Asali Solomon's characters are vivid misfitsa heathen at Jesus camp, a scheming prep-school student, a middle-aged mom pining for her salsa-dancing salad days, a scheming twentysomething virgin, a college stud in love with his weight-lifting partner, a lonely girl in love with a yellow dress. The kids in Get Down are trapped between their own good breeding and their burning desire to join the house party of sex, romance, and bad behavior that seems to be happening on some other block, down some other, more dangerous street. Get Down is, in the words of Edward P. Jones, "touching and sensitively observed . . . from the first word to the last."
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.83(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.47(d)|
About the Author
Asali Solomon was born and raised in Philadelphia. Get Down, her first book, earned her a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, was chosen as one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" for 2007, and was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.
Read an Excerpt
Twelve Takes Thea
My mother and father, the only kids to go to college in their large families, believed deeply that they could only have genius children. When my older brother, Stephen, was assigned to the fourth-grade slow learners' class at Franklin Elementary for his habit of staring at the floor, it set into motion a chain of events that would end, for me, with a partial scholarship to the Barrett School for Girls. Every day I got up at 6:00 a.m. and rode a school bus from Southwest Philadelphia to a sprawling campus in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Stephen got a tutor and transferred to a better public elementary. I got a school with its own coat of arms.
My first friend at Barrett when I started there in second grade was a girl called Jane, who had light brown hair, so Stephen began calling me Jane. Even after the girl had left the school and moved away, Stephen continued to remind me how much of a Jane I was becoming when I was excited or angry or got in the way of his frequent mood swings. This continued even after the fourth grade, when another black girl came to my class and we became best friends.
Hearing our two names togetherThe-a Brown, Nad-jaBellwas how I learned about poetic meter and internal rhyme. One day our English teacher, Mr. Edwards, put aside Emily Dickinson and chanted our two names several times. He clapped staccato beats and looked proud of himself. Nadja wore a blank expression, and I tried not to smile.
As we walked away from the classroom, Nadja said, "You know he can't tell us apart, right?" and that was true and sad, so it made me laugh. A bland girl named Stephanie Simon, who was walking alone, looked at us with curiosity. When I saw her looking, I laughed even harder.
You could barely breathe in the space between me and Nadja. I might have been a shrill thing, but my best friend was cool, like a villain on a detective show. Once, in the locker room after swimming, Allison Evans announced, "I heard there's pools of blood on every corner in Philadelphia."
I clutched a towel to me and couldn't think of anything to say except "Well, well."
Nadja, already dry and dressed, closed her locker with a definitive click. "I guess that's why there's taxes for street cleaning."
Before Nadja, I had a few friends who were loyal to me at lunchtime, though we had nothing to talk about. I waved discreetly to the black girls scattered in other grades, and smiled at the hairnetted black lunch ladies who ladled me extra soup. I threw a party, and nobody from school came. With Nadja, I had someone to sit and eat with, and somebody in the world besides my grandpa Theo called my house to speak to me.
Sometimes on Fridays after school I went over to Nadja's, where we'd listen to the Power Four at Four on Power 99, and she'd teach me the new dances she'd learned from the older girls who lived on her block. Each of those afternoons, just before sixo'clock, we'd turn off the music, dab away our sweat, and spread our books out on the dining-room table. Nadja's mother believed that dancing was for adults and that secular music was from Satan. Those were the days of Rick James and of Prince's "Erotic City," so I guess she was right.
AT THE END of sixth grade, I learned that Nadja's mother was transferring her to Saint Mary's in South Philly. Her mother had recently married a minister who thought his stepdaughter should go to a Christian school.
Nadja told me the news on a chilly spring day. We wore sweatpants under our gray uniform kilts and twisted up the swings after lunch. "It's not like there's anything I can do," she said.
"Well, did you even try?"
"I just told you I did. My mom kept saying, 'The more you complain about going down there, the more me and Mr. Al know you need to do it.'"
"But Barrett was okay all these years."
Nadja stared ahead. "Yeah, well, now he's gotta pay part of it. And I overheard them talking the other nightit's a lot cheaper."
I wrinkled my nose, hating Mr. Al, whom I'd never met.
"Oh, does your mom know how sadistic the nuns are?" I asked. I had learned this word from my mom's best friend, a Catholic school graduate.
Nadja looked at me blankly.
I embellished on what I'd heard about girls getting whipped and humiliated by the Sisters, and I added some Barrett snobbery. "You know it's going to be a bunch of mallchicks and skanks,and you're gonna start using a lot of hair spray and going to dances with Guidos"
Nadja halted the lazy motion of her swing. "Thea, this is not helping me. Anyway, I already use a little bit of hair spray." She pushed at the sides of her pulled-back hair.
I also made my swing stop. "Well, maybe I could get my mom to transfer me too."
She smirked. "Your parents would never let you go anywhere white people get to beat you."
That afternoon on the school bus, I planned to go home and look injured until my parents asked me what was wrong. Instead I ran to meet my mother at the door and told her Nadja was leaving me.
Mom paused at the door, listening. Then, as if snapping out of a trance, she hung her jacket, slammed the closet door, and sorted a stack of mail into two piles.
"Thea, I'm sorry," she said, and kissed me on the top of my head. "I'm sure you all will stay friends. I have got to get out of this skirt!" Her voice was cheerful, but her back was to me, as she was already on the stairs. I went to the living room and flopped onto her huge velvet chair.
"What am I going to do without Nadja?" I asked as soon as she came down in one of her many sweat suits.
"Thea, you'll be fine," she said, shooing me out of her chair with a weak smile. "Maybe Barrett will get some new black students. Tell you the truth, though," she said, as if I couldn't hear her, "I really don't know what Reba is thinking, sending her down there with that white trash."
"You'll be fine."
Later, I followed my father into the kitchen, where he made omelets for dinner. I leaned onto his whisking arm and addressed his neatly rolled shirtsleeve. "What am I going to do at Barrett without Nadja?"
"Well," he said, and gently pushed me back up to standing. "You're not there to socialize. You'll do what you've been doingbringing home A's. Yeah."
At dinner, Stephen gave his opinion.
"Now you're really gonna be a wannabe Jane." Incidentally, Nadja was the sole Barrett girl my brother didn't call Jane.
Stephen made me so mad that my head was a blender full of blood. Sometimes, when my parents weren't around, I pulled off the do-rag he wore at home or called him a faggot. He hated that.
"Let your sister be, Stephen," my mother said in a firm voice, though sometimes when he called me Jane she looked amused.
Neither of my parents answered me. They couldn't tell me who I would walk everywhere with, or what would I do when I was finished lunch and everyone separated into twos and the occasional three. Worst of all, Barrett dances started in seventh grade. When Nadja told me she was leaving, I couldn't help picturing myself at one. Again and again I saw myself stuck to the wall of the main auditorium. All the girls in our class and a bunch of boys from Braeford Prep were in the center of the room under a disco ball, a writhing throng of pale arms and legs tangled up in each other, closing ranks.
I SPENT THAT SUMMER in a sulky cloud. Between sessions of painting and computer camp, where I refused to talk to any ofthe kids beyond "hi" or "bye," I curled up in my mom's chair and read Lois Duncan books. My favorite was about twins. One of the twins was evil and developed the ability to leave her body using something called astral projection. Her evil had landed her in a mental institution. While there, she worked on using her power to locate the happy normal twin, trying to get possession of her body. The book, from which I was hoping to learn astral projection, was the best way to get my mind off of being alone at Barrett.
I read some happier non-Lois Duncan books too, like the Tracie Marie series. In both of the ones I read, Tracie Marie Turns Ten and Tracie Marie Takes Twelve, the same thing happened. Girls who thought they were unpopular discovered that actually, the cute guy liked them and the most interesting other girls wanted to be their friends. Whenever I caught myself fantasizing about a sudden change along these lines, I was annoyed enough to punch my own arm.
The first day of seventh grade was hot and gold with sunshine. I tried to gaze moodily out of my bedroom window like one of the young heroines in my books, but I saw only the frosted bathroom window of the house across the alley. I dressed slowly until my mother yelled down the hall that it was time to rock and roll.
I hated it when she said that.
As if to fill the hole in our lives left by Nadja, there were four new girls in seventh grade. This was more than we'd ever got in a year, and it brought our number to thirty. I thought of the new girls as flavors of ice cream or contestants in the Miss Universe pageant. Lisa DeKulis had red hair and one crazy eyebrow, and Belle Everett had a loose blond 'fro that reminded me of JessicaLange in King Kong. There was also Frances Dyson and Beth Johanssen.
Frances was black. I knew that my parents would be very excited about this. But when I laid eyes on her, my heart dove right into my feet. It wasn't the first time I was nagged by the thought that maybe Stephen was right and I did have the sensibilities of a Jane.
Frances's hair was in stacks, an intricate tilt-a-whirl, like the hair of the girls I saw in my neighborhood. Like Nadja, I usually pulled mine back. Because my mom, who wore ornate cornrows, didn't let me get a perm or use hair products with alcohol, mine was a little unwieldy. But the point was, we didn't look so ghetto.
Frances certainly didn't mind looking ghetto. To prove it, she wore heavy gold door-knocker hoops with the name Frances running the span in between.
She wore the blue kilt, which no one wore because of its unflattering length. I felt bad that no one had told her. But she was entirely to blame, I thought, for wearing Reeboks instead of Tre-torns.
When I saw Frances, I thought of something that happened in my first year at Barrett. Allison "blood pools" Evans stood next to me in the bathroom mirror. She said, "Do this," and puckered her lips. I imitated her. She laughed and clapped, and I noticed that her lips were a pale pink line, while mine swelled outside of some invisible margin. Frances, and not because of her lips, reminded me of that moment.
Though I knew she'd seek me out, I almost jumped when she fell into step with me on my way to the dining room. I was walking with Stephanie Simon, who, like me, had lost her best friendto another school. Stephanie was talking about her summer near Rhode Island and the tastiness of something called cod balls. It sounded unlikely.
"How do you find anything here?" Frances was suddenly between us. The halls in the old building were narrow, so Stephanie dropped back. I walked with Frances, thinking that she sounded as if one of us had specifically done her wrong.
"Uhmm," I said.
I didn't want to be overly friendly to Frances, especially in front of other people. I didn't want them to assume that we were going to be best friends and then leave us alone like me and Nadja. I mean, sometimes the two of us had acquired a third, like a barnacle, but it was always somebody who wanted to take my best friend, and I made it clear that this was never going to happen. Anyway, it had been easier and safer for us to stick together. Then we didn't have to ache alone over their slick, cushy homes with rooms in the tens. Together, Nadja and I faced the shame of meeting their black housekeepers, who had no last names. But I knew there'd be only double the weakness in the teaming of me and Frances.
Stephanie said, "Well, the halls really only go toward the dining room or back toward the middle school."
Frances looked back at her, then darted her eyes suspiciously at the low ceilings and stained-glass windows.
"You know, it took me a while to find my way too," I said.
I made my voice bright. I was not going to be mean. The question was how much I had to befriend Frances. I was caught between the other girlswho, I felt, would not understand her at alland my parents, who would want us handcuffed together. Eventually, the Black Barrett Parents (the BBPs) were going toget together, and if my parents went to the first meeting, or tea as it was sometimes called, and met Frances's parents, and if there was any indication that I wasn't carrying her on my back, saving her seats, or showing her how to flush the antique middle school toilets, I would be very sorry.
Of course my parents wouldn't be that interested in any new Indian girls in my grade that year. If they had, I would have had the pleasure of telling them about Beth Johanssen. Instead, I told them briefly about Frances at dinner, and I called Nadja directly afterward.
"Isn't that crazy?" I asked her. "Beth Johanssen."
"She must be adopted," Nadja said dreamily. She had always been fascinated by adoption. She couldn't see why people tried so hard to have their own children when they could create more interesting families with other people's kids.
"I don't know about that," I said. "Maybe her parents changed her name from ..."I couldn't think of an Indian name"because they're sellouts."
"You sound like Stephen," Nadja said. "I bet she's adopted. She probably thinks she's white."
I felt sure that Beth both knew and felt lucky that she was not white. She was taller than most of us, about Nadja's height I thought, and slim, with a respectable chest. She wore her straight black hair in a neat ponytail, and when she couldn't hear you, she wrinkled her perfect, skinny nose. "Sorry?" she said, which I started to do. Her eyes were a lighter brown than her reddish skin, an electrifying contrast. Even wearing some off-brand of tennis shoe, she was clearly the prettiest girl in the class. I did not mention this part to Nadja.
"Don't go get a new best friend" was what I said.
Though I allowed Frances to shadow me for the first couple of weeks of school, I made sure to sit next to or near to Beth Johanssen in both English and algebra. Before I casually made my way over to her, I'd watch her put down her red knapsack, retie her tunic, readjust her ponytail, and sit. I never knew why she didn't fix herself up in the girl's room, but I decided she was the type of girl who would answer every why with a why not.
Frantic to get her to really talk to me, I looked all around and at her things. A collage of models in generally unwearable clothes covered her notebook. I asked her where she got the pictures.
"Vogue," she said. "September is the best issue."
"How long did it take you to make that collageuhthing?" I asked, even boring myself.
Beth shrugged. "Couple hours."
Finally Mrs. Langley walked in, wearing, to my joy, sheer stockings.
"Beth," I whispered. It was the first time I said her name. "Look at her legs."
Mrs. Langley had a remarkable amount of body hair. Her stockings were a picture of arrested motion, not unlike tall, windswept grass.
Beth's eyes widened. "Oh my God," she said out of the side of her mouth. This was how we became friends.
I later understood that anyone in the class could tell a similar story of becoming friends with Beth. She had private jokes with just about all of us, even the three most popular girls in the class, Liza, Lizzie, and Rachel. This was especially impressive to me because I felt leaden and mute around those girls. I couldn't remember where I had learned this reverence. It felt ancient. In theTracie Marie series, the popular kids at Tracie's school were the kindest, most attractive, and smartest students. At Barrett it was an indefinable something else. Lizzie was stocky and bucktoothed, with scraggly strawberry blond hair and a semipermanent frown. Liza had smooth skin and clear brown eyes, but she was afflicted with a nervous laugh that always ended in a snort. Still, these were the girls everyone wanted to be.
Beth didn't follow them around. She seemed content enough to sit or whisper with them occasionally at lunch or in study hall. Other times, she whispered with any old Jane, me for example. Because our first real conversation was about Mrs. Langley, Beth's private joke with me was that everyone at Barrett looked like an animal.
Mrs. Langley was obviously an ape, she said, "but maybe hairier."
Stephanie Simon was a moose because she had an upturned nose and large teeth.
"Horse?" I offered, because you could get into trouble at Barrett if you weren't careful who you talked about, or to.
She smirked. "No way. Horses are beautiful. I have one on my grandmother's farm," she said, biting a chewed-up thumbnail. "Definitely moose."
In the precious few minutes before algebra and French, we thought of new ones. Jennifer Morrispit bull. Jo Lydellturtle. Becky Alberts, poor Becky, with dark tangled hair, thick chunks of something called psoriasis, and a voice filled with spit (that was always talking about Doctor Who)
"Monster," Beth decided. "Is that an animal?"
I was always relieved when I saw Beth and she rememberedthat we had a thing. On the day that Frances was moved into our algebra class, Beth's eyes sparkled. She scrawled on a piece of paper and pushed it onto my desk. "Monkey."
TALKING TO FRANCES was like pushing a heavy grocery cart with a trick wheel. We spoke about things like what our mothers did (mine ran a Head Start program at the Malcolm X Housing Projects, and hers was an executive secretary) and what we watched on television (she loved Good Times, which I wasn't allowed to watch). She was from a neighborhood in North Philly near my mom's job, a place that made my mother shake her head. Frances and I didn't intersect at any point, and we didn't make each other laugh.
Another difference between us was that Frances was extraordinarily smart. I worked hard and made A's, but Frances always seemed to know exactly what our teachers were trying to get us to understand. This caused me trouble with Beth. Each time Frances spoke up in class, Beth rolled her eyes at me. I silently begged Frances to slow down her campaign of academic domination, but there she was, publicly racking up extra credit, winning our weekly journal contest, reading aloud an A-plus paper on the war between conscience and passion in Jane Eyre. Frances, her hair now in an even more asymmetrical Tilt-A-Whirl, wildly waving her hand, offering to help Beth out of a jam with negative numbers. Beautiful Beth at the board, with an expression so nonchalant it had to be forced, one hand on her hip, the other raised with chalk to take Frances's dictation.
Mrs. Langley practically swooned. "Great work, Frances!" Teachers were really happy about Frances being so smart. "You too, Beth," she added after a long beat.
Beth sat. She slipped me a note when Mrs. Langley turned her back to us:
Monkeys > humans at math.
I wanted to say that Frances was not a monkey, that Beth was breaking the rules of the game, which was based on the fact that people looked like all kinds of animals, not the ones you would expect. Couldn't Frances look like a lemur or a yak? I wanted to say that, but I didn't.
Beth Johanssen and I didn't just say mean things about people. She talked about how Barrett girls were nicer than her old classmates at the coed Quaker school down the road. "A lot of people hated me there," she told me once at lunch. When I asked her why, she just gave a sad little shrug. I told her about Nadja then, so we could be sad together.
"She sounds cool," she said. "We should all hang out sometime."
I agreed. But since Saint Mary's had started, it seemed like I called Nadja at all the wrong times: she was doing her homework, out at pep squad, or on her way to meet up with her new friends. We did go to the last and worst of the John Hughes movies, and I felt responsible for suggesting it, but mostly Nadja was at Saint Mary's or with Saint Mary's girls. When I asked if I could come along, she said things like "There's not space in Kelly's mom's car" or "Do you even have a fake ID?" Anyway,the descriptions of her new friends made me nervous. They had boyfriends and smoked Newportsin seventh grade. Just their namesKelly, Sheila, and Tiffanymade me sure they wouldn't like me very much.
"We never hang out anymore," I said to her one night. I finally got her after leaving two messages on her new private answering machine. I had to use the phone in the living room, so I kept my voice low. I could tell from the taut look of the newspaper in my mom's hands that she was listening.
"Don't be like that," Nadja said. "It's just hard being at different schools." I could barely understand her. It sounded like she was eating firecrackers.
"But I've barely seen you since the summer," I said. "You never want to go anywhere with me." I did not like, but could not stop, the wheedling in my voice.
"Oh, knock it off," she snapped. "Don't make me feel bad, Thea. I didn't even want to go to this school. It's ugly and it smells and our classes are so boring. Then, the white girls look cheap, but they treat us like we're trash."
"Oh my God! What do they do to you?"
Nadja paused. "Well, I mean, it doesn't matter," she said. Then she stopped crunching and spoke more quickly. "But look, you and me, we don't have to see each other every day to be friends."
"You mean best friends?"
My mother folded the paper.
Then Nadja told me the strange tale of the school's one black nun. I felt good noticing that we hung up a full hour and a half after we started talking.
"You miss Nadja, huh?" my mom said.
"Well, what about Frances?" The hope in my mother's eyes was about proportional to the despair I felt about Frances.
IN THE MEANTIME, my parents were off to the fall BBP meeting, one of the usual two for the year. My parents always tried to schedule more, I suspect, because they wanted another opportunity to feel politically superior to the other black parents. Many of the BBPs were the type who lived in ratty Philadelphia suburbs in an effort to say that they did not live in the city. After the very first meeting my dad had said, "They can go broke buying a little piece of house just to be smelling white people's shitexcuse me, babyif they want. We're going to own this place before you finish college." He had gestured to a cream-colored kitchen wall dotted with grease stains that we had probably inherited from previous owners.
My parents met Frances's mom at a Saturday afternoon BBP tea. I had heard about it all week because my parents grumbled about driving all the way up to that Debra Brown's house in East Hell. Debra was the mother of Janice Brown, who was two years below me. Debra was originally from Alabama, but she spoke in clipped syllables. Janice had once told me that according to her mom, the city of Philadelphia was no place to have a family.
"I have one," I'd said, and she looked confused.
Frances's mother came alone. Apparently the father lived in North Carolina with his first and only wife and their children. Ms. Dyson had one relative in the city, a brother who was underno circumstances allowed to be in the same room with her daughter.
"Why?" I asked, and my parents looked at each other.
"She's from North Carolina," my mother repeated. "Her name is a combination of her parents' names: Roberta and Alvin."
"Ralvin?" I said.
My mother just looked at me.
"Alverta," my father said, as if he actually liked the sound of it.
I wanted them to rhapsodize over Beth's parents, though they were still unseen and racially unaccounted for. I myself wanted to ask Beth about the Johanssens, but I got the feeling she did not want to explain why she was apparently Indian and named as she was. I tried to get close by telling her that my parents belonged to an organization for the black parents of Barrett, and asking if her mom and dad knew the other Indian parents. She started to say something and then just said no.
Meanwhile, there was a new development regarding Frances that I had to report at home. About a month into school, she started speaking in a high voice that sounded hard to maintain. She had also adopted a habit of using people's names in a pointed way, as in "Are you walking to lunch, Beckeeee?" or "Jooooo, how are you feeling?"
"She's so weird," I told my parents one night. We sat in the living room, where they checked over Stephen's and my homework after dinner. I perched on the arm of my mom's chair while my brother and father slouched on the wide sofa.
"Like, totally weird," echoed Stephen, sounding not unlike the new Frances.
"What do you mean, she's weird?" my mother asked. "People say your dad's weird because he likes to cook."
"No, Sharon. People say I'm weird because I hate to cook, but I always wind up in your kitchen."
"No, listen," I said. "She started talking in this crazy voice, really high and proper."
"I guess she's trying to adjust," my mother said. "I wonder if her mother knows about this."
"Alverta's got enough on her mind," answered my father. They held each other's eyes.
"What?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"
I got no information and I had no rights. Since the friendship wasn't moving fast enough for them, my parents arranged with Ms. Dyson that Frances and I would spend a Friday afternoon at her house, and then I'd have dinner over there. I later learned that this visit was conceived as a pilot program leading to a regular series.
The Dyson house was walled in dark wood and mirrors. I tried not to stare at a velvet picture of an Afro'ed woman with large breasts or at the many framed portraits of Frances and her mom. As I sat down on their leather couch, Frances immediately picked up a large white-and-gold old-fashioned-style phone.
"Why don't you play some Atari," she said, pointing at a joystick. "I can't talk to my boyfriend when my mom is home."
"You have a boyfriend?"
"Is Kelvin there?" she asked sweetly.
I didn't have Atari at my house, but had learned some basics at slumber parties. Good thing too, because Frances took the phone into the kitchen and unpropped the swinging door so that it would shut. Though I couldn't really hear her conversation, aboisterous laugh I'd never heard before escaped a few times. I realized I hadn't heard her laugh much at Barrett.
I tried to turn down the beeps and squeaks on my game without being too obvious. I heard phrases: "Just you ... Stop ... No, stop! ... She don't know ... You better not." My little man fell off the steps he was jumping, because I was listening so intently. I had achieved some record low scores when Frances hung up and swung back into the living room with a bag of Oreos and two cans of soda.
"You going to the dance?" I asked as if I surely did not care, keeping my eye on game seven. I had become passionately curious about Frances in the last fifteen minutes.
She twisted her face. "Please," she said, waving her hand. "Kelvin wouldn't let me. If my mom lets us, I'm going to his homecoming."
"He's in high school?" I almost screamed.
"So what?" she said. She leaned over to the stereo cabinet and turned on the Power Four. "You really like those white girls enough to be all dancing around with them?"
I shrugged. "Don't you like anybody there?"
"Not really. I have a lot of girlfriends up on Twenty-third that go to my church." Without turning off the stereo, Frances picked up the remote, turned on the television, and stared straight ahead at it.
I had an urge to talk to her about Nadja. Instead I asked, "Why did you start talking like that?" She was speaking normally now, though just two hours ago she was hurting my throat with her falsetto.
She slowly turned her head toward me. "Like what?"
I knew I shouldn't keep talking, but I did. "You know, that voice you do at school."
An invisible shade lowered over her face. "Like, oh my God, why do you talk like this?" she shrieked.
I wanted to say something about her stupid ghetto hair and her cheap jewelry, but she had a real social life and a boyfriend. Besides, I was in her house.
"I don't talk like that, Frances."
"I don't talk like that, Frances!" she mimicked. "This is you," she said, picking up an Oreo.
My bottom lip trembled, so I bit it. Just then Ms. Dyson opened the door and stalked in on heels that were Tina Turner-high.
"Hey, you all! How's it going? Girl, let me get one of those cookies." Standing above Frances, she took the cookie out of her hand and popped it into her mouth. She kissed her daughter's palm and winked at me.
"WELL," SAID MY MOTHER that night when I told her that Frances had called me an Oreo. Then she just said it again. "Well." She woke me the next morning for an unscheduled shopping trip in honor of the dance.
When we came back from the department store, she made me model my outfit for my father and Stephen. I had gotten black patent leather loafers, a new purple sweater, matching stockings, and a black denim skirt. I descended into the living room to my parents' oohs and ahs and Stephen's silence. I executed a spin and a deliberately bad moonwalk.
"Are there going to be any black boys there?" Mom asked, herhead resting on my father's shoulder. I shrugged hard, the way Beth would have, and said I didn't know.
I went upstairs to change back into my Saturday chores T-shirt. When I came down, I heard my mother speaking quietly.
"could take your sister."
"What?" I heard Stephen say. His response to anything he didn't want to hear was "What?"
"Boy, you heard me. You could take your sister to some of your dances."
I froze out of sight on the stairs.
"But she's only in the seventh grade! She can't go to a high school dance," my brother said, whining but reasonable.
"Yeah, Mom," I said, coming down to them. "What are you trying to turn me into?" I debated whether or not to tell them about Frances's high school boyfriend and make it good, when Stephen continued.
"Anyway," he said, glaring at me, "she can't wait to have some corny white boy feelin' all up"
"Shut up, you faggot pussy!" I yelled, saying the worst I could, but immediately calculating that this was a mistake. First of all, Stephen's face had turned from pissed to sober and sorry. Second, my mother had the pop-eyed look she got only a couple of times a year. Third, my father had moved from a seated and cuddling position to a vertical stance where he could hold my arm with his vise grip of a hand.
"Have you lost your goddamned mind?" he was saying. "What is wrong with you? You can't say something because your little rich friends say it!" He gave my arm a shake and dropped it. Then he paced in a small circle, shaking his head.
I sat down next to my mom and started hiccuping. "I'm sorry," I said in a sob.
She pulled me close. "Oh, honey, honey, it'll be okay. What is it? You miss Nadja?"
Stephen was right, but he was wrong. To have one of the Braeford boys standing over me, asking me to dance, was only the first part of the dream. It would be a faceless blue-eyed blond, a nameless brown-eyed brunet. It had to be a white boy, not one of the token black ones, that would get me to the part of the fantasy I lingered in before I went to sleep. That was when I took the boy's hand and glanced to my right, where Beth was sitting. We would lock eyes, and I would understand that she was filled with jealousy. She was jealous of me for being chosen and jealous of him for being close to me. I lay in bed one night and actually did, I punched myself in the other arm.
WE AGREED to meet there at 7:20, but Beth was going to ride with other people who lived in Paoli. I rode from the city alone with my mom.
The dance was in the volleyball gym, a big room on the edge of Middle Field, with smooth white walls and floors. As I'd seen it only in the daylight, the dim lighting was eerie and made the room look like an ice rink. Someone, probably the silver-haired and limping black maintenance man, had put away the net and lined the walls with chairs.
The first person I saw when I entered was Becky Alberts's mother, who looked like a Van Halen video girl in a tight red sweaterdress. She had lots of wavy blond hair that was brown lasttime I saw her. Evidently on chaperone duty, she spoke animatedly to her daughter, and I didn't know whether to feel sorrier for her or for Becky for getting stuck with each other.
In the corner, a DJ from Wheels of Steel wore the thin white tie and pushed-up jacket sleeves of a jerk. At 7:21, Stephanie Simon and Lisa DeKulis were already dancing to "Freeze Frame." Chatting boys clumped in a corner where we usually lined up to serve the ball. One of them was black and looked pleasing from a distance. He had a shag haircut and was only a little shorter than me. Though the other boys wore sneakers and T-shirts, he wore a suit jacket. As I moved past for the first of numerous trips to the bathroom, I glanced over at him. He did not meet my gaze.
Without being ecstatic, I approved of myself in the mirror. Part of my hair was in a ponytail, and the back part was out over my shoulders. My mother had carefully blow-dried it and daubed me with a bit of lipstick. Her perfume, a tiny bottle that she received every other year for her wedding anniversary, was off-limits, but she let me use the lotion that went with it. I cheerfully sniffed my wrist while I loitered over the sink and checked my watch. I marched myself out of the bathroom at 7:35 and almost slammed into Becky Alberts, who was dripping tears onto her oversize Doctor Who T-shirt.
I saw Liza and Lizzieminus Rachel, who'd been going her own way lately. I sucked in my next breath hard when I saw that they were standing at the wall with Beth. She hadn't mentioned that she'd be riding with them. And not only did she look gorgeous, her hair fanned out over her shoulders, she also looked happy. And not fake Barrett that's-so-awesome happy, but birthday and Saturday-morning happy. I guessed that she, Liza, andLizzie had gotten ready together, when all I'd had was my motherand also Stephen, who would only say, "You don't look ugly, so stay away from nasty white boys." I kept my back straight and got ready to smile. I ventured up to her.
"Oh, hey, you made it. You look nice," she said, looking me up and down. Then she went back to her conversation.
Two boys came up on either side of Liza and Lizzie. One looked like a tall blond mop, with a Braeford blazer over a T-shirt. The other had huge glasses and skinny arms. I started to walk away, but Beth called, "Where are you going?"
I stopped in my tracks like a character in a movie and almost skipped back to her.
We danced in large, ragged circles of girls to "Don't You Want Me," "Shout," and "The Reflex." I missed Nadja and practicing the snake. We were not good dancers, but we were better than the average Barrett girl.
Beth, on the other hand, was like the other Janes, moving between the beats with flailing arms. I tried to do what she did. It was okay. It was my life, and I let myself get sweaty.
"Now we're going to slow it down a little," announced the DJ as Atlantic Starr swelled out of the speakers, "and happy birthday, Allison!" We hooted for Allison's birthday. Beth announced that she was sitting down, and I followed her toward the wall.
Before this moment, there had been the odd couple here and there. Now nearly all of the guys were on the floor with partners. The one black kid danced first with Nancy Chin, then with Jennifer Morris, whose extremely thick dark hair made her look ethnic to him, I guessed. Neither of those girls was pretty. I knew what he was doing.
I wasn't surprised that no one asked me to dance, but Icouldn't understand why Beth was sitting. Even Becky Alberts's mother danced with our biology teacher.
As the next song sobbed on, Beth said, "Thea, I have to tell you something."
My heart thrilled in the pause.
"Liza's dad beats her mom."
"It's true," she said, biting her thumb.
"How do you know? She told you that?"
"Sort of. She said that they fought a lot, and then tonight I got a ride with her, and her mom had a black eye, and also her dad kept yelling."
"What did he say?"
"I don't remember exactly, but it was stuff like, 'Don't you know anything, you dummy?'"
I tried to imagine that scene. It was true that Liza's mom was small, with tightly drawn skin and a frozen smile, and that her father was heavy, with little eyes and thick eyebrows. I couldn't picture him talking like that in front of other kids, but Beth had been there. Anyway, I couldn't wait to tell Nadja! We had been finding less, I thought, to talk about.
Beth and I watched the couples dancing. Two included the bucktoothed Lizzie and the beleaguered Liza. This was why Liza had a nervous laugh, I thought. Then someone was walking toward us. It was the sole other black human being in the volleyball gym, who had just finished his second dance with Nancy Chin. He wiped at his forehead with a handkerchief.
He leaned into Beth. "Wanna dance?"
She stood without smiling.
I decided to wait out the slow songs in the bathroom. As Icrossed the room, someone touched my arm. It was the tall blond boy who had been dancing with Liza earlier. He was a series of squares: head, jaw, shoulders.
He said, "That kid Mike over there really wants to dance with you."
"Mike wants to dance with you." He shifted from one foot to the other, raking his fingers through his hair. He jerked his head toward two boys wrestling with each other. Neither of them looked over. Neither of them even secretly tried.
I pushed his hand off me.
"Where are you going? He really wants"
"You're an asshole," I spat.
"Hey!" I heard him yell behind me.
I felt good stalking away. But then I was in the bathroom with the feeling in my stomach that I'd had when a truck backed slowly into our car one afternoon. My mother sat on the horn, and my father rolled down the window, screaming, "Stop! Stop!"
In the mirror, my hair was a mess of shrinking clumps, and the lipstick was gone. I went into a stall and sat on the top of the toilet. After a couple of minutes some girls walked in, giggling.
"Thea, you in here?" Beth called.
"Yeah. I ... had to pee really bad."
"So me and Stephanie wanted to know if you danced with that kid," Beth called out. "He's best friends with Mike Harris."
I stayed put. "Who's Mike Harris?"
"God, Thea," said Stephanie.
"Mike Harris is like the cutest guy at Braeford," said Beth.
Stephanie left just as I dragged myself out of the stall. Beth stayed behind and rotated in the mirror with a watchful eye.
"I didn't dance," I said. I considered telling her what had happened, but I knew it wouldn't change the feeling that a truck was backing into my compact. I could only tell Nadja.
"Look at my hair," I wailed.
Beth shrugged. "It's dark out there." Then she leaned over and flipped her head backward, fluffing her own hair.
I decided to change the subject, first glancing under the stalls for shoes. I said, "You know, in third grade, I remember Liza's mom was in the hospital. Supposedly it was for an operation. I wonder if maybe her dad beat her up so bad he put her there."
"Maybe," said Beth. "I think the boring slow songs are over."
We went back out into the dance, where the tall blond boy and his friends pitched their bodies around to "Rock Lobster." I pictured him in a wheelchair.
At 10:30 the lights came up, and even though I was still sweating, I covered myself with my wool cap and coat. When my mother stuck her grinning head in, I practically sprinted into her arms. I almost ran smack into Liza's mother, who looked sad to me. Sad but brave.
"MAYBE THAT OTHER GUY did want to dance with you," Nadja said the next night on the phone. I felt like she was pulling rank on me about the dance because she'd already been to four Saint Mary's mixers. Though I usually trusted what she said, this time I knew she was telling me that I didn't know what was going on right in front of me.
"Look, Nadja, no one wanted to dance with me. Not even the stupid sellout black guy who was there. And this jerkoff guy whocame up to me was justI mean, he even tried to keep me from walking away. Can you believe that?"
"I believe it, because his friend wanted to dance with you."
I blew out a long gust of air.
"Thea, everything can't be so bad all the time. Don't take this the wrong way, but I know things are more interesting when they seem bad. It's just not like that."
We'd had this argument before, and I knew we'd never stop having it as long as we stayed friends, because a lot of things were bad. I could just ask my mom about life in the Malcolm X Projects, for example.
With Nadja this time I tried a new tactic: I went silent. Then I added a sniff.
"Are you crying?" she asked.
"No," I said in a small voice.
"Okay, I'm sorry. It's just, what do you want me to tell you? 'Of course that guy was playing a joke on you and his friend'? You're my girl."
"I know," I said. I started to feel a little better, so I told her about Liza's mom. "What do you think about that?" I asked. "I remember thinking that hospital thing was so weird at the time."
"I don't even remember that," said Nadja. "And this girl Beth sounds like a bitch. Why is she talking about people?"
"You and me talked about people all the time," I said.
"We didn't talk about things like that. I mean, did you tell her everything about my mom and her husbands? I mean, if you think it's funny that somebody's dad is beating her mom"
"Of course not! But I"
"I have to go," Nadja said. "Sheila's coming here in twenty minutes."
"Please, please don't think I talk about you."
Finally she said, "I know. I really have to go."
It was Saturday night. I curled up in my mom's chair, where I planned to watch The Love Boat. I had been reading some other book, but I was feeling so out of sorts that I went up to my room and got Stranger with My Face, about the twins, for a third reading.
Back in the chair, I looked over at my mother, who was spread out on the couch wearing her pink house sweats. She snored softly, with Essence magazine on her chest. I folded my legs Indian-style and closed my eyes. I thought if I could send my consciousness into space, I would finally see the inside of the Watusi Loungewhere my dad liked to watch Sixers games, then come home to do imitations of the sad men who were always there. I'd spy my brother on South Street, wearing the thin leather jacket he'd cleaned parks all summer to buy. I'd find him hatless and trying not to shiver on the windy October night, leaning against Tower Records, waiting for fine girls to walk by so he could agree with his friends that they were fine.
When I got a little more expert, I could leave the city limits, go out and look for Beth. Was she watching The Love Boat? Was she lying on her bed, looking at the latest Vogue? Did she have a canopy bed like I'd always wanted? I pictured us in her imaginary room, sprawled on the canopy bed, singing with the Go-Go's. I imagined the two of us sprawled on the canopy bed, quiet. At the same time that my eyes snapped open, the phone rang. My mom reached for it without changing position. "Good evening," she chirped in her extra-proper voice. She handed me the phone and promptly fell back to sleep.
"Hello?" I said.
"Thea, this is Liza."
I only had a second to be surprised, if that.
"Listen up," she said. "Is it true that you were talking shit about my parents?" For once, she neither giggled nor snorted.
There were so many awful things happening in the world. Racist Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States, and the residents of Malcolm X were in dire straits. Ethiopia was starving. Prince was saying we were going to have a nuclear war. It was my father's favorite line in a song: Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb? That was how he explained the Cold War to me. That was happening too.
Beth had lied on me, and one of the two most popular girls in my class was furious at the other end of the line.
"Sorry?" I said. I remembered seeing Liza's mom in the bright after-dance light. Her face looked worn under short dark reddish hair, but as the image came back to me, I realized that she had no black eye.
"Sorry you were spreading lies about my parents?"
I could have told her what had happened. Beth was not a good friend to me. But I always felt that she could be. I would protect her reputation, and I would not sacrifice her for Liza van Buren, though it was a sacrifice that twenty-nine out of thirty Barrett girls would have quickly made.
"No, that's not what I meant," I said. "I know it's really bad, but I didn't start that rumor. I was telling Beth something I had heard."
"I feel really bad. I don't want to call anybody a liar."
"Whatever stupid slut you're talking about is a liar!" she screamed. Then I heard a door close, and she seemed to get really close to the phone. "She was talking about my parents!"
"Okay, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It was Frances," I said as quietly as I could. My mother knocked her magazine to the floor. My heart jumped, but she continued to snore.
Liza's voice began sounding far away. Without even trying, I left my body, just like that evil twin. I hovered over the two neat cornrows my mom had done for me that morning while I said very little to her about the dance. I floated past the TV, where I paused to see Ted Lange trapped behind the bar, smiling, the only Pacific Princess crew member wearing red instead of white.
If I had really known what I was doing, I would have been able to travel in time as well as space. I would have seen more. Like the ensuing disaster that landed Liza with folded arms, Frances using her regular voice, and me snotting and crying in the middle school head's office. I would have seen that I never mentioned Beth, never gave her up. That Frances never spoke a word to me again unless we were in front of our parents, and that she left Barrett the next year. I would have seen that I would feel responsible for her leaving and that I would feel curiously alone without her until my parents transferred me to public high school, the magnet where my brother went.
I would have seen the surreal conversation I had with Beth on Monday after the dance, when I asked her, in the meekest voice possible, what she had told Liza. She rifled through her locker and said, "Liza shouldn't be talking to you about what I tell her. That's not right at all." Then Stephanie appeared, and theywalked to lunch. I trailed behind them in the old halls that were too narrow for three people traveling abreast.
I would have seen Beth's mom at middle school graduation, a young-looking but gaunt woman identified to me as Pakistani, wearing pale face powder. Beth's father was a stepfather. He was old and white, had a lot of bright black hair and a pinched line of a mouth. I would have been able to see how in ninth grade, after I'd left Barrett, Beth invented a boyfriend named Chris who sent her a dancing ape for her birthday.
I SAT, BARELY MOVING, for hours after Liza called. I was still there when my brother came bounding in on a blast of cold air. My mother woke with a start and checked her watch against his midnight curfew.
"I made it," Stephen said.
"Barely," Mom said. My brother looked at me.
"Thea, Thea, Thea," he said happily. "I saw your girl Nadja tonight down on South Street. She was looking good." He shook his head as if it were unbearable.
Copyright © 2006 by Asali Solomon