We're Going to Need More Wine
This kind of feels like a first date.
I have that same feeling you get five minutes before you meet the other person, when you’re giddy about where things might go. But also wary, because you’ve been on enough bad dates to know exactly how this can go awry. They order the salmon and pronounce the l and you’re like, How the hell has my life come to this?
No pressure, but I have thought of you the whole time I’ve been writing this book. I have never shared these stories outside of a close circle of people, the friends you can tell all your secrets to because you know all of theirs. So I want this to be like one of those nights out with someone you can be real with. We’re sitting across from each other over drinks, and we’re in the middle of this ridiculous, hyperventilating laugh/cry because even I can’t believe I did some of these things, foolishness that made perfect sense at the time but sounds ludicrous now. “Oh no, it gets worse,” I say, taking a sip as everyone in the restaurant looks over at us losing it. These are the stories that require reinforcements. If I’m going to really get into them, we need to flag the waiter and tell him not to be a stranger and to keep pouring, because we’re gonna need more wine tonight.
Thinking of you this past year, I jotted down notes, sent texts to myself, and went back to look at some of the books that meant something to me and left me better for reading them. One of the things I marked to share was a line from James Baldwin.
“The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
Baldwin was quoting a spiritual about the strength that comes from survival. I have felt lost plenty, stuck in the dungeons I was thrown into, and some I even locked myself into. I felt the chains of growing up trying to be someone I wasn’t, and then living in Hollywood, a town that rewards pretending. The dungeon represents so many parts of my life and all of our lives. I don’t think I’m special, or that my pain makes me unique. I’ve had a couple of moments—okay, months, maybe years—where the idea of disappearing and never being seen again seemed like an appealing option. I’ve been lucky that someone was always there to give me hope, whether it was a member of my support group at UCLA’s Rape Crisis Center or my dog Bubba crawling under my bed to find me hiding from life after public humiliation. They rescued me from my dungeons, and later I had to do the work to shake off the shackles that I had put on myself. I hemmed myself in with shame, and also with the fear of not being chosen by men. I remember the moment I realized I was free, looking in a mirror and saying, “I choose my motherfucking self.”
We’ll get to that. Right now, I should just tell you at the outset that I have trust issues. I have to wonder if I will pay a consequence for telling my truth. We’re entering a full-on relationship where I have all this hope that my words are going to be interpreted the way I intend. I don’t want you to have to guess about my intentions. I want to make you laugh/cry as we tackle some big stuff. And if you don’t agree with me, I want you to be able to say, “At least that bitch is honest.” Oh, yeah, you should know that I cuss. You never knew that, did you? Having a publicist has served me well. Let’s press on, nothing to see here.
It was terrifying putting myself back into some of the scenes you’ll find here. But it was also the essential work of finding my authentic self. As I retraced the steps and missteps of my life, I began to stop avoiding memories that triggered emotional flashbacks, and I chose to embrace them as revelations. Each revealed a bread crumb that I had dropped along the way, leading me further on my path to understanding who I truly am.
Reading all these stories together, I wondered if I was really brave enough to share all of this. Then I remembered another quote I wrote down. This one comes from Carrie Fisher.
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway.”
So cheers. Here’s to us being afraid and doing it anyway.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MISS PLEASANTON
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
When I was in the second grade, my parents moved us from Omaha, Nebraska, to Pleasanton, California. My parents had spent a year living in San Francisco just after they got married, and my arts-loving mother had lived for the city’s culture and open spirit. So when my father announced he was getting transferred to go back to the Bay Area, she rejoiced. My mother pushed for Oakland, where we would be around other black families and still close to all that San Francisco had to offer. But my father, obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, had bigger plans. He had a white work friend who had moved to Pleasanton, a half-hour drive and a world away from Oakland. “If it’s good enough for Dave,” he said, “it’s good enough for us.”
In Omaha, we were part of the largest African American extended family in Nebraska. In Pleasanton, we would be the chocolate chip in the cookie. My mother didn’t want that for her daughters—me, my older sister, Kelly, and my younger sister, Tracy. Well, she lost that battle. Everything she feared came to pass.
The residents of Pleasanton divided themselves into housing developments. And where you lived said everything about who you were. We bought a house in Val Vista, which was working middle class with upper-middle-class goals. Val Vista was considered just below Valley Trails in the Pleasanton development caste system. But neither of those neighborhoods was nearly as good as the Meadows, across town, where they had green belts that connected all the cul-de-sacs and the streets. When you told someone where you lived, it was shorthand for the truth of your family’s economic situation: good, average, or untouchable.
Since birth my family has called me Nickie, from my middle name, Monique. It took a little less than a year in Pleasanton for someone to call me nigger. It was during third-grade recess at Fairlands Elementary, and it came from Lucas. He was one of the Latino kids bused in from Commodorsky, the low-income housing development. He rode with Carmen, Lori, and Gabriel, or, as everyone called them, the Commodorsky kids. One day, Lucas decided my name made for great racist alliteration.
“Nickie’s a nigger!” he said, pointing at me with a huge smile of revelation, like he’d found me in a game of hide and seek. For one day to my face, and who knows how many days behind my back, “Nigger Nickie” caught on like wildfire. The kids chanted it, trying on the word as a threat (“Nigger!”) and a question (“Nigger?”), and then as singsong: “Nig-ger Nic-kie. Nig-ger Nic-kie.”
I couldn’t afford to stand out like that ever again. So I became obsessed with observing the Commodorsky kids, clocking all the shit they did that everyone—meaning the white ones—made fun of. I wanted to be the exact opposite. And I was clocking the white kids, too, of course. I looked at them and thought, That’s where I’m going to. And when I saw the Commodorsky kids, all I could think was, That’s where I’m running from.
With every single move I made and every word I spoke, I stayed hyperalert to what I called the Black Pitfalls. What were the things that would make me appear blacker? I only ate chicken with a knife and fork, and never in front of white people. Certainly not KFC. And no fruit on a rind. You were not gonna see a toothy-grin-and-watermelon scene from me.
I had been warned, of course. My parents gave me the pep talk when I started school, the same speech all black parents give their kids: You’re gonna have to be bigger, badder, better, just to be considered equal. You’re gonna have to do twice as much work and you’re not going to get any credit for your accomplishments or for overcoming adversity. Most black people grow accustomed to the fact that we have to excel just to be seen as existing, and this is a lesson passed down from generation to generation. You can either be Super Negro or the forgotten Negro.
It’s actually very accurate advice. But the problem with putting it on a kid is that if you’re not as good as—or eight times as good as—you feel like you are less than. Not just in academics or in sports: every kid cares about something and wants to receive love and praise for that particular quality or ability. You are always chasing, always worrying about being exposed as the dumb black kid. The foolish nigger. On one hand, it puts your shoulder to the wheel, so you’re always pushing, working, striving. But one misstep and it’s over. An A minus can feel like Hiroshima. It’s catastrophic because you feel exposed. It’s still an A, but what it feels like is “Dumb nigger.” “You’re a joke.” “Of course you missed it, nigger.” I had that fear as a kid, with every worksheet. Do you remember the timed tests with multiplication? I became psychotic about those. I would see “4 x 16 = _____” and hear my father’s voice: “Bigger, badder, better.” By the way, it’s taking everything I have not to tell you I know the answer is 64. Which leads me to 64 being a perfect square, which leads me down the rabbit hole of listing other perfect squares . . . and who cares?
I did. This insane need to stay beyond reproach by being perfect also applied to getting a bathroom pass. Other kids would ask the teacher for one and she would say, “You’ve got five minutes,” tapping her watch. She never gave me a time because I was the fastest piss in the West. I always timed myself—literally counting each second—because I wanted to come back with so much time left on the five-minute mental clock that she didn’t even need to give me a deadline.
The following year, Tarsha Liburd showed up on the bus from Commodorsky. Her family had moved there from Oakland. She was black—described by everyone as “so black”—and she had these corduroys she wore all the time. Tarsha had a big, grown-up ass as a third grader, and the top of her butt would always be bursting out of those cords.
I didn’t tell my mother there was another black girl at school, but she heard about it. “You better be nice to her,” she said, “because they’re all going to be mean to her.”
Because Tarsha had become a walking, lumbering punch line of people pointing at her crack, I convinced myself that if I just ignored her, I would be doing right by her. I wouldn’t join in on making fun of her—she was simply invisible to me.
At lunchtime, the girls at my table called a meeting. One girl looked right at me. “Are you going to be friends with Tarsha Liburd?”
Tarsha was sitting close by, so I quietly said, “No.” But I made a face showing that the very idea was preposterous. Why would I have anything to do with that girl?
Another girl stared at me and said, loud enough for Tarsha to hear: “If you don’t like Tarsha Liburd, raise your hand.” And everyone put up two hands and looked at me.
I heard my mother’s voice and felt Tarsha’s eyes on me. I raised my hand just to my shoulder, a half-hearted vote against her.
“Well, I don’t know her,” I said. I waved my hand side to side by my shoulder, hoping it would be read as “waffling” to Tarsha and “above it all” to the table.
A day went by. I was in my Gifted and Talented education program, doing calligraphy, thank you very much, when a voice came over the intercom.
“Please send Nickie to the principal’s office.”
I naturally thought I was getting an award. My smug self just paused, elegantly finished my line of calligraphy, and packed my books. I waltzed to the principal’s office, practicing a look of “who, me?” gratitude.
Principal McKinley, a burly Irish man with kind eyes, peered at me, taking my measure. “Nickie, did you raise your hand when asked if you don’t like Tarsha Liburd?”
“No,” I said. “I did this.” I showed my discreet half wave. “Because, I, I, um . . .” I started to cry. Bawl. In my head, I was already four steps ahead, my mom disappointed in me for being mean to the other black girl.
Principal McKinley told me he was putting my name in the Blue Book. Which was, to my third-grade understanding, an unholy text containing the names of bad children. Teachers said it could follow you and you might not get into the college of your choice. The principal then told me that if I behaved for the rest of the year, he would have my name erased from it. But I didn’t believe him. Even years later, when I was applying to colleges, there was a small part of me that wondered, Is my name still in the Blue Book?
I was the only person to get in trouble for this conversation, and it had to have come from Tarsha. I wasn’t mad at her. I was very aware that I had done the wrong thing, but I also knew why I’d done it. It was survival of the fittest—Lord of the Flies in suburbia—and I had to eat.
Tarsha remained invisible to me through elementary school. At the time I told myself she was invisible because she just didn’t have much of a personality. I know now that I was only justifying my refusal to connect with her. I was afraid to take the risk of being black by standing next to her.
FROM SECOND GRADE TO SIXTH GRADE, JODY MANNING AND I WERE NECK and neck when it came to grade point average. Her family lived in the Meadows—one of the richest neighborhoods in Pleasanton—and they just had nice stuff. Their house, in my mind, felt like a museum. It felt rich. When I was little, one of my barometers for wealth was if the family had Welch’s grape juice. I noticed that all the rich kids drank it after school. The Mannings definitely had Welch’s. The Unions had grape drink.
After school and at recess, we started playing Days of Our Lives. Everyone chose a character and we just invented scenarios. Jody Manning was Marlena, Scott Jenkins was Roman Brady, and my friend Katie was Hope. I’d like to tell you that this is where I discovered a love of acting. No. Maybe because I always had to be Abe the policeman. He was the only black guy on Days. Black Lexie didn’t come on for a couple more years. So I was Abe the policeman.
As if it weren’t enough that she got to play Marlena, Jody and her sister also always had coordinating, full Esprit outfits. And it wasn’t from the Esprit outlets where you got like the sweatshirt and paired it with Garanimals trash. They were just perfect, those Mannings, and Jody set a high bar for competition in class. I remember we once did a presentation together in the sixth grade. The job was to come up with an ad campaign for a product, and we were assigned Bumble Bee tuna. I was the talent, thank you. Our catchphrase was just saying “Bumble Bee tuna” emphatically. Everyone was saying it at recess, so we got an A plus.
In case you are not already reaching for the Nerd Alert button, around this time, I started reading three newspapers a day. And that became an obsession, like times tables and square roots. I would figure out exactly down to the minute how long I could be in the shower, how long it would take me to get ready, and still have time to read the newspapers. The first two, the Tri-Valley Herald and the Valley Times, were exactly how they sound. Here’s an actual headline in the Valley Times, which I cut out and laminated for my civics class: MEXICANS ROB THE MALL. Meanwhile, the “Mexicans” were from, like, the next town over, and they probably knocked over a Sunglass Hut.
So those papers didn’t take me that long. But then I would read the Oakland Tribune, which was much more involved. On the rare occasion that I didn’t finish, I would take whatever was left and I would go through it in my first-period class, usually an English class. If I didn’t, I just couldn’t focus. I honestly don’t know what came first—a love of reading the newspapers, or wanting to be Super Negro, the magical special black person who has all the knowledge and is never caught out there looking ignorant. “She is so knowledgeable” is what I lived for. “That black girl is really something.”
My other job was to be popular, which I approached with the same strategy as my studies. Meaning it was everything.
Sleepovers were the thing among the girls, and you had to be there or else you would be “discussed.” I had all the sleepover worries preteens have about pranks and fears that I would smell by morning. But my hair was also a problem. I didn’t want to go through the normal ritual that I did at home, wrapping my hair with a scarf, because it would draw attention to my blackness and therefore my difference. When in Rome, do as the white girls do. So I would put my hair in a ponytail or a bun and try to keep as still as possible all night—as we call it, “sleeping pretty.” But eventually slumber takes over and you become a human being. By the time I woke up in the morning, my hair would be unruly.
“Oh my God, you look like Buckwheat!” someone invariably said, pointing to the mass of hair on my head. Eddie Murphy’s SNL version of Buckwheat was still fresh and popular, all hair and teeth and “Ohtay!”
And I would do it. I would go into the “Buckwheat Got Shot” routine, with my hands in the air like Eddie’s. Every time I said, “Ohtay,” the girls would die.
Now that I was willingly their clown, the directives began.
“Act like you put your finger in a socket.”
“Pretend you’re a Kewpie doll.”
I pulled my hair up to make it stand on end. Making them laugh gave me the illusion of agency and control. Minstrelsy makes the audience comfortable. Now that I am on the other side of it, and proud of my blackness, they wouldn’t know what to do with me. People don’t know what to do with you if you are not trying to assimilate.
Nevertheless, I did manage to create real, lasting friendships with other girls during this period. And we liked to have fun. We had our first kegger in seventh grade, right before school let out for summer. We were farting around in a park and we saw these older kids hide their pony keg in the bushes. We waited for them to leave, snuck over, got their pony keg, and rolled it right on over to my friend Missy Baldwin’s house. None of us knew how to open it, so we hammered a screwdriver into the side until we made a hole and were able to drain the beer into a bucket.
And then we had all this beer! So we called people—meaning boys—and they biked over to Missy’s house. There was just this trove of Huffys and BMXs dropped in her front yard as kids raced to the back practically shouting, “Beer!” The house got trashed and kids put her lawn furniture into her pool. This wasn’t even at night and it was in a planned community. But her parents were hippies and were like, “Missy. Man, that’s not cool.”
That wouldn’t have worked with my parents, but they had no idea where I was anyway. They put in long days at their telecommunications jobs—my dad in San Jose, my mom in Oakland, both a one-hour commute away. My older sister, Kelly, who acted as if she had birthed herself, was given a very long leash, but she had a lot of responsibility, too. If anything happened, my sister had to take care of it. If I had a dentist appointment, she would have to take time off from school activities to play chauffeur. Class projects, homework—she was my Google before there was Google. In high school, she loved sports but didn’t have my natural athleticism. She quickly recognized the gifts she had and segued into being a team manager and coaching youth basketball. Everything she wore was from Lerner, and she became a manager there at sixteen. There she was in her blazers with the huge shoulder pads. I idolized her, but also took her guidance and intelligence for granted.
She and Tracy, my little sister, had the caregiver-child relationship because of the eleven years between them. I was in the middle, completely under my family’s radar. So I created a family of my friends. They were everything to me, and as a result, I was hardly ever home.
I only drank with friends, enjoying the game of getting the alcohol as much as drinking it. We’d steal from our parents or con older relatives into buying it for us. We used to play a drinking game called vegetable. Each person would choose a vegetable and try to say it without showing our teeth, and then we’d give someone another vegetable to say. You’d always pick something tough, like “rhubarb” or “asparagus” or “russet potatoes.” If you showed your teeth—by laughing, for instance—you had to pound a Keystone Light or whatever contraband we’d gotten our hands on that evening. And it doesn’t take a lot to laugh when you’re drunk on cheap beer and high, which, oftentimes, we were.
But there were little matters of etiquette in these situations that reminded me of my place. When you shared a can of beer, the directive was always “Don’t nigger-lip it.” It meant don’t get your mouth all over it.
Another common term was “nigger-rig.” To nigger-rig something was to MacGyver it or fix it in a half-ass way—to wit, opening a pony keg with a screwdriver. Sometimes people would catch themselves saying “nigger” in front of me.
“Oh there’s niggers and there’s, you know, cool black people,” they’d say to excuse it. “You’re not like them.”
In my English class in ninth grade, we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud. The teacher made us take alternating paragraphs in order of where we sat in class. We were seated alphabetically by name, so as a “U” I was in the back of the class. Twain uses the word “nigger” exactly 219 times in the book. I would count the paragraphs to read ahead and see if there were any “niggers” in what I had to say. Each time a kid said “nigger,” the whole class turned their heads to watch my response. Some turned to look at me just before they read it aloud, wincing in an apology that only made me more aware of the blackness I was trying so hard to escape. Others turned to smile as they said it, aiming “nigger” right at me.
But most times it felt like kids at my school simply forgot I was black. Perversely, I was relieved when they did. I had so completely stopped being black to these people that they could speak to me as a fellow white person.
“Nigger” wasn’t the only slur slung around at the few people of color who dotted the overwhelmingly white student population. But being so focused on my own situation, I wasn’t always proficient in racist slang. Sure, I could decipher jokes about the Latino kids and the couple of Asian girls, but it took me a long time to realize people weren’t calling our classmate Mehal a “kite.” In Pleasanton you were either Catholic or Mormon, and Mehal was proudly Jewish. She invited us all to her bat mitzvah. Nobody went. Our belief system was “Jews killed Jesus, Jews are bad.” Mehal flew the flag, and so she was out, but when we found out Eric Wadamaker was Jewish, it was like he’d had a mask ripped off at the end of Scooby-Doo.
“You know Waddy’s a Jew?”
“Whaaaat? But he’s so cool.”
The pressure to assimilate infused every choice we made, no matter our race. Kids who didn’t use the slurs certainly didn’t speak up against classmates or parents using them. They adopted the language or they kept silent. Because to point out inequality in the town would mean Pleasanton was not perfect. And Pleasanton had to be perfect.
WHEN I WAS THIRTEEN, MY PARENTS BEGAN SENDING ME BACK TO OMAHA alone to spend summers with my mother’s mother. It was at my request; my older sister was going off to college and I was looking for more freedom. As soon as the plane landed, I heard a sound like the sprinklers of California when they started up, that sharp zzt-zzt, but at a constant hum. It was the sound of insects. Cicadas provided the backdrop to my Omaha summers.
My grandmother brought my cousin Kenyatta to the airport to meet me that first year. A year younger than me, she was effortlessly cool. My grandmother raised Kenyatta while her mother, Aunt Carla, was in and out of jail. Grandma also raised Kenyatta’s little brother. Aunt Carla was never out for more than a year and a half. She was awesome, don’t get me wrong; she just had a problem with drugs. Kenyatta was very thin, like me, with really big eyes and chocolate-brown skin. Her lips literally looked like four bubbles, briefly joining on the edge of bursting. “Those lips,” boys always said in admiration, making kissing faces at her.
Kenyatta gave me access to the cool black kids in the neighborhood. She had all these tough friends, some of whom had already been to juvie. They were all pretty and all having sex.
She had told her friends her cousin from California was coming, so a bunch of them waited outside Grandma’s house to meet me. To them California was three things: beaches, celebrities, and gangs. They came ready to talk to me about what I had seen of the Crips and the Bloods.
“Hi there,” I said, getting out of the car.
Their faces sank. It was over.
“Oh, Jesus,” her friend Essence said. “Your cousin is white, Kenyatta.”
“You’re an Oreo,” said this boy Sean.
It wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t something to get upset about. I had hoped to get off the plane and slip into a new life. Be a Janet Jackson doing Charlene on Diff’rent Strokes, or, my greatest wish, Lisa Bonet on The Cosby Show. The cool black girl that Pleasanton could never appreciate. But I was still just me. Luckily, I was under Kenyatta’s protection. They could tease me, but only so much.
“Did you bring the tapes?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, opening my carry-on to pull out two cassettes. She had asked me to tape California radio stations so her crew could press play and be transported to the beaches with the celebrities and the gangbangers.
We all went upstairs and crowded into her room, which would now also become my room. My grandmother had crammed two twin beds in there, so we all sat down. Kenyatta couldn’t get that tape in her boom box fast enough.
Everyone leaned in as she pressed play. Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” filled the room.
“What the fuck is this?” asked Sean.
“It’s the radio back home,” I said. “This is what they play in California.”
“Do they play L.A. Dream Team?” asked Kenyatta. “World Class Wreckin’ Cru?”
I pretended to know who they were, then remembered the radio station’s tag line. “Um,” I said. “They play the hits.”
I’d taped 120 minutes of the Top 40 of Pleasanton. At first they gave it a chance. Heart. Whitesnake. They gave up at Tiffany.
Kenyatta put in a New Edition tape, and my heart leapt. I was obsessed with them, the few black boys who showed up on MTV. We girls bonded right there, talking about Bobby Brown leaving the group and Johnny Gill coming in. And which one of us Ralph Tresvant would pick out of a crowd.
I could hold my own talking about New Edition, but I felt real green on being black. And everyone was black in my grandmother’s North Omaha neighborhood. Beyond New Edition, I wasn’t up on anything when it came to being black. My grandma lived on the edge of what was considered “a bad area,” and it was its own world, without white people. The way people talked about white folks when there were no white folks around was dramatically different—just as white folks spoke differently about black people when they thought black people weren’t around, except in Pleasanton, where they forgot I was black because I blended in so well. I began studying my cousin Kenyatta and her friends to relearn blackness. Otherwise, I would be dismissed as “corny,” which was the death kiss in Omaha. To be corny there was the equivalent of being labeled a “nerd” in Pleasanton—you could not come back from it. No boy would even consider coming near you. Being off-limits and forever friend-zoned was a given as the black girl in Pleasanton. But in Omaha, I had a shot at getting boys to like me the way I liked them. I couldn’t blow it.
I earned respect pretty quickly, and I’m sure a lot of that had to do with being Kenyatta’s cousin. Mostly I did it by keeping a poker face and not saying anything, no matter how surprised or confused I was by something people did or said. Nobody tried to mess with me.
I liked North Omaha from the jump—the dampness in the air, and how the sun never really shone. Somehow, though, the few white folks we saw on trips to the mall were all kind of tanned in this ruddy color that white people turn when they’re overheated. Everyone just lived out on their blocks, hanging back, chilling, talking shit, flirting. Every so often, the sky would suddenly turn black and everyone would start running because there was a tornado coming. As soon as it blew by, everyone came back outside to the streets.
It was Midwest summer, when there’s nothing to do. We were kids with no jobs, so every morning the conversation went like this: “Where are we gonna go today?” “What boy’s house can we walk to?” “Whose parents aren’t home?” “Who has a car?” Just finding somebody with a car was incredibly rare. In Pleasanton, everybody had a car. But in Omaha, people got around through what they called “jitneys”: elderly people that you knew your whole life would say, “Hey, call me if you need me to get to the store. Just give me three dollars.”
Teenagers even drank differently in North Omaha. It wasn’t the binge drinking of mixed drinks in plastic cups, like in Pleasanton. If you were kicking back on the stoop you had a forty or a wine cooler. The penny candy store was right next to the liquor store, so when we hung out in front of the candy store, folks might have thought we were there to get candy, but we were really waiting on a mark. When you found one, you would shoulder-tap the guy. “Heeeey, can you get me a forty of Mickey’s big mouth?” (Mickey’s “big mouth” is a malt liquor also known as a “grenade,” for the shape of the bottle it comes in.) It was never tough.
It was a very exciting time in my life, and there was a bit of danger that felt glamorous. The summer I was thirteen, crack started to show up in North Omaha. My aunt Carla also got out of jail. I saw her as effortlessly cool and admired her gift for always having guys around. She was staying with a boyfriend, even though she always had a home at my grandmother’s if she needed it. The guys who she introduced me to were always really nice, and only later would you find out that so-and-so was involved in one of the largest drug busts in the history of the Midwest. Aunt Carla came over to Grandma’s soon after she was sprung and saw a letter from my parents. They were sending me eighty dollars’ cash a week that summer to give to my grandmother. Selfish me kept that cash, of course.
“Let me hold that eighty dollars,” Aunt Carla said, “and on Friday, I’ll give you three hundred dollars and we’ll go to Red Lobster.”
“Sure,” I said, handing her the money. It was Monday, and I knew I’d have another eighty dollars the next week, so it wasn’t a big deal.
Wednesday my aunt came over again. “Give me your sizes,” she said. “I wanna get you some back-to-school clothes.”
“I want Guess jeans,” I said, and then reeled off my sizes along with a list of additional asks.
Lo and behold, Friday came and Aunt Carla showed up in a limo, carrying shopping bags full of clothes for Kenyatta and me.
“Now let’s go to Red Lobster,” she said, handing me my three hundred dollars.
It was my first time in a limo. Kenyatta and I opened the windows and waved to everyone we passed on the ride to dinner. At the restaurant, we feasted—ordering the lobster and shrimp combo and eating every Cheddar Bay biscuit in sight. When we emerged rubbing our stomachs, the limo was gone.
“I only had it for the way over,” Aunt Carla said, slotting a coin in the nearby pay phone as she took a drag on a cigarette. Her friend eventually showed up in a Buick, and as we started the drive home, she said, “I need to stop at Kmart. Stay in the car,” she told us.
She went inside to write a few bad checks while we waited.
“You girls doing good?” said the driver.
We both nodded.
He proceeded to pull out a crack pipe and smoke up. The windows were closed, so we couldn’t help but be hotboxed. We didn’t feel any secondhand effects, but I would always immediately recognize that smell as an adult, traveling the country and going to clubs.
We were familiar with crack already, because our friends were dealers. We’d seen plenty of crack pipes and even watched people weigh it for parceling. North Omaha was rapidly changing, and every summer, the changes escalated. The L.A.-based dealers had begun to spread out across the country to get a piece of the local drug trade everywhere. Gang members came to North Omaha, selling a lifestyle as if they were setting up franchises. But it was all so bizarre to watch. North Omaha is made up of a bunch of families that have been there for generations. You walk down the street and somebody can identify what family you belong to by your facial features. All of a sudden here come these powerful gangs, splitting up families as kids randomly chose different gang sets.
A lot of my cousins and neighborhood kids that I’d grown up with during my summer visits, boys and girls, began to claim allegiance to L.A. gangs that they didn’t know anything about. It started as a saccharine, almost Disney-like version of gang life. When I returned at fourteen, every young person was touched by some sort of criminal enterprise, with varying degrees of success. Some kids got one rock of cocaine and announced, “I’m a drug dealer.” Then there were kids who as teenagers were doing, in terms of drug dealing, very well for themselves. They had their own apartments and flaunted their wealth.
At the end of the day, I didn’t look at crack so negatively, because I saw our little friends making money off it. Drug dealing felt like any other job to me. I only knew young dealers and the random ones that my aunt knew. I didn’t see the underbelly. The violence, the desperation, the addiction. All I knew was, I gave my aunt eighty dollars and she gave me three hundred dollars back. That was integrity. I later found out Aunt Carla asked her friend who was a booster—a shoplifter by profession, thank you—to get those school clothes for me at the mall. I didn’t think less of her or those clothes. I thought Aunt Carla was smart. And I went to Red Lobster in a limo. If someone smoked crack on the way home, that was a small price to pay for the adventure. A footnote, really. What remains is that she kept her word. In retrospect, I guess it’s naïve to think this would all end well, but I saw honor among thieves.
In the midst of this, I was still Nickie, trying to get boys to like me, specifically Kevin Marshall. The summer I was fourteen, Kenyatta and I invited two boys over to my grandmother’s with the promise of alcohol. Andy Easterbrook and beautiful Kevin. I was truly, madly, deeply, over the moon in love with Kevin. He was caramel colored, with green eyes, and a great athlete. He wasn’t supposed to like a chocolate girl like me. And he liked me.
First order of business: coming through on that promised alcohol. Kenyatta and I decided to steal my aunt Joanne’s wine coolers. This was the biggest mistake of the summer! God, if there was anybody who counted their wine coolers it was Aunt Joanne. But when you’re a kid and you see two four-packs and there are boys to impress, you take one or two and say, “There’s still some left.” Boy, did we pay for that.
Next, we had to sneak Andy and Kevin into the house without Grandma knowing. Now, Grandma was always in her rocking chair, and she had to get out of it in order to see the door. So we knew that we would have a fighting chance to sneak the boys up the stairs while Grandma was working up enough momentum to propel her ass out of the chair. Even better, we knew she couldn’t go upstairs because of her knees.
But as the wine cooler situation makes clear, Kenyatta and I were dumb as fuck. We ran in, pushing the boys in front of us and yelling, “Hi, Grandma! Bye, Grandma!” as we raced up the stairs. My grandma was slow and her knees were shit, but she wasn’t deaf. She kept yelling, “Who all is in here?” because you can surely tell the difference between two sets of feet and four heading up the stairs. Especially boys racing to get alcohol.
So, Grandma simply refused to go to sleep. She got up from her chair and she sat in the couch next to the front door. She knew whoever we’d snuck in eventually had to come down because there was no bathroom upstairs. Somebody’s gotta pee. Someone’s gotta leave. And she was gonna be there to see it.
Of course, she also knew we were smoking weed up there. We were making this big attempt to hide it, blowing the smoke through the window screens. But you couldn’t open the screens, and the mesh was so small that the smoke just stayed in the room. So our play to hide our business didn’t work at all.
Between the wine coolers and the Mickey’s big mouth they gallantly brought, the boys had to pee soon enough. They filled the empty bottles, but then had to go again. So then they had the bright idea to pour the bottled pee out through the screen. All that weed smoke not making it through the tiny mesh should have shown us that this was not a good idea. Between kid logic and the weed, it made perfect sense at the time. The piss just pooled in the gutter of the window. Hot urine in the windowsill—ah, the romance and brilliance of the teenage years.
When Grandma finally relented and went to bed in what felt like nine hours, the boys left.
“I know you had boys up there,” she said to us the next morning. “I know you were smoking that weed.”
“No we didn’t,” I said.
Aunt Joanne kept saying, “And I know you took my wine coolers!”
“No, we didn’t,” I said.
“Did Grandma take them?” offered Kenyatta.
“You know,” I said, “other people come over here.”
It’s one of my greatest shames that some of my last memories of my grandmother when she was cognizant were just bald-faced lies. In a short while, she would have dementia and not know who I was. But I have to tell you, I would have done anything for Kevin Marshall. My parents let me go back to Omaha that Christmas, and the only reason I went was to have a chance to see Kevin Marshall and get a real kiss.
And I got it. Kevin Marshall tongue-kissed me on the corner of Forty-ninth and Fort, right by the bus stop.
I’m pretty, I thought. Kevin Marshall, this light-skinned boy with green eyes who is not supposed to find me attractive, found me pretty enough to kiss. On the level playing field of Omaha, a guy like Kevin was a huge get, having his pick of the pecking order of skin color that is in place in black and brown communities across the world. And he had picked a chocolate girl like me.
Then I thought, Maybe black boys like me.
THE NEXT SUMMER, WHEN I WAS FIFTEEN, I EASED BACK INTO MY BLACKNESS even more quickly. But North Omaha had changed more, too. It was no longer the Disney version of gang culture, it was real. The buzz in the air now seemed more scary than exhilarating. Boys would pick Kenyatta and me up to go for a ride, and we’d end up going over the bridge to Council Bluffs because they needed to pick up some money or deliver a package. It continually felt like the beginning of a bad movie. These were not bad people. These were regular kids who got swept up in the frenzy of having to be in a gang and do gang shit to impress each other. Drive-by shootings started happening, and kids began to get killed. Something very bad was coming.
My cousin was dating this guy named Ryan. He and his friend Lucky were always around. Lucky always had cornrows that never appeared freshly braided. They drove vintage El Caminos, restored status symbols they called “Old Schools.” You saw these cars, lovingly and expensively restored by masters, and knew these guys had money. One night Ryan did a drive-by, shooting someone in the neck and paralyzing him. We saw a police sketch on the news and my grandma said, “Doesn’t that look like your friend Ryan?”
“Nope,” said Kenyatta.
“No way,” I said, thinking, Yep, that’s Ryan.
He came to the door later that night, after Grandma went to sleep. Kenyatta let him in quickly, and we sat on the steps leading upstairs. Ryan had the gun, and he placed it on the ground by his feet. We all stared at it.
“Can I hold it?” Kenyatta asked.
He picked it up by the handle and she held it, aiming away from us. She looked at it with a mixture of admiration and fear. This gun had been fired and it had paralyzed someone. The whole town was looking for Ryan, and here he was.
“Can I?” I asked.
Kenyatta handed it to me, and I held it like you would a caterpillar, with my fingers splayed out not to touch anything. It was so heavy. I thought, That’s why he accidentally shot that kid. It’s probably just too big a gun for him to aim.
“Can I stay here?” asked Ryan.
It hadn’t occurred to me he would ask that, but it obviously had to Kenyatta, who nodded quickly. “We’ll put you in the basement,” she said. “Grandma won’t know.” And we did. For three weeks, we brought him food. Peanut butter sandwiches we made covertly, leftovers from dinner. Beer when we had it. We kept him company, talking about what was going on in the neighborhood. I watched some detective show where they accused this woman of “harboring a fugitive.” I felt like I had a secret. I was protecting a good guy who made a mistake.
Police knew it was Ryan who had done the shooting, and it became clear to him that this hideout plan wouldn’t last. He turned himself in. He went to prison. Lucky was killed the following summer, leading everyone to think they were the first one to say, “Guess he wasn’t so lucky.” Another friend got shot and had to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. Kevin joined a gang, then his best friend Dennis died. A girl I knew stabbed a jitney driver rather than pay him five dollars. He lived. He’d known her since she was a baby and was able to tell police exactly where she lived, who her grandfather was, hell, who her great-grandmother was. Another boy that I thought was so cute shot up a Bronco Burgers. The mom of one of our friends decided she had to get her son out of Omaha. She sent him to Denver, and he got mixed up with gangs there. He got killed, too.
None of these people changed. The environment around them did. They were all good people who made choices that ended up having insane consequences. But their hearts never changed. They were playing roles assigned to them, the same way I did in Pleasanton.
WHEN I WOULD GO BACK TO PLEASANTON AT THE END OF THOSE Nebraska summers, I didn’t share any of those stories. The kids I went to school with didn’t deserve to hear them. They were mine, and I knew I could never convince my friends of the innate goodness of Kenyatta, Kevin, and Lucky, anyway. Of Ryan, even. So I would simply become the invisible black girl again. I checked my language, the cadence of my walk, and the confidence of just being in my skin. The older I got, the more resentful I became of these reentry periods. People in California noticed my attitude was different. I was quicker to anger at slights. I wouldn’t play Buckwheat.
I especially struggled back home after the summer of hiding Ryan. I don’t know if my older sister, Kelly, noticed, or if I just got lucky, but she took me under her wing. By then she was in college, starting out at USC before transferring to San Jose State. Immediately at USC, she found a very cool group of black friends. I was so jealous. When she got away from the house, she stopped having to be my mother-sister. She was just Kelly, and our relationship changed for the better.
When I was fifteen, she took me to a black frat party at San Jose State. It was like she gave me the keys to this kingdom of cool black people who valued education and fun. They were just worldly, and cool and dope and sexy. In the way that Omaha gave me an outlet for my Pleasanton frustration, my sister’s world of college became a new outlet. I looked around at these students and saw black excellence. I met an Alpha Phi Alpha brother named Darryl, who talked to me for a long time that night. He even gave me his number. I gave him a fake number in return because I had lied about my age and this was a man. But I held onto that piece of paper for years.
That night made me see the either/or schism I was trapped in. Between Pleasanton and Omaha, I was caught in a dual consciousness: who I had to be when I was around my own people, and who I had to be in high school. Now, it’s easy to see how caught I was in that back-and-forth mental chess match of trying to be okay in both worlds. “Two warring ideals in one dark body,” as Du Bois wrote; the dark body of a young girl. Each was me, but the constant code-switching—changing my language, demeanor, and identity expression to fit in—left me exhausted.
“You were fly, dope, and amazing from birth,” I would tell that girl now. “From the second you took your first breath, you were worthwhile and valid. And I’m sorry you had to wait so long to learn that for yourself.”
In the fifth grade, the girls were all ushered into the school multipurpose room, where it was explained to us that WE COULD GET PREGNANT AT ANY MOMENT. Well, at least our period would strike any minute, which meant we could hypothetically conceive a child.
The problem is, Miss Brackett forgot to include the part about how we would get pregnant. She just left it at “it could just happen.” No one was brave enough to ask questions. And if you don’t know how you get pregnant, just that it MIGHT HAPPEN AT ANY MOMENT, it’s a little scary. I would lie awake at night in my room, clutching my bed-in-a-bag twin sheets to my chin and wondering what could happen to impregnate me. If you were raised Catholic like I was, you already know from Sunday school that nothing really has to happen. You could go to sleep and wake up carrying Baby Jesus. I’ve seen countless paintings of the Annunciation, where Mary “accepts” the news that she is pregnant. But my favorite is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s at the Tate Britain in London. Mary is in bed, giving the angel Gabriel a bleary-eyed look of “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”
That’s how we felt. Are you kidding me with this “at any moment you could become a mom!” stuff? We lived in a primarily Catholic and Mormon town, so our moms definitely weren’t chatting among themselves about periods. When any of my friends’ moms talked to them, it was to simply hand them some pads. I certainly wasn’t going to talk to my older sister about it, and because I could barely decode Tampax commercials, I looked for information in books. Naturally, my friends and I turned to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume’s classic 1970 menstruation how-to, disguised as a preadolescent narrative. Among us ten- and eleven-year-olds, the book became required reading, and we ferreted out dog-eared copies from the local library, big sisters, and a few progressive mothers. Some girls, like me, just skipped to the blood pages. They’d hand me a copy and I’d fan through the pages to the good parts. Then I’d pass the wisdom on to the next girl. “Here,” I’d say, pointing. “Then here.”
We needed answers because it was all so scary—the idea of bleeding randomly and accepting it as natural seemed completely unnatural. After all, when you skinned your knee, you ran for a Band-Aid. “Where’s the Bactine? I have to cover this!” But when it came to our periods, we were supposed to be celebratory? Like our moms would suddenly initiate us into their blood cult? This was a horror movie set in the leafy surroundings of Pleasanton Middle School.
It came for Melody first. In fifth grade, during homeroom. She bled right through her pants. She looked down in shock, the blood slowly blossoming in the crotch and back of her pants, and Lucas, the boy who’d called me a nigger in the second grade, saw it first and reliably pounced.
“Melody is having her period!” he yelled out, disgusted and delighted. “Let’s jump her!” He and a few of his lackeys hooted with laughter, while the rest of us looked on in horror and panic. Now an initiate into the blood cult of adult women, Melody, of course, COULD GET PREGNANT AT ANY MOMENT. (Where was the teacher? Don’t ask. Faculty lounge? Smoke break?) After a few excruciating moments, Melody unfroze and ran screaming. No one followed her.
That included me. I felt ashamed. I was her friend, but for much of the school year, it was like being friends with a leper. Nobody else got her period for the longest time, but soon enough all the girls in fifth grade became familiar with Melody’s month-to-month schedule, and when she was absent, we spoke gravely of her condition, dramatically shushing each other when a boy came within hearing range.
By seventh grade, Melody was no longer alone in her period drama, as all of us were getting picked off like flies. One of our friends would stay home from school or race to the nurse’s office, and then we would know: “It came for her.” No one I knew was excited about it. You looked forward to it the way you looked forward to food poisoning.
I knew that at any moment, it would be my turn to stand up and everyone would point in my direction. I remember we all wore dark colors in case it happened. I began carrying my jean jacket with me at all times, ready for the big moment. I pinned concert buttons all over it of the Top 40 stuff I loved—Stray Cats, Def Leppard, New Edition, Billy Joel—and tied it around my waist to conceal the inevitable evidence when the time came. We asked each other so many questions, because unless we’d been struck, none of us had answers. “Like, what happens? You put this pad on, and then what? You’re just bleeding and sitting in it?”
I finally became a woman in a bathroom stall at Macy’s, halfway through seventh grade. I was at Stoneridge Mall with a few friends. I felt a little dampness down below, started silently panicking and screaming, then whispered to my friends, “Oh my God, I think it’s happening!” We speed-walked to the restroom, and my friend Becky, always prepared, handed me a pad. I went into the stall a girl and came out an adult.
When I got home, I tried to pretend as if nothing had happened. I balled up my bloody underwear and jeans and stuffed them deep in the closet of the bathroom I shared with my older sister, Kelly. I felt cramped and sore, but I just didn’t want to have the mortifying “talk” with anyone. I don’t know why I didn’t throw the clothes away. I guess it felt wasteful? Kid logic is just dumb. Weeks later, my mom found them while cleaning the house.
“I found your . . .” She paused. “Soiled underwear.” Ugh, to this day, the word “soiled” still makes me cringe. She handed me some pads—offering no instructions, no sitting on the couch and patting the cushion next to her—and that was that.
But I kept worrying about my next period, and I was terrified of being humiliated at school. Every month was a guessing game. “When will it happen? Will everyone find out? Will guys try to jump me and make me pregnant?” At first, I didn’t know how to use the pads, and for a full year I continually had accidents because my pads were riding high. Not only did I not know how pads worked, I didn’t understand how my vagina worked, either. And that’s because, dear reader, I thought my clitoris was my vagina.
I started masturbating early, at age five or six. So I knew where the fun was. I knew where my clitoris was. My vagina? Not so much. I’d lived my life thinking, Of course sex is painful, because it’s where you pee from! And of course childbirth is painful, because you pee out a baby! Even though I’d seen a number of anatomy diagrams, I knew where I masturbated, so I assumed that was my vagina.
I only discovered my vagina in the eighth grade, after a year of accidents. My girlfriend Danielle—Big D—and I were swimming at a local sports complex called AVAC, short for Amador Valley Athletic Club, and of course I got my period. In the water, I noticed a wispy trail of blood. It was coming from me. It was especially mortifying because AVAC was as fancy as a country club, with the best of everything. I frantically climbed out of the pool with Big D following, and locked myself in a bathroom. She talked to me through the door.
“Nick, it’s okay,” Big D said, concern in her voice but cool as ever. She had a bookie dad and was never prudish like most of the other girls I knew then.
“I have to go home!” I said, frantically.
“Oh, just put in a tampon,” said Big D.
“I’m not a whore!” I shrieked. We just assumed tampons made you break your hymen, so if you used them instead of pads, you were no longer a virgin. And at that stage, if you weren’t a virgin in Pleasanton, you were considered a whore.
“What?” said Big D. The record scratched.
“I’ve never used one,” I whispered.
“Open the door,” she said, and I did, but just a crack. She passed me a plastic-wrapped cylinder, and I took it from her, grateful.
“Now lay on the floor,” I heard her voice say, coaching me through it. “Put your knees up, and just slowly put it in.”
I did as commanded, laying out my plush AVAC towel and trying to put the tampon in what I thought was my vagina. “It’s too big,” I said.
“It’s too big.”
“Let me in.”
I unlocked the door. She came in, like the straight man in a screwball comedy.
“Where are you trying to put it?” she asked.
I was trying to put a tampon in my urethra.
“Um, that’s not your vagina,” Big D explained, slowly.
I let that sit for a beat.
“What?” I said, as casually as I possibly could.
Now I see That’s Not Your Vagina being a great title for this little one-act play, but then I didn’t see the humor.
So there we were, on the floor of a bathroom at AVAC, and Big D just slid that tampon right on up so fast I didn’t think quickly enough to be freaked out. And I was all, “Where are you going?” as if she was doing a Jacques Cousteau deep dive. And she’s going down. And I was like, “There’s something more down there? What an amazing discovery!” Finding my vagina was a moment of “Interesting. Did. Not. Know. That.” Big D was exactly the friend I needed to get me through the moment as quickly as possible. We never once spoke of it again until we were adults, not out of shame, but from a sense of “What happens in an AVAC bathroom stays in an AVAC bathroom.” Only recently, when I brought it up to her, did it seem even remotely nuts.
But how was I supposed to know where my vagina was? From a young age, most girls are not given the most basic information about their bodies. And we grow into smart women who often don’t go to doctors on a regular basis because we are too busy putting others in our lives first, and don’t share personal medical information with each other, either. People talk about our bodies solely as reproductive systems, and we remain just as clueless as The Virgin Mary’s learning she was but a vessel for something greater.
THANK GOD FOR JUDY BLUME, BECAUSE AT LEAST SHE ARMED ME WITH THE basic facts of menstruation. Nowadays, girls can Wikipedia everything—or more likely, study porn clips online.
But back then, all we had was Judy Blume. She also gifted us with Forever. We all knew and loved Forever, because it had the Sex Scene. And outside of porn (which was damn hard to procure in those pre-Internet days), Forever was the only depiction of sex we had ever seen. High school senior Katherine meets fellow student Michael, who nicknames his penis “Ralph” and teaches her how to rub one out, before they go “all the way” in his sister’s bedroom.
We were smart enough to know that Forever—not the cheesy VHS porn tapes that my trusty friend Becky had discovered in her parents’ room—taught us the more accurate portrait of how sex would unfold in our own lives. (Thank you, Judy!) Forever gave us the truth. It was about wanting to have sex, preparing to have sex, having sex, and what happens afterward. Judy Blume was our tutor.
During our freshman year, my friend Julie had sex at a house party with a boy she liked. They had planned to do it, but both were too fearful to go buy condoms. He told her he had a plan, so just before the big deed, he pulled out a plastic baggie. You read that right. A Ziploc.
A month or so later, a bunch of us were hanging out on one of the school lawns. None of us wanted to just go home and be bored, so we decided to be bored together. We were talking about how we couldn’t wait for summer when Julie started crying. She leaned forward into the circle.
“I think I’m pregnant,” she whispered.
We sort of fell into her, muffling her cries. I asked her twice if she was sure. It was such a stupid question, but I didn’t want what she was saying to be true. My friend Barbara instead snapped into action. She was always very advanced and finger-snapping efficient with her asymmetrical bob and mod clothes.
“Okay, how much money do you have?” she said.
“Okay,” she said, looking at us all. “How much money do we have?”
Barbara said we needed about $350. That’s what she decided was the going rate for an abortion.
Over the next couple of days, like some very special Magic School Bus episode, we all, a bunch of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, went to our parents to make a bunch of fake requests for money to buy new uniforms or to go on nonexistent field trips. In a couple of days, we got $350. The next hurdle was scheduling the abortion within the confines of the school day. To accomplish this, the lot of us cut class to go to the Planned Parenthood in Pleasanton. There was a lone protester outside. She wasn’t crazy, as far as protesters go, but it was strangely terrifying. She had a sign and was just there, staring at a bunch of teenagers who didn’t want anyone to see us.
Imagine five terrified fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls sitting in a waiting room, hugging our backpacks. There was a basket of condoms on a little side table by the door. As we waited for Julie, I was eyeing those condoms. And sitting in a Planned Parenthood waiting for my friend’s abortion to be over, I was still afraid of what the people working there would think if they saw me taking a condom.
Julie came out and we all hugged her. She didn’t cry, she just wanted to get on with her life. She led the way out the door, walking fast and with her eyes focused forward. I trailed behind, and in one fell swoop I dumped the entire basket of condoms into my bag.
No one called shotgun. We let Julie sit in the passenger seat. As soon as the car doors closed, I opened my bag to show everyone the condoms.
“Everyone take some,” I ordered.
They wouldn’t. Everyone was afraid of getting caught by their parents with condoms.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll hold them. But come to me, okay?”
That’s how it went. I became the condom dispensary, bringing them to school and to parties whenever I got the heads-up. Adults weren’t looking out for us. They assumed that we knew we could get pregnant and wouldn’t risk it by actually having sex. But even when you know better, it doesn’t mean you’re going to do better. That’s a lie parents tell themselves so they don’t have to admit their kids have sex. And they do. They will either live with fear and baggies and abortions, or live with knowledge and condoms.
My dad found my stash, of course, and flipped out.
“They’re for my friends,” I screamed. That didn’t help. I used the “What were you doing snooping in my room?” tactic, which actually worked for once. I think he was terrified.
These days, kids are mostly just honest with adults, which is just weird. I recently met a young woman in a teen empowerment seminar. “I told him I wanted to suck his dick so I sucked his dick,” she said. “It’s no big deal.”
Um, yeah . . . No?
Now, when I try to talk to our boys or I talk to young girls, here’s what I say:
“Are you ready to own your sexuality in a way that you can experience pleasure as well as give it? And be truly grown-up about it?”
But what kids are doing now, the way they process it and act on it, is so different. They would probably read Forever and it would be so pedestrian to them. “What kind of baby-book bullshit is this?”
But I see their “raw honesty” and I raise them.
“If you’re such good friends that you gave him a blow job,” I asked that one girl, “did he eat your pussy?”
“No,” she said, looking at her friends.
“Well, make sure he does that next time.”
“And then have him eat your ass,” I said, “and see where that goes.”
“It’s called reciprocation. Otherwise, it’s a very unequal friendship. And I wouldn’t want that kind of friendship. If you’re gonna do it, then shit, really do it.”
I WANT PEOPLE TO MAKE INFORMED, JOYFUL CHOICES ABOUT SEX. Because I love sex. In the heyday of my twenties and thirties, I loved the variety. Now that I am married, I am in a monogamous relationship. But I used to think monogamy was for suckers who didn’t have options. “Some choose monogamy,” I would say, “but most people have it foisted upon them.”
I just didn’t see the point back then. I did, however, see the point in publicly declaring oneself to be in a monogamous relationship. It was never lost on me that society thinks a woman should be allotted one dick to use and she should be happy with it for the rest of her life. But I always saw sex as something to be enjoyed. Repeatedly. With as many different partners as possible.
In interviews I am often asked what sage advice I have to offer young women. I admit the advice I give in Redbook is different than what I tell people over drinks. There is a gorgeous, perfect, talented young actress who I talked to at a party a few weeks ago.
“Look, you can’t take your pussy with you,” I said. “Use it. Enjoy it. Fuck, fuck, fuck, until you run out of dicks. Travel to other countries and have sex. Explore the full range of everything, and feel zero shame. Don’t let society’s narrow scope about what they think you should do with your vagina determine what you do with your vagina.”
As I talked, the look on her face was the slow-clap moment in movies. There was the beginning of the realization that I was really saying this, then the rapturous joy of a huge smile as she knew I meant every word. Enough with teaching people to pretend that sex is only for procreation and only in the missionary position and only upon taking the marital oath. If you’re having consensual sex with another adult, enjoy it.
So repeat after me: I resolve to embrace my sexuality and my freedom to do with my body parts as I see fit. And I will learn about my body so I can take care of it and get the pleasure I deserve. I will share that information with anyone and everyone, and not police the usage of any vagina but my own. So help me Judy Blume.
BLACK GIRL BLUES
Here is a secret to talking to teenagers: they open up best when you’re not sitting across the table staring at them. For the past year I have mentored a class of teens around age fourteen. I find they share the most about what’s going on in their lives when we’re taking a walk. Recently, I took them out on a particularly gorgeous, sunny day. As this one boy Marcus got a bit ahead of me, he did this stop-and-start fast walk, like some sort of relay race. He would stop in the shade of a tree, then sprint through the direct sunlight to stand at the next tree.
“What are you doing?” I finally asked.
“I don’t want to get any blacker,” said Marcus.
“You’re literally running from your blackness, Marcus,” I said. “You know? It’s a bit much. I’m not going to win any mentoring awards if you keep this up.”
I checked in on him at lunch—the other secret to getting teenagers to talk is food. He explained that the relay race was all about girls. The girls he considered the hottest in school only liked the guys who look like Nordic princes. And that’s not him.
“You’re perfect,” I said. “Look at my husband. He is not light skinned, and he has not exactly lacked for female attention. So many girls are gonna love you exactly the way you are. I’m not light.”
“You get lighter sometimes,” said Marcus. “I’ve noticed.”
I scoffed. “If you want to stay inside on a soundstage with no windows for months on end,” I said, “you too can look jaundiced. It’s because I work inside.”
“Yeah, well. It’s possible then. So I’m just gonna stay out of the sun.”
This kid I’m supposed to be mentoring had been sold the same ideal I had when I was young. I too went through periods where I stayed in the shade. I was obsessed with putting on sunblock, and in late summer I would insist on showing people my tan lines. “Look, this is my original color,” I would say, proffering my shoulder to a white girl. “Look how light I am.” I was really saying, “I have a chance to get back to that shade, so please excuse my current darkness.”
I learned to apologize for my very skin at an early age. You know how you tell little girls, even at their most awkward stages, “You’re so pretty” or “You’re a princess”? My family played none of those games. The collective consensus was, “Oof, this one.”
I was so thin that I looked like a black daddy longlegs spider with buckteeth. This is not overly earnest, false-humility celebrity speak, I swear. In case I didn’t know that, the world presented a relentless barrage of images and comments making it clear to me and all my peers that most of us would never get within spitting distance of classic beauty. But I thought that at least my parents should think I was cute. When they would gather my sisters and me for a family photo, they would check each face for perfection. There was always a pause when they got to me. “Ah, Nickie, what a personality you have. You are funny.”
In my family, light skin was the standard of beauty. This was true both in my dad’s family, who were all dark-skinned, and my mom’s family, who were very light. My mom was the most beautiful woman in the world to me—and I looked nothing like her.
With my dad, I simply wasn’t his version of pretty. His ideal is very specific: short, light skin, long hair. I checked none of the above. Of my sisters, I looked the most like my father, and I think he wanted no part of that. As for my mother, only now do I understand that she made a decision to never praise my looks because she grew up being told her looks would be enough. They weren’t. Young Theresa Glass was encouraged to build a foundation on the flower of her beauty and simply trust that it would remain in bloom long enough to win the security of a good man. Her thoughts on the books she read voraciously would only spoil the moment. “Shh,” they said. “Just be pretty. When you get a man, talk all you want.”
So my mom was the nineteen-year-old virgin who married the first guy who said he loved her. And by the time she had me, she’d realized that marriage was not the end-all. He didn’t want to hear her thoughts, either. Looks had gotten her no-fucking-where.
I couldn’t lighten my skin to be considered beautiful like her, but I thought that if I fixed my hair, I had more of a fighting chance at being told I was pretty. At age eight, I begged my Afro-loving mother to let me start straightening my hair with relaxer, which some called crainy crack. Twice a month on Saturdays, she begrudgingly took my sisters and me on the hour-long drive from Pleasanton to my cousin’s salon in Stockton for the “taming” of my hair.
My mother had rocked an Angela Davis Afro in the seventies and did not approve of these trips to the salon. Yet she repeatedly caved to our demands that we straighten our hair, a political act of surrender on her part, or simply maternal fatigue. Either way, my desire to be seen and validated by my white peers when it came to my hair had the power to override her beliefs as a mother.
I cut out pictures from magazines to show my cousin what I wanted. If I was the Before, the straight-haired, light-skinned women in these pictures could be my happily ever After. One day when I was twelve, I brought a picture of Troy Beyer, the biracial actress who played Diahann Carroll’s daughter on Dynasty. She was basically Halle Berry before there was Halle. I didn’t even know that she was biracial, and I didn’t know what work went into making her gorgeous straight hair fall so effortlessly around her light-skinned face. I just wanted to be that kind of black girl.
“This is what I want,” I said.
My cousin looked confused, but shrugged and went to work. The deal with relaxer was that it was usually left on for about fifteen minutes to straighten hair. It’s a harsh chemical, and the way I understood it was that no matter how much it itched or burned, the more I could stand it, the better. If fifteen minutes means it’s working, then thirty minutes means I’m closer to glory. At thirty-five minutes I might turn white!
But the other thing with relaxers is that the hairdresser has to rely on you telling them when the chemicals start to burn. So if you’re saying, “I’m good, I’m fine,” they’re all, “Shit, leave it on, then.”
The burn is incredible, let me tell you. You start to squirm around in your seat. You’re chair dancing—because your head feels like it’s on fire. Eventually, you have to give in because you can’t take it anymore. Not this time. In my world, if there were degrees of “good blackness,” the best black girl was light skinned with straight hair and light eyes. I don’t have light eyes and I don’t have light skin, but at least I could get in the game if my hair was straight. No pain, no gain.
This day I was going to break my record. I would withstand any temporary pain to finally be pretty.
“You good?” my cousin said about fifteen minutes in.
I nodded. I wasn’t. It didn’t matter.
A few more minutes went by. I could feel the chemicals searing my scalp. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. I told myself this pain was only temporary. When people at school saw me, I would be so grateful and proud of my strength. Every single minute counted.
“You good?” she said again.
I nodded. Finally, I began to bawl, then weep, then scream. My cousin raced me to the bowl to rinse me out.
“Dammit, why didn’t you tell me?” I ended up with lesions on my scalp where the relaxer gave me chemical burns. I was willing to disfigure myself in order to be deemed “presentable” and “pretty.” To be truly seen. At twelve, I had not been once called pretty. Not by friends, not by my family, and certainly not by boys. My friends all had people checking them out and had their isn’t-that-cute elementary school boyfriends. I was completely and utterly alone and invisible.
What was it like for my mother to sit there for hours upon hours, watching these black girls she wanted to raise to be proud black women become seduced by assimilation? And then to see her child screaming and squirming with open sores on her scalp because she wanted her hair to be as soft and silky as possible. My hair turned out like that of any other black girl with a tight curl pattern who’d gotten their hair relaxed and styled: medium length, slightly bumped under, except with lesions that would later scab.
Even after I was burned, with each trip to my cousin’s salon, I carried with me the hope that this would be the week I was going to look like the pictures. That misguided goal remained unattainable, of course, but I could always tell the difference in the way people treated me when I came fresh from getting my hair done professionally.
“Oh my God, your hair looks so straight.”
“Your hair looks so nice that way!”
Translation: You look prettier the closer you get to white. Keep trying.
If I didn’t have my hair done professionally for school picture day, I didn’t want to give out the prints when they arrived. There are years where my school photo is simply missing from the albums because they were given to me to take home. If I didn’t look within a mile of what I thought of as “okay,” I just didn’t give the photos to my mother. I was not going to give her the opportunity to hand that eight-by-ten glossy to my grandmother so she could frame it next to photos of my cousins who had lighter skin and straight hair.
I would tear the photos into pieces, scattering images of myself in different garbage cans to eliminate even the chance of piecing my ugliness together. “No,” I said to myself, “you’re not gonna document this fuckery.”
BECAUSE I’VE DONE SO MANY BLACK FILM PRODUCTIONS, HAIR HAS NOT always been the focal point of my performance. But on white productions, it is like another actor on set with me. A problem actor. First of all, they never want to hire anyone black in hair and makeup on a white film. Hair and makeup people hire their friends, and they naturally want to believe their friend who says they can do anything. “Oh yeah, I can do black hair,” they say. Then you show up, and you see immediately that they don’t have any of the proper tools, the proper products, and you look crazy. If you ever see a black person on-screen looking nuts? I guarantee they didn’t have a black person in hair and makeup.
I figured this out right away on one of my very first modeling jobs, when I was about twenty-two. It was for a big teen magazine, and they said, “Come with your hair clean.”
I actually washed my hair. Now, if you ask any black performer who has been around in Hollywood for more than a minute, “Come in clean” means you come in with your hair already done. That way, they can’t screw you up. You come in pressed, blown out, or flat-ironed. Otherwise, you’re just asking for trouble.
I didn’t know that. My dumb novice ass showed up for my first big modeling shoot fresh from the shower. This white woman was literally trying to round brush my hair and then use just a curling iron to get the edges straight.
“You don’t look like how you looked in your modeling photos,” the hairdresser said. She hair-sprayed my hair and then put heat on it. My eyes got wide. She was going to break my hair right off of my head. I said nothing and did anything but look in the mirror. I didn’t have enough confidence to say, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Step away from my hair.”
She did her damage, then leaned back to take in her efforts. “You look beautiful!” In fact, I looked nuts. Then I had to do the shoot, and proceeded to be documented for life looking like a crazy person. It was the bad school photos all over again—but I couldn’t tear up all those magazines.
When I started acting, my hairstyle determined how people saw and cast me. I played a teenager for a hundred years, so I kept a flip. That flip said “All-American Nice Girl from the Right Side of the Tracks.” As I was booking more jobs and meeting more and more hair and makeup people who didn’t know what they were doing, I made a choice to grow out my relaxer. Now, the trope in African American hair-story narratives is that this is when I became “woke.” It’s not. I grew out my relaxer because my hair was so badly damaged, it was split to the scalp. If you’re on a production that does not believe in diversity in the hair and makeup trailer, it’s a lot easier to let them style a weave than let them touch your real hair. I was also then getting a lot of attention from the type of black men that every black woman is supposed to covet, and a good number of those particular men had been conditioned to love long hair. These two things went hand in hand—I was being chosen and validated.
I stopped using my own hair probably after 7th Heaven, in the nineties. I have always had very good weaves, so when I cut my weave for Daddy’s Little Girls and Breakin’ All the Rules, people thought I was just “crazy experimental with my hair.” No, I am just crazy experimental with hair that I can purchase. After a certain point, when my natural hair was long and healthy, I just put it up in a bun. I didn’t politicize my choice. It was another option, that’s it.
Then, because of work, wigs became so much easier to use and offered me more flexibility. My hair is braided down underneath, and every night I pop the wig off. Sometimes I leave the set rocking my own braids like Cleo from Set It Off. I still wash my hair and rebraid it. Then I can pop that wig back on and go to work. The less time I have to be in hair and makeup, the better.
Still, I struggle with the questions: Does this wig mean I’m not comfortable in my blackness? If I wear my hair natural, do I somehow become more enlightened? It is interesting to see the qualities ascribed to women who wear their hair in braids or in natural hairstyles, even among black people. We have so internalized the self-hatred and the demands of assimilation that we ourselves don’t know how to feel about what naturally grows out of our head.
Being in an all-black production is no guarantee that your hair won’t be a source of drama. Recently, I was in one and there was pushback about getting a natural no-heat hairstyle. I thought it would be an interesting option for my character.
“Well, we want her to be like, really pretty . . .”
“Honey, my face is where the action is,” I said. “Natural hair is pretty, but my face is the moneymaker.”
When I did Top Five with Chris Rock, the character needed to have her hair blond. I knew that if there were paparazzi photos from the set posted online, it would start an avalanche of “Gabrielle Wants to Be White” blog posts. So I got in front of it and posted a selfie on Instagram captioned, “New day, new job . . . new do.” I thought the message was clear: This is for a role. Don’t come at me with your @’s. I pressed Share and that was that.
Well, that didn’t work. “Why did you do this?” was written over and over again. I felt judged. A person I never met wrote, “What happened to my baby?” I felt completely outside myself in a way that was not comfortable at all. There is an idea that if you choose to have blond hair as a black woman, you are morally deficient. I didn’t just have to read it on social media, I could feel it in interactions I had away from the set.
It would be naïve of me to say that hair is just an accessory. I recognize that black hair has been politicized, and not by us. We have since reclaimed that politicization. We have ascribed certain characteristics to people who rock a natural look versus weaves and wigs. If you choose to have natural hair, or even to promote the idea of natural hair, you are somehow a better black person than someone with a weave or someone who straightens their hair. You have transcended pettiness and escaped the bonds of self-esteem issues. But I have traveled around the world and I know this to be true: there are assholes who wear natural hair, and assholes who wear weaves. Your hair is not going to determine or even influence what kind of person you are.
GROWING UP, I WAS ALSO OBSESSED WITH MY NOSE—AND NOSE JOBS. I still kind of am. I first became aware of rhinoplasty when people started making fun of Michael Jackson getting his first big one. I was on the playground and a kid asked, “How does Michael Jackson pick his nose?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer. “From a catalog!” he yelled.
I paused. “Wait, that’s a thing? I don’t have to live with this nose if I don’t want it?” It wasn’t just Michael. Growing up, it felt like every black star, people who you thought were beyond perfect the way they were, changed their nose. The successful people, who used to have noses like you, suddenly didn’t. It only made me more self-conscious. I would stare into the mirror, thinking about how as soon as these people got the chance to fix their mess of a nose, they did.
Like them, I wanted a finer, more European nose. I used to call my nose the Berenstain Bear nose, because I thought it looked exactly like the noses on that family of cartoon bears. As a kid I tried the old clothespin trick. I would walk around my house with my nose pinched in a clothespin, hoping it would miraculously reshape my nose. I had a method, attaching it just so and mouth-breathing while I did my homework. It didn’t work.
There was a whole period of time in high school where I would do this weird thing with my face to create the illusion that my nose was thinner. I’d curl my upper lip under itself and do a creepy smile to pull down my nasal folds. I thought I was a nasal illusionist, but I ended up looking like Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshall Bill on In Living Color.
The reality is that growing up in Pleasanton and coming up in Hollywood, nobody ever said one word about my nose. I imagined people talking about my nose, but it was really just noise that originated in my own mind. People have since accused me of having a nose job, however, which made me even more convinced that people thought that I had a nose I should want to fix.
So here is the truth: I have never had a nose job. I am, in fact, the Fugitive of nose jobs. Like Dr. Richard Kimble, blamed for killing his wife, I too stand accused of a crime I didn’t commit. It’s a constant on social media. Catch me in the right light, or after a contouring makeup session some might deem aggressive, and the comments section lights up. “Nose job.” “Fillers.” “She fucked up her face.” The next day I’ll post another shot with my nose fully present and accounted for and people will literally say, “She let the fillers wear off.” It takes everything I have not to write these people and say, “Do you have any idea how fillers work?”
Okay, I will admit I have researched. I have even fantasized about putting myself in the able hands of Dr. Raj Kanodia, Beverly Hills sculptor to the stars. A white friend went to Dr. Raj, and afterward I took her chin in my hand, literally holding her face to the light like it was a beautiful work of art. We actresses talk and share secrets, so I know people who feel they owe their careers to his work. But that won’t be me. I can’t even get the slightest tweak, because I will be slammed. I am stuck getting all the flack for a nose job without any of the benefits.
Maybe one day, when I’m a real grown-up, I will wear my hair natural and I won’t contour my nose. Hell, I’ll just be me. And hopefully people will accept me the way I am.
THE BALLAD OF NICKIE AND LITTLE SCREW
Here I am, three decades later, and it is as if I am seeing him for the first time. He just suddenly appeared, striding across the massive fields at Sports Park. It was the summer before ninth grade, and those of us who played sports year-round hung out at the park constantly.
He wore a yellow polo shirt that matched a stripe in the plaid of his Bermuda shorts. And of course he had his baseball hat on, with sandy blond-brown hair sticking out from underneath. Now, that wouldn’t be a color anyone would want. You would sit in the salon chair, take in its dullness, and say, “Get rid of this.” His teeth weren’t at all straight, with gaps dotting his crooked smile. Everyone else in Pleasanton got braces in elementary school—I was considered late to the game in fifth grade—so his gappy grin made him special. He walked bowlegged, a Marky Mark swagger to every watched step.
Lucy laid claim to him first. She was “the Mexican” in our group of friends. As he walked, she told us everything she knew about Billy Morrison. Everyone called him Little Screw because his older brother’s nickname was Screw. Screw looked like someone had put a palm on his face and turned it counterclockwise, ever so slightly. The rumor was he’d gotten hold of a bad batch of drugs when he was a kid, and as a teenager his face just grew that way, but that was probably just a stupid rumor. Screw and Little Screw’s parents had a tire store franchise and had just moved from Fremont. They were flush enough to move into the Meadows development, but saying “Fremont” in Pleasanton was an insult, so they had baggage. You heard the imaginary organ play a sudden “dunh dunnnnh” behind that phrase. There were a lot of Mexicans in Fremont, people said, and maybe even Filipinos. And poor white people. Little Screw had gone to a private Christian school before his family moved up and moved out. And over and over this is what I heard about him:
“You know . . . he had a black girlfriend . . .”
It was always whispered with an air of “this is how wild this guy is.” I had stopped being black to these folks years ago, so it was said sotto voce for the shock of it, certainly not for my benefit. But it meant I had a chance with Billy. Little Screw might be able to like me.
As brown people, Lucy and I had heretofore been ineligible for the dating dramas of middle school. We were always “the friend.” The town was made up of Mormons and Catholics, and to this day remains deeply conservative. Lucy, at least briefly, had luck with Jeremy Morley of the Mormon Morleys, which seemed like this unbelievable coup. But mostly we were always “the friend.” At the school dances, I would always have to ask somebody to dance, blurting out “JUSTASFRIENDS” before they thought I had some twisted idea. And certainly no one ever asked me. When we danced as a group and a slow dance came on, the unlucky one would end up with me. During Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” or whatever slow dance, I’d look wistfully over the guy’s shoulder, suspecting he was looking at everyone else and rolling his eyes. Dancing with me was an act of charity, a Make-A-Wish mercy dance.
I didn’t have a model for what I was feeling until I saw the black eunuchs from Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1. In the movie there is an extended boner joke with Gregory Hines hiding among the sexless, castrated guards allowed to be in the maidens’ chambers. He fails the eunuch test while the real ones pass with flaccid colors. In my heart, I was Gregory Hines with a hard-on, but to everyone else I was the eunuch. You can be the trusted confidante or witty sidekick, there and in the mix. But remember, you don’t appeal to anybody. Not to the whites, but also not to the very few people of color, either. The two African American boys in my grade wanted nothing to do with me. And the other two black girls steered clear of me and each other, to avoid amplifying our blackness. Because anyone brown would say, “Well, if I hang with you, then we’ll become superbrown.” So I was a eunuch. A social eunuch.
For all of freshman year, Billy was an electric current moving through my group of friends. We would trade Billy sightings. Someone would say they spotted him at lunch or in the hall. “What did he have on?” we would ask in response. “Was he wearing his hat?” He wasn’t in any AP or honors classes, so I would only see him at sporting events. He played baseball—because of course he didn’t play soccer like every other Ken doll in Pleasanton—so we made sure to go to every game. When he played basketball, we admired the muscles of his arms and his tic of pulling his shirt away from his chest after he scored. He never looked around, never held up his arms in victory if he sank a basket. He just continued on as if he’d wandered into a pickup game that he might leave at any time.
When I would run into Billy, it was usually at the Sports Park between games. I would have my bag of softball equipment and he would be lugging his baseball equipment.
“Did you win?” he’d ask.
“Yeah,” I’d say. “You?”
“Cool,” I’d say.
Walking away, I would feel high just from that brief encounter.
Billy hung out with all the athletes, but he was close friends with Mike, whose dad was the basketball coach. Mike’s whole family was made up of great athletes—the sports dynasty of Pleasanton. To run afoul of any of them was social death. Billy’s friendship with Mike ended abruptly one night at basketball practice, when Billy got into it with Mike’s dad and told him, “Suck my balls.”
And that was that.
But Billy seemed exempt from the social hierarchy. The incident just added to the legend of Little Screw. Billy was two years older than us and already driving. His car was the only freshman’s car in the parking lot. He had a GMC truck. It was black with gold trim, with BILLY emblazoned on the back in tan paint. I wanted it to read BILLY AND NICKIE so badly. He was such a badass in that ride. His parents were always away, either taking an RV trip or busy with their store in Fremont, so he and his brother had more freedom than most kids. They threw huge parties, and my friends and I always went. Our parents all worked long hours, so they never really had a line on where we were or what we were doing. I routinely used the “I’m staying at so-and-so’s house” line when I was really out partying. There was only one parent who cared where we really were: Alisa’s mom, Trudy. You never name-dropped Alisa in any of these schemes because Trudy would go looking for her and ruin everything.
It was Lucy who lost her virginity to Billy first. I was so jealous, but I masked it. “Tell me everything,” I said, as if I was happy for her. I wanted to be the one so much that I didn’t even hear her describing what had gone down. I was too busy thinking, He had a black girlfriend, Lucy is Mexican . . . I have a shot. The door is clearly open.
Little Screw and Lucy didn’t go out or even have sex again. He just moved on to Alice, another Mexican girl. Billy claimed her. He called Alice “my girlfriend.” I had to figure out what secret pull she had. She lived near me in Val Vista, considered next-to-last in the Pleasanton development caste system. Alice was on the traveling soccer team, and she was big on wearing her warm-up pants to school, along with slides or Birkenstocks with socks. She always had a scrunchie to match her socks, usually neon pink. She would wear part of her hair up, the rest falling in curls.
A rumor went around that she was a freak in bed. “You know, she rides guys,” someone told me, “and then leans back and plays with their balls.” If you’ve never had sex, that sounds like some acrobatic Cirque du Soleil–level shit.
Everyone was having sex by this point except me. Freshman year ended and I went to Omaha, where I at least had a chance with boys. The real test that summer was when I went to a co-ed basketball camp. The black guys there had a thing for me, though I was too focused on basketball to do anything. “You’re like a white girl without the hassle,” one guy told me. He meant it as a compliment, and on some level, I probably took it as one. Nonetheless, they saw me. I was a viable option.
Being the eunuch in Pleasanton, I was still in the middle of the long, long process of being Friend to Billy. I wish I could say it was strategic. The rare times he would go to some kid’s bonfire, I would slide on over to him as casually as I could. Southern rock was massive then, so there was always a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers to be heard. At every party, Steve Miller’s “The Joker” was played at least twice. You’d find young Nickie, standing next to a fire, talking to a white boy in a Skynyrd T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag. These young bucks, scions of upper-middle-class families, wishing they were back in Dixie. Away, away. And then there was Billy, looking as out of place as me. He was more into driving around playing Sir Mix-a-Lot. I’d hang on to every word he said. He would complain about Alice, and I would chime in, coaching from the sidelines as only a friend could do.
“Just tell her how you feel,” I’d say, thinking, Just tell me how you feel.
They broke up, and my determination to be noticed by Billy only grew. At one of the parties at his house around November of sophomore year, Billy gave me a sign. He looked at me in such a way that I just knew.
“We should hang,” he said.
I felt invincible.
HERE’S HOW IT WENT: ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 1988, BILLY AND I made a plan for him to pick me up at my house after I went to a Warriors game to celebrate my little sister’s birthday. I still remember the score: the Warriors beat the Portland Trail Blazers, 107–100. I borrowed my friend Danielle’s light blue denim skirt, and as my parents slept upstairs and I waited for Billy to pull up in his GMC, I checked myself in the mirror roughly fifty-six times. When he finally showed, I walked out the front door and left it unlocked.
We drove to his house and he led me straight to his parents’ bedroom. Remember how it felt as a kid when you went into your friends’ parents’ bedrooms? They just felt grand. Holy shit, I remember thinking, I’m so not supposed to be in here. We’re in here and we’re going to fuck.
I lay down and the panic set in. He’d already had sex with Alice, the ball-fondling sex acrobat, so in my mind I saw Alice smirking at me, always so sure of herself in those fucking soccer warm-ups, that neon scrunchie barely able to hold the glory of her hair.
In comparison, I was so black, I was so not cool, and I was so inexperienced.
Billy started to kiss me. My mind was racing. What if my vagina looked like a fucking dragon? I had another friend who was really into trimming and shaving her pubic hair. This same girl would even sometimes shave her vagina using a mirror. She would then brag-slash-explain to all of us using very adult words: “Well, if you don’t know yourself . . .”
And I don’t know myself! At all! And now Billy’s going to see me and even I don’t know what he’s going to see. Then it occurs to me: Oh my God, he is going to have sex with black pussy.
I knew, even though I was so inexperienced, that in interracial porn there is a lot of “Give me that black pussy” talk. And I had always thought it sounded so dirty. Now I realize that in fact I have black pussy. Did he have sex with that black girlfriend back in Fremont? I hadn’t thought about my vagina in relation to other vaginas he’d seen. And I hadn’t done anything to mine in preparation. So now, I thought, he is going to see this black Teen Wolf pussy. It’s going to look different, smell different, be different. He is going to be repulsed. And if this doesn’t go well it will be because he is rejecting my black pussy.
We got under the covers and I pulled up my skirt to fumble out of my underwear, doing as inelegant a job as possible. We left our shirts on.
“I’m a virgin,” I said.
He smiled. I later found out that this was his thing. He was the Deflowerer. It’s not why he had sex with me, but he was known for being a lot of people’s first time.
He didn’t even look at my vagina. He started to put his dick in and then he looked at me, trying to gauge: “Am I killing you?” I was silent. It was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t, like, crazy painful.
And then it was. I start making this bug-eyed look that I knew could not be sexy. I flashed through every book I’d ever read that included a sex scene and landed upon the words, “Look him in the eye.” So I tried that. Weird. It’s too much to maintain eye contact with a guy when you’re sixteen years old and mortified.
He was very gentle and so determined, like he was solving a math problem. But he still hadn’t laid eyes on my vagina. I was still wearing Danielle’s skirt and I started to panic, because I realized that when I gave it back to her it was going to smell like sex. She would know. Because at first you don’t want anyone to know, but then you want the whole fucking world to know.
I waited for all the things I had read about to happen, while trying to mask the pain, horror, and humiliation.
It started to not hurt anymore. Maybe even feel good. And then, with a strange sound, it was over. Where was the magic? Where was the cuddling? The fireworks and the I-love-yous? Something. Anything?
He got up to flush the condom, and I saw his bare butt for the first time, watching that bow-legged walk across the room. He was a dude strutting around in a white Hanes tee and tube socks. I let out a contented sigh. He was just so sure of himself that it was infectious. I had just lost my virginity.
When he came back to the bed, we locked eyes, and all my newfound self-assuredness disappeared. I felt ridiculous. I felt exposed. He hadn’t seen my black pussy, but did it feel different to him? Did he like it? Did he hate it? Is that why he came so fast?
He leaned on my side of the mattress.
“We’re gonna have to wash these sheets.”
“You bled all over the sheets.”
There was no sweetness. It was simply a statement of fact, like a detective at a crime scene. I got up, and I saw what he saw. It was a crime scene, there on those light gray sheets. The books never described it that way. The books never said there would be this much blood.
Inside, I wanted to die. In fact, I decided I was dying. A little of humiliation, and a little physically. I crossed some weird boundary, turned around, and found that the door had vanished behind me. I was stuck in a weird space of middle earth.
I had unleashed my black pussy on the world, and look what happened. Here’s this perfect man, and I’ve ruined the sheets of his parents’ bed. I wanted to crawl into a ball and call my best girlfriend and write it in my diary—all at once. And now I had to wait for a whole laundry cycle?
Yes, I did. We sat there in his living room, barely talking. And as we waited for the dryer to ding, I felt myself slip-sliding right back into the friend zone. I was already mourning all the flirtation, the touching, the little signals of interest.
He drove me across town, back to my house. When we finally pulled up, he jerked his head toward the car door like I didn’t understand how it worked. I sat. I waited.
“Y’all right?” he said.
The car was still running.
He nodded. I wanted him to kiss me the way Molly Ringwald got kissed. In my head I was screaming, “I want you to be Jake Ryan! Kiss me like that!”
I let myself out of the car and closed the door softly.
As I walked to my house, I pretended not to watch him drive away.
BILLY GOT BACK WITH ALICE SHORTLY AFTER WE HAD SEX.
When Billy showed interest in me, I felt myself vibrating with sexual energy. I wasn’t Gregory Hines in the eunuchs’ chamber anymore. What’s more, people could see it. Everyone around me knew that I was a viable option. My confidence swelled—and promptly deflated when he moved on to someone else. For a few weeks, I remembered looking around, scanning the halls and classrooms for signs of other interested suitors. “Anybody else? Anybody? No?”
No. I was back to eunuch status. But now I’d had a taste. I knew what was on the other side.
I wanted a do-over. Later that school year, I got it. It was in February. Billy and I had sex on the ground outside an industrial park. I drank a Mickey’s big mouth. This time, I thought, it was for real.
That one didn’t do the trick either. We did have a pseudo-romance of sorts and hooked up many more times. Throughout my teens, I never dated a guy without cheating at least once with Billy. Even now, I google him. I’ll be with someone from Pleasanton and he’ll come up in conversation. The other person might say, “I wonder what he’s . . .” and immediately it’s “Hold, please,” as I start typing. Or if I’m with a mutual friend from home and they have a laptop open, I direct them: “Go to his Facebook.” I don’t want to actually connect. I just want to be a voyeur. I want to see how his kids turned out. I want to see if they’re ballsy like him.
But it doesn’t matter. As many times as we hooked up, there would never be BILLY AND NICKIE painted on the back of that GMC. I was never his Chosen One.
When I was little, my mom would take me with her to open houses. We’d drive out to Oakland and San Francisco—cities she loved far more than our town of Pleasanton—and we’d wander from house to house. These were homes that we no way in hell could afford, but we toured them just to see how other people lived. People who were not us.
I was eight when we toured a huge San Francisco Victorian, all light wood and curving staircases with a bay window that actually looked out on the bay. I ran to the window to take in all the blue of the water.
“Your world is only as small as you make it, Nickie,” she said.
That was the same year she took me to see Nikki Giovanni recite poetry at the Oakland Children’s Museum. We sat high up in coliseum seating, listening as Nikki talked about dragonflies and strawberry patches. My mother kept nudging me into listening. “Isn’t this wonderful?” she asked again and again.
Mom was always taking my sisters and me to events like this. She loved the ballet and would take us to see The Nutcracker at Christmas. She would buy tickets for the Alvin Ailey dance company whenever they were in the Bay Area. On every one of these excursions, she would inevitably start talking to a stranger. My sisters and I called them Random Acts of Conversation, rolling our eyes. “Where are you from?” she would ask the rando she had found, whose existence we would then be dragged into acknowledging. “Oh, wow,” she would say.
Mom was so bored and lonely in the small world of Pleasanton. When my parents moved there, my father simply stopped including her when he went out. And Cully Union, an extremely social person who could also talk to anybody—except his wife Theresa—went out a lot.
My parents both had telecommunications jobs, he at AT&T and she at Pacific Bell. Back in Nebraska, they also worked a night shift cleaning a day-care center so I could receive free care when I was little. My father was obsessed with upward mobility and after he got his BA degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he later got an advanced degree going to night school. My mother was pursuing her master’s at Holy Name, a Catholic college in Oakland. My dad thought that her studies would help her move up the ranks at Pacific Bell. But learning for my mother was about her love of literature. Her time at Holy Name was meaningful for her. To this day, she talks about two classmates, a Chinese American and Mexican American who took her out to try Thai food for the first time. When my father realized her higher education was in the humanities and would not result in more money for the household, he stopped funding it. He hadn’t cared to know what she was studying, because Dad is always oblivious to things he isn’t interested in. She never completed her master’s.
Meanwhile, he was funding his second life. Around my junior year of high school, I discovered a green ATM card in a drawer. I brought it to my older sister, Kelly.
“There’s a lot of money in that one,” she said.
It was the card Dad used to finance his life with another woman. Kelly was aware of the reality long before I was. She had gotten a sales job with AT&T, working out of the Oakland office while my dad was in San Jose. Kelly’s job took her up and down the bay, and whenever she was close to San Jose my dad would say, “Let’s link up and have lunch.”
But it came with the caveat, “Just let me know before you come to the office.”
One day she surprised him. Dad was in a meeting in the conference room, and someone gave Kelly a folder to leave on his desk. He had a glass desktop, under which he kept several family photos. Where there was usually one photo of my mom and dad, this time there were instead several photos of my dad with another woman.
“She looked so much like Mom,” Kelly told me. “But she’s not Mom.”
Kelly said that once she discovered the reason for the green ATM card, she would ask Dad to lend it to her—basically daring him to say no. After a while, I told him he also needed to give me the card.
“Take out twenty dollars,” he’d say, expressionless.
I’d take out two hundred.
Then Kelly found the secret photo album. She always did know where to snoop, although my father didn’t put much effort into hiding it. It was right under the bed, almost in plain sight. The other woman had put together an old-school family photo album of all their trips together, thick and loaded with time-stamped pictures in plastic sheaths. My sister and I examined the dates, realizing he had been lying to us for years about his whereabouts.
Kelly pointed at a photo of my father with this woman who was not our mother in front of a waterfall, wearing leis.
“February 14,” I said.
“That was the conference . . .” Kelly said.
“In Parsippany!” we said together.
“You were in Kona, asshole,” I said, turning to the next page.
Kelly had been right. My mother and this other woman were the same woman: short, light-skinned, with freckles. They each had short blond hair.
He had a type.
I started calling the green ATM cash “Hawaii money.” My dad never acknowledged in any way that Kelly and I knew about the other woman or what this card was for. Life simply continued, with him feeling he still retained his full authority over us. During my senior year, my soccer team was in a tournament against our archrival Fremont. Dad loved those soccer games, sitting in the all-white audience with a megaphone, watching his daughter outrun everyone. That day, I shanked a penalty kick in Sudden Death. Game over. I looked to my dad. He put the megaphone down and wrapped his hands around his neck. His eyes bugged out and closed, his tongue lolled.
Then he stopped, looked me right in the eye and mouthed the word “Choke.”
The parents to the left and right of him saw the act and laughed. He laughed with them, his chosen people.
“Fuck you!” I yelled, stomping off the field. Up until that point, I had never sworn at my dad in my entire life. Only once did I allow myself to look back at him: his bemused expression showed the slightest bit of pride. Like, “Look at you, kiddo.”
FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS OF THEIR MARRIAGE, MY PARENTS DID NOT speak to each other. Not to say “Excuse me” in the kitchen during the morning rush, or even a reflexive “Bless you” after a sneeze. This was during my senior year of high school and into my college years. My mother slept on the couch in the living room, like a boarder. My sisters and I all led separate lives.
One morning, it looked like my mother caught a glimmer of hope. She discovered two tickets Dad had bought for the ballet. It was the kind of thing my father would never want to do, much less with his wife.
So Mom took off early from work that day, had her hair done, and bought a new outfit. It goes to show how much my mother worked, because I remember distinctly how bizarre it was to see her at home while the sun was out, in the middle of the week.
Dad came home shortly after her. She sat on the couch, pretending to read a magazine and waiting patiently as he moved about the house. She didn’t let on that she knew about his ballet surprise, even though she was completely done up. I can imagine her, in her mind, practicing her surprised face.
He strode over to the side table, where the tickets were. He bent over, picked them up, and strutted out the door. My mother’s face took on a faraway look. She pretended none of this humiliation had happened.
The next morning, I didn’t ask him where he’d been. Inside, I felt humiliated on my mother’s behalf, but on the outside, I showed the passive politeness of a fellow boarder in this house.
I CALLED RECENTLY AND I ASKED HER ABOUT THOSE TICKETS.
“You know, what I want you to know more than anything,” she said, “is that everything you remember is what you remember.”
After a long pause, she sighed. “The tickets,” she said. “I just thought . . . perhaps.”
The word hung in the miles between us. I myself say “maybe” when I don’t want something to happen. I reserve “perhaps” for when I get asked about things I hope for.
“Those weren’t the first tickets to something that I would have liked to go to, nor the last,” she said. “I was ready, in case he, on this day, thought to take me. But I was also prepared for him not to take me.”
“When did you know he was cheating?”
“I didn’t,” she said.
“Mom,” I said.
“We never had the conversation once in our entire marriage,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for it. I loved my house. I loved the swimming pool. I loved my life with you girls. I loved having money in the bank. I loved having the creature comforts that we worked so hard for. My feeling about him was ‘I’m happy, and as long as you don’t disrupt that, I don’t care what you do.’”
Everything you remember is what you remember.
My mother told me that on Sunday nights Dad was always out late. So she began to go out herself, something I don’t remember at all. I only recall Mom waiting at home for Dad. She would leave after Tracy and I were in bed. I was probably sneaking out the same nights.
“There were a lot of live jazz places that your dad didn’t go to,” she said. “One of my good friends from work, her husband was in a band, and I would meet up with her.”
Her girlfriends considered her bait to draw men in. “A blond black woman, I don’t care if you’re rail thin or four hundred pounds, you’re gonna get a lot of attention,” my mother told me. “And I always got a lot of attention.” She never acted on it, she said, but relished the idea that she was pulling them in for the team.
“Most of the time I wouldn’t run into any of your dad’s friends,” she said. “And most of the time it wouldn’t get back to him. But sometimes it did, and that was okay, too.”
He knew more than she realized. Our longtime neighbors who lived across the street, a Filipino family, socialized with Dad and the other woman. Turns out the wife was always spying on my mom. “I saw Theresa leave last night,” she would narc to my dad. “Where did she go?” My dad was always Mr. Neighborly, acting like the mayor of our street, and my mom was more interested in reading a book inside than chatting in the driveway. Other couples also became complicit as they began to double-date with my father and my mother’s stand-in. I guess she just seemed like a better fit for their friend Cully. They wanted Mom out.
I watched Dad try to make the ride bumpier for Mom. I could tell he hoped he could buck her off, but she was not going.
“He always was a great provider,” she told me. “He made sure we had a really nice home and that my children were well taken care of.”
It was, she said, a lesson from an epic fight she had had with her own mother. As a teenager, Mom worked in a hospital as a cleaner. My grandmother happened to be there one day and Mom complained about how much she hated the job.
“Shut up,” my grandmother told her. “Shut your mouth and get your check. When you find a different job, then you leave. But otherwise, keep your head down, shut your mouth, and get that check.”
Mom paused. “We had a good life.”
THE NIGHT MY DAD FINALLY GOT HIS WISH, HE WAS HOME FROM WORK before Mom. I was visiting from UCLA. Tracy was at the house and Dad said something cruel to us girls, who knows what, and we both started crying. He left and my mother came home to the chaos of daughters in tears. Tracy screamed that Dad was mean. Mom calmed us down and eventually, we went to bed.
My mother stood alone in the kitchen. My father had left her a note saying that he wouldn’t be home until late. He had spelled her name wrong: “Teresa.” They’d been married nearly thirty years.
He didn’t know that my mother had called the bank that day. She’d tried to pay their property taxes and the check bounced. Their bank account was overdrawn. She remembered the night before, when my father announced that he wasn’t paying for braces for my little sister. “She doesn’t really need them,” he’d said.
He had just been on another business trip.
Something in my mother finally broke.
She turned the note over and took a pen.
“I am leaving you,” she wrote.
She went to her brother’s house. My uncle was living in Fremont with a roommate, and then my mom became his roommate. Tracy stayed with my dad and finished high school, but there was a point when she was living with my mom in Fremont and going to high school in Pleasanton.
My mom insists she only found out about the affair when she met someone who knew Dad from AT&T.
“You have a beautiful home,” she said.
“You’ve been to my house?”
“Yes,” she said. “Cully was the chair of the tennis tournament last year.” The lady described the house, and also the other woman. She had been standing next to Dad, acting as if our house was her house.
I wasn’t ever formally introduced to the other woman. She just appeared, now with a name. Toni.
My parents divorced my senior year of college. The divorce was final in early June. He married the other woman on June 9. I graduated from UCLA on June 16. Dad skipped my college graduation, because Toni insisted on an immediate Hawaii honeymoon. I don’t blame her. My graduation was going to be a family moment shortly after the family had been dismantled.
But of course I had to go to Dad’s wedding. By then, they had moved to Phoenix, Arizona. It was never clear when they bought their new house. But it didn’t matter. They had, and this wedding was on. My dad had invited his mother—whom we all called Mama Helen—to fly in from Omaha, but he had neglected to tell her the reason why. He couldn’t tell her he was getting remarried, because, well, he hadn’t told Mama Helen he’d gotten divorced.
It was Mama Helen’s first flight, and she brought hard-boiled eggs and chicken packed in little baggies. She smelled up the plane, and since she was hard of hearing, she also spent the whole flight yelling.
Phoenix in June was hell degrees. When we arrived at Dad and Toni’s house, we came upon a crew of aunts and girl cousins making homemade wedding souvenirs. Before she had time to figure out what was going on, someone rushed over and took Mama Helen out dress shopping “for an occasion.”
My sisters and I joined our aunts at the table. Half of them had only just found out about the wedding themselves. Somebody looked up from the tchotchkes we were making and asked, “Did anybody tell Mama Helen?”
My father was called in.
“Did you tell Mama Helen you’re getting married?” an aunt asked.
“I’m gonna tell her,” he said.
“Does she know you’re divorced?” said someone else.
“I’m gonna tell her. I’m gonna tell her.”
The place went up in guffaws. “Oh, shit!” said a cousin, as the rest did impressions of my dad’s frightened face.
When he finally got the nerve to tell his mother, shortly before the ceremony, Mama Helen’s solidarity with my mom was like Sister Souljah. It was fascinating because, mind you, this woman was never a fan of my mother’s. She called her “piss-colored” for the bulk of the marriage. But this whole deal didn’t sit right with her. Not at all.
She decided to speak her mind at the church. My soon-to-be stepmother had a family member who was the pastor. He went on and on about this blessed union. That’s when Mama Helen piped up from the front pew in her deaf-lady voice.
“She’s a whore,” she said to no one in particular, meaning the entire church. “Home-wrecker.”
NOW, OUR BOYS CALL TONI NANA, AND SHE IS A LOVELY GRANDMOTHER. She and my dad still take their trips to Hawaii. People move on.
After the divorce, Mom left Pleasanton to move back to Omaha. She was ready to start over. Instead of an easy retirement, she chose to help a relative who had a problem with drugs. This relative repeatedly got pregnant, and one by one, these babies came to live with my mother shortly after their births. This retirement-age woman adopted these children, now aged nine, eight, and six. Two beautiful girls and the youngest, a boy. My mother refused to let them be separated from each other.
She busts her ass to keep up with these kids. She has discovered emojis, this seventy-year-old woman, and she’ll send me a wineglass with an exclamation point. She is also queen of the wink-and-tongue-out face.
I see you, Mom. I see what you are doing for these kids, and how you keep them together. I give you respect, because nobody is going to give you praise for doing what black women have done forever, raising kids who are not their own.
Nowadays, I catch myself starting conversations the way she used to. I think back to when we Union girls confronted her about this need to connect with strangers. It was just that she is a decent human being with a genuine curiosity about other human beings. She already knew what made my father tick, and the people of Pleasanton for that matter. They held no surprise.
“There are so many more people than you realize,” she told us girls, “people who look up to the same sun and the moon and the stars. It’s your birthright to explore this world.”
It’s only as small as you make it.
WHO HATES YOU MOST?
The cast of Being Mary Jane was holed up in a conference room while the crew investigated a gas leak on our Atlanta soundstage. Eventually we each reached the end of memes and Snapchat filters on our phones, so to kill time we started trading stories.
“Okay, who in your life has hated you the most?” someone asked.
People talked about a costar they’d gotten fired, an ex they brazenly cheated on. Amateur hour. Basic stuff. I knew I had the winner: a girl from high school named Queeshaun.
Queeshaun was best friends with Angela Washington, who was dating Jason Kidd when I met him. This was my junior year of high school, while I was technically dating Tyrone Reed, a stoner rebel from a nearby town. Tyrone had gotten his arm broken by the police, so obviously his cast had FUCK THE POLICE written on it in huge block letters. He would lean the cast out of his convertible VW bug when he drove around town. So rebellious.
Jason Kidd was the best high school player in the country, six foot four as a junior, and already famous among sports fans and college recruiters alike. His high school, St. Joseph’s, could seat eight hundred in their gym. With Jason on the team, they were forced to move their games to a venue that seated five thousand, and people still got turned away.
I was in a Saturday afternoon girls’ basketball tournament, and I stayed to watch the guys play. I was performing a bit, throwing out tips to the players, even Jason. It worked. Jason sat at the end of the bench, a towel around his neck. He knew everyone in that place was watching him, but he suddenly lifted his eyes to look right at me. It wasn’t eye sex, just “I see you.”
At half time, I went to the bathroom and there was Angela. I knew her from playing ball, because she was a star player for Livermore High. Our teams often competed against each other. Standing at the sinks, we talked about the game.
“That Jason is amazing,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, “he is.”
She walked out and went right over to Jason and I realized, Oh, she is totally his girlfriend. There went that idea.
At the end of the game, she left with Jason’s parents, and he went over to the team bus. He lingered behind so I could catch up, and when I did, he asked for my number. We then proceeded to talk all hours for the rest of the weekend, and made a pact that on Monday I would break up with Tyrone and he would break up with Angela. We did so, with a generous round of “It’s not you, it’s me” for everyone.
I got right into being Jason’s girlfriend and I wanted everyone to know it. I would go to my beloved Kim’s Nails in Oakland, getting the letters of his name spelled out with a heart on my nails. J-A-S-O-N-K-I-D-D-♥. Don’t judge me. I felt like a boss bitch.
The Friday before Christmas break, my school had a pep rally during lunchtime. My girlfriend Paige was a cheerleader, so I was right there, sitting with friends on a lunch table right at the front watching them perform. Fantasy Direct, a group of high-school-age DJs, was running the music. They were black and Latino, and from neighboring towns. But one, Hector, lived across the street from me.
Suddenly, this big black girl walked in with a determined stomp in her step. She had dookie braids, a pink ribbon woven into each one. She immediately stuck out to me, of course, because you know there were no other black girls around. Way across the room, I saw her go up to Hector, who then pointed in my direction. I looked behind me, thinking, Who could she possibly be looking for?
Then she started stalking through the crowd, about four or five people deep, around my lunch table. As she got closer, she lunged through a wall of people to get to me. But I still didn’t understand that I was the target.
This girl is just really angry, I thought. Somebody is going to get their ass kicked. Meanwhile, the white people were practically clearing a path for her, just assuming that the black girl was there for the other black girl.
“I’m gonna whoop yo’ ass, bitch!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, pointing right at me. “I’m gonna whoop yo’ ass!”
I swear, I looked around like, “This couldn’t possibly be about me.” Eventually, the school security dragged her off school grounds by the shoulders. “I’m gonna get you, Nickie Union!” she yelled as they pulled her out the door. “I’m gonna come back after school and kick your ass!”
I was shaking as if I’d had a near-death experience. I had no idea who in the world this bitch was, and now all these white girls were staring at me.
“Oh my God,” went the chorus. “Oh my God, are you okay? That was, like, so terrifying.”
So I marched over to Hector and asked him why he sent her over to me.
“Oh, Queeshaun?” he said. “You don’t know her?” He acted with total innocence. “She asked where you were. We thought you invited her.”
“Hector, you know who comes to my house,” I said. “And not a one looks like this bitch. Thanks a lot.”
I immediately went to a pay phone and called my big sister Kelly. “COME GET ME NOW,” I demanded, and I sat in the parking lot for the half hour it took for her to drive from San Jose State, where she was going to school. When I saw her, I stood up, waving like some castaway flagging down a helicopter.
“Where the hell is she?” she said, flying out of the car and darting her eyes around sniper style.
“She left,” I said. “But she’ll be back.”
“We’re gonna wait for her.”
“Uh, no!” I started screaming. “Take me home!” I was not giving this girl a chance to come back and kill me.
“Nickie, you have to face her,” she said. “Otherwise you’re a coward.”
“You stay, then,” I said, getting into the car and locking the door. I waved. “Tell me how it goes!”
When my mom got home I kept talking about how I was traumatized by “the day’s events.” I practically needed a fainting couch after what I had been through. But my teen/girlfriend priorities kicked in, and I asked my mom to take me to the mall because I still needed to get a Christmas gift for Jason.
We went to a Structure and I picked out the brighter of two Cosby-esque sweaters. I was smug as hell, having turned the day around. As we were getting ready to leave, I half-heartedly hummed along to the mall Muzak’s “Jingle Bells.” My mom and I went down the main escalator and I decided that crazy Queeshaun chick had the whole Christmas break to figure out she had me mixed up with another girl.
Midway down, my self-satisfied haze cracked. I saw my nightmare come to life in the form of Queeshaun standing at the bottom of the escalator, talking to, of all people, my freshly minted ex-boyfriend Tyrone, with his FUCK THE POLICE cast. They both looked up, and I immediately began trying to run up the down escalator.
“Nickie,” my mom yelled, grabbing me by the back of my coat to stop me.
“Mom, that’s her,” I yelled. “That’s her.”
She turned and stared at Queeshaun, who couldn’t believe her luck.
“I can’t believe,” Mom said, “you are scared of a girl wearing a bullet bra.”
I had no idea what Queeshaun’s bra had to do with me, since I was going to die at the bottom of that escalator. “I’m gonna whip yo’ fuckin’ ass for Angela,” Queeshaun yelled, as we slowly moved toward her. “I don’t care if your mama’s here. I’mma whip yo’ mama’s ass, too.”
As we reached bottom, Tyrone tried to drag Queeshaun away with his one good arm. I took the opportunity to run past them, but my mom stayed behind and got right in Queeshaun’s face. Once Queeshaun said “I’ll fight your mama,” my mother—who is absolutely not this person—started nodding like Clair Huxtable about to school Theo, right there in front of Mrs. Field’s Cookies. Mom wasn’t about to fight this girl, though Queeshaun certainly would have come to blows with my mother. As Tyrone held Queeshaun back, my mother stood as tall and straight as can be. She was trying to show me the importance of standing your ground. Meanwhile, I was halfway down to McDonald’s, yelling back, “Just come on!”
Finally, Mom relented and followed me. The whole car ride home I was shaking, but my mom had no sympathy whatsoever.
“That girl,” she said. “She’s got that fool bullet bra on. I can’t believe you would be afraid of a girl like that.”
“Mom. She came up to my school to kill me and she just tried again. Of course I’m scared.”
“You should never be afraid of anyone. Certainly not the likes of her.”
By the time we got home from the mall, Queeshaun had left a string of messages on our answering machine. This was one of those old-school answering machines, and my dad walked in to hear Queeshaun’s threats.
“We’ll just call her parents,” he said. He then made a big deal of looking her family up in the phone book and calling her mother.
Satan’s mom was not impressed.
“What are you gonna do? They’re kids,” she said. “Let our daughters handle it.”
He hung up and right away, Queeshaun started burning up our phone. Cully Union told her to stop, and when she wouldn’t, we just let her run out the answering machine tape. “Your monkey-ass dad is a snitch, bitch,” she said. “I’m gonna kick his ass, too.”
Dad being Dad, he decided to bring the whole answering machine to the police station. He played the tape for the all-white Pleasanton PD, and at first they were concerned. Then, as Queeshaun’s insults and craziness took on the feel of a stereotypical crazy black woman comedy sketch, they couldn’t stifle their laughter.
“Yo’ monkey-ass daddy is a motherfucking punk nigger snitch” put them over the edge.
“Wait,” a blond cop finally said, trying not to smile. “You don’t even know her?”
“No,” I said. “I swear.”
“Why would she do this?”
“Apparently I hurt her feelings, because I started dating her best friend’s boyfriend. Excuse me, ex-boyfriend.”
That did it. The whole station erupted into guffaws.
“Look,” said the blond guy. “This is not enough for us to go on. If she physically touches you, call us.”
If she physically touched me, I knew I’d be dead. I took a break from imagining my funeral, lavish with tears, and called Jason to ask him about Queeshaun. He told me Queeshaun was rich and had a huge house. That came as a shock. It made no sense that someone rich would have dookie braids and want to kill me. One or the other I guess I could have comprehended, but both were overkill. The irony is that my initial assessment of her was exactly that of my white peers: If she has dookie braids, she must be poor. If she is a big black girl, she must be angry. Although in this case, this bitch really did want to kill me.
Jason thought it was funny that she was acting so crazy. “She’s harmless,” he said.
“Say that at my funeral,” I told him. “This bitch is nuts.”
Jason and I were still dating right into league basketball season. My team was set to play Angela’s twice, and of course the first game was on her home turf of Livermore High. Angela stared at me on the court, and Queeshaun looked like she could barely contain herself in the stands, where she was sitting not so far from my “monkey-ass dad.” I had begged Jason to come, but he couldn’t because he also had a game. My sister was supposed to get off early from her job at the Limited so she could be there to protect me, but no such luck. My whole team was terrified, because everyone and her white mother had heard about Queeshaun.
I was a mess the whole game, unable to function as my hands shook in the layup line. Then I airballed so bad that my coach benched me. We lost, of course, and my teammates and I lingered inside as our coach went to bring the bus. Queeshaun paced back and forth, whispering to Angela. We knew that as soon as we left the gym, Queeshaun would follow us out and go in for the kill.
The stalling tactic was becoming embarrassing when suddenly the gym doors burst open. In walked my sister Kelly, in full Foxy-Brown-bent-on-vengeance mode. My hero, she had sped over straight from work, still in her black Limited blazer with the huge shoulder pads. I’d always loved my brilliant, take-charge sister, but never more than in that moment.
“Queeshaun?” she yelled. “You here?”
“Yep,” Queeshaun said, stepping right up to Kelly.
“You so much as touch my sister, I will kill you.”
And that did it. Queeshaun lunged forward. A couple of girls pulled her back. My sister was ride or die. She came over to me and threw her arm around my shoulder. “If you touch my sister,” she said to all of Livermore, “I will kick every single one of your asses.”
“That’s right,” I said, suddenly bold with my bodyguard beside me. “What she said.”
She took me home. In the car, I did impressions of her Action Jackson performance. “I will spit on your grave, Queeshaun!”
The next time I played against Angela was completely a different story. Jason was there. Even better, Queeshaun wasn’t. That let me talk trash straight to Angela, who was having her worst game of the season just as I had my best. I was so pleased with myself.
Jason and I were not at our best point, however. Instead of getting his full name across my nails, I was getting a subtle J and K painted. It was the nineties version of “It’s complicated.”
That spring I was at Kim’s Nails with friends one afternoon, and just as the nail tech started in on the K, in walked Queeshaun. Did this bitch have a homing device on my freaking car? Her eyes snapped open from the surprise of seeing me, then narrowed with fury as she saw the J-K.
“Hold still,” said the tech, as my hand started to shake.
“I told you the next time I saw you I was going to kick yo’ ass, bitch!” My K not even finished, my friends threw down money and hustled me out the back door. It felt like I’d been in a stickup.
That seemed like the end. Cut to: the last day of junior year, and four of us were celebrating by sitting in Paige’s car and oh-so-glamorously drinking Purple Passion in the parking lot of a strip mall. Lucy was in the front with Paige and I sat in the backseat with another friend, Sook, our doors open as we listened to the radio.
The song of the summer, Mariah’s “Vision of Love,” came on, and Paige turned it up loud, probably to drown us all out as we sang along. Just as I was pretending to hit that Mariah note, this meaty hand reached in and grabbed me by the arm, trying to drag me out of the car.
It was goddamned Queeshaun.
“I’m gonna kick your ass, bitch!” she screamed.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I yelled, as Sook held tight to my legs.
Paige pressed the gas, driving off with half of my body out the door. She did circles in the parking lot, swerving to try to shake Queeshaun as Mariah continued to belt. Sook managed to pull me in bit by bit, just like in the movies. It was kill or be killed. I tried to slam the car door on Queeshaun as Paige hit the gas to get the hell out of that parking lot.
Queeshaun started to run, that’s how desperate she was to kick my ass! Finally, she tripped, let go, and hit the pavement. Hard.
“OH MY GOD,” we said in one collective teen scream. Paige stopped the car.
“Is she dead?” I said.
Queeshaun instantly leapt up, and we all screamed. Again. First she moved toward us, then doubled back to get in her car. The bitch was giving chase. What was this zombie bitch?
We stopped at a light and she caught up to us, bumper to bumper. Paige pressed the gas, running the red to get away. Queeshaun stayed right on us. We went into the Meadows development, hoping to lose her in the cul-de-sacs. Paige even killed her lights and gunned it, relying on her knowledge of the twists and turns of suburban subdivisions. We finally shook her, and we saw a house party. We decided it was safer to hide out there.
We didn’t mention Queeshaun to a single soul. On the one hand, we did kind of almost kill her and wanted deniability. On the other, she was like Beetlejuice—just saying her name could summon her.
When we left the party an hour later, there she was, sitting in her car, waiting for us. She’d spotted Paige’s car. Of course she had. Now I had to choose between the social suicide of running back into the house and having Queeshaun follow me to beat me up in a Meadows party, or take my chances with the girls. It was that same fear of being associated with someone who looked like Queeshaun. I somehow got a pass, but I couldn’t bring an agitated scary black girl to a party, because then I would be the scary black girl, too. Also, fighting was just unheard of in polite upper-middle-class suburban planned communities. It was more about emotional warfare.
“Get to the car,” I whispered to Paige.
I stood by the door to the house party as the girls ran to the car.
“Come on, bitch,” I said.
Queeshaun got out of her car and slammed the door. For a second, we stood frozen facing each other. Just as she started her charge onto the lawn, I cut left, fast, racing to Paige’s car like I was doing the one-hundred-meter for the gold. By the time Queeshaun realized she’d been tricked and ran to get back in her car, we were tearing down the road.
We drove around Pleasanton all night. Each of us refused to go to our houses, afraid that Queeshaun would be lying in wait. Paige eventually parked at Foothill High, and we watched the sun begin to rise to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love.”
“Man,” Sook said, as if she had been thinking one single thought through the whole song. “That Queeshaun really hates you.”
Paige reenacted Queeshaun’s rise up from the ground. “That is some Freddy Krueger–level crazy,” she said to a mad chorus of laughter.
A few years later I met Freddy Washington, who is Angela’s little brother, at UCLA. I asked Freddy if Angela still blamed me for Jason Kidd breaking up with her.
“No,” he said. “Angela doesn’t care.”
“Oh, good,” I said, relieved.
“But Queeshaun?” Freddy added with a sinister chuckle. “That crazy bitch still talks about you.”
I flashed to her in a room with photos of me all over a wall. “Soon, Nickie Union,” she said. “Soon.”
MY BEING MARY JANE CASTMATES AGREED I WON THE CONTEST.
“Whatever happened to that girl?” my costar Lisa Vidal asked.
“No idea.” Everyone grabbed his or her phone again, in a race to find Queeshaun. A particularly savvy Facebooker found a woman by her name. He held up his screen.
There she was. My high school nightmare, still looking like she would kick my ass in a second. She was presenting an office look, and I imagined all the coworkers she terrorized. From my reaction, everyone could tell it was her.
Lisa grabbed the phone to get a better look and screamed. “She’s living in Atlanta!”
“Oh my God, she followed me here,” I said, only half kidding.
The door to the conference room swung open and every single one of us seasoned professionals jumped. We all expected to see Queeshaun standing there, yelling her trusty catchphrase: “I told you the next time I see you I’mma kick yo’ ass!”
“We’re all clear, guys,” said the production assistant, eyeing us with suspicion.
We were safe. For now.