It’s one thing to talk about what you’ve seen someone else live— It’s another to exist inside the same peril you’re witnessing. Where you voyeured and called yourself a good person for it, I call home.
I’ve heard stories like mine recited by witnesses where they’re the hero in someone else’s survival. Nice, white women from upper middle class and higher know that I don’t belong, but they don’t know why. Nearly 30 and still proud of their pale faces around brown kids, they have “such a big heart”— and the resources to provide trips like that. Others to Paris and Milan. Their teens spun in white debutante dresses while I smelled like subway sandwiches long after my shift ended. Your grandfather founded a titan business. Mine arrived here on a boat with no education past age 11 or 12. We didn’t travel different roads to share this room. We existed on separate galaxies. I am life on Mars to these women— alike enough to validate my existence but dissimilar enough to make me alien, an extraterrestrial. To know me would be to question if I’m capable of surviving your family’s native planet.
I want to tell these women, “I’ve seen how your eyes sink with pity at my first mention of unwanted hands. In an instant, I’m no longer Marisa but a charity case inhabiting a body so similar to yours. You can’t detect any dialect of suffering on my tongue. We sit inches apart in the same overpriced Nikes as you call me brave. What you mean is a sympathy admission. What you mean is a whole pathology around my upbringing. What you mean is that what I say can’t be true because I wouldn’t be here if it were, but here I am and here’s how I arrived. You call me brave as we exit in the same foot ware protecting very different soles.”
Sometimes I feel like I’m cast as a “strong female supporting character” in someone else’s life. Other times, I’m the “crazy lady”. The third area I find myself in is as the wild and crazy friend who likes herself too much or is begging for attention. The roles have rules and wardrobe that aligns with my presentation. Still, presentation isn’t personhood.
We are all so many senseless things mapped onto one being. The gaping smiles and shenanigans are me. Confidence so big that the whole nation can’t hold it? That’s me too. I am also the woman in this picture from 2 months ago— brain incapacitated by a hypervigilant PTSD episode. These moments are infrequent, but they happen. It’s not glamorous. It’s not inspiring. A lot of people don’t buy that my brain does this. They think I’m faking. I don’t know if Meryl Streep could fake this. It’s excruciating, and still, it’s a datapoint. This is where the casting director grows giddy at adding, “inspiring” to me if they’re feeling generous or “unstable liability” in another direction.
If the first, an inspiring female character, one who can take it all on and provide emotionally intelligent feedback should have her whole life together? Please see picture #2 for a view of my couch at present. I’m 28 and still have acne. It takes me approximately 8 snoozes of an alarm before I wake up. And the moments or things I’m sometimes (flatteringly) called inspiring for can also cause me to turn moods suddenly. I’m not very castable then. When my unmet needs howl in embarrassing tones, I fall from the grace of strong womanhood. I’ve been a vending machine of emotional labor before, learned to be a parent before I learned to be a person. When the once boundaryless landscape of me is stripped of all resources, my presence becomes an exit sign. I’ve seen the softest parts of me sharpened into something against me when I misunderstood the arrangement. I’ve heard my confidence betrayed as the things I’ve survived were mangled into an exit sign for those who didn’t understand that the door was open all along. The weaponizing isn’t always from malice—often, it’s because if I’m not a character, then neither are they, and what does that mean for the way they think about themselves?
Category one, I don’t want to be called strong or brave or resilient as much as I want to be called my own name.
For the “mad woman” route, the one where my competency is critiqued, I have only my track record to offer: I graduated magna cum laude with my bachelors in 2 majors in 4 years while working 3-4 jobs with undiagnosed PTSD and an eating disorder. I repeated academic success (minus ED) with my masters while working full time, applying to law school, and surviving a global pandemic. To date, I haven’t received accommodations for my disabilities in receiving those honors (should have tbh). I purchased and paid off 2 cars by 26. I delivered a TED talk at 21. I’ve negotiated my salaries and paid for trips abroad beginning at 19 on my own. These feats intermingle with PTSD (trauma found me early), anxiety, eating disorders, family emergencies, more trauma, and self-harm. I lacked the luxury of pause until my late twenties. So, these achievements and events run alongside all the aspects that make me crazy. My account doesn’t exist for your administration or your pity. I’m saying them to challenge the notion that mental illness—even at severe forms— is the entirety of someone. I’m also challenging notions that people struggling should have to do all of that. In many ways, I felt that I had to present as hypercompentent so I’d be worthy of respect. All that taught me is that crazy is often the name affixed to those surviving who don’t compel our sympathy.
Third, there’s the vain, iconaclastic millennial desperate for attention or provocation—not sure which since I’m not the casting director. It’s a lucky thing that Im constitutionally incapable of betraying myself. I’d rather confuse other people than constrict me into a simpler self. This is especially true as a queer person. Because I’m not fully gay nor straight. I can’t divide my attraction into percentages because it changes all the time. All I can say that I decided that I’d rather be whole and complicated than amputate the curiousity I felt to make sense. I am outgoing, outrageous even. My sense of style shouts in colors, textures, and things I was once advised wouldn’t look good on my body type. I love myself loudly, and I do the same for you. I will cheer you on at everything, and it’s not so you like me, it’s so you know you have people rooting for you. Vanity is peculiar because none of us are devoid of it completely. I benefit from my whiteness, my straight sized body, my youth. But my appearance isn’t an instrinsic part of who I am. Somebody might argue my curly red hair is. But even without it, I’m still Marisa. I can’t be taken from myself nor dictated by another what I relish about my personhood. Do I seek attention? Probably. But here’s the thing: if you’re alive, you love attention. Forms vary but we are wired to crave the gentle acknowledgment of another living thing. Quit calling yourself needy for wanting that. I don’t. I am the person in my life with the greatest ability to ensure it’s fun, joy, and care so I do exactly that.
None of these isolated characters are me, but aspects align with who I am— both good and bad. Because I’m not inherently one or the other. None of us are. As Diane on Bojack Horseman said, “there is no deep down”. We are what we do and the kaleidoscope of truths we bring. But no external casting director gets to decide that—no matter if they’re family, friends, or a significant other.
It’s tempting to narrate another person into a character, a role, an escape, an answer, an enemy where there isn’t one. The anti-climatic truth is that everyone is a person—complete with the ordinary, contradictory, annoying, and spectacular aspects we uniquely offer. The common trait is vulnerability, fallibility, and co-reliance. To love people is to surrender the notion that they are perfect. Perfection is a performance incompatible with humanity. But to break and heal and allow witness and aid where shame tries to enter, that’s divine humanity. No role can accommodate for those things.
The opposite is also true. People I cannot stand, those I am diametrically opposed to, exist in a language I can’t interpret. That doesn’t make it wrong or broken. When I realized that my job in those interactions wasn’t vindication nor was it to like them, but just to acknowledge the person I witness—the iota I see— with the same respect that I want, life got easier. Conflict is a wise and profoundly uncomfortable teacher once I climb over my ego.
We can’t curate people the way movies and plays do characters. We try, but people aren’t beholden to the narrative only we know. I’ve stared into steely lenses hellbent only on seeing my weaknesses, and their frustration when their vindication is half-hearted at best. Like they came to a witch burning seeking a monster, and all they find is Marisa. I’m no picnic, but I’m also not a bonfire. I’ve sat across eyes hardened by the disappointment that I come without a cape but with health insurance, that I cannot be fractioned into just the airy, bubbly parts. I love that, too, but I also love and honor where I’m fragile, hurt, and human. I place where I’m more person than poetry before bare eyes instead of a spotlight— close enough to touch so you know I’m real.
I have a confession. It’s the kind that makes roller coasters of my thoughts late at night when everything but my brain is still. There’s a nameless heartsickness that visits me almost every nights and, sometimes, days too. Years collecting dust are doused with this scent, but it’s not as intense anymore. It’s still there. It never quite departs. The hurt, like a fruit squeeze too hard, drips all over my skin.
I used to call this pain an absence of romantic love. A boyfriend/ girlfriend/ partner remained truant for twenty-five years. My heart called search parties that turned up empty. I longed and prayed and chased with only this ache as my companion. And then, I found myself in relationships. I thought I’d name myself as theirs, but in the quarter century absence, I’d learned to love myself so fiercely that nothing less stuck. Inside something I prayed for, I found myself as my own answered prayer. So the heartsickness was never really that.
In astrology, Venus, the planet of love and romance, lives in Libra or Taurus. My venus is in detriment in the sign of Aries. Not only that, but according to degrees, my Venus in the final decan (at twenty three degrees in the fifth house) is further debilitated. I saw this as a curse for a long time, as a celestial prophecy that heartsick is my homeostasis. And then, I took a step back and looked at the whole sky when I was born: my moon (how I feel) is in Libra, as is my Jupiter, and they are always looking at my Venus across the sky as if to say, “I see you. Always, I see you”. And my sun lives in the 7th house of partnership where Venus typically rules, and my mercury (how I speak) and south node ( where I come from) congregate there too. The bigger message is that I’m loved from every angle of the sky, and that one place is getting love from all the others. And when love comes to that debilitated space, one that is stubborn and hard to reach, it is real. It is meant to stick.
I thought this pain was a checked box. I convinced myself it would dissolve with an award, acceptance, approval, attention, a job offer… it never did. What I’ve learned almost 28 years into something that might always ache a little is to breathe into where it hurts. Like a good friend, I rest my hand lightly on the shoulder of this burden, and say, “I hear you, and I’m not going anywhere. This feeling demands to be felt.” I taste the sour dripping juice of uncertainty as it trickles down my skin. Sometimes, I cry. The tears from a place of fear and gratitude. I have this big, dumb, squishy heart paired with a fiery disposition, and I worry the fact that I’m always me will exclude me from the things I want. I resent myself sometimes. Without fail, this cycle breaks. The tear transition from grief to gratitude. Thank you, universe/ God/ serendipity/ dumb luck for making me a magnet for everything that is meant to be here and a shield protecting me from things that were never meant to be. Thank you for the many loves and soul mates and incredible labors of my heart you’ve ushered in. And then, I let the ache go. I quit fixating on it for a minute. I surrender to timing I can’t control and uncomfortable real estate I never purchased but I’m living on in this moment. I feel my feet on the ground and the stars above me, and even when it aches, all the love and joy and optimism overpowers it. The pain isn’t me. It might be a part, but it’s not the whole or even the definition of me. It’s just a feeling I sometimes have to befriend and walk it home. Eventually, it always makes it inside, and I go to my home elsewhere.
They’re entertained witnessing a wild animal from a distance.
Whole industries stand on those domesticated exoticizing what refused taming, who refused the taming. That’s the thing about an audience. Even when it’s not a performance, they call it that, think a natural state is barbaric and to numb is a branch of evolution.
The fascination lures the voyeur closer. And with soft steps and iPhone lens, they see the wild creature has fangs or talons or horns. All these adornments defending the wild’s existence.
Savagery extends beyond the details. A moving, wild thing can’t just move. It’s a prowl, pounce, stalk, prance, sprint. The sight of it close up is frightening.
Some hunters salivate at slaying the savage thing. Visions of hanging the hunted on mahogany so two things that once stood tall are now lifeless possessions so the hunter feels less alone in numbness. He surrounds himself with things more dead than he is.
Wild reminds the domesticated what they lost. The savage conjures grief and envy in the blanded because we are not born bland.
Some sawed off their horns, dulled their fangs, clipped their talons. And now they pay to gawk at an untamed thing. They call it an animal. They “rescue” it into captivity unaware of the ages where that savage beast rescued itself a million times. What you call sophistication, a wild thing calls amputation. What you seek possession of can only be free. You call it wild and crazy and savage and dangerous all because you fear that the reward for your taming doesn’t exist. Or maybe it just wasn’t as high as you were promised. You fear the power in the wilderness refusal. You envy and numb and keep looking because you can’t look anywhere else than where you wish you were but aren’t brave enough to be.
Tom Jones passed away before I was born. He was my mom’s brother. The one who raised her. She called him “marshmallow”, and she was 27 when he died.
I never met Tom Jones. Every picture I’ve seen is striking. He has a nose people visit plastic surgeons for and piercing blue eyes radiating with passion he’d gush out at the MET or the Louvre. Tom called people, “hunny” and told them off. His spirit joins the chorus of all those lost who called New York City home, and there are so many and the losses are so heavy. But when I stand in New York City, his is a solo thundering through the restless city.
Once, he sat at Sarabeth’s in New York City. A disheveled woman in a moomoo sat at the table closest to him. He scoffed that someone would dare present themselves so poorly at such a trendy establishment. The waiter leans over to Uncle Tom, and he whispers, “you have the distinction of sitting next to Elizabeth Taylor.”
Those were the funny moments. He nurtured his siblings. He abandoned a small city that could not love him as he was and is for New York. He would not let his love be a secret couched between the hills of Pittsburgh. He refused to love only in the dark, to taper his fervent sparkle for a world blinded by it. No, Uncle Tom moved where everything was sparkle. Like attracts like, I guess.
And then something came to rob him of his sparkle. As a nurse, he saw the black shadow overtake beautiful, bright boys like him. Gay men became imprisoned in bodies so compromised by AIDS until those bodies could no longer fight it, and then those beautiful bright boys were gone. And mass funerals erected around the city. And protests and screams poured through the gridded streets of New York. And the shadow caught Uncle Tom, too. He became a supernova– the last evolutionary stage of a massive star, powerful and luminous stellar explosion. Only it was a slow and excruciating fizzle. I know he was a Libra. I know his birthday, but I don’t know the date he died. There’s something powerful about my family, that I remember everyone’s birthdays but not necessarily when they left this earth. Because Tom wasn’t the way he died. That matters, but he lived so brilliantly, that date is a historical landmark. His death is when the light went out.
Loss is ugly. It incites chills and tears, and losing those closest to us has no beauty. It is not glamorous nor poetic. I feel the absence of a relative I’ve never met. I miss him, and I only know him in secondhand stories. My mother’s grief roots so deeply in her body that carrying me imparted some of her Everest grief to the next generation. I feel his loss in my chest. It lurks in family pictures and moments where I can hear him speaking, and I don’t know his firsthand voice.
An ex-girlfriend lost her sister to cancer years before I dated her. When I asked my mom how I could support my then girlfriend, my mom said, “it’s something you never get over. you get used to carrying it with you.” I carry him with me, too. His memory is a powerful and luminous stellar explosion, but his loss is broken glass in so many of our chests.