Sheree L. Greer founded Kitchen Table Literary Arts (KTLA) in 2014. Having relocated to Tampa Bay after graduate school in Chicago, Sheree was looking for community, namely a community of BIPOC women and femme-identified queer writers who were committed to craft and supporting each other’s work. When she couldn’t find that specific community, she decided to create it. Born from informal writing meetups on her front porch, a local taco spot, and public libraries, KTLA became a literary arts organization dedicated to supporting and showcasing BIPOC women and femme-identified nonbinary writers in and around Tampa Bay. KTLA Arts is built upon the tradition and legacy of Kitchen Table Press, founded in 1980 by Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, and Hattie Gosett. The tradition of creating and holding space for historically resilient but marginalized voices is at the core of KTLA’s work. This year, KTLA celebrates nine years of community-building and support for writers and readers alike, with book clubs, short story clubs, retreats, workshops, and online classes, as well as community partnerships with foster homes, alternative education spaces, and direct service organizations who serve individuals impacted by abuse, poverty, and/or displacement. KTLA is ever committed to amplifying voices and narratives that dismantle preconceived notions of what it means to be a writer and who gets to be a writer, a dedication that ultimately supports BIPOC writers disrupting the status quo in the literary arts space and beyond.
In the earliest memory of my mother, I’m around seven years old. I’m near a swing in a park around tall buildings, which makes me think I’m in New York. My small foot kicks the sand, and I watch the tiny pebbles fly into the air and fall. I kick the sand again and again and, almost hypnotized, watch all the bits fall again and again. Then my mother lifts me onto the swing and tells me to push myself. I am in bright daylight. My braids swing with the motion of my legs. At some point, I realize I am alone. I search for my mother while still swinging, but I don’t see where she’s gone. I turn to look behind me and lose my grip. I fall off the swing. Sand gets stuck to my hair, face, lips, and mouth.
Shortly after, I’m at the hospital. My grandmother is with me, not Mom. I lived with my grandparents, Papi and Mami, since I was three months old, but sometimes Mom would come around and I’d go to the park with her.
I’m admitted. It’s unclear if I was admitted because I fell or if the tests they ran because of the fall uncovered a urinary infection. Mami tells me I won’t ever be allowed around Reina, my mom, without supervision.
When Mami leaves for the night, I steal a handful of prefilled cups of grape juice from the meal tray cart. I peel the aluminum covers and drink as many grape juices as I can because I believe it’ll get me drunk. I corrupt my roommate into drinking too. We laugh and act drunk.
After the fall, Reina’s visits were as sparse as the winters in Puerto Rico or Miami. When she did visit, she wasn’t visiting me. She was visiting Mami. Her lack of interaction with me gave it away. She’d pass me without a greeting or hug, not even a fake smile. My invisibility solidified in her presence.
Once, when I was ten and lived in a caserio in Guaynabo, PR, my siblings stayed with me and my grandparents for weeks. I don’t remember if Reina was with us. I’m the oldest, followed by my two sisters and a brother. We’d wake up before Mami every morning, so I’d pull a chair toward the refrigerator and bring down the Export Sodas crackers and Klim powdered milk cans. My siblings would break the crackers into pieces to make cereal. I’d pour the Klim into water to make the milk. I wanted to talk, laugh, and hug them to confirm their existence.
Papi and Mami had cooked their usual arroz con gandules and pernil on Christmas Eve that year. Throughout the day, Reina helped my grandparents in the kitchen.
That night, my siblings and I looked out the bedroom door as Mami handed Papi the wrapped gifts and he put them under the tree. Mom was drinking a beer and dancing. My sisters and I laughed and snapped our fingers with excitement.
We had to wait until midnight to open our gifts, but it was worth it—dolls for the girls and a car for my brother. Papi got me the Britannica encyclopedia I had begged for months before when a man had come to our door selling it. My fingers danced on the slick and glossy pages.
Late that night, Mom was done with the family party. Being Deaf in a hearing world changed her definition of family. No one in our family knew American Sign Language. We communicated in Spanish and English, home signs, yelling, and misunderstandings. Her real family was friends who understood her, those she could have honest conversations with.
But more than that, Mom was a party girl. She liked to drink, dance, and party. And she wanted to leave that night, but Papi wanted her to stay.
Papi ordered, “Stay here to take care of tus hijos.” I walked out of the room when I heard the fight. Mom picked up the ceramic black panther on the coffee table and threw it at Papi’s face. Blood splattered from his nose onto the crumbled-up wrapping paper on the floor.
My mother rushed into the room, walking past me as I shrunk against the wall behind me, and woke my siblings up, pulling them out of bed while they held to their toys. Mami tried to stop her. Papi yelled while still holding a napkin to his nose.
As she moved toward the door, I wanted to run after her, stop her, and tell her I’d do anything for her. I’d be quiet. I’d help with the kids. I’d be good if only she’d take me with her. Instead, I stood there, unmovable, within all the chaos.
And she left me behind. Again.
After that night, I didn’t see Mom for a long time. But I heard about her every day. Papi called Reina “una cabra, a whore, a bad mother.” Those words made me ashamed. It’d take years to understand that the parties, the drinking, and the men cloaked a traumatized, lonely, and deeply depressed woman.
When I was thirteen, we moved to Miami, closer to Reina. A year later, Mami died. Papi told me to move in with Reina because I couldn’t live with him. My childhood had been filled with the nightly scenes I role-played with my invisible mother and siblings, so I was excited.
Those old scenes evaporated soon.
Nights and weekends started fun. Hector Lavoe played loud on the radio. Reina danced and cooked. My siblings and I talked for hours, getting to know each other. Linda most closely followed me in age. She was ten years old, nerdy, and loved reading. Jessica was eight years old. She loved music, makeup, and dolls. We’d played Hide O Seek. Jose, seven years old, had to count more than a few times so my sisters and I could enjoy hiding. We’d switch to playing Simon Says when he refused to count anymore.
One night, a few of Reina’s deaf friends arrived at the apartment, so she gave us twenty dollars to leave. She shoved the money into my face and said, “Go movie. GO!” while pointing at the kids to let me know I had to take them. I wanted to go to Bayside Marketplace. Bayside is an open-door fancy flea market near the marina. It caters to tourists, but local teenagers used to get on the fiesta boats, which play on the idea of ninety-minute cruises.
I took Mom’s money that night, and my sibling and I went to Bayside. We got on the fiesta boat, danced, bought snacks, played, and ran through the crowd, meeting other teenagers.
We left when the boats were shutting down and the stores closed. In the darkness of downtown Miami, fear crept into the cracks of my boldness. Downtown was not a safe place at night.
“Walk faster,” I urged my siblings.
“I’m tired,” Jessica complained and slowed down.
“We gotta get home,” I said.
The bus took an hour to arrive, and when the driver opened the door, he glared at us, probably hoping we weren’t in trouble. Linda rested her head against the blue plastic seat while she held Jose on her lap. Jessica sat on my lap. Her head fell over my arm and shoulder.
I dozed off.
“Hey, kids, where y’all going?” The bus driver woke me up. Startled, I peeled my sweaty sister away from me to look around. “We were supposed to get off at 29th Street.”
“We’re almost at the beach.”
I rushed toward the driver. “How do we get home now?”
The driver said we had to get off the bus, cross Julia Turtle Causeway, a bridge that connects Miami to Miami Beach, and take the bus back west. Between walking and the bus time, we were forty minutes away.
When we got off the bus in the middle of the causeway, I realized the magnitude of my mistake. The causeway had three lanes going east and three going west—the air of the cars that sped by announced how dangerous it was to cross. For a second, I contemplated staying there, letting my siblings sleep until the morning. I glanced behind me, and the ocean had merged with the night. The waves were crashing, but I couldn’t see against what. There wasn’t a sidewalk either—only the grass and dirt. Back then, there weren’t as many buildings as now.
My brother sleepwalked, so I picked him up. “We gotta run,” I said.
I pushed Jessica and she cried. Linda said we should’ve stayed home. I shifted my sleepy brother from hip to hip. Put him down. Pulled him.
A roar startled us. We stopped. Motorcycles. Some of the riders honked and yelled.
We crossed. The bus took forever, followed by another nine-block walk carrying my crying siblings as the sky got lighter.
Once home, we kicked the door a bunch of times to wake our mother. Reina, deaf and drunk, couldn’t hear the door, so we always had to punch and kick to make the door shake for her to realize someone was trying to get in.
When we got into bed, Reina shoved her hands into my pockets, searching for the money she had given me. “Money, where?”
When I told her we wasted it, she yelled, slapped the mattress, and rushed out of the room. We watched her grab a grocery cart from the back of the building and dump the groceries she had bought earlier. She walked out, pushing the cart.
“Where’s she taking the food?” I asked. Linda shrugged.
Outside, we watched her silhouette walking away. For a long time, I thought she was pretending to punish us for wasting the money.
For years, I had resented my siblings for living with our mother. No matter the perception Papi tried to ingrain in me, I wanted to live with her, but that night, I realized my siblings didn’t have the mother I’d imagined either.
When she finally came home three days later, her clothes were torn and dirty. She had scrapes all over her body. Snot, tears, and eyeliner formed a shiny coating over her face. She sobbed and repeated, “Mama muerta.”
I also missed Mami, I told her. I understood her pain. Mami’s death left me alone and scared. I needed Mami more than food or air, more than Reina. I noticed the scrapes on Reina’s body and created a story out of their locations. Knee. Hip. Elbow. Temple. Her ripped pants showed her underwear, and the possibilities frightened me. The pain of our womanhood and loss made me love her even more that day.
She stumbled against the wall, calling for Mami. When I held her, she pushed me.
I got angry and walked away.
Sitting on the bed, I shifted between worry, grief for Mami and for the mother I had imagined Reina was, anger for Papi’s accuracy in her depiction, and then concern for my siblings.
After a while, I went to the bathroom to check on her. Tiny drops of blood dripped from her wrists. I panicked. If she died, we’d be sent to a foster home for sure. We, I, needed her.
I pushed her arm, and she groaned. She hadn’t cut too deep. Relieved, I sat on the toilet stool. The water in the bathtub reached the rim, and I closed the faucet. She sat up and opened it again. Her body swayed back into the water. We struggled back and forth for hours between her opening the faucet and me closing it. She was too drunk to realize she was drowning or that I was trying to help. We were both drowning in too much grief to know we needed help. But there wasn’t anyone to pull us out of Corona River.
I had been a drinker since I was eleven years old, yet at that moment, I thought I was better than her because I only drank at the rare moments when it was available.
When she sobers up again, I thought, I’ll drink with her. I’ll take care of her. The strong urge to drink took hold of me. The beers were gone that night, but I knew she’d get more. I believed I could make her love me if I drank with her. She’d realize she had me and my siblings to live for.
My siblings. . . . I couldn’t leave my siblings behind. Drinking to that level required abandoning everyone.
In the following years, when Reina finally kicked me out and I became homeless, I created my own Strawberry Cisco River to quench the fear while I strolled Biscayne Boulevard. When I fought with my boyfriend, I gulped. As the pain grew, the river wasn’t enough. I needed cocaine sand and zany bars pebbles. The river morphed from Corona to Cisco to Vodka. Even after being arrested for robbing a bank and pledging to change my life, I still drank. I resented the river’s power of temporarily numbing my pain in exchange for loyalty.
Many years later, one night, months after I had lost my second stillborn, I found myself with a bottle of vodka in my hand. In the bathtub. I was beyond cups, over measurements, and numb to taste. The steam of the water created a light fog.
With the tub full, I closed the faucet, sank into the water, and listened to the silence. A faint peace warmed me. I saw myself still on the ground of the park in New York, searching for my mother, my nose full of sand. Then I was standing behind the fleeting ghost of my mother as she took away my sustenance in a cart.
I sat to open the faucet, and the memory of my mother in the bathtub resurfaced. Her face submerged. Trickles of blood on the brim—a razor blade.
My siblings and I, without realizing it, had created our own rivers, but the streams never led into the ocean of alcohol I had once wished to bathe in with my mother.
I realized I was alone, still.
For a second, I thought of allowing myself to sink; I didn’t want to think about my living sons. I wanted to float away toward my grandmother, toward my dead children, toward blissful peace.
Outside the door, my boys played. Their laughter and racing vibrated through the floor. The noise made me stand. I stood for a long time, opened my hand, and let the bottle fall. I grabbed a towel and stepped out into a small ray of sun that reflected through the window. It was the first time I chose not to follow my mother anymore, not to drink any longer. It took many tries.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin