Shopping with C was a lesson in retail etiquette. If a salesclerk was rude, she’d let out this very disgusted, very southern-lady high-pitched “ooh!” that means “I can’t believe anyone on this earth has such terrible manners! I hope never to see you again!” When you make this sound, you have to pull one shoulder into your body, as if to say you must hurry away from this person before their rudeness becomes contagious, and also make your eyes go big in disbelief. She always did it as the person was walking away but still close enough to hear it, and we usually had no further problems. That “ooh!” is meant to make them think about how they were raised. I still use it.
After we finished shopping, we’d grab lunch. I’d try to be conscious of money and say the mall food was fine, but we’d almost always end up at a nice restaurant. I’d tell her about school, and then we’d talk about movies and books. My house was always filled with pop culture. Someone’s television or music was always going. Mama kept subscriptions to all the Black magazines, but it was with C that the discussions got real deep. C and I talked about camera angles and color schemes, allusions, metaphors, and symbolism. These conversations over lunch planted the seeds that would grow into my culture criticism career.
My sister and I watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor every time it aired on AMC, back when AMC ran old movies with no commercials. We got a VHS copy of the movie so we could watch it whenever we wanted. We laughed at the accents and quoted unintentionally funny moments to each other, like when Big Mama was trying to make sense of Big Daddy’s medical diagnosis and asked, “Well, what’s wrong here?” For my sister and me, the film was a source of amusement and Paul Newman thirst, but when I watched it alone, I saw things between the lines, so I asked C about them. Was Newman’s character, Brick, supposed to be gay? Was he in love with Skipper, his football teammate who’d died by suicide? C gave me Tennessee Williams’s backstory and Hollywood gossip about Elizabeth Taylor, and we talked about the importance of lies and fertility in southern culture.
“Well, you know, Nicki,” she started off, shifting in her chair at whatever casual dining restaurant we were at. She looked around to see if anyone was listening to us. “People like to keep their secrets.”
I nodded my head, chewing on a Caesar salad with too much mayonnaise in the dressing. I didn’t want to appear too eager, but I had a feeling she was thinking about her own secrets or something in our family.
“Families always want a lot of babies, especially boys, to carry on the name, and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it was also about money. Maggie hadn’t had any kids yet, so everyone thought something was wrong with her. Women have to have a lot of babies to be worth anything.”
We both let that last sentence sit on the table between the salt and pepper shakers. C had only one child. Mama had told me she’d had a difficult pregnancy and birth, but no details beyond that. Her sister, my other aunt, who passed away when I was in college, had been trying to get pregnant for a while and was also having “difficulties.” This was the first time that I worried about my own fertility.
“So in this movie, Nicki . . . ” C picked up her critique, voice a little louder than she’d intended. She cleared her throat and resumed her previous quiet tone. “Maggie has to prove her worth to the family, especially since she didn’t come from wealth, like Brick did. Basically, everybody has a past, and if they can’t lie about it, they have to cover it up with something like marrying for money and status.”
That made sense. Mama was always telling me I had to marry a rich man.
“Right,” I said, “and everyone was hiding something, like they were all lying to Big Daddy about his cancer.” It was important to me that C knew I was following along. I wanted her to be proud of me.
“Mm-hmm, but if you ask me, Maggie should’ve left. Nobody wants to deal with all that mess,” she said, and laid her fork on her plate. It seemed to signal both the end of the discussion and whatever memory was playing inside her own head.
Excerpted from the book SOMETIMES I TRIP ON HOW HAPPY WE COULD BE by Nichole Perkins. Copyright © 2021 by Nichole Perkins. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
“Hear the dark liquor of her laughter rippling behind her sentences” in this magnetic memoir as it explores a journalist’s obsession with pop culture and the difficulty of navigating relationships as a Black woman through fanfiction, feminism, and Southern mores” – Saeed Jones
A Roxane Gay Audacious Bookclub November Pick
Named “Most Anticipated Books of 2021” by Buzzfeed and Lithub
Pop culture is the Pandora’s Box of our lives. Racism, wealth, poverty, beauty, inclusion, exclusion, and hope — all of these intractable and unavoidable features course through the media we consume. Examining pop culture’s impact on her life, Nichole Perkins takes readers on a rollicking trip through the last twenty years of music, media and the internet from the perspective of one southern Black woman. She explores her experience with mental illness and how the TV series Frasier served as a crutch, how her role as mistress led her to certain internet message boards that prepared her for current day social media, and what it means to figure out desire and sexuality and Prince in a world where marriage is the only acceptable goal for women.
Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be is available for purchase now online and in bookstores near you.