Posted in Audio, hope chest, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting

Hope Chest, Ep. 11 – Growing and Going: A Love Story


Even now, I’m not sure why I did it. I’d say it wasn’t like me but that would only be half-true. I’d forgotten what I was like—or perhaps I never quite knew—and by the time we got here, I was becoming something else altogether.

That is often a function of relocating, of looking for new cities in which to settle, new soil to turn and plant roots. When you leave who and where you’ve been, you are hoping for a home, a place to thrive and surprise yourself, a space to make wide, open, and safe enough to mitigate the bigger risks you intend to take. 

I owe you an explanation, for you were the only witness. You were here, not just to see what happened but to be exposed to it. And it was an unexpected exposure, one for which I am solely responsible.

Adult decisions should be durable enough to withstand the inquisition of a child. And more mothers should hold themselves accountable to their children, not only when those children are old enough to articulate the impact of our parenting, but also in the moment, where help and potential harm may be two sides of the same coin. 

Because a child does not wait to feel the weight of their mother’s choices, they should not have to wait to hear why those choices have been made. I know well that you are a child who clings to narratives, who turns them on her tongue and tosses them out like skittering stones on a river. So I have already told you some version of this, a version appropriate for 11-year-old ears. But there is always more to tell, always more it may help an older version of you to hear. 

I did not move with the intention of meeting a man. It is not as if I’d heard fables of fine Black princes growing in North Carolina, alongside their crops of sweet potatoes and collards (I have learned, since arrival, that there is some truth to this, though that is not a part of this story). 

We came here for the reasons I told you, to be at once alone and together, to stop sharing a spare bedroom with my mother in her mother’s apartment, to sleep in ways that weren’t head-to-foot in a twin bed flush with a wall. We’d been living that way nearly all of your life and for just as long, I’d been vowing to change it. 

We moved only when I was sure I could afford to, when the work I procured wasn’t part-time or contractual, when the pay would arrive on a reliable monthly schedule, when the salary was high enough to secure us a home. 

The convergence of those qualifications just happened to fall at the end of February of 20-20, when I found out I would be hired for a full-time job five hours south of Baltimore. 

We moved to Durham in March, as our lives were closing in and a hush fell over all inessential movement in the outside world. In March all we had were our beds and our WiFi, a box of books and toys, our hangerless, dresserless clothes. A masked trip to Target yielded dishes, sets of glasses and silverware, our wash clothes and towels. Slowly, over our first locked down months, we populated our rooms with creature comforts, with couches and pillows, a Fire TV. I finally unpacked the appliances Nana gifted us; they’d been sitting in our trunk: a toaster, a can opener, a hand mixer. 

We ordered our groceries and ate too much takeout. In the absence of in-person hours for school and work, bedtime became an abstraction. Screen time, which I’d never been keen to restrict, was without regulation or boundary. The limit did not exist. 

And as for the separate bedrooms I’d promised you, where I would finally be able to tuck you in, dim the lights and duck apart, you were loath to sleep in yours, much preferring the familiar cozy crowding you got, sleeping right next to me. In those early months, your twin bed went unused and only a sliver of my queen was imprinted with our sleepy weight. 

When we came here, I did not know how to tell you no, did not know how to get you to hear it, did not have time, between acclimating to a new workplace I’d never seen after hire and trying to keep you occupied in a time where you were one of few children enrolled in no school at all, having left third grade in Baltimore just as school in Durham shut down. 

I’d dreamt of the space our own place would afford of us, the sprawling stretch of several rooms rather than half of just one. But in this 1,145-square foot apartment, we were never apart, and the structure I hoped to provide you seemed as nearly as distant as it was back at Nana’s. 

I suppose this provides some explanation. When a long-held dream comes true, you do not always know how to just rest in it. You do not always trust that you belong to it. You believe you’ll wake up to find it disintegrated. No pinch in the world is powerful enough to dispel that worry, especially as daily life within that dream feels warped and unwelcome in practice. 

Living alone with you, being your only mother, after nine years spent living in a three-matriarch household, did not feel liberating as I’d hoped it would. 

Maybe I thought it needed more. Mediation. Distraction. A balance. 

That, I think, may be why I sought the man. 

I met him in May, via Tinder, a dating app I hope will have evolved by the time you’re old enough to use one. I was drawn to the ease of his smile. He was sitting in the sun, on a stoop outdoors, dressed in blue plaid and light jeans. And his smile just… looked like he’d earned it, that he’d fought through something to make it that bright, that he’d learned to laugh just because it felt good to, after years of doing so to keep from crying. 

I know that is hard to believe, that a single photo on a dating profile could convey so much about someone we’d never met. But many months later, as many a minor challenge arose, I drew on the promise of that picture, and more often than not, as tension subsided, he’d smile and that promise was kept. 

After several weeks of texting, both words and voice recordings, along with a few awkward video “dates,” one in particular spent watching a romcom in tandem while stealing glances at one another as the onscreen romance unfolded, we met him in person at the end of May. 

I drove us just a mile to a wine store parking lot. He pulled up in his Black Chrysler 300 and smiled his Tinder profile smile, before masking up and opening his door. He reached into the backseat for two bouquets, and you leaned forward in the passenger seat to get a better look at home. 

Though I tried to keep cool, I questioned the wisdom of the entire exchange. Should you be meeting a potential suitor at the same time I was? Was he trustworthy enough to be near us? 

He was the first person we’d met in person since moving to this city? Was he safe? Sanitized? Unexposed. It would be several months before even the hint of a vaccine. He was risk upon risk upon risk. 

But that had always been the point. After putting my thirties in a jar that protected us both from the precarities of freelance writing life: unstable housing, threat of eviction, mounting debts and loans, after living with relatives who kept you at home while I slipped off on occasion to pursue the one casual relationship I’d started in the nine years since you were born, a connection made only of offsite trysts and the occasional overheard mention of a strange man’s name, one you’d never come to know, I was 40 now. And you were turning 10. 

We’d subsisted long enough on cloistered sips of air. We were ready to catch real wind. We were ready to soar. 


If moving was our leap from a great height, meeting Quan felt like the moment a parachute opened. I didn’t know it at the time, not in that parking lot, but I was about to embark on my first real romantic relationship as a mother. It would move quickly, pressurized within the parameters of a pandemic. At any moment, it would ask far more of me than I would have, under normal circumstances, been prepared to give. It would ask much of you, too, in the way of maturation. 

Gone would be the days of bursting into my room unannounced or forgoing nights spent in your own bed in order to burrow in mine. No more were the limitless loops of videos, of time ceasing all shape and dimension. 

We would become, without much warning, ensconced in the disruptive rhymes and rhythms onset by the arrival of a man. 


It is one thing to live in a house full of women, deferring to the tacit rules of age, allowing the elders to set or raise or change your stakes. It is another to strike out on your own and find the experience both freeing and wanting, unable to stabilize a life left, for so long, as unstable. 

It is a different life altogether to meet a stranger, grow enough trust to let him move in and test, every day, the sturdiness of that trust, even as its benefits grow more and more evident by the day. 

Quan helped me homeschool you. He cooked balanced dinners. He walked the aisles of megastores during the grocery buying and budgeting that have always made me miserable. He traveled to your hypothetical worlds with you so often that, at Christmas, he thought it prudent to purchase you a book of Would You Rathers, so we’d all have more concise questions to answer than the ones you came up with on your own. We went for walks together. And raised your reading level by restricting your iPad time. We logged onto family Zoom calls, where he subjected himself to the surveying questions of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my father. 

We intended a kind of future. At least, we did for a time. 

For just as long, just over a year, you saw your mother being loved. You saw me extending love, too, though as the beneficiary of so much of mine, that part was less of a foreign concept. At 10, you had yet to see someone’s heart in their eyes when they looked at me. You’d never heard my voice lift a whole three octaves, under an intoxicant called flirting. You’d never seen me sidle up to someone as he cooked in the kitchen and wrap my arms around his waist, warming my cheek on his back. Even the little pecks hello and goodbye, the random close-lipped kisses we deigned to deliver in front of you… those were all new to you, too. 

It didn’t last. Not all good relationships do. Sometimes they’re meals meant to nourish and serve, first plump and decadent then picked clean till there is only the gristle and bone. 

But there is much to be made of the bones. We are only beginning to figure out what’s left of their purpose. And even if the result of their reading is that only the two of us have made a more stable home, the year we spent as three will have been worth it. 


When we are not careful after taking a risk, regret writhes its tentacles around even our fondest memories. The best laid plans of our better angels are buried under the burden of second guesses. 

I am trying, as ever, to be careful, to teach you that a well-reasoned risk is worth the disappointment of its outcome. We are still wandering together, still working our way through the whys. You have seen my heart swell and then be broken. Some days, that’s left me embarrassed but never ashamed. For even though our home has been altered in his absence, it is no less ours to reshape and reclaim. What I set out to give you remains intact and for whatever our journey has taught you, I hope this is what you retain: when love abounds, it betters and when it recedes, we survive.

Posted in Nonfiction

A Pandemic Romance Post-Mortem.


Anemics are always cold. It’s an affliction of extremities, of icicled fingers and toes, of lightheadedness after standing too long in a chilly concert hall or at a sweltering summer festival, of darkness crowding the corners of the eyes in warning: find a seat, drink cold water, or succumb to blacking out.

Sometimes, when my heartbeat is at its most irregular, I feel like I’ve inadvertently shoulder-checked Mortality and now it’s ready to box me barehanded.

I don’t know how long I’ve been anemic or what caused it. I only discovered it when I visited an ER in October of 2019 and found myself admitted to the stroke ward. The hospital kept me for three days, for a half-dozen blood draws and a series of blood thinners injected into my stomach, a CT scan, an MRI that required the shooting of squid-like ink into my veins beforehand, and a series of sobriety-test-adjacent physical prompts: blink one eye, now both, raise one hand, now the other, touch your knees, now your nose, walk the length of the hall in a straight line. 

The staff ruled out a stroke. They stopped short of calling the drooping right side of my face Bell’s palsy. I knew as little about why my left eye bulged wider and blinked on a second’s delay as I did when I was admitted. 

By discharge, the only new thing I knew about myself was that I was anemic. 

It didn’t come as much of a surprise. The signs had long been there. In my late teens, I started eating less and less, until I trained my body to get by on coffee and a pastry (and sometimes just the coffee, or less often: nothing at all) in the morning and a small dinner 10-12 hours later. I still eat that way, sparingly, only satisfied if my stomach feels concave when I’m lying on my back alone in bed at night, if the rumble and burn of self-denial can be felt under the flat of my palm.

That couldn’t have helped, all those half-starved years. Deprivation never helps. 


When we were all required to close in on ourselves, for fear of catching a debilitating virus from one another, the world felt anemic, withholding, all the good drawn inward, sequestered and secreted, the pulse of normal life growing faint. 

That was when I knew to look for love. Wherever I could find it. 


In the stroke ward, the nurses stagger-stepped at the threshold of my room. 

“You’re young,” said the night nurse as well as the one who took over the mornings, though I was sure they saw in my chart that I was one month shy of 40. 

I felt haggard, half my face weakened by a force unseen. Before then, I’d always been in decent health, the kind even a hypochondriac could almost take for granted, but wasn’t landing here evidence that youthful vitality was a breeze blown by? Wasn’t I aging now? Wasn’t this the incarnation of oldness? 

I didn’t understand until those straight-line walks down the hall, where all that could be seen behind the half-drawn curtains in each of the neighboring rooms were heads of white hair, dark veins under mottled skin, parted lips stuttering toward speech. 

Sometimes, a sounded clatter. Other times, a weary yell. 

Those strokes weren’t suspected. Those were real. And as it turned out, I was young. 


He had a gravitational smile, the only pull in a sea of local profiles, the only grin great enough to stay my swiping hand. I stared at it and instinct suggested it was genuine, as warm and mirthful as it looked, and just as nourishing. 

I needed to be nourished. I swiped right. 

A pandemic is the only time when it makes sense to stake your heart on something as simple, as potentially deceptive, as a smile. Lockdown is the only condition under which that sort of risk pays off.

In a plague, you’re not looking for much, only someone willing to wait with you and listen for a hitch in your breath. Someone whose lips can confirm that you haven’t lost your taste, whose nose would seek your scent with the very last use of its smell. 

He was more than that, refreshingly more. We ate and laughed and nursed something nascent and fragile till it felt hardy, thickened, like blood infused with iron and given room to breathe. 


I spent those three days in the hospital alone. My nana who’d driven me to the emergency room hadn’t returned. My mother, who stopped in before I was admitted to pick up the keys to my car, which she’d borrow until my release, hadn’t been back, either. They took turns caring for my daughter, who at 9, was too young to visit the stroke ward. 

A guy I spent years hooking up with off and on sent a text when he saw a tweet I’d posted in a pique of loneliness. The text read something like, “Everything okay?” Despite our insistence on referring to each other as friends, we didn’t have enough of a relationship for me to feel comfortable reaching out to him in a crisis. It was just as awkward to only be discussing one with him, because he’d chanced upon a tweet I’d posted to no one in particular. 

I may have texted to notify my daughter’s dad or maybe my grandmother did. He called and we chatted in the brief, inconsequential way that we do unless there’s something heavy going on with our child. Surreally, my only visitor was his mother, who stopped by unannounced on her way home from work, the first night of my stay.  She sat with me for an hour and we talked about God and politics, the common ground we find easiest to tread, as we share a religion and a portion of ideology, in addition to the daughter I have with her now-married son. 

I was grateful for her company but more comfortable in the silence that followed her departure. It yawned and stretched its way through the room. It slept far better beside me than I did. 

I may have been young, but here I could see a familiar future: an empty nest, cold bed, no intimates, an affliction of extremes. 


I moved away from Baltimore for Silence. It had proven itself quite loyal. I’d been living amid the noises of a home that wasn’t mine for the better part of a decade. Silence deserved her own space and so did I.

But even Silence pines for companionship when the world has shut down. We found it in him, this smiling man who learned us fast and laughed so easily, who loosened our inhibitions and made us believe he’d keep us from ever reaching the depths of our discontent again.

We wanted to keep him even after the inoculation, ride next to him through the reopened world, and be as new as our regenerative months inside had made us. 

We wanted that more than we could know until it was clear we wouldn’t have it. 


It might be foolish to expect that the person who you meet when you think you could die at any moment is the person who’ll suit you best in the long-unfurling years after that imminent threat subsides. 

But other pandemic couples have persisted. Some have gotten engaged. Others have already married. 

It was possible for us. 

Possible, but perhaps too easy for someone like me, who spent her whole life skirting exactly this kind of cliff edge, afraid not of the heights but of the plummet. 

I deserved ease, though, didn’t I? For all these years spent hiding from new heartbreaks, for choosing a partner who loved so freely and who it felt so simple to love?

I’d been living on too little for so long. Too little food, too little affection, too fleeting friendships, even a shortfall of blood cells. And he was feeding me, enfolding me, and being my best friend in a foreign land. Enough, then maybe too much, a ship taking on too much water, a vessel floating away. 


My daughter still mentions him often. 

“I’m an optimist,”’she deadpans, unaware of how her mispronunciation of the word has made her claim all the more adorable. 

“I know,” I answer, stopping short of confessing that I’m becoming one, too. 

The man I dated for 15 months and lived with for 11 moved out of our apartment 8 weeks ago. He isn’t likely to come back, and I’ve stopped pining for him to. It may have been improbable to find someone I trusted so much, so quickly, and it may have ended in him leaving me to contend with the dozens of deprivations and abandonments I spent the pandemic avoiding. 

But I know myself better for having loved him. I apply the notes I took as I watched him loving me. I eat, sometimes even at midday. I at least look at the iron tablets on the counter now, though I still forget to take them far too often. I try to get a better night’s sleep, be kinder to myself in the mirror. The boundaries I set now are the ones that keep me calm. I gather all my courage and enforce them. 

I am alone but I am without regret, undiminished. He left the air around me electric. It crackles, voracious, just under the silence. 

Posted in Uncategorized

What We Mean When We Say Amicable.

I don’t regret it which, I guess, is the unrefined gold. I don’t regret it because he was good to me, because for a time we were so happy, we would giggle in the middle of the day and drink each other in till we were full to bursting, unabashed and grateful for the grace of having found each other. I don’t regret it because I get to carry the scent of him in a corked and slender vial, on the near-empty shelf of recollection I reserve solely for the things I wish to revisit.

Not regretting it is the parting gift I’ll give him. Because I know he doesn’t mean to leave me; he only means to leave. We should need ourselves slightly more than the ones we love. And when we feel ourselves fraying in ways no one else can restitch, it is wrong to stick around long enough to resent our significants for not being seamstresses. 

And aside, toward the end I saw it coming. I suppose that’s the parting gift he gave me, a gentle tearing away that felt like a slow unspooling, suggesting, soon, he would ask me to let go of the long end I was holding while there was still such generous slack and nary a hint of tension.

Posted in Uncategorized

Lessons Collected of Settling Dust.

Nothing feels quite as we expect it to. At intervals, a mental pinching is required.

We must be sure we did not dream what we lived. There were apocalyptic pockets: spots where suffering was disproportionate, whole families halved in a matter of hours, workers and students and childbearers whose entire ways of being were obliterated overnight and over months, for well over a year.

That happened.

It happened.

It is still happening.

But there was nothing so definitive as an Earth’s End. For many — for those who were not required by vocation or extreme need to place themselves at impossible risk for (often ungrateful) others — there was merely an extended suspending of animation. There was waiting and watching and facial obfuscation. We were told to vaccinate. A number of us did. We were told that when we did, we were free to move about the cabin of our country.

The fasten-seatbelt signs are off.

And we are moving, but through an existence molecularly altered, one we entered, perhaps, without children, and are emerging as parents. One we entered believing ourselves better off single and are emerging, peculiarly, partnered. One we entered not understanding the capacity of our bodies — their vital, unfelt functions, their threshold for thrashing and healing — and are emerging quite staggered at the daily deteriorating marvel of meat and bone, the dogged but delicate grind of organ and sinew.

Nothing is where we left it. In our tentative venturing, we’re seeking out our certain our points of origin and finding instead empty divots on a dirt road. We yearn to return to a place of precedents but along the planes of our new boundaries, not a single one is charted. We want the bearings of civilization, because we’re burdened now by knowing exactly where civility ends. Give us back our benign smiles, the ones that mask how well we know who wanted to move unmasked among our most vulnerable. Give us back the frivolities we cherished before we knew that what we failed to cherish would be what we’d be forced to mourn.

Of the opportunities lost to us forever let us forge new opportunities. May we cobble together something better than civility, something closer to lasting compassion. If we managed to build anything meaningful amid the ruin, may our structures be sturdy enough to shelter us even when we’re not confined to one place.

Let us ascertain afresh what it is to be alive. Let us make new. May we be made new.

Posted in Nonfiction

The Year I Learned Not To Run.

In 2020, I made many swift transitions. I relocated, began and learned a new job, lost that job (but not employment altogether) and learned I would need to originate a new position within the company. I met a man in May. He sort of moved in* in August. We’ve quarantined together, along with my daughter, from then till now. I’ve gained considerable weight — and had to change my relationship with my body because of it. I’ve lost a significant amount of hair and had to reconfigure how I regard myself in mirrors because of it. I’m raising a ten-year-old who I’ve moved away from her village: her dad, his wife, their baby who made her a big sister this summer, my mother and hers — the women who’ve helped me with the hands-on work of raising her from the moment she was born. And in so doing, I’ve made good on half a promise (that we would make a home of our own) and unexpectedly reneged on the other half (that we would live alone).

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be my daughter, unable to leave home without cloth cloaking two-thirds of her face, unable to bond with her classmates because she’s not once spent time in the same room with them, unable to grasp about half the concepts of fourth grade because the pandemic made it impossible to finish third. Both homes having changed up on her near-simultaneously. Nearly ten years as an only child gave way to her being the eldest of two. And after just a few months living alone with me for the first time ever, she has to deal with a mother she doesn’t recognize, a mother she’s never met, a mother in love.

I have been meaning to write about making the decision to love someone this year and how a pandemic challenges what we once assessed as risk and as fear.

For context, you should know that I used to be terrified of partnering while parenting a child who’s still school-aged and living at home. I thought that I might disrupt some delicate dynamic, that in making room for one more, my daughter may feel displaced or, worse betrayed. I thought I should forfeit the luxury of romantic love after full-heartedly accepting the charge to raise a child.

It seems silly now, irrational. Over time, several people told me it was. I just couldn’t see it any other way, having made a mess of the relationship that resulted in my child in the first place, and having been raised feeling displaced and disrupted myself when my own single mother married (incidentally, when I was ten years old). I thought I owed my daughter my undivided attention and I didn’t want to risk its division for a man with whom I might split, just as she was bonding with him or warming to the idea of the three of us together.

Until this year, I was terrified of taking that sort of risk. This is the year when we learned what risks are actually not worth taking. As it turns out, widening my sense of possibility beyond the perimeter of past pain is not on that list.

Leaving home without wearing a mask is. Leaving home to gather with unmasked people is. Kissing our loved ones living in other households, without knowing for certain if that kiss is one of brief illness, long hospitalization or untimely death… that is on the list of risks not worth taking**.

Starting a relationship seemed far less daunting by comparison. And moving quickly once committed to that relationship, which would’ve seemed counterintuitive in the Beforetimes, seemed to reduce risk instead of raising it.

My partner and I met on a dating app I joined on a lark one night, shortly after moving to Durham. From what I understand, this is how a significant number of pandemic partnerships began. It’s the safest way, physical distance and abundance-of-caution being encouraged, typical “don’t match with me just to text” impatience being a huge red flag. We sent paragraph-long texts for weeks before meeting, masked, in a parking lot after a month. He brought flowers for me and for my daughter, whose guileless, curious, eager expression I still remember as she leaned forward in the passenger seat of my car to wave at the first man she could remember her mother ever introducing her to***.

We disclosed where we’d been and with whom we’d been in contact before we spent time together, trust-building acts that initially made me feel exposed and susceptible and, on some days, when we disagree on whether or not someone’s decision to leave home is “essential,” still do.

What I realized early was that proximity to my partner made me feel less anxious, more patient. Having him here gave my daughter someone new to talk to, someone new to investigate, interrogate and entertain. She and I bicker less with him as our buffer. He fell in easily with our motley duo and there are times when I suspect that he arrived just in time.

Though my daughter and I didn’t have many months to ourselves before I met him, though I did not get to mother her “on my own” for very long, I had just enough time to know that we were not off to the best start. All those years of living with the constant in-home oversight of two matriarchs had taken its toll on both of us. My daughter had never learned to look to me as the adult in her home who had the final say; she had two other, older mothers she could turn to for a second or third opinion. And I had never learned to be more authoritative with her than I was alternately affable or annoyed. Before this year, my daughter often told me I was, “kind of like a big sister,” though she’d always follow up by reassuring me that she knew I was her mom (occasionally with a [maddeningly] placating pat on the shoulder).

I thought relocating might help, but that trend continued here. I do not know for certain whether it would’ve worsened with time, whether I would’ve been able to break the decade-long mother-sister dynamic I had with her or simply reinforce it. All I know is that we were living a bit like wildlings in the beginning. Though we had the run of an entire apartment, she rarely wanted to leave my bedroom, day or night, and she rarely drifted off to sleep before midnight. Without a school day to regulate her or schoolwork to ground her, while I was trying to find the rhythm of working a new job remotely in a city neither of us knew, day and night had little demarcation. Takeout was king. Screentime was plentiful. We barely remembered routine.

Along with all the other reasons, I avoided real relationships as a mother because I had long considered my way of mothering as vaguely chaotic. I did not feel like I was in full control of it, and I did not know how to regain control of it. Until I did, it made no sense to enfold anyone new into our family. What if he judged me for my failure to run a tight ship? What if he boarded with a strong sense of reform?

I will not pretend that this relationship has rendered all my reticence moot. It has not. Some of my dating-as-a-parent worries were founded.

But I think what laid at the root of all my worry was fear of how much things would change. Things have changed. Significantly. It is my first serious relationship since having my daughter. And it bears zero resemblance to any relationship I was in before having a child. Adjustment was inevitable.

When someone chooses to date a parent raising children, especially if they spend significant time inside the parent and child’s home, that someone will not be a silent observer. They will not remain agnostic to the goings-on they witness. They’ll pitch in where they see that it may help. They’ll lean in and fall back, in accordance with what the cadences of that household require. They will do so voluntarily, freely opting into a lifestyle their partner cannot opt out.

They are yielding to something larger than themselves. And if all goes well, so are the parent and child.

This is as it should be. But I would have never given myself permission to learn that without a pandemic raging beyond our walls, reminding me each day of how fragile it all is, how fleeting our attachments are to everything but faith.

No matter how this pans out in all the months to come, I will not regret relocating or meeting someone in the middle of a kind of world’s-end or moving quickly with him or introducing him to my only child. I am better for it. I believe my daughter is, too. And I have only this harrowing, clarifying year to thank for it.

* He still has his own place.

** Please do not read any judgment here. I’ve road-tripped three times since March. Twice to see the matriarchs in Baltimore. Once to meet my partner’s family in Virginia. Though we quarantined beforehand, masked up when meeting anyone in passing, kept distant and disinfected as best we could, we knew that it would’ve been safest just to stay home. Risk is risk is risk.

*** She “met” the one other man I dated, but she was two or three at the time.

Posted in Uncategorized

Survival Will Not Be The Lesson.

The world has gone both cacophonous and quiet, both chaotic and eerily still. Each person’s experience is wildly disparate. Contagion calls both for unanimity and for splintering.

If we are to live — not to stay alive, but to value life, not to test negative, but to live — we must all first decide that we are all worth saving; only then can we all reach a shared conclusion that sequestering ourselves is worth the effort. More than a median of us must agree that cottony muzzles cannot be avoided, that mouths must remain unseen, that breathing now requires a counterintuitive covering of our noses.

Those are our imperatives. For nine months, those have been our imperatives. But as a nation, as a culture, as a society, we are still too disinclined to meet them. It is difficult to reach the same conclusion — that we have some role in our own survival, that a force beyond our control may render our efforts moot, but we must still decide each day to make an effort — when the variables between us are so vast.

In the final accounting, I imagine we will not arrive at the same conclusion. Those of us who walk away will do so with far different precepts in their pockets. This is no fictive apocalypse where collective emphasis remains on survival. In a real population-altering pandemic, survival will not be lesson.

I know fewer than a handful of people who’ve tested positive. I know of people who’ve lost their parents and children and spouses. I have had the extreme privilege to work from home and supervise my daughter’s online instruction. And from home, for work, I have spoken with families who’ve sent their elementary schoolers to re-opened schools where teachers and children have contracted the virus and, in one case, where a principal has died. I have spoken to the custodial staff at colleges where adequate PPE was not distributed until COVID clusters cropped up on undisclosed patches of campus. I have heard the courage that crisis exacts from those already too accustomed to crisis.

The horror itself is a Rorschach. Our perception of what is inked individuates. For some, the blot is incompetence, an infection of avarice and callousness made sentient. For others, the blot is community spread, a natural disaster exacerbated by our bottomless craving for closeness. Long before this, we knew that we cannot exist alone. And now we know there is at least one circumstance where we cannot exist together. Not safely. Not without risk far too intense for the taking. The blot is an unending grief unfurled. It is carnivorous. It consumes futures. The blot is an instigator, an organelle of pointed fingers, an unending mitosis of blame. The blot is biological warfare or else a hoax; a conspiracy that mutates among the most dogged deniers, even as confirmed cases continue to climb past the millions.

We are told we have rounded a corner. Competing companies vie for bragging rights to the highest percentage of their vaccine’s effectiveness. We are told they will offer it at cost; that we can all begin to have it as early as March. I have little choice but to believe it, just as I believe that no plague lasts forever, just as I believe that as stubbornly as some humans have elected not to protect themselves and those they know, others are just as stubbornly committed to protecting perfect strangers.

That is the infuriating paradox of our species. At our most susceptible, we behave as though we are invulnerable. At the very moment when Life decides to prove that nothing we’ve amassed can protect us from its ravages, we intensify our sense of entitlement.

What I will remember was that no one protected us from each other. No one protected us but each other. What I hope is that when God created us, if indeed He did so in His image, God was as much a contradiction as we are. And it is that contradiction, rather than any temporal consensus or uniformity, that will work to keep what’s left of us alive.

Posted in Uncategorized

We’re moving soon.

giphy (5)

You were born in a Grand Rapids hospital, a midwesterner by birth but not temperament. You spent infancy in Michigan — the full first year of your life — but Baltimore is where you have grown into a semi-autonomous girl. It is the only place you remember living. We have been back here, in the city where I was raised, for nearly nine years.

This was not my initial intention. I thought we’d remain here a year or two at most, long enough for me to regain my footing as a worker in an East Coast market, long enough to transition away from the bowels of academia (which is where a full-time adjunct will surely languish, for as long as she lets herself), long enough for me to figure out how to earn more while being present enough to parent you.

Baltimore is where I learned how to mother, to the extent that I have learned how to do it at all. Good parents, I believe, are always a bit uncertain. We know better than to get comfortable; our children never do. You’re always changing, always extending yourselves further into a world where we will not be able to protect you, elasticizing. My role as your mother, at this point in your childhood, is so much less about cradling and shielding than it is about making the discomfiting stretches toward adolescence and adulthood stop just short of causing you to snap. It is complex in its own way, distinct from what it’s been like to teach you to walk or speak or read or listen. Now that you speak, you must learn to masterfully communicate. Now that you read, you must learn to understand. Now that you listen… well. We’re still working on listening.

Life is full of risk. You will hear the adults in your life say this often, but when we say it to our children, we are often only thinking of ourselves. We do not want to imagine what risk looks like for a generation with more access and proximity to imminent danger than we could ever comprehend, do not want to ruminate over the intricacies of risk assessment for children whose technology surveils and records and talks back, children who can glean information at a rate much faster than they can healthily process it.

We are far more comfortable thinking of our own leaps and landings; at least the impact of those on our children is something we can delude ourselves into thinking that we can control.

You and I have been so fortunate to have grown up as mother and child in a household where risk was low. We were not the only mother and child at home. My mother was with us and hers was, as well.

It’s true that when we moved to Baltimore, it was in part because I could no longer afford my one-bedroom apartment in Michigan, while trying to support a newborn and my mother, who’d lived with us to help me care for you, in the long 13 months after you were born. But it was also about an ever-inching fear that I couldn’t handle raising you alone, that I’d too often retreat into myself and my silence, that I’d make you as melancholy and quiet a child as I was.

I thought I needed all the help I could get, and whenever I need that kind of help, I seek out the women who raised me.

But the home of a mother’s youth is no place for her at middle-age. The home of a mother’s youth is not necessarily where she should raise her children. Not for long, anyway. Not for nearly this long.

I somehow forgot while I was away in my 20s that home is a runway from which you are meant to launch but it can just as easily become a holding pattern around which you may ceaselessly languish.

We have been circling and circling. For nearly all of 30s. I’d convinced myself we were safer on the ground.

Though I spent most of it underemployed, the decade has not been inert. I grew as a professional in Baltimore. Attended conferences and trainings held at MIT, Duke, and Yale. I traveled to New York to hear my work performed by an actor, to speak on panels with people I’d never imagined I might meet, to retreat with the some of the country’s most heralded artists. I’ve gone to Oregon to get serious about writing a novel. I slipped into the side doors of the Smithsonian’s many museums, to tell audio stories. I’ve worked on a national public radio program for just over a year in D.C. I even returned to Paris.

At home, I do not mention much of this, though I often wonder how much of it I would’ve been able to accomplish if I had not lived at home, if there had not been somewhere I believed was as safe as my womb to leave you for the week or the weekend I occasionally spent away.

I imagine how many opportunities I would’ve had to decline if I’d moved away much earlier, to a city where I knew no one and had no family.

I suppose I will find out now.

In three weeks, we will relocate. We will live in a city where I know very few people and have no family. I have, at last, found a full-time job and, better still, it seems one I will actually enjoy. I can leave the precariousness of part-time and freelance and contract work behind.

Friends have asked if I’m excited, but it is hard to feel anything much, from under this avalanche of relief.

When I told you about moving, I worried. I thought you would have grown too attached to your school and your friends, to the stable rhythms of our matriarchal home, to everyone we have within the distance of a short drive here in town: your father and stepmom, your paternal grandparents and relatives.

But we will not be very far from them, a few hours by car, a flight that takes 40 minutes at most.

And it turns out, at least on the surface, at least as far into your truth as you’ll allow me to peer and to know, you are even readier than I am to go.

I’ve made promises to you, you see, and it is time for me to make good on them. I have told you you would have your own room before you entered fifth grade. I vowed that we will travel together. I have said that, when I earned more, you would have access to more.

You’ve remembered.

It is, for sure, a retrofitting. Just as it is ideal, whenever possible, for couples to have worked out their relationships with one another before becoming parents, it is also ideal, whenever possible, for them to have a home of their own before having a baby. I understand the first ideal because I’ve not quite lived up to it. I understand the second ideal because, at least for the first year of life, I did.

We are headed farther south, which I never would’ve imagined before now. The northeast corridor has long been my comfort zone. It is beautifully Black in Baltimore, strange and mercurial in its beauty. During this most recent stint living in this area, I’ve been in no great rush to leave it.

But about six months ago, I began concentrating my job search beyond Baltimore, DC, and Virginia. I started thinking of what life might look like if I stopped believing it had to occur within quite so confined a physical (and emotional) radius.

Just what would it look like if I my eyes left their level? What signal would I see if I’d only look up?

I took the steps and weighed the cost and wondered.

I might’ve known this much earlier if I’d not been quite so afraid. I might’ve discovered it sooner if I weren’t self-doubting, so presumptuous about what would happen if I took you away from our current circle and tried to create a new one.

But up above our heads, the signal had long been there, blaring and unanswered.

Up above our heads, we were always cleared for takeoff.

Posted in Audio

Hope Chest: Ep. 10 – Letting Go of Girl-Dads


The day before Kobe and Gianna Bryant died, I was already thinking of fathers and daughters, already musing over the insularity of their bond and how, once it solidifies, a mother needn’t do much to sustain it. A single mother’s space, in fact, is mostly just adjacent. She makes the two souls accessible to each other then watches them entwine and hold themselves aloft. It is a wondrous work and a lonely one.

I was thinking of this just one day before the sports world changed forever, because I took you to meet your father on your first day of karate. He, of course, enrolled you; it would not have occurred to me that you might like it. This first class fell on one of your father’s weekends with you, so if I wanted to be there to witness it, I had to ask to tag along.

I rarely tag along. On his weekends, our routine is for your dad to pick you up from our apartment and drive you to the house he shares with you and his wife. It’s the starkest demarcation, the cleanest break, a conscious intention — at least on my part — for your parents’ homes to be poles between which you are ferried.

Rarely the twain need meet.

The home life you share with your father is one I know little about. You’ve been building it for over a year, since just before his wedding last December, but I have never been to the house we refer to as your other home. I have seen a few pictures of your room inside it, the one he painted and for which he chose your princess-themed bed frame. I have seen the sign hung on the door and the butterfly decals the three of you — your dad, your stepmom, and you — pressed onto the walls. I have seen where the Barbie Dreamhouse you got last Christmas is stationed on the floor.

But I find it best not to press for anything more, not to nose my way into the interior life you and your father and stepmother have there. It is simply for the best that I don’t know — which is a stance I would not be able to take if I did not trust your dad or the sturdiness of the relationship the two of you have grown.

I am happy to send you to him, where you have more physical space to roam, more freedom and privacy than you do in our often-cramped home. I am happy to spend four days and two nights a month away from you. Your biweekly overnights with your dad separate us in ways that are healthy and bearable. The year you’ve spent living there on those weekends has given us all time to acclimate, but I suspect I am the only one who needed so much time.

I will not pretend that the boundaries I’ve set are not awkward to maintain. Last summer when you spent your first full week alone with your dad and his wife for his family reunion in Florida and two days at Disney World, I didn’t talk to you once. Outside of a single text to the two of them to see how things were going, and to tell them that you could call me anytime if you wanted or needed to, I left you all to your vacation and leaned into what felt like a necessary separateness.

That length of time alone with your dad and his family felt overdue, and so did my continued discipline at not impinging on it.

I am perfectly content to raise you without a husband. It has taken time, but I’ve a decade’s meditation on mothering this way. But I am not entirely accustomed to raising you with someone else’s husband. That’s newer, more numb. It is no longer a wound but not yet a callus. I never know what moment will apply pressure, what prospect will remind me that it’s raw.

This, too, requires its own meditation, a series of mantras my mind worries over like a rosary. Beads of reminder, breaths of resolve.

I tell myself that marriage has made your father a better parent. It gave you the opportunity you now have to live under the same roof with him, to vacation with him in the summer, to be read to and tucked in by someone other than me, to gaze out a waiting room window at your extracurricular classes and find two parents observing you instead of one.

Without your dad, you would not undertake athletics at all. He enrolled you in gymnastics for nine months when you were six, swimming for six when you were seven, and now you are taking karate. I may drive you to most of your classes, but were it up to me, you wouldn’t have been likely to join them in the first place. Growing up, I was not at all athletic. Even now, I cannot say I have regrets.

But I was not raised with anyone who insisted upon it. I was not a daughter with quite so devoted a dad.


You were still at home with yours when the world learned of Kobe Bryant’s passing. For more than an hour, he was the only named casualty. All other details were conflicting. The number of passengers was initially reported at five. Speculation spread about who else may have been on board. We didn’t know yet that the news was broken to us — the distant, pontificating public — before it reached his wife and three remaining daughters. They learned of their life-altering losses alongside scores of strangers.

The number of casualties swelled to nine around the same time that another name was released. The second name was 13-year-old Gianna’s.

When you are grown, you will probably remember this. It will float back to you, distorted, a watery sac of sound: news-anchor snippets and flickering images, your father reacting with his wife. This will have been the first time you ever heard of Kobe Bryant, the first time you saw the image of his face. But I can tell the hardest truth of it will take years for you to register: that a father is as corporeal as he is immortal, that there are dangers, however few, that he cannot quite overcome. There are circumstances, however few, to which you both might unexpectedly succumb.

I hope you will not know this for quite some time. Every daughter deserves that delay.


I was 16 when Kobe Bryant signed to the Lakers. He was 17 and no more able to make adult decisions on his own than I was. His parents signed what amounted to a permission slip for him to begin a basketball career that would net him millions for the next 20 years.

Few cultural phenomena are more memorable to a kid than witnessing another kid become an icon. You may already have some sense of this, growing up in the era of Blue Ivy, but it will crystallize for you as you get older.

You have no right, but you lay claim to that icon; he is your hyper-accessible, untouchable peer, and quite probably he’ll remain so for the rest of your life.

When an icon you’ve claimed as a contemporary dies, something elemental strips away.

It is a loss not easily quantified. Though you never knew him, you were uniquely privy to him, able to overlay what you witnessed of his life with the context of your own. The culture of fandom creates an inextricable fusion, even when you are not quite a fan.

In the space between learning that Kobe was gone and learning that one of his children perished with him, I read all the news that I could, watched all the old video footage fans clambered to share, and visited his Instagram page, the last posting of which was eerily recent, at 16 hours prior to news of the crash.

It was easy to conjure the nostalgia of Kobe as a teenager. Magazine spreads from the 1990s and early aughts splashed through my memory. Tailored suits and oversized trousers, ostentatious leather jackets cluttered in decals, Starter caps cocked to the side, an unchanging gold and purple Lakers jersey, emblazoned, nearly career-long, with 24, kissing championship trophies, giving us the goofiest of grins.

Back then, even people like me who rarely watched NBA games couldn’t escape Kobe Bryant’s ubiquity. For a brief while, at the beginning, he permeated all aspects of popular culture. He modeled, he rapped, he appeared on ‘90s sitcoms. Every move he made was chronicled, every conflict and court filing, every estrangement and … and felony charge.

Of course, Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, also belongs to that era. He married her when he was 21, fewer than five years after becoming a household name himself. We’ve seen her nearly as long as we’ve seen him, remember her rubbing his hand and watching him as he apologized for adultery at a press conference, meant as a public response to his rape charge.

Most everyone who saw it still remembers whatever we may have thought that moment meant.

Because they decided to stay together, even through a public filing for divorce, as recently as 2011, we know we do not exaggerate when we call them inseparable, for separation has come near them more than once, its ravages sparing them nothing.

But it didn’t occur to me to keep up with them. We grew up and grew families and our intense interest in our adolescent icons waxed and waned. The day I learned that Kobe died was the first I ever visited his Instagram page.

It was almost startling to realize that his eldest daughter, Natalia, turned 17 less than two weeks before the crash. I had no idea that Gianna was a basketball phenom, or that she’d already reached her teens, as well. It had slipped my mind that Bianca was only four, born eight months after her father’s final game, her most recent birthday just weeks before the crash.

I didn’t realize that raising daughters made Kobe a fierce advocate for professional women’s sports and a basketball coach to leagues of ambitious girl athletes. I didn’t know that last Halloween, his family dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz. Even their six-month-old baby, Capri, was Toto. Kobe, fittingly, was the Wizard.

Less than a full day before I set about the very long task of processing Kobe and Gianna’s passing, on their way to Gianna’s basketball game, I was waving you and your dad off after karate.

I resisted the worst that I was capable of imagining, resisted dwelling too long on how close any temporary parting is to becoming quite permanent. And I was gutted, understanding that my resistance was luxury.

There is nothing about the Bryant family’s life that I will ever truly know. None of their experiences are similar, in scope or in scale, to my own.

But I know what it is to start a family. I know what it is for daughters to be close to their dads.

It is to sense that you have played some part in a miracle, the growth or the grievous loss of which you cannot contain or control.


Later this year, you will become a big sister. No longer an only child, you will be the eldest of your father’s girls. I learned this in the waiting room at your karate class, while glancing at you through the glass, and glancing at your grinning dad as he delivered the news.

I met your dad when we were both 21. What he taught me is that you can become as distant from an intimate as you are from an icon, even if he’s the father of your daughter, every conversation carving a deeper emotional chasm so that we can keep everything pertaining to you efficient and civil and light. That distance requires an effort, a quietly carried heft.

I congratulated him and told him to share my well wishes with his wife. I assured him you’d be delighted, an assurance I could deliver with confidence because you’ve talked about the possibility of this ever since you returned home after the weekend of their wedding.

I meant it even as I felt unmoored, imagining how everything may yet again shift and recognizing how little of it is my business if it does. In this dynamic I am meant to be a raft, meant to wrap a heavy rope at the dock when you need me, and to unravel it when you don’t. I am always shoving out on the water, as your family waves farewell from the shore.


It is said that men do not become parents at the same time as women do, that mothering begins with gestation and fathering begins with post-birth practice.

The truth is that everyone acclimates according to their willingness. Some mothers and fathers do not adjust for many postpartum months. Some mothers and fathers never acclimate at all.

Kobe seemed to acclimate quite early, fathering coming to him with the apparent ease that belied his challenges with marriage. In every photograph resurfacing, he is beaming with his daughters. Every bit of recent courtside footage finds him flanked with one or more of his girls. He is talking to them. He is winking at them, sharing secret handshakes, coaching and kissing.

For all his wealth, his daughters were his true embarrassment of riches. They were worth the risk of flying through the thickest of fogs.

It aches to know on how effortlessly he took to fathering daughters, how he approached it with the same single-minded disciple he devoted to his craft, understanding the work as a funnel for his charisma, a way to harness what could’ve become deep restlessness after retirement. Fatherhood inspired him to recede from public view, so his daughters would have more of his time and attention. Fatherhood compelled him to return to it, for the sake of the sake of their front-facing futures.

It is his most meaningful legacy, his most enduring contribution to the culture. And in the final accounting, as the circumstances surrounding his death remind us, it will be your and every other father’s, as well.

Posted in Audio, Current Events, hope chest, Nonfiction, Race

Hope Chest: Ep. 9

A version of this essay was adapted for my podcast, Hope Chest. You can listen to the audio version here.

Esperanza Spalding with Aaron Burnett at the Park Avenue Armory

On occasion, as an artist, you are called away, into a space where creatives make covenant to triage the wounds that the wider world inflicts and, by God, on each occasion, we bend a wormhole of communion, often in the whitest of spaces. We wake on idyllic farms, walk through refurbished armories, attend informal creative courses on the terraces of Moroccan hotels in Montparnasse.

We call out across the evening orientations, the communal lunches and dinners, the divining day’s-ends at the fire pits, and we find the face that could be our face: brown, framed in curls or faded, full-nosed, cleft-chinned, big-lipped, tight-fro’d, familiar.

Sometimes, as was the case this weekend, at the Black Artists Retreat on the upper east side of Manhattan, every face might as well be our own, every body may as well be our familiar. When we are this together, we are cocooning ourselves in each other’s silk, regenerating limbs we’ve lost, performing allegorical angioplasties on all of our ailing hearts.

The work, though no less rigorous, is easier then. We are moving with, rather than against, the convening’s current.

But then, other times, there may only be two of us. (Lord, please let there be at least two of us, striking our tuning forks till they find the reverberation of culture we have in common. Lord please let there be at least two of us, steadfast in our determination to ignore whatever aggressions may intrude.
(Aggressions almost always intrude.)

In those moments, when the convening is not designed to accommodate the full spectrum of our spectacular blackness, when the white husband of our writing instructor tells the four black participants in our five-person cohort, gathered along the Seine for a group photo, that we look too dark through the viewfinder, when he then later stage-whispers as we wait on line at the Musée D’Orsay that the Black woman. approaching us, fluent in French, is panhandling, rather than inquiring about the black models exhibit only we are excited to see…

When we look at each other and mutter under-breath: he got one more time and I ain’t gon’ be too many more ‘too darks…’

We understand that we are away from wherever we feel safest. We are swimming upstream, to the other shore, together, before it is time to return to the rude realities from which we sought this respite.
Either way, at the all-Black retreat or the historically, predominantly white one, we are supposed to be healing, or at least to be refreshing the dressings on each other wounds. And, either way, for a while, it is working — it has to be working, if only for the sacrifice, effort, and considerable endowment, involved in knitting us one to another over a number of transcendent days.

We are forgetting what sent us running here, the particulars of our stress, receding with each mindful breath and deep listening exercise. A day or so in, and our anxieties are finally beginning to quiet.
But then the knell.

That unmistakable clang that calls for us to mourn.

It sunders the silk we’ve wrapped ‘round one another. It lets fresh loss flow through.

Rarely has there been a retreat or residency where I have not heard it.

Kalief Browder died by suicide during the weekend I spent at Yale.

Just weeks before the week I when I drove my family down to Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, Diamond Reynolds produced a living document of her lover Philando Castile’s killing.

A week before the Black Artists Retreat, I wrote of Joshua Brown, shot in the mouth and chest, after testifying on behalf of his neighbor Botham Jean, who died less than two months after our family residency on Ryder Farm.

I had not even begun to replenish what writing about Joshua wrung out of me, when I woke on the last morning I spent in Manhattan and read of another black neighbor, in a valiant attempt at communal care, called a non-emergency number, asking Dallas police to check on the young woman whose house, at 2 a.m., had peculiarly still-open doors. He cared, but the cop who shot her through her window in the third watch of night did not.

On Sunday morning, I carry Atatiana Jefferson’s name into the high halls of our Park Avenue Armory retreat and wonder who-all had heard it, who was healed enough from being here, to help me carry its weight.

Crying is an act of creation. Wailing in ways we never have before is an improvisational practice.
It is the work we can make by rote, the work none of us want to make but all of us have had to.
Every day someone new rephrased an old question: what could we, as Black artists, create if we never felt bound?

What would we make if we always felt free?

What would be possible if our creative process were never rooted in pain?

I willed my thoughts away, sent them forward toward a future too remote for me to access where I stood, even in this space that so readily offered that sort of portal.

I’ve a wayfaring imagination. But it kept quite close to home.

It took me toward the sound of 16-bits, echoing through a warm Black house, where a young Black auntie went to turn her own key and to set aside her worries, an eight-year-old’s sort of sanctuary where a young Black nephew could bend bedtime toward his whim, where, in a radical show of trust, a daring subconscious sense of safety, the locks were momentarily forgotten, the double doors left open as auntie and nephew noshed snacks and laughed hard and trash-talked, till they couldn’t tell whose win or loss would come.

Till they couldn’t sense how near an end they were.

Till their sound was more powerful than a policeman’s.

Posted in Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

Like a Good Neighbor.


Joshua Brown served as a key witness in the trial for the murder of his neighbor, Botham Jean.

Apartment dwelling culture cannot be easily explained to the uninitiated. There is, after all, more than one reason we call apartment buildings and the units within them a complex.

A complex does not begin as a community; that must be cultivated by tenants who intend to stay awhile. Those who do not speak, who wait until their hallway sounds empty before opening their door cannot quite be considered your neighbors. Those who greet you in the common areas are closer to earning that distinction. They have acknowledged, at least, that you exist. But in apartments, there are other, higher levels one must reach to be called a neighbor.

Neighboring requires intention. It’s knocking to ask the person down the hall if they knew they’d left their keys dangling from the deadbolt. It’s letting them sit in your living room to wait for the super when they lock themselves out. It’s giving them a jump when their car battery stalls. Or keeping an eye and an ear out for their kids, whether they’re home alone or being followed home.

It means not only notifying the people next door of your upcoming party but accepting that they may overhear exactly what goes on in it, and trusting them not to breach the courtesy of advance notice by calling the police for one night’s excessive after-hours noise.

A single apartment building may house two families or twelve or twenty-four, each living beneath separate ceilings, but all living under the same roof. The more we interact with the people who move among us, the longer we live with only our thin walls and flimsy flooring between us, the more accountable we tend to feel to one another.

It should be no wonder, then, that people who share apartment buildings are hesitant to go all-in as neighbors. It could mean anything from experiencing the occasional inconvenience to discovering a week-old corpse.

I’ve been reminded of this in the past two weeks, as the murder of Botham Jean has made its way back into the news cycle. I was unnerved when it first happened, in the way that neighborhood murders always unnerve me. Like when Trayvon Martin was visiting his father and his father’s girlfriend in their townhome complex and found himself in a fatal scuffle with someone purporting himself to be neighborhood patrol. Or when Jonathan Ferrell stopped in an innocuous-looking neighborhood for help after a car accident and found himself bleeding out on the lawn of the home where he’d knocked for help. Or when Renisha McBride, another person asking for help in a nice neighborhood, was killed with a gunshot through a door the owner wouldn’t even open to her. Or when, not too far from where I live in Baltimore County, police killed Korryn Gaines, a young mother and injured her five-year-old son, when she refused to open her door to them, because they wouldn’t state the reason for their visit.

In every one of those cases, some small reported detail is often what moves me. The detail is what moves us all: the Skittles, the hole in the door, the presence of a baby.

With Botham Jean, the details come second to the setting. That it happened in his apartment, at the hands of a woman who called herself his neighbor, is what haunts me most this time.

I was born to an apartment, which is to say that my mother brought me home to the one where she was living with her mother. I was raised in a series of Baltimore apartment buildings. We didn’t live in a house until my senior year of high school when my mother and her husband bought a townhome. Even then, we were attached to the young white couple in the unit beside us. For the first time, I was living in a home had three floors, including a finished basement, but we could still hear that couple playing “Rapper’s Delight” at their housewarming, through the wall that adjoined us.

Homes so connected lend themselves to reluctant intimacy. In a neighborhood of standalone homes, for instance, you may know the husband next door quarreled with his wife. In an apartment, you know what they argued about, know it well enough, in fact, to take a side.

I have seen affairs carried on in apartments, have watched a lovestruck teen sneak a grown man in and out of her home before her parents were due back from work at 6 o’clock, have fielded accusations after she was caught and, in her panic, used me, the girl up on the third floor, as her alibi. I’ve overheard a mother beating her four-year-old, the accompanying lecture suggesting to me that the punishment was wildly disproportionate to the kindergarten crime.

I have spent years in apartments wondering what is and is not my business.

But I have never seen a woman enter the wrong apartment and shoot the rightful tenant eating ice cream in his living room. As identical as our front doors often look, I’ve rarely known a neighbor to mistake someone else’s for theirs. Whether drunk or high or delirious with third-shift exhaustion, no one has demanded entry to a home on the wrong floor. If they had, no one would’ve been granted it, either, And if we’ve lived together in a building for longer than a month, I have never mistaken anyone or been mistaken by them for an intruder.

Apartments are for those just starting off or starting over, those saving up for a house or recovering from a foreclosure. They’re for college students and retirees and people who may never own home but value the independence of living away from wherever they were raised. No matter the circumstance, in apartments, everyone’s eyes are on their own page. Everyone’s preoccupied with their own paths, their own bills, their own lease dates. It’s rare that anyone seeks out more trouble than they’re already fielding.

When Amber Guyger broke into Botham Jean’s apartment and stole what was left of his life, she imperiled everything we thought we knew about apartment living. Forced intimacies and polite detachment—all of it’s bullshit when the woman who lived in your building and shot you for no coherent reason is a cop. None of it matters anymore; all civility is undone. Because even after it takes months to charge her for murder, even after a year awaiting her testimony, even when a prosecutor proves that testimony to be full of half-truths and whole lies, even after she’s convicted of ten years and everyone seems eager to hug her, stroke her hair, and tell her she’s forgiven, days later, we will hear news of another neighbor. Another young black man, who heard too much and grew fond of the sounds, simply because they were familiar.

Joshua Brown lived next to Botham. In an extreme act of good neighboring, he testified for the prosecution in Amber Guyger’s trial. On the stand, he described hearing Botham sing every morning. He heard it, he told the judge and jury, as he was locking his own door on his way out to start his days.

He has probably heard it many days since, the phantom song of a next-door neighbor, suddenly, brutally departed.

Now Joshua is dead, as well, gunned down under mysterious circumstances, not even one week since Amber Guyger’s sentencing.

We are connected not only by how we live, but where, our fates entangled the tightest,
close to home. There is nothing much else to say when death connects neighbors the way adjoining walls do, when judgment falls on one hand and fresh injustice weighs on the other.

I can only pray that Joshua Brown had good neighbors, neighbors who believe that his death is their business. And that in honor of Joshua’s memory, and of Botham Jean’s, we all resolve to intervene on behalf of the people we hear beyond our walls.