“How to Not Drown” by Yomalis Rosario

April 2, 2018

This short story is part of our #BlackLivesMatter special issue, guest-edited by Katrina Otuonye. Read more at our #BlackLivesMatter2018 tag.

How to Not Drown

The tattoo started with a contour of Africa by the curve of his right shoulder. The shape of Barbados, just a little bit smaller than the African continent, rested below the crease of his elbow. Then, on the inner part of his wrist, one line wandered through every edge of a United States not even a quarter of the size of Barbados. Seeing the U.S. drawn on a Black man’s skin always startled me, but I appreciated these truer proportions. I had never seen anything more diaspora. The rest of his body was every ocean.

He didn’t have a shirt on when I saw him at the protest at Union Square. He must have been playing ball with the friend who stood on his left side. This one was for Trayvon Martin. We were all facing the person with the megaphone, so I didn’t see his face. I saw his arm first, and then the ocean on his light skin. I walked up to him and touched his arm, and then he looked at me. I asked him how long he had been there. He was sure to clarify, “I am not interested in protest. I came by to observe the dynamics.” I nodded, “Okay.” I walked away.

A few moments later, he found me while I was standing on the edge of the fountain. I was trying to take a picture of the hundreds of people who were starting to march toward uptown. Now he was alone and was wearing a shirt. We sat at the foot of the fountain and I noticed the new tattoos. He explained them to me and told me his visions for the one that was starting to cover his back—an ode to basketball. I asked about his knee. He said something about my hair and commented on my weight loss. I asked him about school. We decided to walk.

We sat down on the grass close to the river. I massaged his knee as he spoke his thoughts out loud the way he always does with me. I listened as I always do. When we kissed, he tasted lime and salt on me because that is how I drink my water. I had not eaten all day; I was floating. At sunset, we walked through the park and up to 23rd street.

We had not seen each other since 2010, the year of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I remember because my almost-bare back was pressed against the bathroom floor and I held my phone to my ear when he said, “You’re like a pearl in the gulf. I’m gonna call you Pearl.” My eyes—salt. I squeezed them shut and wondered what it would be like to be loved.

That was also the year that his father died and left behind his books, the year that someone had to say to a reporter, “Professor Clarke loved two things. He loved teaching and he loved his son.” I start to think that his father’s ghost walked through a corner of my heart, since I also love teaching and also loved his son.

For that summer, I was Pearl and then I was never Pearl again. Everything turns past tense. The C train takes me home.

I mourn before I have to, and I wait.

She is a teacher, so you know she must be of the self-sacrificing sort, the kind of person who feels maximum happiness witnessing someone else’s joy. This brown-skinned and small woman loves in every moment and in every way except toward herself. You can tell from the way she walks around giving away pieces of her limbs and stomach. You look at her and you wonder where the hell all that love comes from because you know she ain’t gettin’ much back. You can tell. I have never seen anyone more melancholy.

I don’t love myself either. The difference is that it makes her care more and it makes me care less. I know how people see me—a big, black dude with basketball shorts on—and that shit don’t inspire no smiles. She, on the other hand, walks around and rides the A train and swims through every day not ever wanting someone else to imagine themselves drowning. She knows herself, too, and ain’t no coward or pushover about it. A woman with soft hands who doesn’t mind telling you what you don’t want to hear. A woman who looks me in the eye with all the hurt wiped off her face and says, “You are afraid of me…” and I know that she isn’t expecting a response. She never wants to make anything difficult for someone else, which is exactly why she plays no games. Transparency is the word she likes to use.

I laugh nervously trying to act like it’s amusing to hear her say that all tough. She reads right through my skin, but has mercy on me, and I know it. I hate it. I feel like a fuckin’ book, and she is still watching me—sure of herself in the most humble way. I say I gotta go.

I ride my bike to Brooklyn and think about how she never wears red. “You are afraid of me, but I know you can love me.”

He is the kind of man who doesn’t have a best friend and describes himself as “rough.” That was his excuse. “I can’t be your boo. You too sweet. I’m too rough for you.” I responded, “That’s not true,” and struggled to wipe the pain off of my face and out of my mouth. I remembered being Pearl and my throat felt dry. I took a sip of water. My arms and chest started feeling wide enough to wrap around his chest deep and self-ruling. Being with him, I was submerged. I saw blur and there was sand in my eyes. Nothing named itself stronger than salt. Nothing covered my body everywhere more than salt—bold and too godly for memory. So much salt that it hurt, but at least I did not have to think about how quickly blood dries under the sunshine.

He had the Star and Crescent, the Cross, and the Star of David on his left shoulder. If you asked him why, he would tell you his theory on the expansiveness of the spirit. “These faiths are different but no different. They share what they seek and seek it differently. God & spirit.” I listened and tasted salt.

I found myself in another summer of after-lives. I took the L train to Canarsie to see him. We were both more grown now and sobered by violence. I let him speak and he let me swim in his arms for another summertime.

He added a flameback angelfish to the ocean on his left arm. Its tail reached his wrist and disappeared the United States. Seeing the U.S. disappear from a Black man’s arm startled me. I saw this and I understood. I couldn’t wipe the pain off my face and I drowned. His father’s first name appeared in capital letters on the opposite forearm. I decided that I would never touch his arms again. “Let that be his,” I told myself. I didn’t want to drown again.

I left her waiting once when practice got extended. Nothing has made me feel worse than walking up to the woman who waited for me on a bench for two hours. Any other woman would’ve left—we both knew that—so I wanted to be mad at her for it. That’s because I never felt more ashamed. And then, I realized why her mother doesn’t like me. But what can I do about that? I am who I am, right?

I call her when I can feel the threat of my own public death in the air—even when I have a girl who I’m supposed to be able to discuss these things with. And my girl knows it, and she don’t like it. When Pearl asks me if my girl knows that I call her, I tell her the truth. She doesn’t know that she’s still Pearl to me. She told me to stop calling her, and I acted like I didn’t care. It is what it is.

I know I like talking to her because she lets me wonder. She reads a lot more than I do, so when I finish explaining an idea about liberation, she says something like, “You ever heard of Robin D.G. Kelley?” or “That’s almost like Black nationalism.” or “What you’re saying is fucked up. You ever heard of the Moynihan report?” And then I realize I’m homophobic, sexist, and narrow-minded, but I argue with her anyways because I don’t like her calling me names. She don’t mind getting upset when I’m being stubborn. Whenever she hangs up on me, she always calls back to say she’s sorry for being rude and then hangs up again. I never feel more alone.

Sometimes, I don’t say some wack shit and we talk good for hours. Those are nights when the words “I love you” get slippery; they slip right out of my mouth. I hate it. And I ain’t got shit to do but miss my father, but I say I gotta go.

When the angels and ghosts don’t stop knocking on my chest, I don’t eat. I read and I worry. There’s another man whom I adore. I text him every time protests rise again like a prayer: “I’m thinking of you. I love you. Take care of yourself.” I hydrate with salt and lime water before I take the A train and transfer to the L. I get off way before Canarsie.

More and more and more are forced into life remembered and resting in peace. This is Union Square and the crowds go north. I walked for hours before I found him with his bike. Rain fell heavy and we chanted, “I can’t breathe!” We stopped so that he could eat pizza and then walked around leaving puddles of rainwater behind us.

I hummed a song that one of my students taught me. Oh freedom / Oh freedom over me. This student says that his mother used to sing this song when she was in Jamaica. And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free. I couldn’t think of any Dominican freedom songs. I have only every chanted and sung for freedom in English. The words rushed out of my throat. I’ll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free. I didn’t ask about Bajan freedom songs. I never asked anything. The ocean inside him was always enough.

He heard me sing and didn’t say a word. I wondered where my ashes would be scattered upon my death and asked him if he would marry me. He smiled and said, “I’ve thought about that before. Remember when you told me I’m afraid to love? I think you’re right.” He says he still has some growing to do, and he will keep thinking about it. I smiled and softened my eyes, but I couldn’t wipe the hurt off my face. I wanted to be dirt and roots. I wanted redwood and palm tree.

And then, I forgot how to swim. This is 23rd street. I walk down the steps because the C train takes me home. He calls my name. When I turn around and look up, he asks when we’ll see each other again. I say, “Whenever you want. Make it happen.”

I don’t know how to make anything happen… because it is what it is.

But nobody knows my pain the way she does. She even cries my tears for me because I don’t know how to mourn all the people who have disappeared from my life—or my city, or this country. I don’t know how to feel what I feel sometimes. I just move through it, but my arms feel tired and my chest is sinking.

She always says that she can hear my soul when I speak. I wish I could, too. I think I can.

I will.

There’s a man whom I adore. I text him every time protests rise again like a prayer. He writes back: “I love you, too”—anchored and enduring. I don’t close my eyes and don’t have to wipe anything off my face. The salt drips from my fingertips. I shake the sand off my shins. My arms rest and I breathe easy.

This is it. We love unarmed, live unarmed, be unarmed and still become open skin and suffering. How to unveil hope—raw—and refuse to live in memory. I resist. I walk with my forearms bare and outward, unmarked and Atlantic Ocean. I remember: the seas can’t wash my own blood out of me.

I look down and blood follows me. I look up and blood leads me, but I do not drown anymore. I remember: I have never known how to wait for freedom. I do not know how to rest in peace.


Yomalis RosarioYomalis Rosario is an Afro-Dominican woman from New York City. She currently lives in the Dominican Republic where she teaches high school History. She is a daughter of Caribbean literature and writes poems & short stories.



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