Laylah Ali, Untitled (Acephalous series), 2015; gouache, acrylic, watercolor, and pencil on paper; 36 ½ x 23 inches.
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s excerpted short story paired with Laylah Ali’s artwork, transverses the small wars that inhabit our bodies, our language, and the power of those obsessive, pesky inquiries inherent to us understanding ourselves is this ever-evolving human journey.
He has a thing and I don’t. Or maybe he doesn’t have a thing and I do.
At night, I creep to the bathroom mirror and I raise my shirt above my head and I look at my nipples—at the way they look both dumb and blind. The Helen Keller of body parts, but that’s the kind of stupid, cruel crack that he would make, without shame or the expectation of laughter, with the simple assurance that he would be heard when he said it.
Our father says that they’re just bodies. That there’s nothing interesting about bodies. They are just a vessel. It would be a mistake to love one. I am not sure that I love mine. I think maybe I am committing a sin by loving his.
Laylah Ali, Untitled (from the Typology series), 2005; ink and pencil on paper; 14 x 11 inches, 35.6 x 27.9 cm
Question: Is a lot of interest the same as love? I think so.
I used to have a comic book where the guy is shrunk down by a stray gamma ray and then he accidentally falls into his girlfriend’s glass of water and she swallows him. The rest of the story is about him trying to get out of her body. He wanders down her esophagus, into her gut and through the mess of her intestines. In the red panels of her insides, he shouts his fear in ragged speech bubbles. They left out the good part, of course—how he actually made it out of her. In the comic, I think he hit his head on her uvula and knocked himself out and it faded to black. All I remember is that it ended with him miraculously returned to full size, his girlfriend none the wiser.
I don’t want that with him.
But what I would like is some time in a quiet room while he’s asleep. So I can see what he has that I don’t. I couldn’t bear to have him look at me while I figure out what’s wrong. What sort of jokes would he make about that? I can’t even think of them without wanting to cry. I couldn’t bear to have him look at me while I figured out what was missing. Would that be like hate? I’m not sure. I don’t want to find out.
Laylah Ali, Untitled (Acephalous series), 2015; gouache, acrylic, watercolor, and pencil on paper; 40 1/2 x 56 in, 102.9 x 142.2 cm
Isaiah is my only student for writing. The three others in the class got arrested yesterday and so it is only Isaiah, who just got out of a year’s bid two weeks ago but still tells me, with all the melodrama of his fifteen years, that being forced to write poetry with me for an hour is worse than torture.
We are going to write two truths and a lie about ourselves, I say. But Isaiah won’t write, would rather complain.
I tell him he can just write three sentences, not a whole biography, and so Isaiah writes
- I can do a back flip
- I am good at math
- I am a good computer programmer.
Is the lie the back flip?
Is it being good at math?
No! He is indignant. I’m very good at math. Is it the computer programming?
They’re all true. I’m bad at lying, Miss.
He looks down at the paper and smiles and I wonder if that’s why he went to jail but I rush to cover up the urge to make the joke by reading my own two truths and a lie.
Laylah Ali, Untitled (from the Typology series), 2005; ink and pencil on paper; 11 x 14 inches, 27.9 x 35.6 cm
When I’m done, Isaiah says, The lie is you broke your arm. How do you know that?
You used too many details, he says.
I make him read that poem about the plums and the icebox though he tells me he’s read it before.
Laylah Ali, Untitled (from the Typology series), 2005; ink on paper; 14 x 11 inches, 35.6 x 27.9 cm
I liked it, he says. I like short poems that get to the point. He says, This poem sounds like a child wrote it.
I say, Like a child is apologizing
There’s no apology in this, he says.
And he’s right. The speaker only ever asks forgiveness.
He’s remorseful, Isaiah says, carefully, watching my face as he says the word.
I ask him to write a response poem to it and he does in two lines:
I think you needed those plums more than me. It’s ok, you can have them. I write a response poem too, and when I read it, Isaiah is aghast.
You’d hold it against a child if they ate your plums? That’s the only person who’d even bother to steal a plum. They ain’t worth nothing and you’d hold it against a child?
Well, I say, embarrassed, I’m writing as a fictional character. I’m imagining what a character would say.
Isaiah looks skeptical.
Laylah Ali, Untitled (Acephalous series), 2015; gouache, acrylic, watercolor, and pencil on paper; 36 ½ x 23 inches
He’s getting restless, so in desperation I make him read the bane of poetry workshops everywhere, the Where I’m from Poem.
He puts down his pen and refuses to write anymore.
I write his name on the whiteboard and I ask him to call out the things that he likes most and this is how Isaiah’s Where I’m From poem comes out:
I’m from the projects
I don’t have a favorite anything
I get bored of things real quick
Finally he says, I like guns
What do you like about guns? I say and realize that this is a terrible question to ask. The steel force, he says quietly, looking down at his cupped hands.
Like an idiot, I write that on the board, too.