“What’s going on?” D asks, glancing from road to me, then back to road. I’m leaned over in the passenger seat, gripping the cane he’d carried from this morning’s rehearsal, doing my best to stare out the window. But I can feel his eyes.
I want him to know, but I’m afraid to speak. I’ve found that I can’t trust my masculinity with my emotions. I’d rather have him draw the shade to my soul and peek in, without needing me to excavate the bricks and boundaries I’ve worked so hard to lay. This façade is strangely handsome, I know, but there’s so much inside that no one ever sees. And today, I feel my foundation shaking.
“I don’t know.” I lie and let my mind wander as I wait for him to call my bluff. Squint at the gray-hazed palm trees crawling past us in LA rush hour. If I do it right, they morph the same way as the Bradford Pears that line the road outside my parent’s house in St. Louis. Riding back from school with Amma, I’d try to make them blur and stretch as far as I could.
It was the task I took up to distract myself from her questions, to avoid accidentally finding myself vulnerable in front of her. “How was your day?” “Fine.” “What did you do?” “Stuff.” The call and response never changed as green-brown blurred and focused like the projections of an eye exam.
“How was your day?” “Fine.” “What did you do?” “I tried to slit my wrist last night.” My eyes kept their soft-focus on the treetops as fear burned the tips of my ears and threatened the muscles in my jaw. I hadn’t wanted to tell her, but my 8th grade principal had given me no choice. My “friends” had told him by lunch, and by sixth period, I was in his office, watching his Adam’s apple bounce in his throat as he chewed the words with yellowed crowns and llama tongue. “You’ll need to tell your parents. I’m going to call home at 7.”
My face was hot. Home. This word that was supposed to give comfort struck rigid like a taunt. Maybe he could see through me—through my fitted jacket and scratchy plaid skirt—maybe he could read my mind through my eyes like a Buffy villain; maybe he knew that I’d never been home. Maybe he could tell that I had learned to dress this flesh in pink and pearls the way my family strung Christmas lights each winter—self-conscious performances. Empty rituals to keep the neighbors happily believing that our insides matched the exterior. I watched him only from angles, just in case.
Amma didn’t speak. For the remaining three blocks, as the trees swirled into sky, into brick, into muck, I held the ache firmly in my throat. Door popped open; slammed shut; keys scratched each other and lock; strip of light seeped from beneath kitchen door, and I watched it in silence.
“Talk to me, Thambz.” D tries again. My mouth opens despite contrary instruction, and air pushes through.
“I’ve just been feeling sad.” I confess. As the words come, I try to divorce myself from their truth.
I refuse to turn towards him, instead dropping my eyes to my thumb, which moves along the cold brass contours of the horse-head cane. Its teeth catch the orange light of the setting sun, summoning its features into familiarity. I’ve seen this face before in a memory. In a hallucination.
Two years prior, locked in a room without shoelaces, or belt, I had seen this face. Outside, there were nurses, pills, and a humming TV set. Beyond that were lanyards of fake evergreen and fat colored lights lacing the corridor; they began at a slab of windowless steel that could be opened only from the outside, and ended at double-glass doors that swung out to the sharp winter air.
I’d seen it there, inside the glass doors, inside the slab of steel, inside the belt-less, shoelace-less room as I lay awake again, praying for sleep or death to find me. Over on the tray by the shatterproof window, I had seen it rise from a rag, dripping with blood from its severed neck, eyes bulging as it turned to ravage the strange woman in the bed next to mine. I knew it wasn’t real, but I wanted to believe my eyes. And I hoped that when it was through with her, it would come for me.
The night before that, I had laid awake in my parents’ house, witnessing evening turn to night, turn to morning again, haunted by a different set of images. A body hanging limp from the ceiling fan; one floating facedown in the tub; corpses sprawled and pale—pills scattered—blood pooling on the beige carpet. The bodies were mine—all of them. “Home” for only two nights, and I felt a stranger more than ever before, wanting my family to know me, and fearing that they would rather not see the truth.
“Can I tell you my theory?” D asks, exiting from freeway to downtown street. When I don’t respond, he continues, “I think this is about your move. New job, new apartment—you just need to get settled in. You know, creating a home space is a big deal. People don’t always realize—”
“I feel so alone.” I tell him, looking out the window again, pressing my tongue against the ridge of my tooth to keep the tears from falling. “I feel like I can’t do it anymore.”
“It’s alright, Thambi, I gotchu.”
“I just can’t do it in this body. I feel trapped…I want to be strong. I want to be brave and giving, and I want to do right by my family, but I feel trapped in my own body. And I don’t know if I can free myself. I can’t afford for my parents to need me and refuse to see me.”
As the car slows in front of our destination, I still can’t face him. I want to tell him that I’m not ready to say goodbye. That I’m not ready to lose my family but that I can’t keep living in this skin. That I want to slice it open sometimes because I feel so trapped inside. That I fight myself to keep living and breathing and moving every day. That I’m tired of fighting and that I feel like giving up.
But instead I press my lips together, puff up my chest, and dry my eyes.