It’s years later when you try and piece your childhood back together that you remember your name. You wrote it on a poem. It was Daddy’s name. Brown. That’s your real last name. It’s only later that you and your little brother will change names as if to get away from some kind of legacy that you didn’t want.
Choosing your own names makes a statement, doesn’t it?
You choose your new last name because it has the freshness of a cloud over the sea dissipating in the wind, where the air is good and clean and brisk — the light pure and simple as it glances along the shore.
You’re eight that day you find Daddy’s letters. It was after they had fought about James. You were too young to find them but you could read and you were left alone a lot in that house full of books with only Angelica keeping an eye on the two of you. The house was very large and your grandparents bought it for your mother. An architect had built it, your mother said. She’d looked at several.
“My parents will never let me have what I want.”
She tells you this repeatedly all through your childhood. It’s her mother that is trying to control her, she says. She tells you that she hates her mother as she pulls you closer. She’s made brownies again in the new house on a Sunday, from a box. You’re watching movies together, all day long, sitting on her gigantic bed. She liked to do this with you at her side. The two of you always burst out crying at the same time and you’d look over at each other, acknowledging shared feelings. That was how you communicated in those years, because children were to be seen and not heard.
White girls keep their hands to themselves when in public.
Your grandmother gets you little white gloves that match your Mary Janes. You wear hats like hers, too.
What made you go through your mother’s dresser drawers that day? After your father and she had fought on Christmas Eve? You were searching for something and you moved all her lingerie around as you played dress-up in it for hours and hours. The letters were hiding there, and you read them all, secretly. It took you ages, or maybe days because no one was home and Angelica was off in one of the other rooms making beds. You and your brother make forts out of sheets in the living room where you hide sometimes and Danny lives next door and you don’t want to play near him or down in the ravine
Some days you listen to Denny with his surf guitars, strumming, his girlfriend pounding out little black wire earrings made of flowers.
You held your breath didn’t you? When you found those letters.
There was once sentence. It was a sentence you couldn’t even talk about for years because it said “I have always loved her as if she were my own.”
Your mother has told you that you cannot see Daddy anymore. He comes up and he takes your little brother and she out for dinner and you are made to stay home with Angelica or be banished northwards to your grandparent’s house on the train.
It was because I told about James, you think to yourself years later. I told Daddy about James.
You told Daddy because you loved him. He was your parent, or so you thought all those early years up to age eight when you read what he wrote. It’s after that, that you learned saying things was dangerous especially if you told the truth. You never told Mommy until five years later about what you had read, did you?
White girls learn how to keep secrets.
Mommy’s lace. Mommy’s dresser drawers. Mommy’s necklaces. Mommy’s nightgowns. Mommy’s shoes. One by one you try them on in her enormous bedroom and the dresser stares at you with its carvings and lions paws for feet. You learn to hide wherever there is furniture, listening in silence, always watchful for what is said. You learn to write things down that you cannot say out loud. Years later, looking through old photographs you find one of your poems called “Silence.” You’re looking at your handwriting. You’re looking at the words and you’re realizing this was how you were trying to tell people things. The teacher marked it in red and gave you an A. A is for excellence. A is like the blue ribbons you win later, riding. A is the only thing to ever strive for as if it can redeem you and all that was lost in those years.
Claudia, the richest girl on the hill is having a slumber party. Her parents have something called a rumpus room and this is where you all gather, all the little girls with their sleeping bags and their overnight things. You’ve eaten hot dogs and hamburgers and potato chips and you’ve all been swimming and all of you are exhausted under summer sun on the long day of just being girls together playing ping pong or badminton and listening to the Monkees and dancing around that big room when you finally all collapse in a heap and everybody is tired and starting to make their beds cordoning off who will sleep by who when Claudia and a few of the other girls go into the bathroom and lock the door and the rest of you can hear them as if they are planning something together.
The ten of you wait until the four of them come out of there and they say, “The first one who falls asleep is going to get this lipstick drawn all over her face.”
She’s a bully, with her little gang, brandishing her mother’s deep coral lipstick. You watch her at a distance for awhile, quietly and all of a sudden you start to run in your little navy tennis shoes. You run to the double doors of the big rumpus room because you don’t want anything bad to happen, do you?
You run to the next room with its flocked velvet wallpaper and the leopard sofas and the golden plaster statues of cupids and Aphrodites and you keep on running until you reach the stairs and you’re climbing them, endlessly, out of breath until you reach her Mommy sitting on a pale pink sofa that seems to go on for miles and she’s on the phone and you’re tugging her arm and you tell her what is about to happen downstairs, blushing with shame as if you are doing something wrong by tattling on friends.
You weren’t going to let Claudia get away with it were you?
You weren’t going to let something mean happen, and so you told.
Those are the days of the dreamhouses, when little girls collected barbies and kens and skippers. When the parents sat in leopard printed rooms holding cocktails as if they were posing for photoshoots. You were never invited there again were you? This is how families keep secrets. These are the years you are alone near the tetherball courts and you left your sweater at the base of the flagpole and Brenda grabbed it and put it on and said to you, “It’s mine now.”
It was your favorite little sweater, white mohair, with tiny buttons running down the front and you wanted it back and you didn’t know what to do because you didn’t know any girls who would do things like that did you? Not girls who were going to steal your sweater from under the American flag where you all stood pledging allegiance nearly every day, did you?
“nameless” — copyright 2011 — all rights reserved
*author note on music
*author note on that poem…