Mela Johnson

Mela Johnson ’25 sat like a bird, perched on the edge of the burnt-orange sofa in our suite’s common room. We had been listening to João Gilberto, our favorite bossa nova singer. Their curls were still damp from the shower they had taken earlier. 

They told me they were ready to be interviewed.

I clicked my voice recorder on.

“Tell me about where you’re from — Miami,” I asked.

“Miami is … crowded,” they began, “and it’s full of people and music and good food. There are a lot of tiny old women who have little grandchildren. And a lot of plants. A lot more plants than you’d expect from an urban area. My friends and I joke, we don’t live in the southern part of the U.S. but in, like, the northern part of Cuba.”

Mela is not Cuban, but Puerto Rican and Brazilian. They grew up in a household where English, Spanish and Portuguese were all spoken. As a child, they formed a fascination with language.

“I have this game called ‘Dialect’ that I am going to force you to play with me one day,” they said, mischievously. “It’s a tabletop game. It’s about how languages are born and how they die.”

I asked them about its structure. 

“A group of people come together. And for whatever reason, maybe like geographical isolation or social isolation, they share a common language that is not shared anywhere else.”

These are the beginnings of “Dialect.” I’ve understood why it is important that we play together. As we spend more time with one another, our words intermingle. They have adopted my German phrases, like “Treff” and “Gott!” into their speech. Their words — “babygirl” and “endearing” — have, in turn, slipped into my voice. We are building our own language. 

I asked Mela, then, about their family.

“I love my mom. She’s very warm,” Mela beamed. “She does contract compliance at a hospital.” 

I remembered Mela’s mom, from move-in day. I felt her warmth. She resembled Mela greatly, with her hooked nose and heart-shaped face. They had the same hands — large, deft, nimble. Hands made for crafting jewelry, or playing instruments.

“Her whole job is like, she fights on the behalf of the hospital,” Mela continued. “She fights insurance companies to pay what they’re supposed to pay.”

“Did you and your mom ever fight?”

“Oh, yeah! I was like, 12. I was just exiting my Justice-Old-Navy phase. And I was really into Hot Topic, and [my mom and I] were fighting. I had on a weird outfit. And she called me, like, a little goth freak, or something like that. And then she immediately apologized. She was like, ‘I am so sorry. I did not mean that. I do not think that.’”

“Was she correct?” I leaned in. “Were you a little goth freak?”

They laughed — a musical, monosyllabic sound.

“Well, I was kind of like, perennially lonely. Miami is really big. My closest friend lived, like, a 20-minute drive away from me. I have a sister, but we didn’t get along until she was 12. I was just kind of lonely. Not in a sad way, but in the way, like, I spent most of my time alone, or in my room reading books and making potions out of like, all the perfumes in the cabinet… I had a weird vocabulary. I had like, no sense of style because I was trying to mimic how my cool classmates would dress, and I did a really bad job of it.”

This is something I came to learn during the first month of our friendship: Mela and I both feel we are in costume. Perhaps this is because we were both ostracized as children, with our strange and off-kilter behaviors. Mela assembled potions; I believed I had special wolf powers. 

Now, they wear billowing white blouses, like a brooding Victorian prince. I coil my hair, like a Jane Austen heroine. Our mimicry is perpetual. 

“Are you still lonely?”

Mela hesitated. I could tell they were searching for the right words to say.

“I think I am, a lot of the time,” they spoke carefully, in a quiet, measured manner. “I don’t know if I have unrealistic expectations. Like, I want somebody who’s a mind reader, who completely understands me and knows every part of me. It’s the kind [of loneliness] where you’re looking for something, and you don’t really know like, what it is you’re looking for. Yeah, like a—”


“Yeah, like restlessness. That’s a good word for it.”

“I get it. And intimacy is like, hard.”

“It is! I feel like I never know when I’m like friends with somebody. I find the in-between things very difficult to parse. I don’t know what the difference is between an acquaintance and a friend.”

I thought back to my first few conversations with Mela. First, we were people who occasionally messaged each other on Instagram, about our shared love for drawing and then, our queer identities: we broached this topic with care. Mela, I am sure, must have realized that I struggled to understand and recognize my sexuality. They responded to my flustered, inhibited words with patience.

And then, we were people who suddenly moved in together, who occupied the same living space. 

Mela adorns their space with various found objects; candles, magazine clippings, tiny sculptures. 

“I want to live in a museum,” they told me, as they traced the edge of an unlit tea light.

Then, Mela picked up a small, silicone lamb and placed it in my hand.

“If I like people, I will be like ‘Here is a small object,’” they said, shyly. “Here’s a ‘squishy boy.’”

The “squishy boys” are an assortment of tiny, squishy animals that were once scattered around our common room. Now, they mostly reside in the drawer of Mela’s desk. 

“I love how when we both looked at the squishy boys, our first instinct was that someone else has to have these,” I said. “They’re meant to be given.”

Mela nodded in agreement. 

“They fit so perfectly in the palm of your hand!” they exclaimed. “What can that be but a gift?”

I noticed that our hour was drawing to a close.

“What other collections do you have?”

“I have a playlist called ‘songs I listen to on repeat until they give me brain damage,’” they told me. “I actually have like a million different themed playlists. They get super-specific. It’s like, ‘vampire music,’ like, ‘cliffside manor … midnight masquerade … mist over the sea.’”

“Vampires! Yes! I think that fits your vibe perfectly.”

“I do too!”

“What’s my vibe?” I could not help but ask.

Mela regarded me with gentle, calf-like eyes.

“You give me the impression of being like, kind of a nervous person a lot of the time. You get frustrated with yourself a lot,” they paused to look at me, “and I know it can get in the way of what you want to do for yourself.”

This upset me. Not because I was hurt by Mela’s words, but because I am not accustomed to someone acknowledging my nervousness — the thing I am most ashamed of — and so nonchalantly, too. As if it were just a part of myself. Not something to expel.

“But I’ve never seen it completely stop you from trying something. Even when things are very difficult for you.”

They stopped speaking. I thought they sensed that something in our conversation had shifted, that we were nearing some grand threshold of undistilled honesty and discomfort that neither of us had prepared for. Looking at Mela, I felt, perhaps, as though they had plucked me from my current position, held me in the palm of their hand, and placed me gently alongside the posters on their wall or the trinkets on their nightstand. I felt almost as though they had given me a space in their collection.

I saw something like affection creep into Mela’s eyes. They continued.

“We like the same kinds of books. It’s nice to have somebody around who likes the same kinds of books as you. It’s nice to have somebody to eat with in the dining hall and to laugh with about absolutely nothing at like, 2 a.m. Somebody to listen to bossa nova with, while doing homework.”

I clicked my voice recorder off.

The sensation of slow, unspoken oneness pervaded our common room. Mela bowed their head. We sat, for a few seconds, in silence. Until —

Louco…” crooned João from my speaker. “Crazy.”

Iris Tsouris writes for WKND. Originally from Atlanta, she is a first-year in Davenport College interested in architectural analysis.