I need to tell you that I’m thirty-one years old and I have an imaginary boyfriend. It’s a secret that I’ve kept to myself for many years. His name is David. I met him when I was sixteen. That year I confided in my mother about him and she told my father who told me I’d better be careful—that one day I might just lose my mind completely. There are stories that get dreamt up about minds wandering from bodies. I had these dreams. Like my mind was a thing that never actually belonged to me, it belonged to my imagination—a reckless sort of demon parasite, and my parasite’s name was David.
So when my parents confronted me about him, I saw it happening: I started laughing uncontrollably. My body got so hot I had to take off my shirt. My heart started racing. I felt out of breath. I started screaming back up at my Dad. I thought I sounded like a banshee: “Maybe I’m already crazy! Maybe I’m already crazy!,” I kept repeating. It was the first time I thought I saw my mind leave my body. I saw my body through the expression on my father’s face: it took on an animal form that I no longer recognized.
I met my boyfriend after six years of religiously watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Originally, David was a vampire who was a lot hotter and smarter than Buffy’s love interest, Angel—though they did (and still do) have similar tattoos on their backs. David’s is a raven’s wing that accentuates the muscles on his back and shoulders when we are making out. David has been a different person in every stage of my life, each one a bit more practical than the last: in high school he was a militant anti-capitalist vampire who killed the 1% and fenced their things and gave them away like Robin Hood; in college, he was a former child actor who left Hollywood after having a nervous breakdown and nearly fatal cocaine overdose; in grad school he was a part-time model and boxer who once played Roger in Rent on Broadway; since then he’s been a drug-dealer-turned-accountant-turned-social-entrepreneur who uses his wealth to help former drug dealers like himself start businesses.
But despite all the changes, there are things that have stayed the same about David: the fact that he always looks like a Calvin Klein model (meaning that he’s white, pretty, and toned), throws lavish parties, has gorgeous ex-girlfriends, and playboy charm. And then there is also the fact that I know he doesn’t love me. I don’t just doubt his intentions—I know. By the end of the fantasy, he will tell me he’s sorry, that he’s actually in love with someone else. I try to circumvent this problem by only ever replaying the first three months of our relationship over and over again. Whenever we get to the part where he means to break up with me, the fantasy returns to the first time we met at that party—the type of party a rich and gorgeous playboy would never actually attend, but which was the only kind I could imagine in high school. It has stuck with me ever since. It’s a hip-hop and spoken word party in Brooklyn. He’s outside smoking a cigarette. I’m outside absorbed in my thoughts. He asks me something about poetry. He tells me a story about how his mom died when he was twelve and how he never really knew his father—because you can’t have a fantasy playboy boyfriend who doesn’t have a troubled past to make him seem so vulnerable and complex that you excuse him from all his previous playboy antics.
Two years after I met David I went to college and spent the next four years having crushes on a series of random boys and then having panic attacks every time I was alone with them. These panic attacks weren’t the same as the first one in front of my parents; for the most part I just turned to stone. A voice in my head told me not to speak until spoken to. That the wrong move could get me killed. Sometimes the boy would notice and ask me what was wrong. I was usually too paralyzed to respond. By then I had internalized a message about Black girls and love that made it impossible for me to separate sex from violence.
David would occasionally reappear in these times. And with him, I found the feeling that he could kill me alluring. It’s not a particularly original desire for a woman to feel this way. But when a Black woman desires a white man to dominate her, it starts to feel a little like falling in love with your oppressor.
Here’s the other thing, though: it’s hard to imagine myself in these fantasies, because in them I’m a light-skinned Puerto Rican named Eva. Eva was David’s childhood friend who dated him in high school and whom I’ve always been a little jealous of. She’s beautiful, fashionable, a gifted dancer and singer, and, most importantly, much cooler than I am. At first Eva was a secondary character in my daydreams, an obstacle I needed to overcome to get to him. But every once in a while, I would be her. Or rather, I would be me—with my personality and name—but look like Eva. I have bright red hair. I’m thin as a rail and he likes this—how he can bend me over and under into a rubber band. My legs are like elastic as he makes me do splits, pins my arms up over my head while he slides his hands up my thighs. I like to wear dark make-up that makes the paleness radiant and dramatic. Hair long and straight enough to be pulled. And when I try to fall asleep, I imagine Eva dancing in circles till I get dizzy and my eyelids start to close. I make an effort to force my own black body and face into my subconscious in lieu of Eva’s. I want to see myself as fantasy-worthy. But when I enter my fantasy as myself, I see something so crude and pornographic I try to look away. Because I can’t see myself in these scenes—hand-cuffed and on all fours—without thinking of a Black woman’s body being examined for sale. He measures the thickness of her calves with a ruler. He looks to see how far he can spread her legs apart before they twist and break. A doctor cuts her open. She seems to feel no pain.
It has now been sixteen years since I first fell in love with David. In this time I have eagerly watched Lemonade and Grace Jones music videos. I have read the life works of bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde. I have undergone twelve years of therapy, switched to natural hair, stopped shaving my legs, refused to date men altogether, fallen for Black queer womanists, gone back to dating men, dated a white man for five years, re-entered the dating world—and I still haven’t been able to get rid of David. Junot Díaz says, “We are never going to get anywhere as long as our economies of attraction continue to resemble, more or less, the economy of attraction of white supremacy,” and I wonder if it’s possible to decolonize and police a thing as subconscious and primal as desire. I mean, yes, you can make the decision to act outside of these desires, and yes, you can analyze and agonize over why you have them to begin with. But can you actually will yourself not to desire in the first place?
Like I can tell you about how I used to regularly read profiles on OkCupid where men stated point blank that they wouldn’t date Black women. I can tell you how there have been several studies published by OkCupid asserting that while ninety-seven percent of users claim to be open to interracial dating, Black women are the least likely group to receive messages or replies from potential partners. White men are the most likely to receive OkCupid messages. More than seventy-five percent of white women, Asian women, and Latina women only respond to messages sent by white men. Using OkCupid’s “quickmatch” method (akin to Tinder’s swiping method), the site deduced that white men tend to rate Black women as seventeen percent less attractive than the average. Other races seemed to view Black women similarly, with Asian men rating Black women as twenty percent less attractive than the average. The only exception found was with Black men, who rated Black women as one percent more attractive than the average. I don’t know if you can understand the energy it takes to keep these messages out of your system, to not in some way believe them yourself. Sometimes the best form of escape is to go to the place where race no longer exists. Where the Pretty in Pink-like boyfriend who is rich and white and sometimes a vampire takes you away from it all and tries to convince you that he loves you over and over again.
In her essay “Watching and Reading about White People Having Sex is my Escape,” Esther Wang wrote:
“I love that I never experience that shock of recognition, and thus I never have to think about how someone who looks like me, with my body, is represented on the page and lives in the world. In these fictional fantasy worlds, not only does racism not exist—race doesn’t exist, at least in the ways that we live and experience it on a daily basis. There are no men who feel the need to fetishize unsuspecting young girls, no bad first dates with guys who ask you why Chinese people eat dogs […] In the world of the romance novel, your body is just a body that gets to fall in love and experience several volcanic orgasms in a row, and in this world, when you Google ‘Asian women,’ you probably would get a 404 error page instead of dozens of links on how to find a sexy Asian girlfriend of your very own.”
My escape was my imagination. This was a world where I got to be Eva—the sweet innocent Molly Ringwald-type “underdog” who always got the coveted white boy attention. When I was with David, I never felt the weight of loneliness I so often felt in high school. I got to un-live years of having my hair made fun of by the boys in my elementary school. I didn’t feel the terror of waking up in the middle of the night and hearing women screaming on the street or having my bra undone by random men on my way to school. I got to live in a world where smiling was no longer my only weapon against attack. All the insecurities I felt about my hair and body type were rewarded with David’s affection—the way they always are in shows and movies about unpopular white girls who actually look like super models and would never be unpopular in real life. Girls like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles, or Katie Holmes in Dawson’s Creek, or Lea Michelle in Glee, or Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That, or Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You—the list goes on and on. With David, I got to be Eva. There was no one else I’d rather be.
The connections made in pop culture between art and mental illness are tired and cliché, yet I do start to wonder things like: What is the difference between an overactive imagination and a break in one’s perception of reality? Can one really lead to the other? Can a person really “go” mad? A friend once described the mind of a schizophrenic family member of hers as “one that can’t stop making connections.” When everything is connected, it makes sense that you’d begin to invent conspiracy theories. Pair that with paranoia and narcissism and it becomes reasonable to assume that the whole world is trying to kill you.
For me, though, it’s not so much about making too many connections—it’s about the inability to un-see things once they’ve been implanted in my brain. I can’t un-see Eric Garner begging the officers for his life as they pounced on him like a rabid dog, I can’t un-see how much Sandra Bland looked like a girl I once knew—a girl who dared to think her life and dreams and opinions might matter. I can’t un-see the Black women on television who, even in fantasy, are never allowed to be loved.
Take HBO’s supernatural drama True Blood. Tara Thornton’s face from True Blood used to haunt my dreams at night. Her face as she gets rejected by Jason Stackhouse and Sam Merlotte. Her face as she gets raped repeatedly and held hostage by a sociopathic vampire named Franklin. The pain Tara expressed on her face in every episode found its way inside my brain and lived there: how visibly her lips quivered; how her face looked like it was about to explode into pieces all over the screen; how the Internet celebrated the day we were meant to think she was killed off as she willingly took a bullet for her best friend Sookie Stackhouse; how when she finally did get killed off in the final season nobody seemed to notice. The hatred for Tara’s character online was deafening. Why does she always have to be so angry? Why does she always have to be so negative? Why does she have to hate everything? the comments asked. They never asked why all her partners died or rejected her for people like Sookie or Eric Northman. They didn’t ask why we needed to see her raped repeatedly for almost an entire season.
When I see my body in the mirror it does not look like something worthy of being saved. It is not the kind of body you take a bullet for. My body is not innocent. It enjoys showing skin from time to time. It enjoys frequent orgasms. It is the kind of body that gets slammed up against walls and whose mouth gets muffled without permission by men who do not know me. My body gets stared at. I get told by white men that they don’t normally date Black women, but that I’m different. They mean this as a compliment. Once my body was appraised by a white pimp in a South African club and then followed into a bathroom. Once my body had glass bottles hurled at it when I didn’t respond appropriately to a group of men harassing me on an empty street late one night. Once my vagina was grabbed repeatedly by a man in a club and I said nothing—waited for him to walk away till I told my friend; she yelled at him and had him escorted out of the club by security. I was amazed at her for doing this—that she could be that sure my body was so worth protecting. Once I was sexually assaulted by a man I was told treated his petite blonde girlfriend very well. It is hard to see my body without thinking about the fetishized expectations that come with it. When I escape my own body and become Eva, my body becomes worthy of being saved and pursued. My body gets to be romanced and serenaded and my fantasy boyfriend will never be rough unless I ask him to be.
Type the word “beauty” in Google Image Search and tell me what you see: an endless sea of white and otherwise light-skinned faces, thin and made-up, cisgender and able-bodied, ornamentalized for male consumption. Search for the words “black woman invisibility” and tell me what you see: an article about how Black women have higher rates of depression and suicide than any other identity group. A study where they ask white people to look at a succession of photos of white and Black people and then show them the photos hours later to see what they remember. “What they found,” the study states, “is that participants’ memory was worst at remembering whether they had seen a Black female face before or whether it was new. The same did not occur for Black male faces, suggesting it was something more than just the fact that the target was of another race than the participant. As the researchers pointed out, these results suggest that Black women are more likely than Black men or White men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation.”
There is little doubt that I invented David as a way to feel visible at a time in my life when I was fairly isolated. I was a first-generation American with strict West Indian parents. I wasn’t allowed to go to parties and I was kept busy after school with dance lessons and math help and other opportunities my parents never had (and that I should therefore have been grateful for). I was awkward and shy and couldn’t afford clothes that didn’t come from Marshall’s that I wore years after they stopped fitting me properly in a public school on the Upper West Side. Making close friends was a challenge. To escape myself and be with David, then, was liberating: I could have the life I thought could make me happy—the life that helped me escape the reality of the intense loneliness I felt on a regular basis. The problem comes when you can’t switch it off. Like I should tell you that there are times when thinking about David keeps me from writing, from feeling like I can be present in the world, where engaging in casual conversation feels like a lot more effort than staying inside my head. I should tell you that I can’t remember the last time my body felt like it could sleep. As a matter of fact, the reason that I’m writing this essay is because it’s 4 a.m. right now and I can’t sleep. I have this hope that once I write this all down he’ll leave me alone. But I know that as soon as I close my eyes he’ll be back staring me down with eyes prettier than mine, telling me he loves me and me saying, “Prove it.” And then he does. He repeats the words over and over again until they’re no longer comforting—they’re relentless. His smile feels like an invasion inside me that I can’t make myself un-see. His deep brown eyes never close.
For most of my life, I’ve been ashamed of my daydreaming and kept it secret. Every friend I’d mentioned David to in high school was polite but visibly terrified. My sister recently informed me she used to pray for me. My first therapist diagnosed me with ADHD and then Dissociative Disorder and then depression. She couldn’t figure me out. No therapist ever could. And then a few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever heard of maladaptive daydreaming. I hadn’t. I Googled it and one of the things to come up was an article in The Atlantic called “When Daydreaming Replaces Real Life,” in which authors Jayne Bigelsen and Tina Kelley consider whether excessive daydreaming should be pathologized as a mental disorder. The term “maladaptive daydreaming” is defined as excessive daydreaming that frequently interferes with work, social interactions, academics, or general functioning. Much of the article describes me perfectly: the fact that the daydreams are often triggered by listening to music, by loneliness, by trauma. According to Kelley and Bigelsen, the daydreams show up in the brain as a literal chemical addiction—they become more pleasurable to the daydreamer the more they are repeated. The part of the brain that lights up when daydreaming is the ventral striatum—the same part that lights up when a drug addict is shown images of cocaine.
I can spend six hours reliving the moment when David drives all the way to see me in the middle of the night in his Tesla to tell me that he’s choosing me—Soraya Jennalee Palmer—over the supermodel he took to that party last week. He feels so guilty about taking her that he has to drive here immediately after his plane lands in the middle of the night after just returning from doing business in Paris. I can lose a full night’s sleep reliving our first kiss on the swing bench in his backyard. He’s drinking a Corona because he’s rich, but not pretentious. He takes my hand first and asks if he can kiss me because he’s a gentleman. He pushes me up against the tree in his backyard with his hand up my skirt because I no longer want him to be a gentleman and he obliges. “When it was at its worst,” one woman who dropped out of school partly due to her excessive daydreaming says, “I felt the daydreaming was my main reality, and I’d only peek out into the main world now and then. It’s like I’m an alcoholic with an unlimited supply of booze. I can’t turn it off.”
These stories about “maladaptive daydreaming” have put words to this feeling that I was crazy, but didn’t know in what way. This is not to say that I necessarily subscribe to the idea that I have maladaptive daydreaming or that I believe daydreaming should be pathologized—with pathologizing often comes stigmatizing and (in many cases) unnecessary medication. On the other hand, having a vocabulary for things you are feeling, and knowing that others are going through these things as well, can be empowering for someone (like me) who would otherwise assume they were all alone.
The article, however, doesn’t explore the other layer of my daydreaming, which is that all my daydreams reinforce the feeling I hate to believe, but love to desire: that I am not worthy of love and that I should feel lucky if I get it, even when that love is tenuous and born of misogynoir. People in my life to whom I’ve tried and failed to explain my predicament have attempted to give me advice: Don’t consume so much racist media OR Surround yourself with more people of color OR Find your inner goddess OR How many people really think like that anymore anyway? But what many fail to realize is that racism works in part precisely because of how subconscious its messages are. As that OkCupid study reveals, a white person can claim to reject all notions of racist beauty standards and still only date other white people, arguing their habits arise out of circumstance rather than prejudice—that they just don’t happen to know many Black women, or that they’ve just never been attracted to any Black women they’ve actually met. Likewise, a Black girl can reject racist messages of self-worth all she wants, but when her real life experiences keep reinforcing her deepest fears of what the white world really thinks of her, can you blame her for believing it?
Where does the Black woman enter and not become your deepest and most shameful secret? The thing you loathe publicly but desperately want to please and punish behind closed doors? When and how does a Black woman get to own her own body? Where does the Black woman go to escape invisibility if she can’t exist in her own imagination? Sometimes I would shudder when I noticed how black my hand appeared against my white ex-boyfriend’s palms. The reality could feel so disruptive.
Because what is blackness but a conglomeration of color? I am the alien who can absorb all of your colors and private thoughts. I can feel all of your feelings.
Because the truth is that I feel like a traitor to my race writing this essay. In actuality, there is nothing I love more than being surrounded by Black people and Black art and Black thought. There is nothing that gives me more energy than our Blackness, our ability to create so much magic in the midst of all our shit, how, as Warsan Shire says, “You spun gold out of this hard life.”
Because what is blackness but an ocean? You go down deep enough and you see nothing but feel everything: things unnamed, things ancient, slithering and slimy. These are the things that keep you there.
Because what is blackness but the spaces between us?
I wish I had an answer for you.
Before watching Eva dance in circles to put me to sleep at night, I used to imagine myself floating on a gondola towards Heaven. The shifting back and forth of the boat and the relaxing feel of imagining that I was in water was supposed to help me fall asleep. Only, when we would get to the gates I wouldn’t be allowed in. “Heaven closed early today,” God would say, and then my heart would start to race, I’d sweat bullets, I’d sit up in bed with a jolt and in a panic. Other times the ship would be overturned by an angry bird or a giant octopus.
In these times, my mind became a character from a movie: I would watch it go into rooms I didn’t want to enter; I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my head and back into the rest of the world again.
In part, I am writing this essay because I feel that maybe by writing this all down I can change it—make my fantasy into something new or kill it all together.
But how do you stop a thought from coming once it’s been formed? How do you unwant your desires? How do you control the things you wished you didn’t dream about at night?
In the mornings I tell myself that I’m going to alter the fantasy: Tonight when he comes, he’s not gonna break up with me, he’s gonna ask me to marry him, and I will say yes and then wait for the excitement and desire to dissolve into nothing—OR he’s not gonna break up with me tonight because I’m gonna break up with him first. His confidence will turn to arrogance. His charm will start to feel manipulative. His story about his mother will seem fake. He’ll become so boring that I will have no choice but to break up with him.
But something always stops me from doing this. Because the truth is that I like having this desire. There’s a special comfort that comes with the excitement and insecurity I’ve come to expect from him.
By its very definition, “desire” implies that you do not have the thing that you want. And that once you have it, it is no longer desire—it’s either satisfaction or disappointment. If I knew David in real life, I would almost certainly never date him. The cliché of the brooding bad boy is, in reality, quite boring and emotionally exhausting, and I have always found that the best sex comes not from the charming playboys, but from those who know how to love someone and aren’t afraid to do so. But my fantasy boyfriend has always and only ever been about desire. I never actually have David in this fantasy. I only ever want to have him. I only ever want to feel pursued and sought after like the girl who thinks she’s an outcast in every cheesy teen romance. Like the girl who gets to be innocent yet sexy, shy yet opinionated and passionate without being called angry or difficult or sassy. Like the girl who, at some point in the film, gets to move from being outcast to actually being seen.
But even now, sitting here writing this essay with a great job, amazing friends, and satisfying and fulfilling real romantic relationships to boot, I am still fighting away a teenage desire for a happy ending that never came. David has just told me that he loves me for the very first time. To prove it, he says I can be his date to the gala where he will announce his true feelings to the press, as well as to all his super-important work people and supermodel ex-girlfriends. He had a gown specially designed for me. He doesn’t know that this is the moment I have been waiting for all my life. He doesn’t know that he will soon change his mind. That we will have to start this all over again. Instead we stay replaying this one moment, the lead-up to the happy ending that hasn’t yet come, but still might. I walk into the gala with David in a $500 dress. People are turning their heads. I am closing my eyes. I take it all in. I press rewind and start all over again.