TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 6

Speakers & Headphones

 · Fiction

I see Serine.

But it’s not her. It’s Regina who’s walking towards me and her hair is different. Ever since we met during our freshman year at college, three-plus years ago, she has always kept her hair in box-braids, like me. No more braids, her natural hair is now her extensions, her strands extending from her scalp to the world.

She smiles at me. “Juuuune!”

I wave my hand, but I don’t rise from my chair. Outside a café on the Upper West Side, I’m sitting by a small, round table. On it, a bowl of bread with packets of butter waits, along with menus, and two glasses of water I ordered for us. She reaches me, crouches down, and gives me a hug. I tap her back lightly. She releases me, grabs the other chair, and sits.

“What do you think?”

I scan her appearance. The navy blue shirtdress looks good on her, especially with her afro, but her outfit is not new; she wears it every other week. I’m guessing she wants to know what I think of her hairstyle. The one that Serine would have worn, I’m supposing, if I had truly seen her, if we still knew each other.

“Your hair looks beautiful.”

“Thank you,” she says. “But I was referring to my problem. Tell me what you think.”

We’re on spring break. We both happen to be home in New York this week. When we’re not living together on campus, I live with my mother up in the Bronx and Regina lives with her folks in Crown Heights. She called my cell phone this morning with good news, saying that we had to meet today in the middle — Manhattan — for an emergency talk.

She received acceptance letters from both of the two law schools she applied to. Her first choice is a big name. The other, her safety school, which offered her a full-tuition scholarship, is one she doesn’t care to attend.

Instead of responding, I sip my water.

“What should I take?” Regina presses. “Free ride or prestige?”

I still don’t reply. I enjoy her company because she has a cheerful spirit that should annoy me but oddly doesn’t. She likes mine because, according to her, my talk lacks bull. It doesn’t. She thinks that I always tell it straight only because my talk lacks talk.

I won’t ever tell her why I keep my words few. Telling her would make us close.

***

In 1995, I used to talk bull every day.

Almost every weekday morning during seventh and eighth grades, I walked towards White Plains Road and waited for Serine in an area where that road and Boston Road met. Almost every morning, I would see her speed-walking towards me, wearing her headphones connected to her portable cassette player.

Her head and body bobbed as she walked. She had this bounce, as if music flowed through her veins, the notes coming from her headphones working as her heartbeats. She would sing along with the music, or rap to it, sometimes hum.

Whereas I would talk. I would chat her ear off all the way to school. She would listen, only offering a word or two to keep me talking, singing or humming in between my spurts of words about minutiae.

After school, she would walk me home. My mother and I lived in the upper part of the Bronx, on a street right off Boston Road in a three-story apartment complex, each story its own apartment, which looked like a stacked house from the outside, each floor like a thick pancake.

Inside of our two bedroom apartment, our kitchenette opened up to our living room, lined with an old carpet where Serine and I would sit and watch cartoons. She would nod, sing, hum, but not talk. Talking was my gift, my hobby. It was gold to have someone hold on to my words, even though most of them were doo-doo pellets.

We met at the start of seventh grade. I was new at my middle school, as my mother and I had just moved from Brooklyn to the Bronx. I wasn’t homesick because I didn’t have any friends back in Brooklyn. Every weekday, I went to school and returned home, with some verbal torture seasoned in from my classmates.

My daily uniform consisted of slacks, a collared shirt or ruffled blouse, a peacoat or spring jacket, and my black thick-rimmed eyeglasses. That — along with my tendency to answer my teachers’ questions correctly, consistently and confidently — must have made me some sort of target.

All the way up in the Boogie Down after my third day at my new school, two older boys had followed me, calling me names as they walked a few feet behind me. Fearful to run, thinking it would’ve been an invitation for them to chase me, guessing that I couldn’t outrun them, I entered a bodega on the corner.

A few moments later, they walked in. One of them approached me and told me to follow them outside. Serine appeared from the other side of one of the mini-aisles, truly coming out of nowhere, wearing her black T-shirt with Bob Marley’s face in the middle, an angel, her headphones like a halo around her neck instead of her head, her hair flaring out.

She stepped in front of me and stood, staring at him hard. He took a step back as his friend folded his arms across his chest.

“Leave,” she said, a curt command. They did. She turned to face me.

“I know them,” Serine said, smiling as if to comfort me. “They bark a lot, but don’t bite. Bitches. That’s all those two are.”

“They looked a little scared when they saw you.”

Serine’s smile left as quickly as those fools did. “They know my mother,” she said. “Want me to walk you home?”

I nodded. We left the bodega and walked down White Plains Road.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Serine.”

“I recognize you,” I said. “You’re in my English class.”

“Yup.”

“Mr. Gregory is fuh-iiiine. Too much reading, though. It’s like he wants us to read every book ever written…” Just kept on.

After I finished reciting my dissertation, she said, “You talk a lot.”

“Is that bad?”

Serine shook her head and smiled. I continued, switching my commentary to which cartoons were worth my time and why. Things I thought but never said. I never had a receptive audience. Until that walk.

I kept talking until we reached the front of my apartment complex, about ten minutes later. I huffed. I had never walked that fast before. She only slowed down when we reached corners and she had to rely on me to know which way to turn.

“Want to come in?” I asked.

She nodded and we went inside. I asked her if she wanted a vanilla pudding cup. She said yes and asked me what my name was. June, I answered, grabbing two cups from the fridge. I handed her one of them. I opened a drawer and grabbed two spoons. Want me to walk with you to school tomorrow, Serine asked me as I gave her a spoon, following up with an assurance that no one would bother me if she walked with me.

Okay, I said, ripping open my vanilla pudding cup, my shoulders shrugging, my heart tugging. Another save.

***

A year and a half later, my mother told me she wanted to send me away to boarding school. Per the suggestion of her boss, the only senior partner at her law firm who was a woman of color. She declared to me one evening, “You are going to be her, that’s going to be you.”

And if I was going to be her, asserted my mother, I had to go to private school. Not just one in the city, but one where I wouldn’t live in my home. Her boss had sent her own daughter to a boarding school in upstate New York the year before. She encouraged my mother to have me apply to the same school, telling her that the school offered scholarships.

I thought the idea was mean. Like it was a legal way to give me away without giving me away. I completed the application, took the required exams, was given an interview, and was informed that I would receive their decision later on that semester.

I told Serine about the whole thing one February afternoon during our eighth-grade year in my apartment, several days before my bull escaped me. Sprawled on my couch, I yapped away. Serine sat on the carpeted floor in front of me, leaning against one of the armrests.

“She wants to get rid of me so she can have the place to herself. She probably wants to bring men home.”

Serine nodded.

“She’d miss me, though. She’d miss me more than I’d miss her, I know that much. She’s going to want me back,” I said, nodding my head up and down like I was listening to my own sermon. “She’s going to miss me.”

“I’d miss you,” Serine said, looking at me.

Her eyes were rusty copper circles I had just found, like pennies on the ground. What would she have missed about me? My chatter? I knew I’d miss her. But I didn’t want to miss her. I didn’t want the opportunity.

I grabbed the school’s brochure from my book bag on the couch by my feet.

“No, you wouldn’t, because you’d be there.”

Serine didn’t respond. She sang a Michael Jackson tune, “Will You Be There.”

“If you apply,” I continued, “you’d get in.”

Serine stopped singing. Her face fell slightly.

“Ms. Lambdy loves you.”

Ms. Lambdy was how Serine addressed my mother during greetings. My mother loved her for that. Her respect. Serine loved my mother too. She never told me that, but I knew. She saw the hug my mother gave me many evenings when she came home from work. One evening, I glanced at her face after my mother hugged me. Longing.

“She loves me soooo much,” I said, rolling my eyes, flitting my hand in the air, personifying drama. “She wants to send me away.”

“Yup.”

I stared at the brochure’s cover, two students walking on a pathway, surrounded by lush trees and grass. I looked back at Serine. It was the first time that I thought ahead, imagining an afternoon in the following year if I got accepted. What my day would look like without her. What her day would look like without me.

Reaching over, I dropped the brochure on her lap.

“Take it home with you. Maybe it’s not too late to apply.”

Serine held the brochure and read it from cover to cover. Watching her read it was like watching her daydream. Without her headphones.

***

The next morning, I met Serine at our usual corner. I also met a purplish-red mark around her neck.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” she mumbled.

Serine didn’t speak for the rest of the walk. Instead, she sang Billie Holiday’s “Willow Weep For Me.” I heard her sing that song before. On days when her face trembled. When she looked like she would have erupted in shouts if I wasn’t there. When I asked her nothing.

***

The rest of that week, Serine still came home with me, but we no longer watched T.V. I refused to turn it on. And I said very little. She offered me prompts again and I shut them down. I even took out homework to work on in the living room, and I’d always saved that for after she left, after dinner later on in the evening.

Serine followed my lead and we worked on our Algebra assignments, me with a calculator, her without one, because she didn’t need it; she already had one in her head. She finished our shorter assignments before me, because she worked like she walked, fast.

Since I pressed mute on myself, she listened to her music instead. Her headphones covered her ears, but couldn’t cover her neck. The mark. It was as if I was starting to see Serine for the first time every time I snuck peeks at it when I thought she wasn’t paying attention.

I thought about the entire year before in seventh grade. Serine was at my apartment every weekday. The summer before we started the eighth grade, she was at my place almost every day. I offered to visit her at her home, but she always refused. The only times she ever looked angry were when I suggested hanging out at her place, wherever it was.

Days I imagined where she lived were days when she was sullen, even more quiet than usual. Those were days when there was no music, when she didn’t sing or hum at all. I would notice it, but didn’t ask about it. I didn’t want to know.

My mother had always told me to mind my own business anyway when it came to other people. I had done a good job at that, especially with Serine, rarely asking her about her family, because the few times I had, she shut me down with phrases like none of your business and nobody you’d care about. Phrases that should’ve pinched my feelings but didn’t.

I couldn’t stop sneaking peeks at her neck. And I wouldn’t talk. By the Friday of that week, the line had almost faded. Perhaps everything would go back to normal. Maybe I would forget that mark. I believed that was her hope.

***

The following Monday, Serine showed up to meet me at the corner of Boston and White Plains fifteen minutes later than usual. Her eyes were red.

“Where’s your cassette player?”

“Broke it.”

“Who? Not you. Your dad?”

“I never met him.” We started walking. I knew she regretted telling me that.

“Was it your mother? What did she do to you?”

No response.

“You can tell me,” I said. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“I know,” she said.

I waited. She didn’t speak. I waited for her to sing. When she didn’t do that, I gave it a try. That Billie Holiday tune. By then, I knew it by heart.

***

Later that afternoon, Serine waited for me in the hallway by our school’s exit. I reached her and looked at the open doors, instead of her face.

“You can’t come over today,” I said.

“You have to be somewhere? I’ll come with you.”

“I’m going home,” I said, finally turning my head to look at her. “We have people coming over this evening.”

Serine nodded, her eyes looking downward and then, as if she caught herself doing something wrong, she brought her eyes back up to mine. “I’ll walk with you.”

“No, I have to stop at the supermarket first. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I ushered myself out of there and down the stairs. I turned in the opposite direction of our usual walk. I walked around the corner of our school’s building. I stood by the corner and waited.

Grateful for all the activity of students around me, I peeked back around the corner. Serine walked down the stairs. Keeping a distance of a block, I followed her to White Plains Road. Then I followed her down another street that I had never walked on before.

***

From a block away, I saw Serine enter a red brick, five-story building. After waiting for a few moments, I crossed the street. I didn’t wait too long. I didn’t know what apartment she lived in and she could have seen me through a window if it faced the street. I shuffled to the entrance and looked at names listed behind glass with black buttons next to them. I skimmed through the list and found her last name, Octavius. Next to it, 3F. I waited until someone opened the building’s entrance door to leave. I held the door and entered the lobby.

I took the elevator up to the third floor. I stepped out and walked down the hall, looking for her apartment door. I heard yells. The low-pitched furor was from a woman. I reached her apartment door when I heard Serine’s voice.

I should’ve pounded the red door from outside, to let her know that I was there, that I was listening. I softly tapped the door with my palm as if it was her shoulder. I wanted to break in, find her, and shoplift her, to quietly usher her out, to pretend that she was mine and never bring her back. All I could see was the scratched-up red door. All I heard was red.

Serine’s yells turned into crying, and her sobs turned down from loud to soft, as if someone had turned down her voice like a stereo knob. The silence woke me from my shock.

I stepped away from the door and turned, running towards the stairway. After descending three flights of stairs, I almost pushed an elderly woman blocking the stairway entrance, looking for something in her pocketbook. I said sorry but was already outside of the building then, running across the street. I reached the lone payphone standing in front of a check cashing office.

Grabbing the receiver, I dialed 9-1-1. I told the operator that I heard screams from my neighbor’s apartment. I gave her Serine’s address and apartment number. When she asked me for my information, I hung up. I stood by the phone, as if it was my other best friend, and we waited for the police to show up.

After fifteen minutes, a police cruiser pulled up to the building. Two officers stepped out of the car and went inside. Another fifteen minutes later, the police officers returned outside. One was holding the arms, cuffed together by the hands, of a tall, husky woman who had Serine’s features: thin lips, round eyes. The other police officer walked with Serine. Her left eye and cheek were bruised, making her face uneven. Her right eye caught me.

Me, with my arms folded around my chest, as if I was the one who needed protection, standing next to the payphone, no longer my partner in justice, now my partner in crime. Her right eye widened, her left eye couldn’t. Then her right eye narrowed at me before she turned her face away and followed the police officer to the ambulance, which had just arrived. I waited and watched all the activity.

After the police car and ambulance drove away, I understood what I learned. And what I did. And that I loved someone other than my mother.

***

I walked down Boston Road, my body barely pushing itself forward. When I reached my apartment, I noticed our minivan resting in the driveway. I hoped that it would be gone, that would’ve been my assurance that my mother wasn’t home. My whole person felt limp, and I knew that if I went in and saw my mother’s face, I would’ve bawled. She would’ve asked me what was wrong and I wouldn’t have answered her.

Was I falling apart from seeing Serine’s bloody, bruised face? Perhaps it was the look she gave me, the one that convicted me of betraying her.

***

Serine was out of school for the following three weeks. My mother noticed my silence during that time. One evening after dinner during the first week Serine was gone, as we were clearing our table, my mother said, “I haven’t seen your friend in some time.”

No response.

“I like that girl,” my mother continued. “Is she coming to visit us again soon?”

“No.”

She regularly asked me about her. Until I received my acceptance letter the following week from the school in upstate New York. A full-tuition academic scholarship. Once she read that, questions about my friend ceased.

***

When Serine returned to school, I found her in our Algebra class. Her face was no longer bruised. No headphones around her neck. She didn’t sit next to me. She selected a seat in the back of the room. Our teacher must have known, or guessed, what happened to her when she didn’t ask her to take her regular seat.

After class, she briskly walked out, not looking my way. I called out her name. She ignored me. Later that day when she saw me in the cafeteria walking towards her, she dropped her tray of food on the floor, turned around, and ran. As if I was going to chase and catch her. As if I was the monster.

***

Months later, I didn’t see Serine at our graduation ceremony. Her name was called out, and skipped to the next one, when no one stepped up on the stage. When my name was announced earlier, I saw my mother waving her arm, smiling widely. “That’s my daughter!” she yelled over light, polite claps. I winced.

Serine was right. She did love me.

The red door. The memory left as it came, quickly, and I saw my mother’s smiling face again. I saw what Serine wouldn’t have seen if she had been there, what I assumed she never saw.

***

A week later, I returned to the red brick building. I pressed the black button next to 3F.

After a few moments, I heard, “Who is it?”

“June Lambdy,” I replied to Serine’s voice, as if I was introducing myself to her for the first time. It felt like the first time. We hadn’t spoken for months. No words, no songs, no walks.

She buzzed me in. I took the elevator and arrived on her floor. I reached her apartment, noticing there were no yells, no screams, no sounds at all. Only her red door.

That’s why she didn’t tell me. If I didn’t know what her life truly was, I wouldn’t be able to remind her. She must have thought that when I saw her, all I would’ve seen would’ve been bruises and blood.

When she opened her red door, I didn’t see any of that. I saw my friend, my friend I missed, wearing her oversized black T-shirt with Michael Jackson’s face on it. A picture of his face was also in my hand, on the cover of the CD version of his album Thriller. I held it out to her, along with a packaged portable CD player.

“Cassette players are going out,” I said.

Serine took them from me. “Thanks,” she said.

“You could’ve said something.”

Serine raised an eyebrow, the first skeptical look I’d ever seen her give. “What for?”

“I would’ve listened.”

She snickered. “And then what? I would’ve come back here.”

I had no rebuttal for that. I just stood on the other side of her open door, the side that somehow, I had always stood on. I wanted to ask her questions. Is your mother still in jail? Who’s living here with you now? What’s going to happen with you?

She did the asking instead. “Did you get accepted?”

“Yes,” I replied, feeling too inept to lie.

“Are you going?”

I nodded.

“That’s good,” Serine said, offering me a smile, her own parting gift to me. “You should go home.”

I wanted to ask her if she would walk with me. But she would’ve said no. And then what?

“See you,” I said.

I turned and walked down the hall, not reaching the halfway point of the hallway when I heard her door close shut, locks turning.

***

In the eight years since then, I haven’t invested myself in anyone. Not in any way that counts. I hang out with people, friends, acquaintances. I accept invitations and attend parties. I listen. I talk. But I don’t speak. Not much. Not really.

Not because I don’t have much to say. My opinions and feelings sprout like new hairs; I just shave them off as soon as I notice them. Words can induce good change, but how often? How fully?

In the three-plus years I have known Regina, I have almost abandoned those questions, the supporting beams of my relative silence. Especially when she plays music on her stereo in her room.

One evening last semester, I heard Billie Holiday blare from her stereo while studying for my physics final. It was like finding a random hundred-dollar bill in my back pocket. I never heard Billie Holiday’s voice before, but I knew her lyrics, her words. I knew them by heart.

I wanted to jump up, run into her room and hug her. I wanted to tell her many things before that song ended. I still do. Especially today, when she called me this morning, asking for my thoughts. Regina’s intelligent and independent; even with those qualities, she openly and willingly relies on me. I should speak my mind. She deserves it.

Even so, sitting here, I’m still her confidant, while I still don’t let her be anything more than my activity partner.

Regina waits. As I take a piece of bread, I want to tell her what I truly think. I spread butter on my roll, knowing that I should advise her to flip a coin for it. Because either way, she’ll be fine.

I want to tell her that if she can’t flip a coin because this choice is that crucial, she should pick the free ride. I’d tell her to save the money, forget the prestige. She is prestige.

But I won’t say any of that.

Regina looks like she’s going to reach across the table and shake me, playfully. I notice for the first time that her eyes look a bit like Serine’s — same round shape. For a few moments, I pretend Regina is her, and this is Serine’s dilemma, one that could be easily addressed.

What if Regina was actually Serine walking towards me? What would I have said?

Other than I’m sorry?

I’m sorry that I couldn’t help her. Maybe I did with the call. Sometimes I want to know. It would be as easy as looking her name up on the Internet to see what would come up. Yet I’m still thankful for all the days I have walked around my neighborhood during school breaks when I haven’t seen her curly hair, her speedy walk, her head shaking to a freeing melody playing through her headphones, only for her to see me, stop walking, yank off her headphones, and yell out, “And then what?!”

And now what? I lean back in my chair, seeing Regina again. I see from the nodding of her head that she has already decided. I also see from her eyes gluing themselves on mine that she wants me, with my words, to confirm it. My friend needs to do that, and so many things in this life, on her own.

Nevertheless, she wants me to speak.

I hum a tune and eat my bread.


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