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December 2020: Virginia Grise

with Victor I. Cazares and Joe Jimenez

Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) is pleased to present the December reflect / project exhibition from Cedar Park, Texas, artist Virginia Grise. Grise featured works by supplementary artists Victor I. Cazares and Joe Jimenez in her exhibition.

Soñar es luchar (Dreaming is Fighting) is a lucid dream about wild fires, urban rebellions, and the longing to fly, from a script originally commissioned by The Sol Project. Set in a cotton field in South Texas, it is a conversation between The Woman Who Dreams and The Girl Who Sleeps All Day. Produced by allgo and directed by Kendra Ware, Soñar es luchar was filmed on iPhones during the pandemic, and features performances by Marlene Beltran, Sharon Bridgforth, Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Lydia Li, and Paula Alvarez-Espinosa.

Soñar es luchar

Virginia Grise, Soñar es luchar, 2020; video, Time: 10:39; Courtesy of the artist

Victor I. Cazares

Project 1: 365 Days of Antidrugs (3 videos)

In 2016, after experiencing meth-induced psychosis, I cried out for help with my addiction. My cries took the form of these videos which I’d intended to do one a day for a year. I did 45.

Project 2: I Learned About Pandemics from Obsolete Signals (1 video)

I wrote the script for this video shortly after the shutdown began. It’s an attempt at understanding how we process traumatic information with obsolete technologies and metaphors.

Joe Jimenez

Shot on location in San Antonio, Texas, El Abuelo is an intimate portrait of local educator and poet, Joe Jimenez. 

The People Who Eat Pain was published by Joe Jimenez in Waxwing

1. Fire Ants

I once ate fire ants when I was a boy. I was seven, and no, I did not eat them out of hunger. If anyone tells you fire ants have any taste to them, I wouldn’t be the one to confirm much less contradict this statement, as I only ate three of them, and fire ants are very small. Moreover, the three red ants crawled around a couple of blades of grass, which I tore from a lawn, so that when I put them in my mouth and chewed, I mostly tasted only grass. To say grass tastes green is not synesthetic. It really did taste like a color.

When I was young, my small claim to fame was that I could eat virtually anything. When I say eat, I mean eat. Insert, chew, swallow. Though I am not proud to confess this, and a part of me feels an acute shame for my wastefulness, I could rather easily, and without much fanfare, put into my mouth the mixed contents of a school milk box with peas and pineapples and, of course, whatever chocolate milk remained after eating my lunch. From a young age, I’d learned to endure, to take things inside me and not complain, not confuse disgust or reprehension with a fight for my life.

Some things, I learned, you just take them.

You accept them.

You swallow and pretend it wasn’t that bad. It could have been worse.

2. Oklahoma Is a Place I Did Not Want to Die

Maybe I had the wrong idea. Maybe strength is not at all a matter of endurance, or what the body can suffer without breaking, the confidence that attends knowing what the mind can withstand, or accomplish, how much the stomach actually will stomach. Maybe a whistle inside me is the testament to what I am capable of. Less of a train whistle, maybe a cowbell, an airhorn, a siren made of birdbone and conch.

And I get stuck on this idea of a body breaking, having never broken a bone in my own body, yet, having felt, at times, unassembled and not at all together, out of myself, as a consequence of difficult shit. Like the time, driving from Missouri to Oklahoma, my second lover became enraged over a text he’d received and told me he was going to kill us both. “I’m not afraid to die,” he told me, inflamed, his big knuckles biting the wheel, as he sped between eighteen-wheelers and minivans. The speedometer lifted its tiny orange arm into the high eighty miles-per-hour range, a velocity against which the old brittle body of the Nissan protested and rattled, and I knew this man I loved was truthful when he spoke this, as already he’d tried to take his life three times, and these were the times when I was present and he claimed to desire death and teetered very near that immutable edge, with me watching, which does not take into account the occasions before me when he also tried. My second lover knew breakages in ways I did not, in ways I never will. As a boy, once, after riding a motorbike down a remote country road, he’d been struck by a drunk driver, and his body, which was a boy-thing back then, snared between the automobile, the motorbike, and the hard asphalt road, broke. His entire foot nearly snapped off, he told me when we met, showing me the raised flesh of the old stitching as we lay back in my bed. It looked painful. It looked otherworldly, as if in fact our pieces do disconnect, and possibly, if we are fortunate, come back to reattach. While he slept, weeks and even years into our relationship, I often sat with the lamplight of the nightstand and stared at the scars that riddled his body — ankles and neck, ribs, forearms, legs — places where skin had punctured or ripped open, been rubbed off itself. And as he slept, I massaged these old wounds, or kissed them, thinking this was compassion, thinking this is how love goes from one man into another. Yes, I felt a great pang of pity for what he’d endured.

But ask me about that message on the highway in Oklahoma, and I couldn’t tell you a thing. Huge portions of his life he lived hidden and strongly guarded, and so, I never did learn the contents of that message that afternoon in the grey truck in the middle of Oklahoma. I never did learn a great many things about my second love. Finally, though, when he did take his life, and after his friends had ransacked the house, taken what they’d wanted, I was able to come in and clean up the rest. I learned a few things that don’t matter necessarily to this account of passing through those Oklahoma hills. I don’t recall the number of the highway, but I remember feeling very grateful when the land became flat again, since I was unhappy with this man and still hopeful about life, not yet ready to die. Even if you have never held in your mouth the immensity of thinking someone is going to end you, perhaps you can understand what happens inside the body, then, when any great sentiment leaves our flesh, goes its own way, succumbs to a more powerful force like joy or a slower speed and flat land or the sign that says Welcome to Texas, which, to me, means home.

There is power in wanting not to die.

And my fascination extends beyond a rupture of muscles, the separation of ligament from the bone and flesh it’s meant to connect. Maybe it’s sentiment, those epigrammatic and legendary emotions emerging out of trauma — resilience — which attracts me to other men’s endurance, what they can suffer, their pain.

That a body can lose touch with its other parts, be torn from them, physically, yes, that instructs me to listen, it’s one of the elements of my second lover that asked me to love him. But in spirit, that disassemblage — it’s a stunning thought, enough to take my breath away and maroon it to the moon. Can we say that the sigh being ripped from a body is not breakage? Is not division? Is not breath that belongs in the lung, yanked out like a tongue, left beside itself — is that not a cue?

3. Necessity, of Course

“Mexicans eat the funniest things,” a boy once told me. Tongue and cow brains, tripe, cactus, pigs’ feet, other things, too. I do wonder the magic of hunger, how one human hand took each of these items, at one time, at one historical moment, and pushed it bravely, perhaps curiously, mischievously, maybe, into the waiting mouth. Necessity, of course. Ingenuity. Making the most with what one has available, how that is one way to make the world ours.

4. People Who Eat Pain

When I think of trauma my ancestors suffered and still, survived, it is easier to breathe. Not at first, of course. Because, initially, the pangs of suffering hit the old nerves, the ones that never do dull or go numb or die.

My grandmother’s pain is my ancestor.

I don’t know the extent to which my ancestors suffered. Forgotten, how do they speak? If I don’t even know their names, how can I claim this pain?

Aguantate. Endure it, my mother often told us when we were young.

My grandmother once told me, There is a body buried behind the house. For a while, I became very afraid of the backs of people’s houses. When we came back to America, I would lay in my little part of the bed and stare at the dirt that made the space behind my grandmother’s small mud house.

There are bodies buried in the hillsides and mountains, left in dumpsites, tossed by roadsides, grandmother.

My grandmother’s losses, her broken heartbone. All the wishes, the dreams still asking for burial. I will never know what it means to a body to walk toward pain, knowing there is no recourse, knowing there is no one after to hold you —.

During the hardest fight of my life, my mother and my brother and my sister-in-law showed up. I won’t say they rescued me. But they helped me rescue myself.

They say a body can inherit trauma, carry it in DNA. By they I mean science. By they I mean God.

There are bodies buried in my skin.

There are bodies in my blood, in my breath.

Moctezuma, tied to stakes, had his feet burned. Torture. Men thought he would surrender the secrets of gold. He gave no secrets, and so the men gave fire to his skin. But where was the gold?

When I lost my house, a wise woman told me to remember how many others like me have lost houses and land and suffered great indignities, but they made it, and I would make it, too.

Intergenerational pain remains: silt, smoke, bones, sediment, stone, story, ash.

I will always remember the image of an old woman in LA chained to her house, clutching a pillar, refusing to be taken away by police, who had come to serve evictions, because Dodger Stadium had to be built and Chavez Ravine was no longer hers.

I might be Macbeth at the banquet table, celebrating my pain among hallucinations. Open-mouthed, yes.

But what if we can unlearn pain? And what if the body really does code itself to carry release? To heir along survival, resilience, love?

Above the genes, I might tell the scientists, native peoples have known this for centuries. It’s how we still stand.

5. The Story of Tongue

The first time I ate cow tongue I must have been ten. My grandmother boiled the oleaginous mass in a black speckled pot over a slow blue flame. It took a long time for the tongue to soften. It took a long time to make its way to our plates. What I remember, though, is not the saltiness or the pink-white peppered foam the tongue formed inside the pot’s rim, not the squares of the chopped meat falling on my plate — what I remember is the pulled tongue wrapped in paper, on the counter, before cooking, before dropping into the bubbling water. What I remember is that there was pulling involved, that a hand and some sharp-enough blade had taken force to the cow’s tongue, not that I’d seen any of this, not that I’d been privy to or a witness to the act of severing, no, it occurs to me now that I hoped the animal had been fully dead and could feel no pain when this severing happened. If I’d witnessed the event of the tongue being cut out, it was in fear, imagining the cut, then, in compassion, for suffering drove me to that place of not wanting harm, for I believe people like us must know despair before we can know compassion.

And I’d like to believe the people I surround myself with are goodhearted and filled with compassion, active agents of the heart’s tenet that kindness will always trump cruelty. Most of us think that we surround ourselves with the good guys, though. Of the ones we love, of the ones to whom we devote our hours, our bodies and hopes, we.

I’d like to believe the people around me can withstand long drought, civil war, hardships, long journeys, and hurricanes. Not because they are near me. Not because they carry blessings in the soil of their hearts or are bearers of forcefields and auras generating guardianship, but because we wear bodies that are fluent in adapting, in learning, in lo rasquache, en aguantando.

The world, after all, is what we make of it, que no?

Birds of a feather, guey. Flock together.

But doesn’t the world also make us — are we not made of air and ideas, muscle and machinery, rules and rebellions and floods? A rule of law can break the spirit of the body’s laws. Yes, the body has its tenets, laws constituted by elements other than punishments and crimes.

And yet, I am not one to easily comment on shit I don’t know, because all I can do is consider the consequences. I may not know the true extent to what my body can suffer; I’d like to believe it’s a knowledge my body deserves not to know.

Because I am in love with the idea of survival, you may begin to doubt my love affair with death. Suddenly, there will come a day when I am all out of aguanto, when my body really is just a body that can go no farther, that has run out of time. I am okay with this. I understand that I may not be remembered. I understand that my tattoos like my brownness will become ash. In the meantime, I remember the moments when I was frightened of my own survival — while some poets and storytellers tell of these magnificent dreams of snakes emerging from places in our bodies or white doves and great fish in the great sea, Love, what am I dreaming of? These days it’s gunfire. Machetes, toothbrush shanks pointed at the skin inside my eyes. A sledgehammer aiming for my whole skull. I can fault The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or a myriad of other engagements with violence. I can blame the little voice inside my tripas that whispers that I am always, no matter where I am or how, under attack. If this makes sense to you, if it resonates in the tremors you feel at sirens and flashing lights and newscasts that paint horror and doom for us, then, I am sorry but know I am like you. If it makes no sense to you, if it easy for you to dismiss the realness that some of our bodies are always under attack, then, let me remind myself that there is a common sense for bodies like mine. Even if this excludes you, it still is common.

When I was twelve, I decided I no longer wanted to eat tongue.

When I was twelve, I wanted no one to watch me take the meat and place its hot mass in my mouth.

When I was twelve, I sat in the monte, near my mom’s boyfriend’s Ford truck, my face wet and red and buried in the crush of my hands, because I hadn’t wanted to use the machete my mother’s dude had handed me, because I hadn’t wanted to clear brush, to hack wildly and sweat and lift branches and pile them to be burned, I hadn’t wanted to destroy anything, even if for money, even if we needed it for food or to pay the light or to keep a roof over our heads. What did I want? I wanted to ride my fucking bike, to throw the football with my friends, to watch cable at someone else’s house. And by resisting, by telling him, No, I’d pissed off my mother, humiliated her, made her life difficult by displeasing her man, and so, in the monte, my mouth clamped tightly, I dropped the machete at the truck’s tailgate, and my mother, glaring at me, said, “Joto,” which means faggot. She said, “You’re acting like a damn joto.” It was the first time she’d force-fed me that word. A heavy four-lettered slab.

I just stood there. It was the first time I’d heard her crush me with that word.

Kicking the machete, her boyfriend just shook his big head and reached for the axe, and my mother, wielding her anger inside her small body, handed me a bag to pick up trash.

The first time your mother calls you a faggot — that’s some hard shit to swallow.

6. Kitchen

If you have the urge in your body to ask instead for a story about tortillas or the aroma of serranos roasting through a small wooden house, a pitcher of horchata, an old-world song, you will be disappointed. Yes, those can be rich and lovely accounts, unlike this one, and so, you might feel as if I am not doing my job, me, being a Mexican, talking about not wanting to eat tongue, writing about ancestral memory and men’s bodies and hurt. What I mean is I won’t recreate a warm Mexican kitchen just for you. No, I won’t serve that hurt.

7. A Knife, a Tongue

A beautiful man once told me he was soft.

It’s amazing what a man will tell you when you are lying beside him in a bed, your arms pressed around his big body, or small, both your bodies exactly that, precisely, bodies, hair and muscle and fingernails and tattoos, holding him, skin and blood-throb, air and eyelids and sighs heavier than ash.

One man told me he wanted to be a firefighter, and this was something he wanted no one else to know, in case it didn’t come true, so I apologize now for telling you this, but it was too beautiful to be trusted so simply not to say it when discussing pain.

Brittle is another word for ego. Ego is another word for man.

This one man from El Salvador told me he did not know the day he was born, so, when he came to the United States, the family with whom he lived told him to make one up. He chose June 1. “Because it’s the first day of summer,” he said.

Once, a man from a small town in South Texas drove an hour to sit with me in his truck by the shore near the town in which I was born. He smelled of soap and drove a big country truck. In his front seat, we listened to old Tejano music and swapped stories about eating goat, and I didn’t think he’d ever been with a man until I put my hand on his thigh and began to rub him a bit. Then, he told me he’d been gang-banged in prison. He said he’d never told this to anyone before. His statements seemed to come out of the salt air, and I barely knew this man, so I don’t know why he told me this, but perhaps that’s the reason, which is a sadness I do not know, to go one’s entire life in the small towns I love so much, living and working and eating small goat, never having someone to tell this to, even a stranger. By the shore, we sat in his truck, the waves crashed in on the sand, and I let him hold my hand and kiss me. My beard is what he liked, he told me and rubbed himself against me, as if he might pull my smell, borrow or keep some for himself. It was November and cold, even in Texas, then, when he asked me to take off my shirt, because he wanted to see my skin and read my tattoos. He asked with a simple politeness common to men from this part of the world. In the green dim light of his dashboard, he ran his rough hands over my chest and kissed the letters, the beads of the rosary which dangle over my sternum. He put his mouth on my belly and undid my pants. As he touched me, he began to lose his breath, the windows of his truck grew damp, and when he wept, I did not expect this, so I took my hands out of his hair and simply rubbed the back of his neck, the upper parts of his back, until he apologized then thanked me and thanked me again when he’d finished me and said he needed to go home to his wife.

Of course, in the meantime, I carry my own bricks, my own thick bag of blocks that if I walked into the Gulf would make it impossible for me to come back.

The first man I ever loved very much once told me that his mother had not killed his father, though that was the claim they’d all agreed to. As he confessed this, he began to sob and fought them, those sobs, which was an impossible task, like stuffing whole armfuls of oak limbs and weeds into a can, until I put my mouth on the brown slope of his neck, the part where he wore another man’s tattoo. At that point, his body became more than the body he wanted to be. At that point, all I could do was hold him — I cannot tell you how many times he buried his breath in my chest. I cannot tell you all the other things he told me.

But some men, they never say anything.

Some men seal their shit up deep within, because not many men want to let another man go inside him then come out covered in shit.

This one man I met once lifted up his shirt before he kissed me back, showing me a chest made of piquetes, a plot of long stitches strewn across his brown torso. “My ex couldn’t control himself,” he told me, his head bowed and voice much quieter than we’d met. I hated his shame. Its clout, its cover. My brown eyes on his brown mouth, my brown hands on his skinny brown back, I asked for permission before I let my tongue do its work. I won’t tell you that I ate those wounds. I won’t tell you that I took anything harmful away. But I will tell you when we were done, I felt very heavy, like I was carrying inside me a palette of his sighs.

The best part of being with a man sometimes is the story only he can tell.

The best part of being with anyone is knowing we are not alone.

And I refuse to believe that what’s done is done.

Sometimes I believe a man who doesn’t want to hear my pain isn’t worth loving. I don’t know if you agree. I want you to agree, but that’s only so I don’t feel wrong, though I’m typically fine with being incorrect, so I suppose I want you to agree so that I don’t feel alone.

I am wrong to state this. It feels irresponsible to tell you an act is not an act unless I name its consequence. But can shit be undone? Can harm ever be unleveled, made level, again, lit, alas made light?

8. Death by Light

There is a species of fireflies who use their light to lure. Opulence or love, just the sight of a site to feel joy — who can say what exactly the insects lured by light experience? But they die. As a result of it, they are eaten and the hearts inside them which I make believe exist stop bleating the song we all sing. I don’t know the sound for an insect’s death. I’d like to think my own death will hum. And I, too, want to die a lit death. Not by fire. Not by crashing my truck into a light pole or staring into the sun so deeply, for such an extended period of time, that I burn myself from the inside out. Blindingly. Combustion, ashes. Alas, smoke.

When I die, I will come back. I am making that promise, which I hope not to break.

I will offer a feast. Or many feasts, which is a feat in and of itself to assure you.

Invite any hungry body, any sadness that also wants to hold light. Huge plates of nopales and cairns of water and prickly pear, lemons, a cornucopia of pecans and fat Texas peaches, a few grapefruit from the citrus groves that stand by the river, of course, of course, yucca, sweet camote, and corn, all the marvels to be made with it.

To behold the molcajete, the metate — to wonder who touched it before us, who carried it this far?

This might just be a gathering of ghosts.

This might just be a gathering of syllables and bones and platters of dark pears.

But if this be a gathering of sustos, the traumas that pull the sigh straight out of the body, the spirit, also. Then, the dead have done their jobs. Then, I am proud to be among them.

Whatever it is I am planning, do not call it a haunting, do not tag it supernatural or surreal. Call it remembering my ancestors. Call it how people like us make do and eat light so that all we are eating is not pain. I call it memory.

***

Cotton was published by Joe Jimenez in The Adroit Journal

Riding in a car along cotton fields, of which there are a shitload in South Texas, your eyes might think, for a moment, that the field rows are running swiftly beside you, and that is one of the magical images from when I was a boy, which I hold onto now as a man in the middle of my life.

I could think of other magics: standing next to a horse for the first time, her muscles, the brawn of the bulky flanks, the unbridled thickness of the shoulder, carried around with shine and with mass, which tremble marvelously, a bit, as she walks; and I am standing in front of a mirror, watching my head be shaved for the first time, and I am loving it, loving my own scraped scalp, loving my own exposed skin, loving the clippers’ soft, even buzz on my body and in it, the dark pelitos falling off me like an odd cataract of pebbles; then a man, one afternoon, at the shore, whose body was one I wanted, for myself, to wear, to build upon, a musculature of grey-black tattoos and sweat-clad brown flesh, but whose body was one I wanted, too, for myself, for those other reasons.

If I take the time to listen to my life, no matter what I want to hear, no matter what I have told myself is there for years, if I step away from that slow throb in my eyes, which is my ego, as I am doing now, what I have is a wad of cotton, dirty and from the side of the road, leaf-muddled and still holding its dark seeds.

There comes a day when nothing but true things will do.

*

I am not too old to wish for something marvelous. No one is. Even today, sitting in my old house, listening to a newscast about a woman who was shot by police, I think I might one day need to arise out of my bed and decide to change my life. Maybe it will be a momentary lapse. A quick quasi-resolution to some sadness or small upheaval of the day. Overcoming small sadnesses is nothing to laud—it’s the giant ones I am hunting. Maybe this wakefulness is the largesse of living a life I didn’t think I’d ever have, that one day you open your eyes, and your heart, filled with fires and ductwork and birds, will tell you: the life you have always been wanting, it’s here and it’s yours.

When I was much younger, I would ride my bike along the cotton fields near my mother’s house on the Texas coast. I especially liked doing this in the late afternoon, as the sun gave up its place in the sky and dusk settled over the country. A red sky is a beautiful field, also. But the cotton fields were the ones that called on me, if full of plump mallow, the three-lobed leaves and bolls in the dry heat, even if plucked, harvested by the giant combines, those machines which parked in the field also held a magic to their forms and their silences. For long spans of time I could sit on my bike, my feet in the dirt, or walk it slowly along the roadside in order to look upon the order of cotton rows—the long perfect orderliness of plantings and harvesting and growth.

During these trips to the cotton fields, the task was to get out of my mother’s house, away from yelling and insults and coercions, housework no one else wanted to do but me, though I didn’t really want to sweep and clean dishes or wipe the toilet, it’s not what I dreamed of, but since no one else was doing it, I did. I wouldn’t call it an escape, these moments in the cotton fields with the sun and wind coming at me together. It wasn’t fleeing. It’s the same when I take a breath, a long and deep one, after a difficult day or a daunting set. Because the body really is looking for peace in everything I do, standing at the cotton field’s lip procured for me a grip of time to think of the life I wanted to live. Anywhere but here was typically my response. I could be more specific, but then I’d be lying.

At the edge of the cotton fields, where the combines or other machines were loading great lumps into truck beds and maybe bales, whatever fell off the load laid in the dirt. I could pick up these stragglers, these leftover clumps, hold them in my hands. All along the roads to the gins, semi-white patches of cotton, seeds intact, brown brittle leaves and pieces of stem, too, scatter about the roads. Why mention these unwanted scraps of field cotton? Why mention a bit’s ability to snare anything that might connect with its body, the softness of the mallow it was and was not?

I grew up in a town surrounded by cotton fields, and so I might say I grew up in a town surrounded by magic. In this life, we don’t always get to live beside magic, much less hold it inside our hands. We don’t always carve time to open our eyes very wide and look at what stands inside us. There is nothing deliberate to the magic of the body, which is the one reason we must know it.

*

A story: I fell in love with a man with one ear. I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri. We drove to the coast. We lay on the beach, and we ate green peppers and Roma tomatoes, small sour limes, which we grew in red clay pots in the backyard. When one of the dogs gave birth, one of the pups died, and we wrapped her in a white cotton towel and buried her beneath a papaya tree. Citlali, we named her. Little star. The papaya tree grew—we liked to believe that little star was growing into a strong tree, into those seeds. But one winter, that papaya tree froze. It never grew back. Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.

*

Okra, hollyhock, hibiscus are all cousins of cotton. The roots of the cotton plant grow deep, and in search of nutrients, the roots often burgeon swiftly, two inches per day, the subterranean root mass extending to a length twice as great as the plant is tall. And I wonder if there is a sound a root makes when it reaches for more, when it splits earth. Two small leaves will sprout from the wet seed, once it germinates; cotyledon is the name for the two visible leaves, which, when open, absorb light and feed the plant, allowing growth.

The small buds which carry the cotton flower will bud, their leaves a little jagged, almost like fringe. They are called squares. Soon, the bud bursts into the flower, which is mallow, which I only remember being yellow or off-white. I have never seen the pink flower, so I can’t say if it really, as they say, blushes red. The flower, after pollination, will wither and fall off, and what is left is the boll, which bears seeds and is therefore a fruit. The boll grows fat with mallow, each boll holding nearly half a million cotton fibers. Each plant itself can hold 100 bolls. On its own, the boll will open, the insides growing too much for the boll’s hull, or the carpels, as they’re named. Once split open, the dried carpels are burs, and the cotton opens up to the sky, white and of the world and ready to be unlocked. Over the course of 25 or so weeks this happens. Once harvested, the cotton is driven to the gins. So much about cotton, I’ve learned, is about opening. And this happens every summer where I am from.

There are wonderful stories about cotton, which I could spin. I might convey the artifacts, how ancient working the fabric is, all the uses, the bridges it has built. But I’d be incorrect and would lack empathy if I didn’t tell you there are horrors to cotton as well. My aunts, my grandmother, people I don’t know can sing of how picking cotton can break the back or the spirit or both—how forced labor and low-wage work demolishes a body. These are not my stories. And so, I pause now to know who I am in relation to other people’s grief.

*

A story: A man I loved forged my name on a deed to my house. The deed said he could have it all. When I took him to court, his daughter and his best friend testified we had been married—this man and me—and they said on that day, the day of this fabricated ceremony, they had witnessed me sign over the house. When I told the court I left because my ex had tried to hurt me, the judge sighed and ruled that I had no claim to my house. I will never forget the pang of that judge’s sigh, though the pang of telling the truth and not being believed in a court of law stings most.

*

I am driving to my mother’s house. It is December, a few days after Christmas. 2011. For a few days, two of my dogs and I have been staying in a Super 8 Motel in San Marcos, Texas. When my second lover put a knife to my throat on the day after Christmas, he said, “If you don’t leave, I can’t promise I won’t hurt you.” By this time, I had already sought help from a domestic violence hotline. A counselor had suggested I pack my car with necessities, in case I had to suddenly leave, which was the case, and was what I had to do.

What I lost when my second lover tried to kill me? I lost nearly everything I owned. Sure, some might say, It’s just stuff. Shoes and hoodies, old Ben Davis pants, t-shirts and books and photographs, drafts of half-written stories and whole poems, two of my dogs. Stuff can be replaced, I heard. At one time maybe I believed, fully and with ardor for making goodness in my heart, that I could be fine without the things I’d lost. But I wasn’t fine. I wasn’t able to simply say It’s just stuff. I hurt. I was humiliated by being a man who didn’t have very much to begin with and then lost it all.

In any case, I decided to change my life. I decided I deserved better. In some sense, I am underscoring that two simple sentences cannot carry the weight of such a moment; in this way, like so many others, language fails and simultaneously achieves its aim. Two sentences or one, really, is all the body needs to understand its own magic.

But nothing can prepare you for the moment you have to walk away from a person you know will die. Why I stayed so long? I knew when I left he would end his life. I feared this. I’d stopped him a handful of times before.

On the drive to my mother’s house I am listening to my body tell me I can do this. It’s a sound that spins from the ankles and ribs and from the little nodules of the spine, the ones that help the ligaments of the shoulders and lower back and lats feel like wings, become powerful and flexible, capable of moving the body forward. On iTunes, I listen to Nicole Scherzinger’s “Don’t Hold Your Breath Now.” I listen to the same song for more times than I care to count.

If not for my mother and brother and his wife, I suppose I would have lived in a motel for as long as I could and maybe, when the money ran out, I would have gone back to my second lover, who’d tried to kill me.

Our choices are harder when there’s no money.

*

A story: a boy drove with his father down a country road, dust running behind them, like clouds being dragged behind the car. His father laughed with the woman who wasn’t the boy’s mother, who sat in the front seat, beside his father. They listened to Barry Manilow. A cassette tape. The boy was a boy. The boy looked out the window. He leaned against the dull spotted glass and wished he was far, far from that car. There were cotton fields. Long rows. Row after row. Blue sky and brown clouds behind them. The cotton fields ran beside the boy. As fast or faster than the car.

*

As with all life, there is risk. When I was seven, we stayed with my grandmother, after my father left us. I realize now that it was best that he left, seeing how bad men often proffer sons with similar proclivities. She lived in a small wooden house with yellow siding on the front and sides, but the back lay naked and wooden because the money had run out and what mattered more than appearance?

When alone, I often took to fire. I lit cotton balls. In the sink, for fear that the fire might grow uncontrollable, my plan was to extinguish any heat I couldn’t control—using the faucet and the sink’s basin I could ensure this. As they burned, the balls’ white fibers glowed a marvelous orange, and it was a trailing burn, like a few tiny fuses all bled together, made of each other, made of light. I used a match. I watched the fibers be eaten by the glow. Embers and then ash and then water. The dark drain swallowing what didn’t burn and what had.

Privately, I committed these burns. I wanted no one to know.

Knowing this was wrong—burning things inside my grandmother’s house—knowing there was peril, I only did so while my mother and grandmother were at the grocery store or had walked to my vis-abuela’s, my great-grandmother’s house, three streets away. A few times I grew brave and wanted to hold the fire in my hands, so I dampened my hands and picked up the glowing ball of fibers, and I tested myself, seeing how long I could hold that small hungry fire in my palms. The first couple of times I let the ball go, quickly, almost immediately, since the heat quickly became unbearable and I was afraid. These times, I dropped the burning cotton into the sink, the faucet resolving the burn. The last time I tried to wield this fire, I held on longer than I ever had, longer than I thought I could, yet, when the pain struck, I released the tiny fireball and it fell onto the shag bath rug. Panicked, I smashed the little fire with my foot. No, I did not burn down the house. I stomped and thanked God and promised Him I would never do such a thing again. I’ve made such a promise numerous times in my life.

*

I would like to tell you about the beauty of cotton fields and small towns, even if they are dry and littered with left-behind scraps of white seedy cotton, some of them barely towns, backwards and unwelcoming to outsiders or difference, even if I am afraid sometimes, I confess, driving through these towns in my red truck, whether it be alone or with my lover.

I do not have a siren song for these small towns. I do not bring an anthem. But I love them.

If you have never seen a water tower glimmering with sunrise, if you have never smelled horses, not their shit, of course, of course not, but their muscles and their nostrils, the amnesia they give us to forget every city we have ever been to, every debt we owe, every pain, and to belong, for a moment, only to that field, beside that horse, beside that sky, then, I tell you this tale about worthiness and joy. If you have never sat on a tailgate on a dark country road and held another man’s or woman’s hand, drinking a beer and listening to the stars, or the radio, or just your own hearts, if you have never let your body be held by nothing else but sun and wind and dirt, then, I hope, one day, if it calls you, now or ten years from today, that you make it, that the road you are on takes you there, or that you love yourself enough to change roads, to change your life.

*

A story: One day there was a boy who was no longer a boy but a man in a car near a cotton field. And the man was leaving behind his life. Everything he owned that didn’t fit into a bag. The man had his fears, and he was driving down a country road, and there was blue sky and two dogs behind him, their tongues pink and full of slobber, in the backseat. In the fields, little white bursts of cotton.

For a moment, the man forgot where he was or what he was doing and he rolled down all the windows so the wind filled the small car, making everything, the man and the dogs and the radio, made of wind. He drove, and the dogs bit at the wind, and he turned up the radio. Reba McIntyre—and he remembered he loved her and he remembered that yes, there was life out there. He remembered the smell of horses and water towers and salt water and birds. In the field, long, long legs ran quickly beside the man’s car, never tiring, just running and running and not getting left behind.

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