Grow up with music—Sam & Dave and Dionne Warwick, The Temptations, The Supremes. MC Hammer, Michael Jackson, Teena Teena, Boys II Men. As a kid dance the electric slide with your cousins at weddings, and then, once you’ve moved south with your parents, re-learn. This time with a grape vine, the country western way. At the first day camp they send you to, learn the achy breaky heart, which no one in your family knows, which makes them tilt their heads when you show them. Pant your own music as you dance around the driveway, naming the steps out loud as you do them. “Don’t tell my heart-turn, my achy breaky grape-vine.” Notice how your parents tilt their heads at you more often.
In high school when you’re lying on your stomach beside your dad’s stereo, making mix tapes from other tapes, making mix tapes from the radio, and you’re on your back and your eyes are closed and you’re singing, and the singer’s voice is raspy like he’s gone hoarse from crying, and the lyrics suggest he’s on the verge of an overdose or a suicide, and you’re singing as if those experiences were your own, as if you had felt what he felt, or could, and you think you’re home alone—you’re not.
“Where did we go wrong?”
Stop singing immediately. Open your eyes at the sound of this voice and look up at your dad in the doorway. Look up at your dad looking down at you, watch the lines in his forehead while he shakes his head. He smiles, but he’s puzzled. And then he looks nostalgic, probably thinking of the long car rides when you both sang along with Aretha. And he waits, as if for an actual answer.
“Da-ad.” Say it in a tone that can ward him off, away from the questions you know your relatives ask.
He doesn’t say it but you’ll see it in his face, in the way he looks away from all the posters on your walls.
Now the car trips are shorter, to the Wal-Mart or the mall, where you buy CDs at Disc-Go-Round which your dad will inevitably make you play in the car. Watch his hands be still on the steering wheel, watch his non-driving foot. Wait for him to tap his finger, or his toe, how he does when his own music is on. Try to convince him that Alanis is the new Nina Simone, that their strange warbling, in the end, amounts to the same thing.
“The words are nice,” he finally concedes. “But this young lady’s not Nina, not even close.”
Skip through the angry songs, then skip it all together. Swap your new CD for one of your dad’s—a Greatest Hits album he’s been playing a lot lately. And know every word, these songs were childhood standards. Remember every verse, but don’t sing along. Watch your dad nod his head to keep the beat, watch his smile play at his mouth as he sings off key.
Start to make mix tapes from CDs, pause CDs to write the lyrics down for memorizing. Write lyrics all over the backs of notebooks and textbooks covered with the brown paper of grocery store bags. Draw the names of bands all over too. Take these books to school and parade them around for the preppy kids to see, carry them like badges of your indie sensibility. And then get defensive. Move your books away when you catch your lab partner looking at them.
“What’s that mean?” he asks. “You wrote that?”
Say: “It’s just a song I heard.”
“What song?” he asks.
Sit up straight. Pull your books even closer to the edge of your charcoal-colored lab desk, as far away from him as possible. Cross your arms and hope he gets the message.
“Who sings it?” he asks.
“You’ve probably never heard of them.” He reminds you of one of your cousins, the recent photos that you’ve seen. His hair is faded like your dad’s, his elbows ashy. But in your mind he exists in a separate universe, completely apart from the one you now inhabit.
“What band?” he asks again.
The words sound ridiculous inside your mouth. “They’re called The Heavenly Microwaves.”
“That’s a band? You like them?” he asks.
Look down at your chem worksheet and tap your pencil in the margin, making dots that come to form the shape of a heart. “Can we just do the assignment now please?”
“How do you know about music like that?”
Think how explaining would be possible, but unbearable. Groan softly. Hang your head in your hands. Shrug.
“Hm.” He looks at your clothes and then he looks at your face. “Well. You’re interesting.” And then he returns to the balancing of equations.
Fixate on this word: interesting. Interesting. As in weird, strange, bizarre. As in different, a curiosity. He bends over his paper, writing slowly. Fill in the heart you outlined with your ballpoint pen.
In non-Honors classes, sit in the back. At a desk between your friends, watch the frail economics teacher move around the room, slightly bent over and clutching a tissue. She asks, “Who can define for me—stocks and buns?” Crack up at her accent. Look at each other and crack up some more.
“Can anyone tell me? Stocks and buns?”
Roll your eyes. “It’s stocks and bonds.” Don’t say it quite loud enough for the teacher to hear, say it just loud enough to make the people around you laugh. Enjoy the attention. “I wish they’d send me to boarding school—seriously, just ship me off right now.”
Your friends laugh again, making some people in front of you turn around. Their eyes scan all three of you, Matt’s long hair and Brandon’s chipped black fingernail polish.
“Oh,” one of them looks at you with genuine surprise. “I thought a white girl had said that.” She shrugs and turns around. The people sitting near you laugh quietly again. Don’t say anything.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” she adds, twisting around again. “Sorry.”
Roll your eyes. Keep smiling. Then just nod and look away.
Attend the pep rally, because it is mandatory. Sit with the other freshmen on the left side of the gym, watch the seniors go ape shit in the bleachers across from you.
They cheer for each other, for just being seniors, then they cheer for the Homecoming queen nominees, who parade around at center court, waving to the stands like pageant girls. The preps cheer for the cheerleader, who drawls out a speech even though no one asked her to.
Girls on the basketball team wear matching men’s undershirts decorated with puff paint and marker, and glitter which is now getting all over everything—the floor, their hair, their eye lids. The teachers let them wear bandanas as headbands because they’re the school colors, white and red. They seem so self-assured, reaching out to smack the shaved head of the boys’ team in front of them. Light catches the sparkle on them every time they move. They cheer for the girl who runs track.
Afterwards the football team careens into the gym, jumping and running like unleashed puppies, bellowing at the bleachers like teenage gorillas. Cheerleaders high kick, then stand around.
Don’t cheer for anyone, any team, any queen. Sit with your friends and laugh, because it feels like people like you are supposed to.
“This school is so conformist.” From way up in the bleachers, point this out as always, it is your group mantra. Stay seated while everyone around you stands to peel-banana, peel-peel-banana with the cheerleaders. Stay seated while they rouse the gym with their unathletic spirit fingers, while they struggle to hoist each other into the air.
Worry about taking your first Honors midterms. Exhale relief when you ace them all. On the last day of English before the break, talk to the boy who just moved into Honors, tell him you like the band on his shirt.
“The new album’s so good,” he says. “I’ve already listened to it so many times.”
“Oh, me too.” Draw stars on the cover of your book instead of looking right at him. “Like a hundred times.”
Talk about that band for a while, the songs you like (he likes the obvious ones, the ones that would be on the radio if the radio played music like that), talk about the bands you wish would tour here. Talk about a movie he just saw, about some kids who run a record store. Tell him that you love that one, that you have it at home on VHS.
“That’s cool,” he says.
Make yourself look up at him, look away again. Tap your pen against the spine of your text book until he smiles. He tilts his head.
“You’re not like other black people,” he says, almost dreamy—the way a boy might say to his crush, “You’re not like other girls I’ve known.”
The bell blares into the classroom, piped in via intercom. Legs of desks scrape the white tiled floor. He can’t hear your answer—“That’s fucking great”—as you walk away. Get away quickly; don’t look back.
In an orange plastic chair, wait for your mom outside the principal’s office.
“Fighting?” she says when she comes in. For some reason her head is cocked to the side; you realize she’s pushing one of her small gold hoops back in. “Why am I getting pulled out of meetings—talking about fighting?” She has a run in her panty hose. The other girl’s mom is there too, inside already, and she came in sweat pants. From where you’re sitting you can see the big red boat your mom drives through the wide front windows.
“You’re parked in a fire zone.”
“Girl, don’t test me,” she says. “Get your stuff. Let’s go.”
“You have to see the principal.”
She sighs. She closes her eyes. She looks at her pager. The other girl leaves the office without looking at you, but her mom takes your mom in, looking her up and down and not trying to hide it. Then looking at you too.
Remember how her daughter looked you up and down the same way, from your high top canvas sneakers to your knee socks. To the shorts, boys’ shorts, cut offs, reaching all the way to your knees. At your blue flannel shirt (it was your dad’s) and the chains around your neck. How before that, at the sight of you, she’d just stopped walking down the hallway. Just stopped. She’d laughed.
“What the hell are you wearing?” She wore low-rise jeans and her belt matched her shoes.
“Um, clothes?” And how even though you said this as carefully as possible, the end of the sentence went up anyway.
“Um, clothes?” she repeated. “Um, like, totally? Um, like, for sure?”
Your mom goes in to the principal’s office. “You’re free to go,” his secretary tells you.
Wait around outside, circling the flagpole with one hand on the pole and the other arm stretched out. When she comes out she’s serious and quiet. Start to explain on the way to the car how this is part of it—her showing up at school in suits and parking her Cadillac in no-parking zones, that this is why people want to fight you—and she holds up one hand.
“That man just told me that you started the fight.” Say nothing. “Did you? Did you start it?”
“Doesn’t that depend on what counts as starting it?” Start to sit in the front seat as usual, but then think better of it.
“Girl have you lost your damn mind?” Looking at you in the rearview, your mother asks rhetorical questions all the way home. “Why you always acting so damn simple?”
Wish the girls from the track team and the bus and the hall could hear your mom say that in just that way, in the same way that their moms would say it to them.
Play your favorite mix tape, the one with all the soft slow songs. Lie on the ground beside your bed, so it’s between you and the door. Your dad comes in and turns down the music. He puts both hands on the comforter and leans over so he sees you.
“What were you doing fighting?” he asks.
Feel the shame rise from your stomach to your heart to your throat. “She made fun of me.”
Your dad looks impatient. “Are you in kindergarten? Did you go back to grade school and somehow I just missed it?”
“No.” Pull on strands of rough beige carpet. “She said I—talk white.”
“What does ‘talking white’ mean?”
“It means…talking how I talk.”
Your dad makes a face; you’ve never seen him look so disgusted. Without saying anything else, he pushes himself up and leaves. Get up to turn the music back on, so you’re standing face to face when he comes back in the door.
“There’s nothing wrong with the way you talk,” he says.
But don’t believe him.
On Christmas watch The Ten Commandments. In the kitchen your mom cooks collard greens and sweet potatoes and turnips, the sharp and bitter smells of the vegetables cutting through the warm round smells of the desserts, and this while she waits for the rolls to rise inside their plastic bags, in their baking tins on the counter.
Your dad watches the movie on TV every year, and he says the lines along with Charlton Heston and laughs, remembering the time that he saw it in the theater, looking down at the screen from the balcony where he sat.
Alone in the kitchen, your mom tastes the chow-chow and says it makes her want to slap her mama—something, she swears, her mother used to say when she cooked. Something you could never bring yourself to say. Yellow blocks of cheddar cheese are stacked on the counter in a sloppy pyramid, which disappears, and becomes a mound, as your mom begins to grate materials for the macaroni casserole.
“Pharaoh?” your dad bellows in baritone as he comes back in from the deck, where he’s just fried the turkey. “Pharaoh? Let my people GO.” When he sits back down in his leather arm chair he gets the look like he’s looking through the screen, not at it. Thinking of his father, you imagine, your grandfather, who you never met. A smoker. The arm chair is stained at the top from the oil in his air, from every time he’s fallen asleep in front of the set.
Later when your dad tastes the pie he says, “You really put your foot in it!” And your mom smiles—like she already knew she did.
Ask after dessert what they were like when they were young and watch as, in some ways, they become young on the spot.
“Dad liked this girl named Evelyn—“
“I did not like Evelyn—“
“Yes he did. He liked this Evelyn. Followed her all around.”
“Please. I did not.”
See your mom’s look that says: Oh yes he did. She finds their college yearbook to show you this Evelyn, she flips through the individual photos while she tries to remember Evelyn’s last name, through uniform rows of handsome black faces, handsome white teeth, and finally: Evelyn. A milk-chocolate colored woman with long wavy hair with a flower in it.
“That’s her. Evelyn.” Your mom spits the name out, happily triumphant. She does not, even now, admit her beauty.
“Of course. What’s she look like?”
“I don’t know.” Squint at her photo. “Like Spanish or something.”
Your mom turns the page, looking for herself.
In old photos your parents look like caricatures of the seventies—people with moustaches that look penciled in, people with afros that look airbrushed. Imagine them as they might have been in college, where they met, parading across the quad (whatever that is) in bellbottoms, two afros out of hundreds, two afros bobbing towards each other on platform shoes.
Make resolutions: Decide to be nice for the rest of the school year. Resolve to stop bleating at the preps in the hallway, to suggest that they are sheep. Stop flipping your hair around, stop touching it in public. Try and look how your mom says: “A little more normal.”
Get into the chair before the first day back at school. Relaxer makes your eyes and somehow even your mouth water, and to soothe the burn press the tip of your index finger to the skin of the scalp. The hairdresser will say, “Don’t scratch.” She swats wandering hands away with a wide-toothed comb.
Hold onto the chair arms to keep from scratching. Remember how chemicals can burn on the scalp, leave scabs like leather stuck on the skin.
Leaf through a stack of black hair magazines and consider the delicately constructed up-dos, hairstyles frozen into place like decorations on cakes. The hair styles that swoop, dip, and cascade, that wave and ripple like hardened frosting.
Show her pictures of the hair you want, women you want to look like. The hairdresser shakes her head, points. I’M A BEAUTICIAN NOT A MAGICIAN. It says so in Sharpie on an index card taped to her station’s mirror. The leather barber’s chairs are torn in the seats and showing the yellow foam.
“Don’t move,” the hairdresser says while she presses it straight, and don’t move. Hold your neck the same way you always have. Flinch when you feel the heat from the hot comb’s metal teeth.
If possible, be even quieter in school. Stop answering questions in Honors classes. Think about joining something, like a team or a club. At home, in your room, take your posters off the walls. Put your mix tapes in a shoebox and put them away.
At the bus stop listen to the preppy girls talk about their retreat at the Bible College or wherever, where they gave or got head for the first time, but still promised in writing to be pure and worth waiting for, for which they were awarded rings, which they show each other happily, the same way they might if they had actually gotten engaged over break (not to their fathers).
Get on last and say hi to the bus driver, just to be polite. Move past the preppy kids sitting up front and towards the middle where you usually sit; the kids from by the river sit in the back. Note with a mix of annoyance and apprehension that they are standing up while the bus is in motion. That they’re hanging their arms out the windows. That they never seem to stop talking, and they’ll say anything to anyone, that they will not think twice about cracking on your hair, your shoes, your body, your name, your voice, your laugh, your friend, your mom, your boyfriend, your lack of boyfriend. But consider sitting back there too and take so long deciding that the bus driver has to tell you to sit down. Look for an empty seat, a window, and find that there are none, just all the other black kids looking back at you.
“Sit down,” the bus driver says again.
Stop beside an empty seat and look down at the backpack resting there. Its owner raises a perfectly waxed and drawn on eyebrow; she looks away; she looks at her nails by fanning her fingers out in front of her.
“What are you doing?” she finally asks, while you stand unsteady in the aisle. “Sit down.” Behind her, watching you, they laugh.
Notice your parents noticing you. They don’t say anything, they wait to see where this will go. They drive you to the mall so you can shop in stores with names like Fashion Girl, Fashion 2U, and Fashion 4 Eva. Now instead of too baggy they say your jeans are too tight, you argue over how low cut is too low cut. Now instead of whether you can die your hair blue, you argue over how much the right Jordans cost.
Go to basketball tryouts after school and tell yourself you like it, you’re having fun, and don’t feel shy during free play. Don’t shoot seconds slower than everyone else when the coach blows her whistle, don’t be the last one to notice when the sounds of ball hitting rim and ball slapping backboard suddenly stop, while the loose balls roll off toward the bleachers. Wish you could be a point guard who everyone admires for her three point jump shots and behind the back ball handling.
Don’t keep looking at the clock during passing drills. Don’t hum the tune to that Heavenly Microwaves song that you can’t get out of your head. Don’t listen to The Microwaves. Know all the words to “Ride” and “Nice and Slow” and “Put It In Your Mouth.” Know all the words to Friday and Bad Boys and watch Moesha Tuesday night and don’t watch Empire Records for the hundredth time instead, wishing every time that you could sing in a band. Know that Chuck Taylors are no longer an appropriate shoe for basketball, so you don’t have to be told, by everyone, again and again, all day long.
Play with the boys during open gym. Like playing with the boys. Play rough. Don’t care if you rub up on the front of a boy’s shorts while he’s guarding you, if his forearm accidentally or not-accidentally rubs the front of your penny.
On the way to the first scrimmage sit with the boys’ team in the back of the bus. Don’t feel weird about sitting in someone’s lap if he asks, and don’t sit in the front with the coach who everyone says is a lesbian and the white girl everyone says is a bitch.
And at the end of the day, do not get a ride home with the white girl and her mom, do not ride off together in a peach-colored minivan to houses which sit side by side like mirror images. Cape cods with brick mailboxes and privacy fences. With flowerbeds ringed by little walls of stone. With American flags hung respectfully by the door. Hide in the locker room so she can’t find you, and don’t come out until they give up looking.
Sit alone in the cafeteria, close enough to the black kids to get the spillover. At your table there’s a new girl from Louisiana and a light-skinned boy who no one likes right now. He got cocky and they turned on him.
“What’s your name?” he asks after days of silence. He slides his rectangle of pizza down the table and moves closer. “Are you new too?”
Look into his hazel eyes and look away; suppress a smile. Don’t tell him you sat behind him in Health class last year, and Social Studies in seventh grade, and that once he refused to be your partner for the square dance in gym. Tell him your name. Offer him some waffle fries.
By the end of the week they like him again; he tells you to move to the table with his friends. Everyone says hi and then loses interest in you. They talk about a joke they heard on the radio, then the light-skinned boy says things that make all of them laugh. Eat slowly, so you won’t have to talk. Whenever anyone looks at you just smile and nod.
“Where’d you get your hair done?” one girl asks. She reaches out to touch it. Tell her you go to a place by the river—does she know the place with the Eiffel Tower on the sign? She says she does, she lives right by there. Tell her that’s where you got your nails done too.
The other girls smile, but they look at you sideways. Some of them you know from the bus, but they turn their heads, cutting their eyes.
The bell rings while everyone is talking about the dance. “Are you going?” one boy asks you on the way to the hall.
“I want to,” he says. “Do you want to?”
At Fashion 4 Eva find the perfect dress. Practice walking in heels on the carpet, which isn’t helpful. The heels get stuck in the shag. Practice walking in heels across the garage floor, which is easier, but slippery. Discover you can walk if you keep your knees bent, if you lean forward with your weight on your toes.
That night take your old t-shirts out from under the bed, unfold them and look at them, say the band names out loud. They still sound like incantations, like code words from a world not everyone knew. Remember how you used to think you’d give them to your kids some day. Put them in a garbage bag in a corner of the garage, where power suits and rollerblades await the next yard sale.
On the day of the dance let your mom do your makeup, let her talk you into lipstick. Let your dad screw with your date in the living room, listen for a second at the top of the stairs while he gives him a hard time, makes jokes about guns.
“Tell me something. How fast can you run?” he says. But detect all the same how pleased he is; imagine that both of your parents are relieved.
“Sir?” your date says, and clears his throat. “Ha-ha,” he adds.
Allow yourself to be photographed exactly twice—one for his parents, one for yours.
He puts his arm around your waist as you walk into the school. At your first school dance learn to freak, back it up, and drop it like it’s hot. Hang out with his friends at the dance, and don’t be surprised that no one you used to know is there. And don’t think about what they might be doing now, without you. Don’t think. Feel the bass vibrate your insides, feel your date’s hands on your hips, feel him pulling you closer, feel his hands inching backwards, keeping the beat.
A. Nicole Kelly is an inaugural Kimbilio Fiction Fellow who received an MFA from UC Irvine, and the co-founder of Summer Commune, a diverse temporary intentional community happening somewhere in North America biennially. Her fiction has also appeared in Carolina Quarterly and is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA.