“You’re dead to me.”
For the longest time I thought that phrase was too dramatic and should only be used in Mob movies and reality shows. But as I’ve gotten older, there are a few people in my life that I’ve had to push to the outermost limits of my brain, almost like the deepest, darkest, coldest parts of the sea. They can no longer live in the most conscious parts of my brain or in the warmest places of my heart. It’s a survival skill. It’s my way of forgiving people and moving on without seeking revenge.
My cousin is one of these people.
My cousin and I started out just like Will and Ashley from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He was my older, taller, cooler cousin from the city . He used a special toothbrush to clean his sneakers. I was the younger, goofier, little cousin, who went to private school, wore big glasses, had dance recitals and biweekly hair appointments.
“Will” was one of the first people to see my hair after I got my first relaxer. I was 9-years-old.
“It’s so soft – silky,” he said, studying a handful of my hair. It was like he was trying to figure out the chemical equation for hair relaxer. He had just seen me a few days before with fluffier hair, twisted in bows and barrettes. Now, my hair was bone-straight with body and shine like Michelle Obama’s. I assumed that this was the first time, in his 15 years of life, that he had seen such a hair transformation.
Will’s ability to notice detail made him an amazing illustrator. I remember going to a restaurant in New York City with our grandmother. A huge piece of blank, white paper served as the tablecloth. There were a handful of crayons on top of the table. Will colored a perfect replica of Bart Simpson. It was so good that the waitress asked if she could keep it.
Another thing I loved about Will was that he let me tag along with him and his high school friends, even though I was only in elementary school. He, and about four of his friends, often sat on the stoop at my grandmother and great-grandmother’s house after school and in the summertime. Instead of telling me to go in the house, he let me stay and listen to their conversations about funny things that happened to them that day, funny people walking by the house, and music.
Speaking of music, Will introduced me to songs and artists that were much different from the Earth, Wind & Fire and Cameo that my dad made me listen to. Will listened to groups like Troop, Das Efx, and KRS One. Will set the foundation for my love of hip-hop. I’ll never forget the day he let me hold his cassette copy of Mary J. Blige’s first album, “What’s the 411?” not too long after it came out. I never gave it back.
Will even had me watching Yo! MTV Raps. I couldn’t really enjoy the show though. I always thought we were going to get in trouble for watching it. One time we did. We were in my grandmother’s family room watching Wreckx-n-Effect’s “Rumpshaker” video as my great aunt came into the apartment.
“Will turn the channel! Somebody is coming!” I whispered loudly. I panicked as the ladies in the music video kept zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zooming their boom-booms in their colorful bathing suits.
“We can watch this,” Will said. “It’s on regular television.”
“Please?!” I was in agony. I didn’t want us to get in trouble.I needed him to turn the channel immediately.
“We’re not going to get in troub..,” and in walked our great aunt.
“Hey guys, what are you up to?” My aunt asked innocently. I followed her eyes as they made their way to the television. “What is this?!” Her voice got louder.
I gritted my teeth and squinted my eyes, almost like how someone might react if they heard fingernails dragging down a chalkboard.
“The women in this video are half-naked! This video is degrading to women!” She said loudly.
I quickly turned my head to look at Will and gave him the “I told you so!” eyes.
“…And Will you have Stacy watching this?” Our aunt continued her speech. “What kind of example are you setting for her?”
We both wanted her to stop lecturing us, but she wouldn’t.
As Will and I got older, we spent less time together. He graduated, went off to college and got married. I still spent time with him and his wife when I could, but now I was in high school. I was making new friends, and my own social life was starting to pick up. I now had my own group of high school friends, like Will once had.
When things started to get a little rocky with his marriage, he broke the news to me while we were in the Stop & Shop on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, across from HeadzUp Barbershop. It was still Shaw’s then.
“If things don’t work out with me and Lisa,” I’m not going to mess with anymore black women,” Will said. Lisa was black.
“Why?!” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just want to try something different,” Will said. I don’t remember anything else he said after that.
At 15, Will was the first person to make me question my value as a black woman. I knew if a white boy at school admitted that he liked me, but didn’t want to be my boyfriend because I was black, I understood that. It didn’t feel personal. We were just different. Many of the white boys I went to school with lived in upper-middle class neighborhoods. They had not been exposed to very many black people, and they did not want to take on the burdens of being in an interracial relationship as a sixth or seventh grader. I got it.
But Will was my cousin. We were in the same group. We were both black. So to hear a black man, one whom I adored and admired, throw out the idea of throwing black women away – it really made me think…and think hard about who I was and who he was. He and Lisa eventually divorced.
One of the last times Will and I were supposed to hang out, he stood me up. He was supposed to pick me up from my house so we could watch the Freddy Fixer, “New Haven’s black people parade.” Will never called or showed.
Eventually I got older and let go of the relationship I had with Will. But there was still something inside of me that hoped he would still be there if I really needed him. For graduate school, I went to the same university as he did for undergrad. It would have been nice to get the 411 on campus life and professors. Or when I got married, and my own relationship was rocky, I could have used some advice from him. Or when my ex-husband was on life support in the hospital – the same hospital that he worked at – I would have been happy to see him and to know that he thought about us. But none of those things happened. Ironically, he and my ex-husband still keep in contact, but we don’t.
When Will and I see each other at family functions, it’s always awkward. I don’t know what to say to him because he’s a much different person now. He talks about rock and country music instead of hip-hop. He has a white wife, and the few times I went to their house, Will and I were the minorities. There’s nothing wrong with him having new interests, it’s just that over time he has become a stranger to me. It’s like the relationship we once had never existed.
At one time I thought about trying to salvage my relationship with Will, especially because he’s family, and I only have two first cousins. I reached out to him. He never responded, so I decided I didn’t like him anymore, and let the whole thing go.
I moved on and decided to cherish the good memories I have of Will, because he’s now dead to me.