Quickly and carefully, I crossed the street with my best friend at the time. Her name was Jalia, a tall and skinny girl I’d skip class with to play Nintendo between the tiled bathroom walls. Jalia was an older sister I never had because the one I did have started a new life in Germany. I could see the faces of drivers as we crossed. Some impatient. Some disapproving. They probably assumed we were on our way to do grown things, text boys on our Blackberrys, the whole shebang.
Every day after school I would go to her house. Since my mom wasn’t home, there was no reason for me to be alone, and Jalia made me feel less alone. One thing I liked about walking with her is that we’d go to the corner store, fill our pockets with Now and Laters, and squeeze through the gates of her apartment before the storeowners could catch us. If I was asked to recall a time where I didn’t feel so small, it would be one of those times. Mouth full of cavities without a care in the world.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice the way people stared at Jalia. Her hips became full by the time we turned fourteen, and grown men stared. She would tie a jacket around her waist to cover herself. It never worked. We spoke one night about how puberty worked, and why it had happened so suddenly to her. She didn’t seem like herself anymore. Always tired and annoyed. I asked when my breasts would come in, afraid that one night they would decide to show up and mark their territory. She couldn’t answer.
“I just knew I needed a bra when someone told me they could see my nipples through my shirt. It made me feel embarrassed, so I told my mom,” she said.
The staring got worse. Soon I would hear whistling and name-calling— something I would later identify as catcalling. My mom told me of a time it happened to her. A man in the grocery store told her she had childbearing hips. She was eight.
A boy from school wanted Jalia’s number after seeing us at the park. Picture this, he laughed in my face when I asked if he liked me. He said my chest was too flat to be likable, and he wanted Jalia because he thought sex would be nice with her. When she asked what he said, I didn’t answer. For the longest, I could not understand why boys had to be so cruel. Did womanly curves equal attractiveness? Why was this world so demanding of mature bodies on girls? Would I ever find love if the world was shallow enough to deny this version of me, tomboy clothes and all?
One morning, not shy of my fifteenth birthday, hair grew on my legs. I felt extremely gross and undeserving because the women I saw on TV weren’t covered in hair or aftershave bumps. The women I saw on TV didn’t look like me or talk with weight in their voices. As I suspected, my breasts grew overnight, demanding room in my school shirts and space to ache once a month. I didn’t feel lighter or gracious. I felt the need to hide my body away, shield it with an oversized jacket. Jalia did the same. But the staring didn’t stop. Want did the world want from us?
“Maybe they want what we have,” Jalia said, pulling taffy from a wrapper. She sucked the remnants of taffy from her index finger, and like bloodhounds, the men watched. I knew there was another reason behind it, but I tried not to think much of it. Nonetheless, the thoughts were invasive, tearing away at the veil with which I once saw the world. There was this constant reminder that I would soon be a woman, unable to unsubscribe from everything that came with it—a lifetime of catcalling for free, a few years of naivete. My mom told me to keep close to Jalia because we had each other, if nothing else.
I didn’t have her when my uncle pulled me aside during Thanksgiving to kiss my neck, or when my aunt told me I had it coming for dressing like a hoe. Where was the solidarity then? I was raised to uphold resilience, but I didn’t understand why I had to walk with elegance, holding emotional baggage meant for someone else. My mom said she was about my age when a man came through her window and tried to force her pants off. She later would tell me that it was her fault for sleeping in a tank top. A decade of intergenerational pain, a few years of suppressed anger.
When we turned sixteen, we got boyfriends. Jalia told me all about their first time, about how he asked for sure if she was ready before they did anything. Her face slumped a little after we changed the conversation.
“Okay, so maybe he didn’t ask. He went for it and I didn’t want to upset him, so I didn’t say anything.” She paced.
“It wasn’t… no, it wasn’t that.”
Was it not?
If she didn’t want it, was it not?
I found myself in a similar situation one night. It was after too many “stops” later when my boyfriend stopped. “I was almost done,” he said. Would I have been wrong to be upset? I had read somewhere that consent could be withdrawable at any time, but it never felt like it. No matter what, it felt like I had to be compliant. Be considerate. Don’t argue. I wasn’t even in the mood that day. I didn’t bat an eyelash, and I sure as hell wasn’t born to be at someone’s disposal. There were too many lives I experienced, all tainted through this narrative.
This same fucking narrative.
At eighteen, my body was filled to the brim with something I couldn’t describe as anything other than unbridled rage. The edges of my fingertips were warm, beads of sweat forming in divots of skin. I wanted to reclaim my space, not just internally but around me. All of the excuses I’ve been fed made me feel like I could levitate. Fly over it all and set it to flames.
I was taught to be proud of my body, but only after internalizing embarrassment because of it. My pride never stemmed from pure appreciation, but rather sexualization. It was time I permitted myself to love my body without making it the centerpiece of someone else’s gaze. I knew that somewhere, there were men who felt entitled to women just because they dared to start a conversation. I could have sat there with my eyes closed, pretending it was what I wanted all along.
Was it not?
Didn’t fairytales tell me to be patient in my castle until someone was brave enough to come in? What was the difference between climbing through a cobblestone window and breaking through a bedroom one? These men were allowed to see every part of my room. They came in and rummaged through the places I didn’t want them to see. They stole things. Precious things. And had the moxie to stare into my eyes, unmasked and selfish.
A part of me went missing each time it happened. An aspect that was long buried, covered in cobwebs in the back of my subconscious. The part of me I wanted to hold on to, was kept away in a room surrounded with secrets I was forced to keep. She was closed off from the rest of the world, door fused shut. But I could still hear her voice sometimes.
“Why am I stuck in this room?” she would say.
“Too many people saw you, so you can’t be let out.”
“It’s quite dark.”
I was. Jalia was aware of the darkness too.
After a while, lying was the only thing we could do to keep us at bay. Kept telling ourselves a prince that would climb through our windows, that our Moms weren’t lying. At the end of generational suffering and depression, we’d be damned if there wasn’t a happy ending.
To exist within an identity that is pressured to do everything without recognition or preparation. To exist in a world that refused to acknowledge the intersectionality at which Black women stood, left my soul tired sometimes. Not even angry, just tired.
Yet we’re expected to push on.
This is a message that we won’t. We won’t relieve anyone of their guilt, because people— no matter what title they hold, should be held accountable. Our happy ending doesn’t rely on how much bullshit we’ve tolerated until this point.
Even at nineteen, I have a lot of work to do. It took a few therapy sessions to address that locked door, and give me the courage to open it.
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