F. Scott Fitzgerald said, (and I’m paraphrasing here), that intelligence can be measured by holding two opposing views at the same time. I have never simultaneously loved and loathed someone, with the exception of my sister Carolina May Flock, or Carly as my mother renamed her five days after her birth, or Cally as my father liked to call her after she’d won some shiny school award for Best Grades or Class President or Most Likely to Date a Movie Star, or Cally-Cantaloupe when he was high. Carolina is Carolina to me; I’ve stopped using the nickname I bestowed upon her when I was a toddler with a lisp. Carolina is five years older than me and although I don’t think it has anything to do with wisdom, my sister is convinced that a person’s age is tantamount to emotional stability and sensibility. She forgets that although I whittled away my high school career passing through the thickest shadows, I am not as optimistic and thus, not as easily swindled by the kindness of strangers. Carolina is a chameleon; she changes her personality around people in order to gain acceptance. When she was younger, she knew how to play our parents. She manipulated them and neither of them knew Carolina, my Carolina.
Our parents met at church. The introduction was a conveniently-launched operation by our father’s mother. On that Sunday, a bloated Georgia sun stretched across the sky like yellow taffy and it was warm enough to leave the jackets at home. April had been a cruel month of rain followed by snaps of dense wet wool humidity. Our father’s mother dragged him over to a family friend. When he stuck out his hand, our mother pecked him on both cheeks as though she’d just returned from an exile in Paris. My father immediately liked my mother because she wore her hair in a not-quite-symmetrical Ronnie Spector beehive, a crown that rested on top of her head. He was seventeen and she was sixteen and although they often succumbed to the fantasies of freedom beyond Atlanta, they both recognized the obstacles attached to social mobility as insurmountable limitations. As a first-born daughter and a first-born son, they were held to the same expectations concocted by close-knit communities, hermetically-sealed bands of people who lived by the codes of their imagined roles. My mother and father married right out of high school. They stayed together for far too long, twisting and contorting a loving partnership into a performance piece in tolerance. They would rather pick each other apart with their brass-knuckled fighting words or insults mashed into icy whispers.
Carolina defied our father’s wishes and declined her acceptances into Howard, Hillman, Florida A&M, and Grambling and headed up North to study acting at Yale. Fuck Halle Berry, she said, she wanted to be Dorothy Dandridge or Josephine Baker, adopt a tribe of children and electrify the world.
Yale gave her the least amount of scholarship money but somehow, through a series of loans she knew she’d spend the rest of her life paying back, money saved from past summer jobs, and the promise that she would find a part-time job that didn’t disrupt her studies, our parents let her go.
Our father died my sophomore year of college. It was a brain aneurysm. It makes me think of long dormant grenades bursting and ripping through dead air, massive volcanoes exploding, an earthquake splitting open the ground like torn stitches, swallowing skyrise apartments. I wasn’t around when it happened. I was supposed to be writing a ten page paper for a Multicultural Literature class but I’d opted to go drink away my procrastination and subsequent guilt with another Boy Wonder of the Week, wondering if that night would finally be the night that we ended up in his bed.
At that time, my sister had relocated to Queens, locked in a feral relationship with her current boyfriend, Isaac. She said she was signed with an acting agency but I suspected it wasn’t the kind that had a fancy waiting room and cinematic view of Central Park. Most likely, it was a one or two-person business that rented out a shoe-box of an office and all of the wannabe Bambi-eyed actors and actresses considered a national Kraft commercial as “solid experience.” Before Carolina pulled an All About Eve and was anointed into the Broadway scene, she’d occasionally tell me about the auditions the agency booked for her. One of them involved going to some director’s house and washing his new BMW in a bikini. The director and his lackeys argued that this was a perfectly acceptable and professional request, as the B-movie in question was about a group of college kids on Spring Break who are terrorized by a lunatic with a bowie knife. He said that for this particular role of Sorority Sister #1, he wanted someone who could still retain her sex appeal while being scared shitless.
I felt disappointed when she confessed. Maybe a little bit of it was rooted in my sadness that she hadn’t told the director to go fuck himself. She had no problem spewing this at men who cat-called her on the street or the crusty old men who came through her line at the grocery store and wondered “what kind of mix” she was.
Sometimes I hate my sister because she’s always going to be the better daughter, the memorable daughter, the family Rock of Gibraltar.
When our dad died, somehow my sister became my mother and my mother’s mother. She made sure that the lights were always on and my tuition got paid and our mother was eating enough vegetables and getting enough sleep and hiding her crazy. It was as though Carolina had been trained for the responsibilities of matriarch in the womb.
My sister says that I suffer from “acute self-esteem and self-expression issues.” She says that if I’m worried about my looks, it’s absolutely ridiculous because we’re sisters and we look the same but I know that she is a different kind of pretty. She is the kind of “pretty for a black girl” that warrants love beyond lust, marriage proposals, oafish devotion. She’s Delilah and all of the boys and men that happen to notice her are pitifully disarmed.
I am not pretty for a black girl. I am not pretty for a girl. I am not pretty. I’m just there.
She called me last night.
It’s the summer before I’m supposed to graduate from Georgia State. Carolina is newly engaged to Isaac. I think she’s having a midlife crisis; being a prospective Mrs. has set off some sort of weird ache for the familiar. She’s insisted that I come stay with them for the summer in Brooklyn.
I expressed my hesitations but Carolina went ahead and bought the round trip tickets.
I need you here for a few months, Deanna. I want you to experience a summer in the City.
I didn’t really understand what she meant or the urgency behind such a request. But she’s my sister and I have a sixth sense about when things aren’t as peachy as she insists and somehow I know it’s all because of Isaac.
Isaac thinks he’s as slick as a young Denzel Washington but he’s really a stylish Steve Urkel. He can’t hold his liqour and I can always beat him in beer pong. He’s what our dear old dad would call bougie. He says that he doesn’t listen to rap or hip-hop because now it all sounds like the same overproduced techno-garbage and nobody has found anything interesting or shown any raw talent since the deaths of 2Pac and Biggie. His sense of “black brotherhood” is only felt in his shame. I think that he’s embarrassed by association.
One time the three of us were on the subway and two black women got into an argument. Carolina couldn’t be bothered; she’d grown accustomed to the circus of city life and was checking her lipstick in a glittery compact mirror. I couldn’t help but watch. Isaac noticed that I was watching and said, “Another pair of ratchets acting up for World Star.”
I don’t think Isaac likes me that much. When he told me that black people need to get their act together, I told him that white people need to stop being racist first.
“Deanna, don’t you realize that we need to stop blaming white people for our mistakes? Sure, slavery happened, but we all need to stop living in the past. If black people stopped abusing the welfare system and put in some hard work, we’d all be better off.”
He said those words as though they were sugar cubes dissolving on his tongue, like they were a remedy we’d all been too dumb to figure out. Isaac still believes in the impossibility of the American Dream. He can see the gold imbedded in the streets. He sees wasted potential and the disease of apathy in the homeless men who sleep on the subway, curled up in the fetal position, their lives crammed in dirty shopping carts. He says that if drug dealers like Jay Z can become rappers and then become business moguls and own a basketball team, what is everyone else waiting for?
When Isaac looks at me, he sees a girl who stupidly let a few white boys (and a few Hispanic and Asian boys) kiss her when she was feeling doped up on loneliness.
Carolina picks me up from the airport. She’s surprised that I only have a backpack, a purse and a single suitcase. She maneuvers through the thick blobs of clueless tourists and frantic travelers like oil sliding across vinyl. The chaos of the airport makes me feel like I’m racing against the mouth of an avalanche. I will never get used to the anonymity of New York, the cloak of invisibility wrapping around your body. The first time I used the subway, I stood close to my sister, afraid that I’d make eye contact with the wrong person and they would misinterpret my shocked nerves as recklessness. Carolina didn’t tell me which was our stop. Instead, when the moment came, she yanked on my arm and then it was either scurry out, attempting the impossible task of trying not to touch anyone, or be left behind.
“How was the flight?”
“You know. Fine. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“You want to get something to eat in here or go straight to the apartment?” She wonders.
“I’m hungry. Can we get a sandwich?”
“Yeah. We can find something,” she says.
Carolina takes the suitcase without asking and we start walking. I wonder how many people realize that we’re sisters or that we’re even related. Carolina is runway model tall and walks into rooms as though she were a queen about to mandate an execution. She’s not afraid to wear heels and she knows how to feel comfortable in her body. Our mother said that Carolina got the good hair. While my skin is on the darker side, Carolina is several shades lighter and her eyes are honey-colored cat’s eye marbles. In the summer, I tend to forgo sartorial efforts. I like the habit of dressing in uniforms of mesh basketball shorts, white tank tops and flip-flops or a pair of New Balance.
We agree on pizza. She buys us slices, Diet Coke for her, Root Beer for me. We sit at the back of the restaurant. The guy tending the register, some skater rat with glazed eyes, asked my sister if she worked at Macy’s on 34th Street in the perfume department and she said no. The skater rat frowned, said are you sure because I swear I saw you or your doppelganger there last Tuesday and you had your hair pulled back with a purple plastic clip? My sister insisted that it couldn’t have been her because she’d never even left Brooklyn last Tuesday. The skater rat shrugged and smiled, skepticism still humming.
“So, is Mom still smoking cigarettes?”
“She told me she was quitting.”
“She always says she’s quitting. She’s never quit. She’s never going to quit. She just takes little breaks for a week or a month to say that she tried.”
“Well, aren’t you in a good mood this afternoon.”
“What? Carolina, why would you even ask? You know the answer.”
“I bought new sheets and a new air mattress since the last time you came here,” Carolina informs.
“Thank God. That other mattress shit the bed decades ago.”
Carolina shoots me a death glare but I don’t flinch.
“Isaac said that we should go to the Brooklyn Bowl tonight. There’s going to be a band there.”
“What kind of band? Please tell me it’s not some hipster band that thinks it should be interviewed for Pitchfork.”
“No! I think it’s a ska band,” she says.
“A ska band? So we’re going to interact with white people with smelly dreadlocks?”
“Oh my fucking God, will you stop? It’ll be fun. We’ll do some bowling, check out the band. You’re going to have fun,” she insists.
I stuff the last of my pizza into my mouth in order to prevent another sarcastic remark. On the way out, the cashier makes it a point to say goodbye to Carolina. She nods and offers a limp wave, her mind already latched onto the next thing on her to-do list. With certain people, she’s unable to conceal the gurgling and churning of her thoughts. You can tell when she’s thinking if you have been exposed to all the jumbled wires that light her up. When I call out an audible goodbye to the cashier, he doesn’t answer, his gaze fixated on Carolina, staring at her with sorrow as though he were watching a prized racehorse get put down.
I drain the last of my soda and start chewing on the ice.
Isaac pours himself a glass of red wine in the kitchen. He automatically fetches Carolina a glass and offers me one. I accept because they’re fresh out of beer and don’t have anything harder in fridge. Their apartment is cozy and well-furnished, a mixing of Ikea and gently used Craigslist cast-offs. Carolina has a picture of us on her fridge, held up by alphabet magnets. Most of the decorations in the apartment seem to be from Carolina or heavily influenced by Carolina’s aesthetic palate.
Isaac works at a bank and mostly handles personal finance. He likes to tell people that he’s also a freelance music producer but all he does is make bland clips with Garageband to post to his Twitter.
People in Brooklyn and people battling New York’s selectivity never seem to be chasing a single passion or end goal. They are never enough by themselves. They need the comfort of labels as snug as designer ski pants. Even with Carolina’s friends, the ones I’ve actually met, seem to be doing so much without doing anything at all. The majority of them work in the creative arts industry and want to suffer, want to be the martyr.
Carolina has to go Uptown for some costume fitting or something, which means I have to spend the afternoon with Isaac. When she finally rushes out the door, part of me wants to run after her.
“What should we do, kid?” Isaac asks. He flips through the TV channels and then lands on Maury. Another paternity test episode. Isaac smirks, keeps a finger over the channel button, but doesn’t change it.
“I don’t know. And don’t call me kid.”
“Touchy, touchy. You wanna go to a record store?”
He can never be just nice. The undertone of his question reminds me of seedy men luring children into unmarked white vans, candy cupped in sweaty palms.
I say yes because I’m bored and I feel like the apartment has shrunk to microscopic, choking proportions.
The guy at the record store is a recent city transplant, a stocky white guy with a fixed-gear bike and blue hair and a sleeve of tattoos, dorky glasses, features muddied by dark scruff. Isaac has somehow befriended this guy because they both like Bad Brains and the guy said that it’s “refreshing” to talk punk music with a black guy.
“What’re you looking for?” the guy asks me.
I can’t stand the way he is chummy with Isaac, his entitlement stinking up my air like a freshly-painted park bench. I recognize the smirk in his voice. He probably thinks, just like Isaac, that because I am a girl, I don’t think too much or what I think is wrong. I know because whenever we have disagreeing opinions, Isaac tells me that I’m wrong.
“Do you have Beyoncé?” I innocently ask. Although I like Beyoncé, I’m actually looking for PJ Harvey. Call my baiting a little social experiment.
Isaac and Record Store Dude burst out laughing.
“BEYONCÉ? This isn’t Best Buy,” Record Store Dude says.
“Why would you want a Beyoncé CD, anyway? All she does is profit off the fact that she’s always half-naked,” Isaac teases.
Instead of responding, I turn around and begin to walk away.
“Women are all confused these days,” Isaac says conspiratorially to Record Store Dude.
“I fucking hate pop music. Lady Gaga? More like Lady She-Man,” Record Store Dude laments.
“That’s what I’m saying, my nigga,” Isaac affirms.
I want to gag.
We’re on the subway when it happens. One minute I’m watching a woman unwrap the smelliest block of cheese and begin to cut off skin-thin slices for herself. The next Isaac is hollering like slow flames are eating up his body and a few people look over to study the unfolding scene but mostly everyone keeps to themselves, heads down. Other press forward in their conversations.
A black man in sweatpants, army jacket and fresh-out-the-box Nikes swipes Isaac’s wallet out of his back pocket. It’s obvious he’s a skilled pickpocket and he planned the heist, probably scoped out Isaac before we even set foot on the train. The pickpocket knows it’s all about timing, about how fast he can run, how many boulder-like people he needs to shove to the ground. The pickpocket dashes through the doors like a sweat-soaked eel and Isaac can only curse that motherfucker that motherfucker that motherfuck as the train speeds away and into the dark tunnel like a bullet to a soft-melon skull.
When we finally get back to the apartment, Carolina is putting away groceries. She has on the old Outkast album and as she makes room in the fridge, she raps along, voice dropping a bit, vowels a little rougher than the polite, prim and proper posturing she employs when speaking to white authority figures: me and you, your momma and your cousin too, rollin down the strip on vogues, comin up slammin Cadillac doz.
This is a shade of the Carolina I knew as a teenager, the one who got a thrill in riding with smart-mouthed boys in the cars they borrowed from their mama’s. There are so many facets of Carolina that I miss and that’s why I sometimes hate her.
When the music hits Isaac, he groans.
“Shut it off! Please! Or change it to something else. I can’t take that music right now.”
Carolina turns down the volume with a remote.
“What’s the matter?”
“Some crackhead robbed me on the train.”
“Oh no! So what happened?” Carolina asks.
“What the fuck do you think happened? The fucker got away with my cash and my cards. Of course the cops didn’t see shit. And of course it was some black as charcoal nigga who probably never worked a day in his life. Fuck!”
Isaac collapses on the couch as though he’s gone ten rounds with Ali and he’s battling two throbbing black eyes.
“Well, what’s done is done. You can call the bank and have them cancel your cards.”
“I KNOW, Carolina, I know.”
“We live in New York. I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later,” Carolina says with a shrug.
“NO. This wasn’t bound to happen. It’s not supposed to happen. I better not see that piece of shit again,” Isaac growls.
Carolina and I exchange looks. What a baby, I silently say. I know, Carolina replies.
Later that night, we will go to the Brooklyn Bowl to see the ska band and Carolina will wear a crop top that Isaac says is “too revealing.” They will get in a fight while we’re getting our hands stamped and then kiss and make up after Isaac buys her a tequila shot.
Later that night, I will watch from the dance floor as Isaac gets into an argument with a black NYU student for staring too long at Carolina. And when we eventually get kicked out after Isaac takes the first swing, I feel an uncomfortable flash of unexpected pity as he mumbles to my sister, “Can’t trust anyone anymore, especially these city niggas.”
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.