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Niya Marie

Listening for a Way Out

Kathy Kmonicek / AP

Niya Marie | Longreads | August 2018 | 24 minutes (4,808 words)

After I wedged Whitney Houston into our conversation for the fifty-eleventh time, C. cut me down for every sixth grader at the lunch table to devour.

“Why do you talk about her so much?”

“What’re you, gay?”

And then:

The looks, the laughs at what was funny, in more ways than one.

The fire crackling in my chest.

The choking silence as every word in my defense turned to ash in my throat.

I’d been called a lot of things by then, but not that. Unlike my Kmart clothes, freckled nose, burning bush of unpressed, sun-reddened hair, and coke-bottle-thick glasses, that was not legible. Economics and genetics aside, I looked like all the other girls, donning fitted jeans and Ts, the occasional skort. And like all the other girls, I gabbed about an attraction to the smartest, sportiest boy in our class. I never fully committed to the act, though. The last classmate I kissed on the sly was two grades and one school ago — and not a boy. I would cup my hands around her ear and let my lips brush her lobe as if I were just whispering a bit of gossip. We’d kiss like that in plain view of an entire classroom and no one ever caught on. That was the thrill. At recess, we’d run off to the edge of the schoolyard, hide behind one of the gangly trees, and kiss on the mouth. There was no way for C. to know about my old kissing-friend, or the fact that I secretly wanted to make C. my new one. She didn’t know I was enamored of her height, her athleticism, the curl of her long lashes, the brightness of her big brown eyes, even that blade of a tongue. My actions, my appearance betrayed nothing. Yet here I was, giving myself away somehow.

C.’s irritation was understandable. We had homeroom and math together, P.E., then lunch. I had spent most of the day at her heels, in her ear, creating opportunities to bring up yet another item about Whitney that I had read or seen the night before. It was the My Love Is Your Love era, and Whitney was everywhere again. After a blockbuster world tour and three successful soundtracks, Whitney’s fourth studio album was highly anticipated. My Love Is Your Love was the first CD I ever purchased, and also the second after I overplayed that copy. Before my grandmother gifted me a modern stereo, I had a banged-up Walkman and a heap of cassettes with song titles reduced to flecks of unreadable white ink. I couldn’t wait to get home to watch every television appearance possible, especially when Whitney was a guest on Oprah. Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world in the same frame; two black female icons who’d cemented their place in history breathing the same air — this is what beholding God should feel like. When I wasn’t scouring the television for Whitney, I spent hours on my Gateway (another gift from my grandmother) downloading every bootlegged live recording I could manage with dial-up. At checkout in the supermarket, I would slip any magazine bearing Whitney’s face onto the conveyor belt, somewhere beneath the Lunchables, Fruit Roll-Ups, and Pop-Tarts. My mother never balked at buying these little indulgences for me. She never looked at me funny either; not even when I used to open every issue of Jet to the Beauty of the Week, spread them out at the bay window of our old single-wide trailer, and pick the fairest of them all.

C. could not have known about my private beauty pageant. Or my dancing with the mop instead of the broom. Or any of the girls I had kissed and touched in dark cellarways and dollhouses; against cinder blocks under trailers; in back rooms lit only by the blue-white glow of infomercial TV. Or all the things I used to do under the covers with my friend, T.

C. wasn’t there with me as I watched a scene in Sister, Sister play out my very own fantasy. In one episode, Tia and Tamera dream up their birth mother and Whitney’s face appears in their mutual thought bubble. If a stroke of real-life movie magic couldn’t make Whitney my mother, Oprah would do.

C. had it all wrong and all right all at once.

Maybe some girls dream of white knights on white horses stealing them away to safety. I dreamt of a golden-throated black beauty, the fairest of fairy godmothers, lifting me from my life and into the firmament that I imagined only her voice — “The Voice” — could ever reach. Could ever escape to. When the cords of her slender neck thickened and writhed like roots growing up and not down, threatening eruption, that’s what I heard: the way out.

* * *

The last time T. and I saw each other face-to-face, I’d shoved her so hard that she fell over and her head bounced off her bedroom floor like a basketball, abruptly ending the visit. My half-assed apology insisted that T. shared some of the blame. I can’t remember what I said I was getting her back for because, frankly, it was a lie. Something I’d concocted on the spot in an effort to rewrite the truth. Our friendship, at least for her, somehow remained unscathed. Maybe she believed I was sorry. Maybe she understood why I couldn’t tell the truth. Clearly, she’d forgiven me. Why else would she have been on the other end of that line, waiting for me to click over from a call that I’d lied about receiving? With my hand over the mouthpiece, I listened to her breathe, patiently waiting for her best friend to return, entirely unaware that she had run away from her months ago and was never coming back.

T. and I became fast friends when we were around 6 years old. We were next-door neighbors in an apartment complex in Camden, South Carolina. I had more bullies than friends in school, but at home, I had T., and we’d play for hours. About a year after we became friends, my mother overdosed. I remember trying to reach her through those faraway eyes moments before they shut me out. If I were to have tossed a penny into them, I would’ve never heard the splash. After her recovery, she, her second husband, my younger brother, and I moved into a single-wide about six miles away in Lugoff. One end of our street fed into a major highway. The other end was cut off by a strip of conifers. Our trailer sat between a day care center and an auto repair/car wash combo. Across from us was a huge plot of undeveloped land overrun with dandelions. My mother got a job at a gas station that was about a five-minute walk away. We were isolated; hopefully, so isolated that my mother couldn’t take “sick,” as she called it.

I had spent most of the day at her heels, in her ear, creating opportunities to bring up yet another item about Whitney that I had read or seen the night before. It was the My Love Is Your Love era and Whitney was everywhere again.

It was through my mother that I met an out lesbian for the first time when I was about 8 years old. They worked together at the register. G. was butch with flesh as white and dimpled as my grandmother’s dumpling dough. She had a slick, gray mullet that was yellowing from chain-smoking. Her curly-headed younger girlfriend didn’t believe in bras. The beaters she wore left nothing to my imagination.

G. and her girlfriend lived together in a trailer nowhere near the gas station. I can’t remember why we were even there, what necessity my mother had run out of. We never talked about lack, like the occasional need for an abundance of candles or boiled water for baths. Whatever the reason, I was happy to visit. I had so many questions that I dared not ask.

How could these two women get away with this?

Did they know black women who did this?

Are they happy?

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I ear-hustled from afar like I was getting paid by the word. At some point, the girlfriend got one too many beers in her and treated my mother to a lively reenactment of how G. would squirm and squeal while getting finger-fucked. They laughed loud and hard, secure in the belief that I had no idea what they were talking about, especially not from the opposite end of the trailer. But I did know, and I felt like I shouldn’t have.

I wasn’t grateful for living in a single-wide, especially not one with outdoor paint you could wipe off with your fingers. Our cat killed the mice, but he couldn’t do a damn thing to the roaches. I would check my clothes and backpack obsessively before heading to school out of fear that one day, one of those little fuckers would crawl out of something I owned and I’d never live down the embarrassment. The girls at school whose acceptance I craved all lived in little single-family houses or apartment complexes that bore stately names like Pepperidge-something Manor. I never invited them over.

I didn’t have to front for T. She knew what I had come from because she was still there. She knew other things about me, too, that those girls at my new school never would. Those girls never witnessed my tomboyish side, the me who gladly climbed trees to fetch her cat, who tramped through the woods in steel-toe boots, their black leather shredded by detritus. Whenever T. came over, we would stay outside most of the day and slurp honeysuckle, eat wild berries on a dare, make mud pies out of red clay, and rove our conquered field of dandelion. At night, we’d explore each other’s bodies with the same zeal.

It had been like that between us since before the move. I gave T. no reason to believe the nature of our friendship would ever change. Until that day in T.’s apartment. We hadn’t seen each other all summer, and now we were brand new fifth graders. We retreated to her bedroom while our mothers caught up in front of a B movie. T. expected it to be like it was — handsy games of make believe that covered up an attraction we dared not name. I pushed her off her own bed and her head slammed into the floor. She cried harder than I expected, her face a map of heartbreak, red tributaries carving it up. I wanted to believe I’d only hurt her physically. I apologized for that and nothing more. T. didn’t know that while we were apart, I had been shown “the way, the truth, and the life”*; that I didn’t want to go on being fresh like a little heathen.

For most of my childhood, I split my time between South Carolina and a “chorus of mamas,”* 600 miles away in Philadelphia. Sometimes I’d go for leisure, sometimes for necessity. My maternal great-grandmother took me in for a spell before kindergarten so I would no longer have to witness my mother’s first husband beat the breath out of her. In the summer, I’d stay with my maternal grandmother, but not for long periods, because her second husband wasn’t comfortable having a girl around the house. I also spent time with my godmother, who was single. She had worked under my grandmother for the state government, and she’d been friends with my mother until their paths diverged. My godmother had a stable upbringing in a loving two-parent family on a nice swath of countryside. She also had a nice job, a nice house, a nice car, and a beautiful singing voice. I coveted that idyll, and she credited it all to Jesus. When fourth grade came to an end, I said my goodbyes to T. and headed north. That may have been the summer I attended Vacation Bible School with my great-grandmother. Or, it may have been the summer I went to my first amusement park, played miniature golf, and cleaved to my godmother’s hip as her rendition of “Amazing Grace” flowed through me like a crystal-clear spring. Either way, the message to me was unambiguous: there was refuge in religion.

On average, there were 2.4 Bibles per room in my great-grandmother’s row home: the KJV, the NIV, the NASB, etc. I used to flip to the concordance of each translation to find the most wiggle room for girls like me. None of them gave an inch. Her den housed my first personal library. The room overlooked her piece of yard out back, which was mostly cemented over, save for a small plot of tangerine-colored lilies. There were many Bibles, of course, and also books about the Bible. There was my little collection of slim Disney hardcovers, The Three Little Pigs, Thank You, God, and Charlotte’s Web. Every title was meticulously maintained. No dog-eared pages. No dust. I’d read there for hours. During the day, the sun would come through the window full force. At night, the potted jasmine would bloom and I’d lie out on the stiff, squeaky sofa as the fragrance swaddled me.

After my great-aunt (whom I didn’t know well) died of cancer, the library grew more secular with the addition of her books. The only paperback missing its cover and spine beckoned me, though I wouldn’t have the courage to sneak it into my bedroom until high school. It was James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, furtively tucked between two books about prayer and healing. That is how I could remain in the fold: efface myself, then find a real man to blow my back out. No one ever explicitly said this, but no one ever had to. I gleaned it from the homophobic panic that took over my meek and mild great-grandmother when a female congregant pecked her cheek too often; from faggot falling as nonchalantly as a preposition out of my grandmother’s mouth to disparage men who weren’t macho or simply pissed her off; from never deciphering the mystery of my godmother’s sister who, in her muted masculinity, seemed to disappear in plain sight, as if she’d slipped the heart of herself under a cushion or behind a curtain, leaving only the husk in our midst. She could very well have been a single heterosexual woman who liked men’s clothes, close-cropped cuts, golf, motorcycles, and fading into the wallpaper, but I knew I could never ask.

I knew even before I got my first period that I was expected to marry a man and bear his children. More importantly, I had come to want that life for myself. When the weight of self-blame is upon you, oppression — cloaked in the raiment of redemption and purification — can be rather seductive. That den sustained my love of reading, but also my secret shame. It may have been the summer I was 7, or it may have been the summer I was 8. I do remember that these were still the days of pigtails and pink lotion for me. But not for ______. She was a teenager, and she was supposed to be my friend. I would let her in time and time again until I felt like some grubby plaything left out in the dirt. The shame festered, and the Good Book offered a salve.

By the second semester of fifth grade, my immediate family and I resettled in a different part of Lugoff. We moved into a brand-new double-wide on a dirt road hewn through God’s nowhere. We now had a fireplace, jacuzzi, stand-alone shower, dishwasher, ice maker, washer and dryer, and more trees than I could ever climb, all thanks to a massive loan from my grandmother. The roaches had moved in with us, so I still didn’t invite people over, but I was quite proud of the come-up.

T. wanted to see for herself. That’s why she had called. I lied, said my other line was beeping, then pretended to click over. I was stalling for a way to get rid of T. for good. I hoped she would get frustrated, hang up, and never call again. But she didn’t. I clicked back over and told her that I had to get off the phone and talk to another friend. Then I heard the sadness welling up. “You see her every day. Why do you want to talk to her more than me? Don’t you like me anymore?”

I think it’s telling that I can’t recall what I said in response. Who wants to remember herself as the villain? We hung up and never spoke to each other again.

In seventh grade, my family and I traveled to Philadelphia to celebrate my great-grandmother’s 80th birthday. It was there that I got saved. In the midst of talking, laughing, and eating, the Pastor Reverend Dr. turned to me and asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” How was I to reply to that? “No” seemed wrong. I fumbled for an answer as one would a light switch in the dark. I had been found wanting, and there was nothing I hated more than lack. Here I was, book-smart but spiritually bereft. He said all I had to do was repeat Romans 10:9–10. I did. Then I cried the River Jordan as family and friends rejoiced. Everyone assumed they were tears of joy, so I did, too. Surely, it was the joy of having been born anew, cleansed of all my wickedness.

Maybe some girls dream of white knights on white horses stealing them away to safety. I dreamt of a golden-throated black beauty, the fairest of fairy godmothers, lifting me from my life and into the firmament that I imagined only her voice, ‘The Voice,’ could ever reach.

That summer, my great-grandmother gave me a Bible of my own with silver-gilded page edges and a silk page marker. It was bound in dark-blue leather with my full name imprinted on the front cover in silver foil. I toted it to church every Sunday in a canvas cover, its black striking against the cream upholstery of a fellow deaconess’ evergreen Lincoln Town Car. As we inched down Stenton Avenue, I’d smooth the front of my skirt, willing it to be longer, or better yet, to be slacks. You don’t get much of a say when you don’t buy your own clothes. I could wear pant suits, occasionally. My grandmothers would say, “You got pretty legs like your mother. Why hide them?”

During the sermon, the Pastor Reverend Dr. would call out a scripture, and I would turn to it in a matter of seconds. I’d look forward, eyes eager, spine straight, while the freshly barbered, coiffed, and behatted heads around me were still bowed, brows creased in concentration, onionskin pages rustling like dead leaves in a fall wind. I would feel an approving smile beaming at me from among the sopranos. It’s not just about knowing the Old Testament from the New. You need to know the order of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and their greatest hits. You need to know that Acts is before Corinthians, and Hebrews before all the other Johns.

I would see T. one last time, in eighth grade, at some event at her middle school. I would see her dressed like a boy in baggy jeans, an oversize shirt and straight-backs, chasing some girl up an aisle. I would see her, but she wouldn’t see me. I was just another girl in tight bell-bottoms and butterfly clips. I didn’t stand out from any of my friends and that’s how I liked it. If T. had come to my school, she might have found me groping a ticklish football player’s abs.

* * *

I wouldn’t come out until sophomore year of college when I was 200 miles away and mentally prepared to maintain that distance if I had to. I told my mother, and she told her mother, and none of us told the church mother.

I am told that the first question my grandmother asked was, “Did somebody do something to her?”

My mother once told a therapist what happened to her as a child at the hands of a female cousin and his first question was, “So are you gay?”

And what did I tell myself, as the girl who likes girls who was taken advantage of by a girl and not the big bad wolf she’d learned to expect? I internalized sexual abuse as the consequence of my own aberrant sexuality. After all, who wants to remember herself as the victim?

* * *

The last time I stayed up to catch one of Whitney’s comebacks was in February 2009. It was my senior year of college, and I should have been working on my thesis. Instead, I was splayed out over my comforter with bleary, hungry eyes fixed on an online feed of Clive Davis’s annual pre-Grammys gala. Three years later, hours before that same event, Whitney was gone. At the time the news broke, I was living with my great-grandmother, jobless, hopeless, and contemplating suicide as my final way out. My family was unaware of this. My mother called to see how I was holding up, but Whitney’s death hadn’t hit me the way she’d expected it to. I’d already been dragged underwater by my own untreated mental health issues, so the death of my idol fell over me like a single drop of rain.

Truth be told, over the course of the previous decade I’d become less fanatical and more casual in my appreciation of Whitney. I could believe that she’d conquered the worst of her addiction even if Diane Sawyer wasn’t buying it. But the voice never lied. With the 2002 release of Houston’s fifth studio album, Just Whitney, even I couldn’t deny its considerable deterioration. The bottomless eyes later captured in tabloids were too hauntingly familiar, so I looked away. I know that I watched Whitney’s widely publicized interview with Oprah in the fall of 2009 the same way I know I ate food that day. By comparison, my memory of her appearance on the show 10 years prior is as vivid as the prints and pinks and greens of her Dolce & Gabbana wardrobe.

As a child, I had tethered my wildest dreams to Whitney’s fairy-tale rise to pop superstardom because, to me, she was invulnerable, inviolable, absolutely untouchable. My mother and I were not. I do not remember precisely every departure and arrival in my childhood, but I do remember when Whitney was there to get me through it. She was on the Greyhound bus with my mother and me, in a pair of headphones, lulling me to sleep with “Jesus Loves Me” as my leaden noggin fell onto the lap of the passenger next to us. She was on the radio shoopin’ as our white Pontiac cut through a sea of blackness. Whether my little elbows were propped up on a concrete floor, or a peel-away carpet, or some thick shag, there was Whitney soaring in The Bodyguard on broadcast TV at the end of the year. When Whitney finally fell down to earth, I couldn’t quite make sense of the conflicting emotions it stirred in me. Distancing myself was a way of bracing for how her story eventually ended.

* * *

I deliberately avoided all of the postmortems served up in the wake of Whitney’s death. The massive amount of coverage devoted to her drug addiction felt like an effect passed off as a cause. I dismissed celebrity interviews, prime-time specials, and Hollywood treatments like Lifetime’s Whitney (2015) as attempts to stitch up the pieces of a complex life, hide the seams, and use the result to repackage the shopworn trope of the self-destructive female artist. The recent documentaries — Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017) and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney (2018) — are not wholly exempt from this criticism.

In chronicling the megastar’s rise and fall, the directors exhibit a keen interest in the latter over the former. Broomfield and Dolezal open with footage from the day of Whitney’s death, complete with audio of the 911 call. It is clear from the first shot that her demise is the fuel for their vehicle. In an announcement for Whitney, the only film authorized by Houston’s estate, the director Macdonald expressed that he “approached Whitney’s life like a mystery story; why did someone with so much raw talent and beauty self-destruct so publicly and painfully?” I bristled at the premise and concluded I would have no interest in whatever incomplete or recycled theories came next, authorized or not. Then the Cannes Film Festival reviews broke my assumptions wide open.

When the cords of her slender neck thickened and writhed like roots growing up and not down, threatening eruption, that’s what I heard: the way out.

I was at work, sitting in an office that bore no trace of me as an occupant because I didn’t intend to stay much longer. It was nearing lunchtime, and I was surfing online as a distraction. I wasn’t even looking for it, but there it was in big bold letters: bombshell. Whitney allegedly had been molested as a child by her cousin, the late singer Dee Dee Warwick. My stomach began to pretzel to the extent that I lost my appetite for good.

And then I cried, as I reflected on that unbound and unmoored feeling that no refuge, real or imagined, ever managed to undo. Every time I had turned to the sheer power and pure emotion of Whitney’s voice to give me a sense of security, I’d been unaware that she might have been struggling to find that same security within herself. My desire to see Whitney when it opened on July 6th was borne of recognition.

The revelation of the abuse that dominated every headline after Cannes doesn’t appear until the end of the movie; every whodunit needs its pearl-clutching plot twist. Setting aside what may or may not have been Macdonald’s intentions, the placement of that particular information is an accurate depiction of how unassimilable trauma can be in relation to one’s life story. Trauma resists subsumption under our mythologies of self and has no respect for the boundaries of time. Instead, it hangs outside of our neat narratives like a bully waiting to ambush us after school. Except this bully, we can’t outrun.

* * *

My relationship with my mother had improved significantly after she responded to my coming out with, “You aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know. I just want you to be happy.” I called her after watching the film, angered and saddened in equal measure. Talking about it was my oblique way of tugging on a thread of conversation we tend to pick up only to put down in favor of sunnier subjects.

She listened as I sputtered from one topic to the next. After I finally took a breath, she opened up about her depression. “It’s trapping me in my own body,” she said. She confessed that she has survived four suicide attempts. I feared that she was trying to tell me there would be a fifth. I felt that it was not the appropriate time to tell her I’d tendered my notice of resignation three weeks prior so as not to leave anyone in the lurch. There I was, again, with my toes curled over the edge of my resolve to stay put.

The truth is, I have been dancing on that edge for almost 10 years. I still live in my great-grandmother’s home. She passed away in 2013. The Pastor Reverend Dr. who saved me and presided over her funeral has been succeeded by his son. The deaconess who used to drive us to church in an old Lincoln that took up two parking spaces is now driving a crossover. I know this purely by chance. A couple years ago, I was taking a long walk up the avenue, and when I was about 10 feet from the post office, she pulled up to the curb in a new car. As I was coming up on her passenger-side mirror, she rolled down her window, thrust a letter toward me, and asked me to put it in the mailbox for her. There was no polite preamble, no utterance of my name, just an instruction from an elder to a young’un. I don’t believe she recognized me, and that suited me just fine. The neighborhood kid who flees to the ivory tower only to return and linger for nine years and counting tends to be hyper-visible. I appreciate the times when I go unseen.

The house is almost exactly as my great-grandmother left it. Except the den. After she passed, a fresh layer of dust took up residence. Then the plants died. Too much sun and not enough water. The arms and legs of the rocker slipped out of their sockets. The threadbare couch began leaking straw. One night on a whim, I hauled the furniture out to the sidewalk for trash collection. I packed up the books and moved them into the basement. Then I swept and mopped the linoleum floor, and wiped down the baseboards. In 2015, I turned the empty space into a weight room.

I’d like to move someday for good. Until then, I make myself scarce. I have everything I need shipped to my front door. I wash my clothes up the street around 7 a.m. on a Sunday when the block is still asleep and the laundromat is deserted. I don’t take long walks up the avenue anymore; I run.

*John 14:6, KJV

*From Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

* * *

Niya Marie‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus. She lives in Philadelphia.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson