At 22, you have no love or lovers. Sometimes a boy will put his mouth on your neck if he is very very drunk. He is a white boy, tall and thin. You will ask him three times if he likes you, and he will promise you everything. Maybe you will dance, his hands on your hips because you don’t like him to pinch at your thick waist. Maybe you will kiss. Still, you will leave at the end of the night untouched and unloved. You will keep your clothes on. You will try again.
When you are in Botswana, boys are forward. They call you American as if that makes you a slut. You are not a slut, and you will never be American. You sometimes wish you could be both. When Adin says that your lipstick, dark purple like a bruise, is very pretty, you accuse him of hitting on you. “I’m not!” He says, surprised. He is beautiful, Jewish and Israeli and dark-skinned. He is your ideal type, in that he is not interested in you. This is almost enough to work. Not for you, for some other girl. You go home and weigh your food for the next day.
Your mother asks why you are always leaving, why you need to go so far away. Even New Jersey is a different world to her. “Watch out in South Africa,” she says, “The transmission rate of HIV is the third highest in the world.” You lecture her on third-world stereotypes and remind her that she’s from a third-world country herself. God knows what people are saying about Grenadians out there. She tells you not to use the Lord’s name in vain, and says, “You’re my daughter, and I need you to know this because you are growing up, now.” You don’t tell her that you’re 20 years old, because in South Africa young adults are considered children until they turn 21. Your mother loves to remind you of this—that in South Africa you can’t drink or smoke or vote (or fuck) without her express permission. You let her that you know how to use a condom.
Your sister loses her virginity. You don’t know what to say. This is the same year she tells you she wants to kill herself. You sit in the back of your parents’ Honda CRV and you hold her, in your parents’ garage. She cries and you do too. She tells you, “I think I’m going to die. No one wants me.” You say, “If you die, I’m going too.” You’re lying. Maybe she believes you.
You have terrible skin. You gain fifteen pounds off of post-dinner cereal and peanut butter. You sleep four hours a night, and you boast about it constantly. You are the happiest you have ever been. You have two best friends, but only one who is the best best. She is half-black, half-Filipino, which is better than sort-of-black-not-really-white. You talk about rap music and the Kardashians. Together you form the light-skinned princess cohort you dreamed about having ever since you first noticed that pretty girls with pretty hair could be prettier together. You are probably in love with her. When she pretends she doesn’t see you the first time, hanging out with her new friends (African-Americans, keyword, American) you’ll wave at her again. The second time, well. There are no such things as accidents.
Before your high school graduation, there is a party on an island off the coast of Port Royal. You take a speedboat out to sea, and the waves thrash you and rock you so your shiny gold swimsuit chafes against your crotch. You have shaved your entire body for this—your vagina too, where the hairs are long and black and coarse from a full puberty’s worth of growth. You still wear your glasses but take them off for pictures. In the saltwater, Shane grinds against you to the tune of the dancehall song of the summer. When he sticks his fingers inside the swimsuit, it slides away as easy as anything. His hands are rough against where you were too afraid to drag the razor hard enough to remove the stubble. Before he gets too far, though, too deep, you float away, like you weigh nothing. It is easy to pretend in the water.
Your first kiss with Kimani is at a party, splattered with paint. You grind up against each other, and he pulls you against him and splays your legs up around his hips so you can really show him your best skills. You have no such skills, but the thumping bass and your fifth vodka cranberry allow you to provide your best imitation. And for what it’s worth, Kimani likes you too much anyway to say anything. “Didn’t you hate me in prep school?” you ask. You know you hated him. He pulls on the back of your bun. “Of course I didn’t.” he says. His mouth is hot and you hadn’t before realized what a fleshy thing the tongue was. You turn your back to him, put his hands around your waist from behind. Grind some more.
You play Never I Have I Ever, Spin the Bottle. “Never have I ever gone farther than making out!” Lara says. You leave your finger up. Never Have You Ever Gone Anywhere Even Slightly Close to Making Out. Kristen and Julia put theirs down. They gulp down Julia’s mother’s pink strawberry champagne, and you do too not to feel left out. “Can I ask why?” Julia asks, sucking at her straw. “It’s so fun.” She and Kristen exchange glances, because they know. You and Lara also exchange glances. “Boys in Jamaica are so lame.” you say. “Yeah, but if their dick’s big enough—” Julia and Kristen burst into peals of laughter. You roll your eyes; you know both of their boyfriends. Julia’s is short, ratty-looking. She weighs more than he does and he refuses to shave the scraggly hairs that grow above his upper lip. Kristen’s boyfriend wears yellow Crocs to school. She loves this about him. You can’t picture a feeling that strong and dumb.
Alex is a swimmer, and you told everyone in the fourth form that he was mean and that you hated him. Everyone agrees—you’ve known him since you were seven years old and your opinion, bossy and self-possessed at age fourteen, is gospel. When Kristen makes out with him at a New Years’ Party, you ask her why she would even want to kiss someone so gross. “He’s cute, I don’t know.” she says. You snort, disbelieving, and hand her the second half of your Starbursts packet that you bought from the canteen. You’ve already eaten all the pinks and reds, but Kristen says she likes the yellows and oranges anyway. “Plus, he’s rich.” She grins and pops a Starburst into her mouth.
The day you get your period, your parents gift with you a pair of tiny gold hoop earrings. You wear them to school for the first time the Monday after you start bleeding, and you also carry a plastic bag filled with toilet paper and pads to class. At break time, you see Victor and some of the other boys throwing the plastic bag around in the air. “I’ve never seen anyone carry toilet paper to school before!” Kristen laughs. You are a giant next to her. She is so small. “Me neither. Who the hell would do that.” you say. Victor puts the bag down back on top of the lockers before the teacher enters the classroom. You don’t change your pad for the rest of the day, and your panties slick cold and wet with blood.
“I know it’s you who’s been writing the locker lawyer notes,” Victor says, smiling at you and putting them on your desk. If you weren’t brown you would blush red, like the white girls do in all the good books. It’s true, you have been. Victor and some of the other first formers put their small bodies inside the lockers in the back of the classroom. They are all loud and obnoxious but he is the worst of them all. He has curly hair and green-brown eyes. Long eyelashes, and no beard. You’ve never thought about eyelashes before. As he leaves, you catch a glance at the note. Underneath where you’ve written, “DEAR VICTOR, PLEASE STOP DESTROYING THE LOCKERS. IT IS A VIOLATION OF SCHOOL PROPERTY AND ALSO VERY ANNOYING. SINCERELY, THE LOCKER LAWYERS,” he’s drawn a smiley face.
You have your first sexual experiences while watching TV. You still watch the cartoons of your sister’s childhood, which basically happens at the same time as yours. When Muffy declares that she’s in love with Buster in Arthur, you find that if you rub your jean shorts against the couch cushion in the right way, it feels really good, almost like you have to pee. Later, you see Helga kiss the bubblegum totem of Arnold in Hey Arnold, her lips stuck to it as she pulls away, thick with pink candy and saliva. You find that if you stick your hand down your shorts and rub there, it feels even better.
You have your first crush. And your second. You get over the first, but the second is better. You know you love him, although you never talk to each other. He has light brown hair and skin and eyes. In French class, you say bonjour to each other and you make fun of his accent. He forgives you. When you show your class photo to your mother, unable to stop giggling as you point him out she says, “He’s who you find cute? Really?” “Yes.” you say, but this second love fades, too.