Alisa Valdes

Writer. Producer. Human.

The Importance of May-December Female Friendships

Jul
22

I will never forget the day I was raped by the man I thought was my boyfriend. I was an ambitious reporter at the largest daily paper in New England, twenty-six years old, so bold that I used inline skates to get to work, pumping my powerful legs from Jamaica Plain all the way through Franklin Park, across all of Roxbury, into Dorchester and then Southie, naively blasting merengue and house music as I went, not in the least bit worried about being hit by cars, or murdered…or raped. I was a rising star at the paper, a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, a girl who’d loved playing with words from the time I was nine years old, overjoyed that I was finally starting to not just be recognized for my talents, but paid nicely for them.

The man was a poor choice for me. Hot as hell, from the Dominican Republic, a drug dealer. I was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I covered major air disasters and other crimes, and fed off the rush. I didn’t want a boring, orthodox life. I was not one to live by anyone’s rules. I’d seen the man at a nightclub, when I was reviewing a salsa and merengue concert, and he had looked, to me, like a model. He was pretty, for sure, and his “profession” became my challenge; I eventually got him out of it, and into community college and a job shucking oysters at Legal Seafoods. I was opening the door to a new future for him, but what I could not change was his past – you know, the one where he truly thought women were property, to be owned in multiples, the one where no only meant no if she wasn’t your girlfriend.

The sex was consensual. But his removal of the condom at the end, knowing I was ovulating and didn’t want children, was not. He held me in place as he did it, and put his hand over my mouth to silence my screaming. I was renting an adorable attic apartment from a nice young family, in their colorful, flower-filled Victorian home. The last thing this man wanted was for them to come running up the stairs.

“Shh, my love,” he told me in Spanish, grinning impishly, like he was just a boy playing games. “I’m going to come in you.”

I squirmed and twisted, but it was no use. He overpowered me, just 22 years old, six feet tall, muscular. And he did it. Afterwards he kissed me all over my face and told me, “I own you now. Now, finally, you are mine.” When I refused to kiss him back, he shoved my face into the pillow, as though to suffocate me. I got away from him, wrapped myself in a robe, and, grabbing my phone, locked myself in my bathroom.

“Leave!” I cried out. “Or I’ll call the police.”

He left. I sat there and cried. How could a man that pretty, with such long eyelashes and such a delicate nose, a man with a pure white smile and dimples, do a thing like this?

A little more than two weeks later, out on assignment in a company car, I stopped at a drug store and purchased a pregnancy test. I peed on the stick in the women’s bathroom at work. My hands trembled as I sat on the toilet waiting for the wetness to drift across the little screen, where it would leave either one pink line (good) or two (bad).

Two.

There were two.

My heart raced. I was not ready to be a mother. I had not consented to this. I thought I loved the man who did this to me, but after he did it, I hated him. I never saw him again.

I went back to my desk, my face drained of blood, terrified, and I sat down. In those days, newspaper newsrooms were cavernous affairs filled with desks that were all out in the open, facing each other. The reporter who sat directly across from, who had, in fact, been sitting directly across from me for two years, was in her forties. Her name was Patti Doten, and she had an elegant short haircut, beautiful clothes and a very nice car. Her jewelry was real gold and diamonds, and when she spoke it was with an erudite East Coast cadence that I loved. But what I loved most about Patti was her wicked – and I mean wicked – sense of humor. She was hilarious, a brilliant writer, an astute observer of humanity, and, to my initial surprise, she was as raunchy and knowledgable about sex and life as any of my friends my own age. She’d inherited money, and didn’t need to work. She’d been an editor and didn’t need to be a reporter. She did this job because she loved the constant input and adventure of it. She was a single mother of two sons, the oldest one not that much younger than me, the younger one still in high school. They had a huge and beautiful house in Cohassett, near the water. Patti never treated me as “other” the way many reporters and editors did because of my last name. She saw in me what I was – an irreverent, deeply thoughtful, cynical, obnoxiously outspoken young woman who, had she been a white man, might have been said to be a genius with leadership qualities.

That day, the day of two pink lines, Patti noticed the change in my demeanor instantly.

“My dear?” she asked, somewhat quietly, over the desks between us. “Everything all right?”

I shook my head.

“Do you need to talk about it?”

I nodded.

Discreetly, Patti gathered up her keys, and made an almost imperceptible motion with her head, for me to follow her. I walked behind her through the newsroom and out the door to the elevated parking lot. We went to her BMW, and got in. She drove in silence off the grounds of the newspaper, and towards the south, along the shore, before finally letting out a sigh. Her intuition was incredible.

“Which one was it?” she asked. “The drug dealer?”

“Yes.”

“What did he do?”

I told her. Patti’s eyes flashed with fury. “Goddammit, Alisa. Did you call the police to report this? Why not? No! You have it backwards. That motherfucker should be afraid of YOU!”

She hit the steering wheel with her manicured hand and its rings. Her size six foot pressed just a little harder on the accelerator.

“I don’t know what to do.”

“And that’s fine. You don’t need to know what to do, not just yet. Are you hungry?”

I shook my head. I was already feeling slightly nauseated.

Patti decided she didn’t want me staying alone in my apartment until this situation was resolved in one way or another. She knew that my family was far away, and that, back then, I wasn’t particularly close to my parents, not in a way that would make telling them my predicament helpful to me in any way. She moved me into her guest room. She made meals for me, and we watched comedies together, and we took walks. She told me about her life, about the abusive husband she’d had to leave, about her exceedingly violent father. Having money did not make a woman immune from the hell I was in. Patti had been there. And now, nearing fifty, Patti was powerful, independent, a mother, and, to me, an incredible and supportive friend.

Though much has been written in popular America culture about the romantic relationships between older men and younger women, almost nothing has been written about May-December friendships between women. In fact, when I was searching for a photo to use with this post it was nearly impossible to find anything depicting anything remotely like this type of friendship – and yet, Patti’s friendship was one of the most important things in my life. Patti’s love and guidance and girlfriendness literally saved my life.

I don’t want to get into the details of what happened with that pregnancy. I will say, however, that my choice was a difficult one, and that it haunts me to this day. I will also say that Patti, a loving mother, went with me, and held my hand in the waiting room, and held me up as I limped to her car afterwards. She tucked me in with a hot water bottle over my belly, and brought me ice cream and sang to me. She cried with me, and held me. She was not my mother, nor was she a mother figure. She was not my mentor, for we were professional equals. She was my older woman friend, and we were kindred spirits who made each other laugh like no others. When my first novel came out and was a bestseller, it was Patti, who had defended me against sexist and racist treatment in the newsroom many times, who crowed loudest about my success. “Fuck yes,” she said when I sent her the article about the bidding war for my first novel. “No one deserves this more than you do.” When I had my son in New Mexico, many years later, I took him to meet Patti in Boston. She held him and her eyes welled with tears. Her sons had already moved out, and she was dating again, at last, with plans to sail around the world with her new millionaire boyfriend. She called him The Izod, after his favorite shirts. This made me laugh. When I went through a painful divorce, Patti coached me through it over the phone and email. She was, and remains, one of the wisest and best friends I’ve ever had.

It was clear to me, always, what I got out of being friends with Patti. What I didn’t understand, until recently, was what in the hell she got out of being friends with me. I was just starting out, making so many mistakes. I barely had furniture when she met me. I was only slightly higher up the food chain than a college student. I used to think it was pity. Now I know different.

Now, I am the professional woman with the son in high school, and the house with the extra room, and the successful career behind her, and a young woman friend has come into my life. Her name is Jordyn. She is 25, and a brilliant, vivacious, fun, loving, gorgeous, motivated and deeply emotional actress and singer of uncommon talents. She is also coming out of a difficult breakup and is in need of a place to stay. Remembering Patti, I offered my guest room to her, so she can save her money to move to Los Angeles, where she belongs. I will not take rent from her. Nor will I mother her. I will be her older woman friend, as Patti was for me. We text each other about our lives, pretty much every day, and I know, now, exactly what Patti got out of being my friend when I was Jordyn’s age. Energy. Hope. Youthful enthusiasm for life. Also, there is a sort of respect and support that younger women give to older women friends that we don’t really find anywhere else. Younger women friends are not as jaded and broken as are my women friends my own age. They haven’t been around long enough yet to have had one after another horrible life event come to pass. Their lives are still mostly in the future, whereas ours are starting to be largely in the past. Now, a younger woman friend reminds me of what I used to be, and allows for an exchange of wisdom and energy that absolutely flows both ways.

I would love to see the dynamic of these types of friendships brought into the light more. I would encourage women to befriend other women of differing ages from themselves. We are not so different, women, in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s on up. We have all lived these same painful things, sadly. And we have all experienced these exciting triumphs as we chase down our goals. I am so grateful to Patti, and to Jordyn, for being in my life. Long live the May-December female friendship!

He Ain’t Nothing But a Shell Game

Jun
27

 

His shells they move back and forth fast and faster slight of hand quick of draw he smiles and confuses and knows that two of the three are empty two of the three are empty two of the three are the ones you will most likely point to and he will flip them up flip them up flip them upside down like drained half walnuts empty empty empty like his chalk outlined soul his mama beat it outta him you can’t blame you and you can’t blame him but this ain’t about blame it’s about get the fuck out before it kills you and the blank socket blind socket of the shell you picked will stare up into your face and you will drop down inside your sternum like a terrified and disappointed trapped woman on a roller coaster and aren’t you aren’t you isn’t that exactly fucking exactly what you are and he’s the captain of that crazy train he’s the motherfucking one who ups you downs you mostly down yes down down down and empty sockets drained walnuts the meat of them carved out and given away to his mama long ago she took his souflesh and left a pretty shell the shell the shell just that illusion baby there’s nothing to him but a game a pea you break yourself to find underneath those shifting magician’s hands you train your eye to follow his every move thinking this time this time this time you’ll figure out how to capture his heart but didn’t you notice didn’t anyone tell you didn’t you realize that a small hard bean of a heart is not a heart at all but a pebble so hard so dry so empty that it will never grow not even if you water it every day with the spout in your eyes just fucking let go

Here’s What Makes Her Beautiful

Jun
09

We met long ago, in middle school. I was the troubled girl with shiny hair and a sneer, she was the thin, tall girl with the gorgeous clothes. We were both smart. We were both funny. I noticed her right away, and in that bullying way I had then I went to her, and pointed to the empty seat next to me. “You? Are sitting there. You’re my new best friend.”

We were in gifted class together. This meant we got to sit in a circle on the floor, on pillows, every week, to discuss the readings our teachers had given us. We participated, outwardly philosophical and engaged. But we also leaned into each other and whispered the sorts of wry, unkind teen girl observations about the teachers and their weaknesses that left us giggling inappropriately, holding the laughter inside until it burst from our noses and closed lips like a bad cough.

Leslie Gallagher. My best friend.

I remember her father’s apartment, and the pet Chinchilla that hopped high enough to hit its own head on the ceiling. Was it unkind that we laughed as it fell back to the bed, shaking its little noggin back and forth as though asking “What the fuck just happened?” Ay, ay, ay.

I remember Leslie’s father, a quiet man, an engineer. He barely looked up when we’d come home, his social awkwardness and shyness feeling, to me then, like disapproval. Children take everything personally. My own father took up so much room, was so boastful and pontificatorial. Leslie’s father, by incredible contrast, was almost invisible.

They moved to Denver from Albuquerque, and I felt the bottom fall out of my world. Who would wander the neighborhood with me, making fun of everything now? My father was kind enough to buy me plane tickets to visit her, and I remember going with her to her new high school in Aurora. It was bigger and nicer than any school in Albuquerque, and the kids had more money than any kids I’d ever known. I loved how it felt, walking the halls with Leslie there. We were young and beautiful and filled with intelligence and potential. After school, we went to the tennis court, but rather than just volleying back and forth we hit the balls and screamed “Wap” the way we imagined the balls might, if they could talk. It annoyed everyone around us, but we didn’t care. We laughed until we couldn’t breathe. That’s just how it always was with Leslie.

This week, Leslie’s quiet, invisible father died.

She texted me from Arizona, having flown there from her home in Minneapolis. Her husband and children stayed behind, the boy being autistic and needing constant specialized care. When did life get so goddamned complicated and painful, Leslie?

She texted me on the day before he died. She and her dad were sitting on his patio overlooking the golf course. They had made a game, she told me, using their iPhones to make fart sounds every time one of the sunburned retirees took a swing at the ball. Invisible father, fading fast, had chuckled then. This is your gift, Leslie, one of many. The funniness. The ability to stare down the worst monster, eye to eye, and crack a joke at its expense.

Some things never change. Nor should they.

Leslie. My God.

Even this, even now, you are still that girl, you are still beautiful, you are still hilarious, you are still the best friend I’ve ever had.

My heart hurts for you.

After he died, in the moments after, she spoke to me. Her quiet, reserved, emotionally unavailable father. He’d been the reason she found men just like him, all her life drawn to those who would not react. But something amazing had happened when she was in college, with the advent of email. Her father, who had difficulty with eye contact and rarely spoke in person, was a thoughtful, compassionate, funny and wise man in email. He offered her advice there, listened to her there. He was born for machines. There were times, she told me, when she would call him with a problem, only to be met by silence, but that he would email later in the day, or the next day, with warmth and kindness. The complexities of the human spirit, Leslie. How blessed, that you found your father’s soul among the zeroes and ones. How beautiful, that you connected there, and how incredible that he, the silent man at the periphery of our adolescences, was more like us than we ever knew then.

I am so sorry, friend. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for the many years that have passed like a comet. I am sorry you have had so much pain, so much loss, so many ways in which life has not lived up to its promises to that tall, thin, beautiful girl I first met in middle school. I am sorry I wasn’t there with you, as he took his last breath and you played Etta James for him as he did.

“I’m picking up his ashes,” you texted me yesterday. “I refuse to say cremains.”

“Cremains sounds like a terrible non-dairy liquid foodstuff,” I replied.

“Yes. The cheapest kind.”

Oh, Leslie. How you make me laugh, even when you’re crying. How beautiful you are.

How I love you.

Why “Happiness” is a Debilitating Goal

Jun
08

If you’re a woman, you are probably familiar with the annoyance that is having a complete stranger, almost always male, occasionally terrifying, tell you to “smile” or “cheer up” when you’re doing something like walking down the street doing a mental comparative analysis of various brands of cat food. The dude isn’t really telling you to smile; he’s telling you he’s threatened by you unsmiling. He’s seeking to shame and control you as a means of regulating his unbearable inner world.

This happens to all of us, male and female, in a way, every day, through the incredible American cultural pressure towards happiness. “I just want you to be happy,” say our friends. “How are things, good?” ask our coworkers. Even if you’ve been up all night crying into your top sheet because life is extremely difficult right now and you were too depressed to get up for another box of tissues, you do what everyone does: You smile and say everything’s fine, then lock yourself in a public restroom stall to cry a little more.

Our society, focused primarily upon the peddling of things unnecessary to those who can’t afford them, uses happiness to sell stuff, through the dark prince of propaganda: advertising. We are inundated every minute of our waking life with images of shiny, happy people. Got irritable bowels? Just take this pill and you, too, will be joyfully riding a tandem bike in the woods with a super hot girl! Legs hairy as a yeti? Just use this depilatory and, presto, your kids will love you so much they’ll smilingly take their lunch boxes from you as they trot towards the school bus helmed, of course, by a smiling and not at all creepy driver.

This grinning delirium, we are told, is the goal. Of everything. Just get happy, and the rest will follow. We write McFerrin anthems to it, and when the singers of those anthems get too old to look happy (even if they’re still smiling, those pesky frown lines!) we find younger stars to Pharrell it all over the airwaves again. C’mon. Get happy! Americans are more fixated on this one-dimensional emotional ideal than any other culture. We pop antidepressants at a higher rate – much higher – than any other culture. We are desperate to be happy, and never stop to consider that it is the very expectation and requirement of happiness that is making us so unhappy to begin with.

There are many problems with mandating happiness.

One: Life is hard sometimes, and it’s okay to allow space for pain and sorrow. In my own family in the past month we’ve had a murder and a cancer diagnosis. That shit sucks ass. It is okay to be unhappy under unhappy circumstances. In fact, it is necessary, healthy and human.

Two: Sometimes, the only rational response to something is fury. There are many people walking around alive today because anger carried them through pain and abuse that would have otherwise destroyed them. Rage, properly directed, is the catalyst for every liberation movement in human history, and the basis for all comedy worth watching.

Three: To be peaceful is not always to be blissful. Sometimes, peace comes to us in the guise of poignancy, melancholy, despondence. Sometimes, our greatest accomplishment is simply getting through another day in full acceptance of all that is, and this can be a kind of disconsolate pleasure.

Four: The cultural insistence upon a Happiness Goal is not only unrealistic, it is highly invalidating and judgmental. Our discomfort with a full spectrum of human emotion leads us to heap shame upon ourselves and others, for feeling the things that everyone else is also feeling and hiding. This causes undue suffering and self-hatred, and lots of lying. This causes many of us, over time, to learn to doubt our own experience of ourselves, and life, which leads to an insecure sense of self in the world.

Those who read this blog regularly know that I am an awe-struck humanist defined by my unique spiritual smoothie of Buddhist and reasonably Christian fruits. I am at home with the mystery of it all, comforted by our relative insignificance among the vast unknowables of space-time. I am also, as an artist, drawn to all emotions, because without a full spectrum of feelings there is no creative endeavor worth a damn. Happiness is wonderful, when it arises. But so, too, is everything else. To feel is to be alive.

It’s okay to be whatever you are, wherever you are.

It’s okay to feel what you feel.

Just be.

 

Why “The Secret” is a Weapon of Privilege

Jun
06

 

I have written two screenplays in the past two months. One is artsy and historical, about a forgotten woman genius from Victorian-era Berlin. It was a passion project and I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of people about it. The other is an adaptation of my second novel, done at the request of my producing partner, for a Mexican TV and music star. That one, I’ve rewritten twice, from the ground up. Hundreds and hundreds of unsatisfactory pages tossed into the bin of discontent. Writing, they say, is rewriting. Man, is that true.

Meanwhile, my money is once again running out. It has been this way for the past ten years. I lurch from project to project, paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes I get paid once a year. Sometimes twice. Sometimes, not at all. I have to find a way to make the money last until I sell the next thing, and sometimes the timing is off because of a million unanticipated setbacks. This is one such time. I’ve got enough to last me maybe another month, and then – nada.

So I do what any artist with a kid does: I look for a day job. Those are hard to come by in Albuquerque. This is the poorest state in the nation, with the highest unemployment rate. Wages are low, and demand for my skill set is next to zero. I have been stuck here since my divorce 13 years ago, because I am not the sort of mother to take her son across state lines without permission, and my ex is not the sort of father to not care whether he sees his son regularly or not.

This morning, as I shared my frustrations in job hunting with a friend, I was dismayed by his response. He came at me with all this “quit your stinking thinking” bullshit. “Write the job and salary you want to get, on a piece of paper, and put it on the wall next to your bed. Put that energy out into the universe and it will come back to you.”

This is the usual nonsense spewed by people who adhere to “The Secret” and other magical thinking around prosperity and success. If you’re failing, the theory goes, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to be shiny, sweet, happy and optimistic. It’s no coincidence that the person who told me this happens to be a white male working in the health care field and making a six figure salary. He owns three homes, rents two of them out for income. In his mind, my failure to find money is entirely my own fault, for just not trying hard enough.

The first problem with this pseudo-psychology/science is that it blames the victim. Most of the 7 billion people on earth live in extreme poverty and deprivation; by this privileged man’s “logic,” it’s their own fault. The entire third world just isn’t living up to their potential because of stinking thinking. This is nothing short of metaphysics, in the worst way, a type of prosperity religiosity that absolves society and community from the responsibility of helping those in need, by giving everyone permission to judge those in need as being just not happy enough to deserve success.

The second problem with “The Secret” and other such “advice” is that it isn’t advice at all. It is judgment, often uninformed and unfair, usually given by those who have more than enough and believe they deserve it. It does not take into account the very real issues of classism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, ageism, economic disadvantage. It ignores the prejudices of the world, and says, in essence, that those who have, have because they deserve it. This is utter bullshit.

The third problem is that “The Secret” is nothing but a grand experiment in confirmation bias, allowing people to extrapolate and see whatever it is that they want to see, without requirement of empirical evidence or, of course, compassion.

I’m not in this position because I am negative. I’m not in this position because I don’t work hard enough. I’m in this position for a host of reasons, many of them out of my control. My “friend” likes to think of himself as a Buddhist, but in truth he, like so many other new age adherents from backgrounds of privilege, misses the point. Buddha never taught that you could think pain or difficulty away. Quite the opposite. Buddhism gives people the tools with which to endure and accept circumstances beyond their control, without losing their minds or souls.

While it is certainly true that there are some people who find themselves in difficult circumstances because they lack initiative, that is not the case for most human beings. If “The Secret” were real, most of us would not be struggling. But it’s not real. It is nonsense. It’s no different than the idiotic claim some make that we bring about our own illnesses through negative thinking. Sometimes, motherfucker, you just happen to have grown up a block from a toxic waste dump and now you have fucking cancer.