Collin Anderson Memorial Award Winner
Out of the Box
“Okay, let’s start this over.”
The room is small, like the size of a box. It has four long beige walls, a desk, three chairs, and a lamp bright enough so you could see both of us. We sat a few feet apart. She was looking at me through her black frames. I could only look down. My hands were shaking. I could see the hairs rise up on my black skin and could see the frustration on her black skin slowly build up. But just like a bottle that’s been shaken and is ready to fizz out, we both decided to keep a cap on what we wanted to say. I let out a deep sigh and sat up in my chair. I knew I had to be here anyway, so I might as well suck it up.
“I’m sorry. I’m just…not used to this kind of thing.”
“That’s okay. We can take it slowly, Tobias.” Ms. Miller said calmly.
Ms. Miller’s voice seemed so soothing. Almost as if using words seemed to be her hidden talent. She was young, about 30. Which is almost young enough to understand me. She couldn’t be a boy and 16 like me, but she at least used to be. She was wearing a black trailblazer suit that didn’t seem to fit the environment that we were in. Her curly black hair got in the way of seeing her full face and her high heels made it impossible to see if she was actually tall. I was curious about who she was. But she’s only here to learn about me.
“I mean don’t most people who do this have some sort of issue they need help with.”
“Everyone has issues, Tobias. It’s just a matter of how good we are at hiding them.” Ms. Miller opened her notebook and clicked her pen to a fresh page. The flipping sound of the pages in her notebook gave me chills on my skin. I felt like I was in a classroom being evaluated by my teacher for good behavior. Ms. Miller, on the other hand, seemed pretty eager to begin the session.
“Remember everything you say in the room is confidential. This is a safe space for you. So don’t think anyone is gonna walk through that door and penalize you for what you say. You think you’re ready to talk to me now?”
I let out a deep breath. This time I was gonna try and speak. My intuition was telling me that I couldn’t avoid this conversation. “Yeah”
“Okay.” The okay she gave me seemed patient and reassuring that she was all ears. “First, let’s talk about how you’re feeling. How are you feeling today?”
“I’d say confused, maybe. You know I don’t really know why I’m here today. I just know that my parents wanted me to come.”
Ms. Miller wrote a note in her notebook. She was taking notes on me. “And do you know why your parents may have wanted you to come today?”
I swallowed a big gulp of anxiety. I couldn’t tell if she was just asking me questions or trying to get to me. Either way, I wasn’t gonna let her get to me. “No, I don’t. Most parents in Brooklyn don’t end up sending their kids to therapy. Do they even believe that their kids get sad anyways?”
Ms. Miller drew a smirk. From the smirk, she convinced me that I was right. This isn’t an actual thing for black kids, let alone black boys. “Well, maybe that’s why you’re here.”
“No, I think my parents just wanna be right.” My tone became something that sounds like what you hear after waiting in line for so long. I’m annoyed with my parents and everything in between. I don’t wanna be here. I just wanna leave this box that’s suffocating me.
Ms. Miller had a curious face that was staring me down. She read something in between the lines of what I said but couldn’t make it out unless I let her. I told myself I wouldn’t say too much.
“Well, what would your parents wanna be right about?”
“Parents wanna be right about everything. They hit their kids because they’re afraid of being wrong.” My mind raced back to the moment Mom was mad that I spilled my dinner plate on the living room floor. It on Thanksgiving day when I was 12. She beat me with a belt in front of my older brother Aiden and my younger sister Cynthia. “That’s what you get for spilling food on the floor you can’t clean up! You want to make a mess, well let me show you what happens when you do!”. It was an accident. My mother struck me three times, each time, hard enough for me to not forget how it feels. My father at that moment was watching the game on TV in the main bedroom, while my screams became the background noise. I can see now why being wrong always terrified me.
“I think your parents just care for you. Being a parent is hard, you know? It only gets more difficult with time. Maybe they just struggle to show you that sometimes.” Ms. Miller was trying to not pass judgment and to understand but she couldn’t get the full picture. You could tell she was trying her hardest to make me comfortable. Her tone is soft like from the narrators you hear on an animal discovery documentary. Calm and sensitive. She closes her notebook and places it on the desk next to her pen. She made this gesture so I wouldn’t feel like she was writing a novel about me. But there was something in the way of her understanding. “Why don’t we just try getting to know you. What are some things you like?”
“I like a lot of things.”
“What are some of those things?”
The chair I was sitting in started to get warm. I felt myself sinking in it as we got deeper into the conversation. Maybe this wasn’t a bad idea.“I like playing my PlayStation, Football, making bracelets with my younger sister, wearing silkies, and styling my outfits. I’m really into fashion and music and all of that stuff.”
“That’s good. And what do you do with your interest? Are you a part of any clubs or do these things in your free time?”
“I don’t really do all that. I just do it when I want to and when I can. I like it, so I do it. Like today, I put on this turtleneck that’s navy green so it compliments my black suede pants.” I smiled as I explained just how much good taste I have.
Ms. Miller smiled at me with delight. “That’s fine. It’s good to have an outlet for your creativity and being able to express how you’re feeling through things you like to do. You’ve mentioned things that you do like. What are some things that you don’t like?”
I immediately looked at Ms. Miller with fear. She was confused by my facial expression and why I was so afraid to answer the question. I was caught off guard by the question because I knew the answer. Well, at least the real answer. The answer that would answer more than just that question. I have to make a decision: the truth or the half-truth.
“ I don’t like….” I paused. My voice began to tremble. My hands were shaking again. That uneasy feeling was in my throat again. It became a noise I could hear. I could hear it in my ears, my eyes, my chest. It felt like it was everywhere. My heart was beating faster than I could catch my thoughts. This all felt surreal, like a movie. But I knew I couldn’t escape this feeling unless I got out what I had to say. Could I trust her? Would she judge me? Maybe I should just say it.
“Can I just learn a little more about you first Ms. Miller, please?” I didn’t wanna shut Ms. Miller out. But I knew I couldn’t handle answering that question. She’s doing so much to help me so I don’t wanna lie to her.
Ms. Miller sat up in her chair and fixed her glasses. “Sure Tobias, that’s fine. What would you like to know about me? You can ask me anything. As long as it’s not about my cat Nancy, I can talk all day about her.” She laughs and smiles at me.
I laugh at the thought that we both have cats, my cat Winnie is the best too. “I have a cat too, her name is Winnie. She used to be small. But now, she’s getting really old and fat.”
At this point, we were both smiling and laughing. This is the first time I have all day. It feels good.
“Any more questions for me Tobias?”
“Yeah, um, what’s your favorite thing to do?”
“Well, I’d have to say it’s going to the movies with my husband who is very fond of Star wars and supernatural movies.”
I look down with sadness in my eyes. Ms. Miller seems to be so happy and lucky. She has someone who loves her. I envy that almost.
“Do you have anyone you like to spend time with? Maybe, family or friends, you’re particularly close with.”
I thought long and hard about how I wanted to answer this question. “I like being with my family. I mean they get on my nerves sometimes but I love them to death. I just think they don’t understand me half of the time.”
“What’s something they don’t understand about you?”
Easily I’m annoyed again. There’s only one real problem my parents have with me.“Why I don’t have a girlfriend is one.” It felt so freeing to say that. I can never bring this up in front of anyone else. But Ms. Miller made it a bit easier to say whatever I was thinking.
“Well, it is your choice who you care to be with and when. You don’t have to have a girlfriend because your parents want you to. And you should never feel obligated either.” Hearing that sounded like it would have come from an angel. Those words were words I wasn’t expecting. She wasn’t touching me but I could feel her hugging me all around. I felt safe in the embrace of her words. By now I just wanted her to cradle me more.
“Well, it’s not that. I just don’t want a girlfriend.” I said eagerly and defensively. She wasn’t attacking me but I prepared myself in case she did.
“And that’s fine a relationship isn’t required-”
“No Ms. Miller-”, cutting her off from her sentence. I had to say it. If I didn’t say it “I don’t-I don’t like girls.”
My breath was shaky and my palms were sweaty. This was the moment my parents sent me here for. To make me feel this way. To make me scared of speaking. No, stop it, Tobias. She’s here to help you. Focus on that. Not your parents.
I was back in that moment. I’m seven years old. I’m in the bathroom of our small Brooklyn apartment. I had a towel around me and was looking at the bathwater run through the tub. My older brother and younger sister were sleeping in their bedrooms. My parents were away on a cruise to celebrate a wedding for their friend. The walls of the bathroom were so white that you could almost see your reflection through the tiles. My uncle Tae was there to babysit. He came into the bathroom to check up on the water on the tub.
“You ready to get in the bath little Toby? It’s not too hot so don’t go complaining either.” Uncle Tae said as he turned off the water. He sat on the toilet seat as he helped me take off my towel wrapped around me. When my body was uncovered he stared at it. He stared at me with examination and delight. He liked what he saw but tried to find a way to tell me. At that moment, I was only expecting to get in the shower. “You know your Uncle Tae loves you right? And you love Uncle Tae right?” I nodded my head. “So if you love your Uncle Tae then maybe you can do something for him and keep it a secret. Can you do that little Toby?” I nodded my head to him with confusion. He smiled at me and stood above me. His six-foot body had already won over my 4 feet in height. He unbuckled his belt in front of my face. I knew at that moment I should have left the room.
Ms. Miller paused. She was silent for a second. I could tell we both knew the next question she was gonna ask. I was just hoping that she wouldn’t.
“Tobias, are you saying to me that you’re gay?”
This moment was harder than I thought it would be. I feel drained. This moment is taking up too much of my body. My hands are shaking. My eyes can’t open. My voice can’t go without trembling. I just feel like I’m suffocating in this box room. The four brown walls are caving in on me. The dim lamp is growing hotter on my hands on the desk. The clicking of the pen is too loud over my thoughts running rapidly. Breathing becomes harder and room to be calm isn’t surrounding me. Ms. Miller is looking at me. Her brown eyes staring at me through her black glasses are looking further into this feeling I’m hiding. Her black trailblazer suit made me feel inferior to what she was thinking and why. She had to ask this question. She had to get me to this point. This morning when I woke up I wasn’t expecting this chair to feel the way it does. It’s warm, hard, and filled with discomfort. I don’t really know what I’m feeling. I don’t know how to feel. Am I scared? Am I anxious? Is it just me? I’m trapped in all of these thoughts. And there’s no one holding me back but myself. It’s not my fault. None of it is. My parents won’t believe me. Why didn’t I tell them? I was scared of them knowing the truth. They always had their own definition of it. I could never be right with them. To them, I’ve made too many mistakes. I’m always going to be a fuck up to them. Football isn’t enough. Respectfulness isn’t enough. I don’t know how to please them, or anyone.
Ms. Miller is calm enough for me so that I can feel safe. This is a room I’ve never been in and never hoped to be in either. But here I am. And yet with being here she still doesn’t know. Can she understand? Can anyone understand? Tell her Tobias. Boys aren’t afraid. Boys don’t cry, we get through it. You’re 16 you have too much to lose.
Her eyes seem understanding and she’s patient with what I have to say. She waits there waiting for me to be ready with an answer. It’s just that I won’t let her. Because she just doesn’t know. She doesn’t know how painful it is to always feel wrong. All my parents have ever been good at is making me feel wrong. “Do this Tobias or else you won’t be better than anyone else!” or “You can’t make a living out of fashion you’re a boy, not a faggot!” But I love fashion. I love what I can wear. I feel free. I feel empowered. No one will pick the clothes out of the closet as I will. No one will show the appreciation I have for my style. But no one will love me as I will. Did he love me? If he did would he have done that? Why do people love? How do they do it? And why do they do it the way they do?
I love my family. My mom, Dad, sister, and brother. They may be imperfect, but they’re my family. Family means the world to me. But things haven’t been the same since Uncle Tae passed, at least for them. He was the anchor of the family. The one everyone loved to be around. He always used to say, “be the best person today and a better one tomorrow!”. People loved that about him. But despite the love he had around me, I could never carry any for him. I hate him. I hate that man. I’m glad-I’m glad he’s old and dead. I don’t wanna call him that word. But that’s what he is. He’s an abuser. I can finally say it. Damn it feels so good to say it. He hurt me. He hurt me bad. In that bathroom where he unbuckled his belt haunts me forever. I didn’t know what to think at seven years old. I just did what I was told so my parents wouldn’t be mad. Now they don’t have any reason to be mad. I never gave them one. And I can’t go back to the bathroom to change what I did. I can’t change how I feel now. Even when it feels wrong. I think about it a lot. Not what happened but what could happen with other people. I don’t like boys. But, I do. “Do you think you’re gay?” Ms. Miller’s voice keeps replaying in my head even though she’s right in front of me. Tobias, are you? Are you gay? I can’t act like I don’t want it, but with someone else. Someone that loves me. Maybe that’s it. No one ever showed properly. But who will? Who will love me if I can’t even love myself like this?
I’m just scared of someone saying I’m wrong.
“Yeah, I guess so”.
There was a long silence between the both of us. We were back to that silence that was here when I first entered the room. Ms. Miller looked at me with the same emotions I had on my face. We were both confused about what to say after. We were just both realizing something for the first time. It was new to us both. And because of that, I didn’t feel alone. I felt like now she could make out the picture I was trying to paint for her this whole time.
“Is that bad, Ms. Miller? Does that make me a bad person?”
Ms. Miller sighed. “No, that makes the other person who says it’s bad. That just makes you new. Not in a bad or a good way. Just the new you that should have unpackaged himself a long time ago.”
The boxed room got a little brighter. The walls didn’t seem to cave in anymore. The bottle cap was off. I looked at Dr. Miller and smiled at the thought that I could now, for real this time. My body was calm and my mind was quiet. I was floating without worry. That feeling I had when I first walked into this room was something I created to avoid speaking. The box I built around me was open, and it would stay open.
Collin Anderson Memorial Award, Honorable Mention
Dancing on the Pavement
The ground is wet and hard. The cold air bounces off the ground and flows back into the grey uniform skirt that’s ripped at the top. The rain is still pouring but everything is already underwater. This alleyway is small. Too small for someone to turn and come inside it. There’s a locked grey gate at the end of it with three big black dumpsters across from each other. Garbage smell from the dumpsters seems to get in the way of the blood that’s running down a stream coming from her skirt. A dim light flickers on the brick wall above the lifeless body on the pavement. It’s bright enough to light the dark sky but not bright enough for anyone else to see it’s shining on her. It could almost be like she’s back on stage, dancing with her ballet shoes, training to audition for NYC Ballet when she graduates high school in three weeks. But instead, she’s here, dancing with death on the pavement. And death is directing the performance.
Her white uniform shirt is torn and unbuttoned all the way. It’s got her school mascot, the green dragon, on it. Her name tag from Freddie’s Diner is still pinned to it. She forgot to take it off after work. At least that’s one thing that’s still holding on. Everything else from her shirt to her socks is torn apart or missing. Her black bra is unhooked but her breasts are still covered. The ponytail in her hair no longer stands the way it did 23 minutes ago. It’s been pulled off by hands that never touched her before. Her black flat shoes are on the other side of the alley walls. She spent the first seven minutes kicking but so hard that her shoes came off from hitting the pavement. Yet, she knows all of this and hasn’t moved.
Her tights are ripped with two giant holes: one on her left knee and one where her underwear used to be. Her underwear is now three feet away from her where the dumpsters are. Her underwear is violet, her favorite color. Just like her name too. She could see that next to her right arm from where her student ID lays on the floor inside the wallet that’s been searched through. She doesn’t know if the $30 she had for her best friend Tammy’s birthday cake she was supposed to buy is in there. Tammy’s birthday celebration started 30 minutes ago. She was just running late from work.
She doesn’t know a lot of other things too. She doesn’t know if the sky is bright or if she’s just losing consciousness. She doesn’t know if her cell phone is still in the black bookbag she had on her back when she was walking before. She doesn’t know if her Mom will be worried she’s still at work or if she’s overworking herself before graduation. She doesn’t know if her Dad came back home with the concert tickets he said he got for her and Tammy. She doesn’t know if Tammy is mad at her or if she just thinks she’s running late as usual. She doesn’t know if Bryan will still want to take her on a date. She doesn’t know if Bryan is mad at her for standing him up Saturday night. She doesn’t know if he still wants to touch her since he never did. She doesn’t know if anyone wants to after this. She doesn’t know if NYC Ballet will accept her in this condition. She doesn’t know why Freddie made her stay till 8 instead of 7 like he normally does. She doesn’t know if this blood is hers or his. She doesn’t know if anyone has noticed she’s here. She doesn’t know if anyone is looking for her. She doesn’t know why he ran away. She doesn’t know why he chose her. She doesn’t know why this happened.
The light flickering comes to a stop. The light bulb has no more room to shine the light on her. This performance is gonna come to an end soon if she doesn’t get up and dance as she does on stage. The darkness suddenly wakes her up. Her eyes can open now. If it wasn’t for the light turning off she would have never realized that that light was temporary and not something her spirit was seeing. She can see the brick wall in front of her. Her body is face down facing the right. Both of her arms lay flat on the pavement. She’s taking her first real breath after trying for so long to find air. She’s blinking and breathing. Her fingertips can move. Her legs can move. Her arms can move. Her head hurts but it can move. Her torso hurts but it can move. Almost everything hurts but she can still move.
She pushes her arms to sit up. Her body feels heavier than it usually does. The blood from her lip is dripping now and leaves traces on her white uniform shirt. She moves herself to sit upon the brick wall. It feels colder than the pavement that she’ll never forget the feeling of. Her heart is beating faster than it should. She’s looking at the pitch-black wall across from her. There’s no more light shining on her now. It’s just her surrounded by darkness.
The street isn’t too far but she’s too far from reality to come back to it. She can’t hear anything. She can only hear screams that no one else heard. The sounds of her clothes ripping and the grunts he made are the only sounds that play in her head. She stays there and waits. Hoping that someone or something will take her away from all of this. She just closes her eyes instead. For as long as she can.
But she can’t wait. She can’t stay here. Because there’s a dog by the entrance of the alley barking at her now. A dog that might have an owner. Her eyes open. She looks to her left to see that dog is a pit bull that’s white and brown. She doesn’t know why he’s barking. She doesn’t know what she wants to do. She doesn’t know if she wants to be saved.
But she does know one thing. She knows she’ll never forgive herself if she doesn’t try to help and save herself. She knows that only she can do that. She knows that she can’t find him if she doesn’t find the strength to do something. She knows that she’ll never look at her body the same. She knows that she might not ever let anyone touch her body like this again. She knows that the owner of the dog just approached it with a black collar in their hand. She knows that this dog owner is a woman now who’s tall and texting on the phone. She knows that this woman is the only person who can get her back on stage. She knows that she can say something. She knows that it might be the last bit of energy she has before the show is over.
Keaona Gray-Outlaw is a professional writing major at SUNY Cortland. They released their first self-published book “Shelter, Protection, and Unwatered Seeds” and the Crystallize Review is their first publications online. They are passionate about writing both poetry and fiction. They are captivated by work that instills purpose, creativity, and explores non-conforming ideas.