Marla unwound one last golden lock from the steaming curler. Then she ran her hands carefully through her hair, fluffing it out into the perfect mockery of natural curls.
Next she turned to her makeup – the armor she’d been shielding herself with since Mama first taught her how to use it at age ten.
“Now that you’re almost grown, Marla, you need to learn how to make yourself up,” she’d said. “Cosmetics can make even a plain face like yours into something special.”
“Mama dabbed a little bit of perfume on my neck
And she kissed my cheek
Then I saw the tears wellin’ up in her troubled eyes
When she started to speak
She looked at a pitiful shack
And then she looked at me and took a ragged breath…”
“Promise me you’ll never go out in public bare-faced.”
Looking at her mother’s fierce expression, Marla promised. She would have agreed to almost anything to keep Mama with her just a little bit longer.
Over the next few months, Mama did her best. She taught her how to play up her still non-existant curves to maximum advantage. When to look a man in the eyes, and when to look away. How to act just seductive enough, without ever giving anything away.
She handed me a heart shaped locket that said
“To thine own self be true”
And I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across
The toe of my high heel shoe
It sounded like somebody else that was talkin’
Askin’ Mama what do I do
She said just be nice to the gentlemen Fancy
And they’ll be nice to you…
Mama grew weaker with every word. As soon as she had given up her last weapons, she faded away.
Marla was just twelve. Alone. Without a single relative who cared to claim her.
Through all the years that followed, through every cold night and unwanted touch, Marla remembered what her mama had told her.
“Just be nice to the gentlemen, Marla,” she’d whisper as she went to sleep. “And they’ll be nice to you.”
And now she was about to move uptown.
But as she looked at her reflection drowning inside yards of white silk, her soul yearned for just one thing.
“I did it, mama,” she whispered, clasping her tarnished locket. “I only wish you could be here to see it.”
Then, squaring her shoulders, she put on her best smile and turned to face her destiny.