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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rants & Raves of Becoming a Writer

It's none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.  - Ernest Hemingway

I have a whopping 519-page novel sitting on my desk… unpublished. When I look back on it, it sucks—written with all the callow grace of an amateur—but the fact that for an entire decade I had the disciplined commitment to write it is somewhat impressive. I have other unpublished stories that, in efforts to truly understand my protagonists, I’ve nearly sacrificed my sanity to write. I’ve morphed into the mindset of a dying bum in the Tenderloin, a coke-addicted suburbia housewife, and an old and lonely widow who just wants to sing karaoke, to name a few. If it weren’t for that voice in my head that feels the incessant need to narrate every mundane and exciting detail in life (from standing in line at the grocery store to those fleeting seconds just before a man jumps off a bridge), I’d have quit writing a long time ago. The ego can only take so much, after all.
Just before I arrived to that ‘fuck it’ point in life, I received an unexpected success: I got accepted to grad school, into the creative writing program at Mills College. Me—grad school! The punk teen from Chula Vista who used to ‘Abacadaba’ my way through Scantrons had made it into grad school. I was as thrilled as Honey Boo Boo on her birthday. Would a prestigious education open doors to getting published and becoming a successful novelist? Would a professor tell me that maybe my stories would have a better chance if all of my protagonists weren’t depressing lunatics?
My "acceptance glee" was short lived. Fear and self-doubt began to seep like poison through my body as I realized one thing: I got into grad school…and I was terrified.

Next Week: The ‘oh shit’ feeling continues…in a public performance space

Monday, March 18, 2013


I’d spent months on crutches, and even more months hobbling around on a cane after breaking off a piece of cartilage in my kneecap. Even though I can walk on my own now, I recently decided two things about myself: one, that I’m no longer the invincible 32-year old I once was, and two: that I wanted to cut off all my hair—both of which had everything and nothing to do with one another.
            I showed the picture to my hairstylist: Halle Berry in an edgy pixie ‘do, with strands of hair spiking out in every different direction. “I want to look like her,” I said.
            My hairstylist hesitated. “Are you sure? It’s really…short.”
            I insisted. She tied my hair in three ponytails—one in the back and two on the side—and in three quick snips, the last six months of the hair I'd been wearing fell to the floor.
           As I sat very still in the chair, I watched in the mirror as handfuls of hair rained down all around, the ends of the curls looped like cat tails. I’d been sick of my hair for so long, sagging and drooping with half-assed curls. I'd even began slicking it into a ponytail, embarrassed that my dull hair would reveal the vulnerable truth of how I really felt about myself. 
            Meticulously, my stylist cut, snipped and razed. “Is this length short enough?” she asked.
            “No. Shorter,” I said.
            She cut, snipped, razed some more. “How ‘bout now?”
            She cut, snipped, razed some more; she cut and cut, until there was hardly anything left at all. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Puppet for Lily

The first time I saw her she was rummaging through the trash, high out of her mind on god knows what. When she found what she’d been looking for—a soiled shred of plastic bag—she tied it in her hair like a bow. She began clawing savagely at her face, as if bugs were crawling underneath her skin, and that’s when she turned and I saw it: bursting out from underneath her cutoff top was a huge belly…she was at least six months pregnant.
I saw her again about a month later. The sun had barely reached its zenith of the afternoon when I recognized her on the street—a different piece of trash bow-tied in her hair—and not pregnant. Did she have a crack baby? lose it? abort it? I barely had time to wonder because I was forced to hop back clear across the sidewalk. With fingers down her throat she was spewing vomit all across Mission Street, the entire crowd at the bus-stop her audience. She was crying hysterically and tried to wipe her face but only smeared the puke that had been dribbling from her mouth. Ironically, I’d just said goodbye to my friend Lily who’d revealed—gushing with excitement—that she was pregnant. We’d left a baby boutique minutes before, wondering if the little creature swimming inside her would prefer a piggy puppet or a lop-eared bunny once it was born.
Steering clear of the puke puddle, I suddenly crossed the street heading back towards the baby boutique. Tears bubbled at the brim of my eyes without spilling down. The piggy puppet, I said over and over, the words reeling silently round in my mouth. Lily had to have the piggy puppet for her baby—she had to.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Dinner at Daniel's

Dinner at my dear friend Daniel’s house was a feast for the soul. He whipped up a Cali-Asian fusion of silver rice noodles soaking in spicy green curry sauce, fresh veggies seasoning every bite. Daniel is a brilliant writer, the topic of our many conversations. His style is raw and poetic, blocks of words brimming with emotions that linger with you long after you’ve put the pages down. Hours passed like minutes between us until the next thing I knew, it was time to go home. This is where I knew things would get tricky. Daniel lives in a super sketchy part of town. From his kitchen, we’d looked down at the streets where sparks of lighters flickered above crack pipes. Skeletal women roamed the streets, looking for men to feed their bodies to so they could feed their habit. If I had the power to, I’d blink and the neighborhood would be a welcoming place for folks to call home. For now I had to worry about actually getting home. “I can walk you to the train station,” Daniel offered, and I graciously accepted.
            It turned out, walking down the street in Daniel’s neighborhood was easy. We chatted effortlessly as life carried on around us. Sure I received a couple of stolen glances, but not one word was said to me—not one. No one drooled a “hey baby” at me or blew any whistles my way. Men did not click their tongues at me as if I were a cat. People weren’t just seeing me; they were seeing me walk with a 6-foot tall confident man through his neighborhood. I felt a strange and lovely sense of protection. Even in broad daylight, I'm always on guard. What a peculiar privilege men have to walk so freely through the streets…are half of them even aware of this entitlement?
            At the top of the train station, I stalled my goodbye. A McDonald’s coffee cup had gotten stuck in a crack at the top of the escalator. Each rising step pushed the cup continuously before flattening out underneath the massive wheel in motion. The cup kept rolling and rolling in perfect circles. It was just a piece of trash but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I wanted to feel that way. I wanted to stay in that feeling forever with Daniel, that strange secure sense of invincibility in an exuberant world of chaos. I’m not saying men don’t have their own set of fears, but being violated by someone forcefully stronger than them isn’t likely the same reality that women carry with them everyday. I’ve been mugged before; my mugger flung me fiercely into the wall of a corner-store before I collapsed to the ground, wriggling desperately on a sidewalk soaked of piss and spilt beer. Another time a man touched my crotch late at night when I was walking to the train station after work—just walked by and glided his finger over me as if I were a piece of fruit at the market he’d suddenly changed his mind on. He laughed when I screamed back at him—laughed.
            I waved goodbye as the escalator carried me underground, trying to keep the strange high that Daniel had left me with. I couldn’t believe it. I’d walked through the ghetto at the heart of witching hour and I wasn’t even harassed—I wasn’t even afraid. I couldn’t wait to tell my ruca how good it felt to be me at that moment: a lighthearted freeness that a child might feel before life warps them. When I got to the bottom of the station, a young man was screaming on his cell phone about just having gotten evicted, and what the fuck was he going to do? And why the fuck wasn’t whoever he was calling answering his phone?! Cursing, strings of spit dangled from his lips as I walked past him, the only person in his sight or mine. The station agent booth was empty. Outside sounds drowned away in the roar of ambulance sirens from the streets. An ominous emotion flickered across the man’s eyes as he sized me up, too obviously fitting a scenario in his head. My safe-house feeling vanished. The protection, the security, it had all disappeared now and I was back to “normal.” Bluffing fearlessness, I squared my shoulders broadly as I hurried past him down the stairs. In that very moment, I envied Daniel as much as I loved him.
             The train blasted through the station, ready to take me back home where I’d soon be with my ruca and the cats. I hardly flinched as the train delivered a fervent gust of chilled night air through the tunnel. My mind was somewhere else. I couldn’t get the image of the coffee cup out of my head, it was all I could think about. It had rolled and rolled at the top of the escalator, stuck like a perfect wheel in motion…it could’ve gone on forever. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Studio on York Street

The ruca and I used to live in a studio on York Street. The ruca lived there first but I went with her to see the open house one Saturday afternoon. We weren’t living together yet, we were still “dating;” still getting used to trying pet-names with each other like ‘baby’ and ‘mi amor;’ still getting used to the awkward primitive questions like, “how do you like your steak cooked?” (Me: medium-rare, ruca: well done.)
York Street was lined with trees, an older, quieter part of the Mission where cats blinked out at you from windows and hopscotch covered sidewalks in rainbow-colored chalk. After the ruca scored the spot, we painted the kitchen a magnificent pink and green watermelon theme, and the bathroom a bright yellow marigold against a cobalt blue. The Frida Kahlo house, we called it. She was just settling in when my winds changed.
My younger sister had gotten sick with pneumonia. For weeks she’d struggled in ICU, weak as a baby bird with a 50/50 chance of surviving. I moved back to San Diego to nurse her back to health until slowly, gradually, she bloomed back to life. After six months I returned to the city and into the studio with the ruca, where I learned how to live with someone else other than family for the first time. I’d been living with my older sister in the city before that, who didn’t seem to mind that I left clothes trailed from one room to another like Hansel and Gretel’s path of pebbles. Cohabitation was challenging, especially since our bedroom/living room was supposed to fit all of our clothes in a closet the size of a pantry, and we both had enough tacones to open our own shoe shop. Then there was the getting to know each other phase all over again. We were in the honeymoon stage when I’d left, and for six months had talked on the phone every night about our separate lives. Now I was in bed next to her, hogging the bed-sheets. She asked me once, appalled: “Do you always sleep in till 11?” To which I answered, “When I work till one in the morning, yes…and I guess the days I don’t, too.”
Our landlords were “witches” who practiced some kind of magic and lived in the two units upstairs from us. They were nice enough but I knew not to touch the strange ornaments I found in the back yard, should I begin to grow an extra toe or something. And I suspected that the cryptic mosaic on the bathroom floor was not just some whacky art piece in bad taste. I made sure rent was always paid on time. The house was also cold—very cold. Shivering in the morning, I would bundle in ridiculous layers like I was hitting the ski slopes in Tahoe, then walk outside to a seventy-degree day. I wanted the house to be warm and flooded with smells of food, so I began to practice my cooking more than ever. The ruca turned me onto Los Tigres del Norte and I blasted the album incessantly while I cooked and “experimented” in the kitchen (although to this day, I don’t think I will ever attempt to make bell-pepper soup again, yuck).
There was a taco van a few blocks away that sold cheap and tasty tacos, dripping in chile. Sometimes I’d walk around the neighborhood, letting my mind write the way it does when I let it run free. At the time, I was still deciding if I should be a writer or go to nursing school. What kind of life was a struggling writer anyway? I listened closely to my thoughts on these walks. They said I was happy even though I didn’t fully feel settled. My life was on the cusp of so many transitions; all I wanted was for the waves to crash so I could finally feel some peace. I knew we wouldn’t stay at the York Street studio forever but being there made me realize that for the very first time, I wanted a place for us to call home, and I wanted it with the ruca.
The other day I was driving in the neighborhood with my cousin who was visiting from out of town. I took a detour, driving down good ol’ York Street for no apparent reason at all. For all the monumental transformations that took place inside the tiny studio, it just looked like any other ordinary house from the outside. The tree out front had grown, its branches shaggy and full, and the building had been painted in fresh bright coats. An entire world I once lived in rushed back to me: the cold Frida Kahlo House filled with warm smells of food, a struggling writer struggling with being a writer, too many shoes and snoring till noon. I pointed out the house to my cousin. “The ruca and I used to live there,” I said, the fact sounding as plain as saying the sky is blue.
My cousin joined my gaze. Her fingertips tapped on the window, as if trying to touch another era of time that had long past. “Oh,” she said, a curious smile on her lips. “How nice.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Full Moon

I watched the moon grow from a skinny sliver in the sky to a full-blown marvel illuminating above. On the night of the full moon, I was going to do my first reading at an open mic. It was a season closer—a guaranteed packed house—and writers and performers have five minutes to dock from their 15 minutes of fame in trying to win over the crowd.
I contemplated this event many times as I gazed up at the sky, the lunar light a visual calendar for my upcoming night. In my day-dreams, I would have an epic performance. My words would flow effortlessly as I read aloud a five-page excerpt from my novel. Everyone would laugh at the funny points, especially the part when my protagonist meets her landlord’s stuffed Chihuahua, Vegas. When I finished, the crowd’s fervid laughter would light up the room and I would read the audience’s eyes like open books. They would be thinking, This girl’s got something. She is someone to look out for. My fantastical daydreams had soared madly all month, shooting up like an arrow that never falls down.
The morning of the performance I woke up with a pain in my chest, as if someone had taken a lead pipe and bashed the inside of my ribcage. I trembled in fetal position. What was wrong with me? Was I having a freakish asthma attack? Had I swallowed stones for breakfast? The pain only worsened as I opened my laptop to prepare. I tried reading my first paragraph aloud and keeled over in pain, tears oozing involuntarily out of my clenched shut eyes. If I weren’t only 31 and healthy as a horse, I’d have thought I was having a heart attack.
“Isn’t it obvious? You’re having anxiety about tonight,” my ruca counseled.
“Anxiety? Don’t be ridiculous,” I scoffed. “What’s so big about reading to a packed house full of nearly a hundred people for the very first…ugh,” I cringed. Just at the mention of it, a new surge of torment had shot through me.
The ruca shook her head. “You don’t have to do this tonight if you’re not emotionally ready.”
“But I have to go—I need to go!” I insisted stubbornly.
For the next hour and a half I attempted sitting up in bed to read my work only to fall back down, contorting miserably in pain like a bad double in an Exorcist scene. My mental will hashed out a long battle with my physical will, but in the end, it was my body that called the shots. I’m not going to make it, I decided. And as soon as I realized it, the pain began to magically and gradually alleviate from my chest, only proving my ruca’s point exactly: I wasn’t having a freakish asthma attack—I was having a terrible case of nerves about my very first performance.
After this realization, I took up a whole new battle and began to beat myself up ruthlessly for not making the show. I’m a failure, I’m a coward, I’m a royal and world-class wuss. I exhausted myself until I finally called a truce between my tender emotions and my ball-busting ego, who, when it comes to writing, is about as kind to me as Glee’s coach Sue. I’m hard on myself in every other aspect of my life…why couldn’t I let this one anxiety attack slide?
I spent the night in the comfort of my Frisco family’s house eating homemade strawberry shortcake and watching TV and movies, until my laughter no longer followed cue to the laugh-track and was indeed my own. The full moon burst out in the sky, growing brighter as the night grew darker. It wasn’t even a mocking reminder for not being at the show; instead its magnificent fullness seemed to grant me a strange sense of comfort. I supposed my own hopes were like the moon in many ways. Sometimes when I feel so depleted, a light in the sky fills itself back up, a glowing blaze that lights the way. There will be other open mics and other performances to go to. And for now, I'll have to be at peace with that much. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Miami Beet

It was a Saturday afternoon and the nail shop was as psychotic as ever. Women toiled with remote controls to their spa chairs—“How do you get it to knead and roll at the same time?” A teenager shouted on her phone that some girl was “hella stupid—ohmygod, hella stupid.” Shards of fingernails were free-flying from the tip of electric files, making mini chainsaw sounding screeches through the air, while dialogue between the Vietnamese technicians was nothing less than frantic. One of the technicians was begging a little girl to stay still so she could paint her toes, while her mother shouted in a heavy British accent: “I need to be out of here in 15 minutes—fifteen!” Fans spewed on wet nails, shiny, twinkling like diamonds, and the women getting dried sat tall and regal, just as proud as if there were indeed jewels at their fingertips.
For the last hour and a half, I’d been trying to keep a centered zen composure. But I waited forty minutes longer than quoted and when I finally got a seat, I soaked my fingertips in soapy lukewarm water while my technician, Mai, did an eyebrow wax for someone. By the time she came back, my fingertips were shriveled prunes in the cold dead liquid—and the girl next to me on the phone had—omg!—hella not shut up the entire time.
“You pay now before I paint,” Mai instructed, in her thick Vietnamese accent that I’ve come to comprehend fluently.
I shelled out the cash for my manicure. Ten bucks with tip money wasn’t much, but it also wasn’t nothing either. Especially if you do this once a week; forty bucks a month is at least a week’s worth of groceries, and here I was, applying it to the beauty at my fingertips. Today’s color was Miami Beet.
The shop went back to its normal chaos: “Mommy! I want my toes puh-pul!” the little girl began to throw a tantrum. “Is that your final coat? I really have to be leaving soon,” the mother rolled her eyes. A horrific shriek erupted from the waxing room. A lady who was old enough to be my grandmother was laughing uncontrollably as her feet were getting exfoliated. “So I was like ohmygod, really, that’s like hella whack for reals, like seriously?” “Then we’re going to a party tonight…” “Excuse me? Can I get a flower on my toe? I don’t care, just paint something pretty.” “How much longer for a wax?!” “You’re going to do my nails? I think I’ll wait for Mai, no offense.” “I need change for a ten!” “You want half hour foot massage? Twenty dollars extra.”
Mai finished the second topcoat on my nails and that’s when I looked at them for the first time. The color was stunning, the darkened fuchsia complimenting beautifully against my morena skin. I stared at them mesmerized, waiting for them to dry completely as the chaos continued to tornado all around me. The entire rest of the day, I would flash my nails in front of me at any opportune moment: pulling hairs out of my face that weren’t there, touching up my lip-gloss just to line a pretty painted finger around my lips.
Gone were the tugging hang-nails around my cuticles, gone was the roughness and jagged edges of my nails that had accumulated during my work-week. Judging by my hands, there was no sign of the stress I put on them from my bartending job that drives me more neurotic than this nail-shop, but nevertheless pays my rent, pays my bills—pays me the time to let me write while I’m waiting for my actual writing career to take off. I felt many things at that moment, but what I liked most was the feeling that I didn't feel: like a frustrated and bitter bartender who sometimes hides my calloused worked fingers in my pockets.
“You come back next week, I give you new manicure,” Mai pointed at me, once I was dry and stood to leave.
“Yes,” I promised, almost outside where the sunny afternoon I’d missed was now waning. I waved goodbye to the estrogen entropy, dazzling my fabulous Miami Beet nails. “I’ll be here! I’ll see you then.”