By Sadia Hassan
The summer I decide to leave Dartmouth, I attend a wedding in Oneonta, New York. My aunt does not know that after the wedding, I will catch a flight to Atlanta to give my parents the news before heading to Seattle to heal out of sight. I do not tell her I am disappearing to save myself from the violence of an institution that can only read me as deficient, disabled, disadvantaged when I am beautiful, brilliant, brave.
The only person who knows is Halmaan; a cousin teetering between a slow death via substance abuse and a faster one by suicide.
I was slow dancing with a five-year-old on the hotel verandah when she called.
And then comes the anvil: she has been stockpiling pills again behind the liquor beneath the sink. Her friends never reach back that far. Taken with a tumbler of brandy, that’s it. Light’s out. I stumble across the lawn towards the pier, begging.
“Halmaan, no. Halmaan, stop!”
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The hotel disappears behind me. She hangs up. I call back. No answer. The lake is dark. I look down and see only a grotesque watercolor: mouth floating away, fabric billowing green, eyes vanished. My hands tremble as the phone slips soundlessly into the water. I could never hold onto things, anyway. I return to Atlanta where Halmaan picks me up from the airport. We make up on the way home.
I spend the next month alternately fighting with my mother and gingerly keeping the peace. Mother believes if I leave school, I will become an ciyaal suuq, a street wanderer, like Halmaan. If I am the one who “made it,”the bookish cousin who received a scholarship to college, then she is the one who gave up trying. She dropped out of college after freshman year and never looked back. Halmaan does not pretend to be well adjusted. That is my role. Instead she disrupts any claim we may make to normality by refusing us the comfort of pretending her pain away.
Mother insists that I give up Halmaan and go back to school. I refuse. Had we been younger, she would have slapped us both for our insolence, but she is old now and I feel guilty for making her cry. I am no good at this business of acting out. I want to be forgiven. In the mornings, I wake up early and make Mother tea but do not dare keep her company. When she leaves for work, Halmaan and I drive as long as we can without running out of gas. We waste what little money I have on Bollywood films and weed and bad alcohol. We curse our uncles. We curse our cousins. We rage about the men who turned our bodies into burning buildings from which we cannot save the young girls trapped inside. We vomit by the side of the road.
After sneaking back in, I tiptoe to Mother’s room to watch her sleep. When I wake early the next morning, Mother is weeping in the living room. I listen to her in the dark but do not move.
In Seattle, I move in with my sister and give up pretending. I attend therapy twice weekly and get a library card. When I am not weeping, I am reading. My older sister brings meals to my room and my nephew forces me outside. Sometimes we go to the park. Slowly, I feel human again. One year later, I return to school because of family pressure and Mother tells me that Halmaan is spiraling out of control. She has stopped leaving her apartment. Whittled down to skin and bones. I want to protect Halmaan from our family’s wrath the way she has always protected me, but I am back to school for good now and Mother has forgiven me. I turn my phone off and pretend she is fine.
Spring comes and I disappear for months. I starve my body. Overfeed it. Deny it sleep. For weeks and sometimes months, I float through school but occupy a parallel universe. From the darkened hallway of my childhood home, I see my sister with a suitcase. Mother sitting in the rubble of Sister’s abandoned room. Nieces with keloid scars and cigarette burns. Eyes averted. Doors locked. Alcohol. Dark rooms. Laps. Uncles. Cousins. I push myself to work, but my body is unproductive.
One day, I overhear a woman saying that there is little hope for children from abusive homes. One can love them, but no amount of love can fix them. It dawns on me that no one is coming to save me. I carry only my laptop and a notebook to the river. Once there, I clear a spot on the bank and play Nina Simone as loud as my computer will allow. Soon, there comes a goofy boy who witnesses my mourning and does not run away. After three hours of conversation, he buys me gelato and walks me home. To this day, I count that encounter as the first miracle of my life. All it took to bring me back into the fold of humanity was for a stranger to recognize my grief and offer me friendship when I most wanted to disappear. That spring, I thought I had made the commitment to live. This spring, I am learning that not killing oneself is not the same as living. Living requires a conscious commitment and a concerted effort quite unlike anything I’ve ever before experienced.
The world makes it easy for a brown girl to play small, but it does not make room for a brown girl to disappear from the logic of a White Supremacist Cis-Het Patriarchy that seeks to annihilate her. Instead, it asks that she quicken her pace, step out of the way, and make space in her life for grief where there is none. I say we disappear from the world around us so that we may show up for ourselves and our communities. I say we disappear as capital, as nonentity, so that we may appear elsewhere as human, as whole. In disappearing from the logic of White Supremacy, may we create the radically vulnerable, radically empathetic, radically just, queer, loving future that we need in order to thrive.
Let me be clear: that means we will have to be here for ourselves so that we may be here for each other. That means we will have to choose justice so that we may live, freely. And even as we struggle for a loving world, the memories may still come. Whether we gym, study, or sleep on time, we may still wake up in the morning wanting blood on the sheets, blood on the leaves. I am not saying it does not get better. I am saying it will not get better unless we get better. Unless we hold ourselves, and each other, with as much compassion and care as the little girls we left behind in the fire. The folks we love will not save us, but they will love us. And love can change many things.
As a woman wholly imbedded in an institution invested in the erasure of women like myself, I write today because I am afraid my silence will aid and abet all manners of violence against the bodies and psyches of brown girls hurting and healing from soul wounds they had no hand in creating. I am here to say that Halmaan and I are not as different or as separate as the world at large, and Dartmouth in particular, will have me believe. My life and my story are not more valuable than the lives or the stories of sisters I was forced to abandon. All of us are hoping someone will recognize the grief we carry within us, and hold us anyway.
Dear brown girl, we have been forced to believe in a fiction that seeks to destroy us. We are not the stories we tell about ourselves or the worst things that have happened to us. We are not our darkest days. We are not our mothers or fathers or uncles or aunts. We are not this country’s psyche or the keepers of its shame. We are the beautiful unbecoming of a history built between our legs. We are deserving of love and compassion because we are. And when we succeed, it is because we have believed in ourselves enough to try. And when one of us falls, we must be vigilant that others of us do not.
If we want to be free, we must imagine (for ourselves) a future of liberatory love and transformative justice so that none of us is left behind. When it gets difficult—and it will—remember:
there is love here,
and there is freedom
on the other side.
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