By Katrina Otuonye
…..I used to have dreams where I would read anonymous letters sent to my house.
…..“I do not love you,” he would scrawl.
…..“I am a simple man who is in complicated like with you,” on another.
…..“But we work well together, you and I.”
…..In my dreams, I scrunched up my face and then threw them away.
…..“Asshole,” I’d mutter. “Everyone loves me.”
…..I would wake up and groan.
I used to think that love was only for the pretty people. As a young, chubby black kid in a mostly white town, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was pretty. The average height, slender, long-haired, silver-tongued, goddesses of my cartoon youth. I was wondering why I wasn’t seen as more attractive to other people, but I think that’s because I didn’t think that I was attractive to other people, and also, because the world had taught everyone, including me, that I should not be seen as attractive. Problems like these don’t just make it hard to look in the mirror; they make it hard to get out of bed in the morning.
This girl in the mirror and I don’t necessarily have daily conversations, but I know she’s there. We see each other. She eyes me and I eye back and we have come to grips with the others’ existence. We have agreed to hurl less insults and to appreciate more boundaries. But we have also agreed that no matter what, when we meet we will see each other and acknowledge and greet each other with a smile and find something we like about the other. And every day, it gets easier and easier to see her. It’s almost to the point now where I do not have to justify her existence.
Sometimes thinking about her, and my place in the world, exhausts me. “I need to rest somewhere,” I say and exit to the nearest, most comfortable surface and occasionally that is the carpet. I imagine some odd relative of ours, hundreds of years back, must have been a prissy 18th century socialite. I am prone to stress, I have stress headaches, I stress eat, I stress-worry to the point of rambling and then I have to rest. If I had a chaise lounge, I would collapse into the thick pillows with flushed cheeks and a heaving sigh three or four times a day.
Stocks and Bonds
A friend of mine called it high risk, high reward, something she heard from a guy friend of hers. I think of it as an apple tree because fruit is brighter to discuss than stocks, but yeah, ok. The gist of the argument is a lot of women that seem to get picked often, that are picked often, that are widely and broadly described as the beautiful women, are low-hanging fruit. Not that conventionally attractive (even that phrase irks me) or media attractive women are not good women. But if they seem good and they’re easy to get, I mean, hey. Go for it. You don’t have to get a ladder to go get them. They’re within reach. It’s reasonable, accepted, encouraged. Grab an apple. Yum.
And a lot of women are higher up on the tree, just out of reach, or completely hidden on interwoven branches. One might get hit by a gust of wind, fall and hit you on the head, but that’s rare. That is a Nora Ephron movie and if you’re lucky enough, you better take that apple. Right now. But those other women, the hidden ones, I mean, they’re less exposed to the elements. They have grown, kind and hardy, in the shade. They’re really good apples. I mean, some of them might be bad, or a little tart or something, but same goes for those low hanging ones. They’re in there, all these delicious apples, but you’re going to have to climb or get a ladder or something, because they’re not coming down for nothing. You see, they are not waiting for you, they are not waiting to be acted upon. They are too busy working and living their lives in intuitive confidence, with a strong sense of pride and self-respect. Or they’re hiding from you. They see that you don’t particularly pay all that much attention, while on an extensive search for love through the orchard.
I like my friend’s comparison, too. If you invest a little money, you might lose some of it, but it’s little, so who cares. Then, you might even get a little bit out of it. Hey, free money! Awesome. But if you invest a lot of money, well, you might lose your money. Then, you might gain a ton of money, too. Like a truckload. But you have to invest. It’s more of a risk. It seems so much easier, doesn’t it, to not try so hard? So I’ve just accepted that I am hidden fruit. I am not quite what people expect, and that’s ok. I’m getting ok with that. Because I’ve had enough trouble trying to accept who I am. I don’t need other people getting down on me on top of that. I’ve got enough problems.
I kept going back to read my old work, the new work, the “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m fabulous and I’m doing it anyway” kind of work. You know what it is. It’s coated in that creamy, buttermilk frosting kind of nostalgia. It’s delicious and self-satisfying. Look at me!, you say, as if glancing of a photo of yourself in nursery school. Look how cute I am!
When you’re little, you love yourself unconditionally. It’s so straightforward that you don’t even think of it. You would never dream of not loving yourself. Part of it is, people keep coming up to you and getting right into your face with a big smile and greeting you in that tone. That ‘I’m talking to a baby’ tone. It’s all bubbles and rainbows and leprechauns. It’s like that cereal your mother won’t buy from the store, and you think to be upset about it, but look! A bug. It’s cool. The other part of it is when you’re young, you have not yet been taught not to appreciate yourself. You are who you are. You are out to have a good time, and that usually involves milk and crayons. It takes very little to please you, happy, happy baby.
So when I go back to read my work, I cover my face with my hand for just a brief moment, and say, “Oh, wow, that’s bad.” And I laugh. Because we’re so much more accepting of ourselves a decade later than we were at the time. I don’t think it’s just me. I also go back and read my work, looking for descriptions. I never liked describing people. Even in others’ works, I thought it was sloppy, messy. We know what she looks like. Maybe in my brain, it was straightforward. They all looked the same way. They all looked like the people I saw on TV, and the people I went to school with and the people I saw in magazines. They didn’t look like me.
When I started writing, all of my characters were white. None were Asian, or Hispanic, or Indian. White. But, I was still description-less. Suzy was how she was. I did not bother to describe her long brown hair, the few freckles and imperfections on her skin, the slender, but upright shoulders. She was average height, average build, my Suzys, but she wasn’t plain. She just wasn’t weird in any way. She was the carefully homogenized version of what I thought people in books looked like. She is what people in my books looked like.
So when I started writing, I did not describe my Suzys, because there was nothing extraordinarily different about her. I liked that about my Suzy. No one assumed my Suzys harbored any prejudices, or would act in a certain way, or had a confrontational attitude about life because there are so many different types of Suzys.
My characters were white. And because I didn’t describe them, the topic never came up. Because everyone else thought my characters were black. Now, looking back on it, if it were meant to be a specific choice, if I actively thought, Suzy is a white woman, late 20s, yeah, ok, I must have my reasons. But there was no thought to it. She just was. All of my characters just were.
I felt ashamed when I realized this because why was I writing this way? In my nonfiction, I was always black and awkward, and chubby, I never concealed me. But I also never described myself. That was intentional. Because if you were reading my story, you knew I was black, but it was never all that relevant to the story. My awkwardness was evident (showing, not telling) but the blackness, not relevant.
I peeled off all those protective layers and started writing about race and self-esteem, my God, was it hard. Just back-breaking in the challenge of it, because to write about it I was writing through it. Writing through a problem, especially writing the way I do, in one great, big, ‘got to get it on the paper before I die’ rush, wears on you, like attempting to endure three years of therapy in a weekend. (I imagine this is what those retreats are like and I find the prospect absolutely terrifying.) Once I started confronting Katrina at six-years-old, and 11 and 16, once I started getting her on the page, I saw Suzy less and less and me so much more. And if not me, then people who were closer to my skin tone, or with similar personalities and similar experiences. I would like to write a story where the characters and their motivations are dissociated from their race. If I’m not writing about them, if I’m too scared of expression, then what do I have left?
When I first grew into figuring out what I looked like, I hid. I was about 10 years old and large, oily-skinned and acne prone. I didn’t know what to do. I would get ready and get dressed in the morning without looking in the mirror because I didn’t like what I saw.
Even now, I don’t like pictures of myself.
But I do love myself. Because what I don’t like, is what everyone else will think of pictures of me. That I won’t be pretty enough, or thin enough. I wonder what people think when they meet the 5’10” black girl with the braces and natural hair. They won’t imagine, before they meet me that I’m someone who grew up in an aging Finnish town, has a secret love for all music Michael Bolton, who from a young age wanted nothing more than to be a Disney princess. (I had the Jasmine pajamas and the Pocahontas doll to prove it.) I feel as if I must stand up and say, “I am worth more than you will ever know and I will continue giving even if it kills me because it’s so much more preferable than to not give at all. I give because it makes me feel good. As Katharine Hepburn said in one of my favorite films, “The time to make up your mind about people…is never.”
So, love I had when I was little. I think we all have love. I hope we all do. Somewhere in middle school, in the chaos of cliques and parties and hormones, we lose it. We lose it when we are no longer pulled into pure joy at the sight of a cup of milk and a fresh box of crayons, with the waxy smell still clinging to your fingertips at dinnertime. We try to find pure joy in the wiles and wishes of other people. In what is expected of us, in not who we are, but who others expect us to be.
Somewhere in high school, I started to get back to who I wanted to be. I was really on a roll mid-college and by the time I hit 25, I had marched, painfully, through that unending slog of dirty memories and filth and started to realize that I would be ok. But I had to like myself just as much as I love myself. Liking myself doesn’t have to do with other people (although hey, I adore the Facebook likes on my favorite photos just as much as the next girl); it has to do with what I expect of myself and why I expect it. It’s about accepting why I am the way I am and digging it. We can be better. We can all be so much better. I don’t know what to do to make young women feel as if they count. A push, a good book. Or a cup of milk and a box of crayons. It always works for me.
Nikki Giovanni once told me — and I say she told me, but I read it in Gemini, a book published nearly 40 years ago — but she told me about love:
Love means nothing unless we are willing to be responsible for those who love us as well as those whom we love. That’s one reason I am always cautious in personal relationships, because people don’t just love you out of the blue – you let them. And people have loved me when I needed to be loved so as an adult I must give that love back to those who want it, or it all will have been for nothing.
I was in the bath at my dingy apartment in grad school, but I’d spent all that time scrubbing that tub down, so I figured I might as enjoy it. I plucked Gemini off my shelf, was drinking juice and reading and acting like I enjoyed the pruny feeling creeping all over my skin, underneath it, wrinkling me like a pug, while the steamy air from the water seeped into my hair. I could feel it curling. But I was reading Nikki Giovanni and she was telling me about acceptance and life and love and she was being a bit militant sometimes too, but I laughed it off like we were old friends. Oh, Nikki. Girl. We should talk.
Those words made me realize love is not accidental. It might just happen; it could strike you like lightning (the chance of that happening is super slim, just saying) but the way you act in response to love…that is really loving. You receive love and you give it in return.
There have been plenty of times, especially when I look at the popular ideas of what love looks like, and usually that love, that woman in the story looks nothing like me. There have been other times when I have been told that my appearance keeps me from being loved. I have been told that a man, seemingly given a choice, is more likely to choose the more acceptable version of what he thinks he ought to have, or of what others think he ought to have. As of yet, that choice has never been me. So it was hard to think of all the people who have given me love when I was nothing, when I didn’t matter, when I didn’t deserve it and then to think, well, I should keep giving it out anyway. Kindness. Affection. Care. Because I was given it when I was nothing, so I should give it to others even if they mean nothing (or mean too much) because then I will show myself I am just as worthy as others of the same kind of love, and I will not hesitate to give my love anyway.
And there is no scorecard for this. There is no tally. It’s like tossing out pennies into the wishing well. It’s lifting your feet in the air as you drive over railroad tracks. It’s wishing on that first star that dots your deep obsidian night sky. It’s a promise. To myself, if not to others. Love is the greatest thing we can ever give ourselves or give each other. I think back to those dreams I used to have with my stubborn, like-letter writer, and I shrug and smile. Eh. He was in love with me along.
Katrina Otuonye is native of Upper Michigan and a Tennessee graduate. She holds an MFA from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and her work in creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Granny Smith Magazine, Coal Hill Review, Litro Magazine, Marco Polo Literary Arts Mag and Crab Orchard Review. She currently writes and teaches in Cookeville, TN, and she maintains a Tumblr at katrinaotuonye.tumblr.com.