Unsweet Tea

When she walked in the locker room, I knew she wasn’t a scholarship kid. I can’t help it but every time I see a rich ass black person I wonder what their parents do. Everything matched, the way rich people’s gear always does. She had a pink Nike sports bra; she had two bras actually, and she needed both of them, even though I was doing my best not to notice. I always felt guilty staring too long in the locker room. Her bras matched her white basketball shoes, and socks, which both had a pink Nike checkmark. Her hair was expensive, too; you could tell she’d had it done in a salon. Nobody else could wear a blond curly weave and pull it off that well. Tonya, the only other black girl on the team and my best friend, threw me a look. It was no secret the rich black kids didn’t want to be seen with the scholarship kids. Nobody did.

We were shocked when after the coach introduced us—told us Kyla’s mom just got a job teaching at ECU, and we ought to take her out with us after practice—Kyla walked right up and took the locker next to mine. Her smile caught me off guard. She was one of those girls that got prettier the longer you looked at her.

“I’m Kyla, I’m from D.C.,” she said, sticking out a hand with pink painted nails on the end of long thin fingers. I shook her hand and Tonya started talking.

“I’m Tonya, and this is my friend Shakira. We call her Shak though. She’s the best player on the team. The school really. She’s already being scouted.” Tonya talked too much when she was nervous and I could tell she regretted that last bit.

Kyla was cool about it though. She laughed and looked impressed at all the right parts and congratulated me. We all talked stats for a bit until it was time for practice. Kyla was not friendly on the court. I have to confess I figured there was no way a petite girly-girl could keep up with our really big team, especially since our coach is from D.C. and grew up playing street ball. Despite the fact our team is mostly white, our style is pretty aggressive and far from polite. We never get through a game without at least a few fouls. Kyla, though, was quick and slippery. She used her small frame to weave between all the tall players, including me. She even got past me by getting the ball between my legs once, and catching it on the other side before I realized what happened. It was clear she came from the same D.C. street ball scene my coach did.

For me, it was my older brother who taught me to play. He’d whoop my ass all day long every summer and after school. Duane never went easy on me even though my ma told him to ’cause I was her “baby girl.” He always said in response that the world ain’t easy on girls, and he wouldn’t be either. Back then our driveway wasn’t paved, so we had to borrow the neighbor’s down the road. The wife was all right but the husband was from Appalachia and racist as all get out; he even had a Confederate flag. The wife would let us drag our hoop over to their driveway and use it while he was away—he was a truck driver. That all ended when one night he came home early and chased us away. As we were leaving I saw him try to shoot the stand of the basketball hoop. The bullet ricocheted off the metal and caught his window.

That was when my dad was still around a lot. He came out with the shotgun we have above the mantel, and told the man to go back inside before he called the cops. Turns out Ms. Faye down the road, my ma’s best friend, had already called. He got a fat fine for shooting while in the presence of three children. The sheriff that showed up knew my dad ’cause he delivered packages to the office often, and he told him to be extra careful because Mr. Johnson used to be a skinhead. We weren’t supposed to know that, but he told my brother ’cause he was seventeen then, and my brother told me. I was only fourteen. My dad really only ever took to my brother—he didn’t know what to make of me. I got his height and his big bones, but I was dark like my mama, and my hair had to be permed every month. The sister above me and my brother was light like daddy, with those big pretty teeth my ma has. She kept to herself, and kept herself to her boyfriend like he was gonna die any day now. She dropped out before graduating, after she was made manager at the Walgreens. My ma was angry, but in a quiet way. She couldn’t say too much ’cause she never cared about school either.

After all that mess with the Johnsons my daddy worked real hard and figured out a payment plan with the cement guy to get the driveway paved so I could play. Even in the winter when there’d be ice, he’d lay down the salt real early, when he got up at five, and then he’d brush it all off before he drove to work. He got one of those aluminum roofs people put over their cars, so that the cement would stay dry and clean. He was thoughtful in that way. In the morning he always brewed this black tea that my ma liked so that later, when she got home from work, all she had to do was pour it over ice. She loved unsweet tea at the end of the day.

I’d come home late and need an hour or two before I was able to sleep, what with all the adrenaline after a game or a late practice. He’d make the two of us sweet tea by heating some of the bitter stuff he made for Ma in a pot with some Sweet’n Low, and while he stirred it, he’d tell me about his day, and some of the gossip around town. He knew almost all of it—he was handsome and charming, the kind of person people couldn’t help but tell too much. He delivered to just about everyone at some point or another, and everyone wanted to make small talk. He was real sweet, in an unexpected way. Didn’t have to look far to know that most smooth-talking, light-skinned niggas would give you trouble if you let them.

You know how some bad things move so slowly you notice them far off, but you still don’t ever believe they’re gonna hit you? My ma has some family from Oklahoma, and she said there was a tornado that almost wiped out her town. She remembers as a little kid seeing the yellow sky, and the people running and screaming, but when they went to the church basement, she didn’t really think anything could touch them. I guess that’s what happened with me. I noticed my dad started picking me up later and later, especially on game days. His car smelled like cologne, like he was covering something up. He stopped making Ma her tea in the morning. Tonya’s mom started taking me to Ma’s job after school, even though it was fifteen minutes out of her way. No matter what time my dad got home though, he and Ma would fight. The youngest kids would start crying as soon as they heard my parents raise their voices. They’d come to me and crawl in my bed.

My ma sings in the choir at church, and you can tell when she yells. Her voice is real deep and real low, and it’s the same when she cries too. My dad stopped staying for that part even, and would just leave after the fight.

Not sure why it started. I know business was tight, ’cause most people ordered off Amazon. I know men had mid-life crises and shit. I heard girls talk about it on the team. Still I always thought it was like most white nonsense—fun to laugh about on bad sitcoms, but never a reality at home.

He was still around a lot though since Ma didn’t have a car and rode to work with Ms. Faye. He’d still take me to the dumb prep school I went to two towns over. I think I realized he wasn’t trying to come back when he worked on getting Ma a car. It was kinda like he was trying to give us everything we could ask him for so he didn’t have to answer to us anymore. That was always hard to deal with, but used to be me and Duane would talk about it and make up plans together. The summer before Duane’s senior year, though, things got bad for him.  

I was about to be a junior. Recruiting starts around that time and basketball was picking up. After practice I’d come home and play in the driveway with Duane. Ma was always saying Duane should treat me better and go easy on me when we played basketball ’cause I was a girl, and he was telling me again that there ain’t any difference between a woman and a man, despite what’s in TV and magazines, and other stuff people say.

“Just like how all of these white folk around town talk about how lazy black folks are, that’s what people try to say about women. Black folks are poor ’cause they want to be, and women are weak ’cause that’s how they were born. There ain’t no truth in any of it.”

Duane was like that. He ain’t say much but when he did it was the kind of thing you remembered and thought about later. The kind of thing you could tell he had kept in for a long time before spitting out. I worried about that though. Everybody knew something was a bit off about him. Even Daddy, who thought the world rested when Duane closed his eyes. I wondered sometimes if that wasn’t why they were so close—he wanted to look after him to make sure nothing would happen to him. Everybody needs somebody I think. Daddy didn’t have many friends and Duane was a friend before his son.

Least that’s what it seemed like until Duane started acting out. Dad had never been hard on him, the way he was with Brianna. He’d never needed to be. Duane used to be the biggest nerd—one of the only kids that actually used the small town library aside from the old folks from the nursing home down the road. He’d still hang out with the track kids sometimes, though, especially when they had their basement parties down in the Square—that’s what they called Section 8 ’cause the houses were square and arranged in one too, like a trailer park. Ma didn’t like him going down there. Dad didn’t care. Normally he’d be down at the pool hall off the highway on Saturdays anyways.

Duane and I were watching TV one day, Will & Grace, when Daddy came home from work. He saw the show, sat down and muttered, “That’s some white people shit,” then changed the channel. I noticed Duane was quiet at the cookout later that evening, and he had that look when he was thinking about something over and over. I was too. Later that night there was a Fourth of July party at the Square and he was supposed to go out with some kids from his team.

Daddy never let me go with him, even though I knew most of the kids. Whenever I asked why he said, “Girls are different. Much trouble as Duane could get in, he ain’t gonna come back with no kid to take care of. I know what y’all do at those parties, y’all ain’t just dancing.”

Still, I’d sit with Duane while he picked out clothes, and we’d listen to J.Cole. He’d try on things and I’d roast him until he found something decent. He was a nice looking kid, light-skinned like Dad, with them light eyes too. Tall and quiet. It was no secret most of the girls were crazy about him. The fact he didn’t really pay them any attention just drove them crazier. Everybody figured it was ’cause he took after Ma and was real religious. He told me he just hated the drama, especially after Tammy, the team captain’s girl, drunkenly came onto him at a party a few months ago. Lamar was still pissed about it.

He finally settled on this bright purple polo that was just a smidge too tight. I don’t know if it was the color or the fit, but it looked off. I roasted him—“Look at you in that tight ass shirt. You sure it ain’t one of Carl’s onesies?”—but he said he was wearing it. Nothing else, just got real serious and told me to get out. Ever since he got older, he started getting into moods. I ain’t think nothing of it right then.

On the way out, he picked a fight with Dad about the curfew, saying he’d come home when he wanted.

“Well ain’t no son of mine going out looking like that! So you can just sit your pretty ass down,” Daddy said, shoving him.

Outside, Duane’s friend honked the horn. Duane just said “Fuck you,” and walked out.

Ma was at Faye’s playing cards, and it was right around the time he left to go to the pool hall anyway, so Daddy downed a beer, finished the game, and left.

When Duane came back that night, he was stumbling and crashing about the living room trying to find the light. I was up on the phone talking to Tonya. I came to help him, and when I flicked on the light I saw he had the worst black eye I’d ever come across. I didn’t even know a black person could bruise like that. His purple shirt had blood all over it.

When I got him to his room he started crying. I went to go get ice, and I was in such a state of shock at all of it. At the thing with Dad earlier, at the blood, but I think most of all at his crying. Duane was always so collected. After I got him ice, I asked him if he wanted me to stay, and he said no, told me get the hell out.

The next day I found out what happened from Faye’s daughter, Mae. She always came over while Faye and Ma worked at the amusement park. Her boyfriend was at the party. Apparently Lamar tried to roast Duane for the shirt, and he was in such a bad mood he snapped. Lamar wouldn’t let it go. Finally Duane said that he should have fucked Tammy that night. Lamar said he didn’t fuck her ’cause he couldn’t, and then he punched him. The team members tried to stop him at first, but Lamar egged them on, saying they’d been sharing a locker room with a faggot and maybe they were the same. Soon they’d all joined in. They were trying to keep their reps.

“Men are stupid that way,” Mae said. “Especially black men. Feel like they gotta be tough all the time and then beat up one of their own. Tryna prove they’re something ’cause the world say they ain’t nothing. ’Sides, how a nigga that handsome gonna be gay anyway?” She cackled, then got quiet. “But I hope he’s okay. I’ll pray for him.”

After that it wasn’t unusual every now and then for Duane to have a black eye. Most everybody in town knew that it was Lamar and his crew. Duane was too proud to hide anything, and he kept on the track team when spring came. He started having more fights with Daddy, too. The worst one was about a month before he graduated. I was coming home from a game, and was surprised to find just Daddy at home. I had forgotten that it was employment appreciation day at the park, and Ma and Faye took the kids to celebrate. I was so tired I just went straight to my room. Anyway Daddy and I never talked about much except TV shows nowadays. We watched the reruns on Nickelodeon. I was so exhausted though, I couldn’t get up to take off my shoes and gear and shower. I was just lying on my bed, waiting for my dad to leave for the pool hall so I could get some ice cream without him making some kind of joke about how I’m almost bigger than him. Ain’t no secret Dad wished I was pretty the way Brianna was. Just pissed me off ’cause apparently I was too pretty to be let out to any parties. I never really wanted to go anyway—they always got awkward whenever everybody started making out. I snuck to one once but I hated it. Duane’s teammate kept hitting on me and Duane was nowhere to be found. He always hides out when shit goes down.

I didn’t even realize he was home that night until a door slammed loud enough to hear over my headphones. This time Duane was tryna borrow the car. Dad was yelling, saying he shouldn’t be asking for shit he ain’t contribute to, talking about how he spent all his time at Trey’s house, why didn’t he just get him to take him.

“You know damn well Trey’s mom away this weekend, ’cause you and Tina are awfully close, aren’t you?” Duane said.

I heard a slap. “You watch your fucking mouth. You better not talk anymore about shit you don’t know nothing about. Now sit your sorry ass down before you get beat up again. “

“If you’re gonna run around on Ma why don’t you just fucking leave? Ever since she was sick you been around less and less. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“You listen here. You better not spread shit you don’t know nothing about alright? ’Sides, Trey’s mom told me some stuff I’m sure you wouldn’t want to get out.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I told you for the last time I’m not smoking any shit.”

“You know what I mean. You need to stop spending all your fucking time there—people are talking. Everyone knows why Lamar beat the shit out of you. Can’t say I blame him.”

Next thing I know I heard a thud, and then some scuffling. I should have gone out, but I was just too tired. Plus what the hell could I say or do? I always kinda knew about Duane, but with Daddy? I noticed he was around less but so was Ma. I just figured they were going through something and they’d come out of it soon. And to say those things. Much as everyone else thought that, it was different to actually hear it. I heard the front door shut, and the screen door flapped for a few seconds with how hard it was slammed. I came out, and Duane was sitting there, nose bleeding, black eye blossoming. He started yelling at me, but I couldn’t hear it really. I know I should have done or said something, I just kept saying sorry, even as I got the frozen vegetables from the fridge, and put the towel around it so the cold wouldn’t burn his face.

In July, Duane left for the army. He always did ROTC and it wasn’t no surprise he left as soon as he could. I guess what was surprising about it, was well, ain’t no way to put it but plainly, as my ma would say: Duane wasn’t a man’s man. He was too tall and too handsome to get picked on, but everybody knew something was off about him, especially after that night at the party with Lamar and all the time he’d been spending with Trey.

The night before he left is when he finally told me. He called me to his room, all serious and sad. I thought he was gonna lecture me on looking out after Ma, and Carl and Jerome. Or maybe say that he’d miss me and that he loved me. He’s only said that twice in our life. His face was wrinkled up and his voice came out rough and low. “Shak, I don’t like girls. I just never have. I always try to and I think they’re pretty and all but I just never could be married to one. I just always knew since I was a kid Shak, and I feel guilty sometimes, but I know who I am.” I asked him about the army and he said it was an escape to different places, even up North they were better about it. I could tell that he was uncertain but mostly hopeful. His face brightened at the mention of travel.

I just laughed and told him I wasn’t surprised at all. But I was surprised he asked me when I knew what I was.

“What the hell do you mean?”

“Listen Shak—I just wanted to explain myself. I felt like you should be the first to know. You’ve always been there. I took that for granted but now that I’m leaving—All I’m saying is—I mean I didn’t want to assume—”

I’d already started crying, though, and Duane just hugged me real tight. He said even though he was going, and couldn’t have phone calls at basic training, that he would write me, and that I better do the same. I said I would.

But the truth was he never called or wrote much. Once I stopped waiting it hurt less when the letters didn’t come. I worried about him, especially ’cause I heard basic training was hard. I knew, just like that night he told me to go away as he was bleeding and crying on the floor, that’d he do just about anything to hide himself if he felt like he was being weak. Just worried about how much he could do that in the army when the whole point was to break you down.

Round that time is when I was talking to Kyla more and she started hanging out with Tonya and me. I was surprised at first ’cause she was rich enough to fit in with the other kids. Remembering back to her first day though, it made sense. Kyla had sat with the team, but next to me and Tonya towards the end of the table. She seemed totally at home, even though it was her first day. We chatted about teachers, or rather, Tonya and Kyla talked about government class, while I tried my best not to notice that she was wearing just one bra at the moment. I might have imagined it but I thought she noticed me staring and glanced at me, smirking a bit, even while she and Tonya were talking about how much the three-page paper we had to write was gonna suck.

Kyla was rich enough to be able to relate to the white girls on the team as they worried about their cotillion dresses, and etiquette classes. I noticed though when she talked to the white girls she had that strained smile my ma gets when she’s at church and the old ladies start asking about my dad. I understood why she walked straight up to me and Tonya that first day. Even though she was like those white girls in a lot of ways, she knew they could remind her how different she was real quick.

The first time Kyla and I hung out without Tonya, we went to the drive-in movies. Brianna let me drive her car to go pick her up. I told my ma I was sleeping over at Kyla’s ’cause she was scared in her huge house by herself. I got to her house a bit late ’cause it was one of those gated suburbs. Only other time I had been in one was when the coach had us over for dinner one night. His house was about the same size as hers. She wasn’t ready when I got there and I had to wait a bit. Her ma was at a teaching conference, so I didn’t bother going in. When she came out she was looking prettier than I knew possible. Everything she had on, from her tank top to her heels, was pink like her fingernails, and her hair smelled like coconut and Pink Sheen. Her lips were glossed a deep brown, the exact shade of her eyes, much deeper than her skin.

“You gotta be mixed with something,” I said.

She frowned. “Nah, it’s just that way back I got a great grandparent that’s Native American or something. All my mom’s cousins are real light, but she isn’t, and neither are her sisters.” I could tell it bothered her, that I thought she was part white.

I made her laugh later though, when I was at the movie, and we were making fun of how white people always go in the house that might kill them. “They always taking dumb risks ’cause they ain’t at church for five hours. They don’t know what’s coming for them in the afterlife,” I said.

Kyla thought that was real funny. She didn’t show her teeth when she laughed. She put her hand in front of her face, and gasped. I mimicked her, making gasps high pitched and hiccupy, and she punched me in the arm, hard.

I went back to her house that night, and we stayed in the same bed. I was awake long after she fell asleep.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Since that night we’ve been inseparable. Tonya happened to get a boyfriend (poor white kid down the road from me) around the same time so she’s never seen us together or suspected how I feel. I guess it’s hardest hiding it around the team, especially when the scouts come. I really want us to end up at the same school.

Kyla doesn’t know where she’s gonna go. Her mom really wants her to find a school in the Northeast, ’cause that’s where she went for her Ph.D. and she’s sure that Kyla would like it there. Kyla loves the South though, and Greenville especially, plus most schools scouting her are around us so she’s thinking about staying. She confessed to me that she doesn’t even want to go to school, but her mom is forcing her, and at least she gets to play ball for a bit longer.

I’m not too set on the idea of school either, but my ma is. She’s afraid I’m gonna be just like my sister, graduate and shack up with a “no good nigga” as soon as I finish. Or, even though she doesn’t say it, disappear like Duane. She knows I admire him, and sometimes I even lie to her about how we talk so that she won’t worry.

Still, I know if I stick around and end up playing for ECU, I’ll be close to the family and the little ones, and I can play ball. That’s what’s really important to me. I like Kyla, but she can’t really understand everything that’s going on. I told her about my dad leaving but she didn’t get what the fuss was—having been raised on her own with just her mom, she knows all about how shitty men could be. Her family isn’t religious at all, so she doesn’t get how quiet the house now feels on Sundays and Wednesdays. She doesn’t get how my ma still loves church but can’t avoid the stares and the whispers and the extra long hugs, how each time she comes back, she sits on the couch staring at nothing for a bit before going into her room. That leaves me to make dinner and get the kids to bed.

Now that I’m moving out, and Dad, Duane, and Brianna never stay anymore, Ma wants to sell the house and move somewhere smaller. She’s worse now. Ms. Faye comes over and makes all the meals Sundays, and my ma only works three days of the week even though we need more money for the mortgage. Thing is I haven’t decided if I’m gonna stay in the house or live on campus. No one knows if Duane’s coming back now that his nine months are up. Whatever he decides, I think we should keep the house—we have just another seven years till we pay it off—and I know if Daddy wasn’t acting crazy he’d back me up. If Duane would just contribute a bit each month we could make the payment, along with a bit from my financial aid refund. I don’t know where he’s currently stationed, but I found his sergeant’s name and number in Ma’s files, and I called him, telling him Ma was sick, that she might have breast cancer. He was real nice, and told me he’d get my brother to call me back right away. “Ok, make sure he calls this number, not Ma’s, its canceled.”

I swear to God I thought God was gonna strike me down right where I stood for lying like that about Ma. For everything really, the nights I spend with Kyla—

“Ma?”

“No, Duane it’s Shak, look—“

“How is Ma, is she okay? What happened?”

“Look Duane, Ma isn’t sick, I just really needed to talk to you about the family.”

Silence stretched longer, it felt, than the spare time in all of our conversations together.

“Shakira what the fuck.”

I swallowed. Duane had never cussed at me before. Ever.

“Look Duane, you haven’t been in touch at all and I don’t blame you, I’m not mad I just need help okay—“

“Shakira. Listen. Don’t ever call my sergeant again. You could really get me in trouble. I love you guys and I hope Ma gets better but there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry I haven’t called or wrote much but I’m really busy. I think of you guys all the time. You want my advice on what to do? Get the fuck out while you can. Got that Shakira? ”

His words hung in the distance between us. I hung up. He’d never called me Shakira before. He was the one that started calling me Shak.

I called Kyla right after and told her we needed to talk. When I picked her up she was wearing a miniskirt and halter-top. I wondered, again, if she dressed this way for me. She must have known by then I liked her in skirts.

I always did my best to hide my need to see her. I knew I wasn’t always successful because on those days she was smug. Today she sensed my seriousness and grabbed my arm after I pulled into the far back corner of the Sonic parking lot.  

“What’s going on?”

“Just family stuff,” I said. “Trying to decide about scouting, figuring out a way to keep the house. I talked to Duane—“

My voice cracked.

“Shh. Come here.”

She pulled me in and looped her arm behind my neck, bringing my head to her chest. My whole body stiffened. The thought was like a battering ram, pressing the inside of my skull: kiss her.

I didn’t, of course. I would never. Not as long as I stayed. I pulled myself from her chest. She let her hand slide down my back as I moved away.

“Kyla, do you ever think about leaving Greenville?”

“What do you mean?”

She looked annoyed. Her lips were bunched slightly, like she was waiting on someone.

“I mean do you ever think about getting a U-Haul and driving all your stuff to Louisiana. Just leave everything in the rearview, you know?”

“Even me?”

“Of course not. I just—“

“I get it.” She paused. Her long false lashes were cast down, giving her the appearance of a pouting doll. “We’d still be tight. Even if you left—”

I wanted her hand but I grabbed her elbow. She looked at me.   

“I won’t.”