‘The real beauty in life is that beauty can sometimes occur.’
- Colum McCann, Dancer, 2003
‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’
- Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979
There is still time for something to be salvaged.
I make a drastic move, take a chance with a boldness I don’t feel, and place myself awkwardly in his lap. His long body could swaddle me up; his legs lift to bring me closer into an enclosure completed by the doughy flesh of his arms.
He has the soft skin of older men. It’s textured like chicken skin, but also smooth and sanded, drawing my fingers to it, and my cheek.
He says nothing, keeps his eyes on the game, legs outstretched towards the TV. I bring my elbow to his left shoulder and put my fist to my chin in a gesture uniting boredom and expectation.
‘Can I ask you something?’
Hearing my voice is uncomfortable to me. I don’t know how to feel so can’t regulate it – it’s strained slightly, and almost childish. He sighs, lifts his glasses and rubs his eyes with the fingers of one hand. It hurts me, but I need something to happen.
I panic though, in the silence, not knowing how to tell him I’m lingering because I’m waiting for the moment that makes it worth it. Or how to tell him I’m trying to ignore that the feeling between us is not love. That I know it. That when I say, ‘I have love for you,’ it’s because I don’t think I have — but I want to. Though I can’t say why.
I don’t know how to say these things, but we both know another reckoning is inescapable, so I grasp at something, start somewhere:
‘Will you think of me when I’m gone?’ I ask.
‘Why would you ask that? What do you want?’ He lifts me off his lap, leaves the room, returns. ‘I honestly don’t know if I will. That’s just the kind of person I am.’ The words come out forcefully, determined rather than attacking. ‘I can’t predict these things. I’ve tried to be honest with you about who I am. I just don’t know, and I just can’t feel bad about these things anymore.’
He had told me. He’d told me he was ‘stuck.’ I knew he had four ‘elite’ academic degrees, and little sense of himself. I knew he was depressed. I knew he was jobless and without hope. And that I was young and dreamy and ambitious — in love as much as in life.
He talks, I talk. We hug, and he walks me to the subway station. On the track I think about the quiet, pulsating sadness in me. I’m tempted to ask, ‘How did I get here?’ But I resist, because I know how I got here.
I grew up on a potent mix of fantasy novels and anime. On infinite afternoons spent soul-deep in stories that were both epic — and reassuringly predictable. On hours sat swallowing into myself thousands of pages of love stories, journeys and supernatural worlds saturated with meaning. On a bread and butter of crucial quests: for selfhood, and for love. Which is to say I grew into fantastic and deeply compelling (and disastrous) ideas about love, and into a long-enduring faith in the triumph of the human spirit.
I wasn’t even nerdy, or particularly withdrawn. I didn’t have a bad childhood. I had a large garden, and went to private school, and won all the races on Sports Day. Yet there was something that drew me endlessly into the refuge of lives that were not my own, lives of Protagonists with Great Purpose — and that made sense.
That’s something: my life didn’t make all that much sense. And because we don’t talk about things in my family, I was left to decipher nonsensical happenings alone in my youthful head.
Things like being a British-born Ghanaian girl in post-apartheid South Africa, and being woefully unqualified to decide how to interact with the black housekeepers in my white friends’ houses. Things like my father being in my life only sporadically from when I was four till twelve years old; years he spent mostly as a weekend visitor, or the invisible subject of my mother’s sneering comments, or an occasional voice on the phone. After which he became an unspoken absence — and that has not changed.
And other nonsensical things like my mother’s love. Unfailing, and punishing; the intense love of single mothers who’ve had to make it work, for years, by themselves. The kind of love that has had to burn relentlessly against hard times and loneliness, so it needs your love for fuel. Sometimes beyond what you might be ready to give.
In this kind of nonsensical world you need cohering life-narratives like, ‘We have it together; we are a family.’ But, unlike the extensively woven narratives I read, these ones were fragile. Such unwieldy, disruptive things as emotions could never be felt on the surface – only secretly.
So it was on the powerful tides of all those many epic fantasies that I learnt there is an ocean of feeling. That there are capital ‘C’ characters whose emotional strength is so great it moulds destinies beyond even their own lives. In every one of these emotional movements, in every awakening of hidden magical power, I learnt what it is to feel. And for those feelings to be felt so completely they manifest outside of you in rolling balls of energy.
You can feel everything in these stories.
And that’s how I grew up – feeling everything in stories.
Sometimes I narrate my life to myself; matching my narration style to whichever author I happen to be reading. I’ll move my mouth around words over and over again until they resonate with some deeply felt truth I’d struggle to define. Sometimes the stories move beyond my body and draw into themselves the stories I’ve read. To help me, I think, escape, or keep calm.
Like the time my mother stood sobbing in my room, crying that I didn’t talk to her — that I didn’t love her — and how I tried not to cry. ‘And instead shut her eyes and felt the broiling force of her emotions so intensely they burst her skin and escaped her control as a wild, untamed magic.’
I’ve been worried many times that I’m crazy. I worry now and I worried when I was eleven, and fantasising frequently about a reincarnated Xena Warrior Princess. The mythic lesbian heroine always appeared, with a dazed and darting expression, in the parking lot of a London council estate. And I appeared, shocked but cognisant, from the door to my uncle’s ground-floor council flat. In each iteration I changed some small detail: the words I said, the size of the steps I took, how quickly she came to trust me. Even then, I knew it was not make-believe . It was preparation. Anything could happen, and I wanted to be ready.
When Fantasy is your mother’s milk, such things are as much unremarkable, commonplace even, as they are worrying. To believe the churning monotony of your life can be broken by a sudden and wondrous apparition is the natural movement of the mind. An attitude of belief is its natural state. Which is possibly how my well-stocked imagination came to believe in the shifting, formless thing that was the relationship between him and me.
How I came to be sitting in the same coffee shop, watching for the same man, holding the same yearning desires.
‘Hey, how are you?’ He always exhales this. A short, sharp breath for the greeting, a longer for the question.
He shifts off his backpack, sits next to me on the bench in the wall. I hold myself away from him, imperceptibly, but willing him to note my resistance.
‘I’m well, thanks.’ I smile, taking in the café’s warm, shadowy light, and its small made-for-one tables, before moving my eyes to meet his face.
I almost move my hand to his when he laughs in the middle of our conversation. His lips pull back and he shows his front teeth, giggling in shorter exhalations. His boyish face looks lit and youthful. I’m buoyed and grateful, and realise I was sinking in the swirl of my thoughts and half-aborted feelings. I want more.
But more is not forthcoming. A man having trouble loving himself cannot love me. So I let us talk about food and editing software and how cold it is in New York City. I don’t press him about how he’s doing, or whether he’s found work, or whether he feels hope. His answers rarely soothe me anyway, and to question would be to belie my longing for him to be well, and grown, and loving finally.
In the books I read, man-boys (lost, weak and slightly dull) go through trials —they are orphaned, or their village is ransacked; they are often poor. But then they emerge as men (cripplingly beautiful, mature, brave, rich). In real life the outcome is far less certain. But hope is birthed in that uncertainty — and dies hard. So that these flailing man-boys of our physical reality, lost on their way to manhood, are always, in some way, utterly absorbing. And, as the flesh-and-blood extensions of the stories that have nourished us, they cannot be fully dismissed.
In their state of empathy-inducing powerlessness, our living forest rangers inspire all the love and faith and support we have given to their fictional counterparts. Their need compels, such that helping them progress in their journey feels like we’re progressing in our own. Feels like we are creating meaning in both our lives, so that experiencing their life becomes an important part of ours. Or, put another way, our narrative needs to be an important part of theirs.
As Laurie Penny, writing on Manic Pixie Dream Girls (MPDG) and sexism in stories, puts it:
If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else, and when you’re a young girl looking for a script, there are a limited selection of roles to choose from.
If attaching your life to that of someone who doesn’t love you is a special type of madness, the literary phenomenon of the MPDG is the closest I’ve come to a diagnosis. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl term, Penny explains, was coined first by Nathan Rabin. He described her as existing ‘solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.’
Reading this for the first time was deliciously satisfying; it was familiar. Moulding my narrative to that of ‘broodingly soulful’ men had become, by the time I reached the doctor’s office of Laurie Penny MPDG, a chronic condition.
I had already, in the twenty-three years of my life, devotedly sought to nurture intimacy and hope in that of a disillusioned and penniless Ph.D. I had also, and to much chagrin, dated a ‘misunderstood’, roguishly beautiful, Jack Sparrow-esque homeless man in Hawaii. And I had certainly — and frequently — heard myself explain in long, circling monologues that such-and-such love interest ‘just needed time’ and ‘a little help’ to be in touch with their feelings. (A necessary precursor to transforming into the loving, thoughtful partner I so desired.)
This disease of Manic Pixie-ness is deeply unflattering, and worrying, but also wonderful. It makes things make sense. ‘There’s a reason why I act this way!’ I can cry. I can clutch this information to myself and explain, ‘I’m not the only one who does this; it’s not just me!’
But also, it’s not me.
There’s something that’s never quite fit: I’m black. And neither in the books nor in the many (many) dreamscapes of whimsy-seeking men are Manic Pixies black. Or of any colour. No, they are cute waifs with sparkling eyes; fragile, yoghurty skin; and delicate bodies.
I should have remembered that we black women have already been assigned our narratives — and they are not the type to inspire affection in the hearts of sensitive men. Our narratives — the ones largely designated by men wanting to map their thoughts onto our bodies — are of a different calibre. We’re not excitable, endearingly strange, sensitive or cute. We are ‘strong’ and ‘athletic’ and, of course, ‘exotic’. Thank you for the compliments, Mr [white] Man.
In the market of romantic exchange, your narrative affords (and robs) you certain allowances and rewards. Manic Pixie Dream Girls are robbed of a full personality, of strength and of agency but they get the hearts of sweet, deep-thinking boy-men and soft-boys. Not really a win, but such is love. Strong black women with thighs and thoughts get to have power. Or whatever you might call that intimidating veneer to our persons. What we don’t get are emotions. Or that lovely ethereal quality. We are, indeed, some of the most solid-form human beings you will meet, and we are meant never to waiver; we may be enticing, but never ungraspable.
How we are grasped, as has been the fate of women of our gender, is not up to us. And if how we are grasped is our social currency, then how worrying to feel my actions have no apparent sense or structure — no obvious narrative. I do not fit into either of the categories, or rather, I fit into both. I exhibit the core MPDG behaviours (‘Here, suffering man, let me help you’). But my actions, without the context of the MPDG body, situated in a strong, black and dependable woman’s body, are even more absurd. I am rendered just a person making inexplicable decisions. And inexplicable decisions often look like stupid decisions.
Like dating a man who prefers solitude to intimacy and does not subscribe to holding hands. A melancholy, tired man, in every single way unsuitable for a dreamy, physical young woman with precisely enough verve to stay in a lifeless relationship for two years. It’s not that I haven’t known; I know you’re not supposed to be afraid all the time of the unpredictable moment. The one that topples the good feeling you work so hard to construct in the short time things are going well.
I suppose I’ve been waiting, I imagine, just as I waited for dozens of storied heroes before him, for this male protagonist to come into his best self. And for our relationship to evolve along with him. I’ve been holding, most importantly, onto the hope of such a future.
The hope that I could have something approximating love in something approximating a relationship with someone approximating a mature emotionally developed partner. The hope that I could grow into love with someone. That hope, to a love-naïve, fantasy-reared, dreamy-but-solid young black woman, feels crucial.
If I let him go and rid myself of those alien-seeming manic pixie dream girl tendencies, if I gave up on him and gave into realism, if I abandoned the fantasy of an improbable love, what would the collateral damage be?
I know what I would gain: comprehensibility. Often called by another name: maturity.
I think of this whenever I remember the drive to Honolulu. I’m not with him; I’m with a friend. In the car, I put my feet up on the dashboard, stick my right foot out the window, and curl my toes in the passing wind.
‘I have to say, Y—, I think that’s pretty immature of you.’
I sit up and bring my feet down. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘I just feel like it’s sort of immature that you want to be with this guy just because you want to be the girl that “reaches” him. He’s pretty weird.’
I start talking.
Pushing out words I already know are failing to make him understand. But I continue, hands moving in useless gestures alongside my voice, because I don’t want to believe I’m defenceless against the settling weight of his judgment. I don’t want to be left alone with the fury of being reduced to such a damning flaw. Or with the hurt of being misunderstood. What seems simple to him seems impossibly complicated to me: why don’t I just . . . not?
So I should be relieved, sitting a continent away in the lounge of my uncle’s house, when I get the text from the man.
‘Hey Y—. I have crazy news. I got married last week. Everything happened really quickly for various reasons. We actually only started seeing each other in the Fall and even then, tentatively. It’s crazy and strange, especially for me, but I was stuck in every way and my life had to change and so I let it. It’s been a hard thing to figure out how to share this with you. Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about it sometime.’
I move to another room. Clutching my phone, I scramble to exorcise myself of all the hopes at love I had invested in him. I want to be rid of him, and quickly. And to be rid of that extra thing: the sharp, suddenly inescapable feeling that there will be many other people I will never love.
I feel the loss of him (and the others) keenly and abruptly, right in the spot between the bottom of my ribs and my belly button. I wonder if I should cry. I hope I do, and instead feel the pressure of a silence of emotion. I consider cancelling my drinks date with a local artist, but recognise, disconcertingly, that I’m composed enough to go. Instead, my hands move and my feelings grasp at anger. I delete the text and block the contact. His punishment is never to hear from me again.
‘Uncle, I’m headed out!’
But there’s an aching residue of something that feels like sorrow. It’s in my chest and my throat, and it makes me clench my fingers. Would that I could scour myself of this feeling. Perhaps this is precisely the time to do as people have been calling for me to do: exorcise myself not of other people, but of that irrational, compulsive part of me that pursues poor prospects. Life would probably be easier. Perhaps I should try to find a way. Perhaps those same people calling for change could also tell me whom I would be left to be?
I grew myself up on stories and feelings.
If the risk of getting hurt goes, if the ‘bad’ decisions and inappropriate men and incomprehensible impulses go, then so do my daring and positivity. So goes my dogged belief in the triumph of the human spirit — and in love. The imagination that has me believing in futures where love is mature (and so are the men) is the same imagination that envisioned what life might be like in other worlds and in other bodies. It is the basis of my empathy. It is the basis of my hope.
Which is what continues to be so disturbing about the text from the man I had hoped to love, who got married. His moving on — so drastically and so swiftly — undermined my imagination and my dreams. I felt him close a door and leave me with a cold new hardness to the undulating, dreamy way I feel through life. Things end.
I have learnt a lesson. I’m cautious. I’ve said flippantly and spitefully ‘all men are liars’. I subscribe to the belief that straight cis men are the worst demographic. I am hurt. I accept the painful but mundane reality that I am not special. I am not exempt from loss. I am not special.
Which would be harder to swallow if not for the stories that got me here in the first place. I suppose a by-product of a near-constant and multiplatform consumption of narratives about Awesome Beings will fast-forward the realisation that you are, by most measures, unremarkably average.
Which is precisely why you live and feel in stories to begin with. Yes, fine, the misery of your own mundanity is painful, but at least you also have dreams. I say that even now. In the midst of the pain (any pain), hope and triumph and love become these tenacious and elemental forces — forces upon which you draw in the process of creating your narrative. One replete with Significant Moments and a sense that you might just be, or at least experience, something more.
It’s actually pretty . . . hopeful.
Bio: Yvette Tetteh (b. 1992) is a British-born Ghanaian artist, yoga teacher, and aspiring farmer. She holds a BA in Cultural Anthropology, and French, from Stanford University (CA, USA.) Her work is centred on the black body, and the intersection of intimacy, reserve, and performativity. Her astrological signs are: Cancer Sun, Aries Moon, and Gemini in Ascendant. This sums her up perfectly. Yvette is based in Accra, Ghana and is the winner of the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Non Fiction.