From Day 1
“And then there were two.” Two little black girls in the office. We started sussing each other out. It was my 1st day at a new job and she’d been there for a week prior. It didn’t take long. A few knowing glances, some carefully coded responses to “interesting” situations, and we knew. She’s alright.
We became fast friends — already transcendent of this place and these walls, of these trifling microagressions. Those were the things that made us know without saying that the other GOT it. Enough said. Except it was never enough.
We didn’t know how to have a 5 minute conversation. It either needed to be 4 hours on the phone (including a ‘I’mma order some chicken and broccoli, hold on let me call you back) or a whole day of running the streets, as she called it. And if it wasn’t to be an extended unraveling of the whys of things, an expression and validation of what was and the seeking of information and knowledge on how things came to be, then it was a simple, “Mmhmm. You see,” said in a way with gravitas that only Rugi could. And that was all that needed to be said. The rest was to be saved and savored for a later debrief.
She played the “Where’s my…” game with the best of them. I’ve never seen someone lose their keys or phone on their own person, purse, or in their home as much as she did.
She was always on time, in the black church sense of the saying. She’d say, I’m busy, but I’ll come over in two Saturdays and help you organize that linen closet. You wouldn't hear from her for 2 weeks. Then sure enough, day of, she’d text at 9am wanting to know if we were ordering lunch or should she bring something over.
We had many recurring themes in our discussions. In our lives. In our friendship.
A Shared Fascination with Mixed Heritage. Or, What’s going on in there?
We need to know. What are you. And how did it happen.
Wait, whose mama is white?
You know his grandfather is Chinese, Jamaican Chinese. Ahh, ok.
The knowing was never about acting differently toward someone but you just needed to KNOW. And why do we feel compelled to know, even comforted by the knowing? Those of you who play this game understand. Show me the Carfax. And then we all go on about our day.
How to Deal with Trifling __________
Men, Whypipo at work, children who can’t ack right and the teachers who don’t expect them to. The list goes on.
She would say, “Ohh No.” It’s hard to describe. It was just so Rouge. That unspoken period at the end of Ohh No was palpable. Punto final. Like both incredulous but not surprised, indignant but not phased. She taught me to stop putting up with foolishness, as she called it. Brandi, enough, she would say. Enough!
She was better at it than I was. But it gave me courage. And still does.
Shopping. But hardly ever for clothes. (That was my schtick.) For stuff. It felt like some sort of ingrained New Yorker thing. You gotta have your stuff. You’re never not going to need toilet paper. Stock up when it’s on sale. Gimme that plastic bag, you don’t even know what to do with it, it’s got good handles, I’ll take it. She was the master at repurposing. When she bought her place in a coop in the Bronx, I though Lord help us, she’s going to tinker with decorating in there for years. And she did. Ha.
We spent hours, hours and hours over the course of 13 years with this insatiable need to discuss, analyze, and explore expressions of blackness.
The power of call and response. (Isn’t it so weird when Someone says Good Morning and doesn’t expect a response??)
What is it about us that makes that connective thread. That pull we feel in our guts. How we just know who we are and how to be together. Her puerto rican and black heritage was a source of lived experiential fodder in our conversations. What it’s like to be a darker skinned Afro-Latina with “good” hair. I would share things I learned from Anani’s class on how slavery in Latin America was enacted differently by Iberians than in Anglo colonies. And my own experiences growing up black and “talking white” in majority white private school settings K-16. Through lived and intellectual discourse we would make a way.
We would joke about what a drum beat does to black people everywhere. We cannot help ourselves!!! When Dave Chappelle did that skit with John Mayer we were crying. And then we would stop laughing long enough to be like, but it’s so truuuuue!! No, but like for real for real. What is that?!
We had many conversations long before he died about what he meant to us. What all of his shades, and choices, journeys and trials meant to and for the black experience. When he died, we knew we could speak to each other unironically about how absolutely tragic his death was. In our first week working together, 13 years ago, we joked that we should write a book about workplace drama and all the chapters would be from MJ lyrics.
Man in the Mirror: For the employee who is un-self-aware.
PYT: Beware those office romances.
Mama Say. Mama Sa. Mama Macusa: When you’ve exhausted all options and there’s really nothing left to say to express how ridiculous your manager is being.
We got jokes.
She always had this calm stillness, and underneath was a quiet intensity. She showed you what she wanted you to see. What she thought you could handle.
There was her laugh. That impish little laugh that made you feel like you’d been let in on a secret and you couldn’t help yourself from laughing too. Like, hey no, that’s not funny. No, no, but it totally is though! And I can’t stop laughing. You got me.
I cut my teeth on the Big Apple under Eurgiena’s guidance. A native Bronxite who also lived in LA for a while, she got it. She knew ALL the spots. The discount cosmetics store. The best place to get fried fish on Westchester Ave after you’d been observing teachers all over the Bronx since 7am. And, “I’m going to take you to the ChinoLatino spot.”
The what? That’s a thing?
“You’ll try mofongo.”
One of my favorite Rouge sayings was that when you’re in LA, in your car, even though you barely have gas money to put in it, you’re in your little bubble, and the sun is shining and you just have this feeling like today could be my day. Every day could be the day, the day I make it. But in New York, whatever it’s doing outside is what it’s doing to you. It’s a hustle. And a grind. But you choose to keep fighting. And fight she did.
Before she was hospitalized for the last time, I ran some errands for her and went over to her place. At first I thought my job as a friend was to tackle the to-do list, because that’s what I’m good at and Rugi trusted me to get things right. But as I sat and stayed with her, I understood that what she needed was for us to be us. To talk and cackle and laugh and Ohh NO at each other’s recounting of life’s crazy. She said to me then that life was suffering. It struck me as a very Buddhist statement. She continued and said that because God loves us, he allows us to understand that life is suffering. It’s not rainbows and sunshine all the time; it is suffering and what makes us special is how we react to it. That we react to it and choose to be happy.
She cried that day. I’d never seen her cry before. When “strong” is a word people use to describe you, you don’t cry in front of others. It feels strange, and vulnerable, and like you’re letting people down. #askmehowiknow. So when she cried, I knew it was really real. She was tired. So tired. So very tired. I was scared. I held her. And choked back my own tears to try and muster enough strength for both of us. I hoped it would work.
We made a list of her medications. She needed to do that, in her own handwriting and in her own voice to process what was going on and to try to exercise some modicum of control. I got it. She wrote out dosage info as I recited it to her from the tens of bottles lining her nightstand, in her painstakingly neat handwriting. I’d always thought about how lucky her ELL students were to have her and her so neat handwriting.
The Black Woman’s Struggle to Stay Groomed While Surrounded by 50 Shades of Greige
Every woman with seriously curly hair has what Eurgiena and I called the Curly Hair Product Graveyard. Bottles and bottles and jars of potions and pomades promising to bring frizz free detangled definition to your locks. Eurgiena was a devout disciple. She had more homemade concoctions and product cocktails than anyone. She introduced me to BHM when forums were barely a thing. There was never, ever, a curly hair product you’d heard of that she hadn’t heard of first. And tried.
She hoarded bottles of Becca foundation in her shade: Mink. Becca may be back now, but the line was off the shelves for about 6 or 7 years. Know how you know that the beauty industry isn’t going to be able to cut your supply off now that you’ve FINALLY found a shade that’s true? By hoarding it in the the fridge. The fridge! She was so hardcore. I loved it.
“In the Absence of Information, I Will Create My Own. And You Don’t Want That.”
This was one of Rugi’s tenets. In work, in relationships, in life. It kind of speaks for itself. I feel like an unspoken tenet that Rugi would love me handing to her is that she totally operated under the rap lyric credo of stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. Rouge was always ready. Always. She shared a few times that she got like that after her mother died suddenly.
Rugi was the type of person who had a plan to get another job on day 4 of the job she just got, in case said job turned out to be cray. She was not one to be caught out in the street. Ever.
When she called me in May to tell me about her diagnosis, she then told me she’d known for a month but knew I was traveling and didn’t want to distract me.
Really, Rugi?!! But that was exactly how she was. It wasn't self-sacrifice or martyrdom. Ain’t nobody got time for that. It was a stubborn persistence in believing that if she controlled information it would be for the better. And often it was.
“Act First; Seek Permission Later”, Or How to Survive in White Female Dominated Institutions Without Cutting a Bitch (to be said in your best Wayne Brady voice)
‘Act first; Seek permission later’ was one of Rouge’s major mantras in the workplace. In the vein of staying ready so you don’t have to get ready, Rouge saw it as, you know you’re going to be called aggressive, opinionated, confrontational, not a team player. So just do what you need to do to get your work done and accept the “consequences” later. Because they’re coming anyway, no matter what you do. It’s a foregone conclusion.
Every black woman has smiled ‘the smile’. The polite smile you smile when some white person has said some stupid shit to you that is so condescending you’re questioning who made them. And as your eyes widen upon hearing the crazy come out of their mouth, you smile evenly and keep chanting to yourself that your mother taught you better, but she also didn’t raise no fool, and which is it going to be today. So you smile and make a mental note. Uh huh, I see you, as Rouge would say. We would talk about these moments. We would relate these stories and talk about how as a people we use laughter to heal, to cope, to persevere, to survive, to remind us how to thrive. Everything Rouge and I talked about was as complex as it was fleeting or anecdotal. I think we understood on some level that sharing an oral history is the original black psychotherapy.
There were times where one of us would pull the other into a conference room, or call each other, with the sole purpose of shucking and jiving. For ourselves. Talking our talk, dancing, carrying on, being loud, laughing, riffing on layers and layers on inside jokes. Bringing joy and love and light to each other in circumstances that sometimes seemed intent on stealing it.
Rouge was wise. It was an old soul kind of wise. Not a showy I have all the answers wise, but the kind that comes from knowing that the only way to deal with things is to deal with them. Eurgiena loved fiercely, but privately. She CHOSE you, and you knew it. Our birthdays are less than a month apart, and we’re cut from the same cloth in a lot of ways, the choosing thing being one of them. She kept her cards close but her loyalty was never in question. She didn’t expect the same of others. It’s like her approach was knowing that people are fickle and selfish and weird and they’ll disappoint you sometimes. But it never prevented her from being of service to so many. She didn’t need you to show up in order for her to do the same. She was compassionate in that way. She could know exactly who someone was and forgive them their transgressions anyway. She understood they weren't hers to judge.
I miss her.
I’m grateful to a God who chose to introduce us thirteen years ago. He knew. Then we knew. And right now I’m trying to let that knowledge be a blessing and not feel like a weight. Because it hurts. I can hear her laugh and see her smile and those little grays around her temples that she HATED haha. And I want that to feel light and good. But it doesn’t yet. I’m hopeful it will.
I miss you, turkey. Love always.