“You aren’t fast like her,” my mother tells me.
My throat burns as Tashae swings her hips. I hope she doesn’t speak. If she speaks my mother will respond and later I’ll hear about inviting her in.
“Heyyyyy Amber,” Tashae calls. I smile weakly.
My mother sucks her teeth loudly before responding for me,
“Good morning, Tashae. You coming in?”
She does. My mother will say, later, that it’s tacky for Tashae to enter when my mother was so clearly being polite with her invitation.
Good girls understand this.
While we walk to school Tashae entertains me with stories. They usually center around her Uncle Jimmy, a violent drunk. His violence is almost singularly directed towards Tashae’s brother, Malcolm. According to Uncle Jimmy Malcolm is a pussy and a nigger with a hard er. Malcolm will knock Uncle Jimmy “the hell out” when he leaves elementary school. He swears this. Tashae laughs when she tells Uncle Jimmy tales.
I wonder if Malcolm ever laughs.
“Last night he didn’t even make it up the stairs. He tried. He kept taking the step but his foot missed. He swore if he made it up the stairs he was going to “whip that pussy ass nigger’s ass for making him look like a fool.” She doesn’t say it exactly like this and I have to wonder if Uncle Jimmy really used “ass” that many times in a row, but I discern Tashae’s meaning.
“He fell asleep on the stairs. Vomited first. Then fell asleep. Malcolm made sure he was good and passed out before taking his foot and kicking Uncle Jimmy right in his nuts.”
I’m not sure which part is funny, so I chuckle every time Tashae takes a breath.
We get to the corner before Tashae’s first cat call.
Mr. Warner leans out of his truck, teeth gleaming. His foot is on the brake, but only slightly, so his truck creeps by as he grins at Tashae.
She grins back. I stare at the ground, hoping it will swallow us.
“Hey baby girl,” Mr. Warner coos.
“Heyyyyyy,” Tashae calls back.
“Come over here,” Mr. Warner demands. Tashae smiles, her eyes meeting the ground.
“Nah, I can’t. I gotta go to school.”
Mr. Warner scoffs. “I can teach you everything you need.”
Tashae laughs lightly, but doesn’t respond.
“When I need that kind of learning you’re the first person I’ll call,” Tashae promises. Mr. Warner hits the steering wheel, laughing.
“Do that. Amber tell your momma and daddy I said hello.” I swallow hard and nod, meeting his eyes once before looking away.
Good girls don’t give off the wrong impression.
Still, his gaze lingers awhile before he drives off, slowly.
“Is he gone,” I ask, my eyes still on the ground. Tashae laughs.
“Amber, why are you so scary?” I shrug.
“I don’t like that.” I mutter. Tashae shrugs and begins walking.
“Do you?” I sound like a baby when I ask this. Tashae offers me an incredulous stare, but I don’t catch its meaning. Does that stare mean, “of course not,” which is the only answer a good girl can give. Or does it mean, “why wouldn’t I?”
Some girls like boys calling and staring while their hips sway. Those girls twist their necks and laugh so loudly their own throats hurt, especially when boys walk by. Those girls have flickers of smiles when boys offer the world for three minutes, and they don’t mind fighting after school for a boy who was already gone. Those girls don’t wait and they give but they never receive. Around the way girls, my mother calls them. Tashae’s mother was a ‘round the way girl, and Tashae will be, too. She has never met her father, but she supposes he lives on the west coast. He was going to be an actor and he wasn’t from around here. Just passing through.
Tashae has been my best friend for three years now, since Brandon Duke and his friends began making monkey noises when I walked by. Tashae was bigger than the other girls and all of the boys were crazy for her. She could get them to do anything. When she told them to shut the hell up and leave me alone, they did.
The first time I brought her home my mother sucked her teeth and let her eyes roam Tashae in a swift rebuke.
“Mom—“ (my mother is a “mom,” not a mama. She said mamas are only good for spoiling and raising reprobates. Moms or better yet, Mothers, know how to maintain proper distance and command respect. They raise men and women worthy of the world.) “—this is Tashae. She—“ mom never found out what Tashae did. She held up a hand and stopped my words.
“I know who she is,” mom said coldly. Tashae’s face fell and my cheeks burned. Tashae left about ten minutes later and my mother rounded on me.
“I know I’ve told you about whom you associate with. You bring a girl like that around here and it sends the wrong message.” I never told Tashae what my mother said and she didn’t ask.
After school Tashae convinces me to go with her to the mall. She saved a few dollars babysitting to buy cherry lipgloss. We enter the store together, chattering and laughing. I don’t notice the awkward presence of the cashier over our shoulders until we’ve been in the store perusing the makeup aisles for about ten minutes.
“Why is he staring at us,” I whisper to Tashae. She cranes her neck, but doesn’t have to work hard. The cashier is so close he can probably hear what we are thinking.
“Can I help you?” Tashae demands.
The cashier flushes. “Just wanted to see if I could assist you with anything.” Tashae rolls her eyes. I don’t speak.
“We’re good, thanks,” Tashae dismisses him. The cashier stalks away.
“Let’s get out of here,” I suggest. Tashae thrusts her lipgloss back into the bin and we walk out. We head towards the book store. I like it because it’s quiet and has nice couches that you can use to read or study. The people milling about seem classy and smart, and I like that they meet my eyes with smiles.
I’ve saved my allowance for the next book in my favorite series. Tashae reads them after I’m finished, so I know she won’t complain about going in.
We are greeted as we enter the store by a white woman with graying hair and thin lips.
Tashae and I are chatting over the cover of the book when a shadow looms over us. The man is huge and pink, a thick mustache covering his upper lip.
“Yes?” I inquire. There is no timidity in my voice, which shocks me.
“You girls just left the cosmetic store?” I shrug and nod.
“A few minutes ago, why?”
“Cashier said there was a disturbance. Cashier here said you two have been loitering.”
I stare. “We went in there and the cashier was rude. So we came here to get a book.”
“This isn’t a library. Get your books and get home.” Tashae opens her mouth to speak, but I stop her.
“Sir, we’re just looking for a book. I’m not sure—”
“Are we having a problem?” The man shifts, and his hand moves to his waist. There is no gun there, only a walkie talkie.
I swallow hard. There are a number of things I want to say and do. I would like to say yes, sir, there is a problem. I would like to smack him in the face, hard. I would like to spit on him.
Instead I shake my head. I can feel heat radiating off of Tashae. This is not how she wants to handle it.
She says as much as we leave the mall.
“Couldn’t be me,” she keeps saying. She directs this at me, as though I failed by not showing the rentacop my power. Finally I turn on her.
“It was you,” I spit. Tashae’s eyes widen.
“If it weren’t for you they wouldn’t have treated us like criminals.” Tashae scoffs.
“Me? Please. You are just as black as me.” I shake my head at this.
“I’m not going places like I own them. I’m not walking into stores looking like I’m going to steal. I don’t have boys chasing me thinking they’re next in my line.” Tashae’s face falls.
“That’s what you think? I have a line of boys chasing me? Guess that’s easy to see when the line next to you is empty.” Tashae smirks at me.
“You’ve wanted to talk trash about me since we met. You think you’re better than me. You think you’re smarter. You aren’t. We’re the same.”
She walks ahead of me and doesn’t wait for me to catch the bus. On the bus she sits next to the aisle so that I can’t sit next to her. I want to apologize but I don’t.
I move my lips to form the words but they don’t come out.
We get off of the bus and fall into step together. I play with different ways to say “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think I’m better than you,” I begin, but she stops me.
“Yes you do. You think that and your mom thinks that.” I swallow hard, but I don’t correct her.
Tashae shrugs. “I’m used to it. Your mama prepared you for me. My mama prepared me for the world and people like you. I feel sorry for you. And your mama. You think there’s a difference between good girls and everyone else. You think you can talk your way out of being black. You think boys aren’t going to make up stories about you. You think other girls aren’t going to say you’re loose. They won’t call you a ‘round the way girl. You think you can press your legs closed tight enough that no secrets can get out. But you’re just as black as me. No matter how proper you are. How many books you read. How far down you put your head. You can go into stores and pretend you’re different, but you’re not. You’re a black girl, same as me. If I’m a round the way girl, you are, too.”
Tashae gives me a quick nod and makes her way past my house and up the street. She swings her hips and offers shy smiles to her admirers, but she keeps walking. Her head is high and her back is rod straight.
My mother greets me at the door, sucking her teeth and shaking her head, staring after Tashae.
“You don’t need to keep hanging around that girl. You’re a good girl,” my mother says. “Nothing good can come from hanging with a round the way girl.”