November 23, 2014

BANKS | Pressure, Uncut

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By AMIRI BANKS

“Shit!” The young woman fell out of bed, blitzed through her morning routine and headed outside. As she walked, she knew something was different about today. But what? After spending several minutes trying to identify the nuisance, she realized her precious headphones had been hastily left behind. Then, suddenly, the noises assaulted her.

They flirted with familiarity like an annoying word on the tip of your tongue, before gradually becoming recognizable. She heard the chatter of surrounding students, distant groans of traffic and chime of the Clock Tower. She heard birds chirping, wind rustling the fallen leaves and her own breathing. Every single noise, however, seemed almost alien. “Maybe this is what the angel in Wings of Desire experienced after becoming human,” she thought. Pausing, she reconsidered. “Ok, maybe a little too dramatic.”

A music and film aficionado, the woman prided herself on possessing an esoteric collection of media knowledge. Lately though, the quintessential confused college kid thought only of a career. While writing about music and positive psychology would be ideal, she lacked the necessary confidence and artistic prowess. Or so she told herself. Besides, hadn’t she already invested too much energy into her purpose? The plan: Earn a Ph.D., become a Biology professor and inspire other black women to teach. She owed it to her family and self to see that promise through, right?

Meanwhile, her younger brother sought escape. Before college, he had fought to avoid being branded as just “the smart Asian kid.” Here, he waged a new war for social recognition, and eagerly joined the packs of freshmen who went out in droves on Friday nights. Some people flourished at parties, but not those who danced too awkwardly, spoke too softly and drank too little. Unable to see the appeal, the boy soon stopped going. What followed was a lengthy series of infatuations with girls, all handled dreadfully. One day, the young man just gave up.

For six tranquil months, he felt completely free. He had always been resistant to embarrassment, but imagine the calm indifference of someone with nothing to lose! Of course, repression can’t last forever. The time away had been like a fast: temporary numbness and a clear head, followed by much worse hunger for a relationship. Convinced that everyone was either uninterested or uninteresting, he resolved to finally get drunk. Sexual frustration and impaired thought resulted in a regretful loss of virginity, which delivered no emotional punch. In his mind, the deed amounted to a betrayal of the man he’d spent years claiming to be. Thoughts of alcohol and more sex consumed him. The former offered an option for drowning away the sorrow, though the latter never again accompanied his endeavors.

While the freshman learned about the harsh wilderness of collegiate romance, his older brother just tried to focus. He had arrived at the LGBT community’s largest event of the year. As incoming president of a young organization for gay men, he needed to make a strong impression. The eldest sibling had no problem speaking confidently about love, success and stereotypes. Still, he functioned best when separated from those to whom he spoke by the barrier of a podium. Unstructured gatherings like these conflicted with his nature.

How could an introvert lead anyone? “Just be your beautiful self,” his boyfriend often remarked. His parents had always encouraged him to “embrace your mixed heritage, embrace your sexuality and above all else, do what makes you happy.” If they only understood their son’s inner turmoil, as he struggled to reconcile reality and expectations. So he had devised an image, to be used at all social settings. He transformed into a master navigator, or, more fittingly, an adept pretender. Over time, the navigation became innate, replacing actual identity with a constant façade. He appeared comfortable anywhere, which bolstered an already remarkable amiability. No matter the group, he could win them over. But at the end of the day, the man always looked forward to therapeutic solitude.

Such was the case tonight. Upon returning home from an exhausting event, the eldest sibling exclaimed, “I can’t keep doing this!” His boyfriend smiled reassuringly before responding, “Then stop trying to be everyone.” So he did.

Immersing himself wholeheartedly into the organization, the eldest sibling quit all his other extracurricular activities. He spent less and less time, either by necessity or convenience, with friends outside the community. What the student hadn’t understood is how much those diverse interests and friend groups had come to define him. As the old self disappeared, a new man replaced him. A man with tunnel vision. Someone who, in going down said tunnel, had turned from happiness.

For the third consecutive Friday evening, the youngest sibling left the party early. At home, he finds his roommate watching an episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender, a show which once brought him immeasurable joy. “I’m not going out for a while,” he told his roommate. That night, there was no “fast,” no stubborn backlash against an obsession with alcohol or sex. Tonight, there was only Avatar. Tomorrow, maybe, he would ask that nice girl out. For better or worse, he would try.

After class, the middle sibling runs home to retrieve her accessories. Waiting at the elevator on her floor are two students, and she decides to greet them. One student lets out a barely audible response and the other doesn’t even appear to have heard anything. As the young woman steps onto the elevator, she wonders why she even bothered to try. Reluctantly, she adopts a silent disinterest in the other passengers, taking out her headphones and plugging in.

Amiri Banks is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at abanks@cornellsun.com. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.