A Round The Way Girl

“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.”

dust

I do not want
To rise like dust.
I do not want to wait
For you to write the narrative.
I do not want you to control the rhythm
Of my hips, the tenor of my voice, the texture
Of my hair. I do not want to appeal to the moderate
The voice of reason that, with agonizing patronizing hands
Beats me down to nothing. No. I want to rise like fire, I want to burn
Every single piece of you, if it stands between me and that which I am promised.
I will snatch from you the words, and I will write them in blood, if I must.
I will wrench your prayers from your lukewarm lips, and my hips and
My voice and my hair will overwhelm you and you will be afraid.
I will challenge you, White moderate, to be with us or to be
Against us, but no longer Will you speak for us, or shush
Us and Hold our tongues. And I will bring you to heel
And I will not pray to your God for peace or mercy
For I intend to show neither. You will not stand
Between me and my freedom. You will move
And you will be silent, or I will tear down
That which I built, and I will build
My house In your ashes.

All The Little Broken Things

I don’t want you to fix me.
That piece there–the jagged edge?
The one
That catches sunlight
and spills over all of the places
the sun cannot reach?
I earned that:
years of tears,
the jagged places,
tracks and scars the tears made.

And that piece there–the concave place?
The one
That smoothed out the rough edges,
strange but beautiful and necessary?
I earned that:
healing my own heart over and again,
and it hides more but there is
no less of it than before.

I don’t want you to fix me.
I am.
I am made
of sinews and
of marrow and
Of All
The Little
Broken Things
And I am perfect.

anxiety, or, a letter to my disorder

I thought you’d be smoking a cigarette this time
And that every time you took a drag
Your face would light with the embers
And you would blow the smoke over your shoulders
And you would sneer at me and blow me a tobacco stained kiss
And you would laugh, “I missed you.”

I’ve wondered about you. I shouldn’t.
I’ve wondered about you the way I wonder about an open wound; I attempt to ignore it when others are around. But I stare at it and wonder what kind of scar it will leave.

So you left abruptly. The windows were thrown wide, a summer rain sweeping through the house, the wind scattering the pellets in wide open mouthed gusts.
I was busy picking up the pieces of the wreckage when I realized I didn’t know where you were.

I looked for you, too. In the place–you know the one–that you usually lie. Casually, your body splayed, dirt caked on your feet. Ruining everything. You weren’t there.

I became comfortable. I spoke about you and I didn’t bother lowering my voice. I spoke about you in the past, a nuisance that I’d rid myself of.
How long have you watched me? Watched me undress and unwind?
Watched me become comfortable with my body, with my breasts which are lower than they used to be, lower than most; with my tangled matted hair that won’t submit to the ribbon or the brush; to the deep ombré skin specked with wavy lines and purple scars? Watched me pull at the padding around my belly and lift my leg at the junction of my thigh and frown a bit and sigh. Watched me see these parts separately and then all together and then like them?

I didn’t look for you, and I should have. I should have felt your shadow hovering over me. When my heart leapt and I pounced on it and it became my prey and I was useless to my mind and powerless to stop it–I should have known. Your stench is everywhere.

Your shadow is cast over my existence; every part of me is chained to you and what you will do to the things I love.

Your touch turns what I love to ash.
I thought of ash, when finally I considered you. What you would look like. What kind of recurrence you would make.
And then I forgot about you. A burning Georgia sun blistered my back, and I didn’t consider you. I closed my eyes and let the wind take me away and I didn’t feel you.

Now you are here and you’ve brought me to my knees. I mentioned you–I should have–and they did as you wanted.
They thought they knew you. They told me to ignore you. You would go away if I ignored you.
An old boyfriend that I shouldn’t call.
But you have everything. You know everything.
You have covered me in ash and soot and you’ve made a mess of me again. I wish I could end you.
Hold you under water and watch the life flee from you.
But you hold my life in your hands, between your fingers, pulling deep drags from it, breathing the excess over your shoulders.
Here I am again. You are here also.

Rage: noun.

Rage: noun.
:a strong feeling of anger that is difficult to control
:a sudden expression of violent anger
:something that is suddenly very popular

Thank you kindly (and most sincerely) Mr. Webster.
But you are a wrong.

I say that you are wrong and I do not call you a liar because you may have simply been unaware
and who could fault your fragile ignorance?

But you are wrong. I suppose that you, Noah–I hope you do not mind me calling you by your name–you did not consider me when you determined
the meaning of rage.

Consider me now.

Rage: noun.
:Strength.

I have controlled my rage ten million fold.
To exist while Black is rage.
Rage against you, when you ignore me
And you, when you beat me
And you, when you kill me
And you, when you steal from me
And you, when you deny me.

When I tread lightly among you

and you demand I smile;
Or when you believe my body is

available for your derision
And for your pleasure,
When you invoke me as your friend,
When you rejoice in the death of my brother
I rage.

:Control.

I have expressed my anger slowly and politely
Making you comfortable enough to hear it.
Once a white woman told me that “Blacks” were happier and more productive as slaves (no offense.)
I hated her and she did not feel my anger.
Control.
Once a man twice my age and three times my size called me a nigger in a room full of white peers. They were silent then and he had the power of the word. Later the others scoffed—how dare he? They would never use that word around me. But if I could, couldn’t they?
I hated them and they did not feel my anger.
Control.
Once a doctor whispered to his nurse that he couldn’t take me seriously and I wept.
I hated him and he did not feel my anger.
Control.
Once a boss told me that race was no longer an issue in our community, after a White cop harassed a black kid because he didn’t like his manner of expression.
I hated him and he did not feel my anger.
Control.
Once a family friend told me that she saw past my race, patting my hand kindly as she spoke.
I hated her and she did not feel my anger.
Control.
I carried the hatred as an albatross, a token of my double-consciousness.
I live and work and exist among them, knowing them as they will never know me, and they do not know the extent of my rage.
Today a woman asked me why Blacks “make it about race” and assured me that we Blacks were racist and if we simply

stopped saying nigga
got jobs
took care of our kids
wore nice clothes
chose White names for our children
smiled more
stopped killing each other

stopped talking about race

racism would no longer exist.
She will tuck her White babe into bed
and she will be safe in her ignorance
and she will hide from the reality of my existence
and she will pray to White Jesus for my salvation
And she will thank White Jesus that another innocent persecuted White man will go free.

Later a White liberal will suggest that I consider MLK and promote peace and will ignore me when I point out that peace got MLK shot and me here begging you not to slay another black body.

:Sudden.

And yet, I can reach across time to DuBois and Douglass and Truth and Tubman and Equiano and I will know them and they will know me and they will recognize me. And behind us a confident voice will determine for me that I don’t know struggle and that my ancestors would be ashamed and the voice will still and away and I will touch my Black family across time and space and draw them to me and I will know their rage
And they will know mine.
I will attempt to pray and I will wonder what words you use that your prayers are always answered. I will wonder if the god of your prayers looks like you and I worry that he does and is this what milton meant by servitude?

Rage: noun.
:unquenchable thirst and hunger for that which has always been denied
:the willingness to endure hell with the assurance that you will at last know what it means to burn.

to a grandmother, from her grandchild

Yet, I thought we would have more time. I did not think of you often, and when I did I was shamed. I should have forgotten you, as you had forgotten me. I pick up the phone, but there is no number for me to dial. Your voice is foreign to me, and were I to hear yours, I would not know it. I am left, now, with the picture of you in my memory, sickly sweet and contemptuous. Even across the expanse of time I feel it, your discontent.
I consider you for much longer than I should.
I do not wish to send lilacs, to place them on the softness of your grave.
I do not want to clutch your hand as you draw your last breath, to lend you warmth as you still, unseeing.
I do not wish to weaken your cries of mourning, to still them with beatitudes and forgiving.
I do not wish to let you go unknowing, the words I carried for you lost to your grave.
I wish for you to awaken so that I might deliver the words to you, parsed from the wreckage of the things I thought I’d forgotten.
“You were loved
But not by me
You were kind
But not to me
You were loving
You did not love me”
They don’t capture what I want you to leave with. The dryness of my eyes and the bitterness of my heart, the anger for you, and for death. Leave her, I want to command him. I have more to say.
I wish to send you away with the memory of me and could I, I would give you peace. I wish for you whole again and in sound mind. I wish for you to consider, as you pass through the veil, the words that did not pass your lips. I wish for my name to cross your mind and for a moment, I wish for you to feel human and longing. I wish there were a way to draw you back again, to see your eyes knowing, and know that you will miss me, to see the words that you never said, the ones that, with your eternal absence, I am not allowed to say. There are no ears left to hear them and you were always deaf to me. Were you to hear my voice you would not know it.

space

You’ve spread your legs
Earth wide
Your virility: pride
The apex of you erected
A monument to the possibility of you
You require

So

Much

Space

That I must compensate,
Closing my legs
Earth deep
My nubility: shame
The nadir of me deconstructed–
Damnatio memoriae.

Your voice follows
Shattering the quiet,
Following into the dark–
All touched by your words.
You suffocate me
And I, too, am lost in you,
Though I am uninvited.
Made mute, the voracity
Of your sound
Smothering what little
Voice I carry
Furling again–
An apology of sorts–
I make room.
You require
So

Much

Space.

The whole of you–
Sinews soul substance–
Forms in all the space there is.
It expands for you
Not because there is more
Or enough
(There is never enough)
Rather, you increase
And I decrease;
You decrease me
And I apologize
Without knowing why
You tear the words from my lip
And you don’t hear them
But you know they are yours
And I should!
I should apologize
For the space I took
The space that you will need.

In the corners,
In the halls,
In the rooms,
In the darkened spaces,
In the excess
Where you are not
(But I can hear the echo
Announcing you)
You stalk.
I decrease.
You form yourself from me
Siphoning yourself
From my diminished existence.

I make room.

You require
So

Much

Space.

Drowning

Sink or swim, they said.
You can’t hold his hand
He is not yours.

They expected you would
Stay afloat.
They expected you would
Save yourself.

You are drowning
And I cannot save you.

Sink or swim, they said
You cannot hold his hand
He is not yours.

They did not say that you would sink.
They did not say that you would
Be too far gone to hear me.
They did not say that I would
Be tied to this anchor,
Unable to save you.

Sink or swim, I said.
You can’t hold his hand.
He is not yours.

You are drowning.
I heard you cry out
Saw the terror in your eyes
As you came up for a last
Goodbye.

You are drowning
Fading into nothing
Faster than I could reach you,
Were I able to wrench myself
From the anchor
Dragging me under.

I did not tell you that
You would sink
Alone.
I did not tell you that
I could not save you.
I did not tell you
That I could not swim.

perfect

Love felt small and left me feeling weak.
The word laid me bare and defenseless and
I clutched it near me.
You didn’t ask for it.
Did you miss it?
The time for Love is now.
In the moment where our
Fingers graze and I pull away
And you move with me
Love would be perfect there.
Or the moment where the light
–A typical burning, blistering sun made less so
By you only–
Catches the gold in your eyes
And I know that you are made
For other worlds and
Love would be perfect here.
Acidic tears drag down my cheeks
And you sweep them away
And the cause, too.
You offer the words “I love you,”
And greedily I hold them.
I can not offer my own.
I cast the notion about, but I
Dared not speak it aloud–
What if it is given to you
And then lost?
The love I give freely is different
And it won’t ache when it’s gone.
I love that.
I love thos
e.
Love for you, words said to you
Leaves me bare.
Tomorrow.
I will tell you tomorrow.

You won’t hear where you are.
Heaven and earth between us, now,
And I cast the words and all of myself into the wind.
I love you.
Hollow, cold, empty now
Echoing into forever
With no one, no you
To feel them
To know them
To bear them back again.
Yesterday.
Love was perfect there.

Fault

Fault.
A scratch, not enough to turn my head. Unremarkable, insignificant, unnoticed by you. Certainly not enough to slow us down. A shallow mark right underneath the foundation, its origination the small corner in which we would never think to look.
There. It began there. Unknowingly we trod on it until the scratch deepened.
A crack, then.
“What is this?” I wondered, but not aloud. I pondered showing you. I decided against.
Perhaps you saw it yourself. You would notice and decide. I would leave those decisions to you.
It was a trench before you mentioned it.
“Perhaps we should call someone,” I suggested absently.
Did I form the words aloud? Perhaps I used a post-it note.
“I’ve seen these before,” was your response. Perhaps not for that, not for the trench, but something like it. Your reply was unwavering and unvaried. “It’ll work itself out. The house will settle around it.”
“Still,” I insisted, not because I was right but because you were wrong. “It wouldn’t hurt to call.”
We never met in the middle. The pieces of the foundation crumbled under our weight.
We walked over it until we could not.
Fault.
Deeper and wider than we can comprehend.
I am here.

You are there.

We cannot cross.