Hiding in Plain Sight

A lot more personal than I usually get…

***

Teri Joseph, Nicole Ari Parker’s character on the TV series “Soul Food,” was one of my first introductions to the idea that being a successful black woman involved suits with over the top shoulder pads, a brisk purposeful walk, and waking nightmares lived in secret; shortness of breath and blinding panic quickly stowed away before anyone could come to discover what was wrong. The other woman who taught me that lesson was my mother. She always said that the worse she felt, the better she made herself look. Shoulder pads slightly more understated than Teri’s, dark brown lipstick to match an immaculate manicure, cheekbones accentuated with face powder for that “try me” effect.

Years after my 8-year-old self watched these women display in public like they were untouchable, like everything they did was effortless, I adopted that costume as well, and the words came so naturally to me that I forgot that they weren’t originally mine. I’m trying not to look how I feel. The worse I felt, the better I looked; not severe lack of sleep, not a messy breakup, not homesickness would make it beyond the walls of my room, not even beyond the boundaries of my own body. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one around me was explicitly asking for me to perform flawlessness, but put on a show, I did (and still do.) Minimal makeup, but enough to trick the inexperienced eye into thinking that my skin is naturally glowing and free of blemish. Dramatic eyeliner becomes the sharpest weapon in my arsenal of self-preservation and self-destruction. Form-fitting and low cut, bright and quirky, all outfit choices carefully selected the night before for precise execution the next morning. Every compliment is validation, and added pressure to never let the mask slip. I would make people feel uncomfortable otherwise, and I can’t have that.

Beyond aesthetics, the performance includes frequent and thorough conversations about other people’s problems to which I didn’t always have the answer, but always tried to channel all the calm I can conjure to make sure I say something comforting, helpful, or at least something that makes them laugh. I’m never too busy, tired or uninterested to talk through family conflicts or school stress, anxiety about debt, or a hostile work environment. There were also my own studies, jobs and several extra-curricular activities, all to be done with supposed ease. In the process, I’ve learned to fasten my facade a little more tightly, with obstacles like metal gates topped with broken glass and barbed wire between myself and anyone who suspects that all is not as OK with me as I insist.

 Yeah I’m free what’s up?

Of course I can talk!

Nothing ooh, just tired.

I feel guilty for resenting the constant act I feel I have to put on and for resenting the people who have assigned me this role. Stop being a martyr. This is what friends are for, to be there for each other whenever necessary. In the past, I attempted to unload on the one person who I believed should and would be there for me no matter what, not realizing at the time that there were things about myself I didn’t yet know and understand, and that I was basically using that person in the same way I was being used. I’m sorry. I’m not apologizing for existing as the person I am, which I often felt compelled to do when that person was in my life. I couldn’t have “worked on myself” in the ways that I said I would, because I’m not broken and in need of “fixing.” As regretful as I feel sometimes for relying too heavily on that person, I’m also glad that their confusion and frustration with my chaos was drowning out my attempts to understand myself.

Now I’m getting ready for a long day of work, meetings, a four-hour class, and hopefully a chance to hear Angela Davis speak at my school. Minus shoulder pads, but still bearing the anxiety of over-extending myself, of having agreed to undertake projects of which I actually don’t want to be a part, of having too many tasks between me and the weekend, and not enough hours to complete them while feeding myself anything other than coffee to keep going. So, I try my best to look radiant. Here’s the latest perfectly drawn eyeliner wing, the left side always comes out better. Here’s the latest collection of rings I’ve stacked on every finger, again another aesthetic borrowed from my mother. Here are the picturesque Somerville houses in neat rows with statues of the Virgin Mary praying from every other front yard, the first thing I see before my commute downtown. What you won’t see is the pacing around the bedroom, the shortness of breath, the tightening in my chest, the pajama shirt to muffle myself, the tears streaking the concealer I just put on, the frantic phone call to my mother while I try to collect myself before I miss the bus and complicate my day even further.

Even this blog is part of the performance. How much of it is fiction summoned from an overactive imagination with only so many outlets to release itself? How much of it is lifted directly off the pages of my journal? Maybe today I won’t try to hide faint cries for help behind self-deprecating jokes. On multiple occasions, I’ve spent hours talking with professors and other people who I know really mean, “How are you?” when they ask, but every time I feel close to actually expressing parts of this, I stop myself. I’m being self-indulgent and inappropriate, and it really shouldn’t be anyone else’s job to deal with my confusion, aside from a person who is paid specifically for this purpose. The relentless highlight reel showing murders of black people by the police in the US, along with people being killed in protests against the government in the DRC, and the awareness of the backs I have stood on in order to be alive and well right now, all work together with many other factors to aggravate the low feeling I’m carrying around. Writing is the only thing that allows me to unburden myself of some of these feelings, but the crowding of too many other commitments means that I write less, which only deepens my anxiety.

I’m frightening myself, mainly because it’s slowly becoming more difficult and less appealing to put on my stage persona before going out in public. There are also a few other things at play that I don’t quite understand and am not ready to share. What I can say is that I want to be loved in the way that I try to love people, completely, in all ways, on panicky 4am phone calls, in ‘I’ve missed you” conversations turning into “Actually, I need your help…” in impromptu trips to the city if it’s affordable, just to be there in person with whoever.

It feels very isolating to consider the possibility that there are so few people in my life who can love me the way I love them, to the extent that I’m about to make an appointment to speak with someone professionally trained to help me to do this “work” on myself. People are either too practical, too busy, too engrossed in what I think are far more critical situations, or awkwardly silent. Sometimes they aren’t able to see far enough backstage to realize that I’m not ready for the conversation to move on to lighter topics, that I just want to be seen, even if  for just a moment.

Maybe it’s my fault for not knowing exactly what kind of response or support I’m looking for. Maybe I’m too self-centered and over-estimating the role I play in the lives of the people closest to me. The one thing I’m sure of is that I have to want to thrive for myself, to just be, rather than to do so because I can’t answer the question, “What would so-and-so do without me?”

Actually, no. Everything isn’t fine. Can you please talk to me?

(Image: My mum looking absolutely gorgeous on our way to one of the many weddings we used to attend. I had on a a dress with drawings of fruit all over it.)

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)

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…