I looked around the room—four walls of white-painted, stacked cinder blocks, two desks and two bookshelves made of the same pale wood, two waxen, naked mattresses—and my chest tightened. There were high ceilings, but the walls looked stark and chilly. The furniture sat scuffed and worn and vacant. I thought the room smelled as blank as it was; there was nothing there to shape a smell. It seemed as if the room held its breath expectantly and optimistically, waiting until posters and pictures lined the walls, clothes got in the closets, books filled the shelves, sheets lay on the beds, and color flushed the space, before it would exhale again. I put a hand under my collarbone, trying to ease the familiar heaviness away. With the other hand, I pushed a suitcase to the bed furthest away from the door and dropped my backpack on the mattress. My sister, older by eight years, had flown to Providence with me to deliver me to college, and she followed me into the room. Between the two of us, we had four suitcases and two backpacks full of my things. I let my arms drop by my sides. Six bags, and six times I tapped my thumbs and index fingers together until a breath finally shook out.
The door opened. I saw large tote bags with coordinated pink and purple items slung over brown arms. Jamaykah James and her mother had on matching purple shirts and straight, shoulder-length black hair. When her mother shook hands with me, I realized that they had the same smile too.
“And where are y’all from again?” Mrs. James asked.
“Outside Minneapolis,” my sister said, shaking hands with the two of them. “But,” she added, to answer the question again, “our father is from Nigeria.”
Mrs. James raised a brow. “Okay, wow,” she said. She leaned in a little closer, as though she worried that her voice might carry outside the pale and sparse dorm room. “But I’m so, so glad that Jamay will have a sister up here.” She said sister as though it ended in an ah, as though I understood something. Her smile was sincere. I felt my pulse drumming in the dip at the base of my neck. “You know, when we first saw your name, I wasn’t sure, you know?”
I nodded, wanting to add that I understood being unsure. What I didn’t understand was the confidence that some people had when trying to pronounce my name, the assumption that, even though they were quick to indicate that they hadn’t ever seen a name like mine, they knew how to say it. When they didn’t say it right, I was the one who had to tell them. I was the one creating a problem and engendering complications. I was the one who was wrong.
Though I was seeing Providence newly and for the first time, I already hated this day, as I hated all first days of school. The rosters, the roll calls, the makeshift name placards out of construction paper, the uninhibited confidence, my explanations and apologies and clenched teeth. The time in first grade when Miss Hillstrom asked me twice if I was sure I didn’t have a nickname that maybe my mom used. The time in fourth grade when I tried to correct Mrs. Jacobsen and listened to her tell me that I had a bad attitude. The time in seventh grade when Mr. Lundeen told me that in some cultures the G is silent when it comes right after an N, as if I might want to mull that over for myself. Mrs. Johnston said it was exotic. Ms. Sangren said it was foreign. Mr. Ogdahl called it interesting and enjoyed the puzzle of figuring it out and insisted that he didn’t want help, a different approach from Mrs. Kelly, who asserted bluntly that “she wasn’t even going to try this one” and waited for me to reveal myself.
By eleventh grade, I expected all of this. I went into each class looking for a cue, another student whose surname might come immediately before mine in the alphabet. In my History class that year, I picked Ben Murray as my cue, and I took the open seat in front of him.
I didn’t notice the teacher, Mr. Axelsson, until after I sat down. He had shifted somehow, and when I saw him move out of the corner of my eye, he startled me and my skin prickled on my upper arms. He leaned against the edge of a full-sized desk near the corner of the room, just a few feet away. I could feel his gaze on me, and I turned my head. I could tell that he had blond hair, recently cut, but I could not read his expression; I did not feel up to looking directly at his face. Instead, I looked from one shoulder to the other. Though he was a slender man, the distance between his shoulders stretched long; the width of his chest surprised me. He stood up, and I followed the vertical lines on his blue pinstripe down his stomach. I found my eyes drawn inward as I followed the outline of his body. A slight stomach. Long legs, tall in tan pants. I looked up as far as the center of his chest, where his navy blue tie lay between his forearm and his body. I let my eyes drift higher to see that, with one hand, he cupped the lower half of his face. He covered most of his mouth, but I could see that he was young, maybe even younger than my sister. His thumb slowly traced a vertical line down his cheek.
Mr. Axelsson didn’t move again until the bell rang. He walked over to the table at the front, where he picked up the class roster that rested on the surface, and my throat burned. He pulled a pencil from behind his ear, leaning now against the table, and rapped the eraser end against the paper as he paused. He took a breath in. “I’m Oskar Axelsson,” he said, staring down at the paper. His voice was low and quiet. “I’m…uh…” He blinked. “The teacher.” Two more taps. He cleared his throat and pressed the attendance roster flat against the table. A jolt shot through my stomach. And he read the names so easily. An Ashley Ackerson, a Laura Brandt, and I wrapped my fingers around my neck. Dietrich, Goldman, Krause, and I heard a dull ringing in my ears. Benjamin Murray behind me, plus a Nelson across the room. My throat was dry, and I closed my eyes as I heard Mr. Axelsson balk at the next name on the list. I took a breath in, opening my eyes to see a crinkle in his blond eyebrows. He rolled the pencil between two fingers as he thought.
I got stuck on the gauze he spoke of: clean, pristine, white, ultimately useless. My vision blurred around the edges. I felt the weight of the heel of my hand against my throat, and I thought about what it was I should be doing. By the time I’d remembered that I ought to raise my hand, I was digging my fingernails into my neck. Mr. Axelsson already knew he was looking for me.
“Is that right?” he asked.
Is that right? I wondered how it was that I kept encountering teachers who could not read, who could only conclude that my name should be something that sounded so ugly. Of course it wasn’t right. I made myself inhale. I shook my head.
“I’m sorry,” I heard him say. Then, as the silence grew, I realized that he was waiting for me. He expected me to try.
“It’s…” I whispered. I cleared my throat before continuing. “Ngozi.” My voice croaked out of my throat, sounding as if it had been unused all day. I tried to think back to when I had last spoken, but I struggled to come up with anything. I held my breath.
“En-gauze-i?” he tried.
I inhaled, my teeth about to chatter. My fingers were trembling, and the pang in my stomach resonated in my core. I finally looked him in the eye. His eyes were blue and sharp, and they were too still. He knew I couldn’t say my name again. I realized he wasn’t breathing either.
At that moment, I understood being unsure. I understood being unsure about everything else because I was sure about him. I recognized him. My hand was still on my throat, as if I were trying to stop myself from breathing. I wanted something to change, and here, something had shifted; I wasn’t alone. I knew that I wanted to inhale and exhale, but only if he did, only if we could breathe at the same time, together.
And I knew he saw me too. I knew it later when we started spending time behind closed classroom doors alone and when he blushed as he asked me to call him Oskar. We found each other alone before school or after, always drawing closer together, always needing to be closer until we finally got as close as possible. We hid from everyone else because we had to, even during the past summer, after I had graduated and was eighteen; we hid in his apartment, in his bed, in the dark. We had decided there would be a few more years of this, even while I was away at college. We would be careful and certainly not saying anything to our families (though I sometimes wondered just how much my family would care). The day I said good-bye, Oskar wouldn’t let go of my hand until I stood on my tiptoes to put my lips on his neck. I could feel his pulse, and I felt it slow.
I started at the sound of Nneka moving one of the backpacks toward the desk on my side of the room. “Maybe you can start unpacking this one,” she said.
While opening the bag, I glanced over to Jamay’s side of the room, and I saw a slew of large plastic bags filled with new everything—binders and paper, pencils and pens, pastel shower caddies and matching flip flops, even some clothes with the tags still on. “We wanted to avoid the prices of things up here,” Mrs. James said. “Good Lord, everything’s so expensive.” They had driven up the east coast from South Carolina. I pulled out some of the contents of my backpack. I had a few notebooks and folders, but they weren’t new; I had used them in high school and thought they were in decent enough shape to bring to college.
“So your parents? They aren’t here?” Mrs. James asked.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. I knew I sounded abrupt, but I chewed on the inside of my cheek instead of saying something more.
Nneka jumped in. “No, I volunteered to come out here instead. They’re still in Minnesota.” She smiled, kindly but in a way that I hoped might stop questions like that. My sister had skills of conversation and smiles that I did not possess. I rarely smiled, though I often chose, voluntarily or otherwise, not to speak.
I told myself to take some air in. If I could have, I might have mentioned that my mother was also from the south, from a place in Alabama called Auburn, though she and her family were darker than the name of the city suggested. But I had never been there. In fact, Providence was the only other place I had found myself outside of Minnesota, and I had managed to be at Brown, another place where the name and its color felt like a weight. As I stared down at what was in front of me, it all became trivia. I held a blue folder with US History written in the upper right corner, a label I had written two years earlier before walking into Oskar’s classroom. The very edge of the corner was unsealing, revealing a grayish white underneath. I hadn’t seen it before, the fraying at the edges. I tried to push the cover back into place, to make it whole again, but poking at it wasn’t enough.
I reminded myself that I was wearing one of Oskar’s shirts as an attempt to hold myself in place. It was over-sized on me, a man’s navy t-shirt with the Henry Day School logo on it in white. I had taken it during an afternoon that past June in his apartment, after a drowsy stretch in his bed marveling at how my bare knee butted against his bare leg, at the blonde hairs spread across his chest that barely shifted when he breathed—at us there. Then he’d touched my arm with a serious look on his face. He had something to tell me, he said, sad news. Michael Jackson had just died. Oskar was sitting up in bed with his laptop balanced on his thighs, and he read aloud articles from a few different sites. He hadn’t realized that Michael Jackson was a pioneering black musician, getting played on MTV and white radio stations in a surprisingly recent yet still segregated time, that he had “crossed over” and transcended, and that he had grown up in the Midwest. I wasn’t sure what I had already known, and my throat tightened. This was the first time that Oskar and I had ever talked about Michael Jackson, and now we were learning these things at the same time. Oskar was intent on looking at me earnestly to say he was sorry, and I closed his computer. I felt a loss that I didn’t want to feel, like air passing through my fingers, so I moved his computer to an empty spot on the bed and pulled him on top of me. When I wrapped my legs around him, I didn’t need to think about how exactly life unfolded for black kids from the Midwest. I worried less, and I shook less.
I coughed to make myself breathe. “It is dusty in here,” Mrs. James said. Jamay hung shirts on hangers, and then Mrs. James hung them up in the closet. Nneka stood over by my dresser, unpacking rolled-up clothes and refolding my t-shirts, pants, and sweatshirts, carefully stacking them on the surface, not making any executive decisions about where things would go. When I looked at Jamay and her mom again, it seemed as if they had already figured out a routine, and I wondered if I was somehow unpacking wrong. Looking at my backpack again, I noticed a few pencils and balled-up pairs of socks that straggled at the bottom. I reached in to pull them out, but I suddenly felt I had nothing.
“You think they did this on purpose?” Jamay wondered aloud. I dropped a pencil when she spoke, not expecting the sound. “Because I think they did.”
I might have guessed who Jamay meant by they and this. The pencil rolled under the desk. I decided not to go after it.
“Whoever makes these decisions,” Jamay added. “The powers that be. Does anyone really know who ‘they’ are? I mean, not that I was trying to live with a white girl. But still.”
Nneka refolded one of my sweatshirts. “Your white roommate would probably go complaining to the RA about her room smelling like fried chicken and Pink Lotion,” she said.
Jamay and her mother cackled. They giggled as they pivoted toward the bed and got ready to unfurl a flat sheet together, making another crack about what a white roommate would do if she saw a hot comb. Nneka laughed, running her palms first across the last of my refolded shirts and then against one another, her smile still wide as she glanced in my direction.
I pressed my hand against the folder. It felt cool to the touch, cool enough for me not to dwell for a moment on how I wanted to hide. I tried to remind myself that certain types of feelings eventually pass, and I tried to forget that these feelings, just as reliably, always come back. I managed to pull my lips into a smile.
I could barely see myself. I had been treading slightly behind Jamay as we walked through campus that evening. Her shadow elongated her legs; she even stopped to comment on it as she paused to look at her reflection in a window near a lamppost.
“I’m just going to put a little more lip gloss on real fast,” she said, digging through her purse.
I was still in Oskar’s shirt, a cardigan, and dark jeans. Jamay had changed into a brightly colored dress before we left our room. She pulled out the tube of lip gloss, and I tried to catch a glimpse of her fingers on the purple plastic to see if they trembled like mine, to see if she felt the same way in her body that I did in mine. But, unlike me, she was smooth, calm, and open to being seen. When I looked at my own reflection, I almost had to squint to see that I was really there.
“I like your sweater,” she offered. She must have seen me looking at my murky likeness and frowning.
I’d been surprised when she asked me if I wanted to come with her, as though I might be worthwhile company. I wondered how long I could keep up the good will. “Thanks,” I said. “You look nice, and like you actually know it’s August.” I bit the inside of my lip. After a moment’s pause, she laughed.
When she’d dabbed her lips, she patted her hair to smooth the edges. I turned around with my back to the window and dug my hand into my pocket for a folded-up copy of our orientation schedule. Jamay and I were headed to an arch on campus where an a cappella group was scheduled to perform. There were several groups singing that night in different places, but Jamay had picked Sankofa for their short blurb in the schedule: “Representing the musical traditions of African-Americans and peoples of the African/Black Diaspora.” Diaspora, capitalized because it was A Thing, something important. I had no idea what it was, and I was afraid to ask. I wondered if Oskar would know what it meant. I hadn’t reached out to him yet; I hadn’t had enough time alone to do that. I closed my eyes and exhaled slowly through my nose, concentrating on the feeling of the creases in the paper before I refolded the pamphlet entirely.
We walked another block before seeing a collection of other first-year students, about twenty-five black and brown young men and women, who were all waiting. Jamay pushed in enough so that she could see the arch opening, but I found myself eye-level with the back of someone’s shoulder.
Standing there, I worked to make myself as small as possible. I heard feet scuffing around me on the sidewalk and pieces of several conversations darting over my head. I buried my nose in the collar of Oskar’s shirt. When I heard a few people in the crowd start applauding, along with a few cheers, I didn’t bother to look up. But then, from Jamay as she saw something I couldn’t see: “…the fuck?”
I raised my head and pushed onto the balls of my feet, straining to look around the heads of the people in front of me. I could see most of the singers in the group. I guessed there were eight or nine of them, a mix of older female and male students. I could tell they all wore black, long-sleeved shirts or cardigans. I could see their dark brown and black hair in dreadlocks and braids and afros and close-cropped cuts. I also caught glimpses of light brown skin and dark brown skin and variations in between.
But I blinked twice when I saw one young man in the group, standing near the middle. His hair was loosely wavy and brown, and I could see that he wore glasses. And he was white. I teetered back onto the heels of my feet, exhaling as I landed. My fingertips trembled for a moment, feeling tingly at the very ends.
Jamay kissed her teeth. “I thought they were supposed to be all black,” she said. With the singers there, the crowd inched together more, and I was nudged and shifted involuntarily. Though it was light, I could feel pressure on one of my shoulders and along my arms from the people who flanked me. I held my breath and slowly curled my hands into fists.
Someone blew into a pitch pipe. The crowd quieted, but I didn’t let the air out of my chest. I concluded that I couldn’t get the people off of my arms, and I closed my eyes again.
A singer started counting quietly. A woman in the group started to sing:
The singer held when for a long time, long enough that I heard a cheer from someone in the crowd behind me and another person snapping off to the side. I opened my eyes and saw Jamay with her hand on her chest, clearly feeling something different from what she’d felt a moment earlier. She recognized the song, but I did not.
… had you
I treated you bad
The singer belted out her notes and hit them confidently. Jamay blinked rapidly, as though she might cry. A few more people near me started to clap or snap, nudging me anew. Wishing I could find a way to place my body so as not to be touched by anyone, I heard someone in front of me say something about The Jackson 5. I realized this was a song made famous by them, when Michael Jackson sang it as a boy.
And wrong, my dear
The rest of the group had started singing their arrangements. Looking around, I couldn’t find any pockets of space where I might stretch or squeeze myself. I felt a deep thud in my chest. I saw only the backs of heads and shoulders, though some of them were starting to sway along to the song. I was desperate to see something else.
I lifted myself onto my toes again to try to glimpse through to the crowd of singers. The woman with the solo was dark and curvy with her hair in twists. She stood in front of the rest of the group, who side-step-swayed behind her in time with the music. The guy with the wavy hair and glasses was the easiest for me to see. Looking at him a second time, I noticed that his glasses were enormous, with bronze aviator-style frames. His hands hovered near his abdomen. He wore a trio of tan rubber bands around one of his wrists, and they danced when he moved, his fingers flexing slightly depending on what he was singing. I felt my pulse in my cheeks, and I wanted to know which voice was his.
And, girl, since
Since you’ve been away…
I craned my neck as much as I could and kept Big Glasses in my sight. He was slender, and his black shirt seemed fitted to his body. I could tell when his stomach rose and fell with each breath. My throat felt warm.
Don’t you know I sit around
With my head hanging down…
I watched his mouth as he sang. His lips were wide. I could pick out a voice with a raspy quality in its depth. Our eyes met.
And I wonder who’s loving you?
I stopped breathing. He blinked, but his gaze didn’t change.
We didn’t look anywhere else but at each other.
This novel follows Ngozi, a young, black woman with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, as she goes off to college and falls for an interesting and interested white classmate while still sleeping with her white high-school teacher. I am a black woman who grew up in Minnesota, and I have often had the experience of being a “brown face in a white space.” As a result, I am very familiar with the range of visceral feelings arising from that experience: otherness, exclusion, anger, anxiety. These sensations are all central to my work, but, in my personal experience, the anxiety is rarely discussed. Anxiety as a mental-health challenge can stem from worrying about the intangible or even the irrational. However, as a woman of color, I constantly feel anxiety about external things that are intangible and inherently irrational, as I encounter microaggressions, racism, sexism, and privilege that threaten or question my personhood in real ways. I’ve ended up asking myself: is pervasive, constant anxiety in fact a rational response to being a brown face in a white space?
Ngozi lives with anxiety as a woman of color existing in predominantly white spaces, and, as the writer of this story, I think her choices are fascinating. She is drawn to her high-school teacher, Oskar, because he also lives with anxiety. Yet they don’t often talk about race. Later she is drawn to Witt, her college classmate, who is trying so hard to absolve his white guilt that it causes his own mental-health challenges to flare up. What is she supposed to do in order to be recognized as a person? Will or can anybody ever see her? I hope that Ngozi’s story will help place the tensions of being simultaneously observed and overlooked, noted but unrecognized—understandably fearful in the face of pure, utter irrationality—in context.
Ijeoma N. Njaka is a writer, educator, and graduate student in Washington, DC. An alumna of VONA/Voices of Our Nations, Hurston/Wright, and GrubStreet’s Novel Generator, she is currently working on her first novel.
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017