(Continued from The Show – Episode 2 of 3)
I remember a moment, the second time I got bed bugs, that I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I was in front of a new closet, that held a fraction of the clothes I used to have. I had no money, and the move had been hard. I had just started grad school, and the funding for the program was being frozen at the state level. My girlfriend at the time had sacrificed the life she wanted to move with me to Chicago. I had shown her my other apartment, the closet, the first set of bed bugs. She had stayed. In two years, she and my MFA program would both be gone.
We had gotten bed bugs from the truck during the move.
The studio apartment was tiny. I had to throw away more than half of everything I owned just to fit into the apartment. Now, we were told to put everything we had left in trash bags. We were to keep them from touch the walls. We were to let an exterminator into the apartment every other week for as long as it took.
We lived out of trash bags for months and months. Our cat, Alice, ripped bags open by walking on them. There was so little room that we had to press against the wall to get to the kitchen. There were only two things to do in the apartment. Lie in the bed, where there were bed bugs, or sit on the couch, where there were bed bugs. I guess we were still in love.
Have you ever tried to catalogue all your feeling? Not your feelings, because anyone will tell you those are debatable, but the interactions between the world and your skin.
Yesterday was my dad’s birthday. Or rather, it’s when we celebrate his birthday, since he was born on leap year. I’m at a writing residency, and I was talking to my dad on the phone as I walked into the lounge area. As I poured myself some coffee, an older white man from the kitchen shouted at me: “Inside voices!” He was playing Scrabble with the only other person in the building.
I texted many people that day. I was angry, but I also thought it was racist. The opinions I got back were not unanimous. I was asked why I thought it was racist, and all I could say was that I don’t know if I will ever live long enough to stop feeling that a white man treating me like a child is racist. That I hadn’t been told to use my inside voice since I was in elementary school. That this was not the first time this man had treated me like an annoyance.
I wrote a letter to the residency, but I didn’t say anything about my feeling that something about it felt racially motivated. I ultimately decided that to mention it would invalidate my complaint. It would make me sound crazy.
Later, multiple staff members asked me if I was okay. I said yes, it wasn’t that big a deal, actually, but I was upset in that moment. They said it was fine. That they had had complaints about this man before. It wasn’t just me.
Oh. Thank God.
Wait. Complaints from who?
The word crazy is dangerous. Merriam-Webster gives it eight definitions. Because of its use in stigmatizing mental illness, it is usually the wrong word to use. When we aren’t actually directly trying to call into question someone’s mental state, what we usually mean is ridiculous or absurd. The way love is absurd. The way prejudice is.
But sometimes you mean crazy. The way men gaslight women, and call them crazy, and mean it.
Sometimes, you would rather not believe what you believe. You ask: this thing that happened to me: it’s not the end of the world, right?
Or sometimes, you believe an unproveable, unseeable thing. And shouldn’t that be okay, except you need to know it is not only you who believes it. You want to ask, sometimes: you see this too, right? You feel it? It isn’t just me?
When it comes to the end of the world, humanity loves its theatrics. Floods, and apocalyptic horsemen, and zombie hordes. Cities falling down. Skies opening up. Even Langston Hughes ends his imagining of a dream deferred with the possibility of explosion. I wonder: Can you imagine an end to this world that isn’t, somehow, orchestrated? That doesn’t involve cameras rolling?
The girlfriend who moved to Chicago for me broke up with me a couple years after moving. We were together for five years. In that time, someone’s family becomes your family. They become central to your life.
She told me later that early in our relationship, her parents had had a problem with us. They had called the Maury Povich Show for a segment about parents who didn’t want their children involved in mixed race relationships. We had been pushed through to the next stages: they wanted to interview us. My ex had turned them down. She had spared me, for five years, this thing: my traveling circus.
The episode aired, at some point, without my knowing it. Without her, or her family, or me.
But I didn’t need to be there. Nothing has to be there to elicit a reaction. If nothing is there, your mind will invent it.
I began all this desperately wanting to say that a white woman hiding the truth from me about her family is a problem. That I might have acted differently under those circumstances, and I have earned the right to. That a white woman speaking for me is problematic. That I have a voice, and sometimes it is loud and it’s supposed to be. I have wanted to be angry at her in the crazy way I am usually afraid to be.
If someone is watching you, they will say you are crazy because they haven’t seen what elicits your reaction. And yet, with love, it is sometimes easier to see its absurdity happen than to feel it.
And so another thing about love.