The black baby looked like a Raphael, Renee thought. The face seemed immutable, like someone had sketched those flushed cheeks ages ago — shaded with bronzer, or a dust of rouge — from different angles; the bright and exploring eyes. The mother, a lithe thing in oversized shoes, had the bundled body tucked and wrapped to her, that tiny face watching Renee from under a knit cap. She watched the shadow of the baby, and its dying plant of a mother, dash across the pavement.
I could change you, she decided. I could make you into something. And then she realized this is how kids learn to despise and love to despise and then just love their parents — the moms and dads who tried too hard, or not hard enough, to create their babies in their image. What the woman was doing out in that strange haze of space and time between late at night and early in the morning, on this street, on this side of town, on a Saturday night, with that beautiful black baby was a mystery. But it was as if the mother trailed nature behind her as that baby’s head rested on her shoulder, away from the noise and the booze and the drunks milling around, ejected and stumbling out of bars on the main strip.
Renee shoved her handbag up in her armpit, her eyes on the pavement, as the woman and the baby disappeared around the corner. The patrolling police officer’s shadow converged and subtracted with hers under the flickering street lamp as he wrote her a ticket. She closed her eyes and thought of what she would buy the next day to make up for this nonsense, the inconvenience. She needed a new coat. She wished she’d brought at least a light jacket to cover her arms, because the winter still lingered and being outside on a Saturday night is no fun when it’s 45 degrees and the bars are closing.
Her mother would make that face at her she’d made a thousand times and say, “Where’s your coat?” Of course, her mother asked her that in mid-summer, when the 90-degree sun beat down on her skin and tanned her a nice, silky, deep brown. “You burned!” her mother would scold, and rub Renee’s arms until Renee thought maybe she had burned out in the sun, that she would start peeling and find a fresh, unblemished layer of skin. She was brown either way, she wanted to tell her mother, but instead, she slathered on sunscreen before she went out. She told herself it was for safety, but really it was because tan lines are tan lines, no matter how dark you are.
He had stopped Renee, asked her where she thought she was going. Like any woman alone late at night, she backed up when he approached her. Renee clicked open the pepper spray she clutched in her left hand, her keys splayed through her fingers on her right. She was two blocks from her car, almost at the intersection; she could almost see it, picture herself inside.
“Ma’am?” She kept right on walking. “Ma’am.”
When she stopped, she realized it wasn’t an apparition, not some kid masquerading as a cop. There was the uniform, worn as if he’d lived in it over the past couple years; it molded to fit his body. The stripes near the lapel, the radio clipped on, the shiny badge and the indefinable hole in her gut when she saw the holster. She put her hands up, not all the way in surrender, just enough to say, Hold on,” to let him know that she was a woman, alone.
“Where are you headed?”
“My car.” She nodded in the opposite direction of her Mini, her latest pride purchase, just in case.
“Have you been drinking?”
She shook her head. Already feeling rejected in her new blouse and favorite jeans, she’d ditched her friends at their favorite bar. She didn’t fit in. She had to leave, go home, sleep spread across her mattress in her 600-thread-count sheets and pretend that would be enough.
“There’s been complaints of loud music, vandalism, spray paint…”
“I’m just walking to my car.”
He pulled out his pad for tickets. “I’m going to need to see your license.”
In her head, she thought, Are you kidding me right now? She would get loud and he would know it and she was right at his height and he knew it. He would place a cautious hand near his holster, and she would feel all the air leave her lungs. So instead, Renee opened her bag, pulled out her wallet and jimmied out her license, crammed in with coupons and credit cards and pictures of her family. She shook in earnest now, and scoffed at the inconvenience, of shaking in front of an officer, right when you need to dig out your license.
“This is just a warning,” the officer said. Renee looked up. In her flats, she was even-eyed with the man and made a face as if to say, I could crush you. He had paused while scribbling the warning for loitering — that she would crumple and forget to read — as if he was also thinking this was a mistake, and a waste of his time.
He handed over the warning slip.
“You really shouldn’t be walking alone.”
“Anything else?” she said.
“No, ma’am. How close is your car?”
“Close.” She turned on her heel and glided around the corner. As she heard his boot steps click away with a sound that echoed in her ears like mercy, she whispered to herself, “Keep your head up. Keep your head up.”
As soon as she turned the corner and blinked the lights on her car, she thought of the baby. If she could find that rushing woman and her child, she’d offer them a ride. She peered out of her window to try to locate some constellation through a light, industrial fog. Her mother in this moment would raise a hand to her baby fro and look over her clothes and say, “Well, maybe if you looked a bit different, they wouldn’t have stopped you.” She tried to maintain her senses, but her brain drifted anyway. She thought of what would have happened if she had long hair, if her skin dropped a few shades, if she was a few inches shorter. She wondered if he would have approached her differently, if there would have been care or worry in his voice.
She hoped the baby, the black Raphael, would grow up to be small. Large enough to take care of itself, but not so large to cause it problems. It would grow up strong, she thought. People often misunderstood her and thought she had it all together, she was always in charge, always collected. Part of appearance was power. But underneath power and self-security, all she wanted someone to do was offer to walk her to her car, as if she were as in need as anyone else, and as of deserving of protection. To check up on her later, to make sure she got home all right.
The next morning, Renee met her friends for brunch. Val was in town to visit. They scheduled the brunch around Melanie’s conference schedule; she was always travelling, always off someplace, with her business casual and flowered hairpins.
“So they know it’s me,” she’d said with a wink. Before they were friends, Renee hoped they’d be friends, but wasn’t sure if two tall black women could be friends. She saw herself wanting in Melanie, and Melanie said the same of her, but that balance sheet always evened out.
After brunch, they stopped to pick up some overpriced, but delicious coffee and snacks for the movies.
“This place is everything wrong with the world,” Mel said as she sipped a latte. “Damn, that’s good.”
Renee laughed. “You can go anywhere. The drinks taste exactly the same.”
“You could say the same about those chicken sandwiches you love so much. That is not chicken.”
“Yeah, yeah, evil empires. Everyone who works here gets health care. Everyone.”
“To evil empires!” Mel said, as she raised her cup.
“Hear, hear!” Renee laughed. “Val, what’re you up to?
“I just wanted to take more time to work,” Val said. She tugged at her sleeves and then shoved them back up again.
“Work-work, or poetry-work.” Taylor asked this enough that she didn’t even think of it as a question anymore, only a normal response to Val’s need for approval.
“If that’s what you wanna do, knock yourself out. You should totally keep writing your poetry,” Taylor said.
“What’s wrong with that?” Val asked.
“Don’t you just think that sometimes it’s too easy? Like unfinished?” Taylor said.
“I mean your poems are great. Really awesome, incredible. But sometimes I think that there’s something else there.”
“I read a poem and I think either,” Taylor said as she counted on her fingers, “either this is a perfectly serviceable sentence broken into several lines, or I don’t get it, or this will make a great story. When it’s finished.”
“It doesn’t have to be fair. I only think that of some poems. Only occasionally yours. But I’m trying. I’m getting there. I just,” Taylor paused. “I don’t like chewing my food over and over before tasting it,” she said.
Renee wondered why every day couldn’t be made up of chocolate and caffeine. Taylor flipped through a few outdated CD cases. Mel flashed her lights at a car that had been trying, unsuccessfully, to change lanes and held up the entire left lane of traffic.
“Stop letting people in!” Taylor said. “We’ll never get there.”
Renee held open the snack bag at her feet. “Twizzlers?”
Place a few disparate women in a car and inevitably, they will try to impress each other. It’s not a natural response to friendship, but in their mirrors they each tried to convince themselves they were special and unique, and the outside world, the world they all struggled with the moment they flicked off their alarms in the morning, that world told them maybe they weren’t all that good after all.
Be your best person means: be better than the person next to you. Underneath all the love and all the understanding was a desire, a fight. Because they were in a battle. An underlying condition to being a black woman. You had to win it, to stick up for yourself, to be better than everyone else, and yet, still bond together in commonalities.
Renee noticed the familiar expression on Val’s face. Of taking the high road when the low road would have done just fine. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train,” her counselor had told her back in high school, as she started up mountains of career tests, personality quizzes, not the good kind, and college applications. And she’d always pictured herself, productive and happy and moving right along. But in this moment, as she saw how quickly she and her friends could undo each other, she feared she would lose her temper. She pictured herself screaming at her group of best friends, these people who knew her best. They would never quite understand the outburst, and then, would never quite forgive her.
She thought she should start going to yoga to help her relax, but was there yoga for only the slightly-coordinated, big, black woman? She was always the one people called to put it all in perspective, when they felt they just had one tiny thing they had to get off their chest. She was always the rainy-day call. And she used to take the calls as a compliment, but now she thought of it as a burden.
Where were the people who called her when things were going well? Who were the people who invited her to celebrate, not mope around? Val sniffled beside her on the seat.
“It’s just work. It’s just…they don’t see how unhappy I am. I get worked up and then I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept well in weeks.”
“Have you tried taking a sleeping pill? A Valium or something?”
She scoffed, pushed her sleeve up again to show off her nicotine patch. “I don’t need to be addicted to anything else.” They laughed.
“They don’t even notice that being around with this group of people is bad for me. No one ever says anything they mean, everyone has an agenda, that’s not friendship…”
“You’ve walked into something you don’t know how to get out of,” Renee offered.
“Yes. Yes, that’s exactly it. They’re so nice when I’m there, but sometimes I just get this creepy feeling like I’m not supposed to be there. And I feel like a creep, edging myself in, but shouldn’t I be comfortable?”
She had hit the tone in the conversation, that place where her friends could tell that she was on a roll, and so they all avoided eye contact, as if focusing all mental energy on her, as if to propel her ideas forward, force her to push through, to keep working. These women will band together, all purposed on making the better you.
“I’m never going to meet someone, out with all these people who don’t find me attractive, or all that interesting. You know they’ve never once introduced me to anyone? Not even in passing. Not even, ‘oh, this is so-and-so.’ ‘So-and-so, this is Val.’ Just a one-on-one introduction. Has never happened. I’m always the afterthought. My job sucks and my fake ass friends suck and the only thing that’s constant are these fucking regrets I have about everything. And who lives that way? You guys don’t, right? You go about your lives, and you meet people and you do things. I feel like I’m being lied to, like people are intentionally being dishonest with me. They all have these reasons for it, but every time anyone does something shady, I think, this fucking piece of shit is not…”
“Your friend,” Taylor said.
“Yeah,” Val finished. She chewed on her bottom lip as if to decide whether or not this idea was final, took a tentative hand to the back of her head and starting stretching out and twirling a long, bouncy lock of her own hair.
“I want to be good enough.”
“You are. You need to decide that you are, though. And really work for it, not just say that you are,” Renee said. She felt as if she were giving advice to herself.
Val gnawed on another Twizzlers. Melanie stayed quiet, easing through lanes, as Taylor gave her another cautious eye.
“If you could do anything right now, what would you do? Within reason,” Taylor said.
“Start over. Take my savings and plop down in a new city. I’d run, well, I’d jog. And I’d read more and explore. I like the freshness of it.”
“You can come hang out with me,” Melanie said.
“Oh, come on. You love my city. You always say you wish you could spend more time.”
“I know. And it’s tempting. But I can’t leach off of someone else’s forever. If I didn’t have a job, I’d really start to feel like I was abusing the favor. And I would feel unfair.”
“You’ll make your own forever. And you know me, I’m flexible. I’ll help you find a job and meet people and if you want to wander off by yourself, off you go. I’ve got things to do. That way, if you don’t find something or you find another city to love, you can relocate, no lease or utilities or sublets to worry about.”
Mel waved another car ahead of them and Taylor groaned, mockingly stretching her arms out in offering, as if to say, “Here! Take it! Take it all!”
“Am I really doing this?” Val asked.
“Yup. Draft a letter to the boss before you hit the gym. Or the booze,” Taylor said.
“Sure, sure.” Val shifted in her seat, wiped her eyes and grinned at Renee. “So. Making any more pride purchases?”
Renee swallowed and smiled.
“Actually, you’d be proud of me. I’m in the clear this week.”
Val laughed. “What’d you buy?”
“I bought an ill-fitting $215-dress that I returned! I’m in the clear.”
“I’m all good with my five-finger discount,” Taylor said.
“It doesn’t count when you swipe pennies from the ‘take a penny, leave a penny’ jar!” She sighed. “You know, guys, maybe we should try something different,” Renee said.
“Oh are we growing again? Has Oprah told you how to improve your life this time? And, even better, is it working?” Mel asked.
“I just think we’re trying so hard not to become our mothers that we’re destined to turn into them eventually from the sheer pressure. Crack, whoosh.”
“Ren, your life is strange,” Val said. “But the challenging parts made you interesting. Gave you a bit of an edge. You’d be a dull shit without that chip on your shoulder.”
Mel zoomed past a signaling car and Taylor raised her hands in victory.
“Mel? What do you want?”
Mel scoffed to herself and the radio.
“None of us are exactly where we want to be. Does that even exist, anyway? I just want to sing and dance to ‘I’m A Slave For You,’ without it being ironic or weird.”
The next morning, Renee added a new column to her spreadsheet, underneath the essentials: rent, utilities, groceries, loans, gas money. Under those were the non-essentials: movies, fancy coffee, the online subscriptions that were supposed to replace the need for cable, or a cable bill. Miscellaneous. The “Misc” section hid all manner of evils, so she separated the debit entries for her hair products into a new column, with the toiletries. All that the extra crap she bought at the drugstore, because she never remembered as she was getting her weekly bread and eggs.
“Other Purchases,” sounded too nondescript. Sounded like she was trying to hide things from Excel-Renee, but they knew everything about each other. Once you write it down, it’s real, she told herself; so she carefully deleted the old entry and typed in “Pride Purchases” instead.
The next weekend, in that same old, sick cycle of “maybe this time,” Renee was back in her car, in a better spot, tapping the steering wheel, quicker and quicker, numbing the pads until she knew she had to make a decision. Start the car or go to the bar.
She strolled out and locked her car, with an eye out for the police officer. She should call Val or Mel, even Taylor, but she knew she wanted to go back on her own, wanted to do it herself, wanted to prove to herself that she could.
She walked into the bar, unsure of why she was there. She was invisible in a crowded room and wasn’t sure if this was an opinion she should voice to anyone. She realized, after looking around, that she wouldn’t get here what she was looking for. Because what she wanted was admiration. To be desired, to be intriguing. And she knew that none of the people here would talk to her or catch her eye at the bar. She could pay for her own drinks. Even her friends were…nowhere. She had no idea where they were and knew they wouldn’t bother to check or to notice that she wasn’t around until they were cleaning up the next day, plotting their next moves, thinking of an overly expensive tour of some bar bathroom’s porcelain the next afternoon.
She came all this way in those new shoes she didn’t really bother to try on. They started to pinch, and her toes talked to her at every step, whispering, “Nice try. Nice try.”
“I’ll show you,” she thought. She half-sat on a barstool that seemed not quite occupied but hovered around by identical women, as if they were too busy to sit, trying to give all the guys the right angles of their barely-there calves in their sharp stilettos. Renee towered over them, reminded herself of why she never wore heels and readjusted on the stool.
The bartender searched for the next order, but those women were waiting, waiting for men, so Renee smiled. “Vodka soda. With lime.” He nodded, the drink appeared, and she passed over her money. The typical ritual, with no flirting, no covert glances.
Then a guy appeared. Same easy smile, and short brown hair, t-shirt. He looked like every other guy in the bar, and Renee finally acknowledged her discomfort and knew she had to finish her drink and leave. She kept coming back to a place where she was invisible as if one day she would be seen.
He went up to the first one, the one women are told to look like. The young woman held her full drink because she was together enough to know she was drunk, but didn’t want to put it down and risk getting another one. She held a hand to her stomach in hunger, regretting not grabbing a bite before going out with her friends, but that would have been extra calories and she wanted to drink. Now she had plenty, but didn’t want to seem as if she was not having fun. The magazines say if you look like you’re having fun long enough, you’ll start to have it on accident. She had the right length light brown hair, and she ran a manicured finger through it, as if she just couldn’t get enough of its smoothness. He went for her first, and Renee watched his eyes.
They played a strange dance. The women worked to look like the magazines, mostly the guys’ magazines, which then influence the women’s magazines, because that is what the guys want. The bars fill up with homogenized bites of society. Everyone looking like what they were told they ought to be. And the guys are rejected by the girls; nicely, painfully, rudely, drunkenly.
Renee watched him try a line on each one of her friends. The other brunettes, the completely disinterested blonde. He failed, and his will slowly bent. He tried a handful of other girls, and Renee waited, for a sign that she could go home, that she tried. The initial group of four laughed at his brazen behavior, at his attempts. A flickering smidge of doubt showed on each woman’s face, like, Oh. Maybe that was it, maybe he was the guy. But the moment passed. They wanted something else. They didn’t know what it was, how to articulate it or if they would know it when they saw it, but…something else.
After number eleven shot him down, he glanced along the bar and moved towards Renee’s stool. He looked beaten.
“It’s rough out there,” he said, about the women. She nodded, but his words clung to her and rubbed like an insult. She was not ‘out there.’ She was not one of those women. She was not even worthy of his shitty advance.
“Sure is,” Renee said.
“I shouldn’t be talking to anybody. I met this girl a couple years ago, and oh, she was it. She wouldn’t date me though. Friend zone.” He moved his hands to enunciate the phrase as if he came up with it himself. “And women, women don’t understand that it’s hard. It’s hard to meet people.”
“Women,” she said.
“Yeah, and I…oh, I don’t mean you.”
“Because I’m not a woman?” A few of girls turned at her words.
“No, I mean, obviously, look at you, but, I’m just saying, my girl, she was, oh, man…”
She spun on her stool and stood up. “Don’t bother telling me a love story,” she said. She knew he saw the creases in her forehead, her set jaw, and the way she straightened up, as if what she had to say took all of the strength in her body, that the force of it propelled her to stand. She came up empty. “I’ve got enough things to do.”
The first brunette, the drunken one, the perfect one, snickered at her. Leaned conspiratorially toward her friends. Renee walked away from the situation, turned on her heel and meandered off, setting her half-empty drink on a nearby table. She felt like a child, incredibly unfulfilled, and she turned back around, grabbed her unfinished drink and poured it over the woman’s blouse. She’d always wanted to do that. She saw it in a movie once. As exclamations drowned through the bass from the house music, Renee handed her now-empty glass to the slack-jawed, brokenhearted guy, lifted her chin like the star she wanted to be and left the bar.
As she rushed past the bouncer, she heard yells behind her, “soaked,” “the black girl,” and “drink.” Pushing out of the crowd, she threw an elbow, and accidentally clipped an officer in the side. She jumped back, and he looked at her, surprised. As another patrolman appeared, angrily at his side, she mumbled, “Sorry, sorry.”
She slipped backwards through the crowd, soberly off-balance, stumbled into the street, and scooted in front of a gliding cab, looking for his next fare in the crowd of the aimless outside the bar. The cops moved in her direction, and she could feel the ominous crowd parting behind her, the collective movement, and then she was off. They always told her she was a big girl, but all those years of track weren’t for nothing.
So she remembered what it was like to be young and free again. Not the way a 60-year-old will say you’re free, or the way a 30-year-old will see freedom, no, the way a four-year-old runs and jumps and skips without a care. After several blocks in a zigzag pattern toward her car, she paused under the darkened cover of someone’s porch.
Someone was on the move, behind her, and no shadow would get in the way. She bolted down the street, and after a few more blocks, seeing nothing but darkened houses, Renee shoved her shoes into her bag, the scuffed heels poking out. Barefoot, she launched herself over someone’s garden gate and hid.
She straightened out her cardigan, eyed it for a moment and sat on it, wondering if her mother still remembered a trick to remove dirt and grass stains from Renee’s soccer-playing days. She curled up next to some overgrown, un-pruned gardenias, mixing with some overtaking dandelions, restless leaves and waited. Waited for a couple cops and the scratch from their radios to fade, and she got comfortable in the dirt and let the moist earth sink into the folds of the new fabric. Waiting to calm down before the sun came up, she rested her head against the fence post, took off her earrings, her bracelets, and tucked them into a corner of her now-bursting bag. She stared up at the sky, for some constellations to wrap her up in their light, as she waited for the shadows to pass.
Photo by Ashley