Natasha – Black on the Outside continued…
I ate lunch alone. At the very back of the cafeteria closest to the door. I stared at my wrist, pinching the skin. It turned white under the pressure of my fingers, and I wondered if I were something like the Jesus figurines that populated our house. Underneath my brown exterior, was there a whiter, purer version of me? When God carved us in the dust, were we not already the color of clay? Did he birth us from the shores of the earth? Our bodies rising from white sandy beaches, colorless fingers and toes wiggling the grains from between the crevices, reaching back down to pull up ivory faces, bleach blond hair slicked back, long lashes sweeping the salt from our eyes.
What was wrong with me that I received color while others like my teacher, Mrs. Whitehurst, remained white? What blemish was He trying to cover? Was there a chip on my shoulder? Did the tide come in right as I was emerging from the sand, washing away pieces of flesh, creating craters in my arms and legs? White sand turns brown when touched by water, so did God fill in the blank spaces, dipping the fringe tail fin of a fish into a mortar mixture of sand, and clay, blessing me with a sandy, brown complexion?
I looked around at the other students in the cafeteria. We were all His little mistakes. Various shades of imperfections. Some like Susie inherited darker coats, their whiteness underneath drowned in the heavy black pigment. Ricky was less flawed. His smooth, buttery skin a thin layer of film covering shallow dips in his otherwise perfectly white interior.
Then there was Breanna. She was closer to our sandy origins than the rest of us. As if God had scooped the sand, glistening under the sun like glass, in His hands and sprinkled sediments of light brown, creamy white and rusty red onto the bridge of her nose and sunken cheekbones, dusted it across her sharp shoulders, down the back of her thin arms.
Susie and her friends had turned their taunts to Breanna and the train of toilet paper she trailed behind her from the bathroom. They called her Skinny Becky because “all white girls should be named Becky, and stop trying to be black with that fake black name.” Breanna hunched her shoulders over her lunch. She turned her head to the side, laid it in her palm and ate her sandwich and chips with her left hand to avoid their teasing glances and pointing fingers.
Our tables were next to each other. She sat on the side facing the back wall while I sat diagonal from her, looking back at the cafeteria line. She raised her eyes, and they became level with mine. We stared at each other, scoping out the potential danger in association. I followed the shape of her nose, how it sloped down and curved up into a point like a ski jump ramp. I squeezed the nostrils of my flat, wide nose to create the same shape. How could she even breathe through those tiny triangle slits? I let go, inhaled the damp, tomatoey air around me, filling my chest. She laughed when she saw my struggle to look like her then quickly covered her mouth and returned to her lunch. She wasn’t black like me, but our sandy under skin—hers more prevalent than mine—our exclusion from Susie and her dark skin club made us sisters, so I rose from my seat and joined her at her table.
“You here to pick on me too?” she asked as I sat down.
“No, I thought we could be friends.”
I shrugged my shoulders and took a bite of my pizza, lapping up the dangling strings of cheese from my chin. Susie’s high-pitched laugher could still be heard from across the room.
“I wish they’d stop already,” Breanna said.
“They’re laughing at the toilet tissue on your shoe.”
She looked under the table at the back of her foot, rolled her eyes. She yanked the toilet tissue off her heel, balled it in her fist, threw it toward the large trashcan at the center of the aisle between tables. She missed by at least a yard, the lightweight ball suspended in the air before landing at the janitor’s feet. He pressed his lips together in a thin line, bent over to pick up the wad of toilet paper, holding his lower back, his eyes glued on Breanna, the folds in his forehead deepening as he frowned at her all the way down and back up.
Breanna slammed her elbows onto the table. “I hate this school!”
“It’s not too bad.”
“Easy for you to say. You ain’t all alone.”
“You’re not either. Not anymore.” I peeled off a corner of my pizza that I didn’t bite into and offered it to her. She shook her head.
“My mom said school lunches are bad for you. She said the cheese on the pizza ain’t real.”
I drew back my hand, dropped the corner slice into my mouth and chewed, swirling the dough, tomato sauce, and cheese around my tongue. I pressed my tongue into my cheek, trying to spread the cheese apart. It was thick like a fresh stick of gum and didn’t pull easily. When my chewing and swishing turned the food into mash, I settled on swallowing it. Some of the cheese strings lingered at the back of my throat. I hacked them up into my napkin.
I didn’t say anything. I tossed the napkin on the tray, took my bag of apple slices and pushed the tray across the table.
“You can have some of my chips,” Breanna said, sliding to me a pink napkin thin as tissue paper piled with bright yellow crinkle potato chips.
“Is that chocolate milk?” I asked, pointing at the glass jar she held to her lips.
“Yep.” She took a sip then extended her tongue up to the curved arrow of her nose to lick away the mustache. “White milk supposed to give you strong bones and teeth, but it taste like that nasty cream they put in soup, so I mix some Hershey’s syrup in it to make it taste better.”
“I thought only black people drank chocolate milk.”
“Why you say that?”
All the brown and yellow and purple-black hands of children in the cafeteria were holding the triangle cartons with the signature brown splotches, slurping the milk brown liquid through a straw. As if there were a brown and white cow on the dairy farms that only squirted chocolate milk from its utters. We always latched onto things that reminded us of our own reflections. The brown drinks, the brown crayons we used to color in the faces of our stick-figure self-portraits. Chocolate milk was as much a part of us as our own skin yet this white girl was drinking it like it was just another sugary beverage.
“It don’t make you black or nothin’. Just tastes better.”
Mrs. Whitehurst waved her arm for us to start packing our things. Breanna guzzled down the last of her milk, nibbled on the corners of her sandwich before zipping it back into a plastic bag.
“That’s all you’re eating?” My stomach lowly rumbled in my ear, vibrating under my rib cage. Apples and chips would not hold me to dinner.
“It’s just ham and cheese. You want it?”
I snatched the bag from her outstretched hand and slid it into the back pocket of my jeans. I would eat it behind the book I would read that afternoon—it was between Bud, Not Buddy, and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, two novels I found on my parents bookshelf behind the dictionary and immediately stuffed into my backpack when I saw the kids, brown like me, on the cover.
We were about to get in line when Susie approached our table.
“Aw, the two white girls in the whole school ate lunch together.” Her smile wide as the Cheshire cat’s from Alice in Wonderland.
“I’m not white. I look just like you,” I said, folding my arms across my chest.
“Don’t matter. You still a Oreo.” She held her head so high and so far back as she stomped away, I hoped the dust from the ceiling fans floated into her flared nostrils and choked her.
“Don’t worry ‘bout her,” Breanna said, poking me in the side with her sharp elbow. “We friends now, and I know you ain’t white.” She smiled, put her arm around my shoulder as we walked to the line forming under the exit sign behind the tables.
“Maybe not on the outside,” I said under my breath.
© Nortina Simmons