She never did like those pastels; the saccharine sweet baby blues and happy peaches that hung over the piss-stenched stairwells of the ghetto where she grew up. There was something humiliating about the way they hugged the concrete, as if any amount of happy-ugly paint was going to trick anyone into thinking that that place was something it wasn’t.
And anyway, they weren’t fooling anybody. This was where 14-year-old girls first saw lust-filled eyes and mistook them for a compliment; where they used welfare cash to buy red lipstick and hair straightener. This was where they would duck under the bottom set of stairs with some boy, where they’d unhook their bra straps pretending they didn’t mind the way old puke stains colored the walls. This was where they would feel the chill that came when his eyes changed as he flicked away a used up cigarette butt, where they started asking themselves what they had done wrong.
She never liked the pastels, but she did grow accustomed to them. She started to look out for them behind the bend in the road on her way home from school. Something about them got settled in her, the way one settles into the annoying sound of a squeaky door, and then misses it when it’s oiled away.
“Yes,” she‘d think, as they appeared. “This is right.”
She settled into all sorts of other things too. The angry sounds of slaps on skin from other rooms. The incessant wailing of neglected babies and then the silence when they finally gave in to knowing that no one was coming. The way white faces tightened at noisy brown kids on the train. The way brown parents struggled to rebuild their jaws around foreign tongues.
“Yes,” she’d think, as she watched. “This is right.”
It got so it became a kind of tired lyric in her mind that followed her along wherever she went.
“You look better with your hair straight – more polished.”
“Would you ever get green contacts? I love ethnic girls with green eyes.”
“I really prefer the skinny-athletic types. “
She would just stand there, mesmerized by the insult; a kind of pleasant smile pulling its way across her lips, as she willed the humiliation off her face. “Yes,” she’d think, while her mind made her a list of rehabilitation options, “He’s right.”
By the time she took her next breath, his words had added weight and frizz and shame in places she didn’t know they belonged. In her own mind’s eye, his words carved up her body, without touching her, without seeing her, and remade it into something else, something she would soon come to claim as her own. She might once have called her hair wild and tumbling; she might have thought her curves sexy and womanly, or her eyes deep and soulful. But she was mistaken, of course. She was wrong, her lens was wrong, her thoughts were wrong.
And it dawned on her that she really wasn’t unlike those old pastels after all.
“Yeah” she giggled, “That’s right!” She really wasn’t any different…funny how that works.
The author came of age in the mid 1990s in the Taastrupgaard estates on the outskirts of Copenhagen. At the time, Taastrupgaard housed predominantly Arab and Turkish immigrants. It suffered from high-levels of violence and low levels of income, employment and education. It is currently undergoing a number of state-sponsored structural changes to “de-ghettoize” the community, slated for completion by 2030. The exterior has been repainted an off-white color.