The girl you ask to dinner will never show you her true face. Her deep, caramelized skin is carefully concealed beneath layers of formality and mistrust. She runs through her standard list of questions in her head as she is seated across from you, perhaps a glass of wine or a can of beer on your side, and always a simple glass of coke on hers.
How many Black girls have you been with?
What assumptions do you make of my character due to the color of my skin?
And, How have I defied those expectations in ways that make you comfortable or pleasantly surprised?
She is aware of the attention she attracts from others– as are you. She is also aware that you are probably patting yourself on the back for taking a walk on the wild side this time, your first brown-skinned girl now under your belt, like adding some new far-away continent to your list of exotic travels. She is aware that she is not your home, nor you, hers. She didn’t come as herself tonight, something you don’t immediately realize because you believe the mystery is merely a function of the atmosphere.
Her routine is an arduous process, a series of doings and regretful undoings. While you are staring at the perfected version of her seated across from you, she is careful not to disturb the fine baby hairs that lay over the edge between the skin of her forehead and scalp. She is usually careful, but sometimes, she misses a spot. While you venture into the realm of your introductory statements and questions, she is remembering, or maybe thinking, of that same routine. Perhaps she is silently plotting when she will be able to get back to it, if instead of returning to her home tonight, she follows you to yours. She feels guilty if she misses out on this most important step, a day will be incomplete without it; it’s a matter of slathering on a salve she makes by hand to fix what she doesn’t trust has been fixed enough.
The first ingredient is easy enough to come by, but the second ingredient has her wandering in and out of spice aisles in grocery stores, dodging the quizzical glances of aproned employees who don’t volunteer to help. The third and final ingredient is always sitting on the second shelf of her pantry. It’s a stinging miracle worker, it cures her chicken in cold water before she seasons and cooks it. She adds a tablespoon of it to a mixture of thicker-than-sap nectar and pollen-colored powder, and then she is transferring the crystalline goop into vials and droppers, and applying a thick layer of it onto her forehead, chin, and cheeks. The mix will last her a few months if she is careful not to spill any when applying. You are supposed to leave it on for twenty minutes, then rinse, but she leaves it on for two hours minimum, daily. It is one of many tiny overcompensations that have become customary. The undoing will come later, when she trades her homemade mask for a layer of makeup that will worsen her skin beneath, undermining the routine of wellness she has attempted to keep.
In the morning, her carefully-placed facade remains perfectly undisturbed from the night before. When you wake, your eyes open to a face whose painted on eyeliner isn’t smudged, whose foundation isn’t half scrubbed off. You thought you saw her crawling out of bed at some ungodly hour in the early morning, but you were too asleep to take notice of the fact that she brought her suspiciously large bag to the bathroom with her when she tiptoed away. Your mind is playing tricks. During sex, your foreheads touched, a part of her rubbed away, and you swore you saw a freckle, or a birthmark, or a sunspot just beneath. But the lights are dimmed, and she excuses herself afterward. When the lights return, and so does she, her skin is opaque and unmarred. “Didn’t you-” you might begin to ask, but the look she shoots back warns you away from pursuing that line of questioning.
In her experience, most people haven’t heard of the term, hyper-pigmentation. She is tired of explaining it, a visible consequence of her visible difference. It is a concept the majority of her partners cannot relate to, and those that can have perfect skin. She bristles at the mention of its more common name, acne scars. It’s when girls with a surplus of melanin in their skin experience bruising from the formation and or disruption of blemishes on the skin’s surface. Her face hasn’t been clear since she was in middle school. She has been hiding her appearance since high school. She diligently works at the spots on her face, loathing how makeup companies have criminally profited off of insecurity, but feeling helplessly dependent all the same.
When she wasn’t so good at her game, her previous partners asked questions. When they received answers, they grew quiet. It is her silence now that prevails as you study her unreadable black eyes, the set line of her full lips. You want to be closer to this girl, you kiss her whenever she’s within reach. She doesn’t kiss you back– not fully, not deeply. If she does, her eyes are not all the way closed. When she is laying on her back and your fingers are inside her, she is staring at the lone painting on your wall–your one attempt at deep, meaningful art or a conversation starter for the girls you bring back to an otherwise impersonal space–with a blank expression. She is probably trying to be as still as that painting. Or be in it. She is wondering if the partners that have moved on from her have taken other Black girls since, or she wonders if every failed connection with someone of a different race has permanently turned them against the idea of Black women altogether, as if she has somehow misrepresented her own too easily marginalized group. She bristles at the aloofness of some of her companions, the ones who amicably claim color-blindness. They are certainly blind, she thinks, but not how they mean to be.
There is a vastness to her mind that intimidates you. “I can tell you overthink,” you say, and think the ice will melt between you now that you’ve offered up this observation, as if you’ve thrown her a lifeline, an escape rope, an easy way out. As if, charitable, non-threatening.
If anything the iciness has mounted.
“What do you mean by that?” she asks, and though her face is fully adorned, her body is without clothing. She snatches the covers closer to her, and now you are consumed with the task of luring a skeptic toward you, of getting this untamed creature to trust you now that it has sniffed your hand but jumped a pace backwards. You were hasty. A misstep. In the future you will be careful to only ask her what she is thinking, but you will not forget the moment you nearly lost something you never had.
Her answers will confuse you, and you will mistake that vague abstractness for intelligence. You will want to get into that mind but she is only offering her body. What is available of her heart, you won’t realize you have until it has crumbled with the small bit of false hope she has mustered within herself. It is a nearly imperceptible change, it will not be a dramatic or noticeable moment. It will happen at the tail end of a sigh over lunch, or while she is pulling back on her dress during a morning after. You are both groping in the darkness until then, you are both reaching for the same but different things. She is an island waiting to be discovered, you are the voyager of uncharted lands. She is skeptical of all things certain but certain that things won’t work if you offer that you have no destination in mind and wouldn’t mind just getting lost. Or colonizing her.
She doesn’t look at you when you are making love. Or having sex, or f*cking. Whatever it is her eyes are closed but not gently like she is trusting, but squeezed tightly as if her life depends on not looking. You might be the mentalist who sees what is behind the eyes if she just shows you an ounce of vulnerability. You might see that she needs you in a way even she cannot–will not–comprehend. Instead you see her eyes fixed firmly on your stomach or on something through or past you and you want her to look at you but she wants to be seen and you have no idea what that means to someone for whom the blanket of their skin is not a refuge but a bold signifier like the mark of Cain or a Scarlet Letter. It is not an access pass but an alarm that sounds when she enters certain spaces.
No one has ever celebrated her skin, has ever told her it was beautiful. She gets backward compliments from those who inhabit the rooms she hates to be in, like those functions her mother sometimes drags her to. Having heard of her before meeting her, having seen pictures of her father before glancing at the face of the girl herself, women and men alike (coworkers or friends of her mother, maybe) gasp and remark at her beauty in a way that is uncomfortably fetishizing, that is, in fact, insulting, or embarrassingly drawn out. “Oh my God, she’s beautiful,” she has heard before, with the added for a Black girl sitting in the heaviness just beneath. Once it started it wouldn’t stop. Beautiful hair. Beautiful body. So well-behaved. So intelligent. Fashionable, too. When you ask her if it is okay to pull or touch her hair a strange look crosses her face and she returns the question, “Why?”
You can never give this girl what she is truly asking for and that is why she is an island. She needs you to say that she is beautiful while you acknowledge her Blackness and don’t shy away from it but somehow understand that the beauty of her complexities is mustered by the invisible person always attempting to only need herself, just beneath. You tilt her face upwards but her eyes dart reflexively away. She goes slack in your arms, you can do whatever you please when she chooses to allow it. She is just now remembering that time she was accosted in the street for holding a white man’s hand, now just remembering the time her ex-favorite professor turned a compliment of her hair into the question, “Is it all yours?”, now just remembering the time an Irish ex-lover told her she wasn’t really Black, that he was basically Blacker than she was, now remembering that same man tried to benefit being seen with her, claiming proudly that he seemed so much cooler among his friends for dating a Black girl.
The thing is you can’t give this girl anything because as you are looking at her she has already begun the process of dissolving slowly and invisibly into you like years-old scars on the surface of your skin.
Are you a writer? We’re looking for short stories and personal essays to feature on our digital and print platforms. Click HERE to find out how.