“Where’s Ex Boyfriend?” my cousin, Velvet, asked.
All at once the living room’s occupants turned their attentions toward me.
The topic of my waxing/waning, mysterious, but most assuredly nascent dating life was always a hot one in my family.
And everyone had loved Ex Boyfriend. Velvet and her siblings in particular.
I pretended not to notice the cessation of other side conversations, and fixed my focus on the rather deliberate bit of stitching at my dress’ hem.
“I can only presume that he is off somewhere with his newer, better girlfriend, V,” I said, now frustratingly attempting to align a particularly defiant stitch with my thumbnail.
Velvet was not to be deterred. She had had high hopes about the entry of Ex Boyfriend into the debacle that was our family. “So, you haven’t talked to him, at all? Ya’ll were together for so long. I knew you’d broken up, but—“
“At some point you’re going to have to let this go,” I said, furrowing my brow, and wanting, more than anything, to tuck the fabric into my mouth and free the seam with my teeth.
“Are you dating at all?” Velvet’s sister, Winter, chimed in.
“Trying my damnedest not to,” I replied, casually, still very aware of the stares drilling holes into my bowed head.
“How are you gonna get a boyfriend if you don’t date?” came her ready query.
“Fairly certain we’ve seen the last of my girlfriend days, guys. Me and relationships don’t quite seem to suit,” I offered. I’d finally righted the wayward stitch, and was rewarded with one tiny, frayed thread I had nowhere to put.
“You don’t get to be a good girlfriend by not being a girlfriend. You have to keep trying. You’ll get the swing of it,” contributed Velvet’s friend, Anna.
“I’m 30, Anna. I think I’ve got a solid grasp of my strengths and weaknesses. I can’t force it.” I tried to subtlely tuck the thread between the cushions of the ottoman.
Velvet began, again. “Look. We’re all about you being out there, doing your little DC thing. We love your little DC thing—“
“Thank you,” I interrupted. “There’s much to love about my ‘little DC thing.’”
“But you have to keep trying. You can’t just say you don’t want to be a girlfriend, anymore, because where does that leave you?”
I looked up, just then. Even well into her forties, my cousin was one of the prettiest women I’d ever seen. There was no way I could look at that face and put forth my well-thought out plan to let every clever, charming, and otherwise eligible super-sexy man in DC get a passing glance at my areolas until I was good and ugly.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t force it. Bad stuff happens when I force it. People get hurt when I force it. By myself, I suppose.”
I don’t fuck with piñatas.
Don’t bring a piñata around me. Don’t suggest we get a piñata. Don’t offer me candy that fell to the ground as a result of some other piñata enthusiast’s backswing.
I don’t fuck with piñatas.
I’m thinking you’ll want the backstory.
I was five when I learned to respect the piñata. Its dangers. Its powers. The treachery obscured in its brightly-colored hollows.
As a kindergartener at Tabernacle Baptist Church School (you read that right), I found myself one of five blacks in a student body comprised of children whose parents viewed the school as the only viable alternative to homeschooling.
Corporal punishment ruled the day, polygamist clothing covered our bodies, and the sweet Lamb of God heard our constant entreaties.
Mrs. Parsons, my teacher, had hated me. I had done any number of things that possibly offended her, but I remained her brightest pupil. Even at five, I’d reasoned this certainly had to count for something. It had not.
The only person who held me in lower regard was her daughter, Matilda. Her translucent skin was covered in an unfortunate smattering of freckles, and the top of her head blazed fire, just like her mother’s. My parents weren’t religious. They weren’t members of the affiliate church. I was an only child with a never-ending sea of new toys and clothes. Matilda made little effort to hide her resentment.
It was early spring when Mrs. Parsons had called us in from recess for our afternoon surprise. With the help of the custodian she’d managed to affix a piñata from a coarse rope and suspend it from the ceiling.
Though I can’t recall the exact reason for such a surprise, I can only assume it was a last ditch effort of our administration to insensitively include the slightest bit of culture into our otherwise homogenous routine.
Mrs. Parsons, of course, utilized Matilda as the example, blindfolding the girl and spinning her around five times with an old wooden pole in her tiny hands, before excitedly yelling, “Hit it!”
I knew, at once, I wanted no part of this. None.
I cared little if candy was inside. Frankly, I’d doubted it, given Mrs. Parson’s staunch anti-junk food stance.
This could only end badly.
Besides, I hated being spun around; hated being dizzy. I’d just wait until everyone else was finished, and take a piece of candy. Surely they wouldn’t begrudge me one piece of candy even though I hadn’t participated.
When Mrs. Parsons looked to me and said that it was my turn, I quietly conveyed to her my desire to sit this one out.
She’d exhaled in frustration, seeing this as yet another in a long series of nonconformities. She’d tried to forcefully put the pole in my grasp, but I’d been adamant, keeping my spine rigid, and my fists clenched.
Exasperated, Mrs. Parsons pulled me aside and said that I was ruining everyone’s afternoon. She indicated that she had taken the time out with Mr. Williams to hang the piñata as a special surprise, and I wasn’t being very appreciative. At five, I had not the precise words to convey my decided failings in the area of hand-eye coordination (not that it would have mattered given the blindfold, and purposeful vertigo), but somehow managed to utter the terminology my father had assigned to the subject—“clumsy.“
She’d laughed then, and called me a “silly little girl.” She even gave me what she fancied a pep talk in the vein of “standing up to our fears,” and “confronting things head on, even when we’re apprehensive;” that the “only way to do it was to do it.”
Her pudgy hand firmly rooted to the small of my back, she pushed me forward, once more. Loosening my still tightly wound fists, she placed the wooden pole in my hand. It was taller than me. I could feel my insides melding as she blindfolded me and began to spin me around.
It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
It’s okay. It’ll be over in a second. Everyone else did it.
It’s okay, we’re almost done. It’s not so bad.
Get ready. It’s coming. It’s okay.
I propelled that heavy stick forward with all of my might, never-minding that I’d skipped one integral step—the part where Mrs. Parsons stopped me and placed me rightly before the suspended piñata.
But I’d survived the spins so I struck. And I hit something!
I heard Mrs. Parsons cry out in excitement, and I considered myself successful. I was good at this! She was right! I had done it! I was gonna be the one—ME—to break open the piñata when everyone else couldn’t! Mrs. Parsons had been right! I could do it! I struck again—another scream of excitement! And really hard, one final time before I heard Matilda’s frantic, “Stoopppppppppppppppppppp!!!!!”
Making an attempt at standing still, but still wobbling, I gently removed my blindfold.
I was grinning my toothy smile of success at all of my classmates, but their attentions were fixed in one direction, looks of horror covering their faces.
Matilda was crying and screaming incoherently.
I pivoted around to see Mrs. Parsons, who was making gurgling sounds and whimpers. Her entire face was a bloody, broken mass of lumpy flesh and open crevices.
Those hadn’t been screams of excitement at all.
She’d been crying out in agony with every blow, apparently unable to control my determined, fevered strikes.
As the fountains of blood were streaming from her face, I could tell that she was crying. And Matilda was crying. And soon everyone else started crying.
I didn’t know what to do, or what to say, so I just stood there. Even as help came and the ambulance took Mrs. Parsons away, I never said anything.
My mother later informed me that Mrs. Parsons had to have thirty-seven stitches in her face, but that I was not to worry. It wasn’t my fault. If I wanted to talk or cry it would be okay.
But I never cried.
I hadn’t wanted to play in the first place.