My Life with Pashen Payne
by Joey Xanders

I had locked my renter out of the house and called the police. She was sitting in her car waiting for them.  I was alone in my home. Three officers arrived in two police cars. I watched as she gestured wildly, her mouth moving fast, a finger pointed for emphasis. What was she telling them?  After all, she was the one that had assaulted me. I was uncomfortable with a bad taste in my mouth. It was the residue of good intention turned sour and I feared I would be indicted for wrongdoing before I could defend myself.

My conscious wasn’t clear.  I had not provided the rent receipts right away.  That’s what h­­­­ad started the fight. I had said I’d get them to her but I was busy working, stressed with a tight deadline. “I want them now. “ She demanded.  I stared her down not to be bullied, even though the truth was she terrified me. “Later.”  I said.  She started yelling. She threw her body around, waving and screaming and I jumped. Then she hit me. She was attacking me? In my own home?  Oh No – I worked two jobs, 70 hours a week to pay the mortgage.    This woman was not going to jeopardize my one safe place on this planet. I turned to grab my phone, said to the police; her name is Pashen Payne, P A S H E N P A Y N E.

Pashen and I had met when I was the Artistic Director at an East Oakland Youth Center. She was 17, living on her own, so talented, and beautiful. Tall and lithe with ebony skin and braces, she wanted to model and I supported her in doing so while also cultivating hard skills that would serve her well.  Quickly she learned how to shoot photos, then video, and eventually edit in Final Cut Pro. She was thriving. We were close. At 19, she was working to support herself, going to school and one step closer to a life so different from what she had known growing up. It was my story, too. Helping her made me feel hopeful -for both of us.

Then I heard Pashen was pregnant.  I was pissed-and heartbroken.  I knew the harsh reality would derail her life goals. I decided to give up trying to help. Not just her but everyone. I left the Center. Addictions, drug trafficking, homelessness- even the simple reality of not having a phone number to reach the teenagers, made the situation impossible.  I desperately wanted Pashen and all the kids to believe that there was a better path, that they could trust people and the world. I needed them to know this. After my failed marriage, I was trying hard to convince myself that it was true.

Pashen called me to ask why I wasn’t talking to her.

I told her I was disappointed that she was pregnant.

“Joey, I’m not giving up. I know what you have done for me and I’m going to stay in school, keep working, and make my dreams come true.” I told her I hoped so, even though I knew the statistics were not on her side.

Then she surprised me by asking, if she could live with me.  “I got into a fight with my landlord, he hit me, I’m five months pregnant and I need a place to live.”

Perhaps there was a way that we could continue to help each other. Perhaps there was still hope for us.

For despite all my intentions of wanting to help, there was a bigger truth. I desperately wanted “family” but I didn’t trust it. I had raised my four younger brothers in a home that featured both violence and neglect. I successfully avoided commitment until, against my better judgment, I had married just shy of 39 and had my son at 40. It was no surprise that I divorced by 45 for I entered the marriage not trusting it would work. Inviting Pashen into my home and helping her raise her son felt like a divine way of creating the intimacy I so wanted. I could help her. She could trust me.  And I would not be alone!

I offered her the spare room upstairs. I wrote a four-page lease outlining all the terms - the most important being that she could not do anything to break the peace and serenity of my home. That was grounds for immediate eviction. She paid rent and lived on my terms.

“It is my sanctuary,” I explained.

Pashen moved in, and for many months, we were a lovely version of family: pregnant Pashen, my 8 year-old son who stayed with me every other week, our dog, our cat and me. We went food shopping, played board games and ate together. She came to my son’s basketball games and I went to her baby shower. Pashen was witty and fun and full of energy. It was her idea to go to JC Penney and get a photo taken for our Christmas cards. So corny, so beautiful. I felt a deep peace that had eluded me for years.

Pashen was a rough around the edges and I was able to be gentle while teaching her how to interact.

“When you pass us in the hallway, look us in the eye, smile and say, “Good morning” or “hello”.

She didn’t get it at first and challenged me.

“Why do you make me do that?  What are you, some crazy white bitch who controls everything?”

I had to ask myself, was I a crazy white bitch controlling everything? Maybe. I grew up with scary, erratic people. I had to control the tone of my house. And Pashen did start smiling at us in the hallway.

I knew where Pashen came from. She told stories of relatives and prison, prostitution and guns. She fought with her Baby Daddy’s ex-girlfriend at a club and three people were shot. What if the shooter followed her to my home when my son was here? I frantically wanted her gone. Intimacy is dangerous. I felt vulnerable and exposed. I was torn between my desire for safety, alone in my cocoon, and my deep longing for meaningful connection.

I let her stay because living with Pashen was still more good than bad.  She was learning and growing and her son Zachariah- he was the happiest baby.  Every time I saw him, he would raise his plump fists asking for me to take him. He would put his head on my shoulder and rest there. He knew he was safe with me.  It was magical.

However, raising a child on your own is stressful. Pashen was working full-time as a security guard; she didn’t have a car, little money and no partner, or any support network (outside of me). 

Pashen yelled at Zachariah.

“Shut up, what are you crying about? Stop crying before I give you something to cry about.”

Her yelling, his crying were an emotional trigger for me- fingernails on the chalkboard, I was raised in a home by parents who thought harsh words and humiliation were good tools for discipline. I pleaded with Pashen not to talk to her baby that way. We had endless talks but nothing changed. She couldn’t help herself.

In moments of stress, we do what we have learned.

I became what I so dreaded—impatient and unkind. I started snapping at her. And she pushed back, told me to stay out of her business. “You ain’t my Mama.”

And now here we were, 18 months later, on opposite sides of the front door.

Two of the policemen entered my house. I waited with a clenched jaw for the indictment. After all I had done for her, after pouring my heart out to her & her son, how was she going to manage to blame me for this sad state of affairs?

The policeman looks at me, “She says you tried to make her family. She just wants to be a renter.”

I was ready to defend myself against my transgressions: I was impatient, harsh and unforgiving.

But I was not ready for the truth: I wasn’t able to accept her on her terms. She had wanted to be family at one point—the JC Penny portraits told me so – but she gave up on that dream when she realized she could never live up to my expectations.

For both of us, family was a painful, hurtful experience. Somehow, being triggered by her yelling, I had made her the problem and failed to understand how much she wanted this to work, too.

The policemen brought Pashen into the house and told her she had 30 days to find another place to live. “Stay out of this woman’s way.” I responded by putting all my valuables in my bedroom and keeping the door locked. Pashen responded by helping with dishes, taking out the trash, and conversing in polite tones only. We had not spoken directly to each other for 30 days when she approached to give me back the key to my house. As she handed me the key, I waited, once again, for her anger. She looked me in the eye, “Can I have a hug?” I hugged her tightly and found myself crying. I could finally see her for what she was: a scared and lonely girl overwhelmed with life’s demands trying to find a way to make it work. Just like me.

She gave me the most unexpected gift. Through our shared passion for power, she forced me to see myself, and helped me release my pain. Thank you, Pashen Payne, for I am one step closer to making room for someone in my home and in my heart.