How to Smile
by Raven Leilani
When I was five years old, I liked running to strange men in the park. When you are a woman, sometimes the air cleaves into a pair of hands. You become a spectacle, stacking irises into a routine, subverting what is dangerous by making it circadian. I build a metric around the gaits of city men—who are incapable of strolling, who loop on the pulse of traffic and asynchronous commuter prayers, who emerge from the subway with short cigarettes, carnivorous, working damp starbursts into their crisp, white shirts.
This is the business of the periphery, where my fist is only half-drawn. These are the violently preoccupied men of a girl’s dreams—half white rabbit, flitting through train cars, their faces soft and nondescript. I look for the man who is otherwise, who buffers, face suspended like a yawn. A man with nothing to do, who oozes into doorways and grins, waits for a crowd to bloom and displace the placement of his hands. Years later, I meet a stranger on the internet and his apartment doesn’t have any windows.
When you are a woman, sometimes you give up. You shirk the gospel of the low, unimpeachable hemline and bright, populated space. You feel the greasy fingers in the city’s homeostasis, and understand what is happening to you is just a matter of course. It is not unnatural to share a bed with your natural predator. It’s unnatural to ask that after, your body remain intact. I am working off the debt incurred by my accidental glances at idle men. The men in my family call this way of dining, a compliment. They cape for men they don’t know while I am standing there, counting their teeth. They uphold tradition, say, black girl, lighten up.
But I’d rather be dark. I’d rather press a flame into a smooth, plutonic stone. I’d rather hold that stone inside me, so that upon my dissection, my hysteria can be classified, rolled around in the hand like a single tooth. I’d rather string the roots of my teeth around my neck, so that upon the request of a smile, I am nothing but tongue.
Published June 24th, 2018
Raven Leilani's work has appeared in Granta, Narrative Magazine (2017 Poetry Prize), New Delta Review (Matt Clark Fiction Prize), Bat City Review (Short Fiction Prize), Columbia Literary Journal, and Split Lip Magazine. Work is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine. She was also selected for the longlist for Wigleaf’s 2018 Top 50 short fiction. Raven is currently the fiction editor for Ruminate Magazine and an MFA candidate at NYU.
Born in Ethiopia in 1974, Aïda Muluneh left the country at a young age and spent her childhood between Yemen and England, settling in Canada in 1985. She completed her university studies at Howard University in Washington D.C. and then worked as a photojournalist at the Washington Post. She is the founder and director of the Addis Foto Fest (AFF). She continues to educate, curate and develop cultural projects with local and international institutions through her company DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art) For Africa Creative Consulting PLC (DFA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her work is collected, exhibited and published internationally. Muluneh’s work is part of The Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “Being: New Photography 2018.”