Sharp Edges

Everything is sharp:

the corners of the mouth of the white woman sitting next to me on the bleachers, the ends of her bob and side-swept fringe, the angles at which her legs are crossed one over the other, the vertical lines on her blue and white dress bordered with small flowers, the slant of her body as she turns as far away as possible from my direction, the edges of my friends’ graduation caps, the sour vinegar tears threatening to escape my eyes to mourn my shame, the rough bench with the obvious space left between us that makes me wonder if I’m reading too much into her apparent disgust. She is probably just allowing herself, and me, some personal space.

There is a general attack being launched on my senses. I am seeing and feeling things that can’t possibly be there. Hot water from the shower drums my skin and bores its way inside myself, dissolving the hyperawareness my body produces, tilting but not breaking down the walls I constructed for my own protection. The voices in this meeting are too high-pitched, straining against the tension, attempting to disguise the contempt swirling in the mugs on the table in front of us. If I splash this hot tea over all your documents and agendas and over the fronts of your blouses, will you admit that you cannot, and will not, take orders from someone who should really be cleaning up after you?

Everything hurts much more than it should. What I have been taught to dismiss as over-sensitivity is actually an internal alarm, a natural self-preservation device with its fundamental flaw being that its user could still be doomed to untimely death on concrete just for continuing to exist. It reminds me to avoid eye contact with the beat cop who always tries to greet me in the morning, to beware of the brother–with an ‘a’– who hides my altar under his bed and only worships when the master is away, to run fast and far from anyone who encourages me to use my sister’s arm as a lever to pump up my own self esteem because somehow I am not like the others; don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It means I could survive.

(Image: View from my window. Dulles International Airport, May 2015)

Original Simone

We got an assignment in fiction workshop a few weeks ago to write a plot outline based on this two-line story published by Thomas Bailey Aldrich in 1870: “A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world; every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.”  My attempt wasn’t exactly successful because I didn’t include the major conflict of the story, but it was still really fun to try this surreal post-apocalyptic style for this assignment! I may end up turning this into a full story, stay tuned 🙂

***

Simone heard a voice that sounded remarkably like her own coming from the other side of the door. “Let me in! I beg you!” It was disturbing enough that she was the only surviving human on the planet, at least she had thought so until now, but the fact that this impossible visitor echoed the sound of her own voice was even more terrifying. Her first instinct was not to duck below window level even as the knocking and begging increased in intensity. Instead, she was fixed to a spot in the center of her living room, halfway between the crooked hand-me-down armchair and the door, her anxious energy almost burning a hole on the green floral carpet on which she stood.

Perhaps she had missed conventional human interaction more than she had realized, and the lack of it had subsequently caused her to lose any sense of judgment, but for whatever reason her curiosity overwhelmed her fear and she walked towards the door and opened it. She nearly fell backwards into the room when she saw that she was standing before herself, a more worn and tattered Simone with a light film of ash over cracked brownness which must not have seen lotion in days, leaves and clumps of mud dispersed throughout the tangled mass of tight curls piled on top of her head, and smears of indeterminate substances all over a white shirt and navy trousers.

“Simone! I mean…I! Ugh this is too complicated. Let me in, please? They’re coming for me…us! Whatever, let me in!”

Simone could not distill her confused thoughts into speech, but then she recognized the twisted humor of the situation. Technically she had spoken, it was herself at the door after all. Her two selves sat down together, and beat-up Simone winced a little as she tried to get comfortable in her seat. Beat-up Simone went on to explain that she was alone in the world, but technically she wasn’t, because there were different versions of themselves scattered around their small town from different stages in her life leading up to the day the world ended for everyone else. There was blissfully happy Simone with her culinary school certificate displayed on the wall in an apartment much like this one, and frustrated Simone who could only get a job as a dishwasher in a French restaurant downtown because fresh trainees didn’t typically rise to executive chef right off the graduation dais.

Then there was her, beat-up Simone, who looked the way she did because all the other versions had tried to stop her from going to tell original Simone what was happening. They only stopped throwing punches when she caught her breath mid-attack to ask “Wait…what are you even scared of? What is going to happen if she finds out?” They realized they had been acting based on group hysteria and outrage, and had no real justification for why they felt as though original Simone should not know of their existence, so they let her go. Collectively, they didn’t really know much at all. Not about how they, or her, of all people had been saved from whatever unknown but deadly fate had befallen the rest of the world, and why this had caused them to separate out into these strange constituent parts. As beat-up Simone tried to explain all this to the baffled and slightly amused original, they both heard the doorbell proceeded by frantic knocking.

“Let me in!” they said in unison.

Sliding Scale

I know it’s not Monday but… *shrugs and smiles*

***

There are certain things you keep tightly balled up in your fist so no one can gain access to them, especially when you can sense that they will not be treated with the kind of caution they require. How do you count out feelings and push them into a person’s palm when they are intangible and unquantifiable? There is no unit of measurement for giving up.

Except

when you assess the weight of your bones when they sink further into your mattress instead of assembling into motion and carrying you into the day ahead. You can tally the number of times you have poked fun at yourself hoping that enough desperation is jumping through your words and waving its hands so that someone will take the time to notice and ask what you really mean. You can even measure the intensity of the pain when the people who love you the most are the same ones wielding the pocket knives that slice off your protective layers one at a time until they are standing knee deep in dead skin and the sharp ends of meaningless punch lines.

You have kept careful records of every missed phone call, unfinished text or email and every plan you had to cancel. Your accounts also include details of popular euphemisms for your chaos, most of which you have thought of yourself: artistic temperament, moody, lazy, attention-seeking, ungrateful, in addition to the number of times you have tried to splash water on your face and get over it– if the situation was as dire as that you wouldn’t have so much time on your hands to think about it­– You lost count at 11 by 2:18pm.

You are constantly engaged in attempts to document the lack of things, trying to explain what lies between two disjointed thoughts, the resentment of expecting empathy at the same time as you reject your status as someone’s project. To your knowledge, there is no way to annotate the feeling of what isn’t there, the vagueness of no particular trigger you can identify, or the strain of trying to inflate a flattened voice to fool your listener into believing oh nothing it’s just been a long day. You make do by settling yourself as a footnote so more crucial issues can live in the main text.

You will continue to hide openly, transcribing every slight to your fragility with a ballpoint pushed so hard into the page that you can feel the outline of each word and see the faint transfer of ink on your hand. The ability to look like the glamour and confidence you do not have is your inheritance; you wrapped it in a brown and gold blanket and packed it in the bags you brought with you. It is ringing in the background of every throaty laugh and embedded in the corners of each side eye like I dare you to keep speaking just wait ‘til I open my mouth. You will adjust eventually, and will learn to keep track of the days you wear serenity slung casually around your neck like a borrowed satin scarf. Your archives will remain intact and you may visit occasionally to check figures against themselves, yesterday’s resignation versus the other day’s hopelessness. But this task will not be your final one, nor will it be your most important, so long as you hold onto the pen…

 

She has no name…

In this week’s episode of “Do you even blog anymore?” I present to you a character sketch I wrote as part of a homework assignment for my fiction workshop. The challenge was to create a composite character based on traits from two real people, pulling together traits that may be contradictory in order to create a complicated “three-dimensional”  portrait of a person. (So many workshop buzzwords…) I am also glad to announce that I will be posting every Monday evening. As in weekly. As in not when “the muse” falls over me and I feel compelled to post something here. Putting this in writing is the only way for me to hold myself accountable. New year, new me and what not…

***

She used a constant stream of chants and impassioned speeches denouncing “the toxic system” and all those who benefitted from it as the perfect disguise for the hollowness that was expanding inside her chest daily. It would have been almost impossible to know that her outward passion for one social cause after another was actually shallow because she never shared more than useless morsels of information about her personal life, especially when she suspected that her listener would handle her truth roughly and with disdain. The defiance she carried with her at all times fell to her feet and cracked when she realized she was pregnant by a husband she could tolerate only some of the time, not including the times when he would heave and grunt on top of her in the murky darkness of their room. She had been so preoccupied marching and drinking in overdoses of the sun during all-day protests on State Street or in front of Flagstaff house when she returned to what she thought to be the correct side of the Atlantic. So immersed in her activism was she that she didn’t realize when her life began to veer off down a broken track with mind-numbing scenery rushing repetitively past the window. She had been betrayed, by all the disapproving friends who squinted mistrusting eyes at her, “How can you be depressed? Abeg! People have been looking for babies since!” a statement that usually ended with snapping fingers to indicate just how long some women had to wait for the supposedly good fortune that had befallen her. She tried to train a pair of lips that had been more accustomed to political debates and rapid comebacks for baby talk and benign smiles, but found that the biggest betrayal of all was from inside of herself. She was staring in the face of her newborn child, but all that she could make out was imminent transformation into the kind of woman she had always scorned when she walked past them in the streets of Accra. Those women who seemed nothing more than empty shells click-clacking with the latest gossip of whose husband was in debt and whose child was heading towards an American college. There was no one with whom she could share these portions of fading self-recognition, so instead she smile emptily: “Oh don’t mind me! You’re right, I’m probably just tired.”

 

 

Sublimation

Even the buckling of the plastic chair on which she sat seemed perfectly orchestrated.

the sublime is the feeling you get when you are so close to someone else’s danger, yet far enough that you can feel the base of your stomach collapsing inwards while your feet remain planted where you stand.

The sublime did not live on the white board of an over-heated classroom suspended above the heads of bored graduate students. On this night, it rested on the triangular base of the leg of this chair, which skidded slightly every time she rocked backwards to get a better look at him, tilting dangerously to the right, whole being on tilt and more off center than it had been when they first sat down.

sublime descriptions of nature are usually replete with detailed, deeply sentimental images of one’s environment. “one” is probably a woman.

In this part of town, family houses with rusty roofing sheets sagging at the edges were squeezed between all night food stands and boutiques with imitation designer bags jumbled together in their window displays. Here, arms were draped across laps in a way that would be hard to explain on the phone later– other arm draped across top of head– casual stance which seemed to say: “I could do this again tomorrow night if you’ll let me.”

sublimation is the direct vaporization of a solid by heating without passing through the liquid state. it is also the transformation of an expression of a desire or feeling from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable.

She doused knowing smiles in large gulps of her drink and looked away and over the top of the next too small table wedged uncomfortably between two equally awkward people. Maybe it’s the first time meeting for you too? She crushed new feelings between the arms folded across her stomach, pressing inwards until they were swallowed and bubbled upwards and out of her mouth as laughter that could have been a lot more well-behaved.

what made you decide to come here?

well, I really wanted to see the fireworks, but I think I may stay a little longer–

 

 

On My Soapbox

Please enjoy the last two extracts from my mini feminist manifesto. I realize that these may not make complete sense since you’re reading them outside the context of the full essay. Full disclosure: I’m really just trying to distract everyone from the lack of new blog posts as I drown in school and work, trying not to panic or cry out for help so I don’t run out of breath even quicker. I really didn’t mean for that to become as morbid/melodramatic as it did…

 waves

“Nous stimulons le déferlement de vagues enfantines qui emportaient dans leur pli un peu de notre être.” Mariama Bâ’s lyrical French plays over and over in your mind, its smooth course uninterrupted by the Wolof words you will not understand until you actually stand on the beach near your home in the same city she was building in your imagination. It’s 11am on a Thursday in October 2012, and you are having trouble understanding wave after wave of theory and ideology being presented to you in hands you do not recognize. Grandma was there, I’ve seen her in the faded photographs, fraying at the edges, with the same smirk on her face that I saw in the mirror yesterday. But she wasn’t burning her bra or breaking lipstick tubes in half. She was not able to participate. I believe she had geographical coordinates that were a little off-center and skin that had absorbed too much of the sun’s light. It’s 12:15am in November 2012 and the walker-hooks-lorde trifecta is supposed to comfort you into thinking that there is someone looking out for your interests. Someone who is working for you to be free at all before you can think of freeing the nipple. I am trying to carry a little of ba-bugul-aidoo- in my curled toes and clenched fingers, but the wave is breaking just a little short of where I stand.

my feminism won’t be contained: a “conclusion”

Last night I dreamt that I walked into a big room with a table that seemed to stretch farther than I could see. It may have been grand once; but when I looked closely, the chandeliers were missing some bulbs, and the place settings were strewn with crumpled paper instead of polished plates edged in gold. I looked at the faces of the women seated around the table, and realized I knew them well. Maiguru shook my hand firmly, but I couldn’t understand how such an accomplished woman seemed so empty. Esi Sekyi planted words on the inside of my skull like the other woman and you can rape your wife. Sula folded her lusty laugh into the pocket of my brown school pinafore, escaping at break-time so that I had to scramble to conceal her before I was found out. Shakuntala swung round her heavy braid soaking in coconut oil and looked at me, daring me to dare. Ramatoulaye pulled out a chair for me and patted indicating that I should join them. You live in fiction, in English sitting next to Ewe songs and French idioms, but your voice will be heard here, and here and here–

(Image Source: portrait of Ken Bugul by Antoine Tempé, 2014)

Penance

The air hit the base of my throat, icy fingers digging into the only flesh left uncovered by layer on layer of wool spun by decades of abandonment. The cold grabbed my jaw and forced its fingers into my mouth, digging around irregular, neglected teeth before finding one free of rot and wrenching it out of the gum

pay what you owe for leaving them behind

 I never knew that you could drown in air when it turns into wind, until it rushed up my flared nostrils and displaced the last breaths I took in a place where life smells like burning rubber and roasted corn

Here, the cold curls up inside of me, lying next to my skeleton before pushing it out bone by bone and sitting there triumphantly legs tucked under itself, digging into my sides with its sharp elbows

I have taken the space you should have kept for them

(Image Source: )

Negatives

There are two of you sitting on the sofa. One of you is picking dead skin from the sides of your fingernails, and the other one isn’t trying very hard to hide the contempt in your voice. You know I’m a bully, right? There are four of you sitting on the sofa. Two of you should probably make this the last time you see each other but you won’t, because habits are almost impossible to break, especially the dangerous ones. Two of you are doing the least you can to make sure whatever it is that was once between you still exists somewhere, even if it’s only in photographs stuck to a fridge by broken magnets. Two of you need to give up, but the other two are sitting on a bench in an empty playground, laughing with heads thrown back as if you don’t have anywhere else to be.

There is one of you crying into a pillowcase that needs changing. One of you said this would be the last time you would do this, because all it does is betray your weakness with puffy under-eyes that no amount of concealer can fix the next morning. One of you doesn’t understand why you’re taking painful, ugly gulps of breath in between cries, as if you’re scared you’ll suffocate if you stop. One of you needs to exercise self-control. There are two of you lying in bed. One of you is trying to be reasonable. You got everything that you wanted after all, didn’t you? One of you is  childish and self-centered, and one of you is still trying to access that part of yourself that you are convinced you have misplaced, searching for it in overflowing jewelry boxes, in handshakes that last a few moments too long, in bite-sized sermons you throw down your throat without tasting, in horoscopes you don’t believe in. One of you is empty.

There are four of you sitting in a café. Or maybe there are only two. One of you is trying to contain your excitement. It really isn’t that serious; this isn’t one of your stories. Calm down. Don’t embarrass yourself. There are two of you sitting at a too-small table in a café. The other two left because they must have realized you weren’t as exciting as you first appeared to be. There are two of you sitting at a café. One of you is hoping you can just stay here all day, maybe until the baristas start shuffling their feet and turning chairs over tables so you get the hint that it’s over. One of you has hope beating against your chest from the inside, and the other one feels desperately pathetic– pathetically desperate for trying to bend daydreams until they resemble reality. One of you is pretending to be engrossed in theory and texts and theories about texts and time and what is time and what is text and what…and one of you has focused every last bit of your attention on the legs of chairs that have continued to shift in tiny increments and are now touching, and on how you are leaning so far to the side that you might tip over. There is only one of you. One of you wants to go on typing, but doesn’t really know how to describe the thoughts knocking on the back of your skull. One of you wants to go on typing until you’ve said everything that needs to be said and won’t have to type any longer.

One of you probably shouldn’t. One of you has said too much already.

NB: I’ve been trying a lot of different things with my writing, and if you’re reading this you’re essentially my experimental subject. I’m also struggling with and against the different genre restrictions– prose poetry? fiction? if this is a poem, where are the line breaks and verses etc??? What I’m saying is at this point, the categories and tags on this blog mean very little because I can’t seem to pinpoint what exactly it is that I’m writing. You’re probably just as confused as I am. 🙂

Inventory

I’ve pulled out a few lashes from my right eye because it’s the troublesome eye, the one that’s oddly shaped and more difficult to hide behind thick coats of black liner. I’ve arranged them in line next to crumpled pieces of used tissue and some sharply exhaled breaths crystallized in the cold air. I’m taking stock of myself, looking though archived emotions, replacing peeling labels and crossing out inaccurate ones. I’ve used my teeth to pull out the cream lace from that bra you liked, and I’m still trying to scratch off your name from the inside of my cheek. I’m trying to remember my name.

I’ve taken to cracking the ring finger on my left hand, so I’ll take out the knuckle and place it beside all my other things. It’s relatively easy to do, but the difficult part comes when I try to pry the residue of back-when-it-was-different from underneath my fingernails. I’m rifling through the old clothes hanging in my wardrobe, checking the collars and hems, ripping out loose threads every so often. I didn’t realize those were the same threads tying the muscles in my face together to keep my smile from slipping sideways and away. I’m trying to flip through old textbooks, but the pages are warped together with tears and heavy sighs. I don’t recognize the frantic scrawls in the margins, but I assume it must have been mine. I’m trying to remember my name.

I’m undoing the tangled net of shoelaces and headphones, hair ties and conversations that wound on and on to nowhere. I’m sitting on the floor surrounded by all these objects, and I’m sorting through them in an attempt to discover where I left the sense of self that was placed on the tip of my tongue two decades ago on a balcony thousands of miles away from security. I’m trying to remember my name, but it has passed through so many different variations that I am no longer sure which is correct.

I’m trying to sift through all the mistakes to find out when the gap between what I thought and what I actually said began to widen until I learned to fill it with what I was supposed to say. I’m taking stock of myself today. I just found a scratched mix CD and a coupon for a free dance class. Shuffling papers for the trash are shuffling feet on hardwood are shuffling selves until I find the one that I cracked when I tried to fit it into the right self for you.

 

Subtext

I was looking through this blog the other day because what else would I be doing when I have 400 pages of reading to get through?? Grad school, everyone. Anyway, I realized that there are some images that I have used and re-used in so many pieces of writing. I’m sure there’s some subconscious reason why this happens, but it definitely isn’t intentional. I cannot stand to repeat myself, and this is my attempt to retire these tired images, to get them out of my system.

***

You cried onto my hands and the salt from your tears dried in the spaces between my fingers. All I wanted to do was to fit myself in the spaces between your desperate gasps for breath and your sobs. I wished I was able to compress my love for you, to fold it onto itself so that it fits in the gaping hollow that sits in your chest where your love for yourself should be.

What void are you trying to fill? Please, tell me. You have become fixated with the idea of using yourself to compensate for an emptiness you are not equipped to replace. You are not adequate. Someone yawns, and instead of offering them a place to rest, you want your comfort to “fit itself” in the gaps you have imagined in that person’s spirit. You are not big enough.

I want to spend every morning running my uneven fingernails up and down the length of your back. Let the cracks in my nails catch on the smooth fabric of the responsibilities and goals you have laid out before yourself. Fingernails dipped in poison and lust trace the line of your cheekbones, testing the vulnerability of the soft skin just below your eyes. “Don’t do that,” you say. “ Why not? It’s dangerous,” I say.

I don’t blame you. It could be that the sight of slim brown hands ending in wine-polished fingertips has become so imprinted on your memory that you have now forgotten that you ever saw such a thing in the first place, to the point where you think you came up with the idea on your own. Those hands and nails have become the symbol for decadence and ruin. You will ruin him.

The weight of my care for you is pressing down on top of my head. You yourself might as well be sitting on top of my head, relishing the fact that you are flattening my will to be anything more than your support. I am carrying the guilt of making you weak so that I could hold you up on top of my head; you are weighing on me. My whole being is drooping; it is flat. Like the top of my head.

Surely, your neck must ache with all the weight you claim to carry on top of your head. Is your hair thinning in that spot? Is there now an indent in your skull? Who asked you to carry this burden? Who do you have to blame but yourself for taking it upon yourself to do so? You are not adequate. You will drop it.