I think that Chelsea picked me because she knew that I was willing and malleable, a brown clay girl sprouted from ragged roots thirsting for water, my Otherness as imposing and pervasive as a beached-whale rotting beneath the tug of an occasional wave. In those days, I was always picking at my cuticles like they were flecks of gold.
I think that we all have that one friendship that defines the confusion of girlhood.
The name of our town isn’t important because it is easily forgettable, a copy of a copy of a copy. Another East Coast slice of sterilized suburbia where everyone votes liberal to save face. A shoreline community draped in white, surrounded by brown and black, the invisible minority hiding in plain sight.
This town rarely makes the news and if (when) we do it’s to promote a sensational headline, a tragedy that speaks to the simultaneous disdain and fascination attached to the mortality of human nature. We get fooled into thinking that the absence of high-density urban life guarantees the absence of crime or greed or gluttony or fear.
In other words, we are nothing special.
From the time that I started school, my peers were angry that I did not meet their requirements of racial authenticity. They wanted a travel-size Sarah Baartman, a mute display of freakish, alien proportions. They wanted a Mammy, a devoted disciple who had swallowed the wisdom of the world. They wanted a Hood Rat Ghetto Thick Chick, plump mouth brimming with blood from housing daggers, a calculated flick of the wrist and the shimmy of soft, round, womanly hips, unpredictable like a stripped, hot wire.
Again and again, they wanted what I would not give, could not give. They felt tricked. They couldn’t believe that they’d gotten a black girl who was a con artist. I now know that my struggles are to be expected of all young black girls daring to exist in white spaces. It’s a coming-of-age spectacle embedded with tripwire and everyone assumes that you’re a pariah, an unreachable, unteachable headcase if you buckle under the pressure. Oddly enough, I take comfort in knowing that there are hundreds, thousands of me, squeezing through the cracks, zipping through the underground, trying to make sense of mixed signals.
If only we knew how to mobilize and fully believe in our bravery.
Chelsea was not African-American, she was Dominican-American, but nobody could tell the difference. They didn’t care or they conveniently forgot. Chelsea knew that the people in our town relished in the warm embrace of ignorance, the safety net of inherent privilege, and didn’t have any intention of cutting their umbilical cords. To challenge such stubbornly ingrained notions would be akin to self-destruction, self-immolation, a horror which our peers and elders would have paid to watch.
In order to maintain the upper hand, you must learn to shrink yourself at the right moments, she said. Shrink yourself and they’ll never realize that you’re a Venus flytrap. I didn’t understand the cleverness of her advice. At the time, I was in love with a boy named X who became the prototype for all my subsequent failed relationships. I didn’t realize that Chelsea would never be a whimpering Juliet. She could bend if it meant honorable defeat but she would never feel guilty for her existence.
Adaptation, compliance, even silence–these were the proper fighting tools for a rebel in disguise.
We all have our secrets.
In front of a crowd, you would never notice the fractures in the levies or hear the groan of the water. My parents misjudged Chelsea; they passed her off as a Strong Black Woman, a bulletproof Amazon Queen waiting to get rid of the trappings of a precocious child.
My parents never knew why Chelsea and I stopped talking. They chalked it up to going off to college and the inevitable sway of opposing companions. How could I possibly explain the mythology of our friendship?
Chelsea always wanted to be a cool California blonde, not Marilyn Monroe but Jayne Mansfield, a walking centerfold with a trim waist attached to breasts that she would love like a steel-plated trophy.
We were bound to become confidantes. We lived on the same street. As children, we shared a bike because my parents didn’t have enough money to buy me one. Cruising through the neighborhood on balmy summer nights, cheap tank tops turned to sweat rags, Chelsea steering like James Bond with martini-pumping veins behind the wheel of a new Aston Martin, geranium pink streamers whistling like whipping cords, my arms tucked around her waist while I balanced on the back of her bike. We based our friendship on the blueprint of an unspoken social code, a superpower ceeding to a lesser, crippled former antagonist, not out of pity or empathy but for survival and security.
I have more than enough time to reminisce these days and somehow my thoughts, no matter how muddied, loop back to the demise of my allegiance to Chelsea.
Chelsea arranged everything.
She looked out for me in that way. I think that I owe her much more than I care to admit; the echoes of her intentions have followed me through the years like a mother’s yellowing wedding dress.
The doctors say that I have probably been depressed for a long time. I can only think of the disease like some tapeworm lingering in the bottom of my bowels, gobbling everything up like a high-performance, industrial-sized vacuum. The doctors insist that my accident was the precursor to suicide. No one washes down Tylenol with bottom-shelf liquor unless they want to die.
I told them that I hadn’t actually wanted to die, I just wanted to hit pause, to step out of this character and momentarily subsist in the nothingness of sleep. While awake, I often felt like water vapor. While asleep, I could be nothing. While asleep, I could reconcile my warring states of consciousness. The doctors are all white, with the exception of an Asian woman with thinning hair. They insist that I am sensitive and I have no choice but to believe them.
I suppose “sensitive” is easier to swallow than “angry.”
To think, that at seventeen, my best friend had to plan out my “date” with a boy as though she were rigging the voting ballots at prom. For her, this was an act of altruism propelled by loneliness. Being best friends with a nervous virgin meant that you were on two opposite sides of the looking glass. Loyalties forged in adolescence need to be propped up by a constant pipeline of shared experiences. They are ties suspended by the craftsmanship of intricate sailor’s knots, little pieces of yourself intertwined with someone else’s narrative, frozen into static art like stuffed animals in a museum. I’d made the mistake of confessing that I was scared of going off to college still a virgin, as though sex were an exercise in public cattle branding. Chelsea had lost her virginity at fifteen to a seventeen-year-old lifeguard from an adjacent town. They had sex on our high school football field and he thought that the pinnacle of romance constituted in rolling a joint and smoothing down her wild baby hairs as she held back tears of disappointment. She never spoke to him again. She later learned to feel grateful that she didn’t bleed all over the sleeves of his letterman jacket and the pain was quick then gone like a dove disappearing at the snap of a magician’s fingers.
“So, who exactly is this dude?”
“His name is Dennis, but everyone calls him Dally,” Chelsea said.
We were twittering birds circling each other in the bathroom of my family’s apartment. Chelsea had put on our “Friday Night Playlist,” a compilation of songs that didn’t make any sense to anyone but Chelsea (and me): ABBA’s Dancing Queen, followed by Lil Kim’s Big Momma Thang, followed by Queen Bitch by David Bowie and so on and so on and so on. We liked music that made us feel bigger than we were. The countertop was dusted with drugstore foundation and bronzer and blush. Chelsea worked on my face as though she were restoring the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, taking the time to wipe away the faintest of makeup smudges.
My mother never taught me how to put on makeup. She hardly wore any, said that she was fine with the face that God gave her and if other people were offended, they could just shut their eyes.
“Dally? Like The Outsiders?”
“What?” Chelsea asked. She took a step back and frowned at the cat-eye she’d just applied.
“The Outsiders. The book by S.E. Hinton. Matt Dillon was Dally in the movie.”
Chelsea laughed. I watched too many movies, gorged on a diet of white Hollywood coming-of-age dramas. I had faith in the transmutability of celluloid to reality. I was a product of my environment but unlike Chelsea, I was stupid enough to believe that my environment wanted to carve out a better version of me.
“I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Chelsea changed the sheets in my parent’s bedroom. She’d done this before. She’d chiseled the fundamentals into her mind. She appreciated the details, feared them when she needed to depend upon them.
Dally and the aforementioned X were to arrive at 10PM. We bought the Gatorade. They swore they’d bring the vodka. Forays beyond heavy petting and casual conversation couldn’t ignite without the soothing equalizer of alcohol. Suburban kids somehow learn this upon hitting puberty and memorize the mantra like the stolen answers to a final exam. Chelsea told me that my outfit was “unacceptable” and I looked like a doofy kid about to audition for a Life cereal commercial. I exchanged my overalls and Hanes t-shirt for a pair of her too-tight jeans and a sparkly halter top. Chelsea had to tie it three times because I was flat-chested.
Dally and X were almost an hour late. Chelsea reprimanded their tardiness the second she swung open the front door. Dally was a tall Puerto Rican charmer and a senior at the nearby technical high school. He knew Chelsea because she was a friend of a friend and small towns often breed false intimacy. X was a honey-haired white boy with a black barber shop fade. He wore mesh basketball shorts year round with Adidas sandals. When it snowed, he wore thick tube socks. Despite the disregard for a polished wardrobe, X enjoyed the spoils of the upper-middle class. He didn’t work an after-school job and was not plagued by the uncertainties of life beyond high school. He thought that he’d inspired a lasting legacy that would extend beyond local celebrity. The Good Life was promised to him and thus he roamed our highschool hallways with the arrogance of a prince who would soon be king. I’d liked him so much, more than he ever deserved.
“Where the cups at?” Dally wondered as he opened and closed the kitchen cabinets. He moved with a lethargic limp as though he were moving through car fumes.
Chelsea went over to the cabinet by the fridge and pulled out plastic cups.
“Fill me up, Scotty,” she demanded.
X would barely look at me. Dally treated me like a bad blind date with spinach stuck between her teeth. Chelsea got me a drink and we all kind of stood around in the kitchen until we followed Chelsea into the living room. X turned on the TV and settled on South Park. Chelsea sat next to him so that I would have to sit on the loveseat with Dally.
When I looked at her, she seemed to be saying, Don’t fuck this up.
I made the mistake of telling the doctors that I thought growing up would have been easier if I’d grown up white. They said that everything I tell them is confidential and I hope that they’re not lying because if my father knew, I would not be able to handle his sadness because it would grab me by the throat with talons, twisting and pinching the veins until they popped. My mother bought me white and black Barbies but I rarely played with the black dolls. I didn’t need another reminder of the identity I wanted to demolish. The doctors tell me that I am a sick girl and it’s no wonder that I had a breakdown while attending college on a scholarship for a double major. The doctors tell me that I need regimented doses of medication to treat my broken brain and I need talk therapy and I need to stop feeling so bad about myself but when I tell them about the times that white boys said I looked like a monkey and white girls asked me where I bought my hair, they extract the racism from the memory with surgical precision and label the pain solely as an amplified result of my depression.
It’s chemical, they say. You feel sad because you are programmed to be sad. You were born sad, they conclude.
If she were here with me, Chelsea would not agree. She would say, you’re not sad because of your genes, you’re sad because you were made to hate yourself.
Dally was obviously in love with Chelsea. He made the extra effort to let her know with his lingering fingertips and clumsy bravado.
“Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” Dally asked Chelsea.
Chelsea shrugged. She was The Cool Girl. Of course she was. There could only be one of us and I bullied myself into believing that it could never be me.
“High school boys are such babies,” Chelsea replied.
No one asked why I didn’t have a boyfriend.
X was fascinated with Chelsea as though she were the newly crowned queen of the mermaids. But I couldn’t think of anything to say fast enough; Chelsea never let the occasional pinprick of anxiety deflate her allure. She knew the right jokes to make, she wasn’t afraid to burp, wasn’t afraid to speak the things that made her shake. We were all following her cues like the Lost Boys. Towards the end of Nightmare Before Elm Street, the Gatorade was gone and so was the vodka.
“I’m hungry. I’m going to get some snacks,” Chelsea announced. Dally smiled. X sighed. I looked at the lines in my palms.
Dally and Chelsea ventured off down the street and into the darkness to the mobile mart. X and I knew that this was a drunken form of sabotage. Dally wanted Chelsea and she wanted him and they had fallen into a world of their own.
The rational part of me realizes that in the process of reconstructing Chelsea, some of her supposed powers of persuasion were enhanced by my insecurities. On the other hand, my role in it all imprinted bad habits that I am attempting to break.
“Well, looks like it’s just the two of us,” X said.
I couldn’t look at him. I had to focus on a spot on the wall just above his head.
“Who knew you weren’t so uptight? I still can’t believe that you’re friends with Chelsea.”
“I’m not uptight,” I snapped.
X laughed. It was sweet, like he was addressing a third grader with a learning disability.
“No offense, but you barely speak at school. Everyone just assumes that you’re uptight because you hardly make a sound.”
“Yeah, well, maybe there just aren’t a lot of people I want to talk to, is that so bad?”
“I guess not. But then you can’t blame people for thinking what they think.”
He flipped the channels and absentmindedly adjusted himself. He put his feet up on the coffee table and ripped the cover of my mom’s Essence.
I still wanted to kiss him.
X made the first move. Without Chelsea’s presence, I was so uncomfortable in my self-awareness that I was a jumbled mess. We went into the bedroom and left it twenty minutes later. I didn’t take off all my clothes. When it was all over, he said, “Don’t go telling too many people about this, ok?”
Chelsea and Dally returned with a bag of snacks and flushed faces.
Two weeks later, they were officially a couple.
Somehow my peers found out that I’d slept with X and rumor was, he’d said I was “like a dead fish.”
I knew that Chelsea didn’t leak the information but I knew she also didn’t make much of an effort to come to my defense. At first I made excuses as to why I couldn’t hang out with her: too much homework, I have to study, I have to do something for my mom, I’m tired.
“Cut the bullshit. Why are you mad at me?” Chelsea asked one night on the phone.
“I’m not mad at you,” I lied.
A few days after that she found somewhere else to sit at lunch. Sometimes she’d sneak out the back door near the gymnasium and skip the rest of the school day to be with Dally.
Side by side and silent, Chelsea and I constructed our own Berlin Wall, family members turned strangers.
My dad doesn’t visit me here. My mom says it’s because he’s busy working but who really wants to go to the loony bin and pretend that their daughter is normal? My mother buys me flowers, daisies even though I’ve told her that they are my least favorite flower. My mother listens to what she chooses. Everything else vibrates with the mechanic hum of hospital white noise.
I’m not sure when I’ll get free. It seems like some of the patients are here because they have nowhere else to go. Their families dropped them off and forgot about them like lost luggage.
I like to play Uno with a young woman named Allison. She chopped off her hair like Mia Farrow and when she walks, I hear the bones in her hips click, click, click. She’s a recovering anorexic and this is her second go around in the hospital. She is twenty-five and most of her life has been dedicated to the shrinking of inches in hopes of erasing the fat, lumbering degenerate that follows her in the mirror. I have seen her steadily gain weight and I think that her beauty has not changed.
She asks me for advice, whether it be something as trivial as what color she should use to paint her toenails or if progress means eating her lunch instead of throwing it away.
I asked her why I’ve suddenly become the high priestess of wisdom and she said, “Girl, you’re the sanest person in this animal farm.”
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.