of snakes and skin
Dec 12 ● BY Jessica Nirvana Ram
“Your type is white girl,” I say with a touch of laughter in my voice, feet folded up beneath me on the chair I pulled from your hotel room. The balcony is four stories up from the ground, high enough to scrape at the Greek skyline, close enough to feel the air off of passing cars. I fiddle with the half-smoked cigarette between my fingers, eyeing the rising smoke instead of your expression. This is our first night in Athens after two weeks on Crete, three nights before we return to the U.S. from this short study abroad program. It was not the first night we’d been drinking, or together.
“I mean yeah, I’ve only ever been with white girls,” you say, your whole voice sounding like a shrug. You knock cigarette ash to the street below, continuing, “But you know who I find gorgeous?” You wait for me to lock eyes with you. “Indian girls.”
Your roommate for the few nights we’re in Athens, who has been leaning against the balcony railing this whole time, is quiet for a moment before he laughs, uncomfortably. He glances up at me for no longer than a breath, lights up a new cigarette, and closes his eyes as he inhales. I stare at my skin with all its melanin, and feel like a fish on a hook, body thrashing. I tongue the wound and laugh with them.
* * *
When we land at Athens International Airport after our eleven-hour flight from Philadelphia, we are a mob of fourteen sweaty, discombobulated college students with roughly ten words of Greek under each of our belts. Maybe twenty collectively. Our short and blond professor looks in her element, having traveled to Greece once a year minimum for the last two decades, and is shuffling us along towards the security checkpoint. There isn’t much time between landing and our second, shorter flight to Crete, so we venture through the roped-off lines aching for the food beckoning from the other side.
As I wait for my bags to scan through, a woman dresses her hands in white gloves and stops me. “Hold your hands out, palms up.” She runs a confetti sized paper from my wrist to fingertips. Four times, front and back. She checks my laptop with the same material. I glance over at our second professor, a larger Jewish rabbi with thick black curls, who is watching me carefully alongside the rest of our group who have already made it through. The woman continues, places the sheets into some handheld device. After a breath too long, the eyes of the group now directly on me, she lets me go.
“What was that?” I ask my professor after pulling my belongings from the conveyor belt. She waits until we’re a bit away from the checkpoint, her expression exasperated.
“It checks for bomb residue,” she sighs. As we walk through the terminal she tells me about the time they pulled her bags aside in Israel to test for drugs and I tell her about the time my father got pulled aside in Orlando, Florida for looking too distracted. I am grateful for her in this moment. Grateful to not be the only one familiar with being othered.
* * *
Rape, as a verb, means to seize, to take away by force. When the hotel door shut behind me that night, I took stock of how much self was left behind. Do you keep what you stole balled up in your pocket? Am I a memento you keep beside old ticket stubs and photographs, or does my skin cling to your skin as though it seeks to suffocate? Do I suffocate?
* * *
I attend middle school in southeast Pennsylvania, where a white boy calls me octopus hair, because my curls, all wild and black, are so unlike my classmates’. At this point in time, I am not used to being the odd one out. We had just moved from Queens, New York, where I never had to search long for someone who reflected even the smallest parts of myself. But here, I am a fly in milk and spend much of my adolescence drowning.
When I get home that day, the child in the mirror stares back at me, soft and quiet, her hands seeking acceptance. Taming the spirals hurts, tugging a brush through this bush of hair is too much like pushing back against the tides. Harrowing and heavy. Nonetheless, I rip my strands away from one another. I burn them down into submission. Into lifelessness and the smell of singe.
* * *
Two days after you clean me out of body and soul, I am five thousand miles away from that balcony, sitting on my childhood bed in Pennsylvania trying to find the words to tell my boyfriend about you. He is on the other end of a video call, waiting for my lips to stop trembling. Waiting for me to open up about the gashes you left littered across my skin, about the way you picked your teeth with my bones. You plucked me out of the water, dangled my body like you might let me go, and then threw me against the rocks again, and again, and again. Until I swallowed all the air and went belly up. All I can muster when he looks at me is, “I’m sorry.” His eyes go red and misty, his hands shake. Threats of your death saturate his tongue. “I’m sorry.”
* * *
In Greek mythology, Medusa was born beautiful and mortal unlike her sisters. There are over a dozen different interpretations of what really happened to her. Some say she incurred Athena’s wrath through boastfulness, through thinking she was beautiful. Others say, more often, that her affair with Poseidon was the real reason behind Athena’s rage.
There is no consensus about whether Poseidon and Medusa made the decision to fuck one day, or if in fact Poseidon raped her of his own volition. In either telling, Medusa is handed the consequences, has her beauty stripped away, her hair turned to snakes, her gaze deadly to men. She then becomes the most hideous of her sisters, though I wonder if she was also then the most powerful.
As to her end, in one telling Perseus holds up a shield to her, and after seeing her reflection Medusa turns to stone. Some people say she caused her own demise. Was facing herself for the first time really such a sin? Were Perseus’ hands not gripping the shield, does he get to walk away from this like he didn’t lead her to her own death? Like he didn’t slit her throat afterward? Our woman of snakes and stone was just trying to protect herself. There was a reason she’d never tried to look at herself before. She must have known.
* * *
While in Crete our chaperones for this trip focused on food and culture have us tell stories. These stories can be about our favorite hobbies or about our grandest traumas. The exercise is meant to bring us closer together on this short two-week trip, a way to foster trust and empathy, to forge potentially lasting relationships between students who really don’t know each other all that much.
We as a group are mismatched on a number of levels. Though most of us are rising seniors, we come from varying disciplines. There’s very little overlap, and while it ultimately doesn’t matter much, I spend most of the first few days quiet, observing, and alone.
The night after I tell my story I sit outside of my suite with a notebook, jotting down the details from earlier in the day when we visited one of the cities—Heraklion, I think.
There was so much blue, bright and vibrant blue. The two girls I share my suite with are
asleep. To our left though, the four boys are awake and talking with two girls from the third suite. You are lounging with a two-liter bottle of wine from town and one of your suitemates is searching for a lighter. The stars are so bright here with so little light pollution. On our last night here we’ll all lay on the concrete path, dizzy with liquor and joy, and marvel at the stars, wondering if we’ll notice the difference when we’re back in the States.
But tonight, you glance over at me as I’m sitting alone. You and the others collectively invite me to join. I almost say no. I wonder if I should have said no. I say, “are you sure?” and someone says “of course!”. We sit outside for some time until the girls get cold and you follow them inside. Your future-Athenian roommate and I stay outside as he’s finishing a cigarette and I feel comfortable enough to ask to bum one. He seems surprised, but pleasantly so. I’ll be honest: I love this moment. This memory. Sitting outside in the cool night, smoking through an entire pack together, talking. This was the kind of early twenties, college abroad memory I wanted, in all its clichés.
“You two are still out here?” you say, sliding the door shut behind you before sitting down. We both laugh, one of us saying something about having a good conversation, how it was such a nice night, how neither of us saw a reason to enter into the crowd of bodies that now filled your suite.
By the time you join us we have made it through the whole pack, and I should have taken this as an out. You tilt your head, begin to talk the most. I wish I could remember what it was exactly, but you say something about making jokes to keep everyone around you happy. If you’re happy, everyone’s happy, is essentially what you’re getting at. I remember laughing. You raise an eyebrow at me. I am apparently surprising people on all fronts this evening.
“What?” you ask me. I look at you for a moment, trying to see what sparked in those dark eyes of yours. You tilt your head again, waiting.
“Nothing,” I say. “I just don’t believe you.”
You laugh at this. Say something like, only people who’ve been through it would see through you like that. There’s something in your eyes that tells me you think we’re similar somehow. Or, I peak your interest because I am vulnerable and look like the kind of girl who likes to fix people. I think I want to believe you started planning here, in this moment. But that might be giving you too much credit.
* * *
In PornHub’s most viewed categories of 2018, one can find “Indian,” “Japanese,” and “Ebony” highlighted in bright infographic colors. The rest of the list is comprised mainly of video game and movie characters. The NNEDV reports that 41-61 percent of Asian American women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime—a number higher than any other ethnic group. In 2018, in the top ten list of searched terms on PornHub, “trans” falls at number five. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 2018 was the deadliest year on record for transgender individuals,
82 percent of the deaths being women of color. There is this idea that any deviation from the assumed mainstream of white and cis will ultimately be categorized as exotic, as abnormal, as somehow both desired and disdained. Are we only worthy to fuck?
* * *
Did you know that after Perseus slaughtered Medusa he carried her severed head in a bag as he flew home? Even in death, he needed to stifle any chance of her power slipping out.
* * *
The college we attend, the college that brought us to Greece, is located in central Pennsylvania. And while it is a fairly liberal campus, it is a very conservative, very white town. On weekends my boyfriend and I walk hand-in-hand through the Susquehanna Valley Mall, laughing about something insignificant. Like the way wintertime air tints his light complexion with pink, or the way our glasses fog up whenever we move from outside to inside. This type of visible love attracts all kinds of eyes. Sometimes love reciprocates love, and I catch an old woman smile. Other times, the sight of colored love paints gloom across the expressions of older men. I could never tell if their disgust stretched at my boyfriend for his misstep in loving me, for mixing skin that shouldn’t mix, or to me for daring to exist in their world.
In the same town, on a midnight Walmart trip to secure cold medicine and cough drops, my boyfriend meanders up and down the aisle while I read through ingredient lists. A white family, pale and pink and heavyset, walks past the end of the aisle and their eyes lock on my form. My boyfriend hears them murmur at me and positions himself in their line of sight. “We should go,” he says. Eyes wide and darting as I ask him what they said. “They called you the n-word,” he whispers. “And then something about a gun.”
I am surprised at my lack of surprise. We wait until they’re further away before heading to the checkout line. I keep my eyes peeled in the parking lot, keys positioned between my fingers in a defensive position. Not that a key could do much against a gun. But I had to quell my fears somehow. Had to pretend I still had some control.
* * *
On our second night in Athens, I drink far too much too quickly. You keep the space
between us small. A few hours into the night and the group is splitting off, and I am unsteady and slurring my words but still trying to talk to you. Trying to tell you we should go with them, that they don’t want us to be alone. “Why?” you ask me, though I think you already know the answer.
“They think you’ll hurt me,” I tell you as we stand outside of the hookah bar and your fists curl. You storm off in the other direction and I go after you. The group moves further and further away from us. They want me to come with them, to leave you alone in the middle of a city five thousand miles away from where we’d call home. I can’t bring myself to leave you here. Alone. You shouldn’t be alone with him, they warn. They aren’t the first people asking me to stay away from you, your name back home on campus didn’t roll off tongues with much sweetness. But god, I am nothing if not stubborn. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something in the way you carried yourself that drew me in.
My pride lies in my ability to make people unfurl their truths to me and I convinced myself I could peel back the most calloused skin. Coming up against your layers when I only wore one, it only made sense I’d walk away from us in pieces. I thought, if I let you see me, you’d let me see you, and I could prove them wrong. Show them that you weren’t all shadow and darkness, just maybe a little wounded. I was naive and hopeful. I trusted you.
You knew that.
* * *
Conflate is to combine, to make multiple singular. Like when people tell me I look like Mindy Kaling. Or when a Google review of my family’s business calls my father Saddam Hussein. When we are viewed as extensions of limited references, we lose our humanity.
In the mid-late nineteenth century, my grandmother’s grandmother rode a boat across international waters from India, to Guyana. No passport, only the promise of something better than what they had. She and her husband and two young children. So, it is not wrong for me to say I have Indian origins, but whenever presented with this classifier I become defensive. West-Indian, I’ll say. South America. Indo-Guyanese.
Boys have had the audacity to say to my face, “I’ve always wanted to be with an Indian girl,” so maybe they are behind why I deny this part of myself. Why I erase my own history so as not to fit the transcript they see written on my skin. When someone asks, “Are you Indian?” I am vehement when I say no. Rejection of an identity rooted in blood is a different kind of self-hatred. How long have I been at war with myself? What will it take to bring those fragments of me home?
* * *
Sometimes, my dear monster, I imagine you carried a checklist. Brown body, scribbled next to Buy mom a souvenir. Maybe a question mark beside it, as if the uncertainty builds up excitement. I imagine you saw me, and began plotting—drew diagrams and built worlds to hold me in. Carved promises to yourself into the concrete so the earth could be reminded, you are conqueror. Your eyes are nothing more than crosshairs and I, an easy mark.
* * *
That second night, whisked in with the alcohol and empty cobblestones, you called me beautiful, aloud. Maybe it was the beer, or the wine, or that last shot. But I believed you. Me and my ticking, time-bomb skin. Me and my Medusa curls.
I became my own demise. Looked into your eyes and saw my own reflection. Turned myself to stone.
* * *
On the flight back across the Atlantic I am unable to sleep. I play the same Halsey album on repeat for eleven hours, write frantically all the details of that night so I don’t forget, panic every time someone in a red sweatshirt walks up the aisle.
You gave me your phone number earlier in the night. After you calmed down from the accusation we walked to the center of the city, sat in the middle of music and lights and talked. We decided to be friends, you and I. Talking was so easy, and you smiled when I handed you my phone.
On the plane, I feel the weight of the device in my hands, stare at your name on the screen, begin typing. I write and rewrite a thousand times what I want to say. It starts with anger, a lot of profanity, accusatory language. I delete it. Even now, years away from this moment, I’m trying to give you the benefit of a doubt. I think I flat out ask you if you planned for it to happen. I tell you my memory is blurry. I type on and off for hours, I send it when we land.
You respond three days later, all diplomatic. You think we should put this behind us, that we can still be friends, that you’re sorry it made things complicated between us. You never really apologize to me. Do you think what happened was wrong? Or just inconvenient?
After four years, I wonder if ever I haunt you. I doubt it. You do, however, still haunt me. I know that you live in Baltimore. And even though I haven’t seen you since we graduated from college in 2018, every time I drive through Maryland my body tenses up as if in this city of thousands, on this highway in my moving vehicle, you’ll find me somehow.
* * *
Perseus gifts Athena the head of Medusa, which Athena mounts onto her shield. The gorgon’s eyes still withholding the power to turn all who gaze to stone. Sometimes men tell me I have a beautiful complexion and I feel snakes crawling beneath my skin, wish I could glare at them long enough that they turn to stone.
The day after you raped me, we climbed the Acropolis, stood beside Athena’s temple, etched the entire Athenian skyline into our memories from that spot. I should have made an offering to her, to Athena. Asked her to give me strength, the power to keep going, to turn you to stone and topple you into the city. When Perseus flew with Medusa’s bagged head her blood spilled and birthed snakes. I wonder if I looked bloody that day at Athena’s temple, if she saw me and pitied me, if I could turn my hollowed out core into some type of weapon. I had a right to rage, to shriek, to cry. But I was so quiet. In no telling of Medusa does anyone say that she cried, or screamed, or begged. I wonder if she felt alone.
* * *
Our last night in Greece, after we wash the sweat of the day away, we go to Glyfada. Everyone else is exhausted and lays along the open beach chairs under the overcast skies. It is too chilly to go in the water but I kick my shoes off, roll my pant legs up, and press my toes into the soaked sand along the edge of the water. Let the clear, soft waves brush up against my ankles, the sea breeze coaxing itself through my hair. I walk for a while, alone, trying, I suppose, to put as much physical distance between you and I as I could.
We change in the bathrooms of the clubhouse before dinner. The sun is setting over the horizon of the Saronic Gulf, and I watch as you walk alone along the beach. Away from me and everyone else. Like you’re brooding. There is this far-off look in your eyes, a
contemplation, a consideration, a course of action being plotted to avoid consequence. Or maybe you were just tired. Maybe I wanted to believe you could feel guilt. Regret. Remorse. Anything. But you were simply quiet, so quiet. Where did you go that day? Whose skin were you wearing? Was it mine?
When they call us in for dinner, you and I are the last to arrive and circumstance seats us directly across from each other. I spend most of the meal looking down at my plate, pushing multicolored grains around. The waitress comes to pick up our dishes, reaches for mine with the larger part of a chicken breast still sitting on the ceramic, and you speak to me for the first time. “Not hungry?”
My chest claws itself open when I lift my head to meet your eyes; they look soft and searching. I almost find myself laughing. I cannot hold your gaze for long before answering, “No. No I’m not.”