Tracey K. Zakai
And Now, Back to Our Regular Programming
Amber hated the rain. She hated how it dropped haphazardly from the sky. She hated that it was never timed out, and it just sporadically fell, but mostly she hated that it chilled her when she had to walk in it. Each puddle, she tried not to step in, seemed to spit back up at her and cause her pant legs to get wet.
It was the first day of her new school. Wet white socks freckled with brown sandy spots squished inside her shoe. Her mother had taken extra care at picking out her outfit: a pink corduroy jumpsuit, a cotton pale blue blouse with embroidered purple flowers along the collar perfectly centered so the bib of her overalls did not cover them. Amber put on her blue sneakers with the white Nike stripe in the center. She watched her mother turn her lip up and cut her eyes to the selection, but she didn’t care. She loved those shoes so much she slept with them on.
Her favorite sneakers risked ruin in the stupid rain, along with her hair that would frizz in the moist air. The hood of her raincoat flattened the curls she was made to sit through as her mother tussled with the straightening comb and then the hot curling iron. She’d promised that if Amber stayed still enough she wouldn’t get burned. She was burned twice. One burn on the ear and one on the back of her neck. Even though she held a statue-like pose to keep her balance in the unstable kitchen chair that pinched her bare legs in between its cracked plastic. The scarification was a rite of passage for most little Black girls with kinky hair, and viewed as necessary to conform to the social construct.
Her mother sent her upstairs to retrieve the cocoa butter, a cure-all, and a magic eraser of scars. When Amber stretched her little arm trying to reach over the large counter to the medicine cabinet she accidentally knocked over her father’s fro-pe, which was the missing puzzle piece of hair designed to fit his scalp. The pillowy Afro puff tumbled into the sink and sopped up the puddle of water that lay stagnant from the last use of the faucet. She carefully shook it out, patted and towel dried it so the round shape would return but the lint from the white terry cloth towel held to the scalp glue and left a fuzzy residue. It would take too long to pick it all off so she carefully placed it so he would not be able to see the white dots and then patted the little puff like she did her cat, Patches, before leaving.
Before she left, Amber applied the cocoa butter to her burns, which were just starting to form bubbles. She watched the oil slide into her skin, as it soothed the sting, and highlighted the golden hue and red clay tones that she always admired about her soft brown complexion; it was the same as her father’s. She was no stranger to scars or the cocoa butter application. Her legs mapped her history of climbing trees, scaling fences, and playing tag football on the concrete with the boys.
Her mother’s voice rang through the house, “Girlllll, if you don’t hurry up.”
Amber quickly headed down the stairs and her mother went on,
“Like somebody got all day to help you get ready?”
Amber grabbed her raincoat and her mother helped her put it on.
“I wish somebody would help me get ready. You think folks got time to hand me this and make sure I got that?” Her mother pointed to Amber’s backpack and helped Amber get her arms through the loops.
Amber didn’t answer her mother, she knew the questions were rhetorical and it was best to just let her vent, even at her age she knew no one else was listening to a Black woman's woes but her children.
On the way to school Amber watched as the sun broke through the clouds and the rays pierced down like Heaven had a trapdoor. She smiled and knew the day was going to get better.
A billboard became visible behind a thick gray cloud. The billboard was a shampoo advertisement. It said, “If you want bouncing and behaving hair, Use Pert!” A white woman with blond hair smiled and unleashed her hair like she was Rapunzel waiting for the handsome prince to climb up it. The billboard next to it was for Summer’s Eve, advertising their new fresh scent Wild Berry that would mask the stinky smell of a vagina while keeping it fresh and clean. Otherwise, men wouldn’t want it.
Entering school the boys wore sports team jerseys, shirts with monster trucks, or they had their favorite machine gun-toting superhero proudly sprawled across the chest of their untucked shirts. They wore short haircuts, some of them bald with designs etched on the sides, that seemed to work aerodynamically as they happily bellowed through the halls with their parents behind them shaking their heads with pride at their rambunctious nature; after all, “Boys will be boys.”
The pink and blue-clothed children co-mingled in the halls, only to be separated by lines, bathrooms, and gendered activities. Amber passed the school principal, Mrs. Goldstein, who was about sixty-two and had her speckled fair skin pulled so tight, it accentuated her exaggerated cheekbones and inflated nude glossy lips. She slowed Amber down, grabbing her arm, said, “Young ladies walk.” Her lips, puckered with a slight pout, bounced and got in the way of her greeting.
“Welcome, Students. Please find your classrooms, let’s have a super year.” And that was just what Amber had planned.
When she finally arrived in her new classroom, her teacher Ms. Reynolds stood in front of the room directing the students to their seats. She had long, blond braided extensions, brown skin, and a wide glittered pink-painted smile. Amber wondered if she used Summer’s Eve because she smelled like a fresh summer breeze.
As the days moved on in the school year, Amber found her place, as the children grouped together like quanta vibrating at the same frequency proving that like attracts like. Alisha approached Amber and introduced herself. They were the only two brown-skinned girls on the school yard. Amber was excited that Alisha wanted to be her friend; she had admired her from afar, but because they were the only two brown girls, every day Amber was called Alisha and Alisha was called Amber in spite of their blaring differences. Alisha was tall and thin, three years older, her skin a light golden brown and she wore her sandy brown hair in cornrows that were always decorated with colored beads that hung at the end and rattled every time she swung her head. This week they were red, yellow, and green. Amber was short, brown-skinned, and by the end of the day looked disheveled by all the sporting activities she would join—girls called her tomboy and the boys picked her first on their teams.
Amber was inspired by Alisha’s ability to happily sit alone in solitude on a nearby bench or under a shady tree reading, writing, and correcting ignorance as it fell upon her. Amber knew that Alisha felt responsible for her, as her elder, and took her under her wing. The two girls found refuge in each other, and luckily they found more in common than melanin. Amber looked up to Alisha because she seemed to know everything like a human Google in the fifth grade and she was impressed by how Alisha carried herself, she didn’t cower or shrink when people made comments like Sarah Beasley did at their lunch table.
“I like your hair. Is it horse hair or Brazilian?”
Alisha’s eyes squinted and then her brow furled, she sighed and looked at Amber then pulled out her journal that was aptly titled: “Stupid Questions that White People Ask.”
She said, “Wait, will you repeat that? I want to get it word for word, so you’re not misquoted. And also, could you spell your last name slowly?”
The entry was number fifty-five, she’d only started the journal three weeks ago. Her plan was to publish a book that white people could reference before confronting a person of color with stupid and insulting questions.
Alisha waited, pen in hand. Sarah’s face scrunched and then reminded Amber of her mother’s garden, when her cat Patches went chasing after a bee and swatted the bloomed pink peonies and red roses. There were mounds of petals everywhere like what was happening on Sarah’s pale and now pink face. The petals gathered on her cheeks, littered her neck, and overpowered the blue in her eyes that stared angrily at Alisha.
She told Alisha it wasn’t very nice to make fun of people and Alisha replied, “Exactly.” They both seemed requited as they turned their backs on each other.
“We might as well have green skin, they act like we’re aliens. Horse or Brazilian? Like I’m not capable of growing my own hair?” Alisha’s hand trembled as she jotted the words down, then Amber watched as Alisha’s skin started to grow its own peonies. She released the pen, crossed her arms, and gave the obligatory eye roll and simultaneous lip smack. Amber nodded in agreement; she also understood the constant traumas of being a little black girl. How those questions wore on their humanity and countered the zeal they once had in the exploration of differences. Alisha’s hurt taught her how to snap at ignorance, leaving welts with her words in commemoration of the backs of her enslaved ancestors whose wounds were still open, within herself.
Amber stroked her back and said, “I can’t wait to read your book.” Alisha aspired to be like her mother, a best-selling author and successful playwright. She took a deep breath and then pulled out a signed copy of her mother’s book. Mrs. Goldstein, the school principal, was awaiting her copy. The cover had a picture of a graying woman with a cigar and a “I dare you” look on her face.
Amber read the title out loud, “'Are You There, God? It’s me, Madge.' What’s That?” It was a sequel to Judy Blume’s book about preteen Margaret. But, now Margaret was middle-aged. Amber ran her finger around the yellow Best Sellers List sticker. Underneath, it said: “The joys of menopause.” The tagline and mantra, “We must decrease the fuss,” was in bold red letters.
“It’s a book for old people,” Alisha said.
The book was a best seller for women forty-nine and older. The first one hundred copies sold came with a personal desk fan, a stun gun, and a yoga mat.
Alisha and Amber walked to Mrs. Goldstein’s office and Alisha with pride gave her her mother’s book. Mrs. Goldstein smiled, looked Alisha in the eye, and said, “Thanks, Amber.”
Tracey K. Zakai has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing has been published in Wussy Magazine, Reclamation Magazine, Lit Angels, and she’s a regular contributing writer for the Q.Bee app. She leads a writing group called "The Written Journey " and is currently finishing her debut novel, Specimen.