My best friend doesn’t like me much. She said so herself. We were driving to her house so she could braid my hair. I was upset that at the hair store she took her time trying on wigs she wouldn’t buy. The braids would take hours. If I wasn’t home by ten, my mom would wring my braids around my neck.
In the car, the thick heat, the harsh green numbers on the dashboard that read 5:46 p.m. made me so angry I couldn’t move. I didn’t bother taking off my jacket. I kept the bag of hair extensions scrunched between my seatbelt and my chest, as if it could shield the world from my rage. I didn’t respond when she said, I’ll finish what I can tonight and do the rest tomorrow after school. Easy.
After fifteen minutes of driving in silence, Best Friend said, It’s ninety degrees. Take your jacket off. You have a death wish?
I’m fine, I said.
And that’s when she said it. I wish I liked you more.
Then she switched on the radio.
We became friends back in the day, the only two Black girls in all of Lee Elementary. We were losers. Mostly because we had immigrant mothers who wore bulging scarves around their heads and weren’t afraid to hit or yell at us in public. They sent us to school with saucy, smelly chicken and rice, which ensured we had no friends, because in our part of Florida no one knew how to deal with difference except to hate it. Soon after Best Friend showed up from Kenya with four large piggy tails and pink barrettes, we sat next to each other every day and pretended we spoke the same language. When the kids made fun of us for being weird, we cursed at them in our respective languages, and the teachers wouldn’t say anything because when they tried Best Friend called them racist, the insult her mother told her to use if someone did her wrong. Even after Best Friend realized I understood these kids more than her, that they never asked me questions about living among lions and monkeys, we stuck together, partly out of habit, partly because we liked each other well enough, and partly because we were more like each other than we were like anyone else. We knew how to be mean in a way that was suggestive of love. We knew when to switch to our nice voices, though we didn’t do this often. We sang together, shared our lunch, swapped clothes until our mothers found out and warned us that was a fast track for someone to cast a spell on you.
Senior year, Best Friend grew up or whatever and decided who to care about. Which did not include me. And that might have been all right except I care so much that some days I smile so hard my lips get sore. At night I can’t sleep.
Best Friend lives with her mom and dad in a three-bedroom house in a gated community. In her living room, I sit near the leather sofa and her legs straddle me. I take the hair out of the packaging, cut off the beige rubber band, and hold out a chunk in my palm. I don’t like asking her to do my hair. She thinks I’m embarrassed because I can’t pay her. Really, she just braids too tight. She plucks an inch from the pile in my palm, splits it into two strands, crosses them, and presses them into a small section of my hair with her thumb. I feel the pressure on my scalp, even after she releases it. I wonder: when she pulls my baby hairs into the braid, tucks them beneath a hill of hair, repeats, does she know she hates me, and just how much? Is it finger length? Root length? Or maybe the kind that has no length at all because it never stops growing?
She turns on The Real World, which is all we ever watch these days because it’s good practice for chatting with our new white friends. After Obama got elected, they flocked to her, the white girls who thought she was cool and wanted a cool Black friend so that they could embrace the end of racism in the U.S. We hate them, the girls who used to make fun of our hair and now tell us they love it, who still don’t invite us to their birthday parties because their parents like Black people fine now but only at a distance.
That’s fine, Best Friend would say, after each non-invite. We’ll throw a better party. If someone doesn’t give a fuck about you, don’t give a fuck about them. Easy.
I don’t know why she wants new white friends. The only response she’ll give is, They’re easier.
I think about that sentence a lot. How it’s technically complete, but also cryptic, like it’s missing another half. Than you, she means to add. Than you.
Best Friend’s braiding away when she says, I hear David likes you?
She hums so that it’s on me to carry the conversation.
We went on a date. Date-ish, I say. And when she doesn’t respond, I add, Maybe a half-date? He didn’t tell you?
Dave is Best Friend’s only other real friend.
She says, He mentioned he liked you, but I didn’t think he was serious.
She digs into my scalp to pull my little hairs into the braid. Before I can say anything, she reroutes. She says, Well I just thought you didn’t like white guys.
I don’t, but—
And what about Chris? she asks.
I can like two guys, I say. I don’t know why I say this. Chris and I have said a total of five words to each other. Before I can take it back, tell her just kidding, she says, So you do like David.
Another dig in my scalp, a pulling at the hair. She applies a cool slab of gel to my edges. When I still don’t respond, she says, We had sex, you know.
You never told me.
If I knew, I tell her, I wouldn’t have—
I don’t like him, she says. I was just attracted.
Okay, well, I don’t have to—
Do what you want, Eden. I’m fine with it. David and I are just friends.
Best Friend changes the subject, swift as the next twist, but now my scalp is burning, and I can’t stand it anymore. I say, Could you be easier?, and pull away.
Best Friend seems surprised to see me crying, and I say, You know I’m tender-headed.
In the floor-length mirror next to the TV, her eyes go cold. I saw that look yesterday during lunch with her fangirls, who talk all the time but don’t say much at all. I told one of them that I liked her earrings. Neon hoops that matched her hair.
I stole them from Walmart, she replied.
I didn’t know whether she was kidding. All I could think of was the beating I’d get if my mom found out I’d stolen something. Of course, homegirl didn’t stop talking. She said, I don’t even feel bad about it. They treat their workers poorly.
Everyone but me and Best Friend vigorously nodded.
Homegirl continued, It was easy to snag them. They were too busy following a Black guy around.
Everyone laughed, but Best Friend and I gave each other a look.
Homegirl added in a whisper to me, Don’t worry. It wasn’t Chris.
Chris is the only Black guy in our year. For most people that’s sufficient cause for a wedding, though no one ever matched Best Friend to Chris.
I excused myself for some milk, and when I returned to the cafeteria table, carton in hand, one of the fangirls had everyone’s attention. Best Friend was giggling in response to something surely stupid. I slipped into my seat. Mid-giggle, Best Friend’s gaze focused on me. Some kind of haze rested over her eyes, which were hollowed out, replaced by obsidian. The usual warmth in her face was clouded with caution. She was having another conversation entirely. Even as I thought, This is why we shouldn’t hang out with white people, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she held back when she talked to me, too.
After Best Friend finishes a row of box braids, we take a break from each other: a mutual, silent decision that exiles me to her bathroom. My mom taught me that if you want to know who a person is, check out their bathroom. Best Friend has her own. Coral walls, a dainty window you can stare out of while you pee. Not a single hair clung to the sink. I thought she was a virgin like me, that if I wasn’t capable of going there yet, neither was she. Where did she even have sex? At his place? In this very bathroom? Did it hurt? She probably wouldn’t have had sex with Dave unless she actually liked him. And she must have liked him for a while, without a word to me. I wash my hands, thinking of her expression as I pulled away. What part of me displeased her? Could I carve it out, little by little?
Best Friend’s mom gets off work. She sighs when she sees how much of my hair is left. She cooks us plantains and chicken, and then joins Best Friend so they can finish my hair before I have to be home. I’m relieved. Though Best Friend’s mom is slender, she has thick thighs, and when I sit between them, staining her stretch marks with grease and gel, I feel cradled. She’s much nicer than my mom, and when she speaks to Best Friend, she’s warm, which strikes me with envy. Her mom turns on Passions, and we watch, engrossed by the faceless Alistair who sends his deranged daughter to kidnap his other pregnant daughter and keep her from marrying the working-class Mexican love of her life.
Hours later, Best Friend’s dad comes home. The past few months, he’s been gone for weeks at a time. We never talk about it, not my place to ask. We don’t notice him until he drops his bag and keys on the coffee table in front of us. He’s tall and wears sunglasses, though it’s evening and we’re indoors. He tries to kiss Best Friend’s mother on the cheek. She recoils, her left thigh jabbing my shoulder. He doesn’t see me, or maybe he thinks I’m African enough and thus family enough to be invisible. He takes his BlackBerry from his pocket and shoves it into Best Friend’s face.
You know why I’m here? he asks. I got a call from your school. Your teacher wants to meet. I asked her what for, and you know what she said?
Best Friend doesn’t respond. She fixes her gaze on the TV. Her fingers grow tighter against my hair.
She says you’re not doing homework and you failed a math test.
Still, Best Friend doesn’t react.
He shuts off the TV. He says, You’re too busy watching TV, huh? You have time to do hair, but you don’t have time for school.
He insults her in a language I can’t understand, waving his hand in a steady beat. Best Friend just pulls and pulls at my hair until I yank it away from her. Her mom pushes her dad away, her legs jolting me, and says, She’s acting like this because of you, pig. We’re watching TV. Leave us.
She grabs the remote from his hand and turns the TV back on. Best Friend’s dad disappears into the kitchen. Best Friend doesn’t take her eyes off the screen, even when it goes to the commercials. Her mom whispers something in her ear, and they both turn to me. Best Friend runs her hand through my hair, which is largely unfinished. I get the feeling they’re done for the night, which upsets me, though I hold my face. If I went home like this my mom would yell, and I’m not in the mood. Best Friend’s mom disappears and comes back with an expensive-looking, earthy scarf that she wraps around my head. Best Friend stands up, and I understand that I should follow her, and she’ll take me home. We slip on our shoes by the front door. I pull at the flaps of my Converse and say in a low tone, You sure you can’t finish my hair tonight?
She starts to laugh, and then her face becomes serious and she nods without looking at me, not in response to my question but in response to herself.
Just kidding, I say in a high-pitched tone.
She scrunches her lips and opens the door, steps over the threshold, and turns to face me. She looks lovely in the porch light, the bushes behind her neatly shaped.
You’re beautiful, I tell her.
She flicks her hand, but she smiles, walks toward her car. I want to stay here a moment, the thick, moist air, the crickets singing of possibility. But she disappears inside the Jeep, and as soon as I slide into the passenger seat she says, I can finish your hair tomorrow after school. We can go to your house.
I’m not allowed to have friends over, you know that.
Best Friend shrugs, My dad’s just so—
She’s gazing at me. But I am seized by a coolness that makes me avert my eyes, makes my finger press the lock and unlock button again and again.
Terrible, she finishes. Sorry you had to see that.
That was nothing.
Best Friend raises her eyebrows.
Just a heated conversation, I add. A bad day.
Is that so, she says with an even tone.
My mom beats me, I continue. That’s why I never take off the jacket.
She says she’s sorry. Then she’s quiet for a moment and adds, I just wish he was better.
I shrug. At least he provides for you.
Bare minimum. Fathers need to be around, you know?
I don’t know. I don’t say this though. I lean my head against the passenger window. The pressure on my braids makes me wince. Outside, the traffic light turns red. I watch the crosswalk timer count down three, two, one, the flashing red hand. The light turns green. Two boys in hoodies strut on the crosswalk, taking their time. Best Friend slams the horn, but they don’t move any faster.
Words can be a kind of violence, she says.
Not actual violence.
The boys clear the road. She makes a sharp turn.
You’ve got it good, I add.
Best Friend goes rigid, and I smile in secret.
She drops me off without another word, even when I tell her thank you and good night. My mom is home, still wearing her bright pink nursing clothes. I try to kiss her on the cheek, but she pulls away and says, I’m dirty.
She unravels the rust-orange scarf from my hair, lets it drop to the floor. I look at her feet, which are bare and pointed outward, while she passes her hand through my hair, checking if the braids are tight enough, swirling her hand around the large quarter section where my real hair is twisted into a knot.
Why didn’t your friend finish?
She says, You look ugly like that, but the braids are nice. What about school?
I’ll wear the scarf.
Hmph, she says. Where’d you get it?
When I tell her, she says, I bet she bought it for one hundred dollars. I could have found it at a yard sale for five.
I like it, I say.
Manman says, Ay. Stop looking at me like that. What are you learning from that friend of yours?
I lower my eyes. I’m in no mood to be hit.
Everything, I say.
I pick up the scarf and head straight to the bathroom, which has stained white tiles and a moldy shower curtain. I pull out scissors from the cabinet behind the mirror, and when I cut the carefully braided hair, it falls into the sink, onto the counter, down my shirt. I unbraid the rest, detach the loose, curly strands from my roots. I wrap the scarf around my head, round up all the synthetic strands, and throw them in the trash. I take off my shirt, stare at my pointy breasts in the mirror, then wipe off the strands of hair that have clung to my chest.
The next day, everyone decides to love me. It’s the scarf, which makes me look the right kind of Black—trendy, like Best Friend, but different. I’ve unhinged myself from our symbiotic relationship. I keep my smile to a minimum, though inside I am thrilled.
I sit in Best Friend’s usual seat next to Dave in the back. He’s tall with dusty hair, long enough to catch in his eyes. He’s not a popular kid exactly, but he’s well-liked. He knows himself, doesn’t try to be anything he isn’t. I play brave and ask him on a date. He’s already going skating with Best Friend tomorrow, but I could come too. I remember how she had gone frigid in the car, how she wanted my sympathy without ever having offered hers. I’ll be there, I say.
Best Friend gives me a ride home from school.
My mom wants the scarf back, she says.
Reluctantly, I unwrap the scarf and place it in the compartment between us. She eyes my hair warily, and says, You took it out.
I nod, noting that she seems hurt. I lower the visor, finger my hair, which looks like a hill of fluff. We drive in silence for a few minutes. Then she tells me that, by the way, she’s orchestrated an ice-skating trip.
I know, I say, Dave invited me.
I know, she says, he told me. I invited Chris and one of my fans, too.
I’ll join you all another time, I say.
I already bought the tickets. Group discount.
I can’t afford it.
She says, That’s okay. It’s on me.
Why would you invite both of them? I blurt out.
She tells me she forgot, and she looks so concerned I can’t tell if she’s lying. I check her eyes and almost see her retreat into a back room in her mind.
She says, Two guys like you. Bigger problems out there.
Oh, now you understand me, I say.