My insides have always been very hot.
I can no more tell you what’s inside of me than I can tell you what’s at the heart of a fire.
My ex-boyfriend used to ask me what the fuck was wrong with me, and as I recall it, I tried to tell him many times, but the answer, always, somehow, got lost in translation.
But in that special way that you always know what to say long after the chance to say it has gone, I only now have realized that I should have answered his question with a question.
Do you remember the subway train, the tracks, the light inside the tunnel?
He stopped looking at my thighs because they became tiger-striped. Faint slices of acid purple zigged and zagged across the meat. Lacerations on skin pale, same as my stomach and breasts, as the underbark of a eucalyptus. A pattern so appropriate, so natural, as though I had been born with scars, as if they had been intended. He snubbed them—my thighs, my stripes.
Every morning he’d hit the snooze button and move closer to me and press his nose against the back of my neck. He would lay there like that for twenty minutes until the alarm went off again, and then he would get up and go into the shower, and sometimes I would go with him because that was the way he liked it.
I made coffee and perhaps made toast and scrambled eggs, and he’d sprinkle salt, pepper, and Tapatío on both the eggs and the toast, which I thought was cute. We sat at the table together. Then he’d go, and I’d stay in the apartment all day in my dirty underwear. Most days I went back to sleep. Some days, if I could get up the energy, I walked down the hill to the corner store and bought a bottle of wine, a chocolate bar, and, if I was out of them, a pack of cigarettes. The guy in the store (I always thought of him as Dave, but Dave’s was only the name of the store, and I never took the time to learn his real name) talked to me about hometowns, mine in Indiana and his somewhere in Jiangsu Province. Dave also talked about the church he was going to. He always invited me to come along some Sunday, but I had stopped believing in God by then (now I believe in God again, at least in some Spinozist version of Him swirling up there in the Cosmos, looking out for me; someone is looking out for me; I really believe that; and these days I read the Psalms and the Song of Solomon obsessively and repeatedly; oh, that I had the wings of a dove, right? Oh, that I had the wings of a dove. And I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. But comely. Why does she say but comely?). I sat on the curb and smoked and drank wine from a flask. For a few weeks, I tried to make a few thousand bucks writing an internet study guide for John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it because I was stuck on the way Jimmy treated Alison, calling her Miss Pusillanimous, Miss Pusillanimous; what a cruel bastard, and also, I admit, I thought the nickname better fit me than her, and that made me feel curiously abused.
On a good day, on a very rare good day, I walked around the neighborhood and took pictures of flowers (bougainvillea, my favorite, lily, iris, passion vine, jasmine and honeysuckle, so fragrant), or I’d go and sit on the bus stop next to a nearby high school and listen to the Oakland kids talk, watch them flirt and swagger, hood rats, thugs, wiry little black things, thinking of the way it used to feel sitting in front of my high school when classes got out. All the mumble, all the chatter.
I tell you, I was so sexed for those blades, I’d get lightheaded and sweaty-palmed just thinking about them. I bit my lips, I banged my head on tables, I dug my nails into my palms, and I fantasized about drowning myself in the lake (maybe grasping a spray of bright magenta bougainvillea, maybe wearing my favorite black t-shirt, maybe blue-lipped and bald, maybe bobbing up and down in the algae beneath an expansive pale blue sky with a single heron floating in it like a twisted modern reinterpretation of Ophelia). But I always, without fail, waited until he got home. I’d get a blade, and he’d try to stop me, but he could never stop me, and when I was done and bleeding he’d clean me up and cry, and I’d say touch my thighs now, and he’d touch them, and his hands were cool against the feverish, swollen, broken skin.
I—barefoot—turning post-Impressionist green beneath the yellow bulb in the bedroom where our clothes were strewn haphazardly like barf from the mouths of bulging black garbage bags (the mattress sagged on one side, the bedside tables were made of cardboard boxes)—eyes red, face probably wet, pacing and/or talking about misery—I went into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub, or on the toilet with the lid down, or I leaned on the sink, or I sat in the bathtub or on the floor; if I was in the bathtub, I probably pulled the curtain closed—I took one of our disposable razors, and I pulled the plastic apart with my teeth until I could extract the blades, one, two, or three, and I dug the tips of the blades into the flesh on my thighs, and I sank the rest of the blades in and dragged them across until blood bubbled out in perfectly minuscule, shiny, round spheres. Like fungus growing in time-lapse.
Like beads of water dancing in a hot greased pan.
And he sat there and watched me do it—and I could see in his face—in his eyes, in the deluge that came out of his eyes, in his quavering body, in his teeth that were bared through his tight frown, in his hands that flitted like nervous swallows through the air—that he absolutely couldn’t believe he was watching me do it, and he couldn’t stand to sit there and watch me do it—because who just sits there and watches someone do it?—and was I a poor little rich girl?—because I had said only poor little rich girls do this kind of thing. Poor little rich girls think nothing about the price. Was I thinking about the price? Was I going to think about the price? If I wasn’t going to think about the price, who was going to think about the price?—and then he wouldn’t sit there and watch me do it anymore.
Oh, Lord, he left me, not with a bang but with a whimper.
I miss you. I miss your body. Oh God, your body, he used to say when we were apart.
Darling, why, I could have asked, do you care so especially much about my thighs?
I remember when we were first together, laying unclothed in bed with you while you appraised my every inch against your lithe white frame, saying your brown thighs are so much fatter than mine, among other things (my toes look like goblins’ toes next to your pretty little ones; your ass is so round; your fingers are so long and slender; your hips are so sensuously curved; etc.); but the thighs you took in your hands and kissed with your soft, warm lips and said giddily your thighs, your thighs! And then you nibbled on them like a pair of juicy, fresh-out-of-the-oven holiday pig rumps. Why such celebration? Why, exactly, the thighs?And why, when they acquired their stripes, did it mean that you had to stop loving me?
Is it because you think you’re sculpted from biscuit dough (while I have convinced myself that you are made of paper)? Is it because you believe you are a woolly little lamb?
(This is what you do when a man places what you feel is too much importance on the external you while neglecting the you that you feel is the really real you, the pulsating, crackling inside you:
you destroy it
[the external you, the vessel].
You don’t paint your toenails anymore. You stop wearing nice things and forego bras so that the asymmetry of your breasts is always apparent. You stop shaving so that the hair on your pussy and your armpits grows as tangled as the jungle your ancestors came from. You cut the luxurious hair on your head [which he got used to, even learned to love, because it was so edgy and so punk]. [As a byproduct, looking like shit will make you feel like shit, and every time you are in public you will ask him if he thinks the other college girls in your town are prettier, and when he says no you will know that they are.]
Further, not only do you cut your thighs [which bothered him most of all; he probably, though he would never have admitted it, began to believe that all brown-skinned girls are “emotionally disabled,” or whatever the PC term Californians are using these days is; he certainly called me crazy; and that’s not very PC but it was in the heat of a million moments], but you also cut your upper arms and the backs of your knees [and the backs of the knees only because it hurts you more, and you really wince when you walk]. You do all this because you are trying to say to him pay attention to me. You are trying to say to him you don’t listen when I try to tell you things with my mouth.
If none of this works, you set your face on fire. And then you ask, when your face is melting off, are the other girls prettier? Do you think the other girls are prettier?)
During my semester off, before I ever meet my ex-boyfriend, I live with my grandparents in the room in their house that everyone in our family calls the blue room. Blue walls, blue carpet, blue ceiling, an old blue bedspread, and a big mirror above the bed that makes all the blue appear double-blue.
I spend most of my time alone, drawing Egon Schiele-inspired sketches of myself on the bed with droopy eyelids, listening to Talib Kweli (especially the one about black girl pain—they just know the name/ they don’t know the pain. What is this nebulous “black girl pain”? Where to even begin? And who, Talib, is they? Everyone?). I see a therapist who tells me that around the time of the Civil Rights Movement psychiatrists started diagnosing more and more black men with schizophrenia (did they put the men into a machine like they did to the Invisible Man; did they zap them with electricity; did they lobotomize the crazy niggers?). There are a couple of waxy, slowly dying plants that I try hard to save—though, now that I think on it, I am probably killing them with over-watering. I have my own coffee machine in the room, and I like to listen to the whir of its mechanisms and smell the steaming chemical liquid sliding into a styrofoam cup. The coffee itself tastes bad, but sometimes I run the machine just to hear and smell it.
On Tuesday, I vacuum. My Papa and his oxygen machine are gone to church, so the dust doesn’t disturb his lungs. By the time he gets back, the dust has settled. I don’t want to disturb my Papa’s delicate lungs. My dear, delicate Papa. Dust, for him, is like finely ground glass. Oh, my dear, delicate Papa; his dear, delicate lungs.
There’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out for years, my Papa says. I’ve been trying to figure it out for nearly forty years. Longer even.
Some nights I stay up late sitting with my Papa. We watch the National Geographic Channel or South Park, which, I think, is his favorite show. Sometimes we talk. Rather, he talks. Rather, he asks me questions. About my thoughts on politics, if I know that male Nile crocodiles can grow to be sixteen feet long, other subjects I will forget, but I will remember his voice.
And suddenly one night he says this to me: There’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out for years.
My uncle Tyrone, my Papa’s namesake, is outside banging on the door, and he’s been doing it for hours. His banging wakes me, and I go down to see who it is, but my Papa is already sitting in the den, in the darkness, unmoving, listening. He gestures for me to sit, so I bring a chair in from the kitchen, and I sit. I sit with him in the darkness. Hm, he grunts.
Everyone in my family has been pretending they can keep secrets; they’ve been talking for years about Tyrone being on and off the wagon, and they can tell whether he’s on or off because of his red eyes and his slurred speech and, in very bad times, the track marks. We forgive him. My Papa forgives him. Not just for the alcohol and the drugs, but also for the things he’s stolen, like my bike, like my mother’s car, and the ways he’s made things hard for all of us. For the time he showed up on Thanksgiving and scared all the kids, told us we’d go to hell if we watched MTV; then he said he was going somewhere and to be good, kids, and then he left, and then he came back and said he was going somewhere and to be good, kids, and then he left again.
Something I’ve been trying to figure out for years, Papa says.
And the banging keeps going for a while, and then it becomes louder but slower, more regular, like a mechanical piston, pulling away and falling back again at intervals, and I realize he’s not using his fist but his head.
A month or so later, the spring rain comes. A thousand cantankerous hands drumming.
I get out of bed and go downstairs and outside, leaving the door propped open behind me. I am soaked through within seconds, but I have this idea that I’m going to do some kind of primordial tantra in the flooded grass of the back yard. Cold fingers poke the top of my head, trace the outline of the bone behind my ear, tip-tap down the back of my neck, sink under my top, tickle down my stomach, down my thighs, down to my feet. I lie down in the grass and spread my arms and legs. I imagine that I am glowing with the cold intensity of a distant star, a ball of hot white crystal spinning in frigid space. Alone out there, but autarchic and contained. A world of complexity beautifully folded and compressed.
After some time, I feel weak, so I get up and go back to the door, but it has closed and locked itself behind me. I ring the doorbell. Ten or fifteen minutes pass before my Papa answers, frowning but unsurprised. I can’t feel the cold, but he says I’ve turned blue. He sends me upstairs to get a towel and some clothes on while he puts some water on to boil. He tells me to come back down once I’ve dried myself and changed.
You ever sleepwalk before? he asks.
I sip hot chocolate. He grunts, hm.
You believe in demons?
I don’t answer for a while. Then, I don’t know.
He says that he’s been teaching this demonology course at the church where he’s been a deacon since before I was born. He talks, in his slow, fathomless way, about Asmodai, the Nephilim, the group called Legion in the man of Gadarenes, incubi, succubi, and Samael, chief of all the demons. He says what separates demons from angels is that demons are fallen because they long to inhabit our physical world (and what makes humans sinners, he adds, is our quest to comprehend, no, to conquer the metaphysical one).
I don’t answer.
He gets up and rifles through his desk. I watch him, shivering, rain dripping from my hair and wetting the plastic cushion of the chair.
My Papa pulls out a single photograph from one of the drawers of the desk and hands it to me. What do you think?
It is of Tyrone as a child, taken in the kitchen some thirty-odd years ago. The kitchen still looks the same, cream yellow cabinets, dappled turquoise epoxy flooring, 1940s GE electric stove, vintage lace curtains embroidered with peaches and strawberries, all of it almost as grungy back then as it is now. Tyrone looks almost the same, too, though pudgier in the face despite his much scrawnier body. He is smiling, and his arms are thrown out as though he is about to embrace someone. Behind him, his shadow looms, swallowing half the kitchen. The more I examine the shadow, the larger it seems. It brings to mind the dusky lighting in one of those old silent horror films; Nosferatu’s hunched shoulders and bony fingers projected on the wall above the stair.
Shadow’s too big, right? my Papa asks.
Seems that way.
My Papa takes the picture from me and stares at it a moment (Something I’ve been trying to figure out for nearly forty years. Longer even, he says) before replacing it in the drawer. I want to ask him how long he’s kept it special like that. How many times he’s taken it out to gaze at it, at the hovering black shadow. Many times after that, in secret, I take the picture out and stare at it, too.
(To me, he was a boy of exquisite and astounding beauty, but I never think of that now, do I? Now I only think of him, endlessly, always, as a figure backlit by a small distant light which he seems not to see. A figure made of paper. A figure who is nearly see-through except for the black letters I have printed onto his two-dimensional form.
He had perfectly shaped lips. Perfect. Golden brown hair and golden agate eyes with a special shape of their own, like a treble clef, I’d say. Soft skin like the skin of a fruit, man-parts that hung like fruit. Hips like a woman, smell like a little girl—“brown” like Lolita. He was a man, but there was something innocent about him that makes me think of him to this day as a boy. Something naive, delicate, fragile, blind, so lovely. It caught me off guard.
He wrote a poem: Look, I can catch up a piece of your hair/ And… something about curls recoiling, springing. Words that reminded me of love, life, spirit. Like I was a garden, or an exuberant green vine. Words I no longer remember. Words I no longer remember because, after all, they were only about my hair.)
He said, Don’t, and then he asked when it was done, in a flat, hurt voice, Why? and God, what’s wrong with you? and I smiled as blood puffed out and then dried and crackled and floated away like dust—
He said he had to take me back home.
I made a stripe for every mile. In the passenger’s seat with my pants down somewhere in the Central Valley near Fresno while he pumped gas several feet away, on the curb in Topeka after I threatened to throw a brick through his windshield if he didn’t leave me to it, under the lamppost at the stone picnic table near my mother’s house where there was so much blood he tried to pick me up and take me to the hospital (and where two months later I saw a coyote as we spoke on the phone; I mused that it had come from the west because it could smell the months-old blood dripping from my cracks)—
Lord, I was sweating like dynamite.
Lord, I was trying to puncture through to the explosive stuff inside. The thawing blood that was as viscous and volatile as nitroglycerin.
I tried to explain it to him way back then, really I did. I spoke slow and deliberate and with the precision of an actor.
I said watch out, the ice is falling off, put me back in the refrigerator!
I said I’m scorching from the inside, and I’m going to spontaneously combust!
I said I am goddamned hot! Shoot me into outer space!
But words failed; I said I was going somewhere and to be good, and then I’d leave, only to come back again. Words failed; until soon there was nothing but me laying naked and stinking and waiting on the bed when he came home from work. Words failed; until I only wanted stripes; stripes all over me, zigs and zags, popped out eyes, a split lip, torn out hair, a cracked skull, broken toes. Me, wanting to go back to my quiet blue room. Me, alone on the toilet with the lid down, on the edge of the sink, on the floor, in the bathtub—alone in the bathroom—alone—alone, repeating, I’ve got the demon in me. I’ve got the demon in me. I’ve got the demon in me. I’ve got the demon in me.
He asked me what was wrong with me, and as I recall it, yes, I do believe I tried to tell him many times.
Do you remember the subway train? Do you? You don’t, do you? You don’t remember, do you?
Let’s not quibble over details. Let’s not talk about what set me off, things to do with being a brown-skinned girl, lost friends, death, etc. Really, let’s not delve into that world of complexity that I’ve sent spinning into outer space, back where it belongs.
May I simply answer your question with a question?
I remember so vividly a moment some time ago when I first knew I was violently exploding. I was still so calm then, so wonderfully calm and cool and, yes, contained, so contained. I remember telling you I needed to leave you. Do you remember what you did? You stood on the edge of some subway tracks when a train was coming—I could see its light inside the tunnel, and I begged you to step back, I begged you, I begged you—but you stood there and stared down at those tracks and swayed back and forth—and I swear, dear, I swear, I thought you were about to kill yourself. And you were really thinking about killing yourself! splat, ripped off limbs and a shattered head all over the tracks, yours the story of a shocking Boston suicide. Your only story. So I never left you.
My spicy darling. Don’t you ever tell yourself that you haven’t got a demon in you, too.