Illustration by Cynthia Merhej.

Illustration by Cynthia Merhej.

Even alone, I am aware of my body. I am aware of the way my breasts sag above my stomach. I am aware of the brownness of my nipples and their largeness. I look down at my waist and notice the way my bushy hair stands on end, untamed and unyielding, always growing up up up. And even alone, I am afraid. That someone will see my ugliness and laugh.

***

Affection does not come easily to me, or at least that’s what Elijah says, when he comes looking for a kiss and I mistake his movement for a hug. He says I hurt him and that I’m bad at communicating and that I don’t really like him. He admits that when we first started talking he would double the time it took me to text him before responding. Once, I don’t text him for two weeks and he asks me what the fuck he did to deserve my indifference. He says I make him feel weak and this revelation satisfies me. His desire is a kiss on a scraped knee, for a moment I am soothed, but my whole body is a wound. Next month, we will have sex, and he will stop calling.

***

Our dresses lay at the foot of her twin bed, stifling memories of Elijah and missed phone calls. Nia’s leg is wrapped around my waist and her hand rests idly on my chest. She drifts in and out of sleep, but my eyes won’t close. I am memorizing the way her arms are full of me, the way her breath paints my neck. I am memorizing the bottle of wine on the floor, my stain on her sheets, and the way her fingertips graze my skin when I inhale. I don’t move in fear of interrupting this still life, in fear of flipping a switch and shining light into night’s darkness. I am stuck. Even if I wanted to move, I couldn’t. I am trapped under the weight of limbs and blankets. I am trapped under the promise of a next time and the pressure to be naked and ugly in the light of day. I can feel the weight of the sun, I can see it hanging above me, leering; a brilliant spotlight on my sagging and brownness and bushiness and largeness and burning me.

***

It feels good to be coveted. It feels more than good, it feels vital; almost as necessary as eating, or sleeping, or loving. To be desired is to be digested, this is law. On Nia’s bed, I am sure my appeal is a precarious promise too good to be true. On Elijah’s couch, for a moment I am convinced that his want for me is enough, but sense cuts through the clutter in my mind, and reality resurfaces. They devour the illusion of me, but without a disguise of clothing and coyness, I will be alone. I am broken and they will realize, they will throw me away. It is the truth I let slip into the crevices between cushions—where the rest of the unwanted things have gone to hide.

***

Our legs tangle on a blanket of cool summer grass. There are three of us, there is one of us. Daniel makes a joke and Tobi collapses onto my lap—we all laugh, Tobi’s face on my legs, my head against Daniel’s shoulder, Daniel’s hand on my knee. His words pull laughter from my stomach on a string, leaving me 10 pounds lighter. Tears stream down my cheeks, smearing my eyeliner, leaving a trail of watery black in their wake. Daniel stops laughing long enough to look at me. “You look so busted right now,” he says through his cackling, and I laugh even harder because it’s true. In addition to my melting face, the humidity has turned my twistout into a mound of fluff and three flies circle my head like a halo, enticed by the smell of sweet product. At the sight of me, Tobi’s laughter is renewed—it is all too much. Their love is a bright light bursting through a cracked door, warming my face, and cushioning any criticism. We laugh until our shining brown gums show, until our teeth dance; white jewels between night black gaps. We laugh until our eyes bulge and our cheeks hurt. We laugh until I forget the sun and its glare, we laugh until I don’t care about my hair. We look at each other, faces contorted, body bumping against body as we are racked with implacable joy. ♦

Khai goes by she/they pronouns and is a sophomore at Howard University. When she’s not busy prepping for the revolution, you can find her at your local thrift shop.