With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My attraction to thick girls began when I was eleven and growing up in the South Bronx. For the most part I hung out with my Uncle Kove, who was ten years older than me and a master of kung fu, gymnastics, and graffiti art. He had the initial attraction to larger girls. That was also the year I discovered my parents’ devotion to the crack pipe, and Kove became the closest thing to a savior or superhero that I was going to get. I endeavored to love all that he loved.
As a boy in the boroughs, I was immersed in a male culture that adored voluptuous black, Puerto Rican, and Dominican women. It was common, if not obligatory, for men to salivate over thick thighs, asses, and breasts, all sheathed in skintight, faded jeans and slick halters. Uncle Kove naturally was attracted to these big girls, but he didn’t stop there: he went for the dark-skinned sisters, the ones mothers warned their daughters they would look like if they played too long in the sun; the ones boys dared one another to kiss as penalty for a lost bet. Many of us felt a secret longing for these girls, but we denied it because of an urban hierarchy that defined the value of a girl’s thickness by the fairness of her skin.
One afternoon Kove and I were at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, standing in a crowd that had gathered to hear a group of teenage boys beat on the underside of plastic buckets with drumsticks. Every so often Kove would nudge me and flick his chin in the direction of a plump, dark girl who had wandered into the fold. He’d lick his lips and grunt and mumble how much he wanted to “get between them crisp thighs” or “handle that black ass.” On the walk back to the train station, I asked Kove, Why those girls? It wasn’t that I found anything repulsive about their black skin, but I was too young to know much about desire. Too young to recognize that one must desire if he has any hopes of becoming something other than what he is. I needed Kove to help me understand why men and women long for each other.
He grinned and nodded as though he’d been expecting the question. At the top of the subway steps, he leaned close (I could smell the scents of permanent magic marker and spray paint on his clothes) and said, “The dark ones are the finest.”
I’d been raised by a mother who preached the importance of always wearing clean underwear, carrying breath mints in your pocket, and using lip balm in the winter, and a stepfather who threatened to whip the ass of anyone on the block who messed with his kids. But these formerly protective parents were now pipe-smoking zombies. I had no real idea what drug abuse was, only that it made people weak in the head and heart and limbs. Many years later I learned that Uncle Kove’s mother had been an alcoholic, and I wondered whether he had positioned himself in my path because we had this in common. Our relationship was more than just uncle and nephew: he was the man who made the idea of women real for me and taught me that possessing them was crucial to my existence. If Kove believed there was something grand in the darkness of thick women, or the thickness of dark women, then I’d devote my energy to cultivating that same desire.
People in the Queensbridge Housing Projects, where Kove lived, considered him odd because he spent his money on paint cans and samurai swords instead of gold caps for his teeth and beepers for his hip, but he remained a stud to all those women who felt like outcasts themselves. He wasn’t always faithful to the women who were caught up in his mystique, but these girls would tolerate his affairs (for a time, at least), perhaps because their only alternatives were loving an urban thug or being alone. And every once in a while, when Kove fell hard for a girl, he’d spray her name on the side of the elevated 7 train that traveled back and forth from Queens to Manhattan, and it moved the girl, and me, to see her identity carried across the sky in his unorthodox, elegant calligraphy.
The first steady girl I remember Kove having was a truly dark-skinned, stocky beauty named Denise. She was the kind of dark girl who, if she could have pulled off that layer of pigment and replaced it with any other color, would’ve been just as fine-looking to anyone on the block as she was to Kove. Any number of times she caught me checking her out, because I could never manage to be sly about it. But she was used to folks staring and puzzling over how someone so dark could still be so lovely.
Denise seemed aware of my attraction to her and would stand close to me when she talked and throw her arm around my shoulder. Often she promised to hook me up with her younger sister, though she never did. I didn’t care. It was enough to have Denise squeeze my biceps and tell me my arms were getting bigger every day, even though they were no thicker than garden hoses, or rebuke me for running my mouth too much about shit I knew nothing about. She treated Kove the same way, only with more sincerity and fidelity, and the more time I spent in their presence, the more obvious it was why he cared for her. I couldn’t help wondering if my mother and stepfather had been crazy about each other as well before they’d decided to live for the rock.
By the time I got to Walton High School, I was spending much of my time trying to master some gimmick to get me laid, though with no success. I wasn’t one of those sharp-dressed black boys capable of keeping unscuffed their brilliantly white and expensive sneakers. I was athletic, but too skinny to do anything with the ability; I was tall, but not tall enough to grab the basketball rim; and, finally, my skin was as uninteresting as a brown paper bag, not the smooth caramel complexion black girls seemed to come out of the womb preferring.
Though I had little to offer a girl, it didn’t stop me from falling for a number of big-breasted, thick-thighed, light-skinned sisters. Kove’s ideology still held its place with me, and I fondly remembered my heart doing its nervous thing whenever Denise came close, but the dark girls I knew in high school weren’t Denise. They had no connection to Kove. They were just there, and yet deliberately hidden at the same time, shadowy figures who were punished for the way they looked, as I felt punished for having crackheads for parents; it was too much for me to reach out to them. The fairer-skinned, thick girls stroked their hair and chewed their gum and strode up and down the halls with a confidence that made me believe the love we could share would heal my home life. When those African American queens didn’t reward my fealty by leading me to their bedrooms — and when it became clear that my parents would not wake up one day cured of their addiction, as I’d dreamed they would — I became bitter. I joined the fraternity that viciously ridiculed thick, dark girls by referring to them as “dungeon dark,” “fat black bitches,” and “stank, burnt heifers.”
Degrading these girls became so reflexive to me I cannot remember now any specific instance of it. The cruelty soothed my pain and offered protection, as Kove once had, against that which threatened to break my heart or kill me. If I had to endure watching my parents smoke themselves to death (ironically, they seemed more alive after hitting the pipe), then it was time for someone else to feel like shit for a change. It was easy to put my foot on the heads of those bottom-rung girls, just as it was easy for those fairer-skinned princesses to do the same to me.
One afternoon, from my grandmother’s bedroom window, I watched Kove and Denise make their way across the project courtyard, where a group of gold-chain-wearing, capped-tooth guys were rolling dice. Kove was wearing a double-lined kung fu jacket with the sleeves rolled back at the cuff and Chinese slippers. Denise was swaying proudly on his arm. After the two of them passed by, a few of the dice rollers folded over at the waist and held fists over their mouths to suppress laughter. Others made swift, chopping motions with their hands, or drew their upper lips back so that their teeth protruded in an ugly caricature of Asian people. I wanted to bash those guys’ heads into the pavement and tear out their throats. And then I wanted to do the same thing to myself, for beneath my rage was the relief that I was safe in my grandmother’s bedroom and not down in the courtyard, where I would have been considered just as cursed as those two people I adored.
After that day, there was no way I could hang out with Kove, no way I could look at either him or Denise and pretend not to care about the clothes they wore or the color of their faces. I realized then that I’d never really loved my uncle, only idolized him, and, compared to love, idolatry was a cheap high: the inhalation from the pipe, the smoke hitting the brain, the fleeting orgasms throughout the body.
Blinded by the desperate need to be saved from my life, I’d never noticed just how black-faced Kove was, nor that those girls hadn’t adored him simply because he preferred the combination of their massive hips and dark skin, but because he and they were allies in a war with the people who hated them — but who really hated themselves. And now I was also an enemy of Kove and Denise, and too lost in my own hurt to recognize that their pain was mine as well; too proud of my brown complexion to give a damn when Kove offered me one last maxim, after he’d realized I was ashamed to be around him and Denise anymore: Touch a girl who believes she should not be touched, and you will be loved forever.
The first thick, dark-skinned girl I dared to care for was named Latoya. We were fifteen. She had a birthmark on her neck that was identical to one on mine: a discoloration that began at the center of the chest and spread over the collarbones. We were also both Geminis and both liked writing poems. There seemed to be no one else on the block linked by such obscure similarities, and though we often talked about what it all meant, our relationship didn’t turn romantic. We dismissed the possibility of love and sex because we had known each other most of our childhood and had watched each other’s bodies grow: mine into something wiry and bland, and hers into something undesirably thick, because she was so dark. A few flimsy connections weren’t enough to pull us out of our positions in the urban hierarchy of body shape and skin tone.
But that changed when we discovered something else we had in common: our mothers smoked crack together.
Soon after the welfare check arrived at the beginning of each month, I’d be awakened several nights in a row by the tap-tap-tap of the metal knocker against the apartment door. From my bed, the whispering voices all sounded the same, but one night I recognized the melodic tone of Deborah, Latoya’s mother, whose voice was harmonious even when she yelled at her kids in the street. Sometimes after a game of two-hand touch on the pavement, all the boys would gather around her, sweating and thirsty, and listen to her hum some low, soulful tune. That first night she showed up at our place to get high, I heard her and my mother greet each other at the front door, hyper as conniving children. I had long avoided trying to imagine my mother’s face as she held the glass tube to her lips, and I also didn’t want to envision Deborah, who’d soothed me with her songs, waiting for the pipe to be passed her way. So, though it was the middle of the night, I got up, dressed, and left.
Outside there was an early-fall chill in the air specific to the last stretch of free September days before the beginning of school. The stoops and doorways of the surrounding buildings were empty, the sidewalks desolate beneath the streetlights’ glow. Cars looked more dead than parked. The dark rows of tenement windows reminded me of the suspended-animation tubes where astronauts in science-fiction movies slept while enduring a trek across the galaxy, and I wondered what it would be like if people just didn’t wake up for long periods of time.
The walk to Latoya’s building was quick. In the lobby, I rang 2A, and she answered, her voice a knot of static over the intercom.
“Your mother’s at my place,” I told her, and she buzzed me in.
When I got to the second floor, she was propping the apartment door open with one foot, a wry smile on her face. Her legs and breasts were massive curves, and she wore a dingy white tank top and tight burgundy shorts that fit her like boys’ underwear. She turned and motioned me inside, hushing me with a finger against her lips. Her ass looked like two plump teardrops, and I wanted to grab a handful.
Latoya told me her ten-year-old sister was dead asleep in the back room. “Where your brothers at?” I whispered.
She said they had sneaked out as soon as her mother had left, and I wondered if her dark-skinned brothers had gone to the apartments of light-skinned, thick girls who were trying to find themselves in the bodies of lesser boys.
At no point that night did we talk about what we both knew was going down across the street in my apartment, even though our standing before each other in her bedroom had as much to do with where our mothers were as it had to do with where they were not.
In her bedroom, Latoya opened the slats in the blinds, and the light from the street fell in horizontal lines across the bottom bunk, which was covered with clothes, glossy pages torn from magazines, and sheets of crumpled loose-leaf paper. The room smelled funky, but I didn’t care. Latoya worked quickly to clear a space for us on the bare mattress and then fell on her back, panting as if she had just run around the block. Although I couldn’t see her face or breasts, the sight of her belly and thighs striped with the light from outside was enough to make me hard.
At fifteen I had no idea how to fuck, much less how to make love. All I remember is being inside her and the next moment coming somewhere on the bed. Embarrassed, I slid my face down between her legs. There was an odor of girl-skin, heat, and the human smell of her apartment, and I lifted Latoya up off the bed with the jab and flicker of my tongue. Down there, her body was colorless, weightless. It didn’t matter to me whether any of what I was doing felt good to her, because I hadn’t come to that room to prove my prowess; we were both there to exact revenge against our parents by laying claim to our own bodies.
That night, after I’d returned home, I went to sleep with Latoya’s scent all over me. Through her body, I’d discovered my own and found the ability to recognize that we were the same, that to care for anyone is to care for what you see of yourself in them. Part of me had known this all along, though I hadn’t had the courage to admit it.
Sex between a gangly, brown-skinned boy and a thick, black-skinned girl did not blow up the high, wide wall of the ruling urban majority. Our intimacy that night revealed only how severely we’d been losing the battle first to realize our worth and then somehow to summon the strength necessary to prove it to those who denied us. But, calculated against history, our night together was just that: one night. We’d spent so many other nights — years! — believing in the forced order of our lives and, in a way, needing that order. It was easier for the two of us simply to ignore the encounter than it was to join hands and face that unyielding hierarchy of the neighborhood — to face, more necessarily, the same hierarchy within ourselves. How could we be expected to know what love was, let alone reach out for it, when the madness going down in the streets and in the schools and in the back rooms of our parents’ apartments was also going down in us?
The experience did enable me for the first time to care for Uncle Kove, not because he was this fantastic superhero, but because he was a man who’d always been just as trapped as I was now. There was much more value in honoring him as a twenty-five-year-old named Lance Witherspoon than as a legend named Kove. Perhaps Kove had burrowed between hefty black thighs to spite those who proclaimed such women worthless. There was nothing he could do to change the world around him. He could only defy it and hope his defiance lessened the collective desire to brutalize those who are different. This uncontrollable hope that had lived for so long within him now, uncontrollably, lived inside me.
Sixteen was a more vicious age. Though I was aware of my predicament, those revelations hadn’t prepared me to navigate through it. Disgusted though I was by the entangled ideologies of color and body shape, I was still dependent on the order of the urban scene. In late July, the older of my two younger brothers began hanging around me every chance he got. From the sidewalk or standing on the tops of cars, he cheered as I ran, jumped, and caught touchdowns in the street. Blind idolatry filled his skinny, eight-year-old body, and there was nothing I could do about it.
When I began covering my bedroom walls with white female faces from my favorite sitcoms, my brother stood in the doorway, awe and shame and fright on his face — but it was too late. He was enamored even of that part of me that didn’t make sense to him. He could only stand and gape. If I believed there was something right about pinning to my wall images of thin white television stars, then he would believe it too. I didn’t want him to think of me as I’d once thought of Kove. I also wanted nothing to do with ushering him into the adult-male world, as older brothers are supposed to do for their younger siblings.
Around that time, our mother began attending a nondenominational church called Agape Ministry. Every few months she sent me to the other side of town to borrow money from Mrs. Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican member of the congregation. On the three-mile trek across the Grand Concourse, I would work up the courage to tell the woman the money she was about to give me was going into my parents’ lungs instead of filling their children’s stomachs. By the time I got to the apartment door, however, I’d always decided to keep my mouth shut, because a small portion of that cash was promised to me as payment for my loyalty and the long walk.
“God bless you,” Mrs. Rodriguez would call after me from her door as I descended the tenement stairwell into the street. Her words burned my ears all the way home, for I cared very much what my family was doing to hers, but not enough to summon the courage to tell her the truth.
One afternoon Mrs. Rodriguez showed up at our apartment in tears, her young son and daughter in tow. She explained that she could no longer deal with her husband’s abuse and threats against their lives. While she choked out the words, the son — a slight, nerdy, preteen boy — rubbed her back and whispered, “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right,” scowling at us the whole time, as if he were angry that his family now had to turn to mine for help.
“I want my kids out of the city,” Mrs. Rodriguez said. “Quickly.”
A friend of hers from Agape Ministry was waiting outside in a station wagon, she told us, prepared to take us and her children to his cabin at a place called Big Bass Lake in the Poconos. There was food there, she said, and money. We would all be safe. She’d make the long drive with us and then return to the city that night to get an order of protection while we stayed with her children. But we needed to get a move on, now. She spoke firmly and directly, as though outlining a budget plan for a small country. It occurred to me then she must’ve had this favor in mind when she was lending my mother money, because she never once asked if we would help her. She arrived at our place to tell us what we were going to do.
My mother decided to stay in the city with my youngest brother and my sister, while my stepfather, my eight-year-old brother, and I went to the Poconos with the Rodriguez children. I wondered what the hell kind of protection a second-grader, a rail of a teenager, and a temperamental crackhead could provide if the murderous husband really did show up at the cabin with his wife’s blood on his hands.
Several hours later we all stood on the gravel driveway of the cabin. The sky was so dense with stars, its brilliance struck me as fake. Mrs. Rodriguez gathered her children close and assured them everything would be all right. On her way back to the station wagon, she said to me, “God bless you.” I repeated it back quickly and sincerely, as if I knew something about asking God to work out other people’s problems on my behalf. Before I went to bed that night, I remember thinking how grateful I was that this father I’d never met was threatening to kill his family, for it had gotten me out of the Bronx for the week.
© Tom Sundro Lewis
I worried a lot about safety over the next few days, going so far as to unlock bedroom and bathroom windows in case the need for a fast exit presented itself. My stepfather spent most of the time lying on the couch in front of the television with the remote in his hand, ecstatic that he didn’t have to get up to switch the channel. He seemed relaxed about the situation, as if he understood something I didn’t about why fathers are the way they are, and why parents say the things they do to the ones they love. Nevertheless, whenever those children came roaring into the house, hyper and thirsty, my stepfather and I both moved into the kitchen to count heads and check for blood.
On the fourth and final day we were at the cabin, I followed the children to the lake and watched as they tore up and down the sand, using fun to cover up not only memories of the drastic scenes from the days before we’d arrived in Pennsylvania, but the ones to come when they returned to the Bronx. I sat in a lawn chair and wondered how deep the lake was, occasionally yelling for them to keep their little asses away from the water, because none of them knew how to swim.
The children eventually wore out and slowed, bending over at the waist to catch their breath, dragging their feet through the sand as the sun dropped low in the sky. It was still light out when three white girls showed up and threw down blankets and towels. They wore shorts and tie-dyed T-shirts, which they shed to reveal one-piece bathing suits beneath. They charged into the water and swam to a wooden dock about fifty yards out, then took turns somersaulting off it into the lake. After a few dives, the youngest-looking of the three — her frame as thin and undefined as a boy’s — stood on the edge of the dock while the two older and sturdier girls plunged in over and over again. These two had wide shoulders and heavy breasts held firmly in check by the elastic chests of their suits. The girls’ thighs were meaty and taut, and their calves looked like muscular slabs of pale marble. They were short, thick, solid, strong — stronger than I believed girls could be. But more than that, I felt as if I knew something real about their lives, their characters, because I’d dealt with their kind of bodies — though not their color — before. The skinny actresses taped to my bedroom wall now seemed as fake as those glittering Pennsylvania stars.
Afterward, subdued and dripping, the girls stood on their blankets, leaned their heads to the side, and dried their hair. One put a piece of gum in her mouth, balled up the foil wrapper, and threw it over her shoulder. Another combed her hair with violent strokes, then pulled the loose strands from the teeth of the comb and let them drift from her fingers into the wind. I remember these actions vividly, for I had never seen white, suburban teenagers in person before, just on television. Though everyone loved everyone else on TV, there was no way for me to tell whether being thick and pale meant the same thing as being thick and dark. And even if an analogy existed, there was still no way to tell whether these girls would be able to see that my brown-skinned, frail frame made me an undesirable too, and that we were bound together the way Latoya and I had been, whether we wanted to be or not. Regardless of my confusion, I knew my eventual exit from the Bronx — if I ever found one — would involve girls like them, and that realization from my spot on the sand made me just as afraid of tomorrow as I was desirous of it.
While the white girls dressed, the little Rodriguez girl wandered up to them, and within a few moments she was sitting and getting her own hair brushed and twisted into a French braid. The boys ambled over, and one of the white girls dug into her bag and came out with a deck of cards and a pocket video game. By the time I got to the edge of the blanket, the girls were all smiles and introductions. Their limp handshakes and white-toothed grins were not enough to win my trust, but I managed to say it was nice to meet them. I learned they were from New Jersey: the two older, heavier girls, Beth and Bethany, were in my grade, and the youngest, Elise, would be starting high school in September. They weren’t sisters, just friends on vacation together with their families.
We spent the next few hours playing Jackass and Spades and talking about the places we were from and the things we did there. Each time one of the Rodriguez kids spoke, I listened carefully, prepared to interrupt if they started to let slip the truth: that we were at Big Bass Lake because their father was hunting his children. The white girls spoke quickly and easily about themselves. Beyond their general excitement, there was a powerful sense of pleasure attached to their descriptions of their lives. There was nothing elegant about their voices or the words they used, but in their voices and words was a happiness I had yet to discover, but which they had come to expect and rely on and believe in. They talked without worry, without the shadow of having learned too much too young, and without having to pretend as though they knew how to shoulder such a burden. It was simultaneously sickening and wonderful, and I both hated and wanted to fuck them.
“Why do you keep looking over your shoulder?” Bethany asked. She was the girl who had let the loose strands of hair drift from her fingers. I told her it was a “black thing”; she wouldn’t understand. There was a brief pause, and then we all laughed, just like on television.
Later, while the others danced between water and sand, I apologized to Bethany for the comment. She said it was OK, that she knew black guys back in Jersey, which made me jealous that I hadn’t been the first to make a racial comment to her in jest, and angry that there was a world out there where white girls and black guys talked, and maybe more.
“You remind me so much of someone,” she said, “but I can’t remember who. It’s driving me crazy.”
We soon got around to talking about sex. With feigned pride, Bethany admitted to being a virgin. After I told her I wasn’t (I said it as though every sixteen-year-old was getting laid), she took me by the arm and led me up the sand, about a hundred yards from the younger ones. I could barely hear their splashes and wild screams.
“Tell me about the last time you did it,” Bethany said, her hand on my forearm, fingers tight along the muscle.
“You sure you want to hear this?”
She nodded, edging closer.
I made up a tale about some extravagant sexual encounter, not because I didn’t want her to know the truth, but because the fiction took longer to tell than the truth would have, and I wanted to make this time with her last. I threw in some specifics to make the story believable, and each time I arrived at a truly erotic point, her damp hand gripped my arm harder, and her tongue swept between her lips. Up close, Bethany looked even less like the white starlets on my walls, except for her hair, which was long and straight and brown and whipped back and forth between us in the wind, grazing my shoulders and cheeks and lips. Every minute or so she would let out a breath that swept across my face, and I wanted somehow to capture it in my hands and spread her scent over my chest and arms, take it to bed with me, as I’d done that one night with Latoya. But in the next moment, Bethany’s scent was gone, and I saw there was no similarity between the two girls. With Latoya, the chance for love and sex and survival had already been destroyed by a thousand bad days accumulated between us. With every moment I talked and Bethany listened, we were creating our own past, present, and future. A brand-new timeline. One the two of us could completely control.
After my story was over, she roped in the flailing strands of hair and tucked them behind her ears. That simple gesture, under those emerging stars, with the voices of the children fading, was all it took. I wanted nothing more to do with the place where I’d been raised.
Bethany and I exchanged addresses, and over the next year we wrote each other several times. Her letters, both in content and in tone, were filled with that ordinariness and absence of turmoil I envied. I read each one several times, examining every nuance and imagining the street she lived on, her house, the concerts and parties she attended. Sometimes before bed I would lie awake with my eyes closed and finger the indentations of her cursive penmanship and envision her at her desk, trying to get her sentences just the way she wanted them. My fingers could never decipher the words, but as I felt the patches of inked script like tiny veins, I could swear she was whispering in my ear.
On hot days that reminded me of the Poconos, I’d finger the laces of a rubber football, and suddenly Bethany’s words would be there in the grooves: Couldn’t get drunk. On antibiotics. Sometimes little more than a sliver of a phrase. On the train there was nothing to do but stare and think, and her sentences would appear in the advertisements overhead: He fucking treated me like shit the whole time and then had the nerve to call me at three o’clock in the morning saying he was sorry. The voices of the other passengers, or my classmates, or my neighbors would translate into I just don’t let them go all the way because I think I am too young, or I guess you can say I do everything except letting a guy eat me out and having sex. Bethany’s voice was everywhere.
But soon she tired. The letters stopped coming. I hate writing. It reminds me of school. I spread her old letters across my mattress and read them over and over again. They think it’s fine that we write to each other, but they don’t think we should talk on the phone — all the shit they hear on the news puts some kind of bad picture in their heads or something.
In March of my senior year, my stepfather was shot five times in the back over an unpaid debt to a loan shark. The night I arrived home I went to a really dull party so I left and went to a pizza place with my friends Matt and J.J. He was alive when the ambulance left with him, and I couldn’t help thinking that it meant one less person for my mother to get high with. When we got there I looked in the window and there were these three huge black guys that looked like they wanted to start a fight. My little brother, now ten, knew nothing yet about the shooting. I went to pick him up from his friend’s apartment in the building next to ours. While we waited for the elevator, I swallowed, shaking, and asked if he’d heard the shots a while ago. I tried not to look at them. He nodded and smiled, probably thinking of action movies. I told him the truth, then reached for him as he staggered from the news. I heard two of them calling my name and I was really scared. He crumpled to the floor just as the elevator doors opened. I pulled him onto the car against his will. So I turned around and it was my friend Robert who is twenty and his cousin James. “It’ll be all right,” I told him. You look exactly, I mean exactly, like James. As we descended in the elevator, he said, “I heard them,” and his face contorted into a frown that made him look like a grown man. In a way, you even act like him. I knew that when he’d heard the gunfire, he’d done what all boys would have: prayed that no one he knew had been killed. It’s scary.
Though my stepfather survived those five bullets, I was sick and tired of realizing the truth about my situation and being either unable or unwilling to change it. I no longer gave a damn about the intricate connections among body shape, skin color, and self-destructive parents I couldn’t stop caring for. I had no doubt that if I stayed in the Bronx, I would witness countless eruptions of violence and develop a superhuman ability to endure those eruptions; that this place would exert its taut, relentless muscle to bind me to it until the day I died. All that mattered was what I wanted, which was to leave that borough and find not Bethany, but the world that had produced the unmolested voice of her letters. I was certain whatever I found there would be better than sitting on the front stoop for the rest of my life, making love to thick, dark girls — the most ruined of them all — and hoping the act would reveal the truth of our sameness, and that the truth would spread like wildfire through the minds of neighbors whose lives, no matter how hard they tried to believe otherwise, would forever be shaped like mine.
Akhim Yuseff Cabey
I have been imprisoned now for seven years on a term that began three days after my seventeenth birthday. I am housed in one of California’s most violent and racially divided prisons, and when I received my February issue of The Sun I had recently been placed in administrative segregation. Two essays — “I Star In My Own Made-for-TV-Movie,” by Kelly Barnhill, and “Thick,” by Akhim Yuseff Cabey — were especially timely for me.
Reading Barnhill’s essay, I identified strongly with Marcus, though our backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar. I grew up a middle-class white kid in rural Colorado. But I was also that boy who said, “I already know I can read.” I, too, took a path that led away from those who cared for me.
In “Thick,” Cabey described a culture completely alien to me, and gave me a better understanding of diversity and adversity.
I thank these two authors for helping to keep my mind open.