The following passage is excerpted from the short story collection Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage. Purchase your copy today!
One morning, upon awakening from anxious dreams, Penelope Jones found herself transformed into a white woman. The arm clutching her pillow was as bloodless as a bone. Instead of the kinky twisted hair that she wrapped up in a silk scarf at night, the strands sticking to her cheek were long and flaxen. She tried to brush the hair from her face, but her fingers wouldn’t obey.
What’s happening to me?
It was no dream. Through the cascade of tresses, she saw the painting hanging beside her bed. A woman lounged in a hammock on the deck of a seaside house, her face turned away from the viewer, taking in the frozen blue waves, the pale ribbon of clouds unraveling across the sky. Penelope remembered the purchase well. She had ventured from her condo in the Miracle Mile to an African art store in Inglewood, so proud of herself for braving the unfamiliar streets, the men hawking essential oils and T-shirts on street corners. When she first saw the painting, she thought it was perfect. Not because she admired the artist’s brush strokes or felt a kinship to the reclining woman, arm raised to her head, hand resting on a nest of knotty hair that mirrored Penelope’s own. No. She simply wanted a portrait that accentuated her mahogany furniture and would make her friends think she was cultured.
Untangling herself from the covers, the white woman leapt to the floor. She frowned at the bed as if it had attempted to restrain her. Flicking sleep from her eyes, she closed them and opened them again.
“What in the world am I doing here?”
The stranger’s voice startled Penelope. It was coarse and southern, and she had not expected such a noise to come out of her mouth.
As the white woman examined her surroundings, she lifted a hank of yellow hair and chewed it.
Penelope tried to spit out the offensive wisps that were as slippery as corn silk, but her tongue had turned traitorous and wouldn’t obey. Penelope had never chewed on her own hair. Even when it hung down her back, before she took a pair of shears to it, excised the blonde highlights and the perm, she had never tasted her own tresses.
This is some kind of waking dream or some past-life regression I accidentally stumbled into. Serves me right for visiting that New Thought church.
She thought of her friend, Naomi, a devout Christian who attended Grimes A.M.E. mega church in Inglewood. Although Penelope had never felt truly comfortable amidst the swaying hips and storms of praise that drenched the stadium on Sunday mornings, never felt like an authentic believer, Naomi seemed to possess an inner peace and joy. She needed someone strong like that to pray for her.
I’ll call her right now. Penelope couldn’t dwell on the fact that she no longer had use of her hands.
“Where the fuck am I?”
Penelope winced. Gratuitous cursing irritated her. Even if she stubbed her toe or accidentally locked herself out of the condo, she never uttered anything more offensive than “Oh crumbs.” She took pride in the way she spoke, taking years to erase the row houses and hand-me-downs from her voice. Since moving to L.A. from a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania eight years ago, she learned to tuck away her countrified qualities. She no longer pronounced “water” as “would-der” the way her mother still did, learning to say “wah-ter” like the other black women in Los Angeles she knew. Although she hadn’t returned to the university since graduating from Hampton nearly a decade ago, she kept a journal entitled “Grad School Words” on her nightstand. Every time she spoke to her coworkers at Aesthetic boutique, she found ways to fold her new vocabulary into the conversation: “Marisol didn’t mean to break the garment steamer. I really don’t think she had any agency.” “I love the way you paired a military jacket with that hoop skirt. It’s such a subversive look.”
Someone knocked at the door.
Oh, God. What now?
Her friends never dropped by unannounced. They respected her boundaries and called first before visiting. And who would drop by so early on a Wednesday morning? She was fearful and relieved at the same time. Fearful of how the visitor would react to her transformation. Relieved that help might be on the way, that someone could help restore her to her former self.
She tried to will her feet to move, but they wouldn’t budge. She couldn’t even wiggle her toes. The white woman stood in the same position. She stared at the window, as if oblivious to the knocking. Murky sunlight pooled on the sill beneath the venetian blinds. Somewhere down the block, a car engine stuttered then roared to life. It was a few minutes past 8:00. In another world, Penelope would be pulling on a pair of flare leg pants before heading to the kitchen to pack lunch for work.
The knocking grew persistent. The stranger looked down at the wrinkled Hampton University T-shirt and shorts she wore. The glare of those pasty legs shocked Penelope, and she wanted to cry out. Digging panties out of her butt, the white woman trudged through the open bedroom door, across the hardwood flooring in the living room, rounded the corner of the foyer and squinted through the peephole.
Penelope’s upstairs neighbor stood there, her brow creased in irritation. She was a dumpy redhead whose bull terrier was always scampering across the floor in the middle of the night.
What does she want?
When the door opened, the woman gave a sheepish grin.
“Sorry to bother you. I live upstairs,” she said. “Is the other girl home?”
“No,” the blonde woman said.
Yes, I am. I’m right here!
“Really? I thought I saw her Jetta downstairs when I came back from walking Queenie.”
“I guess she stepped out.”
“Oh.” She grinned that apologetic grin again. “Can I come in for a sec? Queenie knocked her blanket off the patio. I thought maybe it fell on the sidewalk, but when I went outside, I saw it hanging from your balcony. Mind if I just run and grab it?”
The stranger shrugged, stepping aside.
Hey. You don’t live here. You can’t invite people into my space!
Penelope’s neighbor rounded the corner of the foyer, pausing as she entered the living room.
“It’s almost identical to my place.”
She examined the chocolate leather couch with a matching recliner, the étagère by the fireplace that wobbled when Penelope dusted it. One back leg was shorter than the other, but Penelope bought it, defect and all, because she was impressed with the word “étagère,” and she thought it would add a regal touch to her home.
She cringed when her neighbor picked up an earthenware plate from one of its shelves. Penelope and several other single friends had vacationed in Barcelona the previous summer, so the cabinet was lined with crosses and other trinkets from the Monastery of Montserrat. Like countless other tourists visiting the Catalonian hillside, Penelope stood in line at the Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat to get a glimpse of the famed black Madonna. Their guide, Ramón, a gap-toothed Spaniard with a wavy afro, explained several theories for how La Moreneta came to be so swarthy. The many burning candles and lamps used to venerate the Virgin had begrimed the wood, he said. Another belief was that the varnish had simply darkened with the passage of centuries. It was as if he wanted to assure the Italians and Australians and other Americans from the tour bus that no sculptor worth his salt would purposely depict the mother of baby Jesus as a black woman. But it was just as well because Penelope didn’t really think the Virgin of Montserrat had African features. Instead, she resembled an English spinster who had emerged from a swamp.
“Fancy,” her neighbor said, replacing the plate.
“Didn’t you say you had to get a blanket?”
“Oh, right. I’ll be just a sec.”
The redhead drew back the lateral blinds and unlocked the sliding glass door. The morning breeze rushed into the room like chilly fingers. Penelope’s neighbor (even though she had moved into the condo more than a year ago, she still didn’t know the names of anyone in the complex) grabbed the doggie blanket from the railing and shook it out. It was a black fleece affair adorned with hot pink paw prints and a matching bow. The name Queenie was emblazoned in the center, encircled by a gold doggie bone. The woman gave a grateful grin as she stepped back into the living room and pulled the sliding glass door shut behind her. Penelope had never been on the receiving end of such graciousness. Whenever she encountered the redhead in the underground garage or on the elevator, she was greeted with a curt nod or a tight smile. Even the terrier panting by its master’s side regarded Penelope with the same haughty indifference.
“Sorry to bother you. Thanks again.”
The woman headed toward the door, then turned around and said, “I haven’t seen you in the building before. Are you her new roommate?”
I don’t need a roommate, thank you. I can afford this place on my own!
“Oh.” Taking in the stranger’s wrinkled sleepwear and mussed hair, she said “Oh” again as if another more perverse scenario occurred to her.
The blonde smirked. “Ain’t Queenie getting cold?” she said, and Penelope cringed at her coarseness, at her commonness.
Queenie’s owner looked down at the blanket in her hand as if she had forgotten the purpose of her visit.
The white woman said, “Best get going before she knocks something else off the patio.”
The redhead’s eyes widened. Then without another word, she turned around and left.
The stranger closed the door after her. The deadbolt lock slid home with a menacing click.
“Dumb fat bitch,” she said.
Although Penelope agreed with that assessment, she was nervous now that her neighbor was gone, unsure of what the woman who now occupied her body would do.
“Here I am. Rocked you like a hurricane!”
The white woman sang with fervor as hot water pelted her chest. Grabbing a bar of soap from the recessed shower shelf, she rubbed it between her palms.
Penelope never bathed without using a washcloth. The thought of running her bare hands over her breasts and between her thighs embarrassed her. Made her feel cheap. But the stranger soaped up with abandon, pressing suds into her armpits, lathering nipples like faded rose petals. She paused to inspect the birthmark on her right arm that Penelope had always regarded as a land mass, as a lone continent that had drifted away from its personal Pangaea. It now looked bruised against the milky skin.
She watched as those fingers – her fingers, with the trimmed cuticles and short, but polished nails – reached for a bottle of shampoo and squirted an apricot-scented stream into her palm. That eight-ounce bottle, along with conditioner and styling gel, had cost $135.
That’s not cheap.
Penelope was surprised at the anger she felt, at the possessiveness, over an item she scarcely used. She never pampered her unprocessed hair the way she did when her mane stretched down her back. When her hair was longer, she had a standing every-two-weeks appointment with her stylist, Myaisha. Now, she rarely stepped inside a salon. When she cut her tresses into an inch-long afro more than a year ago, it wasn’t because she felt a sudden longing to embrace her heritage. She was simply tired of looking like every other brown-skinned, long-haired black woman walking the streets of Los Angeles. She wanted to stand out. And stand out she did, just not in the way she imagined. When she entered Aesthetic the next day sporting the bristly crown of wool, her coworkers stared at her, and she was certain that her boss Veronique would force her to go up the street to Elgin Charles salon for a decent hairstyle.
If Penelope believed she was invisible before, she felt even more so au naturel. No black men looked in her direction. No man made eye contact with her at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market or offered to buy her a cup of coffee as she sat in the Internet café around the corner from her condo. Even when she traveled to Spain and France last summer with her single friends, who convinced her that European men were practically proposing to every black woman they encountered, no men glanced at her abroad either, except for a few construction workers who called “Chocolat!” as she wandered through Père Lachaise Cemetery on the hunt for Richard Wright’s grave. And when she finally found the writer’s final resting place, not adorned with fresh daisies and orchids like Chopin’s memorial, or even beer bottles of remembrance like Jim Morrison’s tomb, but with a single rose, crisp with decay and time, she wept for the loss of beauty she had never known.
She felt like sobbing now, but no moisture filled the stranger’s eyes. Even her melancholy was at the whim of a white woman, who was busy massaging her scalp with $55 shampoo.
Her visitor turned off the faucet with her toes, and the yellow bath rug squished as she stepped out of the shower in a cloud of steam. She rubbed herself with a towel hanging on the back of the shower door and then wrapped her wet hair.
If I woke up in a strange house, I would never take such liberties.
She would call the police first thing, afraid that the owners would return, appalled to find her on the premises. But the white woman opened Penelope’s panty drawer as if she owned it. She pushed aside organic cotton bloomers and boy shorts, pulling out a pair of lacy red thongs with a matching bra. Penelope had buried the set in the bottom of her drawer, a sad reminder of the last time she had sex two years ago. Once clad in the lingerie, the stranger gave her hair a final rub with the towel then tossed it to the floor. She stared at her reflection, taking in the curvy hips and high buttocks, the full bottom lip. The girl’s beauty was muted by the sullenness in her ice-blue eyes.
“How did I get to be such a fucking cow?” she murmured.
I’m not fat!
But Penelope didn’t believe her own words. When she lived on the East Coast, she felt comfortable flaunting her 150-pound frame around, and black men – back when they looked at her with interest – called her “thick.” But once she moved to L.A., she felt like a giant among all the skinny women. Veronique, who couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, always complained about how fat she was while rubbing her non-existent gut. So Penelope would suck in her belly fat and pull her jacket more tightly about her as she walked the streets.
As she reflected on these things, the white woman opened the door to the walk-in closet. She tossed wraparound skirts and pashminas to the floor, pushed aside cashmere sweaters and crepe dresses. She pulled a pair of jeans from a hanger and stepped into them. Not finding the top she wanted, she pawed through the dresser drawer, finally settling on a black baby tee that Penelope only wore when she cleaned.
Combing through her hair with her fingers, the stranger spied a brush lying on the vanity in the alcove. It wasn’t really a brush. It was a detangling tool for natural hair that Penelope bought when she did the big chop. The teeth were littered with tufts of wool. Now the woman raked the detangler through her hair. Penelope envisioned the stubby black strands commingling with the flaxen locks, being absorbed, like a weevil in a field of wheat.
After a few minutes of grooming herself, the woman headed to the kitchen. Opening the stainless steel side-by-side Frigidaire that Penelope had purchased as a Christmas gift to herself, she stared at the dino kale and cabbage wilting in the crisper, the pungent jar of kimchi, the almond milk and cartons of tofu. She settled on a few bananas dappled with black spots and dropped them in a brown lunch bag. Her gaze fell on the Kate Spade purse on the marble countertop. She searched the bag until she found Penelope’s wallet.
Get out of my things!
The white woman thumbed through the twenties and tens, counting out $90. Penelope rarely carried cash. She’d been planning on picking up her dry cleaning on her lunch break, but the Armenian man who altered her pants and fixed the zipper on her leather handbag, didn’t accept credit cards. Now the white girl shoved the bundle of bills into the pocket of her jeans.
Removing the license from its sheath, she stared at the photo. Her eyes narrowed, as if she had glimpsed something familiar but disturbing. Then she smirked.
“Penelope? What kind of name is that for a black girl?”
Shut up, Becky!
Grabbing the lunch bag and the keys from the counter, the white woman said, “Let’s take that Jetta for a spin. I’m sure Penelope won’t mind.”
Then she unlatched the deadbolt and headed out into the courtyard, where sunlight fell weakly against a stone ledge.
She left my cell phone. My mom won’t be able to contact me. Veronique will wonder why I never showed up. Somehow, the latter thought grieved Penelope more than the notion that she might never speak to her mother again. But in three years of working at Aesthetic boutique, she had never called in sick, not even when bronchitis flared up like a circle of fire in her throat. She felt as if she had to put in more effort than her coworkers, who thought nothing of taking a sick day to go to a concert or for a weekend getaway with a boyfriend.
I don’t have any agency.
The white woman whistled, and the carefree sound reverberated in the empty corridor. Penelope’s grandmother Sallie always said ladies should never whistle, especially not in public. She wanted to yell at the stranger who had commandeered her body, desecrated her memories and was walking nonchalantly toward the elevator.
Thief, she wanted to scream. But the words only echoed in her head …
© 2011 by Nicole D. Sconiers