Authors: Ebony Joy Wilkins
SCHOLASTIC PRESS / NEW YORK
TO MY FAMILY
I PULLED UP on the front of my pink leotard and turned to the mirror to look at my large backside. No change there. I stretched the fabric tightly across my chest and frowned. Almost a sophomore and still no need for a bra. So much for cutting all those carbs. The calories would always hit us black girls in all the wrong places.
I might as well eat the carbs;
made me happy.
I stared into the mirror, letting reality set in. I had curves. I would always have curves. My leotard rode up in the back, piercing the fat in my butt cheeks. But I was used to that.
I was different from the other dancers, who were all white and thin as rails. I was dark skinned and “big boned,” but the girls never cared. They were my friends.
I would never look like them, but my leotard was freshly ironed, my stockings were bleached to perfection and smelled like an ice cream sundae on a hot summer day, and there wasn’t a lick of ash on my skin anywhere.
I arched my shoulders back and stood tall. My mom always told me that if my clothes looked nice, then my day would go
exactly how I wanted it to. According to the Miriam Jennings School of First Impressions, my ballet recital tonight would go just fine.
I called Mom into my room for the inspection.
“You look great, Tash,” she said, standing behind me in the mirror. She tugged down on the leotard, trying to cover my exposed cheeks. She waved her hands for me to turn this way and that. “Is this the new one you girls bought last weekend?”
I nodded. Her approval was crucial. One mishap and I would be in front of the mirror an extra hour. I modeled like a doll on display while she examined me from head to toe. She even stood on her tiptoes to look at my hair. Her face twisted into a frown.
“Well, you almost look ready to dance your first ballet recital,” she said, “but let’s get started on that head. We don’t want to go and scare off all the attention you’re going to get, now do we?”
Every time I sat in front of my mother to get my hair done, I felt like I was risking my life. The hot iron would dangle dangerously close to my skin while she was lost in conversation about fashion, forgetting all about my hair.
Tonight, as she greased my scalp and leaned her stomach in against my back, she talked about the new collection of earrings she saw at the mall and our neighbor’s bag that she had to have.
“I have to know where she got that bag. You think Macy’s or Saks?” she asked.
I ignored her and focused on dodging the iron to avoid serious burn marks.
My mom separated my hair into sections and added a drop of styling lotion to each piece. She steadied my head with one hand and pulled the hot curling iron through my hair with the other. The hair fell softly away from the iron.
I retraced her steps with my hand. It wasn’t long ago that my mom and I would sit for hours while she twisted my hair into a labyrinth of braids, decorating the ends with multicolored beads. Then after elementary school, I stopped wearing my hair in braids. My friends and I started wearing our hair down but it took more effort to make my hair flow like the other girls’.
“Mom, I’m sure you’ll be able to find the bag,” I told her, faking interest in the mystery of the bag’s location. The iron swung toward my ear and I ducked out of the way. My mother didn’t seem to notice.
“I don’t know, Tash,” she said, pulling the iron away from my face. “Maybe you can look it up online for me. Or I could go over and ask Marlene if I can borrow some sugar and then peek around to see if I can get a better look.”
I couldn’t believe she would risk getting caught, all for a bag.
“Mom, why don’t you just ask her?”
She looked at me like I had just taken the holy name of Gucci in vain. But it was worth risking her death stare to get her to stop going on about that bag. Talking fashion just meant I would be stuck in front of her with my wild hair that much longer.
“I don’t need to,” she said, tugging harder on my head. “When you head to the city with Tilly this weekend, you’re going to check for me.”
Tilly was my grandmother. We didn’t shop when we were together. We hung out and talked. I looked forward to her visits like most kids looked forward to summer break. When school ended, Tilly came for a weekend and took me back to Harlem with her.
That had been our routine for as long as I could remember. With the school year behind me, Tilly and I could relax and enjoy each other’s company. Less pressure and less worrying when Tilly was around. I certainly wasn’t going to waste our time with a pocketbook scavenger hunt all over Manhattan.
“What time is Tilly getting in anyway?” I asked her, changing the subject.
“Your father went to the station almost an hour ago,” she said, glancing at her watch while she pulled the iron through another section of my hair. “They will meet us at the dance center.”
Tilly wasn’t a fan of our preppy small town.
Too many white folks and not enough jerk chicken.
That’s what she told people when they asked about her visits to New Jersey.
Everyone here loved Tilly, but she was fine to stay in her apartment in the city and let us come to her. She only made the hour-long trek on the bus when I had something important, like tonight’s recital, going on at school.
“I hope no one tried to crowd her seat this time,” I said. My mom laughed at the thought. I pulled away from her grip
slightly, the thought of Tilly sitting in the audience suddenly making me anxious. I closed my eyes and forced my brain to rehearse the choreography I’d been practicing for two months.
Practice did not make perfect in my case. I always
good, but I was as graceful as an elephant on ice skates.
A black ballet dancer?
Tilly had thought it was ridiculous. But my friends had sworn to disown me if I didn’t at least audition. Leotards and pointe shoes—just one more way I stood out like a sore thumb.
Sometimes I wished Marcia would have changed her mind about me. She ran a tight ship and could have kicked me out of the troupe so I could have gone back to volleyball. Thank God tonight was the last night. I think even my parents were tired of seeing me trip across the stage, no matter how good I looked faking it.
“Your hair has grown since last month,” my mother said. She pulled on the longest of my dark brown strands. My friends and I had a contest going to see who could grow their hair the longest by the end of the school year. Heather was in the lead. She could wrap one arm behind her back and almost touch the tip of her soft strands. I got a straightening perm every two months, but with my natural hair, no matter how many strokes I brushed at night, I didn’t have any chance of winning. I might as well have been sporting an Afro.
Sometimes I dreamed about my hair flowing down my back the way Heather’s did. Not likely. It wouldn’t look right anyway. Long silky hair would clash with my dark chocolate skin, curvy hips, big lips, and wide nose.
I went back to my choreography.
“Yeah, but not long enough,” I said. My mother pulled my hair so hard I had to look up at her.
“Remember we talked about not comparing ourselves to others?” she asked. Her large brown eyes were round with concern. Of course I remembered. We talked about it all the time. It was a little easier said than done, though. I hadn’t seen someone who looked like me, other than her, in awhile.
“Then you won’t need me to search high and low for that new bag after all, just so you can
in?” I asked. I waited for her to lash out at me. Instead, she pulled my hair with mock force and went back to my hair without saying a word. I reached for the pink ballet ribbon all the girls wore in their hair for recitals and weaved it in and out of my fingers. I needed to tie it into my hair somehow.
The other dancers would gather their hair into a bun and lace the pink ribbon around the outside. Uniform. That was how Marcia wanted our appearance to be. In ballet, that was how it was supposed to be.
My mom reached down and took the ribbon from me. She lost her grip on the iron and it crashed into the sink bowl along with the ribbon. I jutted out of the way just in time.
“NaTasha, are you okay?” she said, kissing my cheek.
I leaned over the sink to see if I still had a pink ribbon to wear for the recital. Luckily the ribbon was untouched. We jumped as Heather bounded through the door.
“You’re just in time, Heather,” my mom said. “I’m finishing up NaTasha’s hair and trying not to leave any permanent scars.”
My best friend laughed and squeezed past us to sit on top of the closed toilet seat lid.
“Today’s performance is going to be the best yet,” she squealed. “I can feel it.” Heather had feelings about everything—a rainstorm three states away, a secret clearance sale at Macy’s, or an unannounced pop quiz in Algebra. No matter what the occasion, she could feel it coming.
Mom and I looked at each other. She winked at me and dried the ends of the iron with a hand towel before handling it again.
“So, why is it that today is going to be the best yet?” I asked, egging Heather on even though I knew once she got going, it would be hard to stop her.
“This recital marks the end of our freshman year,” she said. “Now we can spend the entire summer practicing choreography, shopping for new clothes, and talking about the guys. I already got invitations to a few parties, and of course, you have to come with me, although Melissa’s can only happen if she doesn’t go to France for the summer, but whatever. We’ll party and shop and dance. Won’t it be great?”
Heather was practically bouncing up and down. She should be the one shopping for my mother’s fancy bags, not me. I rolled my eyes at her.
“Calm down, crazy,” I laughed. “Let’s just try to get through tonight first.”
She stuck her tongue out at me when my mom looked away.
Mom curled the last section of hair. I pulled a few flyaway pieces from my face and held the ribbon out to her.
need help with the ribbon?” she asked, looking from me to Heather.
“Nope, we can handle that part, thanks,” Heather told her, jumping up. My mom waved and left us alone. Heather ran her fingers through my hair. “This summer really is going to be so great.”
We said the same thing every year. And every year by the end of July we were itching to get back to school already.
“The best yet, I can just feel it,” I said, mocking her.
Heather flipped me the bird, then held out her hand for the ribbon. With the exception of my rounder hips, shorter hair, and darker skin, we looked like twins in our pink shortsleeved leotards and pink tutus. I handed her the ribbon, laughing. Reaching behind me, she pulled the hair away from my face and tied the ribbon ends into a bow.
Heather frowned. “Oh my God, I almost forgot!” she shrieked, running over to her pocketbook.
“What?” I asked, fiddling to get my ribbon just right. It looked like a headband.
“I brought you something,” she said, pulling two thin brown scarves from her bag.
“What are those for?” I asked, even though I already had a feeling I knew where she was headed. “Heather, you know Marcia will flip if my ribbon doesn’t look like everyone else’s.”
“Don’t worry, just turn around for a minute.”
She untied my pink ribbon and reached for a comb.
“I don’t think so.” I raised my hand to stop her.
“Trust me, Tash,” she said, moving my hand away, “I won’t ruin what Miriam did.”
I thought about all the trouble we had gotten into over the years. Our sneak trips to the mall, running away from home once for three hours, and stealing gum balls from Mr. Tomkins at the grocery on the corner—all Heather’s bright ideas.
She tilted her head and smiled at me innocently. I folded my arms across my chest and raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously, Tash,” she said. “You’ll look great, just like the rest of us.”
“Fine, but if this doesn’t work,” I warned her, “you’ll have to answer to my mother on your own. And hurry up so we’re not late.”
I turned around so she could get to work. Heather couldn’t mess this up. I couldn’t mess this up. I could feel Heather pulling my hair while weaving a fake bun into the back of my head.
“Problem solved,” Heather said proudly. She turned me toward the mirror. “Check it out.”
I turned around and looked at the bun of scarves at the back of my head. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick. I thought of Tilly and my stomach spun. I pushed the feeling aside. It had to be okay to fit in just this once.