the GENDER issue / FICTON
Esses, Asprins, and Babies
from Black Girl in Triptych
by Dána-Ain Davis
The Side Eye © abwilliams; background illustrations, 2020 © Troy A. Lambert
Thirty Convent Avenue had become too much for Gilda-girl’s mama, Ida. After living in Old Miss Lila’s two-room apartment for seven years, since 1963. It was just too small for the three of them. Gilda-girl was thirteen, Frankie Mae was eleven, and Ida was just plain tired of living in a run-down building.
Her way out of Harlem was the Bronx. A couple of times the Rothmans had recommended Ida as help for some friends who lived in the Bronx. Ida liked going up there; it was so quiet with lots of trees in the neighborhood where she worked. And, the houses were huge. Ida liked it enough that now their Saturday outings moved way beyond Harlem; they would sometimes take the IRT train to the last stop, get off the train go to the big park, and inhale air that did not smell like concrete. It might not have been too smart of an idea because there were not that many Black people living in the northwest Bronx. Yet Ida thought both girls needed to attend better schools and she also toyed with the idea of going to college. Not too far from the house where she worked was Bronx Community College, just two bus rides away from the neighborhood she thought she might want to live in, just off Broadway.
Ida, looked and looked and looked for an apartment. Almost every time she went to see one listed in the paper, by the time she arrived it had been “rented.” Ida knew she was unable to get an apartment it was because she was Black. Her frustration led to her calling the number she heard on the radio that offered help for people in New York City facing housing discrimination. The Checker Program, as it was called, was a collaboration between the Urban League and the Committee on Civil Rights in Metropolitan New York that assisted Negroes and Puerto Ricans find apartments in predominantly white areas of the boroughs, including the northwest Bronx. A Black or Puerto Rican person would apply for an apartment. After being denied the apartment, the landlord would be reported for denying the availability of the apartment. Then a volunteer Checker, a white person, posed as an interested tenant with the same characteristics as the Black person to determine if the apartment was in fact available. Because housing discrimination was illegal in New York City, if the landlord said the apartment was available, they were then obligated to rent to the person who first applied for the apartment. Finally, after months of searching, Ida, Gilda-girl who now wanted to be called Gilda, and Frankie Mae moved to a predominantly white neighborhood off Broadway in the Bronx.
As it turned out, it was hard to be a Black girl going to school in the Bronx in the 1970s. Even if you had an Afro like Angela Davis. Some of the other Black girls who attended the same school as Gilda-girl-now-just-Gilda, lived in the South Bronx and were bussed to the predominantly white neighborhood. They were mean as hell. They were especially mean to Gilda who hated living in the predominantly white neighborhood. Gilda’s dislike of the new neighborhood made her quite unpleasant to be around and her nastiness was just a cover up for her anxieties of being near friendless and her fears of loss.
Gilda seemingly had not recovered from the loss she felt that resulted from moving from South Carolina to Harlem to the Bronx. Losing the familiar made her scared. So, she acted the opposite, acted like she was always right about everything. In the back of her mind though, Gilda wondered how right could a thirteen-year-old girl dark-skinned girl with buck teeth, be? Gilda was drowning so deep in her own miasmic feelings of being dark, feeling out-of-place, being misunderstood because she lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, and wanting to return to Harlem. All those feelings knit into a nastiness that Gilda wore like a too-tight sweater.
Those girls who rode to school on the bus from the other side of the Bronx, probably did not like Gilda because she constantly used “esses.” Gilda pluralized words, morphing what was likely singular for the girls who were bussed, in a way that suggested she had more than one of an item. And she did. Her mother, Ida, was able to buy things for her girls because she saved and she did not want her girls to look broken to all the white people they now lived around. Instead of talking about “a pocketbook,” Gilda talked about “pocketbooks,” as in “I didn’t know which of my pocketbooks to wear today.” You see, the possibility of Gilda having more than the girls from the South Bronx was really an affront.
So, they sneered at Gilda like she had peed on herself or bled through white pants. Sneering was a signal that the girls hated someone enough to provoke a fight.
Consequently, Gilda lived with the prospect always being jumped. You see, everybody was hurting from different places.
Being disliked by the bussed Black girls was the reason Gilda dreamt of ending her life of being ostracized. In the solitude of her bedroom, Gilda leaned against the window sill of the sixth-floor apartment her mama rented and stared for hours at the stars in the night sky. Each night Gilda hoped she would go into a coma. She obviously did not know everything because death never showed up and she didn’t really know what a coma was. At some point in the middle of the night, she simply woke up with a pain in her neck because of the awkward way her head rested against the lower window sash. Sunrise inevitably presented itself the next day, the light seeping through the imperceptible space between her closed eyelids. The fact that the sun’s rays woke her up was evidence that she had not died during the night.
After several months of trying to become comatose from stargazing and desperate to end the pain of being hated by a group of girls she really liked because they reminded her of her cousins who were also loud and feared, Gilda began to take aspirin.
Gilda actually had no idea about the toxicity of aspirin which in fact can be lethal. Gilda thought that if it was in the medicine cabinet, it must be good for the sort of thing she wanted – to die. Gilda willed the accumulation of the aspirin in her body to put her into a deep sleep—the coma she wanted to know. Instead, each day she rose with the sun.
During the last month of her trial and error, Gilda learned that one of the girls from the South Bronx, was pregnant. From that point on the negative, hate-filled attention that Gilda typically received was redirected to the growing belly of the meanest of the bussed black girls, Tasha.
One day, Tasha sat alone in the school yard on a cement ledge. Gilda sat next to her, for no good reason. Well, there was a reason: Gilda could not believe she knew a person who was going to be the real-life stereotype that wandered and moved into people’s minds about fast Black girls. Because she was pregnant and in junior high school, Tasha most certainly fit the image that Gilda’s mother, Ida, has painted about fast girls.
Gilda asked Tasha how she was doing. Tasha seemed simultaneously uninterested and interested in Gilda. So, she decided to talk to her. During their conversation, Gilda asked Tasha if she was scared to give birth. Surprisingly, Tasha said, No. And then she told Gilda, There ain’t nuthin’ to be ‘fraid of ‘cause babies come out yo mouth.
In an attempt to not be accused of being the bossy-know-it-all, she actually was, Gilda moved closer to Tasha to make sure no heard that she was about to tell her how babies are really born. She did not want Tasha to be embarrassed by her own lack of knowledge. Gilda knew about babies because Ida did not want Gilda to ever get pregnant like she had, so she told her all about keeping her legs closed and the actual birth of a baby. In great detail, Ida told Gilda about going into labor, the sensation of having to go to the bathroom, the pushing, the grunting, all the liquids that flow, and the number of hours it can take for your vagina to become pliable enough for a baby’s head to emerge. It was enough to keep Gilda from even thinking about getting pregnant.
But knowing what she knew about birthing also made the inside of Gilda’s mouth feel raw because truth can be so irritating. Gilda panicked; what if she did not tell Tasha what she knew, would trauma become Tasha’s overcoat. Gilda envisioned Tasha screaming as she felt a baby’s head coming out of her vagina. She pictured Tasha blanking out from the cascade of pain which could lead to her treating the baby badly. She feared Tasha’s incomprehensibility about birth might make her a bad mother since most people thought fast girls made bad mothers.
Gilda inched closer and said, Babies come out from down there, pointing to Tasha’s crotch. You will have to open your legs and push and push and push and then the baby will slide out. And even though it may hurt, you will love it and it will love you. Gilda added add the part about love so Tasha would not think that all things that hurt are to be hated. Tasha covered her mouth in disbelief. Tears formed on her cheek like drops of water on a window glass; some rolled down and others maintained their shape on her face, refusing to dissipate. Tasha looked at Gilda and said in a low angry voice, You lying’. Ain’t no one ever said they come outta there. Tasha rose from the cement ledge the way a cat moves from a resting position and walked fifty paces away before turning around. Facing Gilda, Tasha stared as if searching for a sign that Gilda might be right. Tasha turned away and started walking again, but then stopped. This time she only moved her head and looking over her shoulder at Gilda, Tasha said, If it do happen like you say, Ima ‘member you tol’ me.
That was the last time Gilda and the Tasha spoke. It was also the last time the girls who were bussed from the other side of the Bronx, bothered Gilda. Magically, the taunts, threats, and likelihood of fights involving salt under the nails and faces greased with Vaseline, ended.
Several months later, Tasha had a baby girl. Of course, she brought the baby to school, to show her off. Gilda spied Tasha from down the block. The saw each other and their eyes locked for a split second. Tasha, who now looked like a grown woman, with grown woman concerns, reached into the carriage, picked up the baby, and cradled her like a star so her friends could get a real, good look. Gilda knew by the way Tasha held that baby up, that she too, was being invited to look. And somehow Gilda knew, that the little baby might not have such a hard time being a Black girl in the Bronx; nothing or no one was ever going to come between that little girl, nor the three other little girls Tasha would have, and their mother.
Gilda knew she was right about that one thing, and she was glad she hadn’t died.
Dána-Ain Davis is an anthropologist who is the director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her research is focused on Black women's experiences, particularly on domestic violence and reproduction. Davis is also a doula.