Which One is the Lifeline?


I could tell you,
If I wanted to,
What makes me
What I am.

But I don’t
Really want to—
And you don’t
Give a damn.

—Langston Hughes, “Impasse”

There are two cops from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. We are all gathered around the kitchen island silently negotiating the power dynamics. Two Black women, two White cops. The cops have come to collect the details for the report, but I’m doing most of the talking. Grammy bears witness.

Alpha Cop asks, “How did she get your Social Security number?”

I indignantly answer, “She’s my mother—why wouldn’t she have access to my Social Security number? I’m pretty sure your mother has yours.”

Both cops look through me to the digital clock display on the microwave. I track their gazes as they scan the kitchen looking for evidence of the kind of people they think we are, their eyes finally resting on the fridge: a grocery list with one item listed (green beans), a portrait of MLK, and a Hallmark card with a blue-haired cartoon Maxine sagely advising that “if at first you don’t succeed… you probably had a man helping you.” In the silence, a walkie-talkie cracks out a coded description of some other crime taking place somewhere else. The cops do not move, but they don’t turn down the volume either. They don’t have time for this. Alpha Cop finally just comes out and says that it’s common for people to file reports like this to try to get rid of debt. I know that he means that it is common for Black people to file reports like this to get rid of debt.

And now I’m stuck, because here I am filing a police report on my mother, which is really the Blackest thing ever, and I am also being accused of trying to run some elaborate debt scam, which is also the Blackest thing ever, which means that I need the cops to both believe me and not believe me at the same time. But in this particular moment I need to fix my credit history more than I need to dismantle white supremacy, so I double down on my story and let the two cops leave Grammy’s apartment smug in their belief that a broken home is the root of all problems in the Black community.


I could tell you,
If I wanted to,


“Your lines are so dark,” he said, surprised as he looked intently at the inside of my hand, the yellow dim of an underlit bedroom clouding judgment. “I never thought about it,” he said, “but I guess it makes sense.”

It was the first time I had been in his apartment, musty with the scent of bachelor and mid-twenties male ego. Outside, the slow rumble of the N Judah sulking down the tracks was muted slightly by the night and the fog. This was the first and last time I was in his apartment.

He sat on the edge of his bed, his all-white hand comfortably hovering over my outstretched palm. My palm that he expected to be the same shade of muddled brown that defined the rest of my skin. He looked from my hand to his, searching for some sort of meaning. And as I sat there on my knees at the foot of his bed in the dim light, I grew nervous and began to consider. I had never thought about it either. Yes, the lines on my hands are dark. Brown, but not really brown. The empty color of a crease or a crevice. He looked up and asked, “Which one is the lifeline?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

There was a pause before I pulled my hand away. I looked at them, at my dark lines.

“Probably the shortest.”


What makes me
What I am.


“I think it’s time to march again. You know how long it’s been since I’ve had to march?”

I listen quietly while my mother talks abstractly and carefully about racism and people trapped without water and without food. People dead and floating. People who came from nothing and are left with nothing and wait for nothing as no one comes to save them from the devastation of the hurricane. I listen as my mother considers options, possible outcomes, worst-case scenarios. But she does so carefully. Abstractly. Quietly over the phone in a bedroom in a luxury apartment in conservative Orange County, California. “This isn’t gonna blow over,” she says.

My mother says “gonna” and means gonna. Not “going to.” This vernacular, so often under lock and key, sounds private, yet habitual over the phone. It changes the mood and the meaning of everything that she had just said. Everything I had wanted to say. It’s after this change in mood that I decide to take part in the conversation. “I’m not even tryin’ to hear that… And you know, if we were talkin’ ’bout white folks up in a Superdome they’d have the whole damn Navy Seals up in there… you know how they do.”

I can’t see her, she can’t see me, but we both know that our heads are moving rhythmically back and forth with each outrage and our index fingers are shaking pointedly with ethnicity. For twenty minutes we talk Black about Blacks. I talk while walking slowly up and down the windy, gray streets of a storied metropolis, the N Judah muffling every other word, the homeless man on the corner nodding his head. “You’ve got soul, sista,” he says to me as I pass. My mother talks while sitting in the hot, controlled environment of upper-middle-class suburbia, remembering a Time of Different while CNN mumbles in the background about troops, relief, and controversy. “Keep on keepin’ on,” I say. “Yup,” she answers, “’cause for right now, there’s nothin’ else we can do.”


But I don’t
Really want to—


The man sitting in front of me on the train is reading Dubliners. In any other city, this might be considered kismet, as I too am reading Dubliners. But in San Francisco, where every common N Judah rider is some shade of performative intellectual, there is nothing to assume except that he probably also likes Thai food and listens to music.

People are running for the train. They don’t make it in time, but there is no sense of defeat as they watch the doors close and the train move along down the tracks, out of sight. Not today. The sky is clear this late afternoon. Even in this part of the city where the sky is never clear. The colors are real and warm, like the last true summer day in places that have a summer season.

Through tunnels, underground, above ground, rebirth. Cliché, yes, but rebirth just the same. The homes we pass are teal. They are orange. Rust. Gold. All in a row. I like to pass by trains heading in the opposite direction. But more than passing, I like when both trains come to a complete stop, side by side. I look through the window into the other train. The Black man in my mirrored seat looks at me like I can’t see him. I do the same. We both stare at each other until we realize that everything is exposed. I am invisible simply because people refuse to see me. I’ve just come from there, I think, and the train moves, and my mirrored seat goes on its way. Merrily, merrily.

Buy. Sell. Trade
Nails. Facial. Waxing
Internet Access
1-Hour Photo
Hot Bagels

The train ambles along the track, passing neon promises so bright you can’t help but believe them.

I think for a few minutes that I will ride the train all the way to the ocean, watch the sunset. Ride the train and never get off. But I lose my nerve, and I go home.

Every time I’m on the train, I think I’m going to ride it all the way to the ocean, because I like the way the horizon looks when approached in steady, direct movement. I think, as I sit on the train, that there is no reason that I have to get off at my usual stop; there is no reason that I can’t ride all the way to the ocean and why, once I reach the sandy bluffs and cold, whitish water, I can’t jump in and splash my way to the horizon. There’s no reason. But instead, as the train ambles up 9th Avenue and stops at the corner of 9th and Judah, I get off. I get off, I walk up the street to my apartment, I open, then close, then lock the door, and I immediately situate myself in front of my computer to check my inbox for new messages. To pass the time; always passing.


And you don’t
Give a damn.


I leave my apartment in the morning to get a pint of ice cream and toilet paper from the liquor store on the corner. The neighborhood homeless man, doing his best to live without a place to live, sits on the steps of my apartment building and smiles. Beer in hand. “Howdy,” it is today. No obscenities today. Doesn’t look like the fog will be too terrible today. I think, maybe, he will be able to get a good night’s sleep in the park. Under the bridge. In the crook of the storefront. On the steps of my apartment building.

“Howdy,” I say back, and politely decline a sip of his beer.


Alexis M. Wright is a Black American essayist whose work weaves memory with texts and textures of the past. A fourth-generation Californian currently living in Boston, Alexis received her MFA from the University of San Francisco and was awarded first prize from Litquake’s Writers on the Verge in 2016.

[Purchase Issue 24 here.] 

Which One is the Lifeline?

Related Posts

Smoke on black background

Theology of Flight

One bullet. Even a rumor of bullet / restless in the chamber of a neighbor’s gun. / To run, before he arrives with his god. / Gather only what can be carried. / No litany for the uncompassed, / beyond the song of our shed weight.

My Freedom

I’m free to put a bullet through my head / when I can no longer piss alone. / I need to get that bullet. Then I can choose. / I’m free to choose what I want to be, / what I think of me, and I’m free / to blow it all up.

Truck on the highway

Lightning Talk on I-90

I was somewhere outside Rome when I saw the grief truck. Seriously? I said aloud, incredulous, to no one. Incredulous, and a little giddy: I couldn’t help but be delighted by signs, even bad ones; I wanted, more than any particular message, evidence of any message at all.