THE SHOWER

by Sharla Benson

“What you mean you ain’t going? You betta go!”

Diane paced back and forth while squeezing the phone so tight her palm began to sweat. If only she had the ability to hang up on her mother she would have pushed end that very second. But she knew better.

“Now you known Cora all your life, and you’ll get to see Madison,” her mother added with a softer tone. “I’m sure she’ll be there too.”

Diane sighed. If that point was supposed to persuade her to go, then she was still trying to find a valid excuse as to why she shouldn’t. She loved Cora and Madison. As little girls and teenagers they’d spent many Saturday hours in Mrs. Mary’s beauty shop reading old Jet, Ebony and Black Hair magazines, laughing and gossiping under the harsh heat of the dryers while waiting to have their kinks straightened with a steaming hot comb.

“Ahh! You burned my ear!” Diane would always yell when it was her turn.

“Dat’s just the heat,” Mrs. Mary would reply sharply. “Keep still.”

The three of them shared their dreams of the perfect man, the number of children and the type of house they wanted, believing that they would be best friends forever to see it all happen for one another. But, people change and one day playing a good game of hide and seek or house with your baby dolls isn’t the only thing friends argue about.

“Ya’ll grew up on the same street,” Diane heard her mother continue. “And that poor chile—it’s been Cora’s cross to bear to have her womb strong enough to hold babies. But now the good Lord has finally blessed her with one. So, you will be goin’ to her baby shower. You hear me girl?”

She heard her loud and clear. But she also heard the even louder voice in her head telling her that she did not want to see Madison. What had transpired between the three of them the last time they were together had not been pretty.

“Danisha! Are you listen’ to me?”

“Huh? Yes ma’am.” The call of the name she had laid to rest a long time ago brought her back to the present. Very few people still called her by her given name and that was the way she preferred it.

“Mmm hmmm. One last thing: I know you like your ‘foo foo’ fancy ways, but don’t go round there shamin’ me, actin’ like your mess don’t stank. You hear me girl?”

“Yes ma’am.” All she wanted to do was hang up the phone.

“For the life of me, I can’t figure out where you got them funny ways of yours. Just be you, okay?”

If she had been bold enough she would have sucked her teeth. After all she was thirty-three years old. But instead she remained silent for a moment before replying “Yes ma’am” one more time. She wasn’t sure which was worse: her nervousness about seeing Cora and Madison again—after all it had been a year since she’d spoken to Madison—or her anger that her mother still represented the highest authority over her, her power sometimes neck in neck with God.

*******

Clap…clap…clap your hands…shouted the speakers as music boomed and voices and laughter spread beyond the backyard. Her nerves pulsating as she stepped out of her car, Diane began to sing Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway.” She stood outside the galvanized chain link fence in her five inch black strappy sandals, her skin giving off a nice downpour of sweat in the July heat that held onto the wind and released it to drip through the trees like molasses.

She lifted the latch on the gate, her legs feeling like they were moving through water four feet deep. She picked up speed along the narrow cement path to the front porch. No turning back now, she thought, her emotions not much different than those of a child determined to swallow vegetables fast to avoid regurgitating. When she finally had the nerve to push the doorbell she turned around to see three children running in the front yard and thought their lives would surely end once Cora’s father found out they were on his award winning lawn.

“Ya’ll kids come back in this backyard where somebody can see you!” panted Cora’s mother from the side of the house. Diane watched from the porch as Mrs. Weston rested the outsides of her wrists on her full, curvy hips, custom made by years of neck bones and rice, jelly layered cakes and macaroni and cheese. The palms of her hands stuck out like dog’s ears as she watched the children run past her before she noticed Diane.

“Danisha! Is that you? Sure ‘nough is!” She asked and answered her question at the same time in her normal fashion. “I was just checkin’ on Mr. Weston at the grill and tryin’ to keep up with these kids cause they mamas all in the house playin’ baby shower games while the men are halfway payin’ them any attention. Come on in! The party has already started. Good Lord, ain’t it hot?!” she added in one labored half breath as she made her way from the side of the house to where Diane stood.

She debated whether to remind Mrs. Weston that she preferred not to be called Danisha any more, but before she could decide what to say she pulled her into the icy cool house and into a room full of women laughing, talking and yelling all at the same time. She was able to form her lips into the resemblance of a genuine smile as her feet crackled on the plastic runner leading to the den. As her nose took in the smell of garlic, butter, fried pork chops and Gain washing detergent soaked into the walls and carpet, she instantly recalled all night sleepovers and many days of running into the Weston home for refuge from the sun.

A cell phone rang. “Hold on a moment sweetie,” said Mrs. Weston, holding up her pointer finger. With her other hand she reached into her bra for her phone.

“Ha-llo?” she yelled. “Yeah, we just getting started. The kids with you?” she asked. “No, because it’s the third Saturday,” she said, again answering her own question. “They with their grandma, right? Alright baby.”

“That was Madison. She should be here soon.” Mrs. Weston snapped her phone shut and put it back into the side corner of her bra. “Ahhh, Cora will love that all her friends are here together. Just like when ya’ll were little. Danisha, I’m so glad you came,” she proclaimed as she wrapped Diane in a hug. Upon releasing her she shouted right into her ear, “Cora! Danisha’s here!”

Diane bit her tongue so she wouldn’t yell, MY NAME IS DIANE!! Even if she could, she knew better than to actually do it. The twenty women in the room—who by now had paused working on the pink and white notepads on their laps that challenged them to figure out scrambled, baby words—ran their eyes up and down her body. She could clearly see the look of Who does she think she is? registered on many faces.

“This is Danisha, Cora’s best friend since she was a little girl,” Mrs. Weston announced to all in the room as if reading their minds. “Is Cora in the bathroom again!?” She waited for no one in particular to answer, then turned back to Diane. “Cora must have gone to the bathroom again baby. She should be out in a second. You want somethin’ to eat?”

“No ma’am. I can’t stay too long,” she mumbled.“I…I…have a thing…to get to. It was planned months ago.” She still had time to get out of there before Madison arrived. “Here is my gift.”

“Ohhh thank you sweetheart. I’m so sorry you can’t stay. You want me to fix you a plate to take with you? Yo’ skinny tail—I’ll fix you a little something to take. Okay?” Before Diane could answer, off Mrs. Weston went toward a table covered in pink, laden with fruit and vegetable trays, meatballs, sandwiches, salads, chips and a full sheet cake decorated with pink baby booties.

Diane stayed close to the door, slowly taking in the crowd of women in the room—various hues of brown, from khaki to chocolate. The pit of her stomach began to feel like it contained an erupting volcano. She found herself feeling as she always had in school when Madison and Cora weren’t around: left out.

She wished Mrs. Weston had introduced her as Diane. She hadn’t been introduced as Danisha in years and couldn’t remember a single time in the last fifteen years when she had met someone and didn’t offer her right hand and say the name Diane. She had always hated that name. Too ghetto, she thought to herself. She took a seat and remained outside of the crowded baby shower arc formed in the den. Even though society’s unspoken rule stated that she should be able to blend in with a crowd of black people, she couldn’t have been more culturally insoluble if she tried.

“Danisha baby?” Upon hearing her dead name again she looked up and saw Mrs. Weston pointing at her plate. “I’ ma go and get some meat off this grill. I know it’s got to be done by now. I’ll only be one minute. Cora! You got company waitin’! Hurry and come out that bathroom, and you bet not be in there on that phone!” She closed the French doors and headed for the back yard.

Diane nodded to those still taking glances at her and tried to look comfortable in her seat. Since she decided to change her name her words never seemed to flow easily in a room full of black people. She heard her mother’s words in her head: Don’t go round there shamin’ me. Wishing she could jump into the already ongoing conversations like a game of double dutch—a game she could never play—she looked around the room as the women whooped and hollered. With her white friends, it had always been different as she found it easier to segue into a conversation.

She shook her body to contain a wavering shiver through her spine and held her head higher while numbing the sadness that came upon her from time to time for giving up her chameleon diction. As her eyes circled the room she knew it was a dialogue she no longer had the ability to speak.

“Dag—I almost had that answer!”

“Stop lying Monica. You know you wasn’t nowhere near finished.”

“Don’t worry,” someone else responded, “cause I’m gonna win this here game.”

”Not if I beat you first. You already have more wrong than I do.”

“WHATEVER!” a voice in the corner yelled. “What’s the next answer!?”

The entire room broke out in enough laughter to fill a stadium. Diane felt like she was looking into a fish bowl as she listened to and watched the conversation bouncing back and forth across the room. It wasn’t entirely on purpose that she could speak with white girls better than the black girls. Having grown up with Cora and Madison, they were by default her first true friends. But once they hit high school they were bused to a school where she, Cora, Madison and anyone who looked like them were in the minority. She liked hanging around with the white cheerleaders on her squad while Cora and Madison still found comfort in neighborhood friends and organizations like the Black Student Union. Because she wouldn’t join she got all kinds of flack.

Look at her. Always think she so cute swinging hair that ain’t even hers, some of the black girls would say as she walked down the hallway.

Shoot, I heard her in class the other day, talkin’ bout Oh my God guys, I got ketchup on my uniform, a girl repeated in a Valley Girl tone.

Jealous, Diane would always think to herself, always too scared to voice a comeback. And she also didn’t have anything to say to the boys who teased her after being outside for cheerleading practice. Damn, girl! You need to stay out the sun. Look how black she got outside.

So what if she liked the white girls’ hair and wanted hers to look like theirs? She looked at her watch for the sixth time. In elementary and even in middle school she always had a white friend whose hair she could just run her fingers through, wishing her hair to have the same smell of sweet perfume and pretty pink or yellow ribbons. Nobody ever wanted to touch her immobile black coils plastered with thick yellow TCB grease and rich rainbow plastic barrettes and hair balls applied by her mother or Mrs. Mary. She swung her hair over her left shoulder and played with the extensions she faithfully replaced every two or three months.

She hadn’t consciously started killing Danisha off until college. It had been like severing an extra head, a twin that never separated at birth. She quickly came to realize that while people were pleasant to Danisha, they seemed more relaxed with Diane. She began to develop new patterns, starting with swallowing the habit of flowing in and out of the language she spoke fluently growing up— abandoning it like one does a dog on the side of a highway. No one she worked with or was friends with elongated their r’s and o’s in conversation, nor did they sand off t’s and s’s when they needed to bring emphasis to a point or laughter to the listener.

As does one when recovering from a habit, she decided to separate herself from the people she grew up with. In time she no longer improvised on verbs and adjectives, no longer entertained conversations thriving on banter, which she always felt was sometimes raspy and even rough. Others, however, saw it filled with love, bouncing colors of red, orange and purple around in a conversation. So she gave it all up, tired of seeing the white people at her job replacing the image of her in an Anne Klein black pinstriped suit with one of her in a jungle, a bone in her nose and shells or chains around her neck and feet if she missed an “s” in a word or stumbled on a verb tumbling out of her mouth.

She looked around some more and shook her head. She was probably the only one who always fully formed r’s and staccatoed her t’s, her lips and tongue rolling over every word perfectly.

“Hey girrrl!” she heard Cora call out. She lifted her gaze from her sandals to see her old friend waddle across the room in a strapless green and white floral dress. “I’m so glad you could make it.” Cora panted into Diane’s ear as she gave her a hug.

“Ahh, Cora you look absolutely beautiful,” she began. “I’m sorry…I can’t stay long…I have this thing I have to get to across town for…”

“Don’t worry about it. I know you are a busy woman. You just make sure you come by to see my baby when she gets here. Okay?”

Diane nodded. “How’s your husband?

“He’s fine.

“How’s Mama Lucille?” asked Cora. “I saw her out walking in the mall the other day.”

“She’s fine. I was talking to her before I left. She would have come but she and Daddy had to go to something for the church.” Her brain spun like a merry go round on her list of polite conversation.

Weather?

Work?

Due date?

Diane tried again. “Have you spoken with Madison lately?”

“Sure did. She should be here any minute now. I wish you and Madison would talk. We used to all be so close. We all just had a bad day,” she added, lowering her voice and placing her hand on Diane’s arm. Diane nodded in politeness, knowing good and well she had to get out of there before Madison arrived.

*******

The last time they were together was at Cora’s house a year earlier after she lost her first baby. When Diane went to visit Cora, Madison arrived shortly after and once they took time to cry and hug for Cora’s loss Diane announced that she preferred they both stop calling her Danisha. She knew it wasn’t going to be pretty when she saw Madison roll her neck in her direction, raise her eyebrows and cross her arms all in one motion.

“What’s wrong with Danisha?

“I just like Diane better.”

“Puhlease. You just think it sound white and that makes it right!”

“Just leave her alone Maddy,” interrupted Cora. “If that’s what she wants to be called, then…”

“Cora, puhlease! Danisha always been like this. Swinging her fake hair extra hard, barely noticing us when she would be with those white girls on her cheerleading squad in high school, changin’ her eyes from ‘emerald’ to ‘topaz’ to ‘amber.’ I’m tired of not saying anything.”

“Because you know everything,” countered Diane, picking up her pocketbook and heading toward the door.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Madison shot at her back.

She turned to face Madison. “It means that you need to stop whining about the bank you’re working at being racist and just work your ass off!” she yelled back.

“Oh why? Because we got a black president now so every thing is supposed to be all good? Puhlease. Danisha you are so lost, sounding just like them white people at my job.”

“Lost! Lost!? I’m lost when I make over eighty thousand dollars a year? I’ve figured it out—you need to get with the program!”

“Figured out what!?” screamed Madison.

“This white and black thing. It’s stupid. I mean my friends, they see me as one of them.”

“Yeah, but behind your back I betcha at least one of them has called you a nigger or at least let one of their friends call you that. You think they love your black ass so much that they done forgot all they ever heard their family and friends say over the years about us?”

Diane shook her head. “You don’t understand. You’re so closed minded, Madison, and you always have been. Cora I am so sorry to have upset you. I meant to come over here to make you feel better, not for this.”

The room held onto silence for a few seconds before Diane made one last attempt at resolve. “All I was trying to say is that you can do better Madison.”

It was Madison’s turn to shake her head, “That’s the problem. You feel sorry for me when I like my life. I wouldn’t cut my dreadlocks off to get a promotion. I love my dark skinned husband and even though I know what correct grammar sounds like I don’t go round correcting someone if they say ‘skreet’ instead of ‘street.’”

“Don’t go there Madison,” said Cora, attempting to slide some gentle words into the conversation. “Dani—I mean Di—well…she already apologized for correcting your brother at that Fourth of July cookout.”

“So you took some courses on African American history,” Diane threw back, “cut the perm out of your hair and now you’re qualified to determine what is black enough?” Her hand was on the door knob, her anger rising from simmer to full blast again.

Madison didn’t respond.

“Well why don’t you say something to Cora?” asked Diane. “She still straightens out her hair like we all did growing up. I’ve heard her at her job. She speaks as ‘proper’ as me. Why are you not giving her flack about it?”

“Because she ain’t asking me to call her Coreen instead of Cora!” Madison’s temper was now like a tea kettle that had blown open.

“Well I want better.”

“Humph. No matter the cost.”

*******

Although Diane had called Cora later to check on her, she’d not spoken to Madison since that day and she wasn’t about to make today the day to make amends.

“Here you go baby.” Mrs. Weston appeared with the plate while Diane rummaged through her brain for more conversation with Cora.

“Cora! It’s sooo good to see you,” said Diane as she walked toward the door. “I gave your mother my present. Call me when the baby arrives.”

“Thanks. I will.”

“By the way, have you and your husband decided on a name?”

“Yes. We are going with Francesca Danisha.”

Stunned, Diane could only mouth the word what.

“I’ve always loved your name. I hope you don’t mind me stealing it—since you’re not using it any more,” she added with a slight smile.

Diane was still speechless.

“You take care now. And keep in touch.”

She nodded and fought back tears as her sandals crunched once again on the plastic runner. She shook her head all the way to her car while thinking, That poor child. At least she’ll have Francesca.

______________________________

Sharla Benson is a seventh grade social studies teacher and a Ph.D. candidate in educational research at the University of South Carolina. She has written for The Daughters Counsel newsletter and has written entertainment articles for the website of an Atlanta nightclub. This is her first published story.

February 2010