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Muscle Memory: A Case History

Illustration by Cat Finnie

Mariam I. Williams | Longreads | July 2018 |5794 words (28 minutes)

Age 35

Juan, my physical therapist, is teaching me how to feel.

I have a back injury. The disc between my L5 and S1 vertebrae, the lowest vertebra in the lumbar spine and the top vertebra in the sacral region, herniated when I slid down a metal pole and landed on my butt during my second — and probably last — pole dancing fitness class. I was 32 at the time. Despite six months of physical therapy, the pain returns, always near the time of year of the original injury. I overestimate myself, leap too high, tread the elliptical too long, turn too quickly, twerk, and the muscles in my back spasm until I can do little more than lie on the floor, stomach down, and cry. The doctors say the spasms are my body’s way of protecting itself, immobilizing me to prevent further injury.

I’ve been in Juan’s care for the past few months. He’s my third PT in three years, and from day one, he’s been certain I can return to doing the activities I most enjoy without reinjuring myself. I just have to retrain the muscles.

“I had some trouble the past couple weeks,” I tell him on my first visit to his office in almost a month. We’ve decreased the frequency of my sessions because my healing has progressed. “And since you trained me to stop engaging my abs all the time, people ask me if I’m pregnant.”

Juan laughs at me openly. Then, as I describe the sensations I’ve experienced since our last meeting — dull aches around the spine, sharp pangs in the oblique muscles as I twist my torso, shakiness in the shoulders from muscle fatigue, stiffness when I fold forward — I notice Juan close his eyes, just as he does when he presses his fingertips to my abs, back, or glutes to test that the correct muscles contract as they should when I perform an exercise he has assigned. Juan has stationed me in front of a mirror only once. He wants me to be attuned to my body, to know what is right and wrong for it and for me through the way my body feels.

“The body must relearn that the necessary muscles will turn on and off when needed. You’ll get there,” Juan encourages.

I know Juan is right, that with every exercise he has me perform for four sets of 20 repetitions, my brain is memorizing my body’s movements, recording mechanics of motions that will teach me to move in ways that keep me injury-free, to feel when I have shifted my toes even one degree out of proper alignment. Yet it is difficult for me to believe my arrival is possible. I have learned to trust neither feelings nor the body — even the heart.

Age 28

I stopped trusting my heart four years before the back injury, when I was 28 years old, convinced God wanted me to marry Brian, in love with Nathan, and terrified of being wrong either way. When I was convinced but not sure, when I was not feeling the peace that other Christians had told me comes from absolute certainty. After I had already dumped Nathan twice in 18 months. Before I knew Brian and I were in year four of what would turn out to be a five-year on-again, off-again relationship, and he had spent the past two months trying to coax me back “on.”

On the night I chose between Brian and Nathan, I heard Jeremiah 17:9 — The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it? — in my head. I replayed it as I had heard it in several sermons spread out across preachers, churches, and years: with musical crescendos, rhetorical phrases, and questions a congregation answers in classic Black Church call-and-response style:

Preacher: You think it’s love at first sight. You “felt” something.

[Congregation responds with laughter — some sardonic, some nervous.]

Preacher: And you go after them because, “I just know God put me at the mall right then as they walked by!” But all God did was give you eyesight, and all that man or that woman was,was fine.

[Congregation lets out extended falsetto, “Wooh!” or firm, full “Teach!”]

Preacher: Some of y’all married right now to somebody you can’t stand and God didn’t design for you, and it’s somebody you never would’ve been with if you had just asked God in the first place before going after that man [Congregation: Well…], going after that woman [Congregation: Say that!], trusting your feelings, following your heart. Don’t you know the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked? Who can know it? Who can understand it?

I asked myself these same questions as I considered the superficial — how even my mother, with her high standards of appearance, said Brian and I looked good together as a couple. Our fashionable lens frames complemented each other’s, his dark skin and insistence on neckties balanced my light complexion, blond Beyoncé weave, and penchant for cowrie-shell jewelry. I considered the serious — how the previous year we had each written separate and almost identical descriptions of our expectations of marriage. I thought about the challenges of our long-distance relationship, of seeing each other only twice within the past three years, of the nights I spent alone and crying because, for whatever reason — work emergency, a car accident, him declaring I didn’t make him feel loved enough — Brian missed another planned rendezvous. I considered Brian’s past two months of calls and poems, his high-pitched voice mournful. Then his tears and reminders — So Nathan talks to you all day, just like I do? Real love is hard to find. Nothing worth having is easy. You said you wanted us to be “a spiritual power couple,” remember? And finally, his ultimatum: Email Nathan by midnight tonight saying it’s over, and copy me, or we are done — for good.

Jeremiah 17:9 would override both the advice a therapist gave me in college to actively listen to my gut and every book and article I had read since then about how to make better decisions.

According to the therapist and the books, you can discern your heart, hear your gut, decipher a Morse-coded right way by applying a test: Lie on the floor. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Relax your body completely. Place one hand on your stomach, the other over your heart. Alternatively, hold two fingers to the neck, over the carotid artery. With hands in their proper positions, let your lips utter your options in a simplified form — one sentence or less. Do not recite the pros and cons of each. Do not envision your life unfolding with one choice or the other. Just speak it.

Don’t you know the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked? Who can know it? Who can understand it?

On the floor of my apartment, I spoke a name into the ether. “Brian.” My pulse was too hard to feel beneath the muscles that had tightened. My stomach felt as though I were starving on that August night, only an hour after dinner.

“Nathan.” Facial muscles were not supposed to be involved, but the ones around my mouth curled up. My stomach fluttered, pulse strengthened, yet my body felt the same way it had one year before, on a park bench in Lexington, Kentucky, when I rested my head on Nathan’s chest, listened to his heart beat, felt happiness I was afraid to name.

Lying on the floor, I heard the preachers.

You love him. You love her. So you convince yourself sleeping together okay, even though you’re not married. You forgot, the heart is deceitful above all things. What you’re feeling for that person is probably in your body and you can’t let carnality lead you — ’cause the body will change, and your feelings will change. But the Word of God doesn’t.

The preachers’ voices planted what-ifs. What if Nathan weren’t a 6-foot-1, bald, muscular martial artist? What if he weren’t the finest man ever to show me attention, if I didn’t check out his ass as he walked away the same way he peeped mine? So what if his baritone makes me shiver? What if I had just followed the rules and never had sex with Nathan or Brian? Brian was my first lover and wanted to be my last and only. He understood the guilt of desire and held my hand through it. He’d been in my life for so long; so what if Nathan is only an hour away and everything is easy with him? But Nathan is distant this time, cautious. You’ve returned to Brian twice; Nathan told you he won’t let you hurt him again. But what if Nathan keeps coming back just because it’s physical?

“Call Nathan and tell him it’s not working out this time,” I said out loud. “This third chance he’s given you. Don’t offer an explanation — or do. Tell him God said — shhh. Too much thinking will mess up the test.” I felt the fight-or-flight response engaging.

You know the Word: Present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing unto God. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then —

“Trust Brian is the man God wants for you.” My facial muscles collapsed. The pain that comes from emptiness moistened my eyes, loosened mucus. I sat up to spit it out of my throat.

— you see, something else happens first; you can’t trust feelings, and magazines, and Oprah, and TV, and what everybody else is doing, you have to renew your mind — then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is. His good. Pleasing. And perfect. Will.

The heart is deceitful. Feelings change. And I was seeking perfection.

Age 11

I first learned my body was wrong in a doctor’s office.

“I’m concerned about her weight. You see how she has that pregnant look?” I heard the doctor say this to my mom as I sat on the exam-room table, hoping I would be finished soon with the physical my middle school required before I could try out for the dance team.

I stared at and squeezed what my family always called everybody’s “meat-meat” and tuned out the rest of their conversation. Just before school started, my aunt — my only skinny aunt — had taken me shopping and said, “Don’t tell me we have to move you up another size,” when she saw my stomach pushing out against the zipper on a denim skirt I thought I could still fit. Despite my aunt’s bluntness, the doctor’s words shocked me. I hadn’t known it was that bad, even though I was aware I didn’t look like other girls my age. All I had cared about with regard to my body up until that point was that the clothing covering it looked stylish and that my body could move as well as any other girl’s, or better. I felt good about both aspects. My grandparents bought me almost anything I wanted from Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs, dance teachers had placed me in the front row for routines since I was 3, and I won dance contests at Girl Scout camp. Suddenly, at 11 years old, a doctor alerted me that I was so big, I looked like I had another person growing inside me.

There is something arresting about honesty, the way an encounter with the truth about yourself moves you to change. I had gone to the dance team’s summer clinic — sort of a pre-tryouts audition/reality check — before the physical. I wasn’t the biggest girl at dance team clinic, but out of more than 200 girls, only a few were larger than I was. Ashley Stevens, a white girl I had gone to school with until she moved away in third grade, wasn’t one of them. She had been thin back then, but now she was precise; she came back bragging about having a 17-inch waist. To me, she looked fragile. Nicole Kurtz, also entering the sixth grade with me, looked normal, I thought — flat chest, thighs that didn’t meet when she walked, slight swoop for soon-to-be hips; not so small she might break, not anywhere near so big she looked pregnant — and she moved in ways I wanted to move. Nicole took lessons at a professional ballet school and had danced in The Nutcracker with the local ballet company since she was 7. Her fouetté turns were fast, sharp, and perfect, her grand jetés like splits in the air, but she could also body-roll and butterfly with so much funk the black girls — including me and the coach, who carried about 80 percent of her body weight in her thighs and behind — were stunned. After the clinic and the physical, I wondered if losing weight would help me get my splits off the ground and make my body-roll look the way it was supposed to.

Between the physical and the first day of school, I came across a diet called the Alaskan Special. I don’t know how the diet ended up in my hands, printed out on plain white paper with purple-tinted ink, but it promised weight loss fast, so I was determined to do it. My mother, probably thinking I would grow bored with the plan, neither encouraged nor rejected it, so the diet commenced. Day one: Eat only fruit. Day two: Eat only vegetables. Day three: Eat both fruits and vegetables. Day four: Eat “the cleansing soup.” I followed without straying the first three days, but day four was broth with too many vegetables I hadn’t heard of. I lived in Kentucky and didn’t know then that I shouldn’t have expected to find these ingredients in any grocery store in the land of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s colonel, so by the time my mother and I made it from the store to her car without celery root, I was crying.

My mother asked me what was wrong.

“I need the …” I managed to eke out through gasps and dripping snot.

My mom had had enough. “Stop it! We don’t know where to find this stuff, and we can’t afford it anyway. There will be no more Alaskan Special!”

So I went back to eating bacon and eggs for breakfast; grilled cheese or hot bologna sandwiches for lunch; sloppy joes, beef stroganoff, or chicken à la King cooked in butter for dinner — except on Sundays, when we ate my grandmother’s fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans cooked in ham, broccoli casserole with lots of cheese, Rice-A-Roni, and tea my mom slow brewed and always put the right amount of sugar in, without measuring. And I got my daily treat of frozen cookie dough.

I didn’t make the team, not that year or seventh grade or eighth grade. A part of me blamed my body. Some of the girls were shapely, looking closer to full-grown women than 11-to-14-year-old girls. Some had body parts that jiggled uncontrollably under their purple spandex uniforms. But none were fat or overweight or big-boned or heavyset or thick or seemed to have “meat meat” on their stomachs. Even if I could have danced like Nicole — and very few girls could, even the ones who made the team — I knew I wouldn’t have looked right in that uniform.

Age 21

“What God gave you isn’t pretty,” Dr. Paul said, peering at my teeth. He was the bluntest dentist I’d ever been to. Though he crossed the boundary between hard-to-hear professional opinion and rudeness, I didn’t feel the sting I had felt in the pediatrician’s office when I was 11. This time, I knew. The dentist I had seen throughout childhood made an annual appeal from when I was 9 until I left for college: “You really should think about braces before you get any older.” The orthodontist he had referred me to took a deep breath and asked permission to be frank before saying, “Basically the rest of your teeth have grown in so close together that they’ve pushed the front teeth out to make room for themselves. I recommend extracting four of your molars, wiring your mouth shut, then wearing braces for four years.”

Nearly every kindergartner I tutored twice a week for my work-study job at a literacy center had asked me, “Why are your teeth crooked?”

Dr. Paul said I had “a beautiful bridge” on the bottom row, but the top, where my two front teeth slightly folded in toward each other like a book attempting to close, “is ugly.” Like the breasts that ceased to grow past my fourteenth birthday, the stomach and hips covered with marks that prove they stretched themselves far past their intended stopping points, and the ass that denied its blackness (“You got a white girl booty,” a black female classmate told me in high school), my teeth had betrayed me. My top teeth grew in crooked, but an accident when I was 8 years old — my face colliding with another kid’s cheek during a game of blind tag — exacerbated God’s meanness. Unlike the fad diets I began at 11 to alter my body-shape heredity, however, Dr. Paul could fix cosmic cruelty. And unlike previous years, my mother finally had enough cash for the remedy. I would give Dr. Paul the money, and he would saw off my tooth enamel and replace it with several layers of hard resin.

I have learned to trust neither feelings nor the body — even the heart.

When I returned to the office one week after the consultation and sat in Dr. Paul’s chair, my entire body recoiled, cringed, and jerked away from drills, needles, gauze, even his rubber-gloved hands.

“We don’t have to do this today,” he said. He set down his tools, removed his mask, and waited.

God, what do I do? I heard nothing.

My body told me to run.

But I didn’t ask my body what to do.

What if running is the wrong choice? What if my mother never has the money for this again? What if my graduation photos are ugly? Money for cosmetic surgery is a blessing. God, what. Do. I. Do?

My body told me to run.

I heard nothing.

The next month, my graduation photos were beautiful. The little chip on the right front tooth where dental floss broke the inferior resin wasn’t noticeable to anyone but me.

Dr. Paul fixed it at no charge, but I would forever question my decision to stay in his chair. Was that God speaking through my body? Did I remain in God’s perfect will? Does God always tell people to stay when they know they should leave?

Age 31

The  man I woke up with was singing, “Jesus is on the main line, tell him what you want. Call him up and tell him what you want,” as I lied on his couch, read the verse of the day from my Droid’s Bible app, and thought to myself, “Jesus, I want Nathan.” Nathan was not the man singing. Nathan, I could then say with certainty, was the man I would have followed, had I followed my heart when I was 28.

With the song still in my head three days later as I drove to my gynecologist’s office, I told Jesus, “I want Nathan, still. I want my gynecologist to say there’s nothing wrong. I want to believe your answers to my prayers. I want to stop ruining what you promised me. I want to learn my lessons faster. I want to stop feeling like this is punishment.”

You prayed about this, I reminded myself. It was in passing that I prayed — perhaps while changing clothes or on the treadmill — but in earnest. “OK, God. I’m almost thirty-two. Nathan is engaged now. Brian’s not the one, either. So please, tell me if I have a husband and family in my future. If the answer is no, that’s cool, but you gotta let me have casual sex.” I meant sex that was different from what I’d had with Brian or with Nathan. Sex that wasn’t confusing or naïve, that didn’t result in, or from, feeling.

The first night at the apartment of Not Nathan, a man I’d met six months prior but spent all of two dates with, I couldn’t do it. Not Nathan kissed my neck, lifted my shirt and bra to kiss my stomach and breasts. He unzipped my shorts, removed them and my panties in one swoop. He shifted my legs to spread them on the love seat we shared, knelt down, and slid his head between my knees.

I thought about how good a man’s tongue had felt there every other time. And it wasn’t for lack of skill on his part, but that God-yes rush of pleasure didn’t happen. Smelling my own scent on his face didn’t make it happen. Seeing a man close to my type — dark skin, bald, taller than me, fit enough — naked, fully viewing what I literally had dreamt about a few nights before didn’t make it happen. Telling myself, You’re a grown woman. Make it happen, didn’t make it happen. I had bargained with God, and I thought my prayer was answered. I simply couldn’t have casual sex. That meant what I wanted was still waiting for me.

There is something arresting about honesty, the way an encounter with the truth about yourself moves you to change.

But a week later, there was enough desire, enough will, enough wetness, to act. I ignored what I had thought was God’s\answer of “Yes, you will marry and have children,” and followed my body. And three days after Not Nathan and I had sex, I was in my doctor’s office. Nothing hurt; there was just bleeding. Not like menstrual blood a woman can feel her body expelling. “It doesn’t even show up on a panty liner, but it’s there,” I told my doctor,  “on the toilet tissue,” mysterious and bright scarlet.

I had never bled from sex with Brian or Nathan.

“You used a condom?” The doctor asked, scribbling on her chart.


“Then I highly doubt it’s an STD or STI. Was he a particularly large man, or had it been a while since you’d had sex?”

“Yes and yes. Three and a half years.” I didn’t tell her the merging of our bodies felt as technical as a biology book’s description of sex.

“That probably explains it, but I’ll look anyway if you’re still concerned.”

I lay on the table and placed my bare feet in the stirrups. My doctor spotted a tiny abrasion on the vaginal wall. She told me it would heal on its own.

“In the meantime, no tampons, no intercourse. But there are other ways.”

“Got it.”

“And when you do return to vaginal intercourse, continue using condoms, especially since it’s a new relationship.”

 If only it were that, I wanted to say.

Three weeks after leaving the doctor’s office, it’s midnight, and I’m driving Not Nathan’s car to pick him up from an airport two hours away. When I leave his apartment in the morning, I’m wearing the tiniest pair of jeans I’ve ever owned. They are my benchmark, my proof: I can weigh below 130 pounds. Not Nathan’s hands slide up my waist and back as he kisses me goodbye once, twice.

“I have to go. Gotta hit the gym today.” I poke my stomach to the left of my exposed navel.

He raises one eyebrow, takes in my body, then looks me in the eye. “Girl, ain’t nothing wrong with your body.”

On my way home, I relish the lust that produced his compliment, hunger to hear it again. It is the highest praise.

Age 32

Church isn’t the place most people take an HIV test, but it was World AIDS Day, and the pastor decided to show solidarity with the cause by inviting a nurse from the Department of Health to provide free HIV testing for every member interested. He said he and his wife got tested that morning, “and all is good — praise God.”

The last time I’d had an HIV test, I was 22 and applying for the Peace Corps. I had never had sex of any kind then. I had never even kissed anyone. The nurse sped through the risk assessment questionnaire — it was quick, since all my answers were no — then asked, “So why are you getting tested?”

“Peace Corps application.”

“Oh.” She rolled her eyes and told me to roll up my sleeves.

Results took several weeks then. I waited without waiting. I returned to the clinic to pick up my test results. As I was leaving, a jolly woman at the front desk gestured to a basket on the counter and offered, “Baby, you want to take some condoms with you?”

“No thanks.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.” I smiled and skipped out of the office.

There is something freeing about certainty. To make a declaration in your mind, even without uttering it out loud or letting it take deep root in your heart, is to walk through life holding a magic lamp that clears dense fog along your personal path for miles ahead. Through nods of agreement with promises my college friends made, through joining in on their amens after the Bible’s purity verses, through guilt, through the convenience of not dating anyway, I silently said, I will wait until marriage to have sex. And at 22, I skipped out of that health clinic.

At 32, I waited about five minutes for the results of an oral swab test. It still didn’t feel like waiting. I took the test to be an obedient congregant. The nurse and I talked about the weather, how much she enjoyed the 8:00 service at my church that morning, the room we were in and how beautiful its décor of poinsettias and garlands was. “The fireside room, it’s called,” I told her. “Usually guest preachers wait here until they come into the service.” Most of my answers to the “Have you evers” were still “no.” Most of them.

I didn’t know Brian’s status. I had asked and believed his answer. He was the only man I had ever trusted in that way.

Brian and I never used condoms — never. Not even after I was with Nathan during an “off” time, and a woman Brian was seeing at the time sent me an email telling me she was sure he was gay because he couldn’t get excited about her. I, on the other hand, had rarely seen him flaccid, so I figured he just didn’t want her, and I was safe.

Brian was safe. And familiar. He was never my fantasy, never the man I wanted, never my heart’s choice. But he blew out my first magic lamp at a time that I needed it darkened, when I needed to discover and experiment with sex and touch without feeling lost. And he replaced it with another light — one just as bright but more colorful, more encompassing. Brian showed me that I could have sex, and God wouldn’t punish me but would still love me.

But what would God let me get away with if love, commitment, or monogamy were absent from the relationship? If I only wanted pleasure, what would God think?

Age 33

I’ve been seeing my physical therapist for about eight months, and I’ve figured out her goal is to make my muscles so fatigued that by the end of our session I cry.

Today she’s gentle. She massages my back and glute muscles with her hands this time, instead of kneading out the spasmed tightness with her elbows. I’m her last patient of the day and the only patient in the room. We’re going over the activities I’ve tried this week and any pain I felt while doing them. I got through 30 minutes of Zumba. Lost a lot of flexibility in yoga. I’m up to 15-second planks on the TRX.

“I tried something else recently that I don’t usually do,” I add.

“What?” she asks.

“Sex.” I cringe as I say it. This conversation is confidential, and my PT is a professional, but she is also a Catholic. Not a lapsed Catholic, she speaks highly of her parish. The radio station in the office is normally set on either a Top 40 station so clean I nicknamed it “Radio Disney” or on the Christian rock station. My intake forms show that I’m single. I don’t want to hear the silence Christians give other Christians when they disapprove of their behavior but are in a setting that demands politeness or professionalism.

Do I really need a PT’s approval for sex? Will she be more understanding if I explain that it started with burgers?

The scene: Me and my friend DJ — 35, medium brown, attractive, male, an Army vet who, save for his close-shaven fade, looks too easygoing to ever have been in uniform — waiting for a table at a restaurant serving burgers whose calories he suggested I burn off with sex.

“That’s not just me trying to be inappropriate,” he said. “I’ve heard it can help with back problems, you know, because of the release.”

I had heard in DJ’s suggestion a chance at redemption. It gave me hope I could be the woman he had seen when he met meat a professional networking event about two months before my injury. DJ told me he had watched me for almost half an hour that night, waiting for a moment to talk to me.

We tried dating then. I told myself my allure for him was sexual, but I felt girlish and awkward the first night we had sex. The dress I had chosen for the evening — a floor-length pink halter sundress that accented my shoulders and made my A cups look purposeful — couldn’t outwit my afro puffs and the permission I had secured from my mom to leave the house at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. Me: “Hey, I’m going out. Can you move your car? You’re parked behind me.” Her: “Going out where?” Nearly a year later, I still wanted to live up to the potential of the woman DJ first saw. A grown woman could enjoy just a release.

I say none of this to my PT. I cringe and wait.

“Oh, yeah, that’s okay.” My PT’s massage shifts to a rub. “Just keep the positions pretty standard. On top or on your side will probably be most comfortable for you. But yeah, of course, sex is fine. The release can even be good for you.”

 Of course sex is fine. In the four years since I broke up with Brian, no one has said this to me. In that moment, it feels like sex may always be fine, that years of awkwardness, of hating my body, of hearing that on my wedding night desire will return untamed after years of resisting it are gone. That the sacroiliac joint is functional, the pubic muscles will relax every time I open my legs. That the heart has forgotten its muscle memory.

Age 35

I’ve just told my doctor that the pain in my back resurfaces at about the same time every year, near the date I slid down a stripper fitness pole and ruptured a disc. The doctor, a resident at the teaching hospital Juan recommended for muscle manipulation therapy, let out an involuntary squeal and told the med school student interning with her that what I’ve described fits Dr. Robert Fulford’s theory about the body having memory.

In his book Touch of Life, Fulford writes, “An anniversary of an illness can make you recall the past memory of your pain and the details of your life since then, the bad as well as the good. Something about this process is weakening. … No one has a clue why this happens, but it’s my guess that traumas get imprinted either in the nervous system or in the muscles.”

Or, as my doctor summarized for her student, “Body remembers trauma. Pain comes back around the anniversary of the trauma.” Then she turned back to me, sitting in the examination chair. “Now I’m going to ask you something that will sound a little strange. Sometimes pain shows up again on an injury’s anniversary because the body wants to remind us not to return to whatever we did to cause the injury in the first place. I want you to think about that as I ask you, do you need this pain?”

I think about my life before the injury, before I knew the location of my L5 and S1 vertebrae, before the Notes app became my pain journal.

Before, to be exact, six days before capping off years of two to three hours in the gym, six days a week, with a spinal injury — I had sex with DJ for the first time, even though I’d had a feeling it was a bad idea. Even though I had felt juvenile. Even though I had felt, at 32, I was never going to be grown enough at what I was trying to do.

Dr. Fulford believed “the mind creates reality. Any discord or disharmony that is permitted to exist in the mind is likely to produce an unfortunate effect in the physical body.”

This pain is a reminder, an imprinted memory: the fear of happiness in a heartbeat, the freedom of certainty, the imprisonment of seeking perfection — all are there, dwelling in the muscles and the nervous system, from heart to perineum, from brain to spine.

This pain is a reminder: I overestimate myself. I stretch too far. Enjoying noncommittal sex, maybe enjoying all sex, without guilt, is unrealistic. Whenever I’ve come close to letting go, the pain is there, reminding me to dismiss desirability, dismiss the body’s wisdom, that the heart is deceitful. Do you need this pain?

 “No. I don’t need it.”

On the table, the doctor folds and twists my body into pretzels. I hear cracks and pops. Feel them, too.

The healing is not immediate. The pain is a reminder, and forgetting it will require another year of visits, a lifetime of care and awareness of my body. But at that moment, I know: I do not need godly love to be this way. I trust my body’s wisdom. My heart is certain.

* * *

Mariam I.Williams is a Kentuckian now living in Philadelphia where she creates narratives affirming black womanhood. Her work has been published in Salon, The Common, Nothing to Lose but Our Chains: Black Voices on Activism, Resistance & Love, and other outlets.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Smell, Memory

Chanel N°5. Illustrations by Tamara Shopsin

By Rachel Syme

Racquet and Longreads | January 2018 | 11 minutes (2,800 words)

Our latest feature is a new story by Rachel Syme and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

Tennis, to me, smells like chlorine and white sage and tuna fish. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the courts always wheeze dust when you walk on them and the dry heat shimmers off the net in the middle of summer. Our family belonged to a tennis club, but not the kind with rolling hills and security gates—instead, our courts were somewhat dumpy and gray, down near the university area filled with tattoo parlors and ratty cafés that seemed progressive in the ’90s for their hummus-forward menus. The club was made mostly of cement and gravel and funnel cakes, and its pro shop featured six-packs of tube socks and fresh cylinders of key-lime-colored balls and not much else. It may very well be fancier now, but my family stopped paying dues two decades ago.

We moved to the base of the mountains when I was 13, and my father now plays tennis every day at High Point, a gym filled primarily with active seniors and women doing Zumba. When he does go downtown to play, he meets my brother at one of the college courts near the hospital, where my brother spends most nights sewing throats back together as a resident in facial surgery. My father, who also cuts people open for a living, started playing a lot more tennis when my brother became a doctor; it is how they communicate wordlessly about what bloody traumas they’ve seen during the day. I imagine hitting something really hard back and forth is useful in this regard. Read more…

How Mary Karr Teaches Her Students About Memory: A Short Excerpt from ‘The Art of Memoir’

Memoirist, essayist and poet Mary Karr is often recognized as being the author with perhaps the single greatest responsibility for the resurgence of memoir in bookstores and on nightstands in recent decades. In her new collection of essays The Art of Memoir, Karr presents readers with a book-length craft talk which, true to her style, ranges from allusive to acerbic to profound, all in the span of a page. In the following excerpt, from the opening of her first chapter, Karr uses a little deception and a judicious ‘fuck’ to make a point. Read more…

A Prescription for Forgetting

Andy Holmes / Unsplash, FeverPitched / Getty, Collage by Katie Kosma

Diane Mehta | Longreads | September 2018 | 15 minutes (3,706 words)

“You’re dead,” said the meditation guide. “You’ve been dead a long time.” I start crying. “What do you see?” she asked. I whimpered, “My dad somewhere, cremated, maybe a river, gone for decades. My son is older. He has a family. He thinks of me sometimes. I can’t stand it.”

“They’ve been gone a long time. You’re fine. Part of the universe. The beginning of what you were meant to be. Does that beanbag chair in the house that you don’t like matter? What about your job and the argument you had with your boyfriend, that burger you had for dinner? Your dresses, your shoes, your jewelry, your house, your keys. Throw your keys away. Throw them into the magnetic sun. Whoosh. Do it again. Whoosh. How do you feel?”

I wiped my tears and scanned my imagination. Exploding galaxies to explore, strange dimensions, star clusters, sunbursts, Earthrise over our moon, star-forming nebula, cosmic microwave background left over from the Big Bang. What does a black hole feel like when you’re disembodied and inside of it? My mind was clear. A cool mist like summer rain while scuba diving underwater but without equipment. She continued to encourage me to throw things away. “It gets easier. Throw it away. Nothing matters. Whoosh.” I winced, then felt relieved, then felt horrible and finally caved and decided to be dead, dead, dead. As shock left me, I imagined looking around at my new home out in space: stars blinked on and off like fireflies, nearby yet distant, planets with inconceivable colors of lilac-brown and red-rust that hadn’t been refracted through an atmosphere and the curve of the turning Earth.

Everything gets easier according to everyone who believes that life is a positive cult. This guide said she used to have an argument with the world. She was angry at all corners of her soul. “I’m happier,” she said calmly. “You have a very open mind. You’ll do well here.” I panicked and came back to Earth. My feet reappeared, and my hands, which I’d watched burn away, per her instructions, grew back like a starfish regenerating its limbs. Whole again. Beanbag chair and teenager and dog and boyfriend, jobs and writing to do and the whole shebang of worries. I forced a breath out. She was wrong about me.
Read more…

The Dead End on My Record Shelf

Steven Errico / Getty

Christopher C. King | An excerpt from Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music | W.W. Norton & Company | May 2018 | 16 minutes (4,346 words)

A time-traveler, a person from the twenty-first century, stands on a cliff overlooking a mountain pass in southern Europe, in northwestern Greece, a few thousand years after the end of the last Ice Age, having traveled back in time by way of some technology unknown to us. This traveler is observing human beings while they interact with one another in this challenging, remote environment.

Something is happening among these proto-Europeans. One person places a long wooden shaft, holes bored along the side, to his lips, producing sound. Other sounds exit the mouths of the surrounding people. The collective sound appears fragmented to the listener — the time-traveler — standing above. At times the voices and the flute notes appear smooth, mellifluous, but then disjointed and abrupt. During this flood of sound, members of this group move in cryptic yet intentional ways. When this lush cacophony ceases, so too do the movements of the people.

What is going on down there?

Any of us could be this time-traveler. And any of us would realize — based on our observations — that these people are communicating. We perceive sound and movement, assuming cause and effect. The question that should linger in our minds is this: are we observing a use of language, a use of music, or something else — an alien and impenetrable behavior? Read more…

J.R.’s Jook and the Authenticity Mirage

Jose More / VWPics via AP Images

Greg Brownderville | Southwest Review | February 2018 | 23 minutes (4,227 words)

A native of the storied Delta region and a musician from the age of 6, I have met quite a few veteran bluesmen. The one who towers tallest in my memory is J.R. Hamilton. When I met J.R., in 2005, he was a slender, sturdy man in his 60s with the spark of a 20-something. Six days a week, he worked on a 4,500-acre farm near Marvell (pronounced marvel), a small town on the Arkansas side of the Delta. Sundays, he played the blues. In the years between 2005 and 2008, I played guitar and harmonica regularly at his Sunday parties. Shortly thereafter, J.R. moved to Memphis, I to Missouri, and my days as a member of his band came to an end.

I met J. R. the way folks meet folks in the Delta. The first part of this story, I warn you, sounds rather cartoonishly Southern, but is nevertheless true: One evening, just before dark, I stopped for pulled pork at a place in Marvell called Shadden’s Barbecue. A woman I had never met, named Pudding, sat down next to me at the communal table where diners dig in. We fell immediately into lively conversation. Toward the end of the meal, when I mentioned in passing that I played music, Pudding said if I wasn’t in a hurry, I should follow her out to “J.R.’s jook house” and sit in with the local blues band. I didn’t know exactly what I was in for, but it’s a matter of principle with me that when a delightful stranger named Pudding says to follow her to a jook, I say yes, ma’am. Read more…

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Perfume

Illustration by Jacob Stead

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | September 2018 | 15 minutes (3,859 words)

If given the choice to smell like whale excrement or delicate white flowers, few people would chose the first option. Bile, feces, vomit, and animal oils sound as though they would smell repulsive. The words conjure up scent memories of that time your dog released his anal glands on the duvet, or that summer you worked by the wharf and the August air was thick with the miasma of oily herring heads. Jasmine, on the other hand, sounds like a love song, a Disneyfied dream. Try, right now, to imagine the smell of blooming jasmine. Your memory, ill-equipped to locate scents in its baroque filing system, might pull up something syrupy sweet or softly floral. Is that how you want your body to smell?

Too bad: if you choose door number two, you’ll walk away reeking of sharp vegetal tones tempered by a slightly earthy, foul scent. Jasmine absolute is an oily, semi-viscid, dark amber fluid that is denser and more concentrated than jasmine essential oil. Essential oils come from distilled, boiled, or pressed plant matter, while absolutes are traditionally made through a processed called enfleurage, which involves submerging the delicate blossoms or spices in fat before extracting their fragrance molecules into a tincture of ethyl alcohol. While it’s a common ingredient in a natural perfumer’s tool kit, jasmine absolute smells strange: complicated, beautiful, not entirely pleasurable. It reeks of indole (rhymes with “enroll”), an organic chemical compound also found in coal tar, human feces, and decomposing bodies.

If you choose door number one, you’ll be blessed with the kiss of ambergris, a highly desirable natural substance that smells sweet yet rather marine, like vanilla and unrefined sugar mixed with seawater. The scent reminds me a little of the smell of my dog’s paws — pink and light and animal. It smells like cashmere feels. Smelling ambergris is an innate pleasure, one that even an infant would recognize as enjoyable, like the first sip of sweet milk.

For more than a thousand years, humans have been adorning our bodies with animal products like ambergris and putrid-smelling plant derivatives like jasmine absolute. We apply off-putting materials to our bodies to enhance and mask our natural scents. Like dogs that roll in deer carcasses, humans seek to change our olfactory emissions by borrowing from other creatures. It’s not always about simply smelling good: We want to smell complex, so that others will be compelled to keep coming back, like bees to a flower, to sniff us again and again, to revel in our scents, and draw ever closer to our warm, damp parts.

According to natural perfumer Charna Ethier, ambergris can smell like “golden light” or a “flannel shirt that has been dried on a clothes line on a warm summer day.” Although there are several types of ambergris (including gray, gold, and white), Ethier is referring to her own personal sample, which she characterizes as “soft, fresh, and ozonic.” Ethier is the owner of Providence Perfume Company in Rhode Island, and inside her well-stocked cabinet of olfactory curiosities, she keeps a single bottle of the precious stuff. Next to her 100-year-old cade oil (a foul-smelling liquid made from juniper trees, purchased at an estate sale) and below her collection of floral absolutes and herbal essences, she has stashed a bit of ambergris tincture. The clear glass vial contains a mixture of ambergris and alcohol that includes just 5 percent whale matter. In its pure form, this substance is a waxy gray ball of animal secretion, a floating fat-berg that is “more expensive than gold.” Unlike jasmine absolute, which plays a role in many of her perfumes, real ambergris is simply too expensive to use in a commercial product. “It’s considered the miracle ingredient for perfumes,” she says. “It makes everything better.”

It’s not always simply about smelling good: We want to smell complex, so that others will be compelled to keep coming back, like bees to a flower, to sniff us again and again, to revel in our scents, and draw ever closer to our warm, damp parts.

Ethier doesn’t use any synthetics in her perfume, nor does she use animal products, though animal scents are a traditional ingredient in perfumery. Not only are these compounds expensive, but true mammalian products like musk, civet, and ambergris often come at a cruel cost. Whales have been murdered for their oily blubber and concealed stomach bile, civets are caged and prodded for their fear-induced anal gland secretions, and musk is harvested from the glands of slaughtered deer. Many people know that perfumers build their trade on the graves of millions of tiny white flowers, but fewer people realize they also bottle and sell the byproducts of animal pain and suffering. Perfumers who use synthetic materials are exempt, in a sense, as are those who use found or vintage materials. Ethier’s ambergris is “quite old” and reportedly  beach-found (“I hope it is,” she says). But even perfumes that use synthetic compounds or salvaged bile carry the whiff of death; the history of the industry is seeped in it, and that smell doesn’t wash out easily.

There’s a reason perfumers use these notes. They enhance the floral scents, undercutting lightness with a reminder of darkness. Animal products are the antiheroes in this drama — even when you hate them, you still, just a little, love them. That’s how siren songs work, and ambergris sings the loudest. Once, Ethier made a perfume using her most prized ingredients. She mixed 100-year-old sandalwood essence with ambergris tincture and frangipane and boronia absolutes, two flowers native to Central America and Tasmania, respectively. It was the first time she’d used ambergris, and this one-off perfume was so lovely that “it was like gold-washing something.” She remembers wistfully, “It was so beautiful.”

* * *

Smell is the most underrated and mysterious sense. In her 1908 autobiography, The World I Live In, Helen Keller called scent the “fallen angel.” “For some inexplicable reason, smell does not hold the high position it deserves amongst its sisters,” she wrote. Keller mapped her world by smell — she could smell a coming storm hours before it arrived and knew when lumber had been harvested from her favorite copse of trees by the sharp scent of pine. In contrast to touch, which she called “permanent and definite,” Keller experienced odors as “fugitive” sensations. Touch guided her; scent fed her. Without smell, Keller imagined her world would be lacking “light, color, and the Protean spark. The sensuous reality which interthreads and supports all the gropings of my imagination would be shattered.”

We don’t often think in terms of color and light when it comes to smell, perhaps because we have so few words for scent that we borrow from the lexicons of our other senses. Despite the fact that smell is our most ancient sense — our so-called “lizard brain” is also sometimes termed the rhinencephalon, literally the “nose brain” — it is also one that seems to elude language. “Smell is the mute sense, the one without words,” wrote Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses. “Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasures and exaltation.” We’ve had eons to come up with words for the precise smell of fresh-turned earth or the exact scent of a blazing beach fire, and still the best we can do is earthy and smoky.

Perfumers have their own language, but their words have only recently begun to trickle down into popular culture through beauty magazines and blogs. Not only do perfumers and their superfans speak of absolutes, oils, and tinctures, but they can also rattle off compounds like coumarin and eugenol. A trained master perfumer (or “nose”) can pick out precise scents within a layered perfume. They don’t just call something foul — they can pick out the pungency of musk or the reek of tobacco, ingredients that are delicious in small doses but overwhelming when used out of balance.

In my quest to understand the appeal of seemingly repugnant ingredients, I spoke with doctors who study the nose, perfumers who feed the organ, and even a zookeeper who spends her days breathing in the pure, undiluted scent of civet discharge. While they had various theories as to why darkness seems to be an essential element of beauty, they all agreed on one thing: It’s all about context. In the right context, even the smell of death can be appealing. In the right context, vomit can be more desirable than gold. In the right context, with the right music playing in the background, you begin to root for the glamorous hit woman or the sardonic drug dealer.

They also agreed that sex is part of this equation, and it’s the easiest explanation to trot out. But perfumery is also about more than just smelling nice and attracting a mate. It’s about aesthetics, taste, and desire in a more general sense. We want to smell intoxicating, and truly intoxicating things are often a little bit nasty — they have an edge that cuts deeper than simple sensory pleasure. And despite how it may seem, encounters with the beautiful are rarely entirely enjoyable. If that were the case, Thomas Kinkade’s light-dappled cottages would be considered the height of fine art, and we would all walk around misted lightly with synthetic jasmine and fake orange blossom. Instead, we adore the luscious gore of Caravaggio’s canvases and dab our pulse points with concoctions containing the miasma of swamp rot, the cloying smell of feces, and the pungent, tonsil-kicking fetor of death. Beauty is sharp, it is intense, and it comes at a cost. Just as desire and repulsion walk through the same corridors of our minds, so too do beauty and destruction move hand in hand. Whenever you find something unbearably beautiful, look closer and you’ll see the familiar shadow of decay.

* * *

One of the first known perfumers in history was a woman named Tapputi-Belatekallim. According to clay cuneiform tablets dating back to 1200 BCE, Tapputi lived in ancient Babylon and likely worked for a king. The second part of her name, “Belatekallim,” indicates that she was head of her own household, in addition to holding a valued position at court. Thousands of years before the advent of the “SheEO,” Tapputi was leaning in and bossing around underlings. She was a master of her craft, and recognized as such by her peers. Much of what we know about her comes from secondary sources, but the process of distilling and refining ingredients to produce a fragrant balm — oil, flowers, water, and calamus, a reed-like plant similar to lemongrass — is described on surviving clay tablets. It’s miraculous how modern her scents seem — or rather, it’s surprising how little has changed. Tapputi used scent-extracting techniques like distillation, cold enfleurage, and tincture that natural perfumers still use today. She also mixed grain alcohol with her scents, creating perfumes that were brighter, lighter, and had more staying power than anything else available at the time. These scents may have played a religious role in ancient culture, but they may have simply been another way to prettify the body and please the senses.

Beauty is sharp, it is intense, and it comes at a cost.

Unfortunately, Tapputi’s story is a fragmented one — she’s possibly the first female chemist, and yet she’s been lost to history. There is much more evidence available about the perfumes of ancient Egypt, Persia, and Rome. In 2003, archeologists unearthed the world’s oldest known perfume factory in Cyprus. Archaeologists theorize that this mud-brick building and the perfumes it produced caused Greek worshippers to begin associating the island with Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and love. (Born from the magical remnants of the sky god’s testicles, which had been separated from his body and cast into the sea by Cronos, the Titan god of harvest, Aphrodite supposedly walked from the foaming waters of the sea and onto the beach at Paphos, an ancient settlement located on the southern coast of the island.) Analysis of the material found on-site revealed that these ancient perfumers were using plant-based ingredients like pine, coriander, bergamot, almond, and parsley, among others.

These perfumes all sound rather pleasant, don’t they? I can imagine dabbing almond oil mixed with a bit of bergamot on my wrists, catching a botanical draft of scent here and there as I move. It seems terribly obvious that people may want to smell like plants. Some of the earliest pieces of art represent flowers, leaves, and trees. Studies have shown that we crave symmetry on an unconscious level, and we’re drawn to color, so it makes perfect sense that flowers would hold our attention with their Fibonacci spirals and vivid hues. I can even understand why curiosity might compel someone walking along a beach to pick up a chunk of marine fat and sniff it. It’s a bit harder to understand the moment when medieval perfumers made the conceptual leap from smelling the glandular sacs of dead musk deer to dabbing it on their pulse points. Yet at some point, this must have happened, for starting after the Crusades, Europeans became obsessed with musk.

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Like many prized spices, fabrics, and luxury items, musk came to Europe from the Far East. Derived from the Sanskrit word for testicle, “musk” refers to the glandular products of small male Asian deer. These little sacs of animal juice were harvested from the bodies of slain deer and left to dry in the sun. In its raw form, musk smells like urine, pungent and sharp. But after being left to dry, musk develops a softer scent. The reek of ammonia fades, and it becomes mellow and leathery. It stops smelling like piss and begins to smell like fresh sweat, or the downy crown of a baby’s head. It gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac; according to some legends, Cleopatra used musk oils to seduce Mark Anthony into her bed. The size of musk molecules also contribute to its perfume popularity: Larger molecules oxidize slower, so musk’s comparatively large molecules last longer than other odors and allow it to extend the life of other scents. Its fixative property means musk is a base note in many perfumes, even ones that don’t smell overtly musky.

In 1979, musk deer were listed as an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), so it’s no longer legal to use natural musk in commercial perfumes. However, Tibetian musk deer are still killed for their glands, and a brisk trade in poaching has resulted in some illegal musk showing up online. Musk is also used in some traditional Chinese and Korean remedies, which helps the substance remain one of the most valuable animal products on earth. In his book The Fly in the Ointment, Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, points out that musk is “more valuable than gold.”

Civet is a more unknown fragrance, though it also appears frequently in perfumes. Made from the glands of a mammal that shares the name of the scent, civet is similar in structure to musk on a molecular level but smells even more animalistic, according to people who have actually sniffed it. “They have a general odor about them that is very pungent,” says Jacqueline Menish, curator of behavioral husbandry at the Nashville Zoo. Civets are uncommon zoo creatures. They are neither felines nor rodents, though they’re commonly mistaken for both. Although few visit the zoo just to glimpse these odd little nocturnal creatures, the Nashville Zoo has several banded palm civets because the zoo director “just loves them.” (You may have heard of civet coffee, a product made by force-feeding Asian palm civets coffee beans, then harvesting them from their poop. Society, it seems, has come up with several odd ways to make money from civet asses.) When they are startled, frightened, or excited, civets “express” their anal glands, and the greasy liquid “shoots right out.” The scent hangs in the air for days. “I guess I could see if it was diluted it might not smell as offensive,” Menish concedes. “But it can be really bad if it hits you.”

Unlike musk, civet can be collected without killing the animal, but it’s not a cruelty-free process. Civets are kept in tiny cages and poked with sticks or frightened with loud noises until they react and spray out their valuable secretions. Commercial perfumers no longer use genuine civet in their fragrances, but James Peterson, a perfumer based in Brooklyn, owns a very small vial of civet tincture. “It smells terrible when you first smell it,” he says. “But I have some that is five years old, and it gets this fruity quality as it ages. In a tincture, it gets this rich scent that works wonderful with florals.” On a few occasions, Peterson has used genuine musk or civet to make “tiny amounts” of specialty perfumes, and the resulting blends have an “intensely erotic draw.” Customers report that these dark and dirty smells are potent aphrodisiacs. “When it’s below the level of consciousness, that’s when it works best,” he adds.

The reek of ammonia fades, and it becomes mellow and leathery. It stops smelling like piss and begins to smell like fresh sweat, or the downy crown of a baby’s head.

Like musk and civet, ambergris comes from an animal, but making it doesn’t necessarily involve murdering whales. Whales have historically been killed for their bodily products, including their oil, spermaceti, and their stomach contents, but it’s more likely now that ambergris is beach-found since it is only produced by an endangered species, sperm whales. The waxy substance forms in the hindgut of a sperm whale to protect their soft interiors from hard, spiky squid beaks. According to Christopher Kemp, author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, ambergris begins as a mass of claw-shaped horns that irritate the whale’s digestive systems. As the mass gets pushed through the whale’s hindgut, it grows and slowly becomes “a tangled indigestible solid, saturated with feces, which begins to obstruct the rectum.” Once it passes into the ocean, it begins to slowly mellow out. The black, tar-like wad is bleached by the ocean until it becomes smooth, pale, and fragrant. It ranges in color from butter to charcoal. The most valuable ambergris is white, then silver, and finally moon-gray and waxy. It’s believed that only 1 percent of the world’s sperm whale population produces ambergris. It’s very rare, very bizarre, and very valuable.

The human appetite for ambergris dates back to ancient times. The Chinese believed it was dragon spit that had fallen into the ocean and hardened, and the ancient Greeks liked to add powdered ambergris to drinks for an extra kick. King Charles II of England liked to eat ambergris with eggs, which was apparently a fairly common practice among the aristocracy in England and the Netherlands. It shouldn’t be surprising that people engaged in some light coprophagia — smell and taste are so deeply linked, and while I can’t attest to the taste of ambergris, I can say that it smells beguiling. Given the chance, I would sprinkle some silvery whale powder on my eggs, just to see what it was like. (It’s certainly no stranger than eating gold-coated chicken wings — another practice seemingly designed to destroy value by passing the desired object through a series of rectums until it reaches the inevitable white bowl.)

In perfume, ambergris is often used to boost other scents. It plays a supporting role rather than a starring one, for although the smell is fascinating, it isn’t very strong. It has an unearthly fragrance. It smells like the sea, but also like sweet grasses and fresh rain. It’s amazing that something made in the bowels of the whale could smell so pure. If you found fresh ambergris, midnight black and sticky and stinking, perhaps you wouldn’t want to eat it. But with distance and dilution, ambergris is transformed from animal garbage to human ambrosia.

* * *

Schwarcz’s book offers one reason why we’re drawn to these scents, citing studies that suggest people with ovaries be more sensitive to musk, particularly around ovulation. He cautiously speculates that musk might resemble chemicals produced in humans to attract potential mates.

Over the phone, he is even more wary of speculating about a possible evolutionary explanation for our fragrance preferences. “The sense of smell has been studied thoroughly with surprisingly little results in terms of what we actually know. It’s such a complicated business,” he said. “We don’t know why musk is more attractive to some people than others. We don’t know why it smells differently when it’s diluted, but we know that it does.” When I asked whether we like musk because we’re programmed to enjoy the smells of bodies, he was quick to turn our talk toward the “issue of pheromones, which “may not actually even exist at all” in humans, despite our desire to attribute various observed phenomenon to the invisible messengers. According to Schwarcz, much of what the general population knows about pheromones only applies to certain nonhuman species. For instance, boar pheromones are well understood, easy to replicate, and used by farmers to increase the farrowing rate amongst their stock. Some of the perfumes that boast “real pheromones,” like Jovan Musk and Paris Hilton’s eponymously named scent, may contain pheromone molecules — ones that pigs would find very enticing.

But where science fails to offer a satisfactory explanation, artists can step in, providing an illuminating tool to help understanding our relationship to desire and aesthetics. For perfumer Anne McClain, co-owner of MCMC Fragrances in Brooklyn, it is the tension between foul and sweet that elevates a fragrance from consumer product into the realm of art. This is key when it comes to repugnant ingredients, from indolic florals to musky secretions. The indecent element becomes a secret of sorts, a gruesome piece of marginalia scribbled alongside the recipe, visible to only those in the know but appreciated by all. The foulness whispers below the prettiness, and combined, these various elements create a scent that smells paradoxically clean and dirty, light and dark.

“Indole is what makes the scent of jasmine interesting,” she says. “It makes you want to come back and smell it again — it has an addictive quality to it.” Unlike citrus scents, which are one-note and rather simplistic, florals have an element of decay, a whiff of putridity. McClain rightfully points out that this is part of what makes flowers themselves attractive to bees and other pollinators. Corpse flowers famously smell like dead bodies, but so do many other blossoms, just to a lesser extent.

Plus, humans are by nature “just a little bit gross,” McClain says. Like civets, musk deer, and whales, we shit, we secrete, we mate, and sometimes we vomit. But we also give birth and create beauty, and for McClain, it’s this life-giving ability that links blossoms and humans. “I think there is a depth to anything that is made of life and creates life. There’s something inherently sexual in that,” she says. “Even though something like civet will smell gross on its own, it adds an element of reality.” When layered properly with other olfactory delights, this can create an evocative smell, one that you want to return to, to interrogate with your nostrils the same way you might pore over a painting. Through layering pleasure on top of disgust, perfumers can create something that resembles life — exquisite, fleeting, and mysterious.

* * *

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Factchecker: Matt Giles
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross

Above It All: How the Court Got So Supreme

Robert Alexander / Getty

David A. Kaplan | The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Constitution | Crown | September 2018 | 19 minutes (4,985 words)

Nine mornings after Antonin Scalia died at Cíbolo Creek, the justices resumed work without their beloved, blustery colleague. The rich traditions of the Court continued unabated. After the justices all shook hands in the small robing room across the hallway from the back of the courtroom, they lined up to await the gavel of the marshal. The assembled throng grew silent, then arose. “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” the marshal chanted at the stroke of 10, as always. The eight justices emerged from behind the tall crimson velvet drapes and somberly took their upholstered swivel chairs on the bench. “All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting,” the marshal continued. “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”

It’s an opening worthy of “Hail to the Chief,” the introductory anthem for the leader of another branch of the federal government. It’s all carefully choreographed. The justices don’t merely walk in, and they’re not already seated when Court begins. From different curtains, they materialize in unison, in three groups based on where they sit. As institutional stagecraft goes, the Court puts on quite a show. Read more…

Not Quite Not White

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Sharmila Sen | Not Quite Not White | Penguin Books | August 2018 | 30 minutes (6,053 words)

I had never seen a black man in person until I was 12 years old. If I search my memory hard enough, I can see a few faded newspaper photographs of West Indian cricketers in the Statesman. I can see dark-­skinned Africans within the panels of my beloved Phantom comics. There are faint recollections of black James Bond villains in Live and Let Die. If I squint even more, I can remember the evening when we crowded into our neighbor’s drawing room, watching Pelé on a black-and-­white television set, the first procured in our middle­-class neighborhood. The first flesh-and-­blood black man I saw was standing outside the entrance to the U.S. consulate in Calcutta, which is located on a street named after Ho Chi Minh. At the entrance to the consulate where Ma, Baba, and I had gone for our visa interviews, I saw two men in spotless uniforms. One was the whitest, blondest man I had ever seen in real life; the other was the darkest black.

The consulate smelled like America in my childish imagination. The air ­conditioned halls, the modern plastic and metal furniture, a water cooler from which I eagerly poured myself some water even though I was not thirsty. I breathed in the scent of wealth in there. It felt like newness on my skin. Everything was hushed, ordered, brightly lit. Not like my own loud, bustling city. Even the local Indian staff seemed to behave as if they were actually living in America.

I stood at the entrance of the U.S. consulate in Calcutta in 1982. In 1965, American immigration laws had been rewritten to allow for a greater number of non­-Europeans to enter the country. Not only were Indians and other Asians considered unwanted newcomers before 1965, even naturalization — the process by which a foreign­-born immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen — was disallowed for most who were not white until the 1950s. I knew little of this history when I entered the consulate with my parents. I did not even know I had something called race. Race as a category had not been part of the Indian census since 1951. I was about to move to a nation where nearly every official form had a section in which I would be offered an array of racial categories and expected to pick one.

In 1982, as it happens, it was not clear which race should be affixed to my person. Since the number of Indian immigrants was fairly insignificant in the United States until the latter part of the 20th century, the census barely took notice of us. At the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, there were essentially three races acknowledged by the government — white, black, and Indian. My kind of Indians, the ones from the subcontinent, however, fell into none of these categories. No matter how mysterious our race, we were not considered white during most of the 19th and 20th centuries by the American courts. In 1970, the U.S. Census Bureau declared people from India to be legally white. A decade later, in 1980, we were officially reclassified as Asian by the government, at the insistence of Indian immigrant groups who believed that the new classification would afford us greater affirmative action benefits. Yet, what was to be done with the decision to make Indians white only a decade earlier? What would happen to those white Indians? “Self-­reporting” was the Solomonic solution to this problem. In order to satisfy the demands of the diverse Indian community, after nearly a century of shuffling people from the Indian subcontinent from one racial category to another, the U.S. census had finally thrown up its hands in despair and asked us to “self­-report” our race. In the 1990 U.S. census, of the native­-born population with origins in the Indian subcontinent, nearly a quarter reported themselves to be white, a tiny minority (5 percent) reported themselves to be black, and the vast majority chose to report their race using terms that pertain to South Asia.

Such an astounding array of choices was not always available to people from India who found themselves in the United States a century ago. If Ma, Baba, and I could have embarked on a time machine and arrived in the country eight decades earlier, we would have found ourselves in a different situation. If I had immigrated in 1909, I would have been labeled “probably not white,” but a year later — when the U.S. courts decided to change their opinion on the matter — I would have been “white.” If I was Sadar Bhagwab Singh in 1917, or Akhay Kumar Mozumdar in 1919, or Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923, I would have been “not white.” Naturalization in the United States was reserved mostly for whites between 1790 and the middle of the 20th century. Non­white immigrants could not become naturalized and partake of the rights reserved for U.S. citizens. Indians were not allowed to become naturalized citizens until the 1940s. They could, however, toil in American factories and fields, offices and streets.

So Indian men such as Singh, Mozumdar, and Thind kept trying in vain to prove they were white in order to become naturalized citizens. But what actually made a person “white”? Could you be both “Caucasian” and “non­white”? As Singh, Mozumdar, and Thind all found out, yes, you could be Caucasian and also Not White. The courts ruled repeatedly in those early decades of the 20th century that naturalization was for “whites” only, and some “Caucasians” were not truly “white” enough to qualify.

That the two words — Caucasian and white — are used interchangeably today would come as a bittersweet surprise to all who were caught in the deep chasm between those labels a century ago. Yet, that is exactly the chasm in which people from the Indian subcontinent, an area that is second only to Africa in its genetic and linguistic diversity, were placed by the U.S. courts. In those early years of the 20th century, miscegenation laws could have prevented me from marrying a white American in states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. The former governor of South Carolina and the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, identifies herself as “white” on her voter registration card. Of course, according to the laws of this country, Haley can legally self-­report her race any way she pleases. The former governor of South Carolina was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, daughter of Punjabi Sikh immigrants from India, and the racial category she chooses for herself tells a complex story of the state where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and where even today West African–inflected Gullah culture (brought by black slaves) does not easily mix with white French Huguenot culture (brought by white slave owners).

Indians were not allowed to become naturalized citizens until the 1940s. They could, however, toil in American factories and fields, offices and streets.

A hundred years ago, Indians immigrated to the United States in very small numbers. They were mostly agricultural workers who traversed the networks of the British Empire, sailors who stayed behind in American ports, or Hindu holy men who were invited to lecture in cities such as New York and Chicago. The Immigration Act of 1917 placed India squarely within the Asiatic Barred Zone, an area from which immigrants were not allowed to legally enter the United States. This zone would not be legally unbarred until 1946.

Contemporary racial labels used in everyday American parlance are an odd amalgamation of the geographic (Asian), the linguistic (Hispanic), and the pseudo­biological (black, white). The rise of Islamophobia threatens to racialize Islam and conflates race with religion. This, however, is not a new phenomenon in American history. Early 20th-century America was still in the old habit of seeing Jews as “Hebrews” — as much a racial label as a religious one. It also happened that many Jews themselves preferred this system— until the murderous actions of the Nazis in Europe—because Judaism cannot be folded neatly into the box we call “religion” today, a box whose dimensions are largely of Protestant specifications. Similarly, “Hindoo” was as much a racial label as a religion in early­ 20th century America. Today what is considered my religious background might have been seen as my racial identity had I arrived in America at the beginning of the last century.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, changed the quota system that restricted non­European immigrants from coming to the United States. People like me were going to become a bit more common on American soil. Hindoo, Asiatic, Caucasian, non­white, brown, Asian, South Asian. During the era of self­-reporting in the early 1980s, I was a young girl faced with a plethora of racial categories based on a wild mash­up of genetics, linguistics, theology, and geography, who landed in Boston on August 11, 1982. The entry date is marked on my first passport.

I carried an Indian passport back then. Navy blue with thick cardboard covers. I received that passport in December 1979. On page four, there is a line printed in minuscule letters: “Countries for which this passport is valid.” Below it a stamp, in purplish blue ink, slightly tilted, partly smudged, is still vividly legible after nearly 40 years. It says (first in Hindi): sabhi desh dakshin afrika aur rodeshiya ko chhorkar — ALL COUNTRIES Except Republic of South Africa and Colony of Rhodesia.”

Before immigrating to the United States, I had never left India. My 1979 passport was an aspirational possession. Yet, I was already becoming aware of certain countries that were forbidden to me. My parents explained that India did not allow me to travel to South Africa or Rhodesia because of something called apartheid. There existed places where people like us had gone as coolie labor, as merchants and traders, and even as lawyers (the young Mahatma Gandhi practiced law in Pretoria in the 1890s), during the time of the British. But white people did not treat brown and black people fairly and each group had to live apart. Unlike my forebears who had borne the “malodorousness of subjecthood” for two centuries — as the Indian political scientist Niraja Jayal once wrote—I was fragrant with citizenship and protected by the laws of my nation. And those laws prevented me from going to Rhodesia and South Africa, places where complex designations such as black, colored, Indian, and white would determine where I could live, where I could go to school, and who I could marry. But in the late 1970s, when I received my passport, I barely grasped what apartheid really meant.

Caucasian but Not White. Not White and Not Black. Minority. Non-­Christian. Person of Color. South Asian. I never thought of myself as any of these things before the autumn of 1982. I had grown up back in Calcutta with an entirely different set of extended labels for putting people into boxes. What language do you speak? Which gods do you worship? Which caste do you belong to? Are you part of the bhadralok (the Bengali word for the bourgeoisie)? Do you eat with relish the flesh of animals, fowl, fish, and crustaceans? Do you eat beef? Or do you eat only plants and grains? “Veg” and “Non­veg” in India are almost as evocative and important as “black” and “white” in America. We can detect a person’s religion, caste, ethnic group from the foods they eat and the foods they shun. Every society invents ways of partitioning themselves and methods of reading the hidden signs displayed by those who wish to cheat the rules. A person of a lower caste might want to pass as a Brahmin; a Muslim might want to pretend to be a Hindu when caught in the middle of a riot; a Hindu might pose as a Muslim to gain entry to a restricted space. We were taught to be vigilant about such trespassers. An Indian’s surname holds a multitude of information about her. In India, if you know my surname is Sen, you already know which language I speak as my mother tongue, my caste, the religious holidays I celebrate, my likely economic class, my literacy status, whether I am vegetarian, the birth, wedding, and funeral rites I might have. Conversely, a last name that holds very little information is suspect. What is this person trying to hide? The way one pronounces a certain word, the way a woman drapes her dupatta over her head, how her nose is pierced, whether a man’s foreskin is intact or circumcised, whether a little boy has a red thread around his wrist or a tabeez, an amulet, around his neck signifies so many things in India. In some cases, it can mean the difference between being killed by a mob during a communal riot and being pulled into safety. We had all these distinguishing labels. But race we did not have.


I grew up in India for the first 12 years of my life with­ out race. After ruling us for two centuries, the British had departed in 1947. The India of my childhood was a place marked by what economists call “capital flight.” These were years preceding the arrival of economic liberalization. Before the Internet and cheap cell phones, our knowledge of the United States was channeled largely by a few Holly­wood movies, occasional headlines in the newspapers, magazines such as Life and Reader’s Digest, and hand-me-down clothing brought back by relatives who had immigrated to the West. Television had not fully arrived in India during the first half of the 1970s. We tried halfheartedly to imitate American fashion, eat American fast food, or listen to American popular music. Still, we were always a few years behind on the trends. Of course, we were also happy with our own popular culture. We watched Hindi films made in Bombay, hummed along to the songs aired on All India Radio, and ate delicious street foods such as phuchka and jhalmuri without missing global chains such as KFC or Mc­ Donald’s. Our drinking water was procured daily from the neighborhood tube well. Ma, Baba, and I each had our own official ration cards. These rations cards were used for purchasing government-subsidized basic commodities — rice, flour, sugar — which we used to complement our groceries from the local bazaars. I had never seen a mall or a super­ market before I came to the United States. Ma and Baba did not own a telephone, a washing machine, a television, a cassette player, a car, or a credit card until we emigrated. Our sole mode of personal transportation was a blue Lambretta scooter purchased by Baba in the mid­1970s. When Baba was not around to take us around on the scooter, hand­-pulled rickshaws, red double­-decker buses, trams, and the occasional taxi were the usual ways we navigated the sprawling metropolis that was Calcutta.

We vaguely understood ourselves to be Not White because our grandparents and parents still remembered a time when white Europeans ruled us. The Indian notion of Not Whiteness was shaped more by nationalism than by race talk. The subcontinental obsession with skin color cannot be explained solely through the American grammar of racism. In a subcontinent where melanin can appear in wildly differing quantities among family members, the lightness or darkness of one’s skin cannot easily be used to mark rigid racial boundaries. Yet, the preference for paler skin was clear to all in Calcutta. Girls with “fair” skin were supposed to fare better than those with “wheatish” or “dark” skin when marriages were to be arranged. I grew up reading numerous sentimental tearjerkers about sisters whose fates were determined by their complexions—the fair one always married well and the dark one was forever shunned by all prospective bridegrooms. Rabindranath Tagore’s famous lyric about the beauty of the black­-skinned woman’s dark doe eyes was quoted often in literary families, marked by the same self­-righteousness with which well­-off Americans buy fair trade coffee beans. Still, I never came across a matrimonial advertisement in any newspaper that boasted of a dark­-skinned girl’s beautiful doe eyes.

I was warned regularly not to darken my own light complexion by playing too long under the noonday sun. Mothers and grandmothers had numerous homemade concoctions at the ready for keeping my skin pale. A ladleful of cream skimmed from the top of the milk pail, fresh ground turmeric, and sandalwood paste, as well as numerous citrus fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds, and nuts, were our allies in the endless war against the sun’s skin ­darkening rays. Women walked around Calcutta brandishing colorful umbrellas during the sunniest days lest the “fair” turn into “wheatish” or the “wheatish” into “dark.” Some of us had complexions as light as any European, but we knew that an invisible line divided us from the pink-­hued Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese. In the comic books of my child­ hood, the colorists painted the Europeans a homogeneous shade of pale rose and reserved every shade from light beige to dark mahogany to the brightest cerulean blue for Indi­ ans. This is how I saw the world as a girl — Europeans were pink. We were not.

The Indian notion of Not Whiteness was shaped more by nationalism than by race talk.

It would be a lie of the greatest magnitude if I were to claim that I lived in a society of equals, in a society without barriers, hierarchies, and labels, before I came to the United States. I have already said that I grew up as an elite—a speaker of the dominant language of my state, part of the dominant ethnolinguistic group, and a follower of the majority religion. I was an upper­ caste Hindu Bengali. The maternal side of my family were haute bourgeoisie, or upper middle class, by virtue of their landowner past. Three generations ago, some of these landowners — called zamindars in India — had turned to law, one of the few professions open to Indians under British colonial rule. They trained in law in Britain and returned to India as barristers, dressed in European­-style clothes, living in homes furnished with massive Victorian teak furniture. In time, some of these ancestors — men of my great­-grandfather’s generation — had made the transition from practicing law to agitating for political freedom from British rule. Eighteenth-­century American colonies had seen similar professional trajectories from law to revolutionary politics.

On my father’s side of the family, our cultural capital outstripped our financial capital. Ours was a family of scholars and intellectuals. In some parts of our home state, West Bengal, the mere mention of my grandfather’s name endeared me to total strangers. I did not need to read the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction in order to learn that one can inherit cultural capital just as conveniently as one can inherit property, stocks, jewelry, or money. My paternal grandfather did not leave me a house or a trust fund. But he did give me a slight edge over my peers. Our school textbooks often included short essays on historical topics written by well-­known Bengali intellectuals. One of those essays focused on Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, a 19th century Indian queen famous for going to battle against the British who annexed her kingdom. Whenever we read that essay in class, I sat up a little straighter. We were supposed to take pride in our female ancestors who fought British men on the battlefield long before the independence movement was born. My pride, however, was of a pettier sort than grand nationalist sentiments. My grandfather was the author of that essay. Each time I saw his name in print, I felt a secret pride swell inside me. I was the descendant of a man whose writing was part of the official school syllabus. Even though I did not always tell my classmates or my teachers that the author was my grandfather, the knowledge itself was my cloak of protection. It gave me confidence — a bit of smugness even — that I took for granted. This is how elitism works.


The first morning I woke up in America I could smell bacon frying. I was nearly twelve years old. I had spent the night sleeping in the living room of Baba’s childhood friend. This friend, an architect and the grandson of one of modern India’s most influential artists, was married to a white woman. She was cooking us breakfast in the adjoining kitchen when I opened my eyes. Their duplex apartment was right across the Charles River from Harvard Square. My parents slept in one of the two bedrooms on the top level, while our host and his wife had the other bedroom. The couch was allotted to me. It was a modest apartment. As a parochial Bengali girl, I had envisioned the wealthy West as the land of opulent overstuffed sofas, velvet drapes, crystal vases, and expensive carpets. This home was utterly confusing to my eyes. The dining chairs were made of metal tubes and woven cane; the lamps looked like crushed white paper balloons. I had imagined America was the land of rich people with air ­conditioning, big cars, cities laid on grids, and skyscrapers. A new world, a young country where everything sparkled and smelled good, unlike Indian cities where ruins, rickshaws, crooked gullies, and the smell of oldness prevailed.

When I opened my eyes that morning, the first thing I saw was a triangular neon CITGO sign. I had no way of knowing that this had been a beloved Boston icon since 1940. Being an immigrant child before the era of the Internet, Wikipedia, or Google, I was seeing America for the first time.

It was a week of many firsts for me. I had flown on a plane. I had traveled outside India. I had bacon for breakfast. Even now, if I get too complacent about my sense of belonging here — my ability to speak, dress, look, think like an American — I only need to smell bacon frying and I am a newly arrived immigrant again. That morning, I smelled it, heard it sizzling and crackling, before I tasted it. It was a complex animal smell, making my mouth water and my stomach churn in revulsion at the same time. Today, my favorite sandwich is a BLT. I greedily search for those salty bits of bacon in a Cobb salad. Yet, the actual smell of bacon frying is a powerful reminder that I did not always relish these tastes, that there was a time when I struggled to train my palate according to the custom of this country.

Immigrants are supposed to be delighted when they arrive in America — huddled masses who have reached their final destination. But in 1982, I was sad when our British Airways plane landed at Boston’s Logan Airport. Baba, who originally trained as a geologist, and spent most of his working life in India as a sales representative for pharmaceutical companies, had been unemployed for many years. Since the late 1970s, our middle­-class life in Dover Lane had been sliding imperceptibly toward the unseen basti behind the garbage dump. My bharatanatyam classes ended because the fees for the dance school had become a luxury we could no longer afford. The number of maids we employed dwindled as the household budget shrunk. Fish and fowl appeared fewer times on the menu until one day they disappeared completely. Ma went less frequently to the tailor to order new dresses for me. Instead, we waited for the autumn, when my aunts sent us the customary gift of new fabric — a few meters of printed cotton, enough to make a dress for a young girl — for Durga puja. We began avoiding family weddings because we could not buy appropriate presents for the new couple. We stopped going to the nicer cinema halls of Calcutta and began to patronize the shabbier ones where ticket prices were lower. Those trips to Park Street restaurants such as Waldorf or Sky Room became a distant memory. We went there only when a better­-off friend or relative treated us to a night out. The blue Lambretta was brought indoors and stowed away in our hallway as a reminder of happier times when we could afford the price of petrol. The sofa and coffee table vanished one day and instead of buying new furniture, we began renting it. Because new school uniforms were expensive, the hems of my blue school skirts had been taken down one too many times. I used to rub my finger over the light blue line, the part of the fabric that had been bleached with repeated washes and ironings. Each time the hem was taken down, the faded line of the old edge became a token of my precarious status as a member of the bourgeoisie. I began to ask girls who were older than me if I could buy their old school textbooks because new textbooks were beyond our budget.

As it happened, our downward mobility coincided with a meteoric rise in my grades at school. The more we moved toward the unseen world where Prakash and his mother lived, the better I performed in my examinations. In our brutal Indian school system of ranking students, I used to be ranked among the bottom five girls in a class of 40. That was when I was 6 or 7 years old. Baba became unemployed when I was 9. Suddenly I was appearing in the top ten, then top three, and by the time I was 11, I was consistently ranked first in my class after our examination marks were announced. Yet, I had to ask around school for a set of used textbooks as each new school year approached. I was no longer able to invite all my classmates for my birthday party where a cake from Flury’s, decorated with marzipan roses, would have pride of place at the table. No matter how hard my mother tried to keep my uniforms clean and ironed, my blouses were never as white as those of the girls whose parents bought them new uniforms each year.

Even now, if I get too complacent about my sense of belonging here—my ability to speak, dress, look, think like an American—I only need to smell bacon frying and I am a newly arrived immigrant again.

I became friends with the school bus driver’s daughter, who was enrolled as a scholarship kid. She was one of the girls who received a free loaf of bread during tiffin time. I never ate bread that tasted so delicious, when she began sharing them with me during the bus ride home. Other girls might go home to daintier snacks. I saw such homes in advertisements. Tidy middle-class Indian homes riding the wave of upward mobility. Homes with televisions that children watched with their parents; with refrigerators filled with rows of soft drink bottles; with toaster ovens in which beaming mothers baked cakes for their kids who returned from school looking as fresh as they had left in the morning. But children in downwardly mobile homes know that an atmosphere of fear, resentment, anger, and dejection awaits them at home. One wrong move, and the whole house can explode. One mention of extra money needed for a field trip, or the cost of a new dress for the school chorus, or an art assignment that requires costly materials, and everything can go up in flames. As much as I hated the crowded, hot school bus, I was in no rush to return to Dover Lane. The bus driver’s daughter and I enjoyed the free bread at the back of the bus, and she tantalized me with promises of fluffy kittens. My new friend seemed to have an endless access to kittens and each afternoon she promised that she would sneak one into school for me. She strung me along in this manner for months, describing the kittens in great detail.

I tried, with partial success, to mask the bitter taste of genteel poverty with the sweet taste of arrogance. Arrogant — there is no other word for how I felt when I sat on those rented chairs in our drawing room and studied my report card at the end of each term. A row of beautiful numbers — 95, 96, 97, 98 — written neatly in blue fountain pen ink. Those numbers made me feel strong when, in reality, I was weak and vulnerable. A girl in a poor Indian home during the 1970s had limited options, even if she possessed an English- education and her grand­father’s name elicited looks of admiration and her great­ grandfather once sailed from England wearing beautifully tailored suits. If I were to maintain the crucial space between myself and the boy who swabbed the floor, and Darwanji who washed cars at 4 a.m., and Jamuna whose father collected her monthly wages, and the maimed children who begged on the streets, I needed more than faded photographs of my ancestors leaning against elegant teak furniture.

In an irrational act of generosity, the Architect arranged a job for Baba as a salesman in a men’s clothing store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He helped us apply for green cards — a process that took nearly three years, over a quarter of my life at that point. The Architect had immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and studied design at Harvard. He had lost touch with Baba for many years until one day he decided to look us up in Calcutta. Spontaneously, he decided to help his unemployed friend and his family. Immigration routes are patterned on kinship networks. Brothers follow brothers. Children follow parents. Grandparents follow grandchildren. Through marriage these networks become ever more expansive and intricate. A new bride follows a husband. A few years later her mother might follow. Then her brother and his wife. Entire districts from certain parts of the world might find themselves in a small American town as families follow one another across well­-established migratory paths. A new immigrant feels secure knowing there is a brother with whom one could stay for a few months until a job is arranged. A cousin might provide just the right tip to secure employment in a new country.

Occasionally, friendship trumps kinship. A sibling might distance himself from his less successful brother, and kinfolk might slowly inch away from a family member emitting the faint whiff of poverty. In a poor society, impecunity is treated as a communicable disease. If you stand too close to poverty, you might catch it. Others see the poor as lacking merit and virtue. We were becoming infectious, virtue-less, without merit. And suddenly, just as I had begun to adjust to a slightly lower social class by giving up the little luxuries — new school uniforms, meat at the table, the use of a scooter — a long­ lost friend led us to a new life. Without accruing any financial benefits for himself, without any social or moral obligations, what was the Architect’s motivation? Perhaps he remembered rainy afternoons spent chatting over hot tea in a canteen. Maybe he recalled the red laterite soil of his hometown. He could have missed speaking Bengali with someone who knew him as a boy. Or maybe he wanted to be near someone who knew how to pronounce his name correctly. Perhaps he wanted to fashion three new immigrants into his ideal of the American nuclear family. I can only guess. I became the unintended beneficiary of his whimsy.

We waited for almost three years in India for our visas because Baba was too nervous to emigrate without a green card. We were making a historic leap from one continent to another, yet we were an extremely risk­averse family. Many immigrants carry these twin traits within themselves and some even pass them on to the next generation. As risk takers we leap far from the safety of home. Having left the comforts of home we know all too well that there is no safety net of kinship or citizenship to catch us should we topple. This makes us cautious. We check the lock on the door three times before going out. We save more than we spend. We collect sugar and ketchup packets from McDonald’s and cannot throw anything away. At work, we beat every deadline in the office and never pass up a second gig to make extra money. We tell our children to keep their heads down, study hard, and always look for a bargain. As risk­averse immigrants, we do not rock the boat. If you  were a trapeze artist without a net below you, wouldn’t you act the same way? Anything else would be irrational.

Scholars who study immigrants such as Baba and Ma would describe them as the classic example of Homo economicus. Economic man makes rational decisions that will increase his wealth and his ability to buy nice things. In those early days in America, whenever people asked why my parents immigrated I felt a sense of irritation and embarrassment. I could not say that we were fleeing war or political turmoil. We were not exiles seeking political or religious freedom. We were seeking economic gains. We were seeking more money. That is a humiliating thing for a 12-year-­old girl to have to repeat in a schoolyard. My parents sounded greedy. Or, worse, they sounded like people who had failed to be successful in the country of their birth and sought a second chance in a richer country. Because I arrived with them, I feared I too was tainted by these labels — greedy, unsuccessful, Homo economicus. At 12 I had made no rational choice, but the accident of my birth made me Homo economicus all the same.

In a poor society, impecunity is treated as a communicable disease. If you stand too close to poverty, you might catch it.

I wished we could pretend to be expats. Expats are glamorous and cosmopolitan. Cool expats like Ernest Hemingway sip Bellinis in Harry’s Bar in Venice. Modern expats are the well­-heeled white Europeans or Americans one encounters in cities such as Dubai, Singapore, and Shanghai. They are foreigners who have moved to distant shores for all the same reasons as a humble immigrant — higher wages, more job opportunities, greater purchasing power, and faster upward mobility. White expats often hold themselves apart from natives in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, seeing themselves as superior. They send their children to the local American, British, French, or German school. They go to restaurants and shops frequented by others who share their tastes. They have their own clubs. In the West, we do not begrudge white expats their seclusion. New immigrants in America, by contrast, are perceived as undesirables who bring down the real estate value of a neighborhood. The women wear strange garb, their ill­mannered children run amok, and their grocery stores emit unpleasant odors. Meanwhile, white expats add value to their surroundings. Shanghai’s French Concession is chic because of the presence of white folk. European expats add glamour to the high­end restaurants of Abu Dhabi.

We weren’t chic expats or political dissidents with lofty ideologies. We were three people moving from a country with fewer resources to one with greater resources. I doubt we added glamour or value to our surroundings.

“Why did your parents come to America?”

“For better jobs.”

To this day this small exchange — repeated endlessly throughout my years in the United States — instantly determines the social hierarchy between my interlocutor and me. I wish I could say my parents possessed some extraordinary professional skill for which an American institution wooed them. We did not hold noble political or religious convictions that were at odds with the government of India. There was no war raging in my city and we were not being resettled. Homo economicus has a duller, more prosaic story to tell.

“Why did your parents come to America?”

“For better jobs.”

The native­-borns nod and feel pleased that they are citizens of a country that offers better everything — jobs, homes, clothes, food, schools, music. I would feel the same if I was in their shoes. It must feel good to be born in a country that has more wealth than other places, to have the hardest currency in your wallet. It must feel good to be generous and invite others — after intense vetting and preselection — to share in this plenty. Even though I had no say at all in my family’s decision to emigrate, I felt my shoulders weighed down with the plenitude of the host country. This plenitude of which I was to be the grateful recipient was evidence that white people were superior to people like me. How else could one nation be so wealthy and another be so poor; one country have so much to give and another stand in a queue to receive? The inequality of nations was surely a sign that some races were morally, physically, and intellectually superior to others. The inequality of nations surely had nothing to do with man, but was shaped by Providence.

“Why did your parents come to America?”

“For better jobs.”


From From Not Quite Not White, by Sharmila Sen, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2018 by Sharmila Sen.

Ancestor Work In Street Basketball

Tim Mossholder / Unsplash, Columbia University Press

Onaje X. O. Woodbine | Excerpt adapted from Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball | Columbia University Press | August 2018 | 25 minutes (6,825 words)

The spirit of the dead must live its life one more time in an accelerated fashion before departing to the realm of the ancestors. . . . It is believed that doing what was once done frees the living from the dead and vice versa.

— Malidoma Patrice Some, Ritual

I had just attended the 2013 Community Awareness Tournament in Roxbury. It was dark. I walked aimlessly along St. Mary’s Street near Boston University. Painful images of the young boys and men of Roxbury flooded my head. That afternoon Russell had asked me to read Marvin’s “Let It Be Magic” poem at halftime to the crowd. I couldn’t do it. Grief racked my body. I left the game. Tears rolled down my eyes as the full impact of the interviews and stories of Boston’s black young men hit me. This wasn’t a few suffering individuals — it was a collective injury. Take Marlon, whom I mention in the introduction. He was a long and skinny six-foot-two-inch player from Roxbury, versatile as a Swiss army knife. He shot threes from deep, made defenders fall with his hesitation dribble, and dunked on players off of one leg. A rhythmic beat reverberated through his head and the sound would grip his body during games:

It seemed like I always had a song going in my head, but I never knew what the song was. That’s just how my game was. It felt like I was dancing on the court. It’s not trying to show off, it’s just how my mind was going and obviously achieved. My mind had a song and I’m bumping to it in my head so now on the court it got me — I’m about to go dunk on somebody or I’m about to go shoot somebody’s lights out. I’m about to cross somebody. It was funny, it’s like I don’t know how many dudes that I made fall just from a simple move. Not even a crossover. A quick step and like “see you later.” Go down, roll it, dunk it.

Marlon, however, was almost raped by his abusive stepfather in a pissy Boston housing project building as a child. Fortunately, he fought him off, dressed his little sister, and hustled down several miles of snow-filled sidewalks to his grandmother’s apartment. His biological father was in prison and his mother was a drug addict, like so many parents of other ballplayers that I interviewed. “I’d run into somebody that was always like, ‘Your mom just copped [bought] some morphine,’ ” explained Marlon. “I tell them, don’t sell nothing to my mom. I’ll kill you. That’s what I tell a person. It’s like, ‘little n***er get the fuck out of here. You ain’t got no gun.’ ‘Oh, I don’t. Okay, be right back.’ [I’d] walk right into the projects. Saw one of the older dudes that know my mother and know my father like, ‘yo’ such and such this and such and such is my mom’s.’ ‘Here take that . . .’ ” and the older gangster would hand him a gun.

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