Refuge of My Skin

By Kate LaDew

PROMPT—My white privilege ...

the lights are mixing purple


and my head makes up a melody to their motion

moving out of my ears and back again

it’s a sound like annoyance, like inconvenience

like even in the middle (beginning? nowhere near the end)

of a global pandemic I have things to do

and talking to a cop is not one of them


so I pinch the face mask over my nose and pull it to the left

(my optometrist once told me:

your glasses will always be crooked

because your ears don’t line up,

and it’s still the most unhelpful sentence I’ve ever had said to me)


I unlatch the safety hasp, turn the dead bolt, slide the chain lock

(a triple-strength overreaction my father installed

after I lost my key somewhere in the parking lot)

look out into the hallway and see two cops

with blue half-skull bandannas over their nose and mouth

standing too close to a woman with a full t-shirt wrapped haphazardly over her face

a little boy’s arms wrapped around her middle

all but his eyes covered by his own t-shirt, pulled up and exposing his belly


the woman is leaning back, one hand gripping the doorway,

the other in the little boy’s hair, and

I wait to see what happens


I don’t know my neighbors even by site and I wonder what she’s done

the cops are speaking English and I hear her say Que? once, twice,

fall silent as their voices raise, and she’s backing up

so I only see her toes, the edge of a flip-flop inches away from shiny black boots,

the cop’s fingers raised and pointing then suddenly she’s holding an envelope


and the cops are walking away, throwing back the door

(bolted the wrong way round years ago when the apartment was renovated

so it opens in instead of out) I watch it slam shut,

cutting across the red-blue-purple flashing and my mask shifts as my lips quirk,

my shoulders shrugging as my cat meows at my feet, looking up at me

and I look down at him, I don’t know, I say, in the high register voice

I use for non-people, I guess it’s fine


and then there’s movement above my glasses

the woman has pulled the t-shirt from her face, thrown it behind her,

and is breathing in shallowly, rhythmically, like someone in labor,

like a practiced routine, a technique memorized and often employed,

and the little boy is saying mamma, mamma and she moves one hand to her knee,

the envelope bending over it, the other hand grasping his shoulder, and she says shh, shh


after a long while rising up, her eyes on the ceiling, both hands moving to her heart

patting her chest softly, the envelope flapping, shh, shh, shh,

and she visibly swallows, once, twice,

body trembling, before her eyes cut to me and freeze


I freeze too, as if spotted by a giant searchlight in the middle of a crime,

I want to escape inside my apartment, turn the dead bolt, slide the chain lock,

latch the safety hasp, tilt my head,

knock the palm of my hand against it till this moment falls out

regain my balance, and melt back into a day untouched by anything of consequence


but I’m stuck, caught in this intrusion and do nothing

except stare at the line where the wall angles into a corner

past this woman and her little boy whose names I have never bothered or wanted to know

looking at them the way I pretend to look at violence on tv,

shootings and beatings and killings, knees on necks and raised hands,

keeping it all in my periphery, so that, unless you stood in front of me

you might think I was paying attention, was invested, involved


her body moves, a subtle repositioning, leaving me no other option but to meet her eyes,

and the anger and hurt and down to the bone exhaustion I find

is shaded by a knowing, an accounting, an understanding

and I realize I have been measured and found wanting

and there is nothing to refute what she has discovered

in every movement I have not made, every word I have not spoken


she has seen me, through and through, another woman living barely 12 feet from her,

and knows with a certainty of experience, I cannot be relied upon,

because I am content to live in the refuge of my skin,

while she lives in the peril of hers

Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art. She resides in Graham, NC with her cats, Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin.


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