A Sultry Register: Nichole Perkins’s Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be

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In early May I was scrolling through Twitter when I came across a post from author Nichole Perkins that piqued my interest. It was a sexy tweet—in a string of sexier tweets—dissecting actor Jake Johnson’s ability to convincingly exude lust on camera. In a thread supported by illustrative gifs and evocative language like “little moan” and “greedy hands,” I found myself blushing about an actor best known for his portrayal as the goofy Nick Miller in the 2010s sitcom “New Girl.”

Perkins’ titillating thread haunted me for thirty days. And then I remembered she had an essay collection out. I’d heard about Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be several months earlier, but—having grown more prudish over these years than I’d care to admit—was hesitant to read it.

Here’s what I can tell you: If you decide to do what I have done—read this essay collection—prepare to have Perkins’ prose snatch your pearl-clutching inclinations clean off your neck.

When considering this book in its totality, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact throughline. There are certainly recurring topics—sex, family, pop culture—but the thickest thread holding these disparate stories together is Perkins’s singular voice. Whether she’s talking about growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, receiving cunnilingus for nearly four hours, or sleeping with a knife tucked under her pillow, her words convey an unnerving combination of undulating sensuality and sharp detachment that, at times, borders on cruelty. One moment you’re lost in Perkins’ sumptuous description of her grooming ritual, resplendent with the slathering of scented lotions on fleshy limbs—the next moment you’re bristling at the role she plays in hurting others and the lack of remorse she seems to display in doing so. In the essay “Scandalous,” she writes thusly about a relationship with a former flame: “I decided I couldn’t care more about his woman than he did…I refused to take responsibility for his actions, but I had no problem benefiting from them.”

Admittedly, some of her stories were so good at making me uncomfortable that at times I worried my righteous indignation would prevent me from reading on. Luckily, Perkins’s lyrical phrasing and her accessible subject matter did an excellent job of shepherding me from this internal resistance. Which is all to say: if you are a judgmental asshole at times too, I’m confident Perkins’s strength in craft will override whatever puritanical predilections you may harbor.

One of the most significant things Perkins accomplishes with this essay collection is to further demonstrate the complexity of the Black experience. The points she chooses to stress in her book illustrate a truth that needs to be constantly reiterated in our culture—Black people are not a monolith.

Some of the most successful anecdotes in this book revolve around the mundane yet significant moments specific to Perkins’ life: the sweet lunch dates and shopping trips to the bookstore an aunt takes Perkins on amid the author’s parents’ messy divorce. On these outings, Perkins—a tween at the time—is allowed to indulge in her literary tastes without judgment and discuss pop culture and films at length with her beloved Aunt C. Here, she receives encouragement from an adult she admires to deeply consider and discuss art, thereby laying the foundation for Perkins’ future career in cultural criticism. And in the essay “Keyboard Courage,” she reminisces about the early days of the internet, when social media was in its infancy and message boards reigned supreme. Her community of choice was Okayplayer, a website created by members of the band the Roots, described by Wikipedia as an “online hip-hop and alternative music website and community.” The site is home to an active forum, where Perkins describes learning the joys and the perils of being extremely online, i.e. forming enduring IRL friendships, having a space to speak openly about taboo topics, or getting sucked into board drama. This essay reads as a lovely little slice of life, providing the reader with historical and cultural insight into the breeding ground of Perkins’ well-honed internet voice—an internet voice that has gone on to garner her a social media audience of more than 30,000. An internet voice that ultimately lured me into reading Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be. For Perkins, the story of her literary origins is simple. She says: “I learned how to write on the internet.”

Then there’s the girlish glee she exudes when she describes her love of the ’90s sitcom Frasier, and more specifically, the plot line involving the character Dr. Niles Crane and his seasons-long infatuation with the family’s peculiar and bubbly live-in health care worker, Daphne Moon. In this essay, appropriately titled “I Love Niles Crane,” Perkins goes to great lengths to describe what she likes about Niles, dubbing him “television’s greatest yearner” and the embodiment of when “patience, persistence, and passion win.” But what soon becomes clear in this essay is that, to Perkins, the character of Niles serves as a template for how she would like to be viewed by her man: as a “goddess” whose presence he considers a “gift from on high.” The way she romanticizes the sitcom and the vulnerability and naivety she displays in describing it is sweet, in stark contrast to the frank way she describes hooking up elsewhere in the book. It’s this very tension that makes me hope Perkins finds her own wholly imperfect and relentlessly sentimental love.

But since we’re on the topic of Perkins’s frank descriptions of hooking up, know this: Perkins has no qualms about voicing her sexual desires to her partners and her readers. Sometimes these desires are proclaimed outright: “Everyone has a purpose, and sometimes that purpose is to show up, eat me out, and leave.” And sometimes we learn about her desires through her descriptions of lovers’ performances: “perfect pressure, speed variations, use of full tongue…” etc. Regardless of the approach Perkins employs when stating her wants in the bedroom, her words leave no inch whatsoever for vagueness or ambiguity.

Within the larger landscape of literary nonfiction, stories of Black tragedy, trauma, and suffering are often elevated by the gatekeepers of the industry. And it’s no wonder why—such stories are easy to categorize, usually profitable, and serve to bolster many publishing houses’ claims of anti-racism. So it’s refreshing to see how Perkins’ collection deviates from this well-trodden path. Don’t get me wrong, Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be contains trauma in the shape of violence and addiction, but these tragedies are not the book’s organizing principles. Instead, the stories often gravitate toward another stereotype associated with Blackness—hypersexuality.

Except to describe Perkins’ stories as hypersexual would be a lazy shortcut. In reality, her brand of sexuality is not hyper but intrinsic to how she sees herself, how she navigates the world, and how she luxuriates in her power. And for her to lend her voice to the chorus of modern Black essayists, Perkins has no choice but to sing in her signature sultry register.

A. Coghlan is an essayist and conceptual illustrator whose work has appeared in publications including The Seattle Times, Buckmxn Journal, Atta Girl Magazine, Overheard Literary Magazine, Scary Mommy, The Bitchin' Kitsch’s All My Relations Vol. 2, and more. She is currently writing a nonfiction book about her Black (and White), slave-owning ancestors in Jamaica during the Georgian period. She is represented by Steve Troha and Jamie Chambliss of Folio Literary Management. Find her on Twitter @3rdArrival. More from this author →