There was a pecan tree that dropped nuts across the crabgrass that surrounded her parents’ bungalow-style home. She introduced me to her rat-dog and its seven grown puppies that surrounded me, yapping away my patience, each of them dirty and unclaimed. Vickie was an unfamiliar seventh-grade math classmate who ridiculed my unshaven legs and looked like The Cure’s Robert Smith but had breasts.
I felt alone in Louisiana in 1990 where we had moved the previous year to what I still considered the confederate south. She sat across from me in class where I was distracted by the sweat pits of the boys’ gym coach who taught us math. “You know you can shave above the knee right?” She said.
I was mortified. I laughed at myself and turned away to clear the redness of my pale Scots-Irish skin. Of course, that made sense. Thanks, Mom.
Vickie wore baggy black t-shirts, thick eyeliner, and a discernible line of base foundation around her jawline. She was melodramatic and dangerous in the sense that she could humiliate me with a fluid sentence and not care a thing about it. I have no idea how I ended up being her friend or how we went from my borderline humiliation about shaving above the knee to hanging out, but we did for a short while.
By contrast, I wore no make-up, sported fresh white Keds, knee-length blue jean shorts, and fat cotton headbands at the edge of my hairline. I imagined she wanted to take advantage of me so that she could further humiliate me for having late blooming breast buds, but she turned out to be kind and pleasant in that sarcastic view of the fucked up ways of the world, which I have always loved, despite my goodie-two shoes appearance. Plus, she was the first girl in over a year that had talked to me in a friendly way since I moved to that once plantation derived place that socked me in the stomach, figuratively, the moment we drove over the I-10 Bridge at night toward our new destination. The Chateau Charles, a hotel my father’s company put us up in for two months until we found a place to live. We were provided the suite. It was actually a dumpy arrangement of three adjoining rooms to a kitchenette. The furthest room we avoided all together because of the sour smell and flood stains.
I was impressed by the brilliant lights of what I thought was a metropolitan city that turned out to be a plentiful array of corporate refineries, side by side for miles, espousing stink and pollution. Much different during the day when I realized they were a fool’s beauty.
My mother must have been beyond her wits while I lay on the floor of the minivan, refusing to let go of the back seat, where I hid and cried and declared nausea, refusing at all cost to get out at the school drop off. I successfully managed to miss three weeks of seventh grade. It was terrifying to move from the middle-class and classless, seemingly friendly suburbs of New Jersey’s farm country, to the self-segregated Gulf Coast. I had never been exposed to so many middle-school fistfights, nor seen table upon lunch table of groups of like-skinned people. It wasn’t so much that different races bothered me, but that everyone around me seemed to be aware of race, and to be participating in self-segregation, promulgating race as a thing.
I only spent the night with her one time. I observed those pecans, ignored the ugly dogs, and walked behind her through the front door where grime swarmed my senses. There were walls that had long ago yellowed, with lines of dirt smudged at the height of little dogs and on light switches.
Her parents’ house lacked central air and instead ran a single window unit that pressed hopeful relief upon us with the help of strategically placed box fans. I didn’t know her well enough to recognize anyone in the few family photos which were hung in crappy frames above the sagging sofa, but I did imagine if I were to straighten one out, saving it from its ill-composition, I’d find clean-white wall paint behind it.
When I was younger, I lived in apartments and townhouses and rental homes built on top of sink holes with stink bugs, old carpets, new carpets, porcelain or stainless steel sinks, with or without washing machines and never a vacuum. There were times when we brushed our teeth with baking soda or poured dehydrated milk into our cereal bowls, learning to prefer water instead of that shit. Each time my father was promoted, he did so with a move, and each move made our lives a little richer and so I was not unfamiliar with the poverty of Vickie.
“Want some Kool-Aid?” she asked as she walked past dark bedrooms on the left and lead me from the living room to the kitchen.
I said yes and watched her as she opened the refrigerator door. The wire shelves illuminated revealing a variety of misplaced and cluttered food related items, including an uncovered metal pan of instant mac-n-cheese, an opened can, and a scurrying cluster of rice-sized cockroaches in the refrigerator seams. Her arm reached past mac-n-cheese and maneuvered over an extra large tub of generic margarine to grasp a plastic pitcher. There was no acknowledgement about the cockroaches and I was polite about it, even though they made me cautious. I drank the Kool-Aid and noticed cabinets with splashed food stains near the handles. Most of them were open revealing plastic kitchen plates, cups, and bowls in shades of pale pink, light blue, and lime green stacked upon each other.
Her room was void of natural light because plastic blinds were drawn closed and a faded black blanket was half-hung at an unintentional slant from the brass curtain rod. Against the wall, her dresser stood, and on it a pink can of Aqua Net hairspray and other paraphernalia that helped her look like her idol, Robert.
At night I slept on a pillowcase that smelled like it had not been washed in months and I slept with my clothes on afraid to feel the weight of poverty against me.