At five years old, I was the poster girl for innocence and optimism. At the core of my existence were my glittery jellies — chancletas, my cousins and Puerto Rican neighbors in our Bronx housing project would call them — Little Debbie Donut Sticks, complete with sugar palm oil and thiamin mononitrate that I'd eat every morning, and my parents.
My parents met each other in 1977 and married in 1980 with the blessing of my mother's dad, who passed away and went on to glory just as she found out she was pregnant with me in 1991. Mommy always says my grandfather and I passed each other going down and coming up to heaven. By the time I was born, after 15 years together, my mother and father were well out of their honeymoon phase. At the time of my birth, they were separated and living apart. I remember being as young as five years old and feeling like a repellent to any masculine presence in my life. What is it about me? I'd wonder then. As an adult, I had similar questions: What is it about me that keeps men from wanting to be there for me, or with me? I'd ask the men I'd date and find casual entanglements with.
The housing projects where we lived on Third Avenue were only a stone's throw away from Webster Avenue, where my mother was raised. The projects had inexplicably hot baths upstairs, and men who stayed up all night playing dominoes on Formica and chrome fold-out tabletops downstairs. I could count on those men being there every day on the red-tiled steps, slamming their black and white marble pieces down, more than I could count on the men in my own family at that point. And my perception of men, shaped by the lack of a consistent presence of them in my own home, only worsened over time.
Our grocery store of choice was CTown. When we'd get to CTown my mother would grab my fat little chin, lovingly, to ground me from our walk and give me her Black mother's spiel, finger-wagging about keeping my hands to myself and not on the store shelves. She warned me many times not to run in the market, but did I listen? No, and I still have the scar on my head from the time I was knocked out after colliding with a rack of goldfish crackers at the end of an aisle at full speed. While Mommy and I would walk home from CTown I would drag my strapped jelly sandals and little toes along the concrete jungle and daydream of all sorts of things, like the Spice Girls and when I'd next see my Daddy.
Our visits happened on random weekends, with no rhythm or reason I could detect. He'd pick me up and take me and my glittery pink Minnie Mouse satchel that I called my "daddy bag" home with him to Queens. Sometimes I'd sit near the entrance of our apartment and wait for his lanky body to stroll through the door, but he wouldn't show. He wouldn't call with an explanation. That never dampened my excitement for our next scheduled visit, until it did.
Feeling abandoned and disappointed gets old quick. Initially, my whole heart was in Queens. Daddy would put hot dogs and sugar in his spaghetti sauce, creating a gourmet dish worth a five-year-old's dreams, and he allowed me to run through CTown as fast as I wanted. Daddy would play cassette tapes on the silver sound system he kept encased in a breakfront chest. The system was worth more than anything else in his small one-bedroom apartment, and the tapes he played ranged from DJ Premier mixes to Mary J Blige's "What's the 411." Later I realized that his choices in music and food, let alone our trips to see daddy's friends at the playground, weren't appropriate for children. His behavior was wrong, but to a kid it felt so right. Being with him felt like being at Disney World, but it was just brash-ass Queens. Daddy had a way of making ordinary things feel extraordinary, maybe because they were often unexpected — his visits were frequently as untimely as his eventual death.
Daddy's final exit from my life started long before it happened, with a routine call from my mother's sister Vanessa. I watched her curl the coiled phone cord around her finger with her red Revlon nails. I was never too far from my mother in those days and I attribute our synchronous nature now to that early closeness. After that phone call, during bath time, my mother posed a life-altering question to me. "Do you want to move to Baltimore?" I was five years old, a hardheaded daydreamer who inherited at least 50 percent of my developing decision-making matrix from a haphazard if loving father. Mommy has always taught me that even a child should have an equal say in their own life. Looking back, she had probably already decided to move to Baltimore, where Auntie Vanessa already lived, anyway, but knowing that she included little me felt good. "Yes," I answered.
The week I left The Bronx I was six years old. My leaving was unceremonious; it wasn't like in the movies — no old Ford with suitcases and a rocking chair hitched to the top. And my dad didn't come to see us off. We had said most of our goodbyes to close friends and family in the weeks prior to leaving. It hurt leaving all five years of what I had known behind — pissy project elevators, enchanting playdates on the Lower East Side. New York held a quinquennium of history for myself and 40 years for mommy, and that history included my daddy. I was pleased with myself and our decision to move over 200 miles from the gum-laden concrete walks to CTown, but as we packed I wondered if she would miss my dad as much as I would. My mother much kept a poker face when it came to her feelings about my dad. For leaving behind someone she had been with for 20 years, she seemed relaxed and unbothered. So I followed suit.
Once in Baltimore, we lived with my Aunt Vanessa and her family, and I started school at Deer Park Elementary. In my daydreams, I'd wonder what it would be like to to have my mother's finger-wags and my dad's mixtapes in the same house. My mother must have been dreaming too, because after our first year, in what I guess was a Hail Mary attempt at keeping my father in our lives, she asked him come down and help us move our things out of storage where we put them while she saved for our new apartment, and he did. When we were settled into our new third floor apartment on Old Court Road, Daddy never left.
Old Court Road was a far cry from Queens, and we didn't have that kind of grass, bike riding hills or this many kids to play with in the Bronx. I couldn't have been happier. Baltimore County must have had something in the air. All of a sudden the friction between my parents was quelled. My daddy's chest was warm as his beating heart inside. He could fill a room with his snaggled grin. Days in Baltimore county with dad were filled with stops to Snowball stands, learning how to plant my feet on mountain bike pedals, and all types of food, from Jamaican jerk to spicy Korean barbecue. If we ordered, the whole neighborhood ate.
Why my parents had separated in the first place remained a mystery to me then. I had traced out every blemish on him as a little girl, hoping to bump into a flaw that might lead me to why my mother just couldn't live with him, but found only a scar, big and visible, from when he swallowed a paper clip as a child, sitting just a few finger paces away from his belly button. He and my mom even renewed their vows in a beautiful ceremony. But just when everything felt perfect, he died due to complications from a cocaine addiction he had been battling since our days in New York.
It's hard to make sense of grief as an adult, let alone as a pre-teen. Was it my fault? Was it because of our decision to move? Was I a bad daughter? I was angry with God, Baltimore, cocaine, and for a while, all Black men. For years after his death, I asked why my father had abandoned me again, and this time for good.
When I got older, I asked my mother why she and Daddy separated. She sat me down and told me how cocaine riddled their marriage. My mother admitted that she had done coke as well, but stopped before she became pregnant with me. Daddy just didn't. She grew up and focused on life and family, while he continued to play the same games. Despite their history together she still loved him and dreamed of a life with him; she hurled herself into him at top speed despite the warnings their history gave her. I'm sure mommy had her own scars from her relationship with Daddy — scars I couldn't have known were there. Now I had my own.
In the months before he died, I watched my father fall apart. He had a rough time in finding work in Baltimore, and fitting society's definition of what a man should be. The food and snowball dates stopped, and the laughing and joking went away, too. For too many nights I would stay up late, or sleep close to the door on our old white couch, waiting for his keys to jingle in the door. Some nights they wouldn't jingle at all. That feeling of disappointment — waiting for him with my sparkly daddy bag packed, only for him not to show — came rushing back.
That childhood feeling that followed me from New York to Baltimore continues to find me as an adult. After my father's death, a man leaving me was the worst thing I could imagine. So even when there were warning signs, I turned into a clone of my mother and ran toward men who would hurt me, holding onto them for dear life, trying not to feel the pain of my father leaving me. And that created a bitterness inside of me that I carried into many of my romantic relationships. From the first date to the break-up text, I already knew, somewhere deep in my mind, that my relationships weren't going to work out. Dad left, so every other man will leave, too.
It took me years to realize that every Black man is not my father. Dating, falling in and out of love, meeting new and interesting people, and learning how to break up with men who try to hold on to me for dear life, taught me that all men are not the same. Some open doors and some don't. Some are aggressive and some are sensitive. And the collective of them are all perfect and flawed in their own ways, unique sums of their experiences, influences and ideas. Blaming one man and one formative, traumatic experience for all men's possible and present shortcomings was a cycle I had to break.
Facing the unknown, knowing something might not work out and mapping the scars on a new person anyway is a daunting task. We should inspect the scars of those we are dating, but there are always going to be scars we don't see, or not right away. I scanned my father so many times, and even his biggest visible scars didn't tell me everything I needed to know. It's taken me years to unlearn my fear that every relationship with a Black man will end in a nasty spill and a new scar of my own.
In hindsight, my mother asking me at five if I wanted to move — which made me feel, in my grief, like I bore some responsibility for my father's death — caused me to have so much anxiety about committing to things, to places, to people. But taking that risk also brought so much beauty to my life. All that time and closeness I had with my father, while watching my mother be loved by him, was very important for me to see. Men might leave and that might hurt. But not every one will, I know now. Even relationships that don't last my lifetime might give us worthwhile time together. I know that now. I can pack away that sparkly bag from childhood that held so much disappointment, and vow never to carry it with me again.