Dondrie Burnham

Writer. Creator. Shapeshifter.

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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