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  • I was a college junior and one of my best friends was nearing graduation. We were shopping in Tysons Galleria, an "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" venue in Virginia.

    I believe we were friends because we had quite a bit in common. We were both from P.G. County, a predominantly African American suburb outside of Washington, DC. There, dialect, dress and demeanor assigned us all to some P.G. County neighborhood full of single-family two-story homes or townhouses, or perhaps even low-income apartment buildings.

    My friend and I worked in the graduate library. We also liked spicy shrimp and blending frozen strawberry margaritas in her dorm room on Friday paydays.

    On campus twenty years ago, my friend was revered by other women as a "pretty girl." She was taller than I. She was what old school, brainwashed, black folks called "high yellow"--a hue revered in African American circles because skin closest to white foreshadowed class, refinement and limitless upward mobility.

    At an optometrists' counter in the Galleria, we peered at eyeglass frames. She wore eyeglasses all of the time and she never wore black eyeliner.

    Her eyes were two perfect almonds lined by jet black eyelashes. (Yes, almond, like a Filipino woman's, really). Her hair was thick and long. For a long time, wore an asymmetrical, short on the right side, and enviably long on the other.

    "Those are nice frames," a man at the frames counter spoke and looked sincerely into her lenses.

    She nodded her head in affirmation, yet sounded no reply. I interpreted her behavior as an unwillingness to exchange with a person from another culture and background. The complimenting gentlemen was an Arab or an Indian. An attractive, handsome man by any culture's standards.

    I took note of my friend's behavior. The pressure of graduation and job hunting must be really tough grain to grind, I thought. She was a business education major set on working in private industry. Even though teaching was the job her mother believed she should have.

    Her mother was the mother of my dreams, she had a map for her child's future and vocalized it, with aggression. In all, I was thankful I had a year to go before the guillotine marked "job hunting with a college degree" fell.

    We stopped at my favorite section in the mall--the costume jewelry counter. My big, gaudy earrings were residual Catholic school rebellion because those things weren't allowed in school.

    While I browsed, my friend saw someone she knew from high school. And she said to me, "Do you see that girl over there?"

    There were a couple of women "over there." But one stood out from the rest. She had long hair, light skin, shining eyes and long fingernails.

    "She looks real good," my friend said. "But all of it is fake. Her hair, her nails, her eyes."

    My God, I thought. If "fake" bothered her so much, how did she explain her relationship with me? I took a terrible fall before I was ten. I have lived with cosmetic "fake" since then. I gave up geeky and nerdy somewhere between sophomore and junior year in high school with my first set of contact lenses.

    But my friend was the only woman of all the African American women I knew on campus who did not belittle me because of my weight.

    In college, I was 5'4" and a literal ninety pounds, ninety five pounds at the most. Everyone was much bigger than I was. No exceptions. And almost everyone, including a relative on campus, made uncomfortable remarks about my weight in my presence.

    And if you're from P.G. County, the side closest to the Southeast DC quadrant, you know arguments escalate into violence real fast.

    In college, I was girl watching at a basketball game with the absolute dreamiest guy on campus. He casually told me that I'd never gain weight until I had a couple of kids.

    I processed that and finished our conversation.

    "Anyway," I said. "Skinny people avoid arguments.We avoid expressing our true emotions and feelings, even when we're hurt. In short, we suppress an awful lot because that's the easiest way not to get beat up."

    At another sales counter in the galleria, my college girlfriend, who was wearing a Georgetown sweatshirt, stopped and looked. The sales lady asked if she attended Georgetown. My friend and I were wild NCAA fans, particularly for our school. We cheered our team with rowdy enthusiasm, especially in games against a particular blue devil, torch burning, private school in Durham, North Carolina.

    "No," my friend answered the sales woman who inquired about her college attendance. My friend looked into the counter until her curiosity had filled. She walked away leaving the blond, blue-eyed sales counter girl with that sweetly dismissive "No."

    This time I asked my friend about what I felt was her markedly anti-social behavior in a mall for the incredibly wealthy and well-connected.

    "Why didn't you tell her attend Maryland?" I begged to know the answer.

    My friend didn't care what the woman thought. She said she had no interest in proving anything to her. And besides, if the woman really wanted to engage, or sell, she would have followed up. "Where did you go to school?" if that's what she really wanted to know.

    "And that man?" My friend continued. "The man who told me my frames are nice, I don't need him to tell me that my frames look good. I know they do. I paid for them."

    I didn't have the courage to ask my friend why it mattered that the girl she knew in high school wore fake hair, contact lenses, make-up and false nails.

    Were those women awarded higher salaries? Successful husbands? Were they incapable of being good friends? Did their "fake" accouterments make them any less "real"?

    Today, more than twenty years later, my old girlfriend is one of the nicest, if not the nicest woman I know. She says her grace before meals and there is not a streak of vanity or selfishness in her, none at all, throughout her flesh and bone. She still doesn't wear make-up, she doesn't have to.

    She laughed when I told her that her mean girl persona was gone.

    And she agreed.
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