Photo Credit: From The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Copyright © 2021 by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
July 23, 2018
The first sign was the smell of cocoa butter.
When it initially crept around the wall of her cubicle, Nella was too busy filing a stack of pages at her desk, aligning each and every one so that the manuscript was perfectly flush. She was so intent on completing this task—Vera Parini needed everything to be flush, always— that she had the nerve to ignore the smell. Only when it inched up her nostrils and latched onto a deep part of her brain did she stop what she was doing and lift her head with sudden interest.
It wasn’t the scent alone that gave her pause. Nella Rogers was used to all kinds of uninvited smells creeping into her cubicle—usually terrible ones. Since she was merely an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, she had no private office, and therefore no walls or windows. She and the other open-space assistants were at the mercy of a hard-boiled egg or the passing of gas; they were often left to suffer the consequences for what felt like an hour afterward.
Adjusting to such close proximity had been so difficult for Nella during her first few weeks at Wagner that she’d practiced breathing through her mouth even when it wasn’t called for, like when she was deciding between granolas at the grocery store, or when she was having sex with her boyfriend, Owen. After about three months of failed self-training, she had broken down and purchased a lavender reed diffuser that had the words JUST BREATHE scrawled across its front in gold cursive letters. Its home was the far corner of her desk, where it sat just beneath the first edition of Kindred that Owen had given her shortly after they started dating.
Nella eyed the gold foil letters and frowned. Could it have been the lavender diffuser she smelled? She inhaled again, craning her neck upward so that all she could see were the gray and white tiles that lined the ceiling. No. She’d been correct—that was cocoa butter, alright. And it wasn’t just any cocoa butter. It was Brown Buttah, her favorite brand of hair grease.
Nella looked around. Once she was sure the coast was clear, she stuck her hand into her thick black hair and pulled a piece of it as close to her nose as she could. She’d been proudly growing an afro over the last three years, but the strand still landed unsatisfyingly between her nose and her cheek. Nonetheless, it fell close enough to tell her that the Brown Buttah smell wasn’t coming from her own hair. What she was smelling was fresh, a coat applied within the last hour or so, she guessed.
This meant one of two things: One of her white colleagues had started using Brown Buttah. Or—more likely, since she was pretty sure none of them had accidentally stumbled into the natural hair care aisle—there was another Black girl on the thirteenth floor.
From The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Copyright © 2021 by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Read an interview between Zakiya Dalila Harris and author Zia Jaffrey about The Other Black Girl.
Zakiya Dalila Harris spent nearly three years in book publishing before leaving to write her debut novel, The Other Black Girl. Prior to working in publishing, Zakiya received her M.F.A. in creative writing from The New School. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in Guernica and the Rumpus. She lives in Brooklyn.