Milk Memories by Kai Williams

I remember Trinidad in grooved ridges deep inside my mind. The place, the twisting name of it, grinds its heels into the ground of me. I remember terrain, steep and wildly green mountain tops, the death of the mangos on the grass of our unkempt backyard, the warnings to stay away from strange men, the warnings not to play with my shadow for fear of night-terrors, the warnings not to eat starfruit straight off the earth, the warnings not to get lost. I remember, most of all, what I cannot possibly remember, but have been reminded of so many times I store it where I store my memories: my mother drinking milk on the patio, overlooking the mountain, while I was still bundled inside her body. My mother drinking milk so that I would come out light.

But I did not come out light. In fact, I emerged dipped in a deeper hue than even my mother, when she was born, which was already a scornful brown. I cried healthily and loudly in the hospital and my mother, who loved fiercely, looked down at me and murmured “at least she’s strong,” then pressed a thumb to the curve of my face and added, “but so dark.” She blamed my father for this, something she repeated throughout our brief years in Trinidad’s perpetual summer, then, after we moved, through our long period of unheated, closet-sized apartments in Queens, in and out through my whole adolescence. You got that color from your daddy, I did not give you that skin.

As a child in Queens I watched my mother nanny white children and drank milk in fervid, futile hopes that the damage could be undone. The smoothness of the milk pooled inside me the same why the tight feelings did, knowing that she had pretty, fair girls whose hair she wouldn’t have to brush that roughly. The hardest one to look at wasn’t even a white girl, but a little bougie child named Grace who lived in a brownstone and had sweet skin, brown with cream, about as light-skinned as a black child could get (and this was no caribbean girl either, but bonafide African-American, from one of those established Harlem families). She was realistic, a more attainable color than those of my mother’s white charges, the color I might have been had all the dairy my pregnant mother suckled worked. I detested Grace.

The kids at my school didn’t understand me or my blackness or my thirst for milk. “Why do you drink that so much?” My best friend in fifth grade asked. This was Flushing, Chinatown’s grittier, open-legged little sister, and most of the Taiwanese kids around me were thin, fair and my best friend was lactose-intolerant. Once in a while she was allowed to have a chocolate milkshake (so long as she took a probiotic first) her favorite thing in the wide world and when she offered me some I would say “no thank you” real quick like she had liquified evil itself and handed it to me. Chocolate milk, my mother had explained to me, was supposed to have the opposite effect as whole milk and I believed my hands would shake and seize up with wickedness if I sunk any darker than I already was. I refused chocolate for so long.

And now I think about this, a little grown, stretched with some experience, much lengthier in height. I think about it while I lay here, on the bed, which is damp from us, under the half-lidded light, with a cigarette rubbed between my fingers. From my place on the bed, I watch out the window where New Orleans explodes underneath. New Orleans, as brilliantly painted as Trinidad, with just a slight change in color scheme and architecture, New Orleans which parallels the Island, with Mardi Gras just across the waters from Carnival, New Orleans which sustains itself on superstition, just today we ducked into a store selling bewitchments for two dollars a piece, heavy with enough superstition to generate electricity for days upon days, New Orleans which digs its heel into its blackness, roots itself in blackness and celebrates those roots. Here I’ve found my love, my love, and my Love, who leans against the window. He looks out at the wide city and then to me, his wide woman. The first time he saw me without my clothes he ran his fingers along the length of my skin and told me how it was perfection. You are like stone they cut to make swimming pools for crazy rich people—so-dark-it’s-almost-blue stone—that makes you not sure what’s actually colored, the water or the stone its poured into. You are what real, unafraid beauty looks like, if I touched your beauty it would not even flinch. It would look me in the eyes. You are flawless.

Nowadays I crave chocolate, bitter, unabashed chocolate. I want cocoa powder, plain coffee, caramelized banana with burned skin. Nowadays I love my father’s skin. Love has altered my palette and I crave the taste of darkness—unmarred by milk.