Other People’s Skin Excerpts

My People, My People

by TaRessa Stovall

Niggaz and flies,
I do despise…
The more I see niggaz,
The more I like flies…

I tried to shoo those words from my mind as I listened to our biggest client explain what was wrong with the model we’d chosen for a major ad campaign.

“I like the concept, basically,” Helena Booker smiled through clenched teeth that were, like every aspect of her appearance, so dazzling they appeared unreal. “But,” she sighed, “this model just doesn’t fully express the spirit of my product.  You do understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”

Helena was as gorgeous as she was condescending.  Her rich brown skin, regal bone structure and jazzy couture strut had made her one of the first black supermodels chosen to usher in the “Black is Beautiful” sentiments of the 1960s.  She’d parlayed that into a successful stint as a network news anchor, then chucked it all to start a line of cosmetics for women of color.  Age hadn’t diminished her beauty, and in her early sixties she was as awesome as ever to behold.  She always made me feel frumpy, with her short, stylish coiffure, artfully applied makeup and high-style attire.  I looked her up and down, my mental calculator clicking.  Her mouth-watering winter white silk designer suit cost more than the mortgage payment on my condo.  Her matching Manolo Blahnik stiletto heels equaled the note on the new BMW I still couldn’t afford. And her diamond and platinum Van Cleef and Arpel jewels were probably worth more than my entire life savings.

Her royal highness Helena stood before me and the creative team I led grinding her fabulous designer heels into the center of my last nerve.

“Now Helena,” I forced a smile, “For five years, you’ve trusted our judgment and for five years, we’ve delivered, have we not?”

She raised a single eyebrow, diva-style.

“You are the undisputed queen of cosmetics for women of color, and we are the advertising experts.”  She didn’t so much as nod her agreement with this obvious truth. “We all agreed that this new product line, Hot Chocolate, calls for a campaign that emphasizes the new, the bold, the future of global beauty.  Inspired by your vision, we looked everywhere for the perfect face to represent this new line of cosmetics.  We looked at every black supermodel, actress and singer.  We pored over photos of up-and-comers.  We even stopped a few sisters in the street.

“But she,” I turned to point at the gigantic color poster behind me, “says it best.  This woman is the face, the body and the spirit of Hot Chocolate.”

“I disagree, Carmella,” Helena sniffed.  “She simply doesn’t convey the image I had in mind.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and took a long breath.  “You of all people must be aware that this model, Amira, is the hottest thing since the hair weave.  She rules the Paris runways! She’s been on the covers of several white magazines, not to mention all the major black ones.  She’s got fashion writers all over the world scrambling to come up with new superlatives to describe her.”

Helena flicked a hard glance at Amira’s towering image, then bored her eyes into mine.

“Carmella, normally I respect your opinion and yes, you-all,” she pointed her chin at my team, who sat stoically through this madness, “usually do a very good job for me.  This model may be popular now, but maybe she’s a tad overexposed.  We wouldn’t want someone whose identity overshadowed the product line, now would we?”

Right.  So the folks like Jada Pinkett Smith and the other superstars you told us to go after wouldn’t have overshadowed the product. I swallowed my annoyance and said, “Helena, Amira has it all—the look, the charm, the star power.  Like your product she is distinct, a cut above.  Just look at her one good time and tell me I’m wrong.”

I turned to feasted my eyes on Amira’s magnificence.  Her rich blackberry skin, voluptuous features and awesome bone structure were a praisesong to the beauty of the motherland. Her closely cropped, natural hair was an upraised fist and a high-five on the black-hand side. Her bold curves and long, shapely legs convinced you of what scientists had recently confirmed–that the first woman on Earth, the original Eve, was an African. Her glowing smile blended the harmonies of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely with the words of Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman.  Mississippi-born Amira, whose mama had crowned her with a name that means Queen, was every African female ruler, every runaway slave and every homegirl throughout the Diaspora rolled into one.  There was–there could be–no one more perfect for the Hot Chocolate ad campaign than she.  Re-energized by the power of her beauty, I turned to Helena with a buoyant smile. “Do you see what I mean?”

I was startled to see that Helena didn’t seem to be able to look at Amira’s picture for more than a few seconds.  And she was more agitated than I’d ever seen her.

“This woman simply will not do!” Her voice dropped an octave, and went up a notch in volume.  Helena and I had disagreed in the past.  But something about this was different.  It felt personal and dangerous.  I tried to think of what to say next.

Rodney, my ultrasuede smooth boss, magically appeared at the conference room door to save the day. “Helena, our team has worked long and hard on this campaign.  Just tell us what you need and we’ll fix it, sugar,” he drawled in his irresistible Southern baritone, shooting me a look of warning.

“You-all are not listening to me,” she snapped.  “I want a new model.  She’s all wrong.  I just don’t like the way she looks.”

I studied Helena for a long, tense moment, then watched the words float from my lips before my good sense or professional instincts could stop them.  “But Helena, Amira looks just like you.”

The whole room held its breath.  Rodney moved toward Helena, his hands outstretched in apology.  She stopped him with a raised palm, and spoke in a growl.  “This campaign will launch in one month.  We will stay on schedule.  And you will find another, more suitable model by the end of this week.  Or I will be forced to take my business elsewhere.  She leaned forward to glare at me.  “Do I make myself clear?”

My mind and vision flared crimson, and I fought the urge to slap the pretty right off her smug face.  Before I could fix my lips to speak, Rodney intervened.  “Not to worry, Helena,” he drawled, quickly blocking her view of me.  “This isn’t a problem.  In fact, we have several other ideas–and models–we think you’ll be quite pleased with.”  He graciously held her sleek, floor-length fur coat (which was probably worth more than my entire college education) while she slid her arms into the sleeves, then wrapped her manicured fingers around his elbow as he walk-talked her toward the elevator.

I scanned the stunned faces of my creative team.  They were young, gifted, black, and looking mighty stressed.  Nakenge was a crackerjack copywriter whose conservative, dress-for-success image made everyone take her seriously despite the fact that she was fresh out of college with wide eyes and a baby face.  Her round, tortoise-shell glasses, neat ponytail and classic pearls at her ears and throat said “young woman on-the-way-up” in no uncertain terms.  Morgan, my Black American Princess from a wealthy family, was a multi-talented creative force whose flowing dreads and bright African attire counteracted her fancy pedigree and invited the world to meet her on her own terms.  Rounding it out was Mitch, a lean, mean retired military officer with a love of and serious talent for graphic design.   A perfectionist whose quiet reserve masked a wicked sense of humor, Mitch hadn’t taken long to adjust to working for a woman who was younger than him.  And his calm energy provided a much-needed balance to our female mood swings.

I loved my team, and normally I had no problem pumping them up and steering them towards success.  But at the moment I felt more like gobbling a pint of chocolate ice cream and ranting at the gods who put Helena Booker in charge.

“Whatever happened to ‘Black is Beautiful?’” I grumbled, gazing back at the poster of Amira as if she could provide the answer.

Rodney strode back into the conference room. “Team,” he said, “I know you’ve done a lot of hard work, but it’s still not over.”  They listened attentively, pens ready to record his every word.   “Bring in every head shot you can find.  We’ll reconvene at nine o’clock tomorrow morning for a fresh start.”  I turned to gather the materials from our failed presentation.  “Carmella, can I see you in my office please?”

“I’ll be right there,” I replied, taking down the poster of Amira and rolling it tightly.

That damn Helena.  She knew this campaign was right.  She was always picky, demanding the best, but this wasn’t about quality.  She knew our ads were the reason that Black Beauty had become a household name and a multi-million dollar company.  I didn’t know what her problem was, but I wasn’t backing down without a fight.

Other People’s Skin

by Tracy Price-Thompson

I entered this world on the wave of a violent mid-summer heat, north of Venice, south of The French Quarter, on the wide mouth of an oxbow lake. My first drops of sweet milk were suckled in a spacious wood house crawling with Spanish moss and shaded by loblolly pines. According to Ma’Dear, mine was the year of the great drought, and instead of the river belching forth schools of laughing gull and black skimmer fish, folks in our tiny backswamp on the Mississippi Delta were up to their chins in scorched caking mud, which, whispered by some, was the exact same shade of my newborn hide.

Shortly after my birth, Peaches fainted. The sight of me was far too much for her to bear. She came from good stock she cried, panting through the pains of my afterbirth and holding her milky arms out as evidence of her purity. A LeMoyne, she insisted. A direct descendant of the distinguished Jean Baptiste. And until I came along to highlight the stain on her pedigree, her silken brown tresses and fine chalky skin had been more than enough to prove it.

Papa wrung his hands as Ma’Dear revived Peaches with strong herbs and coaxed her into a sitting position, gently urging her to nurse the howling infant rooting for her full breasts. As her elder daughter hovered at her elbow, Peaches accepted the swaddled bundle that was me, and with trembling arms lay my wriggling body atop her still-bulging belly. Pinching the thin cloth into a tent between her thumb and forefinger, she peeled back the soft blanket and peeked inside, her eyes wild and cautious. She permitted herself only the briefest confirming glance before swooning and letting the blanket fall to protect her from my stare. With her face drained of color and her hair floating in a mad halo above her skull, she pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and wailed in horror, “But this can’t be none of my child! I ain’t got nothing but French, Spanish, and Indian in my blood!”

Her pale brow furrowed in mild curiosity, eight-year-old Paline leaned close to our mother and lifted the blanket to judge the anomaly for herself. She gave me, her squalling baby sister, a short but critical examination before declaring with a cynicism that truly befitted a LeMoyne, “Then Papa must have some bull, muskrat, and nigger in his.”

***

Peaches refused to nurse me.

Papa could not meet the glare in Ma’Dear’s one good eye as he placed a gentle kiss upon my forehead and implored her to tend me, as she had tended him, his mother, and her mother before her. Washed and oiled, I was soothed by her chants as cradled in her ancient arms I sucked from clean rags dipped in goat’s milk and sweetened with bits of steeped peppermint bark. Ma’Dear used both hands to knead and shape my skull, beginning at the forehead and working her way back from my crown. Loosening my blankets, she used her finger to sketch several markings upon my chest, belly, and around my eyes. That done, she turned me onto my stomach and examined my plump baby bottom then peered closely, searchingly at the brown skin of my back. Humming a foreign chant, she used the tips of her fingers to gently roll the soft flesh high on my shoulders and smooth it down nicely along my lower back and spine. Satisfied, she flipped me back over and covered me once more, but not before whispering, “Your life ain’t gonna be without hardship, daughter. But neither will it be without love.”

***

The shame of it all was too much for Peaches to bear, and if Papa had been a sounder, more assured man perhaps the accusations in her eyes would not have cut him so. Seething her disdain, Peaches towered above him as he lowered his forehead to her ample breasts. Papa was a handsome fellow: smooth complexion, straight hair; it was the evenness of his temperament that kept him on trial in his own home. But his was a crime of passivity. He had never pretended to be that which he was not. It was only to appease her that he went along with her charade, but he could have told her this was a possibility. After all, he was a Negro. One could look at him and realize this. But she insisted on putting on airs, on reconfiguring her family tree and his as well.

Yet not a soul in the bottoms was fooled; in fact, our neighbors frequently joked that the LeMoynes (Top Jar had long since shrugged off his own surname) were just another one of those shamming-ass, backwoods nigger families who went from dipping snuff and gut-laughing like bottom folks, to sipping tea with their pinkie fingers sticking straight out like twigs and talking like they had goat shit in their mouths.

Just imagine!

The fools had been fixing to hightail it to N’awlins and adopt a pedigree and a shit-free asshole, then strut around trying to pass for white! Hmm, well let’s just take a looky-see here…with their fair skin and fine hair, Peaches and the two older children just might make it. And, the locals admitted, if you glanced at Top Jar from the low end of a hooch jug and didn’t stare too hard perhaps he might just fool you too. Shucks, they reasoned. Mulatto, quadroon, octoroon…just a bunch of fancy words for a nigger who done been cut four or five times.

But that baby?

Messed up them grand notions but quick! Only thing that little one was gonna pass for was exactly what she was! Talk about an arrow that zipped when it shoulda goddamn zapped? Chile came out looking like a whole pot of wet coal! Look just like a pretty black china-doll, but her mama couldn’t stand her. Like to give herself a high-falutin heart attack when Peaches looked down ‘tween her thighs and seen alla that black rolling out of her like a pool of Texas tea. Thought Ma’Dear had fixed her with the evil eye, mixed her up a special down-home brew, and put some North Cacka-Lacky mojo on her high-yella ass that would last a lifetime.


New Birth

by Desiree Cooper

Lettie threw the sopping rag into the dingy bath water swirling white with disinfecting tub and tile cleanser. She sat back on her heels, wiped her wide, dark face with the back of her hands, and huffed as she pushed herself up. Beads of sweat glistened against the smooth ebony of her skin, sending the roots of her short, comb-straightened hair reverting back to its natural state.

Was this another hot flash, or just her temper rising? She stood looking down into the murky little pond for a moment, hands on her hips, disgusted.

“Have mercy,” she breathed.

She was willing to clean up behind folks–to slosh her hands in the gray water that had been their bathtub rings, to lean over their yeasty toilet bowls, to scrape the hardened food from their dishes. But they ought to have the decency to make sure she didn’t have to wallow in their filth, like a sow.

This was the third week she’d come to clean at Miz Catherine’s only to find the vacuum cleaner still wasn’t fixed (was she expected to sweep the entire upstairs and downstairs?), there was no Windex in the maid’s closet (despite the fact that Lettie had put it on the shopping list each week), and the master bathtub still didn’t drain. How hard could it be to call a plumber?

“I should have known better than to work for a redbone,” she muttered. “Worked for Miz ‘Lizabeth for 15 years and that white lady never put me through nothing like this. These redbones ‘round here pretending they have money when they’re one paycheck away from the poorhouse just like the rest of us.”  Soon it would be time to find another job, she thought. Miz Catherine and her hinckty ways would surely wear her out.

Lettie, I want you to hand-wash my sweaters today. Lettie, use beeswax and orange oil on the paneling. That spray stuff just makes the wood look dull. Lettie, wash that box of summer nautical dishes in storage. We’re using them for our boat race party on Saturday.

Not to mention the sly way she poked into Lettie’s personal business. Like the day Lettie had come for an interview a few weeks earlier, Miz Catherine had all but given her an I.Q. test. Lettie was still bristling at the humiliating memory.

“Now, Lettie, I need you to write down a few things,” Miz Catherine had said, flipping her long, bone-straight hair away from her face.

Lettie had taken the notepad quietly, noticing how Miz Catherine eyed her pencil-grip before beginning to dictate slowly, her thin, glimmering garnet lips forming the words carefully, as if Lettie was mentally retarded or hard of hearing.

“Every other Monday, I need you to flip the mattress in the master bedroom,” Miz Catherine pronounced. “Keep the dust cover clean–my husband has terrible allergies.”

Miz Catherine’s eyes yearned toward the paper as she watched Lettie write down her tasks. She actually nodded when Lettie spelled “allergies” correctly.

She’s trying to see if I can read and write! Lettie realized with amazement. As if a maid couldn’t possibly have gone to college, couldn’t possibly know the difference between a “chifforobe” and an “armoire.”

“Miz Catherine,” Lettie put down the pencil abruptly. “If it’s all the same to you, you can make out your list each week and leave it for me. I’ll READ it and check off the things as I do them. I can also WRITE you a note listing the supplies I’ll need as they run low.”

Miz Catherine stared at her wide-eyed, almost fearfully. Her beige cheeks pinked and she took a tiny step backward. “Well, Lettie, you don’t need to get hostile. I was just trying to…just trying…. Well, I tell you what. I’ll just leave you a list if that’s okay with you,” she said, spoon-feeding Lettie back her own suggestion.

“I’ll pay you every two weeks,” Miz Catherine continued, turning away as her cell phone rang. She reached into her suit pocket and retrieved it in the middle of the first bar of “Fur Elise.”

“Hello?” she asked, her voice syrupy sweet. She turned back and winked, then raised a manicured index finger at Lettie that said, “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Lettie shifted her weight to her good leg and stood impatiently.

“Well, Sheila,” she heard her employer snap. “I told you I’d be late today. I’m handling a domestic issue this morning. I’ll be there in an hour, so just take care of it, would you please?”

Miz Catherine flipped the phone closed and smiled again. “Okay, where were we? Oh, yes, I’ll leave the cash on the kitchen table. You do prefer cash don’t you, so it won’t interfere with your food stamps or anything?”

Lettie had stared at the woman in disbelief. She didn’t get food stamps, nor had she ever been on welfare. She’d worked hard since her husband died, and she paid her own way. But when her employment agency, Baker Temporary Services, had closed, she’d found herself out of a job cleaning offices at night. Unfortunately, she needed this job with the Rollins’ and she wasn’t about to let her mouth rob her of it before she even got started.

“Cash would be fine,” she’d told her, looking down at her feet to hide the fury in her eyes.

Miz Catherine smiled. “Good. Well, I think that’s it. You can get started today if you like–unless you have to go home to make some arrangements with your grandchildren. How many do you have anyway?” Miz Catherine held her hands cupped in a one-person handshake in front of her tiny breasts, her elbows out, like a kindergarten teacher waiting for a child to recite her ABC’s.

“My son is just twenty-two,” Lettie said, wondering why Miz Catherine would presume she was already a grandmother at forty-five. “He doesn’t have any kids. He’s in Kansas.”

“Oh? That’s unusual….” Miz Catherine, furrowed her brow. “No grandchildren? Well, lucky for you your son didn’t leave you with loose children running all over Black Bottom. Good then. You can start today.”

Bristling at the memory, Lettie gave the tub another twirl with the brush, grateful that she rarely had to face Miz Catherine when she started her day. Usually it was Mr. Rollins who was home reading the paper when Lettie arrived at eight, Miz Catherine already at work for an hour by then.

“Have a nice day, Lettie,” Mr. Rollins would say each morning, a bright smile flashing over a face smooth and creamy as a café latte. “Catherine put your money on the table next to the list.” He’d say “the list” as one would say “The Declaration of Independence,” hinting that he didn’t take things quite as seriously as his wife. “You’ll particularly like item one: ‘Wash the globes of the wall sconces today–and let them air dry so that there won’t be any water spots.’”

His cynicism made Lettie want to laugh, but she resisted. You could never play one employer against the other. And she knew that, in the end, it would be Miz Catherine who decided whether Lettie would stay or go.

“I’ll do my best,” she’d tell him seriously. “You have a good day, Mr. Rollins.”

***

There were things you could tell about people after you worked for them for awhile. Things they’d never want you to know. Like how often they had sex by the condition of the bed sheets. Like whether one of them had hemorrhoids–Tucks and Preparation H left on the bathroom counter. Like when they were in financial trouble by the number of automated phone calls left on the answering machine during the day.

As she stood in the bathroom looking over the drain that was still clogged after three months worth of Mr. Plumber, Lettie knew there was trouble in the Rollins household. For one, Miz Catherine would come in from work these days and barely say “hello” before going straight to her bedroom and closing the door. She didn’t even stop to inspect Lettie’s work, to enjoy the pleasure of dismissing her like a boot camp drill sergeant.

Medications crowded the nightstand on Miz Catherine’s side of the bed. Some in little pink compacts with pills inside set in rows for the days of the week. Medicine for female trouble, for sure. The relationship seemed to be tense between Miz Catherine and Mr. Rollins. For several weeks, Lettie had arrived in the morning to find a comforter and his slippers by the sofa, his side of the master bed barely ruffled. And these days he was always gone before she arrived in the morning.

Miz Catherine, never very neat, had become a slob. Most women she’d worked for made an effort to “straighten up” before the maid came, and Miz Catherine had been no exception–at first. In the beginning the house would be generally picked up each time Lettie arrived, leaving Lettie to take care of the deep cleaning. But lately Miz Catherine’s clothes were strewn through the house, her make-up lay open as if she’d jumped up and left in the middle of her morning regimen. Chocolate cookie crumbs lay in her sheets like pepper on grits.

And hair. Hair everywhere. At first when the light brown, curly strands began to fill the vacuum cleaner bag, Lettie thought the Rollins’ had bought a dog. But no animals were allowed at Riverhouse East – especially not in the penthouse apartments. Then she noticed hair in the lint trap in the dryer. Fluffy balls of the strands even lived beneath the dressing table and on the bathroom floor.

The wispy spiders of Miz Catherine’s hair at once repulsed and angered Lettie. Is that what it was like to live with a hazel-eyed, blow-haired redbone? Like having a dog? Did all of them leave pieces of themselves everywhere like they owned the world?

“I’ll bet that’s what’s been clogging the drain,” Lettie mumbled to herself, marching out of the bathroom and into the walk-in closet. She yanked down one of the countless wire dry cleaners hangers and went back to the bathroom, her thick hands untwisting the neck of the wire as she walked.

She knelt down as if she was about to call Jesus, but instead thrust the crook of the hanger down into the narrow throat of the drain. She plunged and fished, her eyes rolling skyward in concentration, her fingers judging the amount of resistance on the other end of the wire. Suddenly, she yanked the wire up, and with it came a bubble, then a slurp.

The water began swirling down the drain, still a bit slowly, but at least today it was flowing. Grunting, she stood holding a clot of long hair, slick and gently curling on the end of the hanger. It was the kind of hair she’d seen circling the crowns of mahogany babies at birth. The kind of hair many black women start with, but not many get to keep.

“Don’t matter what grade it is,” Lettie lectured Miz Catherine in her absence. “If it gets wet, it’s gonna go back. You need to learn how to wash your hair in the kitchen sink the way your mama should have taught you.”

She walked over to the garbage can grimacing, holding the glob of hair in front of her as if it were alive.

Take It Off!

by Elizabeth Atkins

“You got the power, girl,” Kyle whispered.  His onyx eyes burned with affection as he stared up from his velvet playpen of red and gold and purple pillows.

“No, the power is yours, sweet soul mate of mine,” Dahlia moaned.  She slid her butter-hued thighs over the satiny black sheen of his hips, and ran her fingertips down the luscious ridges of his collarbone, his pecs, and his tapered waist.

“You don’t know,” Kyle moaned over the sexy sounds of a Boney James CD.  His skin glowed, from his high cheekbones now rouged with arousal, to his long, down-pointing nose, to his clean-shaven, angular jaw.  His eyelashes, thick enough to give the illusion he was wearing eyeliner, came together as he said, “You don’t know what you can do–”

“Ssshh.” Dahlia tossed her head back, letting sandy braids tickle down her back and dance over his thighs.  “Just love me, Kyle.”

Hazy sunshine glowed through white sheers, which billowed in the open windows around them in the round turret.  The light intensified the euphoric glaze in Kyle’s eyes.

“One year of heaven,” he whispered.  “Give me a hundred more.”

“I don’t want to remember life before you,” Dahlia whispered.  “I send up a thank you and a hallelujah and a praise the lord every hour on the hour.  Ooohh–”

She closed her eyes, savoring a sudden starburst between her legs that sent erotic ripples down to her toes and fingertips.

“Yeah, feel me, Baby Dolly-ya,” he moaned deeply.  “Feel the power of us.”

“Yeah,” Kyle’s deep voice vibrated through her chest.  “I’m tellin’ you, Baby Dolly-ya–”

“Tell me,” she moaned through parted lips.  Dahlia’s mind spun in a psychedelic swirl as they literally became one: eyes blending into two black sapphires… skin blurring into hot pools of butterscotch…amber braids coiling around little black twists like flowers… two pounding, pink hearts afloat in a sea of red blood.

“This power,” he whispered.  “The power of us.  Of me.  And you.  Together, we could move mountains–”

Eyes open, staring at him, she traced his lips with a fingertip.

“Kyle, you know I love your brain.”  She pressed her palms to the sides of his head; a few of his little black hair twists poked between her fingers.  “But right now,” she whispered, “while we’re alone without Angie for once, I just want your body.”

“So it’s like that,” he said playfully.

“Mmm, no, it’s like this,” she purred, leaning down.  Her honey-colored braids formed a curtain around them as Dahlia sucked his bottom lip.  The tip of her tongue slid up his cheek.

He groaned, and in a flash, he clenched her waist and flipped her onto her back, never leaving the hot, fleshy grip between her legs.  Kyle stroked her braids into a fan over the hills and valleys of velvet pillows.

“You need to let the world see how fine you are,” he whispered.  “Stop hiding under your glasses, your hat–” He tilted his head toward her jeans and sweater strewn over the black corduroy couch.  Her brown felt fedora rested on the arm.  “Those baggy clothes covering up this brick house–”

“No, Kyle, not now.”  Dahlia pressed her hips upward.  “We’ve had this–”

“For me,” he said.  “I see something in you that you need to share with–”

The tenderness radiating from his eyes melted her inside.  But cold arrows of anger chilled her just as quickly.

“Let me up.” Dahlia pushed against his chest.

“Babydoll, I’m tellin’ you–”

Dahlia rolled out from under him.  The muscles in her legs quivered with lust and rage as she rose to her feet.  She pulled her braids to the front, their coarseness prickling the firm, beige points of her breasts.

Kyle propped on his elbows.  “You can see,” he said, glancing downward, “coitus interruptus is not part of the program this morning.  Come here, Baby Dahlia.”

Standing at his feet, Dahlia stared at him, wishing he would understand that she did not want to expose herself to the world again, or put herself in the headlines once more.  Never again did she want to be the hot topic burning up the black grapevine that coiled into every dorm room and Alpha party on campus.

“Kyle,” Dahlia whispered, straddling him and taking small, teasing steps alongside his legs.

“Yeah, Babydoll.”  He cast smiling eyes upward.

“I’m going to tell you something,” she said with a seductive tone.

“I’m listening.”

Kyle,” she whispered. “You like leading rallies and marching down State Street, having all the TV stations know you as,” she lowered her voice like a broadcaster:  “‘fiery student activist, Kyle Robard.’

“But me, Kyle,” she whispered, “me, for the millionth time, I prefer the power of the pen.  The anonymity of–”

“You’re trying to hide the black blood pulsing through this red-hot sista-shape.  People think you’re ashamed–”

“People think!” Dahlia shouted.  “Those are the two most toxic words in the English language!  I’m sick of what people think!”

Kyle took her hands, pulled her downward, so their eyes were just inches apart.  He kissed her gently. “Baby Dahlia,” he said with a piercing stare, “You need to understand the responsibility that comes with looking like you do–”

“Kyle, you know better than anyone,” she said over a burning throat, “I took care of my responsibility before I got here. Nursing my parents, watching them die! Now the responsibility I feel in the world is using my work as a journalist to make change.”

He finger-combed a handful of braids over her shoulder, holding the uncurling, coconut-oiled ends to his nose. “You’re doing it at the expense of your reputation with the black students.  But I know how you can change that–”

Her lips tightened.  “Kyle, I don’t know how many times I’ve explained this over the past year, but here’s one last time. That’s a game I can’t win.  People think I’m too white to be all the way black. Or too black to be all the way white. So I’m not playing anymore. I’m watching and analyzing from behind a shield of newsprint.”

Dahlia’s mind filled with a collage of images: dozens of people scowling and shouting at her during the Black Student Union strike last year when she’d refused to honor their picket line and crossed it in order to attend a literature class. The black students had been furious with her, calling her a sellout and a honky-lover, and the white students had simply stared past her. With her fedora pushed down snuggly over her jumble of coarse braids, had they suspected she was black?

Although she tried to be invisible and quell their suspicions, she remembered the curious stares from white students and professors, their eyes roving her brown hat, her yellow skin, and that question making their lips twitch:  What exactly are you, Dahlia Jenkins?

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