Read an Excerpt
"This is the most black folks you've been around in your entire life, isn't it?" That's how my Aunt Lena greeted me at the "Back to Baltimore" cookout my family threw to celebrate our homecoming.
I hadn't seen her in quite some time. Actually, I hadn't seen many of my relatives in quite some time. Aunt Lena's mouth hadn't changed much. Neither had Uncle Cleo's deafening laugh. My father's brother was still built like an ex-football player. He desperately tried to lift me into the air, although I had to remind him that I was fourteen, and no longer five.
On my last summer visit to "The City That Reads," I'd welcomed the spicy smell of crabs and the paddle boat ride around the Inner Harbor. But this was not a short summer visit. It was a permanent life-changing catastrophe. This wasn't the usual family gathering where a few of the Parkers congregated to play cards, gossip, and overeat. This was a full-blown invite to the entire clan to discuss how young Nina won't be able to adapt from the lily-white suburbs of Rainhaven, New Jersey, to the urban streets of Baltimore City.
The contrived celebration was held in the square courtyard at the six-family apartment building that A&I bought. I should mention that behind my parents' backs, never to their faces, I call them collectively by their first names, Annie and Isaiah, which I have further shortened to A&I.
Anyway, the concrete area was miserable in comparison to the half acre of grassy land our house in Rainhaven had been situated upon. There were no trees. No shrubs. Not even blades of grass growing from cracks in the concrete. No wonder it was so hard to breathe.
A&I were thrilled that they could purchase this shabby building, which they'd spent the last year or so renovating, in an "up-and-coming" neighborhood in Baltimore City. They hoped to "invest in the community" and "circulate the black dollar." These are their words. Aunt Lena told me it was a bunch of crap and that A&I needed to get off their high horse. I agreed that they were high on something for uprooting us from New Jersey, but I kept that thought to myself.
"Ninaaaa!" My mother sang my name all day to introduce me to family who I had never met. She was reconnecting me with my roots. Her words, not mine. She was wearing one of her long, multicolored African frocks and her left arm was stacked with silver bangles that clanged loudly every time she raised it. She wanted to reacquaint me with three big-breasted, curly-haired women who I learned were my father's cousins. Actually one had rollers in her hair, one was wearing a curly wig that was on crooked and one had what I believed was a Jheri curl. They were squeezed on one of the uncomfortable wooden benches my mother had borrowed from Aunt Lena.
"Hey, baby," they said in unison.
I smiled brightly but didn't dare to speak. Aunt Lena had told me earlier that I needed to leave the white-girl talk behind in Rainhaven. I wanted to tell her that I'd left more than enough in my hometownfriends, a social life, a budding academic career at the prestigious private school Clearview, a beautiful house on the hill, and a healthy distance from crazy family members. But I knew that such a response would warrant a "See, I told you she thinks she's better than us" retort.
The one with the Jheri curl remembered me when I was pooping in diapers and gave me a hug. She almost cut off my circulation between her large bosom and the gold chains that scratched my skin. She smelled like peaches and hot dogs. The other two seemed to be concentrating on something else, perhaps on when Aunt Raquel was bringing her famous potato salad.
My father, with his khaki shorts, leather slip-on sandals, Bob Marley T-shirt, and neck-length dreadlocks, resembled a preppy Rastafarian. He was combing his beard with his hand, which was beginning to gray, while receiving a lesson in the art of grilling from Uncle Cephus. My uncle was wearing one of those Kiss the Cook aprons. His belly protruded from under it like he was due to deliver twins any day.
The rest of my uncles could be found sitting around a brown fold-up table playing pinochle, which my family referred to as the little-known cousin of spades. They were supposed to be sequestered to a basement because their game playing was considered rowdy and inappropriate for young ears. But the building's bottom floor was a boiler room, so they tried unsuccessfully to tone down the cursing for the ten or so children running around playing tag.
"Oh, shI mean, smack," Uncle Dwayne yelled. "I didn't have a single heart and I had maybe two spades. That nigI mean, that Negro is cheating." He looked futuristic, wearing the Robocop sunglasses that he never left the house without.
The womenfolk, as my father liked to say, were either in two places: in the kitchen, cooking too much food, or eating carbs at a picnic table covered with a red and white checkered cloth.
A&I had chosen to celebrate on what had to be the hottest day in August. The smell of barbecue fought hard to float through the thickness of the heat. It was drastically more humid in Baltimore than it had been in New Jersey when I'd left a good two days earlier. The heat stuck to me like the rubber cement I used in art class to bind plastic. I had those embarrassing sweat rings under my arms, but I didn't spend time trying to hide them. I had bigger problems than worrying about minor, inevitable hygiene issues.
When I looked up from the plate of ribs Uncle Cephus had prepared especially for meextra dabs of his secret sauce and honeyA&I were standing with a tall, handsome man the color of coffee with lots of cream. He was wearing a silky navy button-down shirt and black slacks suitable for work. Next to him was a young woman who looked like she could be a freshman at Rutgers University. She wasn't big or tall, just the opposite, short and petite. Even from a short distance, she exuded a sophistication that the Clearview girls who dated college guys would pay for. Her hair was a bundle of sepia spiral curls that complemented her grayish complexion. Her ribbed white tank top revealed her petite frame. And her knee-length blue skirt revealed womanly curves. Compared to her, I was dressed like a ten-year-old boy.
I surveyed my outfit: white sweat shorts, which I was told by my uncle Cleo looked like booty shorts; run-down Nike cross-trainers that held on for dear life because they were the most durable for me to practice in; and a bright yellow T-shirt that said "Rainhaven Rams."
I didn't have time to be fashionable in Rainhaven. Between my running group, drama club, the young poets' collective and Honor Society, I barely had time to make sure my school uniform was ironed. And on the weekends, I threw on what was most comfortable for whatever outdoor/extracurricular/volunteer activity I was involved in. And might I add in my defense, Rainhaven wasn't exactly fashion forward, except for my friend Amy and a select few.
A&I brought the attractive pair over. "This is Mr. Lamont and his daughter, Vivica," my mother said. "They just moved into the second-floor apartment. Vivica is also a sophomore at Maplewood. The two of you are in the same college preparatory program."
Between the crab juice on my shirt, the odor from my sweat rings, and the ketchup stain on my shorts, I felt too dirty to make their acquaintance.
"Nice to meet you, Nina." Mr. Lamont extended his hand. I brushed mine on my shorts before shaking it.
"We both thought it would be a great idea for you and Vivica to chat and get to know one another before school on Sunday." My mother clapped her hands together, an action she did often, and her bangles rang.
Vivica was completely indifferent. She concentrated on picking dirt from under her manicured fingernails. Every other one was intricately designed with flowers.
"Okay, I'm going to pick up a few more things for the apartment. I'll see you later, sweetheart." Mr. Lamont sounded like a newscaster, well-spoken and personable. He kissed Vivica on the forehead before heading out the side gate.
A&I patted me on the shoulders and walked toward the card game, swinging hands like teenagers.
I didn't know what to say first. I smoothed the sides of my hair, hoping that the action would provoke an idea. The carrot oil that I had put on earlier to control the stray hairs, fried in the sun. I'm sure I looked like I'd just woken up. I thought about saying something along the lines of "It's pretty cool that we live in the same building." But was it really cool?
Earlier, my cousin Mikey was going around the cookout singing "Where you from, shawty?" I thought about asking her that.
Vivica and I stood face to face without saying anything to one another. My head fell to the ground. Compared to her bright white Nikes, my cross-trainers should have been thrown in a trash can and lit on fire.
The awkwardness was overwhelming, so I spoke first. "So do you like Maplewood?"
She was chomping on her bubble gum. She smacked it before answering.
"It's a'ight." She didn't sound anything like she looked. I was expecting some sort of articulate response. But people said the same thing about me. With my natural hair and wannabe-Panther parents, they expected me to enlightenor offendthem with militant dialect and always looked disappointed when I didn't.
"Are you from Baltimore?"
"Nope." Her fingers sure must have been dirty. She returned to attending to them.
"How long have you lived here?"
She shrugged, and then said, "Four years." She lifted her head and wiggled her nose like a dog sniffing out food. She followed the scent and I followed her.
"Do you like it?" I felt like an officer trying to pry answers out of a suspect.
"Where are the rolls?" she asked after grabbing a hamburger from the food table. I directed her into the kitchen and was glad for the respite from our awkward conversation.
We walked back outside and joined my cousin Sondra, who was sitting on the cracked steps of the building's side entrance. She was labeled "thefastone" by the family because at five foot six, Sondra was built like a brick house. That's why Aunt Lena made her attend an all-girls school. But we all knew that was pointless. Sondra did what Sondra wanted to do.
She had on a snug hot pink tank top that read "Don't Hate Me Because I'm Cute." A denim skirt was riding up her thighs. She needed to do that thing where you stand up, pull your skirt down, and then cross your legs before taking a seat. Flat sandals squeezed her feet and straps snaked around her legs. Every time I saw her, she taught me something new even though she was three years younger.
I introduced them and neither seemed to care about the other. Sondra lifted her eyes briefly from her cell phone to give Vivica a once-over.
Then she asked me if I had any good ring tones. "I don't have a cell phone," I responded.
She gasped like I'd told her I didn't have a home. Then she shot me a look of pity.
Her phone rang and it blasted some hip-hop song that I didn't know, but I did hear the words "balling" and "New York." She chair-danced and let the song play for several seconds before actually answering it. Then she launched into a loud conversation about getting her hair braided tomorrow.
I returned my attention to Vivica after giving her some time to take a few bites. "So how do you like your new apartment?" She arched her head backward in annoyance and slowly picked it up again.
Then she shrugged her shoulders. Her nonverbal answer told me more than I needed to know. She wasn't very polite.
"So what's it like to be around all those white folks?" Vivica asked. She bit down hard on her hamburger. Her nails dug into the bread.
Her question came out of nowhere like ringworm, which I'd gotten unexpectedly when I was eight years old.
"It's the same as being around black people, I guess." I knew I was lying to her, but I really wasn't sure how to answer. People, mainly my family, looked to me to be the guru on the ways of white folks, like I was Langston Hughes. Fortunately, Vivica seemed content with my answer.
Most of my family, including A&I, didn't believe that I truly loved Rainhaven. In their eyes, I was either (a) delusional, (b) secretly miserable, or (c) in complete denial. And even though there weren't any Tamikas or LaShondas, I formed meaningful friendships with a Jill and an Amy.
Sondra flipped her phone closed with unnecessary force. "Why are you getting braids?" I asked her. "Because I'm tired of this weave and I haven't decided what I want to do with my hair yet."
Darn, I lost again. I always played a game with myself to guess real versus fake hair and always lost. Even the girls at Clearview who wore blond hairpieces tricked me.
Maybe if I'd spent more time worrying about things like hair, fashion, and pop culture, I wouldn't seem like such a square. But I left all of that latest/greatest knowledge to my friend Amy, a Jewish girl from a very rich family, who didn't mind knowing more than me. "You still got that white boyfriend?" Sondra asked intently.
"You got a white boyfriend?" Vivica fired with scary contempt. Her green eyes penetrated my dark brown ones as if she was trying to read me. I wondered if she wore contacts.
Matt had been my on/off boyfriend since we were seventh graders. Our relationship started out as a default merging. Matt was Adam's best friend, who was my best friend Jill's boyfriend. So we were their official tagalongs: a short black girl with puffy hair and a tall, lanky white guy with braces, shaggy brown hair, and freckles. We never did anythingoh yeah, except the one time he gave me a quick peck on the lips. We were really just two oddballs who became friends due to circumstance. But in the middle of ninth grade, I guess it was puberty that made him turn into a total jerk. We hardly spoke after he dumped me. A tragedy Shakespeare could have written.
A&I liked Matt but always asked about the black boys that went to Clearview. They constantly wondered why their daughter didn't have more friends of color. But what choice did I have, attending a school that was 98 percent white? All my life, if I wasn't the only black girl in class, I was one of two. Black guys were even more underrepresented. That's when I would tell A&I that there weren't any "brothers" except for Cole. My best friend Jill tried to hook us up during one of my breakups with Matt. After avoiding her for days, Cole finally confessed that I was too dark for him, despite the fact that he was the same complexion as me.