Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Neutral Bodies

If depression were a person, it would take the form of the black body: hurled, abused, dulled by medication, ignored by mainstream society.

It would be a perfect fit for my own body—too brown to be light-skinned, too light to be dark-skinned.

It would look like Toni Ealey, the small, broken teenager crying in my office about her dead little brother, who hadn’t garnered enough attention to be honored with a hashtag. I took a deep breath, holding the air in my lungs for a beat of ten, and forced a sympathetic smile for my seventh patient of the day.

“Can you walk through things for me, Toni?” I asked. “A full picture this time, so I can get a sense of what happened?” We had talked around the shooting for over a month now, and we edged closer and closer to it during each session.

The first week, it was all about guilt and everything she’d done wrong. She’d decided that they should take the shortcut through the alley; she’d told him to wear his hoodie because it was cold out; she hadn’t heard the cops telling them to stop.

Last week she told me about the sound. She’d heard gunshots all her life, but she had never been so close when someone fired. The first shot had been a quick explosion—like an accidental firework—that had left a ringing in her ears and dulled the sound of the next bullets, as though they were shot wrapped in cotton. Then came the shouting—three cops barking out different orders until they all blended together:


And then the crying.

But somehow, by the end of every session, we’d be back where we started—a dozen feet away from the crime scene, stuck behind police tape and a growing crowd. I’d already read everything I could find online a dozen times over, but the news was reported soullessly. It reduced events and feelings to clipped sentences.

Toni nodded slowly, still sniffling, and I took the opportunity to turn on my tape recorder as I gestured toward the box of tissues on the table beside her. “Ready when you are,” I said.

“They said it was quick,” Toni began, rubbing her eyes with her fist and ignoring the tissues. “And that he died immediately,” she continued, “but I don’t believe them. Why should I? They didn’t see him crying before they put him in that ambulance. They didn’t remember him crying like that when he broke his arm or when somebody stole his bike.”

Toni scratched a path along her arm, from her wrist to the inside of her elbow. A pale white line appeared like chalk on the blackboard of her skin, and a welt rose to follow it. “You don’t cry if you’re dying quick, right? You don’t even notice. But I guess I don’t know for sure. They wouldn’t let me go to him.”

She shook her head and stared at the floor, and I waited for her to speak and wondered if she was seeing what I had seen in the newspaper: the aftermath—a young boy lying in fetal position on the dark pavement, half aglow in a pool of streetlight and blood. How long had he lain there before the ambulance came? How long had she had to stand there and stare at him? I opened my mouth to prod, gently, but Toni lifted her gaze from the patterned rug beneath our chairs and met my eyes. I tried not to recoil, but the quote about the abyss staring back slithered through my mind. Deep-set and glassy with unshed tears, Toni’s eyes were the abyss, and I was standing too close. I shifted in my seat, pretending to readjust my skirt as I pushed my chair back a few inches.

“Why wouldn’t they let you go to him?” I asked, hoping the sound of my voice would help me ground myself. Cold air hummed through the room from the vent above us, alternating between arctic blasts and cool breezes, and I resisted the urge to rub my arms. Body language was central and any move on my part could make her clam up again and send us back to the beginning.

She kept talking as if she hadn’t heard me. “He’s my little brother. Not even eleven. And he didn’t do nothing wrong. So why’d they shoot him?”

I had an answer, but it wasn’t one that I could give her. Therapists were supposed to be bereft of controversial views; we were neutral bodies, and neutral bodies couldn’t make claims about how brown skin was an invitation to open fire on a person. But I had seen pictures of Amir. I’d seen the baby fat still filling his face and his missing two front teeth, and he had been so very obviously a child that it made my womb ache to think of him.

“Perhaps it was a mistake?” I forced myself to ask instead. A benevolent lie. A very white lie.

Toni shook her head, her braids slapping her cheeks with the force of it. “We couldn’t hear them. If they said stop or freeze or something, we didn’t hear it. We didn’t hear nothing. The only thing I heard was those shots. If it was a mistake, why’d they need three?”


Dealing with other people’s emotions sometimes left me with a poor understanding of my own. I reached for neutrality and grabbed Toni’s bleakness; I reached for happiness and found only Toni’s despair. My own feelings were there, somewhere, crammed in a box labeled “Miscellaneous” and shoved in a corner.

“You’re happy,” I tried to convince myself in the bathroom mirror. “A little stressed, a little tired, but happy.” It was an exercise I suggested to some of my clients, an imprint of mind over matter. It didn’t work. I hadn’t really expected it to. I turned on the sink and splashed my face and stared at my reflection while the muted roar of wasted water slipped down the drain.

The longer I stared, the darker the crescent moons under my eyes grew. I’d have to be careful. Soon they’d be the color of a bruise—the type of dark purple that hurt other people to look at—and I would be tired enough to turn to dust, to let my skin loosen and fall off my bones. But that was the price I paid for squeezing in forty clients a week—exhaustion in exchange for hearing about the horrors of a world that rarely intersected with mine.


I’d become “therapist to the poor” out of a sense of guilt and a desire to be useful. An upper middle-class black woman isn’t an anomaly, but there’s a responsibility in being one, in acknowledging the challenges of your people and paying it forward. Short of becoming Oprah, therapy had seemed like the best course of action. I got to help people overcome centuries of generational trauma and alleviate some of my own trauma and guilt in the meantime. And while the desire to help had been replaced years ago with the resignation that I couldn’t possibly help everyone, the guilt had never curdled in the same way. It was my birthright; I’d been born with brown skin and curly hair and guilt.

“Penny for your thoughts if it’ll keep you from talking to yourself,” Christian said, appearing in the doorway. I regretted not closing—and locking—the door.

“You’d be wasting a penny,” I said after I’d dried my face on one of the decorative towels and shut off the water. “It’s just work. It’s always work.”

I followed my husband down the hall and into the kitchen, where he poured me a glass of wine and set it on the counter—within reach, but only barely—and looked at me. I hadn’t even been home for fifteen minutes and he was already trying to analyze me. Christian had a poor sense of work/home balance. It’s what I got for marrying another therapist.

I looked back at him and tried to see what his clients saw, the little things that needed updating in my mental image of him. His dark hair was cut low—he’d had it shaped up recently—and his beard trimmed. He had crescent moons under his eyes, too, but they were lighter in color and softer in their intensity. His skin was brown, but barely—the light brown that my mother had approved of; the light brown she swore would give me a better life. His fingernails were square and short and cleaner than mine as he poured a glass for himself.

“How was it?” he asked at last and spoke again before I could answer. “Let me guess the day’s client lineup: former prostitute, girlfriend of a gangbanger, and . . .”

He tapped the rim of his glass as he thought, a habit he knew I hated but pleaded ignorance about every time he forgot, which was often. “A mother under twenty with at least two kids.”

This had been a game for us, once. One where we’d tried to guess who the other had had to deal with that day and compare and contrast them, give suggestions and advice and listen to one another gripe. But over time it had gotten warped. It was only ever used to criticize now: the clients or each other or both. I watched the muscles in his throat work as he took a long, slow sip of his wine and wished for a moment, maybe two, that he would choke.

“Stop,” I said. I was tired of this game. Sick to death of it.

“Why? Because I’m right? You’re good at your job, Jaqs.”


“So, you could work anywhere. You could work at the practice with me. They’d love to have you.” Christian worked in the private-wealth management division for a bank, which meant that he spent his time consoling millionaires by helping them deal with the guilty consciences that came with old money and the erratic spending and alienation that characterized Sudden Wealth Syndrome.

“And I’d hate them,” I assured him.

We’d been referred to once—“lovingly, of course”—as the whitest of black couples at Christian’s office’s holiday party where we’d been the only brown people not carrying trays of refreshments and hors d’oeuvres. He couldn’t understand my dedication to my job except as a penance, a never-ending Hail Mary. I couldn’t understand his love for his, except as prestige for being a model minority, the very singular face of diversity for the company. He thought—and told me often—that I was selling myself short. I thought—and kept quiet—that he was selling himself, period.

“I like having power over the people I counsel,” Christian told me once, on our first anniversary, after too many glasses of champagne, when there was a tenuous safety and an unconscious desire to unburden ourselves to one another because we almost loved each other and wouldn’t remember it in the morning, and we would never talk about it if we did.

“As their financial therapist,” he’d said the words with so much near-scorn, almost-sarcasm, “I get to be a black man telling rich white people what to do with their own money, and their guilt makes them listen.”

We’d laughed, and it was a sound of drunkenness and pride and resentment.

“It’s not like you’re the fondest of the hoodrats you work with now,” Christian said, and I grimaced on their behalf—and on his. “You only do it to make yourself feel better, so what’s the point? Alleviating your guilt through charity is still only alleviating your guilt. It makes you a repentant sinner, not a saint.”

“I never said—”

“But you act like it!” he snapped. The tips of his ears and the hollow of his throat flared red, and the deep dent between his brows—the one that deepened with each passing year, like one large wrinkle—appeared.

I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath. I counted to ten. “Okay,” I said. “Sure, okay.” Why do you feel that way? was on the tip of my tongue and I swallowed the mocking question whole.

Christian sighed, and it sounded like the end of a marriage. It sounded like a divorce that ended semi-amicably in alimony and split assets.


“My name is Amayah Williams, I am eight years old, and I am unarmed.”

“What are you doing?” I stared at the little girl sitting in my office with her hands up, palms facing me, my own hands folded in my lap.

“You told me to introduce myself,” she said, keeping her hands up. Her fingers trembled a little with the effort of keeping them straight. I waved them down and tried to gather my thoughts as she lowered them.

“Who taught you that?” I asked Amayah.

Our introductory session was turning into an in-depth one at breakneck speed, and I was unprepared. Introductory sessions were meant for the client and therapist to get to know one another. I was meant to learn simple things about her—her favorite colors or games she liked to play, whatever small, personalized information anyone might see fit to tell a stranger they had to talk to for the next forty-five minutes—and she was meant to decide if she could trust me with any more than that. In-depth sessions came later, much later, once we had covered the homelife and the past and there was enough trust between us to tackle the most pressing issues together.

I turned to a fresh page in my notebook to begin taking notes. I tried not to use the tape recorder with kids. Of course, I didn’t see kids often. Not ever, really. I’d opened my practice with a deep aversion to counseling children and the resolve never to see any. But that was before I’d partnered with the mobile health clinic and before they’d partnered with local charter schools. Amayah was only the first of the three elementary school kids I would start seeing every other week.

“Ms. Gamble. She’s my teacher,” Amayah explained. “She taught the whole class, and we practiced against the wall during recess.”

“Oh.” I swallowed. I wondered if she’d sent home a permission slip. Sign here to allow your child to be taught anti-police-brutality tactics. “What else does Ms. Gamble teach you?”

“She teaches us lots of stuff. Math. Science. History. I like science the best.”

“Yeah? What do you like about it?”

“Learning about everything in the world. There’s a science for rocks and weather and even a science for bugs.” She laughed, and it was a high-pitched sound. A sound that belonged on a playground, dangling from monkey bars or jumping off swings. “I wouldn’t want to be a bug scientist.”

“Me neither. What do you want to be?”

The sound of Amayah’s laughter faded. “I don’t know. You gotta go to college to be stuff and that costs money we don’t have.” Her voice deepened and took on a tired, resigned quality that wasn’t her own. It sounded like her mother’s, maybe.

“You don’t have to go to college to be something.”

“You do to be a bug scientist,” she pointed out. Her tiny fingers drew invisible shapes on her thigh and then erased them with almost frantic swipes down her leg, as if there were something tangible she was trying to brush off.

“Good thing you don’t want to be a bug scientist, then,” I tried, adding a too-big smile, and she narrowed her eyes at me. My own forced cheerfulness struck a sour note after her laughter, and we could both taste the bitterness of it.

“Did you go to college?” Amayah asked, and my answering nod was reluctant. There was the guilt. “What kinda college d’you go to?”

“A small one, far from home. But we’re here to talk about you. Did someone explain why you’re here?” I’d planned to do so after she introduced herself, but then she’d surprised me and things had gotten derailed.

She shrugged. “Yeah. I can talk to you about stuff. Like if I have a problem or something.”

My nod was more enthusiastic this time. “That’s right. Do you have anything you want to talk about? Maybe you’d like to tell me more about yourself. Do you have any siblings or pets or . . .” I trailed off, waiting for her to talk, but she kept quiet. This was not like science. This was not something she wanted to discuss.


“Let’s talk about something else,” she said, and I nodded. Avoidance. It was always best to go with it in the moment and circle back when necessary.

“Okay,” I agreed. “What? Bug scientists again?”

She smiled, but it wasn’t the carefree laugh of before. It was something quieter, and it nearly made me sad. For a while, we sat in silence that I waited for her to break, and I tried to piece together a life for her based on what I saw in front of me.

Bright, colorful ballies sat heavy against her skull, holding together loosely twisted kinks—a child’s attempt at a routine hairstyle. Clothes: a thick winter sweater and jeans, both too big and too hot for mid-spring. Ashy knees and no socks and holey shoes.

“Do you have your own room?” Amayah asked. The question was surprising, but not unexpected. I could feel her fidgeting across from me while I studied her, tossing a question back and forth in her mind, opening and closing her mouth as she started to speak and then thought better of it.

“No, I share one with my husband.” Unless you counted the guest room, which I was starting to.

She paused, and there was another moment of indecision before she spoke again. “I don’t either.”


Amayah shook her head. “We only have one room, and everyone sleeps in there.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“Mama,” she stuck out her thumb on her left hand and added a finger every time she spoke a name, “Crystal and Kenna, my sisters. And Ty.”


“Kenna’s baby. Sometimes I wish I had my own room ’cause he cries a lot.” She looked at me curiously, as if she’d just considered something. “Do you have a baby in your room too? You and your husband?”

I shook my head. “No. There’s no baby in our room.”


If depression were the black body, it would be used to being stared at in white spaces, used to feeling out of place and unconsciously making others uncomfortable.

If depression were the black body, it would be dolled up, parts of it chemically altered, just enough to fit in, just enough to make a stranger of itself.

If depression were the black body, it might be fascinated by how little room there is for it in the world.

Or it might be fascinated by other things. For example, sitting next to Christian in an uncomfortable evening gown for his bank’s annual charity gala, the only thing I found particularly fascinating was just how painful heels could be. What Christian, to my left, and Elise, the old woman on my right, found fascinating was that it cost only $6,000 to enter this year’s raffle.

“It’s such a steal!” Christian laughed, his mouth wide enough that I could see the space where his wisdom teeth should have been.

“And it’s tax deductible!” Elise chimed in, wrinkles filling in her dimples as she smiled.

Having money, I decided, meant speaking in exclamation points instead of ellipses when you talked about money. The ballroom was full of exclamation points and loud laughter tinkling off the crystals of chandeliers as socialites and humanitarians and simple millionaires caught up with one another. Dozens of round white tables filled the room, and waiters circled them, walking purposefully from kitchen to bar to table and back again.

The problem with having money was that we didn’t have nearly as much as Christian thought we did—or liked to pretend we did.

“$6,000?” I hissed in his ear, remembering to keep a pleasant smile on my face and my hand light on his shoulder. “Tell me you didn’t buy a ticket.”

“I didn’t,” he said, so flippant that I was sure he had.

I glanced around at our table—a mix of Christian’s coworkers and the clients they worked for—and at the gilded ballroom I found myself in, trying to control my anger, but everything about my surroundings only sent my rage soaring higher. Count to ten, I reminded myself. Count to ten, count to ten. I made it to six before my eyes found the stage at the front of the room. They had just put up the slideshow, the one they put together every year for whatever charity it was that they would end up shortchanging—usually for people in some brown country: Haiti, Ghana, Brazil, etc.

Give Closer to Home, the title slide read. Help at-risk kids in inner cities across America!

Shock stopped my heart for a moment, and then it tripled in speed like an angry runner on a treadmill. Christian caught my eye out of the corner of his, and where I expected to find smugness, I found vague surprise. For a moment, we shared a look, perhaps even a thought. There was an ember of discomfort in his gaze that kept itself hidden from the rest of his pleasant expression, and I remembered, for the first time in a long time, that I had not always hated my husband. I’d loved those Saturdays we’d spent in that first year, scouting out office space for my practice in the morning and watching neighborhood kids play basketball in the afternoon, our pockets filled with five-cent candy that neither of us had needed but that had tasted all the better for being so cheap.

He said something, but I was only half-listening. I was too focused on the picture beneath the image—a dark-skinned little girl with a bright smile and nervous eyes. She didn’t look anything like Amayah, but she suddenly reminded me of her.

“I hate that term, at-risk,” a woman sitting across from me sniffed. She wore my salary on her wrist and my 401k in her ears.

“At risk for what?” The man beside her tittered in agreement, but the rest of the table wore frowns in varying degrees of severity, their eyes flickering to where Christian and I sat and then away, toward the stage.

“Well, historically, gang violence, police brutality, discrimination, poorer quality of education . . . the list is really quite endless. Would you like me to keep going?”

Who was talking? Oh. It was me. That was my voice.

And it was my eyes meeting the woman’s across the table, boring into them until she looked away, down toward the immaculate place setting. She would forget what I said, but the guilt it fostered would add a few more zeroes to the check she wrote at the end of the night. But I didn’t want to see any of them scribbling down numbers without a second thought to how much they had to spare in their bank accounts. I scooted my chair back and stood as gracefully as I could manage, excusing myself before I walked out.

Outside, leaning against the valet stand, a red-vested kid, nineteen or twenty from the look of him, smoked a cigarette. Besides Christian and a few of the waiters and a smiling coat check woman, he was the only black person I’d seen all night. He had straightened up when he saw the doors open but smiled with an innate sort of recognition when he saw me come out of them, smoke escaping from the corner of his lips like an impish dragon. I laughed, and then I sighed.

“Don’t bother,” I said, as he went to put the cigarette out. “I don’t mind.” I paused a moment and shrugged. “Actually, do you have any more?”

He stared at me, and then it was his turn to shrug. He pulled a pack out of his pocket and held it out to me.

I reached for a cigarette and thought of the first one I’d ever been offered. It had been lazily rolled and packed full of weed instead of tobacco, and Anthony and I had smoked in the parking garage of his mother’s apartment building, laughing at nothing and setting off car alarms that weren’t ours. That had been before college, before Christian, back when I’d still been able to smile at the mothers I passed with chubby toddler legs wrapped tight around their waists, back when my smiles had meant something. I had loved that cigarette. I had loved that boy. Loved him in a way that hadn’t ever felt like anything but love; loved the way he held a cigarette between his fingers and put it gently to his lips like a kiss. I had loved his kisses too—they’d tasted like the afterthought of smoke and the artificial mint of the gum he chewed.

He’d tasted like that in the delivery room too. One last kiss and one final push and then nothing else mattered but the baby, a girl—premature and stillborn—who had left an unsalvageable wreck of my womb, who had, as my mother put it later when I arrived home from the hospital empty-handed, done me a favor.

The valet was ready with a light by the time I picked a cigarette from the pack.

“Wouldn’t you rather be inside?” He asked as he blew out another, more confident, spiral of smoke, looking over my stupid gown and my painful heels and my permed hair.

I shook my head. “Not if I can help it.”

We smoked in silence and let the smoke take the place of any words. My body wasn’t adjusting so well to its first cigarette in years, and I was ready to crush it beneath my heels in defeat when the valet tapped me on the shoulder.


“I think your husband’s looking for you,” he said.

I was about to say no, Christian was not looking for me because he would never leave an event or a chance to network to check on me, but then I looked. And there he was, in the doorway, his tie loosened, the buttons of his jacket undone. He saw me at the same time that I saw him and walked over. The valet stepped away without a word, heading back to his post, and I was grateful for the silent acquiescence.

“I’m sorry,” Christian said, and unlike in any argument we’d ever had, he looked like he meant it. “I didn’t know that was going to be what the charity was, but I should have. That’s always what it is.”

That wasn’t true, of course. Sometimes it focused on relief efforts in Honduras or education for girls in Zimbabwe, but I knew what he meant. The charity gala was peak white savior, focused on lessening the troubles of poor brown people around the world.

“I’m sorry too,” I said. “Not for saying what I did, but if I embarrassed you or something. I know these are your people and—”

“They’re people I work with,” he cut in, “but they’re not my people.”

It was a distinction he’d never made before and one that I had never thought to, and I wondered where we would be if we had. And if, had we decided to look for surrogates or into adoption, we would be parents right now. Our child wouldn’t be like Amayah, learning how to handle running into police on a playground, but she would still have to learn about police and how they might respond to her. She wouldn’t be like the children of the people inside, rich and probably spoiled and likely insufferable, but she wouldn’t want for anything, and wasn’t wanting part of building character? Maybe she would be like I’d been—bored and constantly feeling out of place and doing anything she could to lessen that feeling.

“We should go back inside,” I said. The cigarette I’d forgotten to put out had burned down to the nub and I quickly dropped it, stamping it out beneath my heel.

“We don’t have to.” Christian’s voice was soft as he laid the choice in front of me, his eyes watchful and surprisingly warm.

“No?” I asked.

“No,” he agreed.  

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