Daryl lifts the top of the velvet jewelry box with his free hand and carefully scans the pieces. “Oh! Gimmie here!”
“Chill,” Martha says with a laugh. “Just hold up.” She continues applying the orange glitter nail polish to his left pinkie while he impatiently shifts his bent knees on the carpet. He’d prefer to relax on the new black leather furniture his parents bought for the basement, but it’s all within direct sight of the open door. He has no choice but to sit on the floor.
“For real, Darry, stop moving,” she warns. “I’m not that good at this stuff.” Martha puffs out a gust of air to move hair out of her face.
Daryl clears her vision by tucking away loose chocolate curls behind her ear. He wishes he could have long flowing hair instead of the short, neat fade his mom forces on him at the barbershop. Maybe even honey blonde hair with black roots when he lets himself think hard about it.
Martha brings Daryl’s hand to her lips when she’s finished, making his skin tingle, and she blows on his nails a few times before letting go. Daryl wiggles his fingers and admires the different colors of polish on each nail. Each bright, happy hue adds richness to his dull, muddy skin.
“Don’t get any of that polish on the box. It’s my mom’s,” she says.
He gives a vague nod as he rescues a precious pair of earrings from the jewelry box, feeling ashamed of his excitement and joy. Nail polish isn’t as big of a deal since guys like Lenny Kravitz rock it, but dress-up jewelry is something much harder to pretend is normal for a Black boy to wear. He runs his thumb over the small jewels of the earrings, admiring the weird shade of pink and how they dangle. They speak to him. He hears their call, unlike his given name, which he recognizes less and less each day.
Daryl peeks up at Martha. “I wanna wear these.”
Martha bites her lip, her brown eyes darting between the earrings and Daryl. Her hesitation causes his breathing to hitch. Fleeting thoughts of her slapping him and running home or her suggesting they watch TV upstairs run through his mind. It wrings his insides dry, waiting for her response. He needs her acceptance because he can’t do this without her. He can’t be less of a boy without her help and blessing. They’ve been neighbors and best friends for thirteen years, their entire lives, but he knows there’s only so much Martha will be able to stomach before she finds him way too creepy, disgusting, and wrong. It’s all the things he feels about himself, so he understands why one day she’ll want to banish him. His panic only subsides when Martha eventually rolls her eyes and giggles.
“Shit, Darry. You’re like an old lady. Those were my great Tía’s.”
He sighs in relief. “Shut up. They’re cute, and they clamp on. You know my dad won’t let me get my ears pierced.”
Martha stops giggling. “Oh. Right. Sorry. I’m just kidding, anyway. If you like them, then I guess they’re cool. Try them on.”
Daryl’s hands twitch, but he keeps his body perfectly still. He’s waited all week for his sacred time, but not getting caught is the most important thing to him. Not being found out is his entire existence. It’s why they hide under the stairs like fugitives and handle nail polish, jewelry, and magazines like dangerous chemicals.
Daryl swore, begged, and promised his parents that this phase was over. All the weird shit would stop. He’s almost fourteen and knows better than to keep sneaking under the stairs, so he’s a failure for sure. Every single day forms part of this losing battle to be normal, but a fragment of his soul that refuses to die is sure that failing and being wrong is the only right decision. Going against everything his life expects from him might mean he’s doing things right.
Daryl swallows hard, ingesting another silent scream. “Will you check upstairs again? Say you want a drink or something?”
“I get it.” Martha brushes off cotton balls as she gets up from the floor. He watches her from behind the stairs, not breathing until the door above him closes. He studies his nails to ease his anxiety. The colors make his hands so clean and fun—not like a boy’s hand. At least, not a Black boy raised by two good parents as his mom always preaches before sending him to the tub to think, and as his dad always yells before storming off to the back porch for hours. Daryl closes his palms and considers using nail polish remover.
The basement door opens. Daryl perks up like a dog. “We good?” he asks, not bothering to wait for Martha to announce herself. He hears her heavy sigh as she closes the door and loudly clomps down the stairs, agitating his concern.
“Yeah, Darry, we’re good,” Martha says, taking her place next to him. “Your dad is still mowing out front, and your mom’s not back from work. Is that enough?”
Daryl nods. “Yeah. It is. Thanks. I gotta be sure when it comes to this stuff.”
“No, you don’t. If I get caught again, I’m gonna get into so much trouble. My mom? She might not let me see you anymore.”
Martha’s brown eyes widen, something resembling terror rising and settling over her face. It doesn’t last, of course. Martha never lets herself get scared. She jokes that her bravery comes from being Mexican, but Daryl is sure it’s because he is always afraid, so she can’t be. Someone has to be stable in their friendship. He feels guilty knowing it will never be him.
Martha gently grips his wrist. She smiles so beautifully that it makes him nervous. “Hey, Darry, that won’t happen no matter what. Best friends don’t leave each other. And like, I live down the street. How would they keep me away? Right?”
“Yeah. I guess.” He wants to add that he’ll never give her up for the boys at school. The classmates his parents agree he should hang out with more now that he’s older, instead of Martha all the time. But she’s the one person who doesn’t continuously question him or lecture him about who he’s supposed to be.
Daryl relaxes completely as he gazes at his best friend. He would’ve wilted away years ago if he didn’t have Martha’s smile or her hand, always on top of his. He thinks he wants to share his first kiss with her. It’s a desire he’s only recently started feeling, or at least started recognizing was there. It doesn’t seem wrong to him, liking her in a way boys his age are supposed to, but the idea is confusing. It’s almost too healthy for him to believe it’s right. He settles for hesitantly hooking his pinkie around hers. “I love you, Martha,” he says without shame, as always. It’s the only thing in his life that gives him pride, saying the phrase to her, and he can count on her to deliver the words back happily, and not with tears like his parents.
Martha’s body softens. She briefly bites the side of her lip. “Love you too, Daryl.”
A familiar warmth blankets his body. It feels so good despite it being summer. “Okay, I’m ready.” Daryl points to the circular makeup mirror before closing his eyes. He’s never ready to look at himself. Not without something to cover up his mismatched reflection. He can’t explain why he becomes nauseous looking at himself. The feeling rushes over him, freezing and dizzying him, like the first deep plunge of a rollercoaster ride. He walks away from the reflection every time, but it’s as if he never really gets off the coaster these days. He merely feels himself collapsing deeper into the open darkness. Especially as he grows more and more into what he’s supposed to be and adds inches to what makes him a Black boy. He takes a moment to catch his breath, trying not to show Martha how badly he’s shaking as he clasps on the earrings.
“O-okay,” Daryl says. “I did it.”
Martha rubs his knee. “You gotta open your eyes, Darry. Take a look.”
Daryl counts to three then looks in the mirror. Somehow, his heart gasps. Behind the dull eyes and sharp brown face is something else gawking back at him, which only the earrings can bring to life. He can’t lie to himself well enough to pretend pink doesn’t look good against his dark complexion, or that he’s reasonably sure he prefers dangling earrings to studs. He moves his head from side to side, trying to memorize his appearance from all angles. “How do I look?” he asks, shyly, not taking his eyes off himself.
“It’s good, Darry.” Martha tilts her head. “You look, um. What am I trying to say?”
“Pretty?” he asks. He feels grossly exposed, but he can handle it with Martha.
Martha’s face flushes with color. She gives the mirror to him. “Actually, yes. You look very pretty.”
Daryl fights the urge to squeak as goosebumps break out on his arms. “Thank you for saying that.” He touches the earrings. “What are these? What’s this color?”
“Coral, my tía’s favorite. Not too many girls my age wear this kind of stuff.”
“Coral,” he breathes, the word birthing itself on his tongue. The name gives him a strange energy and makes the earrings even more elegant. “I love that name.”
Martha laughs. “Don’t you mean color? Or do you want me to start calling you Coral now?”
He opens his mouth to dig back at her, but nothing comes out. It’s a stupid question, yet for some reason, it becomes a sensation. A force that cradles him a few inches off the ground. It’s either God or the devil or something else entirely. The feeling lands on top of his head, seeping through his skin and muscles. Soon, it’s swimming in his blood, mending every jagged piece of his being, inflating his tiny, sore soul.
Martha tenses in the silence. “Darry?”
Daryl lets out a weak pant, snapping back into reality with Martha. He touches the earrings as if they know all of his secrets yet they still accept him. It’s just a stupid question, and there is only one answer. He doesn’t understand how it comes to him so fast, after he’s spent his whole life wondering.
“Yes,” he whispers. “Martha? Will you call me Coral?”
Martha’s jaw gapes open a bit. She shifts away. “What?”
Daryl swallows the firecracker in his throat. He shifts a bit as well, wanting to take it all back. But he understands going back is no longer an option, not now. “I mean, not around other people,” he adds. “Just here. Between you and me?”
Martha’s frown intensifies. She looks away. For the very first time in their friendship, Daryl can’t tell if she’s on his side. “I dunno, Darry,” she mumbles. “I was just playin’.”
Her words slice his hands, cutting off his polished fingers. He should let it go without feeling betrayed. He needs to change the conversation, but his revelation too tightly cradles him. The name isn’t even a name anymore. It’s something he realizes may kill him if he lets it go now, even for Martha.
“I like the name, Martha,” he says, scaring himself. “I wish it’d been mine from the beginning.”
“But, it’s not.” Martha slowly shakes her head like his parents always do. “Why does it matter? You already have a name.”
“The one my parents gave me.”
“Yeah, and I love it!” Martha snaps. “I’ve called you Darry since forever. I’m the only person who does.”
Daryl punches the floor. “You think I don’t get that? Look, I can’t explain it. I-I.” He suddenly growls, yanking off the earrings. “Never mind. You’re right. It’s stupid. Let’s just fucking forget it.”
“Wait, Darry.” Martha deeply exhales, gripping Daryl’s wrist once more. “Hey, I’m sorry, okay?”
He yanks away his arm. “Don’t be sorry. I told you from day one not to. I know all this shit is super fucking weird. But. I can’t help it, okay? And I honestly love that name.”
“Why, though? What’s me calling you that gonna do? It’s just pretending.”
Daryl’s eyes sting. “It’s not to me. There’s no way you’ll understand.”
Martha’s attention momentarily turns to the staircase. For an instant, he worries she might scream for help. “You’re right, Darry. I don’t get this, and I don’t understand why I have to change, too.”
Daryl wants to wince from her honesty. “I’m not trying to hurt you, Martha. I swear, I wouldn’t drag you into this on purpose.”
Martha starts chewing her nails. They’re unpainted, yet no one will ever question if they belong to a girl. “It’s just hard for me. Out of nowhere.”
“How do you think I feel?” he quietly asks.
“I have no idea, Darry,” she answers just as softly. “I don’t know what to think. I do trust you, though. So, like, if you’re serious about this, then I can try. At least for a bit.”
Daryl’s heart skips a few beats. “Really?”
“Yeah, sure. I haven’t seen you this excited in maybe ever.” Martha gives him a once over. She hands the earrings to him. “Put ‘em back on.”
Daryl smiles. He also finds himself feeling a bit of vertigo. He’s always sort of felt like he’s rolling down a hill, unprotected and smashing into unyielding boulders. Somehow, gaining a new name—his real name—gives him boundaries. Something to fit inside, a way to brace for impact. “Can you hold up the mirror again, please?”
Martha’s mouth forms into the most loving shape that he will ever witness. She holds up the mirror, nudging him. “Take a look, Coral.”
Daryl inches his gaze away from Martha’s lips and to the mirror. The reflection is the same, yet he can somehow recognize himself a bit clearer. He can put a name to the face. To the thing that’s been inside of him his whole life. Her whole life.
- Love Below the Stairs - July 16, 2021