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Some think about it while lying in their beds at night staring out into the darkness, some share it with friends when drunk and some just try to suppress these thoughts as soon as they surface.What almost every person seems to have in common with each other, though, is that we desperately try to find a reason for living, a meaning with our existence.That I will cease to exist, and that I will be just gone.
I never told anyone what happened, but today I’m telling you. The whole planet could be my inkstand and it still wouldn’t be enough. I spent more energy running from it than I did living.
After he raped me, he told me I had to return the next day or I would be “in trouble.”And because I was terrified, and confused, I went back the next day and was raped again. Not enough pages in the world to describe what it did to me. More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me.
Senior year, while everyone was getting their college acceptances, I went another way: I tried to kill myself. And that’s how it went for a while, from college to grad school to Brooklyn. I needed stronger hits to keep the wound inside from rising up and devouring me. She lived with my depression and my no-writing fury and with the rare moments of levity, of clarity. Y— decided to go snooping through my e-mails, and since I wasn’t big on passwords or putting old e-mails in the trash it took her less than five minutes to find what she was looking for. She kept the apartment, the ring, her family, our friends. The mask had exploded into fragments, but I kept trying to wear the pieces as if nothing had happened. It took years—hard, backbreaking years—but she picked up what there was of me. After long struggle and many setbacks, my therapist slowly got me to put aside my mask. And yet—And yet despite all my healing I still feel that something important, something vital, has eluded me. I barely remember that boy anymore, but for a brief moment I am him again, and he is me.
What happened was that in the middle of a deep depression I suddenly became infatuated with this cute-ass girl I knew at school. I would meet intimidatingly smart sisters, would date them in the hope that they could heal me, and then the fear would start to climb in me, the fear of discovery, and the mask would feel as if it were cracking and the impulse to escape, to hide, would grow until finally I’d hit a Rubicon—I’d either drive the novia away or I would run. The Negro who couldn’t sleep with anyone became the Negro who would sleep with everyone. The other women saw primarily my mask, right before I ghosted them. It would have been comedic if it hadn’t been so tragic. And then one day I woke up and literally couldn’t move from bed. I don’t think she’d ever met anyone more disinclined to therapy. Not forever, but long enough for me to breathe, to live. I’m neither the brother who can’t touch a girl nor the asshole who sleeps around. I don’t drink (except in Japan, where I let myself have a beer). The impulse to hide, to hold myself apart from my colleagues, from my fellow-writers, from my students, from the circle of life has remained uncannily strong. I think about silence; I think about shame, I think about loneliness. I think of all the years and all the life I lost to the hiding and to the fear and to the pain. But mostly I think about what it felt like to say the words—to my therapist, all those years ago; to tell my partner, my friends, that I’d been raped.
It’s the revenant that won’t stop, the ghost that’s always coming for you. Do you remember how during our chat at Amherst I talked about intimacy? Super ironic that I write and talk about intimacy all day long; it’s something I’ve always dreamed of and never had much luck achieving. Every time we would get close to fucking the intrusions would cut right through me, stomach-turning memories of my violation. It was the first truly healthy family I’d been exposed to. From that one story I got an agent, I got a book deal, I appeared in , I published my first book, “Drown,” which sold nothing but got me more press than any young writer should ever have. He never checks the locks on the bedroom doors four times a night, doesn’t bite clean through his tongue. Beli, the tough-love Dominican mother who suffered catastrophic sexual abuse throughout her life.
The nightmares, the intrusions, the hiding, the doubts, the confusion, the self-blame, the suicidal ideation—they didn’t go away just because I buried my neighborhood, my family, my face. After all, it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask. Which you would think would have been a good thing. The longer we were together, the more her family loved me, the more unbearable it all got. Anyone else would have ridden that good-luck wave straight into the sunset, but that wasn’t how it played out. C., but I fled to Syracuse instead, where the snow never stops and the isolation was a maw. Entire literary careers could have fit into the years I didn’t write. If Black Is Beautiful had a spokesperson it would have been her; S—, who would have thrown away a thousand years of family to make it work. The intrusions always hit where it would hurt the worst. I had a life a lot like Beli’s, the young woman said, and then, without warning, she choked into tears. The fear seems to hit me in waves, but it’s always there, constantly reminding me of my mortality.As we grow up, most of us reach a time when we start to think about life, death, universe, why we’re here.The nightmares, the intrusions, the hiding, the doubts, the confusion, the self-blame, the suicidal ideation—they followed. I remember when I got my first girlfriend, in college. Everything I’d been would officially be erased, all my awful dreams would disappear. Me and this girl were into each other something serious, were in our narrow college beds all the time—but you know what? There was only so much closeness a person like me could endure before I needed to fly the fuck away. I clearly wanted to be known, on some level, had been dying for a chance at a real face, but when that moment finally arrived I couldn’t do it; I clamped the mask down hard. Never knew who I could have sex with and who I couldn’t until I tried. She wanted to say more to me, but before she could she was overwhelmed and fled. I had long bouts of depression, drank more than I’d ever drunk, especially during the holidays, when they were all at their happiest. I remember crying my eyes out the night before (in those days I never cried). Everything I’d been before Rutgers I locked behind an adamantine mask of normalcy. I thought maybe with another girl it would be easier, but it wasn’t. Took me until I was a junior before I finally lost my virginity. She was an ex-hippie ex-hardcore sweetie who wrote beautifully and had a tattoo on her head and the first time we got in bed she didn’t even ask if I was a virgin; she just pulled off her dress and it happened. But I should have known it wasn’t going to be that easy. Someone who couldn’t stay in any relationship because he was too much of a player. And since us Afro-Latinx brothers are viewed by society as always already sexual perils, very few people ever noticed what was written between the lines in my fiction—that Afro-Latinx brothers are often sexually Right before I left graduate school and moved to Brooklyn I published my first story, about a Dominican boy who goes to see another boy, whose face has been eaten off, and on the way he gets sexually assaulted. It’s no coincidence that I recently began a tour for a children’s book I’ve published and suddenly I’m surrounded by kids all the time and I’ve had to discuss my childhood more than I ever have in my life. And, let me tell you, once that mask was on no power on earth could have torn it off me. But as any Freudian will tell you trauma is stronger than any mask; it can’t be buried and it can’t be killed. (Leaked into my writing, too, but you’d be amazed how easy it is to rewrite the truth away.)Didn’t matter how far I ran or what I achieved or who I was with—they followed. She didn’t believe my excuses, asked me what was wrong, but I never said anything. Me and J— dated for two years, but I was always acting, always hiding. I’m sure she sensed I was all sorts of messed up, but I’m guessing she chalked it up to typical ghetto craziness. Brought me home to her family, and they loved me, too. (Seriously.) And then in one of those insane twists of fortune I hit the literary lottery. I’ve found myself telling lies, talking about a kid that never was. And then at one of my events, another signing line—this one at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge—a young woman walked up and started to thank me for my novel, for one of its protagonists, Beli. The next day I swallowed all these leftover drugs from my brother’s cancer treatment, three bottles’ worth. I had assumed I wasn’t going anywhere, had completely forgotten that I had any schools left to hear from. By junior year, I doubt anyone from my high school would have recognized me. After that it was C—, who did a ton of community work in the D. Classic trauma psychology: approach and retreat, approach and retreat. My depressions would settle over me for months, and in that darkness the suicidal impulse would sprout pale and deadly. Eventually what used to hold back the truth doesn’t work anymore. In the novel I published eleven years after “Drown,” I gave my narrator, Yunior, a love supreme named Lola, because in real life I had a love supreme named Y—. A state-school girl raised in Washington Heights who worked her ass off, who never ran from a fight, and who could have danced Ochún out the fucking room. In the treatment world, they say that often you have to hit rock bottom before you finally seek help. And yet, irony of ironies, what awaited me on that island was not my destruction but nearly the opposite: my salvation. I’ve said elusive things here and there but nothing actionable, no definitive statements. And that’s what it feels like to say the words, X—. But as I read that letter it felt as if the door of the world had cracked open again, ever so slightly. I became a runner, a weight lifter, an activist, had girlfriends, was “popular.” At Rutgers I buried not only the rape but the boy who had been raped—and threw into the pit my family, my suffering, my depression, my suicide attempt for good measure. I had friends with guns; I asked them never to bring them over for any reason. Somehow I was still writing—about a young Dominican man who, unlike me, had been only a little molested. You run out of escapes, you run out of exits, you run out of gambits, you run out of luck. It doesn’t always work that way, but that sure is how it was for me. Over the last weeks, that gnawing sense of something undone has only grown, along with the old fear—the fear that someone might find out I’d been raped as a child. How you walked out of the auditorium with your shoulders hunched. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. At night I had the most vivid dreams, often about “Star Wars” and about my life back in the Dominican Republic, in Azua, my very own Tatooine. It could have saved me (and maybe you) from so much. I’m still afraid—my fear like continents and the ocean between—but I’m going to speak anyway, because, as Audre Lorde has taught us, my silence will not protect me. That shit cracked the planet of me in half, threw me completely out of orbit, into the lightless regions of space where life is not possible. Not only the rapes but all the sequelae: the agony, the bitterness, the self-recrimination, the asco, the desperate need to keep it hidden and silent. I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it.