A young man from the old neighborhood has died, her mother tells her. She enters her house in her modern, diverse neighborhood with a yawn, kicking the door shut behind her. Everything is in its place, and she takes a moment to breathe in the sweet magnolia scent of her spacious, dazzlingly white home.
“Oh? Who?” she is uninterested, but her mother and father perusing the obituary and reporting faithfully the names of the departed is a tradition she does not wish to wrest from them.
Her mother gives the name, but she is distracted by her young daughter proudly shoving a jagged hand turkey composed of dull red construction paper into her stomach. She retrieves the turkey with an exaggerated smile and kisses the girl on her silky ringlets. The girl’s cherub cheeks redden and she beams.
Her own hair is thick and coarse and it is wash day. She gazes at herself in the mirror in the parlor, proud of her high cheekbones and deep brown skin. She’ll need to hang up soon. Washing her hair is a ritual that requires singular focus.
“I’m sorry, who did you say again?” She asks her mother respectfully. Her mother repeats the name and her own heart skips several beats.
“Oh, wow. What happened?” She knows that the obituary will not say. Her mother clicks her tongue.
“It’s a shame, all of these young black boys dying.” She gives an obligatory nod, no longer listening.
She scrolls through her newsfeed until she happens upon her high school best friend’s page. Her friend has posted a photo of the newly deceased with the caption, “gone too soon,” beneath.
His skin is dark, so dark he is hard to see in the blurry photo her friend has chosen. He smiles so brightly she can’t imagine that the light in him is already out.
She feels a pang in her chest and tells her mother goodbye.
She moves into the airy kitchen where her husband is making dinner with their oldest child. Freckles spatter her husband’s face and his reddish brown beard has turned to white in spaces. She watches her husband with their children for a few moments before making her presence known.
He greets her with a kiss and she tells him, abruptly, of the young man’s death. He does not know the young man, nor any of the stories. Not the ones set in deep, scabbed over but raw beneath.
“I’m sorry, honey,” her husband responds, an automaton.
She nods but does not speak.
She bites her lip and goes through the ritual of washing her hair, detangling her hair, conditioning her hair rinsing her hair combing her hair conditioning her hair, twisting her hair, and covering it. Her fingers are withered and numb when she finishes. When she last saw the young man who died her own hair was fried and covered with an ill-fitting sew in. She smiles mournfully and her husband catches it.
He apologizes again, thinking that she is upset. She shakes off his offered grief and they tumble into bed together.
She cannot sleep.
She thinks she should send something to the family.
She pulls out her stationary and sits with her pen poised above the paper, remembering.
She was the dirt that they gleefully trod upon.
It begins with one boy, the one who is the dead young man now.
They are in the cafeteria before school begins, sitting as a group in the Black Kids’ Section. The white kids do not eat breakfast in the cafeteria, but the black kids do, and even if you eat breakfast at home you sit in the cafeteria lest you are caught loitering around the building.
A semicircle seems to break around the boy as he directs his gaze at her and she meets his eyes over her book.
“Why you look like a monkey?” he asks her, all teeth. Her heart hammers in her chest so loudly she is certain they all hear.
“Ooh ooh ah ah,” he taunts her. The crowd around erupts into laughter and she tries to laugh, too.
“What you laughing for, monkey?” another boy pierces her. Again, they laugh.
This is the opening that she remembers.
At lunch one of the white boys joins in. “Hey, gorilla,” he sneers. “ooh ooh ah ah.” She pauses for a moment. Her town is small and southern and segregated. She imagines for a moment that they, the boys who look like her, the ones who began this, will protect her.
Here, though, a bridge is made. They all erupt into laughter again and she hates them.
She is small for her age and wears cheap round glasses with thick lenses. Her legs are scarred and her hair is fried. Her nose is wide and her skin is dark. She over enunciates every word and she is accused of liking white boys. She hates her face. She hates her flat chest and her scarred legs. She hates her nose and her dark skin and her nappy hair. The bridge of her nose is deep, her forehead wide.
She thinks she looks like a monkey, too, feels it deep within her bones, and she despairs.
For six years more it continues. Everyone knows that she is the monkey. They walk down the hall making hooting noises and, when particularly emboldened, offer bananas to her.
Once she walks the halls with her crush, her heart fluttering wildly. They move past a group who whisper hoots. She pretends not to hear them, afraid her crush will hear. Their taunts dig deep into her skin and scar even her bones.
Years later she wants to accuse them, all of them, for all of the world—even white people—to see. She knows that to air your dirty laundry is an offense that will send you to hell, but to air it so that white people can pick through and claim it? That will send you to hell here on earth.
A girl whose name she does not know tells her, rather abruptly, that everyone experienced the same trauma. That it isn’t an excuse for hating herself. Childhood trauma should be left in childhood. She wonders if this burgeoning physician will heal herself; bitterly she resigns herself to the knowledge that some trauma is to be buried deep.
In some part of her she knows the girl is right. Boys who looked like her weren’t the only people to put her beneath their feet. She cannot reach the others, though, and so she hates the ones with skin as dark as hers, noses just as wide. The ones she constructed herself against.
She thinks she rids herself of this later, when she exchanges her desire for straight hair for a desire for the hair that grows from her scalp like a crown. Though her husband has skin as fair as milk she considers that she chose him in spite of this. She works as an activist and though she does not live in their neighborhood, works with underprivileged youth encouraging them to see their black as beautiful and to write their path from darkness. She loves her skin in its sable smoothness.
Her pen is poised above the page where she should indicate shared grief.
Years of fury boil up over her in a rage. He has moved beyond the veil and she thought she had rid herself of her hatred but she wants to scribble it on the page and send it to those whom he has left behind.
I hated myself because of him. She wants to accuse him, though she knows it would be a lie. She aches with knowing.
She throws the stationary away and settles for, “I’m sorry for your loss,” on her friend’s page.
She avoids her bedroom mirror and moves through her white, gleaming house, in the dark.