It will happen without your noticing. You’ll be going about your life when someone will come up to you and tell you that you look great. You know that emphasis? Grreat! What have you been doing? What happened? And you won’t know what they’re talking about. And then someone else will comment, and ask if you’ve been exercising more, and you won’t think that you have been, not really. And after the third person comments, you’ll go home and get on the scale. The scale that your dad has complained is broken, because “I weighed myself and it told me that I weighed more than I know I weigh.” You’ll get on the scale and look down and see that you’re about twenty pounds lighter than you were a month ago, and you won’t believe it. You’ll go to your sister’s house, and confirm on the scale in her room. Life feels crazy. You’re a little scared. You don’t know how this happened.
And then you go home for dinner, and you’re in the kitchen with your mom and she starts to freak out about something. She is stressed, and scared, and having a bit of a panic attack over a phone call she has to make, or an odd detail she needs to set in order, and you mentally roll your eyes at the overreaction. But you also start to feel a little overwhelmed yourself. No, you feel extremely overwhelmed. You actually feel her anxiety seeping into you, and when you finally calm down, you realize that you are in your room, staring at the circles on your pants. Somehow, you have managed to skip dinner.
Then, you’ll go for a walk, that’s more of a hike, with two friends. As you walk, they keep stopping to admire the surroundings. Pretty trees, patterns, fungi on bark. So many stops, and so much admiration. From them.
The only thing that you see is the leaves. There are leaves everywhere. Everywhere. And they look…sick. They are covered, at first you think with holes, and then you realize it’s more like boils. The leaves have boils. Light yellow-orange leaves covered in brown-black spots, that are bumps, that rise. You are walking on a forest floor that is covered with bumps, and you feel as though you may accidentally step onto one of the bumps and pop it, and have the bumps run onto your skin. You think that soon, your entire body could be covered with these bumps, that will grow until they, too, burst, and then you will be dissolved into nothing. And you become so consumed with the spots on the leaves that you almost don’t realize your friends have stopped again. What are they looking at now?
The ripples in water. If you force yourself to really look, at how the stream makes waves that bounce off of surfaces, taking the shape of the bank they run by, it is beautiful. You tear yourself away from the spots to recognize the beauty, but doing so requires forcing open your mind, and you need to snap it back shut again. Taking in the beauty for too long results in tears, not for what is happening, but for things that have already happened. And if you remain open for too long, you probably won’t be able to close. So you shut yourself up, and wait until you can move on, thinking about car rides and revelations from the week before.
The biggest tragedy of this mulatto, métisse mess comes after my mother asks me to drive her to the Lord and Taylor and proceeds to shatter my confidence the whole way over. Bracing her arm against the dashboard as I crawl below the speed limit, whimpering when I roll beneath yellow lights, telling me desperately to go – that way! …NO! THAT way! without motioning in any direction, and then choking on a shriek as I turn left with no cars around at a four-way intersection. This ride, for which she had no business being passenger, is fifteen minutes, and I am exhausted when we get to the building. I do not have the mental energy to make myself look pleasant or appealing. I cannot lightly step in a nonthreatening way as I trudge behind her throughout the store, and I do not want to smile reassuringly at the salesclerks who glance over at me when I reach out to touch the coats. I do not want to be here, and I do not want to be with her.
“You have to drive home,” I tell her, when we get back to the car.
Immediately, her eyes well up with tears. “What do you mean,” she asks. She’s not afraid of driving herself; she’s afraid of what I’ll tell her when I clarify.
“You know why I can’t drive you,” I tell her. “I forgot how bad it is for me when you’re in the passenger seat. You take away all my confidence, and I worry about your stress, and then I take in all of your energy and it makes me too anxious to do anything.”
The thing is, even as my confidence takes blows, I understand that it isn’t completely about me, and is more about her perceived lack of control. I have flashbacks to being in the passenger seat when I was much younger, listening to her screaming and moaning and worrying as she made wrong turns. I remember the day our EZ Pass fell off the windshield, right when we got into the lane. After scrambling to get it from under my seat, and misunderstanding my mom’s frantic directions to put it “that way …NO! THAT way!” I mistakenly held it up backwards, right as we passed under the detectors. That ride home was miserable, and terrifying, not because of what happened on the road, but because of the monsters of worry and fear that my mother released from her brain. Descriptions of enormous bills, lawful action, suits, shame, anxiety and uncertainty gushed out of her mouth like snakes and danced around the car. And when they found there was nowhere else to go, they poured into me and nested in my throat, choking me. She was too consumed to realize her eleven year-old didn’t speak for the next forty minutes.
The only thing worse than driving, for her, is to be a passenger. And the only thing worse than being her passenger, for me, is to drive her. My nerves cannot take it right now. My energy is too low. We’ve spent weeks dancing around rape, and death, and lawsuits for character defamation. My legs are tired; my mind is tired. Too tired to protect her from herself.
And she knows it. So she’s not listening.
“Look,” she tells me. “I can’t help my reactions to things. That’s part of who I am.”
“And I can’t help my reactions to things,” I tell her. “You made that part of who I am. I get it from you.”
“But you should,” she presses. “I want you to drive.”
“Why should I be expected to control how you make me feel,” I argue, “When you won’t control the sounds and motions you make? Or the things you say? Why is this on me?”
And we go back and forth, and back and forth, me believing that if she can’t control her actions and I can’t control my feelings, then we should remove what’s causing the actions. Her wanting to keep the cause and her reactions, but somehow have my feelings change. And it goes like this, nowhere, until,
“I am afraid of my pants.” I’m telling this to you, my audience, now. I was screaming it at her. I was screaming at my mother that I was afraid of my pants, because the patterns of circles repeated and repeated and overtook my mind. Beneath me at home, I could hear her anxiety attacks, and they would grow in my mind until they consumed me, and I was getting lost in the holes. I’d listen to her downstairs and stare at my pants until the holes overtook me, and I could feel them. I could feel my cheeks hollowing out, could see new circular pockets in my face. I was melting away, crumbling into nothingness, becoming a human hive. Trypophobia is real, and for me, it’s anxiety driven.
“And I can’t take it anymore!” We’re no longer screaming, but just crying. Me for what is happening to me. Her for the part she’s playing. Me again, because I’m making my mother feel as though she’s failed, and I wish I were a better daughter. I wish she’d had a different daughter, who never cried. A daughter she understood, who didn’t have undefined psychological issues and different reactions to the world. Her because I’m still crying. Me because she’s still crying. Her because, me because, her because –
“Stop crying.” Out loud. To myself, to both of us. I stop. The tears shrink back into my eyes, I take two deep breaths, and push everything else down. Easy. Simple. We are practiced at this.
No. I am practiced at this. She is still crying. She is still crying. Why is she still crying?
“No.” Out loud. To her. Confused. “We need to stop crying now. The time is over.”
She isn’t listening. Her tears are continuing. If anything, she’s crying harder now.
“Don’t you understand?” Still out loud. More confused. “You can’t do this right now.”
In my head: it’s making everything worse. I stopped crying for you, and you continue to cry because of me. But if I think about that too much right now, if I start to cry again, it will just prolong her suffering.
“I can’t just stop, Khalilah.” Out loud. Her. To me. Still crying. “When I have to cry, I have to cry. You don’t just suppress your emotions.”
“Yes, you do.” Out loud. Me. To her. “You do!” More emotional, almost angry. “Why don’t you know how to do that? How is it that in sixty years of life, you have never had to teach yourself what I have internalized before twenty-one? How have you been able to get by without hiding your emotions or dulling your sensations? Why isn’t this a skill for you?”
And then, in my head, realization: that’s not a skill she needs.
I look over at my anxious, hysterical, crying mother. At the moment, she doesn’t feel privileged. She feels miserable. She wears her misery, on her face. She wears her anxiety on her shoulders, her stress bouncing off of her stomach. She looks at me. She sees nothing. Everything I have is hidden. My misery is behind my eyes, my anxiety is curled in my chest; my stress tightening the veins in my wrists. Even my anger, should it truly emerge, would be absorbed into smiles. She looks at the thing that should be her daughter but is too detached and so cold. And a couple minutes later, when her tears have slowed, she drives home. I watch her on the way back, see her flightiness and overreactions. I look into the mirror of the disorders I will inherit but never be allowed to openly own.
The tragedy of being a mulatto right now is recognizing the horrible ways in which I am becoming my mother. It is knowing that one day I will be all of her but what protects her. Too white for the black kids; too black for the white, this is the identity nonsense that any other day might be bothering me but now seems inconsequential in the face of my future mental health.
And this is what I’m left with. No jubilation, no sense of amazement or great appreciation of any of the incredible things to be discovered in nature. I have nothing but terror for the leaves that sport their great bumps, the leaves that swirl and surround us, that crunch underfoot. And even this terror I cannot have, as I would like to have it. Rather, it holds me, in silence. I will not ruin the magical walk for my companions. I will break down silently, hold it together outwardly, and not eat when I go home. And maybe if this time I say, “walking,” when people ask me how I’ve lost weight, it will be a more acceptable answer.