Earlier this year, I had to go to the doctor several times for a series of examinations. These examinations necessitated hooking me up to a machine that measured my blood pressure. Each of these readings came back high. My doctor looked at me with concern. She said, It’s high. Do you have any reason to be worried or stressed out? I marveled at this question.
I am black and gay and fat in a country in a particular moment in history that actively despises me for each of those reasons.
I almost asked her High for white people or actually high? She gave me a medication. She told me to drink less coffee. To exercise more. To eat less salt. She explained to me that the medication she prescribed was not effective for black people, but other factors required that it be the one she prescribed. I marveled at this, too.
She tried to explain ion channels to me, little ports in the cells, the diffusion of liquid across membrane barriers. I told her that I had been in a doctoral program for biochemistry and had taught biochemistry to undergraduate pre-med majors. I didn’t need a primer on ions or hypertension. She gave me an expression of placid embarrassment and went on to try to explain to me the virtues of low sodium diets. I said, Thanks.
Does anyone in your family have high blood pressure? The doctor asked me. And I said, Yes. She said, Well, who? And I said everyone. She looked at me like I had tried and failed to tell her a bad joke. She asked, determined to root out the truth, Okay, like who? And I said, again, Everyone.
She asked me to elaborate. I said that it would be easier if I said who didn’t. And she said, Okay, who. I said My dad. And she said, Okay, and? And I said, that’s it. And it was that same expression. That Why are you being difficult look. I said, Everyone has it. And she said, Really? And I said, Yes. She looked, again, baffled by the plain fact of this answer, seemed to want to debate it. I waited. I counted. She said, Your mother, too? And I said, Everyone. All of them. Every single one. And she said nothing, just entered some data into her sheet, and I watched her fill it in, line by line.
Can we run my blood pressure again? We ran it. The number was lower. She marveled. I said, Doctors make me nervous. She said Why were you afraid?
In the summer, my cousins and I climbed the hill, sticking to the gravel that clung to the side of the road. As we went, my brother and older cousins made my cousin D. and I stretch out our shirts taut. They’d put rocks into these little pouches and force us to climb with them until we reached the top of the road. We were out in the country, and this strip of asphalt was the only paved thing there was. Everything else was dirt, clay, and gravel, improvised routes that changed with the rain or the wind. The road was the only permanent thing, though there came a time in every summer where they poured tar to fill in the holes, and it was like the road was raw and new again. One time, I accidentally stepped on this new tar and got a few pebbles stuck to the underside of my foot. I went screaming into the house. But here the road was hard and perfect for what we had planned.
They’d take the rocks out of pouches while we stood watching them, and they’d step up onto the road, check both ways for cars, and crouch low to the ground. Then, with a jerky, clumsy motion, the three older boys would launch their rocks down the hill. If they did it right, they skipped, beat the road with a slap that echoed up through the high trees on either side, down and down, tumbling, striking, kicking up and striking again. And if they did it perfectly, there were showers of sparks that leapt into the air. We did that for hours sometimes, littering the road with rocks.
My cousin D. and I grew sweaty and tired holding all those stones in dips of our shirts, but when the rocks were gone, we’d be sent down into the ditches in search for more. We did this, collecting and returning, collecting and returning, until we had used up all the rocks or until the older boys grew tired of the game.
Then it was long walk back down the road to home.
Down we’d go, our shoes hitching and scraping in the night. We had nothing better to do. We had nowhere else to be. The boys talked. They pushed at each other. D. and I stuck our hands in our pockets and tried to be mature. We were the same age and our brothers were the same age, with one in the middle. There were five of us. Sweaty and brown and overwarm and tired, our shoelaces undone, our shorts heavy with rocks and toys and nonsense. Filthy from play, from the world. I remember the grass, that heady, musky odor of brush and scrub, pine and honeysuckle and pungent purple bushes. I remember the fresh scent of our sweat, our hair, the sting of the skin peeled back from my fingernails. I remember the dried blood. Scabs on our knees from playing rough, from being rough, like a pack of wildcats, our parents and aunts said, mannish, the neighborhood women said, bad.
But it was dark, and the only lights came from the polelights spread out over great distances. I put my hand in my brother’s back pocket. I hung close to him even though he smelled like a 13-year-old boy and like motor oil and like heat and like meanness.
I was afraid of the dark.
I was pitifully and woefully afraid of the dark even though I was seven. My brother delighted in teasing me about this fact. These boys, my closest maternal cousins teased me only vaguely and gently about it. My brother used to roll his eyelids back in the dark of our shared room to tease me. I’m a monster, he would say. I’m gonna get you, and I would actually believe him deep down in the primal pit of my body, the part of me that decided what was true and what was not. I believed him so thoroughly, so completely, that he was going to eat me, that I screamed and cried and sometimes wet the bed. I was terrified. But on the road, he let me hold on to him, partly I guess because it wouldn’t be cool if his kid brother whined about the dark and partly maybe because he was afraid I’d tattle on him and we might be in trouble for throwing rocks at the road as it was and why add to the trouble.My fear came from knowing that I was a person without power or protection, that anything at all might happen to me and nothing would or could be done about it. That I was not precious.
What I remember though is the number of times we did this over the summers of my childhood. The five of us, climbing that hill, flinging rocks down into the road below. The time one of us skipped a rock right by a car that was coming up the road on the opposite side, and how the sparks flared outward, briefly under that car’s wheels. We told that story for weeks, You almost blowed that joker up. You almost lit them up, boy. But every time, I stuck my hand in my brother’s back pocket on the way home. I was scared. I was afraid. Of the dark, of the woods, of the ditches that might (and did, I knew) hold glass or needles or roaches the size of a fist or snakes or wild dogs or worse, ghosts, evil spirits, the devil, bad men, bad women, angry people with guns.
There is this ridiculous game we used to play. The first person who could spot the hazy yellow glow of our grandparents’ polelight would pretend to see something. They’d gasp quietly, a low, snuffing, animal sound, and then they’d gasp louder, let out a peal of terror, and off they’d go. Then the others would take off, and we’d be running downhill like something awful and terrible was at our feet. The others would begin to laugh. They’d begin to cry out and whoop and holler. Five boys canted downward, howling in the dark, our feet slapping the ground. We’d see the rocks we’d thrown from on high, layed out like the deserted bodies of the dead, like Polynices, I would think years later. We’d run and sprint, and leap over the ditch that separated our grandfather’s field from the road and then we’d run pounding up our grandparents’ steps, panting, starved of air and sore. I hated this game. I was the slowest. I was the most afraid.
One time, I didn’t even run. I was so scared that I just fell to my knees on the side of the road and cried while the others ran away. I wept. My brother came back for me. Someone sent him back. Stop crying, he said. Stop crying, and not even mean or hateful. Just desperate for me to stop. I was shivering. I think I said something to him like You left me.
There would be another scene like this years later when he led me into a hall of mirrors at the fair, but I couldn’t figure it out, and I got trapped, and looked up and suddenly, he was gone, and it was just me there with all the mirrored versions of myself. I got scared. I started to cry. I wanted to get out. I was nine or ten. The attendant was bored and tired and he said, You gotta keep going or get out.
I didn’t know what else to do. I was embarrassed. There were people waiting. I came out through the front and climbed down the steps. I jumped down into the sawdust, and stuck my hands in my pockets and tried to be tough, tried to be a big kid. My brother was gone. My other cousins were gone too. He had left me again, and I was all alone, among these strangers, a kid at a fair, and I’d failed to do the house of mirrors, and I was afraid. I keenly felt the aloneness of that moment. I thought I’d have to live at the fairgrounds forever. I resigned myself to this, but by the time I rounded the corner of the big wheel, I saw my aunt and felt a rush of relief. They left me, I said. They left me, my mom mocked. You always get lost. She was referencing, years before, my having been left behind in a Foot Locker in the mall while shoe shopping for school. Stay, she said. I stayed. I was obedient.
I was always getting left behind, like the discarded and forgotten rocks.
You the only boy I know that’s fraid like, my grandmother used to say, which was the kindest way to put it. My aunt used to ask me to get things from beneath her bed, and I’d get teary and tingly all over just imagining it because her bed was dark and full of weird textures and shapes that felt like human flesh. I didn’t want it. What if the devil grabbed me, I’d ask. Ain’t no devil under there, ain’t no devil, you the devil, get in there. When I had obtained, by virtue of squirming and writhing against her filthy floor, whatever object she wanted, she’d give me a piece of candy and say Good, now go. I wonder if it was her way of trying to help. I wonder if it was her way of saying That wasn’t so bad. Don’t be so scared.
There was this man who used to stand under my aunt’s window at night. He’d take out his dick and masturbate right there against the bricks. Sometimes, we looked out and saw him and screamed. He was tall and purple black, blue back. He had bright white eyes. He was so skinny he looked like a struck match. In the polelight, we could see him. He was no stranger to us. He was a friend of the family. He slept in a van on the property. And he’d walk around the yards at night, sleepless and drunk. But he returned to my aunt’s window where he stroked himself. There wasn’t even anything menacing in it after a while. That’s how casually and easily we accepted this nightly visitation into our lives.
Sometimes, he scratched at my window. I’d wake up and hear his voice through the screen—let me in, let me in, he said. I’d pull the blankets over my head. I can see you. I complained. We all swapped stories about him at our windows. Nobody ever did anything. There was nothing to be done for it, the men said.
Years later, he was one of the men who raped me. There was nothing to be done about that either, I was told.
Nothing is remarkable when the herd decides to accept it. We grow accustomed to our circumstances, and it’s only later, when our circumstances change or shift that we look back and realize how awful it was. It’s the bargain we make with the moments of our lives What must I do to survive this? What must I do to get by? It’s not so bad. It’s fine.
My great grandmother had this robotic chicken. She’d wind it up and set it on the floor, and it would crow and kind of amble around until it ran out of juice. My cousins loved this. There were like eight or nine of us. They’d clap and clap. But I’m deeply afraid of birds. So the chicken took on this secondary entertainment purpose of being brought down to show everyone how loudly I could scream. They’d take it from its roost on the shelf, and bring it over to me when I was distracted with biscuits or cantaloupe or the picture bible, and someone would tap on my shoulder, and I’d turn, and there it would be, this perfect animatronic rooster.
One time, I was in such a hurry to get out of her house and away from that rooster that I cut the back of my foot on the toothed underside of her screen door. My grandpa raised chickens, and as part of daily chores, I’d sometimes help him dump feed into their pen, but I never went inside because I was so terrified of them, of all things with wings that fly. My mother used to say, Like your grandmama. She hated flying little things too, as though fear is heritable but undesirable, like crossed eyes or knocked knees or high blood pressure or diabetes or glaucoma.
It was not comforting to me to be told that my fear had been handed down to me from my paternal grandmother, who had died before I was born. I knew where my fear came from. It came from being told that the devil was always making designs on consuming my soul. It came from the man under the window. It came from being told that there was nothing to be done about the tangible, awful things that happened to me then and later. It came from the unassailable, unchanging fact of the world, as though it were made out of stone. My fear came from knowing that I was a person without power or protection, that anything at all might happen to me and nothing would or could be done about it. That I was not precious.Fear is a prolonged argument with the world.
But I think that people have a difficult time facing the fear of others because fear is also a provocation. It demands an answer. A response. It indicates to the viewer that something is amiss, that things are not as they should be, that the ordinary is not in effect. I think so much of my fear as a child originated in my inability to accept my circumstances. When I think back to those years, my overwhelming fear seems like the most rational and natural response to the life I had been given to live. But I was ridiculed incessantly. My fear was a parlor trick. They laughed. They howled. They jeered. The older I got, the stranger the fact of my fear became, until it was synonymous with me. But mockery I think was a substitute. They were afraid too. The demands of my fear. Its unrelenting scope. Of course they tried to change me. It was their attempt to keep me. Because if they couldn’t change me, I’d have to go on being afraid. And if I went on being afraid, I couldn’t stay. Because my fear demanded too much change and be called into question.
Fear is a prolonged argument with the world. The answer to the doctor’s question, Why were you afraid? should have been, Why aren’t you? But instead, I said, I don’t know.
You are young, my doctor said. You can have a long life.
I laughed. I said, That means something different to my people, and she squinted at me in confusion.
No, I’m saying you can have a normal life. You are quite young.
When I was little, my fear of the dark seemed to always come down to a fear that the devil—large, horned, dark, with fierce, red eyes—was always but moments away from grabbing me and pulling me down through layers of earth into the fiery pits of hell. This was a fundamental frequency of my life. It dictated everything I did. I had night terrors almost every night the year I was five because I was so afraid that God had designated me unworthy and hell-bound. This was repeated to me every time I was slow to do as I was told by my parents, and they said, sharply, You’re shortening your days with disobedience. Devil come and carry you off. In the dark, the devil’s power was at its most fearsome. He might take the shape of anything at all.
I also had poor vision and couldn’t see well in the dark. My room was filled with strange, awful shapes. Things loomed over me. My brother would dig at me with his fingers. Everything funny and beautiful went out of the world. I was afraid of being alive because it seemed, even at that young age, that the only purpose of being alive was to that the devil could kill you. My fear of the dark was so vast that it couldn’t be contained—I became afraid of things that flew, of fire, of people who talked too loud, of being hit or stabbed or bitten. I became afraid of heights. I became afraid of drowning. Being electrocuted.
My fear was like a sensory organ, going out into the world before me to sense all of the threats that lurked there. I guess, in some sense, that’s what religion is too: a gummy, elastic organ that gropes the world, pawing for meaning and safety.
Thanks, I said to my doctor, as though she knew what she was talking about. I bet you’re right.
She seemed to like that.