Got to Be Real

What you find, ah
What you feel now
What you know-a
To be real
— Cheryl Lynn, 1978

At first Maddie thought I did it on purpose. She thought I was getting back at her ‘cause she asked me not to wear my rollers around her friends at her sleepover. She gets on my damn nerves. I am not embarrassed by my hair, my rollers, my Ultra Sheen, or my hair net, thank-you-very-much. Told her she could kiss my ass. Still, I swear, what happened was an accident.

Now, I’m not gonna lie, her birthday party was whack. Me-n-Maddie were the only black girls outta like fifteen, and my cousin isn’t exactly the blackest black girl herself. Maddie was raised in the country. Upstate. By aliens, it seems. Coming from a different world, I was more than a little bit out of place in her crowd. Maybe we have some stuff in common, but we don’t listen to the same tunes, don’t use the same kinda slang, don’t eat the same kinda food. We don’t use the same hair care or skin care products and we don’t even like the same kinda boys. They all thought I was from “the city.” That’s code for Harlem, or Bed Stuy, or someplace where they think they’d get shot.

The way those girls looked at me, you woulda thought I was some gangsta bitch from the ghetto streets of one of those movies like “Coffy” or “Superfly.” I’m from South Floral Park, Long Island. Yeah, it’s a black community, but we aren’t pulling guns on anybody. Our houses are pretty, with manicured lawns. Our parents have jobs, and drive nice cars, and send their kids to college. My brother goes to Howard. Those girls never even heard of Howard.

They were all sitting around Aunt Velma’s antique dining table, eating a nasty-ass Carvel ice cream cake, ‘cause Aunt Velma couldn’t be bothered to bake Maddie a real birthday cake. Couldn’t be bothered to supervise either. Auntie made herself a cocktail and holed up in her room.

I was buggin’ out when this pretty blonde girl, in baby-doll pajamas, got up from the table, walked her giraffe-like legs across the room to the stereo, and without even asking Maddie, thumbed through the records and put on Barry Manilow.

“Are you for real?” I asked her. And I wasn’t just talking about the record.

She sauntered back, swung her long hair to one side, and plopped down.

“We can play disco later,” she said. “Don’t you think this is a pretty song?”

“No,” I said. “And who said anything about disco? I like to dance, but that’s not the only thing I’d wanna hear.”

Maddie just sat there. She’s grown up around these girls and their country manners. And she’s in love with Barry-fuckin’-Manilow, too.

So his wack ass was blasting from the stereo, while these snotty girls were sittin’ around the table thinking they were hot shit. I’d never seen so much stuck up-ness in my life. A bunch of ‘em were cheerleaders with Maddie last year in junior high, and there was more long hair flinging than this self-respecting, nappy-headed girl in need of a press could take.

So me and my lil’ ponytail checked out for a few minutes and went downstairs. Didn’t think anyone would miss us.

Maddie’s house has three levels. The dining room, living room, and kitchen are on the middle, upstairs are the bedrooms, and down on the lower level is my crazy-ass uncle’s office and waiting room. But the waiting room has two couches and lots of books, and it just looks like a den when no one’s waiting in there. Uncle Phil was in Manhattan, staying at his other office, overnight. My mom says he’s a player. He’s supposed to be some kinda shrink, but Mom says he’s not a real doctor, ‘cause he doesn’t prescribe medicine. I don’t know and don’t really care, but what I do know is that Uncle Phil is a trip. He talks like a nerd and he’s real light skinned, so people could mistaken him for white. And he has a wanna-be afro that can’t-be because like Maddie, he’s got that fine, almost white people hair that doesn’t have enough kink to keep it standing up right on top. So the shit flops in the middle, and sags to the sides. He wears an earring, too. A diamond stud. Maddie begs him to take it out when her friends are coming over. And the man is corn-y, but he thinks he’s smooth. My mother says he’s arrogant. I don’t know about all that, but I do know he’s a freak. Maddie showed me his sex books. Some of ‘em he keeps hidden in his desk drawers, but some of them he leaves right out where anyone can see. And he has this “art” on the walls in his office, these pictures that are totally nasty, like stuff you’d see in a dirty magazine. One picture, near the bookcase, is of this stick drawn man and a stick drawn woman, and the man has a big fat boner that looks like a giant pine cone, and the woman has big fat titties that look like bowling balls. And there’s a painting of this white woman with one of her pink nipples hangin’ all out. My mother would never allow my daddy to put some shit like that up in our house, but Mom says Aunt Velma can’t control her man.

Whenever I visit, me and Maddie look at the pictures in the book, The Joy of Sex, ‘cause it’s fun, and we learn stuff. So I was just sitting down there learning, when the blonde chick who put the Barry Manilow single on came through to use the bathroom. I was thinking oh Lord, but she smiled at me. And she even said “Hi,” when she passed, which surprised me, since we hadn’t gotten off to the best start upstairs. The other girls didn’t smile at me. Some of ‘em seemed scared, like I was gonna steal their shit, or beat their ass, or something.

When she came out of the bathroom, she looked down at the book, and her green eyes bugged out.

“What-are-you-doing?” she asked, like she was half scolding me, but like she was into it, too. The page was open to a drawing of this white couple boning. She leaned closer. “Oh my God,” she said, kind of squealing. Then she lowered her voice. “Can I look at it with you?”

I almost cracked up, ‘cause she reminded me of me, the way she seemed to wanna get into some shit.

“I guess,” I said. “Why not?”

She sat down next to me.

“Where the heck did you get this?” she whispered. “Does Madeline know you’re down here?”

“My uncle keeps it on the bookshelf,” I said. “Maddie doesn’t care. Long as my aunt doesn’t come down here, it’s cool.”

She giggled. “That’s funny how you and Maddie say, ‘aahh-nt.’ We say ‘ant.’ Aaahhnt sounds so formal. Why do you say it like that?”

“I dunno,” I answered. “That’s just how we say it.”

She looked at me like she wanted to ask something else, but she didn’t. She stared back at The Joy of Sex. Her baby blue baby-doll nightdress made her skinny pink legs look even longer than they were. She hugged her thighs to her chest, grabbed her long toes and cracked them, which made me cringe.

“Turn the page,” she demanded.

That rubbed me the wrong way. ‘Cause who the hell was she to be telling me what to do? But I wanted to see the next page anyway, so I kept my cool. Here’s where it got funky… I turned the page and there was a drawing of hippie-ish looking white dude with long dark hair, and he had his bearded face deep in the cootchie of a brunette white woman with hairy armpits. Her head was tilted back and she looked like she was diggin’ it. Me and Maddie looked at the same page a few days earlier and she told me some dirt about some girl I didn’t even know, but I figured this chick might be interested since she was from around there. So I told her, “See that? Some ho named Barbara Hawkins did that with a guy named Dave Marino.”

The girl’s whole attitude changed. Her feet hit the floor. Boom! She stood. Her cheeks turned red like apples and she looked like she wanted to slap me. She breathed in, then out with a huff sound, and stomped off.

At first I wasn’t sure what the fuck her problem was. I heard her stomps go up the stairs toward the dining room, then past there to the top floor. A door slammed. Oh shit, I thought. My nails hit my teeth as my hands flew to my face. I had this sinking feeling that either she was friends with Barbara Hawkins, or worse; she was Barbara Hawkins.


“Are you fucking retarded, Suzy?” Maddie screamed at me a couple of minutes later. Her eyes were popped open so you could see her entire irises, like chocolate M&Ms floating in spoonfuls of milk. Her hair, which she’d straightened for the party, was getting frizzy, ‘cause she was sweating.

She looked up at me and shrieked. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

Her retainer was in. Spit shot out of her mouth and landed on my nose. Elch. I wiped it and stood there while she tried to scold me. Please. Maddie’s like a foot shorter than I am. And on top of that she was wearing short-sleeved, lavender pajamas with pink bunnies on them and green furry slippers. About as intimidating as a munchkin.

We were in the hallway outside Maddie’s room where Barbara locked herself in and she was sobbing. I could see over the railing to the dining room below where most of Maddie’s friends were still spooning up that melted cake. Barry was on repeat, whining like a little bitch, and it made me want to hurl myself off the balcony and end it all.

“Caught up in world of uphill climbing,
The tears are in my eyes and nothin’ is
ryhmin’ oh Mandy…”

Oh Jesus! Tears were in my eyes, too, cause that shit was killin’ me.

A couple other girls were outside the door with us. One of ‘em was a very concerned fat girl, Frannie, who was fourteen, like us, but I swear, she looked like an old man. No long-hair-flingin’ for her with her damn near crew cut. She also had pockmarks and laugh lines that looked like straight up wrinkles. And, she had the nerve to stare me down through glasses that looked like something my 70-year-old Nana would wear. The other girl, Lisa, a Peppermint Patty looking, red-haired, freckled chick from up the street smirked at me like she didn’t give a shit what I did to Barbara. She just liked the drama. We all tried banging on the door. She kept wailin’.

“You idiot,” Maddie snapped at me, and punched her own leg like a crazy person. “Why would you open your big mouth without knowing who you were talking to? Fuck!” She stomped her green furry foot. Mad, mad munchkin.

Frannie, with her roly poly booty, turned to Maddie, all on her high horse, and peered at her over her old-lady glasses. “Um, excuse me, but where did your cousin hear that gossip in the first place?”

Maddie bit her lip and piped down ‘cause she was the one who told me, and Frannie knew, ‘cause she was standing there when I told Maddie what happened.

“Mm hmm,” Frannie said. “Why don’t you worry about apologizing, instead of berating your cousin who was only repeating the lies you told. Barbara-Ann is Catholic, by the way. She’s not slutty like you people.”

Maddie turned to me and mouthed, “I’m gonna kill you.”

Kill me, not the bitch that called “us people” sluts!

“Listen,” I said to Frannie, “you didn’t just insult me and my cousin, did you? ‘Cause if you did, I’ma have to cut you.” I stepped closer and stuck my chest out like a dude.

Frannie backed up, sucked in her thick cheeks, and got paler than she already was. Even Peppermint-Patty moved across the hall. Maddie rolled her eyes and groaned.

“Don’t listen to her,” she said. “Suzy doesn’t have a knife. Her father drives a Mercedes.” She grit her teeth at me. “Would you stop it, Suzanne? They can’t tell that you’re kidding.”

“Huh.” I stared Frannie down. “Wouldn’t be so sure of that if I were you.” I could tell Frannie was about to pee on herself. She was scared as shit. I was a tall, lean, mean, brown machine and I bet she could tell just by looking at me, I could kick her fat ass to the moon. She pushed her glasses back up her oily nose and marched down the hall in her ratty red pajamas that look like she stole ‘em from her daddy.

“Frannie!” Maddie yelled, sounding like she was pleading.

“I’m calling my mother,” Frannie squealed, without looking back. “I’m going home!”

And she skedaddled her big backside down the stairs with a quickness.

“Great,” Maddie snapped at me. “What the hell is wrong with you? I’ve gotta go to school with these people!”

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “That girl is not your friend. Let her take her ugly behind home. Why do you care?”

Peppermint-Patty-Lisa snorted and we looked over at her, across the hall. She was trying not to laugh as she tucked some red hair behind her ear. She looked away, pretending she wasn’t listening, which was ridiculous ‘cause everyone was listening. I was wondering where the hell Aunt Velma was. She had to be hearing all the yelling and banging. The girls down at the dining room table could see us up on the balcony. They were watching, like it was a show.

“Frannie really is ugly. Inside and out,” Peppermint-Patty said before finally busting up laughing.

Maddie wasn’t laughing. “You don’t know who my friends are, Suzy.” She sucked up retainer spit and wiped tears. “You don’t understand how it is.”

“You got that right, girlie,” I said. “I don’t have a damn clue. ‘Cause where I come from, I don’t gossip about people I invite to my house, and I don’t hang out with people who think they’re better than me. I don’t hang out with people I think are better than me, either.”

She glared at me, and sniffled. “I don’t think anyone’s better than me, Suzy. Maybe I wanna be more like the people I live around, but so what?” She smoothed her hair back with both hands, like it bothered her that it was frizzing up.

“Be yourself,” I said.

“I am myself! I’m from here. I’m not you. I don’t have to be like you.”

I felt sorry for Maddie. She might wanna pretend she’s not different from those girls, but listening to Barry Manilow, and blow-drying your hair to look like theirs, doesn’t make you one of them.

Frannie grabbed her stuff and headed to the lower level to wait by the front door. Someone finally turned the record off, thank God, and everyone was quiet. Peppermint-Patty-Theresa wasn’t snickering anymore. Even Crybaby behind the door stopped bawling.

The door opened. Barbara stuck her head out. The whites around her green irises were reddish-pink, like the inside of a watermelon.

“I wanna talk to you,” she said to Maddie. Her tone was even. Couldn’t tell if she was crazy mad, or oddly calm.

Maddie swallowed. She hesitated, like she was scared to go inside. Barbara tried to close the door. I held it open with my hand and put all my weight behind it so she couldn’t. I may not have seen eye to eye with my cousin, but I wasn’t letting anyone punk her ass either.

“I didn’t know who you were,” I told her. “Maybe it seemed like I was messing with you on purpose, but I wasn’t. Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” I meant that, but I was also stalling to make sure she wasn’t gonna go off on Maddie. Didn’t know how those girls fought their battles, but I knew Maddie would do anything to keep a so-called friend; even take a scratch or a punch, and I wasn’t havin’ it.

Barbara looked at me and wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand.

“You didn’t hurt my feelings. Would you please let go of the goddamned door?” she asked. “I wanna talk to Maddie in private.”

“The answer to that would be, no,” I said.

“Suzy, it’s all right–”

“–Shut up, Maddie,” I told her. “The way it works is, and listen real hard ‘cause your clueless ass needs to know this: your friend has your back. Your friend does not leave you alone in a room with someone who wants to kick your butt. The girl can talk to you, that’s fine, but this is your god damn house, Maddie. You’re supposed to set the rules and if you’re too much of a kiss-ass to do it, then your friend is gonna do it for you.”

I saw a flicker of something that looked like understanding spread across Maddie’s face.

“That’s how we do,” I said. “That’s how you do, too, whether you know it yet, or not.” I looked at Barbara. “So, the door stays open.”

Barbara looked pissed, but she didn’t put up a fight. I stood in the doorway and she and Maddie moved further inside the purple room. Everything in it– the carpet, the curtains, the walls, the comforter– is lilac, lavender, violet, or grape. Guess living around nothin’ but white folks make you do weird things with color.

Barbara slumped down and leaned against the bed with her knees against her chest. Maddie sat opposite her, cross-legged.

“I’m really sorry this happened,” Maddie said, lisping on her retainer a little. “I never meant for you to come here and be hurt or embarrassed.”

“Where’d you hear that stuff about me and Dave?” Barbara asked, hugging her legs.

Maddie looked over at me, and Peppermint-Patty-Lisa, who stood by me right outside the door. Patty-Lisa was hugging herself and rocking her weight from one foot to the other.

“Who told you that?” Barbara demanded, getting louder.

Maddie looked at the floor and then shook her head. “No one,” she whispered.

“Then why did you say it? Why would you say that about me? I never told you that! I told you he kissed me and that he said I was gonna be the prettiest girl in ninth grade, and that I let him feel me up outside of my clothes. That’s all!”

“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that other stuff.”

“Why?” Barbara let go of her legs and opened her arms wide. “Just tell me why you would start a rumor about me?”

“I didn’t! I didn’t tell anyone but my cousin,” Maddie said, “And she doesn’t even know you.”

“Well she was blabbing it! And she heard it from you. So you did start a rumor, Madeline. You did. You liar. You told a lie about me, now you’re telling another lie, cause you don’t know who she told. She could’ve told everybody!”

Maddie looked her in the eye. “I’m sorry, Barbara,” she said. “Me and Suzy were looking at the book and she was talking about people she knew, saying stuff they did with boys, but I didn’t know who any of them were. Then I started talking and… I made that stuff up ‘cause she didn’t know who you were, and I never thought anyone else would hear it. I only said it to have something to say. I wasn’t trying to start a rumor or be mean, I promise.”
Barbara scratched an eyebrow. “Well it sounds to me like you’re just a liar for no good reason. So fuck you, cause it is mean. If you were my friend you wouldn’t have brought my name into your smutty little conversation.”

Barbara got up. Her stuff was on Maddie’s bed in a flowery duffle bag that matched a sleeping bag downstairs on the living room floor. She pulled a pair of jeans out of it.

I saw Maddie glance at Peppermint-Patty-Lisa, who finally stopped rocking, sat down against the wall and rubbed her temples. Maddie looked up at Barbara.

“I really am sorry,” she told her. “Sorry for saying it and for hurting your feelings. Maybe it seems mean, but in a weird way, it was a compliment.”

Barbara let out a laugh that was like a grunt at the same time. “In what way, exactly, is telling fucking disgusting lies about me complimentary?”

Maddie chewed her bottom lip for a second. “I could try to explain it,” she said, “but I don’t know if you could understand.”

“Oh, so now I’m stupid, too?” Barbara sucked her teeth and tugged her jeans up over her narrow hips. “Why wouldn’t I be able to understand it?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant was I don’t know if I could say it so it makes sense–”

“–Then don’t bother. Just shut up!” She zipped her fly.

Maddie sighed and smoothed the frizz back off her face.

“The compliment part,” she said, “is because, the reason I thought of you is ‘cause you’re like a movie star or something—perfect and famous. You’re the girl everyone wishes they were. The one they would be if they could.”
Maddie stared down at her thumbnails and didn’t move. When she finally blinked, tears fell. She shouldn’t have said that stuff, but her situation is hard. As long as she lives here she’ll never get to be the girl other girls wish they could be like. She’ll never get to feel cute, or have the kind of attention from boys that she wants. Because around here, she’s just some black girl. Nothing special. If she lived by me, she wouldn’t want to be someone else. Guys would like her. Some girls would even be jealous ‘cause she’s light skinned and has long hair. Maddie’s pretty. She doesn’t feel like she is, though, ‘cause her kind of pretty doesn’t count here.

Barbara wasn’t impressed with Maddie’s so-called “compliment.” She pulled a white sweatshirt on and ran a hand through her hair.

“You have problems,” she said. “Where’s the phone?”

“In the kitchen,” Maddie said, her voice barely above a whisper.

And with that, Barbara Hawkins walked out of the purple room, down the hall, and down the stairs to where everyone was watching. She went through the swinging door into the kitchen. Then we couldn’t see her anymore. Maddie climbed up slowly and looked at me.

“It’s all right,” I told her. “You made a mistake. Not everyone’s meant to be your friend.”

She shook her head. “It’s not all right. If she’s not my friend, no one will be.”

“You know that’s malarkey,” Peppermint-Patty-Lisa said, popping up like a jack-in-the-box. I forgot she was even there. She hugged Maddie really tight. “I’m your friend. Barbara-Ann’s not the boss of everyone.”

When Patty-Lisa let her go, Maddie smiled, but it was a pitiful, sad, sad smile.

I said, “And what good are friends who only like you cause you’re friends with some other girl? That’s wack, Maddie.”

“Yeah,” Peppermint-Patty said, “whatever ‘wack’ is. I know you’re not friends with me just cause of Barbara-Ann.” She opened the top few buttons on her pajamas like she needed to cool off.

“I know you know,” Maddie said. There was an edge in her voice.

“You’re a cool girl,” Peppermint-Patty said. “I don’t think it’ll be that bad.”

“Lisa. If Barbara hates me, you know there’ll be a lot of people who won’t think I’m cool and won’t hang out with me anymore.”

“Okay, that’s fake,” I told her. “People like that are fake-ass friends and you need to check yourself, ’cause you sound fake, too. Is that what you want, Maddie?”

Peppermint-Patty turned and looked at me. “Oh, she’s not fake. If a real friend has your back, trust me, Maddie’s no phony.”

“I didn’t do anything, Lisa. I shouldn’t have told anyone,” Maddie said. Then she frowned at me.

“Shhh,” Peppermint-Patty whispered and stared Maddie in the eye.

Something was up with them.

“Of course, I don’t want my friends to be fake, Suzy,” Maddie said. She wiped her fingers under both eyes. “I want them to be real. I wanna be real, too.”

“You are real,” Peppermint-Patty said. And she shocked the shit outta me, ‘cause she rolled her neck like a sista. Took me forever to teach Maddie how to do that.

“Now let’s party,” Peppermint-Patty yelled.

Maddie followed her down the stairs.


A flower child looking girl, in a long, yellow tie-dyed T-shirt, put on the Bee Gee’s Saturday Night Fever record, without asking, and most of the other girls got up and started doing The Bus Stop.

Jive talkin’
So misunderstood, yeah
Jive talkin’
You’re really no good.

They did it different than we do in So Flo, but not too bad and close enough that I could join in. I saw ‘em checkin’ me out, thinkin’ I was cool, ‘cause my version had a lil’more grit to it.

And turn, turn, turn, clap! Get down, theotherway, spinaround-clap! I have to admit, that part was kinda fun.
Maddie was headed into the kitchen, when Barbara walked right past her, snatched up her sleeping bag, and went down to the front door to stand next to Frannie. Instead of going into the kitchen, Maddie turned and stared at their backs. After a minute, she came over and did The Bus Stop with me, Peppermint-Patty Lisa, and the rest of the girls. She had no rhythm, but no one cared. I think everyone was glad to see her trying to have a good time with the friends who were staying.

When Barbara and Frannie got picked up, Aunt Velma finally poked her head out of her room. Guess she heard the cars.
“E’rrything aww-right down there?” she asked, sounding toasted.

Nobody answered. We kept dancing and she disappeared again.


A little later, when we were getting ready to go to bed, I went up to the bathroom and put my pink foam rollers in even though Maddie asked me not to. When I came downstairs I thought she was gonna have an attitude about it and I was ready if she did, but she just smiled at me and said goodnight. I laid down thinking, cool.

Then Peppermint-Patty-Lisa asked, “Do all colored girls wear curlers to bed?”

And the kinks of the hairs on the back of my neck rose up into fists. I grit my teeth and looked over at Maddie. It was dark, but I could tell her hands were covering her face, cringing. I took a breath and let it out s l o w l y.

“The proper term is black,” I said. “Black girls and no, we don’t all wear rollers to bed.”

“Right, right, black,” she said. “Sorry.”

I rested my elbow on the floor and propped my head up with my hand. “So, did Maddie hear that mess about Barbara from you?”

“Uh…What?” Peppermint-Patty-Lisa said sounding too surprised. “No idea what you’re talking about.” She wasn’t very smooth.

I think it was Flower Girl who said, “Everyone figured you had something to do with it, the way you ran up the stairs right away. Just admit it.”

Peppermint-Patty-Lisa sighed. “Fine. My brother told me. He heard it from Dave, the guy she’s dating.”

I looked at Maddie. She was quiet, staring at the ceiling. “Do you really wish you could be Barbara? Or were you just covering?”

“Why?” Maddie asked without looking at me.

Flower Girl said, “Everyone wishes they could be like Barbara. All the boys like her.”

“Okay?” Maddie said, in a way that meant leave me alone.

So I did. I talked to Patty-Lisa. “You think what you heard was true? Don’t know about the boys around here, but where I live, they’re always lying about messin’ with girls.”

“Yeah, they lie about it here, too,” Patty-Lisa said. Then she looked at Maddie. “You ever wear curlers to bed?”

Maddie groaned, “Uuuuhhh.” She looked at me. “I tried to tell you this would happen.”

I said, “Black girls have all kinds of hair. Maddie’s is different from mine, so she doesn’t have to wear rollers. But sometimes she wears them, to keep her hair from getting frizzy.” I fingered the nappy new growth on the nape of my neck.

“Oh. How come you have to wear them?” she asked.

“Lisa,” Maddie whined.

I wondered, was Peppermint-Patty trying to work my nerves or just really curious? “Do all white girls ask so many damn questions?”

“Sorry,” Peppermint-Patty-Lisa said, in a snippy way. Then sounding like a cross between Scooby Do and Yogi Bear she said, “But if I don’t ask, how’m I supposed to know?”

I guess she had a point. How is she supposed to know if she doesn’t ask?

Everyone started laughing. Even me and Maddie. It was kinda hard not to join in when they all started giggling their butts off.

It wasn’t as funny to me as it was to the others. I didn’t exactly like having to explain shit about my hair, but maybe it is better if people ask questions rather than make assumptions that turn out to be wrong. So I laughed with ‘em, ‘cause that’s what you have to do, where Maddie lives, if you wanna get along.



Toni Ann Johnson

About Toni Ann Johnson

Toni Ann Johnson's essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times and online at Intheknow Traveler. She has a short story being published in April of this year by The Emerson Review.
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.