In July 2018, Nicole created RWW to eliminate the social, cultural, and financial barriers that often prevent BIPOC storytellers from obtaining top-quality literary arts education. At the time, Nicole was a former NYC public school teacher and decade-long prosecutor. She was also a felon serving out an eighteen-month probation sentence. Tired of participating in writing workshops that centered whiteness and cast aside voices of color, Nicole conjured up RWW. Through RWW, Nicole sought to make literary arts education accessible for BIPOC, poverty-born, justice-involved, and/or LGBTQIA+POC—people who came from backgrounds and communities similar to her own. What started as a one-day workshop with barely ten participating storytellers seated in a cramped Brooklyn office rental grew into an organization that now supports and amplifies the literary art of over eight-hundred BIPOC storytellers across the country. Today, RWW is a literary arts revolution that offers visionary programming including educational workshops, storyteller showcases, publication opportunities, and an annual writers’ retreat. RWW’s storytellers have gone on to establish literary art careers, attend prestigious writing programs, facilitate literary arts education workshops themselves, and to join the RWW team as Board and Executive Staff members. The RWW Board and staff, like its programs, are comprised of BIPOC individuals who also identify as justice-involved, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, and/or poverty-born—the very intersectional identities that Roots. Wounds. Words. was created to center and celebrate.
We are honored to have Nicole help us usher in 2021 by guest curating these Voices on Addiction installments.
She used to shave her arms. I remembered this, the morning I got the call that she had died of a heroin overdose. Her arms, I thought. Strange, where the mind goes once you learn of someone’s death. It goes to flesh. Warmth. It returns to that person at their loveliest.
8 a.m. commuter traffic came from the 72nd Street subway. On 69th and Amsterdam, headed to the luxury condos where I worked, I crossed the street on a green light, crawled myself onto a bench. The deep breath I took smelled like a stuffy Baptist sanctuary. Suddenly, I was back in Ohio, arm-in-arm with Deja.
Flesh tastes like chocolate and salt. I wrote this on a church service program and passed it to my left. It was the first of June and my thighs stuck together under my skort. My flat ironed hair was greased in a ponytail that lazily sat on the top of my head. It was almost 80 degrees outside, and Deja’s mama still made her wear stockings and a knee-length dress. The church’s air conditioner was out again. All the windows were open. We had just spent over an hour during praise and worship blaming the heat on the devil and praising God anyway, hoping for a breeze. Pastor was an hour into his sermon, and it still had not come. Out of my corner eye, Deja smiled.
We were fourteen years old. Time did not slow for us, our bodies already matured into women. The mothers of the church steadily reminded us to not wear skirts above the knees or shirts that dipped below the collarbone. A big sign hung over the sanctuary that said, Come as You Are. One of the many lies the church sold, just to fill the seats.
Deja was adopted. Her foster parents were a Black woman who looked like the original Harriette Winslow from Family Matters and a white man who looked like he did not belong. Her foster mom made her wear old-lady dresses and high-heeled shoes all the time. Deja envied me because I was in denim shorts and a tank top. My legs were bare and breathing. And my mother was home, cooking dinner and cleaning the house for my sisters and me. Sunday was the only day we were out of the house long enough for her to smoke and listen to Marvin Gaye on the record player. “Y’all go and pray for me, you hear?” is what Mama would say before she sent us out the door, waving to the church bus-driver as he hauled us away with the other kids.
Deja’s parents—deacon and deaconess—sat in the next set of pews, watching the pastor as intently as they did Deja on most other days. They forced Deja to attend church five days a week with them. She worked the food pantry, helped the cleaning staff, occasionally assisted the server staff that helped prepare post-sermon dinners, and attended Bible study every Wednesday. I began to come to church on those days, too, partially because I wanted to busy myself during the summers but mostly to hang out with Deja.
With a curved lip, she wrote back, “Did you pin your teeth to the roof of your mouth like I told you?” Her skin was buttery from the humidity. As her makeup slid off, she patted at her face with a moist tissue.
Yes, I blushed.
Did he like it? she replied.
I don’t know.
Did he cum?
Did you swallow?
No, I wrote, remembering his marshmallow waterfall all over my hands. It was my first time. My boyfriend and I had planned the day perfectly. We met at his friend’s house for a cookout. Then we walked a secret trail that led to a nearby lake. There, in between the cove of some trees was a bench. We did it in that small space. When I sat with her on the old swing set in the back of the church during Bible study, telling her of the plans, it was Deja who told me to give him head so he would last longer. Deja was not a virgin, though she never told me about her first time. Another thing we did not discuss was what I should do once he came.
She didn’t write back. Instead, she gave me a disapproving look. A look that Adam must have given Eve after she offered him the skin from oranges. I scanned her face for a sign. Her almond skin was velvet-smooth like the seats in our church’s prayer room. Deja once confided in me that she hated the razor bumps she would get near her bikini line. “See, you’re not light skinned like me. Your skin doesn’t change colors when it’s irritated.” She pointed to my brown skin as we stood in the bathroom examining our imperfections. I ran my fingers across her strawberry red razor bumps. I loved touching her. Growing up in a house full of women, I was used to touching women’s bodies out of care and adoration. My sisters popped my zits and checked to see if my tits grew lopsided. All three of us shared a queen mattress for years. Mama joked that my sisters used me as a pillow, wedged between them both. Deja was like that. She was like my sister. But she was also something more. Like one of those lambs at a petting zoo. She was touchable. Too easy to walk up to, and away from.
Finally, Deja inched toward me in the pew, whispered in my ear before closing prayer, “Next time, close your eyes and imagine it’s ice cream.”
Incoming traffic woke me from shock. I headed across the street to Starbucks to gather myself. There, I texted Kai, who recently called to break the news of Deja’s death. “Do you know anything about the funeral? Will it be at the old church?” He responded that he did not know. God, I thought, please don’t bury her there. She had died there, already.
I met Deja in 2006, at the beginning of my high school years. She was a new girl who had just joined the church. A year younger than me, though she was much older in spirit, I was happy to show her the ropes. I had been a member of the Hope Baptist Church since I was seven years old. There was no corner I did not know in that building, or so I thought. In time, however, Deja would expose to me all the things about the church I did not know. Like how the church musicians would get high before praise and worship on the shadowy side of the church building—Deja used to pick up their buds and light them after the sermons we sat through. Like how the church saxophonist had a crush on her—that man was old enough to be our dad. She told me about how she passed him up on her way to the bathroom, and he asked her how old she was. When she told him, she said his eyes grew large. “Well, baby with a body like that, you got me all messed up!”
My jaw dropped.
I told her she should tell someone, anyone.
She shrugged. “He’s just an old man.”
Then there were the deacons in the church. All married. All attracted to Deja. She showed me their MySpace messages, begging her for naked photos. I shook my head, as my innocent view of our church began to fade. She introduced me to the ugly of religion and to the beauty of the world. I understood, more than ever, the agony of being a girl. Sometimes I hated her for exposing the men who I’d deemed as father figures. Deja did not understand that I needed church. “This is like a second home to me,” I explained to her one day while we were stacking food in the pantry. “You ever hear gunshots ringing off at night? You know what it’s like to get robbed and have your door broken?” She looked up at me, crouched down in her sweatpants and her long weave tied in a messy bun. She shook her head. It was silence after that. I almost felt ashamed for throwing my misfortune up in her face. She was still new, and a foster kid. It wasn’t her fault that men had no control over themselves. Right when I opened my mouth to apologize, she cut me off and spoke. “I know what’s it’s like to not feel safe. Like, ever. I think feeling unsafe is almost like feeling safe to me now. You know? Like, something normal.”
I walked into work, red-eyed and undone still from the news. My boss, who I often referred to as a pushy Jewish mom, forced me to go home. “Death is death, hun! I don’t care if your mailman died, you go home and mourn,” she said, with a warm hand on my back leading me back out into the street. I was grateful. The last place I wanted to be was among the wealthy. I jumped on the 2 train back to the Bronx, and headed home to my noisy street, where I could dig though my old Facebook messages with Deja.
“Want to come over my house for a sleepover?” We were just at that age where sleepovers were getting played out. It was 2008, and I was knee-deep in my junior year when our relationship was starting to take work for me to sustain. I had gained other friends at school, was thinking about college, and building a relationship with my dad, who had just finished serving a ten-year prison sentence. But she was still my friend. I packed my things and waited on the curb for her foster mom to pick me up. Deja’s mom approved of our friendship. I was one she liked most because I was a good influence, or so she thought. “It’s because you read,” Deja explained.
Deja’s was the white house that sat on the corner of a quiet street. I never had a yard, and theirs was huge. “This is space we don’t even use,” Deja commented as I gawked at the green bushes and flowers. We headed straight for her room, which was neatly decorated with dark wooden furniture. She kept all her stuffed animals on her bed. I liked that about her—her girliness. Her vanity held every shade of lipstick and shade of eyeshadow. I sat there, pretending I knew what I was doing. She laughed and turned on a light so she could do my eyes. It was nice sitting across from her and letting her test out shades on my dark skin. After she was done, I looked in the mirror and saw a cabbage-patch version of myself.
We talked and gossiped about church and life. She told me that she had experimented with pills. She pulled out some pretty ones from her purse and offered me a tablet. I shook my head no. “I can’t get high alone,” she said and stuffed them back into her purse pocket before returning to the bed. We played the secrets game. I told her one secret. She told me hers. “I’ve been crushing on the pastor’s son since I was seven,” I confessed. She clasped her hands over her mouth in laughter. “Why are you just now telling me?” I shrugged my shoulders. It was one of those silly crushes, one I knew could never survive reality. He was tall, dark, and too lovely for a girl like me. I was no longer a virgin. I had been to parties and hung out later than my mother knew with friends and guys who smoked. I knew how to roll a blunt and tap a bottle before opening it to pour shots. I was a hoodrat who liked to read books. A church girl with a promiscuous lifestyle.
“Well, then I have a secret, too.” She turned away from me and said, “I’ve made out with him like ten times I think.” I felt my heart fall in my stomach. I listened as she explained how they were always at the church together, flirting on and off. She was the foster daughter of deacons. He was the son of the pastor. They had chemistry. In a way, I understood, and decided to swallow hard and move past the petty circumstance. In a few weeks, I would turn seventeen. I kept telling myself that Deja’s romance with my secret crush didn’t matter. I needed to grow up and let go of the church obsession. I wanted the pastor’s son because I wanted to feel safe in the next life. I wanted to know I was good enough for God. Deja had just given me the push I needed, and I would not make her feel bad for it.
When her mom came into the room and asked us if we needed to go to the bathroom, we denied the invitation. I did not think much of it until I heard the door lock behind her. “Did your mom just lock the door?” I asked. Deja was at her vanity. “Yeah, she does that. It’s no big deal. If you have to go to the bathroom, I can just call her.”
I was confused. “Why does she lock your door? Does she think you’re going to sneak out or something?”
“No, because my stupid-ass foster dad, sometimes he drinks and wanders in here. She locks it so he can’t come in.”
“Yeah, when I was little, he used to get drunk and mess with me in my sleep.”
I looked at her, long and hard for emotion. I found nothing but her dollish face staring back at herself through the mirror. She looked like an imprisoned princess.
After that night, I saw Deja just one more time before I left for college. I had taken a job at BBQ Shack, where whipped cream made from scratch and vanilla wafers thrown on top was called banana pudding. My mom called it a soul food restaurant for white people. I was the only Black person who worked there. I showed up early and left late. That was the ongoing issue. I didn’t have a car or a driver’s license. My mom’s schedule didn’t allow for her to pick me up, so I either walked home on the side of a highway and prayed not to become roadkill, or I caught a ride home with someone from the staff. That night, no one was able to give me a lift. I called all my friends, and no one picked up. I sat on the curb outside in the parking lot facing Slate Road. My mind wandered to Deja. I pulled out my flip phone, gave her a call, and just like that she and her foster mom were on the way.
“Thanks for coming,” I said, sliding into the backseat. I had not seen Deja for almost a year. She had dark circles under her eyes, but they were light purple under her makeup. Her eyeliner was heavy, but it did not take away from the girlish look she always wore on her face. She smiled at me and said, “Anytime, girl.” I had stopped attending church after our sleepover because the demons were too gruesome to face. I created my own safe house inside the boys I was dating. Inside the books I was reading. Inside the walls I was building around myself. I forgot about Deja. Those words stung: “Anytime, girl.” Her availability was at my fingertips. I knew where she was five days out of the week. I knew her number. And yet, I stopped showing up. I stopped being a sister, a friend.
Walking back to my Bronx apartment, I stepped over needles and pipes down 149th Street. Inside my apartment I tried to pray a few times, but nothing felt authentic. I knew nothing about her addiction but everything about her itch. I wanted to send my condolences to someone who loved her, but I couldn’t think of anyone. Her foster parents were complicit in her death. In my mind, they never deserved her company. She was a prisoner in their home, and she was a prisoner in that church.
That weekend, a man came by my apartment to install my air conditioner. It was spring in New York and I was already sweating through my sheets at night. I was still mourning Deja’s death and did not know what else to do other than crawl inside the body of that man installing the air. He had the smallest penis I’d ever seen. He filled no part of me. I was swallowed whole in the emptiness after he left and kept thinking how disappointed Deja would have been. I rolled out of my bed and hit the hardwood floor. I cried with my face to the floor. My body had become the church I ran away from, all those years ago. It had become a shelter for Deja’s pain. She was gone and now I was stuck with her memory. I was stuck with her trauma, rocking it back and forth, as if it were my own baby to carry.
My mind went back to the night I was at her house. She offered me pills. An escape. I took a high road, or at least that is what I thought then. I was better than her because her mom thought so, because I read books, and because I said no to getting high. She denied herself an escape. “I can’t get high alone” is what she told me that night. I was supposed to go with her, up to the roof and out of her locked bedroom and somewhere safe. I was supposed to go, too.
Rumpus original art by Isis Davis-Marks.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.