Riding in Cars With Lesbians
By Helena Andrews
Vernell was the one who taught me how to use a tampon in our bathroom before I needed to learn. Said it was important to know 'just in case.' She was the one who told me that I should probably try sex before I got married because 'you never know.' She was the one who convinced me to wear gigantor neon green Cross Colours. Said it looked cool. She was the one from New York. Almost 10 years younger than Frances, she was the one I thought knew everything.
Vernell would pick me up from school most days. Without my having to ask, she never got out of the car. In order to avoid any 'my mom's here' confusion -- seeing as how I had two of them -- I'd run to the car, yank open the door, and dive in the front passenger's seat like a bank robber with a bad feeling about this. 'Drive!' I wanted to shout, taking a triumphant glance backward at the dust-covered cops we'd left behind. Instead, I leaned the seat back as far as it could go and told her about my day.
Every story involved the Nubian Sisters, the 8th-grade black girls club to which I had the most peripheral of memberships consisting mainly of lying about getting my period and getting tongue. The real oral exam was knowing all the words to Too $hort's 'I'm a Player.' I listened to 92.3 the Beat with blind people ears until I was ready to whisper the lyrics in the hallway when teachers weren't around. 'See, I made up my mind when I was 17. I ain't wit no marriage and weddin' ring. I be a playa fo' life.' The clique's unofficial bard, a girl named Monique, changed up some of the lyrics to fit our current circumstances. Instead of 'I used to fuck young-ass hoes / I used to be broke and didn't have no clothes,' we sang, 'I used to get the young-ass sperm / Used to be broke and had a messed up perm.' Just turned 13 and already jaded.
Spending quality time in the Nissan with Vernell also meant time spent listening to her criticize my mother for not raising me right or me for being such a snob. 'So now that you go to a new school, you're too good to hang out with Shonda?' There was contention in her voice. Shonda, the long-legged girl who lived across the street, liked to five-finger Troll dolls and let boys do the same to her. After I got into prep school on scholarship, she was the one who thought she was too cool for my school. I was the one in a pleated plaid skirt with no one to talk to. Vernell knew none of this.
I sat on my side of the car in silence.
'Your mother is not a people person,' she explained as we rolled over Olympic Boulevard, watching the magical palm trees of Beverly Hills turn into mangy ones. 'I can get along with just about anybody, but not your mom. Oh, no, not Frances. She doesn't know how to talk to people, you know?'
Having not yet learned the definition of rhetorical, I saw my continued silence as cowardice. Vernell was first on my Chinese hit list.
A 99-cent store dry erase board saved my life. I'd never given the thing much thought before using it to slash manic slaps of marker onto our Frigidaire. The grown-ups were in the living room arguing during the commercials, trading insults to a soundtrack about sunglasses. Frances, we need to talk about this. My name is Geek, I put 'em on as a shocker. Do whatever you want, Vernell, leave me out of it. Man, I love these Blublockers. I hate you. Everything is clear. Keep your voice down. They block out the sun. Why? Helena knows what a bitch you are. Oh, yeah, I gotta get me some.
Escaping the dissonance meant walking through the kitchen and past the shiny plastic slab that would become my Rosetta stone.
At first it looked like fine art, all impressionist and stuff. Mimicking the moves of a painter like how people do when they conduct pretend orchestras, I used the marker like a brush, flicking quick and dirty strokes on the board in neat Koranic lines. It looked Arabic, alien, oriental. My hand was possessed, but this was calming. When I was done I felt normal again, righted. I practiced my daily hieroglyphics for weeks, figuring madness on my part might preclude a melee on theirs. It did not.
Screams are as scarce as the monsters they allegedly shield us from. It's not something that's done outside of amphitheaters and horror films. So when one hears an earsplitting screech not too far in the distance, it's a singular moment. A moment that marks you for good.
'Well, at least I'm not raising a daughter with no feelings!' I heard Vernell shriek, placing as much emphasis on the word feelings as one can when speaking in soprano. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, too scared to go to the door but brave enough not to take this lying down. It was an insult, obviously, but I was far from offended.
I had plenty of fucking emotions. I just keep 'em between me and the fridge.
'Don't you dare talk about my daughter,' Frances growled in a register so low I thought at first she might be joking. Like they were rehearsing lines or something for The Exorcist meets Freddy. Then there was the drum roll of so many dictionaries falling to the floor, a sound that gradually evolved into the rumbling of an earthquake, and a crack like thunder, and then a silence. Digging my fingers into my comforter, I strained to hear something comforting, something familiar like more yelling, more insults, more 'fuck this.' Nothing. The dangerous kind of quiet.
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