Some big lights made me sad.
March 5, 2020 / Jade Fabello
Panicking on 42nd and Broadway, I wished for a life where I didn’t have to lose any more loved ones.
When I went to Times Square, I was terrified that I might be somebody. If you’ve never been, Times Square looks like it does in the movies. Big glowing buildings glow next to other big glowing buildings, as a McDonald’s bag drags over your foot. Giant LED screens coat the area with reflective nylon, which makes it seem like the sun is out at night. The spectacle can be debilitating, especially if you have had a few drinks, haven’t slept in 24 hours and are trying to forget that your family has cancer.
I often am pretty okay with life, but the spring of 2019 hadn’t been kind. I was shambling through my first heartbreak and a near-death experience when my ma delivered the news that my godfather had colon cancer. I slowly approach the age my stepfather was when he died. And with years since I last heard his voice, my birth father feels about as distant as the dead. I was frankly pissed at the idea of possibly losing a third dad. In New York, I was tired of losing. So when I, a Black-Filipino kid from South Austin, looked up at those screens in Times Square, I resented the idea that I might be somebody. Models, talk show hosts, public figures — all the people whose giant images were staring down at me — those were somebodies. If I admitted to already being somebody, it was proof that life didn’t get any better. Panicking on 42nd and Broadway, I wished for a life where I didn’t have to lose any more loved ones.
I wasn’t upset with the capitalism or consumerism on display in Times Square, at least not any more than I would be on a typical day. I was upset with this arbitrary bar I was comparing myself to. My definition of being somebody was a hangover from our culture and my childhood — a romantic idea that rested somewhere in my soul that a perfect, tragedy free life could exist. Now, I do subscribe to the radical idea that all human life has inherent value beyond our social status. But if anyone were likely to have this free pass on future trauma, it was those somebodies up on the screens. The lights felt hot on my skin. I hated the shadow they made me cast. My godfather’s diagnosis happened despite my apparent status. When you’re a nobody, there seems to be the possibility that you can reach a point where nothing will ever go wrong again. I didn’t want to be somebody and done. I wanted to be nobody and have a chance.
I have no illusions that people spend their days thinking about me. But the nature of what I enjoy doing requires an audience. I showcase my heart and have always done so, to help me make sense of the world. Writing, political speaking — they allow people to remember my face in my hometown occasionally. Whether it is 100 people, a dozen or just my ma, I occupy space somewhere in somebody’s mind.
As a kid, I did want to grow up to be somebody. I had been taught my tragedy was my strength, that it’d allowed me to reach whatever relative heights I now had. When my other two fathers left, people would commend my brother and I’s bravery for having had life happen to us. We were ‘mature for our age,’ better slated to handle the world. I had my fair share of teenage drama surely, but that didn’t stop me from thinking that some of my peer’s problems were on a lower scale. I excelled, scoffing at the teenage dilemmas around me. I bit my tongue in an everlasting state of ‘nothing I couldn’t handle.’
But what I hadn’t realized was that supporting my strength was the belief that I had already paid my suffering to the world. I was done with that part of life. New trauma never registered.
I confused emerging pain with weakness and weakness with being nobody special — and teenage me was on the track to being somebody. I barreled through new pain, not realizing that every new trauma tore flesh from my core. In college, other tragic seasons knocked my bravado down into the concrete. I went from ignoring to downplaying, quieting my pain instead of silencing it. By the summer I arrived in New York, my world view was intensely attuned to suffering. With all of the painful noise of my unkind spring, I was looking to shrink down into nothing and nobody.
New York City during the day filled me with immense joy. Hours before arriving in Times Square, I negotiated with my default jadedness to allow myself to feel the romance of New York. I was in awe of every window. The shape of millions of lives formed before me. Resting in a park by NYU, the gentle air made me smile. I had never seen so many people gathered comfortably in one place. The city was radiating life. A percussionist played his full kit in the middle of it all. Skaters’ wheels scraped the nearby earth, tall Black women with green hair rose in the sun and hopeful artists put their souls on display. Power, I felt power for the first time since the traumas of the spring. The residual color and heat reached me. I felt truly anonymous. And in being small, there was only possibility ahead. The sun warmed me, and I smiled hard. I was in pain, but shrinking down gave me a Goliath to fight. I could push on ahead, knowing that one day I would completely conquer pain.
But at 2:22 a.m., my eyes felt heavy, and I turned quickly at each mechanical sound. My day of joy had been real, but it was crashing down around me in Times Square. I kept my gaze on the hard pavement, but that too reflected the lights from the screens. Those lights burning down on me didn’t let me hide from the reality of trauma. This whole life thing we are doing can be very hard. No amount of growing or shrinking can prevent the arrival of a day that may rewrite your life for worse. But that doesn’t mean that waiting for those days is all we have. I am nobody. I am somebody. I am neither and both. I am a human being, and in between my definitions, I want to feel it all.
A few months after my crisis in Times Square, my godfather, godmother, uncles, brother, ma and I surrounded a small dining table. We all found time on a Monday evening. Each of us competing to be the funniest there. I helped serve slow-cooked pork on shiny-white square plates that my ma has had for years. We laughed, and we laughed hard. We discussed our loved ones who weren’t dining with us, and experienced joy that did not crumble before my eyes.
I do fully believe that life can always improve. What they don’t always tell you is that sometimes trauma is trauma. You can learn a thing or two and be humbled now and again, but at some point, pain is pain. You don’t have to be happy about bad news or take it in stride.
There are traumas from that unkind spring that I have still not admitted. Pain I haven’t dealt with — pain that I am unsure of when I will deal with. But when I let myself feel my pain, I get access to all my other emotions too. When I ignore or downplay it, I’m unable to truly feel joy. I still want to hold everyone I have ever loved and demand they come back to me safely. I still wish that I never lived some of my trauma. And I still don’t look forward to any new days of tragedy that lay one phone call away. But I do look forward to loving life and loving it hard. Sharing more meals on square plates. Loving or detesting every experience as they come. And walking through this world as both nobody and somebody. ■
by: Jade Fabello
layout: Elianna Panakis
photographer: Abhi Velaga
stylist: Lauren Aguirre
hmuas: Adrianne Garza & Julie Garcia
models: Nikita Kalyan's & Rebecca Wang