Previously by Vanessa Willoughby: Lost and Found.
I could still smell the bleach beneath my nails long after I’d washed my hands. The apartment had been adequately cleaned a few days earlier, but sometimes the cheapest form of therapy for me did not involve downing tequila shots, as my nicotine-fiend boyfriend would like to believe, but busting open a new pack of sponges and a bucket of bleach. I typically began my power-hour washing routine in the bathroom, where the fumes would thicken the air. The combination of the repetitive physical labor and the dizzying stench of the bleach was entrancing, a private thrill that felt as despicable as a hit and run.
My boyfriend, a tried and true New Yorker with a Basquiat obsession, knows not to bother me when I’m engaged in my bizarre ritual. He watches while I get down on my hands and knees, scrubbing like I’m removing decades of filth from the face of the Pieta. I have been unable to fully articulate the reflexive need for such unconventional coping methods, unable to make anyone understand the power that can be found in such minor expressions of control.
Sometimes, when he’s feeling horrible, my boyfriend critiques my efforts, calls me lazy if he finds a speck of dirt or a piece of a dust-bunny shivering underneath the bed. This is better than his past episodes of reluctant resignation and the ensuing anger. The anger would suddenly shoot to the surface, popping like a blood-swollen blister, and he would decide that I was no longer a partner on his team, but a ghastly representation of the ills of Eve, the wrath of womankind, the offenses of long-lost lovers, their proof of existence whittled down by the passing of time and negligence. In this state, he would burrow into our bedroom and paint, flitting about the perimeter of the canvas like a bat, feeding on the soured images of broken love.
In the initial stages of our relationship, after spending hours sequestered behind the locked door, he emerged with a sketch he called: The Prophet. It was a stone-faced, strong-browed woman who looked suspiciously like me. The woman was dressed in an Egyptian head-dress reminiscent of Queen Nefertiti but the headdress was full of snakes that curled around her high-cut cheekbones, twin Exacto blades disguised by a layer of sun-warmed brown skin, the creatures twisting and slinking near her ears like shifty royal advisors.
“I wanted to paint something just as beautiful as it is deadly,” my boyfriend had said.
I suppose this is the reason why I haven’t left him yet. We fight and fuck and swear that this is the last time, but the promises always dissolve before either of us can pack a bag. We’ve lived in the same railroad-style apartment in Greenpoint for years and last week we renewed our lease. I haven’t left him yet because he is not afraid of my pain. I am his muse; we’re Edie and Andy with a mean weed habit.
Cleaning is a habit I picked up from my mother, another mutation passed down by the spitefulness of genetics. Having been raised a Southern Belle trained for the glory of debutante balls and the creaky politics of afternoon etiquette lessons, my mother had grown up to believe that marriage meant the dissolution of self for the altruistic sake of harmony. Thus, it was quite the scandal when my mother decided to throw away small-town fame and elope with my Jamaican father, a lowly gas station attendant with a rumbling voice like Sidney Poitier’s. They were young and idealistic (dumb) and rebellious (blindly stubborn). They moved into a pink shotgun house and my mother tried to make her new home less gloomy by hanging up lace curtains she’d sewn by hand. They shared a rickety bed salvaged from the Salvation Army and danced barefoot to Otis Redding records during sticky summer nights, my mother’s baby-fine honey hair swept into a paisley headscarf, my father grinning and bare-chested, convinced that his life and his marriage were not susceptible to the fragility of masculine pride, the consistent judgment of racists, bigots, and color-blind devotees.
When my parents divorced, I was six. My mother and father went head-to-head in court and my mother emerged the victor. She still had the family recognition, the privilege of white upper-class social hierarchy, the unquantifiable allure of a woman who walks through the streets like a disgraced empress. My father didn’t stand a chance. My mother was granted full custody. Her parents welcomed her back. When I turned thirteen, I was yanked out of public school and sent to prep school on the East Coast. My mother thought that the price tag and prestige attached to such an institution would open doors, would mold me into a respectable, classy, obedient mother and wife. She thought that it would effectively camouflage my father’s blackness, the half of his DNA that had bestowed her daughter with plump lips and curls upon curls upon curls, the half of his DNA that, as my grandmother used to say, “polluted” the family bloodline.
Until that point, everyone in my life liked to preach about the necessity of being “acceptable” and “presentable.” Every morning my mother hemmed and hawed as she attempted to comb my hair. She didn’t know what to do with my free-flowing, unruly Chaka Khan curls. In the end, she usually pulled everything back into braids, tugged so hard that it felt like I’d gotten a face-lift.
You’ve got your father’s hair. Bless your heart, it’s lovely but how do those mothers know how to tame all this?
I hadn’t been too fazed when I logged onto Facebook and saw the message. Although I’d graduated from high school about ten years ago, former classmates were eager to reestablish a nonexistent connection, their memories having been conveniently scraped clean. I rarely accepted these friend requests. They were a fluffing of egos, a public display of basic human curiosity and self-administered absolution. I never wanted to be someone’s priest. I’m not made to swallow dime-a-dozen confessionals fashioned out of guilt.
I tried to be as much of a ghost as realistically possible on the internet. The majority of my classmates were on Facebook. Their information was easily accessible, the expected societal milestones of adulthood plastered across their profiles in multiple, off-center iPhone photos. They were all acting and I am not ashamed to say that I felt vindicated by the sheer effort placed in upkeeping this hollow bravado. The bonehead jocks who majored in homophobia had puffed up like marshmallows in a microwave, the sad and pathetic executors to our adolescent “glory days,” their command of language never having evolved past the trendy lexicon of teenagers. The rich kids were still rich and the awkward nerds who fostered alliances in the robotics and chess clubs were still awkward but they had moved on to the competitive tribes of Silicon Valley, and the so-called “most gorgeous girl in school” had rushed off to the City of Angels, suitcase stuffed with glossy headshots, wallet complete with the parental-backed plastic that would help pay for her necessary nosejob.
Despite my efforts to be incognito, Lauren had found me. Back then, she’d been Miss Molina, a pear-shaped Arkansas transplant with virgin hair, an authority figure not entirely convinced of her inherent privileges who favored cardigan sweater sets and cats. She must have gotten the job straight out of college. I wonder if she’d picked this job because Teach for America was fraught with too many uncertain, unpredictable variables. As a guidance counselor at a prep school modeled after America’s Ivory Towers, it would prove much easier to deal with petty dorm room drama rather than inner-city students who started off their day by passing through a mandatory metal detector.
The message was composed on a Saturday night at 2AM. Like the majority of my classmates, it appeared that Lauren battled insomnia by uninterrupted sessions of Facebook stalking.
FROM: MRS. LAUREN KEMPER
If this is the wrong Sherane, I apologize. If this is Sherane Lawson, I hope you know that I’m sorry if my past actions afected [sic] you. I know I am probably one of the last people you’d want to talk to but I was a young teacher trying to fit into a new world (surely you can understand this?) and I made some mistakes. You don’t have to respond but please know that I would love to hear from you.
Mrs. Lauren Kemper was not sorry. She had used that pesky little word “if.” Her attempt at atonement amounted to nothing more than a dismissal of personal responsibility, a casting off of the anchor, remorse that pinched like an electric dog collar.
Nevertheless, I didn’t delete the message. I browsed her profile. Not a lot had changed. She was still a guidance counselor at my old prep school. In addition to being married, she was the mother of a three-year-old son. She was an avid practitioner of yoga, often took classes at the nearest Lululemon, and if the five albums of tropical vacation shots and lavish parties were any indication, Mrs. Lauren Kemper had won the marriage lottery.
“This is just unacceptable,” Miss Lauren Molina announced. We were sitting in her office. It was located off of the Arts and Humanities wing. It was sophomore year and the first time I’d ever interacted with Miss Molina. My History teacher had locked me out of the classroom, as he’d said my hair was a distraction. Inspired by the unabashed defiance of newfound friends, the hermetically-sealed troop of cynical minority students, I refused to put my hair up. Instead of being sent to the Headmaster, it was decided that I would work out the problem with the guidance counselor. Clearly, with my Honor Roll status and unassuming demeanor, this incident was viewed as a fluke, an out-of-character Freudian slip.
“As I’m sure you know, in your official student handbook, it states that hair must be worn in a natural style and must not interfere with the learning environment. Mr. Brown said that you were being uncooperative.”
“I wasn’t being uncooperative. My hair is in a natural style. This is just how it is,” I argued.
Miss Molina frowned, a tiny yet strained lifting of the corners of the mouth, the kind of polite social cue that would be better reserved for an ill-fated polo match teeming with diamond-encrusted socialites.
“Surely, you can’t tie it up? Straighten it?”
I offered her a watery smile, folded my hands in the lap of my plaid skirt. It was a bit big in the waist and I’d used safety pins to alter the fit and length.
“I’m here to help you prepare for the professional world,” she continued.
Inside her office, I obliged. I tied up my hair. I left after an hour and a half of her pandering, generic pep-talk. As soon as I walked out the door, I let my hair down. Her peace offerings were just as disposable and plastic as her Kmart jewelry.
The second time that the school called upon Miss Molina’s one-woman calvary, I had gotten into a fight with my roommate. It was the beginning of my junior year.
My roommate had been listening to the unedited version of Jay-Z’s The Black Album, jerking her body around the room like a drugged praying mantis. Although she idolized Martha Stewart, admitted that she was “grossed out” by homeless people, and had her own American Express Black Card, she failed to recognize that hip-hop had not been created for her. She was so conditioned to believe in her superiority that it did not register as prejudice or racism. It was a matter of preference, nothing more, nothing less, a preference for limiting any interactions with black people to the safety of commodification.
A self-proclaimed “hip-hop head,” my roommate would tell anyone who asked (and didn’t) that she had read every issue of VIBE since middle school, had once gotten lost in “the ghetto,” and could recite Biggie’s “Hypnotize” from memory. Thus, my roommate decided that because no one had ever told her not to, she could liberally use the N-word.
After all, she proclaimed, “When it ends with an a and not an er, it doesn’t mean the same thing.”
I told her that I didn’t want to ever hear that word from her mouth again.
“Why do you even care? You’re not even black. You’re like, Puerto Rican or Spanish.”
“I am black,” I replied.
She looked me up and down as though I were a store mannequin dressed in the wrong season’s outfit.
“Well, fooled me. You look too light-skinned to be black,” she coolly observed.
A voice inside of me was screaming. I threw my weight behind a punch that would’ve made Ali proud. I watched as the blood poured from her dainty, surgically-corrected nose, rapturous as it stained the front of her lovingly ironed, crisp, white Ralph Lauren button-down.
“This is simply unacceptable.”
I looked at the carpet. It was the shade of off-brand mayonnaise.
“We simply cannot tolerate fighting of any kind on school grounds,” Miss Molina barked.
“She was using the N-word. I asked her to stop and she didn’t.”
Miss Molina shook her head, resignation overshadowing her features.
“You have to be better than that, Sherane. Just because she said something that upset you, you have to learn how to be the bigger person and just walk away. There’s no reason to lash out at others. You need to learn how to control your temper. If everyone just went around hitting people because they said something that upset them, what kind of world would that be? Do you think I would cuss out someone who cut me in line at the grocery store?” Miss Molina demanded.
Her eyebrows formed two overplucked arches.
By her second sentence, I had tuned her out.
Miss Molina wanted me to “rise above” the adversity like the tacky inspirational posters that hung in the corners of the nurse’s office. Yet she had not stopped to consider our vast differences. She believed that her authority constituted the imparting of useless wisdom, that my rage was unjustified, a gross reveal of the black girl the school and my mother were so desperately attempting to vanquish. She was disappointed in a girl that had never truly existed.
Take no prisoners, unruly, loud-mouthed black girls are public enemy number one.
Kill on sight.
Despite my mother’s money-coated objections, I was expelled. In the end, my mother’s social clout was not enough to protect a daughter who, for all purposes, did not belong. Surprisingly, she did not call me a failure or a disgrace or an embarrassment. On my last day of school, she drove up in her freshly washed car, hair rolled into Veronica Lake waves, her warrior-red lipstick as essential as Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets.
“To hell with them. To hell with all of them,” my mother crowed. We stood there in the entrance hall, the polished floors so shiny and smooth you could’ve mistaken the surfaces for marble the color of red clay. I looked around, shoved the cardboard box beneath my right armpit, and then flipped the bird, arm straight in the air like the Black Panther Power fist. My mother grinned and then raised her middle finger in solidarity. It was probably one of the most radical things she’d ever done at that point in her life, with the exception of agreeing to marry my father.
My mother’s money and recognition couldn’t prevent my expulsion, but it did provide a safety net. I finished high school early, decided that I hated the East Coast, attended an all-women’s college in Oakland, California for a year, then decided that I was sick of the constant sunshine, applied to colleges in New York City, finished my degree at Barnard, and then eventually settled in Brooklyn with my boyfriend, thereby living up to every maligned and misguided caricature of my generation.
“You’re really going to meet her? Why give this bitch the time of day?” my boyfriend asked, his arms crossed over his wrinkled shirt. Flecks of paint adorned the front of his hair like confetti.
It had been a week since I’d gotten Lauren’s message. We had agreed to meet at a small, organic-leaning cafe located a few blocks from my apartment. I figured that it was wise to have home court advantage. It had been easy to type the words, imagining the relief that skittered across her face at my response, a face I would not have remembered without the steel-trap preservation of technology. As I prepared to leave, my stomach felt like I’d swallowed a bag of broken glass bottles.
“I’m just going to see what she has to say,” I uneasily replied, stuffing my feet into my battered oxblood Doc Martens.
“Baby, she didn’t care about you then, and she don’t care about you now.”
“It’ll be quick,” I said.
My boyfriend laughed. Whenever he laughed, I could see the silver fillings in his molars. He could’ve been a model if he didn’t insist on fucking up his appearance. Too many skateboard accidents and bone-crushing wipeouts had left an obvious bump in the bridge of his nose, an assortment of healed slashes and fat scars on his legs, white lines like neat rails of cocaine on otherwise smooth and unblemished dark skin.
I gathered my purse, buttoned up my coat, and threw on one of my boyfriend’s beanies.
“Have fun!” he called, amusement woven into his voice.
When I arrived, Mrs. Lauren Kemper, dressed in black jeans, quilted knee-high boots, an Oxford shirt, and a string of milky pearls looped around her neck, was waiting in the very front of the cafe, perched at the edge of her hard-backed chair. She looked considerably older than I’d anticipated. Her hair had been dyed Little Mermaid red, a brash, out-of-the-box color that somehow emphasized the sallow undertones of her complexion. She had a roll of fat around her stomach like a kangaroo pouch.
“Sherane! I’m so glad you could make it,” she chirped. Without hesitation, she rushed over and swept me into her arms and squeezed as though I were a beloved childhood teddy bear.
“Do you want tea? Coffee? A muffin?” she asked. Her body was bursting with the barely contained energy of a Botoxed game show host or a TV journalist about to interview a fugitive.
I shook my head and sat across from her. I didn’t bother taking off my jacket.
“No, you can call me Lauren,” she interrupted.
“Look, Lauren. I know you wanted to talk, but I’m still a little confused as to why.”
I was already exhausted by her company, by her perkiness, her steamrolling giddiness.
She cleared her throat.
“Well, it’s taken me a few years, but I wanted to sit down with you face to face and tell you that I’m sorry.”
“You tracked me down on Facebook just to tell me you’re sorry about something that happened when I was a teenager?” I demanded. It was unsettling to yet determine the true intent behind her actions.
“Yes. I realize that I played a part in your expulsion. A bigger part than I would have liked.”
“Ok, but why me?”
She smiled and reached for my hand. Immediately, I pulled away.
“Sherane, you were one of the good ones.”
“You were one of the good ones, Sherane, and I’m sorry.”
You were one of the good ones.
A few seconds later, Lauren excused herself to the bathroom. I did a quick sweep of my surroundings, then hocked up a phlegm-ball into her coffee. I made sure to stir it up with her spoon.
I walked out of the cafe before she came back. When I got home, my boyfriend was sitting on the couch, flipping through the channels.
“How’d it go?” he wondered. I removed my bag, my jacket, and my shoes as though I’d been dipped in a vat of toxic waste.
“She said I was one of the good ones,” I replied.
My boyfriend shook his head and then shuffled into the kitchen. He got out the bottle of Patron and two shot glasses. He filled them up, came back, and then handed me a glass.
“To the good ones,” he declared.
I matched his smile, thought about Lauren’s coffee, my empty chair, her empty head.
“To the good ones!”
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.