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Dancing for the Lord
by J.B. Jemison
*CW: Contains subject matter dealing with child abuse, nudity, and emotional abuse

My apparently lewd dancing during Youth Church that morning had gotten back to my foster mother. I knew I would be in trouble the moment I saw her. That hard look in her eyes, lips set in a thin line. She had shaken her head so hard I thought her wig would fall off. Hairpiece, that’s what she told me to call it. A wig was a full thing with slick hair that had a net and an elastic band. A hairpiece, hers at least, had two combs: one in the front and one in the back. Still, it shook so violently I could see the nest of natural curls at the nape of her neck.

In the parking lot catercorner to church grounds, I had come to a full stop and looked around. I didn’t want to be embarrassed here in front of my church friends. I didn’t want them to see her snatch me up, nails digging in to the point where my skin breaks and slides up in small paper-thin flaps exposing a fresh layer beneath. I didn’t want them to see how I’d fold in on myself, becoming as small as a mouse, still like an opossum.

I also didn’t want them to see me after. How I would keep my head staring straight, zoning out so I wouldn’t meet anyone’s gaze. I didn’t want to hear their snickering, as I’m sure they would laugh and pretend I was the only one bumping and grinding to the secular music. I didn’t want that one boy that I let touch my vagina in the sanctuary to see. He had crawled under the pews, reached under my skirt, and touched my hairless flesh with curiosity, and I didn’t stop him. I liked him, or I thought I did, but I didn’t want him to know the real me. The me that no one could love.

But all of that happened anyway. She marched me back to the car so fast I couldn’t keep up in my thin flats. They could get no traction, and whenever she dragged me about I slipped like a gazelle on a frozen lake. I tried to keep my gaze averted, but I didn’t have to worry. The churchgoers were already moving away, not wanting, or caring, to see how The Foster Kids were treated.

                                                                                                      ***

Once in the car, no one spoke to me. Not mom — whose face was still angry. Not dad — who was clueless as to what happened, per usual. And definitely not my other siblings — who hadn’t stopped me from making the mistake in the first place and had downright egged me on. They joked with each other and talked about which donut they wanted from Krispy Kreme — our after-Sunday-service tradition. 

I knew I wouldn’t be getting a donut or she’d get my favorite kind, glazed with sprinkles, and then let someone else eat it. We also stopped by Church’s Chicken, another Sunday tradition, and as I impatiently sat cramped in my corner of the SUV, my stomach growled. I wondered if I would get to eat the juicy fried chicken with everyone else. If not, I’d be relegated to the kitchen table with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a longer sentence of the silent treatment.

When we arrived home she still said nothing. Everyone went their separate ways; the foster kids to do their many chores, my dad to his favorite leather chair that he slept in with feet raised, mom to her couch in the sunroom that she stretched out on from sunup to sundown, and then me — to the kitchen to clean up before dinner.

After dinner had been eaten, the dishes cleared, the table reset, the chairs moved back in place (as there were too many of us and extra chairs were always needed), and the food was put away, I was in agony. She had still yet to tell me what my punishment would be, but I knew something was coming.

Would it be twelve licks with daddy’s thick leather belt with Mom saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” followed by, “As soon as you stay still I can finish”?

Would it be hours sitting in front of the fireplace? A punishment tailor made for me because I had books in my room and “go to your room” wasn’t a punishment but a vacation, and one I relished.

Would it be one thousand sentences where I’d write out my crime and promise to do better? Hands cramping with every “I’ll never gyrate to secular music in church again. I apologize. I apologize. I apologize.”

Would I be banned from the library for two months? The worst one of all, because the house of books was my only safe space, the only place I truly felt happy.

More punishments went through my mind as I made myself scarce. I even thought maybe I should run upstairs and read as many pages as I can, just in case I had to empty my bookshelves into bags and leave my books before her door to be taken for an undisclosed amount of time.

On my way to do just that I heard her call me. She didn’t seem angry, and hope bloomed in my chest. When I arrived at the dining room the other foster kids were there, but only the girls. It didn’t seem important at the time.

“Strip,” she said with a little smirk on her face. The others started chanting, “Strip, strip, strip, strip.” I fought it and the smirk slipped from her face.

“Take. All. Your. Clothes. Off.” She barely got the words out through lips pulled tight across her teeth. “You want to be exposed and be fast?” Being ‘fast’ was something all girls (regardless of race) were who had ‘sexual tendencies’ at a young age, switching, making sex eyes, showing too much skin, going through puberty early to where their bodies developed faster than their age, and more.

“Go ahead and be like David. You remember him? He danced so hard his clothes fell off. Dance for the Lord,” she said. I stared at her and, at that moment, I wanted to hit her. I wanted to hit her so hard she’d never smirk again. I wanted to drive my fist into her face and pound until all my frustration peeled off like wet clothes. But I knew I couldn’t.

So, I stripped. I stood there with my hands blocking the soft folds between my legs. Despite my early puberty, I hadn’t grown hair there yet, even though I knew I one day would, and felt they could see into me. See inside me.

“Move your hands and dance. Just like you were doing at church this morning. I want to see.” I dropped my hands to my sides and moved my hips like I had seen girls do in music videos. My knees knocked together as I bent and straightened and swayed from side to side. I tried to blink quick enough to keep the tears in, but I could feel a wetness in my eyes welling up. Could hear the cries welling up inside me though my mouth felt glued shut.

“No, around the table. And move your arms more. Just like you were this morning. Don’t play games with me,” she said. I stepped around the table, bouncing and popping my butt back and forth, shaking my chest that was just budding with breasts. Through the third, and fourth, and fifth lap around the table I danced harder. I closed my eyes and put my hands above my head, giving myself over as I’d seen the girls in the movies do.

“She has good rhythm,” I heard someone say merrily, as if it were all a joke, and I kept dancing.

                                                                                                      ***

My cheeks were wet now. I stopped trying to fight the tears a few laps back and continued to let them flow freely. I’m sorry God. I’m not a good girl. If I was, I wouldn’t have danced like that in your house today. I don’t deserve your love. I never did. I promise not to do it again. I thought as I continued to dance. I couldn’t lift my hands because my arms were so tired. My feet dragged across the smooth wood floors, catching on the area rug every time I passed by the frayed corners, and I could barely lift them.

There was no more laughter, no whispering heard from the table. The foster girls watched in morbid silence. My punishment didn’t seem funny to them anymore. I could see their faces, trying to avert their eyes. Shame was shown to me, and I wondered if it was mine or theirs.

“Enough,” someone said. It wasn’t mom though, and so I kept dancing.

When I was finally released from my punishment, I grabbed up my clothes and darted up the stairs, struggling to take them two at a time. My room door was open, and once inside I closed it as silently as I could, in fear of further punishment. I didn’t stop to pull my clothes on but climbed the ladder to my top bunk.

Beneath the thin cover I was safe, hidden, but all modesty left me that day. My body wasn’t just mine anymore. It didn’t only belong to me. Everyone had feasted on it with their eyes and their hysterical laughter. They’d stripped it of its purity via their sanctity. They looked into my void and I couldn’t stop them. I can never stop them because I bared my soul and, like my body, I’ll never have the right to it again.

Grandma's Kitchen
by Rasheena Fountain

Tick, Tick, Tick. Swoosh. The flame on Grandma’s stove ignited. As a child, I’d brace myself for the impending heat to my hair. Clink. The straightening comb would collide with the stove as she rested it directly in the flame on the stove burner.

“Hold your head down.”

“Hold your ears.”

“Grandma, sorry.”

Iron collided with my dark brown skin, and I let out a soft “ouch.” The burn was painful, but Grandma loved me. She would straighten my hair for special occasions. I admired her art and experience. Grandma kept me from having burnt ears, a burnt neck, and singed hair. Living with Grandma and Grandad with Mama on the West side in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood after the divorce felt like a privilege—to have those times with Grandma combing through my hair. Grandma’s touch was gentle, even with her time-worn hands. Her dark brown hands had known manual labor—sharecropping labor in the Mississippi Delta where elementary school lessons were for the privileged. Free Black girl’s lessons in Merigold, Mississippi were in the fields instead of going to elementary school. I could tell that Grandma had been through shit. She was calm and reassuring. Mama and Aunt Diane burnt me more often when they straightened my hair. But Grandma had control—the ability to keep calm under pressure. I knew Grandma as a Baptist church “Ursher” on Sundays and blues woman every other day. And my brother John-John told me that when that man in the neighborhood tried to threaten Aunt Shirley, she ain’t call the police. Grandma chased that man with a pistol. I witnessed her stand between a gunman and Michael in the kitchen. Grandma handled things. The straightening comb was a step up from a generation who had once used clothing irons to straighten hair back in Mississippi.  

I thought the straightening comb looked archaic: a black iron handle with tiny metal teeth set closely together. The comb turned orange like a cattle brander when hot. I’d seen cattle branded in those Western movies with A-list stars like Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando that I watched with Granddad. In those movies, white men dressed up in cowboy costumes and fought against other white folks masquerading as Indigenous people for our colonizing, Hollywood pleasure.  They conquered and explored and assumed ownership of everything around them in those films; mutilation by iron was just the prequel to the cattle’s eventual chopping into tiny bits of capitalism between greedy teeth. I don’t know why Granddad liked those movies, considering our family oral history says that we have some Indigenous roots. He proudly told me stories of Indigenous heritage, naming specific nations and stories, but I have forgotten the specifics. Many Black people have claimed to have Native blood, and I have yet to find out if Grandad’s stories were true. I do know that his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi has a rich history of Black and Indigenous relationships. I don’t think he understood the years it would take to undo this harmful indoctrination from those films. I watched the mutilation—the mockery of culture and Indigenous people slaughtered. The films showed that colonized land was like a fiery furnace. Grandma’s stove during straightening sessions was like the fiery furnace, heating assimilation through my tiny curls. That fiery furnace heated iron to brand my ancestors. They were stolen from their land and used as agricultural power. Grandma was a sharecropper. And her freedom would depend on living in and beyond that mutilation.  

But the straightening comb was no match for my natural hair. It rebelled—in the humid Chicago summers, when heavy rains fell in spring, and as minutes passed in any day. My hair kinks always crept their way back in. By the next day, my hair would revolt to an in-between stage like voice cracks in puberty. And I could’ve just let nature take its course and allow my hair to run wild and radical like Angela Davis’s afro. I could’ve let my hair lock up like Bob Marley’s Rastafarian thick strands that swung free with him as he danced to revolution songs. I could’ve chosen to join my hair kinks in their resistance and free them to stretch in all their intended capacities. But as a child I didn’t know the power of the rebel. Resistance was outside of what I knew. I knew not what it meant to be unapologetically Black and beautiful.

Parents in my family and neighborhood knew to tame rebellion. I felt as if someone was always watching, ready to jump in and punish my parents for unkempt children and for the look of anything other than the proper well-polished child. Appropriate hair was just as important as not making any sudden moves during a police officer encounter. It was as important as a firm handshake. Hair was the difference in receiving welcome versus suspicion, acquittal versus conviction, or life versus death. Compliance with society was somehow tied up in the taming of my tight and wild, dry, youthful curls. I would often see my parents and others react with a force that I couldn’t clearly see as a child. I now know that my familial oral history passed down through generations was versed in how we survive in a society as unwanted visitors on colonized land; look the part, dress the part, talk the part, be politely Black or else.  
 
Clever, sharp neighborhood kids’ roastings kept me ajar of the ramifications and pain of natural hair.  And I had the kind of natural hair that made good material for hair jokes, because the world taught us that Black self-hatred was funny as hell. 

“Yo’ hair is so nappy I took a nap in it.”

“You got a kitchen in yo’ hair.”

“You baldheaded!”

And at age nine, I had arrived at what seemed to be a rite of passage, but I was indifferent. Straight, long hair was supposed to be my aspiration. Mama’s hair was naturally manageable, wavy, and people would say that she had “good hair.” Her father, Granddad, came from a mother of mixed race; his side of the family was light-skinned. Mama says that she was part Irish. So, Mama’s inheritance was not my great great grandmother’s big white plantation house in the South she visited as a child and not the checks that Grandad got from the oil found on the land where my ancestor’s big white house once stood. She inherited hair that white folks and some Black folks deemed closer to the standard of beauty. I inherited Dad’s more African, spongy hair: hair that dried quickly, broke the teeth on combs, and made me look unkempt, if not “tamed.”

Before my first hair relaxer, I had mostly worn pigtails. Mama would part my hair symmetrically: pigtails on all sides of my head. After the divorce, Dad tried to do the same when I stayed at his house. I had collections of colorful barrettes and ponytail holders to accentuate my do. My hair was to always be drenched in hair grease to put the comb at ease and to give my hair that fresh, shiny kempt Black girl’s look. That was the look of youth, however. I was becoming a big girl at age nine. Mama thought I needed more lasting taming.

Dad and Mama agreed that assimilation was best. Yet, they disagreed on mostly everything. And they had their own ideas of what assimilation meant. Mama was okay with my use of “finna” or other Black Chicago lingo. Dad corrected it. “You need to master the King ’s English before you use the other language,” he’d say. Dad knew the power of language—the power in being able to code switch. Mama and Dad would argue about clothes and shoes Mama would buy my brothers John-John and Shad. When she bought them Major Damage brand outfits, all hell broke loose. Everybody wore Major Damage on the Westside: the drug dealers, the blue collar workers, kids, everybody. Yet, Dad wanted us to look different—to stand apart and not give those outside forces any reason to mistake us for a criminal, to kill us, to arrest us. Dad had made it out, mastered code switching and knew the blueprint to be successful. My brothers’ hair was to be nicely faded. No cornrows, even though our family photo album shows young Dad sporting braids.

Mama let us wear Michael Jordan gym shoes and join the latest trends in our neighborhood in the 90s. Jordan shoes could make us targets and people got killed for them, but not having Jordans or off-brand shoes made us targets too. Wearing Pro Wings, knock-off brand shoes, was like having nappy hair. And ain’t nobody wanna deal with the roasts and the violence from not assimilating. My shoes, my clothes, and nicely-done hair, kept the bullies off my back. Mama understood that. Brands and the pursuit of capitalism exploited us and masqueraded as protection. It still does. But big-picture thinking on a micro level can be hard when you just trying to get by and you just want to be a part of your culture. Mama ain’t want us to forget the culture—to forget where we came from. She embraced Grandma and Granddad's language and their sacrifice for family. I saw Mama embrace that, even when her choice to move away from Chicago and get married to Dad put her on the outskirts of the norms in our family. Mama’s assimilation was like Grandma’s—embracing the good, the bad, the ugly because we in this shit together.          

Mama and Dad disagreed on whether I was ready for a hair relaxer at age nine. Dad called me his “only little girl” as a child, before my younger sister Imani was born and after Dad remarried. He took joy in putting my hair in pigtails with colorful barrettes on his weekends with me. I don’t remember if he thought I didn’t need a hair relaxer because of my age or what he thought about women with natural hair.  I think he believed that I was too young and that hair relaxers came much later.  I am not sure what Mama thought, but I knew it was a concoction of “I can do whatever I want with my child.” She wore a hair relaxer, even though her hair was straighter than mine. My parents’ relationship was toxic. Their kinks would never be straightened. Their divorce was the reason Mama and I lived with Grandma. My first hair relaxer was only a little over a year after. I don’t remember if Mama ever asked me if I wanted the hair relaxer. But the relaxer was good pain—necessary pain?     

In 1991, on the day of my first hair relaxer, I sat in the chair atop the telephone books so that I could reach the sink in Grandma’s kitchen while Aunt Diane put relaxer in my hair. The intense smell of chemicals in my hair rushed up my nose. My hair began to feel heavy. Each hair follicle became covered and weighed down by thick, white gook. Fingers in my hair pushed against the grain of my natural kinks. Soon tingling. Then, pain—good pain? The temperature around my small head rose.

“It’s beginning to burn,” I told Aunt Diane.

The burning sensation meant that my hair was relaxed, a state where my natural fro of tight, dry, strands had become new. My hair began to feel like red ants biting at my scalp. Aunt Diane told me to sit on my knees so that I could reach the sink to wash out the chemicals. I leaned my head back into it.  I could hear water flowing from the sprayer down into the drain as Aunt Diane waited for the water to get hot. As the water hit the surface of my head, I felt the difference. There was no resistance to the flow of the water as it moved through my hair. New dangling, straight hair dangled on my neck, and the water droplets against my burning scalp felt relieving as the chemicals washed away. When my hair was wrapped, blow dried and curled, I knew to smile. And I felt indifferent about the results. Unlike the hair relaxer, the pain and the mutilations could not be washed away in Grandma’s kitchen. As an adult, I have chosen to rebel. But as a child, I did not know that rebellion was good pain—necessary pain.

A Black Hair Journey
by Rasheena Fountain

Tugs. Pulls. Yanks. Fingers from multiple Black hands twisted my hair roots, hard. My hair was being weaved like a basket into micro-braids across my head. The comb parted my thick hair, rubbing across my scalp like construction workers making thin street gridlines.  

“Hold your head down.”

“Turn your head to the side.”

“You must be tender headed.”

In the summer of 2000, three women worked through my hair inside a Harlem braiding shop. They spoke in an African tongue vibrantly to each other as they tugged at my roots. I was miles away from Grandma and the family banter that often filled Grandma’s kitchen during hair straightening sessions in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. I was living in Midtown Manhattan for the summer before my freshman year of college with Dad and my stepmom, Monica. I had just graduated high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan a couple of months earlier and had only spent my senior year in Michigan. My previous high school years were in Fairfax County, Virginia. Dad had a journalism fellowship with the University of Michigan, but was now stationed in New York for his job at the New York Times.  I had rebelled, like Mama did years earlier, choosing to live with Dad and Monica in Virginia four years earlier. Before I moved with Dad, I was flunking out of high school, severely depressed, and dealing with trauma from the violence on the west side of Chicago. An unfortunate event, my brother Shad getting shot at, catalyzed me to make a decision at thirteen to leave my friends, Mama, and my entire life to head east.   
 
Throughout much of my teens, I continued the mutilation—the self-hatred and succumbing to the pressure to straighten my hair and assimilate. Straight hair had become the norm since my first relaxer at age nine. I arrived in Fairfax County Virginia with a heavy west side of Chicago accent and swag. And the chorus of Black friends and family made me want to be silent most of the time.

“You sound ghetto.”

“You sound country.”

"Don’t say finna.”

I understood where Dad was coming from, but I had mastered the Chicago lingo I was speaking. It was a necessary skill when I moved back to Chicago at age seven after living in Urbana, Illinois for years. Yet, that type of Blackness felt unacceptable in Fairfax; it made me stand out and signaled to others that I had once lived beyond suburban landscapes. And my Air Jordan shoes ain’t mean shit out there. If I wore my hair with too much gel or the way I had worn my hair in Chicago, I was treated inferior in the land of white picket fences. I hadn’t hated where I grew up, but I began to internalize self-hatred and began covering up my hair, my Chicago accent, and my upbringing with polished, top-notch assimilation. And Dad’s job afforded me some privilege. When I told teachers that Dad worked for The Washington Post, they would brighten their smile and welcome me in a way that had not been previously shown. I guess then they saw me as a different kind of Black person, and I guess that was supposed to make me feel better. I embraced the growth in my straight hair as progression. I was better off educationally. My grades improved, and I went from an all “F” student to being accepted to my college of choice.

Progression felt like loss. It still does. My relationship with Grandma suffered when I lived in Virginia. The kitchen and the times with Grandma became distant memories. I rarely went to Chicago, we barely spoke on the phone, and I was busy exploring a new identity. When I did visit Grandma, I felt like an outsider. Culture is professed in the ways of being, and I could feel myself losing it. I could feel that she knew I had changed. My hair was straight but professionally straight. I had a certain suburban aura—an aura that could be picked out of the crowd if I walked down Chicago streets. Maybe Grandma thought that I thought I was better than her now—thought that I saw all she had worked for as less than. It pains me to realize, but she was right. I started to see suburban life in Virginia as better than my tight-knit Chicago community, or that somehow choices had caused the trauma that my community and Grandma faced. Grandma’s choice to stay in the hood and embrace it felt opposite to the narrative I was learning. I was learning how to make it out—how to assimilate into larger society. I regret this lost time—the lost times with Grandma when I believed in the façade of the American Dream and the lie of being Black and suburban. I mourn making her feel less than or that her granddaughter had turned on her. I couldn’t see that Grandma was just making do, giving us grandchildren what she could, and that our growth was her living. Straightening my new growth, our hair sessions, was a part of her dream—a dream where families stayed together. 

Now over ten years since Grandma’s death, the moment  I have never recovered from, I know that the only true acceptance I have ever felt has been in Grandma’s kitchen. And I feel ungrateful. The rituals like hair straightening were acceptance—Grandma passing down what she knew.  I didn’t understand the nuances—the intentional mutilation of Black communities that had promised hope during The Great Migration, that Black communities were branded by redlining and predatory lending and disinvestment. I now know that the heat was turned up on Blackness in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood; it was hunted and thrown into the great melting pot full of violence and toxic mixtures much like the hair lye that erased my hair kinks at nine. My progression those four years on the other side of the tracks was progression in self-hatred. By the end of the four years, I was unrecognizable to most, and, most importantly, myself. Uncovering myself fully would take years of rebellion.         
 
But New York began to change me—Harlem changed me. Harlem was still Harlem when I met it—Black and Brown folks from across the diaspora. We’d visit some of Monica’s family in Harlem. On one trip to visit her family, we went to the Magic Johnson Starbucks on 125th. That’s when I saw groups of Black women decked out in rebellion—hair beautifully kinky and free, with dreads and afros.  Maybe some had straight hair, but I didn’t notice. I found something I didn’t know I had longed for—a feeling that interrupted my indifference I had taken on as a child. I wanted that beauty. I was becoming a woman, and indifference felt like a coping in need of change. 

I couldn’t just wear my hair natural. I first had to convince Dad and Monica to let me make this transition. I remember addressing them like I would have to present an argument. Monica wore a relaxer, although that has since changed. Now, she wears her hair natural. “I don’t want to wear a perm anymore,” I told them. They asked why and I told them that I just preferred to wear my hair natural. They did not reply right away, because they usually would talk big decisions over away from us and deliver the results to inquiries as one accord.  My hair up until then was always in an in-between stage, always a step away from needing to be straightened again. I no longer wanted to view my hair resistance as a threat. I wanted the feeling of raindrops hitting my hair without worry and to submerge my face in swimming pools without fear of my relaxer being ruined. My feelings were deep—an uncovering of self, but I kept my reasons why more surface-level, because I lacked the language of rebellion. Yet, they welcomed the change and allowed me to make an appointment to get my hair braided in Harlem so that I could let the hair relaxer grow out. 

On the day of my rebellion, I took the trip alone—something Monica and my Dad let me do a lot that summer, even though they were strict when I lived in the suburbs. I was leaving for college, and I believe they were preparing me for independence. I took the New York subway I had gotten to know during that summer. A hair appointment might seem mundane for some, but this was my first intentional choice related to my hair. I pictured the women in that Magic Johnson Starbucks. I imagined not having to feel the burn of the hair relaxer any longer or to sit under the miserable hair dryer. I was nervous, but I felt this journey was better than feeling indifferent about my reflection in the mirror or feeling my reflection was less my own. I wanted ownership over my image.  Having three women pulling at my hair for hours felt like good pain. And the itch from the braids on my face felt freeing. After hours of pulls and tugs, I stepped out of the African hair braiding shop into the Harlem streets with pride. Blackness was beauty—the kinks, the perseverance, the natural resistance.

I still miss the clinks on Grandma’s stove, and I miss her kitchen. I now fully embrace and see her progression and sacrifice that I benefit from. Grandma wore her hair straight, jet-black, with strands of gray. I’ve worn my hair straight, short, died, shaved, in an afro and more, even after Harlem. And that has been my choice. I don’t believe straight hair is wrong or that those who choose to wear their hair straight to be wrong. When I made the choice to get my hair braided, I was just happy that straight hair was no longer the default for my beauty. I choose to live beyond the mutilation—the white supremacy that stains us and is even etched in hair. I am still uncovering self, still repairing the scars, and am living to remove the toxicity. Maybe that’s what Grandma was doing—living to remove the toxicity.

Pubes, Yeast, and Blood
by Nneoma Kenure

It’s confirmed. I am pregnant again, and I am not ready. Not after everything I went through the first time. Fortunately, I can’t think straight, because this time, instead of the Lilliputian pricks that were my symptoms in the first pregnancy, all I must suffer now is the worst yeast infection. My brain is overburdened, and all I can handle is worrying about not scratching in public.

It's my first prenatal appointment, and I tell the doctor I think I have a yeast infection. She insists on checking it out because the itching may be a result of other disorders. As soon as my legs are open, she says, “Woah, this has to be the worst infection I have ever come across.” The brown-skinned doctor shows me her gloved fingers covered in frothy cottage cheese. I laugh with some pride; I will take any awards, even disgusting ones.

“You definitely have a yeast infection. I will send this to the lab just in case, but I recommend Fluconazole,” she tells me.

It’s a tiny pill I take immediately. There is a slight lull in my scratching calendar, but I am soon back on schedule with renewed vigor.

Just in time, the doctor calls with an update.

“Looks like you also have a urinary tract infection. You will have to take some antibiotics for the UTI. Unfortunately, the antibiotics will exacerbate your yeast infection.” This makes sense to me. There has to be major warfare between microorganisms going on down there – Clash of the Microbes – because I am a mess. When it’s scratch time, I go all out, until I have to take out some A4 paper from the printer to fan my hoo-ha because it’s now also burning. If I slapped on some flour, walahi it would make a nice sourdough bread. My vagina is going to jump off and walk away one day because it can't stand the heat.

I start the antibiotics and another interlude begins.

The doctor is on the phone again with more bad news. “You also have bacterial vaginosis. We will change your antibiotics prescription, which will of course intensify the yeast infection.”

Oh Lord, Mere m ebere. Take this vulva away from me because this is too much. Naanị m, three different infections!

It is time for another doctor’s visit. I’m still in bed when the phone rings; it’s the hospital calling to let me know my regular ob/gyn would be unavailable. The lady on the phone wants me to pick from a list of equally daunting names.

“Are any of these women?” I ask.

“I'm sorry ma’am, they are all male.”

Aren't they always? I think to myself.

I liked my original doctor who was Indian. I wonder if my connection to her was because she was ‘ethnic’ or because she was a woman. I pick a random name.

I soon begin ablutions for my appointment. My sister Ulo walks into the bathroom, toothbrush in mouth and notices my nether regions.

“Aren't you going to shave that?” she asks with blatant disgust on her face.

“Nope,” I quip.

“You cannot be serious. You are not that pregnant that you can’t see what’s happening there.”

Now, it's true that I was rather unruly down there, but I had decided I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I wasn’t bothered, why should any doctor be? I've always liked my pubic hair. Friends and family who've had the good fortune of being acquainted with it have always had the most comical reaction to it. Everybody is so structured nowadays; I personally like things a little haphazard; a little color outside the lines never hurt anybody.

Ulo is clearly disturbed by my ‘full’ look. I pause and try to explain my stance to her.

“You know how when you travel, and you forget your bathing sponge… well, I like to get a rich lather from my pubes.”

She stares at me, her face obviously thinks this is the most disgusting information ever shared. In a final attempt to convince me, she goes to her bedroom and comes back into the bathroom waving a shaving stick and a pair of scissors that I firmly ignore. This is my bra-burning moment, and I'm sticking to my pubes on this one.

“You have to tell me one practical reason why you need all that hair,” she begs.

“It’s prettier like this.” I turn around to give her a better view of my lush strands, combing them with my fingers and ignoring her deepening look of revulsion. “Remember when daddy came to visit me in school and I walked past him. I didn’t recognize him because he shaved off his moustache, and his lips looked like the two most pathetic fish out of water?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Okay, how is this? When I shave it and pee, the pee seems confused and doesn’t know which way to go, and then there’s pee down one leg and everywhere. When there’s hair, it’s just one stream. The hair, apparently, is a crucial pathfinder.” I nod my head as I speak, encouraging her to find reason with my words. She shakes her head slowly, like someone who just received sorrowful news and walks out, muttering to herself in Igbo. “It also looks like a plucked chicken when I shave,” I yell at her retreating back.

I’m not sure there is a downside to having an untrimmed look, other than maybe when I take a shower after wearing a pad instead of a tampon and the floor looks like Carries shower scene. It takes a while to wash it all out when large clots of blood matte onto the hairs and I have to stop to untangle it, or push out my pelvis under the scalding water to melt it away slowly. It’s pure fun for me. I have no issues with menstrual blood either. I don’t understand the fuss or the need to hide it, especially from other women. Men act like menstrual blood is one big demonic cult– one they can’t run fast enough from.

The only time I ever got period-stained in public, I was taking an okada to my cousin’s house in Owerri, when a heavy shower of rain descended on us mid-journey. I didn’t mind. Whizzing past traffic on an okada is the most liberating feeling, and the rain only added to the ambiance. If my life was a Hollywood movie, I would wrap my arms around this not bad-looking young man and we would find a sunset somewhere to ride into. My daydreaming ended when I reached my destination, paid and walked away to the gate. The driver called out casually, “Sista, sorry oh, you don stain.” We both turned instinctively to look at the seat of the motorcycle I had just jumped down from. It was wet and bloody, exaggerated by the rain. He brought out a rag and wiped it away so nonchalantly that I almost fell in love. Why was this not an issue for him? Why wasn’t he disgusted? Didn’t he know that most people think period blood is the dirtiest of all blood? He waved away my apology with a huge smile and zoomed off dodging large pools of water.

                                                                                                                                *
 
The appointment goes on well. The new blonde doctor is kind and funny and insists I must have some German blood in me, a joke that goes over my head. I think he is referring to my perceived pain tolerance. When it's time to strip, he steps out of the room and Ulo eyes me with profound disapproval.

“He'll think I look like that down there too,” she whispers.

“Why?”

“Because we are sisters.”

“If you want, I can tell him we have different fathers and my dad is really hairy, while yours is bald.”

“This is Wisconsin. He is white; you’re probably his first African.”

“Why would he think that? It’s not like I have cowries on them.”

“He’ll just think it’s an African thing.”

“Maybe it is?” I shrug. I’m enjoying her misplaced unease.

“Everyone I know is clean shaven.”

I think about it. It’s true, my friends all indulge in some form of ‘landscaping’ or at least, they have the good sense to not let other people see them when things are out of hand. I shrug off her shame and ready myself. The doctor and a nurse step back into the room. I can see the embarrassment on my sister's face as my legs are placed on stirrups, and I pull a face at her to show I really couldn't care less.

But the doctor never actually looks into the ‘light.’ He sticks his fingers in, while still chatting with Ulo, but I am sure he must have felt it, my proud un-conforming thoroughbred African thicket. This one is for the culture.

He says my cervix is nice and closed; unfortunately, I still have a bad yeast infection and he wants me to take Fluconazole. I refuse. I have already had two courses of this one tablet therapy– I had been given another one when I was done with the antibiotics– and I'm now reluctant to expose the baby to anymore. He agrees, and says I'll just have to live with it, as it will probably pass as soon as the baby's born.

“Isn't there anything else we could try?” I ask in desperation. “Dr. Sandhu had mentioned trying to wash the cervix with a purple liquid?” I ask tentatively, not sure if I had remembered right.

“Oh! That's old fashioned. I’m certain this will go away as soon as the baby’s here.”

This man does not understand how heavy this yeast cross has been to carry. He says I should live with it. Would you live with it if your balls were constantly on fire? I think to myself.

This yeast infection is a roller coaster of sensations. On some days, it's an annoying tingle, and on others, I scratch like a fool in a Martin Lawrence movie. I return to my trusted Dr. Google. She has never forsaken me. She has always been there, introducing me to fellow neurotic persons with the same real or imagined symptoms. She was there when I needed to unclog my mother-in-law’s toilet really fast. She was there when I spilled red nail polish on my sister's new beige rug just when she called to say she was on her way back home from a night shift, so if anybody could save me, it was Google MD.

The prognosis isn't good. When I type in the words ‘yeast infection won't go away,’ I am appalled to find how many women are living their lives with a yeast infection. Some for years and years. I begin taking Lactobacillus with 500 mgs of vitamin C. Oh God, please let this thing leave as soon as I have this baby. I am well and petrified as I have just finished a scratching session, ending it with making jerky motions on the bed. In my desperation, I've also begun another course of treatment I had scoffed at a few weeks ago. I bought some natural plain yogurt, which I inserted morning and night with tampons. Nothing happened. There was no change– when I needed relief, I would use some Monistat and there would be a lull for a day or two.

I am thirty-six weeks pregnant and there are few things I have control over; not my sleep, not how much I have to pee, or even my exacting toddler. If I could control one thing, just one little thing, I would make time reel by like the gears of a cassette tape whirling around a pencil, just so I could get to the end. But I can’t, and like my smiley new doctor said, I will just have to live with it.

You're a Pretty Girl
by Pietra Dunmore
*Series Editors' Nonfiction Pick

‘Pretty’ is a word I am very hesitant to use to describe myself. To many, that might sound like a compliment. It isn’t. Those three words negate everything else I am. It’s like my face and my body are all that matters. Part of it is because women are expected to be self-deprecating and the other is because I had bouts of cystic acne until my late 20s. So I never thought of myself as pretty. I made my way by being the funny one. Or I was known as the skinny one or the one with the big hair, but rarely as the ‘pretty’ one.

Being considered unattractive in my youth forced me to develop a personality. Not relying on my looks gave me time to develop character. I can say without hesitation that I am down-to-earth and funny; I am straightforward, I have empathy, and I am confident enough to be an advocate for myself. I am so much more than ‘pretty.’

Secondly, ‘pretty’ is perceived a certain way. Due to that perception, I was encountering men who expected me to be both easy and stupid. This doesn’t land me in the pool of men with which I’d wish to swim. This acquaintance refused to believe me. I left the conversation saying, “You have no idea the issues that pretty brings.”

Because of this perceived prettiness, I have been conditioned to be fearful of going out alone. It starts off innocently enough with a family member or friend asking where I am going, then asking who I am going with. If I dare say I am going alone, I get a barrage of advice. Watch where you park. Don’t put down your drink. Be careful, you’re pretty. Although it’s not intended, saying these things is like telling me I can’t go out to any destination at any time of the day or night without an escort, lest I be raped. But at least I’m 'pretty.'

Let me put it like this: ‘pretty’ has taken away my personal space. I have walked home from the bus stop as early as middle school and had random men beeping and screaming obscenities at me. ‘Pretty’ had its hand also, when it was used as an excuse in college in what could have been a circumstance of date rape. I’ve had men come up to me and automatically grab me by the waist. I’ve been sent unsolicited dick pics. I’ve been called a stuck-up bitch when I didn’t respond to unwanted advances.

‘Pretty’ also didn’t help me when I was getting beat up by my ex-boyfriend in college who decided I had moved on too quickly. Although he was living with the woman with whom he cheated on me, he thought he should still be able to control me. The day it happened, all his blows were focused on my face as he repeatedly hit me. He thought I was ‘pretty’ too. 

I have many more stories like these. So does almost every woman I know.

A decade ago, during a visit to a restaurant, an older friend joked that his wife thought there was something going on between us. At first, I thought he was kidding, until I noticed his eyes as he spoke of our alleged affair. I continued eating, not saying a word as I wondered where the conversation was going. It remained lighthearted, and my ‘spidey’ senses remained at bay. We finished dinner and walked towards our cars. I thanked him for dinner. I was ready to get into my car and drive home. I stood by my car door and nearly lost all feeling in my legs when he asked to kiss me. I felt the color drain from my face and my mouth drop. I could feel my eyes grow to the size of silver dollars and my tears ducts open slightly.

“You’re coming on to me?” I asked.

He immediately apologized for asking, saying he had read me wrong and he thought that was what I wanted. When he apologized, he told me he thought I had been looking at him in a suggestive way for years. He told me that my stare was so intense sometimes he had to turn away. I don’t remember the exact mechanics of how I drove away, but I recall half-heartedly taking the twenty dollars he handed me for gas money. As he gave it to me, he politely suggested that I not share the situation with anyone and that everything would be cool because he knew where the boundaries were now.

As I drove home, I replayed the entire evening in my head, wondering when I could have sent him signals. I wondered if I had been wearing something suggestive. Was it my fuchsia top with the beaded detail, or my skinny jeans? I looked him in the eyes as he spoke; did he think I was giving him the ‘look?’

As I thought about his apology, I remembered him telling me he looked at me as a grown woman, not as a family friend. He called me ‘pretty’ too. Me being ‘pretty’ didn’t change the fact that one question erased years of a kinship and mutual understanding that I believed I had.

In hysterical tears I called a male friend and told him what happened. His voice remained matter of fact as he said, “What do you expect? You’re a pretty girl.”

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