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You Are The Stranger Here, You Are The Unfamiliar Bite Of Food by Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

2021 Pushcart Prize Nominee

When I open the door for the FedEx worker, when I let you in, it’s the way your eyes set themselves against me.

Against me, and not with me, not here.

Do you, and others like you, know what your way of looking can do sometimes? How without words, you whoop things out of us that we sometimes like to keep to ourselves?

And instinctively, I go, “Oh,” and reach to the top of my head, “these are just paper hair rollers.”

When you look at me so strangely still, still against me, and never with me now because this new bite of blackness for you is some kind of peculiarity that demands an explanation.

In my wondering, I wonder if you are wondering why it is that my hair is plaited, and not flowing down?

In my wondering, I wonder if you are wondering why it is that the paper hair-rollers, cut from the best booze-store bags, wrap around my plaits like caramel-cream hair bows, darkly-splotched-brown from my hair’s oil?

In my wondering, I wonder if you are wondering what they would look like if I took one of them down?

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Do they spring? Do they pop out like cinnamon rolls from out of a compressed can?

So, my mom says, because you still can’t quiet figure it out, “You know, like how we used to do back in the day, how we,” because it’s important to include you here, “used Coca Cola cans as curlers.”

And this is the spark, this is what turns your eyes from against me to with me, and you say— “Oh, yeah,” lowering your voice sneakily, “My mama used to straighten my hair with an iron, and an ironin’ board.” As if that is some shameful kinship that we share, as if my paper hair-rollers are part of this shame, and in this shame, we are the same, equally strange.

When you smile, when you talk, when you story, you do so now because we have explained ourselves to you, because now this new bite of blackness is familiar, and sweet-tasting, and soothing you back, and no longer strange, and sharp-tasting, and biting into you.

And now, I’m no longer wondering about your wondering, now I’m only wondering about my own kind of wondering and how is it that we always know so very many things about you, and others like you, and yet you know so very little about us.


When night comes, the paper hair rollers are no longer splotched, but fully-steeped, turning them from caramel-brown to wet-wood brown. I keep going back to those can curlers.

‘Keep going back because it is the soft way that I am able to lay on my paper-rollers, and me thinking about how your can-curlers must have been cold, and hard, and cracking in the silent nights of your summer evenings, disrupting your rest.

‘Keep going back because, paper covers rock.

‘Keep going back because, paper always beats rock


Published in Issue 5

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