To Whom It May Concern or DEAR DEATH by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko

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Loss is life’s only language. Moving from mask to face to soul, the journey we share.

Anyway, got this job online after going broke for a week and not eating for something like four days straight. I hate fishing for food from dumpsters waiting on my next pay stub so I took any job I could even though, at the time, I felt a little weak.

“Your ad says you’re looking for somebody?”

“Found someone, sorry,” he sounded young, I’d say no more than twenty-seven, maybe twenty-five years tops but you can’t know for sure without face-time.

“You sure brah? ‘Cause I’ll do near anything for a job, especially today.”

He said he’d call back if something came up. Fat fucken chance, I thought, so I closed the five gay interracial hardcore porn tabs streaming on my laptop, felt my heart sink when I clicked “close” on my fave gloryhole blowjob series just so I could focus my online search exclusively on getting a day gig. Then my cell rings: “How soon can you get to my place? Berkeley Hills.”

I lied, told him an hour knowing if I got there sooner it would make a good impression and maybe he’d offer me extra or at least a referral, you never know with people, especially Berkeley types. Plus, that morning I woke up early, rode my bike downtown to Rich-People-Ville, dumpster dived only and found a free pile of designer clothes off the street at which point I knew my luck wasn’t bad and with this new job it was getting better as the day went on. Soon as I got downtown, I texted him. He called me right back, asked me to catch a bus to his place so I lied again, told him the next one wouldn’t show for another hour, knowing he was too stressed to check his cellphone to confirm the bus schedule and, in all honesty, buses rarely run regularly in places like Berkeley Hills where the one percent own something like a twelve luxury cars so they don’t use public transportation as much as everyone else has to.

“I’ll pick you up in about,” he paused, “…eight minutes maybe? Black BMW going down Shattuck Avenue. Wave when you see me.”

I got into the backseat; he said the front wasn’t working right, something to do with the little thingy that rotates so the seat couldn’t maneuver easily into place or stick still once it got in place. Anyway, once I made myself pretty comfortable inside I took a good, hard look at him. No more than twenty-two, not tall, slightly chubby but not fat. His face was wide. In my language we call it “panua” which speaks to its breadth, its expansiveness might be closest in translation. But it also implies a certain amount of generosity that comes with a full face, nothing stingy or pinched the way westerners think of beauty. Don’t get me wrong, his features were bird-like, small and sharp but not tight, making the shape of his face all the more generous. I tried my best to imagine him as an African—he was from India, I think—but failed again and again to box him into a tribe so I settled on the very unlikely mix of Luo and Kikuyu mostly for my own amusement. Just when I was assigning roles, wondering who would be from the Luo tribe, his Mom or Dad, he said something.

And—there really is no other way to put this without sounding gay by which I mean freeing my feminine and hopefully yours too—his voice was gorgeous. Sweet music. It wasn’t male or female or genderless. It didn’t have anything: no want, no demand. It wasn’t tied to an accent, dancing around a culture. It was his—free and freeing, as if it carried something so promisingly precious that remained within reach while refusing to be touched.

The usual questions came up to make sure he hadn’t hired an online Internet serial killer, the kind who shows up, cleans his place spotless then slits his throat with a dirty kitchen knife, taking advantage of suburban stillness for an hour-long nap on a comfy sofa next to his bloody corpse. An hour later the serial killer wakes up to the sound of chirping birds, relaxed but starved the serial killer guts the refrigerator for meat topped with huge, red globs of ketchup, chewing like a madman an inch away from his dead body. Meanwhile his downstairs neighbor notices blood dripping from the ceiling so said neighbor immediately calls 9-1-1 to report while also mentioning a strange smell coming from next door that reminds him of, the neighbor takes an excessively long pause—death?

He asked me where I work. (Lied.) “What do you do for work?” (Lied.) “Where do you come from?” (Truth mixed with some lies to make myself more exotic. West Coasters adore interracial buffets from a multiplicity of cultural combos so I mix it up whenever I can to score liberal bonus points.) “Do you like California?” (Lied.) “Have you been to Berkeley Hills?” (Lied.) Then he asked me what I want to be and I told him the truth but I don’t know why I told him. Maybe it was his voice, its seductive dream-power-quality, maybe that’s what made me tell him the truth. Or maybe I was tired of lying and needed to assume he had my best intentions in his heart. Or maybe it’s because no matter how much I lied everything felt okay, like I wasn’t being judged for who I am or anything like that. Or maybe, in that moment, I desperately needed to trust a stranger. Or maybe killing my fear of rejection would birth a sacred space called Authenticity through my tongue. Or maybe I wanted my dream to match his voice but I can’t say for sure what made me tell him my truth.

“I’d like to be a writer. I’ve written three books. But nobody reads them,” I laughed, Hahahaha, but he didn’t. He looked straight ahead at the road; so did I.

“Did you do any schooling for it?” he asked.

By now we’d driven past the flatter parts of downtown Berkeley’s city center into steep inclines. Big suburban houses sat on hills surrounded by flora colored red, purple. Stranger still was the way the road snaked towards nowhere.

I thought about my mother who just died. I thought about how she died. I thought about how she lived. I thought about how someone can live like they’re dead. I thought people who never die; legends. I thought about my grief and not eating and sleeping for days. I thought about the amount of energy, the mental fortitude it took every day, every fucken day to open my Goddamn eyes. I thought about feeling weak and dizzy and how I’d have to get ready, buck up to psyche myself for the job about to start in a few minutes and how I couldn’t let myself give in no matter what I was feeling. I thought about how Africans are not allowed to feel depressed or suicidal because when you’re in America, you must be better off, and if you’re not a success story there’s only one reason why: you’re a certified loser, right? I thought about not having enough money for a plane ticket to fly across the country to care for my mother during her last days. How I begged and borrowed and went online to beg strangers, “friends” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, begging anyone, everyone. Doing the same stupid thing, begging and borrowing money to pay off her funeral just to meet her last wish. I thought about being humiliated. I thought about teaching myself to stay humiliated because somehow, somewhere I conflated humiliation with humility. I thought about my clothes, how I pick them off the street then put them on, sometimes not allowing myself to stop short of picking rotten food from the garbage: me, an educated African in a BMW in one of the richest parts of the richest country in the world, richest country on this planet. Then I thought about the choices I can’t unmake: my gender, my sexuality. And choices I did not make: my race. Then I thought about the strange beauty in integrity; the painful riches that come with not compromising to live life whole when you’re Black and transgendered and materially poor and suffering because your pain has no sacred place in a “democratic” dumping ground like America. Then I thought about my entire life up to that point: the vicious purgatorial loop, how one thing, one unexpected thing can change your whole world forever and how there is no way back and might not be a way out or ahead no matter how hard you try. Doesn’t matter if that one thing is expected or comes as a surprise because nothing prepares you for a life where everything you do has consequences but no impact. I thought about being confused, and lost, and alone, and tired, and terrified and truly ashamed of myself. Of my nothingness and my emptiness because I carry a heavy void. But mostly I thought about my mother: what would she make of my life? Then I replied.

“I’m cleaning houses and doing all sorts of odd jobs because they don’t tell you in school that a degree in writing won’t make you any money. In fact, they don’t tell you most people, including your parents and especially yourself, will think you’re a loser. It’s true. I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror, stare, but I don’t see myself. Then I wonder, Where did I go? And will I ever come back? How does someone come back? I’m serious, how do you reach for yourself when you’re not you?” I took a deep breath. “I went to the same ivy league school for undergraduate and graduate studies. Now I’m a maid. Before you or anyone says so, I’ll say it first: I’m a loser. Disgrace to my family, community, tribe, I know it. But my search,” I paused, “is for stories that come from some place deep. Some place only life can touch. Many times, so many times when you read stories from famous writers who are rich, their stories have no life in them. Because,“ I paused, “they’re terrified to look at life. With good reason, it’s hell. Life is terrifying to look at. But I’d rather live like this, searching for real life by confronting my fear, and committing whatever I find to paper, no matter the cost. See? ”

He stopped his black BMW. We were on an incline driving towards the summit of a steep hill when he stopped his car smack in the middle of the road. He said this with his back turned so I couldn’t see his face. But I could hear his voice: cold, distant.

“You can’t clean my house.”

I understood. I’d been in California long enough to know how things worked. This place was free when it came to some people but not others. Not Black people, especially not poor Black people going to Berkeley Hills where they get ticked off for jack little. I’d talked too much. Made myself too much of a presence. Gone into dangerous, personal territory too quickly, too deeply and intimate for it to work at a professional level where I was meant to play the subordinate, him my master. I bet he thought once we got to his place I’d steal, maybe tie him up then destroy his valuable possessions out of jealousy or something just as insanely elitist. I tried my best to breathe evenly, thinking with my luck there’d definitely be a better job online when I got back to my laptop.

Then he turned to face me. He was crying.

“You can’t clean my house. No…I’m sorry.”

His beautiful, pure voice shaking with emotion. Uneven, almost trembling on the verge of sobbing. “In these few minutes, you’ve changed my life. You’ve made me see the world differently. I have so much respect for what you’re doing. I cannot let you clean my house. No, you cannot clean my house.” He went on crying, and I let him. I didn’t say a word, not one. I just sat there, stunned. For a long time, nobody said anything. We just sat stuck—moving from mask to face to soul.

When I finally did gather my thoughts, all I could think about was my mother, her looking from wherever she was. Seeing that car stuck on a slope in the middle of the road up a hill amid the suburban peace but for him crying, me sitting speechless. We were nowhere; we were everywhere; we were within reality, inside eternity, embracing mystery, inching towards infinity. Moving fast towards endless endlessness.

Mom, are you really dead? Unreachable forever? Do you know how hard I’ve tried to die for you? Not eating, not sleeping, making myself absolutely nothing. Because I miss you. Because I don’t know how to go on, not without you. I closed my eyes, never wanting them to open ever again, pushing each thought towards places we human beings are not allowed.

To fly. To reach beyond impossible. To touch the throne of miracles, wherever they are born. Taking step after careful step. Entering that sacred space where nothing breathes and everything is alive. To hold the sun. To be the light. To kiss infinity with my eyes is where I meet my mother.

I lowered my head, slowly.

Dear Grief,

You have a special home for poor, queer, trans, Black folk. Take me there. And when deep within, teach me how to love fiercely while letting go. Show me the moment when loss comes to terms with acceptance. So I can transition. And finally fly. Amen.

That’s when I got to thinking maybe my mother, she who in life hated all my choices, maybe she could truly see me now. And if she could truly see me, maybe she was with me. All of me. Right there and then.

I have played son. Performed queer. Lived with loss. Consumed suffering. Housed pain. Expertly woven together with the delicate thread of sacred love.

I turned to my sobbing friend: “Sometimes in life you have to bend. Sometimes you have to break. Sometimes you have to do both, bend and break. And it’s still not enough,” I told him, “That’s when you have to die. That’s where life finds me. And where I find life. So do not cry, not for me.”

That’s when I opened my eyes, right at that moment. Because everyone’s eyes were open to another world.

Witness.

 

Copyright, Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, 2019

 

Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko is queer, trans, NB, Tanzania-American looking for a literary agent and/or publisher for a book of short stories. Nick has published two qtpoc books, Waafrika (Un/CUT Voices Press, 2013) and Waafrika 123 (Un/CUT Voices Press, 2016). Contact: nhm9@caa.columbia.edu