Can I Get a Witness?

Tanzila Ahmed

Tanzila Ahmed

I wake up during the deadly summer night heat to incredible pain in my upper back, and a commotion outside my apartment complex. I can feel the tight muscles all up and down my spine. It’s 2 a.m. I’m on day three of a ten-day detox diet – no caffeine, sugar, dairy, processed food, carbs, legumes, or hydrogenated oils. I am sustaining myself on grass fed meats, organic veggies, and lots of raw nuts. I know that my pains are related to the diet change and am frustrated that my body is unable to handle an all natural diet without pain.

I go to the kitchen for a painkiller. I wonder if ibuprofen is included in a detox diet. As I lean my head against the front door, I hear the sound of the police walkie talkie outside. I saw them in my hall earlier when I came home at 11pm. I wonder why they are still here, three hours later. I wonder why they have face masks hanging around their necks. I wonder who they are here for and if I should be worried.

The next morning, there is a big, bright blue sticker across my neighbor’s doorjamb. It’s labeled: “Warning – Coroner’s Seal”. I later learn that the cops were there for the elderly black man who lived by himself a few doors down from me. His family hadn’t heard from him in a week and had been trying to get a hold of him. When the cops looked through the back window of his apartment they saw that he had died leaning up against the front door. He was 71-years-old and had died of natural causes. He had been dead about a week. In the heat, his body did not keep.

I thought of all the times I had walked by his door this past week on the way to the garage. How every time I had walked by, his body must have been there, leaning up against the door. I wonder if he had known that he was dying and if he was trying to get out of his apartment to get help. I hadn’t known how close mortality had been to me all that time.

I remember how hesitant I had been to move into my apartment alone. I’d always had roommates to live with, during and after college. Most people thought it was weird when I told them that I was in my 30s and it would be my first time living on my own. It hadn’t been affordable to live on my own, nor did I enjoy coming home to an empty house. There was something incredibly lonely and scary about having to nurture yourself after a long day of work.

I had always pictured myself living with a life partner by the time I reached my 30s. Instead, I found myself going through the costly process of setting up wi-fi and utility bills that I wouldn’t be splitting with anyone. Cleaning the bathroom became one of my most dreaded chores. I hated how often I threw away rotting vegetables because I didn’t have the time to eat that much food in a week. Eggplants and onions and tomatoes are not made for single people, and neither are most recipes.

The death of my neighbor reminded me once again of my greatest fear. Not just dying alone, but dying alone without anyone else knowing you were even missing. I thought about Joyce Vincent, the 30-something woman who died on her couch surrounded by Christmas gifts. Her television was on, her rent automatically paid for. People attributed the smell from the apartment to garbage. She was dead for over two years and skeletal when she was finally discovered. She had decomposed so badly they had no way to figure out how she had died.

A friend once told me that there was a terrible smell coming from the wall adjacent to his bedroom for a month. He knocked on the door and eventually complained to management. His neighbor had been dead for a month, from HIV complications. No one had come looking for him.

When the beautiful New York Times piece “The Lonely Death of George Bell” came out, I made sure to circulate it amongst my sisters and single friends. The article detailed the long process of trying to figure out the life of a person who didn’t have anyone to mourn him, or any identifiers to tell us who he was.

Much like planning a contingency plan for an earthquake, I started checking in with friends – will you text me every few days if you don’t hear from me? Can I give you a copy of my keys? Married people thought I was being dramatic – but the single people who lived alone, we all shared a look of understanding. We knew that this was one of the true, sad costs of being single.

Maybe that’s what is at the root of loneliness – the fear of never being missed.

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“Do you feel that you need a witness, like a partner as witness?” writer Deonna Kelli Sayed asked me over chat. We had been talking about falling in love, surrendering to Allah, and having agency.

“I never thought of it that way,” I responded. “I love that.”

“That is what we are seeking, right? Someone to see us, someone to help us see ourselves in a new way.”

Despite my best efforts, relationships have often eluded me. I wonder if that means my ability to ‘be seen’ has been diminished. The relationships created through casually dating someone aren’t the same as when your souls touch in a relationship. There is healing and magic when you grow intuition with another soul – it goes deeper than witness. It’s a knowing. As a single person, I wonder: if memories are manipulated and faded and you have no one to be your life witness, where does your agency in this life really lie?

Maybe that’s why I am a media content creator. I may have started writing to capture the narratives of my people, but maybe at the heart of it all is that I’m looking for witness. As I move through life, I want to be seen. All these Tweets, Snapchats, Instagrams, and updates are me just trying to validate my life, as superficial as most of the touches may be.

It’s political too – to be seen when society is trying to constantly erase your narrative. I create social media knowing that aspects of it are silly, pedantic Millennial-speak, and that it has been a point of contention for a few of the men I’ve dated. But these men never stuck around for long. If I can’t find a lover to be that witness to me, maybe I can find that witness in collective community. Maybe in that I can find agency and meaning.

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“Do you want my jacket?” he offered.

I looked at him, stunned, shaking my head, “I’m fine.” We were at a performance and the blast of air conditioning had me wrapping my scarf around my arms.

He looked both amused and concerned. “Are you sure? You look cold.”

Inside, I was kicking myself in the ass over this awkward exchange. He was being chivalrous and caring. Had I really turned into that woman who turned down acts of nurturing in the name of feminism? Or was it that I had become so used to taking care of myself that the idea of someone else seeing that I needed care had become foreign to me?

I had only gone on one date with him. I knew that I was really into him because every time we had met before, I kept getting stupid awkward. He had the kind of chivalry that I expected in a 1950s movie. He opened the car door, and waited until I sat down before closing it. He was affable, engaging, and an easy conversationalist – a perfect mix of sweet and sarcastic that kept me on my toes. He made sure I was comfortable. He said things like, “You deserve to be happy,” and, “I like making you laugh because I think you need more laughter in your life.”

He even walked me to the glass doors of my apartment complex when the night was over to give me a hug goodbye. I found myself both intimidated by and attracted to his nurturing personality. I felt seen by him in a deep, unnerving way. Most of the men I’d gone on first dates with did not wield chivalry like that.

I found the walls I had put up around myself challenging. I was so used to not having anyone to care for me, that now I was afraid when a potential ‘candidate’ had shown that kind of interest in me. I was so used to being on my own that I was unsure how to be vulnerable and open to being nurtured by someone else. I was equally afraid that maybe I had become so skilled at being on my own, that I would be unable to be a witness to someone else and to participate in the kind of nurturing they needed.

Here I was, on a first date with someone whom I felt chemistry with after a really long time, and all I could think about was that maybe the walls I had built up as a single woman would push this nurturing personality away.

Over the past few years, I have figured out many ways to love myself. Somehow I missed the lesson on how to remain open to being loved by another.

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My detox diet has worked in unexpected ways. In my attempt to purge myself of toxins, I found that I have gained agency in my life. I found the courage to quit my job with only tentative plans of what is next in my career. I am dating again and trying to be vulnerable. I am reinvesting in friendships that keep me accountable to the art and love-driven life I want to lead. I have recommitted myself to being spiritually grounded. The transition period has been shaky and scary and uncertain. I still wake up in the middle of the night, alone, gripped with fear and anxiety. But taking risks and feeling like I have agency again has been exhilarating.

I might not have a life witness, yet. But, at least, I do have a contingency plan in place. And maybe all the witness that I need in my life is simply my own.

Read more by Tanzila, here.

Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard and read monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and Radical Love column respectively.  An avid writer,  she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the Love, Inshallah anthology. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.


3 Comments on “Can I Get a Witness?”

  1. Sharif says:

    Feminism leads to sadness. Always has always will. Be obedient wives & stop trying to emulate SATC & you’ll be fine.

  2. Rahman says:

    Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts. We both experienced similar emotions, you were able to put them in words beautifully.