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Tableau 1

Every morning, I go to the window. I wake before Mwanza, always. His arms are around me, and I lie tangled up with him, breathing in his scent. He always smells faintly of Eros cologne. He’d roped me into coming to buy it with him the first time we met, expounding the ways the superior scent would positively impact his success “in all areas of life”. African men and name brands. The second time I visited, I brought him a bigger bottle. If I were to roll over now, I’d see the two Medusa heads guarding our room from the dresser, aided by Mandela’s eyes.

As Nelson’s portrait watches, I lie there and try to feel comfort in my confinement, tenderness in how tightly Mwanza chooses to wrap onto me. This consistently fails. Every morning, I gently shrug off his arms and spend an extra moment lying still, just out of his reach. When his breathing slows and becomes heavy again, I balance on the balls of my feet, and then deftly step over his body and onto the windowsill.

It’s a balancing act. The sill is wide enough for me to fit if I turn my body sideways, hold my knees to my chest, and lean against the glass. I balance my body to stay in the space, and steal the time in a place Mwanza cannot consciously miss it. As he slumbers on, I press my forehead into the glass and dream of being Elsewhere.

There’s no actual place in mind. That is beside the point. I’m tired of being here, but I also know that I would tire of being Anywhere. Isn’t it better to stay in the familiar? This is the daily argument in my head, and when that becomes overwhelming, I settle for looking out the window and into other apartments, imagining the people inside. Are they happy? I create personas and plan futures for them, until the sun’s rays hit our side of the street. That’s my cue to get up, softly step over the still-sleeping Mwanza, and roll back into his grasp.

A few minutes later he’s awake, his arms squeeze me and his lips are pushed against mine.

“I love you,” he says, before getting up to brush his teeth. I stay in bed. He must think of me as such a lazy riser. As he lightly reapplies the Eros – he has not even started the second bottle yet – I lie where he left me, and try to convince myself that it isn’t a lie when I say I love him back.

What is love, anyway? It has to be more than a feeling. Butterflies – people always talk about butterflies. Or a rushing sensation. Do people really feel that all the time? Does he?

Maybe love is comfort: looking at someone and feeling you know each other and are content together. Could that work for me? Am I content with him?

            Or maybe, love is a choice. Maybe you choose to stay in love with someone, make yourself content, force butterflies, and re-create rushes out of your memories. I could probably do that.

Sometimes, in his arms, I find myself marveling at how I ended up here. I came to South Africa as a visitor; it had never been my intention to stay. Then I fell in love with Braamfontein and Rose Bank lifestyles. I met Congolese people my age, both connected to and removed from their home cultures, so that they tolerated the aspects of my character they did not understand, appreciated where I diverged form tradition, and otherwise pulled me in.

“You been saying you wanted to marry a Congolese man,” my friend said one night, over the phone. “You better find one now.”

Enter Mwanza. He was – is – fine. Six foot three and muscular, skin dark so that his eyes always sparkle and his teeth shine white. My second visit, I stay in his apartment for two weeks. I was supposed to be staying by my cousin, but his place got filled up the night before I arrived. The cousin made us off limits to each other, so I never worried about any of the feelings we developed.

Right moves, wrong person. I don’t know how he did it. My last night, one second we were bumping shoulders playfully – the next he had grabbed me, spun me somehow, and had me locked in his arms, facing him. It was a lot. I melted.

“Don’t look at me,” he told me.

“There’s nowhere else for me to look,” I replied.

“Well, still. Close your eyes. I got you a goodbye present, did you know? I have to get it, but if I look at you, I won’t be able to leave you.”

“So don’t give me a present.”

“Just – ” he was exasperated. He removed one hand from my back, and used two fingers to gently close my eyes.

“Don’t be an asshole,” he said softly, almost whispering. “There. Now, hang on.”

I remember noticing that instead of completely letting go of me and leaving, both hands were again clasping me, pulling me in through the small of my back. There was the sound of a gulp, Mwanza gulped, and I wondered if he was going to kiss me. He did, before I could consider whether or not that was something I wanted.

“Don’t leave,” he whispered when I opened my eyes.

“My plane is tomorrow morning. I don’t have a choice.”

“That’s stupid,” he said, instinctively tightening his grip as I bristled. “Everyone has a choice, always. You could go back to the States with your ticket. Or, you could choose to stay with me.”

“This isn’t my home.”

“Mine either. But you’re American. You can make anywhere your home, with your magic passport.”

“My parents…”

“How often do you see them anyway? Listen. You have no job; you have no responsibilities. You rent an apartment full of things you don’t care about. Sell them. Stay with me. I own my place. Your room and board are covered!”

“You aren’t serious, was all I could say.”

“I am. Besides, didn’t you say you were falling in love with me?”

“What I said was that if I stayed longer, I might.”

“So do it. What do you want?”

I thought of a line. I didn’t know if it was true, but I said it.

“I want to kiss you again.”

He smiled, then. It wasn’t a completely nice smile – it made me think he looked more triumphant than happy. The first of what I’d privately dub Mwanza’s Wolf Smiles. I didn’t like it, but I let him smile, let him kiss me, and I stayed.

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Okay.

Pop. Six. Squish. Cicero. Lipschitz.

“Write about how you’d think it would feel falling for an artist,” he said.

Immediately I think of the artist who ain’t shit. Who finds theirself in multiple others, who cannot be tied down. I think of the artist as an anarchist, activist, revolutionary sprung to life from “Eyes of Zapata”, leaving hurt souls and broken hearts in their glorious wake. That would be the wrong kind of falling.

But then,

“You’ve been involved with too many drug dealers,” he told me. “It’s your type.”
“No, it isn’t,” I told him. “It’s not something I want, or look for. It’s just happened.”
“Exactly.”

“But you still don’t smoke,” he continued later. “You’re almost against it, and I don’t understand how.”

I explain about Edward, leaving William out. And I explain hide-and-seek depression, and not wanting to rely on a substance to get me through life. He understands a bit.

“It just seems, dangerous,” I say, “To be away from reality for so long.”

For the poetry unit, we have a slam. All the teachers perform. I bring my friend, a poet, to perform as a guest. Their words are transformative. Through inflection and imagery, an exile from family becomes an exodus; a stint of homelessness an adventure through another dimension. Another teacher conjures spirits and mystics from a funeral. The threads of so many basic concepts are spun into beauty, so that you forget where you are and what is happening. Black artists are magicians who turn sorrow and torment into ornaments and experiences coveted by those who don’t know better.

If reality was a desert, I imagine stumbling through it and falling for an artist as an oasis. Discovering someone who blows the sand into beautiful glass and makes us forget our thirst. Together, we’d make a completely new experience for ourselves, retreating into our shared consciousness, weaving stories and imagery around us to survive the elements.

 The only danger is that we’d still be thirsty, even if we didn’t think about it. The elements would still be there, even if we didn’t pay attention to them.

It might not be wise.

But I guess falling for anyone isn’t always the wisest thing to do in the first place.

What It Could Be

“I don’t even know if it really was love,” I tell her. “I thought it was at the time, but then most of that was revealed to be lies anyway. So I don’t trust anything. But what I do know is that 90% of it was sad.
“I think that because of the weirdness with Dad growing up, and from being so, so close to Edward and then dealing with his suicide, I don’t think I know a love that is healthy. I don’t understand love with the absence of pain.”

She started crying.

I wanted to write a pitch for CRWN’s love issue, before realizing I had nothing sensical enough to say. I considered dragging up What it Might Be, but didn’t feel like recycling. So instead, I allowed the issue to pass, while continuing to reflect. Then I listened to John Legend’s project.

This time, I think that love may be flying through a trapeze in pitch black. You can’t see where you’re going, or really any of your surroundings, but you can feel out what’s there.

Trust.

As you spin, contort, and flip yourself through the air, there’s the moment where you let go of the ropes and poles on which you hang. You fly, blindly, arms outstretched, ready to be

Caught

And hands feel you, grab you, pull you out of the air and back into the motion of a loop, before tossing you on and allowing you to fly again. Maybe you’ll go off flying together, waiting for nets or other hands to catch you. Maybe they’ll let you go for a minute, but come back to catch you later.

Maybe they’ll drop you, and you’ll fall.

You have no idea. You can’t see. You can only follow the motion of your hoops and crests. Can only fly off on your faith.

If the hands do drop you, you have to fall with faith, too, and hope that new ones appear to catch you before you hit the ground. Maybe you’ll fly higher with them. Who knows.

If you crash to the ground, will it have been worth it?

I don’t know. Falling, you probably won’t think so.

When you’re at the peak of your arc, though, after the first time you’ve been caught and flung up again, you’ll know that this is the best feeling in the world.

At least I hope so. I can’t really remember, and I’m still swinging. I won’t let go for sadness or abuse this time.

Who Wants to Be in a Piece?

I wrote this to be performed, then realized I have no performers. Eventually I want to turn it into some sort of visual story. As my visual skills are lacking, that may take a while. So in the meantime, here.

 

I heard that after she died, her mother wanted to move to a place where no one knew her, so that she could walk outside and be sad without wearing sunglasses.

I wish I could do that. All of that.

I wish I could be publically sad. I wish I could walk around crying when I felt like it. More than that, though, I wish that I could want to go somewhere that no one knew me. I wish that living amongst strangers were an attractive dream, and not a nightmare. It would allow for the possibility of escape. But right now, walking amongst strangers is one of the most terrifying experiences I go through.

What are the social rules for when you walk through strangers?

Repeat: “After she died, her mother wanted to move to a place where no one knew her, so that she could walk outside and be sad without wearing sunglasses. I wish I could –”

Whom do you greet? At whom should you smile? I want to be friendly; I want to be kind.

In high school, a speaker came to our school to talk about bullying. He told us the story of a man who was so depressed that he jumped off a bridge. In his suicide note, the man said that he would turn around and commit to living, if one person smiled at him on his walk to the bridge from his home.

I think about that story every day.

I think about calls I never made, and texts I sent too late.

I think about my own jumper.

I don’t want to be the inadvertent cause of another.

BUT –

I don’t really want to be that friendly, either. To strangers. Who don’t know me, and who could misinterpret my intentions in smiling. I don’t want to smile at the wrong person and then regret it.

Hidden Thought: “Edward”

What I didn’t realize would happen after I was raped: I became afraid of men. I don’t think many people think about the extent to which this happens. You think, Oh, well of course. A man did this to you, so you’ll have trust issues. What you don’t realize is that there will come a time when you’re walking through the city with an acquaintance, and you will pass by a group of guys on the corner. You will notice them noticing you, and why shouldn’t they? You look good. Hair nice, new lipstick, skirt with the slits. Let ‘em watch! you’ll think as you walk by, until you notice them peel off the corner and start to walk behind you. And for three blocks, as they continue to walk behind you, your acquaintance will talk and talk and never notice how silent you are, how rigid you are becoming. As you hear the low murmur of their voices, punctured by sinister laughs, as you begin to be confused about whether their footsteps are shaking the Earth, or you are just shaking, you’ll be thinking about the keys in your purse, wondering, if I push them between my fingers, can these work as brass knuckles? Or will that just make them mad, and rougher with me? If I just submit without trying, will they be gentler? Will anyone believe me after? Will they blame me?

Thought: “Of course they will.”

*Everyone pauses, Thoughts look at Khalilah, then all resume walking*

Repeat: “What I didn’t realize would happen after I was raped: I became afraid of men. I don’t think – ”

You will be scared out of your mind, because you will know that those guys are there to rape you, that they will rape you. This you will know, even after it turns out that the guys were just walking, and have turned off somewhere else, because this is what you have internalized: if someone you know and trust, someone who could be a friend, could do this to you, then there is nothing to stop a stranger, someone with no connection to you, and no reason to care about you, from violating you.

From One side: “You’re stupid to want to look nice. You’re an idiot, trying to be attractive, just luring them in, and expecting them not to touch you. *Getting closer to Khalilah’s face* Don’t smile at anyone! Do you want to be asking for it?”

From Other side: “Edward.”

*Thoughts begin to walk in imperfect circle around Khalilah, stepping out of the circle to speak, and then re-entering as she speaks*

There are too many dates on the calendar. On February 16, we found his suicide note.

“Don’t let him die.”

On December 24, he told me that he was better. That he was committed to being healthy.

“What’s wrong with him, Khalilah?”

On March 25, a jogger found his body.

“Why can’t you be friendly?”

On May 20, he told me he loved me as he invaded my body.

“I never said, ‘he did not rape Khalilah’. Stop worrying that I’m spreading a counter narrative about you, and worry about yourself.”

*Khalilah stops smiling, turns from a Thought*

“Well fuck you then, bitch.”

From other side: “Edward.”

*Everyone stops walking*

You ever get to a place where your traumas seem to trump you? Where you’ve got to choose to let one run wild over you, so you can combat the other? It’s like a game a whack-a-mole where I am both batter and target.

*Resume walking randomly, not in a circle. Thoughts should be pretending they have somewhere to go, intersecting Khalilah/each other like traffic, but without forcing anything (if that makes sense)*

He is 1,728 days dead. And she would be 301 days old. I’ve got ghosts on each shoulder.

Does he have any? Does he have ours? The man whose name I am legally no longer allowed to say. Would he deny his daughter? My daughter? The proof of his perpetration. His friends, fellow activists, would no longer be able to send me hateful messages, or accusations, or spread their guilt-induced counter narratives, not with her around. She would have to be female, I know, because I would hate any son in his image. Any man.

“Edward.”

Please, please stop saying his name. I’m not even thinking it. I’m not saying it.

Thought from other side of the room: “You can still feel his dreads sometimes. You still see him when your eyes are open, and feel him when your eyes are closed. You can still hear the contrast between your moans and his laughter – ”

*Khalilah runs over as it speaks, faster now*

I don’t want to, I don’t want to. Those aren’t things I want to hold onto, those are memories I want out of my thoughts –

Thought from the other side of the room: “Edward.”

*Khalilah whirls around*

NO! Stop. He isn’t here. Why don’t people understand the power of names, the power of calling someone? Call a living person, and you summon an idea of them. When someone is dead, the idea of them becomes their essence. I do not want to deal with his ghost right now. His nonexistence. He left. He left – me. You cannot call him; I cannot call him – 

*Thoughts have been moving closer to Khalilah as she unravels. They pull cords out of their pockets, and begin to move quickly around Khalilah like a Maypole, binding her*
*Different thoughts begin to speak, in round form. After the first gets out two sentences, the next begins, and the next after the second’s first two sentences*

“He is seventeen-hundred, twenty-eight days dead. And she would be 301 days old. There are too many dates on the calendar. On February 16, we found his suicide note. On December 24, he told me that he was better. That he was committed to being healthy. On March 25, a jogger found his body. On March 20, he told me he loved me as he invaded my body. You ever get to a place where your traumas seem to trump you? Where you’ve got to choose one to let run wild all over you, so you can combat the other?”

“I wish I could be publically sad. I wish I could walk around crying when I felt like it. After she died, her mother wanted to move to a place where no one knew her. More than that, though, I wish I could want to go to a place where no one knew me. What are the social rules for when you walk through strangers? Whom do you greet? At whom should you smile?”

“You think, Oh, well of course. A man did this to you, so you’ll have trust issues. 

*When Khalilah is sufficiently bound, one Thought moves to cover her mouth. She struggles around, moving her head to get out the last bit of monologue, while one Thought goes to get tape*

SOMETIMES I THINK THAT MY THOUGHTS ARE GOING TO TAKE OVER MY EXISTENCE. SOMETIMES I THINK I’LL HAVE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN GETTING BY AND LIVING, AND ACTUALLY MAKING SENSE OF WHAT’S HAPPENING.

SOMETIMES I THINK THAT I’LL GO INTO MY HEAD TO ORGANIZE MY THOUGHTS, AND I’LL GET LOST. I’LL LOSE CONTROL, AND MY THOUGHTS WILL ALL SWIRL UP AND CONSUME ME AND I’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO COMPLETELY SPEAK AGAIN. IT’LL JUST BE ME, IN MY HEAD, MUTE, WITH MY TRAUMAS.

*Thought finally succeeds in taping Khalilah’s mouth shut. It gently runs its hands over the tape, pressing it down more firmly, as the others stand watching, still holding their ends of the cords*

*A New Person enters, dressed in ordinary clothes*

New Person: “What are you thinking about?”

Knowing Moments

When the only person in the world with eyes that scare me was younger, she watched her grandmother get out of the bathtub. Years later she would talk about it, while showing a picture of a rip in a curtain, taken in the bathroom of a restaurant. The picture would be blurry, not really focused on anything, but you’d be able to make out the light shining through it. The light made the rip look, to me, like a bird. It made me think of the birds on my back.

People still ask about my tattoos, and it always surprises me. I think it’s because I’ve forgotten, for the most part, that they’re there. Maybe it’s because they’re things I’m already thinking of anyway, messages I’ve internalized. My tattoos have become a part of me to the point where I’ve forgotten I once paid someone to ink them into my skin, and feel more as though they’ve emerged on my body as manifestations of my thoughts. If my body were a house, my thoughts would be the ghosts haunting it, writing warnings and messages onto my walls.

This bird does not look trapped or free; it looks suspended. Janelle Monae before she steps into Q.U.E.E.N.ship. And through it, I can see, what? It’s unclear. Hope? Light.

Her eyes, and their directness, terrify me. She’s the only other person I know who has seen The Man in the corner of her room. I feel as though her eye contact asks something of me. I don’t know what, though, and I can easily understand how they could make a grandmother still, freeze her as she stands in the tub, capture her forever as the light glints off of her.

I look into those eyes and see the silhouette, feel the softness of the skin and the dampness of the towel. I feel safe. I don’t want to leave, and I haven’t even been here.

“What do you believe in?” he asked me.
“Moments,” I told him, except now I think that was the wrong answer.

What does belief mean? A lot of it, I think, has to do with faith, or accepting something to be true. I don’t know if I’m in the position to accept anything to be true. Things just happen, things just are, things are not. Things can simultaneously be and not be at the same time, and I would never want to tell you which. I think on an abstract plane, I hold faiths and beliefs. Concretely, though, I would not be able to state them and be fully there with them. So maybe I don’t believe in moments. I do, however, know them.

For such a long time now, two ideas have been repeating themselves to me, overlapping with each other and expanding together. They are

Moments

and

Traps

If the moment is right, it can trap part of you forever. Some bit of your mind will stay there, even if you don’t want it to, even if you aren’t always aware of it.
Some of the strongest moments are ones I was not even present for.

When my uncle was at a state dinner, his food was poisoned and he died.

When my aunt found my cousin’s body, she lay down next to it and told him to look after his brother.

When my father was five, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, and Coco Meta had a man pretend to be her husband on the train because he spoke all the languages.

When the only person in the world with eyes that scare me was younger, she watched her grandmother get out of the bathtub.

And then there are all the moments that do belong to me, constantly swirling around my head too fast to be inked down. I could get lost thinking about all of them. I already am lost, for the most part. My mind is so split, fractured as different moments lock different parts of it away.

Half of these may reveal themselves to be lies later, and that part of my mind that believed in them will be gone forever. So believing in moments is dangerous. Recognizing, knowing, and holding them is another story. They are what I have.

Security

The one exception to the safety rule, the one time I feel completely comfortable in my body’s space, is very irrational. But I’ve dealt with so many irritating irrationalities, finding a helpful one is not something I’m going to worry about.

“I love your shirt!” the girl at the register tells me. And tells me, and tells me. She can’t get over it. “It’s just so cool, and the thing is most people probably don’t know what it means.”
Ah, we have a connection. Black women who share some level of consciousness.
“Yeah,” I say, gesturing with my thumb toward Darren. “He didn’t even know what it meant.”
She looks at him and nods like it’s nothing unexpected. “You should walk down 125th street in that.”

I bought this shirt partially because I like the design, and partially to spite my landlord. Since the second week I moved in, we’ve had ridiculous male-female debates over issues such as weaves, respectability, harassment, and hoe-ing.

“You’re a hotep,” I finally tell him.
“A what?” he asks.
“Look it up,” I tell him.

“This says, ‘an Egyptian word that means “to be at peace”‘,” he reads off his phone. “Hey, I like that!”
“You’re looking at the wrong definition,” I reply.

“Woah, woah, woah!” he comes back an hour later, reading off of Urban Dictionary.
“‘Black men who are only concerned about matters of social justice when it comes to black men and have little or no regard for the health and well-being of other members of the black race unless those people can serve to uphold their misogynistic societal ideas.
Hoteps are bitter black men who are somewhat progressive though undereducated on issues of racial prejudice and use pro-black rhetoric to support ideas that are clearly not in the best interest of all black people.
These men are typically misogynists who display a particularly high level of disrespect for the thoughts, bodies and experiences of black women, black homosexuals and black children. These men regularly espouse anti-intellectual and anti-scientific beliefs about nutrition, women’s menstrual cycles and child development on social media.’
“That’s not me! I’m not a misogynist, I love women! They just don’t know how to love themselves right!”

“Mmm-hmm,” I say, and go upstairs to order my shirt.
Four weeks later, I have it. It’s oversized, and I crop it badly, but not so badly that it doesn’t still look god when I wear it. A black tank, with orange and green designs around large letters that spell out, “AIN’T NO HOTEPPIN’

The shirt is perfect. I wear it the entire weekend. I go everywhere in it. My waist beads poke out from underneath it, the burgundy of my combat boots complements it nicely, I pair it with leggings and long skirts, jackets and sweaters, or by itself. Any other shirt that was cut this way, I would wear it in the daytime only. But this shirt, I almost prefer to wear in the dark. It protects me better than mace or an oversize pullover ever could.

Why? I think it’s the message. The message for monsters to leave me alone. Ain’t no hoteppin’ means I don’t have time for bullshit, for men who would harass me or waste my time, follow me or try to hurt me. When I wear the shirt, I am unequivocally Not Asking For It, or For Anything other than Respect. And despite the fact that most monsters probably don’t understand the writing, I do, and that means my mental state is secure and confident. I can stare men down, I can sit where I want on trains, and I can walk through the dark with less fear.

“Dear L train,
Thanks for Jessie. She wore, skinny jeans, no lipstick, and a pair of scuffed black boots that looked like they could kick God’s teeth in.”

That’s how I feel. Safe in my brain, secure in my body. I feel like even if a third rape were to be attempted, I would be able to stop it. And I would know that no one could ever call it my fault. That’s probably the best part: existing, and only being responsible for myself, without mentally taking on the responsibilities of those who would do me harm. It makes me feel lighter, clearer.

I wish I could translate it to my other clothes. I wish I didn’t need to wear my lack of consent in writing, in order to feel safer.

For now though, if it works, I’ll take it.

Two Moments

In a flash of a second, the train door was gone.

No one noticed.

Or maybe they did. It would have been hard to tell, because the door was back so quickly she never even reacted herself. She was still focused on the open book in her hands, strategically placed in front of her face to avoid making eye contact with strangers. Anyone watching might have thought that she missed it as well. But the corner of her left eye absorbed everything it could, taking it in to process later. Through the doorway were not the inner workings of the subway system, but an entirely different area that looked to be bathed in amber light. She picked up hills and the ideas of faint music, but by that time they had reached a legitimate stop, and she might have confused it with musicians from just beyond the platform.

For a while, she carried around the memory, half expecting someone from another world to pop out of a sewer grate one day, in crotchety need of directions to someplace or other. After a time though, she let it go. Life was not a Douglas Adams novel, and even if it was, most of those characters met ridiculous demises for the sake of allegories.

*      *      *     *     *     *

The two boys leaned forward eagerly as the air shimmered before them. They fell back in surprise as, with a rush and roar, they found themselves nearly on the interior of a huge metal tube, filled with rows of people. The first to recover made a pinching motion with his fingers, and the tube was sent away.

“You opened it in the wrong place!” his friend complained.
“Well, at least no one noticed,” said the first boy. “No trouble done.”
“I don’t know,” the second pushed. “I think a girl caught us out. There was a weird look on her face.”
“Girls always have weird looks on their faces. You think too much. Besides, one person seeing anything doesn’t make much of a difference.”

They packed in their things and left the spot on the hill.