The year I learned my body would betray me, Aaliyah’s self-titled album dropped. Her melodies and sweet Minnie Riperton-like whispers wafted in and through my car as the wind whipped my hair around my face. I felt a kinship, or perhaps a desire to be like her: soft homegirl, more honey than vinegar. Be the girl who sang songs about love and want, though I didn’t know the depth of my well. Those girls moved past leering old men outside the fish house unbothered—the way they rolled toothpicks from one upturned edge of their mouths to the other while tracing the map of your body. Aaliyah exemplified the girl in me who had to speak sweetly. “We Need a Resolution” was my anthemic just-in-case song after watching the men in my family do what men do: “You fell asleep on the couch/ I thought we was going out/ I wanna know/were your fingers broke?” I was young, in love, and secretly engaged. (Or at least, I thought. My grandmother would confess later she assumed we’d run off and eloped.)
The summer after my senior year of high school, I’d been driving around in my grandmother’s hand-me-down, smurf-hued, two-door Ford Tempo. The speedometer only went to eighty-seven, but its automatic seatbelts and manual windows and AC all worked. The car was mine. I’d kept a GPA over a 3.5, worked a part-time job, and used both as excuses to break from beneath my mother’s strict rule. She was more terrified than anything: what could happen to my body, at any time, in any place.
On a particularly balmy night, I dressed to dance: a cream Girbaud tank top I’d cut and frayed along the sides of my ribs, paired with Girbaud jeans of the same color, and slick all-white Pumas. I had long cornrow braids; the hot-watered curled ends grazed back and forth across the top of my behind when I walked. At 5’0” and 110 lbs soaking wet, I was ready to move.
We didn’t stand in lines then, though we clocked the marketing behind it: Keep young women single-filed in front of your establishment and, inevitably, the men will come. We didn’t know the words patriarchal or power or transaction in the names of our bodies. And we didn’t care because the girls I rolled to the club with were fabulous and had illustrious names: Princess, Vanity, Aisha, Amaris. I loved the lilt of their various etymology, how it hung on the tongue, sweet and thick like Alaga Syrup. The ways we cackled and spoke back and forth at the speed of light, our excitement caught in the ethereal web of possibility. No matter that our mothers were afraid the world would think us fast, and wanted us to keep our heads in the books and off boys, like we couldn’t do both. We were free and naïve enough to believe we could navigate the terrain of men’s hunger and their hands unscathed.
In Detroit, we would forgo “teen clubs” for The River Rock. Blue neon signs, and chatter spilling from its numerous floors, popping with alcohol and problematic dynamics, situated just a block away from the burgeoning early development along the Detroit River. It boasted the best of the worlds we wanted into: DJs spun house and techno, hip hop, neo soul, and black radio hits. Vanity’s godbrother was a DJ for the local radio station and did a set at The River Rock on Saturday nights. He could get us in for free. From my car, we charged to the front of the line, gave our names, and made our way upstairs to the bodies sweltering against one another.
We spent the next few hours mimicking men: Some of us were there to get numbers, scout out prospects for whatever we thought we needed. Men were a bonus if they were kind and worth a minute or two. But I was infatuated with the music, the abandon of lending my body to sound and the vibration of the amp’s bass. We laughed loud and gave cool shoulders. We threw down slight invitations and watched them lapped up like water.
The night began like every other. Walking up the stairs, to the dance floor, from the dance floor, walking to the outdoor deck, men on every side, men in endless gauntlets. Outside, the sweat from the last four to seven songs steamed off my arms and the back of my neck. I watched the lights along the river dance like stars from the Canada side along the water’s dark surface. I watched the cars below, circling in search for free parking. A tall man in jeans and a polo shirt grabbed my arm slightly. I turned, and slowly backed myself against the banister of the deck. Gave direct eye contact, or at least tried, as he traced the curves of my cleavage, trying to gauge if I had enough ass to bother. Bullet points fell from his mouth. “Sup li’l ma.” “How you doin’?” “I’m trying to get to know you.” “What’s your name?” “You got kids?” The bullets came fast and automatic and I became monosyllabic and lied.
An alias, sometimes, is a crack in the doorway. But the last question rang odd, and I couldn’t help but ask why. “Because your titties so big.” Vanity and Princess head inside, and without answering him, I followed after them.
He grabbed my arm again. “Wassup?”
I snatched my arm away and tried to exit gracefully, while behind me he yelled, “Fuck you, then, nappy-headed bitch” across the deck, across the parking lot. The men laughed. The women in acquiescence laughed. His insult landed somewhere like a rock in that narrow channel between two countries.
Another seed was planted in the crop of my shame. I thought it was my fault. I should’ve disengaged sooner. I shouldn’t have left so abruptly. I should’ve given him a fake number. I’m smarter than this. I should’ve broken away as soon as he approached. I shouldn’t let it get that far.
Years prior, my grandfather died from a condition that caused several strokes until eventually, his brain and his body gave up. Before the strokes came, he’d wake up in the middle of the night, muttering to himself, and he’d take off running down the block in full force like a haint. I was told fragments of his trauma: How, for instance, his uncle used to lock him up in that Yazoo, Mississippi attic with snakes and rats. My grandmother said it was because he was the darkest of his siblings. Then she’d lament how he’d come home after school once he migrated to Chicago, and find a different pair of men’s shoes at the door, a signal his mama had company.
This was before my mother convinced my grandmother to put him in a nursing home. Those years were strange and strained and silent. We didn’t and don’t talk about the time I woke up in the middle of the night to find my grandfather hunched over his four-legged cane, slowly pulling the sheet from my body. I called out for my grandmother. Within a matter of minutes, she entered the room, yanked him up by his collar, threw him into the hall, then dragged him into their bedroom.
I could hear the ting of his aluminum cane as she cracked it over his back again and again. I learned his violence was an old one between each blow. How he’d beat her, lock her in their bedroom like a child. I sat still for a time, cataloging the specifics until the door slammed and he wept. And then my mother yelled more lessons for me to take in. How my grandmother found him on top of her when she was younger than me. How afterwards, the women all tried to convince my mother that what she knew was true wasn’t true. He was her father. Her mother’s husband. He took care of them. He wasn’t that kind of man.
We get language all wrong. We slip into metaphors, tumble and trip over allusions, in search for what we mean when we say hurt and stop. What some say is toxic or power or desire is something else, something twisted and relentless. Every instance of my body’s betrayal that came after that night at The River Rock, I quantified. It could have been worse. I’ve heard worse: from my mother, from her mother, from cousins and friends and classmates. I hear it almost daily, everywhere. It’s all bad. The worst.
The neighborhood boys outside, playing their music, leaning against Hank’s indigo Regal, had me standing in the bathroom mirror, primping, flat-ironing my edges until they laid flat and complicit. Fuck the rims and rap hanging off the edge of the street, I was lonely. I was alone with my grandfather in a house with doors that had locks.
I’d heard his cane creaking down the hall. I’d heard the steady, slow grind of metal announcing his direction. It slowed down, paused, and I caught him in my periphery, standing in the short corridor from the bathroom into the main hallway. He slowly creaked again until he was in the doorway. What you don’t give attention to must eventually dissipate or some such was said. I sprayed the Luster’s aerosol until a cloud rose between us. His arm reached out and tried to stroke my hair. I backed away. I don’t remember if I asked him if he needed to get into the bathroom, but my hands hurriedly packed up my tools: a wide-toothed comb, some hair fasteners, and a short-bristled brush.
He said “naw.” Told me how pretty I was. Tried to reach again. I collected everything into the bag, threw it in the cabinet under the sink, and tried to rush past him. He caught the edge of me, what was blooming. And I convinced myself he didn’t mean it. He was sick. Wasn’t in his right mind. He couldn’t move too good. It was an accident. He was my grandfather. My mother’s father. My grandmother’s husband. He had taken care of me when my father didn’t.
I went into the kitchen and looked for something to eat, though I wasn’t hungry. I tried to identify which Country Crock tub had which leftovers before I heard the creaking start again. It couldn’t have been what I thought—until he came reaching, reaching. Luckily his body had failed, was failing. Luckily there was a table between us. I ran to my room and called my mother, told her to come home. I could only patch together excerpts of details, but she knew the small anchor in my throat, recognized that same old song. I waited with my younger brother on the porch for her to come. I don’t know if he remembers any of it, or if he understood what was happening. I never wanted to admit how unsafe I felt inside my own body. I was too busy doing what I’d been told for years. “Be sweet now.” Like honey.
My grandmother came home first, then my mother. Then, the yelling and rehashing and packing and unpacking. That night, we all just went to sleep. Nothing else happened after that fight. Eventually, he was moved from the house, although the air was thick between my mother and my grandmother, no matter the season. And still, no one talked to me about what happened, so I learned then how to become a woman: move on.
My grandmother beating her husband was something my cousins and I would joke about while I plugged the Contra code into the controller after holiday dinners. How Mema, as small as she was, put in that work. I laughed too, until tears came. None of them would ever know the word hysteria. I started wearing my cousin’s baggy shirts and cuffing my jeans. Just like them.
I marched back into the club, where my friends would ask nothing. Or maybe they did and I don’t remember. Or maybe, there was an unspoken thing beneath our glances that we knew in the bone, in the marrow of ourselves. There’s a moment on the dance floor when one slow track melds into another: Kindred The Family Soul’s “Far Away” transitions into the delicate beginning of Aaliyah’s “It’s Whatever.” And I’m digging the heels of my sneakers into the ground until my waist winds into its own rhythm, since this is what I came here for. To feel myself inside my body, without the aid of anyone else’s to call-back to. This soft bend pulls my hands—bound together at the wrists—up into the low-light, where no man enters. Until I say so. And I don’t.