Chrissy, Debra’s Daughterby Candice Lola
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,
I am proud of you.
right before your soul sails back over the seas.