Surface Tension


1. When I can’t sleep at night, I run through word games in my head. Usually, I begin by listing noun-verb pairs in sets of three, keeping the noun the same. Light creeps, ivy creeps, time creeps.

If this game doesn’t work, I resort to thinking of opposites. The opposite of red? Green. The opposite of seek? Hm, maybe abandon. The opposite of pleasure? Easy, pain. Well, to be more specific, shame. But then the opposite of shame is pride and is pride a kind of pleasure? You have to be specific.

One opposite that I’ve never worked out is that of blood. My visceral reaction is to consider water. But the biologist in me knows that over 90% of blood plasma is water, and something which comprises something else cannot be its opposite. My brain has accepted answers like boneaccepted in the way that you close a cabinet after shoving everything inside, knowing that it will fall out. For now, I consider the job done. Yet the desire for an answer courses through me all the same.


2. The last time I was home, my mom performed an entire interpretive dance routine to Missy Elliot’s “Lose Control” as I looked on silently from the couch. As the final note thundered through our floorboards, she ran over and shook my shoulders from behind. “You’re so serious all the time. I wonder who made you so serious,” she told me. “You gotta loosen up. You gotta go with the flow.” I smiled and wiggled my shoulders, loosening the earth. This made her so happy.


3. I was 22 when I first decided that the only relationship I could have with gender is one of rejection. I stood at my kitchen table in front of the wooden box sent by my ex-boyfriend from high school and stared at its contents: a package of dark chocolates, a box of my favorite tea, the 1998 edition of Beloved by Toni Morrison, a copy of one of our prom pictures, and a letter he wrote on tea-stained paper (and bound with a wax seal displaying the first letter of his name). This is a man who I shrank for when we were in a relationship. After, he contacted mee about once a month, his voice drenched not with care, but with a condescending courtesy, as though I was already his, as though money between him and my father had already exchanged hands. This is a man who will rattle off quotes from Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison even though their words do not belong in his mouth. And there I was, his prey that had strayed a little too far from his line of sight. The economy of Gender had never been so close, pressing its weight on my throat and praying into my ear.

This was the first time my body had so viscerally rejected the stability of a contained place to land, crying out for an acknowledgement of its wilderness, its runniness. My spirit called through my flesh, telling me so clearly that we couldn’t allow this containment to persist any longer. I am not, and have never been, alone in my body. Still I feel Gender waiting patiently, its incantations vibrating loudly against my eardrum, begging me to come home, to trade tea for my multiplicity, for my relationship with all of myself.


4. In the back of my journal, I keep a list of indications that my mental health is deteriorating. I am not so arrogant that I believe my brain can always outpace my body. Isn’t that how we become vulnerable? Forgetting that our most important body of knowledge is our own flesh and blood?

The first sign on the list is You stop drinking water. The last sign: You stop showering.


5. It was Thursday and the clouds were drooling. The ten dollars’ worth of quarters I just convinced the bank to give me rattled in my backpack as I walked. As I passed the street that my apartment was on, I decided to drop the quarters off in my room. Because they were for laundry, I figured leaving them at home wouldn’t do any harm, and would free up the room in my bag for groceries. After dropping my handfuls of quarters off, I continued my trek to the grocery store. Ten minutes later, I turned a corner and saw an elderly Black woman digging through the maroon bag that hung off her shoulder. As I approached her, she walked towards me. “My dear,” she said, “do you have two quarters? The bus will be here any second and I’m short.”

This moment burned through my body for weeks. Each day, I’d wake wondering if, somehow, my life had slid off its track. A derailed train, forcing me exactly ten minutes from where I was supposed to be at any given time. I do not consider myself superstitious, but I do not think I am so above the forces of the universe that it wasn’t my fate to be a stranger who made that woman’s day by pulling a handful of quarters out of my tote bag.

My body so badly wants to forget that above all else, I am water. How badly I want to believe that I have access to no moment except the present. How do you remind a spirit that it does not belong to time? I ask because I do not know. It is easier to live as if nothing is in my control. If water and time exist in fundamental opposition to each other, I would like to learn to trust water.


6. For many members of the African diaspora, a woman’s dream of salt water often indicates the pregnancy of someone close to them, or themselves. When I learned of this in one of my books on hoodoo, I wondered if my mother or aunts or grandmothers had any dreams of water before I was born. I am doubtful.


7. I sit on my best friend’s rug. We are both waiting anxiously to see how her post-reduction breasts will sit in her favorite tops. She throws clothes out of her closet with questions for me. “If you could only wear one outfit, or one type of outfit, every day, what would it be?” A green bralette floats to the ground in front of me. “Hm,” I begin, picking at the blue wool fibers of her area rug. “Definitely one of my big, long dresses,” I respond, “the kind I have that I can basically swim in.” I hear her chuckle from inside her closet. “You do love your kindergarten teacher dresses,” she responds. “Maternity dresses more like,” I add. We laugh. As she talks about her blossoming love for button-down shirts, I contemplate my love for loose mid-length dresses. There’s just something about the range of movement, the way the fabric reminds me how much air is around me without sticking to me. Gender snickers. A white V-neck t-shirt lands on my stomach.

The first shirt my friend tries on is a rainbow spaghetti strap top “I still feel like my boobs are too big,” she laments. “I totally get why people chop their boobs off. I could see how that would make me feel more like me.” I nod up at her. “Would you ever want to do that? Or like, change anything about your body like that?”  I shake my head, and it’s mostly true. Most of the time, most days, I am perfectly satisfied with the terrain of my body. I do not tell my friend about the new tattoo I’ve been planning: a thin solid black line that moves down my front and side, following the path that a droplet would leave if someone dropped water into the cavern of my collarbone and let it run between my breasts and around my waist, over the curves of my hips. I do not tell her this because I do not have the words to explain that this would make my body feel more like my own.


8. What my grandmother says: “Lord willing and if the creek don’t rise,” she says this as an affirmation. As in, Question: Will you enjoy being a woman tomorrow? Answer: Lord willing and if the creek don’t rise.


9. Lately I’ve been contemplating a fact I learned in seventh grade chemistry class: The act of water “climbing” up paper towels is called capillary action. It occurs because water is attracted to itself (adhesion) and attracted to other substances (cohesion). Surface tension holds the water intact as it moves. But I never found it odd that water climbed up paper towels until that moment. It’s funny, what doesn’t seem peculiar until we give some attention to it.


10. The box the man gave me sits in my room. I am afraid to open it. I live in fear of what might come out of the dark waters and swallow me whole. Creeks bend, creeks gurgle, creeks rise.


11. If someone walks into the waves to greet Yemaya, the Yoruba religion’s deity of the ocean, it is customary that they approach with their left side facing the water. This is said to show that you respect Yemaya, that you understand the way her power will stick to you with the salt.

I think about the last time I was on an airplane, traveling from Charleston to New York City for the holidays, and how I had to awkwardly shuffle sideways down the aisle of the plane as my bag hit shoulders and elbows. This is indeed a humbling motion, approaching anything sideways. As I moved towards the exit of the airplane, I couldn’t help but think about how unattractive I must look, tailbone tucked to fit between the seats, glutes flat and contracted. Gender watched intently. Sorry, I said to my fellow passengers. I’m so sorry.


12. A more recent fact I learned about water: Sound travels faster and can carry longer distances over water than in air.


13. My mother has what you might call a tradition. Each summer, when the Connecticut heat slides towards 90 and the humidity makes it feel like you’re breathing through cotton balls, my mother goes outside to her car, rolls up all the windows, closes the door, and sits in it for as long as she can manage. She alerts no one. Seven to eight minutes later, she throws open the front door, gasping, eyes squinting from the sweat that could no longer be held back by her eyelashes. She smiles as sweat pools inside her shoes and eventually spills out of them, leaving two watery footprints on the floor when she walks to her bathroom for a shower. I wonder for a second what Yemaya would have to say about the oceans at her feet.

Part of me believes we were all born with a small desire to escape our bodies, but I do not know why she likes to test her limits like this.


14. It is almost midnight and the room smells like cheap vodka and we have each had exactly one drink too many when my friend tells me he’s been experimenting with makeup. He asks to do my eyeshadow and I accept despite the fact I never wear it. As he paints my eyelids one of the most garish shades of turquoise I’ve ever seen, he tells me, “I don’t want to die so much as immortality is the worst possible thing I could think of.” Heat rises, heat waves, heat stifles.


15. One night, as the clock crawls towards 3 a.m., I feel the box burning under my back. I grab my glasses off my nightstand, slide on my slippers, and remove it from under my bed. Before my body fully recognizes what is happening, I am outside dumping the contents into the garbage can at the side of the house. The air smells like pine. Afterwards, I rush inside, trying to beat the cold that wants my bones. I pour myself a glass of water in the dark and sit at the kitchen counter, elbows on cold marble. Before I bring the glass to my lips, I say a small prayer. Oh Yemaya, let me be limitless. I drink.

In Search of Touch

First dates are meant to be flirtatious and giggly. In another time, we would be meeting inside a dark downtown bar. Music playing. The stench of sour liquor pinching my nose. He’d ask what I like and order me something smooth. After half a drink, the conversation would begin to flow. I’d ask him a crucial question, “What’s your favorite kind of fry?” He’d say tater tots. “What? That’s not even a fry!” I’d say shoestring dipped in blue cheese because ranch is so over. Later, because he’d be too shy to make a move, I’d ask him to kiss me. This seems to be my move in any time. And we’d make out sitting side by side on barstools all limbs and tongues.

The Night Had Claws

As our shapes re-emerge from the thinning steam, Sheila pushes the button and once more we disappear. She repeats this ritual in silence until my hands and the soles of my feet are wrinkled. I don’t want to leave this white hard shell. I want to stay here forever, tucked away from the world. Invisible. Safe.

Heavy Lifting

Maybe she stood by him no matter what, because she’d suffered enough heartache. She married her childhood sweetheart and had my brother and me before things fell apart. Her father, who had meant everything to her, died tragically in the projects almost a decade ago. Bernard was her one and only son, and even though it could happen, she didn’t want to believe she could lose him too.