We drove from Harlem to Vermont in silence. My sister Jodie sat next to me in the backseat, reading when the sun was out and sleeping for the rest of the trip. I tried to read as well, but started to feel sick in our cramped Prius, so I watched as twilight turned my sister’s skin from brown to purple to black. She got darker as the world did and I realized that I did too; my skin would morph into different colors as the light outside changed. We’re like chameleons, I thought.
I told this to my sister and she curled her lip. “I’m not no reptile.”
I remembered not too long ago a classmate of mine told me that Black people weren’t human. For the rest of the drive I wondered what I was, if I was neither human nor animal.
My father made us listen to NPR for the entire five and a half hours of our trip. We didn’t complain because he didn’t listen. I heard a deep, monotone voice explain that a Black man was recently shot by the police for failing to procure his ID in time. The officer in question was being interviewed by the same steady voice on the radio. The only thing halting their speech was our car’s poor satellite connection, struggling to keep their voices afloat as we cruised by staggering evergreens that disappeared into the mountains.
“I thought he was searching for a weapon,” the officer explained. “While I regard this entire situation with deep regret, you can never be too careful in my line of work.”
“He’s not doing himself any favors,” my mother said from the passenger’s seat. Her hair was pressed straight and bumped at the ends, tucked behind her ears to show off the diamonds fastened to her lobes. She was dressed in matching knit loungewear but wore a face full of makeup. Her head was awkwardly perched against the car door for the majority of the trip, leaving her face pristine and only smudging her makeup on the inch of seatbelt that grazed her chin. Funny, because that brown spot wasn’t a chameleon. It seemed content to stay brown. “He should’ve known better and had his ID within reach.” She shook her head. “He should’ve known better.”
Someone laughed bitterly. I couldn’t tell if it was my sister or father or my own conscience, or maybe it was just the car engine begging us to get there already.
“They would’ve shot him regardless.” This time it was undeniably my father who spoke, his tone low, condescending, strikingly severe.
We arrived in the middle of the night. The stars were glowing even brighter than the city lights I’m used to seeing outside of my bedroom window. Whenever the city was this bright I expected chaos--bomb attacks, power plant explosions, Times Square. The light here meant almost nothing. It was eerily quiet as we crept along the gravel path that led us to the Inn. In the distance I saw windows in the Main House lit up but no movement behind them. The back tire of our car squealed and shuddered like a dying pig. My sister removed her headphones, my mother’s eyes widened, my father calmly got out of the car and bent down to the Prius’s underbelly. He pointed at me through the window.
“Son, get out the car. We have to push.”
My older sister would’ve been better suited for this task since she’s taller and more athletic than I am. But I got out of the car and flexed my biceps slightly so my father wouldn’t realize just how small I was. We were drenched in sweat by the time the tire popped out of the mud and gravel, the sound so loud I wondered if it was compensating for being such a shitty tire.
My father slammed the door shut and pressed on the gas. “Who the hell has a wedding in a barn, anyway?”
“It’s a nice barn,” my mother said.
My father looked at my mother, the energy strangely charged between them, and my mother didn’t speak again.
Someone’s scalp was swinging by the ceiling fan. At least, that’s what it looked like. Jodie was in the middle of the women, next to the bride-to-be. Her eyes were completely shot--she must’ve been drinking, because she wouldn’t risk getting drug tested.
Tete Maya, the youngest one there, saw me first. I was barefoot and shirtless and suddenly felt over-exposed with all of their eyes on me. As soon as I appeared in the doorway the women quieted, seemingly none of them concerned about the situation with the fan. I had tried, earlier, to make company with some of the men in my uncle’s room. It was thirty minutes of crude humor at my expense and sports analysis. It made sense, though. I was the youngest.
At once my female relatives lost interest in me and went back to talking. I saw my cousins pressing their nails on with glue and ripping hair off of each other’s lips with hot wax. My sister downed a styrofoam cup under my mother’s passive gaze. Since when was she okay with Jodie drinking? They’d turned the Inn’s game room into something ritualistic. The bride had walked into the room completely natural and would walk out plucked and puckered and drunk and ready to marry the next day.
I sat right next to my mother, staring at the scalp above me. Hair hung morbidly from the skin. I was too afraid to ask about it.
“Baby,” my mother said from beside me. “Jodie’s getting married.”
I quickly whipped my head around to her. “Married?” She was seventeen.
My mother had the nerve to laugh. “At least, that’s what the wig says.”
I waited for her to explain. My family talked about my mother a lot. She was young, with a light brown complexion and ‘good hair.’ I wasn’t exactly sure why this made her desirable, but it did, and our family never failed to mention it. But she needed a lot of time to put herself together, and an even longer time to explain her thoughts.
“We threw the wig like a bouquet. Your sister caught it. But when she threw it back it got caught in the fan,” she pointed to the hair dripping off of the ceiling fan, laughing. “Shit is a mess.”
I was suddenly glad I didn’t ask about the scalp--or wig--hanging above us. They would’ve been on me worse than the men.
Jodie came over and leaned down to whisper to me: “Desiree finna make me install this shit tonight. She boutta look fucked up on her wedding day.” Her eyes were wide, dead serious. She held out the wig cap to me, as though I could do something.
“Maybe ask Mama?” I suggested.
“Ask Mama what?” My mother interjected.
Jodie quickly sliced her hand back and forth across her neck. Cut it out.
I shouldn’t have said that.
Jodie’s breath was hot and reeking, her voice wavering in an unsteady rhythm. My mother had to know she was drunk. I looked back at Jodie, What?
She seemed to lower her eyes, like, Mama doesn’t need to know I’m that drunk.
The women got louder, and my mother moved to untangle the wig, and Desiree was on the brink of hysterics. “I should’ve hired my line sister to do my hair.”
The wedding itself was all blue. The sky was bright blue, the aisle was turquoise, the bows on the back of each chair were the color of cornflowers. Every guest followed the blue dress code, except for my play cousin Stevie who swore he was a Blood but grew up in Tribeca. The only person who wasn’t expected to wear blue was the bride herself, who donned a tight fitting, off-white dress that I thought made her look like an actress at an awards show. My mother thought it made her look like a ho and my father laughed, briefly, but my sister didn’t find it funny at all. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom jumped over a broom, clasping each others hands in a manner that made their brown knuckles white and red. The bride’s sapphire bracelet glinted off her wrist and suddenly all I could see were red, white and blue lights in my rearview mirror. It was the last light I saw before a white cop in a blue uniform shot me while I searched for my ID. Red blood dried brown on my skin, and that’s when I realized that I would always be black, even when I forgot. Even when I didn’t want to be.
We all walked back to the Inn, a giant white house perched atop a grassy hill. It was springtime, but instead of wildflowers covering the land, thick mud slowly rolled down the slope. The ceremony had taken place in a clearing behind the Inn.
When I asked my mother why my godsister was getting married in the backyard of a hotel she glared at me so strongly I thought I’d get slapped. “It’s not a backyard,” she snapped. “It’s a clearing behind the Inn.”
At dusk we all walked to the west side of the estate, where the barn was. I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I was seated at the kid’s table even though I knew I was too grown for it. Tete Maya and I crawled under one of the adult tables. She was my favorite Tete because she was also in middle school and she laughed a lot, mouth wide open and showcasing a set of perfectly white, perfectly rounded teeth. At present those teeth were gnawing on a strawberry she’d stolen from her mother’s champagne glass, the rest of her face cast in shadows from the table’s long covering.
“I’m so happy he ain’t stay with that white girl. Almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Tanya, we in a barn. This the whitest shit I ever saw.”
We trashed the barn. It had been beautiful. Small lights wrapped around the exposed beams on the ceiling and along the bannisters. Mason jars of actual, live fireflies sat at the center of each table. Nobody was dressed in blue anymore--instead, I saw men in nice turtlenecks and expensive sneakers, women in tight pants and high heeled shoes. By the end of the night, nobody was wearing their shoes except for my play cousin Stevie, who thought it was ghetto to take off his nice Jordan’s at a wedding reception.
I wandered outside where a group of men surrounded a bonfire. They were hollering, blasting music loud enough to scare away the mosquitoes. The men had an energy about them that was different from the night before in my uncle’s room. There was actual joy in their shouts. Actual love in the way they were speaking.
As I got closer I noticed my uncle behind the fire, in the middle of the circle. He was dancing wildly, feverishly, and his euphoria seemed to reach out and grab me like a pair of hands, coercing me closer and closer to the fire. The men yelled even louder when I finally joined them. I was laughing and didn’t know why. They spoke of liberation and power and freedom with such passion I began to feel frantic, desperate for answers to questions I wasn’t able to articulate. I realized my uncle was dancing on an American flag. They were going to burn it. My uncle took two more swigs of liquor before I walked over to him. I wanted to ask him: What are we? If we’re not humans or animals? I couldn’t. It sounded too dumb, even to my own ears. My sister would call me a pussy. I walked back to the reception and crawled under a table, listening quietly as my mother, of all people, moonwalked barefoot across the party to Michael Jackson.
That night I dreamt of reptiles. Everything was the same except for them. The Inn, the barn, my godsister’s wig, all remained untouched. But we were all reptiles. My mother was a small, translucent gecko. Stevie and his girlfriend plowed up the mud to the Inn as alligators in designer belts and handbags. I saw Jodie on the steps to the Inn, as a dark green frog the size of my ring finger. I wasn’t sure why I knew it was her.. I felt a snake curl around me. My father.
I thought I would be a chameleon, green and yellow and red and brown and green. Instead I morphed from animal to animal--a shapeshifter with no real shape. My gaze contradicted itself, like a crocodile. My ankles widened into leathery paws, forcing me to walk with the slowness of a tortoise. I recognized other traits in myself: the leathery neck of a bearded dragon, the smooth tummy of a skink. Nobody at the wedding found this to be weird except for me. And the bonfire wasn’t a bonfire, but an actual fire that my uncle lit, using the barn as kindling. Every cold-blooded body soaked in the heat. My father’s small, black eyes glimmered with happiness. I’d never seen a snake dance until then.
I woke up to the police outside of our door. The reception couldn’t have ended that long ago. The bathroom separating the room my sister and I were in and my parents’ room emitted an extremely strong odor. Either a skunk had recently died or someone had been smoking a blunt into the sink. I could hear my father’s voice through the wall, talking to the officers. The fire alarm had gone off earlier in the night and they were scolding him for smoking inside, especially near his kids, especially at an Inn that prohibits smoking on the property despite its legalization in Vermont. My father spoke quietly. I heard him utter profuse apologies, although I’d never seen him show remorse before. I heard the door shut, footsteps recede. My father walked into our room and turned the light on. My sister was pretending to sleep. I made eye contact with him. After all the game he talked, I was nauseated by how submissive he was to cops.
“Pussy,” I whispered, looking away.
My father went dead still. Then he said, loud enough for my sister and mother to hear, close enough that I could feel his breath, “Listen, nigga. Pussies don’t get shot.”
They would’ve shot you regardless.
I turned over and fell back asleep.
“That’s my career y’all jeopardized! You’re supposed to be the one telling me these things.”
“I know, Jodie. Baby, look at me. You were never at risk of getting in trouble. We would never do anything that could hurt you or your brother.”
“What if they had drug tested me? What if this went on my record? My team would hate me. I wouldn’t be scouted. I--I--”
“Jodie, if they drug tested you it would’ve come up clean. They’d have nothing against you. Everything is fine, baby. Track isn’t over for you.” “No. It’s not fine. Y’all are trifling, sitting in this bathroom--”
“Don’t start, girl. Do not speak to your mother that way.”
“Daddy! Don’t treat me like I’m some kid.”
“Damn right, you a kid, if you this mad about some weed.”
“Alright, y’all both need to get it together. What’s done is done. Jodie, we apologized. You can feel however you want about it. But what you’re not about to do is speak to your daddy and I like you’re grown.”
“Okay. I know.”
“Good. And please, Jodie. Fix your damn hair before the next time I see you. No daughter of mine is about to walk around with a nappy ass head. Especially in front of family.”
The drive back was shorter than the drive there. My father was hit with a fine from the Inn for smoking in the bathroom. This time, my father didn’t play NPR. He put on Top 40 and drove at a steady, safe pace. My mother wasn’t as mad as I thought she’d be about the entire situation. The moon illuminated her face instead of reflecting off of it, the way it would for me or Jodie. Her complexion barely changed with the light. She went from being light brown to covered in shadows. I wondered then if we liked lighter skin because it made us more permanent.
People like my mother were always changing in the eyes of others. She’d told me before about how she felt like she looked too black for white people and too white for black people. But I imagined being in her body, in her skin. I stayed one color under any light. My body didn’t shift with the world anymore. Is this why they liked her better? Because we could change and she could not? Or maybe the truth is that we can’t change at all, too painfully visible for the naked white eye.
The one thing I knew with certainty was that I couldn’t stay the same. My skin needed to breathe in different colors, my body had to rise in tandem with the sunlight. Wasn’t every black person supposed to feel that way?
“Do you ever feel like a chameleon? Like, when you change your hair. Or when the light makes your skin different.”
“No. I feel black when I get my hair done. I feel black in the sunlight. It’s the only thing I ever feel like being.” I saw my mother’s side profile looking out of the window, serene, as her face drowned in the red flame of a traffic light.
Lily Walker is a writer from Brooklyn, NY. Her work fits within the genre of speculative fiction and traverses themes of gender and race. Lily will graduate from Northwestern University this spring, where she is currently majoring in creative writing and minoring in African American Studies.