My mother and I enter the room and I am surprised that the air doesn’t smell like death. The last time I that I had stared Him in the face, I had been around eight or nine and my paternal grandfather had died following a prolonged battle with lung cancer. At his father’s funeral, my own father openly bawled, ugly lion-like roars, a paltry expression of his insurmountable grief. It was the first and last time I would see him cry. He was a man who adhered to the codes of black masculinity, the stripping of emotion for the sake of self-preservation. As the sea of painted faces parted to reveal some long-lost family member or estranged relative, I felt as though the only thing I could do was keep quiet, keep invisible and wipe away the occasional lipstick-smeared kiss planted on my cheek.

My mother and I enter the room and I am walking with knees that knock together like metal triangles. The lights are as strong and solid as the unyielding fluorescence in a hospital waiting room. Conversations acted out with low, throaty voices, as though we were shuffling through a guided tour of a museum. Slippery smiles are tricky to catch like fanged eels. Careful flower arrangements surrounding the Beloved like Ophelia floating downstream, hands crossed over her pale chest, fingers bejeweled with rocks as big as a gold pocket watches. I have thrown on one of the few black dresses that I own, some cheap thing with the price tag still attached. My mother is all business, extending her small hands and open arms like a seasoned priest. She does not fear death, as it is not a decimation of the soul but a chance for rebirth. I shadow her and I try not to smile with teeth because it is a wake and everyone has temporarily left their bodies to hover above the Silent Woman in the satin-lined coffin. We have all gathered to honor her life by sitting in a room, dressed for a dinner party, not trying to stare at the one person who connected each member of her audience with the delicacy of a daisy chain.


It’s a scene from a bad romantic dramedy. Bundled up because the chill is not due to the industrial freezers packed in the grocery store, but because I am a glacier and you’re the captain of some glorious ocean liner, proud patriarch of some monster of a boat you call “baby,” and in the fog of drunken neglect, we’ve had a head-on collision.

You volley the usual insults and criticisms and complaints and it’s like I’ve just sucked down a bucket of whippets. Static, crackle, pop, comebacks crumble to ash. I’m numb and I know you want me to say something (say anything) but the words dissolve.

These are words we’ve practiced in countless dress rehearsals and now I’ve got stage fright, body mummy stiff at the thought of our demise.

You say it’s over while we’re standing in the middle of the soda aisle.

Who’s afraid of Virgina Woolf, now?


In college, I would fight boredom by getting off at the wrong subway stop, maybe a few blocks from my dorm. This is the third time (or fourth, or fifth, or sixth, or fiftieth, who the fuck is keeping score) that you have abruptly declared that our relationship is over. But it’s always stuffed between the laments of the destruction you have caused or shame, shame directed at me for being so “unwilling to try.”

Change your hair, change your life. Change your personality, change your attitude, change your anger, change your inner life until it is a glass palace built in my honor. Change what you write, change what you feel, change into a version of femininity that I can make my friends envy.

Don’t talk about racism because it’s 2013. Racism is “on life support.” Racism is dead. Don’t talk about discrimination because you may be black but you are not “hard.” You grew up in New England and not the South Side of Chicago or Detroit or Oakland or the Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens or Bed-Stuy. Don’t discuss the meaning of black identity because your eccentricities make this an area of nonexistent expertise. Don’t talk about feminism because it’s unattractive and a turn-off, the mark of an infantile Girl Who Cries Wolf!

Some of your friends dropped out of high school or were hauled off to jail and some of your friends you don’t really like or they celebrate someone’s thirty-something birthday by passing out drunk in the prickly bushes of a darkened parking lot, the asphalt quilted with chunks of glass from broken bottles.

When you pull out the the usual threat, I decide to walk home from the site of the explosion. You follow along in your car, inching forward, teasing the gas pedal, creeping along like a predator watching his kill limp away.


I was late to the funeral. Only by five minutes but I still felt as though I disrespected His Holiness and the cross dangling from my neck is a poor olive branch for my lapsed Catholicism. Not that I even consider myself Catholic these days. These days I buy books on witchcraft right after books on Buddhism and you think that I am swayed by the powers of some mind-melding evil. You think that my inherent darkness, most likely passed down by genetics, by the blood of history, is the cause.

(My mother sometimes forgets that her parents lived through World War II when the Japanese occupied the Philippines and she will never speak of the older brother that hung himself. My father’s father was born and raised in North Carolina so he’s sure that somewhere down the line, our ancestors were dragged to America in chains. My father’s mother was Native American, her father a Chief, and the government apologized by bestowing the Nipmuc tribe with a reservation.)

Familial past drives the future.

There was blood on your hands when you met me and you refuse to understand how it got there.


there is nothing left for you here, i say.

i don’t understand, you say.

communication breakdowns are always weaving our narrative, piercing in and out of flesh wounds like the needle on a sewing machine.

a few weeks ago, you asked if i still loved you and i hesitated.

a few weeks before that, you had confessed, there was a time when i couldn’t get away from you if i tried and now i can’t even get you to talk to me.

you always forget that i am young and i forget that i am “young,” but when the realization and its implications fully unfold in my mind, i do not picture you.


I am making escape plans. I’m catwoman. I can play meek and submissive and I can be deeply disturbed. I hide my body in dowdy clothes and I can kiss the ring of the man who wants a wind-up Marilyn Monroe. But I am smarter than I look and I will strike when the moment is right, when fortune is turned in my favor.

I have nine lives and you will only see one.

Vanessa Willoughby

Photo by dlanham