Tales of a Tween Nothing

I’m not a hoarder, but I have hoarding tendencies. For years I dragged around the debris of my former life from apartment to apartment. I packed the detritus into closets and garages, boxes and bags. Occasionally, I’d dip into the memories and laugh or cry myself to sleep. The junk brought me comfort somehow, it was the only witness to the things I had lived through or the people I ‘d met in my life.

That all began to change when I met my now husband. We’ve been together almost ten years now, and he’s taught me to simplify and live a more minimalist lifestyle. I’ve learned that you can appreciate the past without having to drag around a bunch of stuff. Subsequently, I’ve managed to pare down my mementos from closetfuls to a single box. That means I’ve had to be selective about what I kept and what I tossed.

The most notable item to make the cut was the only diary I’ve ever kept in my whole entire life. The notebook was part of an Easter basket my sister had given to me. The journal covers the span of five years from March 31, 1991, to September 9, 1996; I went from a nine-year-old to a fourteen-year-old. The entries begin pretty tamely, describing what I ate that day or what I watched, but then things heat up with my detailed descriptions of who I was crushing on at the moment. Even then I was a creature of habit, and after reading hundreds of pages of adolescent angst, a few themes arose as I read.

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People front like they don’t like talking about the weather. I love talking about the weather, it’s not just idle chit chat or filler material for me. I begin conversations, in earnest, wanting to speak of the weather. I’m interested to know if the person’s enjoying the weather and if not, why, what’s happening in their weather world that it’s got them down?

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Picture Day

Seven-year-old me stood in front of the mirror. My mother stood behind me, pulling my thick wavy black hair into a high ponytail. My dress was pale pink with black polka dots and a tulle skirt. I wore black Mary Janes with white ruffle socks to complete the look. She loved it, I hated it.

It was picture day, and we went through the dance we went through every time she wanted to dress me up. She wrangled me into some frilly outfit while I bucked and complained throughout. I had turned into a little tomboy, and I hated having to look like a little girl. Everything about girl’s clothing was so restrictive to me, but I complied solely to satisfy my mother. I was the youngest, and she doted on me. She had been told, after suffering a miscarriage in the mid-seventies, that she couldn’t have any more children. Just as my parents had resigned themselves to the fact, I came along in ’82. To this day, she calls me her miracle baby, and as such, I knew I had to silently play the part of the beautiful little doll, so I did.

But I wanted my style independence so badly. I was so determined to be responsible for myself, at least in this way. At home, I didn’t have control over anything: my father drank excessively, my older sister was about to leave the house, and my brother was getting into drugs. Life at home was in constant turmoil, and all I wanted was to have agency and control over this one thing. My soul longed for the menswear-inspired fashion of the 90’s. This was the era of TLC, Denise Huxtable, Blossom, Punky Brewster, and other fashion-forward icons. I wanted to look like THAT. I wanted to be out there living my life, not sitting on the sidelines so that my pressed white shirt didn’t get dirty.

Luckily, there was a shift at home, she got busy with work and my always-in-trouble siblings, so I slowly began to take control of my own wardrobe. I was, of course, still beholden to whatever she bought me, but little by little dresses started getting replaced by jeans, and kitten heels replaced with Vans. It was glorious. Even though I had been given free reign for the rest of the school year, she still had control over picture day, and apparently, that was too much for 10-year-old me. Subsequently, I decided to declare war. This too should be mine, I thought. That year, I hid the date of my 5th grade picture day from my mom. Because she was so preoccupied, she also forgot to ask me about it. I knew what I was doing. She wouldn’t have the time to take me shopping or put anything on layaway. She wouldn’t have a say this year. It was all me. It was a perfect plan.


That day I wore a Brenda Walsh-inspired men’s button-up. It was baby blue with white pinstripes. I accompanied that with knee-length jorts and black loafers with white tube socks. The outfit itself coulda passed, just a by-product of the 90’s, but I was completely disheveled too. I’d played dodgeball earlier, my hair was a frizzy mess, my shirt was dirty, my glasses smudged. I was a spectacle. By the time the picture was taken, I looked like a homeless child, I could have played an extra in Les Misérables. It was pretty bad, but I didn’t care. I was happy to have made a choice myself. I felt satisfied.

Then the stupid picture arrived. Since I hadn’t told her about it, I didn’t have any prints of myself, but everyone got a class photo free. There I was, in the front row no less, my knees dirty and scraped, with a smug look on my face. When she saw it she didn’t even get mad, it was more like disappointment, “Te ves como una chipalota! ” (You look like a bum!) As usual, I braced myself for the chancla or the belt, but it didn’t come. Instead, she put the picture away, silently, and said nothing more.

That’s when it hit me. Just as much as I wanted control over my life, so did she. Not because she didn’t want me to have independence, but because everything else in her life was in such disarray. She had wanted to hold on to me as long as possible, and my disobedience told her that I too was slipping through her fingers. I took away her annual tradition, her one day to capture her child at her best. I couldn’t even allow her that. Except for major holidays, she quit telling me what to wear. It was the end of an era.


My 6th-grade yearbook picture. Just a sample of my tween personal style.

I wish I could say that realizing all this made me softer, more empathetic and caring, but of course, it didn’t. Our power struggles would continue well into my teens and twenties. Sometimes she would win, and sometimes I would win, but there would be a battle beforehand, that was a given. My need to control my life would lead me to do many things without her approval. The biggest of which was probably getting married. She wasn’t even mad when I finally told her, much like that picture day so many years ago, she was mostly disappointed and sad. Once again, I was so wrapped up in “having won” that I didn’t even register that I had hurt her feelings, yet again.

Today our relationship is different. I’m in my mid-thirties, my mom’s in her mid-sixties, and the roles have been reversed. Both my parents are retired, their bodies debilitated after decades of hard labor, their savings depleted, and their bravado dimmed. There’s no reason for me to act out now, no need to exert control because I AM in control. They are looking to me for help and support, and the older they get, the more intervention they’ll need. I don’t have to yell, to put my foot down, to hide secrets, and make decisions by myself. Finally, I have real agency, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Sometimes the control freak in me rears its head, out of habit, and I have to remind myself to be softer, kinder, and more patient. I see my mother roughly every other weekend. I take her to lunch and to run any miscellaneous errands. I take this as an opportunity to practice my newfound empathy. Because it wasn’t so long ago that the roles were reversed, and she was trying to be patient with me as I fumbled blindly through my life. And just as she patiently stepped aside and watched me make some of the worst decisions of my life, so I too must support her, no matter what. That’s how it works. I finally get it.


Tainted Valentine

They say that kids are brutally honest, but really, sometimes they’re just little assholes like I was. Valentine’s Day 1991 I learned something about myself, and the assumptions I was making about the world. I was eight, and yes, it involved a boy, but this had nothing to do with love.  

I was a real fan of Valentine’s Day, but not because of the whole showing love part, it was more about the visual and tactile delights the holiday brought. That year, my mom had bought me some dope Tiny Toon Adventures cards, and I was stoked. That Valentine’s Eve I sat at the table and commenced the annual ritual; I ripped along perforated lines, wrote inky notes, ate chalky candies, and licked tiny envelopes. Every Valentine would have a personal message from me, I decided. This seemed like a good idea at the time until I got to those people that I didn’t like or know very well. As such, some of my valentines were as innocuous as yearbook dedications. I stretched to find gems like, “You’re so cool!” and “You make me laugh!” And everything I wrote carried with it an exclamation mark because I thought that would somehow make it more exciting.


I worked my way through my friends, the rest of my classmates, the teachers, and then I got to the very end of the list—Donald. The thing about Donald was that he was different in every way we could imagine. For starters, he was the only white kid in a virtually all-Latino classroom (this was South L.A. after all). He was chubby, blonde and blue-eyed, and silent. Being quiet amongst Latinos will get you nowhere, we don’t trust someone that’s unwilling to speak for themselves, it’s a cultural thing. We also assumed that Donald was quite poor, not that any of us were wealthy by any standards, but he frequently wore his same striped polo and jorts ensemble, even if they were dirty. We didn’t know what to do with him, so we generally ignored him and went about our lives. At that moment, I had a flash of humanitarianism, I would give him a card, I decided. I sat and thought about what to write. Here was someone I honestly knew nothing about, what could I say to bridge the gap? The pen took on a life of its own like the planchette on an Ouija board and out came this:


To: Donald

From: Elba

You have lice.

I sat and looked at the words. I wasn’t quite sure why I had written them, or for that matter, why I hadn’t added an exclamation mark. Maybe the punctuation would make it better, more jokey: You have lice!  For only a passing second I wondered if this was mean, but I quickly batted the notion away. Well, he DOES have lice, I thought, it’s not like I was starting a rumor. Some weeks ago he had gone home with the letter from the nurse. He had gone away for a couple of days and come back presumably lice-free, but that didn’t stop us from using it as another reason to treat him like a social pariah. Surely he would find this funny too, I thought, he’ll laugh, he’ll flip me off, and life will go on.

Let me pause here to explain something about Latinos. Our culture is often misconstrued in part because of our humor, which can be perceived by an outsider as cruel or mean, but it’s how we show love! Our humor generally revolves around physical appearance, and the keener and more brutal your observations are, the funnier it is. In particular, the act of giving nicknames is one that’s prevalent in our culture. My Dad is a fucking God at this, with one conversation he can size you up and baptize you with a name. He was a monster in his old neighborhood in El Salvador. A kid with a pot belly? Tifus (Typhus). A kid has slightly slanted eyes? El Chino (The Chinese). Woman frequently comes in and out of the country? La Trafi (The Drug Trafficker). Even my mother got it, to this day she has always been, La Gordita (The Fatty). My father’s observational skills did not escape me, I inherited his quick wit and knack for clowning. I continued his legacy by terrorizing a whole new generation of kids in America.


This was our playground culture, it was all “your mama” jokes and mean-spirited jabs. But nobody took it to heart, it was all in good fun! At least that’s what I thought at the time. Shit, I had kids laughing at ME because I wore glasses, and I didn’t have any brand name clothes or cool snacks at lunchtime. But it didn’t bother me. Correction: It DID bother me, but I had found a solution. Every time someone thought they were funny or witty, I just hit them back harder, and nothing was off limits. Your face, your hair, your clothes, your unemployed parents, or cholo brother. You were going to feel my wrath, and learn not to fuck with me. And so it was.

When Valentine’s Day rolled around, I was feeling pretty good. I had long forgotten what I had written to Donald, never really having thought it through, to begin with. I was wearing a brand new pair of mint green shorts, I was looking and feeling my best. Half way through the day, the teacher announced it was time to exchange gifts. It was a frenzy of kids running around the classroom, dropping cards and candies into the makeshift mailboxes we had crafted earlier that day. I skipped around class dropping my cards off with a smile and a Sweetheart. When I pulled Donald’s card out of the box, I wish I could say I hesitated and thought twice about giving it to him, but I didn’t. I wish I could say I felt bad when I dropped it off, and his little white face blushed pink, and something approximating happiness crawled across his face, but still no. It wasn’t until I sat across the room and watched him as he opened it up and read the message that I had realized what I had done. He put his head down on his desk and started crying.


The rest of the story is a blur. I remember Donald told the teacher, I got in trouble, and I had to apologize, which I did with the utmost sincerity. I hadn’t meant to hurt or traumatize the poor kid, I just didn’t—and honestly sometimes STILL DON’T—know how to engage him in any other language than the language of mean humor. I thought that because I had learned to laugh about all my shortcomings and all the pain that I experienced, that everyone else could too. But I didn’t realize back then that there are gentler souls in this world that simply can’t handle it. Sure now there are entire campaigns devoted to bullying, and being bullied, but back then it wasn’t like that. We were just fucking around, at least it felt that way.

All future Valentine’s Days would be tainted after that. The card themes would change to Animaniacs, X-Men, and Batman, and other popular cartoons, but every time I sat down to write my greetings, I would remember Donald. I would try handing out blank cards instead, thinking this would bypass it, but the memory still poked at my heart. It hurt because, I had been so wrong to do it, but it hurt even more because I knew that I was still doing it. There was no great lesson learned that day, except to stay away from the visibly wounded. But in all other respects, I was still trash talkin’ first and asking questions later. This wouldn’t be the first or last time my mouth would get me into trouble, though. But it would be the last time I would enjoy Valentine’s Day. I just can’t engage in it in earnest, knowing what I’m capable of and what I will invariably do again. It’s just how it is.

As for Donald himself, he suffered greatly for his remaining years at our school, but then he went on to become the 45th president of the United States. LOL. Just kidding, that didn’t happen, but what a great twist to the story THAT would have been, right? I actually never saw Donald again after that year. He wasn’t in my 4th-grade class, and I don’t remember seeing him around the school. Maybe he transferred? IDK, but his disappearance only added to the significance of the exchange we had. He’s one of those kids from your childhood that you don’t forget. Not because they were so amazing, or because they’re such good friends, but because they hold a mirror up to you and it’s the beginning of understanding who you really are.

Sometimes you just have to own it. I’m a jerk, and I always will be.