My high school guidance counselor once sat across from me and,with the entirety of my transcript spread out in front of her and said,“This is amazing! You know usually your kind don’t make it this far!”
‘My kind?’ I was suddenly very aware of my last name. The way she’d butchered it when she called me in to her office. The hair that I had to fight to keep people’s hands out of suddenly felt too much like a target. My skin which refused to match the color of my father’s seem to have snuck into my nostrils and lips. I felt myself wonder if I’d been looking to obviously at the girl in the lobby. If it was noticeable. What the hell did the counselor mean ‘my kind?’
She looked at me like she expected me to agree. Like the scholarship offer was only valid if I agreed to tear down ‘my kind’ with her. If I agreed with her blue eyes, dishwater blonde hair and round pregnant belly, no doubt filled with yet another perfect child.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.
I also didn’t get the scholarship. The girl that did had skin like Hershey’s kisses and hair that refused to be tamed. When she was presented with the prize her eyes looked guilty. Like she knew that I knew.
My mother, like all well meaning but frightened brown mothers, drilled into me that in order to succeed I had to be twice as good. So I was. Twice as good to barely match the praise the white kids got for average. So I became three times as good. And then four. I gave and gave and gave until I no longer enjoyed what I was doing. Until it no longer made any sense. But I was rewarded.
Excellence awards and academic awards and societies meant for only the elite. And yet, the higher I went, the less melanin. It never failed: let there be two brown bodies in the same atmosphere and one of us had to be a traitor. One of us had to hate ourselves more.
The story of the crabs was a story I hated. It was repeated to me whenever my father got a promotion and dumped whatever friends had help him get there. It goes like this: There once were some crabs happily living in the sea. They swam and swam until one day they swam into a trap. They were caught and pulled out of the sea. The fisherman placed them inside a bucket. The crabs, sensing their doom, immediately began to try to climb out of the bucket. They realized then that they could only get out of the bucket if they the used one another as steps. So they did but when the first crab reached the top of the bucket he turned and tried to escape to get ahead without them. So in spite the crabs pulled him back down. Because of this they all ended up boiled as dinner.
The moral of the story, my mother would chastise, was that we couldn’t just succeed. We had to take everyone with us.
“We,” my father would say, “are not crabs.”
Yet here I am, boiling.
An ethnic sounding name in a literary magazine with three Johns and at least one Ashley. A brown body tangled into a yoga pose in an entire sea of muted beige. My work always angry, always bitter, and always suitable to whatever token they wanted me to fit.
Closeted by bleached hair and a tongue bitten into a non accent. Closeted by omission. But successful. At what cost though?
I run into an old friend in the tampon aisle of a Speedway. She hasn’t seen me in years. We talk like parrots—a mix of Spanish and English and badly spoken French. Updates as silly as nail salons and as deep as burials. She tells me she works here. She pulls twelve hour shifts and that she’s tired. She wants out.
The ID of the The federal government job I’ve spent the last two years building burns a hole in my back pocket. There are two spots open on a twelve person team. I should say something. Offer up a solution, a way out of her problems. I almost do. “But I couldn’t stand to sell out, you know? It’d eat me alive, Cher!”
My teeth ache. Next to us a white man tastes his $0.79 coffee and makes a face. I watch him as he purposely spills it onto the counter. I buy my tampons. She tells me she hopes I’m happy. “You made it out you know! You should be proud of that.”
I used to sneak folded ten dollar bills into her purse when we waitressed together. The white man complains about the coffee.
I’m beginning to think my mother was wrong about the moral of the story. I don’t think it was the crabs fault. After all they didn’t put themselves in the pot-did they?
-Gabriela F. Jimenez Carrillo
Carrillo is a Chicago based writer whose work has been featured in Unclear Magazine, Thrice Fiction and The Broke Bohemian. She writes in a variety of genres but always comes back to the truth.