by Sarah Rafael García
After a quick makeover in a JFK airport bathroom, I walked out in search of my driver. It was the first time in my life I was greeted by a man in a black suit holding a sign with my name at the airport. Although I was nervous and scared of getting into an unmarked taxi, I pretended it was a normal event in my life and avoided exclaiming to everyone that it was my first trip to New York — or even the proper East Coast for that matter. Technically, I was on a business trip but I arrived the Friday before the Monday meeting to explore “The Big Apple.” I had planned to meet up with an old friend from Texas who had promised to introduce me to the legendary New York nightlife. While driving through Queens, I began to feel uneasy when the driver told me that a young, single woman like myself should not be dropped off in a “bad part” of New York. Halfheartedly, I confirmed my friend was where she said she would be before he drove away. I walked into a Mexican restaurant in Astoria with my rolling suitcase and laptop bag in hand.
In 2002, I started working on the twenty-ninth floor of a downtown LA skyscraper. During the first week, I had a co-worker take a photo of me holding copy paper that read “Hi Mami” while I sat in my cubicle with my back turned to the famous “Hollywood” sign — visible just over my right shoulder through the office window. I was promoted to a national-level title, which required relocating from Miami, Florida, traveling to conferences, and frequenting New York for business meetings. As soon as the opportunity arose, I took my mother on a tour of the company’s LA headquarters just like my dad had given me of his place of work. By then I had acquired name-brand business attire and preferred over-priced shoes, fancy coffee, and English scones. In this career choice, I found myself traveling and making more money than ever before. According to my family, I had obtained the American Dream.
As soon as I entered the Mexican restaurant in Astoria, everyone shouted my name and a Mariachi band began to play “El Rey” while tequila shots were lined up at the bar next to my girlfriend — later I found out it was all orchestrated by the restaurant owners. I was referred to as La Tejana for the entire night and drank more tequila shots than I can remember. We spent the evening flirting with the restaurant owners — Mexican men — who, at the end of the night, picked up our dinner check and invited us for a nightcap. All is a bit hazy, but I found myself rolling my carry-on throughout Queens while my girlfriend helped out by carrying my laptop bag. Once I entered the dimly lit living room, I quickly realized where the evening was headed, but before any advances were made I spotted children’s toys on the floor. The conversation was a whirlwind of awkward moments. I vaguely remember something about one of the men being married and a wife being out of town. Honestly, I can’t recall how we left the situation but I still vividly see myself pulling a red carry-on suitcase while my friend carried my laptop, both of us tottering on heels as we took quick strides on the streets of New York. We arrived at the subway just an hour or two before sunrise, realizing neither one of us had spent a cent since my arrival — all along we had planned to indulge on my daily per diem. We recounted the night’s events on my first NY subway ride, giggling like schoolgirls all the way to Brooklyn. As we lay side by side on my friend’s full-size bed in a very small Brooklyn apartment, I began to reflect on the past year.
There have been many moments in my life where I asked myself how I got to where I was. Sometimes it was to compliment a success, other times it was to contemplate a misfortune. In this case, I was grateful to avoid an affair with a married man because I didn’t need to add another unmentionable that would cause me to heap more shame upon myself. There were many good and bad choices that led to me to a marketing position in corporate America. But the superficiality of it all taught me how to cover up my depression and insecurities while assimilating into new situations. Not many people knew about it back then, but I chose to have an abortion at the age of twenty-seven. It is the most difficult decision I have made as a woman, simply because it went against all the social norms I grew up with as a Mexican, Catholic girl.
I moved to Miami on a whim after a great New Year’s Eve trip in 2000. I spent the first six months of my relocation living off savings while exploring the beaches and nightlife. Three months into the stay, I started dating a guy who I knew would be a temporary distraction. He attended a local art school and had travelled to places I had yet to visit, like New York, Turkey, and Europe. Unfortunately, our encounter left me six-weeks pregnant without knowing it — one week away from being denied an abortion. In my eyes I was a cliché. How could I not have known I was pregnant? We had practiced “safe sex” and even experimented with various forms of birth control. Nevertheless, I didn’t think twice when we ended the relationship, especially since my menstrual cycle went on as scheduled. It wasn’t until the second month after I stopped seeing him that I missed my first period. I hadn’t been with anyone else during those months so I was caught a bit off guard when I found myself vomiting violently at a Sunday brunch. In the midst of the torment, I joked about the possibility of being pregnant by stating, “I should totally claim Immaculate Conception...” because that might at least appease my Mexican-Catholic family. A few days later, a girlfriend accompanied me through various pregnancy tests that kept affirming my worst fear: I was pregnant, single, and unemployed.
When I confronted the ex-lover, he answered the door half naked and with a new girlfriend standing behind him. Rather than asking what I wanted, he blatantly offered to pay for the abortion. That same day, the ex-lover’s mother called me to speak of her past abortions and her irresponsible son. At the time, I only had a week to make a decision. Ironically, it was the ex-lover’s mother who convinced me — she ended up paying for her son’s and my “little problem,” a term she used throughout the one-hour phone call. I chose the less intrusive abortion process. I hesitantly swallowed a pill and inserted tablets to induce a miscarriage. I had only confided in two people: the girlfriend who helped me through the process and my youngest sister (I was one of three sisters and we’d each promised to always let one of the other two know if there was ever some sort of “big problem”). Yet, I never expected this emotional process to inflict the depression and insecurities that would lead me to change my life in the years to come. Immediately after swallowing the first pill at the women’s clinic, I broke down and cried. A nurse passing by inquired about my emotions and the only words I could get out were, “He is going to be so disappointed in me.” She then discouraged me from going through with the abortion and encouraged me to speak to my boyfriend, but by then it was too late. I explained that I had already taken the pill and that I was referring to my deceased father, not my “stupid ex-boyfriend.” I knew then that I’d made the wrong choice.
After having to return for a second dose a week later because the first attempt wasn’t fully effective, I vowed to change my life for the sake of justifying the one I took. I started applying for full-time employment. A couple months later I was hired, and six months after that I was offered a promotion. I never spoke about the abortion again. While working and residing in Florida at 28, I accepted a new career in downtown Los Angeles.
After a long night of tequila shots in Astoria, my sleep was interrupted by regret and a pounding headache. En route to Coney Island, I bought a bikini and wore it under my clothes. Although the purchase was initially a solution to a problem, I justified it by stating that I needed to live in the present and not sulk about the past. Once my feet touched the sand, I stripped off my top layer of clothes and lay down for several hours to recuperate from the previous evening. The following two days wisped by with the opening and closing of subway doors. Each ride led me to a new experience; I danced all night at the Copacabana, ate roasted peanuts off the streets of Time Square, and claimed my per diem at a greasy diner on Sunday morning.
By the time I reached my Manhattan hotel room on Sunday night, I was physically exhausted and very familiar with New York subways. My weekdays in Manhattan were docile compared to my revelatory weekend in Queens and Brooklyn. While walking through the corporate aisles of the workplace, I learned to dress the part and mask my personal life. When asked about my weekend, I’d say things like, “Oh, I just met up with an old friend who showed me all the tourist attractions, including Coney Island.” I caught on quickly to what was expected of me and found myself maneuvering between what felt like two worlds, attempting to balance two identities.
Since fourth grade, people have been telling me what my identity is. Initially, it was anchored in my parents’ migration to the U.S. and my first language, but eventually, being a single woman took precedence over my cultural background. Growing up, I watched my mother serve her role as a homemaker as my father appeared to reach his career goals in the U.S., withholding his real position as a labor worker from me all the while. Every year my father gave visiting family members and me a tour of the company where he worked. During those tours, he wore a button down shirt and khaki pants. The week after his death, however, I collected his personal belongings from a work locker and discovered the coveralls he had worn to work for nearly ten years. I soon learned that he had actually started in the print room as a janitor and eventually moved up in labor positions as his English improved. Given the façade he displayed to us, my father seemed like a chameleon, assimilating into each new position at work and in society. Throughout my life, I transitioned in and out of careers and identities similarly, aspiring to be more like my father than my mother.
Once I graduated from high school, my father’s words echoed in my mind: “You have to go to college to get a job where you can wear nice clothes and drive a nice car, like the white people, mi’ja. That’s the American Dream.” Those words kept me motivated for nearly twelve years. In 1992, I started studying journalism in a community college in Southern California, but eventually I relocated to Texas to attend the only four-year college I knew — Southwest Texas State University — to obtain a degree in Sociology with a minor in Spanish in 1998. After a lot of big mistakes and small triumphs in Dallas, Texas, I transitioned from social work and a failed attempt at graduate school into corporate America at the age of twenty-five. I took an entry-level marketing position at a national headquarters, which eventually led to better jobs across the country and afforded me the opportunity to help my mother and sisters financially.
The extra income from corporate America allowed me to explore California on the weekends and travel for special occasions. During the first year, I visited Las Vegas for a bachelorette party, attended a destination wedding in St. Kitts, spent a New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, and hosted a bridal weekend for one of my sisters in Napa Valley — all while working, on average, sixty hours a week and turning in marketing projects on behalf of my immediate supervisor. During the first year and a half, it never occurred to me that I was doing double the work. I simply treated my corporate career as an opportunity to get my family and myself ahead.
As with many jobs I’d had in the past, I was the only Spanish-speaking person in my department, and I was the only one in the division who was capable of translating from English to Spanish. Yet, I did not feel that I was being mentored or had anyone to confide in. Instead, I felt more comfortable aligning myself with the younger, Chinese-American office assistant who was the only other minority in the department. When I finally found out I had been receiving a significantly smaller salary than those in the same position in different departments, I felt marginalized and stupid for accepting the position.
Although my title in this company was impressive to my family, it was a middle management position in corporate America. I was a liaison between the national executive directors and the regional marketing teams across the nation. All along, I knew I would never qualify for a higher position without a graduate degree. Also, the higher executives tended to favor employees with “different” backgrounds. I found myself arriving to the office before my supervisors and I often watched the sun set from my cubicle. After the first year, it wasn’t uncommon to receive a call in the morning from my immediate supervisor requesting her usual morning coffee and favorite pastry. My daily routine included commuting via Metrorail, walking through downtown, and making a quick stop at the corner café — a habit that averaged a $30 breakfast expense on a weekly basis (over $1,500 by year’s end). I learned to commute in walking shoes and switch out to name-brand heels before walking into the coffee shop and office.
My routine became consistent at work and home. I was striving to mimic the commitment my father had at his job of ten years, but I found myself exhausted and building resentment towards anyone that reminded me of my responsibilities — including myself. During all of this, there had been a number of events that I ignored simply because I was preoccupied with work and familial responsibilities. My car was broken into, but nothing was stolen. I dismissed the situation because I’d leave it in the same space for weeks at a time and it might seemed abandoned. During her visit over the holidays, my mother noted a man lingering in my neighborhood. I dismissed him because I couldn’t afford to humor my mother’s regular worries and orchestrate Christmas dinner at the same time. On Christmas night, a male stranger showed up at my door, asking to be let in. I dismissed him and the possibility of danger because my mother was still visiting — again, I didn’t want to admit to my vulnerability as a single woman.
A few weeks after the holidays, with my routine almost back to normal, I exited the Metrorail and began my walk home. It was just after sunset and I was exhausted. I had arrived at work earlier than usual to catch up on projects I had put on hold over the holidays. With my cellphone in my pocket and my rolling work bag trailing behind me, I stepped quickly through the familiar dark street and approached the gate to my community. Suddenly, I saw the male stranger from Christmas night pacing out front. I had to think quickly to assess the situation. I decided to proceed with caution, knowing I would have to confront him before I got close to the house. I walked towards my door, listening to his footsteps behind me. I let go of my work bag, grabbed my cellphone in one hand, and made sure I had my keys laced in my knuckles. In a swift move, I turned around with my arms up at my chest and found him within arms length.
I spoke loudly, “Excuse me, can I help you with something?” He responded, “Can we speak inside your home?” By then, I was shaking and starting to dial 9-1-1. I took a step forward to show I was not scared and said, “I don’t know you. If you don’t leave right now, I will call the police to help me.” Unfortunately, he only stepped out of the neighborhood gate and remained pacing on the other side as I waited for the emergency operator to answer. With only an iron fence and about ten feet between us, I kept my eyes on him while he occasionally glanced over his shoulder. I refused to oblige with the operator’s request that I enter my home. I was scared he would come up behind me and push himself through. With the phone up to my ear and my free hand pulling on the rolling work bag, I knocked on eleven doors until the neighbors in the last house opened their door to me. Soon, the police arrived and held the man for questioning around the corner. He claimed he was my boyfriend and only spoke Spanish, when really he was a complete stranger who spoke to me in English.
At the time, I was unfamiliar with California stalking laws and did not know that nothing could be done. The LA police advised me to confront the man in English and Spanish while they handcuffed him and pushed him down on the curb. I was told to speak to him harshly so he would know I was serious and not afraid. I did so, and included several curse words in both languages, to no avail. The police un-cuffed the stranger and told him to walk home, which (I was told) was only two blocks away. I stood and watched him turn a corner. I then proceeded to curse out the police, pointing out that, before, I only had a stalker; now I had a pissed-off stalker who lives within walking distance.
The experience left me feeling more vulnerable than ever. I feared for my life. I packed a bag and stayed with friends until I could make arrangements to move out of my home. While attempting to file a restraining order against my unknown stalker, I learned the same laws that “protected” me from being stalked kept me from obtaining his personal information. When I attended a court date to ask for an extension and the court’s help to serve the restraining order, a female judge listened to my request. Her response angered me more than the whole experience. I expected a woman to understand my situation more than anyone. Instead, she nudged her reading glasses to the tip of her nose, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Young lady, you live in the big city now. These types of things just happen to women.” As she finished her statement, my face felt like it was on fire and tears fell profusely. In spite of this, I kept calm enough to respond, “Judge, I have been living in big cities all my life. These things shouldn’t just happen. All I’m trying to do is prevent such an incident from happening again to me or someone else.” She only offered an extension, and I made arrangements to move.
When the day came to pack up my home, the stranger appeared again. This time, I wasn’t alone, and I had a male friend serve him with the restraining order while I called the police for assistance. When the police arrived, they questioned the man and read him the restraining order in both English and Spanish. The police asked my friends and me to retreat from the situation so they could deal with him. When they returned to speak with me, one particular officer reassured me that the stranger would not bother me again today. He also provided me with the man’s personal information and told me that if the situation were to occur again, I should rip my top off to make it look like the man assaulted me. When I asked why, he said that he wasn’t actually allowed to give me this information, but he was empathetic because his wife had been in a similar situation. He added that the law couldn’t protect her until she was actually assaulted. I still remember his last words to me: “Look, the man knows his rights and he knows the law favors him over you. Do what you can as a woman to survive. No one should go through these things.” The incident left me feeling mentally unstable.
When this ordeal began, I had asked for a few days off from work to cope with the situation and the emotions that were unleashed as a response. I was denied, however, by my immediate supervisor, who also happened to be a woman. Her justification was that we had a big company meeting approaching and our department had to prepare. When I explained that I had temporarily relocated and that the commute to the meeting would involve a two-hour drive, she simply invited me to stay at her house during those days. Instead, I asked a male companion to stay with me at my home. It was then that I finally realized this “corporate America” lifestyle was not for me. The stress of my job and the stalker caused a trauma-induced episode. I felt physically and emotionally unstable. Luckily, I had the common sense to seek guidance from friends and a doctor — one of the better choices in my life. I was placed on anti-anxiety medication and was advised to seek new employment. It was obvious to me that this career was affecting my health.
During those years as a national marketing manager, one of my sisters got married. She was the first in our family to have a wedding. This came with a lot of expectations for me, as I was the oldest daughter and now the one making the most income. In previous years, I helped my mother avoid a foreclosure on her home by giving up my savings and contributing to her household expenses. Along the way, I assisted my sisters as well. While working in LA, I’d continued to offer assistance to my family on an as-needed basis. Sometimes it was as simple as paying a past due bill. Once, it even included an emergency flight from Miami to Dallas for my mother to visit a family member in need. I didn’t mind the responsibility; I felt proud to be able to do it. The same type of pride my father bestowed on me growing up. But the responsibility also made me feel alienated from my family and friends. Like my father, I couldn’t express myself or speak of my own problems or vulnerability. I wore my fancy dress suits and drank my fancy cocktails in downtown LA with the occasional weekend of debauchery and one-night stands to ameliorate the depression.
For my sister’s wedding, I had asked for a week of paid leave from work. Prior to leaving LA and flying to Texas, I was told I could pass my projects to my immediate supervisor and assistant as needed for that week. But to my surprise, my supervisor insisted I complete the projects while on my trip. I had to negotiate family time with work time, which meant I missed a lot of my sister’s special moments. It wasn’t until the day of the wedding (after I’d met my work deadlines) that I realized how my work had affected my relationship with my family. I was the maid of honor, but I hadn’t made time to write a speech for the wedding. While in the bridal room, I sat on the bed in my undergarments with wet hair, typing on my laptop. I was waiting to be called on by the bride because I was also responsible for doing her hair. Before I had a chance to finish typing the speech, my sister sprung from her seat and yelled at me to stop working. She proceeded to go on a fifteen-minute rant about how I’d worked the entire week during her wedding time. No one in the room attempted to calm her down; we all knew I deserved it. Once she sat back in her chair, she ordered me to do her hair. I closed my laptop for the rest of the trip. Ultimately,, everyone left me behind in the bridal room because I was not ready to go with the bridal party. I found myself abandoned by my family, sulking in my own disappointment.
After the wedding, I began to long for more in my life. I couldn’t help but think, “Surely, this is not what my father meant by the American Dream? There has to be more to live for.” After two years of networking events, tedious hours at conference booths, and long nights at the office, I was still an unmarried woman clashing with gender roles, career expectations, and family obligations. But I had created a façade, and I lived in denial. I felt I had to find my own way to live my life by following my own dreams, but I wasn’t sure what that meant or what it entailed. At the time, I could only assume it included a spouse and my own family. Ten years passed before I could accept that, as a woman, I am capable of making the decision to live my own life — with or without traditional expectations.
Sarah Rafael García is a writer, community educator and traveler. Since publishing Las Niñas in 2008, she founded Barrio Writers and LibroMobile. Her writing has appeared in LATINO Magazine, Contrapuntos III, Outrage: A Protest Anthology For Injustice in a Post 9/11 World, La Tolteca Zine, The Acentos Review, among others. Her most recent short story collection, SanTana's Fairy Tales, is published by Raspa Magazine (April 2017). Sarah Rafael is also a Macondo Fellow and an editor for the Barrio Writers and pariahs writing from outside the margins anthologies.
In 2016, García was featured in The Fem Literary Magazine and awarded for SanTana’s Fairy Tales, which is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center in California. www.sarahrafaelgarcia.com