Tripping

When I took this photo, I was waiting for the same Silver line I mention later, on my way to take part in a poetry festival organized in part by the same friend I describe. For the blur and crookedness of the image, I will blame the heat, the 30-minute bus delay, my attempt to snap while on the phone with my mum, shyness to squat to get the right angle, and excitement at seeing faces I have not seen since pre-pandemic times.

In the summer of 2013, I decided to get a job at my college that came with free on-campus housing so I could stay in DC for the summer. Work study paychecks weren’t enough to pay for a ticket home, and I couldn’t stand for my mum to pay for things I didn’t consider absolutely essential. I know my reluctance and at times outright refusal to ask for any kind of help (material, emotional, or anything else) causes her distress, though my own unbending self-reliance is something I learnt from her.

My fear of coming up short and anxieties around scarcity meant that I convinced myself that the Safeway across the bridge from my campus was more affordable than its shiny counterpart in the middle of the multimillion dollar neighborhood the school shared with politicians and various other people with wealth of dubious origin (Is this a misnomer? If one is that wealthy in the face of so much suffering, isn’t all the wealth acquired by dubious means, or in other words, stolen?) Whether that store branch was actually cheaper, I can no longer remember, but on any given weekend or day off work and regardless of weather, I would faithfully find myself across the bridge for my weekly groceries. This mundane errand became some sort of anchor for me, so much so that even when carrying it out wasn’t ideal because the weather was too wet or too hot, or if the window of time I had to get to the store and back before my next work shift, I would still insist on completing this ritual. When my boyfriend at the time came to visit, I forced him to accompany me, even with his [justified] complaints about the heat, the distance, and the impracticality of the whole affair. As we waited for the bus that would take us home, he waved his hands in frustration towards the line of empty taxis waiting for passengers, even offering to pay the fare if money was my concern. I refused, and we carried the groceries on and off the bus and all the way back to my dorm.

There was no way to explain what was happening in my brain to make me believe that if I deviated from my usual routine, I would be in some kind of danger or experience unbearable panic turned pain, in short that some sort of catastrophe would materialize or if I failed to complete this senseless mission. It was almost as though a circuit had tripped in my mind, leaving sparks and a lackluster puff of smoke where my good sense should have been. Even if I had these words at the time, I don’t know that he would have had the empathy to receive them well. That summer was fraught in our relationship for several reasons, not the least of which where the endless spirals of my emotional reactions and his harshness. I don’t know what it is about straight men and their insecurities that transforms their admiration into contempt, unless perhaps what initially appears to be romantic interest and admiration was really just a desire to possess and control another person. As was often the case with us, I would have to make up for my behavior when it was my turn to visit him, and we walked the whole way from his local grocery store back to his apartment so I could see what I had put him through, a sort of vengeance on his part. I have no interest nor do I gain anything from casting someone I haven’t spoken to in years as a villain, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting for a long while afterwards to think about how the beginnings of my mental unravelling were treated like self-indulgence, selfishness, nonsense, by someone who claimed to love me.

Five years later, my state of mind was much the worse for wear after grad school and after having borne witness to and experiencing all kinds of banal and spectacular cruelties that Boston’s racism had to offer. I was also graduating with a number of publications and other “achievements” to my name, and I needed the longest, most extra ponytail to match my teal blazer dress and silver boots and the overall fanfare of the moment, whether or not a full-time job with benefits was waiting on the other side (It was not). I mapped my path from Somerville to the big beauty supply on Mass Ave, its outer walls like an old dollhouse drained of most of its color—there were closer options, but I was going to be downtown for other errands, so my good sense told me to take this route—80 bus to Lechmere, Green line to Park Street, and then SL5 to Washington Street at Mass Ave.

A dear friend was also going to be downtown and wanted to spend time together, so I asked if she would mind going to the store with me before we went on to get some ice cream or whatever else we felt like. I had been repeating the sequence of my journey in my head like an incantation, as if I couldn’t follow this route with my eyes closed: 80, Green Life, Silver Line, 80, Green Line, Silver Line. But as soon as my friend walked up to me and asked, “Which store are you going to? Can we walk?” that circuit tripped and replaced my good sense with panic. Instead of suggesting we wait for the next bus or that we walk down Washington Street along the same route the Silver line would have taken us, I somehow decided we should go the “scenic, long way,” down Boylston past the library, the Prudential, and the Brooks-Brothers clad populace most likely to be shopping there, and eventually a left turn on Mass Ave, maneuvering around music students carrying instrument cases twice their size.

When we reached our destination, I braced myself for the sneering, the contempt, the threat of punishment, but my friend only stamped her foot and play scolded me like the Trini junior-auntie she is, and we went inside to search for my ponytail. She had a way of knowing things I had not told her, mostly because that is one of her gifts, and maybe because of the way she loves, so it’s possible she knew that my confusing actions had their roots in some unspoken pain within me. In any case, we proceeded to have the sweetest evening, including ice cream and a chance meeting with two friends of hers on the street outside the hair store, both black women, one who was mother to a child named Zora. There would be no atonement for inconveniencing or frustrating her, nor would I have to produce evidence of having been previously unimpeachable as a friend (another time I might tell you about the period of time that ex assigned and subtracted points, supposedly as a joke, according to the satisfactory [or not] nature of my actions…) to justify this one transgression.

My fear of retribution was informed not by anything in her character or prior treatment of me, but rather in the contempt I seemed to elicit in the past for not having “my shit together” in the words of that distant ex. I can say with no tongue-biting or hesitation that majority of the people who have met my chaos or my pain with [willful] misunderstanding, refusal to truly see me, or outright malice have been men. This piece of writing is not intended to excuse treating the people around oneself as collateral damage for one’s depressive or incoherent behaviors, nor do I mean to render friends who have extended me abundant care and grace as long-suffering martyrs. I just have the “sheer good fortune” to be loved by so many women as friend and sister, and I spare no opportunity to show them as much praise and appreciation as I can muster, knowing that it can never be enough for the glory that they are.

I’m trying to take a moment to revel in the contentment I feel now, in the immense space that has opened up in my mind now that anxiety is largely absent, meaning I can listen to music that is totally new to me; take different routes around the city than the ones I may have memorized; or deviate from any daily routine without fear that my life will collapse under the advent of anything different or unfamiliar. I’m thrifting clothes in the light colors I used to wear before my fear of financial lack and determination to be as practical and responsible as possible stocked my closet with a uniform of black leggings with black t shirts for warmer weather and black turtlenecks for winter; thrift rather than brand new to try and participate as little as possible in a garment industry that takes lives in exchange for the most flattering high-waisted jeans for someone living in wealthier locales. I do not include this detail to be sanctimonious, but rather to express that I can’t be at peace while knowing that the things I use to adorn my body come at the cost of the lives of factory and agricultural workers, many of them women in places like Indonesia and Bangladesh. I have a writing residency stipend that allows me a living situation I thought I would only ever be able to afford if I moved to a cheaper part of the country. After about a three-week period of feeling despondent, low, and small in spirit and imagination, I’m trying with all the strength I can summon to be the exuberant 7-year-old version of myself who could and would not shrink even if she tried and to refuse the pressure to participate in my own diminution for the benefit of whoever’s check pays the most bills. There is still pain, grief, worry about money and survival, and I hope the positive turn at this ending is not a “Pollyannaish” (as my therapist loves to say), narrative of tripped circuits finding repair and new, brighter light after a period of disfunction. Because I believe in something called the black femme sublime, I know the sparks, the smoke, the glitching connections, and the brightness of all-that-is-possible can coexist; I’m just trying to do a better job of documenting the good as much as I tend to the hurt.

Cityscape

The city is winning. It follows me into the bathroom and rains murky water onto my head when I turn on the tap. This city has buried itself beneath my skin, a layer deeper than I can scrub, so I can never escape the smell. I’m on my third wash and my scalp has passed the point of burning protest and is now numb. My hair still smells like the man on the train who doesn’t care that I don’t want to chat. This morning’s coffee, cigarette smoke and saliva hiding behind spearmint.

My ex girlfriend called me up today and said come and have lunch with me. She works over at MGH. I call her nurse raging bitch.

The city won’t let me contribute to my own thoughts; my stream of consciousness has blank spaces for every time it has been interrupted by screeching on train tracks, dry cough and vomit splashing on concrete, heavy bass breaking through a car window at the traffic light. I sit up and inwards in an attempt to shrink my width so I don’t touch the woman reading student papers on my left and the drip of this man’s slushie on my right.

I made her pay my phone bill then I told her fuck off cuz I’m not interested. You believe that?

 Later, I’ll turn in my bed and see the same faces glaring at me for daring to take up too much space. I went to sleep compressed, with my legs tucked as closely together as possible, and woke up with the slushie spreading its unnatural blue on my sheets, and the student papers crumpled in a ball and stuffed in my mouth.

This city follows me to other places I’ve long since forgotten to call home. When I see the aunt who insists on calling me “Jehnet” for reasons I never really found funny, all I see is the body double she doesn’t know she has sitting on a bench outside a thrift store, smoking slim brown sticks and asking for change. The only reason I smiled and said, “No. I don’t mind” when she asked if she could smoke was because her hairnet looked familiar as did her chin that seamlessly folded into her neck.

The city is determined to follow me wherever I go. It scales the sides of buildings and hooks itself onto cracked open windows, before sliding down walls on the inside. It is mingling with the scent of tea brewing and traces of perfume, used books, cardboard and microwaved takeout. The city is heavy and only lifts itself off me long enough for me to say, “I’m good, howareyou?” It settles back down once I get the words out, pinning me to the chair and daring me to try again. I still can’t say, “Actually, I’m not ok. Do you have a minute?” because these people are here to teach and not to listen to the problems I think I have.

Yeah I’m good! I just stopped by to say hello!

be sure to collect all the exclamation points you have used freely and falsely and stuff them back in your fist for the next time

I think I’ve gotten a moment to myself, but this city pries the elevator doors open just before I start my descent. It is with me as I walk past rows of candy colored houses whose interiors are probably and tragically identical to mine. Shiny red pieces of plastic scratch the sides of my face as I wait to cross the street next to a group of cheerleaders dressed in uniforms as red and shiny as the pompoms they’re waving in my face.

I cannot end with a reminder that city dwellers are really just people pretending to be dark grey pinstriped jackets drifting from metal box to metal building and back again, waiting for someone to shake them out and wear them with pride, for someone to love them. This place just will not let me do it.

(Image: Taken by me, June 2016)

Inventory

I wrote this prose poem a while ago and decided to try and turn it into a short story because I felt like I had a lot more to say. I soon realized that picking at old scabs and turning real life events into fiction aren’t things I’m interested in, mainly because it hurts a second time to try and make villains out of victims  (or to realize that one can be both) just for the sake of the story, or to walk back through unpleasant events that actually took place. Another difficulty I had working on this story was that it’s my first set somewhere that isn’t Ghana, and I’m not very good at or interested in doing that at the moment. The surreal is much safer territory for me and that’s where I plan to stay, at least for now. This is an extract from the story, which will probably remain unfinished indefinitely. No edits or additions, no submitting to literary blogs/journals (I usually don’t post complete short stories here because I’m trying to get them published), nothing! The story was difficult enough to write the first time around. I think I’m all good 🙂

***

1 eye liner in nuit noire shade

I’ve pulled out a few lashes from my right eye because it’s always the troublesome eye, the one that is oddly shaped and more difficult to hide behind thick coats of liner.

“What is all this black stuff? I can’t even see your eyes.”

My smile remained fixed only in the photo you took of me, ruined slightly by the table and the bright blue menu covered in plastic, and dotted with unnaturally yellow pancakes and waffles dominating the foreground. The grin slid off my face and onto my chest as I tried to formulate an airtight answer that you could not deflate with condescension. I feel braver when my eyes are obscured in black sludge and glitter. This is the only way I can feel feminine since this big chop makes me look like a duckling with the black fuzz on my head, slicked down with leave-in conditioner instead of pond water. I’m trying to look like the old photos of my mother where she was more beautiful than I grew to be, with 60s lashes standing boldly and separate from each other even though it was ’79. All of these answers were dripping with the kind of sentimental slush that you hated, so instead I said:

“Oh. You don’t like it? I’m still learning ooh, don’t worry.”

Neither of us believed the forced peals of laughter I dropped onto the diner table between us with a harsh metallic sound like coins striking granite, but you picked them up regardless of your tired distrust and shifted your weight to one side so you could shove them into the back pocket of your jeans. Later, you would attempt to dissolve the hard grains of stilted conversation that were caught in the corners of both our eyes, in tea so sickly it left smears of brown sugar on the insides of the mug, just the way I liked to drink it.

The only Boston I knew was green linoleum on the kitchen and bathroom floors, small white lines running up and down each tile like veins, it was the JFK/UMASS station with round backs covered in layer upon layer of warm clothing always retreating and advancing – which direction, Ashmont or Alewife- it was how many times can we go out for pancakes before the syrup turns into clumps blocking our arteries? It was using my arm to hide the angry smudges– one for each eye– on your pillowcases and hoping that my visit would not turn out to be a week-long sparring match in which both opponents were not interested enough to take hits at the places that mattered, resorting instead to lazy swats at the other’s ego, causing slight bruising, if even that.

***

name- unaccounted for

I’m inspecting my body for visible signs of damage, just to make sure that my skin will not betray the hurt from the sharp edges of words like: “You’re so selfish, always asking for too much.” I’m taking stock of myself, looking though archived emotions, replacing peeling labels and crossing out inaccurate ones. I’m trying to remember my name. I’ve found a folder in the back of my wardrobe, a solid blue cover and shiny silver rings on the inside. Across the front of it in threatening block letters, one word: SELFISH. I’m confronted with the moment I was given a new name, when I decided that good little Methodist girls from Adenta didn’t spit on reputable degrees before moving cities to fold and fetch overpriced clothes for women who were manicured from their teeth to the blunt ends of their ponytails, and to fold themselves into men who were unwilling hosts.

“Fafali! How can you burn scholarship money like this? What is your plan? It’s that boy, eh? Answer me!”

“Ma, I have to go. My break is over and the manager is giving me eyes.”

Selfish. My mother hurled contempt down the receiving end of the telephone, the same ugly square contraption that had always sat on her bedside table long before I was ever imagined as a small fluttering sensation against the walls of her abdomen. She was probably holding one hand suspended in front of her as she usually does when she is desperate to pull understanding of a horrifying reality out of the air around her. She did not know that I took the blank roll of paper that was pressed into my hands after four years, and used it as a map for a life I did not want to live; an empty desk for an empty office job, the desolation of a research facility with white walls and sheets of white paper with unfilled questionnaires. I often prioritize others before myself. Strongly disagree. She did not know that I had taken my new name, Selfish, the one that you gave me after the last tantrum you could endure from me:

“What’s the meaning of this?” You affected a grotesque imitation of my needy drawl, quoting one of my frenzied text messages: And you call me Fafali instead of babe or beautiful and I know I’ve crossed the line again and I’ve made you angry with me, again.

“Fafali I’m tired! You just like drama. You’re just so…so selfish! I can’t– I won’t do this anymore.”

I was sitting on your lumpy sofa that felt as though it was made of velvet, and I realized that for nearly five years I had dredged up your words in an attempt to understand what you wanted from me, sifted and separated them to the point where you just let me have them. Take them and go. Pack your things and go back to DC. Or back to Ghana. I don’t care. I have wrung my hands to the point where the skin has begun to peel off. I’ve actually gone too far to turn back. We had clung to each other beyond my morning is your late afternoon, past your at times admirable, at times half-hearted attempts to decode the tangled self I handed to you, hoping we could make sense of it together.

Now I’m working hard to scratch off your name from the inside of my cheek. I have left pieces of myself from Adenta to Georgia Ave to Dorchester and back again, flakes of skin between computer keyboards, tears warping pages of a text in another binder which proclaims ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY on its cover, childish terms of endearment in languages we have long forgotten. I’m wearing other names around my neck like self-indulgent, sexy, and you are wasting your life. My favorite name is too-beautiful-to-be-working-here, so I tuck it into all the pastel colored cardigans that occupy my days at a job I tolerate in a city that has now extended beyond the ancient linoleum in your house to the faded one in mine, to the B line always delaying and mice tap dancing on my ceiling boards at night.