I’m not waiting for anyone to pick me up.
It’s always been heavy to go back to DC, like putting on a suit with handfuls of coins in the pockets, smelling like that old vending machine in the hallway outside my dad’s office on Sundays, when it became my dad’s church—like too many pennies and bad blood.
This time, though, I didn’t have time to worry about the weight. In fact, I think I forgot to put on the coat, too busy finger-combing my hair from its week-old twists on the subway. Coming out of the metro—nothing like what I would have expected on a Friday evening, weirdly empty of anyone but Black service workers and white tourists—I dashed up 1st Street while singing the chorus of “What an Experience” out of breath and on-key. On the stoop in front of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, fifty minutes after my plane landed, I shook out my hair, pulled on my good heels and hauled myself and my luggage into the National Book Festival’s opening gala. I remembered all the times I had walked into this building to visit the Jefferson Reading Room, just to smell the books and listen to the gentle typing and shuffling papers and soft coughing of a hundred other people who loved knowledge. And here I was, twenty years later, invited back as the writer I had dreamed of becoming. I was here now to help celebrate an amazing book that I have been so honored to be a part of: Janelle Monáe’s The Memory Librarian.
I welcomed my sister to the event, and we got to hang out with Kyle Dargan, our brilliant editor, and Yohanca Delgado, one of the other collaborators. Normally leaving Mexico gives me a case of reverse culture shock, a dazed language hangover, but that didn’t seem to matter this time. I was in a space at once familiar to me and new, but unlike every other visit back, neither quality seemed to hurt.
I stayed with my best friend’s parents over the weekend of the festival. Her mother bought good cheese and orange juice for me, just like when we were teenagers hiding out after classes. We sat and ate and talked and joked and I thought to myself, why does this DC trip feel so different?
Because, I realized, I’m not waiting for anyone to pick me up.
The next day, during the main event, I couldn’t get over the joyous Blackness of the crowd. Dr. Carla Hayden and her crew had worked miracles to make that festival deeply special, and deeply of the District. Every time I go back to my hometown, I lament over some new piece of it that’s gone missing: that ice-cream parlor, that old smoke shop, that bookstore. But this time I felt that I was back in that place I remembered. Different? Sure. The victim of a gentrification so intense that even New York could take notes? Sadly. But there it was, beautiful and beating at the National Book Festival— the go-go heart of my book-loving Chocolate City. I was so fucking glad to be there, and even more so, to be there with Janelle Monáe, one of my icons, who has meant so much to so many Black and brown and generally mixed weirdos who wondered if we were alone out there. The last question she answered was from a little girl in the audience, who I swear was trying to make us all cry: “How do you know when you’ll find your people?” Janelle’s answer was perfect, about how sometimes you have to go far away and get outside of your comfort zone in order to find the ones who will really get you.
I was in my old city, down the street from one of my first jobs, and I knew, though I didn’t want to tell that child: It will take time. It will hurt, but not as much as your loneliness does now. You will feel lost and despairing. You will question yourself and everyone around you. But you will get there, if you keep trying. No matter how far you run, if you keep your heart open, you’ll know when to stop.
To my friend dying in a nursing home
At seventy, as though
That were a full complement of years.
A well-loved engine finally out of warranty
Neurons sputtering, old semaphore across synapses
Smoke signals slow and cumbersome
To move an organ that was once
Too hot, they must have told you,
That burning flesh, mouth-watered, charred animal—
You, always you, never them
And yet holding that hurt.
Your fault for feeling
Your fault for wanting
Your fault for getting close
And pulling away
Dousing raw flesh with alcohol
Brain cells, too)
A burning kind of solace.
You would not care what they think
Had they not told you your thoughts were suspect.
You would not be drawn to their matches
Had they not scared you of the devil inside.
You would not have spent years hurling yourself
From one electric wire to another
Had they not used you so long for lamplight.
And when you escaped, jittering
Limping and shimmering
Past the open gate
You had burned so much already.
The life you made was good.
Had they left you more of it
My rage at the banked embers left to you
Might be similarly dim.
But as it is, old friend,
Whose quiet stories trod deep paths
Through battlegrounds soft as mercury,
I will light a candle for your voice.
I, for now, the wick.
Thank you for reading A Stranger Comes Home. I was incredibly honored that my collection Reconstruction was honored as an Ignyte Award nominee and equally thrilled that We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020 edited by C.L. Clark and Charles Payseur won in our category during the ceremony this Saturday. Much love and appreciation for everything that the FIYAH crew has done for the field and our community in the last few years. A power emergency (ah, the downside of solar energy) meant that I missed half of the ceremony, unfortunately, but what I did see was a balm for my soul.
The Memory Librarian continues to be out there making people think, and helping them to feel a little less alone. If you think you or someone in your life needs a bit of love and acceptance and beauty in a bleak future, please check it out.
I am now offering editorial services. You can contact me directly (alaya AT alayadawnjohnson DOT com) or through Reedsy. The first five people who contact me and mention this newsletter will get a special 20% discount on my regular rates (starting at 1.5c per word for simple editorial notes and going up from there).
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