Written by: Ayling Zulema Dominguez
Image by: Zuley Dominguez
I held it in ‘til my eyes watered. It felt like someone was breakdancing in my throat. Gravity called me a bitch, slapped me around a little, and pulled that tear right out of my duct, sideways towards the pillowcase.
“Fuck,” I thought. “I did it again. Made myself smaller.” I held it in because I thought he was fast asleep and I didn’t want to risk waking him. I care about him, so isn’t it OK that I want him to feel comfortable in my bed? So much so that he never wants to leave? That maybe, just maybe, he’d realize he loves me.
And so, I thought, I shall not cough. I shall stroke his arm, dance my fingers through his hair, trace the muscles on his beautiful, bare back. “It’s okay,” I reassured myself and my mother, nestled somewhere in the furthest recesses of my mind. He must sense the power in my independence and self-rule as I lay quietly unmoving. If not, he knows it from when he saw that I wasn’t afraid to eat more than him. Waste perfectly good mofongo and maduros just to appear thin? ‘Tuh, if I’m going to sin, it’ll be a better one than that.
“You’re not that big on cuddling, huh?” Damn, guess I leaned too far the other way on the imaginary tightrope I force myself to balance on.
Is there a support group for those who are too quick to love? For those who talk big game and sing proudly to “Money Good” and “Good as Hell,” yet repeatedly find themselves lost in the act of making excuses for inadequate partners, settling for less-than time and time again. Later clinging to a broom and dustpan, eyes closed, mouth open wide, shout-singing along to “Llora Alma Mía” and “Medicina de Amor.” Vamo’ ver quién llora más; yo o la guitarra.
My best friend tells me to stop doubting myself and thinking he is out of my league, that I am beautiful. More than that, I am a Matatana, a Diabla, and Tiguerasa; a woman who shuts shit down just as well as she is able to start your heart up with passion, dedication, bright eyes, and a clever mind.
Papi always said que yo no era fácil, que podría hasta tumbar gobiernos. That I could topple whole governments. I know that mis mujeres crave revolution, but do our men?
Ay, if Mami knew I spent more than a split second mortificada por un hombre, she’d send a chancla flying across Third Avenue Bridge from her place in Mott Haven all the way to mine in West Harlem. Sorry, Mami. I just can’t help thinking que me va dejar. When I told Papi my new love interest was Dominican and Puerto Rican, he raised his brows to the heavens and silbó. “Bueeeeeno, mija.” He said. “Eso’ hombre’ son fuego.” If he was fire, was it wrong of me to want to be the dwellings of Oshun?
“When you have negative thoughts,” my best friend asserts, “that you are either too much or not enough, stop them in their tracks.” She goes to therapy now. I should, too, but I never find the time or resources. Still, because we turn to each other for support, succor among us when the world at large cares not for, I write to share tips and tricks to continue at all times (or nearly all, since we can also get behind the need for a good cry) feeling like a badass bitch.
Unlike a steaming bowl of sancocho or mangú, those negative thoughts do not feed you. Let them rest six feet under. Not your appearance, nor your approach to love can beget another person’s truest desires and behaviors. Each of us is the genesis of such things. So, worry not how and whether your actions might change a partner’s interest, and instead lean fully into your confidence.
When you have bouts of self-doubt, stop and recognize those thoughts do not serve you. Realize the thought is toxic, and you are hurting yourself with it.
This goes beyond love. When you feel inadequate or as if you don’t belong, know that your perception is likely a cognitive distortion. If the systemic -isms are not manifestly at play, do not authorize that the biggest doubter of your brilliance and capability be you. Be kind to yourself.
This goes beyond love but, to be frank, the realization was born of an ugly encounter with it. I said “I love you” first. And to a white man, no less. I called Papi in tears. Me abrazó por el teléfono and told me not to regret having said what I felt. My best friend said that putting words to my feelings was emotional growth. I told myself I would never say those damn words first ever again.
I am an abolitionist and throw my weight behind open borders but damn it, after that exchange I built a wall. An angry, reactive attempt to salvage my cool. Or rather, my ‘cool girl,’ unbothered rap. A rap that protects us in this heart-wrenching world. Perhaps if we pretend not to care, the wrongs of the world will not hurt as much, and the wrongs of our personal lives will never come close.
And then I learned—everyday I am still learning—through literature penned by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and bell hooks, as much as through friendships where we pour into each other selflessly and wholeheartedly, that it does us better to love than to not. To care than to detach. It is the lifeline and saving grace onto which we must latch. Don’t you feel your skin is more receptive to the sun’s rays when you gaze at your emotions in the mirror rather than brush them under the rug? When you speak honestly and open the valve on your love? Are the recipients’ arms not open? That speaks, then, to their self and emotions, rather than insinuate that you are in any way broken.
My mother, a strong, border-crossing woman of color, taught me to be indestructible, impersonal and rugged; because she believed that to be the only way to survive in a world that has never stopped trying to eat her alive. Her daughter, privileged-with-citizenship, able-bodied, and bearing many other differences, to be sure, is doing her damndest to stay open in this minefield of human interaction we call society; to be her own gentle, vulnerable creation; to preserve and grow the energy given to her in the womb and bloom.
On the road toward building community and safeguarding justice, there is many a fight to be had. The one her daughter has chosen to stop sending troops to, however, is the innermost, wherein she holds back, doubts, belittles, and shrinks herself. Love is a revolutionary act. Harness it and gift both yourself and your neighbor a cup. In Lorraine Avila’s words, “malcriadas can love the world awake.” Matatanas, too.
No matter how low your confidence may dip, never forget, and not for lack of better words because these are quite honestly the best: you are the shit. Sigue amándote, mama. Y a otrxs también, que eso no te quitará tu vaivén.
Ayling Zulema Dominguez is from Bronx, NY. A daughter of immigrants, her work explores identity, family, first-generation experiences, politics, and the crazy, difficult beauty of living between three cultures (Dominican, Mexican, and that of the U.S.). Ever since she heard Sandra Cisneros say, “When you are an artist, you’re always going to feel displaced; you’re never gonna feel at home. You have to find home within yourself,” she has committed to doing so by exalting her poetry and storytelling — that which is a cultural cornerstone of her communities. When she’s not reading or writing, or at work in an advocacy nonprofit, she’s dancing her worries away.