Playing House

Stephani Maari Booker





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It was Saturday at noon, and all the TV cartoons were off, so Tabitha was ready to go out. Her younger sister Tisha, complaining that it was too hot to go outside, was sitting on the living room couch playing with her baby doll. Tabitha wasn’t concerned about Tisha; when nothing was on TV, apartment one of the 1112 building was dull. The painted cinder-block walls and dirty-white tile floor were cold and hard. The living room was mined with furniture that the girls frequently tripped over. Their bedroom on the second floor was a safer place to play, but with their mother in her room across the hall reading her romance novels, they would have to be almost completely silent or risk their mother’s wrath over being disturbed. Tabitha was not in the mood to be shut in and quiet in the apartment.

“Mama, can I go outside?” Tabitha yelled up the stairs to her mother’s bedroom.

“Yeah,” her mother shouted down.

Tabitha ran to the front door, turned the deadbolt lock, twisted the doorknob latch and pulled open the heavy gray metal door. The summer light cut into the dullness of the room as Tabitha opened the storm door and stepped outside.

The sun’s harsh light seared Tabitha’s view of the front yard. The wild rose bush that dominated the concrete rectangle in front of the apartment offered no shade. Tabitha walked to the bush and broke off one of its fat, ragged pink blooms. She fingered and picked at the rose’s petals as she looked around, seeing if anybody else was outside. As Tabitha gazed across apartments three through nine, the storm door for number eight opened. A yellow-brown nine-year-old girl—the same age as Tabitha—with two short, thin braids that stuck out from the top of her head like devil’s horns stepped into the yard; her name was Chanel.

Following closely behind Chanel was a smaller girl with short hair and chocolate skin, who tried to hide behind Chanel when she saw Tabitha.

“Nit!” Tabitha cried out, and she dropped the rose. She dashed up the path leading to her door and sped down the sidewalk that ran the length of the 1112 building. Nit squealed and ran in a circle toward the fence that divided the front yard from the next apartment building. Tabitha tried to catch Nit, but Nit flew past Tabitha on the grass between the fence and the sidewalk.

“Nit, Nit, I love you, Nit-Nit! I love you, Nit-Nit!” Tabitha sang as she chased Nit around the front yard. The pursuit ended when Nit stumbled on the grass and fell. Tabitha tumbled over Nit, pulled up Nit’s shirt and started tickling her belly.

Nit was Chanel’s seven-year-old sister. Small, cute, bubbly and compliant, Nit was willing to play Tabitha’s receptive junior partner in all their games: nurse or patient for Tabitha the doctor; student for Tabitha as teacher; or mama for Tabitha as daddy.

Nit’s giggles and cries of “Quit, Tabitha, quit!” brought Tisha outside. She walked over to Chanel, who was leaning against the dirty white siding that covered the front of the apartment row.

“Let’s go play house,” Tisha said. “It’s too hot out here.”

“Ok,” Chanel agreed. “Let’s go over y’all house.”

“Uh-uh. My mama’s upstairs in her room. Is your mama home?” said Tisha.


“Then let’s get Tabitha and Nit and go to y’all house,” Tisha said, and then she yelled out to the twosome on the grass: “Hey y’all, let’s go play house!”

Tabitha released Nit from her embrace, and then all four of the girls ran to door number eight. They rushed inside, letting the storm door slam shut behind them and leaving the metal door open. The girls hurried through the upstairs hallway and into Chanel’s bedroom, closing the door. The orange walls of Chanel’s room were covered with crayon scrawls; on the floor, there were scattered crayons, a yellow blanket, and a mattress covered with a dingy fitted sheet.

“Ok, I’m the daddy, I called first!” said Tabitha, raising her hand and jumping on the mattress.

“I’m the mama!” said Nit.

“Ok, me and Tisha will be the kids,” said Chanel. “Now, Tabitha, you go to Nit’s room and sit, ’cause you at work. Nit, you sit in here and wait for the kids to come home from school, and me and Tisha gon’t go out in the hallway and come back like we coming home, ok?”

Tabitha left the room and went next door to Nit’s bedroom, where she stood in the doorway and watched as Tisha and Chanel walked across the hallway to the bathroom and then returned to Chanel’s room. She heard the voices of the other three girls as they were pretending to be a mother greeting her children from school; she waited for a moment, and then called out to the girls, “Can I come home from work now?”

“Yeah,” Nit responded.

Tabitha walked into the room and closed the door behind her, saying, “Hi, honey, I’m home,” and gave her “wife” Nit a soft kiss on the cheek.

“Daddy, Daddy, can we have some money?” the “kids,” Tisha and Chanel asked.

“I don’t know. Have y’all been good?” asked Tabitha.

“Oh yeah, now give us some money!” said Chanel.

Tabitha reached into an imaginary pocket and handed out invisible dollar bills to her “kids.”

“Ok, y’all, time to eat dinner,” said Nit. “Everybody sit down.”

Tabitha, Chanel and Tisha squatted down onto the mattress while Nit pretended to cook a meal, making stirring motions with her hands. She passed out imaginary plates of food to the other girls and sat down beside them.

After the meal was over, it was time to go to sleep. Nit ordered the “kids” to get in the bed; Tisha and Chanel got in at the foot of the mattress on one side; Tabitha got in at the top end on the other side. Nit threw a blanket over the “kids,” then lay down next to Tabitha and pulled the covers over both their heads. After a few seconds of laughing and kicking under the covers, the girls were quiet. The under-the-blanket playing would end whenever Tabitha announced that it was “morning,” time to get out of bed.

Light from the windows penetrated the blanket, and Tabitha looked at Nit: lying on her back, her eyes closed tight, her lips pursed as if she were holding back a laugh. Whenever they were under a blanket together, whether as doctor and patient or mama and daddy, Tabitha would be tempted by Nit’s passivity to touch her: tracing her fingers over Nit’s eyebrows and lashes; reaching under Nit’s shirt and rubbing her chest and belly; raising Nit’s skirt and making her snicker by poking at her through her panties. Nit would always lie quietly and expectantly as Tabitha fiddled with her. The first time Tabitha whispered to Nit that they should “do it like they do on TV” since they were pretending to be a mama and daddy in bed together, Nit agreed to it with the same quiet receptivity as with everything else they had done together. Tisha and Chanel spent their time under the blanket giggling, whispering about TV shows and the “stupid boys” they knew, and fidgeting, impatiently waiting for the “night” to be over. Tabitha and Nit were always silent.

Tabitha gingerly stretched her neck toward Nit’s face, and placed a long, closed-mouth kiss on Nit’s lips. As Tabitha’s lips rested on hers, Nit snorted, holding back a nervous chuckle. Tabitha pulled up Nit’s skirt and pulled down her panties. Then Tabitha pushed down her own shorts and panties and rolled her body on top of Nit. Giggling and whispering under the hot blanket, Nit and Tabitha hugged each other tightly and rubbed against each other from chest to thigh.

“Oooooh! It smells funkyyyy in here!” A boy’s voice broke the hush of the girls’ playing.

Ronnie, a boy who lived in the same building, was standing at the door, which he had flung open. The girls scrambled under the covers as they tried to straighten themselves up quickly. Tabitha, caught in the tangle of bodies, slipped onto the floor legs first. Her bare bottom was exposed but her head was still under the blanket. Ronnie grinned at the sight of the four girls in bed together; Tabitha especially drew his leering gaze.

“Oooh, y’all doin’ the pussy! Jo-Jo, come look!” Ronnie yelled down the stairs. Another boy, with an ashy face and a finger in his nose, poked his head through the doorway. “Me and him want to play!” Ronnie demanded.

“Ronnie, go’on out of here! You boys always be messin’ us up when we be playin’!” Chanel yelled.

“I’m tellin’ everybody y’all doing the pussy in here!” Ronnie hollered back, and he ran down the stairs. Jo-Jo still stood at the doorway twisting his pinky farther up his nostril. Chanel stood up and walked over to the doorway. “Jo-Jo, move, you retard!” she snapped as she put her hand on his face, pushed his head through the doorway and shut the door. “I can’t stand that boy! He always got to be messin’ stuff up,” Chanel said about Ronnie.

Tabitha’s face was pinched into a tight frown as she hastily straightened her clothes and got up from the floor. She looked around at the other girls; the anger was leaving their faces, and they seemed ready to play again. Tabitha wasn’t. “I don’t want to play no more. I’m going home and watching TV,” she said, and she stomped out of the room, down the stairs, and out of the apartment.

Tabitha ran up the center sidewalk to apartment two; she opened the storm door and pushed the latch on the handle to lock it. She knelt in front of the TV, pushed the “on” button and turned the channel knob, stopping when the screen showed Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. After adjusting the antenna to clear the picture, Tabitha threw herself across the couch to watch lions chase zebras on the open African plains.

The next afternoon, Tabitha and Tisha were in their bedroom playing with Tisha’s dolls when they heard a knock on the front door. “I’ll get it,” Tabitha said, and ran down the stairs.

When Tabitha opened the metal door, Lynette’s cocoa-colored face appeared through the screen of the storm door; a helmet of pink rollers covering her head, her wide mouth bright with a smile. Lynette lived in apartment one. “You and Tisha want to go to the park?” she said to Tabitha. “Ask your mama if you can go with me.”

Tabitha was delighted; since Lynette was older, Tabitha and Tisha could go places with her that their mother would never let them go by themselves. “Mama!” Tabitha shouted. “Can me and Tisha go to the park with Lynette?”

Her mother responded from her room: “Yeah!”

Upon hearing the loud exchange between Tabitha and her mother, Tisha rushed down the stairs to the door, and together the sisters went outside to join Lynette.

The park was north of the projects; they had to walk past the brick-walled ends of 1112, 1114, 1116, 1118 and 1120, along a driveway that curved around the corner of their block and then past the nine back doors and vinyl siding facades of 1120 to another corner, at which they crossed the street to the grassy field.

The playground was a few yards into the park, and Tabitha ran across the field, her eyes on an empty swing. When she got to the swing set, Tabitha grabbed the chains of the swing and sank into the floppy black band that formed the seat. As Tabitha pulled herself back and dropped her legs to start swinging, Lynette lifted Tisha by her waist and placed her into the metal girdle of one of the baby swings that hung next to the big-kid swings. Lynette gave Tisha a few pushes to start her off before going to sit in another swing. The girls spent the next half-hour swinging leisurely, with 13-year-old Lynette climbing higher and faster than Tabitha or her six-year-old sister.

Tabitha closed her eyes as she swung and saw the sunlight burn red on her eyelids. She felt the air move against her face and her back. Swinging was her favorite thing, in fact the only thing she liked to do on playgrounds. She could get on a swing and stay there all day because the sensation lifted her mind away from the world, just as swinging itself lifted her body.

Tabitha was distracted from her reverie by the sound of boys cackling. She opened her eyes to see a group of boys walking toward the swing set; one of the boys was Ronnie, who pointed at Tabitha and said, “There goes Freaky-Deak!” Ronnie’s buddies elbowed each other and cracked up as if he had just said the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

Ronnie was Lynette’s younger brother. “Boy, who you callin’ that?” Lynette shouted at him. “Shut up before I tell Mama on you!”

“And I’m’a tell Mama that you be messin’ around with her, cause she’s a freak!” Ronnie yelled back. “Her and Nit be doin’ the you-know-what up in Nit’s house!”

“Ronnie, shut up! You don’t know what you talkin’ about!” said Lynette.

“I ain’t lyin’! Me and Jo-Jo saw them!” Ronnie said. “They was all in the bed, and Freak-Deak was layin’ on Nit, and they didn’t have no clothes on, and they was humpin’! Didn’t you see it, Jo-Jo?” Ronnie pushed Jo-Jo on the shoulder to prompt an answer. Jo-Jo, while picking his nose and scratching his behind, nodded his head.

Lynette looked over at Tabitha, who sat on the swing with her eyes on the dirt below her dangling feet. She was glad Lynette was there; Lynette would protect Tabitha from Ronnie and the other boys.

Lynette looked back at Ronnie and his pals and said, “Ronnie, if you go around lyin’ that me and Tabitha are bein’ nasty, I’m’a beat you up. And quit callin’ her Freaky-Deak!” She then walked over to Tisha and freed her from the baby swing. “Let’s go back to my house, y’all. Don’t nobody want to be nowhere around a bunch of mannish punks anyway!”

Lynette took Tisha’s hand, and together they walked past the boys.  Tabitha walked behind Lynette, using the older girl’s taller frame to shield herself from the laughter and gawking of the boys. Tabitha remained behind Lynette and Tisha as they walked back to 1112.

When the girls arrived at apartment one, Lynette said to Tisha, “Go in my room and play for a minute. Me and Tabitha gotta talk about somethin’.”

Tisha eagerly trotted across the hallway to Lynette’s room, where she had every Barbie doll and accessory available: Barbie, her black girlfriend Christie, Ken, Christie’s boyfriend Brad, Barbie’s townhouse, Barbie’s Corvette, Barbie everything. Lynette said to Tabitha “Here, let’s go to the bathroom. I gotta fix my hair.”

In the tiny bathroom, Lynnette stood in front of the sink as Tabitha closed the toilet seat cover and sat down. Tabitha looked up eagerly at Lynette as the older girl looked into the mirror and started taking the hard plastic rollers out of her hair and letting them drop into the sink. Watching Lynette do grown-up things like styling her hair was a privilege that Tabitha relished. Lynette’s jet-black, straightened hair and bright brown face were the picture of beauty to Tabitha, who didn’t feel pretty with her three rust-red braids that stuck out long and thin from her head like two antennas and a tail, her yellow, freckly skin and her buck teeth.

Lynette was watching her own actions in the bathroom mirror when she said to Tabitha: “That is so nasty, what you be doin’ with Nit.”

When Lynette spoke, a flush of heat singed Tabitha’s face and her breath caught her throat like a hook. Unable to look at Lynette, Tabitha turned her head and stared out the window over the tub. Her feet, which dangled a little above the floor, started swinging back and forth.

Lynette had removed all the rollers and was combing out her curls. “You know, y’all need to quit doing that stuff. Your mama gon’t whoop you if she ever catches y’all. And y’all bein’ nasty anyway.”

Tabitha stopped looking out the window and started watching her feet swing. Her arms were crossed over her stomach, and her head and back were bent, as if she were using the toilet she was sitting on.

Lynette’s eyes were still on the mirror as she spoke. “Shoot, I’m surprised your mama don’t already know, with you chasin’ Nit around, singing to her and stuff. Ronnie gon’t have everybody in the projects knowing about you and Nit being nasty. You need to be ’shame.”

Tabitha was rocking back and forth on the toilet seat, still swinging her legs. Her eyes were on the floor, looking at nothing.

“Girls are supposed to go with boys,” emphasized Lynette as she fluffed out her hair with her fingers and the comb. “So stop being nasty with Nit. All right?”

Tabitha looked up at Lynette. “Okay,” she said.

Lynette dropped the comb into the sink. “Good,” she said, “Now let’s go play Barbies.”

On Monday, Tisha and Tabitha were watching the last of the morning game shows when they heard a rattle against the storm door. Tabitha got up from the couch and went to open the door. Chanel and Nit were standing outside. “Can you and Tisha come outside?” Chanel asked.

“Tisha, do you wanna go outside with Chanel and Nit?” Tabitha said to her sister.

“Yeah,” Tisha said.

“Then you go ask Mama if you can go,” said Tabitha. “I don’t feel like playing.”

As Tisha shouted upstairs to her mother, Chanel whined, “Aw, dang! How come you don’t wanna play? We was gonna play house over my house ’cause my mama’s gone playing bingo.”

“I just don’t feel like it,” Tabitha responded with a tired sigh. Nit gave Tabitha a wide-eyed pout, but Tabitha looked away.

Tisha pushed past Tabitha to join Chanel and Nit. “Let’s go play, y’all,” Tisha said, and the three girls ran off, heading toward apartment eight.

Tabitha closed and locked both the storm door and the metal door, and then she walked up the stairs to her mother’s bedroom. Her mother’s long, plump, bark-brown body, clad in a red-and-white, flower-printed housedress, was stretched out on her bed. Her kerchief-wrapped head and her back were propped up on two pillows placed against the sandy-colored imitation wood headboard. At the foot of the bed was a matching dressing table where a black-and-white TV sat. Beneath the TV was her mother’s stock of novels: Harlequin romances, 300-page historical fictions, popular potboilers.

Her mother was watching the local news in anticipation of the afternoon soap operas. This was one of the best times for the girls to talk to their mother; her calm passivity turned to instant rage if she was interrupted in reading her books, watching her “stories,” or sleeping, which she did until about 10:30 in the morning.

“Mama, can I have a book to read?” Tabitha asked her mother.

“You want to read one of my books?” her mother asked, and she looked up at her daughter for a short moment. “Go ahead and get one from under there,” she said, pointing to the dressing table. Tabitha walked to the table and kneeled to the floor to look. “But don’t touch none of them Harold Robbins books; they got some nasty stuff in them that little girls shouldn’t read.”

Tabitha sighed at her mother’s remark and continued to sort through the books. She tossed aside any books that looked like romances, wrinkling her nose at covers that showed men and women kissing or embracing each other. Eventually, Tabitha chose Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline because the cover looked crazy: the name of the book and the author in bold red letters, with a red ribbon crossed with the point of a blade that held a drop of blood. “Thanks, Mama,” Tabitha said, rising with the paperback in her hands and turning toward the doorway.

“You’re welcome, honey,” her mother replied.  Then she called out “Tabitha, you’re not going outside today with your little friends?”

“No, I’m just gonna read today,” Tabitha said quietly.

After another moment of looking at her daughter, her mother said, “Ok. Reading’s good for you, anyway. I sure do enough of it.” She took a quick glance at the TV, and then said, “Oh shoot. You can go now; my stories are on.”

Tabitha walked out of her mother’s bedroom into her own. She stretched out across the length of her bed, opened the novel and started reading. The voices from her mother’s favorite story on both the upstairs and downstairs TVs were the only sounds in the apartment.
















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