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Like She Never Left

My grandfather re-introduces me to a self I forgot existed when he digs into his archives and finds an old cassette tape.

8 min read

“My name is Tavonne Carson. I’m six years old.”

If she hadn’t said my name, I wouldn’t have believed the little girl calling from the speakers of the old boom box was me. Steady and brilliant, that voice spoke to a part of me the woman well into her thirtes had forgotten.

My grandpa called me down to his basement barbershop as soon as I walked through the door.

“I got you on tape,” he hollered up. “You and ya’sister.”

I immediately thought VHS and flashed back to the bulky camcorder Grandpa pulled out for family gatherings long after smaller, sleeker models existed. Even when duct tape held the eyepiece in place, Grandpa rolled up to catch us, flinging bad jokes across a card table or stuffed and slumped after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. At the bottom of the steps, he sat beside a tattered cardboard box full of audiocassettes, a pleased look on his face. I was relieved that at least I wouldn’t have to watch my awkward preteen self, all early-bloomed breasts and bad skin.

I’m on the tape? How you know it’s me?”

“’Cause ya’ say ya’ naaame,” he drew out “name” in the way he does when a chuckle is roiling to the surface. “Gone and hit the thing.”

I pressed play and the first deck of the stereo system clicked into motion. I waited, listening to the hiss of the churning spools and the soft crackle of tape going round. The sight of the stereo system, in all its retro, plastic chunkiness, reminded me of the one I asked for (and actually got!) for my 10th birthday. I picked it out from the electronics department at Value City. It was Crayola grey with pastel purple and pink buttons and accents.

Finally, a bubbly voice burst through the speakers like a spell newly broken.

“My name is Tavonne Carson. I’m six years old. I’m gonna sing a song.”

*

My earliest memory of any career ambition places me on the enclosed porch of 440 East 18th street, the house my siblings and I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. Before I wanted to be a veterinarian, a firefighter, a policewoman, or Spike Lee, I wanted to write songs. In this mental snapshot of myself, I’m about seven years old, a thick No. 2 pencil teeters in my tiny grip. Still in the stages of wobbly penmanship and sounding out words, I’m writing lyrics to a love song on an unlined scrap of paper. My beaded braids roll-clack along my forehead as I sway out the kinks of an evolving chorus.

The adult me laughs at the thought: a first-grader aspiring to be something as specific as a songwriter. I’m curious about what I thought I knew about love at the time. Probably less than what I knew about music but, either way, I was committed to doing it, writing songs, with no worries about how qualified or talented I was or wasn’t. Back then I didn’t need permission.

*

Inadequacy lives in my throat. It chokes me when I attempt to speak on anything that means anything to me, even when I think the words I want to say. Be it an “I love you” or “Don’t touch me,” the words have to fight and claw themselves up and out. Once I start to feel the physical onset of self-expression, it’s over. My throat, hot and painfully dry, swells and seems to close in on itself. I swallow hard and try to remain composed, try to complete the thought that I held clearly to begin with. A panic tornado churns and wipes it off the map.

Inadequacy lives in my throat and pulverizes my voice into rough, choppy bits. It believes that I have no right to defend myself, no right to an opinion. It believes I’ll make a fool of myself, that no one cares to listen anyway. Inadequacy believes I am never going to be enough, that I am no one special and the best thing I could ever do is shut up.

Inadequacy treats me like an inescapable error, a walking apology.

Inadequacy believes it is protecting me, like an overaggressive pit bull.

Inadequacy shows up on the regular, like we go together. When I’m talking feelings. When I am introducing myself to a group of strangers. When I am meeting with my boss for review. When I am asking for what I want in a relationship. When someone says, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ When I’m rehashing what I didn’t say. When I am rehearsing what I’ll say the next time a bitch (insert offense here). Hell, when anyone is looking at me while words come out of my mouth. When, when, when…

When you’re being vulnerable is the way another writer phrased it. She mirrored back a version of myself I hadn’t been able to see. She called inadequacy out. Moving forward, all corporeal rumblings speak a new language and bring me new understanding (read: hope).

I still am my own oppressor, but I want to be free. Since my awareness of the New Year’s Resolution in the early 90s, my pledge to myself was on repeat until I thought not resolving to “speak my mind” could be a revolutionary approach worth trying. Maybe not making the resolution would loosen the slack on the rope looped around my neck, weighing heavily on my shoulders. It didn’t.

I literally struggle with expressing myself. Not only the idea of it but the physicality of it. My body rejects the premise; we wrestle until I am tired. It’s not pretty but it’s not a loss either. My mind, the more difficult opponent, and I have a similar rapport but she is gradually coming over to my side, working with me in cryptic ways.

*

I dreamt my tongue was infected with parasites. I clawed at the dimpled flesh, tangled with white worms while sitting in a diner with friends. I tore so much meat away I wondered if I would have any tongue left. The odd thing was that no one reacted. They carried on with the conversation as if nothing was happening, even as I slumped in my seat, hiding my face behind a napkin dispenser to conceal what I was doing.

The parasites are a figment of my imagination. Within the context of the dream but figuratively, too, in real life. No one noticed because the dis-ease is all my own, self-inflicted. I suffer from fear of giving the wrong answer, fear of looking silly or uneducated, fear of offending someone, fear of defending something I’ve said. I know my fears like I know my social security number. I can list them like my favorite movies or foods. I also know from one of my favorite cartoons growing up, G.I. Joe, that knowing is half the battle.

*

The little girl on the tape sounds boss. She doesn’t care that her voice squeaks and breaks reaching for notes out of her range. Out of her range? What does that even mean? There is no “try” in her voice. She is all “do.” A chestnut-hued, plaited baby Yoda. Forget the song is a hybrid of a Tetley Tea commercial and a nursery rhyme, chopped and remixed. She’s giving it to you. In the key of ‘you’re welcome.’

She. Me. Her and I were strangers, separated by trauma of getting grown too soon. Reintroduced when I pressed play. Grandpa just leaned back in his seat and watched. He waited for me to recognize her, someone he’s always known in some way. As an aunt, I think about where that fearless little girl slipped off to as I watch my nieces and nephews power through the world like audacious beams of light.

That voice on the tape cuts through the fuzz and crackle like a force of nature, stronger than that twister that wrecks my brain. It’s more than noise. Not only is it music to my ears but it’s everything—her everything. And there is no apology; there is not an ounce of sorry in her.

I imagine my face then, expressive almond eyes, chubby cheeks, my mouth wide with melody, so focused on the task at hand. There are no multiple takes. I punch the song straight through because I don’t know mistakes. I am not ashamed of my snaggle-toothed mouth because I don’t care how the words sound coming out just that I say them. I project into the pinhole labeled microphone because I am necessary. Nobody told me so. I know it like I know to blink. I just do.

I want to reach into the speaker to touch her, pull her through, back to me and pretend that she never left.

************

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tavonne s. carson

tavonne s. carson is a lover and writer living in Harlem, New York. she is a VONA alum and graduate of the New School MFA program in Creative Writing.