Or, a Requiem for Unavoidable Cruelties
“Language is so wonderful, so deceitful.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
“Sometimes my life seems so surreal,
I feel like I’m living in a Haitian painting.”
David Rudder, “Crossroads”
The other day, I had an opportunity to hear parts of a conversation two people were having about me. I won’t go into many details, except to say that the range of insults was truly, utterly, comprehensive. Parsing the “What kind of a person does this?” and “What kind of a person does that?”, the innumerable LOLs, LMAOs, SMHs, and their (somewhat rarer) superlative SMFHs, I would soon come to find that nothing would be spared in my dismantling. Even my teeth—as the yellowing telegraphs of my chain-smoking during grad school and at other times before and since then—passed seamlessly in the vituperative rush. I was, simultaneously, a piece of shit, the biggest, most pathetic joke, and the saddest, most disgusting waste of potential they’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. I was misfortune itself. An inevitable hashtag, disappointment incarnate.
In short, I was the Devil.
It hurt to hear these things, of course (though I admit there was more than a little masochism in it). Some cruelties are unavoidable—best just to face them. I thought of my mother and how I’d been taunted in the past with telling her too much. If she had heard what I heard, she would’ve denied the things her son had done, rejected outrageous things he was accused of doing, and wept at the casual nastiness of the things being said about him. Exaggeration or not (and a good deal of it was), I imagine she’d dismiss it all on the basis that it was, quite simply, impossible.
“Not my son! Not Kevin.”
“I mean, he has his ways,” she’d probably say, “but that, that’s just too much.”
And they’d respond, harmonizing like an alto and soprano warming their voices for a duet after talking for hours, “Lady, you don’t know the half of it. Your son…”
She’d want to come to my aid and offer comfort, as mothers do, to save me in spite of everything—in spite of myself. And I, the imperfect only son of this single mother, would both long for and prevent the comfort she would try to give. (We’d grown apart when she left Trinidad in 1985 for New York. I stayed with my aunt Marjorie until I got a visa in 1989.) It would be an act of kindness and of conscience, one of the few I’d be capable of, according to my dismantlers, but one that I’d consider necessary because I wouldn’t deserve it. Not in this case. My embarrassment was not enough to warrant hers. She’d been through enough, and I figured she’d be better off guessing what happened and having me deny it. If some cruelties are unavoidable, other cruelties (like this one) are decidedly the opposite of that.
You see, parents—mothers, especially—are endowed with a talent for denial that can only be described as sublime. This isn’t a verified fact, of course, but rather a feeling, something along the lines of instinct: your child is in pain, self-inflicted or otherwise, and, well, you go a little mad, ignoring everything else until the pain, its cause, and its perpetrator are all eliminated. My mother doesn’t need the grief, and I think I’m strong enough to take a little roughing up.
I’m not going to say it wasn’t painful hearing these things. I think anyone would be hurt by it. Vicious things are, by design, hurtful things. That was the point: to make it hurt, to say things that would cause damage that was proportional to the litany of offenses they exchanged; to say things that were, in some way, intended to cause me shame and, in so doing, restore a sense of balance to the situation—every compliment, the mystics will tell you, is followed by an insult. These are not the impulsive outbursts of a teenager or the local imbecile.
So yes. It hurt like hell, which, I suppose, is par for the course, especially if the devil’s playing the back nine.
I wanted to hate them for what they said about me. (But this was justice, wasn’t it? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a word for a word, a lie for a lie?) I couldn’t really keep the anger going, though, not when I fell into a hole I should’ve known better than to dig for myself with my words. Lies beget lies, missteps lead to pitfalls. I got the point.
It was mainly reflex, a response to the initial sting of a betrayal I had set in motion. Now, forced to be a little more honest with myself, I determined that this particular guilt trip was going to be a short one. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, but then again, the same is true of a great many things. I’m not unique in this, am I?
Life, right? What’re you gonna do?
Bad decisions—and not-so-bad ones—can lead to bad outcomes. You don’t set out to get to this point; no, this is somewhere you end up. Best laid plans being left to gather dust, you come to accept that it is what it is, and you learn to make do with what you have—and, more importantly, not to dwell on what you’ve lost. It just wasn’t for you. Well, that’s what you say, anyway, to keep from breaking. But the rule still holds—for doctors and everyone else—that, first and above all things, you should do no harm. Not to others, if you can help it, but definitely not to yourself. Put another way, you have no business digging your own grave. It’s foolish—one of the more idiotic misappropriations of your god-given right to be self-centered and to seek your own best interests without hesitation or apology. To me, this is energy that would be better spent doing other things. Theorizing on rhetoric is a good one. I try to do that a lot. Thinking. Writing. This is me “making do.”
Another is owning the fact that you have, in no small way, f*cked up, that you will take the time to reflect on having f*cked up, and that you will make meaningful efforts to avoid f*cking up in the same way at some unspecified point in the future. That is, unless you want to come away from yet another catastrophe having learned nothing.
So this is what happened:
I f*cked up. My ego has conspired against me. I overshot.
I admit it.
And I was consequently dismantled.
Being human and having something of a conscience, there’s always going to be room for self-pity, but I’ve never been comfortable with the risk it entailed. You see, if you spend enough time licking your wounds, you end up with a taste for your own blood—a tendency toward self-loathing. And that’s a very, very dangerous thing. My heart is still breaking, and I’m sure if I sat still, I could hear it. So I prefer to get right to the reflection (if that’s okay). It starts, in this instance, with rain.
Ever since I was a child, I had always “had a thing” for the rain. I say that as if I’m describing a crush and not a deep, abiding love.
“But, in a way,” you’re probably wondering, “how could it be love in the real sense?”
“I mean, come on! As a child, a child, what could he know about such things?” But you’d only be half-right.
I’ve long known that if it’s done well, love (like most things) is going to defy your understanding. It’s supposed to. If we’re lucky, we’re left dealing with its effects, its consequences. Its symptoms. It fills and empties us, our souls expanding and contracting like breath, or the bellows of a furnace. Gibran, I think, says it better. Neruda, too. It forces us—love, that is—to look for language, to bind ourselves to metaphors, to think ourselves poets, to lie and lie. As a child, I knew only the impermanence of it, how it came with a promise only to pass, like an infatuation, into the Gulf of Paria, then to press itself slowly, coolly, onto the horizon. But knew love I did. For what other than love could explain the way trees, with their rustling, mimicked rain’s crawl across the expanse of San Fernando? The sound of it dancing on the galvanized roofs, sometimes seeming to fall with such intention that it would be easy to think,
This. This is what it must sound like—and feel like—if God were tuning a tenor pan.
You could easily imagine rain as the gentler tool, an alternative to the thunder that broke open the silences around you, letting dogs loose with their barking, desperate and terrified.
I loved the rain so much that I found a way to work it into my first official essay. Standard One. Boys RC. 1981. My teacher, Mrs. Alexander, asked us to write an essay describing an activity during our summer vacation. Mine had been spent on the beach—Los Iros—with my aunt Lystra, Alvarez, her common-law husband, and her children, while my mother stayed behind in San Fernando and worked. I missed her, but I still had a pretty good time. I remember writing for Mrs. Alexander,
When I came out of the sea, the rain was chooking me.
She later “corrected” it.
“Sticking.” The rain was sticking me.
I didn’t argue–couldn’t, really. It would’ve been pointless: to use the identical response as a comeback is a bad idea.
“Why couldn’t I use chooking instead of sticking?” I imagined the conversation going, hearing the argument delivered in my daughter’s voice, “The rain wasn’t ‘sticking’ me–‘sticking’ denoting an action, rather than the sensation that ‘chooking’ was intended to convey.”
And Mrs. Alexander? What would she say?
“…” most likely.
It wasn’t my place. I may have known intuitively about love at 7, but if you had asked me about—oh, I don’t know—the “validity of code-switching as a rhetorical strategy” or how to “navigate bidialectalism, eradicationism, and other forms of silencing in the postcolonial classroom, with its practitioners’ loyal subscription to current-traditional pedagogy,” I would’ve been sure to draw a blank, my eyes glazing over like the warm buns or coconut tarts from Steve’s Bakery.
Besides, Mrs. Alexander, who I idolized even more than my two previous teachers, Mrs. Darling and Ms. Wong-Wai, was right in all things. Even Ms. Wong-Wai, whose sister had a child with my murdered uncle Collins, couldn’t elicit the loyalty I had to Mrs. Alexander. And as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t learning how to write, but to give the readers whatever they needed. I was learning, in other words, to negotiate.
In class: sticking. Everywhere else: chooking.
“Yes, Mrs. Alexander. Thanks!” Or, rather, Tanks, Miss Alexanda! As long as I got to make my point about the rain, at home in her peculiar brand of pathos and admiration, what did I care what language I used? Small price to pay. What did it matter that “stick” doesn’t appear as a synonym for “chook” in the Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago? “Prick” appears, but it doesn’t take a genius to see why Mrs. Alexander would have chosen not to share it. She meant well. They all did. More than 30 years later, though somewhat entrenched in my current life, I can quell my pretensions long enough to invoke Harris’s defense of Alice in my own defense of Mrs. Alexander and teachers like her. Women like her. He wrote:
Some say she was a fraud that only a colonial, barren age could fabricate. I say she was the catalyst of fame at the heart of families of non-existence. She was the mystery of genius within the most unpropitious economic circumstances, a mystery that ran deeper than proof or parody of the evolution of limbo into heaven (37-8).
Harris wasn’t referring to teachers but to something far bigger. (Which, I don’t mind saying, is the point.) For Harris, Alice was the physical manifestation of a concept, both deeper and more expansive than the circumstances that bound her. In essence, she was like my mother—not perfect at all, but boundless. Back then, I might only have admitted that I loved her with the irrationality of a child who required neither explanation nor language for what he knew to be true. She was impressed with me. That made my mother proud. And, at 7, that was enough for me.
Inevitably, though, it is the case with this, as with everything else, that I would grow into a command of language that would come to ensnare me in the end, tying me up and dropping me head first in the hole I had dug with it.
“Wait! He said what?”
Funny how we learn to forfeit our own best interests, how we learn (sometimes above all other things) to betray and outsmart ourselves. Funny what brings us to our senses. Funny. The LOLs gather in my head like vernacular prophecies. I remember what it was that first brought me to this place. I know exactly where I am. I’ve been here before–at a crossroads, forcing myself to ask (again) what the hell am I doing—and what am I doing here—when all I want to do is run. To just get away when nostalgia for a better version of myself turns out to be nothing but an illusion.
I remember running barefoot in the rain late one night with my mother.
Cats and dogs.
Lystra and Alvarez were fighting again. Most of it was standard, if you know about that sort of thing. There was the leaking roof, the buckets kicked aside, the slippery varnished floor. And then, the private warfare turned public, pouring out into the yard, where Glory, Jennifer, Miss Baby, Miss Olive, Miss Phyllis, Uncle Babsie, and their children could see. It was a bad idea to get involved. Doh get in man and woman business, we’re often warned. Doh get in dat.
She man bussing she tail? Doh get in dat.
He wife horning him? Doh get in dat.
Yuh brother feelin up he son? Doh get in dat.
Yuh sister pregnant fun she father? Doh get in dat.
Dis one chop dat one, den shoot de other one? Doh get in dat.
Anybody could say any blasted thing dey want to whoever dey want and however dey damn well please. Doh. Get. In. Dat.
A simple lesson, really.
When you grow neck-deep in a culture of misogyny, patriarchy, self-hate, and abuse of every imaginable form, this is an effective shorthand for abusers and the abused, for the lookers-on and the potential jumpers-in: stay away, or something worse could happen to you.
I was about 7 years old. Still in Standard One and not yet cynical. She wore a cotton nightie, and I, little and black, wore a t-shirt and underwear—a jersey and jockey shorts. I don’t remember the color (I’ve tried), but my mother’s nightie was light blue. I was maybe about 70 pounds—soaking wet, as luck would have it.
Rain has a way of washing things away—illusions, for example—and making visible the things that happen in the dark. It leaves nostalgia waterlogged, turning skins, and other surfaces, reflective. In the rain that night, embattled bodies shone. Tears of anger and pain only seemed to fade but, in truth, could fall more freely then. Blood could wash off, and the lines drawn out in the yard could run more defiantly parallel and perpendicular to the imagined welts that rose in threats across the backs and faces of the fighters.
Then there was the emancipated tongue: the shouting, the accusations, the cursing, the inevitable dismantling. The epileptic contagion of fear.
So there she was, my mother, testing it, refusing to stay away as she’d been warned, refusing to shut her “so and so” mouth when everything went to hell, when (as we sometimes say) everything turn ole mas. And there I was, screaming as my mother screamed, the two of us in full voice like the warmed up alto and soprano, bawling barefoot in the yard, bawling in unison, conspiring in fear for my mother’s life.
And there we were: running the mile and a half to Aunty Marjorie’s house, hand in hand and shining, the rain chooking the exposed parts of our skins.
Out the yard.
Down the steps.
Left on Carib Street
Right on Upper Hillside Street
Left on Rushworth
Right on Blanche Fraser
Left on this, right on that, quick left, right.
I never told Mrs. Alexander why I stayed home the next day—or the day after that.
I went home for Lystra’s funeral in 2011. Never blessed to sit beside a conversationalist, I took the trip in silence, thinking of my mother and how I learned to put one foot in front of the other. Cancer. I went first to Marjorie’s house—still a refuge. That house, duck egg green once but now a different color. I remember being so exhausted that I just collapsed, with Marjorie, Evelyn (my mom’s twin sister), and Jeanne (who everyone calls Dolly) scrambling to hold me up. I fell, loose like a puppet whose strings were suddenly cut.
I bawled until I passed out breathless on the verandah, my forehead sapped with bay rum.
“Yuh bawl like a cow, boy, Kevin!” my cousin’s almost common-law wife would say as I came to. “Like a cow!”
Last year, before going in, I sat for a few minutes in front of it, casting my gaze toward San Fernando Hill, squinting but grateful for the rain that obscured the shadow of this quarried hulk in whose shadow I had grown up, down whose slopes I ran, with my mother, for our lives. Running from the language that made me both coward and fighter, one who knows that the tongue can cast ripples that left us barefoot and shining in the rain, skipping puddles for fear of stones or glass, in fear for having gotten in where custom had corrupted itself. I thought, looking at this gray stain on a lighter gray sky, of nostalgia. I saw it, and the memories conjured with it, fade away like a kind of innocence. On my street, an evergreen points skyward. Ramjohn’s house is repainted, a new barbed wire fence separating it from the Hoseins. But I could never go back. Not really. That was the lesson I learned at 7, loving something and seeing that love destroyed.
In the end, I want to say that it’s basic: You don’t just get to say whatever the hell you want just because you can; understand that and you’ll see that there’s a lesson here that’s a bit more subtle than giving liberties to your tongue and fighting pointless battles at the risk of being heard. But it’s not that simple. You have to decide.
As for me, I’m listening to the rain again, thinking of justice, negotiation, and the battles worth fighting.
Of beginnings and endings. Of the things that happen in the in-between.
Of love and legacies. And the fact that I am, before anything else, my mother’s son.
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2001.
Harris, Wilson. The Carnival Trilogy. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.
Rudder, David. “Crossroads,” on Tales from a Strange Land. Lypsoland, 1996.
Winer, Lise. Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago. Canada: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009.
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