I met a young woman during the summer, just before I turned 16, who left me forever changed. She was my first. I struggled that year. I struggled for acceptance and tolerance and happiness. It was a difficult time for me, as I was growing into myself and becoming more interested in dating. It was the summer I started to realize that I was a bit more different than I understood. When I was younger I remember thinking to myself- “ I could NEVER be gay”. Never. As a young girl, I didn’t even understand what it meant to be “GAY”, all I knew was that I wasn’t it. I could never be… The negative connotations associated with that word made it hard to ever fathom a lifestyle of such… disappoint. Now, stack that on top of growing up in a traditionally black, conservative, Christian home where I was taught that the worst thing anyone could do on this planet, besides “nappy headed”, was be gay, and you’ll see why coming of age was an especially troubling time for me. As a black woman with Southern roots, you did not disgrace your family by “choosing” such a life. You did not forfeit your duty to the men of your community neither did you dare emasculate your brothers in such a way. Doing so was a betrayal to your womanhood, to your race, to your lineage, to your ancestors… to your beliefs. If you felt it, you knew right away to deny it, ignore it and by no means should you ever act upon such a thing. You did not bring shame to your family by straying from what was “natural”. This was the unforgivable sin, likened to blasphemy. You didn’t spit in God’s face that way… because that’s what they taught you, that you were spitting in His face. They spoke for Him as if they were Him, and well, you just didn’t. So, for a while, many years in fact… I fought with the fact that I was attracted to women. And the more I fought it, the more it oozed from my pores like poison. Like some potent chemical, the very essence of which the entire world could smell. It seeped from the deepest parts of me; Unapologetic, unwavering and incurable. It was like… Pickle juice. Strong and embarrassingly impossible to hide. Ok, I know what you’re thinking: What the hell does pickle juice have to do with being queer, right? Well, let me explain…
When I was a little girl I loved pickles. If anyone let me, I would have eaten them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Nothing else, just damn pickles… So, one day I did. I came home from school one afternoon when I was in about the 3rd grade, and there it was… A big ass family sized jar of jumbo pickles, sitting atop the kitchen counter, waiting just for me. That jar shined like with the light of angels chasing behind Jesus Christ during the second coming. I swear, to this day, that I could hear the Hallelujah chorus as I beehived straight for that giant jar of deliciousness. And I ate the whole damned thing. Now, it took me, in all of my childish greed, all of about 3 days to finish the jar… but I managed to do it. I ate almost 20 pickles and greedily drank the remaining juice, in its entirety, before going about my merry way. At least a way I thought would be merry until the prettiest girl in school happened to smell the scent of pickles leaking from my pores. Her name was Karen Williams, and I remember this moment clearly. I stood among the children in my class, waiting for my turn in a game we were playing when the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen smelled the pickle juice seeping from my pores. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have eaten the whole jar of pickles, but there was clearly no turning back. I also remember being frozen in place, unable to move my small legs, no matter how hard I tried. I could feel the horror creeping across my freckled face while my stomach bubbled with nervousness and my feet remained glued in place. It felt almost as if I’d unknowingly stepped into a pit of thick tar and I couldn’t free myself from it.
Karen leaned in closely and lightly sniffed me, using her senses to confirm her suspicions, as young children often do. Then, in a sweet yet confused, sing-song voice she said “Brittney Roquemore you smell like…like… pickles.” In that moment two things happened: First, I realized just how quickly a group of small children could turn a lynch mob and, Second, Karen Williams’ hair smelled like strawberries! The strawberry aroma was soft, sweet and gentle enough to dance upon every passing breeze. I was suddenly hyper aware of myself in ways I had not been. I was aware of the shoes I’d picked out to compliment my school uniform. My uniform was no longer a uniform, a simple ensemble of a navy blue pleated skirt, thick knitted tights, black and white shoes, a white collar shirt and a blue Knit sweater. It was an ensemble that she saw… what she would remember about me. I now cared about the mountain of Lisa Frank school supplies that were in my backpack… Karen always used a yellow number two pencil and I wondered if she’d like them; I wondered if she wanted them. I must’ve been about as crazy as two nickels short of a dime because I wanted to give this girl my Lisa Frank pens. My absolute favorite gel pens! All because her hair smelled nice. (Looking back on things, I guess I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face.) For a second, I was convinced that the pickle juice had begun rotting my brain. Or, maybe I had Mad Cows disease and had slowly begun losing my mind. (I was, obviously, also a bit dramatic. Not much has changed.) The nervousness and confusion I felt in that moment caused me to perspire even more… and the smell of pickle juice became more potent. Karen leaned in again and my reactions to her sudden movements were increasingly visceral as my heart switched from skipping beats to the rhythm of soft, consistent drums.
While the other children snickered and pointed, she whispered to me, “It’s okay, pickles are my favorite too”. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach and pounded loudly, no longer a low hum but now with the intensity of 10,000 African war drums. This was the first time I’d ever heard these drums inside me… warning me of a war I would forever fight. Karen stared at me, frozen in my tracks, under the paralyzing spell cast by her strawberry scented tresses. Each time she blinked the drums became louder, more fierce…deafening… effervescently thumping in rhythm to the wind that passed between her eyelashes. Suddenly, something woke up inside me and it scared me. Fear and curiosity saturated me as I became more conscientious of myself. I became more aware of my hair; 4 ponytails, a style which I now questioned. I wondered if they were neat enough to be seen… by her. Of my sweater, at which I now insecurely tugged while twirling the ends of my pigtails around my index finger and shyly grinding the top of my right shoe into the crevice of a crack in the ground. The more aware I became, the more awake I felt. Strange… this feeling was strange and haunting or… Queer; Different, strange and not easily understood… and I didn’t want to try to understand it. All I could think of was stealing another breath full of the strawberry scent hidden among the strands of Karen’s hair.
This moment I remember clearly because it evolved me. As I experienced this moment of awakening, something deep inside me told me that these war drums would never stop pounding. They warned me of a war I’d woken up in the middle of and had not yet begun to fight. I smelled the scent of war on my skin… this scent clung to my flesh as I sweat… It stained my clothes, made engravings on my subconscious. It sealed the direction of my path and introduced what I would come to believe was a thorn in my side. The thing that showed me my humanness through a mirror my young hands were not yet strong enough to hold. I smelled like pickle juice and the more nervous I became at each small whiff of Karen’s hair the more I sweat. Everyone could smell it… the scent of my lack of abstemiousness, my lack of normalcy. They could smell the odor of my pulse racing faster and faster each time Karen leaned in to smell me. Karen’s hair smelled like strawberries and the scent of pickle juice screaming from my skin let the world know that I liked it. I went home that day and bathed…I stayed in the bath for two hours. Then I showered for what felt like an eternity. I guzzled the water that flowed from the shower head, trying to rid my insides of the smell of pickles. All I ever wanted to smell again… were strawberries.
Now I was reliving the moment in which my sexuality leaked from my pores and stained my skin. The people closest to me were the mob of children who teased me in the background as I stood frozen by the enchanting scent of strawberries. My anxiety pounded like the war drums which were awakened by my first childhood crush. Every girl that caused me to tingle when her hand brushed against mine when her sweats were tomboyish enough or her jeans were tight enough or whose bamboo earrings were big enough… whose hair was sweet enough… were the strawberries in Karen’s hair and my attraction to them would always be as loud as the scent of pickle juice.