The light flickered in and out as the tinny sounds leaking out of a crappy little Macbook speaker interrupted my sleep, and I caught a glimpse of Charlotte hunched over her laptop under her blanket. She was up all night watching YouTube videos. Again. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since her ear buds broke a week and a half ago. If I squinted my ears, I could almost make out what was being said:
If only people believed in themselves as much as they believe in Lil Wayne and Beyoncé and them.
Charlotte always had her videos blasted louder than they needed to be, which was okay at first, but then she started watching old Malcolm X and Black Panther videos, Umar Johnson videos, Boyce Watkins videos, and random loud, self-proclaimed revolutionary, angry videos featuring people who complained about this and that. Always something about race, social class, corrupt government, or some type of conspiracy. My dreams were starting to fill up with dictators yelling and people mindlessly zoned out. Now, it was some guy who called himself “the revolutionary with the tattoos.”
“You should listen to some of the stuff these speakers have to say,” she said to me the next morning. “I don’t agree with everything they think, of course. But it’s better than listening to Rochelle all day and all night. She teaches nothing but how to twerk backwards and flaunt your nonexistent money.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t go there with her,” I said.
Heat filled my body the way it did every time Charlotte did that, compared my actions with hers as if we were the same people, as if she knew better than I did. I have a drawer filled with every pencil I snapped when she did that. Sometimes I snapped other things.
Like the heads that used to be a part of Charlotte’s favorite dolls growing up, the ones she never had to share. Some toys just weren’t made so sturdy. There were the CDs of her preferred artists, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and, randomly, the Doors and the DVDs like Do the Right Thing and The Color Purple for the cultural messages or Pulp Fiction for the cinematography, that she would give me as birthday and Christmas gifts every year, as if we liked the same genres or songs. I guess she thought they would fix me. They didn’t. Then there were the hair brushes, combs, and flat irons that we had to share, the things that never worked in my hair but worked in hers. I was amazed at my own strength sometimes, but sometimes tools around the house were helpful. The main thing was Charlotte’s finger, when I shut a car door on it when we were nine years old. This was the one thing I could pass off as an accident as opposed to the others, believe it or not.
Charlotte and I were fraternal twins, but the differences in our appearance nowhere near matched our differences in personality. She was the intellectual, the one into the fake deeps who praised mother Africa and raved about post traumatic slave syndrome and the evils of capitalism and wealth inequality. She was the one destined to go to Harvard and double major in African American studies and bioengineering, writing novels on the science behind the spread of some disease in minority communities and its ties to redlining, eventually winning Nobel Peace Prizes for her discoveries.
According to society, I was the not so smart one, just another ratchet black girl, the one who needed to find her way, and soon. I was the one who clung to reality TV shows and gorged on “Mob Wives” and “Pretty Little Liars” binges, overdosed on Nicki Minaj and One Direction on Spotify, followed celebrity trends like Beyoncé’s newfound veganism that she announced on “Good Morning, America,” much to the Beehive’s dismay. They were expecting a new album. I guess the announcement was pretty anticlimactic. I was still trying to figure out where I could find a placenta to eat like the Kardashians or how to get cheap butt injections like almost every vixen in Hollywood. I watched makeup tutorials on YouTube by the endless number of girls trying to get Kylie Jenner’s lips without the injections and expensive makeup. I even watched the videos by the girls with skin lighter than mine who wanted to make their skin even lighter.
People can judge, but as trivial as these things sounded, I needed something to distract me from my boring ass life. In this world of the haves and have nots, we all needed distractions from time to time, and listening to Marcus Garvey wasn’t going to work for me like it did for her.
Mama and Frankie, the current boyfriend, told me that that was okay, that it was fine for me to be different from her. Mama said, “People are different. Not everyone has to be the same. You just have to love yourself. Love who you are instead of focusing on who you’re not.” Frankie agreed by nodding, probably because he didn’t have any other choice but to pretend to show interest. Still, I knew that she was the better twin. I believed that deep in my heart, and I knew they believed it too. I could see that they believed that, just in the way they looked at her, like she was the answer to all of our financial problems, like she would deliver us into this upper class Garden of Eden. It kind of reminded me of the mother from Boyz N the Hood, the one who hated Ice Cube’s character but worshipped Morris Chestnut’s, even though she birthed both of them. It was funny how people told you to be yourself, love who you are, and all that jazz, but only the ‘you’ that benefits them and makes them comfortable.
Charlotte had her legs crossed with books on top of them as she scribbled away on the loose leaf on the table. The sunlight creeping in through the window highlighted the caramel tones of her Rihanna colored skin that I was secretly envious of, but I tried to ignore it while I watched a rerun of Rochelle’s performance at the Billboard Music Awards, the one where she was spray painted with glitter as an outfit and managed to pull off Ciara level dance moves without showing the world her “kutty cat,” as Joseline Hernandez would say.
The commercials came on, and I managed to watch them without really soaking them in. Except there was this one lingerie commercial that I dwelled on for a moment. I noticed how the women looked the same, taller and shaped more like an hourglass than I was, with hair straighter than mine and skin lighter than mine. The different races of women were barely distinguishable from each other. And it made me feel like I did when Mama complimented Charlotte on the glow of her skin and asked me if I was using the Aveeno lotion often enough. Or when I heard on the Wendy William’s Show that even the extras in Straight Outta Compton had to look like Beyonce or better until the casting company was forced to apologize due to backlash. Or when Mama used to give me a relaxer because my hair was coarser than Charlotte’s. That was alright, though, because the burning on my scalp was less painful than the burning inside of me.
In the corner of my eye, there was Mama, washing crusted plates and smiling at Charlotte, and Frankie, clearing what was left on the table while smiling at Charlotte. Their smiles for me were only half of what their smiles for her were. It was like those awkward smiles that people give to drug addicts, the ones who everyone can tell has a problem but no one wants to be around or offend.
I expected this from Frankie, because he was just boyfriend of the month until mama found a new guy who could afford more. He knew this, and it made sense to not waste time investing in the both of us. It was just easier with Charlotte. I don’t know what I expected from mama, though.
But I didn’t care, because Rochelle always smiled at me, and her smile was worth more than all of their smiles combined, and her voice- even on auto tune, which is most of the time– drowned out the voices in my head, the ones that wanted to talk about the things I didn’t want to talk about.
She was a goddess. The lightness of her bleached skin, the roundness of her silicone breasts, and the waviness and length of her hair gave me a glimpse of what it was to truly be. No matter what they said about her, she owned the stage in ways that few could.
The way she danced made women want to take bachata and twerking lessons and made men forget that they wanted to be dominant, made them want to be the one who was dominated. And I wanted that power. She was my drug, the only way to numb myself.
Saturday nights were usually my numbing days, where I would pretend to be sleeping over at a friend’s house but really would be sitting on the roof of Carol’s Jewelry, or at least it was called that when they were still in business. Now it’s a roof of emptiness. It’s where the homeless people go to sleep when it’s raining or cold and where the teenagers go to fuck and get wasted.
One of the teenagers caused a fire once on purpose, trying to kill his ex girlfriend and her new fling, and all that’s left is the creaky red door, the busted pieces of glass struggling to stay a window, and the burned rooms. But the roof still works. Sometimes, I’d just go by myself and listen to Rochelle on my phone. Other nights I’d be there with my boyfriend, Kyle, and his friends, which always ended with Kyle saying or doing something stupid. Like tonight, for example:
“You’re so black, I can’t even see you right now! You’re so black, you leave fingerprints on charcoal!” he crowed. I tried to ignore him, kept reminding myself that he was drunk off of the bottle of Ciroc that he insisted on drinking all by himself. It’s not like I had a lot of options, and it was hard to find someone else who didn’t prefer Charlotte over me. The whole world preferred Charlotte over me. So I said nothing and let it burn me inside, the same way I swallowed the Remington burns, while his friends fell over laughing.
“Yo, babe, let me see your phone.”
He grabbed my phone before I could even stop him.
“Hey! Give IT back!”
Then I was blinded by the flash of my camera.
“What the fuck is your problem? I swear to God-”
I tried to grab it, but he held it above my head, just out of reach, so I shoved him.
He just laughed and said, “Sending this to all of your friends on Snapchat. Beckonnator69, TotallyTiffany, Charlotte Brown…”
When I heard him say her name, I panicked.
“No! Don’t send that!”
I kicked him in the shin and when he doubled over, I went to grab the phone, but I was too late. I knew once Charlotte saw it, she would tell mama and Frankie about me and then she’d come find me and give me the “what are you doing with your life?” speech. Also, there was alcohol in the picture, and I knew that would set her off more than anything.
I wasn’t wrong either, because two seconds later she texted back in all caps.
11:58AM: WHERE ARE YOU??
11:59AM: NEVERMIND, I’LL COME FIND YOU!
At that point, I was fucked. It took the average person six minutes to walk here from my house, and it took Charlotte three with that antsy power walk that she had.
Kyle’s friends have seen Charlotte on the warpath before, and no one wanted to deal with that. She was the type who was crazy enough to call the cops because there was underage drinking. So Kyle and his friends gathered their alcohol and themselves and headed down the stairs.
I heard the front door being slammed angrily.
“Yo, your sister coming up,” they called from the stairwell.
She was in a rage, I could tell, because of the redness of her ears. And I thought, damn, the last time her ears were that red we were twelve and she caught me smoking in the girls’ bathroom at school. That didn’t end well.
“What the hell? Why are you here? You’re supposed to be at Shanice’s. And alcohol? Really? Did your over-twenty-one-year-old boyfriend get that for you?”
I sighed. “Leave me alone, Charlotte.”
“I don’t understand you! Why do you choose to let toxic people into your life? You could be so much better than this if you just realized how great you are! You don’t have to destroy yourself!”
She told me this time and time again. At this point, I wasn’t even tired of hearing her say things like this; my ears just stopped recognizing these kinds of words as words. I took out my tangled up earbuds, jammed them into my ears and cranked, “Imperfect.” And let Rochelle’s voice wash over me.
“Really?!?” Charlotte screamed loud enough to drown out the song, but I pretended I couldn’t hear her, which just made her madder.
“TURN THAT THE FUCK OFF!!” she screamed, yanking the earbuds out of my ear.
I jumped up and shoved her.
“What the fuck is your problem?”
“I don’t have a problem! You do! And it’s all that music you listen to! All that Rochelle! She’s a bad influence on you and everyone! Singing about a life she wouldn’t even know about.”
“Shut up!” I screamed. “Stop talking about Rochelle like that!”
“Don’t you ever wonder how she’s rich, claiming to be this promiscuous girl this ‘bad bitch’, whatever that’s supposed to mean, who loves to party ridiculously and drink herself into a coma, and you’re not, and you actually do those things? Huh? Tell me that!”
I thought I was the angriest I had ever been.
“So I should be like you, then, huh? A fucking ‘fight the power,’ Janelle Monáe wannabe? Well not everybody can be that. Not everybody can be you!”
I was wrong. Her voice started to crack like she was choking back tears or anger or frustration as she said,
“You don’t have to be me. No matter what anyone says or thinks, you really don’t have to be me. You just have to be a better you. Rochelle and her music and burying yourself in pop culture can’t lead to a better you. She can never fix you.”
That’s when I heard the voices in my head. I thought about one of the videos Charlotte had listened to one night, the only one that I remembered instead of blocked out with my pillow. It was a snippet from Spike Lee’s A Huey P. Newton Story. I heard “I can’t be your idol. I can’t be your icon. I mean, I can’t be your hero…I’m just what they call a regular human being,” and then I heard, “She can never fix you,” again, and it was like Charlotte ripped the lid off something inside me.
“I told you to fucking stop!”
I lunged at her, and kept pushing her. I was so angry, I couldn’t see a thing in front of my eyes, only a blur. Charlotte tried to push back, but she was no match because I was heavier than she was and got into more fights than she had.
Then that’s when I heard the sound of a pencil snapping.
“Stop it! Stop!” Charlotte screamed.
But I couldn’t stop myself. I just kept pushing and pushing her to the ledge until one of the “stops” in Charlotte’s voice cracked and she was gone. She didn’t scream or even make a sound when she hit the sidewalk. It was like the volume was turned all the way down.
To this day I don’t know why I did it. All I know is that nobody who does what I did knows why. And I didn’t even feel bad. I felt nothing at all as I watched her lying there with her eyes open and her split head spilling into the ground, and I couldn’t help but think that we had never looked more similar.