If You Let Me Tell You a Story
I might start telling you I didn’t really graduate high school so much as I escaped. I ditched prom and said fuck you to graduation while administrators simultaneously padded my community service hours to force me out. That was nearly seven years ago but my aunt will still remind any willing or reluctant ear that I barely finished whenever the opportunity presents itself and even when it doesn’t.
I might think that my thoughts spin like an out of control carousel, the lights, the music, and shapes in my mind blurring together, spinning me around till I’ve forgotten where I started, which story I was telling you first.
I might tell you about the concert I attended with Cameron, my best friend since my senior year of high school. When we arrived, the doors of the venue had been open for an hour. Popular hip-hop records aimed to soundtrack but instead overpowered the chatter in the concert hall. Cameron could only hear me if I yelled at him from afar or whispered in his ear. The stage still empty, the crowd was spread out across the standing room only hall. There was no need to push up against one another for a better view just yet. Over the chatter and the music, I heard loud insults being flung back and forth across a circle formed near the front of the crowd. The culprits were teenagers. Other concertgoers around us became alarmed by the vulgar words and noise.
The noise makes me want to tell you about Stacy. Stacy and I kicked it heavy my sophomore and junior year of high school. She was the only white person I’d ever known intimately that wasn’t an authority figure. When it was so hot in Chicago that the sun could either free you with its energy or oppress you with its heat, I rode the bus across the city with Stacy and our friend, Bailey, without destination. Stacy wore threadbare thrift store dresses in floral prints with battered combat boots. Her hair was short and blonde with pastel tips and messed around her head, but somehow still artfully curated. I grabbed a baby phat t-shirt and jeans out of a drawer and put them on my body without thinking. I did artfully place the handcuffs I brought from a sex shop on my belt loop. Stacy placed the pair she owned on her wrist. I hoped the handcuffs performed quirkiness for me like they did for her.
Too young for clubs and too broke for anything else, we entertained ourselves by handcuffing our bodies to the poles that ran down the center of bus. We laughed loudly as women with sneakers on their feet and heels in their purses stared at us with annoyance. Other times we sat on the bus and embarrassed one another by picking fights. “Why you always got be so fucking extra all the damn time,” I might have said to Stacy or Bailey to pop shit off. Off the bus, we walked down State Street screaming “hail Satan” after a sidewalk preacher yelled, “You’ll never going to go heaven being homosexuals” at us. When the weather got cooler, we stood on that same street reading Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir aloud as folks walked by. Chile, what have you heard if you haven’t heard a group of teenaged girls yell, “Very well, my friend: her abundant chestnut hair—there’s too much of it to grasp in one’s hand—descends to below her buttocks; her skin is of a dazzling whiteness, her nose, rather aquiline her eyes jet black and of a warmth!” Each awkward look excited us, made us continue.
Anyway, I’m sorry, back to the concert. One young man in the group of noisemakers wore a vintage Mickey Mouse denim jacket with teal polyester sleeves. Along the hem of the collar, sleeves, and body was a thick stretchy band, like that of a varsity jacket. I could image him sliding hordes of clothes down the countless racks of a thrift store, looking for the treasured piece that would perform his uniqueness wordlessly. A young woman wore a vintage, oversized Cross Colours t-shirt in electric red, yellow, and green. Likely another thrift store find, chosen specifically for its ability to perform boldness in a room of neutral colors. Folks in the concert hall thought those kids might be fighting in earnest, but I knew this display of disrespect was purposeful.
I was annoyed by the noisemakers but was ultimately unimpressed.
Now, I might stop to quote Tiffany “New York” Pollard of Favor of Love fame. “I do not like children. I was never a child; I was born in the know.”
“Oh. My. God. Can they please shut the fuck up?” I whispered or yelled at Cameron.
“I know, right? It’s tacky,” he responded.
“Remember when you, Stacey, and Bailey used to do shit like that?”
“I do not.”
“Sure, you do. Before we were close. You were just as tacky as those kids then.”
I said nothing.
A few moments later, Cameron said, “Would you say your style goes through phases?” in my ear amid the noise.
I thought of my outfit. I chose a classic, simple, streetwear silhouette of skintight skinny jeans, an oversized black t-shirt that reached my knees, an olive-green bomber jacket, and white low-top sneakers—the same clothes I wore to work that morning, the same ones I wrote two craft essays in that afternoon. The tattoos on my forearms were covered by my jacket, the only two visible were the safety pins on each of my hands. The rings in my lips and nose could not be concealed. Each portion of my own evolution was accompanied by a fashion mood indicative of the period. The year we attended the concert I applied minimalism to every aspect of my life.
A few years prior, when my body was bursting with an abundance of creative energy and my closet was bursting with the clothing to perform it, I wore black and white striped leggings, paired with a polka-dot blouse in the same colors, and a bright pink blazer over top.
Cameron was effortless—he always had been. He stood before me, a handsome Black man in a simple pair of skinny trousers, paired with a slim fitting t-shirt and denim jacket (he checked his coat). His evolution from baby-faced teenager to grown man had been subtle and sincere.
I whispered or yelled back to him, “I reject the idea of phases. The connotation of the word phase is negative. Like that moment in time is something insignificant to be forgotten or dismissed. I’ve never gone through a phase; every stage of my life is significant. Every person I was before this informed the person I am today. But I worry that—”
I might tell you that if this speech sounded rehearsed that’s because it was. I developed the idea during a conversation with myself. Through my room’s thin walls, I heard my flat mate tell his girlfriend, “That’s just my flat mate; she talks to herself.”
You might laugh at that, but you wouldn’t be shocked. You know me, and you know I work most things out aloud.
“—I only asked because you used to wear nail polish all the time and now you don’t,” Cameron whispered back, cutting me off before I could express my worry.
Now, I might tell you that my junior year of high school I found myself sitting in the corner of a classroom smashed into a desk, half of my right thigh overboard. My left thumb was nestled inside my right cheek. The rest of my fingers cradled the same side of my face for comfort.
Whatever I was just telling you might make me remember, for the first time in years, that I sucked my thumb for most of my life. I might ask you how that could be when my father, his wife, teachers, coworkers, strangers on bus stops, on buses, and on the street made sure I’d never forget that I’d never get a man, get a job, or have a productive life if I kept my thumb in my mouth. The hand sanitizer my father’s wife put on my left hand several times a day never stopped me either.
It was fake nails.
When I was nineteen I picked up a boyfriend I should’ve left on the shelf and a full set of acrylic nails to try and convince myself of my femininity, and my heterosexuality, while simultaneously trying to rid myself of loneliness. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t nestle my thumb comfortably in my left cheek without a pointy piece of acrylic stabbing me. The longer I kept the nails on my fingers, the more I forgot about my thumb.
Now, I might think that my thoughts are constantly playing six degrees of separation. One thought connects to another thought, that thought connects to another thought… Then, I’m left with a set of loosely related ideas I can’t prioritize.
I might call out to you, “Oh shit! High school. I was telling you about high school. About how I sitting was in a desk sucking my thumb in high school.”
Around me the class buzzes with noisy chatter. No one takes ACT prep seriously. My desk neatly faces the front of the room while my classmates have angled theirs for conversation. The chatter falls away as I am absorbed into the story of The Hours.
I might pause here to ask you if you remember the moment in Sister Act 2 when Rita “Diva with a ‘Tude” told Sister Mary Clarence, “Sister, this is a bird course. And, you know why we call it a bird course? Because we fly right through it.”
After you laugh before staring me down with anticipation, I might tell you now what I tell you all the time: “It’s a mighty long journey to the point but we will get there—I promise.”
The click of dress shoe heels moving in my direction pulls me out of The Hours. My hands hold the novel in front of me, but I’ve stopped scanning the pages. Our teacher, Mr. Thomas, has forgone quieting the class to stand in front of me. I am slightly nervous and wonder if I’ve done something wrong. Authority figures seemed to be most present in my life when I’d done something I shouldn’t have. The nerves subside quickly. Surely there is no penalty for reading books in school.
“Are you reading that for a class?” he said readjusting his glasses against his pale skin.
“No,” I responded in confusion.
“You’re just reading that because you want to?”
“How are you finding it? Is it a difficult read for you?”
“I find the Clarissa chapters boring. She’s just running around buying flowers. The Woolf chapters and the Mrs. Brown chapters are way more interesting.”
My fat, round face lights from within despite the dim fluorescent light overhead at the sound of, “Good for you.”
I might tell you after you interrupt me, “You don’t have to tell me that what he said was not a compliment… let me finish.”
Then I might pause for a moment because my mind is connecting what I told you to many things. My mind shifts from experience to experience trying to find the perfect anecdote to illustrate what I need to tell you next.
I might think: One day I was walking down an empty street / lying on the floor of my childhood bedroom / I was smashed into a desk my sophomore year of high school. I was minding my business / Brianna, a childhood friend, and I were flipping between two music video channels / I was reading a book. I wore red and black arm warmers / I dismissed an R&B music video in favor of an alternative rock one / I only read the books I could see myself in. I was a white girl / I was a white girl / I was too Black.
Now, I feel like I need to go back a year, back to my sophomore year in high school. I was once again smashed into a desk, right thigh still overboard. The sleep we’d yet to shake off left a hush over the classroom. Ms. Kelly stood at a black cart covered in paper pushing her blonde hair behind her ear. She took attendance with an annoyingly chipper tone to her voice. I sat reading Wahida Clark’s Every Thug Needs a Lady. The cover featured a Black woman in the foreground wearing a metallic gold bikini top with an orange bomber jacket over top. Her wrap hit her décolletage. Back then we would say, “She got butters.” In her hand, she held five one-hundred-dollar bills near the waist of her jeans. Attendance complete, Ms. Kelly walked over to my desk.
“Why do you read those?” Ms. Kelly continued before I could answer, “You know, if you read something that expanded your mind more you might learn something,” she said in the same chipper voice.
All I could manage to say was, “I just like them.” As I sat in that desk, shame over took me. Though I still held Every Thug Needs a Lady in my hands, I felt the gold bikini top and orange bomber jacket begin to fade from view. In my junior year of high school, the cover of The Hours would replace it in my mind.
I might pause here as I try to remember when I transitioned out of the phase I occupied junior year. I can’t place the time in my head. It was after high school, I do know that. Different instances accumulate in my mind until I break underneath them and realize the truth of my multiplicity.
I might think I am failing you. Stories need concrete details to help you understand, don’t they? I glare at you and you pull your hand closer to your body. Your eyes keep glancing over at your phone, but I continue on.
It could have been that time spent reading novels more “well received” revealed to me the revolution in the pages of novels easily dismissed. In urban romance, Black women seduced readers on the covers but inside were cherished in ways I’d never read in any textbook anthology. The woman on the cover in her bomber jacket and jeans looked like girls in my neighborhood. As I read the snappiness and the music in the dialogue, I heard myself, I heard those neighborhood girls. Only in the pages of urban romance were women like this the center of desire. Men would die to protect them. Women envied them. Urban romances also centered supportive friendship groups populated by other Black women. I’d convinced myself everything from my personality to my fat body were undesirable, so I wanted that, needed it, desperately.
It could have been realizing alternative music and rock music belonged to me as much as hip-hop did. When Black women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe played the opening riffs of “That’s All” on her electric guitar she gave us rock and roll. This was not a genre exclusively for white folks. It was all mine.
I might have been… My mind connects to many things again. Every anecdote still begins like this: Stacy and I kicked it heavy my sophomore and junior year of high school. She was the only white person I’d ever known intimately that wasn’t an authority figure. Then, I was in a light-filled living room with a lake view / I was at the back door of a first-floor condo / I was listening to Stacy tell me about the cold, dingy corridor of a Metra station. I was Black / I was Black / I was Black.
Stacy’s Sister, Rhiannon, telling us she dropped out of our predominately Black high school because the Black kids were racist / The look on Stacy’s father’s face when I visited his home for the first time and he realized I was Black / Stacy’s father telling her not to date Black boys because they were more likely to have AIDS.
I might think, but not tell you, that at the concert, after Cameron cut me off, I said, “Well, you know. I have a lot going on. When I’m stressed out nails are the first thing to go.”
“Oh, okay. I just miss it that’s all,” he replied.
I’d been painstakingly crafting every aspect of my identity in hopes of proclaiming wordlessly to the world, this is who I am now. For Cameron, this person that had loved me through so many of my different phases, the lack of nail polish, the simple bomber jacket, t-shirt, and jeans performed the minimalism I was attempting to embody. He wanted a version me that I’d laid to rest a while ago.
I might tell you what I could not admit to Cameron: I worry that my phase theory is bullshit. If every person I was before truly informs the person I am today, I worry that these previous versions of myself are still alive in the minds of the people I’ve known. Despite the hours spent adorning my body to create this complicated labyrinth of identity, I cannot control whether or not folks decode my preferred reading of myself.
I worry that, in the words of the illustrious philosopher Jay Z, “You can try to change but that’s just the top layer. Man, you was who you was ‘fore you got here.”
Because I can’t tell you that, I might tell you there is a ten-year-old-photograph of an eighteen-year-old girl in Chicago’s Botanical Gardens. She wears baggy turquoise jeans, a pink tie-dye t-shirt, with a grey tweed vest over top. In these clashing patterns and textures is the chaos she associated with alternative style, a style she associated with whiteness. On top of that base she piled on layer upon layer to perform that whiteness wordlessly, to resist white shame, to separate her Black body from the effortless cool of streetwear, from Blackness.
A pair of black low-top sneakers.
A pair of large gold hoop earrings.
A pair of pink over ear headphones.
A pair of oversized aviator prescription glasses.
A silver necklace with a large pocket watch charm.
A gaggle of silver bangles.
A deep purple backpack.
I think I’ve exhausted you for good this time. I might notice your hand inching closer to your phone yet again. Maybe you want to check for a missed text message or phone call, anything to change the subject. I might speed up, sacrificing the remainder of the parts that make up the whole.
This might make me tell you that a few weeks ago I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen talking to my aunt. I might not remember the exact circumstances but it doesn’t matter. We were discussing somebody Black that had been doing something somewhere that resulted in unfair treatment.
I might remind you that these things happen so often you forget which situation you were talking about when.
I told my aunt, “I’m not sure if white people have a role in Black liberation. I do know that maybe they should be quiet sometimes, let Black people speak for themselves.”
Her small eyes grew larger as I spoke.
“If anyone would be all for white people I thought it would be you,” she said in shock.
I might look at you expectantly, after pausing long enough to invite your response.
You might ask, “What’s the point?”
I’d probably say, “I just made it; weren’t you listening?”
“Girl, I just try to get what I can when I can wit’ you! Next time, I’ma charge your ass, I’m your sis, but therapy ain’t free hoe,” you might say. “Oh, and after those two lines from “Public Service Announcement” Jay Z also said, “Only God can judge me, so I’m gone. Either love me, or leave me alone.”
Now, I might allow you to tell me a story of your own. I might cut you off mid-sentence because whatever you’re saying reminds me of something I have to tell you immediately before it leaves me.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.