i can't make you stay.
I wrote this piece in the reflection of the ugliest relationship I've ever witnessed--that between gentrification and police violence. I wrote this for those who are being disappeared from their neighborhoods and communities to places far away, to prisons and jails, to graves. I wrote this in reflection of Jessica Nelson Williams and Mario Woods and Alex Nieto and Kenneth Harding Jr. and all those named and unnamed who have been murdered by the San Francisco Police Department.
I read this piece for the first time at STAY, a QTPOC (Queer Trans People of Color) Oakland Resilience Festival last year. I read it again last night in San Francisco at the Red Poppy Art House as a part of a series put on by Art Responders called Anti-Viral.
I can’t make you stay.
But I can tell you why I’m still here.
One day not that long ago I found myself wearing jeans and a sweater in the South Light Court in San Francisco City Hall doing Zumba on my lunch break. I had been walking around for several days considering whether or not I had a head.
I had been wondering how my feet had carried me to places without my knowing.
As the clock said “twelve” a co-worker asked if I was going to the dance class being offered that day. I wasn’t. I was going to wonder about my head. And my feet. Until l I had to get back on the clock to worry about things other people were not paying me enough to worry about. She insisted. My feet carried me over. I don’t know how, but all of a sudden I was in the back of the class:
Elbows and knees and mid-body roll when I felt my sweater sticking to me and my jeans being irritated about all this bending.And then, out of my perspiration, I learned that I had a head because my great grandmother appeared in it.
She was laughing.
She was enjoying me dancing and seeing how silly I let myself be and she was laughing.And she said, please don’t stop.
So I didn’t.
Sometimes I think I stay close so that my favorite ancestors can reach me.
I was born in San Francisco. I was born a sad baby. A bad luck sad baby. My parents were married the day before my mother gave birth to me.
My mother had on a white pants suit. Her belly was far out over her feet. My father was dressed in all orange. He had just been sentenced to his first strike. She was 9 months pregnant with me. I was almost a witness. I was in the room. The same judge who sentenced my father came down from her high seat and used the same power vested in her to banish us and bring us together in limbo matrimony.
I always start there. I always start with the court-house. Somehow it feels like a beginning and an end.
But really I started way before that. Before I was born in UCSF a practicing hospital for people trying to learn to get it right. Before my mother was born at General. Before her father was strangled to death by the San Francisco Police Department before she could walk into his arms on her own.
If I track back to where I started I probably wouldn’t even recognize it. Probably wouldn’t recognize me. Have you ever felt like you were created from a feeling? Sometimes I think I was born from the feeling of going fast. The feeling of hanging out of a window on a warm night with rust street light color on you. Sometimes I feel like soon I will be too old to feel this and I get sad because I just want to go fast. Am I too young to want to be young forever?
I can’t make you stay.
But. In this land of knives dull and sharp. Let talking story be a mirror shard. To reflect the times we are living in:
We live in a place where there are prisons for children. They reserve the long ends of guns for our children. Some of our children only know life as children for a very short time. There are several assortments of boxes. All made for our children.
They come in many too small sizes.
In the middle of the night. Pink men break down our doors and drag us from our grandmother’s worn warm quilts. They take us in front of our children. They take us in front of our lovers. They take us away to meet their numbers. The numbers say “we built a bed for you when you failed that test back in the second grade. And now it’s time for you to lay in it.”
They make us talk to each other in money. They make us miss the dirty green paper like it means something. They make it mean something to us.
They make us pay our papers and our plastics just to hear each other’s voices on the phone from that far away place.
I can only hear my voice echoing on my end but it says we’re connected.*Talking through a tunnel named after a funny man. I remember visiting my father on early San Quentin weekends. Wearing other people’s clothes. They say we’re connected.* And it’s costing me by the minute but I can’t hear you. And I’m really glad you called. I’m really glad I caught the phone in time. Because I’ve been having this acid bubble come up in my throat. I’m afraid I can’t remember your laugh. And what’s worse is I’m too sad that you’ll be too sad when I tell you. And what’s worse than worse is that I have nothing funny to tell you so I can’t hear whether or not I’ve gotten your laugh right or forgotten it for real.
I can’t make you stay.
But I can hold up a mirror while you’re here. I can swoon you. Let my light reflect on surfaces they said would never shine. Let it show how mighty and gentle. How powerful and soft. And brilliant we are. How our background of well greased machines looms over us but the sun lets us cast a shadow just as big.
I can’t make you stay.
But I can tell you about a little bit about how I discovered loneliness.
Yelling full force while driving on the highway alone, I was envisioning myself breaking everything in my path. I realized the name for the rage I have—it’s called loneliness. I realized the anguish of loneliness. It was around me. And I wondered why I met loneliness this way. How did it get in my car? How did it make me so angry? Angry enough to want to break everything. Break myself. What did loneliness do to me?
And then I remembered my mother. Remembered seeing her bent over on herself like a knot. I remembered her anguish and I knew it was mine too. When she was lonely, the rage threatened to break her into at least two pieces. So she broke her China and good glasses instead. And I’m not quite sure if the worst thing was 1. Us small children (my sister and I) averting glass approaching her to ask her if she was okay while she wept or 2. if she had to sweep up the mess herself after she’d made it.
Each time I saw her breaking I wanted to cast a spell on each of her lovers. Who had left her. Stepping over shards of glass I wanted to shout about my mother to the men who broke her up. I wanted to twist my neck at them in her honor yelling: YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW THIS ABOUT ME. But you were wrong. You thought you knew I was smoke vanishing. You thought you knew I would wilt in the sun. You thought you knew all the places my body could break. I wish you could see my water meeting fog. What a big fuss everyone makes over me. Wish you’d witness me burst open inside out and sew my own self back together in an afternoon of high sun. Would love to see your face when all my bones break and crack, crunch all over the tops of each other and I still take the long way home. You thought you knew the flintfire of two stones smashing, creating danger in my glance. Thought you knew my heart when it beat against your lungs wanting to make contact with yours. My heart beat like this all the time. You don’t get to know my fire.
But casting spells was strictly prohibited. Prohibited like all the beautiful, scary things that are too good. Like revenge over men that are bigger than you. Like revenge over situations bigger than you. My mother caught me manifesting fire in the middle of many nights over these men, a child with the rage to huff and puff and burn a grown man’s house down. But she caught my small powerful hand and told me not to use my magic. She didn’t say “use your magic for good” “Don’t use your magic for bad” just don’t use it. So I had to pretend it didn’t exist.
I can’t make you stay but I can tell you this before you go.
Your sensitivity is your gift. Your revenge. Your spite. Your love despite. Is your magic. And I hope you spend each night you’re away working on that fire. I hope wherever you are, people see the light flashing from under the cracks in your doors and know not to fuck with you.
I can’t make you stay. But I can tell you why I’m still here.
I can remember when I first caught my own eye in a mirror. I had been practicing my spitting out of my bedroom window. Sitting over the sill with a little foot dangling over the edge because my mama wasn’t watching me. She was in her bed. Covers up under neck. Sick with another heartbreak. Aretha Franklin was playing a rose is still a rose is still a rose is still and the phone was off the hook.
She called me in to the room. Ordered me to bring her a glass of wine. Not a cup. I left the room and caught my face in the mirror. Caught my face in the mirror. Caught myself in the mirror. Caught my own small face.
That was when I first realized I was a human. That this was my body. And I laughed at myself and at the world. I felt so cunning and brilliant. It was the first inside joke I’ve ever had with myself and there aren’t really words for the punchline. But sometimes I can remember it if I look close enough.