Essay, Essay Front Page

Seventeen

He was three months shy of turning seventeen when he shifted his weight, puffed up his chest and resisted my demands. When he sized me up, decided he was done with me, with the hole in his heart, the feeling of instability, with my ever-present absence. His golden-brown eyes ablaze—a tsunami of rage. His need? An ocean I wasn’t always willing to swim in. 

I complained about something like the garbage or dishes or a coasterless cup on his brand new dresser. I’m not sure which one was worse, me running my mouth in front of the damn TV while he played his video game, or my being all up in his face commanding he look at me when I talked to him. His fingers clicked away at the PS4 controller, his head bobbed and weaved trying to get Call of Duty back within view.

“Ma, come on man. Get the fuck out of my room!” he snapped. 

My head swung around in disbelief. My heart sank. “What the fuck did you just say to me?” I barked. 

His command that I leave the room I busted my ass perfecting for him was incomprehensible. The room I stayed up for several nights to paint one royal blue accent wall with baby blue stripes and hand drawn yellow stars when he was younger. The room I recently spent my hard-earned cash to upgrade—replacing his twin bed with a queen set, hiring a professional to triple prime his walls. My labor of love lived beneath the fresh coat of a more grown up blue—a blue that couldn’t decide if it wanted to smile or weep, a blue that contained a little too much ash, too much salt, enough sorrow to drown in.

“I hate you! I never fucking asked to be born! You should have never had me!” he dished out.

“Do you understand everything I had to go through to have you, all the self-sacrificial shit I had to do?” I threw right back. “You have the audacity to tell me you wish you were never fucking born!” 

For every word we spewed at each other, another burning brick was added to the wall wedged between us. Every mutual rejection was a shard of glass thrown, and I was too blinded with rage to see my reflection in every broken piece of him. 

Toe to toe. Me demanding his obedience. His tongue leading him to the point of no return. Him mirroring everything I once was. Everything I feared. Defiant, angry, resentful, hurt. I did like Mami would have done—I repeatedly raised my hand to smack his mouth shut. His arm flexed to block every attempted strike, and nudged me away a little harder each time, threatening the full force of his 200 pound body. Mami’s voice echoed in my mind, “Me la vas a pagar todas cuando seas Madre.” A curse come true.

It was storming outside, but his room was on fire. He opened his mouth wider. Hot tears burning trails down his face while he continued to remind me of my inadequacy as a mother, spat words his father repeatedly used for me. Words I used towards Mami as a teenager. “Bitch! You fucking bitch!” And it was true, I was being a bitch and more. The eternal bad cop, overbearing dictator who ruled with an iron fist, control freak. La mala Madre. 

Blood rose from the pads of my feet, filling the rim of my eyes. Vision blurred. I no longer saw my son. I saw everything I never wanted to happen. Arms flailed, hands gripped, and daggers flew out of our mouths, severing whatever was left of us. Of what was supposed to be a mother-son relationship, but what always felt like an uphill battle. A tug of war. 

Forehead veins laced his crimson face. Lungs heaving with grief I yelled, “You’re just like your father! Fucking disrespectful! That’s why he ain’t here anymore. Because of his mouth! Any man who lives in this house is going to fucking respect me!” When I lost it, I lost him. 

He packed his PS4 into his North Face backpack, threw his sneakers on and bolted out the apartment door undeterred by time of night. Relentless, I caught up to him and yanked him by the backpack at the steps. “Where do you think you’re going at this time?” “Who the hell do you think you are?!” 

Desperate to escape my grip, he slipped his arms out from the backpack and fled. The PS4 endured the remaining burden of my rage as I flung the backpack out from the second floor window onto the wet concrete. A thud, a crack and then silent rain. 

I was seventeen and three days shy of a birthday when I cut Myra’s cake in the Saint Michael Academy’s home ec room. Friends buzzed with laughter, graduation excitement and our birthday plans to hit up Jekyll and Hyde that weekend. Talk of who got accepted where, who was going away, and who had five on it after school was in the air when I realized that something was off. It had been two weeks since prom, at least five weeks since my last period. Mami would notice that the pads stored beneath the bathroom sink were not being used. I had to scrape up some money to buy a pregnancy test after school. 

I waited for my boyfriend to come over that night so I wouldn’t have to take the test alone. Him in his black and brown Avirex leather, jeans and Timbs, and me in my gray plaid uniform skirt, black sweater and black and red OG 13 Jays sitting on the edge of my bed, nervously reading the instructions on the purple and white EPT box while Mami watched TV in the room next to us, oblivious. In the fifteen minutes between using the bathroom on a stick and potentially seeing a life-changing set of pink lines, I contemplated all the possible ways it could go. He could be the guy who tells me to get rid of it or the guy who pretends he’ll stick around. I could be the girl who has the baby at eighteen and becomes another statistic, or the girl who gets the abortion, breaks the guy’s heart and goes on to do big things in life to make up for her sins, and bury her guilt. 

It turned out I was the girl who was scared to death and wanted nothing more but for God to give her another pass for not using birth control. The girl who was also secretly giddy with hope. The girl who looked at her boyfriend holding her hand, terrorized by the thought of being bound to him for the rest of her life. The girl who couldn’t help but imagine a baby with curls and melanin-blessed skin like his, and specs of gold in their eyes like hers. The girl who didn’t have a plan, money saved, or a college picked out yet. The girl who knew what her boyfriend’s sparkling eyes were really saying when he smiled at the results and said, “Whatever you decide I’ll be there.”

Too afraid, I couldn’t go to Mami right away. Telling my big brother was also out of the question. The next day I made an urgent appointment to see my high school guidance counselor, but it wasn’t to go over high school classes or college choices. I desperately needed an unbiased adult to talk to. My guidance counselor gave me three options: have the baby, place my child up for adoption, or get an abortion. I knew right away the latter was out of the question—a sin. It was as if God himself shook his head in disapproval, reminding me of the doom I’d suffer if I went that way. 

My guidance counselor used her fiancé as an example of how people who are adopted turn out to have amazing lives and get taken in by loving families who provide a world of opportunities. I couldn’t help but think that that type of shit only worked for white babies. Giving my child up meant I couldn’t know for certain if he had everything he needed, or if he was being loved right. Giving him up meant everyone seeing me carry him to full term, but never seeing him. The thought of never seeing him again was agonizing, of his adoptive parents treating him poorly made my stomach boil, of having to face him when he reached adulthood shook my spine.  The thought of not knowing him after knowing him, was unbearable. 

I knew I had only one choice.

I walked out of her office and everything was a blur. Having just made the most important decision of my life, I felt like I was floating, numb, like there was a thick veil blocking my view of the future. I knew where I was headed but couldn’t see the road ahead. I worried Mami would kick me out, Papi would disown me, my brother would think I was just like all the other around-the-way chickenheads who got knocked up, ultimately depending on the system to care for them. I thought about how the neighborhood bochincheras would talk about what a waste it was for my parents to have spent all that money on a Catholic school education, how I was atrevida enough to let a boy touch me, how I had brought shame to my family. How I wasn’t going to walk down the aisle in a white dress like Mami did. 

When my son was born, I waited for motherhood to feel like what I saw in diaper commercials. The ones where the mom ceases being a woman and pretends nothing about the diaper or her new identity stinks. There were no commercials with a teen mom yelling at her toddler for peeing in his toy box. or hiding chocolate frosted donuts behind a bookcase. Missing were the commercials wherein no matter how hard she tried to get it right, she never seemed to get her footing. Where the tighter she held on, the more he slipped away.

When my son was finally laying asleep in my arms after a bath, bottle and having read several books, I’d sweep his soft curls away from his face and sweaty neck. I’d kiss him all over but only soft enough to not wake him. I’d cry while watching him, dreading the day he’d grow up and know I wasn’t like other mothers who were patient and nurturing, and hate me for it. I’d ask God for forgiveness, and to erase the knowledge from my son’s mind that I could have been more but wasn’t. 

I was half a year away from forty and my son was one month shy of turning twenty-one when he texted me, I don’t feel like I have a mother. My heart is broken. My soul tries to speak to you in many ways and I feel blocked off. I feel like a ghost.  His confessions threatened to gut me. 

I worked hard to forgive that part of myself. The young mother who couldn’t be present or connect with her son; who didn’t even know what it looked like to do that for herself. Sometimes I’d blame the magnesium that was injected into my IV to keep my blood pressure stable during labor. Other times, it was the incubator and me being bed ridden that kept him away from me for the first twenty-four hours of his life that I faulted. Sometimes I’d point a finger at his first feeding and how it was his dad who had the honor of that connection. I was green with envy over that first feeding, and the subsequent bond between them.

The more I sought healing the more I realized that I couldn’t keep dodging accountability. I had to take my son’s statement for what it was. I couldn’t demand a different sentiment or narrative from him. Where there was once denial, lies truth. His truth. Where there was once the need to oppose and reject, there is acceptance. Through healing I learned to acknowledge all my inconsistencies—how I tried to fill the gaps by providing material things, giving the wound sugar instead of medicine and overcompensating for being a young mother with my work ethic. 

I needed to understand myself in order to begin to understand him—my mirror. Where there was once the need to push my ideals onto him about what success looks like, I revel in his tenacity and the faith he has in fulfilling his dreams of making music. Where I once projected my fears, I now dissect lyrics, reminding him that a true MC is a poet telling a story, that a bona fide lyricist is well-read and that to be the best he must pay homage to the greats. When his ego reeks of toxic masculinity, I gently remind him about how much the world needs gentlemen, men who feel and cry, men who are safe to be around. How love is the necessary torch against darkness. I give him seeds.  

I managed to breathe deeply despite the wind that was knocked out of me, silenced the impulse to shield myself from the veracity of his reality, and I responded, I’m sorry you don’t feel seen by me. You’ll always have my love. 

I think of the invisible cord that exists between mother and child, and how mine and Noah’s had lost its glow over the years. I scroll through social media and see mothers holding their sons with tenderness. They call themselves “Boy moms”. Their invisible cords, illuminating, iridescent electrical currents connecting them in ways only their hearts can feel; a language only their souls can understand. Although it was never easy and, mostly, we grew up together, unraveling as we went along, there is never a day I regret his arrival. Our invisible cord is tightly coiled, its core vein strengthening as we heal, its light pulsating hope, forgiveness, and a love that is unbreakable.


Illustration by Cassandra Orion

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Filed under: Essay, Essay Front Page

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Jessica Perez is a born-and-bred Williamsburg/Bushwick Brooklynite with finca girl roots running through her veins. She is a Madre, Mujer, Hermana, Hija y Nieta. She is a dreamer. A writer. An emerging warrior. A blossoming visionary. A passionate Boricua. She is a carrier of legacies, lineage and love. She is a Writing Our Lives workshop and a Roots. Wounds. Words workshop alum.