At that point I could not remember when last I had been outside. Some weeks prior I went to a store just below Eastern Parkway, one of the only stores of its kind that still existed among the deluge of coffee shops and yoga studios, to buy palm oil and frozen cassava leaves, to make the dish I knew would heal me, the only Liberian dish that could. When I arrived a sign informed that the store had closed indefinitely, and returning to my apartment, everything I had been avoiding crashed hard into me, tears staining my skin. I have not been able to wash them off for some time.
Before moving there I rid the place of ghosts. I burned sage—the Ol’ Mas say the spirits do not like the odor. I then called my mother and asked her to pray, certain they would listen to her voice, ascending in that musical way it did from my phone speaker, before they obeyed mine. I was safe there. But now the five or so steps from my bed to the kitchen felt like uphill lunges, no rest between sets. I spent too long looking into mirrors, too long sleeping, and I had been crying again, too much, buried under covers still marked with our collective smell, every moment I was not working. I had made it to my living room that day and I opened the large window where I placed a vase of my mother’s favorite flowers, lilies, now dried and unrecognizable in the escaping sun. The sill was cold when I climbed onto it, and I rested my slippers on the fire escape where children played below, and the Brooklyn drivers honked in the street while bits of conversations and laughter spilled from their car windows on the backs of words like move and fell and going and tomorrow, and the sirens came toward me from the distance then disappeared again behind those words, and the new transplants hurried home, as gentrifiers do when it is almost dark and they are still fearful of corners.
I leaned my head against the stile and wondered how I smelled, how I looked, if music would ever sound the same, especially those songs I knew by heart. My sister called, the older one, and I almost did not answer the phone because I did not care for the questions.
“How are you?” like everything recently, she asked this while exhaling.
“I’m fine,” I answered.
“Did you get out today?” she sighed again.
“I’m outside now,” I mumbled, staring through the holes beneath my feet, three stories down to the ground below.
“Outside outside, or on your fire escape?”
I did not answer. So she said my name in that way only our mother would. Then there was that familiar litany of consolations, fumbling pauses and attempts to make me laugh, her optimism harsh against my ears.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I just need time.” I just needed time. And I needed my cassava leaves, spread over parboiled white rice drenched in oil, with shrimp, with dry fish and pepper that wounded my lips, reddened my skin, and those meats that required both hands to eat.
We had been together for two years. Brilliant story but cruel. Long distance but intense. These begin beautifully, end suddenly, sometimes by accident, and the smoke rises not because all was burned to ashes, but because there is still something left in the pipe.
This was the other side. Everything was infuriating, everyone guilty. The days were long and morning came too soon, and the sun crept toward the bodies of those girls hidden under blankets, those girls now questioning their worth, those girls who once laid on air-mattresses with their sweethearts that flattened during the night, in college or in med school or while he was unemployed, in those days he could not afford a bed. So we filled them with confidence, with time, with money, to make him big enough, strong enough, and we could not know that one day this confidence we sculpted would make him eager to leave.
They did not tell us that love was not something you could throw away once finished. That it would remain on us like blackened scars, underneath blouses and in those places only we could see. That we would reach a point where it, once solid, would melt in our hands and we would never fully wash off its residue; and some love, the truest love, also the most dangerous, could disfigure our core.
When we were children and they spoke of it, we did not fully understand. They had different conversations with the girls than they had with the boys. They separated us into rooms divided by thin walls where we could still hear the boys laughing as they explained our parts, the unmentionable parts, the parts between our legs that were rude to speak of, and when we giggled our way through our questions the teachers mentioned love, but we did not fully understand it. So our parents tried to explain it and they spoke of love in that creamy, sterilized way, stripped of those parts that were rude to speak of, and because they censored our parts, neglecting mention of those juices and stiffening limbs, we did not believe the bigness that they spoke of. We ignored the rage in their eyes. So we went to films, and we went to music, and we gathered our friends, other girls and boys in those separated rooms, and we shared our misunderstanding, and we built it up, constructed it, all of us, until its shadow was too vast to deny. And we, once little girls and boys, were now 21 and 25 and 28 and 32, and we were angered that the reality of our lives and our loves did not live up to that haunting, beautiful, impossible shadow.
She convinced nine-year-old me that if I dug too deep in the back yard for ingredients to add to my magic potion that the devil would emerge and pull me below. Nothing was going to stop me from replicating that frothy concoction from Never Ending Story, so I kept digging until she scared me from behind with a bass growl, then rolled around the dirt laughing while I picked up the remnants of my dignity. She was the only one who called me beautiful during those grueling adolescent years of bifocals and braces, and the last to sleep after making sure the school clothes my sisters and I laid out for the following day were not too gronah—a Liberian pidgin word that, more or less, translated to “slutty.” She was the first to explain male masturbation to us after my mischievous sister lost a bet and had to ask her; her Liberian accent was dense, her voice inconsolable as she struggled to scientifically explain the most artless of actions. I spat out my milk. She taught me how to dance, whispered me stories during Saturday naps, and somehow filled the empty mass underneath our Christmas trees even during those seasons we had nothing. This was my mother.
In 2010 she returned to Liberia after more than twenty years in the United States; she moved to America in 1988 as a scholar in the Fullbright program, and we followed in 1991, during Liberia’s civil war. She is a teacher and although she initially struggled, teetering the intersection of educator and foreigner, she was eventually recognized by the Texas Legislature for her work at a Houston high school. A success at her profession, a mother of 5, a wife, friend, philanthropist; Texas, and the life she had made there with my father, was home. So, the news of her move was at first unbelievable. During those first conversations when she shared her plans, I changed the subject, deflected, scolded her, unwilling to reconcile the seriousness of her proposition.
“Mom, don’t be crazy. We’re all here,” I’d say.
“I am going back,” she’d add, “I want to join a ministry, work at the university, maybe even open a school. I want to give back.”
She had just sent the last of her five children to college. She had been there for every play, every game, every recital, and every graduation. We could not deny her this.
My mother was twenty-one when she married my father, twenty-two when she had the first of 5 children over 9 years, during which time she also nabbed an Ivy League degree. Growing up with such a woman—as clever as she was beautiful, as kind as she was funny, diverse in her ambitions—gave me a rigid definition of success.
My mother and I spoke every day that fall I hid from outside, and she promised that there was no single path to happiness. I told her that I was ashamed for being heartbroken, that I had a great life and career, great friends, that I understood many things but not this, and she said, “Well this was the first time you were in love. You should be happy that you are able to love. Many cannot.”
Then she said those things she recited when one of us was not well—that she wished she could travel back to America in that moment, if only to make us pepper soup and lay beside us as we fell asleep to her humming our favorite song. Stories of her life before my father, always hard to imagine, when she thought she loved and realized she had gotten it wrong. Tips for how I could make my own soup since she was away, reminding me to bake the bennie seed, to boil the fish separately, as her mother, and her grandmother, and all of those aunties and Ol’ Mas in Cape Mount had done.
And I told her that I did not feel as strong as I thought I was, to be drowning in the memory of this man. I did not feel hopeful. I did not feel feminist, or as brave as her. She laughed when I said that word, that mighty word, shiny now, in its audacity: feminist.
“What does that mean?” she asked. “You young girls pressure yourself to be too much. Just be. That’s feminist.”
Slowly, eventually, her words made sense to me, offering the rest I so needed, the healing I longed for. She had a career and an education, those things that they taught her feminists should fight for, but she wanted a family, so she said she got married young and started her family. “I just wanted to be happy. So I ignored everyone who said I was doing it too early, and I got married. So in essence, marrying your daddy and having all of you was the most feminist thing I ever did.”
Her words were poetry. Yet during that conversation I had to ask her, had to form the words gracefully: “So why did you leave?”
But she did not hear me for she asked me a question at the same time, and we continued with my answer rather than hers. But I knew what she would have said. That happiness, even the most brilliant kind, does not silence longing. We could fulfill our dreams now. She had worked tirelessly to ensure that, but from those dreams, new desires would be born. And a feminist is a woman who is free enough to go after them, whatever they may be.
When my grandmother was young, a full woman had the most children, the best home, the wealthiest husband. When my mother was young, a full woman would have all those things plus an education. And now, full women are the ones who have all of those things they told our grandmothers and mothers would complete them—plus a thriving career. And what makes a full man?
In those conversations with my mother I thought of my friends, my sisters. We were all guilty of this prescriptive view of feminine happiness and success. And we used it against each other, leveraging those missing pieces with words, rough and biting. “That’s why she is single,” the women say. “That’s why he left her.” “That’s why she’s alone,” stripping ourselves of our powers. And we add, “All she has is those children” and, “All she has is her husband,” as if these things are not enough. And we push each other into corners, and we bury graves in the layers of our mattresses, hiding, perpetuating the patriarchal assumption that without the love of a man, without someone to say, “This woman is valuable enough to love,” or, “This woman is worth marriage,”
then we are nothing.
So woman stays in relationship she should have left long ago. Woman changes. Woman stays with man who reduces her to dust. Woman shrinks. Woman fights with woman who would otherwise make her ginger tea in those winters she will lose her voice. Woman cries. Woman fights with herself for validation from man, once one of those boys in that neighboring room, laughing to calm his nerves, his awkwardness, hoping the girls would not hear, and praying that one day one of them would need him.
At our family reunions and other gatherings, weddings, funerals, where familiar names are stuttered through laughter, those who are old, while boasting of their meekness, will recall the steps that led them to Staten Island or Rhode Island or Minnesota or Maryland or Virginia or Tennessee. The conversation will bend and someone will always start a sentence with: “If the war had not happened…” and so on with the grandest plans, sweet to hear, hard to imagine. “If the war had not happened, Liberia would be a Goliath in Africa by now” and “If the war had not happened, our lives would have been better” and “If the war had not happened my wife would have stayed” and “If the war had not happened, our children would have married our friends’ children,” they say. And they would have built their mansions in the hills, among beds of palm trees, and along the Atlantic Ocean’s dry season waves.
I learned early not to stay too long in the dense labyrinth of what-if, because once the game of “If the war had not happened…” began, shortly after the room became quiet, and eyes hung low, and the palm butter in those bowls became cold.
There could be no what-ifs or past modals in this. I knew I had to carry on. I owed it to myself. So on that night I let him take me to a show because he said he had stalked my Instagram account and he knew I liked that sort of thing. I wore a dress my mother would call gronah, the kind of dress I would never wear around older Liberian women for fear they would suck their teeth as I walked by. During the show he put his arm around my shoulder and shifted in his seat. He was a handsome man. Tall with begging eyes, hands warm to touch. Sure of himself but not too much. He listened, though I could not tell if it was a symptom of infatuation, or if it was possible that he was always that attentive.
We went to a bar afterward in Williamsburg and I wanted to dance, and I let him get too close as the music pounded in our ears. He smiled and said something I knew was sweet, but I shook my head and yelled that I could not hear him. We had a few drinks and afterward we stumbled to the water and sat by that pier that offered a perfect view of Manhattan. The breeze dried our sweat and he hugged me again, in that warm, genuine way that good men did.
“We should just be together,” he said finally, after a heavy bout of silence. He said it as though the words had formed down in his gut and they had to fight to make their way to his tongue, and I could swear I heard this strain while my head lay against his shoulder. I would be thirty soon and all of those things I was hearing and reading said that I should try to love again. That I should get married. That I should have children, little girls and boys who would come to me with questions about love, and ignore the rage in my eyes when I answered.
“You will be thirty soon,” I would hear in both celebratory and sympathizing ways, like something would either be born, or die. Thirty soon. /thirty.
“So?” he asked after some time had passed.
“Relationships are hard,” I whispered finally, remembering the emotions of that fall long ago. “And breakups are harder. I want to take my time if that’s okay.”
He nodded, understanding to a fault, and he kissed me, in the softest way, and I did not want to pull away. But he did. I would see him less and less in the following weeks, and I would feel awful for rejecting someone who fit me so well, and he would begin to cancel plans and would not text me in the mornings like he used to. But it would not scare me. And this time, it would not define me.
I had been bullied by that shadow, by those things I was supposed to want and the trite, crippling fear of being alone, like our mothers, also fighting their way through longing. But this season, I am King. And I want to be with my sisters who were swallowed by those sinking beds, who sit alone in the darkness scrubbing love’s lasting residue. It will not remove, but you are better for it. A broken heart did not negate your strength, it contextualized it. And whether it be children, or a career, or a move, or all of these things, our ability to choose, our freedom from our misunderstanding of love and casting all of our hopes onto that shadow, our freedom from our misunderstanding of ourselves, is our right.
/thirty and the infant wrinkling of my skin, so much like my mother’s, gestures toward those words that have rescued me from hiding, conquering the daylight, falling into the face of God. Words like my cassava leaves, sweet to taste. Words like, you are valuable, you are enough, you have always been enough.
And one day, if you so choose,
you will be loved.
Rumpus original art by Kula Moore.