Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
Me and Jasmine and Michael were hanging out at Mr. Thompson’s pool. We were fifteen and it was the first weekend after school started, and me and Jasmine were sitting side by side on one of Mr. Thompson’s ripped-up green-and-white lawn chairs, doing each other’s nails while the radio played “Me Against the World.” It was the day after Tupac got shot, and even Hot 97, which hadn’t played any West Coast for months, wasn’t playing anything else. Jasmine kept complaining that Michael smelled like bananas.
“Sunscreen,” Jasmine said, “is some white-people shit. That’s them white girls you’ve been hanging out with, got you wearing sun-screen. Black people don’t burn.”
Never mind that Michael was lighter than Jasmine and I was lighter than Michael, and really all three of us burned. Earlier, when Jasmine had gone to the bathroom, I’d let Michael rub sunscreen gently into my back. I guess I smelled like bananas, too, but I couldn’t smell anything but the polish, and I didn’t think she could, either. Jasmine was on about some other stuff.
“You smell like food,” Jasmine said. “I don’t know why you wanna smell like food. Ain’t nobody here gonna lick you because you smell like bananas. Maybe that shit works in Bronxville, but not with us.”
“I don’t want you to lick me,” Michael said. “I don’t know where your mouth has been. I know you don’t never shut it.”
“Shut up,” I said. They were my only two real friends and if they fought I’d’ve had to fix it. I turned up the dial on Mr. Thompson’s radio, which was big and old. The metal had deep scratches on it, and rust spots left by people like us, who didn’t watch to see whether or not we’d flicked drops of water on it. It had a good sound, though. When the song was over they cut to some politician from the city saying again that it was a shame talented young black people kept dying like this, and it was time to do something about it. They’d been saying that all day. Mr. Thompson got up and cut off the radio.
“You live like a thug, you die like a thug,” he said, looking at us. “It’s nothing to cry over when people wake up in the beds they made.”
He was looking for an argument, but I didn’t say nothing, and Jasmine didn’t, either. Part of swimming in Mr. Thompson’s pool was that he was always saying stuff like that. It still beat swimming at the city pool, which had closed for the season last weekend, and before that had been closed for a week after someone got beat up there. When it was open it was crowded and dirty from little kids who peed in it, and was usually full of people who were always trying to start something. People like Michael, who had nothing better to do.
“I’m not crying for nobody,” Michael told Mr. Thompson. “Tupac been dead to me since he dissed B.I.G.” He looked up and made some bootleg version of the sign of the cross, like he was talking about God or something. He must’ve seen it in a movie.
Mr. Thompson shook his head at us and walked back to the lawn chair where he’d been reading the paper. He let it crinkle loudly when he opened it again, like even the sound of someone else reading would make us less ignorant.
Jasmine snorted. She lifted Michael’s sweatshirt with the tips of her thumb and index finger so she didn’t scratch her still-drying polish and pulled out the pictures he had been showing us before Mr. Thompson came over—photos of his latest girlfriend, a brunette with big eyes and enormous breasts, lying on a bed with a lot of ruffles on it.
“You live like a white girl, you act like a white girl,” said Jasmine, frowning at the picture and making her voice deep like she was Mr. Thompson.
“She’s not white,” said Michael. “She’s Italian.”
Jasmine squinted at the girl’s penny-sized pink nipples. “She look white to me.”
“She’s Italian,” said Michael.
“Italian people ain’t white?”
“What the fuck are they, then?”
“Mr. Thompson,” Jasmine called across the yard, “are Italian people white?”
“Ask the Ethiopians,” said Mr. Thompson, and none of us knew what the hell he was talking about, so we all shut up for a minute.
The air started to feel cooler through our swimsuits, and Michael got up, putting his jeans on over his wet swim trunks and pulling his sweatshirt over his head. I followed Jasmine into the house, where we took turns changing in the downstairs bathroom. It was an old house, like most of the ones in his part of town, but Mr. Thompson kept it nice: the wallpaper was peeling a little, but the bathroom was clean. The soap in the soap dish was shaped like a seashell, and it seemed like we were the only ones who ever used it. On our way out we said good-bye to Mr. Thompson, who nodded at us and grunted, “Girls”; then, harsher, at Michael: “Boy.”
Michael rolled his eyes. Michael wasn’t bad. Mostly I thought he hung out with us because he was bored a lot. He needed somebody to chill with when the white girls he was fucking’s parents were home. We didn’t get him in trouble as much as his boys did. We hung out with him because we figured it was easier to have a boy around than not to. Strangers usually thought one of us was with him, and they didn’t know which, so they didn’t bother either of us. When you were alone, men were always wanting something from you. We even wondered about Mr. Thompson sometimes, or at least we never went swimming at his house without Michael with us.
Mr. Thompson was retired, but he used to be our elementary school principal, which is how he was the only person in Mount Vernon we knew with a swimming pool in his backyard. We—and everybody else we knew—lived on the south side, where it was mostly apartment buildings, and if you had a house, you were lucky if your backyard was big enough for a plastic kiddie pool. The bus didn’t go by Mr. Thompson’s house, and it was a twenty-minute walk from our houses even if we walked fast, but it was nicer than swimming at the city pool. We were the only ones he’d told could use his pool anytime.
“It’s ’cause I collected more than anyone else for the fourth-grade can drive, when we got the computers,” I said. “He likes me.”
“Nah,” Jasmine said, “he don’t even remember that. It’s ’cause my mom worked at the school all those years.”
Jasmine’s mom had been one of the lunch ladies, and we’d gone out of our way to pretend not to know her, with her hairnet cutting a line into her broad forehead, her face all covered in sweat. Even when she got home she’d smell like grease for hours. Sometimes if my mother made me a bag lunch, I’d split it with Jasmine so we didn’t have to go through the lunch line and hear the other kids laugh. At school, Mr. Thompson had been nicer to Jasmine’s mother than we had. We felt bad for letting Mr. Thompson make us nervous. He was the smartest man either of us knew, and probably he was just being nice. We were not stupid, though. We’d had enough nice guys suddenly look at us the wrong way.
My first kiss was with a boy who’d said he’d walk me home and a block later was licking my mouth. The first time a guy had ever touched me—like touched me there—I was eleven and he was sixteen and a lifeguard at the city pool. We’d been playing chicken and when he put me down he held me against the cement and put his fingers in me, and I wasn’t scared or anything, just cold and surprised.
When I told Jasmine later she said he did that to everyone, her too. Michael kept people like that out of our way. People had used to say that he was fucking one of us, or trying to, but it wasn’t like that. He was our friend, and he’d moved on to white girls from Bronxville anyway. It was like he didn’t even see us like girls sometimes, and that felt nice because mostly everybody else did.
Michael’s brother Ron was leaned up against his car, waiting for him at the bottom of Mr. Thompson’s hill. The car was a brown Cadillac that was older than Ron, who graduated from our high school last spring and worked at Radio Shack. People didn’t usually notice the car much because they were too busy looking at Ron and he knew it. He was golden-colored, with curly hair and doll-baby eyelashes and the kind of smile where you could count all of his teeth. Jasmine always said how fine he was, but to me he looked like the kind of person who should be on television, not someone you’d actually wanna talk to. He must’ve still been mad at Pac, too, or he was just tired of hearing him on the radio, because he was bumping Nas from the tape deck. Michael hopped in the front seat and started to wave bye to us.
“Man,” Ron said, cuffing him on the back of his head. “You got two cute girls here, and you ain’t even gonna try to take ’em with you? I thought I raised you better than that.”
“I’m meeting people at the Galleria. You coming?” Michael called.
“Who’s gonna be there?” Jasmine asked.
“Me, Darius, Eddie … prolly some other people.”
“Nuh-uh,” Jasmine said. “You’re cool, but your boy ain’t.”
“What’s wrong with my boy?” Michael asked, grinning. Jasmine made a tsk sound. “He ignorant, that’s what.”
“Damn son,” said Ron as he walked back to the driver’s side. “Your whole crew can’t get no play.” He got in, slammed the car door, and did a U-turn. On his way past us he leaned out the window and called, “You get tired of messing with these fools, you come down to the mall and see me,” then rolled up the amber window and drove off.
Jasmine’s problem was that she had lost her virginity to Michael’s friend Eddie four months before. He told her he would go with her afterward but instead he went with Cindy Jackson. We saw them all over the city all summer, holding hands. It drove Jasmine crazy. Jasmine liked to pretend no one knew any of this, even though JASMINE FUCKED EDDIE AND NOW SHE’S PRESSED!! had been written in both the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms at school for months. Cindy wrote it in both places. I told Jasmine Cindy was probably real familiar with the boys’ bathroom.
“The only difference between that girl and the subway,” I said, “is that everybody in the world hasn’t ridden the subway.”
I thought Jasmine would feel better, but instead of laughing she sniffled and said, “He left me for some trashy bitch.” After that I just let her cry.
On our way to Jasmine’s house, she said, “I’m sad about Tupac, a little. It is sad. You can’t ever do anything. I bet you if I got famous, somebody would kill me too.”
“What the hell would you get famous for?” I asked.
“I’m just saying, if I did.”
“Sure,” I said. “You’d be just like Tupac.”
“I’m just saying, Erica, you never know. You don’t know what could happen. You don’t know how much time you got.”
Jasmine could be melodramatic like that, thinking because something bad happened somewhere, something bad would happen to you. I remembered when Tupac had went to jail, and Jasmine cried because she said we could get arrested too, and I said, “For what?”, but it didn’t matter, she just kept crying. Mostly to make her feel better, we had bought IT’S A SET SO KEEP YA HEAD UP T-shirts at the mall. My mother screamed when she saw us wearing them.
“Setup,” she said. “Y’all take that crap off. Keep believing everything these rap stars tell you. I’m telling you, the minute a man says someone set him up for anything, you run, because he’s about to set you up for something.”
There were a whole lot of men we were supposed to stay away from according to my mother: rap stars, NBA players, white men. We didn’t really know any of those kinds of people. We only knew boys like Michael who freestyled a little but mostly not well, who played ball violently like someone’s life was at stake, or else too pretty, flexing for the girls every time they made a decent shot, because even they knew they would never make the NBA, and we were all they were gonna get out of a good game. The only white men we knew were teachers and cops, and no one had to tell us to try and stay away from them, when that was all we did in the first place, but my mother was always worried about something she didn’t need to be.