“Well, I guess you won’t be needing my gift then,” Reggie said late morning on New Year’s Day. He had given me a pair of gloves with an “R” inscribed on each. I knew he couldn’t afford William’s gift, and I couldn’t tell him the gloves meant more to me than the jewelry, even as the necklace sparkled on my neck and the gloves were stuffed away in a drawer in my room.
“Of course I’ll need your gift. It’s cold out there.”
Reggie was silent from where he sat on the sofa a comfortable distance from me. His mustache was coming in against his deep brown skin and I found myself wishing I could dress like Shauna, or at least have my hair done like hers.
He was pensive, but at the time, I didn’t know what was concerning him. “Your, uh, church…”
I held my breath, unable to understand my defensiveness at his breaking our unspoken rule. I forced myself to calm down. This was not Darnell, this was my best friend. If he was bringing up The Church, there must be a good reason.
“It doesn’t allow you to date, huh?”
I dropped my gaze. “No. Not until you’re eighteen.”
He nodded. “So…you wouldn’t go out with someone, I mean, not me, but someone like William if he asked?” His voice held a hint of hopefulness, as if he were asking me to make a promise.
At that, I looked at him, although he wouldn’t meet my gaze, and laughed. “William?”
A reluctant smile tugged at one side of his mouth. He glanced at me momentarily then looked away. “Yeah, why not? It’s obvious he likes you.”
“Likes me?” I’d never heard those words used in reference to myself outside the punch lines of jokes at school.
“Don’t tell me you can’t see it.” His gaze rested on the gold crucifix before he sighed of frustration. He started to say something but decided against it.
I fingered the necklace and shook my head. “He’s White.”
Reggie looked at me as if disgusted. “So what?”
For a moment I thought I’d made the same mistake that Darnell had. I opened my mouth to clarify, but Reggie went on before I could.
“He’s still a man.”
I narrowed my eyes at the ridiculousness of my friend’s claim. “Do you really think someone like William would give a second’s thought about someone like me?”
He appeared even more disgusted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I started to say something but realized he had a point. Why did I assume I was somehow inferior? “Well, for one,” I began, unsure of what I would say until it came out, “I don’t look like the Michelles or Shaunas of the world.”
“They’re not White.”
True. And we were talking about William here. “That’s beside the point.”
“A second ago that seemed to be your point.”
I was offended, but my pride prevented me from showing it. I decided to argue my point. “I don’t know all the White girls’ names at MSGT, but I see how they run after William and his friends. Cheerleaders, dance club, all of them.”
“And I have to walk around and make books and teachers my best friends. Christ, I can’t even wear the clothes they wear or even style my hair how I want.”
“And you think people like me or William care about stuff like that?”
I didn’t know what to say. At his reference to himself, I was caught off-guard. But my insecurity reigned. He could not have meant what I thought, or hoped.
I shook my head. “I have no idea what goes on in your heads, but I know—”
“Then you don’t know anything.”
“I know what I’m not.”
Reggie shook his head, apparently frustrated. But I didn’t understand what was frustrating him. “You don’t give yourself credit.”
“For what? Being a nerd and an outcast?”
“See, that’s what I mean. Maybe you should listen to Darnell a little more.”
“For what? So I can lose my sanity and think I’m a god and William’s a devil?”
“No, for Pete’s sake, so you can see how—” He stopped himself. Aggravated, he stood and headed for the door, grabbing his coat so abruptly that the coat stand almost fell. He had to steady it with one hand while holding his coat in the other.
“Just don’t do anything stupid,” he said as he opened the door. “William’s not the only one who knows a good thing when he sees it.”
Before I could respond, the door slammed in my face. For a moment, I stood in the living room staring at the door as if it would give me the answers to the questions that flooded my mind right then. As my friend’s words gradually took meaning, I felt hope. Not deflated hope. But pure, unadulterated desire that I was not misunderstanding.
After a moment’s hesitation, I headed to the restroom and turned on the light. I stood before the mirror and squinted my eyes, closing then opening them, and finally rubbing them before I stared at my reflection, searching for what Reggie suspected William had seen.
I never thought much of my complexion, most likely because I didn’t know where it fit into the color spectrum. My family never used the narrow terms that the Black students did at school. Light-skinned, dark-skinned, brown-skinned. I was only beginning to understand what they meant to my schoolmates, but they still meant little to me. What would my skin be considered?
In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that these terms were not the only ones used when describing, or assessing, a person’s beauty. My father talked of inner beauty. But, like most of what he said, I regarded it as just talk. The Church talk.
It didn’t take long to rule out light-skinned. I thought of my sister Patricia and my biracial friend Carolyn whom I’d met when I was a sophomore. The term would be more fitting for them. Their skin was pale, Carolyn’s almost yellow. My skin was certainly not in that color range.
I tried to see my skin as separate from myself. If I could compare it to anything, what would it resemble? I recalled thinking Darnell’s color was of cashews. But did that make him light, brown, or dark? I rested my hand on the mirror and compared my hue to that of the wood framing the glass, a rich wood the color of Reggie’s skin. Two different browns, and the wood was darker than mine. I then compared myself to Darnell and found that I was darker. As I stared, I concluded that my skin was the color of the chocolate milk enclosed in the cartons at school. That was the only thing I could come up with right then. And it didn’t make me feel beautiful. Yet, still I prayed for a miracle, hoping that, regardless of what I was to the world, Reggie saw me as I couldn’t see myself.
Three things happened during my senior year in high school that would change the course of my life forever, as well as my outlook on it: While I was awaiting acceptance, or rejection, letters from the colleges I’d applied to, Darnell was registering himself for the military. William—and his good friend Reginald—asked me to the prom, an event I had long since divorced, in my mind, from having anything to do with me. I decided, or, rather, my parents decided for me, that I would go to Maryland for college, primarily because my sister Courtney would be a sophomore at Howard University and I would be near family.
What shocked me most about Darnell’s registering for the military was the impossibility of it. He was only fifteen, and his newfound religious beliefs seemed, to me, at odds with such an apparently patriotic decision. Of course, I was biased. The Church forbade all forms of violence, reserving any infliction of bodily harm to cases of absolute necessity—that of self-defense when your life itself was threatened. One look at CNN, and I was convinced that, even if my father could use some adjustments in his taste of religious fashion, he was on point when it came to the world’s need for peaceful resistance and each individual’s responsibility to making it happen as opposed to just talking about it.
One afternoon in March during our schools’ spring breaks, only weeks before either William or Reginald would shock me with their proposals to take me to the prom, I sat with my three friends in my living room playing Monopoly. It was raining outside, and my little brothers were wreaking havoc in the house. My father was out meeting with some “important people” about securing a spot on a local network, allowing him to have his Sunday sermons televised and broadcast in the metropolitan area. My mother was in her room nursing a headache and she’d asked me, and, by extension, my friends, to keep an eye on Michael, who was now two, and Elijah, who was approaching his fourth birthday.
I hated Monopoly. But it was the only game we had in the house. The Church hadn’t yet lifted its ban on cards and video games, so we really had little options in amusing ourselves. My reason for loathing the game was that it did little to stoke my competitive spirit. I simply couldn’t bring myself to be enthusiastic about it. I liked games that had a clear ending, and a clear winner, who I was determined should always be me, not games in which the only sign of their ending was a player’s nodding off or another’s finding interest in his fingernails.
Ten minutes into the game, I was more interested in the rain’s pounding against the windows and in Michael’s and Elijah’s irritating playful shrieking, tireless running, and incessant fighting than the stacks of money before me and my competitors. In trying to avoid spoiling the mood of the men, who were getting more and more excited about the colorful cash stacked before them, I opted to release my unrest through talking.
“Where are you going for college?” I had to raise my voice above my brothers. They were getting noisier, and dangerously close to our game. Secretly, I hoped Michael would trip and fall onto the board.
I usually didn’t talk directly to William. But he and I were the only ones graduating this year, and boredom emboldened me. Besides, I was still wearing the cross pendant he’d given me, and this made me feel more relaxed in his company.
It took a moment before he noticed me. It was his turn and he was hoping he wasn’t going to be sent to jail—again. After taking a look at the card, he exhaled then glanced at me.
“Johns Hopkins. You?”
“University of Maryland.”
“Baltimore?” His eyes lit up.
I shook my head. “College Park.”
“Cool. That’s not too far from Baltimore, I hear.”
I nodded, not knowing what else I could say to keep the conversation going, and the game from continuing. “You going anywhere for the summer?”
“My parents were thinking about Evansville again.”
“Aunts, cousins.” He shrugged. “Nobody important.”
“Sorry, White Boy,” Darnell interjected, “but cousins are indeed important.”
My cousin’s voice startled me, both in its abruptness and its cruelty. Since joining the Nation of Islam, he had taken to replacing the usual “Billy Bob” with the derogatory “White Boy.”
I rolled my eyes. At that point, I knew the Monopoly game was over, but this wasn’t exactly my idea of its ending. I felt the tension build as Reggie stopped, mid-roll, and glared at Darnell. He started to speak, but this time I took the pleasure.
“Nobody’s talking to you.”
“And nobody’s talking to you.”
As if on cue, Michael came and ran carelessly across the board, sending our pieces askew. Elijah followed him, and our stacks of money scattered.
“Please tell me,” I said in mock exhaustion, “that you plan to get a life sometime this year.”
“Why are you all sensitive?” Darnell regarded me as if I’d insulted him. “Mrs. X-is-my-favorite-movie.”
I glared at him and my cheeks grew hot. It was the ultimate betrayal. I hadn’t even told Reggie I’d done the unthinkable: I’d watched the forbidden movie when my parents and aunt and uncle let me and Darnell go to the mall one Saturday while they went to a friend’s house not too far from the shopping center. In my defense, I didn’t know what movie we were going to see. Darnell said it was a surprise, and when we walked into the movie theater bearing Malcolm’s infamous X title, I was too shocked, and too curious, to turn around and walk out.
It was as if time froze, and I wished I could disappear. In paranoia, or instinct, I glanced at Elijah, hoping—praying—that my little brother hadn’t heard, or understood. His adult-like awareness was uncanny, and his mature speech was even more unsettling. In my mind, I could already hear him asking my mother or father, as if his inquiry’s delay was solely for my personal public torment, “Why does Cousin Darnell call Renee Mrs. X-is-my-favorite-movie?”
To my dismay, Elijah was staring at us curiously and Michael, his shadow, stood next to him regarding me suspiciously. I couldn’t look at William, and I certainly couldn’t look at my best friend. So I did what my mind would register only later. I lifted the already tousled game board, turned it over, and kicked the money toward Darnell and stormed out the living room. I then ran upstairs to my room.
Once inside, I locked the door, and cried so pitifully that I couldn’t keep my sobs from coming out as horrible whines and hiccups.
There was a knock at my door, but I couldn’t—wouldn’t—open it. I couldn’t face Reggie right then, although he was the only person I imagined I would feel safe with at the moment.
The knocking became a pounding, an insistent pounding. But I was in my own world of selfish grief. At that moment, I’d lost all rationale, forgetting even that my little brothers were, technically, unsupervised downstairs. Minutes later, when I realized this, I felt an urgent obligation to go check on them, but still, I couldn’t bring myself to move from my spot. To be honest, I was embarrassed that I’d made such a fool of myself. And in front of William, of all people. Ugh! I hated myself right then.
When the knocking ceased and I thought I couldn’t hear anyone downstairs, I felt I’d better check on Michael and Elijah. I went to the bathroom in my room and washed my face, staring at my red, puffy eyes and tried to hide my sullied mood. I took a deep breath, left the bathroom, and passed through my room and opened the door before I could change my mind.
As I held the door open, I froze. Darnell stood with his arms folded and his head down, leaning against the wall next to my room. He looked up when the door opened.
When our gazes met, I saw in his eyes what I had never seen before. Desperation. For a moment, I stared at him, confused. Why should he feel desperate when I was the one whose life he’d just ruined?
“Denise, wait.” He gently grabbed my arm as I tried to push past him when he stepped in front of my door.
I tried to shrug him off, slightly irritated by his calling me by the wrong name.
It was the gentleness of his voice that softened me. But I couldn’t show it.
“What?” I faced him, folding my arms across my chest defiantly, letting that motion free me of his grip.
“I…” He stammered, apparently taken aback that I’d given in, and so quickly. “I’m sorry.”
My hurt and pride still stung in my chest, and my eyes burned in anger, but none of that prevented me from hearing the words I’d never heard come from him, and the sincerity in his tone.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, softer this time, holding my gaze as if assessing my pain and reflecting it in his eyes.
Uncomfortable in not having reason to be upset or offended by him, I pushed past him and went downstairs, nursing my hurt feelings and fear that my sin would somehow be discovered by my father or mother.
When I reached the living room, I found that the Monopoly game had been cleared away and its box was on the dining room table, and that William had gone home. I heard the sounds of dishes clanking in the kitchen, ventured there, and found Reggie preparing a snack for my brothers. When he heard me, he met my gaze with a grin.
“You all right?”
I turned my lips in the beginning of a smile and shrugged, softened at the sight of him. “Yeah, I guess.”
I heard the sound of footfalls on the steps. I quieted and cringed as I braced myself for Darnell’s entry. A few seconds later, the front door opened and slammed close. I exhaled, unable to escape feeling relief at his exit. But Darnell’s anger was potent. I could almost taste it. This disturbed me mostly because I knew whom he was most upset with—himself. This was not the Darnell I remembered.
Concealing my concern, I pretended to be offended. “What’s his problem?”
Reggie placed a plastic bowl of dry cereal before Michael, who sat impatiently kicking in his high chair. He then placed a box of cookies before Elijah, whose eyes lit up. Michael, upon seeing his brother’s meal, abruptly threw his cereal to the floor and screamed, “Cookies!”
I immediately grabbed the broom and began cleaning up the mess.
“What?” I paused sweeping and stared at Reggie with my brows furrowed. “Growing pains?”
“He just gave his future to Uncle Sam and doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
My eyebrows gathered in confusion, but before I could ask, Reggie explained.
“He’s joining the army.”
Reggie shrugged as he handed a cookie to Michael, who hummed in pleasure as he devoured it.
I was troubled and confused, and it took me a moment to realize the reason for the latter. “But he’s only fifteen.”
Reggie wore a hesitant, almost sad, expression on his face as he tried to smile but couldn’t. He shook his head and apologized to me with his eyes. But I didn’t understand what he was regretting. “He’s eighteen.”
Time seemed to stop. This couldn’t be true. I tried to recall the first time my cousin and I met, when my mother’s brother moved to Indianapolis when I was seven or eight years old. It was the same day I’d met Reginald. Yes, I was eight because I remember asking my mother if Darnell would be in my fifth grade class. My mother had grown quiet and said curtly that my cousin would be at a different school. I knew by her tone that I was to ask nothing further. But I didn’t understand the relevance or justice in treating me as if I’d asked something inappropriate.
“What?” It came out as a whisper. I couldn’t believe it. My cousin had lied to me. All these years.
“Why?” I asked, already feeling sorry for him, as if sensing there was more to this than I wanted to know.
Reggie paused, as if considering the ethics of sharing more. He raised his eyes to the ceiling then let out a deep breath. “He’s…challenged in ways.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” It was unjust getting angry with Reginald, but I couldn’t help it. I felt as if everyone was keeping a secret and I was the only one left out.
When he didn’t respond, I raised my voice. “What’s that supposed to mean? Answer me, Reggie.”
He shook his head, sighing, as if regretting what he’d already said. “Just forget it, okay?”
“I deserve an explanation.”
“It’s not my life to explain, Ray.” I could see the hurt and frustration in his eyes. He was torn, between betraying my cousin and pleasing me. He started to give in, then thought better of it.
“Ask him, Ray.” He wiped his hands on his pants and started out the kitchen. My heart fell as I realized he too was leaving. “Just consider his feelings before you satisfy your quest for information.”
I followed him to the door. “Why are you leaving?” I sounded as if I were whining, and I hated myself for it. But I couldn’t think about that right then.
“I have a lot on my mind.”
Without glancing back at me, he left me with my guilt, confusion, and curiosity.
By the end of the week, after hours of sleepless torment, I decided that the only feelings I had a right to were my guilt and confusion. I realized in that moment as I lay in bed staring at the dark ceiling the night before school resumed, that Reggie had taught me a powerful spiritual lesson, the first I’d learned independent of The Church—that curiosity is sometimes a sin.
I respected Reginald in a way I couldn’t fully express, even to myself. But I felt it and recognized years later that that night of the spiritual revelation was when I knew I wanted him as my husband, even if I had to wait a lifetime to fulfill that dream. My desire to marry my best friend was so visceral that it was painful. I imagined asking him, then my father if he could bend the rules and let me date before eighteen. Then I imagined cutting to the chase, saying to them both that I didn’t want to be Michelle or Shauna. I wanted to be Mrs. Matthews. Nothing more, nothing less.
I cried when I realized I could never realize this dream. I was being foolish. My parents would never let me near a man before eighteen, especially for marriage. My mother was a success-driven, PhD-holding woman, and she wasn’t about to let her intelligent, promising daughter throw her life away for some boy who was barely halfway through high school.
I cried more when I realized that it wasn’t my mother or her dreams that I was up against, but Reggie’s heart. He wouldn’t be stupid enough to throw his life away and live like a high school drop-out to marry someone like me.
One night, in mid-April I sat watching my little brothers play in the living room, wondering what on earth someone like William had been thinking when he stopped by the night before to ask me to the prom, the senior prom. As I was regretting my response, which was more akin to speechless shock, I received a call from Reggie, which was weird because he rarely used the telephone to speak to me. But from the sound of his voice, it sounded serious. As his words slowly took meaning, I was speechless.
“But what about Shauna?” I hoped the pounding in my chest wouldn’t make my voice falter.
“What about her?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“She’s a sophomore, like me.”
My flattery and nervousness clouded my thinking, and I was unable to comprehend his meaning. But later I understood. Neither of them could go to their prom this year if it wasn’t with someone in a senior grade, and they certainly could not attend with each other.
“She knows we’re good friends.”
The casualness of his voice made my heart sink. I was hoping for too much. Hurt, I told him about William.
“William?” The way he said William’s name reminded me of Darnell. I flinched.
“Yeah, why not?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I could go to both proms,” I said, coming up with the idea right then. “You can come to our junior prom, and I could go with William to his senior one.”
He was silent until I grew uncomfortable.
“You would really do that?”
“Why not? I’d get a kick out of the look on all the White girls’ faces when we walk in.” I wasn’t serious, but I enjoyed seeing if I could hurt Reggie like he had me, by dating Michelle and Shauna, and saying we were “good friends.” Secretly, I wanted to know if I had reason to hope for a future together.
“Fine.” He breathed the word, giving in. “Suit yourself.”
My heart raced. I immediately regretted my behavior. The sound of the dial tone in my ear was like a flat line. It took a few seconds, but I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I saw, in that moment, as my clinched fist gripped the receiver, that I was the one who had inflicted the pain.
I didn’t go to the prom that year. I never responded to William, and he never asked me again. I’d hurt Reggie’s pride as I stoked my own. Too caught up in my own hurt, and if I’m honest—arrogance, I gave up the closest thing to a date my father would allow. It was the only boy-girl event my father or The Church permitted before the age of eighteen, and I missed out. But, more significantly, I gave up the last opportunity I would have to fulfill the only dream I had allowed myself to imagine could be reality.
Next… Story 4 of 11 Posted every Friday
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
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