Hold him close, but let him breathe by Sefu Chikelu
I hope that this letter finds you as well as you can be. It is 9AM, I am on my
second cigarette (first cup of coffee), and I saw fit to finally respond to your letter.
How have you been these days? I hope that you are elated with finally hearing
back from me--that you forget it’s been like five whole months since we’ve last
spoken. Admittedly, that would make me not feel as bad about the length of time
that has passed, but of course, this isn’t about my feelings or my guilt. I would,
however, like to explain to you the reason behind my disappearance. I owe you at
least that much, in addition to a sincere apology.
Michelle, you know that I have always relied on my relatives. They have been a
crutch of sorts, keeping me upright and off the floor. Anything that I’ve needed,
they’ve provided as best as they could. And you know, as well as I, that I’ve been
sheltered rotten, shielded from all kinds of difficulties, real life issues and
unpleasant realities. I dreaded it too. We’ve spent many Sunday mornings on your
front porch drinking coffee with you listening to me vent about how I felt like my
life wasn’t my own. How I felt like I wasn’t permitted to do a lot of the things that
other people my age could do. How I felt like my life was slipping out of my
hands, or more accurately, my hand on one piece of it with my parent’s hand on a
You’ve spent many nights on the phone with me, listening to me ramble on about
how I really need to get away, if only for a few moments and just “be”. No
expectations, no pressures. Just to exist as I was and be a fun-having teen.
Do you remember the time when I was about 13 or 14 and we visited West Palm
Beach and I had wandered off--completely took off with no inhibitions, walking
along the shoreline with the torrid air, thick as vaseline, beating down on my
shoulders? To me, it felt like minutes. My grandmother will still argue to this day
that it had been two hours of searching, panicking and asking around for my
whereabouts. When you, my mother and my grandmother finally found me, my
grandmother took her beach towel and swung it at me multiple times.
“Boy, why did you WANDER OFF! We told you to STAY WITH US!”
“Had us looking ALL OVER for you. You could’ve been ANYWHERE on this
beach… Bring your ass over here NOW!”
You recall me responding to my mother, but for some reason I don’t. According
to you, I responded as softly and as nonchalant as ever:
“What were you looking for me for?”
And I meant that. I’d return when I was ready to.
You know my history. My entire being was policed, down to what I could wear,
what I could do, what I could major in, where I could go. It was grueling to say
the least. One day, I decided to relocate and start from scratch. I wanted a clean
slate and to have SOME sort of say over my life while I was still young, you
know? I was about to exit my teens and step into my twenties and I felt as if it
needed to happen now or perhaps it would never. Even with the job that I was
working at the grocery store, those paychecks were never particularly “mine”...
Michelle, you know as well as I, that this one life that we have HAS to be our
own. There was a whole world that my mother hid from me, and I was determined
to discover it and see for myself.
Behind my parent’s back, I searched for jobs in other cities. I stumbled across a
neat opportunity--a paid writing fellowship in Chicago. I applied and was
interviewed and accepted for the position in a matter of days. I sat the family
down and explained to them (and sent you a text) the details of the internship and
that I’d be out the door in two weeks.
The family didn’t take too kindly to the sudden news. You, however, were
overjoyed for me and couldn’t wait to see me thrive. I truly do thank you for that.
But then, communication got weird and days turned to weeks, which turned to
months. I hope that you accept my apology. Here’s what I’ve been up to:
-The internship ended, and I now work as a barista. Three to four days a week,
part-time. On the side, I’m a dishwasher in an exquisite restaurant downtown. It’s
shit as you can imagine, but it’s getting the bills paid.
-I am still single with no intentions of mingling. When the time comes, I am open
to either a man or a woman.
-I smoke medicinal weed just about every other day. Helps with the anxiety and
the lack of appetite (I’m still thin as a rail. Working two jobs, running around all
the time doesn’t help.)
-I am writing each and every day. Writing is a precarious occupation. It gets
squeezed in just fine with the other things that I do.
-All of this will lead to a degree in English (God, I can hear my mother now…
“What are you going to do with THAT?!”) in the future. The environment back at
home would not have permitted me to pursue my degree then, but I’m able to
I’ll do a better job of keeping in touch with you, I promise. How’s lil Don doing?
I’m sure he’s grown a lot. Is he still making music? If so, tell him I said hello and
to keep creating.
You’ve always been a phenomenal mother. Hold him close, but let him live his
life too. Hold him close, but let him breathe. I think you know what I mean…
Sefu Chikelu (he/him) is a writer, bookseller and mutual aid organizer in Baltimore, Maryland. His writing has appeared in Blackwoods Mag, The Junction, Literally Literary and elsewhere. Twitter: @SefuChikelu