some things I knew by age seven: by Shaina Phenix
Shaina Phenix’s creative nonfiction essay “some things I knew by age seven:” takes the form of a list in seven parts, each charting some aspect of growing up as a Black girl “in a country where being both Black and girl endangers us.” Phenix writes of old wives’ tales and the death of a beloved near-cousin and Fresh Air summer camp and poverty and illness and her mother’s sorrows and what she learned in church and what she learned from her mother and female relatives and what they’d learned from their mothers and female relatives about sex and “bad touch.” “Like me, they memorized the rules decided upon by our foremothers who hoped that we’d stay little girls longer than they got to. They internalized that there were ways of being, ways of conducting their bodies that would keep us safe from violation.”
“Quiet as it’s kept.” In a covert allusion to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Phenix pays tribute to the inspiration for her essay—Morrison’s subject and rich language and “moments of cataloguing” and “portrayals of our many-ness” and deep understanding of her characters. “This essay came to be after I reread Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for at least the fifth time since I first encountered it in high school,” Phenix writes in her author’s note. “I arrived at this piece thinking about Morrison’s tender and nuanced portrayals of problematic characters.” Phenix explores the “raggedy truth” of her early lessons and early loves with depth and complexity. “While the I is most of the essay’s focus, in conversation with and in admiration of Toni Morrison, I am always writing toward more versions of we.” —CRAFT
In every story we are precocious, fast, little mothers, little women living in questionable child bodies. Men stalk the straps of our training bras sliding off our shoulders. Our mothers scold us for getting ruined or dirty—always reminding us of how ladies should be. There’s always a boy on the playground. The boy is always picking at us like we are itchy scabs. We are stomachs. We get fed and absorb the food about girlhood and existence. By seven, I stored a pantry of food in me. I had been fed so much that I ached with it.
I heard a vagina called several things before I heard it called a vagina: too-too, pocketbook, privates, bits, baby-maker, pussy, cunt, hole. As a girl, I wondered how it all fit on me; in one little spot between my legs. My mother was formulaic and clear as water when she said, “A good touch is a hug, a kiss on your cheek from someone who loves you, a high five on the playground.” She said, “This is a bad touch,” and scanned her open palm across my body like a metal detector, beeping around my vagina, chest, then at my own small hands in case someone made me touch the bad spots on them. My mother said, “When you feel a bad touch, yell, bad touch as loud and as wild as you can. Then, you come and tell Mommy where, how, and who did it.” My mother forgot to tell me which kind of touches were okay from whom.
I imagine that generations of girls who became women in my family got some version of this talk. My great grandmother, thin as a Newport cigarette, with her right hip cocked like a gun, telling my mother, “Little girl, don’t never let me catch you sitting on no man’s lap, or you’ll have to deal with me.” And my mother’s acquiescent inhales of the smoke in my great grandmother’s threat. My grandmother, an Empire State Building of a woman standing at least six foot two, with full breasts, and hands big as soup bowls, saying to her budding building daughters, “Don’t roughhouse with men because they might see you different—more grown than you are.” My aunts, like breakfast bread beneath the syrup in her portent. My great-great-someone spreading like a disrupted weed in Southern soil under the sound of her mother’s bondage-born trepidation saying, “Keep your eyes low. Don’t be too much body in front of the overseers, in front of the other men. Don’t you do nothing to make them want you.” Like me, they memorized the rules decided upon by our foremothers who hoped that we’d stay little girls longer than they got to. They internalized that there were ways of being, ways of conducting their bodies that would keep us safe from violation. I knew never to show my bare chest in the presence of men, family or not. I knew never to sit on any man’s lap, not even my father’s. I knew not to be alone with men, not to roughhouse with them, not to be too free in my body around them. I understood that men could hurt me or change me if I did things with my body to make them. My mother and I never talked about women or other kids, family or not.
My mother was eighteen when she had me; hurling my pulpy baby body onto and off of her unsure hip. My mother became my mother young and so everyone else around her was young: my grandfather was a young grandfather, my father was a young father, my aunts and uncles were young aunts and uncles. Everyone around me was figuring it out and still growing up themselves. What this looked like: living rooms brimming with unsupervised cousins, brothers, aunts, and sisters—our bellies filled with Maruchan Ramen and fried chicken we cooked ourselves; drawn out games of hide-and-seek where the air in my mother’s apartment was thick with query about shifts in our developing bodies; stews of questions about what was right and what was wrong for cousins to do hiding in the coat closet, forgetting entirely about the game, and worried more about how much of one another we’d be able to explore before whoever was looking found us. Us making answers on our own. Us figuring it out and nobody ever knowing of our wonder. A bunk bed bottom bunk that I shared with a body like my own, just more rounded and announced, where she lifted her plump dark nipple to my mouth, told me to suck, and I did. The days where my younger brother shared that same bottom bunk with the same body, and I imagined she was down there saying “suck” or more. Me saying nothing. Older cousins and aunties who inherited only a slither of the riches that childhood had to offer because they had to stand in for moms and dads: they babysat, helped with homework, looked out for us at school, smooth-talked our mothers out of many an ass whoopin’, then sat us on a couch cushion on the floor between their legs and sewed in our first weaves. My inevitable too-quick-coming-of-age. My own learning to stand in for moms and dads, the replacement of some of my childhood things with things only adults should know. Underdeveloped palm prints scattered about my bad-touch zones that I was unequipped to classify. Very little bad touch yelling or telling my mother who and where, and so much asking my body what to call it, what to do with it; my body saying nothing at all.
In short, my vagina was either an empty purse or a place that no one but me was allowed to touch, and then only when washing. Men had something dark in them that made them unable to control themselves around little girls who had bodies. Other kids could be anything they wanted to be (or I wanted them to be) when there were no adults around. Identifying a bad touch was as easy as getting a glob of toothpaste off a black shirt. Sometimes kids had to be adults. Nobody wants to admit it, but most of us—Black, poor, and budding—learn an amalgamation of lessons we’ve got no one to unpack with but our own small selves. And quiet as it’s kept, most of our first loves are the people we see all the time, family or not.
Summertime was the worst time of year to be a Black girl. When we’d travel south to visit family members we only saw for funerals or school breaks, we’d come back to the city too black and country-sounding, syrup in our once sharp Harlem accents. In summer, we got crispy, got burnt, got uglier, got chunky from hushpuppies and biscuits and chopped barbecue. We couldn’t wait for the fall, for our fried skins to soften and peel.
In my seventh summer, I went to a sleep-away program called Fresh Air Fund, which, in retrospect, took little kids from the hood, sent them to suburbs in majority-white family houses to show them life outside of the city (the ghetto). I stayed with a family in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who had built their house from home-drawn blueprints, from scratch, with their own hands. They had two daughters, one son, a backyard, and an in-ground pool, which I had never seen at anyone’s home. The eldest daughter, her pink face shriveled like a pickle, asked, “What is it like to live there?” Perhaps she meant New York or the hood or my skin. When I bathed, the younger daughter and son threw separate, simultaneous tantrums so that they could bathe with me. No one asked how I took my baths—the way the baristas asked their mother how she took her coffee. In the bath, I was a fascinating brown heap of mosquito-bite chest and bare vagina. The kids ogled—did not play with the rubber ducky or wrestling figures, watched the bubbles pop on my skin, gawked—their soggy pink faces draped by the blonde hair hooked around their cheeks.
Death hath no pity; not even on sick children. Blood is a funny thing. It makes us family or not, betrays us in the body, will spill everywhere as if anyone has time to clean it up, makes us sick if it’s feeling a little finicky. Christopher and I knew that we shared no blood and I loved him, in an ugly, plump, Black six-year-old girl finally-feeling-seen kind of way. I don’t mean to speak on behalf of the dead, but I think he loved me too. My stepmother was Christopher’s godmother. Her best friend, Shaune, had Chris and two other children. Because of closeness in age, proximity, and for the alleviation of any childish confusion, my sisters and I had been instructed to call them our cousins. When I was six years old, Chris died. People I’d known had died before. I’d seen limp lumps of flesh in caskets before, I’d cried loudly over them. But none had been children. None had curdled their small voices to tell me every time they saw me that I looked pretty. Back then, I had this theory about kids. We were temporarily immortal, death-exempt until we were old enough to take the train to school alone, at least. I thought we’d shed our immortality the way garter snakes shed skin when they grow—slow and with warning. Nineteen years later, I asked my stepmother how he died because I was too young to remember a brain surgery with a fifty-percent chance for survival. She mentioned that before this surgery, he had been given a kidney, had a host of other surgeries before he could string coherent words from his mouth, and that he wasn’t expected to live past one year. Death hath no pity on sick children, no pity on little ugly girls who need the sick children to feel alive. And suffering has no age.
My mother said, “Sex is a special dance that adults do when they love each other.” My father said, “Sex is when a boy sticks his penis inside of a girl’s vagina.” I settled on sex is a special penis that gets stuck into the vagina of a girl who wants to be loved. I would know a special penis or two, get stuck, get Tupperware-full, and get emptied in the way of mouth split from being struck, in the way of an almost-someone lifted from my body at a clinic. The first time I sprawled across a peeling leather couch and the other body was that of another woman, there were no boys. Our dance was more special than any bedded waltz I had ever done. Our bodies got mangled with pleasure and I was under her hand. And when my lover, who at the time was a man, asked if she and I had sex, I used my mother as manual, I said, “We danced, we danced, we danced.”
Old wives’ tales were just superstitions disguised by women too Christian to believe in anything but Christ the Lord himself out loud. But they believed: if you put your purse on the floor you’ll stay broke, if you stand up and eat it’ll make your house poor, if someone sweeps a woman’s foot she won’t get married, hats on the bed are bad luck, if either of your eyes twitch someone is talking about you, don’t buy a man shoes as those will be the shoes he’ll use to walk out on you, if your right palm itches money is coming in, if the left itches money will leave you, if you need to tell a bad dream you should have something in your mouth so that it won’t come true, flip a baby to reset its sleep schedule, if you dream of fish someone close is pregnant, if you see monsters it’s because you’re a bad kid, if a pregnant woman carries high she’s having a girl, if low, it’s a boy, splitting poles will make you argue.
Stepping on a crack wouldn’t actually break my mother’s back: poverty would, her suffering surely could. Some of my most vivid memories of my mother are of her weeping. My mother’s cry is noiseless and deep as a wound made with something sharp and ragged. My mother at one point was a single mother to four children, widowed once; each of us might recall our childhoods differently but each of us have watched our mother’s eyes echo with red from crying. Sometimes my mother wept because she felt alone, sometimes because she didn’t know how we’d make it into the next month, sometimes because she missed her mother who was rumored to have rotted from the inside out with zero medical explanation. Now, my mother cries because of the intense pressure on her sciatic nerve, because she is tired, because she is scared she’ll die like her mother did, because of her chronic stomach issues, because of her unnamed depression, unnamed PTSD from living as an under-protected Black woman in this country.
Jesus was Black and so was I. In church, I had heard the reverend broken-record the fact that Jesus had hair like sheep’s wool and bronze skin. I had heard that Jesus was the son of a God who had created everything to exist. I had heard that we—myself, my mama, and n’em were made in his image. I think a lot about how Reverend Alston meant the whole of us; our congregation of Black selves pressed sweaty against ruby-hued and itchy pews in the lungs of Harlem. Reverend Alston never called us Gods from his mouth but the rumble and sucker punch of each of his sermons instructed our Black hands to hover above our own wools, summoned the holy spirit to reflect off our baked metal coverings; and we’d praise ourselves out of every ailment, malaise, and tight spot. Nothing in the world was more holy, we were made in the likeness of God. And so Black and becoming and sometimes in hand-me-downs, sometimes in corner stores hiding the food stamp card in our jacket pockets, sometimes bad-touched, sometimes crispy from too much sun, sometimes with the weight of dead children, we were of a cloth, an everything-that-ever-was-and-is cloth. By seven, I ordained it that I had a divine authority to rebuild, re-genesis any of the world that was made in those seven days of creation.
SHAINA PHENIX is a queer, Black femme poet, other-art-maker, educator from Harlem, NY. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Virginia Tech and is the 2021–2022 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch Wired, Glass, DIALOGIST, Foglifter Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, Salt Hill Journal, The Pinch Journal, Puerto del Sol, and Frontier Poetry.
Featured image by S. Hermann & F. Richter courtesy of Pixabay