I never feel comfortable saying the words I am a dancer or that I ever was one, but I studied ballet, tap, modern, jazz and, later, hip hop -- from the age of about 6 or 7, to 18, with a sprinkling of classes here and there afterwards, so I guess I should claim it.
When I was 6 or 7, I may have made the decision to dance on my own, given the chance, but more probably, my Ethiopian parents made that first decision for me, praying for grace, elegance and confidence in their only daughter, and I, more probably, continued to dance for the years after, hoping for the same.
Regardless, I somehow became a 23-year-old with this “S” curve morphed into my upper back, hunching my shoulders over and creating the illusion of a B or C cup. I’m a D and never seemed able to carry it with that same grace, elegance and confidence that those white girls could carry their A cups. I blamed gravity.
But somewhere between 6 and 18, I learned that gravity isn't the only thing that can shy my chest away from my chin, into the shadows of my hunched shoulders. Somewhere between 6 and 18, I learned that being invisible was something I wanted, that being invisible could be a privilege, and one that I knew my chest, and/or hips, and/or hair, and/or clothes, and/or skin, would prevent me from experiencing in the world that I walked and lived in, but I tried still. Somewhere in there I learned that I will always be made aware of my body and this made me feel unsafe. So I sought out this “S” curve to melt those parts of me that felt too womanly, too visible, into my back, into my stiffened hips, into my stank face. These are my tools, these are my ways of protecting myself from that which insists on making me (us) seen and consumed.
I am not woman enough for your consumption. Believe me (I hope).
This, I hate.
My neck is starting to ache from the arch that these two pillows push it into. I groggily peel myself up, away from the bed, turn my head to the right and plop back down, succumbing to what eventually becomes [Breathe] a deep sleep, iPhone still in hand.
URRRK URRRK URRRK URRRRK
I search my bed for my phone. Where did it go? I spot it at the edge of my bed, frantically hit off and plop back down onto the left side of my head and, yup, I should have definitely removed a pillow, I think, as pain sears up the base of my neck and around to the nape.
My train is in an hour, so I move through the motions until the hour arrives. I throw some Shea Moisture into my damp hair and shake out the water. I grab my pre-packed purse and head towards my Metro North station, 5 minutes walking distance.
I make the turn onto our main street and map out the approaching three gas stations: the first is empty, the second has two older, white male employees filling gas for a black suburban, the third has 3 or 4 younger black and latino men cleaning some white Acura and a black BMW at the far end of the lot.
Deep breath in.
Somewhere between the second and third stations, I throw on my sunglasses and pull out my phone to check my text messages, although, most likely, no one is texting me at 8:20 in the morning. My hips tighten up their sway and I angle myself slightly away from the station. Remember the tools.
They don’t exist. I furrow my eyebrows. They are looking at you, wait, yup, he’s standing now. I begin texting no one. Just keep walking, you don’t notice. I get that beaded sweat line above my upper lip. I see you. Please don’t say anything. One of the men looks at me and smiles. I can see it in my periphery. No words yet. Walk faster, walk faster.
I check myself out in that antique store window, was that how big my hair was? I roll my shoulders back and lift my chin up and pull the edges of my shirt down. I shift onto the edge of the sidewalk, I feel heavy, cross the street over to the Metro North staircase and slowly make my way up the stairs; I feel heavy. Finally, I join the sea of mostly older white men and women on the platform. [Breathe] I hate that.
I pass by the thin-limbed, shorter, black man, with the most extra eyeballs. Our eyes catch, as they usually do, and I thin-lipped-quick-half-smile-look-down, afraid of giving too much, and keep walking. We must be searching for each other.
The train arrives and I move to the empty seat by the window. Today, I’m too tired to read, so I lean my head on the smudged window and feel my butt widen across the pleather seat, as we pass Mount Vernon, the Bronx, Harlem and into darkness. We file off the train and out into the main hall of Grand Central, some of us shuffling towards the Shuttle train. I look at people as I walk, the soldiers are staring at me, I like looking at people.
I hear his goofy voice before I see him. “Good morning, Good morning, You have a nice day, How are you, Metro, Metro…” I wave and receive a “Have a nice day” and a copy of today’s Metro newspaper.. I thin-lipped-quick-half-smile-look-down him ever since his good mornings took on a more suggestive tone that one time. He continues his recitation. I had convinced myself that he was gay.
I get on the shuttle and move to the farthest car, sit down by one of the sliding doors and rest my head on the bars alongside it. I rub my left shoulder and cross my arms. “This is the shuttle to Times Square...” the man begins with his clear, southern drawl, “Please stand clear of the closing doors.” Doodoo.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to disturb you. My name is *****, and I never thought I’d end up here. I’m 21 years old and I’m homeless and hungry. If you could spare anything, anything at all, that would be great. God bless.”
I lift my head and melt my chest into my crossed arms. I’m not looking at him, but I am listening and I am 22 heading to work. Without looking at him still, I reach into my bag and pull out some change. When I look up, he’s already spotted my motion and has his cup outreached. I drop coins in, look up at his face and barely move my slight frown into a thin-lipped-quick-half-smile-look-down, hesitant.
“Thank you sistah” he says. “Hey, you need a boyfriend? I could be a really good boyfriend.” The wrinkles between my brows jump into place and my face heats up. The white people are looking at me smiling, laughing: I know they’re thinking, Oh those black people, hahaha, oh black love. My S curve is aching. “I’d be a real good boyfriend.” My teeth suck the corners of my lip in. “Do you have a boyfriend?” The lights of the Times Square station begin to fill the windows farthest to the right, and move towards me. The black woman seated across me is looking at my eyes. She doesn’t laugh. “That’s none of your business.” The black woman is still looking. She smiles. I get up and file out the train: in that moment, I wish I could take my money back.
I start my speed walk straight ahead towards the downtown one train. My stank face is in full bloom. It’s a Friday, so the bluegrass band is orchestrating the ballet of commuters and tourists dodging one another with simultaneous grace and panic. The music feels like battle music, and I pick up the pace and join in the dodging and weaving.
The one train headed downtown never seems to be too crowded and today is no exception. I jump onto the 4th car and take a seat next to a touring couple, with their foldout map and polo shirts, arguing about which stop was more convenient, 14th or 18th. We hit Penn Station. I become conscious of my breathing. We hit 28th street, and I jump out of the train, walk towards the turnstile, and push my pelvis against it. I climb up the stairs, feeling the cups under my butt squeeze a bit tighter with each step.
Breathe. Fresh air.
I walk down to 26th street and cross over to Chipotle. I move past the Subway, the framing shop, the hardware store, (which I dip into to pick up my newspaper), and head over to the freight elevator to our office. I end up behind our UPS guy. I thin-lipped-quick-half-smile-look-down, but this guy, he’s persistent and continues talking to me. I have nowhere to go and will inevitably see him again. I manage a conversation and even laugh a bit, iPhone in hand. I’m working on being friendly. My arms are crossed.
The day passes and it’s 5:30 pm. My back is killing me. I rub my neck.
I decide to walk to the 6 train to fit in a phone call after work. I walk up to 28th street and over towards the east side -- when I get to about Broadway, I remember that I made a mistake. My palm feels sweaty against my phone against my ear. This group spotted me the minute they saw my kinky-curly hair and possibly smelled the onions and berbere still stuck in the follicles. I hear echoes of “Ethiopia” and “East Africa” and “beautiful” (I ask my friend on the phone to repeat what they said) and “Queen” and “Princess” and “Sexy” and I wish we could be brothers and sisters and hug.
I convince myself I’m none of these, that they are talking to someone else. “Can you start the story over? I was distracted,” I ask my friend. My S curve deepens. I feel my womanhood.
I somehow make it back to Grand Central, I took the 6 train.
I rest my head, again, on the smudged windows and fall deeply asleep, ticket in hand, until I reach my town. The engines pause right before we pull into the station and there is silence. I wake up. I rub my neck. I feel safe. I file out with the older white men and women. I check myself out in the windows. My hair is bigger. The La Fontanella regulars sit outside the restaurant, tall glasses of wine out before them. They look up and wish me a great night. I smile a little more than my thin-lipped-quick-half-smile-look-down and continue towards the now empty gas stations. I feel on edge. I feel safe. I feel vulnerable. I feel in control. I feel seen. I feel unseen. I feel protected. And I feel alone.
About the Author
Assefash Makonnen believes in the power of community, of creation and of love. She proudly identifies as a work-in-progress and hopes we all do the same. Find her on twitter at @AsMakonnen for more on race, gender, public space and mental health.