on prettiness

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Lately, I’ve been thinking less and less about being pretty and more about what feels good and right to me. Skincare over makeup. Messy hair that’s clean and soft and smells like roses. Silk on my skin. A flush of color on my lips and cheeks, a feral brow, glasses. I’m sinking into feeling more comfortable in my skin, shedding external standards and expectations and molds that never fit me anyway. And I’m leaning into myself.

That kind of comfort is a thing I’ve always been drawn to. It’s almost tangible when a person knows who they are, when they can sit in themselves in any state and all they exude is beauty. I don’t know that I like being called pretty. I don’t know that it’s a fitting way describe me. Pretty brings a softness to places I’d rather keep a little harder and erases the softness in the unexpected places that I find most beautiful.

Erin McKean wrote, “You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.”

Those words have stayed with me on days where I feel terrible and look it. Where I’m riddled with an anxiety so fierce, even leaving the house is difficult. I felt affirmed reading those words.

“You don’t owe prettiness to anyone.” A gentle and necessary reminder.

kahlil

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The sky was overcast and dark, fitting for April showers. Mourners dressed in black seemed to pour into the parking lot where they huddled beneath umbrellas until they were under the shelter of the awning. I didn’t know anyone. Some stood in the rain under their umbrellas smoking cigarettes. Others stood on the steps just under the awning or on the porch of the funeral home. I waited, unsure of how I felt. Sad of course, somber, but there was something else. There was a sharp pressure just underneath my rib cage when I inhaled. I took my fingers and scratched at the sensation but the pain didn’t budge. Around me, people were embracing each other offering condolences and saying kind words about the man that died.

A black SUV pulled into the parking lot. The driver, a tall and corpulent man dressed in a white suit, got out and offered his arm to the mourning mother. There was another woman, much younger, waiting impatiently, and a boy around fourteen fidgeting beside her. Together they walked across the parking lot, smiles pressed against their faces as people rushed to offer their sympathies.

I watched as they approached the front of the building, shifted my weight from one leg to the next, pulled on the hem of my dress. I felt like an outsider. This was an unfortunate circumstance. I was meeting my sister for the first time on the day of our brother’s funeral. We embraced for a long moment. She didn’t feel like a stranger, but I didn’t know her. I didn’t know her middle name or her favorite color or what she did for a living.

“Mom, this is Saida, one of Eric’s other daughters,” Kuenda said.

“Saida, I’m sorry we had to meet like this,” she said, her voice soft, fragile.

“Me too,” I said stupidly. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry she had lost her only son and that I never got the chance to know him. I didn’t realize they lived fifteen minutes away from my college campus so I never came by on weekends or during holiday breaks at school. Me too would not suffice, but it was all I could muster.

We entered the funeral home together. I sat with them in the front row just a few feet from Kahlil’s casket. There was a woman standing next to him, touching and kissing his lifeless body. She lifted his arms one at a time and held his hands in hers. She kissed them, placed the palm of her hand on his forehead, patted his hair. She lay her head down on his chest and hugged his torso. She did not leave his side until the service was about to begin.

“This is Carmen,” my sister told me as the woman walked toward us, “Kahlil’s fiancée.”

Kuenda handed me a wad of tissues and began wiping the tears away from my eyes. I didn’t realize that they had formed. Carmen sat next to me and held my hand. She told me stories about my brother. About the loving man that he was. He never raised his voice she said. And he could make anyone smile. She was laughing now, next to me, as she remembered her life with Kahlil. “We had just gotten home from the hospital”, she said. “He told me he felt fine,  and that I should go out with my girlfriend that was visiting.” He died alone she said, weeping now. We held each other, strangers in mourning.

After the service, loved ones curious about this “other sister” strained their necks as they said their goodbyes to Kahlil. I listened to more stories about my brother. He danced the salsa better than the “salsa queen” and taught our nephew, KJ, to do the bachata. I scratched at the pain beneath my ribs as I struggled to breathe between incessant messy tears. It was a Sunday. The air was thick with cigarette smoke. And I kissed the corpse of my brother after I looked into his face for the first time. Behind me, distant relatives meaning well, heads shaking in disappointment, revisiting memories I did not share muttered, “You missed out.”

 

dadaroy and all the things I remember

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M spoke to the boys from the alley through the white windows in the back room. In my mind’s eye, I crept on the fiery red-orange carpet right behind you, quietly and on my knees, holding in my laughter with all my might, moments before you scared her something so fierce she shot straight up on the bed. We guffawed when she realized it was you. She yelled “Dadaroy!” in amused relief, but she never spoke to the boys through the window again.

Annoyed at her incessant prattling, the laugh that scratches ears like lips blown too hard against a glass’ mouth, in a single motion you lightly lifted B and threw her on the couch and said, “Sit your kiss-me-ass down!” We pressed our lips together, dimples rearing, as we swallowed our smiles.

Peeking at you on the balcony off of the kitchen, looking out at the coconut and banana trees down below just before you flicked the cigarette you inhaled in secret over the railing when you heard grandma calling your name.

You eating peanut butter straight from the jar with a spoon. Me following suit. The flesh colored patch, shaped like a big guitar pick stuck to your chest, keeping you with us.

Endless records lining the walls in the room with the blue carpet and all your guitars. Jazz always playing. The pride I felt every time I heard Milo and the Kings on the radio.

You looking for your cigarettes in the top drawer where you left them, knowing we hid them from you. Calling the three of us for answers, the little thieves who always slid the packs back where they belonged when you weren’t looking.

Taking us for ice cream instead of straight home from school. You eating half of a grapefruit sprinkled with sugar at breakfast. Buying me McDonald’s while they buried my father. How you were kind to my mother’s second husband, even though you hated him. How you loved Archie Bunker. How you despised Steve Urkel but always let me watch Family Matters from the foot of your bed.

How you refused to leave the house on Haabets Gade for the bigger one up Mafolie with the pool and jacuzzi and better view.

Doling out a dollar for everyday you missed that week from your hospital bed. Your skin darker than I remembered as you lay, without your glasses, in your casket. Gravediggers mixing cement while a woman sang at the cemetery. The men laying bricks, sealing your tomb. The scream that followed the moment I realized you weren’t coming back. How everything changed.

mine before anyone else's

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Death has a way of making you larger than those you’ve left behind. Your absence is a vastness that grows every year in the lives that must somehow move on without you, lives in dotted lines drawn around the space you filled. For the longest time I wondered who would walk me down the aisle. Whose was I to give away?

They were picked off, one by one, the men in my life, by sickness and choices and disappointment, the space growing between us until they disappeared. But, there’s always you. The north star, the place where all this dying began, until I cordoned myself off behind an imaginary red brick wall, inaccessible, indestructible. I couldn’t be touched. It is no way to live—being in the world but not of it, unable to see what others see, unable to touch or feel or be fully present. It’s a lived-in death. And, though self-inflicted, this isn’t who I am.

Knowing that is a revelation. It’s a start to the necessary reminders to speak myself back into existence. Even my name, Saida (sy-ee-da), means joy. Like a prayer, it’s a reminder of the thing I am made from. Even in pain, I am joy. It is the greatest gift you’ve given me.

I used to look at your faults, absorbing them until I became them too. But your legacy is one of a blinding love that absolves. I hope you’ll forgive me for forgetting that the most beautiful thing about this life is that in a world constantly trying to redefine who I am, I must remember I belong to me, that I am mine to give away, that, in the word’s of Nayyirah Waheed, “I am mine before I am ever anyone else’s.”

after the storms

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You can adapt to almost anything. After the storms, the unending chaos of helicopters above and humvees on either side of traffic became a new kind of normal. As horns blared when cars created lanes where lanes shouldn’t be, we’d find ourselves sitting in an abstract silence. It was becoming white noise. The thing you craved when you were fighting sleep. When all you could hear was the nothingness of night. Sometimes the wind. Always mosquitoes buzzing through the tears in the screen doors ripped from the seams by hurricane gusts and a rain so fierce it peeled the paint off doors. Ripped doors off hinges.

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The first time we left the house, they’d lifted the curfew. Said it was safe to travel slowly. But safe was driving to avoid down power lines dangling just above car roofs and nails strewn across the road like gravel. If your tire was punctured it would be hours before a tow truck came. Nothing could be done that day.

The second time we left the house, it took six hours to get gas. We barely made it back before the curfew ended. Eventually we hit a routine. In the mornings, we sat on the bed, listening to the radio, to the governor’s press conference from the night before, him holding in a giddy laughter at all the money about to come his way in federal aid. Aid that should have been going to rebuild houses and replace roofs that flew off entire homes and landed on lawns half a mile away. We’d pick lemongrass from the plant that was, somehow, still standing on the balcony above us and brew a fresh pot of tea on the gas stove in the kitchen. Some mornings, neighbors brought freshly baked johnny cakes. Other days we scrambled the eggs that survived a night on ice. After, we’d pick a task. A thing a day. Return to the now disheveled home, save what we could salvage and pack it in the car for the next day’s task. Put the salvaged things in storage. Discard the food now rotting in the unpowered fridge. Take out the trash. A thing a day. At night, the four of us lay in bed, a jigsaw puzzle of thighs and asses going every which way until we fit together.

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You cope by taking deep breaths. Returning to mundane tasks you took for granted. On the days you stay at the house, you mix a mask of bentonite clay, apple cider vinegar and water. You let it seep into your face until it cakes, have a cup of tea in the mug you managed to save from a friend you still love even though you don’t speak anymore. You wonder if she still loves you too. If she cares if you’re alive. You rinse. You breathe. With your sister’s help, you wash your hair. She holds a cup of water over your head as it hangs over the balcony. You take turns. You look at the homes with the bedrooms spilling into the street. You take in the sun and the sunset. You smile for little things.

Later you are grateful for walls and doors and a bed you have to yourself. For the hum of planes flying by and the jazz album with trumpets blowing in the room beside yours. Because you could still be in chaos. Chaos would be the new normal. And hope would look differently. Maybe you would have never left. You know this after leaving. After not being able to stay and having no home to return to when you see how much things have changed outside of your familiar but broken home. How easy it would be to retreat. How retreating is a slow death.