new life was already underway. My father picked us up afterward. I don’t remember whether he drove up from Brooklyn just to collect us or whether he parked somewhere and sat waiting in the car while we were at the picnic. What I do remember is that his absence was intentional. When I asked him why he didn’t join us, he said, “You don’t understand, Naima. If people see me, they’ll treat you differently.” He didn’t go on to explain but I knew what he meant. He was tall and heavy, a black man, not yet fifty, with a long beard and a mustache. He often wore a baseball cap and smoked a pipe, and I was used to the privileges and pains of having a father who others considered intimidating. A pair of older twin boys at P.S. 11 had teased me until my father came up to the school to set them straight; eventually, the boys I would date would defer to him, look down at their feet while they talked to him, and later rave to me about how cool he was and how scary. My mother was light-skinned, Latina, slight; she’d face another set of problems—underestimation, innuendo— but meeting her wouldn’t change the way my classmates saw me. I had seen my father harassed and mistreated by shop owners, airport security, and white strangers enough to understand. To be black was different. And yet, I wasn’t sure my father was right. The girls were nice, their parents smiling. Still, he’d made up his mind. I wasn’t used to my father being absent from any part of my life and, certainly, not from school. While my mother washed my hair and ironed my clothes and cooked my food, my father was the one I revolved around. He knew the names of my friends; he had taught me how to swim and to play chess; he gave me books to read that he had once loved; he had tutored me in Math. When we went swimming in the Dominican Republic, I climbed onto his shoulders and jumped off into the ocean. When I was frightened on an airplane, he vowed to rescue me if the plane crashed. It was his guidance that had brought me to Spence, and now, it seemed, he wouldn’t follow me in. We slid into the car, the bronze Honda Accord, and told him about the picnic, the white women and their jewelry, and we told him the story of how poorly my brother had behaved.
Luciano, nine years old, had tugged at my mother’s jacket, interrupting her conversation to ask her to take him to a spread of food at a table nearby. “The chicken, Mami! I want the chicken,” he had said. My mother had ignored his urgent whispering then, but now, in the car, as we drove back to Brooklyn, we could all laugh about it. It was both cute and terrifying, and it would become one of our most treasured family jokes—the story of that time Luciano had begged for chicken in front of so many Spence parents and almost blew it all. A few days into the school year, I found a Xeroxed sheet of paper wedged into my locker. It was a handwritten invitation to the first bat mitzvah of the year. Proper invitations had gone out months before, but all of the new girls were invited to the party at the Plaza Hotel. Bat mitzvahs weren’t an expense I had accounted for in my assessment of Spence, but I already had a dress to wear and my mother went out to the Macy’s on Fulton Street, armed with coupons, and returned with some piece of jewelry as a gift, likely a pair of tiny diamond earrings or a gold bracelet. The gifts were as much for me as the girls in my class—they were my parents’ purchases, made on credit, toward my inclusion, the long-shot hope that the girls in my grade would hold me in esteem, and I wouldn’t feel so different. (It is strange, all these years later, to think of these girls, women now, walking around in their lives, maybe wearing the pair of earrings my mother bought them, not knowing how they got them, not thinking of me, not remembering my mother.) I didn’t know the birthday girl very well. She was blond, athletic, and we sometimes sat at the same table in Math. She spoke the way I had imagined white girls would speak from television: she had an Upper East Side drawl, every vowel sound a diphthong in her mouth, every declaration lurching into a question. Of the actual party, I remember little: wood paneled walls and chandeliers, but I can’t be sure I am not picturing another ballroom, some other party from that year. A troupe of professional cheerleaders performed—the Knicks Dancers—and the birthday girl read from the Torah into a
microphone. I was astonished at how lovely she was in a sequined dress, at how mature she seemed at thirteen—the flatness of her stomach, the fact of her breasts, the way her straight hair gleamed as gold as her dress. I remember too the girls from my class circling around me to marvel at my outfit: they couldn’t believe how adorable I looked. My dress had a blue velvet skirt, white puff sleeves, a row of beads along the waist. I wore opaque white tights and patent leather shoes. Their dresses had straps and high hems; they wore black; they wore sequins and lipstick, their hair ironed straight, their legs bare. I had worn a little- girl dress to a grown-up-girl party. I sensed then, more acutely than I had yet, that I wasn’t one of them. I felt stocky, flat-chested, childish, brown. The sensation would return to my body during dance rehearsals when I looked in the mirror and saw a line of white girls at the barre and then me, when I started to clip a bobby pin to the bridge of my nose in secret at home, when I saw a photograph someone had developed of a group of us, and my skin had turned up orange under the flash of the camera. There was much about myself that I couldn’t change, but there were some things that I could. I could wear my hair down; I could put on heels. I could ask my mother to never make me wear such a little-girl dress again. Before spence, I might have said that I knew how to swim, to dance, to play an instrument, and to sing. I learned quickly that, at twelve, I was already too much of an amateur to keep up with the girls in my class. I had spent my summers swimming in the ocean in DR but I couldn’t swim chlorinated laps the way they did; I had done ballet at a dance school in Jamaica, Queens, but there were girls in my class who trained at the School of American Ballet in Lincoln Center; I had played alto saxophone for two years, often in the second or third chair, in the P.S. 11 band, but girls in my class had been playing the piano or the violin or the flute since they were three. I liked to sing but I didn’t know how to read music, and I faked my way through choral classes. I wasn’t behind in any of my academic classes, if anything, I was ahead of the girls in my class, and I relished this way that I had earned my WESTONMAGAZINEGROUP.COM 83
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