I knew he was right for me when he encouraged me to dance on a go-go stage in a Las Vegas nightclub. We had just finished watching four go-go dancers, each one elevated in a different corner of the room, struggling to move their feet. They were clearly desperate for their shifts to end, but, at 24, I wanted to be them. In a moment of inebriation I told him, “I want to be a go-go dancer. It would make me feel so free!”
I am obsessed with my sense of freedom. Perhaps it stems from growing up in a big Dominican family with a lot of cousins of comparable ages. There was always drama. Some he said she said, some falling out, and eventually some making up. The lack of harmony in my big family made my mother warn me about doing things that would give them reasons to talk. “Nunca entres a la casa de un varón, ni aunque solo sea tu amigo. Tu te das tu respeto, nadie mas.”
I heeded my mother’s advice, but I felt stifled. I felt like I couldn’t explore, experiment, or make mistakes without disappointing my parents. I desperately wanted out of the Dominican familial gaze and craved the freedom to make mistakes without fear of judgement. So I worked hard in school and got a scholarship to go away to college.
At Wesleyan I figured out who I was, what I liked, what I didn’t like, and who I wanted to be. I dated freely, smoked for the first time, danced on tables, and wore bathing suits to parties. I broke hearts and had mine shattered. I found my voice, protested, grew unapologetic about my political beliefs, and for the first time, felt remarkably seen and understood.
But eventually, I graduated. And while a lot changed in my environment, the failed relationships continued. Over and over I fell into the same trap with different men. From men with Ivy League degrees to men who’ve never set foot inside a college classroom, to men who wanted to be rappers to men on track to become politicians. No matter how different their profiles, they grew obsessed with dimming the very light that drew them to me, and tried building up their self-esteems by shredding mine.
Like many women, my whirlwind of failed romances left me fearful and insecure. What’s wrong with me, I thought. Am I too much? Am I too difficult? Am I not worthy of love?
It took years to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t the problem. Patriarchy teaches men that being masculine means having power over women, and those of us who refuse to be overpowered bear the weighty consequences. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her famous TED talk We should all be feminists, “We raise girls to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We tell girls ‘you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.” And threaten the man I did.
At 17, an ex-boyfriend told me I wasn’t allowed to get my license until he got his. At 21, the guy I was dating told me the Harvard admissions rep only remembered my name because of my ass. And how could I forget the ex who at 23 threatened that if I ever joined the Peace Corps, I would never see him again.
Those relationships didn’t last.
My parent’s example shaped me into a woman who tenaciously held onto her right to happiness and self-expression. They taught me what love is and what love isn’t, so I wasn’t going to let a man decide who I was allowed to be.
So, I gave up.
I stopped looking for love and decided that I would find happiness elsewhere; in travel, in school, in dance, in myself. And just when I decided I no longer cared for a relationship, a 15 year friendship took a romantic turn.
To my surprise, the man I wrongfully perceived as too straight laced for me, turned out to be the one I could share my dreams, my fears, and my deepest desires with. As we became closer friends, I told him more about myself and realized there was nothing I couldn’t tell him. We fed off of each other’s ideas and did exciting, spontaneous things. We talked philosophy and politics for hours, dissecting and comparing our experiences as gendered, racialized people. We grew in love. I saw his eyes sparkle when I laughed and his attraction grow when I thrived. And when I fell, when the world came crashing down and I thought I would die, he rubbed my back and wiped my tears until I regained my will to live.
With him I never have to make myself small. I never have to be less awesome, less vocal, or less fun to make him feel safe. He basks in my essence when I’m joyful and his love is a love that has made me grow deeper in love with myself. That’s why I’m going to marry him.
So, fear not, wild girl. Push back the self-doubt; silence the voice that claims you unworthy. It is because you’re good enough, because you’re so much more than good enough that your colors, your voice, and your joy are threatening to those who don’t know how to love themselves and live in their truth. Do not dim your light. Let your hair flow and your hips sway, laugh out loud until it hurts, keep your best friends close, and never let anyone mistreat you.
Let love find you. Let it surprise you, let it walk into your life while you’re busy jamming to your favorite song or being lifted onto a go-go stage, because that’s the kind of love you deserve.