Black,

Who are you to tell a star it has no sparkle? to tell a rose it has no fume? to tell a swan it has no grace?

I used to watch them from afar, those girls. The ones who wore the tangerine and cerulean muumuus overlain with golden hoops and porcelain beads, gems and jewels of every color imaginable. Some of them wore beautiful scarves around their heads, decorated with elephants and geometry, while others let their natural hair down, as wild an untamed as their movements. They danced to music I couldn’t hear, but somehow knew every beat. Loud, raucous backbeats on big djembe drums, and accompanied by a disharmonious marimba and accented by whoops and caws.

Their beauty was something primal, something otherworldly, like African goddesses come to Earth for the sole purpose of sharing their majesty with the rest of us. I saw the men they swooned with their swaying hips and explosive limbs, watched how they danced with them like they were underwater, spilling in and out of each other like streams of ruby red ribbon.

And though their fire burned through the eveningtime like the pillar that led Moses to Canaan, I had to go inside when the sun went down and get ready to go to sleep.

How were they so much more beautiful than me? How did their charcoal skin shine like onyx while mine merely sat upon my face, pimpled and vitiliginous? How did their natural hair roil into magnificent coils while mine stretched out frizzy and wiry on top of my head? How did their bodies swell and pinch in all the right places like a water jug while mine lay flat and plain?

Don’t worry, Nyala, my mother would always tell me. One day you will be as beautiful as your mother. She would raise her arms in the air and twirl, giving me a big grin that showed her white teeth and purple gums. She would vest me in the kaftan dresses she wore as a girl and wrap my hair in silk, smiling and kissing my forehead. My sweet little bata. One day you will be a queen.

I went to school with my head in my daydreams, hoping the hours would speed by so I could go home, but there would always be something to snap me awake. Black. Ugly. Dumb. I can’t even pronounce her name. Look at her, she’s darker than coal. Ugh, why does she smell so bad? Why does her hair look so gross? Why does she even go to school here? She needs to back to Africa.

And slowly, day by day, I stopped watching the girls dance. I would go home and powder my skin with flour to look as pale and milky as possible. I would wake up early every morning to straighten my hair before school, and I traded my dashikis for tee shirts and jeans. At the same time, I stopped seeing my mother’s purples gums, too.

I can’t believe you, Nyala, she said. I can’t believe you would let white people make you ashamed to be black. What happened to my little bata? But she never understood. Not every little black girl can grow up to be an African goddess. Most of us just grow up to be black.

But one day, many years later while I was at the market, I felt a familiar tingle in my toes. As I was turning to leave I saw three girls dancing into the store, their hair wrapped in silken head scarves, long shawls draping over their black skin like stars hanging from a midnight sky. And while I still could not hear their music, I knew it was playing. My heart fell to the floor, never having once imagined I would see these goddesses so close. One of them looked in my direction, smiled, and looked away, and as I scurried along past them to leave the store, I heard her whisper, She’s got big lips for a white girl.

When I got home, I stripped down completely, pulling the clothes from my body and washing the makeup from my skin. In the mirror I saw one of those girls, with charcoal skin and curly hair. Over the years my figure had grown like theirs, and I could faintly hear the banging of the drums begging my body to dance. I had finally become a goddess. While I was so busy trying to be a duck, I had turned into a magnificent black swan.

I Am God,

I am the anthem of every anti-virgin,

of every person whose maidenhood was stolen too soon,

their glass vial falling to the floor and shattering into more pieces than we like,

allowing the white smoke to escape.

We are half-notes,

scattered without rhythm,

swaying softly to the songs between our ribs

while our legs explode like fireworks.

Living in the world is a beautiful thing.

We tell our stories in moans and sighs,

tight lips spilling pink lemonade

and loose legs to welcome you home.

After washing off the butterfly tears and rhinestones,

we descend upon a sheet of velvet

and transform into intricate swirls that spell out blessings for all the men we loved

and curses for the men arrogant enough to love us back.

And when the pages dry,

we lick them shut,

and take a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.

Anyone can be God if they try hard enough.

The Cicada King,

The night was cold, but our hearts were a bonfire contained within our cotton skins.

We stood there, nicotine between your teeth and honeydew on my lips, singing sweetly like the cicadas that fill the negative space of a wet summer night. And for a moment, if only for a moment, I felt more beautiful than the moonlight shedding across my half-baked smile. For a moment I felt like all the constellations and cobblestone paths that bookended my world were nothing more than a frame for the true countenance of beauty that was painted on my face. For a moment I thought that the cicadas were singing for me.

But what moments do best is flee. The moments we wish we could bottle up like a potion to save for an hour when we need them most are the moments that fly the quickest and leave us drier than we were before the rain came. Because after you have tasted heaven, you come to realize that hell is anywhere that heaven is not. I scratch my neck, dye my hair a new color, and trace my fingers across the lightning on my thighs just to remember the storm.

The night smelled like petrichor, which never smells quite as sweetly as we like to think that it would. It reminds us of the drought and it reminds us of the rain, and I’d take rain over puddles any day. But while I was busy riding roller coasters in my head, you slid a carousel on my finger and made me a promise that nothing would ever stop it from spinning. And through the hustle of the crowd and the screams of mixed emotion, I heard the cicadas again.

But spinning can be dizzying, and sometimes that carousel grows so heavy I can barely lift my hand to check my own pulse. The only thing that grants me comfort is knowing that if I start to teeter, I know you’ll help me keep my balance. I fell for you once already, on a Sunday night, when I smelled like eucalyptus in Paris, and you looked like a moving picture. So don’t let me fall again. Don’t let me wobble and swerve and bend until something inside me breaks. Don’t let me be just another blanket that keeps you warm at night.

Don’t let the cicadas end their song.

The Apple,

He once carried galaxies between his ears.

In the realm of realities, the walls of his skull represented infinity, a patient universe that could only find release in a million shades of water. The plasma would pump like diesel through his chrome veins, traveling through his fingertips and spiraling outward until finding its home on a canvas in heat.

I watched the stars die, constellation by constellation, until the solar system behind his eyes fell into oblivion.

He sits there, in the chair his mother bought him, and I can’t help but wonder how comfortable it is. He hasn’t moved from that chair in eight hours, so it must not be too terrible. His skin looks especially pale against the burgundy velvet, and he stares at me with eyes that don’t see—that can’t see.

His face was beautiful once, soft and welcoming like a summer chateau. His features were hard like Scotch, but his skin was soft as butter. A man made out of butterscotch, but now all I can taste is black licorice. The scars and boils that emblazon his cheekbones don’t feel the same, but he recoils when I touch them anyway.

“Darling,” I prod, peeking into his study, smelling the powder and inertia wafting through the air, “would you like something to eat?” The chair is shackle-free, but it seems to bind him like Velcro.

“I’m fine,” he says, without moving, without blinking. He doesn’t blink much these days, but I suppose he wouldn’t need to. The Caribbean waters that used to swirl in those sockets drained weeks ago, replaced by globules of smoke that glaze incessantly. His face always seems damp, but I wonder if he can cry.

My feet find their way into the room, and the rest of my body follows suit. His easel, rising high above his chair like a ladder, sleeps with its empty canvas, infertile. The palette, complacent with its pastels, sits lonely in the corner, a thin sheen of dust lining its surface. “Come on, love,” I continue, approaching him slowly, the floor creaking beneath my shifts in weight. “Why don’t you try to do some work? You haven’t touched your brushes in over a month.”

“You don’t get it,” he whispers, his lips cold and deliberate, like an ice pick. This is the most I have heard him speak in weeks. Our once glamorous life now consists of nothing more than thumb-twiddling and ambulation. “I can’t see the colors. How am I supposed to paint anything?”

“I’ll help you, dear!” My movements hasten, staggering to the other side of the room to grab his paints, watching his body withdraw as I move. Slipping a long, slender stick of wood between his fingers, I hold my palm over his knuckles, feeling the tingle of his blisters against my babybell skin. “Here,” I say, dabbing the loin of the brush in a verdant puddle. “This is a nice green color, let’s paint some trees, okay?”

His neck rolls, his head flopping against my chest, and he moans, “I can’t do it.” I look down at him, groveling, leaving wet stains on my shirt. “I can’t see it.”

“It’s green!” I repeat with conviction, dragging his fingers to the canvas, blotting the empty white space with green smudges. Green like the topiary that dotted the streets of Mexico City. Green like the artificial grapes we used to keep on our dining room table. Green like the irises I fell in love with and watched decay. “You’re doing great, baby.”

“Nooo,” he groans, pulling against me. “What kind of green? Is it pine? Or teal? Or chartreuse? I need to know!” His pitch heightens to that stark arpeggio of rumbling half-notes that signals ire or agony. I’ve only heard it a few times in our years of being together, a few times far too many. “I need to know.”

Breathless, he drops the paintbrush, the color splattering across the floor. “I need to know.” His body coils in the velveteen chair, his knees acting as a life preserver that he hugs for security, and his face is moist. “I need to know.” The holes in his face stare blankly at the far wall, the rosebud beneath them quivering with every susurration. “I need red.”

“You want to paint an apple, dear?”

The galaxies stand still for a moment before he speaks. “Yes, an apple. A-And I have the perfect shade for it,” he stutters, veering in my direction, a single finger floating into the air. “Downstairs, in the laundry, I have a big jug of crimson red. Will you please fetch it for me?”

“Of course, my sweet,” I say, and flee from the room, flee from the musk, from the dimly lit architecture.

His study. I would bring him lukewarm matcha tea with a lemon garnish to force him to take a break from his work. He would spend hours in there, working diligently on one piece or another. He never painted still-lifes or landscapes like other artists would. Every scene he blotted down on a canvas, every creation, came from the cosmos in his skull.

Our bedroom. We would write poetry to each other with our bodies and sleep half the day away when we could, when the blue notes of work didn’t shatter the melody of sweet silence. Every night I would fall asleep soundly with the promise to see him again soon, and every morning I would wake up to find that he was a man of his word.

The stairs. I would complain about how arduous they were on my knees, but he would confess he liked to watch my ass wiggle as I climbed them. He would come home from work on more than one occasion to find me clutching the railing in a sorrowed stupor, blubbering over one failure or another.

My feet reach the laundry room floor, cold and steady, unlike any part of my body. I flit about the room, checking the cabinets, the storage boxes, even opening the dryer door, but there is no paint to be found. I scuffle back up the stairs quickly, calling for him as I reach the top. “Dear, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t find any—“

Body first, I gasp when I see him, contorted on the floor, but peaceful in his face. I run, water in my eyes and wind in my hair, but then I tiptoe, stepping lightly over his body and around the velvet chair. I can feel the galaxies swirling around me, the once stifling walls of his cranium now stretched to fill this entire room. The easel drips, and I look to see a bright, dazzling apple painted on the once empty canvas in purely crimson red.

And I smile.

Daddy’s Boy,

Little toy soldier, how do you do?

The master is happy, and, for that, so are you.

He plays his games while you play your drums;

While he sits on satin, you sit on your thumbs.

 

Little toy soldier, please stand up straight.

The master is happy, so don’t make him wait.

He gave you his eyes, that’s just one on a list;

But if you aren’t careful, he’ll give you his fist.

 

Little toy soldier, where did you go?

Why are you hiding in master’s chateaux?

He’s treated you nicely and raised you up right;

But in gratitude all that you do is fight.

 

Little toy soldier, get back in line.

Play by his rules and things will be fine.

Master is watching, master’s aware;

He knows where you go when you aren’t there.

 

Little toy soldier, why do you stray?

Don’t you know that it is wrong to be gay?

Master was gracious, master was nice;

But now you’re a fire pirouetting on ice.

 

Little toy soldier, do you hear me?

Your song is too loud for tranquility.

Master no longer enjoys your music;

He prefers the bassoon, your drums make him sick.

 

Little toy soldier, how does it feel,

To carry those drums that can no longer heal?

But don’t worry, soldier, the day will come soon;

When you’ll put down your drums

and pick up a bassoon.

Love Is a Thing with Roses,

I love you more

and more every day,

and I love you more than anything.

I love you more than windows love to be open,

and more than their curtains love the breeze.

I love you more than the night sky loves the grass,

so much that she cries every time she has to leave.

I love you more than lilies love to be white,

more than ravens love to be black,

more than water loves to be blue.

I love you more than Mark Anthony loved Cleopatra,

and more than Cleopatra loved herself.

I love you more than Scorpio loved Virgo,

and more than coffee loves peppermint.

I love you more than diamonds love to shine,

more than peacocks love to sway,

more than cherry trees love springtime.

I love you more than my skin loves velvet

and more than a rug loves the floor.

I love you more than the ocean loves the moon,

so much that she dances for him daily.

I love you more than spiders love to knit,

more than paper loves to fly,

more than bridges love to whisper.

And by the way,

I love you more.