You’re My Sister
In the seventh grade, my best friend, Jade, and I watched pornos at her father’s while he and her stepmother were sleeping. I don’t think we ever called it porno though. We watched flicks. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee that’s what we’d heard. Flicks. Heard it mostly from older boys and men who didn’t care or didn’t know we were listening or older boys and men who wanted us to be.
At night, at Jade’s father’s, we climbed out of bed long after he and her stepmother had fallen asleep and crept quietly through the living room, through the kitchen and into the den. In the den, Jade knelt, bent over, and reached as far as she could into one of the lower cabinets of the entertainment system. She sifted through her father’s collection of flicks until she found a title worthy of muted exploration. We laid on our stomachs, and Jade pressed play. The first time I ever saw a butt naked woman on television was on Jade’s father’s 70-inch floor model TV, and I didn’t know how to feel or what to think. She twirled a lot.
When the twirling Black woman bent over and opened her legs, I was confused. I whispered, “Mine don’t look nothing like that. Do yours?” I was barely twelve years old. The only coochie I’d ever seen was mine, and I didn’t even know I hadn’t really seen all of my own yet. I thought my coochie was the coochie every other woman and girl had. I didn’t want to see Jade’s, but the way she looked at me after I asked the question made me feel like I’d asked. Without turning away from the TV, she threw her eyes into me and grimaced. I felt dirty. I didn’t mean to upset her, but I didn’t challenge her assumption either. Silently, I surrendered to shame and embarrassment.
At barely twelve, I wanted nothing more than to be accepted. If Jade didn’t want to talk about coochies, we wouldn’t talk about coochies. I didn’t say another word, but I had so many questions about what was happening on TV. I thought she’d have the answers because she’d already done it nearly two years ago with a boy in the eleventh grade. At least, at the time, that’s what I thought an eleventh-grader and a fifth-grader could do. It. It wasn’t until high school that I began to understand a sixteen-year-old boy shouldn’t be doing anything with an eleven-year-old girl.
I met Jade in the fifth grade at Vollentine Elementary. When it was time for lunch, Mrs. Bennett called each of us one-by-one; positions in line were assigned based on how well-behaved the student had been that morning. I was almost always third. Jade could be found somewhere bringing up the rear. One day, she asked me if she could go ahead of me. Her thighs were pressed together, she was shimmying a little bit, and she was trying not to laugh. I studied her micro braids and crooked smile, smiled with my mouth closed, nodded and took a few steps backward. She said something funny after she thanked me, and we laughed. We must’ve laughed all the way to the cafeteria. Before her, I didn’t have a best friend; I didn’t exactly want one either. I longed for Mama. I longed for Daddy. I longed to feel at home when I was at home. That was it. I didn’t know I needed a best friend until I met her. I knew immediately I didn’t want to let her go.
By the time we were in high school, we went from watching flicks on DVD at her father’s after nightfall to watching porno on the internet at her mother’s during the daytime. We sat in front of the eMachines desktop in the guest bedroom. Her mother, Ms. Josephine, affectionately deemed the guest bedroom mine because I slept there nearly every weekend after Jade and I met in Mrs. Bennett’s class. We were inseparable.
It wasn’t long before Jade’s mother became mine. Ms. Josephine didn’t understand how Mama could move through one day after another without knowing whether or not I was alright. Had I eaten enough? What made me smile? Who was I becoming? Back then, Mama was a ghost: a beautiful Blackness addiction had carved empty. Sweet, dark, and holy—Mama was a stunning hollowness I couldn’t escape because she wasn’t there, but she was always on my mind. I wondered. Had she eaten enough? What made her smile? Who was she becoming? Ms. Josephine listened, said, “That’s okay. Don’t worry. I’m Mama now, and I’ll always be here.” She was greasing my scalp, and I rested my head against her thigh and felt delivered from motherlessness. Jade was more than my best friend; she was my sister.
Online, Jade chose what we watched. One day, while trying to decide, she scrolled and scrolled and scrolled until she stopped. In between two videos was an ad. It featured a nearly naked light-skinned Black woman with a long ponytail and asked if we wanted to connect with local Ebony sluts. The woman wore a black halter top, neon pink fencenet leggings and nothing else. She was making her ass clap. The ad looped, played over and over again. We watched it a few times before Jade said, “I ain’t gay or nothin’ like that, but this do be feelin’ good to watch sometimes.”
We’d done this before. Sort of. The summer after seventh grade, my mother lived with one of her boyfriends near the Jackson Corned Beef House in Smokey City, one of Memphis’s first Black neighborhoods. Mama was pregnant with her seventh child. I only visited twice. The first time I went, Jade went with me. We drove ourselves wild trying to find something to do. In the bathroom, Jade found Mama’s tampons, filled the bathtub with water, kneeled and threw a bunch of them in. Our eyes bulged. She fell against the tub, and I fell against the wall. Our laughter exploded at how quickly tampons expanded and floated. The tampons nearly terrified us. Eventually, we rummaged through every drawer in the guest bedroom looking for I don’t even know what until we stumbled upon a box of Polaroids. What we found felt like treasure: coochie. There was a completely naked or nearly naked Black woman in every picture, and they were all dated in the late 1980s. Jade held them gently and in silence. When she gave a handful to me, I was gentle too. We spread the Polaroids across the bed and studied each one with careful eyes.
Poses varied. Some of the women sat on a floral couch with their legs open, two fingers parting the lips of their coochies. Others wore thongs and posed with their asses to the camera, bent over. Hard nipples. Slender hips. A few of them wore red lipstick and big hoop earrings. Hair finger-waved or ponytailed. Feet bare or in high heels. One wore a pair of white high top Reeboks though and her expression wasn’t sexy or fierce. She was smiling. In fact, she was laughing. Jade’s jaw dropped and her eyes bulged a little, “I know she ain’t got on no damn Reeboks though. Girl, what the hell?” She laughed. I didn’t respond, but I thought the Reeboks made her more honest. Made her more real than nameless Black woman hidden away in a stale drawer somewhere between the Mississippi River and Manassas High School.
In the guest bedroom, at her mother’s, Jade enjoyed what she felt when she watched a woman’s ass clap, but I thought I could do us one better. I knew where we could find more treasure, more pleasure. I smirked, grabbed a hold of the mouse, double-clicked the address bar, and typed a URL, clicked enter, and within seconds, we were staring at more than two dozen thumbnails of Black women posing naked together or kissing or licking each other in every place imaginable. This was better, right? Better than one woman, one ass? No, not even a little bit. Jade was quiet. She craned her neck and threw her eyes into me. My lips didn’t move, but my face asked what was wrong. Last time, I thought she might’ve been dismayed; I thought she might’ve assumed I wanted to see what her coochie looked like. I don’t know how I could’ve missed it the first time, but she wasn’t dismayed. She was disappointed. She grabbed a hold of the mouse, peeled her eyes away from me, and pressed the back button.
Jade trusted me with what she was pleased by, and I didn’t think twice. I didn’t frown. I didn’t glare. I didn’t disagree without words. I didn’t judge her. When she pressed the back button, I understood I’d crossed a line. She would only go so far. Those boundaries were also in place for her friends, but months would go by before I knew. Years would go by before I understood.
I was a fourteen-year-old freshman at Central High School when I realized embracing my attraction to girls was a possibility. I hadn’t exactly been hiding the truth about my sexuality from my friends and family though. I wasn’t ashamed or afraid. I just hadn’t told any of them yet. I was waiting for the right moment. When I walked through the doors of Central on the first day of school, I didn’t want to wait anymore.
There were students everywhere, but my eyes seemed to move from one masculine girl to another. Eyes wide, mouth agape. I was in awe. One was dark-skinned and wore colorful no-show socks with Birkenstocks. One was gray-eyed and freckle-faced and seemed to be unimpressed by first-day-of-school chatter. I felt like she knew who her friends were and weren’t and didn’t need to be bothered with the rest of us. One wore glasses and was light-skinned with hair down her back and an adorable crooked smile. She would be my first girlfriend in a few months. I didn’t know the word “stud” at the time, but there were more at Central than I could actually count and they were all so beautiful and so very different from one another.
I’d explored my attraction to other girls on the internet whenever I was alone at home. I made sure the blinds in the living room were always open though, and at the first sight of my family piling out of Grandmama’s 1995 Corsica, I closed the tabs. I cleared the browser history. I deleted the cookies. From what I’d seen, online, women all looked the same and none of them were studs. At Central, I was too shy to talk to any of them, but being able to see them everyday made waking up at 5:00 a.m. and leaving home an hour before everyone else to catch two buses across Frayser and Midtown feel worth it.
My first girlfriend, Talise, was a junior. She played softball, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and had an affinity for hi-top Chuck Taylors and love letters. She’d pass a letter to me in the stairwell when we were going in opposite directions after homeroom. Right before the final class of the day, we’d meet in a bathroom to kiss each other. Sometimes, we’d go into the biggest stall together. Sometimes, we’d stand in the corner next to the paper towel dispenser. Every now and again, another girl’s eyes widened at the sight of us, but we were mostly paid no attention to at all.
I wasn’t hiding my sexuality from Jade or Ryla, who I’d only become close friends with because of her closeness to Jade, but they didn’t know about Talise for a while. It was hard to find the right time to tell them when Jade almost always went out of her way to turn her nose up at studs. It felt hypocritical too. Out of all the freshmen girls I knew at Central from Snowden Middle, Jade was the only one of us who had an after-school job. She worked with a stud who went to school with us, and every time she talked about her, she never had anything bad to say at all. In fact, she was probably one of Jade’s favorite co-workers. She was friends with one of the other studs Jade had a habit of admonishing named Anari. Somehow, Anari always moved something inside of Jade enough for her to vocalize her disapproval.
Whenever we passed Anari in the hallway, once she was out of earshot, Jade complained about her hair never being worn in ways that accentuated femininity. Jade thought the way the puff sat at the back of the Anari’s head day in and day out was a waste of curls and shine. If it wasn’t Anari’s hair Jade had a problem with, it was shoes far too masculine for a girl. Jade swore she could tell the difference between men’s and women’s Timberlands. If not shoes, Jade was bothered by how unnecessarily noticeable the waistband of Anari’s boxers always seemed to be. I listened to her complaining about Anari, but I never could quite understand any of it. Everything about Anari was beautiful to me.
Now, Talise and I spent nearly all night on the phone with each other after 9:00 p.m. when my minutes were free. She spent most of her time in homeroom writing a love letter to me and I was going down the up stairwell just to see her, but I wouldn’t hug her or even go near her after school. I thought I was protecting her. I didn’t want her to become the target of Jade’s judgment. I was actually protecting myself though. I didn’t want to become the target of Jade’s judgment for having a girlfriend—especially a girlfriend who looked like she could actually be my boyfriend. On top of that, Jade, her father, and her stepmother had spent an entire afternoon once discussing who was gay or lesbian in Black Hollywood. I pretended to be asleep. I didn’t want to be a part of their conversation. They spewed vitriol about any and every Black celebrity they considered to be gay or lesbian based on what they wore, who they were friends with, or how absent children were from their lives.
“Y’all know Tyler Perry got sugar in his tank.”
“That’s easy to see. Come on, now!”
“I believe Oprah gay too.”
“…and I believe you right about that there. Ain’t married Stedman yet, and it’s been how many years?”
“We know why! Oprah is with Gayle King. Come on, now!”
I pretended to be asleep because I didn’t think I’d be able to leave the den without suspicion. Maybe I could’ve, but that’s how damning their conversation felt. If I wasn’t present, would they be talking about me too? What defined lesbianism? Was I too close to Jade? Did I dress the way a straight girl was supposed to dress? Had they ever seen me with a boy? Did he look like he had sugar in his tank? What I feared most though was their anger. They talked as if they themselves had been personally defied or denounced by someone they loved and trusted, as if notable Black people had betrayed them by maybe being in a same-sex relationship. After that, there was no way I was telling Jade about Talise. I never planned to. My relationship with Talise would’ve remained a secret for as long as we were together if Talise hadn’t grown tired of me ignoring her after school.
After school, I helped Coach Bryant before and after volleyball practice whenever it was held. I called myself the manager of the team, but I didn’t do much. I assembled and disassembled the net before and after the girls practiced. In P.E., I had heard Coach Haley say once, “Y’all, this is Central High School. THE high school! Get involved with something. I’m serious. Anything. Don’t just come to school and go home. Don’t be that person. When the yearbook comes out, you will regret it.” I knew she was right. Ryla had joined the volleyball team, but I was too shy and way too self-conscious to attempt any bit of athleticism in front of girls I barely knew. Still, as the so-called manager, being a part of something at Central felt good even if my role was miniscule and completely unnecessary. I think Coach Bryant knew I needed to feel like I was a part of something. After the net was set up, I usually lied to Coach Bryant about this, that, or the other, and left. Talise would be waiting for me in an empty hallway, and we’d walk to the girl’s bathroom of the newly renovated basement. I wouldn’t see Coach Bryant or Ryla again for at least an hour and a half.
I knew Jade and Ryla would have questions after Talise grabbed a hold of my backpack after school one day, quickly pulled me as close to her as she could, and damn near dragged me away from Jade, Ryla, and all the other Black girls I was friends with from Snowden Middle. I could see the confusion on all their faces when Talise pulled me away and I didn’t stop her. That day, volleyball practice had been delayed. Another team needed the gym for an hour, so instead of meeting there, we met in Coach Bryant’s classroom to begin the studying or homework we usually wouldn’t get to until going home after practice. I was pulling a notebook out of my backpack when Ryla walked down the aisle with furrowed eyebrows and a weird smirk on her face.
She asked, “Monterica, what was up with that girl pulling you away from us earlier? You must know her or something.” I knew what was happening. When Ryla said “girl” it sounded like a question.
I smiled anyway. “That’s Talise,” I said. I nodded, answered the question she was asking without actually asking.
I was a little nervous, but I was excited to maybe finally be able to talk about her though. I hadn’t told anyone about how beautiful the love letters were. When Jade had sex for the first time, we were excited to hear what it was like to be touched by a boy there. I wanted to tell my friends how good it felt to have my coochie licked. I was the first one of us to do it or have it done, and I wanted to be celebrated and fawned over for details the way Jade was celebrated and fawned over for details.
I said, “She’s on the softball team. I think I might like her,” and lied a little bit. I wanted to tell the whole truth right then and there, but I remembered a conversation Ryla’s father had with us once after school. Jade and I were in the backseat of his Nissan Rogue riding down South Cleveland Street. We were on our way to see the massive, two-story home he was having built for his family in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. He joked about wanting to build a go-kart track there instead of a swimming pool because he didn’t want to risk anyone drowning on the land. On our way, we drove past a stud walking home from school with a group of girls. He said, “Treacherous, I tell you. Treacherous. Let me say this: if you see one, that’s all you need to know. Birds of a feather flock together. If one of my friends ever tells me he’s gay, that’s it. We are no longer friends.” Jade and Ryla laughed; Jade asked why. He said, “Oh, come on, now. If I’m seen with him, I’m gay now too. No, no, no, no.” In Coach Bryant’s classroom, after I lied to Ryla, she smiled and stifled a laugh, side-eyed me, and walked backwards, slowly, to her desk. She seemed more amused than disgusted. My shoulders fell; I was relieved. I thought telling Jade and Ryla the truth about Talise and me wouldn’t be too much trouble after all. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The afternoon after volleyball practice went the way all our afternoons after volleyball practice went. Outside, Ryla and I sat on the stairs with other students whose practices and rehearsals had also just ended. She and I laughed at everything, talked about too much, and waved goodbye to our teammates before they climbed into their parent’s cars and disappeared down Linden Avenue. Ryla’s mother arrived just after four o’clock. We climbed into her backseat, and she asked how Ladybug’s day had gone. I smiled, not at Ryla’s nickname, but at her having a mother who called her Ladybug and wore blazers with matching skirts and v-neck camisoles. A mother who drove a Lexus and worked Downtown. A mother who greeted her with a smile or a laugh or a question every time she climbed into the backseat of her car. A mother who called her Ladybug and meant mine. Before dinner at Pizza Hut, Ryla’s mother stopped at Fresh Market for a few groceries. We knew we’d eat soon. Her mother bought dinner after practice every day. Still, at Fresh Market, even after we saw an employee go in before us, Ryla and I snuck into the bathroom with stolen potato chips anyway.
Later, at home, I stood in the doorway of the dining room and watched Grandmama’s hands as she chopped an onion beneath our two-tier prism chandelier. Grandmama was beautiful. What I loved most about her were her hands. I never saw Grandmama do her nails, but they were always a little long and perfectly shaped. After a while, I said, “I told Ryla about Talise today.” Grandmama stopped chopping onions. She didn’t move for a while. Then, she inhaled, exhaled, looked into my eyes and said, “They are going to shun you.”
“Shun?” I asked, but I knew what she meant. I hadn’t heard her or anyone else use “shun” before, but the sound of it made me remember a tall, gap-toothed third grader I befriended once because I saw how close every other third grader was or seemed to be to someone else. She and I both were always alone and mostly quiet when we ate lunch, and I thought it was because she wore her glasses on a necklace and braids pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. She could have easily been mistaken for someone’s grandmother, but I don’t remember her ever being made fun of.
I wanted to feel comfortable with her. I wanted to feel as if we were created to be the best friends we could’ve ever been to each other, but no matter how many snacks we shared at lunchtime or how many honeysuckles we snatched from vines at recess and giggled over, our laughter and every bit of sweetness between us felt contrived. I didn’t feel like I needed to take her seriously. I heard her, but I never allowed her words to stay with me. Eventually, one day, I stopped being her friend. I ignored her. I avoided her. I wouldn’t even say hello.
Grandmama said, “I’ll tell you this much: you’re braver than me. If I liked girls, I wouldn’t tell a soul. That, I’d take that to my grave.”
I didn’t want to believe Grandmama. Later, our phone rang a little bit after ten o’clock. It was Jade and Ryla, and neither of them said hello. Jade began by laughing, “Monterica? What in the…? Ryla, girl, I just—do you want to tell her?”
“Tell me what,” I asked.
Ryla laughed, “Monterica, we can’t be friends with you. I mean…a girl? Really? Do you—what are you even thinking? That. Shit. Is. Nasty. How is that even supposed to work?”
Jade asked, “You know you can’t have children with another woman, right?”
Ryla asked, “What are y’all gon’ do? Bump coochies?”
I’d never bumped coochies with Talise, didn’t even know what bumping coochies was, but I was ashamed. I tried to speak, “Well, I—”
Ryla spoke again though, “Monterica, you told me I was beautiful just yesterday. How am I supposed to know that you don’t like me, that you don’t want me to be your girlfriend? How am I supposed to know that you not gon’ try to have sex with me now or some other weird shit? Come on, now.”
Ryla was beautiful. She looked a lot like her mother. I didn’t think of her the way I thought of Talise though. I didn’t want to kiss her. I didn’t want to have sex with her either, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to answer her questions. I was trying to find the words when suddenly Jade began to cry.
“What’s wrong,” I asked. “Why are you crying?”
She sobbed. She said, “I can’t be your friend. Why are you doing this? I can’t be seen with you. Ryla, I can’t do this. Please, please. If you don’t have anything else to say to Monterica, can we—” and silence followed. Disconnection. I listened a while before finally pressing END.
Before I could return the cordless phone to its base, the phone rang again. It was Jade’s number at home. I sighed.
“Monterica Neil, have you completely lost your mind?” It was Jade’s mother. She was screaming.
I answered her question softly, “No, ma’am.”
She said, “Little girl, don’t you know I will come to Central fucking High School and beat your ass my damn self? I will bring my belt up there and wear your little ass out. Gay? GAY?! If you ever have another conversation like the one you JUST had with my daughter again, you will die. Believe that,” and I was met with the sound of disconnection again.
I cried. Slowly, I stood , walked to Grandmama’s bedroom, entered without knocking and said, “Jade and Ryla don’t want to be friends with me anymore.”
Half asleep, she mumbled, “It’s okay. You’ll be alright. Trust me. Don’t worry about them right now. It’s late. Go on, lay down.”
The next day, in Mrs. Wright’s Honors Algebra, Jade sat next to me and whispered, “How are you going to face God? You know you’re going to Hell, right?” I couldn’t concentrate. I failed Mrs. Wright’s exam. All I could think about was being an abomination. After school, Ryla said her mother wouldn’t mind taking me home. I declined her offer. I didn’t want to be seen with anyone who didn’t want to be seen with me.
While we were at school, Jade’s mother called Grandmama and argued with her about how much of a failure I’d become if I continued to pursue girls romantically. One thing led to another and Ms. Josephine threatened Grandmama with violence. Grandmama’s words were, “Well, come on then, ho,” and I felt loved. I’d never heard or heard of Grandmama ready to defend one of her own in that way, and her fierceness was comforting in the face of Jade and Ryla’s disdain. Jade and I became friends again months later, but I spent years hiding who I was and who I was with from her, and I didn’t feel free enough to be who I wanted to be until I said goodbye to her twelve years later.
Monterica Sadé Neil (they/them, she/her) received their MFA from Louisiana State University. Their efforts as a writer have been supported by Tin House Workshop, the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts, and United States Artists. Their work has appeared in Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, Catapult, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and The Offing. Monterica grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, and is currently at work on a memoir.