Note: This piece was originally published in Sprout Magazine
I grew up alongside pretty white girls with ribbons in their pigtails. When I saw myself in the mirror with friends, I inferred the nuanced difference between strawberry and chocolate milk, but they were both equally delicious, equally worthy. Color had no connotations.
Years have passed. It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m sitting on a polyester upholstered bus on my way to the next Model United Nations Conference. My team members and I are clad in layers of khaki, fleece, and the notion that we’re superior. The bus smells like corn grease and two hundred dollar perfume. My eyes are dry from two days without sleep, and I feel my head spin with each jolt the bus makes down the highway.
It’s strange, the way I fit in here. It is something sour and melancholy, something that is shaking. I am so close to belonging, to fitting exactly, but I never will. I am always off by one hundredth, one millionth, one trillionth. Not enough to see, but just enough to feel.
I am listening at the edge of the conversation, pulled in by the way the aftertaste of the shared chicken mcnuggets sits on my tongue, by thoughts on someone’s poor choice in dress shoes. Who wears Sperrys to a MUN Conference anyway? We are discussing assignments and what we are planning to do on our committees. I am a General Assembly delegate, representing one culture, nation and people. This time I am the United States.
My eyes lock with Buckley, a crises delegate. He will not represent a nation at our conference, but a person. One person. He is a conservative, a friend.
“Which one, the blue or the pink?
“The pink tie suits you, Buck.”
He means well, but somewhere between his brows the concept of line-crossing is lost. He is raised with the promise of two billion dollars instead of an early morning bus driver. He doesn’t understand what real people are like, that there are some things he can’t say.
Back on the bus, he makes a bid for the next round of weary laughs: “I’m gonna get me some brown sugar.” The entire truckful of kids laughs along with him. He’s got creamy vanilla skin and hazel eyes. To them, he is a regular Joan Rivers.
The words settle on my head like something sticky in the air, something that is unnatural. I am paralyzed beneath my skin as the phrase echoes:
It’s Monday morning and I’m looking in the mirror. Eyes wandering across my features, I wonder: what can I do to make myself beautiful?
I turn to my friend. She pinches her avocado green eyes in the mirror, sets a pale gold dust on her lids, and coats her lashes in a thin layer of dark brown mascara. Her eyes are slim and she is beautiful. But I know she is thinking of a wide-eyed girl with pouty lips and blond hair. “I need my eyes to be bigger,” she says. It’s a chant, an incantation. She recites it by the bonfire behind her eyes like a late night seance, like a Staples shopping list. The makeup is the checkout aisle.
She reaches for her credit card, the mascara wand, but the clock is striking twelve and her tools are dissolving, disappearing, disintegrating. But the perfect girl is still present in the curve of her lips and the cut of her jaw. The perfect girl is still in her sights.
It’s not the same for me.
Brown sugar: With that boy’s words, I am not a girl; I am food. I am the ingredient for chocolate chip cookies that no one ever stores in their cupboard. I am the luxurious element in fifty-dollar Siberian seawater body scrub. I am exotic, unfamiliar. I am an extra, unnecessary something.
But maybe I can be dolled up, redone, refurbished. Maybe I can be reborn through gloss and glimmer into a gorgeous girl. Maybe some concealer for the smattering of scars across my cheeks, some lip stain to lighten the tragedy of my pale hazelnut lips. I am picturing the same perfect girl as my friend, the blond girl with peony cheeks and pearlescent skin. I think of myself as clay.
I will need bleach, contacts, a heart shaped jaw. I will need a whole new, whiter me to be pretty. Because being brown just isn’t going to work. Thinking of this flusters me, so I put all my supplies in a little suede pouch. Imagining the perfect girl tightens my chest and closes up my throat. This perfect girl is far away, but I squeeze my eyes: I can take care of this.
It’s 7:30; I get my daily cappuccino, reach for the sugar to sweeten my drink. There is only brown sugar, so I ask the barista for simple syrup. The jar of brown sugar is brimming. In the middle of the morning rush the Wall Street walkers arrive. No one uses the brown sugar. It sits on the ledge, a far cry from wanted. There is a logic to it: Brown sugar leaves coffee with a maple-licorice aftertaste. It leaves you with an extra unnecessary something. It refuses to dissolve, disappear, dissemble. It is near impervious to tiny wooden stirrers. I swallow another gulp of my white sugar cappuccino.
It’s 7:45. I rush to the corner of 107th street and Broadway and wait. When I get to school, I go to the bathroom by the photo studio. It’s the most remote campus mirror. I snap on the light and am hit by the smell of industrial axe. Brown sugar is gritty. I glide my hand up and down my cheeks. My skin is gritty with seventeen pimples that have yet to come of age. My nose is round where it shouldn’t be. The perfect woman appears in my head and I realize that the whites of my eyes contrast a little too much with the rest of me; I am just a little too brown to be beautiful.
I am traveling back, back to a six-year-old me who begged for big-busted barbie dolls and fairy wings. My best friend was Phaedra, a girl with coily blonde hair and bright green eyes. We used to watch Disney movies about girls with long hair and perfect dresses. I fell in love with the idea of being adored like those girls -- we both did. Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella weren’t quantified by their blood, but by their beauty. The perfect prince fell for them because of their high cheek bones and heart-shaped faces. Every Saturday night Phaedra and I sat on the carpet floor with bowls of hot mac and cheese, staring up at girls with big blue eyes. We were impossible astronomers, thinking we understood the meaning of every pixel.
I am trying to understand things, to tell myself that I am beautiful. Every time I try, the boy with hazel eyes is back, singing to me about brown sugar. Reminding me that I am an extra, unwanted something.
My mother tells me that I am beautiful, says that my mast of wavy curls, warm honey legs, lunar eyes make me beautiful. My father says the same. The local barista with dark curls and crooked teeth smiles at me in the morning, asks if I want coffee in my sugar. He says I am beautiful too.
But every time I try to hear them, the perfect girl is back. She tells me that no matter how pretty I am, I will never be the right kind of pretty. I will always be a little extra, unnecessary something.
At 7:31 am, sitting on the stool in my kitchen. The grumble of the coffee grinder spits spiky sounds across the cold hallway, waking my weary ears. I tangle my fingers in my haphazard curls, parting them like a curtain so that I can see properly. My father has two bags like bruises under his eyes and smiles when I look at him.
He fits the hot homemade cappuccino into my palms and waits for me to sip. Keeping eye contact with him, I slide the hot liquid in between my lips, waiting for the punch of two tablespoons of sugar.
He didn’t put sugar.
My father is worried about me becoming a diabetic, thinks the overwhelming sweetness in a daily drink is a curse. He doesn’t want me to accept it as the usual, as the norm. He is trying to protect me from myself.
So I don’t say anything, because I know he thinks he’s doing me a favour. It doesn’t feel that way, taste that way. The coffee isn’t gritty anymore, but smooth. It coats the insides of my cheeks with something bitter that I don’t recognize, something unsettling.
This is how it’s supposed to taste, I guess. I had been disguising it with sweetness, thinking that it was supposed to taste like maple syrup and black chocolate. I had been hoping that it didn’t mean anything, that I would always be bigger than two bolded words on paper.
The coffee leaves a dark aftertaste on my tongue, and I am forced to live with something like two-day old acid inside my gums. But it’s time to get used to it. I have to get used to it. I know that if I don’t grow accustomed to this feeling I won’t be able to walk through my apartment door because of that sinking, burning, bitter feeling. I can’t let the coffee and the boy trap me.
My father is waiting: “How is it?”
I want to say, God, Dad. This sucks.
“It’s delicious, Dad.”