Daax Gjegji writes a letter to Kelsey Sucena
This work almost didn’t make it to my door.
The first time you tried to ship it to me, it came back. Return to sender. When it finally did make it back to me, 2020 was in its final days, and from the large envelope emerged this sleeve with paper soaked in a blood red that made me scream with joy.
Kelsey, you and I have nearly missed each other all year. As we were scattered around the world and likely to stay that way because of the pandemic, Catherine asked us to set up virtual coffee dates. Our names were matched up, but life happened for both of us. You suffered a loss, and I was wrapped up in the latest manifestations of my generational cycles.
We never did have that virtual coffee date, but there you were neatly framed in my computer screen during classes. Your presence felt like a light in those moments, though I still knew next to nothing about you. It was the kind of warmth I remember feeling from the candles that warmed our rooms in Tirana whenever the lights would go out for days, the kind of warmth that brought us closer and made us almost untouchable to our circumstances even for just a little while. Looking back, those blackouts are the few memories that feel like family.
Still, it was only when I opened the smaller booklet that I really understood the warmth and how your spirit found a way to be that warmth for others, for me.
On December 30th, I was acting as company for someone going to a long overdue doctor’s appointment. I couldn’t go into the office with them, so I sat parked in front of some house off Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. With me I only had my debit card, two rolls of film I needed to send out and the small booklet of your essays—still red, but encased in this almost other worldly photo of a bison crossing this vast field, staring down its own shadow.
Perhaps the bison was looking for answers in the shadow, like I look for answers in mine.
It was in this reading that I finally saw it, the link that Catherine saw between us, the one that might hold my hand and guide me through this story so I could begin to look at my own. Within the soft newspaper there was a universe that felt as much internal as external. As I read, I watched the figures made of delicate lines dance across the pathways and thought that maybe this was it.
Maybe this was that third place somewhere in the between, the one I had been looking for.
* * *
“I have spent much of my life in this closet of my own design.”
The essays start on this road trip through America in 2016, winding through the election cycle that got us here. Is a road trip soaked in self-discovery some rite of passage for us queer folks who have struggled to feel at home anywhere? I took my own road trip in 2017 when I was falling in love and falling apart and wanting to leave America forever. Since then, I’ve been navigating the tensions I have within myself, my physical community and my cultural space—especially one as great in number yet so particular as the Albanian diaspora. Those tensions have not gone away in the years since that road trip. I still feel like that displaced child, holding the hand of an adult who’s always halfway disappearing in a maze of fingerprinting and processes that get lost in translation on their way to my ears. And even though the 2020 election is now over, I’d say some of those tensions have amplified even after the false sense of relief that lasted not a second too long.
In the days before I opened the booklet and read in the car for hours, I had started a meditation practice focused on identity… how it can at times be an agent of separation. Three things stuck out to me:
1. The self is not a fixed thing.
2. Identity is the feeling of me as separate from the world.
3. The observer, the observed and the process of observation are all one.
I don’t know how to explain it, but your writing for me has always captured that spirit—this continued path and sometimes struggle to truly share ourselves and simultaneously share space with others.
In one of the essays, you talk about your mother’s job—how she spent years climbing the ladder at Home Depot only to be let go. She now works as a substitute letter carrier in rural Appalachian communities. You imagine writing a letter to your parents, a coming out letter even. You imagine that it might be delivered by your mother’s own hands. This fantasy is quickly crushed by the revelation that your mother doesn’t deliver too many letters but instead spends her days stuffing Amazon packages into mailboxes.
The imagining of her and that this letter, a letter that seems to follow you around the country, might reach your parents through your mother’s route is such an unexpected tenderness. But it is so abruptly crushed by the interference of this capitalist consequence in the same way that your mother’s climb to success is interrupted by the functions of that very system of capitalism. You hold these consequences, these interruptions in such an intimate way; in my own hands they are too slippery and fall through my fingers. You hold the systemic consequence as you reveal this deep desire to be delivered to your parents anew, in truth, and somehow also by their own hands.
This imaginary letter becomes the thing that holds your chances at a rebirth.
I think about this delivery, and I think about it more now that I’ve had the first dream I’ve had in months. In my dream, I have decided to take a different route to the train station, and somewhere along that route I have been stabbed. When I wake, I have no memory of the stabbing, no wound. I am interacting with no memory of it until I realize that all the places and things and people I am interacting with are known to me, but not from my present. For some reason, I think I am in my elementary school, and I know that I need to walk out that door.
When I do, no one in the world can see or feel me. I even encounter the incident of my own stabbing, where I hover over my body unseen. I find my way to the house we lived in on Hoffman, and the door is open. I spent nine years of my first decade in America in this house, and it still feels like the same house, but inside it’s almost as if the rooms have switched places. I find my mother in the bathtub, which is odd to begin with, but what’s even stranger is that she is the only person who can see or feel me even though her eyes are closed. I stand over her, afraid to scare her or pull her from her waking dreams, but she speaks before I can say anything. Suddenly, I feel like I have been here before.
“Am I going to be okay?” I ask her. My fingers are dampened by the soft dew on her eternally smooth and hairless arms. Her eyes are still closed, but she says yes. She seems unbothered by my presence, as if it makes sense for me to be here. She seems even calmer about my future.
I guess, Kelsey, I have dreams of being delivered to my parents too.
When you wonder about the life you might have and I read this, my eyes see a blooming—a feeling of real open freedom in your life, the same kind I yearn for every night before I sleep. But almost in the same breath, you reveal a simultaneous desire to shrink and disappear, overwhelmed by the way others might feel if you were to walk in your truth. How it may shatter their expectations. Your consideration for them manifests in moments self-denial while you secretly hope that your body will betray you in small but revealing gestures.
This duality is familiar to my own mind, the swelling familiar to my chest; it’s the way we shut off when we cannot show up in our fullest expression of self.
“There are so many reasons to leave myself behind.”
I don’t know if I’ve told you this, but sometimes I imagine cutting off my own limbs. I mean casually, not in a premeditated way. They don’t even bleed. Just a clean cut of me floating off into the sky. I do it to make life easier, which of course usually has the opposite effect—but only for me, so that’s okay.
In the past few months, I’ve begun to wake up in the memories of my childhood, memories I hadn’t been able to access in years. And maybe it’s the consistency of them in the mornings, but I’ve started to realize that I spent the larger portion of my young life trying to shed myself of my displacement, trying my best to make sure I read as belonging here.
Shed prayer, take another kind.
Shed clothes from the homeland.
Shed the smell of Mami’s cooking.
Empty the suitcases.
I think about the way I have to unzip myself and zip myself back up depending on the door I’ve chosen to walk through this hour. I think about how alone I felt in this until I read your work. I think about James Baldwin and how he thought his pain was unique in the world until he read, and I think James’ pain was unique still and definitely unique to mine and yours because I can still disappear in the necessary ways he never could. But I think he was right.
I thought my pain was unique until I opened this little red booklet, made of paper as fragile and tender as my own truth.
* * *
“Names are slippery this way.”
On page ten, there is a beautiful moment of correction, and I hesitate to use this word because it’s almost condemning but this time the correction is its own kindness. We encounter a patch of Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, and you tell us that this plant has many names. When you tell another park ranger that it’s called Sweet-Everlasting where you are from, he wants to know why. Proud of this nugget of knowledge, you crush the petals and demonstrate how the sweet smell lingers off them even after they have died. You expect it to be a grand reveal, but he judges the death unnecessary. He tells you that all you have to do is wait for the rain and you’ll smell it then.
“Some things are prettier alive, y’know?”
This page precedes an essay about pronouns and navigating crowds of people who will misname you until you find the pockets of people somewhere along the way who will call you according to your true nature and without harm. I think about that flower and how it has to earn its name by sacrifice and only in death. I think about the year we’ve just had, one that has claimed so many names, created legacy only when offered up ritual violence.
I think about how I smell it every summer in New York, how it stains the sidewalks. Summer after summer. Again and again. I think about how silence fills the school hallways and whatever name I put on it, it perpetuates. I think about how my own name is a giveaway but never a target on my back, not on sight.
I think about how in America, we rename things all the time. You tell us about how so many monuments are named “The Devil’s” something when they replace the indigenous name of a place while projecting a judgment about the people it really belongs to. So, I think about how the Japanese don’t call it Japan. Or how I can tell someone I’m making japrak. Then offer the word dolma to be more familiar. And I am told we call them grape leaves here. Or how my country is not even named Albania. Or how no one can ever pronounce my name the way my father made it. Or how we use the word “motherfucker” and forget why it was spelled into existence in the first place.
I think about the way I am afraid to claim my own name, to put it down. I think about how names become boxes and suffocate us. I think about how making a name could mean making one’s self again, this time with intention. I think no one will take me seriously when I ask them to call me by my name. I think about what parts of ourselves we have to kill to continue carrying our names—the ones we are given and the ones we make.
* * *
“The ghosts are temperamental. There are days I find them in just about every book or film or poem, and then there are months when they grow cold. I have been trying to muster them around this letter, so that those words that stick are worth telling. I’ve not been having much luck.”
The letter you want to send is a ghost in its own right. But you find other ghosts too. You find them in margins and songs, ghosts I imagine I’ve met too along my own way.
Maybe that’s what they are—ghosts: reminders of ourselves, the creature behind us whose walk we don’t recognize. We think it is someone following us and turn off our music, but it almost always ends up being our own shadow.
“Ever since I realized that I could, and still can be another person, I’ve been haunted by the ghosts of my possible selves I see futures in which I spend the rest of my life as a park ranger, and futures in which I am at war in the navy. There are futures full of science and spirituality, futures as only writer or photographer.
As I write, and as I reveal myself, I can feel these futures collapsing.”
Kelsey, if I never tell you anything else and if we never have that conversation we’ve been meaning to schedule since April of last year, I want to tell you that I see them too. Sometimes, I’m in an inexplicable mourning about a life path that seems to be disappearing in front of my eyes. Even if I never really intended to walk it.
Someone I knew who is now dead once told me I have a hard time letting go. Except he didn’t exactly tell me. He looked at the dog tags around my neck, and after I told him who they belonged to, he asked, “You don’t really let go of things, do you?”
Of course, it was rhetorical and what I consider to be the most weasel of ways to tell someone about themselves, but still I don’t think he knew how right he was.
I feel like I’ve spent a huge portion of this letter just talking about myself, so you’ll have to forgive me for that as it continues.
Not having anything close enough to reach for as a child, I introduced myself with new names every time I met someone. I imagined the world was large enough for no one to notice. I imagined being anyone but me, and I held on to fantasy so easily then. I imagined the right person or the right exit plan could get me there.
Sometimes, I still define myself this way.
With the ideas I have acquired.
Or what I am able to call mine.
Or my projected salary.
Or my diagnosis.
Or who I love.
Sometimes it’s less about where I am going and more about what I am leaving.
I’ve spent years building it all up in my head. Visions of hands around a pregnant belly. Rooms erected, eventually becoming a house. A house dispersed to become a collection of years spent hopping borders. I’ve built entire dimensions of possible futures, parallel and contradictory alike. But all of the foundations are weak, and the closer I get to my own reflection, the more time I spend watching the paths disappear.
March sort of felt like that, all of it. It was the day I sent my deposit that my quarantine started. I had been back to Albania that January and sent my applications in from there, then came back and started a full-time teaching job that meant trading boroughs. I didn’t expect to get into any program, actually, but I did.
The morning I sent my decision to Image Text Ithaca, I was on the bus. I had recently decided to take the bus to work because it meant I could walk for fifteen minutes before I got to the school building. It gave me time to clear my head in the mornings. I got off the bus and looked at the sky. I wanted to tell God how grateful I was, but I couldn’t scream in the middle of fucking Brooklyn, so I started crying because I couldn’t contain the emotion inside my body anymore. It didn’t fit.
I didn’t stop to notice everything.
I didn’t stop to remember what it was like to leave the house and not say goodbye to anyone in the morning. I didn’t stop at the bodega one last time.
Turkey bacon and jack with hot sauce on an everything bagel.
I didn’t see my students in line with me, smile at them, hear the music bleed through their headphones. The Yemeni guy at the counter who’s close to my dad in age didn’t have one last exchange of Arabic hits and YouTube links with me.
By fourth period, I was in the teacher’s lounge planning my next lessons and news of going remote swelled to become louder than the copy machines in the corner named after the Spice Girls. I immediately packed a suitcase when I got home and headed back to the Bronx, scrolling through the newsfeeds trying to predict the future in the passenger’s seat. The school was set to reopen on my birthday, but two weeks turned into a few months which turned into the rest of the school year and into the summer and also next fall. I spent a good amount of my quarantine back in the Bronx, still paying rent for my place on Eldert and unimagining all my paths forward. I started to think I was cursed again.
But on that morning, I was looking up at the sky, unaware of how loudly the heels of my boot smacked the concrete when I walked too fast. And I was crying with gratitude.
On that morning, I thought, “Everything is possible.”
For a few minutes,
I could finally be anyone.
It’s nearly a year after that morning now, and I think even people who aren’t as sentimental as I sometimes allow myself to be have been watching thousands of paths disappear in front of them.
I think now about the futures you imagined for yourself, all the people you could have been. I think now about how you write, and as you write you reveal yourself, and as you reveal yourself the paths collapse. I think now about how maybe loss, empty space can too be a gift. I think now about how sometimes when all the futures collapse, maybe they clear the view. Maybe a wide open space unfolds in their place.
Maybe then, you can see the horizon.
* * *
“… the painful distance between the imagined truth of a window and the reality of mirrors.”
It is the eve of lunar new year—the morning I wake from that dream where my mother is the only one who can see me. For some reason, I feel that dream in my whole body, and I can’t shake it. I decide I have to hit the reset button. It’s when I am taking a nap and can only half-sleep that I see the text.
“My dad died.”
It’s my closest friend from high school. We’ve seen each other put on so many masks over the years. Apparently, his father died on December 30th, the day I was reading the red booklet, the red booklet that hangs on this impending death of a father too.
They hadn’t talked in a while.
Maybe they had never talked at all, not for real.
I roll over and think about the only photos in the red booklet, the photos that I first encountered when we took that class on empathy with Diana. Remember? These are the only two photos you include in the smaller format portion of this work. They are small, like the booklet is in comparison to the large book of photos that you have to take apart to fully see. But these, these are in here, hugged by the padding of all your internal mapping spilt onto the soft pages.
What a deceptively simple last exchange of words.
I spent February 6th celebrating my grandfather’s 81st birthday in whatever way I could. I think you must know how much I love him. Kelsey, I found myself hoping he lives forever. I know I can’t truly have this naive hope, but I do hope he lives long enough.
Though I have spent all year watching people’s loved ones collapse for one reason or another, and I don’t know what enough is anymore. I am flooded with the memories I have of him waking me up for school, on even my darkest mornings and when I was much too old to have someone acting as my human alarm clock.
It’s incredible to me how little I valued my elders when I was younger. So much of my younger life was spent trying to manufacture a place for myself—anywhere. The dominant culture of the time was absolutely white American culture. Especially after 9/11, and especially after 9/11 in New York, everything that was “other” was to be put away. I spent so much of my time back then putting it away. So much that I never saw any of it myself. By the time I was done putting it away, I was already busy taking something else on. No matter how much I did of either—of the shedding or the taking on—there was a part of me that never did make that place. Not in my traditional home or in the Western world I ventured into every day.
But it is still interesting how selfish we can be in childhood. And I did not recognize this particular selfishness until now. In a way, it’s more a consequence that we suffer—the children—than it is for anyone else. We lose years of precious time and insight. We don’t see people for who they are because we’re perhaps preoccupied with the roles they are supposed to play in our lives. Then we become preoccupied with the roles we feel we have to play.
In the last year, a year spent mostly in isolation, I’ve grown so much more aware of the humanity of my parents and grandparents. It’s a phenomenon that is too multifaceted to sum up into some sort of wise warning, but I can say, despite the faults or shortcomings involved, I feel lucky for the newfound perspective. I definitely never expected it, and I think, as a younger person, I never imagined I’d need it.
Growing up somewhat alongside them for the past few years, as I enter my adulthood and theirs culminates, has allowed me to see more of them. It has allowed me to see things I connect with, things I can empathize with and sometimes flaws I never wanted to see. I think regardless of what is revealed, there is a space that opens up—somewhere between us becomes a place that can hold more of it, more of our respective truths. I hope he lives as long as he can because I can’t help feeling like I got to that place too late. I know that space starts off as just a small room, and then becomes an apartment, and that becomes a house with a few acres of land through which you can take long walks among the trees. I don’t know how much time I have with any of them before they too disappear. For them to know me. Inshallah, it is enough.
I think about how selfish my naive little hope is when people are losing family at a much younger ages than 81. Losing them not to old age but to neglect and to systems that have built a country now stuck at a rolling boil. I think about how lucky I have been and sometimes how stupid I have been not to see it. I think about how you never did send that letter and how you never did get to tell your father, and I wonder about all the things I will never tell mine.
And I wonder now, is this selfish too?
* * *
“Whether we love it or hate it, America feels inevitable.”
Kelsey, when I emailed you, I said it should have been a letter.
This work almost never made it to my door. I almost never applied to graduate school. I almost never encountered you. I almost never learned your name. I almost never told you that it was a gift, that I saw myself in it.
You said, “I imagine our experiences in America are tremendously different, but I’m grateful to know there are parallels between them.”
I have always valued difference. Only in recent years have I truly seen the way it can mask the simplest and most inherent of connections, and perhaps I’ve also seen the way sameness can mask the most insidious of disconnections. I think about how different you and your father were, how you had two distinct experiences of this land, and how the thread between you is a view of that mountain.
Two photos, still different, yet finally standing in the same space.
I spent my hours in this red booklet watching you navigate yourself, all the while moving across this map of American land—land that carries with it so many things you know how to name, both material and tangible only in spirit. Books for me, like most things, used to be windows. Much like an open curtain or a light left on would allow me to peer into what family might look like from the street corner I played on, I used windows to imagine possible lives, to throw myself into a different present, somewhere unreachable. Yet this book, this collection of your own navigations, acts like the mirror I always needed.
While you walk me through your own possible futures, their collapsing, your hesitation to pull the triggers that would collapse them and build new ones, there is a whole other identity crisis happening around you.
When I landed here, on August 26th of the year 2000, I had no idea where I was. I had no concept of borders and statehood. When 9/11 happened, I wondered if a curse followed me into the new world. There’s that selfish note again, thinking I could possibly cause every catastrophe to hit America in the 21st century just by stumbling into the country. It wasn’t until later that I realized this land was drenched in its own curses, its own wounds. Underneath the promised lands of American dreams and behind the white picket fences was an internal struggle left unspoken in its history books and classrooms, lying just beneath its consciousness.
I mentioned that road trip I took in 2017 and how I wanted to leave America for good, but what I didn’t tell you is that it was the first time I realized my own disillusion with America was not a lonely or unique one either. I was in New Orleans on the 26th of August that year, and it was the first time I held that disillusionment along with newfound wonder. Sometimes, I still want to leave—find the next possible future anywhere else. Sometimes I think of myself as without country. I mean, what is a country but imaginary lines drawn by the blood of very real lives taken?
But I think I have another naive hope. I have the hope that America is looking for herself too. I think that her possible futures were written by other people, maybe in the same way that my possible futures were ones impressed upon me, ones I internalized. Maybe as America writes, she reveals herself. And as she reveals herself, those possible futures collapse all around us.
Kelsey, do you think maybe if the futures collapse, that the view will be clear? Do you think we will finally see the horizon line? Do you think that when the paths fall away, a wide open field will unfold?
Maybe it will be green.