Watch Us Rise
I’m a month away from starting my junior year of high school, and I just found out my father only has four months to live.
I don’t really hear all of what Mom and Dad are saying. Just the important words like “cancer” and “out of remission” and “stage four.”
Chelsea is the first person I call. We’ve been friends since elementary school. I know once I tell her, she’ll tell Nadine and Isaac, which is good because I only want to say it once.
I don’t know what I’d do without Chelsea, Nadine, and Isaac.
They are the kind of friends who make even the ordinary day fun, who scrape every dollar they can to chip in on a birthday gift. The kind of friends who know the magic of making Rice Krispies Treats, the joy of curling up under blankets to watch back-to-back episodes of a favorite show with bowls of popcorn that we eat as fast as we can and make more. They are the kind of friends that show up at my house—even though I told them not to—to make sure I am okay.
Here they are on my stoop. Chelsea saying, “I needed to see your face.”
Nadine hugs me. “We won’t stay long . . . ?unless you want us to. Whatever you need, we got you.”
Isaac doesn’t say anything. He just looks at me, and I know he knows this feeling all too well. His mom died when we were in elementary school. I was too young to drop everything and rush over to his house back then, but I remember when he came back to school, his eyes empty of the light they usually carried. I remember when our teacher had us make Mother’s Day cards to take home and how he left to go to the bathroom and never came back. After school, when I saw him in the hallway, his eyes were red.
Isaac just sits on the top step of the stoop, right next to me, and really, that’s all I want. Just someone to be here. Yeah, he knows.
We don’t last long outside because it is too hot. Harlem’s sun is blazing down on us, so we go inside and sit in the living room. Dad is on the sofa. I sit next to him. No one knows what to say or do when they see Dad. Dad cuts through the tension, acting like his normal self, like today is just a regular sunny New York day. “The young art-ivists have arrived,” he says. He calls us art-ivists because we’re all growing into ourselves as artists and activists. Well, that’s what he says.
Chelsea is the poet.
Nadine is the singer (and a pretty good DJ too).
Isaac is the visual artist.
I am the writer and actress.
According to Dad, art is never just art, and since there is so much going on in the world we should be using our art to say something, do something. So when he asks, “What have you all been up to this summer?” and we answer in syncopation with shrugging shoulders, saying I don’t know, he says, “you mean to tell me you all haven’t created anything this summer?” He gives us all a disappointed look and says to Chelsea, “Not even one poem?” Before she can answer, Dad says, “And, Isaac, I know you know better.” He says this to Isaac because Isaac’s grandparents were part of the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican civil rights group. They helped to start Palante, a newspaper in the South Bronx that told news of the Young Lords. “There is no way you get a pass for not doing anything meaningful this summer,” Dad says.
Isaac doesn’t even try to talk himself out of it.
Dad keeps fussing. “You all have had so much time to take advantage of the city, and you haven’t done anything? That is some kind of tragedy.” He is smiling, kind of.
“There hasn’t been much to do,” Nadine says.
Dad shakes his head. “There’s always something to do in New York.” He starts coughing—hard—and everyone panics, rushing to get him water, tissues. Chelsea especially. “I’m okay. I’m okay. Just allergies,” Dad says. “Dying people have regular ailments too.” He laughs, but none of us do. Then he says, “I know Jasmine told you. Thank you for loving her enough to come over.”
Chelsea wipes a tear from her face. “My mom and dad told me to ask if there is anything we can do?” Her voice sounds frail, and that is never, ever a word I think of to describe Chelsea.
Isaac says, “Yeah, my dad was asking too. He said he’d call a little later.”
Dad looks like he is actually trying to think up something. He says, “I’ll reach out to your parents if I need to. But, um, I do have something I’d like the four of you to do.”
I lean forward. Nadine and Isaac sit up straighter. Chelsea says, “Anything.”
“Well, like I said, I think it’s tragic that you all are wasting your summer away. I didn’t grow up in New York,” Dad says. “I wish I’d had this rich culture at my fingertips.”
“Dad, what does this have to do with us supporting you?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t need the kind of support you think I need, sweetheart. I need you all to keep on working on you—your education, your life as artists—”
“Just indulge me for a moment, okay?”
I sit back, lean against the cushions.
“Listen, I don’t want your pity or worry,” Dad says. “I want each of you to be out there learning and growing and discovering. You all are such talented artists—and I mean that. Get out, go see the places that present poetry, visual art, and theater made by people of color. Study some of the greats so your work can be influenced by them.”
“Are you seriously giving us another summer challenge?” I ask. It’s not the first time Dad has sent us on a summer scavenger hunt of the city, but usually it’s a little more thought out. Like the time he sent us out with a map of Harlem and challenged us to find historical landmarks and spaces essential to the Harlem Renaissance. We had to take a photo in front of each place as proof. And then there was the time he challenged us to only go to movie theaters that showed independent films. We had to share our findings and write reviews. We’re used to him sending us out with maps and a list of instructions. But I didn’t expect this today.
“Let’s call it the Brown Art Challenge,” Dad says.
We all just look at him, blank stares.
“I’m serious. You want to show how much you love and care about me? Keep living,” he tells us. “Go out and find some inspiration. Create some art in response to what you see.”
Chelsea is the first to agree, saying, “Where should we start?”
And just like that, the four of are sitting with Dad plotting and planning: Bronx Museum, Studio Museum, El Museo del Barrio. “And bonus points to the person who can surprise me with a place that’s not on the list,” Dad says. “But not the Schomburg Center. That would be cheating.” Dad works at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and in some ways, it’s my second home. I love it when an exhibit is just about to open and Dad brings me, Jason, and Mom to see it before anyone else.
Mom comes home with my brother, Jason, who is eight. He’s been at summer camp all day and doesn’t know about Dad yet. Mom gives me a look that tells me my company has to leave. And I wish they could stay because that would delay the moment my brother finds out that our dad is going to die. That would keep in these tears that want to fall so bad. I have been swallowing them since Chelsea, Nadine, and Isaac showed up. No matter how much Dad is trying to keep things normal with his New York City scavenger hunt, no matter how much we all try to laugh at his corny jokes, these tears are here. Pressing against my chest.
Mom says hello to everyone and takes Jason upstairs. She looks tired and worried and not like my mom at all.
Dad stands. “Thank you all for coming over.”
We walk to the door. Chelsea opens her mouth, I think to say goodbye, but instead an avalanche of tears falls. And then Nadine starts. Isaac is looking down at the hardwood floors. Just staring.
“It’s okay to cry,” Dad says. “Feel whatever you need to feel. But listen, everything doesn’t have to change just because the cancer is back. You four are starting your junior year. I want things to be as normal as possible, just like every other school year. No matter what happens this year, you all need to stay focused, do your best. Don’t let me or any distraction get in your way,” he says. “You all are just beginning.”
Praise poem for the summer—
by Chelsea Spencer
Here’s to the warmth & every yes.
To the grind of summertime
dripping cones & chlorine haze.
Here’s to float & exist, show up.
Every challenge accepted. Revival
in East Harlem. Freedom!
Fighters printmaking our past
to light up our present. We’re here.
The future of us.
How we study our ancestors.
Dance ourselves into existence.
Electric grind. See the struggles.
Together, we arrive, arms linked,
lungs loud as life. Our hearts
& poems. All of us riding each wave
toward eclipses & ellipses always
the ongoing. Always ahead.
Facing forward. Our lives a ripple
a nonstop jump-start.
Making our mark.
No matter how hard I try, I will never look like the cover of any magazine . . . ?not that I want to, but well . . . ?maybe I want to just a little bit. This is the third outfit I’ve tried on this morning.
There’s a pile of T-shirts with my new favorite slogans on them: Cats Against Catcalls (with five super-cute kittens on the front) and one that says Riots Not Diets. I’ve tried them both on, mixing with biker boots and plaid pants . . . ?definitely not working. I try another look.
I take out my bag of makeup to choose the right shade of super-lush, kissable liquid lip color. I have been reading that fuchsia is the new “it” color for the fall, and that it really makes your lips pop, but the colors my mom picked up for me last week are not quite cutting it. I turn them over, making sure she got the right shades, and read: Pure Doll and Diva-licious. Ewww. The patriarchy is even showing up in the names of my lip gloss? Unbelievable.
The Spencer women have never won beauty pageants. My mom first said that to me when I was in the second grade and my best friend won the Mini Princess Contest at the New York State Fair. I was seven, and I had no front teeth, legs that rivaled a giraffe’s, and a fully grown nose. My mom also told me that a beauty contest was a totally old-fashioned way to judge young girls, and it was created by some sexist, corporate machine that was trying to get women to stay in their place.
She used the line again in the ninth grade when I wasn’t voted onto the basketball homecoming court. She took me for a hot fudge sundae and told me that women have to learn how to stand out with their words, with their fierce minds, and that courage lived in the actions we made, and not in our bra size or the texture of our hair.
I nodded along and pretended I believed the same thing. The next day I bought a bunch of beauty magazines and started to study what I needed to do to be beautiful on the outside.
That was two years ago. A lot has changed since then.
“Hurry up,” my sister, Mia, calls into my room.
“I’m trying, just give me a second!”
“You look fine just the way you are,” she calls back, not even seeing what I’m wearing or how I’ve managed my hair. I have abandoned my intricate routine of gel, comb, mousse, straightening iron, curling iron, and hairspray . . . ?that would totally derail us getting to school on time. Who cares if Jacob Rizer calls me a frizz factory. Screw him.
I kind of like the way I look, and everything feels different and new. I’ve grown into my nose and learned to embrace my big hair. As for my body, I am currently not at war with it, and even though I still have no breasts to speak of, at least I can sometimes go without a bra. Freedom!
I study myself in the mirror one more time and dab concealer around the patch of zits that have decided to accompany me on my first day. I apply midnight-black mascara to my eyes and a blush that’s called Color Me Perfect to my cheeks. Gag.
“Almost there,” I call back, finally deciding on a shirt that says: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-Damental Human Rights. I put on a pair of skinny jeans (ugh, labeling pants with the word “skinny” is completely superficial and against everything I stand for, but still . . .) and a floppy straw hat that I got over the summer. Not perfect, but not horrific either.
“I’ve been ready since seven thirty,” Mia brags, swinging into my room. Of course she’s been ready for hours. Mia wakes up ready. She’s a senior. We’re only a year apart, so we’re practically required to be close, but since we’re so different, we get along pretty well. Mia is just confident. She’s the captain of the varsity basketball team and wears her hair cropped short. “You look good, Chels—very feminist-y.”
“You both look great just the way you are, and you’re both going to be very late to school if you don’t pull it together,” my mom says, peeking her head in. “Could you please be on time for your first day?”
“Yes, yes, we’re on it.” I say.
“And remember,” Mom finishes, “it’s what’s on the inside that matters. But you two also look very good on the outside. Now get moving, and try not to focus so much on how you look,” she says, walking out.
I grab my book bag and journal, and one of my poems falls out.
Mia grabs it. “This new?” she asks, starting to read.
“Kinda new. I started it over the summer. Figured it would be a good reminder for the year.”
Mia reads it out loud.
Advice to Myself
from Chelsea to Chelsea
Be reckless when it matters most.
Messy incomplete. Belly laugh. Love language.
Be butterfly stroke in a pool of freestylers.
Fast & loose.
You don’t need all the right moves all the time.
You just need limbs wild. Be equator. Lava.
Ocean floor, the neon of plankton. Be unexpected.
The rope they lower to save the other bodies.
Be your whole body. Every hiccup & out of place.
Elastic girl. Be stretch moldable.
Be funk flexible. Free fashionable. Go on.
Be hair natural. Try & do anything, woman.
What brave acts like on your hips.
Be cocky at school. Have a fresh mouth.
Don’t let them tell you what’s prim & proper.
Not your ladylike. Don’t be their ladylike.
Their dress-up girl. Not their pretty.
Don’t be their bottled. Saturated. Dyed. Squeezed.
SPANXed. Be gilded. Gold. Papyrus.
A parakeet’s balk & flaunt. Show up uninvited.
Know what naked feels like.
Get the sweetness. Be the woman you love.
Be tight rope & expanse. Stay hungry.
Be a mouth that needs to get fed. Ask for it.
Stay alert—lively—alive & unfettered.
Full on it all. Say yes when it matters.
Be dragonfish. Set all the fires.
Be all the woman they warned you against being.
Be her anyway.
She laughs and pulls me into a hug.
“What?” I ask, pulling away.
“I love your mind, Chelsea Spencer. I’m excited we get one more year in high school together.”
“Me too. Just give me one more second,” I say, grabbing a stack of beauty magazines from my nightstand. “These are for poetry research. I have a ton of new ideas for my club this afternoon, and I want to share them with my crew.” I leaf through a copy, pausing at an article about keeping your hot bikini body through the holiday season, before stuffing them into my bag. “I mean, I just feel like our club needs to get more focused and serious. What’s the point of writing if we have nothing important to say, right?”
I grab my phone to call Jasmine.
“Hey,” Jasmine says, “are you already at school?”
“No, I’m still home. Mini fashion crisis. Don’t judge me. Are you excited?” I ask.
“Yes,” Jasmine says. “We have so much to catch up on.”
“It has been too long since I’ve seen you! I can’t wait to share my new poems and this essay I’ve been working on. And I have a new piece you’ll love. We are gonna totally shut down the patriarchal systems of oppression this year!” I can see Mia rolling her eyes and pushing me to get it together.
“You’re out of your mind,” Jasmine says, “and I love it. See you soon.”
We head to school, stopping to get Mia a bacon, egg, and cheese at the bodega, and run into Isaac on the corner of 181st Street and Wadsworth. He’s coming out of Esmerelda’s Bakery with a bag of doughnuts, and he looks super laid back, as always, wearing one of his signature worn superhero shirts. He’s the brainiest guy I know and is built like he could be a linebacker, even though he hates sports. He once told me that football is built on violence and racism, and it is corrupting and exploiting kids in low-income neighborhoods.
“Cool shirt, Chelsea,” he says, giving me a quick hug. “Doughnut?”
I shake my head no, while Mia reaches her hand in the bag. She is always hungry.
“Nothing for you?” Isaac asks.
“I’m too nervous, and I kinda feel sick to my stomach,” I say as we get closer to the school. I wipe some of the blush off my face. “Do I look like a clown?”
“Are you serious?” Mia asks. “You look fine, Chelsea. Stop freaking out. Just be normal.”
“I don’t even know what that is,” I say. “And I don’t know why I’m so nervous either. It’s not a big deal. It’s just junior year. It’s just . . . ?I guess I just want to make this year matter, and I’m not totally sure how, but it’s fine. It’s all gonna work out, right?” I ask, reaching my hand in the bag to grab a chocolate-covered doughnut, figuring a little sugar would probably make things better.
“Well, I mean, it’s kind of a big deal,” Isaac says, pulling out a doughnut and eating it in two bites. “I mean, here’s the thing, Chelsea—this is our time. We gotta make the most of our junior year. This is what colleges are looking at, and this is the time we make our mark as artists. We have work to do, I mean serious work to do, so yeah, I get why you might be nervous.”
“He’s right,” Mia says as we get to the front of the school. “That’s what everyone looks at for college, so it’s true, junior year is when it all really matters.” Mia smiles at me and gives me a quick hug before she runs off to join her teammates, who are standing in a huddle on the corner.
“Great,” I say out loud, to no one in particular. “I’m glad this is a huge deal and I have a ton to worry about, and that I’m wearing way too much blush and that I definitely wore the wrong outfit.” I survey the crowd. Most of the girls are in sundresses and leggings. “Am I the only one who chose a quirky, cool, liberal shirt to kick off the year?”
“Yes,” Isaac says, scanning the crowd, “and that’s why we love you. Hey, give this to Jasmine when you see her, okay?” he says, handing me the bag of doughnuts and turning to walk into school.
“You got her a doughnut?” I ask.
“I got everyone doughnuts.”
“You love her,” I say, swatting him on the arm. “You totally love her.”
“I totally hate you,” he says, smiling.