Hand-Me-Down by K. Zen ‘obia

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close-up image of bark-like mulch

A cold day and I was wearing the gold coat of almost crushed velvet, fashionable that year even for a ten-year-old, and this was considered a big deal because I was the one allowed to choose it.

The mashed fabric felt like scrubbed, softened skin. It matched hue to hue my own color, and when I put it on it felt like I was wrapping myself in me. It banged below the knees, but my bones poked through most hand-me-down dresses—and I did not even have an older sister or older cousin; these were the clothes Mother bought from the Goodwill thrift store.

My mother: the one both whites and Blacks in our small northern California town called mulatto behind her back. I was constantly stopped and asked, Is THAT your mother? She looked like a newly ripened banana pulled off the tree, a fair mink, with curling long black hair, eyes, color of the Mississippi river muddy bottom. A chameleon, shapeshifter, blue smoke after the spirit leaves the body, mouth dark and furious, even when she was not speaking.

I wore Goodwill clothes, white buck teeth, and salmon-pink cat-eyeglasses, a fashion apocalypse. And I wore clothes from the Goodwill so my mother could buy pairs of expensive pumps at Magnin’s, a real alligator bag, blue silk couture, that transformed her into turquoise erupted as female form. She hid her bags and boxes of new clothes and shoes and gold jewelry and French colognes in my closet so my father would not find out how the grocery money was spent, or where the tuition funds went—the tuition that was supposed to be set aside for the private parochial day school I attended, the same primary Christian school where at least two of its  female students,  under age twelve, one white and one Black, each in single parent homes, were secretly, repeatedly raped by their fathers.

One girl (Renee) told me this when we were both adults and she was writing her memoir, giving TED-like talks at community events. She disclosed how she, a child of the system, was adopted only to be verbally and physically beaten by a harsh mother. She hated her, even at her mother’s death bed.  But as bad as that was, her living situation worsened, when her adoptive mother died. Renee at age 11, left alone with her father, endured years of sexual assault. All the while, she was attending our grade school, answering math questions, raising her hand at spelling bees, playing on the girls’ basketball team, going to the potluck dinners, getting in line for handball at recess, attending cheerleading practice, and, like all of us, going to catechism every Thursday night with our pastor.

Renee told me matter-of-factly, the rape meant blackmail, quid pro quo for child provision. Currency. An extortion, when she needed money to go on field trips, to pay for books at the Scholastic Book Fair, to buy the optional school jacket in school colors, to get new clothes. She told me—as I listened, crying, remembering her powerful leaps and twirl-jumps, at cheering practice—knowing she merely learned to adapt as a high-functioning survivor, a learned skill in normalizing trauma. Renee said she’d confronted her father when she was in her 30s, told him she forgave him. To which he answered: He forgave her, too.

The other girl (Michelle) was a bouncy girl, tall, with pixie bangs and husky contralto like silk from a Coke bottle. She’d hike up her skirt to her panties in the tiny bathroom stall we shared to show me the bruises her father gave her on the daily. Nothing, nothing. We told no one nothing.

And when I finally met her father at the church potluck, it was he who’d initiated introductions. (I do not know how he knew I was Michelle’s best friend.) And, looking at him as he made the introductions, I knew, he knew, that I knew. Shame. Remorse. Guilt. I was looking for it, but I only saw defiance and ownership:

I am Michelle’s father, he said, so quiet I almost missed the words. Tall, gray eyes, close cropped slate hair, eagle beaked. He did not appear to have a mouth, only a couple of thin lines where lips should be. I shivered, feeling cold as if a corpse were standing in the room, head tilted, sizing me up, assessing my loyalties.

The private school’s tuition was costly, but if you became a member of the church, children could attend the school for free, and my mother chose the scholarship. We were brutalized by this system punished for being Black and working class, not like wealthy Portola Valley, or Los Altos students with swimming pools in their backyards.  And sometimes my sister and brothers and I ate Starkist tuna fish over white rice that you boiled in a disposable plastic bags for supper and sometimes had ice cream once or twice a year, and occasionally the inexhaustible dish of air pudding, my father joked was for dinner the rare days when we went crying to bed hungry.

Being church mice didn’t translate into more money for groceries. My mother pocketed what she could for her wardrobe, hair salon appointments, shoes, gold furniture, fur-collared coat. Gumbo, crab claws, beef stroganoff, chicken cacciatore one year, and the next, Charlie the cartoon tuna and his obnoxious New York accent reminded me of the grumble in my belly. The one year, a live turkey lived in our California garage for a week, because my mother needed to kill something and how everyone clamored like barbarians for the drumstick, the dark meat, once it was plucked and roasted, while I sat close lipped and refused to eat, although grateful if anyone had to have its neck wrung…. I was glad it was the turkey and not me.

Years later my mother walked out of the Baptist Church (that she sometimes sneaked back to) to find a brand-spanking new Cadillac—a surprise from my father and a most ostentatious acknowledgment of her platinum-tongued tastes. And then I knew she never really ever had to hide anything; my father had not only learned to accommodate her expensive proclivities, he loved her so much that he became willing accomplice. Enabling this, ignoring that.

A cold day and I wore the clothes she picked out for me from Goodwill: a jumper of brown faux leather and white faux fur, spotted, but not quite snow leopard. The brown leather and white fur were in the design of the yin-yang; beneath the jumper was a candy-red and white striped nylon turtleneck to distract from all the white leather and brown fur. The effect was astonishing. It looked like I was wearing Mad Cow Disease, the ugliest thing my mother could find, and the kids at school—in crisp clean clothes from JC Penney or soft pastel cashmere sweaters from Benetton, tight blue Jordache jeans, the kids in brightly colored blouses and shirts, starched new—snickered openly.

My younger sister’s godparents lived across the street, an elderly couple with no children of their own. For a long time, they bought her brand-new clothes every school year, and so many of them it was like a wedding trousseau.

My sister was a rough shod who dangled from the jungle gym with one foot, routinely raced and beat the boys in ad hoc relays, rolled in the dirt in rough and tumble touch football; to her, clothes were irrelevant. She said, yes, always yes, when I asked to borrow her clothes, but our mother warned: Watch it! She’s wearing your skirt. And when that did not work:

Do you see what’s she doing…she’s got on your jacket. She’ll ruin it!

My sister would shrug and go back to watching The Jetsons or grab a bat to challenge someone in a wiffle ball game, until my mother said to her:

If you let her wear your clothes, I won’t buy you any more.

And that was it.

It did not matter that my mother was not the one buying my sister’s brand-new clothes. We correctly interpreted her warning. If you loan your big sister your clothes, I will stop loving you. Our mother’s love was quixotic, punitive, shifting as a plastic kaleidoscope.

The rough shod sister was the neighborhood tough girl, pounding kids, stomping on her own doll, riding with no hands on her bike, and practicing street speak in the mirror, every night, to crystalize her brand as a toughie. Once, she suddenly developed a large tumor-looking thing near her pubis; she was taken to a doctor and did not return home for a week. She’d been hospitalized with an unwieldy hernia, likely from playing too rough or picking up too many heavy objects, like the hard tether ball, or pulling herself up hard on the jungle gym.

When she came home, fragile for the first time, I forgave her for withholding her clothing from me. I waited on her constantly, kissing her until she wiped her face of my kisses and shoved me away, telling me to cut it out.

Years later, when she was a parent herself, mothering her own cubs completely differently than we were raised, I joked about her being such a toughie as a kid that she landed in the hospital.

My little sister, now a grown woman, went quiet. Then she said: The hernia was from Mom beating on me. My sister had been beaten so hard she was hospitalized. And she’d kept it secret. She protected the wrong one. She should have been taken away. I should have been taken away. My brothers should have been taken away. But to what, to where, to whom?

Why my aunt covered my mouth with orange lipstick smeared to my chin, mirror mirror, why certain children, regardless of the pecking order, are assigned, why we are marked Abel, and why I was dressed in hand me down.

I tripped that cold day on the tan bark. I was wearing my precious burnt yellow coat, brand new, the color of butterscotch after you’ve sucked at it, the color of a maple bar after it’s been in your mouth too long. Which was another reason I liked it so. The coat bumped against my knees because it was bought two sizes too big. It was to grow into, you see. And even though it was not from the Goodwill, at two sizes too big, it still looked like a hand-me-down.

Two sizes too big, it mocked me, in a sing-song naah, nan-nan nan, naaaah, but it was still new; I was there when we purchased it, and I loved it.

That day I was running like a scarecrow and fell on the tan bark, the rough mulch scattered over the playground, and the Christian school principal hurried over.  The other children had already lined up. His favorites were the boys, and it was rumored he had coaxed the face of one of them in his anus.

Or was it true, was it true? The memory of our principal pressing the laughing face of a young boy in the place where his pants seam neatly lined up from scrotum to the lower spine in the back, pushing as far as he could without breaking the child’s neck? Was that true? A surreal moment: his face floating against the blue cloth of the trousers, where most of us scratched or shat, the area we washed in the bathtub only when reminded or instructed to do so.

That part of the body relegated to fart jokes and careful cataloging of how big or how little it was. We targeted each other’s shames when pointing out someone’s butt. Occasionally an older boy would grab a younger child, someone six or seven, and with both hands jerk their pants down to their knees, exposing the behind—and the child would begin crying. This pants-pulling was not fun or funny; this was a hunt, and the child, prey, in the right open.

I had not learned how to say stop, leave him alone, you’re evil. Simple words to step in to protect. So, like the others, I watched: This was part of School Playground Domination.

Those who navigate how to keep pants up after being pulled down repeatedly either remained victim or mutated to aggressor.

We watched, then, in our classroom, sunlight streaming in, the landscape, the six large picture windows, green with plants from seeds we pushed in damp earth potted in halved eggshells, watched the principal’s long white fingers, grasping the boy’s black thatched head to his behind, maneuvering the boy’s face roguishly up and down. And, there, this boy, guffawing, as if this were perfectly natural, until the laughing looked kind of like a sob. We all squinted, not knowing what to think except that this thing happening right there in plain view must be a joke, but what an unusual joke. So we brushed it off, so… so, nothing.

But this day, it was cold enough to blow fake smoke rings with your breath, and hurrying to get inside from recess, I fell on the tan bark, tripping on my large, brand new yellow coat. The bumpy chipped pieces of the Sequoia Redwood, and jagged streaked gravel I once threw carelessly up in the clouds to hear the pebbles crack, tore the smooth lines of my kneecaps into a bloody hieroglyphic. I lay on the ground, stunned, my head to one side, feeling the earth and sky rise to meet me in the middle, and the principal’s words like scraped paper as he scolded and tsked-tsked, like an elderly crow, stepping briskly to where I lay motionless, too shocked to cry, stiffened as if in postmortem.

He slid his hands under my new gold coat, groping, took hold of and then firmly grasped the muscle, fat, developing sinew protruding on both sides from my chest that I dared identify as breasts, and what the kids called titties. I still wore the wife beater for little girls, sleeveless undershirts adorned with a single tiny silk and colorless rose.

My mother had refused to buy me a brassiere, as she called it, so my breasts were nonexistent until those white hands scooped up either side of my chest and slowly pulled me up, up, up. It took an eternity, and this was not like the time my secret classmate crush squeezed this modest genesis of bosom, the star of a nipple, in the janitor’s closet after Chapel or during the Advent Potluck Dinner, and I felt a thrill chase itself, head to toe, and forbidden. On the fringe of erotic.

No, the Principal’s sudden grab, snatching at breasts, the ambush of my body, as if the two newly developing secrets were his to open, clenching them hard enough for me to wince. Cold water ran like a slap through my body and I, could not determine which was more painful or bewildering: scraped knees or those bony cold white hands that would not let go, that smelled of strong cologne, those hands sprouted with rough black hair, like a boar in an expensive suit.

You like boys you like boys you like boys was all I could think, and it sang through me like, a rabid, nursery rhyme

You like boys you like boys you like boys You like boys you like boys you like boys You like boys you like boys you like boys You like boys you like boys you like boys You like boys you like boys you like boy You like boys you like boys you like boys You like boys you like boys you like boys You like boys you like boys you like boys

Once when Mom was cutting old blocks of cheddar to make macaroni and cheese, a chunk was covered with mold; she said, This is the mother. You can just slice that right off, and so we would eat the cheese with the mold cut out.

A sheltered ten-year-old, I still knew enough to associate breasts with the idea of sex, even though not yet intercourse. And though I also did not know what male homosexuality entailed, I sensed it meant sexual rejection of anything female, and why would he …

not ———

let ———


 you’re not supposed to like little girls, you like little boys, you’re not supposed to touch me.

 you like boys but you like boys.


The unspoken words freeze in the wind, the day rife with cold, and I instinctively knew I would not be telling my parents. That those white hands, were like that mold, hoar frosted on day-old bread, but unlike cheese, you could not cut the mother out of a human body,   –you could not cut the mother out, you can’t cut the mother out, you cannot cut the other out, the one that could hurl my sister into a hospital and lie with freshly applied pink lipstick from the perfume counter at Dior, to my sister’s doctors, the one who could not teach me, my body was precious, and shining.

He dragged me off the ground, still gritting my breasts; compressing them under my two-sizes-too-big coat, and the breasts felt like they didn’t belong to me anymore. The coat fell apart but wavering close together like stage curtains, and hid his actions, so it appeared that the white hands were invisible, the hands of a puppeteer or mime. Blood poured from the knees and soiled the new coat that looked hand me down, blood spilled as if the coat had lost its virginity.

After the principal finally took his hands away and clapped them sharply, the signal for the line to begin moving. I hung my head low, and contracted my shoulders, my upper body concave, in an attempt, to cover my breasts. I assumed my place in line; and as sun sliced across my eyes, light flickered: the color of a freshly minted penny.

I had not shed a single tear.

Shuffling back to the classroom, with my classmates, I wondered what it would be like, one day, to feel brand new.


Meet the Contributor

K. Zen 'obiaK. Zen ‘obia has work published in Cincinnati Review, TriQuarterly, Rumpus and Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, Henry Holt. Recent essays were published by deLuge, storySouth, and more work is included or forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, Bayou, Pleiades, and Prairie Schooner. She is recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, a Hedgebrook Fellow and Edward Albee Fellow, and recipient of Archie & Bertha Walker Fellowship for the Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/bulletproofbra

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