One day in my early teens, all the books I had read in my life and all the movies and music and poetry I had enjoyed seemed to reach a critical mass, and create a longing that wouldn’t seem to go away. Like a horribly monotonous soundtrack, I constantly accompanied my life with this set of thoughts: “I want to be pale. I want to be a thinker. I want to look for bananafish. I want to wear eccentric clothes. I want to be way too skinny. I want to run out of money all the time. I want to die of tuberculosis or suicide. I want to be hungry in the Louvre, so the paintings look better. I want to be a genius, preferably misunderstood. I want to live in a picturesque garret where someone punched a brick out of the wall long ago. I want to wear blue and yellow and live from transcendence to transcendence like joy is my paycheck. I want to go to funerals and meet kindred spirits who don’t know the deceased any better than I do. I want to have straight hair, and I want it to be black and shiny. I want to smoke cigarettes, drink espresso, speak with an accent, wear a trench coat, sit in a grimy café, write poetry with a fountain pen, and be a white male.”
But I couldn’t, because I’m a black girl.
It was misery. When I did my chores, I pretended they were the low-paying but somehow still dignified job I did to stay alive: I wore a practiced, fixed expression, eyes musingly half-closed, mouth slightly narrowed and stiff, as I washed the windows or the dishes. I imagined I was writing poems, or I actually did write poems, as I did my schoolwork. I had to carefully maintain the image of myself as a young white man in my mind in order to keep everything running smoothly, because if I let my real self seep in, the illusion I could live with was ruined. I had a specific pretend for every element of my life. I couldn’t let anything be what it was. I was frustrated by everything. I smashed my mirror, said it was an accident, and threw it away so I could avoid looking at myself. I turned the lights down in my room, and wrote horrible swill in iambic pentameter, and I started to make my coffee as strong as I could in a drip coffeemaker. I tried to lose enough weight to look unhealthy and genderless. I cut off all my long kinky hair. I bought the trench coat at the thrift store. I couldn’t bring myself to smoke, and I wasn’t old enough anyway, but I did find a fountain pen and I made the local Starbucks stand in for the café. I was well on my way, I thought, to being the melancholy white male euro-intellectual of my ideals.
The odd thing was that no one noticed. For example, I realized that it was perceived as pretty girly to write poems, and it was even girlier to go to Starbucks. Sometimes my mom even volunteered to go along, and I didn’t have the gumption to tell her that she’d be spoiling my lonely, artistic image. People told me that my haircut was pretty, and it certainly didn’t hide the texture of my hair nearly as much as I thought it would. And I simply couldn’t keep up a despondent disposition for more than a few hours at a time before I got sick of feeling guilty at any spontaneous outburst of joy or love or happiness. On top of all this, I was starting to mature as a reader. I began to notice that there was no way I could do justice to the books I loved by feebly aping their aesthetics. Their melancholy came from actual events and misfortunes in the plot. It was real, it had a reason. Nothing comparably bad had happened to me. I was (mercifully unsuccessfully) trying to put on melancholy as though it was makeup or hair dye. And what’s more, what if it stuck? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if I, a naturally happy person, gradually lost my joy at all the “sticky little leaves” of life and sacrificed it for disgusting artificial sadness?
It left as suddenly as it had begun. Another “critical mass,” one of happiness and good sense, evicted the melancholy on a single day, about two years ago. I kicked the door out with a loud bang and let the sunshine in. I yelled “Have a wonderful day, fellow human beings!” cheerfully at the drunks and stoners who cursed at me as I walked by. I grew a soft, curly afro. The trench coat got charcoal stains on it when I was drawing a huge slightly abstracted picture of myself, so I threw it away. These days I hug my friends tight with both arms and watch Tarkovsky and Kurosawa and write essays and stories instead of poems, on my laptop instead of in a moleskine. I cook and eat simply delicious food and I don’t sleep much at all, yet I’m proudly healthy, and my bed has pink sheets on it and I think about Goethe and Hofstadter and Chekhov and Dostoevsky and the Twin Primes Conjecture and I pretend to be Alyosha. I pray very well unless I have to do it out loud and I play chess with myself and I sing arias in the shower like the best of them and I passionately conduct the Prokofiev and Shostakovich that’s on my iPod, even in public. I think I’m the only one who does all these things in the same lifetime. I think to myself that the cigarette-smoking espresso-drinking accent-speaking trench coat-wearing café-sitting poetry-writing white male isn’t even one-fourth as original as he hopes he is. He traipses sullenly from book to book and from film to film seeming strikingly similar, in fact. He’s still as romantic and alluring as ever, but he’s undeniably overdone. And wouldn’t it be awful to have your very identity be overdone? Perhaps you’d skulk around, hiding under a hat, hoping no one would notice that there was another one of you just around the street corner. In all seriousness, it’s quite possible that someone might notice how carefully reproduced your image was, and would say “Isn’t it about time you grew up, and invented yourself without a pattern?” I never have to worry about that, because I’ve never met another shamelessly chipper insomniac black female literature music mathematics cuisine person before. I may never meet another in my whole life. And that’s as it should be. That gives me true license to write about myself, as I sit in my lovely little college dorm room, comfortably furnished with classy secondhand furniture and scented with the aroma of homemade bread.
As I found that this was who I was really good at being, I of course discovered that the books and movies I had loved grew with me too. I hadn’t lost anything. There was so much more to Seymour and Harold and Raskolnikov and Werther than their wallowing in melancholy. They all had genuine lives and personalities that couldn’t be truly copied. I’m so glad I stopped trying.