Nothing says rebellion like marking your body and punching holes into it. I used to walk past that tattoo and piercing shop oftentimes too tipsy to remember. I’m sure I swayed more than I limbered. Not even three months after my Dad passed away, I sat there determined to live the life I needed to move on.
Before my Dad passed away, I started that journey in the most responsible way imaginable. I was in the process of getting my driver’s license and paying off school so I could re-enroll, planning to graduate from University of Maryland University College and then heading off to George Mason University School of Public Policy and Government, dead set on working in public policy for underserved women. My feminist roots grew in 2012, volunteering for the the local chapter of National Organization of Women. I knew what I wanted to do for a career, finally moving on from those journalism dreams of my teens and twenties. Ciara wanted to change the world.
The first responsible move I made after my Dad passed away was to pay off my remaining balance at Drexel, which by then was down to $1,300. He left my brother and I close to $45,000 to help us both rebuild after his passing. I thought this was it. I punched my ticket to living my best life, my gift to live this life.
My Dad and I were super close. Although parents should never be their child’s best friend, my Dad was the closest he could be to that without losing that structure and discipline all parents possess. Every day I came home from work, I’d first walk downstairs to his office, this place he built from scratch. I remember when he put up the drywall and wired the electricity. Always the electrical engineer, he found joy in carpentry when the world became chaotic around him. I didn’t know we were mere months away from foreclosure, not knowing that my Dad charged me rent not because he wanted to teach me a life skill but rather because he couldn’t afford to pay the utilities.
My Dad was unemployed during my high school and college years. By the time of his death, he lived off of his pension from the phone company and my rent. After being forced to retire from the phone company, he tried his hand at doing odd jobs to pay the bills, cashing out stock options and hurdling deep into credit card debt. Through all of this, he never told me how dire life became for all of us. Even as I would drag my body down into his office every day to complain about my earliest forays into corporate America, he never felt called to divulge the truth of our situation. He didn’t want to scare me. It was his problem to solve, not ours.
I picked up that trait from him. Sadly.
Even in that Hell, my Dad left his life insurance policy untouched. In retrospect, I wish he cashed it out and paid the penalty. My brother and I would have found a way to be okay. But even in his worst moment, he refused to think about himself. My Dad was deathly loyal. Another trait passed down to me.
In his absence, I vowed to be responsible but then I realized that I didn’t have those eyes watching me or that office to saunter into every night. Seeing my Dad everyday kept my eyes on the prize, a constant reminder to keep it clean, to make him proud. I remember writing inside of a birthday card for him that I was thankful he didn’t give up on me when I left college. “I really needed to hear that. Thank you,” he said. I needed to redeem myself for the gift given to me to start over even when I didn’t deserve it. Before he passed, I was on the road to redemption. To my father’s pride.
That pride would spazz out on me when I would come home late from the city. He feared for my life, his 20-something year old daughter who dated more men than she could remember, who spent nights in Washington D.C. and didn’t come home until the morning. I had to call him when I would be out late just so he knew I was alive. I would creep into the house at 1:00 AM so I wouldn’t wake him. I would go straight to a happy hour and not his office. I missed his bedtime hugs. I know he hated that. I never brought a man into the house, for both parties’ sanity. I didn’t want my Dad to meet some dude that wouldn’t be around for the long run. That felt disrespectful. Having sex in cars parked outside of the house was okay but meeting my Dad? Not cool.
I went to spend a weekend with a man instead of visiting my Dad after I made the decision to take him off of life support. I broke my promise.
I made it my mission to fulfill that promise even in his death. But as I started my journey to complete my dreams even in his absence, I realized something: he was absent. That’s all it took.
So there I was, a 24 year-old with $45,000 to blow and the lack the parental control I always wanted. This is the definition of “not ending well.” And it didn’t. But yet, out of my hands, it did. I landed in this city — Pittsburgh — which stewed inside of my bones as much as Philadelphia did. The same city my Dad ran from was the city that saved me when I got tired of running from my Dad’s death.
I got my tattoo and nose ring within two days of each other, all from the same tattoo shop I walked by, tipsy from drinking away my father’s hospital stay. To be free meant to do all of the things that my Dad would chastise me into oblivion for, tattoos and piercings as one of them. I started with a stud but I was determined to have a nose ring. Super rebellious Black woman, I thought. This was before nose rings on Black girls would be regular staples on Tumblr and Instagram. Buying Aquaphor and saline brought me so much joy. Walking into an empty house with no Dad to check me for my choices in body adornment made the decision to alter my physical easier to swallow.
An empty house became the norm. After my grandmother moved out of the house, it was just myself floating around an empty four-bedroom house in the suburbs of D.C. I remember late nights soaking in the Jacuzzi bathtub inside the master bedroom, zoning out to D’Angelo’s second album and the early AM jazz radio station, candles lit, phone blowing up from calls and texts from some random dude. He wanted to see me, I wanted to see him. We had sex in my Dad’s bed. We were firmly planted in that stage called “do not care.” I left those public policy dreams out to dry. I lived for the every day not for my future. I drowned in my present. Happily.
I masqueraded by pain in pretending to care about myself. But when the pain overwhelmed me, I always chose to run away. That pain smacked me often. I was left responsible to clean out the house, paying for the removal of my Dad’s things which doubled as removing him from my life. Life’s metaphorical that way, it seemed. With every dresser and mattress and piece of office furniture leaving the house also went my Dad. This slow, grueling process of removing my Dad from the space he made his home. And I used the money he left me from his death to kill him a second time. It smacked me so hard, a second set of grief. The house became a responsibility, my way of taking care of my Dad. With his things gone, I had no reason to be in the house. I needed to get away.
Philadelphia was that.
I had no business re-enrolling into Drexel. I hated it there. College, the first time around, was such a let-down for me. I didn’t take advantage of being away from home, barely making friends. I lived inside of my dorm and not in the streets of Philadelphia. The fun I could have had escaped me so when I came home from school, I wilded out in the way as if to make up for time. My early twenties were full of debauchery masked in fun and finding myself. I kept a knife in my back pocket to record all of the notches above my bedpost. It’s when I learned sex to be transactional, for him and not for me. That I was desirable, something that eluded me all of my life. Those texts to have sex was enough, self-esteem adrenaline.
But in my mind, I had nowhere else to go. Philadelphia was the easy way out. I knew I could enroll in school fairly quickly, the process took just days. I picked my classes and set off to find a place to stay for the last two semesters of school.
I subleased an apartment blocks away from campus. I remember taking a picture inside one of the classrooms on my first day. I knew it to be fraudulent. I wasn’t in school to finish, I was there to run away. But yet, I couldn’t. When I didn’t have class, I would be on an Amtrak train to D.C. and back into my house. The house was empty but the electricity and water were still on. I’d sleep on the living room floor, laptop blaring NPR. Without a television, I needed entertainment. What would be days would turn into weeks. I stopped going to class, trading in books for bottles. In that process, I hemorrhaged money. It’s very easy to run when you have the means to do so. Paying rent on an apartment I didn’t stay in plus paying utilities on a house that continued to be my refuge will gut you.
I owed Drexel more money from running away the second time than I did the first therefore I couldn’t enroll in my last set of classes. I grew paranoid. Where could I go? My sublease was up in a month and the house was off limits. Once the last objects were removed from the house, I banned myself from going back. In retrospect, I think I knew it to be time to let go. I grew tired of its emptiness, time was up.
Time was creeping on me too. Crippled by the deadlines, I became a recluse. I went looking for apartments with no money and no job, the $45,000 down to the last hundred or so. My Aunt called me worried, myself only able to muster up that I was okay. I wasn’t. She woke me up from sleeping all day on a deflated air mattress held together by packing tape. She told me that she spoke to my Aunt Shelly about me going to Pittsburgh to “get away” from it all. I needed a refuge, a place to heal from all of the chaos. I told her I was fine and that I didn’t any help.
I was walking faithfully into my destruction. I knew just the right medicine.
I made that OKCupid profile to find sex with no strings attached. I needed medicine, I thought. I also needed some penis before my world laid set to implode. Let’s go out with a bang.
The first guy I met loved PBS, at least that’s what he told me on the phone hours before I met up with him. I grabbed a cab in the middle of the night to an apartment complex in Southwest Philadelphia. As long as I had been in the city, I never ventured that far into that side of town because I had no business over there. Especially in that moment. We both took a shot or D’Usse and got to what I came far. He hugged me before I got on the trolley back into town. He gave me money to buy a Plan-B.
On that trolly ride back, another man I was talking to started messaging me. He lived close by and he wanted to meet up. I went home, took a shower and ran back out into West Philly, somewhere close to University of the Sciences. He was such a teddy bear, cute smile and glasses like mine. He seemed super sweet, asking me if I wanted to stop for food first before we went to his place. His roommate was gone so we didn’t have much time.
Something about him felt boyfriend-like. I think his kisses had everything to do with it. They were the softest and sweetest kisses I ever received in my life. Maybe I was taken aback by how much he was my type: pudgy with a beard, four-eyed, somewhat of a dork. We talked on his couch for hours afterwards, him telling me that we could hang out when he went to house-sit for one of his friends in a few weeks. I told him that I didn’t have much time. He told me that he could make some.
For some reason, I opened up to him about where my life was at the time. When I said that I didn’t know where I was going to live, he offered up his space. His roommate wouldn’t mind, he shared. I had a job interview the next day, I told him. He was more excited than I was about it. He gave me every pleasantry I wanted to hear from a man in a time when everything felt hopeless. As a hook-up he gave me more care and emotion than men I had years of relationships with. Maybe that sparked my need for men in moments of trauma. In all honesty, that started days after my Dad died.
We held hands as we walked to the food spot down the street from his apartment. He looked and felt like a boyfriend to me. Hours ago I was a random girl from a dating website, in this moment I was claimed. There was no shame in where I was and who I was with and I loved that. I should have felt some semblance of guilt about sleeping with two different men within the span of twelve hours but truthfully, I was too numb to feel a damn thing. But I felt like I found my savior. So when he asked me to be his girlfriend, I obliged.
I changed my relationship status on Facebook. I was that done for.
I felt my body heat up, smacked by this fire I couldn’t explain. My chest became so hot, my limbs trembled.
“Get the fuck out.”
We were cuddled up on my floor watching Frasier. I binged watched the entire series weeks prior, escaping into the world of Niles and Frasier, mad that Daphne caved to Niles’ predatory advances. As I zoned out into the space, I looked down ts my “boyfriend” and became disgusted. He didn’t need be here, I thought. What the hell am I doing? Ciara?! The air in the room became tight, my eyes drew red.
I pushed him off of me. I screamed at the top of my lungs for him to leave. “You need to leave.” I forced him down the steps, tripping over my own feet. He cursed me out all the way down and I didn’t care. As I labored back up the steps to my apartment, I body grew weak. I crawled over to my phone, tears draining me of all of my energy. I only ever saw people cry to the brink of not breathing in movies. I was there.
I ran into my bathroom and gagged. I told Aunt Shelly about everything, all of the men and all of the mistakes. I could hear her anger seeping through the phone. I felt a release that eluded me since my Dad died. I never talked about my Dad after he passed away because it felt pointless. I couldn’t conjure him back into my life. He wasn’t coming back. But for the first time I felt my Dad’s absence. He isn’t here to protect you from yourself anymore and this is the result.
“You need to get your fucking ass to Pittsburgh. Now.”
With the last hundred or so I had from my Dad’s life insurance, I bought my train ticket to Pittsburgh. There he was again, saving me from myself.
I gave myself to Christ in 2017. To many that’s the formal introduction of the Holy Spirit into my life. But for me, I first met Her in August 2013, as I sat on that floor in the arms of a man that saw me as his sexual receptacle just hours prior. I joke that my Dad sent an SOS to God or something. I wasn’t thinking about God or Jesus or any of those things. I was slowly dying and God said “enough.” Nothing else could have pushed me to the brink of guttural tears, nearly throwing a man out of my apartment. I wasn’t meant to go out that way.
I left Philadelphia a broken body and soul. I slept with someone before I left to catch the train to Pittsburgh. I wasn’t quite through with being the physical embodiment of my grief. When I stepped off of the train, I didn’t quite know what to expect of my life. I barely knew a soul in this city which may have been God’s plan. When I went back home to D.C. weeks after to settle up my Dad’s estate, I hated it. I found out that my brother and I were set to receive another $6,000 from the estate. I winced. I remember the last time I received a posthumous amount of money from my Dad. But as someone working part-time retail, I needed it. This wasn’t play money, it was survival money.
When my Aunt Shelly died of a heart attack in 2014, that money saved my life. It paid for the apartment I needed to move into with less than a month’s notice. I kept myself afloat as I sunk into another state of depression and grief from another loss I wasn’t ready for. When I found out that Aunt Shelly left no money for either me or my brother, choosing my cousins instead, I felt no ways about it. She saved my life, that’s payment enough.