Jaquira Díaz’s essay “Ordinary Girls” appears in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review. Read an excerpt here.
Great writing is like diving: anybody can get from the platform to the pool—or the pavement—but some, with grace and sweat and just a bit of swag, can make that brief passage through the air angelic in its beauty and terror. “We started talking about dying long before the first woman jumped,” writes Jaquira Díaz in her essay “Ordinary Girls” in the new issue of KR. As an opening sentence, that’s like getting a good bounce off the board. We sense that there’s nothing but air below her, but it’s also clear she’ll work some magic on the way down.
That opening sentence also establishes some important facts: there’s something tragic—and tragically self-congratulatory—in these ordinary girls, who like to savor the thought of their own swan songs:
What our parents would do once we were gone. What Mr. Nuñez, the assistant principal at Nautilus Middle School, would say about us on the morning announcements, how many of our friends would cry right there on the spot. The songs they would dedicate to us on Power 96 so that all of Miami Beach could mourn us—Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” D.R.S.’s “Gangsta Lean.” Who would go to our funerals—boys who’d broken our hearts, boys whose hearts we’d broken.
It’s a sadly ordinary fantasy for these teenage girls, even sadder because even they know there’s nothing original in any of it. Sure, they’ve been talking about dying, but someone beat them to it, draining all the romance right out of it, turning their fantasy into brutal gravity:
My father was in the security booth outside the lobby when he started getting calls from some of the Southgate residents. They thought they’d heard a crash, something falling from the sky, the air-conditioning unit on the roof maybe. Or maybe someone had flung something heavy off their balcony. Nobody expected it to be a person, least of all my father.
The poetry, both for these ordinary girls and within Díaz’s essay, lies in the details of their disposable lives, which they imagine that their deaths will raise to the level of tragedy. They sit on the swings in Normandy Park, digging their sneakers into the dirt as they rock back and forth, talking about the art of dying:
We talked about how we’d do it, imagined we could make it look like a tragic accident. We’d get hit by a Metro bus while crossing the street, which would be easy since nobody expected a girl to just step in front of a bus in the middle of the afternoon. The park would be alive with people—ballers on the courts, kids on the merry-go-round, boys riding their bikes on the sidewalk, hood rats on the corner waiting for who knows what. We’d smoke one last stolen cigarette, flick the butt before we jumped the fence out of the park. Then we’d take care of it, the business of dying.
These ordinary girls want extraordinary deaths: heads turning, a shocked audience. They dream about a grand gesture, a story everyone in the neighborhood will remember and retell, turning their lives into street poetry:
Some girls took sleeping pills and then called 911, or slit their wrists the wrong way and waited to be found in the bathtub. But we didn’t want to be like those ordinary girls. We wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from.
Ordinary girls didn’t drive their parents’ cars off the Fifth Street Bridge into Biscayne Bay, or jump off the back of a pickup in the middle of I-95, or set themselves on fire. Ordinary girls didn’t fall from the sky.
Drop mic. Put on “Gangsta Lean.” They’ll never forget you, girl.
But this is still just the essay’s initial bounce off the diving board, its exhilarating upward flight, which makes the breath catch in its readers’ throats. Where it really grabs us is in its descent. It turns out that there’s real tragedy here: not the tragic beauty they imagine in dying by violence or a leap from an apartment tower’s roof, but the ordinary tragedy of lives spent for nothing, at nothing, with nothing to inspire even the faintest hope.
We were pissed off at the whole fucking world—our teachers, the principal, the school security, the D.A.R.E cop. All those people, they just didn’t get that there was no way in hell we could care about homework, or getting to school on time—or at all—when our parents were on drugs or getting stabbed, and we were getting arrested or jumped or worse. Only three months before, Mikey, Kilo’s best friend, had been killed in a drive-by shooting.
Díaz begins by making these girls ordinary: even their tragic fantasies seem like scenes from a music video playing in their heads. But as the essay goes on, she leads us behind that dream of a sunlit closing shot, and what we find there is the real tragedy, daily, degrading, and impossible to escape:
I was living with Mami in South Beach. She’d been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia three years before and was on a cocktail of antipsychotics and anxiety medications. She was also using cocaine.
Our nights together were unpredictable. Sometimes my mother slept for sixteen hours straight. Sometimes she paced around the apartment talking to herself, laughing, screaming at me for doing God knows what. Sometimes she threw plates across the room, or threatened to burn me with a hot iron, or gave me a full-blown ass-whipping. I was five-feet-six by the time I was eleven, four inches taller than my mother, something she loved to remind me of as she was kicking my ass—the bigger I got, the bigger my beat-down had to be. Eventually I started hitting her back.
There’s nothing glamorous about these scenes; they’re too terrible, too ordinary, to come with a soundtrack. When the real suicide attempts begin, they’re painfully real, ending in an emergency room with a tube in the eleven-year-old narrator’s nose and charcoal vomit splattering the front of her T-shirt. And yet, as the seductive beauty of that opening image of girls falling from the sky finally gets stripped away, what emerges is the human beauty of pain, endurance, and survival. There’s no art to dying, Díaz reminds us in “Ordinary Girls.” The real art is learning to forgive what cannot be forgotten, to defy that merciless gravity with a dream not of falling but of flight.
Great writing may look like diving, at least to someone as earth-bound as an editor, but that’s because it’s the closest we can get to flying using only gravity and grace. In “Ordinary Girls,” Jaquira Díaz demonstrates that grace is what gravity demands of us, making what is heavy seem, strangely, more capable of flight.