I knew Phaye when she was a teenager; I was as young as six or seven when we met. Her hair was styled in a thick, curly afro and she wore boyfriend jeans before they were called boyfriend jeans. On her neck was a small colony of black moles that she never bemoaned or even acknowledged and somehow I knew, even as a child, that I would’ve let those moles dictate my self-worth, that I would’ve felt ugly and terrible seeing them in the mirror every day, and so the way she wordlessly wore them made her god-like and beautiful in my small brown eyes. Phaye was one of my after-school counselors at the YMCA, one of the only who didn’t tease me for my white otherness. During our free hours she would teach the girls how to stepdance and even though I was clumsy and uncoordinated and sticking out, she remained patient until I could nail the routines, fit in. She was always diplomatic; speaking quietly and lovingly and like every wrongdoing on this earth could be solved with the right amount of patience. She was too wise and too good for 16. Someone took a photograph of Phaye with three boys, all posed and staged in a cabin somewhere; the crisp of their outfits blinding against the wood. Phaye wore her boyfriend jeans and a cropped white tank top and I think an American flag as a bandana, at the very least the bandana was red, white, and blue. Everyone in the photo looked like America. Phaye let a peace sign play on her fingers. I didn’t know the boys in the photo but I stole it from its owner because Phaye looked just like Lauryn Hill except accessible, attainable.
Another one of my counselors was Jamal, a teddy bear of a man. Not fat, but tall and wide, brawny perhaps. Jamal was not like Phaye; he spoke softly like her but he made sure I felt as gawky and different as I was. Jamal was the catalyst for the first time I shaved my legs, the first time I realized I needed deodorant. He used to call me Michael Jackson because I was pale and skinny and wore my hair in long, black banana curls. And then one day, he told me I looked like Mariah Carey and I balled up my fists and hit him in his hollow chest, I think I might’ve started crying, maybe. He laughed, “What? That’s good! That’s a good thing!” But I didn’t know who Mariah Carey was yet, and I figured she looked even worse than Michael Jackson; I figured this Mariah Carey thing was an insult. That Christmas, the Christmas of 1995, my parents bought me the Daydream album. It was the first CD that was all my own. I saw the name splayed across the top of the album, and then the photograph — cream-pale and soft and almond-eyed Mariah Carey — and I realized Jamal had been truthful, had been nice. I felt pretty and fooled and flattered and silly; I don’t know if there’s one word for all of that.
In the summer season, my after-school counselors would vanish and a new staff of counselors and counselors-in-training would emerge in their place, one of whom was called Linda. She had long, curly hair — the kind that was curly from root to tip, the kind you couldn’t fake with perms and scrunching gels. Her two front teeth were distorted somehow, yellowed and hardened by something unfixable. The rest of her smile was great. She was very nice, the campers all thought — and we didn’t think it in the condescending way, “nice” as a lazy and backhanded descriptor — she was nice in the way that we all wanted to sit at her feet or play with her hair or listen to the soft of her voice. We even called her “mommy,” though if I remember correctly each of the CITs had their fangirls; you chose your surrogate “mommy” based on who you wanted to grow up to be or who you wanted to look like, at least. Linda’s “children” were timid, unathletic, affectionate. They harbored unrequited crushes and frizzed hair. Her boyfriends would become our “daddies,” though they were transient and inconsequential and only mattered in terms of how happy they made Linda. I bet she is a real mother now, somewhere, a good one.
On weekends when there was no camp, I played with the children in my building. My upstairs neighbor was Elliot, a single child, a blonde and blue boy. His room looked like a home office, a bedroom a depressed adult would make for himself — blue wall-to-wall carpeting and tidy shelves where the books and toys sat sterile and untouched. We never had fun together. I think our playdates were probably babysitting favors in disguise. I don’t remember speaking one word to him, just pushing wooden trucks across the rolling stretch of blue industrial carpet. When his family moved out of our building, I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t care.
Most of my childhood summers were spent at the YMCA or in the apartment co-op where we lived. Outside of visiting relatives my family didn’t vacation; I remember going on three trips together in total: two to Cape Cod and one to Hershey, Pennsylvania. On one of the trips to Cape Cod, we met a mother and daughter who were staying in a cabin close to ours. Time has erased the face of the mother but the daughter, Allison, I think of frequently even still. She had a magnetic pull — I was all but ready to spend our family vacation in front of the television watching Nickelodeon (we didn’t have cable and this was my one chance to familiarize myself with the shows my classmates watched) — but my mother had discovered Allison and her mother on the campgrounds and dragged them to our cabin to say hello. I saw Allison’s pieced nose and her dreadlocks, all Alanis Morrisettean, and I was a goner. Allison was aspirational to me. She was not bothered to vacation alone with her mother, or to spend time picking wild mushrooms with me — a kid, someone with nothing to offer except maybe admiration and naivete — and this was foreign, this… easiness. Being graceful and grateful and present was never something I found within myself naturally, always something manufactured both before and after our meeting that summer — though after years of quiet emulation, manufacturing thoughtfulness is becoming less of a job and more of a habit. I’m just sorry I can’t thank her for it.