We had lived in Mt. Airy from the time I was born. The cozy community was far enough from what my father called "North Philly Nigga Shit" and close enough to chic Chestnut Hill for it to feel like a real home. Mt. Airy was a cauldron of cultures, bubbling and brimming until they became one. One common way of speaking. One common style of dress. One common way of thinking. My father believed that Mt. Airy was the place where he and my mother would live as one forever. And they did, we did, for a time.
I remember my first day of school. My mother stood on the corner of the bus stop waving to me. She looked like an angel, only she was crying. I never thought that angels cried, but when I looked into my mother's face, I knew that God's helpers shed tears from time to time.
I remember that until I started school, I lived in racial oblivion. I was just another shade in my community, just another shade in my family. Then I boarded the school bus heading toward Rush Elementary School in Chestnut Hill.
I remember marching bravely like a big girl, knowing that my mother was watching me. I wanted her to be proud, so I raised my chin like I had seen actors do in a show of bravery. I didn't know, I couldn't know, that that one act, the slight lifting of the chin, would define people's reactions to me forever. Forever. Forever different. Forever an outsider. Forever alone.
I remember that the ride to school was uneventful, yet my mind raced with anticipation. Questions about cubbyholes and midmorning snacks danced in my head as I stared out the window. So fast and furious were my thoughts that I didn't notice the furtive looks being cast my way or the fingers pointing at me. It was better that I didn't, or else I, like a crab being removed from the bushel and readied for cooking, would have sensed the impending death of my innocent spirit.
I remember approaching the morning with optimism. Sitting at my desk, I folded my hands just like my mother taught me. Every now and then I would catch some of the girls looking at me. Sometimes it was a brown girl who would grin shyly if I caught her eye. Other times, it was a tan girl who would stare game-faced, trying to decipher the puzzle that was me.
I remember lingering longer than necessary in the cubbyhole room, trying to see if anyone would invite me to play with them. After I removed my jump rope, I repacked and zipped my book bag. One of the brown girls sidled up to me.
I remember the envy in her eyes as she eyed my two dark honey-colored ponytails before saying, "You've got pretty hair."
I remember another brown girl tapping her foot impatiently. Half-disgusted, half-hateful, she snorted, "Come on, Tiffany."
Then Tiffany left, and I remember walking outside last and alone while everyone else formed Noah's Ark-like pairs ahead of me.
It was a foreshadow that would define the rest of my life.
the next day
Hope swirled in my head the next day when I awoke, and I erased thoughts of purposeful exclusion when I remembered lining up for recess and lunch. Things would be different the next day, I had assured myself before drifting into sleep.
In retrospect, I remembered the anxiety I faced at the bus stop, on the bus ride, and on the walk to the cubbyhole room before going out for recess. I wanted so badly for things to be different, but I feared that the loneliness would be a routine for me to settle into.
Then a change. A little girl, who looked all golden and fair like my mother, approached me.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," I returned shyly.
"Do you want to play with us?" she asked, gesturing toward a small group of tan girls.
I smiled and shook my head. Gathering my rope, I fell in step beside her.
"I asked my mom if it would be okay to play with you," she said innocently. "I told her that you're almost my color, just a little darker. You aren't nearly as dirty as those other girls, so you must be one of us."
My mouth fell open as surprise overtook me.
Before I could say anything, she continued. "Besides, Heather said that she saw your mom, and she's one of us. I told my mom, and she said that at least you're half-good, so you can play with us."
My stomach quivered as I looked at my skin for signs of dirt that had somehow been branded onto me. Comparing my tanner skin to hers, I felt that my skin had been mysteriously sullied and that I was supposed to be tan like her and my mother. I ran to the bathroom where I threw up the vestiges of the bliss of old that I had formerly known. My teacher ran after me.
I was spared from recess that day by the nurse's office. I looked out the window, watching as the other kids naturally fell into groups together. Tan girls. Brown girls. Brown boys. Tan boys. As I watched, the tans became white and the browns became black. And I fell somewhere in between black and white.
Every day my mother waited for me at the bus stop. Her eyes anxious, her mouth ready to smile. Her aura was light, heavenly. She seemed so happy, I didn't want to crush her with stories of my colored confusion. So I lied.
Every day I filled her ears with tales of my popularity and acceptance. I told her that so many girls wanted to play with me at recess that I had to choose. I told her that girls always wanted to share their snacks with me, and that was why I wasn't really hungry at dinner. I told her that one of my classmates invited me to her birthday party this Saturday, but because we were going to Baltimore, I said I couldn't go. I told her that one of the black girls, though I said brown girls for her virgin ears, brushed my hair at recess every day, telling me that it was the most beautiful hair she'd ever seen.
And I learned that mothers and white people were gullible enough to be fooled by a good story and a smile.
in the dark
For years I watched him sit in his study, enveloped in darkness and immersed in the sound of the guitar spewing blues through speakers perched on either side of his chair. My mother always told him that he would go deaf the way he blasted that music. He told her there was nothing he needed to hear anyway, so what difference did it make. When he said that, her face would crumble, but he wouldn't see that because his eyes had already returned to his glass.
In the dark, he would swirl the amber fluid he called Pop-pop, watching as the liquid ate away at the ice cubes floating on top. His forlorn face reflected emotions that came and went like speeding comets. Gloom. Surprise. Glee. Awe. It was as if his soul were flicking through stations with a remote control, and his face was struggling to catch up. But there was no television. The only sound was the occasional clink of the vanishing ice cubes and crackle of the wax as the pain ripped through the guts of the blues singer wailing away into oblivion.
"The only one that loves me is my mother, and she might be jiving too . . ." Bluesman belted.
The sound of my father's laughter at that one line was like shattering plates. He roared, slapping his knee and throwing back his head at a punch line that eluded me. But just as soon as the laughter began, it ended, and in its stead came salty rivers, forging a path down his face.
In the dark, music played on and on until the moon fell, awaiting the sky's daytime angel. Before it would hit, my mother would descend the stairs to find him sprawled across the floor. She'd scrape him up and half-lead, half-carry him up the stairs to their bedroom where he would plunge into sleep's abyss for two or three hours before leaving the darkness behind for the light of day.
He said in the darkness, "Liddy was beautiful, soft, affectionate, unlike them.
Her voice was easy, gentle, not demanding or prying, unlike theirs.
She took me in and let me fill her up with my dreams, goals, love, and desires, unlike them.
She had a face that was always ready to smile and a mouth that was ready to pour forth words of kindness, unlike them.
When she looked at me, me, James Washington, she saw only good things, hope, everything I could be, unlike them.
But I never could be anything that she expected or needed because despite her softness, easiness, openness, and encouragement, the world wouldn't let me forget that I'm black."
and they said
Into the bathroom, the black girls came.
"Hi, Shanna," one said, sneering my name.
"Shanna, we don't like you. You think you're cute.
"Don't look surprised, honey, we've got proof.
"Remember the bus rides all those years in the past.
"You were too good to speak on the bus and in class.
"You always looked down your nose at us.
"I didn't say anything, didn't want to cause a fuss.
"But, you zebra bitch, your cozy days are through.
"We'll make these school days a living hell for you."
With those final words came a slap across my face.
And they taught me that among them I had no place.
almost every day
The fingers. They pinch.
The mouths. They spit.
The feet. They kick.
The hands. They hit.
The fists. They punch.
The teeth. They crunch.
The hands. They shove.
The mouths. They munch.
The feet. They smoosh.
The hands. They push.
The shoes. They squoosh.
The doors. They smush.
And they almost never leave a mark.
mr. and mrs. washington
In quiet moments, the two of them would nestle together in the sunroom, and life was beautiful. She would press her body so closely into his that it seemed that she wanted to meld the two of them into one being. His arm would rest protectively around her, and he might drop grapes or cherries, whatever fruit was in season, into her mouth. As she nibbled, she'd stroke his arm gingerly, tracing a vein across his muscled forearm. He'd lean in, saying something in her ear, and she'd burst out laughing her bell-like laugh.
When they were like that, their thick love pouring through the Mt. Airy house, it was easy to see how I came to be. It was easy to feel like I belonged somewhere. Finally and again. But in those other times, when their love was transparent and thin like a spider's web, I felt like the wind that threatened their survival.
And I hated that feeling.
as the years passed
As the years passed, loneliness became my friend, and I wrapped it around myself because it felt familiar, thus secure. While my peers laughed with each other at lunch, I amused myself. While they confided secrets in each other behind cupped hands, I poured my secrets into my own heart. The loneliness hurt, but it was all I had. I could complain to no one. I swallowed down bile that was meant to be puked up, and in my tan body, the pain was buried.
One day, I promised myself that I would rip away at the flesh that trapped my pain, and when my skin was shredded, the hurt would leave, floating up, and out, and away. The pain would leave, and I'd be able to breathe. Finally.
Those were the thoughts that I embraced in my young, child's body. But as the years passed, I learned that ripping away at the skin just leaves your flesh bruised, and relief rarely comes.
I tried to tell, but the words got stuck in my throat. And when they were dislodged, they came out all wrong.
The three of us were sitting in the sunroom. Dad, Mom, and me. Black, white, and between. I think I was around eight years old, but my soul felt so much older. I was weary from years of uncried tears.
I looked from mother to father, noting all of their differences. Her softness, his hardness. Her pleasantness, his sternness. Her hope, his anger. Her optimism, his pessimism. I decided to shoot straight down the middle, making my words plain.
"I don't like my school," I said, holding my breath.
My mother looked up from her book. My father didn't look up at all.
"Honey, why not?" she asked, her light voice incompatible with the heaviness in my heart.
I inhaled deeply through clenched teeth, gathering strength before saying, "Nobody likes me."
"Of course, they do. They're always sharing their snacks with you and inviting you places."
Before I could fix my lips around the words, the dam broke, and my face was flooded with tears that raced down my face and toward my heart.
My mother rushed over to me, scooping me into her arms, holding me so close that between my snot and her sweater, I felt that I would suffocate.
I heard my father's voice demand, "Is somebody messing with you?"
"Shh," my mother snapped. "Unlike boys, girls don't cry only if someone is hitting them. You should know that by now."
"Well, why is she crying?"
"I don't know," she said, rocking me. "She probably had a bad day."
I heard my father mumble something. Then I heard his heavy feet walk across the sunroom and go into the house. While my ears were filled with my mother's humming, my heart's grief refused to subside.
Excerpted from Floating by Nicole Bailey-Williams. Copyright © 2004 by Nicole Bailey-Williams. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.