly enough money, but I was working.   So surely, I will qualify.

I apply online.  I submit all the documents that are listed as what they usually ask for.  I’m told I should have a phone interview within the week.  I get an automated call two days later telling me that I’ll receive a phone call the next day.  This call does not list a time.  I spend the next day on red alert.  I have a doctor’s appointment and I’m meeting Hibbs for a movie.  What if they call when I’m on the train?  I alter my travel so that I can be on the bus most of the time but I can’t take a bus to the Upper West Side.  I arrive at my doctor’s appointment and I’m told they don’t take my insurance.  Right.  Really good thing that it took me an hour and a half to get there at 9:45am, I’m stoked.   I raise minor hell and have an appointment scheduled with a different doctor for two days later.  It would eventually be canceled because they needed a referral within two days or I’d need to pay out of pocket. 

I’m late to meet Hibbs because I’ve had to take the bus so I can keep my phone on.  I keep it on through lunch and the entire movie.  I’ll save you the suspense.  They called when I was on the train.  I get the same automated call the following day.  No time, no rhyme, no reason.  I get the call while I’m getting a haircut.  I’ve lost more than half of my locs while in the hospital and I look like a shed mop.  It’s a small salon and now they all know my business.  ALL my business.  Because of course they call while I’m in a tiny salon.  I speak to the caseworker and she tells me she has all my documents she just needs a copy of my social and she needs a list of the GoFundMe campaign donors.  I submit that evening 2/11.

On 2/16 I receive my letters telling me about my telephone interviews with the times listed.  Thanks, guys.  I also receive a letter with a different case number on it and my first and last names reversed.  It’s asking me for ALL the documents I’ve already submitted.  I call the number listed to speak with someone.  I tell her my two case numbers and ask her what’s up.  She tells me she sees both cases and that the letter I received is an old case number from 2006 and that it’s now closed.  She tells me she has all the documents she needs, except the lease.  I submit another copy of it.  I also resubmit ALL the documents under the new/old case number, just in case. 

Now it’s a waiting game.  They have 30 days to decide.  On 3/7, I call to find out what’s up. I’m told that they’ll be denying my case because I can’t get contribution letters from each of the donors of my GoFundMe campaign.  I’m told I have to wait until I’m actually denied to appeal.  On 3/15, I receive my denial letter.   It’s dated 3/10.  It says that I’ve submitted NO documents for my case.  None.  It says if I submit these documents by 3/8, I won’t need to re-apply.   I want to punch the air.  I want to tear my skin off.  I want to kill someone.  I request a hearing.

I show up for the hearing on 4/6 with T and Maya.   The guard comments on my tremor, telling me I shouldn’t be nervous.  We go through the metal detectors we arrive and wait.  The entire process beginning to end takes about 8 minutes.  We enter the room.  The judge explains the process and tells me I’ll get to present my case first and that the state will then present their case.  I go on my diatribe.  The state representative says, "We have all the documents."  I’ve printed them here.  I don’t know why they claim these documents weren't submitted.  They are in the system.  She then provides me with copies of the same documents I’ve submitted 987 times.   She says she’s missing my lease though.  I have it, of course.  I’ve watched enough Judge Judy to know not to get caught slipping.  I make them a copy.  The judge records the entire exchange and rules that the denial was bullshit.  She says she can see that it’s an emergency so I should apply again and that I should get retroactive benefits.    She tells me they’ll send their findings up to Albany and I have to wait 7 – 10 days.

I hear nothing. 

Because I’m a lunatic and I check their online site constantly to make sure I’m not missing anything, I stumble across a notice dated 4/22 in an inbox that I don’t know exist.  This letter is from the Fair Hearing office and tells me I need to submit documents in order to proceed with the case.  Guess which documents?  Guess which fucking documents?  The same fucking documents that are literally everywhere. The same documents that were the impetus for the hearing in the first place. 

I’m in the sunken place.  Who has the spoon? I’m in the upside down and I want that slimy bitch to bring it.  I’m so mad; I would have something for his ass today.   I’m pacing.  The date is now 4/27 and these documents are due by 4/29.  If I weren’t Inspector fucking Gadget I would have missed this deadline.  I call the office to make sure that this shit is real.

Women who hates her job:  HRA

Me who hates everyone:  Hi.  I just received a notice requesting blah blah.  I have already submitted blah blah.  I made copies of this at the actual hearing. Blah blah.

WWHHJ:  You have to submit the documents.

MWHE: I have submitted these documents seven times.

WWHHJ:  You have to submit the documents.

MWHE:  I have submitted the documents.

WWHHJ: You have to submit the documents.

After I manage to stuff my fury into back into the bottle, I gather the documents, scan them into a concise PDF and google a free e-fax.  I send said fax.  It comes back undeliverable.  I send it again.  It comes back undeliverable again.  I get my period.  I close the computer, wrap myself in a weed blanket and hate watch the L word.  Side bar:  IT IS SO BAD.  What was Shane’s hair going through?  Why couldn’t they find any Latinas in LA?  Bless Pam Grier’s heart.  Jenny Schechter is the worst character EVER written.  PEAK white.  Why is she always crying? Why is she always wearing thigh highs under her jeans? Why?  What. Is. Happening?  I digress.

The next morning I attempt to send the fax again.  Undeliverable.  Maybe the fax number on the notice is wrong?  I call again.

WWHHJ:  HRA

MWHE:  Hi.  I’m attempting to fax over some requested documents and I want to confirm the fax number.  917.639.2531

WWHHJ:  Yep.  That’s it.

MWHE:  I’ve been trying to fax them for two days and it’s coming back undeliverable.  Is there a problem with your fax machine?

WWHHJ: Oh.  It doesn’t work outside the building.  You have to come in to fax it.  You come in and they scan it.

MWHE: ………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Dude. Dude. Dude.

MWHE: I cannot come in there.  Is there an email I can send to?

WWHHJ:  Who’s the caseworker listed?

MWHE:  E. Omoregbee

WWHHJ:  His number is ____________________.  Call him and ask him what to do.

I call this dude.  He tells me he has to have the documents and someone has to bring them.  He tells me I should be there by 4 because otherwise he won’t be there. Awesome. It’s a beautiful day so Maya agrees to accompany me.  We arrive are greeted by a yawning bear.  He’s wearing a security guard uniform and he talks to us through his yawn.  I can’t even deal with him so I walk past him to the elevators and head to the third floor.  We get out of the elevator and a lady behind a desk just says ‘No’.  She tells me I need to go back down to the first floor.  I call E. Omoregbee on the phone and he tells me he’ll meet me in the lobby.  He enters.

E. Omoregbee:  Dondrea Burnham

Dondrie Burnham: Hi.

I hand him the documents.

E. Omoregbee:  Where’s the letter from SSI?

Dondrie Burnham:  I don’t have a letter from SSI.  You didn’t ask for a letter from SSI.

E. Omoregbee:  I’m training. The rules have changed.

Dondrie Burnham:  What. Do. You. Mean?

E. Omoregbee:  If I use these documents you gave me to show income it might affect your case.

Dondrie Burnham:  That’s fine. Those are the documents. I don’t have income.

He points to Maya.

E. Omoregbee:  She does.

Dondrie Burnham:  What does that have to do with me?

He shrugs.

E. Omoregbee:  I’m training so I have to ask my supervisor.  I can’t submit this today. I’m done working, but maybe, Wednesday (It’s 2:30 y’all).  Then you’ll hear something by mail.

Dondrie Burnham:  I filed this at the beginning of February.  This is absurd.

E. Omoregbee:  Ok. You’ll hear something in the mail.

Dondrie Burnham: …………………………………………………………………………

My rage is trailing me like Pigpen’s dust.  I walk outside and its 80 degrees so all the men are commentators.  I scream ‘Stop Talking!’  They know I’m not fucking around.  I’m breathing in an out.  I go to Goodwill and walk up and down the aisles to try and shake off the dust.  I can’t be on the streets.  I might slap someone.  I definitely can’t be on the B52.  I also can’t be outside too long because my skin starts to singe.   My medicine has made me a stranger to myself.  This 15 min of life saving, soul-nourishing sun, has me trembling, nauseous and unsteady on my feet.  I am so angry. 

I attempt to meditate. I try to acknowledge my feelings and not judge them.  I vocalize my gratitude for all the things I have.  None of that shit works. My chest is tight.  I make myself a good meal.  It’s salty, like me. I eat a cookie.  I breathe.  I try and cool my face and skin.  I send emails to two lawyers about my insurance denials and my malpractice claim.  More on that later.  This is the song that never ends. Its just goes on and on my friends. 

Volume One: Interfaith

No one likes to go to the Emergency Room.  I don’t even think the doctors and nurses enjoy being there and they invested time, money and education to be there.   However, my recent experiences have given me a greater appreciation for zip codes.  We all know race and class are the gatekeepers of society, but it’s easy to forget that they are also the keepers of death.  You don’t forget, but you tuck it into the highest, dustiest file cabinet in your mind palace and you put a succulent on it and you save it for deep clean days.

I sit in the blue upholstered chair and I wonder who buys the furniture in these places.  Blood, fluids and thousands of asses come to mind.  Why do they EVER have upholstery?  I’ve had more than two experiences of being stained with someone else’s blood in my New York hospital career. And by career I mean, just trying to get some shit taken care of.  I digress. 

I sit in the chair of a thousand asses and I stare at the large oval desk.  It’s what Ikea calls ‘eco teak’ and Lowe’s calls ‘hickory’.  I can see the tops of nurses’ heads and backs of computer monitors.  I wait for my name to be called.  I look around and I’m horrified by the lack of privacy.  There are the obligatory privacy curtains, but they serve to simply delineate the spaces.  Each bed faces the center of the room, so everyone can see everyone.  It’s immediate entrance into a room of pain, moaning and screwed up faces.

There is one room with walls and no door, which directly faces me and houses a large snoring man.  To my right, more pain slivers, to my left the ambulance entrance and more occupied ass upholstered chairs.  There are no white people in this room.  Within five minutes, I hear my name.  I stand and a stern nurse looks at me, holds up her hand and says, I was just checking. …………………………  I sit. 

The slumbering man begins to stir and calls for the nurse in a small, weak voice. ‘Nurse’?  I should point out that eco teak station is approximately three feet in front of this room.  There are no less than twelve nurses present.  No one moves, no one answers, no one acknowledges.  He repeats himself.  ‘Nurse’?  ‘Nurse’?  His hoarse voices gets louder and more desperate.  Nothing.  It’s reminds me of when you call your friend's asshole cat and their ear turns in your direction but they make no indication that you’re alive or present in the room.  The man persists.  He starts to panic a bit as reaches his 9th ‘Nurse’?

A woman’s voice emerges from the ambulance den.

Woman: ‘Y’all answer him.  You hear that man calling you’.  

Infirmed Man: ‘Bitch, Fuck you’

Now Angry black woman:  ‘Motherfucker, fuck you.  I was trying to help your stupid ass.  I’ll beat the shit out of you’

The woman emerges, limping with a cane, she brandishes the cane like a bat and begins limping toward the infirmed man’s room.  NO ONE INTERVENES.  A hospital orderly walks by and slides a blue privacy screen in front of the door and keeps walking.  The woman is standing directly in front of the screen, screaming at the man.

Angry Black Woman: “I’ll beat the fuck out of you.  You don’t know who you’re dealing with.  I’m gonna kill you”

The woman continues to stand in front of the door menacing – as menacing as you can be when you’re limping on a cane – and finally limps back to her seat.   I wonder what she’s in for and as she screams ‘I just need my damn insulin shot’, I get my answer. 

My name is called.  I stand up and am immediately confronted with a hand. 

‘I was just checking’ says Nurse Sternface. 

EMTS bring in a man on a gurney.  I can’t see him but I feel very sorry for him.

EMT: Turn over.

Broken Man:  I can’t.

EMT:  Why not?

Broken Man:  I don’t know!

EMT: Turn over!

Broken Man:  I CAN’T!

EMT:  Why can’t you turn over?

This goes around and around like who’s on first.  I can’t help but wonder why they think the man should be able to turn over and how hard it would be for them to just turn him over.

Two hours later, I’m escorted to a gurney, told to change into a gown and strapped to a heart monitor.  The woman to my left, a Puerto Rican girl in her late twenties, has been vomiting and clutching her stomach.  I know she’s Puerto Rican because she’s also on the phone talking to a friend of hers about how in Texas everyone thought she was white.  No one knew what a Puerto Rican was and they had the nerve to think it was Mexican.  Her young son, approximately 10, is sitting quietly by her side.  He gets her water, checks in with the doctor, and rubs her head.  He’s a good boy.  An hour later, a doctor approaches her side and asks the boy to go get her water.  He then tells her she’s pregnant.

PW Girl:   ‘Can y’all take care of that?’ 

Doctor:  No.  You’ll have to make an appointment with a doctor or clinic

PW Girl: Damn

She calls her friend.

PW Girl:  Girl, I’m pregnant.  I’m trying to be fine this summer.  I ain’t trying to be pregnant.  He must got some damn super sperm.  You heard about T.I and Tiny?  If they can’t make it work, I don’t even know.

At this point her son has come back and picked up the context clues.  He asks if he can tell his dad. 

PW Girl:  He ain’t your father.  Fuck him.  Until he give us some money he’s dead.  Fuck him and his white bitch.

To my right is a man who’s come in for intense pain in his legs and feet.  Even with his cane he can barely walk.  About 45 min after PW Girl finds out she’s preggo, I hear a doctor at the nurse’s station asking where his last patient for the night is.  He screws up his face and walks toward the man.  He asks him what’s the trouble.  The man starts to tell him how much pain he’s in when he walks. 

Cane Man:  It hurts so much. I can barely make it three steps. It’s so painful

No Bedside Manner:  You have diabetes.  Have you heard of Neuropathy?

Cane Man:  I know I have diabetes. I know about the neuropathy, but it’s so bad. It’s never been this bad.  How am I supposed to walk?

No BM:  I don’t know.  It’s a cause of this disease. You have to try and keep your sugar down.

Cane Man:  I’m keeping my sugar down.  I’m doing all the things.  It hurts.

No BM:  This is what happens.  I’ll have them give you something for the pain.

Then he just walks away.  They bring him a pill for the pain.  No prescription for the future.  No plan.  They discharge him.

Enter a man wheeling himself down the aisles in a wheelchair screaming ‘I want drugs’.  No one seems surprised to see him or bothered that he’s there.

Enter a man singing and dancing shaking a cup of change.  No one seems surprised to see him or bothered that he’s there.

Enter Broken Man face down on the gurney, legs hanging off, shoes half on.   The orderly pushing the gurney manages to knock into every single corner.  Each time Broken Man groans.  It’s horrific.

I finally see a doctor.  She has a sweet face and gentle bedside manner. 

I give her a summary of my medical history and tell her why I’m there.  I’m taken for an x-ray and asked for a urine sample.  The urine sample sits on the back of my gurney for several hours.  No one retrieves it.  I don’t know who my nurse is.  I don’t know if I have a nurse.  I don’t know if they know I’m still here.

A woman sits across from me on a gurney wearing a hospital gown and Timberlands.   She says she doesn’t trust these folks.  She has to go to the restroom so she gives me her purse and T her phone.  She’s been admitted for chest pain.  She was visiting for Christmas and didn’t want to ruin the holiday by complaining.  She always does all the cooking and she always plays Santa.  Ain’t that just the way with black women? You’ll literally kill yourself not to disappoint and you’re lucky if anyone notices.  She’s eventually moved to the bed next to mine and told that she’ll be admitted.  Her x-ray showed some abnormalities. 

It’s now 1am.   The doctor comes to tell me that my tests look ok and that I have protein in my urine.  I know that, because I’ve told HER that.  She then tells me what happens to the body when your kidneys leak protein.  I know that, because I’ve told HER that.  She tells me that my condition is complex and that I should go to a ‘good’ hospital- one with a name.  She suggests I get compression stockings and tells me to stop taking my diuretic because it is dehydrating. 

I fight back tears –not because I want to be admitted to the seventh circle of hell- but I’m frustrated. Hella frustrated. Salty. Big mad. Irked.   I’ve been here for seven hours and this is my day off.  I have to close the restaurant tomorrow. I’m still carrying 40lbs of fluid on my body.  I still can not walk a city block.  I still have to sleep sitting up.  I can not bend my legs.    I remove the pads from the EKG. I remove the gown and change into my human clothes.  As always, I struggle getting the snow boots on.  It's not snowing but these are the only shoes that fit.  I stare at the IV and I want to rip it out.  I just want to go home.  I wait. I wait so long that I actually start removing the tape and I ask T to find me a bandaid and a cotton swab.  On her knight's quest she spots the doctor reading about Carrie Fisher on Facebook.  This visit will cost me $350.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fissure.

Slow, edging , lying in wait

Thin, sharp shot out of nothingness

Rooted in remembrance

Crack.

Grief comes to chisel

Incisions require a steady hand

Moondust.

I knew that I would be moved.  I knew that I would be utterly beguiled.  I knew that I would sob buckets.  I did not know that it would awaken parts of my soul like a sleeping bear.  Did not know that it would crawl into my cave and start chipping away at the ice. I did not know that I’d be ground into dust.

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Invisible Ink

“How are you feeling?”…a question I’ve heard no less than 982 times thisyear.   Each time a wince and each time a lie of omission. Each day, I stack myself brick by brick and forge a presentable foundation. Presentable enough so that others might feel comfortable coming in to take a seat at my table.  The home is lush but not lavish and the party is engaging enough that you forget you have seen the host in….20…30…Where’d she go?

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Black Girl Rant: An Open Letter to the Colorblind Collective

Yes. I’m fucking angry. You’d be angry too. What makes me angry? The lies.  The enormous lie, that anything is possible.  Not everything is possible.  It is not possible to erase the past. The past has a pulse and it beats right through the heart of this motherfucker. It is palpable.  It is DAILY. And, it is not going away. Sure, its possible to pretend.  It is not possible to be colorblind.

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An actor who works.

I am technically, not a working actor, I am an actor who works.  I babysit.  I bartend.  I plan events. I wait tables. I administrate.  I work.  On Monday, I took a trip to the Upper East Side to ‘assist’ a dinner party for eight.  When I say Upper East Side, I mean Park Avenue.  That real shit.  That, whole different life experience shit. Class shift shit.  My first trip was to Fairway to pick up Romaine.  Real Produce, check. Efficiency, check.  Quality and Convenience, check.  This is how the ‘other half’ lives.  One day when I’m a “working” actor, I’ll have people I can send to get the Romaine.  I will send those people to Fairway.

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Grandma's House

I’ve never been a country girl.  Born on the Bayou, raised in the house.  I liked books and TV…and Pop-Tarts.  I didn’t like to be jostled.  Still, I wanted to visit my grandmother because despite having one eye, living next door to a woman with 27 grandchildren and 12 house-bred chickens and having wild pigs that needed to be slopped we had a lot of common ground.

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