For Ava

Last night, my mom invited me and my younger brother out to a work event that involved drinking. My mom is a very serious engineer manager for an Oil and Gas company. We agreed nonetheless, because we have learned over time that sometimes her work colleagues are really fun once they start drinking and also because: free beer. And we were having fun. It took us almost an hour to find the table where her coworkers were hanging out.

When we did, it wasn’t long before the coworker across the table started staring at me, as if he couldn’t look away. Finally, he tells us his “youngest adopted daughter” is “biracial” and looks just like me. Of course she does. Unable to stand it, he comes around to the other side of the table and sits what I feel is a little too close to where my body is housed on the bench seats.

“So, everything is the same with Ava except her hair. We just don’t know what to do with it. And it’s just like yours-I mean you look just like her!” I smile. Politely I tell him it’s different talking care of my hair than my mother’s.

“You wash your hair every day?” I ask my mom.

“Every other day.” She responds.

“I wash my hair like once a month, ” I tell him, “otherwise it gets dry.”

“Malika knows a lot about this. She does a lot of research online.” This is true. I am the black daughter of a white woman, so I’ve done a lot of research into many things to do with being black.

Months ago, my good friend Courtney and I went to out to eat and catch up at the only Ethiopian restaurant in Oklahoma and were overwhelmed by a table filled with white adults and noticeably Ethiopian children. As we ate, we broached the topic of white people with babies from other countries. As I began to explain my belief that it was a current manifestation of the white man’s burden, a young girl came over to our table. She was about 4 or 5 by looking at her and she was touching Courtney’s hand as if she couldn’t believe that it existed. The same color as hers! Here were the people that had been hidden from her world, right before her eyes.

Her parents came over and apologized, explaining she was awestruck by Courtney ‘s natural hair, because she had never seen hair like ours.

Here’s the problem I keep facing as punishment for wearing my hair natural, for being black born of a white mother: I am the easy way out.

Yet, I give away my hard earned secrets. As if the knowledge is owed to them. I am now a black hair expert in the flesh, available for all the white folks adopting little black girls who look just like me because America has run out of white babies no one wants. I am the neighborhood know it all.

I want to stop playing nice with white couples who believe that raising black children is the same as raising white children, except of course, their hair texture. The very idea is offensive to people who have spent their lives being black, and know intimately that our hair texture is the least of it. I want to tell them that google is available on all electronic devices that can connect to the internet.  I want to yell at them that if they can’t start looking for answers like it’s important to them now, then their little Avas’ will notice some day.

But I worry. If I don’t tell the white people the way to keep their daughter’s hair styled, combed and moisturized, or convince them of its importance, how will the young girls fare? I always get frustrated thinking of the little girls who play in their mothers’ hair and cannot feel themselves in it. I worry about the hearts and self esteem of little girls who look up to women who look absolutely nothing like they do or will.

White people, this is your sin. Always swooping in and saving us with black skin. the best meaning intentions. Yet you deny us access to the things our hearts need in “our best interests.” You are always the hero teacher who saves us from the ghetto just in time to get into your colleges. You are constantly casting yourselves as the savior and us the tragic victims.

I want the little girls to learn how to take care of their hair as they grow. I want the people who raise them to understand that this matters. If they grow up learning only to lament the color of their skin, and the texture of their hair, it will be such a long journey to healthy self esteem. And that will not make you saviors at all.

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For A Man Who Would Love Me

I don’t want your fire to overpower mine.

But sometimes, I quiet crystallize it, capture it in stone. Vow to come back and erupt. Never do.

Your fire takes precedence. It burns white hot and no one ever taught you how to hold it-yourself still.

You don’t even want to know.

No one ever taught you to put me first.

I don’t want to live in your shadow.

But sometimes, I shrink down miniscule water droplets, turn gray black shade,

Pretend I am made of porcelain, precious magic to protect. Ego nursing.

I want to be so big that sometimes you can’t even fit in the house without

Honey I shrunk the Kids-ing yourself.

I want to take up more space than sometimes kept in cages, in thoughts,

Dipped in batter and swallowed whole.

I am made of flexible material. Both crystal and steel, yet silk and feathers. Too light, too pure to fight beside.

Compare me to the builds of horses, of fast moving cars, the softness of baby’s skin, warmth of sunshine,

How clingy your woman is-

How she clings to you as if she cannot live without you inside of her.

I don’t want to be a person you can fold: Laundried bones, skin like tarps, heart collapsible like convenient toys.

I don’t like being a voice in the back of the head of children & men.

I want to be heard, voice expanding the space in the room, the house so effected,

I add rings to already dead trees, wood in our floors.

And sometimes, you will have to learn to shrink-to crystallize your fire and let mine wash you over.

Find comfort in my burning rays, tingling through to your fingertips, toes alive for the white hot fury I send into the atmosphere.

Because I am not like you-all stone and fire, no silk.

I have been trained to make myself disappear, so tiny, you will lose me.

And your world will be made worse for the loss.

Dissimilarity

 

He thinks that somehow it’s his fault. He tells me he thinks that, had it not been for him, she and I would have been good friends. Of course, I tell him that I agree; everything bad that has happened to me since I met him was his fault. I am only half-serious.

She hates me. The first time I saw her, at the very beginning of my freshman year was just before I met Tre. I thought she resembled me: built similarly, heavy on the bottom, light up top. We were both about the same honey color, and had the same dark eyes. Both of us were sitting alone. Presumably neither of us knew anyone else on the bright yellow school bus headed towards the first football game of the season. She was pretty and I wanted to talk to her, but I didn’t.  I didn’t know what to say. I was sure she wouldn’t be interested in me, since she gave off that vibe, same as I did. I was afraid of her.

I know better. She isn’t like me at all, not really. The list of men she slept with numbered in the 30s after the fiasco between us three. Ella: pretty, honey-cream-skinned, big booty slut. She was plenty book-smart; she had decent grades, although not quite as good as mine. She was involved in all the groups I wasn’t: Black Students Association, RCMBA, Honor Society, and some pre-med society for scholars. She started modeling slash acting her senior year. She was still gorgeous with her clothes off. Maybe that was her selling point.

“African Studies,” I told her, months later, when she asked my major while we sat coincidentally at the same bus stop on campus. I could see my breath in front of my face.

“That’s easy; no wonder you’re on the Dean’s list. You should try being pre-med.” I sucked my teeth. I thought hundreds of “fuck you”’s at her, hoping she’d become telepathic.  I found joy in the fact that she had never finished coursework to be pre-med. As it turned out, she became a communications major the next week.

The same scene was repeated another time, when we were drinking at a mutual friend’s house. I had taken exactly 10 shots. She had arrived late, with some guy in tow and already drunk. She sat down opposite me around the hookah pipe. The house was old, and the table we sat at rocked when one of us leaned on it too hard. I had been talking with the owner of the house, Allen, who had kept up with me shot for shot.

“I had to beg last semester for my philosophy professor to give me an A, so I wouldn’t lose my scholarship.” He inhaled through the blue pipe that slithered down from the high, round metal instrument.

“I actually had all As except computer programming and he just asked me what grade I needed. I just told him if I didn’t get an A I’d lose my scholarship.” I smiled as Allen passed the hose to Ella and she inhaled and exhaled quickly. Only a novice hookah smoker would exhale so fast.

“Y’all must have it easy. I work my ass off for Cs. I had to pay someone to take my last test in Biology.” Smoke blew out her mouth again as she said these words, aimed carefully at me.

“I don’t have it easy. I just work hard. And I really care about my classes.” She inhaled smoke again. When was she going to pass the hookah, I wondered.

“Are you saying I don’t work hard?” She exhaled sharply again.

“Paying someone to take a test seems like taking an easy way out to me.” I looked away from her, but I could hear her inhale the smoke again, then a sharp exhale.

“Oh, you always do the right thing then? In your classes, in your major that doesn’t matter for anything?” She laughed and choked on the smoke. She coughed hard.

Drunk, Allen had talked me out of slamming my fist up into her jaw after I had risen from the table. That’s how she is, though, insecure. She loved Tre too. She wanted him to herself so bad, but he let her go. Then, before I knew him, the last thing he wanted was a girlfriend. And then I took him as my own, and she lashed out.

 

 

I hadn’t connected the two of them until a house party Tre threw. I was drunk, for the first time in my whole life. We were brand new, had just started dating, officially. We were fragile, but full of lust. We had our drunken hands all over each other without regard to who was watching. Mine were sliding up the back of his shirt, and his tried to find their way into my panties. I didn’t think anyone was watching but maybe I just didn’t care.

His cell phone vibrated and his eyes rolled as they surveyed the screen. He returned his focus to me, letting his soft lips trace the length of my neck. Then he was called away, some friend needed him, and he kissed promises to return up and down my neck.

I danced alone, on a sweaty wall in the living room turned dance floor, eyes closed in ecstasy. I knew the words to every song. It felt like I was waiting forever for him to return.  Some mass of a woman put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I tried to free my shoulder, opening my eyes to take a long stare at her. She had a furrowed brow and she was talking but I only caught a couple words over the sound of the music so I nodded and freed my shoulder. I turned to walk away and caught little-light-skinned-from-the-football-shuttle planting her lips on what was mine.

I had never been treated this way before. I walked past them, still buried in each other’s throats. I dragged my hands along the walls in the hallway itching to push my balled up fists through them. I sat on the porch, facing the dilapidated ruins of homes that used to house families. I didn’t scream or cry, but I could feel the hot fury sending steam into the air around my head. My hands pulled and tugged at each other, unable to be still.

He found me there and sat at my side.

“Why are you out here? I was looking for you.”

“When?”

“Just now.” He smiled at me.

“I was here. Wondering why you were kissing some girl, right in front of me.” I had long since looked away. I didn’t want to look into his big brown eyes as he tried to explain it away, make it my overactive imagination.

“We used to talk.”

“And now?” His hand reached for mine. I didn’t resist but I didn’t wrap my fingers back around his.

“Nothing. She-,” he took a deep breath, “she kissed me, and I didn’t stop her. I’m stupid.”

“So I should be?” I sighed.

“I don’t want her, so you know. I get if you’re mad.”

“Yeah.” I was mad.

“I am sorry. I can tell her I didn’t mean it.”

“I don’t care about what she knows. I don’t know anything. And I was forgotten pretty quickly just now.”

“What do I do?” I looked into his eyes, and I lost. It wasn’t long before we were back at it, my lips struggling to erase the stain she’d left on his, smearing it with my lips, staining them too.

When we stopped to get air, and remembered the logistics of the situation, we decided to head up to Tre’s room. He went up first as I went searching for my purse downstairs.

“Who the fuck are you? Tre is Ella’s. You need to find your own man, little girl.” The words came from the dark skinned, round woman who had grabbed my shoulder earlier. I turned around and moved away from her cautiously. I assumed Ella was the name of the girl with overactive lips. This girl, the one who didn’t look like me, was Ella’s best friend and would later pull her own pranks on me.

“Nice meeting you too,” I whispered to myself sarcastically as I walked up the stairs to meet Tre. He was perched on the edge of the back window of his bedroom.

“I met a new friend just now.” I told him smiling as I put my hand on his shoulder. Sometimes he seemed to disappear in front of me and I felt I had to reach out and hold him in place.

“That quick?” He smiled back.

“Yeah. She told me to get my own man.” He sucked in all the air in the room and exhaled it expediently.

“Yeah, you should do that.” He wrapped his arms around my lower back and drew me to him. I was satisfied with that.

That night, even as I climbed on top of him, his phone rang and rang, desperately.   Each time I heard it, I took a mental note. By the morning she had racked up a debt of my hatred. I told myself that as long as he didn’t answer, she didn’t mean anything. She didn’t, at least, mean more than me. My mind was filled with half-rage and fear.

That morning, I woke up before him. It had been the first time we had sex. I typed in the password to his phone that he had taught me himself, hoping to show me that he was an honest man. I looked at the 6 missed calls and 18 text messages from “Ella Lorel”. The first one simply said, “Who was that girl?” and he had responded to it, “she’s my girl.” He hadn’t said anything else to her.

Sometimes she would look at me, glance over, and I’d see some sick joy in her smile. She went out of her way to be where I was, or I thought she did. Maybe it was Tre she always wanted to see, since she always showed up in immaculate dress with one hand reaching, always for him. She would always be drunk and she would tell him how she hated me, how she knew he still wanted to be with her, the sexual acts she’d perform for him, that she knew he missed. She needed him but she needed to beat me too.

She had other methods. Once, she, or perhaps her friend, Candice, trapped me in a bathroom at a club. It had been Halloween and I was dressed as a schoolteacher. I had been dancing with Tre all night when I realized my glasses were coming loose on the joints. I went off to the bathroom. It was a tiny, shitty little bathroom, with throw-up in the sink. After I walked in the doorway, the door shut behind me a little too hard.  I shook it off, and set to re-adjusting my glasses. When I had given up, accepting the glasses were done for, I headed to the door and found that it simply would not open. After I foolishly banged on it for what felt like forever, and nothing happened, I realized the logical move was to text Tre to save me. He didn’t say anything about what happened. He just let me out. But I knew she had been leaning on that door.

I always behaved: I smiled, nodded, accepting her sober apologies. She was always sorry sober. She was a bitch drunk. She’d stumble all over, always looking for Tre first, then anyone with a working dick after he pushed her away. She’d look at him as she sucked the face of a random guy she’d go home with. I didn’t get it; she was perfect. Well, she was when she wasn’t after my man, or any other, with liquor pouring into her so quickly you’d think she was swallowing water.

Tre was too gentle with her, almost apologetic. When I came to him, complaining of my name being put on gossip sites, rumors swirling that I had slept with every one of his roommates, he shrugged it off, told me not to be sensitive. I knew she had done it, and whispers of others confirmed it but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t get involved in anything between us. But always, when I wanted to cry from the stress, he would grab my arm and pull me to him so hard we’d come crashing down together, wrapped up in each other like vines.

Once she told me she loved me. She was giddy with liquor and she sat down next to me. She didn’t seem to recognize me at all. She smiled a half-formed smile at me.

“I love you.” She reached her arm around me. It burned my shoulder.

“Are you sure?” I shook off her arm.

“Girl,” she’d slurred, “we have to stick together. Light skinned girls have to stick together! I love you!”

When she smiled at me, or waved, or told me she loved me, it pissed me off more than anything else she ever did. It made some piece of my bruised ego pulse. Her argument that we needed to stick together was insulting. As if she believed that our skin tone made us allies even as she treated me like an enemy. We had nothing in common outside of these traits. We had no reason to bond. I had no respect for her perfection, not anymore.

 

 

Tre has stuck by my side. He graduated at the end of my sophomore year. He ended up in grad school in Louisiana. Still, we talked nonstop through emails, texts, Facebook and Twitter. He came back to visit often. He’d always come with gifts, and smile at me like I was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

When I went to New Orleans for his graduation just a few months before my own, I stayed in a hotel room next to his mother. We all had dinner at a restaurant the night before his graduation. He got down on one knee and asked me in a shaky voice to marry him. Preferably soon, his mother added after I said yes. From there, my life was set.

The two of us moved to a tiny house in Philadelphia, and started saving for a wedding. It was when the planning stages were in full motion that Ricky, Tre’s best friend growing up and best man, came to stay with us.

“Yo, B, isn’t that the girl you were showing me the other day?” Ricky pointed at Ella, on the television screen, skinnier than ever and acting in a new drama set to premiere in April. Tre looked over at me before nodding.

“She is bad. You used to hit that, right?”

“She’s on t.v. now,” I said it out loud to believe it myself. I left the room. There wasn’t far to go. I could still hear them as I leaned against the wall just out of sight of the living room.

“Why would you ask about that? I haven’t even talked about her since we stopped talking.”

“I just think, she’s badder than this girl. You fucked up. You could’ve been married to this girl. She’s probably paid now.”

“I would never have ended up married to Ella. But I’m happy for her.” This was enough. Time would show that this was only the first time that I would overhear a joke about who my husband should have married.

For years after we were married, I would get mail without a return address. It had my name on it, but always my maiden name. I keep them in a box under my bed. They are nothing more than progress reports. The implied threat being that she will become a woman that all men, including mine, want. I know that if I had shown them to Tre he would have laughed and said that we should move but I was afraid she contacted him as well and how I’d feel when I saw it written on his face.

Now, we have moved naturally, to a bigger house, in another state, a new city. Both of our phone numbers have new area codes. I doubt she’d contact us anyways. She is married too, to another famous face. Their faces grace magazine covers amidst titles like “Headed for Divorce,” a sure sign that their marriage is strong and unchanging.

Nights, I cling to my husband, and remember the battle I was in for him. I think to his apology: if only he hadn’t been there, we could have been friends. Because we had so much in common, I suppose he meant. For years I have refused to see it, that we have anything in common, other than our appearance: our skin color and our body shapes. But when I lay there with him, and he rolls over away from me, my heart feels like it could stop, and I can’t force myself to sleep.