Tianna’s Big Brave Heart Goes to the Aquarium (Release)
Thursday, April 7, 2022
If I had to guess, I am six or seven or eight years old. My black hair is wild, touching my shoulders, slightly curled at the ends. With a warm embrace, I am wrapped in a flannel long sleeve shirt for another cold Connecticut winter. This was around the time my grandmother gifted me a Siberian Husky stuffed animal from my favorite Beanie Babies Collection and he’s in my hands. I was six or seven or eight years old, so I named him Sie because I thought the dog breed was spelled, “Sieberian Huskie.” My bangs are crooked, cut by yours truly; a time when I needed attention and a little bit more care.
… And now, I’m realizing this hasn’t changed.
Anyways, I’m around the corner from a few of my favorite memories. My little brother was born on a Sunday not too far from here, up the street from the first time I took pottery classes with my mother, the bridge where my family watched the July 4th parade, and the pizza restaurant where we played chess on Tuesday evenings. This is what feels like centuries ago, eons, lifetimes, but in my dreams, I am still there.
I want to tell you about the toy store across the bridge. It was here that I fell in love with a red and white 101 Dalmatians notebook and decided I would be a writer.
Mystical Toys, a child’s dream. Would you take my hand? We walk through the gigantic glass doors, a world of puzzles, remote control cars, Beanie Babies, and jump ropes. You point out the hula hoops that light up as you twist your hips and clap your hands. Stacked to the ceiling are PlayMobil toys, Lego sets, colorful bracelets, animal stickers, Pokémon cards, multiplication tables, and books of every kind. At the front door, there is a $0.25 cent gumball machine at the front door and the colors are like the rainbow. I know you fancy adventure, so grab my hand, come with me.
Every December, there’s a mailbox to mail letters to Santa Claus. I decorate my letter with Lisa Frank stickers and glitter pens and make a wish. A few months ago, my mom told me the toy store likely threw out the letters. In my mind, at 29 years old, my letter was headed to the North Pole. I cannot begin to tell you how sad this makes me. Was my letter not important enough for someone to place a stamp on the top right corner? For someone to mail, somewhere, please? For a tiny elf to read my letter with a smile, over little elf snacks and warm milk?
“Oh, this was written by Tianna!” the elf exclaims, “How sweet, she really wants a dog and she even mentioned how her little brother wants superpowers!”
Lately in my dreams, if I had to guess, I am six or seven or eight years old. I’m standing in front of the Mystic Aquarium, seven minutes from Mystical Toys. Purple is my favorite color and Sie, my stuffed animal, is tucked lovingly in my arms. There I am, tall and awkward and lanky, my mama’s smile and my daddy’s legs, a kid full of ideas, craving additional blank paper to dream, create, additional days to climb trees, sister and brother adventure time, broom rides on my Nimblus 3000, and bike rides.
I have two tickets in my hand to the aquarium. Will you join me?
Here at the Mystic Aquarium, I’m sitting on the curb, feet dangling, wet cheeks, and no one comes for me. I put a quarter in the payphone and dial the 860-area code. No one answers.
My smile departed right before closing. I’ve been sitting here for hours, tickets still clutched tightly in my left hand.
Didn’t I ask you to come with me, to the aquarium?
Didn’t you say yes, you would love to join me?
Did we not agree on a time?
I told you about my favorite exhibit and you did not come and that makes me sad.
On the walk home, I angrily rip the tickets to shreds, wind escorting the remains. Yes, I know littering is bad bad not good, but I do not know what to do with my anger. Someone once told me anger is not good and sadness is not okay. And since I am six or seven or eight years old, I cannot find my way home. No one comes for me, but good thing I’ve got Sie and my drawing of boa constrictor digesting an elephant, right?
I wanted to see the otters. I wanted to squish my face right up against the glass, eyes wide, hands extended, heart exposed, and tell you how much the aquarium means to me.
It takes years to arrive home to my bunkbed with the photo of the Labrador Retriever puppy on the wall. Far too many years. When I open the door, I’m terribly aware no one realized I was missing. Perhaps someone noticed, and thought, hey, atleast she’s independent, right?
Even though I’m only six or seven or eight years old.
I want to tell you that sometimes my emotions are so overwhelming that I don’t know what to do with them. I never learned how, but I pinky promise pinky pinky promise you that I would love to learn.
Can you be patient with me, please? I promise I am trying my absolute best. I do not know how to do these things, but can you just maybe, sit beside me?
I just need to know you’ll be there for me, most of the time, you know, that’s how I feel safe and close to you.
There is humiliation in my chest; confusion on why I cannot express what I desperately need. So, when my favorite color was purple and I was six or seven or eight years old, I convinced myself that I never wanted to go to the aquarium again.
And… I scrape my knees on pavement, fall from treetops, and watch the blood gush after I trip and fall and and and I never tell you where it hurts, oh how much it hurts, can you please kiss my boo-boo? I really need a Band-Aid and a hug, but I wrap my knee in a McDonald’s napkin and pretend to not see red.
But can you please wake up? I’m telling you a story. Can you please pay attention to me? I saw a Labrador retriever on my bus ride home from school and the puppy was pretty… I really want a dog. I think I would buy her a purple collar!
I promise I will feed her every single day and take her on long walks and OH! I will brush her each and every day and tell her I love her so so much… and I will put funny photos of us on our holiday cards, and I will thank her for being a part of my family…
Can you please pay attention, to me, please? Do I need to try harder, maybe I need to yell, or here– here is my report card– straight A’s, oops one B, – and OH! look I can do a left-hand lay-up– the most difficult of them all! Can you see me… now? If I call you, are you going to pick up the phone or call me back? And consistency, I would love it if you didn’t just disappear and you were here, right here…
So, I quickly learn to never tell a soul… that bats are my best friend’s favorite animal, butterflies remind me of freedom, and being near the ocean makes me feel incredibly loved and safe and calm. I write this in my red and white 101 Dalmatians journal and doodle butterflies in 7th grade homeroom.
One can only pretend for so long. In the band room I find the courage to tell John Cradle about the beluga whales. This is around the time I’m absorbed by Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince and Hermione is a role model. I am thirteen years old holding my clarinet, staring at my white Air Forces, blinking back tears of rejection and sadness and confusion and teenage angst, as he tells me he doesn’t like me anymore. I don’t understand why, did I do something wrong, what happened? Was I not enough? I don’t have the words to tell my friends what happened, so on the field trip to the aquarium, I refuse the required permission slip and stay behind. Alone.
The following day at the lunch table, I ask not one question about the aquarium, but deep down deep deep down I really wanted to know if they saw the beluga whales. Did they get up close and press their faces against the glass? The question is on the tip of my tongue. There’s the boiling embarrassment in my chest, hotness on my face, gym class sweat under my armpits.
I never ask and every time I see him, I stare at my shoelaces.
But WAIT!!! did I tell you that beluga whales are my absolute favorite?!?! Press your face against the glass and look closely, beluga whales look so delighted, tell me they aren’t smiling! And did I tell you, did I tell you!!! that humans only know 10% of what is in the ocean? Ten percent! “What do you think is in the other 90% in the ocean?” I’d ask, if only I had the confidence and self-esteem of my classmates… If only my voice didn’t tremble when I spoke and you know, if I was capable of eye contact without my eyes watering.
I never ask because who cares. Instead, I think about the time my childhood best friend, Katie, and I befriended a Loch Ness Monster at the pond near our house. We are more than 11% certain, so trust us, because we know what we’re talking about. Larry The Loch Ness Monster, living in a pond in Groton, Connecticut. But trust us, we understand him, you know, so we wave at him on car rides to the grocery store instead. Maybe he is too shy to poke his face out and say hello, but I promise that we always saw the ocean move when we waved… Hi.
can you hold tight to your imagination, please?
Years ago, Katie told me that Loch Ness Monsters are not friends with sharks. That night I search deep in my drawer and see my red and white 101 Dalmatians notebook. In purple gel pen, I write-
I miss you so much. Do you think Larry is best friends with beluga whales? Dolphins? When are you coming to visit? I think Larry has atleast one shark friend. Rules do not exist in the ocean, Not the way that adults believe here on land. Do you think that one morning he poked his head out of the ocean and saw a Monarch butterfly?
Fast-forward to high school, my aunt gave me the book, The Time Traveler’s Wife. This was around the time when I met … Afterschool, he taught me how to do a left-hand jump shots and parallel park. I was taller, sporting sky blue braces, and knew more fun facts about the aquarium, he left and I transferred to a private school. I don’t understand why, did I do something wrong, what happened? Was I not enough? To deal with having an invisible cloak, I constructed a wall, said I didn’t want to date, told myself whatever. But deep down I wanted to know why, I felt the same way at sixteen and seventeen and eighteen as I did at six and seven and eight.
And at sixteen and seventeen and eighteen and nineteen, I realize, I’m not sure if anyone has ever seen me, just for me. Anyways… I played dangerous games like placing my worth in how others viewed me, academic success, career, what I had, because hey, accomplishments are more important than someone knowing my favorite color is actually purple.
In college there was … who taught me how to create a makeshift spoon from the corner a Harold’s Chicken takeout tray on the Southside of Chicago; … taught me how to dance, sweaty late nights in the corner of a salsa club swaying to live music, watching the sunrise with friends right next to the Malecón. I fell in love with the book, This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. It was the way he wrote of the ocean in Santo Domingo and the beach next to the aquarium. Page eight still makes me feel like I’m walking into Mystical Toys.
And … taught me to ask for exactly what I wanted, how to speak Spanish, and that chicharron is best with an ice cold Presidente. He later moved to learn English in Nebraska and we never spoke again.
I don’t understand why, did I do something wrong, what happened? Was I not enough?
I decided this was the last time someone would leave me, so I put my heart in a box and kicked it into the Caribbean Ocean.
And… I never let anyone else get close to me, because ouch it stings, please I need a band-aid, I need a hug, I need to know you won’t leave me… but look what I’ve accomplished, can’t you see… But can you please make time for me? I’m telling you a story. Can you please pay attention to me?
And then when I was 29 years old… I met the Little Prince, who brought to my attention that the remaining aquarium ticket was stuck on the left side of my chest and that I should consider doing something about this.
can you believe it? stuck on the left side of my chest? this entire time.
We met on a random November morning. He made quite the impact on my life, gifted me his precious childhood book– a book that I would write if I wrote a book, and disappeared.
I don’t understand why, did I do something wrong, what happened? Was I not enough?
One-way tickets feel like I am sitting on that sidewalk, legs dangling, in front of the Mystic Aquarium. Round-trip tickets feel safe, an itinerary written in pen, and security in both departures and arrivals. But I get it.
It’s easier to leave than be left.
I think everyone wants to go to the aquarium but we don’t know how. I heard there’s a bubblegum machine in the gift shop and the superpower of vulnerability is only $0.25 cents.
I have an extra quarter if you’d like to try.
But I’m terrified and you’re terrified because we are both somehow children in these big clunky adult bodies, desiring to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and accepted in ways that we’ve never experienced. To reach for connection and not know how is intimidating, and to fail, be rejected, discarded, seen as weak, small, vulnerable, emotional, sensitive, to be seen as who we truly are, it is all too much.
So, we run. We hide. It’s difficult on this end, to appreciate the flowers and volcanos in one’s heart and be courageous enough to save space for empathy, disappointment, and understanding. I’d bet that the other end is just as perplexing and it would be silly to think that one end is better than the other.
I thought you wanted to come with me, to the aquarium?
I thought you said you would love to join me?
There was the electronic concert and oh, that restaurant with the small plates. Plans to discover the crispiness that is McDonald’s Sprite. In my freezer is the pie crust for the Brown Sugar Sweet Potato Pie I was going bake. Can you believe that?!?– I don’t have an oven.
He is destined for adventure in a city I visited once. Six years ago, at the Brandenburg Gate, the walking tour guide displayed a photo of his wife and daughter in his wallet’s plastic flap. His daughter just turned two, ginger hair, goofy grin, cheeks covered in crumbs. I remember the happiness on his wife’s face, you could see every single tooth. Their daughter is about eight-years old now. I hope they are doing well.
Anyway… It was autumn when I arrived. I never found warmth; my jacket was not adequate, far too light for the history beneath my feet. At 4AM in my 18-bed hostel room, my toes screamed, icy and worn. I traveled West in search of a tender sun. Oh–– and the ocean, I can’t forget the ocean! Water makes me feel alive and one-way plane tickets set my soul aflame.
I do not know who to share this with. It takes me weeks to understand; this is not personal, this has nothing to do with my worth, there is nothing wrong with me or how I don’t like wearing my glasses because I don’t receive the full vision experience without interruption, or the ridiculous amount of Cookie Dough ice cream I eat. It’s not about what I could have done differently, how I could have been less sensitive, lighter, and less heavy, because you know I’m an artist… I do not know lightness any more than we know what is in the ocean.
This… this retreat triggers something raw, easy to overlook due to adulthood and maturity and blah blah blah. My body learns fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. And for calm, I allow the hot water to sidestep my façade in the shower until the water is as cold as the Puget Sound.
It’s been 782 days. Well… when I click publish, it will be exactly 783 days since you packed your suitcase to seek sanctuary across the country on a new adventure. And maybe I shouldn’t publish this because perhaps this is all too vulnerable?? But isn’t this my art, my space? And who else can write this but me?
Anyway… I knew, he knew, we knew. I avoid asking about a return ticket when I hear the happiness in your voice because shit, I mean don’t we all deserve the happiest of lives? On the phone, your voice sounds just how I remember, bedtime stories from our bunkbed, your song on the skylights in our kitchen, the smell of lavender, and when we went to Mystical Toys. Nine months later, the three of us embrace on an island. I still do not know how to tell anyone that when it comes to this experience in particular, I still feel six or seven or eight.
I just want you both to be happy I pinky promise I swear.
But the seven-year-old in me, man, I do not have the words to tell you how much I miss you, how much I miss our family, the lilac painted walls and smell of eucalyptus in the studio, laughter and boogying of community at our house parties, the beautiful fish tank, stability of a dining room table with exactly four soft tan chairs for conversation and laughter and month-long games of Monopoly. A place to call home. It wasn’t perfect, I know, I saw, I was there, I remember, because I am wise and woke and this maturity and growth bullshit foil my strategy of throwing the biggest temper tantrum ever seen on God’s Green Earth.
I understand heartache at my age, you see, but the seven-year-old in me has no clue. I don’t understand why, did I do something wrong, what happened? Was I not enough for you? Why not? Am I worthy of love? Am I worthy of care? Validation? Why did you go? Consistency?
Why did you leave me?
––OUCH–– it stings, it burns, I am angry I am sad ––OUCH–– I feel abandoned lonely I feel unloved unseen unwanted ––OUCH–– I do not have the penmanship for the emotions flowing from my purple glitter gel pen you see at this age it tastes like rejection it feels like I am not enough how am I around all of these people yet I feel alone why are you not here anymore
was I not enough for you?
There is salt in my wounds and I evade the ocean. Yet, low tides such as vulnerability and rejection and abandonment bring erosion to my soul. I know that I am wise and beautiful and intelligent and career oriented and courageous and brave and expressive and passionate and lovely and kind and sensitive and compassionate… but I really just want you to tell me that I’m enough, right now, exactly as I am.
But can you please make time for me? I’m telling you a story. Can you please pay attention to me? Can you please pick up the phone?
I am still very sad and wow here it is all pouring out of my chest, a part of me that needs a bit more love, care, and attention.
Next month I fly around the moon once more –strange, isn’t it – I have absolutely no idea what I am doing and please– I just want you to tell me I am doing a good job. Can you see me? I’m doing it, I can fly! I feel young gambling with my heart, globe, culture, and language, because there is no roadmap and I am a bit scared. This is big and scary like the dark but I know the both of you gave me a flashlight.
But I want to tell you that I saw the stars for the first time in my life. They were so beautiful, so bright, exquisite– did you see? I’ve found myself in community and feel safe outside at night to dare look up. It’s been lifetimes. To close my eyes to dream and not be terrified of the discovery. Let me tell you- when there is a light drizzle, the seven hills are problematic, but I packed my special shoes. OH! – and the smell of the ocean after rain at 11:03PM makes it so worth it so so so worth it trust me.
And I really really really want to tell you that I am healing myself in gardens– yes actual gardens. I even take my socks off so I can feel alive. There is a rosemary tree and lemons and new friends that know my name. And I am embracing the intimacy of life, which is the sunrise and sunset. I wanted to tell you my love is so happy here I promise I took this photo of her and I swear that she’s smiling. Can’t you see it? She’s smiling! She’s smiling!
I am grieving us, still.
I am grieving you, still.
I called the Little Prince last Thursday to ask if the sheep has eaten the rose. He didn’t answer and I understand, because I believe that for his escape he took advantage of a flight of migrating wild birds.
So, one night, in the deep-end of my heart, there’s a sudden breaking, an explosion of my little volcano I thought was inactive (one can never be too sure). Quite overdue, a release that is destructive and painful, all because I chose dare instead of truth.
and can you believe that?!? I decided to show someone my heart I was brave let me tell you a secret pinky promise you won’t tell anyone pinky promise!?
There are universes in my tiny ancient heart, galaxies of vulnerability, risk to tame a fox at the expense of a few tears, new emotions other than grief and sadness. There are patterns that need attention, love and care, labyrinths I now see with clear eyes, patterns I don’t have energy to duplicate. Too much salt in my wounds. I will need time to sit; time to voyage around my heart, my home, my village, to learn the origin and reparent myself, to learn how to reach for the ocean with compassion and acceptance and empathy and kindness. And you know what? I am brave enough to make new choices, new decisions on who to tell that my volcano is no longer extinct. And this is all because my heart is larger than I thought and I am more courageous than I believed.
Could it be possible, that a few occurrences are meant to smash us open, draw blood, and leave an imprint, a wound, a scar, in order to be empowered to feel again? Is grief as much of a necessity as joy and the in-between? That we eclipse our reality due to the unknown overwhelm of anguish and fear upon removal of armor? We dig bottomless moats as conceivable barriers, protection, erect walls for the illusion of safety, to guard us in the ways we needed when we were younger and helpless.
What about when we grow taller, wiser, when we are constantly changing, bursting at our seams, when deadbolts disguised as self-sabotage prevent ourselves and others to discover that we are simply alive in our humanness? It is wise to not allow the first visitor to open the refrigerator, but maybe you two can say hello to the sun in the front yard? So, we unlock the door slightly, feel the spring breeze, and dare to trust our deepest desires.
We can be seen.
To be alive, feel, share, love, bleed, and still keep your heart open even –– ouch–– when facing thorns, that my friend, is a wish upon a star.
Thank you for the lesson.
I wish you well.
So, finally, I do the thing I needed to do. As the phone rings, I stare at the jewelry box on my bedside table.
My treasure chest is a sky-blue box, decorated with colors and childhood adventures, writing that says, “Beautiful Tianna’s Jewelry Box,” handmade with care and love and play and adventure in 1999. I carry this with me everywhere; it is one of my most precious belongings; it has never seen the inside of a checked bag.
And, I start to ask, “Why didn’t he want me? Why did he leave?” but it comes out as, “Why didn’t you want me? Why did you leave?” ––OUCH–– There it is- the salt in my chest that shows up unexpectedly because I have not dealt with it, I promise I thought I had but here it is, all because I was brave and I am sobbing sobbing sobbing on Facetime Video, which is silly because you can literally see yourself crying in the small little box on the left corner of the screen- but anyway, it is all we have because I am an ocean away.
She looks right at me.
“I am so sorry, Tianna. I am here now. I see you. I love you.”
So, finally, after what feels like centuries of denial due to the weight of heartache, I finally buy a round-trip plane ticket to Groton, Connecticut.
I left someone I love behind.
I pinky promise you that I am nervous so nervous so I stop by the store and grab a few things; dried mangos, Nerd’s Rope, Banana Nut Crunch Cereal, and lastly, a small gift. I put a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in my pocket because it is best served as a smashed pocket surprise with chocolate bites of adventure.
It takes me years to arrive but I pinky promise I did my best I really did.
And there she is. She is sitting there on the curb, holding Sie, feet dangling. Her black hair is wild, touching her shoulders, slightly curled at the ends. With tenderness, I wrap the seven-year-old version of me in a warm blanket against the Connecticut winter. Her bangs are crooked, cut by her; a time when she needed attention and a little bit more care.
I sit down. “I am so sorry I took so long, but I am here now. I will never leave you.”
And she weeps from the deep-end of her little heart. I reach out and hold her.
“I love you, Tianna. I am sorry you had to go through that alone,” I tell her. “It was not your fault.” She whimpers, and I feel wetness, snot dripping down my right sleeve. “And it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.”
I’m not sure what to say, but I want to try I pinky promise you I want to try.
“I know how lonely you feel, in charge of care-taking and responsibilities much larger than anything you can handle. I know how anxious you are, constantly reaching for comfort and connection and not knowing if anyone would show up. I know that you have such big emotions in your chest– emotions that you’ve been shamed, rejected, and discouraged for feeling. I am sorry no one saw you for just you, that you learned that love had to be earned through convincing others to see your worth, achievement, value, and hard work. You are not too sensitive and you are not too heavy and you are not too much. You are more than enough. I am so so so sorry, Tianna, and I am here now.”
I feel the urge to tell her about the beautiful community across the ocean where the stars know her name, she feeds the pigeons, and the new space in her heart. I want to tell her that she adopted a Labrador Retriever who is her family and has a favorite karaoke song. I want to tell her that one of her absolute favorite things is the joy of intentionally gifting holiday cards to those who handle her heart with the upmost gentleness and care. I want to tell her that Sie is still here too.
Perhaps… I’ll mention that her parents did the absolute best they could and they are human and did not get what they needed either and their parents did not get what they needed either and that all of this is a maze of generational hiccups… I don’t tell her that you can get rid of hiccups in you ask someone if they’ve seen a white horse. I don’t tell her that she has the power to change this cycle, that she will and already has… but that’s a lot of pressure for a seven-year-old or a 29-year-old. I don’t say any of these things because no one wants to hear that shit when they’re sad.
So, I give my younger self the space to be sad, because can you believe it– sadness is a valid emotion and anger and joy and excitement. Maybe she will develop a friendship with forgiveness 20 years later, forgiveness for the grief of what she missed out on and who she could have been. And that’s okay.
Take your time.
I want to tell her that she will live many lives and see the sunrise around the world. She’ll get the worst food poisoning of her life in Hong Kong, swim in oceans with friends, stand up for herself over and over and over, develop friendships that will last lifetimes, and open her heart, wider and wider and wider as she realizes who she is, what she needs, and which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor is the best. She will live the fullest life and I know this quite well.
Instead of revealing the heartbreak and age 19 and Juarez and age 28 and all those things that leave her in need of extra resources like community care and therapy and tenderness and gentleness, I reach in my tote bag to hand her another galaxy.
Her little brown eyes sparkle at the sight of the brand new red and white 101 Dalmatians notebook. She opens the notebook, flipping to the second page. Inside I’ve taped the ripped pieces of the aquarium tickets. It took me years to find, as the pieces were scattered across continents and cosmic matter and the ocean floor.
“This is for you. You’ll need this. Pinky promise me, please, keep your heart open. Always.”
I am crying, shaking, I feel warm and gym class sweat and embarrassment and she grabs my hand.
“Thank you.” She wraps her little fingers around my hand tightly.
“I have two tickets in my hand, won’t you join me?” Her brown eyes look up at me, clutching her red and white 101 Dalmatians notebook.
And guess what – at the final exhibit, we press our faces against the glass and she gazes at me and whispers–
“The beluga whales are beautiful.”