My mother was right. Choose your friends carefully, she said.
As I trudged down White Avenue at 2:30 am, I remembered that.
“There you are! Let’s go to a club!”
The big blond girl had burst into Patrick’s room in our apartment earlier that evening where he and I were playing hearts while the guys took bong hits and lines of speed. Kimberly, the rotund, cherubic-looking girl who seemed bred from large-boned Midwestern stock, was prone to giving herself embarrassing nicknames. She had just spent too much time trying to get over breaking up with her first college love, only to grow moody when he started dating someone she deemed trailer trash.
I looked over to Cheryl, my former roommate, the one I considered my third best friend and shook my head.
“I’m broke,” I mouthed.
Kimberly didn’t like hearing that I had no money. She thought my best friend spent too much on me. But I had no parents who were paying for my education. All the money I made went straight to tuition, textbooks, bus fare and food.
Cheryl waved her hand. Kimberly watched us like a hawk, her ruddy cheeks flushed as if she had already started drinking.
“It’s free for ladies if we get there before 10 and since you’ll be DD, you can get free soda!” Cheryl said. “Let’s go dancing!”
I looked around the room, the drug-dead eyes of upper-middle class white boys stared back.
“You guys go on. I’m going to go see James.”
Kimberly and I rose to leave the room. I dropped my hand on the pile.
“I’m out.” The 10 boys in the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor and draped over sofas or chairs in that tiny on-campus apartment didn’t acknowledge our exit.
I was 23 and just getting used to hanging out with people my own age. I started college when I was 15 at the prompting of my mother. I graduated high school when I was 16 because I was tired of children. I should have already had my degree. But sometimes the funds weren’t there to pay for tuition or books, so it took time to get through school.
I was also getting used to be the sole black face in a sea of white people. I had never been in a place with so many white people. My mother converted us to Islam when I was 8 years old, shortly after my parents divorced. We were still living in Kansas City at the time. But even before we started going to the mosque, my entire world was the black people around me. When we moved to California, my classmates were Mexican and Filipino and, at the mosque, Arabs, Africans and Asians were our family friends.
White people were on TV. In our little east San Gabriel Valley town, they were teachers, cops & cashiers who often viewed us with suspicion, always telling us what we couldn’t do. We had very few white neighbors. We rarely interacted with them and their children. On TV, the rude behavior white kids displayed to their parents I could never understand. In my world, people were respectful of anyone older. The plot lines and dialogue on TV seemed so outlandish that I assumed it was all fake.
My parents and relatives had warned my generation of the racism that passes for jokes from non-black people. I had found that the kids at this college were no different. They ran down the list of stereotypes they were raised believing. Not being able to see me in the dark, sleeping around. They called me Mammy, said “You’re pretty for a black girl” or “You’re not like other black people.” My blackness took up too much space for them to ignore.
Kimberly started yammering at Cheryl as they walked ahead of me toward Kimberly’s apartment. At the crossroads, I went right as they walked straight ahead.
“Hey! Where are you going?” I turned to see Kimberly standing akimbo in the walkway.
“I told you I wasn’t going.”
“But…who’ll be our DD?” she asked.
Cheryl called out, “Hold up…I’ll walk with you!” I stopped and waited until she reached me.
“Why don’t you just go? It’ll be fun. We just finished mid-terms and it’s a way to blow off steam,” she said.
I didn’t know what to wear and I’m pretty sure that my skater chic look was not the done thing.
“Are there tables or booths there? I don’t have to dance do I?” Cheryl flashed her beautiful smile and put her arm around me and steered me to Kimberly’s apartment.
Carrie, one of Kimberly’s roommates, was heading to the shower as we walked through the door. She looked like a very long 2”x6” with a mop of brown hair.
“I knew you’d change your mind.”
Janie was in the kitchen curling her long dark-brown tresses while drinking from a bottle of Southern Comfort. She spun around and hopped over to me.
“You’re coming! Now we’re really going to have fun.”
I played Solitaire on the computer while the girls got ready. I had a nice shirt in my backpack and Kimberly loaned me a skirt. I wore my green Doc Martins because I always wore my green Doc Martins.
The girls were in the middle of their long ritual when the front door flew opened. It was Debra, the fourth roommate. She was as different from them as I was, so they made jokes about her being trailer trash and spread rumors that she was a stripper – though they said this behind her back. They couldn’t fathom someone like them paying for her own college education.
Many of these kids didn’t work. A few students in this group received financial aid, but they hid that from others and joined in looking down on Debra for being obviously poor and white.
Debra hated me and hated the fact that I didn’t care even more.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
I ignored her as I always did.
Kimberly came out to the living area with giant uncrushed curls on her head and way too much make-up.
“Debra, you’re home! Come to the club with us!”
I tilted my head at her. If Debra came, that would make six people. Six people in Kimberly’s tiny Ford that barely fit five.
Debra looked at me. “Is she going?”
Kimberly put her arms around my shoulders. “Of course! She’s our DD.”
“Then I’ll stay. Here. I brought home pizzas they were going to throw out.”
Debra dropped the boxes of cold pizza on the table and walked to her bedroom. Kimberly motioned to me to eat, then chased after her.
I went outside to the balcony to smoke while I waited for them. It was a pleasant spring night and sounds of a train running the track soothed my nerves. They came out 20 minutes later, still trying to convince Debra to come with us. She begged them off claiming she had a paper to write.
We piled into Kimberly’s compact car. Janie was rolling joints with her elbows digging into our ribcages. Her backpack, heavy with bottles of vodka and whisky, was on my lap.
We got on the 57 freeway. I asked where we were heading. Upland, Kimberly said. I groaned.
My family had just moved from Upland months before. We lived there for four years. The surrounding area was tired, run-down strip malls staffed with unpleasant folks. The neighborhood we lived in was filled with loud, boorish people who called the cops on me for walking outside. The guy across the street would accuse me of stealing my car at least once a month and every morning the street was littered with beer cans. There were always stories of robberies and car thefts, but the other residents would tell my mother how safe and small-town Upland was. It was the only place I had lived where I didn’t know my neighbors. All I knew about Upland was the grocery store, Good Earth restaurant and the gas station. I didn’t even know it had club.
I laughed as we pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall. This is the club? I could’ve been listening to great music and staring at James’ handsome face.
There were three cars in the parking lot. The spindly bouncer was dressed in black leather with white supremacist insignia on the front of his jacket. He watched us all get out of the car. We walked to the door. He waved three girls in then stopped me.
“Are you all together? Do you have ID?” I rolled my eyes and showed him my driver’s license.
“Why weren’t they carded?”
He shrugged as he painstakingly pored over each letter on the card. His mustachioed mouth moved as he read.
“You live in Upland?”
I gave him my best bitch face and held out my hand. He returned my ID.
“We don’t play rap music here,” he said. I flipped him off and went inside.
The music was thumping something like C & C Music Factory and a Goth couple danced. An older gentleman with short gray hair and a large gold hoop earring sat at the bar. Two jocks were playing pool as scantily clad girls leaned over furniture trying to flash their breasts at the boys. My friends had already grabbed a booth. A smattering of other people milled about, nursing drinks. Paula Abdul was wondering if she was going to be loved forever.
I hopped up to dance. The other girls followed and we spent half an hour on the dance floor getting sweaty. Suddenly a song from my early childhood came on and the dance floor was quickly packed. “Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat?” Parliament was something I never expected to hear at this club. If my mother was in charge of our religious education, my father raised us in the Church of Funk and Soul praying to the trinity of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley. The dance floor opened wide as I boogied with the abandonment of the 7-year-old in me. Then the strobe light hit. I had never seen a strobe light before and delighted in what looked like people being caught in freeze frame.
The song ended and I walked back to the booth sweating and out of breath. Debra and five other people were crowding around. Kimberly had been busy making calls and some of her local friends had shown up. Kimberly and Cheryl rushed over to them. I headed to the bathroom to wipe down my face.
As I returned to the dance floor a few minutes later, Carrie and Janie had their belongings and were heading out the door. I looked over to the booth. The only thing left was my backpack that I had left in the car. I grabbed my backpack and walked to the door. Outside, 10 girls were busy talking over each other trying to figure out the logistics of going wherever they were going. I walked up to Kimberly.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, there you are! They … We …I thought you left.”
The other girls flocked behind her.
“We’re going to Noreen’s place,” Cheryl said, “and you guys aren’t exactly friends, so … .”
She trailed off when she saw the look in my eye.
“So, you decided to abandon me. Here. In Upland.”
They all protested. It wasn’t like that. I was jumping to conclusions.
“Okay, so who is dropping me off at school?”
Feet shuffled, sideways glances – no one uttered a word. By my count, there should have been at least three cars between the 11 of us.
“There’s no room,” someone said.
“Unacceptable. We came in one car. Debra brought her car and these people probably came in one car. That’s three cars. So. Who’s giving me a ride?”
Carrie leaned her long torso forward.
“Can’t you just take the bus? You have a bus pass right?”
I took a step back and a deep breath.
“My bus pass isn’t for the bus line here. It’s also after 12:30 am. This bus stops running at 11. None of this matters. Since you brought me here, you need to get me back.”
It got quiet for a moment in that parking lot. Suddenly, I heard a car door slam shut.
“I don’t know what the problem is, but we’re leaving. See you at Noreen’s.”
That was one of Cheryl’s childhood friends, who had quietly loaded people into her car. Cheryl avoided my eyes. The light blue car backed up and made a Y-turn. Cheryl rolled down her window and tried to give me a $5. “Please, just take the bus.”
I repeated that the buses were no longer running. Her friend said, “Oh well,” then stepped on the gas.
While my back was turned, the other girls had climbed into the remaining two cars. Kimberly gave me the pouty face she did when she was about to do something rude.
“I wish I could take you, but Noreen’s place isn’t on the way to school and we promised to pick up food, so we gotta go before they close. You’ll figure out something. See ya tomorrow!”
I started walking down the driveway of the club. I didn’t know how I was going to get to school by foot. The university was 10 miles away from the club by car. There were streets that I knew had no sidewalks or safe passages, so I had to plan well-lit, well-traveled roads, in relatively safe areas and few hills. At least I was wearing my green Doc Martins.
I walked through Upland, Montclair and Pomona. I hadn’t really thought of how big Pomona was until I walked down Holt Avenue. I was yelled at by boys in their cars. I was harassed by police officers the entire time, each accusing me of being a prostitute. Random dudes followed me and asked for my number or said they just wanted to talk. I sat on a bus stop and cried.
Then I got up and walked on.
I cut across a field to reach the street where houses back up the school. A car honked at me and I flipped it off. Then it stopped, it was three guys I knew who lived on that street. They asked me where I had been. I told them what happened.
They looked dumbfounded. One guy said he heard I left the club with some random guy shortly after getting there. Another story was that I got drunk and left. But everyone knew I didn’t drink.
They told me to crash at their house. They also told me that Noreen only lived on the next block from them. These guys couldn’t understand why those girls would lie, or why they just left me.
The next morning, I headed through the field to the school, still in my clothes from the club. I saw Kimberly and Janie drive by. They looked at me in surprise and terror. I walked on.
It was almost 8 am and I was hungry. I headed straight to the cafeteria for breakfast. As I waited for my food, someone bumped my shoulder.
I turned to my right to see Cheryl, looking freshly scrubbed. I looked her in the face, then turned back to the lady behind the counter.
“Are you mad?”
I snorted and grabbed my burrito. I walked out, past Carrie and Janie who were waving me over to their table. I sat outside on the grass. Francis, a guy I was pretty close with, sat next to me.
“I just heard what happened last night. Are you okay?”
“I want to set them on fire.” He laughed and nodded.
Francis sat with me as I ate my breakfast, then took me back to the dorm. Walking across campus, I felt lighter.
I knew many people but could really only count on three of them.