Lemon Bitter Toxic

  • A composition exploring just one of the many pitfalls to Black womanhood that I've been exposed to.
23 min read

The knocks were startling in part because we’re jumpy by nature, but mainly because anyone that would be knocking was three hours away in Mississippi with no idea of our apartment’s address. I opened the door to the bent knees of a tall, light-skinned man in his early-to-mid fifties with salt-and-pepper curls warped about his head.

“I’m cookin’ some meat tomorruh, so y’all come own out around 1:00.”

“Okay, cool, thanks,” I said sheepishly. So this is the neighbor Alex* mentioned. Whom I had never met because my schedule just had not permitted it. Alex spent a lot of time at home, however, since he had yet to land a job following the move. I closed the door and looked at Alex with a giggle behind my tongue. “You didn’t tell me he was gay.” Not that his being gay was a joke or even a problem, just a surprise. The drawl and mannerisms had caught me off guard.

“He isn’t,” Alex said. “He’s just like that.”

“Just like that’ my ass.” I felt Alex should’ve known better, but I extinguished further criticism. It had been noted between myself and I that lately we were likening much to our mother. Much too much like our mother.

 

***

The next day I got up early and opted for my straight, blunt wig with the bangs instead of my usual flipped, voluminous black wig that was so tangled in the kitchen area, I’d run late for work on several occasions trying to comb it out at the last minute. (Synthetic wigs always get tangles in the kitchen area before anywhere else.) I paired this wig with a black, lace bralette that created the illusion I had full breasts and a comfy pair of leggings until deciding the outfit was too pajama-y and instead accompanied the bralette with ripped jeans and a kimono I’d bought last Spring. The outfit made me feel sexy and curvy, so I quickly uploaded some pictures on Instagram to let a few of my friends and people I didn’t know validate this notion.

As I kept refreshing my app to see the new likes hours later, I half-listened to Alex and our neighbor, Elton* (who’d refused to let us call him anything but E.), discuss dude shit I didn’t care about. I especially didn’t care since Alex had pissed me off earlier in the day for something menial I can’t recall now. In a nutshell, the vibe between us was not that of a loving couple that had just moved in together and was about to devour free barbecue from our fellow Black neighbor that grilled outside in jorts and Jesus sandals.

Perhaps he caught wind of this energy because the instant Alex left me outside to retrieve his beer, Elton was leaning close to me like we shared an inside joke or a dirty secret.

“Y’all like best friends, ain’t ya?”

I made a face that all but called Alex an asshole.

“I need a little friend; you got any friends that’s on your level?” he asked in that cis hetero, predatory way older men have refined in their decades of luring and catching prey.

So this nigga isn’t gay after all, I thought as regret quickly washed over me. This wasn’t the type of man you diss your man to.

“No, not really,” I said facing my body opposite him. “You don’t know any nice women?” “Nice women,” judging by his generation’s definition, are the ones you meet at church that only give blowjobs when asked. Quite frankly, he would crush that type of woman’s spirit, but I was willing to suggest any woman far beyond the parameters of being me.

“Nah,” he replied.

Then Alex came back, and I was less pissed at him because he seemed the only safe part of our balcony. I waited until he and Elton had finished a blunt to pull him inside and tell him dude had hit on me.

“Wow,” he said. Then he did that fake, walking-toward-the-door-for-confrontation thing we both do when it would be reasonable for us to be confrontational but we opt out. I giggled and pushed his chest anyway because the main part of the joke is to “stop” the other from doing something dumb.

“That shit is big wild, though,” I said.

“Hell yeah.”

Then the day went on as days do. We ate, I went to work, probably watched Radio that night and fell asleep curled in each other’s arms. That’s what we did most of the time, and that’s what we both loved doing; but the more time you spend with a person, the less time you have to keep fantasizing about your preferred version of him. Things go from It’s impressive he cooks so often to a subconscious resentment of being asked what you want for dinner. Every. Night. (And truthfully his lack of luck on the job market wasn’t helping either).

This is normal, as love is a choice. When choosing to love people, it is imperative to understand mundanity cannot be avoided. Who the fuck goes rock climbing every day?

When this perspective was initially pitched to me, that type of love was not near my possession or understanding. Once it was in my possession, I could not, would not, decipher it from any old common thing like stray dogs or panhandlers. All so unique but all so common. So Alex and I…our love did the thing. This thing:

 

“I hate you!” Kiese’s Laymon’s hardback of “Heavy” condensated against my hand. It had to be 85 degrees in this apartment and no air was on to conserve energy/money.

“I guess I have to take shit off everybody, huh? Including-fucking-you!”

To think we got here over a GameStop interview.

Alex had gotten the email about two or three days before. Our savings had depleted early into moving, and GameStop’s open interviews seemed the answer to our prayers. Two incomes would take us off our air mattress, get the rent paid on time, and ultimately take the responsibility of our shared space from being so corpulent against my frail shoulders.

“I can revise your resume, you know.”

“Sure. Yeah, later we can go by the library.”

Between gritted teeth: “I don’t think you understand. If you don’t get this job, I’m not sure how we’re eating next month.” Now. We need to do this now, but I’m too passive-aggressive to say that to you, Baby, so we’re going to argue about your work ethic. I’m going to call you impudent, throw a hardback at your hand as it rests against the bedroom door that could easily divide us if we’d let it, then I’ll ice your swollen fingers in the kitchen like I’m not the one that hurt you.

 

***

“I don’t want us to be like this,” he said as I continued running the cube along his bruised fingers.

“Me either.” Truce. “Baby?”

“Yes?”

“I just realized I didn’t pray today.”

Our shoulders dropped in defeat as more heat clung to our skins.

Bowed heads, melted ice, prayer.

 

***

If it weren’t for Hamburger Helper and childhood trauma, perhaps that would’ve been our biggest argument of Summer.

“What do you want for dinner tonight?”

“I’ll just make that Hamburger Helper, I guess.”

“Okay, you should go ahead and take that ground beef out.”

“I’ll do it later,” I said. Not because of more pertinent tasks at hand or even because it was early in the day. Just ‘cause I don’t like being told what to do.

“It’s not going to be ready in time. Do you know how ground beef works?”

My father used to have this way about him; you’d say or do something he didn’t approve of and after getting comfortable, thinking there are no reprimands, he’d pounce on you with a belt or his lone hand. He made mental notes of all his microaggressions and his malice was like a curse. For him, it was all about timing…

Do I know about ground beef?

I closed myself into a corner of the bedroom, the deflated air mattress within length of my legs, a steaming bowl of beefaroni cradled in my hands.

I’ll just sit in here ‘til I calm down.

When it is really considered, everything is about timing…

In walked Alex trying to cajole me out of my cave, like he hadn’t basically called me stupid five minutes before. Somewhere between knocking everything down in the apartment, smacking store-brand window cleaner off the countertop so forcefully that some of the liquid got in Alex’s eyes, assuring our leasing agent and downstairs neighbor (an old White lady too privileged to understand why calling the police on us wouldn’t have been cool), it never occurred to me that was what pride looked like: ugly, loud, busting up things that don’t need busting. Similarly, it didn’t occur until Alex had returned from giving me some space that vulnerability is the only antithesis for pride.

He sat in my line of vision; but since I was too embarrassed to initiate that vulnerability conversation I kept rehearsing in my head, and he had suffered enough verbal abuse for one day, he opted for texting me instead.

You want something to eat?

A smile slowly wrapped itself around my head.

Yes.

Popeyes?

Yes.

Before I knew it, we were eating chicken and sharing cigarettes (I’ve never completed an entire cigarette and didn’t intend to) in the Explorer and laughing about the day’s previous events. As we rode home, I was hoping not to be too toxic too much longer, and I imagine Alex was doing the same.

 

***

In addition to being privileged and nosey, our downstairs neighbor is well-meaning, which makes her bullshit harder to dislike, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. She’d gotten word back to Elton that there’d been a ruckus and when the opportunity presented itself, he coaxed me into his apartment for details.

“Dude is big. I said ‘I reckon he not beating her ass.’”

“We don’t hit each other.” No point in hiding the defensive edge that was on the statement. Instead of being ashamed of the damage to our apartment, I reveled in getting to brag on my boyfriend’s decency. “I was the one tearing up everything.”

“You run that house, don’t you?” There it was again: that voice. It made an internal fist ball beside my gut.

I shrugged. Thanks a lot for also rubbing his unemployment in my face.

“What I mean is, he ain’t tryna have no problems wit’ you,” with continued persistence.

“I don’t know. We get along.” I shifted my weight on his old, big easy chair. Everything in his apartment was outdated but reliable. He kept passing me a joint that I barely smoked from due to my unrelenting fear of inebriation around men besides a select few.

Some odd minutes later, a knock on the door caused me to shiver as if I’d been caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to. Even after a month or so of having lived on my own, it was still difficult to shake the idea when doing anything autonomously that I was partaking in some non-traditional form of mutiny. I untensed only slightly after learning it was one of Elton’s friends coming over for a visit. After welcoming in his guest, he continued discussing the gossip my life had yielded, and his friend couldn’t help joining in.

“Well was somebody cheatin’?” he asked with the casualty of asking if perhaps one of us had eaten the other’s last brownie.

“No, it’s nothin’ like that.”

“Okay, then what’s the prollem? What chu fighting for?”

Poor communication inherited from our parents. Being Black without culturally competent therapists. Literally because he implied I’m stupid, and I said his dick is trash.

“I don’t know.” The more favorable of explanations.

Another series of knocks was more than my nerves could bear and when a third man began to occupy Elton’s congested living room, I eagerly excused myself using the same breath I’d had to greet him.

This is as good a time as any to mention I’m terrified of trains in ways I believe most women are, in ways that make us tighten on platforms where we’re encircled by men. Still, even having been alone with only Elton I’d felt ill-at-ease. The next time I’d be alone with him, however, would provide fewer provisions and formalities.

 

On a random August night, Elton texted me late (or early in the morning depending on the type of person you are), and it wasn’t acknowledged until much later after my waking up. By then he’d gone on another of his business trips that would leave his apartment empty for days at a time.

After a particularly vexing day that involved a spilled slushie in the car and an argument over Alex’s returning smoking habit, I knocked on Elton’s door to see what he’d meant by that ambiguous late text from earlier in the week. Eons passed, and he finally came to the door, opening it in the typical, nervous way he’d done throughout his interactions with me when Alex was missing; and Alex’s absence was no coincidence, as I had separated from him in a fit of aggravation. Having bonded with us over blunts and barbecue a cluster of occasions, he still hadn’t lost that twitch at my lone presence.

He urged me inside, to which I kept hesitating. I’d risked going in his apartment once before alone, but to do it again felt like an open invitation to misery. Against my better judgment, however, I slinked into his house, mace firm against my hand. With each step, the carpet beneath my feet swallowed me. It seemed an atmosphere light years away from my and Alex’s place, just one wall over.

“I don’t like a lot of drama, me,” he said once my gloomy mood was explained.

Despite missing Alex, I was still irritated with him. He’d given up smoking cigarettes and Blacks months before, only to start back doing it again. I couldn’t help resenting it.

“Hey, I’m about a lot of this,” he said, holding up some one hundred dollar bills in his fist.

“Yeah,” I responded blankly.

He discouraged me from sitting by the window (conveniently placed right next to the door, thus giving me an easy escape if this man got weird) in the event things could look strange if Alex were to notice me through the blinds. While unlikely, it was a fair enough point to make me move to the easy chair I’d used before. As it sank a little under my weight, Elton passed me a joint that I held only long enough for one pull. Don’t try to get me high, man.

“Hit it some mo’.”

Ugh. Called it.

“I’m good.”

He wouldn’t take it from my hand, though, so I babysat it a while— not really inhaling, just keeping the thing lit with my mouth, hoping after these next pulls he’d accept it back. It worked because when pushed in his direction, he grabbed it and smoked from it once more.

“What you like to watch?” he asked, pulling the guide up on his television. The small font instantly made me miss the big TV in our apartment where Alex and I had cuddled up and watched the Kill Bills, Roadhouse, Maury, Up, and about a hundred other films and shows in the past few months. The only thing that stood out on this screen was Family Guy, and I excitedly mentioned it would suit my viewing tastes. With a nod, he selected the show from the guide, and barely a minute into seeing it, was already criticizing.

“You like this for real?” he said.

Yes, old man. Maybe lose the attitude since I didn’t exactly beg to be a guest in this mother-

“I do.” Good. Firm.

He absently gave it another try before confirming again that I actually watch the show.

“My birthday is coming up,” I said, giving up the hope of sitting in silence and then dipping out before my anxiety piqued.

“Oh, what are you doing for it?” he asked.

“I’m not really sure yet.” That was a lie. I knew we weren’t doing anything special because the last day to pay rent was the day before my birthday. After that, we’d need to be careful with our spending for the next couple of weeks until I got paid again. Even though Alex had been working for a couple of weeks, there was a delay with his pay. No matter what we’d have to wait and by then, celebrating my birthday wouldn’t matter as much.

“It just depends on how everything falls,” I continued, knowing it’d fall the usual way: apart.

“So what’s something you’d like to get as a gift?” he prodded.

“A book.” Or two. Or three.

“No, I mean like a real gift.” This was the same as with Family Guy—my sincere likes not being enough for this man.

“Weed, maybe.” If nothing else, he had to feel that was a valid request.

“No.” There was no effort to hide his impatience with me. “I mean like jewelry or clothes.” He pushed the handful of money from moments before in my direction. “Here, count that.”

I did and handed him back his measly $700. I’m supposed to be impressed by counting your rent money? I thought. Even I had $700 at least once a month if he and I were still neighbors.

“I’m just saying if you ever need to take care of some business, I got you.” His head tilted in the direction of his bedroom. He’d lost all tact, probably in the midst of me remaining unfazed by his money and questions of gifts.

“And just what do I have to do for that?” I asked, bracing. Come on. Say it. Say it so I can cuss you out in your own living room. Say it so we can get this ball rolling. I can stop texting my friend to avoid how afraid I am here with you, a fear developed from years of witnessing men turning wolfish when they believe they’re unwatched and unstoppable.

“I’m a straightforward person,” he replied.

Then be straightforward, asshole.

“Nothing is free in this world, E.,” I dared him. “What do you want from me?”

He got up from his spot by the door and ventured into the kitchen. “What you want to drink?”

“Gatorade.” Certainly nothing this man would have to pour for me. He retrieved a blue one and plopped back down with his beer.

“Do he know when I be texting you?” He motioned against the wall of our living room. During my last visit, Elton and I had exchanged numbers and before that ambiguous text that’d led me here, he’d sent me other messages that could’ve very well foreshadowed this moment. Alex had seen them all; we’d even conspired to finesse his crush on me to get his WiFi password. It worked, as we’d been streaming new shows the past month.

“Yes.”

“You gone tell him you came over here, ain’t you?”

Yes. “No.”

“But he’s always around. I mean if I wanted to take you for a little cocktail or something, I couldn’t, could I?”

It was worse than I’d thought: he didn’t just want pussy, which was insulting enough; he wanted companionship with someone that already had a companion—a companion he’d met and gave marijuana to and shared grilled chicken with. Then I remembered Alex telling me he never mentioned wanting to see us when he’d gotten back home. The message had been meant specifically for me to come over; Alex was just a dish cover; I was the main course he wanted to sink his teeth into. He had me cornered here right where he needed me, and I had willingly walked into the lion’s den. I’d fight my way out of it if need be, though. I wasn’t scared anymore, just prepared to do whatever needed to be done.

“You have any piercings?” he asked.

“My ears, sure.” Had been pierced since I convinced my mom when I was ten. She’d been reluctant, but all the other girls had earrings and for once, I needed to be on board with all the other girls. My nose had been pierced too at one point; I’d gotten it done with a friend of mine and my then-boyfriend. I couldn’t even get it on film, though, because the guy had pierced me without having my I.D. I knew the question had more than likely spawned from the most recent of my piercing though, which had been my nipples in early 2018 on my friend’s birthday. While I felt bold enough to mace, stab, or bludgeon my neighbor, I still wanted to salvage some respectable conversation and chose to exclude my nipples when speaking of my piercings.

“So you don’t have any other piercings?”

I shook my head no.

“So your nipples aren’t pierced?”

So much for respectable.

“Yes, they are,” I said.

“Then why’d you say no?”

“Because why’d you ask if you already know?”

“Just wanted to confirm.” I hated the way he dragged words in his mouth. They seemed as much prisoner to his presence as me. “Sometimes you can kind of see ‘em when you wear certain things.”

“Well, yes. I have the hoops. Some people get the bars.”

“I’d like to see if you don’t mind,” he said, placing his gaze on my chest.

I’d had all I could take and wouldn’t spend another moment in that easy chair; if he wanted to see my tits, he’d have to kill me and explain the carpet blood to maintenance and the front office.

“I’m going to go ahead and go.”

Our nosey downstairs neighbor’s voice didn’t discourage me, and while he insisted I wait a second, Elton didn’t block my exit or harm me.

Once outside I wondered if it had been that easy to leave the entire time I’d sat there and forced down Gatorade and sips of my slushie: if I could’ve just waltzed my ass out before he’d asked about my nipples or implied I should sleep with him for money because my boyfriend was, apparently by his standard, a nonfactor.

After further ensuring my safety, I texted Elton that I couldn’t be bought and that I’d never be back. Naturally, the first thing I did after was call Alex. We needed to get our shit together; that was my priority.

Hours later when we were clowning about Elton not being able to even purchase broke pussy, I revelled in our cruelty: in judging the pervy, middle-aged man next door that thought a poor, young, Black woman would spread her legs for him in an instant, at the promise of material things. We purposely said his name loud through the thin walls, and with each insult, my strength heightened.

His assumptions had been nothing against my loyalty, and I’d hoped that was what hurt the most. I’d hoped he’d overdose on loneliness each time he heard us playing music or laughing together or making love in the living room. I’d hoped the silence of his house would outgrow him, making him the insignificant figure he’d tried to reduce my baby, my relationship to.

Bitter. I wanted him to be bitter.

Initially, I blamed scammer culture. There’s something that possesses rappers to fly random girls from social media to their hotels. The same possession forces men to subscribe to private SnapChats and is why there are endless “How Much I Made Selling Feet Pics” videos on YouTube. Our comeuppance wave has been ridden and encouraged for the latter part of a decade, making it such that just about anything can be purchased…for the right price.

If we all ate the same pound of rice each day, if there was no rent, no need for Elton to think he had a one-up on Alex because Alex was unemployed during the earlier parts of our move, would he had felt so entitled to me? Perhaps. Because even if we did supposedly eat the same pound of rice, we’re Black. I’m a Black woman; I’m supposed to lay down for any price, be it $700 or a larger helping of food.

I’m supposed to only love men with perfect credit and nice cars, but I’m also supposed to love struggle love and barely getting by. I’m supposed to love whatever loves me. I think about this when I walk in my Converses, the sole of my left shoe disconnected from the top. I think about this when I spend another $20 on weed when I should just make a therapy appointment.

The only time I’m not thinking about my social class and race and gender and all the ways in which I’ve been mistreated because of them is when I’m beneath Alex, feeling his breath on my ear, his tongue on my neck. Those moments feel like prayers, and then I feel guilty that I’m 1 out of every 500 Black women that actually has a Black man in her romantic life who values and communicates with her and is patient and kind and aggressive when necessary. Then I become aware that there’s purposely a shortage of said men in our communities because we’ve always been a people plagued by poverty. When you’re that poor, you don’t have time to explore the solar system or read Christopher Marlowe or serenade your sweetheart with show tunes. When you’re that fucking poor, you show love with groceries and limited abuse: this is the blood modern Black people are born from.

While our women are taking aggressive steps to heal, our men still falter behind because they don’t know the facts. They blindly believe our grandmothers listened to our grandfathers out of love and adoration when it was actually out of circumstance. Even now, they think little of their own children and leave them for institutions and their mothers to raise, not realizing that if we kept our family units strong, we’d work our way into their neighborhoods with their good ass schools, and our children could focus on soccer practice and global warming.

If we united financially, emotionally, and unapologetically, we’d change our fate; that’s why we’re kept poor–to be among each other. To rob each other. To rape, mistreat, and abuse each other.

I know this like I know my ABCs and like I know my way around a keyboard: being poor is second nature to me.

Being Black is just one of my many gift-curses.

Being a woman? A joy when alone.

While I’d like to save Black people and the world (and perhaps save the world by saving Black people), conveniently my dealer is easier to reach than Congress.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of characters.

 

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