Stories for Liberation: The Candle

The Candle by Gwynne Duncan

What does it mean to give a voice without a name? What does it mean to have one’s rights suddenly snatched away? What does it feel like to live in the shadows? The need to build a movement for the restoration of our rights, one where people are recognized for their humanity and not their status, is more urgent than ever, and we can only do it by recognizing each individual, one story at a time.  We post this story anonymously, although the writer is a public figure, in mourning for the many who are not safe to attach their names to their stories.

It is curious how a smell, a particular and simple scent that travels through your nostrils and takes hold in your brain, nothing more than a regular physical process, can suddenly unleash so much love, nostalgia, anger, despair…one thousand thousand memories that with each inhalation, hurt a little bit more. 

That day I was at TJ Maxx. It was December, Christmas was just right around the corner and I, with my 6-month pregnant belly, was one of dozens of shoppers in search for the perfect gift at the lowest price, something nice to brighten up what would surely be an otherwise dreary day.

I could not make up my mind. Would I buy a sweater, again, for my mother in law? Or perhaps a nice, rich lotion? Undecided and bored between my two choices, I moved along and decided to smell candles.

Like bonbons, candles of all colors, shapes and sizes, beckoned from the shelves. Sweet vanilla, maple butter, citrus breeze, I loved one and all. But it was one of those candles, indeterminate and without consequence, with its unexpected scent of mimosa and ginesta, those small, tiny, golden flowers of my childhood, of the tree on the street corner of my school, of the bush of the Sunday hikes with my father, that finally crystalized, like a kick to the stomach, in a moment of lightning, the great and terrible loss I had suffered just a few days before.

The loss of my legal status, and with it, the loss of my birth country, the loss of my innocence and the end of a dream. It felt like a knife, digging a little bit deeper every time I smelled the damned candle, and I couldn’t stop it. I broke down, sobbing under the fluorescent lights and fake Christmas decorations, among the startled shoppers, and I’m sure, with the pregnancy hormones at their highest levels spurring my tears and my pain, I saw with a prophetic clarity, my future. And I felt it, I felt it unraveling, like dropping a glass of water on a ink drawing, the lines of was supposed to happen, what was once clear, blurring, melting, the shapes turning into blobs, until there was nothing, until it was ruined, like my hopes and aspirations, has beens of someone who dared to dream.

“Are you alright?” I heard.

“Oh yes,“ I said, ”thank you, I’m just missing my family, and being pregnant, you know, everything is a little more dramatic.“ I felt my face grimace, do a somewhat lopsided ”you know how it is“ gesture, waiting, so this random and gentle stranger moved on. Little did I know, this was the first of many more times to come, where I had to lie, to dodge, to make myself smaller, to mask my pain, to deny…to hide.

**********

“Would you like this wrapped?” asked the TJ Maxx cashier. “Yes, please,” I said, and as I watched the woman pull out a yellowish stack of paper and begin the wrapping. I thought, “Yes, please, wrap my dreams, my childhood, carefully wrap my happy memories, watch out for the corners, they are especially important, wrap my heart and my reason, don’t let them become broken pieces.” “Will this scent carry me through what’s to come?” I thought, “Please God, will smelling this candle remind me of who I am? of who was I supposed to be? Will it be enough?’

I didn’t buy anything else that day, and as I stood on the sidewalk, holding an over-wrapped candle for dear life, my watery eyes focused on the nothingness of a grey, wintery parking lot, watching people coming and going, I thought about you, who moved inside me, you, who reminded me I was alive, you, another innocent that would suffer the consequences of injustice, and I became angry, angry at my body and its bad fucking timing, angry at this white person obliviously going into the store, going about their life as if the world had suddenly not lost its meaning, angry because I deserved to be oblivious as well, angry at the absurdity of it all, angry because suddenly I did not belong anymore. Me, the honor student, the editor in chief of the college newspaper, me who was readying to welcome a son, me, who had Believed. And now, I was another statistic, a sad story, now I was a pretender among these shoppers, and oh god, for how long will I be able to pass, do people see it in my face? in my downcast, shifty brown eyes?

I got in the car and cried, because now, so far away from the warm memories of my home country and that sweet, rich scent of my childhood, now, I had finally understood that “I” was no more. “I” was an aberration, “I” had no rights, and “I” was unequivocally and completely transformed. The scholarships I was sure to get? gone. The great job I had lined up? poof. The driver’s license that would soon expire? oh well. The insurance I needed to give birth? start begging. And the questions? from loved ones? from acquaintances? from strangers? you better start making something up.

D-E-S-P-A-I-R. Despair. Such a short, imprecise word. Those who have truly felt it know, it is drowning in oceans of mud, it is choking on your bitter tears until you gag, it is salt on an open, pus-filled wound. And that December day, in the cold parking lot of a TJ Maxx, with the scent of a mimosa candle still filling my nostrils, I gave birth to a bloody, desperate, ME.

My future is dead I thought, long live the bleak, underground future!

I started the car and went home.

**************

“Do you think I should avoid Quogue?” I ask my husband. “I mean, you know there’s that cop that is always parked on that corner on Main St. and he’s notorious for stopping Latinos,“ I remind him. He looks at me with fearful eyes. “Yes, I think it might be best for now,“ he says, and grabs my hand, holds tight, his warm, hazel eyes boring into mine, willing me to give him a solution I can’t provide.

“I’m sorry,” I say. Sorry for making him worry, sorry for this mess I’m in, sorry because, fortunately for me, he is able to function in this society as a documented person. He is now my lifeline, this good, gentle, loving man. He is what will keep me safe from the wolves.

I know I am one of the lucky few.

The father of my son is documented, he loves me, he understands what his role is now. There are so many who do not have a “documented” person they can count on. It’s almost like a commodity, a prize, among us, the unwanted, the unseen, the ones living in the shadows. To know and trust a documented person, one who will help you no matter what, one who cares… yeah, that feels like winning the lotto, that feels like a secret treasure you have to hide. Because he is in my corner, I won’t have to pay a stranger astronomic fees for car insurance, I will have a safe place to live, with a lease or a mortgage in his name, he’ll be the driver for long distance trips, he, is now the umbrella who will shelter me in the storm, and I, am an extension of him, a phantom limb of his persona, in this new, scary world. With him, I can pretend, fake it, take those morsels of feeling like a complete citizen, a full functioning person, at least for a moment, for this instant, at least on the surface. It almost feels real. “Take that! I am still me!” I want to shout.

But of course, reality has a funny, tragic way of intruding, and I remember, oh right, I better not go to Quogue, you never know if that cop is waiting, like a spider in his net, for us, the unsuspecting, brown little flies that go about our day, innocently, drunk on the inevitability of daring to have a life.

My husband will also be the one, who for the first time, years down the road, will introduce my home country to my son. For this I can almost hate him, but even with that false, irrational hate filling my heart, I make a list for him, detailing, painfully and exactly, each place he has to go, each person he has to see, so he can show my son the treasures of my memories. I can see it so clearly, both of them, walking hand in hand, both brown-skinned, black-haired, the sun warming their faces, promenading through the streets of my little town, hearing the unfamiliar, distinct accent of my people, touching the soil of my land. Will they smell together the mimosa trees? Will they go hiking to find the ginesta flowers? I can feel myself almost there, watching my son gaze into the distance of the beloved landscapes of my childhood, and with that vision, holding in my mind an invented memory of my son visiting my home country without me, I feel my soul lose another piece, I feel this curse wound itself a little deeper in my soul, and I start to forget.

Who am I? Who am I?

Who—
am—
I?


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