Issue 7 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Ola Faleti

Fifty Ways to Feed a Fire

  1. The problem is all inside your head, others will say this.
  2. But the problem lingers in your wrinkled bedsheets.
  3. The problem turns a five-minute shower into a fifteen-minute one.
  4. The problem makes your stomach shift when you spot the back of the head that disappointed you.
  5. The problem is in the margins of your Art History notes and all inside your ballpoint blue pens. There is the panging of your heart, and then there is the panging of your heart.
  6. The problem is in the Louvre and the thousands of tourists whose pictures you photobomb while you stand in front of a giant Delacroix canvas. Swamped and overwhelmed, you hope to God no one asks you to take their picture.
  7. As a foreigner it takes time to connect to a prose that still trips your tongue. The problem is all the missed connections on the Metro, all the times your cashier had to resort to English because you could not remember how to say “in cash.” The problem is feeling alone in a language.
  8. The problem is the incessant wondering — is emptiness forever? The answer is no. But sometimes breathing is hurting.
  9. The problem is all inside your head, literally.
  10. When did you first learn to wallow? Six was a year of sweet springs, seven a year of sunny songs.
  11. Perhaps lessons began in seventh grade, when your best friend did not pick you as a science-fair partner. Even if you weren’t scientifically inclined, even if you usually foiled your results. The problem is that you did not feel your own merit.
  12. Or maybe it was fourteen when you were unable to determine what made everything a sudden source of alienation and what made your family morph into strangers who you lived with. What happened when you made misery out of everything and nothing.
  13. The problem is the pity parties you threw for yourself last week after your Valentine’s Day plans fell through and you were stuck single in a house of Sinatra-playing lovers. Again.
  14. Always always always always the problem is knowing when to throw in the towel and cry. If you think you are done, cry some more. Tears are finite, remember?
  15. The problem is going to the mosque with your mother on Eid and not knowing anybody, feeling too shy to approach the other boisterous youth in flowing white clothes, their Salaam-Alaikums so much more fluid and natural than your own.
  16. The problem is that you mean what you say and expect others to do the same. You do not know what it means to not follow through on promises, to abandon those who invest whole hearts in others’ words.
  17. The problem is digging through your drawer to find some scotch tape and coming across a gingham shirt that is not yours, smelling a little like sweat. The problem makes you sit on your bed, sighing and pressing lost somethings to your nose.
  18. The problem is all about learning to breathe without suffocating, learning to drown without asphyxiating. The problem is knowing how to sink into the sad.
  19. Everything is a problem when everyone is having sex (but you).
  20. It is an absence more than anything. The absence of the ascending scale of a ringtone or a vibration. The absence of words reciprocated.
  21. You have tendencies to stay in your cocoon room, tucked away from the ambient laughter. You do this to yourself.
  22. The problem is those last three shots you took clouded your judgment and here you are, drunk, in front of this boy’s room, working up the courage to knock on his door and snuggle under his sheets with him in them. You realize just in time that this is foolish.
  23. When you see your grandmother for the first time in years, she is kept upstairs because the carpeted steps will trip her. New York City is cold. The windows fog white and sometimes red or silver when cars pass by. She spends much time sitting in front of her window, murmuring to herself and rolling prayer beads between her fingers. You wonder what she makes of this country.
  24. The problem is overhearing your friend’s loud laugh and hating it for being carefree and accompanied, all the things that you are not.
  25. But the problem was never humming to yourself on a train to Bruges, admiring your own companionship and the flat but pretty Belgian countryside.
  26. Nor was the problem treating yourself to a solo Thai feast, salivating at the menu, ordering Pad See Ew and playing with the Sriracha on the table while you waited.
  27. When you missed your bus to see a play with other American students and instead saw Yves St. Laurent for the second time at the cinema, alone and surrounded by friendship that you could not touch, you mused: “Foreign soil is not supposed to be this rough.”
  28. The problem is not smoking anymore because sad gets amplified in the hyperbole of stoned thought. First, you are a rock, then you are an island, then who are you, then you think you are unhappy, but then what is emotion — you are a fly that’s landed on the back of a massive universe. Or worse, you are nothing.
  29. The science of sleep is this: When you weep in the dark, it will come. Eventually.
  30. The first time someone tells you they are the problem, not you, is a chilly mid-September evening when you are both under the stars talking about your parents. After he delivers the news he says, “I hate to see you cry.” But you want to sob harder. You want to drown him in saline.
  31. Paul Garner from Beloved told Sethe — “You your own best thing.” Sometimes your best darkness, too. The problem is all the ways you can betray yourself.
  32. The problem is the unsteady ways we swallow our grievances quick instead of chewing them whole.
  33. The problem is not a new one — songwriters have angsted, poets lamented, and painters bemoaned since civilization’s birth. A concrete universal is not knowing how far the precipice goes.
  34. How many metaphors exist for this feeling? A firm no, raw bruise, the sourest granny smith, picking open a scab again and again and again, losing breath, lemon juice, an elbow pinch, your first F, a dropped ice cream cone, stinging rain, winter wind, scalded hand, vodka swallowed slow, fresh pubescence, stubbed baby toe, stunted firecracker, a mother’s refusal.
  35. Your mother learned to swallow the solitude as a new arrival. There is alone, and then there is trying to get a social security number or working under someone else’s name. There is an untethered aching to being an immigrant.
  36. If religion is close to your heart then there is no such thing as solitude. John Milton said that loneliness was the first thing that God’s eye named not good. But when the wind whistles, it is hollow. When the conch shell croons, it is distant. For being so wary of the lone, God made sure to put it everywhere.
  37. I’ve found that if you sit still enough by your window you can maybe hear the moon, reminding you that you are your own illumination.
  38. The problem is all the blood in a human body. If you wanted to empty it, what a mess that would be.
  39. The entire month of January is problematic. There is something about the cold that makes you forget that bright thinking is not extinct, that your internal frame of reference need not reflect the gray. The smell of firewood in the air makes you think of home in a new way. It is where you want to be and anywhere better than where you are now.
  40. For all this talk of problem this and problem that, you know the problem is that you think too much and if you stopped thinking for thirty seconds all the knives, all the sad scent, all the gray would eventually float into some dark abyss and maybe not return.
  41. Friends query, “The problem? WHAT problem, you look great!” after you spent an hour sobbing profusely. If you don’t know, crying is the ultimate anti-aging mechanism.
  42. You seek solace in fictional characters, which is not so wrong; the problem is the way you talk and expect them to answer. Michael Corleone has bigger fish to fry than young unease.
  43. Blue is not the warmest color — black is. Black is the embodiment of suffering and suffocation: bleak, continuous, going, going, gone.
  44. The problem is acknowledgment. You may have a real monster if sleep is always the best answer. You may have a real monster if movement is burdensome.
  45. If you gave the problem a body, it would be decked in drapey maroon fabric and perpetually nursing a glass of pinot noir. It would offer some as a cool invitation. As sorrow contained in a hazy elixir.
  46. Your parents are made of all the sturdiest things: carbon, hydrogen, Nigerian dirt, and stubborn hope. They do not always understand that pain can arrive without sense. They crossed whole oceans for their heartaches. What could be more saddening than that?
  47. You sense your own warmth even when it is tepid. But you want your warmth possessed. You want it to belong someone other than yourself.
  48. Perhaps you are going about this all wrong. Perhaps it is not a problem, but a short series of questions: a) How long does a sun remain set? b) Is sunrise really a whole dawn away? c) Can I wait that long?
  49. You get used to juggling the roles of confidante, lover, and mother. You limit your pity parties to one a day instead of five, and even master subtle public crying when there is no bathroom in sight. This feels like progress until a slew of engagement announcements on your Facebook feed sends you down a chute of self-contempt.
  50. But you know the real problem is you, kiddo. Buck up. Stiffen that upper lip. Don’t you remember there are wars going on, famines ravaging, and earth overturned by disaster?


Ola Faleti breathes, writes, and sleeps in Chicago. Sometimes she eats ice cream there, too. Her writing has appeared in The Quarry, The Coalition Zine, and Moonsick Magazine among other places. She’s trying this twitter thing @FaletiOla. Selected by Vanessa Martir.

Image © Jody Joldersma. Titled “Where Is It From?” 2016. Acrylic, paper, photograph, pencil, on wood. 14″ x 11″.