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 moms here confusion -- seeing as how I had two of them -- Id run to the car, yank open the door, and dive in the front passengers 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 wed 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 $horts Im 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 werent around. See, I made up my mind when I was 17. I aint wit no marriage and weddin ring. I be a playa fo life. The cliques 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 didnt 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, youre 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 doesnt 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. Id 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. Its not something thats done outside of amphitheaters and horror films. So when one hears an earsplitting screech not too far in the distance, its a singular moment. A moment that marks you for good.
Well, at least Im 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.
Dont 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.
They were rolling around the living room in their panties when I ran in, punching each other in the back and scratching at each others arms, I think. All I could see was a revolving brown ball of lesbian. Two women trying desperately to shove the truth into the other through any means necessary. How or why they were half naked I dont know. The whole scene would have seemed smutty if it werent so ridiculous. Two grown women, on the wrong side of 35 and 205 pounds, wrestling like professional amateurs. I didnt know what to do besides watch.
Vernell stood up and started beating my mother from above, pushing her fists into her shoulders and the top of her head. Frances, whod Id never seen so weak, was shielding her head and surrendering simultaneously.
Go ahead, beat me. Beat me, she was whimpering in a voice Id never heard and never wanted to hear again. Vernell obliged, and Frances sunk even lower to the floor. She had no neck, no shoulders, no head, no arms. The woman who was once so much bigger than me didnt just become smaller in my eyes, she practically disappeared. Leaving a puppy or some other defenseless thing in her place.
Dont you. Hit. My mother, I managed to force out with a voice half high-pitched and half baritone. I didnt plan to say that. I had planned on just screaming or something, maybe throwing a glass against the wall to get them both to stop and realize how very foolish they looked. But I never planned to defend. I also never called Frances mother unless my friends were around. Formality seemed necessary.
I even repeated it. Louder this time.
DONT YOU DARE HIT MY MOTHER! I stepped into the ring theyd built -- scattered couch cushions and broken picture frames were the ropes -- and karate-chopped the air between them. I hadnt meant for it to come out that ballsy. She was still my sort of stepmother. But I was serious, and Id surprised all three of us. Vernell, already standing, backed herself into the wall behind us and put her hands to her face, either to check to see if she was bleeding or to see if she was, in fact, all there.
Pulling my mother from the floor, I led her naked, limp body to the bathroom, crossing the kitchen and my dry erase board on the way. Vernell followed us, spitting on my mothers back before I slammed the door in her face. So far being a teenager sucked.
I sat Frances on the toilet like youd do a child in training and thought of her tin can. When I was a little kid, I discovered my mothers secrets under her bed, sealed away in a large canister decorated with nude pictures of women wearing 1970s Afros. In it were love letters shed written to white girls and journals I think she was writing to me. She talked about having good romps with a lady in Argentina and dreams shed had of a child named Hellenea.
I found letters from my father in there. They were the only thing I had of his, and I imagined the sound of his voice reading them aloud, like in the movies. In my head it was throaty and scratchy -- a real mans. In one he said he loved and missed her. In another he said he hoped she hadnt been taking too many showers with white girls. After that, I knew she was more than just wonderfully different. She was gay. An invisible man delivered one of the most important headlines of my life.
Well, not entirely invisible. There was a picture of him in there too. He wore a black fro, flip-flops, and a sailors uniform. He had long legs and light skin. This was him.
I imagined he was on the moon, and if I hoped for him enough, thought of him enough, prayed for him enough, hed come back down. I didnt need saving, but I needed something. Every night for years I repeated the same line to baby Jesus or grown-up Jesus, whomever was listening: Dear Lord, please let our paths cross someday. We didnt even have to talk or even know who the other one was. I just wanted him to see me.
If he could see us in the bathroom -- Frances on the toilet wiping up angry tears and me running hot water over a washcloth -- hed have to be pleased.
There was blood on her back. Not in copious amounts or anything 911-worthy, but there was blood. Enough to usher me into puberty without any cramps of my own. Regardless of what Id told the Nubes at school, I hadnt gotten my period yet, but this, my official blood day, would do. I dabbed it away while she sat alone on the toilet. This used to be the best seat in the house, from which I watched Vernell pluck her eyebrows, apply her lipstick, and correctly insert a tampon. That day it became the headquarters of my adulthood.
Excerpted from Bitch Is the New Black (Harper Collins), available in June.