I couldn’t lift my eyes from the table. Each word had been impaled within my bones. Each sentence had been left to resonate until the space between my two ears was flooded. I couldn’t feel my body; I did not have control at that moment.
Only a single tear was permitted to run the track of dewy skin along my rounded jawline. Palm lifted to erase all evidence of weakness before raising my heavy head and hazy face in order to face the world. I was greeted with adverted eyes and silence. Slow, deep exhales filled the space around me.
I wasn’t alone. Though no waves carrying the laughs from the previous night were poured onto the dark mahogany, I was conscious of everyone’s presence. They were with me.
For so long, I have had the illusion of being empty, in an empty world. Who was I? What did I have to offer to my society and those around me?
Nothing. I thought.
I bared nothing that would make me more desirable than the next. I was easily disposable and readily replaced.
Melissa Carpenter. That name doesn’t seem to ring a bell.
So, instead of defining myself, I have attempted to stir up adjectives I could use as a mask to present to the strange faces that become inquisitive.
Because I have nothing to offer.
I have cried over the loneliness that evades me persistently, but find comfort in knowing I am safe that way. Because it’s not me, it’s the labels which I have shielded myself with that resulted in abandonment. It was never actually me.
Confident, strong, boisterous. Harsh sarcasm, obnoxious jokes and dogmatic behavior lie on display for judgment.
It’s not inauthentic. Rather, it’s cheating - orienting myself at a strategic angle so that I only exhibit those fragments of me strong enough to withstand the harsh blows of objective opinion. But inside, I am so soft. I am.
I have wished for better friends, studied harder for better grades and prayed to be accepted.
I just want to be loved.
But is there anyone in this world who does not so deeply desire the security of knowing they are truly loved and worthy of such?
We need each other.
Yet we live in a place that makes it hard to believe one’s self is loveable. The invisible, supposedly deconstructed, barriers of race, socioeconomic class, and education continue to divide – limiting the interactions between persons who each have so much to offer. When we continue to divide and divide, those of us who fail to associate with the majority in several aspects are left standing alone. In silence. Where does an Americanized half Korean girl from a working middle-class family, who studies biochemistry, belong? Who is there to associate with? It is easy to amplify certain identifiers to fit in with one group over another, but how impossible it proves to find one person who gets it. Who gets you and your dreams. Your hardships and aspirations. Why is this our world? Why can’t conversations be open without fear of rejection? Why can’t we just love every part of every person?
Instead, we find ourselves in a fruitless race of giving and giving with nothing being reciprocated. Eventually, one comes to realize that the pot can only be poured so slowly before nothing is left but a dry, empty, dark hole. That one can only break off so many pieces of a heart before there is nothing left and no more love to offer.
To love and be loved; it’s a balancing act.
Much like Jefferson, from Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” I have felt that I don’t have much to offer. I have felt trapped in my own world as Jefferson had been trapped in his, behind bars. As Jefferson is able to distinguish himself from his teacher, Grant Wiggins, I can identify the barriers that separate me from the whole. After touring the courthouse and prison cells in Baton Rouge, I was left speechless. Weighted down with the sorrow and despair which the prisoners had experienced in the very place I was standing. The must and humidity sunk deep into my pores. This was not life. As the rusty metal doors squealed shut I felt my heart drop to my stomach as I noticed fellow bookpacker, Claire, had been locked into one of the cells. She was no longer a part of my world. She was confined to the 15ft wide concrete cell and did not have control of her destiny. At that moment, she had become a slave.
In a way, we are all a slave to someone. Someone who is older, has more experience, more money, more power. Can one who is seen as a slave ever be loved, though? How does one live like this?
It is impossible to escape the judgment of society. To remain dignified though, as a man or woman, one must practice selfless love. Not living with anticipation of such love being returned but willing to embrace and cherish what falls into one’s lap. Trusting that they are capable and deserving and worthy of every bit of love offered. Love is not a scam. It is pure and endless. Standing in his cell, Jefferson marched to his grave with dignity. At that moment, he knew he was not a hog, but a human, a man. Jefferson had the capacity to love as much as any other person, free or enslaved. Just as the prisoners wrote on the inside of the cell at the prison, in our roots, we are equal. We are all equal.