By Cassandra Lane
It was 1984, and parachute pants and Jordache jeans were all the rage at DeRidder Junior High School. My Seventeen magazine-reading peers poked fun at my daily attire: dresses that hung loosely on my thin frame before flaring at the hems to reveal my knock-knees. My legs itched to pull on some Jordaches, or even Lee’s, but Uncle Junior, who led my family’s small church, preached that a britches-wearing woman was a sin, and we women and girls under his leadership obeyed.
“Sanctified Lady,” my junior-high peers would sing as I boarded the bus each morning. My eyes stinging, I’d shoot back: “I am not sanctified,” though when I was with my family in church or prayer meetings at home, sanctification was a state I craved.
My sister Dena, a grade lower, didn’t carry the burden of trying to be good, nor did the kids mess with her. Maybe it was because she didn’t look as gangly in her dresses. She was thin, too, but athletic and spunky. And she had what I didn’t: attitude. The way she held her small, diamond-shaped face halfway to the sky, swished her skinny hips through the hallways, and was quick to bark: “Whatchu lookin’ at?”
She was smart enough to torment other kids before they could get to her. They remembered, too, the day she beat up our neighborhood bully—Sheldon Mazieke. By the time Grandmama came on the porch with her broom to shoo Sheldon away, he was retreating to his mama’s house, blood trailing his torn white t-shirt.
Dena stood in the middle of the street, screaming at his back, veins straining in her scrawny black neck.
She wanted more.
Before sixth grade, I didn’t belong to the world and didn’t know how to act in it. I’d seen an angel, traced God’s face in the clouds, manifested the Spirit in church.
In church, Uncle Junior told us how to have a relationship with God, how if we didn’t we’d surely die and forever burn in the Lake of Fire, but he didn’t teach us how to have relationships with each other. The relationship between Dena and me was pocked with enmity, without a shred of sisterly bond beyond the blood we shared through our parents who, unsurprisingly, despised each other. While I spent my first few years trying to ignore my sister, eventually, I stopped wanting to be set apart. I watched with envy the ease with which she became friends with neighborhood children and interacted with our cousins. I started reading my Bible less and stopped praising the Lord publicly during church services. Mama cried about my sudden turn, asking Aunt Mae Helen, Uncle Junior’s wife, to pray for me, and the church did, but I stood there, stony and unyielding. I replaced my Bible reading with an obsession that would have been an abomination had Uncle Junior found out about it: astrology.
“It’s a sin to try and read the stars,” Uncle Junior had once boomed in church. “We’re not supposed to go around asking God why this and why that.”
But I was bursting with questions.
Why, if I were saved, did my body tingle whenever I saw Kenny St. Romain, the boy who lived down the street? His skin was the color of camel hair and his slanted black eyes were pools into which I wanted to dive.
And why had God created the Earth only to destroy it? Did he know we would be doomed as he lovingly crafted us into being? Did he cry as he molded the mud, breathed life into his first creation?
I wanted answers, and was drawn to Mama’s closet again and again to read passages from her romance novels and Reader’s Digest books on science and the body.
Waiting until everyone was preoccupied—Mama at work on the Army base; Dena hanging out with friends; Grandmama catching up with neighbors; Papa snoring into the worn green leather of his recliner—I’d put aside my Nancy Drew and tiptoe toward my grandparents’ room.
Peering around corners fist, I slinked into the cool dimness. Holding my breath against the reek of mothballs and Sulfur8 Hair and Scalp Conditioner, I picked up Papa’s magnifying glass with a piece of toilet tissue (real sleuths never left their fingerprints) and headed for Mama’s bedroom. Adrenaline stirred my bowels, but I’d come too far to allow a bathroom trip to interrupt my investigation. I folded my lanky frame into Mama’s closet and opened the flap of a box way in the back. As dust sprayed my face, my eyes and nostrils burned, but I held in the sneeze.
The boxes were filled to the brim with geography books, romance novels, Shakespeare plays, road atlases. Beneath it all lay a plain, jacket-less book. It was bright red— the same color of lipstick Dena wore once she passed her tomboy stage. That cheap Wet n’Wild brand of red that didn’t come off until she wiped her mouth hard with a wet, soapy rag. Even then, you could see the red residue trapped between the cracks of her chapped lip skin. Which is why Mama, who was home early from work one day, popped Dena right in the mouth when she got off the bus and came traipsing through the house.
But Dena continued to wear the lipstick when she was away from the watchful eyes of home. She wanted to be a model.
Mama said, “No, you’ll end up a prostitute,” but she couldn’t tame, at least not right away, Dena’s desire to break away from the restrictions of the family.
And I was breaking away, too, quietly. The astrology book’s title, Your Guide to Astrology, Your Guide to Life, was etched in gold lettering. It promised insights into career, love, family and friends. All one needed to know was a birthday to unravel mysteries that had previously befuddled them. I held Papa’s magnifier over the list of astrological signs and birth dates, looked up my birthday and the birthdays of people I knew. And I read.
I couldn’t wait to take my new treasure to school.
The next day, when the bus driver pulled up to DeRidder Junior High, I descended the steps with a smile on my face and no fear of stumbling. Squeezing the hardcover underarm, I eased it from its warm spot only after my nearsighted eyes focused on my two friends huddling in the courtyard.
We cracked open the book, turning hurriedly to our respective sections: Taurus for me. Leo for Melanie. Libra for Loretta.
My chapter described me in a way the outside world obviously had not yet realized: sensuous, earthy, romantic. Hip-heavy. Leos, Melanie acknowledged as true, were leaders. Smart, showy, self-centered. Loved and worshipped by many. Loretta’s pretty face and peaceful demeanor were detailed in her chapter.
Sometimes, I allowed those who were not part of our circle, but were not our enemies either, to skim the book. Sensing their time was short, they flipped the pages quickly, seeking for clues of who and why they are.
I never offered to let Dena read the red book.
Like Loretta, she is a Libra, but in her case, I had to disagree with the description of Libra as a peacemaker. She hated me and had been attacking me since we were toddlers. I was the oldest, the holder of the birthright, the quiet one who could be trusted with information and tasks, but Dena knew that I was not nearly as innocent or special as the adults seemed to believe.
One morning, she stood over me as I sat reading.
“Why you always got that stupid book?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. She waited. I could feel her breath on my forehead.
“You barbarian,” I hissed, but my voice shook a little, and she laughed.
I closed the book and willed myself to stare into her eyes without blinking.
“Hmph!” she finally said. She threw me a menacing look as she flounced away.
Afraid she’d try to steal the book and parade it in front of the grown-ups, I started sliding it under my feather-stuffed pillow at night. Over the years, the book’s hard corners softened, the pages browned, and the cover started to fade.
I lost track of the astrology book after going off to college. A year after I graduated, Dena met a soldier and ran away with him to Georgia. They married, and her soldier became a police officer who beat her, a police officer who pulled his gun on her. Watching his father, their three-year-old toddler did the same, except his gun was make-believe, and he would call out to her: “Mommy, I’m gonna kill you.”
With her wildness and fight siphoned from her, my sister temporarily forgot who she was and what she wanted out of life. Her apartment was decorated in black leather couches, white shag rugs and black-and-silver striped wallpaper—somehow stark and drab at the same time. Much like her face back then: strikingly beautiful but etched in dull lines. Many miles away, I dreamt of her, feared for her. Helpless. How many bloody lips would it take, how many broken wrists, how many calls to 911, before she left him?
More years of worrying for her safety passed before she laid claim to what even she did not know was there: her artist self. First, she began to paint – a black-skinned man in emerald-green slacks and a yellow shirt on a canvas the color of red clay. A wood pipe dangled from his lips. Her images dredged up Haiti and Louisiana.
Next, she bought tools and slabs of wood, her fingers curling around her new utensils as she carved lines and smoothed out grooves, giving birth to the prominent bone structure of an African woman. If I can make this, she told herself, I can make furniture.
If she could craft furniture out of mere planks of wood, she could leave the man who kept trying to break her. And if she could leave her abuser, she could create a life, a style, that looked nothing like her current reality.
And she did.
And she did.
Cassandra Lane is a former newspaper reporter and high school literature and journalism teacher who has published essays, columns and articles in a variety of newspapers, magazines and anthologies. She is an alum of Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) Foundation and A Room of Her Own (AROHO). She received an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. A Louisiana native, she lives with her family in Los Angeles and is the managing editor of L.A. Parent magazine.
We are proud to have founded the Aleksander Fund. To learn more or to donate please click here. To sign up for On being Human Tuscany Sep 5-18, 2018 please email firstname.lastname@example.org.