Lookin’ at my girlfriend’s black skin
You wanna jump in, but she don’t like white men
--Ice Cube, “Horny Little Devil”
I look good. I know I do. I’m not bragging, not boasting. I’m not even trying to be conceited—I fear that comes naturally. It’s definitely not a case of wishful thinking or self-deception. I’m not bouncing around like a Sky Cap with extra baggage for five people talking about how fine I am in the hopes that you may one day believe me.
I don’t need any of that. My ego is utterly and completely comfortable with the truth—sometimes they even go out and have a drink together. It can stand tall all on its own and has not needed a man to lift it up in a very long time. After all, when the clock strikes twelve and the last beer is drained, who won’t a man talk up? And when that foolhardy negro swaggers up to me with his “winning,” Hennessy smile, and Barry Whites, “Damn, baby, you’d look good in a burlap bag,” I just say, “I know,” and sashay away. Because it’s a fact. I did look good in that burlap. I still have the stills from that shoot. Benetton ’91. I have that sack, too. It still fits.
My beauty is well-documented. You know it. You know me. Genevieve Noire. “Jon Vee.” International supermodel—back in the day when that meant something. Cindy Crawford, Christie Brinkley, Iman, and me, Jon Vee. But what does any of that mean? I just know it was important to a lot of people. I can’t even tell you why. My vamping for Versace never brought peace to the Middle East. Maybe hands to some perverts’ members. But that was about it. I just know that no matter what I’ve done since—and I’ve done a lot—and no matter how important my work is now—and that can be a matter of life and death—I will never be as “important” nor as influential as I was when I was “one of the most beautiful girls in the world.”
Those days are far behind me now. And though they were great for my bank account and definitely helped make me the woman I am today, I mostly look upon them as a silly blur. Paris, Milan, New York. Versace, Vuitton, Vanderbilt. A completely self-important world of absolutely no consequence.
And my place in it? My beautification of it? Utterly meaningless. After all, what is a pretty face worth? It can easily be replaced. Mine was. So yes, I look good. After all these years and all this added muscle, I am still a beautiful woman. It hasn’t always been that way, and part of me wishes it had never been. Yet, another part of me, that part that can walk away from those Hennessy smiles and their mountain-sized promises in molehill packages, that part can still get a little thrill when I can look into its eyes, and still say, “Yes, I look good.” After all, the eyes never lie.
It was these emerald orbs sprinkled with gold dust that set me down this path in the first place. It happened innocently enough freshman year of college. The last thing I was ever thinking about being was a model. I was going to be an electrical engineer. My father had spent a lot of overtime, risking his life as a beat cop and eventually a homicide detective to get me into college, and I was determined to see he got a healthy return on his investment. I picked the safest career path I could think of: math, science, engineering. I was going to “make it.”
It was an anonymous fall day. I was walking along with my backpack and favorite red sweater. Elizabeth poetry was heavy on my mind. Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadfull … I was never much into reading and writing, and I couldn’t figure out how iambic pentameter was going to help me in life; but I had a freshman requirement to fulfill. I was not going to mess it up.
I was muttering, “Death be not proud … Death be not proud …” on my way to the student union when I ran into him. Gianni Aragon. A 6’5” Vesuvius of a man with a lithe, soccer build and Tommie Lee jet-black hair. We both gasped on impact, and I dropped my backpack.
“Oh, oh sorry,” he said, with a deep, rich Italian accent, bending down to pick up my pack.
His voice made me melt. I was definitely blushing. Thank God, he couldn’t see me. I managed to stammer. “N-no, no, that’s—you know—that’s OK.”
He shot back up with my backpack, beaming a truly winning smile. “No, mi—“
The smile instantly gasped. “Sei bellissima.” He started—I don’t know—gawking? “Your eyes…”
“What?” My hand shot up defensively. Did he accidentally hit one in the collision? Was it starting to blacken? I went to cover up.
He gently touched my hand. “No,” he cooed. He moved my hand away. My blush intensified. “Your eyes,” he continued. “They are so—so—so green.”
“Yeah. I think I have some Irish in me.”
“Irish?! No!” he scoffed. “They are pigs! And drunkards!”
“Well, I wouldn—we’re mostly Fren—“
“And your skin. So perfect. So—exot—are you … near—I mean, a negro?”
“Not since the ‘60s,” I quipped, nervously.
“The ‘60s?! How old are you?”
“No,” I chuckled. “We just prefer to be called ‘black.’ Even though, the other night, they said on The Cosby Show that we’re ‘African-American.’ I guess we’re that now. I don’t know. But I still like ‘black.’”
“Black?!” Gianni scoffed. “No, bellissima. You are definitely not black.”
“I’ve heard that a lot actually,” I confessed. “I guess ‘cause I grew up in the ‘burbs, ya know.”
“No. You are not black,” he continued, adamantly. All right, already, I thought. Why was this foreigner trying to revoke my Black Card? “You are … caramel. Caramel and French vanilla ice cream. Deliciosa.”
“Oh … well …”
“And those eyes. They go straight to my heart.”
With a tongue that smooth … I started thinking.
“Have you ever modeled?” he asked.
The man started digging through his pockets. I suddenly realized he had on one of those vests photographers wear—the ones with all the pockets. Then I saw the strap and a really expensive camera dangling against his right side. It was a pretty elaborate ruse for hitting on college girls. What guys won’t do to get laid. He pulled out a business card.
“My name is Gianni. Gianni Aragon,” he smiled, grandly. “Perhaps you have heard of me.”
“Well, believe me, in certain circles, I am quite famous.”
“I thought fame encompassed all circles,” I said, taking his card. “It’s not like you can be a ‘little bit’ famous. You know, like pregnancy?”
He huffed. “Anyway, I am on your campus shooting this year’s Girls of the Big Ten. I would love to include you, bellissima.”
“For Playboy?” I gasped. “No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t even get naked for my father. Wait, that didn’t come out right.”
“No matter,” Gianni waved dismissively. “You, you are so ex—so beautiful, so striking, you will never have to be nude. No. You could even wear that sweater. It does not matter. I must have you.”
“To photograph,” he added, hurriedly. There was an odd, steely look in his eyes. I didn’t know what to do. “It will make all my sorrows worth it.”
Wow. I was blushing so hard I thought my face was going to melt.
“Caramel, French vanilla, and maraschino cherries,” Gianni amended.
“Wow,” I croaked. Talk about your embarrassing Brady Bunch moments.
“You don’t have to answer now,” he continued. “Just call that number on my card. I will come running if I must—“ He leaned in closer and arched a perfect, black brow. “—and I must.”
Now, there had never been an hour, minute, nor second before that moment when I’d thought I was beautiful. Gangly, awkward, “Spidergirl” had been my nickname in high school. You see, I’m 6’3”. And it really did feel like I got that way overnight. I suddenly went from wondering if little Jimmy Scott liked me, like liked me, liked me, to wondering if I could take two, consecutive steps without falling on my face. I was constantly stumbling, bumbling, and tumbling over my brand-new, size-thirteen feet.
By the time I’d finally regained my balance, I towered over every boy in my class. I was basically untouchable. It was to be expected, though. My father had been an offensive lineman in his college days. My mother had been a power forward in hers. I was bred to be big. My father’s being a big-city cop everybody feared made me feared. Boys wouldn’t touch me with their friends’ ten-foot poles. I might as well have had the plague.
Sure, those first few weeks freshman year in college brought a few boys with poles of their own who wanted to touch me. But they were chasing any fresh meat with a vagina. And, tall though I was, I definitely had one of those. That didn’t make me special. And none of those fools made me feel special or beautiful or particularly wanted. That didn’t happen until I bumped into Gianni.
But it had to be a scam, right? Me? A model? He was trying to take my money. Or this was going to end up like some kind of Carrie prank. He was going to take me to some place nice and fancy, I was going to be all dolled up, and out would come the pig’s blood. I could definitely see it. Gianni, John. And he did look a little like Travolta. They were both Italian, anyway.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Genevieve,” my girl, Shondra, scoffed.
A Different World had just gone off, and we were sitting in her dorm room trying to ignore our studies. Besides, I had to talk to somebody.
“OK,” I started, “maybe it’s like this made-for-TV movie I saw where this guy convinces this girl to become a model and go to Japan with him. Next thing you know, she’s a prostitute servicing Japanese businessmen, and she can’t get back to America.”
Shondra was unmoved.
“I’m telling you,” I continued, “this is just how white slavery starts.”
“You’re black, Vee. That’s just called ‘slavery.’ Besides,” she countered, “those made-for-TV movies are all made-up … for TV.”
“It said it was based on a true story.”
“So does the news, and you see how they treated Tawanna. Saying she lied, and shit.”
It was too much to think about. I remained silent.
“You just need to stop bugging,” Shondra commanded, “and call that man and become a model. School will get you a job, but you never know where this white boy will take you. It could be the chance of a lifetime.”
Shondra was right. There was no slavery—white, or otherwise. It was, indeed, the chance of a lifetime. Gianni Aragon really was a photographer for Playboy, and I really did end up in the “Girls of the Big Ten” issue, fully-dressed in the middle of the Quad with my bulky red sweater on, and my arms crossed over my chest, my Calculus book, and my copy of Othello.
Even my father had been proud.
Soon afterwards, Gianni called again. Sports Illustrated wanted me for their swimsuit issue. I skipped a week of classes and suddenly found myself sandwiched in between Cathy Ireland and Cindy Crawford on the white-sand beaches of Negros Occidental, trying not to faint from all that fame and excitement and the Filipino heat.
I ultimately held my own, though, and life became a whirlwind after that, with Gianni guiding me through the storm. I soon dropped out of school and was doing photo shoots in Zanzibar, Rio, and Moscow. I was taught how to walk the runways and found myself in Paris and Milan. I met Prince in London and Crispin, Danny, and Cory Glover in New York. I was wining and dining with celebrities around the world. I was in magazine after magazine. On billboards and on television, I quickly became famous. And rich. Nobody was calling me Spidergirl anymore. Everybody wanted to be near me, with me. Some even wanted to be me.
There were drugs and sex, but Gianni kept me away from all that. And there was always Daddy Terror. No matter where I was, I always felt that the old man was watching me, admonishing me to “better behave in public.” And private! Like I would be in some hotel room in Istanbul, bent over a line of cocaine, with a gangbang of naked folks on my bed, and Daddy would come busting in with Detective Washington and a SWAT team, and he’d bend me over his knee and spank me in front of all my naked friends. “Don’t think I won’t, girl.”
God, I miss that man.
My father never did like Gianni. He didn’t like Italians. Lord knows why. He just knew my mentor was a lecher and a pervert and would somehow take advantage of me. But Gianni wasn’t like that. He was a perfect gentleman. And he protected me from all the things that ruined a lot of other girls in the Industry. I had quickly fallen in love with the man—I was only nineteen, remember—but he refused to touch me … that first year.
It was a cold November day when I’d thought my chance had come. Gianni and I were inseparable at the time. I could’ve sworn I was in love, and the look in his onyx eyes told me he felt the same. I was a virgin and didn’t know how the whole “love” thing worked. But I was sure it was about to happen, and, though terrified, I couldn’t wait.
An early blizzard was battering Paris. You could barely see the Eiffel Tower from Gianni’s studio/flat. The entire town shivered while I stood proudly in my brand new bathing suit.
“Are you ready, bellissima?” Gianni asked.
I pulled myself away from the window with a smile and walked into the other room. I was cold, bitterly cold. But I glowed in my feelings for my mentor and protector and the amazing opportunity he had thrown my way. See, by that time, I’d gone from Flavor of the Month to full-fledged fame. Time had already had me on its cover, asking if I were the ‘90s version of “Black Beauty.”
“With those green eyes of yours, thin lips, light skin, and good hair, who are they foolin’?” Daddy had scoffed. “It ain’t just the ‘90s, baby. I mean, damn.”
He—all the Noires, actually—were quite proud of their centuries-long genetics experiment that had produced the likes of me. No Wesley Snipes had ever muddied our gene pool since the first Frenchman dipped his quill in the family ink. “You have cousins passing, as we speak!” my grandfather had once triumphed. My Uncle Flavian once drunkenly shouted, “Fuck the paper bag test! We goin’ for Ziploc, baby!!!”
Needless to say, there was a lot of controversy around that cover story. Folks were furious. Al Sharpton threatened a boycott. Jesse Jackson threatened an even bigger boycott. Dick Gregory tried to sell me dietary supplements.
While some old college friends refused to talk to me (one had even thrown her X cap at me in disgust), the furor only made me a bigger commodity. Anne Cole cancelled their contract with Paulina Porizkova and wanted me to be their exclusive model for their new swimsuit line for the upcoming season.
So, I walked into Gianni’s studio shivering in their “Safari Swoon” zebra-print, two-piece suit, my frozen nipples leading the way. Gianni suddenly stopped fidgeting with his equipment to look at me. I’ll never forget the look on his face, the desire. I could almost feel it. I blushed immediately. As Betty Wright sang, Tonight was the night.
“Squisita,” he gasped.
“Oh … uh … nothing.” Gianni cleared his throat. He pointed to the floor beyond me. There was black sand spread out everywhere. “There,” he directed. “Just lie down. I want to test the lights.”
I lay down, propped myself up on my elbows, closed my eyes, and let my hair melt into the sand. I pretended that I was sunbathing in those harsh, studio lights—a piña colada by my side. Soon, Gianni was standing over me, his camera snapping and whizzing frantically. He suddenly stopped.
He sounded dissatisfied.
“What is it, Gianni?” I asked, nervously. You can’t understand how much I wanted to please that man. As I said, I was nineteen. His approval meant the world to me.
“I—I don’t know,” he pondered. He just kept looking at me, thinking, tilting his head this way and that. I always hated when photographers did that. It made me feel naked—especially when I was. And, with Gianni, too vulnerable. He suddenly snapped his fingers. “I got it!”
“Quick! Quick! Turn over!”
I was wearing a two-piece. What was he going to photograph? The spaghetti straps? But he was the professional. I was only the ‘90s version of Black Beauty. What did I know? I quickly flipped over.
Gianni suddenly leapt over me and landed in a crouch with his giant lens in my face.
“What are yo—?”
“Quick! Get on all fours!” he demanded.
“Get on all fours!”
“Uh … OK? … Like this?”
He suddenly couldn’t stop taking pictures. The shutter rapid-fired in the artificial light. He frantically twisted and contorted his body and lens. “Now! Now!” he continued.
“Now what, Gianni?”
“Growl!!!” he roared.
“But it’s a zebra print, Gianni. Zebras don’t growl.”
“This one does. Now, growwwllll!”
“No! No!” he protested. “Like a tiger. A fiery pantheress! GRRRR! GRRRR!!!”
“Sí! Sí! Voi puttana! Sí!”
He vaulted over me again. Before I knew it, he was above and behind me. His camera going made in his hands.
“Now! Now! Arch your back! No! The other way! Now, shake it! Shake it!!!”
Confused, I shook it for all it was worth.
“Urrgggghhhhh … Don’t stop, Genevieve! Don’t stop!”
I wouldn’t have—even if they would have had to put me in traction afterwards. I was making Gianni happy. What could have been better than that?
“Now look at me! Look at me! Sí, puttana! Over your shoulder! Ay … sí! Sí! Move your ass up! Up! Up!!! Now—now growl! GROWWWWLLLLLLL!!!”
Gianni suddenly shuddered and went limp. His eyes rolled into his head.
“Ay, stu cazzo,” he croaked.
The camera fell from his hand and clattered onto the floor. I had no clue what was going on. I was scared.
“Puttana,” Gianni whimpered, falling to his knees at my feet, shivering. Terrified, I took him in my arms. He was shaking and covered in sweat. He panted, somehow drained.
“Is everything OK, Gianni?”
“Mama!!!” he wailed, and started crying. “Genevieve, hold me.”
I did. I was happy to. It was all I had ever wanted to do. Something was seriously wrong with this man. I would have done everything in this world to make him better. Gianni wearily started tugging at the crotch of his black leather pants.
“Ay, Genevieve,” he sighed.
“Yes, Gianni?” I asked, expectantly.
He yawned and nuzzled against my shoulder. Perhaps the worst of whatever it was was over. “Genevieve,” he yawned again, his eyes getting heavier. “Cosí violenta…”
He smiled, bemused. He was definitely on his way to sleep.
“Cosí selvaggia,” he continued. “How was it for you?”
“For me?” I asked. “Violenta? Selvaggia? Gianni, what are you talking about?”
But it was too late. He was already asleep. I lay his head on top of the sand, not knowing what else to do. He immediately started snoring, with the most cherubic glow on his face. I went to the window—feeling sadder than I could ever remember feeling once having first laid these eyes on Gianni Aragon.
It suddenly felt colder. I found my bathrobe, put it on, and went to the window. It was now night in the City of Lights. The blizzard had calmed to a constant snow. An ivory blanket covered the grounds. The Eiffel Tower looked majestic, aglow in its own reverie. I started to weep.
I hadn’t known much Italian at the time, but I had been secretly studying. I had wanted to surprise Gianni after the first time we had made love. I had wanted to show him that I was willing to be totally his—to share his bed, his culture, and his tongue. I was not sure what violenta meant, but that was not too hard to figure out. I had come across selvaggia once late one night just cruising through my English-Italian dictionary. I knew exactly what it meant. My tears grew hotter on my face as I thought of the definition—“savage.”
I fell out of love with Gianni and with modeling that night. I had then felt that no matter how high I climbed, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how professional or intelligent I became, somebody would always want me to growl like a zebra. Mostly, I was proven wrong, but sometimes I was proven right. It did not matter, though. Once suspicion takes root, it is almost impossible to root out. After all, just because they didn’t ask didn’t mean they didn’t want to, that they weren’t thinking it. There was just no fun in it anymore.
“It doesn’t matter what others think of you,” my father told me. “It’s what you think of yourself.”
“I don’t know, Daddy.”
“No matter what you do in this world, no matter what other folks think, you just got to maintain that dignity, child,” he advised. “As long as you can hold your head high, don’t shit-else matter, Vee.”
Gianni and I quickly parted ways. We just couldn’t look each other in the eyes. I still modeled. It wasn’t fun. But I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to go back to school. I didn’t want to be an electrical engineer—I’d already “made it.” I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I was making great money. I was stuck on this glamorous, mind-numbing path, getting richer by the minute. I was going to stay on it until something knocked me off.
A gangbanger’s bullet did just that, killing my father as he was leaving a 7-Eleven. A damned drive-by. Three blocks away. Daddy had been nowhere near the scene of the crime. He hadn’t even been on duty. In fact, not one of the actual targets had even suffered a scratch. But my father (three blocks away) and a 42-year-old neighborhood grandmother (one block away, in her bed, eating Cool Ranch Doritos, and watching a 227 rerun) were killed.
I was devastated. Daddy and I had always been close. When my mother died when I was seven, he really stepped up. He was hell-bent and determined to raise his little girl right. I’d never gotten the chance to really thank him. The chance to say good-bye. I hadn’t even really spent that much time with him the last few years of his life. We talked constantly on the phone. But that’s not the same. I was just too busy floating around the world being a super model.
How “super” had I been, really? I never had an S on my chest. I couldn’t fly around the world, spin the Earth on its axis, turn back time, and stop that 9mm bullet from shattering my father’s skull. I couldn’t convince drug dealers to stop shooting innocent neighborhood grandmothers and children, or photographers that I didn’t need to be on all fours and growl for every photo shoot—especially for a Tampax ad. I couldn’t do anything.
I didn’t want to do anything, anyway. Or be anything. Especially not the ‘90s definition of Black Beauty. What was beauty? Other than money, it hadn’t gotten me anything but trouble. I was sick of it. I wanted to be ugly. As ugly as humanly possible. I mean, I didn’t go crazy and throw battery acid on my own face, or anything like that. But I started shopping at K-Mart and wearing thick, gray sweatpants in public. I even had a fanny pack. As I said, ugly.
And the only way to top it all off was to take the ugliest, grittiest, nastiest job I could think of. I became a beat cop—just as my father had done. I hung up my halter top and replaced it with a holster. I breezed through the Academy and quickly landed in a squad car.
It was a disaster at first. The Department wanted to milk the story for all it was worth. “Super Model Turns Super Cop!” The paparazzi were all over the place. The worst was on a night when we’d caught some teens joy riding in a Testarosa. I called in for some back-up, and we heard the dispatcher say, “You hear that, boys! Jon Vee’s on a call!” Suddenly, we were surrounded by twenty cars, five helicopters, and scores of Italian photographers.
A simple car chase turned into a high-speed caravan. Tires screeched. Horns blared. Camera flashes strobe-lit the night sky. People died. The teens in the Testarosa never made it out of the hospital. We ended up charging thirty photographers for vehicular manslaughter and one reporter for reckless endangerment of lives and having to bury a puppy, Sparky, who the man flattened on the highway.
The fanfare died down quickly after that. Sparky’s death sobered everybody up. The paparazzi quickly moved on to the next pretty face. Adoring gazes soon gave way to vague recognition. My fame was something of the past. My life became petty crimes, yellow crime-scene tape, and “Didn’t you used to be somebody?”
The guys and gals on the Force were great. My father had been a legend in the Department. If there had been any hostility for the Super-Model-Turned-Super-Cop, I never felt it. Noel Noire was loved there, and so was I.
I hated giving it all up to become a homicide detective. But my father’s best friend, Detective Washington, was promoted to Chief of Police Washington, and he wanted to see that I got promoted, too.
I quickly fell in love with being murder police. Even though they had a dress code and I had to go back to looking good, I loved the mystery of it all, the challenge, the purpose. I loved walking right in the middle of a bloody jigsaw puzzle and just staring at it until all the pieces fit. I loved solving the crime, arresting the perpetrator, and giving the victim and her family the justice the world so often denied them. Finally, I felt like I was making a difference in the world.
I’d still be making that difference right now if a few, well-placed bullets hadn’t ended my career a year ago. Nobody has given me that little bit of justice—though we all know who tried to kill me. I try not to let the bitterness eat away at my life. I try not to let the anger consume me. I’ve mostly let it go by giving up my detective’s shield.
I thought there was absolutely no way I could go back to that place knowing what I know. And knowing they all know it, too. But here I am, on my way to another murder scene. Not as a homicide detective, but as a private dick—if a woman can be that. I didn’t want to take the call, but I have a client and a job. I know I can do this, and, when I do, I know I can hold my head high—just as my father would have wanted. I have no shame in what I had done.
I look at myself in the rearview mirror yet again. I’m nervous. Perspiration has popped up on my forehead. But I look good. All those boys in homicide will be expecting me to. I can’t disappoint. Not again.
Traffic is light tonight. I turn off of John Wayne Lane onto MLK Boulevard. A large billboard lights up the night. “Welcome to Koontown!”
A knot instantly forms in the pit of my stomach. I try to laugh it off. I haven’t been here in a year. This is where I got shot.
“Welcome to Koontown,” I chuckle to myself.
I drive past the sign.
The bullets immediately smack into my Prius’s windshield.