Whenever Daddy took my waddling self anywhere—a bookbag on his shoulder substituting a traditional diaper bag, a pacifier in one back pocket and a pair of dice in the other, and me dressed in the freshest baby tennis shoes cause my daddy knew a booster, with matching hair bows cause he paid Tasha across the hall to do my hair—all kinds of women would stop and bend down and ask:
“Now whose child is this?”
“Mines,” Daddy would say in between cigarette puffs.
Whenever I wandered around the library, and a librarian found me in the stacks and questioned who I belonged to:
“Mines,” Daddy would shout from nearby even though we were in a library.
I understood that “mines” meant to be claimed. And to be claimed was to be cared for, to be someone’s source of pride.
I didn’t speak until kindergarten, and that’s when I started to spell. It was as if all the words I’d never uttered finally knitted together in my brain, and I wanted to learn—not how to say them but how to spell them. Where could one find these words? How could I learn all the words in the universe?
“The dictionary,” Daddy told me while trying to keep the cigarette smoke away from my face. Or at least I assumed it was a cigarette at the time.
“I want one.”
“Baby girl, I don’t even know where to buy you a dictionary.”
“P-l-e-a-s-e.” I had just learned how to spell that word.
“Who taught you how to spell that?”
“I don’t know. I just did.”
Two weeks later, he brought me a dictionary from the library that we still haven’t returned.
“They won’t miss it.”
By this point, it was just me and Daddy. It’s not like my mother had some tragic tale, a crackhead who left me alone in the apartment while she went to turn tricks. No, quite simply, she loved my father more than she loved me. And when he stopped loving her, she handed me over to him in the same way you hand a waiter the paid bill. With finality. And no need to look back.
Daddy has been my advocate. Working jobs with flexible hours so that he could come to middle-of-the-day assemblies and pick me up every day. We would walk home together, and I’d tell him about the new words I’d learned.
“How you spell that one, baby girl?”
His persistence is what had him at my elementary school every day for a week, demanding that they test me for entry to gifted and talented classes. One day, he burst through the office door, telling the principal, “Just cause she don’t be talking like that don’t mean she ain’t smart. She can spell words you never heard of. Show ’em.” So, I showed them, day after day, until finally the principal relented and let me take the test. I didn’t just get in. I got the highest score in the whole grade. After my first day, Daddy picked me up from school and said:
“These classes gon’ set you up for college, baby girl. Just wait.”
One day, when we got home, he dumped green seeds into brown paper and began to roll it up.
“Listen, baby girl, I need you to learn how to spell as many words as you can cause I got an idea to make us some money.”
“What, Daddy?” I looked up from the dictionary.
“You gonna spell for money. We gonna take these niggas hanging on the corner for all they got. They shooting dice, but you’ll be shooting words.”
Once I got old enough and good enough at spelling, Daddy started taking me out on the streets, the ones held down by the hustlers, the pimps, and the gamblers, their presence a constant as folks orbited around them to get to work or school or the doctor’s office or the grocery store. Daddy interrupted dice games and drug transactions and gathered people around to bet on how many words I could spell.
At first, Daddy carried the dictionary we stole from the library and had someone pick a word at random. The only problem was that half the time, no one knew how to say the word so I couldn’t spell it. Then Daddy downloaded the dictionary app on his phone so we could hear it pronounced.
They were incredulous in the beginning. Uncertain if a little girl who could spell big words was worthy of their money.
“Alright, alright, alright. The first word is free,” Daddy always said, and everyone would laugh. Then someone picked out a word from the dictionary. He would let the white lady sound it out and give me a look.
“Can you spell that one, baby girl?”
“You know I can, Daddy.”
Then I would put on a show. Appear nervous. Stutter. Ask to hear the word again. Ask for a definition. Then I would spell it, hesitant and labored, my eyes on them and their eyes on the word to make sure I was spelling it right. They held their breath until the end, the whole time asking if I was worth the bet. When I got it right, there was a mix of elation and disappointment. These were gambling men, and they were willing to take the risk.
“Alright, gonna start y’all off at five dollars. Put your money down if you think my baby don’t have what it takes. House takes it if she do.”
“I don’t know. That’s a mighty big word.”
“She can’t spell that.”
“Watch her,” Daddy’d say.
Prospicience (noun): the act of looking forward; foresight.
Idiosyncrasy (noun): a mannerism or habit peculiar to an individual.
Chrematistic (adjective): of or relating to making money.
The words kept coming. I had a 92% success rate.
“Gotta get up to at least ninety-eight, baby girl.”
We made at least $80 on a good day. 200 dollars on a great day. Enough to have food for the week or keep the lights on or buy some new shoes. We hit various neighborhoods and street corners. Uptown. Trinidad. Deanwood. Usually places where my father had at least one friend who would vouch for him, make sure we didn’t get robbed or worse. In the circles of people who managed to stay in the shadows, even in daylight, my name went from “Starlita” to “Starspella.”
We spelled around town and “took niggas for their money” for three years until one day, about three months ago, it ended. Daddy wanted me to spell, and I wanted to go to Gallery Place to meet up with my Misha. She was not just my best friend but my only friend, the one it took forever to make because I was the weird girl who hardly spoke and always spelled.
I didn’t imagine us as friends at first. We had the same gym period and changed near each other, and she would just lift her shirt and change from sports bra to real bra like she was alone. After a few weeks, she said:
“Girl, why you got your back turned when we all have the same stuff?”
We did not have the same stuff. Her stuff was way rounder and bigger than mine, and she knew it. I put on my bra and T-shirt and turned around and said just that. She laughed and said:
“I’m Misha. Wanna do something after school?”
Everything about us was different. She lived uptown. Rowhouse with a yard. Two parents. College degrees and Christmas lights. Electricity and home-cooked food. The best thing was that her mom had books by almost every Black woman on the planet. She even started a cool book club with us. We’d read The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, and next up was The Bluest Eye. Misha’s family never treated me like I didn’t belong, and being with her let me taste a happiness I didn’t know was possible.
Going to Gallery Place became our thing, and that’s what I wanted to do that Saturday instead of spelling on street corners, but Daddy said:
“No time for that. Bills due.”
“It’s not my job to pay the bills. It’s yours.”
“You living in this house. It’s both ours.” Then Daddy repeated his favorite saying. “Listen, girl. After twelve years old, kids stop being cute and expensive and just become expensive.”
We made our way to a neighborhood we’d been to a few times. After a few 50 degree days, the weather had reached 70 and people were acting like it was summer. Holding down front stoops and sidewalks. Somebody’s grill was going, the smoke making its way up the block. An old man was bent over, scrubbing his car down with soapy water.
Daddy found our marks, and we began to play. Won $30 the first round. Then another forty. Twenty after that. Took a break when the ice cream truck drove by, and Daddy peeled some money from his stack and let me buy a bomb pop.
“Couple more rounds, OK?”
“I’m ready to go. I want to meet Misha.”
“Gotta do it another time. We almost there. I swear.”
We were always almost there. But never close enough. This time though, Daddy said some of the money would go to me for once, for what I wanted: the end-of-the-year class trip. A deposit was due on Monday, and Daddy promised he’d get the money. But now, it was me doing all the work just so I could get to do normal kid stuff.
“Two more rounds.”
“Daddy, I’m really ready to go now.”
“Just a few more.”
“Star, don’t make me embarrass you out here.”
“I don’t care what—”
“I got fo’hundred that says she can’t spell the next word I give her.”
The voice boomed, and the other men took a collective step back.
“Black came to play,” someone said.
“Heard a lot about this little girl. Wanna see what she’s got,” Black said.
Black was everything his name promised. Black like the sky along the country road we went down to get to our family reunion in Virginia, and as wide as one too.
“Four hundred, you said?” Daddy had one hand in his pocket, was probably running it across the stack of money we’d—well, I—had won. The other hand was on the patch of hair he’d rubbed bald.
“Yeah, we got that.”
Black put his money down. Daddy put ours.
Black pointed to the word. Daddy played it on the app.
We collected our money. Daddy eyed the bus stop. We took a couple steps.
“Double or nothing,” Black said.
“Baby girl, we could really use this money.”
Sixteen hundred dollars on the ground.
I knew how to spell the word right away, and I knew the stakes. This was the most money anyone had ever put down. And there was Daddy with more than a grin. He had a real for-real smile on his face, his “I’m already spending the money in my head” smile. But there was no smile on my face, and since Daddy didn’t seem to understand or care about what I wanted, I decided I had to make him understand. So, I put an “a” after the “c” and walked away before it could be declared wrong. Before I could see my father’s face change.
We didn’t speak for two weeks. He picked up a night shift with a delivery company, leaving me alone until morning. It was weird at first—just me and the silence and the smell of the smoke that clung to every wall and corner. But then it was fun because Misha and I got to talk on the phone for hours. She always wanted to FaceTime.
“Let me see your house, your room,” she’d shriek like she’d never seen a kitchen, a couch, or a bed before. I always had to find a way to evade her questions, to rush her off the phone so she wouldn’t see the truth of my life.
When Daddy finally spoke, it was three words:
“You owe me.”
So, when I told him about the school’s ninth-grade spelling bee, and he told me there was a teen pageant the same day, the choice wasn’t mine to make. He’d already signed me up.
“Why would you do this?”
“Thousand-dollar cash prize for first place, and we need the money because of that little stunt you pulled,” he said like I had forgotten about the past couple of weeks, about the hellhole that was our apartment, how the lights had been cut off last week, and the gas company was threatening to do the same the next. Even though I knew his mind was made up, that I would have to be in this damn pageant coming up, I still tried to make him see the flaws in his plan.
“What if I don’t win first place?”
“Five hundred dollars for second, two-fifty for third.”
“And what if I don’t place at all?”
“Oh. You gonna place. I can feel it.”
“What am I going to wear?”
“We’ll go get you something at the thrift store. Take the train all the way uptown. Shepherd Park.”
“So you want to spend money we don’t have for the chance, for the slim possibility, to get more?”
“Scared money don’t make money. Plus, already paid the entry fee.”
“More money,” I screamed and threw up my hands. With no bedroom to storm into, I just walked around in a circle until I made myself dizzy.
It is the day of the pageant. We have to take a bus, a train, and another bus to get all the way out there. Mitchellville, Maryland. Or Bougieville, as Daddy calls it. It’s Saturday, which means everything’s running on a weekend schedule. I stare out the bus window and watch the trees that seem to be able to breathe easier out here, in all this space, all this wealth and opportunity.
“We’re cutting it kind of close,” I say to Daddy.
“Don’t worry. This is nigga shit. You know we don’t ever start on time.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him that a teen pageant sponsored by the nation’s oldest Black sorority will not be nigga shit. That they will most definitely start on time as an attempt to defy stereotypes and will frown at us when we walk in late.
I slide deeper into my seat, close my eyes, and imagine myself at the spelling bee, where I truly belong. They’re probably just about to get started. All the participants have filed in, taken their seats on the stage, waved those weird “hi, mom” waves. I imagine my biggest competition is looking for me—Matthew Bradley from English class—wondering why I’m not sitting in my assigned seat. I didn’t tell anyone I wasn’t going just in case Daddy changed his mind at the last minute. Just in case he realized that me being in this pageant is a dumb idea. Or just in case he realized the importance of making me happy for once.
“You got your song ready, baby girl? You know we need this money,” Daddy says to me now.
I resist saying that we always need the money.
“Daddy, I don’t know about singing. I’m not the . . .”
“Not the what? Remember how you tore the church down that time at our family reunion?”
“Daddy, I didn’t tear the house down. People just clapped cause you have to clap when a kid is singing their heart out. If not, their confidence would be ruined for life.”
“No, people clapped cause you were good. You know I don’t say things I don’t mean.”
Daddy holds up the two bottles of water we picked up at the 7-Eleven before we boarded the bus.
“Now, which one I been drinking from? Oh, I think this one’s mines.”
When we arrive at the hotel, we have thirty minutes until the pageant starts. We find the makeshift dressing room, which is really just a conference room adjacent to the ballroom where the pageant will take place. It smells like a combination of teen angst, glitter, and strawberry-kiwi body spray, with all the girls mid-primp as mothers apply makeup or put their daughter’s store-bought hair in impossible updos. Shimmering gowns hang everywhere like chandeliers, and I clutch my $25 thrift-store dress, a Pepto-Bismol pink mess of lace and tulle, knowing for certain that this dress and I don’t belong.
Daddy rolls through in his usual enter-like-a-hurricane way all while hollering for the organizer, Ms. Thompson. Everyone stares for what seems like forever.
“What, can’t nobody speak? Where is Ms. Thompson?”
Finally, everyone points to the large woman bursting out of her pastel pink suit.
“Ms. Thompson,” Daddy says as she approaches. “We here.”
“Who is we?” she asks in between instructions to a woman on her left in an apple-green dress.
Her voice is crisp and staccato. Daddy can’t stand Black people who sound white. He always says, “Not really sure where they come from or if they know they Black like the rest of us.” But as soon as we came in, I heard someone call Ms. Thompson Tameka, so there’s a chance that she came from the same place as us but maybe got a scholarship to college so she could become something, someone else.
“Ms. Thompson. My name is DeAndre Taylor. Like I said, me and my daughter are here. Where do we set up? What’s the plan?”
We are still standing by the door, but his voice bounces off every wall and settles in the middle of the room so that everyone’s eyes go from him to me back to him and then at each other in the way people do when they’re obviously using telepathy to talk about you.
“Sir, you’re late. You should have been here almost two hours ago. And you didn’t come to the—”
“The joint don’t start till 12 though.”
“—rehearsal yesterday, which was mandatory.”
“What rehearsal? I ain’t see nothing about a rehearsal.”
“It was all in your packet of information we sent to you.”
“Packet? What packet? You know the mail don’t be coming for days now. What address you got? When’d you send it? Starlita, we get a packet?”
All eyes back to me. I shake my head.
“See. No packet. Now what?”
“Now nothing. You didn’t attend the rehearsal. You’re late. Your daughter won’t know where to stand or what—”
“She’s smart. She can watch the others.”
“Mr. Taylor, that’s not the point. Everything is choreographed a certain way, and the other girls have worked very hard, and your daughter has not, so it’s not fair—”
I grab Daddy’s hand and squeeze it, my silent plea to just drop it, take the hit so we can make our way back to where we belong. But he doesn’t.
“I don’t wanna hear about no fair. We here. I paid the entry fee. Now my daughter is gonna be in that pageant, or we gonna have a problem.”
“Are you threatening me? Because I can call security right now and have them escort you out.”
“You don’t wanna do that.”
“Well, I’m not going nowhere until you say my daughter’s in the pageant, so do what you gotta do.”
I love when Daddy stands up for me, but the look on Ms. Thompson’s face has me fearing the cops are about to escort us out, and even though he isn’t crazy enough to fight them, he is still going to make a scene.
“Daddy.” It comes out sharper than I intended and with a tinge of embarrassment. I clear my throat so that my next words are forceful and clear. “Maybe we should just go.”
“Nope! I paid. So that means that you’re in the pageant.”
“Well, maybe they could give us our money back?”
Ms. Thompson and I make eye contact, and I can see that she’s thinking about it, like she would actually cut us a check right now with maybe some extra if that’s what it would take for us to get outta her face.
“I don’t want my money back. I want you in the pageant so that you can win the grand prize. You heard that, Ms. Lady?”
“Now look.” Ms. Thompson drops a piece of the bougie mask, sucks her teeth and starts a neck roll.
“Just let her in,” the lady in the green whispers so half the room can hear. “I mean, it’s not like she’s going to win.”
A knowing laugh tiptoes around the room.
“Bitch, what did you just say?”
“You, stay,” Ms. Thompson says, pointing to me. “And you, get the hell out. And I mean all the way out this mothafuckin’ hotel, or I won’t be calling the police, I’ll be calling my husband.”
Daddy backs away to the door and gives me a “I did it for you, girl” wink. I’m glad he’s gone, but now I’m stuck alone in this room with a bunch of people who’d rather I not be here. Nobody speaks, they just stare, at least forty pairs of eyes watching me find a corner spot. Other than the thrift-store gown, I only brought one other outfit that I change into, a floral-print Easter dress my Holy Roller, sanctified aunt insisted on buying me just so she could drag me to church. A girl hands me a tube of lipstick and gives me a weak smile, which makes me feel pitied but not despised.
Is it out of generosity, or does she not want her lipstick back from me—the obvious poor girl?
There are no mirrors in here except for the ones that people brought, so I use my phone camera to apply the donated lipstick and brush my hair. The women buzz around me—fixing hems, putting rhinestone barrettes into weaved hair, applying blush, zipping girls up into dresses, taking selfies and posting them on social media. The mothers fuss over their daughters in ways I don’t understand but envy all the same. I want to text my mom, tell her where I am and see not just if she’ll respond but if she would even come rescue me. But I decide against it because I’ve already dealt with enough today, and I don’t want to add heartbreak to the list. So, I just sit in my corner, staring off into space, wondering what round they’re on at the spelling bee.
“I can’t believe she’s actually going to participate. And did you see her father, just so uncouth,” someone says in between laughs. I want to channel the kind of DC girl they think I am and rise up and ask, “Who the hell you talking ’bout,” just like my daddy would do. But instead, I scoot further into the table to distance myself even more, close my eyes, and will myself to have a superpower that would allow me to disappear.
“Places, ladies,” a voice calls out.
No such luck.
“You’re in the back,” Lady in the Green says as she hands me a number to pin to my dress.
Since the rooms are adjoined, we can enter the ballroom from the back door of this one. I stand at the end of the line. Once we get closer and I can see the stage, I watch as each girl walks to the front, twirls, and then gives her name. They all have names like Taylor and Ava and Zoe and Camille. The kind of name that’s light on your tongue, that fools white people into thinking you’re just like them. What I notice most is the tremendous applause that follows each girl’s introduction.
It is my turn. I get to the front, and then I see him. My daddy. In the back corner, right next to the door. Grinning. But with one hand on the door just in case. I skip the twirl, which I know will make my dad mad, but at this point, I don’t care.
“Starlita Taylor,” I emphasize each syllable.
And when I look out into the crowd, I can see all the fathers and husbands and siblings and grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins and play cousins. And there is no one for me except my daddy. This is not like when I sang at church, when people clapped along and yelled, “Sing, girl!” Instead, this moment has the intensity of a firing squad, women in designer shoes and men in bowties. And what hurts most is that there are only a few pity claps when I walk off the stage.
We are in the dressing room again, and I can hear the MC welcoming the audience. Green Dress calls out:
“Ten minutes to change into your next outfits, and then it’s time to present yourself to the judges. Be sure to speak slowly, articulate, and remember, ladies. Keep it under five minutes. OK?”
Next outfit? I only have what I already changed into and the thrift-store evening gown. I look around the room, and girls are unzipping out of dresses or pulling new outfits onto their bodies. I shake the evening gown out of its plastic bag. Green Dress Lady, who was just across the room, is suddenly at my side.
“It’s not time for evening gowns yet. Where’s your baby pink outfit?”
“See, this was all in your packet and why you should have been at rehearsal.”
“I only have this,” I say, holding up the pink, thrift-store dress. The large, magenta bow seems to be taunting me for daring to even try.
“That’s all you brought? For a pageant? Where’s Tameka? She’s going to have to decide if you can even participate.”
Green Dress writes something on her clipboard and then walks away, speaking into her walkie-talkie: “Tameka, come in. We have a code-red situation, and you’re needed in the dressing room ASAP. Over.”
I don’t even have time to roll my eyes because a voice, a mixture of curiosity and amusement, fills the room:
“That looks like Leslie’s dress from two years ago.”
Who the hell is Leslie, I want to ask, but the question is answered for me by a different voice—older, but the amused tone is the same.
“I think you’re right. Your sister looked so beautiful in that winning dress.”
There are collective head nods and yessss as everyone seems to remember this Leslie girl, the dress, her beauty, her win.
So, the two of them are mother and daughter. The mother is so light, I’d thought she was white until now. Her voice, a familiar drawl that reminds me of my grandma, changes my mind. She is slender, outfitted in a white pantsuit with pink heels and a rhinestone sorority pin. If a swan were a person. I snicker to myself. The daughter is browner, the color of the moving boxes you see stacked in dumpsters, but I am still the darkest of the three. As they get closer, I can’t help but gaze at their hair, their loose curls blowing as if an imaginary fan followed them all day long. “They got that good hair,” I can hear in the voice of every woman whose knees I’ve sat between as they braided my tight hair into a style that would last for at least two weeks.
They get a closer look at the dress that was once theirs. The mother picks up the dress and runs her fingers across the lace.
“Yes, this is definitely Leslie’s dress. I got it from the Barneys when we were in New York for the Jack and Jill Ball. One of a kind.”
“Well, I found it in the thrift store,” I shoot back.
“In Shepherd Park, right?”
I want to lie, but I can see in her smirk that she knows she has me cornered. It all comes into focus. Shepherd Park. Its quiet streets, the stately houses made of brick and stone, a neighborhood that can make you forget you’re even in the city because there’s no trash or dirt or grit. It’s not just Swan Lady’s home but where she knows she belongs. And knows I do not.
I just lower my head in confirmation.
“Mmm, yes . . . I donated it because I mean, of course, it’s a dress you can only wear once.”
There is a pause. And then she continues:
“Well, I guess it can be worn twice, just not by the same person.” Swan Lady laughs and a few of the other moms join in like she’s their leader or something.
My whole body feels hot—a mixture of embarrassment and rage.
I want my daddy here, right now, to defend me. He would do what I can’t, tell them to shut up cause they still Black and ain’t better than no damn body. The most I can get out is a weak “I look good in this dress.”
Swan Lady spins around. “Oh, I’m sure you do, honey. I’m sure you look just fine.”
I take two gulps and two steps, and I am in her face now, my fists and chest tight, not sure whether I want to throw a punch or cry. I can hear my daddy in my head telling me not to be no punk.
“Nah, lady, you not about to be talking to me any kind of way.” It doesn’t come out as tough as I want, but it is a start, and I hope it’s enough for Bougie to back down.
I touch her shoulder. Not a push, just a warning.
Swan Lady doesn’t flinch. She applies two fingers of pressure on my shoulder. Her voice gets low, and her lips press against my ear.
“Look, little girl, don’t let this suit and pin fool you. I will wipe the floor with your ass.”
“Let’s go then,” I yell, figuring acting crazy is the next card to play for these people to stop fucking with me. I knock her hand off my shoulder and bring my clenched fists up to my face and get in the best fighting stance I can imagine. Suddenly there are hands all over me, pulling me away.
Green Dress bursts in the door. “Alright, y’all.” She fully assesses the scene, strangers dragging me, and Swan Lady muttering something about being from the Eastside of Detroit, putting a heavy emphasis on the “D.”
“What’s going on in here?”
“Nothing, Jennifer,” Swan Lady says all proper like she wasn’t just about to beat my ass.
Green Dress is dubious, but there’s no time to dispute the story.
“Ladies, we have two minutes. Starlita, Tameka said you can wear whatever you have on. We made the judges aware that’s all you brought with you. They might dock some points, but, well, it probably doesn’t matter anyway.” Her voice gets cotton-candy sweet again as she calls for everyone to take their places.
I am last again. From the dressing room, I listen to each girl introduce herself, share all the things she’s accomplished in fifteen or sixteen years: the awards, the community service, the summer-camp experiences and membership-only organizations, their dream colleges and professions. When certain colleges are called—Spelman, Hampton, Howard—there are loud cheers from the audience. A shared kinship that I both envy and resent.
I can’t compete here—that much is clear—so I close my eyes and imagine myself at the spelling bee, the place I was supposed to be. On turf that was mine. Where I am the best. I hate my father for making me come here. I hate these women, their children, this feeling of being less than. Hate. Despise. Detest. Abhor.
It is finally my turn. At the front of the stage, I see my father, still in the back corner with that grin on his face. I can’t figure out whether it’s pride to see me or the look of a hustler who thinks he’s going to win. He can’t seriously think we are going to win. I don’t even have on the right color outfit for this category.
I smile at all the bougies sitting in the front row. I make my voice sound like theirs—sweet on the outside but full of venom when you crack the shell.
“My name is Starlita Taylor. I am a native Washingtonian, and I am a freshman at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Some of my favorite things to do are reading, writing, and spelling. In fact, I am supposed to be winning a spelling bee right now, but I am here instead. And so, I would like to demonstrate some of my spelling skills. Are you ready?”
A current of excitement shoots through the crowd. I have diverted from the norm, and they are getting a show they weren’t expecting. My father is taking bites of a banana that was meant for us contestants. He must have taken it before getting removed from the dressing room.
I count to twenty in my head, figuring that’s enough time to build up suspense. With my best Miss-America smile, I spell:
I don’t run off the stage right away. This time, I stay to see my daddy’s face. To see the bougies’ faces. Ms. Thompson’s face. Green Dress and Swan Lady. Make sure that everyone can see mine too, glowing with defiant satisfaction.
But then, I start to see my daddy coming towards the stage. His smile is gone, and the anger vein is thumping across his forehead. I run to the dressing room, grab my bag, and go through a maze of hallways. Just before I reach an exit door, I feel a hand on my arm. I forgot that my daddy used to run track. I am spun around.
“Starlita, what the fuck?”
My face is wet with tears, and my daddy’s eyes widen. We are both quiet, and I am not sure whether I should hug him or keep on running. But the silence is broken with his sharp words:
“Why would you do that? We had a plan!”
“No, that was your plan. I told you I didn’t want to do this dumb pageant. And then, they treated me like I didn’t belong. Like I told you.”
“I don’t care. I wanted to spell. Why couldn’t you just let me do that? Let me have my own win without a bill attached to it. I just wanted something that was mines! Do you understand? Mines. Definition: that which belongs to me.”
I shake my father’s grip and run out the door.
I run and run and run to the bus stop. For the first time in a long time, God answers my prayers, and the bus arrives in five minutes. I get on. My phone is ringing, but I don’t even bother to look because I know it’s him. I find a seat in the back and text Misha:
Hru. So much drama 2day. Can u meet me in like an hour?
Starrrrrr!! What happened? K. I’ll meet u after ballet. Our spot?
My phone buzzes all through the bus ride, the wait for the train, and the train ride. It stops just as I’m getting off the train at Gallery Place. It is always busy down here, today even more so cause all the white people from Maryland and Virginia are walking around half-drunk in their Caps jerseys and hats. I push through them, walk past the boys beating on plastic buckets for money and the Hebrew Israelite man standing on a crate, yelling something about the evils of America.
I take out my phone. There are six voicemails. I listen to the first one:
“Star! Star!” There is worry in Daddy’s voice. Where’d you go?”
The fourth one is pleading:
“Star, please answer the phone so we can talk about this. You got these people looking at me crazy, wondering what happened and where you went.”
The sixth one. The tone is flat, but the anger is there:
“Aight, Star. This how you wanna be, huh? Fine, whatever.”
There is a resignation in his voice that I’ve never heard before, and for a brief moment, I wonder if my daddy has given up on me for good. And suddenly, I’m worried that I’ve lost my best advocate forever.
When I get to the Portrait Gallery, Misha is standing at the top of the steps outside, her box braids swinging in the wind. I gallop up and hug her. We are the same height but different shapes—her chunky, me wiry.
We skip the portraits of President Obama and First Lady Michelle that all the tourists gather around to see. We know the best rooms with the fewest people.
As we move from painting to painting, Misha asks:
“So, what happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, you called me all stressed and said you had to meet me right away, so obviously, you do want to talk about it.”
“Everything went wrong today. My father acted a fool in front of all these bougie people, and then they made me feel like I wasn’t shit.”
“What made them so bougie?”
“They were stuck-up, snobbish, those I’m-better-than-you Black people even though we all Black.”
“Oh, Star,” Misha says like a disappointed parent. “Are you sure you’re not exaggerating?”
Before I can answer, we pass a portrait, and I stop. It is one I’ve seen many times but never paid attention to until I learned its importance. But now I know who Toni Morrison is.
It has been almost six weeks since Misha’s mom gave us each a copy of The Bluest Eye and said we would discuss it when we were done. I finished in three days. And then read it again two weeks later. I was obsessed with the language Morrison used. The words. Every sentence seemed to be more beautiful than the last. And the story. A girl wanting something that is impossible.
“Did you finish it yet?”
Misha shakes her head. I sigh. I should have known. Numbers were Misha’s thing, not words. But I want her to finish so we can talk about the feeling of longing. Does Misha even know what it is to want for something?
We wander the museum until we both get hungry. Our favorite place, Chipotle, is a few blocks away. We order, and she pays without her asking and without me protesting.
Midway through our burritos, Misha presses for more details. I realize she’s not going to let this go, so I tell her everything: missing the spelling bee for the pageant, the pink dress, Swan Lady and the Eastside of Detroit, cursing everyone out. Everything.
“I hate them, all of them. Abhor. And that is not hyperbole.”
“My mom is in that sorority,” Misha whispers.
“Huh? You’re lying. But she seems so regular.”
“I mean, she is regular, she’s her own person or whatever, but she’s still in the sorority. She’s not as active now, but when I go to college, she’ll reinstate her membership so I can pledge legacy.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s when your mom . . . oh, sorry.”
“It’s OK, it’s not like she’s dead.”
“Yeah, but still, I don’t wanna be a jerk. I know y’all have a fraught relationship. See, I learned a new word just for you, Star.”
I allow myself to smile and say, “So I gotta learn a new equation next week?”
We laugh, and it feels so good. So regular.
“OK, keep going, your mom, legacy, blah . . .”
She explains everything about sororities like she’s already in one. She says it with the same confidence of those other girls in the ballroom, and I admire how they can visualize their future lives with such clarity. Whenever I think about college, it seems both possible and impossible at the same time. A dream I can touch, and yet it still remains at arm’s length. Because I know I’m smart enough to get in, but then what?
“So you want to do that, like really? Be one of them?”
“It’s a sisterhood. They have each other’s back.”
“Just each other’s, huh?”
“I mean, I don’t understand how you thinking about making imaginary friends in college when we are friends right now, and I’m telling you about them being terrible to me.”
“Yeah, we’re friends now, but who knows—”
“Who knows what?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No, say it.”
“Well, I mean, like are you even going to go to college? I want to go to FAMU, where my dad went, or maybe Hampton, where my mom went. Where would you go?”
Misha takes a huge bite of her burrito. As I nibble on a chip and Misha runs her tongue over her braces, it comes into focus that we might like the same things, we might even be the same color, but we are not the same. And I’m not sure what to do with the sadness that accompanies that thought.
“I haven’t thought about it, really.”
That’s a lie. How would I pay for tuition and books and for housing and food and just to live? There are a million broke kids, all with our hands out for the limited amount of money, aid, care. Plus, what would my father do without me?
“It doesn’t matter, I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Star, I just don’t want you to think that’s how they all are.”
“If you say so.”
“So what, you mad at me now?”
I don’t know what I want to do except eat my free burrito, but even that’s not satisfying me at this point. I don’t even know if I can explain the want for both security and freedom. We eat the rest of our meal in silence, scrolling on our phones between chews.
“Wanna shop?” Misha asks as she gathers our trash.
“Nah. I’m gonna head home. My dad’s probably worried about me.”
That seems like a better thing to say than not having any money. I don’t want Misha to make both of us feel bad about it.
“OK, see you Monday then.”
“See ya, I guess,” I say with a shrug.
It is getting dark, which means the wait for the bus will only grow longer. As I make the journey home, watching the night drape itself across the city, I wonder what my daddy and I will say to each other when I’m back. Or if we will even say anything at all.
In these last few moments alone, I close my eyes and try to imagine a world that is mine. One where I am enough and I have enough.
Finally, I am at my door, wiping the last few tears away, turning the key and anticipating the worst of my father’s temper. He’s on the couch. He looks up from rolling his J and says:
“I see you decided to come home, huh.”
A part of me wants to ask where else would I go, but instead I just say:
I look down at the table and see two paper plates wrapped in foil. Daddy notices and says:
“Oh yeah. I made those bougie-ass women feel so bad about how they treated you, that it made you run out the pageant, so they gave me a couple hundred dollars and let me bring some plates of food home. This one’s mines, and the other is yours.”
With a wink, he lifts the foil from his plate and hands me the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen.