The Story Behind the Scene: I Used to Braid Charlene’s Hair

I used to braid Charlene’s hair.

Nothing fancy – just individual plaits with colored beads. On the ends, tiny black rubber bands and slivers of foil glinting like stars.

I loved her older brother – even at sixteen, I knew it was love; had to be. I don’t want to mention his name, and I've changed the name of his sister, but the way they live in my heart is real.

That intimacy with Charlene was an intimacy with her brother. His laughter echoed inside hers, as though he was sitting with me. I’d imagine Charlene and me talking about the times I'd braided her hair years from that moment; her brother and I long since married, with kids of our own. I can’t remember what Charlene and I talked about, but the sound of the beads clinked like bells.

When I left Rochester, New York, for Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Charlene’s brother came to see me off. He surprised me with a basketball trophy he’d won that was as close to him as his skin.

For months, as I chatted with him on a payphone in a crowded dorm hundreds of miles away, that trophy sat on a windowsill in my room, a constant reminder of him. Sometimes Charlene was in the background, or I’d asked about her and he’d say, “She’s doing okay.” Eventually the calls slacked off and the frenzy of college life lessened the hurt when they didn’t come at all.

At a Homecoming dance, I met the one who became my college sweetheart, Kelwyn. Before Kelwyn visited my room, I tucked the trophy in a box of keepsakes. Love urges you to fast-forward, heartbreak begs you to rewind.

Years later, Charlene’s boyfriend killed her; stabbed her in a jealous rage. She’d been dead for months before my cousin dared drop tragedy into my seemingly idyllic college life, which in reality was filled with mounting debt in a burgeoning city that buried as many as it bloomed.

I hadn’t spoken to her brother in a couple of years. As I cried, I could hear Charlene’s laughter; then it turned into screams. Her brother’s heartbreak, every dream that was stolen from her, echoing in each one. Sometimes the contours of her face are fuzzy, and the rhythm of her brother’s voice is faint. But both are clearer whenever I remember the times I used to braid Charlene’s hair.

[There is a scene in Love Like Sky where Georgie is helping her stepsister put beads in her hair. Beads remind me of Charlene, which reminds me of first love and senseless loss. I wrote the scene with Georgie and her stepsister as a happy scene, like that “real life” moment was for us back then.]

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