Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “What Happens to Women” by Kingsley-Wynn Ukuku. Kingsley-Wynn Ukuku is a Gullah-Igbo creator based in the American South. While studying English and Creative Writing at Clemson University, she worked as an editor for the South Carolina Review and Found: Music Uncovered magazine. Her work has been published in Mental Realness Mag, Furrow Magazine and National Scholastic's Best Teen Writing series. She also produces music and short films for the lofi arts collective the Companions & Co. Upon graduating, she published her debut collection of poetry, Juvenile Works, for free on several social media platforms. You can read it and follow her @KingWomanist.
This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
Everyone wants to know what happened to my mother.
It’s gotten better now that we’re all older and sensitive. People don’t ask nearly as much. The teenage years were by far the worst. I’d get the question all the time. In the car, in a bedroom, during a raucous lunch period squeezed between Spanish and art classes, every day of every week, frequent, ubiquitous.
Whatever happened to my mother is anyone’s guess. She’s never told me, and I doubt she ever will. Mothers and daughters in my family have a special, unexplainable relationship, though I’m sure the same could be said about any family. I was raised by my single mother, who was raised by her single mother, who was put up for adoption by her single mother. Up and down the line, we keep having girls. There have been a few husbands, of course, and a half-brother or two, but they’re all as easily misplaced as car keys. We repel men like flipped magnets. I was seven years old by the time I met my father, and my sister gleefully snickered when I shook my head and said No, I do not know who that man is and crunched into a Red Delicious.
It’s likely not that the female relationships in my family are truly unique but that I’ve just never known a man. They’re fickle things. They come and go and cum and go and everyone clogs up the laundry room for days because they forget to move their sheets out of the dryer.
Though I’m not attracted to them, my feelings toward men could never be accurately categorized as indifference. I have always been woefully interested in men: their laughs, which sound fake; their same, specific five haircuts; the way they don’t blink when you ask them a personal question. I can’t remember which film from the early aughts taught me little girls are supposed to fantasize about their weddings, but I took the throwaway line of dialogue quite seriously. I tried dressing my groom up in three-piece suits and smooth skin tones of various varieties, and when that didn’t work, it only made me more curious. What do men have to offer, then, I thought, if thus far they’ve offered me nothing and I’ve been just fine?
I asked this question aloud numerous times. My mother would smile and her sister would snort and my sister would scoff. No idea where my cousin always was. Probably with a boy. One day, my mother promised. One day, you’ll see. (I’d like to mention that I have seen, several times, none of which I consented to. The first time at five and then about yearly after that. My first thought was that it looked like a finger attached to the groin or a tree branch swinging back and forth, though how it did that I never knew as there was never a breeze. Dicks everywhere. The boys’ll take pictures of them and smile with all of their teeth, the whole thing cast in this grimy light like they’re in some dingy pub bathroom. And they’ll ask, Do you like that? And a dozen girls giggle and crowd around an iPhone while one types back, Yeah, how’d you know?)
As no human seemed keen on answering my questions about men, I did what anyone my age would and turned to the internet. I settled on the Kinsey Scale. My friends and I gathered on a carpeted floor. I got a two. Or, I’m three. And the boys rushed, insistent, I’m zero. I’m zero.
And I huffed. I got a X. And I scowled. I didn’t even know that was an option. The X meant I seemingly experienced no sexual attraction at all, not to men or anyone else. I brought this to my mother, who refused to believe. Maybe I was a late bloomer or going through a phase or mad at men (When was the last time you called your father?) or mad at the world or just different. I come out to her about twice a year now, but I must say something wrong each time, otherwise we wouldn’t still be talking about all these men. Men on planes and in colleges and online forums.
Eventually, my curiosity mutated into frustration. Maybe men don’t like us, I said, very petulantly in retrospect. And then: Is that a curse or a blessing?
Don’t say that, Mom said. She’s their greatest advocate. Men can do wrong, of course, but that shouldn’t beget rudeness. In our household, there is no sexism against any gender, even the one most deserving of it.
I try another angle: I’m never getting married. But then she just wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close, so close I couldn’t breathe, so close I didn’t want to.
Good, she said (and somewhere, however many miles away, my sister felt the need to roll her eyes.) You’re my baby, my sweet baby. And then, still, the very next day: Meet any boys in school?
I’ve yet to understand the obsession with men or with sex or the men who sexualize me. I argue nothing about me can even be sexual without my consent, but too many disagree for the statement to have any validity. No one wants a girl to have sex until she says she doesn’t and never will, then suddenly she’s naive or confused or oppressed by a god. And even so, the girl is still prohibited from leaving the house.
Many times my friends say: You’re an adult, legally.
Me: I know.
And you have a curfew.
But you don’t even do anything, they insist, though this either could be an argument for my mother (who’s never there to listen) or for me (to imply I start doing anything). In fairness, the insistence grew from resentment born from years of party, birthday, and after-school hangout rejections.
I can’t, I’d say, because you have a dad, or a brother, or a cousin, or a male dog. Men can do wrong, and who can stop them? Another man? Doubtful.
Then the friendly occupants of the car or bedroom or lunch table will groan, and then the question comes again: Did something happen to your mom?
From what I can tell, the numbers change every month of every year, but if one of every six women admits to being sexually assaulted in her lifetime, then how many of our mothers have been harmed? Carry the one using the PEMDAS rule and something should make sense somewhere in there. The world’s concern is never for whatever happened to my mother or whatever happens to women in general but for what we will do about it once the damage is done. Will she ever tell? Why would she? What does she gain from keeping it inside? What else but the words would she lose if she let it go? What if she tells me on her deathbed? My sister and I will each hold a hand and she’ll look up and she won’t say it, no, that would be too easy, but instead communicate it through that motherly look, that glare and set of her mouth. Then what would I do? What could I do, other than cry for her?
No, it’d be best if she told me before then. I’d encourage her to go to therapy, but I think she’d resist. She’s stuck in her ways, and so am I. I get that from her.
I don’t think she’ll ever tell me, and I don’t believe I’ll ever ask. If neither of us have by now there must be some reason. She knows I break easily, that one wrong word can send me into a week-long anxiety episode without food or daylight. And I know her, know she sees clean bodies as clean temples, know she can barely stomach the idea of a dirtied Q-tip.
So we’re protecting each other. She’s good at that. She loves to watch the news, to hear the monotonous voice announce the latest murders, shootings, and survivors, and to tell me which malls I can’t go to and which rallies I can’t attend and why I shouldn’t go to Pride. (Why do you want to go to Pride anyways? Is there something you’d like to tell me?) I try watching with her sometimes in hopes of seeing what she sees, to understand the world a bit better, but no one—not anywhere—questions men, at least not enough for my liking.
The stories, the criminals and saviors, the anchors—everyone is obsessed with women. What they wear and where they’re wearing it and maybe they shouldn’t have worn it at all because what will the young women looking up to them say and oh GOD another woman’s worn the same thing and now they must both battle for dominance while we watch please let us watch.
Everyone is obsessed with how much men can get away with. As they interrupt us, I see the round shape their mouths make and the way their eyes grow because they read recently somewhere that what they’re doing is wrong but does that necessarily mean they should stop or would that be condescending? What do you think, Woman? Or, no, actually—it’s always female. Female juror female victim female prosecutor female Ps and Qs to be double-checked, reckoned with, and put in their places. Sometimes I fear I’ll faint from exhaustion after a whole day of being perceived and interpreted, over- and underestimated.
At this point, men must be aware they put the fear of God in me, that they can give one look and I’ll freeze. The men who follow you but from a distance, who jostle you on the sidewalk and won’t stop asking if you’re okay are you sure you’re okay and mansplain the meaning of mansplaining and then laugh because it’s so ironic, who claim not to understand even after you’ve explained in detail, who get defensive when you handle them with care and intention and precision, who would never think to hit a woman unless she asks nicely or is wearing lingerie or deserves it.
Men must know they put the fear of men in me, that they shove and shove and shove into every crevice of the world without even realizing it, while refusing to realize until it is their mother or their sister who’s been jostled on the sidewalk. Refusing to realize until it’s their daughter and they must walk her down some aisle to some other man, who’s been fitted into several suits and painted in several skins over and over again in her mind and even still he does not look at all how she ever pictured him. Yet she’s spent hours on her hair and makeup, and she’s invited everyone on her side of the church because she loves him regardless, has loved him this whole time since she was a young girl, and he only just met her when he met her.
Unless the man leaves, of course.
Thank God some of them leave.
You might’ve been a completely different person had your father stayed, my mother mused once. God made a choice. She warmed me, rubbed her brown hands over my brown arms. Don’t be angry with him, she said, though to which him she referred, I have no idea.
I’m not angry, I said honestly, though it was useless. Men always render me useless. I’ve never wanted a father. I’ve only wanted someone to be able to tell you ‘no.’ And she’d laughed at that, and I’d laughed, too. I never realized how ridiculous it sounded until I’d said it, until I lost it and gave it to the world only to have it thrown back into my face like vomit in the wind.
This is what I cling to at night when I’m removed from myself, when I’m not a woman anymore, when I’m just a soul in the dark watching a woman lie in bed, waiting for sleep: my beautiful mother. I am her baby, her sweet, little baby. Which reminds me: a quiet lunch, just the two of us, with no one close enough to hear for maybe a few feet or a few hundred miles.
How you speak of men, she said. Her brownish-black eyes helpless behind her glasses. Did something happen to you?
As if I’d ever tell.
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