When I finish reading Heavy, I am at the beach in a country where no one looks at me twice for being brown. It’s my place of birth, of knee scrapes and school dances. Of groundings and recovery. “I wanted to write a lie. You wanted to read a lie. I wrote this to you instead because I am your child, and you are mine.” Laymon’s heart wrenching confessions pile up at the end of his memoir, striking vulnerability while still maintaining agency. His story, written in second person to his mother, is multi-layered and gives a wide and crisp picture of the life of a black boy in Mississippi, of a heavy black boy in Missisiippi, of a heavy black boy in Mississippi whose mother wants him to be excellent.
As I shut the book and put it in my bag, next to the sunscreen, I become aware of my body and what my body says as it lays on the beach, my skin darkening in the sun. A curvy Latina in her own Puerto Rico calls less attention than when she stretches her legs on the sand at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. I have permission to own my body in San Juan, I have to apologize for it in Westchester. When Laymon addresses his body, he does so at the intersection of what it is like to live in it and what it means to live in it. It means that his mother had to ask him not to go running at night. It means not questioning being wanted and confusing attraction and, sometimes, sexual abuse, for love. It means keeping a relationship with a white girl a secret so as not to get a beating from your mother. I stand and wrap my hips with a skirt tied at the waist. I put my tank top on and begin to head home. Suddenly, I feel exposed and on display and all I can think about is how I shouldn’t have had so much bread with breakfast after I’d been doing so well. I think about Laymon and the fluctuation of his weight. He says, once he begins to shed pounds, that he “just loved losing weight.” I remembered the feeling, having breathed it in when I made my way from 175 to 130. Laymon tells us about his exercise routines, the running of six miles possibly more than once in a day, the stepping on the scale, doing reps, and stepping on it again. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching that number drop. I remember. As he works down from 290 to 159, and then back up to 206, Laymon points to a truth often ignored. “[My body] would remember never worrying about anyone calling me anorexic or bulimic though I was the first one at the gym at six in the morning and the last one to leave at ten.” The hurt in Laymon’s telling of his journey to lose the weight is in how casually he narrates his not-eating habits and aggressive work out routines. He does not sound worried, but we are.
Like the narrative as a whole, the depicting of this mental health issue serves to make statements about control, or lack thereof. His careful use of the second person, paired with slang and masterful repetition, caries these themes in a distinct, almost innocent voice. Even as Laymon grows older, he maintains a childlike curiosity that I felt squeeze my lungs. He remains his mother’s child throughout the whole work, and that too circled back to the dynamics of power.
When I arrive home from the beach, I strip down to my bathing suit and look at myself in my full length mirror. I pull on one of the halter top straps and check how much darker I’ve gotten since I arrived in Puerto Rico for this vacation. I wanted to get darker, quick. To regain the color I used to be when I lived here. But before I can congratulate myself for moving at least two shades past the color I am in New York, I realize that I have to return to New York, and will now do so with depth in my skin, with more threat. I take a shower and cover myself in cool aloe to bring the redness down. My color will fade, I told myself. It will return to the tone that calls less attention, but still holds stares and deflects words like spic. I know better than to engage; Laymon knows this too. Heavy is peppered with questions and affirmations about the United States that Laymon chews over throughout the book. “When you don’t care about making other people feel pain, I’m wondering if you are being a violent person?” or, “America seems filled with people who like causing people pain but hate when those people tell them that pain hurts,” are but the tip of an underwater volcano that Laymon shows has been bubbling. When you inhabit a body that is perceived as a threat, your world becomes concerned with violence, learned, inherent, passive, and overt. As Laymon witnesses such events as the murder of Philando Castille, he internalizes what bearing this has on him and then shows us what it means. It is undeniable that with this book Laymon is making us see something.
I remember, once in college, I straightened my back during a mediated, classroom debate, at which point the professor told me to “calm down.” It was apparent that my own nerve to assume a respectable posture was too violent of an act. When Laymon’s mother asked him to stop running at night, that was her fear – that a white someone would take her son’s responsibility for his health as a threat. Heavy’s intertwined themes all press and twist against each other in a tight knot. Laymon slowly tugs at one thread, and then another, until we are left with the bare materials that make up the fabric of this country. He maintains a cadence in his narration that is sometimes necessarily paused and extended and other times painfully thick and at once. I wanted to both run from and toward the story. I wanted to learn the things I already knew. Heavy, the title of which does great justice to the content of the book, asked me to lay bare and feel the type of fear and love that comes instinctually. It asked me to help carry the load of whiteness that has been put atop people of color in the great America. Seen and seeing, I bent down and propped it on my shoulders too.
Puerto Rican writer Tania Pabón Acosta holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Gravel, Pigeon Pages, The Acentos Review, among others; is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, Great River Review, and The Los Angeles Review; and was chosen for AmpLit Fest’s Emerging Writer Showcase.