My man Razz wanted me to wear red lipstick. He said he liked white girls ’cause they look good in red lipstick. I’m not all white, but I liked the way my skin looked against Razz. He’s my black stallion.
As usual, breakfast at the shelter sucked ass. Nasty, watery yogurt, pancakes like Brillo pads, fake meat. The type of shit my uncle Donnie said they serve in prison. People said that the shelter used to be a college dorm, but they lie. Girls around me weren’t wearing orange jumpsuits, but hell, I still felt shit would start at any moment, though. Girls sat around at steel-topped tables, talking loud about baby daddies, staff they hated, girls they wanted to jump.
I sat across from my dormmate, Alicia. Alicia was thinner than me, white-skinned like me, wore dark, blank T-shirts.
Me and Alicia ate breakfast at the shelter. We had no money until the first-of-the-month checks came. We spent our change on cigarettes and weed.
Alicia silently chewed her fake-ass turkey sausage. She then drank the last of her grape juice. Her face was hard, like the shelter bullshit had gotten to her. She looked at me.
“Jessi,” she asked, “ever wondered if we’ll die here?”
Weird, I thought, we’re not old ladies walking around in walkers. Not yet. I always found Alicia to be weird, smart and weird.
“I ain’t dying,” I replied. ”Me and Razz are getting our own places, having a family.”
Alicia nodded, but I had the feeling she didn’t totally believe me. I looked away from the table, to the long line in front of the kitchen counter. The lunch lady, short and dark-skinned, with kinky gray hair, barked orders at the girls getting food.
“What are you having?” she said in a harsh tone. I hated the lunch lady, she reminded me what my mom became. Alicia had left the rest of her breakfast alone, half-opened yogurt, empty carton of juice, pancakes just nibbled on. She had a new phone, I noticed, a big, shiny, new iPhone. Alicia only used cheap phones from Boost before. Her fingernails seemed well-manicured, she had dirty, raggedy nails before. Alicia had entered a world I knew little about. New people had accepted her, even with her weirdness. I looked down to my own nails, chipped red polish I had no money to fix yet.
I wanted to know what Alicia was up to. But first I had to get my nails done.
* * *
After breakfast, I left the shelter and hung out with Razz. He lived with his mom, on the eleventh floor of a project building in the Bronx. Im from Brooklyn, I knew nobody in the Bronx. I stayed with Razz in his place. We watched Maury, ate, smoked some rather weak weed. I was relaxing, though. I wasn’t at the shelter. Razz had his hand on my thigh, staring ahead at the Maury show. He was like he wanted to forget something, forget me.
I was about to pass the bong to Razz.
“Razz!” I said.
Razz grumbled, then looked my way. He seemed more far away than he usually did smoking weed.
“Razz, baby,” I said, shaking the bong of marijuana in Razzs face. “You want something?”
Razz laughed. But he didn’t laugh hard and happy, just weak, like something bad was about to happen.
“Baby,” he told me, “I hate my moms. I hate that bitch.”
Hearing Razz call his mom a bitch scared me. I knew that Razz’s mom didn’t approve of me or much else, but hearing Razz hate on her still scared me.
I put the bong to Razz’s lips. He grabbed it and took a swift toke. Bitter white marijuana smoke surrounded his dark, soft face.
“What happened now?” I asked.
Razz explained. His mom wanted him out the apartment, he wasn’t on the lease. She claimed that Razz was almost 30, needed to be a man and support himself. She suggested he take his SSI check and find a room upstate.
I was ready to move with Razz anywhere. I had the shelter and nothing else.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked. “I have some cousins in Albany and Newburgh. It’s quieter up there, not as much bullshit.”
Razz shook his head. His dark eyes was hard, like he wanted to keep me away from him.
“Fuck that,” he muttered. “I ain’t listening to my moms, I ain’t interested in anything besides the Bronx.”
My own moms cared about me, until choosing crack and crackwhoring took her away from me and my sisters. Mom was dead now, I hated to be reminded of her. Razz whined on and on about his mom, acting like she was a bother. Razz looked less attractive to me now. His dark skin and smile became gross and ugly.
Later, at the shelter, Alicia sat at her bed, rolling curlers into her hair. Her red nails still looked good. Razz didn’t give me money to get my nails done today. He was probably at his mom’s place, arguing with her about upstate. I smoked, flushed my cigarette butt down the toilet with the faint shit stains. I tried to sleep in the dark.
* * *
Both Alicia and me had Kelly as our case manager. Kelly Rodriguez. Kelly had Alicia’s long dark hair, but she was classier, had a skinny body and wore bright dresses made of stiff fabric and black heels you see the white ladies wear in Manhattan. I wondered if Kelly had a white boyfriend. I tried not to think about white dick.
Kelly met with me the next morning. Her cubicle office smelled of fruit, like my grandma’s kitchen. Kelly was drinking from a tall glass, some type of pink milk. I asked Kelly what she was drinking, she said a strawberry protein smoothie. It sounded weird, gross.
Kelly asked me if I had an updated award letter from Social Security. She looked worried.
I never said what I did instead of getting award letters.
“I don’t have it,” I said. “I’ll get it soon.”
Kelly drank more of what she called a smoothie. She still looked worried.
“You haven’t been following the Independence Living Plan, Jessica,” said Kelly. “Updating your award letter monthly is part of you finding housing. I know that finding housing is a tough thing in New York City, but I hope you realize that complying with your plan makes things easier.”
I heard what other girls said about roommates. Nobody in the shelter wanted a roommate, and they had plenty of stories about people stealing and taking drugs. I was like every other girl in the shelter, I didn’t want a roommate, somebody stealing, a crackhead. All the shelter had were apartments you shared. New York City didn’t give a fuck about anybody in the shelter, I thought. Kelly and the other case managers acted like sharing stuff with strange people was OK.
Razz shared me the shit with his mom. He probably thought that letting me know brought me closer to him.
He wasn’t a stranger. But I still didn’t feel OK hearing his problems.
Alicia said she liked Kelly. She said that Kelly found housing quick. I considered Alicia an idiot for being open to a shared place. I imagined some crackhead stealing her expensive lipstick and clothes, like the dumb thot she was.
I just sat across the desk from Kelly, acting like I wanted the shelter housing.
Kelly couldnt see what I thought.
“Jessica,” she told me, “we have another appointment in two weeks. I hope that you have your updated award letter. We need to find you a place to live.”
After the meeting, I stood in the darkness of the green-painted hallway. I wanted to give the middle finger to Kelly, to everybody else in the shelter. To the world.
During dinner, Razz called me. I was eating tasteless spaghetti sauce and bland turkey meatballs.
“Razz,” I asked, “you gonna mention your mom again?”
“Jessi,” Razz growled back, “my moms has nothing to do with you.”
“You’d rather talk about her.”
Razz laughed, tight.
“Naw,” he said. “I’ll rather talk about you, girl.”
I laughed, for once.
“Want to hang out tomorrow?” I asked, thinking about being free.
Razz said nothing. He knew that I wanted better, but I always feared that he couldn’t give me better. He’s be another nigga who doesn’t give a fuck. Another nigga who thinks about stuff not including me.
“Why not?” I continued. “If your mom wants you out, we can at least go upstate and live together. I hate the city now.”
Razz continued to say nothing. He said nothing, and I started to feel angry, like I wanted to destroy everything.
“Your mom’s right about you,” I yelled, hating the lack of words. “You’re triflin’. A trifling faggot nigga. I’m sick of you.” Before Razz could say a thing, I pressed the red button on my phone. I slammed my phone on the table. I was burning.
I didn’t care if people looked at me. People were full of shit anyway.
“Anything wrong?” asked some girl. The voice came from Alicia, still looking good. She looked like she had a job, had money to get out of the shelter.
I looked up from the table. Alicia had her hands on her hips.
She looked like Kelly in her red dress. Too much like Kelly.
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said. I still sounded mad, my body felt hot with the shit I had to deal with.
White people wouldn’t look at her the way they looked at me. I hated that. Mom was white, and I looked white, but people still treated me like trash.
“Selling your ass?” I muttered at Alicia. “That’s how you get money? I ain’t hating.”
I didn’t care how Alicia made money. But I liked the look on her face, the way I could make her cry.
“Stop playing,” said Alicia, sounding like I had said the painful truth. Something painful. “I have a boyfriend, he helps me.”
“Your boyfriend fucks you up the ass?” I said.
Alicia turned her eyes away from me, acting like she didn’t give a fuck.
“Your boyfriend makes you suck dick?” I said.
Alicia stormed away, saying nothing. Some of the other girls laughed at what I said, but Alicia acted like she didn’t hear them. I still had to deal with dinner. Deal with Razz. Deal with sleeping on that nasty dorm bed. I still had no money for a manicure. I still didn’t wear red lipstick the way Razz liked.
I returned to my prison dinner.