By Chelsea McLin//

Tia lay beside me in the grass reciting a series of conversational phrases in French. Bonjour. Parlez-vous français? Oui. Comment allez-vous. Très bien. Her knowledge of the French language was very limited, and as such, these words became cyclical phrases in her daily routine as well as mine. She had been studying French for the past few months because she was traveling abroad for the summer.

Tia was born in Cameroon, but she grew up in the States. Both of her parents were doctors who devoted their summers to providing free medical care to the people of their home country, and Tia always came along to assist. She had already traveled to Cameroon three summers in a row and hadn’t picked up on the language. I asked her why she didn’t just take a class, get the credit, and actually learn French. But she was persistent in learning on her own.

“Okay, I gotta go.” She dusted the grass off of her pants and picked orange and olive colored leaves from her hair. The black ringlets bounced over the maple skin of her arms. She was a page out of a storybook.

“Don’t leave,” I whined.

“I have to. I’m an artist. I need to make money now because I won’t be making any in the future,” she chuckled.

I met Tia during the second semester of our freshman year. She sat next to me in Biology. Her notebook barely had any notes. It was full of drawings and sketches. When we were paired up for an assignment, I thought that I would carry most of the weight. Biology was my major. I thrived in a lab. Tia, on the other hand, was a visual arts major. A complete right brainer. I expected her to never show up to our meetings and take credit for work she didn’t do, but she always showed up, and her sketches actually made the class a little easier.

“You should try it,” said Tia.

“Draw?” I shrugged. “I’m no good.”

“Any scientist working in the field will tell you that drawing is quintessential.”

“I don’t know how.” I continued to write in my notebook. She took the pencil out of my hand and drew the model of the human brain on the corner of my paper. It only took her a few minutes, but it was so detailed that it could have been a page in our textbook. She told me to copy it. I gave my best attempt. It wasn’t nearly as good as hers, but it sufficed. She smiled at me with approval.

“Maybe if all our assignments were diagrams, you’d have an ‘A’ in the class,” I laughed flipping to a clean page.

“Learning about the organic material inside a dead cat doesn’t move me in the way it moves you, but to each her own.” She gave me a smirk and proceeded to draw the stem of her brain.

I snuck a peak through her notebook to see any other drawings that might help me during the practical exam. I was surprised to see faces. Faces of our professor, our classmates, and even me.

I never believed myself to be anything extraordinary. I was mediocre at best. I had bland brown skin, bland brown eyes, and bland brown hair that I always wore in two braids no matter the occasion. I fell into the mythical average with the common folk of the world and considered myself nothing special to be observed. Tia once said that a truly amazing artist didn’t draw for the sake of drawing. Something had to move her. Interest her. And to be found interesting by Tia was remarkably overwhelming.

“Are you done for the day?” Tia asked.

“I have one more class, but I’m not sure if I’m gonna go,” I said.

“Charlotte ‘Cece’ Jackson, you little rebel.” She playfully pushed my shoulder. “If you’re feeling this dangerous, come out with me tonight?”

“I think I’ll pass.” I stuffed my notebooks into my book bag and pulled my arms through my sweater.

“Your loss. Call me if you change your mind. Au revoir.” Tia hugged me goodbye and kissed me on the cheek. My heart quickened and my body tensed.

Space and boundaries were words just as foreign to Tia as the French language. I often found myself in uncomfortable situations with her.

Earlier that week I heard a terrible banging noise on my front door. It was the middle of the night. I lived by myself and only a handful of people knew my address – my aunt, a few friends, and the pizza place down the street. I grabbed my baseball bat. My aunt practically begged me to get it. All these damn crazies out here in this neighborhood. Be a damn fool not to get one. When I opened the door, I raised it high in the air ready to swing. Before I could, Tia darted in front of me topless and yelled boo.

“God, Tia. What’s wrong with you? I thought you were a killer.” I sighed and tossed the bat on the floor.

“So you thought you would fight him off with a stick?” She scoffed like I was the absurd one. “What if he had a gun?”

“Get in here! Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?” I asked.

“Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?” She began tugging at my clothes.

I dragged her inside the living room. She had walked all the way from the beach to my place. At least that’s what I could discern from the drunken mumblings. She had been drinking with some guys from her art studio and popped a pill of some sort. Tia dabbled in many recreational drugs, but she never really questioned what she was taking. When the drug hit, she lost control and the first place she thought to go to was my apartment. If I thought about it hard enough, it was a sweet sentiment. She went to a place where she felt safe.

I spent the rest of the night holding her hair while she vomited all over my bathroom. Once her insides stopped unfolding on the outside, I cleaned her up and gave her one of my shirts to wear. She couldn’t make it to the bed so we just sat together on the floor. I ran my fingers though her hair dusting sand onto the bath mat, and Tia kept talking to me as she slipped in and out of consciousness.

“I could have killed you.” I slid a strand of hair behind her ear.

“No you couldn’t. You don’t have good aim,” she said.

“I played softball in the fourth grade, and Coach said that I was the best hitter on the west coast.”

“I really like you, Cece,” she chuckled into my stomach.

“I like you too, Tia.”

“No. I really like you,” she whispered.

I shushed her and told her to go to sleep. And wrapped around me like a pretzel, her eyes began to close.

I skipped my Friday class to visit my aunt Jay. I seldom skipped class unless it was for a very good reason, and Aunt Jay was always a good reason. She lived a few minutes away form campus and had some clothes that she wanted to give me. Spring Cleaning. That’s what she called it despite the calendar reading November.

She was my favorite aunt out of my mother’s three sisters. Growing up, I often found myself preferring the comfort of my aunt over my mother. She was young. No kids. Unmarried. And the most successful woman I had ever known. Aunt Jay never went to college, but she made a substantial career doing makeup on movie sets. Makeup by Jay.

When I arrived at my aunt’s house, she had already begun tearing apart her closet. I hesitantly walked into her bedroom afraid of the buckles or buttons that might fly into my face. I announced myself, and a shriek pierced the air. Aunt Jay came rushing toward me with open arms. One of her golden hoop earrings pressed against my face when she squeezed me, and I winced from the uncomfortableness it caused my cheek. She stepped back to take a long look at me, as if this had been the first time she had seen me in years.

“Beautiful,” she sighed lovingly. “What’s new with you, Baby Girl?”

“Nothing. Just the same old, same old.” I shrugged my shoulders.

“That’s not true.”

“Oh, yes it is. I live a very boring life.”

“You’re young, and you got an ass that would make a blind man whistle. You should never be bored.” She smacked me on the butt with a rolled up magazine.

“School and work take up a lot of my time,” I said.

“Stop.” She held her hand out in front of me. “I don’t wanna hear another word about work or school. I wanna hear about your life, Baby Girl.”

“School and work are my life.” It sounded unfortunate, but it didn’t feel unfortunate. It was the truth. When I wasn’t in class, I was studying or working at the science museum or tutoring biology or giving student tours. Most people would find my schedule exhausting, but I enjoyed it. It kept me busy. It kept me from thinking too much.

“That’s sad.” Aunt Jay walked to her vanity mirror and sat down sorting through some tubes of lipsticks. She tested a plum shade on the back of her hand and then on her lips. She tilted her head to the side and pouted. The color looked nice against her deep skin, but I preferred her without it.

For a woman who built an entire career around makeup, she very seldom wore any on her face. Her features were too unique to muddy up with paint and colors. High cheekbones. High brows. Dainty nose. Wide mouth. And a very pronounced Cupid’s bow. People stared at her like she was the first painting to ever be created.

“Are you seeing anybody?” She asked.

“Nope.” I laughed and lay across the bed to face her. “I don’t have the time.”

“You make time for things you want.”

“Exactly. I don’t want anybody.”

Aunt Jay rolled her eyes and continued to sort through her drawer of makeup. I went to her wardrobe and began picking out clothes.

Aunt Jay was the big sister that I always wanted, but she ended up being the mother that I desperately needed. When I was sixteen-years-old, my mom and I had a falling out. The biggest fight we ever had. One of her boyfriends got a little too handsy for my liking, and I gave her an ultimatum.

I ended up at my Aunt Jay’s door step at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. Without any hesitations, Aunt Jay took my bags and set up a spot for me in her guest bedroom. What meant to be a few nights turned into a few years. I never spoke to my mother after that, not even after her diagnosis.

“Wow. You would pick out the plainest thing in my closet.” Aunt Jay shook her head and took the clothes out of my hands and tossed them in a corner. “You dress like you’re homeless.”

“Poverty is the latest trend. Didn’t you hear?” I smirked. “I like simple. I don’t want a complicated outfit with glitter and straps and all that stuff.”

“You can use some color in your life. Something with a little fit. Attracting the opposite sex is a lot like leading a horse to a river.”

“Who said anything about being attractive?” I scoffed.

“Baby Girl, if you don’t stop acting like you’re ugly. We got good genes that need to be accentuated by good jeans.” She turned me around and placed a pair of jeans against my butt.

“I’m not saying I’m ugly. I just don’t wanna attract anybody.”

“Why are you so anti-romance?” She rolled her eyes. My aunt Jay was always pushing me to date, which I found especially absurd considering she never even looked in a man’s direction.

“I’m 22 years old. Do I even need to be looking right now?”

“Just date a little. Sometimes I feel like you’re not even a person, Baby Girl. Just a robot that looks really good and sounds really smart.”

She brushed one of my braids behind my shoulder, and I flinched away from her.

“I don’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she said. “Believe me growing up in this family makes you feel like you have to be resistant to life. And I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be.”

After my mom’s funeral, my family disappeared. Everyone went back to their lives as if they had hopped on a plane for a business trip. The boyfriend my mother had been with at the time stayed for a little while, then moved to Florida. My mom’s other two sisters went back to their own families who hadn’t even realized they had another sister, nevertheless knew that she was sick.

My aunt Jay and I were the only ones that stuck together, which is how it had always been. I wasn’t sad about it. This did not hurt me. I would not let it ever hurt me.

Aunt Jay gave me two trash bags full of makeup and clothes. Most of it was club attire, but there were a few pieces I could work into my everyday wardrobe. I dragged the trash bags to a corner, then ditched my jeans and sneakers for sweatpants and slippers. I snuggled on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and my Biology textbook. I kept rereading the same sentence over and over again, my finger hovering over the words in exhaustion. I closed the book in frustration and tucked it between two cushions.

I didn’t want to admit that what Aunt Jay said bothered me, but it did. People often found me to be dry, sarcastic, misanthropic, and I guess robotic, too. Those things may have been true at times, but I wasn’t incapable of feeling.

My phone started to buzz. It was Tia, and my heart sighed.

Bonjour. It’s little me. Oui Oui,” she said. At least that’s most of what I could discern. A big roaring noise over powered her voice through the phone.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“This party blows. It’s a bunch of white boys grinding up against each other.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“There’s not even any music playing,” she whined.

I could feel her eyes roll through the phone. Tia loved to dance. She had been sneaking into clubs since she was sixteen. Of course she was there to drink, but she loved the dancing more.

“Have you been drinking?” I asked.

“No. I wish I was. This loser told me,” she cleared her throat and deepened her voice, “‘If you wanna drink, man, you should BYOB, man.’ How the hell are you gonna throw a party and not have any alcohol? We’re in our twenties. Just go to the fucking liquor store.”

“Want me to come get you?” I stood up and began to look for my keys.

“Really?” She asked inquisitively. “Yes!”

“Text me the address. Don’t move.”

I looked in the mirror to quickly check my face and forgot that I was in my sweats. Impressing others was not on the top of my list of priorities, but I put on something special for Tia. I dug through the trash bags of clothes my aunt Jay had given me and grabbed a pink tank top, black jacket, and denim skirt. The skirt clung to my hips and the pink looked nice against my skin.

A white house with three wooden Greek letters hanging proudly in front. People were funneling in and out of the house from various exits. I spotted Tia in the sea of people and honked. She raised her head like a squirrel looking for a misplaced nut. I honked again. She began to trudge her way through red solo cups and drunken party goers.

She opened the door, plopped in the front seat, and grinned. She hadn’t been drinking, but she reeked of cannabis. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and her purple cropped shirt hung effortlessly off her shoulders exposing two defined collarbones. She traced one with the tip of her finger and tilted her head to the side waiting for me to say something. She had to be aware of how pretty she was. No one could ever walk around with a face like hers unknowingly.

“Do you wanna go home?” I asked.

“No,” she sighed.

“Then what do you wanna do? It’s kinda late.”

“It’s like 10 o’clock, Grandma.” She rolled her eyes. “I bought some weed from a kid at the party.”

She slipped out a tiny sandwich bag from her back pocket and waved it in my face. Not even enough to make a police officer flinch, but my car smelled like a reggae concert. I pushed her hand down and started the car. She smiled and buckled her seatbelt.

I parked my car on the very end of the bay in a discreet corner home of illegal activity, hookups, and the occasional homeless person. We stepped out of the car and looked for the nearest rock to sit by. She pulled some papers and a lighter out of her back pocket and rolled a joint. After two hits, I was done. She smoked the rest and stuffed the remnants deep into the sand.

A breeze blew by and that crisp ocean air hit us right in our faces. More than half of Tia’s body was exposed to the elements. She snuggled up to me and rested her head on my shoulder digging one hand into my jacket pocket and the other into the small of my back. Hidden behind the overwhelming scent of weed, I smelled coconut and vanilla from her hair.

I lost myself in the scent. I lost myself in Tia. I couldn’t be certain if it was the drugs or how good she looked, but I was moving in slow motion. I pulled her by her arm lifting her face close to mine. And before my mind could catch up with the rest of me, I pressed my lips against her neck and her cheek and finally her lips. She kissed me back and leaned toward me until we were lying down flat in the grass and sand. She began to lift my skirt sliding her hand up my inner thigh. I hadn’t realized it prior to this moment, but my body had been begging for her.

A couple of guys walked past us startling Tia into an upright position.

“Oh. Don’t let me interrupt you, Baby,” said one guy. He jokingly pushed his buddy and grabbed his crotch. They both laughed. “You girls wanna make it a threesome?”

He laughed again – this time a little more softly and a little more hauntingly. He inched closer to Tia and me. I tried to pull Tia back, but her body was stuck firmly in the sand. I stood up and positioned myself in front of her.

“Look, man. Just leave us alone,” I said.

“We see who wears the pants in the relationship,” he said back to his friend who seemed less amused by the interaction than he was before. The guy let out a long warm breath in my face, and I could smell the liquor. “Don’t be scared, Baby. We just wanna have some fun with you.”

He grazed his hand over my cheek, and I slapped it away. Inconsequently, my hand also hit his face knocking him backward slightly. I saw the rage swell in his body. His pale skin already blotched with red turned even redder, and his fist clenched. The vein on his right temple throbbed. His glazed eyes twitched.

Before anything could happen, his friend grabbed his shoulder and pulled him away. He mumbled something drunkenly out into the air and disappeared behind the corner of a drug store.

When the guys were no longer in sight, I let my body release. Tia still sat in the sand, her face blank. I asked her if she wanted to leave, and she slowly nodded. I rubbed her arm as she walked to the car, but she shook me away.

When we arrived to her apartment, Tia slumped out of the car before I had even made a complete stop. I quickly shut off the engine and followed her. She struggled with her keys. I took them out of her hand and unlocked the door.

“You wanna call it a night?” I asked.

“I wanna be home,” she said.

“You are home,” I nervously chuckled.

Tia had two other roommates. One was named Emma, a Christian from Alabama who wasn’t the biggest fan of Tia, and the other was a total recluse, whose name I could never remember. Tia didn’t typically like being at home. She said her roommates “killed her vibe”. But they weren’t home and ` this night felt different. I felt different.

“Don’t let those guys bother you. They’re just assholes.” I laughed and slid my arms around her waist and pulled her in for a kiss.

“God, what is wrong with you, Cece?” She nudged away from me and wrapped her arms around herself.

“I don’t understand. I thought you wanted to be with me.”

“You can’t be this deluded. That’s not what this is about.” She shook her head.

“I told you already. Those guys are assholes. A dime a dozen.”

“Just because there’s a lot of shitty people on the planet, doesn’t mean it hurts any less when they do something shitty,” she said.

“I don’t see why we’re still stuck on this. Doesn’t it exhaust you to feel miserable?”

“It just happened, Cece. And it happened to us. We could have been hurt.” She moved around the apartment. Restless. Like she was searching for something.

“Don’t be the dramatic artist, Tia.”

Tia stopped pacing and walked slowly to her bedroom. She turned around and stared at me.

“Don’t be the heartless bitch, Cece.” Tia slammed the door, and I let myself out.

Anger was an emotion that Tia rarely ever evoked. She had this deep empathy that I didn’t think was humanly possible. She always had patience for the bad guy.

During her first art show, Tia released a series of photos she took while in Cameroon. While she was introducing her artwork, a tall, lanky young man with a beard and glasses interrupted Tia.

“Don’t you just think it’s so stereotypical? Everyone does a photo series of Africa when they study abroad.” He sipped from his cup awaiting a response.

People started to whisper and look around the room as if they were reevaluating her work. Tia sighed and focused all of her attention on the man. Her body never tensed and her face was soft.

“You’re right. A lot of people do take pictures of Africa when they study abroad, but it’s my home. My roots. Where do you call home?”

“Michigan,” he said.

“Now, I don’t know much of what Michigan looks like, but I know if it looks anything like my Cameroon, I would take pictures of it all day.” She smiled and continued with her introduction.

Everyone laughed and applauded her. She handled the worst parts of people with such grace, and I don’t know if I admired her for it or envied her.

The following few weeks were empty. The semester was coming to a close, and I had finished all my final projects. The science museum was closed for the holidays. And Tia was gone. She filled every gap in my day. The dinners. The sleepovers. The study nights. I knew that she would expect an apology, but I didn’t know what I would say. I didn’t know what was wrong.

I spent most of my newly freed schedule shopping with Aunt Jay. She invited me to tag along while she purchased makeup for a movie set she would be working on in Europe. We were standing in front of a display for liquid foundation, and Aunt Jay held two slightly different colored brown bottles in her hands.

“Two shades of brown and seventeen kinds of beige. I swear I need to start my own makeup line.” She continued to read the labels whispering under her breath the names on each of the labels. When Aunt Jay was buying new makeup, she was only half communicating with the world around her.

“How’s your life, Baby Girl?” She asked.

“It’s alright. I got an ‘A’ on my lab exam though.” I picked up a tube of Bubbalicious lip gloss and tested it on the back of my hand before placing it back in its proper compartments. “What about you? This movie sounds pretty cool.”

“It’s the biggest set I’ve ever worked on. And I’ve got so much to do before I leave. I have to restock my makeup. Go to the bank. Go to the post office. Check on the house.”

“What house?” I asked.

“Your mom’s house.” Her voice softened. “That nosey neighbor across the street, Linda, called and said that one of the windows is cracked and calling attention to thieves and savages. Lord knows that woman’s got a stick up her ass so she’s probably just exaggerating.”

When my mother passed away, she didn’t have much to give away. Her insurance policy covered her funeral expenses and her debts. The house was meant to go up for sale, but Aunt Jay stepped in and bought it. It was such a lousy investment. She never used it for anything. Occasionally, she rented it out to folks on vacation, but other than that the house was a waste.

“I don’t get why you don’t just sell that place already. It’s raggedy.”

“It’s not as bad as you remember.” Aunt Jay slowly slipped her hands into her bag and pulled out a set of keys. “Do you think that you could check on it for me?”

“No. Aunt Jay.” I clenched my teeth. Aunt Jay was persistent in me seeing the house when my mother died. And I was always persistent in telling her no.

“C’mon, Baby Girl. You’d be really helping me out.” She jingled the keys.

I normally had a reason to say no. School was my reason, but she caught me during a lull. I hesitantly grabbed the keys from her. She smiled and gave me a light squeeze on the arm.

My mother had been sick for a long time, long before she had been even diagnosed by a doctor. Aunt Jay kept asking me if I was going to say goodbye, but in my head, I already had. Why do it a second time? Nothing would be really different except for the addition of a medical gown and a couple of monitors. Aunt Jay told me that I was cold. Everyone did. My mom’s boyfriend even begged me to come to the hospital.

He showed up during one of my shifts at the museum. I didn’t know who he was at first. My mom had a revolving door of men so it was hard to keep up. We went to the coffee shop by the dinosaur exhibit, and he told me that my mom was really sick. Her liver had completely given up on her. It was all information I had already known, but he thought it might sound better coming from him.

“I have a daughter back in Florida,” he said sipping his coffee, “and I know it would just really hurt me if I knew she didn’t want to see me. Probably more than dying.”

“If you’re anything like my mother, I’m sure your daughter would be hurting just as much.”

He sighed and reached into his back pocket for a small white card and handed it to me. Carter’s Carpentry.

“This is my business card,” he said. “If you change your mind, just give me a call. I don’t care what time. Give me a call. Okay, kid?”

I nodded. I had to admit the last man might have loved my mom, but I still never went to go see her.

Aunt Jay was right about the house. It was different than I remember. She must have had it repainted. It seemed brighter and bluer. I went inside and quickly surveyed the surroundings. Nothing seemed cracked or out of place.

My mom’s house was a small two story right on the beach. I was always so surprised that we could afford a house in that area. It wasn’t the nicest spot, but beach front or nearly beach front property was always expensive. One thing I could say about my mom was that she made sure I always had a roof over my head. No one could ever threaten to take it away from us.

I walked to the kitchen and went through the cabinets and drawers. Aunt Jay didn’t give specific instructions on what she wanted from me. Most of the drawers were full of junk. Old batteries, those weekly pill holders, and receipts. All things that should have been thrown out right after the funeral. I did come across an old photo of me when I was around seven or eight. Same bland brown pig tails and a toothless grin. My mom was pushing me on a bicycle.

Before looking at that picture, I had forgotten that she really was beautiful. She looked like a mom. I tucked the picture in my back pocket and closed the drawer.

I was getting ready to call the job done when a drop of water leaked on my face. A small pool of water formed at the ceiling, and I went upstairs to see its source. A nice steady stream of water was leaking from the bathroom sink. I felt the tile beneath it. It was all soft and mushy. I grabbed the tool box from the hall closet and used the Allen wrench to tighten the bolt around the pipe. The leaking subsided.

I went to put the wrench back in the tool box, and I slipped on the bathmat. I grabbed onto the shower curtain for support, but I ended up yanking it down with me, falling into the bathtub, and hitting my elbow hard on the soap dish. I started to laugh.

I laughed until it hurt. Until I couldn’t breath. Until I was sobbing. Until my body couldn’t tell if it was excited or in pain. I sat in the tub for an hour just to catch my breath.

I rested my head on the very edge and let my arm dangle tracing the bathmat with my index finger while whispering the same words over and over again. Bonjour. Parlez-vous français? Oui. Comment allez-vous. Très bien.