O N E
Ella Fitzgerald croons on my father’s record player. Rusty with age, the old school device didn’t fail to play one of the greatest voices of all time. Naturally, I sing to her while lurching to my mother’s bedroom with a small canister in my hands. As always, her murky green quilt cradled her round face and brushed against her furrowed eyebrows slightly.
Quietly, I retrieve her rag from her dresser and drop it into the warm water, allowing it to soak up as much heat as it could before strangling the rest of the water out. The instrumental climax of the song approaches and I gear up to belt out the lyrics. Ella was taking me to places, places that were intangible to the hand and non-permeable to the mind. She took me to places where my mother and father would twirl to her high notes while I gazed in admiration from my swing set.
I ended the last note with a theatrical bow, satisfied with my pipes, only to find a grim stare awaiting me.
Mama scowls bitterly, her nose twisted in disgust. “Now you know your ass can’t sing, right?”
Heckling at her words, I lean down and press my lips against her temple.
“Good morning,” I sing once again and this time she openly snarls at me, forcing my impromptu song to end. “Oh! Someone is very grumpy today, isn’t she?”
“I wouldn’t have to be so damn grumpy if you just accepted that you can’t sing,” Mama squirms to adjust herself but I knew that was impossible so I dash to her assistance.
I knew that she felt helpless and a burden but I didn’t mind taking care of her at all. After huffing out in frustration, my mother watches me closely as I press the rag onto her knee. Making a rather quick discovery, my mother places her frail hand on my wrist and frowns at me.
“Now I know you didn’t wake up early just to put some water for me on the stove.”
During my study break Mama didn’t question the new technique I was trying out on her body. I found out about her osteoporosis a few years back and only now did I research on how to alleviate the pain. Since her bones are soft and porous, doing simple tasks such as walking, feeding herself and even touching things causes her pain.
At the end of my examinations, I huddled up a group of my friends who were majoring in Medicine and asked them about the condition, which didn’t sound so bad after it was explained. All I had to do every morning was reduce the inflammation of the skin surrounding joints by applying a rag drenched in warm water and to give her a few exercises of the fingers and toes.
I had to wake up extra early to place a pot of water on the stove and hopefully having water that is warmer than usual will speed up the process.
“Well, the temperature determines the outcome,” Mama attempts to protest but I halt her by applying more of the warm water, which seems to be calming her temporarily. After completing the routine, Mama pats the small spot next to her and as full-figured, as she is, it takes me some time before being comfortable.
I do this daily, studying her facial features and engraving them into my mind in case the good Lord decides to take her away from me. Her skin is rich with melanin, radiant and dark, the exact same tone that coats my body, and her slanted dark eyes stare into the ceiling with wonder. Unlike her, my eyes were big and bold, just like my father’s. Hair was not something I took for her but rather from my father and even though I’m transitioning into natural I still regret going under the relaxer. All I had now was big, dry hair that was full but had straight ends that were splitting.
“I hope you don’t get your hair all over my pillows again,” Mama warns but amusement laced her tone. “I’m serious.”
“I’m wearing my scarf right now; I won’t do that mistake again.”
Mother nods and I could feel her hand inching to touch me again but the pain she has to endure is not worth it. “What time is Carter coming to pick you up?”
You know what; I actually had high expectations for myself. I didn’t think that a stupid, goofy smile would steal my lips every time I thought of him or whenever he was mentioned. You’d think that a year with him and you’d stop feeling the sparks with his savage self.
My eyes lock on the clock on her bedside table and I sulk. “In about two hours, I hate when moments like these have to end.”
“See? You spoil me too much. What will happen when Carter decides to cuff you?”
I haven’t thought about Carter and me that far but maybe my smile did get wider. Shaking away those sweet thoughts I rise from the bed, press another feather kiss on Mama’s temple and attend to her hygiene.
By the time I had to bath the hot water was finished and waiting for another fill would take forever. I took whatever I had, cleaned my piercings thoroughly before pushing four studs into the cartilage of my left ear, and locking my septum ring in. All my body jewelry is subtle; to be frank, loud and sparkling pieces gather far too much attention for me.
By eight o’clock I was finished, picked up the hair shedding I received from placing my hair in Bantu knots for the day, and had my edges gelled down with some edge control I spoiled myself on.
Time ticks by as I stare into the tattered brothel just opposite my house. A soft breeze brushes by, gentle spring kisses my skin. The HTC device in my pocket probably has a problem, which is why it hasn’t notified me of Carter’s calls. Hopeful, I haul the phone out and stare at the empty home screen before returning it back in my pocket.
Why hasn’t Carter called --
“Charde?” a high-pitched voice calls out my name and I lift my head up, finding Mrs. Monte impatient as always with her hands on her wide hips.
Mrs. Monte, or Liliana as she prefers I call her, and her husband own one of the best pastry shops in New Orleans and are a beautiful, happy family. Liliana has never had children so when I started working the register for her it was easy for us to form a bond. Her skin is a creamy peach color and her Hispanic roots are apparent in her big hair. Unlike her husband, Liliana is loud, hilarious, and more importantly, is a woman who is annoyed rather quickly.
“What are you still doing here?” she scowls, stepping over to me with her short legs before hugging me tightly. “Don’t you start classes today?”
I pull back from the hug with a weak smile. “Carter is just late, Liliana.”
Liliana smacks her lips and I notice she has a few bags in her hands. “This is not like him at all.” That’s exactly what I was about to say. “C’mon, I’m taking you to school.”
“Are you sure?” I ask softly. I mean, she does so much for me already. With the pay I get at her shop I can afford the necessary hair products to assist during my transitioning, Mama can have lasagne twice a week and I just bought a phone.
“Don’t be silly,” Liliana frowns and motions me to her 2010 Toyota Corolla. “Carter will have my foot up his ass just for making you wait outside here for so long; doesn’t he know that anything could happen to you?”
Ah! The joys of living in the projects.
Quickly, I buckle my seatbelt and place my bookbag on my lap, fluttering my eyes shut in relaxation. Some guy with a trolley full of old toys was walking a little too close to the car but Liliana was quick to chase him away. I must say, the projects are strengthening her day by day.
By the time we arrived at school, Carter’s red car was parking in his reserved spot and fortunately, Liliana didn’t spot him.
Liliana complimented my hairstyle, gave me a kiss on the cheek and some lunch money before driving off to the pastry shop. The trivial welcome meeting in the morning was about to commence and I could see the students darting inside the big walls of the prestigious Lincoln State University. In haste, I join their quick steps and jog inside the building.
I remember jumping up and down when I read the acceptance letter. Powerful political, surgeons, and writers are carved in this school.
First-day drama struck me and I realized I hadn’t received my yearly schedule. With a huff, I lurch to the Queries line and stand behind some dark-skinned guy with a lot of hair.
Reppin’ the melanin, I see.
My heart jolts in my chest and everyone turns back to me, including the dark-skinned guy, and obviously, someone just had something to say about their stares.
“Aye, look in front, nosey ass niggas.”
I mutter a small apology to everyone in line and they shift back, obviously annoyed. Annoyed as well, I force a wry smile on my face before attending to Carter Leviticus Mullins.
“Well hello, sweet boyfriend of mine. How nice of you to actually show up somewhere for once.”
Carter’s smirk drops. Carter and I were supposed to be a theory, just to see how things between us would work out and here we are, twelve months later and still annoying the hell out of each other.
Carter is beautiful, big, brown eyes, brown skin, an edge up with a tidy beard that was initially a small August Alsina goatee. My favorite feature of his has to be the nose with the wide nostrils, I can tease him about stealing oxygen at any time I want and not get popped in the mouth. In general, I like his black ass with my black ass and I hope we live happily black ass-ily ever after.
“Now mama,” Carter warns, and suddenly gold flashes in my eyes. “Lemme tell --”
I grab him by his cheeks and part his lips, squinting at the new addition. “What the hell is on your teeth?”
Carter smirks, puckering his lips for a kiss, and instead, I push his head away. “You don’t like it?”
“You didn’t answer the damn question.”
"Ouch,” he cradles his chest with mock sobs, inviting more attention to us, which I had to apologize to once again. “Aight, so remember what I wanted if I passed my exams?”
I cringe, remembering how stressed he was about his Business Management exams and he forced me to promise him one thing. “No! I only did that to push you to pass! I will not sit on your face, Carter.”
He chuckles slightly and runs his tongue across his teeth. “Aside from that, nasty ass, I told you I wanted grills, remember?”
He didn’t. Oh, I know he didn’t leave my ass stranded just for grills!
"Carter,” I whine bring his face back to inspect it some more. “Are these even hygienic? Remember when you had those copper earrings in and your ears became all hard with pus? I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
At just 6′1", Carter looks like the weirdest and biggest baby while staring down at my 5′8" self. “You don’t like them at all, do you, mama?”
I’m not sure as to how to respond to him and more so, how to make up a sentence without hurting his feelings. Carter is rather impulsive, exhibit A: us. He went full into this theory of ours with his feelings and I soon danced to his tune. More exhibits will come in the near future.
“Mama, are you mad about me not picking you up?”
Semi, I mean, he was the one who forces me to ride with him to school. If it weren’t for his stubborn ass then I would be taking the bus to and from school.
“No,” I mumble meekly and lurch in front after seeing one student assisted.
Carter juts out his bottom lip like the big cry-baby he is and lays his head on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, aight? I am so fucking sorry, please don’t break a nigga heart. You break things off with me and I will tell everyone that you broke my heart. Imagine what people will do to you if they found out you’re the reason the university’s Jay Z and Beyoncѐ broke up.”
I didn’t want to give him the mere satisfaction of my laugh so I bit down hard on my tongue.
"Mama,” he sings, leaning forward to press his lips against my cheek. ”Future baby mama... Look at you, who the hell gave you permission to look this beautiful? Huh? Rocking all your melanin for me with the edges, Bantu Knots and my favourite ring,” his lips inch to my nose and he pulls back with a smirk. “I’ll get you some McDonalds after school, that cool with you?”
“I guess...” I mutter, lurching forward in the line.
Carter follows me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Fucking right, what you standing here for?”
I ignore his hands hovering just below my navel. “I didn’t get my schedule.”
“Word?” he twists his lips into a grim line while gazing at the Queries office. “Wait, wasn’t yours posted or emailed to you?”
I shake my head and his lips drop down into another grim line. Finally, after melanin guy kept complaining about the scheduling of his African-American culture classes, I was next.
The lady at the front office was a red-haired woman with soft vanilla skin and freckles on her face. She seemed oblivious to Carter’s public display of affection, which included his face deep in the crook of my neck. His dramatic ass. Instead, she popped her gum and entered my name into the system before raising her head with a smug smile.
“Oh, it’s you.” she pushes the glasses further up her slender nose. “Mr. Griffin would like to see you in his office.”
“Mr. Griffin?” I echo failing to familiarize the name and Carter even stops bruising my skin by whispering the name countless times. “Where is Mr. Tyler?”
The receptionist laughs like I just told the biggest joke she has ever heard.
“Didn’t you hear? He got fired.”
Mr. Tyler? Fired? That man is one of the most caring and intelligent black souls this school has ever been blessed with, who would want to fire him?
“Alright,” I huff in agitation while shuffling into the direction of what I believe is now Mr. Griffin’s office.
Carter decides to lay off the PDA for a while and instead chooses to walk right next to me. This grants me ample opportunity to size him up and I must say, I like what I see. He has his signature army pants on, Timberlands, and a graphic T-shirt that had our names written over and over in different colors and fonts.
I had one too but only wore it on significant days, like our birthdays and monthly anniversaries.
I ask Carter to chill on one of the benches outside the office while I walk in. the room was ridiculously cold, mostly packed with shiny mahogany pieces of furnishings and a picture of the man boasted the majority of one of the walls.
At one of the corners stood a dark-skinned black man in a suit who seemed to be Griffin’s security. Oddly enough, the pasty-skinned and dark-eyed man seemed to be expecting me.
Slowly, I stalk to a seat just opposite his stern self, and believe me; I had to fight off the mug begging to take over my face.
“Miss Chardonnay Denicia Smith, peculiar name.”
I smack my lips at the snide remark. “Call me Charde, sir.”
“Like the singer,” he hums approvingly and leans further into me, scanning each and every inch of my face with his dark eyes.
“What the fuck are you still doing in my school?”
My body jumps slightly at the cruelty of his voice. “Excuse me?”
“Did I fucking stutter?”
Now I know this man is not talking to me, he must be talking to the damn open seat right next to me.
Mr. Griffin reaches into his cupboard and digs out his iPad. Within moments he is typing furiously on the screen and shoves the device over to me, knocking my elbows off the table. On the screen was my profile that showed my impressive results and scores. It also had my schedule on it but it was blank, which I didn’t find amusing at all.
“You’re going into forensics, correct?”
I bite the inside of my cheek while nodding.
“Now, are you aware that you are supposed to major in Medicine, get accustomed to the human body before actually going into DNA testing and forensic science?”
See, I knew this would bite me in the ass someday. When I got accepted to this school my bursary could only cover so much, I decided to do the easy work first such as DNA testing before working in a lab and paying for my Medicine studies after. My mother and Mr. Tyler used to go to the same university back in their days so she begged him to authorize the DNA testing module for me, and probably due to some crush, Mr. Tyler was quick to authorize the course.
“Uhm, Mr. Tyler and I have an agreement.”
Mr. Griffin chuckles darkly. “Do you see Mr. Tyler here?”
I shake my head.
“Look, you will be taking on Medicine and DNA testing from now on.”
My eyes bulge out of my sockets. “You can’t! I can’t cover two courses at one time!”
Mr. Griffin leans over the printer of his office and clutches my schedule, stamping it for approval. “It has been decided. Find a way to cover the costs or get the fuck out of my school.”
Stifling my anger, I grab the paper from him and adjust my bookbag before stepping out. Carter must’ve been bored because he started playing Weed Firm: 2, planting a whole lot of Indica and Sativa. I was still upset at what just happened and there was no use hiding it.
“You got any classes today?” I ask him and he shakes his head, swiping right to attend to some cartoon milf hoping to buy weed. “Me neither.”
“They found out about the course I took and now I’ve got Medicine and DNA testing.”
Carter switches his phone off, pissed off that some gang leaders want money and weed from him, and turns to me.
“Wait, didn’t you switch because your bursary...” I nod in clarification and he arches a high brow. “Baby, your bursary won’t be able to cover the two choices now.”
Tell me the obvious, please.
“I know,” I moan tiredly, collapsing on his chest. “I am so screwed.”
A moment passes by and Carter is the first to speak. “Let daddy take care of you, mama.”
I jerk away from his chest with a laugh before mugging the hell out of him. Carter knows about the situation at home and my mother’s condition but I couldn’t dare allow him to take care of me, I can do that myself. Also, I am building myself up to be the woman he can be proud of, not some thirsty ass broad who is sucking him dry.
He continues, “C’mon, I don’t mind taking care of you.”
"I happen to mind, alright?” this topic happens to be the cause of one of our many fights. “c’mon, I need me some chicken nuggets.”
Carter decides to let it be and hands me the keys of his red 2015 Audi A8, beaconing me to head to the car first. He only did this on days when he wasn’t in the mood to argue with me and space gave him enough time to think.
As always, I started the car first before moving my big ass over to the passenger side to switch on some heat. Eventually, he did arrive and his aura seemed much better, much cooler -- to be honest because I didn’t want to argue too.
Lincoln State University happens to be in one of the suburban areas with high white walls and biometric security systems. One house was magnificent, timeless with a Victorian-era touch to it. At times I wish I could live in an area like this, just to smell their air, see what they see, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel.
I was so distracted that I didn’t even see the loud woman dressed in uniform running straight for our car.
“Carter!” I yell and we immediately jerk forward after he hits the breaks.
The woman was still breathing, well, she was actually yelling in what sounded like Spanish and Carter started with his savagery. He switches his wipers on and tries to slide the woman off his window. What the fuck? Unimpressed, I swat my hand against his thigh and he frowns.
"What? The crazy lady is messing up my windows with all that damn hairspray in her hair.”
“We need to help her!” I tell him and hope flashed in the woman’s eyes, encouraging her to nod vigorously.
“Si! Help me! Please, help me!”
“Aye! Get your crazy ass off my car.”
The woman ignores Carter and points to the house I have always admired.
What is she saying -
“Fuck this hoe,” he reverses, sliding her clean off, and swerves to drive away.
Did he just?
“Carter! That woman wanted our help, didn’t you see?”
“Aye, she prolly a crackhead or some.”
I could not believe him right now.
Without saying anything, he activates the water on his windscreen and starts wiping away at the smudges, only to fail miserably.
“Listen here, you ever sway away from these natural products which are the shit for your hair, I’ll be the one leaving your ass. Won’t fuck with no healthy hairline having female and will certainly not fuck with females who don’t vibe with the melanin, aight?”
Bored, I roll my eyes in irritation before nodding.