I am trying to understand my cousin Pearl (not her real name). I am trying to have compassion for what it feels like to be her, which is hard when she gets drunk and causes volcanic disruptions with her 90-year-old mother's home attendants and calls everyone horrible names. I am trying to make myself remember that Pearl isn't well: For the first 15 years of her life, doctors had her on a regimen of Phenobarbitol to treat her epilespy. Then they took her off it abruptly, after studies showed that it should never ever have been given to children. Pearl's drug and alcohol use began the very same year.
I remember when Pearl was just a small girl. She used to arrive with her parents from New York to visit the family in Jamaica. I can still see my aunt with her frizzy orange afro and lime-green eyes, pulling small Pearl into her side, and my uncle, upright and stylish in his tweed jacket and hat set at a slightly rakish angle, which belied the generous but often bewildered soul he was. Pearl was the American cousin, a few years younger than I was. She and her parents would fly in each summer for a month or more, staying a week at a time in different relatives’ homes.
The way I recall it, Pearl was a disagreeable child, her face screwed into a perpetual frown, lips always pouting, her shoulders folded forward, her posture unwelcoming, closed. And yet Pearl was strikingly beautiful. Her eyes, like shiny black seeds, darted about; her full lips, through tremulous, were poetically shaped; her polished, coffee-brown limbs seemed to flail and jerk when she tried to run, and to push themselves forward with super-conscious effort when she merely wanted to walk. The effect was both unsettling and mesmerizing. Watching Pearl, I often found that I stared too intently, unable to pull my eyes away at the polite moment.
A short, neatly-cropped afro accentuated Pearl’s perfectly-shaped head. Her tightly-curled hair never seemed to need grooming or shaping. I was in awe of Pearl’s hair, envying its gleaming sunup-to-sundown perfection. My own fledgling afro was the most ordinary of browns, and it was a wayward mess, kinky on the top, fuzzy on the sides, curly at the nape, so that I was forced to fluff it several times each hour, tucking in this lock, pulling out that one, struggling for uniformity.
Of course, Pearl never would have imagined that anyone could have admired anything about her. She never could see her own beauty, because when she paused before mirrors, a sort of funhouse reflection jumped back at her, rippling with ill-contained energy so that her very image in the mirror seemed to quiver, leaving Pearl unable to recognize anything but her jitteriness.
In truth, that quavering feeling lay at the core of her, surfacing in the impatient, bossy manner in which she interacted with other children, and in her abrupt way of speaking that left many of her elders to dismiss her as simply rude. To make matters worse, Pearl had a stutter, which might have accounted for her rough tone. Only her mother seemed to understand that Pearl could do no more than force the sounds out before they stuck like peanut butter to her tongue, caught in a endless repetition of syllables.
Pearl always wore small earrings in both lobes, and until she was ten and her body started to bud, she wore mainly dresses so that no one would mistake her for a boy. Nothing shamed her more than being mistaken for a boy. As painful as she found being the chocolate brown, kinky-headed child in a family of many light-skinned, curly-haired cousins (she confessed this to me years later), being mistaken for a boy was much worse. Though she couldn’t have articulated it then, being seen as a boy meant that who she felt herself to be inside, the delicate, aching, girl-child reaching through the haze that seemed always to surround her, had no chance at all of being seen.
I think it must always have been so hard to be Pearl. I am trying to remember.