Excerpt: Tits for Cigs from Shut Up You’re Pretty by Téa Mutonji

In Téa Mutonji’s disarming debut story collection, a young girl looks for happiness inside a pack of cigarettes, a teenager contemplates her Congolese traditions during a family wedding, a young woman decides to shave her head in the waiting room of an abortion clinic, and an adult daughter reconnects with her mother through their shared interest in fish.

Tinged with pathos and humour, these punchy, sharply observed stories interrogate the moments in which femininity, womanness, and identity are not only questioned but also imposed. Shut Up You’re Pretty is the first book in the VS. Books imprint, a series curated and edited by writer-musician Vivek Shraya featuring work by new and emerging young writers who are Indigenous, Black, or a person of colour.


Jolie was my first friend. Her name was actually Jolietta. I shortened it to Jolie upon meeting her. I felt it captured her spirit more, her essence. The name came from a song Mother used to sing when we lived in Congo, where it was hot and mosquitoes didn’t sting because we coexisted with them. “Mommy’s baby, pretty, pretty,” the song went. Mother stopped singing once we immigrated. She stopped doing many things. But I liked that she had given me this—this song so that I could now give it to someone else. And Jolie was in fact jolie: long blonde hair, defined nose, blue in her eyes, roses in each cheek, tall but not defiantly so.

She was the one who introduced me to the park. She was responsible for my popularity and my likability, because she was herself popular and well liked, and I gained her reputation by proximity. But still, I was the girl next door.

Unlike Jolie, I had perfectly ashy elbows and naturally lacked poise, and this was my advantage on Galloway. People could relate to that. As for Jolie, she was simply unattainable. To want a person like her was to want too much from life. To have a person like her was to have everything and, perhaps, too soon.

When we arrived, Jolie was sitting on our doorstep, as though to check that the newcomers weren’t freaks. And then she gave a thumbs-up to a bunch of kids watching from the other side of the roundabout. There was another set of low-rise townhomes, peeling and brown, identical to ours. The thumbs-up meant that we were acceptable, that we had passed some unknown street cred test, and Jolie was both curator and writer of said test.

She introduced herself as we were unloading the suitcases from the taxi. That’s all we had. Suitcases. We were lucky enough that the previous tenants had left behind some furniture and that whoever ran the complex took pity on our poverty and allowed us to claim it as our own.

“Welcome to Galloway,” Jolie said, reaching her hand out to greet my father. As they shook hands, she grimaced a smile at him, stuck her tongue out, and winked. “Can he come out and play?” she asked.

We all looked at Junior.

“Not him,” Jolie said. “The other one.”

“Loli?” my father said, and that’s when we all realized she was referring to me.

“Is she a girl or a boy?” Jolie tilted her head.

My English was still just so-so, but this I understood. It had become a frequent question, though my hair had grown significantly since we landed.

Before we left, I was given a buzz cut to match the picture of the boy in the passport I had used to come here. Nobody thought that it would work. I looked too feminine: too soft—soft nose, soft eyes, soft mouth, soft ears, soft cheeks. But by the time we got to the security gate at the airport, the soldiers were distracted, and nobody questioned me. But for a week after we arrived in Canada, I copied the way my brother walked, the way he ate, yawned, and brushed his teeth. Nobody told me when it was safe to stop pretending, and I found that I enjoyed this very much. I seemed to be more liked. More respected. But it might have been that people who knew what we had to do as refugees pitied me. So they showered me with gifts and compliments as though any of those things could confirm anyone’s sex. But I wasn’t confused. I knew who I was. I just found Junior’s jeans more comfortable. And his shoes made more sense. So I never quite stopped dressing like him. I played video games. And for as long as I could, I kept my hair short.

Maybe it was her age. Maybe it was the season. But Jolie was the only person to actually confuse me. But she was also the only person who believed me when I said, “I’m not sad—not even a little bit.”

“Where are your parents?” my father asked her.

“Around,” Jolie said. “Probably locked up in unit 86. It’s on the south side of the complex. In front of the park. If you want to come meet my mom.”

“You pray?” my father said.

“To God, you mean?” Jolie said, then she slapped her palm on her forehead. “Obviously.”

“Good,” my father said.

It was decided. Mother, my brother, and my father went inside our unit, and I followed Jolie. On our walk to the park, she told me that the number one rule of the street was to tell men exactly what they wanted to hear.

“Usually,” she told me. “Sometimes, though, it turns them on to hear no.”

I followed Jolie silently, and we walked slowly. Every few units, a kid would be standing on their porch—which was really just part of the sidewalk that led to their unit—and they’d stare as we walked by. I got the impression of Jolie right then and there: a showstopper, a credible figure in this neighbourhood, perhaps royalty. She talked and talked and talked. Mostly about the neighbourhood. The boundaries and the places to avoid. She talked about her mother, Gigi, who was a nurse but was currently unemployed. As she went on, all I could think of was that song.

“Jolie,” I said. “Do people ever call you Jolie?”

So the name stuck. And I was so proud to have been the one to give it to her.

Jolie was wearing a jean skirt and tank top that had been cut to reveal her midriff. She had fuchsia on her lips and her hair in a high side ponytail. She was a strange mixture between child and angel, the kind you saw in religious picture books, designed to inspire hope in you. But she also had that rag-doll look that made her one of us—hard, used, and tired.

“Do you have any cigarettes?” she asked.

We were stopped at the intersection of Lawrence and Galloway. You got the best of Scarborough exactly here: the low-income houses attached to the getting-by houses, attached to the getting-there houses. But something felt so telling and obvious about this exact intersection. I had the sense that my life was changing, far more than it already had. Jolie had a very good walk. Later, I told my mom that when we were older, Jolie would be a model, and I would be her personal assistant. Mom said I could be a model too, if I wanted, but Jolie said, “Braids aren’t allowed on the runway,” before pushing them behind my ears.

“We’re going to need cigarettes,” she announced. “Or else I’ll die!”

Jolie was glistening. Her hair, her mouth, the way she said “cigarettes.”

We went to the convenience store. It was a family business, though we only ever saw one of the two sons working the register. There was the gay one, Cory, and the one who refused to give us his name. The nameless one was older, and, once, we caught him masturbating to the women in the magazines. Forever after, we could expect free stuff. Neither of them could have been over eighteen, but to us they were so old. Every future trip to the store was made after long hours of fixing our hair and lowering our shirts to show our cleavage. I was chubby in comparison to Jolie, but she explained to me that it was just baby fat. She’d wrap an elastic right underneath my breasts to bring them together. But every guy who talked to me did so to get closer to her. In retrospect, I was in the best position ever.

Jolie told me that I had to arch my back. “So that your boobies are up.”

Then, taking one good look at me, she said, “Are you wearing anything underneath that?” She was referring to my shirt printed with a huge picture of Tupac. I had a tank top underneath, which Jolie tied behind my back, saying, “Perfect—you’re perfect!”

“I have a plan,” she told me. “Do you trust me?”

I mean, I had just met her. All I knew so far was that she was fearless. She was so involved with life as both a concept and a chore. She was different from anyone I had ever met.

“Yes,” I told her.

“Good,” she said, and grabbed my face, kissed me on my forehead.

The first guy walked past us completely. He was wearing a sweater and ripped jeans before they became a thing.

The next guy said, “How old are you guys anyway?”

“We’re not guys,” Jolie said. “We’re basically women.”

The guy after that laughed and bought us lollipops instead. Jolie took the candies and laughed so hard the building behind us seem to shake. I wasn’t entirely sure what was so funny, but I laughed too.

The guy after that was short and stubby, with tomato hair. He had a button-up shirt and good pants, pimples around his mouth.

“Tits for cigs,” Jolie shouted.

“Excuse me?” the man said.

“I’ll show you my boobs if you buy us cigarettes.”

The man adjusted his shirt. “What about her?” he said.

“She’ll let you touch them.”

The man disappeared inside the store without another word. We stood silently, trying not to make eye contact, watching the cars drive by, certain they knew what we were doing, that life was coming and we weren’t trying to stop it.

After a while, the man came back, cigarettes in hand.

“Drop the cigarettes,” Jolie said with a shaking voice that made it sound more like “op duh si-ga-rette.”

“Shouldn’t you girls be in school?”

“We don’t have school,” I said, in case he thought I was the assistant.

“All right, a deal’s a deal,” he said, leading us behind the building. He moved in closer to me until my back was pinned against the wall.

“The cigarettes!” Jolie said, with so much bravado I wondered if the frustration came from the way he looked at me and not at her. I felt very attached to the smell of his breath: coffee and old age confined together.

 

“The cigarettes,” I said, while lifting my shirt and giving him a good look.

With one hand, he slid the pack inside mine; with the other, he took a handful of fat and squeezed.

“There you go, that’s right,” I said, imagining myself to be one of the girls in the porn magazines. I had forgotten Jolie’s small body behind him until she repeated, “There you go, that’s right,” so slowly a year went over my head.

 

The moment ended when Jolie grabbed the cigarettes and yanked me away. We ran as fast as we could, threw ourselves on the empty field behind the housing complex.

“What did I tell you?” Jolie said, lighting her cigarette. “We are women!”

I laughed so hard, as hard as she did, feeling the grass shaking.

“Who are we?” Jolie shouted.

“Women!”

“What do we want?”

“Cigarettes!”

Jolie took off her shirt as if she was born to be shirtless, the daylight landing on her chest, the wind, the trees, the entire world cheering as she got up and ran in circles, her breasts moving like homemade Jell-O.


Téa Mutonji is an award-winning poet and writer. Born in Congo-Kinshasa, she now lives and writes in Scarborough, Ontario where she was named emerging writer of the year (2017) by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization.

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