This work is by Toronto-based artist, Riya Jama. You can follow her on Instagram, here.
“Cause you don’t say you love me to your friends when they ask you / even though we both know that you do…you do.”
Drake, “Take Care”
the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.

I have always been gifted at removing myself, for better or for worse. Maybe we can blame the years I moved as a child; never too much that it truly shattered me, but enough that I learned how to pack away my relationships with ease. Friendships were never lifelong commitments, but expressions of only a simple moment in time. Each one had its expiration date, marked by something greater than me, and maybe that’s where I first learned to put trust outside of myself.

And maybe we can blame reinforcements of that habit on my first years out of high school, where a relationship was just means to keep myself out of a broken down suburb-of-a-suburb and everyone after became defined by the blood we washed off our hands together, but never anything sweeter. Or maybe we just don’t search for blame at all. Nature vs. nurture is still highly contested and who am I to say which is which? For all the hours I’ve spent staring at my reflection in the mirror, my eyes are still too bad to ever focus in for long, and maybe that’s just a sign I shouldn’t try.

For better or for worse, ghosting has been a part of me long before I heard anyone describe it that way. I was used to the act of leaving, the state of being left, and at some point it had all become pleasantly synonymous with abandonment. Besides, situationships born out of habit have taught me that sometimes there’s no point in lengthy explanations or discussions. There comes a time where all we can do is fade into the background. Exit stage left, let the spotlight shine on someone else. And that’s fine.

When I was seven, I had a brief role in a play where I played a news kid with exactly one line of my own. I never wanted to be a star, in any play or movie or production beyond that. I enjoyed that brief tongue twister, that exploration into the unknown, and I enjoyed my retreat behind the stage.

Maybe that’s why I shrugged his arms off my shoulders whenever he actually tried to touch me in public, but then again, maybe it was an offer too late. Maybe I snapped at him for trying to hold my hand because I was already content with explorations that took place on digital screens, where the power was always mine because who knows how to utilize a screenshot better than me, but maybe I snapped because I was tired of being an easy return. I think we could debate it forever, because both of us are too proud to ever shut up. Him, as a man, who expects to always know, to be aware, and to be right within that; and me, as someone, who learned how to bite back faster because the last time I forgot ended with me having to reach for a kitchen knife.

Objectively, I think I’m right. I think my pride has more place here and it might be a contradiction, but does it matter? Every time he said he loved me, those rare occasions where we pretended that this was ever something built on being soft, I wondered if it was the same type of burden that mine was. I want to know if it pooled like oil in his chest, slick and slow moving, but most importantly, I want to know what aspect of it made him feel so constantly entitled to me.

I want to know, but love isn’t a conversation I’m ready for.

“I keep lettin’ you back in / how can I explain myself / care for me, care for me/ you said you’d care for me / care for me / there for me, there for me / said you’d be there for me / cry for me, cry for me / you said you’d die for me
Lauryn Hill, “Ex Factor”
Cover “Now Is The Time To Open Your Heart”. Source: Alice Walker’s Garden

I’m revisiting Alice Walker, whose novel has been lying ignored in my room for months. My bookshelf is mostly crammed with Islamic texts and books on history; from Black power in the Caribbean to the development of womanist theology. As an avid book collector, I try to keep track of where most of my books come from. There are books with barcodes proclaiming HENNEPIN COUNTY LIBRARY, which I was too anxious and poor to ever bother returning late. Among them, there are books borrowed from lost friends and books I’ve swiped from my mother’s shelves. This book is probably one of those, but it still seems like it simply materialized between copies of the Quran and old college texts.

I have never dreaded exploring a character’s arc more than when I opened this book. The novel opens with meditation, but dives quickly into the topic of Kate and her lover. “The lover before him would have understood perfectly,” Walker writes, “A woman closer to her own age, this lover had been capable of endlessly babying her, of kissing any bruise or pain, no matter how slight. Alas, she had soon enough felt smothered, and flown the too cozy nest.”

My friends have been exasperated with my brief pursuits before, where a relationship was never the end goal because in all honesty, it’s become hard for me to separate that from ownership. I can’t relate to Kate, who has known a lover better than the one before her, but I do understand what it’s like to have every breath catch in your throat. Kids can squeeze animals to death, you know; not out of malice, but because no one has taught them how to love gently, or from afar.

Flying away, ghosting, I don’t think the word matters if the action remains the same. And I envy the action, because my grand moments of slamming every gate closed, revoking every sense of access to me, only comes long after I’ve been unable to breathe.

“We are all on the back of a giant anaconda. It is slithering and sliding, darting and diving, like anacondas do. That is the reality of the world.”
Alice Walker, “Now Is The Time To Open Your Heart”

In my hometown, slick springs give away to humid summers. Where our yard was once browned water, there is nothing left but a long line of debris to speak to the forgotten flood. I have always been a summer child; born in the heat of July, I prefer the sun’s hostility over anything the winter could offer. Every time summer rolls around again, I feel myself uncoiling from the confines of winter; not like a butterfly, emerging brand new, but like a snake releasing herself from brumation.

For that reason, I should have more sympathy for the snakes on our lawn. They, too, were enjoying the new possibilities of summer. And even for the ones who posed a threat, could you blame a snake for being a snake? In her novel, Alice Walker describes the story of a man who carried a freezing snake; nestled by the heat of his heart, it defrosted, slithered out of his breast pocket, and bit him on the jaw. I don’t think it speaks to anything cruel on the snake’s part. When they bite, are they actually doing anything out of the usual? They slither and slide, dart and dive, and offer nothing to the world except for what they have come to be.

“…this is an endless kind of thing,” Walker writes through the reflection of an old woman telling a group of young activists in the south about the snake. “Do we kill it or do we let it live? Do we ever believe its true nature and does that true nature ever change? And does ours?”

I don’t know how old I was, but I remember killing that snake. I prefer to say it startled me because that’s easier, but I saw my dog circling it in the grass. I wasn’t too startled to not recognize it as a garter snake; harmless, although it could bite. No, I definitely wasn’t startled when I swung at it with a metal pole I was carrying, but I was surprised my blow struck.

In Walker’s novel, the man carries the snake in his breast pocket, and there someone with less tact and more misogyny would try to make it a statement on the place of women and girls. Somewhere on Twitter, an ashy akhi will make a declaration about how women are snakes, about how we exist to trick and betray men, but there I was. A girl, not even grown, confronted by a snake. I don’t blame the snake for existing, but I don’t blame myself for reacting either.

We are all on the back of a giant anaconda. It has screwed us in every way possible.

But, damn.

How do you bury what you killed?

“That’s a real one in your reflection / without a follow, without a mention / you really pipin’ up on these niggas / you gotta be nice for what to these niggas”
Drake, “Nice For What”

I have loved, in every sense — familial, platonic, romantic, and any of the categories that people more in tune with conversations of love are developing. I don’t often talk about romantic love, because reflecting back on it makes me feel like a middle schooler again, anxiously trapped in my seat, too afraid to even get up to sharpen my pencil most days because I was convinced I would mess it up. Looking back on when I think I loved somebody used to make me want to smack the shit out of myself.

“Love is about sacrifice. Equal sacrifice,” I’ve been told and I’ve become overly familiar with sacrifice. When the movement was in its infancy, I threw away everything I could have done for myself; threw away a degree, threw away my memory, for something greater. And throughout its course, I sacrificed entirely too much for sensitive, manipulative men who flipped around to stalk and isolate me the second I started moving past them. I sacrificed, but nothing about it was equal.

I became the sacrifice, the resource, the labor, everything in one economical package. I used to believe it was a fault of me not loving better or maybe a reflection of how I wasn’t meant to love at all. When we base love around sacrifice in a world where I am expected to lie my head down for everyone’s cause but my own, then it becomes less of a question of how to love, but whether it was crafted for me at all.

In Walker’s novel, Kate leaves her first husband. Takes him on a hike to break the news and it’s easy to blame her, even where the narrative is her own; we are taught to hate women who leave their partners, to see it as abandonment. We are never taught to understand where leaving is necessary, where abandonment isn’t cruelty but simply an act that has to exist. But in the moments where her husband strikes her, and she’s suddenly aware of the cliff close to them, I am thrown back to the moments I’ve left the men who have claimed to love me. Whether it was as a friend, as an ideation, as something in between, the exact context of the relationship never changed their reaction; that anger, driving men to attempt to isolate you, to slander you, to harass you and later come crawling back for a meeting, for forgiveness, because isn’t it about time we (read: he) felt comfortable around each other again? In that moment, suddenly aware of that precipice, Kate is aware of the women who have, against their husband’s will, initiated divorce and never made it through.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un

We are taught to sacrifice for Black men in particular. The emotional humiliation? The harassment? The violation of every boundary you ever attempted to carve into the sand? Should’ve read the terms and services before you signed on to be Black and woman.

Why would I ignore the voice that is aware of the women who never got so far as to initiate divorce, or a break up, who were never able to ghost or fly away?

“Do you realize,” Kate says to him, “that I have lived with you for nine years. That I have carried in my body two of your children. That I have cooked thousands of breakfasts and lunches and dinners for you. That I have sat up with you when you’ve been sick. That I have helped you care for your parents. That I have shared my body with you, whenever you wanted it, where I felt like it or not?”

There are times I blame myself for being unable to say no. I’m not known for being quiet or meek; I’m known for being willing to start shit. But is it easy to undo years of conditioning telling me that the greatest satisfaction is someone’s pursuit of my body? Most importantly: why would I ignore the voice that is aware of the women who never got so far as to initiate divorce, or a break up, who were never able to ghost or fly away? The women who said no and never came back from it.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

“Do you realize,” Kate continues, “…that I have done all of these things, and more, with and for you. And yet, at the moment I tell you I must have time alone to be with myself, you strike me. Would you call this love?”

The funniest thing, for me, is how quick men are to invite themselves into my life. Every moment, I feel like Kate standing on that precipice, except these are men I have done nothing for. Not out of neglect, but because I never wanted to. These are men who introduced themselves to a version of me that they loved on the internet or at rallies, who I know have fantasized me into their lives, who dance around admitting their love for me on a first date.

It is an unfortunate habit of mine to accidentally go on dates. I can say it’s a habit with confidence, because it’s happened at least three times so far. I’ve never been that good at reading social cues. I once bused an hour away from my house to a coffee shop for what I thought was an organizing meeting, until he texted asking how my day was, and it all clicked because in the world of organizing nobody ever asks how your day is. It seems funny, finding yourselves on dates by accident, but it ends up more awkward than anything.

In some cases, it reveals how quick men are to invite themselves as important characters in your story. Somehow, love hasn’t become an area for reflection, but a command I’m expected to act upon. Within love, there has been no room for my own pain, only new territory for men to burn on their way to realization.

Selfishly, I want to burn, too.

I moved from Minneapolis to Philadelphia and rented an apartment by myself to begin enjoying my own company. When I moved, I finally took my old posters from the storage of my mom’s back room. They had been waiting there for me, in that brief stint of homelessness that transformed into me staying at my grandparents house, eventually cramped into a three bedroom house with a total of six people.

My mom has a habit of collecting inspirational posters for the walls of her work. Not the cheesy animal ones; these ones feature odd artwork and quotes that aim for something more real. And it’s fitting, that I never paid attention to the quote on my poster until I hung it in my living room.

Image of aforementioned poster, quoted in text below.
“She left pieces of her life behind her everywhere she went. It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them, she said.”

It’s funny. I sat down to write this essay as a reflection on Alice Walker alone; I set up to smoke shisha while I write, as I usually do, and turned on the obligatory hookah-lounge Fuckboy playlist. Somehow, it turned into a Drake-only playlist, and I found myself tiredly staring into the remains of a hot coal while “Take Care” played on loop in the background. More than anything, trying to sort out love, and the sudden inclusion of Drake in all of this, has taught me how odd the entire world is.

For now, I’ve taken another break from Walker’s novel, because it has gotten me to where I need to be. If Kate needed shamans and diarrhea on the river to work her way through love, then I’m content to rest with my moments of anger that’s finally not directed at myself. I’m content with leaving those pieces of my life in the city that contained them.

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Vanessa Taylor is a writer whose work has appeared in Nylon, Catapult, Teen Vogue, Fader, and elsewhere. She’s interested in using a multi-disciplinary approach to social justice (and has co-founded the Black Liberation Project), with writing as a way to make sense of it all. Her work focuses on exploring cultural criticism and the intersections of identity. She is currently a fellow of the Muslim Wellness’ Deeply Rooted Emerging Leadership program’s inaugural class.