Excerpts from GRIT, or What You Will
Chapter 1: The Little Flower
An elephant’s foot rests on my chest. I cannot move. Soon, all of my thoughts are as heavy as this elephant’s foot. I cannot think. The air in the room is heavy, thick; the ceiling is so very high. In the narrow, tall room I look around silently, unable to speak or leave. Everything is heavy. Suddenly, everything is black.
Using the wall, familiar with the soft paper, the subtle vertical glue seams glide underneath my tiny fingertips through the darkness. My left arm stretches out to the banister guardrail along the steep, open staircase in the hallway between my mother and stepfather’s room and my bedroom. This is how I walk in the dark so that I do not fall, but right before I reach the master bedroom door I stretch out my left hand in front of me, waving to push away the spirits that live in the small attic room adjacent theirs, past the miniature door. The cold spot, the cool corner, the ghost gatekeeper zone that divides my mother and me feels like the Pacific Ocean.
“You had a nightmare. You are fine. Go back to sleep now,” my mother says.
“I’m afraid,” I whisper.
“Of what?” she asks.
“Of elephants,” I say slowly, leaning closer to her.
“Why?” my mother asks, confused.
“They keep crushing me,” I tell her.
“Come here,” my mother says sleepily, sliding over, making room next to her for me.
“No, I don’t want to sleep here. I don’t like your bed,” I state firmly.
“Stacey, you have to go to sleep,” she argues.
“I can’t. I’m afraid,” I respond.
“Okay, just tell yourself you are dreaming. Say, ‘I am dreaming. This is not real. Wake up.’ That’s how you can stop your nightmares. Now go to bed, okay, Stacey,” my mother says with finality.
I’m not sure what I want, but I do not want to sleep with her and my stepfather like my brother, Jacob. Tiptoeing quickly past the demons and lonely purgatory souls of the night, I race back to my bed. For the most part I rarely wake my mother, but with so many nightmares encroaching on me, I do not know what else to do other than confide in her about my dream life. The walk down the haunted hall is my main obstacle, so often I lay in my antique wrought iron single bed, wide-eyed and scared stiff.
To my relief, her suggestion works most of the time, but when it doesn’t I glide off of my squeaky bed towards my mother’s room. As to not warn the spirits to come through their miniature door and block me from my mom, my steps avoid the known floor creaks while my measured breathing mimics Houdini. One step away from the threshold of madness I stop my slowed breathing altogether while simultaneously waving off the lower spirits with my tiny, open palm. By the time the delirious, intoxicated gatekeeper awakes I am at my mother’s side.
“You were cutting Jacob,” I say.
“You were having a nightmare,” she responds.
“No. I saw you. You were cutting Jacob into tiny bits. He was being sliced into many pieces. I saw his eyes. We looked at each other. It was Jacob,” I insisted, sure of what I’d seen.
“Stacey, you were only dreaming. It was a very bad dream,” she says.
“No. We were at the grocery store. His dad and you were naked, and you had a shopping cart and knives, cutting and slicing his body into the cart. I was standing there telling you that you could not cut him into pieces, that he was going to die.”
“Stacey, you were just having a nightmare. You are okay now. It’s okay,” she reassures me.
Tyrian purple velvet bedspread tassels are underfoot. The sensation forcing me to accept that my mother is right snaps me into full reality just as the main monster hears me talking and stirs by the door. I sprint like a Queen of Sheba’s gazelle past his groggy mumbling into the wild, voluptuous obscurity where life-sized paper Klimt women hold fruit at the top of the staircase, perpendicular to my bedroom door. Their careful eyes watch for my safe return. I’d rather face the miniature door, the vessel of lost souls, the shaky wooden banister, the lonely damask wallpaper, the cold hardwood floors, the strategic maneuvers amongst memorized furniture and toys en route to my bed than climb in alongside the tragic undead. Under my transom window a quaint world opens up and exists in my bedroom awaiting me, aware of my comings and goings. There, I live like a phoenix.
Dimly lit, narrow, tall, tight rooms return to my dreams. With the walls closing in on me, elephants stumble, straddle and stamp across my chest and thoughts. With much practice I manage to awake before being entirely crushed by the elephant herd’s lone foot. Gasping for air, I awake feeling as though I’ve mastered my dreams as Houdini had mastered breath, pulse, and escape. I begin to feel free in my dreams.
“He was beautiful,” I whisper to my mother.
“Who?” she asks.
“A boy,” I tell her.
“Go back to sleep, Stacey,” my mother mutters.
“Do you know who he is?” I insist.
“Who?” she asks again.
“The boy,” I say.
“I don’t know. Go to bed,” my mother pleads.
“He looked like me and he was my friend. He loved me,” I tell her.
“Go back to your dream, Stacey,” she says.
“How?” I ask.
“Go back to bed, and before you fall asleep, tell yourself you are going back to that dream,” she instructs me.
She is right. It works. Lying in bed I drift back into that dream. I sit there looking at him. He is looking at me. We smile. He has dark hair, a slight wave to it. He looks like me in a way. His skin is like mine. We sit together. When the sun rises and I awake with the light coming through my shaded windows, I repeatedly try to fall asleep to find this boy again. I try night after night, and I do see him a few more times throughout my childhood. We are always about the same size, we are always happy to see each other, but I do not see him for long periods.
Chapter 2: Face Value
“Do you want a Popsicle?” Jimmy asks me.
“Yes,” I answer.
“Ok. I’ll race you,” he says.
“Ok,” I agree.
“On the count of three…One, two…three! Go!” Jimmy yells.
The branches below me look beautiful: a weaving, a crisscrossing, familiar pattern. I huddle the side of the young tree’s trunk as I glide from branch to branch. Limb to limb, descending after Jimmy, branches palmed, gripped, and then released in unison with my feet aiming, springing, and bouncing down the tree. Until one misstep, all is usual. Then, something does not connect. Tumbling, tumbling, tumbling. Twisted turns. Tearing, tumbling, turning. Head over feet, feet overhead, head over feet. Something does connect. Like an electric shock; like the horse fence at the farm I grabbed onto as a younger girl, we connect and it electrocutes me. A branch limb’s end: a cut branch, a new branch, or a nub of a branch rips my face. My nose is ripped. It tears. Quickly. Half of my nose disconnects, starting at the columella, dissecting the right nostril, and then up the length of the lateral side before reaching my right eye. A swift act of partial dismembering, but my eyes are safe. I see.
Falling, flying, and landing. My small body is a rock. Like a pinball machine, the tree bounces and bangs my four-year-old frame through its limbs before dropping me down, straight to the bottoms. Gravity’s beck and calling lands me facedown onto the perfect, suburban concrete sidewalk, breaking my nose’s bridge. The cold, white walkway feels so comforting. An incredible sensation is swallowed whole in an instant, relieving me of a lightning bolt of loss and confusion. Black. White. Black. White.
I raise my head off of the sidewalk into the hot, dry Los Angeles air. Jimmy’s feet are moving so fast towards the front door. I cannot get up. He is going to win. I have to let him win. For some reason I cannot get up. I am frozen like a deer or sick people or like in a scary dream, but I am not a deer, I am not sick, and I am awake. I really want that Popsicle. He is taking so long. Where is he? All I see is the flawless green lawn, the open front door, and this sidewalk, but no Jimmy. I really hope he brings me the frozen fruit ice since I can’t seem to get up.
Auntie Marcia is awake. She is there in the doorway. Why is she in her nightdress? Because it is not time for a night nurse to wake up yet. The running in the house disturbed her sleep. Why does she look like that? Her whole body and gown are swaying like a sheet on a clothesline, and she is falling down the sides of the doorway. She must be sick. Why is she covering her mouth like that? She has to suka. She is holding her head. Maybe she has a headache. She must be upset about something. Where is she going? Maybe she is getting my Popsicle.
Auntie Marcia lifts me up. I feel like a piece of paper. Like the paper in art class at school, I can bend in half, and fold, and fly. And like an octopus from the sea. Like Great-Grandma Soledad’s octopus out of her stew, hanging off of the ladle. My arms and legs and head are like that octopus. I am dripping like that stew, but no one will eat me. I am a person. And I know the octopus is like a person. It has eyes and it can swim and it can feel. I am so happy I did not eat that octopus. My mom was so mad at me. Poor octopus; I won’t eat you. Poor Great-Grandma Edad. I respect you. Poor Mom. She gets embarrassed.
It is so bright in Los Angeles. I can’t see much because of the round shining sun. Why is this towel on my face? I can see only Auntie Marcia’s eyes. She is so sad. She must be sick. She is breathing so hard I can feel her heart pounding against mine. She is talking to me, but I don’t know what she is saying. The towel is covering my ears. Poor Auntie Marcia. I love her. She is so nice. She works so hard. We should not wake her up. I am so happy she is hugging me. She is holding me like I am her baby. Her whole body is soft and warm. She is rocking me. It feels so nice. I feel like I am on a cloud, high above the world where it is very quiet in the big blue sky. Los Angeles is beautiful.
We are spinning. Now I can see only a little part of the big sky. Suddenly, I see red. Why is Auntie Marcia’s brother racing his little red sport’s car down her street? He is a grown up, so he should know better. Maybe he is bad. Maybe he is cool. Maybe Los Angeles is like the movies. We are we running into the street, why? He is driving so fast. His car is streaking red lines and screaming high like the colors and sounds on the big screen in a movie theater. He is going to run over his sister. Why is Auntie Marcia running towards the speeding car? She is not afraid. She is very, very brave. The car stops so fast like the angry horses in the field before reaching the fence. The car is powerful like the horses. It has good brakes too. It does not hit us. I wonder why they are yelling. Maybe Jimmy ate the last Popsicle.
Auntie Marcia is holding me so tight. She is moving so fast jumping into this little car. Why is she pressing my face this hard with the big towel? Her heart is going as fast as the houses and colors and voices in this racecar. There should be more than two seats in racecars. Then Auntie Marcia and I could fit in here better. It would not be so dark. If her brother did not speed Auntie Marcia would not have to hold me so tight like when I grip the reins of the horses at the farm. I am flying like a real equestrian. And I am running out of air. She is taking all of my breath with her love. I feel like a love story in the theaters. This flapping towel on my face must be like the scarves waving in the wind the Hollywood women wear when riding in convertibles in the black and white movies.
Chapter 3: A, B, C’s and 1, 2, 3’s
All around us tiny bits float, flutter, and fly through the Apple River air. The treetops and tops of our heads allow the sun through to us, breaking mini-moments away from our elongated private moment along the post-swim hike. Among mosquitos, among weeds, along branches and trunks of trees, under the late afternoon summer sky, beyond other’s watchful and curious eyes, we stand, alone. Very quietly, very suddenly, a graze of my hand, the grasp of his glance. A halting. Front-to-front, toe-to-toe, his chin to my forehead. I am 11, and he is 15. He stares into my eyes, and I cannot help but stare into his. I've known him for many years. His hair is so blond it is white; his skin softly kissed by a Midwest spring and summer, and his beautiful, sweet kindness illuminates and engulfs us both. Between us is adoration understood and magnified by the forest cave cove we steal, stall, and stand in. Together, trailing off of the trail. Smiling silently, shyly into my first kiss.
The first boy I share a kiss with is not B, but B is my first true love. In the fall after my first kiss I learn of a very interesting boy overhearing gym class girl talk. The kids from Sacred Heart, the Catholic school near our public school, come to our campus for gymnasium classes and events. They also attend our school dances. It is at a school dance the first time I see Brian. Everyone calls him B, except for his parents and our teachers. The talk I hear prior to seeing him is that he is the skinniest, palest boy in town, and that he has a deep hollow indentation in his chest the size of a fist. He was born that way. It turns out that he is also the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. In no time I see how he is tough as nails in sports, way smarter than even the smartest kids at school and in catechism, and is funny—his sense of humor is breathtaking.
Until around sophomore year of high school, I have a major secret crush on B. I tell Brandee, my best friend. She is thoroughly shocked and amused, but understands why I am so in love with him. Brandee knows everything about me, namely the fact that B and I are in several advanced placement classes together, where we often sit in alphabetical order across from one another, with him in front of me. I love his intelligence, his voice, and the cadence of his speech. I love how he is an expert in the human condition, a top student in the classroom, and even in typical trash talk between kids, he is entirely in command of himself and the setting. Even if he loses it a bit, I am so attracted to his form of anger or abandon. He inherently understands that true power lies within.
Chapter 4: Aurelia, the Golden One
Quickly doing the math, I calculate the speed at which I must run to keep time. 5:14 a.m. Sprint all the way. When I think I cannot do it, this sprint the whole way, I convince myself that I must do it. I must do it for myself, for who I am—a woman, a writer, a mother, a daughter, and an artist. In order for my self worth to flourish and grow and strengthen over time, I must achieve my goals. My goal is to care for myself and my children and the man I love. So I run. I sprint. I run as swiftly as possible into the sprint: each step carefully, accurately executed, minding my knees and the placement of each foot’s landing. Down the street, within blocks, I am in full gallop; I feel like the horse and rider at once again. My body strong and lean, my composure forward and pulsing, I race to the bus stop.
The air is crisp, foggy, misty, and quiet. Before the sun rises, before the birds sing their calls, prior to the lit windows lining the waterfront and city and hilltop homes, I run in the morning hush: My breath and footsteps the only sounds I hear. This breath, this pulsing heartbeat, this commitment to my purpose propels me. I begin to envision my life: the woman I have grown to be in all of my strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, struggles, losses, gains; in all of my understanding, empathy, compassion, confusion, chaos—I have a strange, deep sense of wisdom and peace in my time here in this life. Suddenly, I know more than ever what my life is all about. It hits me, this sense of duty to my purpose. More than ever before, I understand there is no other way. I must tell my story and the story of my people. I am the human condition.
An image of my grandmother comes to me. I see her. I wonder immediately if she was able to run like me. Not literally, but figuratively—could she run? Did she see her way, and run away from the oppression of the terror and the demons and the excruciating weight of destruction in her life? The feeling is crushing my chest—to think of my grandmother’s life makes me short of breath, I start to take the form of the wilt of a dehydrated, cut flower, my body faltering for a moment. I feel my shoulders bowing forward; I feel my knees buckling under my perplexed frame’s heft; I feel the immensity of disorientation. And then I realize: She could run, and she did run. She faced the facts, and then ran away from all of the awful things, saving herself, and saving her children.
“Mary,” my heavy breathing pushing the whispered chant out. “Mary.”
For my mother’s mother. For my father’s mother. The two Mary’s I come from. And Soledad. And Beatrice. And Leonisa. And Leona. And all the others before and after me. And, for me, I run. I am running and I see all of these beautiful women before me—as young girls, as teenagers, in their 20’s and 30’s, and now as 40-year-old women like me in their prime. Muire says it is an age when women are still keepers of a youthful beauty paired with that of attained wisdom, a true rarity. We are different, yet the same: We are one. In this moment, in this time, it is revealed to me. Those women, my ancestors, and all of their mothers and fathers and daughters and sons before and after them, run with me. We run together like a band of horses. We run together like the massive waves of the Pacific to the coasts of California. We run like the wind whips through the world in all of its magnificence, shaping and forming the cosmos. This is my stride, how I continue, how I remember, and how I forget. I face then forget the pain, I forget the sorrows. I remember only that I made it through. I run with the spirits and the ghosts of my family lineage towards emancipation. I focus on the lessons and opportunities of life’s experiences. I take the momentum of my collective memories and make a channel. I wade in that channel under the skies. Over that channel I build a bridge. From that bridge I gaze at the waters, the skies, and my dreams. Inside of those dreams, my goals are set. Once I am set, I go to my path. There, my journey awaits me.
The moment after I chant my grandmother’s names, I begin to lose my breath. In an instant internal retaliation, I force a recalibration of my breathing. I search my visual and technical memory bank for Houdini’s mechanisms: filling my lungs slowly, fully; holding for a moment, releasing, and repeating. Gently putting in place the pace. Fresh air. Oxygen. Evenly breathing. The mind calms, fear leaves, worry subsides.
Having a handle on my body and my mind, I am able to return to the vision of my ancestors and me running. Running on the sidewalk, up and down curbsides, crossing the saturated, gleaming streets, under the moist, soft dewy weeping branch leaves, with a visage of the faint starlit night falling and the day rising under mystical indigo clouds, I come to terms with every aspect of my life. So much so, I think of nothing else but the moment I am experiencing: my running pace increases in power, prowess, potency. The tears in my eyes begin to clear, and I see the length and breadth of my shadow on the pavement.
With the vision of the women and men and children in my family behind me, the shadow doppelganger of my running self, and with the hopes I hold for my own daughters and son, I fly to the finish. Like a beaming light I cannot see but only imagine in the distance, I visualize the bus being on its route; I visualize my placement relative to the bus as the bright light in this geographic scheme. In something I cannot explain I determine that that light and my force will meet at the same space in time. I know this because it must be done, it must be accomplished. Why? Because it is part of my goal, and my goals being set inside my dreams, I realize fully that without my dreams, I am nothing. And because I believe I am something—that I always have been, and always will be, I go for it.