Cilia knew they were in for it when they found the mother on the good couch in the living room, sipping wine, looking at old photos in her college yearbook. “Look at that waist,” she said. “I was something.”
The older daughters, Margaret and Theresa, looked over the mother’s shoulders at the photos: skirt below the knees, freshly ironed shirt buttoned to the neck, relaxed hair curled under. “Were you really that dorky?” they asked at the same time. They looked at each other and laughed, proud of themselves, as if they had planned it.
“I was something,” the mother repeated, not as strong. Her words slipped and slid into one another, like a train wreck.
Margaret and Theresa laughed again. They were “almost seventeen” and “almost sixteen,” as they liked to remind everyone. They spent most of their time on the phone, giggling, a sheet over their heads for privacy, which made them look like giggling ghosts.
Anne and Cilia sat on either side of the mother. They had seen the photos before, but each time the pictures startled and confused Cilia. The mother had gone to a segregated school in New Orleans. Even though she had been segregated, the mother looked young and happy. She had a nickname typed next to her photo: “Bootsy.” It was full of promise, like a pair of new, black, patent leather shoes. Cilia didn’t understand who this “Bootsy” woman was. “That’s you? That’s really you?” she asked. Cilia turned to Anne. “Can you believe it?”
Anne didn’t answer. She had an odd smile on her face. She kept looking at the photos and looking away, as if the mother were naked in them. Cilia poked her. Anne slapped her hand away. “Of course it’s her,” said Anne. “Who else would it be?” She took one more look at the photos, and then slipped off the couch and crawled to a chair on the other side of the room.
The mother eyed Anne’s backside. Cilia could feel the mother zeroing in on the places that made Anne’s thirteen-year-old shoulders hunch up in shame. Sometimes, in the grocery store, the mother would point out the women, the ones who left their houses with pink foam curlers still in their hair, who wore stretch pants with T-shirts that hung over their stomach rolls and covered their ample rear ends, and say to Anne, “That’s going to be you one day.” Cilia watched Anne lumber across the room on all fours. She felt a familiar need to protect her, but also to scream at her for making herself look like a fool.
“You need to worry about those hips,” said the mother to Anne, “but you’re lucky. You got my waist.” She stretched her hand out. “Give it back,” she cackled. “Give me back my waist.”
Anne shrank as much as she could in the corner of the chair, her hands covering her stomach, as if she really believed the mother could and would slice her in half and not bother to glue her back together.
“What did I get? What did I get?” Cilia said.
“You?” The mother looked at her the way she often did, as if she suddenly remembered she had another child and wasn’t pleased about it. “You favor your daddy.”
Cilia groaned. The father, when he wasn’t working, watched basketball on TV Cilia knew he loved her, but she was not a boy. He often patted her on the head and gave her a sad smile, which made her feel like a lovely disappointment. “No, I don’t,” she said.
“Yes, you do,” said Anne from across the room with a smirk. “You got that little forehead. And those beady little eyes. Look just like a little black bug.”
Cilia flew off the couch and kicked Anne in the leg. Anne punched Cilia in the thigh. They fought: Cilia, for not looking like the mother; Anne, for being a mirror image. “Beetle head,” taunted Anne. “Fatty, fatty, two-by-four, can’t get through the kitchen door,” said Cilia, translating the mother’s insulting advice into language they both understood. Their fights were brutal and quick and always ended the same–each declared their hatred for the other, Anne told Cilia to get out of her face forever, and Cilia refused to leave out of spite, which sprang from a hard place deep in her chest that the mother always tried to convince her was love: if they didn’t love each other, they wouldn’t fight so much. Cilia knew the feeling in her chest wasn’t love because it felt as if it might kill her, but she hoped it would kill Anne first. She punched Anne’s shoulder.
“Stop it,” the mother screamed.
Behind her, with their heads perched like two crows on either shoulder, Margaret and Theresa laughed and laughed. They resembled dead relatives; Margaret, the great grandmother who was said to be part Choctaw; Theresa, the aunt who was light enough to pass and was rumored to have done so somewhere in Texas. Looking like the dead made them free. They let their laughter carry them away, out of the room before the mother turned on them and started talking about Margaret’s massive breasts or the pimples that plagued Theresa’s forehead, making her light skin less of a prize. Anne slunk out of the room after them.
The mother sipped more wine. “I knew French,” she said to no one.
“Say something in it,” said Cilia, imagining how she’d wave the mother’s French in Anne’s face later.
The mother looked at Cilia, shook her head, and rubbed her eyes. She looked at the page again. “I was,” she whispered to the Bootsy woman, but not in French.
A few days later, over a dinner of spinach, rice, and fried liver, the mother flashed a brochure at them. “You’re all going to camp,” she said, smiling at their shocked faces.
The father was watching the Lakers on TV
America’s Youth, shouted the brochure, a day camp for inner-city, low-income, economically and socially disadvantaged youth.
Cilia was using her fork to move the liver around on her plate. She didn’t mind the spinach, but the liver reminded her of something an old, sick man might leave behind in a toilet. “What’s disadvantaged?” she asked.
“Code,” said the mother.
“You,” said the mother, laughing. Margaret, Theresa, and Anne laughed with her.
Cilia frowned at the liver. Tiny furrows rippled across her forehead. Her eyes grew dark. She didn’t like to be laughed at, especially when she didn’t understand. She maneuvered half her liver into her napkin.
The mother kept reading from the brochure. The local state university and the federal government had joined hands to help keep the disadvantaged of Los Angeles off the streets. The brochure promised to save them from joining gangs and doing drugs. It also promised to raise their low self-esteem. It would do all of this (in the span of four weeks) through the instruction of sports, which fell under the larger heading of Vital Life Skills. Cilia didn’t know what those were either, but she didn’t ask. She protested, along with the other daughters, that she had enough skills and that her self-esteem was fine.
The father jumped out of his chair and yelled at the Lakers to “get it, get it.” Cilia dumped more liver in her napkin. The father looked around for someone to high-five. Margaret and Theresa glared at him. Anne looked away. His eyes fell on Cilia, but she was too disturbed by her food to notice. She wondered if all disadvantaged children with poor self-esteem had to eat liver. The father sat back down. The daughters continued to protest.
The mother ignored them and said it would be good for them. “It’s free,” she added.
Cilia knew that was the end of it.
A week later, they pulled into the parking lot of the college. The lot was filled with the type of children the mother warned them not to turn into, the ones who said “ain’t,” who talked wrong and loud. Counselors screamed out children’s names. Parents shouted from the cars. For the mother, anything loud meant raised in a barn. She may have grown up poor, but she always said she had Creole sensibilities. The sudden inflection in her voice whenever she said “Creole,” the way it seemed to run up a hill and look down on muck swimming in a swamp below, taught the daughters that Black was Creole, Creole was Black, but the Creole part made them a little bit better. The mother took one look at the parking lot and said, “Riff-raff. Nothing but riff-raff,” which, Cilia knew, was the mother’s code for trash.
A long, dry, grassy field sat between the crowded parking lot and the low, squat, grey buildings of the college, which Cilia could see off in the distance. Cilia wanted to go home. Everything was too open here, too loud. For a second, she thought the mother might turn the car around, but Margaret and Theresa had already lit up at the sight of all the boys. They tumbled out of the car. The mother started to say something. “We’ll be fine,” they shouted over their shoulders, answering a question the mother didn’t have time to ask. Cilia watched them disappear into the riff-raff.
The mother reminded Anne, again, of where to take Cilia to meet her counselor. She was in the middle of giving them strict instructions on how to behave when a spindly girl walked past the car. “Look at her skin,” said the mother. “It’s so smooth. Like a baby’s ass.”
“Yuck,” said Anne.
“Your skin doesn’t come close to that,” the mother said.
Anne rolled her eyes and told Cilia to c’mon. They followed the spindly girl. Cilia stared at her and tried to decipher what it was that had caught the mother’s eye. She wondered if it was something she could learn how to get. The girl’s body, thin as a needle, made her joints stand out. Elbows and knees jutted out like damaged wings. Her hair, an electrified orange mess of Jheri Curl spray and Sun-In, jumped from her head, confused as to whether it should be an afro or a curl. The grease attempting to mask the dryness dripped from the charred ends onto her skin. Like a baby’s ass, the mother had said. Cilia understood the mother meant untouched, but she had begun babysitting, so the smell of neon green shit got in the way of her imagining anything pure. Cilia was thinking the girl looked just like a chicken–a stepped-on, half-dead one–when she bumped into Anne.
“Don’t walk so close to me,” said Anne.
“I wasn’t. You stopped.”
Anne rolled her eyes. “There,” she said. She pointed to a sign on a fence. Cilia saw her name on the list. Next to the sign, Chicken Girl stood, head tilted toward them as if she could only see from the side; on her face, a kooky grin that other people might have called shy. “You have to wait here,” said Anne. “Your counselor’s name is Peaches.” Anne turned and waved to the mother. The mother honked the horn and sped off. She hadn’t even bothered to turn the engine off.
Cilia pulled Anne’s hand. “Don’t leave me,” she said.
“You’ll be fine.” Anne patted Cilia’s head as if Cilia were a dog.
“No,” said Cilia through clenched teeth, “don’t leave me alone with that.” She jerked her head toward Chicken Girl.
“Don’t be rude,” she said to Cilia and left her. Anne looked at the girl and smiled.
Cilia felt betrayed. She watched Anne pass a group of boys who separated as she neared. A lanky, mud-colored boy stepped away from the group and gave a low, approving whistle to Anne’s backside. Anne straightened up, but didn’t stop.
“Hey,” the boy shouted, “give me a smile.” Anne didn’t turn around. “They’re free,” he added. The other boys laughed. “C’mon,” he pleaded, “just a smile.”
The boy caught up with Anne. Cilia couldn’t hear him anymore, but she could see his lips running a mile a minute, as if he was trying to sell something. Cilia got ready to run over and kick him in the leg, but then Anne turned to him. Cilia caught the side of her smile. The boy walked back to his friends, his face as wide as a plate, a huge grin running across it like gravy. His friends patted him on the back, as if he had won them all a prize.
Something in Cilia sank.
“They’re so stupid,” said Chicken Girl.
Cilia turned to her, annoyed. “Huh?”
“Boys. They always be bothering people. Like it’s their job or something.”
Cilia shrugged. She agreed, but it wasn’t any of Chicken Girl’s business.
“I’m Feather,” she said.
Cilia knew if she opened her mouth something rude might fall out, so she kept it shut, but Chicken Girl wouldn’t leave her alone. She wanted to know Cilia’s name.
“Cilia,” muttered Cilia.
Feather smiled. “That’s pretty.”
Cilia looked away. She had already decided not to be her friend. She knew weakness when she saw it. There was the weakness you could manipulate and the weakness you avoided because if people saw you near it they might think you had it too. Feather had both kinds, but the contagious one was worse .
Feather’s left hand fluttered to her mouth. That’s when Cilia saw it, what the mother couldn’t see from the car: a rainbow of gnawed skin all down her fingers. Yellow, red, pink, and brown. Cilia thought of her father’s jar of marinated pig’s feet that sat on the top rack of the refrigerator door, in between the horseradish and Tabasco. The pig’s feet were squished inside a jar filled with a suspicious, thick, reddish-pink liquid that smelled of sour underwear. Feather’s mouth opened. She pushed the tip of her middle finger hard against the edges of her teeth to grab hold of the thin rope of cuticle. Gnawing and pulling, she ripped the cuticle down to the half-moon ghost frown at the bottom of the nail until the skin was jagged and bleeding. She chewed and chewed. She caught Cilia
staring and turned away but kept on chewing.
Nasty, thought Cilia. Nasty, nasty, nasty. She moved a few feet away and waited for her counselor, Peaches, to come and save her.
Peaches. Not what Cilia expected. Not at all. What she was: a whale of a woman squeezed into a T-shirt and bright red shorts, the words America’s Youth stretched across her large chest, the dark silhouette of a faceless boy and girl–hands clasped and raised underneath the words, her shorts in danger of splitting from what they were trying to contain. Not fat–solid. She moved as if every inch of her mattered. Peaches parted her way through the riff-raff and lumbered towards the fence, calling out, “You belong to me. You belong to me.” When Cilia realized she was heading towards them, she moved back towards Feather, as if the spindly girl who chewed on her hands and looked like a half-dead chicken could protect her from this dark, moving mountain.
Behind Peaches, the other girls whipped and wound. When Peaches got to the fence, she pulled off the list and called out their names: Nairobé and Kenya, two dark brown, willowy, ten-year-old twins with cornrowed hair and multicolored beads that click-clacked at the end; Champagne, a butter-colored twelve-year-old with hair the color and texture of sandpaper, freckles all over her nose, who looked disgusted with the world; Dee-Dee, another twelve-year-old, skin the color of a copper crayon, with eyes like a cat; and Sweet T., an eleven-year-old with brown skin shining like toffee melting in the sun. Sweet T. told Peaches that the “T.” didn’t stand for anything. “My daddy put it there to make me sweeter,” she said. She told everyone to call her Sweety.
Peaches looked at Feather and nodded. “You look like you might fly away,” she said. She got to Cilia, who was the shortest. “You’re just a little bit of nothing, ain’t ya?”
Peaches patted her on the head. Cilia frowned at being shrunk down to a piece of nothing.
Peaches told them she was nineteen years old and in college. She paused and smiled at them, as if they should be impressed. Cilia wasn’t. Her mother had gone to college, and it didn’t seem to have done her much good, except give her pictures that didn’t look anything like her to cry over. So when Peaches asked if their parents had gone to college, Cilia raised her hand high, happy to show everyone that Peaches wasn’t anything special. Cilia expected the other girls to raise their hands too, but was surprised when only Nairobé and Kenya put their hands up, clasped together like the boy and the girl on the front of Peaches’ T-shirt. When Cilia saw Champagne looking at her as if she wanted to squash her, Cilia lowered her hand.
Champagne sucked in her teeth. “Ain’t nothing,” she said under her breath.
“Okay, okay,” said Peaches. She told them that her job was to be their role model, whether they had parents who went to college or not. It didn’t matter. “Y’all are my girls,” she said. “We’re going to learn a lot this summer.”
Behind them, a man with a crystal-ball head and a too-tight shirt that showed off his muscles climbed on the hood of a car and shouted through a megaphone: “To the gym. To the gym. Take your group to the gym.”
Peaches handed each of them their own America’s Youth T-shirt. “Here,” she said. “You’ll change in the gym.”
Cilia looked at the faceless faces on her T-shirt, and then eyed Peaches’ bulky body, her elephant knees and dimpled thighs, the flesh underneath her arm, the sweat rings forming dark circles. She didn’t sound or look like she was in college. Riff-raff, thought Cilia. Nothing but riff-raff.
They walked through the parking lot, past the dry, grassy field, and headed towards the low, squat buildings. In the front, Nairobé and Kenya held hands, swinging them high in the air, letting them drop, and then starting all over. Behind them, Sweety, talking a mile a minute, walked close to Cilia. Every so often she put her hand on Cilia’s shoulder or arm for emphasis. Cilia nodded and smiled, not minding at all, relieved that Sweety had claimed her as a friend. Champagne and Dee-Dee slunk in the back, just far enough for Peaches to have to finally tell them to catch up. Feather floated somewhere in between all of them, but mostly hovered near the front of the oddly shaped line. Along the way, Peaches pointed: track field’s down there, tennis courts right there. Over there: this. Over there: that. Cilia was grateful for Sweety who, in between Peaches’ pointing, listed all the different names she might call her own children. “Popcorn if it’s a boy. Candycorn, or maybe Caramel if it’s a girl.”
“What if she dark?” Champagne called out from behind them.
Sweety turned her head. She looked surprised and a little hurt by the question. “Don’t matter if she dark. She turned back around. “Caramel,” she said again to Cilia. “It’s sweet, ain’t it?”
Cilia glanced back at Champagne, afraid of what she might do or say, and then gave a quick nod.
Champagne sucked in her teeth. “Children” she said. Dee-Dee made a noise that was almost a laugh.
“You paying attention?” asked Peaches. She pointed to the buildings up ahead.
The buildings grew taller as they approached, until they finally stopped growing, and stood there–some tall, some short, some in-between. The girls gathered in the grassy area, what Peaches called “The Quad,” while Peaches turned and pointed to each building. Science and Math building there. Library there. Language building. Music building. Education building. There, there, there. Cilia turned and turned. She felt small and dizzy.
“And there,” said Peaches, smiling and pointing to a building that stood slightly apart from the rest, solid and grey, like a jail. All the kids from the parking lot were being herded into it. “Our new gym,” Peaches told them, as if she had built it herself.
They followed Peaches to a side door, which led into the girl’s locker room. The clanging and banging of lockers opening and closing echoed around them. Beneath this sound rumbled the frenzied energy of girls who were seeing each other’s bodies for the first time. Peaches assigned each of them a locker and told them to get changed. Cilia had never changed her clothes in front of strangers. She opened her locker and put the bag she’d brought from home inside. She’d spent the night before memorizing the combination to her lock. She said it in her head now: 32-24-16. Again and again.
“Hurry up, Lil Bit,” said Peaches.
Next to Cilia, Sweety had pulled off her old shirt and was putting on her new one.
Cilia, trying to hide behind the open door of her locker, put the new shirt over her head, pulled her arms out of the one she was wearing, put her arms through the new one, and then pulled her old one over her head. She slammed her locker shut and put on her lock. The other girls were busy with their own lockers. Cilia realized that they weren’t even looking at her.
Peaches led them through another door, different from the one they had entered, that opened into the gym. As they walked across the gym floor, Cilia looked for her sisters in the crowded bleachers, but the T-shirt made everyone look the same. Finally, she spotted Anne. Cilia waved, but Anne didn’t see her. The mud-colored boy sat behind her. He was playing with Anne’s hair. Anne kept flicking his hand away, but not like she meant it. Cilia couldn’t find Margaret and Theresa. She sat down with her group at the bottom of the bleachers.
On the gym floor stood the man from the parking lot, the one with the too-tight shirt and bald head who had yelled through the megaphone. He watched the crowd for a few minutes and then held the megaphone up to a microphone. “Hello, America’s Youth!” he shouted. The microphone let out a high pitched shriek.
Cilia covered her ears, like everyone else, but he did it again.
“Hello, America’s Youth!”
“You need to cut that shit out,” an older boy called out from the bleachers.
The man held the megaphone up again. “Hello, America’s Youth! Are you there?”
“Man, you can see us.”
“I don’t know if you’re there if you don’t answer me. Hello, America’s Youth!” He did it until everyone yelled hello. “That’s better,” he said. “You need to let people know you’re alive.”
He introduced himself as Mr. James, the director. He told everyone they should be proud to participate in the first summer of America’s Youth Sports Program. Someday they would make their communities proud, as long as they didn’t join a gang or do drugs. Strong bodies equal strong minds. Strong minds equal strong bodies. “Vital Life Skills,” he shouted, dabbing at his bald head with a handkerchief. “Vital Life Skills. What you need to succeed in life.”
“What’s he saying?” Sweety asked Cilia.
Champagne answered for Cilia. “Something crazy.”
“Uh-huh,” said Dee-Dee, nodding in agreement.
After Mr. James, they went to the dance room for Health and Hygiene. Boys and girls sat on the floor and faced Ms. Janice, a no-nonsense, coffee-colored lady, whose straightened hair was pulled back tight in a bun. Mirrors lined the wall behind her. A skinny, little, rat-like boy who sat next to Champagne put his fingers in his ears and wiggled them to make people laugh. Ms. Janice asked him his name.
“Julius,” he said, as if she might tell him something different.
She said his name back to him. “Julius,” she said. She told him to act like he had some sense. Health and Hygiene, she said, wasn’t only about being clean, it was about feeling good enough to want to be clean. If they didn’t keep clean, people would think poorly of them. “You might be poor,” she said, “but you don’t have to look it.” She stared at Julius. “Or act it,” she added.
“I ain’t act poor,” he mumbled, looking like he might cry.
“Didn’t act,” said Ms. Janice.
Julius didn’t have anything to say to that. He just stared and stared.
Ms. Janice moved on. She asked everyone to tell her where they were supposed to wash themselves.
Head. Shoulders. Knees. Toes. Feets. Parts of the body shouted out like a song.
“Tell me the parts you can’t see.”
“Under your pits!” someone shouted.
Everyone laughed. Ms. Janice gave a look that said washing was a serious Vital Life Skill. Everyone got quiet again. “What about between your legs?” she asked.
“Sweet Jesus,” whispered Sweety.
Ms. Janice said that private parts needed to welcome visitors like soap and washcloth. “Clean yourselves, or you’ll start to smell.”
All of the boys started sniffing at the girls and waving their hands underneath their noses. Julius sniffed at Feather who seemed to shrink into herself, which made him sniff even more, but then he made the mistake of sniffing Champagne. Champagne hit him on the side of his head, told him if he got any closer she’d slap him and his stank ass into next week. Peaches rushed over, picked Julius up by the collar, and dragged him to a corner. “Don’t mess with my girls,” she said.
Ms. Janice said that Health and Hygiene was over. She dismissed the boys. They left to learn how to play football. As they walked out of the room, they waved their hands under their noses and sniffed themselves out of the room, just like a bunch of little pigs.
“Stank asses,” called out Champagne.
Ms. Janice and Peaches pretended like they didn’t hear her. Ms. Janice began teaching the girls a routine they would perform on the last day. Legs open. Knees bent. Backs straight. “Let your uterus pull you down,” she said.
“Why you so stuck on our privates?” asked Champagne.
Ms. Janice said the only thing she was stuck on was helping them locate their power source, which would help them dance. “It’s in your uterus,” she said. “Find it.”
Cilia didn’t know where her uterus was, but she opened her legs like Ms. Janice asked and let it hang. They learned how to shimmy. Ms. Janice and Peaches opened their arms wide and shook their chests at the girls to demonstrate. Back and forth. Side to side. The shimmying created tidal waves underneath Peaches’ shirt. America’s Youth rippled.
Sweety looked down at the flat territory of her shirt and then at Cilia’s. “What if you don’t got nothing to shimmy?” she asked.
“Act like you do,” said Ms. Janice.
“Act like you wish you did,” said Peaches.
They shimmied in place and then lined up to shimmy across the room in pairs. Cilia stood in line across from Sweety and trembled inside. Whenever Cilia danced at home, Anne told her she moved like a White Girl. Cilia tried not to think about that. She closed her eyes and moved her body as if she wished she had something to shimmy.
Peaches caught Cilia before she crashed into her. “Okay, Lil Bit. Next time open your eyes and loosen up your shoulders.”
Cilia nodded, stunned that she had managed to make it across the floor. Out of all of them, Feather was the best. The jerky movements that made her seem so awkward when she walked, for some reason, disappeared when she danced; it looked as if she might fly away, graceful, smooth and strong. That she danced better than anyone else was another reason for Cilia not to like her.
A week passed and then two. Cilia should have known it would only get worse. The shimmies were the easy part, but she kept falling down when she had to do kicks and turns. By the end of the second week, Champagne asked her if she had duck feet. Cilia began having nightmares about dancing naked in front of a crowd of hungry pigs that were waiting for her uterus to fall out. If that wasn’t enough, Anne had started to giggle all the time, like Margaret and Theresa. The mud-colored boy who had whistled at her was never far behind. His name was Derek. Cilia found the best way to deal with him was to act as if he wasn’t there, but Cilia didn’t have time to worry about the change in Anne; she was too busy tripping over her duck feet and dreaming about uterus-eating pigs.
It was Friday morning, the end of the second week, when Cilia informed the mother that she wasn’t going to return to the camp. Margaret, Theresa, and Anne were getting ready upstairs. The mother was braiding Cilia’s hair. The mother ignored her, forcing Cilia to tell her flat out, “I ain’t going back to that camp.”
“Aren’t,” said the mother.
The mother yanked on a braid. Cilia’s head tilted slightly to the right, like a marionette’s. “Watch yourself,” said the mother. “Don’t let that camp ruin your language.”
“It ain’t,” said Cilia, this time on purpose.
The mother dared her to say another word. She started on the other braid.
“Maybe I should stay home,” said Cilia, “before those niggas ruin me for good.”
The mother yanked the left braid hard enough for Cilia to cry out and fall onto the floor. Cilia rubbed her head. The braid had moved from the top of her head to right above her ear. A lump of hair sat raised. Cilia scratched and rubbed, too angry to be scared, but then she saw the mother’s face, which had the fury of hell written all over it.
“You are not a nigger,” said the mother. “You hear me?” She pointed the comb at Cilia as if she wanted to reach inside Cilia’s mouth and rake the filth off her tongue.
“And I don’t care how bad those other kids talk or act. They aren’t niggers either. You understand?”
“Don’t let me hear you say that word in this house again.”
Cilia nodded and blinked her eyes. The mother always told them crying was a waste of time. Cilia wanted to explain to the mother that she hadn’t meant the word the way the mother had said it, but she was afraid if she opened her mouth, she’d get it wrong. She was afraid if she opened her mouth, everything else would open–her eyes, her ears, her heart–and she wasn’t sure what would fall out or who would catch it. Not the mother. Cilia bit down on her tongue.
The mother pointed to the chair. Cilia sat back in it. The mother undid the lopsided braid and ran the comb through it. She told the side of Cilia’s head that even if Cilia’s language got shot to hell, she wasn’t about to let anyone ruin her days of peace. She wrapped the sections of hair one around the other, until both braids hung, even and clean and tight as two new jump-ropes.
Cilia bit down hard until she tasted blood.
By the third week, Cilia was convinced: if the dancing didn’t kill her, watching Feather eat herself would. The yellow part of her skin made Cilia the most uneasy. She wasn’t sure if the red, raw part had turned yellow from the sun and was getting ready to turn brown again, or if it was the layer of skin she needed to rip through to get to the tender, red and pink parts. She only chewed on the tops of her hands, never going past her wrists. It didn’t matter. Everyone thought she was nasty. Champagne called her nasty to her face. Peaches would tell Champagne not to call Feather nasty, but would tell Feather to stop. “You had lunch. I know you ain’t hungry,” she’d say, trying to make it a joke. Cilia could tell that Peaches thought Feather was nasty too, but she was the counselor and was trying hard to be a role model.
It was Wednesday, the middle of the week. Hot and dry. Cilia’s attempt to feign illness that morning failed–her fourth time in three weeks. Margaret and Theresa shamed her into getting in the car. “Stop acting like a kid,” they said. “Yeah,” Anne chimed in, “grow up,” and then stuck out her chest, which seemed to have doubled in size in the past two weeks.
When they got out of the car, the heat wrapped itself around Cilia, pulling her clothes and pinching her face, as if she had stepped into the fiery arms of hell or the unwanted embrace of a fat aunt. Unlike Cilia, Margaret, Theresa, and Anne seemed energized by the heat. For the past couple of weeks, they’d taken to wearing make-up. Margaret pulled out the Maybelline lipstick that they all shared and passed it around. With mouth slightly open, each one applied the lipstick carefully, and then kissed her hand to make the color look more natural. They used each other as mirrors. “Is this okay?” “Yes.” “Did I get it?” “Uh-huh.” “What about me?” “Good.” As they talked about this boy or that boy, every so often their kissed hands flew to their hair, near the brow or at the neck, to make sure it wasn’t turning back, unaware that the corners of their pinkish-red lips had melted into tiny frowns. Like clowns, thought Cilia. Exactly like clowns. She couldn’t take it. She refused to walk with them, staying twenty steps behind. They didn’t bother turning around to tell her to catch up, which made Cilia burn up even more. She swatted the dry grass that lined the path upon which they walked and watched them disappear into the smoggy haze, but then she stopped swatting. Her skin suddenly felt as if it were crawling. Sweat inched its way from corners and crevices of her body–behind her ears, the base of her neck, underneath her shoulder blades, her armpits–and pooled in the small of her back. She looked down and saw a line of sweat dripping from the inside of her leg. Nasty, thought Cilia.
Cilia’s group was waiting for her at their meeting spot underneath the willow tree by the library. Peaches greeted her with a yawn, which made them all yawn. They went inside the gym for their morning pep talk from Mr. James, but even he seemed beaten by the heat. Someone had stolen his megaphone. He dismissed them early. “God damn America’s youth,” Cilia heard him sputter as he walked out of the gym.
It was too hot to dance. Too hot to play baseball, football, soccer, or any other Vital Life Skill. Too hot to talk about being clean, but they had to do it anyway. Peaches ended their dance practice early, telling them that she was tired of watching them move like molasses, and tired of listening to them snip at each other like little dogs. She made them sit underneath the shade of the willow tree, in silence, until it was time for free swim, which they were all waiting for anyway.
Celia had free swim every afternoon right before they went home. Her sisters swam with the older kids in the morning.l During free swim, it seemed to Cilia that there were always more children in the pool than there was water. That afternoon, Nairobé and Kenya were in the shallow end with Peaches because, even after almost three weeks, they still hadn’t learned how to breathe. Sweety and Cilia were taking turns jumping off the high dive. Feather stood near the deep end, a few feet away from Champagne and Dee-Dee, who were sitting on the edge of the pool, trying to look cute. Julius was scurrying around the edges of the pool, one hand clutching the broken drawstring of his shorts, looking for people to push in. Champagne called him over. After that first day in Health and Hygiene, Julius had learned it was better to do what Champagne said. He ran over to her.
From the high dive, Cilia watched Julius nod and grin at whatever Champagne whispered in his ear. Then, he snuck up behind Feather and gave her a nudge that sent her flopping into the pool. Feather crawled out, shivering and shaking like a sick tadpole. Julius jumped up and down, one hand clutching his drawstring, the other pointing at Feather. “I got you good,” he snickered. “I got you good.”
Blood dripped down Feather’s leg.
“Hey, girl,” Julius shouted, “you cut yourself.”
Champagne whooped. “She ain’t cut herself. She on the rag.”
Julius seemed confused. He looked around on the ground, like he was searching for a torn T-shirt or an old sock. Feather put her hand between her legs and wiped. When she saw the blood, she looked ready to faint. Julius raised both hands and backed away, as if Feather was a witch that might put a spell on him. He forgot about his shorts, and they fell to his knees. People hooted. Cilia looked close and saw what looked like a peanut dangling between his legs. Julius dove into the pool with his shorts around his ankles. The shorts floated to the surface. Feather ran to the locker room. Dee-Dee and Champagne followed, laughing and pointing.
Peaches climbed out of the shallow end with Nairobé and Kenya right behind her. Some girl, waiting on the ladder, yelled at Cilia to hurry her ass up. Cilia jumped with her legs pulled up tight to her chest, but she let her feet go too late. She hit the water like the flat side of a butter knife. Julius swam by her and gave her a fierce look, one hand over his peanut, the other looking for his shorts.
Peaches took them to the track field to have a special meeting. They sat on the bleachers and watched college boys run down the long jump and hurl themselves into the air.
Feather sat next to Peaches with her head down. She dripped red. Her eyes, red from crying. Her face, splotchy red from shame. Her hands, red from being chewed up. Her insides–all red. She even smelled red, thought Cilia. Feather sat next to Peaches with her head down.
Dee-Dee and Champagne looked as guilty as two goats. Peaches made them say sorry to Feather. “Sorry,” they said, but they said it out the side of their mouths, the kind of sorry that meant they’d laugh about her later. Anyone fool enough to stand by the edge of the pool and decide to bleed in front of a crowd of people deserved the sorriest sorry possible. Sorry-my-ass, was what their sorry said.
Peaches grunted at their sorry-ass sorry, but left it alone. She turned her voice down low. “Y’all understand what’s happening to Feather?” she asked.
“She bleeding,” said Nairobé and Kenya.
“You understand why, from where?”
Everyone was silent. Peaches put her hands above her waist. “Remember your uterus?” she asked. The girls stared at her crotch and nodded. Something inside their uterus was tearing away because they didn’t need it, Peaches explained. They only needed it if they were going to have a baby. “Understand?”
The girls nodded. Cilia understood this had something to do with the way Margaret and Theresa lay in bed once a month, a cold washcloth on their foreheads, looking like dying sunflower stalks, but the understanding stopped there.
“Any questions?” Peaches asked. “Ask me anything. Don’t hold back.”
“I got one,” said Champagne.
“Give it to me.”
“Do the pee-pee and the blood come out the same hole?”
Sweety started to say “Sweet Jesus,” but Champagne threw her the evil eye. She only got as far as the “sweet.” Peaches told Champagne they didn’t come out the same hole. Champagne looked skeptical.
“What else you wanna know?” asked Peaches.
Champagne didn’t waste any time. “Which hole do a boy put his dick in? The blood hole or the pee-pee hole?”
Champagne punched Sweety on the arm. “Don’t pretend y’all don’t wanna know too.”
Kenya and Nairobé shook their heads. Dee-Dee shrugged. Sweety rubbed her arm. Feather chewed her fingers. Cilia shook her head. She knew it was a sin to even think about Champagne’s question.
Peaches looked reduced. Everything about her seemed smaller, even her chest. She took a deep breath and let it out. America’s Youth rose and then collapsed. She looked up at the sky, as if an answer to Champagne’s question might tumble out of heaven.
“How many of y’all have let a boy put his thing in you?” asked Peaches.
No one raised their hand.
“Don’t worry,” said Peaches, “I won’t tell your mommas.”
Champagne raised her hand. When she saw she was the only one, she looked as if she wanted to hit someone again.
“You protect yourself?” Peaches asked.
Champagne shrugged. She looked down at the spaces between the bleachers.
“No,” said Peaches. “Don’t feel bad. Don’t feel bad about something you just trying to figure out. And don’t make anyone else feel bad either. But you need information. You need to protect yourself.”
Champagne looked up. “When did you let a boy put his thing in you?” she asked.
The girls waited for more information.
“When I was too young to know better.”
Champagne sucked in her teeth. “You ain’t right,” she said. “I told you.”
“How old I was don’t matter,” said Peaches. “What matters is you don’t make each other feel bad,” said Peaches, “specially for something you all have to go through or already been through. Okay?”
Everyone but Champagne nodded. “You ain’t right,” Champagne said again. “And you ain’t no role model to me.”
Champagne stared at Peaches. Peaches stared back. The only thing to be heard was the hard sound of feet landing in sand.
Peaches finally said, “Okay,” as if they were done talking, but she was only warming up. She told Champagne that if Champagne thought she was the first person to tell Peaches she wasn’t right, she was wrong. She had heard that already from everyone she knew, and she had decided a long time ago not to agree with any of them. Champagne would have to make that same decision. Champagne was fresh out of luck, said Peaches, because Peaches was going to be her role model, whether she liked it or not. Peaches told them all they had better get it together fast and figure out how to be a role model to each other. If they couldn’t see Peaches as a role model, they’d never see themselves as one.
“We have to look out for each other. Not just in here,” said Peaches. She threw her head toward the parking lot. “Out there too.” She stopped for a second and looked at each one of them. “You better get information,” she said. Champagne snorted, but Peaches kept talking like she didn’t hear her. “And I was eleven and I didn’t want to. Don’t let nobody tell you, you ain’t right or that you can’t be a role model. Don’t let their mess get inside you. Got it?”
This time, Champagne nodded, but it was so quick Cilia almost missed it. Cilia nodded too, but she only understood half of what Peaches had said.
The boys ran by them on the track.
Peaches looked at her watch and said it was time to go. She told Champagne to stick around for a second. The girls walked back to the parking lot. When Cilia looked back, Peaches’ arm was around Champagne’s shoulders, which were hunched up to her ears and shaking, like Anne’s sometimes did. Attention-getter, thought Cilia.
The girls were almost to the parking lot when Sweety asked, “So which hole do a boy put his thing in?” No one knew, not even Dee-Dee who was the same age as Champagne. “Sweet Jesus,” said Sweety when no one said anything, but Cilia knew calling on the Lord was a waste of time; he wouldn’t answer either.
They reached the parking lot. The mothers honked their horns and yelled out the windows at them because they were late. Feather walked home alone.
On the last day of the camp, each of the daughters, except for Cilia, left the car with a box of sugar cookies in her backpack. The mother had made the cookies for their counselors the night before, but she left most of the cookies in too long and the bottoms had burned. “Waste not, want not,” she said and scraped the bottoms off with a butter knife. Cilia left her box of cookies underneath the seat of the car. She didn’t want to give Peaches a present, especially a ruined one.
As Cilia walked to the willow tree, she prayed for the ground to break open, so she could fall through, and then she wouldn’t have to do the dance with her group, but that didn’t happen. She reached the tree in one piece and sat in the circle with the rest of the girls. Peaches told them they were to stay with their group and practice their dance, and then, later, they’d meet in the gym to listen to one last speech from Mr. James, and to watch all of the groups perform.
“I’m so proud of all of you,” said Peaches. “Y’all did such a good job this summer, specially the past two weeks. We learned a lot together, just like I said.”
Peaches’ arms were around Nairobé and Kenya, who sat on either side of her. Sweety smiled at Peaches. Dee-Dee snapped her gum, which she wasn’t supposed to be chewing. Champagne looked away. Feather chewed on her fingers. In the last week and a half since Feather had bled, Champagne had taken to defending her almost as much as she insulted her.
Peaches said she had a surprise for them. She reached inside her gym bag and pulled out new T-shirts. Not America’s Youth. These she had decorated herself. Each T-shirt had their name written in glitter glue, and underneath their name, in sparkly letters, were the words “So Fine.” Cilia thought the T-shirt was tacky, but she forced a smile when Peaches handed it to her.
For the first time in four weeks, the day went by too quickly. Before Cilia knew it, they were in the gym, listening to Mr. James for the last time. Mr. James told them that the skills they had learned would serve them for years to come. What you need to succeed. Cilia was tired of him. She hadn’t learned a thing. She still didn’t know where her uterus was or how to kick and turn without falling on her rear end. What she had learned was to not trust the parts of her that seemed to have a mind of their own. The groups started to perform. Cilia watched her sisters strut across the floor. Anne always teased Cilia that she’d been left on the doorstep in a basket, like Moses. Watching them dance, Cilia believed her.
It was time for Cilia’s group to dance. Peaches lined them up against the wall: Feather in front, Cilia at the end. Peaches went down the line and wished them all luck. When she got to Cilia, she leaned down and whispered in her ear. “You’ll be great, Lil Bit. Don’t worry about falling. You fall, we’ll make it look like part of the dance.”
Cilia nodded but didn’t believe her.
Peaches walked up to the front of the line and signaled a counselor to turn off the lights. The gym went dark. The crowd whistled and hooted. Cilia looked down at her hands. She could only see what was right in front of her. She didn’t realize that the gym would get this dark. When they’d practiced, it had always been with the lights on. The lights going out was Feather’s cue to walk onto the middle of the floor where she was supposed to stand with her arms crossed and her eyes looking up to the ceiling, as if she were standing on a street corner, not caring about a thing. “Like you have a spine,” Peaches would say to her in practice, and when Feather would look confused, as if she didn’t know her own anatomy, Peaches would say, “Attitude. With attitude.”
A light came up on Feather, and there she stood, standing just like she was supposed to, like she was the only one in the gym, like she wasn’t in the gym at all but on some street corner, arms crossed–with attitude. There was Peaches, right next to Feather, with her hands on her hips. Peaches wore a cop hat and a leather belt that had a real police baton hanging from the side of it–where she got those from, Cilia didn’t want to know. The music started: “No Parking on the Dance Floor.” The first part of the song was just talking, a cop telling someone they needed to dance, or else. Peaches pulled out the baton and pointed it at Feather. She moved her lips as if she were really talking. The whole time, Feather looked away, as if Peaches couldn’t touch her, but as soon as Peaches mouthed the words, “I’ll be forced to give you a ticket, so get with it,” Feather’s body jerked into motion. She threw her hands up as if she were being arrested and turned towards the girls, who were standing in line waiting. The lights came up. Feather nodded her head at them. The girls ran towards Feather, their arms open wide, shaking the flat territory of their chests at Peaches, which made her back away. The crowd cheered. Cilia looked down and realized her feet hadn’t moved. She ran in the opposite direction, to the girls’ locker room and hid in the bathroom.
In the bathroom, Cilia listened to the music blast through the speakers. She knew no one would come in because everybody was performing. Afterwards, the gym would turn into a dance floor, and then everyone would go home. She’d never have to see any of them again. She closed her eyes and danced in front of the bathroom mirror. When the song ended, she pretended the cheering she heard was for her. She was in the middle of doing an encore when she felt someone watching her. Feather was standing behind her.
“Why you dancing by yourself?”
Cilia leaned on the sink towards the mirror. She acted as if a few seconds earlier she hadn’t been trying to freak the sink to kingdom come. She turned on the faucet, let some water drip onto her fingers, and smoothed down her eyebrows. She did to Feather what her sisters did when they didn’t want to answer her–pretended she didn’t exist.
“Peaches looking for you,” said Feather.
“Why you didn’t dance with us?”
“I’m on the rag,” lied Cilia
“Oh,” said Feather, smiling, and ducking her head. “You need a tampon?”
“No, thanks,” said Cilia, as if she knew what that was.
Feather chewed on a finger, made a face, and spat in the sink. She rinsed her mouth out with water and spat one more time. She held up her hands. They glowed beneath the fluorescent bathroom lights. “My mama put poison on them,” she said.
Cilia was horrified. She had a vision of Feather falling onto the aquamarine bathroom tiles, on the verge of death from poison. It would be Cilia who would run out to the gym and stop the dancing. We must save Feather, she’d cry. They’d get to Feather too late, but everyone would cheer Cilia for her bravery.
“Will it kill you?” asked Cilia.
Feather looked at Cilia as if Cilia were the crazy one. “She don’t wanna kill me. She want me to stop. Nobody’s gonna want me if I do ugly things. That’s what she said.” Feather gnawed on a finger and spat into the sink again.
“What do it taste like?” asked Cilia, curious.
Cilia couldn’t think of anything worse than liver. “Pig’s feet,” she said. She had never tasted them, but she was thinking about the smell.
Feather shook her head. “Like sour milk. Like nothing you don’t ever wanna eat. You wanna taste?” She held out a chewed-on tip.
Cilia shook her head. “No, thanks.”
Feather nibbled on a finger and made a face. “Washing don’t help–it gets inside my skin, but I’m getting used to the taste.”
Cilia couldn’t help herself. She asked Feather the question she’d been wanting to ask. “Why do you do it?”
Feather shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Cilia thought that was the dumbest answer she had ever heard. The mother always told her if she did anything idiotic, she should, at least, have a reason. In fact, she better have one. Not knowing was not a reason.
Cilia and Feather stared at each other in the mirror. Cilia wanted her to leave. “Why don’t you go and dance with someone?” Cilia asked.
“Nobody wanna dance with me.”
“Why not? You dance good.” It slipped out before Cilia could stop it. Cilia wanted to rip off the smile that appeared on Feather’s face. “Maybe if you stop sucking they would,” she added.
Feather gnawed on her knuckle and spit in the sink again. Freakazoid blasted through the speakers. “This my jam,” she said. She held out her hands. “Here,” she said, “I’ll teach you how to dance better.”
The gnarled skin and dried blood on Feather’s outstretched hands glowed beneath the lights. This, along with the sharp stench of industrial strength cleaner churned in Cilia’s stomach. Cilia looked at Feather’s hands in the mirror and knew one thing for sure: no matter what Cilia wasn’t, she’d never be someone who ate her own skin.
“Don’t touch me, Chicken Girl,” Cilia said, staring hard into the mirror.
“Huh?” Feather dropped her hands and looked around, a stupid grin on her face. “Who you talking to?”
“You, Chicken Girl.”
“You going crazy or something, Cilia?”
“You going crazy or something? Like it’s your job,” mocked Cilia. “You’re the one who’s crazy, Chicken Girl.”
“Why you callin’ me that? That ain’t my name,” whispered Feather.
“Yes, it is, Chicken Girl.” Cilia felt the hard thing in her chest grow large. “Your momma’s right. No one’s ever gonna want you. You are ugly. And nasty. The nastiest thing I ever seen. Nastier than green baby shit.” Cilia turned to face her. “Chicken Girl!” she screamed as loud as she could.
Cilia ran out of the bathroom through the coffin-maze of metal lockers. She stumbled on Anne and Derek in a dark corner. Derek’s mouth was on Anne’s. He looked as if he was trying to swallow Anne’s head. “Nasty,” shouted Cilia. She ran to the parking lot with Anne running after her, calling out, “Stop!”
When they got to the car, the mother handed Cilia the box of cookies she had stuffed under the car seat. She told Cilia if she didn’t give the box to Peaches, she’d walk Cilia to Peaches, slapping her be-hind the whole way. She made Anne go with her to make sure she didn’t drop the cookies in a trashcan, which was exactly what Cilia planned to do. The mother stared at them hard. “What’s wrong with you two?” she asked.
“Nothing,” they said.
On the walk back to Peaches, Cilia walked three feet in front of Anne, too angry and disgusted to speak to her. They found Peaches, surrounded by children and counselors, in the middle of a hallway. She was picking up children, squeezing them, and yelling how much she was going to miss them.
“Get it over with,” said Anne, who had caught up. “They’re just cookies.”
“You give them to her.”
Anne sighed. “That wouldn’t be right.”
“Neither’s getting your face sucked on by some boy you don’t know from Adam. I’ll tell.”
“Go ahead,” said Anne, rolling her eyes. “I don’t care.” Derek came over, put his arm around her, and whispered in her ear. Anne giggled and then turned a demon face to Cilia. “Go,” said Anne, sounding like the devil. She pushed Cilia away.
Defeated, Cilia weaved through the crowd. She blamed Derek. He had sucked away the important piece of Anne and had made her forget who she was, who she and Cilia were together. Cilia used the box to poke Peaches in the side.
Peaches looked down. “Lil Bit? What happened to you?”
Cilia was too defeated to answer. She raised the box until its droopy red bow almost touched Peaches’ chin.
“What’s this?” asked Peaches.
“Cookies,” mumbled Cilia.
Cilia nodded again. She could feel the build up of emotion, the way dogs and horses did before a natural disaster struck. She started to back away, but Peaches’ hand clamped down on her shoulder. Cilia braced herself for the storm about to hit.
Peaches’ voice got loud, louder than Cilia had ever heard it. She waved the box high in the air and sang, “I got some cook-ies. I got some cook-ies.” She stopped and looked around at everyone. No one was paying her any mind. They were all saying good-bye to each other. Rapper’s Delight came on someone’s boom box. Peaches got even louder. “Y’all,” she screamed. Cilia cringed. “I got me a present. One of mine gave me a present.” She wrapped her arm around Cilia’s neck and pulled Cilia to her chest. Peaches dragged her up and down the hall, waving the box of cookies above her head, yelling, “Look, y’all, look. One of mine gave me something. I got me a present? Don’t I? Don’t I?” Everyone laughed. Cilia wanted to disappear.
“You sharing?” Another counselor asked Peaches for a cookie.
Peaches stopped in the middle of the hallway and looked down at Cilia. “How’s this nigga gonna ask me for a cookie when I just get through telling him they mine?” Cilia looked above Peaches’ breast and attempted a shrug, exhausted. “No-count-nigga,” said Peaches, smiling at Cilia. She let Cilia go to undo the bow.
Cilia backed away from her, slowly, so she wouldn’t notice. When the crowd filled her place, she turned around and ran towards the car. She felt small. Smaller than nothing. She didn’t want to be there when Peaches found out the cookies were black on the bottom. She ran and ran.
Past Anne’s sucked-on face.
Past Margaret and Theresa, who were hugging Mr. James.
Past the dry, brittle grass. The tennis courts. The track field.
Past Feather. Who was walking back to wherever she came from. Who waved at Cilia as if she knew her. Whose eyes shone bright as any chicken’s. Whose skin, Cilia knew, smelled as sour as pig’s blood. Whose mouth had moved past her wrist to her forearm. Who chewed on herself as if she were the last good thing left to eat in the world.
Anthony Correale (Fiction Editor): A story of bodily experience, of becoming painfully conscious of bodies, of bodily definitions and markers, of its varying currency, of its unruliness. Cilia’s often painful bodily consciousness translates and affects so effectively that if it were all that the story accomplished, it would be enough. Yet “The Girl Who Ate Her Own Skin” is novelistic in its scope, unflinchingly complicating and complicating again, other stories ramifying outward from it.
This poem appeared in Indiana Review 29.2, Winter 2007
Rae Paris is from Carson, California with roots extending to New Orleans. Her work has been supported by an NEA Literature Fellowship, and residencies from the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Hambidge Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA). Her poem “The Forgetting Tree” was selected as Best of the Net 2013. Her short story “The Girl Who Ate Her Own Skin” was a recommended story in the 2009 O. Henry Prize Stories, and her collection was a finalist for the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. Her book The Forgetting Tree: A Rememory (Wayne State University Press, 2017) remembers her father’s life and death within an assemblage of past and present racial violence and resistance to terror in the United States. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Washington.