divided us, too, although not cleanly; in a class of fifty girls, the lines were often muddled, and there were only six girls I knew who weren’t white, and half of us had joined the class that year. Other factors mitigated where someone stood in the class, too: zip codes, the vetting that occurred between parents. No matter the complexity of the formula, where I stood was clear. The fact that I lived in Brooklyn alone was sufficient to mark me far outside the New York of my classmates; for some of them, the city below 59 th Street didn’t exist. And there was the puzzle and problem of my race. I had a teacher, as well as my classmates, ask whether my long hair was real. I had more than one girl ask with interest, “What are you?” A drama substitute cast me in a sketch about race as the black character, which struck me as patently unfair—couldn’t I be whoever I wanted to be? Why did the other girls get to choose? Another new girl, Kristen, whom I had grown to love fiercely and whom I had preemptively deemed my potential best friend, once told me a story about her father’s misadventures on the subway. She offered some elaborate reason for why he had been forced to take the train, some logic for why it seemed to him like a good idea at the time. Her father made his way down the stairs, he rounded a corner, and he bumped right into a big black man. My potential best friend laughed then at the punchline, the end of her story—the black man who had surprised her father. I don’t know what I did, whether I laughed or stood silent or asked her what was so funny, but I do know that the figure who came to my mind was not a stranger, but my father, in a plaid, long- sleeved shirt, his silver pens tucked into his pocket, his scarcely lined brown face, the color that I had called “burnt sienna” as a child, after the crayon I would use to draw him, and he had in turn had called me “peach brown,” although it wasn’t quite the right color for me, it was a little too white. The tensions with my parents reached a head one night when they were driving me home from Spence. A school event had ended after dark, and they came up together from Brooklyn in the Honda to bring me back home. We listened to the radio as we rode down the FDR Drive. I could see the city lights and the East River churn. My
father smoked his pipe, the sweet tobacco smell floating out the window, my mother looked despondently out the window, her chin in her skinny hand, and my brother I remember only as silent and small. I suspect the fight started with my mother: my power struggles were chiefly with her. If I sighed more dramatically than was allowed, or if I rolled my eyes, or if I disagreed with her, she would launch her attack. I could count on the fight to escalate. My mother’s anger rose up quickly and swallowed everything with the force and speed of a tropical storm. Soon she was shouting at me. What was wrong with me? Who did I think I was? When I started to cry, my mother kept screaming. “I am taking you out of that school!” She likely said something about the way I talked to her, the way I answered back—it was unacceptable . The word bounced in her mouth, the roundness of ‘p’ and ‘b’ identical on her lips. I worried about her when I made her angry, when she screamed. She would turn red, a vein in her forehead would widen and pulse, and I wondered whether her rage would be enough to kill her, or me, all of us. “If you think I’m one of those Spenceish mothers, you’re wrong. I won’t take this from you!” Any talk was backtalk, and if I spoke, she became angrier. This seemed unfair to me, and so I spoke anyway, knowing the consequences—more screaming, more threats. “Take what? I didn’t even do anything.” “I’ll take you out of that school!” “Would you do that to me? Would you ruin my future?” “I’ll take you out of that school!” Through my tears and her screaming, I felt as if we were careening out of control on the highway. The traffic seemed too fast, and I worried we would slam into another driver or the median at any moment and die in a pileup, an accident caused by our inability to get along, my new insistence on not being squashed down. We didn’t crash. And so I answered back again. “If you take me out of Spence, I’ll never forgive you.” My mother turned to me and repeated my words, her voice shrill and disbelieving. “That’s right,” I said. “If you would do that to me, if you would ruin my future, I
wouldn’t forgive you.” After that, her screams swelled to a higher pitch, and I don’t remember whether my father joined in or not, but either way, I remember the sensation of being outnumbered, of being crushed, and so I cowered into the backseat and cried as quietly as I could. I don’t remember my brother, what he said or did. But I couldn’t unsay what I had insisted on—I had hinted at the burgeoning power that I didn’t have a hold on yet. Soon I’d be able to protest, to scorn them. One day, I’d be gone. My parents talked about that night for years. They brought up my outburst, my threat to never forgive them, as proof I had become an absolute brat at Spence, disobedient, ungrateful. If I raised my voice, even a little, or I hesitated to do something they wanted me to do, my mother would lower her eyebrows in disgust and say, “Don’t think I forgot about the time you said you would never forgive us! I didn’t forget. I remember.” I remembered too. I remembered the way it felt to talk back, my voice steady, expanding, answering. I remembered the strain of the seatbelt strap across my chest when I leaned forward in the car to talk back. I remembered that for an instant I had refused to accept what my parents decided for me as a sentence. I didn’t feel sorry for what I had said—I wouldn’t let anyone take away the future I felt was mine. Unacceptable . I was a Spence girl now, my old life already behind me. * –– Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street , a novel of family, loss, and renewal, set in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Halsey Street has been recommended as a must-read by People , Essence, BitchMedia, The Root, Well-Read Black Girl and The Skimm , among others. It was a Finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction. Naima’s second novel, What’s Mine and Yours , is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. Naima tweets as @zafatista and writes the newsletter, Bloom How You Must . She lives in Brooklyn with her family. REORIENTAION first appeared on Cosmonauts Avenue and won the 2017 CA Non-Fiction Prize judged by Roxane Gay.
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