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Brown Sugar

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.” “Really?” “Really.” 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: Brown sugar. 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 avocad