May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
December 1, 2021
The white girls did it.
I knew this but did not turn my head to seek confirmation. I played dumb, staring straight ahead at Sister Clare as she continued her poetry lesson. How could the little nun go on discussing metaphors when, right in front of her, one of her seventh graders had turned to stone?
Sister Clare loved metaphors. It’s why she made us close our eyes and listen for figures of speech in Bette Midler’s “The Rose” and why she plastered her classroom with poems by Sonia Sanchez and Langston Hughes. Now, Sister Clare’s poems hung like stars at the corners of my eyes as I stared into the void.
The white girls were my enemies, though I was a white girl too. Color was color like everywhere else, but at Corpus Christi, it came in various shades. What kind of Puerto Rican or Black or white you were was shaped by whether your mother dropped you off in her car or you walked past the rail yards on Goodman Street where the grown men called after you. Your color was defined by who hung with you in the parking lot during recess after you wolfed down the contents of your bagged lunch or even by the contents of that lunch—did the sandwich contain slices of cheese and bologna or was it held together by peanut butter paste or potted meat? Most important was whether you listened to Def Leppard or Chaka Khan, Van Halen or Stacy Lattisaw, or better yet, Blondie, which is who we liked best.
Teresa Melendez and Jessica Rivera and Christine Vazquez formed the Hispanic contingent at recess. And I was an honorary member—along with Mary Brooks and Rose Morland, who were Black and, like the rest of us, were sent to Corpus Christi to save them from the disintegrating public junior high. Mary and Rose came from strict homes, so they steered clear of trouble and hung on the sidelines with the Lunch Mother most days. But sometimes they joined us as we sauntered around the parking lot trying to sing the words to “Rapture” just like Blondie did.
Apart from Louise Bayer, who, with her defiance and bad-girl charm, was both outcast and emissary to all groups, I don’t remember the other white girls’ names. Is that why I feared them, because of how easily they slipped away? What did they do at recess, for instance? They did not play chase with the boys or huddle near the shrubs that grew wild between the parking lot and the railroad tracks. They did not play hopscotch or jump rope. Is that why I hated them? No, the source of my hate, as it always is, was fear. I hated the way they came from homes filled with cigarette smoke and stoner brothers who dreamed of motorcycles and Stevie Nicks. I hated the way they feathered their hair like it was still 1979 and said “your ass is grass” when they threatened to fight, their voices sounding as brittle as truck-stop waitresses though we were barely twelve years old. Poor and white—isn’t that what I most feared? I hadn’t heard anyone called trash back then, but some ideas run deeper than words, and it’s clear to me now that my main goal at age twelve was to avoid being revealed as the trash I felt myself to be, which meant hating the other white girls.
Blondie’s song was backed by disco and funk and the chime of bells. “Rapture” started out slow and silky but then morphed into a hard and fast rap. We could not make out the singer’s words—something about Fab 5 Freddy and a man from Mars—but we loved the song anyway because the singer was brazen and beautiful, the equivalent of a snarling red lip. We elongated the one-word refrain—rapture—into a brassy glide of syllables. That one word was enough to transform us from a tribe of pubescent girls in hand-me-down jumpers and butter-yellow blouses to a gang of badasses, bombs in the making.
Rapture. The word had to do with pleasure, we knew. Maybe even sex. But it was also a word from the six o’clock news—the name given to The Second Coming aka The End of Times when certain Christians believed they’d be picked clean off the earth and reappear whole just inside the pearly gates. A preacher in California predicted the date of the rapture based on some Scripture and a bunch of biblical math. In May of 1981, Jesus would sweep them all away, Chuck Smith proclaimed, as if the Son of God were a massive broom and heaven a sort of celestial dustbin. Those not saved would be left to the beasts. This was unfortunate, he said, but could not be helped. When May passed and Smith remained earthbound, he reworked his calculations. End of Times math was tricky, but now it was clear. The rapture would occur by the end of the year. Throughout the year, newscasters reported Smith’s prediction with glee, feasting on the extravagant absurdity of his notion of salvation. And when Smith woke on December 31, 1981, and found his body still lounging in his Newport Beach home, he knew this must be it, his last day among the heretics and scamps. He gathered his followers to wait for Jesus on the very edge of California while the rest of us sat in front of TV sets watching Rick James sing “Super Freak” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
Perhaps more shameful than the bottle itself was the way my heart leapt when I first saw it nestled among my papers and books. Agree Shampoo. It gleamed under the overhead lights. Name-brand shampoo. Nothing like the bottle of Suave we added water to when it got low, like we did the ketchup and the dish soap. I nearly turned to ask Teresa if she’d found hers, thinking someone had distributed personal care products to city kids, like the time we got deodorant sticks during a puberty talk, but before I could turn in my seat, the TV commercial and product slogan returned to me. Don’t get caught with the greasies! Did the catchphrase alone enlighten me or was it accompanied by the cackle of white girl laughter? Either way, the situation suddenly became abundantly clear. Bottles of shampoo had not been air-dropped to Corpus Christi School. It was just given to me. I had the greasies.
How had I managed to overlook the sad state of my own hair? I tried to take time and care, but despite my efforts, my hair occasionally hung long and limp—and with seven kids at home, a tub with no shower, and an inconsistent supply of shampoo, the greasies were probably more common than I wanted to admit. Although I see now that my failure to manage fluffy hair was less a matter of worthiness than economy, in junior high, the shampoo proclaimed me a failure. I thought of prancing around the parking lot singing Blondie’s song and my cheeks burned with shame. Just who the hell do you think you are? The white girls asked with the trial-sized shampoo. It was the same question my mother asked at home. Just who did I think I was anyway? What could I do but let the lid of my desk fall shut and pray that the water stain in the ceiling would become a trapdoor to the sky and swing open to receive me?
Catholics don’t believe in the rapture—at least not in the whisked-away sense—though there is the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary who was taken up whole into heaven and installed as its queen in an event so wondrous it’s celebrated every August. The rest of us might rise again, but first we must go through the agonizing ordinariness of living and dying and returning to earth.
Despite my love of Mass and service as an altar girl, I didn’t believe in heaven. It wasn’t that I wasn’t given to faith, only that I put it in different things—the right clothes, the right furniture, the right house—things I did not have access to but felt certain that once I did everything would be OK. Books and TV shows offered a similar escape. Music too, songs like Blondie’s “Rapture.”
Yet as I sat in my seat, the shampoo bottle in my desk, nothing could save me. My eyes narrowed and my breath went shallow as I waited to be saved. But like Chuck Smith on New Year’s Eve, I was not swept away.
How did it end? Did I wait for everyone to leave the classroom before unsticking myself from my desk and throwing the shampoo into the wastebasket? Or was I practical, even in despair, and slip the bottle into a wide plaid pocket, carry it home, and refuse to share it with my sisters? No matter how it ended, I walked out of the same old school onto the same old street, the front of the building so sooty, you could barely make out the statue of the Blessed Mother in the niche of the facade.
I wonder too what happened when Smith’s followers found themselves still standing in Costa Mesa on New Year’s Day. What was it like the second they opened their eyes not to a fleet of angels but to the same bodies they’d just hugged goodbye? It would have been quiet, their disappointment more like the onset of a storm than the snap of lightning. They would have staggered toward their cars, gravity reclaiming their ankles and toes as a cool breeze blew in from the Pacific. They pulled sweaters around their children’s shoulders and returned to homes with pet smells, leaky faucets, and bills in need of paying. How sobering to step from the darkness into front halls where they saw themselves illuminated in mirrors, eyes puffed and bleary as they came face-to-face with the people they’d always been.
The other white girls flickered and faded that year, disappearing into cars driven by mothers who’d finally arranged circumstances favorably enough to leave the neighborhood. They were not there the next year to don cap and gown and sing a gospel song at our eighth-grade graduation over in the church. They were not there, but they left me something, those girls.
The hand I’d been dealt was not always pretty, but I had not minded because I’d devised a system of salvation by discussing the latest shoes and how to tear an old sweatshirt at the collar to make it into something new. I thought I was saving myself by raising my hand with the right answer, by locating metaphor in the Bette Midler song and highlighting the seed waiting beneath the bitter snow, and by believing, too, in the promise of that seed.
But the white girls offered something truer than metaphor. My ass was grass. I was occasionally greasy. Our neighborhood was home to broken-down cars and mothers shouting to daughters to run and get a loaf of bread from Lewey’s and make it snappy for God’s sake. The air we breathed was filled with the smoke of our own exhaustion. No amount of parking lot singing could change that. I hadn’t bought into the pearly gates, but was my version so different? How could it really be paradise if anyone was left to the beasts?
Back in junior high, I did what I could, which meant coiling my hair along the crown and holding it in place with side combs. I asked Anna Torres to pierce my ears with a sewing needle and began to dangle bits of metal from my head. I learned to swear in Spanish, mastered the soft click of hip needed to dance a merengue, and looked at fashion magazines while dreaming with my friends of all the ways we might someday be saved. It’s only now, halfway through this life, that I’ve begun to understand I needed them too, those girls who lobbed a shampoo bottle like a grenade and knocked me out of the clouds long enough for the separation between us to lift.
No matter how the world lurched forward and the decades whipped past, no matter whether we finished high school or got pregnant and dropped out, no matter that our old school was eventually converted into apartments and the entire junior high wing, including Sister Clare’s classroom, was demolished—we are, each of us, still in that parking lot. The ones packing potted meat sandwiches, the ones who let boys go too far and hid the hickeys on their necks on confirmation day, the ones who listened to AC/DC and fought with their pothead brothers after school. It is clear to me now that we belong to each other, the stoners and singers and greasy-haired. We are reflections of each other, the Black, the Brown, the white. How clear the conditions for salvation have suddenly become. Forget shoes and diagramming sentences and even Blondie songs. Until we look up and recognize something of ourselves in each other, we are bound forever to this small plot of asphalt and earth.