Carlene Fraser-Harris

Biography

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Carlene is a long term resident of the UK, writing her way through the themes of identity, womanhood, immigrant and belonging. She recently undertook a Creative Writing MA, buffing her talent to produce pieces around these themes. She is published in Epoch Press and Litro, and writes opinion pieces for Ham&High in north London. She is an editor at Barren Magazine and Litro. Her first book is a retelling of the experiences she’s had as an immigrant of colour in New York City. Carlene is an activist for Black representation and hopes to be a catalyst for the faster and farther progression of coloured stories and authors in the publishing arena.

My Cohort

Creative Writing & Publishing 2020

Synopsis

Me. Them. Brooklyn. is a nonfiction narrative based on the true experiences of a young immigrant, Mara, as she wades her way into womanhood. With an unpretended view of New York City and an emotional dive into how families adjust and readjust to migration, marginalisation and money, her story travels across blood ties and relationships, race and religion, and the lies we tell ourselves.

My Genres

Nonfiction, creative nonfiction, memoir

Me. Them. Brooklyn.

Novel extract
Chapter three

EMPTY VESSELS . . .

You could always hear Aunt Cheryl coming a mile away. She was loud on purpose, her voice and attitude were bold, intimidating. It never sat well with grandma that she was so outspoken. Over-spoken. Once, after one of her heated debates, usually over some trite issue, my grandpa turned to me and warned, his chin angled in her direction, “empty vessels make the most noise.” I didn’t get it, then. My grandpa, despite his reservoir of wisdom, had left it at that and left me wanting. Particularly wanting to never be like my aunt. The phrase greeted me again four years later in Physics class, though not quite so poetic. Near empty containers made more noise than full ones. Water and sand filled the containers in class that day and I wondered what didn’t fill Aunt Cheryl.

When I moved to New York, I moved into Genevieve’s room and her voice became my own. My Brooklyn was the attic room that we shared, and it was an education. She taught me how to choke my island drawl in favour of a more minted way of speaking. Stressing the right syllables in words like character – not ‘ker-rahk-tuh’. The street cred I’d get for using “word” as both a question and agreement. The slang was an easy assimilation. The only easy one. If my father knew what I was being exposed to, he’d have shat himself. Boys and miniskirts, block parties and drag races, were all like acid to the alkali upbringing I’d had til then. Mass each Sunday morning before family lunch, pristinely pressed uniforms for school each day, and serving up respectful salutations to everyone we passed: “good morning, sir”… “good evening, ma’am.”

Genevieve was my introduction to facials and shaven legs. She laughed at my archaic use of pads each month while she brandished her box of Tampax Pearl. Our cycles quickly synchronised, our delicate lady pheromones must have hit it off well. We’d Haagen Dazs and sex-talk the night away, cursing our menstrual cramps and the bloat, and the easy life I thought boys had, and everything else unfair to womankind. We watched rated-R movies and Genevieve would explain to me that movie sex was so unlike the real thing. I’d never heard “clitoris” or “cum” before then. She went on about Rich and how good sex with him was. How in love she’d been and how they were doing it the right way. “Bridal shower, then baby shower,” she’d drone. And I wondered how many partners she’d had before him. What a break-up was like.

“Mara, don’t you want a boyfriend?”

“Yeah,” I was wide open to the idea, “but I’ve never been someone’s girlfriend before. What if I’m no good at it?”

“You’re 17. It’s not that hard. Hold hands, call each other often and make out.” It sounded like a line of instructions straight out of Dating for Dummies. Basic. Impossible to screw up. She never mentioned the feelings you’ll have. Get. Want.

We made it work, the whole roommates thing. I did her hair and she’d do my chores. Well, she’d help. I did her term papers and she bought me things. Hair clips. Perfume. Takeout. When Rich worked overtime, Genevieve and I played strip poker on the weekends with her ex and his bestie. We’d layer up on clothes before they arrived so that we’d have more to take off. And giggled uncontrollably when they were down to their boxers. “Do you like what you see?” the best friend asked me, proudly bearing his chiselled bits. It was the first time I’d touched a man’s bare chest.

Genevieve tried to hook us up, me and Mr. Chiselled Bits. “Hello? He’s so into you. Why would a guy give up his Saturday nights just to come over here and play our lame ass version of strip poker when we’ve never gotten out of our jeans?” her voice of reason was tall, unquestionable. Aunt Cheryl. So instead of strip poker, we did a horror movie night the next time they came around. Chiselled Bits wanted to cuddle close, but I was preoccupied with how tightly Genevieve was nestled in with her ex. I thought I saw them kiss but maybe I was heady from the newness of being held… romantically.

“You didn’t mind being hugged up with Everett like that? For the movie?” was the only way I could ask the question. I stared at the ceiling, half holding my breath for the answer.

“Everett knows about Rich, Mara. But, I mean, we’re still friends.” After a pause, more of her words filled the dark bedroom. “I love Rich. I do.” They floated past me on the top bunk and quietly popped like bubbles hitting the ceiling. “This was all about the fun, though, right?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I loosed, willing away the pin pricks of my intuition like I often did.

She’d say, more to flash him like a piece of fine jewellery to her girlfriends, “Isn’t my Richie a tall drink of mocha swagger latte?” and curl up on him like dough around a rolling pin. But when he wasn’t there, she’d pros-and-cons her way in and out of her three-year relationship with him. “I don’t want a man I can control,” she’d say about his doting tendencies, “that’ll get old real quick and I’ll hate it.” It was old already, I knew, thinking she was completely unhinged to play down any man who took the time to grease her scalp. Grease. Her. Scalp! That’s like a walk-in closet and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Her arguments seemed so hollow. Untethered. Like she didn’t know what she wanted, what she had. And I often thought of Aunt Cheryl in those moments. Of the many words she had, loud and prominent and empty. Genevieve was loud and empty. Her love for Rich – for herself. Empty. And I felt warned.

Then summer came, and a herd of Genevieve’s insecurities grazed on our green relationship. It explained the dull, rusty razor she assured me was “still good for a few more shaves” after she caught Rich gawking at my legs. “Wanna grab some Jin Wok,” he asked, while eyeing my too-short shorts on the couch across from them, “I’m starving.” She followed his eyes and fumed. “Yeah, let’s get you some leg and thigh.” It explained the sudden restriction on items in her wardrobe that she herself claimed to be more “fly as hell” on me than on her. So I starved my new appetite for all her fancy things and reverted to the Target brands June bought me. This sudden division between us that she had seen – created – left me wanting less of her and more of her things.


FIFTY SHADES

I should have seen it.

Genevieve wrote, read and spelled it out for me.

During one of our menstrual monster mash-ups – ice cream and rom-coms and sex talk – Genevieve devolved into a vulnerable place I didn’t know existed for her. A place of shades and shadows that I soon learned affected most people. Damn! All people.

We were watching the The Brothers on BET and a half naked Morris Chestnut was the image I’d tuck behind my eyelids for bed later that night. “I’d lay down under that,” my lips parted at the screen as his dark, dexterous fingers peeled the buttons through the holes on his baby blue shirt.

“That’s all you. I want me some Shemar Moore,” she proclaimed.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s ‘cause you already have a Morris that does your laundry and oils that dry scalp of yours.”  The giggle in her throat didn’t hide the look of unwanted truth on her face.

“Yeah, but Rich is no Shemar. That man is the perfect shade,” she too earnestly explained,  watching said perfect man get up close and personal with not his fiancée.

Genevieve had parked her opinion of male beauty – all beauty – at the foot of this light-skinned actor and his ambiguous Afro-Latino-white melee of features. “If I could change one thing on Rich, it would be his nose. The dude can sniff out fresh beef patties all the way down Flatbush at Beula’s with that spread.” She quickly diverted from reality, “but if I had me a Shemar? Oooo, chile!” A covetous little snicker followed, guarding her truth.

     It hadn’t occurred to me then that underneath all of her wit and confidence, there was a minus value she readily attached to the very skin she was in. But for the first time since my arrival, I really saw Genevieve. I saw her real reasons for questioning her love for Rich, with his complexion the shade of ebony. Like the black keys on a piano, the wooden pieces on a chess board. I saw her, worried about giving her mother dark-skinned grandkids. Black babies.

Genevieve and I weren’t roomies for very long. After a year of sharing clothes and inside jokes, the novelty of her own space returned. She reclaimed her privacy and I got some of my own, not realising til then how much of me was her. Her shoes, her cardigans, her speech and even her makeup. And though I was about four shades unsunned than she was, we wore the same tones. Same foundation, concealer, lip colours. It wasn’t til I moved out of her room that I noticed it. The top of her dresser was crowned with face washes and deep cleansing masks that all had “brightening” or “bleaching” in their slogan, boasting high quantities of hydroquinone or kojic acid. SPF 80 was her saviour, as if natural vitamin D was the devil. Genevieve would often ask about my mom and grandma and where all my not-Foster features came from. My soft hair, pink lips. But my grandma was adopted so I never knew anything about my lineage beyond her. I blanketed it with the conclusion that because of colonialism, the exact racial make-up of our family would probably remain unknown. I mean slave owners didn’t exactly go around documenting the birth places of their chattel, right? And there must have been a handsy massa or two – or three – along the line. My dad’s grey eyes, my mother’s pale skin, are evidence. 

On their fourth anniversary of whatever sparkling relationship Rich thought they had, he proposed. He slipped the ring inside her bowling ball and handed it to her as she stepped onto the lane. “Genevieve Diana Pantin,” he awkwardly knelt, his nerves on show for the other bowlers, “I love you so much. Wanna make me the happiest guy in this alley, tonight, and say yes? Please?”

So she said yes to Rich.

And then met Craig.

Soft hair, light-skinned Craig. It was April. The month of light jackets and precarious romance. I was 19 and their engagement was 2 months young. Vieve would pocket her new diamond ring and spend the weekends with Craig. She said it was simply to make sure that Rich was her one and only, and that she wasn’t inclined to cheat. But she was already cheating. Mostly on herself.

“Vieve’s spending the weekend at Shara’s,” June lied one Friday night. I was undoing her braids, my fingers busy at the back of her head, my eyes on Rich.

“But Shara said she’s with her guy in Florida for Spring break.” The defeat in Rich’s voice widened the soft spot I was growing for him. “So where’s Vieve?”

“Then I really don’t know, Richie” June’s words were as fake – coarse – as the weave I was unraveling from her head.

“Why would June lie to me like that? What? Just to cover her daughter’s ass? When really she should be teaching her not to sneak around. I mean we’re supposed to be planning a wedding, Mayr,” he vented to me later that night in Genevieve’s room.

“I know! I’m so sorry, Rich,” I wanted to tell him that I knew – I knew why she was spending time with Shemar Craig – but I couldn’t. Besides, Rich was too good for Genevieve. I watched his head shake nonstop, like the dashboard bobbleheads in his Corolla. Bobbing like the hurt was an overload for his brain. Cannot compute. Cannot compute. I bit back the words and shook my head with him. Cannot compute Colourism.

It’s like a recovering alcoholic, colourism. You never see the drink in their hand, but you can smell the liquor coming off their pores when they sweat. And you know the liquor has already done permanent damage to the liver, the kidneys, the Black Race. Decades in AA but that bigot whiskey is still on their breath. Derisive. Divisive. Someone breathed on Genevieve with that breath. And she all but bag-tested Rich. The bag test – brown paper bag test – was used by plantation owners to determine who was light-skinned enough for house work and special treatment, while consigning the rest to toil under the sun. And Rich did toil; my scalp itched every time I thought about his labours.

And the special privileges went to Craig; Genevieve got pregnant and was beside herself to confirm that it was in fact Craig’s boat she was setting parenthood sail on.

***

“Craig? You hope its Craig’s?” I couldn’t hide my disbelief as we drove to the clinic.

“Yes. I love him,” Genevieve waved her declaration like a cheap red bandana with Cupid’s ass on it. I sat in the back seat holding my hands in my lap, trying not to gag on my own judgment of her, and my pity for Rich.

June drove in silence, eyeing me in the rear view mirror, taking in my face. She must have heard about my journal. Maybe even read it. “I’m so glad you figured it all out,” she said coolly, “instead of marrying Rich. Who knows what coulda happen?” I laughed to myself, willing my best poker face for her next glance in the mirror. “And I get a grand baby.”

There was a lull in the conversation where I knew they expected me to “yay” or “aww” at the whole thing. The whole farce.  

“I was going to break it off with Rich, either way,” Genevieve swivelled in the passenger seat and hugged the headrest. “But Mar, if it’s Craig’s, I can just use that to make a clean break. Because you know he’s gonna hit me with the whole ‘we can still make it work’ drama.”

I found myself praying hard that it was Rich’s, then immediately hoping that it wasn’t. For his sake. “Yeah, I can see Rich wanting to make it work,” I must have said it with more sympathy than I realised, making her add, “But wait til you meet Craig. It’s been the best 3 months of my life.” She sighed like every teenage girl in all the rom-coms we’d watch, “and he’s so handsome.”

I climbed into bed that night feeling oddly grateful for my light skin in a way that I didn’t quite understand. Not then. But maybe someone had breathed on me, too. I did marry a white man. And now, I see it. The natural undercurrents of respect my husband gets. While I war with my second-class citizenship. The routine assumptions that come with his male whiteness. The organic superiority. The unconscious freedoms he has. I sweat for. The beauty. Like the immediate beauty they see in my first daughter, who is a shade and a half lighter than her sister. The fact that three out of five times, people confidently assume that my kids are not my own. Not biologically. “Those are your girls?” I can see the cannot compute behind their eyes.

We’re all still sipping that whiskey.


ME, THREE

I comforted Rich.

One night, not long after Genevieve let him go, I comforted him.

A little too well.

“What if it was my baby?” His sunken, bloodshot eyes oozed pain as vivid as the steam off a geyser. Hopelessness and sulphur. He sat on my bedroom floor, drying what must have been his third round of tears for the night.

“I’m sorry, Richie. You so don’t deserve this. You’re a great guy, really you are,” my genuine sympathy stayed trapped behind my generic words. I made us grilled cheese sandwiches and must have said sorry a hundred more times before we finally finished them.

“I’m nothin’ to her. I was nothin’ to her. All this time.” Men didn’t cry. Black men definitely didn’t cry. And this one was taking a stake to my heart. “Don’t say that,” I didn’t resist the urge to rub his back, squeeze his shoulders, cradle his face. Just hold him. Help soften the attack of his feelings.

…soften…

Before long, I replaced the empty plate that straddled his lap and his tears drained down my cleavage. Then, he was choking on mouthfuls of my tear-soaked breasts as I grappled with the boundaries of giving comfort. A shoulder to cry on became inner thighs for his warm, skilful fingers. I held on to his shoulders, bracing myself for a ride I wasn’t sure I wanted. I’d never had.

“Richie? We shouldn’t,” my ears were as tout as my nipples, waiting for Genevieve’s footsteps outside my door. That’s when you hear them. In the movies, that’s always when you hear them. The footsteps. Just as pulses raced.

“Please, Mayr. Be with me, tonight.”

“I am, Richie,” suffocating on the warped angle of a man’s desire for me, “I already am.”

“Please,” an eager whisper as his lips grazed my ear, and my thoughts fled to the ‘sweet nothings’ every maiden in Danielle Steele’s novels heard before their oversized brute ravished them. “Be with me,” his expert tongue dulled my senses enough to mute any further protests. And “Mayr” was all he said before I felt his dick mining through me. The feeling was a chaos of hurt and thrill, arrival and loss. An uninvited newness. I whimpered under the sweet regret that came, even while he finished. It was a long and horrible niceness.

He clung to me, to my pity for him. Comforted. His skin on mine, his hurt on mine. And nothing but short breaths followed.

“You’re always so nice, Mayr.”

And I thought about the rusty razor Genevieve gave me. Still good for a few more shaves.

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