The week before Christmas, an Italian guy from the Internet scoops you from your white house in a red car. You climb in and fold your hands over your legs, wishing they were bare so you could feel the warmth of your skin. It is cold, though people keep saying that winter here doesn’t begin until the solstice.
Within minutes, he says I knew you weren’t from Iowa, and you feel that you should ask how?
Though he’s only been in America for a year, he’s been in Iowa eight months longer than you, and so says, without taking his eyes off the road, an Iowan girl wouldn’t have gotten in the car. Or gone out this late at night. Or come to my restaurant.
You tell him that you’re from the East Coast, is why. And also you’ve been to Europe, so you get the night thing. You’ve been to Naples.
My Naples? He asks.
Yes, you say, and to make him believe you, talk about what Pompeii felt like—about the train to Cinque Terre, eating octopus, how your mother had cappuccinos in every café—until finally his expression breaks, and he shifts his eyes, and says oh, that’s so American.
And you think of your mother again, back in Maryland, sipping Nespresso in front of a television screen, volume too high, think that maybe—finally—she has become the type of naturalized citizen that might be delighted to hear that.
Yes, and how far away from home you’ve both had to go, to make space for that becoming.
You live in a white house now, and have learned that the way to combat the loneliness is to make good use of your hands. The easiest ways: washing dishes until your hands are raw, gripping the steering wheel and going somewhere, swiping left and right on male strangers who send you vulgarities from 1000 feet away, no problem, wiping the puppy’s piss from the floor from your knees.
For two hour-long sessions with your psychiatrist, you talk mostly about one man you are going on dates with but dislike very much, and for a short while, you feel like her granddaughter, which is all, you realize, that you really want to feel. You’ll feel this way — warm, and cared for—until the very end of the third session, when she says I think the notes from Dr. G and the way you’re thinking about this man might indicate a milder form of OCD. Something comes up about starting an SSRI in the new year. Something in you makes your hands reach for the black laces on your black shoes, and as you tie and untie them, you see and smell it: the tiny clod of dog shit on the right sole.
I’m not depressed, you say, which seems like an important thing to say.
I don’t think you’re depressed, Ellen says. I think you’re deeply anxious.
About what? asks the part of you that is your mother.
In America, what is there to be afraid of? Your mother is always asking.
You want to say so much you can never say. You can’t wait to pluck the clod from your shoe.
When you were young, your mother would squeeze your breasts in the bath, ask if there was any milk while you shrieked. By day, it was all in good fun. At night, you wondered—what if the milk did come?
It never has, but you now know the medical term for milk that comes into the breasts uncalled for: galactorrhea.
From Ancient Greek, a language you could never figure out, and from Latin, which you learned and loved until your parents made you quit: gala-, meaning milk, or Milky Way, and rhoia-, meaning flow.
From the Mayo Clinic: excessive or inappropriate production of milk.
From the girl-child that dreamed of this at night: what the body does, might do, without warning, what flows away from us, what rivers churn the wrong way.
You write that story and know it is an African story, something impenetrably mythic.
You look at your body and know it is an African body, no ancestry kit needed.
You show the Italian your hairless arms, your tattoos—swirled deposits of black ink rendered invisible by the cells above them, seen only when people ask to look.
You’ve never told this story aloud, but wonder if, when he felt your breasts, he remembered.
He knows you aren’t American when your body lies still and black—too black—before him.
You know you are American because you are paying two white women to teach you how not to destroy your body with your hands when you are lonely.
He knows you aren’t American because of the way you use your hands, and how your lips feel.
You know you are American because instead of washing the dishes or sweeping the floor, you wait two days to ask what he sees in that blackness, and this feels like progress, a kind of becoming.
He knows you aren’t American because your body churns towards him the wrong way.
You know you are American because you find yourself arguing with a stranger about your Americanness, and yet—in your dreams—you find yourself floating, black and galactic.
Photo Credit: Rene Tittmann from Pixabay