If it’s a Sunday, my mother is probably tucked into her bed, the stillness of the time between rest and the week’s unrelenting pace hanging heavy in the air, late afternoon light filtering through the half-drawn lavender curtains. She is probably reading, or maybe dozing and waking to the sounds of frantic sirens from the latest crime drama she has been engrossed in. The next morning, she will collect herself into the polished package she presents at work, just enough foundation to accentuate her cheekbones, dressed in a black suit with thin white pinstripes, her silver jewelry angular and slightly threatening like the point of her chin, eyes glaring above her glasses frames as if to say, “Don’t try me.” She has spent years building and defending her independence, interrupting a supposedly comfortable solitude only occasionally with relationships with men who eventually show themselves to be unworthy of her time. Still, her single motherhood never looks tragic to me, in spite of backhanded compliments that are supposed to affirm her strength: “Ah, in fact! You Mama Essie, you’re not a woman, ooh! You’re a man! Look at all the things you have done!” Working twelve-hour days, giving her family stern, frills-free advice, laughing with such unrestraint that it’s almost possible to see the fillings in her molars, she is single-minded in her mission to be excellent in every way. I can’t quite remember the exact moment she started to say, “Dzifa, I just want you to be happy. I don’t want you to end up like me.”
It may have been after I left home to go to college, after she began measuring my absence in the number of weekends she spends alone or how long it has been since I last called, but it is always distressing to hear, and I never let her continue long enough to give an explanation for this lament. I snap at her, “Why would you say that? Don’t talk like that!” Most of the time she sighs, or repeats in a resigned near-whisper, “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” I’m only now growing to understand why being like her is supposedly an undesirable state in which to “end up.” She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.
* * *
I’ve been engaged in the slow, careful process of constructing my own solitary fortress for the past five years — four in the unhealthily competitive atmosphere of an elite private college, one at a graduate program in the cold of Boston that feels unhealthy in a different way, as I’m constantly picking through my pain for the most exquisite parts to exploit for a story, or to bring the heavy black woman perspective, coded as “nuance,” to certain classroom discussions. I’ve learned how to carve bricks for the boundary around myself out of intricate excuses to explain away the obvious strain in my tight smiles: “Oh, nothing, I’m just tired.” “Yeah, I have so much shit to do, but it’s cool.” “You know, I’m a writer, so I’m always in my feelings.” Or my default reply, also inherited from my mother, “It’ll be fine. I just have to get on with it.”
I’ve developed great skill at stacking these platitudes between myself and anyone who may see me often enough to notice the cracks in my poor performance of strength. My aesthetic is always adapting to sustain the deceit. There are days when the hyper-feminine and form-fitting serve as the perfect costume: black skirt with slits on either side, paired with a black top making up for the modesty of its high neck and long sleeves with its slightly see-through material. On other occasions, I put on my tomboy disguise, still silhouetted in black but this time in the form of jeans and round-neck sweatshirts a few sizes too big, hiding a body that still feels uncomfortable at times with its dips and curves that I don’t always want to display. Each compliment is more than a validation of personal style; it is a warning to never let the mask slip: You always look so good. Always on point. Honestly, how do you do it?
Every word is a confirmation of what I’m convinced will happen if I choose to deviate from the customary gracious smile, responding instead with “Actually, I’m not okay. I’m scared and alone. Can you please talk to me?” As far as I’m concerned, the trick of “not looking how I feel,” another coping mechanism I’ve modeled after my mother’s never-ending capacity to keep going even on her most sorrowful of days, has succeeded to the point where no one will know how to react to my crumbling before them. There’s never an appropriate time to reveal the extreme isolation of harboring feelings you don’t quite understand, and every attempt lands clumsily in the space between myself and the other person, unashamed in its messiness but too frightening for either of us to touch any further beyond prodding the issue tentatively with a few ill-placed jokes.
She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.
I tentatively crack open the door on a subject that I almost never speak out loud for fear it would swallow me with its terrifying reality. I drop vague references to how much I’m “going through it” at inappropriate times, like on the walk to the train station with a friend after class. I’m held back in my lonely place by the fear that I’ll expose the ugliness of my perfect farce. No formulation feels right or reasonable: I don’t know what this is. Every month since the spring of 2014, without fail, a smothering fog settles over me, before the premenstrual bloating and the pimples set in. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, every month with no exceptions. I think about ending myself for seven to ten days, every month, for two years. I flinch when my train rushes to a stop in front of me, only a short platform and a stripe of yellow paint between myself and its force. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, tears threaten to flood me in a too-hot shower, right before classes, in the middle of weekly check-in meetings at work.
It has taken this long to even allow these thoughts to whisper in my mind, because the training offered by my mother’s example has helped me to erase these grim blotches from the gleam of my effortless presentation, because for a part of those two years I dated someone I was always nervous would dismiss this horror as one of my “emotional excuses” for being a bad girlfriend, because if I don’t “get on with it,” there are friends who would find their calls unanswered at 4 a.m. when they have boy-related anxiety, or job-related anxiety, or what-am-I-doing-with-my-life anxiety. A heavy hand with the concealer hides the puffy eyes I get from going to sleep in tears I can’t explain, and I can get on with the lonely business of faking a life.
* * *
I recognize a similar show of flawlessness — albeit without the morbid subtext that stalks me — in Molly, the successful, gorgeous counterpart to Issa’s slightly inept persona on the HBO series Insecure. I can see traces of my mother’s charm in Molly’s relaxed laugh in front of a room full of colleagues as she makes a presentation, the ease with which she plays a game of dominoes with three men in the parking garage, spotless outfits in variations of ivory and cream standing out against her dark skin because she knows how striking that combination can be, and also that we, her admiring audience, won’t be able to ignore its stunning effect. It only takes the quick fade-out announcing a new scene for me to begin to see the unraveling of Molly’s perfection, so familiar and expected that I feel as though I’m the one pulling at its increasingly fraying edges.
In one scene, Molly gets a text, a simple “Hey” from Hassan the engineer, the latest man she’s seeing, or “the Arab guy,” as another character refers to him. Molly seems almost wistful as she reflects on how “different” he is, and the fact that she never imagined ending up with someone who wasn’t black — which seems a rather permanent statement to be making after only three dates. Of course, Hassan inevitably lets her down, and when Molly later recounts the story to Issa over dinner, she ends with a resigned “That’s my life” before lamenting the futility of navigating a dating scene which almost always seems to play out against her no matter whether she’s smothering, aloof, demure, or any combination of approaches to letting men know that she is interested in pursuing a relationship. The brilliance of the show lies in lifelike moments like these, when I see two black women using humor to avoid hitting too close to the heartbreaking center of the moment they’ve just shared: Issa offers a “broken pussy” as the explanation for Molly’s dating woes. “I think your pussy is sad,” she says. “It’s had enough. If your pussy could talk, it would make that sad Marge Simpson groan.”
I see myself in Molly’s wavering smile, in her attempts to keep herself together for colleagues and a larger anonymous public, in the possibility that this could be who I am becoming — this woman who thinks she has figured out how to measure herself in appropriate proportions, to always be more than enough for every situation, incredibly qualified for her job, head-turning from board meetings to restaurants, only to discover that her sole reward could be the yawning void where a life partner and peace of mind should reside.
For every shred of fear of a loveless, lonely future I feel, there seems to be an infinite number of reminders that I should be ashamed to crave romantic companionship to the same extent that I’m working toward academic and professional success. Gloria Naylor’s Ophelia seems to be pointing fingers at my weakness when she says, “I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me.” My favorite poet, Warsan Shire, appears to echo this accusation of low self-worth on my part, “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.
Listening to the two black women hosts of the official podcast for the TV show, Insecuritea: The Insecure Aftershow, deepens the embarrassment that I think I should feel for empathizing with Molly, for seeing in her the reflection of the same act my mother and I, and many other black women, fictional and otherwise, have been putting on for our entire adult lives. The hosts laugh about how “pressed” Molly feels to find a man:
“I wasn’t expecting to see a woman in 2016 who’s willing to openly say, ‘I just want to be married,’ cuz I feel like I don’t see that a lot anymore.”
“Right, I think for us we tend to be either/or . . . like either you’re heavily career-based and you’re just going hard in that direction, or you’re more family oriented and you’re just focused on building that side.”
Even as the radio hosts slip in the disclaimer that they are speaking only from their own experiences and those of women they know personally, the archetype of the no-nonsense black boss lady stands in plain view, complete with shoulder pads à la Teri Joseph from Soul Food in the early 2000s, or immaculate white suit and precise side part like Molly. I feel as though I am hearing the retelling of a myth that predates my existence — the independent black woman who doesn’t need anybody. I am drinking in the idea that longing for a love connection was a trivial concern, and that personal ambition and the gleaming summit of career success should suffice until such time as a woman decides to shed her professional sheen in favor of the muted tones of motherhood, marriage, and all the accompanying trappings. Being anything less than enough — yearning for another person outside of oneself, for the chance to be seen without the masks, to be cared for in the way one cares for others — then becomes off-brand for an unstoppable black woman™.
* * *
As I try, and fail, to fully understand what it means to revel in being alone, Toni Morrison writes to me through Sula on her deathbed, Sula who has truly lived life rather than plodding through it at a gentle pace. Her estranged friend Nel challenges Sula’s last boast that she is “going down like one of those redwoods,” majestically, and not “dying like a stump” like everyone else. Nel’s skepticism demands a deeper explanation: what does Sula have to show for this supposedly grand life of hers?
“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”
“Lonely, ain’t it?” Nel’s question sticks out in my mind like the point of an index finger toward a shameful secret unfurled before a judgmental public. Lonely, ain’t it.
“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”
Sula gives me the language to describe my loneliness, to hold it away from myself and dissect it, tackling its complex mesh and dissecting it piece by piece in the hope of finding some fulfillment on the other side of its demise.
It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.
Loneliness may exist for me as a craving for romantic love, as a hope that a partner may be able to help me untangle the web of reasons why I feel alone with my emotional turmoil, but it also moves far beyond the presence and potential abandonment of a lover. It lives in the moments after a strenuous day, when my monthly distress threatens to destroy the titanium resolve I have bolted down firmly over any hints of softness that may betray me. It is in my trembling lips pressed tightly together, but not hard enough to stem the outburst of sorrowful isolation that eventually spills over the edges of heavily made-up eyes, streaking jet-black down my face. I’ve cried the full length of the ride on a red-line train and onto the bus. In public I crumple into myself and wallow in the awareness that no one will be waiting at home or on the phone to listen to me cry, no one will turn away from their own worries to listen to mine. I’ve cried staring directly into the faces of strangers shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that my tears may open a gateway to some erratic and potentially dangerous behavior that could affect them. All this lonely isn’t mine. Even after I get home, I imagine it still clinging tightly to my hair and clothes, smelling like the man in the faded navy hoodie sitting next to me on the train, who didn’t seem to care that I don’t want to chat.
Loneliness rests in the soft tap on my shoulder, clad in my favorite wax-print outfit, a wrinkled hand, a quiet smile leading to the question, “You’re from Nigeria? Or Ghana? I saw your dress and I knew.” Every African woman of a certain age on the train could be my great-aunt or grandmother, with the same manner of folding their arms in front of their chests, the same gold-framed glasses with perfectly round lenses. We are looking for relatives, long left behind and hardly spoken to, in each other’s faces.
Yet, I can’t afford to immerse myself in the sentimentality of being lonely, to make sweeping statements about the nostalgia that immigrants face, miles and temperature points too far from the Equator’s reassuring heat, to address it as a uniquely urban plague that defines the landscape as much as skyscrapers like glass cages and an anonymity that crushes those who are unable to fend for themselves and bolsters those who have come to escape a dull elsewhere they used to call home. This lonely I’ve been carting around every month for the past two years is sinister. My lonely is life-threatening, as it grows more and more difficult to convince myself that anyone would notice the space I left behind if I were to cease to exist. My lonely is my mother’s, but it’s also a secondhand acquisition that could be hormonal or psychological, one that scares me into concealing what could be a very serious mental health condition whose dimensions I haven’t been fully able to grasp. My lonely is also that of Ahine, my best friend, who moves from work to home and back again amidst London’s eternal dreariness, isolated in the exhaustion of striding forward in her career while helping her mother through illness, who sends me a tearful voice message after months of unusual silence to explain how her loneliness felt so insurmountable that it seemed easier to retreat further into herself than to reach out to anyone. It is also Bre’s, when we pass each other on the street, and at the exact same moment we are screaming private crises but somehow cannot topple the boundary of expectations and break down to each other. We make eye contact, and she smiles. “Where are you off to?” the single cowrie shell in her locs flashing back and forth as she shakes her head slightly to the rhythm of her waving hands. Later I’ll explain to her that I was marching as fast as I could to disappear onto a crowded train before someone caught me out of character, drinking back the lumps of sobs forming in my throat, and she’ll already know.
“Girl, I was going through it too!” So why didn’t we stop for each other?
There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support. We take care of ourselves only to the extent that we can paste on a cheerful face and keep showing out and showing up for others to feel at ease, keeping our hurt and our fear tucked away in the desolate, uncharted territories of the hours in the early morning when sleep is replaced by a depression that appears impossible to chase away. Twenty-five years after Sula’s death, Nel visits her grave and mourns not only the loss of her friend, nor the betrayal of the affair between Nel’s husband and Sula, nor the secret the two women shared of the day a little boy drowned after slipping from Sula’s grasp and into the river. “Sula?” Nel calls into the emptiness, with only the leaves and the ground beneath her feet answering her call. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” Nel’s cries descend into an endless loop, “circles and circles of sorrow,” as she realizes that the source of her loneliness had roots deeper than the absence of her husband. “Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” The gaps between myself and the women in my life grow wider and more impassable the more we hide our difficulties from each other under the guise of being, or at least appearing, strong.
* * *
I finally speak my agony out loud one Wednesday in September of 2016, because my mother’s training has not prepared me adequately for a time when private suffering becomes unbearable and spills out into the open no matter how much I try to halt its flow. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, my reflection framed by its glossy black border. I’m about fifteen minutes away from the arrival of my bus but unable to keep putting on my face because I’m not confident that my wobbly hands won’t stab my eye with the mascara brush I’m holding. There is the familiar tightening in my chest and my throat, and I try to steady my shaky breath by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Panic is winning a silent war against me, and I whimper as quietly as possible so as not to alert my two roommates. It wouldn’t do to bother them while they’re also getting ready for school and work. Instead I call my mother in Accra, hoping she can hold some of this chaos for me.
There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support.
“Baby, just try to calm down. Take deep breaths. Oh, baby, I’m so worried about you . . .”
I cry to her with my head tilted back so I don’t damage the mask I’ve just painted on. I’m not terrified because my morbid thoughts have intensified but because they are now beginning to overpower my desire and ability to just get on with it. I make it to the bus stop right as the bus pulls up, and I’m even twenty minutes early for work. I look good, always stylish, as my supervisor says, my hair at its hugest and fluffiest, the way I like it, because the humidity hasn’t started to shrink it yet. Later that day, the distance across the desk between myself and my favorite professor doesn’t seem quite as vast because I blurt out a summary of the monthly struggle I’ve been navigating, sharing with her my fear of conceding defeat to loneliness by even considering seeking the advice of a therapist.
“I don’t know, it’s just such a lonely feeling to know there’s no one who can listen the way I listen to them, so that I have to go and talk to a stranger.”
Her eyes widen behind the smudged lenses of her glasses with a concern that I know isn’t pity, but still makes me anxious.
“Zoë, it’s one thing if your friends are a safety net that you can fall back on, but if you don’t have that . . .”
* * *
There was a time when I controlled my lonely, when I would have been glad to claim ownership over it, to take it by the hand and along with me on adventures only I could see or appreciate. Being an only child meant that I was a self-contained source of my own joy. I climbed the twisted trunk of the same forget-me-not tree almost every day of the long vacation between July and late September, most of its velvety yellow flowers stuck in the red gravel at its base. Sometimes I was brave enough to jump back down from among the branches, following the path of descent back to solid ground that one of my slippers invariably took; other times I would have to wait for my mother to come back from work to help me down, my grandma’s arms unable, or more like unwilling, to get me out of my self-made predicament. I grew up always carrying a place for myself where the only other invited guest was my imagination, which allowed me to twist life’s mundaneness into whichever shape intrigued me the most. It seems fitting that the process of reclaiming my lonely as a place of satisfaction with myself, rather than a haunting jail that I’m too scared to escape, is a solitary one. I want to feel motivated to keep living for my own sake and not solely because giving up would alter the lives of people around me, to be “on point” for myself and not to be just a symbol of “black girl magic” for other people to cling to. I’m throwing away these secondhand burdens to avoid handing them to the daughter I may have in the future. I don’t want her to think it’s her duty to hold the fractured pieces of herself together long enough to fool others into thinking that her strength is unmatched. I’m prying open the vicious clamp of my lonely trap and pointing it out to other people in my effort to rid it of its power. No, I’m not okay. Can you please talk to me?
* * *
This essay first was first published appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Slice. Our thanks to Zoë Gadegbeku and the staff at Slice for allowing us to reprint this essay.