Five hundred students are packed into the old-timey auditorium at West Side High School. A piano begins, then a jazz drum. Onstage, in shadows, two figures sit at a table with their backs to the audience. The crowd beckons them, Newark-style, calling and pleading, daring and challenging. Come on, now. Bring it.
Felicia Holt and Valencia Bailey spring to their feet.
They grew up playing ball together in the rusted-out hooplands of Newark, where they won their honor by scrabbling and sweating in pick-up games with the boys. Tonight at the school talent show they are fighting for something more important: the honor of their friend Sakia Gunn, who was stabbed to death at a Newark bus stop after telling a man she was gay.
After Sakia died, Valencia filled page after page of a spiral notebook, penning an epic rap poem about her best friend, who bled to death in her arms. Now in this overheated auditorium on a winter's night, her poem of gay friendship and loss becomes the 2004 class anthem about the precariousness of teenage life in Newark, where four West Side students died of gunfire in a year.
Taking the microphone, Valencia lets the words fly from her mouth.
Stuffed with the knowledge that the streets provided
Even though we said we weren't gay, we couldn't hide it
So when all the times we were hurt and denied it
We knew the truth, we had proof
You was me, I was you
Felicia's voice gets under the rhymes, harmonizing. She watches Valencia, who paces with increasing fury as she bats out the lyrics in a mist of spit. This isn't just a performance for Valencia, it's an explosion that has been building for months. Her springy bleach-tipped braids are flattened under a do-rag as she moves toward the front of the stage.
Kia, why did you have to go
I am so cold
Facing the world on my own
Valencia shudders and stops. The words are trapped in her throat. "Come on, V!" someone shouts, but Valencia drops to her knees, overcome. Felicia tries to lift her. The piano and drums play on, waiting for the singers. For the first time, Felicia falters, wiping her eyes. The students urge them on.
"Sing it, V."
"Finish it, now."
"Help her, Fee."
Valencia finds herself. She whirls upright, finishing her song, fast and hard. The microphone thuds to the ground. Valencia starts to fall sideways. Felicia reaches out to catch her.
The fact that two lesbians in boxers are crowned as the moment's truth tellers matters little to the crowd. Grief has equalized them all.
The auditorium goes atomic.
Basketball gave Felicia and Valencia a certain status that brought instant coin with the girls. In high school, Felicia gravitated toward music while Valencia had her sights set on playing for the Women's National Basketball Association. Her junior year, she is 16, with light-filled marble eyes and braids that bounce when she trots down court. She doodles play patterns and to-do lists ("GOALS FOR A POINT GUARD") and presents them to her coach for consideration.
But as the 2004 season approaches, Valencia is still haunted by Sakia's death. Seven months later, the bloody clothes she wore that night still hang in her closet.
"Son, the kid's messed up," Felicia says of Valencia one day after practice. Shelley Perkins, a guidance counselor at West Side, has a starker assessment. "It's like she's dying inside."
There is one ray of optimism. The Lady Rough Riders of West Side High have a new coach, Latasha Thompson, a former St. John's University player who is determined to bring a sense of discipline to her street ballers by holding study hall and insisting the team dress up on game days. Coach Thompson, 24, is unbothered by the fact that a few of her players are tomboy lesbians who call themselves A-G's, short for aggressive. "I was around that in college," Coach Thompson says. All she asks is that her players keep their dramas out of the gym.
With one player lost to homicide -- Sakia Gunn was a dominating point guard -- the coach knows she's inheriting a shaken bunch. "Respect each other," she tells her team. Values will have to substitute for equipment: The athletic department issues six plastic water bottles to the 12-member team. Coach Thompson subsidizes the players with sneakers, deodorant and bus money. Only a few parents will attend a single game all season.
The season opener has the terrible timing of being scheduled the day after the talent show. The coach had watched Valencia and Felicia onstage, their pain so unmasked that the performance was wrenching to witness. On game day, she asks them if they're mentally prepared. "It's all good," Valencia says. But from the moment the Lady Rough Riders arrive at the waxed gymnasium at Passaic Valley High School, the game is a disaster. Felicia tips off, and she is hot on the post for the first half but the play is sloppy. Valencia is hammy and distracted, committing two turnovers. When she lofts an airball, Felicia grimaces and Coach Thompson screams from the sidelines, "You are killing me, Valencia!"
All the plays they'd rehearsed are scrambled in their heads. They lose to one of the weakest teams in the conference.
Back at West Side that night, the players duck into the locker room to grab their things but Thompson has other ideas. "Start running," she orders. They trot around the empty gym in the empty school, their cheap sneakers squeaking on the polyurethane. Valencia is dragging. Felicia runs next to her and whispers. Valencia picks up her pace. After 45 minutes of drills, Thompson tells them to line up.
"We are family," the coach says. "We chill together. We bug. I'd do anything for you. You're hungry, I take care of you. There's nothing I don't share. I'm like y'all's older sister. I work hard for y'all. I bust my butt. I expect you to do the same for me."
Her tone softens as she looks at Valencia and Felicia, who stand side by side in mismatched socks. Thompson brings up the talent show. "Maybe last night was upsetting," she says. The coach has spoken an absolute truth. Felicia and Valencia have a phrase they use when they hear something so authentic. Word is born, they say. A thousand pounds of weight seems to lift from the gym.
During the next few games, the team finds its rhythm, racking up three victories. Basketball season lets the Lady Rough Riders travel beyond their familiar three-mile radius of Newark's West Ward, but they are never free to forget their ghetto reputation. One night after a dramatic victory over Union Hill, tucked into a Latino neighborhood of aluminum-siding homes and lawn ornaments, a few of the girls walk to a nearby carryout place. Spirits are high. They are waiting at the cash register, Valencia excitedly reviewing the game, when a white police officer walks in.
"We are not causing no trouble," one of the West Side girls says.
The officer smiles. "I'm the nice police," he says. "Where you from?"
Valencia stands up straight. "We're from the bricks," she says. "Brick City."
At Liberation in Truth, the African American gay church that Felicia sometimes attends, the Rev. Jacquelyn Holland announces from the pulpit that she looks forward to officiating a same-sex wedding one day. The Massachusetts court has already decided that gay couples can marry in that state, and New Jersey has its own same-sex marriage lawsuit winding its way through the courts. One of the plaintiffs is a minister from Liberation in Truth.
"Some day!" Elder Holland tells her church.
But matrimony has a weak grip here in Essex County, where 47 percent of children are born to unwed mothers. Felicia dreams less about a marriage license than about having children. She can't pass up a baby stroller on the sidewalk. Felicia wishes she could get a woman pregnant. "Dag," she says, contemplating the impossible scenario.
Not that Felicia is ready to settle down. When it comes to girls, she has a mathematical ability to remember dozens of ever-changing cell phone numbers. And sweet talk? "Yeah, I got that little wallet picture of you on my mirror," Felicia tells a girl on the phone one night, looking at her dresser mirror that is void of any pictures. Fifteen minutes later she tells another caller, "You were my first; you never get over your first."
Some of Felicia's fellow A-G's mooch off their girlfriends, expecting to be kept in fresh sneakers and hair braidings but adamant about having their freedom. They brag of having "wifey" and a "jump-off."
A straight friend of Felicia's tells her that it takes more than jerseys and swagger to become a real man. "The thing about the place we live -- the ghetto, the hood, whatever you want to call it -- people live what they see," says Latoya Grissett, a senior at West Side. "You have to able to live beyond what you can see."
Felicia herself is a mirage. Some straight women are so starved for companionship on the loveless boulevards of Newark that they overlook her gender. Seeing her ball cap and the hip-hop slouch, feeling her charm and attentiveness, they squeeze their eyes and imagine. It is almost always Felicia who pays the emotional price.
A few weeks into basketball season, she is spending time with Fontessa, a 19-year-old who has a 6-month-old child and is pregnant again. Felicia decides she loves this woman. She stays over at her cramped apartment behind a corner market. Fontessa proclaims her affections for Felicia and says she's getting a tattoo to prove it. This only seems to bring the baby's father around more often.
One Friday night, Felicia and Fontessa go out dancing at the Globe, the gay teen dance hall downtown. The Globe is so bare bones that the clubgoers, mostly lesbians, pile their parkas on the floor in the corner. The walls vibrate with the bass line of Missy Elliott's "Pass That Dutch." Felicia and Fontessa dance and kiss.
When they arrive back at Fontessa's apartment, Felicia would later recall, the boyfriend comes walking up. He takes the bedroom with Fontessa. Felicia gets the living room couch.
Felicia keeps her heartbreak to herself. She and her mother are fighting. Somewhere in the fog of Fontessa, she blew off her scheduled SAT.
On a January night when the temperature drops to 22 degrees, she and Valencia are walking along South Orange Avenue, mummified in their puffy jackets, when a car with four young men eases up. What's poppin'? one of the men calls out, Felicia and Valencia would later recall. The girls keep their heads down. Their snub is a sign of disrespect and they are surrounded. Valencia gets a bloody nose and mouth, and Felicia is thrown to the ground.
They refuse to think the worst -- that they are targets because they are lesbians -- and chalk up the beating to a neighborhood beef.
Even with the assault, Valencia shows signs of revival. She no longer gasps for breath in the middle of the night the way she did after Sakia's death. In the small apartment where she lives with her mother, a mail carrier, the sound of "Jeopardy" and the waft of oxtails give school nights a steady rhythm. Valencia's father, also a mail carrier, lives nearby and fusses over his only child, whom he calls "the baby." He shuttles Valencia here and there, and pitches in when she wants a white tux with a top hat for the prom.
Felicia becomes more fragile. In Mr. Mason's chemistry class, she sits in the front row, calculating molarity and writing her answers in a notebook. But her focus is sporadic. She starts smoking Newports and breaking curfew. "I have given Felicia to God," her mother, Anita Holt, wearily says one day. "Just take her, Lord, because I don't know what to do with her."
Felicia goes in to talk with Mrs. Perkins, the school counselor. A Muslim who wears a hijab and can decipher the various subsets of the Crips better than the police, Mrs. Perkins is sympathetic toward the A-G's. "You are like everybody else," she tells Felicia. "You are subject to the evil of the world, and you are subject to the good of the world."
To ease the tensions at home, Felicia decides to move in with her Aunt Shakira, who lives in Bradley Court, a 60-year-old public housing complex sandwiched between a cemetery and the Garden State Parkway. Felicia sleeps in a spare room, keeping her clothes in a plastic garbage bag.
The harshness of winter won't let go. Singing is Felicia's escape. The big news is that a talent scout from Harlem's Apollo Theater is coming to West Side High to hold auditions for a spot in a citywide talent show. Felicia signs up, scheming on her song selection. Hassan Vann, her music teacher, tells her to never mind all the rhyme-splitters on rap radio; sing the music that's inside. They start rehearsing after school at the beat-up piano in Mr. Vann's classroom.
A cloud, mystical and dark, settles on Felicia. "You can't take tomorrow for granted," she says, cryptically. She starts carrying two photos in her pants pocket, one of each grandmother. For her audition number, she settles on a hymn called "Alabaster Box" by CeCe Winans, about a prostitute shunned by the townspeople but received by Jesus after she washes his feet with oil from her perfume box.
There is a defiance in the way Felicia burrows into the music of the church. Rehearsing her hymn, she asks an A-G friend named Danny to stand in front of her and hold up the two photos of her grandmothers. With her do-rag cocked over one eye, Felicia sings "Alabaster Box" to the two iron-haired matriarchs.
She felt such pain
Some spoke in anger
Heard folks whisper
There's no place here for her kind
Still on she came.
The rows of headstones at the cemetery next to West Side look like stone toes poking up from the snow. Half the basketball team is sick. On a Saturday morning when the Lady Rough Riders have an away game, the players straggle up to the school, some in ski masks to hold off the cold. The gym is warm and glowing. There is no sign of Felicia. When it's time to load up, Coach Thompson gives her orders. The bus pulls away from school.
Just as they are about to pass Bradley Court, Thompson yells for the driver to stop. Felicia is standing on the curb, holding her basketball gear.
"Fee!" one player shouts, as Felicia climbs into the bus with her uniform slung over her shoulder. "Hey, daddy, what, are you special?"
Felicia has a wicked cough but manages a smile. "I didn't say I was special."
The players make room, giving her a choice seat in the back. "Watch her," one of the younger players confides to another, "she'll play like she ain't even sick."
The bus cruises through the Bergen toll plaza as the team eats a breakfast of corn chips and sodas. Valencia wears a gold necklace that says "Becky" while the actual Becky rests her head in Valencia's lap. No one bats an eye, but not everyone is accepting. "My preacher will say that this is wrong," says a player named Artis. "My gay friends know what they are doing is wrong. I wouldn't say they are born that way."
Valencia pipes up. "So what's my excuse? My issue is, I never liked dudes."
Artis won't bend. "In the Bible, it doesn't say a woman and a woman!"
"Artis!" snaps a player named Ciara. All this Bible talk works her nerves.
Finally, the bus turns into the parking lot of Paramus High, an imposing campus with a great lawn. Felicia studies the building. "All these schools look alike," she says.
The players press to the windows. "They design them the same on purpose," Ciara says.
They watch as the snow falls, their faces and hoodies crowded up to the white light of winter. No one says anything until Felicia's singing voice breaks the silence.
Hand me the world
On a silver platter
And what good would it be?
Everyone knows the Alicia Keys ballad, and the bus turns into a mighty choir singing about the emptiness of money and power. Finally, they leave their snow globe, and as they walk into the sparkling new gym, they are greeted by hard rock and bleachers crowded with home-team parents and cheerleaders who've brought buttered bagels from home. With their half-gone bottles of Snapple and gusty coughs, the Rough Riders trounce the Spartans.
In the days that follow, Felicia begins to slip emotionally. Estranged from home, she tries to maintain a cheerful front at school. "Leave your drama at the door," is her motto. "It's all good." But the accumulation of anxiety is too much. She gets into a fight with a man downtown -- he had apparently disrespected Felicia's aunt -- and Felicia loses, getting slapped hard in the face. That night, she can't stop crying and goes to the medicine cabinet at a friend's house and swallows a handful of pills.
She is admitted into the adolescent psychiatric unit at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. She arrives by ambulance, strapped down in a chair. Her mother visits. Her father visits. Her aunt brings her new sneakers. The switchboard is jammed with messages from school friends. The outpouring surprises Felicia, who by day four at Beth Israel wants some hot wings and her own bed, and is tired of "doing all these little crazy-people activities." On the morning of her release, she dresses in a chocolate brown warm-up suit and asks her mom to drop her off at school. She receives a hero's welcome. "You had us scared, big head!" a friend shouts, throwing her arms around Felicia's neck.
Felicia holds court on the frozen sidewalk after school. "My doctor says I'm not supposed to put myself under stress," she says. But her doctor doesn't live near the corner store on Stuyvesant Avenue, where fresh graffiti spells the word "MURDERVILLE."
The week at Beth Israel is rarely spoken of again. Felicia resumes her 12th-grade life. Her follow-up care consists of a daily meditation book called "Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace." Felicia takes the book everywhere and panics if she misplaces it. Soon the pages are dog-eared and full of underlines. The meditations of March turn to the meditations of April.
"So you think you are not good enough, not God enough" she reads aloud one day. "You are a sprout. God is a good gardener."
Felicia had thought so much about this moment. What song to sing. What outfit to wear. Piano or no piano. After auditioning at West Side, she had earned a spot in the citywide talent show at Newark's grand old Symphony Hall. She viewed the night as a chance to reclaim herself. Everyone thought they knew her: Felicia the A-G, Felicia the gay girl. The labels boxed her in.
They follow her even as she enters the dressing room on the night of the show. Other contestants are at the makeup mirror applying their cocoa butters and hair jams as Felicia comes in with clothes slung over her shoulder. "Man, I wish I was gay," says one of the girls, giving Felicia the once-over. "Get a $5 haircut, get a shirt and call it a day."
That night, the 28 contestants are delivered by limousine to the front of Symphony Hall, a gilded and gargoyled performance space where Toscanini and Horowitz played. This is a shot at the big time: a $2,500 grand prize and a slot at amateur night at the Apollo Theater. Velvet ropes and police barricades hold back the surging fans. Mr. Vann is here, and Mrs. Perkins, and Valencia and a few other Lady Rough Riders. Aunt Shakira is also here. They are all waiting to see Felicia step out on the red carpet. Flashbulbs pop as the Escalades and stretch Navi's deliver contestants under the marquee that announces "Newark Idol Search."
A sleek black Town Car pulls up and the door cracks. A four-inch heel touches the carpet. A silhouette moves behind the smoked-glass window. When the contestant stands, the West Siders go wide-eyed.
Felicia Holt is wearing a dress. A drop-dead sexy dress.
Mr. Vann claps like a gentleman. Valencia and the other A-G's put it down for the streets, yelling, "You gotta work, ma!" Mrs. Perkins beams, "Look at my baby!" Felicia smiles as she totters awkwardly on her skyscraper heels. One hand waves while the other moves self-consciously to cover all this newly exposed skin.
When she returns to the dressing room, the other contestants realize the drubbing they just took by the tomboy.
"She makes me sick!" says one of the girls, an arts magnet school diva changing into a black dress. "She needs to give me her body. She don't show it!"
Felicia sits alone at the mirror. She's back in her sports bra and wife beater T-shirt. Latoya Grissett, her friend from West Side and a fellow contestant, leans down and holds Felicia's gaze in the mirror. "You're fine as hell, girl."
Two hours pass before the emcee calls her name. "Please welcome, all the way from West Side High, Felicia Holt!" The dress is gone, replaced by a pair of men's blue linen pants and blue alligator shoes, like P. Diddy in the Hamptons. In Felicia's pocket are the two photographs of her grandmothers. The lower seats are jammed with 1,200 screaming fans and four VIP judges scribbling their secretive notes at a table in front. Felicia walks to the microphone. The stage is empty. She has decided to sing without musical accompaniment. And while almost every other contestant chose to perform a bombastic pop ballad or R&B hit, Felicia has decided on a Kelly Price gospel tune called "I Don't Know About Tomorrow." She had told Mr. Vann that the words were custom-made for her.
The song is so blatantly old-fashioned, so unapologetically spiritual, that at first the audience is silent. Felicia moves fearlessly about the stage, her powerful alto reaching up to the gold-faced gargoyles. She is flying, winged, floating away from the wooden planks beneath her shiny alligator shoes.
It doesn't matter that Felicia will not win tonight. What matters is right now. "Sing it!" the hip-hop thugs shout. "Take it downtown." Arms wave in the air like at church. Felicia appears not to hear the calls or see the hands swaying. Her eyes are closed. She is singing for no one but herself.
I don't know about tomorrow
I just live from day to day
And I don't borrow from its sunshine
For its skies may turn to gray
Word is born. Turning her back on the thunderous applause, Felicia and disappears into the folds of the curtain.