Leah Johnson: What Surrounds
I thought often about telling her not to kill herself. But something about it felt unfair.
It was 16 and it was unfair when Jackson told me, that day after homeroom when we were smoking cigarettes behind the school that we stole from his mother’s purse. Like he was taking something from me, the last thing I could control. But it kept me there, in my body, so it must have worked.
And I knew then that all she needed to do was hear it; that she mattered, that I wanted her there, in her body. That I was better because she touched me, in that none of me was just mine anymore, not since I shared it with her. But I lost her and gained a husband the summer before college. And something about that just seemed unfair.
It was 21 and we bought the house and he graduated magna cum laude and I dropped out and he went to work for his father’s firm and I decided to become a poet. There was a champagne toast and an I Love Lucy-esque over the threshold moment. You shouldn’t think about the leaving during the arriving, but I did.
“Just sign the papers, Luna.” Jackson twisted the ring off of his left hand and set it down on the table in front of me. He couldn’t take the sadness anymore, he said. It was everywhere, filling each of our rooms with a misery he could not name.
“But I’ve always been this way. You knew who I was.” And you chose me anyway, is the thing I couldn’t say. And you wanted me to live anyway, is the thing I would never say. My signature didn’t look like mine, but I had given my hands away years ago, so the name was a loss I scarcely recognized.
The day we sold it, the walls were still as barren as the day we moved in. No photos or mirrors. There was no room for me anywhere by then, reflection or otherwise, if there had ever been.
I unpacked a box and it was 30, a birthday party with friends that were barely friends and a chapbook release that I never believed could happen. I was broke and clerking for a judge who always ghosted his hand across my shoulders as he walked past. I always said nothing. Jackson called on the day the book was released to say, “Congratulations. Your writing was always so raw. Too raw, maybe, for me. But great for a book.”
Before we said another goodbye, he told me that he was having a baby.
“With who?” I asked before I knew that I was speaking again. It was the woman at the Starbucks across the street from his father’s firm.
We hung up and it was 40. No her, no husband, and a different home with the same dark filling every room.
I cried once and it was 49. No bestseller, same shadows, and a story in the business section of the paper that said he sold the firm to a tech company. And rumor had it he made enough money to retire early. That his Starbucks wife and three kids: two boys and a girl, the oldest, with a name after a constellation, would never have to want for anything. I heard the two boys, twins, as it turned out, were headed to Harvard that fall.
It’s 52 and I’m drowning. I Googled the best ways to go and no search result tells you that underwater is a different type of darkness, but darkness all the same. And the impact when you hit is different, but impact just as well. They don’t tell you. They don’t tell you. They don’t tell you. They don’t-
Leah Johnson is a multimedia storyteller and Midwestern expat currently moonlighting as a MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood. You can find her on Twitter ranting about pop culture, politics and the greatest show of all time: The West Wing @byleahjohnson and her website. Or you can read her essays and commentary previously published on Bustle, Blavity and The Huffington Post.