In childhood, my father and step-mother dressed my sister and I in white and soft blues, the colors of robin’s eggs and forget-me-not flowers and the portraits of Christ’s mother Mary in church. They were the colors of purity, chastity, and virtue, our father said. Grown women in the congregation were allowed pastels of other hues and pretty jewelry and hats adorned with beads and feathers, but the daughters of the pastor? Only the colors of the Lord and His mother were suitable for us. Couldn’t have anyone thinking we slipped or were too full of ourselves, not even when my own existence was proof of our father’s sins.
That was my mother’s fault though; the congregation and my step-mother had decided that a long time ago. My mother was the temptress, the harlot, the agent of Satan sent to pull down their beloved shepherd. After all, she wore red.
The problem with white was how easily it stained in comparison. But that was always the point, wasn’t it?
Kept us in the pews after the service was over, away from the boys outdoors, playing rough and tumble in the grass. Their mother’s chastisements were of fond annoyance, focused on laundry later rather than the appearance of impropriety. Boys will be boys, their fathers said. They’d say that again many times, for many of them, for far more than tackle football over the years to come. I didn’t know that at the time though.
All I knew was that the crinoline itched, and my hands stung when my step-mother would smack my hands away from picking at the eyelet lace out of boredom. I knew the sound that patent shoe leather made when rubbed together wrong was like a frog, but that if you did it even accidentally, people would stare at you from round the room almost like you just cursed. And I knew that even through the too hot layers of dress and pantyhose, if I dared take a fan from the back of the pew in front of me, I’d get thwacked with a hymnal.
One Sunday, when my hands stung and the ceiling fans weren’t working, the tray of communion cups passed by me. I reached up with sweaty hands to steady it on its way to my step-mother. My brother’s mind was wandering then, and his eyes too, toward Anayah Kingston. His hands slipped. Mine slipped too from the sudden and unexpected weight of the so-called blood of Christ in my clammy hands. Dozens of small plastic cups emptied onto me, soaking through the delicate white cotton of the dress I’d been shoved into that morning. Gasps rose from around the congregation, as the metal tray clattered on the floor.
For once, I wore red.
My father waved it off with a joke.
“Well, we always say we want our children washed in the blood of the lamb early,” he’d laughed, allowing the tension to ease by turning me into the butt of a joke instead of a symbol of anything too deep. I’m not sure, in retrospect, if it was better or worse. I just remember the sting of the wine in my eyes welling up tears that I wouldn’t admit for years were from embarrassment.
I locked myself in the cramped church bathroom. No one came and got me till an hour after service.
I couldn’t get the red stains out, no matter what I did.
When I moved in with my uncle, he threw away the pastel dresses that had been soaked too many times in cold water and peroxide after my father went on one of his drunken religion-fueled rages. He told me I was too pretty to be washed out like that, and he gave me some of my grandmother’s things until he could go buy more appropriate clothes for a teenage girl. My grandmother was a petite woman though, and they fit and….
They were purple. Orange. Green. They had patterns, some floral, some geometric, some brightly African-inspired that she’d bought when visiting her family in New Orleans, where I lived now. Even though I know now that I looked like exactly what I was–a girl in her grandmother’s clothes–I felt incredible. Different. Free.
My uncle liked seeing that enough that he made sure the clothes he bought me were bright too. My father had always said that bright clothes like that brought the wrong sort of attention, but I didn’t care about that. I’d already learned that it didn’t matter what I wore; puberty had taken away any ability or hope I may have had to hide from men.
I’d take joy where I could find it.
The man’s favorite color was purple, he’d slurred that day, as I walked home from my uncle’s shop on Magazine Street. It was far too early for anyone to be that drunk, especially some random white man in a business suit, and my nose stuck up and crinkled in more than just disgust for the smell. He didn’t like that. I didn’t care. Still don’t, but…I probably should have made it less obvious.
The same purple would blossom on the side of my face where he hit me. On my arm, where he tried to drag me down an alley. I remembered the whispered advice of my uncle’s friends, middle aged women and older fem queens who’d all been through the ringer life put them through at one point or another. I grabbed at my keys and jabbed blindly at his face.
Blood and white fluid blossomed from his eye like an amaryllis in full bloom. The hand that had gripped on my arm reflexively released to try to staunch the flow and save his eye. I still don’t know if it helped.
I ran. I ran all the way back to my uncle’s house, falling over myself and twisting my ankles over and over again in a pathetic effort to escape to the bathroom upstairs. My thumb had slipped up the key and rammed into his eye and the blood was caking and clotting under my nail and and the dark spots were fading to dark brown on the dress and–
I couldn’t get the red stains out, no matter what I did.
Story of my life.
Dante was a Nice Young Man from a Nice Family, my aunt had promised me, and I could hear the capital letters in her tone. They had a lovely house and well-secured jobs, and a library of first edition books by authors like W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and other great respectable books by great respectable men.
They had money. And security. And he was a gentleman, even I couldn’t deny that. The absolutely perfect gentleman.
And here I was trying to keep up.
His mother complimented me gently for having nice hair and a pretty face, but in her own way gave her nudges this way and that. Purple changed to black. Blue to gray or navy. Orange to camel brown. Even if I didn’t have much promise for college in sight, I certainly looked enough the part of an Ivy-destined co-ed that no one asked too many questions of what my plans were after high school.
But then neither did Dante. And I think we were both fine with that.
He gave me his class ring more out of perfunctory requirement. I tried to give it back. Despite his parents’ having more than enough to replace it, I knew the value of it and didn’t want it hanging over my head, even though I knew he wasn’t the type to call in the debt.
He refused to take it back. I let the ruby and white gold ring hang around my neck on a chain for a few weeks before I received a politely typed letter on Duke University stationery announcing our break up. I quietly held the ring for a little bit before putting it back in a box in the back of a drawer.
Red stains in different ways.
If I said it was love at first sight with Aleksander it would be a lie. After a short sharp series of unfortunate attempts to date boys my own age, either just starting their college journeys or wandering shiftless through trades and dead end jobs, I’d given up on finding that mythical spark. But he was attractive, mature, wealthy–
Married, but hey. That didn’t stop my own mother apparently.
But he had a radiating charm about him that I soon fell for, like an idiot girl. He spoke of his wife as if he wanted to leave her and take their children, but never promised that. He hadn’t promised me anything.
Not until later.
I would catch glimpses of his eyes sometimes in private, a sharp steel blue focused on something far off and unreal. His hands would flex and his jaw would tighten. I’d put my hands on his, the contrast between us less apparent in the low lighting.
One night, I noticed red under his fingernails.
I don’t know what motivated me to follow him the night I did. We’d had such a good arrangement, even though I knew the feelings I had caught went well beyond the limits of what either of us had planned. He didn’t owe me anything, and I knew there was a possibility there was another “someone else.” I don’t even think I cared then if there was.
Something just…called to me.
The barn in the woods was worn down, and it took far too long for me to make it there through the underbrush even in tennis shoes and the low light of sundown. I don’t know what I expected from the place. Maybe an isolated tryst or even a drug deal? I know he looked in pain a lot of times, though I assumed someone of his means could more easily bribe a doctor for something to take care of that without a prescription on the books.
The back door was held together poorly. Not really locked. It only took a push.
I smelled the blood before I saw him. The sad pathetic pile of a man was barely clinging to life. He looked up at me, reaching out pathetically as if I was his angel of salvation, as if I could do anything to save him at this point. His intestines were in a pulled out pile around him, loosely coiled and tangled like a copperhead in rigor.
The other door cracked open, and I ran. I ran and stumbled and scratched my way through the woods till I made it back to the car Aleksander had helped me pay for, and from there, I drove my ass right back to my apartment and–
I didn’t make it in before I threw up by the parking lot dumpster.
Instinct took over from that point. I went to the apartment. I took a bath, careful to wash around the scratches and cuts I’d gotten from running through the woods without looking. I washed off my makeup, and considered getting my hair braided again to hide the evidence of any contact with nature.
I tried to ignore a lot of things. I tried to ignore the still burning nausea in my stomach, the sharp pain of a finger tip where an acrylic had ripped off, the still strong smell of iron and filth lodged in my nose.
I tried to ignore the blue-lined white stick I knew was hiding in the trash, mocking me since before I tried to follow Aleksander.
The door unlocked, which I couldn’t ignore. Only he had the key. My hands paused from trying to rebraid my hair into two long pigtails, instead fidgeting on my lap. He slipped in and sat on the edge of the tub, looking up at me as I stared blankly at the vanity.
Neither of us said anything for several very long moments.
He stood behind me after too many, too long beats of silence, towering over me. Part of me wanted to brace for something, some sort of impact, but I couldn’t bring myself too. I was too tired and too young to be so tired. Too smart for this yet too foolish to have steered away.
“Close your eyes.”
And like the fool in love who knew too much, yet had so little, I did.
The necklace slipped over my head and around my hair and laid on my neck like a whispered promise. Six stones red as pomegranate seeds, lying in succession, trickling down my chest like blood droplets.
“A replacement, until I can find a ring,” he said, though what he didn’t say rang through the words just as strongly. ‘I saw you. You know me now. Please don’t leave.’
I don’t know why I said that instead of a wealth of other things. Other questions. Screams or demands to leave. The image of the dying man was fading far too quickly from my mind in place of the familiar and now far-more-possible dream of bridal gowns and wedding planning.
My eyes darted to the trash can. The stones glittered under the vanity lights.
I couldn’t get the red stains out, no matter what I did. Not for my whole life.
“I’ll make sure the ring matches. The color suits you.”
I take a deep breath and sigh.
“Red always has.”