The Jefferson

Monica bustled up to the bar with her usual energy, sniffing at her cigarette as she searched for a lighter, waved a hand for the bartender, and commandeered the seat next to Teresa.
"Hey bitch how the hell ya doin!" Teresa laughed with just as much animation and surrounded Monica in an explosive hug with Budweiser waving in one hand and Marlboro Red trailing in the other. "Sit your ass down, girl, I already got you a drink!"
Monica laughed loud and short, grabbed at the sweating Budweiser Teresa had motioned towards and swung it at Teresa's own to clash in an ear-rattling clank that could be heard even above the noise of the jukebox. She took a deep swig and sighed. "Here, lemme get that for you," Teresa said, motioning towards Monica's menthol.
"Mmm- yeah!" Monica mumbled, sticking the cigarette in her mouth and leaning forward to cup the flame of Teresa's lighter. She puffed once, twice, three times then leaned back, sighing misty smoke out her mouth.
"God, girl, I don't understand how you can smoke that shit," Teresa scowled. "That crap burns my throat from the first cigarette til three days after. Only time I ever been able t' smoke menthol was when I was high as a kite and couldn't feel it."
"Yeah, well," Monica leaned forward conspiratorially with a gleam in her eye, "I won't say I am, but I will say I might be gettin' some after."
Teresa raised her eyebrows slightly. "Yeah? What you gettin'?"
Monica got evasive and sat back waving her cigarette. "Later. What about you, girl? Look at you! Puttin on some pounds, damn!" She laughed that explosive laugh again, and with a jealous note to her face Teresa assayed that Monica had lost weight herself. A surprising amount of weight, she realized, seeing as how she had seen her last only five months before. No matter what diets she went on she could never lose that much in such a short amount of time. She checked herself from staring and took a swig of her beer.
"You bitch," she growled half fondly, half seriously at Monica. "Well, you know, what can I say: Fat and happy!"
"Mmmhmmm," Monica drawled nasally as she took a drag of her cigarette, then breathed out the side of her mouth as she stared at Teresa. "That true?"
Teresa shifted uncomfortably a second, then took another pull at her Bud. "The fat part, yeah!" she laughed, then shrugged. "Well, I gotta place. I gotta man t' take care of me. I only gotta deal with those brats'f his once e'ry other weekend and on some holidays." She paused, dragging on her cigarette. "Yeah," she said after a pause. "Life's pretty good!" She laughed, exhaling the smoke out the side of her mouth like Monica had.
Monica looked seriously at her. "Really? I mean, if you say so you say so and I'll believe you. But come on, now, girl, you know me better'n to lie to me...I know you better'n that. You got that look to you again. Seems lately you keep having that look e'ry time I see you."
Teresa was beginning to get aggravated, and her eyes sparked black as she took another swig. "Don' know what the hell you talkin' bout. I'm a married woman! I got security...." She trailed off. Monica said nothing but raised her eyebrows at Teresa as she drank her beer. Teresa angrily breathed in the smoke from her cigarette and blew it out with a curse. "Goddammit," she said, jerking her head from side to side. She sighed, shook her head, then stared off at the pool tables. Monica waited. She had known her long enough to know what was coming next.
"I caught the motherfuckin' bastard cheatin' on me!" Teresa exploded finally in a flat snarl. "With that goddamn bitch he was dating before I got him! Can you believe it?!" She blew out smoke again, her red hair and flashing near-black eyes giving her the impression of a fireball in motion. "All his shit I put up with, all the shit I let him do to me just to get a little security for myself and my son, and he runs off and does this shit?! Ungrateful bastard!" Teresa paused, letting the bitterness settle in her mouth a second. She took another drag and practically spit the smoke out again. "I am damn good at sex, too! I made sure he always got what he wanted, whatever, whenever...and he got the balls to go off and do somethin' like that!"
Monica nodded her head in agreement. "Piece o' shit," she concurred, raising her beer.
"Piece o' shit," Teresa growled, and clinked her bottle against Monica's.
Monica laughed, pulled a swig, then looked seriously at Teresa. "And you're still a married woman?"
Teresa hissed angrily. "Shiii- what can I do? I found her clothing in his car, but when I confronted him 'bout it what's the shithead do? Lie. Like he always does. I knew he was cheatin on me- I knew it! I had to deal wi' that shit with Ryan's daddy, too! I know when I'm being played, an he was playin me like a fiddle! Shiiii-" She hissed the curse through her teeth like a snake, turning her head away in disgust. She was silent a minute, smoking. Monica stared down at her nails as she waited. Sometimes, with Teresa, it just took time. It took time, but eventually all would be revealed. She had never been good at keeping her mouth shut.
"The fucked up thing? I'm still with him. He swore up an down he never did, he never would- 'Baby, baby, please, I'm sorry, you know I love you, I would never do anything to hurt you. Whatever you want me to do to show you I love you and would never leave you, I'll do it!' 'Course it's all a load of bullshit," Teresa smirked bitterly as she took another drag, looking over at Monica. "But at least for the time bein' I got things under control. I don't trust the bastard, but I can't afford not to be married to him. For time being, he spoils me too good to stop being his wife. He's a good daddy to Ryan, which is what Ryan needs. He even swore he'd adopt Ryan as his own son soon as he works up the extra money for the paperwork...." Teresa trailed off again, looking unsure of herself. She sighed, then shook her head. "Why we talkin' bout this shit? I'm thru talkin' bout this. Now what're you up to, ho? You gotta man now? And what's all this bout getting high later? What you got planned- spill the beans shuga I gots ta know!"
Teresa cackled playfully, slapping Monica's arm with her beer bottle. Monica arched her eyebrows in a 'wouldn't you like to know?' face as she took a sip of beer. "Well, now, ain't nothin' much been goin' on with me," she drawled, fishing around for another menthol to stall for time. She sniffed at her purse, then pulled out a new pack, peeled the cellophane off the top and began packing it against her wrist.
"Bullshit," Teresa called her bluff, lighting another cigarette of her own. "I know you too well, bitch! Now what's been goin' on?"
Monica laughed and ripped the paper off the top of the pack, delicately choosing the first corner cigarette and turning it over so the filter end was at the bottom and the open end stuffed with tobacco peered out like a reddish brown eye among the white rows at the top. Without pausing she picked its twin next to it and began to light up.
Teresa noticed and motioned with her eyes towards it. "Still tryin' to get lucky?" she laughed.
"Not tryin' anymore, bitch," Monica said slyly as she lit up. She exhaled and crossed her legs coyly as she leaned against the bar. "I already did."
Teresa shrieked over the background noise of the bar. "Get outta here!! Look at you girl! Aw hell, now you gots ta tell me ev'rything!"
Monica smiled and blew out another stream of smoke. "Well....his name's Marcus. And it hasn't just been once," she added with a triumphant look over at Teresa. Teresa gulped down her beer in surprise and slapped at Monica.
"Go'on, git outta here. What's he like- do I know him?"
Monica suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Well...I, uh, I don't really think so. Prob'ly not."
"You sure?" Teresa frowned. "Baton Rouge is a small town- I thought I knew of ev'ry handsome motherfucker in these parts."
"You're married now, and must be slippin', cuz this handsome muthafucker slipped clean underneath yer radar!" Monica laughed. Teresa smirked and finished her beer.
"You're such a whore." She stood up and bellowed over the noise for the bartender. With her short stylish red hair, pale skin, and abrupt movements she was like a beacon warning sailors away. Since she was a good tipper, however, the bartender ignored the signs and moved towards her end of the bar. "Two more Budweisers here," she shouted. He nodded, and as he turned away Monica put her hand on Teresa's wrist.
"My treat this time."
Teresa and she argued over the tab, and by the time the bartender came back with their beers Monica already had her wallet out and had slapped a twenty on the bar before Teresa could say anything. Teresa made a move to snatch it away and put her own money down, but while Monica was grabbing the money out of her wallet the corner of a tiny clear plastic bag had appeared and caught her attention. It was so small at first she didn't notice it but the reflection of the plastic against the black of Monica's wallet had drawn her eye. She could only see the top of it, but the inside looked as if it had some sort of powder film on it.
Teresa's high spirits immediately settled into the pit of her stomach. A bone-deep sobriety blossomed out from her gut, sending chills down her spine and forcing her to stab out her cigarette with a jerk before she froze or exploded. So that was what Monica was doing these days. Distracted, she fished in her purse for another cigarette. She glanced over at Monica who was settling back down with a look of triumph into her chair, clutching her beer like a trophy. It might explain the recent weight loss, too, but she would have to be doing a whole lot of it for her to lose as much as she had in the last few months. Unless it was actually meth.
But those were usually the blue bags. ....Weren't they?
Teresa lit her cigarette and leaned back to look more seriously at Monica. She had only tried cocaine once, and she had hated how it had made her feel. Besides, she had seen too many friends go down that road. She wasn't naive, or some sort of prude- she had done plenty of drugs in her time, and Monica had been the one she usually did them with. They had always been light drugs, though: acid, weed, and most recently ecstasy (courtesy of Chet's lawyer friends). However, she liked to think there was a line she would never cross with certain drugs, and it hurt her to think her best friend had crossed it already. Monica had never even hinted to her that she was starting to get into that stuff. Maybe it was because she knew what Teresa's reaction would be that she had stayed silent, but at least now her suggestive comment from the start of their meeting made more sense.
Monica noticed the change in Teresa but figured it was because she had beat her to paying. "Aww, come on now, don't be such a sandy vagina Teresa!" she laughed as she took a swig of fresh beer. "'Sides, you got a kid and a husband at home, it really is too much to ask you to pay for four beers." Her olive green eyes sparkled with laughter. "But if you really want to, I won't object to you paying for the next round. Me? I'm a working girl and gotta watch my funds too!"
Teresa played with her cigarette for a second. She had never been good at being graceful. "Yeah, so you can blow it all on your cocaine high later?"
Monica froze, mid-sip. Slowly she lowered the beer bottle from her lips."'Scuse me?"
"Goddammit, Monica, don't play dumb. I saw the baggie in your wallet while you were paying! What the fuck are you thinking? And why didn't you tell me?"
A cluster of emotions argued across Monica's face, but anger seemed to be winning over the rest. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, don't play so innocent with me. You know exactly what I'm talkin' about. What is it? Cocaine? Or meth?"
Monica looked around and hissed at Teresa to keep her voice low. "Shut up! It's just a little coke. God! You're actin like I just committed some sorta big sin, Miss Almighty-Righteous-Married-Woman! What, did that stint as a born-again really get to you? Since when did you get so uppity? Yeah, so I do a little coke e'ry now and then. Big whoop! It's just an occasional thing, something I do now and then to relax and let go a little bit- something mebbe you should start doing!"
Teresa's temper flared up like her hair. She tried to cool it down by taking a deep gulp of beer and counting to ten before lashing out. It didn't work as well as she had planned. "Your boy toy know bout this?" she asked in as mildly disapproving a tone as she could manage.
Monica snorted. "He's the first one I did the stuff with. And let me tell you, honey-" she leaned forward conspiratorially, "Sex on coke is A-MA-ZING."
Teresa snorted back. "No it ain't. You never come. You just go for hours on end without ever having an orgasm, but because you can go for so long without stopping people claim it's some wonder drug." Monica leaned back with a glint to her eye. "And yes, I do know, so you can stop giving me that goddamn smug look. I only tried it once, with that one guy who used to deal back in school. You know, the one- Jacques? Jacques Pirie? Yeah, him."
Monica exhaled long and low through gritted teeth. "Well, no wonder you don't like the stuff. Foolin' round with him's liable to make anybody learn to not even like sex."
"That's not the point, goddammit! Listen, Monica-" Teresa leaned forward, but Monica cut her off.
"No, you listen Teresa. Drop it. We came out to enjoy ourselves and catch up on what's going on in our lives, not to get into another fight. That's what did us in before, 'member? I appreciate the concern, but I'm cool. I got this. It ain't a thing, and I don't need you motherin' me. Leave that fer Ryan and fer Chet's kids." Monica sighed and leaned back, swinging her head around. "God, what happened to you? It's like you've lost all your fun! Like you're losing you! What happened to the Teresa I knew who was down to try anything once? The Teresa that was always the life of the party- that Teresa, who I was thinking might enjoy a little fun, a quick pick-me-up after our drinks? I mean, God knows girl, you need it."
"Yeah, well, I got responsibilities now, " Teresa said shortly, avoiding looking at Monica. "But go ahead, if you want to. Tell me everything. Tell me all about this Marcus who's so great and all the coke you two do together in bed."
"Tsss!" Monica took a deep drag on her cigarette. "Miss High-And-Mighty..." she growled as she exhaled. "Since when did you get a stick up your ass?" Teresa's eyes flashed black, and Monica knew she had hit a spot. "You know what? Sure. I'll tell you about Marcus. I'll tell you all about Marcus, since obviously you got man problems enough as it is and need to hear about mine."
"Oh, shut the fuck up, Monica. Just shut the fuck up and drink."
They drank in silence for a while, a gulf of noise filled with the sounds of pool, laughter, shouts, and honky tonk separating them. It always seemed to end up like this lately with them. This had been the reason they hadn't seen each other in five months. The last time it had been worse- Teresa was still attending David Diamond's church and had insisted they meet for coffee instead of a beer. Monica had laughed at her that she was trying to escape her destiny as the Budweiser Queen, and Teresa had blown up at Monica that at least she was on the right path with a husband that took care of her, a good job, and God in her life. Five months later and she had been the one calling up Monica to apologize and admit she had been a stupid ass. They'd arranged a peace meeting over some beers at their old favorite bar they used to work at. So much for peace.
As they sat smoking and drinking neither looked at the other. Each tried hard to pay attention to everything else in the room but the woman sitting next to her. Teresa was just about done with her beer and debating leaving once she had finished her last draught when there was an odd lull in the bar. The jukebox program had stopped playing and was searching for a new song. With a static humm close to the realm of subsonic a new melody began to unfold, then sent out as ambassador the first harmonic chords of "You Don't Know How It Feels" by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. The melody wailed out over the subdued noise of conversations and glasses clunking on wood to greet her heart like an old friend.
Teresa exhaled, trying to fight the battle within her chest. Finally she took a deep drag of her cigarette, knowing she had lost. She loved that song. From the first time she had heard it she had loved it and could never be upset while listening to it. So many memories attached to a few simple chords, and a lot of them were with Monica; all it took was a few howls from that harmony and she was back to high school days, staying out past curfew and driving fast down Siegen Lane, windows down with this song blasting as she and Monica screamed along to it. She glanced over at the old friend that she had been trying to ignore for the last ten minutes, and from the expressions on her face Teresa could tell Monica was traveling down similar lanes of memory herself. Monica caught her looking her way and smiled at her. She laughed, then shook her head, holding up her hands.
"Leave it to Tom Petty," Teresa sighed, then held out the bottom of her beer. "I could never be pissed off while listening to this song. Truce?"
"Truce," Monica agreed and tapped the bottom of her bottle to Teresa's.
"Sorry for being such a bitch," Teresa grudgingly added.
"Why? You've always been one, why apologize now?"
"Naw, naw, you're right," Teresa conceded. "It's your life, you know what you're doing. I just....worry about you is all. You're my friend, Monica. One of my oldest friends, too. We grew up together- I have to worry about you. We just wouldn't be friends if I didn't."
They both drank in silence, lost in the music and their own separate memories.
"So...." Teresa hazarded after a minute. "What is he like?"
Monica chuckled and smiled. She nervously fiddled with a new cigarette. "You mean Marcus? He's amazing. A real man." She shot a look up at Teresa, then back down again. She pulled out her lighter and puffed on the cigarette until it was lit, then went back to rolling it between her fingers. "He owns his own landscaping business. Does mostly lawns and such- edging and trimming- but he also plans out an designs landscapes. He just started up recently, but business has been good for him so far. We been dating for about a month now, and so far it's been heaven."
Teresa nodded as if she expected nothing else. "Yeah, and-?"
Monica looked over at her. "Hmm?"
"Come on, girl, he sounds perfect, but what's he look like? You said he was handsome! Well- details!"
Monica nervously laughed. "Yeah, he is. Real handsome..." she trailed off as if having second thoughts.
Teresa laughed deep from her belly. "Come on now, the way you're saying it you make it sound as if you're trying to convince yourself of that! Don't worry, I won't judge you if he's ugly. But I might steal him if he's really good-lookin'!"
Monica shot a look up at Teresa, then smiled warily and looked back down. She took a drag from her cigarette.
"Would you judge me if he was black?"
For Teresa, the whole bar suddenly lost all sound. No Tom Petty, no laughter, no noises of pool balls clacking- nothing. She couldn't hear anything, only the sound of her own mind trying to make sense of what Monica had just said. Her face froze in the half-smile she had been holding when she heard the words, as if it hadn't yet gotten the message her brain was screaming. "What?"
"He's black. Marcus is black." Monica looked more and more certain that this had been a bad idea.
Teresa shook as if coming out of a spell. "You gotta be fucking kidding me. You're joking, right?"
Monica sighed. "No, Teresa, I certainly fucking am not. He's an amazing man, best man I've ever met. He's strong, caring, intelligent, funny, and I mean, he owns his own fucking business for Chrissakes!"
"You're dating a-" Teresa spun her head around. "A fucking nigger!" she hissed in a low voice.
Monica's fist clenched around her beer bottle as if ready to swing or to keep herself from swinging. Her pale milky-olive face turned a bright pink. "Don't you dare call him that! Don't you dare call him that!!" she hissed in fury to defend both her honor and his.
"Well I'm sorry, but it's true! What were you thinking?! What are you thinking?!"
"You know what- I don't know. I knew you'd react like this, I knew it! But I kept hopin' you wouldn't! Stupid me!" Monica slammed her purse on the bar. Thinking it a sign the bartender sidled over to her with a question on his face. Angrily looking up Monica was suddenly struck with inspiration. "Wild Turkey, double. Make it fast." And she slapped another twenty on the bar.
Teresa was looking at her like she had just told her she had AIDS. She was looking at her like she had just told her she had AIDS and was infected with leprosy, and if she stayed any longer she might get it too.
Monica took the shot and her change, threw the tip on the bar, and downed half the glass in a gulp. It burned all the way down to her stomach, lighting on fire every tissue it touched and bringing tears to her eyes, but it was exactly what she needed right then. She gasped as soon as it was a safe ball of embers spreading throughout her stomach, then debated doing it all again as soon as she saw the look on Teresa's face.
"Y'know what?" Monica said, the whisky calming and loosening nerves that had been twisting since she made up her mind to tell Teresa about Marcus, "I really wanna know: What're you thinking, Teresa?"
Teresa's face already said all that she was thinking, and Monica knew it. Teresa began to open her mouth but Monica interrupted her:
"No, I mean, what are you thinking? Marcus is a wonderful guy. Believe me. He's the first real man I've been able to find in this godforsaken place! And yeah, he's black. So what?"
The patrons close enough to hear their conversation eyed her with a similar look to Teresa's and subconsciously inched further away. One or two eyed her as if she were a new species of woman they might like to try sometime, but only after a good hosing down. The bartender, at that moment coming back down to pick up his tip, pretended not to hear but made a mental note to not habit that end of the bar too frequently while Monica was finishing up.
Teresa pulled her down to sit. "Have you lost your whole mind! Are you high? Sit your ass down before you get us both kicked out!"
Monica finished her whiskey to calm herself and winced in pain as it corroded all the way down. She sat staring at her glass. This hadn't been the first time she came across this. It had been eating at her since she and Marcus started dating, and she knew it got to him, too. It really wasn't so incredibly terrible, or at least this was what she kept trying to convince herself of. She could deal with it more when it was just the noticeable sideways glances and twisted faces of strangers when she and Marcus were holding hands, or the reactions of cashiers when they went to grab coffee together. But when it was her own friend, someone she trusted like a sister, actually coming out and saying what everybody else merely insinuated, it burned in a way she didn't think she could handle right then.
Teresa still didn't know what to say and told Monica so, but Monica went ahead and filled the silence herself anyway.
"You know, I just don't get it," she said in a voice so low Teresa had to strain to hear. "I don't understand why me liking and dating- and yeah, maybe even loving, go ahead, look at me like that- a black man is so wrong. What's so wrong about it?" Monica turned her glass around in her hands, staring down at the drips of alcohol twirling around the inside. She stopped her musing to take out another menthol and light it.
"It's just.....dirty, is all." Teresa made a face.
Monica's head snapped up. "What?" A thunderhead formed on her forehead and lightning flashes burned her eyes as she stared down Teresa. "Why?"
Teresa shrugged, looking somewhere else. "Just...because. It is." She shuddered. "It's disgusting. I could never... They're just dirty, is all. They're different."
Monica hissed, disgusted. "What's so dirty about it, huh? What's so different? I've been dating Marcus for a month. Yeah, I had my reservations at first myself, but I never met a man I get along with so well. We like the same things, we eat the same food, grew up in the same places, have the same family problems, speak with the same accent and use the same slang, have similar loves and hates about work, and he can be just as conceited, neurotic, or gentle in bed as any other man I've had- so what's so different? What's so dirty?"
Teresa couldn't answer, and she didn't like that she didn't have an answer. She wasn't racist- at least, she had never seriously considered herself one- but there were just certain things you did not do. Using the word "nigger" around a black person- at least unless you were sure you could win the fight- was one. This was the other. Flashbacks of her father and mother- of her entire family, really- telling her harshly, reasonably, or finally that she should never go near "niggers, chinks, or beaners" blazed in her memory. Her sister Kitty jumping on her bed while teasing her for liking Prince because he was black. Words associated with deep-cutting shame and embarrassment burned neon-bright in her mind. Impressions of danger, anger, and fear naturally seemed to associate themselves with the reactions people she grew up around had to words like "black" and "colored," and through them these responses rooted themselves deep into her own psyche. She couldn't say why Monica dating Marcus was wrong, because she didn't know herself. It just was, and that had always been reason enough.
"I mean, think about it: what's it that's so different, really? Almost e'rybody in this state is related to one 'nother in some way, and that includes us and black folks, and yeah, even a whole buncha others! We're all related! We grew up here, our families have been right here together for sumin' like five hunnerd years! All of us, somehow, are related in some way."
Now that was going too far. "I don't have no nigger blood in my fam'ly!" Teresa insisted. "We're pure white, and we've been that way for generations, so don't you go bringin' shit like that inta this!"
"Are you sure about that?" Monica smiled slyly. "Absolutely?" Teresa said nothing. "No relation whatsoever?"
Teresa gathered up her purse. "I don't wanna hear this bullshit. Look, cocaine is one thing. And if you wanna go fuck some, some nigger on your time, that's fine. But don't be shoving that shit into my face." She swallowed the last of her beer and made to move off. "When you come down offa those drugs an come to your senses gimme a call. Monica. I love you, girl, but you done gone off the deep end."
Teresa stormed off to leave Monica to the cold shoulders of the other people at the bar. Teresa left, convinced that the drugs had taken her friend's mind to a point beyond return and kicking herself for not intervening sooner. When she left, Monica stayed behind sitting at the bar toying with her glass, trying to debate if she should have another drink or not. After ten minutes of trying to wave down the bartender, and of being studiously ignored by everybody in the bar out of the corner of their eyes, she picked up her purse and left.

The Jefferson


The Issue of Identity in America

This here appears to be the issue: Americans don't know who they are. Whether second-generation immigrants, the descendants of those who have been in the Americas for years- by choice or otherwise- or First Nation adherents, we are all fed on a steady diet of misinformation and contradictions that feed into a kind of national sense of paranoia over identity. Not to say that all the stories are the same, but that their effects are very similar throughout: we have no ground to define ourselves by, no admission of the way things really are, and neuroses that results from refusal to acknowledge our true heritages. No, a healthy, comprehensive identity is taken from us and consistently denied us in the process of acculturation. Because of this we are forced to think of ourselves and others in terms of color or in narrow racist definitions, never as complete humans and for some of us never even as complete residents of the places we inhabit. For all the discourse on the crisis of identity in Europe, in Africa, in the Arabian Peninsula, and in all these colonies and formerly colonized places (or, in the case of Europe, a formerly colonized place which established an identity based on the accomplishments of their colonizers and now are in crisis because that identity is being challenged by those they colonized), people from those places in effect have a stronger sense of identity and grounding than your average American because they have a sense of place.
What do we have? All the American has to ground them is lies agreed upon and perpetuated in the rhetoric of a colony's longing for the motherland and transparent attempts to validate its presence. We can believe the lies and perpetuate them (which is easiest), penetrate the deception and grow cynical and bitter (because the very foundation of our sense of self, the world, and identity is founded upon these untruths), or reach a point where we can read through the misinformation and make active efforts to abolish its repetition. This last, I feel, is the best and the most difficult of all the options, and of course the most needed. In order to undertake such a heavy task, though, a recognition of and understanding of this extreme instability of the self that characterizes those from the Americas must first be acknowledged. Without even shaky ground to stand on but rather the wispy illusion of a rickety platform, the American sense of self is perhaps the most fragile and easily persuaded to follow insubstantial facts (just as long as those facts agree at least in part with the fantasy their identity has been constructed around, of course). To take a direct approach for contradiction of these historical fantasies would be as effective as cutting an inveterate alcoholic off from the bottle, cold turkey- delerium tremens, intense neurotic reactions, seizures, horrific world-shaking cravings for the drug often enacted in violence, and even death will result. The trick, then, is to find that way to gently hold one's arm around the American, guiding, supporting, and firmly keeping them from turning away on the one side, while at the same time dispelling layer by layer the myths their identity has been built upon with the other. To be sure, I have not yet apprehended a way to accomplish this, nor do I labor under any pretenses that I alone would ever be able to succeed (or even, really, that I hold a portion of the "right" answers), but I do strongly believe that to accomplish such a feat one needs an intimate understanding of the American psyche that is the result of an affiliation with one's "people." To say "these are my people" implies an understanding of them and a love of them that is both critical and accepting of fault, failure, and limits. As needed as it often is due to the sometimes blinding nature of love, to rely solely on the "outside-in" view of a people and a place is to miss the beautiful parts of the ugliness that each person and place carries within them. Admittedly, the more one becomes absorbed in the process of identification the more one runs the risk of internalizing and perpetuating the ugly parts of an identity as well as the beautiful, but I still maintain that such a viewpoint- one infused with a comprehensive understanding and love of an environment and its effects- is vitally needed in conjunction with more acerbic critiques as a way of affecting lasting positive change.


My White Mama


She told me to call her Mama.

Offering up all her warm soft flesh
pinkish and full and folded to enfold me
in a tender mother's embrace,
beckoning me to come closer
and lose myself in her scent-

as if all this could hide
the steeled cold look in her eyes
of battlefields and amertume,
napalm spitting minefields
hidden just under her tongue
that she reserved for them she fervently believed
had done her wrong.

As if I had never seen the immediate surprise
and guarded response to my
first mention of Palestine
and Vietnam;
never happened to catch sight of her mind,
never seen how quickly she changed
tactics when her stances were too clearly defined.


She told me to call her Mama.

Insisting I scootch closer to her on the couch
and giving me advice on how to become
more completely like herself.
I kept the distance between us up
as I moved in for her perfumed hug
keeping my own responses in check
as she began investigating the fidelity of my content.

A Mother always knows
and will do anything to keep her children close-
twisting and hiding the Truth
encouraging each individualistic repose
into distraction's privileged prose-
working to keep them from becoming adults
who will question and oppose.

From afar I rest my head on her shoulder
and watch her subterfuge falter and flounder
waiting for the opportune moment to dissent
and forcefully hit home my rebellious intent.


Think Before You Walk

Pressing forehead to ground
In Taraweeh prayer
Unconditional love
Diffused through the rug
That cradled my head
And supported my sujuud
Constantly working
To keep me infused
With a base for all my
Movement through this world.

People talk of rock bottom
As if it’s a bad thing
As if the finding
Of footing on solid ground
Could never help the perpetual struggle
By showing you
from where it is you’re coming
And just how far you’ve gone.

I can’t talk much of life
From my limited perspective
But I honestly believe
That one must practice
In order to preach
An exemplary directive;
And if one’s to talk
Of wrongs in the world
Why not talk of the wrongs
In our religion?

I got no stones to throw,
Or so I’m told
Because instead of those
Mine rest on the interior
And must be inferior
Because my ovaries
Aren’t readily seen
As all things of power
Need to be
In order to be taken seriously.

I can throw a punch
As well as most guys
And defend myself
If the need does arise
But to me,
This is not where strength resides.

The first time I saw my uterus on ultrasound
Such a joy filled me I cried
Because in that tear-shaped ball
Of muscle and blood
I finally realized
Where my strength was to be found.
From the way a male sees
Things need to be seen-
A man conquers,
He hits,
He scores,
He plows
He “gets things done”
With the power of his guns
And his manliness resides
In size.

He’s the head of the household
The top of the world
But where is the head, akhi,
Without the neck?
The skull is most visible,
And it houses the brain,
But where would it be
Sans arteries and veins
Hidden deep in the pillar
Of unknown strength
That supply life-giving blood
And take detritus away?

The neck houses
Windpipe and esophagus
And hidden within the thick of its bones
It hides the first cords
That control your very breath,
And micromanage every step you take.
That three-inch neck supports
Twelve percent of your weight
And without it that head
Couldn’t do a damn thing.
So tell me again, brother,
Where is your strength?

In the grainy shifting image
Of what I guard inside
I finally realized the beauty
Of this secret of mine.
Without being seen it holds the strength
To create and renew- on its own-
Again and again,
Through blood and pain
That always holds the potential
For unfathomable gain
Since every single one of us
Could never have been
If it weren’t for one of these things.

Every month we are reminded anew
Of the power we have
As in a brief parody of birth we feel
This formidable muscle’s pull
And through the stress and the pain
Our body is renewed again and again
And the lesson sticks into our very selves:
That in order to gain
Sometimes you must suffer and lose.

To me, strength does not live
In a show of force.
Strength is in a mother sacrificing
The very content of her bones
For a thing she cannot see-
But feels, as if it is herself
For a whole of nine months;
Strength is in rearranging your bowels
Til at times it’s hard to breath
And withstanding months of discomfort
All for something you love.
Strength is giving up your dreams at times
To give someone else a chance
And, if you‘re lucky,
Seeing those dreams accomplished
In someone else;
Strength is learning how to strive
In the face of hate
And still give a genuine smile
Each and every day;
Strength is struggling to forgive
All who’ve caused you great pain
And even learning to love once again.

Strength is knowing when to give in
While knowing how to say “no”;
Strength is offering up yourself
When you feel you have nothing left;
Strength is saying “What did I do wrong?”
In an argument
Instead of assuming infallible right;
But strength is also in knowing your worth
And your rights.

Strength is found in the way a glance
Can excite endless possibilities
Of romance
Or incite endless imaginations
Of punishment
With nary a word said
Save the crook of a fingertip.
Strength is found in conjoined struggle
And communal sharing
Of all the pains of living
And giving
Of the best of what you can offer
To help ease shared suffering
Because we’re all in this together.

Strength is found in tears,
In the ability to openly cry
And express your fears
As well as the ability to open
Your heart, arms, and insides
So you share in the hurt as well.
Strength is found
In the hidden muscles of the heart
In the secrets shared in our genes
And the periodic release
And renewal
Of old blood and missed opportunities.

Strength is found in the ability to change,
The Yin, not the Yang,
To take the hits and adapt
While still keeping a head up.
Not in knowing how to fight
But in knowing when to hit
And when to stay silent.
Strength comes from deep within-
Not the muscles we flaunt
But the bones they use as their fulcrum;
Not in the fibers themselves
But within the blood supply
Filled with glucose and oxygen
From heart, liver, lungs, and jejunum,
All working together
In synchronic concertum.

Strength is the rock bottom
That makes you complete
By holding steady compliment
To your feet
That shows you how far you’ve come
And how far you’ve gone
And continues to support you
Through everything you’ve done.
Strength is the rug
That cradles your head in prayer
And softly diffuses its blessing
By providing a stable base
That’s constantly working
To keep you supported
And provide a way
For you to move through this world
So please: Think next time
Before you just walk all over her.

Night Ride

Riding along this night,
passing street lights floating by
my window's flight
I can't help but contemplate some questions
of Life:
What is a breast
but a lump of flesh
without a head to make a cradle of it?
(And why does mine yearn so
for the feel of that on my chest?)
What is the softness of your skin
without the gentle touch
of someone to appreciate it?
(And why do I feel such a need
to experience this kind of contact?)
Does it matter that your fingertips
can tame muscles' tensions
like the slightest feather caress
of tender lips
if you have no one to
experience this?
(And why does it seem a matter
of such importance
that I share this special gift?)
What difference does it make
that my hips can enchant
with a single gyration
if no hands will take
to guide their rotation?
(And why such compelling desire
to feel some hands' strong clasp
and guidance of them?)
How can Beauty truly exist
without someone to compliment?
How can Love ever find its usefulness
without another's heart resting next to it?
These are the questions I have of Life,
driving by in the Night
alone and wondering:
How long must I wait before dawn's Light?