I have no clue how to fight. Despite having cousins from Compton and a homegirl who knows karate, if something pops off in the club—or in coupledom—I'm all thumbs.
The other day someone decided to quote me directly: "You get in a fight, don't look at me! I mean I'm not saying I won't break a bottle and wave it around like I'm crazy, but I'm not fighting!" Was the preceding citation mimosa-fueled? Yes, but also soberly accurate.
It started in a small town on an even smaller island where nobody locks their doors. My mother and I escaped to Catalina Island's only town, Avalon, when I was around 7 and not quite finished with second grade. People usually like me, so despite being the only little black girl at the local K through 12, I fell in with a familiar crowd of Ramirez's and Leonardo's pretty quickly.
Then came psycho Shelly. She was two years older than me and a stalker. She wanted a monogamous thing that I was hardly ready for. I slept over Shelly's house once, and she tried to convince me that girls shouldn't wear underwear to bed. I think she meant bras. Either way, she creeped me out. Immediately I started avoiding her and kept my panties on.
She knocked on our door one day and I wrapped myself up in a living room curtain like a cocoon, or, if Shelly decided to finally murder me that day, a winding sheet. She saw me peeking out from behind the velvet to see if she'd bought it. No such luck. I was about to duck back in but I'd already been made. Starring straight at me, her eyes burning, she shouted, "That is so rude!" from our front steps, whipping around on her jellies and trotting back up the hill to her own house. I figured I'd won. I mean in the end I'd gotten what I wanted through non-verbal protest: Smelly Shelly gone and me left to enjoy Fraggle Rock alone.
She barely spoke to me the next day at lunch, even when everyone begged to trade after Frances dropped off my Tuesday Pizza (we could never get it together at the beginning of the week, so I was "home schooled" on Mondays and got two slices of pepperoni personally delivered for lunch the next day). Knowing I had a weak stomach, Shelly whispered aloud that the oregano was really dried-up boogers. I gave her both slices and we were "best friends" for another semester.
Specifically this one girl, masquerading as my homie, outed me as a fraud in front of everyone. We were having a groupover share about feminine hygiene when I offered up my mother's reaction to my becoming a woman. "She was all crying and stuff," I lied, staring at each of these actual women in the eye to see if they'd bought it. "Well," replied my arch nemesis, "That's probably because she thought you were a man." And the lunch bench erupts in laughter. See, the running joke freshman year was that I was, in fact, a man-the Lady Gaga of 9th grade. I'd made the mistake of wearing a shirt that said "GIRL" on the front and some idiot in English class called it "an oxymoron." This was grammatically comic to all the nerds hiding in cool kids clothing and I'd be branded.
But when my "friends" took it upon themselves to get in on the action I became invisible. So instead of shouting out all the totally obvious reasons I was obviously a girl-Exhibit A: my XX chromosomes-I threw my hands in the air in surrender and hid in the girl's bathroom (Exhibit B). Of course, everyone felt badly after that and apologized. But my pattern had been firmly locked in. Fighting just wasn't for me.
Years later when I was packing for college and my mother-clearly verklamptfaklempt—questioned the number of undies being folded away (all of them) I screeched in a shaky voice, "I'm going to Columbia to live, not for friggin' summer camp!" The delivery is important when it comes to standing up for your self. The defeated look on her face made me wish I was never born-or at least never so timid that I thought screaming at a frightened single mother would make me feel better.
I've learned over time that timing is everything when it comes to fight or flight. A friend recently said she doesn't want to be seen "as someone who likes to argue" and that as a true grown-up she's begun to "reevaluate the importance of being right." So when is it right to fight? Keeping quiet off in a corner somewhere only works if your mouth is prone to shutting and staying that way. My mouth got its weight up over time, emerging from my post adolescence like an ex-con fresh from prison. The job now is to teach that same mouthhow to survive on the outside-honest and straight as arrow unless something more artful is needed.
Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.