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It’s a lovely and disturbing thing the way the mind is able to bury things, memories and such, only to recall them to the frontlines with such stunning clarity. Lovely because it reminds you of the awesome power and intricacies of our minds. And disturbing because, well, dammit, sometime memories are buried for a reason.

I just finished reading a new YA novel called Good Kings, Bad Kings by Karen Nussbaum. It’s a powerful book about a fictional facility for disabled children and the everyday horrors and indignities of those who live and work there. One of the characters is named Yessenia. She’s a badass who’s had a tough life and you cannot help but root for her. Yessenia’s a poorly educated Puerto Rican teen and since all of the chapters are written from the point of view of different characters, her first person-narrative reads shockingly familiar to someone like me who grew up in the very, very Spanish parts of the Bronx. That resonance and the name itself forced me to think of my own Yessenia for the first time in ages.

I met my Yessenia when my mother, sisters and my 13-year-old self moved into the basement apartment on a really shitty block after we left my father. When I say shitty, I mean almost as many empty apartment buildings on the block as occupied ones, alongside some abandoned lots filled with debris. It was rife with people using drugs and swigging 40 ounces. The multi-family house we moved into was the only non-apartment building on the block. Short and squat, it was dwarfed by the buildings around it.

Yessenia lived in the apartment building across the street from me. She was a spicy Puerto Rican chica. A tough girl who would often crack her knuckles. She had short silky, curly hair and dressed and acted a little butch, her broad shoulders, even at 14, draped in men’s shirts, jeans or kahkis and sneakers. In hindsight, the fact that she struggled to hide her body and keep anyone from stepping to her speaks volumes but at the time she was just so very different from me that I was fascinated and quickly became enamored with her. I cannot remember how we became friends but we did and spent a lot of time together, both in her house and outside. I think my mother worried about our association, even once calling her butch, which was where I learned the word. I’m pretty sure my mother thought Yessenia was gay and would “make” me gay.  But Yessenia, who very fun and vulnerable in many ways she showed me, also became my protector. It was probably clear that I was too soft for the neighborhood. Hell, too soft for her building, which required navigating past various drug dealers (lookouts?) as you climbed the stairs to her apartment on the second or third floor.

Even when my mother moved us away a year or so later (we moved every couple of years like someone was chasing us, but always to someplace just a little better), I would still go back to visit Yessenia and her family. I think I craved the sense of closeness they seemed to have despite their crap situation. I loved how they welcomed me into the fold, even while they made it clear that they thought I was destined for something more than their lot, teasing me about all my reading. I was a visitor but a welcome one. When I was 14 and Yessenia was 15, she got pregnant. I never knew who the father was. And she kept the baby because for her family an abortion wasn’t an option. A 15-year-old stuck in the ghetto with a child living in a 2-bedroom apartment with her mother, stepfather and sister was fine but an abortion was a problem.

When I was 15 I let her 30-year-old uncle visiting from Puerto Rico, who’d been sniffing around me that summer, have sex with me in a public park. I know technically it was rape but I remember feeling so grown-up and on my own that I still owned that action and every emotion that came with it. I’d been having sex with my 55-year-old pastor for two years already by then, and I wasn’t thinking of that as rape or abuse then either. In my mind I was just making grownup decisions and those decisions said a lot of things about me that I didn’t like. But I stopped going to see Yessenia, for many many reasons. And to this day the name Yessenia alone conjures up echoes of the muddled feelings of shame and self loathing that were once my daily companions.

Side note: My life today is fine. I am in a happy place, dating and feeling self fulfilled. Which is why writing about things like this now is actually cathartic.

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