By Weston Phippen, Times Staff Writer
IT BEGAN MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY AGO, when an older man took an interest in a girl who knew nothing of sex. At 16 she had her first child. Sixteen years later, her daughter carried out the trash in their Tampa housing complex and a man asked her name. At 16, she, too, became pregnant. Two was coincidence. But later when her pregnant daughter also dropped out of high school at 16, the reality of three generations of women impregnated at the same age began to seem like a curse. This is the shadow of history Niya Finlayson never asked for, but all the same inherited.
Now Niya is 16, and only 48 days from 17. This birthday was especially significant for Niya's mother and grandmother. They were determined to make sure she reached it without having made the same mistake as them, as if it were a way to amend their own past.
And so here was Niya on a Friday at her friend's birthday party in a Riverview Applebee's. About a dozen teenage girls sat in a booth carrying on half a dozen conversations. But only Niya had chaperones.
Mother and grandmother sat across the busy restaurant. From behind their plates, the two women jerked when they saw Niya and a few friends reappear through the front doors, having not seen her leave in the first place.
"What's she doing outside?" Niya's grandma, Carlotta, asked.
"I don't know," said Niya's mother, Niki.
"She don't have any reason to be outside in the first place," Carlotta, 53, said, arching to get a better view.
For a moment it seemed as if Carlotta might tear across the restaurant to ask just what her granddaughter was doing outside. If Carlotta had asked, she would have learned the girls were taking pictures in their heels and dresses.
Niya's friends said they planned to continue the party at one of their houses. Niya didn't even bother asking if she could go; she already knew the answer. She would hear about the festivities Monday at high school. Niya was safe for now, if only mother and grandmother could keep her eyes off boys, and their eyes on her.
Forty-seven days left.
• • •
Niya said she once had a boyfriend in seventh grade. The two would hold hands and they even kissed once. Carlotta said she never had a boyfriend, as if Niya had made up the story. Boyfriends lead to hand-holding, which leads to kissing, which leads to sex. And Niya has been told multiple times what that leads to.
Niya can recall three "talks" she has had. One was in third grade about "becoming a woman." The second was in sixth grade from her grandparents, the thesis of which she remembers as "If you have sex, you get pregnant, so don't have sex." And her freshman year she learned about gonorrhea and watched a film of a woman giving birth. She was terrified.
And yet curiosity in sex is not lost on Niya. At church she met a boy and the two exchanged numbers. Then they sent texts, and later Niki snooped through Niya's phone and found indecent photos she'd sent to the boy.
"What if you would have had sex?" Niki asked her.
"Maybe I do wanna have sex!" Niya yelled back.
Even in God's house the older women must be vigilant, because where there are broad shoulders and square chins, there looms a threat. After Niki found the photos, mother, grandmother, grandfather and her uncles lectured the girl on the intentions of boys, and reminded her once again what happens when you have sex. Then they took away Niya's cellphone. In ways little and large, she was always paying for what happened half a century ago.
Eula Duhart, now 70, grew up on a farm in Georgia and remembers wearing clothes cut from a burlap sack. Her family moved to St. Petersburg when she was still young, and when her parents learned she was pregnant they called her a whore and she moved out.
Men would stay and some would go as she raised Carlotta, and Carlotta's early years as a mother with Niki, her middle child, were not different.
Carlotta took custody of Niya when she was 18 months old. At that time, Niki was living in public housing and more interested in partying than motherhood. Carlotta took Niya from her not long after she found the baby alone with a bottle of laundry detergent, bubbles dribbling from her mouth.
Carlotta has three children of her own, from three fathers. When Carlotta met a hard-working Jamaican man named Carlton Spaulding, they married and moved Niya to the predominantly white suburbs of Riverview. Spaulding is a supervisor for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. Carlotta drives a bus. They live in a two-story, four-bedroom home.
Riverview surrounds Niya with aspirations, Carlotta said. All of Niya's friends at school, at church and in the neighborhood, plan to go to college. That was not the case where Carlotta grew up. But even in Riverview, there is temptation, and so Niya spends most her time at home under family supervision.
She's almost never allowed to leave the house except for school and church. She can only hang out with a group of girlfriends whom Carlotta has thoroughly vetted by speaking with their parents. No boys. Once, a boy came to the house when Carlotta and Carlton were home, and the grandmother called the boy's parents, told him he should not visit unannounced, and sent him away.
"I'm not trying to be a hard parent, but from my experience, I don't want her to go through the same thing," Carlotta said. "I just don't want her to end up with a baby on her hip, in a food stamp line, on welfare, waiting for some clown to give her money."
Niya has her grandmother's small physique. She has beautiful, coffee-bean brown eyes, and runner's legs. She attended private schools as a child. Now she's a junior at Newsome High School, where there is a greenhouse and cow pen by the student parking lot. She hopes to attend Florida State University or the University of Central Florida. Somewhere far away. Maybe she'll join a sorority, she said.
"You ain't joining no sorority," Carlotta said.
"What if it's a good one?" Niya said.
"No such thing," Carlotta said.
Niya is a bright student when the class interests her, and she earns mostly A's and B's, some of them in advanced placement classes.
"I've been in them, since, like, seventh grade, so it's just, like, whatever."
Even the way she talks sets her apart from the family. Her cousins facetiously call her "Suzie," because it sounds like a white girl's name, and they say Niya is the only one in the family who speaks "like a white girl."
She is the only one raised by Carlotta not to have a car bought for her. And she is the only one who was never allowed to hang out with friends on weekends. Which is why on this Friday she was at her 7-year-old nephew's basketball game.
Inside a youth gymnasium in Tampa, Niya sat in the bleachers beside her grandfather, whom she calls Daddy. Because of the illicit photos, she still had no phone, so she couldn't even text a friend to find out what fun she'd miss. She might as well be a castaway on an island.
The next day she would work the night shift at McDonald's, which Carlotta says is a reward for good behavior and grades. On Sunday she would spend three hours at church, trying to not make eye contact with the boy to whom she had sent the photos. Then there would be another shift at McDonald's. Sometimes a boy with sagging pants riding a bicycle hits on her from outside the drive-through window.
"He's so nasty," she said, smiling.
In the gym, her nephew ran out on the court in a No. 8 jersey. The little kids clumped around the ball, a spaghetti glob of limbs.
"I have one more year," Niya said, looking supremely bored.
• • •
Lunch is Niya's favorite period at school, and one of her only chances to freely socialize. Once, Carlotta offered to pick her up during lunch to buy shoes for track and Niya complained and asked to get her out of class instead.
On the way to the lunch room, Niya walked into the courtyard with her two friends, Elizabeth and Megane Gay. Newsome's student body is only 6 percent black, but nearly all of Niya's friends are. Kids crisscrossed each other heading to class.
"Oh, that's him," Elizabeth said as a boy disappeared into a classroom.
"Oh, yeah?" Niya asked, having heard about her crush before. "He's a baseball player?"
"I thought he looked like a wrestler," Megane said.
"No, baseball," Elizabeth said as they continued to walk.
"All the wrestlers here are short," Megane said.
"Yeah but the wrestlers got butts!" Elizabeth said.
The five girls set their bags on a round table in the corner. They gabbed as they waited in line for their food. One girl said Niya had a boyfriend.
Then Niya said it's really her "stalker." The kid is good-looking, wore glasses and studied during lunch. Niya, wearing a jacket over a short tan dress that fit like spandex, didn't seem interested.
All the girls wore gold necklaces. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle waiting for their lasagna, flipping their hair. In the line, Megane explained Niya's situation:
"If we want to invite her out, we have to take her grandma with," Megane said. "That's what hanging out for Niya is."
One time Niya went to a birthday party. Carlotta was also invited, but she took her home shortly after she found Niya around a corner dancing with a boy. Niya is not allowed to go to school dances. Niya has heard that's where some kids have sex. They do it right on the dance floor in the dark, she says in a serious tone that sounds just like her grandmother.
Before they left the lunch room, Megane walked over to two men in uniform recruiting at the school.
"Why you always hitting on Army guys?" Elizabeth asked jokingly.
"Girl!" Megane said as the group bounded off.
They merged back into the surge of bodies, pausing to talk with passing boys. Niya walked to her trigonometry class. She had 21 days left until her birthday.
• • •
About two weeks before her birthday, Niya got a D on her report card. Before they learned it was the teacher's error, Carlotta and Niki were so angry they threatened to cancel the birthday party.
You can't do things halfway and expect full results from it, Niki said she told Niya by phone. You have to make sure your grades are up to par.
Niya didn't answer her.
If you want better, you have to do better, Niki said.
Again, no response.
If you don't want to go to college, and you don't want to do anything in your life, Niki said, then make the choices that I made.
Hello? Niki asked.
Yeah, Niya said. Okay.
• • •
Niya decided she wanted to ring in 17 in Ybor City, Tampa's capital of booze and clubs. Niki and Carlotta's first response was absolutely not. But on second thought, as long as they were around to chaperone, and as long as the party finished before dark, they figured they'd allow Niya to make the decision this once. The party would be no small affair.
Niki has spent the past year rededicating her life to school and trying to straighten out a path that gnarled at a young age. With money from her school loans she helped pay for her daughter's party.
"I wanted her to understand the importance of this milestone," Niki said.
Around 6 p.m. on a Saturday, inside Carne ChopHouse, Niya sat with her friends at a table. Her birthday cake was shaped like a designer purse and a high-heel shoe.
The girls chatted and danced. Niya had finally earned her phone back, and all the girls took pictures of themselves in their heels and dresses. After dinner, everyone sang Happy Birthday.
In Niya's mind, today she was 17, and next year she would be 18, and soon she would be off to college. One month ago, the crisis of her life was losing her cellphone. Today was her birthday, and also a Saturday, and for the first time in a long while she was with friends on the weekend. That's what she'd looked forward to.
"I don't want to do that stuff," Niya said of partying and sex. "But they've got to let me spread my wings."
With her family around her, Niya leaned toward the candles on her cake and blew. As silent as an exhaled breath, the cycle that started a half century ago and that three women bore ended with Niya.
Soon Niya will send out her college applications, and soon she will hear back. In one year she'll move away from home and for the first time in her life she'll be responsible for herself. Even she's a bit worried about how she'll cope with freedom.
After the party, Niya and her friends walked the streets of Ybor. In a few hours crowds would fill the bars and clubs, and the next week Niya would have her phone taken away again for trying to arrange a secret date with a boy.
Niya clicked down the street, imagining, with mother and grandmother steps behind.
Weston Phippen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8321.