Image Credit: Frank Winkler
My mother was a fine architect/Her mother was too.
Designing huge walls/No man could ever get through
Born with a brick heart and mortar tongue/They made do.
Now the only thing I know is/to build those same walls too
Don’t you build it too, doll/It may never fall
The air’s getting thin/You’re still human fragile woman”
-Eryn Allen Kane
Exactly when I began to disappear into myself is unclear, but it was sometime between my birth and him forcing my hand down his pants. When the latter occurred, I had been gone for a long time, waiting to find myself again, or for the first time. Looking around from within the depths of the prison that I had built from myself for myself. See, I’d made a rookie mistake: while trying to build something all my own, I had trapped myself within it.
I. INT. A SCHOOL BUS—AFTERNOON
For some reason, I thought that silence made me immune to other people; their gazes, their judgments, their words. That keeping my eyes on the ground, would show that I wasn’t a threat. And not being a threat, meant peace. And though I tried, it never worked how I intended
Me, 12 or 13, sitting quietly on the school bus, my book bag in my lap, insecure.
Classmate, ???, his hair is covered in gel and is probably crunchy, has a large nose. His finger is pointed my way.
I am hurt and troubled by his comment. But most of all, I am shocked. There is a vicious battle in my head about whether or not to respond. To risk being embarrassed and harassed further for simply defending myself. I choose to be silent in favor of taking in and storing this new found knowledge within the foundation of a structure I have only just begun to build. Little do I know, this the first of many unsolicited opinions about myself that I will hear from men.
Years later I will hear a song about generational trauma, comparing it to an architectural venture. I know from overheard phone conversations that the women in my family have enough trauma to build their own city.
Me, 14 or 15 years old, cowering in my own living room. Him, my age, tall and thin, otherwise indescribable for fear of people reading this and finding out who he is. It is some time after school, but before my mother comes home from work.
He knows that I will do whatever he wants. If not because I like him, because I want him to like me. No matter how it makes me feel, no matter if I am uncomfortable. So against my better judgement, I let him in. I don’t know how, but his hand has found it’s way under my shirt. He approves of my body, an approval I didn’t know mattered until that moment.
We teleported to the small couch: a light blue love seat my mom spent months paying off.
I’m not leaving until—
You do it.
You touch it.
You grab it.
You do it.
You do what I say.
Do what I say.
He is persistent. He is forceful.
So, I do it. I stare at the floor the entire time. Holding my breath, counting the seconds. Wishing I didn’t exist, knowing I will exist more than before. He will become an unwanted nuisance. I will begin to hate the person he is. And the person I am. My skin begins to peel from my hands as if I’d dipped them in glue. I think my body was attacking itself. Punishing me for letting him sit on my mom’s blue couch.
Inside my walls is a vault made of iron, bigger than it is wide. I unpack it one memory at a time, sometimes putting one back in favor of dealing with another. The time I spent hours designing clothes for a clothing line that never came to fruition. Moving into my freshman dorm. Accidentally throwing water on a grease fire. Writing novels in the margins of my math notebooks, thinking of my book tour. All of the dreams that I dreamed. All the mistakes that I made. As I got older, my dreams began to crumble along with my healthy state of mind. At 14 or 15, I was just happy to be alive. And building, always building.
II. INT. A CALL CENTER—MIDNIGHT TO 9 AM
The call center is gray and brown, not filled with the colors of the living. The lights are fluorescent and just a hair too bright.
If you ever wonder why you never speak to a customer service agent that gives a damn, it’s because they do not exist. They sit in a bland cubicle for anywhere from eight to twelve hours a day, sending the same emails and regurgitating the same policies that they cannot change. There is no music. There is no say. And really, there is no money.
Me, 21 working graveyard shift in a call center. Not allowed to wear flip flops or hats or to write on sheets of paper. Wearing flip flops anyway.
All agents in my center are arranged into “teams” of up to 16 people based on their fixed work schedule. The computer tracks how many tickets you take and how quickly you solve them. Your numbers are averaged with your team’s at the end of the week. The good thing was, you had people around you that could help you solve tickets and wanted you to solve them well so that the team looked good. The bad was that if you did not do well, you brought the whole team down.
I’m coming up on my 16th hour this shift. Everything on the screen is beginning to look the same.
(on the phone)
This is Azaria, with __________, do you have an order for Diane H?
The Human Resources manager enters the floor, she is around my age and started out in an agent chair “just like” me. She walks with confidence beyond her years and is on a mission to find me.
(on the phone)
The order has already been paid for, would you like me to read it to you?
The HR Manager approaches me. I remember my flip flops that I should not be wearing and I hide my feet beneath the blanket that I also should not have.
Finish that call and then come to my office.
I look down at my feet when she walks away. My toes should not be visible. I know that. Now it has caused me my $9 an hour, a wage I was barely able to secure with my four year degree. And though this place is in my nightmares, lacing my dreams with bad juju and causing my melatonin depression, it was dependable. It kept me from sinking under, lower than I already was. It kept me afloat. Now it will be taken, just because I do not want to put on real shoes.
What I do not know, is that everyone from my team has been approached by the HR Manager and pulled into her office. Everyone has been accused of the same thing and therefore, everyone is asked the same questions. Everyone is worried.
Do you know Rebecca?
I did know of Rebecca. She was an older woman with very short hair and a large purse. About a week before, she switched her shift and moved to the cubicle across from me. We’d never spoken, because I didn’t speak to anyone, being in a cubicle at midnight did not warrant much friendly conversation.
Uhh, yeah. She’s on my team now
Well, she has accused you of making sexually inappropriate comments. Do you know what she is referring to?
No… she said me? That I did that?
I don’t think I’ve ever talked to her before.
Well, we’re launching an investigation into this accusation. You can’t speak to anyone about this, all information must be kept confidential.
My palms begin to sweat. The memories I worked so hard to suppress decded to remind me that they never left. My breaks were always around 5 AM, still dark outside. And after being called into the HR office, I found myself being watched on my break. I would glance up at my rearview mirror to see Rebecca staring at me from the sidewalk. I would flinch and look away, her very presence a sharp sting. I walked through the long hallway instead of across the production floor to get to my own cubicle, so that I stayed far away from her. It gets harder to drag myself into work every night. Each shift opening a void and bringing up memories, they coat my skin like thick demon ichor, like caulk.
I hadn’t been that low for a few months and I credited developing an exercise regimen and spending $40 a week on coffee. But I found myself back at the bottom of the mountain of my own despair, falling through the layers of my own depression. Constructing at a speed that I had never thought possible.
Rebecca’s walls had to be taller and thicker than my own. Her mugshot began to float around the production floor, popping up in everyone’s email inbox, as if it meant that she couldn’t be harmed or believed. I knew what darkness was and because I did, she had my empathy.
Eventually, Rebecca quit, the investigation was scrapped and I begin to wear real shoes; I couldn’t have my toes out in a hard hat area.
III. INT. MY BEST FRIEND’S APARTMENT—EVENING
Me, stuck in the ebb and flow of remembrance. I sit across from My Best friend, a very good person.
I don’t know how we got on this topic, but now that we are here, the vault is unlocking and spewing secrets I am not ready to confront. Memories are flooding back, the time of day, the time of year, the callouses on his fingertips, the noises he made.
MY BEST FRIEND
I didn’t know that happened to you.
I sit and think about how hard I fought to swallow the memories down.
I am agnostic. Like my life, my religion is a purgatory of an uncertainty I am not afraid to define or confront. I sit in my room among empty notebooks, chanting to my ancestors at the top of my lungs. The edges of my throat are charred and scorched with “Ago inle” to cure my sadness and heal my heart.
I am drowning in myself, my palms itching with a secret I dare not tell. It take two seconds to build my walls, brick by brick. To think of a lie. To change “can’t get out of bed” to “wont get out of bed.” And almost ten years to break them down. I have never been kissed, but somehow I know how apenis felt in my grip.
That night he appeared again on my back porch, knocking on my window and jiggling the handle.
Can I come in?
His actions attempt to answer the question on his behalf. My younger brother peers up at him, wanting to play whatever game he perceives to be taking place. I feel like I had no choice, so I put my hand on the lock, but just then my mom came in the front door. My eyes bulge and I shake my head.
Without words, he understands and scampers off. To this day my mother doesn’t know that she saved me.
Years later, I still think about Rebecca and the peace that I can only hope she went on to find. I saw her a few months after I’d left the call center. She walked in front of my car to cross the street and stand beneath a bus stop shelter. She still carried her large bag.
I still build my walls.
My own trauma has made me feel like an outsider in my life. As if I are watching someone else speaking my lines and wondering how they made my voice sound so authentic. How this intruder is able to convince people that know me so well, that I am exactly as they say. Even so, if they were a bad actor, I would surely re-assign the role. It is difficult finding your way back into your body, a journey I have yet to complete. My isolation is a way to cope with my memories, to fully process them. And in my isolation, the only voice I hear is my own and I will continue to speak until I have proven to myself that my voice is one worth listening to.