Secrets

by Joan Colen

Twice my daughter Mia told me a secret her best friend Vernea told her.

Twice she made me promise not to tell anyone. 

The first time was soon after the girls became friends. Vernea had crossed the great divide from her community in Oakland, California to Berkeley. She was the only black girl in Mia’s middle school class other than a doctor’s daughter who lived across the street from the school. Sometimes I picked them up after school and they did their homework in the basement. I’d bring them hot chocolate and try not to eavesdrop.

On the rare occasion that I’d seen Vernea’s mother Alice at the school, she ignored me.  I’d try to make eye contact and smile, but she looked right through me in spite of the girls’ friendship, or maybe because of it.

She had once been a beauty and at 36, was still tall, striking, and elegant.  In her twenties, her “New York period,” she was a model for Ebony Magazine. She had passed her loveliness on to Vernea.  Alice met Vernea’s father in a Greenwich Village bar where he played trumpet in the house band. Then Alice got pregnant. She had no interest in marriage but wanted a child. She moved to Oakland because she knew her sister, Vernea’s Aunt Deb, would help her.  Aunt Deb took Vernea to storytime at the library, and the San Francisco Zoo. She did all the things moms do, from attending parent-teacher conferences when Alice was too busy to baking cookies for Vernea to bring to class.  

Meanwhile, Alice became a community leader in Oakland.  She was a secretary to the Black Panthers, organized marches, wore African-inspired dresses, and read DuBois, Baldwin, Ellison, and anything else she could find by black writers, revolutionary or otherwise.  She also managed to get Vernea a full scholarship to Berkeley Girls School. There Vernea and Mia bonded – first, over their love of basketball and then, over everything else. 

 When Vernea wasn’t with Aunt Deb, she was at our house. I was proud of the friendship between Mia and Vernea.  It was a final rebuke to my father, who had died a decade before. Although as a young girl there was no opportunity for me to develop friendships with black classmates in my de facto segregated high school, I still recall my shame when I played Elvis records for my friends only to have my father yell from the next room “Turn off that coon shouting!”  For me, the friendship between Vernea and Mia symbolized how far we had come. 

Then one day, six months or so into their friendship, Vernea stopped coming over to our house.  Mia said it was because Vernea needed to go home to check the mail. 

“What’s so special that’s coming in the mail?” I asked. 

“Oh, nothing really. A magazine she’s waiting for.” But Mia’s cheeks reddened and I knew she was lying.  She was still young enough to feel guilty when she didn’t tell the truth. 

One day she told me.

Vernea had cursed at her mother for something and Alice responded by hitting her. It wasn’t the first time. After she stopped crying, Vernea called her father in New York and begged to come live with him. He worked for an airline; he said he would send her a ticket as soon as he could. When Vernea eventually told Alice what she’d done, Alice said, “He’ll never do it. I know that man a lot better than you do, fool.” But each morning Vernea woke up with hope. Each afternoon she went to the mailbox.

One day, not long after Mia told me about her friend’s secret, the ticket was there. When I heard the news, my heart pounded as if I stood beside Vernea while she opened the envelope. I imagined her joy and comfort from knowing that her father loved her, and would have her come live with him.  Things changed after that but not in the way anyone expected. Alice stopped hitting Vernea. And Vernea stayed in Oakland, turning down her father’s offer.  

Mia was happy. “I knew she wouldn’t leave me!”

I said nothing but suspected Vernea’s deeper reasons: her father was a stranger, beloved Aunt Deb was in Oakland, and Alice was, after all, her mother. 

Aunt Deb was twice divorced and unable to have children of her own. She was a large woman with soft dark hair, a warm heart, and arms that enveloped Vernea when she was sad. For years she had tried to intercede when Alice’s harsh discipline erupted. But it was the plane ticket that did the trick. Alice did not want to lose her child.

Then came Vernea’s second secret, and the second time Mia made me swear to say nothing. 

In the seventh grade, Vernea acquired a stepfather.  I met him for the first time when he drove Vernea to our house on the back of his motorcycle.  He was young – probably no more than 25 or 26 -- and white. His name was Tim O’Malley; he was a second-generation Irishman.  He and Alice met at the pizza parlor where he worked. By this time Alice owned a little house. She helped her new husband land a job as a guard at San Quentin. Vernea was thrilled.  For the first time in her life, she felt she had a family, with a beautiful mother and an attentive – and, above all, present – father. She called Tim O’Malley dad.

 O’Malley was polite but there was something about him that bothered me.  I couldn’t figure it out, not at first. That summer the new family backpacked through Asia. Vernea sent Mia ecstatic postcards. It was the first time Vernea traveled anywhere.  Until then, she always felt awkward and left out when the Berkeley girls spoke of their vacations to foreign places. Now she had stories of her own.

That February Mia and Vernea began to notice boys. They got their periods the same month. Vernea had developed earlier than Mia, who was jealous because Vernea had breasts and wore a bra.  I didn’t like the way O’Malley stared at Vernea’s chest. He didn’t look at her the way a father looks at a daughter – at least, not to me.

One day Vernea proudly showed us the Valentine that O’Malley had given her, with the printed message:  “Hey, Sexy, Be My Valentine!” My instinct was to say something about it to Alice but I didn’t. The one time Alice and I had chatted at a coffee place near the school, Alice commented to Mia afterwards that I “was a typical New York Jew.”  I wasn’t sure what that meant to Alice, but it wasn’t complimentary. How would Alice react to my criticism of her new husband? All I had to go on was a feeling, and a silly Valentine. And Vernea worshipped him. He once took both girls to see the movie “Pretty Woman.”  Once again, I worried. It didn’t seem a good choice of movie for him to watch with two twelve-year-old girls. I imagined him sitting between them; I tried not to imagine the worst. Surely I was simply being a prude, an overbearing Jewish mother. Too involved, too overprotective.  

Mia said they all liked the movie.

Over the course of that year, Vernea began to gain weight.  She ate as if possessed. Alice started calling her “Miss Piggy.”  Mia told me that the girls in school had other names for Vernea, racist ones, uttered behind her back. Mia adored and stood up for her friend.  She asked me for advice. I suggested that she might gently suggest Vernea go on a diet. Looking back, the inadequacy of my response stuns and shames me. 

Towards the end of the school year, Mia shared Vernea’s second secret. It was as if someone was giving me news I already knew. O’Malley had been molesting Vernea for nearly a year.  Mia made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone. Vernea was afraid to ruin her family. “I still love my dad,” she told Mia, as tears rolled down her cheeks. Those words amazed me. 

And my daughter had sworn me to secrecy.  

I did nothing. Said nothing.

Months later, Vernea finally told Alice. The molestation was getting beyond just touching, and was happening almost nightly.

Alice blamed Vernea. “You provoke him with those big breasts of yours!”  Vernea was frightened and confused. She asked Mia if her mother could be right. She loved her stepfather and desperately wanted to keep her family together. She cried all the time. She stopped attending school and hid in our basement. 

Somehow, Mia persuaded Vernea that she had to tell Aunt Deb.  Aunt Deb would know what to do. Vernea said she would but only if Mia went with her.

I was nervous about Mia going with Vernea to the area in Oakland where Aunt Deb lived.  We’d been there in the car, and saw guys hanging out on the corner, saw a schoolyard littered with hypodermic needles and vials.  Mia would stand out there. Then I thought of my dad making us lock the car doors as we drove through Harlem. I had to let her go.  It was the most important thing she had undertaken to do in her nearly thirteen years of life.

Aunt Deb said: “I’m going to kill that white boy.” 

Deb and the girls ran to her sister’s house.

O’Malley was sitting in the darkened living room watching television.  He saw Deb and Vernea and Mia through the window. 

He opened the door and said, “I guess I better leave.”

“If you want to live,” Aunt Deb said, eerily quiet.  Then her voice rose to an angry yell: “Get out and never come back!”

Mia called me from Vernea’s house and I went there to pick her up, relieved that it was over.  Relieved that she was safe. That both girls were safe.

“Mom, why didn’t Aunt Deb call the police?”

“I don’t know.”  Maybe I should have told her that the police wouldn’t have cared or believed Vernea.  Maybe I should have told her about Emmet Till. Maybe I should have told her about members of the Panthers dragged out and murdered on the same streets she’d just walked on.  Or of women whose reports of domestic violence went ignored for years, until someone was killed, and then everyone cried “how terrible!” But I didn’t. I drove her home. Safe.

Two decades later, Mia is still friends with Vernea.  She tells me that Vernea remains haunted by that year when she was twelve.  It affects everything: her choices, her men, her body, her deep bouts of depression.

It haunts me too. If I had told Alice what I long suspected, would it have made a difference? For years I’ve told myself that I couldn’t interfere, couldn’t betray my daughter’s confidences.  But that is only a small part of the story.

The truth was, I was afraid. Afraid of Alice.  

And afraid of what lies beneath the surface.  If Alice had been white, would I have taken the chance?

About the Author

Joan has been writing short stories since she retired in 2006. This particular story was inspired by work in underserved communities where she taught. She has had a few stories published in The East Hampton Star and a book called "Richard's Class".