She recognizes you first. You’re walking down your block, coming home from school, not paying attention like Ganny taught you. You’ve seen these same row homes in the same order a thousand times already. A blackgirl on a stoop doesn’t lift a chin or raise a brow. You keep your eyes on the fractured pavement, on the lookout for knocked-over trashcans and dog shit.
As you get closer, this round-faced girl (woman?), brown as root beer candy, smiles at you as if she knows you. And she does. By name. She asks if you remember her. As she keeps talking, as she points down the street to where she used to stay, you do remember.
Your body remembers when the ballies that made your pigtails swing sounded like marbles shooting across the linoleum. From that you summon her name.
You stay put. You smile back. You say her name out loud. It will be the last time you do. You say you remember her. You don’t say how because you can feel her memory won’t square with yours. Or it will and then you wouldn’t know how to feel.
You tell her you’re doing fine. You tell her what high school you’re going to now. You don’t ask how she’s doing. You don’t ask what she’s been up to lately. You let your end of the conversation go slack. She takes the hint.
“See you around,” she says.
“Yeah,” you say, “cool.”
You are your mother’s firstborn. She spins on battered toes to get her body back. She shares with you her love of cleaving through air like lightning, but she doesn’t stop you from quitting. She wants a different life for you, one where you can say no and have that no honored, where your body is not a flood you try to contain in your hands.
She tells you every morning that you are beautiful, you are smart, you are loved—all the things she didn’t hear herself.
She doesn’t tell you what to do when her body is broken down and split open; when her no is treated like silence, and silence like consent. Her mother didn’t have an answer for her and she doesn’t have one for you. This is your first lesson in shapes. This is how circles work.
You learn very early that your mother is not yours to keep.
You’re living in a trailer on a cactus-studded field with a new baby brother when you find your mother on the toilet and declare that you want to wear real panties like her.
You are here when you hurl your whole body into your mother’s bedroom door because you think her husband’s hurting her. All six feet, two hundred fifty pounds of him chases you out because he was fucking her. You won’t put that together until you’re older. Right now, it sounds no different to you than her writhing body getting dragged by a fistful of her Anita Baker cut.
He’s not all bad, though. His hands don’t stray from your mother.
You are no longer there. You are with Ganny, your mother’s mother’s mother. Her declining husband spends most of his day in the den with all of their books. You steal his glasses, his cane, his teeth. Then you tease him about all the things he can’t do without them. He stamps his feet like he’s going to get up from his rocking chair and come after you, but he is absolutely harmless, and you love him for it.
In the morning, you and Ganny go for a walk up the cobble-stoned avenue. You ask her to read the plaque describing the Battle of Germantown every single time and she does it as if it’s the first. At home, she reads stories to you about wolves, dwarves, witches, and beasts.
She teaches you the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. You recite both before bed, on your knees, head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped. You will keep this ritual even after you’ve left the church. Even after you’ve been on your knees with hands clasped around your lover’s thighs, your silk-scarfed head bowed and bobbing to her rhythm, you will curl your sated body around hers and pray silently to the pearls rippling beneath her skin.
You are afraid for your mother and lonely without her.
You cry yourself to sleep after you say your prayers. You chop all the blonde hair off your doll’s head, then take a blue pen and scribble all over her face until ballpoint pierces plastic.
You are six hundred miles south of the Battle of Germantown, a dot on no one’s map. You’re living in an apartment complex where the concrete floors are painted tootsie-roll brown. Your mother has a new husband. They have loud, long fights, but at least this man knows how to keep his hands all to himself. Your mother’s hands, however, will take over where the previous pair left off. It won’t occur to you why she wears long sleeves all year round until you see for yourself a decade from now.
You and the neighbor girl become fast friends because you’re only one year apart, and that’s all the reason you need to take an interest in each other. You see her every day after school. You like to sneak around and watch music videos, garble the lyrics and gyrate imaginary hips.
You’re together the first time you watch TLC creep. You roll up your shirts and bust a move with your bellies out like they do in the video. You pinch off a corner of your eye for each other, then double over in a fit of giggles.
In one of your letters to Ganny, you call this girl your best, best, best friend. She seems different, like you, but you have to be careful.
Not that long ago, you passed a Valentine’s note to a girl telling her how much you like-liked her. You wanted to know if she like-liked you, too. She took your note to the teacher and you got called to the front of the class. The teacher demanded to know why you had written such a nasty thing. She gripped your arm and shook you as if she wanted the truth of your nature to spill out of you. Your own mother never handled you that way. She threatened to call home, to let everybody know what a nasty little girl you are.
Your insides felt like they do when you’re falling in your dreams and never hit ground, like everything in you is sinking and your body has no bottom. Eyes swollen, face aflame, you swore it was all a joke. Lies scrambled out of your mouth like bodies fleeing a burning building.
She shut the note in her desk drawer and ordered you back to your seat. That feeling didn’t leave you until after you came home and your day went by like any other.
That day you learned not to let certain words out. Keep them in, let them fall away.
Words don’t tell you that your neighbor is the same kind of girl as you. It’s her hand holding yours while you’re watching TV. It’s her Barbie smooching yours while they’re vacationing bath-side. It’s the peck on your cheek when you’re alone in a room.
You’re wrestling like men and women do on TV, except your legs are clamped down on that nickel. Her weight comes down on them and you go still. You tell her to press harder. You feel something, down there, beating back, trying to take flight.
You take turns on the bottom. For the greatest pressure, you slide under the bunk bed and she wriggles on top of you until there’s no space between your bodies and you feel your breath leaving.
Electronics disappear from your apartment one by one. Your mother does likewise for days at a time. Even when she’s there, she’s not.
You are alone tonight and terribly afraid.
You find your mother in the bathroom doorway. Her haircut looks nothing like its inspiration. The roots are matted, the ends stick-stiff. A tattered shirt clings to air where her body should be. Her fading eyes are fixed on you as if you are not you, as if you are not calling her name, demanding to know what’s wrong. She stumbles right past you—through you if you hadn’t’ve moved—and collapses on her bed.
You pound her motionless, soundless body. You scream at her to get up. Right now. Get up. You warn her that if she does not get up you will never call her Mom again. You love Ganny more anyway. You will go back and live with her. You’ll call Ganny Mom, and you’ll call your mother by her first name. Your threats leave your throat raw and ragged, but they don’t move her.
Outside, the shrill flash of primary colors.
Strangers in the room.
Your mother, lifted away.
An arm bars you from going after her.
She’s gone long enough for the clean parts between your cornrows to crowd with fuzzy new growth and lint. No more Magic left in that Blue; your plump, shiny twists dry out and puff into dustbunnies.
The kids who call you whitegirl now have new material—yo mama’s a crackhead. You don’t know one way or the other. Pills? Powder? Pipe? Nuance is forfeit when your mother’s taken from you on a stretcher. Crack is the only stick-and-stone you kids have to sling at each other when fairy dust abracadabras away your lights, your heat, your food, your family.
At the end of class, after all the other kids file out, a teacher tries to get you to say something, anything, but you were taught to hold water, never put your business in the street. Fire licks at the corners of your eyes. The words on the chalkboard melt together. All that sodden heat, you choke it down.
You meet R— while staying with Ganny. She’s a widow now. The den is unoccupied. This is where you play. You are not allowed to go to other people’s houses alone. This is how you keep a little blackgirl safe. You don’t wonder why a teenager has any interest in playing with you. She’s a sweet-faced girl without a reputation so Ganny doesn’t wonder either.
It’s not easy for you to make friends. Up north, girls exclude you from double dutch because you don’t stay in the rope long and you turn ‘flicted. Down south, single rope is a breeze for you but nobody likes a showoff. No matter where you are, most girls don’t want to touch your scaly hands. No clapping games for you. The isolation only causes your eczema to spread to your face. Now you really look like a disease.
You’re a weirdo, a loser. Your glasses are too damn thick. You’re a whitegirl because your grades are too good, consonants too crisp. You make matters worse down south when you befriend two whitegirls rejected by their own kind for being too fat, too tall, too ginger. To have any hope of fitting in, you must backstab the whitegirls, torment a smarter blackgirl.
R— doesn’t require that of you. She doesn’t mind your hands. She even teaches you the words you didn’t get a chance to learn because you never got that far along in the game. You feel special, less alone. So when she wants to play House, you don’t think anything of it.
House, like Monopoly, has house rules. Everyone plays differently. Down south, you play House out in the schoolyard. One girl is the mommy, the rest are her daughters. The daughters claw at each other and run amok. Mommy herds them, punishes them. The roles rotate unless someone is particularly good at being bossy.
You start playing House upstairs in the den with the door open just a sliver. Ganny’s in the basement washing clothes and watching her stories.
R— is the mommy, always the mommy.
You are the baby, and babies like to be tickled. You do.
You are the baby, and babies need their diapers checked. She tells you to lie down. You do. You move your head this way and that because the ballies dig into your scalp. She tells you to be still, to be quiet. You obey. This is not new to your body, but this is not that, this is a game.
You are the baby, and babies need to be fed. An imaginary bottle won’t do. She lifts her t-shirt, pulls down one side of her bra and tells you to hold her in your mouth. You don’t. At first. She says, “It’s okay, this is what babies do. You still want to play, right?” She takes your hand, places it on her. “See, it’s okay.”
R— moves your game to the basement. Now you play House with a washer and dryer, garden tools, mason jars and canned goods, an ancient Frigidaire and a deep freezer, a record player, a portable TV, and tons of old clothes. Ganny’s upstairs watching her stories.
R— wants you to be the daddy now.
She’s wearing a lavender windsuit. She points to where she wants you to place your hand. You’ve never touched anyone down there, not there. This is a lie. “It’s okay, it’s part of the game.” You let her take your hand.
A wet spot grows between her legs. You can see it through the material. You can feel it. You yank your hand out of hers because you think she’s peed her pants. She tells you she hasn’t but you can’t disbelieve your eyes, your hand.
The good little girl runs back upstairs because she has finally figured out how to tell on R— without telling on herself. This is not you.
The nasty little girl stays put. She listens to R—: “It’s okay, I’ll show you. You be the mommy.” She lets R— take over her wings. They’re not hers anymore. There is nobody to tell her otherwise. She wouldn’t believe anyway.
Summertime. Another girl. Your age. You’re a pint-sized Sister, Sister. You play clapping games, put cartoon puzzles together, and invent fantastic stories that never end. Sometimes Ganny records you on her tape player. You take turns prattling on the mic. Sometimes you can be heard in the background accusing the little girl of making up her story wrong.
You bring her to the basement, to the chill of concrete against shoulder blades, to hiding behind a wall of forgotten shoeboxes and winter coats and choir robes, to being stiller than the air clotting your throat like steel wool in mouse holes.
You want to teach her how to play House. You’ll be the daddy.
You say, “Come over here, it’ll be fun.”
“But I don’t get it,” she says back.
“It’s okay, I’ll show you.”
She is the good little girl you were not. She doesn’t go deeper into the basement with you. She stands by the door that opens out to the street.
Her eyes are too familiar. In them, you see confusion, discomfort, and the distrust of her own senses: you are friends, a friend wouldn’t hurt you, you don’t want to lose a friend.
These hands go circle circle dot dot, now you got your cootie shot, circle circle square square, now it’s gonna stay there. These mouths swirl Mister Softee and blow Bubblicious bubbles. These hands swing, swing, swing to the rhythm of the beat, hey hey. These mouths say they don’t wanna go to Mexico no more more more, there’s a big fat policeman at the door door door. These hands, these mouths don’t do what you now want them to.
Blue-hot shame surges within. You stop pushing her. You ask her what she’d like to play instead. Her eyes lose that tension you know all too well and her smile comes back whole, not pieced together to make like everything’s okay.
Your mother is your Mom again. A rock. The kind you crush like Kix under the wheels of your bike as you pedal hard to the edge of the highway. You begin to distance yourself from her lest her brittleness rub off on you.
You have a new home, another single-wide, dingy white and rust brown. You live on a dead-end road between a carwash and a daycare center. You have a new baby brother. He doesn’t go to the daycare because your mother doesn’t trust it. A bald, beady-eyed, red-faced, middle-aged man works there. On the blacktop, you picture him when you and your classmates chant Ches-ter, Ches-ter, Child Mo-les-ter.
Your best, best, best friend sleeps over because you still aren’t allowed to stay at other people’s houses. In the evening, you have free rein over everybody else’s property. You rollerblade down the daycare’s ramp until you crash because you never learned how to brake. You red-light-green-light-stop on the carwash lot. You suck the salt off sunflower seeds and spit the shells wherever.
After everyone else is asleep, you slip your hands under each other’s pajamas, prod the ripening parts, and dress it up in a game. Daddy and mommy. Monster and princess. King and captive. But you are careful. You keep to language she understands. You keep your ill-gotten tongue to yourself.
Time will do what it does best, but so will you. Your mother will go back to her first husband. You will go back to Ganny’s.
High School, the logline: straight A’s with the straight hair seeks straighter boy. With D.T.O. [Dykes Taking Over] spray-painted on the walls of the girls’ bathroom and said dykes dishing out hickeys like free lunch, you’ve picked a fine time and place to be about the bullshit.
You like a challenge, though. What doesn’t kill you and whatnot. Your body is a cross, or a temple, or a yoke, an unclean vessel and a pillar of salt, so saith the good book you cracketh open every Sunday.
You pass on the lightskin bol with the pretty piano hands and more hair than you because he comes to school foggy-eyed and dull-edged.
You pass on the darkskin bol whose cover of “Reasons” has you looking for Philip Bailey in your locker because in his language no means grab your waist, and no means pull you into an empty stairwell, and NO means pin you to a wall.
You choose the brownskin bol with the Blistexed pussy-eating lips that every straight girl wants and every third will get. A challenge, indeed, considering how seriously you play the role of wifey to make all the freak-shit you do less abominable.
You switch your curling iron on high and tap the hickey he left below your ear. Ganny knows you’re clumsy and that’s all she needs to know. You follow her direction and slather on honey daily until the burn becomes a scab and the scab sloughs off, revealing skin unsullied by sin.
But the truth’s marked you where the sun don’t shine. He gives you head good enough to take notes on for future reference. You tell him how cold he’s laying that pipe in the back of his mom’s Tercel. An orgasm for you, however, remains holy-grail-elusive, no matter his efforts. If you were the right kind of girl, he’d be enough.
As homework gives way to college apps, and a stick figure stud still has the baddest femme in school on lock, your body starts speaking to you in tongues. Scratch that — you start listening.
You tell him. You try. It’s something you unfurl in a hush over the phone while Ganny snores down the hall and you’re both listening hard for the click of the other line picking up. It’s something you think you’d satisfy if you had a threesome.
You’re at his crib now, fluids crusting over on threadbare sheets. The allium-like stubbornness of your scent and his is muddled with his neighbors’ sofrito, and the onion and oregano of your half-eaten hoagie. You’re supposed to be studying for an AP bio exam. Instead, you’re fucking like there’s a cheat sheet on your cervix. No O to show for it, though.
You turn on your side and do what you discovered way back when T-Boz was creepin’ on your TV screen in silk jammies. You squeeze your legs together as if to osmose that nickel. He wants to stay inside of you so he can finally feel it, too, but you think you might break his dick off. You tell him to pull out and slip in a couple fingers instead. Then you interlock your thighs and bear down until you feel the beat-back.
You let your ass spread over the jut of his hipbones and wait for the reload as you scroll through potential poon on MySpace. He throws out names of newly minted femmes in your class. Like Stick’s girl. And it hits you, as he’s curving back into you, that you want to enjoy your something alone. He’s nowhere in the equation.
But before you drop out of his fantasy, you try to give him some backstory. You tell him about the beer-brown woman on the stoop. You try. What comes out instead is that time you got fresh with a play-cousin in a life-sized dollhouse that looked exactly like the blue and white one in Home Alone 2.
Something opens him. Maybe it’s that it’s damn near dawn and still as a caged breath. Maybe you cracked him a little when he dragged you out of your mother’s house after simply ordering a cheesesteak quickened within you a decade of dormant, patricidal rage. Or maybe he just knows what you’re really trying to tell him. Whatever it is that opens him opens him like an IED and his words penetrate you like shrapnel, as he tells you about the times his so-and-so did such-and-such to him under the covers when he was this many and she was twice that.
But it’s cool. They’re still cool. Real cool. You met her once. She’s cool. He tells you it came out later that so-and-so had such-and-such done to her, and it was a lot worse ’cause like it was a grown-ass man who did it. So like… it’s cool. Right?
You never ménage. You never smash Stick’s girl. You keep your loins on ice. You get into your first choice and he his. The summer before you matriculate, you sic clippers on your straight ends.
New summer. New girl. Soon to be ex-girl. You can’t bring yourself to hit the mute button on long fights in all caps. You try to pass yourself off as a rock and the water just laughs. You try anyway. You’d rather leave than be left; keep your heart a fist and your body a rock. Then you’d have a story you could swallow as easily as Ganny’s chamomile tea: once upon a time, you got up and walked out and never came back.
Truth be told, you’re afraid this loneliness is as permanent as time itself.
You keep her body tucked into yours so that time might stop if only for the night. The prayer that you pray into the nape of her neck is that this time will be different. It’s exhausting, traveling through life in circles. You’d bet every cent to your name that she knows how that feels.
Her shit’s spelled out on the surface. Your first time together, when you tried—and failed—to coax her out of her shirt, you read it through her sleeves like Braille. Her scars look like train tracks roving in and back on themselves. You imagine that if you were to follow them, you’d end up home. So you don’t. You already have your hands full, navigating her moods, absorbing her blows, the kind that doesn’t void the vein and therefore doesn’t register as what it is.
It’s three in the morning and quiet as an empty pocket. You can’t hear your neighbors fucking or fighting, or strays fucking or fighting, or speakers competing with sirens. Your braided bodies wring bruise-blue sheets. Your own inky inner thighs got you looking like a Special Victim. You let her strap, and to be honest, she got overzealous. That nickel you’re supposed to be keeping between your knees, she drove it between your eyes, trying—and failing—to score the Big O for you.
It pisses her off when you don’t come for her. You keep the neighbors up till three in the morning fighting about fucking. Either you got some other bitch, or you want some other bitch, or bitch you can’t be trusted. You could weave a tale about how pleasure morphed into an albatross, but that’s not sexy. You could confess that calling her daddy as she insists just kills your desire. Except when it doesn’t. You dare not tell her what you’re holding in, what you’re holding back—the real pleasure’s in knowing you can—when your body’s at her mercy.
You keep answering her calls for the times when the ending feels like it’ll be different. When you can fuck like you still have firsts to give, like someone didn’t already cop them with a five-finger discount. When the simplest touch is its own lovemaking, whether she’s feeding you fried plantain from vanilla-brown fingers, or feeding kanekalon into your braids, hoping the char of black castor oil masks the chocolate Dutch. For the times when you can depict a future without the past in the foreground, so vividly it’s right there in the room with you, lulling her to sleep in the scoop of your belly.
That’s where you’d rather be tonight, under her nuts-n-berries natural, your bladder growing from pit to peach because you can’t bear to wake her. You’d forgive the smoke on her breath and that catch in her throat the next time she tries and fails to apologize.
Instead you’re out of town, at a play, alone, seeking something you dare not name. When penny-tossed girls talk nickel, your tongues twine the truth into knots. Sometimes you need someone to do the disentangling for you, to tell the part of the story that can’t be sussed out beneath a sheath of cotton.
A talented group of women put together a production to give voice to harrowing stories of rape, torture, and domestic violence. The perpetrators are the usual suspects: fratboys and fuckboys, hateful husbands and dirty uncles.
You are not triggered by what you see but what you don’t see. What you’ve never seen. Then you check yourself. Whatever you think happened was just child’s play by comparison. When you let a boy cut for the first time, you bled like you were supposed to. At least no one took that from you. Right?
Still, a smoldering anger flares within. You call the only person you can right now—your mother. You wouldn’t normally have this kind of conversation with her, but you need to now.
You say you don’t want to take anything away from the work these women have put in, from the women in the audience who did feel seen, from all the women who could finally hear their echo, but what about… what if it’s not so violent… what if it’s not a man… what if…
“What if it’s a girl,” your mother says for you. She tries to keep her tone placid, but you can hear something roiling beneath the surface, as she gives you your final lesson in circles.
She tells you something she hasn’t even told her own mother. Something she only shared with the man you feared would end her life; the man whose blood you wanted to draw ounce for ounce over a damn cheesesteak. Trauma binds as mightily as it breaks. But you already know that.
She tells you that A— started doing stuff to her when she was eight and A— was fourteen.
“Because of her,” she says, “I know what it is to be with a woman.”
The feeling that everything in you is sinking fast returns to your body like it never left. You know A— very well. She’s family. Not like family; she is family. You’ve been in her home, at her table. She treated your youngest brother like the son she never had. When they lived a hop, skip, and a jump away from each other, she visited your mother every other day. They broke each other off when they hit the numbers.
You ask your mother how she’s able to do it, shoot the shit, break bread. You ask like you don’t already know.
“You block it out,” she says. “Like it never happened. Or it just didn’t happen that way.”
But it never stays out for good. It comes back, and when it does, she cuts A— off for a while.
You try to tell her about R— without rewriting your story until what was stolen from you becomes what you handed over freely. All you manage to say is that she was older, she lived on Ganny’s block, she came over to play.
Your mother doesn’t ask what you mean by play. You don’t ask what she means by stuff. You don’t try to explain that’s not what it is to be with a woman.
You lay the truth of your body down to protect her. You don’t want her to feel that she failed you. You don’t want her to know that you inherited her trauma like her shoe size and short stature. You get quiet. You try to gather yourself up in your hands.
You saw her the other day, standing on a porch. You think it was her. You were walking up the block, coming home from work. She was on the right end of the street this time. You’re still here; it’s not hard to believe she is, too.
Once again, she recognized you first. At least you think it was her. That same round, candy-brown face. That smile like she knows you. Because she does. Except this time she didn’t say your name and you didn’t say hers.
“How you been,” she asked.
You could have told her that your body’s been playing a never-ending game of hangman, trying to find the language for what happened to it; that you’ve been trying to speak her name for years, that you almost passed it down like Down-Down-Baby.
You could have told her that you forgive her, you don’t hate her, you even understand her. Maybe she, too, has a story she’s never told right, a story that weighs on her like the rock she’ll never be.
You could have given her your hand, to show her how the body fails to unlearn certain lessons. Show her the deep-brown fleck in your palm, the splinter you got when you were living in some walkup—before the trailer with the cactus—where your mother asked if someone had touched you and you said no as you burned through the floor. Tell her how you used to slide your hand up the banister as you hiked up all those stairs. Your mother told you not to do that, and you soon learned why. You wailed as if someone had stabbed you with a butcher knife. You wouldn’t let her tweeze it out, so your flesh just healed over it. Now your hand and that splinter are inextricable.
That’s how she’s in you. Except the wound she opened never fully closed. Some days you feel it. Most days you don’t. But when you do, you are the drowned and the drowner and the flood.
You could have said all of that. But you wanted to disbelieve your eyes. You need it not to be her. You need at least one track to lead elsewhere.
So you just said, “I’m good.”
“See you around,” she said.
Rumpus original art by Stephanie Tartick.