BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
It was raining and I was sitting in the backseat of my mother’s grey Buick, watching the water cascade down the window like someone else’s sorrow splayed for me to notice. Already, I understood isolation and the pain that comes with not belonging, and the understanding that comes when others see you as a monster, a thing, a weirdness in the world. I was five-years-old, waiting for my sister to rush into our car excitedly from school. I begrudgingly went to nursery school, crying every morning. If you asked me why I feared other children so much, I could not tell you. I still cannot.
Socializing at school never became easier, at least, not until high school. For the entirety of my elementary school experience, I was that kid who sat at the 'weird kid table,' who didn’t have real friends, who wrote poetry and wore all black and listened to The Cure, who didn’t want to fit in just to get Joey K. to kiss me, who had braces and wore unflattering glasses and had a bob hair cut, who hardly got invited to slumber parties. Children pick up on shyness and insecurity like sharks smell blood; they desire flesh like cherubic vampires, because it makes the emptiness inside their bellies swell with confidence, sets them apart from the rest, the ones they consider other.
There was one girl in particular who would terrorize me: it was as if she chose me to punish, as if I were a kitten being abandoned by its mother for wandering into the world too early. After years of being called ugly and weird, I began to believe it; instead of thinking of her as a bully, I believed I was bad, undesirable. I was spoiled milk. In the third grade, she said I looked like a boy because I had short hair; that day, I walked to the parking lot with my head down. All I wanted was to be pretty. I wanted to be liked.
Art became my life; I immersed myself in painting and writing. It was the only thing that made me feel alive; it was my reason for living. When my parents would take me to the MET, I felt at home; I felt a kinship to all of the artists, as if all of the pain and suffering and discord and isolation they felt and experienced were normal for people like me, were part of my spiritual family. I believed I was born from all these generations of artists, that art would save me. In many ways, it did, and still has.
I had to decide early on what kind of human I wanted to be, what purpose my life would serve; otherwise, it would be all for naught, it would be pointless. I craved purpose, I craved love. Would all of the art and writing in the world be enough to quench my thirst? When would I be enough?
This is not to say I never made friends; I initially started school with friends who stereotypically "dropped" me out of their social groups around the age of eleven, when they realized I still hadn’t started to shave my legs or use swear words or talk about sex. It wasn’t that I was still playing with dolls–-I had already discovered Nine Inch Nails and Anne Rice--I was just disinterested in gossip and boys. Eventually, the teasing became so disruptive that my parents switched me out of one school to another.
At the new school, I made friends fairly fast. The world also changed on a grander scale: 9/11 occurred the same month, blowing up our ideas of safety and control and perceptions forever. While I finally made friends who accepted me for who I was, even embraced it, I didn’t know how to take this newfound love and believe in it. Like painting a blue sky, I could rationally observe clouds or a sunset and replicate it, but I could not understand how to truly love myself, to move forward with confidence. I could write a believable love scene, but could not love myself.
In high school, I had one boyfriend and we never had sex. Occasionally, we would drive to empty parking lots and kiss furiously as if our faces were slowly morphing into Picasso paintings. We believed we would stay in love forever, buy a house, have kids. Neither of us realized at the time that those types of dreams never last, not when you haven’t truly been in love in a way where your body aches to be in the same room. My body never ached; for a teenage girl, I acted like a civilized 1950′s housewife, as I was raised to be. In retrospect, I was more in love with the idea of neatness, than with him.
Then, college came with the blink of a bashful eye. The summer before, I realized my high school boyfriend and I were not compatible; I wanted to explore and make art, he wanted to settle down. Attending art school after having gone to fairly conservative Catholic schools meant I was with others akin to me, that for the first time in my life, I was beginning to feel truly part of a bigger community, that I didn’t have to hide myself or my real beliefs behind self-effacement, humor and politeness. It’s one thing to feel comfortable around three people, it’s another to be able to walk into an apartment and feel kinship with twenty.
Any healing process is a slow one--like trying to catch fireflies on a crisp summer evening in Montauk. It took many morning after’s, early morning walks, art parties, and women’s studies classes for me to finally see my whole self, and believe in it. It took being assaulted to wake up and really take my life into my own hands, to live in the moment, as if the concept of tomorrow is just an advertising ploy.
The lingering effects of bullying is like body dysmorphia for the mind--maybe it stops, maybe you’ve stopped rationally believing you’re the ugly nerd, but subconsciously, you still do. You become surprised when you get a promotion, a book deal, a date--as if you didn’t deserve any of those things, as if you’re merely an amateur faking it, and eventually, someone is going to find out.
I woke up one morning next to my college boyfriend, watching the way the light fell on his face like knives crisscrossing in various directions. The night before, he begged to have sex, insinuated that I wasn’t being fair when I said no, I wasn’t in the mood. This was almost exactly a year after I had been sexually assaulted, an event in my life that I only told a select few at the time. He was one of them. I lay in bed, disgusted at the thought that while he didn’t force me, he wanted to. He almost succeeded.
Later that day, he apologized for his behavior. Our relationship was never the same after that; months later, I started graduate school at Sarah Lawrence while he was pursuing his MFA elsewhere. It didn’t take long for our relationship to officially dissolve like a bad science experiment, for me to cultivate the courage to leave, finally realizing I deserved something better--that something meaning happiness.
While many criticize the MFA, it led me down a jagged river of self discovery; I found I could be brave with words, that I could use them as magic spells, transform my body into love so that I could love others with the same intensity as my love for art, that people are works of art in progress. I could be a good witch and believe in the transformative power of love and magic and the miracles in kindness. In his famous essay on fiction, Henry James said: "Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost," a phrase that gets tossed around in writing circles often, but whose meaning is still imperative for all.
Out of supreme loneliness, sadness and trauma demand a choice: the choice to continue to be invisible or to promote positive change. I chose to change. This change was gradual, over the course of most of my adult life, and it wasn’t until I was becoming a professional writer, immersing myself 24/7 in the craft, that everything I had learned was finally beginning to make true sense.
Everything I decided to change about myself, my life, could be summarized by a passage in the eighth book of Paradise Lost, where Raphael describes to Adam how angels express their love: "…obstacle find none / Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars. / Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace, / Total they mix, union of pure with pure / Desiring, nor restrained conveyance need / As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul," (624-629).
Even though Raphael is talking about love-making, it could be applied to how humans connect in general; instead of holding back, in fear of vulnerability or judgement, I wanted to connect completely with those around me--to be engaged in deep friendships where there is an ethereal, spiritual bond. It’s easy in New York City to meet people, to show up at readings or concerts or films, to not be present. I became tired of that game--of showing up and thinking that was enough. I wanted to be present, to lose nothing, to make the kind of friends who show up with chicken noodle soup when you’re sick.
Nothing in life is perfect. I am not perfect. My words aren’t perfect. But I’m finally okay with that enough to embrace it with confidence, to proverbially blast The Buzzcocks and give two fingers to whoever disagrees. It isn’t that time heals all wounds, as if time is a magic spell; we, as humans, decide to heal for ourselves, even if it means making all of the "wrong" choices in order to make the ones that will leave us happier. People don’t make choices simply to be rich or pretty or powerful--all people really want is to be happy.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015) & Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine.