I was two days away from turning 21. I was a virgin. I’d never been drunk. And I was about to venture on the most life-changing experience any young adult could fathom at the time: I was going to study abroad.
It sounds like the start of a YA novel—the girl is away from home for the first time, most likely falls in love, even more likely gets her heart broken, but ultimately finds herself. As the daughter of a librarian, I have seen these books countless times. I have read these books. And now I was about to live these books.
To truly understand who I was ten years ago is to understand who I was the ten years before that. I was raised in a strict religious system, one that had infiltrated every aspect of my life. For the last ten years, I had been the picture of a devout Christian girl: I went to church three times a week, I prayed and read my Bible every day, I didn’t drink, I didn’t curse, I didn’t wear pants, I didn’t listen to secular music, I didn’t have sex. I had never lived outside of the repressive bubble created to keep me safe. I had been sheltered from the cruel world in the cruelest way. And it was all going to change. I was ready.
Or so I thought. The weeks leading up to my trip to Spain, I packed and repacked my bags, all with new unholy clothes, clothes to become someone I always wanted to be. I packed a bottle of coconut lime body spray next to my new green bikini. I packed an ivory dress in case I fell in love and eloped.
Naive would have been a generous word to describe myself. Stupid? Too harsh. I was somewhere in between. I was naive because I had never been given the tools in which to maneuver as a woman in the modern world. I was stupid because I somehow thought I’d make it unscathed. Ill-equipped as I was, I would survive the trip, at some points maybe even flourish. It would be a painful amount of growth to happen to an ex-cult kid, to live one-life’s worth of “worldly” adolescence in one semester. I would evolve into a woman, less pure, more angsty, with still so much life yet to live. I had attempted to play catch-up with my past and would have to learn how to live in the present.
Sometimes I am still unkind to who I used to be. I hate the girl who doesn’t know the name of that pop song from 2005, or the girl who still thinks of marriage when a first date goes well, or the girl who still feels like a mermaid discovering her legs every time she puts on a pair of jeans.
Or the girl who is still in therapy after 8 years of trying to repair the damage left behind.
I remember this all as a woman on the brink of turning 31, as a woman who will be moving into her first apartment on her own, as a woman with invisible disabilities, as a woman of color living in a world institutionally structured to oppress people like me.
And there is no YA novel to prepare me for this.
Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator, born and raised in Massachusetts. Her debut collection Ugly Music (YesYes Books, 2019) was the winner of the Pamet River Prize and a 2020 Whiting Award. She received her BA in English from the University of Massachusetts Lowell where she won the Jack Kerouac Creative Writing Scholarship; and received her MFA at NYU where she was awarded a Global Research Initiative Fellowship to Florence, Italy. She is the recipient of additional fellowships from CantoMundo, Community of Writers, and the Fine Arts Work Center Summer Program. Her poems can be found in Washington Square Review, Bennington Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Her heart is in Brooklyn.
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