Sex was a way to stop the crying, the powerlessness of not feeling beautiful. She always felt beautiful under lustful hands. Lustful hands can't lie. The want, greed, and emptiness is real. That type of emptiness can't be imagined. And she trusted it because she understood it. The magic that disillusioned others about loving was what she liked most -- the emptiness always comes back. She could count on that. And as long as it did, she could keep believing that she didn't need promises of forever.
Selah knew that real love only cost twenty-five cents. That's what she charged the neighborhood boys in Waterman Gardens where she grew up. Waterman Gardens was more than a project; it was the entire world. Starting just below Bradley Elementary School and ending just before Kmart, between Baseline and Tippecanoe, everything she needed was within three blocks of its pink concrete walls. She and Tina Perkins used to sit on the great wall of their city, their ten-year-old Vaseline-slicked legs crossed and dangling as boys with little afros and grown-up appetites passed. Selah noticed way back then that boys weren't so different than men. She watched little boys play basketball; she watched grown men play basketball. They all liked dogs, remote control cars, and women.
Selah studied her neighborhood. She recognized that chase was an early form of sex and that the possibility of ending up with a man that visited late nights and never took out the trash was real. She was intimate with women she'd one day become. Not intimate in a sad way, but in the concrete way of staring at your mother and understanding what you'll look like at sixty-five. But Selah would not look like her mother; she decided that the day she took home her first training bra from JCPenney's with her grandmother. Selah would look like Mama Gene and all the other grandmas, aunties, and mothers in her neighborhood who had the courage not to leave.
Staying could be difficult between these walls. Waterman Gardens was a low-rent mecca for black women. The kind of place you agree to until you can find something better and end up collecting your social security in. The units were joined in twos with a slab of gray concrete on either side for parking. Behind the parking spaces were two parallel brick walls with clothesline cord strung between them. Every back door opened to a sprawling common area of green grass and trees used for shade, climbing, and switches. Front doors opened to wide streets with exotic names that intersected each other's curves. This wasn't a woman's paradise, it was more of a permanent holding tank. The kind of place you could move sideways in, but never up and out of. A mother was lucky to get a two-story apartment. Most families squeezed all its members into one or two rooms and hoped their name would rise to the top of the waiting list for a three or four bedroom vacancy. Selah didn't understand until she was older why her neighborhood was considered a ghetto. Ghetto was a term that showed the low expectation wider society had for her underprivileged world. And at the same moment this occurred to her, she also realized that her sprawling neighborhood would have been called condos if white yuppies lived within its walls.
At ten, Selah's world was already complicated by the responsibility of knowing. Pink birthday tights and silk ribboned ponytails were only symptoms of childhood. Red lipstick was already on the inside of her. Selah admired the five and seven year olds who still found completion in colored supermarket balls and swing sets. Despite their fifth-grade status, she and all of her girlfriends were women. Their teachers knew it, so did their older brothers' friends. It was their mothers who were the last to find out. The girls hid their womanhood from their mothers in school bathrooms and sleepovers, in missing underwear and booty-shaking playground cheers:
My name is Selah...Yeah,
and I am fine...Yeah,
if you don't like it...Yeah,
kiss my behind.
Roll Call Sha-boogie, check, check me out.
These girls hid their womanhood, but more than anywhere, they hid it in summer days on the "Gate," their legs dangling against pink concrete, their mouths sucking on orange Popsicle sticks, and their minds filled with loving.
Out of Tina, Tasha-Marie, and Carla, Selah was the least talkative of her crew. She thought it was because she was the biggest sinner of all of them. In Selah's mind, the biggest sinner needed to know when to keep her mouth shut. Maybe if she'd gone to church more, she'd have felt forgiven for her sins. Even the most heathen children had to go to church in summer. No weekend homework, no excuses. The church van never came for Selah. And she connected this absence with her uncontrollable urge to do things she wasn't supposed to. To Sunday summers of amazon grass and yellow short-shorts. To her missing mother and father. To a God that never answered when she asked. And to boys with quarters who would pay to touch budding breasts behind backyard trash cans.
Copyright © 2003 by Jenoyne Adams
Selah Wells looks for salvation through sex and in her photography of nude black men. She feels most alive under the touch of new hands. But she's married to a minister, and, as the adage goes, secrets done in the dark will come to the light. Interweaving scenes from Selah's adult life, including the loss of her only child, and moments from her childhood -- spent in a lively housing project -- Adams deftly depicts Selah's journey. As her grandmother's health deteriorates and her husband immerses himself in the work of God, Selah's latest lover, Peter, tries to get her to confront her fear and anger. Unable to relinquish regrets that have fueled her behavior all these years, Selah resists. But when she is pushed to the emotional brink by an unexpected turn of events, she must finally face her past and begin to make peace with God, her husband, her lost child, and herself.