Why Are You Afraid Of Love?
I tried to change, close my mouth more…
At the birth of Lemonade, we awaken to images of Beyoncé alone and naked in her thoughts. All at once on a stage, in a field, in a dark room with her body contained. By this time, I am open and crying; not yet understanding everything that is being revealed, but knowing I am being stretched as she is stretched and there is such a thing as too thin. Soon we see Bey atop a building, in the vein of enough is enough. She jumps, emerging in water, floating above herself and then staring at herself, as if outside of herself.
I think about the lengths we stretch when strewn about on roofs, unable to make home out of house. Or the way our hands fold up and our knuckles bleed back, when we look in the mirror and see our reflections whole, knowing we will not be mirrored back. It is this truth and this blood, that pumps through my veins and the veins of so many Black women, honoring our family traditions of choosing partners who push us to rooftop heights and help us mimic the dynamics between our parents. When the footage spills of young Beyonce sitting on the couch with her father, there is a clarity that trickles down and collects like rain, in my thoughts. I am reminded that I was once a little girl, trying to look up to my father, imagining him without faults or at least imagining that his rage is not his fault. In this world where Black is hunted down and killed off, little girls want to believe in our Black fathers, even when they fall outside of our projections of them.
When I am 5 years old, I learn my mother is moving out and I watch her pack up her things or fold her hands back. Before I understand what this means, I know I will have to change schools. I will no longer have my own room, and I will live in an apartment, walking distance to the new school. When my brother walks me to my class on the first day, for the first time, I am fully aware that my parents are Black and White. I am one of two brown girls in the class and for the first time, I am aware that my family has two distinct sides. The left side is White. The right side is Black.
If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine…her hair over mine…
By the time I am 12, I know I will never be good enough for my father. I will never know the right answers to his questions. He will always make fun of me for answering them. I will never know the right thing to say or not say to prevent him from blowing up. I will never have the right brain or the right emotional response. He lectures me for crying, for needing to go to the bathroom when we’re away from home. He picks at me when I’m eating. I know I will never have the right body. I will never embody Blackness in the right way, and I will never embody the right image of a Black daughter. Long after my parents are separated, I watch my mother do the emotional work of 10 women. I see that for my father, this is not enough. I begin to interpret this work as birthright, or a facet of femininity.
I begin to conceptualize my father’s behaviors as inherent to masculinity. I carry this on top of my bones until it seeps into my skin and before I know it, my relationships. In some way or form, I become an image of my mother; finally understanding why it feels like some part of my attraction always has something to do with my dad. I enter all my relationships with the caveat that I am a shell of the girl they actually want. I am unsure of why they want me, since I am not really real, but I understand that for most of them, just having my body is enough. I wear weaves for most of my twenties and think back to the images of beauty that I idolized as a child. I know I am not enough of whatever people want me to be and I will never be seen like beautiful women are. But I can wear their hair.
Why are you afraid of love? You think it’s not possible for someone like you?
As Lemonade spills, I am cut open at my wrists, thinking about the changes we go through as Black women in relation to our hair, our bodies, our genders, our depth. When Serena Williams emerges at the top of the stairwell, I am frozen with awe at the sight of her. Not having expected any of this, I am taken by her, as if watching her for the first time. The loud clap of her hips or the quiet glow of her skin, hushing me between my eyes. Not a word can be said that would truly describe the soft shock of her beauty, but I am sobbing at her image because she is all that is beautiful and delicious and yet the world has accused of her of being too Black for pretty. In the next moment, Beyoncé sits atop a throne, as if she has risen above her tears or the entire height of that roof. Serena is beaming next to her, casually reminding us that Black women are the deepest, truest reach of raw and resilience.
I am 26 when I meet him, and I am at a crossroads with my identity. I have dated men for 13 years, but my only real relationship has been with a woman. We start out as best friends and he texts me one day: I am in love with you. I do not know how to respond. After all, I am just a shell. I do not think anybody has ever been in love with me. I am confused about why he is. I tell him I am not in love with him; he tells me that I am. I try to make a thing work that is not workable because I want to be in love. I want to be loved. And he says he madly, deeply wants me. I want somebody to want me. We date for many years.
In “Love Drought,” the beauty of perseverance stuns me back open again. It is not always about strength, but I think when we want something and we believe it is good for us, it is a testament to the love we have for ourselves, to keep trying. The biggest, most recurring argument he and I ever had, was about the discrepancy between our emotional capacities, likely due to our differences in socialization and our opposite experiences of being taken care of versus caring for. “I will never be where you’re at!” he’d snap. When I ask him to tell me what he likes about me, he says that I know, but I don’t. I know that he thinks I am smart, because he hates me for it.
I know that he thinks I am beautiful, because he tells me every time we get back together, and several times a year, when he is mad and presents it as an accusation. It is one of many reasons that proves I will eventually leave him. When he starts arguments that last all night, I plead with him that I need to sleep. He asks if I just want to forget the whole relationship. I know that I am in charge of stopping the blood and creating the injury. I wonder if I can ever really exist in a relationship. I wonder if shells get broken when they’re crushed, or if they just keep shattering.
Do you remember being born? Are you thankful for the hips that cracked? The deep velvet of your mother, and her mother, and her mother?
In the black and white flood of the body of forgiveness, Beyoncé lays in the water, having marched with the strength of a thousand women, preparing for her own baptism. I think about how many arms it takes to heal a bleeding man, who won’t even look at his own wound.
When I am in my late twenties, I ask my mother why she married my father, as if he is some unknown person who has nothing to do with me. He gets worse with age or stays the same and I get better or older and realize I cannot tolerate this kind of psychological abuse and still be okay. I realize this lifetime of disconnect is not a normal way to experience relationships. I realize I cannot talk in front of him, so I stop. I am catapulted back to first grade, now knowing there is language for the severe anxiety, Selective Mutism, and for the hysterical crying that alienated me from other kids. By the time I am in my mid-thirties, my mother says she married her mother. I raise my voice at her one day, telling her she doesn’t understand the abuse dynamics on the entire right side of my family, because she never had to walk on eggshells or contain herself in a small space.
She tells me she has and I realize that my maternal grandmother is not just a shell that bandages scraped knees and makes Daffodil cakes. She is my mother’s mother and she has always been somewhat critical and controlling, it was just less directed at me. And I admit to myself that my standards for psychological abuse are colored by my relationship with my father and have always served as a scale for comparison: Is this better or worse than this? In my 33rd year, my therapist, who I’m not getting along with, brings herself to be honest for a brief moment and stares at me directly. She tells me I have trouble knowing my limits with people because of my history — you have a high tolerance for difficult people. I am shocked she admits this. I have known this since age 5. By fifth grade, people tell me I should be a therapist. This is both a compliment and a sad story.
Am I talking about your husband or your father?
The memories I have of my paternal grandmother are mostly of baked mac and cheese and picking at my father. I realize my father is a son and my grandmother had a father. One of the clearest memories I have is listening to her in the backseat of my father’s car. We are traveling from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to Maplewood, New Jersey, and she is sitting in the seat in front of me. They argue the entire trip and I dissociate. I imagine these people are not my relatives and I am not part of this family. My real parents are the two car seats in front of me. I am not a girl, but an object that cannot feel; perhaps I am the backseat. They are loud and the car is filled with arms. I am buried by them or choking because of them, but I cannot find my mouth.
Seven years later, I am in a relationship that has way too many arms. He tries to make me a backseat. I stay with him, even after I realize we are igniting each other. I am split between what he never got from his mother and my little girl self, afraid to have a mouth. He is the fire of my father and what will become of my future son, if I accept his promise ring. I realize I do not want to give birth to a car seat. I want my children to be whole people with words in their mouths. I do not want them to be octopus or fear octopus, every time their other parent gets angry. I want them to be able to breathe. And I realize I cannot co-parent with somebody who has enough arms or enough breath to fill an entire car.
I want to model healthy love for my future daughter. I don’t want her to think masculinity is a thing to fear. I don’t want her to think femininity can heal things that are cut open, without the wounded person so much as bandaging their own wound. By the 5th year, I know this is the last round. The first time we have an honest conversation about our relationship, when he is not simply arms and breath, I tell him he is not healthy for me. I explain that I am not a backseat and I cannot drive the car. He pauses. “Do you think I am like your father?” I am surprised. “Yes. I thought you knew that.” I realize this is the truest and worst thing I have ever said to anyone. He tells me he would cry, if he could.
When Lemonade pours into “Sandcastles,” I am crying hard. Jay Z is first facing Beyoncé and then we eventually see Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr, holding pictures of their sons. In their laps, they carry the entire weight of being a mother to a Black son in this world. I clutch my skin and remember that Jay Z is a son and a full person, capable of great harm and great love. I resolve to say that we are all capable of that, and yet we all deserve the chance to evolve past what we know to be true about ourselves and other people. I do not know what will happen now between the two of them, but I know they have gone through something that will change both of them and eventually, Blue Ivy too.
I know she is not a car seat. She cannot escape the relationship between her parents, or their parents. But in this moment, I have the sense that we will all be okay. When I see Jay chasing her around the field, I remember back to the “cough-up-a-lung” Jay Z and I think of the Marcy Projects, where my father is also from. As if looking at him for the first time, I realize that he was once a child and he is now somebody’s father. I remember that line from “Anything”: “As a man, I apologize for my dad.” And I think about how much I sobbed when he released “Glory”: “Baby, I paint the sky blue, my greatest creation was you.” I remember that love begets growth or growth begets love. I remember that all wounds eventually close. I remember that we are made to heal.
Pull me back together again, the way you cut me in half…
The paint on the walls echoed, on the last day we saw each other. The apartment floors were holding their breath. I know I cannot escape what we created. But I can escape the backseat. It is between July and August and he is about to turn 33, but I surround him, like he is a child — perhaps the child I am afraid I will birth if I do not leave this car. I tell him that we did not come together by accident. I must’ve chosen him before I came into this life. I do not tell him that it was through his love that I learned what I didn’t want in a relationship. I do not tell him that it took the mess and the cut of this incision to help me define what is and isn’t healthy love. It is not a hot space or a trapped car. It is a quiet, lengthy, soothing offering that builds a space like home. I look at him, as if for the first time. “I will never be with you again.”
There is a thing to learn about lemons, if you really like lemonade. They are bitter and sour and they will make you scrunch your face. But if you squeeze them out with precision and add enough sweet, they will turn into something else. It was through the slicing of this fruit, that I learned that relationships aren’t supposed to be this hard. I became the sour, nursing the cut of my left and right sides. This juice is in my blood. It is underneath my skin, on the underside of me. But it will not slice the rest of me. Too much of me has been cut open for me to think I am meant to be in parts.
I am what happens after the juice is squeezed and the yellow tastes sweet. It took seeing my father so clearly in another person to legitimize what I knew to be true about my own mouth. If you slit open my stomach now, you will find words upon words and unborn daughters writing poetry in my womb. You will find a healing wound that opened, when I opened. And you will find that I opened the widest when I learned that my attraction to octopus masculinity was causing me to lose my own mouth. The same arms that once choked, led me to learn how to put myself back together. And I am no longer attracted to lemons. But I am glad for the lemonade.
Lead Image: Wikimedia Commons
*Editor’s note: All subheads hail from Warsan Shire’s poetry from Lemonade.