Standing mockingly over the world, too proud to look towards the specks that worshipped at its feet.
Too massive to notice the crumbs they carried to honor it every day on their weathered backs.
The gifts would rot at her feet worthless and forgotten. Piles and piles of food, money, and treasured possessions wasted into the dirt, to be appreciated by ordinary brown birds and the occasional hungry thief made brave through desperation.
And sometimes, a young woman named Kalina.
Daily she would walk past the mountain, slowing her usually hurried gait to stare up at its golden halo.
It seemed to shimmer and move as if it were made of living luster. It was so bright that towns for miles around it could not experience a dark night, making sleep impossible for many.
It was worth it though, for those many, to be that close to the glory that was the Mountain of the Gods. They would push through their days, exhausted, all the time thanking the heavens that they lived in the presence of such majesty.
They weren’t the only ones.
Travelers from near and far would bring offerings to thathaughty mountain, chanting, praying, and laying at its feet, hoping to absorb some of its magic, hoping for the slightest bit of attention from it.
Kalina was hoping for more.
By blood, she was a storyteller.
And so, by nature, she was also a dreamer.
Stories surrounded and filled her every day. The elders of her family told them. This was the way.
The stories would follow her to bed at night, beckoning to her imagination.
Especially the stories
about the Mountain.
The only stories that she had ever heard that seemed to end right in the middle.
No discovery, or triumph, or tragedy.
Right in the middle.
The listeners would always ask, curious and exasperated;
Did the man break free of his captor?
Did the woman kill the monster that blocked her path?
Did the rope that the young boy was climbing up the cliff hold?
The storyteller would shrug, no one knows, and that was that.
Except for this single thing: if one were able to reach the top, they would be rewarded with the status of a god. All powerful, wise, and gilded.
Imagine what a person could do with that kind of power?
Her ailing sister healed with a wink.
The poor neighbor, fully endowed with riches atjust a thought.
Were she successful
lauded for raising her, becoming powerful in their own right.
It was far-fetched, sure it was, to you and me.
But it’s all a dreamer needs to search the bottom of the mountain, looking for something never meant to be found until it was.
The one that the very mention of would guarantee laughter that could tear through you like a hungry wolf.
The one that she was too plain, too silly, too dumb to find.
But look. Here she was.
The only person in a thousand stories to stand in front of it.
She began to climb. Of course she did.
The very discovery of this path foretoldthat she was meant to walk it.
And so, without a canteen or a plan or a glance back, she began to climb.
Up and up and away. She might as well be flying.
Her fellow townsfolk and foreign travelers from abroad could see her slow ascent.
To them, her failure was imminent. Her boldness, therefore, was a slap in the face.
How dare she think herself worthy to step onto the impossible path? Her, young, frail, and silly? Not long after she started off shrieks of laughter from below, stomping down the ambitions that served as her North Star.
In truth, she was woefully unprepared.
She took with her only her worn book and a pen to record her thoughts as she traveled, as she did every day. That’s it. A book and a pen. She was determined to finish the half-stories that haunted her childhood, unwittingly betting her survival on her naivety.
Somehow she reasoned that she could live on resolution alone, forgetting completely about food and water until her dry mouth would not allow her to ignore it anymore. And just as she was starting to regret her embarkment at all she happened upon a man drawing from a well.
She could barely gasp words out.
“Some of your water, please. I am so thirsty.” She made her face as kindly as she could.
The man turned to face her. Kalina stifled a gasp.
His face was terrifying.
Here and there were islands of deep golden brown skin surrounded by raw and pink flesh that was almost as painful look at as it seemed to feel. His eyes were such a light grey that at first look he appeared to be blind. His hair was long and ragged, and hung tangled around his face. He was delicately thin, yet extremely tall. His back curved in such a way that he towered above and looked down on her all at once. As he came closer she could feel her body shrinking.
And going cold. Oddly.
In fact, it was as if someone had tapped her confident energy and was rapidly draining it onto the ground around her feet.
“I…I began climbing thi…this mountain today in such, in such a hurry that I didn’t have a, I mean, a moment to grab any water.”
A sort of twisted, interested look crossed the man’s face.
A shiver of worry ran through Kalina’s body.
He pulled his bony hands, which had been behind his back, to inches in front of her face. His fingers were so long that they seemed to wrap one, two, three times around the handle of the rickety bucket he was offering. Terrified but parched, Kalina reached a shaking hand forward to accept.
As she inched closer, the man dropped the bucket, spilling the fresh water it contained into the dust they stood it. Startled, Kalina screamed.
And then the terrible man made a terrible sound. He let out a deep, cackling laugh that revealed his razor sharp teeth and a tongue that seemed to dance around them. He seemed to be shrieking with glee, nearly convulsing with every bout as Kalina leaned to retrieve it. Her thirst had overcome her.
But he was gone. Suddenly. All that remained was the bucket, the puddle, and the piercing laughter that seemed to fill the wood to the brim.
She hurriedly filled the bucket, drank, ignored her growing fatigue and hunger and continued her sojourn.
It was getting darker. Colder. Treacherous. And Kalina, who had climbed all day with no food, was getting weaker and weaker. Before she lost too much light, she stopped to record the day’s events.
A lesser person would have turned around right then. A more reasonable one might have found a safe, hidden place to rest and started again in the morning.
But Kalina, the descendant of storytellers, was strengthened by hardship, in the spirit of all the heroes she had learned about, the ones whose half-stories painted them as perseverant travelers and superhumanly resilient.
So up and up and up, even the mountain began to feel as if it were swaying beneath her, and as if the wood were twirling around her.
If only she could find some berries, or mushrooms, or some herbs, or even…
And then, as if her thoughts had come alive, the same, terrifying man walked next to her holding a basket of potatoes, hot and wrapped and ready to be eaten.
She hungry reached for one, but he snatched them away. He lowered his crooked body until his sunken eyes met hers, and held his stare.
“How much.” There was no upward inflection in her statement. She was not curious. She was furious.
The thing looked off behind her.
Something in its dead eyes chilled her to the bone.
She froze as she counted the steps of whatever was coming up behind her. She could hear the sticks and leaves breaking behind her.
For reasons she could not explain she jumped into the bushes. The demon disappeared.
A young traveler, a man possibly around her age, trudged up the path. Even though he didn’t look familiar he was dressed familiarly as if from someplace in her home village.
A fellow storyteller, no doubt.
Why did his face suddenly perk up, and his steps quicken?
The basket of hot potatoes had been left in the path, looking and smelling inviting.
“Such luck!” He exclaimed to the wood. And he bent down to receive them.
Panic rushed through Kalina’s body. He would eat them all. HE WOULD EAT THEM ALL. And what then, she would die out here, her journey pointless, the ones she set out to help to die at their peril??
What was that face there, in the shadows across the path?
The same demon, it seemed, but even more terrible and darker than before.
And…alluring, how can that be?
Why did it seem to smile?
What did it know?
The young man was still on the path, weeping with gratitude at the discovery of the meal. He was on his hands and knees, savoring every bite as if were his last, putting chunks into his satchel for later on.
Without thinking and still staring at the monster across the way, Kalina gingerlyonto the path.
Without disturbing a single blade of grass she bent down and wrapped her fingers around a large stone, and raised it above her.
Without flinching she brought the stone down over the head of the starving traveler, not bothering to dodge the chunks of him that flew out in all directions, not bothering to hear the screams of agony and surprise. Not bothering to stop until he lay lifeless next to his last meal. Not bothering to remove the bits of him that had tainted the food. She devoured every morsel, stopping only to spit out shards of tooth and bone that hindered her consumption. She ate as if she was an animal. Her trance overruled sensibilities with her carnal needs, which seemingly could only be satisfied in the most brutal of ways. She ate and ate and ate to the point where she was so stuffed that it nearly hurt to swallow, and she began to resent the very food she had killed for.
And, with that thought, she awoke from her transfixion. Suddenly, she realized what she had done.
What. Had. She. Done.
She looked at the young man. Miraculously (or was it) she had missed his face in her act of starving violence. She desperately wished that he could talk to her and keep her company.
HIs face, surrounded by carnage, was calm and peaceful. She imagined that as he’d died, the faces of the loved ones counting on his success passed through his mind.
She thought about all the good she planned to do when she reached the top.
Maybe as a god, she could bless his family and make up for her sin.
Was she forgivable?
And as that thought teased her grief, and rolling, wicked laugh shot through the woods.
NO! It seemed to gleefully howl. She could nearly feel her demon screaming out the answer to the question she would never dare to think again.
Exhausted, she pulled out her book. It was covered in the young man’s blood. Perhaps the joy he felt before he died or the peace he felt afterward had permeated it.
She didn’t hope for this too hard. She wanted to avoid another wicked laugh.
Through her sobs, she recorded the day’s events, honestly, clearly, sorrowfully. And then she finally laid to rest, right there next to her victim and the remains of the meal she had murdered him for.
She cried all night.
Even as she slipped into unconsciousness her disappointment ran down her face. She awoke in the morning light in a shallow puddle of mud.
Her eyes were cloudy. Her face, dry and covered in dirt and blood.
The young man’s body was gone.
His face, her final comfort, probably ripped to shreds by an animal hungrier than her.
She was officially broken.
She didn’t have the will to move.
She didn’t have the will to search for food.
True to her ancestry, she could only pen a short account with the last bit of resolve she could muster. After that, she was his.
And there he was. Tall. Intimidating. Evil. Terrifyingly.
He leaned forward and kissed Kalina squarely on the lips, lingering in the warmth.
Kalina felt safe.
She felt happy.
She felt weak. The weakest she had felt on this trip.
And so, when her thoughts seem to whisper follow me she did without hesitation.
Back in the valley, Kalina would have had questions.
Back in the valley, she would have done research.
But here on the mountain, where her dreams had been dashed and her good character shamed, she did not have the strength for any of this.
And so she followed with no argument, without even a look left or right.
Up and up they went. Past caves and through wild plants and over ravines.
Every few steps stopping so that her guide could taste her mouth, assuring her devotion and sapping her energy.
After a while Kalina seemed to be dragging behind him, unable to direct herself. When commanded to eat she ate, sleep she slept, walk she walked.
Years later she would refer to this part of the journey as a silvery haze of which she could not recall much at all.
She does remember the day, however, when her joints became harder to move than the day before.
And the moment her guide chuckled when she whimpered with each step.
She remembers looking down miles later and seeing the deep mahogany flesh of her feet turn a bright, flashy golden, and how now the guide seemed to climb even faster up the path.
The dance to the peak had grown into a trudge, the looming figure guiding her becoming more and more demanding as they rose.
And did he look…younger?
Or was she becoming so much like him that he was familiar now?
Is that why was his seemed brown skin and rich, instead of the putrid gray it was before?
And Kalina’s skin, and ever stiffening gold?
What is this?
One day Kalina worked up the courage to ask. It was the day she happened upon the books. The hundreds, maybe thousands of books strewn about the road. Some books obviously very, very old, and others seemed to have been laying there only a few weeks, even days.
What is this.
The guide smiled, then chuckled, and then let out a loud, cruel, full-bodied, joyful shriek.
For the first and last time during the whole trip, her guide spoke.
THIS is godhood, girl.
And then in his final act of cruel guidance, he grabbed Kalina and dragged her, running full speed up the mountain. Kalina’s book, dutifully filled with the trip’s accounts, fell from her weakening grip and lay abandoned on the side of the road, another half-story never to be completed.
It all hurt. Kalina bounced over jagged rocks and stones, unable to bent around them or scream out from the intense pain she was in.
Kalina could not fight.
She could do nothing but accept her fate, for the closer she got to the mountain’s peak, the more the mountain’s golden halo wrapped around her skin.
She was becoming an idol.
Trapped within her own body, a casket for her dreams.
This was the dream, right?
They reached the top. Her captor was still laughing, unable to contain himself.
He loosed the girl and set her squarely on top of the mountain, in the midst tens of hundreds of other living idols
frozen in gold and cold.
Prisoners of their own ambitions, unable to move a muscle towards accomplishing what they had set out to do at the foot of the mountain.
Like her, they could only weep, hope, and pray that they would find an escape.
But there no hope of escape. None at all.
Forever now they would be worshipped worldwide, every day, on the peak of a mountain that little children would dream of climbing.
He set her to face the direction of her town so that she could hear the sounds of their praise and prayers for the rest of her life.
Forever they would speak her name, unaware that their calls were falling on helpless, frozen ears.
A tear escaped as she accepted her fate. Her captor looked her in the eye.
You’re welcome, he said, and was swallowed by the mist.
You’re welcome, the words echoed, as the cold of the mountain set in.
In retrospect, Debra only wanted a better life for her daughter, but as it goes with most runaways all Chrissy could think about was leaving as fast as possible. But it seemed that everything she tried to fold ran away through her fingers, or wrapped around her trembling wrists as if to tie them together in all-too-familiar bondage. She ripped and crumbled and bundled and grunted quietly until her bag was full, left a carefully planned note, and never saw her mother again.
Debra had no idea that Chrissy was gone. She had no idea that she even wanted to go. Chrissy’s perceived captor lay a wall away, breathing softly in a delicate ball, unaware that her whole world was leaving with her best suitcase.
Chrissy learned long ago that it was best not to disturb her mother’s sleep or sensibilities.
She learned long ago, and she learned quickly.
You shouldn’t be so fat, fat girls have a harder time getting married.
Why are you eating so fast? Like the food is running from you?
Please, make your voice softer, honey, try to make your voice gentle like your gentle face.
She would shove these things down into her soul, bury her mouth in whatever was in front of her, and never give a retort. This made her mother happy. This was the only way to make her mother happy.
One time, a long time ago, she answered back. She said, “I’m eating fast because I’m hungry!” Loudly and laughingly, little bits of food spilling out of the sides of her six-year-old mouth. “Um num num num!” Like she was a monster!
Stop that! And then a slap so hard that it still made her shudder, nearly seven years later as she chewed slowly (slower!) on the food in front of her.
Her mother Debra was the picture of a lady, one of the ones that you imagine when you say the word lady, yes, just like them. Did you see a prim woman, sitting upright in her seat with perfect posture and a tiny cup of hot tea that she manages to sip without slurping? Did you see beautifully slim ankles crossed over each other under a long, flowery skirt and over tastefully matching shoes?
On her island when she was young Debra was one of the fine girls. She went to one of the fine schools, better than the one her younger sisters attended because she was the eldest. One of those schools where the teachers were White and British and changed every year. Where people that looked like her were the maids that brought the hot tea that she was so good at sipping. One of those places that made young poor island girls want to shine their shoes and wash their petticoat in the river every day with good blue soap, then dry it carefully in the sun so that it could bleach white and stiff. One of those schools that makes you feel finer than everyone around you, a place you carry with you everywhere.
She was in charge of teaching her younger siblings the ways of the civilized, because their English was rough and their Patois too good for people living with such a refined sister. There were only three of them at first, then four and then five, because Grandpa was a man who measured his worth in children and how much dominion he had over his wife. She kept having girl after girl after girl. He died a very disappointed man.
They were little shits, even though Debra would never say shits even when she was very angry, though she was not above spelling it out loud. Chrissy knew when she was about to spell it; her lips would narrow and her nostrils would widen and in a low voice she would growl, “What is this S-H-I-T?!”
That’s when she was really, really mad.
The little S-H-I-T-S ran her ragged every day after school. When she tried to teach them how to walk they bent their legs and crawled like bugs on the dusty floor, leaving trails as they dragged their feet along. When she brought home forks to teach them how to eat with them they speared them into their pallets, or fought each with them like the warriors on TV, or took one at each end and tried to bend them into silver ovals that they could hang off of trees. They mocked her Queen’s English, her prim posture, and her crossed feet. They tugged at her bleached petticoats and stomped on her shoes and threw dirt in her hair until she forgot about her fine training and chased them through the yard, screaming spelled out curses at the top of her trained lungs. Try as she might, she should not tame them. Try as she might, they always managed to untame her.
So they grew up like true bush girls, finding uncouth men to sleep with who they met though their uncouth friends, some having wild children of their own, the kind no fine island girl would admit to being aunty to.
Debra knew young that she did not belong where she was. And so when she became 20 she took various secret jobs, teaching other bush children what she was fortunate enough to know, until she was able to leave for America when she turned 25.
She would not be like her rough sisters; the ones who refused to sit still enough to get their hair combed or learn a lesson. She would finally make her mother proud by sending home barrels of beautiful, fresh clothes with checks and cash hidden in the sleeves and pockets and hems, so that she would find some now, and later when she tried her new dress on for the first time she would find more for the matching shoes of her choice, and yet another day find just enough money in her dress pocket for good bread and hot green bananas when she went to market. Maybe she would forgive her for leaving, really forgive her, not the blank faced blessing she gave her after they fought about her leaving for weeks.
The dream would make up for all of that. This was the goal.
She had to remind herself of that when she stepped out of the airport into the cold, cold New York City air, colder than she ever though could ever be real. She repeated it to herself as she took a job as a cook at a Trinidadian restaurant that was willing to pay her under the table. The owner was a friend of her father’s, he said, and then gave her a place to stay and a way to earn money to keep it. She whispered the goal into the scary, lonely night as she laid under her thin sheets for days, weeks, months, years. She nearly lost hope in it as she waited longer and longer for her visa entry to be pulled for the green card lottery so that she could finally call her S-H-I-T hole home. She began to believe in it again when she met Justice, a beautiful doctor who fell in love with her cooking and the accent she tried to hide. She wrote a letter home when they eloped, “Mom, prepare space in the house, barrels and barrels of good things are coming your way!” She never got a response.
She sent pictures of him home to her sisters, who wrote back about how lucky she was to find a rich, good man, and how they should visit soon with their wild banshee children. She wrote back that would soon have a cousin to play with, because she had just found out that she was pregnant. She said give my happiness on to Mom, and kissed every letter before she sent it.
She did not write them about the rich women of America who treated her as if they didn’t recognize her Queen’s training.
She never discussed how crude and rough she felt when she was around them, and even when she was around him.
Or how they always pointed out what was different about her with plastic smiles, You sound so exotic, where are you from? And you’re skin is so dark it really makes that dress you are wearing pop, and have you ever tried caviar before, I find it so cute that you scrunch your face up when you drink wine, what do you drink in your country?
She didn’t talk about these women that confused her for the help at nearly every gathering she attended with her new husband, or that she felt like they laughed at her skirts and her tasteful matching shoes when she was not around.
Or that when she confused their questions for genuine curiosity and tried to answer them fully their eyes glassed over, and that suddenly she felt like an animal in a cage.
She didn’t tell them about the day the rich, beautiful doctor left her for one of them.
She never shared that he left his only daughter behind too.
She didn’t tell them that all of her schooling felt like it didn’t amount to anything, and that without the child support checks she was now barely afford to feed herself and her daughter, let alone send the barrels of clothes with hidden money home like she had promised.
No. Instead she sent them happy note after carefully written happy note on the back of pictures of Chrissy here, in a tutu and ballet slippers, and here she is writing in French for her French lessons, here she is again, look at her beautiful dark skin, smooth just like her father’s, and just look at how clean and white her petticoat is, isn’t she such a little lady, just like her mother. All of the pennies she got from him went to stories for these notes, and outfits for these pictures, and postage for the letters.
Chrissy was Debra’s America.
This was the reason for the ballet lessons at 3, and the tea lessons at 5, and the hard slaps to the head at 6 when Chrissy got mouthy. This is why Chrissy had to know about her unkempt hair, her flat feet, and her slumped posture. This is why Chrissy had to learn to be quiet, and learn how to be civilized. This is why she was corrected at every turn, every bite, every outfit, every friend. She was good at playing good. She was almost as good as her mother.
Debra didn’t know that Chrissy was also good at lying until she found the note on her bed. She didn’t realize she was gone until she looked through her beautiful clothes, like she had many times before, only to notice choice items missing. She collapsed onto the floor and wept in the way she had been taught not to, loudly and dramatically, letting the tears run down her face and her neck, pooling around her perfectly starched collar. They slowly absorbed into the cloth, staining it with the makeup they had collected on the way down.
It was the first time she had cried since Justice left.
Which was the first time she had cried since leaving for America, because after that she would never admit to herself that she missed home as much as she did.
But now home had gone, and it left a note saying that it was never coming back. And what a note too; Chrissy was as poetic as she was shrewd for she wrote on the back of the last picture Debra took back home, proudly smiling in the finest clothes she’d owned at the time, “This is you. This is not me.”
She wept and wept and wept, for all the years she had lost, for all the hope that was gone, for Justice, for Chrissy, for Grandma who never saw her again. She wept because she was alone, because she was lonely, because her wild bush girl sisters had each other and the island. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t breathe. Only cry and scream, for what felt like days.
She did not realize that she could feel so heavy and light all at once. Warm yet frozen still, curled around the picture she took with her so many years ago to remind her to never look back. She couldn’t leave Chrissy’s room. She didn’t want to. So she lay still, never moving for days and days wishing everything were different, wondering if Chrissy could feel her like she could feel her mother’s grief from across the ocean.
The quiet stillness of the passing days gave her time to think, time to wonder, time to wander. She could see her sisters rolling around happily in the dirt, little puffs of it kicking out from their dusty heels, which the island ground had hardened. She could see Grandma’s smile as she sent her to school each morning, and her peeking around the doorway as Debra would say repeat after me, more slowly now, look at my mouth as it makes the words.
And what was on Grandma’s face? It was an expression she had never seen before.
Had she never really looked at her? Because even now as she remember she saw her expression everywhere, when she washed her petticoat, when she shined her shoes, when she waved goodbye?
How could she have missed it?
Maybe she had been running her whole life, too fast past her shame, too fast into the arms of the unknown. She had never seen the love in her mother’s eyes until this memory, this hazy hallucination, the one she had while laying on Chrissy’s bed, still as night, for days and weeks as grief sipped her life away.
Some say there is brilliant clarity in the end, if you are lucky enough to know it. And if you are even luckier, there is a stubby pencil within arm’s reach. If you are the luckiest there is a back of a goodbye picture where you can scrawl,
She had stopped in her home bathroom, then at the car, and now she stood outside of the bar, balking once again.
Who did she think she was, anyway?
She turned around just in time to see her Uber driver pull off. She was in it now. She touched up her miniskirt and entered, her walk full of feigned confidence.
She would often forget her place here, while drinking among the elites.
The elites, white men, the ones she had learned about but never was allowed to touch and was afraid to look at, and now here she sat, guzzling stronger and stronger drinks and making jokes they laughed at with their whole chests.
She had had more contact with them than people that looked like her were allowed. Comfort at her level was uncommon, which both made her a welcome anomaly and quite uneasy at once.
She played the part well, very well, when drunk, curious, and intrusive white men touched her, or cornered her, or insulted her while laughing into their Yaeger bombs.
It had been a long journey to this bar. No one could know that without having a sit down and a tea.
A long journey to be able to lightly giggle and brush off the casually racist jokes, or more the blatant sexist ones.
Awkwardly replying, “um, thank you…” When they announced their secret, apparently forbidden attraction to black women.
Expertly side-stepping the questions about her hair, or her ass, or where she learned to dance like that.
Playing the part so well that her performance earns her an invite to brunch the next day.
Feeling passively accepted. Forgetting to feel like she didn’t belong. Hearing “you’re cool” and reveling in it.
She was so ashamed at how good if felt to hear that. Fuck them for making her realize that she secretly wanted their approval.
It’s funny how much she had wanted this, to be here, and funnier how much she hated it now that she was.
Cool enough to eat at the cool kids table.
To move through a sea of white, a lone spot of melanin, nearly feeling them wonder why she was chosen.
Side eyeing the side eyes undoubtably questioning her worthiness.
Her friend Tony was no more than arms-distance away from her the entire night. His closeness offered her a strange feeling comfort, though she suspected that the purpose of her invite was ulterior.
For the night, however, he was all she had.
Plus, he’d bought her two drinks so right now, at least, he was an ally.
His friends were friendly enough, crop-cut and carefree.
Of course they were.
They asked her what her drink was. She answered “whiskey, straight up.” And smiled back when they looked impressed. So she sipped it ceremoniously, even though it was bottom-shelf, and even though she was nervous enough to down it like a shot.
It was a narrow bar, shaped like a long hallway. It was impossible to pass through the crowd without making full body contact with at least five unwilling strangers. It was full of sticky heat that ran down the center of her back, pooling on the top of Tony’s hand which was resting on her naked lower back.
TV was probably the culprit, isn’t is always? Because she was adventurous and too curious for her own good she had found herself all alone in a big city for two years, of which at least a collective 18 months was spent watching her Netflix account. It knew her so well at this point, suggesting more light comedies around carefree groups of white friends where color didn’t exist at all.
Light comedies that were never interrupted by oppression, or being poor, or crippling anxiety and depression that seemed impossible to climb out of.
Who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t give up all that they were in order to be invited?
She missed her black friends, and black friends in general. She never quite fit into the narrow Black women tropes that her friend groups tried to emulate. She didn’t gossip enough, snap enough, fuck enough, pray enough. But she missed them. Even though she’d always wanted something else, too.
What else, she wasn’t sure.
To play the token?
Tony’s hand was still resting on the small of her back 1.5 drinks in. It relaxed her. Maybe it shouldn’t have. But if he thought she was sexy then she had a little power, and the more powerful, the safer.
Maybe this is what it was like. Having a little power, all the time. Maybe this is what she had been reaching for the whole time, and was sacrificing her lower back to get.
She adjusted her sequined miniskirt, distracted for a second by the flecks of light reflecting around the otherwise dark room.
A friendly bartender has brought her a large, pink drink in a frosted glass that she didn’t order.
The Panty Dropper! She’d exclaimed, ignoring how painful those horrible words escaping her mouth felt.
She hated what acceptance did to her hardened principles.
she didn’t even belong here. She must make some concessions.
The bartender, a slim girl, looked surprised as she stammered in agreement. Her eyes were full of judgement.
But she is lily white, thin, and gorgeous. She doesn’t have to understand.
So she stood there, with her pink drink and miniskirt, listening to her drinking buddies try to out un-racist one another. She sighed through her strained smile.
She stared down into the glass as she took a long sip.
His hand was moving down now. She ignored it.
Took another sip.
Now he seemed to grab her with expectation.
She forced a giggle.
A clear invitation, he would trumpet in court months later, standing behind his lion of a lawyer.
He asked how the drink was. He told her he had sent it. Her definitely not racist drinking buddies all laughed.
Her empathic nod of appreciation would prove “knowledge of intent”, or in layman’s terms, she was fully awake that she was being drugged.
Probably wanted it, why else would she wear that tiny disco ball as a skirt?
You know these hot black girls.
They are hungry for a party.
She just wanted an in. And it dangled in front of her that night, closer than it had ever been.
That’s why she didn’t try to leave when the room started blurring,
and then spinning,
and then tilting.
She learned on him. It was an implied request for support, not intent! her lawyer would argue loudly, as she sobbed quietly behind her.
Just like that night, she would put on makeup and her best clothes, change her hair three times, wonder if her lipstick was too much.
She would stop in the mirror
Then at the car
Then at the door.
She would pass the eyes that wondered why she deserved to be there
And ones that come up with their own reasons why.
Everything was the same as that night.
Before he waited for her gulp it down
Watched her relax
And grinned to his friends as he asked for a dance.
Just like that night, she would tug at her skirt as another white man decided whether she was worth her own dignity
or the trouble.
The strange group of people that lived on the waterfront had been there for decades, or centuries now, according to some stories.
They were so good at dunking their heads into the sand at any sign of trouble that they barely felt the grains scratching against their eyeballs anymore.
They became fast at it, too. At every light breeze or floating leaf, down they would dive headlong into the gritty blackness, pretending to be safe from the changes around them.
They were a large group. They took up nearly the whole beach; thousands and thousands of varied bodies and colors. It was a beautiful to see. A faraway bystander or passerby could marvel at the sight while scurrying by, hopefully, because the whole place was very dangerous if one was paying close attention.
When they were new to the place, they looked fresh and new. There were rumors that they arrived on the shores in ferryboats, and other rumors that life rafts floated up, full of these bewildered creatures, who promptly stepped onto dry land for the first time in months and refused to venture out again.
Some said they all came at once. Some said they came over months and years. Either way, there they were, day after day the same, refusing to build or to move or to grow.
In reality, no one could explain how so many foreigners ended up living next to a pond that they claimed to have never seen before.
Thousands of beautiful people.
All standing still.
It was a tumultuous place, this beach. High winds hit it frequently, bringing sharp branches or high waves, depending on the direction they decided to blow.
Fast winds that could “drive a needle through a tree trunk” as my mother used to say, although I suspect exaggeration.
Dangerous winds that could certainly drive a stake through the air, through another branch,
even a soft body refusing to leave the sand, whether you could believe that or not.
The beach people chose to not.
Instead, they lived huddled together, battered and bruised from the wind and turmoil.
Close to this crowded beach was a small town.
The townspeople, unabused, and privileged folk, were during their leisure time able to develop methods of protection and soon after, detection of the storm winds and weight.
When the townschildren became the townspeople they discovered heavier and stronger materials to build their houses with,
and their children discovered ways to make these materials cheaper and lighter.
On and on for generations this practice improved and protected the lives and livelihoods of the townspeople, causing them to become a very prosperous town in their own right.
Almost once a day, important people from the town would make the trip to the beach, both out of wonderment and concern. Many times they would just peek, but on days when the town alarm shouted “DANGER!” in bell tones they would meekly and politely announce: “Beach people! You are welcome to take shelter from the impending storm in our town, which has generous space for shelter!”
Every time, the beach people would argue back,
“We have planted here and we will die here, if that is what the winds decide.” And then, as if that was the cue, thousands of heads would disappear into tiny sand dunes, leaving thousands of purposeless necks next to folded bodies that undoubtedly shivered, but did not move.
The nervous townsperson would leave.
The storm would rage.
And when the rain cleared, everything went back to the same, save the twenty to thirty skewered souls scattered around the beach, or blown into the town, or taken out over the water without a trace.
And so, after every storm there was a period of loud wailing that echoed up into the town and bounced off of the cheap, affordable, strong walls of their houses.
Such was the tradition.
A tiring, draining, mournful tradition.
Those have a way of driving us to insanity.
And so, as time went on, the wailings became more and more lonesome.
The explanation for the deaths more and more final.
The beach people had found a new, more satisfying way to deal with their dwindling numbers; a new way to blame the freshly dead.
They deserved it. They had to have. Otherwise
why would the wind decide to take one and not the other?
Now, instead of groaning together, loved ones and friends would cry quietly for hours, hidden away from the rest of the beach, as to not to reveal their relation to the deserving fool. The dead, unburied out of shame, would rot where they fell.
This is how it was now.
The townspeople had stopped trying. They had heard stories too.
Stories about the ignorance of the beachfolk, the cruel stories they told for comfort, and the hopelessness of reaching out to them.
There was a semblance of peace for years, each side believing that they could coexist in ignorance of the other. Townspeople stopped visiting the pond, inside building ducts to bring them the water they needed. Waterfront folks stopped getting any goods from the town, instead developing a way of life around what they could fashion with what was around them.
Their delusions and hubris grew generation after generation, as their distance, as did their distain.
As did the wayward bodies that scattered after every swell.
Those bodies, flipped so carelessly about, began rotting into the ground beneath them.
The toxins that poured from green limbs and blackened skin began to seep into the river, and flow through the ducts, into palms and the water glasses, and then into the delicate systems of unsuspecting, stubborn people.
With each gulp they damned themselves further, and the poison, with no respect of station or location, began to eat away at their insides.
It was months before anyone even noticed. The weakest of them faltered first, withering slowly over weeks and weeks before finally collapsing into a purple heap, a literal shell of themselves.
The townspeople, as was their nature, began to ask questions and conduct research. The beachfolk, true to their nature, shrugged off the deaths, referred to their existence as “dead weight” and continued happily on with their lives.
So more died.
Frantic now, scientists in the town conducted experiments on everything they could think of; the food that grew there and the food they imported, the brains and bodies of the deceased folk, the air, and finally, the water. There is where they found remnants of the beachfolk who had deserved their due.
They had solved problem, after months of mourning and studying and worrying, it had been so simple.
Shrieks of relief emanated from the lab where they had spent the last several weeks. The poisoning would stop by simply properly burying the dead beachfolk, and adding a medicine to the water for the next few weeks as the toxins filtered themselves out.
It would save thousands, maybe millions of lives. And it was so, so easy.
Two scientists, delirious with fatigue and excitement raced towards the shore to share the solution.
They stumbled over their feet and their words as they loudly addressed the beachfolk with the good news, “We’ve found the source of the poison! It’s the water!” then, with hands shaking with excitement, “here is a solution we concocted to cleanse the water, and you may take advantage of our assistance in burying those already dead!”
“We will NOT use your manmade elixir in our natural water,” the beachfolk retorted as if they had sole usership. “How are we to know that this here isn’t a poison that will make things worse?”
The scientists were too stunned to answer.
“Further more,” the eldest of them continued, “those who died lightened the load for us, they weren’t pulling their weight; they were lazy, and that is why they were taken.”
For the beachfolk, it had seemed so simple all along. For them, this was it, this was all. Any new information, no matter how helpful it claimed to be, was to be viewed as a threat to their way of life.
Try as they might, the scientists could not convince these people otherwise. The beachfolk chose to clutch to their beliefs that made them feel safe, even though it put Every fact was met with suspicion. Attempts to expound were waved off, and finally, the scientists, diplomatic folk, walked away from the meeting downtrodden and defeated.
You see, with diplomatic folk, decisions must be arrived at peacefully.
Those who worship peace and are accustomed to privilege are raised to believe that things will work themselves out, given enough reason and enough time.
For them most of the time, this is how it goes.
Those who are privileged with enough leisure time to further themselves in believe that justice and reason will prevail, and that emotion and disruption are counterproductive.
They aren’t used to the ruthless, they aren’t familiar with those dedicated to ignorance
or those who will follow that ignorance to their demise, and to the detriment of those around them, if that is a side effect.
Not until the very worst has happened
Until just a few stragglers remain on both sides
Until people are dropping around them and they feel they might be next
that the cultured and refined realize that yes, drastic messy action have value.
Drastic actions, like gathering all the decaying bodies they could find under the cover of night and burying them in a lot miles away.
Dastardly things like secreting treating the water in the pond, every night, over weeks.
Shocking things, like confronting and discrediting the eldest among them.
Sneaky things, like lying when confronted by the few surviving beachfolk.
Terrible things, like killing those who caught on to them.
Despicable things. Unspeakable things.
Things that people with civilized breeding would never do
Her fingers rapped the rhythm of the music that commanded her hips.
The base of his neck was her drum.
There was something about the way he ran his hands down her sides as they swayed
As they rocked
As they flowed through crowded dance floor with nary a worry.
His mouth was liquid that poured into hers
Palms pressed underneath her chin
or clutched at her naked waist
or pressed against her ass at it moved in time with his quickening pulse
until their bodies seemed to vibrate into each other, and the entire world fell away.
It was just supposed to be dinner and a dance
with drinks in between.
During the day, they were both delightfully noncommittal and decidedly driven.
During the day, they were both attuned with their dreams and ambitions alone.
During the day they chuckled at the lovelorn, comforted by delicious judgment
the sense of security that comes with unattachment.
Their first meeting happened out of convenience, as it often goes for the professionally overwhelmed; both, while chasing their own ambitions, stumbled into each other’s path.
They were only meant to pass each other, undeterred.
But one, out of equal parts rebellion and curiosity, asked the other; “Would you like to go out sometime?”
To which the other, out of equal parts boredom and sexual frustration answered, “Sure.”
And it was decided.
Dinner and a dance.
And maybe some drinks in between.
They exchanged phone numbers, parted ways, and nearly forgot about each other. Were it not for their impressive time management skills, their phones would not have simultaneously dinged two days before the date, prompting a frenzy in both of them that neither can ever be expected to admit to.
He was wearing something his tailor advised him to wear.
She was wearing something a magazine had described as “tastefully sexy”.
They meet up on a busy street in the middle of the dirty city they called home. It was a safe, sensible location with a bar close by to wait inside of in case of bad weather.
They approached each other. Gave the appropriate compliments and shared a respectable hug.
Ignored the electricity in their chests when their skin touched.
“Shall we call a cab, then?”
At dinner they made small talk drier than stale bread, nearly choking on the gulps of wine they took while the other wasn’t looking.
They made comments on the meal’s lightness and complimented the sommelier, even though they both wished for something stronger.
They joked about the date’s awkwardness.
They joked about how dancing was probably a terrible idea for a first date.
Made the obligatory “two left feet” reference.
Skipped out on dessert. Both lied about being on a diet.
“Another cab, then?” even though they both longed to recoil separately into their respective lives, rinse the bitter taste of conformity out of their mouths, and go back to being above everyone else.
It was competition that overcame the fright of closeness, if we are to have an honest moment. Competition with each other, and with the moment, and with the wild beating of their hearts every time their eyes met for too long.
The hyper ambitious are to be overcome by nothing less than death, and certainly not disobedient bodies that inch close to each other in the back seat of the taxi. The driven are not to be distracted by their nervousness, nor be allowed to cave in under their insecurities, nor be allowed to be frightened away by intense physical attraction that ruins regular people.
No, people that are meant to be great anchor themselves to their seats and chat politely about the weather and the stock market. They tip the cab driver and thank him for fast service. They compliment the other’s choice of venue as they approach the throbbing club, comment about young folks music, leave their jackets at the coat check and order fine bourbon at the bar.
They certainly do not order a second glass.
They absolutely do not allow its smoothness to erode their carefully constructed walls.
They don’t begin to subtly sway as they shout over the music, leaning into each other to catch drowning words.
They don’t lightly touch each other’s arms, or lower backs, or tops of hands.
They don’t abandon their drinks at the bar, and then, hand in hand, move to the dance floor.
Tonight, the music was lord and the rhythm, their master.
And so, as if in reverence, they closed their eyes
and for the first time all night, saw each other.
Skin to skin.
Hips to hips.
Palm to palm.
Lips to lips.
The floor disappeared.
The crowd faded away.
And suddenly, despite being pressed together, their bodies seemed to impede their closeness.
In the vibrations that surrounded them
walls, clothes, palms, bodies
seemed to melt away
leaving their naked souls free to intertwine and tangle impossibly together.
They could feel it, as they danced that hot, tiny club, surrounded by regular people who they were starting to look identical to.
It was happening so quickly and profoundly that they did not feel themselves worthy to stop it.
During the day, this would not have been the case.
During the day, they would have been smarter than to let this happen.
During the day, sobriety would have guarded their soft hearts and made sure their defenses were intact.
as the music commanded
they fell in sync
they fell in line
and they fell in love.
The music stopped and they opened their eyes, and tried to untangle the knot they had become.
Once again, respectability had overcome them.
And so, one did not ask to go home with the other, and the other did not dare plant a deep kiss on the one.
Instead they rushed to their coats, he, chivalrously placing hers about her shoulders, fighting the urge to push his face into the back of her neck,
her, fighting the urge to fall into his chest and count his breaths as it rose and fell.
And so they parted.
Back to their lives, and away from each other, back to worship the elitism that placed them above regular people with feelings
and with hearts
and with souls.
Far away from the feeling of vulnerability.
The same elitism that kept them from ever working up the courage to call each other ever again.
Elitism that helped them ignore the tugging on hearts that they tried to forget they had.
Hearts attached to souls they would never claim.
Souls still tangled together where they had danced, stretching into flexible strands that ran in opposite directions, and seemed to grow more taut every day.
Strands tethered to two people who moved in fast-forward, and hopelessly tasked with compelling them to rewind.
It is getting dark and so I decide to turn around and go home.
I have on the hiking boots my Dad advised me to buy, the coat my friend recommended, and the phone my roommate gave me before I left my house.
I am walking and I am cold, and the ground seems to be getting soft around me, but I am still ok.
I hear crying.
I follow the sound.
There is another girl, skinner than me, with large frantic eyes.
“Don’t just stand there! Help me!” and so I step one-booted foot forward and brace the other one on a nearby tree. She grabs my hand. I pull her out.
She isn’t dressed as smartly as I am. She has sneakers on and a windbreaker.
Now I am stuck. I stretch my hand.
She tries to pull me out. She braces herself the same way I did.
She isn’t strong enough.
She says are you ok to wait while I go get help?
I am not. But I lie and say that I am.
She runs off. I am freezing. My ankles are almost completely covered and the mud will be in my boots soon.
A man walks by. He compliments my jacket.
My dad recommended I say.
He asks about the material and the cost. I indulge him. Then I ask him for a hand.
He seems disgusted. I have on a nice jacket and I don’t even seem that panicked. I could probably pull myself out if I had utilized my resources better.
Maybe a rope instead of that nice jacket, then he walks off in a huff.
The mud is in my shoes now. My socks are soaked.
The skinny girl is back. She is in different, warmer clothes now, and she has girl who looks like her at her side.
I reach out my hand.
Oh! She says as my request for help apparently surprised her. She hands me a sweater. It is fuzzy and pink and has her name on it. I take it, but I am not sure what I am supposed to do with it.
To keep you warm, she says.
Can you help me get out?
She looks at me. She looks back at her friend. They both roll their eyes.
Then form a chain, brace themselves against the tree, and reach a lethargic arm towards me.
I grab. They pull. I hold on tight.
Ouch! And then they both let go of me.
She hurt her arm! Why did you have to hold on so hard?!
I am apologizing profusely. I offer to look at it. I offer a Band-Aid from my pack.
She snatches it away from me, calls me a bully, and storms off.
I feel hopeless. The mud will be covering my knees soon.
I let myself sink. I deserve it. I should not have held on so hard. I’m cursing myself and freezing and now I’m in up to my waist.
I reach for the pink sweater. It’s stretchy, and I am strong, and so it’s long enough to wrap around an overhanging tree branch. I throw it once, then again, and then finally success! as it wraps around securely. I hold on tight. I use all my upper body strength. I’m moving! My hips are free! I pull and pull and pull.
What the hell are you doing!! An exasperated voice behind me screams out. I am too hopeful to look up.
That’s not what it’s made for!! And then an angry man and woman appear, climb the tree next to me, shimmy down the branch my lifeline is connected to, and cut right through the sleeve.
That. Is. NOT. What it is made for. Then snaps his pocketknife shut under the approving eye of his wife.
Always misusing resources. She spits on to the ground near me. I imagine she was aiming for me.
I do not reach my arm out. These people obviously do not mean to help me.
I just want them to leave as soon as possible so that I figure out a new escape. The mud is at my waist again.
They are lingering. I swear my demise is funny to them.
My next three attempts at assistance are thwarted by them;
She didn’t tell us she was in trouble! She must want to use you!
Anyone could get themselves out of this hole! She’s just lazy!
When we walked up she was tearing up some poor girl’s sweater! Are you sure you want to help someone who abuses their resources?
Until I am up to my chin. Then a brave person walks by.
He’s covered in mud up to his chin, as if freshly rescued from my very plight.
Shuts the couple up. Thank God. The mud will be in my nose soon and then I will surely drown.
He says I’ve been there. I know what you are going though.
Ignores their protests. Braces himself. Reaches a muddy arm towards me.
I can reach him. I can grab him, but the fresh mud on his arm is slippery and I can’t hold on.
He calls more people. They too, look freshly rescued.
They link. They brace. They reach. I grab!
They pull and pull and pull!
I’m up to my neck!
Everyone is slippery. The ground is slippery. Dry people have come for the show. None of them lend a hand.
Sometimes, they even taunt our efforts. I pray that this does not daunt my saviors.
Two or three give up. This is too hard, they say. They join the dry people in their teasing.
DON’T STOP PULLING!
I need a break. I’m up to my waist and want to stop. But I don’t dare speak up.
The dry people and some of the formerly muddy people start throwing things at me. They want to me stay in the mud, maybe even die. They start fights with the people helping me.
I still hold on for dear life.
My knees are freed.
I begin to kick my legs around, in the greedy mud. I will be completely free soon.
I can nearly feel the dry land under my feet, finally.
Then someone has an axe.
I still do not know where it came from.
They chopped down the tree that steadied my lifeline.
My support is useless. Everyone is too tired to hold on and too slippery to hold onto.
We all fall, nearly at once, as the dry people riot around us, attacking those who would dare to get up, throwing the unsuspecting into the hole with me, screaming with glee.
The ones that are too strong die, their bodies mangled with the axe edge.
The ones that are too weak run, or sit in the mud waiting to drown.
The goes on all night. In the morning the scene is bleak.
I have managed, through my exhaustion, to keep my upper body above ground.
A group of morning hikers see me. They have ropes and good boots and warm coats.
They are here because they heard my sobs.
I ask for help.
They say I am sensitive and ungrateful. They say, at least you are not dead like your friends.
I haven’t eaten in days.
I am delirious with fatigue.
I am strong, because if I am not, then I am dead.
There is no more low hanging branch, or pink sweater, or group of people to help me. I cannot reach anything stable.
I have no choice but to wait for another person, and plead with them for help.
The mud is at my chest now. It pushes back as I heave.
You are building the basement first, instead of just a foundation, because of the extra storage and security.
You don’t have a lot of help. In fact, you don’t have a lot of resources at all. Only the mud around you, and you patiently shape that into block-shaped lumps, and let them dry.
You make 5, then 10, and one day 100 bricks, and then more and more, over weeks and weeks, each one marked with hundreds of your fingerprints, which are getting smoother by the minute.
You begin to stack them now, block on precarious block. When one or two dash to the ground and shatter, you cry, for sure; how will this house ever stand?
Quickly followed by
What other choice do I have?
And resolved with
Maybe I’ll just build a small house, yes, that’s it. One that I can improve on when resources are better.
This is reasonable. You go back to spending your days shaping wet mud and stacking dried mud until you have a grand, underground structure, 20x20x9 ft, which is very large considering you are just one person and you have been basically building this building with your back.
A townswoman comes by. You have seen her before. She has an unsettling way about her; it feels like she is always watching, and always knows something that you don’t. The people in the town whisper about her from time to time, in fact, there are whispers that she is an omen.
You feel a shadow fall onto your soul as she approaches.
You smile nervously to relieve it. It seems to make her advance faster.
You are building your home, she knows before you never tell her.
It is weak, but it will do.
You should make stairs, she advises right away and before you never ask her.
Make a roof, stop building, and live in this beautiful hole in the ground you’ve made.
It is small, but it should hold both you and your ego. And now she is smiling a sinister smile that suddenly makes you feel sick.
You lie about having to hunt for dinner. She leaves.
When you are sure she is gone, you make a ceiling out of criss-crossed long branches packed with mud.
There is water seeping in everywhere.
The rain is a bitch.
You vow to never smile again.
You found a saw today.
You look at the trees around you with new eyes. They are no longer just shade and food, no, they are now a medium for the ideas in your head, a channel for your ambition.
You go for the small trees because after all, you are only one person. They fall to your will, they bend to your force, they acquiesce to your vision.
But not without a fight.
They bite and tear away at your skin. They whip at your joints as if to cripple you. They fall to the ground, quivering, aching for your life, the feeble branches reaching for your heaving neck.
You win. You fashion a mortar from mud and sap, as if to mark your victory, stacking beam on top of precarious beam.
Your first floor is coming together. Your reality and your dreams are beginning to meet. The old woman has been watching you from afar, which you don’t notice, because the only thing you can see is your future.
Her face is so twisted and unusual that she startles you when you turn around.
Hello. You remember not to smile.
Your greeting goes unheeded as she inspects your handiwork.
She clicks her tongue.
She laughs to herself.
You can feel your heart jump.
You should have just stayed in the basement, she seems to sneer. Another laugh. The abrupt silence as she looks right through you, and you know that her every word is loaded.
This time you have to walk away from her completely in order for her to leave you alone, and even then she only goes away because she can’t keep up with you.
You are lonely.
You used to be able to walk the four corners of your house and your pride would keep you company, but of late, no such luck.
A lover, perhaps. One that could appreciate you as much as you do.
Your choice is simple and impressionable, and immediately wooed by how spacious your main floor is. Their own house is a dank cave. They become your fan and your spouse and move in immediately. You are a perfect match.
You prove the house and the ego.
They provide the furniture and the admiration.
Large, stone pieces of furniture that you learn they have fashioned by hand, a skill they learned out of the desperation for comfort, like yourself.
They. Can. Cut. Stone. A whole new world has opened up. You could almost feel the moment it happened.
Your excitement is visible in both your face and your pants, and enthusiastic consummation happens on the spot, on top of the crudely carved stone bed.
A stone bed that makes light work of your shoddy first floor.
You cut and shape the stone together, lovingly and yet determinedly, cutting thousands before a month has passed. You stack together, you work together. You fall in love with your home together.
The second floor is done. The two of you light a flame in the fireplace you’ve built at the bottom of your bed.
The sticks around your house are crackling.
She is back. You can feel the nervous darkness creeping over you.
There is a faint knock at the door, and then it opens, and then she is in your house without permission, running a jagged finger over a chair, and a side table, and the banister next to the stairs that lead up to your newest edition.
Wood is beautiful, but it has its limits, she mutters as she intrudes deeper and deeper.
She twists her face at you. You look away.
She leaves without being asked.
You notice the floor seems creakier that it was the day before.
Your pride does not keep you warm tonight.
Your love does not keep you warm tonight.
Nothing seems to keep you warm tonight.
You are so, so happy.
In your many years you have picked up many skills, and now watch the passersby up from a third floor fashioned from metalworking.
You will sometimes sit in your front yard in the dark and listen to them exclaim the wonders of your house.
The most magnificent house probably anywhere!
When the town paper comes to interview you, you are ready with all the answers; your humble beginnings, your immense talent, how fast you learn and how satisfied you are.
When you talk, you rub at your building scars and wince when people reach for you. When you listen, you puff up, stifling a prideful smile.
People look up to you.
People want to be like you. You are kind of a hero, according to what you tell yourself every night as you drift off to sleep.
You occasionally see the old woman, only every once in a while, hobbling past with a hidden face.
Too embarrassed and hateful to look up. Her sinister warnings had been unnecessary.
You sometimes stand on the enormous balcony you built and meet her walk with a smug smile, which she seems unaffected by.
Everything is so good. Everything is so perfect. Everyone loves you. Nothing will ever go wrong.
Storms aren’t new.
Fear isn’t either.
Neither is nervous comments said under the breath of people who shuffle past in envy.
Even when you can’t hear them you can imagine what they are saying (perhaps, a projection of your own well-founded insecurity); wishing that a tall tree would take out your legacy, or that a strong wind would blow it over, or a host of other things that will bring you down to their level.
And so, even though these clouds look angrier than usual, and even though people are rushing by without even looking up at your live-in masterpiece, you are not worried.
You are calm when it starts to rain.
You are calm when it keeps raining.
You don’t worry when your spouse suggests you both pack, even though you shut the thought down immediately.
When they go, hitching a ride with the next door neighbors, you are annoyed at their lack of faith.
You sit down on the shaming consummation bed. You hear the panic from the ground far below. You feel invincible. You feel superior.
You only being to register alarm when, alone in your mansion, you feel the building slip.
Yes, you felt that right. Your tower is at least six inches shorter.
A foot shorter.
Your multi-material palace is sinking into the ground, because water plus dried mud brick equals sludge, and sludge surrenders to metallic, wooden, stone palaces filled with ego.
Your legacy is sinking into oblivion.
Your confidence will not let you feel fear
To your detriment.
And so you climb your fortress above the fray, to the top floor, and now, to the ceiling, and now, onto the roof.
This is your house, you think, and you would rather die that leave it behind, until you might actually die if you don’t leave it behind, and you are forced to abandon years and years of sweat, work, memories.
Gone. A disgraceful mess in the ground.
You begin to walk. Your pride would not let you grab anything from your home before it sank and so your hands are free. They slap your sides as you go, edging you out of your numbness.
You come to a clearing.
There she is, standing in the center, as if waiting for you.
She knows. She knows SHE KNOWS.
She does not have to say anything. Her very presence mocks you.
You advance and she does not.
The skin around her neck bunches up around your fingers as you squeeze the pain and shame from your heart.
You are killing her, even as you damn yourself.
You can feel her windpipes struggle against you, yet she does not fight.
Her eyes remain calm as your rage consumes you.
You prevail, and she spills over into a lifeless heap on the wet ground.
The rain is falling softly now, as if the sky is almost empty.
You are surrounded by no one and nothing except mud.
You quickly get on your knees and begin forming lumps into bricks.
You smooth fingerprints are joined by lazy water droplets, making their mark before evaporating again.
It was a joke, a mix between her mother’s name, Jane, and her father’s name, Darell. A cute joke that turned sick when on her 3rd birthday he kissed her on the forehead and never returned.
That bastard, her mom said, couldn’t even wait until we cut the cake.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that she caught another glimpse of him outside of every look in the mirror, and every pronunciation of her name. The family he abandoned her for, the one he built when she was 15 years old and seemed to model after the Cosbys was gingerly seating themselves in her living room. A woman, her two daughters, and a son. In other words, her half siblings, although she wouldn’t dare call them that to their faces.
She sat in her favorite chair as they pretended to get comfortable on her couch, the one with the faded flowers that her deceased mother had covered in plastic. She offered them Oreo sandwich cookies and coffee. They declined.
The conversation was stiff and brief.
Did she have a job?
No education, no passions, no future
Of course he left.
She’d ask her mother for her father every day.
Where is Daddy? To her diary he still went by that name.
The answer changed as the years dragged by; he went to the army, he went to New York, he’s in Atlanta now
And most importantly, he isn’t coming back.
Let it go.
Half of her DNA and namesake.
Let it go.
We don’t need that dusty nigga no way, Jane would spit, even though her tone suggested that she didn’t believe those words herself.
She’d heard stories about girls like her.
Girls without fathers need male approval.
Girls without father hate men.
Girls without fathers are easy.
Yo daddy prolly ain’t around ‘cause yo mama chased him away.
Girls without fathers never recover from the pain of abandonment.
And the lazy “She’s got Daddy issues.”
She’d heard stories of dads that didn’t leave too.
The ones that protected their little girls from nasty little boys
And predatory men
And teachers that were too strict or that put their hands on her.
If there were a Dad
Maybe there wouldn’t have to be Daddies
In gotdamn silk shirts and fedoras, tellin her how fine her mama was, or that she looked so much like her. Which, by the way, was inaccurate according to her half-family, who told her that she looked more like her father then they did.
Suppose they would know.
The men she dated took care of her; they gave her money for the kids they had together and went out for a nice dinner every now and then. They were handsome and they made her friends jealous until things inevitable fell apart.
They were nice, good men.
Too good to stay, too predictable to surprise her.
Break ups were always clean because Janell never expected much to begin with.
The child support payments were always reliable, and her favorite chair always cradled her as she cried herself to sleep in it for weeks afterwards.
By her third child she wasn’t sure who she was crying over anymore.
Three girls. Almost the same age as the haughty ones eyeing her meager accommodations.
Why are you here, again?
Because of a check. We have money for you.
Not an apology, not a hug, not a hot plate or an explanation. Just a flat envelope with her name scribbled on the front, delivered by his preferred family because 44 years later he was still a 20-year-old coward.
There were a lot of zeros in the check. Nearly all he owned.
They had made him do it.
For penance? Because of responsibility?
Out of the spite of living with a highly judgmental man who was hiding an abandoned daughter?
Thank you for having us, her half family said, and they sat in awkward silence for at least 15 minutes, every once in a while interrupting it with a question, or answering one of hers.
What do you do?
I’m a nurse.
I’m an author.
I am studying engineering.
Are any of you married?
Yes, for two years now. We decided he should wait to meet you.
The family and the half-family sat and looked at each other for a thousand evers.
Then someone cleared their throat and everyone had to go, so they all shook her hand and left together. Their heels clattered down the broken sidewalk, then there was a long pause, and then a door slam as the car started.
A note and a check and four warm dents in her couch, and not much else.
The note said pathetically, “I hope that you are doing ok.”
That’s all he had to say. The man who walked away with half of her and replaced the entire memory of her with them.
She stared at the piece of paper, then sat next to it, then screamed at it, then slept with it that night.
In an odd way, the meeting and the note were cathartic and final.
Where is Daddy?
Still running from his mistakes.
Still trying to make his perfect family perfect again by doing what they say
And nothing more.
What a good father they must have thought he was before she came along
Looking out for them and pushing them to be better than the people he knew before them
Than the person he made before them.
He must have taught them how to speak plainly and kindly so that people assume your pedigree and are nice to you.
He must have helped them write essays and fill out college applications.
Taught them how to swim and gave them music lessons.
He took her worth and gave it to them. Before she even started Kindergarten.
How could her half-family be so cruel
as to show up
Be so much like him
Be loved by him
Be the epitome of good, Christian breeding
While she was sad, and unhappy behind her smile, scraping by with no hope for change?
40 years since he looked her
and he couldn’t even fucking show up?
All he’d left her was his face
a family worth abandoning her for
and the note that didn’t care how she was doing at all.
She had been the key to everything. The key to his whole life.
Now, in her death, there seemed to be no end to her silent torment.
Maybe she was an aberration concocted by his anxiety of constantly falling short.
Probably. That was probably it.
Or maybe her wild spirit had been quieted by her oppressive surroundings, always shushing her and shooing her into silence. Maybe now free of that body, and free of visibility, she was allowed to do whatever she truly desired.
Maybe Markie just drank too much, in the mornings and in the middle of the day
And just a few sips before bed
To quiet the very demon the drinking brought on
Or was it the other way around?
She never went away.
She sat next to a young girl on the train today.
I still got it, I bet and Markie flexed his arms and puffed out his chest.
It had worked on Maria, back when she was alive and insecure, not now that she was this heaving, prideful beauty, with large mirror eyes.
You are a shriveled up old man, Markie they said.
The girl looked up once, then back down at the electronic tablet she was reading from.
Fuck these kids and their distractions today anyway.
The mirror eyes reflected a bitter, out of touch, lump of a man.
His wife cackled.
Yesterday she was right next to him, resting her chin on his shoulder, whispering bitter nothings into his ear.
Sweet nothings were dead between them, in more ways that one.
Work sometimes made him feel useful.
I’m really handy, I can do any work around the house and whatever you need, that’s my promise, here are my rates. Into the mirror, later to be recited on the phone where the potential client he was wooing couldn’t see his sagging skin quiver with his ego.
He could nearly feel her snickering as he examined his deterioration.
Never speaking. Never really needing to.
Never first. Never the best. Never enough.
Markie’s chest was softer than when she used to lie on it, back when they were young.
Back when they were a “they” at all.
Back before taut skin relaxed in delicate folds around his nipples, no longer anchored by firm pectorals
and so now floated at whim.
Her small hands would caress his stomach, counting his ab muscles as he contracted them for her enjoyment,
“2, 4, and 6!” Followed by a big smile. Who knew if it were real or not.
Who cared. She made him happy, even if she wasn’t.
He would make small swirls on her waist, watching the color come back to spots on her skin that he had pressed down with his thumb, and think about how good he had done.
“That’s a lady, right there.” She was the first time his brothers approved of him, and the first time his father didn’t roll his eyes in annoyance.
Was there even a glimmer of respect in his eyes?
Beautiful in a pencil skirt but not too beautiful, because that is dangerous.
Her hands are small, and her mouth looks like a rose.
She doesn’t talk too much, but isn’t boring.
She has beautiful skin.
Her hair is full and dark.
And on and on the praise came, saying without saying that Markie had found the perfect doll for his collection of things, yes, Maria would do nicely.
She looks like your mother, son.
Coming from his father, this was high, high praise.
She looks like his mother, who he had never met, but there are pictures of her all over his father’s house. A house they did not share because as his oldest brother put it, “Dad went crazy after mom left.”
There were rumors that she was still alive, living a happy distance away from her Stepford life.
The rumors didn’t matter anyway. She was gone forever. That was it.
The house they shared laid untouched except for the dust that grew thicker by the day, a fuzzy blanket of sweet and faded memories, undisturbed by the fingerprints of the man who barely lived there anymore.
The grandkids sometimes would whisper that he was a zombie.
Indeed, there was something undead about his demeanor. He would drag himself between the three rooms he inhabited in the huge house; the bathroom, the kitchen, and the bare bones bedroom, communicating in grunts and silence.
His sons remember when he was alive, though. They remember when there was boisterous noise and sticky fingerprints everywhere, knocked over toys, and happiness.
Mom was raven- haired and gorgeous. Hardly a moment passed when she wasn’t laughing fully, her mouth wide open, her jubilee filling up then house so much that it was contagious.
It was hard to imagine that she was ever real to people that had never met her, including her youngest son who always hungered for more stories, more pictures, more things of hers to smell,
“She was a woman. She was a REAL woman, your mother, not like these smart aleck woman walking around today that complain about everything.” His father would spit out through the bush of facial hair consuming his face.
Lipstick and blush everyday. A petticoat if her skirt had some flounce, a girdle if it didn’t. She kept her nails long and red so they clacked against pans and bowls as she worked through her batters and dough and mixes.
She did not ‘slave away’ but danced through her cooking.
“a real woman, not afraid of real woman’s work.” And his drinking buddies would nod and grunt in agreement.
The boys did the cleaning. Dad had said it was the least they could do after receiving so many hot meals and so they complied, mostly happily, because they were both grateful and a little scared of their father.
Joining them for dinner was like turning on the TV in the 60s according to the people lucky enough to be guests.
White, attractive, four boys and two parents sitting down to a perfect and freshly cooked meal. The conversation was light and funny, however trite,
How was work, honey?
School was amazing today Mom! I got high marks on my history test!
Pass the roast please dear, it’s so delicious that I’ll die without another helping!
I’ll get the dishes when we’re done, sweetheart.
Forks clinking and mouths chatting.
Guests smiling at whatever they could hear over their own chewing.
Footsie underneath the table between Mom and Betsy Taylor that everyone pretended not to feel.
“Betsy is here a lot, hun, doesn’t she have a family of her own to take care of?”
But her husband had died before they’d had any children, and now she was alone
And who even knows how to make a casserole for one?
Phony smiles and passive aggressive insults.
Excuse me dear’s and of course honey’s.
Holding hands for grace,
“God, bless the food and this house, the hands that prepared it Father.
Give us all the strength to turn away from sinful temptation, for the end days are near and the devil is busy.
And we know
our adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
And then a one-eyed glare across the table.
“Go on and wash up, kids.”
“Betsy and I are just going to go out for a walk, you know, to catch up on girl stuff.”
But Mom would grab the weekend bag instead of the purse.
Dad, alone in his bed, would growl her name as he fell into slumber, stretched out towards her pillow, fitully tossing until the next morning.
“Good morning honey!” There she would be at the table, standing above a hot, fresh breakfast.
Until the morning the table was empty, gray and dry, the flowered apron hanging sadly on its hook in the kitchen.
Yes, everything she seemed to love she left behind.
Maybe…she means to come back?
But the weekend bag was gone and so was her purse.
So were the beautiful neighborly dinners.
The delicious smells from the kitchen which were replaced with
Grunts and curses and acrid, burning smells.
“Go find somewhere else to eat!” To his young boys when they complained about sandwiches every night.
Now neighbors walked on the other side of the street.
If quiet Maria screamed the night Father murdered her, no one would have been close enough to hear it anyway. His nightly wailing made it so that passersby and neighbors knew to tune that old house out anyway.
He did it for Markie.
He did it for the love of his life, his wife who he stopped waiting for over 20 years ago.
He had heard Markie sobbing about the hold she had on him. He’d heard him and he recognized himself. Maria was cold and beautiful, her quiet love turning to cold hatred as day after day Markie failed her expectations.
“You aren’t man’s man, Markie.”
“Why can’t you stand up for me, when she would flirt with men that could kill him, men that he could never take.”
He saw in her the mother he never met, forever disappointed
cheating at will
Free, so free, his esteem could not handle it.
It is dangerous for a man when a woman is so free.
“It was she go or you, son.” his father said, and he knew he was right, because he’s teetered at the edge of death at his own hands and knew the look of emptiness in Markie’s eyes.
“You were not going to survive her.”
They packed her weekend bag together
Filled her purse to the brim with things she might need
What do women need?
Lipstick, blush, tampons?
Hung her apron
Buried her body
And said that she’d abandoned her poor husband in search of a life.
Ran off with a make believe neighbor, that whore.
Just like his old man, Markie stayed to himself, quietly taking the sympathies of friends and family, quieting the guilt he felt for not feeling any guilt
Flirting with young girls who would never take notice
Ignoring the smirk from his miserable father, whose only pleasure now seemed to be reminding Markie of his shortcomings, and his own renewed worth,
“I saved you from that bitch son, over and over in a million different ways.”
Mom or Maria?
Does it even matter? Aren’t they all the same anyway?
Except Maria, bolder in death
With a nefarious smile
Edged Markie closer to taking his own life
Until he did with, and the same gun she was taken with.
What are you anymore, when she rejects you?
When she is gone
What defines you?
When your muscles don’t pump and the girls don’t swoon
When you don’t get the empire you were told was your birthright
You can have my seat, and gathered his things and stood to his feet.
Her hips bound in a cheap polyester skirt and balancing on ridiculous heels, the young woman hurriedly accepted his offer.
A grunt of thanks.
No eye contact.
A prim middle-aged woman next to her with a look of disdain on her face. Mumbled something under her breath. Something cutting, I assume. Those shoes were her choice.
He wasn’t looking for gratitude, just her relief, and seemed satisfied with no applause. He just looked down, and held the pole in front of her; steadied his groceries between his feet and didn’t change his face until he left.
He was wearing a leather backpack and swinging from it was a worn, golden locket in the shape of a heart that read “Friends”.
“Forever” is far from here.
It’s home is a thin gold chain.
Whose home is a metal decorated hook.
Whose home is a modern printed black and white wallpapered wall.
That stands in a pretty house.
Behind a pretty lawn.
That lays in the bad part of town, with the badly cracked sidewalks that are hard to walk on unless your shoes have rubber bottoms and the soles are thick.
But a young woman braves them in her patent leather stilts. It takes her forever and her ankles hurt everyday.
But the pain is worth the power. She has learned this lesson three times.
The first time she’d learned it was when her mother caught her snooping through her closet and wobbling up and down the length of the bed in too-big slingback black lace covered stilettos. She opened the door with such surprising vigor that the young girl clattered to the floor immediately. She fell cleanly out of her mother’s heels, her bare feet slapping to the hardwood floor, the shoes remaining upright as if impervious to her adolescent clumsiness.
She sheepishly peeked up at her mother. Her hands were on her hips and her face looked amused.
What were you doing in my shoes, girl.
Her mother smiled. You don’t know, huh.
Of course she knew.
You wanted to see what it was like? Being a grown up?
Being a grown sexy woman.
C’mon. I’ll help you up. With a smile. And then picked her up with her toned arms and pulled her to her full height.
The young girl stepped back into the pumps. She nearly tumbled to the ground again.
You have to balance on your toes. Stand on your tippy toes.
Up up, like this?
See what it does to your calves? Now you have young woman legs.
The young girl looked and saw her young woman legs. Attention getting legs.
And your butt too. Now walk like so,so,so.
Grown woman hips. Stick it out here and there.
Walk and stop and swing! Yaaas! Like to music!
Boom, boom, boom. Like she was on a catwalk. Hardness in her legs. Tingling pride in her chest.
Turn some music on!
They danced around and fell and swayed and walked like sexy girls, louder and louder, until her mom’s husband came to the bedroom door.
You guys are going to break the house down! As he leaned in the doorway and smiled. When he was happy he talked so wide that all of his teeth showed.
Oh, the house will be fine! And her mother sambaed towards him.
You samba! What! And then he awkwardly moved his hips and beckoned to her with his hands. She reached him and they moved together, this way and that, him catching her hip when she swayed too far, her delicate hands on his chest whenever she laughed.
Her mother was on her tiptoes.
Just enough to tip into him while they danced.
He always smelled like good cologne and cinnamon and was the handsomest man around.
This is the way grown women dance. Up up on their toes.
She learned the lesson the second time while underneath her stepfather.
Legs wrapped around him.
You are so much like her. Like your mother. So much. And touched the toe of her pumps.
She put her finger to his mouth because she hated to talk about their past and his eyes became glassy and now he was on top of her. He breathed into her neck and she pulled him in with her hands. She flexed her thighs and pointed her feet.
I love you. And then he kissed her and ran his hand down her calf and fingered the tip of her mother’s stiletto heel.
She was so like her mother. She even very carefully smelled like her. She even very carefully balanced in her shoes. She even very carefully walked on her tiptoes and practiced her samba and how to lean forward just enough to tip.
I leave you him. She had said with death on her breath. She knew that her daughter would know exactly what she meant.
He truly had loved her mother, which is why when she died he fell in love with her daughter, which is why her smell made him soft and her heels made him weak.
And she had truly loved her mother, which is why she honored her last wish, which is why she both used him and made him happy.
Their’s was a calm, manipulative relationship, much like the one he’d had with her mother, with less love and more demands.
A good heel will get you anything you want, sweetie. It’s rich man kryptonite.
Dresses. Parties. A new car for her to drive with her friends.
A new house and then a newer house with a gate all around the neighborhood. A hairdresser? A personal trainer? A look. A touch. A wink. A kiss. A surrender. On and on like that it went until it could go no longer.
Not even your mother needed this much.
But she was not her mother. She was her legacy.
Rich man kryptonite.
Yes she was.
But he wasn’t rich anymore.
The day he left he stole her mother’s locket, the one her and her daughter had gotten together at the same time she’d bought her first pair of heels.
Don’t we look like ladies, honey? With our heels and our jewelry?
He snapped the locket off of it’s chain, slid it onto a piece of string, and tied it on itself, and later to his keys, and later to the zipper of the bag he carried around after he realized he couldn’t afford a car in the city.
He didn’t take much else with him. Left her the house and the bills and the clothes.
He shed a tear because he loved her.
Took a cab to the train.
Took the train to Chicago.
Got a cheap motel, and was gone forever.
When she came home for the day he wasn’t there, and that was it.
No dad, no lover.
No income. No shopping. No money. No gas, no car, no food, no home, nowhere to go.
No home. No skills.
No way to reach him.
And so when a man with a white Cadillac offered her room and board
she had no choice.
I like your shoes, they are sexy, he said, and she got in. Her and her shoes and her “Forever”.
Pain was worth her only power.
Sometimes that’s the way it goes.
Could she have stole away and come to find him?
Yes, she loved him too?
Maybe it was her on the train that day, having finally escaped to herself
And she had come to the city and was on her way to find him
To apologize to him
To say that she loved him and to remind him of her mother again.
Maybe her attempts to reach out had failed and that’s why she wouldn’t look up.
if it were her,
she would have seen him, and the swinging zipper pull locket that matched the one around her neck.
Maybe if their eyes had met they would have reunited.
Yes, maybe if he had seen her face.
But he only saw her shoes.
You can have my seat he said, and stood for the rest of the ride