Earlier that day, she’d been a mermaid. There’d been a merman. They’d kissed underwater, wrapping their fins together, their faces pinched in agony – the director had instructed, ‘Look like you’re fucking!’ Or at least this is what the finished product is to look like. Now, Shirley lies on the hotel bed in her bra and panties, flesh-toned – a color like peanut butter – watching her assistant, Heidi, and Yaheem, one of the most beautiful men she’d ever lay eyes on and her love interest from the music video – she’d handpicked him herself from a stack of headshots – each snort a line of coke. A few moments earlier, Heidi had offered to take a photograph of Shirley pouting in her lingerie – Shirley didn’t ask if the photo had been posted to her Instagram, but if it was, she was sure that she would read about it later when, bored and lonely in the early hours of the morning, she Googled herself. She found it an odd thing when famous people said that they never searched for themselves in the depth of remembrance that was the Internet. How could anyone not be interested in what was being said about them? The key was a detached curiosity; the key was not to let it turn you crazy. Shirley had mastered this long ago. It was only once in a while that she read something that left her sore, like an article published months ago in a well-known black publication that included her name in a list of black female entertainers who used their bodies to advance their careers, which the writer called complicit racism. ‘Since when is journalism putting words in people’s mouth?’ Shirley tweeted to the writer. But the writer had only responded coolly, asking Shirley if she would like to be interviewed for a follow-up story, and because the response had only deflated Shirley’s desire for an online altercation, she became bored by the whole thing and what had been anger was now a distracted annoyance. Besides, she was preparing for a performance, and memorizing her dance routine was better use of her energy.
Cocaine was something Shirley had done every once in a while when life warranted an extra indulgence – the release of a new album, or after the Grammys. She was careful about overindulging. But the death of a singer whose life and career had been taken by addiction, a singer whom Shirley had admired from childhood, had frightened her away from hard drugs. Now she’d only smoke ganja. More than anything, Shirley was afraid of dying in the limelight. She had too much pride to be anyone’s cautionary tale. ‘I don’t fuck with that,’ she said when Yaheem took the cocaine out of his bag and called her over to the coffee table. He had pouted and raised his hand to playfully flick his wrist at her. He was such a beautiful man. It was too bad he preferred men – this became clear when during a break from shooting he’d told Shirley that he was sure he’d seen the director on Grindr. Nevertheless, it was funny to think of the relationship rumors that would arise – funny also to think of how the rumors would be nurtured and encouraged before cameras for a short period of time, the attention it would bring both of them for several months, the gossip magazines having something new to report. And then there would be another man whose name would be linked with hers. Fame was a constant surprise to her, or maybe, she sometimes thought, it wasn’t a surprise but instead was the kind of thing that someone like her never became used to. It was why for a long time she was so careful with her money. She never thought – never imagined – that her career would last for as long as it has.
Now that the coke is finished, Yaheem and Heidi are sharing stories about their sex lives.
‘I’m done with faggots,’ Yaheem says. ‘The last one gave me gonorrhea.’
‘Ha!’ Heidi says. ‘I wish that was my cutoff point. An ex-boyfriend gave me gonorrhea. That’s how I found out he was cheating on me.’
‘Y’all are nasty,’ Shirley says from the bed, but really she is delighted by the conversation. She sits up, leaning on one arm to look at Yaheem and Heidi, who are still sitting on the rug by the coffee table even though there is a blue velvet sofa a few feet away.
‘What’s the worst thing a boyfriend ever gave you?’ Yaheem asks, and it strikes Shirley again that he is such a handsome man – one of those biracial types, the kind who people believe take the best from both races.
‘Trouble,’ she says.
‘That’s boring,’ Yaheem says. ‘Every boyfriend gives trouble. I hate all of my ex-boyfriends. Tell us something juicier.’
The truth is that the worst thing was a baby but it could have also been the best thing if both the timing and the man hadn’t been so far from ideal. When Shirley thinks about carrying Huzzah the Rapper’s child, she thinks about a baby who would have looked like him, a little girl with thick curly hair and a mouth too pink and pretty to belong to a man. But she couldn’t speak honestly because Yaheem wasn’t in her inner circle, and moreover, she couldn’t tell how trustworthy he was, how quickly he would gossip to a magazine. And besides, Heidi was the kind of white woman Shirley didn’t trust. White people who took themselves too seriously made her nervous.
‘Chicken pox,’ she says finally. ‘When I was a little girl, the boy next door gave me chicken pox.’ It was true: the boy next door had given her chicken pox – there was still a faded scar on her forehead that makeup artists sometimes asked about as they smoothened the area with extra foundation coverage.
‘I had no idea,’ Yaheem says slowly and dramatically, ‘that you would be so boring in person.’
What could Shirley do but laugh? Sometimes, it fascinated her to think that so many people didn’t realize that fame, the ability to be seen and seen and then seen some more, was in itself a performance. And if people were looking and talking, why not make the performance good? In interviews she could be candid, in pictorials sexually liberated, and the images that went along with her already provocative song lyrics pushed farther and farther the longer she was in the industry, as it was the only way to compete with the other pop stars. And a part of her really liked the drama of performing a persona – a part of her enjoyed the attention. Recently, on the cover of a gossip magazine, the headline had been ‘Is Shirley Having an Affair with a Married Man?’ alongside a photograph of Shirley and an actor embracing on a New York street. The man’s girlfriend had been sipping coffee close by and had not made it into the photograph. Shirley had laughed long and loud when she saw the cover, which a friend texted to her, and she had told her assistant to go out and find her a copy. Heidi, prone to overdoing every task assigned to her, brought back several copies.
‘What are you doing tonight?’ Yaheem asks Shirley, looking pleased that he made her laugh.
‘Her stylist and nail designer are coming tonight,’ Heidi says.
‘Why? You want to go somewhere with me?’ Shirley asks, winking at him.
‘You should come to a gay club with me,’ Yaheem says.
‘I would love that! I love gay men –’
‘And they love you.’
‘But I have my period. Or I’m going to get it. I can feel that it’s coming.’
‘Which is why you’re lying on white sheets in lingerie.’
‘Tell me something, are you a top or a bottom?’ Shirley has this game she likes to play with people; the only rule is that she asks intrusive questions. She’s been playing it for a few years now – at first it had been a way to test her power, to see if people would deny her, and over time it became a way of asserting her power. Whenever someone put her in her place, she found herself drawn to the person. The women she wanted to befriend and the men she found herself attracted to. It hadn’t happened this way with Huzzah the Rapper, but she’d wanted him anyway. He’d worn a superhero Halloween costume one time and the magazines had talked about the large outline of his penis. When Shirley met him for the first time, she’d asked, ‘Is it true that you have a big penis?’ He’d laughed and lowered his head, and this, the fact that he could be shy, had charmed her.
‘I’m whatever you want me to be,’ Yaheem says now, batting his lashes.
‘If that’s what you want me to be,’ he says, giving Shirley an exaggerated pout.
‘What’s his last name?’ Yaheem says to Heidi, jumping up off the floor. ‘What’s his name?!’ He’s laughing, excited. He starts doing a silly little dance where he’s swinging his arms from side to side and knocking his knees together.
‘I can’t remember!’ Heidi says, laughing.
‘Think!’ he says, shaking her gently.
‘It was so long ago!’
‘This is important! Dig into the recesses of your brain.’
‘What are you two talking about?’ Shirley asks, turning her attention from the several text message conversations she was having. One of the people she was texting is a rapper she sometimes flirts with – last year, the video they shot for their collaboration was steamy and seemed to have inspired hookup aspirations on his end. She enjoyed the attention, but unbeknownst to him, she’d sworn off rappers and hadn’t recovered in a way where she could trust any man.
Yaheem falls to the floor, clutching his knees to his chest, and all the while laughing.
‘We think we might have slept with the same guy,’ Heidi explains.
‘She was talking about some redheaded guy she fucked who liked to lick cocaine off her feet and I was like, wait, I fucked a redheaded guy who licked cocaine off my feet. What are the odds, right? It has to be the same guy!’ Yaheem sits up, wiping the tears from his eyes.
‘I start to cry too when I laugh hard,’ Shirley says, smiling and shaking her head.
‘Pleased to have something in common with you,’ Yaheem says, bowing his head.
‘I had no idea you’re such a freak?’ Shirley asks, looking at Heidi with renewed interest.
‘Eh, a little,’ she says, shrugging in a way that reveals that she is enjoying the attention.
‘I looked at her and knew she was a freak,’ Yaheem says. It is becoming clear to Shirley that he can’t stand not being the center of attention; perhaps a hyped romance before the paparazzi cameras was a bad idea. ‘I saw her glasses and high-heeled Mary Janes,’ he continues, looking at his nails and frowning, ‘and I knew that she liked to get her life. I’m not mad at that!’ They all laugh, and he continues pestering Heidi to remember the redhead’s name
By the time Shirley climbs down from the bed and opens the bathroom door, Yaheem is tickling Heidi’s belly. ‘I’m going to tickle you until you remember,’ he says. The last thing Shirley hears before the door muffles their voices is Heidi’s laughter between words that spill out of her mouth: ‘They say that redheads are becoming extinct! It has to be the same guy.’ When Shirley pulls down her panties and sits on the toilet seat, it isn’t until the coldness of the seat starts to wear away that she realizes that she’s envious of the easy friendship between Yaheem and Heidi. During the video shoot, they’d gone on a smoke break together and those moments, short as they were, cemented something between them, and now the redhead was another thing they shared. Shirley has come to believe that Heidi is an opportunist – she has a way of weaving herself into the drama at hand, whether it is drugs, alcohol, or a juicy confessional by a young film star looking for sympathy in the bathroom of an exclusive nightclub on a Saturday night. And more annoying to Shirley, Heidi has a way of conquering people, connecting with them – even and especially famous people who have reason to be mistrusting of a bright hello from a stranger.
It isn’t until Shirley grabs at some toilet paper to wipe that she notices that the seat of her panties is spotted with blood that is more brown than red – the usual way her body announces the first day of her period. Hissing her teeth, she pulls a tampon out of the bottom cupboard, annoyed that her period has come now, that it didn’t hold off for a little while longer, because in two days she’s performing for an awards ceremony in high heels and a white body suit. Shirley eases the tampon in, and, feeling that her bladder isn’t quite empty, she sits back down on the toilet seat. A little liquid leaves, but when Shirley stands again, there is once again that unfinished feeling. She reasons that it could be a phantom thing – the brain not yet catching up to the body. She considers that it could be similar to how she can eat and eat in wait of that intuitive feeling of enough but when the brain finally catches up, she has already moved past enough to too much.
If life hadn’t called her to singing, Shirley believes that she might have become a scientist. Lala, her hairdresser, laughs at Shirley’s copies of National Geographic magazine and calls her a cornball, but when Shirley is turning the pages, running her fingers over photographs of animals, landscapes, and people, Lala will ask her to turn back so he too can admire. Late at night, especially after she’s smoked a little weed while listening to reggae music, Shirley wonders about destiny – if such a thing exists, and if one could have had a different one if only for a different turn in life. Maybe whatever happens to someone is her destiny. If she never met Anthony Star at the resort and sang for him, if she never worked at the resort that summer, if her aunt never told her about the job – it astonishes her to think how easy it could have been to live a small life in a small place. Maybe, she sometimes decides, destiny is as flexible as a woman deciding what to wear on a given day.
Now, looking in the mirror as she washes her hands, Shirley turns her face from side to side – there is a burgeoning pimple on her chin, that’s all. Her nose had been her former stylist’s idea, and her makeup artist at the time, never mind the fact that he and the stylist were fucking, had agreed as though it was an obvious solution he had somehow overlooked the whole time he knew her. Everyone talked about how beautiful she would feel – subtle, but it would make a huge difference, they said. The few people who knew sent flowers after the surgery, but no one warned Shirley about how raw she would feel afterwards, as though someone could look at her new nose and take every secret thing, all of her insecurities, from where they were deeply buried. It felt like such an invasion, and one personally inflicted, which made her pain all the more confusing. The voices that spoke as though they knew better – the makeup and hair people and the music executives – told her, Everyone does it. They asked her, You think so-and-so was born that way? And in a way, they had been right: Shirley’s career began to escalate in a way that mattered, her name and her face and the sound of her voice carrying into American households.
Afterwards, her first time back to Jamaica, Shirley had been nervous. In life, then and now, she is only afraid of one person. As soon as she walked through the door, her mother paused the show she was watching to take a long look at her daughter before asking, ‘Why yuh trouble yuh nose?’ Later Diane would ask, with pity in her voice, ‘Who tell yuh fi trouble yuh nose?’ It was as though her mother’s questions gave Shirley the permission she needed to truly regret. She’d never imagined, though she could see what people meant when they said that she’d become more beautiful, that her nose had meant so much to her. It was, after all, only a nose. But it had been hers. It was the same nose that the women on her mother’s side carried.
‘Wha’ happen to yuh nose?’
‘Nothing. Nothing happened to it.’
‘Yuh going fi look inna mi face an’ lie to me like seh mi ah idiot.’ Diane shook her head at her daughter, and for a few moments looked deep in thought as though she was trying to remember something. Finally, she turned from Shirley and her nose, and returned to the forensic psychology show she had been watching.
When Shirley opens the bathroom door, she sees energetic hands, tongues, and Yaheem and Heidi hurriedly pulling apart. She is too tired, bored, and repulsed to ask the obvious questions. ‘No wonder you two were so quiet,’ she says, before reclosing the bathroom door and sitting back down on the toilet seat. Could she fire Heidi for this? Technically, she hadn’t done anything wrong. If Shirley was honest with herself, she would admit that she never liked her assistant. From the way Heidi shook her hand the first day, it was obvious that she would take her job too seriously. She acted as though she was curing cancer or saving babies or doing something much more profound than assisting a pop star. She wore stylish frames and fashionable vintage clothes, but her face was pale and plain and the red lipstick she wore daily only ended up looking too harsh against her skin tone, revealing the imposter she was, a girl from a Midwestern farming town who moved to New York. They had this in common – the both of them from places important to those who inhabited them, less so for those who had moved away, and beyond the stretches of the imagination for those with other places on their minds. Shirley had considered this commonality whenever she overheard Heidi talking in an exasperated way about her hometown. Whenever anyone asked Heidi where she was from, she told them and then she would say, ‘But I’ve been in New York for thirteen years,’ as if that was all that mattered.
The job used to belong to Kerry-Ann, one of Shirley’s childhood friends from back home. They’d shopped and smoked and lived together. They were sometimes photographed in matching outfits – the both of them in high heels and that season’s shade of lipstick. Shirley had industry friends but genuine intimacy and a shared history were harder to find, and so she clung to old friends. When it was revealed that Kerry-Ann had been stealing Shirley’s clothes and selling them, she looked the other way for as long as she could. When Kerry-Ann started taking jewelry, there was a confrontation. At the end, it wasn’t the stealing that had broken Shirley’s heart but that her best friend wouldn’t admit to what she’d done. Shirley had one of her security guards trail Kerry-Ann to a high-end secondhand store because otherwise she wanted to doubt that she was capable of stealing from her one moment and smiling into her face the next. It wasn’t about the clothes and jewelry. They’d fought, told each other how they really felt. Kerry-Ann said that Shirley treated her as though she was her servant. ‘What the fuck do you think I’m paying you for?’ Shirley had asked. ‘Do you think I’m paying you to be my friend?’ That was four months ago and they hadn’t spoken since.
Ten minutes later, when Shirley reopens the bathroom door, both Yaheem and Heidi are gone. She runs her eyes over the loft-like room, a temporary living space since her own place is being renovated, as though there is anywhere for them to hide. There are white floral arrangements on tables, high windows revealing a New York City skyline that looks like a postcard, and designer clothes lying in puddles on the floor. After a long day on set, this aloneness is a relief to her. She hopes that they don’t come back from wherever they’ve gone to. Shirley plops back onto the bed. She picks up her phone from where she’d left it on the bed. The rapper wants to come over. She ignores him.
Now asleep, she is still wearing the purple extensions – waist long, a color vibrant and living, the shade of purple like the inside of a star apple from back home. Recently, in a documentary about the sea, Shirley had seen purple coral, and she’d been surprised that such a thing of beauty existed at the bottom of the ocean. Water frightened her – when it was deep and stretched far. When she was a little girl, there was a river close to where she lived. There was a day when Shirley swam too far out into the river. The water was above her head before someone pulled her out. For a long time afterwards, her mother would say that it was God why Shirley survived. Diane had brought up the almost drowning recently. Shirley had posed nearly naked for another magazine and Diane had called to put her daughter in her place, finally telling her, ‘Yuh neva drown dat day fi ah reason. I don’t see why yuh can’t sell music wid yuh clothes on.’
What her mother didn’t understand and what Shirley couldn’t explain because it would reveal the slackness of her thinking, how far she really had come, was that she found that she could get used to plenty of things, including feeling comfortable, even bored, with her own nudity. At first, when the industry had been new, when the people in charge wanted her ass and her breasts to do what the music couldn’t, she feigned comfort with her sexuality. Diane thought that Shirley should do a gospel album. It had seemed such a random suggestion until Shirley remembered that when she was a little girl she had wanted to use her voice to lead people to Christ. Now, it was a dream that seemed a lifetime ago and so well meaning that it might as well belong to another dreamer.
In a few days, Shirley would take time off to go to Jamaica, the only place in the world where she could truly relax. Everywhere else, whether she was sipping a beer in a bikini on a yacht in St. Tropez or dipping out of a club in the early hours of a New York morning with a rumored new boyfriend, someone could snap a photograph of her, and the moment would be taken from her and turned into something other than what it was. Jamaica was the place she went to feel unburdened. Maybe because it was the only place she ever felt as though she truly belonged. She would stay in the big house she had bought for her mother in a neighborhood where wealthy islanders lived and foreigners kept vacation homes. Diane would cook meals for her, all of her favorite things to eat, and she would care for her only daughter, babying her and reminding her not to allow fame to turn her mad. It hadn’t all been recognition, awards, and money made. There was the high-profile, tumultuous, and at the end dangerous relationship with Huzzah the Rapper – the relationship had nearly broken Shirley, and the whole world had seen the bruises on her face. The image was reprinted again and again as though it was something the world needed to be reminded of. There was the period of time when Shirley regularly got high. There was the abortion that had to be had. And there was that surgery that made her more beautiful. Most of what happens to Shirley is unknown to her mother. It comes to Diane not in details but in a foggy sense of knowing, a shadow of everything her daughter has lived – the way a mother intuits her child is lying but may not know the reason for the lie or what the truth is. Nevertheless, Shirley’s career, the highs and lows of fame, have been far better and far worse than both mother and daughter could have hoped for. Shirley is only twenty-seven.
The first day back home, Shirley lies in bed, sometimes sleeping and other times just lying there, rubbing the whole business in her mind so that every detail remains shiny. Finally, when the day is coming to a close, Diane demands that her daughter sit up and eat the dinner that she has prepared for her: chicken foot soup, Shirley’s favorite. She sits up and takes the bowl from her mother, and realizes for the first time today that she is hungry. It seems that she hasn’t been so hungry in a long time. She looks down at the thick soup for a long moment – yam, dumplings, and chicken feet swimming in a pumpkin broth.
‘Something wrong wid di soup?’ Diane asks.
‘Nothing, Mommy,’ Shirley says, and then before another wave of hunger can hit her, she eats so quickly that the soup burns her tongue.
‘Di soup taste good, Mommy.’
‘Yuh like di yellow yam? Di helper find ah nice piece ah di market day ’fore yestideh. I use di rest ah it inna di soup.’
‘Mi love it. Mi nuh know when last mi eat chicken foot soup.’
‘Why yuh nuh have di ’oman who cook for yuh mek it? Yuh paying her plenty ah money – yuh can tell her what fi cook. What she cook give yuh? White people food?’
‘Mi nuh want anyone but you or some other Jamaican cook Jamaican food fi me. Waste of time to put up wid di disappointment. One time I was craving curry chicken and rice and peas and I told Meghan to mek it fi me. I mek sure to tell her to make it Jamaican-style because one time I ordered jerk chicken at this expensive restaurant in Manhattan and it taste like dem fling some jerk sauce pon di chicken and call it jerk chicken. Mi couldn’t eat it. When Meghan bring di food, I saw that she put mango inna di curry chicken, and the rice and peas ah two separate dish. Mi almost bawl. Mi could only ask her, why she put mango inna di curry chicken?’
Diane laughs energetically, and Shirley laughs with her, though less impressed by the old joke. It isn’t the first time that Diane has heard about the chef’s failures to cook satisfying Jamaican food. It pleases her that she can still provide for her daughter in this way – that even now after all the money Shirley has made, there is still this opportunity to care for her.
After Shirley finishes eating, Diane takes the bowl from her and watches as she crawls back under the covers. She is petite – like a little girl under the covers. Even Diane is constantly surprised by how much larger and more womanly her daughter looks on television, in magazines, and even in person when she is all dressed up in her makeup and high heels. Oh, how it would surprise the millions of fans all over the world to see Shirley now – her weave a natty mess, her skin free of makeup and a few pimples sprouting here and there, lying in bed in her panties and a T-shirt as though anything is wrong, as though she isn’t one of the most blessed people in the world. Diane briefly considers that it’s possible that Shirley can’t help a certain sadness – after all, Diane’s own mother used to lie in bed sometimes when the world got to be too heavy, and it was said that her mother’s mother did the same thing. The sadness is a family thing, it seems – somehow it had gone and skipped Diane and her sisters, all of them women who refuse to lie down on a problem. Shirley had told her mother that a man she knew was killed by a drug overdose, but further questions had revealed that Shirley had just met the man, had never been romantically involved with him and in fact he was gay, and so Diane didn’t understand why her daughter was so affected by the whole thing, and whenever she broached the topic, Shirley didn’t have much to say. Diane takes one more glance at the small figure under the covers, and for a moment has the desire to pull the sheets off her daughter and demand that she face life, and warn her too that she didn’t come into success to become one of those miserable rich people. Instead, Diane leaves the room, closing the door a little harder than necessary.
‘Satan is aftah you,’ Diane had said, and the words had seemed so true and so absurd that Shirley had wanted to cry. That night when Yaheem and Heidi snorted the cocaine, that night when Shirley came out of the bathroom to see that the both of them had left, Heidi had gone home and Yaheem had gone, according to what Shirley would find out later, to a gay club where he would go home with a man. Later, they would find several drugs in his system. He was so briefly known, only just coming up, that his death had come and gone quietly. Night after night when sleep betrayed Shirley in that city they say never sleeps, there was little information to be acquired from the Internet. One of the few places that covered Yaheem’s death was a newspaper in Louisiana – a local newspaper in a town that Shirley had never heard of before. ‘Yaheem was the son of a minister and a schoolteacher, who were shocked to learn about their son’s lifestyle and drug use. He filmed a music video with pop singer Shirley but in light of his recent death it’s unknown whether the music video will be released.’ Shirley had arranged for Heidi to send flowers to the funeral. She had wanted to go, had wanted to travel to that little town in Louisiana, but she was afraid to face the grieving relatives. How to own even a little slice of grief for a man she’d only known for a day? She wouldn’t belong.
A shame that the biggest thing he was to do was the music video they filmed together and that could never be released now. Shirley had fought – somehow it seemed important for the world to see it – but the people above had refused. Pick another guy, they said. Film another video, they said. But Shirley didn’t want another guy and she didn’t want another video, and eventually the people above had asked her, ‘Weren’t you supposed to take some time off?’ Oh, she said, remembering, because she really had forgotten. It had been so hard to leave for a place so much farther from where she’d last seen Yaheem. She wrote down a line in her journal, ‘I am being haunted by a man I barely know.’ Maybe the words would work in a song. Once in a while, she wrote down song lyrics for someday. She’d long wrestled with the idea of attempting to write her own music in an effort to become the kind of artist with a stronger hold on her career instead of the pop star robot she at times felt like.
‘Satan is aftah you,’ Diane had said, and when her mother leaves the room holding the bowl with the bones from the chicken foot soup, Shirley begins to cry, gentle sobs that grow louder so that it feels as though her entire body is crying, and finally, she exhausts herself and falls back asleep.
Diane is addicted to crime documentary shows because American crimes disturb her in ways that beckon for her attention. Of course, Jamaicans could be violent – after all, it was said that the worst-behaving slaves were sent to Jamaica, which accounted for the island’s high murder rates. But killings in Jamaica lacked the imagination of the white men and women Diane watched on the Investigation Discovery channel. White women stole babies and poisoned lovers for health insurance, and white men brought guns into schools and killed their wives for the love of another woman. When she was a little irrational, she feared that she would lose Shirley and her remains would be discovered in some lonely corner of New York City. Diane didn’t doubt that Shirley surrounded herself with questionable characters, and now that she and Kerry-Ann were no longer talking, there was no one she trusted to protect her daughter.
Even now, eleven years later, Diane wonders if she should regret sending Shirley, then sixteen, to America, where a music career was promised to her. The promises had been kept, more than kept, as it become evident that Shirley’s potential for stardom was more than anyone thought it to be. But what had been lost? What kind of mother allows her daughter to leave at such a vulnerable age? Who had wanted fame more – Shirley or herself? It was a question she was always asking herself. Because if she had wanted it less, could she have sent Shirley away?
When Shirley enters the living room and sits next to her mother, she pulls some of the thin blanket her mother is using onto her own legs in the easy way of two people accustomed to sharing. Shirley had never quite understood why her mother never married or had more children – how sad that she watched so much gruesome television by herself.
‘Yuh done sleep?’ Diane asks, looking at her daughter only briefly before she turns her attention back to the television.
‘What’s dis one about?’
‘A couple say dem ’ave open relationship an’ di husband get jealous an’ kill di wife other man.’
‘Wow,’ Shirley said, looking with surprise at the photograph of the couple because the man looks like he might wear khaki pants to work and the wife has a haircut reminiscent of a suburban mother.
‘Tell me ’bout it. Di husband ask her fi stop see di other man and she continue fi see him. I neva understand why people can’t understand dat wha’ happen in di dark mus’ come out in di light. It may tek a while but it a go ’appen. Always ’appen.’
Shirley couldn’t help feeling a little bit reprimanded. There was so much her mother didn’t know. Ironically, the song that elevated her career, bringing her worldwide recognition, was the single ‘Don’t Tell My Mother’, from her third album, eight years ago. It was a reggae pop song that told the story of a young girl who wanted to do the kinds of natural, inevitable, and mildly dangerous things that call to young girls. Ooh. Ooh. Shirley had made rapturous eye contact with a boy who was really a man and danced in the music video in a bikini top and tiny denim shorts, the kind of clothing her mother would have never allowed her to leave the house wearing. But Diane had been in Jamaica when the music video was filmed, and later when she saw it and spoke to Shirley on the telephone, she had said, ‘Mi neva dream mi would see mi child pon tv like dat’, but it had sounded like and unlike a reproach at the same time, as though her mother had already accepted with a dull reluctance the fact that fame came with expensive entry and maintenance fees. Shirley had been disappointed to be unchallenged.
‘So when yuh an’ Kerry-Ann going to mek up back?’ Diane says, turning from the television now that the show is finished.
‘Mi nuh know,’ says Shirley, already regretting this conversation and the fact that she didn’t return to her bedroom after using the bathroom.
‘Mi hear seh she’s living wid a white man in Los Angeles,’ Diane says.
‘Who tell you dat?’
‘Mi know she in Los Angeles but I didn’t know she a live wid a man.’
‘Wha’? Yuh jealous?’
‘Mi jealous? No. Why yuh ask me dat?’ Shirley is rising. It frustrated her that her mother could assume the worst.
‘No reason. I know seh you an’ her were like sisters an’ even fava each other an’ mi trying fi think of what could ah come between you two.’
Shirley hadn’t told her mother about the stealing because she knew her mother would tell Kerry-Ann’s mother, and ultimately she wanted to spare Kerry-Ann that indignity.
‘Sit back down,’ Diane says. ‘Yuh know you too miserable? Fram when you likkle pickney yuh miserable. Memba when mi use to call yuh old lady?’
Shirley sits back down and can’t help smiling. ‘Mi wasn’t miserable. I was spoiled. Yuh bring it upon yuhself by spoiling me.’
‘Is not me who spoil yuh. Ah yuh fadah. ’im neva like fi hear yuh cry.’
Shirley’s father had left Jamaica when she was still a little girl. He’d moved to Canada, where he had family living, and though he had promised to send for Diane and Shirley, they heard less and less of him until it was evident that he had carried on with a life without them. When Shirley’s first album came out, he’d gotten in touch with Diane and she had listened for several minutes while he talked excitedly about Shirley and then she had told him never to contact her again. When she told Shirley about the phone call, she’d called him and was disappointed to realize that the man who she counted as a father was only a fan. ‘You should come to Canada and meet your stepbrother and stepsister,’ he’d said, and Shirley had wanted to cry at how casually he treated her, this man who when she was little hadn’t liked hearing her cry. Even more hurtful, he never apologized for leaving her and her mother behind without so much as an explanation. He never even brought it up. After that, Shirley refused his phone calls, which was what her mother had been advising in the first place.
‘I don’t want Kerry-Ann fi live wid a man because dats who can tek care of her,’ Diane says, scrolling through the channels. ‘It’s not ah good thing when ah young girl ha fi depend pon a man. Why yuh don’t mek up back wid her an’ give her back her job? You two been friends before di two ah you even could talk properly. You should mek up back wid her an’ give her back her job.’
Shirley doesn’t respond, a desperate tactic she has learned to use with her mother. It wouldn’t bother Shirley if Diane simply asked for favors for herself and others, but instead she has a pressuring, subtle way of tapping into her mother role by telling her daughter what she should do. Shirley hates this – hates that her mother has the capacity to make her feel like a child, and that she behaves as though Shirley’s money is their money. She’d started the silent treatment in the last year after her mother told her to hire a distant cousin as her housekeeper and the cousin had refused to work but expected to be paid, and firing her was a series of unnecessary dramas. Later Shirley found out that she and the girl weren’t even biologically related.
Diane seems unfazed by her daughter’s silence. She yawns and settles back into the Investigation Discovery channel. She’s watching a show about a missing child who was taken as he walked home from a friend’s house in a suburban neighborhood. Shirley is half watching the show and half wondering about Kerry-Ann, because who is this man she is living with? Of course he’s a white man. Kerry-Ann loves white men. When Shirley teased her about the smaller penis size, Kerry-Ann said, ‘Jamaican men think good sex is pushing a big dick into a woman. White men know how to make love. White men love to eat pussy.’ The only man in recent memory Shirley could think of was a music executive who told Kerry-Ann he was separated from his wife after she slept with him. Shirley had called her a ‘Seventh-day Adventist slut’ because Kerry-Ann was religious when she remembered to be, and they had laughed and reviewed the details of the hookup. It’s only when Shirley hears light snoring that she realizes that her mother is asleep. She looks her mother over, noticing the professional manicure and pedicure, the neatly arched eyebrows, and the freshly relaxed hair that Diane would put into rollers before she climbed into bed.
As a child, Shirley had been protective of her mother’s crossed eyes. Shirley had taken her beauty from her father – a light-skinned, green-eyed man with obvious European ancestry – and from her mother she had taken shapely thighs and a behind that was large enough to impress but small enough to fit into couture clothes. As a child, whenever any of her classmates brought up her mother’s eyes, even if it was as innocent as ‘Is di lady wid di cross eyes yuh madda?’ she would say, ‘Nuh chat ’bout mi madda like dat!’ And because she had come to accept that her mother was the lady with the crossed eyes, she never imagined that her mother hadn’t accepted herself. And so the request for the surgery came as a shock to Shirley. And afterwards, for a long time, whenever Shirley looked at her mother, it felt strange. It was like looking at the sky to see that something as eternal as the stars was no longer there. Shirley noticed other changes in her mother. She became more outspoken around Shirley’s industry friends, and she put more effort into her outward appearance, wearing red lipstick for the first time in Shirley’s life. She put a second hole in her ears. She wore a full face of makeup to go to the market. She traveled to New York more frequently to spend time with Shirley. She took more interest in the names of designers, the famous people Shirley partied with, and she started a Twitter account. Shirley watched, mildly entertained and horrified, and realized with a certain sadness that her mother was still a young woman, only forty-three, and had probably spent her whole life yearning to be beautiful.
When Diane wakes up, she sees Shirley’s thin frame slipping out of the living room. Why was her daughter as thin as the white women on television? Shirley had even lost her bottom. Diane would have to get some oxtail to make stew and some cow foot to make soup. The women in Diane’s family, the ones on her mother’s side, were known for their voluptuous figures – wide hips, round bottoms. Shirley had come like the women on her father’s side who were thin and curvy in their own way without being as shapely and fat as her mother and her sisters. It was true that Shirley had a more ideal body for couture fashion and tiny bikinis. It impressed, bewildered, and at times shamed Diane that she had given birth to and raised a daughter who was understood to be one of the sexiest, most beautiful women in the world. It would have made more sense if it looked like the apple, as they say, didn’t fall far from the tree. Instead, it was that the apple, Shirley, was an entire other species of apple.
It had been a strange thing giving birth to a little girl so pretty. But in the days before anyone discovered that Shirley had a voice, her beauty was less intimidating. Some days it felt like a privilege, a blessing even, but on other days it was a thing a mother couldn’t simply overlook without any resentment in her heart. A lesser woman than Diane would have taken it out on her daughter, but Diane had always loved her daughter. The envy was only a grating presence of the back of her mind, and one she was ashamed about. It had been strange getting attention from Shirley’s red-skinned father. He was a neighborhood boy a few years older than she was, and he had been a friend of Diane’s brothers. Growing up, he’d always paid her little mind until at sixteen he looked at her a long moment and she knew that she had him. He had been surprised that the sex was good, that Diane was such an enthusiastic participant and it was convenient sex, and so he had kept coming back until she discovered that she was pregnant. Shirley had been Rodney’s first child, and the fact that there was a living artifact of himself in the world, and one so pretty, light skinned and green-eyed like his mother, was why he stayed with Diane for the first five years of Shirley’s life. Diane had known that during these years there had been other women, but Rodney had given her and their child the dignity of returning home to them in the evenings for dinner. Those days he worked for the meat man and he would come home with the fatigue of dealing with blood and bones all day. Those days he had said that he almost wanted to stop eating flesh except that he would miss it too much. He would come home and sit on the steps in front of his mother’s house, which is where they all lived, and sitting on the steps he would hold Shirley in his lap and Diane had been very happy because it seemed that she’d made life. Here was the beautiful child, here was the man who told her he loved her, and what a surprise that it all belonged to her. She was only eighteen. At the time, as is sometimes the case with the very young, she’d wanted very little from life.
It always seemed to Diane that Shirley could sing. She was singing for as long as she was talking, and so the fact that Shirley could sing wasn’t in itself a surprise to Diane. Her own mother sang and the only place it took her was to the church choir and to a man who enjoyed listening to her. The first time anyone made mention of Shirley’s voice was when she was five. A woman who lived several houses down the road was passing by the house where Shirley stood at the edge of the grass driveway picking flowers off the hibiscus bush and singing one of the popular gospel songs from the radio. Diane was sitting on the steps in front of the house, shelling peas. The woman looked up at Diane for a long moment as though she had to find the words. ‘But she can sing?’ she finally said. ‘Like a bird,’ Shirley said, and hadn’t thought much of it, until the next day the woman came back and asked if Shirley would sing the special selection in church that Sunday. Diane had been taken aback but she sent Shirley because she figured that nothing bad could come out of a little girl singing a song in a church. As more and more people were astonished by the quality of Shirley’s voice, Diane came to be proud. Her daughter’s talent gave her a sense of visibility that she had never had in her life. People stopped her on the street and asked her if she was Shirley’s mother. All of this extra attention, and she started visualizing the day when people would look at her and her eyes wouldn’t call attention to themselves. She encouraged Shirley to memorize songs and she coached her. By the time Shirley was ten, it seemed a week didn’t go by without her singing in some church or another. By the time she was fourteen, she had nearly won an island-wide singing contest on television. An older woman won the competition but everyone knew that Shirley was cheated. When the music man finally showed up at the resort, the rest, as people say, was history.
Shirley’s belly full of cornmeal porridge and fried plantain with bread, breakfasts from her childhood, that other life, when she had been poor. Yet food satisfying all the same for reasons so complicated and nebulous and obvious that there is no encompassing language for it. Diane had brought a tray in, and nudged her daughter awake. Shirley drank the cornmeal porridge in bed, lying on her side, blowing at the first few spoonfuls. The plantain and bread she ate standing at her bedroom window looking down at the pool. She ate quickly, hungrily, having slept through the early hours of evening and throughout the night. She’d woken up at 4 a.m. to use the bathroom, and afterwards she had considered looking for something to eat but then sleep revisited her, and with it came a recurring dream: she’s in a gay bar and she’s moving through the packed space, looking for Yaheem. There are men everywhere – beautiful men, dancing ones, ones who have drunk too much and are kissing in corners – and they are all calling to her, touching her shoulders as she passes so that she will look their way. But she can’t stop. She has to find Yaheem. That’s all she can ever remember from the dream.
Looking down at the pool, Shirley counts on her fingers the hours she spent sleeping: fifteen. A week in Jamaica, and mostly all she’s done is sleep. After the breakup with Huzzah the Rapper, there had been a period of time – a span of months that felt longer – during which it seemed that all she did was sleep. Shirley had no idea, and barely any recollection of, how she managed to record the album that came out the following year. When she finally awoke, regaining a more normalized sleeping routine and replacing sleep with weed and cocktails, she was fifteen pounds lighter, which her stylist, Bastian, a gay black man from the South who spoke in a British accent, used to his advantage. It could be argued that it was Shirley who reintroduced the midriff from the nineties – but she wore it elegantly, not like those pop stars from back in the day who looked as though they were desperate for the easy attention their sexuality brought them. Girls like that pouted too obviously, no subtlety whatsoever, and they behaved as though they’d discovered sex, when in fact there wasn’t anything new or interesting or even surprising about how they presented themselves. It was all more than a little boring. Now, after her seventh album, Shirley has developed a coolness about her sexuality – ‘Ain’t no thang’, she seems to be saying in pictorials and music videos. She is rock and roll and red lipstick and long extensions. She is eyeliner and cigarettes and tattoos. All of this, and in a pencil skirt and a pair of boots made for men, with her belly button hanging out. It’s all more than a little bit clichéd but enlivened with the understanding that she’s an exotic, sun-kissed specimen from an island paradise, and in this way, she isn’t another Madonna-esque pop star. The magazines notice. Fashion designers notice. Shirley holds the world’s stare, or at least she dares herself to. Last year, one magazine dubbed her ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’. Another one dubbed her ‘The Sexiest Woman Alive’. She is regularly featured in celebrity Best Body pictorials, and because in interviews she could never confess the truth, that she’d gotten her body because she’d been depressed and had somehow never been able to regain those fifteen pounds, she talks about lean protein, green juice, and an exercise routine with a celebrity trainer. This, after all, is an appropriate response and, moreover, the kind of thing people expect to hear.
There is a feeling that this day holds more possibility than the previous ones where sleep held her in its arms so tightly and so tenderly that there was little effort to untangle from it. Maybe, Shirley thinks, God has finally answered her prayers. Or perhaps the meal invigorated her. The decision to change into a bikini isn’t a conscious one. Shirley sits at the edge of the pool in a tiny bikini, massaging her belly, admiring the fullness. A strand of wind comes to her, and with it a memory. When she was a little girl, the white children on television ate spaghetti with tomato sauce. What it tasted like Shirley hadn’t a clue, but because the white children on television desired this meal, she came to desire it too. There was a time when she decided that this meal that she hadn’t had in her life was her favorite thing to eat. Oh, how she cried whenever her mother put cornmeal porridge or boiled yams, green bananas, and dumplings in front of her. ‘You nuh see you too mawga?’ Diane would say as tears slipped down Shirley’s face, because she wasn’t allowed to leave the table until she’d eaten a substantial amount off the plate. There was a time a relative living in the United States sent a barrel to Jamaica, and the food, clothing, and household items were parsed out among the family members. Included in Diane’s share were two packages of spaghetti and two jars of tomato sauce, and when Shirley saw this, she jumped up and down. Shirley was nine years old at the time, old enough to boil water herself, and so she cooked the spaghetti by following the directions on the package carefully. When it was ready, it met Shirley’s expectations – it was indeed after all her favorite thing to eat. She twirled the spaghetti on her fork as she had seen the white children on television do. Diane, however, took one bite, screwed up her face, and dismissed the whole business as ‘white people food’. Shirley paid her mother no mind – she had long mistrusted her mother’s taste in food. This was after all a woman who delighted in eating tripe with boiled green bananas and cow foot soup. Shirley ate a large sharing of spaghetti, half the package, and because of the heaviness of the meal, sleep came without her realizing.
The next morning, she learned that her mother packaged the rest of the spaghetti to be taken to school for lunch. And how excited Shirley was to show her friends the spaghetti, to tell them how it came all the way from America. Of course, when they begged, she would share a little, and when they asked for more, she would share a little more but not too much because it was her lunch. In the hours before lunch, she told her friends about the spaghetti but to her disappointment they were only mildly interested. Maybe, she thought, her friends weren’t more excited because they had to see what she meant. Maybe they didn’t understand. Maybe they didn’t believe her. When it was finally time to eat, she went to her desk but when she opened up the plastic container she saw that there was a large cockroach sitting in the spaghetti and tomato sauce. She almost wanted to cry. She put the container back in her desk and she didn’t eat lunch that day. She didn’t have any money and home was too far away to walk to. While playing outside with her friends, one of them asked about the spaghetti, but to Shirley’s relief another friend said something else and so the moment passed. Later at home, Shirley was angry and humiliated and she asked her mother about the cockroach in a tone that sounded like an accusation – what she wanted to know was, How could you let this happen to me? But since she was a child, since she only had the language of childhood, she whined.
Since the cockroach was still lying dead in the spaghetti and tomato sauce, Shirley showed it to her mother, but Diane had the wrong response – she laughed. This exacerbated Shirley’s desire to cry. Diane stopped laughing long enough to reveal that she didn’t know how the cockroach got into Shirley’s lunch. Perhaps, she explained, the cockroach climbed in as she transferred the spaghetti from the pot to Shirley’s lunch container the night before school. It was an unsavory thing to happen to a little girl. Shirley knew that those little white children on television didn’t open their lunch boxes to find cockroaches. Shirley lost interest in spaghetti after that – the remaining box of pasta and the jar of tomato sauce sat idly on a shelf until a few months later when there was nothing else to eat in the house. Diane ate the spaghetti because she could do no better, and after examining that there were no cockroaches on her plate, Shirley twirled the spaghetti with the joy and determination of reacquainting oneself with an old lover. She ate her share as well as what was left on her mother’s plate. Why this memory, Shirley asks herself, and why now? She remembers herself, her toes dipped into the water, her nipples sensitive against her bikini top – her period must be on its way.
In the beginning, it felt weird and surprising to come home to Jamaica to a house that wasn’t the home she’d known all her life. The large spacious rooms and new furniture felt like an unwelcome stranger pulling her into a hug. Now, Shirley is more comfortable with the fact that most things in her life are new, and in this way absent of the history that comes from being passed down and reused again and again in the way of the poor. But once in a while something will trigger a memory from the days when she was just Shirley from a small place. It happened days ago, when the chicken foot soup burned her tongue and she remembered being a little girl at the house where they used to live. There’d been a time when the soup burned her tongue and her mother put a cup of water in her hand. There was nothing profound about the memory – just a little piece of childhood come back to haunt her. She’d moved her mother out of that house with the old chicken coop in back and the crumbling steps in front, and bought her a house in a wealthy neighborhood. It had been the right thing to do, the safe thing to do.
But the house had been a lonely place for Diane. The neighbors were lawyers and doctors and foreigners with homes abroad – none of them the kind of country people Diane took a natural liking to, because the truth is that such people, the educated kind, intimidated her. When Diane wasn’t speaking to old friends on the telephone, she was welcoming her sisters and other relatives into her home with its too many rooms. It was the only way she could navigate the wide, white rooms of the house.
A pool in Jamaica makes little sense to Shirley, as it is a poor comparison to the sea. The sea, that culmination of land and sky, that blue a color living and holy, a color that can be heard and seen, smelled and felt, a color that can also be tasted. For Shirley, pools made more sense in the States, made sense because of those weak excuses Americans called beaches. Now, dipping her toes in the water, she decides that she feels like swimming and today the pool will suffice. A strand of thought from somewhere deep, and Shirley decides – and this realization comes to her slowly – to be happy. Yes, she will be happy. She is a famous singer and beautiful to more than a few people – both childhood dreams come true. There are no cockroaches. There is no reason to be anything other than happy. Meanwhile, behind her, through the kitchen window, Diane peels carrots for the cow foot soup and looks at her daughter’s narrow back, the pale pink bikini, the flawless brown skin, watching, admiring and apprehensive, and contemplating what is to become of Shirley in the same way one might listen carefully to hear the note that signals the end of a song.
‘Shirley from a Small Place’ appears in Alexia Arthurs’s short story collection, How to Love a Jamaican.
Image © oouinouin