A Good Mask by Nadia Owusu
It is four in the morning and I must prepare to recede. My weekdays begin with self-exorcism. Name, shame, secrete, wash, wipe clean, wring dry, sanitize. What I can’t expunge, I conceal. I blur and disguise.
My name is Adwoa Nyamekye Stella Darko. Adwoa, in Twi, means girl child born on Monday. Nyamekye means God’s gift. Stella was my half-white grandmother: my father’s mother. I remember her cold palms on my cheeks, her green eyes staring into mine, her London accent: “Well, you’re a naughty girl, aren’t you? Good. Better naughty than boring. But you mustn’t be naughty in public.” To her friends, she introduced me as her American granddaughter. My father, at eighteen, had moved to New York for university, had met my American mother, had me, became an American citizen. Americans, my grandmother said, are loud and obvious. She told me to always sit properly, like a lady, at school and at birthday parties, and to sit how I bloody well pleased at home with my family and closest girlfriends. She never left the house without a full face of makeup.
“We all need a good mask, we black women” my grandmother warned me. When I was a little girl and my father and I visited her in Kingsbury, in the council flat where my father grew up, she let me sip from her gin and tonics. The bitter cocktail, she said, was our reward for surviving another day in a white man’s world. She was a secretary in a law office. All the lawyers were white men. Once, she took me to work with her and I heard one lawyer call her pet and another call her poppet. It confused me that she made their tea, fetched their files, smiled at them sweetly. At home, she was boss. At home, her smile was cheeky and knowing. I was eleven when she died. She left me her wedding ring: a single pearl on a gold band. I wear it, always, on my index finger, never take it off. Her husband, my grandfather, died a year after my father was born. He was from Ghana, had moved to London for medical school.
“I was supposed to be a surgeon’s wife,” my grandmother often told me. “Wasn’t supposed to work another day in my life once my husband graduated. It just goes to show.” She never said what it went to show.
My grandmother gave me my crooked bottom teeth, the dent in my chin, her name. At work, I am just Stella. Stella is easy to pronounce, untroublesome.
The first thing I do in the morning is take two Advil for my hangover. My nightly reward of choice is red wine. Most nights, I drink half a bottle.
I drink in the tub and on the couch as I watch, first the white housewives, and then the black ones, tear each other apart. They behave horribly in public. They pull off each other’s wigs and flip tables in restaurants, their faces ugly with rage and jealousy. Their fame and wealth shields them, even the black ones. They shop at Louis Vuitton.
I drink in bed while reading Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Octavia Butler, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rachel Cusk. I drink until the words blur. Then, I brush my teeth, turn on the crickets or the tropical storm, and go to sleep.
The second thing I do in the morning is make coffee: just instant Bustello with a splash of almond milk. Today, I add a dollop of coconut oil. Outside, the streetlamps and the moon are still lit. The lights are on in the school across the street, but there are no students yet, no teachers, at least none that I can see in the windows. I aspire to that sort of fluorescent emptiness.
With my coffee, I return to my bed. Every morning, I allow myself an hour of thick, concentrated feeling. Sometimes I cry into my cup. Sometimes I gulp, let the coffee burn my tongue and throat. Sometimes I lie down, pinch and stroke my nipples until I get wet, slide my fingers into my cotton panties, into myself, shudder, shake. On those days, I drink my coffee cold. Sometimes I punch pillows, kick air until I lose my breath. If I rage, I must do so silently. The walls of my studio apartment in Brooklyn are thin and there is an elderly woman asleep next door. She usually wakes at six, as I am leaving. Most days, I hear her alarm go off, her toilet flush, her muttered prayers. At least I assume that she prays. I cannot make out the words but the rhythm is always the same. It sounds like hunger, like begging to be fed. I do not pray. Hunger is my desired state. Coffee is my only breakfast. At lunch, I have an arugula salad with sliced cherry tomatoes and olive oil. Dinner is grilled chicken and steamed vegetables.
This morning, I decide to confess my sins and mentally catalogue my regrets. From my cup, steam rises.
My original sin is also my origin story. I killed my mother. On my way out of her body and into the world, I ruptured her uterus, trespassed into her abdomen, caused a sanguine flood. From swallowing her blood, I almost drowned. The surgeons cut her open, pulled me out. My first breath required suction, resuscitation, my mother’s ruin. My father has told me, at least once a year, that I am not to blame. I was an infant, he insists, an innocent. That may well be, but it does not change that my mother died so I could live. My birth was a breach. Always, as an adult, as a precaution, I avoid intruding. In public, I wear my mask. I keep my body meager, my voice muted.
My father sued the New York hospital where I was born. His lawyer was an old friend of his: a classmate in undergrad at Yale. After college, they both got jobs at nonprofits serving black youth, but eventually they wanted to make a living. My father went back to school, got a PhD in economics at MIT. His friend went to Harvard Law. Had my mother been white, they argued in the lawsuit, the doctor would have believed her, would have saved her. Before my mother started pushing, she had insisted that something was wrong, had screamed for help. My father had squeezed her hand, had shouted at the doctor, at the nurses, that my mother was always right, that they had to listen to her. He had been ordered to calm down or leave. The doctor had wagged his finger in my father’s face. Even his nice suites and English accent, my father said, had not curtailed the doctor’s racism. I was born in 1982. Things are not better now. Still, black women die from childbirth. Still, black babies are born dead.
Black people’s pain, my father told me, is often disbelieved, dismissed, by white people. From her pain – from gritting her teeth to bear it – my mother broke an incisor. My father kept her tooth – put it in a little box in his sock drawer with my baby teeth. He lost the lawsuit against the hospital. My mother, the hospital’s lawyers successfully argued, was to blame for her own death. She had worked until her eighth month. She didn’t exercise enough, ate fried food, did nothing to manage her stress and anxiety, waited too long to have a child, had a child after having surgery to remove twenty uterine fibroid tumors. That surgery put her at risk of uterine rupture. Her job and her diet put her at risk of hypertension and diabetes. I was the risk realized. I killed her.
“The doctor knew about her fibroid surgery,” my father says. “They knew her age. They should have believed her. And, a Black woman can’t just quit her job, can’t avoid anxiety, can’t avoid stress, not in America. Your mother grew up poor. She financially supported half of her family. She always had to be excellent. America did that to her. Racism did that to her. But, they said she died because she like fried chicken.”
Half of my mother’s ashes, my father buried in a hole in the ground, under a tree on his uncle’s land in Ghana. The other half of my mother is in an urn in a columbarium in Queens, near where my mother was born and raised. Every year on her birthday, I go there and sit surrounded by the walls of remains. I never cry. I don’t know why I go, but I know I must go. Afterwards, I allow myself a milkshake. Then, at home, I stick my finger in my throat and retch myself vacant.
Another sin: I am my father’s refuge but I treat him like a burden. Being born, I killed his wife, the only woman he has ever loved. He cheated on both his second and third wives, but he claims that, to my mother, he was faithful. I choose to believe him. I am told that my mother’s love was boundless. She once gave her shoes and socks to a homeless woman and walked home barefoot in the rain. Her work was, officially, prison reform. In her journal that my father gave me when I turned eighteen, she wrote that it was not reform she was after. She wanted abolition. She believed in a world where no one was caged, where everyone was free.
When it comes to love, I am a miser. On my phone, from my father: six missed calls and three text messages, all unanswered. From his divorce from his third wife, from his drinking, from his unending grief, from his affairs with his students, I hide.
Sin: I resent my half-sister and half-brother. They are twelve and fourteen years old, respectively. I resent them their rich white mother who is alive. I resent them their beauty, their trust funds. A part of me is glad that my father cheated on their mother, that he moved out of her house in Brooklyn Heights. A part of me is glad that they too were denied the perfect family. Some weekends, I take them to the movies or to lunch. Mostly, they stare at their phones, but they tell me they love me when we say goodbye. I say it back but I’m not certain that I mean it.
Regret: When I was fourteen, a friend of my father’s stole my body from me. His tongue in my mouth, his tongue between my legs. His saliva tasted like stale cigarettes. The beat of his heart menaced my thigh. When he came up for air, unzipped his pants, slipped inside me, the look in his eye was a command: Don’t fight. Against me, his eyes said, you will not win. I did not fight to save my own body – my body that cost my mother her life. I let him take it. When my father’s friend pulled out and burst on my belly, I felt myself drained of who I was before and filled with something heavy and opaque. I carry, still, that heaviness. I carry it inside me with my fibroid tumors. Sometimes, I see my father’s friend at dinner parties. I call him uncle. He calls me sweetheart and I let him. I regret this cowardice, this complicity.
Sin: The man who stole my body has a granddaughter now. I have watched her climb into his lap. I have watched him stroke her hair. I have said nothing.
I am not finished with my confession and cataloguing when my second alarm goes off, signaling that it is time to stop feeling, time to go numb. I reach down, touch my toes, rise and inhale, flutter my lips. I shake my whole body, then I stand still until the energy settles. I survey my room to ensure that it is still spotless from last night’s cleaning. I keep my belongings to a minimum. I sweep and dust daily. It is just after five A.M.
From my head, I remove the silk scarf I sleep in and pull my hair up. I put on my shorts, sports bra, sneakers. I run four miles. The point of running is depletion and sweat. I want to lose my breath. I want to ache.
When I return, I shower in scalding water with scentless soap. After drying, I snatch my hair back into a very tight bun, gel my edges. My dark circles, my hyperpigmentation, I cover with concealer. I layer on full-coverage foundation and pressed powder. In the mirror, I make sure that I can still count my ribs through my skin. I clothe myself in all black: dress pants, button-down shirt, knee-high socks, Chelsea boots. I apply cherry Chapstick. My affirmation before I leave the apartment: I am calm and relaxed in every situation. I embrace quiet. I let go of emotions so I can see clearly. I wear my mask in public.
At work, my voice is soft and cheerful, my laughter easy. For my paycheck, and as penance for my original sin, I write reports about inequities in America’s healthcare system. I analyze data. I have the same title as my mother: Senior Policy Analyst. All day, I read about, talk about, write about black bodies: bullets in black bodies, tumors in black bodies, AIDS in black bodies, cardiac diseases in black bodies, black limbs severed from diabetic black bodies, sleepless black bodies, asthmatic black bodies, stillborn black bodies. Currently, I am writing a report about disproportionate maternal death rates among black women.
At a sixty-person organization that advocates for better health outcomes for black and brown people, I am one of only five black employees. I am one of only two black women. I am friendly with all of my colleagues; friends with none of them. We are PhDs, experts. This is a think tank. The walls are bare and the light is harsh. Here, emotions are destructive and irrational. Emotions must never affect our analysis or our decisions. This is good for me. Here, I am a mind, not a body. My role is to document and recommend. In my reports, the bodies are numbers. The bodies do not have names. When I see my mother in the data – black women dead from childbirth – I close my eyes and count to ten. When I see my body in the data – the fibroid tumors growing in my uterus, my panic attacks – I close my eyes and count to ten.
“What we need,” says one of my white male colleagues in the morning meeting, after I give an update on the report I am writing, “is more education in the black community about the dangers of obesity for pregnant women.”
“We must highlight,” says my white woman boss, “the importance, for black women, of postpartum care. So many black women don’t see their doctors for postpartum visits.”
Across the conference room table from me, the other black woman – Jennifer – is shaking. Sweat glistens on her forehead. Her cheeks are red. I look away from her imprudent body. Her mask is coming off. I look out the window where the sky is clear and blue, where the sun is bright.
“Especially for women with risk factors, postpartum visits are—” my boss continues. Before she can finish her sentence, Jennifer pounds her fist into the table.
“They don’t go because doctors are racist,” she hisses. “It isn’t the black women who need educating. It’s the doctors! I almost died having my daughter last year.” Now, Jennifer is crying. Snot dribbles onto her upper lip. “I told the nurse I didn’t feel right and she did nothing. My husband went to find a doctor when we saw blood in my catheter. We waited three hours for a fucking CT scan. I was freezing. I was in pain. I was hemorrhaging. I almost died. My PhD in public health didn’t help me. The only reason I’m alive is because my husband finally lost it, threatened to call the NAACP.”
Jennifer is gasping for air. The room is silent but for the white noise of the floor fan. Then, my boss clears her throat. Someone coughs. Jennifer walks out of the room, slams the door. My body wants to follow her. Tears threaten to rise in my eyes. I take a deep breath and start to count to ten.
“Stella,” my boss says, “can you go check on her?”
I nod, smile, and rise. I am the other black woman so I must go. In the office, in the hall, in the bathroom, there is no sign of Jennifer. I wonder if she will be back tomorrow. I could call her but I know that I will not. I go back to my desk and reapply powder to my face. I sit like a lady – legs crossed, hands in lap, mask on. I count to ten and open the report on my desktop. I breathe. I let go of emotions so I can see clearly.