Five years ago, I was mugged and beaten in Brooklyn after turning down a quiet street and passing a young couple idling in front of me on the sidewalk. I felt a sudden blow to the back of my head and found myself sprawled on the warm cement, bits of gravel pressing hard into my skin, thinking about something a man told me years earlier when I’d refused his ride home: You are too light-skinned to walk home alone at night in this neighborhood.
I clutched my purse to my chest. In it I had a key to an apartment that wasn’t mine, a debit card, a cell phone, a charger, three dollars. Just let go of your purse, the assumed leader implored, the toe of her boot connecting expertly with my eye socket.
But I lay there gripping that small leather bag as they kicked me until a sound rang through my ears like a cathode-ray tube television set turning on and my body said, We don’t have any more to give, and my arms slackened and my brain said, We do, we have more, and I yelled at the couple, I don’t even have anything—which was true and a lie and unproductive and necessary. And in the emergency room, I sat shivering on a hospital bed waiting for the results of my CAT scan, until finally I said, I need to leave, and the doctor said, We were going to give you morphine, have you seen your face? and I said, The pain is not that bad—which was also true, a lie, unproductive, necessary.
March 21, 2016: At the start of my first ballet class after a three-year hiatus, I attempted a grand plié and felt the muscle fibers in my thighs misfire and quake as my brain sent the then-unfamiliar signal to my body to give in to gravity, but not at the standard pace gravity had negotiated.
In a ballet class, the instructors sometimes offer esoteric corrections:
“Grow taller as you lower yourself down.”
“Push down as you lift up.”
Ballet demands complete control of the body. The following week, my body—a recent defector, sure, but a body indigenous to this language—easily slid into a plié (pushing down, lifting up), my synapses humming. At best, it was a feeble apology for last week; at worst, a pardon for its failings over the last three years.
Gravity is an attraction between concrete objects.
Control is my father, a young police officer, attempting to corral a suspect. Control is that suspect, certain, undisputed, screaming, Don’t let that nigger touch me. Control is my father, years later, laughing about this.
Control is my father demanding perfection: my cursive letters erased and rewritten until the paper was worn thin (each arc exquisite), a tucked-in shirt that embarrassed me endlessly at school.
Control is my father reaching for a belt or exposing his hand when I got out of line—insurance, necessary thrust; with all that I have to give, one day you will leave this place, this state of being, and you will not come back. Your children will not grow up in poverty.
Gravity is a thing of sobering, urgent significance.
Control is the reaction of my nervous system to any kind of rejection, still afraid that my mother will leave me and that if this is my fault, I can stop it.
Control is my mother leaving me and returning years later with her new family. Control is my mother reminding me that I am stupid and terrible and unwanted. Control is me, in that moment, choosing to love her still—unconditionally.
Control is the nurse in my emergency room mocking the dark-skinned woman in the bed next to mine as the cut on her arm dribbled into a crimson pool on the floor: You’ve been fighting, haven’t you?
I fell into a glass door.
You’ve been fighting.
Gravity is falling into a glass door.
Control is the weary observation she shared with the janitor that wandered in to mop up that pool of blood with a wad of brown paper towels, You seem to be the only one here doing your job tonight.
Gravity is a thing of sobering, urgent significance.
Control is the nurse I encountered in another emergency room years earlier—certain, undisputed, calm—announcing to anyone within earshot, She’s just trying to get painkillers, a guarantee that my complaints about his conduct would not stick. The implication is clear as day to me now: Don’t let that nigger touch me.
Control is the complaint I attempted to file that evening with the hospital, the phone pressed hard to my ear, my throat tight after wailing in the car on the drive home. I can’t recall exactly what I said then—maybe it was this: I am right I am right I am right I am right. This is all a delusion. To be black in America is to be totally out of control all of the time.
April 26, 2016: At the tail end of class, walking us through our petit allegro, my teacher, panting, asked no one in particular:
“This is exhausting, right? You’re fighting gravity when you do it slowly. That’s why this is difficult.”
(Petit allegro means “small, brisk.” That particular combination began with a jeté. The literal translation of jeté is “thrown.”)
Our studio overlord offered up a moment of tenderness amid her cheerful dictation: “I’ll give you a break—let’s do it faster.”
April 26, 2016: Under scrutiny, ballet is merely a lotteried sequence of body positions. So is fighting. Sex. A seizure.
I think about something a woman told me after I was mugged: You are too pretty to walk home alone at night in that neighborhood.
Perfection is a safe space to be out of control. Even when I am a bad dancer, I am a good one. At bars I find myself climbing onto tables, loose and meditative—possessed. Within the confines of that perfection, I am worthy of love. Within the confines of that perfection, I am free.
May 10, 2016: Post ballet class, waiting for a stoplight to change, I pulled the straps of my sweat-soaked leotard down around my waist and lowered my window. I did this because I was hot and my skin was wet. But I was also thinking of La Liberté guidant le peuple: a bare-breasted Marianne clamoring into battle. And I was thinking about exercising gravity, my same bare breasts giving in to and recoiling from that invisible ligature as my Toyota leapt over potholes. Accelerating down Sunset, I was Marianne: without even a glance in my rearview mirror, advancing swiftly into the unknown—because you’re fighting gravity when you do it slowly. And then I imagined what a silly, inexplicable image I’d offer up if I were to get in a car accident, and I laughed. Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus depicts a prostrate nude—her death imminent—begging an apathetic figure for mercy.
The first time I thought about that prostrate nude I crawled into a well on the other side of the universe and allowed my loneliness to drown me. But then there’s this: to find a single point in space completely separate from all else is to be free from gravity, violence, perfection, love.
May 10, 2016: The ballet teacher proposed I “make friends with gravity,” meaning, don’t jump quite so high. But gravity is not my friend. I am its captive. I jumped up and up, and when the combination was finished I began again—possessed. This is all a delusion. To be black in America is to be totally out of control all of the time.
Sway Benns is a writer living in Los Angeles.